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Week In Politics: Security Clearances

Aug 18, 2018
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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

President Trump is threatening to pull more security clearances, as he's accused of stifling free speech. We're still waiting on a verdict in the Paul Manafort trial. And four more states had primaries this week ahead of this fall's midterm elections. Domenico Montanaro is with us to talk about it all. He's NPR's lead political editor. Hi there, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So this week the president stripped the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan. About a dozen former intelligence officials called that an attempt to stifle free speech. Then, yesterday, Trump threatened to take away the clearance of Justice Department official Bruce Ohr over his connection to the infamous Russia dossier. That seems a little odd. Ohr is still at DOJ.

MONTANARO: Well, we're going even further down the rabbit hole here because what's very different from Brennan is that Brennan has been an outspoken former CIA chief. You know, Ohr is somebody who still works at the department. He's kind of a middle-level person. And all of this gets pretty tangled up in conspiracy the further down we go. To get a little bit down that, this all comes back to the infamous dossier, which is partly unverified. For Trump, the Russia investigation really began with that.

But that's a false claim. I mean, it didn't start with that. It began with FBI surveillance of George Papadopoulos, who's a junior Trump foreign policy aide for his contacts with Russia. And Ohr - his wife worked for Fusion GPS, which is the group that produced the dossier. And Ohr had been in contact with Christopher Steele, who was a former MI6 British spy who had worked with the FBI previously. But for this president and for conservatives - for some conservatives, that's enough to say that he deserves to be out.

LUDDEN: Huh. OK.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

LUDDEN: So we'll see, I guess, if he can still do his job without that clearance. I don't know. It feels like we spent a lot of time talking about these clearances this week, also secret recordings by Omarosa Manigault Newman. We're also still waiting for a verdict in Paul Manafort's trial. He is on bank and tax fraud charges. That is President Trump's former campaign chairman. A verdict could come as soon as Monday. What are the stakes for the president in that verdict?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, the stakes are really high here for the president. I would argue even greater for Robert Mueller - the special counsel leading the Russian investigation. I mean, think about what a not guilty verdict would mean in the public relations fight on the overall Russia investigation. You know, a guilty verdict - somewhat expected, at least on some counts - would give Mueller, certainly, a tally mark on the chalkboard here in this overall fight and sends a message to other subjects in the investigation that a jury would - is capable of convicting here and that the Mueller team can put forth a pretty good case. But I think we should all get ready also for the possibility that a Trump pardon for Manafort is possible. And that would certainly rock the political world, too.

LUDDEN: OK. We are also in a midterm election year - primary season starting to wind down. Domenico, you watch all this as closely as anyone. Any tea leaves you're reading from all the primary results we've got so far about what might happen in November?

MONTANARO: Yeah, you know, I think that people have been rightly cautious to talk about whether or not there's a blue wave or a red wave coming this November. You know, I think that with all the signs that we've seen, though - we've seen the president talk about how there's clearly a red wave. They've won 8 of 9 special elections. And, you know, Republicans are right to say that they won 8 of 9 special elections, but all of those elections were in Trump country. And Democrats overperformed in all of those special elections. And they have been predictive in past election cycles of midterm success for whichever party has done better in those special elections.

So Democratic turnout has been high. It happened again this past week in places that Republicans are hoping to contest. Democratic enthusiasm has been higher than Republican enthusiasm. So all of the signs point in a direction of significant Democratic gains this fall. So, you know, to look at it as a red wave is less likely than a blue one.

LUDDEN: OK. And in a few seconds we have left, one last thing. The president's big military parade was supposed to be here in D.C. in November. Now it's off until next year, at least. What happened?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, the cost seemed to skyrocket. All of a sudden, the costs looked like it was around $92 million, which NPR has confirmed within the Pentagon. And, you know, when the Trump administration is just blaming the D.C. federal government for saying that they were trying to grift off of this - instead, it's been kicked off past the election to 2019.

LUDDEN: All right, we'll see. NPR's lead political editor, Domenico Montanaro, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.