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News Brief: Mueller's Deadlines, Bolton On China, Yellow Vest Protests


This is a day when we could - could - get some more insight into the Justice Department's Russia investigation.


Robert Mueller has a deadline today to explain how former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort violated his plea agreement. Mueller must also file a memo recommending sentencing guidelines for Michael Cohen, who was once the president's personal lawyer. And former FBI Director James Comey will speak to the House judiciary committee about how the FBI handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. And a former Trump adviser gets out of jail.

GREENE: So many names, so many developments. And NPR political reporter Tim Mak is here. He's been following all of this. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

GREENE: Let's start with Manafort. I mean, last week, the special counsel's office said Manafort repeatedly lied to prosecutors since he'd agreed to cooperate, which they say violated a plea deal. What exactly might we see today?

MAK: So Manafort pleaded guilty last month on charges related to his lobbying work for Ukraine and alleged witness tampering. And as part of that plea agreement, he pledged to cooperate both fully and truthfully with federal investigators.

GREENE: Truthfully being a key word here.

MAK: Absolutely. Last week, we learned from the special counsel's office that they believed that Manafort had repeatedly lied after pledging to cooperate. And today's the deadline for the Mueller team to tell a federal court in D.C. exactly how he did so, how he allegedly violated his plea agreement for lying. It's worth also noting here that Manafort's lawyers say he has only provided what he believes to be truthful information.

GREENE: What he believed to be truthful information.

MAK: That's right.

GREENE: I mean, important language there, as well. OK. So then we have Michael Cohen, the president's former personal lawyer who seems to have taken the opposite approach to the special counsel. I mean, he admitted he lied to Congress and says he's cooperating fully. What exactly is happening when it comes to him today?

MAK: So on the Cohen front, he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about efforts well into 2016 to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. He said he lied for two reasons - to minimize links between the Moscow project and Trump and to give the, quote, "false impression" that the project ended before the GOP primaries began. So his plea agreement suggests that he has met with the special counsel's office at least seven times. And Mueller's office is expected to today file a memo with its recommendations for Cohen's sentencing. So if the special counsel says it believes that the sentencing should be lenient, as it did earlier this week for Michael Flynn, that would suggest that they believe Cohen has been a helpful witness.

GREENE: OK. Then you have, also, Michael Flynn, the president's former national security adviser who the special counsel is now saying deserves no jail time because he's been so very helpful. I mean, could the special counsel have been getting a lot out of Flynn that could tell us what they might be doing to pressure Manafort and Cohen? Could it all be related?

MAK: Well, so Michael Flynn has, according to the special counsel's office, provided substantive and helpful information. That's why they suggested he deserves no jail time. But the special counsel's office has been so opaque about this matter and so many other issues. We just don't know the specifics about what he provided information on. The justification that Mueller's team has given about why Flynn deserves no jail time has been largely redacted. So we don't know exactly what he provided information about.

GREENE: And then worth noting - big development, as well, on the Hill - we have former FBI Director Jim Comey, who's going to be testifying behind closed doors to some lawmakers.

MAK: Right. So this is, of course, not his first interview before Congress. But it may be one of the last efforts by a Republican-led investigations into the House - sorry - Republican-led investigations in the House into decisions made in 2016 by the FBI and the Justice Department. Of course, Democrats take control of the House in January.

GREENE: Which could really change the dynamic of some of those investigations. NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

GREENE: Two events on the same day highlighted U.S. tensions with China. Last weekend, President Trump had dinner with China's president. They agreed to a 90-day pause in an escalating trade war. Also last weekend, Canada arrested a Chinese tech executive for possible extradition to the United States.

INSKEEP: We discussed both of those events with national security adviser John Bolton. President Trump's national security adviser did not say exactly what the tech executive, Meng Wanzhou, is accused of. Bolton did say that her company Huawei, which makes smartphones, is implicated in some of the same broad concerns the U.S. is raising in trade talks.

JOHN BOLTON: We've had enormous concern for years about the - in this country about the practice of Chinese firms to use stolen American intellectual property to engage in forced technology transfers and to be used, really, as arms of the Chinese government's objectives in terms of information technology in particular. So not respecting this particular arrest, but Huawei's one company we've been concerned about. There are others, as well.

INSKEEP: So that's the arrest. That dinner in Buenos Aires led to a 90-day pause before President Trump increases tariffs on China again. And Bolton raised the hope that if in that time, China agrees to more fully open its economy, that could fundamentally change China.

BOLTON: Well, I think what we're going to do, beginning in the next 90 days, as President Trump and President Xi agreed, is see if we can address some of these structural issues in China's economy. I think that would have potentially profound impact on their political structure, as well. That's not what we're aiming at. But if the theory is correct, we'll see what flows from it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz is following all of this from Shanghai, China. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Do Chinese officials see this arrest as somehow part of the trade talks, since they happened at the same time?

SCHMITZ: Well, it's interesting. Beijing's response, initially, was urging Canada to release Meng Wanzhou, calling her arrest a human rights violation. And the state media has sort of followed that narrative today by publishing several articles about the U.S. acting like a hooligan by arresting this Huawei executive without being clear about the charges. But today, there's been a bit of a change. Both China's Commerce Ministry and the Foreign Ministry made comments that seemed to separate the arrest of Meng from the ongoing negotiations with the U.S. to try and put an end to the trade war. It seems now that China's government's trying to make sure this incident with Huawei doesn't jeopardize a possible solution to the trade war.

INSKEEP: Keeping them on separate tracks, if they can.


INSKEEP: So we heard John Bolton there suggesting that a more genuine economic opening by China could also somehow crack open their political system. There would be a profound impact on their political structure - are his words. Do you see any Chinese willingness to make those kinds of dramatic changes?

SCHMITZ: I think this is a hard sell for China. You know, they're reluctant to make the structural changes the Trump administration is asking for because doing so would mean the state sector losing money to the private sector. And in the end, that's a net loss for China's Communist Party both in capital terms and in terms of power. You know, the party is scared that changes that Trump is asking of China to open its markets to more outside competition would water down its own power over the markets and over the country. And that's a tough sell.

INSKEEP: Well, given that, are Chinese officials bracing for the possibility these talks don't work and U.S. tariffs go up again?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. We've seen a lot of that lately. Xi Jinping has made a lot of speeches about being self-reliant to both Chinese companies and to the Chinese people. So I think that this urging of China to rely more on itself is becoming clear that China is not always going to have a tight relationship with the U.S. going forward.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thanks.


GREENE: Paris is bracing for possibly more violence over this weekend.

INSKEEP: Yeah. The Yellow Vest movement, as it's been called, started over a fuel tax hike. President Emmanuel Macron agreed not to impose that tax in the face of protests. But the movement has called for another demonstration, which would be its fourth in the French capital. Protests have been violent, with cars burned and property damaged. And Macron does not seem to be able to get this movement to stop.

GREENE: And let's turn to NPR's correspondent in Paris, Eleanor Beardsley. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, guys.

GREENE: So what exactly is happening here? It sounded like the president was taking some of the actions that one might have thought could've calmed this down.

BEARDSLEY: Right. Right. Right. You would think so. Well, let me just tell you there's an ominous feeling in Paris today as people prepare for the possibility of violence. You know, a lot of museums like the Louvre and shops will be closed tomorrow - the Eiffel Tower. Parisians are being told to stay off the streets. There's going to be 8,000 riot police in the capital and gendarmes in military armored vehicles. You know, for us laymen those things look like tanks, sort of.


BEARDSLEY: Yeah. So I was out yesterday near the Arc de Triomphe on a big avenue. And a lot of shops and cafes are putting up plywood on windows. And they're planning to close. It almost felt like they were preparing for a hurricane coming. And I spoke with Gerry Staps (ph), who runs an expensive jackets and boots store. He was looted last week. And here's what he told me.

Do you think this week is going to be bad?

GERRY STAPS: Very bad.

BEARDSLEY: Worse than last week?

STAPS: Yeah. Yeah.


STAPS: Because they have some time to prepare. You know, every week, they prepare. That's why every week, you have more and more and more people who want to break.

BEARDSLEY: So he says break. He means smash. He's talking about this - not the Yellow Vest protesters but groups of hooligans known as casseurs, or smashers. These are violent groups - extremist groups from, like, the far left, the far right - anarchists. And they love to come out when there's protests and glom onto them and just fight with police. So there's a big distinction between them and the Yellow Vest protesters. But those are the two things going on - fear of these guys. And the movement continues.

GREENE: Well, the movement continuing - what exactly is the message right now as this movement heads into this weekend?

BEARDSLEY: Well, listen to this, David.


BEARDSLEY: Now, I was out yesterday in the north of France. You can hear it. These are the Yellow Vest protesters. They've occupied a roundabout out in the countryside. They had a bonfire, a Christmas tree. And they say they're not surviving. There's too many taxes on them. And I spoke to Corinne Ryckaert (ph). She's 45 years old. And she's - like many, she cannot stand the French president, Emmanuel Macron. She says he's arrogant and completely out of touch with their problems. Here she is.

CORVIN RICOUER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So she says he's president of the very rich. She talks about he - how he scrapped a tax on the wealthy, while, at the same time, he put another tax on them, this environment tax on, she says, the little people like us. And she says, you know, planes and cruise ships pollute the environment a lot more than their little cars do. So that's what's happening out there.

GREENE: So they're saying that they're overtaxed. But didn't the president back down on this gas tax, which began the protest movement? So why not stop?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, you're right. He did. But it's too little too late. And now, David, they have a whole list of demands. They want a raise in the minimum wage, a boost to their purchasing power. Some even want to dissolve the Parliament. I doubt that's going to happen. But they've become a national sensation - 70 percent of the French support them. And the government really needs to end these weekly protests because of the possibility of violence.

GREENE: All right. Really bracing for more violence in Paris - will be a weekend that we need to follow. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris for us this morning. Eleanor, thanks so much.

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

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.