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News Brief: Giuliani Report, Mexican Drug Cartels, Plant Explosion


What was President Trump's personal lawyer really seeking from Ukraine?


We know this much. Rudy Giuliani was looking for political dirt on Democrats. Giuliani talked about that long before President Trump's own request to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden became known. He was working with a Ukrainian prosecutor. Now The Washington Post and other outlets report Giuliani was trying to get paid by Ukraine. The Post says he was in talks to go on the prosecutor's payroll for at least $200,000.

INSKEEP: Matt Zapotosky is one of the reporters on that story, and he joins us via Skype. Good morning.

MATT ZAPOTOSKY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: And Happy Thanksgiving to you. Thanks for spending a little bit of it with us. Why would the president's friend and lawyer be asking for six-figure payments from a foreign government?

ZAPOTOSKY: Boy, I just think he wanted to work for these guys. It's a really complicated kind of mess over there. So at the same time that Rudy Giuliani is pressing this Ukrainian prosecutor, a guy named Yuriy Lutsenko, to help him investigate the Bidens, he's trying to cut kind of a side deal where Yuriy Lutsenko will pay him $200,000 or $300,000 as a retainer fee to help Yuriy Lutsenko with this kind of asset recovery mission. Yuriy Lutsenko believed that Ukrainian assets had been stolen and the U.S. could help him get them back. And he thought Rudy would be a good conduit to the Justice Department. So at the same time Rudy is pressing this guy to help with his investigation, he's contemplating signing on board with Mr. Lutsenko to help Mr. Lutsenko.

INSKEEP: Wow. And why not hire someone who is close to the president and is representing the president? I guess if you're a Ukrainian, you might ask that question. But what evidence shows that Giuliani tried this?

ZAPOTOSKY: Well, draft contracts that have been described to us as the evidence that shows this, some of the contracts contemplate Mr. Giuliani working for Mr. Lutsenko directly; some contemplate him working for the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice; others contemplate involving these two other Washington lawyers that might be familiar particularly to viewers of Fox News, a woman named Vicki Toensing and a guy named Joe diGenova, who were also strong allies of the president. But the evidence is the contracts.

INSKEEP: Now, Rudy Giuliani has tweeted about this, and he says, quote, "I did not pursue a business opportunity in Ukraine as they misrepresented." He says he was paid zero. First, I would note misrepresented implies there's something there. He just doesn't like how you characterized it.

ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. I think he's really zeroing in on the fact that these deals are never sort of consummated. Even though contracts are traded back and forth, they're ultimately never executed. And Rudy Giuliani says he was never paid. Of course, we and the other people who reported on this had reported that, that these deals were never consummated. But that's what Rudy seems to be driving at. Look - because this deal never ultimately got done, it's sort of not fair, I guess, to report on it.

INSKEEP: OK. Got to note - this is the kind of thing that Giuliani was trying to pin on Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, somebody getting paid for being close to the government. Here's Giuliani, someone close to the current government, talking about getting paid. Now, as all of this is breaking or maybe a little before, really, President Trump was giving an interview to Bill O'Reilly, the former Fox News host. And it's interesting here, Matt, because Trump barely seemed to know who Giuliani was anymore. Let's listen.


BILL O'REILLY: What was Rudy Giuliani doing in Ukraine on your behalf?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, you have to ask that to Rudy. But Rudy - I don't even know - I know he was going to go to Ukraine, and I think he canceled the trip. But, you know, Rudy has other clients other than me.

INSKEEP: What do you make of that, Matt?

ZAPOTOSKY: It's just so curious that the president would sort of imply that he didn't know exactly what Rudy was up to. Everyone, I'm sure, remembers on the president's phone call with his Ukrainian part, he said talk to Rudy. He clearly knew what Rudy was up to, and it's curious to see him try to distance himself now.

INSKEEP: And not only in that phone call, but according to sworn testimony, he did that to person after person after person. Matt Zapotosky of The Washington Post, thanks for your reporting, really appreciate it.

ZAPOTOSKY: Thank you.


INSKEEP: Also in that talk with Bill O'Reilly, President Trump made the kind of statement that often grabs headlines, a statement about something he says he may do.

MARTIN: Right. The president said he will designate drug cartels as terror groups. This is a clip from his conversation with Bill O'Reilly.


TRUMP: I've actually offered him to let us go in and clean it out. And he so far has rejected the offer, but at some point, something has to be done.

MARTIN: The president very often makes predictions, and then he doesn't follow through on them. So we just have to be frank and tell you that, as of now, we have no reliable information as to whether he will or will not do this. But the very idea has led Mexican officials to ask if U.S. military action is next.

INSKEEP: Journalist James Fredrick is in Mexico City. Good morning.


INSKEEP: And thanks to you for working on the holiday, the American holiday I should say. How seriously is the Mexican government taking this possibility?

FREDRICK: Well, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told Mexicans they didn't need to be worried. But he summed up his position on it pretty concisely at a press conference yesterday.



FREDRICK: So there, President Lopez Obrador is saying yes to cooperating with the U.S. on drug war issues but no to intervention. So what he's getting at here is this concern in Mexico that Trump is really eager for the U.S. military to go after cartels and that this terrorist designation is just a way to move towards that. The Lopez Obrador government says the militarized war on drugs of his predecessors didn't work, and they want to ramp it down. So Trump's attitude on this really puts them in conflict, which is bad if they're trying to cooperate to fight cartels.

INSKEEP: How would a terror designation change the fight against cartels in a practical sense?

FREDRICK: Well, the first question to answer - and we still don't know about this - is whether the U.S. is interested in being involved militarily because that would change a lot more things. But this terrorist designation in practice does a few things. First of all, it gives the U.S. the ability to impose sanctions on people involved with those groups. So anyone helping them financially or supporting them in any way could face U.S. punishment, but that's not totally new because the U.S. Treasury Department already sanctioned many people in Mexico affiliated with cartels.

The other thing it would do is it could put U.S. counterterrorism resources into the fight against cartels, so, you know, more surveillance, more intelligence to fight cartels. But, you know, that also brings up the question of moving away counterterrorism resources that are being used elsewhere in the world. And also the Drug Enforcement Administration is pretty active in Mexico fighting cartels. So there's a question of how much counterterrorism would move the needle here.

INSKEEP: You're already hinting at some of the potential downsides. What are some others?

FREDRICK: Well, there's lots of unintended consequences, and, you know, there are so many to go through. I think the first one to think about is how you identify someone as a member or collaborator of a cartel. So in recent years here in Mexico, there's been a huge splintering of drug cartels. There are now dozens of them in Mexico. Affiliation with them isn't very clear. It's constantly shifting. And the other issue is, as I said with the sanctions, you know, lots of people are in a difficult position in Mexico and are forced to pay extortion to cartels. Does that mean they're now collaborating with a terrorist organization?

INSKEEP: Wow. James, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

FREDRICK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: We'll continue following that story of something the president said he may do, although, again, it's not clear yet if he will. Reporter James Fredrick.


INSKEEP: New rules by the Trump administration may make it harder for the public to find out what happened at a Texas chemical plant.

MARTIN: People heard the explosion miles away. Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick feared his home was under attack.


JEFF BRANICK: Grabbed my pistol and ran to the front door. I saw that the front and back door were splintered and the wood had flown everywhere. So it was obvious that it - and I could see the flames from the backyard.

MARTIN: That's Judge Branick speaking with 12NewsNow. He later issued a mandatory evacuation within a four-mile radius of the chemical plant in Port Neches east of Houston. The first blast injured at least three workers and some residents. Hours later, people felt a second explosion.

INSKEEP: Now, what's all that have to do with the new U.S. rules for investigating accidents? These are rules that rolled back proposals from the Obama administration. Matt Dempsey is following this story. He is a data editor with the Houston Chronicle. Welcome to the program, sir.

MATT DEMPSEY: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What are the rules that changed or changed back, I guess we should say?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. As my reporting partner Perla Trevizo and I reported earlier - or last week, said the new rules, companies will not have to do third-party audits or root cause analysis after an incident. They will also not have to provide the public access to information about what type of chemicals are stored in those facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency described those rules as unnecessary. It said it would save companies money and prevent what they called the potential security risk of disclosing more about a plant's location and its chemical inventories.

INSKEEP: But I want to be really clear about this. When you say they don't have to do a third-party audit, that means they don't have to have as many independent, outside authorities looking into a disaster like this.

DEMPSEY: Yeah. That's accurate.

INSKEEP: Is there anybody independent who is going to get in there and look - Texas regulators, federal regulators, anybody else?

DEMPSEY: Well, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is the main agency that invest - does root cause analysis - or analyses as third parties. They come in and they look at things, but they don't look at every single incident, only some. They're going to be deploying to the one that just happened this week, but that's not always the case. And it makes it harder, too, because the Obama-era regulations that we just talked about that got rolled back, well, they were never fully implemented. And they were already pretty industry friendly on top of that. So there wasn't a lot of teeth in the regulations that got rolled back and we don't have a lot of third-party analysis outside of the Chem Safety Board if they come in.

INSKEEP: Bottom line - I'm thinking of aircraft accidents in the United States. There are independent investigations. A lot of information comes out. The airline industry gets safer and safer. Is it just way short of that in the chemical industry?

DEMPSEY: Yes, that's true. It's way short of that. And the problem, too, with that is - airplane crashes are a good example. You know, we've seen the worst of aircrafts incidents. We haven't seen the worst of what a chemical industry incident could be. Even in the ones that we've seen, it could be far, far worse. And it's just - we've just been fortunate that it hasn't occurred that way.

INSKEEP: Mr. Dempsey, thanks so much, and Happy Thanksgiving to you.

DEMPSEY: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Matt Dempsey is a data editor with the Houston Chronicle.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.