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News Brief: Price's Flights, NFL Protests, Catalan Referendum

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The heat on Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price may be getting a little bit hotter.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To recap, Price has come under fire for chartering private jets for his travel. That's at taxpayers' expense and when cheaper commercial flights and trains were readily available. The White House is reiterating that the president is not pleased with these revelations. Price told Fox News yesterday he has heard that concern and that he is cooperating with an inspector general's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM PRICE: All of these trips were official business. All of them were within budget. All of them were approved by the normal processes that every other administration has gone through.

KELLY: And, Rachel, Price also says he is personally going to repay $52,000 to cover the costs of his charter plane seats. But Politico, which was the news outlet that first reported the cost of Price's travel to be $400,000 - Politico's now saying that figure may be closer to a million in taxpayer dollars.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Scott Detrow is here in the studio with us this morning. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Price has said he's going to pay out of his own pocket $52,000 to reimburse the government - taxpayers, essentially - for these private jet flights. But now the total costs, according to new reports, is a million dollars?

DETROW: Yeah. And, clearly, this is a small percentage of the total cost here. And that's a question a lot of people are asking. And I think it's clear that this is not going to satisfy critics on this story.

MARTIN: Did he just pluck that number out of thin air? I mean, how did he decide $52,000?

DETROW: Unclear how they got to that figure. He says that's the cost of his seat. But I think, especially if you're the one asking for the flight to take off to begin with, it's not like you were hopping on an existing flight that was going somewhere. So I think it's hard to argue that just his seat is the total cost to taxpayers for these particular flights.

MARTIN: And he was traveling with staff, as well.

DETROW: Right.

MARTIN: So the president has clearly expressed his view. He said he is not happy about all of this. So is this done now? I mean, does Price writing a check satisfy President Trump on this?

DETROW: I don't think so because the ground has already shifted on Price. He made that announcement yesterday, saying he'll pay $52,000. Since then, the figure has nearly - has more than doubled because Politico reported, after he made that announcement, about these overseas military flights that cost more than a half million dollars. So the question is how much more comes out not just on Price but on other cabinet secretaries? There are now multiple official investigations going on here. You have administration inspector generals looking into this. You have the House oversight committee looking into this. And, of course, you have reporters continuing to find more details on the story.

MARTIN: And there are other members of the administration who have issues, shall we say, with air travel.

DETROW: That's right. You may recall treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin had several questionable flights on official government planes. There was that trip to Kentucky where he watched the solar eclipse. The inspector general's looking into whether that had something to do with it. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt have both been on charter flights, as well.

MARTIN: So what does this mean? The optics aren't good for an administration that pledged to drain the swamp, I imagine.

DETROW: Especially when you have someone like Tom Price, who has made his career pushing for fiscal responsibility, being a fiscal hawk, talking about cutting budgets - and then having these expenses for his travel.

MARTIN: All right. Scott Detrow - he covers politics and Congress for us. Thanks so much, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.

MARTIN: During the national anthem last night, NFL players once again made a political statement.

KELLY: Yeah. The Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears game. No one kneeled. But in another demonstration against President Trump's attacks against the NFL, players stood with linked arms on both sides of the field. Yesterday, President Trump kept on railing on the NFL. He accused owners of not taking action against players. So how is all this political drama affecting the actual game of football?

MARTIN: We will put that to NPR's Don Gonyea. He was in Green Bay last night. Hey, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: You got into a tailgate party - hanging out with fans in the parking lot before this big game. What were they telling you about this whole thing?

GONYEA: It's a tailgate party that goes for miles.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: As you might expect, I heard a variety of views. There were the hard-liners. The flag is sacred. You're disrespecting the flag and our troops. But there was also a good bit of sympathy for the reason behind these protests to begin with - Colin Kaepernick protesting police brutality after - you know, after a series of deaths. Some people would split the difference. I respect the flag, but I do get the issue behind those original protests.

That describes the very first guy I talked to. His name was Steve Tate (ph) - 59 years old, a cheesehead. He's one of those fans who actually owns a share of the Packers. That's a Green Bay thing. He was a very, very, very reluctant Trump voter. He said the president's lost him, that the president's response was inappropriate. Didn't find anybody, really, fully defending the president and how he's handled this.

MARTIN: So just describe what happened, right? So everyone's in there in the stadium. The national anthem plays. I imagine it was - the vibe was just kind of electric, as everyone just thought, what's going to happen?

GONYEA: There was, like, this moment where it's like, oh, here we go. The Packers had put up on Facebook a request that fans in the stands join them by linking arms. And I found no enthusiasm for that (laughter) talking to people.

MARTIN: Oh, really?

GONYEA: It's like, what's that mean? What are we linking arms about? What if I'm standing next to somebody I totally disagree with? But it kind of all played out. And sure enough, some people linked arms. And some people put their hand over their chest. And some people saluted. And people kind of went about their business. But it was all kind of - it felt oddly routine, like maybe they (laughter) found a way that they can keep doing this. It didn't bring unity, but it didn't really, you know, drive anybody crazy. At least that's what it felt like.

MARTIN: But I imagine that's kind of the note that the NFL wanted to strike, right? They want to move past this. So instead of kneeling, instead of staying off the field, which had happened before, they're like, linking arms. Yeah, that's a way we can all get along and move past this.

GONYEA: Absolutely. I think they would probably be comfortable with how this played out last night. But I will tell you so many people I talked to said, what does that mean? What does that mean to link arms? What are we linking arms about? OK, we're showing unity, but unity for what?

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, the question will persist because we've only just begun the NFL season, right? We've got a lot of games, a lot of national anthems.

GONYEA: We're 3-plus games in. And we've got a whole slate of contests on Sunday.

MARTIN: All right.

GONYEA: Stay tuned.

MARTIN: NPR's Don Gonyea. Thanks so much, Don.

GONYEA: Pleasure.

MARTIN: All right. We're going to Spain now because the government there is trying to prevent an independence referendum that's supposed to take place this Sunday in Catalonia.

KELLY: That is true. Spain claims the vote is unconstitutional. And overnight, Spanish Civil Guard seized 3 million ballot papers. Meanwhile, in Barcelona this week, thousands of students have been out on the streets protesting. Among them was Marta Rosique (ph).

MARTA ROSIQUE: I think in Catalan, and I dream in Catalan. And then there is a government that tries to do as much as possible so that Catalan doesn't exist anymore.

MARTIN: All right. Reporter Lauren Frayer is in Barcelona, where the protests have been pretty much constant for the past week. She joins us now on Skype. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: Got a bit of delay on the Skype line. So what is supposed to happen this weekend, and what might not happen?

FRAYER: That is the million-dollar question. And it really depends on who you ask. The Spanish government says the vote will not happen. It's unconstitutional. Thousands of police have been redeployed here from all over the country. They've been ordered to surround polling stations and block voting from taking place. Now, you ask Catalan leaders, and they insist they will vote. They'll exercise what they call a democratic right. The standoff is likely to happen at public schools because those are the polling stations. Parent Teacher Associations are holding camp outs inside the schools all weekend to try to occupy the space and prevent police from coming in.

And so what's clear, really, is that it will be very difficult to have a fair, straightforward voting process in these conditions. I mean, there's a team of international observers here. They've got a really difficult job. And police could prevent voting. They could prevent the transport of ballot boxes. They could prevent the counting of votes, the announcement of results.

KELLY: So then what difference would this vote make? I mean, and why do Catalans - I mean, just remind us what the whole issue is, why they want to be separate from Spain in the first place.

FRAYER: So we should say some because it's really not all. I mean, most Catalans do want to vote on this issue. But polls show they're really divided over whether to break away from Spain and form a new country. Catalonia has its own language, its own culture. And those were repressed under a 40-year dictatorship that ended only in the late 1970s. The memories of Francisco Franco are still very vivid here. And the Catalans also have an economic argument. I mean, Catalonia is the richest part of Spain. Some people here resent their tax money subsidizing poorer regions. And those feelings were especially acute during the economic crisis.

MARTIN: So then what's the bottom line here? I mean, it sounds like this vote is going to go forward. But there are all these problems with the election process. So in the end, what will it mean?

FRAYER: No country has said it would recognize an independent Catalonia. So it's kind of a symbolic exercise. And Catalans do say it's binding. Leaders say they'll declare independence within 48 hours. But without recognition from any other country, I mean...

MARTIN: What will it matter?

FRAYER: ...Catalonia will be part of Spain.

MARTIN: Yeah. All right. Reporter Lauren Frayer - she joined us on Skype, reporting on the referendum that people in Catalonia will hold. They want to be separate from the country of Spain. Lauren, thanks so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "ONCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.