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Morning News Brief: Rosenstein Briefs Senators, Trump In Saudi Arabia, Iran Election


Now that a special counsel has been named to lead the investigation into Russian meddling, what does that mean for the other probes happening already on Capitol Hill?


Yeah. I think it's worth noting there are five - at least you can count them on one hand - five House and Senate committees conducting their own inquiries on Capitol Hill. The investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller though is different because it is a criminal investigation. And Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says the special counsel might actually limit what the House and Senate can do.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think the shot to the body is it's now considered a criminal investigation, and Congress's ability to conduct investigations of all things Russia has been severely limited probably in an appropriate fashion.

MARTIN: OK. Susan Davis, NPR congressional correspondent, is in our studios this morning. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, does the special counsel - this new investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller - does that diminish the significance of the House and Senate investigations?

DAVIS: It does give them a little less juice because Congress does tend to defer to the FBI when they're investigating the same subject matter. That said, the investigations in Congress are definitely going to continue, it just may affect the timing and who and when they get to hear from the same people. Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins is a member of the Senate intelligence committee and - which is one of the lead committees on this, and she put it well.

She said the Senate intelligence is focused on counterintelligence, and the special counsel is focused on criminal aspects. So the congressional investigation can recommend things like sanctions against Russia, while only the special counsel can determine whether or not anything illegal happened. So those are the two lanes to think of.

MARTIN: Does this mean we're going to see James Comey testify in an open setting in one of the Hill investigations?

DAVIS: We don't know the answer to that. He has been invited by multiple committees. He has not accepted any of those invitations yet.

MARTIN: All right, so let's talk about what happened yesterday. Rod Rosenstein, he's the deputy attorney general, was in the spotlight because he wrote this memo making the case that the president should fire James Comey. So he briefed the entire U.S. Senate yesterday. Claire McCaskill, senator, was in that briefing. Here's what she said after that.


CLAIRE MCCASKILL: He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to him writing his memos.

MARTIN: OK, Sue, this is my question. If he knew that the president was going to fire Comey, why did he write the memo?

DAVIS: He did not tell senators that. He was peppered by senators on a number of questions, and he did not answer a lot of it, deferring to Robert Mueller and the special counsel and saying he didn't want to get in his way. What - the fact that he did know Comey was going to be fired added a layer to what we already know.

The president had already made up his mind he was going to fire Jim Comey before Rosenstein wrote that memo. The one thing that senators did say coming out is that the fact that he has appointed this special counsel has given them great confidence in the investigation and that the public should have confidence in it, too.

MARTIN: The president says he's really close to naming a new FBI director. Is he?

DAVIS: He said he was going to do it soon. It could happen as early as today, before he leaves on his foreign trip. The name's surfaced to the top right now is former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, an independent. We don't know if it's going to be him, but sources in both the Hill were very flattering of Lieberman, and the White House likes him, too.

MARTIN: It's been a crazy week. How would you describe the mood in the White House?

DAVIS: It's been described as angry, the staff infighting. But one thing we know about the president is he gets energized when he leaves the Beltway, and he leaves later today for his first foreign trip, so it's a chance to change the conversation.

MARTIN: Indeed. All right, Susan Davis, she covers Congress for us. Thanks so much, Sue.

DAVIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right, David, as Sue noted, president heading out of town today.

GREENE: Yeah, after a crazy, crazy week. So his first stop is going to be Saudi Arabia. And, Rachel, the royal family there is really rolling out the red carpet. And this is for a leader who once called for a, quote, "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." And let's also remember what Trump said specifically about Saudi Arabia during the campaign.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You talk about women and women's rights, so these are people that push gays off business - off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly.

GREENE: He did not mince words. Well, the president did strike a much more diplomatic note when describing this upcoming trip.


TRUMP: I'll speak with Muslim leaders and challenge them to fight hatred and extremism and embrace a peaceful future for their faith.

MARTIN: OK. So the president's thinking on Saudi Arabia perhaps evolving over time. Ishaan Tharoor is with us. He is a writer with The Washington Post. Hi, Ishaan.

ISHAAN THAROOR: Good morning.

MARTIN: What do Saudis want out of this visit?

THAROOR: Well, they see Trump as a real opportunity now for them to reassert themselves in the region. The irony of the moment is that despite all of Trump's anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric, the clip that you just played and a number of other comments including, you know, Trump's whole grandstanding over the Muslim - over the travel ban, the Saudis see that as water under the bridge. They...

MARTIN: Not paying attention to what he said on the campaign trail or earlier in his administration even.

THAROOR: No. What's important to the Saudis and to many members of the leadership of the Gulf States is that this is an administration that is - has a very different posture on Iran. Iran is the major issue for the Saudis.

MARTIN: They didn't like that the Obama administration was reaching out.

THAROOR: They perceived the Obama administration as aloof and even sort of acquiescence to Tehran's interests, and this is a huge opportunity for them for a reset. Obviously also they're inking a pretty crucial arms deal with the United States. They have Trump on side when it comes to their own bloody war in Yemen, which is going on and has precipitated a hideous famine.

And they see this as a moment. This weekend, they're having a huge series of events. They're going to host a number of Muslim leaders from around the region, and Trump is going to be part of this whole confab.

MARTIN: The president is expected to give a speech about Islam while in Saudi. Do we know what message might be in there?

THAROOR: Yes, it's really quite something. We don't know very much right now about the real thrust of what he's going to say. It's clearly going to be this administration's attempt to rewrite what Obama did in Cairo in 2009. It's been written by Stephen Miller, an interesting White House adviser who has connections to the white nationalist movement. So we'll see what kind of message of unity, which is what they're saying it's going to say, they'll be propagating.

MARTIN: So he's going to Saudi. He's going to Israel. He's going to the Vatican and Brussels. He is beleaguered, I think, is a word we could use at home by the investigations that have been unfolding this past week in particular. Is that going to cast a shadow over these stops?

THAROOR: We'll see. In every one of these stops in a nine-day trip, there is plenty of room for more gaffes, more slip-ups. And going to Israel, this is a country where he has a good relationship with the prime minister. Senior intelligence officials there are really upset about his apparent leak of Israeli intelligence to the Russians.

His relationship with the pope is going to be interesting to watch. This is a pope who's not been very welcoming of Trump's rhetoric. And, of course, NATO, he's cast a very different sort of perspective there, and we'll see how he...

MARTIN: I love NATO, I don't. I love it, I don't.

THAROOR: ...Right, and so we'll see how he manages that as well.

MARTIN: Ishaan Tharoor. He writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Thanks, Ishaan.

THAROOR: Thank you.

MARTIN: And it is Election Day in Iran.

GREENE: Yeah, the country that, as Ishaan said, is really the context as the president begins that trip in Saudi Arabia. So in Iran, the current president, Hasan Rouhani, is up for re-election. And we should remember he is the one who struck that nuclear deal with President Obama and the United States and other countries. And now the question is whether he can close the deal with voters in his country.

MARTIN: Our co-host Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Iran all week. He is on the line now. Hi, Steve. Happy election day.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hello there again, guys.

MARTIN: What's it like?

INSKEEP: Well, it's a beautiful day in Tehran. I'm by my hotel balcony here, and I can see out across the city. And it's a holiday, which means the horrid traffic that's characteristic of Tehran is mostly gone. There are lots of police out on the streets, including military forces, soldiers with Kalashnikovs guarding metro stations.

That's a little startling. And yet, it's really a very quiet perfect spring day. And I was able to move around and spend a bit of the morning talking with voters who are going to polling places.

MARTIN: And what are they telling you?

INSKEEP: Well, voters who support President Hasan Rouhani are satisfied with the nuclear deal with the United States and want more openness, more engagement with the world and, frankly, more freedom here at home. This is at best a partly open society.

Voters on the other side feel that Rouhani has wrecked the economy or not done enough to fix it anyway. And talk of saving the country, this sort of reminds me of President Obama's bid for re-election in 2012. You have an incumbent president who had strong support despite some economic frustrations...

MARTIN: Oh, that's what happens when you talk to someone in Iran.

GREENE: That is - (laughter) I guess that is what happens.

MARTIN: The line drops sometimes.

GREENE: Yeah. It's so interesting to be...

INSKEEP: And yet I'm still here, guys.

MARTIN: Oh, he's still here.

GREENE: Well, there he is.

MARTIN: It's the magic of backup phone lines.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm on the phone. Yeah.

MARTIN: So you were describing what voters have been telling you about the change they want to see in their country and whether or not Rouhani can bring that.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. It's a little bit like President Obama's re-election effort in 2012 in that he's an incumbent, he's got strong supporters, but the economy is somewhat weak. And there are opponents who felt that he was changing the country way too much.

MARTIN: What could this election change for the United States?

INSKEEP: Well, here's one thing it won't change necessarily is the nuclear deal. President Trump has now said Iran is following the nuclear deal. President Rouhani's main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, is not saying that he's going to cancel the nuclear deal on Iran's side.

However, the Trump administration is preparing to pressure Iran in other ways. And so what's going to be decided here is who is the president on the Iranian side who responds to that pressure and tries to figure out a way that these two countries get along better or don't.

MARTIN: Any last impressions you want to share, Steve? You've been there all week.

INSKEEP: It is a number of days in which people express themselves, even though for many of them it is terrifying. This is not a country with free expression, but it's a country with lots of expression. And if you listen carefully, people will rather artfully tell you almost everything. It's a fascinating place to be.

MARTIN: Steve Inskeep on the ground in Tehran for the national elections there. He will be back in Washington, D.C., with us next week. Steve, thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.