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News Brief: GOP Lawmakers React To Russia Statements, VA Purges, New Israeli Law

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump's position on Russia and its efforts to interfere in U.S. politics has not been consistent.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. And that has left his own party in Congress saying they need to address the issue independent of the president's position of the moment. Trump's own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, just last week named Russia as a prime actor behind ongoing daily digital attacks.

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DAN COATS: And I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again.

GREENE: So will Republicans who control Congress go beyond merely chastising President Trump for his words and act?

KING: NPR's Kelsey Snell covers Congress. She's with me now in the studio. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So you've got Republicans saying they need to do something. Here's Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

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MARCO RUBIO: Our job is to pass laws and do things that are for the good of the country, and one of those things should be to put in place strong deterrence measures that would pre-position penalties should this ever happen again.

KING: Strong deterrence measures, he said. Are there any new measures on the horizon?

SNELL: Well, Rubio has a bill with Senator Chris Van Hollen, the Democrat from Maryland, and that would make sanctions automatic if the director of national intelligence - Dan Coats, who we just heard - determines that foreign governments interfered with any future election, including the one that's happening in November this year.

This isn't a new bill. They introduced it back in January. And up until this point, it really didn't get a lot of attention. And it's hard for me to tell right now how quickly it will move. Leaders generally like the idea of having some preplanned penalties ahead of this election - sanctions being that one thing that Congress has the most control over.

But there are concerns that the bill is too broad. And there's been some discussion of making changes to it. I talked to some lawmakers who say they worry that the news cycle will move on too quickly for them to make those changes, though. And the energy and vigor for a bill like this could fade if another crisis emerges.

In the meantime, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, are planning to offer a resolution that would be nonbinding, and it would back the U.S. intelligence - the whole community against Russia. But the way they're offering it means that they would need unanimous consent. And only one person could object, and then it would go nowhere.

KING: That would be a hard thing to get done. All right. This kind of situation keeps happening on lots of issues - on tariffs, on family separations, on Russia. Republican lawmakers - we see this. They'll express real frustration with the president, but then they don't really take any steps to rein him in or limit his authority. Why is that?

SNELL: Well, they have passed sanctions. They have veto-proof sanctions that, you know, really did force the president's hand. And that is one thing that they can really do here. And some senators, like Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, want to do that again.

But it's important to remember that this uncomfortable relationship with the president isn't new. And Republicans are exhausted by the relationship, and they are annoyed, but they have the same policy goals as the president. And when the administration does something like helps them pass a piece of legislation like the tax bill...

KING: Right.

SNELL: ...Or nominates someone like Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, all is forgiven. And we're kind of seeing that happen again, though that might change. This might be the thing that changes that relationship.

KING: Let me ask you quickly about the Mueller investigation, which the president keeps attacking even though it has yielded indictments. Is there a chance that Congress might move to protect that investigation?

SNELL: It's another thing that Democrats are pushing for. But leaders - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan haven't really engaged in the idea. And McConnell, in particular, has said that he hasn't seen any evidence that protecting Mueller specifically is necessary.

KING: NPR's Kelsey Snell covers Congress. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you.

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KING: OK. This morning, we have news about a conflict inside the Department of Veterans Affairs.

GREENE: Yeah. This is interesting. High-ranking staffers there are leaving, either under pressure, or they're being reassigned. Those being moved are not being told why it's happening. There is new reporting that calls this, quote, "a new stage in the long estrangement between civil servants and Trump loyalists at the VA."

KING: The reporter who broke this story works for The Washington Post. Her name is Lisa Rein. She's with us now. Good morning, Lisa.

LISA REIN: Good morning.

KING: All right. So who is responsible for these people being either reassigned or forced to leave the VA?

REIN: So this is actually part of the conflict. The person who is calling for this reshuffling, which critics are calling a loyalty purge, is Peter O'Rourke. And Mr. O'Rourke is the acting secretary of the VA. He's been in the acting role only since May 30. And that's because the agency has been without a permanent cabinet secretary for four months since O'Rourke and his colleagues helped oust former secretary David Shulkin. Robert Wilkie, who the president nominated to the job permanently and who is very likely to be confirmed by the Senate this summer, is back at the Pentagon in his old role awaiting confirmation.

KING: Right. So he's awaiting confirmation. Why does the interim director not just wait for him to get there if he wants to do things like let people go or reassign them?

REIN: That's right. So this is clearly, you know, part of what is riling up members of Congress, as well as many of the employees who are being moved. There is really no explanation for this, except that it does seem that Mr. O'Rourke, who had served as chief of staff briefly at VA and also in another role as head of a whistleblower agency that's supposed to protect whistleblowers, and he was a Trump campaign employee as well - that he is concerned about consolidating power.

He told Representative Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, a Democrat, at a House hearing Tuesday that he was making these moves to enhance the efficiency of the organization, to which she responded, well, what is your criteria? What does that mean? And he did acknowledge that the moves that he's made, including kind of a mass exodus from the 10th floor office where the secretary sits, were not because of performance.

KING: Well, you wrote in your story that some of these folks being lost or sidelined have very specific and valuable expertise. Just quickly, what is being lost by the VA as this happens?

REIN: That's right. So some of the jobs, particularly in the secretary suite, some of these folks have been physically moved out of the office but are still actually doing their jobs. But these are largely support roles. But crucial ones that help a new secretary who comes on board who has never worked at VA get acclimated - for example, the person in charge of congressional correspondence - that person, a senior executive, was moved to a detail in another part of the agency.

KING: And there will be a new - there will be a new secretary, so these are obviously...

REIN: There will.

KING: ...Very important jobs. Lisa Rein of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

REIN: Thank you very much.

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KING: All right. Earlier today, Israel's parliament passed a law that goes right to the heart of that country's identity. But the critics of the law worry it could actually undermine the country's democracy.

GREENE: Yeah. The so-called Nation-State Bill enshrines in Israeli law that Israel is the home of the Jewish people - their national homeland. But there are Muslims and Christians in Israel as well, and that fact is at the heart of this controversy that's surrounding this law. Here's what furious opponents sounded like in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

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UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIANS: (Screaming in foreign language).

GREENE: So those Knesset members we're hearing, they're actually ripping the bill to pieces.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the line from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi there.

KING: So what is going on here?

ESTRIN: Well, I think to understand this law, you have to know about a decades-long debate in Israel. And the debate is, you know, this country is defined in law as a, quote, "Jewish and democratic state." So how does a country balance its Jewish character with its democratic character, you know, with its commitment to equality, for instance, for non-Jews in the country?

Now nationalist conservative lawmakers in Israel say the Supreme Court here has become too liberal and is not giving emphasis to Israel's Jewish character and its rulings. And so they say this law would help fix that by laying out very clearly that Israel is a Jewish state. This is a very divisive law. Opponents are pointing out that the words equality and democracy do not appear in the new law.

KING: Interesting. Does this bill curb the rights of minorities of Arabs and Christians in Israel?

ESTRIN: Well, that's what they're concerned about. About 20 percent of the Israeli population are Palestinian - Arabs with Israeli citizenship. They're mostly Muslim, some are Christians. They say they already face discrimination in many areas. The new law puts down that the Arabic language, for instance, which is an official language here - in the new law, it's been downgraded to just a special status.

There's another very controversial part of the law that says the government will encourage the creation of Jewish towns and communities. That's being seen by critics as Israel sanctioning Jewish-only towns. For instance, a proponent of the law cited an example of a Jewish majority city in Israel and the need to combat a takeover of Palestinian Arab citizens.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thank you so much, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Sure thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF NECRO'S "BLACK HELICOPTERS" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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