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News Brief: Russia Investigations, Puerto Rico's Power, And Catalonia

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Rachel, if you go on Twitter, it looks like the hashtag #MuellerMonday is trending right now.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. The Mueller referring there to special counsel Robert Mueller, who for months now has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. And so there is news today of possible news. CNN and several other media outlets report that a federal grand jury has approved the first charges related to this whole investigation and that we could learn details as soon as today.

We should add NPR has not independently confirmed these reports. But all this comes on what could be a really big week for the Trump administration. President Trump is set to reveal a new Fed chair. And House Republicans plan to reveal their tax bill. Then on Friday, the president is leaving for Asia. Big week - will any of it - all of it - be overshadowed by what comes out of the investigation?

GREENE: Well, let's ask Tamara Keith, who is on the line. She covers the White House and hosts the NPR Politics podcast. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Love covering news of possible news.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: So there's all this anticipation after these reports that Robert Mueller's investigation might have led to some kind of indictment. At least that's what the reports are suggesting. What do we actually know this morning?

KEITH: Well, in terms of those reports, there isn't a lot of specificity. So we - what they're saying is we don't know what the charges are, who might be charged, whether it would be one person or multiple people. And it could be that nothing happens. It could be someone we've never heard of before. What's important to remember is that while Mueller was appointed to investigate potential collusion between Russia and Trump associates, he was also authorized to investigate other matters that could arise during the course of this investigation.

So if this indictment is unsealed, and we do learn about it today, it could be that it's something like money laundering. Or it could be something that happened in 2013 or 2012, long before the election. Also, we've heard lots of reports in reality that people in President Trump's orbit during the campaign in previous lives did work on behalf of foreign clients. So it's possible that it could be related to that and not even related to Russia.

GREENE: Oh, interesting - something big, something obscure or nothing. We just don't know. But is - nevertheless, is the White House saying anything to try and get ahead of this?

KEITH: Well, the president has certainly been tweeting over the weekend, especially during a rainy Sunday. He was tweeting up a storm, trying to move focus to Hillary Clinton, her 33,000 deleted emails, you know, saying that the Trump-Russia collusion is phony, calling the investigation a witch hunt. Then his lawyer at the White House who is tasked with dealing with these things said to me in a statement - this lawyer is Ty Cobb - he said, quote, "Contrary to what many have suggested, the president's comments today are unrelated to the activities of the special counsel with whom he continues to cooperate."

GREENE: He is just tweeting on a rainy Sunday is what this lawyer is telling you.

KEITH: That's what he's saying.

GREENE: Well, I mean - and we should say this could - I mean, this is supposed to be a really big week in Washington not because of all that but because of the Republican tax bill that's coming together.

KEITH: Right. The first details should be coming Wednesday not just about what those tax rates are and some of the things that we've known before but the nitty-gritty details that will determine whether this legislation gets support from enough Republicans to become the law of the land.

GREENE: Tamara Keith covers the White House, and she also hosts NPR's Politics podcast. Tam, thanks.

KEITH: Thank you so much.

GREENE: All right. It's just hard to describe the shape that Puerto Rico's power grid is still in right now after all those weeks since the hurricane. When the sun goes down, the majority of the island still goes dark.

MARTIN: Right. So fixing that power grid is going to take a lot of people, a lot of manpower and a whole lot of money. And any contractor who's chosen to do this is going to make a lot of money. So it raised some eyebrows when this company called Whitefish Energy, small company in Montana - it won this $300 million deal. So the company's only a couple of years old. Until recently, it only had two full-time employees. It also has links to the Trump administration. So with all these questions swirling, Puerto Rico has decided to just cancel the whole thing, cancel this contract with Whitefish. Here's the governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICARDO ROSSELLO: The decision that I have taken restates our commitment with transparency in contracting in the government of Puerto Rico and to uphold the highest levels of standards of efficiency in restoring our electrical system.

MARTIN: That was the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello. So Whitefish, the company, says it's disappointed in the decision.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in San Juan, following all of this. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: This (laughter) is such a strange story...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, it is.

GREENE: ...Because this Montana company is so tiny. I mean, when the governor canceled this, did he explain at all how we even got here?

BEAUBIEN: You know, he didn't give that little key detail of what exactly it was. But he had several different agencies looking into this. And, clearly, what he was finding out he was not happy about. I mean, the best-case scenario was that Puerto Rico's utility, in this act of desperation, as this hurricane is bearing down on it, pays way too much to secure this little, tiny, two-man firm in Montana to rebuild what is expected to be this huge disaster. The worst-case scenario is that there was some vast conspiracy stretching from over here in San Juan to the White House to Whitefish to rip off FEMA. You know, whatever happened, this had become just a huge distraction to this massive effort to rebuild the entire electric grid here. So the governor just decided that he had to cancel it and move on.

GREENE: And you don't really want a distraction when people's lives are sort of hanging in the balance and dealing with darkness and being without power. I mean, what about the company? Is Whitefish saying anything at this point about how this all went down?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, obviously, they're saying they're very disappointed. And, you know, to give them their due, they did get in here and brought in hundreds of utility crews. And they were expecting to bring in hundreds more, starting today - this week. They really stepped up to the plate and were out there doing the work. So they are quite disappointed about this, obviously. And there was a lot of money on the line, as well. So they're disappointed about that.

GREENE: Well, disappointed. And, also, the company saying that this could actually set back efforts - this cancellation - to get the grid back up and running. Is that true? Is that a fear?

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely, it's a fear. It's been very hard in the past. It's taken months at times after other hurricanes have hit Puerto Rico to get the grid up and running. There's great fear that it could again take months. And the damage in this time was really intense. And, you know, across Puerto Rico, most people right now do not have electricity. So this is the dominant issue here on the island.

MARTIN: You know, it's really interesting just to note the whole reason this came up is because Whitefish is in Ryan Zinke's hometown. He's the secretary of the Department of the Interior. He issued this statement saying, only in Washington would being from a small town be a criminal offense. That's a paraphrase. But interesting to see how this has all been politicized.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

GREENE: Yeah. NPR's Jason Beaubien covering this story in San Juan. Jason, thanks.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

GREENE: Here's a question that very few people seem to be able to answer right now - who is actually in charge of Catalonia?

BEAUBIEN: A big question - an open question this morning in Barcelona. Let's remember this region held this independence vote earlier this month. It was a violent day. Protesters and riot police clashed at the polls. Hundreds of people were injured that day. Spain's central government did not recognize that vote. And now Madrid has officially taken control of Catalonia and dissolved the local government. The region's president then turned around and urged his colleagues to keep working. So who really has the power?

GREENE: Well, let's ask Lucia Benavides, who has been covering this on the ground there. Lucia, good morning.

LUCIA BENAVIDES: Good morning.

GREENE: So let me get this straight. Madrid dissolves the government of Catalonia, but the Catalan president, who has, I guess, officially been fired, wants to keep working. This sounds totally confusing.

BENAVIDES: Yeah, that's right. And I know it's very confusing. So, basically, what the Catalan president said on Saturday was that - well, he called for Democratic opposition to the Spanish government's takeover of the region. And he vowed to continue working towards a free country. And he stressed peaceful conduct from the people, from the Catalan government. He was a little vague about what the precise steps would be going forward as Spanish authorities move into Barcelona to enforce control.

He also suggested that he wouldn't show up to work today, despite him saying that he's still the president of Catalonia. So if he and other officials do show up today, there could be protests. And there's worry that there could be some potential pushback from police. So far this morning - it's about 10:15 a.m. right now - so far, only one politician has shown up today that we know about. He's being clapped by people waiting outside the government building. There's many journalists outside, you know, waiting to see who's going to show up today.

GREENE: Did you say clap? People were applauding this this person for showing up to work?

BENAVIDES: Yeah. Yeah. So pro-independence people have - I think about a dozen, two dozen people have shown up outside this government building. And they were clapping whenever they saw that he showed up.

GREENE: But there are people on the other side of this, right? I mean, it's - there are people who actually want - who were in favor of staying part of Spain and not in favor of independence.

BENAVIDES: Yeah. And we saw that this weekend. There was a big protest on Sunday. About 300,000 supporters of a united Spain filled Barcelona streets. It was one of the biggest shows of force by the so-called silent majority. And they said that they came out to defend the unity of Spain and to defend the law of Spain. But there were some altercations, as well, because there were some ultra-right groups that came out with these peaceful protests. And there were two people that were injured by some ultra-right people that, you know, come out when these protests are taking place. So there is tension. There's definitely tension going on right now.

GREENE: Tension and...

BENAVIDES: And people aren't sure what's happening.

GREENE: Tension and a lot of uncertainly, it sounds like, in Catalonia. That's journalist Lucy Benavides. Thanks for joining us this morning. We really appreciate it.

BENAVIDES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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