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News Brief: Trump Slams Relief Bill, Presidential Pardons, France-U.K. Border

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump now says he has problems with the relief bill Congress passed this week. Here he is last night.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A few months ago, Congress started negotiations on a new package to get urgently needed help to the American people. It's taken forever. However, the bill they are now planning to send back to my desk is much different than anticipated. It really is a disgrace.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The president's not wrong that it took a long time. It took seven months. Republicans and Democrats didn't agree over how much money should be spent or how it should be spent. But they got it done, and now the president seems to want it undone.

GREENE: Though actually, his criticism may be too late. Let's talk about this with White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe. Ayesha, good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So as far as you can tell, what does the president actually want changed here?

RASCOE: He says the package addresses more than the coronavirus, but it was tied to a spending bill which funds the federal government. So there is, of course, a lot in there. And this is something that his team actually asked for. But Trump gives a long list of things he doesn't like in it, including money appropriated for museums, environmental programs and foreign aid. He also calls out, you know, funding for the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, et cetera. As for what he wants changed, he specifically wants larger stimulus checks. Negotiators had agreed to $600. Here's more from what Trump says he wants.

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TRUMP: I'm asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $4,000 or $4,000 for a couple. I'm also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation and to send me a suitable bill or else the next administration will have to deliver a COVID relief package.

RASCOE: His overall point seems to be there's too much money for special interests and not enough for Americans who are struggling. But he also said he wanted an extension of this tax break for businesses that entertain clients at restaurants, the so-called three-martini lunch break. But critics say that's something that will benefit executives and not hurting restaurants.

GREENE: But I mean, to say he's coming in, like, in the eleventh hour is an understatement. I mean, this was done. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate. I mean, can he really stop this?

RASCOE: It's on his desk to sign. He did not use the word veto in the video, and Congress actually passed this with veto-proof majorities. The big question now would be whether Republicans on the Hill, who agreed to the package that passed, will now feel some pressure to bend to Trump's demands. Trump has also been calling out Republican lawmakers on Twitter, so that may go into their, you know, reaction to this. But Trump also just seems to be lashing out at Republicans overall.

GREENE: And how are lawmakers reacting?

RASCOE: Democrats wanted to spend more on this bill anyway, so they jumped on it. You'll remember Republicans stood in the way of higher payments for months. So now Democrats are saying, Trump has agreed to $2,000, so they want to bring that to the floor for a vote on Thursday.

GREENE: What might the administration be doing here? I mean, if it's not clear he's going to veto this, what's he trying to do?

RASCOE: You know, President Trump, his time in office is winding down. You know, he hasn't had great approval ratings for his handling of the coronavirus, so it's not really clear exactly what he's trying to do. But, you know, this is him shaking up the game once again.

GREENE: NPR's White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe. Ayesha, thanks a lot.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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GREENE: OK. So also last night, President Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 20 people.

KING: That's right, including some people whose cases did not even meet Department of Justice standards for the review that's supposed to come before a pardon. Now, they include former Republican congressmen who were convicted of corruption, people who pled guilty in the Russia investigation and some security contractors who were convicted of killing civilians in Iraq.

GREENE: And NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what names stand out to you here?

JOHNSON: Well, first, the names that stand out for me are four men who worked as contractors for that security company known as Blackwater. The guys took part in an incident in Iraq in 2007 in a busy traffic square. More than a dozen unarmed civilians there were killed. I was in court for their sentencing hearing five years ago. And one boy who died, Ali, was 9 at the time - 9 years old. His mother actually asked the judge, why did they kill my son? His brother told the court that Blackwater came to Iraq as a security company, but it didn't secure anything. This incident really strained international relations.

And, of course, Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, a big supporter of President Trump, and he's also the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

GREENE: OK. Well, then you have former members of Congress who the president is pardoning here. Tell us about them.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that's right, three Republicans who served in Congress until the Justice Department went after them. Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York got pardons. And then Trump commuted, or shortened, the remaining sentence of Steve Stockman of Texas. The president said Stockman, 64 years old, had higher risk for contracting COVID-19. All of these guys were brought to justice on charges related to corruption or wrongdoing. President Trump said he'd been lobbied by other members of Congress to show them some mercy.

GREENE: Well, then you have people who were involved in the Russia probe. And I mean, that's personal for President Trump. He's been hostile towards that investigation for a while now.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Trump seems to want to undo all the work of that special counsel, Robert Mueller. He's already helped some of the other defendants. And then this week, he pardoned George Papadopoulos, who lied to the FBI. Papadopoulos is the young policy adviser who helped jump-start this whole investigation by bragging to a diplomat over drinks at a bar. The White House says that pardon helps correct the wrong that Mueller's team inflicted on so many people. And then Trump also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who also lied to the FBI in the course of the investigation.

GREENE: Could this be only the beginning?

JOHNSON: Yes, there are going to be more pardons for people behind bars for drug crimes, but also likely to be more pardons for people that are engaged in politically sensitive activity. Lots of reports from the White House suggest that Trump could still pardon people connected to his company, his family members or even himself, David. There are few limits on a president's power to issue pardons.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks as always.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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GREENE: OK, to Europe now - France is now reopening its border with the U.K.

KING: Yeah, this one is a story about unintended consequences. So earlier this week, French authorities banned travelers from the U.K. They are worried about this new strain of COVID that's spreading in England. It's highly contagious. But these two countries do a lot of trading, so thousands of truck drivers got stuck at British and French ports. Some of them are unable to return to France, and some of them can't get back into Britain.

GREENE: And let's go to Paris now and NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, guys.

GREENE: OK. So what are these new rules that are now worked out between France and Britain?

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, they came to an agreement last night, so the borders opened this morning. We're seeing trucks moving. These are protocols to allow those traveling for urgent reasons to get through - so truckers accompanying freight and some passengers for Christmas to get home. But you have to get a COVID test. You have to have gotten it within 72 hours. But, you know, David, that's kind of hard to do if you're stuck in your truck in the middle of the highway or...

GREENE: Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: ...On a port. We have seen dramatic footage of the M20 highway in southern England just blocked up for miles and these crazy scenes of thousands of trucks parked on an unused airport runway. And I read this even has a name. It's called Operation Stack.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

BEARDSLEY: But it's going to take days for the logjam to clear even though they have opened up the border.

GREENE: Well, you went to get a look at some of this chaos - right? - in the French port of Calais.

BEARDSLEY: You know, I did. I went a few days ago because for the last couple months, British importers are frantically trying to get all goods in before Britain leaves the European Union's single market and customs union on January 1, which could, of course, mean new tariffs or taxes if they don't have a trade deal. And because of COVID, there are no more passengers, so there are fewer ferries and trains. And so there were huge backups in Calais along the highway and the port. And listen to what one British truck driver, Leo Warren, told me.

LEO WARREN: Been driving a truck for 30 years, and it's more crazy now than it has ever been.

BEARDSLEY: So, you know, that was before this latest scare over the strain over the coronavirus, which has led 50 countries to close their borders with Britain. So it's even worse now.

GREENE: Well, I mean, Leo Warren talks about the craziness. It could be even crazier because let's say the trucks, you know, can get through one border with a negative COVID test. Will they be allowed to drive, you know, elsewhere in Europe?

BEARDSLEY: Well, that's not even clear yet. But once they're back into France, because it's the common open market, if they have a negative COVID test, we would think that, you know, a German truck driver should be able to get home.

GREENE: Well, the U.K. and EU, as you say, still haven't agreed on this big trade deal that would take effect after Britain finishes its exit from the E.U. Is there any progress on these negotiations?

BEARDSLEY: You know, they are in deep negotiations. We keep getting updates every few hours or so. They still seem to be very fraught. One of the sticking points is fishing rights. But this morning, a French official said that they will come to an accord before the end of the year. But let me tell you, David, it is really going down to the last minute. Here is the French European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, speaking this morning on the radio.

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CLEMENT BEAUNE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So basically, he says Britain is much more dependent on the EU than the inverse. He notes that 50% of British exports go to the EU, and it gets 40% of its food from the EU. Two British supermarket chains have warned of shortages. But I will tell you, this new backup with the new strain of COVID is giving people a preview, a real scare of what could happen if there's no trade deal, so they're really working hard for one.

GREENE: All right. Speaking to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting from Paris this morning. Eleanor, thank you so much, as always. We appreciate it.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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