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News Brief: Congressional Democrats Investigate Trump's Business, North Korea Summit Fallout


Michael Cohen named names from the Trump Organization during his public testimony before Congress. And now lawmakers have questions for those people.


They want to follow up on exchanges like this with the president's former lawyer. Representative Jackie Speier asked Cohen about Donald Trump's involvement in building a Trump Tower Moscow.


JACKIE SPEIER: Did Mr. Trump tell you to offer Vladimir Putin a free penthouse?


SPEIER: So what was that...

COHEN: That was Felix Sater. It was a marketing stunt.

INSKEEP: There's a name. Felix Sater - longtime New York real estate developer and past associate of the president. During testimony like that, Elijah Cummings was presiding. He gestured at times while casually holding his gavel up between his fingers. And now Cummings, along with the head of the House Intelligence Committee, says he's planning to call more witnesses such as Sater.

MARTIN: So NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell's been following all this and joins us now.

Good morning, Kelsey.


MARTIN: So Michael Cohen seems to have given Democrats, in particular, a whole lot of grist for their mill. They are reportedly going to call Felix Sater and others to come testify. What do they want to learn?

SNELL: Yeah. This is part of a broader strategy that we saw on display a little bit in that open Cohen hearing earlier this week. And they want to build a chain of information, which is kind of what we heard starting in that bit with Speier. Every time Cohen said he didn't have an answer for a question, they asked who in Trump's inner circle did have the answer. And that's when we heard names like Allen Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization, and David Pecker from the National Enquirer and even possibly Donald Trump Jr.

Now we're seeing them follow through. And what that - the first time we're seeing that is with Sater. In his case, it seems they want to know more about how plans for Trump Tower in Moscow came together. In particular, some members seem very interested in how involved Trump himself was and if that involvement lasted after he was elected and if it involved cutting deals with high-ranking Russian officials. So that is likely where they're headed.

MARTIN: So Cohen is also coming back. I mean, he's coming back again for a closed session next week with House intel - the intel committee. Adam Schiff, the chairman of that committee, saying that his - that they want - what they didn't get this week, what more, possibly, could Michael Cohen provide?

SNELL: Well, it's important to remember that the intel committee has a really different focus from the oversight committee, where Cohen was giving that public testimony that we just heard. Oversight is interested in Trump's domestic dealings, things like, you know, the way that he made money and what he did here in the U.S. Intel - they really just care about his interactions with Russia and other foreign entities. And that's part of the reason that their interviews are behind closed doors. It allows the committee to get into classified information and go down paths that relate to the Mueller investigation - all stuff that isn't public yet. So Schiff did say he'd like to make as much of the Sater interview public as possible. But Cohen, we think, should still remain behind closed doors.

MARTIN: Interesting. So before I let you go, I want to...

SNELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Ask you about this report that came out. The New York Times and The Washington Post both reporting that President Trump allegedly ordered top-secret security clearance for his son-in-law Jared Kushner and that he did this over the strong recommendation of White House counsel Don McGahn and his chief of staff at the time, right?

SNELL: Right. So The Times is reporting that Trump ordered his then chief of staff John Kelly to give Kushner the top-secret security clearances. And it was a decision that overruled the assessment of the intelligence community. And they're basing this on what they say is at least one contemporaneous memo. Now, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders is quoted as saying that the White House does not comment on clearances. But it's already sparked some attention from Democrats. And Elijah Cummings, who we already talked about - the oversight committee chairman - already launched an investigation into security clearances. And late last night, he's demanded that the White House comply with his demands for documents and information.

MARTIN: OK, NPR's Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you. We appreciate it.

SNELL: Thank you.


MARTIN: President Trump says he walked away from a potential deal with North Korea because the North wanted all U.S. sanctions lifted. Here's what he said to Sean Hannity on Fox News.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They wanted to de-nuke certain areas. And I wanted everything. And the sanctions are there. And I didn't want to give up the sanctions unless we had a real program.

INSKEEP: Now, North Korea's foreign minister is giving a different account of this failed summit. He says the North only asked for partial sanctions relief in exchange for shutting down some nuclear sites and insists the North offered a good deal. Well, how did all this look to North Korea's neighbors, South Korea and China?

MARTIN: Let's ask NPR's Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz. He has been monitoring the reaction around the region.

Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's start with South Korea - right? - because they have (laughter) the most to win or lose by a potential nuclear deal. I mean, what's just been the reaction in the past 24 hours?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think for South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, this outcome puts him in a very difficult spot. You know, he's worked really hard in the past year guiding a sort of a forward momentum with Kim Jong Un. And this has got to be pretty deflating for him. I spoke with John Delury, who's an associate professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies, about this. And here's what he said about how South Korea's feeling right now.

JOHN DELURY: The government here really wanted to see more tangible results. I think they would've been happy with what's been called a small deal and some interim steps, you know, to sustain this momentum. So to just kind of walk away with nothing is not good.

MARTIN: And what about China?

SCHMITZ: Well, in terms of North Korea, Beijing is likely to be fine with the fact that no deal was reached. China's leadership prefers the status quo. North Korea remains a mildly threatening buffer state between China and U.S. troops in South Korea. And a lack of a nuclear agreement keeps North Korea in play when it comes to U.S.-China relations. In other words, Beijing can continue to use its close relationship with North Korea as currency in its negotiations with the U.S. Now, there's another thing that Beijing is likely paying close attention to here. And that's the fact that President Trump walked away from a potential deal.

Like North Korea, China's leadership has also been made to believe that they're about to sign a deal with President Trump to end a trade war. Knowing that the president's capable of just walking away like this may give China's leaders pause for thought as they approach an upcoming summit between Xi Jinping and Trump. You know, will Trump do the same thing if he's not satisfied with them? This trade war has been pretty debilitating for China's economy, so they're not going to want a repeat of what just happened in Hanoi when they meet with Trump later this month.

MARTIN: Right. Meanwhile, North Korea is insisting - they've got a different view of how the negotiations actually broke down and that, by the way, their position is never going to change. So where does that leave the future of these negotiations?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. It's interesting to watch the - or look at the North Korean media spin all of this. Remarkable progress was one of their headlines after this summit (laughter). They pointed out that Kim and Trump have a very special relationship and that they'll keep working on that. You know, I think one thing to remember here is that Kim Jong Un is still in Vietnam right now. He's still visiting with that country's leaders. And this could be an important country for the type of future that Kim is trying to build for North Korea, which is more economically connected within the region. It's also a long train home ride for Kim. So he's going to make a lot of stops on the way in China, perhaps, including another meeting, maybe, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, turning this trip into more of a regional tour.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Rob Schmitz, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.


MARTIN: Michael Jackson was everything to so many people - a child prodigy who became an icon. He was the King of Pop. But for the past 25 years, there's been this horrible shadow over his legacy, which is now the subject of a new documentary.

INSKEEP: Two men come forward in that documentary, which is titled "Leaving Neverland." It airs on HBO this weekend. In this film, Wade Robson and James Safechuck claim that the singer sexually abused them starting around the ages of 7 and 10. They say the abuse went on for years. Michael Jackson's family has been responding to the film. And here's what his nephew Taj told CBS.


TAJ JACKSON: It's always been about money. I hate to say it. When it's my uncle, it's almost like they see a blank check.

INSKEEP: The Jackson estate is suing HBO, calling the documentary a posthumous character assassination.

MARTIN: We've got NPR TV critic Eric Deggans with us this morning. Hey, Eric.


MARTIN: So Jackson - Michael Jackson has been charged and acquitted of child molestation in the past. What makes this documentary and these accusations different?

DEGGANS: Well, this is a detailed look at allegations from Robson and Safechuck, two men who spent many years with Jackson's children and who had once denied that the singer ever abused them. The film centers on these in-depth interviews with them. It includes their mothers, their wives, a few other relatives. Robson met Jackson when he was 5 or so in 1987 after winning a dance contest in Australia, where he was born. And Safechuck started - Safechuck starred in a 1986 Pepsi commercial with Jackson. And both of these men say that Jackson built friendships with them and their families. When he was at the height of his fame, he showered gifts and attention on them while he was secretly abusing them sexually when they were isolated.

MARTIN: So we heard Jackson's nephew argue that this is always all about money. It always has been when it comes to his uncle. How are the filmmakers responding?

DEGGANS: Well, Jackson's family also notes that the filmmakers didn't ask them for comment in the film. And that's a big issue with critics of "Leaving Neverland." Jackson died in 2009, so he's not around to respond to these allegations himself. The film's director, Dan Reed, has said that he wanted to focus on the only people who could actually know what happened between Jackson, Robson and Safechuck. I do think another recent documentary that looked at abuse allegations against a music star, Lifetime's "Surviving R. Kelly," showed how interviewing a lot of people, including former employees or even psychologists, could add new context to allegations like this and give you a fuller picture.

MARTIN: So, Eric, you've seen this. I mean, I'm a Michael Jackson fan. I grew up with his music.

DEGGANS: I know.

MARTIN: I know you're a Michael Jackson fan, to say the least.

DEGGANS: For sure.

MARTIN: So what is it - how's this going to change how we think about his music?

DEGGANS: Well, it could change it quite a lot, depending on how much people believe these allegations that are told by Robson and Safechuck. I mean, we're now at a time after Cosby, after Louis C.K., after R. Kelly's arrest, where people are looking back at celebrities who may have avoided consequences for serious wrongdoing in the past. And they're kind of re-evaluating the original allegations against them. Now, you know, Jackson was acquitted on child molestation charges. He's not around to speak to these allegations. But I do think a film like "Leaving Neverland" will push some fans to re-examine past stories about his closeness to children and decide for themselves how comfortable they are listening to his music and supporting his legacy.

MARTIN: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans for us this morning. Eric, thanks. We appreciate it.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.