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News Brief: Trump's Personnel Changes, Obamacare, Weinstein Case

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The latest Trump administration personnel moves came in characteristic style on a weekend during off hours via tweet.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, the president spent much of the weekend on Twitter, it seemed. In more than 20 messages he complained about news coverage, he wrote about the closing of a magazine that criticized him, he promoted conspiracy theories about the investigation of his campaign, he celebrated a court ruling against Obamacare. And amid all that, he said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be leaving. Zinke has faced a lot of questions about ethical conflicts. The president also abruptly named an acting chief of staff. It is budget director Mick Mulvaney, who now holds multiple positions for a president he once said he supports despite his personality.

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MICK MULVANEY: Yes, I'm supporting Donald Trump. And I'm doing so as enthusiastically as I can given the fact that I think he's a terrible human being.

INSKEEP: With us now is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who is also one of the hosts of the NPR Politics Podcast. Hi there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Busy weekend for the president.

KEITH: Well, it was raining.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Meaning he couldn't get out on the golf course - that's...

KEITH: Well, like...

INSKEEP: ...What you're saying here.

KEITH: ...Anyone trapped inside with rain - though, actually, he did go to Arlington Cemetery.

INSKEEP: That is a good point. Yes.

KEITH: Yes.

INSKEEP: He visited graves there. But amid all of this a lot of activity, including abruptly, it seemed to us from the outside, naming Mick Mulvaney as an acting chief of staff after some other people seemed to back away. What draws Trump to Mulvaney?

KEITH: Well, he wanted the job, or he would take it. And this came at a time when there were report after report after report of people turning the job down or not wanting it or otherwise making the president's pledge that he'd have a new person in place in a day or two look like it was stretching out. And he certainly didn't want that. Mulvaney is someone who has a good rapport with the president, who - you know, when he was a congressman in South - from South Carolina, he was a deficit hawk. He was a deficit scold, you could even say.

And then he came to the Trump White House. And he became very Trumpy. He put together budgets that he said represented the president. And he went and begged Congress to raise the debt limit, something that he never would have supported as a congressman. So he fully transformed himself into a member of the Trump administration and has really won the president over with that.

INSKEEP: And in fairness, when he put out a budget, it zeroed out a bunch of agencies, which perhaps is in line with what he had said before. But he's also presided over some immense increases in deficits.

KEITH: Just a massive increase in the deficit, which - if you know anything about Mick Mulvaney, he used to do, you know, PowerPoint presentations about the deficit every time he went back to his district.

INSKEEP: OK, so Ryan Zinke had been facing investigations into ethics conflicts. And does all that go away now that Zinke goes away?

KEITH: Well, the League of Conservation Voters put out a statement saying, we hope that these investigations don't go away. Certainly some of them will continue even if Zinke isn't there. But for President Trump and the Trump administration, they can say, well, he's not there anymore.

INSKEEP: Clears the decks...

KEITH: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...For 2020. One other thing to ask about, Tamara Keith. We are in a week when Congress is supposed to get a budget done or get some spending bills done, to be precise, in order to avoid a partial government shutdown. President Trump is demanding money for a border wall. Is this going to get - this deal going to get done?

KEITH: You know, it is entirely unclear how this plane lands. But the House isn't even back in session until Wednesday night, so there will be some suspense certainly.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll listen for your coverage. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "GOLDEN HOUR")

INSKEEP: The future of Obamacare is suddenly in some doubt.

GREENE: Yeah, it sure seems to be after a federal judge in Texas issued a ruling on Friday that would block the entire Affordable Care Act if it is upheld by higher courts. President Trump welcomed this decision over the weekend.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A great ruling for our country. We'll be able to get great health care. We'll sit down with the Democrats if the Supreme Court upholds.

GREENE: The judge's decision came after a group of Republican state attorneys general challenged the law's constitutionality. And of course the GOP has been fighting the ACA for the past eight years, promising to replace it with something better.

INSKEEP: Julie Rovner has covered this story from the beginning. And I mean from the beginning. She is chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News, host of the What The Health? podcast, which we have to be careful to pronounce correctly. Hi there, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. This is not the first time I guess that a judge has ruled against Obamacare. But this is a big one. What does it mean in day-to-day terms right now for people who are using health exchanges or using various provisions of Obamacare, taking advantage of various provisions of it?

ROVNER: Well, of course this decision came down just as the end of open enrollment was approaching at least for most people. Right now it means nothing. The judge did not issue an injunction. He basically said that this is my decision, that this - the entire law now must fall because of the changes that Congress made in 2017, but that this will go further up the appeals process. And unless and until some other judge or set of judges says that, yeah, we're going to stop the law in its tracks, the law will continue for now.

INSKEEP: This is a remarkable ruling. I just want to dwell for a second on what it's about if I understand this. So there's this mandate - right? - which the judge says is only allowed - Congress can only mandate people to buy health insurance using its taxing authority. And when Congress got rid of the penalty, which was a tax, for not buying health insurance, then the mandate became illegal. Is this right?

ROVNER: Almost. I mean, basically Congress got rid of the tax penalty in the tax bill last year and said that they didn't need it anymore. And then the attorneys general came in and said, well, if there's no tax, then you can't have the law because that was the basis by which Chief Justice Roberts upheld the law in 2012. So they say, no tax, no law. And this judge surprisingly, to a lot of legal analysts, agreed with them.

INSKEEP: So this means everything goes, right? Like, if you are benefiting from the prohibition on pre-existing conditions, well, that goes away. If you are getting health insurance from your parents because you're under 26, that goes away. All of this goes away.

ROVNER: All this goes away, including more. Most of Medicare and Medicaid are now being run, you know, through regulations that are based on the Affordable Care Act. Everything that the Trump administration is trying to do on drug prices is based on authority from the Affordable Care Act. It could really make a mess well beyond the people who are actually getting benefits from the Affordable Care Act.

INSKEEP: With that said, this goes to higher courts. And didn't the Supreme Court uphold Obamacare once already?

ROVNER: The Supreme Court has actually upheld it twice. Of course now there's this change, so it's possible that it will get there a third time. It's also possible that the Court of Appeals where this case is in the 5ht Circuit might say, yeah, we don't think so, and then the Supreme Court might say, yeah, we're not going to take the case. So still a long way to go.

INSKEEP: All right, Julie, thanks for the update - really appreciate it.

ROVNER: Sure.

INSKEEP: That's Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now - the case against Harvey Weinstein may be unraveling.

GREENE: Yeah. Let's remember when the movie mogul was arrested in May, it was really a watershed for the #MeToo movement. Dozens of women accused him of rape and sexual misconduct. Prosecutors charged him with sexually assaulting three women. Carrie Goldberg is a lawyer for one of them.

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CARRIE GOLDBERG: This is a man with outrageous amounts of power and access who, you know, thought he could have anything he wanted, including every single woman that he found attractive.

GREENE: But it is not turning out to be the open-and-shut case that many people expected.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joel Rose has been following these proceedings and is on the line. Good morning, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should be clear about what we're talking about and what we're not. There's a very, very large number of women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of a very large number of offenses. But then there's a specific few who have filed criminal charges. That's what this is about.

ROSE: Right. And it's actually even fewer as this case has progressed. I mean, a lot has happened in the six months since you - since Harvey Weinstein was arrested, and some of it has helped his defense. There's been a lot of tension between prosecutors and police in New York. They've accused each other of making mistakes in the case in a sort of unusually public way. And one of the charges against Weinstein has been dropped, actually, involving the woman whose lawyer we just heard from.

INSKEEP: So what do you expect to happen - what do you expect to happen at the hearing this week?

ROSE: Well, Weinstein's lawyers are going to try to get the rest of the case against him dismissed. The defense says that there are big problems with how a detective handled the investigation into Harvey Weinstein, for example telling one of his accusers that it was OK to delete some personal data from her phones before she handed them over to police. Legal experts say that makes it look like they were trying to hide evidence that could have helped Weinstein's case and made the accuser look bad. And ultimately that did lead the Manhattan district attorney to drop one of the charges, as I said. But prosecutors say they are still going full steam ahead on the other five counts against him.

INSKEEP: Well, how is the defense pushing back?

ROSE: Well, my colleague Rose Friedman and I met with Ben Brafman at his office. He's the lawyer for Harvey Weinstein. He's defended Sean Diddy Combs on gun charges. You may recall Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund who was accused of sexual assault. Both of those men were cleared.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ROSE: Yeah. So Brafman says that Weinstein's accusers are lying and that these encounters, which he does not deny - Harvey Weinstein doesn't deny the encounters, but he says that they were consensual. And Ben Brafman, his lawyer, is blaming what he calls the worldwide hysteria sparked by the #MeToo movement for this rush to charge Harvey Weinstein.

BEN BRAFMAN: This is not about the #MeToo movement being bad. But when you have a #MeToo movement that pressures public officials to take certain action when perhaps it's not warranted, then it gets to be very, very scary. And I think that's what happened here.

ROSE: Brafman says the problems with the detective in the investigation were so bad that that should taint the entire case against Weinstein. But I should say we also met with lawyers for Weinstein's accusers, including the longtime women's rights advocate Gloria Allred. And they say that their clients are telling the truth. They say the defense strategy here is just a classic defense strategy - cast blame on the police, on prosecutors and on this case, even on the #MeToo movement, anything but your own client, right? And the lawyers for the accusers think that the case against Harvey Weinstein is still strong and that he could wind up serving prison time.

INSKEEP: Although we're facing the classic issue with sexual harassment accusations, sexual assault accusations. There's typically a scarcity of witnesses, a lot of different ways to defend yourself in court. Proving something beyond a reasonable doubt has been traditionally difficult.

ROSE: Yeah, especially if you have a great lawyer like Ben Brafman.

INSKEEP: There you go. All right, Joel, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

ROSE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joel Rose.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "BLOSSOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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