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News Brief: Brett Kavanaugh, Indonesia Tsunami, DOJ Sues California


A president who's often made demands of the Justice Department now insists - whatever works, it's all good.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My White House will do whatever the senators want. I'm open to whatever they want. The one thing I want is speed.


President Trump was referring to the additional background check of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Senators requested a week for the FBI to check out allegations that Kavanaugh committed sexual assault while in high school. The White House has affirmed now that agents can question anybody they want. They made that affirmation after an expression of concern from a vital senator, Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona.


JEFF FLAKE: It does no good to have an investigation that just gives us more cover, for example. We actually need to find out what we can find out.

MARTIN: So what are they finding out? NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now. She's also a host of the NPR Politics Podcast.

Tam, good morning.


MARTIN: So the FBI has been at this now for a few days, this additional investigation. Who have they talked with thus far?

KEITH: And I will say, this is not necessarily a comprehensive list. But we know that they have spoken with a woman named Leland Kaiser. She is a friend of Christine Blasey Ford who was, according to Ford, at the party where the alleged assault took place. Again...

MARTIN: We heard...

KEITH: ...Kavanaugh denies that.

MARTIN: Right. We heard that name come up in the hearings.

KEITH: Exactly. Another woman, Deborah Ramirez - she was the subject of a New Yorker article - who said that Kavanaugh had exposed himself to her at Yale. She has spoken to the FBI and also, according to our reporting, provided the FBI with a list of more than a dozen names of people who she says were either witnesses or learned about the event contemporaneously. And we also know that Mark Judge, the friend of Brett Kavanaugh who was allegedly in the room when the assault of Blasey Ford happened - if it did happen, he has spoken to the FBI. And his attorney tells NPR that that interview is not yet completed, but it has begun.

MARTIN: What do we know about the focus of the line of questioning? Because it seems like, at least, the political conversation around Kavanaugh and his history has shifted a bit from the initial allegations of sexual misconduct to now focusing on his drinking habits when he was young.

KEITH: What we have been told is that drinking has come up in questioning in sort of a routine way as part of trying to get to the bottom of some of these allegations. Drinking was happening in the telling of all of the stories of things that are being investigated.

MARTIN: A lot of beer - there's so much beer.

KEITH: Yes. You know, Brett Kavanaugh says he drank beer with his friends. He sometimes had too many beers, he said in his testimony. And the political discussion here is whether Kavanaugh was forthcoming in his testimony about his drinking or whether he may have lied about his drinking. The White House pushes back very hard on the idea that he lied, saying that he admitted to basically everything, even if it was in very general terms...

MARTIN: Right.

KEITH: ...That put sort of a nice sheen on it.

MARTIN: Right.

INSKEEP: He did speak in general terms about drinking. But then there's the other question that's being raised about memory. Kavanaugh effectively questioned Ford's memory by saying, well, maybe she remembers the wrong person. Maybe something happened to her, but I wasn't the person who did it. One way that people are questioning Kavanaugh's memory is simply asking whether he would have been in any shape to remember anything.

MARTIN: Right. And now Tam, of course, midterms - I feel like we keep asking about this. But it is determining a lot of things at this moment. Do we have any idea how this issue, this confirmation fight, is playing in the minds of voters?

KEITH: Well, there's a new Quinnipiac University Poll that finds that 49 percent of voters say that he should not be confirmed; 42 percent say he should. There are divisions over gender and party, the same divisions over gender and party that are likely to define these midterms.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.


MARTIN: All right. Another chapter opens in the standoff between the state of California and the Trump administration. The California state government is wrangling with the federal government on a whole range of issues, including immigration and climate change and now net neutrality.

INSKEEP: Yeah. The Justice Department filed suit this week against a California law - a new law that regulates Internet service providers. That's set up a high-stakes legal battle. Who gets to control this question? California's law requires carriers to treat all web traffic equally rather than giving a leg up to some companies over others. In other words, the law requires net neutrality, which was federal policy under the Obama administration. But the Obama version of that was rolled back after President Trump took office.

MARTIN: OK. Tony Romm of The Washington Post covers all things like this, is an expert on net neutrality. No pressure, Tony, but we're going to ask you to explain these issues again.

So first off, let's talk about this suit. Why is this a priority for the Justice Department? It strikes me as sort of an odd thing for them to take interest in.

TONY ROMM: Yeah, the Trump administration wants the final word on net neutrality here. And you have to really rewind the clock to when the FCC killed these open Internet protections that were put in place under former President Barack Obama. As part of that order, the FCC said that states couldn't pass their own net neutrality rules. It explicitly pre-empted those states from doing so. Now, states did it anyway. California put its law into place. It adopted it just this past weekend. And so hours later, the Justice Department filed its lawsuit, saying it's our decision here; it's something that belongs to the federal government. And sort of inherent in all of this is a belief that the Internet crosses state lines. It would be very difficult, in the eyes of the Justice Department, to have 50 states that have 50 different sets of rules on net neutrality.

MARTIN: Right.

ROMM: But the states say, we have to do it because the federal government has decided that it's not going to do it.

INSKEEP: It's interesting, though, that the Republican Party has been the party of states' rights - in recent generations at least. But here they are pushing for federal power on an issue where this administration has a point of view.

MARTIN: Right.

ROMM: Yeah. It does seem like a little bit of a twist, doesn't it? But the Trump administration says that this is something that has to be controlled by the federal government. And once again, it's not the only time that the Justice Department has gone after California for taking it one step too far from policies that the Trump administration has enacted. That's why you've seen cases on things like immigration and carbon emissions and so forth.

MARTIN: So what does this mean? I mean, in the interim, does the state law hold? Can it keep doing what it wants to? And what are the national implications for this suit?

ROMM: Yeah. Right now it doesn't mean a whole lot because even if the Justice Department hadn't brought a case, this law wouldn't have taken effect until next year. And it isn't even the only piece of litigation that we see right now in net neutrality. California is one of about 22 states that sued the federal government immediately after it procured its repeal, saying that the repeal shouldn't have happened. It was arbitrary and capricious in the eyes of these states. And they have the support of tech companies like Facebook and Google as they proceed with that lawsuit. So both of these things have to play out, the case between the Justice Department and California over what states can do and the case over whether the repeal should have happened in the first place.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask - if California were to prevail, would they actually supplant the federal government? Would they control the country because they're just so big? They're so influential. They're the home of Silicon Valley. Their rules are going to be what the Internet firms would follow everywhere.

ROMM: Yeah. That's the potential here, that we could see California setting the standard nationally. And this has happened in many other cases. It's not just net neutrality. California just recently adopted a privacy law, for example, that controls the ways that companies like Facebook and Google collect and monetize information. The federal government doesn't have a federal consumer privacy law. So what happens there is ultimately going to set the standard for how tech companies or, in this case, Internet service providers act nationally.

MARTIN: All right, Washington Post tech policy reporter Tony Romm.

Tony, thanks as always. We appreciate it.

ROMM: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: All right, a bit of geography now. The tsunami off Indonesia last weekend washed into a long, narrow bay.

INSKEEP: And that bay acted like a kind of water pipe, a water channel, pushing the waves toward a city that was at the end. That city, Palu, is the scene of some of the worst destruction. More than 1,200 people are confirmed dead all across the island of Sulawesi.

MARTIN: James Massola of The Sydney Morning Herald is in Palu and joins us now.

James, what are you seeing?


MARTIN: Do we have James on the line? We're looking for James Massola of The Sydney Morning Herald. Clearly, communications are difficult. He is there in the city that has been at the epicenter of this tsunami, the earthquake that preceded it. The devastation there is widespread.


MARTIN: Clearly, we're having a difficult time getting a hold of him.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Let's remember a few basics here as we try to get that on the line. This is a magnitude 7.5 earthquake in this country that is part land, part water so to speak - an archipelago of islands. And about 1,234 - that's the latest count - 1,234 people are known to be dead so far, a great many of them in that city Palu at the end of that bay. And entire neighborhoods near the shoreline seem to have been wiped out.

MARTIN: And the BBC is reporting that recovery efforts have been hampered just because there was so much infrastructure that was destroyed. And people are actually having to dig out their own plots of land - removing debris, trying to find their own loved ones. I mean, this is a place that already had some infrastructure that wasn't very stable. So clearly, when a storm like this hits, it's compromising all kinds of relief efforts at this moment.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Let me give just a comparison here. I'm looking at a map that our colleagues have provided for us here, where you see whole neighborhoods that are gone. And you have a description here from The Associated Press of a lone backhoe...

MARTIN: Right. I want to interrupt you, Steve, because we do have James Back on...


MARTIN: ...The line. James, for just a moment - we only have a minute or so. But just - you are there in Palu. What is the scene?

JAMES MASSOLA: Absolute devastation. I spent the morning with a rescue team who were pulling dead bodies out of shops and houses on the beachfront where the tsunami hit first and hit hardest. There are thousands of people living in tents or sleeping on the grass outside the governor's residence, the mayor's house. It's shocking, Rachel.

MARTIN: How are the - I mean, how is the government responding? Do they have the resources to be doing this kind of relief effort, recovery effort?

MASSOLA: No. No. If it was an isolated incident, maybe. But there was a massive earthquake in Lombok, about a thousand miles away, seven weeks ago. And a lot of the resources are there. So Russia, Australia, United States and China, they're starting to send in resources to help. That will be in a couple of days' time. But at the moment, it's really a local response of about 6,000 people - volunteers (ph), police and army here. At least 60,000 refugees - it's a terrible situation, frankly.

MARTIN: OK. We are going to keep on top of this story. It's obviously - the death toll is expected to rise. James Massola with The Sydney Morning Herald there in Palu, the epicenter of where the tsunami hit in Indonesia. James, thank you so much for your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

MASSOLA: Of course. Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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