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Morning News Brief: Kelly's Power At The White House, U.S. Sanctions Venezuela's Maduro


The new White House chief of staff removed a distraction by firing Anthony Scaramucci. So what's he do with all those other distractions?


Well, John Kelly is now the new chief of staff, fresh from his job running the Department of Homeland Security. And on his first day, he said goodbye to the new communications director, who had communicated using words we will not repeat here.


CHANG: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders mentioned those comments when discussing Anthony Scaramucci's dismissal.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president certainly felt that Anthony's comments were inappropriate for a person in that position, and he didn't want to burden General Kelly also with that line of succession.

CHANG: So General Kelly is left with a president who let out another stream of tweets yesterday and a White House under investigation for ties to Russia.

INSKEEP: With us now is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK, this is the White House the president once described as a fine-tuned machine. Is it now?

MONTANARO: And it was a great day at the White House yesterday.

CHANG: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: That's what he said...

MONTANARO: Look, you know...

INSKEEP: ...By Twitter. He's still tweeting. Go on.

MONTANARO: You can say what you want to say. If you say it, it will be true, I suppose. But, you know, no, this White House has struggled to find a coherent communications strategy from day two. I mean, remember the inauguration photos?

INSKEEP: Largest crowd in history.

MONTANARO: Yeah, so, you know, that's been a difficulty for them. And for the most part, it's not the communications team's fault. It starts at the top. At every turn, professionals in the White House have been undercut, by a tweet here or an interview about firing James Comey there, from a president who thinks he's his best adviser.

INSKEEP: You mentioned James Comey. That was the situation in which Trump fired Comey. They had an excuse for firing Comey. And he said, actually, I was thinking about Russia when I did it - that sort of communication. Now, what does the White House - or what does the president want to accomplish at this moment when his first priority, changing health care, has gone down in flames?

MONTANARO: Well, and look, health care is still a part of that, as is tax reform. We know that people behind the scenes are crafting legislation, or trying to craft legislation, when it comes to tax reform. We know that John Kelly, the retired Marine general who is now the chief of staff, wants to bring some order and hierarchy. You know, this scattershot approach is not something he's comfortable with.

And he's - you know, was given a lot of leeway with Trump on day one to get rid of Scaramucci. But what happens when Trump disagrees? I mean, I think that's a big question a lot of us are asking. You know, let's think about this. How many times have people asked before, is this the pivot? Will Trump be more presidential? Look, Trump is Trump. He's a 71-year-old man. Don't expect him to change.

CHANG: And it'll be interesting to see how any chain of command that Kelly imposes - how that will affect the influence of, say, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president's son-in-law and daughter, who otherwise right now seem to have direct access to the president.

INSKEEP: Yeah, are they really going to ask John Kelly, can I talk to my dad?


INSKEEP: Or my father-in-law, in that case. One other thing, Domenico, what - you have to ask what happens when the president is faced with another story about the Russia investigation, which has gotten him very upset again and again. What's the latest report?

MONTANARO: Well, The Washington Post reported last night that the president of the United States not only had a hand in, but drafted the misleading statement about his son Donald Trump Jr. and that meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer. Ethically and legally, this was a potentially reckless decision by the president. You know, unnamed White House aides also apparently felt the same way - calling the move unnecessary.

The president feels he did nothing wrong when it comes to Russia. But he's really trotting on perilous ground here. I mean, if investigators with the special counsel's office think he was trying to mislead them and throw them off course, that could be a big problem.

INSKEEP: Not the first person to draft a misleading statement, but rare for the president to be so involved. Domenico, thanks very much.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.


INSKEEP: OK, the United States has taken action against Nicolas Maduro.

CHANG: It imposed sanctions on Venezuela's president. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained the decision yesterday.


STEVEN MNUCHIN: By sanctioning Maduro, the United States makes clear our opposition to the policies of his regime and the support for the people of Venezuela.

CHANG: All of President Maduro's assets in the U.S. will be frozen now, and Americans will be banned from doing business with him. It's not clear what assets are actually affected, but it is only the fourth time the U.S. has ever done this to a foreign leader. Maduro's government moved to rewrite his country's constitution, which prompted charges that he's becoming a dictator.

INSKEEP: And that's where we pick up the story with Gideon Long, who's joining us by Skype. He is Andean correspondent for the Financial Times. He's in Caracas. Welcome to the program.

GIDEON LONG: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Does President Maduro actually own any assets in the United States?

LONG: Well, this is one of the questions that we're asking ourselves here today. It's not clear to me how effective these sanctions will be because they are targeted sanctions against the individual. So Mr. Maduro's assets will be frozen. He'll be barred from entering the United States. But that's about it. And as you say, we don't really know what assets he has in the United States.

I think this highlights the limitations of these kind of sanctions. They're only really effective on U.S. soil. And the U.S. is considering similar sanctions against the 545 members of this new assembly, which Maduro has called. And my guess is that most of them have never been to the United States. They have no intention of going, and they don't have assets there. So the impact will be limited.

But it is highly symbolic. It shows what the United States thinks of Mr. Maduro. It's putting him in the same light as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or the leaders of North Korea. So in that sense, it is symbolic.

INSKEEP: You're mentioning some of the other very few world leaders who've been sanctioned in this way. Is there a dilemma here also for the United States though, Mr. Long, because Venezuela's government uses U.S. pressure to say, look, the United States is out to get us; you have to stick up for us?

LONG: I think that's one of the problems of any sanctions. The United States is considering sanctions against the oil industry, which could be devastating. You have to remember that oil is everything in Venezuela. It's 90 percent - 95 percent of export revenue. And the industry is in state hands. So if you cut off - if you sanction the oil industry in Venezuela, you're cutting off money which goes to subsidized food to the poor, to cheap gasoline, to cheap health care. So you have to be very careful about how you do it. And one of the problems of imposing sanctions is that it plays into this narrative, which Mr. Maduro has created, that this is all - that his problems are all down to Yankee (ph) imperialist aggression.

INSKEEP: What's it like on the streets of Caracas now that a little time has passed since the election the other day?

LONG: Things were relatively calm yesterday. There were some protests organized by the opposition. But really, we're in a wait-and-see phase. The government has said that there would be 72 hours before this new assembly is convened. So people are waiting to see what it will do and how things will play out over the next few hours.

INSKEEP: OK, Mr. Long, thanks very much, really appreciate it. Gideon Long of the Financial Times is in Caracas. He joined us via Skype.


INSKEEP: OK, the plan is more or less set to bring the Summer Olympics to the United States for the first time since 1996.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a great day.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two years ago, a crowd just like this came together, and we said the city of Los Angeles was going to compete. Well, compete we have.

CHANG: Yesterday, organizers in Los Angeles announced a deal with the International Olympic Committee for LA to host the games in 2028. LA lost out in its competition with Paris for the 2024 games, but now both cities have the Olympics. And the IOC, for the first time in a while, is quite happy about the bidding process.

INSKEEP: Which we'll discuss with NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hi, Tom.


INSKEEP: OK, so everybody says it was a great day. President Trump said it was a great day at the White House. The Olympic organizers saying a great day for Los Angeles. But is the deal really done?

GOLDMAN: It's always a great day at the Olympics...


GOLDMAN: ...Until you have the Olympics. (Laughter). The question again was?

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm sorry. Is it really done? That's my question, Tom.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Close, not yet. The LA City Council has to approve the deal, and that should happen next week. And then there's a final IOC vote next month. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said yesterday there will be 100 percent support with the IOC vote. He said no way we'll go backwards. So it's looking good.

INSKEEP: OK, so the deal is Paris 2024. And they announce it virtually the same time, Los Angeles 2028. And they're coming back to Los Angeles. They've been there a couple of times before. What's the advantage of Los Angeles? I mean, nice city, good beaches, kind of sunny, but what's the point?

GOLDMAN: So much is ready-made. You know, it's unique that way - the venues, transportation infrastructure, hospitality infrastructure. You've got athlete housing and media housing on the UCLA and USC campuses. So most everything is already built. And, of course, LA is known for throwing a great party. And make no mistake; the games are a 17-day party. So it's hard to foresee an LA Olympics failing. It's - you know, it's really the model for what the IOC wants in its Olympics.

In fact, Mayor Garcetti predicts after 2028, countries will line up to host the Olympics the way cities did after the 1984 games, which were considered a great success in LA. And for Garcetti to say this, Steve, is pretty bold because if anything, cities are fleeing from Olympics right now - worried they will be left economically plundered like Rio de Janeiro is now only a year after those games in Brazil.

INSKEEP: Could LA actually profit because their stuff is already built?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, they really could. And they're talking about a possible surplus with these games, which is simply unheard of. But that's because they really predict, you know, no cost overruns, no white-elephant facilities. It really is kind of the model.

INSKEEP: OK, a surplus of information from NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.


Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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