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News Brief: McConnell On 2018, Lawsuit Against Trump Dismissed


Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is ending the year on a rather thoughtful note.


He's coming off a rather productive week. Republicans passed their tax overhaul bill, and Congress averted a government shutdown. None of this stopped McConnell from expressing some regrets though in an interview with NPR.


MITCH MCCONNELL: This has not been a very bipartisan year. Most of our big accomplishments we largely had to do Republicans-only.

MARTIN: McConnell says he would like to see 2018 be more bipartisan.

INSKEEP: He was talking with two NPR correspondents, Kelsey Snell and Susan Davis. And Sue is here in our studios. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What would prompt Mitch McConnell, partisan warrior, to talk about working with the other side?

DAVIS: A little bit of political reality - most likely in an election year. There is a push among some Republicans, since coming off this high of their tax cut victory, to focus on the other Republican priority of entitlement reform - or looking at mandatory federal spending programs. House Speaker Paul Ryan says he'd like to look at social welfare programs, and Mitch McConnell said he doesn't really share that enthusiasm.


MCCONNELL: I think entitlement changes, to be sustained, almost always have to be bipartisan. And I don't think, you know, one-party-only entitlement changes is something I'm interested in doing. The House may have a different agenda. If our Democratic friends in the Senate want to join us to tackle any kind of entitlement reform, I'd be happy to take a look at it.

DAVIS: Democrats, of course, have reason to maybe be a little bit cynical about Mitch McConnell's interest in bipartisanship. As he said, it has been a very bipartisan - very partisan year.


DAVIS: But, you know, he has some incentive to work with Democrats next year too.

INSKEEP: Well, you hear him saying why he would want to be bipartisan. It's the only way they can get the next things done because of the way the Senate works. Is there a bipartisan solution on the horizon for DACA, the program having to do with kids brought to this country illegally as children?

DAVIS: That is one of the potentially best examples of a way that they could get a bipartisan solution next year. There are very sincere, by all accounts, talks going on in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans about a comprehensive immigration bill. Senate - Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona says he has a commitment from Mitch McConnell to get a vote in January. And Mitch McConnell says he will bring a bill to the floor if this group of negotiators can prove it can get 60 votes.

INSKEEP: Did you get a sense in your conversation with Mitch McConnell how much trouble he thinks his party is in in the 2018 election?

DAVIS: You know, Republicans were feeling pretty good. But I think the loss in Alabama sent a reminder that you can never be too confident about your prospects, even in states where you are always pretty inclined to win. He says his message to Republicans is don't fall in love with the map. Obviously, it's a very narrow Senate right now.


DAVIS: It's a 51-49 Senate. Democrats do potentially have a path to a majority, so I think he's trying to scare his Republican colleagues into running hard. But the math still does work in Republicans' favor.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask? Mitch McConnell's a figure that gets criticized a lot on the right...

DAVIS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Gets despised on the left. But what's it actually like to talk with this guy in the Senate - in this institution that he seems to love so much?

DAVIS: He's a very deliberative person. He doesn't really tend to say anything by accident. He's not highly emotional or prone to engaging in sort of tit for tats. He also made a little bit of news as well where he said, like President Trump said at the White House on Thursday, he's kind of ready to move on from health care - that he's not as interested in trying to go to the full repeal-and-replace effort over the Affordable Care Act next year. So that was one more nod at maybe his effort to be a little bit more bipartisan.

INSKEEP: Not so much of an ideologue as he sometimes seems. Sue, thanks very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis.


INSKEEP: OK, President Trump said he wanted a tax bill by Christmas. And now he heads into the holiday weekend with that on his desk and also another - we enter something which could be described as a win.

MARTIN: Right, this was in the courts. Yesterday, a federal judge dismissed this lawsuit that had to do with President Trump's properties and business holdings, like his hotel right here in Washington, D.C. The judge declined to hear arguments that the president's business activity violates the Constitution.

INSKEEP: And that is the department of The Washington Post's Jonathan O'Connell, who's come by our studios. Good morning, sir.


INSKEEP: Would you remind us why was it that a watchdog group was suing here? What is the constitutional provision at issue?

O'CONNELL: Sure, it's a sort of obscure provision called the Emoluments Clause. It essentially prevents the president from accepting payments or compensation from foreign governments. So it was originally created to prevent, you know, taking sort of like little bribes and gifts from foreign kings, etc. And now, Mr. Trump because he is - still owns his company, and his hotel still rents space to foreign governments - embassies, diplomats, etc. - that's sort of the entry point for this good-government group and other plaintiffs to say, you are violating the Constitution's Emoluments Clause. This has never been argued in the courts before. So it's really kind of - it's un-walked territory legally. And everyone's trying to figure out exactly what you can and cannot do.

INSKEEP: Why was the suit dismissed?

O'CONNELL: Well, the judge basically said, this isn't something for me to decide. Congress should be deciding whether or not the president is accepting emoluments - whether that is OK or not. Congress should say what he should and can and cannot accept. So by the judge's ruling, it's up to Congress to decide whether these groups the president has taken at his hotel should be doing that or not.

INSKEEP: Wait. Let me make sure I understand this. And I had heard that there was a big question about what's known as standing. Did this group CREW have standing? Did they have status to actually sue? And the judge said no. But you're saying the judge said something more. Essentially nobody has standing, according to this judge, to sue. This just doesn't belong in the courts at all.

O'CONNELL: Well, certainly none of the plaintiffs in this case. It's hard - there are other cases out there. So for instance, the attorneys general in D.C. and Maryland have both brought a suit. And the hearing on that is in January. So they are going to argue that they have standing because they've been - their states or jurisdictions have been damaged separately.

INSKEEP: You have to find that you've been harmed - you have to show that you've been harmed in order to sue.

O'CONNELL: Exactly.

INSKEEP: With that said, did the judge comment at all, in any way, on the underlying merits of being president of the United States and owning a hotel where members of foreign governments are buying high-priced rooms and owning other businesses in various other countries?

O'CONNELL: He did not. And that's sort of the glimpse of hope for the other cases that are out there, in terms of other people who have sued the president over this - is that the underlying discussion about emoluments really didn't take place here. Even though it was a very prominent suit, and the attorneys working on the case for the plaintiffs were really very accomplished, and there were lots of different arguments in there, none of them were really addressed.

INSKEEP: Do you have any sense about whether the public particularly cares at this point that the president...

O'CONNELL: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: No, seriously, whether this is something that really bothers the public at large - that the president has these businesses.

MARTIN: You're laughing, so I guess no.

O'CONNELL: I appreciate all the interest in the term emoluments and people learning about it. I think to this point people are sometimes bothered by what the president does with his businesses. And to the degree that it bothers them, they should tell their congressman at this point.

INSKEEP: Oh, because this is - according to the judge, it's a political issue.


INSKEEP: Jonathan, thanks for coming by. Jonathan OConnell of The Washington Post.


INSKEEP: OK, yesterday, the Trump administration was shamed diplomatically at the United Nations. The General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to reject President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

MARTIN: President Trump talked of cutting off aid to countries that voted in favor of that U.N. resolution, but he was defied by nearly every other country in the world, including U.S. allies like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan was actually a co-sponsor of that U.N. resolution. And Pakistan gets hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. So does the U.S. make good on this threat?

INSKEEP: Let's ask NPR's Diaa Hadid, who's on the line from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. Welcome back.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hello, there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What prompted Pakistan not just to vote against the United States but to take a leading role here?

HADID: Right, well, the first reason is religious. Jerusalem is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. And for Muslims, it's the site of the third holiest shrine. That's not something that Pakistan is going to be seen as giving up so easily. And there's a broad consensus among Muslim-majority countries that Palestinians should have some sort of sovereignty there. And so I spoke to the foreign ministry spokesperson this morning, you know, who said as much. His name is Faisal Khan (ph).

INSKEEP: Let's listen.


FORIEGN MINISTRY SPOKESPERSON FAISAL KHAN: Pakistan and the people living here are majorities Muslims, and they have always espoused the cause of - causes of Muslim Ummah. And Jerusalem is one of the principal causes.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm curious about this, Diaa, because it was said that President Trump's move recognizing Jerusalem was partly domestic. It was about domestic politics here in the United States. Is there a domestic political aspect to Pakistan pushing back so hard?

HADID: Absolutely, and what analysts here say is that a part of this - especially the co-sponsoring of this bill - was to play to a domestic audience ahead of general elections that are expected in the next few months. One of the key voting groups that this government has to appeal to are right-wing religious voters, and this is a way of showing how forceful they can be on this issue.

INSKEEP: I guess they also - I guess they also get to demonstrate that they're standing up to the United States.

HADID: Oh, absolutely. This was - what do you guys call this? - like a really easy shot. This was just a really...

INSKEEP: A slam-dunk is what...

HADID: It was a slam-dunk (laughter).

INSKEEP: ...George Tenet, the CIA director, once would have said. But go on. Go on.

HADID: It's a slam-dunk. It's a really well-timed poke in the eye because, you know, relations between Pakistan and the United States have been tense. But right now, there's a sense that they've been worsening under the Trump administration. Just consider this - that the - Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Kabul yesterday, and this is what he said.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: You know, for too long, Pakistan has provided safe haven to the Taliban and many terrorist organizations. But those days are over.

HADID: OK, and so...

INSKEEP: OK, all right, go on.

HADID: You - I mean, those are long-standing accusations which Pakistan denies. But it's that sense of castigation that Pakistan is really resenting right now.

INSKEEP: And there were...

HADID: So this was a really easy chance to...

INSKEEP: To push back on.

HADID: ...Show America that it won't stand up to this sort of - that it will stand up to this sort of bullying.

INSKEEP: Diaa, thanks very much.

HADID: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "CITY LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.