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News Brief: H.R. McMaster's Future, Russia Sanctions, Russian Election


President Trump says when it comes to his staff, quote, "I like conflict." And this morning, we have reports of more conflict.


Yeah. Let's just remember the timeline here. Three months ago, sources within the Trump administration told NPR that the president intended to fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. At the time, the White House denied this. Fast-forward and, this week, that is precisely what happened. Well, we may be seeing a similar story playing out with another senior administration official. It's national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. Hey, Tom.


MARTIN: What are you being told about McMaster's future?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm being told that he'll likely will leave. We don't have a timetable on that yet. Now, Trump has publicly said that he respects H.R. McMaster, but their relationship has not been an easy one. Now, there were some policy differences. H.R. favored an enduring commitment in Afghanistan. He served there for a time and actually wanted more troops sent over there. Others in the White House disagreed with that.

But there's also personality conflicts here as well. H.R. McMaster's is very aggressive. He played rugby at West Point. So we have a sense of that kind of personality - relentless. He's also a scholar. He wrote a great book on the Vietnam War called "Dereliction Of Duty." He doesn't suffer fools gladly. And people in the Army say he's all transmit, as they would put it. He likes to lecture, and that rubs some people the wrong way. And the sense is that rubs Trump the wrong way.

MARTIN: Right.

BOWMAN: So we don't get a sense when this will happen, but we're told it will likely happen.

MARTIN: It's eminent, which is really similar to what Rex Tillerson endured - right? - like, this long back and forth about is he going to be fired, is he not going to be fired, I mean, because we have been hearing these rumors about McMaster for a really long time now.

BOWMAN: We have. I was told a couple of weeks ago he definitely is leaving, but don't expect it within the next week or so. It could be a month or two. But with this White House, with the president tweeting, it could happen today. We have really no sense when it could happen.

MARTIN: Even though Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, last night sent out a tweet denying that this was in the offing, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. She said, I just spoke to the president and General H.R. McMaster. Contrary to reports, they have a good working relationship. There are no changes at the National Security Council. Of course, she didn't say there won't be any changes.

MARTIN: Right. You know this as well as I do. There were many who were close to H.R. McMaster who warned him not to take this job back when he was asked. He was reluctant.

BOWMAN: That's right. Because, you know, the president's mercurial, he doesn't have any background in military policy, foreign policy, so it was a tough job for him to take. But, again, he's very aggressive, has a big ego. I thought - you know, I'm sure he thought that he could do a pretty good job here. But, clearly, he's on his way out.

MARTIN: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for us this morning. Hey, thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.


MARTIN: President Trump has spoken openly in the past about how much respect he has for the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. But when it comes to new sanctions his administration has slapped on Russia, the president is keeping quiet.

GREENE: Yeah, he sure is. The president didn't mention these sanctions at all in two public appearances yesterday. We should say these sanctions are punishment for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and also for cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure that we hadn't heard about before. The sanctions also, of course, come during this big diplomatic fallout from Russia's apparent role in a nerve gas attack in the U.K., the one that left an ex-Russian-spy and his daughter in critical condition.

MARTIN: All right. We've got Ian Talley with us in the studio this morning. He reports on sanctions and illicit money for The Wall Street Journal - fascinating beat. Ian, thanks so much for coming in.

IAN TALLEY: Thanks, my pleasure.

MARTIN: So President Trump has had opportunities to penalize Russia before. What pushed him over the edge this time?

TALLEY: Well, the administration has in fact sanctioned Russia but not for the election meddling in particular. I think two things - one, the indictment that Mueller brought but...

MARTIN: Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted these people who are now being targeted with these sanctions.

TALLEY: Exactly. It's the same companies, the same owner, the same actors. I think the poisoning on U.K. soil of a Russian spy, a former Russian spy, Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent...

MARTIN: You think that played into this.

TALLEY: I do - well, I think that perhaps they pushed them forward. There seemed to be momentum towards - and certainly pressure - to sanction some of the Russians involved with the election meddling and cyberattacks. But I think that's perhaps what pushed them forward.

MARTIN: So we know that 19 individuals have been targeted by these sanctions. We know that they were also the subject of these indictments by Robert Mueller, but what more can you tell us about these people and the other entities sanctioned?

TALLEY: Yeah, sure. So many - some - several of the individuals and entities were already sanctioned. So Prigozhin, who is the owner of the Internet Research Agency, which was indicted by special counsel Mueller, was already sanctioned last year and in 2016 but for his engagement in helping support Russia in Ukraine. The new sanctions add to his - the Internet Research Agency, which actually did the election engineering - sorry - election interfering, the individuals who were doing the social media posts, who were trying to get people to do social media influencing.


TALLEY: And then it relists the two main Russian intelligence agencies that were involved in both the cyberattacks. There, it's two senior officials who have been added from the military agency.

MARTIN: Is this going to make a difference? I mean, does Russia care about these sanctions?

TALLEY: They care in so much of the signal that it sends. And it practically, as one source said, it's not like the FSB and the GRU, the two Russian intelligence agencies, have a Bank of America account. So it's not going to actually freeze any sort of practical applications. It's more the diplomacy, the signaling, that it sends and that the Trump administration is saying clearly and officially that Russia was responsible.

MARTIN: And there is power in that symbolism, but who knows about the practical effect down the road? Ian Talley with The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

TALLEY: My pleasure.


MARTIN: And now we're going to go to Russia where presidential elections are going to be held on Sunday.

GREENE: Yeah. Vladimir Putin is running for a fourth term as president. And guess what. He's expected to win. The first time Putin was elected president, the year was 2000. Now, let's just think about this. Babies born that year are now turning 18, which means, this year, they gain the right to vote. It is a generation that has never known a Russia without Vladimir Putin in charge. And that's not likely to change anytime soon.

MARTIN: All right. Guess who is in Russia right now. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly - of course, the co-host of All Things Considered. And she joins us now. Mary Louise, how's it going?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning. Dobroye utro from Moscow.

MARTIN: Dobroye utro.

GREENE: Very good, Mary Louise. That was perfect pronunciation.

KELLY: Yeah, you taught me that, David.


GREENE: Good Russian.

MARTIN: All right. So Vladimir Putin standing for re-election - is anyone else even running?

KELLY: They are. There are seven people running against him - none of whom stand a chance. It has to be said up front. The most prominent opponent of Putin's, Alexei Navalny, has been banned from running, which leaves these other seven. And we were at a campaign rally for one of them last night. This is Ksenia Sobchak. She had a rally. There were a few hundred people there, and there were things that were, you know, familiar to anybody who's covered the U.S. campaign trail - people wearing her Sobchak T-shirts and waving flags with the slogan spring is coming. But, you know, it's a few hundred people, and this is a country of more than 140 million.

MARTIN: Right.

KELLY: It's just really, really hard to get a turnout even for a rally, forget turnout at the polls against the Putin political machine.

MARTIN: OK. So can I ask - is Putin going to win because people genuinely think he's making their life better?

KELLY: He's going to win because it is hard to vote for anybody else here. I mean, there will be polls. They're all across the country. The Kremlin has set this goal 70-70, meaning 70 percent of the vote they want for Putin and they want at least 70 percent turnout because Putin wants to look legit. He wants to look popular. He doesn't want it to look like this is rigged. But the turnout piece of this is hard because how do you persuade Russians, whoever they support, to bother when they think the whole thing is a charade? You know, why is this a good use of my time on a Sunday? So we've been seeing here where the government's been out setting up tents at polling stations. There's going to be coffee. There's going to be food to sell. They want it to feel like a party, like this is a fun thing to do to vote. And two twists overnight worth mentioning - RBK news agency is now reporting the Kremlin says it would be happy with 65 percent, so walking back expectations a little bit. And then just this morning, new video posted to the Kremlin website Putin saying, please go vote, Russia go vote, choice is yours.

MARTIN: So if he wins, which he is guaranteed to win, he's going to be in power for - what? - another six years.

KELLY: Another six years. So people here are already talking about 2024, which seems crazy when they haven't even voted yet in 2018. But this question of - he legally can't run again, but might he be starting to think about ways to change the constitution, might he be eyeing a successor who will be groomed over these next six years? This question of what post-Putin Russia might look like is already very much on people's minds here.

MARTIN: Interesting that they are even thinking about that.

KELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reporting from Moscow to cover those elections happening there on Sunday. Mary Louise, thank you so much.

KELLY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.