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News Brief: House Contempt Vote, Iran Nuclear Deal, South Africa Election


What are the limits of executive power? It's a question at the heart of our democracy.


That's right. The Constitution suggests that Congress has the ultimate power; they can fire the president. But the president has enormous power to act or, in this case, to refuse. President Trump has told his former White House counsel not to follow a subpoena from Congress. Lawmakers want to see documents relating to the work of Don McGahn; he once resisted the president's effort to have the special counsel fired. Lawmakers also want to see the special counsel's full report, but so far Attorney General William Barr is refusing. Jerry Nadler is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.


JERRY NADLER: Yes, we will continue to negotiate for access to the full report for another couple of days, and yes, we will have no choice but to move quickly to hold the attorney general in contempt if he stalls or fails to negotiate in good faith.

INSKEEP: That was Nadler a few days ago, and now, according to Nadler, the time for that vote to hold the attorney general in contempt has arrived - as has NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's on the line. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is this conflict normal?

LIASSON: There have been conflicts many times before between Congress and the executive branch about testimony about documents. What's different and not normal about this is that this is an across-the-board refusal. The president said that he was going to fight all the subpoenas. It's Don McGahn's testimony. It's access to the full Mueller report - the underlying materials and the redactions. It's Attorney General Barr testifying before the House. It's the president's tax returns. The president has also tweeted he doesn't want Bob Mueller to testify.

And the system of separation of powers with three coequal branches of government really only works if the executive branch and the legislative branch accept that the other one is coequal; in other words, they have to respect the limits of their branch and respect the role of the other branch. And that's what's being drawn into question here.

INSKEEP: And as I understand it, that is essentially the argument the administration is making against Congress. You have no legitimate purpose to do any of these things, and therefore, we're not going to follow them.

LIASSON: That's right. That...

INSKEEP: It's the administration asserting whether Congress has has the right or not.

LIASSON: Right. At one point, the president said, I don't want people testifying to a party. It's not a party; it's the House of Representatives.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does it mean if in fact this vote goes ahead of schedule today, and this House committee votes to hold the attorney general of the United States, William Barr, in contempt of Congress?

LIASSON: Well, then I think it goes to court. The big development yesterday was that the Department of Justice told the House Judiciary Committee to either cancel the contempt vote, or it will recommend asserting executive privilege over the entire Mueller report - of course, most of it's already public - and all the underlying documents. And what that means is that, if the White House does assert executive privilege, that can be litigated, that can go to court, and that would be the next step. Instead of just delaying things and continuing to negotiate, once executive privilege is asserted, then the two sides go to court.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to understand what the ultimate power is that Congress would have here. I mean, if I was held in contempt of court by a judge, I could be jailed until I decide to follow the court's orders. I guess we're not talking about William Barr being dragged away by bailiffs or something like that.

LIASSON: Well, no, and that's important because they can - Congress can issue fines, but they don't have a constabulary. They can't put somebody in jail. They can go to court, and most legal experts say that probably Congress will win because the Constitution, as you mentioned earlier, says that Congress has oversight responsibility of the executive branch. They could dock people's salaries. They could refuse to pass legislation or raise the debt limit. There are things Congress can do. But I think we're in for a protracted legal fight.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.


INSKEEP: Needless to say, President Trump has never been a fan of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran.

KING: Exactly one year ago, Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement. It was an agreement that had largely succeeded in stopping Iran's path toward developing a nuclear weapon. Now, at the time, Iran said it would stay in the deal, but then today President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran will stop complying with some of its commitments.

INSKEEP: What's going on here? NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following this story. He's covered Iran for years. Hi, Peter.


INSKEEP: What is Iran saying they will do or, more precisely, stop doing?

KENYON: Right. President Rouhani says if things haven't gotten better economically for Iran in 60 days, it's going to return to enriching uranium to a higher level. That's important because if you've got low enriched uranium, it's good for electricity, things like that, but highly enriched uranium could go into a nuclear warhead. And as you mentioned, President Trump has never been a fan of this deal. It doesn't last forever. It doesn't deal with all the other problems the U.S. has with Iran - missiles, support for terror groups, etc. There's a whole list.

And Trump pulling the U.S. out of the deal a year ago, bringing back sanctions prompted hard-liners in Iran to argue, well, Tehran should pull out, too. Rouhani today says Iran's not prepared to do that. He says UN inspectors have confirmed it's still in compliance. But if, in a couple months, it does take these steps, the higher enrichment of fuel, that would move Tehran closer to being able to resume nuclear weapons work if it wants to, and that's a nonproliferation worry (ph).

INSKEEP: A couple of important distinctions that I'm hearing in what you're saying, Peter - first, it sounds like Iran has not stopped complying; now they are threatening to do so.


INSKEEP: And second, you're saying that Iran wants economic improvement. That was the original deal, right? Iran would limit its nuclear program...


INSKEEP: ...In return for more normal economic relations with the rest of the world, which is what the U.S. is now trying to block, right?

KENYON: Exactly. And there are five other countries in this deal who have been saying all along they're trying to find ways to keep trade with Iran going and protect companies who want to do business with Iran and the U.S. So far that's been less than impressive, not very effective. Basically, banks and big companies who do business with both countries or might do business with both countries don't want to lose the American market for a much smaller Iranian economy.

INSKEEP: What do we watch for over the next 60 days, then?

KENYON: Well, it's possible that this move will breathe new life into these efforts by Russia, China and European countries to keep the deal alive. Iran's foreign minister flew to Moscow this week to see what he could find out. Will we see new efforts to protect companies who want to do business with Iran? And if so, how might the Trump administration respond to that? What we've seen so far is not especially encouraging. Iran is going to start keeping more low enriched uranium, also heavy water - that could put it out of compliance - and then there's this higher enrichment in 60 days. So the bottom line is, this maximum pressure campaign from Washington, where's it going to lead?

INSKEEP: Complicated story; Peter, thanks for making it clear for us.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon.


INSKEEP: Today South Africans are voting in parliamentary and provincial elections.

KING: That's right - big elections. The governing African National Congress has been in charge in South Africa for the past 25 years, when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president. But a lot of people there feel his ANC party, which has been mired in corruption, has just come up short, failing to fully deliver on promises like basic needs, services and jobs.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in South Africa in Johannesburg. Hi there, Ofeibea. Where are you exactly?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings. Greetings from Rosebank Primary School, where two little girls - one black, one white - were racing up and down the forecourt with Georgie (ph), a golden retriever, who's come with his owners to vote this morning. So there's - you know, it's a public holiday here. So people are cool, and people are lining up or waiting to vote.

INSKEEP: OK. So what are you seeing there, and what are you hearing?

KING: It depends who you speak to. Black, white, the different races here in South Africa - some say, we stay with the status quo, which is the governing ANC, despite the fact that the ANC is seen to have been corrupt, mired in influence peddling and so on. And that's the view of Nkosikhulule Nyembezi (ph). And he says, as long as people end up in court and on trial and in jail for cheating and looting, that's a good thing. But he says, you know, South Africa is a young republic after 25 years, and that's why we must give this country a chance. Have a listen.

NKOSIKHULULE NYEMBEZI: It's like a human being, teenage democracy. You show adolescence. You want to show your identity and your personality. So 25 years after democracy, it's maturing. Here's an adult, a young adult, beginning to take decisions. Because the troubling thing is that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening.

INSKEEP: Ofeibea, I want to ask about the African National Congress. We mentioned their history. We mentioned their background in the opening up of South Africa, in the ending of apartheid. It's given them so much credibility, which raises a question - even if people are dissatisfied with their government, is there a real, credible opposition?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, that's the problem. There is an official opposition, and it is controlling. It is in charge in a couple of key provinces here in South Africa. Now, the ANC's support has been sliding over the years for these very many reasons. Not only corruption, which dates back 10 years under disgraced President Jacob Zuma, but also because many feel that the ANC has not fully delivered on its pledges for a better life for all South Africans. And of course, that means jobs. Youth unemployment is so high.

It also means housing, electricity and, of course, this very sensitive issue of land reform and land distribution because, of course, most of the land in South Africa is owned by white people and not the majority black. So those are the sorts of issues South Africans are dealing with. Some say the ANC is the party to continue with; others say no, give others a chance. They've had 25 years, and they've let us down.

INSKEEP: Is this seen clearly as a referendum on the ANC, then?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, definitely. People are saying this is a defining vote. A quarter of a century after Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first democratically elected president here, the first black president, people say, yes, this is the record card of the ANC, and they have been found wanting. But, you know, we'll see when the results come out. I'm not in Congo. I'm not in Nigeria. The elections have happened - not postponed - and South Africa's results will be known pretty soon.

INSKEEP: Ofeibea, it's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you. Ciao.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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