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News Brief: Robert Mueller, DOJ's Tech Review, Pa. School's Lunch Debt


What can Robert Mueller add to the 448 pages of his written report?


We find out today as he takes questions before two congressional committees. The former special counsel spent almost two years examining Russia's interference in the election and confirmed it. He also examined possible obstruction of justice by the president. Mueller found numerous acts but said a sitting president could not be indicted. Having said that, he explicitly appealed to Congress not to call him to testify.


ROBERT MUELLER: Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. And the report is my testimony.

INSKEEP: Or it was, until today.

KING: NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been covering this investigation from the beginning. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello there.

KING: So everybody wants something today, right? Let's run down the list. What do the Democrats want from Robert Mueller?

LUCAS: Well, Democrats have been angling for this day for a very long time. They were actually yesterday holding a mock testimony with aides to prepare for it. So there's been a lot of buildup. But as of late, there's also been an attempt to kind of tamp down expectations as to what we would hear from Mueller. Mueller, of course, is famously straight-edged. He's made clear, as we heard, that he didn't want to testify, doesn't want to stray beyond what's in his report.

Speaking to Democrats last night, they say, that's OK. Remember, Mueller's final report, it's very long. It's dense. It's written by lawyers. It's not approachable for a lot of people. And it's not something that a lot of Americans have read. Democrats think that having Mueller speak in public on TV with clips that will run on loop on cable will reach a far greater number of Americans than his written report has to this point.

They want to use their time to focus on several episodes of possible - of obstruction of justice by the president. They also plan to dig in on contacts between Trump associates and Russians that are documented in the report, put a spotlight on the campaign's willingness to accept Russian help. They want to highlight those things, bring them to life for the American people.

KING: OK. So the Democrats hoping to get a lot out of today's testimony. What do Republicans want?

LUCAS: In many ways, for Republicans, the status quo is a good thing. They want to protect the president. They want to emphasize the fact that Mueller did not charge anyone for conspiring with Russia. They're also expected to raise questions about the integrity, the even-handedness of the investigation itself. They have been pushing allegations of political bias on Mueller's team for months. We've heard that over and over from them. They've also alleged that the FBI committed surveillance abuses against the Trump campaign. Some of the president's most ardent supporters are on these committees, and they may go after Mueller on those exact issues.

KING: So he's going to appear before two committees today, House Judiciary and House Intelligence. We're expecting about five hours of testimony in all. Are we going to hear Robert Mueller say anything new?

LUCAS: That's a good question. And frankly, it's pretty much up to Robert Mueller himself. He has made clear, as we said, doesn't want to be here, doesn't want to testify, doesn't want to say anything beyond what is in the report. The Justice Department in fact sent him a letter with guidance this week that his testimony should not go beyond what's in the report. That includes discussions about investigative steps or decisions that his team made, which is something that Democrats have expressed interest in.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, sent Mueller a letter yesterday lambasting the DOJ about this, said the administration was essentially trying to obstruct a legitimate congressional investigation. And he said it should have no impact on Mueller's testimony. It would be a major accomplishment for either side to get something new out of Mueller. But again, neither side is really banking on that.

KING: And just really quickly, Mueller did something interesting here. He asked for one of his top aides to sit next to him today and assist him. What's the significance there?

LUCAS: Right. That top aide is Aaron Zebley. He will be at the hearings today, caused a lot of stir on the Hill. But what this may boil down to is essentially big, sprawling investigation, Mueller may need some help with the details.

KING: OK. NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

KING: And you can follow more special coverage of the Mueller hearing on NPR member stations, npr.org and later today on All Things Considered.


KING: OK. The Justice Department says it is investigating the power of some big tech companies.

INSKEEP: It's an antitrust investigation. In announcing this probe, federal prosecutors did not name names. But they seem to be talking about the likes of Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Google, the really big ones. Congress has already been questioning those companies over privacy protections, allegations of bias and the spread of false information.

KING: NPR tech correspondent Aarti Shahani is on the line from Silicon Valley. Hey, Aarti.


KING: All right. So let's start with this antitrust review. That was the DOJ's words. What does that mean? What are they looking into?

SHAHANI: So the key issue is whether these companies we all know and use are stifling competition. There's a school of thought that says if a product is free, that's fantastic for consumers. You can't beat free. Who cares if its maker is a monopoly? But that is coming under attack with this other school, that free isn't really free.

In the case of Facebook or Google, the user who provides the data has been turned into the unwitting product. In the case of Amazon, small businesses that sell on the platform have to pay to play, advertise to be seen. And then their data gets turned into corporate intelligence for Amazon to drive them out of business. Apple may be giving its developers who are the heart and soul of the App Store a raw deal. So the Justice Department is going to look into whether small businesses, would-be startups and consumers are getting harmed and also how these companies got to be so big. Were laws violated along the way?

KING: So have any of the companies said anything about this?

SHAHANI: In response to NPR's inquiry, Google pointed to its testimony in Congress last week. Google's head of economic policy made the case that his company creates lots of opportunity for others. Its advertising tools have helped small businesses grow, and its employees have gone on to build more than 2,000 startups. In the case of Amazon and Apple, they didn't immediately respond to NPR's request. But Apple made the case that its App Store is safe and trusted for customers and also great for developers. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has pointed out that other businesses are selling more to customers on his site than Amazon is.

Facebook declined to comment, though they have also said before they face vigorous competition from other platforms. I would note, at two separate hearings, also last week, one of Facebook's leaders was making the case that regulators should let the company make its own digital currency. So while the government's worried about tech giants being too big, Facebook is trying to get way bigger.

KING: Facebucks (ph) - Libra, actually.

SHAHANI: Yes. There you go.

KING: All right. So now that this review is underway, what's, like, the next step? What happens next?

SHAHANI: This isn't a quick turnaround. There's no clear timeline on how long the Justice Department will take. And two examples from the past point to wildly different outcomes. AT&T, which started with a DOJ review, was formerly broken up. Microsoft, also brought into court and lost, ultimately was not broken up. So what we know for sure is that big tech will stay a major political issue throughout the coming months.

KING: NPR's Aarti Shahani. We'll be talking to you later today. Thanks again, Aarti.

SHAHANI: Thank you.


KING: All right. We have an update now on a Pennsylvania school district that threatened families over unpaid student lunch debt.

INSKEEP: It's the Wyoming Valley West School District outside of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Dozens of parents there owed the school a total of $22,000 for lunches. Officials threatened to put kids in foster care if their parents did not pay. Since NPR first reported the school's debt collection efforts, several donors have stepped forward to settle the cafeteria tab. But that has not ended the story.

KING: NPR reporter Bobby Allyn has been chasing this story down. Hey, Bobby.


KING: So someone offered to pay the debt for the kids. Who was it?

ALLYN: So five people actually stepped forward to clear this tab. And one of them was a prominent media figure who wants to remain anonymous...

KING: Fair.

ALLYN: ...But, you know, was so outraged by this story that tried to reach out to these school officials and, you know, get rid of this delinquent meal debt. But county officials are not responding.

KING: They're not responding - they're - so people have come forward and said, we'll pay the kids' debt, and the school's just got nothing to say about that?

ALLYN: Yeah. It's the really weird part. A lot of people, when they first heard that, you know, there were donors out there who were willing to get rid of this school debt, that that would be the end of the story. But now we know that, no, (laughter) that's not the end of the story. And, in fact, besides the prominent media figure who I just mentioned who wants to take care of this debt anonymously, there's another person who tried to intervene who actually had the same exact experience.

It's this guy, Todd Carmichael. And he's the chief executive of the coffee roasting company La Colombe. They're based in Philadelphia. And he told me about growing up poor and being raised, we know, with three siblings by a single mother outside of Spokane, Wash. And he said, you know, being shamed about not having enough money to pay for a meal is something he actually experienced as a kid himself. And threatening to take parents away, to - or, you know, threatening to take kids away from their parents is just something that made him really, really angry.

TODD CARMICHAEL: You know, you're threatening people who are struggling with taking their children because they can't pay for the hot lunch. This kind of drives against everything that I believe is decent and good and American and friendly and neighborly and who we are as a people.

KING: I mean, I know you've been talking to school officials. Do you have any idea why they're just blowing off these donors?

ALLYN: It's really hard to say because officials have gone into bunker mode. I mean, I have contacted them seven, eight times over the past day, and they're just not getting back to me. You know, Carmichael and the other donors say they're just mystified about this whole situation. I mean, the district, Wyoming Valley West, which is in the Poconos area, you know, is one of the poorest in Pennsylvania. So you'd think officials there would be receptive to donations worth tens of thousands of dollars, right?

KING: Yeah.

ALLYN: But Carmichael has his own theory about what's really going on here. He says this really isn't about money at all. He thinks it's about teaching people who are struggling some kind of moral lesson, no matter what the consequences are.

KING: Oh, that is interesting. All right. Just quickly, are parents still getting the threatening letters, or have they stopped coming?

ALLYN: No. County officials sent a cease and desist letter and said the school can no longer use this threatening language. The school did say that they will not do that anymore. And what's interesting is, though this ignited a national firestorm, you know, when I did have a chance to talk to the school officials, they said many locals there actually supported the letter.

KING: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks so much.

ALLYN: Hey, thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that NPR's Aarti Shahani was in Silicon Valley. In fact, she was in New York.]

(SOUNDBITE OF LITE'S "4MG WARMTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 24, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we incorrectly say that NPR's Aarti Shahani was in Silicon Valley. In fact, she was in New York.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.