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News Brief: Rep. Steve King, William Barr, Brexit Vote

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Punishment in Congress has been a long time coming for Republican Steve King.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. Long before his latest troubles, the Iowa congressman had a history of remarks about immigrants and about people of color. He referred to people from Mexico as, quote, "dirt." He endorsed a political candidate linked with neo-Nazis, saying she supports, quote, "Western civilization" and, quote, "our values." He narrowly won re-election last fall amid questions about his views of Jews and others.

Now House Republicans have stripped him of his committee assignments after he questioned why white supremacy is offensive. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced this move following a meeting of the Republican Steering Committee.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: It was a unanimous decision from steering in light of the comments.

INSKEEP: Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters has followed King's career for years and is on the line.

Hi there, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I got a question here of fact. Critics of this move have essentially said - OK, so Republicans are acting, but why would they even bother because they have looked the other way to so many remarks in the past? If you follow Steve King for years as you have - his career for years, is it true that he talks this way all the time?

MASTERS: He does. Covering Congressman King over the years, he has a history of saying offensive things. I mean, I have a running list of them. We could go over them. It'd take up quite a bit of time. But top Republicans in the state, time after time again - from the governor to the party chair and the U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst - then regularly call out these remarks and say it does not represent their values. But that's kind of where it stopped. And now it's a new Congress. And it's getting much more mainstream attention, I think largely because these comments were published in The New York Times. New Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney, the onetime Republican presidential candidate, even called on King to step down.

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MITT ROMNEY: He ought to resign and move on and let someone else, who represents American values, take his seat.

MASTERS: And a big one - Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying silence on this kind of rhetoric damages the party. And Scott's seen as a rising star in the GOP by many.

INSKEEP: And we should just mention Tim Scott is African-American - one of relatively few top officials on the Republican side who are African-American - so his words carry a bit of extra weight in a situation like this. Now, we mentioned that King is being stripped of his committee assignments. What does that mean exactly?

MASTERS: Well, Congressman King was on the agriculture committee and the judiciary committee - I'm sure you're aware agriculture is a big industry in Iowa and especially in the district he represents - the judiciary committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration, voting rights, impeachment, these kinds of things, and the small business committee. And then again, you know, this was a unanimous decision from the steering committee, as you mentioned.

INSKEEP: Didn't Steve King take to the floor of the House the other day and say, wait a minute, my remarks - he didn't say he was misquoted quite precisely, but he suggested there was something wrong about - he made the mistake of talking to the media and that he was misunderstood in some fashion.

MASTERS: Yeah. He says the quote was mischaracterized in The New York Times. And reports have shown him walking out of the meeting with Representative McCarthy in silence. I'm in Des Moines, not in D.C., so I saw it on Twitter and not in person. But he walked to the elevator while news media followed him asking questions, and he really didn't say a word. Again, he says the quote was mischaracterized. And he also says, in the statement that he released yesterday, he will continue to point out the truth and work with all the vigor that he has to represent the district for at least the next two years.

INSKEEP: Although when we say point out the truth, we should underline - remark after remark after remark over years from Steve King suggests his basic beliefs are that Western civilization is threatened by immigration, that it has something to do with birthrates, that people from different countries can't uphold it. These are things he's said again and again and again, right?

MASTERS: That's right.

INSKEEP: Clay, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

MASTERS: All right. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio.

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INSKEEP: William Barr faces questions before the Senate today. His hearing for the post of attorney general underlines the complexities of the job he is seeking because, in effect, he would have multiple masters.

GREENE: Yeah. That's a good way to put it because under the Constitution, he is appointed by the president. But he has to be confirmed by the Senate. He's answerable to Congress. And above all, he is supposed to enforce the law in this job. Now, senators want to know how Barr will handle these conflicting forces. If he's confirmed, he would oversee the special counsel's investigation of Russian involvement in U.S. politics, an investigation that is increasingly involving his boss. Now, we should say, Barr was attorney general once before, but that was a much less troubled time.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering his effort to become attorney general once again. He's in our studios.

Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What do we need to know about the background of William Barr?

LUCAS: Well, he is very much an establishment Republican lawyer. As you said, he served as attorney general once before. That was from 1991 to 1993. So he would bring experience to the job. He also held other senior positions at the Justice Department, including the head of the Office of Legal Counsel as well as deputy attorney general. So he knows the institution. And people who worked there with him say that he does care deeply about the Justice Department. He would be taking over from acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker who stepped in on a temporary basis after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped down under a lot of pressure from the White House.

INSKEEP: That resume would make him sound like a noncontroversial choice at a controversial moment - except for some remarks that he has made about the special counsel's investigation. What has he said?

LUCAS: Well, this is really going to be the focus of these confirmation hearings for Democrats in their questions for Barr. And what he said that has really grabbed Democrats' attention is there's an unsolicited memo that Barr wrote, basically, last year to the Justice Department. And in that memo, he essentially says that Mueller would be wrong to pursue an obstruction of justice case against Trump tied to Trump's firing of then-FBI Director James Comey.

Now, we learned last night from a letter that Barr sent to the committee chairman that Barr shared that memo or discussed it with several people, including many of President Trump's lawyers as well as the man who is now the White House counsel. Now, Barr was a private citizen at the time that he wrote the memo. He says the memo was based solely on information that was in the media, that he wrote it on his own. Still, for many Democrats, some have said that they want Barr to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. They've called, at a minimum, for him to commit to allow it to proceed unimpeded. And they want him to promise to release to Congress and the American public the final report that Mueller's expected to...

INSKEEP: OK. That's a list - recuse yourself, stay out of the investigation and release this public report or make sure the report becomes public. Is he likely to do those things?

LUCAS: Some of them perhaps - but he's very unlikely to recuse himself. That's something that Sessions came under a lot of pressure from the president for doing. In a copy of Barr's written testimony that was released yesterday, Barr stops well short of recusing himself. He does say, though, that it's vitally important that Mueller be allowed to finish this investigation. He says the country needs answers. He vowed to be independent, not to interfere in Mueller's probe. And he said the public and Congress need to be informed of Mueller's results. He said his goal was to be as transparent as he can consistent with the law. And that, of course, fell far short of what Democrats wanted to hear.

INSKEEP: Can Democrats stop him if they choose to?

LUCAS: The math is very much on the side of the GOP. They do have the numbers to get get him confirmed. And GOP support at this point has been quite solid.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas, we'll be listening for your reporting as the confirmation hearings go forward. Thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: OK. The big vote on Brexit is supposed to take place, finally, in Parliament today.

GREENE: Yeah. And it is not looking good at all for Prime Minister Theresa May. The unpopular deal on the table is expected to fail in a Parliament vote. In a last push to sell her plan, May warned of dire consequences if this doesn't pass.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Fail and we face the risk of leaving without a deal or the even bigger risk of not leaving at all.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering this drama from London. Hi there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. When last you discussed this vote with us some weeks ago, it was put off because losing would be such a total disaster for Theresa May. Did she make any progress in the last hours toward avoiding defeat this time?

LANGFITT: I don't think people think so. You know, Parliament's had a long time to think this through. And it looks like there's a lot of opposition. We just don't know exactly how much. The vote's going to be at 7 p.m. London time, 2 p.m. Washington time. And the question really is how much she does lose by and then what the implications of that. If it's 20-30, which an MP estimated to me on Friday - although that seems generous - she could try to go back to the EU and get more concessions. But that doesn't seem very likely since Brussels been saying for weeks, no more negotiations.

If it's a larger number, you know, Brexit process could go in any number of directions. The U.K. could try to delay it. They could walk away from the EU, which she was just talking about there, and pay the economic price. Or the big thing would be - you know, do you take Brexit back to the people for a second referendum?

INSKEEP: And just say - oh, gosh - nevermind. Let's...

LANGFITT: Not even nevermind, Steve, but more like - hey, you want to think this one through again?

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Is that really possible?

LANGFITT: It is possible. If you asked me six weeks ago, I would've probably said, nah, it's not going to happen. But this has been such a mess. And I think, also, it's gone so badly in terms of the political process that more and more members of Parliament - who, remember, were always kind of for remaining in the EU to begin with - are talking about this. But tonight, depending on what happens, I mean, the country could head in any number of directions.

INSKEEP: Now, that is an interesting point, Frank Langfitt. We have a bunch of lawmakers who are going to vote down a Brexit deal - at least according to the prognosticators. And a lot of them, you're pointing out, if you ask them privately...

LANGFITT: Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...They don't favor Brexit at all.

LANGFITT: No, they didn't. You had a split in the country in 2016. It was 52-48 in the populace, the people who voted, to leave. But it was very well known that members of Parliament did not want to leave the European Union. And the reason for that is there have been a lot of economic benefits, of course, and also, it would take this island nation out of a gigantic trading bloc, which is an enormous economy that gives them a lot of leverage economically in terms of cutting trade deals.

INSKEEP: Has the polling support for Brexit been sustained even amid all of this revelation of how difficult it is? Is there still about half the country, give or take, that's for this?

LANGFITT: You know, that's a great question, Steve. But I think people would say there's been a split now that it's gone 52 to remain, 48 to leave. But people are so concerned about another vote and that it would be antidemocratic that even Remainers might vote to leave because they would agree with the Prime Minister that it's just not fair. You don't redo - you don't get do-overs in democracy.

INSKEEP: Wow.

Frank, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.