News Brief: Britain Trip, Antitrust Crackdown, Impeachment Debate

Jun 4, 2019
Originally published on June 5, 2019 6:41 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For a state visit to the U.K., President Trump put on formal wear and offered formal words.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I offer a toast to the eternal friendship of our people, the vitality of our nations.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That was the president speaking inside Buckingham Palace last night, raising a glass to the queen and the special relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain. Outside the palace, protesters will be raising signs during several anti-Trump rallies happening today. During the state visit, the president has been on Twitter jabbing at Mexico and suggesting that people boycott the company that owns CNN. The president has also weighed in on British politics.

INSKEEP: So much to discuss with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the president saying?

LIASSON: The president is saying a lot of things that he would be very unhappy if another foreign leader came to the U.S. and did something similar. But he has waded into British politics. This is something he's done before when he's visited England. He has spoke very highly of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Those are two politicians who - at least Boris Johnson wants to succeed Theresa May.

It's possible that he actually has hurt Johnson's chances to be the next prime minister because, as you mentioned, Donald Trump is very unpopular in England. He has a 70% disapproval rating. And there are going to be big protests today, lots of people in the street and a big baby in a diaper balloon flying overhead.

INSKEEP: Which has been getting lots of attention on social media.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: The president, of course, has been speaking up on Brexit for a long time, generally favorably; it's a very divisive issue in Britain to say the least. What's he offering, though, in the way of a solution?

LIASSON: He's not really offering anything in the way of the solution. He has said he is in favor of a no-deal Brexit. He wants England to just pull out or walk away, as he says. He has dangled the idea of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Britain once they're out of the EU. But that's going to be very hard for him to deliver because he is fighting multiple trade wars against China, Mexico. And his own trade agenda is in turmoil at home because of that.

INSKEEP: So he's able to offer that trade deal at the length of a tweet. But offering the trade deal on the length of an actual trade deal might be a little more complicated.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: So what else is on the president's agenda?

LIASSON: Well, there are a lot of things on the agenda. Despite all those nice words reaffirming the special relationship, the U.S. and Great Britain are at odds over the Iran nuclear deal, which President Trump has exited. They disagree about using telecom equipment from the Chinese company Huawei. The U.S. is having a very hard time convincing its European allies to boycott that company over national security questions.

Then there is climate change. The U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. England, like the rest of the United States' allies, has stayed in. And experts say they can't think of a time that there has been so many deep differences and strains between these two countries who are supposed to be the closest of allies.

INSKEEP: Supposed to be the closest of allies, but the United States is the larger one and the more powerful one. And that's not something that this president, in his style, is liable to not mention. He expects things to go his way.

LIASSON: He does, although he can't always get them to go his way, as we see in issue after issue.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

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INSKEEP: OK. Billions of people use one of these companies or all of them - Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook. And now all face questions from the United States government about their power and reach.

MARTIN: Yeah. House lawmakers are planning to investigate whether big tech companies have gotten too big and too powerful to the point that they're doing a disservice to consumers. And the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are setting their sights on these companies, too, which could mean more oversight.

INSKEEP: Washington Post tech policy reporter Tony Romm has covered this extensively. He's in our studios. Good morning. Thanks for coming by.

TONY ROMM: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is Congress doing first to investigate these companies?

ROMM: Yeah. Congress is asking this question - are big tech companies too big? And I think, realistically, for some of these companies, like Facebook and Google and Amazon and Apple, the walls are sort of closing in here in Washington.

We've heard lots of theoretical issues raised by academics and tech company critics that these companies harm competition, that they harm consumers. But now lawmakers are getting into the thick of it. They're asking these questions. They plan to obtain documents from the companies, even by subpoena if necessary. They plan to bring some of these top tech executives to Washington for what could be another round of public testimony.

And at the end of the day, if you talk to lawmakers like David Cicilline, the top Democrat who runs the House Judiciary Committee's competition panel, the goal is to figure out whether the U.S. government's antitrust laws are really up to snuff and to adapt them if necessary.

INSKEEP: Of course, it's the Trump administration that is charged with enforcing those antitrust laws. Is the administration looking at these companies?

ROMM: They're certainly starting to look at these companies - at least according to some of the reports that we and others have put out in the past few days. There's been this quiet divvying up of sorts that's happened at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. government's two major antitrust enforcement agencies, that would see, you know, Amazon taken on by the Federal Trade Commission, for example, and Google shifted over to the Department of Justice.

Now, these things don't immediately suggest there's going to be some wide-ranging, multi-year investigation opened up and some breakup of these big tech giants in the imminent future. But these sort of steps suggest that the agencies are getting much more serious about antitrust in big tech.

INSKEEP: Well, when we talk about antitrust, of course, we're talking about monopolies or functional monopolies, companies that are just too dominant. Can you help explain what the case would be against these firms? I get that Apple is really big, but I can buy a different phone. I get that Google is really big, but I can use a different search engine. Amazon and Facebook, of course, are huge, but there are other platforms out there. What is the case against them?

ROMM: Yeah. It all depends on who you ask. Right? These companies say that they're certainly great, you know? They're not causing trouble for competition and consumers. And they point to the fact that consumers love to own and use these devices and services. But then there's this whole crop of critics who point to specific things that these companies have done that they say stifle competition.

So take Google, for example. Yes, it's a very powerful, widely used search engine. But in the eyes of some of its critics, it gives better placement in search results to its products over its rivals. That's the sort of thing that European Union regulators have looked at and have issued one of many fines against Google for having done.

The same thing could be said, perhaps, of Apple. You know, the company has an App Store; that's how you go onto your iPhone and you download games and other sorts of software. But there are lots of critics, like the streaming service Spotify, that say that Apple uses this App Store as a choke point against those that offer services that rival Apple's.

So it's these individual examples that I think prompt these calls for antitrust regulation.

INSKEEP: This is the kind of thing that Elizabeth Warren, the presidential candidate, has been talking about, as well, specifically with Amazon - right? - the idea that Amazon sells other people's products in a way that advantages products that Amazon itself sells on the same platform.

ROMM: Absolutely. And Warren is perhaps the most aggressive of this 2020 field in calling for more antitrust scrutiny of big tech.

INSKEEP: OK, just the beginning of the discussion here. It'll be a long argument. We'll hear many voices in it. Tony, thanks so much for coming by.

ROMM: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Tony Romm of The Washington Post. And we should mention that Amazon, Facebook and Google are all funders of NPR.

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INSKEEP: OK. Recess is over for the House of Representatives today. And lawmakers return after a week of hearing calls to start impeachment proceedings against the president.

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NANCY PELOSI: Why is it that the president won't defend our democracy from this foreign threat? What is the president covering up?

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PELOSI: The Mueller report revealed...

MARTIN: That's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi trying to talk over literal calls for impeachment during a speech to Democrats in her home state of California over the weekend. Nearly a week after special counsel Robert Mueller broke his silence on the Russia probe and whether the President obstructed justice, are more lawmakers or more voters making the same call?

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak covers national security and politics. He's here in our studios. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should explain that Nancy Pelosi is not a fan of impeachment right now. But you get a sense from the boos of the crowd, the howls of the crowd, that more people might be ready for that than she would like. So what's the consensus among House Democrats?

MAK: So among House Democrats, nearly 60 are calling now for the start of an impeachment inquiry into the president. That number includes more than half of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, where impeachment proceedings would originate. But it's important to remember that there are 300 - sorry - there are 235 Democrats in the House of Representatives. So those calling for an impeachment represent a vocal and sizable group, but they're still a minority...

INSKEEP: Right.

MAK: ...Among Democrats in the House. And so you hear - you get the sense there's this Tension. House leaders like Nancy Pelosi have been trying to tamp down talk about impeachment.

INSKEEP: One question, of course, for lawmakers is, what are their constituents telling them? What are you hearing from voters when you have traveled to one particular place, New Jersey?

MAK: Right. So we decided to zoom in on the swing districts that Democrats will need to win again in order to retain the House majority after 2020. We spoke to a number of voters about impeachment in these critical areas. Here, for example, is Barbara Petriello (ph). She's from Brick, N.J.

BARBARA PETRIELLO: So it scares me that we would be focusing so much on impeachment that - rather than safety and the issues that are really much more important to people sitting around the kitchen table.

MAK: So we found this kind of sentiment pretty common. Even among Democrats who support impeachment, a lot of voters told us they didn't really rank it high on their list of priorities. There's a little bit of a concern that impeachment could take up a lot of oxygen and prevent Congress from making any progress on other issues. And polling does support that - that the country as a whole doesn't support impeachment at this point. A recent CNN poll showed that support for impeachment was up slightly, but 54% of the country is still against impeachment.

INSKEEP: You know, you heard Barbara Petriello there say safety. She used the word - that was the thing that was concerning to her. But I'm trying to figure out what that issue is. What's she afraid of? And more broadly, what are things that voters are saying they are concerned about?

MAK: Well, we talked to her at greater length, obviously. And she talked about her own personal safety in her neighborhood. She talked about her paycheck, the issue of health care, whether kids in Brick, N.J., and other places in New Jersey are getting a good education, college loans. Those are the sorts of things that are on her mind, and we heard that over and over again.

We also got the sense from voters that they didn't have a lot of bandwidth to think about these big issues, presidential politics and impeachment. And they wanted to focus on things that had a direct impact on their lives on a day-to-day level.

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak.

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