News Brief: Roger Stone, Huawei Probe, Venezuela Sanctions

Jan 29, 2019
Originally published on January 29, 2019 8:51 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We know Roger Stone's public position. Now, what is his legal defense?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, President Trump's longtime friend and adviser is scheduled to be arraigned today. He was arrested Friday - accused of lying to Congress, witness tampering and more. Since Stone's arrest. He has gone on TV multiple times. And yesterday on Fox, he echoed President Trump's words about Russia's effort to sway the election.

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ROGER STONE: I am not going to testify against him because I possess no negative information. There is no Russian collusion. This is a witch hunt.

MARTIN: The federal indictment described Stone acting as a conduit between the 2016 Trump campaign and the organization of WikiLeaks.

INSKEEP: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why would Stone be so public about his defense in just this way?

LUCAS: Well, first of all, no one has ever accused Roger Stone of being a shrinking violet.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

LUCAS: It's just not his personality. This is a man who is a self-described political dirty trickster. He loves a political fight. He loves the spectacle. Remember...

INSKEEP: And Donald Trump fired him as a campaign adviser. We should just note for a moment - he said Roger Stone was too much about himself. Donald Trump felt that Roger Stone was too much about himself. Anyway, go on. Go on.

LUCAS: Anyway, so remember after his court hearing Stone stepped out of - after his court here in Florida, Stone stepped out on the courthouse steps, flashed that V for victory sign that Richard Nixon made famous.

INSKEEP: Right.

LUCAS: Stone has used his own Instagram account since his arrest on Friday to mock Robert Mueller and his investigation. As for the TV interviews, Stone has used those to take aim at the FBI and Mueller. He has argued that having heavily armed FBI agents knock on his door first thing in the morning, take him into custody - that that was an abuse of power. I will say that legal experts say that what the FBI did was actually pretty standard in a case in which prosecutors have concerns that a defendant could tamper or destroy evidence. Stone has also used his TV appearances to appeal for money to help his defense fund.

INSKEEP: OK, so he gets his side of the story out. He asks for a little bit of help for the lawyers. Now, he's in court presumably with a lawyer. What happens in an arraignment by the way?

LUCAS: Well, he will be read the charges. There are seven counts in this indictment against him. Those include obstruction of an official proceeding, witness tampering and making false statements. The allegations all relate to efforts that Stone made to contact WikiLeaks about hacked Democratic emails during the campaign to find out what WikiLeaks planned to do with those materials. And Stone also tried to keep some of those efforts about those contacts secret.

Stone will enter a plea today. He has said over the past few days that he will plead not guilty. The magistrate judge could impose a gag order in this case. That's something that we saw in Paul Manafort's case in D.C. here. That's what will take place inside the courthouse. Now, I'm also very curious to see what is going to transpire outside the courthouse. You remember the scene in Florida on Friday - this raucous scene with the crowd jeering Stone, chants of lock him up. It will be interesting to see if we see something akin to that here in D.C.

INSKEEP: Another thing that will be interesting to see is what exactly is meant by a statement by the acting attorney general that the Mueller investigation will be finishing soon. What exactly did he say?

LUCAS: Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was asked about the Russia investigation at a news conference yesterday. He said that he's fully briefed on the investigation. And then he added this.

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MATTHEW WHITAKER: The investigation is, I think, close to being completed. And I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller as soon as we - as possible.

LUCAS: This is the first we've heard anything like this from a senior Justice Department official. This is not a concrete timeline. Whitaker did not define what he meant by close. But this is the first thing that we've heard like this from a senior official.

INSKEEP: And it's also a little odd because he said that in passing while trying to answer a question about something else. So it is hard to know how much it means.

LUCAS: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Ryan, thanks very much. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Exactly what evidence does the United States have on the Chinese company Huawei?

MARTIN: Up until yesterday, we knew the U.S. was seeking extradition of a top executive detained in Canada. We also knew the U.S. has been campaigning to restrict the telecom giant's business around the world. Now, the U.S. has filed criminal charges against the company itself. It is accused of stealing trade secrets, of lying to banks and violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker announced two indictments against Huawei. One centers on a robot named Tappy.

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WHITAKER: Huawei's engineers allegedly violated confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements with T-Mobile by secretly taking photos of the robot, measuring it and even stealing a piece of it.

MARTIN: Stealing a piece of it - the piece was Tappy's arm. The indictment alleges Huawei management offered its employees bonuses for stealing technology.

INSKEEP: For more on the story, we go to NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai. Hi, there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we're hearing so much about Tappy, this robot, not because it's the biggest industrial theft ever but because it's the thing that prosecutors think they can prove. But what is the story there?

SCHMITZ: Well, this indictment stems from a civil suit that T-Mobile won four years ago against Huawei for stealing T-Mobile's technology. Now, the Department of Justice is filing criminal charges against Huawei for this, and this involves that robot named Tappy. Tappy was created by T-Mobile to test phones. At the time - this was seven years ago - Tappy was cutting edge. No other cellphone maker had a robot like this. Huawei, at the time, was a much smaller company, and its phones were not good.

So Huawei entered into a business agreement with T-Mobile that allowed its engineers to used Tappy at T-Mobile's factory. And according to what at times is a comical email trail, Steve, Huawei engineers bungle their way as they try to figure out how Tappy works. They take illegal photos of Tappy. They email measurements of the robot back to managers in China. They ask so many questions about Tappy that T-Mobile tells them to stop or they'll be thrown out of the factory. And at one point, one Huawei engineer dismembers Tappy to steal its arm and bring it home in a bag.

INSKEEP: Poor Tappy - I feel kind of sympathetic for the robot now.

SCHMITZ: Me too.

INSKEEP: But this is serious stuff because, according to the United States, this is part of a much larger pattern by this company - in fact, by a large swath of the Chinese economy - to steal technology. How is this connected to the other Huawei story about the chief financial officer who's been detained in Canada and the United States wants to extradite to the U.S.?

SCHMITZ: Well, that is a separate indictment that was was unsealed yesterday. And that indictment concerns CFO Meng Wanzhou, who is now in Vancouver and is being - is awaiting her extradition to the United States. What's new in that indictment is the allegation that Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, who is Meng Wanzhou's father, was actually questioned by the FBI in 2007. And he allegedly misled them when he was asked about Iran sanctions and their violation of that.

INSKEEP: Remarkable that China made him available for questioning, that he was willing to take the questions - but they say he didn't tell the truth.

SCHMITZ: That's right. And I think that this is definitely going to be playing into what will be some pretty intense rounds of trade talks this week in Washington.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how is China responding to all of this?

SCHMITZ: Well, a Huawei spokeswoman said that Huawei's denying all the charges. And she said it reached out to the Department of Justice to talk about Meng, but they did not receive a reply. Beijing responded by saying the U.S. was violating the rights of Meng Wanzhou.

INSKEEP: Rob Schmitz, thanks very much for the update and deepest sympathies to Tappy.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

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INSKEEP: OK, also the Treasury Department has announced new sanctions against Venezuela.

MARTIN: U.S. oil refineries will no longer send cash to the state-owned oil company. It is a move designed to pressure Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, to step down. Here's Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. And when you hear Mnuchin say PDVSA, is referring to the state oil company.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN: Today's designation of PDVSA will help prevent further diversion of Venezuela's assets by Maduro and will preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela where they belong.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about this with NPR's Camila Domonoske, who's in the studios. Good morning.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. So how does this work exactly?

DOMONOSKE: So these sanctions target PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, but they don't actually block U.S. refineries from accepting oil from PDVSA. They just can't pay for it by sending money back to Venezuela directly. Instead, that money has to go into a blocked account in the U.S. And we're talking billions of dollars here. All that money will stay in those blocked accounts and will be available if there's a new government that takes over in Venezuela.

INSKEEP: I don't - I assume that's because the Treasury Department has the authority to focus on the payments. Do we imagine that Venezuela is going to keep sending the oil to not quite get paid for it?

DOMONOSKE: That's an excellent question. I mean, this is different than just blocking a bank account where the money already exists and is in these funds, right? We're talking about ongoing oil payments. I spoke to Peter Harrell, who used to work on sanctions at the State Department. He says this does pose a bit of a challenge to the Trump administration.

PETER HARRELL: Maduro still controls the production in Venezuela. And so in some sense, if they want a scheme where Maduro is shipping oil to the U.S. and not receiving payment for it, Maduro is still going to have to play ball.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that he would still have to say, OK, this is fine. I will allow the payment to be impounded and hope that maybe I'll get the money back later.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And so he could choose not to send crude oil to the United States. The problem is that it might be a little bit challenging to figure out where to send it instead. Not every refinery can take the kinds of oil that Venezuela exports. And places where Venezuela does sell oil, aside from the U.S., include China and Russia. But China and Russia don't really pay for that crude oil from Venezuela either right now. They accept it as a debt payment. So the U.S. is really important as a source of cash money for Venezuela. But whether that cash money is still a motivating factor when it's going into frozen accounts, that remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: OK, so the U.S. is hoping to still get the oil, prevent Maduro from getting the money. In any case, Maduro will be prevented from getting the money - or the Venezuelan government, we should say, will be prevented from getting the money. How does that fit into the broader U.S. strategy here?

DOMONOSKE: The U.S. wants Maduro out. So Maduro declared a victory in a re-election where the election was disputed. And since then, the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaido, has also declared himself president. And the U.S. backs Guaido, as do a bunch of Venezuela's neighbors. Meanwhile, Maduro still has the backing of major Venezuelan allies, like China and Russia. So these sanctions are part of the U.S. effort to put as much pressure on Maduro as possible to get him to step down and get the United States' preferred president actually in power.

INSKEEP: The economy is a total mess. Oil money is about all the government has left.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, they're heavily reliant on this.

INSKEEP: Camila, thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.