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Morning News Brief: A New White House Chief Of Staff, Russia Expels U.S. Diplomats


One of President Trump's newer aides, Anthony Scaramucci, said the other day that President Trump is not going to change. So that leads to a question. How much can the newest staffer, John Kelly, really change?


Right. So Kelly is the new chief of staff. He starts that job today after a new communications director, who delivered a profane rant at Reince Priebus, the old chief of staff, was on his way out the door. It now falls to the retired four-star general to bring order to a White House noted for chaos. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski offered this advice for Kelly on NBC's "Meet The Press."


COREY LEWANDOWSKI: I'd say you have to let Trump be Trump. That is what has made him successful over the last 30 years. That is what the American people voted for. And anybody who thinks they're going to change Donald Trump doesn't know Donald Trump.

MARTIN: So what might change under Kelly, if anything?

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith is covering the White House. Hi, Tam.


INSKEEP: You know, the question people outside are posing is, what can Kelly change about the president? But as we've heard, it's hard to believe that President Trump sees it that way. What is Kelly's mandate from the president?

KEITH: It's not clear exactly what his mandate is. But I think that the president probably wants his White House to work better and have just a tiny bit less drama because there has been so much drama. There have been these sort of competing factions in the White House and strategic and not so strategic leaks of information and backstabbing and all of these things. Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, was on CNN Friday night. And he laid out what he sees as the challenges that Kelly faces.


REINCE PRIEBUS: Keeping things organized, keeping everyone in their lane, controlling flow of information in and out of the Oval Office - those are all challenges to a chief of staff. And I think he's going to do a wonderful job.

INSKEEP: OK, keeping everything organized, keeping everybody in their lane - how do you do that in a White House where you have a presidential daughter, who's going to have direct access to the president, a presidential son-in-law, other top advisers like Steve Bannon, Scaramucci? It's hard to see how the new chief of staff just controls access to the president, which is normally a thing a chief of staff would do.

KEITH: That's absolutely a thing a chief of staff would do. And that's the thing that successful chiefs of staff have done. Unsuccessful ones allow what happened previously, which is this open-door policy that President Trump has had with the oval office. So Kelly comes in, and he comes from a military background. And he believes in discipline and a strong chain of command. And he doesn't like chaos. These are things that we've heard about him. He will come in and...

INSKEEP: Doesn't his boss like chaos, though? I mean, can't we just say that at this point? It's what he's comfortable with.

KEITH: Yes, and it's the way he ran his business, and it's the way he's run his White House. And it is a very, very open question as to whether he will allow this sort of chain of command to be imposed on him - whether he will allow General Kelly to control the information flow in and out of the Oval Office.

MARTIN: So you're talking about chaos. I mean, it's worth remembering when the travel ban was implemented - the very first travel ban - John Kelly was the guy who was supposed to carry it out. John Kelly wasn't made aware that the decision was going to happen. He was miffed. That guy was not happy. He went to the White House and said, this isn't going to happen again. So on the one hand, we've seen - we've demonstrated that he can go and speak truth to power in the moment. But will he be empowered to actually wrangle all these cats - is that an expression?

INSKEEP: That - it is now.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KEITH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Wrangling the cats. And Kelly made that travel order, by his lights, less bad, in some ways at that moment. NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: OK, some other news - Russia says it is sending home more than half of the U.S. embassy staff on its soil.

MARTIN: President Vladimir Putin said he's expelling 755 U.S. diplomats from his country. It is the harshest move of this kind against Americans since the days of the Soviet Union. And it's in response to new U.S. sanctions that are in response to the Russian meddling in the U.S. election. The sanctions were approved overwhelmingly by Congress, so President Trump didn't really have a choice but to sign them into law. Vice President Pence, though, still talks about warming U.S.-Russian relations.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: If Russia will change its behavior, our relationship can change for the good and can improve for the interests of both of our countries and the interest of peace and stability in this region and around the world.

MARTIN: Pence was in Russia's neighbor, a U.S. ally, Estonia, making his comments.

INSKEEP: For the view from Moscow, we have reporter Charles Maynes on the line via Skype. Welcome to the program.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Thanks. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Just to understand the basics first, who are these 755 people? Are they Americans? Are they local staff hired by the Americans - somebody else? Who are they?

MAYNES: Well, it seems to be a combination of the two. You know, we don't exactly have a clear sign of how many U.S. diplomats, for example, might be essentially expelled from Russia starting September 1 because of this move. We know, for example, there are a lot of Russian nationals working as local support staff at the embassies - everything from translators, cooks, gardeners, drivers, guards - you know, everything you would need to run a big institution. And, of course, there are American nationals as well there who are not formerly with the State Department - not with the Foreign Service. You know, what's interesting is the presumption here going into this move by the Russians - and it was rumored to be happening for a couple of weeks now - was that it would be a mirror response to this decision by President Obama back in December of 2016 to eject 35 Russian diplomats...


MAYNES: ...So in a complete - what they call, a mirror response. And we don't know if that's really the case yet. The U.S. embassy here in Moscow has yet to comment. But, clearly, it's going to hurt.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to understand if Russian President Vladimir Putin still sees possibilities for better relations with the United States. There were days right after the election when Russian government Twitter accounts and RT, the Russian television channel, seemed to be absolutely on the same page as then-President-elect Trump - using the same messages almost. Is that sort of thing still happening?

MAYNES: Yes, it is. And I think there's a sense that - from the Russian side, that, you know, despite these terrible relations, it's not because of Donald Trump. It's that Donald Trump wants good relations, but the Washington establishment won't let him. And that's everyone from hawks within his own party, the Democratic opposition or, what Russia calls, the deep state - sort of buried bureaucrats within the Obama administration and holdovers, who are basically preventing Trump from taking this more positive line with Moscow.

INSKEEP: I got to tell you the things you're saying - that Russians are saying - is the same thing you would hear on Fox News, the same thing you would hear from the president's allies here. That is very similar.

MAYNES: It is very similar. And, in fact, you hear the defense, usually through state media, from the Trump campaign to these allegations of election interference coming from segments from Fox News - for example, quoting the president's son Eric when he was - went on Fox News to make his defense for why he met with the Russian lawyer. That was what the Russians heard.

INSKEEP: Don Jr., I think we're talking about there...

MAYNES: Oh, excuse me, Don Jr., yes.

INSKEEP: Of course, of course. Reporter Charles Maynes joining us via Skype. Thanks very much.

MAYNES: Thank you.


INSKEEP: OK, Venezuelans - some of them anyway - elected a new assembly to rewrite the country's constitution.

MARTIN: There wasn't a whole lot of doubt that they would because a vote yesterday did not ask voters if the Constitution should be rewritten. They were only asked to choose the people who would do the rewriting. And those elected include many people close to Nicolas Maduro, the president who faces a whole lot of opposition in that country. The vote is seen as a way around the country's legislature controlled by the opposition. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the vote a, quote, "step toward dictatorship."

INSKEEP: Bloomberg's Andrew Rosati is covering this story. He's in Venezuela, joins us via Skype. What was it like in Caracas last night?

ANDREW ROSATI: Yesterday in Caracas, we saw violence flare across the country. Venezuelans in protest of this vote - they blocked streets with trash, debris. And then the state responded with a very heavy hand yesterday. These clashes involved everything from rubber bullets and tear gas to rocks being hauled. Even a bomb went off in Caracas and injured a number of security forces. This was one of the most violent days we've seen since protests kicked off about four months ago. The public prosecutor's office here said as many as 10 people died while the opposition said maybe even 16 people were killed across the entire country. So it was a very grim day here in Caracas as this voting went under way.

INSKEEP: Well, Andrew, it was a vote. As we pointed out, people did not have the option to say, no, I'm happy with the Constitution as it is. But did the opposition attempt to run its own serious slate of candidates and get control of this constituent assembly at all?

ROSATI: No, they did not. The opposition said this vote was illegitimate, and they boycotted it entirely. They said from the get-go that the president did not - was not following the Constitution and that he needed to run a referendum before this process. In doing so, they said that he is essentially trying to install a dictatorship here. And so they sat out the vote. And they made sure that their candidates - they - excuse me - intensified the protests on the street.

INSKEEP: Yeah, so does this wipe out the power of the national assembly that is controlled by the opposition in Venezuela?

ROSATI: It's not clear yet what the president wants to do. There is some speculation that he's going to use this as a bargaining chip. But others say that we take him for his word - that - what he's going to do. There's a lot of fears that he's going to start dissolving institutions and start firing or even jailing some of his foes.

INSKEEP: Given - if I can - given the amount of violence that we've seen, is civil war too strong a term? Is this still essentially a political process?

ROSATI: It's certainly getting uglier on the streets here. We saw - well, especially with the death toll we saw yesterday, the big fear here is that this is going to continue to escalate. Again, I said a bomb went off yesterday in Caracas. This has not been like anything I've seen in recent weeks. And the fear is this will continue as days go on.

INSKEEP: OK, Andrew, thanks very much - really appreciate it.

ROSATI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Andrew Rosati is with Bloomberg News, joined us via Skype from Caracas, Venezuela, where a vote yesterday was held to choose a constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution, over the opposition of many Venezuelans.


Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.