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News Brief: Sally Yates Testimony, South Korea Election, 'Frontline' Probe


We're starting to get a better picture here of what President Trump's former national security adviser was doing when he was talking to Russia's ambassador.


That picture comes from Sally Yates. She was a Justice Department official under President Obama and then briefly acting attorney general under President Trump until she was fired. She testified before a Senate committee and offered a little advice.


SALLY YATES: To state the obvious, you don't want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.

INSKEEP: Hard to disagree with that, but Yates said President Trump's White House was very slow to respond to her three warnings that then national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

GREENE: Well, I want to get Domenico Montanaro's take here. He's from NPR's Politics team. Hey, Domenico.


GREENE: So we used the word vulnerable here. What exactly might have made General Michael Flynn vulnerable?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, this all stems back to conversations that Flynn had with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Notably, he spoke to him on December 29. And that date's important because it was the same day President Obama announced those new sanctions against Russia for meddling in the elections.

Flynn told Vice President Pence he did not discuss the sanctions or the potential for sanctions relief. But we know now that was a lie. And we now know that we don't know the specifics of what was said because, David, that's classified. And, you know...

GREENE: Right.

MONTANARO: ...If I told you - well, you know how the rest of that goes.

GREENE: Exactly. But so the feeling was that if Russia knew that Flynn had lied to the vice president or the vice president-elect, that that would - that would be what they would be holding over him, so to speak.

MONTANARO: Totally. Absolutely, and, you know - I mean, the thing is it took the White House 18 days to still fire him. And that's a big thing that a lot of people are still wondering why it took the White House so long to deal with this. It didn't seem that the White House counsel took it as seriously as Yates had made it out to be. She made the point that Flynn's underlying conduct was problematic in and of itself. She said the Russians knew he'd lied, and that's what made him compromised with regard to the Russians. We know though, politically speaking, the president was close to Flynn. And there's a lot of evidence from his tweets - from Donald Trump's tweets that he believed all of this was just politically motivated.

GREENE: Well, Domenico, let's back up here. I mean, Sally Yates yesterday was this star witness. A lot of Democrats had been hoping to hear from her. I mean, did her testimony push this larger investigation of Russian meddling forward in some way here?

MONTANARO: I mean, she held up really well. But we should say that this hearing was surprisingly partisan in a lot of eyebrow-raising ways. You know, Republicans were largely interested in asking about Russia, its meddling into the - I'm sorry, they were not interested in that, you know, into Russia meddling into the election or Michael Flynn.

Instead, Republicans wanted to ask about unmasking and how this information became public, prodding Clapper and Yates for whether or not they were the leaks. And that's pretty stunning because without this information becoming public, Flynn might still be the national security adviser.

INSKEEP: You know, Domenico mentioned the president's tweets. He fired off a few yesterday, including one saying, the Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax. When will this taxpayer-funded charade end? Well, in answer to that, not as long as he keeps making incendiary statements like that, trying to change the subject. Michael Flynn was not fired for nothing.

GREENE: Yeah, we should say, James Clapper, of course, also testifying yesterday in that hearing. NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks as always. We appreciate it.

MONTANARO: Thank you.


GREENE: So Steve, it's a week of covering elections. First, we had this big election in France. And now we have a big election today in South Korea.

INSKEEP: Yeah, voters are electing their next president in South Korea, an election to replace the president who was recently removed for corruption charges. And here's one reason this election matters to Americans. The liberal candidate, or a liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in, has been leading in the polls. He has said he is open to talks with North Korea, which the United States, of course, is confronting over its nuclear program.

GREENE: Yeah, and of course, the Trump administration has suggested that they would be open to talking with North Korea as well. Lauren Frayer has been covering this election. She's in Seoul. Hey, Lauren.


GREENE: So what exactly does election day feel like in South Korea?

FRAYER: Election day is a day off work for most people here. Bright and early this morning...

GREENE: Well, that's a nice thing for a lot of people.

FRAYER: It is...

INSKEEP: I like that.


FRAYER: ...A nice a little gift. There were municipal trucks early this morning tooling around town, blasting get-out-the-vote messages, instructing people to their nearest polling station, nearly 14,000 polling stations across South Korea. Those I was able to visit this morning in Seoul look orderly. There are no long lines. In fact, more than a quarter of voters took advantage of early voting late last week.

GREENE: But does no long lines suggest that the turnout is not that extraordinary? Or does orderly in South Korea mean a lot of people might be voting; they just know how to handle a busy election day.

FRAYER: No, turnout looks to be very high. It's pouring rain, by the way, in Seoul. But that probably will not affect turnout. Many Koreans actually believe rain is good luck. We've got less than two hours before the polls close. Already 73 percent of voters have cast ballots. So that turnout is on track, actually, to exceed the last election in 2012.

GREENE: Well, what is at stake here? I mean, could this election somehow change South Korea's relationship with the United States, which is such an important one?

FRAYER: It could be a real pivot. The front-runner, Moon Jae-in, wrote in a book a couple years ago that he thinks South Korea should learn how to say no to America. And this is a steadfast military alliance that goes back to the Korean War in the 1950s. There are tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in South Korea. And Moon has said he wants to renegotiate THAAD. That's an acronym for a U.S. missile defense system that the U.S. military is installing on South Korean soil. It's designed to shoot down North Korean missiles. Half of South Koreans oppose it. They think that it could make them a target, put them in more danger. So Moon has said he's going to sort of stand up to America and President Trump. This - his election would come after nine years of conservative, very pro-yes - pro-U.S., very hard line against North Korea, the previous administrations here.

INSKEEP: Lauren's last point there reminds us that when it comes to North Korea, you've got some options. You can go to war. You can try to talk. You can leave the problem to fester. If you go to war, North Korea would, of course, be the country that is targeted. And there obviously - or rather South Korea is the country that'd be targeted by North Korea. They're obviously not too comfortable with that. It's a difficult situation.

GREENE: Lauren Frayer, who knew that rain is good luck in South Korea? That's wonderful. Good luck to you on that rainy day in Seoul.

FRAYER: Thank you very much.

GREENE: Nice talking to you.


GREENE: All right, Steve, and we have a new investigation now asking just what happened to $8 billion in housing subsidies for the poor.

INSKEEP: This money goes to banks and developers to encourage them to build low-income housing. Now, the companies do take the money. That part works. The problem is that each year, the program is building fewer homes.

GREENE: And that is something that NPR's Laura Sullivan has learned. She's been investigating this along with the PBS show, "Frontline." And Laura, I know this has been, like, a year of work coming to fruition now. So thanks for coming and talking about it.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Yeah, excited to be here.

GREENE: Well, what - so what exactly is this program you guys were investigating?

FRAYER: Well, basically, it's called the low-income housing tax credit program. It's a mouthful. But what happened was, you know, 30 years ago, the government and the public decided it was done with those giant, concrete public housing complexes like Cabrini-Green...


SULLIVAN: ...And turned to the private sector and said, you know, can you guys do this better? And Congress created an incentive program for the private sector in the form of tax credits. Those are taxes you do not have to pay. And in exchange, the banks and investors shell out cash to developers through brokers to build apartment buildings. And because taxpayers essentially paid for these buildings, the rents can be much lower and house millions of poor people who have nowhere to live. And what people told us time and again is that this is a win-win. You know, the banks, investors, brokers and developers make hundreds of millions of dollars every year. And taxpayers and the poor get quality affordable housing.

GREENE: Sounds like - sounds like there's a big but here, though. It's supposed to be a win-win. But you found - you found - what exactly did you find?

SULLIVAN: So what we found is that the investors and the developers are still winning. That part is working. Business is booming. But it's not clear how much poor people are. We spent months analyzing 20 years' worth of data from this program. And the program is producing fewer and fewer units while costing taxpayers 66 percent more in credits every year. That's a huge loss in housing for poor people. And obviously, you know, you want to look at why that is. And we looked at construction costs. Yes, they've gone up.

Industry officials also said that there are fewer grants. They have to target really poor renters. Those are also very true. But the rising cost is so great that we went in search of more reasons. And we found some - some troubling things happening in Miami, Fla., a couple examples where developers were actually stealing money from the program.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

SULLIVAN: Here's - brought some tape. Here's a U.S. - assistant U.S. attorney named Michael Sherwin who investigated the program in Florida for five years.

MICHAEL SHERWIN: This program has been described as a subterranean ATM, and only the developers know the pin.

SULLIVAN: Now, we can't say fraud is happening everywhere. But we do know that there's not a lot of oversight over the money in this program.

GREENE: That sounds very damning. No oversight at all? I mean, who is - who would be looking into this and stopping it?

SULLIVAN: Well, here's a fun fact. So there are 58 housing agencies that oversee the money in this program. And the program is 30 years old. And there have only been seven audits in three decades. So the vast majority...

GREENE: That's not a lot of audits.

SULLIVAN: ...Of housing agencies have never been audited. And there's also nobody looking at how much the brokers and banks are making. And they've been mostly turning these into large private equity funds.

INSKEEP: I've got to try to see if I can get my hands on a subterranean ATM at some point.

SULLIVAN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: It sounds like something we all should have.

SULLIVAN: I think we all need one of those.

GREENE: All right, Laura Sullivan, a year's worth of work, excited to see a lot of your reporting. Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Yeah, great reporting.

SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this report, it was said that the cost in tax credits for a government-funded low income housing program is rising 66 percent every year. In fact, the cost in tax credits has gone up 66 percent over a span of 20 years.]

(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS VITALI'S "REBECCA'S EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 8, 2017 at 10:00 PM MDT
In an earlier version of this report, it was said that the cost in tax credits for a government-funded low income housing program is rising 66 percent every year. In fact, the cost in tax credits has gone up 66 percent over a span of 20 years.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Laura Sullivan
Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.