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Judge Delays Flynn's Sentencing, Trump Alters Border Wall Demand

NOEL KING, HOST:

After weeks of tension and expectation, two major stories here in Washington seemed to change course this week. The first was expected to be a clear-cut sentencing hearing. Instead, a judge rebuked President Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and then the judge delayed the sentencing because Flynn said he would continue cooperating in the Mueller investigation. Secondly, President Trump has appeared to walk back his demand for $5 billion for a border wall. That demand was driving a lot of fears of a partial government shutdown at the end of this week. Here's press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House briefing yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: We're looking at every avenue available to us possible. The president's asked every one of his Cabinet secretaries to look for funding that can be used to protect our borders and for the - give the president the ability to fulfill his constitutional obligation to protect the American people by having a secure border. So we're looking at the other options.

KING: For more on how Congress is reacting to all of these developments, we turn to Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware.

Good morning, Senator.

CHRIS COONS: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. Let's start with the sentencing of Michael Flynn. What did you make of, first, the judge's harsh words for Flynn and then his decision to postpone the sentencing until March?

COONS: Well, first, this is yet another proof point that the Mueller investigation is anything but a witch hunt. It's already produced 30 different indictments and guilty verdicts. General Flynn, I think, was unprepared for the very direct and forceful way in which the judge suggested that he had sold out his country by serving as a unregistered foreign agent, even while he was advising candidate Donald Trump and then President Donald Trump as his national security adviser.

KING: This postponement suggests that any additional cooperation Flynn offers investigators could be counted in his favor when he's sentenced next year. Do you have a sense of how much more useful he could be to the Mueller investigation?

COONS: I don't. The details of exactly what Mueller is preparing in terms of which witness will testify to what has been kept under wraps. One of the things that's been a hallmark of his work is that they haven't leaked details in advance. But there was a number of different developments in courts here in the D.C. area in recent days that suggest it's still very much an active investigation that is litigating a variety of different issues and moving forward with different witnesses.

So my concern, frankly, is that Robert Mueller, in his investigation, is at greater risk than ever when we go out of session. That's why Senator Jeff Flake and I are going to go one more time to the floor of the Senate and ask a live, unanimous consent vote to try and get passed our bill that would protect Bob Mueller and make it clear to the president that interference with the Mueller investigation would not just be inappropriate but would bring a swift response from Congress.

KING: This is obviously a top priority for you, protecting the Mueller investigation. But I wonder, can you get support from enough of your colleagues across the aisle to actually move forward with this?

COONS: Well, when we introduced the bill last year, we were told we'd never get a hearing. When we got a hearing, we were told we'd never get a vote in committee. When we got a vote in committee, it came out of the Judiciary Committee with a strong bipartisan vote. At this point, the holdup has been the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, refusing to give us a vote on the floor, just as is the case with criminal justice reform, which, for six years, has been grinding through the process of compromise.

If you'd asked me a week ago, I would have told you Mitch McConnell would refuse to give criminal justice reform a vote on the floor. It got a vote last night. It passed last night by an overwhelming bipartisan margin. I think that's very good news for our country. I think if the Mueller bill got a vote on the floor, it would pass, as well.

KING: Senator, let's turn briefly to the shutdown threat. The administration's demand for more money to fund a border wall seems to have softened, and more observers seem confident now that a budget deal will be signed on Friday. What do you think?

COONS: I'm optimistic...

KING: Yeah.

COONS: ...As well. I'm on the committee, the appropriations committee, that makes the spending decisions for all the non-entitlement programs here. We've made more progress on a bipartisan basis this year than at any point in my eight years here. Neither the Republican nor Democratic leaders of the House or Senate want a government shutdown. The only person who was cheering one on was President Trump, and I'm encouraged to see he's softened his position. I do think we'll get this resolved by the end of this week.

KING: The president says Democrats are not doing enough to secure the border. Just quickly, could you and your colleagues be doing more?

COONS: We have supported and voted for bills that would invest more in real border security, not in meeting a campaign promise to build a great, big concrete ribbon along our southern border. Democrats do support investments in border security, just not wide-open and, frankly, reality TV investments in border security.

KING: Some things left to be figured out there.

Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, thank you.

COONS: Thank you, Noel.

KING: All right, I want to turn now to NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So where do things stand now, Mara, on the possibility of a shutdown?

LIASSON: Well, nobody that I've talked to, either in the administration or on the Hill, thinks there will be a shutdown.

KING: OK.

LIASSON: But exactly what the final deal is going to be is also unclear. The White House has now backed off the president's demand for $5 billion for a border wall or else he'll shut down the government. Instead, they say they're waiting to see what the Senate will pass. And then they're going to make a determination on whether or not to sign that.

And there have been a lot of mixed messages coming out of the White House. First, I heard they didn't want a short-term bill. Maybe they would sign a short-term bill. They're also talking about finding money through Cabinet agencies that would allow the president to say he got money for border security. He hasn't been talking about a wall recently. But it's unclear how much money Cabinet agencies can find just by digging through the couch cushions for spare change that Congress would not have to approve.

KING: And President Trump obviously has done some back and forth here. But as of this moment, where does he stand on all of this?

LIASSON: Well, he is saying it's too soon to tell, we'll see. But he has not been repeating his threat to shut down the government if he didn't get $5 billion for the wall. So I guess where he stands is more flexible than he had been last week when he made those threats.

KING: OK - so some developments there. You said most people are not expecting a shutdown. But if things are not figured out - and in these times, (laughter) it's always hard to tell - and there is a partial shutdown, what happens then?

LIASSON: Well, if a partial shutdown happens, a lot of agencies would shut down, nine of them - Homeland Security, Commerce, Interior, Agriculture, HUD, Justice, Transportation - and about 350,000 federal workers would be furloughed. The rest would be deemed essential. So they would keep working, even in a shutdown. And even though it would happen over Christmas, it still would cause a lot of disruption. And the bottom line would be that Congress and the White House would have been unable to perform their most basic fundamental function, which is keeping the government open. And it would be a huge embarrassment. And I think the American people would be disgusted.

KING: Yeah. All right. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.