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News Brief: Contempt Outcome, Trade Talks, TV Drug Ads


Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler says, quote, "we are now in a constitutional crisis."


The chairman made that declaration after his committee voted to hold the attorney general of the United States, William Barr, in contempt of Congress. It will not surprise you to hear that Republicans have a different view of whether this is a crisis. Ranking Republican member Doug Collins on that committee criticized the party-line vote.


DOUG COLLINS: This is simply another interest to defame the attorney general, to lower him in the eyes of the public so that they can continue to ask for documents they can't get.

INSKEEP: This is about access to a document. House Democrats asked the attorney general for an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on the 2016 election. President Trump now says he is asserting executive privilege over this full report even though most of it has been made public.

KING: NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro is with us. Good morning, Domenico.


KING: All right. So let's start with Attorney General Barr. What happens to him now that the committee has voted him in contempt?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, Democrats basically have three options. Most of this, I have to tell you right off the bat, is not realistic.


MONTANARO: But let's play along for what those options are. One, Congress could refer this case to a U.S. attorney. They'd have Barr prosecuted for contempt, for refusing a subpoena. But first of all, I mean, they haven't even issued a subpoena yet. And the full House still hasn't voted on contempt for Barr, so they have to wait for that. And the Justice Department would have to go along so, again, not very likely.

The second option, even more unlikely, is the House Democrats could arrest Barr. They could have the sergeant-at-arms go out and hold him; that hasn't been done in modern times. And it's not even clear where they'd actually hold him, because there is a bit of a myth about the House having its own jail. There's no working jail in the Capitol. And think about the political bomb that would set off so, really, almost impossible to think that would happen.

But finally, the most likely option - obviously, like a lot of other things - this all ends up in the courts. That's a place Trump thinks he can win. And even if he doesn't, I mean, think about how long that process could take. It could take months, years - really slow things down for getting any information that Democrats want. And we're talking about this now butting right up against next year's election.

KING: Yeah. Let's talk about the president and his decision to exercise executive privilege over the report. How does this factor in? I mean, it all - it feels very stalemate-y (ph) right now.

MONTANARO: Yeah. Well, this is a president who's now using executive power for the first time.

KING: Yeah.

MONTANARO: Lots of presidents have invoked executive power - I mean, some more than others and often involving investigations from Congress. But Trump's is pretty blanket. That's what's a little different about this one. It's for all of the Mueller report - for what hasn't been publicly released already. Democrats see that as going too far. They want access to the full report. They want the underlying evidence. And they want Barr to sign on with them to appeal to a judge to try to release grand jury testimony or at least not try to stop their efforts.

That's a piece where Republicans are really - feel like that's going too far themselves. And they say that that would make the attorney general be breaking the law in releasing grand jury testimony. That's kind of a bit of a fine line, splitting hairs

INSKEEP: Domenico, is there reason to question whether we're really in a constitutional crisis yet? It's true we have one branch of government saying one thing, another branch of government refusing. But you just said the most likely outcome is that it goes to the third branch of government and they make a decision, and then we find out if we really have a crisis.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you know - and you've had these kinds of standoffs in the past. And you have often had courts siding with Congress to say that an administration needs to release some of this subpoenaed material. But you know, when it comes to grand jury testimony, it's slightly different. And of course, Trump has been able to put a lot of judges on federal courts and of course feels pretty good about where he is with the Supreme Court and how they feel about giving a president full length of executive power.

KING: All right. So constitutional crisis - TBD. NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome.


KING: Trade negotiators from China will be in Washington, D.C., today.

INSKEEP: They're here for two days of talks with their American counterparts. Hanging over these negotiations are tariff increases that President Trump promised the other day on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. They would take effect at the end of this week. Now, let's remember, these tariffs are higher taxes on goods that are imported into the United States. Our economics correspondent Scott Horsley has noted that the tax increases are mostly paid by American businesses and consumers. But past rounds of tariffs did get China's attention. So how are the Chinese responding now?

KING: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Shanghai. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So let's start with the Chinese negotiators who are coming to D.C. today. There is some real pressure on these guys, isn't there?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I do not envy Liu He, who is China's lead negotiator. He's really become the hapless mediator between two leaders who have lofty expectations from these trade talks. On the Beijing side, it appears that Leader Xi Jinping was behind the refusal to commit or the backtracking on commitments - we're not sure which yet - that angered the U.S. There are reports that Xi himself vetoed many sections of a draft agreement, angering President Trump who then took to Twitter to announce his retaliation.

So Liu has a stressful trip ahead of him. He's going to have to explain to his American counterparts what happened and what exactly Beijing is willing to commit to. And they're going to hash this out while the clock is ticking on significant tariff hikes that will likely have a big impact on global markets.

KING: How is this being sold to the general public in China? Like, are people paying attention to this?

SCHMITZ: It is being sold very carefully, Noel. China's government controls the media, as we know, and Twitter is blocked here. And Beijing has been working hard to ensure that news of Trump's angry tweets threatening more tariffs were nowhere to be seen this week. And social media sites were deleting any mention of them.

I actually went downstairs from the NPR bureau to talk to people on the street to try and get a sense of what they knew about the trade negotiations. Most people didn't know very much. They hadn't heard anything, and they didn't feel like this trade war has had any impact on their daily lives. But I did meet one person, 32-year-old Tong Yu (ph), an HR staffer at a local company here in Shanghai, who seemed to have a handle on what was happening. And here's what she said when I asked her which country has more leverage in these talks.

TONG YU: (Through interpreter) Neither of them do. It's a war. Both countries will lose, whether it's a trade war or an actual war. I just hope both sides will resolve it peacefully. It's better for the global economy that way.

KING: Neither of them having more leverage - that is interesting.


KING: I mean, given how tensions have risen just in recent days, with President Trump threatening more tariffs over the weekend, are people in China optimistic about an agreement?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think people in the know, who have a historical understanding of how China typically negotiates, are likely not surprised about this week's events. Backing away from perceived commitments as a negotiation strategy, that's familiar to anyone who's worked here in China.

And China watchers I've spoken to think that if China were truly backtracking here and digging their heels in, what would be the point of sending their delegation to Washington this week? By sending Liu He, China seems to be sending a message that it's still open to negotiating and that it wants to make a deal with the Trump administration. What that deal is, though, is still up for grabs.

KING: Lot of TBDs today. NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai.

Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Noel.


KING: All right. If you see an ad on television for a prescription drug, you will also hear about the drug's potential side effects.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Extreme fatigue, constipation, excessive thirst or urine, swollen ankles, loss of appetite...

INSKEEP: Wow. Give me some of that. OK. So that's a drug that can help you as well, according to the ad. But what an ad like that commonly does not list is how much the drug will cost - at least not until now. Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that pharmaceutical companies must include a drug's wholesale price in a TV ad if it costs more than $35 per month. The rule is said to go into effect this summer, but some drug companies are resisting this move.

KING: With us in the studio is Nicholas Florko. He's the Washington correspondent for the health news site STAT News. Good morning, Nicholas.

NICHOLAS FLORKO: Good morning.

KING: So consumer groups are thrilled about this new rule; the pharmaceutical industry, not so much. What is their argument against simply listing prices?

FLORKO: Well, drugmakers say that because of insurance coverage that hardly anyone actually pays the price that the Trump administration is forcing them to include in their ads. That price is often called the list price or the sticker price, and drugmakers actually argue that consumers seeing that price could actually prevent them from talking to their doctor about a drug they might need out of a false assumption that they can't afford the drug.

KING: So I see the price on TV. I see it without my insurance. And I think, oh, I can't afford 500 bucks. But let me ask you something. Earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson started including the list price of a blood thinner in its television ads. They're the first company to do that. And how has that been working for them? How did they pull this off?

FLORKO: It's been going well. I mean, frankly, it's a smart PR move. The Trump administration has been eager to shame drugmakers for their lack of enthusiasm over including list prices in ads. The Trump administration has actually said that drugmakers might be ashamed of their prices, but they've actually praised Johnson & Johnson at pretty much every turn. And during a presidency where a single tweet can send your stock tanking, that praise really goes a long way.

KING: And as I understand it, Johnson & Johnson has just put on TV what the drug costs and then what the drug costs if you have insurance.

FLORKO: That's right.

KING: OK. So to be clear - this is a rule, not a law. How's it going to be enforced?

FLORKO: Well, that's probably the most interesting part of this proposal. So the Trump administration actually doesn't have a way to enforce this on their own. Instead, they'll rely on drug companies to essentially police each other. Basically, if drugmaker X decides to comply - meaning, they put a price in their ads - drugmaker Y doesn't, drugmaker X can sue drugmaker Y over what's called an unfair trade practice. Basically, they're getting an unfair advantage because they're not listing their price in their ads.

KING: OK. So the president is shooting for interpharma (ph) competition to work this out. The pharmaceutical industry, as a whole, is very powerful. Are they going to fight this?

FLORKO: They certainly are. They've pretty much signaled as much as they can that they're going to sue over this proposal. They argue that it violates their First Amendment rights. Basically, they say, we don't want to disclose this information; you don't have a compelling reason to force us to. And so it'll likely be fought out in the courts.

KING: First Amendment argument. Last question for you - the White House has been pushing for this, as you said, as part of this effort to lower drug prices. Do you think this is going to have that effect?

FLORKO: It's an indirect try at best. I mean, the drugmakers have been very intent on sort of fighting this as much as they can. They could have already lowered their list prices. So it might shame a few. They might think a second about putting a high list price on their drug. But I would say it's probably not the most immediate way to do so.

KING: Nicholas Florko is Washington correspondent at STAT news. Thanks so much, Nicholas.

FLORKO: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.