News Brief: Public Impeachment Hearings Begin, Erdogan Visits White House

Nov 13, 2019
Originally published on November 13, 2019 8:09 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Constitution of the United States says an official may be impeached for a few things, quote, "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So that's the language in the law which gives House investigators power for the proceedings that go public today. A House committee calls two witnesses before TV cameras. The hearings will also be heard live on NPR. And the head of this inquiry is deciding which of those offenses in the Constitution might fit the president's efforts in Ukraine. Adam Schiff of California tells NPR he is not looking to punish the president but to protect the country.

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ADAM SCHIFF: The president gives every impression that he believes that he is above the law, that he can solicit foreign interference in our elections, he can do whatever he pleases, that anyone who calls out his corrupt behavior is a traitor or a spy. That's a very dangerous situation for the country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith is here to talk about today's hearings. Hi there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the behavior that Congressman Schiff - Chairman Schiff describes as unacceptable?

KEITH: Essentially, forcing or pressuring a foreign government to interfere in a U.S. election. And there are two witnesses that will testify today, Bill Taylor and George Kent. Both of these are men who are widely respected diplomats, lifelong public servants who have Ukraine in their portfolios.

And in their private depositions, they both expressed grave concerns with this sort of shadow foreign policy toward Ukraine that was being driven by the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. They say it was running counter to U.S. policy and national security interests. A little bit more about them - Taylor is best known as the person who sent the text message that said, quote, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

And Kent is someone who said that this effort to get Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit President Trump politically undermined U.S. advocacy for rule of law. Democrats are going to use their testimony to make a case for why all of this matters.

INSKEEP: Well, why all of this matters and, of course, they also have to make a case for why all of this would be impeachable. How does the chairman, Adam Schiff, fit the evidence gathered so far with those words we heard from the Constitution?

KEITH: Well, what Schiff is saying is that when the president used the words do us a favor in that call - that is now an infamous call with the president of Ukraine in July - that there was a sinister scheme there. Steve, you asked Schiff this very question about the words in the Constitution.

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SCHIFF: There are any number of potentially impeachable offenses, including bribery, including high crimes and misdemeanors. The basic allegations against the president are that he sought foreign interference in a U.S. election, that he conditioned official acts on the performance of these political favors.

INSKEEP: And Schiff is not being definite in our interview but saying that he could very well conclude that that amounts to bribery - one of the words in the Constitution. And, of course, that other phrase, high crimes and misdemeanors, leaves lots of room for other kinds of charges. So how are Republicans, Tamara, going to defend the president?

KEITH: Well, they're saying that the president - in his skepticism of Ukraine and reasonable to have concerns about corruption. They say that there was no pressure exerted on the president of Ukraine, that both presidents have said that and that, ultimately, the foreign aid - $400 million in foreign aid - was released without any investigations being launched.

INSKEEP: How will each side make its case before the witnesses and draw things out of the witnesses today?

KEITH: This is going to be unique. Each side is going to have 45 minutes to really build a narrative and tell a story. And then it'll bounce back and forth. This isn't going to be this sort of staccato back and forth that you normally see in congressional hearings.

INSKEEP: A little bit longer question-and-answer session. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith.

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INSKEEP: OK. To judge by his Twitter feed and his public speeches, the president has been intently focused on the impeachment fight. But he has a very different duty today.

GREENE: That's right. The president is hosting Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the White House today. And the timing of this is fraught. It was just weeks ago, let's remember, that President Trump moved U.S. troops out of the way of a Turkish invasion of Syria. Trump also wrote a letter to Erdogan appealing to him not to go too far, a letter which Turkey's president openly ignored. So now the leaders of these two NATO allies are going to meet face to face.

INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent David Welna is trying to find out what each president wants. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's start with Erdogan. What does he want?

WELNA: Well, I'm pretty sure that - while he'll be defending Turkey's incursion into Syria, he'll also be seeking reassurances that the sanctions Trump slapped on Turkey for doing that - and then lifted a few days later when a cease-fire was declared - won't be coming back.

Turkey's also been demanding the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. He's the Islamic cleric who lives in Pennsylvania who's accused of promoting the attempted coup against Erdogan three years ago. And Turkey wants the U.S. to drop charges brought last month against a state-owned Turkish bank that's accused of violating the trade embargo with Iran.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. It's been caught up in the whole thing with Iran sanctions and going after Iran's nuclear program.

WELNA: Indeed.

INSKEEP: Now, what does President Trump want from Erdogan?

WELNA: Well, I think he wants Turkey's declared cease-fire in Syria to be made permanent, although even Trump seems to question whether that's likely. His other big ask would likely be about the Russian S-400 air defense system that Turkey acquired this year despite being a member of NATO. And even though that's prompted the U.S. to kick Turkey out of the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, the U.S. wants assurances that Turkey won't use that Russian system.

But the Trump administration seems to be sending mixed signals. It has yet to certify that Turkey's crossed the line by making what's called a significant transaction with Russia, which would trigger sanctions against Turkey. Last week in the Senate, Democrat Bob Menendez introduced legislation to force the administration to weigh in on this. And here's Menendez on the Senate floor.

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BOB MENENDEZ: The administration is breaking the law by ignoring this provision and kowtowing to Ankara. According to U.S. law, Turkey must be sanctioned for the S-400 system and it should happen today. Otherwise, it will send a global message that we are not serious about sanctioning significant transactions with the Russian military.

INSKEEP: David, as we hear there, the president may be sending mixed signals to Turkey, but there's bipartisan resistance to Turkey in Congress.

WELNA: There is, indeed. But I think that Turkey is counting on Trump's close relationship with Erdogan to be a sort of a defense against anything that Congress might do. And that's why today's meeting at the White House does seem to be like a gift to Turkey that might keep giving.

INSKEEP: David, thanks for the insights.

WELNA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Welna.

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INSKEEP: To hear one official put it, Hong Kong is on the brink of a, quote, "total breakdown."

GREENE: Right. Those are the words police are using amidst some of the worst violence the city has seen since these protests began in June. Demonstrators caused disruption in the city for a third straight day. And their actions caused some subway lines to shut down. And now the authorities there say they're going to cancel school tomorrow for safety reasons.

INSKEEP: NPR international correspondent Julie McCarthy has been in Hong Kong covering this story. Hi, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: You know, these protests - dramatic as they might be - used to be a weekend affair. And there were acts of violence, but they were somewhat limited. What's changing?

MCCARTHY: Well, first of all, you had the death of a student, Chow Tsz-lok. He's one trigger. He's become something of a hero to the protest cause. He was found unconscious in a parking lot in circumstances that are kind of murky. And that plays into the hands of anyone - many protesters who want to blame the police, who deny any involvement.

Now, directly on the heels of Chow's death last Friday, you had policemen shooting a masked protester Monday, which enraged Hongkongers. He's in serious condition. But here's the nub. Protesters say they tried peaceful demonstrations, got nowhere and feel justified in using ever-escalating violence.

On the other hand, police feel justified in using harsher measures to counter that violence. And you have this loop of retaliation. And a young woman, who called herself Carlos (ph), stood at the barricades of a university where students clashed with police and said that she has not seen it anywhere near as bad as it is now.

CARLOS: Just so worried and this is war. It's actually a war inside. It's just like a war.

MCCARTHY: And a graphic illustration of this deep division is the man who was set on fire because he evidently opposed the protest. He's in critical condition.

INSKEEP: How is life in the city changing now that these weekend protests have become everyday protests?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, things feel - certainly out in the midst of all of them, they feel more dangerous. And protesters will tell me about preparing themselves to die. They're tired, the police are tired, which is when people overreact. Here's what the universities, Steve, are starting to sound like, which is new.

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MCCARTHY: Firing tear gas on campuses - again, a new development. Students in this one are at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. And they're still holed up to stop any police advance. And as we speak, students are stockpiling supplies in other universities, anticipating clashes.

Now, as for this expanded action, you know, on the weekdays, you paralyze a transit system in Hong Kong, you'll get people's attention. And what protesters hope to do is to sober the minds of their fellow citizens, to get them to think about what's at stake, more democracy, and curbing what the protestors see as police abuse.

INSKEEP: Well, where is the wider public on all of this?

MCCARTHY: Well, of course, you know, nobody likes their commute disrupted. But 19-year-old Cecilia Lu (ph) says the spiraling violence scares her. Here she is.

CECILIA LU: I think this thing (ph) is getting too violent. Because now we cannot go to school, our courses are suspended. It's getting out of control.

MCCARTHY: Others said there's no equivalency in the violence of the protesters versus the police who have an arsenal the protesters do not.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks for your reporting and please be safe.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.