News Brief: Impeachment Hearing, Netanyahu Indicted, Migrant Deported

Nov 22, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 6:39 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many hours of public impeachment hearings left little dispute about the facts.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

What remains are disputes over what the facts mean and also what to do. Witnesses rarely differed on the big picture here. President Trump asked for investigations of Democrats in Ukraine. His July 25 phone call asking for them was part of an effort involving numerous calls and officials. He also withheld meetings and military aid until those acts were revealed. The country heard from current and former administration officials, including these four.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING MONTAGE)

ALEXANDER VINDMAN: My worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out.

FIONA HILL: He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things have just diverged.

DAVID HOLMES: Of course, the president is pressing for a Biden investigation before he'll do these things the Ukrainians want. There is nodding agreement.

GORDON SONDLAND: Again, everyone was in the loop.

GREENE: The voices there of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an active duty military officer; Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who had served in the Trump White House; also David Holmes, a midcareer U.S. diplomat; and Gordon Sondland, an ambassador who gave a million dollars to the Trump inauguration.

INSKEEP: NPR reporter Tim Mak covers national security and politics, and he's here in our studios. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was it like watching the witnesses on what may have been the final day, particularly the Russia expert, Fiona Hill?

MAK: Well, she was the sort of person who exuded competence. She said she had been frustrated with Sondland for not working with her on Ukraine issues. That was part of her portfolio. But she later realized that they were working on different lanes. She said Sondland was working on a domestic political errand - you heard that clip earlier - and that he was asking for politically motivated investigations while she was working on national security. And that's why they deferred.

INSKEEP: So a devastating phrase there. And beside her as she testified was David Holmes, this guy who was working in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

MAK: Right. It's become perhaps the second-most famous call of this whole saga. He overheard Sondland talking to the president by phone on July 26 and specifically heard the president asking about the investigations he wanted. We didn't hear anything in testimony yesterday that challenges that fact.

INSKEEP: And we should note that was, as you said, one of two calls where the president is known to have talked about investigations, the other one asking for them from Ukraine's president. And there's a White House record of that. So what do lawmakers do now?

MAK: So Democrats need to decide whether they are done calling witnesses. Take a listen to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: We haven't made any decision. And as I said to the president, if you have any information that is exculpatory, please bring it forward because it seems that the facts are uncontested as to what happened. Now, if you have reason to convince people that something was different under oath, please let us know.

MAK: It's not hard to imagine that there are other folks that Democrats would ideally like to hear from, like, you know, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney or Rudy Giuliani, for example.

INSKEEP: Where are Republicans on this?

MAK: Well, they've said that there was no conduct because the money was eventually released. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy subscribes to that line of thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: I don't know how many more people they want to try to bring forward. But every time they do, it goes right back to the case that the president did not make conditions. The president released the money. And Ukraine did nothing for the money to be released.

MAK: It's worth noting, however, that the money was released only after a whistleblower complaint began circulating and the House announced its intent to investigate.

INSKEEP: So if this is the last hearing - we're not absolutely sure - where's the process go from here?

MAK: Well, if they're finished with hearing from witnesses, they will need to write a report and provide it to the House Judiciary Committee to consider potential articles of impeachment against the president. It certainly sounds like the House Intelligence Committee is - was making closing arguments yesterday as they wrapped up.

INSKEEP: Including one from Adam Schiff, the committee chairman, who said, the country is better than that. Tim, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The president's closest ally abroad is also accused of abusing his power.

GREENE: Right. Israel's attorney general announced the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The charges came after a three-year investigation. He's accused of illegal dealings with businessmen and media moguls. The charges come after not one but two inconclusive elections this year. And his political - as well as legal - future is right now pretty uncertain.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, what, according to the indictment anyway, did the prime minister do?

ESTRIN: Well, he's facing charges of fraud, breach of trust. The most serious charge, though, is bribery. And that could carry a jail sentence of seven to 10 years. And the bribery allegation is that he and his family got to dictate glowing coverage of themselves on a news website - This happened, allegedly, hundreds of times - and that, in return, he helped the owner of that news site - he's a telecoms executive - by making regulatory decisions that netted a lot of money for the telecoms executive.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ESTRIN: And Netanyahu is also accused of some other things - of talking to another media mogul about trading positive press for help with his business and for doing favors for a Hollywood mogul - for the producer of "Pretty Woman" - and getting a stream of cigars and champagne in return.

INSKEEP: Wow. So a variety of charges there. How is the prime minister responding?

ESTRIN: Well, he went on TV last night right after the attorney general announced these charges. The attorney general called them grave - and that he's confident that they're likely to result in a conviction. But Netanyahu called it a coup. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said this is an attempted toppling of the prime minister. And he said the investigation into him was tainted. And he ended his speech with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NETANYAHU: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: "We need to finally, once after all, investigate the investigators." That's the same line, of course, that President Trump said about his administration's investigation into the Russia investigation. So this is Netanyahu's scorched-earth approach. He's not leaving office. He is, according to many observers here, delegitimizing the investigation into him and deepening public mistrust in the justice system to shore up his own base.

INSKEEP: You said not leaving office. This is a guy who's been through two elections this year, hasn't quite gotten enough votes that he can form a government. Can an indicted prime minister stay in office under those circumstances?

ESTRIN: That's exactly the question because there may be third elections coming up. And so there's going to be a question - what happens when Israel's in a transitional government, and there are new elections? Can he run for reelection? There's no law forcing him out of office. There's going to be a lot of questions whether his own political allies will still stay by his side.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The United States is now deporting some asylum-seekers to Guatemala.

GREENE: That's right. Yesterday, the U.S. sent a Honduran migrant to Guatemala after he had arrived in El Paso, Texas. He is the first asylum-seeker to be flown to Guatemala under terms of a deal President Trump's administration approved in July. And we should say this marks a major change in U.S. asylum rules.

INSKEEP: Which reporter Maria Martin is covering from Guatemala. Welcome to the program.

MARIA MARTIN: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: I know immigration law is always complicated, but we can follow it through the story of this one specific person, the very first person to face this new policy. Who is he?

MARTIN: He's a young Honduran named Erwin Ardon who arrived from El Paso, Texas, where he'd applied for political asylum. He was flown, basically, alone on this very large plane, which normally bring back over 100 deportees to Guatemala City on Thursday morning. And Guatemala's interior minister says that more flights with asylum-seekers will arrive in the coming week.

INSKEEP: So he's a Honduran. He's fleeing the Central American country where there's been a lot of violence. He said he wanted political asylum, and they flew him to Guatemala. What would normally have happened to him when he reached the U.S. under the old rules?

MARTIN: Well, he'd probably be detained in the U.S. or released in the U.S. until his case would be heard. People from Central America could come to the border and apply for asylum there. Or they could apply in a safe third country, which, until now, was only Canada. And if they came to the U.S. border, they usually would be allowed to stay while awaiting an asylum hearing. But under the new accord, Ardon and others will be sent back to Guatemala.

INSKEEP: OK. How are people responding, then, where you are in Guatemala, the destination of this man and other - apparently other asylum-seekers?

MARTIN: Yes. Well, this agreement has been widely unpopular in Guatemala among human rights groups, among civil society and everyday people. They ask, how can Guatemala be considered safe when thousands of Guatemalans are fleeing its high rates of violence and poverty each year and when the country can't even take care of its own people? The well-known migrant advocate and Catholic priest Mauro Verzeletti is among the Guatemalans who believe that Guatemala's government was pressured to accept the agreement.

MAURO VERZELETTI: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: "It was imposed on us," says Verzeletti, "placed before us like a sword and a cross for Guatemala to sign, under the threat of economic sanctions."

INSKEEP: Interesting point you make that Guatemala is supposed to be a country of refuge but has its own people fleeing their own stories of violence and heading toward the United States. Still, they're getting this first asylum-seeker. What's going to happen to him?

MARTIN: Well, that was a big question about him and about additional asylum-seekers sent back. Guatemala's minister of the interior, Enrique Degenhardt, has said that there are three options for returned people like him - Hondurans, Salvadorans. One is to be sent back - or to be sent to the jungle province of Peten - that's a remote and - hello?

INSKEEP: No, I'm still here. Keep going.

MARTIN: ...Of Peten - that's a remote and underdeveloped area and ripe with drug trafficking. Two, they could be sent back to Honduras or El Salvador. Or three, they could stay in Guatemala on their own under a Central American migration pact that allows free travel in the region. Ardon himself, this young man, has elected to go back to Honduras under a newly announced program of the international migration agency. And another question is, what will happen to the accord under the new president who takes office in January?

INSKEEP: OK. So started in Honduras, fled all the way to the United States, ended up back in Honduras. Maria Martin, thanks so much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMON TOBIN'S "ON A HILLTOP SAT THE MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.