News Brief: Barr On Capitol Hill, Venezuela Update, Visas For Veterans

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 1, 2019 10:46 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, Democrats already thought they had plenty to grill William Barr about today when he comes to testify before Congress.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now they have even more. That more came in the form of a letter that special counsel Robert Mueller wrote to Barr suggesting that the attorney general hadn't properly summarized Mueller's report. A lot of Democrats were already convinced of that. William Barr will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. It is his first appearance there since a redacted version of Mueller's report was released to the public.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell me about this letter.

LUCAS: Well, it takes a bit of explaining. There's a backstory here.

GREENE: OK.

LUCAS: So if you remember that weeks before the redacted Mueller report came out, Barr made public a four-page letter that contained the principal conclusions of Mueller's investigation.

GREENE: Right.

LUCAS: And Barr said that Mueller's team did not establish that there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. And he said that Mueller did not make a decision on obstruction of justice. Barr himself did, however, say he looked at the evidence and said it was insufficient to support a charge. We knew that Barr's characterization of the investigation frustrated some folks on Mueller's team. They thought that the attorney general was downplaying the severity of what investigators had found.

Well, it now turns out that Mueller himself had his own objections about Barr's handling of the matter, so he wrote this letter that we're talking about. He spelled out his concerns, thought that Barr did not fully capture the context, the nature, the substance of the special counsel's work. He feared that that would lead to public confusion.

The Justice Department says Barr called Mueller after he got this letter. The two discussed it. The department says that Mueller said that nothing in Barr's summary was inaccurate or misleading, but that Mueller was frustrated about the lack of context in the media coverage related to the question of obstruction of justice. That's the Justice Department's take. A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

GREENE: But doesn't this feed directly into the narrative the Democrats are pounding - that the attorney general has been running interference for this president. And that is, I mean, seems like the obvious thing that they're going to want to bring up directly with Barr today, right?

LUCAS: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. There's no doubt that this letter is going to feature in today's hearing. As you said, Democrats have been furious with Barr for weeks now over his handling of the whole Mueller investigation and the report. They weren't happy with the summary letter. They were perhaps even more upset about Barr's news conference right ahead of the report's public release. Barr echoed the president's language in that news conference - said no collusion, no obstruction. But of course, the report detailed nearly a dozen incidents in which the president allegedly tried to obstruct investigators.

Democrats do say that Barr has misled the public about Mueller's investigation and what it found. They say he's trying to shape the narrative in the president's favor. They are also accusing him, essentially, of acting as a defense attorney for the president and not as the attorney general for the American people. And they are going to use today's hearing, which will be publicly televised, to hammer him on all of those points. Now, Barr also has to talk to the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow and Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of that committee, has made clear that he wants not to just hear from Barr, but he also wants to hear from Mueller.

GREENE: Does the public want all this? I mean, do Democrats feel like they have public opinion on their side as they go after Barr aggressively and question all this?

LUCAS: Well, as we've seen for a while now a lot of people's views on the president are baked in. The Mueller report doesn't appear to change a whole lot on that. There's a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out today. A majority of Americans find Mueller's investigation to be fair. But more important than that, perhaps, more than half of the registered voters in the poll said Mueller's findings would not be an important factor in their 2020 vote.

GREENE: Interesting. All right. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas for us this morning. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. In Venezuela, the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, is making a direct plea for people to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: That video was posted on social media last night after yet another day of violent clashes. Guaido urged his supporters to take to the streets again today. He's also calling for the military to defect. Guaido has strong international support, including that of the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to CNN yesterday and said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: It's been a long time since anyone has seen Maduro. He had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay.

GREENE: All right. I'm joined now by Mariana Zuniga. She has been reporting on the situation for NPR. She's in Venezuela. Good morning.

MARIANA ZUNIGA, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So Pompeo is suggesting there that no one has seen Maduro. He had an airplane on the tarmac ready to leave, but Maduro has responded to all this on state television last night. What exactly is the president saying?

ZUNIGA: Yeah. After many hours - maybe almost 12 hours of silence - Maduro finally appeared on national TV saying - very calm, actually - saying that an investigation was on their way to find the responsibles of this coup that he said that was defeated. He said that five militaries were injured as a result of the clashes and that 80% of the militaries who were with Guaido were actually misleaded, that they actually accompanied the interim president because they were lied. He said that the military remain loyal to him and that he was - they will remain loyal in the coming days.

GREENE: And this is really a key question. I mean, you have Maduro calling this a coup attempt. You have the opposition saying that they have democracy on their side and that Guaido has a legitimate claim to be interim president here. So what do we know about the military? Are they sticking by Maduro, or are they beginning to move away from him?

ZUNIGA: Well, we still don't know what is the state of the uprising. We saw around 30 militaries yesterday with Guaido, but we don't know. We don't know how many militaries are currently supporting Guaido. For his part, Maduro keep insisting that the military is still back him. Also the Defense Ministry reinforce his support towards Maduro several times yesterday throughout the day. And it seems, just for the moment being, that the big part of the military is still supporting President Maduro. And maybe that it is important to say that in Venezuela, the military is not only supporting the government but is actually the government.

GREENE: All right. So a lot of questions and an unfolding political crisis in Venezuela. That's reporter Mariana Zuniga reporting from Venezuela for us. Mariana, thanks a lot.

ZUNIGA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: So veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been sounding the alarm about a broken promise.

MARTIN: Right. And that promise wasn't to them. It was actually the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, translators, others who served alongside those U.S. troops. Those people were told that in exchange for risking their own lives, as well as those of their families, they would get visas to the United States. But it looks like the U.S. may not be holding up its end of the deal.

GREENE: And I'm joined by NPR's Quil Lawrence, who's been reporting on this. Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: So tell me more about this program and why the number of visas would start dropping after this promise was made.

LAWRENCE: Right. So the Special Immigrant Visa program was set up for Iraqis and Afghans who served a certain amount of time with U.S. forces, and they were promised visas to the states after they did that. The Iraqi program has expired, technically, but there are still 100,000 Iraqis left in a backlog that's going through a separate process. Only 200 of them were admitted last year. I mean, at that rate, they'll die of old age a dozen times before they get here. The visas are also down about 60% in the Afghan program. Adam Bates is a lawyer from a group called the International Refugee Assistance Project.

ADAM BATES: It would be impossible to say that these substantial drops are not part of some policy. These are people who put themselves at risk on behalf of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and are facing threats because of that service to the U.S.

GREENE: And, Quil, I mean, I know you've been reporting on this and you've met some of the families impacted by this who are all too familiar with the risk that a lot of these people made helping U.S. troops, right?

LAWRENCE: Right. I mean, interpreters have been marked for death by insurgents throughout these conflicts because they've collaborated - they've worked with the U.S. And for this story, we spoke with the family of Khalid Al Baidhani. Khalid Al Baidhani was working for U.S. troops in Baghdad in 2006.

KHALID AL BAIDHANI: A car stopped right away, you know, and take out the pistol and start shooting me. Then I wasn't feel anything after that. I get shot.

LAWRENCE: So he survived these gunshot wounds, and then he went back to work with U.S. troops after that and so did his uncle and one of his brothers who - his uncle was later murdered by insurgents. Now, Khalid Al Baidhani is now in the U.S. He got this visa, but his family is still in danger in Baghdad. They had the visas issued. They sold their house and everything else they had. They were ready to come, and the day before their flight, they were told that their visas had been put on a security hold. And they're now back in this 100,000-person backlog.

GREENE: What? That's amazing. But you're saying that there are families - that it wouldn't be just one person in the family doing this. Multiple people in families would be serving in these roles, like, as interpreters.

LAWRENCE: Right. And their entire families would be under threat by the insurgents. It's particularly, you know, his father, his younger brother - they've all received death threats.

GREENE: Has the U.S. government responded to this and suggested why this program is slowing down?

LAWRENCE: We've gotten responses from the Department of Homeland Security, from the State Department, essentially saying that they are trying to speed up the program, but they have added new layers of security. And security is their top priority. Now, 30 congressmen from both parties - congresspeople from both parties, some of them veterans, have written the Trump administration asking, why this slowdown? They just received a response essentially saying that there are new layers of security that different government partners are trying to work through.

But advocates say this comes down to a promise that U.S. troops made to people who were serving with them in combat - their allies. And they've implied that if they break this promise now - and remember, these wars aren't over - what are people who are asked to work and help Americans going to think about this promise in the future?

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Quil Lawrence for us this morning. Quil, thanks so much for your reporting.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUPPIES' "LNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.