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News Brief: Venezuela, North Carolina Election, Syria Crisis


President Trump is starting his 2020 campaign with a push to change the president in a different country.


That's right. He was holding a rally in Miami yesterday. The crowd there was mostly Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants. And President Trump repeated his call for Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, to go.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Maduro not a Venezuelan patriot. He is a Cuban puppet.

GREENE: The president reiterated U.S. support for opposition leader Juan Guaido, and he called on the Venezuelan military to abandon Maduro or risk losing everything.

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley with us this morning. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What are the politics behind this speech? I mean, who was the president's intended audience?

HORSLEY: Well, this was partly aimed at the military and other parts of the Venezuelan government who've been propping up Maduro. You know, some 50 other countries have now joined the U.S. in supporting the National Assembly president, Juan Guaido, as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.

MARTIN: Right.

HORSLEY: And Trump is calling on those who are supporting Maduro in Venezuela to do the same.


TRUMP: The eyes of the entire world are upon you - today, every day and every day in the future. You cannot hide from the choice that now confronts you.

HORSLEY: But, Rachel, this speech was also directed at the audience of Venezuelan expats right there in South Florida, a group that is overwhelmingly opposed to the Maduro government and, by the way, a group that could be a big source of support for the president in a 2020 swing state

MARTIN: Right. Florida - kind of important. So that's the politics. What about the policy? I mean, what is the next move for the Trump administration when it comes to Venezuela?

HORSLEY: The president didn't telegraph his next move, although the White House always says all options are on the table. Of course, the big move that the Trump administration has taken is to impose economic sanctions on Venezuela's national oil company, starving Maduro of an important source of revenue. The U.S. is also trying to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people, although so far that aid has been mostly stopped at the Colombian border. But as we said, this speech was really more of a raucous political rally than a sober foreign policy address, where a lot of new policies were rolled out.

MARTIN: Right. And you can't really have a political rally right now in February of 2019 without projecting towards the 2020 election, can you? And the president took that opportunity.

HORSLEY: Just as he did in his State of the Union address, the president combined his attack on corrupt socialist government in Venezuela with left-leaning policies put forward by some Democrats here at home. He declared that socialism is dying across the Western Hemisphere, and he repeated his vow that America will never be a socialist country.

MARTIN: The implication, of course, being there that the Democrats would put forth some kind of socialist agenda that his base and perhaps others would not find palatable in the 2020 election. Scott Horsley, thank you for your time, as always.

HORSLEY: You're very welcome, Rachel.


MARTIN: OK. It has been months since the midterm elections. A new Congress has been sworn in, but one House seat remains in dispute.

GREENE: It sure does. That seat is in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District. Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready in an unofficial tally, but no result has been declared because of these allegations of fraud and misconduct.


KIM STRACH: We believe the evidence will show that a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated in the 2018 general election.

GREENE: That's the voice of Kim Strach. She's the executive director of North Carolina's state elections board. That was at a hearing yesterday where investigators are detailing what they have learned, and that hearing is going to go on today.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks has been covering this story from the beginning and joins us now. Hey, Miles

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So unlawful, coordinated scheme - can you just remind us about the scope of these charges? What are we talking about?

PARKS: Right. So the investigation is centered on a man named McCrae Dowless, who was working as a political contractor for Republican Mark Harris' campaign. Dowless is alleged to have been paying people to register voters, as well as paying people to pick up ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina. What's still unclear is whether Dowless turned in all the ballots he and his team collected or whether they were manipulated or thrown away or anything like that. The numbers in the county where Dowless worked were really tilted toward Harris in a way that made the state board, as well as election watchers nationally, really suspicious.

MARTIN: So this - these hearings are happening, right? Who testified, and what was communicated during the hearing?

PARKS: Right. So day one was taken up mostly by Dowless' former stepdaughter. Her name is Lisa Britt, and she said Dowless paid her to pick up people's ballots. She also said she even filled out some down-ballot races for people who left them blank, basically as a means to get rid of a red flag for the state board of elections. The most dramatic moment of the day came when Britt was talking about how Dowless actually tried to interfere in the state board's investigation. Britt said Dowless reached out to her multiple times, and he even tried to tell her exactly what to say at Monday's hearing.

MARTIN: So what is Dowless himself saying?

PARKS: Nothing at this point. He was actually called to testify at the end of the day yesterday, but that didn't end up happening. Basically, he wasn't compelled legally to testify because under state law, for the board to do that, they would have had to also grant him immunity from being prosecuted for that testimony at a later date. Here's board chair Robert Cordle.


ROBERT CORDLE: And this board is unwilling to give a witness here, and particularly Mr. Dowless, immunity from his testimony.

PARKS: Dowless' attorney, Cynthia Singletary, told reporters after the hearing that Dowless would, quote, "love to testify under the right circumstances," but she did not elaborate on what those right circumstances would have to be.

MARTIN: But, clearly, there's still some legal jeopardy ahead perhaps for him. Is the end game a new election? I mean, what happens with the seat?

PARKS: That's definitely one possibility. The board is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, and they need to come to some sort of bipartisan agreement at the end of this hearing to either hold a new election or to certify Harris. If they don't, then Harris does technically get certified no matter what. But that certification goes to the U.S. House to approve it or deem the seat vacant. A lot of this just depends on what is the exact amount of fraud or manipulation that deems an entire election in an entire congressional district moot.

We know that Dowless and his team filled out more than a thousand registration forms, but we still don't know how many ballots were actually affected by them and how close that actually was to Harris' 900-vote lead. We may never know exactly how many ballots Dowless and his team affected.

MARTIN: What about broader implications of this case?

PARKS: Well, we know that Democrats in the House have decided to make election security a big priority now that they control the chamber. So you can definitely see the writing on the wall, if this does end up being deadlocked at the state level and get to the national level, that Democrats in the House will - can make this a sort of rallying cry. We saw that in Georgia, and we saw that in Florida in the midterms, as well, with election administration. People I've talked to in the elections world have also been really interested in the fact that President Trump hasn't weighed in yet.

MARTIN: Right. Because he has done so on this issue before when it was to his advantage, even though those claims were unsubstantiated. NPR's Miles Parks, thanks.

PARKS: Thank you.


MARTIN: All right. We're going to turn now to Syria and the last stand of ISIS in the region.

GREENE: Yeah, and a pretty tense situation. So here it is. You have U.S. forces in Syria. They are holding hundreds of ISIS fighters who traveled to Syria from Europe. The Trump administration is getting ready to pull its troops out of the country, and as part of that, they want European countries to take responsibility for those prisoners by accepting them back to their home countries.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this closely and joins us now from Beirut. Hey, Ruth.


MARTIN: So we're talking about hundreds - 800 prisoners - that the U.S. is holding that have kind of a European connection, are from Europe. What are European nations saying? Are they going to take these prisoners back?

SHERLOCK: Well, I mean, first of all, the problem is actually much bigger than just the 800 prisoners. There's also about 2,000 women and children from some 46 countries that the Kurds are holding. So, you know, you've also got a lot of civilians. Over a thousand of these people are children.


SHERLOCK: But - yeah. But taking these people back is very politically unpalatable for many European countries. So Britain has stripped some of these people of their nationality. Belgium and France apparently tried to strike a deal whereby they'd take back the children but not the women and certainly not the male prisoners. President Trump is now urging them to take these people back, but so far, France has responded by sort of ignoring that request, saying, no, we're going to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

The Kurds that are holding them, by the same token, are also afraid to just release these people because, you know, should there ever be a terror attack in Europe in the future and should ever be traced back to any of these people, that would be very dangerous for them, too. They would get blamed.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, the fight against ISIS continues, even though President Trump keeps insisting that their defeat is near. How much ISIS - how much territory does ISIS actually still hold in Syria?

SHERLOCK: Well, it comes down to a few hundred square meters. And it's really just a hamlet of tents now. You can actually look through binoculars and see people moving around. They can't take this area, though, because there are lots of civilians, locals - fighters I've spoken to estimate there's over a thousand civilians - that's U.S.-backed fighters. Most of these are hostages that ISIS have taken or families of ISIS fighters. So negotiations are underway to try to find a solution to this. I should say, that though the territory that ISIS controls is about to be taken back, ISIS remains a threat, according to U.S. officials. The group itself is not defeated.

MARTIN: Right. And, of course, all this is affecting countless civilians. And you have been to Syria. You have heard some of these stories. Can you just give us a sense of what life is like right now?

SHERLOCK: It's terrible. The conditions in al-Hol camp that we went to, the main camp for where people from this area have been fleeing, are awful. People can't even get tents in some situations. The International Rescue Committee says that more than 60 people have died trying to leave this area and get - or once they arrive in the camp. And overall, you know, entire swathes of northeastern Syria and the whole city of Raqqa has been decimated in the fight against ISIS. So civilians are suffering desperately. Many thousands have died, and many don't have their home. They don't have homes to go to any longer.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock for us this morning. Ruth, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.


David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.