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News Brief: Trump Impeachment, Russian Government, U.S-China Trade


So was President Trump in the know about all that was unfolding in Ukraine? Lev Parnas says yes. The Soviet-born businessman is a key figure in the impeachment case against the president.


Remember; he is an associate of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and Parnas was part of the campaign to pressure Ukraine's government to investigate the Bidens. In an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow that aired last night, Parnas accused President Trump and a number of other high-ranking administration officials of direct involvement in the plot.


LEV PARNAS: It was all about Joe Biden, Hunter Biden. And also, Rudy had a personal thing with the Manafort stuff, the black ledger. And that was another thing that they were looking into, but it was never about corruption.

MARTIN: Documents and text messages seem to collaborate parts of Parnas' story, but some lawmakers now question his credibility.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas to unpack this for us. Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: We hear this name, Lev Parnas, a lot, but can you just remind us exactly who he is and why he might be breaking his silence now?

LUCAS: Right. So Parnas played a key role in helping Giuliani dig up dirt in Ukraine on Joe Biden. He actively engaged with Ukrainian officials in text messages, met with them in person. Parnas was indicted in October by federal prosecutors in New York on campaign finance charges. Those are not directly related to his work with Giuliani in Ukraine.

Parnas has pleaded not guilty to those charges, but he is under a lot of legal pressure. His lawyer has been waging this campaign on social media in which he tries to stress how much he says Parnas knows. His lawyer has said Parnas wants to tell lawmakers what he knows, but his lawyer has in the past raised the question of immunity for Parnas in exchange for telling his story. So that would be very tricky to pull off. But it's important to remember that Parnas does have his own motivations here.

GREENE: OK. So given that, I mean, he does this interview. And we should say what he said, you know, much - some of it we know is true, some of it are allegations coming from him. But he makes these blunt claims on MSNBC. What exactly is he saying here?

LUCAS: So one of the biggest allegations that he makes relates to President Trump and his knowledge or awareness of what Giuliani and Parnas were up to in Ukraine. Here's a bit of what Parnas said.


PARNAS: President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all of my movements. He - I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.

LUCAS: Now Parnas did not say that the president directed his actions personally or that he spoke directly with the president himself about what he and Giuliani were doing in Ukraine, but he said Giuliani did keep the president abreast. And Parnas claims that their efforts were never about combating corruption in Ukraine. It was, as we heard in that clip at the top, all about Joe Biden.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about this. I mean, in addition to his interview, we saw some of Parnas's text messages released on Tuesday night, and they seemed to suggest that former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was under surveillance. What did he say about that?

LUCAS: So Parnas tried to play that down. He tried to distance himself from the other individual who was in those text messages. He says that that individual was not credible. He didn't believe himself. Parnas said that Yovanovitch was actually being monitored. But he said that he and Giuliani were, yes, working very hard to get Yovanovitch removed from her post as ambassador to Ukraine. Here's a clip of him being asked about why they wanted her out.


RACHEL MADDOW: Do you believe that part of the motivation to get rid of Ambassador Yovanovitch, to get her out of post, was because she was in the way of this effort to get the government of Ukraine to announce investigations of Joe Biden?

PARNAS: That was the only motivation.

LUCAS: And Yovanovitch, of course, was abruptly recalled from Kyiv in May of 2019.

GREENE: So could all this affect the impeachment trial in the Senate?

LUCAS: There is little indication at this point that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is open to calling witnesses, is open to new evidence. And, of course, he said just yesterday that the Senate trial is going to kick off on Tuesday.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks as always.

LUCAS: Thank you.


GREENE: OK, so China has signed this partial trade deal with the United States after what's been an 18-month trade war between the world's two biggest economies.

MARTIN: President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu signed the, quote, "phase one deal," during a White House ceremony yesterday. Both sides promise stronger protections against economic misbehavior, like currency manipulation and technology theft. China also said it would buy about $200 billion more of American goods over the next two years. President Trump told Americans the deal is momentous. How is China presenting the agreement to its people?

GREENE: Well, let's ask NPR Beijing correspondent Emily Feng, who's with us. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hello. Good morning.

GREENE: So Beijing reveals the text of its side of the phase one trade deal today. What exactly is in the text they're revealing there?

FENG: Luckily, it's exactly what was in the U.S. text. The China's...

GREENE: I guess that's a good thing if the two countries agreed on...

FENG: Yeah, there would have been a problem if there were a difference.


FENG: And people were worried that there might be a difference because China's Ministry of Commerce had waited about 12 hours until after the U.S. released its version of this interim trade truce. And if China's version were off substantially, then that would mean there were differences in what the two sides agreed on. But as soon as they dropped the text this morning, 12 hours after the U.S. did, my producer and I went through it, and there were no differences whatsoever. The same exchanges are there, commitments to things like no technology theft or currency manipulation.

But the trade war isn't over. The vast majority of U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods remain, about $370 billion worth of goods. So this is just a pause.

GREENE: And that leads me to ask about how this is being characterized because you have President Trump saying in the United States that this deal is momentous. But as you say, a lot of these tariffs remain in place. I mean, I wonder how Chinese officials are characterizing it and what that might tell us.

FENG: Well, they've been way more cautious. And there was way less of pomp and circumstance in the state media coverage of the trade truce. President Trump had cast this trade truce as a win for the U.S. China today really emphasized that many of the provisions in this agreement actually strengthened China's economy and are part of these long-term reforms that they'd already been undertaking.

And they're, in part, right because a number of the items, such as protections for intellectual property, greater access to China's market for U.S. banks and financial institutions, those are items that China had already been working towards and very much want. They want to be more embedded in the international financial system. Instead, a lot of the more intractable, thornier issues - things like China's massive state subsidies to its technology and manufacturing companies that then disadvantage American firms - those issues were left out of this trade truce, and they'll have to be talked about in a so-called phase two trade truce.

GREENE: Well, what about the one thing that Rachel mentioned, that China's reportedly promising to buy, like, $200 billion worth of more American goods? I mean, that would be more than China's ever purchased from the U.S. Is that even realistic?

FENG: It is possible. China's a state-run economy. And so it can tell its state-run firms, which dominate a lot of economic activity, that they need to buy certain things that will probably come at the expense of other countries that sell to China. But what China has kept hinting at is that it will only make such large purchases if it's in its own interest. So it's not entirely clear they will actually make good on this key commitment in the trade truce.

Today in a major state-run editorial, they said they'll buy $200 billion worth of U.S. goods over the next two years, but only if those goods are priced competitively and that they benefit the companies. And if Chinese companies don't find it in their interest to buy those goods and they don't meet that quota, well, that's now up to the U.S. to enforce that commitment.

GREENE: All right, some important caveats there. NPR Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, let's go now to Russia, where there is a new prime minister.

MARTIN: Right. And by itself, that might not seem like a big deal. But when it comes to the Kremlin, there's often a subtext, right? And in this case, it has to do with the tenure of President Vladimir Putin.

GREENE: Right. Let's check in with our own resident Kremlin watcher, NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK, so yesterday, Putin comes out and announced changes to Russia's government. What exactly is he saying here?

KIM: Well, yesterday, Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address. And he started out by saying he was making this speech earlier in the year than normal because there were a whole lot of changes he wanted to implement.



KIM: He's saying there's a demand in Russian society for change. And he went on to lay out a whole raft of amendments to the Russian constitution, which include giving the Russian parliament more power and limiting the number of terms of the next Russian president. Analysts are already saying this is the end of what Russians call the country's super-presidential form of government.

Just a few hours later, the whole Russian Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, unexpectedly resigned. And if that wasn't surprising enough, Putin then nominated the head of the Tax Service as the new prime minister. His name is Mikhail Mishustin, and he is not at all a household name.

GREENE: OK, so this all sounds very complicated, as often is the case with political moves in Russia. So that's what Putin did. Talk about his motivation. What's up here?

KIM: Well, yeah, it looks like the news here is the Russian government resigns. But I think the real news is Putin lays the groundwork for staying in power indefinitely. Let's remember that Putin has been in power for 20 years, and his biggest conundrum is how to stay in power after 2024, when his current presidential term runs out.

So what happened yesterday gives us some really important hints on how he plans to solve this problem. First of all, by dumping the current Cabinet, he's responding to dissatisfaction among Russians about a sluggish economy. He's getting rid of a very unpopular prime minister. And more long term, Putin is signaling with these constitutional changes that he does not plan to stay in the office of president indefinitely. That's why he's ready to curb these presidential powers.

Very significant is that one of the constitutional changes he wants to make is strengthening a practically unknown body known as the State Council. There's a lot of speculation that Putin will stay in power now as the head of that State Council, letting him really continue to run Russia from behind the scenes without having to deal with the daily grind of governance.

GREENE: So if the most important leader of the country would now be running something like a State Council and would not be president, I mean, it sounds like this could fundamentally change how this country is run, no?

KIM: Well, in some ways. And in some ways, it means that there will be a continuity. There was a lot of uncertainty in Russia about what happens after 2024. And what Putin is doing right now is he's setting a clear signal - I'm staying in power, and this is how I'm going to do it.

GREENE: So structural changes, but the same guy at the top. So some things remain the same for maybe a very long time.

KIM: Exactly.

GREENE: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow trying to clear up exactly what was taking place in Russia with this big political news yesterday. Lucian, thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.