News Brief: Impeachment Trial, Mideast Peace Plan, Ukraine Trip

Jan 29, 2020
Originally published on January 29, 2020 7:19 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much longer could a Senate impeachment trial go? And who might show up to testify?

NOEL KING, HOST:

We could start to find out by the end of this week. President Trump's lawyers finished their arguments yesterday. His lawyer Jay Sekulow said the president's effort to have his political rivals investigated fell far below the level of impeachable offenses.

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JAY SEKULOW: Danger. Danger. Danger. To lower the bar of impeachment based on these articles of impeachment would impact the functioning of our constitutional republic and the framework of that Constitution for generations.

KING: At this point, each side has had three days for arguments. But depending on how the Senate sets the rules, these could come to seem like opening arguments. Lawmakers now have two days to ask the lawyers questions. And by Friday, they expect to vote on allowing witnesses.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been covering all this and is in our studios once again. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: We should note that many, if not most, Republicans don't want to be calling witnesses. But can Senate Majority Mitch McConnell block witnesses?

GRISALES: It's possible he can. There are some Republicans open to witnesses. But it's still not clear that it would happen without any bipartisan talks in the works. We know of at least three Republicans - Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah - who are open.

INSKEEP: Oh, three Republicans. They need four along with all the Democrats, right...

GRISALES: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...To get witnesses? OK. Go on.

GRISALES: Exactly. So we're not quite sure who that fourth could be or if they need a fifth or a sixth to give that fourth cover. And so these three were emboldened by reports by The New York Times documenting that former National Security Adviser John Bolton was saying the president told him directly to withhold this aid to Ukraine until they got a commitment for political investigations. Let's take a listen to Murkowski.

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LISA MURKOWSKI: I think that Bolton probably has something to offer us. So we'll figure out how we're going to learn more.

GRISALES: But even so, as we mentioned, Democrats need four Republicans to flip the chamber to call these witnesses. And it's not clear they'll get that support in time for this critical vote Friday.

INSKEEP: OK. So the defense was arguing, as we heard from Jay Sekulow, that the president's conduct doesn't rise to an impeachable offense. They're essentially not denying that he did what he did regarding Ukraine, but that it's not impeachable, especially on the eve of an election. Let's listen to some of that. Here's White House lawyer Pat Cipollone.

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PAT CIPOLLONE: What they are asking you to do is to throw out a successful president on the eve of an election with no basis and in violation of the Constitution. It would dangerously change our country and weaken - weaken - forever all of our democratic institutions. You all know that's not in the interest of the American people. Why not trust the American people with this decision? Why tear up their ballots?

INSKEEP: Yeah. I have to note a point of history. When Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, part of the reason that just enough lawmakers rejected the impeachment was because they didn't want to shift the balance of power between Congress and the president. So this is the argument that's being made now in 2020. How are Senate Republicans responding?

GRISALES: They're actually using this as a talking point. Several Republicans agree with this. They might not agree with how the president conducted this July call with the leader of Ukraine seeking these investigations, but they don't believe it rises to the level of an impeachable offense to remove the president so close to an election.

INSKEEP: How do the questions work today, the questions and answers starting today?

GRISALES: The senators submit these questions in writing. They're alternated between Republicans and Democrats. Chief Justice John Roberts will pose these to the legal teams. And on Friday, soon after these two days of questions, the Senate will turn to the issue of witnesses. And we expect a vote on that. And if it fails, they'll quickly move to this final question on whether to remove or acquit this president.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thanks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales. And to get even more coverage of the impeachment trial, try the NPR Politics Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.

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INSKEEP: The president of the Palestinian Authority offered a response to a peace plan. Mahmoud Abbas says, quote, "a thousand times, no."

KING: He was talking about a proposal shaped by the Trump administration in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was with President Trump yesterday when this deal was unveiled. The president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, oversaw the plan. And on Al-Jazeera yesterday, he defended it against Palestinian criticism.

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JARED KUSHNER: I think that with the whole peace process in general, people are right to be skeptical. There is a problem that has been unsolved for many, many years. And what I find is a lot of the criticism we get are from people who have tried to do this in the past and who have failed. And then they criticize us for not doing it the same way that they've done it.

KING: This proposal offers Palestinians what the White House calls a state with limits. Now, Netanyahu has talked in the past of a state-minus, meaning a Palestinian entity that's not totally sovereign.

INSKEEP: So what does this peace plan do if it were to become reality? Naomi Zeveloff, a reporter, is in Tel Aviv. Hi there.

NAOMI ZEVELOFF, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What are the main points in these 80 pages?

ZEVELOFF: Well, there's a lot in this for Israel. Israel gets to keep its settlements and nearly all of Jerusalem. And there are a lot of limits on Palestinians. Trump says the Palestinians get a state, but the territory would be broken up and surrounded by Israel. And this so-called state would be demilitarized. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is calling it the smack of the century.

INSKEEP: OK. So he says that. But what kinds of responses are you hearing from - on the ground from both sides?

ZEVELOFF: Well, Israelis are liking this plan because they get to keep the settlements and lots of West Bank land. But for Palestinians, it's a non-starter, partly because of the issue of Jerusalem. Palestinians want a capital there, but this plan only gives them a foothold on the outskirts of the city. And it's important to note that Israel would still maintain overarching security control. It seems like Israel could even still make arrests in the Palestinian state, which is how things work today in the occupied West Bank.

INSKEEP: Now, I don't want to suggest that the United States is saying to the Palestinians, we hardly care if you agree to this or not. That might be a little extreme. But U.S. officials have been saying that even if Palestinians reject the deal, Israel may begin annexing areas of the occupied West Bank. Isn't that a big break from the past?

ZEVELOFF: Yes. And this is already rippling through Israel. An Israeli official told me last night that Israel's Cabinet will vote to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank really soon. It could even happen within days.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ZEVELOFF: This is also related, of course, to internal Israeli politics. Israel's having its third election in a year in March. And Netanyahu is struggling to survive politically. And annexation is a big deal to his right-wing base.

INSKEEP: What are people saying in countries surrounding this conflict?

ZEVELOFF: So there have been a lot of negative reactions. Jordan warned against the annexation of Palestinian lands. And Turkey called the plan stillborn. But it wasn't a situation of unanimous rejection. Some close U.S. allies in the region were offering cautious support. The Saudi crown prince is urging the Palestinian Authority president to consider it.

INSKEEP: OK, Naomi, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

ZEVELOFF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Naomi Zeveloff in Tel Aviv.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on his way to Ukraine.

KING: That's right. After meetings in London today, Pompeo will go to the country at the center of President Trump's impeachment. Now, it's a fraught visit, made even more so by something that happened last week. In a talk with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, the chief U.S. diplomat got his hackles up at questions about Ukraine. And afterward, he told her that Americans don't care about Ukraine.

INSKEEP: One of our most experienced reporters, NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, is covering this story. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So is there an argument that Americans should care for Ukraine?

KELEMEN: Yeah. Well, Bill Taylor did try to answer that question in an op-ed in The New York Times this week. He was until recently the acting ambassador there and was among those who testified in the impeachment hearings in the House. And he put it this way, he said - and this is a quote - "Ukraine is defending itself and the West against Russian attack. If Ukraine succeeds, we succeed."

And he pointed out that Russian-led forces are still fighting Ukrainians in the east of the country. And he said Ukraine's also on the front lines of an information war as Russia tries to weaken Western alliances.

INSKEEP: Now, we do have that remark that Noel mentioned from Secretary of State Pompeo. What else has he said about Ukraine?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, in public, he says that it's U.S. policy to support Ukraine and push back against Russian aggression. One official describing the goal of the trip said that this was to underscore America's strong and unwavering support. But Secretary Pompeo is always careful not to say anything that goes against his boss, especially now during this impeachment process.

Remember, the president's accused of abusing his power, holding up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations that could help him politically. Ukraine's president also has tried to steer clear of domestic U.S. politics. So that's one thing going in Pompeo's favor this week because both he and the Ukrainian president want this visit to go well. And I should say, U.S. diplomats in Kyiv also want this to go well.

INSKEEP: They want it to go well. But there is this awkward backdrop, including this difficult interview that Pompeo had. And perhaps the most difficult portion was where he was asked about Marie Yovanovitch and when he had ever supported Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador who was removed. That story has taken on more intensity in recent days because audio recordings have surfaced of the president saying that he wanted Yovanovitch fired long before she was. And also there are indications she may have been tracked. Is the State Department itself investigating any of this?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, I've been told a diplomatic security team was out at the embassy looking into that. Ukrainians also opened investigation. Again, Pompeo has been very quiet about that. We might hear about it this week. As for Yovanovitch, she was facing this disinformation campaign. Pompeo has not publicly supported her. But I've heard that he did privately kind of fend off the pressure for a little while. I mean, remember this push to take her out, as the president was caught on tape saying, started a year before she was actually recalled.

INSKEEP: Oh, that might suggest why he would want to suggest in public that he did defend her but maybe wouldn't want to say that at all because that would cross the president. Is that it?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he doesn't say anything that's going to cross the president. And I should also just remind you, Steve, that Trump has still not named a new ambassador to Ukraine. The embassy is run by a career diplomat. And as I mentioned, Bill Taylor left earlier this month. I'm told Pompeo didn't want him, a key figure in this impeachment drama, in any of his meetings in Kyiv.

INSKEEP: Michele, thanks for your insights, as always.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's one of our best. NPR's Michele Kelemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.