News Brief: Impeachment Trial, New Coronavirus, Smartphone Voting

Jan 22, 2020
Originally published on January 22, 2020 7:08 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Today, the Senate will hear opening statements in President Trump's impeachment trial. The House Democrats are up first. They're going to be making their case over the next three days.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But we had a preview of the case yesterday when Democrats were sparring with the White House over the rules for this trial. Democrat Adam Schiff, the leading House impeachment manager, said this yesterday.

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ADAM SCHIFF: In the name of national security, he would hide graphic evidence of his dangerous misconduct. The only question is - and it is the question raised by this resolution - will you let him?

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is in studio. Thanks for coming in, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

KING: So it was a long day yesterday. It finished what time?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, like, around 1:50 a.m.

KING: 1:50 in the morning, OK, a very long day. Let's break that day out into parts. Each side telegraphed what their strategy is going to be in this trial. What did we learn about what the Democrats are going to say and do?

ORDOÑEZ: We learned from the Democrats that they're going to push very, very hard for new testimony. Democrats want Trump's top aides to testify, and they want documents. They had an elaborate presentation at the beginning. They played earlier video of Trump saying he would love to have members of his Cabinet and others testify. They want to hear from former National Security Adviser John Bolton, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and others. All of these are people who the White House blocked from testifying in the House impeachment investigation. But the Democrats were unsuccessful in making the case that it should happen at the start of the trial. But they will try again and make the case for this leading up to a vote on the issue next week.

KING: OK. That's the Democrats. What did we learn about the argument that the White House is going to make?

ORDOÑEZ: They are going to argue that if the Democrats wanted to hear from these officials that they should have given them the subpoenas and enforced them in court instead of rushing their case into the Senate. They'll argue it's not the Senate's role to do the Democrats' job for them. They accused Democrats of trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election, which obviously Trump won, and also interfere in the upcoming election. Here's Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel.

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PAT CIPOLLONE: They're asking the Senate to attack one of the most sacred rights we have as Americans - the right to choose our president in an election year. It's never been done before.

ORDOÑEZ: I just want to note that this is the first time we've seen Cipollone in action. He's leading the defense. He's more of a behind-the-scenes guy, so this is all kind of new for him. But Trump likes lawyers who are good on TV, so you can expect that he's watching Cipollone's performance. And he's definitely paying attention. Trump retweeted video of Cipollone while traveling in Davos, Switzerland, for a leaders conference. And just this morning, he commended the team, saying they are doing a very good job and that he has a great case.

KING: OK. And then so this afternoon, we see opening statements are going to start. There was a fight - right? - about how long opening statements would last. What did we end up landing on?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. The Democrats and the Republicans were fighting over the amount of time Mitch McConnell originally had put in the rules - two days of testimony - but yesterday switched, and now we have three days of testimony. I think it is safe to expect that after yesterday's marathon session, Democrats will use most of those three days they have for opening statements. That means we can expect opening statements from the President's defense team to begin on Saturday. And we expect that could also continue well into next week.

KING: OK. NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much. And NPR's Politics Podcast will be covering the impeachment trial all the way through, so if you want more of this, you can find it there.

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KING: We've been reporting all week on this new deadly virus that first appeared in China. Now it has reached the United States.

GREENE: Yeah. It sure has. A 30-year-old man from Everett city, Wash., became the first confirmed U.S. case of a new coronavirus strain. The man recently returned from the central Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus is believed to have originated. This is Washington's governor, Jay Inslee, at a press conference yesterday.

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JAY INSLEE: This is certainly not a moment for panic or high anxiety. It is a moment for vigilance.

GREENE: So at least nine people have died so far, more than 450 are infected, and that includes 15 medical staffers. China's National Health Commission says there's evidence of this virus spreading through respiratory transmission. That means coughing or sneezing. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, is going to convene a panel of experts today to decide whether this outbreak should be classified as a global health emergency.

KING: NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng has been following all of this from China. Hey, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So this virus has a lot of people pretty nervous. What is the Chinese government doing to contain it, to physically contain it?

FENG: Well, they've been very careful so far. They, this week, just started screening random cars that are going in and out of Wuhan to make sure that wild animals, which is believed to be the cause behind this virus, aren't transported in and out of the city. They have been doing temperature checks on people who are going through trains, on planes, to and from Wuhan. But so far, they haven't called for a full-out travel ban, in part because they don't want to cause mass hysteria but also because we're approaching a major holiday season in China, and the effects could be economically disastrous.

KING: Is the government treating this virus as a serious risk to the public? It sounds a little bit like they're not sure exactly how serious they think it is or how serious they want to telegraph that it is.

FENG: So far, they have taken it really slowly, and it's really only been the last three days that the perceived seriousness of this problem and thus the government response has been much more aggressive. But it's been 3 1/2 weeks since the first case was reported. The problem is that they don't really know what the cause of the virus still is. They don't know what type of animal may have caused the virus. And they're still not totally sure that human-to-human transmission through respiratory means is how it's spreading.

KING: Yeah. We talked to a virologist yesterday who said there's a lot of things that are unknown at this point, which is what's making people so worried. So how are people in Wuhan and other Chinese cities feeling about this? Are people panicking?

FENG: They're skeptical, first of all, of what the government is telling them, and there's definitely anxiety. I mean, there's - everyone on the streets today in Beijing are wearing face masks. It's actually really hard to get them right now. And luckily, NPR has a bunch stockpiled up from air pollution days...

KING: Oh, dear.

FENG: ...But now we can use them for another reason, for coronavirus. But the reason why there's skepticism is there's been this sudden jump in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in China. As of today, there are more than 450, but 3 1/2 weeks ago, it stayed steady around 60. And then all of a sudden, four days ago, you saw the number of cases jump from 60 to the 450 we see today. A lot of residents have asked themselves is that because of the time it takes to screen and diagnose these people, or is it because local governments have been dragging their feet in disclosing these cases? There's been one study that estimates about 1,700 people should have this illness by now. China refutes that. Here is Gao Fu, who is director of China's disease control center.

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GAO FU: (Through interpreter) This is a mathematical model. The number you are referring to was the maximum in the range predicted. Faced with viruses like this, facts must be facts and theories are just theories.

FENG: So they're very careful about controlling information, but they also have a history of underreporting previous disease outbreaks.

KING: OK. NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Thank you.

KING: NPR will have more reporting on the case in the United States on air and in our podcasts.

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KING: All right. So here is a question for our times - whether some new technology is a leap into the future or whether it's a potential security risk.

GREENE: Right. And that is - the question is being asked as voters in King County, Wash., - that is the home of the city of Seattle - are going to be able to cast ballots in an election from their living rooms over the Internet. This is about 1.2 million voters. Now, although there have been a few experiments like this here and there, this is going to be the first time all eligible voters will be able to vote on smartphones. And this is not only important for its own sake. This is also happening, of course, in the context of intense national attention on election security.

KING: NPR's Miles Parks is the first person to report on this story. Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KING: So it sounds so temptingly easy to just push a button on your phone. Why did officials in King County decide to do this?

PARKS: To try and increase turnout is the short answer. This is a pilot program. And to be clear, it's not going to be used in the presidential primary or in the presidential election this year. This is for a Board of Supervisors election in the King Conservation District. This is the small state environmental agency. And if you have not heard of it, do not be alarmed. There seem to be a lot of voters in King County who have also not heard of it. Now, a similar election to this one last year gathered less than 4,000 eligible voters to cast ballots in a 1.2 million-person district. That's less than half of 1% of a turnout rate. So officials there wanted to make a change and try to increase participation.

KING: OK. That's interesting. So the stakes are lower because fewer people generally turn out. But authorities are saying that's the whole reason we want to do this, to get more people to turn out. Let's say I want to still go to just a regular old polling place. Could I do that?

PARKS: Yeah. The short answer is yes. The traditional voting will still be allowed in this election. If you do want to use the new system, though, basically any eligible voter will be able to use their name and birth date and be able to log into a web portal through the Internet browser on their smartphone. They'll log in, get a ballot, fill it out, be taken to a signature screen, which they'll sign on their smartphone, and then submit the ballot. The ballot then makes its way to the King County Elections office where they'll print it out if your signature matches. To count it, they'll actually count that paper that gets printed out.

KING: Super easy. Russia, obviously, successfully interfered in the 2016 election, and that has really shaken the faith of some people in our elections. What do cybersecurity experts say about this plan in King County?

PARKS: So it's hard to find cybersecurity experts who aren't in some way tied to this plan who are actually supportive of it. The Senate Intelligence Committee in their Russian interference report that was released last year said explicitly that states should resist the push for mobile voting. On a whole, there's a spectrum. Some people think we aren't ready yet, but we will be one day for mobile voting. And others say, no way, never. Elections should never be this tied to the Internet. I talked to Duncan Buell, who's a computer science expert at the University of South Carolina. He's pretty pessimistic about the security, but he says that won't stop the expansion.

DUNCAN BUELL: Until we have a total collapse of some election, I think this sort of thing is going to continue because people want to believe that, you know, they can do everything on their phones.

PARKS: Buell said the companies developing this sort of technology were trying to make sure that all the votes from Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are counted correctly, if that gives you any idea of how he feels about the security.

KING: NPR's Miles Parks, thanks so much.

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