News Brief: McGahn Ruling, Impeachment Probe, Colombia Protests

Nov 26, 2019
Originally published on November 26, 2019 7:33 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Faced with congressional subpoenas, the White House cannot just say no.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's the ruling of a federal judge. Congress wants to question the former White House counsel Don McGahn. President Trump's administration refused. This pitted Congress against the administration, which is to say, one branch of government pitted against another.

So they asked the third branch, the courts, to referee. And Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson called the foul on the administration. Her order includes the line, no one is above the law. Her judgment has implications for other current and former White House officials.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering this story. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why did the judge reject the White House claim of executive privilege, a claim to some privacy for the president and people around him?

LUCAS: So Judge Jackson rejected the White House's claim that senior advisers to the president are absolutely immune from testifying before Congress. She says that as a matter of law, presidential aides must appear before lawmakers if compelled to do so. She says advisers to the president can't just blow off a congressional subpoena on the basis of absolute immunity even if the president demands that they do so.

Put simply, she says - and this is a quote from the ruling. Quote, "the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings."

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I'm sorry. That's pretty strong for a court ruling. Go on.

LUCAS: It is strong language. And this ruling obviously is good news for Congress. But there is a bit of nuance here. The judge says that, yes, McGahn must appear. But Judge Jackson does not say that McGahn has to answer every question that the committee asks. In other words, the judge isn't saying that McGahn has to speak about matters covered by executive privilege.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is interesting. So there is a doctrine called executive privilege. The courts may well recognize it in certain cases. The thing that the judge rejects is the idea that the White House can just say no to everything. That's...

LUCAS: Exactly. Right.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is it exactly that Congress - House Democrats, we should emphasize...

LUCAS: Right

INSKEEP: ...They're the people in control of the House here. What do they want to know from Don McGahn?

LUCAS: So, remember, McGahn was White House counsel until about a year ago. So he was in Trump's inner circle during most of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. And he was a key witness for Mueller. McGahn provided investigators with his own firsthand knowledge about potential acts of obstruction by the president.

So lawmakers really, really wanted to hear from McGahn. They subpoenaed him in the spring for testimony. The White House then blocked McGahn from appearing, citing this legal opinion about absolute immunity for top presidential adviser.

INSKEEP: Well, could this court ruling in some way affect the impeachment proceedings that focus on Ukraine even though Don McGahn is not known to be part of that story?

LUCAS: Right. The administration has blocked other senior administration officials from testifying in the Ukraine matter. That includes acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman. Those two were both subpoenaed as part of the House impeachment inquiry; both refused to appear. In theory, yes, this ruling could provide political cover for individuals like those two who want to come forward and testify.

But there's no indication at this point that Mulvaney or Kupperman or former National Security Adviser John Bolton, for that matter, really do want to come forward and testify. The House wants Kupperman, for example, to abide by this ruling, has said so in court filings. But Kupperman's lawyer has said that his situation is different because it deals with national security. And therefore, he's not going to follow the McGahn ruling.

INSKEEP: OK. So for now, what we have is a ruling on Don McGahn. Is it possible the public could hear soon whatever he has to say?

LUCAS: Don't hold your breath, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK.

LUCAS: The Justice Department plans to appeal this. That will send this case to the D.C. Circuit. Any decision there's likely to be appealed as well. The stakes are high here. This is a separation powers question, as we said earlier. And while the Judiciary Committee has said that it wants to hear from McGahn, the House intelligence committee is leading the impeachment inquiry. It's going to start drawing up its report. So there is a constricted timeframe for all this to happen.

INSKEEP: Yet another news story that's compelling on its face and also a kind of civics lesson. Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Now, how did the House impeachment hearings play in Moscow?

MARTIN: It's a relevant question, here's why - President Trump faces scrutiny for his involvement in Ukraine, which is a country at war with Russia. Several impeachment witnesses made references to Russia in their testimony. The most notable was Fiona Hill, a former White House specialist on Eastern Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FIONA HILL: Right now, Russia's security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

MARTIN: Among those falsehoods, she said, inflating Ukraine's role in the 2016 election in a way that obscures Russia's interference.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is on the line from Moscow. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First, could you settle a question for us? Because there's been some debate here in the U.S. Fiona Hill testified that when President Trump's defenders play up Ukraine's role in the 2016 election, they're promoting a Kremlin narrative. Is that a Kremlin narrative?

KIM: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, just recently, President Vladimir Putin said publicly that he was grateful the U.S. is no longer blaming Russia for election interference and looking instead at what Ukraine did. Basically, anything that deflects from what happened in 2016 is positive for the Kremlin. And even more than that, anything that puts Ukraine in a negative light is even better from the Kremlin's point of view.

INSKEEP: Oh, because the Kremlin is leaning on Ukraine and is at war with Ukraine. How did the Kremlin respond, more broadly, to these impeachment hearings?

KIM: Well, actually, the Kremlin has largely declined to make any official comments on the hearings themselves. It seems they're mostly sitting back and watching chaos and division in the United States. Fiona Hill warned about repeating Russian narratives. And what's interesting is you do hear them all the time on Russian state TV.

State television refers to the impeachment hearings as a big political show and recently said everybody is too busy attacking President Trump to ask what the Bidens did in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. Going - actually picking up one of President Trump's narratives there. Well, what do Russian officials saying about the upcoming 2020 election, which is also part of the focus of this impeachment inquiry, of course?

KIM: Sure. Well, first of all, the Kremlin has always denied it ever interfered in the 2016 election and says of course it doesn't plan to interfere in 2020. Recently, it seems, though, that Russian leaders have been trolling the U.S. a bit. President Putin has publicly joked about meddling in 2020 and so has his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Here he is speaking at a conference in Paris earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The presidential elections are coming up in 2020, so how is Russia getting ready for that?

SERGEY LAVROV: We will resolve the problem. Don't worry.

KIM: So as you can hear, not a lot of people thought his joke was that funny.

INSKEEP: The U.S. did strike back at Russia in various ways for interfering in 2016. Does Moscow seem at all deterred?

KIM: Exactly. The U.S. struck back with sanctions. But I wouldn't say Moscow is deterred. There's actually been a huge development here in Europe. During the impeachment hearings, president - French President Emmanuel Macron has been reaching out to Russia. He will be hosting a summit between Presidents Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Putin in a couple of weeks. And now Ukraine is going into that meeting without the American support it had been expecting.

INSKEEP: Oh, a summit between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia. Lucian, thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The latest of many countries facing public protests is Colombia. And its leaders say that today they will meet the people who've been marching since last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATORS: (Chanting in non-English language).

MARTIN: That's the sound of demonstrators who are targeting the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque. Demonstrations have been mostly peaceful - mostly but not entirely. Last night, protests in the capital, Bogota, claimed the life of a student. A tear gas canister struck the 18-year-old.

INSKEEP: Reporter John Otis joins us from Bogota. Hey there, John.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: I thought Colombia was the country that was prosperous and getting more peaceful and moving in the right direction even as others go in the wrong direction. Why are people protesting?

OTIS: Well, you're right. You know, Colombia is doing better than a lot of other countries, at least economically. But there is high unemployment here, which is running at about 10%. Protesters are also concerned about labor reforms that would cut pensions and the minimum wage for young workers. There's been rising violence in the countryside, where hundreds of human rights workers have been killed.

And people also think that President Duque just hasn't done very much to implement a 2016 peace treaty that ended a long guerrilla war here. Now, a lot of these protesters, rather than being opposition politicians or labor leaders or longtime activists, they're young people. They're first-time protesters who think President Duque has just lost touch with the country, I spoke with one of them, Alejandro Giraldo (ph). He's a 28-year-old lawyer. And this is what he said.

ALEJANDRO GIRALDO: There is a change right now. And all the young people is gathering around some places. And they are connecting with each other to take this country to a better level or to a better quality of life.

INSKEEP: You know, John, when I'm listening to that recording, I'm listening to the words but also the backdrop - the musical instruments or percussion instruments going on there. What's it like when you're out there in the streets with people?

OTIS: Oh, what you're hearing, that's called a Cacerolazos - that's sort of a Latin American tradition of banging pots and pans during protests. They've also been singing the national anthem. And people are really enthusiastic. There's sort of a celebratory mood in some ways. But at the same time, there have been some outbreaks of looting and vandalism. And that's led to a police crackdown.

And as you mentioned, this 18-year-old student named Dilan Cruz, he was peacefully protesting Saturday when he was hit in the face with a tear gas canister. He died last night. And this is sort of the disproportionate use of force that can actually lead to bigger and longer protests.

INSKEEP: Well, now the government is getting involved - or at least saying it's willing to meet with the protesters. What can the government offer the people who are in the streets?

OTIS: Well, you know, that's part of the problem, the whole government's response to this thing. They've been kind of late. They sort of dismissed the protests at first. They suggested - some government officials suggested that it was part of a left-wing conspiracy.

But now, President Ivan Duque is calling for the protesters to meet with him. They're going to start to direct meetings for what he calls a national conversation. And those meetings are scheduled to start today. So we're going to see some dialogue between the two sides at last after six days of protests.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll find out what they do have to talk about. John, thanks so much.

OTIS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's reporter John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "STAR TREKKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.