News Brief: Impeachment Inquiry, Clinton Email Probe, Hong Kong Protests

Sep 30, 2019
Originally published on September 30, 2019 7:06 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump spent much of the weekend on Twitter. Tweets from the president's account denounced his critics or shared videos of his supporters more than 80 times.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, the president was sending messages as Democrats prepare hearings for an impeachment inquiry. House leaders have indicated that they want this examination to move fairly quickly. It would focus on the president's call to Ukraine asking for an investigation of his political opponent Joe Biden. Yesterday Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, was asked on ABC how soon he might hear from the whistleblower who revealed the call, and here's what he said.

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ADAM SCHIFF: Very soon. You know, it will depend probably more on how quickly the director of national intelligence can complete the security clearance process for the whistleblower's lawyers, but we're ready to hear from the whistleblower as soon as that is done.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us this morning. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How serious is this challenge to the president?

KEITH: It's serious. Democrats are taking this investigation very seriously in the House. Now, of course, he still has a Republican-controlled Senate, and that means that even if the House were to impeach the president, at this point it seems quite unlikely that he would be removed by the Senate. But there are cracks.

Tom Bossert, who's a former homeland security adviser to the president, said on ABC this weekend that he was deeply disturbed by what President Trump said on the call with the president of Ukraine. And that's notable because Boston isn't a random guy; he worked closely with the president in the White House. Though he also argued that on its own the call wasn't impeachable, and that's what I'm hearing from multiple people close to the White House, is that they actually consider the call improper but not impeachable.

INSKEEP: Oh, which is different from what the president has repeatedly said when he has called the call a perfect phone conversation. How is the president defending himself?

KEITH: Yeah. Well, in one of the many tweets you mentioned, he accused a member of Congress of treason and said he wanted access to the whistleblower. Another one quoted someone as saying impeachment would lead to civil war. These are extreme even by the standards of President Trump and also way outside of the norms of past presidential conduct.

During the last impeachment, in 1998, the Clinton White House had a war room; people focused on fighting impeachment so that the rest could stay focused on policy. Out in the White House driveway on Friday, Kellyanne Conway was asked about whether the Trump White House would be setting up a war room.

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KELLYANNE CONWAY: Why would he do that? Who started the war here? He's the most battle-tested person I've ever met. Why do we need an impeachment war room when the other people should - have the burden of showing why they're impeaching the president?

KEITH: In terms of communications at least, the White House is pretty sparsely staffed right now, even compared to earlier in the Trump administration, much less in other administrations and much less a White House that is now facing an existential crisis.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, we clearly have the White House focused on this, if the 80 tweets from the president's personal account are any indication. But who will be backing up the president to defend him?

KEITH: A really big part of this is going to be the campaign. No president has faced impeachment while also running for reelection. And what that means is that there already is a war room; there is literally a Twitter account called the Trump war room...

INSKEEP: OK.

KEITH: ...Set up by the Trump campaign. There's a surrogate operation - rapid response research. That's all there. And over the weekend the Trump campaign began a $10 million ad buy.

INSKEEP: OK, Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: There'll be so much more to say about this. That's NPR's Tamara Keith.

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INSKEEP: The U.S. State Department is still investigating Hillary Clinton's emails.

KING: This very toxic issue overshadowed the 2016 presidential election. So as a reminder, the FBI started looking at the former secretary of state's use of a private email server back in 2015. A year later, James Comey, who was then the director of the FBI, announced that the case should be closed with no charges. But now The Washington Post is reporting that the matter isn't dead. The Trump administration is said to be investigating dozens of current and former State Department officials for what they sent to Secretary Clinton and that some of their emails have even been retroactively classified.

INSKEEP: The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe is among the team of reporters who broke this story. He's on the line. Greg, good morning.

GREG JAFFE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How widespread is this investigation?

JAFFE: You know, it's about 130 or 140 people, and it hits people kind of at all levels of the State Department from, you know, relatively senior or very senior positions, like assistant secretaries of state, down to anyone who might have passed emails that landed in Hillary Clinton's private email.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to make sure I understand the essence of the question here. The question is basically asking various current and former diplomats, why did you send information to Hillary Clinton's private email server?

JAFFE: What happens is they find the emails on the server. They've gone through these kind of millions of emails and determined that a certain number contained classified information. And then they go back and ask people, why did you send this improperly classified email to Hillary Clinton? And in virtually all of the cases, they're retroactively classified. So they're people passing information they thought was unclassified that's later determined to be classified.

INSKEEP: Retroactively classified - how can you - how much trouble can you be in for sending retroactively classified information, information you could not possibly have known was classified at the time?

JAFFE: Yeah, and I think there's valid debate about whether it should even be classified today. I think people were worried that it could impact their future - most of these people are out of government - and that it could make it harder if they come back in government to get a security clearance. That's the essence of their worry.

INSKEEP: Greg, do you have any sense either from the investigators or those being investigated as to what would be driving the State Department to look so closely into this matter years later?

JAFFE: You know, it's really hard to say. I don't have a great sense. They'll say that they're just doing business as usual, that this is an investigation that dates back to the end of the Obama administration and they're just completing it now. But as to why they're doing it now, I think, you know, their argument is that they're doing their duty, that there was classified information found in Hillary Clinton's email and they need to investigate it. I think others feel like this is sort of a form of low-level harassment.

INSKEEP: Well, that's my question. Do the people being investigated think that they're targets of some kind of political attack?

JAFFE: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I think they feel like, you know, it's an effort to harass them, an effort to put things in their file that in the future could make it significantly harder for them to get a security clearance.

INSKEEP: So nobody is going to be prosecuted for this probably, but it would go on their permanent record, so to speak.

JAFFE: It could. Yes, it could go on their permanent record. And most of the people have gotten letters saying that, you know, the security incidents in which they're involved are valid, but they're not culpable. That's if they cooperated. If they didn't cooperate, it gets a little bit more complicated.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks for your reporting.

JAFFE: Yeah. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post, and he spoke with us on Skype.

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INSKEEP: OK. This is what the 17th week - the 17th week - of pro-democracy demonstrations sounded like in Hong Kong. We will hear the protesters confronting police now.

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KING: Yesterday tear gas rose over major government and shopping areas, people threw bricks at the police, and authorities hit the crowds with water cannons. Now, these demonstrations come at, really, an important time, just before China's National Day - that is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Hong Kong. Hi there, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did the protests unfold over the weekend?

MCCARTHY: Well, Sunday's big event was billed as a march against global totalitarianism. Sixty other cities had marches like this, but here the demonstrators brandished banners about China that read, evil dictatorship, and they chanted slogans certain to irritate Beijing.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Free Hong Kong.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Free Hong Kong.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Democracy now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Democracy now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Fight for freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fight for freedom.

MCCARTHY: And the day was more violent than usual. Demonstrators said scores of street fires, volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets chased them from one street to the next. This went on for hours. And residents came down from their apartments in their slippers to see what the action was all about, some hurling insults at the police. We found a young student from France huddled in an alcove, crying, and had to escort her back to her hotel. It was that kind of a day.

INSKEEP: Wow. Now, what is the significance of the timing here, that anniversary that Noel mentioned?

MCCARTHY: Well, it does come on to - all of this tense weekend comes right on the heels or is leading up to this big day in China. And here there is deep anger and antagonism toward mainland China over what they say - over what Hong Kong says is Beijing not living up to an agreement that was supposed to preserve Hong Kong's freedoms for 50 years. Instead, they see Beijing creeping into their everyday lives, requiring a kind of fealty to China.

And when I asked protesters, you know, what does the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC mean to you, to a person, Steve, they said, nothing. Twenty-four-year-old Auriga Wong elaborated on that.

AURIGA WONG: (Through interpreter) We lack the sense of belonging to China. We inherited a system different from China. So regarding the 70th anniversary, we don't have a special feeling.

MCCARTHY: No special feeling. They inherited a British system, and Wong says, look - Hong Kong has this core values that rely on democracy and rule of law and liberty, and these are liberties that no city in mainland China enjoys. Hong Kongers know it, and they're jealously guarding these freedoms. They don't want them eroded. And that is what these protests are about.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking, though, this 70th anniversary is a huge deal for mainland China, and here it comes. So how are protesters likely to mark it?

MCCARTHY: Well, they are going to mark it, really, with countercommemorations. The court this afternoon denied the umbrella human rights group, the Civil Front, a police permit to march, but that doesn't stop protesters here. The fireworks over the harbor were canceled, and the flag-raising ceremony has been moved indoors to, quote, "ensure it can be held in an orderly, solemn manner." But I don't expect much will be orderly or solemn in Hong Kong tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much for the update.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Hong Kong.

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