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News Brief: Turkey Sanctions, Impeachment Probe, Rick Perry


It was supposed to be a closed-door deposition.


Right. That is, until a group of very upset Republicans let themselves in.


ANDY BIGGS: You should be allowed to confront your accusers. This is being held behind closed doors for a reason, because they don't want you to see what the witnesses are like.

GREENE: That was House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs. Along with about two dozen other Republican lawmakers, he disrupted yesterday's impeachment inquiry against President Trump. The Republicans are complaining that the investigation is a sham.

KING: We're here now with NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Good morning, Domenico.


KING: So these antics cannot actually stop the impeachment inquiry. Why are Republicans doing this?

MONTANARO: Well, let's put it in some context here. I mean, Ambassador Bill Taylor testified earlier this week. He's a high-ranking diplomat for the United States in Ukraine. And he detailed that President Trump had directed a campaign to withhold military aid to Ukraine. That was in exchange for public statements and support from Ukraine's president for, quote, "investigations" into what really are conspiracy theories that would help his reelection campaign. At least, that was the hope.

This was happening all while Russian troops were literally at the bridge, Taylor had said. So with that in mind, realize with - and with Trump tweeting that Republicans, quote, had to "get tough and fight," it's maybe not surprising that the next day most Republicans would rather not talk about that substance. And they've been complaining about the process instead.

KING: OK. So it's a way of dodging what's actually going on, what's actually being said in the depositions and saying like, oh, you know, we're going to just create a sense of chaos at the Capitol. Let's focus people's attention there. It's worth asking - will that work?

MONTANARO: Well, look, it's a very temporary thing. I mean, they were able to delay the proceedings for about five hours yesterday. And the deposition, though, resumed. So that kind of thing, which is really just a stunt, only goes so far. Democrats are continuing to gather evidence. They're going to continue to depose witnesses. And Republicans have seen public opinion shifting away for them - from them as more and more of the details of this pressure campaign have come out. So it's going to be key to continue to watch independents in polling and see how they respond.

KING: So there are points at which Republicans will make this point. You know, all this is happening behind closed doors. The American people have a right to see it. And it sounds in some ways like that really does make sense. How are Democrats in the House explaining why they're doing all of this behind closed doors?

MONTANARO: Well, sure, I mean, even us in the media as reporters, we like things to be...

KING: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Public. But Democrats are saying that they have to be methodical and that a degree of secrecy is important to maintain the integrity of the investigation, at least for now. And you can expect that more will be made public. We'll see public testimony at some point. And if Democrats do decide to impeach the president - which they haven't said they're doing yet, we should remember - the articles of impeachment would certainly be made public. And then there'd be a hearing in the Senate.

So there's frustration from Republicans who are not involved in the committees conducting the investigations. And they feel a degree of powerlessness over the process and how to defend President Trump. And that's really what's going on here.

KING: Just quickly - impeachment is an issue in the Democratic primary. What have you been hearing? You've been doing some reporting on this, yeah?

MONTANARO: Sure. I mean, there's some - Democrats are always nervous about their candidates. They think that Vice President Biden isn't raising the kind of money necessary, and he's stumbled in debates. Elizabeth Warren's been taking policy positions that are unpopular with the general election electorate. But what several strategists told me yesterday is this is the field. And by the way, they're less pessimistic about their chances. And voters say they actually kind of like the field.

KING: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

KING: All right. There are many, many people involved in the impeachment inquiry.

GREENE: Right. And one of them is Rick Perry. The secretary of Energy is embroiled in the Ukraine affair. Now, Perry has been with the Trump administration since the very beginning, though last week he announced he's going to resign by the end of the year to head back to his home state of Texas, where, of course, he served as governor for 14 years.

KING: NPR's Melissa Block has been looking into where Perry fits in this very complicated story. She's with us now. Hi, Melissa.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So back in May, it was Rick Perry who led the U.S. delegation to the inauguration of Ukraine's new president. Why him?

BLOCK: Well, here's what we know from the whistleblower complaint that was filed this summer by an intelligence officer. Vice President Pence was supposed to lead the delegation, but President Trump said no. He instructed Pence to cancel his trip, and Rick Perry went in his place.

According to that whistleblower and testimony given to Congress, Trump was essentially holding U.S. cooperation with the new government of Ukraine hostage. And the allegation is that Trump wanted Ukraine to try to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, his potential opponent in the 2020 election, and on Biden's son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

And if Ukraine wouldn't play ball, as the whistleblower put it in his complaint, Trump wasn't going to invite Zelenskiy, the new president, to the White House. And he was going to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine. The allegation goes that this was a quid pro quo. It was all for his own personal political gain.

KING: So we get where, you know, people from the State Department fit in - ambassadors to Ukraine...

BLOCK: Yeah.

KING: ...Former ambassadors. Where does the Energy secretary - what does he have to do with all of this?

BLOCK: Right. Well, Perry had been dealing a lot with Ukrainian leaders because Ukraine is a potentially huge market for liquefied natural gas from the United States. And this all ties in with how Rick Perry sees his role as Energy secretary, as a top-level salesman for the U.S. oil and gas industry. He actually talked about this to reporters last month. Here's what he said.


RICK PERRY: I'm a Texas governor - former governor. And I know how to sell stuff. And my job is to go sell, first off, American product.

BLOCK: So the problem, Noel, is that Ukraine's energy sector has been rife with corruption that stifled U.S. investment. Now, Ukraine's new president, Zelenskiy, has pledged to be a reformer fighting corruption. And Rick Perry said that when he got back from that inauguration, he urged Trump to pick up the phone and call Zelenskiy.


PERRY: Absolutely. I asked the president multiple times. Mr. President, we think it is in the United States' and in Ukraine's best interest that you and the president of Ukraine have conversations, that you discuss the options that are there. So absolutely yes.

BLOCK: But Trump didn't want to do it. Later, when he finally did, when the call was finally made months later, that is where Trump asks Zelenskiy to, quote, "do us a favor" according to the memorandum of that call and then later brings up investigating Joe Biden. Now, I should say that Rick Perry has been adamant that Biden's name never came up in any of his conversations.

KING: Well, House Democrats certainly have subpoenaed a lot of documents from Perry. Is he turning them over?

BLOCK: Nope. And here's what he said about that yesterday. He was heading out on a trip with President Trump.


PERRY: I'm not going to participate. The White House has advised us not to participate. My general counsel has told me not to participate in what they consider to be an unprecedented effort to try to use an inquiry in an unlawful way.

KING: Interesting the way he phrases that...

BLOCK: Yeah.

KING: ...Not going to participate. So just quickly - he's retiring at the end of this year. What's next for Rick Perry?

BLOCK: Well, he said he's going back home to Round Top, Texas. He hasn't talked about what he plans to do. But here's what President Trump said about it. He said he's got some very big plans. He's going to be very successful.

KING: NPR's Melissa Block. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: You bet.


KING: All right. President Trump has ordered sanctions against Turkey to be lifted. He did that while taking credit for a cease-fire.

GREENE: Yeah. He says his decision came after the government in Ankara assured him it was halting its military operation in northeast Syria. The Turkish offensive began after the president withdrew U.S. forces. That is a decision that Trump, again, defended yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It was supposed to be a very quick hit, and let's get out. And it was a quick hit, except they stayed for almost 10 years. Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.

GREENE: All right. We should note that U.S. troops, in fact, were deployed to Syria in 2015. Now, with this withdrawal four years later, Turkey is now left to work with Russia on a plan to push Syrian Kurdish fighters away from the border.

KING: NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following this story from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.


KING: All right. So President Trump says he will lift sanctions on Turkey. What's the reaction been like today in Turkey?

KENYON: Well, it hasn't been huge. Basically, Turkish officials are acting as if this was expected. It's not even the lead story in some news outlets here. Over the past week, of course, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he's been in talks with the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and then with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And Erdogan says Turkey will be watching to see that both countries fulfill their promises - the implication being that if they don't, the military operation against Kurdish militants will resume.

Erdogan also says Putin in particular was very clear in his pledges, saying Russia would definitely move these YPG Kurdish fighters away from the Turkish border. Now, there's been a list of demands issued by those Kurdish-led fighters, however, that suggest the YPG doesn't want to move as far from the border as Turkey would like. So that will bear some watching.

KING: Yeah. I mean, as you point out, Russia is clearly moving to fill the vacuum that is left by U.S. forces as they head out. How significant is that?

KENYON: Well, it's seen here as a big win for Russia, also for the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. The departure of all but a small number of American troops leaves Russia as the main international player in Syria. And Moscow is, of course, Assad's most important ally. American influence is seen as diminished. But of course, President Trump made clear his intention to disentangle U.S. forces from Mideast conflicts wherever possible. He says it's up to countries in the region to step up, take responsibility.

He also appeared to try to downplay the Russian role somewhat, saying this outcome was created, quote, "by the United States and nobody else." But away from Washington, the view is more along the lines that as American presence in Syria shrinks, so does its influence.

KING: President Trump is taking credit for what he's calling a permanent cease-fire, although afterward he said, well, we'll see if it's permanent, which makes me wonder, how stable is the current situation in northern Syria?

KENYON: Well, that is a big question. From Turkey's perspective, if Russia moves the YPG fighters far enough away from the border, Turkey's demands will have been met. But there are still plenty of questions. Will the YPG stay there? How long will Turkish troops remain on Syrian soil? And there's plenty of questions now that could lead this permanent cease-fire to be something less than permanent.

KING: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thank you so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Noel.


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.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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