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News Brief: Impeachment, Presidential Primary Debate, Hate Messages


There was one thing a key witness said yesterday that is sure to hang over this morning's impeachment hearings.


GORDON SONDLAND: I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question. Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.


That dramatic testimony came from Gordon Sondland. He's the ambassador to the EU who talked about Ukraine directly with President Trump and with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And yesterday, Democrats called Sondland's public testimony a, quote, "seminal moment" in their case for impeachment. So why were Republicans claiming complete exoneration by the end of the day? And what more might we learn from today's witnesses?

GREENE: We have White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez with us here. Hey, Franco.


GREENE: OK. So when this hearing began, Ambassador Sondland - it sounded like he was implicating this long list of people in what he was describing as a quid pro quo. I mean, what - who was he saying was in the loop here?

ORDOÑEZ: According to him, everyone that mattered - the president, vice president, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, other officials. He repeated it; everyone was in the loop. He said to get a White House meeting, Ukraine's president needed to announce an investigation into a political rival and interference in the 2016 election.

I should note that Pence and Pompeo have denied this from their staff. But Sondland also complained that the White House and State Department wouldn't give him access to documents and records about his own activities on Ukraine.

GREENE: So, I mean, as he is saying this stuff, how are Republicans in this hearing room responding?

ORDOÑEZ: Not well. They complained about early reports of Sondland's testimony. For example, Matt Drudge, the influential conservative website - who wrote the Drudge Report - he had headlines like "Sondland Dropped Bombs" and "Pence Knew." Ken Starr, who investigated the Clinton administration, was on Fox News saying he thought some Republican senators may even push Trump to resign.

GREENE: So that's earlier on in the day. But by the end of the day, Republicans, and also the White House, were claiming a victory. I mean, why is that? And what transpired?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, that's because during questions, Sondland made two things clear. He said he didn't know why the military aid was held up. He just presumed it was connected to the demand for investigations.


SONDLAND: Congressman, I was presuming. I also said that President Trump...

MIKE TURNER: So no one told you - not just the president. Giuliani didn't tell you. Mulvaney didn't tell you. Nobody - Pompeo didn't tell you. Nobody else on this planet told you that Donald Trump was tying aid to these investigations. Is that correct?

ORDOÑEZ: That was Republican Congressman Mike Turner from Ohio, one of several lawmakers who pressed Sondland on that point.

The second thing is Sondland recounted a conversation that he had with the president on September 9 where he said there was no quid pro quo. After Sondland reported that, President Trump came out of the White House. And he was dramatically recounting this phone conversation, repeating, I want nothing, I want nothing. And he was saying that over and over again.

It is worth noting that on September 9, it is possible that the president knew about the whistleblower complaint because it was reported a week earlier. In fact, that same day, the inspector general notified the House Intelligence Committee of the complaint, calling it an urgent concern.

GREENE: Oh, I see. So possibly some important timing there. All right. So impeachment hearings resume today. What's happening?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, David Holmes is going to testify. He works at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. He's going to talk about overhearing Sondland talk on a cellphone about investigations - quote, "investigations." And Fiona Hill, she is a Russia expert at the National Security Council. She's going to talk about the Gordon problem.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. So impeachment was the first topic in last night's Democratic presidential debate, but Senator Elizabeth Warren used it to try and pivot to a more populist message.

MARTIN: Yeah. Here she is making her point by criticizing Trump megadonor Gordon Sondland, who later became ambassador to the EU.


ELIZABETH WARREN: How did Ambassador Sondland get there? You know, this is not a man who had any qualifications except one. He wrote a check for a million dollars. And that tells us about what's happening in Washington.

MARTIN: From there, the candidates took on health care, foreign policy, how to mobilize voters, but they didn't really take on each other.

GREENE: And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was covering all this. Morning, Mara.


GREENE: So looking at going into this debate, I mean, Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor, has really been on the rise, leading polls in Iowa. It's looking like he's doing better in New Hampshire right now. That usually is a sign that he's going to get attacked on a debate stage. Did that happen?

LIASSON: It happened, but it was pretty mild. Only Amy Klobuchar, a fellow Midwesterner, made some mild criticism of Buttigieg, saying there was a double standard. If a woman had been the mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana, she wouldn't be considered to have the experience for president. Pete Buttigieg, who's another nice Midwesterner, came back saying experience in Washington isn't the only kind of experience.

So if the other candidates were trying to stop Mayor Pete's rise, you really couldn't tell last night. It's possible they don't think his rise is sustainable or that it's just too risky or too early in a multicandidate race to be too aggressive against each other.

GREENE: Well, there was one confrontation on policy last night over the economy. Senator Cory Booker challenged Elizabeth Warren, criticizing her wealth tax and her focus on income redistribution. Let's listen.


CORY BOOKER: But the people in communities I frequent, they're not - aspiration for their lives is not just to have those fair wages. They want to have an economy that provides not just equalities in wealth, but they want to have equalities of opportunity. And that's what our party has to be about as well.

GREENE: I mean, a question about what the party is about. Did this moment represent something in your mind?

LIASSON: Well, it represents a substantive debate that's gone on in the Democratic Party for decades - redistribution or growth? Do you distribute the pie or try to grow it first? And what you've got is someone in the top tier, Elizabeth Warren, who has a kind of tax-the-rich plan to pay for her many programs, and then someone, Cory Booker, struggling to stay on the stage. He hasn't qualified for the December debate yet. And he's presenting the message that it's necessary to grow wealth first before you spread it and that minority communities don't just want a higher minimum wage; they want the chance to own businesses.

And that really echoed a warning from former President Barack Obama, who is warning Democrats, don't go too far to the left to win a general election. Most Americans want to reform the system and improve it but not tear it up from the roots.

GREENE: So as the race leaves this debate stage in Atlanta, where - step back for us if you can. Where do things stand right now?

LIASSON: Well, I don't think the debate did anything to disrupt the current dynamic in the race. Buttigieg is surging. Warren's rise may have come to an end. Biden is still the national leader. And no one has yet challenged him with African American voters, including the three African American candidates. There was a recent Quinnipiac poll that showed Mayor Pete with zero - 0% support among African Americans in South Carolina. So it shows us that the race is still very unsettled.

GREENE: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks as always, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.


GREENE: Hateful graffiti on campus, racist slurs shouted at students, reports about the sharing of a white supremacist manifesto.

MARTIN: Yeah. This is all happening at Syracuse University. The community there is grappling with the aftermath of about a dozen racist incidents. For days, students have been staging a sit-in. And now the FBI is investigating the reported racist messages and hate crimes.

The chancellor there held a forum last night to speak with students, but that quickly devolved and students walked out. Students wanted the chancellor to sign a list of demands. And protesters gathered outside his house.


UNIDENTIFIED SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY STUDENT: To disagree with signing a document that was compiled for him in the interests of students of color is inadequate. He needs to resign.

GREENE: And I want to turn to Casey Darnell, a student at Syracuse and the news editor at The Daily Orange, the campus newspaper. Casey, thanks for being here.

CASEY DARNELL: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So what led to this moment? What are these racist incidents we're talking about?

DARNELL: Exactly two weeks ago, students found racist graffiti against black and Asian people in a dorm building. It took the university four days to notify the campus about that. Ever since then, there's been more reports of racist graffiti. There were two swastikas found - one in the snow off campus, one written in a dorm building. On Saturday, members of a fraternity and their guests yelled a racial slur at a black woman. And just on Tuesday, early in the morning around 2 a.m., there were reports of a white supremacist manifesto from the shooter in the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand being shared on campus. And ever since, there's just been more and more reports coming out.

GREENE: And, I mean, it didn't sound like students feel like they're getting the response they want from the university. What do they want that they're not getting right now?

DARNELL: Overall, they want the university to actually care about their safety. They've been calling for mandatory diversity training among faculty and staff. They want stricter consequences for hate speech. And they want diversity and inclusion to be more than just buzzwords.

GREENE: And you - so this forum last night - what did it feel like in that room? How tense was it?

DARNELL: It really gave me chills to see hundreds of students walk in in all black. And they - the chancellor spoke. And then there was a brief questioning. And then they were unsatisfied with his refusal to immediately address their demands. They all stood up, put their jackets on at once and walked out. And chants of sign or resign - telling him to sign the demands or leave - filled the chapel. It was a really powerful moment, and I think everyone was shocked.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, what is it like being a student right now in this climate?

DARNELL: It's exhausting, and it's emotionally draining. A lot of my friends are afraid to leave their homes. They're afraid to go to classes. It's really eerie to kind of go to campus at 7 a.m. to cover the sit-in and there's just no one around. There's not a single person walking across the main campus space except for campus police patrolling.

GREENE: Wow. All right. So this really has affected life there. Casey Darnell is a student at Syracuse University, the news editor as well of The Daily Orange newspaper, the campus newspaper. Casey, thank you very much.


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.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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