News Brief: Trump Impeachment Probe, Northern Syria
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, so acting Ambassador William Taylor is the top United States diplomat in Ukraine, and he is a key figure in the impeachment inquiry.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Now he's gone before congressional lawmakers, and he delivered an explosive statement. This is freshman congressman, Democrat Andy Levin, describing yesterday's closed-door meeting.
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ANDY LEVIN: All I have to say is that in my 10 short months in Congress - it's not even noon, right? - and this is the my most disturbing day in Congress so far.
GREENE: All right. So what brought about that reaction? What exactly did Ambassador Taylor say? Let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi there, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So House Democrats went into this thinking that Taylor might be able to fill in some blanks. It sounds like he went beyond just filling in blanks.
KEITH: Absolutely. So remember, there were these explosive text messages from a couple of weeks ago. In his prepared testimony, which we have acquired at NPR as well as other news organizations, he is filling in a lot of the timeline, describing conversations in detail and giving the context for those text messages.
But here are the headlines. He builds a case that President Trump wanted the president of Ukraine, President Zelenskiy, to state publicly that his country would investigate the 2016 election and a Ukrainian gas company linked to former Vice President Joe Biden's son and that President Trump was withholding both a meeting with the Ukrainian president as well as vitally needed military aid in order to get that public statement that would help Trump publicly.
And I just want to read a little line from the opening remarks. He says that there was this alternate channel that was being led by Rudy Giuliani. He says, quote, "I became increasingly concerned that our relationship with Ukraine was being undermined by an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policymaking and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons."
GREENE: Wow. OK. This is explosive stuff. So how is the White House responding to what he said?
KEITH: Spokesperson Stephanie Grisham put out a statement saying, President Trump has done nothing wrong. This is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical, unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution. There was no quid pro quo. Today was just more triple hearsay and selective leaks from the Democrats.
I should say that Taylor is a diplomat who has served the country for some 50 years in both Republican and Democratic administrations, a West Point graduate, a Vietnam veteran and meticulous note taker, it turns out, but hardly what you'd call an unelected bureaucrat. He's also someone that the administration brought in, that the secretary of state sort of begged to take the job.
GREENE: So Democrats - I mean, some at least - see this as a real pivotal moment, potentially, maybe a game-changer. What about Republicans who are so important to the President - how are they reacting?
KEITH: You know, earlier this week, President Trump said that he wanted Republicans to fight harder. Well, last night House Republicans went to the House floor and delivered a series of short floor speeches, fighting harder. Here's Representative Jim Jordan last night.
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JIM JORDAN: What are they hiding from the American people? Americans get fairness. They understand it, and they instinctively know that this secretive process is not fair.
KEITH: Their complaint is that all of this is happening behind closed doors so far, but it's also really a complaint about process rather than substance.
GREENE: NPR's Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.
KEITH: You're welcome.
GREENE: All right. So William Taylor testified about how he had grown increasingly concerned about the White House's, quote, "irregular, informal" channels of policymaking in Ukraine.
KING: Right. And Ambassador Taylor said those efforts were being led by President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. NPR's now taking a close look at two men who are often described as business associates of Giuliani. Their names are Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. And you might remember that they were arrested earlier this month at an airport. They had one-way tickets out of the United States. And they'll be arraigned today in New York.
GREENE: So who exactly are these guys? NPR's Ari Shapiro, who co-hosts All Things Considered, has been leading the reporting on this. Hey there, Ari.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: All right. So, I mean, this played out almost like a movie - these two guys trying to get out of the country and being arrested at the airport. But beyond that, I mean, what should we know about them?
SHAPIRO: Well, they're colorful guys. I mean, Parnas and Ukraine were both born overseas - Parnas and Fruman were both born overseas - Parnas in Ukraine, Fruman in Belarus. They're both U.S. citizens. To give you a sense of their personalities, I'm going to bring in somebody whose name you will recognize - Anthony Scaramucci...
SHAPIRO: ...Who was briefly White House communications director - went on a trip to Israel with about 20 people, including Parnas and Fruman.
ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI: Lev was the more talkative guy. He had more of - you know, facility with the English language. The other guy wasn't as talkative.
SCARAMUCCI: Yeah, Igor was not as talkative as him. He came over and introduced himself. He seemed very friendly. He knew I had a close relationship with Mayor Giuliani, and so he dropped the mayor's name. I said OK, well, that's great.
GREENE: So what is their link with Mayor Giuliani?
SHAPIRO: Well, that's at the heart of this story. It's a personal and professional link. I mean, Parnas describes Giuliani as a close friend. They played golf together. A firm that Parnas owned paid Giuliani half a million dollars as a consultant. That firm was called Fraud Guarantee. And people we talked to as part of our reporting say that Parnas and Giuliani would often eat together at the Trump International Hotel here in Washington, at the fancy steak house.
Just to paint a picture for you - one witness, who we are not naming because they could experience professional repercussions, said Parnas often booked a fifth-floor suite among the high rollers at the Trump hotel. One day he came down to breakfast in gold chains, slicked-back hair and a white-and-black Hugo Boss running suit, according to this witness. But what's surprising is that Parnas seemed to be living this expensive, high-rolling lifestyle while documents show he was dogged by financial debts. And while he owed all that money, he and Fruman were making huge political donations through a company that they owned together - I mean, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
GREENE: Right, and that's part of the whole story here. They're facing charges that they violated campaign finance laws. Explain that exactly.
SHAPIRO: Right. The allegation is that Parnas and Fruman created shell companies to funnel other people's money into political campaigns. That's illegal. The indictment references donations to Pete Sessions, who was then a Republican congressman from Texas. He lost his reelection bid last year. They gave to a couple of Nevada politicians. And the biggest donation of all was more than $300,000 to President Trump's superPAC. You could summarize these charges by saying these men are accused of setting up shell companies to conceal political donations and then lying about what they did.
GREENE: OK. So then the big question - what does all of this have to do with the impeachment inquiry?
SHAPIRO: If you just scratch the surface of these allegations, you find connections to Ukraine everywhere. For example, just after giving money to Congressman Sessions, Parnas and Fruman allegedly lobbied him to help replace the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Parnas says he also helped set up meetings with Ukrainians promising dirt on Democrats. And here, let me bring in Lev Parnas himself. Our colleague Jeff Brady recorded an interview with him last month before he was arrested.
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LEV PARNAS: I've just been a source of being an interpreter, getting information and relaying it - whatever I could have done to help out getting the information from there to over here - basically just relaying it.
SHAPIRO: So David, for all those reasons, Congress wants to talk to Parnas and Fruman, Democrats have issued a subpoena. So far, they haven't cooperated with Congress, but they have no choice but to show up in federal court, where they are scheduled to be this morning.
GREENE: And we will be watching. NPR's Ari Shapiro. Ari, thanks so much.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
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GREENE: All right. Let's turn now to Syria. There are some dramatic developments two weeks after the United States announced it would withdraw troops, which in turn paved the way for a Turkish invasion.
KING: Right. So last night a U.S.-brokered cease-fire between Turkey and Kurdish Syrian forces expired. That essentially put the ball in Turkey and Russia's court. Leaders of those two countries met yesterday, and they agreed in their meeting on a plan that will replace American patrols near the border with Russian patrols.
GREENE: OK. Let's bring in NPR's Jane Arraf, who is in Iraq and has been following all of this for us. Hi, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi.
GREENE: OK. So this Turkey-Russia agreement - what exactly does this mean?
ARRAF: Well, three main things, really. First, it's a loss of territory for those Syrian Kurds who had been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. It allows Turkey to expand the zone it wants to clear of Syrian Kurdish fighters near that border. And that territory that they're demanding that Syrian Kurdish fighters pull out of, it's really quite a lot bigger than the one covered by the U.S.-brokered agreement. And finally, it gives Russia a lot more power because Russia is now moving into that vacuum that was created by the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
GREENE: So many countries we're talking about here with some sort of interest in Syria. This is complicated. What is the reaction to this agreement?
ARRAF: Well, the U.S. is billing it as a success because the fighting has stopped - temporarily, anyway. But there is a lot of concern in Washington and other places over abandoning an ally - those Syrian Kurdish forces that lost more than 10,000 fighters battling ISIS. Syrian Kurdish officials are still examining the agreement. It's really quite vague, and they're caught between the Syrian regime, Russia and Turkey, which sees many of them as terrorists. So there's a lot to absorb here.
Seven years ago, they created a Kurdish-led secular, multiethnic autonomous region in northeastern Syria, and that future seems in doubt. And I should mention, Iran seems happy. The foreign ministry this morning said it was a positive step to stability in the country.
GREENE: So you're in Iraq, which is another country that has an interest in what happens in Syria. The U.S. defense secretary, Mark Esper, arrived this morning in Baghdad, and there's been talk of the Trump administration's plan to relocate troops from Syria to Iraq. But that's complicated, right?
ARRAF: It's very complicated. But part of the reason it's complicated is the U.S. basically announced that it would leave the troops here with - seemingly without consulting with the Iraqis. Mark Esper had said that most of those troops we've seen coming across the border would go to a base in the west of Iraq. It's really politically difficult here, and the prime minister is under a lot of pressure, partly from Iran-backed groups. So he has said that that has to be negotiated. That's what Esper plans to do.
And another complication - Russia said this morning that those oil sites that the U.S. wants to stay to protect in northeast Syria, it says those should be controlled by the Syrian government.
GREENE: NPR's Jane Arraf in Iraq, following all these developments in the region for us. Jane, thanks a lot.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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