Iran Plane Investigation, Trump Says Embassies Targeted, Puerto Rico Recovery Iran admitted that it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane this week — blaming it on human error. We'll have reaction to the admission. Also, President Trump claims that multiple embassies were part of the "imminent threat" that led to the U.S. drone strike that killed an Iranian military commander last week. Power is returning to Puerto Rico after an earthquake earlier this week, but people are still sleeping outside there, as strong aftershocks continue to shake the island.
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Iran Plane Investigation, Trump Says Embassies Targeted, Puerto Rico Recovery

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Iran Plane Investigation, Trump Says Embassies Targeted, Puerto Rico Recovery

Iran Plane Investigation, Trump Says Embassies Targeted, Puerto Rico Recovery

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/795398416/795525529" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Calling it a quote, "disastrous mistake," Iran admits that it shot down a Ukrainian jetliner earlier this week.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The government says human error is responsible for the missile that killed 176 people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Also, the justification for the drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander.

SIMON: In an interview last night, President Trump insists that Iran was targeting U.S. embassies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the story has shifted more than once, and lawmakers want more information.

SIMON: And then to Puerto Rico, where the largest earthquake in a century shook the island this week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Electricity is slowly being restored amid strong aftershocks. We'll have the latest. Stay with us. We'll give you the news you need to start your weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Iran has admitted it quote, "unintentionally" shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane this week, killing all 176 people onboard. The statement on state-run television blamed the incident on quote, "human error."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The plane was engulfed in flames and crashed just after takeoff from Tehran airport Wednesday morning. Hours earlier, Iran had fired missiles at a base in Iraq where U.S. forces were stationed in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam has been covering the story and joins us. Jackie, thanks for being with us.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Scott.

SIMON: For days, of course, Iran had blamed mechanical error for the crash. What exactly have they said now?

NORTHAM: Well, Iran's leadership has been tweeting statements about the crash. And Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said this is a sad day, that preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by the armed forces in Iran found that, quote, "human error at a time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism led to disaster." President Hassan Rouhani tweeted that investigators will continue to identify and prosecute those responsible for what he called this unforgivable mistake. This admission is surprising, Scott. I think there was a sense that Iran would continue saying it was mechanical problems that caused the Ukrainian Airlines flight to crash, but Iran was under a lot of pressure. The U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia all publicly said they had evidence that an Iranian missile brought down the plane.

SIMON: Did the government say - offer any more information on how the accident occurred?

NORTHAM: Yes, a statement by Iran's armed forces, which was broadcast on state television, said it detected a lot of U.S. warplanes on its radar in the hours leading up to the crash. It said that the Ukrainian passenger jet was approaching a sensitive military installation in such a way and at such an altitude that it was mistaken for a hostile aircraft. And it was shot down, killing all 176 people onboard. The statement expressed sympathy to the grieving families and promised reform in operation procedures of the armed forces so that it doesn't happen again. And the statement also said the person responsible for shooting down the passenger plane would face consequences.

SIMON: And what kind of reaction has there been to the admission so far?

NORTHAM: On his Facebook post, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said this wasn't a good morning, but it brought the truth, and that Ukraine expects a full and open investigation by Iran and that it wants those responsible brought to justice. And it wants compensation. Fifty-seven Canadian citizens lost their lives. And there's growing anger, Scott, in Canada about the crash, with some saying that it wouldn't have happened if the U.S. had not killed Qassem Soleimani, the senior Iranian military commander, which ratcheted up tensions in the region. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is quoting unnamed government officials saying that Ottawa should've been warned in advance that the U.S. was going to kill Soleimani.

SIMON: Jackie, you reported yesterday that Ukrainian investigators were already on the ground near Tehran. Canada, which, as you know, lost nearly 60 citizens in the crash, is also sending investigators - other nations, including the U.S., because, of course, it was a Boeing aircraft. What will the investigators be looking for now?

NORTHAM: Investigators want to search the debris field and find out what kind of missile brought down the plane. But, Scott, a CBS television crew visited the site yesterday and said virtually all the pieces of the plane had been carried off and that scavengers were picking through the debris field.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump came under fire this week from Democrats and even some Republicans who wanted to hear more justification for the drone strike that killed a top Iranian general.

SIMON: The Iran decision dominated the week for the president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now to talk about that and the week ahead. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We saw Democrats in Congress and, as I mentioned, some Republicans really press the White House this week for more justification about this strike. Have there been any more details about this decision?

ORDOÑEZ: A few but not the kind of details that many lawmakers say they want to hear in a classified session. The president was actually asked about the pressure in an interview last night with Laura Ingraham on FOX News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE INGRAHAM ANGLE")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it would have been four embassies, could have been military bases, could have been a lot of other things too. But it was imminent. And then all of a sudden, he was gone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is he saying there that there was going to be an attack, an imminent attack on embassies? And do we know if that's even true?

ORDOÑEZ: This is what he's saying. But as we have learned, the Democrats and many of the members of Congress did not find that satisfactory. But he is describing that he said four embassies and possibly the Baghdad embassy. But much of the time that he talked, he was actually describing about things that we already knew about, such as the violent protests at the Baghdad embassy before.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The president also talked about his upcoming Senate impeachment trial. And he revealed that he recently sat for a surprising interview.

ORDOÑEZ: Yes. He volunteered that he has met with Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter known for his work on Watergate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE INGRAHAM ANGLE")

TRUMP: He said, you know, you don't look like somebody who's under impeachment. As you know, he slightly covered Nixon, and he covered Clinton. But Bob Woodward - he said, you actually look like you've won everything. You look happy. I said, I am happy.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, this is surprising because Woodward wrote a book about Trump a couple years ago, and it was not a flattering book. It described a lot of dysfunction at the White House. And at the time, Trump was very angry. He charged that some of Woodward's stories were, quote, "made up."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's move on to impeachment because Speaker Pelosi says she plans to finally send these articles of impeachment to the Senate next week, which gets the process rolling again after this hiatus. How is the White House getting ready?

ORDOÑEZ: The White House counsel Pat Cipollone, he's going to lead the defense. He's the lawyer who, of course, wrote the aggressive letters to Congress dismissing their subpoenas. And the president will also have one of his private attorneys on the team. That's Jay Sekulow, who led Trump's defense in the Russia investigation. My colleague Tamara Keith reported that he spent all day at the White House Friday getting ready.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So will the impeachment trial actually begin next week?

ORDOÑEZ: It's not entirely clear when exactly the trial will start. There are still several procedural steps that have to take place. There's also the question of whether the Senate will consider new witnesses. The president said he'll leave it to Senate Republicans, but he'd still like to hear from the whistleblower. But next week really is going to be very busy for President Trump. On Tuesday, he's going to Milwaukee for a campaign rally. That's the same day as the Democratic primary debate. It's a key one in the early voting state of Iowa. And on Wednesday, the president signs the first part of his trade deal with China in a ceremony at the White House.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lots to look forward to. That was White House correspondent Frank Ordoñez. Thank you so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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SIMON: Now to Puerto Rico, where the ground has not stopped shaking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Overnight, the island was rattled by several moderate earthquakes, aftershocks to a magnitude 6.4 quake that caused significant damage there on Tuesday.

SIMON: The quake killed one person, damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and caused an island-wide blackout. We're joined now by NPR's Adrian Florido, who's in Ponce on the island's south coast. Adrian, thanks for being with us.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And did last night's earthquakes cause any more damage?

FLORIDO: It's too early to say that, but generally, these aftershocks have been a destabilizing force ever since that initial big quake on Tuesday. Officials fear that with each of these aftershocks, homes and other buildings that were damaged by that initial big quake are being weakened further. And one of the big areas where this is especially worrisome for officials is with the island's public schools. Before the earthquake on Tuesday, classes were supposed to resume from the holiday break this week, but Governor Wanda Vasquez has postponed the start of classes while engineers inspect hundreds of schools across the island that might be vulnerable to collapse.

SIMON: And how much power has been restored?

FLORIDO: As of yesterday evening, about 80% of Puerto Rico's customers had power. But hundreds of thousands of people still do not have power, especially concentrated here in the southern region. What happened is that Tuesday's earthquake damaged the Costa Sur Power Plant, which produces more than 40% of Puerto Rico's electricity. And it's unclear when that plant is going to be repaired. The head of the island's electric utility company said it could take as long as a year. Workers had begun working to repair that plant earlier this week. But then because of all of these aftershocks, they had to stop that yesterday.

SIMON: And a lot of people have been displaced, haven't they? Because the quake destabilized a lot of homes.

FLORIDO: Right, and these people are not coping very well. It had been a long time since Puerto Rico had experienced earthquakes like the ones we saw this week. People aren't used to them here, and so after seeing so many of the homes around them crack or collapse entirely, a lot of people are just refusing to sleep inside their homes. Some people won't even go inside their homes. Every night, thousands of people are sleeping outside, either in cars or on their patios, or at these makeshift open-air shelters that have been set up on open fields. Yesterday, I actually visited one of these at a baseball stadium in the coastal town of Guayanilla. And I want you to listen to what Leticia Espada (ph), a woman who was sleeping on a green cot there, what she told me.

LETICIA ESPADA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: What she's saying is that she prefers 20 Hurricane Marias over another one of these earthquakes because with hurricanes, she said, at least you know that they're coming, and you can get ready for them. With these earthquakes, you can't. And that uncertainty is causing a lot of anxiety, fear for people. And that's something that mental health advocates are trying to mobilize to try to address here.

SIMON: We saw how vulnerable Puerto Rico's infrastructure was to natural disaster after Hurricane Maria. Earthquakes have pointed out the same thing?

FLORIDO: Absolutely. Many of the homes here in Puerto Rico are not built up to code. That is something that's been getting a lot of attention over the last couple of days. And the most troubling example of this are those public schools that I mentioned earlier. On Tuesday, one school in the town of Guanica just collapsed completely. And, thankfully, there was no one inside. And the next day, engineers identified a design flaw that they said is built into hundreds of schools across the island that makes them vulnerable to collapse, too. And so a lot of people have said they're not sending their kids back to school unless they can be sure that they're going to be safe. A lot of people are saying that's why they're not going to return to their own homes until they can be assessed for safety. And so all of those inspections, all those assessments of so many schools, of so many houses - those are going to take a long time.

SIMON: Adrian Florido in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Thanks so much.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, January 11, 2020. I'm Scott Simon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. UP FIRST is back on Monday with the news to start your day. And follow us on social media. We're @UpFirst on Twitter.

SIMON: And, of course, you know the news doesn't stop when this podcast ends. What do you do?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you do? You tune into Weekend Edition Saturday and Sunday mornings. Find your NPR station at stations.npr.org

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