Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

News Brief: Democratic Debate, Impeachment Probe, Turkey's Incursion


The increasing prominence of presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren brings increasing scrutiny of her plans.


Warren was at the center of last night's presidential debate. The Massachusetts senator has attacked billionaires and corporations. She also endorsed Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" proposal. She spoke up for that plan last night in the CNN debate. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar challenged her on that.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Medicare for All is the gold standard.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: And I don't understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.

MARTIN: We should remember - this debate among Democrats isn't new, but it takes on greater urgency as a Medicare for All proponent appears to be leading.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson was in Westerville, Ohio, for all the action. Hi there, Mara.


INSKEEP: How did Warren handle the pressure?

LIASSON: She held her own. She repeated the same answer over and over again. That's sometimes not a great sign. She kept on saying costs will not go up, meaning that when mandatory Medicare for All is in place and private health insurance plans are all gone - net, net, net, for the middle class, health care costs will not be greater. She refused to admit that middle-class taxes will go up. But Bernie Sanders, helpfully or not, acknowledged that they both support the same plan. It's his bill. And yes, middle-class taxes do go up under it. I think the attacks on her show that she is the rising candidate. She's the front-runner in a lot of national and early state polls.

But Sanders also had a good night. He is third, but he seemed vigorous after his heart attack.


LIASSON: And he got a big boost from the news that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar - two freshmen representatives, kind of left-wing social media stars - are going to endorse him. That's an important validator for him with young progressive.

INSKEEP: OK. And then there's Joe Biden, who faced questions about his son Hunter Biden last night. And we should just recall the details here. President Trump's effort to have someone investigate Hunter Biden's work for a company in Ukraine has brought on an impeachment inquiry. But Hunter Biden did take this lucrative post on a company board in Ukraine. He admitted on TV yesterday that he traded on his name, maybe didn't make the best decision. Here's how the former vice president answered questions about that.


JOE BIDEN: I did my job. I never discussed a single thing with my son about anything having to do with Ukraine. No one has indicated I have. We've always kept everything separate. Even when my son was the attorney general of the state of Delaware, we never discussed anything. So there'd be no potential conflict.

INSKEEP: He did face that question from moderators but not necessarily from other Democrats. Mara, does that mean he's past this problem?

LIASSON: No. This is - remember back in 2016 when Bernie Sanders told Hillary Clinton, I don't care about your damn emails? That did not make the email controversy go away. I think that no matter what the other candidates decide to talk about with Joe Biden, Donald Trump is going to keep on spending tens of millions of dollars on this false narrative that Biden and his son Hunter did something illegal, and that's going to keep on being present in the media narrative.

INSKEEP: And it has been damaging to Joe Biden - do you think?

LIASSON: Well, we don't know that. He was already slipping a bit in the polls before these concerted attacks about his son and Ukraine. But many Democrats think it certainly isn't helping him.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.


INSKEEP: Who were the three amigos when it came to U.S. policy in Ukraine?

MARTIN: Well, "The Three Amigos" happens to be the title of an old Steve Martin movie, but it is also the nickname that three U.S. officials apparently gave to themselves. All three were trying to shape U.S. policy in Ukraine. State Department official George Kent reportedly revealed this in testimony yesterday. He said U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry all took central roles. They were said to be helping the president pursue conspiracy theories and have a presidential campaign rival investigated.

Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly described the testimony.


GERRY CONNOLLY: All of the people charged with policy in Ukraine were replaced, apparently, after a May 23 meeting at the White House organized by Mick Mulvaney, not John Bolton or Pompeo. And out of that Sondland, Volker and Rick Perry declared themselves the three people now responsible for Ukraine policy.

MARTIN: So today that same inquiry is going to hear from another potentially key witness - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's top adviser, Michael McKinley.

INSKEEP: So let's focus on him with NPR national security correspondent David Welna. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is McKinley?

WELNA: Michael McKinley is a 65-year-old career diplomat who was born in Venezuela and grew up in Brazil, Mexico, Spain and the U.S. He was educated in England with a doctorate from Oxford University, and he's also written a history of colonial Venezuela. But for the past 37 years, he's been in the foreign service. He's one of very few U.S. diplomats to have served as ambassador to four countries - Peru, Colombia, Afghanistan and most recently Brazil. He's highly respected by his colleagues. And a year ago, he was recalled early from his post in Brazil to be Pompeo's chief adviser.

INSKEEP: But then last week suddenly quit. Why'd he do that?

WELNA: That's what a lot of people would like to know. On Friday, McKinley's last day at the State Department, he sent an email to colleagues there saying he was, quote, "leaving the department to pursue other opportunities wherever they may lead." He called his decision to quit personal and added, it's time, after 37 years with the department.

INSKEEP: OK, but the particular time is interesting. It was a day of testimony in the House Impeachment Committee. Testimony by Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, who was describing the way that she was pushed out. And that was, of course, a description she gave in the impeachment inquiry.

WELNA: Right. She's the one Trump called bad news in his notorious July phone call to Ukraine's president. I talked with another former ambassador, Dennis Jett, who once hired McKinley to be his deputy at the U.S. mission in Mozambique.

DENNIS JETT: People at a senior level - and Mike McKinley was one of our most successful and most senior diplomats - would have a real challenge staying around in an administration and a State Department where people like Rudy Giuliani and his arrested co-conspirators can slime a distinguished career ambassador and get away with it.

INSKEEP: OK, just trying to keep all the players straight. Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer; the arrested co-conspirators referred to there - those are two men with ties to Ukraine business interests in Ukraine, who were helping Rudy Giuliani in various ways and have now been indicted on campaign finance violations. So we have a lot of information out there. What can McKinley add?

WELNA: Well, I think because McKinley was Pompeo's de facto chief of staff, he likely would have been privy to a lot of discussions that these investigators want to hear about. The State Department had close to $200 million worth of security assistance to Ukraine that Trump put on hold, and whether McKinley or anyone else there knew about that and what the stated purpose of that freeze was, that's all terrain McKinley's questioners are likely to go over today. He's the first witness in this proceeding who's actually resigned from the State Department, so he may be a bit less constrained than several other diplomats appearing this week before Congress.

INSKEEP: Good point. Even Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed from an ambassador's job, is still a part of the U.S. State Department.

WELNA: That's right.

INSKEEP: David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Welna.


INSKEEP: We're keeping an eye on the humanitarian crisis that is escalating in northeastern Syria.

MARTIN: Yeah. Aid agencies have been forced to pull out of the region as Turkey's army advances. The violence has displaced tens of thousands of people. This is all happening as the vice president, Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travel to Turkey today. The White House says Pence is going to try to urge Turkey's president to end the invasion into Syria, an invasion that President Trump himself cleared the way for by ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

INSKEEP: Now, let's recall that Turkey is attacking ethnic Kurds. They live in northeastern Syria. They also live over in Turkey, and they live in northern Iraq in a region that is known as Kurdistan. And that's where we find NPR's Jane Arraf. Hey there, Jane.


INSKEEP: How serious is this crisis?

ARRAF: It's really serious. This was already a vulnerable area, and now with the withdrawal of these groups, clinics are closing, food distribution has halted or stopped, water is in short, supply and at least 2,000 people have fled their homes - some of them walking for days to get to safety. And we have to remember, all this is in the space of just a few days as Turkish forces advanced and U.S. forces withdrew, one European aid worker told us.

INSKEEP: In a region that people thought was relatively safe, right? It's a place you would have gone for safety.

ARRAF: You know, there's nothing safe anymore, particularly in the Middle East. This was a vulnerable region because it was out of control of the Syrian regime. It was taken over by Kurdish forces, allies of the U.S. And it was a region not really recognized by anyone. So they dependent a lot on aid. And because of the speed of this, it's really had an effect as well. A lot of these aid agencies planned for contingencies, but one worker told us, we didn't plan for all of them to happen at the same time.

INSKEEP: Well, NPR's reporting, as we know, from border towns, where tens of thousands of people have been trying to flee - what are people saying?

ARRAF: We had a team at the border this week who met families desperate to cross over to Iraq, and not everyone is allowed to. This extended family of more than 20 people, including children, were turned back by a border guard. Let's listen to a bit of that.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: So one of the men is saying, there's a man in the car who's about to die. And the Kurdish guard is telling him they don't have proper IDs, and they can't cross the border - the end. They drove out to spend the night in their cars in the desert.

INSKEEP: And why are aid agencies that often work in troubled areas scaling back?

ARRAF: So they're saying they can't guarantee the safety of their personnel. There's shelling. The Syrian forces are expected to take over some of these towns. And their local personnel will be in danger. They could face retaliation for working with these groups, which don't have approval from the Syrian government. Doctors Without Borders, one of the main organizations in northeastern Syria, says that the lack of water in border areas is particularly worrying. This is Robert Onus, the organization's emergency director.

ROBERT ONUS: So not only do you have people being displaced with very little because nobody was prepared, I think, for this eventuality, but also, they're going into an area where access to water is heavily restricted. And that's on top of the fact that many of the humanitarian organizations that were working in the area by there had to reduce or suspend their activities.

ARRAF: So some organizations are waiting to see if they can go back, but they're not holding their breath.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jane Arraf. Thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.