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News Brief: Pence In Turkey, Gordon Sondland Profile, Chicago Teachers


Vice President Mike Pence is in Turkey today. He's trying to negotiate a cease-fire.


The vice president is traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They plan to meet with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after more than a week of attacks on Syrian-Kurdish forces. Of course, the Turkish invasion began only after President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of that part of Syria. Now the White House wants the Turkish military to stop. Here's what President Trump had to say about the Kurds, who were partners with U.S. forces for years in the fight against ISIS.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I say, why are we protecting Syria's land? Assad's not a friend of ours. Why are we protecting their land? And Syria also has a relationship with the Kurds, who, by the way, are no angels.

INSKEEP: President Trump has also threatened sanctions against Turkey, and he downplayed tensions yesterday.

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been following all of this from here in Washington. Hi, Mara.


KING: So President Trump has sent Pence to Turkey to pursue a cease-fire. He's also threatened sanctions. Has he explained a coherent strategy here?

LIASSON: He hasn't explained a coherent strategy, but he has said, as you heard him before, that this is not our problem. He said he wants to get out of the Middle East. He has also echoed Erdogan's language and called some of the Kurds terrorists worse than ISIS. And so far, there has not been a big cost to Turkey. Pence and Pompeo want a cease-fire. It's unlikely that Erdogan would agree to that. He said he won't - certainly not until he has established more control over northern Syria. And we've learned that in his heart of hearts, Donald Trump is more Rand Paul than Lindsey Graham. He has isolationist instincts, and now he's acted on them.

KING: Yesterday, the House voted to condemn the president's move. They voted overwhelmingly. Is there anything Congress can do at this point?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. The vote was huge, 354-60. And in the past, foreign policy is one area where Republicans have felt free to criticize the president and break with the president. There have been big votes on Russia's sanctions, veto-proof majorities. There have been symbolic resolutions supporting NATO. And they are discussing sanctions that are tougher than the ones the president is talking about.

But at least some members of Congress are also starting to think about the future. What, if anything, could Congress do proactively to make sure, for instance, if Trump is re-elected, that he can't pull out of NATO with a tweet? Or what if he decides to pull U.S. troops off the Korean Peninsula with a tweet? It's not clear if Congress could do anything about that, but these are the things that are on some members' minds.

KING: But that is really, really interesting - proactive moves. So after the House voted yesterday, the president met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and some other lawmakers. And it kind of went sideways, right?

LIASSON: It did. Nancy Pelosi; Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate; and Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 leader in the House, said they walked out of the meeting with the president about Turkey and Syria after the president called Pelosi a third-rate politician. Pelosi said Trump was having a meltdown because he was upset that so many Republicans voted for that resolution against his decision to withdraw from Syria. Then later Trump tweeted that it was Pelosi who had a meltdown and that there was something wrong with her, quote, "upstairs."

KING: OK. And so I guess one big looming question is, will any of this have any effect on the impeachment inquiry?

LIASSON: I think these are really two distinct things. Foreign policy is an area where Republicans feel free to criticize the president. This is not something that the president's base is focused on. Most of Trump's base doesn't really care about the Kurds or know who the Kurds are, maybe. And I think that they have been in lockstep with him on the impeachment battle, and it's possible that some of the aggressive pushback on Syria is a proxy for their frustration with Trump on other issues where they can't speak out. But right now I think these two things are pretty distinct.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.


KING: All right. This morning, House investigators are expecting to hear from one of the three amigos.

INSKEEP: Gordon Sondland was among Ukraine advisers for the White House. Along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, they were known as the three amigos of policy on Ukraine. Sondland is now a witness in President Trump's impeachment inquiry in the house. He is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And for years, he was an influential presence in his home state of Oregon.

KING: Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting. He's followed Sondland's career. Hey, Jeff.

JEFF MAPES, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be with you, Noel.

KING: So who is Gordon Sondland?

MAPES: Well, he's a very wealthy businessman. He splits his time between Portland and Seattle - basically made his fortune in the hotel industry. Yes, we do have rich alpha males in Portland. You know, he has some common interests with the president there. His parents escaped Nazi Germany, and I think that's part of what sparked his interest in being an ambassador to Europe.

He's also very definitely in political influence. You know, in Oregon he works with the Democrats who control most of the offices. But he backs Republicans at the national level. Also, he's been very close to the Bush family. And in fact, when Jeb Bush flamed out in the 2016 presidential primary, you might have thought that was it for his ambassadorial dreams. But when Trump became president, Sondland donated $1 million to his inaugural fund. And you know, that seemed to do the trick. Last year, Trump sent him to EU headquarters in Brussels.

KING: So I want to ask you about his reputation in Portland's political circles because you mentioned, despite its "Portlandia" reputation, there are rich alpha males there. What is his reputation? Do people like this guy? Do they trust him?

MAPES: Well, you know, it's funny. When Sondland's name first came up from, you know, that now-famous whistleblower's complaint, a lot of people here were saying - you know, probably know this guy from the hotel fight. And that was a reference to his long but unsuccessful fight to stop the construction of a publicly subsidized hotel at Portland's big convention center. He lost that fight, although he did get some financial concessions. I mean, I think the point of this is he can be a very determined guy. And he is known for, you know, being very active in charitable causes but for also being very forceful for, you know, nonprofits he serves on and certainly in his business affairs.

KING: So really a known quantity there. I know that you've been talking to some of Sondland's friends in Oregon. And you've been asking them, what advice are they giving him prior to this testimony? What did they tell you?

MAPES: Yeah, I talked with investor David Nierenberg who had worked with Sondland on fundraising for Republican causes. And I should say that Nierenberg is no fan of Trump. He did tell me that he sent an email to Sondland urging him to be as upfront as possible.

DAVID NIERENBERG: If there's anything, with 20/20 hindsight, that you said or did that you regret, then just tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and put it behind you. And never forget what got the Watergate people in trouble was not so much the break-in, it was the concealment and the lying. So...

MAPES: Yeah. I mean, it's very clear House investigators think that he's somebody who knows what the president said and what he was asking for. He seems to be somebody, you know, who's really just talked to all the players.

KING: Jeff Mapes with Oregon Public Broadcasting, thanks so much.

MAPES: Hey, you're welcome.


KING: Teachers in Chicago are on strike today.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Classes are canceled for almost 300,000 students. The news came last night after months of failed negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city school district. Here's Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot.


LORI LIGHTFOOT: At every turn, we've bent over backwards to meet the union's needs and deliver a contract that reflects our shared values and vision for our schools and the support of our students.

INSKEEP: But that didn't work. So what do 25,000 striking teachers want?

KING: Sarah Karp of member station WBEZ in Chicago has been trying to answer that question. Good morning, Sarah.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So 300,000 kids - I mean, this is not a low-stakes situation. Why are the teachers on strike?

KARP: There's many reasons. First of all, the mayor has offered a pretty aggressive salary package of 16% raises over five years. But the union wants - they want more money. They do want - they're asking for 5% over three years - 5% each year for three years.

But there's also bigger issues here that they're really focusing on. Many of those issues have to do with learning conditions in schools and working conditions for teachers. So they really are talking about things like, can we have lower class sizes? Can we have a nurse in every school? Can we have a social worker in every school? And those are the big issues that they've sort of come to terms with the mayor on because the mayor says she supports some of these things but she doesn't want to put them in writing in the contract. And so that's really where talks have broken down.

Now there's been some progress in recent days, but this strike date was set a couple of weeks ago, and the union just said that it's not enough progress in order to call off the strike.

KING: I'm really interested in what you're saying that the teachers are saying in schools they want nurses, they want social workers. I don't know the Chicago public school system that well. It sounds like it is troubled if teachers are asking for those things. Can you just give us a sense of how it is there?

KARP: So we have 500-plus schools, so there's a ton of schools out there. And you know, the last maybe 10 years have been pretty rough on the public school system. We've had some issues with state funding. We had a governor who held up state funding for some time and then didn't provide much state funding. And so our budget has been pretty tight.

And in Chicago, most of the clinicians - the people like nurses and social workers and psychologists and counselors - they spend a lot of their time working with special education students and not a lot of time working with your general education students. But here we do have issues where we have a lot of violence. And teachers say all of our kids need access to these clinicians and we need to make sure that they have that.

KING: Sarah, in the few seconds we have left, what is the city doing for parents who have kids who aren't going to school today?

KARP: They say that schools are open. But all you're going to find there are principals and administrators. You can also take them to the libraries or the parks and also a lot of community organizations have opened their doors and told parents that they can bring them there.

KING: OK. Interesting but still sounds like the potential to be very messy. Sarah Karp with member station WBEZ in Chicago. Sarah, thanks so much.

KARP: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESK'S "DOIN IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Jeff Mapes
Sarah Karp