News Brief: Whistleblower Probe, Climate Protests, Texas Flooding

Sep 20, 2019
Originally published on September 20, 2019 6:26 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Did President Trump make a promise to a foreign leader that that he should not have?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's the question at the core of an unfolding investigation. The story revolves around a member of the intelligence community who allegedly found a comment made by the president so disturbing that this person reported it to the inspector general. Congressional Democrats now want to see that complaint. Here's Adam Schiff, who heads up the House Intelligence Committee.

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ADAM SCHIFF: It's not the president's privilege, for example, to engage in criminality. If the president were making a criminal bargain with a foreign leader, he would be no more protected than you or I.

MARTIN: The president has dismissed the claims.

KING: Our national security correspondent Greg Myre is in studio to help break some of this down. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: OK. So this is a very complicated story, in large part because there is just a ton that we don't know. What do we know at this point?

MYRE: What we do know is back on August 12, a member of the intelligence community filed this complaint. Now, we don't know which branch - could be CIA, NSA, FBI, many others. We don't know. But we do know this person considered it something - was called an urgent concern. It's actually sort of a legal term in this world.

Now, this complaint went to Michael Atkinson. He's the inspector general for the overall intelligence community. So he handles these whistleblower complaints. He reviewed it. He found it credible. And therefore, he's supposed to inform Congress, which is what he did. And he sent a letter to Adam Schiff, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, on September 9.

KING: OK. So a whistleblower has an urgent concern. What is his urgent concern?

MYRE: Well, that's really the big question. We don't know. There's no official word. Now, it appears that it involves some promise that the president - President Trump - may have made to a foreign leader. The New York Times and The Washington Post are citing sources who are linking it to Ukraine. This is a country that recently elected a new president. Trump has been in touch with him. It's a country that's had a lot of corruption issues. And it seems that it may be related to that. Now, the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, went on TV last night and has spoken about this in general terms at least.

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RUDY GIULIANI: The reality is that the president of the United States, whoever he is, has every right to tell the president of another country, you better straighten out the corruption in your country if you want me to give you a lot of money.

MYRE: So Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee wants to get to the bottom of this. And he's called for the inspector general - he called the inspector general to a closed-door session yesterday. The inspector general confirmed that he'd received the complaint, but he refused to give any of the contents of that complaint.

KING: That seems so weird, though. He knows what's in it. Why wouldn't he tell Schiff what's in it?

MYRE: Well, it seems the acting director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, says - he feels this should be blocked because he doesn't think that's something that should go through whistleblower channels and needs to be reported to Congress. But I've spoken with lawyers who say it's really not up to the director of National Intelligence.

Here's Stephen Kohn. He's a Washington attorney who's represented whistleblowers for more than 30 years. And he's the author of "The Whistleblower's Handbook."

STEPHEN KOHN: In my view, the inspector general is required to tell Congress what has happened in this case. And if the inspector general does not, he's in violation of law.

MYRE: So Kohn says it's absolutely critical that inspector generals operate independently. That's the whole point. They shouldn't face pressure or be blocked by the institutions that they're monitoring.

KING: What is everyone's next move here?

MYRE: So Adam Schiff says he's going to keep trying. He's called the acting director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to testify at an open hearing next Thursday, September 26. He also says he might sue to get this information if he can't get it that way. The Trump administration is expected to push back. The president has spoken out. He tweeted yesterday saying, does anybody think that I would say something inappropriate in a call with a foreign leader?

KING: Really complex story. NPR's Greg Myre, thanks for helping us break it down.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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KING: The world is facing a climate crisis, and global leaders aren't doing enough about it.

MARTIN: That's the message coming from the millions of people expected to take part in climate strikes across the globe today. The walkouts are being led by students - and one student in particular, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

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GRETA THUNBERG: The climate and ecological crisis is a global crisis, the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. And if we don't manage to work together, to cooperate and to work together despite our differences, then we will fail.

MARTIN: Greta Thunberg will be at one of the biggest walkouts expected to happen in New York City today.

KING: NPR's Jeff Brady is following this from New York. Good morning, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: OK. Let's start with Greta Thunberg because this is a 16-year-old girl who managed to convince some massive school districts - including New York City - to let kids walk out for a day. How did she get this movement off the ground?

BRADY: You know, she started about a year ago with her school strike for the climate. And she did this all by herself outside the Swedish Parliament. She got some attention on social media. And her climate strike has just spread across the globe. And I think it's because she has this clear and very direct way of talking about climate change, which can be confusing. And she doesn't have any problem standing in front of powerful people and telling them that they need to do more to fix the changing climate.

KING: What's the scale we're expecting for these marches today? Is this just major cities like New York or we expect rural areas as well?

BRADY: Yeah. It's looking like it's going to be a pretty big protest. There are protests expected in more than 100 countries. Organizers think it's going to be the largest climate strike yet. And here in New York, of course, the school district is giving students excused absences. That's going to boost the numbers. I've also talked with people in very small towns where just a few dozen people are expected. And there are events like this happening everywhere, all over the globe.

KING: So you said that Greta Thunberg is so compelling in part because she is so clear. What are these - what are these kids demanding?

BRADY: They have a pretty specific list of demands. And those were summed up, I would say, pretty succinctly at a Capitol Hill press conference this week by 17-year-old Baltimore activist Nadia Nazar.

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NADIA NAZAR: Respect of Indigenous land, sustainable agriculture, protecting biodiversity, environmental justice and a just transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.

BRADY: Now, sometimes activists here in the U.S. shorthand this by calling for Congress to pass a Green New Deal. That's the proposal that was crafted by progressive Democratic lawmakers. And it calls for an extraordinary overhaul of the economy and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. So far, though, that legislation hasn't gone anywhere in Congress.

KING: So as these young people have gone to Capitol Hill, as we heard that young woman there, what's the response they're getting? Are lawmakers listening, do you think?

BRADY: They got a lot of praise from Democrats. Climate change has been a big issue for Democrats more than Republicans. But they did spar with some Republican lawmakers who support President Trump's plan to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Seventeen-year-old Seattle activist Jamie Margolin asked one congressman how he'll respond to his grandchildren when asked if he did enough to address climate change. She called his position, that the climate agreement will hurt U.S. competitiveness, shameful and cowardly.

KING: NPR's Jeff Brady. Thanks so much, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you.

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KING: All right. Parts of southeast Texas are underwater this morning.

MARTIN: Yeah. Communities specifically to the east of Houston, close to the border with Louisiana, have been the hardest hit after Tropical Depression Imelda made landfall. Two people are dead as a result of all this. Others are stranded and trapped.

KING: Michael Marks is a reporter with the Texas Standard. He's on the line from Cypress, Texas, that is on the outskirts of Houston. Michael, Good morning.

MICHAEL MARKS: Good morning.

KING: So you are on dry ground at the moment, which is great. But how bad are these floods?

MARKS: So it varies from community to community. The rain seems to have come down in these fairly concentrated pockets. So you've got - places in Houston got about a dozen inches in 48 hours...

KING: Wow.

MARKS: ...But a rural area about an hour west of Houston got over 40 inches in that span. There's folks over there saying that the flooding is worse than they experienced during Hurricane Harvey.

KING: Wow. We are hearing reports about these chaotic evacuations, about people who seem as if they were caught off guard by this. They just weren't expecting it. What are people telling you?

MARKS: Yeah. So yesterday, I spent some time at a gas station in Katy, which is just west of Houston, talking to people who were affected by the storm, fleeing from the storm. One of those folks was a man named Edgar Olimon (ph). He's from southeast Houston. He was there with nine kids, had all of them packed into their blue Chevy Tahoe. They were on their way to San Antonio to stay with his wife's family.

He said the day just started normally - kids had gone to school, he was running errands. And he gets this call all of a sudden saying, hey, come pick up your kids. So he does - takes them back to the house. Lo and behold, he's got five inches of water in there. So he just had some bottled water and a few sets of clothes for each kid. And they didn't know when they would be coming back to Houston, so a lot of uncertainty.

KING: Man, people just leaving everything behind. You mentioned Hurricane Harvey, which devastated parts of Houston a few years ago. Does it seem like this could be worse?

MARKS: That's tough to say. It's still early. So that may be true in some places - I mentioned those rural areas east of Houston. Remember, though, Harvey brought these high winds and heavy rain for just a huge part of Texas' Gulf Coast for the better part of a week. There were 13 county disaster declarations by Governor Abbott - Governor Greg Abbott of Texas. For this storm, he made the same declaration for over 50 counties in the wake of Harvey. So the footprint and duration of Imelda seem to be smaller, though, obviously still quite significant.

KING: Yeah. I remember those maps of Harvey, where it was just, like, the storm had stalled and the rain just stayed in the same place for hours and days on end. When is the rain, this time around, supposed to let up?

MARKS: So there is more rain in the forecast. It doesn't appear that it will fall with the same intensity. But there's definitely more coming for the next few days. Officials are telling residents that even if they see the water receding, don't let their guard down for the time being.

KING: OK. Michael Marks with the Texas Standard reporting on these devastating floods in and outside of Houston. Michael, thank you so much.

MARKS: Thank you.

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