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News Brief: Trump-Ukraine Controversy, Iran Interview, Climate Summit


President Trump initially dismissed a whistleblower complaint from someone in the intelligence community as partisan and fake news. Now the president has changed course, admitting that he did talk to the Ukrainian president about a political rival.


This is a little bit complicated, but let's try to work through it. Multiple news outlets reported last week that this whistleblower's complaint was focused on what they viewed as the president's troubling communications with Ukraine. According to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, the president urged the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden's son on about eight occasions during a single call. He brought it up eight times, it was said. The president is now confirming that the former vice president's family did come up during that conversation in July. But he argues this...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I said absolutely nothing wrong. It was perfect.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us this morning. Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: President Trump says he did nothing wrong, but the concern is that there may have been a quid pro quo here - right? - that this is tied to U.S. aid for Ukraine. Can you explain?

LIASSON: Well, the president's critics say that pressing a foreign country - in this case, one desperate for U.S. help against an aggressive Russia - to dig up dirt on a political rival is an abuse of power. And they say that if the president, as he is alleged to do, held up congressionally appropriated aid to use as a cudgel over Ukraine - so in other words, he's holding up this aid for his own personal political benefit. That's also an abuse of power.

Now, the president, as you said, admits that he did talk to the Ukrainian leader about investigating but then-Vice President Joe Biden's son. He said at one point yesterday he'd be happy to release the transcript of that phone call. Then later in the day, he backed off and said, well, my aides and I will make a determination about that.

MARTIN: But Democrats aren't so keen on that time frame. They've set a deadline of this Thursday, right? What are they saying?

LIASSON: They want to get the whistleblower complaint. That's what they're trying to get. And even though there is no line that the president would have had to cross for this to be an impeachable offense, more and more Democrats are now talking about impeachment. Adam Schiff, who heads the House Intelligence Committee - close ally of Nancy Pelosi's, the house speaker - said this could cross the Rubicon. He wants to know whether any pressure was placed on the Ukrainian leader. Here's what he had to say on CNN yesterday.


ADAM SCHIFF: This would be, I think, the most profound violation of the presidential oath of office certainly during this presidency, which says a lot, but perhaps during just about any presidency.

LIASSON: Now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still being cautious. She says her bar is bipartisan public support in support of impeachment. That is not there yet.

MARTIN: Which she has maintained for a long time.

LIASSON: Yes. But she is calling for the director of national intelligence to disclose that whistleblower complaint.

MARTIN: Joe Biden - I mean, how's he responding to all this?

LIASSON: He is saying that Donald Trump took these actions to smear him because he sees Joe Biden as a threat, and he says Trump knows that he could, quote, "beat him like a drum" in the 2020 election.

MARTIN: And we should also say there is no evidence at this point that Joe Biden nor his son Hunter, who is working for a Ukrainian energy company, that there is any evidence of wrongdoing. What are you watching for next?

LIASSON: Well, there are two big moments this week. On Wednesday, Donald Trump and the Ukrainian president will meet face to face at the United Nations meeting in New York. And the acting director of national intelligence is supposed to testify on Capitol Hill to the House Intelligence Committee about the whistleblower complaint on Thursday.

MARTIN: Right, that's that Thursday deadline you mentioned. OK, NPR's White House correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.


MARTIN: All right. So what should be the response to an attack on Saudi Arabia? That is the question vexing a lot of world leaders as they gather in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly.

INSKEEP: For the Saudis, as well as their allies in the United States, the leading suspect in this attack is Iran, and the larger context involves the U.S. confrontation with Iran after the U.S. backed out of a nuclear agreement. We've been talking with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Iranian diplomats get very little access to the United States, just as American diplomats can't go to Tehran. But Zarif is allowed a narrow slice of New York during U.N. meetings. He insisted in an interview with NPR that his country did not attack the Saudis, and he said the attack was not even in Iran's interest.

JAVAD ZARIF: Five days before our president comes to New York, would we do it so that instead of pushing our own agenda here on U.S. violations of JCPOA, we should be talking about Yemen?

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon keeps an eye on Iran for us. Hi there, Peter.


INSKEEP: So Iran's foreign minister says his country didn't do it. He just alluded to Yemen. He says the real culprits were a Houthi faction in Yemen aligned with Iran. But I also asked, would you even know if Iran's military would do this? He said, sure. But you follow Iran, Peter. Would the foreign minister even know?

KENYON: Well, probably, yes. And of course, we should note Britain now says it's also concluded that Iran was behind this attack. But back to Iran's government - very complicated, very opaque. The foreign minister isn't in the chain of command of the military, nor the president for that matter. But the foreign minister, the president and the military in this case are all saying more or less the same thing; they're on the same page.

Now, we should remember, Zarif did resign briefly earlier this year, saying he was being kept from vital information. He now says he is being informed. He'll be in New York with President Rouhani, who will be supposedly bringing forward a peace plan for the region.

INSKEEP: Here's another thing Zarif said here in New York.

ZARIF: If the United States attacks Iran, then we will attack, and we have made it very clear that all U.S. interests would be reasonable targets.

INSKEEP: Suppose this confrontation did lead to some kind of retaliation - is Iran in position to damage U.S. interests?

KENYON: Well, certainly. I would note that Zarif referred to retaliation to an actual attack, not a threat. But officials in Iran have been saying for some time now any response wouldn't necessarily be limited to American assets, and going after U.S. interests in the region could perhaps mean a strike against American allies.

Now, this is a path both Iran and the U.S. say they don't want to go down. Trump says he doesn't want a war; Iranian leaders say the same. But tensions have been running high for some time now. World leaders do worry that things could escalate with very little warning, and that's why I think some of the talks in New York this week will be aimed at de-escalating the situation.

INSKEEP: What are some of those talks?

KENYON: Well, there'll be lots of discussions. U.N. General Assemblies are known for that. But in particular, the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia - the countries left in the nuclear deal - they'll be having a meeting on Wednesday; not the U.S., of course - President Trump pulled us out of that.

INSKEEP: What is the U.S. saying here, Peter?

KENYON: Well, the U.S. says Iran needs to come back to the table. They need to eliminate what they call their malign behavior in the region. And it doesn't look very likely that there'll be any talks between the U.S. and Iran this week. It's always possible a, quote-unquote, "accidental meeting," but so far there's no indication of a direct meeting.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

MARTIN: All right. So we know world leaders are going to be talking about Saudi Arabia and Iran. They're also going to be talking a lot about climate change, which they have done before - talk. Now there is global pressure to act.

INSKEEP: The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, is bringing world leaders together today for a climate action summit, and he's asking for big ideas.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: Don't come to the summit with beautiful speeches; come with concrete plans and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050.

INSKEEP: The meetings follow widespread strikes on Friday where millions of people around the world, many of them students, took to the streets to call for action.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's science reporter Rebecca Hersher is following all this and joins us this morning. Hi, Becky.


MARTIN: So today's summit comes just as this new report from the U.N.'s meteorological agency has been released, and this is important. What does it say?

HERSHER: Well, it's not good, as you might guess. It's a summary, really, of all the bad news about climate change. So it's the hottest it's ever been in recorded history, for one. We're getting hotter. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, not decreasing, and that's if you look at the whole world. And it means a lot of dangerous things for humans - so sea level rise, longer droughts and heat waves and cold snaps and more frequent and intense storms. It's harder to grow food. The list goes on.

MARTIN: So we heard the U.N. secretary-general say, no more beautiful speeches; we got to act.


MARTIN: So what's the action? What is the goal of this summit?

HERSHER: Basically, to push world leaders to make bigger promises. So it's the kickoff to 2020. Under the Paris Agreement, 2020 is the first deadline for countries to look at the promises they've made, reassess, say is this enough?

MARTIN: So do we expect countries to make those bigger promises?


MARTIN: I mean, has it - have those initial commitments under the Paris Agreement worked?

HERSHER: Yes and no. On one end, some countries are ready to make bigger promises - France, other European leaders may be ready. India, small island nations around the world - they'll probably signal that they're ready to be more aggressive. China, even - they set quite conservative targets; they may be ready to make bigger ones.

On the other end, Brazil no, Russia no. The U.S. - President Trump has threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, and the U.S. is not on track to meet its previous promise; that was to reduce greenhouse gases about 25% by 2025. We are not on track to meet that - the U.S. is not on track - and the U.S. does not appear to be ready to make bigger promises.

MARTIN: We've got to consider what's been happening over the last weeks, right? All these protests. Students from around the world - the photos of these walkouts were really amazing. Young people walking out of school or work to draw global attention to climate change. Do you get the sense that there is a greater urgency not just on the streets with those people, but that it's actually causing lawmakers to think about this in a different way?

HERSHER: It's hard to say. Certainly, policymakers are aware of the protesters. It's hard not to be. There's a lot of anger, a lot of expectation. I think the protests feel big to a lot of people. That said, we're talking about a huge problem that will require massive rethinking of the global economy, and it's just not clear whether the world's leaders are ready to pursue that.

MARTIN: NPR's science reporter Rebecca Hersher. Thanks, Becky. We appreciate it.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAND OF OAKS' "JM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.