News Brief: Yovanovitch Testifies, Student Loans, Lebanon Protests
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In her private testimony, she says she felt threatened by President Trump. Today, Marie Yovanovitch will be able to tell the public why.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The former ambassador to Ukraine testifies before the cameras in the impeachment inquiry. The State Department called her home early from her job this spring. According to previous sworn testimony from multiple witnesses, her boss told Yovanovitch she had done nothing wrong but that the president wanted her gone after a smear campaign that involved the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. On Wednesday, witness George Kent of the State Department spoke of that smear campaign.
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GEORGE KENT: During the late spring and summer of 2019, I became alarmed as those efforts bore fruit. They led to the ouster of Ambassador Yovanovitch and hampered U.S. efforts to establish rapport with the new Zelenskiy administration in Ukraine.
GREENE: OK. So Yovanovitch is going to appear today. And let's talk this through with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who is here. Hi there, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: OK. So Yovanovitch, as Steve said, testified in his closed-door testimony that she was told to basically watch her back. Can you just remind us why?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. She pointed to a conversation with a Ukraine official telling her about someone possibly wanting to hurt her. It was in the context of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, and some of his associates who were trying to push her out of her post. You know, in fact, she says she's still worried today and that Trump could retaliate.
She pointed to Trump's July 25 phone call with a Ukraine leader - with the Ukraine leader when Trump called her, quote, "bad news" and, quote, "she's going to go through some things."
GREENE: Yeah. What else has the president said about this and about her?
ORDOÑEZ: So far, he's sought to deflect the criticism. Trump was asked last week if Yovanovitch was the target of a smear campaign.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I really don't know her. But if you look at the transcripts, the president of Ukraine was not a fan of hers either. I mean, he did not exactly say glowy (ph) things. I'm sure she's a very fine woman. I just don't know much about her.
ORDOÑEZ: The president was referring to the rough transcript of his, again, July 25 phone call with President Zelenskiy when the president of Ukraine implied that Yovanovitch favored his own rival.
GREENE: OK. So now we move into a public setting where this is going to be on radio, on television. People are going to be watching. What do you expect we'll hear from Yovanovitch this morning?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, from Yovanovitch, we're going to hear a lot of what she said before. From Republicans, they're going to want to talk about her political opinions. They're likely, as they did before, accuse her of opposing President Trump. They could also press her, as they did before, on which presidential candidate she supported in the Ukraine election this year.
You know, some like Jim Jordan, the congressman from Ohio, may press her that it isn't Trump's prerogative to change ambassadors - or isn't it Trump's prerogative to change ambassadors.
GREENE: This is Jim Jordan, the congressman who actually was brought onto this committee because he's such a staunch defender of the president...
GREENE: ...They wanted someone there. OK. So another key witness is scheduled to testify. This is going to be behind closed doors today. What who is that?
ORDOÑEZ: David Holmes - he works for the State Department on Ukraine. He's also an aide to William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine. This all relates to Wednesday's big development in the open hearing when Taylor testified that an aide had overheard an interesting conversation.
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WILLIAM TAYLOR: A member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.
ORDOÑEZ: Now, I should say that Trump said he didn't recall the conversation. Next week we're going to hear from Sondland's side of the story and - who is expected to testify on Wednesday. We're also expected to hear from Mark Sandy tomorrow. He's going to talk possibly about the holdup of military aid to Ukraine. He's the first person from the Office of Management and Budget to testify.
GREENE: OK. A lot of different parts of this story to follow. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
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GREENE: All right. Let's turn now to the story of tens of thousands of college students who borrowed money. They allege they were swindled by their schools, which made them eligible to have their loans forgiven. But that didn't happen.
INSKEEP: At least not yet, but could it change? Late last night, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos apparently responded to pressure from a powerful Democrat. DeVos agreed to turn over Education Department records in this case. She did so just as she was about to be subpoenaed. Congressman Bobby Scott chairs the House Education Committee.
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BOBBY SCOTT: We've been asking for information since last year. And we expect answers.
INSKEEP: Well, will the documents provide those answers?
GREENE: A good question to ask NPR correspondent Cory Turner, who's been following the story and joins us. Hey, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: Can you start by explaining - take us back. What is this fight all about here?
TURNER: Yeah. The fight is all about a federal rule that started in 1995. And it's called borrower defense. And it basically says that if a student is defrauded by a college, they're entitled to have their federal student loans forgiven. But honestly, the rule was barely used until just a few years ago in the Obama administration.
GREENE: OK. So what, then, has changed up to this point?
TURNER: Well, so that's when several high-profile, for-profit chains - including Corinthian Colleges - were being investigated for lying to students about all sorts of things, including job prospects after graduation and future earnings. Excuse me. Current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the rule is too lenient, basically calling it free money. A department spokesperson told NPR the old all-or-nothing strategy was essentially unfair to taxpayers.
So what Secretary DeVos did is delayed processing these borrower defense claims. And instead of granting full loan forgiveness, the department also tried to make this new argument that, essentially, defrauded borrowers who end up earning a decent wage anyway shouldn't necessarily have their loans totally forgiven.
GREENE: Oh, it's based on if you really needed to have that money or not.
TURNER: Exactly. And we know that at least as of June, roughly 210,000 borrowers are now waiting for the department to process their claims, many for several years. We don't know how many more claims have come since then. And that's just one of the many things that I know Chairman Bobby Scott hopes to learn from these documents.
GREENE: What exactly is he looking for in these records? I mean, it seems like DeVos has now avoided a subpoena. They might turn over these records. I mean, what might be in there that lawmakers are interested in?
TURNER: Well, in addition to more recent data, he also wants emails and internal memos that may explain why the department isn't processing these claims. I spoke with Chairman Scott yesterday. And he said the fact that borrowers had been waiting with this debt for years is really unfair.
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SCOTT: And you can't buy a house. Your credit is all messed up. You ought to be relieved of this if you've been defrauded. And that's exactly what's happened in many of these schools.
TURNER: And I should say, David, a committee aide tells NPR that the department said it would provide the documents after Chairman Scott had already signed the subpoena and the department was made aware the subpoena was imminent.
GREENE: What exactly is the Department of Education saying now, just that they might turn over these records or they saying more about how they handled this?
TURNER: Well, this has been a long, simmering fight. And they insist that this is really much ado about nothing, that they have been transparent with Chairman Scott and the committee, that they have granted access to the head of the department's Federal Student Aid office.
A spokesperson told me earlier this week the department's been working really hard to comply with lawful oversight activities, but that they - meaning chairman Scott's office - won't take yes for an answer.
GREENE: NPR's Cory Turner. Thanks, Cory.
TURNER: Thank you.
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GREENE: All right. Lebanon's prime minister resigned two weeks ago. And now the country might be getting a new leader.
INSKEEP: Mass protests over corruption and an economic crisis drove Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. Now Lebanon's main political parties have agreed on a successor. The possible replacement is a prominent businessman and former minister, exactly the kind of insider that protesters say they do not want.
GREENE: All right. Let's turn to NPR international correspondent Daniel Estrin, who is in Beirut. Hi, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
GREENE: What does it feel like there? I mean, just tell us about these protests and where things stand today.
ESTRIN: Well, the mood here is really changing, David, because in the first weeks, protesters were really euphoric. There were hundreds of thousands in the streets. It was really a carnival. But then young men from parties opposed to the protests started clashing with protesters, some even opened fire. In recent days, protesters have continued to block roads. And so the mood is really changing.
We spoke to a couple of young men here downtown who said they joined the protests at the beginning, but they're not joining them anymore. They have a very bad feeling about where things are headed. Take a listen to Serge Kamil (ph).
SERGE KAMIL: There are militias. There are repercussions. There's a big price to pay to fight corruption head on in this country. So I'm not sure what a solution would be for that. The economic situation is already rock bottom. Like, all banks are facing bankruptcy right now. It's scary. The future is scary.
ESTRIN: And remember, these protests were sparked by an economic crisis. People were taking money out of the banks. And so now banks are closed. There are limits on how much people can withdraw from ATMs. And this man we just spoke with said he's afraid that Lebanon's reputation around the world is ruined. He's calling it chaos. And he thinks protesters and the government need to reach a compromise.
GREENE: All right. So we have this new name now fitting into this story, this possible replacement for Hariri, as Steve mentioned. Who is it?
ESTRIN: Well, his name is Mohammad Safadi. And all of the main political parties here in Lebanon are supporting him. But he is exactly the kind of guy that protesters don't want. He's 75 years old, the former finance minister. He's one of the richest men in the country. And one example - he's a part-owner of a spot in downtown Beirut not far from where I am right now that symbolizes a lot of what people are mad about.
It's this waterfront area. It used to be a public area where fishermen fished. And then it was turned into private property and a yacht club. And so you have these fancy cafes next to this fancy boardwalk. And, you know, now today, people complain that there's only one public beach in all of Beirut.
And so people say this is what's happening in this country on a bigger scale. Public resources are being taken over by politicians. They're profiting from them. And protesters are planning a demonstration at that yacht club today.
GREENE: I mean, I wonder - like, listening to the voice of that protester you talked to, Serge, like where do he and other protesters go from here? He sounded frustrated. He sounded worried. Do they keep protest up? Do they accept this new leader as just the way it's going to be?
ESTRIN: They're not accepting the leader. The protesters say they want to change course. And instead of blocking roads, which is very unpopular with citizens here, they want to target institutions, state institutions. And a big key test here is whether the army will still continue to protect protesters. There were some arrests overnight. One person was killed this week. We're going to have to see whether there'll be more skirmishes or even a crackdown.
GREENE: All right. Learning about the situation in Beirut from NPR's international correspondent Daniel Estrin, who is there. Daniel, thanks.
ESTRIN: Thank you.
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