News Brief: Impeachment Poll, Public Testimony, Iran Protests
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So how do Americans feel about the idea of an impeachment?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think the impeachment thing is a total fraud. The swamp in D.C. - they're just kidding themselves.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My opinion of the current administration is so bad that I just can't stomach it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Everyone's playing politics with the issue as opposed to - it's at a point now where I don't know what the actual law is.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some voices that we heard from around the country as four more witnesses get ready to testify in public today. Three of those witnesses were actually listening in on that July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's leader. That phone call is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. And whatever they think about the process, Americans are paying close attention.
GREENE: Right. That's according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that came out today. And let's talk about it with NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Hi, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
GREENE: All right. So a new poll - what numbers are standing out here?
RASCOE: So Americans are paying attention. So some 70% of registered voters say they're following news about impeachment very or fairly closely. But the country remains fairly evenly split about impeachment, and a large majority say nothing will change their mind at this point. On the question of whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office, 45% are in favor, 44 are against. Two-thirds of people say they don't think anything will come out that will sway their position. That said, this poll was done last week, Monday through Friday, so it captures the time before, during and after those hearings last week. And there's still time for that public testimony to sink in.
GREENE: Sure. But, I mean, it sounds like there's agreement on that a lot of people are paying attention. There's agreement on a lot of people are not going to change their minds. Is there common ground anywhere when it comes to the substance of what we're hearing?
RASCOE: Well, there is broad agreement - 70% of people say that it's unacceptable for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent. So people clearly believe that President Trump did something wrong. But the question is whether he should be impeached and removed over it.
GREENE: All right. Well, speaking about how this is playing out, House investigators released two more transcripts now from closed-door testimony, including testimony from this U.S. diplomat, David Holmes. What did he have to say? And remind us who he is.
RASCOE: So Holmes works at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. In July, he overheard part of this phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU. And Trump asked - on that phone call, Trump asked if the Ukrainian president, Zelenskiy, would do the investigation. And Sondland said that he would. Holmes asked Sondland after that call whether Trump cared about Ukraine, and Holmes said that Sondland told him that Trump did not care - that he cared only about the, quote, "big stuff" like the Biden investigation. The language that was used on that call is a bit more colorful than I can use on radio right now.
RASCOE: But that was the gist of it. And Sondland is scheduled to testify this week. So having this testimony out from Holmes is going to basically play a big part in that hearing later this week with Sondland.
GREENE: To shape some of the questioning for him. What about today? Preview what we're going to see today.
RASCOE: So two of the witnesses today were requested by Republicans - Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine, and Timothy Morrison, director of European - who was director of European affairs for NSC. And why the Republicans wanted Volker is because Volker had testified previously that he believed that the holdup of aid for Ukraine was not significant. Tim Morrison was on that call between Trump and Ukraine's president. But he didn't say - he said he didn't think that anything happened that was illegal. And so that's why the Republicans are probably looking for them. Also testifying today are Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Pence, and Alexander Vindman, a top White House expert on Ukraine.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Ayesha, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.
RASCOE: Thank you.
GREENE: OK. Let's hear more about one of the witnesses Ayesha mentioned there. It's Army Lieutenant Colonel Vindman.
MARTIN: Yeah. As a top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, Vindman was listening when President Trump spoke with Ukraine's president in that July 25 phone call. Television viewers are likely to see Vindman turn up in his dark blue Army service uniform. Behind the optics, though, Vindman brings a really compelling backstory.
GREENE: Yeah. And let's talk about what we might hear from him. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. Hey there, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: OK. So talk - give us some of the background of Vindman. I mean, how did he make his way to this job inside the White House?
MYRE: Well, he started in Ukraine. That's where he was born in the 1970s when it was still part of the Soviet Union. And he's got an identical twin, Yevgeny. Their mother died when they were very young. The father brought them to the U.S. to New York, up the place Little - excuse me - Brighton Beach, also known as Little Odessa because of all the Russian and Ukrainian immigrants. And it turns out the Vindman twins were in a 1985 Ken Burns documentary. So let's have a little bit of a listen to that here.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STATUE OF LIBERTY")
UNIDENTIFIED VINDMAN TWIN #1: We came from Russia.
UNIDENTIFIED VINDMAN TWIN #2: In Russia, we came from Kyiv.
UNIDENTIFIED VINDMAN TWIN #1: And then...
UNIDENTIFIED VINDMAN TWIN #2: We went to...
UNIDENTIFIED VINDMAN TWIN #1: ...Our mother died, so we went to Italy. Then we came here.
GREENE: That's so sweet (laughter).
MYRE: So now these are both lieutenant colonels in the Army. Both of them actually serve on the National Security Council. And Vindman - Alexander Vindman, who's testifying today, is an East European expert and has been serving in that capacity.
GREENE: Wow, with so much history with Ukraine. So - OK, on that July 25 phone call, Vindman was at the White House actually in the Situation Room listening in to President Trump's call. What do we know so far of what he made of that call?
MYRE: Well, he was upset immediately because he gave testimony - closed-door testimony - back on October 29. And in that testimony, he said, I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government - Ukraine - investigate a U.S. citizen. And immediately, he took those concerns and he went to the legal counsel at the National Security - at the NSC. So he raised that almost immediately.
GREENE: So it sounds like his testimony could be, I mean, important. I mean, all the testimony, you can argue, is important for one way or another or not. But, I mean, what makes this stand out?
MYRE: Well, we're going to be hearing from people this week who were in on the call. And in Vindman's case, he noted - and, again, in his previous testimony - that he - in the spring, he was seeing what he called outside influencers promoting a false narrative. So he was sort of onto this early on or had concerns. There was a July 10 meeting two weeks before the phone call. He also raised that with the NSC legal counsel. So he corroborates the whistleblower and even before this July 25 phone call, he was raising concerns.
GREENE: And as you cover this, I mean, what are you looking for as this week goes on?
MYRE: Well, we've got nine people testifying this week - Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, is coming up tomorrow, and he was on the phone call on July 26 - this loud phone call from a restaurant in Kyiv. So I think that's going to be one of the important witnesses this week.
GREENE: NPR's Greg Myre in our studios here in Washington. Greg, thanks a lot.
MYRE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: All right. Iran is warning of a clampdown on mass protests that erupted after the regime hiked gasoline prices.
MARTIN: Right. And details of this are sketchy because the government in Iran has shut down the Internet. Last week, the government hiked gas prices by 50%. Protesters turned out, and things got violent over the weekend. Several people are reported to have been killed. The country's supreme leader has condemned all the unrest, which has reportedly spread to about a hundred cities. In a tweet, the U.S. secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, expressed solidarity with the people of Iran. And here's what U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates John Rakolta said on Sunday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN RAKOLTA: We're not advocating regime change. We're going to let the Iranian people decide for themselves their future. But their future is to be part of the world community.
GREENE: Quite a moment in Iran, and let's talk it through with NPR international correspondent Peter Kenyon, who's in Istanbul. Hi, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So a hundred cities some of the reports suggesting these protests have erupted in. I mean, this sounds widespread and pretty intense.
KENYON: Yeah. The intensity seems to ebb and flow. I mean, today the government's talking about calm being restored. We'll see if that lasts. These protests started Friday mostly peacefully, but since then, lots and lots of cities - Kermanshah, Shiraz, Behshahr, Isfahan parts of Tehran. Obviously, I'm not going to go through a hundred cities.
GREENE: Sure. Thank you.
KENYON: But a lot of rioting all over the country. In some cases, gas stations are big targets or ATMs, emphasizing the anger at this 50% hike in the fuel cost. And that also, by the way, includes a rationing system. So any driver that goes over the limit of about 15 gallons a month has to pay, like, triple the normal cost. By Western standards, we should note even these increased prices are quite low. But in the context of the Iranian economy, it's painful, especially for low-income people.
GREENE: OK. So a lot of people angry. These protests erupt. The government, as Rachel said, has shut down the Internet. What else are they doing in response to this?
KENYON: Well, there's been direct clashes between police and security forces and protesters, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned that an even more decisive reaction could come if these protests continue. As you mentioned, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has come out. He's cautiously supporting the fuel price increase. He's calling the protesters thugs, which seemed to put a bit of a chill on the numbers turning out. But that's based on sketchier evidence because with the Internet cut, it's harder to get the information now.
GREENE: I have to ask about any U.S. role here. I mean, U.S. sanctions are meant to put pressure on Iran's economy. Are they related to this?
KENYON: Iran's foreign minister says so. Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to a comment by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who tweeted the U.S. was with the people of Iran. Zarif said, any American regime that imposes coercive economic sanctions, bars food and drugs, et cetera, is not supporting the Iranian nation. Washington says it's not targeting food and medicine, but banks are reluctant to do a lot of these transactions. And it's possible more sanctions are on the way.
GREENE: And as you look at the economic conditions in the country right now overall, I mean, what is life like there?
KENYON: It was a brief respite of better times after the 2015 nuclear deal started. But since these sanctions came in last year - the American sanctions - the rial is down, people's savings are being eaten up, unemployment is way up. And Europe, which has tried to solve the problem with increased trade, has really had pretty limited success so far.
GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks so much.
KENYON: Thank you, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "JEALOUS HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.