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Morning News Brief


Public hearings in the impeachment inquiry are going to begin next week. And now we know who the first witnesses are.


Yeah. The House Intelligence Committee has called three senior State Department officials, including William Taylor. He is the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine. In Taylor's closed-door testimony, he presented a damning account of the events at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. Taylor says he believed there was a quid pro quo, an offer in which U.S. military aid would be granted in exchange for investigations that President Trump wanted.

This comes amid reports that President Trump also wanted Attorney General William Barr to go on TV, hold this big press conference to clear him of wrongdoing in Trump's phone call with Ukraine's president. The attorney general did not do that.

GREENE: And let's start there with NPR Washington reporter Tim Mak, who's with us in our Washington studio this morning. Hey there, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

GREENE: OK. This was first reported by The Washington Post. The president goes to his attorney general and wants some help from him with a news conference. What was going on?

MAK: So President Trump passed along word through staff that he wanted Attorney General William Barr to go on television declaring that the commander in chief had broken no laws during a phone call in which he pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate a political rival, though Barr ultimately declined to do this. That's according to The Washington Post and The New York Times. The Post goes on to say that Trump had told associates in recent weeks he had wished that Barr did actually hold that press conference to clear him or absolve him. Trump fired back, though, in a tweet at 12:08 a.m., writing that it was, quote, "totally untrue and just another fake news story with anonymous sources that don't exist."

It's worth noting, though, as we talk about this story that the Justice Department did put out a statement that there was no action needed based on the record of that now-famous July 25 call between Trump and the president of Ukraine. The president has used that as fodder to defend the call. And it's also worth noting that Trump continues to praise Barr publicly and privately.

GREENE: All right. Let's move on to the next phase of this impeachment inquiry. We're learning that William Taylor, this top diplomat, is going to be among the first witnesses to testify in public. But it's so interesting. A lot of these witnesses who will be testifying in public have already testified in private. So what have we learned from him so far?

MAK: So the House Intelligence Committee released the transcript of his closed-door deposition yesterday afternoon, and it reveals some interesting things. You can read the whole 324-page transcript at npr.org, but let me just get to some of those highlights just in case you don't have that time.

GREENE: Thank you. We appreciate it.

MAK: (Laughter) First he says that it was his, quote, "clear understanding" that there was a quid pro quo - military assistance being leveraged for this request for investigations against political rivals. And second, Taylor says that he believes that the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was behind this idea. It's a preview of what's to come in open hearings.

GREENE: Tim, are you getting a sense for what Democrats are trying to do here by releasing these transcripts, like putting out more than 300 pages of something that someone said in - behind closed doors ahead of when they'll be testifying in public? What are they up to?

MAK: They're trying to lay some of the groundwork for the coming weeks in public hearings. Here's what House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff had to say about that.


ADAM SCHIFF: Those open hearings will be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves, to make their own determinations about the credibility of the witnesses, but also to learn firsthand about the facts of the president's misconduct.

MAK: So the House Intelligence Committee will be bringing its investigation into the public realm with televised open hearings starting next week. William Taylor, who we've been talking about, will be testifying on Wednesday, along with U.S. diplomat George Kent. And former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is scheduled to testify on Friday. So it's going to be a really interesting week next week.

GREENE: Sure will. We'll be covering it. NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot.


GREENE: All right. Now to this story. The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: Right. So analysts say this is the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of spying in the United States. They are suspected of accessing personal information of thousands of Twitter users, including critics of the Saudi government. So who was involved in this scheme? And whose accounts were compromised?

GREENE: Let's ask someone who's been covering it. It's Greg Bensinger of The Washington Post. He's in San Francisco on Skype with us this morning. Hey there, Greg.


GREENE: So who are these Twitter employees - the former Twitter employees? And what exactly are they being accused of here?

BENSINGER: Well, in one case, it's a U.S. citizen, and he's been arrested. And the other is a Saudi citizen, and he's back in Saudi Arabia. And what they're accused of is espionage, spying on behalf of the kingdom and looking into accounts of, as you said, thousands of Twitter accounts, personal information and identifiable information, email addresses, names, IP addresses, so they could see where they were tweeting from.

GREENE: And there's a third person charged as well here, right?

BENSINGER: That's right. Another person acted sort of as an intermediary from the kingdom to these two Twitter employees, helping arrange what amounted to the alleged espionage. And he's also charged, also back in Saudi Arabia.

GREENE: So you said that - I mean, learning about where they were tweeting from. I mean, what details beyond that were they actually getting? What sort of information might have been compromised if all this is true?

BENSINGER: Well, we all presume that our accounts are safe with these technology companies. And what these two Twitter employees did is just look everything up that they could about these accounts and pass it along to the Saudi officials to do what they want with. And you can imagine if these are critics of the Saudi government and the royal family, they might have dire consequences if they were able to track down anyone that they thought was a real critic of them.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, we live in a country where you feel like you have the freedom to go on social media and say what you want, even if you're criticizing a government, you know, abroad that doesn't allow that. So I wonder - I mean, is this a one-off, or could this raise some real questions about the whole tech industry's ability to protect users, especially people who are, like, dissidents?

BENSINGER: Well, it raises that very question. You have to wonder if others have attempted something similar at Twitter or other social media companies. You know, yes, we often go on these and presume that we're speaking our - you know, speaking our mind without fear of someone coming after us, if you will. And so this does raise that question. You have to wonder who else has ill intent and could come after people who are speaking their mind on social media.

GREENE: All right. Extraordinary story and extraordinary charges here. Greg Bensinger of The Washington Post covering it for us. Thanks so much, Greg.

BENSINGER: Thank you.


GREENE: Now to a story we brought you yesterday from the state of Kentucky, where Republican Governor Matt Bevin is not ready to concede.

MARTIN: Nope, he is not. Bevin has formally requested that the state double-check the vote totals from Tuesday's gubernatorial election. The official process is called vote recanvassing. The election results show that Bevin is trailing the Democrat, Andy Beshear, by only 5,000 votes. Bevin is alleging there was voter fraud, though he hasn't presented any actual evidence. Here's what he said in the governor's mansion yesterday.


MATT BEVIN: We know there have been thousands of absentee ballots that were illegally counted. That is known. And this, again, is something that's being looked into. We know that there are reports of people having been turned away - incorrectly turned away from various voting booths around the state. Again, things that need to be corroborated and looked into.

GREENE: All right. Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio and is with us. Hi, Ryland.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So Bevin claiming irregularities, but I - you know, is there firm evidence? What exactly is he talking about here?

BARTON: He really hasn't gone into any detail about what any of those irregularities are. He says they need to be corroborated. And we haven't seen any evidence of voter fraud yet or anything like that. So this recanvassing process and his allegations of voter fraud are - they're not at all related at this point. Recanvassing is just kind of the first step he needed to take in challenging any sort of election results in Kentucky. It's not an unusual process, recanvassing. It's something that takes place pretty frequently.

Actually, back in 2016, Bernie Sanders in Kentucky's presidential primary had the results recanvassed. It was a close race here between him and Hillary Clinton. That ended up netting him about 13 votes. And that was actually - that's one of the largest differences we've seen come out of a recanvass.

At this point, we're really not sure where the governor's claims of voter fraud come from or what will happen next with him.

GREENE: Well, we should say this is not just something that Kentucky voters are watching. I mean, this was a race where President Trump came in, invested some political capital to try and get Bevin reelected. I mean, both parties are kind of keeping an eye on how this turns out.

BARTON: Right. President Trump came here on the eve of Election Day, and several Trump surrogates were here over the course of the campaign. Kentucky is known as a red state, in part because of how it performs in the presidential election and in federal elections over recent decades. But Kentucky's actually a - it's an old Democrat state. There are more registered Democrats in Kentucky than Republicans. That's not new. Kentuckians are known for choosing Democrats. Governor Bevin, actually, is only the third Republican governor of Kentucky since World War II. Democrats - they still have 49% of registered voters in Kentucky; Republicans have 42%. And Republicans - but at the same time, Republicans - they've been doing really well in state elections. And they still did really well in all the down-ballot races here in Kentucky. It was just the top of the ticket.

Bevin really tried to tie this race to impeachment and big national and social issues. So some people thought this was going to be a referendum on impeachment, but it was much more a referendum on Bevin and his, you know, unpopularity.

GREENE: Does he have options if this recanvassing doesn't get him what he wants?

BARTON: So after recanvassing, there's this thing called an election contest. And it is a process that is - it puts - it kicks the results of the election to the legislature. So all Bevin has to do is request the legislature have this election contest, and they'll form a committee and ultimately decide whether his allegations are true or not.

GREENE: And they're Republican. I mean, so in theory, they could reelect him.

BARTON: It's a fully Republican legislature - supermajorities in both chambers.

GREENE: Wow. That would be a big partisan battle. Ryland Barton from Kentucky Public Radio, thanks.

BARTON: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECCA:83'S "2AM SAMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.