News Brief: Impeachment Probe, NATO Meeting, Student Loan Investigation
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The impeachment inquiry will be in new hands today.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That's right. Things are moving now to the House Judiciary Committee, which will hold its first hearing today. There are going to be four legal scholars testifying there about the constitutional basis for impeachment.
This comes after Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released their report making the case for President Trump's impeachment yesterday. Included in that report, their records showing the suspicious phone calls between Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the White House that seemed to coincide with key events in the Ukraine scandal.
MARTIN: For more, we've got White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe with us this morning. Hi, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: All right. Let's start with today's hearing. So we mentioned legal scholars. Who's going to testify? What kind of questions are they going to get?
RASCOE: So you have three law professors picked by Democrats - Noah Feldman, Pamela Karlan, Michael Gerhardt. Then for the Republicans, you have Jonathan Turley. What these experts are supposed to be talking about is the constitutional basis for impeachment. A lot will be about whether Trump's actions, as outlined in the Democrats' report, rises to the level of impeachment.
These hearings will have a similar format to the other public impeachment hearings. There'll be these opening statements from the chairman and ranking member. And then both sides will have 45 minutes where counsel will be able to question the witnesses before it's opened up to the whole committee.
MARTIN: I want to ask about the House Intelligence Committee report. This is what has now triggered the House Judiciary Committee to take over. What is important for us to understand in this document?
RASCOE: So this is an extensive 300-page report based on evidence gathered so far, interviews with current and former officials and other documents and records. Intel Chairman Adam Schiff said that the findings show abundant evidence that Trump pressured Ukraine for political favors in exchange for military aid and a White House visit. Here's Schiff in an interview with MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep yesterday.
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ADAM SCHIFF: I think our report shows abundant evidence - really, overwhelming evidence that the president used the power of his office, conditioned official acts - a White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to a nation at war - in exchange for things of value to him - political favors, two investigations he thought would help his reelection campaign.
MARTIN: So this was the Democrats really laying out their case for impeachment against the president.
Another part of the report that struck me, Ayesha - I'm going to quote here - "the damage to our system of checks and balances and to the balance of power within our three branches of government will be long-lasting and potentially irrevocable." Adam Schiff and the rest of the committee here clearly framing this as a dangerous precedent - right? - looking into the future.
RASCOE: Yeah. It gets to this larger point that Democrats seem to be making is that, presumably, if you don't move ahead and take action on this by Congress, then other presidents in the future may feel unrestrained and take similar actions. And basically, you would be kind of losing a check that Congress has on the presidency.
MARTIN: Lastly, can you tell us about these phone records that were included in the report?
RASCOE: Yeah. So this report revealed these phone records, phone calls between Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Devin Nunes, who is the top Republican on the intel committee and a Trump ally. But it also has these calls between Giuliani and a White House number at some points in the Ukraine scandal, such as when the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was being told to come back to Washington. So there are a lot of questions about coordination between the White House and Giuliani.
MARTIN: All right. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe for us this morning. Ayesha, thank you as always. We appreciate it.
RASCOE: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. There's a showdown at the NATO meetings in London between one key member, Turkey, and the rest of the alliance.
GREENE: That's right. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to hold up NATO's work unless the alliance labels the Kurdish fighters in Syria as terrorists. Let's remember; these are the same fighters who have sided with the United States in the war against ISIS.
Turkey considers this group, the YPG, to be an existential threat to their country because they are linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey who commit attacks. Many other NATO members see this group as an ally against terrorism. This is French President Emmanuel Macron.
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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: When I look at Turkey, they now are fighting against those who fight with us, who fought with us shoulder-to-shoulder against ISIS. And sometimes they work with ISIS proxies. This is an issue. And this is a strategic issue.
MARTIN: OK, we've got NPR's Peter Kenyon on the line from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter. Can you just tell us exactly what Turkey is threatening to do here?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, it's saying it will block a defense plan for the Baltics, which it has no real objection to, unless NATO acknowledges Turkey's fight against Kurdish militiamen in Syria. U.S. and European officials say Turkey should just drop the threat.
MARTIN: So why is this happening? I mean, we know that Erdogan has long considered this group of Kurdish fighters to be a real threat to its territorial sovereignty. Why is this happening now?
KENYON: Well, Turkey's been fighting these other Kurdish militants, as we noted - the PKK - for more than three decades now. The U.S. and the EU are on board. PKK is a terrorist group, they say. But the Syrian group, the YPG, is a different case. Turkey says they're terrorists. The U.S. and EU say, no, no, they fought bravely against ISIS in Syria.
Turkey attacked the YPG, remember, after President Trump moved U.S. forces out of the way in Syria. Soon, that got Russia involved. They had to help move the YPG forces away from the border, trying to keep a cease-fire going. But what Erdogan wants now is for all of NATO to say, yup, Turkey's right; fighting the YPG is fighting terrorism. And he's finding that a very hard sell.
MARTIN: So he feels like he has leverage over this particular defense plan for the Baltics, threatening to veto it. But where else does Erdogan's leverage lie? I mean, what good is Turkey to NATO?
KENYON: Well, any NATO member can hold one thing up 'cause it takes everybody to say yes to get something done. But, I mean, Turkey's been a NATO member since 1952. It's got peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. It's got NATO air bases. It's strategically located. There's plenty of reasons why it's in the alliance. It's taken in 3.6 million Syrians since 2011, sparing a huge burden to Europe and others.
But it's also been problematic. It wants to move some of those Syrians back to their homeland to this so-called safe zone. A potentially bigger problem is the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. They're not compatible with NATO or U.S. weapons. And that may be why President Macron said Turkey has to decide, does it still want to be part of this NATO alliance?
MARTIN: Where is the U.S. on this, in particular, President Trump? I mean, he's been very accommodating to Erdogan in the past.
KENYON: And continued to be, praising him as very helpful in operations like the one against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So there's clear differences. And it will be very interesting to see if any progress is made at this NATO summit.
MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon from Istanbul. Thanks, Peter.
KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.
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MARTIN: All right. Now to a story affecting hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers - people with disabilities who are entitled to have their debts erased but also missed out on getting that relief from the federal government.
GREENE: So for more than half a century, this is how the system was supposed to work. If you have a significant permanent disability and can no longer work enough to support yourself, you can ask the U.S. Department of Education to forgive your debts. But an NPR investigation finds the vast majority of eligible borrowers are not getting the help that they deserve.
MARTIN: NPR's Cory Turner and Clare Lombardo worked on this story for months. And Cory is in the studio with us this morning. Thank you so much for coming in.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: What did your investigation find?
TURNER: Well, we're talking about people with the most severe kinds of disabilities, who have - the social security category is called MINE - medical improvement not expected. And we should say back in 2016, the Ed Department actually did something really good. It ramped up efforts to find these eligible borrowers and let them know that they qualify to have their loans discharged.
TURNER: But we've found that even since then, just 28% of those borrowers have made it through this process or are even on track to. So we spoke with one borrower. His name is Drew Lehman. He's 48, a husband, father of two. And he suffered a devastating back injury when his car was rear-ended.
DREW LEHMAN: It was at a point where I couldn't, you know, do anything. I was having trouble just getting up, walking. Basic things around the house were next to impossible.
TURNER: And Lehman ultimately had to quit working full-time. He applied for disability. And he's now in the middle of trying to have his student loans discharged.
MARTIN: So why is that even a process, Cory? I mean, if the Department of Education knows who these borrowers are, they know that they're eligible to have these student loans erased, why isn't it just happening automatically?
TURNER: Yeah. Well, the reason used to be because borrowers could get hit with a big tax bill. But the 2017 tax overhaul changed all of that. Still, even after that tax change, borrowers are required to apply for the help. It's not automatic. The department does send them letters. But, you know, these letters often go to the wrong place, or they go to the wrong person, or they don't get read, or they don't get understood.
TURNER: And this is important. Even for borrowers who do apply and get approved to have their loans discharged, they still have to clear one more hurdle. It's a really complicated income-monitoring process. And NPR has learned that 44,000 borrowers who went into this income monitoring over the past three years...
TURNER: ...Have been kicked out and have not successfully appealed. And I want to be clear. That's not because they're making too much money to qualify.
TURNER: Almost all of those people got kicked out simply because they didn't send in the right paperwork on time.
MARTIN: Just a bureaucratic mistake.
MARTIN: So what's the Department of Education saying about this?
TURNER: Well, a department official tells NPR that the department has made incremental improvements since 2016 and, quote, "we continue to look for ways to make the process easier to navigate for disabled student loan borrowers while maintaining the integrity of the taxpayers' dollars associated with the discharges," close quote.
But, Rachel, this is really important. We also found in our investigation that earlier this year, the department told Congress it was discharging loans for 40% of borrowers, but it's not. We asked the department, show us how you got to 40%.
TURNER: And it couldn't. The truth, according to the data that we got, again, is closer to 28% of borrowers with disabilities getting the help they deserve.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Cory Turner, with the rest of our education team, following this important story. Cory, thank you so much for bringing this investigation our way. We appreciate it.
TURNER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.