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News Brief: Impeachment Inquiry, U.S.-Syria Strategy, Illegal Vaping


How far can President Trump go in defying the will of Congress?


The president faces demands for witnesses and documents for a House impeachment inquiry. The White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last night. And the lawyer's argument in this letter tracked very closely with the president's own political rhetoric. It accused Democrats of trying to, quote, "overturn the results of the 2016 election."

The White House counsel says the whole inquiry process has been unfair and that they will not cooperate. The letter came the same day the Trump administration blocked a key witness from testifying. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel spoke to NPR yesterday.


ELIOT ENGEL: If anyone fails to cooperate with this inquiry, we'll consider it obstruction and we'll presume they have something to hide. And we'll move on from there.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is covering this test of power between Congress and the White House. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's just look at the lawyer's letter here briefly. The letter makes reference to the Constitution, so we can start with that. Who has the power of impeachment under the Constitution?

LIASSON: Article 1 of the Constitution gives, quote, the "sole power of impeachment" to the House of Representatives. The Constitution doesn't offer many rules about how impeachment works. So the House pretty much gets to make those rules themselves. And, of course, we only have two modern impeachments to go by for how it's been done in the past, which is Nixon and Clinton.

INSKEEP: OK. Those processes...

LIASSON: Impeachment inquiries. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Right. Right. Exactly. One ended in an actual impeachment...


INSKEEP: ...In a Senate trial. Now, the White House lawyer then complains about the rules, said the process was unfair because the president can't cross-examine witnesses and call his own witnesses, which sounds reasonable at a glance. But is it normal for a president to get to call his own witnesses at hearings before the House of Representatives?

LIASSON: Well, impeachment in the House is kind of like a grand jury deciding whether or not to indict a president. The actual trial occurs in the Senate, which acts as the jury to decide whether the president should be convicted and removed or acquitted. So the time to cross-examine witnesses would generally be in the Senate.

Now, the White House - the senior administration officials who briefed reporters yesterday claimed that President Clinton's counsel was able to question some witnesses in the House. But certainly most - most of the questioning of witnesses occurs in the Senate at a trial.

INSKEEP: OK. So not as much to that argument as it might seem at first glance. There's also a complaint that the full House has not voted on whether to begin an impeachment inquiry. Is it required that they do?

LIASSON: It certainly isn't required. Nixon - in the Nixon impeachment and in the Clinton impeachment, there was a vote. One of the arguments that Republicans are making is if you have a vote - once you have a vote and a formal inquiry starts, then the minority gets the right to call witnesses and cross-examine them. But that's also not written in the Constitution. Even if there was a vote, Nancy Pelosi could decide that Republicans wouldn't have that opportunity.

INSKEEP: We're dwelling on these details because this is a question of power, who gets to control things. So that leads to the next question. Suppose the House went along with all these White House demands, would the White House then cooperate, produce witnesses, produce documents, everything else?

LIASSON: The senior administration officials were asked about that over and over again yesterday. And they said that's a hypothetical. In other words, they would not commit to cooperating even if certain criteria were met.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is the essential rejection of cooperation by the White House with the House of Representatives. How does the House of Representatives respond?

LIASSON: This is a huge separation of powers clash. The House has said that they would consider non-cooperation to be obstruction. And that could be another article of impeachment, the way it was during the Nixon impeachment hearings. Now we assume this goes to court. It could be dragged out all the way until the election.

But the question is, do Democrats feel - they're certainly not going to get any more cooperation or witnesses or documents from the administration. But do they feel that's necessary for them to go forward? Or do they have enough to go on already?

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks for now, really appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. So much more to say on this story.


INSKEEP: A vital question in Syria today is, who moves in to parts of northern Syria as U.S. forces move out?

MARTIN: Right. President Trump started the week by announcing a plan to back out of the border region between Turkey and Syria. That appeared to then clear the way for Turkey to send in its own military, which then raised a lot of concerns that Turkey could then attack Kurdish forces who have been helping the U.S. fight ISIS. And even the president's closest allies are worried about this. They're worried that the U.S. is basically leaving a vacuum that ISIS could now fill.

INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam is covering this story. She's in our studios. Good morning.


INSKEEP: What is the theory of how ISIS would benefit from a U.S. withdrawal from parts of Syria?

ALLAM: Well, the area we're talking about was crucial to ISIS. Raqqa is there. That was the capital...

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

ALLAM: ...Of the so-called caliphate it declared. It's a site where we saw a lot of the atrocities ISIS is known for - the beheadings, the people being stoned to death. And so, territorially, that caliphate is gone now, but it was - that only happened because of a bloody battle. And the forces that did a lot of that dirty work were Kurdish fighters with the SDF - the Syrian Democratic Forces.

They lost around 12,000 fighters. And they're the ones holding that recaptured territory. They're the ones guarding thousands of ISIS prisoners. And they're the ones in charge of a detention camp packed with families of ISIS fighters. But the Syrian Kurds say they can't do all of that and confront Turkey.

INSKEEP: OK. I understand that. But, of course, the president takes this from an entirely different point of view and essentially says, we were there to destroy the ISIS caliphate. The caliphate is destroyed. Why not back out?

ALLAM: And I think counterterrorism analysts would say that's a really tough case to make given the fragility of the situation there and the shift that ISIS itself is undergoing. It lost its land. Now it's moving back to its insurgent roots. Overnight we're even - we're hearing reports of possible ISIS attacks in Raqqa. So, yes, the caliphate is gone, but ISIS is not vanquished.

I spoke with Hassan Hassan. He's from this part of eastern Syria. And he's with the Center for Global Policy in Washington. He warns that the U.S. needs the Syrian Kurds and says this is not the right time to break the partnership.

HASSAN HASSAN: You lose the most effective force against ISIS. Even if this force is replaced by another force, just the mere change of hands will create security gaps for ISIS to exploit, rebuild its influence and rise again in those areas.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's the view of an analyst. You also have for us here actually the view of a Kurdish group - the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. We've got tape here from General Mazloum Kobani Abdi through an interpreter. Here's what he had to say.


MAZLOUM KOBANI ABDI: (Through interpreter) So in case of the American withdrawal from the border areas and invasion started - that jump-started their incursion, for sure the one priority for us, it will be to protecting our areas and our families. And we will not be focusing on ISIS like we focused before.

INSKEEP: Not focusing on ISIS as before - he's saying they're just not going to be available to be U.S. allies.

ALLAM: That's right. I mean, the Kurdish forces have always been clear that their No. 1 concern is not ISIS but protecting their territory from Turkey. And so if they move their forces into defensive positions, there are serious questions. Who's going to watch the ISIS prisoners? Who's going to keep a presence in those former strongholds?

And at this point, it's still fluid. And we don't know the scope of the Turkish operations. But we do know the U.S. needs partners to hold these gains. And now the Kurdish fighters are seen as a cautionary tale. Getting sold out doesn't exactly boost recruitment.

INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam, thanks for coming by.

ALLAM: Thank you.


INSKEEP: A 17-year-old boy is the youngest person to die of vaping-related illness in the United States.

MARTIN: The Bronx teenager's death brings the number of vaping-related deaths to 23 - that's across the country. And public health officials say that number is actually rising, but they're still trying to figure out why. It's led to plenty of warnings about e-cigarettes and put a spotlight on illegal vaping operations.

INSKEEP: Illegal vaping operations? NPR's Cheryl Corley is here to tell us what that's about. Hi there, Cheryl.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I had thought of this as an industry that is done by regular corporations. What is an illegal vaping operation?

CORLEY: Well, it's one like authorities say they found in Bristol, Wis. That's where I was, just north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border. There were a couple of brothers and their mother. They've been charged with running an illegal operation. Marijuana is not legal in Wisconsin. And during a raid, authorities found about 30,000 vaping cartridges filled with THC. Of course, that's the ingredient that gets you high in marijuana.

They also found thousands more unfilled cartridges and mason jars full of THC oil, all with a street value of about a million and a half dollars. The brothers - 20-year-old Tyler Huffhines and 23-year-old Jacob Huffhines - have been charged in the case and has their mother, Courtney Huffhines. The sheriff there, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth, alleges the brothers and their mother built a tiny empire in about 20 months.

DAVID BETH: We had no clue this was going on. We had no clue that this was really an industry. It's caught us all off guard. And it's made us very aware of this is a problem - tip of the iceberg, I think, throughout the entire country.

CORLEY: And, of course, authorities haven't figured out what's causing all these illnesses, but they say the underground market may be a culprit.

INSKEEP: Oh. So we have one question about whether irregular products made in this irregular or illegal way might be part of the reason for the illnesses. But that's not - that's not the only concern here, right? Aren't legal vaping products also of serious concern to officials?

CORLEY: Yes. Yes. And it has a lot to do with an increase in young people, particularly high school students, vaping flavored nicotine-based products. And there's concern about how these products are marketed. Often, those devices are put in boxes that look really kid-friendly, very colorful, cartoon-like images.

And advocates, though, say that these nicotine-based vaping products actually help people trying to quit smoking. And the focus should be, instead, on what they consider a more likely culprit, those THC-based e-cigarettes purchased in the underground market.

INSKEEP: Well, have health officials found any common link in these assorted illnesses and deaths across the country?

CORLEY: Not really. Health officials say they're still trying to identify a link. Most patients, though, have reported vaping with THC liquids, some as well with nicotine. So the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration and state health departments have issued warnings telling people just to stop using e-cigarettes and to stop any sort of vaping altogether. They also say people trying to break a smoking habit shouldn't go back to cigarettes but try some other methods to quit.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley, thanks so much.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "SWEET DREAMS") 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.