News Brief: Trump-Ukraine, White Supremacist Group, Puerto Rico Relief
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump's defenders often ask a simple question to try to discredit the impeachment.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Where, they ask, is the evidence that President Trump did anything illegal with regard to Ukraine? Now, just a reminder here, a president does not have to commit a crime to be impeached. Nevertheless, here's Republican Senator Ted Cruz talking with the conservative Heritage Foundation last month.
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TED CRUZ: They couldn't prove their case. I think it is an admission of almost complete defeat. So the two articles of impeachment, they don't include a single crime.
MARTIN: Well, not quite. Yesterday, a nonpartisan federal watchdog ruled that President Trump broke the law by withholding aid to Ukraine. And while the report by the Government Accountability Office is not a criminal indictment, it may well have political implications as the impeachment trial gets under way in the Senate next week.
KING: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is on the line. Good morning, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: What is the Government Accountability Office? What do they do?
RASCOE: The GAO is an independent agency that works with Congress on oversight. And it's nonpartisan.
KING: What did they find exactly with regard to President Trump and what happened with the aid to Ukraine?
RASCOE: So this agency was asked to look into the White House's decision to freeze aid for Ukraine over the summer. And it concluded that this hold on aid was illegal because it violated the Impoundment Control Act. This was money that had been appropriated by Congress and signed into law by Trump. So the GAO says the president didn't have the right to unilaterally block that money.
KING: OK. As Rachel said, this is not a criminal indictment, so that's important. But the impeachment trial does start next week in the Senate. How could this report by the GAO affect the trial?
RASCOE: Well, Democrats are saying that this strengthens the case for the Senate allowing witnesses and further evidence to be allowed at the trial. I talked to Senator Chris Van Hollen. He asked the GAO to look into this. And he said that, you know, this is a nonpartisan agency saying that the White House broke the law and that that's something that House impeachment managers, who will be making the case for impeachment, will be able to point to.
The White House, though, has rejected the GAO's findings, saying that they followed the law. Republican lawmakers so far have stood with the White House. And they haven't really been moved by the report. They say that the president had the right to hold up the money if he was concerned by corruption. And they've downplayed the finding, stressing that point that it isn't criminal.
KING: OK. Ayesha, in the vein of things continuing to emerge before the trial, I want to ask you about Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani. He's been giving interviews this week. On Wednesday, he told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC that President Trump knew what he was doing in Ukraine. Parnas gave another interview last night. What did he say there?
RASCOE: Well, he said that he was - that when he was working with Rudy Giuliani to help dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden that he really believed that Biden had engaged in some sort of misconduct. But now that he's out of that circle, he's saying that he doesn't believe that Biden did anything wrong.
KING: OK. And he also talked about Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine who was sent home. What did he say there?
RASCOE: Apparently, he's saying that Trump tried to fire her on multiple occasions, but officials wouldn't go through with it until, finally, they did. But he said on at least four or five times, the president was trying to get her fired.
KING: OK. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks, Ayesha.
RASCOE: Thank you.
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KING: This past summer, a Canadian army reservist named Patrik Mathews entered the United States illegally. And then he vanished into an underground network of violent white supremacists.
MARTIN: This week, though, he surfaced. Mathews and two other men were charged on Thursday. The FBI arrested them in connection with a neo-Nazi group called The Base.
KING: NPR's Hannah Allam covers extremism. And she's in studio with us. Thanks for coming in.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
KING: What is this group? What is The Base?
ALLAM: The Base started as an online gathering place for, really, the extreme of the extreme, neo-Nazis advocating violence to trigger a race war. It made a splash because a lot of people, when it first came out, noted that the Arabic translation of The Base is - wait for it - al-Qaida. So, you know, the first time I heard of this group, I thought, is this a hoax? Are they trolling us with the name? In 2018, VICE News reported that the group is moving from the online world to the physical world, organizing these secret training camps.
Then a Canadian newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press, noticed recruiting posters around town that said protect your race. Join The Base. So a reporter there, Ryan Thorpe, goes undercover, infiltrates the group and says that the recruiter who vetted him in person turned out to be Patrik Mathews. The newspaper published its report in August. And within three days, authorities say, Mathews crossed the border into the U.S. and went into hiding.
KING: OK. And there were two other men arrested with Mathews. Who were they? And what were they arrested for, exactly?
ALLAM: So the two Americans charged in federal court in Maryland are 33-year-old Brian Lemley, Jr. He'd served as a cavalry scout in U.S. Army. And the other was 19-year-old William Bilbrough IV. All three men received, you know, various weapons and other charges. Prosecutors say that the two Americans also belonged to The Base and that they drove some 600 miles from Maryland to Michigan to pick up Mathews and basically hide him all these months.
KING: Oh, that's interesting. Law enforcement officials are saying that these arrests are particularly significant. What are they arguing?
ALLAM: Well, federal agencies get a lot of criticism about the by-now well-documented disparity in how the justice system deals with, say, Islamist extremists versus how it deals with the far-right, neo-Nazi extremists. And a lot of that is because there is no domestic terrorism statute. So there's a higher bar for making a case against a homegrown extremist. You can't just be a member of a hate group. That's not enough. There has to be a criminal act for a charge.
Federal agents do push back on this idea of a disparity. And they say they are using the same tools that they're using to fight jihadist groups like ISIS. And so in this case, according to the court papers, the suspect's movements were tracked, their phone calls recorded, their chatrooms monitored. And federal agents even staked out a gun range where they say the suspects fired an assault rifle.
So this is a case where federal authorities get to say, see? We do take these violent racists seriously. We do investigate these cells with, you know, the same vigor as they'd bring to a jihadist case.
KING: Let me ask you about an event coming up in a couple of days. There will be a pro-gun rally in Virginia. It has been reported that militias are coming, that some extremist groups might show up, in addition to people who are there just because they like to target shoot, or they are gun owners.
KING: Is there any link between that rally that has many people worried and these arrests?
ALLAM: A law enforcement official told our NPR colleague Ryan Lucas that the suspects had discussed going to Richmond. I don't know what that means as far as actual plans. We do know that there are several groups of concern to law enforcement that do plan to go. The governor has already declared a state of emergency, quoting a credible threat. We don't know the nature of that threat. And in any case, whether the timing is coincidental or not, a big arrest like this days before the rally sends a message to extremists that authorities are watching.
KING: OK. NPR's Hannah Allam, thanks so much.
ALLAM: Thank you.
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KING: Puerto Rico has had more than 1,000 earthquakes since the start of this year. Earlier this week, we talked to Adi Martinez-Roman of Oxfam America. And here's what she said.
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ADI MARTINEZ-ROMAN: Everybody is emotionally affected because the Earth has not stopped trembling since December 28.
MARTIN: At least one person has died. Over 800 homes have been damaged. Yesterday, President Trump signed a major disaster declaration that will provide federal money to the U.S. territory. Coincidentally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - or HUD - released its hold on billions of dollars of hurricane recovery aid yesterday, as well.
That aid was supposed to be released months ago to help the island rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Will it be enough, though, in this moment to get Puerto Rico back on its feet?
KING: NPR's Adrian Florido is in Puerto Rico. And, Adrian, I want to start by asking, what does this major disaster declaration that President Trump signed mean for Puerto Rico?
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Noel. Well, it makes federal money available to help in both the immediate and longer-term response and recovery from these earthquakes. The president had already made some money available when he signed an emergency declaration last week. But this major disaster declaration, it'll pay for things like the removal of debris, to put people displaced by the quakes into hotels and eventually to help people repair their damaged homes.
KING: OK. So that is some good news. And then, as Rachel said, HUD is now sending more than $8 billion of hurricane recovery aid. We should note these hurricanes happened more than two years ago. Why is that aid just getting there now?
FLORIDO: Well, the Trump administration had sort of cited several concerns about releasing that money, including the fear of corruption within Puerto Rico's government and concerns that the money was not going to be well-spent. And so it's been putting controls into place - controls that, I should say, you know, Puerto Rico's government says are unfair because they hold Puerto Rico to higher standards than other places getting disaster aid. Still, those controls are in place now. And so that's why the federal government has released that money.
KING: Adrian, you've been reporting that thousands of people are sleeping outside because they're afraid of aftershocks, which are still happening. How soon will Puerto Ricans see this aid start to come in? And what will it mean for them, exactly?
FLORIDO: Yeah. Well, the money from this major disaster declaration that the president signed yesterday - Puerto Rico's government will be able to start spending immediately for some parts of the response. So, for example, you know, it can start spending on things like debris removal, to hire, you know, police and security guards for some of these big tent cities that it's been putting up.
In terms of when individuals whose houses were damaged will get help, that's a longer process. People have to apply for aid. They can do that starting today. They have to have their homes inspected. They have to have their applications for aid approved.
You know - and also that activists here, they're urging FEMA to be more generous in its administration of this aid, because you may remember that after Hurricane Maria, there were a lot of people in Puerto Rico whose requests for aid were denied. And people are hoping that that does not repeat itself again this time around.
KING: NPR's Adrian Florido in Puerto Rico. Thanks, Adrian.
FLORIDO: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.