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News Brief: Impeaching Trump, Iran Threat, CRISPR Modified Viruses


Today House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets her fellow Democrats. That includes some who are ready for impeachment proceedings, which Pelosi is not.


Yeah. Pelosi said a while back that impeachment isn't worth it. She said it's better to let the facts develop. But the White House is blocking current and former Trump officials from cooperating with congressional investigations.

And Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island says it is time for an impeachment inquiry.


DAVID CICILLINE: I think the principle reason to do it is that it will communicate this sort of - this heightened level of seriousness, and it will be a direct response to an administration that is attempting to cover up and impede and obstruct Congress's role in conducting an investigation.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is following this discussion. She is also the host of NPR's Politics Podcast.

Tam, Good morning.


INSKEEP: Why would Pelosi meet with her people now?

KEITH: Because House Democrats are frustrated and increasingly vocal. And part of the idea of this committee is to talk about everything that they are doing to try to get documents and testimony from the White House and also to talk about a recent court ruling that went in favor of congressional investigators. Whether...

INSKEEP: Oh. So Pelosi is essentially saying, no, I'm not moving forward with impeachment. But don't worry. We got this. We're working on it in other ways.

KEITH: Yes. It is to have a conversation, to get the family together to say, hey, look; we're doing these other things. But there are a lot of Democrats who are starting to feel like the administration is just pushing back on them at every turn, there's no cooperation. The idea that they'd be having hearings and seeing all kinds of documents by now and they haven't is beginning to frustrate people.

And that includes Maryland Democrat, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Jamie Raskin, who was on the PBS NewsHour last night.


JAMIE RASKIN: I flipped over. Last week, I was with - where...


RASKIN: ...You know, most people were in saying, let's give it some more time. But now, I've just - I've seen enough. And I think that we do need to move forward at some point - and I hope quickly - to an impeachment inquiry.

INSKEEP: Well, now, on the substance, I don't think Pelosi is very far from her members. She has called the president immoral, unethical, corrupt, unpatriotic. She's used all of those words, so what is her rationale for holding off on impeachment proceedings?

KEITH: She has long argued that the threshold for impeachment should be overwhelming and bipartisan. And in that respect, it isn't overwhelming and bipartisan yet in terms of public opinion. And there's just one Republican congressman thus far who has called for impeachment. That's Justin Amash from Michigan. And he's an outlier. He's not the kind of Republican that other Republicans would follow.

So that - in terms of her threshold, overwhelming and bipartisan, they aren't there yet. But what a lot of Democrats are arguing is, we aren't saying impeach the president today, we're saying begin an impeachment inquiry...

INSKEEP: Start the process.

KEITH: ...Start the investigation.

INSKEEP: There are some Democrats who speculate the president wants us to impeach him because he wants a fight, and he thinks it'll be good for him. Is there any indication from your reporting at the White House that the White House would not mind an impeachment inquiry?

KEITH: I was talking to someone last night who said that, legally, it would change the calculation, that their argument of no legitimate legislative purpose for these investigations would melt away. And it would change things. But I heard from the campaign this morning - Kayleigh McEnany. And, you know, they are on message, saying that Democrats are being driven by the radical fringe of their party and are willing to destabilize and divide the country to make them happy.

INSKEEP: Interesting stuff.

Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith.


INSKEEP: All right. Members of the Trump administration face one basic question from skeptics of their approach to Iran - does the administration really know what it's doing?

KING: Yeah, that's right. U.S. pressure on Iran and warnings of Iranian attacks have stirred fears of war. So yesterday, top administration officials offered some reassurance. Members of the House and Senate met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

They also met acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan who had this to say.


PATRICK SHANAHAN: We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence not about war.

INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent David Welna is following this story.

David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Would you describe this meeting - you've got people from both houses of Congress meeting in private with the officials, right?

WELNA: Right. This was a closed-door, classified briefing so, of course, I didn't hear a word of it firsthand. And most lawmakers were mum about what they'd heard. You know, this was also the first time this administration has gone to Congress to explain why the U.S. military has suddenly, since early this month, gotten so confrontational with Iran.

Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan did talk briefly to reporters after the briefings. And he attributed the beefed up U.S. military deployments to the Persian Gulf, which include an aircraft carrier strike group and heavy bombers, to what he called credible intelligence about threats to our interests in the Middle East and to American forces. That was, essentially, the message to lawmakers as well.

INSKEEP: OK. So the administration officials go into this classified briefing with effectively our representatives as Americans. They say, here's the information. We don't hear what the classified information might be, but the lawmakers must have some public response to all of this.

WELNA: Yes. Well, you know, of course, we've all seen another version of this movie before - those warnings about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out to be baseless. So credibility is a big deal in this flare up with Iran. And, not surprisingly, Republican lawmakers took the Trump administration at its word.

Here's Adam Kinzinger, a House Republican and Iraq war veteran from Illinois, yesterday.


ADAM KINZINGER: If anybody is questioning that, you know, somehow there's made-up intelligence, that's ludicrous. This is - they're not going to say something that's not well-rounded and well-sourced. And I walk away very convinced.

WELNA: And you would probably not be shocked to hear that congressional Democrats are considerably more skeptical. Here's California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a former chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, when a reporter asked her whether she believed the intelligence claims being made about Iran.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I don't believe there are credible threats from Iran.

WELNA: And Democrats also complained about being left out of the loop for so long about what's going on in the Persian Gulf. They say they got no commitment from administration officials yesterday that Congress would be consulted if the decision were made to go to war with Iran.

INSKEEP: OK. So you're underlining that the response we've heard in public has mostly been along partisan lines, but does that give you any sense of where things go from here?

WELNA: Well, you know, there is no clear game plan here, at least according to Democrats who were briefed. Iran defiantly announced this week that it's increasing its production of enriched uranium, possibly beyond the stockpile limits set in the Iran nuclear deal. And Adam Smith is the Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. And he said that yesterday's briefing on Iran, if anything, seems to suggest that Iran is more intent now on pursuing a nuclear weapons buildup because of this U.S. military beefing up in the Persian Gulf.

Here's Smith.


ADAM SMITH: There was a lot of talk in the briefing about how there's a huge risk of Iran miscalculating, you know, striking in a way that gets a response they didn't anticipate. I think there's risks for miscalculation on both sides.

WELNA: And - yeah. Miscalculation is what everybody is worried about in this.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Welna, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.


INSKEEP: Next, we have NPR's latest reporting on genetically modified viruses.

KING: That's right. We have news that scientists have created a new kind of antibiotic - a living antibiotic that's designed to fight superbugs. Those, of course, are bacteria that have become resistant to regular antibiotics. This all involves a tool called CRISPR.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been covering this story. He's broken story after story on this, and he joins us once again.

Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Genetically modified viruses. So - what? - we turn the virus into a little tool of human beings. Is that what happens here?

STEIN: Exactly. That's exactly what scientists are doing. They're trying to harness this kind of virus. They're called bacteriophages or phages for short. And these are naturally occurring viruses that are the natural enemies of bacteria. They can destroy bacteria by infecting them, taking over their genetic machinery and literally making them explode. But what's new is scientists have used this powerful new gene-editing technique CRISPR to genetically modify very specific phages to make them even more potent bacteria killers.

INSKEEP: Oh. So just as we might have a cat in the house to go after the mice in the house, we're going to have these viruses hanging around to go after superbugs?

STEIN: That's exactly right. The idea is that they would - we would harness these naturally occurring, you know, predators of microbes that infect our bodies and use them to, basically, rid us of these infections.

INSKEEP: Why is this needed?

STEIN: Well, so more and more infections are getting harder and harder to treat. They're becoming these superbugs. You know, they're becoming resistant to antibiotics. And, you know, some infections have even become totally resistant, meaning doctors have no way to try to save patients in some cases. So the fear is that, you know, this is getting so common that we'll be left kind of defenseless against infections and kind of return to a time when people were dying from infections that had become no big deal.

I talked to Dr. Michael Priebe about this. He works at a VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga.

MICHAEL PRIEBE: We are getting to the point where there are organisms that are resistant to every known antibiotic. My fear is that, as we are in this arms race, there gets to a point where we are not able to keep up with the enemy - the resistant bacteria. The superbugs take over, and we have nothing to defend against it.

STEIN: Yeah, so because of that, scientists have been racing to come up with new ways to fight these superbugs.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is it that the scientists do to modify the viruses to turn them into little predators for us?

STEIN: Yeah. So they've created a cocktail of three bacteriophages that are genetically modified with CRISPR. And there's a little irony in this because scientists originally discovered CRISPR by studying the immune systems of bacteria. And CRISPR is actually how bacteria fight off bacteriophages. So scientists have kind of, essentially, turned this on its head and figured out a way to use the bacteria's own immune systems against these infections. They load up these phage viruses with CRISPR to make them literally shred the microbe's DNA. That makes them even more powerful superbug killers - that's the idea anyway.

INSKEEP: It's amazing to think about this intricate science happening at a level that is so small that we could not possibly see it. And still, they figure these things out.

STEIN: Yeah. It's pretty interesting. And the idea is that later this year, they're going to go start to test this at six hospitals around the country. I went and visited that VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., where it's going to be one of the centers. And they're going to start to infuse these cocktails - billions of these modified viruses - into patients.

INSKEEP: All right.

NPR's Rob Stein, thanks.

STEIN: Sure. Nice to be here, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.