News Brief: Impeachment Transcripts, Election Results, Clean Water Case
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Three new pages of testimony in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump are changing the picture on quid pro quo.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That's right. So U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland has, quote, "refreshed" his memory. And in his updated testimony, he adds some new details about his role in the events that are at the heart of this inquiry.
In newly released transcripts of his testimony, Sondland undercut a key Republican defense in the investigation. Sondland now says that he told a Ukrainian official that military aid likely hinged on the investigations that President Trump wanted.
MARTIN: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been digging into the hundreds of pages of transcripts released this week and is in our studio. Hi, Claudia.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi there.
MARTIN: So Gordon Sondland amended his original deposition with a three-page letter dated November 4. This was 18 days after he testified. What did he include in that new statement?
GRISALES: So Sondland talks about this crucial date of September 1. He remembers it was on that date he told a top aide to the Ukrainian president that military assistance was predicated on investigations into corruption by the country. So Sondland recalled he delivered this quid pro quo message to the Ukrainians.
He testified he told an official, who's the aide to the president, Andriy Yermak, quote, "I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks."
MARTIN: So he is essentially describing a quid pro quo - seems like a fairly important thing to have omitted from his original deposition. I mean, it stands in contrast to what he said at first, right?
GRISALES: Right. This contradicts that original testimony. He said his memory was jogged by witness testimony that came after his and contradicted him. He said these witnesses' recollection of military aid being held up refreshed this recollection. In his original testimony, he said he had no idea there was a quid pro quo. But in this new testimony, he said that this was basically laying out the very definition of a quid pro quo. He said that investigations were demanded in exchange for this aid.
MARTIN: And to be clear, what did Sondland understand those investigations to be? Because that's also important here.
GRISALES: Right. So he thought this was a general corruption probe. He failed to make the connection between Biden and Burisma. In one exchange with investigators, he was asked about all the media coverage. Was he aware of the reports on Giuliani? For example, had he seen him on Fox News or in a New York Times story documenting his efforts in Ukraine?
But Sondland said he was too busy to watch TV at night. But after persistent questioning, he finally conceded he watches TV sometimes, telling investigators that, quote, "I watch HBO."
MARTIN: So essentially he just kept saying, I had no idea that when Rudy Giuliani said Burisma, this Ukrainian energy company, that it was code for Hunter Biden, who sat on the board. He maintains that he wasn't able to make that connection.
MARTIN: So that's the first investigation, but there's another one, right?
MARTIN: This one's about Ukraine's alleged role in the 2016 U.S. election.
GRISALES: Yes. And in connection with this, another witness, this former special envoy - Kurt Volker - to Ukraine, confirms that there was no evidence that hacked emails for the Democratic National Committee during the election were connected to Ukraine. It debunked this ongoing theory that they were involved in that email hacking.
MARTIN: And that revelation from Kurt Volker came out in a transcript of his testimony that was also released yesterday...
MARTIN: ...As well as Sondland's. So how are President Trump's allies responding to all this new information?
GRISALES: Well, the White House said the transcripts show there's even less evidence for this, quote, "illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought." They also said that Sondland states he doesn't know when, why or by whom the aid was suspended. And when it comes to Volker, he said there was no quid pro quo.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thank you so much, Claudia.
GRISALES: Thanks for having me.
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MARTIN: Democrats scored some big wins in state-level elections last night. What could it all mean in the lead-up to 2020?
GREENE: That's right. So Democrats are claiming victory yesterday in the governor's race in conservative Kentucky. And the party is also taking control of the Virginia legislature for the first time in two decades. This is Virginia's Democratic Governor Ralph Northam celebrating last night.
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RALPH NORTHAM: I have one question for you. Do you all like the color blue?
NORTHAM: I said, do you like the color blue?
NORTHAM: Because I'm here to officially declare today, November 5, 2019, that Virginia is officially blue. Congratulations.
GREENE: So what lessons might there be here for both parties about what is ahead for 2020?
MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon is in Richmond covering it all. Hi, Sarah.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: The governor there very excited, thinks his state is going to stay blue. I mean, it is a historic shift in Virginia. How did this happen?
MCCAMMON: It is. I mean, first of all, Virginia's off-year elections always get a lot of attention - right? - because there's not a lot else going on these years. But that was especially true this year coming off of 2017, when Democrats here made some big gains in the state House but didn't quite take it over.
So flipping Virginia was a big goal for Democrats nationally, especially with the entire legislature up this year. And this comes, Rachel, at the end of what I'm sure you will recall has been a tough year for Virginia Democrats.
MCCAMMON: It started with that series of just cascading scandals from the executive branch beginning with the blackface photo that surfaced in Governor Northam's med school yearbook. And at that time, there was a lot of concern among Democrats about what this would all mean for this important election. But they have pulled out a big victory here in Virginia.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about some of the other states that had races. A tight race, as David mentioned, in Kentucky; also in Mississippi, races for the governor's mansion.
MCCAMMON: Yeah. There was some good news for Republicans in Mississippi, a deeply red state, of course, with an open seat for governor this year. The Republican, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, won, keeping that state in the red column. But in Kentucky, another conservative state, the Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear, is claiming victory over the incumbent, Republican Governor Matt Bevin.
Now, Bevin hasn't conceded yet, but Beshear made a victory speech last night where he sounded, Rachel, a lot like a Democrat in a red state.
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ANDY BESHEAR: And tonight, I think we showed this country that in Kentucky, we can disagree with each other while still respecting one another.
MCCAMMON: Reaching across the aisle there. And if his lead holds - if Beshear's lead holds, it would be a big loss for Bevin in a state that Trump won by close to 30 points. But Bevin has been very unpopular. He's known particularly for his fights with teachers unions. And we should add, it isn't totally unusual, especially in a year without a big Republican name at the top of the national ticket, for a Democrat to win in Kentucky. In fact, Beshear's own father, also a Democrat, was the governor just before Bevin.
MARTIN: Right. But as you point out, these are off-year elections. How much can they really tell us about 2020? Even though everyone's desperate - what can it say? What kind of bellwether is it? I mean, does it really tell us anything?
MCCAMMON: Yeah. I mean, that's the big question. I mean, overall, of course, this is a lot of good news for Democrats - right? - especially in Virginia. Leaders of both parties had been framing these off-year elections as a chance to weigh in on President Trump and the direction of the country. And so I would expect to hear a lot more of that message from Democrats after the night they had last night.
But you can only glean so much from off-year elections. Turnout is lower. None of these states are really swing states - even Virginia, arguably, now.
MCCAMMON: But expect both parties, you know, to look hard at these results for signs of what worked, what didn't. And there is still a lot of distance, of course, between now and Election Day next year.
MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: Thanks, Rachel.
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MARTIN: Since the 1970s, the federal Clean Water Act has governed pollution in U.S. waters. But now there's this case involving a wastewater plant in Hawaii that could actually reshape those rules.
GREENE: Yeah. And the Supreme Court is going to hear oral arguments on that case today. It involves whether Maui County can continue to inject wastewater underground. Although groundwater is not covered by the Clean Water Act, that waste ended up in the Pacific Ocean, and that's a body of water that is covered by these rules. Environmentalists sued, citing evidence that the pollution is killing coral reefs.
MARTIN: Ryan Finnerty of Hawaii Public Radio has been following the Supreme Court case and joins us now from Honolulu. Good morning, Ryan.
RYAN FINNERTY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Explain the case. What's in dispute here?
FINNERTY: So no one's disputing that this wastewater is actually reaching the ocean. The question is whether or not that pollution falls under the purview of the Clean Water Act. And that law only covers specifically discharge of pollutants directly into surface waters like lakes, rivers and the ocean.
In this case, the wastewater from a Maui County facility is being injected underground, not directly into the ocean. And a 2013 Obama-era EPA study found that the discharge was eventually reaching sensitive coral reefs off shore. Craig Glenn is a University of Hawai'i geologist who led that study. And he summed up the results pretty succinctly.
CRAIG GLENN: Undebatable evidence that the wastewater was reaching from those wells to the coastline.
FINNERTY: And so the findings from that study form the basis for the current lawsuit in which a group of local Hawaii conservation groups are arguing that because the injection well discharge does eventually connect to the ocean, it should be covered under the Clean Water Act.
MARTIN: So what's the federal government's argument here?
FINNERTY: Well, the federal government is not actually making an argument in this case. The lawsuit is between these conservation groups and the county of Maui. But there has been a significant change in federal policy under the Trump administration. I spoke with one of the attorneys on the case for the plaintiffs. And he specializes in environmental law and told me that every previous administration, both Republican and Democrat, has agreed that, in principle, surface water pollution that happens via groundwater is covered by the Clean Water Act.
It's not specifically laid out in the law, but it's kind of an interpretation of the law by the executive branch. The Trump administration has reversed course on that and is supporting the defendants in this case, which are Maui County. This is Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who's representing the plaintiffs in the case.
DAVID HENKIN: Really, it's every administration since the enactment of the Clean Water Act versus the Trump administration.
MARTIN: So, I mean, explain how the court's decision might end up just changing the act altogether.
FINNERTY: So if the court rules firmly in one direction or another, it could expand - if they side with the plaintiffs - expand the Clean Water Act to cover this type of pollution, which it's not currently explicit in law. If they side with the defendants, it could limit the way the Clean Water Act can be applied in future cases.
MARTIN: All right. Hawaii Public Radio's Ryan Finnerty. Ryan, thanks for your reporting on this. We really appreciate it.
FINNERTY: Sure thing, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "SUN DRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.