News Brief: Impeachment Probe, Trade Deal, Student Debt Case
NOEL KING, HOST:
The House Judiciary Committee will move forward on impeachment today.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The two articles of impeachment unveiled yesterday charged the president with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in the Ukraine affair. The president first responded on Twitter by denying that he ever pressured Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election. And then the president nearly denied that impeachment was even happening while speaking at a campaign rally in Hershey, Pa., last night.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is impeachment light.
TRUMP: This is the lightest impeachment in the history of our country by far. It's not even like an impeachment.
INSKEEP: Quick fact check - in truth, it is so much like an impeachment that it is an impeachment. In drafting their two charges, House Democrats borrowed some language from earlier articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. It is true, though, that Democrats kept the charges relatively narrow while also showing they will work with the White House where they can.
KING: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is on the line. Good morning, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: OK. So the House Judiciary Committee will start markup of these two articles of impeachment today. What is markup? How does this work?
DAVIS: OK. So, I mean, a markup is quite literal. A markup is when a committee will take a bill, and they get a chance to mark it up, to change it, to edit it, to amend it. I've talked to Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, and they don't actually expect there to be much substantial change to the articles that were unveiled yesterday. It's nine pages. Anyone can go find it and read it online.
It will also give Republicans a chance to offer up their own amendments. Again, don't expect Republicans to have much say in changing the underlying articles. It's going to happen over two days. They're going to start tonight. They'll wrap tomorrow, in large part because Democrats just wanted to be able to have this vote in prime time.
KING: Oh, get it done in prime time. I see. As Steve mentioned, the charges here are relatively narrow. Why only two articles of impeachment?
DAVIS: You know, it really does speak to the politics inside the Democratic Party, where you have this liberal wing and the moderate wing. And a lot of liberals wanted this to be more expansive. They wanted to include things like the allegations of obstruction in Robert Mueller's report in the Russia investigation.
But the moderate caucus really won out. And they really wanted to keep something really narrow, really targeted, easy to understand and something that they felt was an easier vote to explain to their constituents.
KING: So on top of that, Sue, there are some big issues on the House agenda this week that really have nothing to do with the impeachment, right? They've got to get some stuff done.
DAVIS: They have. I mean, this has been a fascinating week. The one thing you have to understand about Capitol Hill, too, is December tends to be a really productive month because it's coming up on the end of the year, the end of the session. And this is when deals start to happen. And you've seen that happen in the last couple of days. Obviously, they announced a big trade deal this week.
And also on the floor today, they're going to vote on a defense bill. And inside that defense bill is another big bipartisan deal the White House cut with Congress to essentially establish the Space Force, which is a new branch of the military. That was a big priority for the president...
DAVIS: ...And in exchange, have given 12 weeks of paid family leave to all federal employees. That's another big bipartisan deal that shows, yeah, it is possible for Trump to work with Democrats and vice versa.
KING: You mentioned the trade deal. This is the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement - the USMCA. It appears to give the president a big win on trade. It still does need to be ratified by all three countries. But who is claiming a win here?
DAVIS: You know, it's one of these weird feelings, because we don't get to say it much, where everybody in Washington feels pretty good about this. House Republicans, you know, it's probably not the deal they would have written if they were in the majority, but it is one that they're obviously going to get behind. It's a big win for the president.
It is handing Donald Trump, potentially, you know, a very good argument to make for his reelection. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, said that wasn't a consideration for Democrats, that it's also really good for a lot of Democrats in these swing and moderate districts. And it's something they can go home to and say, our majority is delivering for you. It's not just about impeaching the president.
KING: NPR's Sue Davis with some optimism. Thanks, Sue.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
KING: All right. So President Trump is not the only person celebrating the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
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MARCELO EBRARD: Mission complete. (Speaking Spanish).
INSKEEP: That's Mexico's foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, declaring mission complete. He and representatives from the United States and Canada signed a revised USMCA at Mexico City's presidential palace yesterday amid promises that this will all make every country in the deal richer. But after more than two years of negotiations over how this will govern workers and billions of dollars of commerce, what is actually in the agreement?
KING: NPR's Carrie Kahn has been following this from Mexico City. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
KING: OK. So President Trump for years threatened to tear up NAFTA, which is the existing free trade agreement that's been in place since 1994. How different is the USMCA, this new agreement, from NAFTA?
KAHN: There are some new provisions, for sure, especially when it comes to trade regulations in, like, the digital economy and e-commerce. Those types of businesses weren't even around 25 years ago. So those updates were needed. Other big changes are how much more North American parts need to be in a vehicle made in the three countries for it to get that preferential tariff.
So one new provision says 40 to 45% of the vehicle must be made in a North American factory where wages are at least $16 an hour. And clearly, this is a move in hopes of stemming U.S. and Canadian job loss to lower paid Mexican factories. There's also a provision on enforcing labor and environmental standards, mostly in Mexico. And those were quite contentious and threatened to derail the talks recently.
KING: Well, yeah, I mean, these negotiations took a long time. And I wonder, if you look at this from the Mexican point of view, what's the understanding there on why this took so long to get done?
KAHN: Specifically with the labor and environmental enforcement provisions, U.S. House Democrats and U.S. labor groups were pushing really hard for how they would be enforced. And Mexico had already passed some tough new labor laws. Remember, Mexico is the only country to have ratified the trade deal. And they have this new leftist government in power and a 32-year-old labor minister in place.
So these new laws were some of the most progressive Mexico has ever seen, with guarantees for workers' rights, especially for free and fair union elections. But U.S. Democrats really wanted stronger enforcement guarantees. They wanted U.S. inspectors to be allowed into Mexican plants. And Mexico just said, no way.
And in the end, Mexico did acquiesce. But they say the inspectors are being replaced by a panel of representatives from all three countries. So these types of negotiations were tough, and they were fraught with tension in recent weeks.
KING: So, you know, I wonder, big picture, where this leaves the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico because both governments seem really happy about this trade agreement. And yet, the big issue between the two countries is immigration. And not much has been solved there.
KAHN: It's been quite interesting to watch President Trump and President Lopez Obrador of late. This relation, you know, started with Trump threatening to rip up NAFTA. And then there were all the tariff threats over migration.
But lately, the two have just been talking and praising each other, working hard not to confront or insult others on tough issues. You know, President Lopez Obrador was big on praising Trump yesterday for his help with the trade deal. He called Trump prudent, respectful and a true partner for Mexico.
KING: OK. NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thanks so much.
KAHN: You're welcome.
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KING: All right. Now we have an NPR exclusive on a fight between more than 200,000 people with student debt and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
INSKEEP: The hundreds of thousands of former students said they were defrauded by for-profit colleges. Career staff at the U.S. Department of Education who reviewed those claims agreed with them and recommended that the students' federal loans should be completely erased. But according to documents obtained by NPR News, Secretary DeVos overruled that recommendation.
KING: NPR's Cory Turner is with us in studio. Good morning, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: All right. So you have been covering this story in depth for a while. Can you just remind us - give us some context to remind us, how did we get to this point?
TURNER: Yeah. Absolutely. Most people probably remember a few years ago during the Obama administration when a handful of these big, high-profile, for-profit college chains essentially collapsed. You may remember Corinthian Colleges. There's also ITT Tech. And this left hundreds of thousands of borrowers with really big debts and degrees that they say are basically worthless.
So these borrowers started protesting, saying they deserve to have their student debts erased. And it's really important for folks to remember that because these loans are federal student loans, the decision of what to do with them is really up to the U.S. Department of Education.
So ultimately, the Obama administration urged these students to file claims under an old rule known as borrower defense, which basically says if you think you were defrauded, here's your chance to state your case. And maybe you'll get your money back.
KING: OK. So there is an outlet to complain. And then you get a hold of a bunch of memos. What do those memos say?
TURNER: Yeah. So in early 2017 - this is just really a few weeks before DeVos is sworn in as secretary - a bunch of career staff write these memos after reviewing thousands of these borrower defense claims. And they basically say, yeah, Corinthian and ITT schools misled borrowers. They made promises about things like job prospects after graduation and the transferability of credits that just weren't true.
And so these department staff say in these memos that we agree with these students. The value of an education from these schools is, quote, "either negligible or nonexistent." The memos even quote from individual defrauded borrowers. One of them says, I cannot find a job using my degree. People just laugh in my face. So these memos officially recommend a really sweeping approach to relief. They say all these borrowers deserve to have their federal debts wiped out.
KING: And yet, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems to disagree with that.
TURNER: She does. And the reason really is she opposes full debt relief. And she has delayed processing these claims for several years now as they try to come up with a new formula. What she wants to do is basically give students partial debt relief. And she wants to review their cases case by case.
Her reasoning is, essentially, even if students were lied to, which the department even today doesn't really dispute - if these students are working now and earning a living, why should they get all that money back? So in a statement, a department spokesperson told NPR, quote, "full relief sounds nice. To force taxpayers to provide blanket forgiveness would be abandoning our duty to be good stewards of tax dollars. The Department will provide student relief to those who qualify for it."
I should also say, Noel, this fight is going to play out on a really big stage tomorrow. That's after the chairman of the House Education Committee threatened to subpoena DeVos to get her to testify. She is scheduled to do so tomorrow. And they will be talking all about borrower defense.
KING: And you will be watching.
TURNER: I will.
KING: NPR's Cory Turner. Cory, thanks so much.
TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.