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News Brief: Impeachment Trial, Capitol Siege, Mexico's Vaccine Plan

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Today, a historic impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate begins.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump is the first president to be impeached twice. The trial is also making history because it is an impeachment trial for a president no longer in office. This time, Democrats accused Trump of inciting the deadly Capitol riot on January 6. And while getting enough Republican votes to convict is unlikely, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer insists the trial is necessary.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Following the despicable attack on January the 6, there must - there must - be truth and accountability if we are going to move forward, heal and bring our country together once again.

PFEIFFER: For more on this, we're joined by congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. And Claudia, just yesterday, Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on the structure of the trial. What did they agree on?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: They agreed that the trial begins today at 1 p.m. Eastern with four hours equally divided between the impeachment managers and Trump's defense to argue the constitutionality of the trial. Most Republicans said it was not during an initial vote last month. Now they'll vote on this again, and it should pass with a majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans again. That's followed by two days of arguments with the impeachment managers and the defense team, each getting up to eight hours a day. Then senators will get four hours to question the legal teams, and then they'll consider a vote on whether to call witnesses. This is followed by closing arguments and deliberations to vote on whether to convict the president. The trial was going to pause for the Jewish Sabbath beginning Friday night and resume Sunday. But Trump's lawyer, David Schoen, suddenly withdrew that request last night so the trial could continue until Saturday and then pause to start again on Monday.

PFEIFFER: And, Claudia, Trump's lawyers released a legal brief yesterday. What is the focus of their defense?

GRISALES: His lawyers are arguing in their briefs that this trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office. This is a very narrow, process-oriented defense. And they're focusing specifically on the speech that he gave at the rally on January 6, saying he can't be held responsible for criminals who misunderstood him. They're also focusing on his First Amendment rights to express himself that day.

PFEIFFER: And what do we know about how impeachment managers will push back on that argument you just outlined and make their case against Trump?

GRISALES: They claim there's a pattern here in the days and months leading up to the insurrection, noting Trump was not using figurative language when he urged his followers to, quote, "fight" and this would be a, quote, "wild rally." And this marks, they say, the many ways Trump incited the siege. One example when we heard from Georgia officials that someone is going to get killed because of his dangerous rhetoric and another one, Trump endorsed past violence, such as when his supporters chased and surrounded a Democratic campaign bus on a central Texas highway. In terms of this process argument, they say even Republican legal experts say he can be convicted, noting that the period of elections and peaceful transfer of power are a source of great national pride. And there is no January exception to impeachment as a president must comprehensively answer for his conduct in office from his first day through his last. That all said, two-thirds of the chamber must vote to convict him, so Democrats will need 17 Republicans to join them, and that seems pretty unlikely right now.

PFEIFFER: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, thank you.

GRISALES: Thanks much for having me.

PFEIFFER: Now, as we've said, the central question in this impeachment trial is, did President Trump incite rioters to storm the Capitol on January 6?

MARTIN: To help answer that question, NPR's Investigations team has been examining the more than 200 criminal cases related to the insurrection.

PFEIFFER: And NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach joins me now. Good morning, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Morning.

PFEIFFER: What did you learn as you looked through these many cases?

DREISBACH: So what we really wanted to look for was what the alleged rioters said in their own words. So let's just take the case of one alleged rioter. Her name is Jennifer Ryan. She's a realtor in Texas, a Trump supporter. And federal prosecutors say she entered the Capitol, posted photos and videos of herself inside the building during the breach. And then she was interviewed about it by a local CBS station. And here is what she said.

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JENNIFER RYAN: I thought I was following my president. He asked us to fly there. He asked us to be there. So I was doing what he asked us to do. So as far as in my heart of hearts, do I feel like a criminal? No, I'm not the villain.

DREISBACH: Now, in that interview, she also asked for a pardon from then-President Trump. This was before the inauguration. She did not receive one. And so Jennifer Ryan is still facing charges of violent entry and disorderly conduct, among other alleged crimes.

PFEIFFER: Tom, what we just heard there from her, were those kinds of statements common?

DREISBACH: Yeah. I mean, as we mentioned, we looked at more than 200 court cases here, as well as interviews and videos from defendants. And the question was not just whether those defendants supported Trump - that's essentially all of this group - but whether they made these kind of explicit and specific claims that Trump inspired them. And so far, we found that at least two dozen of these defendants made those kind of claims, that they went to the Capitol because of President Trump. It's more than 10%. So, for example, Kenneth Grayson of Pennsylvania, he allegedly texted someone in the weeks ahead of the riot, quote, "if Trump tells us to storm the bleeping Capitol, I'ma do that then." And he used a word we cannot say on the radio. Others allegedly used similar language and responded to Trump's calls on social media for a wild protest, as Claudia mentioned. And at least one member of this group is accused of committing violent crimes, allegedly attempted to rip the helmet off of one Capitol police officer and assaulted another.

PFEIFFER: And Tom, as you know, one of the arguments that Trump's lawyers are making in his defense is that some people had planned to storm the Capitol well ahead of his speech on January 6. Is there evidence of that?

DREISBACH: Well, federal prosecutors have brought around a dozen conspiracy charges so far related to the Capitol rioting. And they have alleged that at some point people started planning and prepping for the attack apparently within days of the November election. They were gathering weapons and bulletproof vests and making sort of other plans to come to Washington. Now, those charges have been brought against alleged members of militia groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, as well as the group known as the Proud Boys, which is a far-right and often violent gang. But the vast majority of people charged in the attacks so far have not been charged with conspiracy. They've been charged with other crimes, such as their mere presence inside the building. And the court documents suggest that the day of the rally, some people were taking cues from Trump. Trump said he would march from his speech down on Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress. And according to FBI affidavits filed in these cases, multiple people took Trump literally. They went to that speech. They stormed the Capitol and then later told agents they thought Trump was going to be right there with them.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Tom, thank you.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Sacha.

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PFEIFFER: We now turn to Mexico, which is experiencing the worst spike in coronavirus cases and deaths since the pandemic began.

MARTIN: With more than 166,000 deaths, Mexico now ranks third behind the U.S. and Brazil for total COVID fatalities. Mexico had an ambitious vaccination plan that was supposed to vaccinate all of the country's frontline health workers by the end of January, but that didn't happen. Mexico hasn't had a shipment of new vaccines in nearly a month.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Mexico correspondent Carrie Kahn joins us now. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha. Good morning.

PFEIFFER: What happened to Mexico's vaccine plan?

KAHN: Well, it didn't go as planned, that's for sure. Late last year, the government laid out this, like you said, a very ambitious plan that showed deals with multiple companies around the world and delivery dates and goals unlike any seen in Latin America. Right before Christmas, the first delivery of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech arrived. It was broadcast live on national television. There was, like, a red carpet for the delivery. And the government said frontline workers would get two doses by the end of January. It was very hopeful. But then vaccine deliveries dried up. Pfizer said it was delaying deliveries. It had a problem with a plant in Belgium, and that was out of the control of the government. But there hasn't been any company coming through just yet. Mexico has only vaccinated less than 1% of the population. I spoke with Itzel Hernandez. She's a pediatric doctor in Mexico City. She got her first shot in the beginning of January.

ITZEL HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says the rollout is terribly organized. She says before she got a first shot, officials should have finished giving the second dose to people who already received the first shot. So only about 10% of frontline workers have received both shots. She's really worried she's not going to ever get a second shot. She already had COVID once, and she's just worried she's going to get it again.

PFEIFFER: As we said earlier, Mexico now has the third-highest COVID death toll in the world. Why is the situation there so bad?

KAHN: It is startling. The numbers are startling. January has been the most lethal month to date in the pandemic. Last week, we had so many record-breaking days with deaths topping 1,500. The epicenter of the pandemic is still around Mexico City and the surrounding cities. And the government doesn't really enforce lockdowns. And it's believed the spikes in cases are tied to holiday gatherings. Even the president, who's long downplayed the virus and rarely wears a mask, got it. Yesterday, he was back at work after being treated for COVID. Here, hospital officials say they're at 80% capacity. But you hear stories of people being turned away. Many people just don't trust the health system. And there are these long lines of people waiting at oxygen warehouses throughout the city where they're trying to buy oxygen to treat their relatives at home. I've spoken to so many people in those lines, and it's just heartbreaking. You hear their stories of dealing with shortages, thefts, price gouging and that panic when their oxygen runs out and they aren't sure they'll be able to find more.

PFEIFFER: It's very sad situation. And so what is Mexico's plan now to get vaccines and try to turn things around?

KAHN: Officials say Pfizer is supposed to resume deliveries next week. Those are for the frontline workers. They have a lot of contracts and guarantees from manufacturers that they're counting on. The government just approved use of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and is banking on those deliveries to fulfill the president's promise to get seniors vaccinated by the end of March. But there's been another setback. Last week, the government rolled out this national online registration site to register those seniors. And it's just lots of reports of the system crashing, not working. It's really cumbersome. So Mexicans are not very optimistic. They lost that feeling of confidence that they had back in Christmas when those first vaccines arrived.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Carrie Kahn, thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.