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News Brief: Impeachment Inquiry, California Wildfires, Boeing CEO's Testimony


For the first time, House investigators will hear today from a White House aide with firsthand knowledge of President Trump's phone call with Ukraine's president.


That's right. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman oversees Ukraine policy as part of the National Security Council, and he is set to testify about that phone call that's at the heart of the ongoing impeachment inquiry.

On Thursday, House lawmakers are going to go on record and vote on whether to formalize the impeachment procedures. And the central question, of course, is if President Trump improperly pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals in exchange for military aid. Now, according to Vindman's opening statement that was obtained by NPR, he raised concerns about that pressure with superiors on two different occasions.

MARTIN: All right. We've got NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez in studio. Hi, Franco.


MARTIN: All right. So we've gotten our hands on a copy of Vindman's opening statement. What does he say about his concerns with that now-infamous phone call?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he says that he did not think that it was proper for the United States to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen. He thought an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden's son and his connections to a Ukraine energy company would only lead to Ukraine losing bipartisan support that it had and that that could undermine U.S. national security.

MARTIN: And he didn't just think this to himself. He went off and reported it to his superiors?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Just as David said, he raised these concerns with top NSC lawyers not once but twice. And he raised these concerns about the pressure to investigate the Bidens. He also confronted another diplomat, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, telling him that investigating the Bidens had nothing to do with national security and that the NSC was not going to get involved or push that effort.

MARTIN: OK. So we have heard this before from other people who have testified in the impeachment inquiry - concerns over this pressure on Ukraine. But tell us more about why Vindman's testimony is potentially really exceptional.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, as you pointed before, it's the first chance for the committee to talk with someone on the call who was actually listening to the president. I just want to note he doesn't have to do this. He doesn't have to give an opening statement. And that speaks to the anxiety among national security professionals about these alleged efforts by the president to pressure the Ukraine government.

You mentioned he's not the first. William Taylor, the special envoy for Ukraine, also raised several of these concerns last week in his explosive testimony. And Fiona Hill, who also worked with Vindman at the NSC, she even said that the national security adviser, John Bolton, raised some concerns and talked about this as a drug deal.

MARTIN: And we should just say, the White House line on this has been to say - oh, the whistleblower complaint that started this off, this was secondhand, thirdhand information. And this is going to change that. Vindman is firsthand information.

ORDOÑEZ: Correct.

MARTIN: The White House strategy has often been to attack the character of these witnesses. Does Vindman have any vulnerabilities on that score?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he's got quite a resume. He's not only an Iraqi war (ph) veteran, he was awarded the Purple Heart for his service. And one thing he does make clear is he is not the whistleblower who brought this to the attention of the CIA and the committees. And he said he wouldn't be comfortable speculating about who it is.

MARTIN: All right. One more question - I mentioned that on Thursday there's going to be this procedural vote, but it's important. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to make the impeachment inquiry formal. How is that going to change anything?

ORDOÑEZ: It's very important. This is going to talk about next steps for the opening hearings. It's talked (ph) about disclosure of transcripts of all these witnesses. And it's also going to talk about the due process rights for the president because Republicans have been complaining about this. But this really takes away one of their talking points.

MARTIN: And so it means we're going to see more. We're going to see, potentially, the question-and-answer portion of these testimonies.

ORDOÑEZ: That is possible, yes.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.


MARTIN: All right. We're going to focus now on Northern California because there is a massive wildfire there that continues to spread.

GREENE: Yeah. There are a number of fires across California, but the one we're talking about here is the Kincaid fire. It's now grown to more than 74,000 acres since it started last Wednesday. And high winds are forecast for Tuesday, and that could make battling this blaze even more difficult. Speaking to NPR on Monday, California's governor, Gavin Newsom, sounded pretty grim. But also, there was a tone of optimism.


GAVIN NEWSOM: This is a reality that we're facing that I would like to describe as unique, but it's a reality that we all may be facing in the future. The hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier, and the wets are getting wetter. But we're going to get through it. We're going to make sure that we are more prepared, more vigilant; make sure we're more resourceful. And we're going to tackle this.

MARTIN: All right. We've got reporter Alex Emslie of member station KQED on the line. He is in Santa Rosa, just south of the Kincaid fire. Alex, what can you tell us about the extent of the damage at this point?

ALEX EMSLIE, BYLINE: Well, you know, I mean, when this fire started, it very quickly looked angry. It was large flames burning in what was a pretty rural and rugged area, though - not near any towns. But these winds have come already with this fire before and spread it very rapidly toward the Highway 101 corridor and toward a couple of towns - Healdsburg and Windsor.

It seems like Windsor has kind of seen the worst of it so far but not a whole - not as many homes destroyed as we might have seen in past years. And no one - no fatalities yet, no missing persons reported. And that's very different than what we've seen in past large fires like this.

MARTIN: And can that be attributed to the fact that people got evacuation orders pretty early?

EMSLIE: Yeah. And I think that, unlike some past years, this fire kind of announced itself. It started, and there was at least a 24-hour period for authorities to, you know, get the word out that people needed to evacuate. And they evacuated a huge swath. The largest evacuation in Sonoma County history - 180,000 people at its peak have moved out of this area and into surrounding areas as firefighters fight this fire.

MARTIN: And as we noted, the winds are going to complicate everything today. But I want to ask about the power situation, Alex, because we've heard, I mean, hundreds of thousands of people in California are without power, even in portions of the state that aren't burning - that aren't suffering the risk of these fires. What can you tell us about the difference? Is it making a difference to have that power shut off?

EMSLIE: You know, I mean, it's hard to tell so far, and I think that there's a lot of annoyance around the state about these - the power blackouts going on. But it's also important to remember that many of these fires have started with wind, with downed power lines and with the kind of conditions that we're seeing right now. So it's a precautionary measure. It may be, you know, overly cautious. And I guess that's something that we'll have to see.

MARTIN: And then, just briefly, the Kincaid fire isn't the only fire that we should talk about. The Getty fire near Los Angeles started Sunday. Just briefly, anything you can share?

EMSLIE: Yeah. I mean, it's a smaller fire in terms of acreage, but it is right up against a densely populated area. And so that fire is also going to get stoked by some high winds coming later in the day today.

MARTIN: All right. Alex, we appreciate it. Alex Emslie from member station KQED.


MARTIN: OK. Two airline crashes involving the same model of Boeing jetliner - the FAA investigated these crashes, so did the company itself. But now Congress wants answers.

GREENE: That's right. Today Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is expected to face some really tough questioning in dual hearings on the Boeing 737 Max. Let's remember: Exactly a year ago today, a 737 Max operated by Indonesia's Lion Air crashed, killing everyone on board. And then five months later, another 737 Max that was operated by Ethiopian Airlines also crashed. And combined, those incidents took 346 lives.

MARTIN: NPR's David Schaper is following the story from Chicago. David, good morning. The CEO...


MARTIN: The CEO of Boeing is, as David noted, facing two back-to-back committees on the Hill. What are they hoping to learn that they don't know already?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, this is the very first time that the company has been willing to come forward and sit down and answer questions in any kind of public setting like this. And there are just still so many questions about both of these crashes that Boeing has to answer - and about their 737 Max plane and how it was developed.

They'll be particularly focused on a flight control system Boeing put on this plane called MCAS. Investigators say it played a major role in both crashes. And that system was designed with just a single point of failure, relying on just one sensor with no redundancy. And they'll want to know how a safety-critical system could be developed like that and then still be left out of training and flight manuals so that pilots had no idea it was even on the plane.

There are other questions about Boeing's corporate culture and a shift that many insiders say has gone from a more engineering-focused, safety-first culture to a profit-first focus that was really emphasizing boosting shareholder value over safety, in the eyes of many - and that those problems - that cultural problem and that cultural shift may have led to the problems with these planes.

MARTIN: I mean, you've covered Boeing for a long time. Do we have any sense of what Muilenburg plans to say?

SCHAPER: We do. According to prepared remarks that was released to the media yesterday by the company, Muilenburg will again express sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who died in both of these crashes. Many of them will actually be in that hearing room today. Muilenburg will also go further in acknowledging some company mistakes than he has been before. He plans to admit, quote, "we know we made mistakes and got some things wrong. We own that, and we are fixing them."

But he will again be talking about Boeing's experts addressing the Max problems, developing software fixes, these fixes going through all kinds of testing over and over again and that the company has a very long history of producing safe airplanes and reiterating that, you know, air travel is really safer now than it ever has been before.

MARTIN: Just briefly, I want to play a clip - a tape from Jim Hall - he's the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board - yesterday. Here's what he said

JIM HALL: It disturbs me greatly that safety is being sold at Boeing Aircraft and that there are two levels of safety, one for those airlines that can afford it and second - and another level of safety for the airlines that cannot afford it.

MARTIN: What's your takeaway from that?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, there were certain alarms and warning lights in the cockpit that were sold as extras, add-ons for a higher price. And that's what Jim is talking about there. Boeing, you know, basically charged extra for certain safety features and one of those that could have maybe avoided these two crashes.

MARTIN: Wow. OK. NPR's David Schaper for us. Thanks, David. We appreciate it.

SCHAPER: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.