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News Brief: Trump-Ukraine Report, U.N. General Assembly, Tortutre In Syria


Let's hear from a country that has been a special focus for President Trump.


Right. That country is Ukraine, to which the United States froze vital military aid. Now, President Trump also had a phone call with Ukraine's new president. Trump acknowledges seeking dirt on a political opponent, Joe Biden, though he insists he was speaking against corruption.

The Washington Post and multiple other news outlets now come close to connecting these events. They quote senior officials who say the president personally ordered the military aid withheld at least a week before his phone call to Ukraine. In Washington, Democrats are increasing their calls for impeachment.

INSKEEP: There is a lot to discuss here. So let's go back a few years and also go over to the - to another continent here with NPR's Lucian Kim, who's in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Good morning.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I should say good afternoon where you are. How are Ukrainians responding as more is known about Trump's actions?

KIM: Well, unfortunately, Ukrainians are very used to corruption scandals and are also used to their prosecutors doing almost nothing to go after corruption. In fact, that's one reason why Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who's a professional comedian, was elected president this year. It was a protest vote against the old way of doing business. As for Ukraine being in the middle of this partisan scandal in the U.S., I think it's unpleasant, to say the least.

People here see the U.S. as Ukraine's most powerful ally. And it puts them in a very uncomfortable spot to be in the middle of this political firestorm. I've tried speaking to people. Ukrainian officials are not really commenting on this. They want to wait until their president, Zelenskiy, meets President Trump tomorrow at the United Nations.

INSKEEP: And when you say most powerful ally, we should note, Ukraine's neighbor, Russia, has attacked the territory in various ways, and that's why the Ukraine is relying on U.S. support. Now, how did Joe Biden or rather his family get involved in Ukraine at all?

KIM: (Laughter) Well, Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, showed up pretty much out of the blue in 2014 and joined the board of an energy company run by a former environment minister. Now, hiring Hunter Biden - this was at the time when they were also hiring a former president of Poland to the board - was part of an attempt to give this company some respectability. There were a lot of questions about its owner. This former environment minister, he was being investigated for money laundering. And there were questions about how he obtained his drilling licenses.

So the accusations of wrongdoing actually predate Hunter Biden. And hiring him was actually part of this sort of cleanup effort. What frustrated Western countries, including the U.S. and many anti-corruption activists here in Ukraine, was that prosecutors were not investigating this company or basically any other wrongdoing in the country.

INSKEEP: Well, what drew the former vice president - the then-Vice President Joe Biden into Ukraine?

KIM: Well, Steve, the first thing to understand about Joe Biden and Ukraine is that, as vice president, he was the Obama administration's point man on Ukraine. He often visited. And it was really part of his brief to monitor the reform process that was supposed to be going on here. Now, the accusation we hear is that Joe Biden tried to use this position to somehow protect the energy company where his son was on the board.

I asked Brian Bonner about that. He's the editor of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine's English-language newspaper.

BRIAN BONNER: Joe Biden as vice president did not try to kill the investigation into Burisma. In fact, one of the reasons why the prosecutor general was fired was because he obstructed one corruption case after another. He prosecuted no one for corruption. He protected corruption.

KIM: So, you know, Biden's pressure to fire this prosecutor was really in line with what other Western governments were demanding at the time.

INSKEEP: OK. So thanks for straightening out the facts that are part of this story. NPR's Lucian Kim is in Ukraine.

KIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now, how does all this look from the White House? NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is travelling with the president, who is in New York today, by the way. Franco, good morning.


INSKEEP: So what is the president saying to justify his various actions here and especially that phone call demanding information about the Bidens?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he's been extremely emphatic that he did nothing wrong. But he really hasn't been able to get away from it even trying to get to New York. You know, in Washington, pressure continues to build. Seven freshman Democrats, who were also members of the military, they wrote an op-ed last night in The Washington Post saying that if the allegations are true, they represent a threat to what they swore to protect.

You know, as I said, he's been very emphatic. He teased us reporters that he might share the transcript, but he stopped short of doing it, saying that he would do it. He just says it sets the wrong precedent for the calls. We've heard that kind of thing before. I'm sure, based on the new reports, that we'll hear about it again today.

INSKEEP: Although we should emphasize, I mean, the essential elements here are all acknowledged all in public. The freezing of military aid, that's in public. That is known. The phone call, that is now in public, it's known. That the president asked about the Bidens, it's pretty clear from the president's own statements. It's just a question of how all this fits together, right?

ORDOÑEZ: That's correct.

INSKEEP: So for - stay with us, Franco, because of course the president has a big appearance in New York, where you are, today. He speaks before the United Nations General Assembly.

GREENE: Yeah. We should say, U.S. presidents have often used this speech, this moment, as a way to emphasize America's leadership role on the global stage. This year's address comes against the backdrop of a trade war with China, insecurity in the Persian Gulf and also calls for stronger action on climate change.

INSKEEP: Plenty to talk about, Franco. So what will the president say?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the president and his staff are being a bit coy about his speech. White House officials say the president will present the U.S. as an alternative to authoritarianism. They'll probably discuss respect for independence of individual members, particularly on national security issues. I was among reporters when he was asked about Iran. That will certainly come up.

This is what the president said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A lot of things are going to happen. Let me just put it this way - a lot of things are happening with respect to Iran, a lot more than you would know, a lot more than the media knows. A lot of things are happening. OK? I'll be discussing it a little bit tomorrow.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Trump got a boost from Germany, France and the U.K. last night. They released a joint statement also blaming Iran for the attack on the Saudi oil facility. President Trump also said yesterday that he's going to talk about the U.S. economy and the global economy.

INSKEEP: All right. Let's face it, the president, of course, is still a very powerful figure - president of the United States - but also a very unpopular figure globally. Do world leaders still listen to what he has to say?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, world leaders certainly listen, but they won't necessarily follow. The reality is American global leadership isn't what it used to be. I spoke with Ivo Daalder, who formerly served as the ambassador to NATO. This is what he said.

IVO DAALDER: Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is showing up. The Chinese are showing up in places where the United States used to show up. And as a result, the Chinese are gaining influence.

ORDOÑEZ: The reality is, the president had pulled back in many ways, from his America First pledge, he's pulled from the Paris climate accord. He promised that he wouldn't be president of the world and we're seeing that.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez is in New York City today.


INSKEEP: A trove of documents in Europe has become evidence against the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

GREENE: Yeah. These are documents from inside Syria revealing abuse in Syrian prisons. Lawyers and survivors collected these papers, and NPR has gained access to them. Some cases against the Syrian government are now getting to court in Europe. Many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who've arrived there bring personal stories of the torture they survived.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos has seen the evidence and talked with witnesses. And she's on the line. Deborah, good morning.


INSKEEP: Where do you go to see this evidence?

AMOS: Well, to get into the offices of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability - or CIJA - you have to agree not to say where the office is. It's a security issue. These are experienced war crime investigators, and they are storing evidence - 800,000 documents, 3 1/2 tons of paper, all of this official documents smuggled out of Syria over eight years of war.


AMOS: This February, this paid off. They were part of why the German police arrested a former Syrian intelligence officer who'd slipped into Berlin with refugees. Now, there's going to be a trial. And Bill Wiley, who's the Canadian investigator - he founded CIJA. He says international justice is based on what's called linkage cases.

BILL WILEY: Because international criminal justice is focused on higher level perpetrators who normally don't get their hands dirty. Those who are known to the public, appear in impeccably tailored suits, speak fluent English in the case of President Assad, ultimately, those are the guys that we're after because they're most responsible for the offenses.

INSKEEP: Oh, you say linkage cases because these people may not personally have killed someone and yet they are participants in or even directing the effort. So you have documents that you've seen relating to these cases, also survivors, right?

AMOS: Yes. And many of these people are becoming witnesses. And it's restored some hope considering what they've been through. In 2011, there was an uprising. The Assad regime responded with violence. And then they had sweeping arrests. Tens of thousands of people were jailed. They say tens of thousands - and there are documents to show this - were tortured to death.

Omar Alshogre is someone I talked to. He's 24 years old. He was arrested when he was 17 years old. He endured three years in two of the worst prisons in Syria.

OMAR ALSHOGRE: You can't ask me how many thousand times I want to die. But I never want to see how they kill me. I want them to kill me, like, fast.

AMOS: But they didn't. He survived. His mother paid an intermediary $20,000. It saved his life because it got him out. He's now on a mission. He's talking to Swedish war crimes units. He's talking to German prosecutors. He is helping to build these cases against Assad.

INSKEEP: Do some of those cases go forward?

AMOS: Well, last year, the French and the Germans issued arrest warrants for senior Syrian officials. There's this upcoming case in Germany. And what I am told by lawyers and the CIJA people is there's about a dozen mid-level Syrian officials who are in Europe. These are the most promising cases because there is documentation. There are witnesses in Europe. There's 13 European states who are moving on these investigations. And I'm told that they expect more trials to come.

INSKEEP: Deborah, thanks so much for your reporting, really appreciate it.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "5/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.