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News Brief: Impeachment Hearings, View From Ukraine, France General Strike


So did President Trump's dealings with Ukraine rise to the level of an impeachable offense?


For three constitutional scholars who were called by Democrats to testify yesterday, the answer was clear.


MICHAEL GERHARDT: If what we're talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable.

PAMELA KARLAN: If you conclude that he asked for the investigation of Vice President Biden and his son for political reasons - that is, to aid his reelection - then, yes, you have bribery here.

NOAH FELDMAN: Impeachment is complete when the president abuses his office. And he abuses his office by attempting to abuse his office.

MARTIN: A fourth witness, a legal expert called by Republicans, said the Democrats just hadn't met the burden of proof for impeachment.


JONATHAN TURLEY: This is much like the Johnson impeachment. It's manufactured until you build a record. I'm not saying you can't build a record, but you can't do it like this. And you can't impeach a president like this.

GREENE: All right. Let's bring in NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro, who was listening to it all yesterday. Hey, Domenico.


GREENE: So did we learn anything new here?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, I think that aside from the fact that this was, you know, a nice conversation about, you know, legal framework around impeachment, we did get a window into what the Democrats might be thinking about articles of impeachment - three specifically that Democrats really mentioned - one, abuse of power and bribery, which was lumped together; two, obstruction of Congress; and three, obstruction of justice, which was interesting because it included the obstruction allegations laid out in the Mueller Russia investigation, which we haven't heard about in a while.

Norm Eisen, who's a former ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, was the one asking questions for the Democrats, and he was clearly testing those out. He was trying to fill in how and why, as Democrats believe, Trump committed those things. Here's Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, who raised the stakes, and like many others yesterday, invoked a couple of the Founding Fathers.


FELDMAN: You know, we may meet there Madison and Hamilton. And they will ask us - when the president of the United States acted to corrupt the structure of the republic, what did you do?

MONTANARO: And he was talking about, he said, whether we go to the good place or the other place (laughter).


MONTANARO: University of North Carolina professor Michael Gerhardt called what Trump did a horrifyingly obvious abuse of power. Jonathan Turley, who you guys mentioned in the intro, didn't see it that way. And that was plenty for Republicans. Here was Turley.


TURLEY: You need to stick the landing on the quid pro quo. You need to get the evidence to support it. It might be out there. I don't know. But it's not in this record.

GREENE: And Turley, of course, the witness who was called by the Republicans. I mean, beyond having him testify, Domenico, does it look like Republicans are really digging in? I mean, are they getting more emboldened in their defense of President Trump?

MONTANARO: Absolutely. They felt like they had a good day yesterday. And you can see that as the hearing went on. I mean, they were much more comfortable, much more confident that some GOP members became. Some were even defending Trump's phone call - which they hadn't done during the Intelligence hearings very much - and the motivations of that call with the Ukrainian president, Zelenskiy.

Not even Turley would say that that call was perfect. But GOP members yesterday were saying basically there's nothing to see here, and they were trying to muddy up the other professors called by Democrats.

GREENE: So what happens now?

MONTANARO: Well, later this morning, we're expecting to hear from the Democratic and Republican House leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy. We're waiting to see what Judiciary winds up doing with those articles of impeachment. And you know, this all sets up the potential for a House floor vote on impeachment by Christmas with a Senate trial in January.

GREENE: All right. NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thanks so much, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

GREENE: OK. So as for one key figure in all of this, the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, where is he exactly?

MARTIN: Well, he has reportedly surfaced in, of all places, Ukraine. Giuliani's trip comes as Ukraine's president tries to disentangle himself from the U.S. impeachment drama. This is President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talking last month about Burisma. That's the Ukrainian gas company where Joe Biden's son sat on the board.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: I think everybody in Ukraine is so tired about Burisma. We have our - our country. We have our independence. We have our problems and questions.

MARTIN: For Zelenskiy, those problems include his own falling approval ratings.

GREENE: All right. And let's bring in NPR's Lucian Kim, who is in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So with the impeachment saga continuing in the United States, House Judiciary Committee taking over could lead to articles of impeachment against President Trump. How are people in Ukraine reacting to all of this?

KIM: Well, I think there's a one-word answer to that question - exasperation. President Zelenskiy won a landslide last spring. That was based on Ukrainians' frustration with the five-year conflict with Russia, with corruption and with a lack of economic opportunity. And the one thing that Zelenskiy didn't expect was that Ukraine's friendship with the United States would be called into question. He really expected the U.S. to have Ukraine's back.

Just yesterday at a press conference, he reiterated that he wants to focus on Ukraine's problems and priorities and stay out of the impeachment scandal. I asked a political commentator here in Kyiv named Ivan Yakovina how we should understand Zelenskiy's position.

IVAN YAKOVINA: Zelenskiy has to keep up smiley face, although he understands perfectly well that Trump hates Ukraine and loves Russia. But still, he's - as a responsible leader of his own country, he has to be nice with the United States 'cause it's the biggest and the strongest country in the world. And he doesn't want to have any additional problems with America. So he doesn't want to irritate Trump, so he's trying to be nice. It's obvious.

KIM: In other words, Zelenskiy is in a much weaker position compared to the American president. So certainly, he isn't going to do anything to rock the boat additionally.

GREENE: Is it going so far as affecting his ability to govern or for his government to do its job?

KIM: (Laughter) Well, in that same press conference yesterday, Zelenskiy was asked that question. And he said, no, it doesn't affect our government; it affects the U.S. government a lot more. Zelenskiy right now is under enormous pressure to deliver on peace with Russia and on bread-and-butter economic issues. As you mentioned, polls show his approval ratings are already falling down from about 70% in the fall to just above 50% now. Next week, Zelenskiy has his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And going into it, Zelenskiy, earlier, was expecting a lot more backing from the U.S.

I spoke to Ukraine's minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, which includes NATO. His name is Dmytro Kuleba. This is what he said about American support.

DMYTRO KULEBA: We particularly appreciate the support that Ukraine enjoys both among Democrats and Republicans. This is the most fundamental task for us, to make sure that the issue of Ukraine is something that unites parties, not divides them.

KIM: So there's a real worry here in Kyiv will now lose that bipartisan support in Congress.

GREENE: Well, I got to ask you, Lucian - I mean, if Zelenskiy is trying to get away from this impeachment scandal and focus on stuff at home, it doesn't help, probably, that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, shows up in the country. The New York Times is reporting this. But what do you know about what Giuliani is doing there?

KIM: (Laughter) Well, we know very little. In fact, no reporters here have been able to find him. One reporter said he checked all the cigar bars here in Kyiv last night...

GREENE: (Laughter).

KIM: ...And didn't find him. So what The New York Times was reporting is that he was trying to get meetings with two former prosecutors here in Kyiv - two former prosecutors who have largely been discredited here because of allegations they were involved in corruption. So again, from the point of view of the Ukrainian government, this visit is highly unwelcome because it again brings an American political scandal to Ukraine, where there's a new government very much trying to turn a new page.

GREENE: NPR's Lucian Kim in Kyiv. Thanks so much, Lucian.

KIM: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. In France, people are bracing for a total shutdown today.

MARTIN: Right. Transport workers, teachers, hospital staff even are among the people walking off their jobs in protest. This general strike was called after French President Emmanuel Macron clashed with unions over plans to change the pension system.

The broader context of all this are the so-called yellow vest uprisings which have happened over the past year, that started over protests about a gas tax then became this whole movement about economic struggle.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is covering this story and joins us from the streets of Paris. Hi, Eleanor.


GREENE: It's so interesting. We've been talking about President Macron at NATO, his dealings with President Trump at those meetings in London. It sounds like in France, this is the big story - I mean, this massive shutdown. What does Paris feel like today?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. Well - you know what? - I'm out at a major intersection next to a subway train station that's closed today. And it feels like a Sunday morning, not a Thursday morning, David. It's a shocker. I think that people were so worried, so bracing for chaos and paralysis that they stayed home. You know, 80% of the trains and Metros are not running today. And I was watching TV and they said usually on a normal day, there's a hundred miles of traffic jams on the beltway around Paris. Today there were 15 miles of traffic jams. So it's completely like a weekend day.

But actually, I think that's an ominous sign that people are hunkered down for the duration. This thing could last.

GREENE: Oh, wow. What set this off in the first place? Remind us.

BEARDSLEY: Well, what set it off is Macron's anticipated pension reform - because he hasn't even done it yet. He's just at the consultation stage with unions. But just sort of like, you know, a shot across the bow warning shot. You know, don't take away our - what we have - you know? - take us back.

But you know what? I think, more deeply, this is about deep anger against Macron in society. He has no political opposition, basically, David, in the Parliament. But in society, there's deep anger. There are people who think he's ultra-capitalist and he wants to create this society where everybody competes and struggles. There are others who saw all that police violence against the yellow vests and they see an authoritarian violent side. So I think it's much more a reflection of that.

GREENE: Well, I just think about the empty streets you're describing. If people are hunkering down for this to be lengthy, I mean, how is life going to be affected?

BEARDSLEY: Well, life's completely affected today. You see it. But we've been seeing all week, like, bicycle sale shops sold out of their bikes. And they never sell out of their bikes in December, you know? So everyone's turned to bikes today and scooters. People have taken the day off. They're telecommuting.

I went to the Metro last night just as the strike was beginning, and I met an easyJet pilot, Stan Millier (ph). He says he's on standby today and he's not going to move from his house. Here's what he told me.

STAN MILLIER: Oh, it's going to be a big mess (laughter). It's going to be a big mess because they are scheduled to cancel 80% of the traffic of the subway. Five or six lines are going to be just out of order. But we're used to that in France, so just casual December for us. He's making changes, and we don't really want changing in France. So - we don't really like that.

BEARDSLEY: So the unions want this strike to go on and on for weeks to shut Macron and his reform down.

GREENE: Wow. All right. Lots to follow in France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Thanks so much, Eleanor.

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

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.