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News Brief: Murkowski On Impeachment, Philippines Typhoon, Kazakhstan Crash


When President Trump's impeachment trial starts, senators will serve as jurors, which means they're supposed to be impartial.


But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he is not going to be impartial. He plans total coordination with the White House. One moderate Republican is not happy about that. This is what Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told local Anchorage NBC affiliate KTUU about McConnell's position.


LISA MURKOWSKI: When I heard that, I was disturbed.

KING: Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media has covered Senator Murkowski for years. And she's on the line from Anchorage now. Good morning, Liz.

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

KING: So many Republicans have lined up behind the president. They don't seem to have a problem with what McConnell has said. Or at least they're not saying they do. Is this out of character for Lisa Murkowski?

RUSKIN: I'd have to say no, it is not out of character. And there are two things about Murkowski that I think are at play here. One is that she is - just by nature, she is a centrist. The world may be more polarized, but she on a lot of issues is on middle ground. And then the second thing is that she loves process, doing things according to the rules, tradition. That is her North Star. So she's criticizing McConnell here on process. She's not saying how she'll vote because senators have to take an oath to deliver impartial justice. And that's true. That's what the oath says. And it's also true that this is very on-brand for Murkowski. It's just very comfortable for her to take a stand on process.

KING: Because you've been covering her for so long, I wonder, can you tell us about a time in the past when she's broken with Republicans, and maybe it has surprised people, or it's been notable, as it is this time?

RUSKIN: There was that famous vote in 2017 on health care when she was one of three Republicans who killed a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Murkowski's objection then was a lot about process, that it was, you know, crafted in secret. And then, of course, the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh - in the end, she opposed his confirmation - kind of a last-minute thing. And she did it on very narrow grounds. She said his behavior at his confirmation hearing - that emotion and bitterness he showed - she said that was not in keeping with the Code of Judicial Conduct. But she called him a good man at the time. So that's kind of, you know, splitting the baby there. And then, you know, after the final vote, she changed from no to present to offset the vote of a Republican colleague who couldn't be there. He had to go to his daughter's wedding.

KING: How does her centrism play with people in Alaska? Is there a chance that making a statement like this will pose a threat to her seat, which many Republicans across the country seem to feel like it would?

RUSKIN: Well, she's not up until 2022. But it seems like a large swath of the middle in Alaska really admires her and respects her and likes her independence. You'll recall back in 2010 she lost the Republican primary to a tea party - yeah. And then she won on a write-in. And that was with the help of lots of Democrats and Alaska Native groups. So her base of support draws from Democrats and moderate Republicans. And she's proved that she doesn't need her party. And then, you know, she aggravates the left and the right alternately, depending on the particulars of each vote.

KING: All right. Well, a politician who doesn't need her party - pretty interesting in this day and age. Alaska Public Media's correspondent Liz Ruskin, thank you so much.

RUSKIN: Oh, thank you.


KING: Christmas Day in the Philippines was a mess of damaged homes, flooded roads and packed evacuation centers.

GREENE: Yeah. Typhoon with winds gusting up to 121 miles an hour made landfall in the Southeast Asian country. At least 28 people died. A dozen more are missing. This was actually the second deadly typhoon to hit the Philippines this month and the 21 in 2019.

KING: Ana Santos is a journalist in Manila. Can you talk about what it looks like in the affected areas? It sounds like this is a really bad storm.

ANA SANTOS: Yeah. I'll start by giving you an update from the government. The latest was that Typhoon Phanfone or Ursula is no longer directly affecting the Philippines. But that doesn't mean that we're out of the woods just yet. As the typhoon exits, it's still dumping rain in - over certain parts of the country. And so the authorities are still on watch for areas that will be affected by flash floods and possible landslides.

Currently, the government's main focus, as they told me today, is that they need to be able to put up electricity and restore mobile signal in the areas that have been cut off so that they can properly assess the damage in these areas and also to start bringing back a sense of normalcy to these people that were affected. The typhoon hit during Christmas time.

And I also spoke to one resident. His name is John Rinderana (ph). He said that, you know, it's not only their homes that have been battered but also their spirits.

JOHN RINDERANA: (Non-English language spoken).

SANTOS: So he's saying that he's a resident of Eastern Samar. This is the province that was hit by Typhoon Haiyan six years ago. Typhoon Haiyan at the time was the strongest typhoon ever recorded. And it's still very much in the memory of John Rinderana and his family. He's not been able to reach his family by phone. Mobile signal continues to be out. And he is very sad that - at the moment that people are just about to get on their feet six years after Haiyan had hit this area. They're now back to zero again because they're hit by this latest typhoon.

KING: OK, that is a really sad story - an area that was recovering and now has been devastated again. Do you have a sense, based on what we've learned in the past, what recovery will look like, how long it will take?

SANTOS: That's really difficult to answer. The recovery will first of all depend on the extent of damage. This particular typhoon, Phanfone, hit the country over seven times. It made landfall over seven times. And it affected different parts of the region at a different extent. I'll give you an example. I spoke to the governor of Mindoro, which was one of the most badly hit provinces.

And he said that earlier this month, they were hit by another typhoon, Typhoon Komori. And in one area where he has about 9,000 residents, almost all of them are completely homeless. Their homes have been wiped out. So he was making an appeal for shelter and any kind of shelter-building materials. So rebuilding will really be dependent on other variables, too, like if another natural disaster comes in.

KING: Well, we'll hope and pray that doesn't happen. Journalist Ana Santos in Manila, thanks so much.

SANTOS: Thank you.


KING: All right. In Kazakhstan today, a plane crashed just after takeoff.

GREENE: That's right. And at least 12 people were killed including the pilot. Dozens more were injured here. The Beck Air flight carrying 98 passengers and crew took off from Almaty International Airport. Kazakhstan's deputy prime minister is saying the cause could be pilot error or some kind of technical issue.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim is following this story from Moscow. He's on the line now. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what else do we know about what happened with this crash?

KIM: Well, the airline involved is called Bek Air, which bills itself as Kazakhstan's first low-cost carrier. Its website shows it has scheduled service to 10 cities in Kazakhstan, which is a huge country in Central Asia. It's about four times the size of Texas. This particular flight, Flight 2100, was flying from Almaty, the country's largest city, to the capital, Nur-Sultan, about 600 miles away. There were 93 passengers aboard and five crew members.

One passenger told a local website that the plane took off normally, and then about a minute or two into the flight, there was this strong shaking. Then the plane began to fall. It hit the ground and struck a two-story building. And the fuselage broke apart. The airport says there was no fire, which probably accounts for this low death toll. The airport's posted a list of 60 survivors on Facebook.

KING: Sixty survivors is some good news. I wonder, Lucian, do we know anything relevant about the type of plane that was involved here?

KIM: Yes. This is a Dutch-built Fokker 100. It's a commuter jet which is no longer manufactured. The company actually went bankrupt in 1996 because it could not compete with Boeing 737. Bek Air owns seven of these planes, which are flown by airlines around the world, though no longer in the United States.

KING: What are officials saying about the cause of the crash and about how they plan on investigating it?

KIM: Well, as you already mentioned, the prime minister said it could have been pilot error or a technical issue. The president of the country said that a government commission had already been formed to investigate. And he said those responsible would be punished to the full extent of the law, though, of course, at this point, there is no indication yet of the exact cause or whether laws were violated. Tomorrow, in any case, has been declared a day of mourning in Kazakhstan. And there's been a call put out for blood donors to step up in Almaty.

KING: A sense, very quickly, that an investigation in this part of the world will lead to a real change?

KIM: Well, the short answer is no. I mean, authorities in the former Soviet Union typically pledge to get to the bottom of things, but there's this lingering Soviet tradition of intransparency and a lack of accountability, unfortunately.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liz Ruskin
Ana Santos
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.