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News Brief: Impeachment Trial, Coronavirus, Brexit Day


As soon as today, the Senate could write the ending of the impeachment trial.


Right. That became clear last night when the president's supporters lined up enough votes to block witnesses. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said he does not want testimony. He said the president did what he is accused of but also that it doesn't rise to the level of impeachable conduct, so witnesses don't really matter. A vote to block witnesses could be followed by a fast vote to acquit the president.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is part of our team on this story. Claudia, good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Lamar Alexander was one of several swing votes, Republican swing votes. What have the others been saying?

GRISALES: Well, we're also hearing from another swing vote who has made their decision. That's Senator Susan Collins of Maine. She says she will support witnesses. But that leaves at least two other swing votes that we're waiting to see how they'll move next. That includes Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. And she's keeping us in suspense. Let's take a listen.


LISA MURKOWSKI: So I'm going to go back to my office, going to put some eyedrops in so that I can keep reading. And I've been forming a lot of thoughts. And so that's going to be my job now at - what is it, 11? - almost 11 o'clock.

GRISALES: So that is Murkowski leaving the Senate chamber last night. She says she's planning to announce her decision later this morning ahead of this critical vote. And we're also watching another Republican. That's Mitt Romney of Utah. And we have to keep in mind, these GOP members are facing enormous pressure from within their own party to fall in line. And so if we see Romney, Murkowski and Collins vote for witnesses, that could result in a 50/50 tie, which not only does it fail, but it's an awkward ending to this long debate.


GRISALES: So we could see one of these Republicans bend to the will of the GOP to save face on this final witness vote.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear - if it is a 50/50 tie, if Justice Roberts does not intervene at that point, does that mean the motion fails and there are no witnesses?

GRISALES: Exactly. And we're not expecting Roberts to intervene at this time.

INSKEEP: OK. How have Democrats been arguing for witnesses?

GRISALES: They've been saying that a trial with no witnesses is not a trial. House impeachment manager Adam Schiff said it would set this dangerous precedent. Let's take a listen.


ADAM SCHIFF: I agree with counsel about one thing they said. If we have a trial with no witnesses, that will be a new precedent. We should be very concerned about the precedent we set here because it will mean heretofore that when a president is impeached that one party can deny the other witnesses. And that will be the new normal. There will be trials without witnesses.

GRISALES: Schiff went as far as to propose that they could limit the time that witnesses went before the Senate to about a week, trying to address a key talking point that Republicans have argued that if they pull witnesses in, it could drag this trial on for even weeks more.

INSKEEP: What has the president's legal team been saying as all this has unfolded?

GRISALES: So they're also using the word precedent. But they're saying that this case hasn't met past precedent for calling witnesses. And they said the window for calling these witnesses has past. Lawyers reiterated that this was the House's job during the impeachment inquiry. Here's Trump attorney Pat Philbin. Let's take a listen.


PATRICK PHILBIN: And this all goes back to the most important consideration, I think, that this chamber has before it, in some ways - especially on this threshold issue of whether there should be witnesses or not has to do with the precedent that's established here for what kind of impeachment proceeding this body will accept from now going forward.

GRISALES: They also reiterated that if the chamber did move to call witnesses, it would be met by this protracted legal fight by the president's attorneys.

INSKEEP: Could this trial actually end as soon as today?

GRISALES: So it's possible. First, they've had several hours of debate on this witness question. There'll be four hours on each side if the motion is approved, which we're not expecting. This could really extend the proceedings. But if it fails, which is what we are expecting, then we'll be watching another set of swing votes like Democrats, including Doug Jones of Alabama, to see if they'll vote to remove or acquit the president.

INSKEEP: OK. Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Claudia Grisales. And to get even more coverage of the impeachment trial, try the NPR Politics Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.


INSKEEP: All right. The number of cases of the new Wuhan coronavirus has now reached nearly 10,000.

KING: And that is in just two months. Now by way of comparison, back in 2003, it took eight months for the SARS epidemic to hit 8,000 cases. We're at 10,000 now. The World Health Organization has declared this outbreak an international health emergency. Meanwhile, the State Department has issued a do-not-travel warning for China and says U.S. citizens should leave that country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us now from Hong Kong. Hi there, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the importance of that new warning about a health emergency?

BEAUBIEN: So the health emergency from the World Health Organization basically is saying that this is really a big deal, that there is great concern at that level in Geneva that this needs to be addressed. And then when you come in with the United States ramping up to a level 4 do not travel to China, you know, that is also really significant. It puts China up there with Iraq, Syria and Somalia as places that United States citizens should avoid. So the impact of this is probably going to be quite significant to have both of these coming at the same time.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to understand if authorities are all that late. We've heard more and more reports now about how this virus may have been spreading for a while before Chinese authorities took truly serious measures to contain it. There has been this rise in cases but still not that many compared to some other problems. What are the prospects for getting it under control?

BEAUBIEN: You know, I've talked to researchers here and they say this thing's just getting started, that there's going to be a lot more to come. You know, China has 10,000 cases. China clearly thinks it's also got a huge problem on its hand. They're building two hospitals in Wuhan right now to try to treat patients...


BEAUBIEN: ...So those they're expecting to have online fairly soon. But still, they are building new hospitals to try to deal with it. They've got 15,000 suspected cases, 100,000 people under some form of being monitored to have had some form of exposure. Experts very much feel like this thing's going to get much worse before it gets better.

INSKEEP: What's it like there in Hong Kong, where there's only been about a dozen cases, but China - mainland China - is right there?

BEAUBIEN: You know, people here are really - they're scared. You see it. There are huge lines for people trying to get masks. There's - basically, all the stores have run out of masks. Whenever the word gets out that some store has masks, a line forms all the way up the block, around the corner, and they sell out in no time. Hong Kong was devastated by SARS 17 years ago. Three hundred people here died during that outbreak.

One doctor said to me that SARS is this scar on the city, and it's still really quite raw. People who were here or alive at that time, you know, they remember it vividly. It devastated the economy. This outbreak, you know, it was during the Chinese New Year that things really started to heat up. But things are still quite slow. Schools are closed for next two weeks. Yeah. This place is kind of on hold.

INSKEEP: OK. Hang in there, Jason. Thanks for your reporting.

BEAUBIEN: No problem.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien in Hong Kong.


INSKEEP: Brexit day is finally here.

KING: That's right. Britain will leave the EU tonight at 11 p.m. London time. There will then be an 11-month transition period. So for the time being, the U.K. will continue to follow all of the EU's rules, and the trading relationship will stay the same. But during those 11 months, they will be negotiating a new relationship. Here's Ursula von der Leyen. She's president of the European Commission.


URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Honorable members, no new partnership will bring back the benefits of being part of the same union. But we have the duty to seek the best for the British and for the European people in a post-Brexit world.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering this story in London. Hi there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So I am reminded of that old movie, that Robert Redford movie, "The Candidate"...

LANGFITT: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...In which the man wins an election and finally turns to his adviser and says, what do we do now? So what do they do now?

LANGFITT: Well, I think you're right. And there is a sense of that because, you know, you and I have been talking about this now for 3 1/2 years...


LANGFITT: ...It has been the toughest period politically in this country in decades. And actually, it's going to get even tougher. And that's what - I think when, you know, Boris Johnson talked about, we'll get Brexit done, the prime minister, he is getting it done. But now they go into these negotiations. And these are crucial because it's - what is the future trading relationship between the United Kingdom? - which is, of course much, much smaller than the European Union. And how's this going to work out?

And I think this is where we're going to see how much economic pain, to be very candid about it, the United Kingdom will suffer. And I think the United Kingdom will find out, really, how much leverage it really has.

INSKEEP: Well, leverage is what Boris Johnson has talked about from the beginning, insisted that Britain is so important to Europe that it can almost dictate terms to Europe. And now he has to do that knowing that Britain has already crossed the Rubicon. They're on their way out.

LANGFITT: He does. And it's very interesting because you have a division in this country. You have people who, frankly, are some degree nostalgic for a World War II Britain, even an imperial Britain who think that the United Kingdom can go off on its own, sail away from this enormous single market on the continent of 450 million people and actually do better economically.

And then you have many, many on the continent who think, this just isn't going to work out as well as you hope. The European Union is so much larger than the U.K. And we've certainly seen in the negotiations over the past 3 1/2 years the EU has had the upper hand. So what I think may happen is the U.K. may end up trying to basically pull away from alignment - close alignment with the EU and may suffer trade barriers and tariffs because of that.

INSKEEP: Could the U.K. keep pushing this deadline back? Because we are now in this transition period. We've already seen many delays. Could that just happen again?

LANGFITT: You know, it's a good question. Boris Johnson has said he will not do that. Of course, he has gone back on his word in the past when he's had to. I think there would be a lot of opposition even inside his own party. On the other hand, he did very well in the election, so he's much stronger than any prime minister in many years here. So it's possible that he could try that, but I know that it's going to be very uncomfortable. It's more likely that maybe they get a bare-bones deal or they end up - this is the worst-case scenario - they crash out in 11 months without a deal at all.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.