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News brief: 5th Jan. 6 hearing, Afghanistan quake, G7 and NATO preview

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Each day of hearings on January 6 explores a different way that a former president tried to undermine this republic.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On Tuesday, Republican state officials testified that Donald Trump asked them to violate their oaths of office. Today, the hearings focus on the Department of Justice. Trump's own appointees to run the department have said he wanted them to promote election lies.

INSKEEP: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is covering the hearings. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why do the former president's own appointees say that he went too far at DOJ?

JOHNSON: Well, the Justice Department is not supposed to do the personal political bidding of the president, but that's exactly what we're likely to hear today from the committee, that the former president misused this department to try to cling to power, doing things like trying to get Justice to appoint a special counsel to probe nonexistent fraud. We know former Attorney General Bill Barr told Trump all these claims about election fraud were nonsense. Barr resigned in December 2020. But right after that, former President Trump started putting the squeeze on other top officials at Justice. There were something like nine calls or meetings demanding DOJ officials investigate fraud claims over the course of just a few weeks. Here's how the acting deputy attorney general, Rich Donoghue, put it in a deposition.

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RICH DONOGHUE: And I said something to the effect of, sir, we've done dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews. The major allegations are not supported by the evidence developed.

JOHNSON: Donoghue says he told the former president he was dead wrong when he made claims about fraud in Georgia, for example.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We've already seen the video of that deposition. Now he testifies in person before the committee today. Is he the only person who is saying this?

JOHNSON: No. We expect to see former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Steve Engel, who led the Office of Legal Counsel at Justice. It's unusual for lawyers at this level to testify in public about interactions with the White House, but the current president, Joe Biden, decided that executive privilege should not apply to shield these conversations about an effort to overthrow the 2020 election. One person we're not going to be hearing from today is former DOJ official Jeffrey Clark. He's described as being sympathetic to Trump's baseless claims of fraud and also drafting a letter to officials in Georgia to try to help Trump's cause. Clark did appear for a deposition, but he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination there.

INSKEEP: Now, why would Clark need to invoke the Fifth Amendment?

JOHNSON: Well, an investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee found Clark was going around his boss at the Justice Department, taking private meetings with the White House and at least one Republican member of Congress, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. Trump had seriously considered whether to fire Jeff Rosen and install Jeff Clark as the acting attorney general. Steve, this all came to a head only three days before January 6...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...In a bizarre meeting at the White House some people have likened to Trump's old reality TV show "The Apprentice." Virtually the entire DOJ leadership team threatened to resign if Trump gave Jeff Clark the job. Here's again what Rich Donoghue told the committee.

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DONOGHUE: The president said, suppose I do this. Suppose I replace Jeff Rosen with him, Jeff Clark. What do you do? And I said, sir, I would resign immediately. There is no way I'm serving one minute under this guy, Jeff Clark.

JOHNSON: The prospect of Justice Department officials resigning in protest, of course, has a historical precedent, Steve. It happened 49 years ago during Watergate. We call it the Saturday Night Massacre. That was avoided here narrowly by some of the men we're going to hear from testify today.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll be listening. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

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INSKEEP: Today we have descriptions of the remote regions struck by an earthquake in Afghanistan.

FADEL: Afghan officials believe this week's earthquake killed at least a thousand people. The damage is in rural areas that would be hard to reach even under normal conditions.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is just across the border in Islamabad, Pakistan. Hi there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing?

HADID: Well, we're really hearing how devastating this earthquake has been. We're now seeing videos that are showing whole villages that have collapsed under the rubble. There's men digging neat lines of mass graves. Injured people have been helicoptered to hospitals. And we spoke to one Taliban official who visited the area yesterday. His name is Khaled Zadran. He's the Kabul police spokesperson. And he told NPR's producer in Kabul, Fazelminallah Qazizai, that survivors were shellshocked. But have a listen to how he describes that.

KHALED ZADRAN: (Through interpreter) I saw lots of children, and they were just sitting in front of their demolished, collapsed houses. But they were sitting there quietly, silently. They were not crying. But when we asked them, they would reply that 15 of my family member were killed, 12 of my family were killed.

INSKEEP: That is one of the most powerful images that I've heard yet, seen in my mind's eye yet, of what it's like to be there. So who's able to help?

HADID: Well, right now aid groups have rushed in, but there's so much destruction and so many big challenges in their way to get a sense of what they're facing. I spoke to Mohammad Ismail Hamid. He's the deputy country director for the Danish Refugee Council in Afghanistan. And he said they've deployed teams to assess the two hardest-hit areas. One of them is called the Barmal district. And have a listen to what he says.

MOHAMMAD ISMAIL HAMID: So it's a really disastrous situation. Nearly all - almost all houses have been destroyed as a result of this earthquake in Barmal district.

HADID: Nearly all the homes have been destroyed in that one district. So he says in coordination with other groups, they're distributing tents, clean water, food, blankets, cash - all this to survivors. But, Steve, survivors here is the key word. There's so many people still buried under the rubble, and it might take days to get them out because this area is so remote. It's rugged mountains that straddle the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's mostly dirt roads to get there, and they've turned to mud because if this earthquake wasn't bad enough, there's been heavy rains that have been pounding the area. And they need to ship in heavy technical equipment and the people who are experts in using it, these search and rescue teams. So he tells me the international community really has to step up to help Afghans rebuild, and that could take years.

INSKEEP: Of course, the primary responsibility for that region goes to the government, which is to say the Taliban, which took over the country just under one year ago on its own terms. In a military takeover, they seized power. How have they been, how effective have they been at responding?

HADID: Absolutely. So the Taliban has rushed in. Their disaster management authority's leading the effort. Other senior ministries are lending a hand. High-level ministers have gone to the area to assuage residents that they won't be forgotten. They're uploading images and videos of what they're doing on social media. And one Afghanistan expert I spoke to says this is all the Taliban signaling to Afghans that they care and that they can govern competently. As you said, they seized power in a military sweep. They've stripped away women's rights. And so no country in the world has recognized them. And so what they're trying to tell Afghans is the international community has abandoned you, but we haven't.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thanks so much.

HADID: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Two overlapping summits in the coming days bring together the U.S. and some of its closest allies.

FADEL: One summit is the G-7, the Group of Seven leading industrial democracies. A NATO summit includes several of the same nations. They want to increase pressure on Russia. But President Biden also wants to steer the conversation back to China. At a summit a year ago, Biden said he wanted to compete against China's investments around the world.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The point is that what's happening is that China has this Belt and Road initiative, and we think that there's a much more equitable way to provide for the needs of countries around the world.

INSKEEP: One year later, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith will be traveling with the president and joins us now. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was Biden's plan one year ago to counter Chinese investments and influence?

KEITH: They called it Build Back Better World, which was a play on Biden's domestic plan for overhauling the U.S. economy. And the idea was to give low- and middle-income countries an alternative to signing up with China to fund big infrastructure projects. And that funding from China as part of its Belt and Road initiative often comes with huge coercive debt. Now, there hasn't been much news about this G-7 initiative since it was announced, though work has been happening behind the scenes. And of course, you know, here at home, the Build Back Better plan didn't make it through Congress. It kind of foundered. But this - an international program, the G-7 program, is getting a formal launch at the G-7 with some new branding going on. In addition to announcing a new name, Biden and other leaders are set to unveil the first projects, and these are meant to demonstrate how the program will work.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that this project could actually have some traction?

KEITH: China has put up a lot of money around the world, and so these leading democracies are behind - they're at the starting gate in many respects. And experts I've spoken to told me that there is a lot of skepticism out there from low- and middle-income countries. Here's Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, which is a consultancy.

IAN BREMMER: Whenever they talk to American officials, they say, well, if you don't want us investing in China, give us an alternative, right? If you don't want us tying up with Beijing and all this money they're offering, well, where else are we supposed to go? You don't have anything else. So this is meant to be that. And there's only one problem (laughter), which is that we don't actually have the money to fund it.

KEITH: Now, the idea of this partnership is that it won't rely too heavy on government funding because they will seed it, use it to seed money from private equity and hedge funds and pension funds, insurance funds, global public-private partnership. But this is all happening at a precarious time in the global economy, and it's not clear that Congress or other Western governments will be able to put all that money in.

INSKEEP: Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.