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News Brief: Russia Director Out At NSC, Twitter Bans Political Ads, PG&E

Oct 31, 2019
Originally published on October 31, 2019 11:15 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A key witness in the impeachment inquiry is set to leave his job at the White House.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

His name is Tim Morrison. He is President Trump's top Russia expert at the National Security Council. And the timing of his departure is notable because he's set to testify today in the House impeachment investigation. So what is Morrison expected to say? And how might his resignation affect impeachment proceedings?

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez broke this story about Morrison's imminent departure. He is in the studio with us. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So you have confirmed this - that Morrison is expected to leave his White House job imminently. Is it just a coincidence that this is happening right before he's supposed to testify in the impeachment inquiry?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think - right. I mean, we learned from three sources familiar with the plans that he was not planning to return to his post after testifying. The administration is keeping it very quiet, or at least they were at first. But after we published, they did confirm that he was leaving to pursue other opportunities.

A senior administration official told me that he had been considering this for, quote, "some time." But we should really note that the White House has pressured current and former aides not to testify. His attorney has said all along that he planned to appear before House investigators if subpoenaed.

MARTIN: So he's expected to show up, because some witnesses haven't.

ORDOÑEZ: Right.

MARTIN: But he's expected to show on the Hill for his testimony. And lawmakers are very curious about what he - about what he might say, right?

ORDOÑEZ: He has a lot to say - potentially a lot to say. As the senior director of the region, Morrison would be the person at the NSC with the closest relationship to Ukraine. One former NSC official put it to me this way. If there is a quid pro quo to hold up U.S. aid...

MARTIN: I know. It just does not roll off the tongue.

(LAUGHTER)

ORDOÑEZ: ...He's the one who would know about it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: Democrats want to speak to him about this. It was Morrison who alerted NSC lawyers about alleged demands being placed on the Ukrainian government to investigate a company with connections to former Vice President Joe Biden's son. That's according to earlier testimony.

Also according to the earlier testimony, Morrison also said that Gordon Sondland, who was Trump's ambassador to the European Union - who is - conveyed that Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to go to a microphone and say he is opening up an investigation before the United States would release millions in security aid.

MARTIN: Wow. OK, so a lot could come from this testimony. A lot could also come from a person named John Bolton, the former national security adviser who is increasingly becoming a person of interest in all this. Congress has - the House has invited him to come testify, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. It's a voluntary request right now, which is not expected to hold a lot of weight. According to a source familiar with his legal strategy, Bolton is expected to testify only if a subpoena compelling his testimony is upheld by the courts. Remember that Bolton is represented by the same lawyer as former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman. Kupperman did not show up for his deposition. Instead, he filed a lawsuit arguing that he can't testify until a judge tells him whether he needs to adhere to a congressional subpoena or the White House directive not to testify.

MARTIN: So it's really a test of the power of the subpoena that we're witnessing here, too. Before I let you go, I want to ask about this other big development, because today, the House is going to vote on impeachment. Now, they're not doing a yea or nay, should Donald Trump be impeached? They're voting on the process to formalize it. How is this going to change anything?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, it really lays out the ground rules for the public hearings, procedures and how the president could respond. It's supposed to be along party lines. The vast majority of Democrats support this. Republicans say it doesn't go far enough.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you, as always. We appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Twitter is taking a different road, diverging from its rival, Facebook, in a big way when it comes to political advertising.

INSKEEP: The Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says online advertising carries, quote, "significant risks to politics," so he is banning political ads on Twitter from anywhere in the world starting next month. This is a sharp contrast with Facebook, which is under attack for allowing politicians to buy misleading or false ads. Here's Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month defending Facebook's policy at Georgetown University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: We don't fact-check political ads. And we don't do this to help politicians but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And for the same reason, if content is newsworthy, we also won't take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with some of our standards.

MARTIN: NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us now from San Francisco. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So why is Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter - why is he making this move?

BOND: Well, I think it really shows how different Jack Dorsey's worldview is from Mark Zuckerberg's. So Dorsey says he's doing this because he thinks Internet ads for political campaigns and issues are just too much for our democratic institutions to handle.

He says when Twitter lets politicians pay for these ads - and remember; these are the ads that show up in your feed as promoted tweets. So when those happen, you know, Twitter's forcing those messages on people who didn't seek them out. And that's really different than when people choose to follow a politician or maybe see a tweet or retweet from somebody else they follow.

Twitter has struggled for a while with how people are using and misusing the platform, from hate speech to bullying to disinformation. And they've tried to take some steps before to fix things, but this is the most dramatic move that Dorsey's made to, you know, attempt to clean up the platform. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, as we heard, has been defending Facebook's hands-off approach to political speech by saying this is all about protecting free expression.

MARTIN: So we should just be clear. President Trump has a massive Twitter following. And he is obviously running for reelection. This isn't going to affect his personal feed or any other candidate's personal feed, right? They can still promote themselves that way.

BOND: That's right. I mean, Trump's 66 million Twitter followers will still be able to read his tweets. The difference is he can't pay to promote tweets about the election or about political issues. But, you know, that didn't stop the Trump campaign from hitting back on this. His campaign manager called it a very dumb decision and said Twitter is walking away from a lot of money.

But they've gotten applause from Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Mark Warner, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee.

MARTIN: So is this going to put any pressure on Facebook? Does Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg feel secure where they are, or is this going to pressure them to make a change or reevaluate?

BOND: I think there is - there has been pressure. And there's going to be more pressure on Facebook because before now, they've been able to say, look; we're taking the same position as Twitter and Google.

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ZUCKERBERG: I don't think it's right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we're not an outlier here. You know, the other major Internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads.

MARTIN: Not anymore, though.

BOND: Right. Now Twitter's broken from the pack. You know, Zuckerberg says he's also considered banning political ads, but he doesn't want to do it. It goes against his idea that they should be promoting free speech. Zuckerberg says that argument's flawed and that political messaging should be earned, not bought, not amplified.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's technology correspondent Shannon Bond for us this morning on this announcement about Twitter restricting - or banning, rather, political advertising. Shannon, thanks.

BOND: Thank you.

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MARTIN: A whole lot of Californians are in the dark, and they are growing increasingly frustrated about it.

INSKEEP: In the dark is not a metaphor here. Pacific Gas and Electric has imposed forced blackouts, which are meant to prevent more wildfires from sparking like last year's deadly Camp Fire. That wildfire killed 85 people, and it was traced back to a PG&E power line. But for some, going without power for days could also be a matter of life and death. Jess Schlesinger (ph) lives just north of San Francisco and has a disability called multiple chemical sensitivity.

JESS SCHLESINGER: I cannot breathe without air purifiers if there is smoke in the air. For someone like myself, I just - I cannot survive without power during fire season because I will get so sick from the air.

INSKEEP: Schlesinger says a friend was able to take her to Oakland, where the power was on.

MARTIN: So there are a lot of risks to people who are medically vulnerable right now with these power outages. Could they have been avoided? We're going to talk with Dan Brekke - he's a reporter with NPR member station KQED - about this. He joins us from San Francisco.

Dan, thanks for being here. I want to get a sense of the scale of this. How widespread are the outages? Can you tell us what effect you're seeing?

DAN BREKKE, BYLINE: Well, the service area for PG&E covers most of California. It's vast. And at various times, somewhere between 2 1/2 million and 3 million people have been without power in that service area. So the effects are everything from people losing all their refrigerated food, restaurants losing, you know, all of their supplies to problems like we heard from Jess Schlesinger just now - medical devices that they depend on not working. We've heard of dialysis centers closing down.

And then out in the world, traffic signals don't work in a lot of places. The cellular network in some parts of California up in the North Bay just north of San Francisco - for instance, more than half of the cellular sites were out at one point. So this has sort of intruded into every aspect of people's lives.

MARTIN: Wow. California's Governor Gavin Newsom has been pretty quick to blame PG&E for the outages. I mean, this is - it was a move intentional by PG&E. Let's play a little bit of what he told NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GAVIN NEWSOM: We've had a decade-plus of mismanagement of our largest investor-owned utility, PG&E - greed and complete dismissal of public safety that cannot continue. And we have a specific strategy to help them help themselves get out of this, but it's not going to happen overnight.

MARTIN: It sounds like Newsom is saying there that these blackouts - the intentional blackouts didn't have to be the course of action.

BREKKE: Well, you know, at one point, maybe that was the case. But the situation we're in now, after several years where we've had devastating wildfires caused by electrical equipment, both regulators and the big power companies themselves don't see any other way. And if we sort of look to Southern California, where we have two big electric-caused wildfires, I think we see the reason why.

MARTIN: So this is going to be just the way life is in California. Do Californians just get used to the idea that in fire season, which is increasingly many, many months in a calendar year, that power's going to go off?

BREKKE: Well, for the time being. But there's going to be a big discussion about this. There's an investigation by regulators about how the power shut-off has been conducted. And we will - we'll see where we go from here.

MARTIN: All right, Dan Brekke with our member station KQED in San Francisco. Dan, thank you for your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

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