News Brief: Barr Refuses To Testify, Venezuela, Julian Assange

May 2, 2019
Originally published on May 2, 2019 4:26 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The latest battle in Washington is over the public narrative of the Mueller report - specifically, who influenced the public's understanding of the report for the 27 days between when the special counsel, Robert Mueller, finished his work and when it was released with redactions to the public.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. After Mueller gave the finished report to the attorney general, William Barr, Barr then released this four-page memo, summarizing it and giving his own conclusions. And we know now that Mueller wrote a letter to Barr, the attorney general, to complain that he had mischaracterized the special counsel's conclusions. That letter was the focus of much of the questioning yesterday when Barr went before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

MARTIN: And now Barr was actually supposed to go before the Senate House or - I'm sorry - the House Judiciary Committee today. But the Justice Department has confirmed he's not going. He's withdrawing his participation. This is all because of a disagreement over who exactly was going to do the questioning. NPR's Tim Mak has been following all these things. And he is in the studio.

So let's begin with today - what was supposed to happen. The attorney general was supposed to go to the House, give testimony there. He's not going. How come?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Well, it's actually, ostensibly, over formatting issues. The House Judiciary Committee had wanted some portion of the committee to be - some portion of the questioning to be done by the committee's lawyers. That is staff on the committee. And this questioning would be done in a longer chunk of time instead of the five minutes from one side, five minutes from the other side...

MARTIN: So the senators wouldn't ask the questions? - the proxies, basically.

MAK: The House members wouldn't...

MARTIN: I'm sorry - the House members.

MAK: ...Be asking the questions. They would be allowing staff to ask the questions. Now, I think that the original idea was that lawmakers would start and do the traditional format. And then they would end with a longer sort of almost court-like scene, where lawyers are questioning for longer periods of time.

MARTIN: And he didn't like that idea, so he's not going. But could the House committee compel him to appear?

MAK: Well, you know, it's interesting. I mean, they have remedies. But those remedies are limited. They could try to subpoena Barr, but then we'd be looking at a fight over that subpoena. There have been some suggestions among Democrats even to go so far as to impeach the attorney general. But that doesn't really - that hasn't really gotten a lot of traction among mainstream Democrats or the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Democrats are still planning their next steps. They're planning to meet this morning as scheduled and saying they hope Barr would change his mind. That doesn't look likely either. The thing is that the chairman said yesterday that the next step would be seeking a contempt citation against the attorney general. And that would set up a whole new set of legal challenges.

MARTIN: Well - and that really brings us to what happened yesterday, right? - because there were some Democrats who came out of the Senate testimony saying that Barr should be impeached after his performance there. I mean, front and center was this letter that I mentioned at the top - this letter that Robert Mueller had written, complaining about Barr's interpretation of his findings, right? What was the back and forth on that like?

MAK: You know, a lot of this was about - what Democrats feel is that Attorney General - that the attorney general is acting as a personal attorney for the president not as an attorney general for the United States. Here's what Senator Hirono of Hawaii said. She kind of encapsulated the way a lot of Democrats feel right now.

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MAZIE HIRONO: Now the American people know that you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway or any of the other people who sacrificed their once-decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office.

MARTIN: Because - we should say, she's saying that because she believes that Barr was, essentially, covering up for the president by not drawing a conclusion of obstruction and by not releasing Mueller's findings earlier.

MAK: That's right. But Republicans, on the other hand, they'll say - they'll hold up the Mueller report itself and say, hey, look. You've got a copy of it. The attorney general has released a copy of it. And that - you know, Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, the chairman of the committee, is essentially saying, we should put it all behind us. This matter is concluded.

MARTIN: Are we going to see Mueller go before a congressional committee soon?

MAK: We certainly can anticipate - and Democrats in the House anticipate and hope that he will be testifying some time in May.

MARTIN: That's where the next questions are for sure. NPR's Tim Mak.

We appreciate it, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: In recent days, U.S. officials have been characterizing the political turmoil in Venezuela as nearing its end.

GREENE: OK. So what's happening in Venezuela? Well, the opposition leader there, Juan Guaido, has been calling for the, quote, "final phase" of the operation to oust President Nicolas Maduro, asking millions of Venezuelans to take to the streets. But the reality here is a lot more complex. Venezuelans did come out in protest yesterday in a bid to put further pressure on Maduro, but they showed up in the thousands, not really the millions. And they were met with resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOTS FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENE: That's the sound there of tear gas, also rubber bullets being fired by the National Guard on some hardcore demonstrators, who remained through the afternoon. By that time in the capital, Caracas, many people had already headed home.

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas and joins us now.

Phil, you have covered a lot of protests in your career. You've covered a lot of protests in Venezuela. What was the scene like yesterday compared to others that you've observed?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, I think it was more tense. The crowd size was smaller. And I think that violence is a big difference. When Guaido began his campaign to assume power in earnest in January, there were some clashes at that time at the outset. But he's consistently said he wants this to be a peaceful campaign, and it's mostly been that.

Yesterday, in that crowd, I saw people with their faces covered with cloths. They had homemade shields and gas masks. I saw people breaking rocks used to throw at Maduro's security forces. And those clashes you heard, they were outside an air base in Caracas, where Guaido had summoned his supporters Tuesday. The people who are in the frontline, taking on the security forces of Maduro, they're a small minority. But it means the protests have changed in character. And there's a wider - growing threat of wider violence.

Caredina Breseno (ph), a teacher, is a veteran opposition activist who was there yesterday. And she says that Maduro's security forces shot rubber bullets at her when these clashes first began on Tuesday.

CAREDINA BRESENO: So I have to run because I feel the bullets on my back. And my T-shirt, you know, has the holes in it. I have been here, you know, fighting all - since 20 years ago. OK. But this was the first day that I was very, very scared.

REEVES: You were hit by a rubber bullet yesterday...

BRESENO: Yesterday.

REEVES: ...Yet you are back again today?

BRESENO: Yes. I have to. I have to be here.

MARTIN: That's amazing. But, I mean, how many other people are going to endure that kind of risk? I mean, when you talk to people, do they have a sense that this is almost at an end or that Maduro is not going to go anywhere?

REEVES: No. I think the Guaido supporters are actually disappointed. They really thought this week was going to be the moment. It wasn't. And they're disappointed about that. Also, Maduro's people were out in the streets yesterday too. They held May Day rallies. And their message was clear. This is another episode in the U.S.'s attempt - in their view - to end the revolution started by the late Hugo Chavez and kick out Maduro, install a puppet leader. And they were making that view very clear yesterday too. Although, they are fewer in number than Guaido's supporters, it has to be said.

MARTIN: What should we be watching for in coming days, Phil? What's going to happen?

REEVES: Well, the key thing is Guaido wants a general strike. That's going to be difficult. He wants people with government jobs to start out with these strikes. But they're heavily dependent on those jobs. And they'll get kicked out if they take part.

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves in Caracas.

Thanks, Phil. We appreciate it.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. Julian Assange - his extradition hearing begins this morning. Yesterday, the WikiLeaks founder was sentenced to 50 weeks in a British prison for skipping bail back in 2012. He was wanted by Swedish authorities investigating rape and sexual assault allegations.

GREENE: Now, let's remember. Assange lived inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London from 2012 until being dragged out by British authorities last month with the cooperation of Ecuador. His attorney claims that Assange sought refuge inside the embassy because he feared he would be, quote, "kidnapped" by the United States.

MARTIN: NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt is with us this morning.

Hi, Frank.

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

MARTIN: Have we heard - the public - has the public heard from Assange at all since he was taken into custody?

LANGFITT: Yes. Actually, yesterday, he did speak. And he also submitted a letter. And he kind of did two things. He offered an explanation as for why he did what he did. He hid - he said he hid in the embassy because he feared the U.S. would, basically, render him and might even torture him if they got him. And he also complained that he was under very bad conditions in the embassy, confined to small rooms, no courtyard access or to a garden. There was a letter from a doctor saying he'd become introverted and sad.

And Assange said he was sorry for jumping bail. He said he was struggling through terrifying circumstances. And he thought, at the time, this was the best thing to do. The judge, of course, dismissed that argument, said this actually had cost U.K. taxpayers about $20 million and that no one's above the law.

MARTIN: Frank, you're dealing with a lot of traffic where you are.

LANGFITT: I am.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: I'm actually out - I'm also - it's funny, Rachel. I'm stopping off to talk - to set up this thing about Assange because there's a lot going on in the U.K. right now. We have local elections, which are going to be kind of a referendum on Brexit. So I'm outside of London at the moment, following the Assange case.

MARTIN: So the extradition process to the U.S. is going to start today. Can you just remind us of what he's accused of by the American government?

LANGFITT: Sure. He's accused of trying to help Chelsea Manning - she's a U.S. Army intelligence officer - basically break part of a password to get into a classified network using somebody else's identity. WikiLeaks, of course, as we would remember, published a lot of classified government documents, including some about American soldiers killing civilians in Iraq that were very embarrassing. And Assange has kind of cast himself as a journalist trying to hold the U.S. accountable. Yesterday, outside the courthouse, Kristinn Hrafnsson - he's editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks - this is what he had to say.

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KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: What is at stake there could be a question of life and death for Mr. Assange. It is also a question of life and death for a major journalistic principle.

LANGFITT: Now, of course, Rachel, the U.S. government rejects all this. Their prosecutors are going after this conspiracy to, basically, computer hack to frame this simply as a cyber theft case. They don't want to give Assange ammo to, basically, make his point, which is - his argument is he's being punished for publicizing a leak and for just trying to protect the source.

(SOUNDBITE OF OURI'S "MAZE")

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt bringing us the news and the context on Julian Assange's extradition hearing, which begins today.

Frank, we appreciate it.

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