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News Brief: Sri Lanka, Democrats Mull Impeachment, Supreme Court


A state of emergency is in effect in Sri Lanka. This has given the country's military powers not used since the civil war there ended 10 years ago.


The declaration came from the country's president, this as police confirm that 40 suspects have now been arrested in connection to those Easter Day bombings. The death toll from those blasts has risen to 310 people.

The government in Sri Lanka is blaming a little-known Islamist militant group for the attacks. And today, Sri Lanka's defense minister told Parliament that the bombings on Easter were in retaliation for the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. He didn't offer any evidence to that effect, though.

GREENE: And let's go to Sri Lanka now to Shashank Bengali, who is reporting on this. He's the Southeast Asia correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. Thanks for being here.


GREENE: So I know you've been speaking with some of the survivors of - the victims of these attacks. Can you just tell me what has stood out to you in hearing their stories?

BENGALI: Well, David, I spent yesterday in Negombo, which was the site of the deadliest of the eight explosions that occurred on Easter Sunday - a church there in a predominantly Catholic town north of the capital, where more than 100 people were killed in a church during Mass shortly before 9 o'clock in the morning. The streets around that church were just lined with funeral ribbons and white flags.

Yesterday was the day of memorial services. Today there are mass burials taking place. We met one family where an 11-year-old boy, Chamod Shivan - he was a sixth-grader - he was attending his first Easter Mass since his mother passed away from cancer a few months ago. He was killed there along with his aunts.

His father was meant to go with them to the service. He had a fever. He stayed home that day. And his father is now coping with the loss, both of his wife and his son in just a few months. It's quite a devastated community there.

GREENE: I can't - I mean - and just listening to stories like that, we're now hearing that maybe the government could have done more to stop this because they had received some intelligence about this coming. What do we know about what they might have done to prevent this?

BENGALI: Well, that's right. So we're hearing that in the weeks leading up to the blast, beginning sort of around April 9 or so, the Sri Lankan government - or portions of the government did receive intelligence reports from what have been described as international agencies. India is now among the countries saying it had told the Sri Lankan government it had evidence - or it had heard signs of a possible plot to attack targets in Sri Lanka.

The details are still sketchy. Some reports refer to churches being targets. Others refer to the Indian High Commission. A Sri Lankan government minister has actually tweeted out what he says is a document circulated by one police official actually naming the very obscure domestic militant group that the government is now blaming in the attacks.

What the allegation is is that portions of the government - the security services, the police - did not do enough in advance to alert the Christian community, to alert hotels, that they could be targets. And that's kind of where the war of words and the finger-pointing has got us right now.

GREENE: And now we have this state of emergency, which is giving the military more power. What are the implications of that?

BENGALI: That's right. So this morning, a state of emergency went into effect that allows police broad powers to question and detain people. Already 40 people have been arrested and are being questioned. They've instituted such measures before, including last year, when there were anti-Muslim riots in which two people were killed. It's not expected to be indefinite. It has to be renewed every 30 days. But, clearly, the government is trying to seem like it's doing all it can to get behind what happened.

GREENE: Shashank Bengali of the Los Angeles Times in Sri Lanka for us. Thanks so much.

BENGALI: Thank you.


GREENE: It's clear that Democrats are really at a crossroads right now with a big question in front of them. Should they try to impeach President Donald Trump based on the information in special counsel Robert Mueller's report?

MARTIN: Yeah. And the perspectives among Democrats seem to fall in three major camps. On one end of the spectrum are the skeptics, people like Bernie Sanders, who think impeachment hearings could drown out the Democrats' policy ideas going into the 2020 election.


BERNIE SANDERS: What I worry about is that works to Trump's advantage.

MARTIN: On the other end of the spectrum, people like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.


KAMALA HARRIS: I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment.

MARTIN: And then there are the people who fall somewhere in the middle, like Amy Klobuchar.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: I believe I'm the jury here. So I'm not going to predispose things. I'm not going to say it is or it isn't.

GREENE: All of those senators and presidential hopefuls were appearing on CNN town halls last night. And let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson to help us parse all this. Hi, Mara.


GREENE: So how many Democrats support the idea of beginning impeachment proceedings right now?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, about a third of voters overall support it. But a solid majority of Democrats, according to the latest Morning Consult poll, support this. And that's the source of the tension for Democrats in Congress. About 59 percent of Democrats support opening impeachment hearings. But that is down 12 points among Democrats since January, which is really interesting.

And that could be for several reasons, one tactical. Democrats are beginning to realize that the Senate will never vote to remove the president. They're understanding that impeachment in the House does not equal removal by the Senate. Or they could be worried, as you just heard Bernie Sanders say, that this could backfire and hurt them politically.

GREENE: Well, aren't we hearing some Democrats suggest that there are things they can do to try and hold President Trump accountable for some of his behavior without actual impeachment?

LIASSON: Yes. Actually, we're hearing it from Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, who says there are many different ways to hold the president accountable, to say that what he did was not OK without immediately starting impeachment proceedings. For instance, the Judiciary Committee has issued a subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn. The Democrats are pushing to get the full, unredacted version of the Mueller report out in public.

They're also going to be hearing in public from Attorney General Barr and special counsel Mueller. And what they want to do is lay out a case in public because they know that, in the Senate, Republicans are not going to move their standing behind the president, and they hold a different standard for their own president for impeachment than they did for Democratic presidents. And you've heard the tape of Lindsey Graham played over and over again. He was the impeachment manager for Bill Clinton in the Senate...

GREENE: Right.

LIASSON: ...About how you don't have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job if this body decides your conduct is out of bounds.

GREENE: Mara, isn't one of the other tensions here that the party might want to try and be unified, but also you have these presidential candidates who are looking for things on which to distinguish themselves. And this could be perfect.

LIASSON: Yes. And that's the other interesting dynamic. You just heard a bit of tape from Kamala Harris, who had been ambivalent. Now she says, yes, start impeachment hearings. Julian Castro, the only House member who's a candidate for president, who has said impeachment hearings should start. But Elizabeth Warren has really been the leader on this. And she has used it to distinguish herself, with a very fiery and passionate explanation of why impeachment should start in that town hall that she held last night on CNN.

GREENE: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. So can the U.S. census include a question about a person's citizenship status? That question goes before the Supreme Court today.

MARTIN: Right, a question about a question. So according to the Census Bureau, this decision on whether to include this question has got to be figured out by June so the census questionnaires can actually get printed in time.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering this all the way through, and he joins us this morning. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So remind us about the legal question here because that's what the Supreme Court is actually grappling with, right?

WANG: Right. There are two main issues here. One was adding this citizenship question to the 2020 census. Was this a misuse of authority that the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau - was this a misuse of his authority over the 2020 census? And also, another main question here is was adding this question to the 2020 census, in this current political climate - was that a constitutional decision? Was that a decision that could have harmed the government's ability to count every person in the country as the Constitution requires every 10 years?

GREENE: And remind me where the Trump administration is on this.

WANG: Well, the Trump administration believes that the answer to those - both of those questions is no. But unfortunately, three federal judges at the district court level have ruled that this was a violation of administrative law. Two have ruled that this was unconstitutional.

And the Trump administration says this question was added in order to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act, in order to have better data for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. But three federal judges have said that was essentially a sham justification, and it's unclear exactly what the real reason for adding this question. And we're going to see this play out, how the Supreme Court weighs in on this.

GREENE: OK. Well, game this out for me. If the Supreme Court allows this question to be included, what is - what are the implications of that?

WANG: There are huge implications. The census - when we're talking about the census, we are talking about power, and we are talking about money, and we're talking about effects that last for the next 10 years. You only get one census every 10 years. There are no do-overs.

And, you know, our colleague, Nina Totenberg, she spoke with Letitia James, the New York State attorney general. Her office represented plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits out of New York. And her predecessor is actually one of the attorneys arguing before the Supreme Court today. And let's listen to what Letitia James said.

LETITIA JAMES: He has a constitutional and a statutory obligation to pursue an accurate count. And the record is clear that by including the citizenship question, it would result in a inaccurate count. And it will have a major impact on federal funding to New York state.

WANG: And the person with that obligation that Attorney General James is referring to there is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. And so the major concern here is could this lead to an inaccurate census? And could this lead to communities, especially households with non-citizens - including unauthorized immigrants - from being counted in the 2020 census?

GREENE: And, Hansi, the Supreme Court often takes time to make decisions, we should say. I mean, are they committed to making a decision by June, as the Census Bureau wants?

WANG: Well, that is the expectation currently. The Census Bureau really hopes that is when a decision is made by the end of its term. And if it's not, then it's going to put a lot of pressure on the preparation for the 2020 census, which are less than a year away.

GREENE: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Hansi, thanks as always.

WANG: You're welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to Julián Castro as a House member. In fact, he is not a member of Congress.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 24, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we incorrectly refer to Julián Castro as a House member. In fact, he is not a member of Congress.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.