News Brief: Northern Syria Incursion, Impeachment Inquiry, Opioid Trial
NOEL KING, HOST:
The agreement to pause fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces for five days expires tomorrow.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kurdish fighters say they have pulled out of a key Syrian border city. This is part of a U.S.-brokered deal with Turkish forces. But over the weekend, both Turkey and the Kurds accused each other of breaking the cease-fire. Meanwhile, as the U.S. continues to withdraw its troops from the region, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the U.S. is going to deploy those troops to neighboring Iraq, where thousands of Kurdish civilians have fled for safety.
KING: Yeah. NPR's Jane Arraf is in a refugee camp in Iraq where the civilians are fleeing to. Jane, can you tell us where this camp is exactly and what you're seeing and hearing?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Absolutely. It's the Bardarash refugee camp. And it's about a hundred miles from the Syrian border. And I'm standing at a registration center, where refugees who have come in the last few days are lined up, trying to get their documents. There's a wire fence just beyond this gravel road. And people are leaning over the fence to try to buy fruit and other things because this is a new camp. It's all come up quite suddenly.
And one might have thought that that cease-fire - that temporary cease-fire would have stopped people from coming. But that's actually not the case. So Syrian Kurdish forces - Kurdish Syrian forces have pulled out from a key town as part of that agreement, that town near the Turkish border. But in spite of that, refugees are still coming across. It's entirely unclear whether the cease-fire agreement will result in what the Turks want, which is all of the Kurdish Syrian forces pulling out from a zone near Turkey. And that...
KING: So you...
ARRAF: That cease-fire agreement expires tomorrow.
KING: So you've been asking some of these people, these folks who are now refugees, why are you coming here, despite the fact that we have a temporary cessation of hostilities? What are they telling you?
ARRAF: Absolutely - all kinds of stories. There was one woman who had come from the town of Ras al-Ayn. That is a strategic town. And that's the one where Syrian Kurdish forces actually said that they had pulled out of yesterday, fulfilling a key part of that agreement with Turkish forces. That entire zone, it's 20 miles wide. And the Turks want to put refugees who are now in Turkey back into it - Syrian refugees. So people are fleeing that zone. There have been more than 200,000 of them.
We met another woman who had come with her son who was deaf and had been wounded by a mine. There was another woman who had children who had no clothes. They'd walked for hours to get to the border. And they're paying smugglers to get across. We talked to a UNHCR refugee official here - that's the U.N. refugee agency. And he says it's really tough making contingency plans for this.
AYMAN GHARAIBEH: What you see right now in this camp is really our best-case scenario - just 5,000, maybe a few other thousands. But the worst-case scenario would be much bigger numbers than this. So yet again, we're confronted with a situation that brings us back to square one - a new camp and a new flight from Syria.
KING: I imagine they're making plans for...
ARRAF: So that's Ayman Gharaibeh from the U.N. refugee center. Sorry.
KING: It sounds like they're making plans for more people to arrive. As Rachel mentioned, there's now some news about the U.S. forces that are pulling out of northeastern Syria. Where are they going?
ARRAF: They are actually coming to western Iraq. And some of those troops just crossed over earlier this morning. A thousand of them going to a base that the U.S. has held. They hope to continue to fight ISIS. But still a lot of uncertainty with that cease-fire agreement expiring tomorrow and no one quite sure what will happen.
KING: NPR's Jane Arraf from - reporting from a refugee camp in Iraq. Jane, thanks so much.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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KING: All right. This week, more key witnesses will appear before the House in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
MARTIN: Yeah. And in the past four weeks, we have heard summaries of testimony from key diplomats and intelligence officials, all trying to paint a clear picture on the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine. This week, lawmakers will want to ask a string of new witnesses exactly why U.S. military aid to Ukraine was held up.
KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is with us in Studio. Hey, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
KING: OK. So more testimony before Congress this week. Who is testifying?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the key person this week is William Taylor. He's the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He's a longtime foreign service officer who has worked in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Ukraine. Taylor is someone Democrats are eager to hear from. He was actually reluctant to take the job in the beginning, having raised concerns about Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and his efforts to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
KING: He was the guy who was exchanging texts with Gordon Sondland and sounded super concerned about what exactly was going on in Ukraine? Yeah.
KING: So he's testifying this week - a couple of lower-level people that will not be household names also testifying. How could their testimonies add to the overall picture that we've got so far?
ORDOÑEZ: I mean, this is just going to be adding and adding to what we've heard. As you pointed out, Taylor is the key figure for several reason, particularly those texts that you mentioned. It was Taylor on September 9 who texted to U.S. Ambassador to European Union Gordon Sondland, writing, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.
We learned last week that Sondland's response of a, quote, "no quid pro quo" came after he spoke directly with the president. Some felt those messages from Taylor were so explicit - saying, you know, he was following up on a phone conversation - that it almost seemed as if it were trying - as if he were trying to create a paper trail. So that could be a question.
KING: Oh, that is super interesting. Yeah. OK. So acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has been talking a lot the past couple of days. In particular, he was on all the big - or on some of the big political talk shows yesterday, which I know a lot of people outside of D.C. don't watch. So what did he say?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, Mick Mulvaney has had a hard time struggling to explain his earlier comments about there being political influence in foreign policy, which saw - some saw as an actual admission of a quid pro quo. This is what he said this weekend on Fox News as Chris - with Chris Wallace.
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CHRIS WALLACE: You've described a quid pro quo. And you said that happens all the time.
MICK MULVANEY: Well, again, reporters will use their language all the time. So my language never said quid pro quo.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, those earlier comments raise a lot of concerns inside the White House and also more accusations from Democrats that President Trump is focused more on his personal ambitions rather than the interests of the United States. And that could also shape more questions this week, including about Giuliani's role and whether it was appropriate for Trump's personal attorney to handle such critical foreign policy.
KING: You know, this inquiry has now been going on for a month. It'll be a month this week. It sometimes seems a lot longer. Is President Trump's support shifting? Is he losing support?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, certainly, it's wobbling, I guess you could argue. Senator Lindsey Graham talked on Axios just this weekend - or, actually, it was an earlier - it was an earlier interview that played this weekend talking about his concerns and that he was open more to a potential impeachment. Graham is one of President Trump's most important allies on Capitol Hill. And those kind of comments are going to be concerning to the Trump team.
KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks so much, Franco.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
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KING: All right. In Cleveland today, there will be a landmark federal trial against opioid companies starting up.
MARTIN: Right. So two counties in Ohio are suing six companies that earn billions of dollars making, distributing and selling opioid pain medications - obviously very, very addictive. This is seen as a test case. The jury's decision will establish liability for the entire drug industry for the role that it played in fueling the opioid addiction epidemic.
KING: So very high stakes this week. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann covers opioid litigation for NPR. He is covering the trial in Cleveland. That's where we're reaching him now. Good morning, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.
KING: So these companies did try to settle. They did not want a trial. Why didn't they get what they wanted?
MANN: Yeah. They scrambled right up to the last minute, with top executives flying here to Cleveland to meet with the judge overseeing this case. A source involved with the talks told NPR the companies were offering a billion dollars a year over the next 18 years, also offering to donate prescription drugs that would help people suffering from addiction. That sounds like a lot. But, you know, given the scope of this epidemic, with so many dead or suffering now from opioid addiction, communities and some state attorneys general want these companies to pay more.
KING: So the companies will have to argue in their own defense. What arguments will they make?
MANN: Well, their first big argument is that they're selling a highly regulated product that you just can't buy without a prescription - at least legally. The federal government knew all along what they were doing. And so companies are going to try to make the case to this jury that it was a regulatory failure, a government failure, not a corporate failure.
KING: OK. And then the two counties in Ohio that are suing - what are they saying?
MANN: Yeah. This part's fascinating and could have really big ramifications. These opioid lawsuits claim drug companies created a public nuisance by selling these medications. But, you know, public nuisance law's never been used quite this way before. So this is experimental. And some conservative legal thinkers, especially those working for the drug industry, hope the jury won't go for it. They say the job of solving big public problems, like the opioid epidemic, should belong to state legislatures or Congress and not the courts.
Here's Luther Strange. He's the former Republican senator from Alabama, now a private attorney working for members of the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma. He spoke this summer about these public nuisance lawsuits to a gathering of the Federalist Society.
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LUTHER STRANGE: I've actually written on this recently because it is a blooming problem. It gums up the system. It prevents the ease of settlement of large cases. Now, in - just in the opioid world, you have 2,000 towns and cities and municipalities.
MANN: But if this legal approach taken by all these communities does work, you know, the drug industry's exposure here could be huge, really on the scale of the big tobacco settlements of the 1990s. On the other hand, if it doesn't work, payouts could be modest or nothing.
MULVANEY: So a lot on the line not just for these two counties in Ohio but all these communities in the country that have been hit really hard by this.
MANN: Yeah. That's right. And these communities say they need money to help pay for recovering from the epidemic. They also say they want justice for this. Here's Katherine Clark. She's a congresswoman in Massachusetts.
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KATHERINE CLARK: We have to make an example of this corporate greed that delivered such devastation to communities throughout this country.
MANN: So there's a lot of anger out there. And this trial will test whether that anger translates into legal arguments that hold up in court.
KING: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio covers opioid litigation. He's covering a trial that begins in Cleveland this morning. And he joined us via Skype. Brian, again, thanks so much.
MANN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "A SECRET SOCIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.