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News Brief: Impeachment Probe, Rep. Jordan, Torture Accusation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

He has changed his story once before. And today, he is back to testify as a star witness in the public impeachment inquiry.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. That's right. Last month, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified behind closed doors. And he said there was not a quid pro quo involved with getting military aid to Ukraine. Few days went by, and then he submitted an addendum to his testimony. He said that delivery of the aid was actually contingent on these investigations that President Trump wanted.

Yesterday, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman testified publicly. He's the White House's top expert on Ukraine. And here's what he said about Sondland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Ambassador Sondland said that in order to get a White House meeting, the Ukrainians would have to provide a deliverable, which is investigations - specific investigations.

KING: So should Republicans be worried about what Sondland says today?

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here in the studio. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So there are a lot of expectations around Gordon Sondland's testimony today. Noel alluded to some of it. I mean, he changed his story. Explain why he has become such a critical witness.

DAVIS: Sondland is a bit of a wild card. I don't believe either Democrats or Republicans are truly confident in what he's going to testify to today. As you noted, he is the only witness so far to change his testimony. He initially told Congress when he testified behind closed doors that no conditions had ever been placed on the aid. Following other public testimonies, he said his memory had been jogged and that he did, in fact, on September 1, tell a top aide to Ukrainian President Zelenskiy that getting that aid was contingent on investigations.

Of course, the aid was ultimately released without the investigations being launched two days after Congress was notified about that whistleblower complaint.

MARTIN: Right. So since Sondland's original testimony, since his addendum, we have learned about yet another conversation that he had with President Trump. This happened on a phone call when Sondland was in this restaurant in Kyiv, right?

DAVIS: A critical detail that was revealed in other testimony - the testimony of Bill Taylor, who's the top diplomatic official in Ukraine. He said a top aide of his, David Holmes, who later came and testified to Congress - that on July 26, the day after the July 25 phone call, he was at a restaurant with Gordon Sondland, and the president called, or Sondland called the president. And Holmes could hear the president on the phone. Sondland held the phone out 'cause the president was talking so loud, and he could hear the president asking directly about investigations.

After he got off the call, Holmes testified that Sondland told him, in colorful language, that the president did not care about Ukraine and that he only cared about what he called the big stuff, which he said was things like the Biden investigation.

MARTIN: And we heard Sondland's name broached a few different times in yesterday's testimony from a few different people. I want to ask in particular about the witnesses that the Republicans called, though, yesterday. They wanted to talk with former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, a former top national security official. Did these two witnesses help Republicans make their case?

DAVIS: They certainly gave Republicans talking points in their lines of defense. Both men sort of had a very different take on the circumstances around the July 25 phone call and the military aid. Volker presented himself as sort of a guy out of the loop. He wasn't inside the room for a lot of these decisions. And he just wasn't aware of a lot of the machinations at play. Morrison, who was one of the officials on the July 25 phone call, said...

MARTIN: We should just say - sorry - that July 25 - this is the phone call between Trump...

DAVIS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And President Zelenskiy.

DAVIS: The original phone call. He didn't hear anything that raised a red flag. However, Volker did also sort of undermine one of the Republican talking points against Joe Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KURT VOLKER: I've known vice president - former Vice President Biden for a long time. I know how he respects his duties of higher office. And it's just not credible to me that a vice president of the United States is going to do anything other than act as how he sees best for the national interest.

DAVIS: And that certainly didn't help the Republican argument that this was corruption that was worthy of investigation on its merits alone.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we'll be watching what happens today in that testimony. NPR's Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So if you are tuning into the impeachment hearings, and a lot of you are, maybe you've noticed...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JIM JORDAN: Now, with all due respect, Ambassador, your clear understanding was obviously wrong.

This whole thing is a sad, sad episode for the country.

Your boss had concerns about your judgment. Your former boss, Dr. Hill, had concerns about your judgment. Your colleagues had concerns about your judgement.

This is scary what these guys are putting our country through. It is sad. It is scary. It is wrong.

MARTIN: ...Strong words, a combative tone seem to flare up whenever a powerful Ohio Republican has the microphone.

KING: That Republican is Congressman Jim Jordan. Now, interestingly, he's not a permanent member of the House Intelligence Committee. But he was reassigned there for the impeachment inquiry because he's one of President Trump's fiercest defenders. And Jordan knows how to go on the attack.

MARTIN: Reporter Nick Evans is at member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. He's been doing a little digging into Congressman Jordan. And he joins us now. Hi, Nick.

NICK EVANS, BYLINE: Hey. How are you guys?

MARTIN: Doing well. So first, just explain how it came to be that Jim Jordan is now suddenly on the House Intelligence Committee.

EVANS: Well, it's like you said. He was a late addition. He came in about maybe two weeks ago and forced a guy from - forced a guy from Arkansas named Rick Crawford to take a seat for a while. So Jim Jordan...

MARTIN: And they can do that. That's OK with the rules of the committee. You can just, like, replace people.

EVANS: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. So Jim Jordan is on the committee right now to basically be the - sort of the attack dog for the Republicans on the committee, to sort of push this - to sort of - I'm sorry.

MARTIN: That's OK. He's there to go on the attack.

EVANS: Basically, yeah.

MARTIN: President Trump knows that he's one of his closest allies, right?

EVANS: Yeah. And he is seen as one of the fiercest defenders. And what's more, he has been one of the most willing to go on the offensive in terms of the substance of the impeachment inquiry.

MARTIN: Right.

EVANS: He's not been the one arguing about process. He's been saying, you know, there's no there there from the early going.

MARTIN: What else should we know about him?

EVANS: Well, he's been in the House since 2007. He helped establish the Freedom Caucus. And this was a - just a thorn in the GOP leadership side when Republicans had control of the House. He sort of sees himself in the caucus, I think, as speaking truth to power, trying to force Republicans to do what they say they are going to do. Now, that has not exactly endeared him to leadership with John Boehner, another Ohio Republican, or Paul Ryan.

And so he has been just this aggressive force ever since he's gotten there. And the thing that everybody brings up about him is his time as a wrestler. In high school, he was a four-time state champ. In college, he was a two-time national champ. He was a really, really talented guy. And I think that that is seen as something that really informs how he interacts with people.

MARTIN: Although we should just note briefly that he has - there's been a controversy surrounding Jim Jordan about his tenure in collegiate wrestling, allegations that he turned a blind eye to some sexual misbehavior allegations against others, right?

EVANS: Right, right. So after he graduated, he became an assistant coach. He was assistant coach...

MARTIN: Right.

EVANS: ...At Ohio State. And according to some people who were there, they believe that he knew...

MARTIN: OK.

EVANS: ...About a doctor who had been molesting students there.

MARTIN: All right. Reporter Nick Evans with our member station in Columbus, thank you.

EVANS: Any time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: A Hong Kong citizen who worked for the British consulate says Chinese secret police tortured him earlier this year, accusing him of being a spy for the U.K.

KING: This man's name is Simon Cheng. And he told the BBC that he was detained, blindfolded and beaten while he was visiting mainland China. Now, the British government says it's outraged, and it has summoned China's ambassador to the U.K. to answer questions about what went on.

MARTIN: All right. For more, we've got NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt with us. Frank, remind us of the background to this case.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, this guy, Simon Cheng, he's a Hong Kong citizen. And he was visiting the mainland, actually, and was detained by police there. And he was accused of soliciting prostitution, disappeared into the murky detention system that we're familiar with and was eventually released.

Now he's just gone public in an interview with the BBC and writing extensively on Facebook saying they tortured him - the Chinese police did - and tried to get him to implicate the U.K. in helping to incite violent protests in Hong Kong. And, of course, this is the Chinese Communist Party narrative, that shadowy foreign forces are driving the protests not because of democracy, but actually just to weaken China.

MARTIN: And what specifically is Cheng accusing the Chinese...

LANGFITT: It's really detailed - what he has to say - particularly on Facebook. He said that he was blindfolded, hooded and shackled, taken to a remote site. He was forced to squat and stand for hours without any sleep. If he moved or he didn't do this, he would either be beaten with batons or forced, as punishment, to sing China's national anthem.

He said that they wanted him to confess to trying to incite protests. He does admit that he did support the protests, that he attended rallies. But he says, absolutely not, he's not a spy.

MARTIN: So if what he's saying is true, how does that affect what we're seeing right now, the standoff between the government...

LANGFITT: You know, I think what's really interesting to me about this, Rachel, is this kind of treatment, if true, is exactly the greatest fear of the Hong Kong protesters. It's what triggered the protests initially. Remember; there was this extradition treaty where people from Hong Kong could be taken to the mainland based on other charges. And the fear is that this would erode the freedoms that Hong Kong enjoys under the One Country, Two Systems system that went into place in 1997.

And so the idea, you know, that this guy could be caught in the mainland and punished for something he did in Hong Kong almost makes the protesters' points for them.

MARTIN: And this guy worked for the British government.

LANGFITT: He did.

MARTIN: And what kind of effect is this going to have on London's relationship with Beijing?

LANGFITT: Well, relationships are already - was already pretty bad. What the British have said is they're outraged by this. And they want the U.K. - the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. to come and speak to the foreign ministry. China is saying, forget it; you guys need to come apologize to us because you're trying to undermine China. So that gives you, also, a sense of how much power the British have in this relationship with a much, much larger economy.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from London. Thanks, Frank. We appreciate it.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAID'S "THE PALE MOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.