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News Brief: Ukraine Investigation, Iraq Protests, James Franco Sued


Six pages of text messages reveal diplomats' conversations as President Trump sought the investigation of a political rival.


Right. So these are text messages from the summer involving State Department officials in Europe. And they're discussing how to manage the demands of President Trump. It's a period earlier this year the president was withholding military aid from Ukraine and also asking Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. As we'll hear, one diplomat warned the president's moves were good for Russia. He also said it was, quote, "crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

INSKEEP: House committee chairmen released the text messages after hearing a long day of testimony from a former U.S. diplomat - and other witnesses to come. And NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been following all this. She's in our studios. Good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you see when you read those text messages?

DAVIS: One word of caution is that these text messages are a partial disclosure of conversations involving three State Department officials, an aide to Ukraine President Zelenskiy and, in some cases, the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Democrats are saying they plan to release the full text conversations after scrubbing them for personally identifiable information...

INSKEEP: So we don't have everything now, but we have a bunch.

DAVIS: We don't have everything. But that said, much of it appears to corroborate the things that we already know - the July 25 phone call involving President Trump and Ukraine President Zelenskiy and concerns about withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine if investigations did not take place involving the 2016 elections and the Biden family and a company in Ukraine involving the - the vice president's son.

There is one exchange in particular that's going to get a lot of attention. You referenced it already. On September 9, Bill Taylor, who was a diplomatic official at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, sends a text message to George Sondland (ph), who's the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And he says, quote, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance to help with a political campaign."

Sondland replies, I believe you are incorrect about the president intent - President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind. They then suggest they stop texting and talk over the phone. Democrats say that this information, among other information here, validates their impeachment investigation.

INSKEEP: And clearly, a disagreement there, but there is no doubt that the president was withholding military aid, was also asking for the investigation. And one, at least, closely-involved diplomat saw a connection between the two. Now, at the same time they're getting these text messages, they were also getting - what? - something like 9 1/2 hours of...


INSKEEP: ...Testimony yesterday. What did they learn from Kurt Volker, the diplomat who was being questioned?

DAVIS: He was a central figure in these text messages, so a lot of the information in here was discussed. There was also a lot of talk about the fact that the president's actions were seen as being beneficial to Russia. Another text from Bill Taylor in which he says, quote, "the nightmare is they give the interview and they don't get security assistance," in terms of the Ukrainians. And he says, the Russians love it and I quit. So clearly also foreign policy concerns raised here. We did hear from a couple of lawmakers who took part in that testimony. Here's what one Democrat had to say. This is Eric Swalwell from California.


ERIC SWALWELL: We have ample evidence now that there was a requirement that President Zelenskiy investigate the 2016 election and the Bidens if he wanted to get a meeting.

DAVIS: I think we should also note, though, that Republicans are coming out of these conversations and have very different takeaways. They say they've heard nothing that changes their view that the president did nothing wrong. Here's Jim Jordan, a top Republican from Ohio.


JIM JORDAN: Not one thing he has said comports with any of the Democrats' impeachment narrative - not one thing.

INSKEEP: Although...

DAVIS: So you...

INSKEEP: Yeah. I get the...

DAVIS: I'm...

INSKEEP: This is - go, go, go, Susan.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, you can hear there that this did not bring Republicans and Democrats any closer together into agreeing under the terms of the impeachment investigation. The Democrats on the committee did say that they have further people that they'd like to talk to based on these conversations. And I think it's only gotten more complicated, not less

INSKEEP: Intelligence community inspector general today?

DAVIS: He's - he was - he will be on Capitol Hill today talking about his role in releasing the whistleblower complaint.

INSKEEP: Susan, we'll continue listening to your coverage, really appreciate it.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis.


INSKEEP: OK. In Iraq, thousands of people have been protesting. They've been in the streets denouncing the prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

GREENE: Right. And this is in defiance of a government-imposed curfew. And police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the crowds.


GREENE: At least 20 people have died in these clashes this week. Hundreds of people have been injured. And the government has now cut off Internet access.

JORDAN: Al Jazeera English correspondent Imran Khan is in Baghdad reporting on this story. Welcome to the program.

IMRAN KHAN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: And I just want to note, this story will be new, I think, to people in the United States. We've certainly been absorbed with our own politics. So can you just tell us from the beginning, how did people come to protest? What are they protesting about?

KHAN: Well, there was no real spark for this. And this is the most interesting thing. On Tuesday, what happened was there was a very, very small protest from a few very young people who went to Tahrir Square, which is the central square in Baghdad. And it was very quickly broken up. But then there was a call on social media made by these young people. There was only a few of them. And people heeded the call. And by about 3 o'clock local time, there were thousands of people in Tahrir Square. It surprised the government. It surprised the military. It surprised everybody.

Now, the military then on Tuesday tried to crack down as hard as they could, try and disperse the protesters. They used live fire. They used water cannons and tear gas. That angered the people even more. And they decided that they wanted to come out in larger number. On Wednesday, the Iraqi army threw around a ring of armor around Tahrir Square. And a curfew then took place around 5 a.m. local time in the early hours of Thursday morning. But people have been defiant. People are out on the street.

I'm speaking to you right now from a military checkpoint. We did have permission to be out in the streets to get to our office. However, we've been detained here whilst I'm speaking to you right now. And it just goes to show you how suspicious the army is of any movement on the streets. And I have to say, this is like locking down Washington, D.C. It's like the American government shutting down Washington, D.C.

INSKEEP: I want to be sure of your condition, Mr. Khan. When you say you've been detained, do you mean you're just being held up? Or they're actually - like, you're in custody?

KHAN: No. No. No. No. We're just being held up...


KHAN: ...It's a - sorry - the British English.

INSKEEP: No. That's quite all right. I just wanted to make sure that - just make sure that you were all right. It sounds like it's difficult to say who started this exactly. But is it clear what they are demanding from the government?

KHAN: Well, there's now two things that they're demanding from the government. Initially, the protests were about very simple things. They wanted jobs. They wanted more opportunities. And they wanted an end to corruption. That was the thing that was driving the protest movement.

And now what's happened is because of the heavy-handed tactics used by the Iraqi security forces and the numbers of people dead, what people are demanding now is an end to this curfew, an end to the live fire on protesters and an end to the quashing of the anger and the protest movement.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note it is Friday, a day of Friday prayers, a day off for many people and often, in that part of the world, a day of protest.

KHAN: That's absolutely right. And people are very concerned that they might not be able to go and pray. Now, it's one thing to stop people protesting, but it's quite another to stop them from actually going to perform prayers.

INSKEEP: Mr. Khan, thank you so much. That's Imran Khan of Al Jazeera English. He is in Baghdad.


INSKEEP: In Los Angeles, another powerful name in the entertainment industry is accused of sexual exploitation and fraud.

GREENE: Yeah. A lawsuit filed here in LA yesterday is alleging that actor James Franco, along with two other men, ran an acting school that sexually exploited female students. Franco is an Oscar-nominated actor who stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." The plaintiffs were former students at Studio 4, which has since closed. NPR spoke with both of them in exclusive interviews.

INSKEEP: They spoke with NPR's Elizabeth Blair, who's on the line. Elizabeth, who are the plaintiffs?

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. The plaintiffs are two former students at Studio 4, Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal. They - there are a number of allegations in the suit. Would you like to hear about them?


BLAIR: They alleged that James Franco and the other defendants sexualized their power by dangling employment opportunities in front of female students in exchange for explicit nudity and sex. Another allegation has to do with money. Studio 4 charged tuition, $300. The complaint alleges that the school promised students they would get to audition for Franco's film projects.

And in doing so, the complaint alleges, the school circumvented California's pay for play regulations, which prohibits charging actors for auditions. And the lawsuit goes on. The students who were willing to disrobe and perform sex scenes were rewarded with opportunities to work on Franco's film projects.

INSKEEP: OK. You can see how someone would be taken advantage of in that situation. What did the plaintiffs, the women who filed the lawsuit, say to you, Elizabeth?

BLAIR: So James Franco taught a sex scenes master class. And students had to audition to take the class and pay an extra fee if they were accepted. One of the plaintiffs, Sarah Tither-Kaplan, says she jumped at the chance to audition and was thrilled to be accepted because she really wanted to be in a class with James Franco.

She alleges the class was not about learning guidelines or best practices when performing in a sex scene but about getting naked and doing sex scenes. She alleges this was an abuse of power because most of the female students were just starting out in their careers. And this is what she said.

SARAH TITHER-KAPLAN: They knew who they were asking to do the improvised sex and nude scenes. They knew who was in their classes. And I think that's by design because it sort of protects them from any kind of real repercussions because they can just write us off as, you know, nobodies.

BLAIR: And Tither-Kaplan claims that female students who agreed to do nude sex scenes and took risks with their bodies were rewarded with opportunities to work with Franco.

INSKEEP: What does James Franco had to say about all this?

BLAIR: His lawyer, Michael Plonsker, issued a statement that reads, this is not the first time that these claims have been made and that they've already been debunked. As of last night, Plonsker writes they had not had an opportunity to review the complaint. The statement goes on to say that Franco will, quote, "not only fully defend himself but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity-seeking lawsuit."

INSKEEP: OK. Elizabeth, thanks for your work, really appreciate it.

BLAIR: OK. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "RELIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
Imran Khan