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News Brief: DOJ Investigates Russia Probe, Impeachment Latest, Iraq Protests


Protests are sweeping Baghdad, Iraq, again today.


Yeah, they are. These are follow-ups to protests early this month in which security forces shot dead almost 150 people. And now demonstrators are back. This time around, the country's prime minister has pledged that his forces will keep people safe.

INSKEEP: How's that working out? Well, NPR's Jane Arraf is at the scene of a scheduled protest and joins us from Baghdad. Jane, will you simply describe what you're seeing and hearing there?


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Yeah. We're actually just on the edge of the protest. But still, people are surging backwards and forwards. We're in Tahrir Square. Those bangs that you're hearing, they're sound bombs, as security forces try to keep protesters rushing towards the Green Zone and the bridge that leads to the Green Zone. They were firing tear gas a little bit earlier. It looks like they might be firing tear gas again because people are rushing forward.

And after they fired the tear gas, security forces came around. And one of them handed me a plastic rose. They're under orders not to shoot to kill protesters because so many have been killed. But that hasn't - those deaths haven't deterred the people from coming out. There are thousands of here - thousands of them here. And the protest hasn't even officially started yet.

INSKEEP: OK. So, Jane, you said Tahrir Square. Of course, that's a landmark area in the center of Baghdad. The Green Zone, that's an area where the U.S. embassy is. People will be alarmed, I'm sure, hearing those blasts behind you, what sounds like gunfire. But I believe you're saying that you think that is tear gas or other kinds of devices, not live ammunition so far as you know. Is that correct?

ARRAF: It's not live ammunition as far as we know. They have sound bombs being fired. Those are the big bangs. You might be hearing some of those in the distance. But they are also firing tear gas. And some people are being wounded by tear gas canisters. An ambulance just pulled away with someone who was wounded in the leg.

INSKEEP: An ambulance...

ARRAF: Just a little while ago, I spoke to someone who had his chest bandaged and - an ambulance pulling away with one of the protesters, who was wounded in the leg but with a tear gas canister. They're not firing live fire. We spoke to the Interior Ministry spokesman as well. And he said that they are under orders to protect protesters.

INSKEEP: Jane, would you remind us what it is that is taking people out into the streets of Baghdad again and again and again, even in this dangerous situation?


ARRAF: Absolutely. It's been more than a decade since Saddam Hussein was toppled. And people were promised that they could have normal lives, that they could have jobs, that they could have freedom, that they could have dignity. It's all those things that we saw Arab young people particularly come out in the streets for during the Arab Spring. That didn't happen here (ph) because they were made all these promises. And now people are fed up.

These young men have traveled from large parts of the country. And they're telling us that they traveled here because they have no jobs. They have no hope. And they are tired of politicians. And they're tired of foreign interference in this country, including Iran. People have a lot of grievances. And they're willing to take the risk to come up here.

INSKEEP: Will you give us one more image of what you're seeing?

ARRAF: I'm looking around and there are protesters who are surging back and forth across the bridge. We're very close to the bridge. And that leads to the Green Zone. And on top of that, there's a very large building - one of the tallest in Baghdad - clambered up the top of a building. You can see them climbing up kind of like Spider-Man. And they're waving huge - there's also a big, burned out screen.

These previous protests in which security forces fired at people, shot them in the chest and the head - some of the protesters have set fire to some of the buildings around here. So far, this one is calm. But again, it hasn't officially started yet. So far, it's relatively calm, as calm as it can be if someone's firing tear gas and sound bombs.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Jane Arraf. Jane, thanks very much and please be safe.


INSKEEP: The Department of Justice has taken a potentially meaningful step. It's a move in its investigation of the 2016 election.

GREENE: Yeah. We should be clear on just what this investigation is. You'll recall that during the campaign, the U.S. discovered Russia's interference in the election. The FBI examined Russian links to President Trump's campaign. All that eventually became a special counsel investigation that is now over.

But President Trump has long wanted to investigate the investigators. An administrative review is asking how his campaign became a subject of interest. And now, NPR has confirmed that that review has been upgraded to a criminal probe.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is following all this. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's it mean that the review is now a criminal probe?

LUCAS: So first off, a person familiar with the matter confirmed that this, indeed, is now a criminal investigation. There are no details on when that change was made or what prompted it. What this means, though, is that they are investigating a potential crime, not just a violation of department rules or regulations.

That said, in this instance, it's unclear what potential crime they are investigating. But with this being a criminal investigation, the veteran prosecutor who's leading it, a man by the name of John Durham, can impanel a grand jury. He can issue grand jury subpoenas to compel testimony and to force people to turn over documents.

INSKEEP: What is the fundamental question that John Durham and his investigators are asking so far as you know?

LUCAS: Well, you kind of have to go back to something that Attorney General William Barr said back in April. He said that he had concerns about the Russia investigation. He said he believes spying did occur on the Trump campaign back in 2016. He acknowledged that he didn't have any specific evidence but said that he had concerns.

And so in May, he appointed Durham to look into the origins of the Russia probe, whether the intelligence community violated any of its rules in surveillance of the Trump campaign. Durham is the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. He's widely respected. Attorney generals in both Republican and Democratic administrations have tapped him in the past to handle sensitive investigations.

Democrats and former Justice Department folks, though, had been concerned about Barr's decision to look into this and whether he was actually doing the president's bidding. That said, Durham was seen as an independent guy who would just focus on the facts.

INSKEEP: OK. So Durham has the reputation, perhaps, to push forward here. But it is still the Department of Justice investigating itself in a way that the president wants it to be doing. Are there any concerns really about that?

LUCAS: There are. There are. People have concerned about this. It's, you know, more that these issues were already being looked into by the Justice Department inspector general, who is an independent figure. He's expected to release a report soon on surveillance of the Trump campaign. The Senate Intelligence Committee has looked at the assessment that U.S. spy agencies made of Russian interference.

All of this, particularly the timing now of this, has fueled concerns that this is just William Barr, the attorney general, basically acting at the behest of the president. Democrats have certainly expressed those concerns.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.


INSKEEP: A senator who supports President Trump is suggesting the president should surround himself with a better team.

GREENE: Right. Republican Lindsey Graham spoke as the impeachment inquiry has intensified. The veteran lawmaker recalled a president that he once voted to impeach.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I was involved in impeachment of President Clinton. I know this sounds weird, but Clinton - (laughter), look what he did. What he did is he had a team that was organized, had legal minds that could understand what was being said versus the legal proceedings in question. And they were on message every day.

GREENE: OK. So now Lindsey Graham becomes the latest of many Trump supporters urging him to get better advice.

INSKEEP: Almost three years into the Trump presidency, many officials have come and gone through the White House while trying to have an influence. One of them was the fired national security adviser, John Bolton. NPR's Mara Liasson has been reporting on him. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What makes him such an interesting figure?

LIASSON: What makes him an interesting figure is, of course, he was fired by tweet. That's not unusual in this White House. He had a lot of enemies inside the White House. They described him anonymously when he was fired as abrasive and self-promoting, a warmonger, disloyal. He did have a clash with policy with the president. He wanted a tougher line on Iran and Venezuela and North Korea. And the president just simply disagreed with that.

But now after the testimony to the impeachment inquiry committee, we're hearing more about his role in the battle over the Ukraine aid. And what emerges is a much more complicated picture. Bolton, along with other top administration officials, wanted to get the congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine. It was U.S. policy to help Ukraine. And he was really alarmed about this shadow foreign policy that was being conducted to somehow make that aid contingent or connected to a public pledge by the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note this is based on testimony from people who worked under John Bolton among...


INSKEEP: ...Among others. Does John Bolton, this guy who was described as the extremist, the warmonger once upon a time, emerge actually as a voice of reason, a voice of caution for the president, then?

LIASSON: Well, I don't know about a voice of caution. But I think he comes out as a voice of process. He wanted to follow the law. He didn't want a shadow foreign policy. He was so irritated when he heard about it, he told some former NSC officials and some current ones to go talk to the lawyers, to have nothing to do with domestic policy, he - domestic politics.

He also called Rudy Giuliani, who's the president's personal lawyer and shadow emissary, a hand grenade. And here's - I talked to Danielle Pletka at the American Enterprise Institute about Bolton. And she said that in every administration, there are white hats and black hats.

DANIELLE PLETKA: All administrations are tempted to do bad things and have people who have bad instincts or wrong instincts. And then there are people who just have judgment. And I would say that John Bolton comes out of this with a white hat of judgment.

INSKEEP: Meaning a guy who is in favor of the political process...

LIASSON: Of the process.

INSKEEP: ...Or in favor of the regular process.

LIASSON: Yes - of the regular process.

INSKEEP: But that does raise a question now. Is Bolton likely to cooperate with this impeachment inquiry?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. He hasn't spoken out about Ukraine since he left. The House impeachment inquiry will eventually want to hear from him, but they haven't asked him to come up yet.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks for your reporting.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.


Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.