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News Brief: Impeachment Probe, Whistleblower, New Delhi Pollution


Did a top White House lawyer make the decision to lock up President Trump's Ukraine call in a secret computer system?


House impeachment investigators want this man, John Eisenberg, to testify today. Eisenberg is a legal adviser to the National Security Council. And he was allegedly involved in moving a transcript of President Trump's call with Ukraine's president to this highly classified server.

GREENE: Let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who's with us this morning. Hi there, Tam.


GREENE: OK. So who is John Eisenberg? And what do we need to know here?

KEITH: Well, so his official title is deputy counsel to the president for the - for national security affairs and legal adviser to the National Security Council. That long title gets to the significance of his role here. Not only is he the top lawyer for the National Security Council, he is also a senior member of the White House counsel's office - sort of bridging these two parts of the White House that are central to the Ukraine scandal. He joined the Trump White House early on in 2017.

My colleague, Franco Ordoñez, spoke to people who worked with Eisenberg and who describe him as cautious, competent, someone who keeps detailed notes. He has a math degree from Stanford, a law degree from Yale and worked on national security issues in the George W. Bush Justice Department. Michael Mukasey, attorney general in the Bush administration, worked with Eisenberg and calls him bright, very competent and highly ethical.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: If he put the president's conversation with the Ukrainian leader on a restricted platform, which I think he did, then he had every good reason to do it. Conversations between heads of state generally are the kinds of conversations that neither participant wants to see released to the public.

GREENE: All right. So, Tam, he takes notes. He's in these two orbits that are very central to this whole scandal. I mean, it sounds like investigators have a lot they might learn from him.

KEITH: Yes. There's a lot they would like to learn from him. He is this key point person whose name keeps coming up in testimony from others as the person that people who were worried about the president's call or activities around the call went to to register their concerns.

So two witnesses said they went to him after a July 10 meeting at the White House where visiting Ukrainian officials were trying to get a meeting between the president of Ukraine and President Trump and were told about the need for investigations. And also, one witness said that he went to Eisenberg after the July 25 phone call expressing concerns. There's also reporting, as you mentioned before, that Eisenberg was the one who decided to lock down records of that call.

GREENE: And why would he do that? Do we know?

KEITH: Well, there are a lot of reasons to do that, including simply that this White House is super sensitive about leaks and concerns about things leaking out. But also, multiple people went to him and said that they were - they had concerns.

GREENE: So there's a chance the White House, as they've done in the past with others, could block Eisenberg from testifying, right?

KEITH: There is a better-than-good chance of that, in fact...


KEITH: ...And there are a number of things that they might cite, including attorney-client privilege as well as a broader immunity that they claim for executive branch officials who advise the president to avoid congressional testimony. Also, the White House counsel's office has called the investigation a sham and have said that the White House won't be participating. There are four witnesses called to testify today. It's quite possible that none of them will show up based on public statements leading into this.

GREENE: Tam, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

GREENE: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith this morning.


GREENE: All right. So the whistleblower who set off the impeachment inquiry in the first place remains anonymous.

KING: Yeah, that's right. And President Trump really wants to know who it is. He's calling on news organizations to identify this person. But in the meantime, there's been a development. The whistleblower has offered to answer questions from House Republicans in writing. The whistleblower's lawyer, Mark Zaid, told this to NPR's Bobby Allyn.

GREENE: And Bobby is in the studio with us this morning. Hey, Bobby.


GREENE: OK. So you've talked to this lawyer for the whistleblower. What exactly is he offering here?

ALLYN: Yeah. So this guy, as you mentioned, Mark Zaid - and he represents the whistleblower - told me yesterday that the whistleblower has agreed to answer questions from Republicans. Now, it was sort of sudden. It caught some people by surprise. But if you've been following carefully, you know that this isn't the first time the offer has been extended.

So written testimony from the whistleblower was on the table once before. But what's different this time is that the questions and answers wouldn't involve Democrats, who of course control the committees who are leading the investigation. So this is a direct channel of communication now open to Republicans. And this lawyer says the whistleblower will answer questions under oath - so under penalty of perjury - just as long as the individual's identity is not in danger of being revealed.

GREENE: So it seems like this is an offer that kind of responds to some of the Republican criticism, which has been that Democrats have been controlling a lot of the process. Are Republicans interested in what the whistleblower's lawyer is offering here?

ALLYN: So the offer has been sent to Representative Devin Nunes. And he's the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee. We haven't yet heard his response. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested on CBS's "Face The Nation" yesterday that written testimony might not satisfy Republicans.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: When you're talking about the removal of the president of the United States, undoing democracy, undoing what the American public had voted for, I think that individual should come before the committee. He could come down to the basement, but he needs to answer the questions.

ALLYN: And this is a good place to note that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has said the investigators might not need to hear from the whistleblower, actually, since they now have a partial transcript that the White House released of the call, and they've heard from witnesses who were directly on the call in question.

GREENE: So, Bobby, in addition to Republicans wanting to hear from this whistleblower, you have the president telling reporters that the whistleblower's identity should be revealed. The president's been tweeting about this. But, I mean, isn't the whistleblower's identity protected by federal law? And if that is the case, why is there all this speculation about whether the person should be revealed?

ALLYN: So there has been a lot of speculation about the whistleblower's identity. And you'll find this a lot in conservative media, which has been trying really hard in recent weeks to out this whistleblower and has even identified a particular individual as being the whistleblower - without any direct evidence, of course. And the whistleblower's lawyers look at this. And they have not confirmed the reports. They haven't denied the reports. What we do know is that this person is from the intelligence community, that the person is reported to be a current member of the CIA. Everything else about this individual is unknown.

But Trump is trying to change that. And so the president yesterday even encouraged members of the media to try to expose the whistleblower. And Trump went so far as to say, if someone identifies this whistleblower, it would be a public service. And that's, you know, Trump's exact words.

So I called up this Yale law professor, Harold Koh. And he was the State Department's top lawyer. He was the legal adviser of the State Department during the Obama administration. And this is how he described the president encouraging people to try to unmask the whistleblower.

HAROLD KOH: If the net result of passing the Whistleblower Protection Act is that you're singling somebody out for punishment, retaliation and persecution, then Congress ought to take action to impose penalties on those people who do those kinds of things.

ALLYN: So many Republicans are trying to unmask the whistleblower. Democrats are trying to keep this person's identity protected. And it all comes back to this call that President Trump had with Ukraine on July 25 that Trump, yesterday, called that call, quote, "perfecto."

GREENE: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks.


GREENE: All right. We're going to go now to the capital of India, where air pollution has reached its most hazardous levels so far this year.

KING: Here's how bad it's gotten. The city's chief minister called Delhi a, quote, "gas chamber." Visibility was so low that 37 flights were diverted from Delhi Airport. Schools have been canceled. So what is it like to be living and trying to breathe in this environment?

GREENE: Well, let's ask Niha Masih. She's India correspondent for The Washington Post based in Delhi. Good morning.

NIHA MASIH: Hi. Good morning...

GREENE: So what...

MASIH: ...Not such a good morning, actually (laughter), exactly.

GREENE: I can imagine. Yeah, I'm sure. What is life like there right now?

MASIH: Oh, well, it's quite dystopian, if I can use that word. Yesterday, it was the worst air quality in about three years. And the smog was so thick that you couldn't see, you know, much beyond 50 meters ahead of you. It reminded me of, like - you know "Lord Of The Rings" (ph), the scene from Mordor? (Laughter)...


MASIH: ...And that's what Delhi sort of looks like. There's just, like, a grey, pink cloud all around. Monuments and skyscrapers have disappeared behind this. The government advisory is to stay indoors, close the windows and don't go out for morning or evening walks. There's a pungent, foul smell in the air. It's making eyes water. It induces coughing. Even amongst absolutely healthy people, you feel breathless if you stay outdoors too much. So, yes, it's quite a difficult journey in this period for most Delhiites.

GREENE: Yeah, it sounds that way. I mean, how did it get this bad?

MASIH: So there are a lot of factors which contribute to Delhi being the worst city in the world for air pollution, most of which, unfortunately, are man-made, of course. So there is of course a very, very high degree of vehicular pollution as, you know, Delhi grows into a mega city. There is industrial pollution. There is constantly construction happening in different parts of the city, which contributes to a lot of dust.

And of course, the one other X-factor in Delhi's case is neighboring states, which are agricultural. So there are farm fires. So this is the period when one crop gives way to another, and farmers actually burn their stubble from the last crop as they move into the new season. And all of that air gets into Delhi. And right now, because of the weather, there is no wind in Delhi. So that just stays - hangs over Delhi.

And of course, this is also the period of, you know, one of the biggest festivals in India, Diwali, where a lot of people are burn firecrackers, which obviously adds to the problem. Though, this year, it has gotten better because of a ban on the use of firecrackers.

GREENE: God, it's just all these factors coming together. Are government officials responding in some way that they give people hope?

MASIH: Yes. The government has definitely intensified its efforts. As you said, schools have been shut down. Entry of trucks is banned. All construction work has been stopped. All plants have been shut down. Government has distributed about five million masks for schoolchildren. But unfortunately, all of these efforts still only make a very little difference...


MASIH: ...And unless there is a big overarching agency that looks at it, it's going to continue.

GREENE: All right. Well, I hope it feels better there. Niha Masih from The Washington Post, thanks so much.

MASIH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and 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.