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News Brief: Va. Political Scandals, Border Wall, Venezuela Crisis


How can President Trump get himself out of a corner?


In Washington, talks at securing a deal on border security, including the president's wall, fell apart. The acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney spoke to "Fox News Sunday," and here's what he said about the possibility of another shutdown.


MICK MULVANEY: They cannot sign everything they put in front of him. There'd be some things that simply we couldn't agree to. So the government shutdown is technically still on the table. We do not want it to come to that, but that option is still open to the president and will remain so.

MARTIN: So where does that leave negotiations right now?

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here. Hi there, Tamara.


INSKEEP: I just want to note, Mick Mulvaney did raise the prospect of a shutdown there. But he said it's technically still on the table, which I read to mean virtually not on the table. What, if anything, are lawmakers coming up with?

KEITH: Well, what we hear is that the negotiations at the moment are stalled. This comes after last week. They were saying they were making good progress, and everybody was optimistic. Now those negotiations have hit a bump. The problem seems to be not just funding for the wall. Democrats are now saying they would fund some portion of the wall, but they want something in exchange for that. And they want to limit funding for ICE detention beds. They object to the way that the Trump administration is doing deportation policy, and they want to sort of control the way that is done by limiting the number of detention beds.

In past negotiations, back when the government was still shut down, the White House had asked - had actually been asking for more money, about $800 million more for detention beds. So this is a real standoff, and it's a different one. It's about policy more than it is about money or about symbolism.


KEITH: But it's also still very emotional and talked about in moral terms.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember. ICE - Immigration and Customs Enforcement - there is a movement among some Democrats to abolish ICE. It doesn't sound like that's where Democrats are, but they want to restrict its activities to some degree so you have a broader border security debate. Now, how is the president trying to influence this debate by showing up near the Texas border today?

KEITH: Well, the president is likely to do what the president has done in other addresses, including the State of the Union and two other addresses to the American people as this debate has gone on, which is to talk about crime and paint all immigrants as criminals - all immigrants coming through the southern border. And so he is likely to do the thing that he has been doing. It's not clear whether it will be persuasive. But San Antonio - not San Antonio...


KEITH: El Paso. El Paso is an area where he says the wall has worked.

INSKEEP: Well, El Paso is also the home city of Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman who is thinking about a run for president. And by no means is he the only Democrat who's moving in that direction.

KEITH: Yeah. And Beto is on something of a vision quest, but other people have really been running for president already. Cory Booker was in South Carolina this weekend. Kirsten Gillibrand was also there. Amy Klobuchar made an announcement on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River in Minnesota in the middle of a snow storm. Elizabeth Warren made it official with a big speech in Massachusetts. It is still frozen and snowy, and the 2020 campaign is up and running. There are five women members of Congress already running for president, and it's not even March.

INSKEEP: So much for a political correspondent to do - Tamara, glad you're there.

KEITH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith.


INSKEEP: Just over a week ago, it was perfectly fair to ask - how could the governor of Virginia possibly keep his job?

MARTIN: Ralph Northam is now trying to answer that very question. He refused to resign over an old racist photo and is now giving interviews in an effort to rebuild public support for him. He gave one interview to Gayle King on CBS.


RALPH NORTHAM: Virginia needs someone that can heal. There's no better person to do that than a doctor. Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that's why I'm not going anywhere.

MARTIN: Northam has denied that he was in the old yearbook photo. He admits he did wear blackface while impersonating Michael Jackson - once. He's defending himself at the same time that the lieutenant governor, rather, faces two accusations of sexual misconduct.

INSKEEP: And let's focus on the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. Whittney Evans of our member station WCVE in Richmond has been covering that part of the story. Good morning.


INSKEEP: So how has Fairfax's case advanced over the weekend?

EVANS: Well, first to be clear, Fairfax has strongly denied both of these allegations.


EVANS: He says the encounters in question were consensual. So what's happened since the first allegation is that people are now calling on Fairfax to step down. They weren't after the first allegation. Lots of prominent people in Virginia and across the country are now saying they want to see him resign immediately, and that includes most of Virginia's congressional delegation and even people like Senator Kamala Harris, who's running for president.

But there are also some people who are saying, slow this down. Let's not rush to judgment. There are some religious groups that have a rally scheduled at the Capitol today to support keeping Fairfax in office. So other than denying the allegations, Fairfax says he's called for an FBI investigation to clear his name. But it's unclear if the FBI would take that up. It's usually local jurisdictions that handle these kinds of cases.

INSKEEP: I did see the video over the weekend of one Virginia lawmaker stepping before reporters and saying, if the lieutenant governor doesn't resign by Monday, I'm going to start impeachment proceedings. Can he do that?

EVANS: Well, there is a difference of opinion about whether impeachment for this situation is even possible in Virginia. A state representative who's a Democrat - his name's Patrick Hope - said he's going to start the impeachment process today. And he plans to introduce a resolution in the House. And then if a majority of the House vote in favor of the resolution, the process begins. But it's ultimately up to the Senate, which will conduct a trial and make the final call.

But I spent some time this weekend with this man named Dick Howard. He's a constitutional scholar in Virginia, and he was actually part of the group that rewrote the Virginia constitution in 1971. He's the only one left of that group. He was 35 years old when he helped write it, and he's in his early 80s now, and he had this to say.

A E DICK HOWARD: The constitution actually says that you have impeachment if there has been malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crime or misdemeanor.

EVANS: So Delegate Hope, the representative who plans to introduce the articles of impeachment, he says sexual assault obviously is clearly, you know, a high crime. But Howard's interpretation of the constitution is that the high crime or misdemeanor piece has to have taken place while the official was in office, right? To qualify for impeachment, the crime has to be somehow tied to the elected official's position of power.

INSKEEP: And of course, these accusations are more than a decade old, well before he became lieutenant governor. So can he continue doing the job - which is a real job, lieutenant governor? I mean, he has to be in public today. Can he continue doing that?

EVANS: Yeah. And there's no reason to believe that he wouldn't. Sources close to him say that he does plan to gavel in today, and it will be business as usual.

INSKEEP: Gavel in because he runs the Senate, when you're the lieutenant governor of Virginia.

EVANS: That's right. He runs the Senate, and he is next in line should the office of the governor go vacant.

INSKEEP: Whittney, thanks so much.

EVANS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Whittney Evans of WCVE.


INSKEEP: All right. The confrontation in Venezuela now moves to that country's border.

MARTIN: Yeah, the border between Venezuela and Colombia.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: What you're hearing now is the sound of Venezuelan doctors. Yesterday, they were near this bridge that connects Colombia and Venezuela. And they are demanding that the Venezuelan military stop the blockade that is now keeping U.S. humanitarian aid from getting into the country. And of course, the backdrop to all this is the political crisis in Venezuela between the president, Nicolas Maduro, and the U.S.-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaido.

INSKEEP: Which the U.S. has now - who the U.S. has now recognized as the president. John Otis is covering this story from the Colombia-Venezuela border. Hi there, John.


INSKEEP: What is the purpose of the United States in sending this aid?

OTIS: Well, you know, on paper, the reason is because there is a big humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. They're sending up, you know, rice and beans and cooking oil and all kinds of, you know, emergency medical kits and baby formula. You know, they want to try to get that aid into Venezuela to start to try to help alleviate all the suffering. But there's also a lot of politics involved.

One of the reasons for amassing all this aid, you know, right on the border is to try to tempt the Venezuelan military forces or shame the Venezuelan military forces who are propping up Maduro. They want the top officers to turn against his government, to allow this aid to start flowing into the country to alleviate the suffering. And you know, that would be one way to bring about regime change, which is what the Trump administration and the opposition is really pushing.

INSKEEP: Oh - because the United States has effectively said, this is humanitarian aid for the Venezuelan people in the name of the government we recognize, the government of Juan Guaido.

OTIS: Yes, that's exactly right. They're trying to give a boost to Guaido. Guaido really doesn't control anything in Venezuela. But they want this humanitarian aid to be kind of a symbol of the good things that Guaido would bring to Venezuela if he is actually allowed to rule and if Maduro goes into exile.

INSKEEP: We'll note, John, that you're in a border city there. I imagine you've been down to see the border crossing. What, as far as you can tell from the Colombian side, is the attitude of the Venezuelan military up to now?

OTIS: You know, up to now, Steve, I mean, there've been, you know, just a few defections. And also, the top military attache in Washington has turned against Maduro. But overall, the Venezuelan military is standing firm. They're supporting Maduro. And so the problem here is that - because of that, you know, Maduro's still in power, he still controls the country. And there's really kind of no plan B for getting this aid across the border into Venezuela.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks for the update, John. Really appreciate it.

OTIS: No problem.

INSKEEP: That is reporter John Otis speaking to us from the Colombia-Venezuela border.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "STREET DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.