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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The location of last night's Republican presidential debate paid homage to a former Republican president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUART VARNEY: Welcome to the second Republican debate of the 2024 primary, live from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But the debate showed how far the Republican Party has moved beyond Ronald Reagan. Front-runner Donald Trump didn't show, and one candidate called him Donald Duck. Other candidates contended with each other to deliver one-liners.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben was watching from Southern California. Danielle, good morning.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: It's really early where you are, so thank you. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course.

INSKEEP: I appreciate it.

What was it like?

KURTZLEBEN: It was chaotic. There was a lot of crosstalk. There were multiple instances of that as seven candidates tried to be heard over each other. And for those who are listening who didn't watch, there are some moments that you will hear about that seem destined to become memes or GIFs. Here's one. This is former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley taking aim at businessman Vivek Ramaswamy after he explained that he joined TikTok as a way to reach younger voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have. And what you've got - I - honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.

KURTZLEBEN: So probably the sharpest jab of the night, or at least one of the sharpest jabs of the night there. But still, for all of the yelling, for all of the bickering, I don't think you could say that there was one candidate who made a clear case for why they should be the president over someone else. I'm not sure how much clarity was gained.

INSKEEP: OK. I want to follow up on policy in a moment, but I do want to ask also about the absent person, Donald Trump. How did his absence become a presence, so to speak?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, he got some criticism for not being there. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was one candidate who took aim. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.

KURTZLEBEN: Also, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took aim at Trump. He said that Trump was afraid - that's his word - to be on the stage and defend his record, really clearly trying to goad the former president using language that he thinks will get at him.

INSKEEP: Yeah, looking at the camera, I guess, and saying, Donald, I know you're watching, and then attempting to mock him, essentially doing what Christie would've liked to do with Trump there onstage.

But I want to get back to that question of policy. These are seven candidates, plus one absent candidate, who are saying they want to be president for four years, which means they could do an awful lot to or with the United States. Did you get any - did the moderators guide them toward any particular policy differences? Did you hear any particular policy differences? Covering them, do you have a sense of any policy differences?

KURTZLEBEN: So the moderators tried to some degree to get them to show some daylight between themselves. But honestly, in the end, among those seven who were onstage, you got the sense that, yes, of course, they all want to tighten up the southern border. They are all opposed to abortion rights. But any number of other areas, they were all in roughly the same ballpark. But you didn't get the sense that there were a lot of gaps in between them. And some of them took aim at Donald Trump, for example, for his recent squishiness on abortion, for his spending as president. But, no, there wasn't a lot of substance that really came out of it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, thanks for the facts. Appreciate it.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We are two days away from a government shutdown.

MARTIN: And today, a very large House committee will spend the day on something other than trying to keep it open. The Republican-led committee will hold its first public hearing on an impeachment inquiry into President Biden. Here's House Oversight Committee chairman James Comer talking to NPR.

JAMES COMER: We want to educate everyone on what an impeachment inquiry is and how we plan to use that moving forward.

MARTIN: Many of the Republicans' allegations are related to Biden's son Hunter, but so far we haven't seen exactly what those actions have to do with the president, who would be the one impeached.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is covering the story. Claudia, good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are they doing today?

GRISALES: So we're going to see the House Oversight Committee hold what's normally a traditional hearing, but, of course, focused on President Biden. The panel has close to 50 members who will be asking questions, so this could be a very long day.

INSKEEP: Wow.

GRISALES: Some estimates are seven hours. Now, we're going to see three Republican committee chairs lead the hearing - James Comer, who you just heard there, who leads Oversight, as well as the chairman of House Judiciary - that's Jim Jordan - and Jason Smith, who leads the Ways and Means Committee, which focuses on tax issues. They'll split about 10 minutes in opening remarks. And then for the Democrats, the top-ranking member, Jamie Raskin, who led the impeachment against former President Trump his second impeachment, will respond to their claims.

INSKEEP: Republicans have found endless facts and information to embarrass the president's son, Hunter Biden. It's been a little harder to connect his actions directly to the president. Could today be any different?

GRISALES: We're not expecting it to be. A lot of this focus is focused on Hunter Biden and his business dealings. And as we know, he's battling his own criminal case. But Republicans are going to be looking a lot today at payments that were made to Hunter, as well as IRS tax records backing that up and two IRS whistleblowers tied to these allegations. But again, we haven't seen backup documents that connect that to President Biden.

INSKEEP: I do want to note, though, when they are confronted by reporters with their lack of evidence against the president, who they would impeach, Republicans often say, no, wait, wait; you're not paying attention.

GRISALES: Yes.

INSKEEP: We have tons of evidence.

GRISALES: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So do they?

GRISALES: Yeah. So they do respond that way. I did ask Chairman Comer that exactly, and he said that's why today is largely going to be a rehashing of evidence of claims they've made in recent months. He says the media's been getting it wrong. So they're going to be revisiting all of that.

Now, Republicans are claiming that Hunter exploited the Biden name in his business dealings with associates. That's going to be part of that central argument, saying that there were ties to foreign associates from China, for example, and that President Biden knew about this before his presidency and he was tied to these payments. But Republicans have failed to connect those dots, and Democrats will argue that. And they're saying this is a big distraction from dealing with the shutdown threats. I talked to Raskin about this.

JAMIE RASKIN: We've been working on this for seven months, and there are no facts or evidence leading to any criminal culpability on the part of Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: OK. So I just want to follow up on this. You said that you asked James Comer, one of the co-chairs, what evidence? Do you have any evidence? Where's your evidence? And he said, we're going to work on it. We're going to rehash all the evidence today.

GRISALES: Right.

INSKEEP: So who are today's witnesses, and do they have any direct evidence of anything?

GRISALES: There will be four witnesses total, three for Republicans and one for Democrats. And these are largely subject matter witnesses. For example, for the Republicans, one of them is a familiar name, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. He's appeared on various media outlets, and he's often defended President Trump. And so this is largely the focus today - is subject matter experts.

INSKEEP: He's often on Fox News...

GRISALES: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...And has occasionally been kind enough to come over and talk with us on NPR. But just to be clear, again, he's not a direct witness of any activity of any kind, right?

GRISALES: Right.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Claudia Grisales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: An exodus continues from a self-proclaimed republic in Azerbaijan.

MARTIN: That's because government troops recently seized control of the breakaway area of the country, which is by the Caspian Sea. More than 68,000 people - roughly half the population - have fled. They are ethnic Armenians, and they are fleeing a place they consider their homeland. Some are moving toward the nearby country of Armenia.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves has covered this story for decades. It stretches back into the past century, in fact. Philip, welcome.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing?

REEVES: Well, people are continuing this morning to come down that road, just as they have been for the last four days, in cars, buses, even garbage trucks and tractors. A few good days ago, a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh exploded, killing more than 60 people. And that's created a shortage of gas. So some people are just walking. They're bringing their farm animals - chickens, goats and so on. Now, this is usually, by car, a journey of five or six hours, but the road's been jammed, and so it's taken far longer than that. And these people, Steve, are leaving their lives behind. They've abandoned their villages in the mountains, their homes, their towns. And there's really no - they see no prospect of returning.

INSKEEP: When you say going down that road - we had a description of it on the program on NPR's MORNING EDITION just yesterday. It was described as a single road going westward to Armenia. It goes through the mountains. This has got to be an arduous journey, especially for those who, as you said, are on foot.

REEVES: Yes, indeed. It is tough. And they've been blockaded by Azerbaijan in - for months before now. And so many of them have had to live on what they could grow in their own homes and gardens and so on. And so, you know, they're not in great condition for that reason, also.

INSKEEP: Now, Azerbaijan sent troops to retake control of this breakaway area. People are in fear of the Azerbaijani troops, apparently. Is there evidence that they need to be? Is the government in any way assuring people's safety? Are they endangering people's safety?

REEVES: Steve, Nagorno-Karabakh's been the focus of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan off and on since shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. They fought several wars. There have been atrocities on both sides. And so Armenians are worried about their safety. They're traumatized.

When the Azerbaijan military seized control the other day, it was very quick. But we're hearing there was bombing. There was fighting. People got hurt. And I think that, yeah, there are assurances from Azerbaijan that their rights will be respected, but, you know, they don't trust those. Azerbaijan says it wants to reintegrate them into their society, but the ethnic Armenians don't speak their language. They're Christians, whereas Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country. And one of the big concerns among ethnic Armenians is that their ancient Christian and cultural heritage will now be lost to them.

And they're worried about reprisals, Steve. Azerbaijan's detained one of their most prominent people. He's been accused, according to reports I'm seeing, of illegal residence in Azerbaijan because officially it's part of - Karabakh (ph) is part of Azerbaijan. And that's another reason for concern among the residents that remain.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves, who is reporting today from Riga, Latvia. Thanks for your insights, Philip.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.