News Brief: Pensacola Shooting, Russia Probe, Impeachment Inquiry

Dec 9, 2019
Originally published on December 9, 2019 9:54 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is the starting point for Rachel Rojas of the FBI in Pensacola, Florida.

RACHEL ROJAS: We are, as we do in most active shooter investigations - work with the presumption that this was an act of terrorism.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's the bureau's special agent in charge, and she was talking about an attack inside a U.S. military base. A gunman opened fire at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. He was a member of the Saudi Arabian air force. And authorities say he killed three people on Friday.

INSKEEP: First, reports are often murky after an incident like this. The passage of a few days gives better perspective. So let's work through what is known with NPR's Greg Allen. Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what was this Saudi air force officer doing on a U.S. base?

ALLEN: Well, you know, this is a program that's gone on for many years, where military trains foreign military here on U.S. bases. Many people speak in favor of it. They say it helps us train people overseas, get closer ties with foreign militaries, professionalize their militaries. So it's a program with a lot of supporters. There's very many countries that send people here to train. He was receiving flight training there. He'd been in the U.S. since, I think, for at least three years and had gone back to Saudi Arabia in the meantime and received language training at another place. But he was there for flight training and - when this shooting occurred.

INSKEEP: OK. So he'd been in the U.S. for a while. Who exactly was he?

ALLEN: Well, you know, what we know about him - we have his name. It's Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. He's second lieutenant, as you say, in in the Royal Saudi Air Force. He was one of a number of Saudis there. We don't know a whole lot more about him than that at this point. The FBI has not said much about it. They are still pursuing this as a possible act of terror. So they are making their inquiries abroad as well as here. But we're waiting to hear more information about this man and his motivation.

INSKEEP: OK. And let's talk about what is known about him before the shooting. But being clear here, there's many reports over the weekend. We're going with what's confirmed. What was he doing in the time prior to this this attack?

ALLEN: Well, you know, as they say, he had been in this flight training course. And there's a lot of reports out there about his activities in the in the days before the attack. We're going to just talk about what we've been able to confirm and what officials have confirmed at this point. What we do know is that that he was there at the classroom. The attack happened over two floors in this classroom building on base. And he fired at some people who were in offices as he walked through the building. The three sailors, who were killed - at least two of them had been involved in directing emergency crews to where the shooting happened. So they're being hailed as heroes. And then we believe that a sheriff's deputy is the person who stopped him at the time. But there's not a lot more details than that.

INSKEEP: OK. When we hear the FBI special agent in charge say that there's an assumption it's terrorism but that they always assume this, I guess there's a number of questions, then, that they would try to answer, one question being whether this gunman acted alone.

ALLEN: Right. And I think when they say they always treat it like this, I think they always treat it like this in certain cases. And I think the fact that he was Saudi is what triggered this idea that it could be terrorism. And the idea is to, first of all, find out if there's any additional threat. And the FBI, Special Agent Rojas and other officials have said repeatedly there's no reason to think there's an imminent threat of another attack. But they haven't determined a motive for the gunman. Other U.S. officials, though, are ready to make that leap and say this was terrorism, an act based on ideology. We heard the president's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, say that yesterday, saying that it appears to him the gunman was radicalized.

INSKEEP: OK. Greg, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Today, we learn the results of an investigation of investigators.

MARTIN: It's an examination of federal authorities who first discovered Russia's involvement in the 2016 U.S. election. Russian interference is now well-documented, but President Trump has repeatedly dismissed it. The president and his allies have demanded to know why federal agents first looked into the contacts between Russia and people in the Trump campaign. The inspector general at the Justice Department spent 20 months examining this. And today, he releases his report.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is in our studios. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is it the inspector general wanted to know?

LUCAS: So there are a couple of big things that the inspector general has been looking at. One of them is the FBI and the Justice Department's surveillance of a former Trump campaign foreign policy aide by the name of Carter Page. Part of that surveillance involves the infamous Trump-Russia dossier that we've talked a lot about that was written by a former British spy and paid for by Democrats. The FBI was in contact with that former British spy. The dossier was included in the FBI's application to get court approval for surveillance on Page. The inspector general was looking at all of that and deciding whether it was done in line with department policies. Another big thing that he was taking a look at was whether there was any political bias that affected how the FBI handled this investigate.

INSKEEP: OK, so I guess the question is, was there a legitimate basis to look into the Trump campaign? But we now know there was Russian interference. We now know multiple people have been indicted, convicted. There've been guilty pleas, all kinds of things. So why is this report so important to the president?

LUCAS: Well, remember, the president and his allies on the Hill have consistently called this investigation a witch hunt. They say that it's part of a deep state conspiracy to bring Trump down. The president and his allies have gone after former senior FBI officials over this investigation. Former FBI Director James Comey would be a prime example of that. So in this report, the president and his allies are looking for validation of all of these allegations. And this ties into the current impeachment fight, as well. The president and his supporters have continued to push a version of that same narrative that officials who handle national security are actively trying to undermine his investigation.

INSKEEP: OK, so if you're a critic of the president, what are you looking for in this report?

LUCAS: Well, Democrats, for example, say that procedures in the Russia investigation were followed, that everything was done aboveboard, that the FBI had every reason to look into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. And actually, it would've been negligent not to have done so. Now, as for what we're likely to see in this report, in broad brush strokes, the inspector general is expected to criticize the FBI over certain aspects of the investigation. But overall, the report is expected to conclude that the Russia investigation was indeed justified.

INSKEEP: I guess we can expect this to go on and on regardless. But could this report - I don't know - seal the deal for some people anyway?

LUCAS: You know, I think a lot of people would like to see that happen. But I don't think that that is actually what is going to transpire. Horowitz is set to testify on Wednesday on Capitol Hill. So we've got more to come on this exact report. But even that, of course, is not going to put all of this to bed. There's another investigation that's still going on that deals with similar questions. The attorney general, William Barr, appointed a veteran prosecutor earlier this year to look into the origins of the Russia investigation. Sounds very similar. That prosecutor, John Durham, is looking at similar things to Horowitz. He's believed to have more of a focus on U.S. spy agencies and foreign intelligence services. That review is now a criminal investigation. And Trump, for one, is already looking ahead to that one. He said that it's the, quote, "big report," the one that people are really waiting for.

INSKEEP: OK. Ryan, thanks very much for the update.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Also today, a House committee takes another step toward impeachment.

MARTIN: Right. This is the House Judiciary Committee. That's one of two committees that have held hearings into the president's effort to have political rivals investigated in Ukraine. Another hearing comes today, and Chairman Jerry Nadler is leaving little doubt about what happens next.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

JERRY NADLER: We'll bring articles of impeachment, presumably before the committee, at some point later in the week.

MARTIN: That was Nadler speaking on NBC's "Meet The Press."

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is here. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So 41 members of this committee - they're on that big, semicircular dais. What do they actually do in this hearing today?

GRISALES: So this will look a lot like a court trial, with lawyers for the Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who will offer their opening arguments in this case. And they'll be able to speak up to 30 minutes each. They'll be followed by Democrats and Republicans for the House Intelligence Committee, who will present their findings from the witness table for this portion of the hearing. Each side will have about 45 minutes each there. And Democrats are pretty confident they're presenting a solid case. Jerry Nadler said if this was an actual court trial, Trump would be convicted quickly. Let's take a listen to his comments on CNN yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NADLER: We have a very locked, solid case. I think the case we have, if presented to a jury, would be a guilty verdict in about three minutes flat.

GRISALES: Now, we should note that Judiciary ranking member Republican Doug Collins this weekend said this hearing should be delayed because the panel is moving too fast with too much information.

INSKEEP: OK, so Democratic lawyers on the committee, Republican lawyers on the committee - they make their case. Weren't there rules under the Judiciary Committee that the White House could send its lawyer to this?

GRISALES: Yes, they could. But for now, we're not expecting to hear much from them as part of the actual proceeding. This is more of the same that we've heard from the White House and President Trump throughout this process. So it's not a surprise. Friday marked a deadline for the president to defend himself before the Judiciary Committee. And White House counsel Pat Cipollone signaled they won't take part and sent a letter to Nadler that the inquiry was, quote, "completely baseless" and "should end now." But if it doesn't, Cipollone quoted the president, saying, "Hurry up. Get it over with, so we can move to a Senate trial." The president feels a Republican-led chamber will be friendlier to his cause.

INSKEEP: OK, so you said the acts today are a little like the beginning of a trial. But, of course, it's not the trial. You mentioned the Senate trial, which would come later. First, the House has to agree on what the charges actually are, what the articles of impeachment would be specifically. How's the committee turn the various accusations into articles of impeachment?

GRISALES: Yes, Democrats will take today's presentations as the groundwork for developing the actual articles of impeachment. We could see articles of bribery and obstruction. And we could see those later this week. And that could be followed up by a historic vote on the House floor next week. And with that, it would move this process on impeachment to a trial in the Senate. And already, Republican senators have told us that they have set aside the month of January to hold this trial. And we've heard that that could last two weeks or more, and it could entail witnesses and a variety of other details that need to be hammered out in this new phase. The president has been very vocal about wanting a robust defense. And even in a Republican-controlled chamber, he'll have his work cut out for him, trying to convince at least 51 senators to include a long list of witnesses that could lead to new delays in this part of the process.

INSKEEP: Meaning the president wants to air this out with witnesses that senators might not want to take time for.

GRISALES: Exactly.

INSKEEP: OK. Claudia, thanks so much for the update.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We're also following the latest out of White Island, New Zealand. This volcano erupted there and has killed at least five people. Dozens of tourists were on the island at the time. Images of the eruption have shown these tall plumes of smoke, ash shooting up from the island. We spoke with reporter Charlotte Graham-McLay of The Guardian newspaper, who is in New Zealand's capital, Wellington, following all this.

CHARLOTTE GRAHAM-MCLAY: People who were on those boats told me that, at first, they took photos and videos, and they thought this was kind of exciting and cool. They'd seen a little bit of smoke when they were up on the summit themselves. And then as black smoke and ash started to blanket the island, they suddenly realized that something was actually really wrong.

MARTIN: And we'll be following the latest on the rescue efforts. You can find that on NPR's MORNING EDITION and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.