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News Brief: Trump Investigations, Sacramento Shooting, ISIS Territory

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Michael Cohen's days of testimony before Congress have ended, for now at least, but congressional investigations of the president have barely begun.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There is a connection between those two things - the testimony and the investigations. Leaders of multiple House committees listened to the president's former lawyer last week, and they heard many leads into allegations of corruption or abuse of power. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, tells ABC he plans to request documents from more than 60 people around the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

JERROLD NADLER: Impeachment is a long way down the road. We don't have the facts yet. But we're going to initiate proper investigations.

INSKEEP: The House investigations come alongside the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, which President Trump attacked on Twitter again yesterday.

GREENE: All right, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is with us. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: I think we just said the word investigation maybe, like, a dozen times there in the last...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: There are a lot of investigations we're talking about, but Nadler, this top Democrat, says that he's going to initiate a proper investigation. What exactly makes his significant?

HORSLEY: Well, Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and that gets your attention because, if there were to be an impeachment proceeding against the president, that's the committee where it would start. But you heard that note of caution from Congressman Nadler there. He says we're - there's a long road to get from where we are now to impeachment. And he stressed on - in that ABC interview that before you get to the end of that road, you'd have to convince the American people, including a good number of Republicans, that that was the right path. So that's a pretty tall order.

But we are seeing here a pretty aggressive first step on that road, with inquiries going out to people in the White House, the Trump Organization and the president's own family.

GREENE: Well, as Steve mentioned, I mean, Michael Cohen's testimony - that there's a link there with House Democrats and their plans. What is the link? I mean, did Cohen give Democrats some really important avenues to pursue that could change things?

HORSLEY: Absolutely. You heard lawmakers asking him, you know, who else should we talk to? Who else would know about these things you described? Who could corroborate Cohen's account, whether it is manipulating financial reports to inflate the president's net worth or decrease his taxes, whether there were signs of campaign finance violations? And then apart from that, apart from the Cohen threads, you have a whole separate investigation going on in the oversight committee into the White House process for granting security clearances.

Late last week, we had The New York Times reporting that the president had ordered a top-secret clearance for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over the objection of security professionals. Now, the president has the authority to do that, but that's not the story the White House had been telling about how it played out.

GREENE: Well, the president is out there, I mean, calling Robert Mueller's team angry people, saying this is a witch hunt, going after Democrats. I mean, he's doing his thing in public. What about internally? I mean, is the White House getting more worried about any of this?

HORSLEY: They have staffed up to some extent. There are now people whose jobs it is to answer congressional inquiries, something they didn't have to do a whole lot of during the first two years of the administration, when the Republicans were in control, and there wasn't a lot of aggressive oversight.

But that said, there's also a lot of pushback. For example, in that oversight committee inquiry into security clearances, which has been underway for more than a month now, you've had the White House counsel's office saying basically, in the most polite terms possible, that's none of your business.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right, two police officers will not face criminal charges in Sacramento for fatally shooting an unarmed black man.

INSKEEP: Twenty-two-year-old Stephon Clark was shot seven times while holding a cellphone during a chase last year. District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said this weekend that the evidence supports the officer's statements that they thought Clark was pointing a gun.

The victim's brother is now calling on California's attorney general to prosecute instead, and his mother, Se'Quette Clark, spoke with NPR's Michel Martin over the weekend, and she criticized the local prosecutor's decision to let the officers go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SE'QUETTE CLARK: She never once addressed their actions. She presented and painted a picture of my son that was her opinion.

GREENE: All right, Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler has been covering this case. Hi, Ben.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Can you just take us back to what happened and remind us of the circumstances of Stephon Clark's death?

ADLER: Yeah, David. Nearly a year ago, Sacramento police responded to reports of a man breaking car windows. Now, the officers pursued him into a backyard. They thought he had a gun, and they fired 20 rounds at him. The man was Stephon Clark. He turned out to be holding, not a gun, but a cellphone, and the backyard he had run into was his grandmother's.

GREENE: So thought he had a gun - is that really the crux of what the district attorney has concluded here?

ADLER: Yes, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said the officers' actions were justified because, as she put it, they honestly, without hesitation, believed he had a gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNE MARIE SCHUBERT: The law requires that we judge the reasonableness of an officer's actions based upon the circumstances confronting them at that moment of time.

ADLER: And as for Clark, Schubert said evidence from a cellphone showed he feared arrest for domestic violence and that he was considering suicide.

GREENE: So no charges - that's the news, the announcement from the district attorney, as we've heard. How is the community responding to that?

ADLER: Well, the DA's decision was no surprise. It was expected. But the details she released about Clark's state of mind infuriated his family and the community. Clark's mother called it a smear campaign. A pastor called it a modern-day lynching, and a woman who lived down the street from where he was killed said it felt like Clark was being charged with his own murder. Protesters shut down the city's largest mall yesterday. Here is activist Barry Accius.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRY ACCIUS: Sacramento, you are now warned that there will be no sleep. We may show up at one of your other communities. We might even show up at the Golden 1 arena. You never know what could happen.

ADLER: He was alluding to the protests in the days after the shooting last year that twice shut down the downtown venue here where the NBA's Sacramento Kings play.

GREENE: So we mentioned that the attorney general's office could get involved here, in theory. I mean, that's what some people are calling for. So what exactly does that mean, and what happens next?

ADLER: Well, in addition to that ongoing investigation, the Sacramento Police Department is waiting for those findings before conducting its own review. The debate is also now moving to the state capital, where there are rival bills to change the law governing when police can use deadly force. One of those bills is backed by community activist and civil rights advocates, the other one backed by law enforcement groups, and so that's going to be a debate that rages on throughout the year.

GREENE: Oh, this is interesting. OK, so we might see some real debates in terms of changing the law in cases like this going forward.

ADLER: I think the political dynamics are such here in California that there will definitely be a law. The question is how far the changes to the law will go.

GREENE: Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reporting for us. Thanks so much, Ben.

ADLER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: So the battle to defeat ISIS in the eastern part of Syria seems to be slowing down.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the group has been surrounded by U.S.-backed forces in a town called Baghouz in northern Syria. ISIS fighters, we're told, are resisting as they try to defend what's described as the last pocket of territory they control. And they are allegedly using human shields, according to a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon has been monitoring all of this fighting from his post in Istanbul. Hi there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: OK, so what is the latest in terms of the fighting? I know from the Trump administration there have been some declarations of victory and then some backing away from declarations of victory. So how close are U.S.-backed forces to actually claiming a victory here?

KENYON: It looks like they're pretty close. How definitive, how final this victory may be is what remains an open question, I think. Over the weekend, the SDF - Syrian Democratic Forces, trying to seize this last square mile of ISIS control - said this is going to be over in a matter of days, but there could still be some intense fighting between now and then.

SDF commanders say some of those airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeted vehicle bombs that have been left by ISIS. There was a Twitter post by the SDF spokesman who said three car bombs were taken out by the airstrikes. He also tweeted that the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon.

There are estimates - oh, hundreds of ISIS fighters are left, promising to keep fighting. It does sound, or at least they're trying to make it sound, like a victory over those fighters is more a question of when rather than if.

GREENE: I heard someone describe this last bit of territory as maybe the size of, like, Central Park in New York. Is that accurate? I mean, is that the kind of space we're talking about here?

KENYON: It's about a square mile. And it's in a town in far eastern Syria on the Euphrates River, near the border with Iraq. Coalition forces actually captured this town, Baghouz, last September, but they weren't able to hang on to it. ISIS fighters retook the village.

The SDF has listed some of the reasons why the battle hasn't ended yet. Some of these ISIS fighters, they say, are launching sneak attacks from underground tunnels. Besides the car bombs, there are mines, other explosives, and there have been suicide attacks and snipers. So the coalition also says, once again, that they're making every effort to conduct this fight so as to minimize civilian casualties.

GREENE: So there are things that make it particularly difficult, I mean, to actually get this final bit of territory. I mean, ISIS fighters can really hole up as - I mean, the accusation of human shields, these suicide attacks. I mean, it's - there's a chance that this won't be easy.

KENYON: Well, certainly. I mean - and if it's a fight to the death, capture or kill, as the - as we're hearing from reports from the ground, obviously that wouldn't go smoothly or necessarily very quickly.

GREENE: What about civilians, Peter? I mean, this is a question we always ask about all the fighting in Syria. It sounds like there was a two-week pause here to allow for some evacuations of civilians. Was it successful, and have civilians been freed? And are they out of this area and out of harm's way?

KENYON: It was successful to the extent that hundreds of people did flee Baghouz - a lot of civilians, also some fighters. One aid group said more than a thousand may have gotten out. I haven't seen any reports claiming that all civilians have evacuated the area, and the anti-ISIS coalition says they're trying to avoid hitting any civilians that might still be there.

The two-week pause ended Friday, and since the remaining ISIS holdouts basically have nowhere to go, the fighting could be quite fierce. There are plans being made for a victory celebration once Baghouz is retaken. It'll be called a decisive defeat. We'll see what happens after that.

GREENE: All right, we will see, and you'll be reporting on it. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, covering the latest events in eastern Syria. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "STAR TREKKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.