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News Brief: Impeachment Hearings, Stephen Miller Emails, Google Health Data

We look at what we learned in the first day of public impeachment hearings. Also, the Southern Poverty Law Center says emails show Stephen Miller promoted white nationalist theories.

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Transcript:

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, it did not take long for a big reveal to drop on the opening day of public testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. It was about another phone call involving President Trump. This is not the July 25 call that we've heard so much about. And it was mentioned by William Taylor; he's the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He was one of two witnesses who testified yesterday. The other one was George Kent, the State Department official in charge of Ukraine.

GREENE: And NPR political reporter Tim Mak has been following all of it. Hey there, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.

GREENE: OK. So both of the witnesses yesterday spent hours behind closed doors answering questions. So besides them being live on radio, live on TV and in front of the cameras, did we learn anything new yesterday? What exactly was this revelation?

MAK: So on the day after that now-famous July 25 phone call between the Ukrainian president and President Donald Trump, there was another call. Taylor said one of his staffers overheard a conversation between U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and Trump. And during this phone call in a restaurant, the staffer could hear Trump asking about the investigations. Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, according to this testimony. Here's what happened next.

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WILLIAM TAYLOR: Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.

GREENE: OK, Tim - so this could be significant. We should say this is Taylor in the hearing, referring to a phone call he was not on - that his aide overheard. Right?

MAK: That's right. So Taylor didn't - wasn't directly in contact with the president in this, but Sondland was in contact with the president. And lawmakers will have a chance to ask Sondland about this next week, if he is - if he appears before the committee in open setting as he's expected to later on. And the House Intelligence Committee has also made plans to interview the staffer who apparently overheard this exchange. He's scheduled for a closed-door deposition on Friday.

GREENE: Interesting. OK. So we're going to learn a lot more from this phone call with - from people involved.

All right. So how did Democrats and Republicans overall approach their questioning yesterday?

MAK: Yeah. Democrats were trying to show two things - that the president was leveraging U.S. foreign policy for political gain and that this is an impeachable offense. And Republicans, on the other hand, were kind of raising issues with the credibility of the witnesses. Here's Republican Congressman Jim Jordan.

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JIM JORDAN: Ambassador, you weren't on the call, were you? The president - you didn't listen in on President Trump's call and President Zelenskiy's call.

TAYLOR: I did not.

JORDAN: You've never talked with chief of staff Mulvaney.

TAYLOR: I never did.

JORDAN: You never met the president.

TAYLOR: That's correct.

JORDAN: You had three meetings, again, with Zelenskiy, and it didn't come up.

TAYLOR: And two of those, they had never heard about as far as I know. So there was no reason for it to come up.

JORDAN: And President Zelenskiy never made an announcement. This is - this is what I can't believe. And you're their star witness.

MAK: So Democrats shot back that they would have witnesses with first-hand knowledge but individuals with firsthand knowledge, such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, have refused to testify.

Another point that Republicans made was that aid was released, no investigations ultimately came from the Ukrainian side; and so no wrongdoing ultimately occurred. One Democrat responded, in essence - look, attempted bribery can be a crime just as bribery is also a crime.

GREENE: All right. So you mentioned that Sondland is one of the witnesses we might hear from. What else is coming? I mean, this is - yesterday was just the beginning. Right?

MAK: Right. We're expecting to hear from Marie Yovanovitch. She's the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. She's going to testify - scheduled to testify this Friday. And we have eight more witnesses expected to hear - to appear in open hearing next week.

GREENE: Much more to come. NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. So the Southern Poverty Law Center is expected to release more emails today from one of President Trump's top advisers on immigration - emails it says document an affinity for white nationalism.

KING: Right. The center says there are hundreds of these emails. They are ones that Stephen Miller sent to a journalist at Breitbart. And within them, the Southern Poverty Law Center says, there's a bunch of references to white nationalist ideas. So at this point, some congressional Democrats are calling for Miller to resign. The White House is calling this a far-left smear. And Stephen Miller, for the moment, isn't saying anything.

GREENE: All right. KPBS reporter Jean Guerrero has been learning a lot about Stephen Miller. She's writing a book about him. She joins us from San Diego. Hi there, Jean.

JEAN GUERRERO, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: So you've actually reviewed some of these leaked emails obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center. What's in them?

GUERRERO: That's right. There are emails that Miller sent to Breitbart editors in 2015 and 2016. To me, the most revealing part is that Miller recommended a book called "Camp Of The Saints." It's a racist book that depicts the, quote, "end of the white world" after being overrun by refugees. It's filled with descriptions that are horrifically degrading. Just as an example, it describes migrants as, quote, "kinky-haired, swarthy-skinned, long-despised phantoms" and as "teeming ants toiling for the white man's comfort."

So Stephen Miller told Breitbart to do a story showing parallels between the book and real life. And then Julia Hahn, who later became a special assistant to President Trump, did a story saying that immigration could doom society, just like in the book. And then Steve Bannon, who was the Breitbart News executive, also started talking about the book after that. Bannon later served as Trump's chief strategist but left in 2017.

The emails also show that Miller was encouraging Breitbart to pull news from a white supremacist website that promotes the great replacement theory. That's a conspiracy that says people of color are systematically wiping out the white race, a falsehood that's motivated white terrorist shootings.

GREENE: Wow. OK. There's a lot there.

So these Stephen Miller emails, how did SPLC get them?

GUERRERO: Yes. So a journalist named Katie McHugh was working at Breitbart at the time. Breitbart editors introduced her to Miller as someone who would influence the direction of her reporting. McHugh was fired in 2017 for anti-Muslim tweets and has since renounced the far-right movement. She shared her Breitbart emails with the SPLC. And I spoke to her, and she says Miller expressed a real familiarity with white supremacist literature. There's more than 900 emails, and the Southern Poverty Law Center plans to roll them out slowly, including some new ones that should be coming out today.

GREENE: Does what's in these emails line up with what you've learned about Stephen Miller in your reporting for the book?

GUERRERO: Yes. The emails are consistent with some of my reporting about him. Miller has long been influenced by ideas about the U.S. as a nation that was forged by white men and should hold on to that heritage. At the time that these emails were sent, Miller was working for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, and then he joined the Trump campaign in January 2016. It's worth noting that after the emails were sent, Breitbart did publish articles that were consistent with them.

GREENE: Can you just remind me what his role is in the Trump administration now?

GUERRERO: Yeah. He's the White House's main policy adviser on immigration. We can see some of what was captured in the emails in Trump's immigration policy. Trump often says he's focused on stopping people coming into the U.S. illegally, like criminals and drug traffickers. But they're also putting sharp limits on legal immigration, which reflect some of these ideas about limiting flows of people from nonwhite countries.

GREENE: KPBS reporter Jean Guerrero. Thanks so much, Jean.

GUERRERO: Thank you.

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GREENE: Important question here - is Google safeguarding the medical information of millions of American patients? A federal regulator wants to know the answer.

KING: Yeah. So here's what's going on. Google has a data-sharing partnership with a big U.S. health network. This partnership is called Project Nightingale. An office in the Department of Health and Human Services is worried about privacy and is investigating now. And we should note that Google is one of NPR's financial supporters.

GREENE: All right. Let's bring in NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond to talk about this. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: All right. So what is this Google project called Project Nightingale?

BOND: This is the deal that Google has struck with Ascension, which is this big Catholic health care system that operates hospitals and doctors' offices in 20 states and D.C. Google says it has a contract to manage Ascension's clinical data. So that's test results, hospitalization records, treatment records - you know, your whole health history. The companies say they're working together to make sure doctors have access to all of patients' records.

GREENE: So this is Google doing something they say is about helping patients.

BOND: Yeah. They say they're working on artificial intelligence tools that could analyze these records and even make suggestions about treatment. This was first reported by The Wall Street Journal this week, and Google's confirmed it. And you know, just to set the scene a little bit - you know, as anyone who's dealt with a doctor's office or a hospital knows, lots of these systems are really fragmented, meaning one of your...

GREENE: Like, a total mess sometimes.

BOND: Right. And your doctor may not know what's going on elsewhere kind of in your health. And so all of these health providers are looking to move electronic records into the cloud. And tech companies see this as a massive business opportunity, not just for Google but the other tech giants, too. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft - they're all racing to get into health care.

GREENE: OK. So what is the big worry here?

BOND: Well, it's really privacy. You know, Google already knows so much about all of us. And now we're talking about medical history, health information. That's sensitive stuff. Critics are asking, what else might Google do with this? And it comes on the heels of Google's recent announcement that it's buying Fitbit, which makes fitness trackers. And you know, Google's going to spend $2 billion on that deal.

GREENE: OK. So some privacy concerns - what about the law? I mean, is what Google's doing here legal?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, Google and Ascension say they're following federal laws about patient privacy that address just those things. And Google says it actually does similar work with dozens of other health care providers.

But this week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as you mentioned, said it wants more information about how Google and Ascension are collecting these medical records to make sure they are, indeed, following the law.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said Google and Ascension should stop the project entirely while it's being reviewed. He told CNBC he was concerned about patients and whether they had been adequately notified about Google accessing their data.

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MARK WARNER: Should it be done without consent? And should it be done where we're frankly empowering one of the already dominant platforms without any competition?

BOND: And critics say Google - it's not just that Google, you know, has these issues about data, it's also not a great track record on privacy. It's actually been sued over it - how it handled health data for a research project with the University of Chicago. Google has denied those accusations.

GREENE: NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Shannon, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

BOND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.