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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

House Republicans have spent months on a presidential impeachment investigation. They found no direct evidence of wrongdoing by the president.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But that doesn't match the picture painted in conservative media. And now the House prepares to move forward with an impeachment inquiry. Lawmakers say it's about corruption and political influence peddling. House Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters yesterday that this is the only way forward.

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MIKE JOHNSON: We've come to this impasse where following the facts where they lead is hitting a stone wall because the White House is impeding that investigation now. They're not allowing witnesses to come forward and thousands of pages of documents. So we have no choice.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel is with us here in Studio 31 in Washington, D.C. Eric, good morning.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why are Republicans voting now?

MCDANIEL: Good question. After all, like you guys mentioned, they've been investigating for months. Johnson says this is about legal leverage. Republicans want records the president hasn't turned over. The White House has cited a lack of a formal vote on an impeachment inquiry. And Republicans want to talk to some people who've been ignoring them.

But Johnson is also under tremendous political pressure to moving ahead on impeachment from hard-liners, by which I mean the most ideological, often anti-compromise set of Republicans. And since Johnson's been unable to do the other seemingly impossible thing that those folks want, namely uniting Republicans behind huge spending cuts with socially conservative policy writers, this is a way to maybe secure a win and impugn Biden at a time when the face of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, faces criminal charges across the country in connection to, among other things, attempting to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election.

INSKEEP: OK. So he can't deliver other things. He can perhaps deliver an impeachment inquiry. But what do Republicans at least allege the president did?

MCDANIEL: So let me say again, there is no direct evidence that implicates President Biden in any wrongdoing. But the substance of the allegation is that latent to Biden's tenure as vice president and after he left office, his son Hunter, who did give up a lucrative lobbying career when his dad became vice president, was - served on the board of directors for a Ukrainian oligarch's energy company, helped a Chinese energy company, both for million-dollar-plus payouts. Republicans say the younger Biden appears to have been selling influence or the appearance of influence and allege, so far, again, without direct evidence, that Biden was somehow involved.

INSKEEP: How is the White House responding?

MCDANIEL: Well, they categorically deny any allegation that Joe Biden did anything illegal or even improper. They say GOP investigators have access to tens of thousands of pages of financial records, thousands of pages of reports from the Treasury Department, dozens of hours of witness interviews, as well as material from the FBI, DOJ and National Archives. Republicans, though, are frustrated they haven't gotten everything they asked for.

INSKEEP: I just want to note a number of Republicans in different ways have acknowledged, you know, we don't actually have any direct evidence against the president. And now comes this impeachment vote. And Republicans can only lose a handful of votes if they're going to prevail. Can they prevail?

MCDANIEL: Maybe, maybe not. As far as I can tell, there's only one public no vote. That's Ken Buck of Colorado. And Republicans have a three-seat majority if everyone shows up to vote. So this is going to be a tough ask for folks who are in really competitive seats. The context, though, is that this is a vote on the inquiry, not a vote to actually impeach the president. And that might give folks a way to say, look; there's enough suspicious activity here to keep digging, and that's why I voted to support the investigation.

INSKEEP: In any case, this investigation, I guess, would continue into the election year of 2024.

MCDANIEL: Right. So they've already been investigating for months. They're supposed to continue today. As a matter of fact, the president's son, Hunter Biden, is scheduled to appear for a closed-door deposition, but the younger Biden says he only wants to testify publicly, and I don't expect that he'll show up. My understanding is that Republicans will attempt to move ahead with an actual articles of impeachment vote in January, which is also, I should say, when they attempt to keep the government funded.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel, thanks so much.

MCDANIEL: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Some other news - President Biden offered words of caution for Israel in its war against Hamas.

MARTIN: Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Biden has strongly supported Israel's right to defend itself, especially publicly. That hasn't changed, but in some off-camera remarks, he said Israel is losing support over its, quote, "indiscriminate bombing" of Gaza. His comments reflected the divide between the U.S. and the Israeli governments over what should happen once the fighting in Gaza comes to an end.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is in our studios. Franco, good to see you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good to see you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. So I'm trying to think about this. President Biden from the beginning has said, I support Israel, but listen, guys. Be careful. Don't overreact. Don't be emotional. Now he's saying something, well, a little bit further along the same lines. What is he saying and why?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, Steve, Biden is reiterating that Israel still has the right to go after Hamas, and he's emphasizing that. But he's also saying as long as it follows the rules of war and that they try to protect civilians. And he emphasized that the U.S. and Europe still have the support - or are supporting Israel. But Biden said, quote, "they're starting to lose that support by the indiscriminate bombing that takes place." And that's the end of the quote.

INSKEEP: That's really interesting. So he's essentially saying, you're doing the thing that I cautioned you not to do...

ORDOÑEZ: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Some weeks ago. I should say that you're reading these quotes from an official White House transcript. We're not going to hear the sound of the president's voice because it was not on cameras at a fundraiser. How is this different from what he said in more public settings?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, he and his officials have been very careful not to give an evaluation of how the military campaign is going. They have said that the U.S. is telling Israel privately to protect innocent civilians. But Biden's description at that fundraiser as, quote, "indiscriminate bombing" is pretty blunt.

INSKEEP: And is there any chance this is what they would call a gaffe, that the president did not intend to go this far?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, no. I mean, this was not a throwaway line. He talked about this, you know, kind of in depth. I mean, he not only talked about Bibi; he talked about other officials and basically said that this is - he's dealing with the most conservative government in Israel's history.

INSKEEP: Oh, now that's interesting when you say Bibi, Benjamin Netanyahu, here - longtime friend of the president of the United States, who's been involved in foreign policy for decades. But now Biden is saying to Netanyahu, you're being pushed too far by your right-wing government. And Netanyahu yesterday is saying he disagrees with the United States over the future, who should be running Gaza once this war is stopped. What is the president saying about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Biden didn't address Netanyahu's statements directly, but he acknowledged that they are not on the same page right now. He said that Netanyahu has got a tough choice to make, and he's been pushing - Biden, that is - for a revitalized Palestinian Authority to take over and govern Gaza, as well as the West Bank. You know, he's long been an advocate for a two-state solution. And he says Netanyahu is in a bind because of the right flank of his government and that they oppose any type of role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. And according to the transcript, Biden said, you cannot say there's no Palestinian state at all in the future. And that's really going to be the hard part for them.

INSKEEP: Which is something that Netanyahu and a lot of right-wingers have said - that they can't allow a full Palestinian state. Hasn't Biden even singled out Israel's national security minister by name in some of these remarks?

ORDOÑEZ: Yes, he has. He says that the minister not only wants to go against Hamas, but wants retribution against all Palestinians.

INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Alabama plans to use nitrogen gas to execute a death row prisoner in January.

MARTIN: It's the second time the state has tried to execute Kenneth Smith, and this method of execution has never been used in the United States. A document obtained by NPR has found that Alabama's Department of Corrections cannot guarantee the safety of witnesses during the execution.

INSKEEP: Our investigative reporter Chiara Eisner is in the studio to share more on this. Good morning.

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Welcome. Thanks for coming by. What have you learned?

EISNER: So I spoke with the spiritual adviser of Alabama death row prisoner Kenneth Smith. His name is Reverend Jeff Hood. Hood shared a document with me that was essentially a waiver from the Department of Corrections acknowledging that he could be in danger by being close to Smith when they administer the nitrogen gas.

INSKEEP: And he would be close to Smith during the actual execution as his spiritual adviser? He'd be standing right there? Is that right?

EISNER: He'd be standing right there. He'd be in the room.

INSKEEP: OK. So how would it be that he would be endangered by the execution itself?

EISNER: Smith will have a mask on, and that's how they're going to give him the gas. That mask could detach, and the gas could get to other people in the room that way. This document that he signed says that even if Smith's mask stays on, gas could still leak above Smith's head. So Hood had to agree to stay at least 3 feet away from the gas. But nitrogen gas is odorless and it's invisible, so experts told me that rule would be pretty hard to follow, and it could be difficult for anyone else in the room to even know they're being exposed. An anesthesiologist I spoke with, Dr. Joel Zivot, said people exposed to nitrogen gas like that could start to hyperventilate.

JOEL ZIVOT: And that severe hyperventilation, you know, can lead to a stroke. So there is some injury that could happen to you, you know, as just being in the proximity of that. It's all very concerning. They're not being realistic about what exactly is at stake here.

INSKEEP: And your reporting tells us Alabama knows this is a risk. That's why they're making Hood sign this waiver form. Is the spiritual adviser Reverend Hood OK with that?

EISNER: Well, he told me he signed the form under duress because it was the only way he felt he'd be allowed to be there with Smith and do his job. He's preparing for the worst. Here he is.

JEFF HOOD: When I first got in touch with Kenny, one of the first things that he asked me was, are you prepared to die to be my spiritual adviser? And it's something that I've definitely had to meditate and pray on and just cling to a real knowledge that greater love hath no one than this, than they who would give their life for their friend.

EISNER: He was quoting Scripture there. And there's also a question of whether this could violate the religious liberty of both men. Hood has been a minister during multiple other executions in Alabama and other states. And in those cases, he needed to be close to inmates to anoint them with oil and administer last rites. But he says that won't be possible here if he has to stay 3 feet away for safety reasons.

INSKEEP: What's Alabama saying?

EISNER: I asked them for comment. I haven't heard back from them yet. Two weeks ago, I tried to get this document directly from them, along with any others that workers might have signed, but the Department of Corrections responded then that it would be, quote, "detrimental to the public interest," and they did not release those forms to me. The agency does say on the form that they believe gas escaping would be highly unlikely, and there will be gas monitors in the room.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from the prisoner, Kenneth Smith?

EISNER: He called me from the prison in Alabama last week. And I should say the state has already tried to execute him once before by lethal injection. Last year, he was on the gurney for four hours as they tried to find a vein.

KENNETH SMITH: I'm still carrying the trauma from the last time. So everybody is telling me that I'm going to suffer. Well, I'm absolutely terrified.

EISNER: The execution is scheduled for January 25, and Reverend Hood is planning to be there regardless.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chiara Eisner, thanks so much.

EISNER: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Here's one other big story we're following today.

MARTIN: Nearly every nation in the world has agreed for the first time to transition away from fossil fuels. That is the outcome of the COP28 climate summit that ended in Dubai today.

INSKEEP: Some countries wanted more than this agreement, which stops short of urging the world to completely phase out coal, oil and gas. Some loopholes will allow countries to keep exploiting and using these fossil fuels.

MARTIN: Tune in to MORNING EDITION for the latest news on this developing story. 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.

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