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News Brief: House Condemns Trump Tweets, Planned Parenthood, Moscow Protests

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump used racist language, and that has led to turmoil over whether Congress can call the president's language racist.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, the House voted to condemn the president's remarks about four congresswomen of color. You may recall he picked up an old phrase against immigrants, telling all four United States citizens to go back where they came from. It was such an explosive statement that just discussing it in the House of Representatives yesterday triggered protest against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Here were her words that became the focus of debate.

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NANCY PELOSI: Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president's racist tweets. To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sustained (ph).

PELOSI: ...Of our oath of office to protect the American people.

INSKEEP: You hear the first murmurs of protest there. Republicans objected to the use of the word racist against the president, as a violation of House rules. But the House did go on to pass the first House rebuke of a president in more than 100 years.

KING: NPR political reporter Tim Mak is in studio with us. Good morning, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So it sounds like things got a little crazy on the floor of the House last night (laughter), and then there was a vote. Tell us about what happened.

MAK: Sure. The vote was mostly along party lines, as the House split 240 to 187. So let's talk a little bit about what the resolution actually said - it stated that the House, quote, "strongly condemns President Donald Trump's racist comments that have legitimized an increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color." It also states that immigrants, quote, "have made America stronger, and that those who take the oath of citizenship are every bit as American as those whose families have lived in the United States for many generations."

KING: As Steve pointed out, Tim, lawmakers were fighting over whether the term racist was even allowed, and they were citing these rules of decorum, which I am unclear on. What do the rules say?

MAK: So it was interesting because the resolution itself, as I just quoted, calls the comments racist, OK? So there was an hours-long back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats on whether you could characterize the president's comments as racist, whether it conformed with House rules. So there's no actual House rule that says explicitly, you can't call the president's words racist. But the House has a rule against making debates personal, and this goes way back to a manual written by Thomas Jefferson. These rules basically have been interpreted over many, many years to include precedents, and these precedents say it's out of order to call someone's comments racist on the House floor.

Congressman Doug Collins is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and this is what he said.

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DOUG COLLINS: When we consider the power of this chamber to legislate for the common good, I wonder why my colleagues have become so eager to attack the president they're willing to sacrifice the rules, precedent and the integrity of the people's House for an unprecedented vote that undercuts its very democratic processes.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention we've heard about these rules before. There was a congressman who accused President Obama of lying during a speech in Congress, and he was rebuked for that. You're not supposed to get into somebody's motives, right?

MAK: That's correct. I mean, this is something - these rules are constantly changing due to precedents and rulings from the chair. But it is notable that Republicans sought a debate over whether you could technically call the president's comments racist and sought to avoid a debate over the substance of the president's comments itself - whether the president was right or wrong to say what he said.

Now, about a dozen House Republicans spoke out against the president, but only about four Republicans ultimately joined with Democrats to support this measure - and also, an independent, Justin Amash, who was formerly a Republican, also joined with Democrats.

KING: NPR's political reporter Tim Mak. Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

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KING: All right, the fight for abortion rights has become an enormous battle in courts and states in this country, and now Planned Parenthood has removed its president.

INSKEEP: Yeah, a dramatic moment. Dr. Leana Wen is only the second medical doctor to lead the organization in its more than 100-year history, and she was in the job for less than a year. Then Planned Parenthood yesterday issued a statement announcing her departure and wishing her well. She says she was forced out after what she described on Twitter as a secret meeting of Planned Parenthood's board.

KING: NPR's Sarah McCammon covers reproductive rights. She's with us this morning. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right, so there's clearly something going on here between Dr. Leana Wen and Planned Parenthood's board. What do we know about why she was forced out?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. As you noted, Wen said it was a secret meeting that pushed her out, and that it came after what she described as good-faith negotiations that had been going on over her exit. Wen released a long letter in which she says she was on her way out over what she called philosophical differences with the organization. And then she said, in one point of the letter, that she'd come to work on a broad range of health care issues, but that, quote, "the new board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy."

Wen did go on to say she understands some of the reasons for that shift, and she will do everything she can to ensure a smooth transition, though.

KING: And Planned Parenthood itself has not said much, right? They've not given an official explanation for what's going on. I know that you've been talking to people behind the scenes. Can they give you any clarity?

MCCAMMON: Right. They've pretty much thanked her for her service and wished her the best. But, yeah, behind the scenes, I'm hearing a number of reasons. I've heard several people close to the situation say that there were issues with Wen's leadership style from the beginning, that a lot of people at Planned Parenthood didn't see her as a great fit with the organization. A lot of key leaders and other staff left Planned Parenthood soon after she came in.

Another factor, I've been told, is that Wen came from a public health background, and she was, as we've said, a doctor. She was a former public health official in Baltimore. And my sources say she seemed more comfortable talking about this broad range of health issues that she refers to in her letter than really advocating for abortion rights. And this, of course, Noel, is at a time when reproductive rights advocates feel very much under attack at the federal and state level.

KING: Right, exactly. I mean, this has been the big news over the past couple of months - these new restrictive laws being passed; Planned Parenthood a big part of that. What does that mean for this organization now?

MCCAMMON: Right. Well, she was seen - you know, bringing in a medical doctor was seen as a good move, first of all, because Planned Parenthood wants to place abortion in that larger context of health care. But, again, she wasn't seen as leaning in heavily enough to that issue. I'm told that a lot of people come to Planned Parenthood because they're proud to work on abortion rights and other issues, and so, again, that wasn't a fit.

What it means now - I think it says a lot that they've let their president go at this key time, with so many challenges, potentially a Supreme Court challenge shaping up in the next couple of years, heading into an election year. You know, clearly, there wasn't a fit there, as we've said.

Stepping into the role on an interim basis is Alexis McGill Johnson, a longtime Planned Parenthood board member - well-liked, from what I've heard. She's going to have a lot on her plate. Planned Parenthood says they hope to have a permanent president in place by the end of next year. But, again, next year's a campaign year, so this is a big job for this person.

KING: And a lot for Planned Parenthood to worry about and think about in the meantime, yeah.

MCCAMMON: Absolutely.

KING: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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KING: All right, now we have a story of Russian election interference, and I am being slightly arch.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I suppose so because this is not Russian interference in U.S. elections but Russian interference alleged in Russia. For the third consecutive day, demonstrators in Russia rallied to protest for free and fair elections, demanding that opposition candidates be allowed to run for Moscow's city council.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

KING: That's the sound of protesters chanting, Russia without Putin. NPR's Lucian Kim was at that protest last night. We have him on the line. Good morning, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: OK, here's what I don't understand - you've got protesters protesting something that's going on with a city council election in Moscow, but they're shouting, Russia without Putin. Can you explain what brought protesters out into the street?

KIM: Well, the impetus was the Moscow Election Commission barring about a dozen opposition candidates from the ballot in the September elections for the city council. And these independent candidates had to collect thousands of signatures from voters, and the commission ruled that too many of these were invalid. I spoke to one protester. His name is Vladimir Kuznitov (ph), who works in banking.

VLADIMIR KUZNITOV: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: So what he's saying is that he himself volunteered to collect these signatures, and he's upset that they've now been thrown out. I spoke to a number of protesters. What really struck me was how restrained and subdued they were. The system they're up against is very powerful. Political protests here in the past have gone nowhere. And these protesters are still in a tiny minority.

KING: I wonder, was it dangerous for people to be out there last night?

KIM: Well, there was a police presence, but the police was very restrained, held back. It was an unsanctioned demonstration, so of course, there was always that element of danger there.

KING: And does a protest about city council really about - is a protest about city council really a protest about something bigger? Is this really about just rights more broadly - the right of Russian people to be able to vote, to have elections without them being interfered in?

KIM: Absolutely, everything you said. And to go back to your initial question about, you know, why were the people chanting Russia without Putin - I mean, actually, this whole issue is about President Putin. The next presidential election isn't until 2024.

KING: Wow.

KIM: So Putin's opponents are now focusing on local elections, and they're really trying to make any inroads into this very monolithic system. Moscow is the key here. It's Russia's largest city. It's also where the opposition has a potentially large support base. So the idea here is, because turnout for these kind of elections is usually very low, if they have a very enthusiastic campaign by well-known opposition candidates, they actually have a high chance of getting into the city council, and of course, that's why their candidates were denied a chance to run.

KING: Use a small race to chisel away - that's really interesting. Let me ask you, what's the government's reaction been? Does Vladimir Putin have a reason to be worried? Does he seem worried?

KIM: (Laughter) Well, Putin's spokesman has said that the Kremlin is following these elections, but that, of course, this is a local issue for local authorities to decide. Putin has no reason to be worried yet.

But keeping Moscow residents happy is probably one of his biggest headaches. They are the best educated, most affluent and most demanding part of the Russian population. The government has really poured billions of dollars into the urban renewal projects to keep Moscovites happy. And so the opposition really wants to turn these city council elections into a new issue to rally around, and they're hoping for big turnout at a demonstration this weekend.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim. Thanks, Lucian.

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