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Morning News Brief: Uber CEO Resigns, GOP Wins In Georgia, Russia Investigation


It has been a very rough year for Uber.


To say the least - and here's how we got to this point. In February, a former Uber engineer blogged about how the company mishandled her sexual harassment complaints. That prompted other people to come forward. And that led to investigations, which found widespread sexual harassment and discrimination throughout the company. Last week, the CEO, Travis Kalanick, announced he was going on a leave of absence for personal reasons. And then late last night, the company announced he is stepping down.

GREENE: OK, and let's talk about that with Kara Swisher. She is executive editor of "Recode," which covers tech companies here in California. Hey, Kara.

KARA SWISHER: Hey, how you doing?

GREENE: I'm good, thank you. So I was reading your story about the Uber workplace culture. And you described it as something resembling real - a really toxic goat rodeo.

SWISHER: Yeah, something like that.

GREENE: I have never been to a goat rodeo. What exactly do you mean?

SWISHER: It stinks. I can tell you it stinks, and it's quite messy. And that was what was going on at Uber - not just around sexual harassment, but - and sexism - but, you know, retaliatory behavior, lack of HR, lack of any kind of accountability of executives. And there's so many things that we uncovered and others, such as Mike Isaac at The New York Times, uncovered about various practices that were going on at the company under the leadership of Travis Kalanick.

GREENE: Well, so Kalanick leaves now. Is this departure damaging for the company? Or is this actually helpful as they move forward now?

SWISHER: Well, a lot of people have different opinions. At "Recode," we wrote yesterday - in fact, yesterday morning I wrote that I thought he should step down. I was having sort of a debate with Arianna Huffington, who is on the board of Uber, who felt that he could be redeemed and that was to the good of Uber because he was innovative and had pushed the company forward. I felt it was like using poison to fix a patient who was poisoned.

And to me, he was - you know, he was the reason Uber was the way it is. And it's also the reason why Uber was as successful as it is. But I think the issue is that had he - had the situation gotten just so bad and so toxic that he wasn't the one to solve the next problems that Uber faces, of which there are many.

GREENE: Well, so you cover companies like Uber. You cover the problems that can exist. Are these problems unique to Uber in the workplace, or are we looking at something that is more widespread?

SWISHER: Well, I wish I could say they were not uncommon - I mean, that they - that this was unusual. Maybe - I think Uber's the quintessence of this, sort of the concentration of it, of arrogance, of bro culture, of lack of gender equality, lack of racial equality at all these companies.

But I think, you know, it's an unusual case, but every one of these things exists at every one, every big tech company in Silicon Valley. And I just think most companies have systems in place to deal with them, with these issues - you know, a sexual harassment issue. And Susan - let me just say, Susan deserves huge kudos for bringing this to light.

GREENE: Susan...

SWISHER: Susan Fowler, who was the engineer at Uber who wrote the first blog chat - post...

GREENE: Right.

SWISHER: ...Which was - which was called, "My Very Strange Year At Uber" (ph). And she deserves a lot of credit. But it's not unusual, unfortunately.

GREENE: You really point to her blog post as as uncovering and sort of starting this process.

SWISHER: Absolutely, 100 percent. She deserves - it was a very brave thing to do. And it turned out - it's caused a lot of repercussions for sure.

INSKEEP: And this is a reminder, this is a company that overtly tried to disrupt the rules for taxi services around the country. But clearly, it's not going to be disrupting the rules for workplace harassment.

SWISHER: In fact, no.

GREENE: Yeah. All right, Kara Swisher is the executive editor of "Recode," talking to us about Uber's CEO leaving the company. Kara, thanks a lot.

SWISHER: Thanks a lot.

GREENE: All right, a special election in Georgia last night decided only one of 435 seats in the House of Representatives. But judging by the tens of millions of dollars spent, it meant a lot to both parties.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and Republican Karen Handel is the winner, beating Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, last night and winning a seat from northern Georgia. She addressed her supporters last night.


KAREN HANDEL: To the Jon Ossoff supporters, know that my commitments, they extend to every one of you as well. We may have some different beliefs, but we are part of one community, the community of the 6th District.


INSKEEP: Which was a very particular community of interest to the political world. This was a special election widely seen as a referendum on President Trump. And the Republican candidate, of course, won. Although, we should note, it was a narrow win in a conservative district that Republicans would normally win very easily.

GREENE: And our colleague, NPR's Don Gonyea, is in Georgia. He was covering this race. And, Don, it must have felt like you were covering a presidential campaign. There was so much interest here.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It sure did. I mean, there were thousands of people at the Ossoff watch party last night. Handel had a huge crowd as well. It felt like - it felt presidential in terms of its size and the money spent - the money especially.

GREENE: Well, what helped the Republican, Karen Handel, win? And what hurt the Democrat, Jon Ossoff?

GONYEA: Well, she did it with turnout. She mobilized her base, built margins where she needed to build margins around the district. And remember, this was a runoff after April's election. Back then, Ossoff just missed the 50 percent threshold that would have put him in Congress right then and there.

GREENE: Amazing.

GONYEA: Handle only got 20 percent in that election. But the GOP took that as a wakeup call, it seems. They got out the vote, and they took advantages of the advantages you get in a really red district. Even though they were outspent, Ossoff last night told his supporters to take some consolation. He said they fought a fight in a place that nobody thought that they could fight. But again, ultimately, it's a missed opportunity.

GREENE: Well, so, I mean, was this just a case where you have a lot of people who are addicted to politics and want to spend money, and this was the only race out there that they could pay attention to? Or are there some real conclusions that can be drawn in terms of a referendum on President Trump and his party?

GONYEA: Somebody said to me, if you're a football fan in the summertime, you watch arena football because that's the only game there is. So that's...

GREENE: (Laughter). Right, you don't want to. But if it's the only thing there is...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GREENE: That's great.

GONYEA: This is the only place to spend the money. So the money all found its way here.


GONYEA: But let's talk about President Trump. He jumped in here, and he got rewarded. And there wasn't a backlash against his presidency, as some had predicted and as Democrats needed. So even though he's not popular here - remember he only barely carried this district back in November - he got involved. He tweeted. He fundraised. He tweeted some more, and it was ultimately a good thing for Karen Handel, even though she would embrace him one day and seemed to keep him at arm's length the next.

GREENE: That's interesting.

INSKEEP: You know, Democrats who lost can say, well, it was a red district. It was an uphill climb. We got close. But in the end, they did lose. And this is what Democrats will need to do if they want to win the House in 2018, is win some red districts they haven't yet.

GONYEA: That's right. This is exactly the kind of district they need if they hope to take over a majority of the U.S. House next year. Lots of suburban, highly educated, you know, voters, lots of moderate Republicans. And they weren't able to do it here.

GREENE: NPR's Don Gonyea in the state of Georgia. Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure.


GREENE: All right, we're looking at two congressional hearings today on Russia. And it sounds like lawmakers are turning back to their original focus, Russia.

INSKEEP: Russia, rather than the subsidiary issues. There's been so much focus on what President Trump and his aides did or did not do. But these hearings today focus on underlying questions. How exactly did Russia interfere in the 2016 election? And what can be done to prevent it happening again? Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will testify before the House intelligence committee today. He already met with the Senate intelligence committee last week behind closed doors.

GREENE: NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly is going to - what, Mary Louise? - have like two TVs on at the same time watching these two hearings, or...

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: (Laughter) Dueling hearings on Capitol Hill.

GREENE: Yeah, exactly.

KELLY: It's going to be a good day.

GREENE: Well, so what - is there, like, a central question about what Russia did or didn't do that lawmakers are trying to answer today?

KELLY: Well, the banner development today is, as you all just noted, is that these Russia hearings are actually going to be about Russia for a change and not about politics here in Washington. So on the Senate side, for example, no marquee name is testifying today. Instead it's this roster of FBI, Homeland Security officials, state officials, all answering questions about Russia's ambitions - past, present and future.

And I'm particularly interested to hear today about the present and future side of this, what we know about what Russia may be doing now, at this moment. There's a lot of focus on what's happening in Europe and interference in European elections - but this sense that Russia is not going away on the U.S. political landscape.

GREENE: Well, former FBI Director James Comey testified. And he sort of seemed to suggest that this kind of Russian meddling is not just still going on but that it's probably not going to stop.


JAMES COMEY: They'll be back. And they'll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018. And one of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and so doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process. It's possible they're misreading that as, it worked, and so we'll come back and hit them again in 2020.

GREENE: Mary Louise, this is kind of extraordinary. I mean, is that just the future that we are accepting, that adversaries are going to meddle in one another's elections?

KELLY: It likely is the future. It certainly is the past between the U.S. and Russia. I mean, one former U.S. official I was speaking to yesterday said the only problem with those statements like we just heard there from Comey is that it suggests Russia ever went away in the U.S. political landscape. So that's something to watch for today, this effort to deter foreign interference going forward.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is going to be covering those two Russia hearings on Capitol Hill today. Mary Louise, thanks as always.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.