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Grace: Ben Sasse is typically hard to reach, but a reporter isn't 'high' for wanting an interview

The ground shook Wednesday in Washington. And I’m not talking about the White House call transcript.

Ben Sasse spoke, giving a World-Herald reporter an interview. On the record. On a relevant topic. And made news for what he said.

Nebraska’s junior senator was one of few Republicans in Congress to appear to question President Donald Trump’s behavior in allegedly pressing a foreign power for dirt on political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Sasse told my Washington, D.C.-based colleague Joseph Morton that there was “terrible stuff” in the transcript of a July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Sasse didn’t support the impeachment inquiry that House Democrats have launched, however, and he also said he wanted to see more information before drawing conclusions.

Still, his words stood in stark contrast to what most congressional Republicans and certainly the other Republicans in the Nebraska-Iowa delegation were saying that day.

It also forced me to revise this column, which had been set to run Thursday. That column was about how Sasse, a Harvard- and Yale-educated former university president, is media-allergic unless, it seems, he’s on book tour. (Sasse twice during the past five years has published nonfiction books, including one bestseller on problems in America).

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Then he gave my colleague an interview, effectively scooping me. You can’t accuse someone of being hard to get when he’s suddenly available.

My interest began Monday, when Sasse politely brushed off a Vice News correspondent who tried to get him to comment on what was then a breaking story on the government whistleblower’s complaint.

Liz Landers tweeted out the exchange. Her first tweet noted that Sasse told her he was on the Senate intelligence committee and hadn’t been fully briefed and could not, therefore, expound on the developments. Her second tweet noted that she asked him again and he welcomed her to “talk to James in my office.”

This tweet caught the attention of those who read into that a symbol of Sasse punting on saying anything. That reaction caused James In My Office, Sasse’s communications director James Wegmann, to fire off his own tweet:

“Hey folks,” Wegmann said on Twitter Monday, “if you think that @BenSasse (a member of the Intel Committee) is going to do instant commentary on Intel-related briefings in the hallway, you’re high.”

Landers, however, had not gone to the Senate Hart Building by way of … Colorado.

“Maybe I’m naive because I don’t cover him full-time,” she said in an interview. “But I thought it was worth asking because this is such a big story.”

Landers told me Sasse was pleasant and shook her hand. She said she had to give it the old college try, though she knew Sasse had a reputation for being reticent.

Sasse has earned this reputation because he’s hard for reporters to reach. Unlike a lot of other members of Congress, Sasse generally doesn’t mingle or talk to reporters in government hallways. He’s taking alternate routes or blowing by reporters with his phone pressed to his ear.

Unlike fellow Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, Sasse doesn’t hold regular conference calls with home-state reporters.

Unlike Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican who represents Omaha in Congress, Sasse is not just a text message away. And while Deb Fischer, Nebraska’s other U.S. senator and another Republican, is not overly chatty, she will talk to reporters.

What’s more, Sasse generally has stopped holding in-person town hall meetings back in Nebraska. After being confronted by an angry constituent at a Husker game, Sasse has even stopped handing out Runzas at Memorial Stadium.

Reporters must go through Sasse’s gatekeeper, Wegmann, who objected to the notion that his boss is hard to reach. He said in an email to me that Sasse is “totally available.” How? He said the senator invited 1.1 million Nebraskans to join telephone town halls this year and talked with some 150,000 constituents that way. Wegmann said Sasse hosts “dozens of constituent meetings most weeks the Senate is in session.”

Wegmann said Sasse has been going door to door in Nebraska in the past seven weeks, having a presence in half of the state’s 93 counties.

“Some reporters expecting constant hot takes on Intelligence Committee and other deliberate matters are frustrated he doesn’t do off-the-cuff insta-commentary,” he wrote, “but he doesn’t think 24/7 chatter fits well with serious deliberation — and I think most Nebraskans agree with Ben.”

OK. But maybe most Nebraskans also would like to know what this once-never-Trumper, who recently was endorsed by the president, thinks now. And maybe most Nebraskans understand that it’s one thing for their senator to issue a statement or comment on Twitter without being challenged. It’s another to have a real give-and-take and — to Wegmann’s point — have the opportunity for more serious deliberation.

What Sasse and the press share is this: We represent Nebraskans; we aim to serve the public. He is the elected official. We are the public’s eyes and ears.

My colleagues who deal more regularly with the Nebraska and Iowa congressional delegation say Sasse is the hardest to reach and least available. In covering a total of eight U.S. senators and nine U.S. House members from both states over the past 13 years, Morton said most of those lawmakers have been generally willing to grant interviews. This doesn’t mean they comment on every issue. But they have been relatively easy to reach.

Tension between elected officials and members of the news media is not new and is, in a way, enshrined in the practice of a free society. The press is meant to serve as a check on power.

(It also can work for politicians in giving them a vehicle to tout what they’ve done. Not all pols have press allergies. Some you can’t get off the phone. See Ashford, Brad.)

It’s not unusual for a politician to want to lie low or control the story. It is not unusual for an elected official to say “no comment.” It is within the realm of understanding that a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as Sasse is, would not want to risk talking about highly sensitive information. And it makes sense that Sasse might not want to be too spontaneous in a hallway interview involving serious allegations against the president.

Yet local political scientists say it’s important for members of Congress to communicate. John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he has not analyzed Sasse’s face time with reporters or constituents but said the senator should do it, “and if he’s not doing that, it’s important he be called on it.”

Randall Adkins of the University of Nebraska at Omaha said all politicians are different and some are more policy grinders who may be reluctant or less comfortable to be out in front. At election or reelection time, he said, politicians usually get over that reluctance.

In his 2018 book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” Sasse apparently expressed strong feelings about the news media. National Public Radio’s review pointed out that Sasse railed against the media “for many pages, suggesting there are no unbiased reporters, distinguishing little among organizations.” It would be interesting to talk to him about that.

I tried to make that case to Wegmann. The news media is not perfect. There are ways that both pols and the reporters who cover them could improve the national discussion.

But the senator just wasn’t available for an interview.

First duty of investigators is to protect Uber, not riders

PHOENIX— Inside the 23-story Bank of America Tower in downtown Phoenix, a team of almost 80 specialized workers grapples with some of the worst incidents that happen during Uber rides. Armed with little more than a phone headset andGPS ride data, these agents in the "special investigations unit" have to figure out what went wrong.

But when they make a determination, the investigators are coached by Uber to act in the company's interest first, ahead of passenger safety, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former investigators.

Uber has a three-strikes system, investigators said, but executives have made exceptions to keep drivers on the road.

For instance, a New York-area driver allegedly made three separate sexual advances on riders, said an investigator assigned to the case. After an executive overruled the investigator, the driver was allowed to continue working until a fourth incident, when a rider claimed that the driver raped her.

The agents are forbidden by Uber from routing allegations to police or from advising victims to seek legal counsel or make their own police reports, even when they get confessions of felonies, said Lilli Flores, a former investigator in Phoenix — a guideline corroborated by investigators, accusers and plaintiffs' attorneys.

"Investigators are there first to protect Uber; and then next to protect the customer," said Flores, who worked for almost two years as an Uber investigator and investigations trainer before leaving in November. "Our job is to keep the tone of our conversations with customers and drivers so that Uber is not held liable."

Even in themost severe cases, when Uber kicks drivers off the platform, it doesn't convey the information to police, other ride-hailing companies or background check firms, investigators said, steps that could prevent the driver from working for other companies.

Uber's investigative process is broken, say people who have worked there, stymied by Uber's insistence that its drivers are independent contractors and not employees — and therefore, it isn't responsible for their actions.

Uber disputes the allegations by investigators that protecting the company comes first.

"We created the SIU team not to shelter us from legal liability, but to provide specialized customer support to riders and drivers dealing with very serious real-life situations," Uber spokeswoman Jodi Page said in a statement. "Characterizing this team as anything but providing support to people after a difficult experience is just wrong. We will continue to put safety at the heart of everything we do and implement new approaches, based on expert guidance, to the benefit of both our customers and employees."

But investigators sayUber's process leaves bad actors on the road.

One investigator recalled a San Francisco driver who purportedly forced his way into the back seat and put his hand up a passenger's blouse before she struggled free. Another heard from riders that their driver threatened them with a hammer hidden under his seat. Neither lost driving privileges at the time.

Flores said that in her time at Uber, about one-third of cases handled by investigators dealt with sexual misconduct, including rape or unwanted flirtation or advances.

The process can fail victims because they often have no idea if their concerns have been addressed, riders and drivers said.

Sara Alfageeh alleged that her driver held her and a friend captive on the freeway near Charlotte, North Carolina, turning a 15-minute drive into a 45-minute one by driving the wrong way to "continue the conversation." She said that after reporting it to Uber and speaking with an investigator, Uber simply refunded her money and said she wouldn't be matched with the driver again.

"At the end of the day, we're not the judge and jury to determine whether a crime has occurred," said Tracey Breeden, Uber's global head of women's safety. "We're here to gather information, make a business decision. We're not law enforcement."

Uber's policy not to share its findings with background check firms, competitors or law enforcement is about being "survivor-centric," Breeden said. "A survivor should be able to own their story, they should be able to want to choose whether they provide that information to police."

Many investigators said they understood that if they contacted the police or advised victims to do so, they could be reprimanded or even fired.

Uber disputed the claim and said "it is the victim's choice to report an incident to police, not Uber's."

The company added that it introduced an option over a month ago "where we would advise that what is being reported may be a crime to give people the option to allow us to contact law enforcement on their behalf."

Whistleblower says White House tried to cover up call
Report says top officials sought to 'lock down' detailed transcript by moving it to a secret computer system

WASHINGTON (AP) — White House officials took extraordinary steps to "lock down" information about President Donald Trump's summertime phone call with the president of Ukraine, even moving the records to a secret computer system, a whistleblower alleges in a politically explosive complaint that accuses the administration of a wide-ranging cover-up.

The whistleblower, in a nine page document released Thursday, provides substantial new details about the circumstances of the phone call in which Trump spoke of how much the U.S. had helped Ukraine and encouraged new President Volodymyr Zelensky to help investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son.

Accusations of efforts to pressure the leader of a foreign nation to dig for dirt on a potential 2020 Trump rival are now at the heart of a House impeachment inquiry against the president. The whistleblower's official complaint alleges a concerted White House effort to suppress the transcript of the call, and describes a shadow campaign of foreign policy efforts by the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani that unnerved some senior administration officials who felt that he was circumventing normal channels.

"In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to 'lock down' all the records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced as is customary by the White House situation room," the complaint says.

The previously secret document, with its detail and clear narrative, is likely to accelerate the impeachment process and put more pressure on Trump to rebut its core contentions and on his fellow Republicans to defend him or not. It also provides a road map for Democrats to seek corroborating witnesses and evidence, which will complicate the president's efforts to characterize the findings as those of a lone partisan out to undermine him.

In response, Trump threatened "the person" who he said gave information to the whistleblower as he spoke at a private event in New York with staff from the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

"Who's the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that's close to a spy," Trump said in audio posted by the Los Angeles Times. "You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now."

On his Twitter account, Trump insisted that the entire controversy is political: "The Democrats are trying to destroy the Republican Party and all that it stands for. Stick together, play their game and fight hard Republicans. Our country is at stake." His tweet was in all capital letters.

Under pressure from House Democrats, the White House a day earlier released a rough transcript of the phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. In it, Trump prodded Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden, a potential 2020 election foe, and Biden's son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

But the complaint released Thursday offered a broader picture of what was happening in the White House and the administration at the time. In the aftermath of the call, according to the whistleblower, White House lawyers were concerned that "they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain," the complaint says.

The complaint has revived questions about the activities of Giuliani, who it says alarmed government officials by circumventing "national security decision making processes." Giuliani, a Trump loyalist who represented the president in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, repeatedly communicated with advisers of Ukraine's president in the days after the phone call.

The House Intelligence Committee released a redacted version of the whistleblower complaint Thursday ahead of testimony from Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. Maguire acknowledged that the complaint alleged serious wrongdoing by the president but said it was not his role to judge whether the allegations are credible or not.

Maguire said he was unfamiliar with any other whistleblower complaint in American history that "touched on such complicated and sensitive issues." He praised the whistleblower as having acted honorably, said he recognized the complaint as immediately sensitive and important and insisted that the White House did not direct him to withhold it from Congress.

"I believe that everything in this matter here is totally unprecedented," he said.

In the complaint, the anonymous whistleblower acknowledges not being present for Trump's Ukraine call but says multiple White House officials shared consistent details about it.

Adding another layer of intrigue, those officials told the whistleblower that "this was 'not the first time' under this administration that a presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information," the complaint says.

In this case, the complaint says, the officials told the whistleblower that they were "directed" by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization and distribution to Cabinet-level officials.

"This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call," the official complaint says.

"If this was all so innocent," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, "why did so many officials in the White House, in the Justice Department and elsewhere make such large efforts to prevent it from being made public?"

The complaint also says multiple U.S. officials reported that Giuliani traveled to Madrid one week after the call to meet with one of Zelensky's advisers and that the meeting was characterized as a follow-up to the telephone conversation between the two leaders.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who endorsed an impeachment investigation in light of the Ukraine revelations, said the content of the complaint "lifts this into whole new terrain."

The president, she said, "betrayed his oath of office, our national security and the integrity" of America's elections.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the intelligence committee, said the whistleblower "has given us a road map" for the impeachment investigation.

In the Senate, which would hold a trial if the House voted to impeach Trump, there was an undercurrent of concern among Republicans.

Many Republicans declined to comment about the complaint, saying at midday that they had not read the whistleblower report. But a few mounted defenses of the president and attacked the whistleblower's credibility.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who made several trips to meet with the Ukrainian president, including to the inauguration mentioned in the report, brushed off critics "impugning all kinds of nefarious motives here."

"This has been blown way out of proportion," he said.

Chatelain: The day ESPN's Lee Corso took on El Toro in Lincoln — and lived to tell about it

LINCOLN — Zach Limbach can still picture the scene outside his rundown red college house at 12th and Y Streets.

Baton twirlers dazzling tailgaters in the backyard. The smell of pulled pork mixed with cheap beer. Chants of “Go Big Red” echoing through the old trees.

Across the railroad tracks inside Memorial Stadium, No. 3 Nebraska had just edged No. 2 Oklahoma with a stunning trick-play touchdown. It was middle of the afternoon, and Limbach’s backyard party was just getting started.

That’s when he looked up to the 10th Street overpass and saw a stream of Husker fans marching north, trailing two state troopers and a man in a gray sweater.

Holy cow, that’s Lee Corso!

What happened next is a story Limbach has told hundreds of times, a story that stirs fond memories of Nebraska’s glory years, a story that says a lot about a college football icon.

“Every time you see Lee Corso on TV, it just puts a smile on your face,” Limbach said. “It just takes you back to that great day. The best day of our college lives.”

Eighteen years later, Limbach is a responsible adult directing activities at Lincoln East High School and awaiting another showdown at Memorial Stadium, this time Saturday against Ohio State. But the game itself has strangely taken a back seat to “College GameDay.”

Saturday morning is Nebraska’s first chance since 2007 to hold up hilarious homemade signs behind the ESPN set. It might also be Nebraska’s last chance to embrace (or heckle) the only original “GameDay” cast member, an 84-year-old stroke survivor who still waves the flag for his sport, leading Saturday morning pep rallies from Miami to Pasadena, Starkville to Fargo.

From the archives: A villain to Husker fans, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit has no problem with NU

College football evolves; Lee Corso endures.

His history with Nebraska is deeper than most places. From 1975 to 1978, Corso’s Indiana teams lost four consecutive games to Nebraska. The closest was in ’77, when IU trailed 17-13 in the fourth quarter until Nebraska pulled away.

“One of the highlights of my career,” Corso said. “I’ll never forget, the crowd gives us a standing ovation after the game. Nebraska fans, to me, have always been the best fans in America.”

Corso found his true calling in ’87, when he joined ESPN. For years, he held college football’s biggest megaphone, and his strong opinions frequently made enemies, including in Lincoln.


Tom Osborne consoles losing Indiana coach Lee Corso after the Huskers beat the Hoosiers 31-13 in 1977. “One of the highlights of my career,” Corso said. “I’ll never forget, the crowd gives us a standing ovation after the game. Nebraska fans, to me, have always been the best fans in America.”

In 1994, the “GameDay” road show was new when Corso sat in front of Husker fans and picked Colorado because of quarterback play. Afterward, Brook Berringer savored the mea culpa.

“It was great to hear Corso eat his words,” Berringer said.

One year later, Corso (like many analysts) picked against the Huskers in the Fiesta Bowl, citing their inexperience playing on natural grass. During the national title celebration, defensive coordinator Charlie McBride looked at the scoreboard — Nebraska 62, Florida 24 — and winked: “Now you know why Lee Corso doesn’t coach anymore.”

Corso didn’t always get it wrong. And he would often praise Nebraska till the cows came home. But love him or loathe him, if Corso was talking about your team, you were nationally relevant.

By October 2001, Corso was at the peak of his powers. Days before the game of the season — Oklahoma at Nebraska — he fielded an email in his weekly ESPN mailbag. It came from a Nebraska college kid — a former Husker walk-on named Adam Lechtenberg — who issued a challenge.

If Nebraska wins, will you ride our mechanical bull?

Corso, who liked Oklahoma that week, never bucked a challenge. Sure, he said.

He didn’t know that “El Toro” was meaner than any Blackshirt. The bull had spent many nights in the rodeo bars of western Nebraska.

When a teenager in Crawford got word that the bull was for sale, nine guys pitched in and bought it for $2,000. They fixed it up, hauled the bull to Lincoln and became weekend celebrities.

“On campus, we were the bull guys,” Limbach said. “We were just as popular as the Husker football players.”

They operated the beast on a joystick, controlling how quickly he bucked and spun. If a rider got cocky, Limbach could dump him immediately. During one Saturday tailgate, a 75-year-old lady climbed atop El Toro.

The guys tried to take it easy, but she fell and broke her wrist. “She popped right back up, slammed her beer and was just as happy as can be,” Limbach said.

No wonder. At the time, Nebraska was a bull in the college football china shop. Perennially top 10. And when rival OU came to town in 2001, the Huskers seized yet another huge win.

“I swear that was the loudest I’ve ever heard that stadium,” Limbach said. “It was rocking.”

He headed back to 12th and Y to start the party. Brandon Lechtenberg, whose brother wrote Corso’s mailbag, headed for the “GameDay” set and started a chant. “Ride the bull. Ride the bull.”

“I didn’t believe he would actually do it,” Lechtenberg said.

Corso finished his post-game duties and said show me the way. Leading a Sea of Red over the 10th Street overpass, he felt like Rocky Balboa running down the streets of Philly.

“I’ll never forget it,” Corso said. “Like it happened yesterday.”

When he arrived at 12th and Y, the atmosphere bordered on hysteria. El Toro waited quietly in the backyard. A couple guys boosted Corso up, and another put a red wig on his head. Take care of him, the cops said.

Limbach spun Corso around once and gave him a quick, single buck. The crowd erupted.

“I rode it for about a half a second,” Corso said. “It would’ve thrown my ass off.”

Lee Corso rode a mechanical bull after Nebraska beat Oklahoma in 2001. “I’ll never forget it,” Corso said. “Like it happened yesterday.”

As Corso descended, someone in the crowd accidentally kicked the joystick and banged it against Lechtenberg, who yelled “Shut it off!”

“We almost really hurt him accidentally,” Lechtenberg said. “If I would’ve taken a step away, he would’ve been spinning.”

Imagine that headline on the ESPN ticker. Corso posed for a few pictures, slapped a few hands, all the while amazing the crowd.

“He seemed larger than life, yet there was such a human element of him,” Limbach said. “You can see why people care about him.”

Soon it was time to go, and Corso asked a favor. Did anyone have a car?

Limbach and Lechtenberg led Corso to a Toyota Camry and drove him back to Memorial Stadium, sandwiched in the back seat by two state troopers.

In some ways, the whole day feels like a dream to Limbach and his buddies, who have spread across the country. (The Lechtenberg brothers are Division I football coaches — one at Virginia Tech, one at Incarnate Word.) But they still trade snapshots of Oct. 27, 2001.

“Even today,” Limbach said, “I’ll go out and somebody will be like, ‘Hey, you had Lee Corso ride your mechanical bull.’ ”

The bull has been put out to pasture back in Crawford. He hasn’t bucked in four or five years, but that doesn’t stop wannabe cowboys from making offers on it.

“Every college kid that drives past it wants to think he’s a bull rider,” said Gerald Seidel, who watches over El Toro.

Meanwhile, “GameDay” keeps rolling. In 2007, Corso whipped the Husker crowd into a tizzy with compliments, then slammed down his pencil and put on a USC Trojan costume.

“I love you, but I’m sorry!”

Two years later, Corso feared that he had lost his Saturday morning platform. He suffered a stroke and didn’t speak for almost a month. You’ll never be the same, his doctor told him.

But Corso insisted on coming back to “GameDay.” Ten years later, his speech is still spotty. He scripts and memorizes all of his lines. “I have to. The brain is a strange game. You never fully recover.”

The stroke robbed him of his spontaneity, but not the adrenaline rush of live TV. Corso wants to keep going “as long as I keep foolin’ ‘em.” There’s nothing in college football like “GameDay.”

Which brings us back to Saturday. Who you picking, Lee? The easy choice, Ohio State, or upstart Nebraska? College football’s beloved ambassador bucks the question like an old bull.

“If I told you,” Corso said, “I’d have to kill you.”

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Photos: ESPN College GameDay visits Nebraska