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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hunter Biden is facing new criminal charges. The president's son was indicted last night.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Justice Department special counsel, David Weiss, brought this case, part of his investigation into Hunter Biden and his business activities. This second indictment of Joe Biden's son comes in December, just before an election year.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering this and is with us now to tell us more. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What specific charges is Hunter Biden facing with this indictment?

LUCAS: Well, this is a nine-count indictment. It was handed up by a federal grand jury in the Central District of California. The charges are related to tax years 2016 through 2019. Three of the counts that Hunter Biden is facing here are felony tax counts - one for tax evasion, two for filing a false return. The other six counts are misdemeanors. And those are for failing to pay his taxes and failing to file his taxes.

MARTIN: OK, so this all relates to the 2016 through the 2019 time period. What does the special counsel say that Hunter Biden was doing?

LUCAS: Well, prosecutors say that over four years, Hunter engaged in a scheme to not pay at least $1.4 million in taxes that he owed. It also says that he evaded paying taxes for 2018. Now, the indictment says that between 2016 and 2020, Hunter made more than $7 million in total gross income. The indictment references business dealings in Ukraine, business dealings related to connections in Romania and China. It says that Hunter got another $1.2 million in financial support. But prosecutors say that Hunter spent his money on drugs, on escorts and girlfriends, on luxury hotels, exotic cars, among other things. Prosecutors say in short that Hunter Biden spent his money on his extravagant lifestyle, not on his taxes.

MARTIN: And so I guess they're saying that he willfully didn't pay his taxes.

LUCAS: That's right.

MARTIN: Although he had the money to do. OK. So this is the second set of charges the special counsel has brought against Hunter Biden. Can you just remind us about the others?

LUCAS: Right. He was indicted this summer on federal gun charges as part of the special counsel's investigation. Those charges came about after a tentative plea deal that Biden had agreed to in Delaware fell apart. He had agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges there. That whole deal unraveled. He was later charged on the gun counts. He's pleaded not guilty to those. After that deal fell apart, we knew that there was a possibility that he would get hit with federal tax charges. And, of course, he now has.

MARTIN: Has there been any response from Hunter Biden or his attorneys to this new indictment?

LUCAS: Right. His attorney, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement last night that if Hunter's name was anything other than Biden that none of these charges, not the gun charges or the new tax charges, would have been brought against him. Lowell accused the special counsel of, in essence, folding under Republican pressure to go after Hunter. And he said that Weiss had investigated all of this for five years without bringing charges. And now, with no new evidence, he's brought these nine charges after agreeing a few months ago to resolve all of this with misdemeanors in that plea deal that ultimately collapsed. He also said that Hunter Biden paid his taxes in full two years ago.

MARTIN: OK. Really briefly - seems remarkable that the president's son is now facing two federal indictments but also the Republican front-runner in the 2024 presidential campaign.

LUCAS: And not to forget that House Republicans have made Hunter a focus of their impeachment inquiry into President Biden, as well. But yes, as you said, the situation is extraordinary. Two federal indictments that Trump is facing, of course, are for trying to overturn the 2020 election results, for mishandling classified documents. Hunter's, as we've said, are for gun and tax charges. But what we have now is the possibility of these cases all grinding through the justice system in the middle of the 2024 presidential campaign.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The center of the Israel-Hamas war is Gaza, where Israeli forces are searching for Hamas leaders, and civilians have fled the Israeli bombardment.

INSKEEP: But the conflict includes tensions throughout the region, including in Jerusalem. It's the site of holy places for three major religions, a city that Israel claims as its capital and where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live.

MARTIN: For more on this, we turn to NPR's Kat Lonsdorf, who is in Tel Aviv. Hello, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So you were reporting in Jerusalem last night in the Old City. Would you just tell us what you saw?

LONSDORF: Yeah. So it was the first night of Hanukkah, and a group of right-wing Israeli Jews had called for a march through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Only about 50 people showed up. Media and Israeli police probably outnumbered the marchers. But some of the marchers were carrying inflammatory posters, which Israeli police then confiscated and even, in some cases, tore up. And then the police ended up blocking the route, which honestly is very unusual. I've covered these kind of marches before, and I haven't ever seen that. It shows, I think, how concerned they are about the potential for violence breaking out right now. And the march ultimately fizzled out.

MARTIN: So the Old City, for people who've been there - if you haven't been there, I guess. If you've been there, you'd know. It's this very small, ancient-walled section of Jerusalem, really narrow streets. Can you just talk about what the mood there was last night.

LONSDORF: Yeah. It was very tense. And, you know, it has been for quite some time. We were walking through the Muslim Quarter before that march was supposed to begin, and we saw Israeli Jews who live in the Old City, particularly ones who have moved into the Muslim Quarter, you know, lighting their Hanukkah menorahs in the street and singing and dancing. And they were often surrounded by Israeli police as Palestinians either just kind of looked on or honestly tried to ignore it. I talked to one 18-year-old. His name was Ilan Tolu (ph). He was outside a Jewish religious school in the Muslim Quarter with some friends, singing in front of a menorah. And here's what he told me through an interpreter.

ILAN TOLU: (Through interpreter) The city is not divided into quarters. It's one big Jewish Quarter with different neighborhoods inside it. And that's the way it should be, and people should know it.

LONSDORF: We asked him then about, what about the Palestinians? Does any of it belong to them? And he said just simply, no.

MARTIN: OK, so let's turn to the situation in Gaza. We have been hearing that Israeli forces are pushing into central and southern Gaza. What can you tell us about that?

LONSDORF: Yeah, the Israeli military says that they're in Khan Younis, which is the second largest city in Gaza. It's also where the home of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is. They say they've encircled his home, although Sinwar's whereabouts are unknown. The military says that in the past few days, they've had some of the most intense fighting since this war began. And, you know, that intense fighting has led to mass displacement. People are fleeing to Rafah, which is a city in the south of Gaza near the border with Egypt. And even that's not safe. Israel says Hamas has continued to launch rockets from near where people are sleeping in tents in Rafah. And just yesterday, there were a few isolated strikes from Israel in Rafah.

Rafah is incredibly overcrowded. Our producer there, Anas Baba, has been sending us photos and videos, and it's pretty astonishing. Streets just filled with people, cars and donkey carts piled high with whatever people could grab. You know, and this is straining what few resources there are there - food, water, medical care. You know, many aid groups are saying that the situation there is just dire.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. Kat, thank you.

LONSDORF: Thank you.

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MARTIN: The University of Pennsylvania's Board of Trustees gathered yesterday to discuss comments made by the school's president during a House hearing on campus anti-Semitism, comments that have set off a firestorm of criticism.

INSKEEP: Like other university presidents, Liz Magill faced questions about her school's rules. A lawmaker asked if, quote, "calling for the genocide of Jews" would violate the university's code of conduct. Magill, along with the presidents of Harvard and MIT, answered in various ways that it depended on the context and whether the speech was connected with hostile action. Now a congressional committee says they're going to investigate the universities.

MARTIN: NPR's Tovia Smith is with us now to tell us more. Good morning, Tovia.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: OK, so the pressure on these presidents seems to be escalating since this hearing. What's the latest?

SMITH: Well, the blowback has really just continued to intensify since they were grilled on whether students' calls for genocide would violate campus rules. And their answers ranged from maybe to long-winded, lawyer-like dodges that prompted outrage from a broad array of very strange bedfellows from Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who was firing the questions, to Elon Musk, who called the answers shameful, and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who questioned the university presidents' ability to lead. Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League was even more pointed. Here's what he said.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: It's time for new leadership. It's not just a failure of their fiduciary responsibility. It's an utter collapse of their moral responsibility.

MARTIN: So then now then, Tovia, some of the presidents have issued clarifications of their positions. But I take it that doesn't seem to be helping.

SMITH: Correct. Harvard's president reiterated that calls for genocide were vile, and students who make threats against others will be held to account. But she stopped short of saying that those calls for genocide amount to such threats. And Penn's president, Liz Magill, did go further - maybe a little too late. But she's saying now that she's reconsidering Penn's policies. Here's how she put it.

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LIZ MAGILL: A call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening, deeply so. In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation. These policies need to be clarified and evaluated. We can, and we will get this right.

MARTIN: OK, so I guess she's - now she says she's convening a group to do this. So these are three pretty big institutions. And I imagine there's, you know, been a lot of reaction to this. I'm wondering if you were able to speak to anybody on these campuses to get their thoughts about all this.

SMITH: Yeah. There are some who say the presidents had it right the first time, being purists on campus free speech. And they're dismayed now to see the schools caving, as one put it, to the political or financial pressure. I'll also share another, more nuanced take from Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who's a staunch advocate for free speech but also critical of what he considers a hostile environment for many Jewish students. He does not think Harvard's president deserves to be fired, in part, he says, because removing her will not fix what he sees as a much more deep-rooted problem. Here's how he describes it.

STEVEN PINKER: I mean, it's like firing the coach when your team isn't doing well. It kind of feels good. It's a response to a demand. It doesn't itself solve the problem.

SMITH: And Pinker's among the many who've accused universities of hypocrisy for cracking down on speech that offends the left but allowing speech from the left that, for example, is making many Jewish students feel unsafe.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, Congress is now investigating these schools. What does that mean, exactly?

SMITH: There's a House committee that held the hearings this week, is now officially investigating disciplinary policies and won't hesitate to use subpoenas to get documents they want. And that is prompting complaints now that Congress is not also investigating Islamophobia on campuses.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Tovia Smith. Tovia, thank you.

SMITH: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "SPOKEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.