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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A few weeks ago, an appeals court ruled on Donald Trump's bid to escape a criminal trial.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The court unanimously found that Donald Trump is not immune from prosecution for his effort to overturn his 2020 election defeat. Trump appealed, and now the High Court has decided to hear the case for itself. The justices scheduled oral arguments for almost two months from now, sometime during the week of April 22.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us now. Carrie, Trump has a few trials he's involved in. Which one is this?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A, this is the January 6 case. Trump is fighting four felony charges for allegedly conspiring to defraud the government he once led and depriving millions of Americans of their right to have their votes counted in 2020. Trump has pleaded not guilty. He's also argued these charges are out of bounds because he says he was trying to protect and question the integrity of the election.

Now, the Supreme Court has never faced this question of criminal immunity before because no other former president has ever been prosecuted by the Justice Department. As you mentioned, a lower appeals court panel that included a very conservative judge unanimously rejected Trump's argument that he deserved a legal shield, especially because these charges involve interfering with a peaceful transfer of power.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Carrie, Steve mentioned the justices set the arguments for late April. The Republican National Convention is mid-July, and then obviously the election in November. So tick-tock - the clock is on. What does this mean for this case?

JOHNSON: This is a huge victory for Trump, who's been trying to delay all of his criminal trouble until after the November election. Trump, of course, is the Republican front-runner. He's made no secret that if he returns to the White House, he could instruct the Justice Department to drop this case or even try to pardon himself. So if this trial in D.C. doesn't happen this year, it might never happen.

And here's where we stand in the calendar. If the justices decide this case by late June and they decide all of it and don't send questions back to the lower court to answer, it's possible Trump could face a jury in D.C. in the fall. But that timeline is really tight, and the clock is ticking, as you said.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, sounds very tight. So what's the response been to the Supreme Court order?

JOHNSON: Trump said that without immunity, the presidency as we know it would not exist because presidents are going to worry about retaliation after they leave office. There's been no comment from special counsel Jack Smith, who's leading the prosecution. Smith had asked this court to move quickly and, if the justices were going to take the case, to schedule arguments in March, not April.

And, A, liberal groups seem pretty angry about the court decision. They pointed out the justices took 16 days to decide whether to hear this case after refusing to rush it last December, when prosecutors first asked them to hurry. Other groups wondered why Justice Clarence Thomas is participating in this case. Remember; his wife exchanged text messages with a key Trump aide and seemed to promote false conspiracies about election fraud four years ago.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And here's the thing here. I mean, this is far from the only issue involving Donald Trump in front of the Supreme Court.

JOHNSON: That's absolutely right. We're waiting for the court to rule, perhaps any day now, on whether Trump can be disqualified from the primary ballot in Colorado under the so-called insurrection clause of the Constitution. The justices seemed pretty skeptical about that during arguments this month. Speaking of which, an Illinois judge also disqualified Trump from that state's primary election. It's likely that ruling will be reversed if the Supreme Court overturns Trump's disqualification in Colorado. So we're waiting any day now for a ruling on that.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks for keeping track of all this.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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MARTÍNEZ: The longest serving U.S. Senate leader in history says he'll step down from leadership at the end of the year.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: One of life's most underappreciated talents is to know when it's time to move on to life's next chapter.

INSKEEP: Which Mitch McConnell says he will now do. As Senate Republican leader, he used the power of his position on issue after issue. Sometimes he could make the Senate move, and other times McConnell would use the body's elaborate rules to say no.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Now, to be clear, McConnell is staying in the Senate - just won't run for Republican leadership again in the new Congress. It's going to be elected in November. What prompted him to make this decision?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: McConnell's 82, and he admitted he's had a rough year. He's had health issues. He's frozen twice publicly. He suffered a concussion after a fall last year. McConnell also acknowledged it's time for a new generation. In his speech on the Senate floor, he talked about starting his career during the Reagan Revolution, a president he revered. He never mentioned Trump by name, but he's been at odds with him frequently. He did make a point to say he understands this moment inside his own party. All top Senate Republican leaders except McConnell have endorsed Trump's presidential campaign.

MARTÍNEZ: And what was the reaction to McConnell's move from those Senate Republicans?

WALSH: It was really a mix. You know, many praised McConnell's skills as a legislator, a negotiator who had relationships across the aisle, including a long one with President Biden. The president said yesterday he was sorry to hear that McConnell was stepping down, even though he said they fought like hell. But he said the senator never misrepresented anything. McConnell's supporters also point to his long political record. He's raised hundreds of millions to elect Senate Republicans from across the country.

But he's also had a lot of critics inside the Republican conference. Ten voted against him as leader in 2022. Missouri Republican Josh Hawley was one of them, and he told me he wanted McConnell out now. He didn't really want him to stick around until November. Another issue where McConnell's been at odds with his party is over Ukraine. He's a vocal supporter of continued aid, but there's a continued bloc of Republicans led by Trump who oppose Congress adding any more money for Ukraine. So he's really faced a lot of criticism that he's out of step with the Republican Party.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so who is lined up possibly to succeed him?

WALSH: Well, A, whoever succeeds McConnell is likely to be named John. There are three Johns interested in the job - John Thune of South Dakota, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas. Former President Trump is likely to be a factor in that race. Ohio Republican J.D. Vance, who's not a McConnell fan, said electing someone who's on the same page as the Republican front-runner would be a good thing.

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J D VANCE: I think that it would be great - because I think Trump will win - to have a leader who can work well with the next Republican president.

WALSH: But we should note the election for the Republican leader comes after the November election. Senate Republicans are favored to flip control of the chamber. But if they don't or if a Republican doesn't win the White House, that could affect the race for McConnell's successor.

MARTÍNEZ: What's going to be the lasting mark that Mitch McConnell leaves on Washington, at least as Senate leader?

WALSH: Right. He's done a lot, but McConnell's biggest legacy is definitely his efforts over decades to reshape the federal judiciary. He made the decision in 2016 to withhold a vote on then-President Obama's nominee to fill a vacancy on the court. He helped shepherd three of President Trump's nominees to the court. And now we have a conservative 6-3 majority on the High Court, something that we're seeing the impact of and will have consequences for decades to come.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thanks a lot.

WALSH: Thanks, A.

MARTÍNEZ: And Mitch McConnell's announcement was not the only news on Capitol Hill yesterday. House and Senate leaders reached a deal to avoid a government shutdown at midnight Friday. The top congressional leaders, including McConnell, agreed to a plan that starts with passing a stopgap measure. That would give Congress until March 22 to pass a dozen spending bills. We'll see if lawmakers can make that happen.

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MARTÍNEZ: The Gaza health ministry says more than 30,000 people have been killed in the war there, and we're getting reports today of dozens more killed by Israeli forces as they were awaiting aid in the north.

INSKEEP: This death toll is one measure of the human cost of the Israel-Hamas war. The Hamas attack on Israel last October killed more than 1,200 people. Since then, Israel's critics have pointed to the rising Gaza death toll to argue that Israel's response is disproportionate. Israelis have challenged this number and said some of the dead are Hamas fighters, while Palestinians have reported that most are women and children.

MARTÍNEZ: We're joined now by NPR correspondent Aya Batrawy in Dubai. What do we know about who has been killed in Gaza?

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Well, the ministry has been keeping detailed records from hospitals that show most of the deaths since the war began are women and children. That's very much not in dispute. And we've spoken to countless survivors in Gaza and witnessed through our own producer there attacks where victims of Israeli airstrikes were civilians, including women, men and children.

And I spoke with a mother early in this war who was in Gaza City. She was trying to survive those airstrikes all around her. And a few weeks later, she was killed by one of them, including 22 members of her family. Some of those bodies were never retrieved, including her husband and son. And that really speaks to a larger issue in the official count, which is there are so many missing people that aren't included in the death toll. Now, as Steve mentioned, what's not clear is how many Hamas fighters have been killed in Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, we hear bodies buried in the rubble. How many might that be?

BATRAWY: Thousands - and not just those buried. I mean, there are also people missing who were hastily buried with no way to record their deaths in hospitals, people lying in the streets that can't be reached.

You know, I spoke with a senior Palestinian health ministry official in the West Bank last month. Dr. Yaser Bozya works closely with the Gaza health ministry. Here's what he said.

YASER BOZYA: This is an underestimation because it's more than 10,000 people under rubble - at least.

BATRAWY: Yeah. And he says the death toll also doesn't include people dying because they can't access treatment. It only includes those from direct violence, so mostly airstrikes. And, you know, researchers and aid agencies say many thousands more will die in Gaza, even if the war ended today, from disease and hunger-related causes.

MARTÍNEZ: What are the challenges that the health ministry is facing while trying to compile accurate data on the number of people killed?

BATRAWY: Well, we analyzed one of their reports on the death toll. And what I found was a system that's completely strained under the weight of this war. I mean, in the early days of Israel's heavy bombardment of Gaza, you know, hospital emergency rooms are recording the name, age, gender and ID numbers of each victim into an electronic database. And that list was made public about three weeks into the war, after President Biden cast doubt on the number of people killed provided by Gaza's health ministry, which is administered by Hamas.

But by around mid-November, there were communication blackouts across Gaza and lethal Israeli raids on key hospitals in the north as, you know, the military searched for hostages and Hamas. But this led to disruptions in the death count and the electronic database. You know, and medical staff themselves were detained, killed, or they had to flee these hospitals and move south.

So the ministry's death toll is mostly based on hospital records, but there are just a few functioning hospitals now in Gaza. So what the ministry's doing is they're increasingly relying on estimates from public sources and media reports for casualties in the north, like today's attack, where Israel controls access. And even so, the health ministry's figure is still widely seen as the most reliable one available. And in past wars, it's been mostly consistent with the U.N. and Israel.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy speaking with us from Dubai. Thank you very much.

BATRAWY: Thanks always, A. 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.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.