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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Haiti, a coalition of gangs toppled the country's prime minister.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And now, more than two months later, they control most of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. One of the most prominent gang leaders is Jimmy Cherizier - or as he's more commonly known, Barbecue.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Port-au-Prince and was able to interview him and he's with us now. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: Eyder, I just have to say, it's often controversial when journalists talk to people who are seen as causing chaos, like street criminals or gang leaders like Barbecue. So why did you think it was important to talk with him?

PERALTA: I mean, look, the gangs in Haiti can't be ignored.

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PERALTA: Earlier this week, for example, they took to the streets in the neighborhoods in a show of force. I saw dozens of men heavily armed. They had handguns, assault rifles, machetes. And Jimmy Cherizier - or Barbecue - is important because he is the gang leader who convinced a whole bunch of gangs here to stop fighting each other and start fighting against the government. In the last two months, they have burnt down police stations and shut down the port and the airport, and they brought down the prime minister.

MARTIN: So tell us more about Cherizier.

PERALTA: So I met him in his neighborhood. He arrived in a brand-new land cruiser. And he had a boy on his knees cleaning his flip-flops. Barbecue used to be a police officer. He used to lead operations against the gangs. And what he told me is that he had, quote, "an awakening."

BARBECUE: (Speaking Creole).

PERALTA: And he says, the system made me who I am. Essentially, as a cop, he says he learned that politicians created the gangs, that they use them and the police to do what he called their dirty work, to target their business rivals and their enemies. And so he started fighting against the political elite, he says, to try to change the system. But we should mention that both the U.S. and the U.N. have sanctioned him, accusing him of massacres.

MARTIN: You know, at this point, Eyder, thousands of Haitians have been killed. What did he have to say about that?

PERALTA: Well, we spent much of the interview on that topic. I mean, Barbecue argues that the gangs are fighting against the rich who have exploited this country. I told him, that's not what I've seen. Let's hear a bit of the interview.

All I see here are dead poor people, and you are part of that.

BARBECUE: (Through interpreter) In this fight, one of the first enemy we have is poor people like us, because the rich, they use the poor people against. For example, if you take the police, they are the first people that they put in front of us.

PERALTA: But I'll tell you what I've seen in Haiti. The gangs are extorting poor people. Women are getting raped. Houses have been burnt. How are you any different?

BARBECUE: (Through interpreter) Everything you say right now is true. But all the extortion and all this mistreatment is because the government allowed these things to happen.

PERALTA: So he's blaming the government. He's saying that the government, the powerful people allow this to happen in Haiti to create chaos and to remain in power.

MARTIN: So a Kenyon-led, multinational security force is expected to arrive soon with a mission to oust the gangs. What did he have to say about this new development?

PERALTA: So he says they're preparing for a long fight. He says he expects a lot of bloodshed and that eventually the international forces will get tired and they will leave. I asked him if he expected to survive.

BARBECUE: (Speaking Creole).

PERALTA: "My life depends on God and my ancestors," he said. "If Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines worried about his life," he says, "Haiti wouldn't be free today."

MARTIN: That is NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Eyder, thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Michael Cohen will take the stand today in New York in the election interference trial of former President Donald Trump.

FADEL: Once a personal attorney to President Trump, Cohen facilitated the $130,000 hush money payment at the heart of the trial. He's one of the prosecution's final witnesses.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering the trial, and she is with us once again. Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, Andrea, look, I think people might remember Michael Cohen as a guy who once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump, so remind us of how it happened that he's now a main witness against him.

BERNSTEIN: That's right, Michel. When he worked for Trump, Cohen did the dirty work - stiffing vendors, intimidating reporters, making secret deals. And it all might have stayed that way, but after the whole Stormy Daniels story blew up in 2018, Trump stopped paying Cohen's legal bills and Cohen became what Trump very publicly called a rat. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to lying to banks, lying to Congress and, quote, "at the direction" of Donald Trump, violating campaign finance laws. Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison, but before he was incarcerated, he testified to Congress.

MARTIN: And how closely did that testimony align with the evidence that's come out in this trial?

BERNSTEIN: I think it gives us a pretty good idea of what we should expect to hear from Cohen in the coming days. Some of it has already been corroborated in the trial. For example, former Trump communications aide Hope Hicks testified about how concerned the campaign was after the Access Hollywood tape. This is what Cohen said in 2019.

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MICHAEL COHEN: I don't think anybody would dispute this belief that after the wildfire that encompassed the Billy Bush tape, that a second follow-up to it would have been unpleasant. And he was concerned with the effect that it had had on the campaign, on how women were seeing him and ultimately whether or not he would have a shot in the general election.

MARTIN: So, look, we've already heard a lot in this trial about that tape. Have we learned something about it that's new?

BERNSTEIN: You know, one of the things that I've always wondered is why Stormy Daniels' story in particular was felt to be such a threat to Trump. So many women were coming forward with stories of their own after the Access Hollywood tape. And Daniels herself answered that question last week in her testimony. She said there was a power imbalance when she saw Trump on a hotel bed in his underwear - not that she was forced, she was clear, but that the encounter was unwanted. Trump has pleaded not guilty and has denied any sexual encounter with Daniels.

MARTIN: Fundamentally, though, this is a story about falsifying records. But Cohen has lied under oath in the past. Is he considered a credible witness to tell us about those records?

BERNSTEIN: Prosecutor said from the outset of the case, basically, that Michael Cohen had a history of lying, but they would corroborate his statements. This is what he said in 2019 about talking to Trump early in his presidency at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COHEN: And he says to me something to the effect of, don't worry, Michael, your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedExed from New York, and it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.

BERNSTEIN: In this case, jurors have corroboration - a photo of Cohen in the White House, a meeting memo, FedEx receipts. Prosecution and defense this week will be locked in a battle over whether Cohen is an unrepentant liar or whether he's lied, but in this case, is telling the truth.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Andrea, thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All eyes have been on Rafah, Gaza's southern city, where the U.S. and the U.N. have been pressuring the Israeli government to stop a planned major assault.

FADEL: Meanwhile, Israel has expanded its attacks elsewhere to central and northern areas of the Gaza Strip. It says it's trying to prevent Hamas from regrouping there. All of this is happening while today Israel turns inward for its memorial day, which is more somber this year because of the war.

MARTIN: Joining us now from Tel Aviv to tell us more about all this is NPR's Lauren Frayer. Lauren, good morning.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: First, could you just tell us, what is the situation right now in Rafah? We've been hearing for weeks about Israel threatening a major offensive there. Many will have heard that the Biden administration has been urging the Israelis to show restraint. What can you tell us about that? Has it gone ahead?

FRAYER: You know, it feels like semantics at this point. Rafah has been under airstrikes for months, now it's being hit with artillery from Israeli tanks that rolled in a week ago. Those tanks cut off the border crossing with Egypt, which is the main gateway for food and fuel coming into Gaza and injured people going out. Here's Monica Johnston. She's a nurse from Portland, Ore., who is one of the dozens of aid workers who are now trapped in Rafah since that border closed. She describes unsanitary conditions in the hospital where she is.

MONICA JOHNSTON: The flies are everywhere. They're in the OR, they're in the ICU. I really think they can predict death. It's - I don't know - just absolutely unbelievable here.

FRAYER: Last night, Israel did say it opened a crossing in the north of Gaza to trucks carrying flour in, but hunger and shortages persist. And now a third of Rafah is under evacuation orders, so we're seeing hundreds of thousands of displaced people now being displaced again.

MARTIN: And where can they go?

FRAYER: To other areas of Gaza that have already been destroyed and which may now also be under renewed attack. I spoke last night to Hind Khoudary. She's a freelance journalist who left Rafah and went to Deir al-Balah, which is in the central part of Gaza. And I asked her to describe what she sees around her.

HIND KHOUDARY: There's no empty areas without rubble, so they do not have, like, a small area to set up their tents. They are homeless. They do not know where to go.

FRAYER: While I was talking to her, she said she could hear explosions in the distance. There's been heavy fighting with airstrikes and with ground troops in Jabaliya in the north of Gaza, in Zeitoun in central Gaza. And Gaza's health ministry says the death toll from all of these attacks since October 7 has now surpassed the 35,000 mark. And that's almost surely an underestimate.

MARTIN: Lauren, as I mentioned, you are in Israel. It's memorial day there today. What does the state commemorate? And what is the mood there?

FRAYER: Yeah, today is probably the most somber day of the year. In Israel. It's dedicated to fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. This is a country where most people do serve in the military, and it's also a country that's been attacked by its neighbors many times since its founding. Here's what it sounded like at sundown last night and again midmorning today.

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FRAYER: So this siren wails, traffic stops, people literally get out of their cars and stand at attention on the highway. This happens annually but the focus this year is on memorials for October 7 victims and soldiers killed in the war. And when memorials end at sundown tonight, the mood shifts - most years, at least - and it flips into celebrations for Israel's independence day, which starts tonight. And that contrast is intentional. It's meant to link the wars that Israel has fought and the casualties it's suffered with the idea of the very survival of Israel as a state.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in Tel Aviv. Lauren, thank you so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.