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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The House votes today on a bill to force TikTok to divest from its Chinese parent company or face a ban in the U.S.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The popular social media app has launched a fierce lobbying campaign, arguing the bill violates free speech, but bipartisan supporters say Congress needs to step in because TikTok is a threat to national security.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now to talk about all this. Hi, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So why do lawmakers want this bill now?

WALSH: Well, lawmakers from both parties who support the bill argue users' data privacy is not protected. It's collected and shared with Chinese officials. They say they influence the content that's pushed out to U.S. users. They say the app has targeted journalists and interfered in elections. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, testified this week about his security concerns. Intel officials held classified briefings for House members on their assessments. We haven't seen all the details of those assessments. But these lawmakers say the app that's used by over 170 million Americans shouldn't be controlled by a foreign government they say is hostile to U.S. interests. So this bill requires the parent company, ByteDance, to divest within six months or be banned on all U.S. app platforms. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the House Select Committee on China - he's the lead Republican sponsor - he pushed back on the idea that this would amount to a total ban.

MIKE GALLAGHER: What we're after is - it's not a ban. It's a forced separation. And the TikTok user experience can continue and improve so long as ByteDance doesn't own the company.

WALSH: I talked to Raja Krishnamoorthi. He's the top Democrat who helped write the bill, and he says that while TikTok downplays the impact of its owners, he says the top editor of ByteDance is a secretary in the Chinese Communist Party.

FADEL: So what has the opposition to the bill been like?

WALSH: There's been a pretty intense lobbying campaign. In the last week, lawmakers say their offices have been flooded with calls from users who are worried about the future of the app. TikTok launched a push notice to its adult users. It linked their location data on their phone to identify their lawmaker and connected them by phone to the offices. Gallagher told me there were younger callers that were crying when they called into office. And, unfortunately, one actually threatened suicide if there's a ban. Opponents are raising big concerns that this is being rushed through the House, and some members don't understand the impact that this could have. One of those is Florida Democrat Maxwell Frost. He's 27, the youngest member of Congress, and he's going to vote no.

MAXWELL FROST: I think that it is a violation of people's First Amendment right. TikTok is a place where people express ideas. I have many small businesses in my district and content creators in my district, and I think it's going to drastically impact them, too.

WALSH: TikTok declined an interview with NPR, but a spokesman maintained the bill would effectively be a total ban and strip away free expression from users, harm businesses who use the app, and they oppose the sale of ByteDance.

FADEL: You know, it's an election year, so I guess I have to ask - what are the presidential campaigns saying about all this?

WALSH: President Biden's campaign is on TikTok, but the White House has said, if a bill gets to his desk, he will sign it. Former President Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, actually proposed a ban on TikTok in 2020 when he was in the White House, but he recently reversed himself. He said he still has privacy concerns about the app, but he's worried, if it shuts down, users are going to move to Facebook. And in an interview on CNBC this week, he called Facebook the enemy of the people.

If the bill makes it through the Senate and Biden signs it, it is expected to end up in court. TikTok has filed lawsuits to fight off other efforts to ban the app, and federal courts so far have sided with their argument that blocking the app violates users' First Amendment rights.

FADEL: NPR's Deirdre Walsh - thank you.

WALSH: Thank you.

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FADEL: It's now official. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have each gotten their party's presidential nominations after yesterday's primaries, so we could see more of what we've seen from Trump in his primary campaign - touting disproven conspiracy theories about noncitizens voting.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, these theories are not new in American politics. They've been around for more than a century, despite studies and election officials saying it doesn't really happen. But with huge numbers of migrants crossing the southern border in recent months, the narrative looks to be taking hold again in Republican circles.

FADEL: NPR's Miles Parks covers voting, and he has new reporting to share about this. Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

FADEL: So Donald Trump has baselessly been talking about undocumented immigrants voting by the millions for quite a while. But this year it's not just him, right?

PARKS: Right. Yeah. We're seeing influential conservatives behind the scenes starting to fixate on it as well. NPR acquired a two-page memo being circulated by an attorney named Cleta Mitchell. She's a former Trump adviser, and she's been influential in pushing all sorts of stolen election narratives since 2020. The memo is titled, quote, "The Threat Of Noncitizen Voting In 2024," and it falsely implies that there are all these loopholes in the election system that undocumented immigrants are exploiting. Here's Mitchell talking about the broader conspiracy theory on a local conservative radio show in Illinois.

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CLETA MITCHELL: I absolutely believe this is intentional and one of the reasons that the Biden administration is allowing all of these illegals to flood the country. And they're taking them into counties across the country so that they can get those people registered, they can vote them.

PARKS: Now, there is no evidence to support that theory, and Mitchell did not respond to an email request for comment. But it's an idea we can expect to hear a lot this year, as immigration is a major concern for Republican voters.

FADEL: So is this just xenophobia? I mean, what does the evidence actually show about noncitizens voting?

PARKS: Numerous studies have confirmed it almost never happens. First of all, it is against the law for noncitizens to vote in federal elections, and doing it would risk deportation. And in the few times that it has been shown that people have slipped through the cracks and registered or voted in federal elections, it's also been shown to have usually been by mistake.

FADEL: OK. So I know you've also been looking into where and when these narratives started. What did you find?

PARKS: Oh, I mean, they've been around American politics for over a hundred years. And I have to say, I was kind of blown away as I started reporting this story at all the different times these same conspiracy theories have popped up, usually to justify policies that make voting harder - even the very implementation of voter registration. Researchers say it started in the late 1800s because people were specifically so scared about nonwhite, non-English-speaking immigrants coming to the U.S. and influencing politics. Experts who I talked to see echoes of that history in Trump's claims and in this memo by Mitchell. I talked to Gilda Daniels, who's an election law professor at the University of Baltimore.

GILDA DANIELS: It not only creates the hysteria, but this idea that only certain people should be allowed to participate in the process.

PARKS: In Mitchell's memo, for instance, she essentially says she wants Congress to make voter registration more difficult. But I should say there is essentially no chance that that goes anywhere at the federal level at this point.

FADEL: OK, not nationally, but what about local, state level?

PARKS: Yeah. So this is where it gets a little bit more complicated because a few liberal cities have passed laws in recent years allowing noncitizens to vote just in local races, which has led a number of Republican-led states to pass constitutional amendments banning those sorts of efforts. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been one of the loudest voices raising concern on this issue, even though he's a Republican who has refuted a lot of other sort of conspiratorial narratives. He does say he's confident noncitizens are not voting right now in Georgia. But when I asked him directly whether President Biden was shipping in undocumented immigrants to vote for him, he would not directly answer that, which just showed to me how deeply these ideas are rooted in conservative circles right now.

FADEL: NPR's Miles Parks - thank you.

PARKS: Thank you.

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FADEL: This week, the first aid ship is due to arrive in Gaza from the island of Cyprus.

MARTÍNEZ: It comes more than five months into the war between Israel and Hamas. Palestinian children in Gaza are starving to death, and the United Nations says most of the population there is at risk of famine. It's been really difficult to get food in because Israel, citing security concerns, has blocked most shipments by land, so aid groups are now trying to use the sea.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Amman, Jordan, to talk about this. Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what can you tell us about this ship headed to Gaza?

ARRAF: Well, it's a boat called Open Arms, after the Spanish aid organization that owns it. It set off yesterday, pulling a barge loaded with 200 tons of food - things like lentils, rice, canned meat. And that's provided by a U.S.-based aid organization, World Central Kitchen, and its partners, all of this painstakingly coordinated with Israel, which has scanned every package in Cyprus. The groups involved are keeping the exact destination on the Gaza coast and the timing of its arrival under wraps for security, but an Open Arms spokesperson told us, because the vessel has to travel so slowly, the trip could actually take several days.

FADEL: You know, Jane, the need is so great - 2 million people in Gaza at risk of famine. What difference will this ship make?

ARRAF: Well, by itself, not a huge amount - the food on it is really the equivalent of what could be carried by about 10 trucks. But the thing is, there are thousands of trucks backed up at the main border crossing with Gaza that have waited weeks for Israeli approval. This operation, though, Leila, is a test of the sea route and whether it can be scaled up to deliver a lot more aid. That would involve a jetty, which the aid groups involved say they're building now. I spoke with the founder of World Central Kitchen, who's in D.C. It's Jose Andres, the celebrity chef.

FADEL: Yeah.

ARRAF: And his organization has been feeding people suffering through war and disaster for more than a decade. Let's listen to what he had to say.

JOSE ANDRES: Nobody should ever be attacked, and nobody should be killed by anybody - that the civilians must be - always be protected. And that, obviously - and that food and water is a universal right.

ARRAF: Andres says the biggest failure would be not trying to help feed people in Gaza.

FADEL: OK, so you're talking about nongovernmental organizations trying to get in by sea. What are the U.S. and other countries doing to get aid in?

ARRAF: Well, it's become particularly urgent because of the scale of deaths and near-starvation there. In fact, the European Union foreign policy chief says starvation is being used as a weapon of war. So the U.S. military is planning to bring in a floating dock off the Gaza coast for more aid to be brought in by sea. Israeli airstrikes have destroyed Gaza's ports, but that's certainly not easy - not least because the U.S. continues to supply Israel with its weapons for war in Gaza, making it a potential target. So critics say, instead of building a dock, the U.S. should just pressure Israel to let in much more aid by trucks. But in the meantime, Leila, people in Gaza are desperate for whatever they can get however they can get it.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf, thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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