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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Israel's defense minister is in the U.S. today at a moment of tension between the two allies. They don't agree about what should happen next in Israel's war in Gaza.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is pushing for a cease-fire and for Israel to allow more humanitarian aid to Palestinians who face famine. Now, if it sounds repetitive when we say that, that's because it is. The United States has been asking for the same things for weeks now. Israel says it is not done dismantling the militant group Hamas.

FADEL: NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us now from Tel Aviv with the latest. Good morning, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hello.

FADEL: Hi. So what should we expect from the Israeli defense ministers visit here in D.C.?

LUDDEN: So a big focus is going to be the southern Gaza town of Rafah. You have more than a million displaced Palestinians crowded in there. The U.S. says invading would be a huge mistake. And it specifically invited Israelis to Washington to talk about alternative options. But Israel says it cannot defeat Hamas without going into Rafah, and it's going to attack whether the U.S. approves or not. Also, before boarding his flight, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said he's going to bring up U.S. military aid and helping Israel keep its, quote, "qualitative edge." This has become controversial. You now have some Democrats arguing that Israel's actions in Gaza may disqualify it from U.S. military aid.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, Senator Chris Coons, who's close to President Biden, was on the program last week. And he said it would be, quote, "almost impossible" to attack Rafah in a way that was acceptable to the U.S. So the delegation will discuss that. But what's happening away from Rafah in other parts of Gaza?

LUDDEN: So for a week now, Israel says it has been battling hundreds of militants who have regrouped at the main hospital in northern Gaza, al-Shifa. Again, Israel says Hamas is embedding itself in a civilian population there. It's also raided two other hospitals over the weekend. It claims there were weapons stockpiled. This has left thousands of patients, doctors, civilians sheltering in these hospitals caught in this fighting. Gaza's health ministry says some have died from fire or smoke or shelling, and it's just adding to an incredibly dire humanitarian crisis. Amber Alayyan is an American physician with Doctors Without Borders. She and others say there's no longer supplies to treat the many wounded. Here's what she told our colleague, Michele Kelemen.

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AMBER ALAYYAN: The patients who have survived thus far are increasingly getting sicker. They are getting more infections. Their wounds are getting infected. They're literally rotting. The fact that they don't have access to food for the patients makes it even harder for their wounds to heal.

FADEL: I mean, what she describes on top of the widespread hunger - we're seeing images of people eating grass to stave off that hunger. And so many international groups and governments are pushing Israel to allow more humanitarian aid, especially food, into Gaza. Any progress there?

LUDDEN: You know, mostly we've seen a lot of frustration and trading blame. Over the weekend, the secretary-general of the United Nations actually went to the border with Gaza to highlight this crisis. Antonio Guterres accused Israel of holding up aid trucks. He said Palestinians are stuck in a nonstop nightmare and that the extreme hunger is just shocking. Now, on Sunday, Israel did say 103 aid trucks had entered Gaza. But keep in mind, before this whole crisis, there were 500 aid trucks a day going in. And so it's a massive drop when it's needed most, and the latest U.N. numbers show it keeps going down. Less food aid got in in February than did in January.

FADEL: Now, what's happening with any possible deal in these discussions that were going on in Qatar? Do we know where they stand?

LUDDEN: Just in brief, you know, the focus is freeing up some of the 130 Israeli hostages still in Gaza. But a hang-up is whether Hamas can get a permanent cease-fire. Israel, of course, says it can't do that. It still intends to battle Hamas in Rafah.

FADEL: NPR's Jennifer Ludden in Tel Aviv. Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

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FADEL: Four suspected shooters in Friday's attack on a Russian concert hall in Moscow have been charged with terrorism.

INSKEEP: The death toll from this attack has been going up all through the weekend. And authorities say it killed nearly 140 people, injuring many more. A part of the Islamic State known as ISIS-K claimed responsibility. Russian authorities have ignored that, instead suggesting the involvement of Ukraine.

FADEL: Joining us with the latest is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Charles, you were out at the site of the tragedy last night. Tell me what you saw.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, this was the second time I was out there over the weekend. There was a small memorial I saw on Saturday, and it had grown into this massive display of flowers and tributes by Sunday, with even Orthodox priests on hand to give a little church liturgy.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language).

MAYNES: And among Russians I met who came to pay their respects was a university student named Nicholas (ph), who declined to give his last name, saying he was still in shock over events.

NICHOLAS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "I came to express condolences to those who lost loved ones and family in the attack," he tells me, adding he wouldn't wish this tragedy on anyone.

FADEL: And so you were at this site. But this must have shaken people across Russia, well beyond the capital and this concert hall, right?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, we've seen people donating blood across the country, impromptu memorials to the victims in other towns and cities. But it also seems like the government is intent on channeling this grief. Over the weekend, an image of a candle and the phrase we mourn popped up on billboards across the country. Pro-Kremlin pop stars have recorded tributes in solidarity. And even back at the scene last night at the concert hall, clearly this was an organized event. You know, pro-Kremlin youth groups were marching in line to bring flowers. There was a sound system, even a projected light show on the side of the concert hall building that showed white birds flying skyward to honor the victims. And all this was filmed by camera drones from above. And so all of this has been circulating on social media and, of course, state TV.

FADEL: Meanwhile, four suspects have now been charged in court with acts of terrorism. What's happening there?

MAYNES: Yeah, that's right. These are the alleged shooters detained on Saturday, all citizens of the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. In court, all four pleaded guilty. But it must be said all showed signs of torture and duress. One of the accused was brought in a wheelchair, not even conscious.

FADEL: Wow.

MAYNES: Another showed up with a bandage on his ear after his interrogator cut off a portion of it with a knife. We know because the authorities released a video. Meanwhile, others had swollen faces with bruises and cuts. So taking all of that into account, there certainly will be those who question the confessions they gave.

FADEL: So with questions around this trial, what do we expect going forward?

MAYNES: Well, the trial is likely to start in late May. These men face life in prison if convicted. Russia currently does not have the death penalty, although that's increasingly a matter of debate here. Meanwhile, there's the larger question of who ordered the attack. You know, ISIS claimed responsibility and the U.S. has come to that conclusion as well. But President Vladimir Putin, in his only comments on the attack so far, insisted these attackers were trying to escape to Ukraine. And even though Kyiv denies any involvement vehemently, we're all bracing to see what happens next, not only in the courtroom or the court of public opinion, but most of all on the battlefields of Ukraine.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you.

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FADEL: Two of Donald Trump's legal battles collide today one criminal, one civil, both in New York City.

INSKEEP: OK, a judge holds a hearing in the criminal hush money case, which involves Trump's longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, and adult film star Stormy Daniels. That hearing could lead to a start date for the trial. Today is also the deadline for Trump to pay almost half a billion dollars in his civil fraud trial. If he does not do that, the New York attorney general could start the process of seizing his properties.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Bernstein joins us now to sort out everything Trump faces today. Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start with the criminal case. What is Donald Trump facing here?

BERNSTEIN: So this was the first case to be indicted of the four. And it dates back to the 2016 campaign. In late October of that year, Michael Cohen, who was then the personal attorney for Donald Trump, got wind that Stormy Daniels was planning to go public with news of an alleged affair with Donald Trump. This was pretty soon after the Access Hollywood tape was released, where Trump talked about grabbing women by the genitals because when you're a star they let you do it.

Cohen has said he didn't think the campaign could withstand another blow of this kind, so he set up a limited liability corporation to pay Daniels to keep quiet. And then Donald Trump allegedly agreed to a scheme to pay Cohen back by calling the reimbursements a legal retainer, which they were not.

FADEL: Right.

BERNSTEIN: That's a felony if the DA can prove that Trump falsified the records to cover up another crime - that is, the crime of making an illegal payment to benefit his campaign, in this case, the hush money payments.

FADEL: And this trial was supposed to start today but it's already been pushed back. Remind us what happened.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. So there was a hearing last month where Judge Juan Merchan was firm that he wanted to start today, but then DA Alvin Bragg made public that there had been a last-minute production of over 100,000 documents from the federal prosecutors who had prosecuted Michael Cohen. Trump is calling this malfeasance, but Bragg says there's not much new here. Merchan is expected to let us know today if he'll keep his current trial date, April 15. If that is the case, Trump will be in court most days for the following two months, tried on 34 felony counts, which could bring jail time.

FADEL: So there's a lot to keep straight here. Trump also faces the deadline to post a bond for the penalty in his civil fraud case, too, for engaging in fraudulent business practices, right?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, (laughter) it's kind of mind-boggling that both of these things are happening today, but it's a coincidence.

FADEL: Has Trump been able to come up with the money?

BERNSTEIN: So Trump has appealed the judgment in the civil fraud case, but he still has to put the money aside. Last week, he argued to an appeals court that to cover the bond, to get a bond, was a practical impossibility because he doesn't have the cash to guarantee it right now. Here is his son, Eric Trump, speaking on Fox News yesterday.

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ERIC TRUMP: They're trying to put my father out of business. They're trying to take all his resources that he would otherwise put into his own campaign for presidency.

BERNSTEIN: Part of the reason Donald Trump may be having trouble getting a bond is because he already had to come up with $100 million in liquid assets to cover his judgment in a separate civil case, the E. Jean Carroll defamation suit.

FADEL: Right.

BERNSTEIN: He's appealed that one, too. The appeals court in the fraud case hasn't acted yet. And if it does nothing, there is nothing to prevent the attorney general, Letitia James, from starting to seize Trump's properties this week, which she said she'll do.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Good luck covering all this today. Thank you so much.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you, Leila. 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
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.