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Morning news brief

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

President Biden made a quick, unexpected trip to Delaware yesterday to support his son.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, the president traveled to an Air National Guard base in Delaware. And on the tarmac, he hugged Hunter Biden, who a federal jury had just convicted on felony gun charges. Hunter denied his drug addiction when filling out a form to buy a firearm. The trial revealed many details of his addiction and persuaded a jury.

SCHMITZ: NPR Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas attended every single day of this trial. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: You've reported elsewhere on the evidence against Biden and the verdict. Now we have the President's reaction. He says he's a dad, too. What is the toll this has had on the Biden family?

LUCAS: So look, this case against Hunter Biden was brought by special counsel David Weiss, and Weiss spoke a bit after the verdict yesterday. Here's a bit of what he said.

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DAVID WEISS: Ultimately, this case was not just about addiction, a disease that haunts families across the United States, including Hunter Biden's family. This case was about the illegal choices defendant made while in the throes of addiction.

LUCAS: Still, Hunter's addiction struggles were really the central feature of the trial, and members of the Biden family were in the front row of the courtroom every day of the trial. Hunter's wife was there. First lady Jill Biden and other family members showed up for several days as well. And at times, they were in tears listening to the ugly, sordid testimony about Hunter's addiction to crack cocaine.

Now, the government introduced the evidence to make their case to the jury, and, ultimately, the jury found that evidence convincing and convicted Hunter on all charges. The president, in his statement yesterday, noted that a lot of families in this country have loved ones who have battled addiction. And interestingly enough, the degree to which addiction hits American families was apparent during jury selection for Hunter's trial, when some of the members of the jury said that they had either friends or family who had struggled with addiction.

SCHMITZ: You know, Republicans had been demanding investigations of the Bidens for years. How have they responded?

LUCAS: Well, it's interesting. The response from Congressional Republicans has varied. Representative Thomas Massie from Kentucky, for example - he said on X that Hunter might deserve to be in jail for something, but purchasing a gun is not it. Speaker Mike Johnson said on X that Hunter was only prosecuted because House Republicans had sounded the alarm, and he called on the Justice Department to investigate the Biden family.

Now, some of that sentiment is rooted, of course, in anger over the criminal cases against former President Trump, including his recent conviction on state charges in New York. Trump's legal troubles have fed into Republican claims that the Justice Department targets Republicans, but it goes easy on Democrats. But here, with this case against Hunter, you have the son of the sitting Democratic president charged and now convicted of federal gun crimes. There's also the ongoing federal trial in New York against Democratic Senator Bob Menendez on corruption charges. And another Congressional Democrat, Henry Cuellar of Texas - he was indicted last month on corruption charges as well.

SCHMITZ: I want to note one thing you said there - some Democrats have insisted that Hunter Biden would not have been prosecuted for the statement on a form, except for the political pressure by Republicans. You just said Speaker Mike Johnson agrees with this - he was prosecuted because Republicans demanded it. Does Hunter Biden appeal this conviction?

LUCAS: We don't have a definitive answer to that right now. He certainly challenged many aspects of the indictment in pretrial motions, including on Second Amendment grounds. Yesterday, his attorney, Abbe Lowell, said they respect the jury's decision, but they'll continue to vigorously pursue all the legal challenges that are available to Hunter.

Now, as for what's next, the judge in Delaware did not set a sentencing date yesterday for the gun conviction. She said she'd do so later. But there's another trial already on the horizon for Hunter Biden. Remember, special counsel Weiss also charged Hunter Biden with tax crimes. That is a separate case. It's in California. He faces nine counts there related to his failure to pay taxes on millions of dollars in income, and that case is currently scheduled to go to trial in September.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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SCHMITZ: The House is set to vote today on a resolution to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress.

INSKEEP: Republican lawmakers demanded that the Justice Department turn over audiotapes of an interview that prosecutors conducted with President Biden. Garland said the administration doesn't have to do that - that it would violate the separation of powers between the president and Congress.

SCHMITZ: NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this dispute, and she's on the line now to talk more about it. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Carrie, why do Republicans want these tapes so much?

JOHNSON: Republicans say they want these tapes because they're considering the possible impeachment of President Biden and because they're considering an update to laws that cover how sensitive and classified information is handled. But really, there could be another explanation, too - that the tapes would make Biden look and sound bad. Remember, prosecutors decided to close this investigation of how classified information came to be found at the home of President Biden with no charges, in part because they said jurors could conclude Biden was a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory. Here's House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer.

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JAMES COMER: If the attorney general chooses to defy Congress and not produce the audio recordings, he must face the consequences of his actions.

SCHMITZ: The attorney general has not turned over those tapes, so what are the consequences going to be?

JOHNSON: No one wants to be found in contempt of Congress, especially not Merrick Garland, who spent a couple of decades as a federal judge before his current job. But that reprimand doesn't have quite the sting it used to. I've now covered two other attorneys general who were held in contempt - Eric Holder and Bill Barr - and it's important to note Garland has some legal protection here. Last month, President Biden asserted executive privilege over these tapes, so Garland won't be prosecuted for refusing to hand them over - not that the U.S. attorney in D.C. would even want to pursue a prosecution against Garland, who happens to be his boss.

SCHMITZ: So Carrie, what is the Justice Department saying about this controversy?

JOHNSON: You know, the attorney general tends to be a guy who does his talking on paper or in courtrooms. But over the past few weeks, Merrick Garland has really pushed back. Here's what he had to say recently about this tapes dispute.

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MERRICK GARLAND: We have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the committees get responses to their legitimate requests, but this is not one. To the contrary, this is one that would harm our ability in the future to successfully pursue sensitive investigations.

JOHNSON: Garland says DOJ has already turned over written transcripts of the same interviews the Republicans want with the special prosecutor and that handing over audio could really make it harder for future prosecutors to interview people in the White House. He's also blasting attacks on the Justice Department, saying people are making false claims about DOJ being political when it's really the critics who are trying to put prosecutors in the middle of politics here.

The attorney general took the unusual step of writing an opinion piece in the Washington Post this week. There, he said disagreements about politics are totally normal, but lying and conspiracy theories are really not.

SCHMITZ: So Carrie, will we, the public, get to hear these audiotapes before the election?

JOHNSON: The odds are low. The Biden administration does not want to give them up. Media groups and conservative groups, like The Heritage Foundation, have sued to get access to the tapes, but the case is taking a long time to get through the court system. Right now, it seems unlikely the tapes would be released in time for them to show up in campaign ads or Republican fundraising pitches before the presidential election in November.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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SCHMITZ: OK, it's time for a status check on inflation.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the Federal Reserve completes a meeting this afternoon, and the policymakers are expected to keep interest rates where they are, which is comparatively high. Just in time for that Fed meeting, we also find out what happened with consumer prices in May.

SCHMITZ: NPR's Scott Horsley has been tracking the Fed's campaign to curb inflation. He joins us now. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: So how is that campaign going? What's happening with prices?

HORSLEY: Lately, it has been slow going. Inflation did come down a lot last year after topping 9% back in 2022. But in recent months, that progress has kind of plateaued. The annual inflation rate in April was 3.4%. Forecasters think it was in that same ballpark in May. We have gotten lucky with gas prices lately. They're down about 14 cents a gallon from this time last year, so it is cheaper to gas up your car. But the cost to insure your car is still going up. And if you need a car loan, that's also expensive because of those high interest rates. Joe Brusuelas, who's chief economist at the big accounting firm RSM, thinks inflation will eventually moderate, but he says we're going to have to be patient.

JOE BRUSUELAS: It's just going to be a slow grind in terms of how much inflation cools on a month-to-month basis back towards the long-term 2% target.

HORSLEY: And that means the Federal Reserve is going to take it slow and keep interest rates higher for longer until policymakers are more confident that prices are under control.

SCHMITZ: So when are we going to catch a break on high interest rates?

HORSLEY: Yeah, that's what anybody who's trying to buy a house or finance a business or just carrying a balance on their credit card wants to know. And the answer is it's going to depend on what happens with inflation. If it does cool off during the summer, the Fed might be ready to start cutting interest rates in September. Investors think there's about a 50/50 chance of that. But if inflation remains elevated, it could take longer.

A survey of Fed policymakers back in March found that, on average, they thought they'd get three quarter-point interest rate cuts this year. Now that looks like that might have been too optimistic. Maybe we'll only get two cuts - or maybe none at all - by year's end. Fed policymakers will deliver some updated forecasts this afternoon of where they think interest rates are headed, and, of course, that's going to be very closely watched.

SCHMITZ: So as we all know, it's an election year, how is this affecting voters' attitudes about the economy?

HORSLEY: One thing we've learned is people really, really don't like inflation.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) No, they don't.

HORSLEY: Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on some research that found people think a 1% jump in inflation is twice as bad as a 1% jump in unemployment.

SCHMITZ: Wow.

HORSLEY: Now, if you're out of work, you might disagree with that assessment. But everybody is affected by rising prices, whether they're working or not. Economist Brusuelas thinks we will enjoy a further slowdown in inflation over the summer and early fall. But, keep in mind, falling inflation just means prices level off. It doesn't mean they go back to where they used to be.

BRUSUELAS: By the time we get to election day, people are going to feel a lot better about inflation, but they're still going to be angry about the price shock and elevated financing cost. Those things are simply not going to go away.

HORSLEY: Luckily, we do have very low unemployment, and, thanks to that tight labor market, we're still getting pretty good wage gains. Wages have been rising faster than prices for over a year now, so people's paychecks are stretching further. The only thing is, if wages keep going up and people keep spending that money, it makes it harder for the Fed to get inflation under control.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: 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.

Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.