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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're at the start of summer in a presidential election year and waiting to find out if one of the major party candidates is guilty of a crime.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A jury is deliberating in the trial of former President Donald Trump. They're deciding if he falsified business records, which is a felony in New York if you do it in pursuit of some other crime. However they decide, a much larger jury of his peers get the chance to make its own choice soon afterwards. So what are voters thinking?

INSKEEP: An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll offers some insight, and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us once again. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks for getting up early. OK, so we've talked about this. The election is not later this fall. It's now - the first debate in less than a month, early voting startlingly soon, and here's this trial. How are voters thinking about it?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, the overwhelming sentiment among respondents was that a guilty verdict would not make any difference. Two-thirds said that it would make no difference. Another 15%, mostly Republicans, said a guilty verdict would make them more likely to vote for him in the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Our producer Janet Woojeong Lee reached a couple of respondents from the survey, and they had very different takes on the trial. First here's Mike Burr, a Democrat from Georgia.

MIKE BURR: The trial kind of affirms that I don't think anybody should really be voting for Donald Trump. I don't think Donald Trump is good for the country.

MONTANARO: But then there's John Duvall, a Republican from Tennessee.

JOHN DUVALL: I think it's a big farce. There's an attack on Donald Trump. I'll vote for him more because of what they're doing, because it's illegal. If they send him to jail, I'll still vote for him 'cause the whole thing is a political attack on him.

MONTANARO: I mean, of course, the trial is not illegal, but it's not surprising to hear this kind of view on the right because it's what conservative media is saying day in and day out. But I think it's important context because this is what we live in in this country. People have very different views of our politics and very different perceptions, especially of Donald Trump, and those views are, for the most part, very locked in. But I will say former president found guilty is not a headline Trump wants.

INSKEEP: Oh, sure, because it's a very close election. It's about a few voters on the margins. So would anybody's vote be affected by the verdict?

MONTANARO: Well, one group that's important here is younger voters. I mean, Biden's been struggling with them in the polls. Certainly he's not doing as well with them currently as he did in 2020. And for those under 45, about 1 in 5 of them say a guilty verdict would make them less likely to vote for Trump. But if Trump is found not guilty, the same number say that they'd be more likely to vote for him. So they might be somewhat persuadable, but one, I have to say, some of those are partisans.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MONTANARO: And two, it's also important to note that saying a verdict makes you less likely to do something doesn't necessarily mean that's what you're actually going to do.

INSKEEP: Yeah, fair point, fair point. Now, you said something else there. You said Biden is struggling with younger voters. How bad is it as we head into summer?

MONTANARO: Yeah, Biden has just a 24% approval rating with voters 18 to 29.

INSKEEP: Wow.

MONTANARO: Sixty-two percent say that they have an unfavorable opinion of him. Those are terrible numbers for a Democrat in particular. So what's going on here? I mean, our pollsters tell me that affordability and housing are big pieces of this. And the data show that on everything from the economy to immigration to the war between Israel and Hamas, younger voters have a worse opinion of Biden than voters overall, and they're less likely to think that he has the mental fitness to do the job. That's all had a huge effect on how Biden stacks up against Trump. And when third parties are introduced, it just gets worse. I mean, that doesn't necessarily mean younger voters are flocking to Trump, but even them not showing up would be a big win for Trump.

INSKEEP: How much trouble is each of these unpopular candidates going to have in turning out voters?

MONTANARO: Well, they certainly do have some difficulty and a big challenge ahead of them. I mean, Biden has a host of turnout challenges - you know, younger voters, younger Black voters, Latinos. They need to do a lot of work, the Biden campaign, to get them engaged. But Trump also has a challenge ahead of him because college-educated white voters are starting to side more with Biden, and they vote at very high rates, as compared to Trump's core of his base, white voters without college degrees, who tend to vote at much lower rates traditionally.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks for the insights.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Some European countries are loosening their restrictions on Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: NATO foreign ministers are gathering in Prague, and some members of the U.S.-led alliance are now saying that Ukraine may use their weapons to strike at military targets inside Russia. Up to now, they prevented that. The U.S. still prevents it, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. is paying attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We're always listening, we're always learning, and we're always making determinations about what's necessary to make sure that Ukraine can effectively continue to defend itself.

INSKEEP: OK, so where are those deliberations heading? NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Blinken and joins us from a military base in Prague. Hey there, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How much pressure does the United States face to allow Ukraine to strike into Russian territory?

KELEMEN: Well, a lot of pressure, really, to lift restrictions on its military aid to Ukraine. So far, Secretary Blinken has been pretty careful saying the U.S. has not encouraged or enabled strikes outside Ukraine. But he was a bit more forward-leaning when asked whether the U.S. might start allowing this. He says the U.S. wants to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs to defend itself. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: And another hallmark of our support for Ukraine over these now more than two years has been to adapt. As the conditions have changed, as the battlefield has changed, as what Russia does has changed in terms of how it's pursuing its aggression, we've adapted and adjusted too, and I'm confident we'll continue to do that.

KELEMEN: So adapting and adjusting is the kind of important rhetoric there. The administration has been reluctant up to now to do anything that could draw NATO into a more direct conflict with Russia. But as he says, it has been adapting.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I can understand why the U.S. has been reluctant up to now. You wouldn't want U.S. weapons striking Russia, given that the U.S. and Russia are two nuclear powers that could destroy the world, but now this is the debate. Why is the debate now?

KELEMEN: Well, Ukraine's been asking for it. And, you know, we're also hearing from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who says he thinks it's time for NATO countries to ease up on the restrictions and allow Ukraine to use NATO weapons to strike at legitimate military targets inside of Russia. Legitimate targets is what he's saying, and here's how he describes it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS STOLTENBERG: This is in particular relevant now because the most heavy fighting is now taking place in the Kharkiv region, close to the Ukrainian-Russian border, and part the border is actually the front line.

KELEMEN: Stoltenberg says it's going to be hard for Ukraine to defend itself in Kharkiv if it cannot hit military targets on the other side of the border. And another big topic here, Steve, is the need for more air defenses for Ukraine since Russia is continuing to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Michele Kelemen, whose travels allow us to look at another angle of this story because the secretary of state went to Moldova, which neighbors Ukraine and is a former Soviet state. Michele, why did he go there?

KELEMEN: Moldova has been dealing with the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine, and it's really worried about Russian aggression. Moldova's president, Maia Sandu, says her country needs Ukraine to help stop Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MAIA SANDU: Ukraine is defending itself, and Ukraine is defending Moldova, and we believe that Ukraine should be offered all the support it needs, not just to resist but also to win this war.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken is offering to help. He's announced some new aid to help Moldova deal with Russian disinformation and to help its energy sector become less dependent on Russia and more integrated in Europe.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michele Kelemen, safe travels.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito says he will not recuse himself from cases related to former President Trump and his 2020 election defeat.

MARTÍNEZ: Members of Congress asked him to step aside on the grounds that he expressed an opinion about Trump, or at least that his household did. An American flag flew upside down at his house in 2021, and another flag flew at another house he owns.

INSKEEP: Lawrence Hurley covers the Supreme Court for NBC News, and he joins us. Good morning, sir.

LAWRENCE HURLEY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, let's review this. These are flags - they can be associated with the Stop the Steal movement and so forth, the upside-down American flag, the Appeal to Heaven flag. How does Justice Alito justify flying them at his two homes?

HURLEY: Well, first of all, he's pointing to these new Supreme Court ethics guidelines that were only just introduced last year, and they have a pretty high standard for recusal. One of the key elements is that they're self-enforcing. So it's the justices themselves who decide whether they're going to step aside, and no one can really question that. And the key issue here is he's saying, you know, the standard to recuse is very high because it's assumed that the justices have to sit on cases because there's only nine justices and you can't replace them.

And then he says, the standard is that a neutral, reasonable and unbiased person would have to think that he needs to recuse, and he doesn't think that that's the case. And, of course, the key element here is that he's saying it's his wife, Martha-Ann Alito, who put up both flags. He says she has a First Amendment right herself to express her opinions. He had nothing to do with it, and in fact, in one case, he asked her to take a flag down, and she refused to for several days.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

HURLEY: And so, you know, he's saying there's a lot of things here to suggest that, you know, it's nothing to do with him.

INSKEEP: It is really remarkable. He says in this letter, a reasonable person could not possibly disagree with me unless they're biased or trying to influence Supreme Court cases. He gets to decide that himself?

HURLEY: Yeah, I mean, this is the standard that the court adopted last year, in part because of various stories that had come out about Justice Clarence Thomas and his trips that he'd taken that were paid for by a billionaire and also a couple of stories about Alito himself.

INSKEEP: Thomas also had questions about his wife, Ginni Thomas, didn't he?

HURLEY: Well, exactly. And Justice Thomas - his wife, Ginni Thomas, was involved much more actively in efforts to overturn the election results, and Thomas has not stepped aside from these cases.

INSKEEP: Can we just talk about the symbolism of these flags because Alito did not actually say, you know, Trump 2024, vote for Trump, Trump won? These flags flew. And he tries to make a case that they do not necessarily mean what you think they mean. How strong is that part of his argument?

HURLEY: Well, I think there's been a lot of back-and-forth on this. I think during the January 6 attack on the Capitol, for example, you can see in the video footage, some people having the Appeal to Heaven flag, and the upside-down flag has also been associated with this. But in both cases, there was a history preceding January 6 of people using these flags.

INSKEEP: Isn't there - and we just got a couple of seconds here, but isn't there a ruling coming very soon on Trump's trial relating to the 2020 election?

HURLEY: Yeah, this is Trump's immunity case, whether his election interference case can move forward, and that's going to be a huge case that could be decided as soon as the next few days.

INSKEEP: And we presume it will include Justice Alito. Lawrence Hurley, thanks so much.

HURLEY: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: He covers the Supreme Court for NBC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: And finally, today, First Lady Jill Biden just dropped some pretty big news for animal lovers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JILL BIDEN: It's official. The pandas are coming back to D.C.

MARTÍNEZ: That's right. The National Zoo in Washington expects to receive a pair of giant pandas later this year.

INSKEEP: Last November, the zoo had to give up its pandas, pandas they'd kept for years, which were on loan from China. China wanted them back. NPR has been covering D.C.'s pandas since the first pair were delivered back in 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At the appointed time, Mrs. Nixon arrived at the National Zoological Park. She was escorted to a long raised platform outside the panda house.

INSKEEP: OK, it was the business of the first lady back in 1972, apparently still the business of the first lady in 2024. I guess she gets all the good news.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, consistency, Steve. Now, the return of pandas - pretty big news, right? Sounds like it is. It got us thinking, though, since we don't normally cover new lizards at the zoo or maybe bison or sea lions. So what about these pandas has got us really wrapped up around their furry a paws? Why, why, why?

BRANDIE SMITH: The first thing is they are just so darn cute.

INSKEEP: Although you would not really want to be grabbed by their paws. That's Brandie Smith. She is the director of the National Zoo, and before that, she was their curator of giant pandas.

SMITH: They're almost perfectly designed to pull on our heartstrings. They actually have features that are similar to babies, like the round faces, the big eyes, that little nose and mouth. So looking at a giant panda kind of biologically pulls on the same things that we feel when we look at infants.

INSKEEP: And then you hear the baby panda's the size of a stick of butter. And if that's not adorable enough for you, wait until you hear what they sound like.

SMITH: People are always surprised by those different noises. There are honks. There can be huffs, but there is - the noise most people hear is a bleat.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANDA BLEATING)

SMITH: It sounds the most goatlike, doesn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF PANDA BLEATING)

MARTÍNEZ: But our obsession with pandas is about more than just extreme cuteness.

SMITH: They're rare. They're exceptionally rare. The opportunities to see them are few and far between.

INSKEEP: For a long time, giant pandas are on the endangered species list. Recent preservation efforts have helped, and they were moved to the vulnerable list, although their numbers are still not great.

SMITH: There are just about 1,900 pandas in the wild right now, and I think there are close to 800 in zoos around the world. To put it in perspective, there are more black bears in Virginia than there are pandas on the planet.

INSKEEP: Which is very important information, but have we mentioned how cute they are?

SMITH: It never gets old. I have been here for 16 years, and every time I look at a giant panda, my heart melts. It just - every time.

INSKEEP: And now your heart can melt a lot more because the National Zoo in Washington struck a 10-year deal with China, and they're expecting the new pandas to arrive sometime this fall.

You have anything to say, A?

MARTÍNEZ: They're not even in my top three black-and-white animals.

INSKEEP: They're not in your top three black-and-white...

MARTÍNEZ: No.

INSKEEP: What?

MARTÍNEZ: Zebras...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Orcas, dalmatians, Steve.

INSKEEP: (Laughter)

MARTÍNEZ: Skunk even ranks higher for me.

INSKEEP: Skunk is higher for you.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What's the matter with you?

MARTÍNEZ: I'm not up on all the whole panda...

INSKEEP: What about one of those socks cats? Would that also be, you know, the...

MARTÍNEZ: Higher on the list.

INSKEEP: ...With the white feet - the black cat with the white feet.

MARTÍNEZ: Higher on the list for me than a panda.

INSKEEP: I don't know. I don't know. 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.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.
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