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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Two of three judges on a federal appeals court are now the ones deciding how patients can get an abortion drug.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The judges answered an appeal to keep it available. As we have reported, a single federal judge decided the Food and Drug Administration improperly authorized mifepristone two decades ago. Now a three-judge panel has made its own judgment. All three judges blocked the ruling, which means mifepristone remains available, but two of three voted to uphold some restrictions on how it is distributed.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon has been covering this and joins us now to explain what this all means. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what does the decision say?

MCCAMMON: Well, just as a reminder, you know, this all started because a conservative-leaning federal judge in Texas named Matthew Kacsmaryk had ordered the abortion drug mifepristone essentially to be taken off the market starting tomorrow.

FADEL: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Now, the Biden administration appealed that right away. And in the meantime, the Department of Justice asked the Fifth Circuit appeals court for an emergency stay that would put Kacsmaryk's whole decision on hold while this case plays out. And that would allow patients to keep getting this drug, you know, which is a key part of the standard protocol for abortions - for medication abortions in the U.S. And it's used, by many estimates, in more than half of abortions now. So anti-abortion groups, of course, are challenging the Food and Drug Administration approval of mifepristone and some of the rule changes that FDA has made since then.

Leila, what the Fifth Circuit did overnight is to grant part of the Biden administration request for a stay. So the FDA approval stays in place, but the court essentially has rolled back some of the rule changes in recent years that had expanded access to the drug.

FADEL: OK, so what does that practically mean for people who want to access this medication? What's changing? What's not?

MCCAMMON: Right. Well, this court, which also has a reputation for being a very conservative court, by the way, said that the statute of limitations has passed to challenge the original FDA approval of the drug back in 2000, but they said that more recent rule changes could be considered. So at least right now, the court is doing away with a couple of key changes.

FADEL: OK.

MCCAMMON: One is the drug was originally approved for use up to seven weeks of pregnancy. Then the FDA expanded that to 10 weeks in 2016. This ruling just sets that back to seven weeks. And that's potentially a big deal because many people don't know they're pregnant that early on. Those three weeks can make a big difference. And, you know, already, Leila, some doctors prescribe a little past 10 weeks. So it's unclear what this might mean for, you know, off-label prescription, but that's what the court is saying.

The court's also saying that these pills can no longer be sent in the mail. And that's significant because, you know, mifepristone is subject to a lot of additional restrictions above and beyond typical prescription drugs, and one thing that Biden administration had done in 2021 was to make permanent a rule change that had kind of started during the pandemic, allowing these drugs to be sent through the mail for people who consult with doctors over telehealth. This decision does away with that, too. And, you know, I should mention that all of this is being appealed. Ultimately, where this all lands is unclear. But that's where things stand right now.

FADEL: And just really briefly, if you could talk about the on-the-ground impact, then, of this decision.

MCCAMMON: You know, it's early, but I anticipate a lot of continued concern from abortion rights groups. I mean, this does preserve some access. As I said, it rolls back some existing access. And also, you know, one thing I noticed is the court in its decision mentions the idea of Comstock laws, which are 19th century laws that restrict the mailing of materials, including things used in abortion. The Biden administration has said those don't apply to mailing abortion pills, but the court seemed favorable to that argument. And so that's really something to watch because it could have a big impact on other types of reproductive health care.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks so much, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: California Senator Dianne Feinstein says she will step back but not down.

INSKEEP: Feinstein is asking to temporarily drop one of her most important jobs in the Senate. She is part of the Judiciary Committee, which has been confirming judges appointed by President Biden. She hasn't been able to do that job recently due to illness. She has also missed dozens of Senate votes this year, prompting some fellow Democrats to say the 89-year-old should resign. She has a bit less than two years left in her term.

FADEL: NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is with us for more. Let's start with the senator's extended leave from the Senate. How did this all start?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Right. The senator said last night she was diagnosed with a case of shingles that she thought would allow her to return to Washington by the end of last month. But she's had complications, and as a result, she's missed most of this year's votes in the Senate, a little more than a month, and we do not know when she'll return.

FADEL: And now she's facing increased calls from Democrats for her resignation. What's next for this seat?

GRISALES: Right. She already announced she would not run for reelection in 2024. With that, she said she planned to finish her final two years strong, following this 30-plus-year career in the Senate. For now, she's defending this absence, saying she'll return as soon as her medical team says it's safe. But she's not signaling she has any plans to step down early, which puts a key seat and a narrow Senate Democratic majority in limbo.

FADEL: Now, Feinstein is facing all of this criticism in part because she sits on an important committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee, in her absence, has held up the panel's work, it appears. So she's asking to be temporarily relieved from that committee. What does that mean?

GRISALES: So she said in her statement she understands these concerns tied to the Judiciary Committee, and she's asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to allow another Democratic senator to serve on that panel instead. Schumer's office said he'll agree to the request, and he'll ask the Senate when they return next week to replace her temporarily. And this is critical because the panel, which is led by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who took over this role from Feinstein, has a long to-do list. This includes plans to confirm more judges and a hearing on new ethical questions surrounding the Supreme Court after a report that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted gifts of travel from a wealthy GOP donor, plus questions over whether the panel could play a role in this new national fight over access to the abortion drug.

FADEL: Will these moves appease her critics?

GRISALES: That's hard to say. We're seeing some now openly call for her resignation. This was largely led by California Democrat Ro Khanna last night. Before Feinstein issued her statement on this extended absence, Khanna said it was time for her resignation, and it's, quote, "time to put country ahead of personal loyalty."

FADEL: Right. This is clearly exposing divisiveness, an ugly fight for Democrats.

GRISALES: Yes. Khanna said that while Feinstein has had, quote, "a lifetime of public service, it's obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties" and that not speaking out undermines his and other members' credibility. So far, at least one other House Democrat, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, echoed this, saying it's a dereliction of duty for Feinstein to remain in the Senate under these conditions and for others not to speak out about it. And we should note, if Feinstein were to step down early, that would give the California governor a chance to shake up an already very competitive race for her seat by installing his own appointee ahead of the 2024 election.

FADEL: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thank you so much.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is in China this week.

INSKEEP: He expects to meet China's president, and this visit underlines China's influence in South America. China has invested in many countries in that continent, as it has in other places, and it's a big trading partner for Brazil.

FADEL: NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn is in Rio de Janeiro and joins us now. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, I mean, there's been a lot of talk about China's global role - mediating a deal with Saudi and Iran, hosting world leaders and questions about what it means for its role on the global stage. If you could just talk about this visit by Brazil's leader and what he's hoping to do while in China.

KAHN: Well, he has a big agenda there for the next couple days. It seems like he's brought half the government with him, ministers, governors, dozens of business people, because, overall - you talked about the global politics of it all - this is a visit about trade for him. Look; 40% of Brazil's exports go to China. That's a lot of beef and soy. China is Brazil's No. 1 trading partner. The U.S. is a distant second. I was talking about the trip to Rodrigo Zeidan. He's a Brazilian economics professor at NYU in Shanghai. He said he gets that the trip is coming at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, but not everything is about the U.S.

RODRIGO ZEIDAN: It's not about any message to the U.S. It's really about realpolitik between two very important trade and investment partners.

KAHN: And that's especially since Brazil's relationship with China deteriorated under the previous far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. He frequently insulted the Chinese. Lula pledged to bring Brazil back to the world stage.

FADEL: Now, what's on the itinerary for Lula in China? I'm assuming he's meeting with Xi Jinping?

KAHN: Yes, they'll meet on Friday. Brazil and China are also part of the so-called BRICS with Russia, India and South Africa, this Global South alliance that says it's a counterbalance to the West. Lula spoke today at the BRICS Development Bank, where he railed against the fact that all trade transactions are in dollars. He wants that to change with China to their local currency. Lula also really wants China to join him in this plan of his to be a mediator in the Ukraine war. Lula talks about building this peace club of nations to broker an end to the war. You know, he is an elder leftist and espouses Brazil's nonaligned global status, which, he says, a perfect, neutral player in the politics of all. Lula's stand just irks the West, since he never outright condemns Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He refuses to sell ammunition to Ukraine, too. And he just sent his foreign policy adviser to meet with Putin.

FADEL: Well, does Lula have the clout, though, to pull something like that off? I mean, is Brazil a big enough player in the world today to take on that role?

KAHN: Well, when I talk to analysts here in Brazil, they say, no, Lula is punching above his weight. But last time he was president in the late 2000s, he worked on a nuclear deal with Iran. I was talking with Oliver Stuenkel. He's an international relations professor at Brazil's FGV University. And he said Lula should just stay closer to home and work on things like the environment, not waste the goodwill he already has around the world.

OLIVER STUENKEL: Everybody wants to be friends with Brazil because Brazil is an environmental superpower. But it's not like everybody will eternally sort of support Lula on the foreign policy front.

KAHN: Lula is in the midst of an interesting balancing act with China and with the U.S. And he's very cognizant of China's growing footprint in Latin America and how that worries the U.S., too.

FADEL: NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you so much for your reporting, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Before you go, we wanted to bring you another story making headlines today. The Washington Post has new information on the leaker of the classified Pentagon documents that mentioned countries all over the world, including battlefield details on Ukraine. Shane Harris is one of The Washington Post reporters who broke that story and interviewed on camera a friend of that leaker. They were in the same gamer group on the online platform Discord, where the leaker went by the pseudonym OG. Here's the friend, who agreed to be recorded by The Washington Post. The person is a minor and spoke on the condition of anonymity and with permission from his parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want to keep OG's identity secret because I still care for him like he's a family member. He's not a Russian operative. He's not a Ukrainian operative.

FADEL: Shane Harris joins us now to talk about this reporting. Hi, Shane.

SHANE HARRIS: Hi. Good morning.

FADEL: So what did he tell you about the person who shared these documents?

HARRIS: This person who he calls OG - and he said he and another person we spoke to as a member of the group do know the identity, the name and the location of the person, but they won't reveal it - described him as the kind of leader of this group that formed on this Discord server at the beginning of the pandemic. And they kind of all stuck together while they were in isolation. Said he's a younger person in his early 20s, that he works at a military base and that the nature of his job gave him access to these highly classified documents that they understood he was bringing home from work and then sharing with people in the Discord server.

They also indicated that he had worked some of the time in his job in, as they kind of described it, a secure facility where this information could be accessed. We would know this as something called a SCIF. It would be something that you might see in a government installation that would kind of be like a secured room or area where someone could access classified information.

FADEL: Shane Harris is one of The Washington Post reporters who broke that story, and he talks to MORNING EDITION about the findings. To hear more of the interview, download the NPR app and listen to MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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