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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The latest indictment against Donald Trump, the third against him, results from what Attorney General Merrick Garland called the largest investigation in the Justice Department's history following the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Trump is now facing four felony charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the vote in 2020.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

He did that, the indictment says, by repeatedly and knowingly lying about the election's outcome in order to hold on to power. He's accused of then exploiting the violence on January 6 to delay the election certification. And special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the investigation - and after the indictment was unsealed, he addressed the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK SMITH: The attack on our nation's Capitol on January 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy. It's described in the indictment. It was fueled by lies, lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government.

FADEL: For more on this, we turn to, as we always do, NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So more than a thousand people have already been charged with crimes related to January 6. Now Donald Trump is among them. We know Trump has been indicted twice before. But Carrie, just give me a sense of how unprecedented and serious this indictment is.

JOHNSON: This is really as serious as it gets. As you mentioned, hundreds of people who entered the Capitol have gone through the court system. Many of them say they were motivated by former President Donald Trump. Now, Trump himself is charged with four felonies, leading a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government he once led and conspiring to derail the congressional session to certify the votes. This indictment says Trump took advantage of the violence at the Capitol to advance his own personal goals.

FADEL: Serious charges that really accuse him of trying to undermine the democratic process. How is Trump responding?

JOHNSON: You know, Trump, who is the front-runner in the GOP field for the 2024 presidential nomination, calls this election interference. He's name-calling the special counsel, Jack Smith, and asking why these charges didn't come 2 1/2 years ago, even though cases of this scale can take a long time to put together. He also says he was relying on his advice from his lawyers at the time. And that may come up in court proceedings moving forward.

FADEL: Right. There were some co-conspirators mentioned, unnamed. We've been anticipating what this indictment might say about the former president and his role in the attack on the Capitol for weeks now. You've been reporting on this, waiting for this. Was there anything that surprised you?

JOHNSON: Well, it was surprising to me that Trump is the only person who's named in this indictment, the only defendant so far. But as you mentioned, there are six people who are labeled as co-conspirators. Their names are not included, but there's plenty of biographical information about them in the court papers, and many are lawyers who helped promote these bogus election fraud claims. Their descriptions line up with people we know who are of interest to investigators. These are people like Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Sidney Powell and the former Justice Department lawyer, Jeffrey Clark. So we'll have to see what the special counsel does next with them.

FADEL: OK, so what happens now, Carrie?

JOHNSON: Special counsel Jack Smith says his investigation is continuing. Former President Trump is due in court here in Washington on Thursday for an initial appearance. And moving forward, the case has been assigned to Judge Tanya Chutkan. She's an Obama appointee and a former public defender. She's known as a tough sentencer on January 6 defendants.

FADEL: Now, of course, Trump is dealing with a lot of other legal troubles, this being his third criminal indictment, but he's also running for president. Does anything change if he wins reelection?

JOHNSON: It could. In some ways, Donald Trump could be running for his freedom. If he's reelected, he might be able to get rid of this case in D.C. and the Mar-a-Lago documents case in Florida, too, but not that state one in New York, because U.S. presidents do not have the power to wipe away criminal convictions in states.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, I'm sure we'll be talking to you a lot more in the future. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

FADEL: Where you turn for coverage of this latest indictment helps to shape your understanding of the story.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, for former President Trump, the conservative press has been both a pillar of his support, no matter the accusation, and an indicator of his popularity. And right now, he's very popular.

FADEL: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been watching and reading conservative media's coverage since the announcement of the indictment so he can break down what's being said for us. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So describe for me what you've been seeing and reading.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in such moments, the general dynamic I find is that the closer you are to the announcement and the revelation of such event, like this indictment, the more accurate and straightforward that coverage tends to be. That soon fades. Last night, you know, on Fox News as it broke, political anchor Bret Baier had a pretty straight-ahead hour. It included comment from former Vice President Mike Pence's chief lawyer - very critical of Donald Trump. That said, I looked at the breadth and width of a lot of stuff online. You know, you haven't seen much acknowledgement that these may be justifiably serious charges, with a few outliers. Instead, what I think you've tended to see is a lot of deflection and an argument without evidence that President Biden has politicized the Justice Department and the courts. I'll read you a headline from the Federalist, "Biden Delivers Another Blow Against His Primary Political Rival With Latest Trump Indictment."

FADEL: So is this some sort of deflection? I mean, describe how the deflection works.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's take an example. Fox News's newest 8 p.m. star is Jesse Watters. Here's just a snippet of what he had to say last night.

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JESSE WATTERS: The timing of this indictment was coordinated to take the heat off Biden. This is the third time this has happened. You ready?

FOLKENFLIK: So, of course, President Biden's adult son, Hunter, is in court right now on tax and gun violation matters. A plea deal with this same federal Justice Department has fallen through. They're figuring out if they're going to negotiate or go to prosecution. The younger Biden is also under the intense gaze of congressional Republicans over trading on his family's names for profit, and shows focused a lot on that last night. Sean Hannity pivoted harder than anybody I've seen on "Dancing With The Stars" to refocus his viewers' attention on Hunter Biden rather than the revelation of this latest indictment, and that was basically at the very top of his show last night.

FADEL: So it sounds like what you're describing is some whataboutism instead of covering this event. I mean, Fox has had its critical moments in the past. Bret Baier, the Fox anchor you mentioned earlier, recently gave Trump a grilling in his interview, but the network was strongly supportive of him during his presidency. And today there are so many other conservatives running against him, so why stick so closely to Trump even now?

FOLKENFLIK: Leila, the best answer is probably the same one I gave you months ago for how Fox found itself in court paying nearly $800 million to settle a defamation suit over whether it embraced Trump's lies about the 2020 elections and the claims of fraud that led to January 6. They simply don't want to drive viewers away. Rupert Murdoch is the ultimate controlling owner of Fox News. He really wanted Ron DeSantis to replace Trump as the top of the Republican ticket. But DeSantis has faded, and for the moment, Trump not only has a firm hold on Republican voters generally but on Fox viewers' loyalties.

And it's notable how persistent the support was for Trump up and down Fox's lineup of opinion hosts, as well as on Newsmax and OAN and elsewhere. If you think about these outlets, they don't want to alienate his voters - and this despite the fact that a lot of Fox's stars reached out to Trump administration officials to try to get the then-president to weigh in to stop what was happening on January 6 itself. So the talking points are surfacing that the scandal was not of Trump's behavior, but the politicization of this Justice Department - once more, an accusation made without evidence.

FADEL: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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FADEL: How dependable is the U.S. government at paying its debts? One of the nation's big credit watchdogs says not dependable enough.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Yesterday, Fitch Ratings stripped the federal government of its AAA bond rating, citing big government deficits and a steady deterioration in governance over the past two decades. The downgrade comes just two months after leaders narrowly avoided a potentially disastrous default on the federal debt.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now for analysis. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So in what way has the U.S. government become fiscally unreliable, according to this ratings agency?

HORSLEY: Well, the government continues to run up big deficits. That's adding to a debt that already tops $32 trillion. And Fitch says Washington has no real plan for fixing the situation. The deal between the Biden administration and House Republicans to suspend the debt limit a couple of months ago barely scratches the surface. It does limit some spending, but only in a small fraction of the overall federal budget. And it actually worsens the revenue outlook by cutting money for the IRS. It does nothing to address the long-term challenges of funding programs like Social Security and Medicare for an aging population. And Fitch points to a pretty toxic political environment that's seen repeated brinkmanship over the simple question of whether the government's going to pay its bills. You know, it's a coincidence that the credit downgrade was announced on the same day that the former president was indicted for allegedly trying to undermine the peaceful transfer of power. But given the extreme polarization and paralysis here in Washington, it's no wonder some folks may think twice about whether the government can be trusted to pay its debts.

FADEL: What's the Biden administration saying?

HORSLEY: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued a statement saying she strongly disagrees with Fitch's move. She called it arbitrary and says it's based on outdated information. Yellen notes the U.S. economy has bounced back more quickly than most other countries from the pandemic recession. Unemployment's near a 50-year low. Inflation's come down sharply over the last year. GDP is actually growing faster than a lot of forecasters expected. And all of that is true. Fitch actually acknowledges that the U.S. has a vibrant, diversified economy and a dollar that's the envy of the world. What the rating agency is concerned about, though, is policymaking here in Washington, whether we're talking about GOP tax cuts or Democratic spending programs, and the apparent unwillingness of both parties to grapple with the long-term challenges of bankrolling entitlement programs.

FADEL: What does this practically mean, though, Scott? How does this downgrade affect the country's finances?

HORSLEY: The practical effects may be pretty limited. The dollar did slip a bit overnight. Stock futures were down, but not dramatically. As the treasury secretary says, plenty of people are still willing to lend the government money, even if they are demanding higher interest rates now than they used to. After the last big debt limit showdown in 2011, another credit rating agency, S&P, also took away the government's AAA rating. There was some short-term fallout in the stock market, but it didn't really impede the government's ability to borrow money. The cost of borrowing is going up, though. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, the government spent $652 billion just on interest payments.

FADEL: Wow.

HORSLEY: That leaves less money for everything else the government wants to do.

FADEL: And what would it take to restore the government's AAA bond rating?

HORSLEY: Well, Fitch says it would consider raising the bond rating again if the government were to grapple seriously with some of its long-term fiscal challenges. That might mean adjusting outlays, raising revenues or some combination of the two. And Fitch also says it'd like to see a turnaround in the toxic governing environment.

FADEL: 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.

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