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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

How do you clear 6 million pounds of steel out of a river?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

That's what authorities in Baltimore have to figure out after a cargo ship wrecked the Francis Scott Key Bridge earlier this week. Until they do, the city's port is at a standstill, and thousands of people are unsure if they'll have jobs. Officials are warning that this effort won't be easy, inexpensive or quick.

FADEL: NPR's Joel Rose has been following the story and joins us now. Good morning, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So it's now three days since the morning the bridge collapsed. What's the site look like right now?

ROSE: It's still a scene of incredible devastation. The wreckage of the bridge is still in the river. Some of it is resting on top of the ship's bow. Containers on the ship are dislodged. Some are dangling off the edge of the ship, known as the Dali. Maryland Governor Wes Moore says this is a very daunting task.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WES MOORE: The Dali is almost as long as the Eiffel Tower, and the Dali has the Key Bridge on top of it. We're talking 3 to 4,000 tons of steel that's sitting on top of that ship.

ROSE: All of that debris has to be removed before they can reopen the shipping channel to the Port of Baltimore. You know, and only then can they start working on a long-term replacement for the bridge.

FADEL: I mean, where do you even start?

ROSE: For the first time, we're starting to get a sense of how this will go. There are many different federal and state agencies involved, including the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy. And they're bringing in major resources, including a thousand-ton crane, said to be the largest on the Eastern Seaboard, another 400-ton crane coming in this weekend. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath says they're still trying to figure out the best way to use those cranes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANNON GILREATH: Before we can actually engage in lifting, we've got to complete the assessment process of the bridge, and the pieces of the bridge are in the water, so that we can figure out how to cut the bridge into the right-sized pieces so that we can actually lift them with the crane.

ROSE: But even completing that assessment will be difficult. Divers have to work carefully and methodically because the water is so dark and the debris is so dense that they can only see a few feet in front of them. No one at this point is willing to say how long it's going to take to get the port open again or how much it's going to cost.

FADEL: Now, federal aid is starting to arrive - $60 million in emergency funding announced yesterday. Is that anywhere near the need to clean up and rebuild?

ROSE: No, it's just a tiny fraction. A down payment is what officials are saying. The Biden administration can do some of this work with emergency funds. Sooner or later, though, Congress will have to sign off on at least part of the money. And all of the elected officials in Maryland seem to know this, from the mayor to the congressmen to the senators. They're all framing this as an issue of national impact on the economy, because they know it's going to be a tough sell to many Republicans in Congress, particularly in an election year.

FADEL: You know, before we let you go, we have to talk about what we've heard. A lot of hazardous material on - is on that ship and concerns about contamination. What can you tell us about that?

ROSE: Yeah, there were many questions about that at the briefing last night. Out of 4,000 containers on the ship, 56 contained hazardous materials. The Coast Guard says 14 of those were impacted in some way by the bridge strike, containers carrying things like soap and perfume and some kind of resin. The Coast Guard was also asked about a sheen on the surface of the water. They believe that's from some damaged equipment on the front of the boat that's released about 20 gallons of oil into the river. The Coast Guard says there is no threat to the public so far, but they are watching closely.

FADEL: NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: If you paid enough money last night, you could get your picture taken with three presidents all at once.

ELLIOTT: President Biden was joined by former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and a bunch of celebrities at a $25 million Democratic fundraiser in New York City. Republican Donald Trump was in town too at a wake for a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now with the latest on the 2024 campaign and the money race. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so set the scene for us with this celebrity-studded fundraiser.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, it was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was a sold-out event with more than 5,000 people there. You know, it was kind of considered kind of a private event. But we do know from the pool of reporters who are always following the president that there was a lot of energy in the room. As you guys mentioned, big stars - comedian Mindy Kaling hosted. Lizzo performed. Stephen Colbert, the late-night host, moderated a talk with the three presidents. You know, Obama - he touted Biden's policies and said, unlike Trump, he had a positive message to share. That's Biden had a positive message. Clinton talked up Biden's economic moves as well, talked about trying to work across the aisle on tough issues like the border. You know, the three presidents were very chummy with each other.

You know, it was really just a lot of star power, a lot of money. And when you put all that together, you know, it was kind of an opportunity for Biden to counter concerns about his reelection, about his age and polls, that kind of show a lack of enthusiasm. And, you know, just to be clear, I mean, we saw some of those concerns or at least frustrations play out last night as well, as the event was interrupted multiple times by protesters calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

FADEL: Yeah, we've been seeing that a lot, voters unhappy with Biden over his continued support for the war. So Biden really needs this money since he appears to be trailing Donald Trump at this point, right?

ORDOÑEZ: He does. He does. You know, Biden is behind Trump in some of those polls. But, you know, he is way ahead when it comes to the fundraising. And last night's event was a big demonstration of that. You know, Trump's got his challenges, of course. He's got a lot of legal bills...

FADEL: Right.

ORDOÑEZ: ...That his political action committee is helping spend money on, money that could be used for the campaign. The Republican National Committee, which will fundraise with Trump, is busy overhauling the staff. You know, they really just all got a lot of work to do.

FADEL: So that's the money, fundraisers behind closed doors. Are Trump and Biden getting out much in public on the campaign trail?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. This trip for Biden to New York was actually the highlight of a stretch of campaigning for Biden following his State of the Union address. You know, he visited battleground states like North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania. Trump - you know, he's actually been kind of keeping a low profile, but as Debbie mentioned, he did appear yesterday, also in New York, at the wake of a police officer who was killed during a traffic stop. You know, I did touch base with the Trump campaign. And they say, of course, Trump is not going to have the same kind of money as Biden. They had to spend millions in a primary race that Biden did not have to worry about. But they do argue that their digital fundraising is skyrocketing, and donor investments are also up. And they say, just wait, promising their own historic night next week when Trump and the Republican Party team up for a fundraiser on April 6 in Palm Beach. And they expect to raise $33 million. You know, it really just all goes to show how big of a money race this election is going to be.

FADEL: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Russia's government isn't even trying to hide the fact that the four suspects on trial for last week's Moscow terrorist attack have been tortured.

ELLIOTT: Gunmen stormed a concert hall and then set the venue on fire. The attack killed more than 140 people. ISIS has claimed responsibility, and the U.S. has deemed that assessment credible. But Russian officials have suggested Ukraine carried out the assault, despite vehement denials from Kyiv.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow is here with the latest. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So where does the Kremlin's investigation stand at this point?

MAYNES: Well, yesterday, Russian authorities arrested what they say was the suspected financier of the attack. Eight others are already in custody, including four of the alleged shooters. Most of these men - and they're all men - are from the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan. Yet earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin said he was primarily interested in who ultimately hired these people and again blamed Ukraine. And we've since seen his top officials, including the head of the Federal Security Services, the FSB - this is Alexander Bortnikov - double down on this theory. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER BORTNIKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here Bortnikov says of course the gunmen didn't do this on their own and that he sees a Ukrainian trace, one that he says was confirmed by initial information received from the detained suspects.

FADEL: OK, presumably he's referring to these suspected shooters, right? But as you reported to us earlier this week, these men showed clear signs of torture when they appeared in court.

MAYNES: Yeah, there's really no question. And I say that based not only on how they looked in court, where they were battered and bruised - one wearing a bandage over a mutilated ear, another semiconscious in a wheelchair with a gouged eye. And so I say that not because of that, but also because - and this is what's really news here - what these men went through was leaked in graphic videos on social media that could have only come from the security services.

FADEL: Wow.

MAYNES: Now, Olga Sadovskaya - Russia's Crew Against Torture, a group that's lobbied against abuse in Russia's justice system for decades - says this, of course, was intentional.

OLGA SADOVSKAYA: One objective of sharing it so widely is to send the message to those who are maybe planning something else that look what will happen to you. And another is a message to the general public. Like, see? On your behalf, state brings a revenge to the perpetrators. We are paying them back.

MAYNES: Now, Sadovskaya notes, there's a problem here that's not unique to Russia, and it's this - that torture doesn't work the way you want it to, she says. It's not an instrument for getting the truth from a suspect. You know, and needless to say, this approach also won't do much to instill confidence in Russia's version of events, particularly in the West, where there are already suspicions the Kremlin, you know, is more interested in manufacturing a Ukrainian connection than pursuing the facts of the case.

FADEL: Charles, you noted the suspects are from Central Asia. Most are from Tajikistan. Is it creating tension for immigrant and minority populations?

MAYNES: Well, Central Asian migrants have never had it easy in Russia. But in the wake of these attacks, we've seen nativist instincts kick in. A journalist friend just happened to cross into Russia yesterday and saw long lines of Central Asian migrants stopped at the border for extra security checks. Meanwhile, there are growing calls for a change in Russia's open-door migrant work policies with its Eurasia zone neighbors. You know, but the truth is, Russia is dependent on Central Asian labor now more than ever, given that traditional labor shortages here have only been exacerbated by Russians going off to fight in Ukraine.

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

MAYNES: Thank you. 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.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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