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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A grand jury in Arizona has indicted 18 allies of former President Donald Trump.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

They're accused of conspiring to keep Trump in office after he lost the 2020 election with a fake electors scheme. The defendants include former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Arizona attorney general Kris Mayes spoke about the charges yesterday.

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KRIS MAYES: I will not allow American democracy to be undermined. It's too important.

FADEL: Wayne Schutsky with member station KJZZ joins us now from Phoenix. Hi, Wayne.

WAYNE SCHUTSKY, BYLINE: Hello.

FADEL: So what does this indictment lay out?

SCHUTSKY: The indictment tracks with a lot of the public reporting on these fake electors schemes in Arizona and other states. It basically alleges that after Joe Biden won the popular vote in Arizona in 2020, prominent Republican leaders and Trump allies devised a plan to give Arizona's 11 electoral votes to Trump anyway. So as the electors scheme was being put together, there was a broader pressure campaign, with Trump allies like Rudy Giuliani appearing in Arizona to pressure state lawmakers to find a way to give Trump those votes. And some of those activities are also mentioned in the indictment.

FADEL: Now, this indictment charges 18 people in total. What do we know about them?

SCHUTSKY: So first, there are those 11 fake electors who are accused of signing a document claiming that Trump won in Arizona. And then there are seven others who are not actually named in the initial indictment. Their names were redacted, but we were able to identify a few of them based on context included in the indictment. That includes people like Mark Meadows, Giuliani and another Trump lawyer, John Eastman, who have all largely defended their actions around this election. And then the indictment also names five unindicted co-conspirators whose names are also redacted. And again, one is very easy to identify based on the context. He's described as a former president of the United States who made false claims about the election. That's obviously Donald Trump.

FADEL: So Meadows, Giuliani, Eastman there in that one bucket of charges. What about the 11 people accused of being fake electors?

SCHUTSKY: They're really a who's who of Arizona Republicans from the Trump wing of the party, especially circa 2020. They include sitting state senators Jake Hoffman and Anthony Kern. Photo evidence shows Kern, who was not a senator at the time, was also present in Washington on January 6. Hoffman is one of the only ones we've heard back from so far, and he says he's innocent of any crime and that he accused Mayes of weaponizing the government against her political opponents. Some other folks named in there are former Arizona Republican Party chair Kelli Ward. And other current and former party officials were also indicted.

FADEL: Of course, Arizona isn't the first state to bring charges like this against Trump allies accused of trying to undermine the vote. Why now in Arizona?

SCHUTSKY: We don't know exactly why. But I will say that the attorney general, Kris Mayes, has taken heat from some folks for taking a little too long on this. But she pointed out that she came into office much later than some of the other law enforcement in other states and that it takes time to put cases like these together.

She urged patience, and now she's saying that patience is paying off. And we can see that in this indictment, which clearly goes beyond just the fake electors and charges some other Trump world figures accused of organizing the scheme. But Arizona does come after states like Georgia, Michigan and Nevada that have already brought charges against individuals accused of participating in similar fake electors schemes in those states. And in another swing state, Wisconsin, fake electors actually admitted their roles as part of civil settlements.

FADEL: That's KJZZ's Wayne Schutsky in Phoenix. Thank you, Wayne.

SCHUTSKY: Thank you.

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FADEL: Donald Trump can't be in two courtrooms at once.

INSKEEP: So while he is attending his trial over a payoff during the 2016 presidential campaign, he is not expected today for a separate case at the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump's lawyers are asking the court to declare him immune from prosecution for his acts while in office. Justices decided to hear this case, and until they decide, they have delayed Trump's trial for trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

FADEL: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now to discuss this. Hi, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: OK, so this is quite a day. What is Trump's argument here?

TOTENBERG: This really is a genuinely historic case. The question of presidential immunity from criminal prosecution after leaving office has never been decided by the Supreme Court. President Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate scandal. He was not prosecuted while he was in office because the Justice Department concluded that under the Constitution, a sitting president could not be prosecuted. But once Nixon resigned, he accepted a pardon from President Ford rather than face imminent criminal charges.

Today, President Trump is making a broader argument. He claims he can't be prosecuted ever for his official presidential acts, at least not unless he's first impeached, convicted by the Senate and removed from office. And Trump's definition of an official act is expansive, as illustrated by this exchange between his lawyer, John Sauer, and Judge Florence Pan at the Court of Appeals earlier this year.

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FLORENCE PAN: Could a president order SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? That's an official act, an order to SEAL Team 6.

JOHN SAUER: He would have to be impeached and convicted first.

FADEL: So the case before the Supreme Court today is one that alleges that Trump knowingly and falsely tried to prevent Joe Biden, the duly elected president, from taking office. How are the two sides looking at this?

TOTENBERG: Well, William Scharf, one of Trump's lawyers, denies those charges but says that if the court doesn't put a stop to this now...

WILLIAM SCHARF: Presidents will be paralyzed by the fear of post-election criminal prosecutions. And the ability of the president to discharge his duties in a vigorous and effective way will be forever crippled.

PETER KEISLER: You don't protect the presidency by immunizing somebody who tries to steal it.

TOTENBERG: That's Peter Keisler, who served in high-ranking Justice Department jobs during the George W. Bush administration. He, along with other Republicans who previously held high office, filed a brief in the case against Trump.

KEISLER: The text of the Constitution has no provision granting this immunity. No court decision has ever recognized this immunity. The historical understanding in our country has always been exactly the opposite.

FADEL: OK, so what precedent does Trump cite for his claim?

TOTENBERG: He rests his argument on a 1982 Supreme Court decision saying that presidents do have absolute immunity from civil lawsuits for their official acts before and after leaving office. But in that case, the court emphasized that it was not deciding whether a similar immunity exists in criminal cases. What's more, the Trump briefs largely ignore the Nixon tapes case, in which the court ordered Nixon to turn over specific White House tape recordings to a grand jury examining the White House cover-up of illegal campaign activities. And it also ignores the fact that after Nixon left office, he accepted President Ford's pardon.

I do want to say that all this may make this case sound a bit like a slam dunk, but it really is not. For starters, three of the justices served in the White House and were responsible for protecting presidential powers and prerogatives. So keep that in mind, too.

FADEL: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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FADEL: We're hosting from two hemispheres today. I'm in Washington. Steve is in Beijing.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm here as secretary of state Antony Blinken meets top Chinese officials. He just arrived here in Beijing a little while ago, and they've set up metal detectors here at the hotel where we're staying.

FADEL: Make sure to empty your pockets.

INSKEEP: I will do that, I will. This is the latest in about a year's worth of diplomacy aimed at making relations a little less bad. It's also a chance to get a glimpse of China, which has been more isolated from Americans than in the past. I hadn't been here, Leila, since before the pandemic.

FADEL: So what are you hearing from people about their country, its economy?

INSKEEP: A lot of pessimism. I should stress Beijing is still a sight as this gleaming city full of skyscrapers and new technology, electric cars. I went for a run yesterday along this beautiful river walk, and we even had a couple of days of clean air before Beijing's famous smog returned today. Maybe you can hear a little bit of it in my voice. But then you start talking to people who no longer see the bright future they used to expect here.

FADEL: What's missing for them?

INSKEEP: They expected more when China opened up after the pandemic. Instead, real estate values are down. Homeowners feel poorer. New foreign investment is down. Distrust between China and the United States is way up, so it's harder to do global business. And I got a sense of the mood from Qian Liu (ph), who's an economist here. She recently quit her job, Leila. She was with a firm advising businesses, global business. And she used to see herself as a bridge between China and the rest of the world.

QIAN LIU: There was a point in time where being a bridge was a lot more valued. Both sides value you and know you can help to make a difference with the other side. But increasingly over the past several years, my Chinese friend would be, don't you forget you're Chinese. And my foreign friends would be, you've lived in China for too long - you've been brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party. And it's very saddening.

INSKEEP: Now, one stated purpose of Secretary Blinken's meeting with Chinese leaders here is to rebuild some bridges, although nobody expects that to be easy.

FADEL: Rebuild bridges. But, Steve, the two countries have burned quite a few bridges in recent years, right?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. And who's done the burning depends on who you ask. China accuses the United States of surrounding it with U.S. allies and also attacking China's economy. The U.S. sees China as trying to dominate neighboring nations and seas. And, of course, the U.S. supports Taiwan, which China claims as its own. That's why the U.S. has cut off some investments here, cut off access to advanced technologies. And the U.S. really doesn't want China giving more support to Russia and its war with Ukraine. Blinken and top Chinese officials are not likely to resolve any of that, but they are trying for smaller things like working to restrict the drug trade or just getting more Americans and Chinese people to visit and talk.

FADEL: OK, two questions here. First, does the U.S. really want better relations?

INSKEEP: Not at any price. U.S. officials stress they're not willing to give up vital U.S. interests just to get along. And they will raise some contentious issues here, we're told. The administration, by the way, is aware that Republicans back home are pushing for an even more confrontational stance.

FADEL: And really quickly, does China want better relations with the U.S.?

INSKEEP: Also not at any price. China would like to win back foreign tourists and their money, would like to win back foreign investment. But in talking with economists here, people say that the government prizes its view of national security more than the economic benefits of working too closely, as they would see it, with Washington.

FADEL: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: 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.

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