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News brief: 46 migrants found dead in San Antonio, Jan. 6 hearing, NATO summit

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We begin this morning with some grim news. At least 46 people were found dead after being trapped in a tractor trailer in San Antonio, Texas.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There was some hope, though. Police say 16 others, including children, were found alive and taken to area hospitals.

MARTIN: Texas Public Radio's Joey Palacios is with us now. Joy, good morning.

JOEY PALACIOS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: You were at the scene, I understand, where authorities found this truck. Describe what you saw.

PALACIOS: So Quintana Road is a very unassuming road. Most people really never drive down it. But yesterday there was a flurry of police vehicles. You could see the tractor trailer from where the media and the public was able to stand as these police vehicles were surrounding it.

MARTIN: What do we know at this point?

PALACIOS: There are still a lot of unanswered questions, like where the truck came from and where it was heading. We're still trying to learn more about who these victims were and their circumstances. We know three people have been arrested, but we don't know their connection to what happened. All signs point to this tragedy being related to human smuggling. San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said the 12 adults and four children found alive in the truck were hot to the touch and suffered from heat exhaustion.

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CHARLES HOOD: No signs of water in the vehicle. It was a refrigerated tractor trailer, but there was no visible working AC unit on that rig.

PALACIOS: And keep in mind, in San Antonio, we've been experiencing triple-digit temperatures in recent days.

MARTIN: How was law enforcement able to find this truck, find these people?

PALACIOS: San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said a worker at a nearby facility heard somebody crying for help.

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WILLIAM MCMANUS: Came out to investigate, found a trailer with the doors partially opened, opened them up to take a look and found a number of deceased individuals inside.

PALACIOS: Now McManus says the incident is under federal jurisdiction with homeland security investigations.

MARTIN: This has happened before in Texas, hasn't it?

PALACIOS: Sadly, it has. In 2017, 10 migrants died in a similar fashion. That trailer was found in a Walmart parking lot here in San Antonio and contained potentially more than a hundred people, but we don't know the exact number because some people fled. That trailer was unventilated and had no water as well. We've seen less tragic instances. Later that same year, another trailer with a dozen migrants was found in December in much cooler weather. All 12 were unharmed.

And I'll say this happens a lot near San Antonio because of the geography here. It's close to the border. We're about 150 miles away. And Interstate 35, which goes from Mexico to Canada, passes through San Antonio, and it also connects with Interstate 10 here, which goes from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla. So for many smuggling operations, it's a straight shot from border to border and coast to coast.

MARTIN: And, I mean, it's just worth noting the politics of this, right? I mean, this happened in the state of Texas in an election year. No doubt it's going to become a political talking point.

PALACIOS: Right. So an hour after the news broke, Governor Greg Abbott retweeted the conservative Daily Wire online newspaper blaming the incident on President Joe Biden's immigration policies. Meanwhile, his opponent, Beto O'Rourke, called for increased legal pathways to citizenship that don't incentivize these dangerous journeys. The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Latino civil rights organizations in the country, called for responsible dialogue on immigration following this tragedy. Now, they say the only way forward from a tragedy like this is Democrats and Republicans working together on immigration reform.

MARTIN: Texas Public Radio's Joey Palacios reporting from San Antonio. He is also co-host of the Line in the Land podcast. Joey, thank you.

PALACIOS: Thank you, Rachel.

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MARTIN: OK, the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is holding a surprise hearing today.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, at the end of last Thursday's hearing, the chairman said that the panel would postpone future hearings until mid-July, but something changed. And while the rest of Congress is taking a break for its Fourth of July recess, the committee is back to work in Washington today.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What's going on?

WALSH: (Laughter) Well, the notice from the committee released yesterday suggests they have new information. It says the committee is going to convene to, quote, "present recently obtained evidence" and receive witness testimony. After last Thursday's hearing, the chairman, Bennie Thompson, said the hearings next month are going to focus on efforts by extremist groups to organize the attack and on what President Trump was doing at the White House while the Capitol was under siege, but we don't know what the topic of today's hearing will be. Committee has declined to disclose any details or even say if there's going to be more than one witness.

MARTIN: Huh. So we've already seen testimony from some senior Cabinet and White House officials. Any chance we could hear from someone today who already spoke to the committee behind closed doors?

WALSH: Yes, right. So far, the witnesses who have appeared in previous public hearings have already sat for closed-door interviews under oath by the committee. Punchbowl News and some other outlets are reporting that Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, is expected to testify today. NPR has not confirmed those reports. But, you know, we've seen clips of Hutchinson's testimony in previous hearings. For example, she named which GOP lawmakers sought presidential pardons after January 6. That was in last Thursday's hearing.

MARTIN: Right.

WALSH: The committee continues to reach out to potential witnesses. And some members have stressed that as new information comes in, they may want to reinterview some people. You know, Vice Chair Liz Cheney made a public appeal at one of last week's hearings to Pat Cipollone, who was White House counsel for President Trump. Other White House lawyers have appeared in tape clips, but Cipollone only had informal discussions about appearing under oath.

MARTIN: OK. I guess we'll see what happens today. We've also got news, Deirdre, about John Eastman - right? - someone very central to an earlier hearing. What do we know?

WALSH: Right. Eastman is the conservative lawyer who was pushing this theory to Trump and others in his inner circle that Vice President Pence could unilaterally overturn the election on January 6. We learned through a court filing that federal agents seized Eastman's cellphone last week. This happened on the same day that federal agents raided the home of Jeffrey Clark. He's the former Justice Department lawyer who also backed this Eastman scheme to block the election certification. But we don't know if those developments were related. In that court filing, Eastman says the FBI took his phone on behalf of the DOJ inspector general. That's the internal watchdog at the Justice Department.

Like that Clark raid, subpoenas have gone out to people in several states allegedly involved in this fake elector scheme. This is just another sign that as investigations - you know, as these hearings are happening, there are other investigations happening behind the scenes.

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thanks for this. We appreciate it.

WALSH: Thanks, Rachel.

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MARTIN: All right, NATO leaders are meeting in Madrid, Spain, in what could be the most transformative summit in decades.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, in the wake of Russia's ongoing aggression in Ukraine, the alliance is set to strengthen its own defenses.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt is at an airport in London, heading to Madrid as we speak. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: The central issue for NATO, clearly, is how much to continue helping Ukraine, right? What's the line they're trying to walk right now?

LANGFITT: Yeah. You know, you have some NATO members who are concerned about provoking Putin, afraid that he would then attack a NATO state if they give too many arms, you know, stuff that is really - especially long range to the Ukrainians. And of course, amid rising inflation, these huge losses on the battlefield, worry about a recession, they're looking to - you know, for ways to end this war, at least get a cease-fire. The other countries, particularly those that border Russia - the Baltics, Poland - they want to arm Ukraine more heavily because the fact of the matter is Ukraine is defending Eastern Europe against Russia.

And a couple of recent examples I'd like to mention - one is that earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron, he got people really mad among the allies when he said NATO should not humiliate Russia. Meanwhile, you've got the Estonian prime minister complaining that NATO's plan right now to defend her country is so lacking, she says, the Russians could overrun it quickly, and it would be, quote, "wiped off the map."

MARTIN: Wow. I mean, the countries that border Russia or Ukraine feel especially vulnerable. Are NATO leaders addressing that?

LANGFITT: They are. I mean, we've already seen, during the war, major deployments of more troops to the Eastern Flank, and we're going to hear more troop commitments at the summit. The secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, he calls this meeting and what's going to happen on the Eastern Flank as the biggest overhaul of collective defense since the Cold War. This is what he had to say yesterday.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: Competition is rising between democracy and authoritarianism. Moscow and Beijing are openly contesting the rules-based international order.

LANGFITT: And that's compared to 40,000 now, so it's a huge change. And the idea is to get as many troops as possible who could react quickly if there's, you know, a Russian invasion.

MARTIN: Right. So the war in Ukraine has compelled Finland and Sweden to apply for membership into NATO, but Turkey is holding it up. What's the latest on that, Frank? Is that going to be resolved?

LANGFITT: I don't think it's going to probably be resolved at the summit. Turkey has been saying it objects to these two countries 'cause it says that they won't turn over people that Turkey views as terrorists. But most people that I talked to think Turkish President Erdogan, he's actually just holding this process hostage because he wants the U.S. to sell him fighter jets that he's been after for years. So this is seen more as a negotiating tactic, and Finland and Sweden will get in, but it might take a little time.

MARTIN: So obviously, Russia, Ukraine - top of mind at the NATO summit. What are the other priorities being discussed, though?

LANGFITT: Well, the thing that's really going to be interesting, Rachel, and I think people should pay attention to is, for the first time ever, NATO is going to focus on China. You know, despite the invasion, the United States still sees China as its biggest challenge. And NATO's also invited leaders from four Asian Pacific nations to the summit - Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. And Stoltenberg, you know, he was saying China's not an adversary, but he added this.

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STOLTENBERG: We will transform the NATO response force and increase the number of our high-readiness forces to well over 300,000.

LANGFITT: And Biden - you know, President Biden's been trying to link these two countries and basically find a way to get both allies in Europe and Asia on board and seeing these as combined issues.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks, Frank. We appreciate you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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