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News brief: Jan. 6 subpoenas, Supreme Court preview, India's climate challenge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Subpoenas by a House committee show how they're investigating the attack on the Capitol.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Six subpoenas focus on people who are not accused of taking part in the attack itself. Instead, they are of interest for what they said beforehand. Michael Flynn called for a military coup. John Eastman wrote a memo urging Vice President Mike Pence to reject the results of a democratic election. The House panel includes Adam Schiff of California.

ADAM SCHIFF: These are people who played pivotal roles at the very top of the Trump campaign, who have knowledge about the big lie that the election was stolen or rigged or fraudulent somehow that resulted in that violent insurrection. And in order to do a comprehensive report, we really need to hear from them.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales joins us now. Claudia, good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So we heard Michael Flynn's name, John Eastman's name. Who else gets subpoenaed here?

GRISALES: They include three officials who worked on Trump's 2020 re-election campaign. They are ex-manager Bill Stepien, Trump adviser Jason Miller and campaign aide Angela McCallum. In addition, the panel issued a subpoena for Bernard Kerik. He's the former New York police commissioner who went to federal prison for tax fraud, among other charges, but was later pardoned by Trump.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting. He's close to Rudy Giuliani, Trump's lawyer during the effort to overturn the democratic election.

GRISALES: Yes.

INSKEEP: How do these six people fit into the larger story as the committee sees it?

GRISALES: Congressman Schiff told me Trump's 2020 reelection campaign was part of this larger effort to urge states to delay or deny the certification of electoral votes, also talked to another member of the panel last night, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, who said this is not just about the day of January 6, but the weeks prior.

ZOE LOFGREN: The individuals who have been sent subpoenas today were, from other reports, heavily involved in the lead-up to the riot.

GRISALES: For example, Eastman wrote that memo that you mentioned outlining the ways that former Vice President Pence could reject Joe Biden's electoral count victory. And the committee says he was also part of a meeting with several high-profile Trump allies, including Bernard Kerik and Jason Miller at the Willard Hotel the night before January 6 to plot ways on how to overturn the election's result - finally, Michael Flynn, who lawmakers say was part of a December 2020 Oval Office meeting where the seizure of voting machines and invoking a national emergency came up.

INSKEEP: So a lot of their actions are already known. Some of them took place in public more or less. But are these witnesses likely to talk to the committee?

GRISALES: That remains to be seen. The panel is still negotiating with others who have received subpoenas already. But both Lofgren and Schiff noted the panelists talked to more than 150 witnesses voluntarily already. They also highlighted the case of Steve Bannon, who defied a panel subpoena outright and now faces a referral for contempt of Congress. Bannon, of course, defied the subpoena over claims of executive privilege. I talked to a former House impeachment attorney about this, Norm Eisen, who noted all six of these new witnesses are in Bannon's shoes. They were not part of the administration on January 6.

NORM EISEN: So that means that the kinds of claims of official executive privilege that we've already seen bandied about are going to be at their weakest when it comes to these individuals.

GRISALES: So that's a reminder that this panel could take additional steps, such as criminal contempt referrals, if these witnesses decide to follow in Bannon's lead.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: At a climate summit this month, one of the biggest surprises has come from India, whose prime minister promised greater action against climate change.

MARTIN: Maybe that's not such a surprise when you think about how India's already affected by a changing climate, right? Global warming has only intensified that country's widespread environmental damage. This week alone, India has had to deal with deadly floods, toxic smog and poisoned rivers.

INSKEEP: NPR's correspondent in Mumbai is Lauren Frayer. Hey there, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's gone wrong this week?

FRAYER: Well, huge swaths of Chennai, a big city in southern India, population about 10 million, are underwater. Buses have been submerged. Thousands of people evacuated. Now, it's normal for Chennai to get monsoon rains this time of year. What's not normal is the volume we're seeing. And that's just one of many environmental crises India is juggling this week, and you have to look at the north of India next.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's talk about that. What's happening?

FRAYER: So the Yamuna River in New Delhi today is coated with toxic foam. This is something that happens. As India develops, its rivers are filling with industrial waste. In this case, it's ammonia. Literally, poison foam is bubbling up from the water. This is a river that's considered holy to Hindus, and people still bathe in it. Lots of them get sick. They also get sick from breathing the air. The Taj Mahal, you know, famous monument in northern India, is basically invisible today from afar. It's shrouded in smog. This is from industrial and vehicular emissions, basically from burning fossil fuels, which exacerbates climate change. The air quality across much of northern India today is four times the safe limit. Most Indians cannot afford air purifiers, and nearly 1.7 million deaths in India are attributed to air pollution every single year.

INSKEEP: And that's not the broader, longer-term effects of climate change. That's pollution now. That's stuff people are breathing now.

FRAYER: This week, yeah.

INSKEEP: But climate change can make these things worse, certainly makes the flooding worse. How does all of this - how is all of this affected, if at all, when the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, goes to Scotland and promises to cut India's net emissions down to zero?

FRAYER: So Prime Minister Modi pledged to get the ball rolling, to do that by 2070. So that's 20 years after the U.S. has pledged to hit that goal and 10 years after China. And the reason it's later is that Indian officials believe - say that they have - they deserve time to develop. Any abrupt shift to renewables would probably hurt economic growth here. That can literally cost lives in a poor country like India, so the transition has to happen gradually. I spoke this morning with Suruchi Bhadwal. She's an Indian climate change expert. I actually caught her by phone at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow. And she says, yes, India needs to develop, but it's actually hitting a wall doing that because of climate change. So take the, for example, the flooding in Chennai this week, she says.

SURUCHI BHADWAL: On one hand, we are talking about changes in the rainfall patterns and heavy precipitation incidences. On the other hand, it's about development also and maldevelopment, where we've choked our drainage system. There's no place for the water to drain out. And therefore, you know, the entire system just collapses.

FRAYER: So she says most Indian cities are examples of this. Urbanization Indian-style has actually exacerbated the effects of climate change.

INSKEEP: Wow. Lauren, thanks so much. Always a pleasure hearing from you.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. Puerto Rico has been part of the United States since 1898, but in 2021, there is still a question about how U.S. law applies there.

MARTIN: All right. The Supreme Court today is hearing the case of a family that moved from New York to Puerto Rico. The federal government said that change of address placed them under different rules, and it denied the family federal disability benefits that they were receiving when they lived on the mainland. That's what the law says. But does the law follow the Constitution?

INSKEEP: Chris Geidner is a Supreme Court journalist and a columnist for MSNBC. He's with us now. Good morning.

CHRIS GEIDNER: Hello.

INSKEEP: And welcome to the program, Chris. Let's talk about this case. Who's at the center of it, what did they do, and how does the law apply to them?

GEIDNER: Well, the law says that only residents of the 50 states, D.C. and the Northern Mariana Islands are eligible for the SSI program. Now, when that decision to exclude Puerto Rico was challenged recently, both a trial court and a federal appeals court decided that that differential treatment violated the Constitution's equal protection guarantees. A three-judge panel of the appeals court held unanimously that the government gave no rational basis for that exclusion, and the Trump administration had asked the U.S. government to take - the Supreme Court to take the case and uphold the government's right to exclude Puerto Rico. And when the Biden administration took over, the Supreme Court announced it would take the case. And although the Justice Department could have taken a different position from the Trump administration, as happened in several other cases, it chose not to do so. And now it will be at the Supreme Court today defending the SSI exclusion.

INSKEEP: I feel the need to explain a little bit of what you're saying there, linger a little bit on the fact that the United States has, in some respects, an old-style empire. It has these territories that are part of the United States but not states. And you're telling me that some of these territories, like the Northern Mariana Islands, were included in Social Security Supplemental Security Income benefits for people with disabilities, but somehow Puerto Rico was left out. So who's the family at the center of the case then?

GEIDNER: Yeah, the family at the center of the case, he had - his wife had moved to Puerto Rico because she had to be there to take care of herself. And he moved to be able to help to take care of her. After he had been there for a year - after he had been continuing to receive SSI benefits, the U.S. government stopped it, and they then sued him for that for the $28,081 that he had received, saying that he had to pay back the government because he would no longer be allowed to receive the benefits since he was outside of the 50 states, D.C. and the Northern Mariana Islands.

INSKEEP: Wow. There are several million people who live in Puerto Rico. There must be a lot who would be affected.

GEIDNER: Yeah, there are 700,000 people estimated to be impacted by this SSI exclusion.

INSKEEP: That's amazing. Let's talk about another case that is before the Supreme Court today. It involves the death penalty and a man, I believe, named John Ramirez. What's at stake?

GEIDNER: Yeah. This is a case about what religious rights a person has at his execution. John Ramirez says that in accordance with his faith, his pastor needs to be able to audibly pray and lay his hands on John Ramirez at the time of his death. Texas, however, is refusing to let the pastor do either of those things. Ramirez's lawyer sued, and they succeeded in getting him a rare stay of execution from the Supreme Court while the justices consider his case. Today, they'll be hearing arguments about whether Texas' decision violates either a federal law that addresses religious exercise in prison - it's called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act - or the Constitution's free exercise clause.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll have to...

GEIDNER: In this case, the United States weighed in in the case with...

INSKEEP: We'll have to continue that discussion another time, but thanks so much. Really appreciate it. Supreme Court journalist and MSNBC columnist Chris Geidner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.