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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What do you do when you're running for president and the front-runner you're trying to beat is indicted?

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BRET BAIER: If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party's choice? Please raise your hand if you would.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Most of the candidates raised their hands for Fox News moderator Bret Baier, which is what their party demands. The debate was also full of Trump-free moments where the candidates tried to stand out.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon was there and is on the line from Milwaukee, where it is very, very, very early. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And thanks for joining us. How did that moment go when the candidates were asked if they would support a convicted felon for president?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, you know, it was kind of a strange moment. All those hands went up quickly, except for former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and then former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who's been a real critic of Trump, kind of awkwardly shook his fist and then ultimately said he would not support the president in that case. But here's how entrepreneur and rising star Vivek Ramaswamy explained his raised hand.

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VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Let's just speak the truth, OK? President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century.

MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, former Vice President Mike Pence was in a unique situation, saying he would support Trump but also touting his actions on January 6, 2021, when he said that he chose the Constitution over Trump. Pence got some support for that from some of the other candidates, including Chris Christie, who used the moment to go after Trump.

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.

INSKEEP: Interesting that he got some applause there. There were other occasions in which I know Christie was booed...

MCCAMMON: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...By the crowd. But were there occasions on which the candidates who were onstage were able to talk about Republican policy?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, for much of the debate, really. It took a while to even get to Trump, and candidates tried to stay focused mostly on issues other than the former president. When it comes to policy, Steve, one of the biggest splits we heard was actually over abortion - of course, an issue that could be a real liability for Republicans next year in a post-Roe environment. You know, some candidates, including Pence, have called for Republicans to support national restrictions on abortion. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, though, the only woman in the race, has been more cautious. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, though, the only woman in the race, has been more cautious.

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NIKKI HALEY: When it comes to a federal ban, let's be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes. It will take a majority of the House. So in order to do that, let's find consensus.

MCCAMMON: And here's how Pence responded to that.

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MIKE PENCE: To be honest with you, Nikki, you're my friend. But a consensus is the opposite of leadership.

MCCAMMON: Pence says he favors a national ban on abortion as a moral issue. And there were some intense exchanges also around Ukraine, with both Pence and Haley strongly arguing for continued funding. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he would not commit to more funding unless European countries do the same. Meanwhile, Ramaswamy says the U.S. needs to stop spending money on Ukraine and focus on other things.

INSKEEP: How did this compare to the counterprogramming, Donald Trump not in the debate, but on a video feed on X with Tucker Carlson?

MCCAMMON: Right, well, it was mostly a string of Trump's greatest hits, kind of airing his grievances for a sympathetic ear. But how much Trump resonated or not may not matter at the end of the day. And I mean that literally, because he is expected to be booked in Georgia on charges related to interference in the 2020 election, and that will probably once again draw all of the attention back to him.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon, thanks as always.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now, Sarah mentioned it. Donald Trump drops by the Fulton County Jail in Georgia today.

FADEL: Yeah, and you can expect a few cameras - or more than a few - to capture whatever they can as Trump is booked on 13 felony counts. The former president who tried to overturn his 2020 election defeat has denied wrongdoing in his signature repetitive style.

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DONALD TRUMP: They don't even have a case against me. It's not even a case. Everyone says - even the Democrats say you can't bring these cases. You have no case.

FADEL: There's Trump on X, formerly Twitter. The former president is accused of conspiring with 18 co-defendants to subvert the vote in Georgia, where he lost in 2020.

INSKEEP: And just a note, many Democrats say you can bring this case, in spite of what the former president said there. Sam Gringlas of member station WABE has been covering this case for us. Sam, good morning.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how does it go when Trump arrives at jail?

GRINGLAS: OK, obviously, there is no precedent for a former president being booked in a county jail, but we think we'll see a motorcade shepherd Trump to the jail gate. But beyond that, reporters are not allowed inside, though later we do expect to see Trump's mugshot like we have so far with some of Trump's 18 co-defendants - lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell. Trump has been indicted four times now, but this mugshot will be his first.

INSKEEP: I get the impression that the Fulton County Jail is almost a character in this story.

GRINGLAS: Yeah, conditions at the jail are under investigation right now by the U.S. Department of Justice. Defense attorney Bob Rubin told me he has two clients in the facility, and both have been awaiting trial for more than two years.

BOB RUBIN: They have no opportunities to go outside. There's no sunlight. The jail is smelly, as you can imagine. There's dangerous people in the jail. It's a pretty horrific place, such that I sometimes have nightmares.

GRINGLAS: Of course, Trump will just be processed today, so he won't actually be in there that long.

INSKEEP: Although some other things may last long. I'm thinking of the fact that this focuses on events from 2020 and 2021, years ago, and the trial itself is not in sight. District Attorney Fani Willis wants to start the trial in about six months, which would be well before the 2024 election. Can she?

GRINGLAS: Well, every defense attorney that I have talked to has given me a flat-out no. Here's lawyer Jeffrey Brickman.

JEFFREY BRICKMAN: This is not a discussion about people trying to play the system. It simply takes a long time, and I just think that that is wishful thinking.

GRINGLAS: This judge will have to juggle up to 19 defendants plus proceedings in the other court cases Trump's facing. Jury selection could take a long time too, and then some defendants are trying to move the case from state to federal court.

INSKEEP: Why?

GRINGLAS: Well, federal law allows some federal officials charged for conduct under the color of office to remove their cases to federal court. Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows attempted it first. Trump is expected to do the same. And Emory Law Professor Jonathan Nash says they might actually prevail.

JONATHAN NASH: It certainly has some merit, I'll put it that way. I don't see it as any kind of frivolous filing.

GRINGLAS: Now, Fulton prosecutors would still argue the case, but in front of a federal judge. The jury would come from a federal court division stretching well beyond Atlanta. But state charges would still be at play, which are not subject to presidential pardon.

INSKEEP: Interesting. WABE's Sam Gringlas in Atlanta, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, Steve.

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INSKEEP: As with so much in Russia, we have no definitive word on the fate of the Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

FADEL: He was listed as a passenger on a small jet that crashed yesterday northwest of Moscow.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: That's the voice of an eyewitness watching the plane literally fall from the sky in a video posted on Russian state media. But was Prigozhin actually on the plane?

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes is following events from Moscow. Charles, welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What are the facts, so far as they are known?

MAYNES: Well, first of all, we know about the flight path. Radar shows the business jet heading from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and then a little over 30 minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly starts to fall from the sky, as we heard in that clip here in your intro. Russian aviation authorities say there were 10 passengers listed on board, among them Yevgeny Prigozhin. And rescue teams say they've found 10 bodies. Meanwhile, the crash site has been sealed off. The bodies of the victims were apparently moved to a local morgue this morning. What we don't have is any official statement IDing Prigozhin's or confirming his actual death, just as we don't have any confirmation on what caused the crash. And both those factors have fueled all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories. That said, many of Prigozhin's supporters seem to think he's indeed gone. A makeshift memorial appeared outside the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg last night.

INSKEEP: Many people would wonder how Prigozhin thought he could be safe anywhere in the borders of Russia and certainly how he could be safe traveling around.

MAYNES: Yeah, because he certainly had a lot of enemies both in Ukraine - let's not forget that - and within Russia, the Russian military in particular. You know, Prigozhin criticized and insulted the top brass publicly. I don't think there's any question they hated him for it. But the source of Prigozhin's power and protection had always been his relationship, real or perceived, with President Vladimir Putin.

INSKEEP: Until Prigozhin mutinied.

MAYNES: Right, and Putin publicly ultimately endorsed this deal that offered Prigozhin amnesty and life in exile in Belarus in exchange for ending the mutiny. And there was a sense here that Prigozhin, while a lesson figure politically, was being allowed to tidy up affairs and kind of plan his next chapter. You know, he was in St. Petersburg to close down his media holdings. He apparently met with African officials about Wagner's future role there. So there was a sense that he'd made amends, and his ability to travel in Russia seemed to prove it. But one of the other takeaways from the rebellion was that Putin looked rather weak. You know, Prigozhin had challenged his authority and gotten away with it. And certainly that narrative now changes significantly, whatever happened to that plane.

INSKEEP: What happens now to the Wagner Group, which has been so important to Russian military fortunes in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world?

MAYNES: Well, there's been a growing sense that Putin was interested in maintaining Wagner as a fighting force and less in keeping Prigozhin as its leader. Putin's spokesman said as much when he recounted a meeting between the Russian president and Wagner rebels, including Prigozhin, in the Kremlin in the days after the mutiny. Yet this plane crash appears to have taken the lives of not only Prigozhin, but other top Wagner commanders, which means Wagner is effectively now decapitated as an organization.

INSKEEP: Although doesn't it still have thousands or even tens of thousands of armed men and women?

MAYNES: It does. And if the past is any lesson, those mercenaries have been fiercely loyal to Prigozhin. You know, think back to that rebellion. Prigozhin told them to march on this southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and seize a military base. They did it. Told them to march on Moscow - off they went - and then retreat - again, they followed, no questions asked. And in the wake of this crash, we've seen prominent Wagner social media channels declaring that Prigozhin was killed by, quote, "enemies of Russia." You know, my question is, who do the mercenaries think that enemy is, and what do they now do about it?

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks as always for your careful reporting.

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.

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

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