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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

World leaders are calling on Israel to show restraint after Iran's unprecedented but largely ineffective airstrikes over the weekend. They are wary of these attacks spiraling into a broader regional conflict.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby emphasized that Iran intended to cause, quote, "significant destruction and casualties."

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JOHN KIRBY: Iranian leaders launched so many missiles and other munitions because they knew that many were going to be defeated, but the aim was to get as many of them through Israel's defenses as possible.

MARTÍNEZ: And Israel's military chief of staff says a response will be coming, but didn't say when or how.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon is following developments from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTIN: So, Peter, Israel and the United States have made a point of letting the world know that their forces, along with some others, shot down 99% of Iran's missiles and drones. So what are the Iranians saying about this?

KENYON: Well, perhaps a bit surprisingly, given the failure of the Iranian attack to cause really significant damage, officials in Tehran from the president on down have been lavish with their praise for the operation. They're calling it a huge success. President Ebrahim Raisi said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, had taught a lesson to the Zionist entity. That's how Iran sometimes refers to Israel. And Irna, the state news agency, quoted an Iranian lawmaker, Mojtaba Zonnouri, as saying the IRGC's punitive operation was a victory and a cause of pride for the people as it humiliated the Israeli regime.

MARTIN: OK, so we're calling this unprecedented because this was a direct attack on Israeli territory. Why did Iran feel it had to respond in such a dramatic manner?

KENYON: Well, Iran has long been committed to responding to any attacks against it, but usually it does so through its proxies in the region. After this airstrike on its consulate building in Damascus, which Iran blames on Israel, Tehran condemned what it called a major violation of international law. Iran also may have recalled the U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020, perhaps seen a need for a show of strength to try and deter future strikes. Now, Iranian officials weren't alone in protesting the Damascus strike. The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, strongly condemned the attack. He called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and added that neither the region nor the world can afford another war.

MARTIN: So let me go back to that strike. Has Israel taken credit for it, and how has Israel justified it?

KENYON: Well, Israel said the strike took out a key IRGC general who had played an important role in getting weapons to Iran's proxy militia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has been exchanging fire with Israel in the north. So that was their explanation.

MARTIN: So the U.S. and other countries are urging Israel not to respond. They're also looking at sanctions on Iran, which is already under a sanctions regime. So, Peter, do we have any sense of how effective further sanctions would actually be?

KENYON: Well, good question. Western countries have been levying sanctions on Iran for many years now. They do cause economic pain among ordinary Iranians, primarily. Whether they change Tehran's behavior is another question.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, Peter, how are other countries viewing Iran after the attack?

KENYON: Well, Iran finds itself diplomatically isolated even among countries that are not necessarily friendly with Israel. Russia does still support Tehran. That's very important to Iran. Moscow has a veto at the U.N. Security Council, for one thing, and China has generally followed Russia's lead when it comes to Iran. But in the region, many of Iran's neighbors have no love for the Islamic Republic or its proxy militias, Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen. Now, Jordan, for instance, helped shoot down some of the Iranian drones and missiles Iran fired at Israel Sunday. Saudi Arabia is another important U.S. ally, and we should note that Hamas was badly hurt by the Israeli attack in the Gaza Strip, so that reduces Iran's ability to cause damage.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: Thanks, Michel.

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MARTIN: Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., House Speaker Mike Johnson is signaling that he is ready to move forward with aid for Israel and Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: Divisions, though, among House Republicans have stalled the foreign aid package for months, even though it's already passed the Senate. But following Iran's attack on Israel over the weekend, there's increased pressure on Congress to act.

MARTIN: So here to tell us more about all this is NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, good morning to you.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So how is the speaker hoping to finally get this foreign aid package through the House?

WALSH: Well, he's not allowing a vote on the Senate package. Instead, he came up with a way to get around his own party's internal politics. Instead of one vote on that $95 billion package, the speaker's breaking it up into four separate pieces - aid to Israel, aid to Ukraine, security assistance for Taiwan and another piece that wasn't in the Senate package, a national security bill that is going to include several proposals, including a bill the House already passed to force the sale of TikTok or face a ban in the U.S. The speaker said addressing all of these issues was a priority for him.

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MIKE JOHNSON: We have terrorists and tyrants and terrible leaders around the world like Putin and Xi and in Iran, and they're watching to see if America will stand up for its allies and in our own interest around the globe. And we will.

MARTIN: So why do it this way?

WALSH: Well, Johnson is trying to thread the needle. House Republicans are really united on approving additional aid for Israel. But on the issue of Ukraine, they're really split down the middle. Conservatives strongly oppose any more money for Ukraine. The speaker argued splitting these issues up allows each member to vote on each topic separately and vote their conscience.

MARTIN: Does he still face the threat of losing his job if he moves forward with these four bills, however they're packaged, just as the former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, was removed with just a handful of votes from conservatives?

WALSH: He does. That threat is still out there from Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene. She's one of the biggest opponents for approving any more aid for Ukraine. She's already introduced a resolution to oust the speaker over this issue and others. She hasn't said whether she's going to force that vote. The speaker really downplayed that factor last night, said he's not thinking about it. The bills are expected to be released later today, and the speaker said he's aiming to have a House vote on these measures, potentially by Friday night.

MARTIN: Does this mean that the Ukraine aid, which is the - I guess, the truly controversial part of all this, might actually pass after all these months?

WALSH: You know, it's unclear if this strategy is going to work. The speaker has a really narrow majority. He admitted last night that Ukraine is the most controversial piece of this. He also said they're structuring the assistance to Ukraine as a loan as opposed to straight aid in the Senate bill. That's something that former President Trump has pushed. There's also a risk to doing it this way. It's unclear, if it passes, if it will move as one package or as individual pieces to the Senate. And there's some changes to what the Senate approved back in February. So if it gets through the House, the Senate is going to have to vote again on it.

MARTIN: OK, so before we let you go, the attacks on Israel over the weekend kind of scrambled the House schedule. But there is still another issue on the House's to-do list, sending articles of impeachment against the Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, to the Senate. What can you tell us about that? What's the plan there?

WALSH: Well, the 11 House impeachment managers are going to deliver the articles to the Senate this afternoon. That starts the process for a trial in the Senate. All 100 senators will be sworn in as jurors on Thursday, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is expected to move to dismiss or table these charges against Mayorkas. He just needs a simple majority to do that. He's expected to get that. That vote is also expected to happen on Wednesday. That effectively would end the trial.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thank you.

WALSH: Thanks, Michel.

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MARTÍNEZ: The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a January 6 case that asks the question, how does one specific federal law define the obstruction of a congressional proceeding?

MARTIN: That law has been used to prosecute hundreds of defendants charged with invading the Capitol that day, and the outcome of this case could also affect Donald Trump, because the same law is also being used to charge him.

MARTÍNEZ: Let's bring on NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, we're now three years into the prosecutions of January 6 defendants. More than 800 people have pleaded guilty so far. Nearly 200 more have been convicted on some or all charges. So how and why is this case at the Supreme Court now?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, because 353 of those people were charged with, among other things, obstructing or attempting to obstruct or impede a congressional proceeding, namely, here, the counting of electoral ballots for president. All but one of the judges in the District of Columbia, where these cases are litigated, upheld the use of the charge, but one judge dismissed it in the case of Joseph Fischer, a former police officer arrested for his actions inside the Capitol. The judge in Fischer's case ruled that the statute was meant to apply to the destruction of documents and records, not events like the invasion of the Capitol on January 6.

MARTÍNEZ: So what did Fischer do?

TOTENBERG: The government says that on the cell phone video he took of himself, Fischer can be heard yelling charge right before he's seen in a scrum with police. And there are incriminating texts in which Fischer wrote things like take Democratic Congress to the gallows, can't vote if they can't breathe lol. But none of that, A, is actually at issue in the arguments today. The question today is whether the statute that Fischer was charged with violating was meant to apply only to the destruction of documents and records and other evidence needed in a congressional proceeding, or whether the statute was meant to have a much broader reach, covering any attempt to obstruct a congressional proceeding, including the counting of electoral votes.

MARTÍNEZ: So what exactly are Fischer's lawyers arguing?

TOTENBERG: They say that when Congress enacted this statute after the 2001 Enron scandal, its limited purpose was to make clear that shredding or altering documents or records is a crime - no more. They note that this is the most serious charge against Fischer, with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and that it allows prosecutors to use it as leverage in plea negotiations. That said, typically first offenders have been sentenced to between one and four years under the statute.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, prosecutors - what do they say?

TOTENBERG: They contend that while the first section of this statute does apply to the destruction of documentary evidence, the second part of the statute makes it a crime to, quote, "otherwise" obstruct or impede any official congressional proceeding or attempt to do so.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So I take it then that for prosecutors, an adverse decision could have some pretty serious repercussions.

TOTENBERG: It would halt ongoing cases under the statute. All those already sentenced would have to be resentenced, with many defendants facing far less in the way of penalties. In fact, pending a Supreme Court decision in this case, some lower court judges have conditionally ordered early release from prison for some January 6 defendants.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, A. 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.

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.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.