Morning news brief
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent more than 20 years crushing opponents. So what does he do after an opponent appeared in his inner circle?
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Over the weekend, Yevgeny Prigozhin sent convoys of armed men toward Moscow. Prigozhin had used his ties to Putin to rise to wealth and power. And then he and the mercenaries he'd been leading in Russia's war against Ukraine turned against the government. Putin quickly defused the crisis by letting his former friend slip away to Belarus. We don't know how much the crisis has shaken Putin's power.
INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is following this from Kyiv.
Hey there, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah. Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is Putin saying now?
MYRE: Well, pretty much nothing. After this huge day of chaos on Saturday, Russia has largely gone quiet. We aren't seeing or hearing from either Russian leader Vladimir Putin or the mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the two main players. Now, Putin spoke briefly on Russian TV Saturday morning. He promised decisive action again after Prigozhin's fighters began on this highway up toward Moscow. But he's now been out of sight for more than 48 hours.
State TV ran a brief interview with him Sunday. But this was taped before the weekend, so we don't know where he is or what his next move will be. One other quick note. Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who's also been invisible in recent days, visited Russian troops in Ukraine to get a briefing, according to Russia's defense ministry.
INSKEEP: Oh, now that's significant since Prigozhin was saying that he was protesting against that defense minister. So he at least makes an appearance. How does this all look to people in Ukraine where you are?
MYRE: Yeah, when the events were unfolding Saturday, there was a sort of running commentary from just about everyone. One social media video in particular went viral. It showed this well-known soldier sitting in his military truck in the field watching the media reports from Russia. And he was munching on these three huge tubs of popcorn. So the Ukrainians were, really, very interested observers. But with the rebellion in Russia over, the attention has really turned back to the fighting in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy and other leaders are saying this just confirms what Ukraine has been saying all along. Russia is weak and fractured. And the only permanent solution is to drive out all the Russian troops.
INSKEEP: As best you can tell, has Putin's government regained control of the Wagner mercenaries?
MYRE: It's really hard to say with any definite - in any definite way, so I don't want to speculate too much. What we do know is that Prigozhin gave an order for his troops to return to their camps, either in Ukraine or in southern Russia. There's been no indication that they're causing any trouble at the moment. But we haven't heard from Prigozhin either since, on Saturday night, he announced that he would be going - leaving Russia, going to Belarus. We don't know if he's still in Russia, if he's gone to Belarus. So he's gone quiet as well. And for the moment, his troops are quiet.
INSKEEP: Does all of this change Ukraine's plans for the war?
MYRE: Well, you know, it certainly comes at an opportune moment for the Ukrainians. They've just begun this offensive. It's now in its third week. I think a big question they'll be trying to sort out is, what happens to these mercenary fighters in the Wagner Group who've played such an important role? Will they be disbanded, which appears likely? Will some be folded into the Russian army? Quite possible. So for the moment, the fighting continues as it's been going. But it's likely to have some ramifications further down the road.
INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks so much, really appreciate it.
MYRE: Sure thing, Steve.
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INSKEEP: For many Americans, it's the summer travel season. And President Biden is no exception.
FADEL: He and his cabinet will visit more than 20 states to try to get Americans excited about the administration's infrastructure, manufacturing and clean energy projects. He starts in Washington this morning and by Wednesday will be in Chicago.
INSKEEP: NPR's Deepa Shivaram joins us now to talk about this. Good morning.
DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey there.
INSKEEP: OK. So we know the president loves to promote trains and bridges, but isn't he starting with a different sort of infrastructure here?
SHIVARAM: Yeah, it's actually infrastructure week and/or month.
SHIVARAM: So the president is starting this tour off with a speech from the White House about access to high-speed internet. Right now, the White House says there are about 8.5 million homes and businesses around the country that don't have internet. The announcement the president is making is that about $40 billion from the 2021 infrastructure law will now be up for grabs. So states can apply for that money and use it to expand high-speed internet access. White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients says this will be especially helpful for rural communities.
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JEFF ZIENTS: The president's Invest in America agenda is bringing internet to people across the country, and at the same time, creating good-paying jobs.
SHIVARAM: And this is just the kickoff. Biden, Vice President Harris, Cabinet officials and other White House officials are going to be talking about all kinds of infrastructure programs across the country in these next three weeks.
INSKEEP: Why now?
SHIVARAM: Yeah. So basically, they want to advertise their infrastructure investments. Even though this funding has been around for a while - like I said, that law passed in 2021 - people don't necessarily know about these programs. And they aren't giving president - the president credit for them. Part of the problem is that these programs take time. For example, these longer-term projects, the immediate impact won't be seen for years. Like, this internet funding won't be fully available until 2025, so it'll be a few years before some of these communities actually get connection.
So in the meantime, the White House is trying to argue that these investments are improving the economy and eventually will bring back more money into people's pockets. That's what Biden's going to say on Wednesday in Chicago. But in order to convince people, he needs to get into the specifics. I talked to Lindsay Owens about this. She leads the Groundwork Collaborative, a left-leaning economic think tank.
LINDSAY OWENS: They can pull together the number of jobs they've created. They can pull together the cost savings that they're providing families with policies to bring down the cost in the price of insulin, to bring down the price of other prescription drugs over time. So I think the more they can show exactly how these investments benefit Americans' pocketbooks, the better.
INSKEEP: Deepa, is it hard for the president to make this case given that Americans look at him and give him an underwater approval rating, as they say, and they don't really approve of his handling of the economy either?
SHIVARAM: Right. These programs themselves are politically popular, but the president isn't. The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from March showed that just 38% of Americans said that they approved of how Biden is handling the economy. And of course, this is all coming ahead of the 2024 presidential race. So they're trying to show people what another four years under Biden would look like, especially in states where they're trying to win over voters.
INSKEEP: NPR's Deepa Shivaram.
Always a pleasure. Thanks so much.
SHIVARAM: Thank you.
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INSKEEP: Some other news now from Atlanta. Activists plan a week of action opposing a police and fire training facility there.
FADEL: City officials recently approved funding for the project, but opponents vowed it will never be built. In recent months, police killed one activist and accused others of being domestic terrorists.
INSKEEP: So NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef has been looking into this. She is in Atlanta. Good morning.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: For the people who have not followed this every day, what is this facility? And why has it drawn such attention?
YOUSEF: Well, Steve, it's officially called the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. And it's meant to be a state-of-the-art campus where law enforcement will train. And people I've spoken to have compared this to the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy when they're trying to explain just how significant this issue has become to the far left right now. This has drawn activists from all over because it's rolling together many of some of the most pressing conflicts of our time, you know?
This has been activating police abolitionists, racial justice advocates, also environmental activists who are really alarmed that this would destroy a forest that's been called one of the, quote, "four lungs of Atlanta." And now, Steve, we're also seeing tremendous concern from watchdog groups who say that the state is exercising dangerous government overreach in the way that it has dealt with some of the activists.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. How did police come to say that some of these activists are domestic terrorists?
YOUSEF: Well, in December, we started to see arrests of some of the activists. And law enforcement began alleging that dozens of them belong to a group deemed a domestic violent extremism group. And that has caused some confusion, namely because, Steve, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security does not keep a list of domestic violent extremist groups, you know, because doing so could be construed as criminalizing certain political viewpoints.
And we might be starting to see local officials struggling with this now because on Friday, there was this very surprising development. One of the prosecutors here, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, announced that her office will not prosecute 42 of these defendants after all. Here she is speaking on station WABE, saying that local officials have struggled to see eye to eye on all of this.
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SHERRY BOSTON: We had some differences - and when I say we, I mean myself and the attorney general's office - about who should be charged and what they should be charged with.
INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure this out. So it's the county prosecutor - a county prosecutor saying, I'm not doing this. I'm not going through with this prosecution. But then she refers to the attorney general's office, so that's the state attorney general. What does that mean for the case?
YOUSEF: That's right. So that's State Attorney General Chris Carr, who, our understanding is, is still pursuing these cases. But the thing is, Steve Carr is a Republican. And so this development has further bolstered this argument for many who've had doubts about the underlying motivation for the case. They see it as a political vendetta against leftist activists and as the state using its authority to repress dissent. I'll mention that Carr's office did not respond to questions or requests for interview.
INSKEEP: What are you watching for this week? When we say a week of action, what does that mean?
YOUSEF: Well, activities will be happening throughout the week. And I'll be watching to see if there's some direct action near the forest where an activist was killed in January, specifically to see if that results in arrests and further allegations of domestic terrorism.
INSKEEP: NPR's Odette Yousef. Thanks for your reporting.
YOUSEF: Sure thing.
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