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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump's popularity with Republican voters is putting the 2024 presidential contenders in an interesting position.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

He's been indicted twice, but his popularity remains strong, so some Republican candidates, namely Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have tried to balance supporting the former president while softly criticizing him. But as a third possible indictment looms, this time over his actions during the January 6 attack, DeSantis is being a bit more forceful about Trump's behavior on the day a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

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RON DESANTIS: It was shown how he was in the White House and didn't do anything while things were going on.

MARTIN: So are Trump's rivals now focusing on his legal woes?

FADEL: Here to talk about this is NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hi. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So with the past two indictments, not only has Trump stayed popular, he's gotten more popular. So what's different this time with this possible indictment?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, DeSantis so far has largely ducked opportunities to criticize Trump. So this time, this caught the attention of a lot of people, including the Trump campaign. DeSantis is actually not the only one. Nikki Haley said on Fox News that Trump's legal troubles were a distraction, and she warned that if something didn't change, the entire primary was going to be about Trump and his legal problems. And that's kind of been the case so far, right?

FADEL: Right. But DeSantis also said he didn't think Trump's actions amounted to criminal behavior. Is he trying to have it both ways here?

ORDOÑEZ: It seems that way. I'd say they're, you know, kind of inching toward criticizing Trump. I mean, in almost any different type of political environment, an indictment would probably be a big opportunity for opponents to gain ground.

FADEL: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: But many Republican-base voters now pretty much dismiss any allegation against Trump. So rivals are being careful. They do not want to alienate those people. And that's not really a way to win elections, though, at least according to Republican strategists I speak with, like Doug Heye. He says eventually they're going to need to take on Trump.

DOUG HEYE: And ultimately, as we learned in "Star Wars," Luke Skywalker had to confront Darth Vader. He couldn't depend on the Force to take care of it for him. The Republicans are making a mistake in acting like that right now.

ORDOÑEZ: And he notes that Trump probably would not take such a large view if the tables were turned and say, DeSantis was indicted. Trump would attack.

FADEL: I like that "Star Wars" reference there to describe the political landscape. Does the fact that this involves what was an unimaginable thing until it happened, an attack on the Capitol, make any difference?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, we're talking about a historic event, a deadly day that millions of Americans either watched live on television or on replay multiple times. At the time, most Republican leaders fled from Trump. There was a lot of talk that it was the end of his political career. But clearly perspectives have changed.

FADEL: Right.

ORDOÑEZ: And now he's the undisputed front-runner of the Republican nomination. I spoke with Bryan Lanza. He's a former aide who is still close to the campaign. He says another indictment is not going to change that trajectory.

BRYAN LANZA: The president has learned how to weaponize government's actions into a high revenue venture for his campaign. I think anything that comes forward, we know what the game plan is going to be.

ORDOÑEZ: And that game plan is to raise money. They're going to continue to use the likelihood of an indictment as another example of how Trump's being unfairly targeted. Trump is already doing that on repeat. And the reality is, like it or not, much of the Republican base agrees with him because they too feel that Trump has been targeted.

FADEL: So he's weaponizing those indictments. That's NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much for your time.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Leila.

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FADEL: The White House has been saying for months that it wants to manage the risks and reward of artificial intelligence.

MARTIN: Now, major tech companies working with the White House have made voluntary commitments on how they will develop, test and share AI systems. The president and company leaders will be speaking about what they've agreed to this afternoon.

FADEL: NPR's Deepa Shivaram covers the White House and joins us now. Hi, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So which tech companies are involved here, and what's in these agreements?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, there are seven tech companies that have agreed to these commitments, and those include Amazon, Anthropic, Google, Inflexion, Microsoft, Meta and OpenAI, which is the parent company of ChatGPT. The leaders of these seven companies will be at the White House today to talk about these agreements, which are essentially parameters for how they'll develop AI technology and roll it out for public use. So, for example, the companies committed to making sure users know when content is AI generated through something like a watermark. They also say they'll make a point to avoid bias in their technology and protect privacy. But overall, there aren't a lot of details in what the White House has released today. So at this point, it's hard to say how effective these commitments will be or if more companies will choose to join in on these agreements.

FADEL: Well, speaking about effectiveness, I mean, these commitments are voluntary, right? So how will the companies be held accountable?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, that's definitely a concern for a lot of people. There are a number of polls that show public trust in big tech companies to do the right thing is pretty low. I asked Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, about this, and he says the federal government will do whatever they can to hold these companies to their commitments, but it's just a first step.

JEFF ZIENTS: Commitments the companies are making are a good start, but it's just a start. And the key here is implementation and execution in order for these companies to perform and earn the public's trust.

SHIVARAM: And he pointed specifically to one of the commitments, which is to have external checks on emerging AI technology from independent third parties. For example, some of the companies will have their AI systems tested at a hacking conference next month at the encouragement of the White House. But beyond that, we don't really have much detail on who serves as these third-party checks on the technology and how those people are selected.

FADEL: And there really is so much concern about how this technology is going to be regulated 'cause it could have so much impact on how people work, what's true, what's not true. So we're waiting on details on these commitments, but what other actions are we anticipating coming from the White House in the meantime?

SHIVARAM: Right. In the next few weeks, the White House is planning to release executive actions on AI. The Office of Management and Budget will also be releasing guidance to federal agencies on how they can and cannot use AI in government work. And the White House says they're also closely working with Congress as they develop legislation on regulating AI. And on top of what's happening in the U.S., there's also a lot of global conversations happening too. The White House says they've consulted on the agreements they announced today with dozens of other countries, and Biden continues to speak about AI with foreign leaders. He mentioned AI at the Nordic Leaders' Summit last week in Helsinki, and he and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have been talking about AI with each other consistently. It's a lot of talk, so what concrete actions the White House takes next on the international front will also be something to watch.

FADEL: That's NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thanks so much, Deepa.

SHIVARAM: Thank you.

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FADEL: For years, the Pentagon has denied that U.S. troops harmed civilians in the 2019 raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

MARTIN: As a reminder, in that raid, Baghdadi blew himself up as special operations forces attacked his house in Syria. But NPR reported back then that a Syrian man was badly wounded and his two friends were killed when U.S. aircraft struck the van that they were in. The Pentagon has said that they were combatants, but NPR has now analyzed internal documents and found flaws in how the U.S. came to that conclusion.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin has been working on this for years and joins us now. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So let's start with that Syrian survivor of the airstrikes and what he's told you about what happened to him.

ESTRIN: His name is Barakat Ahmed Barakat. He says he was at work with two friends at an olive oil press, and his friends were giving him a ride back home. And he says they had no idea that further down the road, U.S. forces were raiding the hideout of the founder of ISIS. Let's listen.

BARAKAT ADMAD BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) There was nothing suspicious at all. We kept moving normally. There was nothing ahead of us on the road. Suddenly I felt something hit us.

ESTRIN: They were hit with U.S. airstrikes. His two friends were killed. His right hand was blown off. His left hand can barely function. He says today he cannot work. He struggles to feed his five young children. He wants compensation from the U.S.

FADEL: And what's the Pentagon's account, and how did you investigate it?

ESTRIN: When we first brought this account to the Pentagon, it was a few weeks after the raid, and the Pentagon says it was the first that they had heard of those claims. But it did a review of what happened, and they got back to us and said that the men were enemy combatants. They had demonstrated hostile intent. They ignored U.S. warning shots and kept driving in the direction of the raid. But the Pentagon did not give us many other details. This was a confidential report that they had prepared. So we sued the Pentagon to get access to that report under the Freedom of Information Act. And we got it. And we discovered flaws in the Pentagon's story. The main thing that we found was around the central claim that the Pentagon put forward. The Pentagon said that the van ignored warning shots, but we concluded that those warning shots provided hardly any warning at all. We estimate about two or three seconds, if you look at the Pentagon's own account...

FADEL: Wow.

ESTRIN: ...And compare it to the aerial images from the operation. And remember, Leila, this was at night, so this would have been a total blur to a driver. And also in the Pentagon report, there was a recommendation to prepare a top-secret document addressing the Pentagon's conclusion that these men were combatants and not civilians. But the Pentagon told NPR they have no record that that document was ever produced.

FADEL: So what you're describing - I mean, two or three seconds to react - not very long. The Pentagon, though, still concludes these men were combatants. What can we conclude about what happened that night, based on what you saw and what you were seeing?

ESTRIN: Well, former advisers to the Pentagon tell me that, you know, you can understand that a U.S. pilot may have made a decision to strike in the heat of the moment in the fog of war. But all these years later, the Pentagon still has not produced any evidence to back up their claim that these men were enemy belligerents. And these experts say, you know, it looks like a case of mistaken identity. Now, a New York-based advocacy group, the Zomia Center, has requested that the Defense Department reopen this case. The Defense Department has said it is looking into that request, so this may not be case closed.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thank you for this reporting, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

FADEL: Daniel's story aired yesterday on All Things Considered, and you can see some of the Pentagon documents, photos of the survivor, and more on the story in English and Arabic at npr.org. 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
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, 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.
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