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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This weekend marks three years since a mob of Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol. Since the January 6 insurrection, around 900 people have pleaded guilty or been convicted of criminal charges stemming from that day. The FBI continues to make arrests every week. The future of those cases may now hinge on the presidential election. That's because Donald Trump has promised to pardon January 6 defendants if he returns to the White House. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has been covering the Capitol riots since that day, and he joins me now. Good morning.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what exactly has Trump said about what he'll do with these cases?

DREISBACH: Well, at this point, Trump has fully embraced January 6. At his very first campaign rally of the election cycle, he played a song featuring the voices of January 6 defendants recorded from jail singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Trump refers to these defendants as patriots and being politically persecuted in his view. He's also helped raise money for their cases - at least $10,000 that we know of. In his stump speech, Trump calls the defendants in prison hostages, and he's talked about freeing or pardoning these defendants. At one point, he even shared an image on social media that, quote, "the cops should be charged and the protesters should be freed."

FADEL: So has Trump said exactly which people he would pardon or for what charges? Is it all of them?

DREISBACH: Yeah. Like a lot of Trump campaign promises, this one is a little bit vague. Trump has announced that pardons would come on Day 1 of his presidency and that he would, pardon, quote, a "large portion" of defendants outside of a couple. But beyond that, it gets sketchy. On Fox News last year, Bret Baier asked for specifics about rioters convicted of violent crimes.

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BRET BAIER: Would you also pardon the people who were convicted of assaulting officers?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, you also have - no, we'd look at individual cases, but many of those people are very innocent people. They did nothing wrong.

DREISBACH: Trump has also left the door open to pardoning the former leader of the extremist group the Proud Boys. Enrique Tarrio is his name, and he was convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 22 years in prison. At times, Trump has said free all of the defendants. I asked the Trump campaign about this, but they didn't respond.

FADEL: So what would that mean for these cases?

DREISBACH: Well, if Trump is elected, he would have the power to pardon each and every January 6 defendant if he wanted to. And legally, Congress and the courts would not be able to block him. Practically speaking, those pardons would mean halting ongoing cases, releasing people from prison or probation. And for the people convicted of felonies - that's hundreds of defendants - it would mean restoring the right to own guns.

I should say that some of these defendants have expressed remorse, even renounced Trump, but others have further embraced conspiracy theories, white nationalism, antigovernment extremism. One defendant told me that the government had made an enemy by arresting him. I talked about this with Tom Joscelyn. He was a senior staff member for the Congressional select committee that investigated January 6. And he's also an expert on counterterrorism.

TOM JOSCELYN: Certainly by pardoning an untold number of people who committed violent acts, the likelihood of more violence certainly goes up.

FADEL: So Trump is also facing a criminal trial for trying to overturn the 2020 election. And prosecutors say his election lies fueled the January 6 riot. Where does Trump's own case fit into all this?

DREISBACH: Well, special counsel Jack Smith's team say they want to use Trump's support for these defendants against him in court. Basically, their argument is that Trump's support for the defendants shows his intent that he supported the storming of the Capitol and the violence to try and stay in power, even though he lost the 2020 election, of course. Now, we don't know whether prosecutors will be able to show that evidence to a jury. But in any event, we're waiting to see when that trial might go forward.

FADEL: That's NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thanks so much, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks.

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FADEL: An Afghan branch of the violent extremist group Islamic State, claimed responsibility for an attack this week in southeastern Iran that killed 84 people. The group says two of its members detonated suicide vests in a crowd of civilians who were marking the killing of a prominent Iranian general four years ago this week. The same group has said it was behind two previous attacks in Iran. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul to talk about this. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what more do we know about this Afghan branch of the Islamic State?

KENYON: Well, they call themselves Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP. Now, Khorasan's a big province. It includes part of northern Afghanistan, parts of Iran and Turkmenistan. And this same group also said it was behind a shooting attack at a Shia shrine in Shiraz in 2022 and another one last year. Now, the governor of the Iranian province where the two shooting attacks occurred, has said the second was in response to Iran executing the gunmen from the first attack. And analysts say the group's motive is believed to be primarily sectarian. The ISKP is a Sunni Muslim group. Iran's population is predominantly Shia. And the ISKP considers Shias to be apostates. This week's suicide bomb attack was by far the deadliest of the three.

FADEL: So how significant is it that the attack targeted a crowd going to honor the late General Qasem Soleimani that was killed by the U.S. back in 2020?

KENYON: Well, there is a connection there, yes. Iranian officials credit Soleimani with playing a key role in fighting Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. Soleimani for years worked with militant groups designated as terrorists by Western countries. And, of course, it was a coalition led by the United States and the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces that played a decisive role in eradicating ISIS from Syria and Iraq, effectively eliminating their so-called caliphate. But the fact that Iran gives credit to General Soleimani for having had an important role in ending ISIS control in those countries may help explain, in part, why the escape would target a ceremony honoring Soleimani's life and career.

FADEL: Now, there were some early suggestions from Iranian officials that Israel could have been involved in the attack, but this claim would seem to eliminate that possibility, right? I mean, that's not on the table anymore.

KENYON: Yes. And U.S. officials said from the start there was no evidence this bombing was an Israeli attack. Israel has launched attacks inside Iran over the years, but it has kept a narrow focus on its operations there. It's targeted Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities that are involved in Iran's nuclear program. In 2021, for instance, Iran blamed Israel for a mysterious explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility that knocked out the power there. Reports at the time said the operation was carried out by Israel's spy agency, the Mossad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said then that there's no threat in the Middle East, quote, "more serious, more dangerous, more pressing" than that posed by what he called the fanatical regime in Iran.

Now, Tehran has always maintained its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and Israel has never been convinced by those declarations. Israeli officials have repeatedly said they will do what it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Western officials say there's nothing to indicate Israel would have been behind an attack on civilians at a ceremony for General Soleimani. This claim by Islamic State, if confirmed, would seem to settle that question. This appears to have been a Sunni extremist group attacking Shia Muslims.

FADEL: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon talking to us from Istanbul. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Leila.

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FADEL: This week, a federal judge unsealed court records disclosing more of the powerful and wealthy associates allegedly connected to the convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. He took his life four years ago, but new documents that lay out names and accusations against some of his associates is putting Epstein's story back into the limelight, and that's become an opportunity for conspiracy theorists. NPR's Lisa Hagen is here to explain why. Hi, Lisa.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So we have this list. How is it being received in the most conspiratorial corners of the internet?

HAGEN: Yeah. So, ironically, in a moment when we're getting more information about the Epstein story, these names of powerful men allegedly associated with him, the biggest theme across conspiracist communities right now is that whatever we're being shown isn't the real story. So a couple examples. Some people are pushing the idea that a school shooting that took place yesterday in Iowa was actually a staged event meant to distract the public from the Epstein list. And then you have other folks saying that the Epstein list itself is a distraction from new alleged evidence of election fraud that proves Donald Trump is the rightful president.

FADEL: OK, but make this makes sense. I mean, these two claims sound contradictory. Is the Epstein list the distraction or the thing being distracted from?

HAGEN: Right. In the age of social media, conspiracy theories are a form of communal storytelling.

FADEL: OK.

HAGEN: So you tend to have a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Also, contradictions are very common because conspiracies are less about the details than they are about a larger worldview. The central truth that matters is that you can't believe what you're shown. It's what's being hidden from you that's really important. So with Epstein, you have a really effective embodiment of that idea. Here's Eric Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

ERIC OLIVER: You had this notorious sex trafficker who was in league with all sorts of rich and powerful people who dies under mysterious circumstances in federal custody. I mean, that's just ripe for any kind of conspiracy narrative.

HAGEN: And so whatever kind of contradictions swirl around him in moments like this just go to show what a malleable and useful character Epstein has become.

FADEL: Useful to who?

HAGEN: Researchers like Oliver often refer to conspiracy entrepreneurs. These are people who gain money and influence by spreading conspiracist beliefs, and there are entire networks of influencers and media outlets devoted to posing as sources of this, you know, supposedly hidden knowledge.

FADEL: Now, making money off this stuff is one thing, but why else does this matter to the many people who don't buy into these conspiracy theories?

HAGEN: Yeah. Experts will tell you that the same magical thinking that drives belief in one conspiracy theory often makes people vulnerable to others, some of which cause real damage in the world, like, for example, debunked claims that vaccines cause more harm than good or the big lie that the presidential election was rigged against Trump. But conspiracy thinking also detracts from real political engagement. You know, being skeptical of power is actually really important to a democracy. But all the energy that goes into posting and amplifying unfounded claims does not generally translate into meaningful policy change or helping people who need it.

FADEL: NPR's Lisa Hagen. Thank you, Lisa.

HAGEN: Thanks. 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.