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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, a federal appeals court hears arguments over one of the indictments of former President Trump.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The court considers whether the United States can prosecute an ex-president for acts committed in office. Lawyers for Trump claim he has immunity. If the court agreed, that would prevent a trial he is facing for his efforts to overturn his election defeat.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the case. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to remember - former President Trump was impeached for his efforts to overturn the election and for the January 6 attack on the Capitol. And at the time, some of his defenders in the U.S. Senate said this is not a matter for impeachment. If he has a problem, if he violated the law, you can prosecute him afterward. How did we get to the point now where his lawyers are saying you can't prosecute him afterward?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Trump's attorneys are making the argument that to prosecute him now for virtually the same conduct after January 6 would amount to a violation of the principle of double jeopardy. Of course, prosecutors say that's simply wrong. They point to statements from Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and others who said at the time of the impeachment that it was up to the justice system to decide what to do with Donald Trump. And another key argument Trump is going to be making is that he's immune from prosecution. He enjoys blanket immunity because what he did before and after January 6, 2021, were official actions while he was president in the White House.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting. I guess that raises the question, first, of whether it's an official action and, second, whether you can prosecute for an official action. What do prosecutors say?

JOHNSON: Prosecutors say these arguments by Trump, were the appeals court to buy them, would be really sweeping and would even undermine the democracy, give presidents a license to commit crimes while in the White House. Special Counsel Jack Smith mentioned crimes like accepting bribes for directing government contracts or selling nuclear secrets to a foreign adversary. Of course, no former president has ever been charged with a federal crime. Donald Trump is the first. So this is going to be a landmark case whichever way the appeals court rules.

INSKEEP: Granting that, is there any history that gives us any guide here?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The special counsel points out that Richard Nixon got a pardon from President Ford and that pardons involve some acceptance or acknowledgement of criminal wrongdoing. The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that presidents have some shield from civil liability, like money damages, but that must relate to something in their work as the president. And the Justice Department says Trump was acting like a political candidate when he tried to cling to power in 2020 and 2021, not like a president.

INSKEEP: OK, so we don't really know if there's going to be a trial until we know how the courts rule on this question, and yet there is a trial scheduled. So how do things stand?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the trial was supposed to start on March 4, the day before Super Tuesday, but it's on hold for now while we wait for a ruling from the appeals court. If this three-judge panel acts quickly and agrees with prosecutors, it's possible the trial could still happen with some short delays. But if Donald Trump asks the full appeals court to hear the case or takes it to the Supreme Court, the trial could really stall this year. That's important because of so many key political dates on the calendar, like the Republican convention in July. Prosecutors have been trying to work ahead, and they've been filing lots of motions, but Trump hasn't wanted to accept them. Last week, he even tried to get a judge to punish prosecutors for doing that kind of work while the case is on pause.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The top U.S. diplomat faces a test today of how much influence the United States really has over its ally, Israel.

MARTIN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Tel Aviv again today. He is meeting Israeli political and military leaders. His boss, President Biden, has strongly supported Israel since it came under attack by Hamas on October 7. But Biden has also warned Israel to modify its campaign in Gaza to reduce civilian casualties and think about the future.

INSKEEP: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is in Israel. Hi there, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's on Blinken's agenda?

NORTHAM: Well, Blinken said this morning he'll meet with families of some of the more than 100 people who remain hostage in Gaza after being captured by Hamas at the start of this war. But for most of the day, he's going to be in closed-door meetings with key political leaders here, and that includes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll sit down with Israel's war Cabinet, and then he's going to have a one-on-one meeting with the defense chief here, Yoav Gallant. And, you know, Steve, we'll hear more about these discussions later on in the day from Blinken when he talks to the press, but he has said for some time that the U.S. wants more humanitarian aid to reach Gaza. And the U.S. is pushing Israel and regional leaders to focus on the future of the enclave once the war is over. The U.S. is also doing what it can to ensure the conflict doesn't spread throughout the region beyond Gaza, and Blinken is expected to push Israeli leaders to ease up on the aerial bombardment of Gaza, which has killed more than 22,000 people so far. And that's according to the health ministry in Gaza.

INSKEEP: Jackie, I can't help but notice your phrasing there. He has said for some time that Israel should modify its campaign in Gaza. Have the Israelis been responsive?

NORTHAM: Partially. The Israelis announced last week they were pulling back some troops from the north and would concentrate their efforts in the south of Gaza. That perhaps is a result of U.S. pressure. The Israelis say they're entering a different phase of the war, but they don't really say exactly what that means. But, you know, Steve, as far as ensuring the war doesn't become a regional conflict, that's the real focus of Blinken's visit here. You know, there's been increased fighting along the Israel-Lebanon border between Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters and Israel. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has said the Israeli military would do everything to restore security in that area. And he said he'd prefer it wouldn't be done with a full-on war with Hezbollah, but he also said that, you know, it wouldn't deter Israel from doing what it feels necessary to secure Israel's northern border.

INSKEEP: OK so multiple questions here. One is the way to conduct the war inside Gaza. The second is how to avoid a war in the north. What about the future when the war is over?

NORTHAM: Oh, yeah. There are real differences here. Blinken met with a number of leaders from the Persian Gulf states and Turkey before he arrived here in Israel and says they all agreed to consider participating and contributing to this so-called day-after scenario. So if that's right, this is a step forward because none of these nations on Blinken's previous trips to the region wanted to talk about Gaza's future until the war is over. Of course, any planning will have to have buy-in from Israel and the Palestinians. And Netanyahu is opposed to the concept of a two-state solution. That's something the U.S. still firmly believes in, so there's going to be some challenging discussions there.

INSKEEP: Where does he go next?

NORTHAM: Wednesday, he heads off to the occupied West Bank. He'll meet with president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and then, Steve, he heads to Egypt to see President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And the Egyptians are key here. They control Gaza's southern border.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam is in Israel. Jackie, thanks so much. Good talking with you.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In this country, an effort to make federal student aid easier seems instead to have made it harder.

MARTIN: The federal government updated a form that some 17 million people fill out to see if they qualify for help paying for college, but the form arrived three months late, and a problem with it puts students at risk of getting less financial aid than they should.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner joins us now. Cory, good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What went wrong?

TURNER: Well, so first we're talking about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is better known as FAFSA. After the form opened on December 30, lots of students complained about not being able to access it or having to spend long stretches in a waiting room because it was only open to a limited number of people for a few hours at a time. I will say the Education Department just announced the form is now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they've had more than a million applicants fill it out, which is roughly on pace with previous years.

INSKEEP: OK, so that part stabilized. But is the form itself correct?

TURNER: So bear with me here, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK.

TURNER: The form is correct. What's wrong is the math the Education Department plans to use to determine how much financial aid a student should get. So the problem was first reported last month by The Washington Post, and it came up as the department was making big changes to the form that were required by Congress, you know, like you said, making it easier to fill out. This year's FAFSA is also more generous than in previous years. And that's because the math behind it protects more of a student's or family's income from being considered in the overall student aid equation. Here's the problem. Congress told the department to adjust these income protections so they keep up with inflation. But the department didn't do that. We don't really know why. They just didn't do it.

INSKEEP: Although it sounds like a big deal, given that in the last couple of years there was a good deal of inflation.

TURNER: There was a lot of inflation. And so if you don't adjust for inflation, families applying for aid are going to appear like they have a lot more income than they really do. And that then means they're going to get less federal student aid. So it won't hurt the lowest-income families, but it will hurt hundreds of thousands of students in the income ranges just above them, you know, borrowers who, without this inflation adjustment, could miss out on really important grant money they're supposed to get. And keep in mind, this formula affects federal work study and even scholarships offered by states and schools.

INSKEEP: Cory, you said this is just a math problem. And I'm just thinking back - you know, when you get a math problem wrong in school, which I certainly did plenty of times, I mean, the teacher marks it up with a red pencil, puts a frowny face there, and then you correct it. Why don't they just fix the math?

TURNER: The problem is, it is a huge fix to make, you know, that would require retrofitting the coding beneath the entire system, among other things, and basically a new logistical nightmare just as the FAFSA rollout was starting to calm down. And time is not on the department's side, Steve. You know, they and schools are under enormous pressure to hurry financial aid offers to students because we're already months behind. The FAFSA process normally starts in October. This year, colleges won't be able to start sending out offers until February at the earliest. I am hearing from sources that in spite of all that, the department is leaning towards fixing this now. A spokesperson would only say they're still assessing their options. Ultimately, the department has two ugly options here. They can keep things moving by denying students the full aid that Congress envisioned, or they can risk exacerbating FAFSA delays and confusion in order to follow the law and save families money.

INSKEEP: Cory, thanks so much.

TURNER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Cory Turner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.