Morning news brief
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Former President Donald Trump has been indicted in New York.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
A grand jury spent months investigating hush money payments. It's the first time a former US president faces criminal charges.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ilya Marritz covers Trump legal matters. Ilya, we've been - what? - on indictment watch for about a couple of weeks now. So what do we know, and how do we know it?
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: We know the grand jury has 23 members, all New Yorkers. And after reviewing the evidence presented to them, at least 12 out of those 23, a majority, found there was reasonable cause to believe that Donald Trump committed a crime. It is the first time a former president has ever been indicted. That indictment is now under seal. That much we know. Now, the prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, has acknowledged the indictment's existence. He said he contacted Trump's legal team to arrange for the former president to surrender to authorities. Trump himself has called the move "political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history." That's a quote. His lawyers also had a statement. They said, he did not commit any crime. We will vigorously fight this political prosecution.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, so when will we know what charges have been brought against Donald Trump?
MARRITZ: Usually, an indictment is unsealed on the day of a defendant's arraignment. So that would be when Trump comes in and is fingerprinted and enters a plea. And we expect that to happen soon. One of the challenges of covering any grand jury process is that it is secret by design. Now, we do know the grand jury was hearing witnesses like Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress, and Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer who went to jail over hush money payments he made to purchase and prevent the publication of Stormy Daniels' story of having had an affair with Trump. That is a story Trump denies. Cohen made those payments just days before the 2016 election. But until we read that indictment, we don't know the specific charges Trump will have to defend himself against. And that's a good reason to treat headlines and hot takes with a little bit of skepticism.
MARTÍNEZ: Sure. Now, you followed Trump's legal travails for a long time. I mean, what are your thoughts on what's happening?
MARRITZ: If it comes down to hush money paid to a porn actress, then, in some sense, it's old news and a familiar fact pattern. We know that Michael Cohen wanted to block the publication of a story that could damage Trump's image during the 2016 presidential campaign. What's new and concerning here is everything surrounding the indictment. Here is an ex-president who is not afraid to use his words to attack prosecutors. He was doing it last night on social media. And by constantly assailing the justice system as rigged and corrupt, he's really telling his followers that they shouldn't trust institutions.
Now, as we know, Trump is also running for president. And at his recent campaign rally in Texas, he really aligned himself with the cause of the January 6 rioters. So this is a test of the system. It is happening in state court here in Donald Trump's hometown, New York City. The DA, Alvin Bragg, has not been on the job for long, but he does have some experience to draw on. He convicted two Trump business entities of tax fraud last year. I was in the courtroom. I saw him sitting there at the back, watching the trial. How do you prepare to try a president, though? That's something that's never happened before.
MARTÍNEZ: Right. It's never happened before. So what's going to happen next?
MARRITZ: DA Bragg has said many times that the justice system should treat an ex-president like any other defendant. I think that means that we should expect Trump to be fingerprinted and photographed and then enter a plea. To pull this off, though, just the logistical challenge, the planning challenge, it's going to involve lawyers, cops, the Secret Service, the ex-president himself. Trump is not known for hiding from cameras. And I am certain there will be a lot of cameras there.
MARTÍNEZ: Ilya Marritz from NPR, thanks a lot.
MARRITZ: You're welcome.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. We're going to turn now to Congress, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are weighing in on the news of Trump's indictment.
PFEIFFER: Reaction, not surprisingly, was split along party lines, but both Democrats and Republicans noted the historic event.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now to bring us some of those comments. Trump himself was signaling that this could happen very soon, Deirdre. So how are Republicans on Capitol Hill reacting?
DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: They immediately attacked the prosecutor and the process as political. Both the House and Senate wrapped up business and members were traveling back to their districts yesterday when the news broke. But Republicans knew this could happen, and they were ready to respond. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy blasted the Manhattan DA, tweeting that Alvin Bragg, quote, "irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our presidential election." He vowed the House would hold Bragg to account. Other Republican lawmakers dismissed the indictment, calling it an abuse of power. But few were talking specifically about Trump's behavior in terms of the hush money payments to an adult film star.
MARTÍNEZ: What about Democrats?
WALSH: They say the indictment shows that no one is above the law. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that Trump will be able to avail himself of the legal system. And a jury, not politics, can determine his fate according to the facts and the law. The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, said any political violence or threats of violence cannot be tolerated. But privately, some Democrats I've talked to recently about the prospects of this indictment in this specific case involving hush money, said they believe the DA was building a strong case, but they thought some of the other legal investigations - the ones involving January 6, Trump's handling of classified documents and his attempt to interfere in Georgia's election in 2020 - were probably stronger legal cases. But now they're stressing that justice should be applied equally, and they hope the president and his allies will just peacefully respect the system.
MARTÍNEZ: What about potential Republican rivals to President - former President Trump for his 2024 nomination? What are they saying?
WALSH: They're really rallying around the former president. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who himself is considering a 2024 bid, said on CNN last night in an interview that the indictment was an outrage. Pence said the case about a campaign finance issue should not have been brought by the prosecutor.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
MIKE PENCE: And it appears to millions of Americans to be nothing more than a political prosecution that's driven by a prosecutor who literally ran for office on a pledge to indict the former president.
WALSH: And Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who's expected to also jump in the 2024 primary, put out a statement that didn't mention Trump by name but called the indictment un-American. And DeSantis said that Bragg was, quote, "stretching the law to target a political opponent."
MARTÍNEZ: All right. So there are all these Republicans who are rallying around a former president who is a Republican. What does this say about Trump's hold on the Republican Party?
WALSH: It again just shows he has immense influence. Polls show Trump as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. Lawmakers and his own political rivals recognize the Republican base strongly backs Trump. And that base expects party leaders to rally around the former president. There's a belief from Trump's allies that this legal action can actually activate his supporters and strengthen his position heading into the 2024 Republican primary. And some of his allies last night were just saying this helps pave the way for him to win the general election, too.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thanks a lot.
WALSH: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTÍNEZ: All right. On now to European affairs. The Turkish parliament has approved Finland's request to join NATO.
PFEIFFER: It's the last step needed to seal Finland's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Both Finland and Sweden had applied for NATO membership following Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, but Sweden's application has been blocked by Turkey and Hungary. Turkey says Sweden has been harboring Kurdish activists that the Turkish government calls terrorists.
MARTÍNEZ: Join us now from Istanbul to discuss Turkey's decision is NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, tell us more about the vote and why now.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, this was a victory for NATO, which has been looking forward to welcoming both Finland and Sweden into the alliance. And as you mentioned, it was the Russian invasion of Ukraine that really caused both Stockholm and Helsinki to want to be full NATO members. This certainly is a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has long opposed any eastward expansion by NATO. So this ratification vote now clears the way for Finland to formally join the alliance as a full member.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. But as we mentioned, Turkey is not budging on Sweden's application. So what are the Swedes saying about this? And is there any chance that Turkey might back off on that and allow them to join, as well?
KENYON: Well, Sweden says it accepts Finland's decision to join NATO on its own. Finland, by the way, says it will continue to press for Stockholm's accession to the military alliance. Turkey's block on Sweden's NATO accession bid has nothing to do with not wanting Stockholm to join the alliance. Turkey says it would welcome Sweden into NATO but only if it stops giving shelter and, as Ankara puts it, also allowing propaganda platform to Kurdish militants that Turkey sees as terrorists. That includes the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been in armed conflict with Turkey for decades. Ankara says Sweden has allowed the group to raise funds and spread its message, among other things.
Sweden has made some moves to address these concerns. It passed a new anti-terrorism law. That prompted the NATO secretary-general to say he believed Sweden had fulfilled its commitments to Turkey and should be allowed into NATO. But Turkish officials say Sweden hasn't done enough yet. President Erdogan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has a list of more than a hundred people he wants Sweden to deport back to Turkey to face charges. Sweden says that's not possible, but it's willing to work with Ankara to see what they can do to resolve the issue.
MARTÍNEZ: But, you know, even without Sweden, I mean, it sounds like a pretty big deal removing this final barrier to Finland's membership. And Russia isn't happy about this. So, I mean, considering that especially Finland, who shares this long border with Russia, this has to be a big deal.
KENYON: Oh, it is. That border is more than 800 miles long. This accession brings NATO right up to that Russian border. And that has prompted threats from Moscow. The Russian embassy in Sweden this week threatened both Sweden and Finland with retaliation if they join NATO. The embassy posted a message on its Facebook page saying, quote, "If anyone believes that this will improve Europe's security, you can be sure that the new members of the hostile bloc will become a legitimate target for Russia's retaliatory measures, including military ones." Now, here in Turkey, this has been something of a balancing act for President Erdogan. He's trying to maintain Turkey's status as a reliable NATO member while at the same time not angering Moscow for fear of jeopardizing trade relations with Russia. Erdogan's also running for reelection in May, and there's some speculation here that his tough stand on Sweden's NATO bid could change after the vote.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.
KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.