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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump made his case to appeals court judges in Washington, D.C., yesterday.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. Facing a panel of skeptical judges, lawyer John Sauer argued Trump is immune from criminal prosecution for anything he did while in office, even trying to overturn his election defeat, unless Congress impeached and convicted him first.

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JOHN SAUER: To authorize the prosecution of a president for his official acts would open a Pandora's box from which this nation may never recover.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson watched the arguments, and she's on the line with us now to talk more about them. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the former president made some sweeping claims about presidential power. How did the judges at the appeals court seem to respond to that?

JOHNSON: All three judges seem really doubtful about siding with Trump on that key question of blanket immunity. One judge, Florence Pan, posed a tough question for Trump's lawyer. Here she is.

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FLORENCE PAN: In your view, could a president sell pardons or sell military secrets? Those are official acts. Could a president order SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival?

JOHNSON: Prosecutors said that outcome would be truly scary. But another judge, Karen Henderson, asked if the court sided with the Justice Department, would that open the floodgates for more prosecutions of presidents in the future? A special counsel lawyer said no way, that Donald Trump and his behavior have been unique in American history. Remember; Trump is fighting 91 felony charges in four different jurisdictions while leading the Republican race for the presidency in 2024.

MARTIN: And to that end, we're only days away from the Iowa caucuses. More voters are heading to the polls in other states very soon. Will we have a ruling by this D.C. appeals court soon?

JOHNSON: The court didn't give any timetable for its decision, but these judges know the clock is running. If he loses here, Trump may appeal to the full D.C. circuit court and then onto the Supreme Court. This trial was supposed to start March 4. Right now, it's on hold. And if the judges take a long time to decide or Trump is able to drag out more appeals, there may be no trial before the election. The special counsel knows that, too, so he's asked the judges to move quickly and give Trump a tight deadline for any more appeals. If Trump wins the presidency, he could direct his Justice Department to dismiss this case in D.C. and another one in Florida, as well.

MARTIN: And Donald Trump did appear at the courthouse. This was the first time since his arraignment last August. Carrie, would you just describe his demeanor? Would you just tell us, did he say or do anything while he was there?

JOHNSON: He entered the courtroom only a few moments before the arguments began. He didn't say much other than to ask his lawyers where to sit in the courtroom. He wrote some notes and passed a few of them to his attorneys.

After the hearing, he made a quick appearance at a nearby hotel, where he said he did nothing wrong and said he was being prosecuted for political reasons. But there is no evidence - none whatsoever - that the current president played any role in this case.

MARTIN: And the former president, Trump, has been using his legal troubles as a major part of his message on the campaign trail. He's certainly been fundraising around them. Could we hear more from him later this week?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. There are closing arguments on Thursday in New York in that civil fraud trial against Trump and his company. The former president plans to attend, and he's been pretty vocal about that case in the hallways in the courthouse. But Trump is now operating under a limited gag order there. After he attacked a court clerk and posted false information about her, the clerk received a lot of ugly threats that led to the gag order not only in New York. There's also one operating in D.C. now as well, after judges and other people were threatened in that case, too.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

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MARTIN: We finally know why U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been in the hospital for the past week. He was suffering from complications following surgery for prostate cancer back on December 22.

INSKEEP: What remains unclear is why he took so long to tell people. Even the White House didn't know, according to spokesman John Kirby.

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JOHN KIRBY: Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning.

INSKEEP: Kirby was talking on Tuesday, January 9, more than two weeks after Austin went into the hospital.

MARTIN: For more on this, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So would you just start by summarizing - excuse me - the medical details we've now learned?

MYRE: Yeah. So doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center say this really began about a month ago, when Austin was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer. And then on December 22, he was given a general anesthetic and went - underwent what doctors described as minimally invasive surgery to remove his prostate gland. Austin went home the next day. His prognosis was described as excellent. All seemed well, though none of this was made public. But he suffered severe stomach, hip and leg pain. On January 1, he was taken back to Walter Reed, and doctors in the intensive care unit determined he had a urinary tract infection. He's now on the mend and has been working from the hospital.

MARTIN: OK. So Secretary Austin is recovering. That's good news. But this whole question of disclosure - let's just set the public aside. Why wasn't the White House and other people who are in the national security leadership made aware of this - I mean, people at least who'd have to make decisions if he were not in a position to do so?

MYRE: Yeah. Michel, that's really not clear. We haven't had a good explanation. It just - it's kind of a muddled story that keeps dribbling out. And here's sort of the quick timeline. On January 2, the day after he went back to the hospital, the No. 2 at the Pentagon, Kathleen Hicks, was put in charge temporarily, though she was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time. Two more days passed, and on January 4, the White House said it first learned that Austin was back at Walter Reed. The first public mention came a day later, on January 5. And then yesterday brought this additional surprise that the White House said it just learned Austin had cancer. But this was five days after the White House said it knew he was in the hospital.

MARTIN: All right. So, Greg, so, you know, performative outrage is something that we've become very accustomed to in Washington. But even apart from that, is there likely to be any fallout for Secretary Austin or the Pentagon from the people who presumably matter most - I mean, the White House, for example?

MYRE: Well, so far, no repercussions. The White House is saying that Secretary Austin will stay in his position. But obviously, it's been pretty embarrassing and a lot of head-scratching about the way it's handled. We know Austin is a very private person. He doesn't relish the spotlight. But this information certainly needed to be shared with others in the White House or the national security community. And we should note that President Biden was out of the country over New Year's in the U.S. Virgin Islands. U.S. national security teams were closely tracking two wars - Israel-Hamas and the Russia-Ukraine war.

MARTIN: Greg, before we let you go, is this prompting any new protocols for when something like this comes up?

MYRE: Well, seems so. White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients on Tuesday said the more than 20 Cabinet secretaries all need to submit in writing their current protocols if they face this kind of scenario.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Michel.

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MARTIN: Congress has just nine days to avoid a partial government shutdown.

INSKEEP: Which is not stopping many House Republicans from focusing on some other things. They talk of impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, and of holding the president's son, Hunter Biden, in contempt of Congress.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh is with us now to tell us more about all of this. Good morning, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So House Speaker Mike Johnson says addressing the situation at the border is a top priority. How does impeaching the top administration official in charge of the border address that?

WALSH: Well, House Republicans really single out Secretary Mayorkas as the person they think is responsible for the record numbers of migrants in recent months have entered the U.S. The House Homeland Security Committee today is starting the process to impeach him. They're having a hearing that focuses on the impact of the border crisis in states like Montana, Missouri, Oklahoma. They're planning more hearings, and they've invited the secretary to testify, but they say he hasn't responded yet.

Politics is obviously a big part of this now that we're in an election year. But both moderate and conservative Republicans I talked to on the Hill say that the border is really a top issue they hear about from voters back home. And a lot of them think Democrats are going to be vulnerable on this issue in the 2024 election.

MARTIN: I think many people remember this - that high crimes or misdemeanors is the standard for impeachment. So what are Republicans saying the high crime or misdemeanor is that Mayorkas has committed?

WALSH: They argue he's failed to address the crisis of the border, and they say he is not enforcing current immigration laws. Some Senate Republicans disagree with that argument. They say it's the president, not the Homeland Security secretary, who's responsible. Mayorkas is just carrying out the president's policies. Even if the House approves articles of impeachment against Mayorkas in the coming weeks, he's not likely to be removed by the Democratic Senate.

MARTIN: So another probe - this one against President Biden. His son, Hunter Biden, offered to testify in public about this because he's central to the House Republican argument. Why are House Republicans moving to hold him in contempt?

WALSH: They say Hunter Biden is in defiance of a subpoena to appear in a closed-door deposition last month. Most interviews in congressional investigations are not in public, at least in the beginning. But Hunter Biden argued Republicans would distort his testimony and said he would only testify at a public hearing. Two panels today are voting on a contempt resolution. Those are likely to be approved along party lines and eventually head to the House floor next.

Democrats argue this Republican impeachment probe is really just a sham, that Republicans haven't provided any clear evidence that President Biden, when he was vice president, benefited financially from any of Hunter Biden's business dealings.

MARTIN: So these - you know, there are a number of conservatives who have been pressuring House Speaker Johnson about a number of things, like spending. Is there some way in which these moves are related to that?

WALSH: You know, it's really unclear if this is going to stave off any conservative criticism. It didn't work for the former House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, who moved an impeachment inquiry to try to head off criticism. He was ultimately ousted. We're seeing some conservatives who back this impeachment of Mayorkas and contempt resolution of Hunter Biden still come out and criticize the current speaker over his decision to agree to a spending deal with Democrats over the weekend. They want more policy changes on the border. Remember; it only takes one lawmaker to bring up a resolution to oust the speaker.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thank you.

WALSH: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, 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.