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News brief: Russian military strategy, Jan. 6 panel, post pandemic plan

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Overnight, Russia claimed the port city of Kherson fell to its control. If true, it's the first city Russia has seized since invading just over a week ago.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russian missiles and rockets are continuing to fall on Ukraine's second-largest city of Kharkiv. Kyiv also remains under attack, but a Russian military convoy appears to have stalled just north of the capital.

FADEL: Here to give us an update is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start with the capital. Russian forces are still north of the city center, so roughly 20 miles or so. Why are they stalled?

BOWMAN: Well, they're - been stalled now for three days, Leila. So we're talking logistics problems of food and fuel, as well as the fact that the ground is not frozen, and the Russians are forced to stay on the roads. There's also resistance from Ukrainian forces, a resistance that has surprised not only the Russians but the Americans as well. There was a sense just a few weeks ago in the Pentagon that Russian troops might grab Kyiv in as little as two days, then there'd be this tough insurgency. But now Ukrainian forces and civilians are putting up a stubborn fight right now, and here we are, a week into the invasion.

FADEL: We've seen a lot of the preparation for that resistance here in Lviv. And of course, a lot of that combat power we're seeing that's attacking the cities where they're resisting is coming in the form of Russian missiles and artillery, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. And yesterday we were told more than 450 Russian missiles fired so far, many of them short-range. And people I talk with both in the Pentagon and elsewhere say this could only get more intense as the days go on, much more aggressive missile and artillery fire. We're already seeing that in Kyiv but more so in a city to the northeast, in the capital you guys just mentioned, Kharkiv. Early on, the Russians were targeting military locations - so barracks, fuel, ammunition depots, airfields. Now we're seeing, particularly in Kharkiv, more civilian infrastructure and residential areas being hit. Now, it could be those places are near military targets, or it could mean a much more ugly phase now. We saw the Russians mount more indiscriminate attacks in places like Chechnya, as well as Syria, hitting more civilian targets.

FADEL: Now, in the south, the Russians appear to be making more headway, right?

BOWMAN: No, that's right. Russia already is occupying Crimea, of course. Russian troops from there are moving into the fight. And also, Russia has landed several thousand amphibious forces on the coast. They moved up to the city of Kherson, a city of some 300,000 folks, just north of Crimea. And yesterday the Pentagon was saying the city was still being contested. Now with the seizure of that city, Russian forces could either move north, toward Kyiv perhaps, or west toward Odesa on the coast. But at this point, you know, we really just don't know. Also, Leila, the Russians are pushing into other towns and cities in that southern part of the country and could head into the Donbas region - that's where half the Ukrainian army is located - and then box that army in.

FADEL: Thank you for your reporting, Tom.

BOWMAN: Thank you.

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FADEL: Former President Donald Trump has broken the law in trying to overturn the 2020 election.

MARTINEZ: The Democratic-led House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol says it has evidence to come to this conclusion. The committee alleges Trump tried to illegally obstruct Congress' counting of electoral votes during the certification of President Biden's win. The explosive claims were part of a court filing in an ongoing lawsuit involving a witness subpoenaed by the panel.

FADEL: Joining us to discuss is NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Good morning, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Claudia, tell us about this court filing.

GRISALES: It's a massive document, more than 200 pages of arguments and exhibits detailing some of the panel's findings. It's part of a lawsuit tied to attorney John Eastman. He's fighting a committee subpoena, and he was a key player in the effort to stop the counting of electoral votes last year on the day the Capitol was attacked. Eastman had issued memos detailing how then-Vice President Mike Pence could reject the 2020 presidential elections results and accept alternate slates of electors. And now, in a new statement, the committee's chairman, Bennie Thompson, and its top Republican, Liz Cheney, said through the course of the panel's monthslong probe, they have gathered facts strongly suggesting emails from Eastman show he helped Trump advance a, quote, "corrupt scheme" to obstruct the counting of Electoral College ballots and a conspiracy to impede the transfer of power.

We should remind listeners the select committee is not conducting a criminal investigation. It does not have that power. But this is the first time it's laid out such claims.

FADEL: Claudia, how did the committee get here? What was the process for getting to those claims?

GRISALES: This has been an apparently intense process for the panel. I was among a group of reporters who saw Thompson and Cheney meeting in recent days behind closed doors to hammer out the final details for this filing. Thompson told us yesterday that members had been working through these arguments, quote, "all day" and conceded this would give a preview to some of the committee's findings but declined to elaborate then. Also, we should note, several months ago, Cheney began to hint at the potential for criminal exposure for the former president, specifically the obstruction of Congress in this case of the January 6 certification of election results. And that argument is referenced in this filing.

FADEL: What else did we learn in the filings?

GRISALES: In these excerpts, we get a step closer into the conversations that were happening inside the Trump White House. For example, there's one very heated email exchange on January 6 between the then-chief counsel to Vice President Mike Pence. This is Greg Jacob and Eastman, where Jacob is shooting down Eastman's legal arguments to overturn the election's result. Jacob signs off the email to Eastman as the riot is happening in the early afternoon on January 6 with an expletive to Eastman that I cannot repeat here. But he signs off saying, quote, "and thanks to your - expletive - we are now under siege."

FADEL: So what's the significance of these allegations?

GRISALES: This is another major revelatory moment for the committee, giving us a look into what has been uncovered and as they near a key stopping point to share their findings, they hope, with the public through a series of hearings this spring. And again, this is not a criminal probe, and that is outside the panel's jurisdiction, but it likely ramps up the pressure on the Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland to give an even closer look to these claims and to examine what criminal exposure the former president could face here.

FADEL: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Thank you so much.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

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FADEL: As the pandemic eases, President Biden has announced a new plan aimed at getting things back to normal.

MARTINEZ: With the recognition that COVID will not be eradicated, the administration's strategy aims to manage any future outbreaks with improved systems of surveillance, also testing and treatment.

FADEL: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to discuss. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So the White House released a 96-page strategic plan. What's new about it?

AUBREY: Well, for starters, it aims to address the problem - a disconnect, really, Leila - at a time when it's super easy to get tested and diagnosed, and there's new anti-viral medicines to effectively treat COVID, which have been a real breakthrough. Linking testing to treatments has been a problem. There has not been a system to get these pills to the people who need them most, quickly, when they can be most effective and keep people out of the hospital. So the new strategy aims to fix this. Here's President Biden's COVID adviser Jeff Zients.

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JEFF ZIENTS: To ensure these lifesaving treatments are easily accessible, the president's plan launches a new test-to-treat initiative to provide individuals access to testing and treatment for free, all in one stop.

AUBREY: So people will be able to go to a pharmacy, get tested and, if they're positive and at high risk, walk away with an antiviral medication. Zients says hundreds of these one-stop sites will open this month, including at community health clinics and at long-term care facilities.

FADEL: So a better system to quickly treat people diagnosed with COVID. But what about preventing another wave or surge in infections?

AUBREY: The plan focuses a lot on scaling up the surveillance systems that have been developed over the past two years. For instance, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pointed to the rapid expansion of wastewater surveillance. Turns out, analyzing sewage gives us a quick snapshot of the amount of virus in an area. It can also detect specific variants of concern. So this really could serve as an early warning system of another outbreak.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Wastewater can detect an increase in cases four to six days before we might see these cases show up for a rise in positive tests. When it was first released publicly two weeks ago, data from the National Wastewater Surveillance System included 400 testing sites across the country, representing over 50 million people.

AUBREY: And she says they're adding more sites every day, which is important because, as cases have declined so much, people won't be inclined to do COVID tests for every runny nose or sniffle, and with less testing, surveilling wastewater is a good way to keep tabs on the virus, a form of passive surveillance.

FADEL: Another key part of this strategic plan has to do with vaccines. What's the vision there?

AUBREY: The vision is that the U.S. continues to help vaccinate people around the globe and to continue developing new vaccines that provide broader or longer-lasting immunity or variant-specific vaccines as needed. At a White House briefing yesterday to unveil this plan, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the goal is this...

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Updated vaccines can be developed, approved and manufactured in approximately 100 days.

AUBREY: And the administration will be asking Congress to appropriate more resources, more money, which they say is needed to parlay these strategic plans into action to prevent or better manage future outbreaks.

FADEL: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you for your reporting, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.