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News brief: Uvalde shooting report, Bannon trial, Ukrainian government firings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why did it take close to 400 officers so long to confront one gunman?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Texas lawmakers ordered an investigation of the mass shooting in Uvalde. They found a series of failures and poor decision making. Above all, nobody made the decision to move in quickly with the enormous firepower that was on the scene.

INSKEEP: Texas Public Radio's Dan Katz is covering this story. Good morning.

DAN KATZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, does this legislative report change your understanding of what happened?

KATZ: Well, in many ways it doesn't. But the first thing is the slow response was a failure of law enforcement at all levels. And this goes beyond the local school police chief, Pete Arredondo, who state officials have tried to place the blame on.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KATZ: In fact, he only had five officers on the scene. You know, compare that to 150 Border Patrol agents, 91 state troopers, 25 city police officers and 16 sheriff's deputies.

INSKEEP: It's kind of sickening to look at the video now and realize how many people with how many weapons were on the scene and not using them. But who was in charge of all of those officers?

KATZ: Unfortunately, we still don't have an answer to that. The report outlined what it called, quote, "systemic failures and egregious decision-making" among local, state and federal officers. But it reiterates that many of the officers were unsure of who was in charge. Right now Arredondo is on administrative leave. And right after the release of this report, Uvalde's mayor, Don McLaughlin, put Mariano Pargas on leave. He was the acting city police chief during the shooting. The mayor said the city is conducting an internal investigation on whether Pargas could have done more or whether that was even possible with all the different agencies involved.

INSKEEP: I guess the mayor also released his own city officer's bodycam video. What does that show?

KATZ: Yes. It was a more personal view of the response than what was also made public in 77 minutes of hallway surveillance. The bodycam footage shows some officers urging action, some even breaking windows and helping children out of the school heroically. But it also shows confusion and a lack of leadership. The mayor released the bodycam footage at a time when he himself has faced criticism. And he lashed out yesterday.

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DON MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think I enjoy this every day? Do you think I enjoy having to look at 19 families every day or talk to them and tell them? Because my heart's broken for them. But I'll never feel the pain that they're feeling. So, you know, if people don't have the trust in me or don't care, then fine, let me know; I'll be happy to step aside.

INSKEEP: One of many officials facing criticism and questions here. Does the school get criticism?

KATZ: Yeah. One thing is the - in this report is that Robb Elementary School was unprepared to deal with this shooting. All three exterior doors of the building were unlocked that day, as were multiple interior doors. Another example, the school's 5-foot fence was inadequate to stop an intruder. And we also learned that the gunman specifically targeted this particular classroom. He was once a student there, and the report said he was bullied in that fourth-grade classroom. State Representative Joe Moody, who helped write the committee's report, said people missed many warning signs.

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JOE MOODY: He came from a broken home with little to no interaction with his father. He struggled in school, both academically and socially. He struggled to fit in and eventually became isolated. He networked with his peers through social media and violent video games and, ultimately, had a fixation on school shootings and even developed the nickname school shooter.

INSKEEP: OK, so we learned something about the shooter there. Let's talk about the response, though. If police had been more immediate in going into the classroom, could they have saved lives?

KATZ: Well, according to the report, probably not. The gunman had a high-powered weapon. And while the legislative committee did not mention the easy availability of high-powered firearms in its report, it did point out that the gunman fired more than 100 rounds in the three minutes before authorities even arrived on the scene, and it was likely that most of the victims died immediately during the shooter's initial gunfire. Little solace to family members who are still angry and just want answers.

INSKEEP: That's Texas Public Radio's Dan Katz. Dan, thanks so much.

KATZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Today, Steve Bannon goes on trial.

MARTIN: Donald Trump's one-time political strategist failed to cooperate with an investigation. He was long gone from Donald Trump's White House at the time of the January 6 attack, but he was still talking with the defeated president. And the day before the attack on democracy, he said on his podcast that, quote, "all hell would break loose."

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering this. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what did Bannon fail to do?

LUCAS: Well, he faces two criminal counts here of contempt of Congress because he failed to comply with a subpoena from the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. They wanted him to turn over documents and to testify. Bannon refused to comply. He didn't appear for testimony or hand over any of the requested records. He claimed that he was covered by executive privilege. The committee rejected that. It said that Bannon hadn't served in the Trump administration for years when the Capitol siege actually took place. So the House voted to hold Bannon in contempt, referred him to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. Bannon was indicted in November. He's pleaded not guilty. And today, as you said, his trial gets underway.

INSKEEP: You know, I host a podcast. I'm thinking that I should claim executive privilege.

LUCAS: (Laughter) That'd be nice, wouldn't it?

INSKEEP: It would be nice, but I guess it didn't work out for him. But why did the committee want to talk to Bannon, given that he was far out of government at the time of January 6?

LUCAS: Well, they believe that he has useful information related to the planning for January 6. He - despite being out of the administration, he's still in the Trump orbit, still a powerful figure in the far-right world with his podcast. And Bannon attended a meeting on the eve of January 6 at a hotel in downtown D.C. with Trump allies. As you said, he predicted on his podcast that all hell would break loose on the 6, so the committee thinks that he has knowledge that would be useful to their investigation.

INSKEEP: And why did he try so hard in recent days and weeks to get this trial delayed?

LUCAS: Well, he made a couple of last-minute attempts to get this thing pushed back. And he argued that the January 6 committee's hearings have received a ton of media attention and could, therefore, taint the jury pool. Now, the judge overseeing his case is a Trump appointee. His name is Carl Nichols. He dismissed that. He said that concern could be dealt with in jury selection.

But then the other issue was that Bannon was now offering to testify before the committee. His attorney sent the committee a letter making that offer, cited a letter from Trump in which Trump claims to waive executive privilege over Bannon's testimony. Ultimately, Judge Nichols said the trial would go forward as planned, but he did leave the door open to Bannon possibly using the letters at trial to argue that he didn't think the subpoena deadlines were set in stone - in other words, that he could offer to testify and provide these documents later.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that other former aides and advisers to former President Trump could end up on trial the way Bannon is?

LUCAS: Well, one already has been indicted, and that's former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. He has been charged with criminal contempt as well, two counts as well. He's currently looking at a possible trial in November. But two other former aides, former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Dan Scavino, were both found in contempt of the House, but the Justice Department declined to prosecute those two.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how does this Bannon trial unfold, then?

LUCAS: Well, it starts today with jury selection here in federal court in Washington, D.C. Then we'll get to opening statements. And all in all, we expect the trial to last probably about a week.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has abruptly removed two top officials.

MARTIN: One is Ukraine's spy chief; the other is the chief prosecutor. The president gave a speech saying both of these people ran agencies riddled with spies. An investigation allegedly found dozens of employees collaborating with Russia.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is in Kyiv. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are these officials?

MANN: Ukraine's prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, she's played an important role prosecuting alleged Russian war crimes, but now she's out. Zelenskyy also fired one of his former close advisers, a guy named Ivan Bakanov. Bakanov was head of the state security service, which is Ukraine's spy agency. It's important to say, Steve, Zelenskyy didn't accuse them personally of treason or criminal wrongdoing, but he says a probe found nearly 200 employees within their departments engaged in criminal activity by aiding Russia. He says that raised big questions about their leadership.

INSKEEP: Well, what did the 200 Ukrainians allegedly do?

MANN: A lot of this appears to be fallout from the loss of Kherson That's a strategically important city in southern Ukraine which Russia occupied early in this war. The fall of Kherson still counts as one of Moscow's biggest, easiest victories. Ukraine officials now allege some government employees, including members of Ukraine's own spy network, helped Russia, provided Russia with crucial information about Kherson's defenses. In some cases, Zelenskyy says some of those people are still collaborating with Russian occupation forces now. Here's Zelenskyy speaking in a televised address last night.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: Zelenskyy said more than 60 employees of those two security and law enforcement departments have remained in Russia-occupied territories and are now actively working against Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Did the president provide evidence in this speech?

MANN: There's not a lot of detail here. But there has been concern for years that Russia's spy agencies have been able to infiltrate Ukraine's security forces.

INSKEEP: Sure.

MANN: Ukraine officials have said publicly they've found new evidence of improper communication between Ukrainian agents and agents working for Russia. One former regional head of the state security service was detained yesterday. Zelenskyy says all these other government employees who are under suspicion have now been notified that they're going to face legal proceedings.

INSKEEP: Wow. So give me a little context here. How does this announcement of dismissing or removing these two top officials fit into Ukraine's broader war effort?

MANN: You know, this is the biggest reshuffling we've seen in Zelenskyy's government since the war began. Zelenskyy himself described this as an important step to purify - that's his word - purify Ukraine as the war continues. There is continuing tension within Ukraine, especially in the south and east, over government officials and some business leaders who were openly pro-Russian before the invasion. Many of the people in those regions speak Russian, of course. They have strong cultural ties to Russia. So this is an ongoing challenge for Ukraine. Now Zelenskyy says there are hundreds of criminal cases open involving alleged collaborators.

And this comes at a moment when the war is escalating again. Russia is pressing hard right now, Steve, with artillery and ground forces in the east, heavy cruise missile strikes hitting cities across Ukraine.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann in Ukraine. Thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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