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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Señor Martínez, Señor Martínez, I've been...

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yes?

INSKEEP: ...Been away a few days. I have heard about the clashes in Sudan. But can you catch me up on why armed groups are fighting there?

MARTÍNEZ: Sure. Yeah. It goes back a few years. Essentially, the country has two armed forces. One is the regular army. The other is a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces. They worked together in a military coup a couple of years ago. But now they disagree over a plan to merge them, part of a transition to civilian rule. So the paramilitary forces, the RSF, they're attacking the government, which is why we've been watching efforts to evacuate diplomats and others who want out.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks for the basics. So now we're ready for an update from NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu, who has been covering this from his base in Lagos.

Welcome back.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: All right. U.S. Embassy staff have been airlifted out of Khartoum, the capital. What about other Americans?

AKINWOTU: Well, there are about 16,000 Americans registered in Sudan. The State Department says it's assisting these citizens who are trying to flee, we think largely with up-to-date information and advice on routes out of Khartoum and the country. And we're seeing other countries, many other countries, ramp up their evacuations.

Many people, especially foreign nationals, are trying to get to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. That's a transit point out of the country. But many of them have to get there on their own. The U.S. evacuations we saw this weekend were for government staff and their families, about under a hundred people who were airlifted out of Khartoum. It was a very precarious operation overnight by U.S. military, of course, in the midst of this ongoing conflict.

INSKEEP: You mentioned people going to Port Sudan, which is, of course, on the water, which Khartoum, the capital, is not. Airlines are not an option at this point or any kind of civilian or military flights out of that Khartoum airport? Do people have to go overland to get out?

AKINWOTU: Yes, flights are not an option. The airspace is shut. And so that is not an option for people who are trying to leave the country right now.

INSKEEP: OK. So people who get out of Khartoum have to go overland. Countries are evacuating their staff in various ways that they can. How are people feeling who are left behind?

AKINWOTU: Everyone who can is trying to leave the capital, Khartoum. That's the epicenter of this awful conflict. But there are also complicated feelings. You know, with these evacuations and the closure of a number of foreign embassies, there's clearly this fear that at a perilous moment, countries are retreating from Sudan. And these are countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and others who backed the transition and trusted these warring parties to give up power for a democratic process. And, of course, this process has completely unraveled, with neither the army or the RSF backing down.

What we know at the moment is about 400 people at least have been killed, thousands injured, according to the U.N. It's been just over a week since this conflict erupted. And the speed of collapse has been shocking. The health system has been hit hard. At least 11 facilities have been attacked, most have shut down. People are either sheltering at home with no power, running out of food, or trying to leave. You know, many resistance groups, community groups are helping people trying to escape. Twenty thousand people have fled to Chad. The internet coverage in Sudan has dropped to just a few percent of normal levels. So our sense of what's happening in the country is diminishing. And of course, there's no sign of a cease-fire between the two warring parties.

INSKEEP: Yeah. When you talk about complicated feelings, I'm imagining those 16,000 U.S. citizens. Many of them, of course, would have family connections, close connections. They built their lives in Sudan. It would be hard to walk away. But is there danger of a full-scale civil war here?

AKINWOTU: You know, there are a number of international actors, local militia that have a stake in this. So far, this is not a civil war. But the longer this goes on, there's the danger that it could become one.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu.

Pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

AKINWOTU: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In this country, jury selection begins today for the trial of Robert Bowers.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. He's accused of a mass shooting in 2018, the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh. He faces more than 60 charges, including murder and hate crimes, for an attack that killed 11 people. Because it struck a house of worship, the attack stood out even amidst the constant mass shootings in this country.

INSKEEP: From our member station WESA, Kiley Koscinski has been talking with people affected by the shooting.

Good morning.

KILEY KOSCINSKI, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing?

KOSCINSKI: Yeah, so the members of the three congregations that were attacked have been waiting for this day for nearly five years. The people I've spoken with said they're uncertain about what this will feel like now that it's finally here. There may be testimony that uncovers new information about this attack. And of course, some survivors will have to prepare to testify themselves. Deane Root was heading into Shabbat services when the attack began that day. And he says he feels a sense of duty to represent his friends in the courtroom. But he plans to be patient with himself on the hard days.

DEANE ROOT: We need to be there. But we can't put ourselves through a living hell of being in a trial situation every day for months because that's not healthy.

INSKEEP: And yet this trial is going to be going on for many days at least, we would think. So how is the community preparing to support people?

KOSCINSKI: Yeah, it's often been said that survivors of these mass shootings become part of a club that no one wants to join. And while that's true, the instant bond that these victims have with each other has also been a source of comfort for them. Carol Black attends New Light Congregation. And she hid in a closet from the gunfire. And she survived, but her brother was killed. She says she attends several group therapy sessions each month and has become incredibly close with the other surviving members of her congregation and the other two.

CAROL BLACK: We started meeting one month after the shooting. And we've been meeting every month since then. And we take so much support from each other.

KOSCINSKI: The federal trial is supposed to last potentially several months. And prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. So during that time, they'll need that support from each other.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that this shooting took place almost five years ago. Why has it taken so long to get just to the beginning of the trial?

KOSCINSKI: Some of the delay is COVID-19 related. As you know, many cases have been delayed as the courts try to catch up on the backlog created by the pandemic. But in addition to that, prosecutors and the defense have been going back and forth over pretrial motions. The defense has pressed hard for a guilty plea that would take the death penalty off the table. But today, both sides will finally begin the jury selection process.

INSKEEP: And then after that - if it's like a normal trial, if it's not interrupted by a guilty plea or something else - after jury selection, we would hear opening arguments, a reconstruction of this crime by prosecutors. What will the families likely hear?

KOSCINSKI: So it was a Saturday morning in October, 2018. Police say Robert Bowers came into a synagogue in a largely Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Three congregations worshipped there. That's Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation. Police say he entered multiple sanctuaries with an assault rifle and handguns and shot 18 people total, killing 11 of them. After a shootout with police, he was arrested. Investigators later found multiple antisemitic social media posts made by the suspect, including one right before the attack began. So that may well be part of the evidence that prosecutors will present at trial.

INSKEEP: You know, when you tell me that story, Kiley, after introducing me to some of the family members and survivors who have to hear it, it just really hits powerfully. Thank you so much.

KOSCINSKI: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Kiley Koscinski of our member station WESA in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We have a report now on an unpopular institution.

MARTÍNEZ: Which one? Because that line doesn't really narrow it down.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: President's approval rating is below 50%, support for Congress extremely low. And now it would seem the Supreme Court's popularity is sliding, too.

INSKEEP: Last Friday, the court preserved access to an abortion drug - for now. But that's not the last word on yet another divisive case. And today, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows that the original lower court decision to ban mifepristone is far out of step with the American public. NPR senior editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro has been tracking this. Hey there, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How unpopular is the idea of banning access to medication abortion?

MONTANARO: Yeah, well, this was a pretty big finding because 64% of respondents said that they are against laws that ban access to a medication abortion. And that includes, actually, a majority of Republicans. That might tell you why there's been such a big split among Republicans on this issue. You know, post-Dobbs, this has been a whole new world politically. And Republicans really have not figured out how to message on abortion after 50 years of clamoring for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

INSKEEP: What do voters say when asked if judges should be the ones to decide whether FDA approvals of drugs are overturned here?

MONTANARO: Well, they are definitely against that. Sixty-one percent said that judges should not be able to overturn FDA approvals. And again, there's another divide among Republicans. Fifty-one percent of Republicans said that they should be able to do that, but a significant percentage, 45%, said that they should not. There's a split here among how Republican candidates feel on this, too. You know, former President Trump, who's the frontrunner for the GOP nomination right now, has essentially punted, said it's a states' rights issue. But his former vice president, Mike Pence, was critical of that stance over the weekend while at a conservative conference in Iowa. And Pence said this about mifepristone to CBS' "Face The Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

MIKE PENCE: I'd like to see this medication off the market to protect the unborn. But also, I have deep concerns about the way the FDA went about approving mifepristone 20 years ago.

MONTANARO: Well, most Americans, as we're noting, disagree with that.

INSKEEP: Well, what are Americans saying about the court itself? It has this 6-3 conservative majority. It is issuing rulings that a lot of Americans would like, a lot of Americans would dislike. And it's done so in a very kind of out-there tone that has been described often as partisan. What do people think about that?

MONTANARO: Well, the court used to be one of the most revered institutions in American life, but really not anymore. We've been seeing this steady and continued decline in confidence in the court. Our poll found that 6 in 10 said they don't have very much or no confidence at all in the court. Just 37% said that they have a great deal or good amount of confidence in it. Marist has been asking this question for about the last five years. And the 62% who said they don't have much confidence in the court is the lowest they've recorded. You know, think about that. Sixty-two percent have little confidence or none at all in the institution that is the final say on all of the most controversial issues in American society - guns, health care, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, affirmative action, how police interact with their communities, you name it.

INSKEEP: And the judges making those decisions, the justices - there are relatively few of them. And they don't change very often because of the lifetime appointments.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And we asked about that, too. And most Americans think that should change. Sixty-eight percent said the justices should only serve for a limited time. Only 30% said they think they should serve as long as they want.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Thanks, as always.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. 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.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.