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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

From being an unseen presence on a Milwaukee debate stage to posing for a historic mug shot - a shot heard around the world, if you will - former President Donald Trump has had a busy week.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What does a mug shot sound like? Anyway, Wednesday night, eight of his rivals made a case for themselves, although most avoided direct criticism of the front-runner that, in theory, they would like to catch. Trump spun his own narrative in an interview on X, the former Twitter, and then last night he was booked on 13 felony counts related to election interference in Georgia.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez covers the now four-time indicted former president, as well as the president currently in the Oval Office, and he's here to unpack Trump's busy week and the weeks ahead. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So let's talk about this week, topped off with a mug shot, as we mentioned. What were the highs and the lows, although I guess I can guess the low there?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, it was not really the best week for Trump at all. I mean, you could make the case that he made the right move, skipping the debate, and tens of millions of people also watched his interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. It really was a defiant act of counterprogramming where he attacked several of his Republican rivals onstage, also President Biden and Fox News itself. I mean, he argued that it was not worth it to debate when he was so far ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And I'm saying, do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it's going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn't even be running for president? Should I be doing that?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, but all this - the debate, his interview - was really, really overshadowed by, as you guys were saying, his Georgia indictment and the trip he took to the Fulton County Jail yesterday to turn himself in.

FADEL: And yet with the mug shot, the criminal indictments, the sets of fingerprints, he's still the lead - in the lead for the GOP nomination. Can anything shake his support within the Republican voting base?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it doesn't look that way, certainly not yet. I mean, at the debate, as Steve was saying, his top rivals really continued to largely stay away from directly attacking him. And those who tried were booed. I mean, any line of support for Trump was widely cheered. I will note, though, that most onstage backed Pence for his actions on January 6, saying he did the right thing in rejecting Trump's efforts to get him to stop the certification of the vote.

FADEL: Did any of Trump's rivals stand out in the debate enough to make gains on the ex-president?

ORDOÑEZ: I would not say gains on Trump, but maybe on each other. I mean, I think Pence had a pretty good night. He's not known as an attack dog, but he had some fight in him on Wednesday, you know, particularly attacking Vivek Ramaswamy for his inexperience. But Ramaswamy may have had an even better night. He was treated more like the leader on that stage than, say, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who, you know, kind of faded into the background a bit. And Ramaswamy did a pretty good job fending off the many swipes from so many of the other candidates.

FADEL: So after a busy few days with rivals debating his relevance and a booking in Georgia, what's coming up for Trump in the weeks ahead?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, the indictments are just the beginning. Last night we covered the trip to the jail. He got the mug shot, as you noted. And, you know, this is just one of four indictments. The first hearing related to January 6 is on Monday on federal charges. And he's not stopping run for president. I mean, within hours, his super PAC was circulating his mug shot to stoke support and raise money. And apparently he's returned to Twitter, or as it's - X, as it's called now, posting his mug shot. It's the first time he's posted in more than two years.

FADEL: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

FADEL: At the Republican debate in Wisconsin, this was playing before the candidates even spoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RICH MEN NORTH OF RICHMOND")

OLIVER ANTHONY: (Singing) Rich men north of Richmond, lord knows they all just want to have total control.

FADEL: The song is "Rich Men North Of Richmond."

INSKEEP: It's by Oliver Anthony, and he is the first musician in any genre ever to top the Billboard 100 chart without making the list beforehand. In other words, he came from nowhere. The song takes the perspective of a working man who thinks the rich take advantage of him, and that, of course, is a familiar theme in all sorts of music. The song also nods to some conspiracy theories, which has caught the attention of experts on extremism.

FADEL: So joining us now to discuss is NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef. Good morning, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So why exactly is this song raising red flags?

YOUSEF: Well, there's one line in it, and it goes, I wish politicians would look out for miners - that's miners with an E - and not just minors on an island somewhere, and that second minors is with an O. And this is a reference to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. And Leila, you'll recall that Epstein was a sexual predator who died in jail in 2019. But the far right continues to circulate conspiracy theories about the circumstances of his death. And Anthony appears to nod to elements of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory that claims that powerful elites are sex trafficking children in some of his other online content. So it's really remarkable to hear these ideas in a song that's topping the charts. And it's concerning to people who study the spread of conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies.

FADEL: So tell us more about that. I mean, this is a song. Lots of people may simply like it for its musical qualities. How can it play a role in spreading extremism?

YOUSEF: I spoke to Jared Holt about this. He's with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and he says political movements always look for cultural artifacts like music or movies that can help popularize their ideas. But the problem here is that the song has been seized on by some far-right influencers, some of whom peddle antisemitism and transphobia.

JARED HOLT: And if these far-right figures are successful in associating themselves directly with this song, it could potentially open up a wider audience that they might normally not have access to all the time.

FADEL: OK, so concern around opportunists latching on to the song to boost their own profiles, but is there concern that the song itself could actually turn listeners into conspiracy theorists?

YOUSEF: The concern is that mainstreaming this stuff helps to normalize it. Michael Crenshaw saw this when he was a Black antiracist skinhead in Chicago 40 years ago. He said that racist music from the U.K. played a role in shifting the attitudes of people around him.

MICHAEL CRENSHAW: One day they would have a Confederate flag patch or button, or they would have a screwdriver shirt on, and sometimes they would still be nice to me. And so then I would have to sit there and figure out, like, this dude listens to music that talks about killing my people, but he's still acting like everything's OK.

YOUSEF: So it's not like we're going to see anything change overnight. But if we continue to see these messages mainstreamed over time, it could shift people's beliefs. And I'll note, Leila, NPR did reach out asking to speak with Oliver Anthony, but received no response.

FADEL: NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: U.S. military officials think they know what happened to a Russian mercenary leader. General Pat Ryder is at the Pentagon where intelligence analysts have observed the plane crash that involved Yevgeny Prigozhin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT RYDER: Our initial assessment is that it's likely Prigozhin was killed.

INSKEEP: Prigozhin left behind some unfinished business. Days before his death, he released a video that talked about recruiting strong men for operations in Africa. So what is his Wagner Group doing there?

FADEL: NPR's Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us from Lagos. Good morning, Emmanuel.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So how extensive is Wagner's presence in Africa right now?

AKINWOTU: Well, Wagner is constantly - is currently, sorry - significant in a handful of African countries, and they've become key there, providing support for some fragile states. But since the failed mutiny a few months ago, there has been various interviews, various clips of Prigozhin. Many of them are hard to verify, but they show us what Wagner was trying to project about Africa and this place, this continent, being increasingly important to them going forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: This video was released by a Telegram channel linked to Wagner in the last week, and in it Prigozhin implied he was in Africa, that Wagner was making Russia great around the world and making Africa more free, in his words. But of course, that was before this incident this week.

FADEL: Yeah. So at this point, what is the likely future of Wagner in Africa, if we know at all, and the potential impact on countries where these private soldiers operate?

AKINWOTU: Well, it may have some impact. It's likely to, but it's not clear yet. What we know is that in the last few years, this group has become more powerful in the Central African Republic, in Mali, and then to a lesser extent maybe Libya and Sudan. You know, in the Central African Republic, they've helped secure the government there, fighting rebel groups, and in exchange, they've taken control of key mineral resources. And rights groups have documented, you know, systematic rights abuses and killings by Wagner there. And a government official from CAR recently - he lamented Prigozhin's death but said their partnership was primarily with Russia, so you can infer that Russia's going to determine if and how things change there.

FADEL: OK, so how important, then, is the presence of the Wagner Group in Africa to Russia?

AKINWOTU: Well, you see this, particularly in the case of Mali, for example. You know, Mali kicked out French troops that had been there since 2013 to fight Islamist insurgency, but they were deeply unpopular, you know, accused of killings, too, at a wedding by the U.N., which France denied. But when France became isolated from the West and - it relied on Russia and, by extension, Wagner to fill that gap, so Wagner mercenaries help it to exploit the withdrawal of French troops. That has happened in Mali and Burkina Faso and now likely in Niger. And this, by definition, helps Russia expand - try to expand its influence in this part of Africa.

FADEL: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu. Thank you so much.

AKINWOTU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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