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News brief: Allen Weisselberg plea deal, immigration poll, COVID boosters

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A longtime executive at the Trump Organization is expected to plead guilty to tax fraud in Manhattan criminal court today.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That would make Allen Weisselberg the latest Trump ally to be convicted at trial or plead guilty to a felony. He worked for Donald Trump long before he ran for president.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein is here to explain. Good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What has Weisselberg done for Trump over the years?

BERNSTEIN: So Allen Weisselberg is the closest any human being can come to being the physical embodiment of Trump's business. He's worked for the Trumps since the 1970s, when Donald Trump's father, Fred, was renting apartments in Brooklyn. Weisselberg really knows the ins and outs of the company, better than anyone excepting maybe Donald Trump. And as of today, if the plea deal is accepted, Weisselberg will be the highest-level Trump Organization official to admit to a felony.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm just thinking about this. When you admit to a felony, you also have to state in court exactly what you did. What is he expected to say?

BERNSTEIN: So we don't know exactly until the hearing concludes. But Weisselberg was charged with 15 felonies for carrying out a more than 15-year scheme to cheat taxpayers by taking part of his salary through untaxed benefits, like a luxury apartment, private school tuition for his grandchildren and Mercedes-Benzes for him and his wife. The prosecutors say he hid nearly $2 million of income in this way. The crimes he was charged with include fraud, conspiracy and grand larceny.

INSKEEP: And why is he admitting to all of this now?

BERNSTEIN: So last week, the judge in the case denied Weisselberg and the Trump Organization's motions to dismiss the case. That's often a time when these plea deals happen.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the - what is known about the terms? Like, what is he getting in return in terms of a reduced sentence or whatever else?

BERNSTEIN: So in this case, it looks like Weisselberg, who's in his 70s, will say he committed crimes and agree to a jail sentence of just months. Weisselberg may cooperate with prosecutors in some way, but it won't be certain exactly how that will work until the judge OKs the deal. What we very much know is that Weisselberg has worked hard not to do anything that could put him at odds with Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: Although if he is needing to cooperate as part of a deal, that means aiming presumably at his boss. Investigators tend to go up the chain rather than down the chain. So what kind of cooperation could he potentially provide?

BERNSTEIN: Well, it's complicated, but he can testify at a potential trial of Donald Trump's company. As of now, because Donald Trump's business is under criminal indictment in the same scheme and is not pleading guilty, there's a trial set for October 24, and under New York law, if top executives have committed crimes, that's imputed to the corporation. So if Weisselberg pleads guilty, his testimony could help make a case against Trump's company. But that might not necessarily implicate Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: How does this case fit in with the wider docket of former Trump employees?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, Weisselberg isn't even the first top Trump executive to be - plead guilty to felonies. There was, for example, Michael Cohen, the former counsel and VP there. There was Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was convicted of tax fraud, money laundering and conspiracy against the United States. Political adviser Roger Stone convicted of lying to Congress. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn convicted of the - lying to the FBI. And just this summer, adviser Steve Bannon convicted of contempt of Congress. Manafort, Stone and Flynn were pardoned by Trump. But all these aides were convicted of felonies. Weisselberg is just the latest. And though Trump is under investigation, he said he's done nothing wrong, and he says the investigations are politically motivated, quote, "witch hunts."

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A new survey illuminates a political reality as the fall elections approach.

FADEL: That survey is a new NPR/Ipsos poll. It finds most people endorse negative views of immigration. Many say they agree with descriptions of immigrants that are false or misleading, and support for immigrants overall has declined.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joel Rose has been looking at the findings. Joel, good morning.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you see in that survey?

ROSE: Well, one of the things that really stands out is that about half of Americans say the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border.

INSKEEP: Completely or somewhat, they agree with the idea of invasion. I guess we should just pause to say, by the dictionary definition, that's not true. An invasion would be moving in with an armed force. That is obviously not happening. But you're saying that most Americans, when asked in this survey, say that they think it's really true or kind of true that there's an invasion.

ROSE: Exactly, Steve. Yeah. Half of Americans say it is either completely or somewhat true that the U.S. is experiencing an invasion. And it's driven largely by Republicans. Three out of four agreed with that framing, including Michael Cisternino. He's a poll respondent from Nevada.

MICHAEL CISTERNINO: The people that are coming in from different countries, I think many of them are being let in haphazardly. We are not actually screening enough people to make it safe for the rest of the country.

ROSE: But not everyone agrees that invasion is the right way to describe what's happening at the border. Here's Neel-Gopal Sharma. He's a poll respondent and a Democrat from North Carolina.

NEEL-GOPAL SHARMA: A lot of immigrants are coming here for safety, and a lot of them are coming here for a chance, I guess. Unfortunately, I feel like the rhetoric has just been that, like, there is this large, like, xenophobic kind of talk that's being thrown around.

ROSE: I should say that Democrats and immigrant advocates say this invasion rhetoric is way off base because nearly all border crossers are unarmed. Most are fleeing from violence and poverty in their home countries. And advocates say this rhetoric is potentially dangerous because it could make immigrants a target for violence.

INSKEEP: What else is in this survey and people's beliefs that you could describe as false or misleading?

ROSE: Well, we found that large numbers of Americans hold, you know, a wide variety of misconceptions about immigrants - greatly exaggerating their role in smuggling illegal drugs into the U.S., for example, also how likely immigrants are to use public benefits or to commit crimes. And we found that Republicans are more likely to hold these negative views of immigrants. Mallory Newall is a vice president at Ipsos, which conducted this poll.

INSKEEP: These statements of false or misleading or incomplete information are definitely gaining more traction among Republicans.

ROSE: Let's take the illegal drug fentanyl as an example. It's true that overdose deaths from fentanyl are up and that a lot of fentanyl is smuggled across the southern border. But the vast majority of that fentanyl is smuggled through official ports of entry. It's not brought in by migrants who are arrested crossing the border between those ports, who often are just turning themselves in to seek asylum. However, 6 out of 10 Republicans in our poll said incorrectly that, quote, "most of the fentanyl entering the U.S. is smuggled in by migrants."

INSKEEP: So the difference between anecdotal information and statistical information there. Given all of these misconceptions, what has happened to the overall view of immigration?

ROSE: Well, this is one of the most striking things in the poll for me. When we polled Americans on immigration back in 2018, 3 out of 4 respondents agreed that, quote, "immigrants are an important part of our American identity." Today, that number has fallen sharply down to just 56%.

INSKEEP: Joel, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joel Rose.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Is the Food and Drug Administration using the right strategy to evaluate the next generation of COVID-19 boosters?

FADEL: That's a question that's stirring debate as the agency works to make new, improved boosters available in September.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Where do things stand with the next round of boosters?

STEIN: The Biden administration is rushing to get new vaccines ready for a big new booster campaign in September.

INSKEEP: Right.

STEIN: And that's because, you know, even though it kind of may feel like the pandemic is essentially over, almost 500 people are still dying every day, almost five times the number who die from motor vehicle crashes.

INSKEEP: Wow.

STEIN: And another surge could very well hit the U.S. hard again this winter, when the immunity people have gotten from vaccines and infections will have faded, you know, even more. But instead of authorizing the first boosters the vaccine companies produced, boosters that target the original strain of the omicron variant, like the U.K. just did, the FDA wants to go with boosters that target the omicron subvariants that are now dominating. The hope is they'll provide stronger, longer-lasting protection. And that's why the FDA decided to use an entirely new strategy to evaluate them.

INSKEEP: Oh, but this must be like turning an ocean liner. It is challenging to change your testing regimen because it takes so many months. So what's the new strategy?

STEIN: Right. Right, exactly. Instead of requiring the companies to test the new boosters on people, the FDA, for the first time, is only requiring the vaccine-makers to test boosters in mice initially and plans to make a decision based on the results of those mouse tests, not people, along with data from people the companies collected about their first stab at boosters targeting the omicron variant.

INSKEEP: How do independent experts or the companies themselves respond to this?

STEIN: It's, you know - this is a big switch for the COVID vaccines. And the reaction has been mixed. You know, some experts say, look; billions of people have gotten the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. We know they're safe, and we know enough about how vaccines work to start handling COVID vaccines more like the flu vaccines. Here's Deepta Bhattacharya. He's an immunobiologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.

DEEPTA BHATTACHARYA: We're going to use all of these data that we've learned through not only this vaccine but decades of viral immunology to say the way to be nimble is that we're going to do those animal studies, we'll roll the vaccines out to the people who are at the highest risk anyway, and then we'll slowly start to make it available to the people who are at lower risk. We're really not going out too far out on a limb here.

STEIN: But, you know, Steve, not everyone agrees with this perspective.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the concerns of people who think we are going out on a limb?

STEIN: The big concern is, you know, mice aren't people. The boosters may not work as well for people as they look like they work in the mice. And if regulators are going to make people wait longer for new boosters, it's crucial to get good evidence that they really do work better. Here's Dr. Paul Offit. He's a vaccine expert at the University of Pennsylvania who advises the FDA.

PAUL OFFIT: We need to make sure that we have solid immunogenicity data in people to show that you have a dramatically greater neutralizing antibody response. I think anything short of that is not acceptable. You can't assume that what happens in mice is also true in man.

STEIN: Some also worry this approach may make people even more skeptical about getting boosted. But the companies are expected to submit their data to the FDA by the end of the month, and the administration hopes to make millions of doses of the new boosters available in September.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.