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News brief: GOP wins the House, Trump ex-CFO testifies, missile strike probe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For all of their disappointments in the midterm election, Republicans now have one big gain.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

They captured control of the House of Representatives. This became clear when the Associated Press called a House race in California last night. Republican Representative Mike Garcia won reelection. Though counting continues, it now seems certain the party won at least 218 seats, the narrowest-possible majority. About six races are still uncertain, but the Republican margin won't be much larger than that.

INSKEEP: Still, a majority is a majority. So we've called NPR's Claudia Grisales to talk about it. She will cover the new Congress. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why is that one extra vote possibly - one, two, three votes - a big deal?

GRISALES: Right. In the House, nearly all levers of power belong to the majority. That includes the committees which come with subpoena power next year. And this could open the door to a series of investigations into the Biden administration and control what legislation comes to the floor.

INSKEEP: Well, it was one-party government. It's not going to be now. So what does that mean for Democrats and for President Biden?

GRISALES: Right. This could mark a new era of gridlock. It puts Democrats on notice that they have about three weeks left on the legislative calendar this year to get to bills and other initiatives done that may not be options come next year. And as we know, the Senate will remain in Democrats' hands, so they'll be able to take up critical judicial nominees there, but beyond that, divided government could block many legislative priorities for the Biden administration. Congress will have to find ways to work together on major must-pass bills, such as government funding, in a bipartisan fashion. But otherwise, expectations are that this marks the end of a wave of major Democratic-led initiatives that we saw pass these last couple of years for the Biden administration.

For his part, Biden, in a statement, congratulated McCarthy on the win and said he's, quote, "ready to work with House Republicans to deliver results for working families." And he's willing to work with anyone, Republican or Democrat, to deliver these results. Biden also said they need to heed voters' messages in the midterms. They need to work together to lower costs for Americans and address other issues that are critical.

INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned McCarthy. You're talking, of course, about the Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, who is the presumptive but by no means definite speaker of the House because things are so narrow, and he has some opposition. How do Republicans even run the place with such a small majority?

GRISALES: Right. Thank you. First, they have to figure out who will lead them. And yes, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was a presumptive speaker with a red wave, but now he's facing a good amount of opposition. He did get a majority of his conference to nominate him in a vote behind closed doors earlier this week, but he's going to face a much larger challenge getting a majority of the House floor to vote for him come next year. And already there's Republicans who are bucking this plan, as dozens voted for one of his challengers during this closed-door session. So the first test for this conference will be who can be speaker, and it will be forecasting how well this GOP will work together with very few votes to spare when it comes to their priorities.

And also, I should note, McCarthy told Sean Hannity last night on Fox News, the size of the majority doesn't matter, and despite the tight margin, Republican control still means control of subpoenas and government accountability.

INSKEEP: Although some of the members - some of the most hard-line members, let's say - have been pretty explicit that they're going to make demands of McCarthy in exchange for their support. So McCarthy tries to become the next House speaker. What about the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi?

GRISALES: Right. There have been a lot of questions for months about her future plans. She previously told her caucus this could be her last term as speaker and leader of Democrats in the House. But last night, her aides said she's been overwhelmed by calls from supporters, and she's expected to address her future plans with colleagues today.

INSKEEP: Claudia, it's always a pleasure hearing from you. Thanks.

GRISALES: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Former President Donald Trump's former chief financial officer will testify for a second day today in the criminal tax trial of Trump's company.

FADEL: Allen Weisselberg already pleaded guilty to felony tax charges, and now a Manhattan jury is hearing his testimony to decide whether the Trump Corporation is also guilty of criminal fraud.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering the trial. Andrea, good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. What is the case that Weisselberg is discussing on the stand?

BERNSTEIN: This is the trial over whether the company broke criminal laws by paying Weisselberg and other top executives with untaxed benefits. Here's the way it worked. So Weisselberg collected a salary and paid taxes on his W-2 form. But on top of that, he also got a set package of luxury items that he didn't pay taxes on - a Mercedes Benz for him and his wife, furniture, electronics, private-school tuition for Weisselberg's grandchildren. And the company tracked those payments in a spreadsheet, backed them out of his compensations and did not report them to the government.

Donald Trump the man is not criminally charged, and his company's lawyers say Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg. What's at issue here is whether Trump's company also benefited from the scheme to cheat taxpayers, and prosecutors need to prove that Weisselberg just wasn't like a bank teller stuffing money in his pockets but as a high managerial agent acting in behalf of the company as well.

INSKEEP: Well, what has he said so far on the stand?

BERNSTEIN: He spoke from the witness stand in a clear, kind of growly voice, really like the accountant from central casting. We heard him go over checks and payments made for his two-bedroom luxury condo with a terrace overlooking the Hudson and related expenses, like cable and parking. The prosecutor asked him directly who authorized the payments, and he said the rent was authorized by Donald Trump. Weisselberg also noted that beginning in 2012, Trump personally paid checks for Weisselberg's grandchildren's tuition, and he admitted when that happened, he knew that taxes were owed but not being paid.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm trying to figure this out. If prosecutors want to show this wasn't just one guy on the take, but it was a system, what is the benefit to the Trump Organization, the larger company of this scheme, if any?

BERNSTEIN: So Weisselberg was asked directly, why didn't he just get a raise from the company? And he explained if he got $200,000 in unpaid benefits, he would have needed twice the salary, or $400,000, to cover his taxes. The prosecutor asked him, did the Trump Corporation save the extra money when she called - when he got what she called the gross-up amount, if they had to pay him that? And Weisselberg said, yes, you could say that. If the company had to give me all this in cash, I - they would have had to pay me more. One more thing. This method of compensation ended in 2017, when Trump became president, and Weisselberg did get a raise in his salary then.

INSKEEP: OK. So 2017. Just to be clear - is Weisselberg still on Trump's payroll?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. He testified to this. After he was criminally charged, he still went to work, changed his title. Then he - after he pleaded guilty, he went on a paid leave. So he's still getting $640,000 - maybe a bonus - from the company he's testifying against.

INSKEEP: Just to clarify one other thing. Of course, the former president declared that he's running for a third time for president just this week. People wonder, does that change the status at all of the various investigations or even this trial?

BERNSTEIN: In a word, no. When Trump became president, he was able to delay some legal matters by claiming presidential immunity, but now, though he's a candidate, he's still an ordinary citizen. In fact, in the New York civil case, which is another case in New York, the issue of political motivation has already come up before a judge, and the judge has said what matters are the facts and the law.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Authorities in Poland say they believe that a missile that crashed on their territory was friendly fire from Ukraine.

FADEL: But Ukraine says it doesn't think so. It's a high-stakes dispute. Either way, people were killed. But the question is whether the missile strike was a Russian attack or a Ukrainian mistake.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and has been following all this. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the evidence, and who's gathering it?

MYRE: Well, Poland has sent a big team to this site on the eastern part of the country, and we're hearing today that they've been joined by a U.S. team. Now, two Polish citizens were killed there Tuesday. The missile left a huge crater. There's fragments, which should provide pretty convincing evidence on whose missile this was. And Poland's president says all this information points so far to a Ukrainian air defense missile that was trying to shoot down an incoming Russian missile. He calls it an unfortunate accident. But President Zelenskyy appeared on TV Wednesday and some - just making some informal remarks said, I have no doubt that it was not our missile. And he says Ukraine will participate in an investigation, but he didn't provide any evidence to back up this statement.

INSKEEP: How significant is this disagreement?

MYRE: Well, it's notable right now mostly because Ukraine and its backers have all been on the same page. And Poland is not criticizing Ukraine. It understands why this could have happened. Also, the Biden administration and NATO have put out statements saying it's Russia that's responsible. Here's NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: Let me be clear. This is not Ukraine's fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.

MYRE: And an important point, Steve, if this was a Russian missile, that would make this a lot more complicated. It would then be a strike on a NATO country, lots of difficult questions about how to respond. If it's a Ukrainian missile, it's much easier to call it an accident and just move on.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should be very clear when we say the Biden administration is saying Russia is responsible, they're not saying it was a Russian missile; they're just saying it's Russia's fault for starting a war in which people are killed. Is that correct?

MYRE: That's right, Steve.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the larger question here. Ukraine is firing missiles in its defense because it's facing Russian missile barrages. How damaging have those barrages been?

MYRE: Well, Ukraine is pleading for more air defenses. And NATO held a meeting yesterday, and it was very interesting to see U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, sitting side by side, discussing the way forward in the war. Milley says Ukraine has the momentum, and Russia is hurting. But Ukraine's goal of driving out all the Russian troops will be very hard. So now may be a good time for Ukraine to negotiate. And Austin says that Ukraine has exceeded expectations throughout the war, so he's not going to set any limits. He made clear the U.S. would keep up strong military support.

INSKEEP: OK. Greg, thanks so much for the update. Really appreciate it.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv. 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.