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Morning News Brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Georgia voters kept their senator last night. Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker.

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RAPHAEL WARNOCK: I am Georgia.

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WARNOCK: I am an example and an iteration of its history, of its pain and its promise, of the brutality and the possibility.

INSKEEP: Warnock is the first Black candidate to win a full term in the Senate representing Georgia. Now, when you think about this race, think 51-49 - 51% to 49% is roughly the vote in that runoff election.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And 51 to 49 will now be the divide in the Senate. Democrats will control one more seat than they did before the midterm elections. This is a blow to Donald Trump's Republican Party. Walker is the latest of many Trump-endorsed candidates to lose a high-profile race.

INSKEEP: The former president also lost in court yesterday, or at least his company did. A New York jury found the Trump Organization guilty of schemes to avoid paying taxes. NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering this trial. Andrea, good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Was there any doubt about this verdict?

BERNSTEIN: There was. So last summer, Trump's former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty to 15 felonies for this persistent pattern of fraud. But the question was - was the Trump Corporation legally liable? What the jury had to decide was whether Weisselberg committed his crimes, quote, "in behalf of the company." All through the trial, Trump's lawyers argued that Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg. They kept repeating that. After a day and a half of deliberation yesterday afternoon, the jury sent out a note it had reached a verdict. The forewoman stood up. The judge's clerk asked, what say you? And there it was - guilty of scheme to defraud, guilty of conspiracy, guilty of criminal tax fraud in the first degree, guilty of falsifying business records, 17 counts in all.

INSKEEP: OK, falsified business records - that's the heart of this. What does that mean in this case, though?

BERNSTEIN: This was a long-running scheme to pay high-level employees not only paychecks but also with untaxed items, like Mercedes-Benzes and high-end electronics. Donald Trump personally signed a lease for Weisselberg's luxury apartment. But the company's rent payments were hidden from the IRS. Donald Trump also personally signed checks for Weisselberg's grandchildren's private school tuition, which were then, quote, "backed out" of Weisselberg's paycheck. That's saved Weisselberg tax payments, and it saved the company. This scheme of the Trump company lying and cheating the government lasted through 2018, when Trump himself oversaw the U.S. Treasury.

INSKEEP: OK, so this continued for a while. The former president is connected to it, but it's a conviction for the company. What are the consequences for the company?

BERNSTEIN: The fine could be up to $1.6 million, although Trump's lawyers say they will appeal. Trump personally was not charged, and no one other than Weisselberg is going to jail as part of his plea. The Trump company could have business consequences, but the effect of this conviction is more what it says about Trump. His eponymous company committed crimes. Nothing like that has happened in American history. Trump issued a statement yesterday that showed he was watching the case closely, and he said New York is a hard place to be "Trump," with the word Trump in quotes.

INSKEEP: And I suppose his legal troubles are not really over.

BERNSTEIN: The Manhattan DA says he's still investigating Trump for other crimes. Meanwhile, the New York attorney general has charged Trump in a civil case. That's for another long-running fraud scheme, this one about overvaluing or undervaluing assets to, again, cheat tax authorities. The New York AG is asking for $250 million and for Donald, Don Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump to be barred from doing business in New York state.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. thanks.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: The Supreme Court hears arguments today over a bid to reshape who has power over the rules of elections.

MARTIN: Yeah, the issue here is the so-called independent state legislature theory. Under this theory, state legislatures would claim much more authority to shape elections for federal office.

INSKEEP: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is covering the case. Hey there, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is at stake here?

TOTENBERG: Well, the independent state legislature theory, referred to as the ISL, could give states independent power to put in place all manner of election laws and rules without any review by state courts. In its most extreme form, the theory could eliminate not just state judicial power over elections but governors' vetoes.

INSKEEP: OK, so fewer checks, fewer balances - the legislature does what it wants. That's the idea, anyway. But what is the specific case the court will hear?

TOTENBERG: The North Carolina state Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, is seeking to overturn a decision by the state Supreme Court. That court ruled that the Republican Legislature, in drawing new congressional districts after the 2020 census, had violated the state constitution with an extreme partisan gerrymander. The court twice ordered the Legislature to redraw the map, and when those efforts came up short, the state court, with the aid of court-appointed election experts, redrew new lines. The state Legislature, however, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And Timothy Moore is the Republican speaker of the Statehouse of Representatives.

TIMOTHY MOORE: If you look at our state constitution, nowhere does it mention at any point involvement by the courts in any way. What this court did, they did a Democratic gerrymander of the congressional districts.

INSKEEP: So he's putting forth this idea that the state Legislature is independent, that nobody else gets any say. What is the underlying law that would give him that idea, given that courts have review of almost everything else?

TOTENBERG: It's based on the election clause of the federal Constitution, which says that the, quote, "times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof." The North Carolina Legislature, backed by the Republican National Committee, reads that clause as meaning that only the state Legislature may make election rules unless the Congress of the United States passes contrary legislation. And that arguably could leave out state courts and governors altogether. North Carolina's Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, sees this case as the canary in the coal mine.

ROY COOPER: If this court rules in favor of the Republicans, that state legislatures across the country will have exclusive control over running federal elections in their states, which stands our system of checks and balances on its head.

INSKEEP: OK, I can see why he would be unhappy about that. But you mentioned the words in the Constitution. If the word legislature in the Constitution doesn't actually mean legislature, what does it mean?

TOTENBERG: Well, very conservative scholars, former judges and the Conference of State Chief Justices have all filed briefs saying that at the time of the founding, legislature meant the whole structure of government, not just the state legislatures. But the three most conservative members of the current U.S. Supreme Court seem to have embraced the theory, and so we're going to see if they've got two more for a majority.

INSKEEP: Nina, thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nina Totenberg.

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INSKEEP: China is changing its approach to COVID-19.

MARTIN: The country seems to be abandoning a policy of zero-COVID infections. That policy led to widespread travel restrictions and lockdowns. Now economic stagnation and all those public protests are forcing leaders to say they will change course. China's new policy could mean additional freedoms.

INSKEEP: David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. David, welcome back.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

INSKEEP: What's really changing here?

RENNIE: Well, you're right to mention the economic pain of this policy and the public anger, which we've seen take the shape of not just protests but also just generate an entire population that's fed up. But the final piece of the puzzle is the virus has mutated to become so contagious. That omicron variant that has been rampaging around the world all year, it's just so easy to catch that China's incredibly ambitious zero-COVID policy is not keeping up. And so the brutal truth is the Communist Party has spent nearly three years saying it's declared an all-out people's war on a virus, and the virus is winning.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a powerful insight I think you're giving us, David. I had thought that this was a response to the declining economy in China or a response to public protest, and you're saying that China is being forced to have abandoned zero-COVID because it just isn't working. The virus is spreading too much, anyway.

RENNIE: It's all linked. Why are people so angry? Why are people so fed up after nearly three years of tolerating the kind of controls I think Americans or Brits would never tolerate? It's because it's not working. They can see that the case numbers have been soaring 'cause it's just so easy to catch omicron. And they're also becoming aware that the outside world seems to be living with this virus. And, you know, they can see crowds at the World Cup not wearing masks. They're realizing that China isn't like anywhere else. And it's bankrupting businesses. It's killing the kind of, you know, the - you know, any number of economic sectors. And so that combination of pain that isn't working, the balance seems to just shifted, and now at incredible speed, this incredibly strict system is falling apart in a very chaotic, frankly, unplanned way.

INSKEEP: Although just months ago, Chinese officials were saying this policy is saving millions of lives. Think about how many people are in China. It's saving millions of lives. What happens now as restrictions are lifted?

RENNIE: I mean, they've been saying that till almost a week ago. It was all about how China had saved lives, and countries like America had so many dead. So now we're seeing the central government saying things like, you know, mass testing is no longer needed. So basically, you're not going to find the cases that you were previously always quarantining. So that part of the system is falling apart. We can expect other cities, perhaps poorer cities with weak hospitals, to resist and to say, actually, we don't have so many cases. We're terrified that this is going to overwhelm our health system. I think we could see a return to what we've seen before during this pandemic of roadblocks, you know, provincial borders, suddenly police not letting people across.

Beijing, where I am, is kind of chaos. They're saying that we don't need health codes to go into shops, shopping malls, but you do to go to schools or to hospitals. But there's no way to get a COVID test anymore 'cause they've been hauling away all the testing booths on the back of trucks, and so people don't know how to get the test to get the kids to school.

INSKEEP: When you say health codes, this is something on your phone that shows that you're vaccinated or that you've been tested or whatever, and now you're saying it's hard to know if you need that and hard to get verified, anyway.

RENNIE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Are travel restrictions going to be lifted? In just a few seconds, is it going to be easier to get in and out of China?

RENNIE: In and out is a mystery. Between provinces seems to be getting easier. But the fear is this is the winter. They haven't vaccinated enough people. And if those case numbers really soar, they could be forced to start locking down again.

INSKEEP: David Rennie of The Economist. Thanks so much.

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