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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Israelis are bracing for a day that could determine the future of their country.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister over the weekend.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hebrew).

MARTIN: Yoav Gallant had said protests against the Netanyahu government's judicial overhaul had spread inside the military, causing a threat to national security. Protesters have gathered outside the parliament, where Netanyahu's coalition is preparing for a final vote on the legislation, even as Israeli media report Netanyahu may be considering a freeze.

MARTÍNEZ: Now for the latest, we turn to NPR's Daniel Estrin. He is joining us now from Jerusalem. Daniel, it's pretty loud there. What do you got going on there?

MARTÍNEZ: You know, A, this is a dramatic, consequential moment in Israel. Israel's largest trade union has called a national strike. Flights are currently grounded. Hospitals are canceling non-urgent treatments. And things escalated really quickly last night, when I was caught on the highway. There was a spontaneous protest, erupted in the middle of the road, thousands of protesters, because Netanyahu fired his defense minister. He was the only government minister who came out opposing the judicial overhaul. So he fired him. Listen to this protester who approached me, Yanai Or (ph).

YANAI OR: The prime minister doesn't understand that he's disconnected from what's going on. He's not doing enough to calm the energy up. That's very scary because it could lead to civil war or something similar because, you know, people here are scared of no leadership.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, now leadership security officials are meeting today. Reportedly, they met and said that there is an immediate threat that Israel's regional enemies could attack at this moment when the country is weak and divided. I am now gathered outside parliament, where protesters are gathering, and everyone here is waiting to hear, will Netanyahu announce that he's putting a stop to his judicial overhaul? It was supposed to go to a final vote today.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. These overhauls include having control of judicial appointments and also maybe overriding Supreme Court decisions. What are the chances that he doesn't go through with it and announces that freeze?

ESTRIN: Well, if he does announce that he's freezing the core part of the legislation, which would be allowing the government to have some control over appointing Supreme Court justices - if he does freeze that legislation, he could try to hold a dialogue with the opposition and reach a compromise. But, you know, there's just too much bad blood. There is a complete lack of trust in Netanyahu. We've seen civil society erupt in a way that we've never seen before. Universities are canceled today as well. It's hard to see how Netanyahu's government moves forward at this moment with such a massive protest.

MARTÍNEZ: What would be those implications, though, if he does freeze? I mean, where does he go from there?

ESTRIN: Well, that is the question. If he does come out - and he is right now huddling with his government, trying to understand whether his government could fall if he announces he's canceling this legislation - you know, he could say he's taking Israel back from the brink of potential violence at this moment of of turmoil. But whether or not he manages to survive this and actually stay in power with such massive protest, it's really hard to see that, A. The Pandora's box has been opened in Israel, and we don't know where it's headed.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

Daniel, thank you very much.

ESTRIN: Thank you, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: The tough road to recovery is coming into view for communities in northwestern Mississippi.

MARTIN: A tornado killed at least 25 people over the weekend in some of the most sparsely populated and least affluent parts of the state. Hundreds of people are displaced, their homes destroyed. Federal disaster aid is on the way to help both individuals and local governments start to rebuild.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott has been in and around the hard-hit town of Rolling Fork. She joins us now.

Debbie, let's start with what's happening where you are right now.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, it's been cleanup and emergency relief. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves yesterday said that the search and rescue phase has been winding down because teams did spend much of the weekend digging through rubble to make sure that no one else was trapped. So now it's about just trying to repair basic infrastructure. You know, 75% of Rolling Fork is pretty much flattened. This is a predominantly Black town of about 2,000 people. You know, city hall is damaged. The water tower blew down. Power lines are just everywhere. The generator at the hospital needs repairs.

So as crews start to work on that and they're clearing away some of the debris, volunteers have just descended on the town. They've got food, water supplies, clothing, you know, diapers, anything that people might need - if you've lost everything you own, right? Shelters are open, and it sounds like a lot of the displaced people have found refuge with friends and relatives. But, you know, that's not a long-term solution to what they're facing here.

MARTÍNEZ: No. And that list of destruction you mentioned, Debbie - I mean, where do local officials even begin to think about rebuilding?

ELLIOTT: You know, top of mind, other than just sort of getting the power grid back up - right? - and the water on is housing. This is a very rural region here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. This is farm country. People don't have a lot of resources, as Michel mentioned. The closest hotels are more than 30 miles away. Here's what Sharkey County Supervisor Leroy Smith says needs to happen.

LEROY SMITH: Right now what we need to be able to make sure that our citizens that's been uprooted and don't have a place - that they can stay and be able to take showers, a place to lay down at night and food for their families to eat until we can get this situation under control and get it worked out.

ELLIOTT: You know, things most of us take for granted, right? So the FEMA administrator was here and says long-term housing is a priority for the agency and that they're going to be here to see it through. I also spoke with Congressman Bennie Thompson, who emphasized that, you know, putting people in hotels with vouchers is not a workable solution, something that's often used in disasters. He says if residents had wanted to move away from this small town to a big city, they'd have already left.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. It's home.

ELLIOTT: Right.

MARTÍNEZ: So how are the people there that call the place home - how are they coping with the aftermath?

ELLIOTT: You know, so many people who lost everything that I've been speaking with just say they're thankful to have survived and are taking things day by day. That is even the message that I heard from Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker when I asked him to describe what he's up against.

ELDRIDGE WALKER: I really cannot find words to define it. When I woke up this morning, I said, lord, just help me make it through another day. That's all I got. Ain't got nothing else. Help me be able to help these families to make it through. That's all I got.

ELLIOTT: This is also personal for Mayor Walker. He is the funeral director, so he's been having to care for grieving families through all this - people he's calling his lifelong friends. So it's a lot.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott speaking with us this morning from Vicksburg, Miss.

Debbie, thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

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MARTÍNEZ: Rapper Pras Michel of the '90s hip-hop group Fugees goes on trial today.

MARTIN: Jury selection gets underway later this morning at our federal courthouse here in Washington, D.C. Following major success with the Fugees, the Grammy winner remade himself as a businessman and attracted attention from the Justice Department, which has charged him with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered agent of China.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is following the case.

Carrie, tell us a little bit about Pras Michel and his musical background.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Sure. Of course. Pras Michel performed with Fugees. And our colleagues on the arts desk say that album, "The Score," from 1996 from the group is one of the most-streamed albums of all time. But in recent years, Michel hasn't recorded as much. Instead, he's grown more interested in business and politics.

MARTÍNEZ: And so what are the central charges in this criminal trial?

JOHNSON: There are really two lanes to this prosecution. First is alleged violations of election law using so-called straw donors to try to funnel foreign money into the Obama campaign. One example is allegedly giving people $40,000 so they could attend a fundraising dinner on behalf of the Obama campaign. Prosecutors say a lot of that money came from a billionaire named Jho Low, who is now a fugitive from justice.

And the second part of this case is about what Pras Michel allegedly did during the Trump years to help that billionaire Low after he got in legal trouble and what Michel allegedly did to curry favor with the Chinese government, which had its own goal. China wanted help in getting a dissident out of the U.S. and sent back to China. These are pretty serious charges that could send Michelle to prison for a long time if he's convicted.

MARTÍNEZ: So what are you hearing or expecting to hear from the defense?

ELLIOTT: Michel's defense team says the Justice Department offered many other people involved in these schemes immunity from prosecution or some pretty good plea deals. So he's basically the last man standing here, even though they say he was not a major player. Another of the defense arguments will be that this man is a musician, not a Washington, D.C., power player or an expert in geopolitics. So this idea that's laid out in the court papers - that he's actually bargaining with a member of the Chinese government in a Four Seasons hotel in New York - meant that he may have been in over his head. And the defense also says Michel acted in the best interest of the US. He was working for the U.S., not China, so he shouldn't have had to register as a foreign agent.

MARTÍNEZ: And I know that Pras' defense so wanted to subpoena some pretty big names. But there will be some big personalities, or at least should be, involving - in this trial.

JOHNSON: Big personalities. Michel's lead defense lawyer is David Kenner, who's got a long history of representing hip-hop stars. He successfully defended Snoop Dogg during his 1996 trial for murder. And he's going to use the same jury consultant in this trial here in D.C. We might also see some other well-known witnesses in this case. One of them is actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who had some ties to the billionaire Jho Low, because a company connected to Low financed a movie called "The Wolf Of Wall Street" that DiCaprio starred in.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Carrie, you're spending a lot of time at the courthouse these days. How long do you expect this trial to last?

JOHNSON: Ninety prospective jurors are headed to court this morning to answer questions about whether they know or have any opinions about Michel or any of the witnesses in the case. The prosecutors say their case will take about two weeks or so. It's not yet clear if Michel will testify in his own defense, but the trial could wrap up near the end of April, so far as we can tell.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, some of those other witnesses could include Trump adviser Steve Bannon and also casino mogul Steve Wynn. NPR's Carrie Johnson reporting.

Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
A Martínez
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.