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News brief: Scholz-Putin talks, Trump accountant quits, hate crimes trial

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's foreign minister says talks with the U.S. and NATO allies are far from exhausted. But Ukraine is still surrounded by Russian troops.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Diplomatic efforts continue. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is in Moscow today to meet President Vladimir Putin. This comes after Scholz's visit to Ukraine yesterday. Scholz reassured Ukraine of German support, yet he's faced a lot of criticism over the past weeks for sending mixed signals over the crisis.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes joins us from Moscow to discuss all of this. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So before we get to the diplomatic talks in Moscow today, let's talk about whether the Kremlin's saying it's open to talks while we still see this huge troop buildup - whether it means anything. Is there an actually - is there actually a shift in tone here?

MAYNES: You know, on the one hand, the fundamental dynamics haven't changed. Russian forces remain in the region. The Kremlin's demands that NATO pull back from Eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from membership in the alliance are still there. And yet Russia seems to be shifting its tone. You know, yesterday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Putin, in which Lavrov filled in the Russian leader on efforts to get the West to bend to Russia's security demands. Let's listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here Lavrov is saying that the talks over the past weeks had allowed Russia to explain its positions and why they're justified. And while Russia couldn't allow negotiations to drag on forever, Lavrov said diplomacy was, quote, "far from exhausted." And to this, Putin said, fine. You know, meanwhile, Putin has also met with his defense minister, who said Russian military exercises around Ukraine - that's how Moscow always characterized this buildup - would be ending soon. Today, the ministry announced some troops will start returning back to bases, but of course, we'll have to see how that plays out.

FADEL: So the German chancellor is in Moscow to meet with Putin. Yesterday, he was in Kyiv for talks with that country's president. He's covering the bases. What can we expect from today's meeting?

MAYNES: Yeah, as you pointed out in your introduction, you know, Scholz has been roundly criticized in the media for essentially sitting out the Ukraine crisis, not really engaging diplomatically until recently. Also, Germany hasn't joined the U.S. and other Western allies in sending arms to Ukraine, instead offering hospital beds and helmets. Scholz was in Kyiv yesterday to try and smooth some of that over, saying Germany was in lockstep with allies. And he comes to Moscow carrying their message, really, that the West is open to dialogue but will impose sanctions if need be.

You know, maybe timing here is everything, but the question is how far Scholz is really willing to go on this sanctions front. Would he, for example, be willing to sanction the Nord Stream 2, the massive pipeline deal to export gas direct from Russia to Germany? The U.S. has vowed to kill the project if Russia attacks Ukraine. Scholz has repeatedly ducked that question. And Putin is aware that this is a divisive issue among allies, and he'll likely use that.

FADEL: You know, we've seen throughout this crisis Russia engaging with big powers - the U.S., European nations - over Ukraine's future while kind of ignoring the government in Kyiv completely. What are we hearing out of Kyiv?

MAYNES: Well, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine addressed his nation last night, taking a jab at some Western intelligence reports that predict a Russian invasion on February 16 - in other words, tomorrow. Zelenskyy said that while he believes Russia is a threat, the likelihood of an invasion had been overstated by the West and was really playing into Moscow's attempts to sow panic. And Zelenskyy instead is calling for Wednesday to be a day of national solidarity and praising the capability of Ukraine's armed forces to meet any challenge.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes. Thank you for your reporting.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: The longtime accountants for former President Donald Trump and the Trump Organization are calling it quits.

MARTIN: Yeah, the Mazars accounting firm says it can no longer stand behind a decade's worth of financial statements that it prepared and signed for Trump and his family business. The decision could have a big effect on hundreds of millions of dollars in Trump bank loans. Now, this is all part of two investigations happening in New York over the former president's finances.

FADEL: Joining us to discuss the development is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Andrea, the accounting firm says, quote, "statements of financial condition from June 30, 2011, to June 30, 2020, should no longer be relied upon." It adds that the Trump Organization should let anyone know who has relied on these statements. So what prompted all of this?

BERNSTEIN: So it sounds kind of dry, but it is a really fascinating and pretty momentous business divorce. This is a firm that has been with the Trump Organization for a long time, through thick and thin. And this letter is coming in the context of two big investigations in New York. We found out about this one because of a court filing by the New York attorney general, Letitia James, and she's looking at whether the Trump business lied to lenders and tax authorities about its property values. So it's a pretty dramatic development when the accountants say, everything we said about your statements of financial condition for a decade, those things are not reliable. It's not really great fitting for the Trump family business, which has been repeatedly accused of having a business model of fraud.

FADEL: I mean, that's pretty huge when they say, don't rely on anything we wrote, anything we did. Can you walk us through how this will have an impact?

BERNSTEIN: So we don't have all of the specifics of exactly who told what when, but from previous court filings, we have a general outline. For example, the Trump business has hundreds of millions of dollars of loans from Deutsche Bank that are coming due beginning next year, and the attorney general has stated in a previous filing that it wanted to question Ivanka Trump, particularly about the statements of financial condition that, in this case, she signed off on. So now what happens is - it is uncharted territory, but the bank is going to have to make future lending decisions and decide what to do about its current loans based on this new information from Trump's accountants.

FADEL: So could this impact any potential campaign by former President Trump?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, we don't know (laughter).

FADEL: Right.

BERNSTEIN: Because we've never had a situation where a former president, a possible candidate, is in - mired in investigations that are like this. But it is a really precarious moment right now because of the potential upcoming campaign to have these two big prosecutors in New York looking at the family finances in this way and getting these kind of concessions.

FADEL: What's the Trump Organization saying?

BERNSTEIN: So in a letter - or in its own letter, the accounting firm said it had, quote, "not concluded" that there were "material discrepancies." So the Trump Organization leaned in on that and said, oh, look; the accountants found nothing wrong, and therefore, both investigations should be dropped. Now, of course, that is not what the accountant said. But it is a familiar Trump business legal tactic to claim that something vindicates them when it does not.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thank you so much.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

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FADEL: A federal hate crimes trial is underway in Brunswick, Ga. The prosecutors are aiming to prove that the three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery were motivated by racism.

MARTIN: As they opened their case Monday, federal prosecutors said that prosecution does not require proof of hate but rather proof that the defendants acted because of race.

FADEL: Joining us from Brunswick is Benjamin Payne from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Hi, Benjamin.

BENJAMIN PAYNE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what arguments do the prosecutors plan to make?

PAYNE: Prosecutors say that the three defendants - Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan - held deeply racist worldviews, especially against African Americans, and that because of their worldviews, they wrongly suspected that Arbery had committed a crime when he was running through their neighborhood. In terms of proof, prosecutors say they plan to introduce social media posts from the men, as well as sworn testimony from people who knew them and had interacted with them.

For example, prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein said during opening statements yesterday that they planned to call up a person who they say brought up the NAACP in a conversation with Greg McMichael, at which point the witness says McMichael went off on a racist tirade. Bernstein also said that his son, Travis McMichael, told someone the reason he enjoyed his job as a defense contractor so much was that there were zero African Americans who worked there, but that he didn't say African Americans; he used the N-word.

FADEL: Wow. So what about the attorneys for the defendants? What do they plan to argue here?

PAYNE: Basically, their argument is this - the McMichaels had a legitimate reason to chase Arbery when they saw him in the neighborhood because they recognized him from surveillance video inside a house that was under construction. As for "Roddie" Bryan, who tagged along, his attorney said in opening statements yesterday his client was just trying to document the incident on video, even though that also meant joining in on the chase. Now, what's interesting here is that none of the defense attorneys denied that the men have expressed racist views, instead just arguing that these racist expressions were not motivating factor.

FADEL: So this has to be - I mean, we'll shift here because this has to be really difficult for the family to go through this again, another trial, the family of Ahmaud Arbery, especially with the two-year anniversary of his murder coming up later this month. How are they handling all of this?

PAYNE: Yeah, not only is the two-year anniversary coming up; this is also trial No. 2 since the family's already sat in on the state murder trial late last year. But Ahmaud Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said yesterday outside the federal courthouse that she's ready.

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WANDA COOPER-JONES: I think it's going to be a long, long, hard trial. A whole lot of hard evidence is going to come into play. So I got to be prepared for that. But I'm grateful that we're here, that we made it this far. And I think that we're going to get a victory as well.

PAYNE: Arbery's father, Marcus Arbery, also said he was looking forward to a second victory.

FADEL: Now, the state murder trial was televised. Many Americans saw the guilty verdicts being read on television. Why aren't there cameras in the courtroom this time?

PAYNE: So this is a federal courtroom with rules that prevent that. I spoke with Samantha Gilder, a community activist who's frustrated this trial isn't more open to the public.

SAMANTHA GILDER: I think without that level of visibility that there was with the state trial, once you remove that the only thing you're left with is you have to be able to trust the process. And so trusting the process, innately, is determined upon having a diverse jury that can hear this trial.

PAYNE: And the jury in this case is more diverse than the first trial. That one had only one Black juror to 11 white jurors. This federal trial has three Black jurors, one Hispanic juror and eight white jurors.

FADEL: That's Benjamin Payne from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thank you for your reporting.

PAYNE: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.