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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Russian President Vladimir Putin is talking today - a lot. This is an almost annual tradition. Putin holds an extended press conference at the end of the year. He also hosts a televised call-in show with the Russian public. I say almost annual because Putin skipped this last year as his invasion of Ukraine went wrong. Today, both rituals are back and combined into one. NPR's Charles Maynes is following along in Moscow and joins us now. Hey there, Charles.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: I guess we should note, as you and I are talking, we're in the middle of an event that can usually go for hours. So what is Putin saying?
MAYNES: Well, so far it's classic Putin, with his meld of conservatism and nationalism. Once again, we hear him arguing that Russia is the defender of so-called traditional values, accusing the West of trying to isolate and destroy the country. Let's listen to a taste.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: So here, Putin says that Russia's very survival rests on maintaining its sovereignty - the implication here that Russia needs to defend its independence from the West in every sphere, from politics to culture to the economy.
Now Putin in some ways undermined the main intrigue of today's event with last week's announcement, given at a small Kremlin gathering rather than from the big stage here, that he intends to stand for a fifth term in office when the country holds elections in March of next year. So today, de facto Putin is in campaign mode, moreover, for an election he's universally expected to win. Yet, in its own strange way, this year-end press conference event is also what passes for retail politics here. You know, Russians submit videos pleading with Putin directly to intervene with problems that affect daily life - you know, saying, we've got no hot water. We need someone to fix the heating. The mayor won't build the bridge - all that kind of stuff. And so we often see Putin all too happy to intervene - you know, forever the benevolent czar.
INSKEEP: This seems like an event where the event itself is part of the message. So what do we learn from the fact that Putin, unlike last year, is holding it?
MAYNES: Well, quite a bit, I think. You know, Putin canceled last year's event, as you note, amid Russia's invasion, as it wasn't going well. But clearly, Putin is feeling much more confident these days about Russia's prospects, and the fact that he's on the stage is proof of that. You know, he's arguing Russia's wartime economy has successfully weathered Western sanctions. He points to Ukraine's failed counteroffensive, and he sees U.S. military support for Ukraine, in particular in Congress, stalling. Meanwhile, Russia has settled in for this war over the long haul. Just last night, Ukraine says Russia launched another barrage of drones and missiles. So the Russian attacks keep coming, and Putin argues that Russia will come out on top and keep fighting until it achieves its goals in Ukraine, even if that's at great human cost.
INSKEEP: Although how much of that is hourslong theater from Putin?
MAYNES: You know, you can think of it as informative theater. There are plenty of moments designed to make Putin look good, and there are certainly real questions, even tough ones, with the caveat that there are usually no follow-ups. So Putin, who, after all, has been doing this for two decades, quite easily handles these meddlesome queries from journalists. And even though Russia's media are almost entirely state-controlled, there are difficult questions being raised in Russian society, particularly over the war in Ukraine, which is soon entering its third year. For example, we've heard from families of mobilized conscripts - civilians who were drafted into the war last September in what was a very unpopular move by Putin - you know, they've been angling to get an audience with Putin today and demand the return of their loved ones from the front immediately.
INSKEEP: Interesting - so he has an opportunity to take tough questions, but on his terms.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks so much.
MAYNES: Thank you.
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INSKEEP: In this country, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about an abortion pill. The court says it will review lower-court decisions that would make it harder to get mifepristone next year. Let's talk about this with Sarah Varney, who is a journalist who covers reproductive rights. Sarah, good morning.
SARAH VARNEY: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What's at issue here?
VARNEY: So just to walk through what's happened so far, there was a federal judge in Amarillo, Texas. He was appointed by former President Trump, and he actually revoked the approval of mifepristone entirely. Then that decision was appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which is in New Orleans. And that court didn't agree with that sweeping decision, but it did agree with a group of anti-abortion organizations that argued the FDA's approval process of mifepristone was flawed and that the FDA erred when it made the drug more widely available, including through telemedicine and through the mail.
So yesterday, the Supreme Court justices agreed to take up an appeal to that decision from the company that makes mifepristone and the Biden administration, and they're asking the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling by the Fifth Circuit.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is really interesting. So it's not just a yes/no decision on whether the FDA properly approved this pill. There are also questions about how it's accessible and a variety of FDA choices over a variety of years. So how could access to the pill be affected?
VARNEY: Sure. Well, you know, just to start, abortion pills account for more than half of all abortions in this country. And they're really used also by OB-GYNs to manage early miscarriages, so, you know, they're hugely important. If the Supreme Court upholds the appellate ruling by the Fifth Circuit, then patients would not be able to get mifepristone through the mail, even if they live in states like Massachusetts or California, where abortion is legal. They would have to make three separate appointments in person with a doctor. This is not currently required. And instead of being able to use mifepristone into the 10th week of pregnancy, patients could only use it until seven weeks.
This doesn't mean medication abortion would become entirely unavailable. Clinics and physicians and telemedicine services could still prescribe a drug called misoprostol. That's usually taken with mifepristone, but it can also be taken safely and effectively on its own. And just to note that misoprostol was actually approved by the FDA in 1988 - so quite a long time ago - to treat gastric ulcers. The anti-abortion groups - we just haven't seen them target that approval process yet.
INSKEEP: Yet, you say. Now, since this is all about FDA approval and whether it was proper, what does this case mean for the FDA?
VARNEY: Yeah, this is a really unusual case. You know, the FDA approved this medication more than two decades ago. More than 5 million people in the U.S. have used it safely. It's approved for use around the world. And this case has attracted a lot of attention from FDA scholars - you know, some who support abortion rights. Others do not. They actually filed an amicus brief defending the FDA's rigorous drug approval process. And they argue that if religious groups or private individuals can challenge, you know, each drug that the FDA reviews, that it really undermines the entire FDA regulatory authority, and it's going to throw the pharmaceutical industry and, really, the country's regulation of drugs just into disarray.
INSKEEP: I'm just remembering that a Supreme Court decision in 2022, a few months before an election, had a big effect on that election. Now, aren't we talking about a ruling on this abortion pill that would again come out in an election year next year?
VARNEY: That's exactly right. Yeah. So the court typically issues its decisions, you know, by the end of June, although that can sometimes tip over into July. So you're right. That puts the court on just a collision course with the presidential campaign, which will be, of course, in full swing by then. We've seen repeatedly that voters, you know, even in conservative states, support abortion rights. We just saw Ohio voters enshrine the right to abortion recently in their constitution, and there are actually some other campaigns for abortion rights ballot measures underway in Florida and Arizona, among other states.
INSKEEP: OK. Journalist Sarah Varney, thanks so much.
VARNEY: Oh, thank you.
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INSKEEP: OK. After a 10-week fraud trial where Donald Trump and his three oldest children testified in public for the first time ever - well, testimony is over. An assistant attorney general said the people have rested, and soon the case goes to a judge. NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering the case and joins us now. Andrea, good morning.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What's at stake here?
BERNSTEIN: So in this trial, even before testimony began, the judge ruled in favor of the New York attorney general in the first claim of her case - that the Trumps had committed persistent and repeated fraud. And the judge ordered the Trumps to start turning over their business certificates in preparation for a possible dissolution of the company. That part has been put on hold. At one point in the trial, the judge said, I've already decided these were ill-gotten gains. So the question is, by how much will he order the Trumps to pay back the state?
INSKEEP: OK, so if it's already decided that they did the thing that they're accused of, why did they go on with 10 weeks of testimony?
BERNSTEIN: So the judge only ruled on one of seven counts, and there was a lot more to learn - first from the employees, appraisers and accountants, who really divulged the details of all this. So let's take the value of the triplex at Trump Tower...
BERNSTEIN: ...Which Trump said was three times as big as it really was. Here's how it worked. Trump's chief financial officer told a broker that worked for the Trumps that the apartment was 30,000 square feet instead of 10,000, so the broker came up with a value that was three times bigger than it should have been. And then that false value was attributed back to the broker. So when the Trumps were caught lying by Forbes about the value of the triplex, what happened is Trump's employees pumped up the value of another property at 40 Wall Street to make up the difference in the lowered value on the statement of financial condition. This was what former Trump corporate vice president Michael Cohen testified was called reverse-engineering of the numbers.
INSKEEP: And I guess we'll remind people that this matters not just because you're bragging, but because you may borrow money on the value of properties or do any number of other things based on the value of your properties, and that's what prosecutors describe as fraud - or what the court - rather the people, so to speak - the government describes as fraud. What did the former president's testimony teach us, if anything?
BERNSTEIN: Well, one of the things that we learned is that he actually admitted that he was in charge of those statements of financial condition that the judge had found were fraudulent. So even though he was somebody himself who'd been in real estate all his life, he said, well, maybe this was because the broker mistakenly included the roof or the elevator shafts.
Meanwhile, Trump's sons, Don Jr. and Eric, who really were in charge of the company when Trump took over the White House, said, well, it wasn't us. It was our lawyers. It was our accountants. And then there was Ivanka Trump, who is not a defendant, but who acknowledged sending emails and letters that really laid out how, based on these fraudulent statements, the Trumps were able to get loan rates maybe around 2% when, out in the market, they were about 30%.
INSKEEP: Wow. OK, that's a difference. So very briefly, what is the defense case here?
BERNSTEIN: So a big part of what the Trumps have said is no one was harmed. A major bank involved said it was seeking out Trump's business. One executive called it whale hunting. And inside and outside the courtroom, the Trumps have accused the AG and the judge of bias. They've made it very clear they will appeal. But in any event, we should see a verdict from the judge in January after we get some closing briefs and arguments.
INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein, thanks so much.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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