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News brief: dirty bomb accusations, Davos in the desert, Trump Organization trial

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia has justified each step of its war in Ukraine by telling stories that are doubtful at best.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yes. Russia's president preceded the invasion by saying Ukraine was not a country, just part of Russia - never mind its borders, language, history and the views of the rest of the world. After the invasion, Russia talked of clearing the country of so-called Nazis. Now Russian officials are making an unfounded claim about something Ukraine is supposedly planning. The latest Russian story is that Ukraine is preparing to use a so-called dirty bomb, an explosive that includes radioactive material. They plan to bring their accusations to the U.N. Security Council today.

INSKEEP: So why are they making that claim now? NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has done a lot of reporting in Ukraine, and he's with us. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Does anybody outside of Russia take this claim seriously?

MYRE: Well, so far, not really. Ukraine, the U.S. and other NATO allies say it's just an absolutely false allegation. They say it simply doesn't even make sense for Ukraine to use this kind of prohibited weapon on its own territory. It would spray radiation indiscriminately over a sizable area, threatening soldiers and civilians alike. Now, Ukraine has invited the U.N. nuclear agency to visit two sites that have been identified by Russia. And inspectors are likely to visit in the coming days. And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy say it may be that Russia is actually preparing such an attack. But the Biden administration says it's not seeing any evidence of this right now.

INSKEEP: So if there's no evidence this is happening, if there's no reason that it would even make sense for Ukraine to do it, why would Russia be making that claim now?

MYRE: Yes, it's a little hard to say. But as Russia continues to falter on the battlefield, it has been escalating on other fronts, seeking to keep Ukraine and its supporters off balance, changing the narrative. Just recently, we've seen Putin annex Ukrainian territory, mobilize 300,000 additional troops, wage this sustained bombing campaign on electricity and heating plants in Ukraine. So many analysts are saying that Putin's nuclear threat last month and now this talk of a dirty bomb all seem part of an effort to move attention away from the battlefield and in particular the south, around the city of Kherson, where Ukraine is advancing and Russia still looks pretty vulnerable.

INSKEEP: Well, are any of those Russian moves - the information propaganda moves, as well as the substantial moves of bombing things - any of those moves strengthening Russia's position?

MYRE: You know, so far, no. There's this broad consensus that the likelihood that Putin would use a nuclear weapon or any other unconventional weapon still remains pretty low. Many are seeing it as a threat, a threat to win concessions from Ukraine or get the West to back off or to sort of hint at what Russia might do if its position keeps weakening. Now, with this latest accusation of a dirty bomb, analysts - (inaudible) - want to gauge how Ukraine and the West are responding, or perhaps Russia's setting the stage for a diversion or some sort of other action it's preparing to take.

INSKEEP: I have to say that I took notice when we saw the news that there were multiple phone calls between Russian officials and Western defense officials. What do you make of that?

MYRE: Yeah, this is something we haven't seen in months among top Russian military officials and U.S. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. So no details. Nothing concrete has emerged. But we haven't seen this since early in the fighting. We may get another hint today if Russia does raise this at the U.N. Security Council.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: An investment conference nicknamed Davos in the Desert is underway in Saudi Arabia.

FADEL: Top executives from some of the world's largest banks are there, along with billionaire investors. They're laying the groundwork for deals. On one level, it's an obvious move. Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the richest countries in the world. But the gathering comes as the U.S. harshly criticizes Saudi Arabia for its policies.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Gura is covering this story. David, good morning.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So who's attending?

GURA: Well, a lot of boldface names - Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase; David Solomon of Goldman Sachs; Charles Scharf of Wells Fargo; billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone, is there. So is Ray Dalio, who ran the world's largest hedge fund until recently. Former President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is also on the agenda; former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as well. Saudi Arabia is invested in both of their multibillion-dollar private equity funds. So that gives you a sense of who's there, Steve. Who's not there is anyone from the current administration, which is currently reevaluating its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: Well, given the anger at the Saudis right now, why would the business leaders be going?

GURA: Well, there's money to be made. Let's not dance around that. One participant told me Saudi Arabia is pouring a gazillion dollars into renewable energy. The country has more than half-a-trillion dollars in a government-controlled investment fund. And Karen Young, who's with Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, told me this conference is a way for Saudi Arabia to show off its ambitions beyond oil.

KAREN YOUNG: A new identity for the kingdom and the kingdom trying to get into what it sees as kind of futuristic sectors.

GURA: So there are panels on artificial intelligence and crypto and sports. Saudi Arabia is pouring tens of millions of dollars into a golf league it hopes will rival the PGA. And Karen Young told me Saudi Arabia sees itself now as a country with a more assertive foreign policy than before, and it's more confident in its ability to attract outside investment.

INSKEEP: Which is interesting given the trouble Saudi Arabia has been in in recent years for ordering the murder of a journalist and any number of other things. How does this fit with the U.S. approach, the government approach, to Saudi Arabia?

GURA: Yeah, the contrast is very stark, going back to that trip President Biden took to Saudi Arabia in July. He met with the crown prince. There was that fist bump. The administration was optimistic that visit would lead to Saudi Arabia helping at a time when oil has gotten more expensive because of the fallout from the war in Ukraine. But a couple of months later, it did the opposite. Saudi Arabia pushed for deep production cuts, and prices have gone up again. So the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is at a low point. But the White House has said repeatedly, Steve, it's not up to them to tell business leaders if they should steer clear of this conference.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess President Biden can't criticize them too much for going to Saudi Arabia since he recently went to Saudi Arabia. But Biden has been pretty outspoken about Saudi Arabia's human rights record all along.

GURA: Yeah. It's also about this, the country's human rights record. After the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, many executives pulled out of the conference. But someone who has not stayed away is Anthony Scaramucci, perhaps best known for the 10 days or so he spent as former President Trump's communications director. He has spent most of his career as an investor.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI: To me, it's a tragedy. It's an event that has to be recognized as a tragedy. But I think we have to look at the longer-term goals and the longer-term interests of global peace, global prosperity and, frankly, global progress.

GURA: Scaramucci applauded Saudi Arabia for making some progress in recent years. He says he's optimistic about the role it wants to play in the wider world. But when it comes to the killing of Khashoggi, which the U.S. intelligence community says the crown prince approved, Scaramucci says the broader issue is, are we capable of moving past that? Those are his words. And, Steve, Scaramucci thinks we should be.

INSKEEP: David Gura. Thanks so much.

GURA: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In a New York City courtroom, the trial of the Trump Organization is getting underway.

FADEL: Donald Trump's family business is charged with a scheme to avoid paying taxes through off-the-books benefits paid to top employees.

INSKEEP: Ilya Marritz was on the scene for NPR for the first day of jury selection. Good morning.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was the spectacle like?

MARRITZ: First off, this is state court in downtown Manhattan - so grandeur mixed with grime, echoey hallways, think television legal dramas.

INSKEEP: Dun-dun (ph). Sorry, I was doing the "Law & Order" signal there. Go on. Go on. Please continue.

MARRITZ: That's right. All kinds of criminal defendants and their lawyers pass through in an average day. Stepping inside Judge Juan Merchan's courtroom, something you might notice is there is no one to sit in the defendant's chair, and that's because this trial is of two Trump business entities and not a person.

INSKEEP: Because Donald Trump himself is not in any way charged.

MARRITZ: Correct. But there are a bunch of lawyers there who are representing the Trump businesses. And what we saw Monday in court was a group of about 130 Manhattanites who are potential jurors. There were people from all walks of life filling every bench, every square inch of every seat in the room, and maybe the size of the jury pool says something about how laborious it's going to be to whittle this group down to 12 jurors plus alternates. Donald Trump is not popular in New York, but he is famous.

INSKEEP: Oh, the idea is to try to find a dozen people who don't already have some strong opinion about Donald Trump. How close did the judge get to finding 12?

MARRITZ: Not close. The court got through an initial round of general questions with 18 possible jurors. They included a bartender, a hospital administrator and an unemployed person. And they were asked if they consume a lot of news and what kind. Tuesday, today, we will pick up with that same group of 18, and each legal team is going to have a chance to question them more closely. They'll be looking for anything they might not like in these jurors' history or their personal views. Judge Juan Merchan said he's hopeful we could get this whole process done by the end of the week and start opening statements next week. We will see.

INSKEEP: Whenever the opening statements come, what do you watch for?

MARRITZ: Any and every mention of Donald Trump, the person, even though he is not a defendant. For instance, prosecutors say they can prove that Trump personally signed tuition checks as a form of unreported compensation for his chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. Weisselberg's grandkids were in private school. And Weisselberg is going to be a star witness.

I was in court in August when Weisselberg pled guilty to his role in this scheme. He was a co-defendant. And I left the courthouse really wondering what the upshot of that agreement was going to be. Weisselberg pledged at the time to testify truthfully, and if he doesn't, he might get a hefty jail sentence. But at the same time, he has stayed loyal to Trump. He didn't flip on the former president. In fact, he's still collecting a paycheck from the Trump Organization. And I think both the defense and prosecution may see Weisselberg in some way as their witness and someone who can help them. So for Weisselberg, that will be a thin rope to walk.

INSKEEP: OK, so hopefully they're taking taxes out of the paycheck he's still getting from the Trump Organization. But what kind of secrets might he have?

MARRITZ: He knows the Trump Organization inside out. He's worked there for decades. He could really decode a lot of the documents that are the basis for this case. And I should just add, we know that Donald Trump is paying close attention. He posted about this proceeding twice on Monday, calling it - what else - a highly partisan Democrat witch hunt.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ilya Marritz. Thanks so much.

MARRITZ: You're very welcome. 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.