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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If a politician lies, does that amount to a crime? George Santos, a newly elected lawmaker from Long Island, faces that question. He admits he did not work where he claimed or study where he claimed or have the faith that he claimed. He initially denied a New York Times report about all this but now says he exaggerated a bit. He spoke with Fox News.

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GEORGE SANTOS: I'm not a fraud. I'm not a fake. I didn't materialize from thin air. I made some mistakes.

INSKEEP: A Republican prosecutor in New York has now opened a probe into Santos' deceptions, and NPR's Brian Mann is covering the story. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning.

INSKEEP: What were some of the exaggerations?

MANN: Well, it's a long and kind of baffling list of deceptions, Steve. He claimed he graduated from Baruch College - now admits that's not true. Claimed he worked for major Wall Street banks - also not true. He claimed four of his employees died in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Miami - not true. Claimed to own valuable real estate - that's not true. And a big one - he claimed his family escaped the Holocaust. That's not true. And he claimed to be a proud Jewish American but now acknowledges being Catholic, though he still says he has some Jewish ancestors. That, again, is a claim a group called the Republican Jewish Coalition calls deceptive.

INSKEEP: What does the prosecutor say about this?

MANN: Well, the office of Nassau County District Attorney Ann Donnelly - this is a Republican - she released a statement describing Santos' lies as nothing short of stunning. Donnelly has promised to investigate and says - and I'm quoting here - "if a crime was committed in this county, we will prosecute it."

INSKEEP: However, if lying by itself was a crime, an awful lot more people would be in jail, including maybe some members of Congress. What would the crime be here?

MANN: Yeah, well, as you point out, the Constitution does have rules about who can be sworn in, Steve, as a member of Congress. Dishonesty alone is not a deal-breaker. But there are campaign laws, and the question now is whether Santos did anything criminal. A lot of attention focused - $700,000 loan that Santos gave to his own campaign. He now admits living in poverty much of his life and being unable to pay his bills. So the question is where did all that money come from? I spoke about this with Richard Briffault, an expert on campaign law at Columbia University.

RICHARD BRIFFAULT: So it would be serious if instead - if this was not truly alone, but this was somehow disguised campaign contributions from other people, that's a crime, to knowingly and willfully misreport the sources of your funds, as well as to lie to the federal government.

MANN: Now, Santos has said in interviews that he broke no laws. He says this was his own money he loaned to his campaign. But his financial history now faces close scrutiny. And Democrats are calling on the Federal Election Commission to also investigate.

INSKEEP: What are Republican leaders saying?

MANN: Well, they're mostly silent at this point. Some have called for investigation by the House Ethics Committee, but none are saying that Santos shouldn't be sworn in. Santos' win on Long Island, remember, helped Republicans capture a narrow majority in the House. And Congressman Kevin McCarthy had praised Santos' victory, but now he's mostly gone silent. It's worth noting here that Santos promised to back McCarthy for House Speaker. McCarthy's still scrambling to round up enough GOP support to win that post. So despite this controversy, Santos could wind up being a really key vote next week, helping decide the House leadership.

INSKEEP: He could be a decisive vote. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann.

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INSKEEP: Russian airstrikes hit multiple cities in Ukraine today. The attacks make this a normal day for Ukraine, as 2022 comes to an end. In Lviv, in the west, the mayor said this morning 90% of the city is without power. More strikes hit the capital, Kyiv, and also in Kharkiv, to the northeast, which is where we find NPR's Tim Mak, who's covered much of this war. Hey there, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's it like there?

MAK: Well, we heard multiple explosions this morning. And actually, as we're sitting and anticipating this air alert, you can kind of almost predict these explosions happening. The light kind of flickers a little bit, and then a few seconds later, you hear the explosion catch up to you, and you hear this big boom. Now, we don't know what's been targeted this morning, but yesterday here in Kharkiv, two strikes hit the city's energy infrastructure. The temperature has been hovering around freezing over the last week, and this bitter wind makes life here just that much harder. The Ukrainians pushed the Russian military out of this region, the region of Kharkiv, in September in this flash counteroffensive, but there is still concern here that the Russians could be back soon.

I spoke to the brigadier general that's in charge of the defense of this region, Serhiy Melnyk.

SERHIY MELNYK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: He says Putin still has the same ambitions despite losing initial battles in Ukraine and that they have intelligence that shows that the Russian military is mobilizing again for another possible attack. Meanwhile, the energy issues have been particularly serious in the capital city of Kyiv, and they have been since October, when Russia really started focusing on Ukraine's power system. There's a lot of tension and anticipation in the air about additional strikes around New Year's.

INSKEEP: Well, how do people adjust when the war becomes a daily reality?

MAK: You know, people are so adaptable. They look at the blackouts as a near-daily matter. I mean, this morning at breakfast, we heard this big explosion. The lights kind of flickered for a little bit. Then the backup power kicked in. The music stopped for a second and then just kind of started up again abruptly. I mean, generators here power cafes. And local businesspeople who have been unable to find work inside of Ukraine are looking to clients abroad to make up the difference. And now, Yaroslav Trofimov owns a cafe and club in Odesa, and he says small-business owners, like himself, have to spend thousands of dollars on generators.

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV: Then I take a calculator, and I just do small math, and I see they will maybe spend two years covering the price of a generator, so why do they still do a coffee? They do a coffee because maybe they just don't want to give up.

MAK: And the national economy needs them not to give up. Ukrainian economists still estimates that the country's GDP has declined by one-third, which would be devastating to any country under any circumstances. But this is actually better than the most dire predictions from the outset of the war. And next year, the International Monetary Fund actually expects the Ukrainian economy to stabilize.

INSKEEP: What do you hear from the front lines, where things have not been that stable?

MAK: The battle lines have not moved significantly over the last couple of weeks, but there's been fighting over areas in the south and east of the country. Now, at the moment, there are enormous amounts of munitions being used by both sides but without the sort of sudden advances that we've seen earlier this year. Meanwhile, the death toll is climbing. The U.N. estimated this week that nearly 7,000 civilians have been killed over the past 10 months. But it also acknowledges that the actual tally is probably much higher, since data from Russian-occupied areas is hard to come by. And that makes negotiating an end to the war really very difficult.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak in Kharkiv as 2022 nears an end. Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

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INSKEEP: Israel is swearing in a new government today. It's expected to be the most right-wing government in Israel's history, including some far-right figures. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told NPR that he will be telling the more extreme figures what to do.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: They are joining me; I'm not joining them. I'll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel. I won't let anybody do anything to LGBT or to deny our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that. It just won't happen. And the test of time will prove that.

INSKEEP: But the new prime minister has committed to dramatic changes in government, and one idea would allow his parliamentary majority to vote down the rulings of Israel's Supreme Court. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How would that plan work?

ESTRIN: The plan is, you know, if the Supreme Court decides a law is unconstitutional, if it decides a law doesn't protect human rights or civil rights, the Parliament would be able to come back and say, sorry, Supreme Court; you no longer have the final say. The context here, Steve, is that the incoming right-wing government in Israel accuses the Supreme Court of being too liberal, too protective of Palestinian rights. They want to redefine Israel's system of checks and balances. And so we're going to be seeing this government try to concentrate power with the governing majority. We're going to see more dominance of ultra-Orthodox Jewish leadership as well. So we're going to see plans - their plans are to give more public funding to religious schools that don't teach kids math and subjects that are supposed to prepare you for a modern economy.

I think one big question in this new government's plan, Steve, is how much change we're going to see in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu himself will want to avoid an international crisis and to maintain the status quo, but he is giving sweeping powers to government ministers who do want a major change to the status quo. Essentially, they want de facto annexation of the West Bank.

INSKEEP: OK, so maybe he's not endorsing everything that the more extreme figures in his government would want, but he wants big changes. How does that connect with the personnel he's bringing into government?

ESTRIN: You know, the makeup of this government, we are looking at far-right Jewish ultranationalists. We're talking about a national security minister who has a terrorism conviction for his anti-Arab activism. We have other far-right ministers, ultra-religious. These are all politicians who are farther to the right than Netanyahu is himself, but they are ideologues who will have a lot of leverage over Netanyahu. Remember, he depends on them for his government.

INSKEEP: Now, this is the coalition that just won the election. Netanyahu's party didn't get a majority, but he assembled a majority coalition. Is the Israeli public on board with these changes?

ESTRIN: You know, Steve, most Israelis are actually not on board with some of these policy proposals. If you look at a recent poll, a large majority of Israelis opposes every one of some of these major proposals, including those changes to the Supreme Court I was talking about. We've heard an outcry in Israel from high-tech entrepreneurs, from army veterans. In Parliament today, Netanyahu was booed by the opposition. He said, stop claiming that this is the end of democracy. But, you know, we've seen mixed messages, especially on LGBTQ issues. A rocky start, Steve, even before Day 1 of this government.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. Daniel, always appreciate your insights. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.