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News brief: special master request granted, Uvalde students, Britain's Liz Truss

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Justice Department's investigation into former President Donald Trump's possession of classified materials has hit a temporary roadblock.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A federal judge on Monday ruled in favor of Trump's request to have an independent third party called a special master review the materials the FBI seized from his Mar-a-Lago estate. Prosecutors now have to stop using that material in their investigation until the special master's work is done.

MARTIN: We've got NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson with us this morning. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: What reasons did the judge give for this decision?

JOHNSON: The judge, who was appointed by former President Trump, talked about the need to ensure the appearance of fairness and integrity in the extraordinary circumstances presented by this FBI search of Trump's home. She says Trump has an interest in these seized materials, something like 11,000 pages of documents, some personal items and a few records related to his health and his taxes. And she wants the special master to review these papers for possible attorney-client privilege and executive privilege issues. The judge says it's not clear that Trump will ultimately win on those arguments or get any documents back, but that there's an enormous public interest in this case, and she wants an orderly process.

MARTIN: An orderly process, though, Carrie, makes it sound like regular process. But this isn't regular, right? Her decision is exceptional. Is it legally sound?

JOHNSON: Well, this decision to put a pause on part of an active criminal investigation is a very unusual one, to put it mildly. I spoke with former Justice Department officials from Democratic and Republican administrations. They mentioned this judge's language where she talked about stigma and reputational damage to Trump and the idea an investigation of a former president is of intense interest to the public so there's a need to ensure the fairness of the process. But by going out of her way to accept Trump's arguments on executive privilege, which the National Archives have rejected as not a close call, and some other language, this decision is giving many legal experts the idea that the former president is getting treated a lot more favorably than other people investigated for crime.

MARTIN: And now this effectively delays DOJ's criminal investigation into the handling of these top-secret documents.

JOHNSON: It does. The government is conducting this ongoing criminal investigation into possible obstruction, retention of information related to the national defense. There's a grand jury at work. And the second part of what the government is doing is a review by the director of national intelligence to look into the national security implications of having secrets in the basement of a resort in Florida where they don't belong. The judge says the national security investigation can continue even if criminal prosecutors need to pause, but it's not clear that's going to work as easily in practice in the real world as the judge says it will.

MARTIN: So what's the Justice Department's response to this ruling? I mean, they were not supportive. They pushed back very strongly against the idea of a special master, even last week.

JOHNSON: They did. Anthony Coley, a spokesman for the DOJ, says they're reviewing the opinion and considering appropriate next steps. Last week, prosecutors even suggested they might appeal if the judge moved to appoint a special master. So we'll watch for more on that this week. And, you know, former Justice Department officials were critical of the judge's reasoning, worried that it could apply to other defendants in other cases - another reason, perhaps, to appeal. They say President Biden is in charge now. He controls how and when to assert executive privilege, not Donald Trump, especially in the context of this important criminal probe.

MARTIN: So what's the timeline going forward, Carrie?

JOHNSON: The judge says both sides need to get back to her by Friday with a list of candidates to be the special master, and she's going to take it from there.

MARTIN: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson helping us parse the decision of this federal judge to allow Trump his request to appoint a special master. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: More than three months have passed since 19 children and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

MARTINEZ: Today, students for the first time returned to class. The grief of the families after the attack was made worse by revelations about the delayed police response and mixed messages from state and local officials about how it unfolded. So how are they feeling now as they prepare to send their children back into classrooms?

MARTIN: Niki Griswold is state politics reporter with the Austin American-Statesman. She joins us now. Hey, Niki.

NIKI GRISWOLD: Hi.

MARTIN: You just got back from a reporting trip to Uvalde. What was it like to be there right now?

GRISWOLD: Well, visiting Uvalde, it's very evident that, you know, in this tight-knit town of about 16,000 people, it seems that everyone knows someone who is directly impacted by this tragedy, and this town is still grappling with the aftermath of that. Many families don't feel comfortable sending their students back to school in Uvalde ISD, especially as students who were - families of students who were there at Robb Elementary School that day. So speaking to families in Uvalde, many of them are choosing to enroll their students in surrounding public school districts or in private school, saying that their trust in the district has been fundamentally shattered, and they don't feel that their students will be safe there.

MARTIN: You talked with several students who were there in the school the day of the shooting. Was there a story that stuck with you?

GRISWOLD: Absolutely. I spoke to many students who were there that day and their families. But the student that, you know, I think of every day is Miah Cerrillo, an 11-year-old girl who was in Room 112 that the shooter targeted and survived by covering herself with a classmate's blood and playing dead. She is haunted by that day and is living with the symptoms of the trauma that she witnessed. I mean, she can't bear to be in a room alone. She definitely can't bear to return to school. Her family has really rallied around her to provide her support in this time. But at this point, she's still having horrific nightmares, can't bear to be out in public for too long. She believes that men are following her. And so she's still really grappling with the trauma that she witnessed that day. And speaking with her and her family has been very heartbreaking...

MARTIN: Yeah.

GRISWOLD: ...As they try and support her through her healing process.

MARTIN: No doubt that's the case for so many of those other kids. What are school officials in Uvalde doing to support them?

GRISWOLD: You know, they've attempted to make a lot of changes to increase security on school campuses to help parents feel more comfortable. More than 30 Department of Public Safety troopers will be patrolling campuses in addition to a campus monitor assigned to each campus. But there are a lot of additions, security changes that won't be in place by the time that students return today. There are a number of security cameras the school promised would be in place by today that are still on back order. They don't have the materials they need to harden or secure school vestibules and entrances. So a lot of families are really disappointed that a lot of those security changes won't be established by the time their kids return to campus.

MARTIN: Niki, just real quick - Robb Elementary School will not have students this year, right?

GRISWOLD: Nope. Students will not be returning to Robb. The plans are for it to be demolished and rebuilt, although those plans have not been released to the public just yet.

MARTIN: Niki Griswold of the Austin American-Statesman. Thank you.

GRISWOLD: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Liz Truss is Great Britain's new prime minister, replacing Boris Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER LIZ TRUSS: I campaigned as a Conservative, and I will govern as a Conservative.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTINEZ: Truss inherits a country facing perhaps its worst economic crisis in decades - rampant inflation, skyrocketing energy prices and perhaps an early fight with the European Union loom for the woman who is now Britain's third female prime minister after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

MARTIN: We've got reporter Willem Marx with us from London. Hey, Willem.

WILLEM MARX: Hey.

MARTIN: She's got just a little bit of work to do in this job. Has Truss identified what her top priority is?

MARX: Well, as one political analyst put it to me, it's an unenviable in-tray, Rachel. Truss has said that the government's policies to tackle Britain's energy crisis will be top of her agenda once she gets into Downing Street. For many people here, facing an 8% rise in their household energy costs next month and then further jumps in the months ahead, some kind of reassurance or relief cannot come soon enough. Truss has been pretty vague about details until now. But she's under huge pressure from her party, from parliament, from the public, to ensure that people can afford to heat and light their homes this winter.

MARTIN: She's already - I mean, because she's a Conservative, she's already promised to cut taxes and grow the economy. That's sort of pro forma for someone in her party. But it still seems like a really tall order, given everything that you just said and the promises that she's made to help people deal with them.

MARX: Yeah, and she's faced a lot of criticism during this campaign to become leader this summer for some of the pronouncements she's made about taxes. The Conservatives actually have been in power for more than a decade, and yet taxes are, by some metrics, as high as they've ever been, set to go even higher under Boris Johnson, had he stayed in power. And that was to pay off some of the debts racked up during the pandemic. It may well be that she ends up being forced by the financial realities into taking a more centrist approach when it comes to long-term decisions about taxing, about government borrowing and about public spending.

MARTIN: So before she became prime minister, Truss was Britain's foreign secretary and a hawk, as was Boris Johnson, a supporter of Ukraine in its war with Russia. We presumably expect that support to continue. But what about other foreign policy issues? What should we expect from Liz Truss?

MARX: Well, she's been particularly vocal and hard-line about the European Union during discussions over the aftermath of Brexit, which has left the long-term trading status of Northern Ireland slightly unresolved. That could spell trouble for Britain's relationship with the European Union, but it also could be a reason for Truss to rethink Westminster's relationship with Washington. That's according to Bronwen Maddox, the director and chief executive of the Chatham House think tank, which is focused on foreign affairs.

BRONWEN MADDOX: Obviously, the U.S. is in a sense the U.K.'s closest ally, and most prime ministers don't stand for very long in front of the steps of Downing Street without saying something like that. But Ms. Truss, for one, has expressed a degree of caution about how close that relationship might be in the future. The bruising experience across the board has been Afghanistan last year, and that still hangs there.

MARTIN: The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops, no doubt being what she's referencing. So let me ask, though, the U.K. has been going through prime ministers at a fairly brisk rate as of late - four in the past six years, right? Is there any sense that she might have a little more longevity in the job?

MARX: Well, she's the third consecutive prime minister to take power without having to win a general election. In her speech yesterday, she hinted the idea there might be another election in 2024. People I've spoken to say unless she starts solving this energy crisis, she's going to struggle to succeed in that election.

MARTIN: Willem Marx, reporter based in London. We appreciate your reporting. Thank you, Willem.

MARX: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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