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News brief: Musk to take Twitter private, Paxlovid's availability, Trump civil probe

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Elon Musk says he wants to, quote, "unlock Twitter's potential," and now he can.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Musk is buying the social network for $44 billion, and he's taking the company private. The Tesla CEO is the richest man in the world, and he has repeatedly tweeted to his millions of followers what he plans to change at the company.

FADEL: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us to explain what Musk plans to do with Twitter. Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hello.

FADEL: So before we get to Musk's vision for Twitter, let's talk about why he wanted to buy the company in the first place.

ALLYN: Yeah, well, it's a coveted piece of internet real estate, so it's a status boost to own it, and Musk thinks he can make it better. Now, Musk is already CEO of the world's most valuable car company, Tesla, and, you know, he runs a very successful rocket ship company, SpaceX. But in his spare time, he likes to play on Twitter, sending out jokes and memes and promotional stuff to his more than 80 million followers. So he's a power user of Twitter, right? But, you know, as a business, Twitter has been struggling for a while. So Musk says he can make it a better business. And if shareholders and regulators approve, you know, he's going to have a real shot at it. So we'll see what happens there. In his statement announcing the purchase of Twitter, Musk described it as being a digital town square that he thinks should have fewer rules. In the same statement, Musk said that free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.

FADEL: And a lot of people have expressed concern about what that could mean - the implication, of course, being that Twitter right now is not a welcome place for free speech. But is that actually true?

ALLYN: Yeah, I think it's fair to say that Musk is exaggerating quite a bit. There are rules on Twitter, right? You can't harass people. You can't bully. You can't incite violence. You can't spread misinformation about things like COVID-19. But for the most part, you know, a lot of edgy and toxic and offensive material is allowed on Twitter, but apparently not enough for Musk. So he wants to radically open the floodgates to all sorts of content on Twitter. And he hasn't specifically spelled out what he means, but he has said, you know, tweets that are sort of in the gray zone of Twitter's rules, as long as it's not illegal, he says those tweets should be allowed on Twitter.

FADEL: So it sounds like it could be possible that things like hate speech would be allowed on Twitter under Elon Musk's vision of unfettered free speech. What else does he say he's going to do?

ALLYN: Yeah, he wants to open-source Twitter's algorithm - that's the software code that determines what goes viral - so, you know, anyone can look at it. OK, that's one thing. Another proposal he's floated is to let people edit their tweets after they're sent, which is pretty controversial. You know, on the one hand, you can clean up typos after a tweet is sent. I know, personally, that would be a relief to me. But...

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: I'm full of typos all the time.

ALLYN: Exactly. But on the other hand, you can imagine people going back and editing tweets to cover up, say, you know, harassing someone to make it look like it never happened. Another Musk proposal that almost nobody is against is a crackdown on Twitter bots. Those are the anonymous accounts that can sort of gang up on people and attack them en masse on the platform. It's pretty unpleasant. And I think it's fair to say that there's a user consensus that fewer bots on Twitter is a good thing.

FADEL: OK, but how about people who've been banned from Twitter, prominent people like former President Trump? Would this mean he'd be allowed back?

ALLYN: Yeah, that's the question on everyone's mind. Musk hasn't publicly addressed whether Trump is going to come back. Trump, for his part, told Fox News that he has no plans to return, but we shall see. I mean, you know, from Trump on down, there could be invitations to these people who have been banned to come back to the platform, but we just have to see. There was an all-hands meeting on Monday, and Twitter's CEO was asked specifically about Trump - will he be coming back to Twitter? And the CEO said, that is now completely up to Elon Musk, as are so many things about Twitter's future right now.

FADEL: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Hey, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Today the White House is announcing a new push to inform people about Pfizer's life-saving antiviral drug.

MARTIN: Yeah, the pill is called Paxlovid, and it's been shown to reduce the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization by up to 90% - so highly effective - yet hundreds of thousands of doses are sitting on shelves just unused. The administration wants to make sure that people know about it, and they're trying to encourage doctors to prescribe it.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has the details and joins us now. Hi, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

FADEL: OK, Tam, so if this pill could save lives, why is it sitting on shelves?

KEITH: Several reasons, but it all comes down to this - actually getting the drug is, as one health care expert put it to me, a bit of a rigmarole. You have to start taking it within five days of the onset of symptoms. So it is a race to get a COVID test, get someone to prescribe it and then find a pharmacy that carries it. It is currently authorized for people 12 and up who have high risk for severe COVID, but that could include being overweight or having asthma or diabetes or high blood pressure. Those are all risk factors. And a large share of the U.S. population has one of those, but they may not realize it. Many doctors have been reluctant to prescribe it. One administration official on the call with reporters last night explained that a lot of doctors are operating from a scarcity mindset because back in December and January, it was scarce.

FADEL: OK.

KEITH: But now there are plenty of pills to go around.

FADEL: OK, so then what is the White House saying it's doing to address this disconnect?

KEITH: Education and outreach, not just to potential patients but also to doctors and other providers who could prescribe it. A lot of patients simply don't know Paxlovid exists, or their doctors tell them that they don't qualify when they really do. Paxlovid does have quite a few drug-drug interactions, which means that to prescribe it, a doctor sometimes has to puzzle through their patient's medication list. So, for instance, they might have to pull their patient off of their cholesterol medication for five days while they're taking Paxlovid.

The White House COVID team is providing doctors with information to make it easier to decide whether their patients are a good fit for the drug. And they're also - the White House - announcing a new pharmacy program to get these pills into even more retail pharmacies - 10,000 additional locations this week, with more to follow. And one more thing - they're working to expand the Test to Treat program, getting help from FEMA and working with states to set up one-stop shops where people can get tested and get Paxlovid with less of the rigmarole. Health professionals I've spoken to say the fact that people don't know about Paxlovid and aren't taking it when it could keep them out of the hospital is a failure. And today's announcement is an acknowledgment from the White House that just procuring the pills isn't enough.

FADEL: Now, Congress is back this week, and the White House still hasn't gotten the $22 billion in additional COVID funding it requested last month. Has there been any movement on that?

KEITH: Not much. You might remember just before the spring recess, there was a bipartisan deal to fund less than half of what the White House wanted, and it blew up. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says both parties must come back to the table and find an agreement, but the timeline he gave was weeks rather than days.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: A New York judge is holding former President Donald Trump in contempt of court for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents.

MARTIN: This is part of an ongoing civil investigation by the New York attorney general into Trump's business dealings. The judge is fining the former president $10,000 a day for not responding to a subpoena for documents and information related to his business empire.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Bernstein was in the courthouse yesterday. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So, Andrea, $10,000 a day - that's a lot of money, at least for most people. But maybe it's nothing if you have a business worth billions? How big a deal is this?

BERNSTEIN: Big. It is a very attention-getting amount of money. So I have read business contracts for Trump's hotels, for example, where he made sure his company was paid a cut of the money for the M&Ms and the beers sold at minibars in hotels he was licensing.

FADEL: Wow.

BERNSTEIN: I've spoken to former employees who've had to pony up for gifts they thought their boss had given him. So, yeah, $10,000 a day - that is big money. And Donald Trump is someone who really does not like to lose. Now, he and his company have denied wrongdoing. They've accused the New York attorney general, Democrat Letitia James, of political motivations. What's different now is that a judge, a neutral arbiter, has agreed with the AG's position that Trump is not being forthcoming. Trump's lawyer says she's appealing, which means he likely won't have to start paying right away.

FADEL: So is a ruling like this unusual?

BERNSTEIN: I have written a book about Trump's businesses, and I've hosted two podcasts that concern him. I can't think of any ruling like this one. This is someone whose businesses have been in court literally thousands of times. We spoke with Rebecca Roiphe, a New York Law School professor and a former prosecutor, who told us it's very rare that a document request like this one results in a contempt citation.

REBECCA ROIPHE: And especially because, you know, this is really a losing claim. Like, why would you push it to the point where you got sanctioned?

BERNSTEIN: What she's saying is you might get a contempt citation if you, say, refuse to pay a fine or after a judgment after a trial, but most lawyers don't let it come to this before a case has even been filed because, among other things, they don't want to potentially antagonize a judge. So this is really unusual.

FADEL: So you said most lawyers wouldn't let it come to this, and yet here they are in this case. Andrea, how did it come to this?

BERNSTEIN: This is a long-running investigation into whether the Trump Organization lied to tax authorities and to lenders about the value of its properties. And one of the things that came up in court yesterday is that Donald Trump has turned over no documents to the state attorney general in response to a subpoena from last year and that the AG only has 10 documents from him, and that's only because they got them from his company. Trump's lawyer says the documents don't exist, but the judge told her that her filing attesting to that was, quote, "woefully insufficient."

FADEL: There was a second ruling yesterday involving the real estate brokerage. What was that about?

BERNSTEIN: So this is so interesting. The brokerage is Cushman & Wakefield, which is a major firm, and an assistant attorney general, Austin Thompson, stood up in court and said that two appraisers who had worked for the brokerage had, quote, "made misstatements at the Trump Organization's behest." Translation - they had allegedly fudged property values so the Trump Organization could underpay its tax authorities and also misrepresent the amount of money it had to lenders. And the judge said Cushman & Wakefield had to turn over big quantities of documents, meaning there's even more evidence of alleged unlawful behavior that could come to the AG. And the broker's attorneys haven't said if they will appeal.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.