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News brief: Russia-Ukraine crisis, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Idaho abortion law

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just one month ago today, it seemed that Russian forces would quickly overrun Ukraine.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia seemed to have one of the most sophisticated armies in the world. One month later, Russian forces have taken some territory and destroyed a lot of buildings and lives, but they have failed to take the largest cities. And Russia is suffering under Western sanctions, which are increasing this week as President Biden meets NATO leaders in Europe.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us this morning. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we're a month in. There are reports that Russian troops have actually lost some ground around the capital city, Kyiv. What are you hearing?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, Rachel, we've been talking for quite some time, a week or more, that the Russians are stalled outside Kyiv. Now a senior defense official says they're not only stalled but actually digging in along the eastern suburbs of the city, kind of getting to what looks like a defensive posture. Ukrainian resistance, of course, is very tough, and the Ukrainians have actually retaken some areas. And get this - in the northwest of the capital, the Ukrainians have pushed the Russians away from Kyiv. The Russians were roughly 30 kilometers from Kyiv; now they're back about 55 kilometers.

MARTIN: Of course, they have a lot of air power still, though, right?

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. Some are saying that, you know, the Russians - in 10 days, this could all be over for them. But others say, listen; it's too soon to count the Russians out. They have a lot of combat power, air power as you mentioned, but especially rockets and missiles. In the - of course, the Russians are hammering cities like Mariupol in the south with these and as well as cities all around the country, including Kyiv, where you're seeing an uptick in missile launches. And Pentagon officials say the Russians are planning to call in replacement troops, not only from the Russian mainland but also outside Russia. And they're also using private armed groups, including the Wagner Group, which has fought in Syria. They're also, you know, trying to bring up more supplies, which are desperately needed by their troops.

MARTIN: OK. So meanwhile, President Biden is in Brussels for all these big meetings. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is there as well. What do we expect in terms of more military support for Ukraine from the U.S.?

BOWMAN: Well, a lot more air defense systems, also shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. There was several hundred million dollars that's just been spent on some of these sent to Ukraine. Now the next tranche of military assistance is $800 million, so that equipment will start heading in. And that'll help the Ukrainians continue to bleed Russian troops. But again, Russia shows no signs of stopping. They want to break the will of Ukraine. They're going after more and more civilian sites now, kind of creating a scorched-earth policy. And that's why you're starting to hear President Biden and others use the term war crimes.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, the U.S. is massing more troops in Eastern Europe in a big way, right?

BOWMAN: Right. There are thousands of, of course, U.S. troops there now. And now NATO is talking about creating even a larger force in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Romania. But we're not sure if they'll send any additional U.S. troops right yet. They're still talking about it.

MARTIN: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, marking one month since Russia invaded Ukraine. Thanks, Tom. We appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.

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MARTIN: OK, the questions are over for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, but the last day of grilling by senators in her confirmation hearing got emotional.

INSKEEP: A handful of Republican senators talked constantly of child pornography. Senator Lindsey Graham interrupted the witness so often that the chairman, Democrat Richard Durbin, insisted that Graham let the witness answer his own question. Today the committee will hear from outside witnesses about Judge Jackson's work and personal history.

MARTIN: NPR's Kelsey Snell watched hours and hours and hours of the hearings, and she joins us this morning. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: Can you explain, first off, how child pornography came to be a part of these Supreme Court confirmation hearings at all?

SNELL: Well, this kind of started more than a week ago when Missouri Senator Josh Hawley was kind of pushing this on Twitter. Now, this is well before the hearings began. You know, the focus here is on about six or seven cases out of over a hundred sentences that Judge Jackson handed down. You know, Republicans initially dismissed all of this. They tried not to talk about Hawley's allegations when it was only happening on Twitter. But it just kept coming up in the hearing. And as Hawley and others pressed on the issue - I'm thinking people like Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - more Republicans started talking about it and picking up on the theme, which I should say also became popular in the QAnon conspiracy movement and really fits in with the broader message from Republicans that Democrats are soft on crime. Their claims about her record have been repeatedly debunked and criticized, but it came up over and over and over in this hearing.

MARTIN: Right. And just for those who weren't watching, the claim being that she somehow went soft on people who were involved in these cases. So how did she respond to all of this in the moment?

SNELL: She was very consistent, and she said that while she didn't always hand down the maximum sentence in these specific cases, her decisions were consistent with other federal judges and precedent in similar cases. At one point, Hawley kept insisting that she say if she regretted her decisions, and this is how she responded.

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KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: Senator, what I regret is that in a hearing about my qualifications to be a justice on the Supreme Court, we've spent a lot of time focusing on this small subset of my sentences.

SNELL: You can hear there how deliberate she is in that answer. And the entire line of questioning really infuriated Democrats, who didn't want to legitimize the claims, but there was a relentless focus from Republicans, and they were kind of forced to respond. But they weren't really mostly able to control the hearing until Cory Booker, the only Black person on the committee, talked about Black patriots not always being shown that the country loves them back. This is, you know, how he talked about it.

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CORY BOOKER: I see my ancestors and yours. Nobody's going to steal the joy of that woman in the street or the calls that I'm getting or the texts. Nobody's going to steal that joy. You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.

SNELL: It was a very emotional moment for many in the room.

MARTIN: Does any of what happened yesterday change the prospects for her confirmation?

SNELL: No, because Democrats can approve her nomination on the Senate floor without any Republican votes. The committee will meet again on Monday, and they're likely to vote on her confirmation a week later on April 4. You know, Democrats still hope to have a final vote on the Senate floor before Easter.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: People seeking abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy will not be able to get them in the state of Idaho unless the courts intervene.

INSKEEP: A new law there is modeled after a Texas abortion ban that took effect in September. Idaho's Republican governor, Brad Little, signed the bill into law yesterday while expressing some reservations about how it might affect rape victims.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon covers abortion rights policy, and she joins us this morning. Sarah, first off, just explain exactly how similar is this new Idaho law to the one from Texas that's been in place now for several months.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Sure. Well, they both ban most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, and they empower ordinary citizens to enforce those laws by filing lawsuits worth tens of thousands of dollars against anyone suspected of violating them. Now, Idaho's law targets abortion providers specifically, whereas the Texas law targets anyone who, quote, "aids or abets" an illegal abortion. Idaho's new law, which is set to take effect in about 30 days, narrows the scope of who's allowed to sue to just the patient, the person who impregnates the patient and then several of their family members. Mistie Delli Carpini-Tolman with Planned Parenthood in Idaho, though, says the impact will be very much the same as the law in Texas.

MISTIE DELLI CARPINI-TOLMAN: It provides that Idahoans can spy on their family members and sue abortion providers for providing an abortion after six weeks. And we're talking, you know, people who have nothing to do with the patient.

MARTIN: Yesterday, I understand after signing the bill into law, the governor there, Brad Little, released a letter expressing some concerns. What is he saying there?

MCCAMMON: So in his letter to the Idaho Senate president, Governor Little said he supports the goal of this law of banning abortion but that he fears using lawsuits to enforce it would, quote, "in short order be proven both unconstitutional and unwise." So far, the Texas law has survived months of legal challenges because of its novel legal strategy that I just described. But Little worries the same strategy could be used to curtail religious freedoms or gun rights. And he said that he's concerned about the impact on victims of rape and incest. This law does contain exceptions for abortion in those cases but only if they're reported to law enforcement, and Little said the challenges in doing so render that exception meaningless for many victims. But he did sign it nonetheless.

MARTIN: Other supporters of the law have been concerned about this, too - right? - the way that this legislation would affect rape victims. What have they been saying?

MCCAMMON: Right. So the law specifically says that rapists cannot bring these lawsuits, but it does not exclude their family members. And I talked to Carol Tobias with National Right to Life about this. Her group has supported this bill and others like it. And she says she'd want anyone who became pregnant as a result of rape to get counseling and other help, but she says people should carry those pregnancies to term.

CAROL TOBIAS: So we would certainly hope that it wouldn't even take a family member - that there would just not be an abortion.

MARTIN: This Idaho law comes at a time when state legislatures, more broadly, are looking ahead to a major abortion decision expected from the Supreme Court this summer, right?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, there's been lots of activity in state legislatures, similar proposals moving forward in other states. Jessica Arons is with the ACLU, which has been fighting the Texas abortion ban.

JESSICA ARONS: With these laws going into effect, we're going to start to see ripple effects. You're going to see more and more patients displaced and having to travel even further to obtain care.

MCCAMMON: And at the same time, Rachel, we are seeing other states sort of pushing in the other direction, states like Colorado, moving to try to guarantee abortion rights.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon. We appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

MARTIN: We're going to take a moment now to remember Madeleine Albright, who died yesterday. The daughter of Czech refugees became the first woman to become U.S. secretary of state. Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 after the Nazis occupied the country. Under President Bill Clinton, Albright became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She told NPR's Susan Stamberg back in 2009 about her collection of pins, which she would wear depending on which country she was negotiating with.

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MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: This all started when I was ambassador at the United Nations. Saddam Hussein called me a serpent, and I had this wonderful antique snake pin, and so when we were dealing with Iraq, I wore the snake pin. So I thought, well, this is fun.

SUSAN STAMBERG: (Laughter).

ALBRIGHT: So then I went out, and I bought a bunch of costume jewelry to signal what my mood of the day was.

MARTIN: Her friend and colleague, former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, remembered her on All Things Considered yesterday.

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JOHN PODESTA: She was very straightforward, whether she was talking to the president or talking to a foreign dictator. And I think what that meant was that people trusted her. They knew that she was going to give it to them straight and that they could deal with her straight. She had a coterie of former foreign ministers who served with her who she stayed in touch with for the last 20 years, trying to provide advice to a younger generation of diplomats.

MARTIN: Madeleine Albright was the author of several books, including the 2018 New York Times bestseller titled "Fascism." In the last years of her life, Albright raised concerns about the rise of autocracies around the world. She is known for having said the following - quote, "While democracy in the long run is the most stable form of government, in the short run it is among the most fragile." Madeleine Albright died yesterday from cancer at the age of 84. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.