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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We now know the findings of a special counsel who investigated President Biden's retention of classified documents.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

His report finds, quote, "evidence" that Biden, quote, "willfully retained" the classified material from his vice presidency. Yet the same report repeatedly gives reasons that the evidence falls short and would not be likely to persuade a jury, which is why Robert Hur declined to prosecute.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been reading. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What do you find in these hundreds of pages?

LUCAS: Well, look. This is a long report, but it does focus on a couple of sets of classified materials that FBI agents found in their searches of Biden's homes and office. One are documents related to military and foreign policy in Afghanistan during the Obama administration, and the other are handwritten notes that date to Biden's time as vice president. Biden jotted down notes in these things during intelligence briefings with President Obama and in White House Situation Room meetings. Some of this material is classified. And it's some of that material that Hur says that Biden shared on at least three occasions, the report says, with a ghostwriter that he was working with.

But as you said, there are no charges here. The report says, ultimately, the evidence doesn't support bringing charges. It doesn't establish Biden's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Hur says in the report that it would be hard to prove that Biden willfully intended to break the law. And it also describes him as a, quote, "sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory" and says it would be hard to convince a jury to convict him.

INSKEEP: And unsurprisingly, Republicans have jumped on that last part, describing Biden as an old man with memory problems. How is the president responding to that?

LUCAS: Well, look. Legally, this report is good news for Biden in the sense that there are no charges. But that doesn't mean that it can't still create political problems for him. And the parts of Hur's report that raise questions about his age and mental acuity are certainly a case in point. There's even a line in there that in his interviews with investigators, Biden didn't remember the year his son, Beau, died. Biden talked to reporters last night, and he took that remark head-on. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: How in the hell dare he raise that? Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought to myself, wasn't any of their damn business.

LUCAS: You can hear in that comment there how upset Biden was. And he said there's no reason for what he called such extraneous stuff to be in the report. And he said the bottom line here is that there are no charges. And this investigation is now closed.

INSKEEP: Former President Trump is facing criminal charges for the way that he handled classified documents and, of course, is claiming now that he is being treated differently. What is the response to that?

LUCAS: Well, look. The Justice Department rejects any allegation that there's a two-tier justice system in this country. It's worth pointing out that Robert Hur is a Republican. Before he was appointed special counsel, he served as a U.S. attorney during the Trump administration.

Now, yes, you have a Biden case. You have a Trump case. But there are significant differences between those two cases. Hur even points them out in his report. Trump was provided multiple opportunities to return the classified documents that were found at Mar-a-Lago. According to the indictment, Trump refused to do so and even actively sought to obstruct investigators by trying to get others to destroy evidence and then lie about it to investigators. Biden, on the other hand, he voluntarily turned over classified documents to the National Archives and Justice Department after they were found. He then voluntarily agreed to FBI searches of his homes. He sat down for an interview with Hur's team. So, as Hur says, there are significant distinctions between these two cases.

INSKEEP: In fact, the special prosecutor says at one point the fact that Biden agreed voluntarily to searches of his home implies that perhaps he did not realize that classified documents were there. Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We now have the story of a former president who made false claims of a stolen election.

FADEL: No, we're not talking about Donald Trump, but he was friends with him. Ex Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing mounting evidence that points to him participating in efforts to overturn the results of an election that ultimately unseated him. Yesterday, federal police showed up at his residence and forced him to hand over his passport.

INSKEEP: NPR South America correspondent Carrie Kahn is in Rio de Janeiro. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the new evidence?

KAHN: Well, first, Bolsonaro was not arrested yesterday. Several of his close aides were. And the federal police then unveiled its case of Bolsonaro's alleged participation in an attempted coup in this 130-page detailed documents which has a lot of stunning evidence, Steve - much that we have not heard before. The investigation names dozens of people who worked with Bolsonaro, allegedly well before he lost his reelection bid back in 2022. They include military personnel, his former defense minister, his former justice minister and a national security adviser. And the level at which Bolsonaro orchestrated much of - police says was a vast conspiracy to overturn the election results is new, too. At one point, police say Bolsonaro edited a document that outlined how the coup would unfold, including which leaders in the government would be arrested and who would not. And that edit included the arrest of a justice of the Supreme Court.

INSKEEP: Wow. Wow. So these things didn't necessarily happen, but he's editing a document that is the plan. Can you now fit this into the context of what we already knew about his failed effort to overturn his defeat in 2022?

KAHN: Sure. He claimed it was voter fraud and that Brazil's all-electronic voter system was defective. His supporters spent months camping out in front of military barracks, hoping the army would intervene and overturn the results of the election. When that didn't happen, the supporters ransacked the capital on January 8 of last year. Bolsonaro has denied he had anything to do with that attack.

Unlike Trump, who was - the two were close allies when they were both in office. Bolsonaro has already been barred from running for office until 2030 by electoral authorities. And like Trump, Bolsonaro is also facing many more cases that could land him in jail.

INSKEEP: How is he responding to this latest police raid that grabs his passport?

KAHN: Well, the current president, I'll tell you first, said that he hopes the investigation of Bolsonaro is professional and unbiased. He did add that he didn't think the coup attempt could've happened without Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro, as always, has denied any wrongdoing and says he's being politically persecuted.

I spoke with Brazilian political scientist Guilherme Casaroes, who was hopeful, despite learning how the right-wing former leader tried to undermine Brazil's democratic consensus. I want to play you a little bit about that. You know, this democratic consensus has been in place since the country returned to democracy after the military dictatorship.

GUILHERME CASAROES: Even though there were very powerful people - people in office, in power - plotting against democracy, somehow democratic institutions have worked and have been able to save democracy from a complete meltdown.

KAHN: He says Brazilians should celebrate that.

INSKEEP: OK. Where's the investigation go next?

KAHN: Well, there's a lot of evidence to go over from yesterday's police action and possibly new plea agreements from aides of Bolsonaro that were arrested yesterday. And all of that could prove very problematic for Bolsonaro.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Carrie Kahn, thanks so much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Let's go to Ukraine next, where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he is sidelining his military commander as Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches its third year.

FADEL: Yeah, Zelenskyy posted on X that the country's army needs a, quote, "renewal" and that he asked his outgoing general to remain part of the team.

INSKEEP: Christopher Miller joins us next. He's a reporter for the Financial Times based in Kyiv and author of the book "The War Came To Us: Life And Death In Ukraine." Mr. Miller, welcome back.

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi was very popular, if I'm not mistaken. So why replace him now?

MILLER: He was. You know, Ukraine's war effort right now is stalled and in a bit of trouble. The country's big counteroffensive last year failed to achieve its goals. It's running low on ammunition, on troops. It's on the defensive while Russia has seized the initiative on the battlefield and is on the attack. So Zelenskyy thinks it's time right now to reboot his army command and hopefully turn around Ukraine's fortunes to see some progress this year.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think this through, however. If there's a shortage of ammunition, that's not necessarily the general's fault. You could say that it's the fault of the United States for not shipping enough, U.S. - or Ukraine's allies for not shipping enough. What would point a finger of blame at the general himself?

MILLER: Right. You know, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the now former top general, was in charge of the counteroffensive. And him and Zelenskyy were at odds at times about how to conduct that counteroffensive. The United States was advising Kyiv and Ukraine on what to do. Zaluzhnyi was listening to some of that, but also implementing some of his own experiences on the battlefield. President Zelenskyy is seen as having made some political decisions about how things were to be done and having gone around Valerii Zaluzhnyi to speak with his other commanders on the battlefield. So that's where some of the points of tension come in between the two, Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskyy.

INSKEEP: I'm also remembering, if I'm not mistaken, that Zelenskyy is an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, the American president during the Civil War who changed generals again and again and again until he found somebody who could win.

So the new guy is Oleksandr Syrskyi. What do you know about him?

MILLER: Yeah. You know, Zelenskyy does like change. He has changed over his government a few times, even before the full-scale invasion. So he's choosing Oleksandr Syrskyi now. Syrskyi is seen as a close ally of Zelenskyy. The president believes he can trust him to carry out his orders. It's true that he's an experienced career commander who has been involved in many battles before, including in Russia's first invasion in 2014.

But he's deeply unpopular with the rank-and-file troops who call him the butcher because they say he's kept brigades too long in battles where they should've been pulled out, costing valuable lives and ammunition. The best example of that was the Battle of Bakhmut that saw Russia destroy the city before capturing it last year.

INSKEEP: Personnel aside, is it clear that the Ukrainian government has a strategy that they think can work to win the war given the various limitations of ammunition and everything else that they face?

MILLER: It's working on a clear and consistent strategy. At the moment, it is taking what Syrskyi is calling an active defense approach. So that is actually similar to what Russia did last year in digging in deeper, fortifying its front-line positions, rebuilding its military and its brigades. Ukraine is hoping that it can train some new troops this year, again, fortify its positions and essentially put itself in a stronger position than it is now to go on the counteroffensive either later this year or in 2025.

INSKEEP: So a defensive phase now, possibly offensive in the future. Mr. Miller, thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Christopher Miller of the Financial Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.