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News brief: Oath Keeper verdict, NATO supports Ukraine, congressional action

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Members of the Oath Keepers took a vow to uphold the Constitution, and that is exactly what a jury says the group founder tried to overturn.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Stewart Rhodes is the first person to be found guilty of seditious conspiracy, plotting to overthrow the government on January 6 of last year. Members of his group took part in the assault on the U.S. Capitol. Their trial came at a courthouse just steps away.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson covered the case. Carrie, getting a conviction on a seditious conspiracy charge is rare. How was the Justice Department able to do it this time?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah, prosecutors have faltered over the years because that sedition charge requires them to meet such a high burden of proof, but the jury in this case felt that bar had been cleared in part because of all the things Stewart Rhodes wrote and said before, during and after January 6, like the need to be prepared for a bloody civil war. One of the most damaging pieces of evidence in the trial was a recording of Stewart Rhodes four days after the Capitol assault. Here's Rhodes on that tape from January 10, 2021, where he's talking about whether storming the Capitol was the right thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART RHODES: Maybe. But it also showed the people that we got a spirit of resistance. My only regret? They should have brought rifles.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Stewart Rhodes was not alone. Carrie, what happened to the other defendants in this case?

JOHNSON: For all the talk from the defense teams about D.C. juries being unfavorable to people tied to January 6, the jury in this case found each of the defendants not guilty on at least one charge. This was a sophisticated set of verdicts. Here are some of the takeaways. The jury also convicted Florida Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs of seditious conspiracy, but it found three other defendants not guilty on that important charge. All of the defendants were convicted of obstructing an official proceeding, and most of them were convicted of tampering with documents after the fact. That charge can carry a long prison sentence, too.

MARTÍNEZ: The trial took two months. Fifty witnesses were heard. Carrie, you were in there when the verdict came down. I mean, what did - what was it like in there?

JOHNSON: Yeah, as the foreperson read the verdict, Stewart Rhodes kind of jerked his head downward and scribbled a note. His lawyer, Lee Bright, later told us that Rhodes, who was a graduate of Yale Law School, sent several handwritten notes with other things he wants done next, like setting up a likely appeal. The lawyer says he's disappointed, but he thanked the jury and the judge for their service. He says he hoped Rhodes' decision to testify in this case helped humanize him. But it's not clear that helped with the jury. A, one more thing I saw in the courtroom, Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who seemed to be moved to tears by the verdict. As the jury left the room, he let out a big sigh. You know, this has been a hard road for the law enforcement officers who reported for duty on January 6.

MARTÍNEZ: What's going to happen next in this?

JOHNSON: Yeah, sentencing for these defendants won't happen until next year. Most of them have already been in federal custody for a while now. That's where they will stay. As for the Justice Department, it has two more seditious conspiracy trials coming up, including one next month for the leader of the far-right Proud Boys group. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is committed to holding people responsible for crimes related to January 6. One of the key questions moving forward is just how high up on the ladder the new special counsel will get in that investigation.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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MARTÍNEZ: NATO's secretary general is promising extra support for Ukraine.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: We will stand by Ukraine as long as it takes. We'll not back down.

INSKEEP: Jens Stoltenberg spoke at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, including the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken. They met in Romania, which borders Ukraine, as Ukraine faces Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ashley Westerman joins us from Kyiv. Ashley, what are the foreign ministers focusing on in this meeting in Bucharest?

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: So this meeting is specifically about how NATO can support Ukraine through the winter, which is supposed to be particularly harsh this year, amid a constant barrage of attacks on Ukraine's critical infrastructure by Russian forces. The U.S. announced a new tranche of aid yesterday, $53 million to help acquire equipment to fix Ukraine's utility grid - things like transformers, circuit breakers, surge arresters, vehicles and other equipment. In a tweet announcing that new money, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia's attacks on Ukraine's civilian energy system were, quote, "brutal" and have imperiled millions. Also yesterday, NATO pledged to provide more weapons, air defense systems and munitions to Ukraine but also nonmilitary aid like fuel and generators.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it's been a week since Russia just unleashed that attack that Blinken called brutal on infrastructure in Ukraine. What's the situation there right now?

WESTERMAN: Well, A, I can say it's gotten better, but it's still difficult. For example, here at NPR's bureau, we experienced hourslong electricity blackouts. We're actually on generator power right now. And these usually knock out our Wi-Fi and sometimes our cell service. But it's not just us, of course. Countrywide, there are still millions without power, too, because of the strikes last week. Earlier this week, officials say, about half the homes in Kyiv have had their power restored. And it is getting restored in other parts of the country, but they still have about 30% less power than they actually need, and that's according to the state energy operator, Ukrenergo. And, you know, the repairs are going slower than before as well. Temperatures have been hovering around freezing most of this week, and we've had lots of snow, making it super difficult to fix what's been broken.

MARTÍNEZ: So how are people coping with this?

WESTERMAN: You know, the Ukrainians are toughing it out, really. While countrywide energy curbs have been in place, people are also voluntarily rationing electricity. And you can see that just walking through Kyiv - darkened buildings and neighborhoods that clearly do have electricity. And there's also a sense here that rationing energy is not only imperative to their survival but also patriotic. And in one act of defiance this week, officials here in Kyiv say Christmas trees will go up throughout the city. However, many of those trees won't have lights. Here's Mayor Vitali Klitschko on the decision to go ahead and celebrate the holidays amid the war.

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VITALI KLITSCHKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERMAN: He says, "Putin wants to steal everything from us and wants to take the holidays away from children. We can't let that happen."

MARTÍNEZ: I know defiance is one thing, but, I mean, these big attacks on infrastructure, they've become a regular thing, almost weekly. Does that mean people are going to be bracing for the next one?

WESTERMAN: Absolutely. People are super worried. Russia is failing to beat the Ukrainians on the battlefield, so they're hoping to freeze them out by taking down their utility infrastructure. And, A, it's become a bit of a game of whack-a-mole, honestly. You know, the Russians strike, the Ukrainians do what they can, as fast as they can, to repair the damage, but then the Russians strike again. And another big strike is what I think people are really most worried about right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Ashley Westerman in Kyiv, Ukraine. Ashley, thanks.

WESTERMAN: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: Congress is deep into its lame-duck session, a chance for lawmakers to finish business from earlier in the year.

INSKEEP: The Senate tried to do that last evening by passing a bill to protect some same-sex marriage rights. The House had already passed a somewhat different version of the bill. Same-sex marriage has been legal across this country under a Supreme Court ruling from years ago, but lawmakers acted out of concern that the court's conservative majority could someday revisit that issue.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo joins us now. So let's start with what happened last night. Democrats have been trying to pass a bill to protect marriage equality for some time, and the vote in the Senate was 61-36. So what changes will the House see when the bill comes back to them?

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: The bill does one big thing - it federally recognizes same-sex and interracial marriages. By doing so, it allows these couples to qualify for federal benefits, like Social Security and Medicare. It also requires that all states recognize same-sex and interracial marriages performed in other states. What the bill doesn't do is force states to perform same-sex marriages. What passed also allows for nonprofit religious organizations to refuse their services for ceremonies. Here's GOP Senator Susan Collins following the vote.

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SUSAN COLLINS: I really salute my colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle who stepped forward despite a lot of pressure, despite a lot of criticism and cast what I believe will be a vote that they'll look back on with great pride.

BUSTILLO: The measure is expected to pass the House in the coming days and be signed by the president.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, on Monday, Ximena, you reported that the president asked Congress for a bill to prevent a railroad strike. Why did he have to ask them?

BUSTILLO: Sure. The Biden administration has been arguing for weeks that railroad unions and management should come to their own agreement without Congress intervention, but he changed course this week, asking Congress to pass a bill that would force unions to accept the agreement negotiated by unions and management and the administration. The Railway Labor Act allows the government to do this.

Ahead of holiday travel, the shipping season, the administration is worried about what a strike could do to the recovering economy and feel like there's no other way to resolve the issue at the bargaining table. Railroads are responsible for the transportation of 30 to 40% of goods, not counting commuter rails. And there's concern over the transportation of fertilizer, food and other chemicals essential to the economy and everyday life of millions. And the administration's warning that hundreds of thousands of workers could lose their jobs if there's a strike. So despite touting his ability to be pro-labor, Biden is swallowing a tough pill, asking Congress to make the strike illegal and force the agreement on the workers in order to save the economy.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what are lawmakers saying about this?

BUSTILLO: Well, last night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House today will take up one bill to force the agreement and a second to vote to add seven days of paid sick leave for workers. Many of the workers who voted down the agreement have done so because it doesn't address sick leave policies. This is an effort to ease some concerns from members, especially on the Senate side. GOP Senator Marco Rubio already said he won't support a measure not supported by workers, and John Thune said the administration should handle it, not Congress. And some of - on the left also want to see a bill that addresses the sick leave for workers. And some members, like Senator Bernie Sanders and Colorado's John Hickenlooper, have said that they won't support a bill that doesn't include this. But it's possible that only one bill makes it all the way to the president.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thanks a lot.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. 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.
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.