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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A grand jury says some of the Proud Boys committed seditious conspiracy.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That essentially means leaders of the right-wing group committed a crime against the government. The federal indictment grows out of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. It names Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four associates, all of whom are in federal custody until trial.

FADEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following the case, and she's here now with the details. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Carrie, explain the significance of this charge, seditious conspiracy.

JOHNSON: These charges are brought very rarely. Basically, they require the Justice Department prosecutors to prove an attempt to overthrow the government by using force. So this is quite a significant moment. The grand jury here in Washington, D.C., says the facts it's reviewed in connection with the January 6 attack meet that high bar. Enrique Tarrio and four of his top lieutenants are presumed innocent for now. They've been in federal custody. That's likely where they're going to stay until trial.

FADEL: OK. So apparently, there's information that will meet the bar. What led to these charges now? Does the Justice Department have new information?

JOHNSON: There isn't a lot of new detail in these court papers. We do know one change; one member of the Proud Boys, a leader from North Carolina, pleaded guilty in April and agreed to help prosecutors. But we don't know much more than that. You might remember, Enrique Tarrio was not on the Capitol grounds on January 6.

FADEL: Right.

JOHNSON: But prosecutors say he still directed other Proud Boys and communicated with them all day on social media and other channels. This indictment quotes Tarrio as posting, quote, "proud of my boys and my country" after the violence began. And then later that night, the court papers quote an unnamed member of the group crowing about how they might have made history when the certification process got delayed.

FADEL: So members of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers, are also fighting sedition charges. What's the latest there?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Remember that case involved Stewart Rhodes. People might recall him because he has a very distinctive look and wears an eyepatch.

FADEL: Right.

JOHNSON: Rhodes and 10 members of the Oath Keepers are also facing a seditious conspiracy case. Authorities say in that case, they assembled a quick reaction force and stockpiled weapons across the river in Virginia on January 6 and the days before. Prosecutors say Rhodes kept buying weapons even after the assault on the Capitol. And they have a lot of his own messages to try to use against him in court. Rhodes has pleaded not guilty, but three different Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty and agreed to help the government build that big case.

FADEL: Now, these charges come as the House committee investigating January 6 prepares for its first public hearings. Did that influence the timing?

JOHNSON: It's not clear. Members of that congressional committee have been very tough on the Justice Department. They want to see a lot more action on what they consider an attack on democracy. The panel already planned to highlight some of the activities of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers during its public hearings, including a meeting in a parking garage the day before the January 6 attack.

FADEL: And what is the DOJ doing?

JOHNSON: Well, Attorney General Merrick Garland said recently the DOJ doesn't want to discuss who it is and is not investigating. It doesn't want to jeopardize anyone's constitutional rights. But more than 800 people have been arrested in nearly every state related to January 6. What we don't know is how close the DOJ might be to that next level, the funders and organizers of the political rallies they've been investigating. Last week, a grand jury charged a former Trump White House adviser, Peter Navarro, with contempt of Congress for not complying with the committee's subpoenas. We know the FBI has been hot on the case. We're waiting to see what happens next.

FADEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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FADEL: President Biden meets with leaders from across the Western Hemisphere this week. Mexico's president will not.

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PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says, I will not attend the summit, meaning the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The United States barred leaders of undemocratic Cuba and the backsliding democracies of Venezuela and Nicaragua, so Lopez Obrador says he will not come either. What can leaders accomplish without him?

FADEL: We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez to talk about this. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So what's the significance of Lopez Obrador's snub?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, there's been a big tug-of-war over who would get invited to this summit, and President Lopez Obrador had made it clear that he thought that everyone should be there. But in the end, the White House ruled that out. You know, I spoke with Brian Nichols about this. He's the assistant secretary of state who oversees policy for the Western Hemisphere.

BRIAN NICHOLS: Looking at the current situation in Cuba, in particular with trials of civil society leaders and similar situations in Nicaragua and Venezuela, we felt that the most appropriate decision was to maintain our own commitment to democracy and human rights in our hemisphere.

ORDOÑEZ: The administration says it will still be able to get business done on things like migration, economic development and climate. Mexico and other countries, like Honduras, are also sending high-level delegations. And Mexico's president actually will come to the White House in July for one-on-one talks with Biden about some of these issues.

FADEL: But what does it say about U.S. influence in the region that some leaders just aren't bothering to show up?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. Nichols told me the U.S. influence is, quote, "extensive and unquestioned." But, you know, there are a lot of doubts about this. The region has been struggling to recover from the pandemic, and China has been helpful. The U.S. - not so much economically. Here's Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official now at the Council of the Americas.

ERIC FARNSWORTH: I've been saying this since at least last summer. You are heading for a train wreck unless, you know, you change course in some way and recognize that the hemisphere has shifted. But our policy in the region is simply status quo.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Biden's policy for the region has been pretty low key thus far. China and Russia, as we know, have taken up a lot of the administration's bandwidth. But this week, you know, Biden's expected to make a lot of announcements about economic recovery from the pandemic, millions of dollars to fight hunger, as well as a big declaration on migration, which is a top regional issue.

FADEL: And the summit is happening as Washington looks at the January 6 insurrection. Will that overshadow what Biden is trying to accomplish in Los Angeles?

ORDOÑEZ: So I spoke with Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China. He told me that what happened on January 6 - you know, the false claims made about the U.S. presidential elections - that really hasn't gone unnoticed in the hemisphere, and it's fed into the declining influence of the U.S. in the region. And it's interesting that one leader who did decide to attend is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. You know, this is going to be the first time that Biden speaks with Bolsonaro. They're going to meet on the sidelines. And Bolsonaro was a close ally of former President Donald Trump, and lately he's been making false claims about Brazil's election system, similar to the false claims that Trump made about the U.S. election. So that's a meeting I'm going to be very interested to keep an eye on.

FADEL: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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FADEL: Seven more states hold their primary elections today.

INSKEEP: The many individual primaries include competitive contests for the U.S. House of Representatives in California and Montana and New Mexico. Democrats in Iowa choose a nominee to challenge longtime Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.

FADEL: With us now is Clay Masters, lead political reporter at Iowa Public Radio. Thanks for being here.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Yeah, of course.

FADEL: So, Clay, what should we know about the Democratic primary in Iowa?

MASTERS: Well, the frontrunner in this race is Abby Finkenauer, but she's facing a tougher-than-expected primary. Now, people may remember her because she was just 29 years old when she beat a Republican incumbent congressman back in 2018. But then she lost her reelection bid to the U.S. House two years ago. You mentioned Grassley. Of course, that's who she wants to go up against if she's the nominee. She does face two opponents. And Grassley also has a state senator running against him, but it's a pretty minimal opposition for him. Grassley is 88 years old, and Abby Finkenauer likes to talk a lot about just the generational differences between her and Chuck Grassley.

FADEL: So let's get into this tougher-than-expected primary you mentioned. What's she facing here?

MASTERS: For starters, she almost didn't make the ballot. So there were a pair of Republican activists who challenged her nominating petitions, and it went all the way up to the state Supreme Court. And this was in the news for a couple of weeks, certainly something she didn't want people to be talking about. Of course, she is on the ballot today. And also, one of her two opponents is staying pretty competitive in his fundraising numbers. Retired Navy Admiral Mike Franken served in the military for about 40 years. His resume includes time in the Pentagon and also with U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. And then he also ran in a Democratic primary for a different Senate seat here in Iowa two years ago. So he has some name ID because of that. And he, like Finkenauer, has said he decided to throw his hat into the ring for this race following the January 6 insurrection. Here's what he told me.

MIKE FRANKEN: I can't think of anything more meaningful than to provide my expertise to maintain democracy in this country because I saw it under threat.

FADEL: So that attack on the Capitol inspired them both to run. But regardless of who wins the Democratic primary, would they have a shot at defeating Grassley? I mean, he's been such a fixture of Iowa politics for decades.

MASTERS: Yeah. And I mean, one thing that certainly unites Democrats in this primary is a disapproval of Chuck Grassley, but it's a whole other game when you get to the general election, and, of course, the president's party always loses ground in a midterm election. Grassley is favored to win this race. This used to be more of a swing state, but Democrats have lost a lot of ground here over the last decade...

FADEL: Yeah.

MASTERS: ...Especially in rural Iowa. And both Franken and Finkenauer talk about how Democrats have struggled in that part of the state just because so many residents are plugged into right-wing echo chambers. Abby Finkenauer said it was made worse in 2020 when the pandemic was new and Democrats just weren't out there campaigning like Republicans were.

ABBY FINKENAUER: We didn't know what to do because we're in the middle of this pandemic. We didn't know - could we go door to door? What was safe? What wasn't? And in the meantime, folks spent a lot of time in places like Facebook. And so the misinformation was really, really thick.

MASTERS: And now all of that kind of campaigning and those events are back for the Democrats. But, I mean, this year is looking like a tough national environment for Democrats, especially in a state that's moved away from them in the last 10 years. But the Democrats are certainly going to try to make a competitive race out of this, whoever gets the nomination. And Grassley will be running for his eighth term in the U.S. Senate.

FADEL: Clay Masters at Iowa Public Radio. Thanks for your reporting.

MASTERS: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.