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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For the second time in two months, Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to investigate a politically sensitive subject.

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

This time the special counsel is former prosecutor Robert Hur. His job is to find out how classified documents came to be located at President Joe Biden's home in Delaware and at an office tied to him in Washington.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the story, and she joins us now. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what do we know about the mandate of this new prosecutor?

JOHNSON: The DOJ wants him to investigate the possible unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or other records found at two sites connected to President Biden. That's his home in Delaware and an office he used at a think tank in Washington, D.C., after he served as vice president. Now, of course, classified materials are supposed to be stored in special places, not out in the open or even in a locked room or a closet. The White House says Biden isn't sure what's in these papers that his lawyers found, and he didn't know the papers were there. A White House lawyer says these documents were misplaced, that this was a mistake, not intentional. But that's going to be for the Justice Department to decide. The special prosecutor is going to get to work in the coming days, and, Leila, he's already pretty familiar with how the DOJ operates. Robert Hur was a top official there in the Trump years. He also served as the U.S. attorney in Maryland in that era.

FADEL: Now, Attorney General Merrick Garland came into office pledging to restore public confidence in the Justice Department. Is that why he made this appointment?

JOHNSON: Merrick Garland said these regulations at the Justice Department called for him to appoint an outsider here because these are extraordinary circumstances. Here's more of what the attorney general said to explain his decision.

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MERRICK GARLAND: This appointment underscores for the public the department's commitment to both independence and accountability and particularly sensitive matters and to making decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law.

JOHNSON: And Garland had praise for lawyers and agents who've already been working on this matter. He says he's going to make sure the new prosecutor has all the resources he needs to do this job.

FADEL: Now, this week, Republicans in Congress opened a separate investigation into President Biden and his family. How are they reacting to this appointment? I mean, he is, as you said, a top official that was there in the Trump years.

JOHNSON: Yeah. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says there's still a role for Congress to play in investigating these Biden documents. And the new chairman of the House Oversight Panel, James Comer of Kentucky, agrees. But Comer says he's really not a fan of special counsels. Here's what he said.

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JAMES COMER: When that special counsel is appointed, it limits our ability to do some of the oversight investigations that we want to do with respect to this. I think the House Oversight Committee can be a lot more effective and a lot quicker in getting to the truth of what really went on with those classified documents than a special counsel.

JOHNSON: Well, we have a special counsel now, and Comer says he's going to push for answers still about why the Biden administration kept this all secret from the public for months and who had access to Biden's office and his home. On the Senate side, the Intelligence Committee says they want a briefing, too, not just about these Biden papers but also about what the FBI found in its search of former President Donald Trump's home in Florida, Mar-a-Lago. That Trump investigation is much more advanced, of course. Special Counsel Jack Smith is leading that probe. He's been on the job since last November. We know some former Trump White House aides have answered questions, but there's been no public action there in that case just yet.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

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FADEL: Ukraine is once again getting weapons that were previously off-limits.

BROWN: Yeah, the U.S., Germany and France have all pledged to send Western-designed armored personnel vehicles to the country. Until recently, Ukraine's allies had resisted sending them, fearing it would provoke Moscow.

FADEL: To understand what's behind the shift, we're going to turn to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Good morning, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what kind of vehicles are these? Why are they so important?

BEARDSLEY: Well, these are armored fighting vehicles, and they can carry infantry. The French AMX 10 CR (ph), which French President Emmanuel Macron has called a light battle tank. America's giving the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. And Germany is giving its Marders. These are armored vehicles with powerful guns, and they're meant to go on the offensive and hold ground. They were all designed during the Cold War to fight Soviet forces, ironically, though, until now, they've only been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. Kyiv has been asking for them for a while, and the West has been reluctant to send such powerful offensive weapons.

FADEL: So what's changed?

BEARDSLEY: The war has changed. The Ukrainians have shown they can not only defend their country, but many think they can win this war against an army that before the conflict was thought to be the world's second-most powerful. And this has changed the calculation. So while the West for a long time was concerned with escalating the conflict, antagonizing Russia, it's become worried about the war dragging on for years with the two sides in a seeming stalemate and no peace negotiations in sight. I spoke with Leonid Polyakov in Kyiv. He's a former deputy defense minister of Ukraine. And here's what he told me.

LEONID POLYAKOV: Major powers supporting Ukraine could have decided that it is in their interest to allow Ukraine to move faster because the longer war goes, the more weapons will be required. Time is a factor now, not only unpredictability of Russia.

BEARDSLEY: As for Ukraine's Western allies, they have little by little increased the caliber of the weapons they're sending. Germany was at first very hesitant to send offensive weapons because of its past. You know, the Nazis killed millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians in World War II.

FADEL: Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: But it's become the biggest European contributor of weapons and aid to Ukraine now. Here's Ulrike Franke, a security specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

ULRIKE FRANKE: This is what Germany has been doing since the 24 of February, right? Every other week or so, there is another decision to kind of go further than what they claimed they wanted to do.

FADEL: So how is Ukraine reacting to this weaponry upgrade?

BEARDSLEY: I mean, Leila, they're obviously very happy. Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said sending them had broken a taboo on providing key weapons to Ukraine. He said he hoped that the floodgates had been opened now for the West to send what are known as main battle tanks, like the U.S. Abrams tank, Germany's Leopard 2 and France's Leclerc. Analysts say those tanks would help the Ukrainians to break through Russian fortifications and artillery fire with infantry in a counteroffensive. And they might not be far behind because Poland has already said it wants to send Leopard 2s, though it has to get permission from Germany, who owns the technology. Britain is said to be heavily considering sending the Challenger 2 tank. And it's possible such heavy tanks for Ukraine could be announced as early as next week at a contact group meeting for allies of Ukraine.

FADEL: NPR's Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley. Thanks, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

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BROWN: Californians have been navigating flooded roads and intersections after weeks of heavy rain.

FADEL: All that concrete isn't prepared for storms that are getting more extreme with climate change. A new law passed by Congress in December could change that. But the big question is, how soon will it make a difference?

BROWN: Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk joins us this morning.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi there.

BROWN: Of course, we need the rain due to the drought, but why are we seeing so much flooding in California? Because it's not just next to rivers, right?

SOMMER: Yeah, that's right. You know, this is flooding that often happens far from rivers. It's inside cities and neighborhoods. And it happens because a lot of rain falls, and the stormwater infrastructure, you know, which is those drains and pipes that go underground...

BROWN: Right.

SOMMER: ...It simply can't handle it. You know, sometimes they get clogged, but other times they're just not designed for that much water.

BROWN: Why aren't they designed to handle these types of storms and water?

SOMMER: That's because in most places, the infrastructure is based on really old rainfall records. I spoke to one utility in Kentucky, the Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District, and their stormwater infrastructure is based on rainfall data from 1961. The problem is that storms are getting more intense. The utility did a study that found extreme rainstorms have already gotten worse and, with climate change, will drop two to three more inches of rain by 2065. Infrastructure planning manager Stephanie Laughlin says they're feeling those effects.

STEPHANIE LAUGHLIN: Because those climate change storms are happening more frequently, now is the time to invest in updating those systems that were installed a hundred years ago.

BROWN: Yeah, Lauren, it makes sense, right? Why don't these utilities switch to more recent rainfall records or design better infrastructure?

SOMMER: Yeah, I mean, some big utilities are doing that. But in general, the problem is that they rely on the official rainfall data from the federal government. That's put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In late December, though, President Biden signed a law that requires NOAA to update these records for the entire country and to include climate change forecasts about future storms. And NOAA is already working on that update.

BROWN: Right. Infrastructure, a big focus right now with a bipartisan infrastructure law rolling out, talking billions of dollars being spent - will that update, do you think, be ready in time for this?

SOMMER: Yeah, the problem is that NOAA won't have that new climate rainfall data until 2026. The vast majority of the infrastructure funding, which is almost $12 billion for these water systems, will be distributed by then. NOAA officials say it will take that long because doing this analysis for the whole country is pretty complex.

BROWN: Yeah, so what should cities and states do in the meantime if they're planning some big water projects?

SOMMER: Yeah. Yeah, that's the key question because what's built today will last 50, 60 years, even longer. I spoke to Rachel Cleetus, who works on extreme weather policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and she said even without this updated rainfall info, cities need to build in some kind of margin of safety to deal with climate change.

RACHEL CLEETUS: What we need to do is make sure that we're mainstreaming it into all of our infrastructure decisions from here on out. Otherwise, we'd be putting good money after bad. We will have roads and bridges that might get washed out. We might have power infrastructure that's vulnerable.

SOMMER: What needs to happen, she says, is a real shift in how we build things. You know, infrastructure that's around us is based on the idea that the future is just like the past, and that's not true anymore. And many cities are struggling to make that shift.

BROWN: That's Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk. Thanks, Lauren.

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

Dwane Brown
Dwane Brown is a multiple award-winning newscaster for NPR and joined the network in December 2015. He is the first newscaster to broadcast from NPR West in Culver City, California. His newscasts air during All Things Considered.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.