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News brief: Oath Keepers trial, Putin's nuke threat, North Korea fires missile

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the final days of 2020, weeks after Donald Trump lost his reelection bid, a man named Stewart Rhodes urged the defeated president to declare martial law.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Rhodes urged Trump supporters to back them up because if they didn't, he said, it would be worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART RHODES: We're going to have to do it ourselves later in a much more desperate, much more bloody war. Let's get it on now while he is still the commander in chief. Hooah (ph).

MARTINEZ: Rhodes is on trial for what he did after that speech - taking part in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Prosecutors accuse him and four others of seditious conspiracy.

INSKEEP: They're members of a group called the Oath Keepers. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been at the courthouse. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the case against these men?

JOHNSON: Prosecutors say these defendants concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to overturn the 2020 election. They're building their case using photos, video, text messages. They told this jury that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes bought weapons and military gear before January 6. And on the day itself, Rhodes allegedly typed, all I see Trump doing is complaining, so the patriots are taking matters into their own hands.

The prosecutors say Rhodes acted like a battlefield general. Two minutes after he had a call with another defendant in the case, a group of 14 people, including Oath Keepers, started marching in military-style formation toward the Capitol steps. Later on after January 6, Rhodes allegedly said he regretted not bringing rifles that day. Prosecutors say the Oath Keepers kept their weapons on January 6 across the river in suburban Virginia as part of what they call a quick reaction force.

INSKEEP: Well, given his own text messages, his own calls, his followers' actions and the weapons nearby, what's his defense?

JOHNSON: Well, the defense lawyers really went after the idea of a quick reaction force. They said the Oath Keepers had used those in emergencies after something bad happened, not to conduct attacks on offense. And the lawyer said it's totally legal to keep weapons in your room in a hotel in the state of Virginia. A lawyer for Stewart Rhodes says even though things may look inflammatory when you hear the government's case, Rhodes did nothing illegal. He says Rhodes is deeply patriotic and loves this country. We've heard from lawyers for two other defendants in this case, named Thomas Caldwell and Jessica Watkins. Caldwell's lawyer criticized the FBI investigation. Watkins' lawyer says she's a transgender woman. He says she's never quite felt like she fit in, and that will explain some of her actions.

INSKEEP: OK. So that is the opening arguments from each side. What kind of evidence is out there?

JOHNSON: Yeah, The jury is now hearing from an FBI agent who arrived at the Capitol on January 6. He says it looked like a bomb went off in the Senate chamber, and he saw U.S. senators who were hiding at the time for their safety, crying and in shock. The government is going to call as many as 40 witnesses. We've also learned that Stewart Rhodes, lead defendant in this case, will take the witness stand later in the trial. He graduated from Yale Law School, so he has some legal experience. But there's no word yet on whether any of the other defendants intend to testify.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention there have been multiple convictions, multiple guilty pleas of other January 6 defendants. But there's got to be a lot of pressure on this particular case.

JOHNSON: Very high. Seditious conspiracy charges can be hard to prove. If the government fails to meet that high bar, it could undermine a lot of claims it's been making connected to the January 6 attack. And the DOJ has two more seditious conspiracy trials scheduled for later this year, one involving other Oath Keepers, another against leaders of the far-right group called the Proud Boys.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

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INSKEEP: What are the odds that Russia could use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine?

MARTINEZ: Russian leader Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened to use them, as his invading forces retreat. Russia has spoken of using all of its weapons to defend territory it illegally claims for itself.

INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us next. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how do you scope out what Vladimir Putin might or might not do?

MYRE: Well, Vladimir Putin is probably the only person who knows exactly what he's going to do next. Now, most of the nuclear experts I've spoken with say the likelihood of Russia actually using a nuclear device is still relatively low. And I asked professor Matthew Bunn, who's at the Harvard Kennedy School, to put a number on it. He's studied nuclear issues throughout his career. He's been a White House adviser. His best estimate is a 10 to 20% likelihood that Russia might use a nuke. That's a low probability for most things in life, but when it comes to nukes, he says it's intolerably high.

INSKEEP: Yeah, although I'm thinking about the practicalities of this. As a general threat - lovely little world you got there; be a shame if anything happened to it - you can understand the power of that threat. But what, if anything, is the practical way that some military leader might try to use one nuclear weapon on a battlefield?

MYRE: Yeah, he addressed that, and he pointed out that Russia has this range of nukes, including lots of small, low-yield tactical nukes that could be designed for a specific target - a concentration of troops, a military base, perhaps a port or an airfield. But he says Russia can attack these targets by just using large numbers of conventional weapons, and he says just look at the Ukrainian cities that have already been flattened. So Bunn says a nuclear strike may be intended to intimidate Ukraine in the West as much as to gain military advantage.

MATTHEW BUNN: I think the biggest factor in the use of nuclear weapons is the fear they provoke. Putin might hope that he could coerce the Ukrainians into accepting his terms, that he could coerce the West into backing off from supporting Ukraine.

INSKEEP: OK. Do the Ukrainians or the West seem afraid?

MYRE: Well, they're certainly taking it very seriously. Now, a senior U.S. defense official said the U.S. is not seeing any Russian moves that would compel the U.S. to change its own nuclear posture. And if Russia does go nuclear, President Biden and his team have already warned Moscow of a powerful, though unspecified, U.S. response. Bunn says the U.S. could very well target Russian military forces in Ukraine, and that would certainly bring a lot of added risk, but he thinks it's very unlikely the U.S. would respond with nukes itself.

BUNN: People have talked about things like conventional attacks on Russian forces in Ukraine, a variety of things that would be extremely unpleasant for the Russians and make the cost of using nuclear weapons higher than the plausible benefits.

INSKEEP: Would the rest of the world also help to raise the cost for Russia?

MYRE: That seems certain. Russia's international isolation would deepen. Two important countries to look at in particular - China and India. China has growing ties with Russia, but it's clearly becoming uncomfortable with aspects of the war. India has tried to remain neutral. By using a nuclear strike, Russia could lose both of them and become a true pariah.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre.

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INSKEEP: As if we didn't have enough anxiety, North Korea today fired a ballistic missile that flew over Japan.

MARTINEZ: It's the fifth missile launched by North Korea in just over a week. Japan warned residents to take shelter. The launch comes amid a gradual escalation of military activity by the two Koreas, the United States and Japan.

INSKEEP: What is going on here? Well, NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering it from South Korea. Hey there, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happened here?

KUHN: Well, South Korea's military says this was an intermediate-range ballistic missile, or IRBM. It flew around 2,800 miles to the east at an altitude of about 600 miles and a top speed of Mach 17. And that puts U.S. military bases on Guam within reach. North Korea has staged about two dozen launches this year, a record. The last time North Korea tested in IRBM was in January, but that time they were very careful not to send it over Japan.

INSKEEP: OK. So this missile flies hundreds of miles overhead, but it's over Japanese airspace. What was the experience like for people on the ground?

KUHN: Well, in Tokyo, as well as in northern Hokkaido and Aamori Prefectures, people heard sirens and warnings. State broadcaster NHK aired this clip sent in from a viewer in Hokkaido. Let's give it a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: So this alert warned residents that North Korea had launched a missile and people needed to shelter in a solid building. It's not clear why the alarm was sounded in Tokyo because the missile's flightpath was much further north. On the other hand, another alert sounded some 10 minutes later and told people that the missile had already passed. So residents didn't really have much time to react anyway.

INSKEEP: OK, a few frightening minutes in Japan and, of course, a symbolic act by North Korea. How do the countries around North Korea respond to this now?

KUHN: Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the launch outrageous. He said Japan strongly protests it. Japan's government suggested they could have shot the missile down, but they didn't because it didn't threaten to do much damage. South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol pledged a resolute response. And in a hint of how Seoul and Washington are upping the ante in planning more muscular responses, a South Korean warplane accompanied by U.S. jets dropped precision bombs on an uninhabited island in the Yellow Sea to show that they could just take out the source of any provocation.

INSKEEP: Wow. So a symbolic response to this symbolic attack of sorts. Why is all this happening now?

KUHN: Well, we're seeing a lot of things that have not happened in five years - the first North Korean missile to fly over Japan, the first U.S. aircraft carrier to dock in South Korea and the first joint naval drills involving the U.S., Japan and South Korea, all for the first time since 2017. Five years ago, you had nuclear brinkmanship between then-President Trump and Kim Jong Un. And then there were two years of summits between the two Koreas and the U.S. in 2018 and 2019, in which they tried to find a diplomatic solution. But those have stalled, and Pyongyang is now saying it will not bargain away its nukes.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, after five years of an administration focused on diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, since May we've had a new administration focused on deterring it. The concern is that we are headed for cycles of escalation and counter-escalation, including more intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea.

INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks so much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn. 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
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.