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News brief: Russia-Ukraine crisis, Florida abortion bill, DOJ sues Missouri

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russia says it's withdrawing some of its military forces near Ukraine.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters yesterday that the claim is false and that Russia has, in fact, increased its troops by as many as 7,000 within the last several days. Russia says the U.S. is just whipping up hysteria and spreading lies, while the U.S. says it's offering a clear-eyed assessment of the threat Russia poses to Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: Now, we're going to sort through these conflicting narratives, and NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to help us out. Greg, Russia says it's scaling back its military presence around Ukraine. What evidence is it offering?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Russia's Defense Ministry has put out some videos - one, for example, shows trains hauling out tanks and other armored vehicles. But a senior U.S. official says this is deceptive. Russia is publicly talking about de-escalating while privately mobilizing for war. As we just noted, the official says that Russia has actually added about 7,000 troops near Ukraine over the past few days - now has 150,000 or more troops in the region. And Britain says Russia has added armored vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital and has all the forces it needs to carry out an invasion.

MARTINEZ: Now, we've seen a lot of top-level meetings in the past few weeks. Is there any sign, though, that we're moving toward a diplomatic breakthrough maybe?

MYRE: Well, the short answer is no. There's still a good deal of diplomatic activity taking place. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in Brussels. He's meeting with defense ministers from NATO countries. They were standing shoulder to shoulder in a show of NATO unity, which does appear to be pretty solid right now. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his top aides say there's still room for dialogue. But we've seen a succession of European leaders visit Putin in the Kremlin, and we haven't seen any real diplomatic progress.

MARTINEZ: At the end of last week, U.S. officials said a Russian invasion was imminent. They even suggested privately that yesterday was the most likely day. Now, the day came and went - nothing happened. What are they saying now?

MYRE: Yeah, this was perhaps the most striking example of the U.S. declassifying and sharing sensitive intelligence about what they think Russia is likely to do. Russia has openly mocked this prediction, saying the U.S. is just creating hysteria. One Russian official offered a sarcastic take, saying wars in Europe rarely start on Wednesday. Now, State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked about this yesterday. He didn't get into the specifics of this case but addressed the broader issue of the U.S. forecasting what Russia might do next.

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NED PRICE: If something doesn't come to pass, it doesn't necessarily mean that what we've been warning of is wrong. In the best-case scenario, the Russians will have changed their calculus. I can't say what has happened in this case.

MARTINEZ: All right. So, Greg, what should we be looking for and hearing for next?

MYRE: Well, according to Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, Russia is now pushing a completely unfounded claim that Ukrainians are carrying out mass killings of Russian civilians in eastern Ukraine, in the so-called Donbas region and also in the same region both the Ukrainian government and the separatist fighters are accusing each other of shelling today. They've been fighting in this area for years, but at a tense moment like right now, there's a fear that such attacks or even false claims could escalate very quickly.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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MARTINEZ: Florida's Statehouse passed a bill banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

FADEL: Similar measures were also passed this week by West Virginia's House and Arizona's Senate. The bills were all inspired by a Mississippi abortion law now being considered by the Supreme Court, a case that many believe may lead justices to overturn Roe v. Wade.

MARTINEZ: All right, back-to-back Gregs now - NPR's Greg Allen has been following the debate. He joins us now. Greg, how does the bill change access to abortion in Florida?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, it would prohibit all abortions after 15 weeks, with no exceptions for fetal abnormalities and to protect the life of the mother. The current Florida law allows abortions until 24 weeks, and that's a point that's generally considered viability by doctors. Like the Mississippi law, Florida's ban after 15 weeks doesn't include any exceptions for rape or incest. The bill's sponsors concede that this law does run counter to Roe v. Wade, which currently allows abortions in the first and second trimesters. And in Florida, courts have said the right to an abortion is also protected by the state constitution. But abortion opponents think that's all changing. Here's one of the bill's sponsors, Republican Representative Erin Grall.

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ERIN GRALL: The courts have just gotten it wrong. And there is enough scientific evidence, in my opinion and the opinion of many, that would provide the court a basis to reconsider the decisions that they have made with regard to this issue in the past.

ALLEN: Supporters say by passing this bill, Florida will be ready when the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

MARTINEZ: How big of an impact would this have if it becomes law?

ALLEN: According to the state, just about 3.5% of abortions in Florida happen after 15 weeks, but that's thousands of women each year. Dr. Samantha Deans, an associate medical director with Planned Parenthood in Florida, says some women don't even realize they're pregnant until after 15 weeks. Another problem, she says, is that most fetal anomalies aren't detected by then.

SAMANTHA DEANS: You cannot perform an amniocentesis until the second trimester. And generally speaking, we don't perform amniocentesis until 16 to 20 weeks. That's just a medical fact.

ALLEN: Under the Florida bill, if an abnormality is discovered in the fetus after 15 weeks, the pregnancy can't be terminated unless two doctors certify the baby will die shortly after birth.

MARTINEZ: Now, such a sensitive issue, one that people are very passionate about - how did that play out in the debate?

ALLEN: Right. Well, we heard personal stories from several lawmakers last night. One was Republican Dana Trabulsy, who voted for the bill. She told colleagues she had an abortion when she was younger and now was anguished about it.

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DANA TRABULSY: But mostly, I'm ashamed because I will never get to know the unborn child that I could have had.

ALLEN: Another lawmaker, Democrat Robin Bartleman, talked about the agonizing time she and her husband had when they discovered well after that 15-week period a severe abnormality in the baby that she was carrying. She talked about what this bill will do for families who are in a similar situation.

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ROBIN BARTLEMAN: When you get that terrible, heartbreaking news, you don't even have a decision because the state of Florida has already taken it away from you.

ALLEN: The bill passed Florida's House last night on a largely party-line vote. It now goes to Florida's Senate, where it's also expected to pass and will be likely signed by Florida's governor if it goes into effect. And a lot now depends on the courts, both federal and the state courts. It will affect not just women in Florida but also those from the Caribbean and states throughout the Southeast, people who travel here for abortions.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Allen. Thanks a lot, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: All right, the Justice Department is suing the state of Missouri over its controversial firearm law.

FADEL: Attorney General Merrick Garland says the law limits cooperation with federal authorities and is making people less safe.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following the case. Carrie, can you explain what this Missouri law does exactly?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Sure. It's called the Second Amendment Preservation Act, and it went into effect last August 2021. It prohibits local police and highway patrols from enforcing several federal gun laws, and in practice, it limits the kinds of interactions that locals can have with federal authorities. The state law also creates penalties for local officers who help the feds. They could be forced to pay $50,000 to anyone who says their Second Amendment rights were violated. Here's what Missouri Governor Mike Parson said last year when he signed this bill into law.

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MIKE PARSON: The purpose is to stand up to the federal government, which we have to do as individuals, and be able to go up there and say, look; we are the people. We're the people. You're not the people.

MARTINEZ: So, Carrie, what's been the fallout from this law in Missouri?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says it's had a big impact on crime fighting. Many local police say the law goes too far and could hurt public safety. They're worrying about getting sued, so they aren't sharing information, and many have pulled out of federal task forces designed to crack down on gun violence. DOJ says about 80% of violent crimes in the state are committed with firearms. Last month, I spoke with Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City, about crime there. Lucas said he was worried about the fallout from this law.

QUINTON LUCAS: It has a very severe, incredibly severe, effect in Kansas City. An example would be that registering firearms that we find into a federal database is something that more law enforcement departments in Kansas City and in Missouri are avoiding.

MARTINEZ: There have been several recent clashes between the U.S. Justice Department and some Republican-led states. What legal issues are in tension here?

JOHNSON: Missouri is asserting control over its law enforcement agencies and making a strong statement about the Second Amendment. But the DOJ says the Missouri law violates the supremacy clause of the Constitution. DOJ says the state can't just declare any federal laws, including gun laws, invalid. It wants a judge to block this Missouri law and make clear that police in the state can cooperate with federal agents from the ATF and FBI to do things like help trace guns used in crimes. Justice says this is hurting crime-fighting efforts at exactly the wrong moment, when gun crime is up in a lot of places.

MARTINEZ: Carrie, so what happens next here?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there have already been lawsuits in state court trying to block the Missouri law, and the Missouri Police Chiefs Association has been asking for lawmakers to clear up the confusion so they can do their jobs. Now the Justice Department has brought a federal case, so a new legal front has opened. Missouri's attorney general, Eric Schmitt, a Republican who's currently running in a primary race for the U.S. Senate, says the law is on his side in this case, and he intends to beat the Biden administration in court. And also, this could have consequences beyond Missouri. Iowa and more than a dozen other states are considering laws just like this one.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.