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Have a safe Memorial Day Weekend!

Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today, we are learning how far the United States may go to push back on Israel's conduct in its war in Gaza. NPR has confirmed that the U.S. paused a shipment of thousands of bombs to Israel.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's administration has been voicing concern about Israeli plans to strike the city of Rafah. That's a city where more than a million Palestinians have fled from other devastated parts of Gaza. The administration faces a self-imposed deadline of today to release a legal review of the war. The U.S. has to determine if it considers Israel's conduct to be legal.

FADEL: Joining us now from Tel Aviv is NPR's Lauren Frayer. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with this news that Washington is pausing a shipment of U.S. bombs headed for Israel over its concern that they would be used in Rafah. What do we know about this, and how is it being received among Israeli leadership?

FRAYER: We know this was a shipment of more than 3,000 large bombs. The U.S. paused this delivery last week, according to a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity. Israel, though, is downplaying this. Its chief military spokesperson said today that any disagreements between Israel and the U.S. will be resolved behind closed doors, and he says coordination between them is at a historic high. CIA director Bill Burns is said to be in Israel today for talks.

The Biden administration, though, is also doing a legal review of whether Israel's conduct in the Gaza War complies with both U.S. and international law. And it's worth noting this is something that other countries are doing, too - particularly countries that export weapons to Israel, like the U.S., amid fears that those weapons could be used in alleged war crimes. Israel, of course, vehemently denies those allegations and points out that it was Hamas that started this war.

FADEL: Now, let's get to what's happening in Rafah. For weeks, we've been hearing about the worsening humanitarian situation there, the air strikes. What's the situation this morning?

FRAYER: People in Rafah today have one eye skyward at Israeli war planes and the other on Israel tanks that have moved in, flying Israel flags, controlling the border crossing now with Egypt, and they are burying their dead today. Our Gaza producer, Anas Baba, talked to this woman named Amal al-Dirby. She's a older woman in a Muslim headscarf shuffling between tents for people whose homes have been destroyed.

AMAL AL-DIRBY: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: And you can hear her there rattling off the names of nine of her relatives killed...

FADEL: Wow.

FRAYER: ...In an Israeli airstrike. She's sort of sighing with grief after she says each person's name. These have been some bewildering days for her and others in Rafah. First, Israel told people to flee that area. People started packing their bags. Some were literally on the move. When celebrations erupted Monday night after Hamas said it had accepted this cease-fire proposal, some people turned back, assuming the Israeli attacks would stop, and then they were hit by Israeli airstrikes.

FADEL: A terrifying whirlwind for civilians. And one of the biggest criticisms Israel has been facing from the international community is the civilian death toll of Palestinians in this war. Have the Israelis said exactly what they're targeting in Rafah with these airstrikes?

FRAYER: They say they're targeting buildings and tunnels used by Hamas - not targeting civilians - but the Gaza Health Ministry says half of those killed in the past 24 hours have been women and children killed in their residences. Now, Israel believes the last four remaining Hamas battalions have embedded themselves among displaced people in Rafah, and Israel says it's trying to choke off their supply lines. Those tanks controlling the border around Egypt - here's what the Israeli government spokesman Avi Hyman said about those.

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AVI HYMAN: Underneath that large border infrastructure are cross-border, underground smuggling tunnels sustaining and providing a lifeline to Hamas.

FRAYER: Egypt and the United Nations have slammed Israel for taking control of this area. The U.N. says Israel has obligations under international law to allow humanitarian aid through there. The U.S., though, however, appears to have convinced Israel to reopen another border crossing this morning, the Kerem Shalom crossing, which Israel had closed a few days ago amid Hamas rocket fire.

FADEL: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Tel Aviv. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Stormy Daniels has begun her testimony at former President Donald Trump's New York hush-money trial.

INSKEEP: She told her story of a sexual encounter with the former president - an affair he has denied - and she stuck to that story under a rain of questions and objections from the defense.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Bernstein was there, and she joins us now. Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So how important is Stormy Daniels' testimony to the prosecution's case?

BERNSTEIN: That was an issue even before she started testifying. The defense didn't want her to talk at all about sex, arguing this is a case about books and records. But prosecutors insisted that her story completes the narrative and that suppressing it led to the chain of events - the agreement she would stay silent, the $130,000 payment, the reimbursement to Cohen and those allegedly false Trump business records that called it a legal retainer. Certainly, as of yesterday, Stormy Daniels was silent no more.

FADEL: Right. So after all this buildup over many years about Stormy Daniels and her story, what did she say?

BERNSTEIN: When she told the story of the sexual encounter at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006 and a series of subsequent contacts and meetings with Trump, there were many ways her testimony lined up with what jurors have heard in this courtroom. So she testified that she was approached first by Keith Schiller - that's Trump's former bodyguard - about meeting Trump for dinner, and she put Schiller's number in her phone. And we've heard from other witnesses that Trump often communicated through Schiller.

Stormy Daniels talked about being instructed by Trump to call his executive assistant, Rhona Graff, when she wanted to find him. And we know from Graff, who testified earlier and was a longtime Trump employee, that she put Stormy's contact into Trump's contact and saw Daniels in Trump Tower. And Daniels said Trump called her honey bunch. There was actually tape of Trump played in court where Trump called an unknown caller honey.

FADEL: And so how did the defense treat her?

BERNSTEIN: She's said so many contradictory things about what happened. For example, in 2011, she flirted with going public by agreeing to an interview with In Touch magazine for $15,000, but at the same time was trying to get a story pulled from a website called thedirty.com because it talked about her and Trump and sex. She said she and her baby were threatened in 2011 in a parking garage if she ever went public and was scared and went silent, but never told anyone.

Despite all that, she said coming clean in 2016 was the best course of action, but then agreed to stay silent for a fee. So she clearly had contradictory and competing opinions about the best course of action, and the defense just leaned into all of that. In fact, the defense even called for a mistrial based in part on the fact that she testified about feeling a power imbalance when they had sex. The judge denied this motion.

FADEL: Now, you spoke with a few people who are familiar with the New York criminal courts after yesterday's testimony. How does it appear Stormy Daniels came across?

BERNSTEIN: So they told me it's possible the jury could reject everything she says because of her past contradictions, but they did point out that the defense has yet to undermine the essential elements of her story - that she had an encounter, that she agreed to keep quiet in 2016 for money. She felt the value of her silence was linked to the timing of the election. She said she feared if the election came and went, she would never be paid, and that is central to the prosecution's case. We'll see how far the defense goes in undermining those elements and if the prosecution can address that when Daniels is expected to continue her testimony when the trial resumes tomorrow.

FADEL: That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thank you, Andrea.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

FADEL: Trump faces criminal indictments in three other cases, none of which have trial dates. Yesterday, Judge Aileen Cannon postponed the classified documents trial that had been scheduled for later this month and has not set a new date.

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FADEL: TikTok is fighting for its life here in the U.S.

INSKEEP: The makers of the hit video app are suing the U.S. government in response to a new law that will ban the app next year unless the Chinese company that owns it finds a non-Chinese buyer.

FADEL: NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn joins us to explain how TikTok's future in the U.S. is riding on this legal challenge. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us about this lawsuit. Why does TikTok say it's suing?

ALLYN: Yeah, TikTok says this law amounts to an unprecedented suppression of free speech. More than 170 million Americans use TikTok, mostly for entertainment, but also to share their political views and to learn about the world. And the company says the government stepping in to shut that down is, quote, "obviously unconstitutional." TikTok argues that if this law is upheld, you know, what would stop Congress from going even further and passing a law to outlaw an individual newspaper or website?

I talked to Anupam Chander about this. He's a technology expert at Georgetown. He says banning a popular foreign-owned internet service reminds him of China's so-called Great Firewall, which banned Google Search, Facebook, Wikipedia and other sites.

ANUPAM CHANDER: That is exactly what China did to our apps 20 years ago. But we thought it was wrong then, and I don't think we should adopt the same strategy.

ALLYN: Yeah. You know, it's interesting because lawmakers debating this law use that comparison kind of in both ways. Some warned, you know, taking a page out of an authoritarian playbook is not the right idea, but others said, well, China did it to us, so we're justified in doing the same.

FADEL: Hmm - an-eye-for-an-eye reasoning there. So how is the Justice Department expected to defend the law in court?

ALLYN: They're expected to focus on TikTok being a national security threat. You know, I'm sure you've heard it by now - what the fears are, right? - that TikTok could be used to spy on us or as a tool to spread pro-China propaganda. The Justice Department will likely argue that while we haven't seen TikTok weaponized against Americans just yet, the potential for that is scary and compelling enough reason to not take a chance. I will say that history is on TikTok's side. It twice won in federal court when Trump tried to ban TikTok, and TikTok succeeded in defeating a statewide ban in Montana.

FADEL: OK. So while this is being worked out in court, in the meantime, TikTok has a year to be sold, or it will be banned. Is anyone going to step up and buy it?

ALLYN: Yeah. Some will try. I actually recently bumped into former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at a conference here in LA, and he's putting together one of the most high-profile attempts to try to buy TikTok. And he told me he is still interested with or without TikTok's algorithm, and that's important because TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, says it is not willing to let go of the algorithm. And now, you know, TikTok without its algorithm is kind of like a Lamborghini without its engine - you know, not that great.

But, you know, if TikTok were to be sold as the entire app, that would create another problem since 90% of TikTok's users are actually outside of the U.S. Here's Georgetown's Chander on the situation that would create.

CHANDER: You can't really create a TikTok U.S. while having a different company manage TikTok Canada. What you're doing, essentially, is creating a rival between two TikToks.

ALLYN: Yeah. Now, the U.S. government would be OK if TikTok just sold its entire global business, but that would be worth more than $100 billion - pretty expensive. And it would require the blessing of China, and China says there is no way they will agree to that.

FADEL: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you, Bobby.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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