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Morning News Brief

NOEL KING, HOST:

U.S. troops have left a key base in Afghanistan.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bagram Airfield became a sprawling city unto itself. Walk around inside and there were familiar American fast-food chains. Outside the fortified gates, Afghans set up shops to cater to U.S. troops and the many Afghans who worked at the base. U.S. dignitaries flew in and out of Bagram. The road between the airfield and Kabul was often the site of Taliban attacks. Bagram was the center of U.S. operations. And now NPR has confirmed the Americans have left.

KING: NPR's Diaa Hadid is on the line. She covers Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: What have you heard?

HADID: What I've heard from a U.S. Defense official and an Afghan Defense official is that coalition forces left the Bagram air base. The news was first reported by Fox. The American official requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. He said this had been a process of several weeks of coordination with the Afghans to assume responsibility. But he stresses that the top American commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, retains the capability and authority to protect remaining forces.

KING: Rachel nodded to this a bit, but Bagram was an important and significant place.

HADID: It was. And, look, the significance is symbolic and it's practical. On the practical level, what this tells us is the American mission in Afghanistan is winding up sooner rather than later, perhaps within days, certainly months ahead of President Biden's announcement that they'd be gone by the symbolic date of September 11. It's important to note most NATO and allied forces have already left this week. The Germans and Italians both announced their withdrawals, but other smaller European countries and Australia left without any fanfare.

And then there's that symbolic significance. Bagram has long sort of signaled who controls Afghanistan. And, you know, this was built by the Soviets. The mujahideen destroyed it in the '90s. The Americans rebuilt it after 2001. And it's where tens of thousands of American forces first arrived in Afghanistan. It was the epicenter of the war to oust the Taliban and to hunt down al-Qaida. So winding it up and handing it over to the Afghans is one of those turning points where you can palpably feel the American commitment to leaving Afghanistan for good.

KING: And so what does the war in Afghanistan look like now with U.S. and NATO forces leaving?

HADID: Well, it's dire. And what's clear is that this is the end of the direct Western involvement in the Afghan war rather than the end of the war itself, if that makes sense.

KING: It does. Yeah.

HADID: Yeah. Like, the Taliban have been surging through Afghanistan in the last few weeks. They've seized over 80 districts, more than doubling the number of districts they hold. A respected Kabul-based think tank called the Afghanistan Analysts Network reported today that appears that Afghan forces collapsed in much of the country's north and northeast. And in those areas, the government's allowed militias to fight the Taliban. That's likely to complicate this war enormously by introducing strong men who have a history of brutality in previous rounds of this conflict. And as the last American forces leave, we can expect to see the Taliban trying to overrun provincial cities. And the fear is they'll try overrun Kabul.

KING: It's a very big fear. NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thank you, Diaa.

HADID: You're welcome, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. President Trump's business and his longtime CFO are accused of tax fraud.

MARTIN: Prosecutors in New York unsealed the 15-count indictment yesterday. They say there was a 15-year scheme by The Trump Organization to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. Alan Futerfas is an attorney for the Trump business. This is how he characterized the investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN FUTERFAS: It's politically driven notwithstanding the statements by my colleague at the DA's office.

KING: Reporter Andrea Bernstein has been covering this story for NPR and was in that courtroom yesterday. Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So notably, Donald Trump himself was not charged in the indictment, but his family business was. What is his alleged involvement here?

BERNSTEIN: Well, there's a few ways we can look at that. One is there are traces of Donald Trump all through this indictment. For example, he personally is said to have signed a check for CFO Allen Weisselberg's grandchildren's very expensive private school tuition. This was one of these alleged illegal tax dodges. Donald Trump also signed a lease for an apartment that Weisselberg allegedly used to avoid paying taxes. But more than that, what is laid out is this protracted criminal scheme purportedly committed by senior executives in the president's company, the company that bore his name. Donald Trump was so connected to this company that he refused to divest himself while he was president. So as a result of that, when you think about these allegations, there was a well-thought-out scheme by the senior executives of his own company to defraud the very government that Trump was leading as president while he was president. I want to be clear, Trump has always denied any wrongdoing in regards to his business practices, and both his company and his CFO pleaded not guilty yesterday.

KING: OK. So they're pleading not guilty. During the arraignment, what were some of the other allegations? I know there was a lot of detail here.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, let's take this - just this one apartment. So this was an apartment in a building that bore Donald Trump's name but that he didn't actually own. So there was a lease signed by Donald Trump with a specific rider that it was for Allen Weisselberg and his wife. And yet it was treated for tax purposes as if it wasn't their apartment. So while Allen Weisselberg was living there with his wife in this apartment that neither the company nor he were allegedly paying taxes on, he was also claiming to be a resident of Long Island, thereby avoiding New York City taxes. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxes were avoided in all, prosecutors say.

KING: So what are these charges or what could these charges mean for Allen Weisselberg and for The Trump Organization?

BERNSTEIN: So Weisselberg entered the courtroom yesterday, hands bound behind his back in handcuffs - a very dramatic moment for someone who has been sort of Trump's corporate alter ego since 1973. But he was released on his own recognizance, and he could go back to the golden Trump Tower tomorrow, go back to work. The problem is it could be very hard now for the company to get bank loans, partnerships. There can be disclosure requirements. Trump's business suffered a hit after the Capitol riots. But this is a new level being charged with a serious New York crime, even if that crime is charged to the company and the chief financial officer.

KING: And just briefly, is this investigation is still ongoing or is it done?

BERNSTEIN: Oh, yeah, no, the DA pointedly said it's ongoing. He took measures in court to indicate that. And there is a clue at the end of the indictment that Allen Weisselberg destroyed information in Donald Trump's personal ledger. That suggests an ongoing relationship. There may be more to learn about that.

KING: OK. A lot of interesting stuff. Reporter Andrea Bernstein, thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

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KING: The Voting Rights Act has taken yet another hit courtesy of the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: On the last day of the term, the court's conservative justices empowered state control of elections, and the court made it harder to challenge laws that may put minority voters at a disadvantage. The 6-3 ruling comes at a time when many states, especially those with Republican legislatures, are tightening voting laws. Election law expert Richard Hasen put it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RICHARD HASEN: I think it's fair to say that all of the major paths to challenging voting rules in federal court have been severely cut back.

KING: NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following this decision. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What are the details of what the Supreme Court ruled yesterday?

JOHNSON: Well, the Supreme Court upheld two laws in Arizona that threw out votes cast in the wrong precincts and made it a crime for most people to collect the mail-in ballots for others. A lower court had found those laws hurt minority voters. Black and Hispanic people in cities in Arizona had their ballots thrown out at higher rates than white people, and people in rural areas and Native American areas in rural regions had very little access to polling places or mailboxes. They often needed a neighbor to help. But in the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito and the court's five other conservatives said just because there's some inconvenience in voting, that doesn't make it unequal.

KING: A lot of states are trying to put in place more restrictive voting laws. What does this imply for places other than Arizona?

JOHNSON: I think it implies challenges to - those potential new restrictions are going to get a hard time at the Supreme Court. That's because, in this case, the court majority set out a bunch of factors that it's going to make it harder for challengers in other cases, things like considering the voting laws on the books back in 1982 when of course most voting happened in person and on Election Day. And the court majority also talked about state's interest to guard against election fraud. Arizona's Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, embraced that argument. Here he is on NPR's All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARK BRNOVICH: Public servants have no more sacred duty than protecting the people's right to vote. But we have to maintain confidence in the results and in the process.

JOHNSON: And, Noel, it's important to point out there's no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Arizona.

KING: Yes, it's very important. We've been talking about this for months. So what was the reaction yesterday from civil rights advocates?

JOHNSON: Pretty dismal. This Arizona case comes eight years after the Supreme Court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is considered the most successful civil rights legislation in history. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a blistering dissent calling this tragic. She accused the majority of operating in a, quote, "law free zone." Civil rights lawyers now say they have even fewer tools to address discrimination in voting. And it could really complicate the new Justice Department case against new voting measures in Georgia as well.

KING: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks for your reporting, Carrie. We appreciate it.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.