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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Hundreds of U.S. firefighters are joining the battle against wildfires burning in Canada, and President Biden's offering additional support.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Yeah, this comes as people across much of the Eastern United States are waking up today to dangerously polluted air. Flights have been grounded, a New York Yankees game has been canceled, and schools are keeping kids indoors.

MARTÍNEZ: Environment reporter Jacob Fenston joins us now from member station WAMU in Washington, D.C. Jacob, you're right in the path of that smoke. How bad is the air there?

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Yeah, it's pretty bad. I - you know, I noticed the first thing yesterday morning - I was on a bike ride going down a hill where usually there's a great view of the Washington Monument. You could barely see it. You know, I had to stop and take a picture. So if you're familiar with the Air Quality Index, or AQI, it's been, you know, between 150 and 200, which is considered code red or unhealthy air for the general public. You can really smell it outside. But it's been worse elsewhere. You know, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and now moving south into Maryland, they've had what's considered hazardous air - so, like, yeah, Major League Baseball games postponed, Broadway performances canceled. It was really one of the worst wildfire exposure events in recent U.S. history, exposing tens of millions of people in the most densely populated part of the country.

MARTÍNEZ: And how uncommon is this sort of air quality in Eastern states?

FENSTON: It's really new. I mean, just to give you one data point, here in D.C., our worst air quality days are almost always on Fourth of July because of, you know, the big fireworks displays. So yesterday was the first time we've had a code red air quality day outside of Fourth of July in two decades. You know, so it's just not something we're prepared for. It's like the earthquake here in 2011. So, you know, just one little example - I have elementary school kids. D.C. public schools waited until after school started yesterday to announce, like, oh, we're going to keep kids inside during recess and outdoor sports, so - cancel outdoor sports. So parents were just really left wondering, like, is my kid going to be exposed to unhealthy air outdoors at school?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, you're getting a little slice of California life there. When's the air supposed to clear up?

FENSTON: It depends a lot on the local weather conditions, on what happens, you know, in Canada with the fires. But the smoky air is likely to stick around at least today and into tomorrow. You know, in the meantime, officials are telling people keep an eye on that local air quality and stay indoors if you can, especially keep kids inside and people with any kind of heart or lung conditions.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, this is smoke from fires in eastern Canada, mostly in Quebec. Are fires particularly bad this year, and what's going on? Why are they so bad?

FENSTON: Yeah. I mean, it has a lot to do just with the lack of rain. I mean, just here in D.C., for example, last May was the driest May on record since 1999. It's been really hot in Canada, breaking temperature records. And so those things create the conditions that make fires much more likely. And across Canada, it's just been a terrible start to the fire season. So far this year, they've had 10 times more acres burn compared to the 10-year average. And, you know, this is what it means to be living on a warming planet. On the East Coast, you know, we're used to thinking a lot about climate impacts like flooding and extreme heat, but more wildfires and more wildfire smoke like this - these are things that we can expect to become more likely because of global warming.

MARTÍNEZ: That's WAMU's Jacob Fenston. Keep some eyedrops handy, Jacob.

FENSTON: Yeah. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Former President Trump is the target of a probe into handling of classified documents after he left office. A source tells NPR that his lawyers were notified by the Justice Department.

KHALID: That notice gives lawyers a chance to argue against an indictment. People who get target letters are usually charged with a crime, but not always. And in a post on his social media platform, the former President Donald Trump, said, quote, "No one has told me I'm being indicted, and I shouldn't be because I've done nothing wrong."

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been reporting on the investigation. Carrie, what do we know about the latest in this Mar-a-Lago documents probe?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: TV cameras caught Taylor Budowich going into the courthouse in Miami yesterday. He was an aide to Trump in the White House. He now runs a political action committee that supports Trump. And after his testimony, Budowich tweeted he was obligated to testify before the grand jury and that he answered the questions honestly. Then he bashed the current president, Joe Biden, and promised to help reelect Trump. As for what he was asked in the grand jury, here's what we know. Budowich was kind of a go-between for Trump and the media on some statements about the investigation into secret documents the FBI found at Trump's resort, Mar-a-Lago, and that investigation into possible obstruction and retention of defense information has been really active.

MARTÍNEZ: Active. We've reported on MORNING EDITION mostly active in Washington, so why is there a grand jury in Florida now?

JOHNSON: The special counsel, Jack Smith, is not explaining why he's now working in Miami as well as in D.C. But for a few weeks now, I've heard about grand jury subpoenas going out from Florida. And there could be good reasons for that. If prosecutors are investigating conduct that happened at Mar-a-Lago like possible obstruction, they may think they need to bring charges there at the scene of the alleged crime. Trump's lawyers have received notice from DOJ he's the target of the probe. And under DOJ rules, targets are supposed to get reasonable notice before they're indicted. Sometimes indictments will follow. Often they will, but not always.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So we're talking about the documents probe, but that's not the only investigation Jack Smith is heading.

JOHNSON: That's right. Jack Smith is also looking into an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, including plans to substitute fake slates of electors. You know, it's some people's full-time job to stay at the federal courthouse in Washington and watch who's coming into the building and figure out how close they are to former President Trump. And, A, it's really hard to get closer to a president than being chief of staff at the White House. This week, The New York Times reported and NPR's confirmed that Trump's last chief of staff, Mark Meadows, testified to a grand jury. It's not clear what Meadows said in that closed-door proceeding, but he was with Trump in the White House in the days leading up to January 6 and on his final day when Trump declassified certain documents. Meadows's lawyer says Meadows has maintained a commitment to tell the truth where he has a legal obligation to do so.

MARTÍNEZ: I imagine that President Trump, or former President Trump, says he's done nothing wrong. What else has he said?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Trump's - has sent out fundraising appeals this week based on the activity in the grand jury. He blasted what he calls never-ending witch hunts, even though his last attorney general, Bill Barr, told CBS this week the documents probe is not a witch hunt and that Trump's response to the government demand for documents has basically forced the Justice Department's hand and made it hard to not charge Trump with wrongdoing. We know this week Trump's lawyers met with Justice Department officials. There are signs that investigation may be reaching an end point.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Carrie Johnson. We'll talk again soon, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: All right. First there was Boris Johnson and Brexit, then a whole lot of political turmoil. For a few years there, the United Kingdom was kind of a mess politically.

KHALID: But Britain is back, or at least that's the message U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be trying to convey when he meets with President Biden today. The two leaders have talked several times before, but this is, in fact, Sunak's first trip to the White House.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us from our bureau in London. Lauren, how well do those two know each other?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Well, they've met at least four times before, but kind of in passing. They were both at the G-7 summit recently in Tokyo. They grabbed a cup of coffee when Biden was in Northern Ireland back in April. But as you said, this is Sunak's first trip to the White House. The U.K. had, like, three prime ministers last year. Honestly, it's been pretty hard to keep track. It's been a period of real political turmoil. Sunak took office in October. For months, Biden mispronounced his name. So did the White House press secretary. And that left some here in London feeling that, you know, maybe the Biden administration hadn't really bothered to learn who Rishi Sunak is. And so part of this visit is changing that narrative. The U.K. is an important U.S. ally, and they - it's called the special relationship between the U.S. and U.K. And that's really what they'll be discussing at the White House today.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's on that big agenda?

FRAYER: Ukraine and NATO mostly. Those are probably the biggest topics. I put that question to a former U.K. ambassador to Washington yesterday. His name is Kim Darroch, and he said that, you know, after all of this U.K. political turmoil, Sunak really just has one big task.

KIM DARROCH: Get the impression across that stability has been restored. As for Britain's place in the world, we're the second-biggest contributor in terms of military assistance to Ukraine. We are the second-largest contributor to NATO. There's no question, I think, that we can still bring something to the table.

FRAYER: So he says, you know, these are the leaders of two top NATO countries. There's a Russian war on their frontier, and they've got a whole lot to discuss. Sunak may also lobby Biden to support his U.K. defense secretary to become the next NATO secretary-general. And let's remember that the U.S. is also the U.K.'s biggest trading partner.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so on trade then - big economic news - what are the chances that something like that may come out of this visit?

FRAYER: I mean, Sunak would love a free trade deal with Washington. Nobody's really expecting that until after the next election in both of these countries. We could see some carve-outs, though. The U.K. wants to protect its car imports from the impact of subsidies the Biden administration is giving to domestic U.S. manufacturers of green energy, electric cars. Sunak also wants to talk about AI, artificial intelligence. His government announced overnight that the U.K. will be hosting an AI summit this fall, and Sunak wants to create a global AI watchdog and have it be based in London. But, you know, the European Union is a leader on AI, and that's who the U.S. has been talking to on this. And as you know, Britain left the European Union, so it's kind of tricky. I mean, most analysts say, though, that this visit to the White House is more about optics, about conveying leadership, about making the U.K. look stable than any big policies and, you know, pronouncing Rishi Sunak's name correctly.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Lauren, thanks.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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.
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