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News brief: Trump Organization trial, student loan relief, South Africa scandal

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A federal appeals court has ruled that former President Trump is not entitled to a special master independent review of documents that the Justice Department seized from his Mar-a-Lago resort. That ruling removes the hurdle that Justice said was delaying its criminal investigation into the handling of top secret government information it says that it recovered from Trump's residence.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Meanwhile, prosecutors are expected to make their closing arguments this morning in the felony tax fraud trial of the Trump Organization. Defense lawyers had their turn yesterday.

MARTIN: And that's what we're going to discuss with NPR's Ilya Marritz. He's been watching the Trump Organization trial over the course of the past month. He joins us now from New York. Good morning, Ilya.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: We're saying again that this is the first time this has happened. A former president's business was charged with crimes in court. What moments have stood out for you as you watched all this?

MARRITZ: Oh, it's just really unusual circumstances. The evidence shown to the jury included checks signed by Donald Trump and a lease agreement he signed, both from the time before he became president. If I had to pick a moment, though, it would probably be the testimony of the star witness, former Trump Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg.

MARTIN: Yeah, this is the executive who pleaded guilty to tax crimes last summer, right?

MARRITZ: Yes. And he made a plea deal with prosecutors in August that in exchange for a lighter sentence, he would testify truthfully at this trial of the Trump Organization. And for hours in the witness box, Allen Weisselberg explained how, as CFO in the company, he found all these ways to cheat on his personal taxes, paying himself in undeclared benefits like cars and an apartment. His demeanor was sober. He showed very little emotion. And then it was defense's turn to cross-examine him. And right off the bat, Weisselberg was asked about whether he betrayed the Trump family's trust. And he said yes. And his voice broke. He sounded like he might cry as he described his embarrassment. Well, yesterday, the defense reminded the jury of this standout emotional moment because they believe it supports the idea that Weisselberg cheated on his taxes on his own initiative to benefit himself. He wasn't thinking of the company.

MARTIN: So what does that mean for prosecutors? How have they been responding to that?

MARRITZ: Right. So they began their summation late yesterday, and they ridiculed the idea that Weisselberg betrayed the Trump family. And they pointed out yet another unusual thing about the case, which is that Weisselberg, who ostensibly has turned on his co-defendant to make a deal with prosecutors, is in fact still employed by the Trump Organization. There was a birthday party for Weisselberg in Trump Tower on the day he pleaded guilty in August. So that's not exactly showing your disappointment with someone who betrayed you. And prosecutors reminded jurors that there's a lot of documentary evidence showing that quite a few company executives were improperly paid as freelancers. That saved the Trump Corporation on Medicare taxes and allowed these executives to take tax deductions that are really only intended for truly self-employed people - win-win. So if the defense's story is that there was one executive going way out of line, prosecutors want the jury to see a culture of rampant cheating.

MARTIN: OK, so what do we look for next here?

MARRITZ: Right. Prosecutors will finish their summations this morning. We expect the judge to give jury instructions on Monday. That will be key to helping jurors understand what exactly constitutes criminal liability when the accused is not a person but a business. And then it'll be up to 12 Manhattanites whether Donald Trump becomes the first ex-president to see his business convicted of a crime.

MARTIN: NPR's Ilya Marritz, thank you.

MARRITZ: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: The legal fight over President Biden's student loan relief program has put a lot of borrowers in limbo. And now the Supreme Court is going to have its say.

MARTIN: Yeah. The court announced Thursday that it will hear arguments about the president's plan. They're going to do so in February. That will prolong the uncertainty for borrowers, who are anxious to see how much of their loans might be written off, if at all. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been covering all this and joins us this morning. Hey, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. Give us the particulars of what the court decided yesterday.

NADWORNY: So the Supreme Court is going to hear a case filed just a few months ago by six Republican-led states claiming the state's loan authorities are going to be harmed by Biden's relief program. The court order is something of a blow to the Biden administration because in the context of this case, the administration had petitioned the Supreme Court to allow them to begin canceling student loan debts, even while these various legal challenges were considered in the lower courts. But when the Supreme Court said, yep, we'll hear the case, it also said the administration will have to keep the loan cancellation program on hold. So borrowers aren't going to see their balances go down. Biden's plan, which relieves up to $20,000 in federal student loans for many low- to middle-income borrowers, has faced a number of legal challenges.

MARTIN: Yeah, so let's talk about those because there have been several.

NADWORNY: Yup. And there's been a lot of confusion about, is this all legal? And that's perhaps the biggest reason that the Supreme Court decided to step in and hear the arguments this term. I talked with law professor Luke Herrine at the University of Alabama, who said he wasn't surprised it went to the Supreme Court.

LUKE HERRINE: I think the legal issue is important and difficult enough that it was likely that the Supreme Court would take it up.

NADWORNY: Herrine says the court is going to weigh two things - the legality of the debt relief program and the idea of overreach. So does the Biden administration, does the Education Department have the power to do this.

MARTIN: Right. And that's the central question. That's what Republicans are arguing - that the administration does not have that power.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So let's just talk about the borrowers, who are really at the center of this. I mean, you nodded to it earlier. They're just going to have to sit and wait, right?

NADWORNY: Yeah, that's right. It's going to keep borrowers in limbo a bit longer. So nearly 26 million borrowers have applied for some debt to be erased. Sixteen million borrowers have actually had their applications already approved. Madison Mariles, who's a grad student outside Detroit, is one of them.

MADISON MARILES: You get to the point where, OK, we're going to do it and then have it ripped away again. It's like, OK, well, I don't know if this is actually going to happen. OK, now you're just kind of like jerking me around. Like, is it happening, or is it not? Like, what is going on?

NADWORNY: So federal borrowers haven't had to make monthly loan payments more or less since the pandemic started back in 2020. But with the debt relief plan in doubt, some borrowers don't know how much they'll need to plan to repay. Sydney Grullon-Matos has $28,000 in debt. She should qualify for up to $20,000 in relief because she was a Pell Grant recipient. But now she's sitting here wondering, will she owe back the whole thing or just 8,000?

SYDNEY GRULLON-MATOS: It's just the waiting game of finding out exactly how much I have to pay off. But I just - yeah, I just want to know. Just tell me how much money I'm going to be paying off.

NADWORNY: As it stands now, borrowers will have to start making monthly payments again 60 days after a legal decision or 60 days after June 30, 2023. So it's kind of whatever happens first.

MARTIN: Oh, man, it's tough for those people. NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, thanks for all your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

NADWORNY: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is clinging on to his political life and the party of Nelson Mandela, the ruling African National Congress, in a crisis mode. Ramaphosa is facing calls to resign and possible impeachment proceedings after an independent panel appointed by Parliament alleged that he broke anti-corruption laws and violated the Constitution.

MARTIN: How he got here is this very convoluted story. It involves the allegations of a former spy, tales of a sofa stuffed with cash and the failure to declare the existence and subsequent theft of potentially millions of dollars. To unravel this tale, we are joined by Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Hey, Kate.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. So one of the headlines in a South African newspaper this morning says the following - "The End Of A Presidency." How did we get here?

BARTLETT: Well, we'll see whether it's the end of a presidency very soon. Yesterday, it was reported Ramaphosa was willing and planning to resign. Today, he's apparently been convinced by his allies in the ANC to stay on and fight. This is a developing story and moving fast. A little bit of background about Ramaphosa - he was elected in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform after nine turbulent years of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who was dogged by corruption allegations and scandal after scandal. And, you know, many South Africans were delighted when Ramaphosa replaced Zuma, as he was seen to be clean. And he spoke of a new dawn.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BARTLETT: But since then, critics say he's been slow to act against the rot in his party, though to give him due credit, in recent months there have been arrests and court cases involving high-level people fingered in corruption cases. But now this scandal over a large, undisclosed amount of cash inexplicably found stuffed in his sofa...

MARTIN: Oh, so it's his sofa that's stuffed with the cash?

BARTLETT: It was his sofa at his game farm. Yes.

MARTIN: And so what's the story of that? Yeah.

BARTLETT: Yeah. So basically, there was a robbery in 2020, and the robbers took an undisclosed amount of cash - could be millions. It's all very murky, the details - from the sofa. But we only found out about this two years later, a few months ago, when the country's former spy chief went and told the police about it. Now, the president, who is a keen breeder of prize buffalo, says the cash is from a sale of one of his animals, and he denies any wrongdoing.

MARTIN: Wow. So just walk us through what we expect to happen in the next few days.

BARTLETT: Well, if Ramaphosa doesn't resign on his own accord over the next few days, there'll be a debate in Parliament next Tuesday during which legislatures could vote for his impeachment. Meanwhile, the opposition, Democratic Alliance, is calling for early elections. Elections were slated for 2024. They want to bring them forward. And, you know, this comes at a crucial time because Ramaphosa is facing a leadership race in his own party in two weeks' time where he was clearly the main contender. But this scandal has thrown all of that into doubt now. You know, his party, the ANC, is riven by factionalism. And there have been knives out for him for years.

MARTIN: So this whole thing is going to just destabilize South Africa further, I imagine.

BARTLETT: Yeah, I would think so. I think a lot of people are worried about who will replace Ramaphosa. You know, South Africa has faced a number of challenges, including rolling power cuts, huge levels of unemployment and many corruption scandals. And even before this week's report, it's suggested the ANC would lose their absolute majority for the first time since the end of apartheid. And charges like this haven't helped.

MARTIN: Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg, we appreciate you. Thank you so much, Kate.

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

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.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.