Trump Lawbreaking Claims, Fighting In Ukraine's Southeast, Yellowstone Flooding : Up First Over the course of its hearings this month, the House select committee on January 6th has expanded their argument that former President Trump not only broke norms, but broke the law. And, fighting in Ukraine continues in the eastern part of the country, but also in the southeast. Also Yellowstone National Park remains closed after unprecedented flooding, with peak visitor season just getting started.

Trump Lawbreaking Claims, Fighting In Ukraine's Southeast, Yellowstone Flooding

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In its hearings on the January 6 attack, the House Select Committee has been building the argument that former President Trump broke the law.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Will it lead to charges? We'll discuss.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: Russia has been advancing in eastern Ukraine and continues to fight for territory there.

KURTZLEBEN: But it's also focusing its efforts in the south. We'll bring you news from the ground.

RASCOE: And Yellowstone National Park is reckoning with damage from unprecedented flooding at the start of its peak season.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We can't fit a million people per month in half of the park, so there's going to need to be some coordination and some things that we're going to need to work on.

KURTZLEBEN: Stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.

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KURTZLEBEN: The House's January 6 committee, in its hearings this month, is presenting what a criminal case against former President Trump could look like.

RASCOE: Here are the members discussing his pressure campaign to undo the 2020 election.

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PETE AGUILAR: He latched on to a scheme that, once again, he knew was illegal.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMITTEE MEMBER #1: You can't ignore the evidence simply because it pertains to a former president.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMITTEE MEMBER #2: As a federal judge has indicated, this likely violated two federal criminal statutes.

KURTZLEBEN: We expect to hear more about this from the panel next week.

RASCOE: Joining us now to talk us through it all is NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Let's start from the beginning. The panel first shared its claims that Trump broke the law back in March. Remind us what they said then.

GRISALES: It began with a court filing as part of a legal fight between the January 6 Committee and lawyer John Eastman - this is a major Trump ally who tried to help block President Biden's win in 2020. Eastman had pushed this memo, laying out how then-Vice President Mike Pence could undo the presidential election by stepping out of his ceremonial and constitutional role overseeing the election result. Eastman had sued the panel to try to block their access to related emails and documents, but the committee responded in March with a filing arguing Trump broke multiple laws as part of this pressure campaign. They said Trump obstructed an official proceeding of Congress and engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States. And the federal judge in that case, Judge David Carter, essentially agreed, saying the president more than likely than not broke laws.

RASCOE: And the committee has been expanding on that argument in these hearings. What has that looked like?

GRISALES: Yes, the panel has filled in more of the details of what Trump did. A big piece of that is showing criminal intent, and that's a very tricky standard to reach. But we're seeing clips of tape depositions, live witnesses from Trump's inner circle, Vice President Mike Pence's inner circle, saying they told the then-president that this scheme was illegal, and he did it anyway. So that really came to a head in the last hearing, for example. Pence's then-White House general counsel, Greg Jacob, testified he heard Eastman admit it was illegal.

RASCOE: The Justice Department has been conducting its own investigation into the January 6 attack. They obviously have not charged Trump yet. Do we have any clarity on whether, you know, this might actually result in charges against Trump?

GRISALES: It's hard to say. We know Attorney General Merrick Garland said he's following these hearings, but it's unclear what the agency will do here. But we know from select panel members that they're frustrated with the Justice Department for not already showing signs of a criminal probe against Trump. And they worry there will not be one even after all of their work is done this year. The Justice Department, for their part, say the probe has been stalled on their end by the committee, not sharing interview transcripts and other information. And then finally, there's this whole debate surrounding whether the panel will issue a criminal referral for Trump at the end of all this. If they do take this step, especially close to the midterm elections, it will be potentially considered politicized and maybe backfire.

RASCOE: So what can we expect going forward from the committee?

GRISALES: Right now, we're expecting two hearings next week, one on Tuesday, another on Thursday. And the first is focused on Trump's pressure campaign on state officials. Sources familiar tell our colleague Stephen Fowler with Georgia Public Broadcasting that that state, Georgia, will be a large focus. And witnesses who are scheduled to appear include Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, yet another person who did not give in to the former president's pressure campaign to undo Biden's win.

RASCOE: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, thank you.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

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KURTZLEBEN: Russia's campaign to capture the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine grinds on.

RASCOE: But Russia's ambitions are not limited to just that area. Its forces control considerable land in southern Ukraine, and they're trying to capture more.

KURTZLEBEN: We're joined by NPR's Peter Granitz, who's in Odesa in the southwest of the country.

Good morning, Peter.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: So tell us more about the region that Russia is angling for here. What are the main cities, and why are they important to Russia?

GRANITZ: We're talking about the area around Kherson and Mykolaiv. Now, that's southwest of the Donbas. Military analysts at the Institute for the Study of War call it the southern axis. It's not the primary goal of Russia - that remains the Donbas - but it's just another front in the war. You'll remember that Kherson was actually the first city to fall to Russia in the first days of the war. And much of this area is agricultural - a lot of wheat, barley farms, some canola being grown for cooking oil. And the cities are logistics hubs that are focused on getting that food out of the country. There's been fighting along the line of Russian control recently. Ukrainian forces say there are counteroffensives in the Kherson region, and they claim to have liberated some villages in recent days. We cannot independently verify the claims, but both Russian and Ukrainian telegram channels have reported on Ukrainian advances there.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, you mentioned the city of Mykolaiv there. You traveled there recently. What can you tell us about how the conflict is playing out on the ground?

GRANITZ: There's no ground fighting at the moment. The attacks come from the sky. I met with the regional governor there. His name is Vitaliy Kim. And Danielle, he's kind of this local celebrity. He - when we met, he was vaping, and he was wearing a T-shirt that had Boba Fett in Ukrainian colors kicking a Russian cosmonaut in the head. We met in front of what was once his office. It was a 10-story building that Russia destroyed with a cruise missile two months ago. Thirty-six people died in that attack. Vitaliy Kim speaks with quite a bit of bravado about repelling Russian forces from the city earlier in the war.

VITALIY KIM: We pulled them back to the border of the Kherson region, and for now we're on active defense. We have best quality of our military forces. Russian forces are demotivated. They just have an order to stay and to defend this line.

GRANITZ: There are no signs of any imminent ground attacks. And those claimed counteroffensives - those are south of here in Russian-controlled territory. But half the population of the region has fled, and Kim says they should not come back, that it's not safe. There's near daily shelling in the city of Mykolaiv. And yesterday, missiles hit the city for the first time in a month, and at least two people were killed, and 20 more were hurt.

KURTZLEBEN: So are those people who have stayed able to continue on with anything resembling normal life?

GRANITZ: You do see some signs of regular life. There are people playing basketball at the park. You see a lot of bikes zipping through town. But many, many businesses are closed and even boarded up. Some streets in the city are just empty. The area around the port was just eerily quiet. It's a massive facility with no activity going on. It's clear that this is a big city near the frontlines of the war. When we drove in, we saw buses of children being driven out. And on the road into town, we passed missiles and tanks being trucked in. Now, we should be clear that some of those could be going further east into the active battle zone. Vitaliy Kim says he can't tell us about where military equipment is actually going. But Danielle, in town, there's no drinking water. And that's a really hard way to live. Water is trucked in from outside of the region. I met a woman named Anastasia Zanatova (ph), who was filling up 10 jugs from a tap connected to one of those trucks that brought in potable water.

ANASTASIA ZANATOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: Danielle, the air raid sirens had just gone off, and Anastasia says she's nervous and that her kids wake up at night crying when they hear the explosions.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Peter Granitz in Odesa, Ukraine.

Thanks, Peter.

GRANITZ: You're welcome.

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RASCOE: Yellowstone National Park remains closed this weekend after catastrophic floods shut it down Monday.

KURTZLEBEN: This at the start of peak tourist season, when most people visit and spend money in the surrounding towns.

RASCOE: For the latest on efforts to reopen the park, we're joined by Wyoming Public Radio reporter Caitlin Tan. Caitlin, thanks for being here.

CAITLIN TAN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: Can you start by just recapping what happened here? Like, this flooding started because of record rainfall and then there was, like, melting snow?

TAN: That's correct. So we had really heavy rains on top of normal spring runoff, which is when mountain snows melt and fill up streams and rivers. And so starting Sunday night, officials noticed rivers in the park were overflowing. The Yellowstone River was nearly double that of historic levels set in the 90s. And by Monday morning, the northern half of the park was flooded. So roads were falling apart into rivers here and - including the Yellowstone River - and bridges collapsed. There were rock and mudslides everywhere. A big house that some Yellowstone employees live in outside the park even fell into the river. So by midday Monday, the park decided to evacuate visitors and shut down all entrances to inbound travel. Officials estimate they had to evacuate more than 10,000 people within 24 hours. Reportedly, everyone was OK - no flood-related injuries.

RASCOE: So what's the plan moving forward? I mean, generally, I mean, I guess I understand that Yellowstone sees close to a million visitors a month in the summer. That's going to be pretty tough, like, in these conditions, right?

TAN: Absolutely. So as we speak, the park is still fully closed. Officials say the damage is so extensive in the northern half of the park that that area will likely remain closed for the rest of the year. But the plan is to reopen the southern half of the park, likely by next week. One major road repair has to happen before that, though, so it's going to be a challenge. Here's the park superintendent, Cam Sholly.

CAM SHOLLY: We can't fit a million people per month in half of the park. So there's going to need to be some coordination and some things that we're going to need to work on to figure out how to get that southern loop open safely and not overwhelm the infrastructure and operations down there.

TAN: So one idea officials have discussed is creating a reservation system to enter the park. Normally, you can visit the park whenever you want, as long as you're willing to wait in line. But with this proposal, people would have to sign up in advance.

RASCOE: And some of the communities around Yellowstone were affected by the flooding, too, but not all of them. Can you tell us about how the surrounding towns were affected?

TAN: You know, it was kind of varied. On the Montana side, which is where the northern entrances of the park are, there was extensive flooding. The park gateway towns of Gardiner and Cooke City, Mont., were cut off from roads during the peak of the flooding this week. These towns are likely going to suffer. You know, they depend solely on Yellowstone tourism. And with the northern entrances of the park remaining closed, these towns likely won't see a lot of visitors this year. President Biden did sign a major disaster declaration for the area on Thursday. And so further down, near the southern entrance of the park, is Jackson Hole. Jackson didn't really see too much flooding, but it's seeing a high volume of visitors since the flooding started. There's a lot of people who had vacation plans to stay in Yellowstone this summer, so they're having to find accommodations elsewhere. This has included camping at the local fairgrounds.

RASCOE: So, I mean, for those people that have plans to visit Yellowstone this summer, like, what should they do?

TAN: You know, it's still a little unclear. Like I mentioned earlier, it might be a little harder to get into the park this year if only the southern half is open. Officials are encouraging people to keep checking the park web page for updates. Otherwise, I've heard people encouraging visitors to go see other nearby attractions, like Grand Teton National Park and other towns part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

RASCOE: Wyoming Public Radio reporter Caitlin Tan - Caitlin, thank you so much.

TAN: Thanks for having me.

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RASCOE: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, June 18, 2022. I'm Ayesha Rascoe.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. Tomorrow on UP FIRST, a conversation in honor of Juneteenth with former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith about how Black poets, since the days of slavery, have used language to imagine freedom. Follow us on social media. We're @upfirst on Twitter.

RASCOE: And for more news and interviews, books and music, you can find us on the radio. You know that thing.

KURTZLEBEN: What? No. WEEKEND EDITION - Saturday and Sunday mornings. Find your NPR station at stations.npr.org.

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