Special Counsel Named, Twitter Turbulence, Deep Snow in Buffalo : Up First Attorney General Merrick Garland says Jack Smith will oversee two ongoing criminal probes into Donald Trump's conduct. A tumultuous week at Twitter ended with what seemed like an online wake by users. A winter storm socks Buffalo, N.Y.

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MERRICK GARLAND: I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An independent investigator assigned to oversee two government probes into conduct by former President Trump. I'm Ayesha Rascoe.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And I'm Scott Simon, and this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

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SIMON: One issue was the classified material found at Trump's Florida club.

RASCOE: The other concerns January 6 and the attempts to undo the 2020 election. We have the latest.

SIMON: And are the lights still on at Twitter? After a stormy week for the social media platform, we see if tweets still fly as straight and steady as they used to.

RASCOE: And speaking of storms, Buffalo is breaking out the shovels after a big one, as we'll hear from snowy New York state. So stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.

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RASCOE: Attorney General Merrick Garland says assigning Jack Smith as special prosecutor to oversee two ongoing criminal probes concerning Donald Trump is the right thing to do.

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GARLAND: I am confident that this appointment will not slow the completion of these investigations.

SIMON: And the attorney general's move comes only days after Trump announced that he's making another run for the White House. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was at the Justice Department for that announcement.

Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SIMON: What is the mandate for the special prosecutor?

JOHNSON: The prosecutor is going to oversee the ongoing investigation of classified materials the FBI found at Trump's Florida resort over the summer and possible obstruction of justice there. And he's going to oversee key aspects of the investigation into the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The official paperwork from the Justice Department mentions whether any person or entity broke the law by interfering with a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election and the certification of the Electoral College vote held in Congress that day. You know, there have already been 900 cases against people who rioted at the Capitol or beat up the police on January 6. Those cases will remain with the U.S. attorney right here in Washington.

SIMON: Carrie, the Justice Department's been investigating January 6 for almost two years now, Mar-a-Lago documents case for months. What is a special prosecutor going to bring to ongoing investigations?

JOHNSON: Merrick Garland says there are extraordinary circumstances here that merit a special prosecutor - a need for independence and accountability. As for the timing of this decision, former President Trump announced he was running for office again this week. And the current president, Joe Biden, is inclined to run for reelection in 2024. And that may create a conflict of interest or at least the appearance of one.

SIMON: And what do we know about Jack Smith?

JOHNSON: He's registered as a political independent. He's been a prosecutor in Brooklyn and Nashville. And during the Obama administration, he ran the public integrity unit at the Justice Department when it was recovering from the botched prosecution against the late Senator Ted Stevens. But for the last several years, Smith has been a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague. He's moving back to the U.S. now, and he's going to start work as special counsel immediately. He wasn't at the Justice Department for the big announcement because he had a bicycle accident and had to have surgery on his knee. But in a written statement, Jack Smith promised to exercise independent judgment.

SIMON: But in the end, he reports to the attorney general. How independent can a special counsel really be?

JOHNSON: There's a whole set of regulations about this. They say the special counsel operates outside of the day-to-day oversight of the Justice Department. Jack Smith can decide whether and when to consult with the attorney general. But Merrick Garland can request briefings and overrule the special counsel if he wants to. If that happens, the Justice Department has to notify Congress - a kind of extra layer of oversight.

SIMON: This is now the second special counsel to investigate people close to Donald Trump. What's his reaction?

JOHNSON: The former president told Fox News this is a political move. He's been going through this for six years - first with the Mueller probe, now this. Trump says it's unfair, and he hopes Republicans have the courage to fight this, perhaps by conducting investigations of the Justice Department and the FBI through the Congress. Last night, Trump called this a witch hunt, just as he's done so many times before. Meanwhile, inside the Biden White House, a spokeswoman says they had no advance notice of the Justice Department move on a special counsel. And Biden has pledged not to interfere with the work of the Justice Department.

SIMON: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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SIMON: Mass layoffs, a call from the C-suite to be extremely hardcore and then mass resignations. Twitter's little blue bird is caught up in some major turbulence.

RASCOE: But is the sort of collective wake happening on the social media site with users tweeting farewell and, of course, memes - 'cause it wouldn't be Twitter without memes - is that premature? NPR's Camila Domonoske has her thumb hovering over the app's icon and joins us now.

Good morning, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what is the status? Like, is Twitter over?

DOMONOSKE: Well, I have just hit refresh here, and my timeline is still loading. Lots of people tweeting about whether Twitter is still up or not. The risk here is obviously that that could change. Musk had already laid off a lot of people. It was the first thing he did after he bought Twitter. And then this week, there were more mass resignations. So at this point, the question is, if something breaks at Twitter, do they have the people they need to fix it? And the other part of the question is, it's not just about whether or not the website works, like, as a technological question, right? It's a social media platform. So the value is who is on it. Like, MySpace still technically exists, but it's not MySpace anymore, right?

RASCOE: Really? I did not know that. You just - you gave me some new information.

DOMONOSKE: (Laughter) You can still go to the site. You can still go to the site.

RASCOE: (Laughter) OK.

DOMONOSKE: So on Twitter - right? - right now Elon Musk has been gleefully asserting that, in fact, usage is at all-time highs. There are lots of people logging on. What's not totally clear is whether people are using Twitter in the same way as they used to. All this chaos really did a number on the site's credibility. You know, allowing people to buy blue checkmarks created this confusion about which accounts were real and which weren't. So if you're just there for, like you said, the memes, that probably doesn't matter to you. But for people who care a lot about getting accurate information, that trust was really important, and it could be really hard to win back.

RASCOE: So, I mean, you know, we have - we know what's going on and kind of who's involved. But, like, why? Like, why is Elon Musk doing all of this? And that may be a very difficult question to answer.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Why would you pay $44 billion for a company and then lay off the people who made it and then, like, randomly release and unrelease features while tweeting crass jokes about the whole situation? Like, what's the plan here? I am not in the business of explaining Elon Musk's psychology. So I called up someone who kind of is.

ROSS GERBER: I'm the only guy that Elon allows to talk to the media constantly. He should probably be paying me, to be honest.

DOMONOSKE: That's Ross Gerber, longtime Tesla investor. Musk made a lot of money for Tesla fans like him, and he believes in Elon Musk's instincts. That's why he chipped in some money to help Musk buy Twitter. And here's his take on what's happening.

GERBER: He has to put himself in horribly difficult situations to thrive. And that's just the way he is.

DOMONOSKE: And Tesla, which just a few years ago was in a perpetual crisis, is now successful.

GERBER: So he's like, I'm happy. Things are going well. I'm having kids with every woman I meet. You know, what could I do to really make my life difficult? Oh, I'll buy a social media company and try to fix it all in an area that I have very little skill set at doing. That'll be wonderfully challenging for me.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. So there's one theory. Elon Musk was too happy, so he bought Twitter to make life more interesting.

RASCOE: OK. Now, I think the - so the idea is that Elon Musk just likes to really go through painful things. But what about everybody else? Or was he just bored? Like, what are some other theories?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Yeah. Gerber's word would probably be driven, not bored. That would be how he would frame it. There is another theory out there that Elon has a master plan, that this will all pay off by making Twitter super profitable someday. There is another completely opposite theory that he has a secret plan to destroy Twitter, to tank its value, so he can declare bankruptcy and restructure the huge debt that he saddled the company with. And I think, you know, you can't discount the possibility that maybe there's no plan. Maybe none of this makes sense.

RASCOE: NPR's Camila Domonoske on the Twitter beat.

Camila, thank you so much.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks for having me.

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RASCOE: More than 4 feet of snow in 24 hours - that's a lot even for an area like western New York that's accustomed to heavy snowfall.

SIMON: This weekend's storm is one of the worst that part of the country has seen in years. But not everybody there sees it. Member station WBFO's Emyle Watkins joins us from Buffalo.

Emyle, thanks so much for being with us.

EMYLE WATKINS, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: What's it look like?

WATKINS: Well, it's very different depending on where you are. The storm has blanketed the area, but it hit different towns very differently. For example, if you drive from north of the city to south of it, you're going to go from 7 inches of snow to over 5 feet. And in a town south of Buffalo called Hamburg, things are really quite bad. Emergency crews there are struggling to reach people. But north of downtown Buffalo, things are really different. There's only a few inches of snow.

SIMON: Snow is part of the scenery there in Buffalo, not to sound indifferent. How are people holding up?

WATKINS: I mean, some people are very stressed and overwhelmed or annoyed. But some people are enjoying it. They love the weather. They're outside with their dogs or their kids. I talked to a college student, Kyra Laurie. She got stranded at her parents' house in a suburb called Orchard Park. That got several feet of snow. She's having a good time with her family, and she's playing with her siblings. But Laurie says something I hear from a lot of people. This storm caught her by surprise. Some people think they can brave the cold. And they're used to living in parts of western New York, where there's lots of snow events.

KYRA LAURIE: Being from Buffalo, you just assume that you'll make it, that, you know, you can truck through any kind of snowstorm, but I feel like this one's been really aggressive.

WATKINS: Unfortunately, we've already seen two people die from cardiac events. That's something that can happen when older people or people with chronic illnesses try to shovel this really heavy, wet snow. We've had a partial building collapse already. And in some areas, police can't reach people stranded in their cars.

SIMON: And there's going to be more snow today, and wind. How can snow crews keep up?

WATKINS: I mean, it's really difficult for these snow crews. They're working around the clock to clear the snow. And again, it's a wet, heavy snow, and it's falling much faster than normal. I talked to John Pilato. He's the highway superintendent in the town of Lancaster. He's trying to keep the snow crews fed and rested while they camp out at the highway department.

JOHN PILATO: Bought as much food and grub that we could just have on hand for these guys. We bought a bunch of K-Cups so we could keep them a little bit caffeinated and fueled up. It's hard. It's very hard. They're not in their own beds. They're in a chair, or they're in a cot.

SIMON: Emyle, as a Chicagoan, I know that residential streets are often cleared after highways. But if you can't or won't drive, those are exactly the streets you need to be able to walk down to get to a store.

WATKINS: Exactly. I mean, this is a population that often gets overlooked in these events even though they are disproportionately impacted. I talked to Kevin Heffernan. He's with an organization called GObike Buffalo. They advocate for pedestrians with disabilities, cyclists and transit riders. And they've been really pushing the city for over a year to put in place sidewalk snow removal programs. Right now it's the property owner's responsibility to clear that snow. And he points out that 1 in 4 households in Buffalo don't own a car.

KEVIN HEFFERNAN: If the snow stops tomorrow and those streets aren't cleared within a matter of hours, I think that's when you start to see the frustration really start to mount because we - it's Buffalo. We shouldn't have to spend three, four days digging out of a storm where we're used to this. We should have good plans in place.

SIMON: Well, we will keep an eye on that. Member station WBFO's Emyle Watkins, thanks so much for being with us. And stay warm.

WATKINS: Thank you.

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RASCOE: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. I'm Ayesha Rascoe.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. Tomorrow on UP FIRST - poets, musicians and UP FIRST listeners on Thanksgiving and family whether kin or kith.

RASCOE: And this weekend on the radio, Tony Kushner talks about Steven Spielberg. Jim Clyburn talks about Nancy Pelosi. And we have new books and music.

SIMON: Sports and the puzzle - Weekend Edition, on the air every Saturday and Sunday morning on your local NPR station. Go to stations.npr.org.

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