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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel and Hamas have agreed on another day's pause in fighting.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, day by day, as part of the agreement, Hamas is freeing more of the Israelis taken hostage October 7. Israeli authorities are also releasing Palestinians from Israeli jails. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is there to try to build momentum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We have seen over the last week the very positive development of hostages coming home, being reunited with their families. And that should continue today. It's also enabled an increase in humanitarian assistance to go to innocent civilians in Gaza who need it desperately.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary in Tel Aviv. Hey there, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wow. Listening to that, I think I can hear some weariness in the secretary of state's voice. He's been back-and-forth to Israel a lot. But where does his diplomacy go from here?

KELEMEN: Well, he says he's been relentlessly focused on this issue of the hostages, for a start. The Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, who was the first to meet Blinken today, says there are still about 150 hostages held by Hamas, and that includes some Americans. The Biden administration's point person on hostage diplomacy is here in Israel as well, and the administration is really just trying to keep this deal going as long as possible to get as many hostages out.

INSKEEP: So day by day, they try to extend it another day. But what happens when this pause is over, whenever it's over, and Israel resumes the attack, as it has said it wants to do?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, Blinken is privately pushing Israel to do much more to protect Palestinians in Gaza once the pause in fighting ends. The real concern is how they operate in the south, which is where Israel told Palestinians to go. You know, thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed so far in Israel's response to the October 7 attack by Hamas. And, you know, while there has been some relief during this pause, everyone does expect the fighting to resume.

INSKEEP: What are some of the pressures working against a longer pause?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, just today, you had two gunmen opening fire at an Israeli bus stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Israelis say that three civilians were killed. President Herzog called this just another example of what he described as the endless war that Israel is fighting against terrorist organizations like Hamas. Those were his words again.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And, of course, we're in a situation where there are these smaller acts of violence, whether the wider war continues or not.

Michele, I want to ask about one other thing. Former secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger has died at the age of 100. I'll note that he was central to delivering U.S. aid to Israel during a war 50 years ago in 1973, one of many controversies and wars and conflicts around the world he was involved in in some way. What are people saying about him now?

KELEMEN: Well, Secretary Blinken said that he often sought out Kissinger's advice over the years, including just a month ago. He said that Kissinger set the standard for everyone who followed him in the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: Few people were better students of history. Even fewer people did more to shape history than Henry Kissinger.

KELEMEN: So this was a man, for all his controversies, continued to really be a player in diplomacy right up to the end into his 100th year.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michele Kelemen, traveling with the secretary of state - the current secretary of state, Tony Blinken. Thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: New York Congressman George Santos' time in Congress could be coming to an end.

FADEL: The House is expected to vote as soon as today to expel the first-term Republican congressman. He remains defiant, though, refusing to resign. And here's how he portrayed himself in a conversation that streamed on X over the Thanksgiving holiday.

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GEORGE SANTOS: All of a sudden, George Santos is the Mary Magdalene of the United States Congress. We're all going to stone this [expletive] because it's just politically expedient.

FADEL: He's comparing himself to a biblical character there, a follower of Jesus.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Eric McDaniel has been following this story. Reporter is your title, Eric, but I just promoted you. Correspondent's the next one up.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: I appreciate it, yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. Congratulations on that promotion.

MCDANIEL: Thank you. I'll take it to the bank.

INSKEEP: Hopefully it lasts. Hopefully it lasts.

So what is it that has Santos in such trouble - such additional trouble with his colleagues?

MCDANIEL: I mean, look; he's facing more than 20 federal criminal charges. And if you're looking for something to read with your coffee this morning, might I recommend a breezy, 50-page House Ethics Committee report that ticks through all of this?

INSKEEP: OK.

MCDANIEL: The charges include - drumroll, please - wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds, conspiracy against the United States, aggravated identity theft, and credit card fraud. Basically, the easiest way I can explain something from all of this is, according to the report, Santos said that he loaned his campaign money but apparently didn't, actually.

INSKEEP: OK.

MCDANIEL: But the report said he did pay himself back for those fake loans...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MCDANIEL: ...Essentially stealing money from his donors.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry. Go on. OK.

MCDANIEL: He evidently did a lot of colorful personal spending and, of course, lying about his background, which he has admitted to. But I think it's fair to say what's gotten him in hot water is mostly the crimes.

INSKEEP: And a lot of bad press, which a lot of Republicans have not been happy about. But how common is it for the House to expel one of its own members?

MCDANIEL: So far in American history, not very. It's happened five times so far. Three of those folks were folks who supported the Confederacy. There have also been two members expelled more recently. They were both convicted of crimes. So if Santos is expelled, he'll be the first who has only been indicted. But as I mentioned before, a lot of what federal prosecutors are alleging has also been backed up by a House Ethics Committee report put together by lawmakers.

INSKEEP: I'm sure there are colleagues of this congressman who would wish he would just resign.

MCDANIEL: Yes, quite a few. Santos says it would set a bad precedent. He says it would be tantamount to admitting guilt for crimes that he says are basically bogus. The man is pretty strident. He's giving a press conference later today. He claims it's also his second wedding anniversary - a lot of emotions tied up in the day.

INSKEEP: OK.

MCDANIEL: Speaker Mike Johnson, a constitutional lawyer himself, says he personally doesn't like the precedent. He's been in touch with Santos often and said that they weren't going to strong-arm Republicans to vote either way, calling it a vote of conscience. But as you mentioned, lots of his fellow lawmakers do want him to lead, including a number of vulnerable first-term Republicans, fellow New Yorkers like Anthony D'Esposito and Mike Lawler.

INSKEEP: Are there colleagues who do not want to see George Santos expelled?

MCDANIEL: There are a few, a number who said so, including Clay Higgins. He's a Louisiana guy, a Republican. He said in a letter to his colleagues over the weekend that the report from the Republican-led ethics committee, I should say, is biased, that it engages in character assassination of Santos. So that's one line of reasoning.

But it's also worth noting there are some political concerns for Republicans here. They've got a razor-thin majority in the House. This district that Santos represents is one that Biden won by 10 points in 2020. A special election could very well send a Democrat back to fill that seat. Santos, for all of his baggage, is a consistent conservative vote, and I imagine some Republicans will weigh the pragmatic political needs pretty heavily here.

But given how many Republicans have already announced they'll vote for expulsion, and Democrats are also overwhelmingly likely to boot him, it seems that he may be here at the end of his time in Congress pretty soon.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Eric McDaniel, thanks so much.

MCDANIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The United States has been working to improve relations with India and now faces a challenge.

FADEL: The Justice Department announced charges against an Indian national for allegedly taking part in a murder-for-hire scheme on U.S. soil. The indictment alleges this was orchestrated by an Indian government employee.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is on the line from Mumbai. Hey there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is India's government saying about these allegations effectively against the government, or certainly against its own people, by the U.S. Department of Justice?

HADID: First, it's worth noting that the American citizen targeted in this alleged plot has been identified as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. He's a prominent advocate for a separate Sikh nation carved out of India. A government spokesman has just spoken to Indian media, and he says the alleged plot was a matter of concern and, quote, "contrary to government policy." That spokesman had also released a statement hours before the indictment was unsealed, saying the government had constituted a high-level committee and would take necessary follow-up action.

INSKEEP: What exactly does that mean, necessary follow-up action?

HADID: The Indian government hasn't provided more details. But if this incident sounds somewhat familiar, it comes two months after the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made a similar accusation against India in parliament. Have a listen.

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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen.

HADID: Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed in June. The Indian government denied it was involved and described the allegations as absurd. These are allegations, but they have soured relations between the two countries.

INSKEEP: I want to understand a little bit better who it is who is allegedly being targeted here. You said something about someone who wanted to carve out a separate nation from part of India. Is that's - what's going on?

HADID: They're members of a group that advocates for a separate Sikh nation carved out of Punjab, a state they dominate in northern India. This was an issue that violently engulfed India in the '80s. But these days, it's largely a fringe movement in the diaspora.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in a difference there because you mentioned this Canadian case, where Canada made these allegations, and my memory is that India retaliated and was very angry publicly about it. But this time, with the United States Department of Justice making similar claims, India says, let's take this seriously and look into it.

HADID: Observers tell me this comes down to the strength of the relationship between the U.S. and India. Have a listen to Michael Kugelman. He's the South Asia Institute director at the Wilson Center.

MICHAEL KUGELMAN: There's very strong support for the idea here in Washington that India is essentially one of America's best strategic bets for working with the U.S. to counter China, which is one of the core U.S. foreign policy goals.

HADID: People I've spoken to say, precisely because of that, the Indian government may have calculated that it could get away with this.

There's another element here. Sushant Singh is a lecturer at Yale, and he says India's right-wing nationalist government hasn't recently faced serious repercussions from the U.S. for other matters, like its treatment of its Muslim minority or its perceived democratic backsliding.

SUSHANT SINGH: The Biden administration has not taken any action or admonished India in any way, so that has also emboldened India into believing that it can get away by doing anything.

HADID: But that was before this indictment. Let's see what they do next.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid in Mumbai. Diaa, thanks so much.

HADID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We're also following this news story. Henry Kissinger has died at the age of 100. He was influential for most of those years. He served as national security adviser and secretary of state under two presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

FADEL: And that put him at the center of one dramatic event after another. He was involved in escalating and negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, credited with Nixon's opening to China. He delivered aid to Israel in the 1973 war. And he was portrayed as a stabilizing force as Nixon's presidency collapsed.

INSKEEP: He also was reviled for his realpolitik approach to foreign policy but became a kind of celebrity. And in later years, presidents and secretaries of state from both parties came to Kissinger for advice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.