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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Officials in Memphis plan to release a video today of the traffic stop that led to the death of Tyre Nichols. Those who've seen it call it appalling. And authorities expect protests. Five former police officers were indicted yesterday on charges that include murder and kidnapping. Nichols died January 10, three days after he was beaten.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Hundreds attended a candlelight vigil for Nichols last night in Memphis. They called again for systemic change in the city's police department.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Justice for Tyre. Justice for Tyre. Justice for Tyre.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott was at that vigil, and she joins us now. Good morning, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what's it like right now in Memphis?

ELLIOTT: Well, tense, as you might imagine, right?

FADEL: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: People are asking questions about just what went wrong here. How did this FedEx worker and father of a 4-year-old end up dead after what police said was a stop for reckless driving? You know, last night's vigil was at a skate park because Tyre Nichols was an avid skateboarder. And speaker after speaker just seemed really weary to have to be standing up with a bullhorn talking about the death of yet another Black man at the hands of law enforcement. Now, all of the ex-officers who were indicted yesterday are also Black, and they face charges including second-degree murder, assault and kidnapping, that indictment coming from the local district attorney. There remain other investigations going on, both from the state of Tennessee and federal investigators.

FADEL: What do we know about the video that's going to be released?

ELLIOTT: We're expecting it sometime this evening. It will cover the span of about three minutes. There will be body cams from the police officers, dashcams and also some surveillance video from the neighborhood where this happened. It's going to show what those who have already seen it describe as a particularly brutal beating, one that the Memphis police chief herself has called heinous, reckless and a failing of basic humanity. Last night at the vigil, Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, got a little bit emotional, asking people to remain peaceful when it comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROWVAUGHN WELLS: When that tape comes out tomorrow...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my God.

WELLS: ...It's going to be horrific.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My Lord, My Lord.

WELLS: I didn't see it, but from what I hear, it's going to be horrific. But I want each and every one of you to protest in peace. I don't want us burning up our cities, tearing up the streets...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Amen.

WELLS: ...Because that's not what my son stood for.

FADEL: I can't imagine what it's going to be like for her to watch that.

ELLIOTT: I don't think she will.

FADEL: Residents are calling for reform in the police department after this. What changes do they want to see?

ELLIOTT: You know, a complete overhaul of the way policing works. Here's Amber Sherman. She's an organizer with Black Lives Matter.

AMBER SHERMAN: The only way for us to end the injustice that keeps happening and the murders of Black men that keeps happening is to stop using police for traffic enforcement, to stop developing these different task force units, to stop having these violent interactions with citizens.

ELLIOTT: So the police chief has said there will be a complete and independent review of specialized units like the one that these officers who are indicted were part of.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Memphis, thank you so much for your reporting.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: It's no secret that the United States is deeply divided.

MARTÍNEZ: Sure. But while we think typically of these divisions as left versus right, progressive versus conservative, the fight within the Republican Party has been on full display lately. And the fight may get even louder as candidates prepare to jump into the 2024 presidential race.

FADEL: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is here to talk about what this says about the direction of the GOP. Danielle, remind us what kind of fights are taking place in the Republican Party right now.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: So there was, of course, that prolonged fight over the speakership, the one that took 15 votes. And relatedly, there is a question of raising the debt ceiling, what the conditions might be for that. And also this week, current RNC chair Ronna McDaniel has faced a challenge for who is going to even lead the party next. Now, all of this has led to these conversations and columns, op-eds among us journalists also about, OK, what does it mean to be conservative? And one person who raised this is Charlie Sykes. He's a former conservative radio host, and he's now the editor-in-chief at the right-leaning The Bulwark.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE SYKES: I understand the whole idea of fiscal conservatism, but then basically saying, yes, let's push the country toward debt default - in what world is the refusal to pay your credit cards considered a conservative act?

KURTZLEBEN: So for older hands in the party like him, this is all further confirmation that traditional conservative principles like the free market, like fiscal restraint - that those have just been eroded.

FADEL: Now, this all seems like an interesting philosophical argument, but it's just an argument. How do you know how a philosophy is changing?

KURTZLEBEN: That's a very good question. And so a couple of political scientists named Daniel Hopkins - he's at University of Pennsylvania - and Hans Noel - he's at Georgetown - they tried to measure this. Now, what they did is they surveyed a bunch of party activists about how they see lawmakers. So who's liberal, who's conservative, who is moderate? And what the researchers found is that even lawmakers with conservative voting records - when they opposed Trump, they were seen as more moderate. Now, former Senator Ben Sasse was one example of this. To give you some more current examples, Liz Cheney might be one. She's a Trump critic and the most prominent Republican who was on the January 6 committee. And I can tell you that out on the trail, Republicans told me that she was a RINO, or a Republican in name only. I do want to add here that not everyone cares all that much about this argument. I talked to Ashley Hayek. She's head of the pro-Trump group America First Works. And she said that, yes, she sees Trump as conservative, but that your average voter just doesn't care about all of this, about the definition of conservatism.

FADEL: OK, then why does it matter?

KURTZLEBEN: Part of it is that there is evidence that Trump is losing his grip on the party, that he may have a real challenge getting the nomination in 2024, for example. And so that raises another question. If he's at the center of what people think is conservatism and if he fades, then what is the ideology of his party? Now, I talked to Michael Steele. He's the former RNC chair. He worries that the GOP simply has no ideology right now. He pointed out that the GOP didn't adopt a new platform in 2020.

MICHAEL STEELE: We don't even have a platform. How do we define ourselves? We can't even tell you what we believe. You know, everybody talking about Liz Cheney isn't - yeah, Liz is a conservative on a lot of things. But Liz got herself kicked out of the party.

KURTZLEBEN: And one thing he added is that he sees an increasing focus in the conservative movement on negative politics, that a lot of people right now identify not with what they believe, but with what they don't. So they maybe care about being conservative, but they definitely care about not being seen as liberal.

FADEL: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, thanks so much.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: In the House of Representatives, Democrats hope to take advantage of GOP divisions.

MARTÍNEZ: Republicans have yet to raise the federal debt limit, demanding budget concessions from President Biden before they do. The new leader of the House Democrats says that won't be necessary.

FADEL: Hakeem Jeffries of New York tells Steve Inskeep he expects to attract a few votes from the other party and avoid economic calamity.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES: We cannot pay that ransom note, and we will find a vehicle legislatively. We will be able to, at the end of the day, convince a handful of reasonable Republicans in the House to do what the business community throughout America have suggested needs to be done, which is to make sure we pay America's bills that have already been incurred.

MARTÍNEZ: Economists warn if the U.S. fails to pay its debts, it would cause an economic shock. But Jeffries insists, quote, "We're not going to let the car go off the cliff."

FADEL: The interview will be on MORNING EDITION and on video at npr.org.

The pandemic showed the world what can happen when a dangerous virus starts to spread.

MARTÍNEZ: And that's one reason the government is taking another look at how it regulates some controversial lab experiments on viruses. Officials are meeting with key advisers today.

FADEL: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to fill us in on what this means. Hi, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey there.

FADEL: So what kind of research is under more scrutiny right now?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Basically, experiments that might make a germ worse, like, more contagious or more deadly.

FADEL: Wait, why would a scientist want to make a virus more deadly, more dangerous?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To understand what viruses are capable of, to get ready in case a virus out in nature mutates. Critics would say this is risky. You're creating new potential threats. Now, debates about this have gone on for years. But a virologist at the University of Michigan, Michael Imperiale, told me that this moment feels different.

MICHAEL IMPERIALE: I think that the pandemic has really kind of heightened the urgency with which we need to address these issues just because of all the controversy that's been out there regarding, you know, was this a lab leak or not?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A lot of people are suspicious about a lab in China and whether its activities might have started the pandemic. A government watchdog agency actually just criticized the National Institutes of Health, saying it didn't do enough to monitor what research was done with funding it gave to a group that collaborated with that lab.

FADEL: So what do virologists say about the lab leak theory?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, more than 150 of them have just put out a statement saying, look, open-minded people have investigated the pandemic's origins, and the evidence points to the virus coming from nature. Felicia Goodrum is with the University of Arizona. She says the evidence we have to date suggests that this virus jumped into our species when people had contact with animals, just like other viruses have done in the past, like Ebola and HIV.

FELICIA GOODRUM: There is no evidence to the contrary or in support of a lab leak - nothing credible.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nonetheless, she worries that scientists will get hit with onerous new regulations and that this will slow down research that's important for developing stuff like vaccines and drugs.

FADEL: Does it seem like the government will put new restrictions in place?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The White House and lawmakers in Congress have certainly been paying attention. Officials asked some outside advisers to weigh in. It's a group called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, and it's put together some draft recommendations that basically call for expanding an existing oversight system so that a broader range of experiments would get a special risk-benefit review.

FADEL: So how are scientists reacting to these recommendations?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The American Society for Microbiology has responded positively, although some experts say the devil will be in the details, like if regulations talk about a proposed experiment that's, quote, "reasonably anticipated" to make a pathogen more dangerous, what does reasonably anticipated really mean? I was talking to Tom Inglesby. He's director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. And he told me, you know, you can take a benign virus and turn it into something awful.

TOM INGLESBY: So the government really has a strong interest, on behalf of all of us and the public, in knowing when researchers want to make a virus more lethal or more transmissible and in understanding how that would be done, why that would be done and whether the benefits are worth it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says at the same time, you don't want to stifle science that's needed to protect the public health.

FADEL: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thanks.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thanks. 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.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.