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Morning news brief


Presidential debates, a custom of the fall election season, are now part of the election summer. President Biden and former President Trump agreed to a pair of unusually early debates, the first coming June 27, long before early voting begins. They plan a second debate in September. NPR's Franco Ordoñez covers the presidential campaign and is always early or on time. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's in our Studio 31 here this morning. OK, so we started yesterday morning with no debates on the calendar...


INSKEEP: ...No idea what might happen, if anything, and now there are two. How did this happen?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, for a long time, there were many questions whether the two would actually square off at all, but more recently, the two have been kind of talking about a debate. Trump and his team, of course, have been challenging Biden to a showdown for a week, even calling him, like, the worst debater, saying, any time, anywhere, any place. They even had signs with that slogan, and they put up a fake debate stage at some rallies.

INSKEEP: Wow, this is like WWE events...

ORDOÑEZ: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Or something. Go on. Go on.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, Biden, yesterday, agreed, and he released a video.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020, and since then he hadn't shown up for debate. Now he's acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I'll even do it twice. So let's pick the dates, Donald. I hear you're free on Wednesdays.

ORDOÑEZ: More WWE there, I'd say. You know, Wednesdays, of course, are the day that Trump has off from his criminal trial...

INSKEEP: Oh, right.

ORDOÑEZ: ...In New York...


ORDOÑEZ: ...So a little trolling there.


ORDOÑEZ: And some more trolling from Biden, actually, writing on social media, quote, "as you said, anytime, anyplace."

INSKEEP: So why did they choose this particular time? Why so soon - June 27 for the first one?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, it's important because, you know, this is the earliest that it has ever been held, but this will be so early because they really want to make a difference between the two candidates. They want to separate - kind of distinguish who they are. For Biden, it's really about highlighting that this is a choice between the two candidates. The polls are so close. Biden is suffering from low approval numbers. You know, there are concerns about how he's handling issues like the economy and immigration. But his team really feels like, you know, that American public simply hasn't dialed into the election very much. For Trump, you know, he's very confident in his debate skills and feels that Biden is just not as quick as he used to be, and it really highlights those age questions.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm thinking about Biden's saying that he's said for years. It's not a choice between me and the Almighty. It's a choice between me and the alternative. He apparently feels by getting the two of them together, you can highlight the alternative, or he can highlight the alternative. But are there any particular terms or conditions of these debates as they've been negotiated so far?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Biden has a bunch of conditions. He really wants a more controlled environment - less interruptions, no big live audience. Biden has also pressed against having a third-party candidate on the stage who the campaign says didn't have any prospects of becoming president.

INSKEEP: RFK Jr.'s been complaining about this.

ORDOÑEZ: Exactly, exactly. You know, and Trump agreed to some of those terms. The first debate will be held at CNN Studios without an audience. I mean, it's really significant. Trump, of course, feeds on the stage spectacle, the energy of the crowds. And he hasn't given up holding more of them, actually. His campaign is suggesting the candidates debate once a month between June and September. You know, in the campaign words, they want maximum exposure.

INSKEEP: OK, but nothing like a WWE wrestling crowd, however. Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez.


INSKEEP: OK, the Biden administration is moving ahead with an arms transfer to Israel, worth $1 billion. Just a week ago, the White House paused a separate shipment of bombs to the country over concerns that Israel would use such weapons for an offensive in the crowded city of Rafah. This story touches U.S. foreign policy, national security and also domestic politics, since the president has faced criticism both for supporting Israel and for not supporting it enough. So we've brought in NPR senior national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.


INSKEEP: How does the White House explain going ahead with this shipment while pausing the other one?

LIASSON: Yeah, it sounds confusing, and the White House has been trying to explain this. The argument is that President Biden is just trying to do what former President Ronald Reagan did in the early '80s when he delayed shipments of F-16 fighter jets to Israel because of concerns about how Israel was using those weapons in Lebanon. So now the president says, we're not going to give one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs that could be used to flatten whole neighborhoods. But the White House has tried to make the distinction that other military aid, like the ones you just described, will continue. The problem is that it's unlikely that holding up just one shipment of weapons will influence the Netanyahu government to change its conduct of the war.

INSKEEP: OK, some symbolic moves here, some substantive moves here. What do these decisions say about the president's support for Israel?

LIASSON: Well, the president has insisted before and since October 7, the Hamas attacks on Israel, that his support for Israel is iron clad. His theory was that if he staunchly supported Israel in public, he could get some clout to influence Israel in private. He's tried to convince Prime Minister Netanyahu to do two things. One is to minimize harm to civilians, to use surgical strikes on Hamas rather than dropping those big bombs. And the second thing - he wants Israel to come up with a plan for the end of the war, a strategic endgame, a political diplomatic solution. Who runs Gaza after Hamas? But Israel has yet to do either of those things. And it looks like the United States, Israel's No. 1 ally, biggest arms supplier, has very little clout with the Netanyahu government.

INSKEEP: How could that be?

LIASSON: Well, this is not the first time that Benjamin Netanyahu has frustrated an American administration. He has his own set of political interests. He wants to stay in power, and that doesn't necessarily jibe with doing what the United States wants him to do.

INSKEEP: OK, so that's Israeli domestic politics, and we think that is a factor here. How do American politics factor into this? What does this mean politically for the president at home?

LIASSON: Well, the war in Gaza is causing deep divisions inside the Democratic Party. The left of the party says Biden isn't doing enough to restrain Israel. Young voters, Arab Americans in battleground states like Michigan are upset. Meanwhile, there are Democratic donors who are worried about the pause in the bomb shipments and about antisemitism on campuses. And of course, Republicans are doing their best to exploit these divisions. They have messaging bills in the House that would limit Biden's ability to put a pause on any shipments.

And the bigger political problem for Biden is that chaos anywhere - protests on college campuses, chaos on the southern border, on Ukraine, the war in the Middle East - all that hurts the incumbent. And President Biden was elected to keep things calm and return them to normal. And this just plays into Donald Trump's bigger argument, which is, the world is out of control. Biden isn't in command. You need a strong man like me to restore order. So for Biden, there's really no political upside unless this war ends.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much. It's good to hear your voice and appreciate your insights.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.


INSKEEP: Officials in Slovakia say that after hours of surgery, the prime minister, Robert Fico, is in stable but serious condition. He was shot several times at a political event yesterday while meeting supporters. Police have a suspect in custody and say this assassination attempt was politically motivated. NPR's Rob Schmitz is covering this story from Berlin. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. What happened, and how is the prime minister doing?

SCHMITZ: Well, after around five hours of surgery last night, Robert Fico is now in stable condition, serious condition, and he is conscious. And that was after arriving to the hospital in a helicopter in critical condition yesterday afternoon from being shot in the abdomen and left hand at an event in the Central Slovak town of Handlova. Fico was shaking hands with supporters when a man approached with a pistol and fired five shots before being tackled by security. The suspect is a 71-year-old man, described by local news as a poet, who is a critic of Fico's government.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about when a president is attacked in the United States. The whole country comes to a pause. Ronald Reagan being shot in 1981...


INSKEEP: ...Is something that happened in my lifetime. Everybody's focused on that for a time. How have people been responding in Europe to this assassination attempt?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, same here in Europe - I mean, wide condemnation. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a vile attack that has no place in a democratic country like Slovakia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack appalling. Reaction inside Slovakia has carried a similar tone, albeit with a tinge of politics, given the tense political atmosphere in the country. At a press conference at the hospital where Fico was last night, Slovakia's defense minister, Robert Kalinak, denounced the political environment that he said led up to this event.


ROBERT KALINAK: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Here is Kalinak insisting that the assassination attempt was purely about politics. And he seemed to blame the opposition parties in parliament for stoking this, saying, we were not the ones who talked about revenge, saying it's time to look in the mirror. But, you know, many political observers here say it's Fico's party that has created this political environment.

INSKEEP: OK, so if this is about politics, let's understand what the politics are. Who is Robert Fico and the party he represents?

SCHMITZ: Robert Fico is 59 years old. He's been a fixture of Slovak politics for two decades, serving as a populist prime minister three times. His party is a left-wing nationalist party, and he is friends with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Hungarian strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Fico has pushed for state control over Slovakia's free press, and he's been plagued by corruption scandals.

In 2018, he was forced to step down after protests against him, following the murders of a Slovak investigative journalist and his fiance. The journalist had been working on stories about connections between the Italian Mafia and members of Fico's inner circle. Fico later faced criminal charges for creating an organized crime group, but a prosecutor close to Fico's party then threw out the indictment. Fico is - as, you know, you can tell from what I'm saying here - a very controversial figure, both in Slovakia and throughout the EU for his pro-Russia and illiberal political stance.

INSKEEP: I can hear strands of that that are very specific to Slovakia and other things that maybe resonate farther across Europe.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, and, you know, it's interesting. You know, this gets to a bigger issue throughout Europe at the moment, the rise of nationalist populist political figures and the stark political divisions that are being fought on the ground. You know, the European Parliament elections are coming up in a few weeks, and we see those very divisions in the campaigns for office. It's a really tense political time in Europe and beyond.

INSKEEP: Glad you're there covering it, Rob. Thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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