News brief: New York's Trump case, COVID surge, Michigan school shooting
NOEL KING, HOST:
Former President Donald Trump may have to answer questions under oath about his business practices.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
New York Attorney General Letitia James wants to take a deposition from the former president next month in a civil fraud investigation. If that happens, he would be compelled to sit in a room with prosecutors and answer questions under penalty of perjury.
KING: Reporter Andrea Bernstein has been following this story, and she's on the line from New York. Good morning, Andrea.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So civil fraud - what is this all about?
BERNSTEIN: So the New York attorney general is examining whether Trump's business routinely lied about the value of its properties - for example, giving tax authorities lowball numbers but reporting higher amounts, say, when he wanted to get a loan at a favorable rate. This was a pattern at one of Trump's buildings in Manhattan, at 40 Wall Street. In another building or another property, the company reported a value of $56 million for an estate when it had to pay taxes - so a lower amount - but when it wanted to write off the estate, it reported a value of $291 million. And this took place in a number of states.
KING: These allegations seem like something that a person would prefer to keep secret. How do we know about all this?
BERNSTEIN: So normally, I wouldn't be able to answer this question because these things take place behind closed doors. But this case is different. And that's because the Trump Organization has fought the investigation. It's refused to cooperate with investigators, so much so the New York attorney general had to go to court and file documents to get the thing she needs and in one case to force Donald Trump's son, Eric Trump, a Trump Organization executive, to testify. This past summer, she got a second court order for documents about appraisals and valuations. Now she's at the point where she wants to interview Donald Trump.
KING: And what is the significance of that, that the state AG is requesting a deposition of the former president?
BERNSTEIN: So it is a sign that this long-running investigation has reached a significant new phase. Typically, legal experts tell me, you interview the head of the company when you've collected all the other testimony and documents you need. But more than that, law enforcement officials haven't really had the chance to sit down and interview the former president under oath. Remember, he never spoke with special counsel Robert Mueller's office. And Trump successfully delayed a number of other legal inquiries while he was president.
KING: Yes. Mr. Trump is well known for delaying things. So why does anyone think this time is going to be different?
BERNSTEIN: Well, he - it may not be different, but in New York, what happened is that he has now twice been or his company has twice been told by a judge you have to cooperate. So it may happen again.
KING: Has Trump said anything about James' investigation or request for a deposition?
BERNSTEIN: Yes. His lawyer, Ron Fischetti, says he will move to block the subpoena in court. Trump and his chief financial officer and its employees have all denied wrongdoing. And Trump has called the investigation a politically motivated witch hunt. So all of that was a little sort of thrown off yesterday because the New York attorney general, Letitia James, had been planning a run for governor in New York in 2022 but not long after news broke in The Washington Post about this deposition, she sent out a tweet saying she would stay in her job as attorney general, adding, quote, "there are a number of significant investigations and cases underway."
KING: Suggesting that there are things she might want to do before she moves on. Interesting. Andrea Bernstein is covering Trump's legal cases for NPR. Thank you, Andrea.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you so much.
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KING: All right. The CDC is now recommending booster shots of Pfizer's COVID vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds.
INSKEEP: Public health officials have expanded bit by bit the people for whom they recommend boosters. Initially, it was older people and those with certain medical conditions. So what does it show us that the CDC now wants teens boosted, too?
KING: NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey has been following this one. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So as Steve notes, the age keeps going down. Why are 16- and 17-year-olds now in the mix?
AUBREY: Well, when the FDA announced the emergency use authorization for this group yesterday, Janet Woodcock, who's the acting commissioner, pointed to the continued spread of delta and omicron now and said as people gather indoors with family and friends, vaccination is the best protection we have. The FDA's Peter Marks, who is a key person in this authorization process, said that the new evidence overall indicates that the vaccine's effectiveness is waning after the second dose and said the Pfizer vaccine has been available to 16-year-olds for nearly a year. It's been shown to be safe and effective. And the agency determined that the benefits of a single booster shot outweigh the risk of myocarditis and other potential rare side effects in 16- and 17-year-olds. So these teens are now eligible and are encouraged to get boosted.
KING: Now, in a development that is both extraordinary and exhausting, the number of COVID cases - the number of new coronavirus cases is surging yet again in parts of this country. Where is this going on?
AUBREY: Yeah. Well, right now, the U.S. is averaging close to 120,000 cases a day. That's about a 30% increase compared to a few weeks ago coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday. The rise, I'd say, is most notable in parts of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. As hospitalizations rise, the governors of Maine and New York have called on the National Guard for help. Michigan, Vermont, Pennsylvania also have high hospital admission rates. And areas of the Southwest, too, including parts of Arizona and New Mexico, have seen increased admissions as well. And, you know, though the threat of omicron looms, right now, 99% of the cases in the U.S. are from delta. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky talked about the situation at a White House briefing earlier this week.
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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We must act in this moment to mobilize together to do what we know works. We have months of study on delta, and all of those data to demonstrate that vaccines work. Testing works. Masking works.
AUBREY: The administration says about 7 million booster shots have been given over the last week. And Walensky encouraged everyone who is eligible to get boosted.
KING: Do we know if boosters will protect against omicron, which is now in 21 states?
AUBREY: You know, there are a few preliminary studies out from scientists in South Africa and Germany. They have tested the blood of vaccinated people to see how well the antibodies in their plasma neutralize or kind of fend off the omicron variant. These studies suggest protection is diminished. So scientists say vaccinated people may be vulnerable to breakthrough infections. But they expect that the vaccines will help prevent against severe disease and hospitalization. So that's encouraging. The research from Germany suggests booster shots may really help shore up protection against omicron. So there's still a lot to learn, Noel, but bottom line, early data suggests current vaccines will help protect against serious illness.
KING: OK. NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.
AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.
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KING: The parents of two girls who survived a school shooting in Oxford, Mich., are suing the school district and even some individual staff members.
INSKEEP: Seventeen-year-old Riley Franz was shot in the neck. Her 14-year-old sister, Bella, was next to her but was not hurt. According to the court filing, both are experiencing post-traumatic stress. Their lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, said the school ignored obvious signs of trouble.
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GEOFFREY FIEGER: They allowed a deranged, homicidal student to return to class with a gun in his backpack, with over 30 rounds of ammo in his backpack, when they knew he was a homicidal threat.
KING: Hayley Harding is a reporter with The Detroit News. She's been covering this story. Good morning, Hayley.
HAYLEY HARDING: Good morning.
KING: Who exactly are the parents of these girls suing?
HARDING: Specifically named in the lawsuit is the school district, which is Oxford Community Schools, and some administrators, including the superintendent and the principal. Several unnamed people, including two counselors, a staff member and two teachers are also included as defendants.
KING: It is vanishingly rare to see teachers and counselors being named in a lawsuit like this. What are they accused of exactly?
HARDING: Attorneys here say they're looking to hold accountable those who didn't act, specifically referring to the teachers. Police say an unidentified teacher saw the alleged shooter searching for ammunition on his phone the day before the shooting happened. According to the lawsuit, the teacher let him stay in class and alerted a counselor but did not tell a school safety liaison, who is an Oakland County sheriff's deputy. The next day, which was when the shooting occurred, a teacher found a note on the alleged shooter's desk that included a sketch of a semiautomatic weapon and a bullet, among other things. Another unidentified teacher let him keep his backpack in the classroom, which is apparently a violation of school policy. The lawsuit alleges that gave him really easy access to a gun.
KING: Are the parents in this case suing for monetary damages? And how likely is a court to find the school or individuals liable based on your reporting so far?
HARDING: So the lawsuit is for $100 million. I don't want to speculate on what a judge may or may not do, but it is worth noting that Michigan has really strict governmental immunity laws that can make it really, really tough to successfully sue a school district. Experts say that to overcome that, attorneys are going to need to show that there was a deliberate indifference here. One expert my colleague spoke to said he thought it would be possible to prove that because, according to the lawsuit, school officials looked at social media posts from the alleged shooter indicating he was potentially planning something in addition to the notes and the drawings.
KING: I know that you've been talking to people in the community. Are you seeing any indication that more families will be filing lawsuits like this, specifically targeting the school district and individuals who work there?
HARDING: So we already know that Geoffrey Fieger, who's the attorney in this first suit, says he plans to file a second one, but we don't know all the specifics of it yet. Beyond that, it is relatively normal for there to be multiple suits filed against school districts in cases like this one. After the Parkland shooting, I believe, there were a few dozen lawsuits, for example. So I don't think I would be surprised to see other ones come up.
KING: OK. Hayley, thanks so much.
HARDING: Thank you.
KING: Hayley Harding is a reporter with The Detroit News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.