Morning news brief
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Lawyers for New York state and for former President Donald Trump present closing arguments today in the trial involving his business practices.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Trump had initially said he wanted to argue on his own behalf in court today. What we're now expecting is a little less dramatic than that.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering the case. Andrea, so which of his many court cases is this one?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: This is the case where the New York attorney general says Trump made hundreds of millions of dollars by repeatedly lying about the value of his properties, like his triplex in Trump Tower, which he claimed was worth three times as big as it actually was - about $300 million more than it actually was worth. This is important because banks and insurance companies made financial decisions based on these false statements.
Even before testimony began, the judge ruled that Trump had committed persistent and repeated fraud. So think about that. We have the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, who a judge has found lied over and over to illicitly profit.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what's on the line today?
BERNSTEIN: So there are six more causes of action to be decided. They involve conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying documents. The attorney general says Trump made $370 million more than he should have because he lied and that he owes that back to New York. The number actually went up after the trial testimony from 250 million. And the New York AG wants Trump permanently banned from doing business in New York and for his older sons, Don Jr. and Eric, to be barred for five years. But Trump's lawyers say no one was harmed, the banks made out and that the AG didn't prove her case.
MARTÍNEZ: OK. And Trump was supposed to - or at least planning to - give his own argument. What happened to that?
BERNSTEIN: So we've been through this a few times already in this trial. In an email chain released by the court yesterday, Trump's lawyers said he'd be making arguments on his own behalf. The AG objected, and the judge said, that's not really the normal course of business, but OK, Trump can speak if he sticks to the same rules as his lawyers - making legal arguments, not disparaging people or making a political speech. And Trump's lawyers said, nope, we don't agree. So the judge said, no dice. After that, Trump's lawyer, Alina Habba, said, is anyone surprised anymore? That's a statement that can work on a lot of levels.
As of now, we don't expect Trump today. He was in Iowa last night at a town hall. But we expect a day of arguments followed by a verdict in the next few weeks.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. But Trump has another trial in New York next week. What's that one about?
BERNSTEIN: Right. So that is the second defamation case brought by writer E. Jean Carroll. Last spring, a jury found Trump had sexually assaulted her and then defamed her and awarded her $5 million. There were two major incidents of defamation and two cases. That was the second case, which, for complex legal reasons, was the first to go to trial.
This trial, starting Monday, is for the first instance of defamation, when Trump as president said, quote, "she's not my type." And as the judge in the case put it this week, quote, "the fact that Mr. Trump sexually abused - indeed, raped - Ms. Carroll has been conclusively established." So the only issue is how much money Trump owes her. It's expected it could be tens of millions of dollars or more, since the first instance of defamation is the one that really affected her reputation. So we could also see a verdict in that case sometime this month.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. Thank you. That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you.
MARTÍNEZ: One other note about the former president - he has fewer rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Chris Christie dropped out yesterday and endorsed none of Trump's other opponents. Christie had been far more vocal than others in calling Trump unfit for office.
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MARTÍNEZ: We're following a court proceeding today at The Hague in the Netherlands. That city is home to the International Court of Justice, part of the United Nations.
INSKEEP: And that's where South Africa brought a case against Israel, alleging genocide against Palestinians. The filing asked the court to order a stop to the war in Gaza as a provisional measure while it decides the case.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Rob Schmitz is covering the case, joins us now from Berlin. Let's start with what South Africa is alleging in this case. What evidence does it present for Israel committing genocide?
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah, South Africa filed an 84-page application to the court, and it writes that Israel has engaged in and failed to prevent or to punish acts and measures which are genocidal, constituting flagrant violations of Israel's obligations under numerous articles of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. And that would include, according to South Africa, killing Palestinians in Gaza, including a large proportion of women and children, which it estimates to account for around 70% of the more than 23,000 fatalities, according to the Gaza health ministry. Israel's military response followed the Hamas attack on October 7, which killed 1,200, according to Israel.
South Africa also accuses Israel of causing the forced evacuation and displacement of around 85% of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as causing the wide-scale destruction of homes, villages and refugee camps in Gaza, preventing a significant proportion of the Palestinian people from returning to their homes.
MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to a charge of genocide, Rob, what's the burden of proof?
SCHMITZ: Yeah, from legal experts I'm speaking to, it's going to be difficult to prove. And that's because the legal definition of genocide depends on proving intent. I spoke with Gleider Hernandez, a professor of international law at Leuven University in Belgium who is also the president of the European Society of International Law. Here's what he said.
GLEIDER HERNANDEZ: Genocide is not a crime that just exists by virtue of an act. There is specific intent that must be proven. You must prove the desire to exterminate a group by reason of one of the characteristics - race, religion, nationality. Israel's strongest defense is likely to be to suggest that the evidence does not establish intention on the part of Israel or its organs to commit genocide.
SCHMITZ: And Hernandez says that even if some of Israel's acts against Gaza might be prohibited under international laws that deal with armed conflict, they may not constitute genocide because Israel will likely say they're taken in self-defense, and international law does allow a state to defend itself.
MARTÍNEZ: What's Israel saying about this?
SCHMITZ: Yesterday, in a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israel's president, Isaac Herzog, said this.
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PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG: There's nothing more atrocious and preposterous than this claim. Actually, our enemies, the Hamas, in their charter call for the destruction and annihilation of the state of Israel, the only nation-state of the Jewish people.
SCHMITZ: And Herzog also pointed out that the convention against genocide was enacted by the international community after the Holocaust, modern history's defining act of genocide, which was committed against the Jewish people.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what happens today, and what happens after?
SCHMITZ: So the court will hear South Africa's case today and then Israel's case tomorrow. A ruling may not come for years. What may happen within weeks or months, though, is that the court could issue a provisional ruling similar to an emergency injunction. So, for example, the court might direct Israel to refrain from its attacks on Gaza, anything that would aggravate this dispute.
But another legal scholar I spoke to told me that enforcing this is really difficult, and Israel could very well ignore it. States typically only comply with the court's provisional rulings in around half of all cases.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks.
SCHMITZ: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: Cryptocurrency has attracted many scams and grifters but has also now won some approval from regulators.
INSKEEP: Yeah, the U.S. government just gave the green light to a bitcoin ETF. ETF - that's a new kind of cryptocurrency investment fund that debuts today.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's David Gura joins us now. David, bitcoin ETFs - the ETF stands for exchange-traded funds. What is it?
DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Yeah. So basically, this is a way for people to invest in bitcoin - of course, the world's oldest and most popular cryptocurrency - without having to own any actual bitcoins. Stay with me here, A. Exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, are very popular. This is a $7 trillion industry. A lot of people have them in their portfolios. And in general, what they do, A, is track common investments like stocks and bonds. But the ones that just got clearance, these new ETFs, are going to track the price of bitcoin. The SEC just approved about a dozen of them, and they start trading on U.S. stock markets today.
Now, A, people in the crypto industry had been hoping for this for years. There was a lot of buildup. In fact, in the last year, bitcoin's price shot up more than 150%. And there were more twists and turns this week. One day before the decision, someone caused a real frenzy by hacking into the SEC's account on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter. That, by the way, now is something the FBI is looking into.
MARTÍNEZ: But what's behind the excitement over this new kind of crypto investment?
GURA: Yeah, the true believers, along with some big money managers like BlackRock and Fidelity, they say this is going to be a way to get more people into crypto. Of course, buying bitcoin has gotten easier in recent years, for better or worse, but it still takes a few steps to do it. You have to use a specialized exchange. It's kind of complicated. Bryan Armour is an analyst with Morningstar who follows the world of ETFs, and he told me these new ETFs will make the barrier to entry much lower.
BRYAN ARMOUR: So there's no signing up with a crypto exchange, managing a wallet, God forbid losing your private key to whatever bitcoin you own.
GURA: Companies see a lot of opportunity here, A, but regulators have been wary of this.
MARTÍNEZ: So about those regulators - why give the green light now?
GURA: Well, they were kind of left with no choice. One crypto company took them to court because they felt the SEC didn't give them a fair shake, and it won. Now, Sarit Markovich is a professor at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern. And she says what's really valuable here is the legal clarity that comes from what the SEC has done.
SARIT MARKOVICH: Here we're finally at the point where the regulator is willing to kind of, like, give us clear guidance in terms of what's legal and what's not legal.
GURA: At least with these specific bitcoin ETFs. It's evident, though, A, from this 20-something-page decision and from a statement from the head of the SEC that regulators did this, they made this decision with some reluctance.
MARTÍNEZ: Why were they reluctant?
GURA: Well, the chair of the SEC is Gary Gensler. And he has spent most of his tenure at that agency trying to rein in crypto. He famously said early on, it's like the Wild West. And I'll remind everyone, bitcoin and most cryptocurrencies are very volatile. Prices can move up and down a lot in a single day. And as you said, there's been a lot of unfavorable news about crypto, to say the least.
The SEC still has major lawsuits pending against Sam Bankman-Fried - that, of course, being the disgraced crypto mogul who was convicted just a few months ago of orchestrating one of the largest financial frauds in history. He's scheduled to be sentenced in March. The SEC is also suing Binance, whose founder is also looking at prison time.
So Gary Gensler - still very concerned about how risky crypto is. And, A, he emphasized that. While the SEC is giving the go-ahead to these specific funds, he and his colleagues are by no means endorsing bitcoin itself or any other cryptocurrency.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's David Gura. David, thanks.
GURA: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.