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News brief: Russian missile strikes, student loan repayment, Trump rally

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Talks continue between Russia and Ukraine today via video link.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And another high-level conversation happens today as well - U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with China's top diplomat to talk about Ukraine. Russia has reportedly asked China for military assistance in its war of aggression. Yesterday, Russian missiles hit a Ukrainian military base near the border with NATO member state Poland. Refugees from other parts of Ukraine have fled to that western area for safety. At least 35 people were killed Sunday in that strike.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Lauren Frayer is in the western city of Lviv in Ukraine. Lauren, western Ukraine had mostly been spared from Russian bombardment. Are there fears that the war now may be widening?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, we just spent five hours in the basement in a bomb shelter this morning, if that's any indication. Air raid sirens are going off pretty constantly here, a huge increase from past days. These are airstrikes in the west, but Russian ground forces are still believed to be hundreds of miles away from here, so we're hoping this is not a new front in a ground war. The latest airstrikes, though, have definitely caused panic in the west of Ukraine. My colleague, NPR's Ryan Lucas, drove out to where that airstrike hit yesterday, spoke to some panicked villagers, and here's one of them.

STEPAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He's saying, "everyone is very anxious that anything could happen." This is an elderly man named Stepan. He didn't want to give his surname. He's clearly frightened. And given how close this Russian strike hit to the Polish border - within 15 miles or so - there are real fears that stray munitions could hit a NATO country and pull other countries into this war.

MARTINEZ: And there's been just such - just bad news coming out of the southern port city of Mariupol. What's the latest there?

FRAYER: Yeah. So I got through to a city official there this morning, which was surprising because for several days, the phones haven't worked there. His name is Petro Andrushchenko. He says his city is still without electricity, without gas. He told me he personally has one day of food left. And I asked him to look out his window and describe what he sees, and he just kind of groaned.

PETRO ANDRUSHCHENKO: Ugh. It's absolutely terrible. It's absolutely destroyed now. It's more like ruin from historical movie about World War II. But it's the real thing.

FRAYER: Now, Andrushchenko told me he's hoping to get some civilians out of his city today if the Russian attacks pause, but he said it wasn't safe yet. And I could hear the pounding of artillery behind him as we spoke. Mariupol is also where a maternity hospital was destroyed by a Russian strike last week. There was this devastating photo of a pregnant woman being carried away on a stretcher. It was really one of the worst images so far of this war. And we just got word that that woman has passed away. Meanwhile, fighting is raging across the country, fierce fighting northwest of Kyiv this morning. A U.S. journalist was among the civilians killed yesterday in Irpin, another suburb of the capital, Kyiv.

MARTINEZ: This latest round of talks today between negotiators from Russia and Ukraine, Lauren, are people there hopeful that maybe these could actually lead to some sort of progress in stopping the violence or at least maybe putting it on hold?

FRAYER: Of course. I mean, there's always hope. But this is the fourth round of talks involving the same negotiators - different format, video format rather than in person. These talks may last two days through tomorrow. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a video early this morning saying he's optimistic for talks. He credited these talks with facilitating some of these humanitarian corridors through which thousands of civilians have been able to evacuate, but thousands and thousands more are still waiting. Zelenskyy also said, quote, "we are going through the worst ordeal of our lives." And he said, Ukraine is unbreakable.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in the western part of Ukraine. Lauren, thanks.

FRAYER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: It's been two years since the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 global pandemic and nearly that long since the federal government put student loans on hold.

MARTIN: Which was supposed to be a reprieve for people who were paying off those loans. The payments were supposed to start up again on the 1 of May, but a recent email from the U.S. Department of Education has thrown that deadline into doubt.

MARTINEZ: Let's find out more with NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, there are more than 40 million Americans with federal student loans. What can you tell us about this email and what it means for them?

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Yeah, so this internal email was sent by the ed department to representatives of the government's big student loan servicers. So these are the companies that actually deal with borrowers, manage their payments. And the email said, don't reach out to borrowers about the fact that they are supposed to start repaying their loans in May. Don't send any heads-up, no billing statements, no reminders. The email was obtained by NPR, first reported by Politico. Now, I need to be clear here - it did not say explicitly that this payment moratorium would be extended, and when I reached out, neither the ed department nor the White House would confirm an extension, but it is not a stretch to say this email means an extension is possible, if not likely, because the department obviously has a legal obligation to communicate with borrowers multiple times before payments can resume, and it is simply running out of time.

MARTINEZ: And for anyone, I mean, that's got to feel like at least a sigh of relief maybe for at least a little while. So do we have any idea why this email went out and what's happening behind the scenes?

TURNER: Yeah, I think there is lingering concern about restarting loan payments with inflation as high as it is. But I think it's also pretty clear, A, that the White House is still grappling with what to do overall about student loans. You got to remember, you know, many in President Biden's own party are really frustrated with him because he campaigned on canceling at least $10,000 in debt per borrower, something he hasn't done. So liberal Democrats in Congress, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have been pushing Biden to cancel student debt. A few days before this ed department email went out, the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, appeared on the podcast "Pod Save America," and Klain promised clarity. He said Biden would either make a decision once and for all about cancellation before this moratorium ends in May, or Klain said Biden will extend the moratorium again.

It's also worth remembering, though, this payment moratorium has already been extended several times by both the Biden and Trump administrations. So ultimately, this email telling servicers to hold off is really the department's way of trying not to confuse borrowers any more than they already are.

MARTINEZ: OK, so what should the tens of millions of borrowers who still need to pay off their student loans plan for?

TURNER: Well, for the moment, they should still assume that they're going to need to start repaying their loans in May. I think that's really important until something officially changes. The challenge now for Biden, though, is that May return to repayment is really close to November's midterm elections. You know, the White House is in a bind. Republicans are pushing back hard, saying, you know, the pause was bipartisan when it started, but hiring is booming now. Not collecting on these loans has cost the government a lot of money. But it also doesn't take a political genius to know that for Biden and Democrats, there is very little political upside in asking tens of millions of borrowers to restart their student loan payments just a few months before they go to the polls.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Cory Turner. Thanks a lot, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Donald Trump is out campaigning again for other Republicans running for Congress and maybe a little for himself.

MARTIN: Yeah, despite the fact that the former president is not on a ballot, and he is not 100% certain to seek the Republican nomination in 2024.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben was at one of the Trump rallies in South Carolina this weekend. Danielle, what are people in the audience saying?

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Well, it was a Trump rally, so to some degree, I'm sure you could guess the gist of it. They deeply dislike President Joe Biden. They want Donald Trump to run in 2024. And a lot of them, most of them, incorrectly think that Trump won in 2020. They're also deeply committed. It was really cold, and people stood outside in it for six or seven hours waiting for him. But more to the point here, one unique feature of this rally is that Trump brought two Republican House candidates on stage that he hopes will unseat members of their own party, incumbents. Republican Russell Fry is a candidate trying to unseat Representative Tom Rice. Trump is angry at Rice because Rice voted for impeachment after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The other candidate Trump brought up was Katie Arrington, and she's vying for Nancy Mace's seat. Mace sharply criticized Trump after January 6 also.

Now, I want to play a clip. This is a woman named Shannon Reynolds I talked to. I asked her if Trump's endorsement of Arrington would affect her vote. She said no, but then she added this.

SHANNON REYNOLDS: I paid attention to that. I saw what Mace did. So I would put my vote in the other direction, just like Trump.

KURTZLEBEN: So Trump's voters who pay attention already are taking stock of who they think isn't loyal to him.

MARTINEZ: What does the GOP establishment think about this?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, part of it is that Trump is adding chaos to the primary process. That's what Brendan Buck told me. He's a Republican strategist. He worked for House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner. The national political parties in the past have, quite frankly, just worked really hard to protect incumbents, and Trump's tactics have blown that up. Here he is.

BRENDAN BUCK: And I also know that makes a lot of people really uncomfortable, that incumbents are seen as expendable. And of course, Donald Trump never signed up for that or thinks in those terms. He only thinks in terms of what's good for him or who's slighted him.

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, I should add here that it's not as if there aren't people in the party who are still fighting hard for these non-Trump candidates. I've communicated with Tom Rice supporters out here who deeply dislike Trump. One told me that Republicans who don't love Trump aren't that rare. So some in that camp are pretty hopeful.

MARTINEZ: All right, midterms just a few months away - what does all of this mean for that?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, part of it is simply that we're going to see how much power a Trump endorsement still carries. There's going to be an array of GOP primary races like this. And it's possible that in - especially in a really red state, a really red district, those endorsements will really matter. But also, consider that it's march of a midterm year, when a lot of voters just aren't paying attention yet. So plenty of people at this rally hadn't heard of the people Trump was endorsing. But it's not a big leap to imagine that the fact that these people came to this memorable event, they heard these new candidates talk - it's not a leap to think those candidates will stick with them.

But one other thing I want to point out is that, like you said, this was a rally that was also about Trump campaigning for Trump. So one of the big things is what we're looking for in 2024. And these voters said if Trump doesn't run, they want Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and when I asked them why, they said it's because he's like Trump. It's not about ideology; it's about style, aggressiveness, brashness. So voters, if Trump doesn't run, they want a close approximation. It shows how powerful he is.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thanks a lot.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.