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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In an unprecedented decision that's captured the nation's attention, Tennessee's Republican-controlled House voted to expel two lawmakers.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The two Democrats participated in a gun control protest on the House floor. They were responding to a school shooting in Tennessee that killed three children and three adults. And then they were thrown out. A third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, also joined the protests but gets to keep her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLORIA JOHNSON: It might have to do with the color of our skin.

INSKEEP: Johnson is white, while the two lawmakers expelled were Black. One is Justin Pearson. The other is Justin Jones, who said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN JONES: What we see today is a lynch mob assembled to not lynch me, but our democratic process.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.

INSKEEP: After the expulsions, protesters chanted shame on you to the Republicans.

FADEL: For more, we're joined by WPLN political reporter Blaise Gainey. He joins us from Nashville. Good morning, Blaise.

BLAISE GAINEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start with how it got to this point.

GAINEY: Yeah. So three Democratic lawmakers went to the podium used to present bills in the middle of session to speak about the need to address gun control. This was days after six lives were taken by a school shooter wielding two assault rifles and a pistol. They said that they were only doing this after their microphone had been cut off when trying to acknowledge the thousands of protesters asking for gun control legislation at the Capitol that day.

FADEL: And so ultimately, they broke a rule of decorum in the House, right?

GAINEY: Correct.

FADEL: So what I'm trying to understand is how unprecedented this is. Other than just after the Civil War, only two lawmakers have ever been expelled. And that was over possibly criminal behavior - one convicted of bribery, the other accused of sexual misconduct. So what is the GOP in Tennessee - what message are they sending by expelling these two members over breaking a rule?

GAINEY: Yeah. Well, the House speaker, Cameron Sexton, says he didn't want the actions of the lawmakers to be taken lightly. He thought it set a bad precedent. So he felt that expulsion was the right punishment. But several worry it could set a bad precedent, actually, to expel the lawmakers over breaking a House rule and not something more serious as sexual assault or bribery.

FADEL: And what has the public's reaction been to these expulsions?

GAINEY: They've been upset, the ones physically at the Capitol and the ones that I've seen commenting online. Every now and then, you'll find a commenter that does feel the three deserve to be expelled. But it doesn't nearly match the several tweets and emails I've gotten claiming otherwise. I've also seen several pointing out that the only two that were expelled were Black men under 30, who were, you know, more outspoken about their dissent of certain bills that come up during session.

FADEL: What happens next for these members who've been expelled?

GAINEY: Well, the two lawmakers expelled come from Democratic-leaning counties. And that could mean they'll be back in their seat before the end of the month. On Monday, Nashville's Metro Council is going to vote to seat a representative for the empty seat left by Jones. And several members on that council have already said they choose Jones. While I haven't heard what county commissioners in Shelby County, where Memphis lies, expects to do, I get the sense they'd do the same for Justin Pearson.

FADEL: Now, everybody in the nation has been watching Tennessee. President Biden called the expulsions undemocratic and without precedent. Could this partisan vote set a precedent where members in statehouses around the country are expelled for any infraction in the future?

GAINEY: You know, that's exactly what people are worried about here, with just a House rule being broken of decorum. The speaker said it himself last night, people break House rules all the time. But for some reason, he felt these rose to a different level than the ones broken on the usual basis.

FADEL: WPLN political reporter Blaise Gainey. Thank you so much for your time.

GAINEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Top secret documents about the war in Ukraine have appeared on social media.

INSKEEP: These would appear to be U.S. military documents. They offer details on Ukraine's military and the state of the war. And somebody shared them on social media. The Pentagon says it is investigating how the documents leaked and whether they were altered.

FADEL: For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So can you start by just describing these documents?

MYRE: Right. So they've been posted on Twitter and Telegram. This was first reported by The New York Times. Now, we've seen several of the documents ourselves. One, for example, is labeled top secret and titled "Status Of The Conflict As Of March First." There's a detailed map of Ukraine, places where troops are concentrated, lots of charts that describe troop strength and available weapons. We've seen several such documents. You can tell they're physical copies. You can even see where they were folded and creased. And someone took a picture and then published them.

FADEL: OK. So top secret documents show up on Twitter and Telegram. Is it clear these are authentic? And if so, how did they end up on social media?

MYRE: Yeah, Leila, they do appear real. The Pentagon is certainly taking it very seriously, trying to get to the bottom of this. Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said, quote, "we are aware of the reports" on social media, "and the department is reviewing the matter." Now, military analysts we've been in contact with say the documents do appear genuine. But it also looks like they may have been altered. Just one example - one chart puts the Ukrainian death toll at around 71,000, which may be fairly realistic. But the Russian toll is listed as 17,000. And the Russian count is believed to be much, much higher. Though, neither side releases overall figures.

FADEL: So it sounds like maybe these documents are real, but part of them are altered. So some disinformation there, right?

MYRE: Yeah. Yeah, Leila. That's certainly a possibility. Military analysts have raised the suspicion that, you know, a pro-Russian person or group got these documents and may have then made these kinds of changes. But there's certainly a lot of unanswered questions here. You know, if the Russians are getting their hands on top secret documents, why would they want to put it on social media and publicize it to the world? So we really should stress it's not exactly clear who's behind this or what the motives are.

FADEL: How valuable could these documents be to the Russians?

MYRE: You know, it's hard to say. There's no indication that any of them reveal Ukrainian battle plans for a widely expected offensive this spring. It looks kind of like a daily summary of the war. Still, they do talk about combat brigades that Ukraine is assembling and when they would be ready to fight. There's also information on how rapidly Ukraine is burning through ammunition, which could conceivably help the Russians figure out where the Ukrainians may be running low.

FADEL: OK. Let's take a step back away from these documents and talk about the state of the actual war.

MYRE: Yeah. Of course, what really matters is what happens on the battlefield. The Russians have been pressing an offensive in eastern Ukraine for the past couple of months in and around the town of Bakhmut. And they've really only made incremental progress. The Ukrainians have been holding them off. A Ukrainian offensive is widely anticipated fairly soon. Most analysts expect it to focus on the areas controlled by Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine.

FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: The Biden administration announced a proposed rule aimed at stopping broad bans on transgender athletes who want to join teams that align with their gender identity.

INSKEEP: In recent years, at least 19 states have passed these types of bans. The administration plans to allow some restrictions but does not want schools to completely reject trans athletes.

FADEL: Here to tell us more is NPR's Sequoia Carrillo. Good morning.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what exactly is the administration proposing here?

CARRILLO: So as you mentioned, a lot of states have passed bans on transgender students joining school sports teams that don't align with their assigned sex at birth - so for example, blocking a trans girl from running on a girls' track team. With this proposal, the administration is hoping to make those broad bans illegal. And they're trying to do that through Title IX, which makes sex-based discrimination illegal in education. The Education Department says they've been talking to stakeholders across the country for the past two years to find the best path forward. And today's announcement is the result of that research. But it's important to note that the administration is specifically targeting blanket bans. You may have seen headlines yesterday saying the proposal will allow schools to ban transgender students from their school sports teams. Others were saying this protects transgender athletes. And the reality is that it actually does both.

FADEL: So how does that work?

CARRILLO: So the proposed changes still gives schools some flexibility to ban transgender athletes depending on age and sport. The idea is that it's very different to ban a trans seventh grader from playing on a volleyball team, per se, than it is to ban a competitive high school or college swimmer. And for the most part, the administration is going to let schools make those decisions on a case-by-case or sport-by-sport basis. So the Ed Department chose kind of a middle ground here. It seems like the main goal is to target broad state bans.

FADEL: So what does this mean for bans that are already in place?

CARRILLO: For now, it doesn't mean anything. This is still a proposal. And it could take a long time to see this enforced nationally if it ever is. It's also an interesting week for this announcement. It's been a big one for this issue. Lawmakers in Kansas have been trying for two years to pass a statewide ban. On Wednesday, they finally succeeded and overturned their Democratic governor's veto. Kansas is now one of at least 19 states that have instituted a similar ban in just the last three years. And then yesterday, the Supreme Court denied West Virginia's request to fully enforce its ban. That law was designed to keep transgender athletes from girls' sports teams across the state. It's important to note that the court wasn't ruling on the merits of that particular case. Though, at least one of the justices did hint in his dissent that he expects this issue to make it to the court soon.

FADEL: What kind of timeline are we looking at for this proposal? How soon could it happen?

CARRILLO: So the change is actually just adding one sentence to the law. But it's the first step in a very long process that could take months, maybe even years. The only thing we know for sure is that even if this proposal does go through, teachers, coaches and students will not see this change anytime soon.

FADEL: NPR's Sequoia Carrillo. Thanks, Sequoia

CARRILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.