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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden is in Europe this week with a mission to shore up America's ties and discuss potentially expanding NATO membership at a two-day leaders summit in Lithuania.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But he begins his trip this morning in the United Kingdom, meeting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and talking climate change with King Charles at Windsor Castle.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now from London. The NATO summit is really the focus of this trip to Europe. What will be the top priority?

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Well, Ukraine is going to be the top priority. Biden has staked a lot of his personal reputation on uniting NATO in the face of Russian aggression. But one big test for this idea of NATO unity, when this summit does get underway tomorrow in Lithuania, will be around this question of Ukraine's membership into the club. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has called on Biden to invite Ukraine into NATO now, but Biden has resisted that push. The president spoke with CNN's Fareed Zakaria before he left for this trip to Europe. And Biden flatly said Ukraine is not ready for NATO membership.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Holding NATO together is really critical. I don't think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war.

KHALID: And that's because bringing Ukraine in now would require other NATO countries to join that war effort. You know, so Biden says it would be premature to call for a vote now when Ukraine, though, I will say, would like to see at least a clear path to membership when the leaders get together this week.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, so then what would even be the conditions for Ukraine to join? I mean, has the White House spelled it out?

KHALID: No. And the White House has said it will uphold NATO's open-door policy, which means, in theory, Ukraine could join the club one day, but it's not articulated a timeline. Biden told CNN he thinks they have to lay out a, quote, "rational path" for Ukraine to get into NATO. And he said that will require some democratic reforms. So you know, it'll take some time to get into NATO. But Biden did tell CNN that in the meantime, if there is a cease-fire in this war, the U.S. will be ready to provide security guarantees to Ukraine akin to what it does for Israel, providing weapons capacity for the country to defend itself. Of course, you know, that would require the approval of Congress. And there is the risk that this all could further anger the Kremlin.

MARTÍNEZ: Sure. Now, it's not just Ukraine's membership that's raised questions about NATO unity. Tell us, Asma, about what's going on with Sweden.

KHALID: That's right. You know, you probably recall, after Russia invaded Ukraine, both Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO. It's now been over a year. And Finland joined the group a few months ago. But Sweden's membership bid has been held up. And really, the main opposition is Turkey. Turkey feels that Sweden is not doing enough to crack down on groups that it views as terrorists.

But really, experts tell me that this holdup is not just about Sweden. Turkey sees Sweden's membership as a moment of leverage, specifically around obtaining F-16 fighter jets from the United States. And on the flight over to Europe yesterday, Biden spoke with Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about Sweden's membership and this issue of the F-16. The two leaders are also expected to talk more on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Biden has said he is optimistic Sweden will join NATO, but it's still not clear when exactly that might happen.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Asma Khalid on the streets of London. Asma, thanks a lot.

KHALID: Good talking with you.

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MARTÍNEZ: All right. So now we're going to get the view on the NATO summit from Ukraine.

MARTIN: The prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance actually first came up in 2008. Fifteen years later, it's still under discussion.

MARTÍNEZ: Here to tell us more, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv, Ukraine. Greg, if Ukraine can't get membership at this NATO summit - and you heard President Biden say that it's premature, maybe, for even a vote to happen, so what does it hope it can get?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, the next best option from Ukraine's perspective would be a clear timetable toward membership. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview that aired over the weekend that Ukraine should get clear security guarantees, which President Biden seems to agree with, although we don't know exactly what those are. And many Ukrainians just feel they've been in limbo since the possibility of joining NATO was first broached back in 2008.

Ukraine wants the question resolved sooner rather than later. They say this fuzzy middle ground has encouraged Russian leader Vladimir Putin to invade. He knew it would be too late to act if he waited until Ukraine actually joined NATO. And lastly, I just note that President George W. Bush, who raised the idea of Ukraine in NATO, faced some pushback from Europe. And now some European countries, particularly Eastern European countries, support Ukraine in NATO, while President Biden is urging caution and saying this will take time.

MARTÍNEZ: And Zelenskyy visited a few NATO countries recently, including Turkey. And then he returned home with several prominent Ukrainian military commanders. Who are they?

MYRE: Yeah. This was a real surprise. These five military commanders were key figures last year in the Azovstal steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. You may recall that they were held - they held out for more than two months before they finally surrendered to Russia. And the Russians then sent them to Turkey in September. And part of the deal was that they were supposed to remain in Turkey until the end of the war. But Turkey's President Erdogan handed the five commanders over to Zelenskyy during his visit Saturday. Russia is very angry about this, saying Turkey just reneged on the deal. Meanwhile, this was a real gift to Zelenskyy and Ukraine. The five commanders got a hero's welcome in Ukraine. And they say they will soon return to the fight.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Zelenskyy also made a highly symbolic visit to Snake Island off Ukraine's coast. Why was he even there?

MYRE: Zelenskyy took this very bold trip in a small inflatable boat to Snake Island, which is in the Black Sea, about 20 miles off Ukraine's southwest coast. And I say bold because Russia's navy controls the Black Sea. Ukraine has no warships, no real naval presence to speak of, no clear way they could have protected him. And you may remember, this is the island where a Russian warship arrived at the beginning of the war and told the small Ukrainian force there to surrender. One Ukrainian responded with a memorable burst of profanity, which has now been memorialized on billboards, T-shirts and coffee mugs all over Ukraine.

The island is now back in Ukrainian control. And while he was on the island, Zelenskyy laid flowers, took a selfie and said this showed Ukraine would reclaim all the territory. I'll just note finally that Russian ships keep their distance to avoid getting hit by the Ukrainian forces on the mainland. Still, it was a pretty dicey trip, even for Zelenskyy, who periodically visits the front-line areas.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv, Ukraine. Thanks for the reporting, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: Transgender youth in Tennessee can no longer access gender-affirming care.

MARTIN: A U.S. appeals court allowed a ban to take effect on surgical and non-surgical care that helps people transition toward their self-identified gender. The ruling, which came over the weekend, overturned a lower court decision to suspend the bill, which was signed into law in March.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now is Marianna Bacallao of member station WPLN. So first off, what's the significance of this ruling?

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: There's a sense that this ruling could bring this issue closer to the Supreme Court. It's the first time a federal court has allowed a ban on gender-affirming care to take effect. Other states - like Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and Florida - have passed similar laws banning trans kids from accessing care like hormone therapy and puberty blockers. And like Tennessee, federal judges in these states temporarily block the bans while families and advocacy groups challenge them in court. But Tennessee's attorney general appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with him. The ban went into effect immediately.

MARTÍNEZ: And how did that court explain its opinion?

BACALLAO: It was a 2-1 decision. The court's opinion, written by Chief Judge Jeffrey Sutton, cites the Dobbs decision, which ended the federal right to abortion. The court's majority argues that both issues should be left up to the states. The opinion said the court saw no proof that gender-affirming care is, quote, "deeply rooted in our history and traditions."

The court also concluded that the law likely does not discriminate on the basis of sex because of another Dobbs precedent, which posits that it's not discrimination if the medical procedure only applies to one's sex. There was one dissenting opinion. Judge Helene White wrote that the law likely does discriminate based on sex. She points out that the law does make some exceptions. It allows hormone therapy for cisgender and intersex kids, just not for transgender kids.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, now tell us about the plaintiffs.

BACALLAO: I spoke with L.W. She's a 15-year-old transgender girl and the named plaintiff in this lawsuit. We're just using her initials because she's afraid of being targeted. She started taking estrogen in the fall after being on puberty blockers. She says it really helped her mental health.

L W: I was definitely very just depressed before I went on estrogen, especially before puberty blockers, because I really just, like, wasn't myself. And it was just sort of difficult to care about everything around me.

BACALLAO: Her parents, Brian and Samantha Williams, say they've also seen a huge change in her. They say she wasn't really engaging with her peers or family before.

SAMANTHA WILLIAMS: Or even with us. Like, she wouldn't make eye contact often.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: She wouldn't hug you.

S WILLIAMS: She wouldn't hug you. And we didn't know - you know, we had no idea why that was until after. And then now she's very affectionate with us.

BACALLAO: A lot of parents have trans kids that I've spoken with echoed that sentiment.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's in the short term for this law and also this family?

BACALLAO: So this ruling is temporary. The courts have until the end of September to decide whether the law will stay in effect while the lawsuit continues. But still, the Williams family is devastated. In the meantime, they're having to look to other states to get care. Here's L's mom again.

S WILLIAMS: The two states where we were looking to go for care if the injunction wasn't granted now have bills of their own, which means we have to go even further.

BACALLAO: The family is working to find ways for L to continue taking estrogen. Without this care, she says, she's not able to enjoy life.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Marianna Bacallao of member station WPLN. Thank you very much.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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