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A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Nikki Haley is vowing to keep campaigning despite her second-place finish in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
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NIKKI HALEY: Listen. We've only had two states that have voted. We got 48 more that deserve to vote.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
One of those states is South Carolina, where Haley served for six years as governor. It's also where she's focusing her campaign's energy ahead of that state's primary next month, starting with a rally in Charleston last night.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Stephen Fowler joins us now from Charleston, S.C. Stephen, Haley finished third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and is the last major candidate left other than Donald Trump. So what's her argument for staying in the race?
STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Well, Trump's got this stranglehold on the conservative base of the GOP. But since he first took office in 2016, that hasn't really been enough for the party to win many key races. Haley's still got the same conservative stances as Trump, but her rhetoric and record appeals to more independent voters in a general election.
I spoke with Marie Barber from Mount Pleasant at the rally, who says she has friends and family that won't vote for Joe Biden, but won't vote for Trump either.
MARIE BARBER: Trump is kind of a tough sell to a lot of more moderate conservatives because he can be very abrasive. But if he were the nominee, I think he would get the job done. I just feel like Nikki would do it with a lot more style and class.
FOWLER: And, A, that's Nikki Haley's pitch in a nutshell. I'll also note that Barber said she'll vote for Trump if he's the nominee.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and Haley has also said that she'd vote for Trump if he's a nominee. OK, but - so if the differences between Trump and Haley is style over substance, I mean, how is that playing out within the Republican Party?
FOWLER: Well, once again, most of the party's leaders rally around Trump, including numerous South Carolina politicians like Senator Tim Scott, who, by the way, was appointed to that seat by Nikki Haley. Trump's also lined up most of his presidential challengers that have dropped out, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who just last week said Trump would have problems facing Joe Biden in November. Then he dropped out and endorsed Trump.
Now, Haley's new stump speech focused on her record as governor, touting everything from the economy to criminal justice reform. She also knocked Trump for his mental lapses, like a recent rally where he confused her with Democrat Nancy Pelosi. But it's not clear that message is getting through. Here's voter Sarah Ferrillo, who said she doesn't really know what Haley can do to improve her standing with other Republicans.
SARAH FERRILLO: Because right now, they're responding to the loudest person in the room, right? How can you be the loudest without being the bad publicity?
FOWLER: She also said she'd vote for Trump if he's the nominee.
MARTÍNEZ: So then what does a path forward for Nikki Haley look like? I mean, is there a mathematical or maybe a practical way that maybe she could outlast Trump over the next few months?
FOWLER: Well, A, in many ways, the math ain't mathing. I mean, to get the Republican nomination, you need more delegates. To get more delegates than Trump, you got to get more votes than Trump, and that's not looking likely. I mean, Haley couldn't win in New Hampshire, which has more independent-minded voters and moderates than other early states like, say, South Carolina. Haley's down in the polls here, could lose her home state to Trump and have less of an argument she's the viable alternative.
A final complication - the next major contest is actually Nevada, where Trump has basically already won. That's because he's the only candidate in the party-run caucus, the only contest awarding those all-important delegates. That puts even more pressure on Haley to perform in South Carolina.
MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's NPR's Stephen Fowler in Charleston. Stephen, thanks.
FOWLER: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: The Federal Aviation Administration says grounded Boeing 737 Max 9 jets can fly once again.
MARTIN: More than 170 planes have been grounded since a door plug flew off an Alaska Airlines flight in midair nearly three weeks ago. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun was on Capitol Hill yesterday trying to reassure lawmakers and the flying public.
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DAVE CALHOUN: We fly safe planes. We don't put airplanes in the air that we don't have 100% confidence in.
MARTIN: But questions are mounting about quality control at Boeing's factories.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose has been following all this. So, Joel, so why did the FAA give it the all-clear?
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, the FAA laid out what it calls a thorough inspection and maintenance plan these jets will have to go through before they're certified to fly again. And this has taken several weeks because the FAA says it needed to gather information from airlines and Boeing to ensure that the planes are safe to fly.
But FAA administrator Mike Whitaker also said this is not just back to business as usual for Boeing. The agency is imposing pretty sweeping production caps on the company's factories - not just the Max 9, but other 737 lines as well. That's a rare step by the government, and the FAA regulators say they want to be satisfied that, quote, "quality control issues uncovered during this process," unquote, get fixed before those caps are lifted.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And investigators have been trying to figure out why the door panel blew out midair in the first place. So has there been any clue as to why that happened?
ROSE: Well, nothing new from the FAA or from other federal investigators, but we did get some very interesting insight from an apparent whistleblower, a self-described Boeing employee who appears to have access to a lot of company records. The whistleblower claims to have new details about that door plug panel that blew off the Alaska Airlines jet.
This person alleges that four bolts that are supposed to hold the door plug in place were removed for some repair work at Boeing's factory in Renton, Wash. The bolts should have then been replaced but, according to this person, were not reinstalled before the plane left the factory. This person laid all of this out in a detailed post on an aviation website last week. It was first reported yesterday by The Seattle Times. The whistleblower says safety inspection processes at that Boeing factory are, quote, "a rambling, shambling disaster waiting to happen."
MARTÍNEZ: So what has Boeing said in response?
ROSE: Boeing has declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations, and referred questions to the National Transportation Safety Board. It's interesting to note the NTSB has already raised the possibility that the bolts were not there.
I should say NPR has not been able to verify the identity of this apparent whistleblower, but their explanation does seem credible to Ed Pierson. He is a former senior manager at Boeing's 737 factory. He's now the director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety.
ED PIERSON: This is symptomatic of what happens when you rush production and people are put under this kind of pressure. People take shortcuts, and that's where these mistakes are made. And it doesn't surprise me because this is the kind of stuff that we had seen - I had seen in the past.
ROSE: Today, Boeing's factory teams in Renton are scheduled to have what the company is calling a quality stand down, basically allowing production to pause for a day so that employees can take part in special training sessions.
MARTÍNEZ: Now, Joel, a couple weeks ago, I had a flight canceled back home to LA because it was a Max 9 plane. And a lot of flights have been canceled because of that. So how soon could Max 9 planes be back in the air?
ROSE: You know, it could happen relatively quickly. The inspections themselves are not expected to take that long. United Airlines says some of its Max 9 planes could start flying again on Sunday. Alaska Airlines says that a few could be flying as soon as tomorrow. Whether the public is ready to start flying on these planes, that is another question. The answer could be coming sooner, rather than later.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose. Joel, thanks.
ROSE: You're welcome.
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MARTÍNEZ: Later today, Alabama is set to carry out an execution using nitrogen gas. That's a method that's never been used before in the U.S.
MARTIN: But it will be the second time the state will try to execute Kenneth Smith, who survived an execution by lethal injection in 2022. Smith was convicted for his role in a 1988 murder-for-hire plot.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR investigations reporter Chiara Eisner has been covering this story and is in Atmore, Ala. That's where the execution is scheduled to take place around 6 p.m. There's also been a lot of debate over this as well there. Chiara, does it still look like it's going to happen today?
CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: It does. And there has been a lot of back-and-forth in Alabama courts. But yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court justices were given a chance to chime in as well. Kenneth Smith's lawyers asked them to consider pausing the execution so they could argue that executing Smith a second time violated his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court justices denied that attempt, so as of now, the execution is still scheduled for later today.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, nitrogen as a form of execution - I mean, why are they using an untested method for this second attempt to execute Kenneth Smith?
EISNER: Well, back in 2022, Alabama had three high-profile botched executions when the state attempted to execute people with lethal injection. Each of those three times, execution workers from Alabama were unable to quickly place the IV in the veins of the prisoners to deliver the drugs. The first time, they ended up actually executing the prisoner, but it took so long that the family is now suing the state. And those other two times, one of which was Smith's execution, the state had to call the executions off after those workers failed again and again to successfully get the needle in the prisoners' veins. After they left Smith on the gurney for four hours during his failed execution, he and his lawyers argued that the state should never use lethal injection on him again, and Alabama had passed a statute in 2018 that allowed for nitrogen hypoxia as a secondary method, so that was the alternative they had to fall back on.
MARTÍNEZ: This nitrogen that we've been talking about - is it like laughing gas? Is that what we're talking about?
EISNER: No, that is nitrous oxide. This is pure nitrogen gas, which is not administered to humans in medical settings. And it's been deemed by vets to be, quote, "unacceptable" for the euthanization of mammals other than pigs because of its potential for causing distress to those animals.
MARTÍNEZ: Oh, OK. Now, you've been reporting on this for a couple months now. You've spoken to Smith and also his spiritual adviser. That spiritual adviser is going to be in the room with him later today. How are they feeling about how prepared the state of Alabama is to carry this out on a person?
EISNER: Yes. So I spoke with the spiritual adviser, Jeff Hood, yesterday, shortly after he saw Smith at the prison and met with the prison's warden. Here's what he told me.
JEFF HOOD: The warden came and took me back to the execution chamber. And I can tell you that what I saw did nothing to minimize my fears. They have proven time and time again that they don't know what they're doing. So I think we're heading into what could possibly - a catastrophe.
EISNER: Reverend Hood will be at the prison from 8:30 in the morning today until 6 p.m., when the execution is scheduled to take place. We'll be there, too, to report on what's happening outside and inside the prison during the execution.
MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Chiara Eisner, a reporter with NPR's investigations team. Chiara, thank you very much for bringing us this.
EISNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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