RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today, Paul Manafort appears in a federal courtroom. It's a hearing just before a second trial which is supposed to start Monday.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We don't know that it will start because we've heard of a potential plea deal for President Trump's former campaign chairman. He has been convicted once before of money laundering and other charges. And President Trump praised him for not cooperating with law enforcement with the Russia investigation. Soon, we may find out if Manafort will talk.
MARTIN: All right. Let's ask NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who's been following this.
Carrie, first off, what do we know at this point about this potential plea deal for Manafort?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A federal judge in Washington has twice adjusted the date or time of this pretrial conference for Paul Manafort. Jury selection in this case is due to start Monday, so now is the time to reach a plea deal if there is one. We don't know if this plea in the works means Paul Manafort will cooperate and help the special counsel build a case against anyone else. In fact, that's been a sticking point for Paul Manafort in the past. Remember - President Trump has been praising Manafort as a good man who won't, in the president's words, break or flip on him.
JOHNSON: Manafort's legal team seems to have been working with the Trump team or at least keeping them in the loop through this process.
MARTIN: So if Manafort isn't going to be cooperating with the Mueller team, then why plead at this point? Why not just, you know, try your chances with a jury?
JOHNSON: Well, to avoid the expense of a trial - remember, that first trial he had in Virginia last month must have cost a lot of money - but also to keep all the news about Manafort's dealings with pro-Kremlin figures in the Ukraine out of headlines in advance of the U.S. midterm elections in November. That could help endear Paul Manafort to the White House and help set up an eventual pardon or commutation for Paul Manafort. We know that President Trump has talked about that idea with his lawyers and other advisers. But we're hearing those lawyers are cautioning the president to wait before he gives any kind of clemency to Paul Manafort. And as for the prosecution, remember, they just convicted Manafort of eight other charges in that Virginia trial. They're under pressure to work fast. They may want to move on to other priorities and move on in this investigation.
INSKEEP: Carrie, I just want to stop and underline what you've just told us. You've told us there is a potential benefit for the president - in terms of headlines, in terms of news coverage, in terms of keeping Russia out of the headlines - if Paul Manafort were to plead guilty and avoid a trial. There's something in this for the president, you're saying.
JOHNSON: There's definitely something in this for the president and for other Republicans who may be on the ballot in November who want to avoid all these headlines about Trump, the Russia thing - as the president calls it - and that whole category of behavior. This may do one day of headlines, if there's a plea, and not weeks of headlines, as there would be with a trial.
MARTIN: So if the trial doesn't happen, then where does that leave the public in terms of learning exactly what Manafort did in these separate charges?
JOHNSON: Well, if there is a plea today, Paul Manafort will be asked to stand up by the judge and explain exactly what he did wrong to allocute his behavior, as they say in the courtroom. And he will have to stand up and do that. He'll also have to sign some documents. And we'll find out a little bit more about what he says he did in terms of lobbying and also inside the U.S.
MARTIN: All right, NPR justice correspondent for us Carrie Johnson.
Carrie, thank you so much. We appreciate it.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARAMORE SONG, "AIN'T IT FUN")
MARTIN: Federal officials will begin an investigation today to try to find out what caused scores of fiery explosions that happened in three towns north of Boston.
INSKEEP: Yesterday evening, officials responded to at least 70 house fires and explosions or reports of gas odors around the towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. One person was killed, at least 10 others injured. Crews from Columbia Gas were updating natural gas lines when these explosions began, and officials urged customers of the utility in that area to evacuate.
MARTIN: NPR's Tovia Smith is covering this and joins us now.
Tovia, what's happening right now? What's the situation? Is everything contained?
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, it's truly devastating and dark - and I mean literally dark - since most the fires are now out but power is still shut down everywhere. That was done yesterday to prevent more explosions. So there's been no light all night long. And now, as the sun comes up, thousands of people who were evacuated yesterday are waking up in shelters, many traumatized after seeing so many houses erupt in flames. Officials say it may be as many as 80 that burned, many of them obliterated. One fire chief described it as a war zone; like Armageddon, he said. And it's all left residents yesterday, like Elaine Almquist, trying to figure out what in the world was happening.
ELAINE ALMQUIST: I could see smoke, helicopters, firetrucks, police cars - just constant sirens. My city's literally burning to the ground. And I feel really powerless. That's when I started getting really emotional.
SMITH: She was able to get into her house and grab her cat before fleeing for her folks' place. But with so many people evacuating at once, she says the 15-minute trip took her two hours. And now she's bracing for what may be days before she can go home.
MARTIN: Right. And so I imagine that it's not completely safe at this point, is it?
SMITH: No, teams are now going door-to-door, literally, trying to get to 8,000 places that have been identified as risks. And so each of these teams, a police officer or a firefighter and a gas technician, they've been out all night long. They're going to keep going all day long, checking every house. Late last night, the mayor of Lawrence, Dan Rivera, tried to manage folks' expectations.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAN RIVERA: Be patient. Just don't come back to your home until we ask you to come back to your homes. We want a situation where you come back when there is no threat to yourself or your loved ones. We're not sure that that's going to be any time soon.
SMITH: Rivera didn't hold back letting people know the risks, saying that people who ignore the warnings and go home to sleep, he said, might not wake up.
MARTIN: Why did these things happen? I mean, this is crazy. Were they connected? Was this random. What was the cause?
SMITH: Well, it's too soon to know. We know that a go-to team has been dispatched by the NTSB. Other federal investigators are also going to be in the mix. One thing they're going to focus on is the work that the gas company Columbia Gas was right in the middle of doing this week to upgrade gas lines. But Massachusetts governor and other officials all brushed off questions about that, what caused the fires yesterday. They say all their focus right now needs to stay on getting people home safe. And the company, Columbia Gas, had even less to say. It wasn't until about five hours after the first explosion that the company issued its first statement saying, quote, "our thoughts are with everyone affected by" - what they call - "the incident." And...
SMITH: ...They, too, say they're focusing first on finishing the safety checks.
INSKEEP: Tovia, I'm just thinking about the way this would affect people mentally. I mean, we're about to talk about Hurricane Florence. That could be a disaster. But people had time to think about it, time to mentally and physically prepare. This is something that just happened abruptly with no warning at all.
SMITH: Came absolutely out of the blue and left people wondering. One of the residents I spoke to said, you know, two days before, she was recalling, with a bunch of colleagues, 9/11. And when the explosions started happening, people started to wonder.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Tovia Smith covering this for us.
Thanks so much, Tovia.
SMITH: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOW SONG, "SHAME")
MARTIN: OK. Hurricane Florence has reached the East Coast at this point. The first bands of the storm brought heavy rain to North Carolina's beaches and barrier islands as it made its way inland.
INSKEEP: Now, the storm weakened before it hit. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long has been warning residents in the storm's path anyway.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BROCK LONG: Just because the wind speeds came down, please do not let your guard down. The storm surge forecast associated with this storm has not changed.
INSKEEP: The storm surge - that's the high water that comes in with the eye of the storm - it's expected to come ashore. And there will also be massive amounts of rain in the Carolinas.
MARTIN: Right. Extending into next week, we're hearing. NPR's Greg Allen is in Wilmington, N.C.
What's going on, Greg? What's it look like this morning?
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, we've been getting a lot of rain and high winds, Rachel, since yesterday evening here in Wilmington. As we know, this eye wall is starting to reach the North Carolina coast now. So that's bringing the heaviest winds that we're going to see to the coast. They haven't reached us yet, but they're coming our way.
Sustained winds are down to the Category 1 level. But as you've mentioned, that's less important than water. The storm surge is really beginning to be felt along the coast. We've been seeing it especially up in the New Bern area, which is north of here. That's where the water started coming in in the Neuse River yesterday afternoon and flooding some of the area. Search and rescue crews have been out through the evening rescuing people - in some cases off of their roofs.
MARTIN: So you mentioned New Bern. Are there other areas that are likely to see the worst of all this?
ALLEN: Well, yeah. The storm is actually going to be coming right through our area is what it looks like now as it's gotten so close - kind of clear where the path is coming. It's coming onshore near Wilmington. It's moving very slowly now. It's going to be over us for most of the day, and then it's expected to start moving south down the coast toward South Carolina, the Myrtle Beach area. And you know, as you mentioned, they're just going to bring all that rain and that storm surge as well. We've already had flood warnings issued for inland communities in the Cape Fear River Basin because everyone's going to be cresting in a few days. And so people are already getting warnings up there.
By tomorrow, it's going to be turning inland and going north. We have a risk of flooding, not just in the Carolinas but Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and north through the weekend and then into next week.
ALLEN: So it's going to be bad. We've got hundreds of thousands of people without power already in North Carolina, and that number is just going up.
MARTIN: I mean, it has been slow. Right? That's part of why people thought that this was going to be so dangerous - because it was going to hover over places. At the same time, because of that slow speed, it's given a lot of advance warning for people to get out and to board up their homes. Any indications that all that notice will end up reducing the amount of damage?
ALLEN: Right. Well, the people have taking it very seriously. The warning's been going out for all week long. The vast majority in the mandatory evacuation areas did leave. We visited people down in Carolina Beach and talked to people who decided to remain, though, 'cause they thought they had food and water and would be OK. They weren't worried about flooding. But up in New Bern, you know, we've got people being rescued from there. And so that can happen elsewhere as we go through the day here today.
MARTIN: We will be following it all. NPR's Greg Allen in Wilmington, N.C., the path of the storm expected to hit right through there.
Greg, stay safe. Thanks for your reporting.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF DINOS' "HELSINKI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.