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Morning News Brief: Trump Preps For State Of The Union


This happens a lot when Congress faces some tricky problem. A few members form a little bipartisan working group with a catchy name.


That's right, like the Gang of Six. There was the Gang of Eight - this is how long I've been covering politics - I remember the Gang of 14, like, more than a decade ago.

INSKEEP: Wow. And some of these gangs were focused on immigration policy. And here we are with Congress stuck on immigration policy again, and there's another gang.

GREENE: Yeah. They're calling themselves the Common Sense Coalition. This is about two dozen senators who want to reach a deal before a deadline next week. Meanwhile, President Trump is preparing his State of the Union address for tomorrow night. And meanwhile that comes after reports that he tried to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, last summer. This is Senator Lindsey Graham speaking yesterday on ABC News "This Week."


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I'm sure that there will be an investigation around whether or not President Trump did try to fire Mr. Mueller. We know that he didn't fire Mr. Mueller. We know that if he tried to, it'd be the end of his presidency. So at the end of the day, let Mr. Mueller do his job and see if we can fix a broken immigration system.

GREENE: OK. Graham trying to focus on fixing a broken immigration system, but what is that going to take?

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro has been posing that question. Hey there, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve. And I have to say, lucky for you this is what I like.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) It's what you like?

GREENE: Oh, a Grammy reference. That's good.

MONTANARO: Politics.

INSKEEP: OK, it's politics. (Unintelligible) just talking about politics, of course.

GREENE: That's right. That's right.

INSKEEP: OK, immigration, immigration. The president said the other day, hey, I'm willing to give - and this is focused on people who were brought to the United States illegally as children - DACA recipients and those eligible for that status. Hey, I'm willing to give those folks a path to citizenship, although it would take some years. But he also wants lots and lots of money for a wall on the border and limits to legal immigration. Is that beginning to look like the basis for a deal, Domenico?

MONTANARO: Well, it's a basis of what President Trump wants to start as a deal, but frankly, it's held up right now. You know, it's safe to say that what the president proposed is not likely to pass Congress. If something does pass, it will have to be changed and negotiated. And there are a couple groups that are trying to work with the president or at least work together to bring something to the president.

INSKEEP: You know, those gangs that we mentioned tended to be on the Senate side where people are a little more bipartisan. But let me just ask - if anything were to get through the Senate on immigration, are House Republicans who are - who include many hard-liners on immigration - are they willing to vote for anything remotely like this?

MONTANARO: Well, as you allude to, the Senate has a history of having passed some bipartisan legislation on immigration in the past. In 2013, 68 senators voted for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration - of immigration in this country. Of course, it didn't get through the House. The House does have, you know, a couple of groups that are trying to work together - Will Hurd from Texas, who has a border of 820 miles in his district - the longest border of any district in the country - and Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from California, have about 53 co-sponsors for their legislation, which is more narrowly tailored to those DACA recipients and so-called DREAMers.

INSKEEP: Oh, so the question is go big, go narrow, don't go at all. One other thing, though - we heard Lindsey Graham say of President Trump, if he tried to fire Mueller, the special counsel, it would be the end of his presidency. But it would only be the end in the short-term if Congress impeached him. Are there enough Republicans willing to say they're going to stand up for Robert Mueller in that way?

MONTANARO: Not at this point. They're even split on whether or not they should pass legislation to protect Mueller. So it would have to be something catastrophic for the president - for Republicans to really start to act. It's really going to depend on the midterms in 2018.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro - Domenico, I'm glad it's what you're like.

MONTANARO: (Laughter) Thank you.

INSKEEP: Take care.


INSKEEP: In Russia, protests took place around the country Sunday. Thousands marched against what they see as a lack of choice in the upcoming presidential election.

GREENE: Yeah. Alexei Navalny called for these protests, and he's considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest critics. And during these protests yesterday, Navalny was arrested.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is covering this story from Moscow. Lucian, what is the protesters' objection to the presidential election?

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Well, Alexei Navalny was denied registration as a candidate in the presidential election, and that's why he's calling now for a boycott. People are - he's saying that by participating, people are basically supporting unfair elections and that they should simply withdraw that participation.

INSKEEP: Lucian, having observed Vladimir Putin for years as you have, is it clear to you that Putin's goal here would appear to be an election with only one choice or only one real choice - him?

KIM: Well, in some sense, that's what his last two re-election campaigns were like. There are usually an assortment of familiar faces, most of them not particularly serious as far as the opposition candidates are concerned. Vladimir Putin doesn't participate in debates out of principle. So in some ways, yeah, it's much more like a referendum. Given this choice, he always, you know, comes out looking like the best - the best candidate.

INSKEEP: The best candidate because he's virtually the only candidate. So this is what Navalny was protesting against. And we mentioned that almost the moment he showed up at this rally in Moscow he was arrested. Where is he now?

KIM: Well, he was released later Sunday evening, and no charges have been pressed against him yet, although his lawyer says it's likely he'll be charged later perhaps for organizing an illegal rally because in Moscow, they had not received permission for this rally. But I think just almost just as dramatic - David mentioned earlier about it all starting with sort of building this - building this national campaign, and he used YouTube, and he was broadcasting - I mean, his people were broadcasting live about the protests. And police on camera broke into his anti-corruption foundation office. They said there was a bomb threat and disrupted - tried to disrupt this broadcast. But they - since this had happened already - since this had already happened once before, they were broadcasting from an alternative, secret location.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they continued to get their message out. Well that's another bottom-line question. Despite the restrictions, keeping him out of the media, despite the arrests and other disruptions of his protests and events, is it your sense that lots of people know who Navalny is, that his message gets out in a sense?

KIM: Well, state media does ignore him, and it's true that Navalny still presents a pretty narrow demographic - urban, young, educated, middle class. I think the fear in the Kremlin is that this Navalny movement could begin to snowball since the economy isn't doing very well and there's a lot of frustration with corruption and simply the rigid political system.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow, thanks very much.

KIM: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: A string of recent events underscores that Afghanistan's war remains profoundly serious and deadly.

GREENE: Yeah, that is very true. Both the Taliban and ISIS are carrying out attacks in Afghanistan. The targets have included a major hotel, also the offices of the aid group Save the Children. A suicide bombing on Saturday killed more than a hundred people, and today, another assault. This is one on a military academy in the capital.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid has been monitoring all these attacks from Islamabad, Pakistan. Hey there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What happened to the military academy? That's going right at the heart of the security apparatus.

HADID: The military academy - so it seems that in the early hours of this morning, ISIS gunmen and suicide bombers tried to penetrate the academy, and local reporters say they were stopped at the gate, and there was a gun battle there, and that killed 11 security personnel.

INSKEEP: So when you take that attack and you pair it with the other attacks that David mentioned - and some of them are linked to ISIS, some of them are linked to the Taliban, but they're happening in this very compressed period of time - what do people think is going on?

HADID: So there's a few theories, and one of them is is that people think there's literally competition between ISIS and the Taliban for followers and for attention. And the easiest way they can do that is by conducting these large-scale attacks in Kabul. That's particularly true for the Taliban because over the past few months, it's been ISIS who was conducting the biggest attacks in Kabul, and it was believed that they were luring away low-level Taliban to its ranks. And so part of the Taliban's resurgence now may be a way showing its own followers like, hey, we're here and we're also doing these things.

INSKEEP: So each of these groups is trying to sharpen its brand in Afghanistan.

HADID: It's believed to be. Yeah, it's one of the theories behind why there's been so many attacks in Kabul. But the other thing is just that there's been so many drone strikes in rural areas, and it's much easier, unfortunately, to operate in a crowded, urban environment where security is so much more problematic to deal with. Remember, the Taliban used an ambulance laden with explosives to detonate in the middle of a busy street. That's an incredibly difficult thing to stop.

INSKEEP: You just alluded to drone strikes. You're saying that in a rural area where there aren't as many people, the United States military, which is assisting Afghanistan, would feel more confident targeting militants. There might still be a mistake and civilian casualties, but there is a bit of a clearer shot. Let me ask about one other aspect of this very quickly, if I can. The United States has been putting extra pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militants who may take shelter in Pakistan across the border. The U.S. even cut off some aid to Pakistan. How's that working out?

HADID: Well, it's - you know, I've been speaking to analysts about this, and they say it's unlikely to change much about Pakistan's defensive posture. Analysts here say Pakistan needs some sort of leverage in Afghanistan, however violent. And this is imbedded in the military structure institutionally, and it might be very hard to change that.

INSKEEP: Afghanistan - leverage in Afghanistan, meaning the Pakistanis want to have militant groups working for them in Afghanistan, even if it's counterproductive (ph).

HADID: Some sort of leverage.

INSKEEP: Diaa, thank you very much.

HADID: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") 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.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.