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News Brief: All Eyes On Tillerson's Moscow Visit, Kansas Special Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Up first, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Russia today. For all the friendliness his boss has shown for Russia's Vladimir Putin, Tillerson faces a tricky visit here. Last week, of course, the United States fired missiles at Russia's ally, Syria. And on ABC News a few days later, Tillerson partly blamed Russia for a Syrian chemical attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REX TILLERSON: I think the real failure here has been Russia's failure to live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreements that were entered into in 2013, both by the Syrian government and by Russia as the guarantor to play the role in Syria of securing chemical weapons, destroying the chemical weapons and continuing to monitor that situation.

INSKEEP: So that's the message in public. What we don't know yet is how Tillerson will deliver that message in private.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. So to talk about this story, we are joined by Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team and Lucian Kim, who is NPR's Moscow correspondent. He is live on the line from Skype - via Skype rather. Hey, guys.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Morning.

MARTIN: Hi, Lucian. So I'm going to start with Domenico actually. Tillerson's visit to Moscow - is this just kind of a meet and greet that happens at the beginning of an administration or is he looking to secure a specific commitment from Russian officials?

MONTANARO: Well, it's interesting timing for sure. Look, here's the thing. Rex Tillerson had said that he believes Russia was either in cahoots or incompetent when it came to the Syria strike and Assad's use of chemical weapons. He's really looking to shame them into seeing if he could separate or draw some kind of a wedge between Assad and Putin.

You heard some of that at the G7 with the foreign ministers. You heard Boris Johnson, the foreign minister for the U.K. talk about how they want to give Tillerson some sticks ahead of this meeting which is an important thing.

MARTIN: Lucian, how does this look from the Russian vantage point? What does Russia want out of this meeting?

KIM: Well, right now the reaction is quite muted. There were very high expectations for this meeting. They basically thought that this would be the start of a great relationship and that this would be the first step in organizing a summit between Trump and Putin, and the missile strike really came as a shock and will overshadow the talks.

MARTIN: They had been assuming that because President Trump as a candidate and president has had all this kind of flowery, effusive language for Putin that this was going to be smooth sailing. Now you're saying not so much. They're taking a step back.

KIM: Exactly. I mean, the thing is about Tillerson is they also had high expectations for Rex Tillerson. As you mentioned, he had oil. He was leading ExxonMobil's business in Russia. And Putin awarded him the order of friendship a few years ago. On the other hand, you know, that's a goodwill bonus that very few U.S. officials take to Russia. He also has experience in dealing with the Kremlin.

And I think he understands that you don't necessarily have to agree with Putin, but it's really important what tone you take and how firmly you defend your position.

MARTIN: But, Domenico, it's a good point. He is a known quantity. Tillerson's a known quantity in Russia that could bode well for him.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. But the thing is Tillerson had started off as somebody who could be a nod to Russia. Now he's somebody who's being more adversarial toward Russia. However, his use of military force - or the United States' use of military force - there is an argument that he could have some leverage going into these talks given that the United States showed that it will act if lines are crossed.

INSKEEP: You want to, as you're following this story through the day, pay attention to what is said today and tomorrow during these meetings. But also pay attention afterward. Remember Lucian pointed out that there's a kind of goodwill bonus that Tillerson gets, but the past two presidents also tried to start off well and seemed to start off well with Vladimir Putin. But each of them over time discovered that Russia's Vladimir Putin saw his country's interests dramatically differently than the United States saw its interests and the world's interests.

MARTIN: Yeah. All right. NPR's Lucian Kim. He's our Moscow correspondent. He joined us via Skype. Hey, Lucian, thanks for being with us this morning.

KIM: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, Domenico, stick with us for this next topic which is a little closer to home because it's still election season, just what you wanted...

MONTANARO: It's kicking off.

MARTIN: ...For some Americans, it's still around.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I've been waiting for a little more because today Kansas holds a special House election - it's in one district in Kansas - to fill the seat of Mike Pompeo who is now the CIA director. So this is just one of 435 congressional seats, but it's also a test of strength for the parties under a new president. Now, in this heavily Republican district, Republican John Estes (ph) faces...

MARTIN: Ron Estes.

INSKEEP: Ron Estes.

MARTIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much. Ron Estes faces a spirited challenge from Democrat James Thompson - maybe there's a John in there somewhere as well. The president's approval rating, of course, is at historic lows, but Republicans hope he's popular enough in Kansas that he can benefit his candidate by making a robocall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: On Tuesday, Republican Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly. Ron is a conservative leader who is going to work with me to make America great again.

MARTIN: OK. So Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team is still here with us, so what does this race really look like, Domenico? Does the Democratic candidate really have a chance?

MONTANARO: Well, the Republican is still heavily favored here most likely given the fact that Trump won this district by 27 points. But consider the fact that because Trump made this robocall, it elevates the status of it and tells you just how worried Republicans are of the potential that this could be a closer race than expected.

If this race winds up in single digits, which is not impossible given low Republican enthusiasm, a likelihood of a low turnout, which is why you have the president go and make this kind of robocall to get those Republicans out and the fact that this is the first chance for Democrats to express their frustration and outrage with the Trump administration - there's money pouring into this race. There are going to be Democrats heading to the polls in Wichita for sure, and they want to make sure that Donald Trump is somebody who Democrats will be able to show their enthusiastic outrage against any...

MARTIN: Enthusiastic outrage, yeah.

MONTANARO: It is the first in a series of special elections we're going to be watching.

MARTIN: Let's nod to another election coming up in Georgia. What's the dynamic there?

MONTANARO: Well, in Georgia, you have a special election to replace Tom Price who is now the HHS, the Health and Human Services secretary for Donald Trump. And Jon Ossoff is a former Capitol Hill aide, 30 years old. He's raised $8.5 million. It's more money than he knows what to do with. Consider the Ohio Senate race in the last election. The Democrat there only raised $10 million. He's already got 70 staffers. It is a ton of money that he's trying to pour in there, the Democrats trying to pick that one off in a district, by the way, that Trump underperformed in. And it's a much narrower election unlike the one in Kansas.

INSKEEP: Let's remember then in 2009 after Democrats captured everything, they began losing everything. And surely this is what Democrats hope will begin to happen in this year. Now the Republicans seem to dominate. This is the beginning of a kind of season of bellwether elections we'll have later in the year, governors elections in Virginia and New Jersey - much to watch. But as for today's race, remember what Domenico said. This district is in Kansas really, really Republican.

MARTIN: All right. We're going to say goodbye to our friend Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team.

INSKEEP: Bye, Domenico.

MARTIN: Thanks for getting up early.

MONTANARO: Thanks as always.

MARTIN: And we're going to move over to China now for a different kind of perspective on a story you may have heard about. Right, Steve?

INSKEEP: Absolutely. You know that video of a passenger being dragged from a United Airlines flight? Sounds a little bit like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No. No. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

INSKEEP: Not a happy passenger being pulled by the arms. That sound is bloodcurdling. Well, the airline said it needed its seat, and he refused to get out, even when offered money. And he was pulled off and bloodied. Well, this story has gone viral in China because according to a witness, the man said he was targeted for being Chinese.

MARTIN: OK. So for a quick rundown of this, we've got NPR Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz on the line. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: How is this story playing in China?

SCHMITZ: Well, this video has gone viral faster than any that I can remember in my seven years as a journalist here. One of the videos of it that I was tracking today had 120 million views by 3 in the afternoon.

INSKEEP: Wow.

SCHMITZ: And when I looked half an hour later, it was up to 130 million. So that was moving at a rate of about 20 million views an hour. And that was just one replaying of the video attached to a single hashtag on Webo, one of China's largest social media sites. So when you consider the hundreds of other media outlets here that are playing this video too, the estimate is likely much higher.

MARTIN: So I mean, this is - has provoked calls to boycott United, both here in the States and in China, I understand. Does the Chinese government see this as a kind of opportunity to shame a major American corporation?

SCHMITZ: Well, I mean, when there's so much public rage over an incident like this, I'm not sure if the government of China feels like it needs to do much more than just get out of the way.

MARTIN: Let it just go.

SCHMITZ: I mean, United - yeah, United is obviously a competitor of many of China's state run airlines for across Pacific routes to and from the U.S. and Canada. So what I'd imagine we'll see in the days to come is a lot of coverage on state-run television news and the newspapers. But overall, this promise is just to get a lot of play here in China. And that has a lot to do with public demand for it, rather than government propaganda.

MARTIN: Also a reminder, man - cell phone videos.

INSKEEP: There you go.

MARTIN: They're everywhere.

INSKEEP: They change the world.

MARTIN: They capture things. They change the world indeed.

INSKEEP: Also the market - the guy had bought his seat. He paid for his seat.

MARTIN: It's true. It's true.

INSKEEP: People sympathize.

SCHMITZ: That's right.

MARTIN: Hey, Rob Schmitz in Shanghai, thanks so much for your time...

SCHMITZ: Yes.

MARTIN: ...This morning breaking down the story. And...

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