News Brief: Trump Meeting, 'Fire And Fury'
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The political strategist who once meant to do damage to the political establishment seems to have done damage to himself.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A billionaire patron of Steve Bannon says she doesn't back him anymore. That's what Rebekah Mercer said after the publication of incendiary quotes from the one-time presidential adviser that came out in a new book. Among many other things, Steve Bannon said Trump aides and family members took part in a meeting he called, quote, "treasonous." He later tried to make good with the president.
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STEVE BANNON: You know, I support him day in and day out whether going through the country giving the Trump miracle speech or on the show or on the websites. I don't think you have to worry about that.
MARTIN: Which drew a response from Trump.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know. He called me a great man last night. So, you know, he obviously changed his tune pretty quick.
MARTIN: The president's lawyer tried to block publication of the book by the journalist Michael Wolff. Instead, publication has been moved up to today.
INSKEEP: OK, we've got NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley with us once again. Scott, good morning.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why would the White House effectively promote - publicize this book by denouncing it so ferociously?
HORSLEY: Well, I'm not sure that was their goal, but that has certainly been the effect. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has described this book as a complete fantasy. And to be clear, the author Michael Wolff's reporting has been challenged in the past. Some of those who are quoted in the book have come out to say they didn't say the things they are reported to have said. And as you note, the president's attorney Charles Harder sent a cease-and-desist letter yesterday to the publisher of the book, Henry Holt. Charles Harder, the attorney, also asked for his own copy of the book. But all of that has not dampened sales at all. It's - the book has vaulted to number one on Amazon's best-seller list on the basis of advance orders. And the controversy has just helped to generate publicity, including the fact that we're talking about it right now.
INSKEEP: OK, so don't publish the book, but send me one. I want to read it. There's the question about some of the quotes although there's also reports, I believe, that Michael Wolff may have recorded some of his interviews. In any event, Rebekah Mercer, as Rachel mentioned, seems to have heard enough.
HORSLEY: That's right. And this is important because Mercer has been one of the dark money financiers of Steve Bannon in his effort to recruit anti-establishment candidates all around the country. She also sits on the board of the Breitbart website that Bannon heads up. Now, The Washington Post says that Mercer is no longer willing to bankroll Bannon's political efforts. And that may have more to do with his failed effort to install Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race than the Michael Wolff book. Either way though, this is certainly a setback for Bannon and some of his more outrageous candidates. And it is a relief for folks like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the establishment wing of the Republican Party.
INSKEEP: So there's this political fight going on but also some substantive news having to do with the Russia investigation - or who was trying to influence the Russia investigation.
HORSLEY: That's right. The New York Times is reporting on efforts by the president to prevent Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia probe, as Sessions did back in March. We know that this has been a source of friction between the president and the attorney general - that Trump was angry when Sessions did recuse himself. The president continues to regard the attorney general as sort of his personal protector rather than the nation's top law enforcement official. Now, The Times also says that before he fired the FBI Director James Comey, some of the Justice Department were trying to dig up dirt on Comey to discredit him. The Justice Department disputes that account. But this is one of the threads that The Times says special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating.
INSKEEP: Scott, thanks as always.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley.
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INSKEEP: The presidents of the United States and North Korea have been debating the size of their nuclear buttons, yet diplomats from North and South Korea say they want to sit down and talk.
MARTIN: The two countries are reviving direct talks for the first time in more than two years. Diplomats from the North and the South are set to meet at a border village on Tuesday.
INSKEEP: NPR's Elise Hu has been watching all of this for us. She joins us from Seoul. Hi, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi there.
INSKEEP: Why did they make the announcement now?
HU: Well, South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, is actually a big supporter of dialogue and has been for a long time. So all last year, he'd been setting up the upcoming Olympics in February as this great opportunity for both Koreas to come together and make a show of unity. And then there was Kim Jong Un's overture, earlier this week, on New Year's Day in which he wished for a successful Olympics. And in that speech, he extended an olive branch to restart dialogue. South Korea then jumped right on it. And now they're doing some real diplomacy.
INSKEEP: Oh, wished for a successful Olympics because it's happening where you are. It's happening in South Korea. So that's why you would say something about that if you're Kim Jong Un.
HU: That's right.
INSKEEP: And I'm just thinking, you know, the old Theodore Roosevelt statement that he picked up - to speak softly and carry a big stick.
INSKEEP: I guess Kim Jong Un is - be willing to talk at the border and carry a large nuclear button. Is that his approach here?
HU: (Laughter) A lot of attention is focused on the nuclear button remark. But substantively, there actually wasn't any new information in that particular turn of phrase. He added its visual image - right? - by saying button. But the nuclear capability is what it is. Trump then amplified it when he tweeted about having even stronger nuclear weapons. But really the significant part of the New Year's Day speech from Kim Jong Un that singled some change here was the overture to the South Koreans and adds a lot to this opportunity.
INSKEEP: Let me just ask about the U.S. perspective on this. The Trump administration has been saying, fine, you guys talk - whatever. But there's really nothing to discuss except whether North Korea is going to dismantle its nuclear program. I doubt that...
HU: Right, the U.S....
INSKEEP: ...North and South Korea are going to discuss that, are they?
HU: Well, we don't know. I mean, South Korea is saying that they want to discuss a wide range of topics - really aimed at improving the inter-Korean relationship. It's unclear what will be brought up besides the Olympics right now. But this is really an opening - you know, an opening to talk more. And so the South Korean administration is very pleased that it's happening.
INSKEEP: Elise, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.
HU: Of course, you bet.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul.
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INSKEEP: Now let's go to Pakistan, where the United States has suspended almost all of its security assistance.
MARTIN: State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the suspension includes military equipment and funds related to counterterrorism operations.
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HEATHER NAUERT: Until the Pakistani government takes decisive action against groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, we consider them to be destabilizing the region.
MARTIN: The question now - how might Islamabad respond?
INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is on the scene to answer that question for us or give us the best shot that she can. Hi, Diaa.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: OK, so first, what is being frozen here? It's military aid - right? - not civilian assistance of various kinds that goes to Pakistan.
HADID: It's military aid. So it's the money that goes straight into Pakistan's military and also coalition support funds. That's reimbursements that Pakistan receives for participating in the war on terror.
INSKEEP: OK, so I'm just thinking. If you're Pakistan, you're being paid to support the United States in the war on terror. And the United States is going to stop paying that. What is Pakistan going to do about that?
HADID: Well, I mean, Pakistan - I spoke to the foreign ministry spokesperson today, and he says that they're trying to meet with Americans and find common ground and a way forward. So obviously, there's damage control being done here. But it's unclear what more they can do. They could - you know, in the most dramatic step, they could punish America by shutting off the land and air corridor to Afghanistan. That's used to ferry - yeah, it's used to ferry military troops and supplies into Afghanistan. Without that, the war there would become a lot more expensive, but that's a very dramatic move.
INSKEEP: What is it that specifically that the United States is demanding of Pakistan? And is it anything that the Pakistanis think they can deliver?
HADID: So they are demanding that they crack down on the Haqqani network in particular, which is an affiliate of the Afghan Taliban. Now, Pakistan, on one hand, denies that it harbors this network. And on the other hand, it says it's already fighting them. And it says that it can do no more. But at the base of this is a certain anger. Analysts here believe that while Pakistan is harboring these people, and it is a card - a strategic card that it carries so that it will have some influence in the future of Afghanistan. And Pakistan, as far as I can tell speaking to analysts, doesn't really want to give that up.
INSKEEP: So I'm trying to think through this problem and how closely linked the two countries are in the fight on terror in that area and the fight in Afghanistan. One question that occurs to me is can the United States punish Pakistan without punishing itself. And the other question that occurs to me is can Pakistan retaliate against the United States without retaliating against itself.
HADID: This is - yeah, no, everybody hurts. This is a game where everybody bleeds. Pakistan can retaliate - I mean, beyond shutting down the land corridor and the air corridor. It can restrict visas to U.S. diplomats. It already restricts them. It can do that even more. It can step up its restrictions on the movements of U.S. diplomats. It could potentially shut down American aid organizations in the country. All of these things will also hurt Pakistan, but they'll also hurt the United States.
But here's kind of like the weak point for Pakistan. This country's in economic trouble right now. In the next few months, it's expected it will be appealing to international financial institutions for help. And for that, it needs American support even though it's diversifying its allies. It's close to China. It's reaching out to Iran. It's reaching out to Russia. All those allies put together, analysts say, doesn't equal the relationship that Pakistan has with the United States.
INSKEEP: Diaa, always a pleasure. Thank you very much.
HADID: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad, Pakistan.
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