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State Of The Union Takeaways


President Trump delivered his second State of the Union address last night.


His aides had forecast a call for unity, and the president did open with a call for bipartisanship and unity.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.

INSKEEP: A lot of alliteration there, although the president later returned to more familiar themes and divisive rhetoric on border security that led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. That shutdown was nowhere to be found in the nearly 90-minute speech.

GREENE: And let's talk about that speech with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So in almost 90 minutes, he's getting likened to Bill Clinton territory in terms of length, it sounds like.

LIASSON: Yeah, it was pretty long.

GREENE: So what did you take away from the evening, as you listened?

LIASSON: Well, my biggest takeaway was that the big question of the speech remained unanswered, which is what was going to be his approach to the new era of divided government? The speech almost suggested he hasn't decided yet. It was two speeches grafted together. One was this standard rally speech about immigration and abortion and socialism. The other one offered some olive branches to Democrats on infrastructure, prescription drug prices, paid family leave. We still don't know which way he wants to go.

And my other takeaway was that he did offer this gracious grace note when he acknowledged that there were more women than ever before in Congress. What he didn't say, of course, is there are actually fewer Republican women, and there were more Democratic women. And the other big takeaway was just the visual of this sea of women in white suits on one side of the aisle and then a lot of men in dark suits on the other one.

GREENE: Wow. Yeah. Quite a contrast - quite a reminder this is a very different Congress he is facing as we enter these next two years. You know, I was struck that he did not once bring up the government shutdown, which, I mean, has been making so much news and is such an example of the gridlock in Washington. He just shied away from that totally.

LIASSON: Yes, because why would he bring it up? It was a bad thing for him, and his approval ratings dropped during it. He kind of lost the first skirmish of the shutdown. There were other things that were absent. He didn't congratulate Nancy Pelosi for ascending to the speakership. He seemed to start his speech really quickly, as if to preempt her ability to introduce him, which is the typical role of the speaker.

He also didn't give a lot of details about his - the proposals where there might be bipartisanship. He kind of glossed over family leave, infrastructure and drug prices. The other thing that I thought was missing was no national emergency talk, even though he's been laying the groundwork for that. He did say, I will build the wall, as if suggesting he might do it himself. But we didn't hear anything about that last night.

GREENE: Well, we did hear a lot about the shutdown from Democrats. And the Democratic response, this official Democratic response, came from Stacey Abrams, who's really a rising star in the party. I mean, she recently lost her bid to become Georgia's governor really narrowly. But let's take a quick listen here.


STACEY ABRAMS: The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.

GREENE: So Mara, as you listen to that, I mean, how can we characterize the message Democrats are sending the morning after this big speech?

LIASSON: I think we can say that they have a completely different vision of the problems facing the country than the president. In other words, for the Democrats, for Stacey Abrams, the crisis, the real crisis, is voter suppression, paying for college, stagnant wages. For the president, the crisis is illegal immigrants coming over the border to kill us, even though illegal immigration is at its lowest since 2000. But it was two completely different worldviews.

GREENE: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, speaking to us the morning after the State of the Union. Mara, thanks as always.

LIASSON: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. Really looming in the background of last night's State of the Union speech, another investigation that could be damaging to President Trump.

INSKEEP: It's the investigation of the president's inaugural committee. We learned yesterday that federal prosecutors are examining the $107 million raised by that committee, and today we have new reporting. It comes from WNYC and ProPublica, and it outlines some actions by the chairman of the president's inaugural committee. That chairman is also a friend of the president, and a document suggests how his company expected to profit from that close connection.

GREENE: All right. A lot to try to understand here. And WNYC's Ilya Marritz is on this story and joins us from New York. Good morning.


GREENE: So your reporting here is based at least in part on a confidential memo that you got access to. Explain exactly what this is and what you learned from it.

MARRITZ: Yeah. So it's an eight-page strategy document on company letterhead. And it talks about all the ways that this huge private equity company, Colony, with billions of dollars under management, can make money from its relationships in Washington and around the world. Colony's founder is Tom Barrack. He was an early supporter of Donald Trump's campaign. And after Trump won, he asked him to be chairman of his inaugural committee.

So Inauguration Day comes January 20, 2017, brings a lot of rich people from around the country, quite a few foreign guests. And the following month, this strategic plan is circulated, outlining how Colony should set up a D.C. office. They talk about convening international ambassadors, with members of the Trump administration making new business opportunities. Here's a quote - "the key is to strategically cultivate domestic and international relations while avoiding any appearance of lobbying." And it goes on to say that no other firms, quote, "can currently match the relationships or resources that we possess."

GREENE: OK. So it was suggesting what this company could - how the company could benefit from a relationship with Donald Trump. Was it really specific, saying, we could benefit from our involvement with the inauguration, or is that link not entirely clear?

MARRITZ: No, the word inauguration never occurs there. It's really, I think, in the timing. This document came out, you know, within weeks of Inauguration Day. And by the way, a spokesman did give us this statement. He said the memo was simply an outline of a proposed potential business plan, which was never acted upon or implemented. Colony at no time has maintained a D.C. office.

That is true, but we also found evidence that Colony may have been pursuing precisely the kind of convening situations that were spelled out in that memo. One example - April 2017, Tom Barrack had dinner with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and seven Middle East Ambassadors in a private room in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. The entry in Mnuchin's calendar said, personal dinner, Tom B.

GREENE: But potential access there.


GREENE: What - explain to me if you can, Ilya. I mean, federal prosecutors subpoenaed the inauguration committee earlier this week. How might this fit into that larger investigation?

MARRITZ: Well, prosecutors want to know everything they can about the money coming in, the money going out of the inauguration. Remember, this inauguration took in a lot more money than any other has, so there's a lot of cash to follow. And when it comes to answering prosecutors' questions, that will now be the task of Tom Barrack - former chairman of the committee, private businessman, friend of the president. He's the one who is going to have to respond and produce documents.

GREENE: WNYC's Ilya Marritz, also co-host of the "Trump, Inc." podcast about the Trump family business, which is worth listening to to learn much more about all this kind of stuff. Ilya, thanks a lot.

MARRITZ: You're very welcome.


GREENE: All right. We can turn now to Rome and the Catholic Church.

INSKEEP: Pope Francis has acknowledged a dark secret of the church. In a press conference, he affirmed that priests and even bishops have sexually abused Catholic nuns. That remark adds to the long-running scandal of sexual abuse by priests.

GREENE: All right. And I want to bring in NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, who has been traveling with the pope. Good morning.


GREENE: So we have heard so, so much, I mean, from your reporting and lots of other reporting about the sexual abuse of children by priests. But I don't think I knew much about nuns in the church being abused. I mean, is this something that's been in these circles for a long time?

POGGIOLI: Oh, absolutely. It's been an open secret. It's particularly a problem in places like Asia, some Latin American countries and in Africa. I remember talking to an African nun at a meeting of African bishops at the Vatican back in the '90s, and she spoke about the issue very openly. But it's always been really hard for nuns to be heard. It's said that in some cases, nuns who have reported abuse were kicked out of their orders or moved elsewhere. It's an open secret, and many abused women believe that the Catholic Church has mostly ignored the victims and spared the abusers.

GREENE: Wow. And it's taken all this time for this to even be acknowledged by the pope, which seems significant.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. Probably it was the first time he was asked about it in public. And that question was prompted by a slew of recent reports on the issue. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a #NunsToo movement has emerged. Last year, an Indian nun accused a bishop of raping her over a two-year period. He was arrested, and he faces trial later this year. Just last month, a top official in the Vatican doctrinal office that handles allegations of clerical sex abuse, he resigned after a former nun accused him of making sexual advances during confession. He denies the accusation.

And then last November, the International Union of Superiors General - that's the organization that represents the world's female Catholic religious orders - they denounced the culture of silence and secrecy that prevents nuns from speaking out. And just last week, the - an article in the magazine "Women, Church And The World" (ph) - it's part of the official Vatican newspaper - the editor, a Catholic feminist, pinned blame for the abuse of women in the church on the culture of clericalism. And that's the same power dynamic that's blamed for the clerical sex abuse of minors across the globe.

GREENE: So Sylvia, did the pope say he's going to do anything about this?

POGGIOLI: He acknowledged there are priests and even bishops who've been - who abused nuns. He said several priests have been suspended, but he believes the problem still exists. And he said, should I do - something more be done? Yes. Is there a will? Yes. But it's a path we've already began. But he - you know, he - this - these latest reports will certainly add pressure on the pope to deal much more forcefully with the issue at the special summit he's convened at the end of this month to find a way to respond to the continuing revelations of clerical abuse of minors. And these are scandals that are jeopardizing his moral legacy.

GREENE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "TOO OFTEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
Ilya Marritz