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News Brief: BuzzFeed Report, U.S.-North Korea Talks, March For Life


You might sum up President Trump's message yesterday like this. You mess with my State of the Union address, I'll mess with your trip to Afghanistan.


The White House left little doubt that one act was in reprisal for the other. Pelosi, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had suggested that President Trump delay a big speech. She said the State of the Union called for intense security work from people who were furloughed or unpaid during a government shutdown.

The president then personally denied Pelosi's military transport to Brussels and Afghanistan. He sent a public letter about what had been, for security reasons, a secret visit to U.S. troops. Shortly afterward, news reports said the first lady took a government flight to the president's resort in Florida. Other government flights are continuing.

All this was soon overtaken by other news. BuzzFeed offers a new detail about Michael Cohen, the president's one-time lawyer. Cohen has admitted lying to Congress about the president's business dealings with Russia. And the BuzzFeed report says the president told him to lie.

GREENE: And let's start there, with congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, who is in our studios in Washington this morning. Hi there, Kelsey.


GREENE: OK, so this is one news report so far. But if true, this is pretty serious.

SNELL: Yeah, BuzzFeed is citing two federal law enforcement officials who are saying President Trump personally directed his attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about the effort to build a Trump Tower location in Moscow. Now, like you said, NPR has not corroborated this reporting. And BuzzFeed credits the information to two unnamed sources who are said to be involved in the investigation.

Some congressional Democrats, though, immediately responded to the report by calling for further investigation. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said it's about time that special counsel Robert Mueller let Congress know what's in his investigation. And House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff tweeted that Trump may have, quote, "suborned perjury" before the committee and vowed to do what's necessary to get to the truth. Now, Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has dismissed the reporting. And he's told some reporters if you believe Cohen, that he can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.

GREENE: Which has been the message from Trump's team about Michael Cohen...

SNELL: Right.

GREENE: ...This man who President Trump was so close to him in the past, they're now trying to undermine his credibility and - at each step here. Meanwhile, this showdown between the president and House speaker, I mean, what a back-and-forth spat developing between these two.

SNELL: Oh, yeah, and it was kind of a spectacle at the Capitol, too, because Pelosi was on her way to this flight when the president released this letter saying that he was canceling her trip. So the buses had left the Capitol and had to turn back around and deliver Pelosi back to...

GREENE: It's amazing.

SNELL: Yeah, and it is - it's a surprising turn of events - right? - because this isn't something that we usually see a president do. He has the right to do it because he controls military airspace and controls her access to a military plane, which we should say is a fairly common way for the speaker of the House to get around because she really does travel with an enormous security detail. And this was a trip to a war zone. Afghanistan is not the kind of place that the speaker of the House is likely to be taking a commercial trip, though the president did give that as an option.

GREENE: OK. This - this moment to have a speaker of the House, a president in a back-and-forth like this, both suggesting that a government shutdown is to blame, but it seems like there's been no movement to end that shutdown - what does all this tell us about the state of U.S. politics today?

SNELL: Well, if you were expecting this to be a quick way to end a shutdown, I would say this probably is not it. (Laughter).

GREENE: (Laughter) Probably not the best way to get along and come to a compromise.

SNELL: No. And soon afterwards, the House Democrats released another package of spending bills that they want to try to pass to prove that they are making efforts to reopen the government and say it's the president and congressional Republicans who aren't dealing. So we're back at the same place we were just a few days ago.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, so North Korea's top negotiator is in Washington, D.C., today.

INSKEEP: His mission is believed to be to arrange a second summit between his boss, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and President Trump. Negotiations with North Korea have been stalled since the last time the two leaders met in a summit in Singapore last June.

GREENE: And let's turn to NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who is in Beijing. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK, so neither officials in Washington nor officials in Pyongyang are confirming that new talks are going to take place. But does that - does it appear that that's the reason that this top negotiator's in Washington?

KUHN: Yes, it does. The negotiator's name is Kim Yong Chol. He's a former intelligence chief and vice chief of the ruling party. And last year, he was in Washington also. In May, he handed - delivered a letter from Kim Jong Un to President Trump. And that paved the way for the first-ever summit between the two countries in Singapore. And he's expected to do something like that on this visit. He arrived in D.C. last night. And he's expected to meet with Secretary of State Pompeo and then, possibly, President Trump before departing on Saturday.

One reason this makes sense is because that analysts generally believe that North Koreans want a second summit. And they think it's the only way to have a breakthrough, is at the presidential level. And so far, they've basically refused working-level meetings, including with Secretary of State Pompeo. Now they seem to want them, probably to work out logistics and an agenda for this meeting.

GREENE: So am I wrong? It doesn't really seem like there was much of a breakthrough coming out of - or since that last big presidential summit last summer. So what is the point of second - of a second summit? And could there actually be risk involved for the United States in meeting again?

KUHN: Sure. Well, you know, the summit produced a very vague agreement, and denuclearization is part of that. But there is no roadmap on how to get there. So that presumably would be the main aim this time. And the speculation in the reports based on anonymous subjects are saying that this roadmap would have some sort of interim goals, such as, for example, a cap on Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

And in exchange for that, they'd get some sort of sanctions relief, which is what they desperately want. One concern that a lot of observers have is that while this cap could lower tensions in the region, it could also be a step towards tacitly admitting or locking in North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, which is exactly what Kim Jong Un wants.

GREENE: Well, and the Pentagon has a report out - it came out yesterday - saying that North Korea's nukes are still an extraordinary threat. So, I mean, using that kind of language to set up a new meeting, I mean, how is that going to go?

KUHN: Well, it's certainly awkward timing, with Kim Yong Chol arriving in town. North Korea has not responded yet. It's also awkward in that President Trump tweeted after the Singapore summit that North Korea's nukes are no longer a threat. And here the Pentagon is putting it in writing. The report also mentions, though, that, you know, there is an avenue to peace with North Korea, possibly. But that could all go south. And so the U.S. needs to remain vigilant. And they seem to have a point there.

GREENE: All right, we'll see how these talks go with the top negotiator from North Korea in Washington and whether there's going to be another presidential summit. NPR's Anthony Kuhn. We appreciate it, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome, David.


GREENE: It's going to be a weekend of marches in Washington, D.C. Abortion rights opponents and activists are in town and will be carrying on marches.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the March for Life is today. That's been an annual event for many years. And tomorrow, women from around the country and their allies gather for the Women's March for the third year in a row.

GREENE: NPR's Sarah McCammon covers the abortion debate for NPR. She's going to be attending both marches. But first, she is in our studios in Washington. Hi, Sarah.


GREENE: So these are not just marches to express points of view. I mean, there's a lot at stake for activists on both sides of this debate this year, right?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. I mean, just think about how much has shifted since President Trump took office and especially this past year, with a new Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, now on the court. I mean, it was just this past summer that Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, setting up a huge debate over the future of the court. Of course, he was seen as the swing vote on a lot of issues, including reproductive rights.

And March for Life has been happening every year for decades, since the '70s, soon after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide. But this is the first time, David, in decades that a lot of abortion rights opponents see what they feel is an opportunity to really substantially roll back abortion rights and for the court to have a chance to revisit Roe, something they've been working toward for a very long time.

GREENE: I mean, even the idea of revisiting Roe, does that have people who are - who are putting together this March for Life feeling emboldened, optimistic?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, they're definitely optimistic - cautiously optimistic, I would say. Activists tell me they're not necessarily expecting to see Roe reversed wholesale. But they do see a big opportunity here to advance restrictions on abortion that might not have stood up in the past under previous challenges. Here's Tom McClusky of the March for Life.

TOM MCCLUSKY: If you were to ask me, during the 2016 campaign, that President Trump would be the one that would help in putting in these pro-life policies, I probably would have thought you were crazy. But it's certainly a much different scenario now, with both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the bench.

MCCAMMON: And we've heard this a lot from abortion rights opponents. They're happy with President Trump's efforts to restrict public funding for organizations such as Planned Parenthood and to appoint conservative judges.

GREENE: And so as optimistic as people are on putting together the March for Life march, how nervous are abortion rights activists at this moment?

MCCAMMON: They're nervous. They're concerned. They're also energized. Tomorrow is the Women's March, which comes at these issues and others from another point of view. And Planned Parenthood is a sponsor. So I would expect to hear a lot about women's reproductive rights this year in particular. I spoke recently with Dr. Leana Wen, the new president of Planned Parenthood.

LEANA WEN: This is a time where everything is on the line. I mean, with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, we are facing a situation where, within the next year, Roe v. Wade could very well be further eroded or overturned.

MCCAMMON: And with that expectation, David, reproductive rights activists are organizing at the state level, trying to strengthen laws protecting abortion rights and remove restrictions on abortion. They do say they're energized and encouraged by the midterms, when a lot of Democrats, especially a lot of women and others campaigning on issues, including reproductive rights, were elected. And, of course, Democrats took over the House of Representatives.

GREENE: You know, one of the things I've learned from your reporting is - is you have to look beyond the Supreme Court when it comes to this debate.

MCCAMMON: Absolutely. If Roe v. Wade is weakened or overturned, a lot of the debate will go to the states. The states will have even more power to restrict abortion rights than they do right now. So with all the attention on these big national marches, it's still important to keep an eye on state Houses all over the country.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Sarah McCammon, who'll be covering those marches in Washington this weekend. Sarah, Thanks.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
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.