News Brief: Government Shutdown, U.S.' ISIS Fight, Saudi Teenager

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 7, 2019 6:56 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's examine the power of a phrase.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yes. The phrase is national emergency, and President Trump is talking about declaring one. He can invoke emergency powers, and he says he might do that to order construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. Here's the president describing the situation at the border on Sunday.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we have an absolute crisis - and - of criminals and gang members coming through. It is national security. It's a national emergency.

KING: So do emergency powers let him order the construction of a wall?

INSKEEP: Here to help us answer that question is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's work through this. What are the president's emergency powers?

HORSLEY: The president does have some power under the National Emergencies Act to shift money around, for example, from one Defense Department budget line to another.

INSKEEP: OK. So he can take existing money and move it into a different location. But then the question is, does the president alone get to decide when there is an emergency? Because you can look at 20 years of border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border and find many, many years where crossings were much higher than they are now.

HORSLEY: That's certainly going to be a question if the president were to try to invoke emergency powers in this instance - just what is the nature of the emergency? Under this act, the president still has to consult with Congress. The idea is to give the power - give the president flexibility to act in the case of an actual emergency. It's not to cut Congress out of the budgeting process.

INSKEEP: Oh, because this is not just shifting troops to a location or ordering some agency to do something unusual. This is actually spending money, which is Congress's prerogative.

HORSLEY: That's right. And certainly, if the president were to try to use this power in this instance, he would face legal challenges. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has already suggested it would be an abuse of power. One question is, what military projects would the president stop funding in order to bankroll his border wall? And then, as I say, what, exactly, is the nature of the emergency? In that cut you heard from the weekend, the president was talking about crime and gang members. On Friday, in his Rose Garden news conference, he actually raised the specter of terrorists.

But the administration has really stretched its own credibility here. On Fox News, over the weekend, Chris Wallace called out White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders over terrorism claims that just have no basis in fact. What we do have at the border is a surge in families from Central America presenting themselves - in most cases, turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents. And because of U.S. law and court cases, it is difficult to deport those families or to detain them for an extended period of time. But that's a challenge that a wall would not really address.

INSKEEP: OK. So we have this challenge. We have the president's talk, at least, of a state of emergency. And it sounds like, if he were to invoke that, it would have to be challenged in Congress, be challenged in court and find out how that played out. This is all, however, sort of backdrop to negotiations to get funding for a border wall directly. That's what the president wants, anyway, as part of negotiations with members of Congress to end a partial government shutdown. There were talks over the weekend. Are the two sides making any progress?

HORSLEY: Not really. Even before Sunday's session led by the vice president, the president told reporters he didn't expect anything to come of it. So this really seemed more about giving the appearance of action rather than the reality of any effort to resolve things.

INSKEEP: Scott, I ran into a federal worker over the holidays who said, well, I'm furloughed. There must be lots of people who are in that situation, other people who are working without pay. How will people beyond the federal government continue to feel the effects of this shutdown if it continues a while?

HORSLEY: You know, Steve, this Friday is supposed to be payday for the federal government. That would be the first paycheck that those workers miss if it comes to that. If this goes on, we may begin to see tax refund checks delayed. Food stamps are OK this month but not into February.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks for the update.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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INSKEEP: All right. The president is holding onto his border wall demand, but his administration is changing its approach to Syria.

KING: That's right. President Trump says U.S. troops won't leave Syria until ISIS is, quote, "gone." That is a change. Just before Christmas, the president said the mission against ISIS was over.

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TRUMP: We have won against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land. And now it's time for our troops to come back home.

KING: OK. National security adviser John Bolton has added some conditions to that. He says around 2,000 U.S. troops will not come home until they are met. First, ISIS has to be gone. And second, Kurdish fighters - U.S. allies - have to be protected.

INSKEEP: Karoun Demirjian is a national - covers national security for The Washington Post. And she's in our studios. Good morning.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Is this really the policy now?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, this is the shifting policy, as we've seen - as we're seeing it play out in real time. John Bolton is - given the clearest assessment yet of what we will be doing to pull out of Syria, which will not be immediate. The president suggested, when he made this statement last month, that it would be happening right away. Now we know that it's getting scaled back. This is a sign that his advisers are having more influence over trying to pull him back from this policy, which really shocked everybody around him, allies and critics alike.

INSKEEP: But this is why I want to be really clear about this. John Bolton is among the officials who stated a completely different policy shortly before President Trump announced his policy in December. Are we sure that what Bolton says this time is really what the president wants and will stick with?

DEMIRJIAN: It seems like what they're trying to do is not completely change what the president said he wanted to do but explain it away and then pirouette around what the president said - we're getting out of Syria. If you talk to any of Trump's surrogates at this point and his allies, they won't say, oh, we're not getting out of Syria. The president was wrong. They'll say, well, he never said exactly how we were going to get out of Syria. So what we're doing is we're having a methodical conversation about how we'll do it. We're setting these conditions. The most clear contradiction is, of course, that the - one of the conditions, that we'll wait until ISIS has been eradicated from the country, is exactly what President Trump said had happened when he announced this policy. So it's clearly that his advisers are kind of pulling him back from the brink on this one. And the president does not seem to be outwardly refuting them at this point. So it's a sign of - maybe there's some shifting going on, but it's definitely a contradiction.

INSKEEP: Is it your sense - granting that things can change again, is it your sense that the policy has changed all the way back? Because now the United States is in Syria for some considerable amount of time until some difficult objectives are met.

DEMIRJIAN: It's unclear, right? At this point, we've seen reports that the period of time is lengthening. First we were talking about a 30-day pullout. Then it was four months. Now there's no timeline associated with it at all. If that continues, then, sure, we're talking about a reversal. But at this point, we don't know, right? Because the national security adviser has set out these conditions. This gives them some cover, so to speak, I suppose, for what happens going forward. But we don't actually know the details of what this plan is going to be or what types of agreements or - you know, it was eradicating ISIS and making sure the Kurds were protected. It's not clear to the extent to which they need guarantees on that from others to say, OK, we're there. Good. And that's been part of the problem.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how is the president's national security team changing and his advice changing? Because Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, Brett McGurk, special envoy to combat ISIS, and another top official have all resigned over this policy chain.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. And there are concerns, especially around Capitol Hill, that the president will put a bunch of yes men in their place. But as of right now, you've got Shanahan still taking over for Mattis.

INSKEEP: Patrick Shanahan, right.

DEMIRJIAN: Exactly - who was his deputy. And everybody kind of on hold because anybody who comes in that the president appoints will have to go through a confirmation process. But there's concern from Democrats that the adults have left the room, and right now the people around the president are trying to prove, well, that's not true.

INSKEEP: Karoun Demirjian, thanks very much for coming by.

DEMIRJIAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's with The Washington Post.

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INSKEEP: Now the case of a Saudi teenager and her Twitter account that is capturing international attention.

KING: That's right. This morning, there are tens of thousands of posts with the hashtag #SaveRahaf. They're talking about 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who has spent the last day barricaded in a hotel room in Bangkok. She says her family is abusive, and if she goes back to them, she's afraid she's going to be killed.

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RAHAF MOHAMMED ALQUNUN: I'm not leaving my room until I see UNHCR. I want asylum.

KING: That is from a video that she posted to Twitter yesterday. Now, this morning, authorities in Thailand are saying they won't deport her against her will, but activists are still watching this very closely.

INSKEEP: Human Rights Watch now tells NPR that activists have filed an injunction to stop the Thai government from deporting her. Reporter Michael Sullivan is in Bangkok. He's following this story. He joins us by Skype. Hi there, Michael.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did she get away from her family in the first place?

SULLIVAN: Well, from what she told Human Rights Watch and a few others who spoke with her, she saw an opportunity and she took it, maybe even planned it in advance. But she was on a trip with her family to Kuwait, and Kuwait doesn't have the same rule about a woman traveling by herself, which is why she could get on a plane by herself, and she did. And that Bangkok was just a transit point, that her real destination was Australia and asylum there. But she didn't get the chance to because when she got off the plane here in Bangkok, she was met by a guy - it's unclear whether Saudi or Kuwaiti - who took her passport and later came back with Thai authorities, who then told her she'd be sent back to Kuwait this morning. She was supposed to leave on an 11 a.m. flight, but it took off without her after she barricaded herself in her room in the transit hotel at the airport, tweeting up a storm, asking for help.

INSKEEP: You're pointing out that if she had tried to leave from a Saudi Arabian airport, somebody might have said, wait a minute. You're a woman traveling alone. We don't - we frown on that. There might have been a problem. But in this case, she was outside the country. Now she's in Thailand. What kind of pressure is on Thailand to keep her from being sent back?

SULLIVAN: I don't think there's a lot of pressure on the Saudi government because of - I mean, there wasn't a lot after Jamal Khashoggi's murder, right? But on the Thai side, maybe a little different story. I think they're a little more sensitive to pressure. And several European governments have expressed their concern already. On the other hand, this kind of thing, Steve, happens often enough here in Thailand that human rights groups are really frustrated by it. In the past couple of years, Thailand has sent back Uighurs and other dissidents to China when Beijing has asked. And just a few months ago, the Thais arrested a soccer player from Bahrain who had been critical of a powerful government official. He'd already been granted asylum in Australia and had come here on his honeymoon, but he was arrested anyway. Here's Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

PHIL ROBERTSON: I'm hoping that Thailand will recognize that if they proceed on the course that Saudi Arabia wants them to take, they will burn a very dark mark on their international reputation.

INSKEEP: OK, Michael, what is Thailand saying, and what are the Saudis saying about this?

SULLIVAN: Basically, they both blame her. The Saudi Embassy says they had nothing to do with it, that she was detained by the Thais because she didn't have a return ticket. That's a little confusing since she told Human Rights Watch she was just transiting in Bangkok. But it also seems that she may have told some news outlets that the guy who took her passport tricked her, telling her he could help her get a visa here. And she'd been planning on spending a couple of days here until she went on to Australia. Either way, the Thais were going along with the Saudi version of things until late this afternoon. Now they're saying she won't be returned against her will. Let's see.

INSKEEP: Michael, thanks very much for the update.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

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