News Brief: Government Shutdown, Tsunami, U.S. Troops To Leave Syria

Dec 24, 2018
Originally published on December 24, 2018 6:49 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The federal government remains partially shut down this morning. A quarter of the government - that's about 800,000 federal workers - have been impacted by this.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Here's how we got to this point. President Trump and his allies in the House are demanding $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of any budget deal. Democrats say no. So now, 380,000 federal employees are on furlough and another 420,000 are working without pay.

GREENE: And it seems likely at this point that the shutdown is going to stretch into January. Let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, who is with us this morning. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. So the Senate is in recess through the holidays, right? So, I mean, is anyone actually talking about ending this, or are we just pretty much accepting that this is going to go into the new year?

RASCOE: There are some talks going on, but it doesn't seem like they're making much progress at this point. Mick Mulvaney, who's the budget director and acting White House chief of staff, he kind of summed it up - kind of summed up the state of play, and he was not sounding too optimistic. Here he is on NBC's "Meet The Press" yesterday morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

MICK MULVANEY: It's very possible that the shutdown will go beyond the 28 and into the new Congress.

RASCOE: So it does seem like there may be some room for negotiation on both sides and pretty much about the amount of money. The White House might be willing to come down on the $5 billion, and the Democrats might be willing to approve a bit more than the $1.6 billion they had offered earlier. But the main holdup is what the money will be spent on. At this point, Democrats are saying they won't give any money for a wall, steel slats, fence. Any type of barrier, whatever you call it, they don't want it (laughter).

GREENE: OK.

RASCOE: But that is exactly what the White House is demanding, so that's the sticking point.

GREENE: I mean, that's been the sticking point for so long. It's like, what exactly does wall mean? And it seems like both sides can never actually come up with a firm definition, and so we go on with this. And we should say all this is happening when we've seen all of these departures from the Trump administration. So it is just giving this whole air of uncertainty in Washington.

RASCOE: Yeah. So you had - last week, you had Defense Secretary James Mattis resigning over President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He was supposed to stay in this position - in his position through the end of February to kind of help ensure a smooth transition. But yesterday, Trump announced via Twitter that Patrick Shanahan, Mattis' deputy, will become acting defense secretary as of January 1. And at the same time, you have Brett McGurk - he was U.S. envoy for The Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS - also reportedly resigning over Trump's Syria decision.

GREENE: Yeah, so a lot of new faces are going to be handling some very important troop withdrawals going forward. And I guess it's worth noting - I mean, just thinking about the list, you've got an acting attorney general now, as well in addition to this churn at the Pentagon, you've got an acting chief of staff, you've got an acting interior secretary and then soon acting defense secretary. I mean, does that mean a lot of the early part of 2019 is going to be tough confirmation fights for this president?

RASCOE: Basically. It's not clear how tough the fights will be because Republicans did gain two seats in the Senate in the midterms, but it's going to take a lot of time, a lot of resources and a lot of attention just to get officials into position to lead these agencies and departments. And so you're going to have a lot of the administration that's going to be without permanent leadership and kind of in limbo.

GREENE: And can I ask you one other question, Ayesha? There was this news from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about some conversations he was having with the heads of some of the country's biggest banks. Is that normal for those conversations to be happening? What was all this about?

RASCOE: Well, it seemed to be about trying to reassure banks that President Trump is not going to fire the Fed chairman, Jerome Powell. But in the statement, he said that he was assured that there was plenty of liquidity for banks, which kind of raised more questions than answers. So they were trying to calm the markets down.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So late on Saturday night, this tsunami struck Indonesia.

KING: That's right. More than 200 people have been reported dead. Hundreds more people are missing or injured. Indonesian officials say the tsunami was triggered by underwater landslides that were caused by volcanic activity.

GREENE: And let's turn to NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who has been covering this. Anthony, what's the latest here?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Some of the first casualties of the tsunami had their funerals and were buried today. And among those people were musicians from a local band who were performing onstage at a year-end party when this tsunami hit and, to the horror of the audience watching, were swept away and killed by the tsunami. Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, flew into the disaster site by helicopter today to visit injured people in local hospitals and to direct rescue efforts. And some of Indonesia's neighbors around Asia, including Malaysia and Japan, sent their condolences to Indonesia and offered assistance if they need it.

GREENE: You know, when I heard about the tsunami, I mean, I immediately thought there must have been an earthquake. It's just an assumption I guess we make. But it's - this was volcanic activity. Is there risk of more of that? And could there be more tsunamis here?

KUHN: Yes. Authorities are telling residents that they need to stay inland on high ground and away from the beaches. And, you know, you could say that this landslide on the slope of a volcano was more deadly than an earthquake because nobody felt it. Nobody heard it. And so there really was no warning. And if you look at the video on the Internet of this volcano erupting, it is really a cataclysmic event. You just see massive plumes of smoke and lava. And, you know, there's concern that it's not finished. And Indonesia has since said that it has seismic activity detectors, but they weren't working. And so people are realizing that Indonesia is extremely vulnerable and poorly prepared to deal with such things in future.

GREENE: Well, can - you mentioned, I mean, the horrific scene with these musicians, but lots of other people who have been injured or, you know, killed in this - I mean, what do we know? Are emergency crews - have they been able to reach impacted communities so far?

KUHN: Some of them. You know, Indonesia is a really vast archipelago. But the areas that were hit by tsunami - by the tsunami are not so remote, Java and Sumatra, the two big islands. So they were able to send ambulances and other resources straight from the capital, Jakarta. The military's been mobilized to look for survivors and distribute aid. Over 11,000 people have been displaced by the tsunami. So a lot of those people are living in government buildings or camping out in tents outside hospitals. And a lot of them were holiday makers because the government has tried to turn the western tip of Java into a new tourist destination to rival the island of Bali. But that effort has been suspended after this disaster.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Thanks for your reporting here, Anthony.

KUHN: You bet, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: OK. We're going to move now to Syria where U.S. troops are supposed to be winding down their mission there.

KING: Yeah. Last week, President Trump announced that he plans to pull U.S. ground troops out of Syria. He said, as his reasoning, that ISIS has been defeated. Now, his announcement surprised a lot of people, including his own military advisers. A day after his announcement, Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned. The big question is, how do people inside Syria feel about all this?

GREENE: And we're getting some answers because NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in northeastern Syria, which is the area of the country where U.S. troops have been operating. Hi there, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

GREENE: What does it feel like there after this announcement, President Trump's decision to withdraw, I mean, some 2,000 troops who've been fighting alongside local Kurds in that region? What are people feeling like in the towns there?

SHERLOCK: Well, most people say they feel betrayed. You know, the U.S. is a visible presence here. As you drive across northeastern Syria, they - their military bases are clearly seen. They're these sprawling complexes with mud bank defenses and watchtowers. In one town near a base, we met Haji Haider (ph). He's a blacksmith by trade. He lived through all of the anti-ISIS offensive in this area. And he says people here feel angry that, now it's over, the U.S. is leaving. He feels that they've been used. The U.S.-backed Kurdish militia have essentially formed the ground force against ISIS. And they've lost thousands of men and women on the front lines. And talking to civilians here - you know, we've spoken to people that have lost relatives in the war. And they say ISIS isn't defeated yet. And so why are they leaving?

GREENE: OK, so you're getting a sense from residents and civilians what they're feeling about this. Has there been official reaction from these militias, these groups that have been fighting alongside the U.S.?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. So these militias really are kind of reeling in shock. We've spoken to several senior military officials, Kurdish military officials and spokesmen, here and all of them tell us that they first learned about the news of the U.S. troop withdrawal on television, on the news. So we spoke with Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for one of the militia - for the U.S.-backed SDF. And he says, look; beyond being angry, there is also serious policy implications to this. He thinks that the U.S. withdrawing right now might leave this part of Syria exposed to new threats that they would have to redirect the troops to - that the Kurds would have to redirect their troops to. And that means stopping the fight against what's left of ISIS.

GREENE: And, Ruth, aren't the Kurds - I mean, these militias - couldn't they be threatened as well by Turkey? Because, I mean, of course, Turkey has wanted to go after these Kurdish militias for a long time. There was this delicate balance going on when the United States was fighting there. But, I mean, you've been reporting the Turkish government sounds ready to go after these Kurdish militias now if there's a vacuum.

SHERLOCK: And that is the main concern here. The focus right now of all these Kurdish militias is to try to find a way to ward off this offensive or build allies that could help them fight off this offensive. They've been digging in. They've been building defensive tunnels and trenches. But they've also been trying to reach out all sides. They've had been in talks with Western allies. They were in - the political win (ph) was in Paris recently. But they're also reaching out to the Syrian regime. This is an oil-rich part of the country, and the regime wants to take it back. So the Kurds think they might be able to strike a deal with the government. And military - Kurdish military officials have been telling us that they would be open to working together with the regime in a counter - in an offensive to counter Turkey should Turkey choose to attack.

GREENE: All right. Hearing there from NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who is reporting in northeastern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.