News Brief: Trump Visits Iraq, Migrant Children's Health, Sudan Protests

Dec 27, 2018
Originally published on December 27, 2018 7:08 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump made his first trip to an active combat zone yesterday. That's nearly two years into his presidency.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. The president visited U.S. troops in Iraq. And his message there sounded, well, a lot like his message back home.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will honor your service by doing everything in our power to defend our homeland and to stop terrorists from entering American shores, and that includes strengthening of our borders. I don't know if you folks are aware of what's happening. We want to have strong borders in the United States, and Democrats don't want to let us have strong borders. Only for one reason - you know why? - because I want it.

KING: All right. NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley is with us now. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So this trip was a closely guarded secret because there are plenty of security risks. That's pretty normal. Do you have a sense of why President Trump went to Iraq now?

HORSLEY: Well, this was in the works for some time. If you think back, the president was getting some criticism around Thanksgiving for not having gone to a combat zone during his first couple years in office. Both his predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, made multiple trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. So this was an opportunity for the commander in chief to wish those serving far from home a merry Christmas and to thank them for their service.

It was also a dramatic gesture for the president in the midst of this partial government shutdown. And, of course, it comes just days after Trump's own defense secretary had quit in protest of the president's decision to pull U.S. troops out of neighboring Syria.

KING: Yeah. President Trump has made these choices recently that have led to the resignation of his secretary of defense and the head of the team that's charged with countering ISIS. Did he address that at all?

HORSLEY: He did. In his remarks to the U.S. troops, the president gave sort of a reiteration of his "America First" approach to foreign policy. He defended those decisions to pull troops out of Syria and about half the U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. He said the U.S. wouldn't, quote, "be a sucker anymore," defending other countries without getting much in return to his way of thinking.

He also did tell reporters, including our own Tamara Keith, who's on this trip, that he's not planning to withdraw any of the 5,200 troops who are now serving in Iraq. Take a listen.

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TRUMP: No plans at all, no. In fact, we could use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria.

HORSLEY: In that sense, he is acknowledging that while ISIS has been driven from most of its territory in Syria and Iraq, the group has not been wiped out of existence and has the potential to regroup.

I should say, Noel, the president also falsely claimed to the service members he was addressing that he'd given them their first pay raise in 10 years. In fact, the military's gotten a pay raise every year. That's a claim the president has made before and that has been widely debunked.

KING: Scott, while the president was there, obviously, he met with U.S. troops, he took selfies - he and the first lady. Did he meet at all with Iraqi officials, because that seems like it would've been sort of a key move?

HORSLEY: Not in person. And the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders blamed that on logistics. As you mentioned, the exact timing of this trip had been a closely guarded secret. And when it took place, the White House says there simply wasn't time for the Iraqi prime minister to make it to the Al Asad Military Base out there in Anbar province, where the president was visiting.

Now, Iraqi sources say they would've preferred to see the president come to Baghdad to meet the president the way that other foreign leaders have done. In any case, though, Trump and the prime minister did speak by telephone, and the president invited the prime minister to visit him in Washington.

KING: OK. NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

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KING: U.S. lawmakers are calling for better medical care for migrant kids in U.S. custody.

GREENE: Yeah. This comes, of course, after the death of a second migrant child who was in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities. These deaths have prompted U.S. Customs and Border Protection to do new medical screenings for every child in its care, and it's looking for help from other federal agencies.

KING: NPR's Joel Rose has been following this story. Good morning, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So first, Joel, I want to ask you what else we've learned about this little boy who died in custody this week.

ROSE: He's been identified as Felipe Alonzo Gomez (ph). He's was 8 years old, from Guatemala. He was apprehended after crossing the border illegally with his father outside of El Paso, Texas, on December 18. They were held in multiple processing facilities near the border, facilities run by Customs and Border Protection. They were moved, eventually, to a remote highway checkpoint north in New Mexico. That is where Alonzo Gomez got sick and died on Monday, on Christmas Eve.

KING: And why was this child held for so long in these facilities? What was happening there?

ROSE: Well, that's one of the big unanswered questions that we have about this, right? CBP is supposed to get children out of these processing centers as quickly as possible, ideally in less than 72 hours. But Alonzo Gomez was held for much longer than that. He was shuffled through multiple facilities in quick succession. And authorities haven't really said why. But they have said that CBP facilities in the region are at or near capacity.

KING: So they haven't exactly said what was going on in the case of this little boy. But what have they said more broadly - immigration authorities - because they are under a lot of pressure right now after the deaths of two children in less than a month?

ROSE: Right. You know, they've - there's been a reaction. You know, they've called this death a tragedy. They're investigating the cause. And until this month, they said there hadn't been a death of a child in CBP custody in over a decade. They say they've completed new medical screenings for children in their care, especially - for almost all of the children in their care, especially those who are under 10. And they're looking for help from other federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control.

But immigration authorities say that they're facing a crisis because of record numbers of families and unaccompanied children who are showing up at the border and that Customs and Border Protection facilities just were not designed for this. Here's CBP spokesman Andrew Meehan.

ANDREW MEEHAN: Many of our facilities were built 20, 30 years ago. They are meant to handle single adults, mostly males. They were not designed to deal with this huge increase in families and kids.

KING: OK, that's interesting because they're essentially saying this is a logistical problem, and we haven't figured out a way to fix it yet. What are members of Congress saying about all this?

ROSE: Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus got a tour of some CBP facilities in New Mexico last week after the death of another migrant child, also from Guatemala. And they were not happy about what they saw.

Raul Ruiz is a Democratic lawmaker from California. Ruiz is also a doctor. And he says he's going to write legislation to establish some basic standards for care for migrant children that - he says what they saw in New Mexico is inhumane and substandard. Democratic representatives are calling for hearings on this. They want the Department of Homeland Security to ask for more money to improve the medical care there.

KING: NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you so much.

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KING: All right. This is what the past week has sounded like across Sudan, which is a massive country in Northeast Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Screaming).

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GREENE: Yeah. Protesters in Sudan have taken to the streets by the thousands. They're demanding the ouster of an almost-three-decade-old regime. And the government, as we hear, has responded with violence. Human rights groups say at least 37 people have been killed.

KING: NPR's Eyder Peralta has been following this story, and he's with us now from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So why have people taken to the streets of the capital, Khartoum and, in fact, other cities across Sudan, which is a very large country?

PERALTA: Yeah. So it started over the price of bread. The government decided to end subsidies, and the price of bread tripled. But this really speaks to the huge economic problems that Sudan is facing. The country, you know, has been facing huge inflation. People can't get money. They make hours' worth of lines for twenty dollars, and then they get to the stores and the shelves are bare.

But, look; today, I was speaking to Wael (ph), a protester who only wanted his first name used because he fears the government. And here's what he told me.

WAEL: It's not about economics. It's about - they are not going to improve the country. I am 25 years old. I cannot see my future here inside this country.

PERALTA: So life is hard is what he's saying, but he feels like the government has the resources, and they're just misusing it. They are just looking out for themselves, he says, so President Omar al-Bashir has to go.

KING: I mean, this is so interesting. You talked to a 25-year-old man who says he has no faith in the future of his country. His president has been in power longer than he's been alive. Bashir is a strongman ruler. He's a tough guy. Is this starting at all to look like a threat to his regime, or is this crackdown ultimately likely to prove, you know, just another crackdown in a country with a strong leader who's determined to hang on to power?

PERALTA: Let me play you something that will explain a lot.

KING: Yeah.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

PERALTA: So that is what people across Sudan are chanting, and it translates roughly to, the people demand the fall of the regime. And if you remember, that was a...

KING: Yeah.

PERALTA: ...Really popular chant during the Arab Spring. And the Sudanese took to the streets back then, too. And since 2011, they've taken to the streets many times. And every single time, the security forces have managed to tamp those protests down.

Analysts I've spoken to say this feels a little different. There's a lot more people on the streets. And this is an emboldened movement across the country. We've seen reports that protesters have attacked government buildings. And one thing to remember is that popular protest movements have brought down two governments in Sudan - once in 1964, and again in 1985.

KING: Has the government said anything? I mean, they've sent troops into the streets. But have they said anything in response to this, particularly anything on how they might improve the economy, make people's lives better?

PERALTA: No. I mean, President Omar al-Bashir delivered a speech a few days ago, and he just blamed the protests on agents, mercenaries and infiltrators. One thing that we are watching is we've seen reports that some of the troops that have been sent to deal with protesters have instead sided with them. But in public, they issued a statement. The military said that they were 100 percent with President Bashir.

KING: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi watching this developing story in Sudan. Eyder, thanks so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF OTTO TOTLAND'S "VATES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.