Morning News Brief

Feb 19, 2018
Originally published on February 19, 2018 6:18 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When a grand jury indicted 13 Russians for interfering in the presidential election, President Trump at first seemed to celebrate. He pointed out that the indictment did not name him. But over the weekend, the president's tone darkened, and he now faces criticism for his latest swipe at the FBI.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, and in doing this, he linked two big news stories. The president said the bureau should have done more to stop a school shooting in Florida and less to investigate Russia. On Saturday, President Trump tweeted, quote, "very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. There is no collusion" - end quote.

INSKEEP: And that is the start of our discussion with NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, who's with us once again. Sue, good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do lawmakers think about what the president did not say? He did not, at any point, seem to condemn Russia for its ever more obvious interference in the election.

DAVIS: I don't think that there's much surprise in the president's tweets. I think there's a certain amount of acceptance that this is the way he's going to respond to events on Capitol Hill. There is some frustration, and we heard a bit of it from senators over the weekend, particularly senators like Angus King of Maine and James Lankford of Oklahoma - an independent and a Republican - because they're on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And they're part of the team that is looking at Russia's attempt to influence the election. And I think where this will matter is when that committee puts out their report and issue recommendations on what Congress can - should do to make sure Russia doesn't attempt to interfere again. As Angus King said, it's very hard for the country to speak with one voice on this when the president is still saying it didn't happen.

INSKEEP: So there's the question of Russia. Then there's the question of taking this swipe at the FBI. He says the FBI should have done more, and the FBI has acknowledged they did get some signs beforehand about the Florida school shooting suspect. But his attack was not taken well by Tim Scott, Republican senator who spoke to CBS News yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

TIM SCOTT: So many folks in the FBI are doing all that they can to keep us safe. The reality of it is that they are two separate issues.

INSKEEP: But let's take that second issue - the school shooting. How much pressure is the FBI under at this point?

DAVIS: Well, there is nothing that indicates the Russia investigation is what led them to not, as they said, follow the right protocols.

INSKEEP: It's separate groups of people doing separate things.

DAVIS: And separate problems, although, obviously, as you said, the FBI did acknowledge that protocols were not followed. They had been tipped off to the shooter in Florida. And we do not know the extent of what they did not do. We will get answers to that. They are going - there's going to be an internal investigation into that. You know, the question always arises after these events is - what is Congress going to do? Is there going to be a legislative response? And I think most lawmakers were pretty candid, again, that there still does not seem to be a broad governing coalition to do any kind of major gun legislation. There is - one piece of legislation that has the closest thing to a chance to being revived in this debate is a bill led by Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn, which aims to close loopholes in the existing federal background check system. We have seen some failings in that system in recent shootings.

INSKEEP: And that's sponsored by a Republican.

DAVIS: It is.

INSKEEP: OK.

DAVIS: And it has broad bipartisan support. However, this bill, as is with many bills, has problems that when you start the gun debate, does it become a magnet for more controversial pieces of legislation. This one has other members of Congress who would like to attach to it legislation to make it easier for concealed carry weapon permit owners to travel across the country more freely. And that is when the debate gets bogged down again and again and again.

INSKEEP: Sue, thanks very much for the update, really appreciate it.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis, who covers Congress. Now, in Parkland, Fla., the heartbreak and anger over last week's school shooting is accompanied by new calls for action.

GREENE: Yeah, calls for action from students. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are now planning to bring their push for gun legislation directly to the nation's capital, to Washington, next month.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley has been talking with some of the affected families, and she's on the line from South Florida. Hi there, Cheryl.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So there were funerals, we know, yesterday for some of the victims. What were they like?

CORLEY: Well, there were three funerals yesterday. Two of them were for students - 14-year-old Alex Schachter, he's a freshman who was in the marching band; Jaime Guttenberg, also 14, she was a dancer; and the third was for Scott Beigel, the geography teacher who ushered students back into the classroom during the shooting. These funerals aren't open to the media, but they have drawn huge crowds. A few have even been moved to hotels to accommodate the crowd. And I talked to Jennifer Corral (ph), who attended Guttenberg's funeral, and said there were just thousands of people packed in the hotel ballroom.

JENNIFER CORRAL: It's a big community, and we all care about each other and the kids and their families and everyone and the school and the teachers. Everyone needs to know that they have us all behind them, and we support them, and we love them, and we will make something better somehow.

CORLEY: And today, there's going to be another funeral and tomorrow, the school athletic director, Chris Hixon - there'll be visitation for him and more funerals to come during the week.

INSKEEP: So, Cheryl, let me ask about the issue we heard about from our congressional correspondent, Susan Davis, who pointed out that once again in Congress the opening bid is there's really not much that Congress is willing to do in the way of gun control. There might be minor pieces of legislation - not even sure those can pass. That's the tone in Congress. What is the tone on that subject among the students who survived the shooting?

CORLEY: Oh, it's much different, Steve, and they think that there can be action, and they're demanding action. There was a huge rally in Fort Lauderdale over the weekend with one student, Emma Gonzalez, really calling out lawmakers for their connection to the NRA. She had the crowd shout - chanting shame on you. And now, these students are organizing. They plan to hold a town hall meeting here on Wednesday. They're using social media to really organize, and they're calling for what they say will be the march for our lives, what they hope will be this massive march and rally in Washington on March 24.

And they think that this is going to really push lawmakers to enact new, tougher laws and policies when it comes to gun control. They say they're not taking no for an answer, that enough is enough, and they are the force that's going to happen and make that happen.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Cheryl Corley, what's happening with Nikolas Cruz, the suspect?

CORLEY: Well, he's being held without bond. He's in solitary confinement. He's on suicide watch. His attorney wants to work out a deal with the state's attorney allowing him to get life, but the state's attorney hasn't ruled the death penalty off the table as of yet.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley is in South Florida. Cheryl, thanks very much.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Now, let's turn to the tensions between Israel and Iran.

GREENE: Yeah, and quite a moment. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday issued a warning to Iran's foreign minister. This was at a security conference in Munich.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should. It's yours.

GREENE: So Netanyahu is holding up this green, rectangular piece of metal. He says it was a piece of an Iranian drone that was shot down in Israeli airspace earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NETANYAHU: You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran - do not test Israel's resolve.

GREENE: OK, so this war of words comes more than a week after the Israeli military engaged directly with Iranian forces in Syria.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Munich. She was at the security conference and is now on the line. Hi there, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So we heard Netanyahu give that warning to Iran. Was there a larger reason that he brought this up in such a high-profile way?

NELSON: Well, a lot of this has to do with the nuclear deal that's being - or that might be renegotiated on that President Trump has indicated he is not happy with as is. And so what Netanyahu did was speak about Iranian - or what he says are Iranian plans to control the region through proxies like militias. He did - also made a new claim that Iran plans to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon with, quote, "game-changing precision-guided munitions." And he basically said there's no way he was going to let Iran build a terror base in Israel's backyard. I should also quickly point out that he talked about the Iranian nuclear deal or he compared it to the Munich Agreement of 80 years ago that allowed Nazi Germany to annex parts of the Czech of that time, Czechoslovakia.

INSKEEP: I guess if you're having a security conference in Munich, you can't miss the chance to bring up the Munich Agreement in some way. But you point out there are larger tensions here and things that Israel specifically wants. Now, how are the Iranians responding to that criticism?

NELSON: Well, it was interesting because Javad Zarif - sorry, the foreign minister was not in the room as Mr. Netanyahu was speaking. He spoke about an hour afterwards. He refused to comment and said didn't even deserve a response. And he called the display with this piece, or this alleged piece of the drone, a cartoonish circus. Asked of the nuclear deal, he said that if Iran's interests are, quote, "not secured" that Iran would respond with, quote - I'm sorry - that Iran would respond and that it would - that people would, quote, "be sorry."

INSKEEP: I guess we should point out that although President Trump has talked about renegotiating this nuclear deal, Iran has said that's not going to happen. And Europeans are a party to this, and they haven't been very eager to change the deal either, have they?

NELSON: No, they definitely have not. And in fact, the rest of the conference, and Senator John Kerry as well, were really talking about the need for this deal, the need for engagement. And in fact, there was encouragement that perhaps at next year's security conference that Netanyahu and Zarif might meet on stage or at least Zarif with some of the other members in the region who have issues with them.

INSKEEP: John Kerry - the former senator, also former secretary of state who negotiated the deal. Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "CITY LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.