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Morning News Brief


President Trump has made his choice to fill a second seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.


Yeah. He did it in a prime-time TV address last night delivered from the White House. President Trump announced his pick, federal judge Brett Kavanaugh.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a brilliant jurist with a clear and effective writing style, universally regarded as one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time.

MARTIN: The announcement comes less than two weeks after Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was a crucial swing vote on the court. Kennedy announced that he would retire a couple of weeks ago.

KING: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us now.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right, so what can you tell us about Brett Kavanaugh?

JOHNSON: He's pretty young - 53 years old - appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush. It took him a while to get confirmed. He eventually joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2006, when he got about 36 negative votes. But Brett Kavanaugh has checked virtually every box in the conservative legal establishment. He was a clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom he's in line to replace. He was an aide to independent counsel Ken Starr, who was investigating Bill Clinton's relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. Brett Kavanaugh helped President Bush win the Florida recount fight in 2000. Then he became a lawyer in the Bush White House and staff secretary, which means he was touching every document that got to President Bush during many of those years.

Interestingly, Brett Kavanaugh was not on Donald Trump's first short list for the Supreme Court. But he's a favorite of the White House counsel, Don McGahn, who was added to the list later. He's also a funny and collegial guy, very popular at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C.

KING: All right, so a relatively young judge, but he's obviously done a lot. I know you spent the past couple days digging through his record as a judge. What stands out to you?

JOHNSON: Well, Kavanaugh said last night in the East Room of the White House that if he's confirmed, he will keep an open mind in every case. His record suggests he has a strong view of executive branch power. I might point to a 2009 law review article that he wrote that says a sitting president should be able to defer criminal investigations and prosecutions until that president leaves office because it would be really disruptive.

Now, Democrats are already seizing on that point to say that President Trump has some kind of conflict in appointing Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans, on the other hand, would say that President Bill Clinton did get a Supreme Court pick in the middle of all his Whitewater troubles.

To go back to that law review article, though, Noel - Brett Kavanaugh says, Congress needs to act if the president is really dastardly. He says, there's always impeachment as a last resort. This matters, of course, because President Donald Trump is embroiled in this Russia investigation with special counsel Robert Mueller who wants to interview the president. And Brett Kavanaugh has also adopted some strong theories of executive power in other contexts, too.

KING: He has written hundreds of opinions, including on controversial issues like abortion rights and guns. Did you get a sense of where he stands on the ideological spectrum?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, the justice he's in line to replace, Tony Kennedy, was pretty conservative. But Brett Kavanaugh's record suggests he's even more so. Kavanaugh says he does believe - he said in 2006 he does believe Roe v. Wade is binding precedent. But more recently, he dissented in a case about a pregnant 17-year-old in immigration detention. She wanted to be released to get an abortion. Brett Kavanaugh said the majority opinion in that case was acting radical. And he said that it wanted to create demand for unlawful immigrant minors to obtain immediate abortions, which the majority says it did not say.

MARTIN: It's going to be interesting to see this play out because we live in such partisan times. Democrats are already lining up against this nominee even though Democratic leaders say you should keep an open mind. Worth remembering - Antonin Scalia was approved by more than 90 votes in the Senate. It's hard to imagine that that happened just not that long ago. Things were different then.

JOHNSON: Different times, for sure.

KING: NPR's Carrie Johnson.

Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Thank you.


KING: All right, the Supreme Court nomination is out of the way. And President Trump is set to arrive in Brussels today for a summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

MARTIN: Yeah, Noel. You remember all the tension at the G-7 meeting that happened in Canada several weeks ago. President Trump suggested then that the group should actually admit Russia, which didn't necessarily go over so well. And he railed against U.S. allies over trade - could be set for a repeat performance in Brussels with NATO allies. He has taken NATO allies to task for not paying their fair share to fund the defense alliance and for building their domestic economies while America foots the bill.

So what kind of welcome is President Trump likely to get in Brussels?

KING: NPR's Alice Fordham is at NATO headquarters in Belgium.

Hey, Alice.


KING: All right. So President Trump says NATO allies need to step up and spend more on defense. How are allies reacting?

FORDHAM: Well, the funny thing is that, although they may not like the tone, a lot of diplomats and analysts that I've been speaking to here, they actually agree with the substance. They think that NATO does urgently need to take threats seriously and step up both spending and action. And for context, I can say that NATO has actually been going through huge since 2014 when it was really rattled, you remember, by Russia annexing Crimea...

KING: Yeah.

FORDHAM: ...From Ukraine, which isn't a NATO member but it does cooperate with NATO. And since then, NATO has done things like deploy troops near the Russian border. And it's also identified quite a lot of stuff it doesn't do very well, that it's kind of rusty on - different countries' equipment isn't always compatible; in an emergency, it could take weeks for troops and hardware to get to the front lines because infrastructure has been neglected since the Cold War.

So there are plenty of people who were saying, yeah - OK. NATO does need to do more exercises, and that does take money and initiative.

KING: So does that mean that NATO allies are more or less on the same page ahead of the summit tomorrow?

FORDHAM: Well, no, not quite. That would be putting it a bit strongly, although Trump isn't the first American president to complain about NATO allies not spending enough. One thing he has done that has spooked people a bit is to allow trade and economic policy to bleed into security policy. So we saw that in the recent rally in Montana when he berated Germany for their trade policies in the same breath as criticizing their low defense spending or when he cited national security as a rationale for slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum, which affected traders in Europe.

And for a bit more understanding of why that's unusual, I spoke to an analyst here, a guy called Roland Freudenstein from a think tank called the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. And he said that since World War II, economic and security relations have been compartmentalized. They were independent of each other.

ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: And suddenly you have a situation where the U.S. president wants to connect the two things. And that is a change that Europe has a problem to deal with.

KING: I mean, the president is not the only person that thinks NATO needs to step up spending. What is the threat? What is the clear and present danger?

FORDHAM: The clearest or most evident one is Russia. So a recent British government report noted Russia has done three times as many military exercises as NATO in the last three years, probably - although Russia may not have been totally transparent - some troops have moved closer to Europe. And Russia has been fighting in Syria and in Ukraine, which means it is probably getting better at fighting. It's not the only consideration. There's also terrorism coming from the Middle East, possibly cyberwarfare as well.

KING: All right, so a lot going on. NPR's Alice Fordham at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Thanks, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thanks so much for having me.

KING: All right. And right after the NATO summit, President Trump is headed to Britain, which is in the middle of some turmoil of its own.

MARTIN: Yeah, indeed. Turns out that leaving the European Union is really complicated, and Britain's politics show this. Prime Minister Theresa May developed this Brexit plan. And her own Cabinet members didn't like it - so much so that the minister leading the Brexit effort - his name is David Davis - he resigned yesterday; so did the foreign minister, Boris Johnson. Theresa May spoke to Parliament yesterday, and she still sounded confident, though.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: This is the Brexit that is in our national interest. It is the Brexit that will deliver on the democratic decision of the British people. It is the right Brexit deal for Britain, and I commend this statement to the House.

MARTIN: Question now - can she still sell the plan despite the fracturing of her own government?

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt has been following all this in London.

Hey, Frank.


KING: So why exactly are key Cabinet members quitting over Prime Minister May's approach to Brexit?

LANGFITT: Well, they see this as a half Brexit, the too-soft approach from her, and not the sharp break with the EU that they say the voters voted for two years ago. And what May's plan would do is make sure that the U.K. continued to submit to EU rules, European Union rules, on trade and goods and agricultural products. Now, doing this to stay inside the EU market would avoid tariffs and protect jobs and businesses.

But critics like Boris Johnson, he says the whole point of Brexit was to, quote, "take back control" of sovereignty from the European Union so that Britain could make its own rules, make new trade deals with other countries. When he wrote his resignation letter yesterday, he said, quote, "we are truly headed for the status of a colony," which, as the British would say, is kind of cheeky coming from a former empire.

KING: (Laughter) Indeed. All right, so what does this mean for May's ability to win support for her Brexit plan? And what does this mean for her political future?

LANGFITT: It's really - it's a fascinating time right now. We're waiting to see if enough members of Parliament actually would call a vote of no confidence in May. It would take 48 to do so, to hold a vote. We're not there yet. We haven't seen that. And May says she'll fight. And she could in fact win. But what this shows is a deeply divided government as they're heading into negotiations with the EU. May was already weak. This wounds her further. And time is running out, frankly, to work out a future trade deal with the European Union. As British often like to say, this - many people here feels this is what they would call a shambles.

KING: Do these critics of Theresa May's plan for Brexit have a better plan of their own?

LANGFITT: It's not clear that they really do, Noel. They talk - people like Boris Johnson wanted what they would call a hard Brexit. No access to the single market - a day - this, of course, would damage the economy. The EU could reject the whole thing. So it's a very, very difficult time. It seems that there are no good choices here. And the prime minister's job, which could be up for grabs in a few months if she loses this - if there's a vote of no confidence and she finds herself in real trouble, it's not a very attractive job these days because it's just so hard to make this work.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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