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News Brief: Government Shutdown, Trump Speech, R. Kelly Docu-Series


What, if anything, changed after President Trump and Democrats made their case on a border wall?


Well, we might find out today. Congressional leaders are going to be meeting with the president. Last night, the president asked the American people to reach out to them.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To every citizen, call Congress and tell them to, finally, after all of these decades, secure our border.

GREENE: The president blocked routine government spending measures unless they include money for a border wall. He raised the specter of drugs and crime. Afterwards, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded.


NANCY PELOSI: Much of what we heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice. The president has chosen fear.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening to the speeches and joins us this morning.

Hi there, Mara.


INSKEEP: So the president used the bully pulpit, as they say. Did you feel any sign of movement or change last night?

LIASSON: I didn't hear any sign of movement. There was nothing in the speech that offered a new compromise, no kind of legalize the DREAMers in exchange for wall funding - that's a compromise that both sides flirted with a while ago. So I think unless congressional leaders and the president come up with something we didn't hear last night today, I don't think we'll make progress in these meetings because neither side is hurting enough politically yet.

INSKEEP: Well, you said hurting enough. This is a war of attrition, isn't it? Each side is seeing who can suffer more. Were there any arguments the president laid out that would seem damaging to Democrats over the long term?

LIASSON: Well, I think the president had three goals last night. One is he needed to convince people outside of his hard core base that shutting down the government to get funding for the wall is a good idea. And Democrats are pretty confident that that won't work. They say this was litigated in 2018. The president's message in the election was all about an invading caravan, and it didn't work. So they're pretty dug in.

The second goal, of course, was to keep Republicans from abandoning ship and starting to vote with Democrats to reopen the government, something a small handful of Republicans have already done in the House and about three Senate Republicans who are up in 2020 have been calling for. And the third goal, I think, was to show his base that he's fighting and to lay the groundwork for what might be the endgame of this whole debate, which is declaring a national emergency on the border - doing it himself, doing an end run around Congress.

INSKEEP: Mara, is there some vulnerability for Democrats? Because there are a number of Democrats in Congress who, in past years, in other situations, have voted for funding for various kinds of fences and border barriers.

LIASSON: I think that's probably the strongest argument the president made. In the last continuing resolution - government funding resolution he signed, the Democrats said, you can spend this money explicitly. The language in the bill was, you can spend this money on steel fencing, but you can't build a concrete wall. And he's saying now, fine; I'll build a steel fence. So you know, he's saying, you approved this money for this kind of barrier in the past. Why don't you do it again?

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Now let's check some of the facts in the president's speech.

GREENE: Yeah. And it's worth noting, there was one notable omission in the speech. The president never said the word terror last night. This week, the White House has backed off claims about the number of terrorists crossing the border.

INSKEEP: Yeah. There were questions about some numbers the White House was throwing around. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration, listened to what was there.

Good morning, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's start with the president's dramatic language about people who are in the United States illegally, committing crimes.


TRUMP: How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?

INSKEEP: OK. There are dramatic cases. The president alluded to some of them. But are immigrants, statistically, more dangerous than anybody else, Joel?

ROSE: No. Immigrants are actually less likely than native-born people to commit crimes. But this is a technique that the president has used a lot, going back to his campaign, to point to individual anecdotes with sympathetic crime victims. For example, last night, he talked about an incident - a police officer in California who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant in December. The president also brought up MS-13, the violent street gang, which he does with some regularity. But by focusing on these gruesome examples, his critics say he is exaggerating the overall threat from immigrants and playing on fear. By the way, the police officer who was killed in California that the president called an American hero - also an immigrant, from Fiji.

INSKEEP: Well, the president also repeated a claim that he has made on Twitter. Let's listen to that.


TRUMP: Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.

INSKEEP: OK. This does seem basically true. Right? A lot of drugs do come north from Latin America.

ROSE: Absolutely. But most of those drugs come through in cars and trucks that pass through legal ports of entry. So it's not actually clear that a border wall would do anything to slow them down or stop them.

INSKEEP: Oh, oh - so this is a version of the concern about people who come to the United States illegally, also through legal ports of entry. They come with a visa and overstay the visa. The law wouldn't affect them, either.

ROSE: And they are the largest share of people who are becoming undocumented immigrants. That's right.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, there's one other claim the president made that we want to check. Let's give a listen to this.


TRUMP: The wall will also be paid for, indirectly, by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.

INSKEEP: OK. This is vital, Joel Rose, because the president and his campaign didn't say - we're going to build a wall, and Congress and American taxpayers will pay for it. He said - we're going to build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it. Now he's saying this is how Mexico is going to pay for it, through this trade agreement. Is there some provision in the new North American Free Trade deal to pay for wall construction?

ROSE: Not directly, no. I mean, the president is talking about the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, which was signed by the leaders of the three countries in November. Trump has repeatedly claimed that that new pact would usher in huge economic benefits for the U.S., essentially making up for the cost of the border wall. But there are two big problems with this argument. First, the agreement has yet to be approved by Congress, and that is not a sure thing. So any conclusions about how much money it's going to bring in are premature. And second, many economists say the new agreement is just a modest reworking of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that it is supposed to replace. They are skeptical that it's going to do much to really boost economic growth in the U.S.

INSKEEP: And very briefly, the Democrats didn't speak very long. Were there any factual concerns in their short statements?

ROSE: Well, one thing to note that I think you kind of hit on already with Mara - but the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, has said that Democrats and the president both want stronger security; however, they disagree about the most effective way to do it. However, as the president did point out last night, congressional Democrats, including Schumer, have sometimes supported border barriers in the past.

INSKEEP: Joel, thanks very much.

ROSE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joel Rose.


INSKEEP: All right. What are the consequences for R. Kelly after a documentary series focused on sexual abuse allegations?

GREENE: Yeah. Lifetime says more than 2 million viewers have watched the "Surviving R. Kelly" series. It tells the stories of women who say the multiplatinum R&B artist abused them, isolated them, also had sex with them - some when they were underage. Accusers say Kelly ran a sex cult in Georgia and in Chicago. Kim Foxx, the state's attorney in Cook County, Ill., is now inviting other possible victims to tell their stories.


KIM FOXX: Please come forward. There is nothing that can be done to investigate these allegations without the cooperation of both victims and witnesses.

GREENE: And we should say, there has been a debate over why there wasn't more outcry and more investigation sooner. That debate is growing louder and louder on social media.

INSKEEP: And NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has been listening.

Hi there, Eric


INSKEEP: What kinds of conversations are you seeing and hearing?

DEGGANS: Well, there's a lot of conversation and a lot of attention being paid to this series. As you noted, 2 million people watched the debut. But over the course of this six-part series, Lifetime is saying something like 18.8 million people have watched it and that it's also their most talked-about series on social media in the network's history, which gives you the sense that people are talking about it on social media. And the conversation we're seeing is this idea of, can you separate the artist from his music?

There are fans out there who want to still enjoy sentimental hits, like "I Believe I Can Fly" and "Step In The Name Of Love" from R. Kelly. They're important in their personal history. But people are also pointing out and the docu-series makes the argument that he's used the wealth that he's amassed from these hits to build a strategy for grooming young women, for imprisoning young women, for abusing young women. And so people are arguing that you can't really separate those two things. And it's forcing a conversation about pedophilia, sexual abuse and even believing black women when they speak out about abuse within black communities across the country, which seems to be the most impressive result.

INSKEEP: Eric, is this case a little like Bill Cosby's case in that the allegations were sort of known for quite some time but, finally, we've hit a moment where people are really paying attention?

DEGGANS: I think that that dynamic is definitely happening. I interviewed Dream Hampton, one of the executive producers on the series, and she told me that, for some people, ideas like this don't really become concrete until they really see it on television. And there was something very striking about watching this docu-series and seeing woman after woman come forward. All of the women featured in the docu-series have made their allegations public before, but this is the first docu-series to bring them all together in one very potent story that covers from the beginning of R. Kelly's career in Chicago all the way up until the present day.

And we're in this moment where we're seeing people look at the work of Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby and go back and sort of say - you know, there were things that we heard about these guys that maybe we shrugged off or maybe we didn't pay enough attention to. And again, this idea of believing women when they step forward to tell stories of abuse - and I think in this #MeToo moment that we're experiencing now, there's an effort to do that more. And so it's causing us to go back and relook at these incidents. And R. Kelly is the focus of this now.

INSKEEP: What did you mean earlier, Eric, when you suggested that women of color might be treated differently as accusers than white women?

DEGGANS: Well, Chance the Rapper, this famous musician, just did a video interview where he talked about that, where he talked about - saying that working with R. Kelly was a mistake. And one of the reasons why he may have paid short shrift to some of the allegations about R. Kelly is because he didn't fully believe black women when they stepped forward. And I think a lot of people are having that conversation now, thanks to this docu-series.


Eric, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Deggans.


INSPECTAH DECK: (Rapping) I move through the Third World. My third eye's the guiding light. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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