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News Brief: Prime-Time Speech, Troop Withdrawal, Felon Voting Rights


Any politician can give a speech. A few can be seen live on TV. But only the president can address the nation from the Oval Office as President Trump will do tonight.


The tradition goes back to 1947, when most Americans did not yet have TVs. Harry Truman did it then about a food crisis in Europe. Richard Nixon, in turbulent times, spoke repeatedly from the Oval Office, including his resignation in 1974. Reagan spoke from his Oval Office desk. George W. Bush addressed the nation on 9/11. And tonight, the subject of President Trump's address is his demand that Congress budget money for a border wall. His demand triggered a partial government shutdown.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us this morning.

Hey, Tam.


MARTIN: So does giving an address from the Oval Office tonight mean President Trump has more or less leverage right now in these shutdown negotiations?

KEITH: Well, President Trump has a problem, which is that some share of the American public - a large share of the American public - wanted him, even before the shutdown began, to make a compromise on the wall. And if he is going to get his wall funding, which seems like a mighty big if at this point, he has to convince the American public that there is a crisis along the southern border and that that crisis can be solved by a wall. And thus far, the administration has had some difficulty connecting those dots and making that case. And so that is the case that President Trump has asked for seven or eight minutes of prime-time TV to make.

MARTIN: I want to get to the facts of that in just a second. But first off, Democrats are agitating to have their say, though, right? If the president is going to speak from the Oval Office, Democrats want to be able to respond to his argument. Are they're going to get that time?

KEITH: It's not clear yet, but they are certainly asking for it. Here's a quote from a joint statement. "Now that the television networks have decided to air the president's address - which, if his past statements are any indication, will be full of malice and misinformation - Democrats must immediately be given equal time." That was from Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. If they were to get that time, I think we have a pretty good idea of what they might say. This is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer from over the weekend.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Democrats and some Republicans are asking President Trump not to hold hostage millions of innocent Americans.

MARTIN: And let's return, Tam, to the facts on the ground because this is really what is complicating this whole issue. The president and his administration insist there is a crisis. You talk to lawmakers, sheriffs, mayors along the border, you get a very different picture. And even the numbers are in dispute. The administration keeps banding about this number, insisting thousands of known or suspected terrorists have come across the southern border. That's just not true. There's no evidence to that effect. The vast majority of those people are coming through airports, not across the border. Right?

KEITH: Yeah, that's right. And most of them are getting stopped in airports, some not even before they get to the United States, in fact. So we - in this briefing that was held yesterday with the vice president and the Homeland Security secretary, reporters were asking, what's up with your numbers? You're giving numbers of thousands of people, potential terrorists. And they don't seem to wash with reality.

And the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said - well, you know, in terms of who's actually arrested at the border, that is classified information. We can't tell you that number. And it would come from the Department of Justice anyway. So they are not giving that number. But NBC News is reporting that it's only six in the last year.

MARTIN: Very different than a number of 4,000, as Sarah Sanders has repeatedly said. Meanwhile, the president says he wants to declare a state of emergency. If Congress doesn't give him the money, he's going to do that. Are we going to hear him talk about that tonight?

KEITH: We don't know for sure. But we know that the White House is considering it, that lawyers are looking into it and the president is seriously considering declaring a state of emergency. Whether that happens tonight or some other time isn't clear. The White House says they want that to be sort of a last resort and they'd rather have negotiations bear fruit.

MARTIN: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.


MARTIN: National Security Adviser John Bolton is on a trip. He is in Turkey trying to clarify when and how the U.S. will pull its troops out of Syria.

INSKEEP: Bolton has said American troops will stay in Syria until ISIS is eradicated and until Turkey promises not to attack Kurdish fighters who have been U.S. allies. That comes weeks after President Trump promised to pull out from northern Syria very quickly, reportedly in as little as 30 days.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock was recently in northeastern Syria, where U.S. troops are. And she's tracked how U.S. allies there are watching all this unfold.

Good morning, Ruth.


MARTIN: So Steve just alluded to the kind of back-and-forth with all the statements on this. Can you walk us through what has transpired, what we've been hearing on this thus far?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. So President Trump said, on December 19, that ISIS was defeated. And then, to quote him, that the U.S. troops are "all coming back, and they're coming back now." But now military officials seem to have talked the president out of pulling out too quickly. They never agreed with his decision.

And as you said, speaking in Israel, John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser, said, well, we are going to pull out but only once ISIS is defeated and not until the interests of our local allies - that's the Kurdish-led groups that have been fighting ISIS alongside the U.S. - are protected. The president himself seems to have walked this back slightly. After initially declaring ISIS defeated, he now says some U.S. troops will remain at least until ISIS is gone. So this could take months or longer.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should note, just to be complete, that both the president and John Bolton insist their position has not changed at all, although it would appear that it certainly has.

SHERLOCK: Right. You know, you could say this seems to be some kind of a face-saving measure, whereby they're trying to stick with the idea that U.S. troops will withdraw. But now the timeline of that is much less clear. And they're insisting that they need to protect these Kurdish allies.

MARTIN: So how do they do that, though, Ruth? I mean, how do they protect the Kurds if they're going to leave?

SHERLOCK: Well, that is the question. A lot of this depends on Turkey. Turkey considers these Kurdish militias that now rule this part of Syria as connected to militants in Turkey that it thinks are terrorists. And after President Trump's original announcement, they threatened to attack this part of Syria. John Bolton is in Turkey today to discuss all this and says that, you know, the U.S. won't leave until these Kurdish allies are protected.

President Erdogan of Turkey is gunning to be able to take over these parts of Syria. He presented that in an op-ed in The New York Times yesterday, saying, you know, they could run the area through local allies on the ground. But you know, it's very - you know - but that's something that, in a further plot twist, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says might actually be on the cards because President Trump and President Erdogan have talked about this. But this is, of course, something that the Kurds may never go for.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, I imagine the Kurds would take issue with that.

SHERLOCK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they see Turkey as a bigger threat than ISIS. And they've even been talking about potentially striking a deal with the Syrian regime if they have to strike a deal with somebody to be able to keep having some control of this area. And certainly, from speaking with Kurdish officials, it seems they would be much more interested in talking to the regime about this than Turkey.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, reporting this morning from Beirut.

Hey, Ruth, thanks as always. Appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.


MARTIN: OK. We're going to focus in on Florida now because there's a big change taking place in that state today. As many as 1.4 million convicted felons are set to regain the right to vote. The measure comes from an amendment that was passed by 65 percent of Florida voters in November.

INSKEEP: Election supervisors say that today they begin registering people who, under the old law, were barred from voting at all. Critics of this measure, including the Governor-elect Rick (ph) DeSantis, say the state legislature must pass a bill that defines the terms of the amendment, which would delay implementation for a few months. So what happens next?

MARTIN: All right. Let's ask NPR's Greg Allen, who has been following this story, joining us now from Florida.

Hey, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what is happening today? I mean, how many people are actually going to get registered to vote? Do we know?

ALLEN: Well, we'll see how many people show up. There's a lot of interest in this. This campaign has been going on for quite some time, and it definitely goes into effect today. Supervisors of election in Florida's 67 counties said they'll begin registering voters who are former felons who've served their time. If you have a felony conviction, you must have completed the sentence plus any probation and parole, and this doesn't apply to anyone who is convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.

But there are still lots of questions, though, about whether court costs and restitution judgments have been paid and who checks on that, also, exactly which felony convictions still disqualify a person from voting. And these are all some of the reasons that the new governor, Ron DeSantis, says he believes the legislature will have to pass a measure to lay out some guidelines for all this. But that wouldn't be until March, at the earliest, when the legislature's back. But in the meantime, people will be registering to vote today.

MARTIN: I understand you've gotten to talk with some people who are going to get their right to vote again. What have they been telling you?

ALLEN: Well, you know, I think this is such an important day for folks who worked - this is a law that's been on the books for 150 years. And people have fought for years to overturn it. They finally were successful. You know, as you say, 65 percent of the voters approved it. That's more people that voted for any candidate in the last election.


ALLEN: So a very - passed by a large margin. That's people in every community in Florida. And one of the people affected is Yraida Guanipa, who's a former felon who worked for years on this issue. I spoke to her yesterday, and she said even she's nervous about it.

YRAIDA GUANIPA: I talked to my husband. He says, you better wait until March. You better wait until what the governor says.

MARTIN: So there's still a lot of questions, huh?

ALLEN: Well, yeah. I mean, the state election officials say they no longer are checking new voters against a felony database so no one's unfairly disqualified. But when you fill out a form, you must affirm that you're eligible. So some are worried that signing a voter registration form mistakenly before the rules are clear could potentially be a criminal offense. Election supervisors say it's unlikely anyone would be prosecuted in such a case, though.

MARTIN: I mean, Florida is a key swing state in the presidential election, where it seems it's never too early to talk about Florida and elections. Could this have any kind of impact in 2020 as you look forward?

ALLEN: Well, you know, adding hundreds of thousands of potentially new voters to the rolls is certainly likely to have an impact. Some of the organizers believe that it will spur interest in a lot of new policies, maybe criminal justice reform, something that's kind of largely stalled in Florida up till now.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen for us this morning.

Greg, thanks. We appreciate it.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATTLAS' "FURTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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