Morning News Brief: Trump Meets Putin Again; Protests At Jerusalem Holy Site
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We now know that President Trump held this previously undisclosed meeting - conversation with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, at the G-20 meetings earlier this month.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It took place at a dinner with other leaders and their spouses. Putin was in this conversation off to the side. His interpreter - Putin's interpreter was there. Trump was alone - no other Americans. Now, last night, the president tweeted that the press knew - exclamation point - about this dinner. They knew about the dinner but not about the side conversation.
Unlike his other meeting with Putin at that summit, the White House had provided no record of it. The first public account came from Ian Bremmer, who was with a political-risk consulting firm. And he'd heard about the conversation from a couple of other people at the G-20. Bremmer spoke on NPR's All Things Considered yesterday.
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IAN BREMMER: There was a second meeting that occurred in front of all of these leaders, who are publicly and privately questioning the strength of the relationship with their American ally. I think it unnerves them. It unsettles them. And I think really that's the takeaway.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Tamara Keith is here. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey.
GREENE: So world leaders get together a lot - all the time. A lot of the conversations can be in private. They can talk about classified things that we might not know about for a while. So what exactly is different here? Why is this drawing attention?
KEITH: Well, based on Ian Bremmer's reporting, the conversation lasted about an hour. They were quite animated and friendly. That's according to the people he talked to who were in the room. Now, the White House account of it is quite different. The White House says it was just a very brief conversation, like many other conversations that the president had. But, you know, it's - the issue is that it wasn't announced in any way.
Now, of course, you know, a five-minute conversation on the side - you know, the president did talk to a lot of leaders. But if it really was an hour, and it came after this highly anticipated meeting where the president and President Putin spoke in person for the first time, then there's an argument that can be made that the American public probably wanted to know about this.
GREENE: OK, so it sounds like two important things to know. One is that - I mean, so much scrutiny of the United States and Russia - really important relationship. Americans are watching. The world is watching. But also, the White House would normally, with any world leader, at least tell the press that something happened - a conversation took place.
KEITH: Well, certainly if it was an hour long - I mean, the president has brief phone calls with world leaders all the time, and they put out a readout. But in this case, there was no readout. However, the White House, in a statement that they offered without attribution, says that there's nothing to see here - that, you know, there was no second meeting between President Trump and President Putin - just, as they say, a brief conversation at dinner. And here's a quote. "The insinuation that the White House has tried to hide a second meeting is false, malicious and absurd."
INSKEEP: It's just the details here that are noteworthy - that Putin's interpreter was present, but no other American was there to hear the conversation. That makes it different than the other meeting at the G-20, where Rex Tillerson is there. And this is a case where you have this particular American president with this particular Russian president. It's guaranteed to raise questions.
KEITH: Right, and the interpreter issue is that President Trump's interpreter spoke Japanese because he was sitting next to Prime Minister Abe's wife at the dinner. And then President Putin had a translator who did speak English because he was seated next to the first lady.
GREENE: So the only record we get of this would be - from an interpreter at least, would be from the Russian side.
KEITH: Right, and whatever the president says about the meeting or told his staff about the meeting because it was a spouses-only dinner.
GREENE: Tam, let me just ask you one thing about today's schedule. The White House is hosting Republican senators now to talk about health care. Now that that health care bill - the GOP proposal is - seems dead in the Senate, what is this meeting about? Where does this go from here?
KEITH: Well, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that they are planning to hold a vote next week at the request of the president and the vice president. But it's just not clear that the votes are there. In fact, three Republican senators have said they will not support a vote to even move to debate on the bill.
GREENE: OK, NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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GREENE: So tensions are very high right now at one of the world's holy sites.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
INSKEEP: Those are Palestinians, we're told, protesting in Jerusalem outside what is known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The protests follow a shooting that killed two Israeli policemen at the site. Changes to security measures followed that incident, and the changes to security seem to have escalated the situation.
GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the line from Jerusalem. And Daniel, tell us more about what sparked these protests we're hearing.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, here's the timeline. Friday morning, three men - Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel - opened fire, killed Israeli policemen at this site. And this was a major incident because it was a very, very rare shooting at this most sensitive religious site in Jerusalem. So Israeli police closed the site. And a few days later, they opened it again but with one major change. Police installed metal detectors at the gates where Muslim worshippers enter. And so now, Muslim authorities have called on Palestinians actually not to enter the holy site to protest the metal detectors.
GREENE: So the metal detectors have set off these tensions, in a way, but Palestinians are saying that this is - it's about much more than that.
ESTRIN: Right, I met one Muslim man this morning, praying on a piece of cardboard outside the gate of the holy site. And he refused to pass through the metal detectors because he said they made him feel like a suspect. Now, Israeli police say metal detectors are necessary. You know, there was just a deadly shooting at the site. Metal detectors protect everyone, right? You know, even if you walk into a shopping mall here, you have to pass through metal detectors.
But Palestinians say this - you know, this holy site is not a shopping mall. And also, it's not just about security. It's - they think it's about Israeli encroachment on this site, which is actually administered as a Muslim religious site.
GREENE: I mean, it is such an important site to different religions. This kind of tension - I mean, where might this all be headed?
ESTRIN: Well, there are groups on both sides that are taking advantage of this showdown to try to push the envelope. So on one side, you have Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, saying this is an affront to the holy site. This could end in violence. Throughout the Muslim world, this site is a rallying point. And what's happening now can hurt what we're told are warming ties between Israel and some Arab countries.
And then, you have religious Jewish nationalists who are streaming to the site. I saw them going up today. They're visiting. They're calling for longer visiting hours for Jews there. They - some of them dream one day a third Jewish temple will be built there. And in the end, it - you know, all boils down to whose holy site is this. Is this a Jewish holy site or a Muslim holy site? Historians will tell you that there's a shared tradition there. But today, it's become a source of division.
INSKEEP: And one thing to remember, as this goes forward, is just the geography. It's so narrow. It's so tight. So many thousands of people converging on, at most, just a few acres that are holy to Jews and Muslims - and also, by the way, Christians.
GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks.
ESTRIN: You're welcome.
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GREENE: Steve, a lot of attention on the U.S. Senate today because senators are going to be hearing from the country's top two defense officials.
INSKEEP: Yeah, this is interesting. This is not just a Senate committee holding a hearing. This is the entire Senate.
INSKEEP: And they have a closed-door meeting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. He is the president's top military adviser. They will be discussing an anti-ISIS strategy at this moment after ISIS has lost control of Mosul in Iraq.
GREENE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here. Hey, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: All right, so at this moment, when ISIS has lost this important city, Mosul, what exactly do senators want to know when they hear from Mattis and Dunford today?
BOWMAN: David, I think what everybody wants to know - when will ISIS be defeated in Iraq and Syria? The city of Mosul in Iraq has fallen, as you said, and now the focus shifts to Syria and Raqqa. That's the ISIS de facto capital. Officials say there'll be a renewed push now for Raqqa. But that fighting could last for months more - maybe into the fall. And I think they'll ask about ISIS elsewhere too.
There are hundreds of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan forces were on still another mission recently, in eastern Afghanistan, to go after these fighters. And finally, they'll ask about ISIS presence elsewhere, especially in Turkey and Europe. And the sense is, as the caliphate comes to an end, the surviving fighters will scatter into Europe and, perhaps, mount guerrilla campaigns - maybe stay behind in Iraq and Syria.
GREENE: You know, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to be at this meeting as well. And a few weeks ago, at the G-20 summit in Germany, he was talking about the role the U.S. and Russia could play together. Let's listen.
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REX TILLERSON: We had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas and the violence once we defeat ISIS - and to work together towards a political process that will secure the future of the Syrian people.
GREENE: How could that relationship play out if the U.S. and the Russians worked together?
BOWMAN: Well, we don't know yet. Right now, the U.S. and Russia are working to de-conflict their warplanes - basically communicating with one another to avoid a mishap or accidental shootings. But as ISIS is defeated, the question is can the Russians and the U.S. actually work together to maybe deliver humanitarian aid - stabilize the country. The hope is that since Russia now has what it needs - bases on the Mediterranean and Syrian President Assad still in power - it may agree to work on a way ahead for the country. But that's a very big if.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Tom Bowman talking to us about a big briefing today from defense officials for every member of the United States Senate. Tom, thanks as always.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.
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Correction July 19, 2017
During the Up First podcast, a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City — known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount — is described as being shared by Jews and Muslims. It is more accurate to say the site is revered by Jews and Muslims.