News Brief: State Of The Union, Virginia Political Crisis, INF Treaty
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump will deliver the State of the Union tonight, but he will do it in Nancy Pelosi's House.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Or the People's House, as some lawmakers like to call it. The speaker of the House will convene the speech that she delayed during the partial government shutdown. President Trump is still demanding a border wall, the demand that drove that shutdown. And he addresses lawmakers with border security still unresolved and a deadline looming. Some of the lawmakers, who will be in the room tonight, are working on compromise. But the president has said he doubts that will work, and he's been talking of bypassing Congress by declaring a state of emergency.
MARTIN: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is with us this morning. Hey, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: The White House typically gives a readout on what to expect from the State of the Union, themes they're going to focus on. What are you hearing?
RASCOE: So while this president is known for breaking traditions, the White House is stressing that this State of the Union will be pretty traditional. Trump is going to deliver a unifying message according to officials. Here's how Trump framed the speech when he was asked about this last week.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's unification. I think it's industry. I think it's about the people that you see right here. It's also working with these people 'cause they've been incredible. We have had some incredible report, and we've had incredible Republican support.
MARTIN: Presumably, Ayesha, he was with some business leaders or something when he gave these remarks.
RASCOE: Yes - yeah, giving these remarks. And so there's going to be talk of kind of bridging old divisions and healing wounds. And this is supposed to be Trump at his most optimistic and kind of presenting his vision for the future. But there will be a pitch for border security, and he's expected to advocate for a wall. But the White House says there are areas where they believe that Trump will be able to find some common ground with Democrats - for instance, spending on rebuilding U.S. infrastructure. And then there's Trump's push to lower health care costs and prescriptions. And they hope that's an area where there might be some compromise.
MARTIN: We should just note we've been hearing about infrastructure and its bipartisan possibilities for at least two years.
INSKEEP: Is this infrastructure week again this week?
RASCOE: It's infrastructure week always, yes.
MARTIN: As Steve mentioned, the president has made no secret about exploring the possibility of declaring a state of emergency to get the border wall funding. Any idea whether or not he's going to use the speech to again threaten that?
RASCOE: The president has said stay tuned when it comes to this idea of declaring a national emergency. But the thought is that it's unlikely that he will do it tonight. Anything is possible, but that would likely overshadow this idea of unification...
MARTIN: Right (laughter).
RASCOE: ...If you throw out such a polarizing idea.
And - but what officials have said that Trump will try to do is point to areas where there has been agreement and compromise over the past two years. For instance, when it came to changing drug sentencing laws and promoting job training jobs - or job training programs to prisoners in this bill called the FIRST STEP Act, that was a bipartisan bill that - or law that passed last year. And you're going to have some of the beneficiaries of that bill...
MARTIN: In the audience, yeah.
RASCOE: ...Of that new law in the audience at the State of the Union.
INSKEEP: You know, Ayesha mentioned some areas where there is conceivable compromise. But we should note, this president periodically has called for unity going all the way back to his primary campaign. From time to time, he's called for unity. But like many a politician, when he calls for unity, he typically ends up saying something like, everyone unify behind my position; come on. And so it's a hard thing to do.
MARTIN: Right. The Democrats get a chance to weigh in. What do we know about the Democratic response after the speech, Ayesha?
RASCOE: Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran for governor of Georgia last year, will be giving the response. She didn't win that election, but she's viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party.
MARTIN: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe with a preview of the speech - thanks, Ayesha.
RASCOE: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. We're going to pivot and talk about what is happening in the state of Virginia. And what is happening in the state of Virginia is a whole lot of political uncertainty.
INSKEEP: Yeah. Days ago, the discovery of an old racist photo in a yearbook of Governor Ralph Northam prompted people to ask - who's next in line to be governor? Well, it's Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor. But now people are checking just to be sure about who is third in line because Fairfax faces accusations of his own.
MARTIN: We are joined on the line from Richmond, Va., by Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF. Mallory, thanks for being here.
MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Explain the allegation against the lieutenant governor.
NOE-PAYNE: So a conservative blog, the same one that actually first published the photo of Northam, published an allegation of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor. So...
MARTIN: This is from a few years back. Right?
NOE-PAYNE: It is. It's from before he was married. He was in his mid-20s. The accuser hasn't spoken publicly, so there's really not much that we know except for that he came out denying the allegation. He presides over the state Senate, so he was working as usual yesterday. And he stepped out of the Senate; reporters just surrounded him and gave him the chance to respond.
MARTIN: I think we've actually got tape of that. Let's listen to him.
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JUSTIN FAIRFAX: Does anybody think it's any coincidence that on the eve of, potentially, my being elevated that that's when this uncorroborated smear comes out? Does anybody believe that's a coincidence?
MARTIN: So it sounds like he's blaming fellow Democrats here.
NOE-PAYNE: Well - so he's either blaming fellow Democrats, or he's blaming the conservative blog that chose to run this information now. The Washington Post actually said that this accuser approached them with a story about a year ago. They chose not to run the story because it was a "he said, she said" situation. They couldn't corroborate it in any way.
MARTIN: We should clarify. He intimated further in that clip that it could be supporters of Governor Northam himself who don't like the idea of Fairfax taking over. Have we heard anything more from Governor Northam at this point?
NOE-PAYNE: No. Governor Northam's spokeswoman did come out and say that it was a hundred percent not true that these accusations somehow come back to Northam or his people at all. But it's been more than 36 hours since Northam's last public appearance or public statement of any kind. So we don't know what the governor is thinking at this point.
MARTIN: So let's just play this out. Let us imagine a scenario where Northam - the pressure on him to resign is just too much. He feels he can't govern, so he leaves. And Fairfax - let's play this out...
MARTIN: ...Hypothetically, is forced to step down. Who'd be third in line?
NOE-PAYNE: The attorney general - his name is Mark Herring. He's also a Democrat. He actually had already announced plans to run for governor in 2020, so he planned - or hoped, at least - to follow Northam. So who knows? He may get that job sooner than expected - not out of the realm of possibility.
INSKEEP: Oh. So he's thinking of running in 2021, but now he has to be prepared. Who knows? Who knows?
MARTIN: Right, lots of unanswered questions at this point. Mallory Noe-Payne from member station WVTF in Richmond. Mallory, thank you so much.
NOE-PAYNE: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: The clock is ticking on a 1987 arms control agreement that symbolized the end of the Cold War.
INSKEEP: It's called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Trump administration announced last week that the United States is dropping out. It's set to expire in the next six months. Now, in his announcement the other day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States has spent the past six years trying to get the Russians to follow the treaty.
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MIKE POMPEO: We have raised Russia's noncompliance with Russian officials, including at the highest levels of government, more than 30 times. Yet Russia continues to deny that its missile system is noncompliant and violates the treaty.
INSKEEP: So how is Russia responding?
MARTIN: Let's ask NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Good morning, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So we're clear on the U.S. position. But what has President Putin said about this?
KIM: Well, President Putin says the U.S. was never interested in saving the INF Treaty and is using Russian noncompliance, which of course the Kremlin denies, as a pretext to end it. Putin said over the weekend that Russia's response will be symmetrical. That means Russia will also suspend its participation in the treaty and will reserve the right to develop weapons banned under it.
I think what's interesting here is that Putin made sure to emphasize that these new weapons won't require any extra spending. This is a very sensitive subject right now in Russia. It seems like Russians, right now, are more interested in butter than they are in guns. And Putin, of course, remembers very well that the Soviet Union basically went bankrupt trying to keep up with the U.S. arms spending during the Cold War.
MARTIN: So they insist that they're complying with this deal. I mean, do they have any evidence that they are?
KIM: Russia insists that they are complying. A couple of weeks ago, they even presented the launch tube and launch vehicle of the missile in question. But American officials have dismissed this as a public relations stunt.
MARTIN: But you say that this will now allow Russia to expand their missile program, essentially, to be able to produce the kinds of weapons that were banned under the INF, which raises the question - is this the best way to contain Russia's ambitions, just allowing them to move forward?
KIM: Yeah, that's right. I mean, the weapons banned under the INF Treaty are intermediate range, so that means U.S. missiles based in Europe and Russian missiles aimed at Europe. For the moment, NATO has said it's not interested in basing these kind of American missiles in Europe. And Russia says, for now, he won't deploy any new weapons until the U.S. does.
MARTIN: OK. So if we look forward here - if this treaty expires as it looks like that will be the outcome, there is only one major nuclear weapons treaty that will still bind the U.S. and Russia. This is the New START Treaty, which basically limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads. That is set to expire in two years. What's the health of that agreement right now?
KIM: Well, from what we know, Russia is interested in extending this treaty. It was signed by President Obama and his then-counterpart Dmitry Medvedev sort of as a symbol of their reset in relations. As you said, this treaty seeks to reduce strategic weapons. Those are those long-range missiles that Russia has aimed at the U.S. and the U.S. has aimed at Russia. So far, the Russians say their attempts to start renewal negotiations have been ignored by the Trump administration.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Lucian Kim reporting for us on Russia's reaction to the announcement by the Trump administration that they will suspend American participation in the INF Treaty.
Lucian, thanks. We appreciate it.
KIM: Thank you.
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