Morning News Brief President Trump travels Monday to Nashville, Tenn., where a crucial Senate race is taking shape. A former CIA officer goes on trial accused of passing national defense secrets to China's government.
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Morning News Brief

Morning News Brief

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump travels to Nashville, Tenn., today, where a crucial Senate race is taking shape.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, those are words you don't often hear together, crucial Senate race and Tennessee. It's a very red state with two Republican senators. And Democrats have not won a Senate race there in quite some time. But as Republican Senator Bob Corker retires in an unsettled political year, Democrats are mounting a serious challenge. A popular former Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, is running. And the Republican is Representative Marsha Blackburn, who's been a steady Trump surrogate.

MARTIN: All right, we've got NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow in the studio. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the president must think he can rally some GOP troops in Tennessee?

DETROW: Yeah. This is, as you mentioned, a key Senate battleground. Republicans are on defensive there as a whole. But, like many other Republican states, President Trump is popular. He's becoming more popular in recent months. His approval rating is going up. And this is a place where Republican candidates want to campaign with him, want to be on same stage as him. So today he's going to be campaigning with Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who's the likely Republican nominee in the Senate. Congresswoman Diane Black expected as well - she's running for governor.

MARTIN: As Steve noted, Tennessee, a red state - overwhelmingly Republican - how seriously are Republicans taking the idea that it could cost them control of the Senate?

DETROW: It's serious. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, talking to NPR last week, again referenced Tennessee as a key battleground state. By and large, the map this year looks great for Republicans when it comes to what states are electing senators. But Tennessee is the top tier of states - as well as Arizona and Nevada - where Democrats feel like they can maybe pick off a Republican seat. Couple of factors there - one is that former Governor Phil Bredesen is very popular there. He's popular with a lot of conservative voters. I think one indication of that is that Bob Corker, the incumbent, has said he's going to vote for Blackburn but goes way out of his way to praise Bredesen over and over and over again, doesn't have much nice to say about Blackburn.

So the thought from Democrats is they can maybe pick off some conservative voters. Interesting strategy since, if you look back the last few cycles, when Democrats say, hey, our plan is to take a Democrat who was popular a decade ago - by and large, never works out as well. Those Democrats...

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: ...Always lose.

MARTIN: So you said President Trump - you know, his popularity has been inching ahead in the polls. But it's still really low - isn't it? - around 40-ish these days.

DETROW: Yeah, I think he's close to 50 percent in Tennessee.

MARTIN: OK.

DETROW: But, you know, he's popular with Republicans. And in Republican primary after Republican primary, what you've seen this year is a contest to see which candidate is more of the Trump-like candidate, the Trump-adjacent candidate. You're seeing Blackburn run a very red meat campaign, taking on her own party establishment, talking about immigration and other hard-line issues.

Bredesen is an interesting contrast. He is running as a sensible centrist, saying this is about governing and getting stuff done. That's the approach that worked for candidates like Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb in that Western Pennsylvania district. So there's a push from Democrats running in red places saying I'm just here to govern.

MARTIN: Right - and who can be the Trumpiest.

DETROW: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Virtually every election the last decade or more has been voters calling for change. And I guess this is one of those places we'll find out if people want a change again and how they define it. Do they define change as more Trump or less Trump?

MARTIN: Right. All right, NPR congressional correspondent Scott - Scott Detrow. I always go to Scott Horsley, who's another very nice Scott. But you're not that one.

DETROW: (Laughter) We get our Scotts confused sometimes. It happens.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right, a former CIA officer is going on trial today.

INSKEEP: Kevin Patrick Mallory stands accused of passing national defense secrets to the Chinese government. Now, he worked for the U.S. government for more than 30 years. He was in the Army in the '80s then moved on into intelligence, working for the Defense Intelligence Agency and also as a case officer for the CIA. He was stationed in Iraq and China and Taiwan. He speaks fluent Chinese. The charges focus on what he did after leaving the government when he set up a consulting firm.

MARTIN: All right, let's talk more about this with NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So do we know exactly what information that he was allegedly providing the Chinese?

LUCAS: Well, in court filings, the government has kind of spelled out its allegations against Mallory. And the indictment reads a lot like a cloak-and-dagger tale. Here's what it says. Mallory was contacted online by a recruiter from a Chinese think tank who put him in touch with a potential client. Mallory traveled to Shanghai to meet with this potential client. But the government says this individual was actually a Chinese intelligence officer. After returning to the U.S., Mallory sent secret U.S. government documents to this Chinese agent and was paid for it. Mallory and the alleged Chinese intelligence officer communicated by using what they thought was a secure messaging system on a cellphone provided by the Chinese agent.

But here's the twist. The FBI met with Mallory in May. Mallory tells them he has not given the Chinese intelligence agencies any documents, but he allows the FBI to go through the cellphone. An examination of the phone turns up secret encrypted CIA documents. They also discover messages that Mallory and the alleged Chinese intelligence officer exchanged. And in one, Mallory writes, quote, "your object is to gain information. My object is to be paid."

MARTIN: That seems fairly explicit. So it sounds fairly damaging as well. Do we have any sense of what his defense is going to look like?

LUCAS: Well, in pretrial hearings and court papers, Mallory's attorneys have said that he reached out to people at the CIA that he knew, before he traveled to China, to express concerns that his contacts there might be Chinese agents. He kept in touch with people at the CIA, telling them about these contacts and concerns about who they might be. They've also argued that he didn't provide anything of value to the Chinese. And they've suggested that he was basically trying to arrange himself as a double agent for the U.S. so the U.S. could catch these Chinese spies or know that they were indeed there.

So Mallory is at root, they say, a patriotic American. He's pleaded not guilty. Jury selection is today, and opening statements could start as early as this afternoon.

MARTIN: Interesting. So we've heard President Trump talk a lot about how the Chinese are stealing American trade secrets and calling for more protections on intellectual property. Is this the kind of thing that he's talking about?

LUCAS: This case is more about national defense secrets. The Chinese have gone after military secrets of the U.S. for quite some time. They've been very aggressive about that. What President Trump is talking about is more the intellectual property, which we've seen the Chinese use hacking to get from serious U.S. corporations most recently - actually, one of the big cases was in Pennsylvania several years ago. This is very much about human intelligence, spies, kind of classic espionage.

MARTIN: Yeah.

LUCAS: So not exactly the same thing - but it is part of this very broad Chinese push to get as much information out of the U.S. as they can.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks so much, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The Irish government is going to meet today to start drafting legislation to liberalize the Republics abortion laws.

INSKEEP: This comes after Irish voters called for change in a historic referendum on Friday, voting by a roughly 2-1 margin to repeal a constitutional amendment that banned almost all abortions. It is worth noting that the change does not extend to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. And now British Prime Minister Theresa May is under pressure to reform abortion laws in Northern Ireland, which are some of the most restrictive in Europe.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from London, where she's been following this story. Hey, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So tell us more about exactly what's happening today.

ELLIOTT: Well, today the Cabinet is meeting in Ireland. And Irish Health Minister Simon Harris will be briefing leaders on draft legislation and looking for approval to change the law in wake of that historic vote. The proposal is to allow unrestricted elective abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and limited access up to the 23rd week. For now, the old law applies, which basically gives the fetus the same legal rights as a mother.

MARTIN: So how long is this supposed to take?

ELLIOTT: Well, Harris says he expects to have a bill ready for the Irish Parliament this summer and then have it to the president's desk by the fall. So by the end of the year, the law should be changed. Harris is treating this as an urgent matter - trying to move quickly, honoring the sentiment of the people. Here's what he had to say after the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMON HARRIS: Up until this point, we had a situation under the Eighth Amendment in our constitution where we were telling women in crisis pregnancy to take a plane or a boat. Today we're saying, take our hand.

ELLIOTT: This referring, of course, to women who had traveled to the U.K. to obtain an abortion. Now that will no longer be with Ireland's laws more in line with the rest of the U.K. - other than Northern Ireland. And we should note that this fast track to get the law changed appears to have crossed party consensus in Ireland. Leaders of the opposition party, who are social conservatives and had campaigned to keep the abortion ban, are now saying they find themselves reflecting that they were at odds with the vast majority of the Irish people. And Harris is set to meet with them later this week.

MARTIN: So now, as we noted, Northern Ireland wants to do this - at least wants a shot at changing its abortion laws. What are the odds of that happening?

ELLIOTT: Well, I'm not an odds-maker, but certainly there is a lot of pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May to push reforms in British-ruled Northern Ireland. Women's rights activists rallied in Belfast Monday to call for an end to one of the strictest abortion bans in Europe, prohibited even in cases of rape or when the fetus can't live.

In England, members of May's own Conservative Party are pushing her to call for a vote in Parliament. But she's in a tricky political position because her leadership here is propped up by socially conservative lawmakers from Northern Ireland who oppose abortion. Through a spokesperson, she's indicated that it's an issue that will be best left to Northern Ireland. So we'll see if she succumbs to the pressure.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Debbie Elliott reporting this morning from our studios in London. Hey, Debbie, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS")

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