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Politics & Government

Trump Defends Travel Ban In Wake Of London Terror Attack

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For the White House, this is supposed to be infrastructure week. That's when the administration focuses on a priority - rebuilding the country's airports, bridges, roads - with events involving the president all week long. But President Trump appears to have overshadowed that effort with a series of controversial tweets in the wake of this weekend's terror attack in London. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the White House. And, Mara, before we talk about the president's tweets, let's talk about infrastructure. What's the White House trying to do?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, the purpose would be to focus on a popular agenda item. People really do care about crumbling bridges and roads. It has bipartisan support. It was a big campaign promise of Donald Trump's. It's core to his identity as a builder. But it was also a way to counterprogram the other big news event expected later this week, when fired FBI Director Comey will testify. The White House did make some news today, saying that they will not assert executive privilege regarding James Comey's scheduled testimony. They say it's because they want a swift and thorough examination of the facts.

SIEGEL: So on now to the president's tweets. What did he do?

LIASSON: Well, the very first tweet, even before the customary message of condolence and support for the U.K., he tweeted about his travel ban. He said the current version is a watered-down, politically correct version. The attack in London shows that it should be passed by the court. And he wishes the Department of Justice had stuck with the original version. He got a lot of pushback on that tweet, including - and this was the most interesting response - from George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, who's the counselor to the president.

George Conway had been under consideration to head the Civil Division at the Department of Justice, but he pulled himself out of consideration. But he took to Twitter to say, quote, "these tweets may make some people feel better, but they certainly won't help the solicitor general get five votes in the Supreme Court, which is what actually matters - sad." So that's some unsolicited legal advice for the president. The White House said that as far as they know, no lawyer is vetting the president's tweets.

SIEGEL: The president also seemed to pick a fight with the mayor of London via Twitter. How did the White House explain that one?

LIASSON: Well, they pushed back on the notion that he was picking a fight. But he did have some very critical comments about the mayor. He belittled him for saying there was, quote, "no reason for alarm." In fact, the mayor of London was saying there was no reason to be alarmed by the increased armed police presence in London. So he was taken out of context by the president. Trump tweeted again later referring to a, quote, "pathetic excuse" by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Just a little background here; Trump has tangled with the mayor before over the travel ban. But this feud comes just days after the major break with the European allies on the Paris climate agreement and after Trump's recent trip to Europe, where he seemed to go out of his way not to endorse NATO's Article 5 in his remarks at NATO headquarters. This kind of feuding with our allies is unusual and destabilizing, but even more so after a horrific terrorist attack.

SIEGEL: And you mention the NATO speech. Politico Magazine reports that those prepared remarks of President Trump did at some point have an explicit endorsement of Article 5, but that reference was removed from the speech that the president delivered. What did the White House say about that today?

LIASSON: They didn't have much to say about it at all. Sarah Sanders, the deputy press secretary, said she wasn't aware of it. But before that speech was delivered top aides, including the secretary of state, said he would explicitly endorse Article 5, which is basically an attack on one is an attack on all. It's the heart of NATO. But after the speech, when reporters inquired why the line disappeared, a senior administration official said only it was never, ever taken out by the president.

SIEGEL: Oh, OK.

LIASSON: So if it was taken out, the president undercut senior members of his own team and confidence in the idea that U.S. is - the U.S. is a dependable ally.

SIEGEL: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.