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News Brief: President Trump Says GOP Is Unified, NFL Protests


President Trump put on quite a show in the Rose Garden yesterday.


He did, indeed. He unexpectedly held court with reporters for around 40 minutes. By his side - none other than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They've had a testy relationship as of late, but according to the president, that's all behind them now.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've been friends for a long time. We are probably now, despite what we read - we're probably now - I think, at least as far as I'm concerned - closer than ever before.

MARTIN: The president did most of the talking at this press conference. He said the Republican Party is, quote, "very, very unified." And then he branded Democrats as obstructionists. Trump then took questions on a whole range of subjects, from the opioid crisis, to immigration, to the federal administration - to the federal government, rathers (ph) - rather - their response to hurricanes.

And of course, they talked about health care and tax cuts. So big question - the Trump-McConnell strategy - what's that going to look like, going forward?

GREENE: What is it going to look like, going forward? Domenico Montanaro is here to answer that question.

Hey, Domenico.


GREENE: So the president says, despite what we read - as if this whole rift with McConnell has been made up by the media.

MONTANARO: Fake news.

GREENE: Yeah, fake news. I mean, is this a big moment for the party in terms of the Republican agenda or was this all talk and doing some damage control?

MONTANARO: Well, first of all, David, I mean, any time you have to declare before the entire world that you've been great friends with someone for so long, the truth is probably something else. I mean, not like us, David - we go way back.

GREENE: Yes, of - but we don't have to declare that in front of listeners, yeah.

MONTANARO: Yeah, right. Right, exactly.

GREENE: But go - yeah, go on.

MONTANARO: We'll just keep that to ourselves. Look, no one believes that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, two men who couldn't be more opposite, are best buds, suddenly. But they have to deal with each other, you know, if they want to get anything done. The fact is, this is a relationship that - I kind of see it as kind of an inconvenient necessity for them.

GREENE: OK, so the president has this inconvenient necessity. He needs McConnell to work together. Maybe that'll happen after this meeting. We'll have to see. But then you have Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist who has been attacking the Republican establishment. He wants to knock a lot of them off in primaries next fall. How does President Trump handle both Bannon and that movement and the establishment wing?

MONTANARO: I mean, it was a very strange day, first of all. I mean, I was watching all of this yesterday because I was writing the story for our website, and it was quite a swing. You had Trump first seeming to give a wink and nod to Bannon. He was warning that senators who - you know, there were senators who really, really disappointed us, so I can understand how Steve Bannon feels, to quote the president.

That was a little awkward because it was just before the president had lunch with Mitch McConnell, and he's the Republican Senate leader who Bannon is really targeting. He's the main test for primary opponents that they wants them to vote against him. So Trump goes and meets with McConnell, comes out in the Rose Garden of the White House and said he'd try to talk Bannon out of going against certain people. So it's...

GREENE: So trying to please different parts of the party at different moments, maybe.

MONTANARO: Totally, and - yeah.

GREENE: Well, then you have John McCain, another Republican who is accepting this award in Philadelphia yesterday and makes these pointed remarks. He warns against, quote, "some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems." And here's a little more of what he said.


JOHN MCCAIN: We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.

GREENE: Is McCain directly going after the president here?

MONTANARO: Well, I think the - Senator McCain is definitely somebody who will go after Donald Trump even if it's quietly, even if he's going to not necessarily name him. But, you know, he has a deliberate worldview that after World War II, the United States was there to maintain world order and world peace, and he feels that the president is changing that. And you know with Donald Trump that everything is personal, and you know that between he and McCain, there's been a very strained relationship.

GREENE: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico, as always.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right, so in that press conference, President Trump also had some thoughts on the protests by NFL players. He wants suspensions for players who do not stand during the national anthem.

MARTIN: Right. So in New York today, NFL owners and a group of players are going to meet to talk about the controversy, which has obviously revealed all kinds of divisions among football fans. A joint statement from the league and its players' union says the meeting is also going to address the social issues - the important social issues that players have vocalized through this.

GREENE: And NPR's Tom Goldman covers sports, and he's been talking with some of the key players involved in all this.

Hey, there, Tom.



GOLDMAN: Firings, two suspensions - so the president's making progress, I guess, huh?

GREENE: Oh, that's it, OK.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

GREENE: There's - well, the - I mean...

GOLDMAN: We're moving.

GREENE: ...Which is interesting to set up the context for these meetings today. What is going to be at the heart of all these discussions in New York?

GOLDMAN: Figuring out how to make players satisfied enough that they will end or greatly curtail the anthem protests. And if they do that, that obviously satisfies the owners. You know, it's considered a big test for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to try to bring the sides together. Players want to see real commitment from the owners, not just symbolism, the way we saw with some owners locking arms with the players a couple of weeks ago during national anthems.

They want to see the power and influence owners have to move state legislatures to build gleaming new stadiums - they want - the players want to see that same muscle and money behind important social causes, fighting racial injustice, inequality - the things the players have been kneeling and sitting for during the anthems.

And as I said, the owners want the protests to end because no matter how many times the players say this is not about the anthem, or love of country or respect for the military, it's not being perceived that way in enough quarters to make owners nervous about the bottom line. And if enough fans are reacting negatively, it'll affect sponsors and advertisers too.

GREENE: OK, so the challenge for the league is to do what the owners want, which is to end all of this, but do it in a way that players feel like they are being heard and taken seriously. What can the league actually do?

GOLDMAN: Well, for instance, the NFL just announced it'll endorse a criminal justice reform bill in Congress. Among other provisions, the bill would reduce sentences for lesser crimes. There's talk about the NFL showcasing and promoting social causes and organizations, you know, the same way it does with breast cancer awareness, when, for a period of time, players wear a lot of pink on their uniforms.

And it's been suggested the NFL and owners could support politicians who stand for social reform. One player involved in the protests told me, players want owners to get their hands dirty on these issues. They don't want just optics.

GREENE: Well, and then we have the NBA season - basketball time opening tonight. I mean, are we going to expect a similar controversy, and these protests and watching a league deal with this?

GOLDMAN: You know, there's been a lot of talk about the NBA taking the baton from the NFL on these issues and the protests and going further. The NBA has more of a history of activism. One big difference between the leagues - so NBA has a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. The NFL doesn't.

Prominent players like LeBron James are saying they won't kneel. For LeBron, he says he has easy access to the media and his ability to talk about social issues. He said, quote, "for me, personally, my voice is more important than my knee."

GREENE: All right, NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, David.


GREENE: OK, Rachel, some potentially big news out of Syria - maybe a good chance for a significant victory over ISIS in the coming hours and days.

MARTIN: Right, this would be a big deal. Let's remind people of the background here. The U.S. is using airstrikes to help Syrian forces attack the city of Raqqa. The Islamic State established the city as its capital, and now U.S.-backed fighters are close to retaking this, though it's been a long, costly campaign to get to this point. So we're going to ask - how momentous a victory would this be?

GREENE: And let's ask that to NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who is on the line from Beirut.

Hey, Ruth.


GREENE: So these Syrian forces - remind us who they are and why the U.S. is so focused on helping them take this city, Raqqa

SHERLOCK: Right, so the U.S. is working with these local militias, and they're collectively known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. They're a mix of Arab and Kurdish fighters. The U.S. has trained and equipped them, and it's also acted as their air force. This is crucial in the fight. They've been pounding ISIS positions in Raqqa with thousands of airstrikes.

And the reason Raqqa is important is that it's kind of at the heart of ISIS' ambitions. After they captured the city in 2014, they imposed these laws that they hoped would one day govern their whole caliphate. That's the territory that they hoped to take as their own. And a lot of this meant that this Muslim - the very moderate Muslim Sunni population had to live in a way that they weren't used to. I mean, women were not allowed to leave the house unescorted. They had to remain fully covered in public.

And the punishments for any transgressions were so harsh. I mean, ISIS imposed public executions. I've spoken to residents of Raqqa who said they were forced to watch these and that, you know, ISIS would leave the heads of the victims on the stakes in the central square, a place who you - a central square that was known as Paradise Square.

GREENE: Oh, that's extraordinary. Is this close to ending? I mean, are - what do the reports suggest? Are these fighters ready to really drive ISIS out of the city?

SHERLOCK: Yeah, so now the SDF has taken most of the city. ISIS fighters are trapped in this small area in a sports stadium in the center, and there're mostly only foreign fighters left. But, you know, this is a battle that's come at a huge cost.

There's some 200,000 people used to live here, and most have fled. And hundreds have been killed, some in these airstrikes. And, you know, the scale of the devastation in Raqqa is astounding. You see the images coming out of there. It's a city reduced to rubble.

GREENE: And what would happen next, I mean, if ISIS fighters are driven out?

SHERLOCK: Well, they are escaping to a province called Deir ez-Zor, which is in the east of Syria. But they're being pushed out there, too. I mean, this does mean that it's starting to look like the end for ISIS but not for the war in Syria.

Remember, there's a civil war still going on there. And there's also the question of who rules the areas that ISIS has been pushed out of. The U.S. has created these local councils or has helped create these local councils, but it's not clear they have legitimacy. So, you know, a lot of these Syrians say, you know, great that ISIS is gone, but this is just another chapter in a war for them.

GREENE: Yeah - always important to put it all in context. NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Thanks a lot, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

GREENE: She's in Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "HOURS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.