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Politics & Government

Morning News Brief: Trump Rally, John Kelly Interview

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, bringing home freed North Korean prisoners, setting the stage for a summit with North Korea that many people never saw coming - it's been quite a week of foreign policy news for President Trump.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Indeed it has. And the president had a chance to tell voters all about it at a campaign rally last night in Elkhart, Ind. Officially, the president was there to help muster support for Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun. But Trump seems to love this part of his job, him talking off the cuff to a big friendly crowd. And it gave him a chance to frame his message and talk about what he sees as his accomplishments in the White House thus far.

GREENE: All right. And NPR's Don Gonyea was at that rally in Elkhart, Ind., listening. And he joins us.

Hey, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: So if you're Donald Trump, who needs an election? Right? I mean, he's done these kinds of rallies since he took office (laughter). But now we actually are in an election season.

GONYEA: Yes. And this comes just two days after the Indiana primary. And the president showed he is more than ready to jump into the 2018 fray. Remember, Indiana is a conservative state. It's one Trump carried easily. But it's got a Democratic U.S. senator, Joe Donnelly. He won six years ago mostly because of Republican disarray and a bunch of infighting. But this time, he will face a wealthy businessman, a solid GOP candidate. You named him, Mike Braun. Senator Donnelly is considered very vulnerable. And President Trump went after him last night, even giving him one of those insulting nicknames.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If Joe Donnelly...

(BOOING)

TRUMP: ...Sleepin' Joe - and the Democrats...

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: ...Get back into power, remember what I said - they will raise your taxes. He wants to raise your taxes.

(BOOING)

TRUMP: They will destroy your jobs. And they are going to knock the hell out of your borders. And that's already - we have the worst immigration...

GONYEA: And this - so in Trump world, Senator Donnelly is henceforth Sleeping Joe.

GREENE: He never holds back on those nicknames, does he?

GONYEA: Exactly.

GREENE: So to what extent did Trump turn all the foreign policy news this week into a campaign pitch?

GONYEA: Well, he talked about it at length. He said everybody thought, the fake media especially, that Trump would start a nuclear war but now he's showing people how his approach is working in North Korea. And he said as part of this - to give control of Congress back to the Democrats would be a huge mistake, so Republicans have to avoid the complacency that sets in after a party wins the White House.

GREENE: Weren't events like these places where Trump would just bash people like special counsel Robert Mueller and bring up the Russia investigation and call it a witch hunt? Is that still happening?

GONYEA: Oh, exactly. And this one almost didn't feel complete - no calling it a witch hunt, no calling Mueller a Democrat - even though he's a Republican, no Comey. Those have all been Trump staples. Look, maybe he wanted to talk about foreign policy and focus on 2018. Maybe he wanted to demonstrate to Republicans around the country that he can stay on message. But maybe developments and scandals - personal scandals, stuff around his lawyer Michael Cohen and his clients - maybe that caused him to kind of back off and stay more on message this time.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Don Gonyea was at the president's campaign rally last night in Elkhart, Ind.

Don, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: OK. In order for the White House to govern the country, someone really has to govern the White House. Right?

MARTIN: Right, right. So in this administration, that person is chief of staff John Kelly. In fact, in any administration, that's the chief of staff's job. By many accounts, Kelly is the guy holding the Trump White House together, though. Before this, he was a decorated four-star Marine Corps general, four decades in uniform, a man who prizes discipline and order - which are not necessarily words generally used when talking about this particular White House. And there have been reports for months that President Trump has bristled against the structure and processes John Kelly has tried to put in place there.

GREENE: OK. Our colleague NPR's John Burnett joins us in the studio now. He spent time with Kelly in his White House office yesterday afternoon for, John, a pretty rare on-the-record interview with this official. And you talked to him about - one thing you talked about was why he took this job.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Right, David. I mean, he was at the Department of Homeland Security as the chief over there. And he says he was making $30,000 more a year. But his military background kicked in. And it was really out of a sense of duty that he headed to the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN KELLY: It was clear from my perch at DHS that the White House was less organized than our president deserved. So when he said - I really need you to come down. What do you say? - I came down.

BURNETT: Have you seriously considered leaving?

KELLY: No. There's times of great frustration, mostly because of the stories I read about myself or others that I think the world of and wonder if it's worth it to be subjected to that. But then I grow up and suck it up.

GREENE: You know, John, one of the things we hear about this White House is that the Russia investigation is really there everywhere all the time on people's minds and Robert Mueller's investigation. Has that affected him in this job?

BURNETT: Well, he said - Kelly said - he made clear that he can't comment directly on the investigation 'cause that's being handled by an outside legal counsel. But he did make it clear they feel the weight of the Russia probe every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KELLY: From what I read in the newspaper, something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone - it suggests to me that there is nothing there relative to our president.

BURNETT: Is there a cloud because of it hanging over this White House?

KELLY: Well, yeah. You know, it's - there may not be a cloud. But certainly the president is somewhat embarrassed, frankly, when world leaders come in. You know, Bibi Netanyahu was here, who's under investigation himself. And it's like you walk in and, you know, the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.

GREENE: It's amazing when a world leader visits that's the first thing that comes up in a...

BURNETT: Right.

GREENE: So Kelly's first job, as you mentioned, was at Homeland Security. I mean, he was brought in to crack down on illegal immigration. That's an issue that's important to him. And that's where he, I would imagine, really wants some conversations to be in the White House. Is that fair?

BURNETT: Right. And it's still an important issue. But his tone is different than the president's. It surprised me. He stresses that the vast majority of people immigrating here illegally are not bad people or criminals. At the same time, Kelly is very much still a hard-liner. He supports separating families at the border as a deterrent, and he believes immigrants from rural Mexico don't necessarily assimilate in America.

But he surprised me when I asked him specifically about TPS, or temporary protected status. This allows immigrants to stay in the U.S. if they're from certain countries that have been struck by natural disasters or wars. In recent months, the administration has canceled TPS for some 400,000 immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean. Kelly supports what Homeland Security has done. But he added this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KELLY: I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be - a path to citizenship.

BURNETT: A path to citizenship...

KELLY: Yep.

BURNETT: ...Rather than sent home?

KELLY: Well, they were in a legal status under TPS. You take the Central Americans. They've all been here 20-plus years. I mean, if you really start looking at - you know, you've been here 20 years. What have you done with your life? Well, I've married an American guy, and I have three children. And I've worked and have gotten a degree. Or I'm a brick mason or something like that.

GREENE: The White House chief of staff, his voice there - he was speaking yesterday to our colleague John Burnett.

John, thanks for bringing this to us.

BURNETT: You bet, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right, Iraqis are going to the polls this weekend.

MARTIN: Right. These will be the first nationwide elections since ISIS took control of a third of the country four years ago. Now ISIS has been militarily defeated, and Iraqis are looking to elect a new Parliament that will lead the country to some kind of recovery.

GREENE: And NPR's Jane Arraf is covering this. She's in Baghdad.

Good morning, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So are the stakes high in this election?

ARRAF: They absolutely are. A lot of voters are hoping that it's really going to lead to a shake-up. So there's going to be some continuity. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is expected to emerge as prime minister again. But because this is a parliamentary system, he's going to have to form alliances. And some of these alliances are taking a different path. One of them is headed by a former militia commander who's allied to Iran. And Abadi himself has made clear that now that they've defeated ISIS, which is one of his big campaign platforms, the next big battle is going to be fighting corruption and creating jobs. And that is going to be a very tough battle.

GREENE: Well, some people have already voted. Right? Security forces went to the polls yesterday. What was that like?

ARRAF: That was fascinating. So the Iraqi election commission claims that 80 percent of security forces voted. A lot of them didn't have a lot of choice because they were brought there as units. And some of them came on crutches. And almost all of them had actually fought ISIS. Now, more than 10,000 Iraqi security forces were killed fighting ISIS - a lot of sacrifices. So they want to build on that and make sure that those deaths aren't in vain. A lot of them will be voting for former militia leaders or Shia clerics. But what they're really hoping for is that services will be better. And then I talked to someone with a slightly different point of view, this police officer.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Welcome, United States. It's my pleasure. You're welcome anytime. (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: So that welcome was genuine. But the point he was making about the United States was he believes that this is all in U.S. hands, that they control everything. And the interesting thing about him was he actually spoiled his ballot. He quoted the religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani saying, don't elect those who have failed. Now, this was someone who has voted twice before. And he says they've done nothing for the country. He says these are the same old faces and no one to vote for. And that is the sentiment you hear quite a lot actually.

GREENE: Wow, OK. Big election in Iraq this weekend in a moment when, the entire region, there's so much uncertainty. NPR's Jane Arraf is in Baghdad.

Thanks, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIROCRATIC'S "CORPORATE JAPAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.