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Morning News Brief: Trump's First 100 Days, Tillerson Interview, Pope In Egypt


We're here to give you your first word on the day's news. And Steve, a pretty crowded day in the confrontation over North Korea's nuclear weapons.


Yeah. And one man at the center of that day is Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state, who is supposed to run a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York about North Korea today.

GREENE: Well - and also, he sat down with you yesterday - right? How was that?

INSKEEP: Well, it was interesting to meet him because he's only done a few interviews. But he's very laid back, walked into the ceremonial office at the State Department. It was take your kid to work day. He was shaking hands with people's children actually. And then he sat down, got serious. And he said, this is the deal for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - give up all your nuclear weapons because, Tillerson says, you don't need them. Let's listen.

REX TILLERSON: If you listen to the North Koreans and the regime in Pyongyang, their reason for having nuclear weapons is they believe it is their only pathway to secure the ongoing existence of their regime. What we hope to convince them is you do not need these weapons to secure the existence of your regime. We've been...

INSKEEP: Meaning you could assure the existence - or the continued existence...

TILLERSON: We have been very clear as to what our objectives are and equally clear what our objectives are not. And we do not seek regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula.

GREENE: Rex Tillerson talking to Steve and NPR yesterday.

Steve, he makes it sound so easy - just accept that you don't need nuclear weapons. We won't come after you. Give up your nukes, and everything will be fine. It's a lot more difficult, though.

INSKEEP: Well, it is because he's not just asking North Korea to freeze its nuclear program or scale it back but give up the weapons they already have. That's a hard one.

GREENE: Well - and why is it hard? Like, why does this look like a world where North Korea wants to keep its weapons?

INSKEEP: Let's look at a little bit of history. Authoritarian regimes everywhere surely noted when Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who you covered once upon a time, gave up his nuclear program and was overthrown a few years later. Also, the question arises - is this really why North Korea has nuclear weapons? Elise Hu, who is based in Seoul, covers the region for us, has pointed out in the last day that Kim Jong Un doesn't just want nuclear weapons for survival but because it gives him prestige, especially with his own people.

GREENE: OK, yeah, so the internal politics in North Korea. Well, I mean, Tillerson's talk of diplomacy and talking - I mean, I sort of wonder if this meshes at all with his boss, with President Trump, warning about war. I mean, let's listen to something he told Reuters yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea, absolutely.

GREENE: Are Tillerson and Trump on the same page at all?

INSKEEP: They sort of are, David. The president went on to say in that Reuters interview, we're trying for diplomacy here. Tillerson's trying for diplomacy. And if you listen carefully to the way that he talks with us, he's also saying that time is rather short here - that we want to get moving quickly on talks because North Korea is advancing quickly with its missile program. And it is widely agreed this could end in war. We just don't know.

GREENE: What was it like to meet Tillerson? I mean, he's done so few interviews. I feel like we just haven't gotten a feel for him at all.

INSKEEP: Well, you get a sense of why people who've met him in person are impressed. He is impressive. He looks you in the eye. He directly addresses your questions. At the same time, it is still unclear how he really wants to reshape this huge department, tens of thousands of people, that he now runs. And he's going to be taking quite some time to figure that out.

GREENE: OK. Well, you were sitting down with Rex Tillerson as we sort of approach a moment that I guess we could almost call it report card time...


GREENE: ...For President Trump.

INSKEEP: (Unintelligible).

GREENE: I mean, Day 100 is tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Absolutely. And let's rewind a little bit here. When the president embraced this notion of the first hundred days, he said this.


TRUMP: What follows is my 100-day action plan to make America great again. It's a contract between Donald J. Trump and the American voter. And it begins with bringing honesty, accountability and change to Washington, D.C.


INSKEEP: OK, 100-day action plan - that's what he said in Gettysburg, Pa., in October. More recently, a little different tone - he tweeted that the 100-day benchmark was a, quote, "ridiculous standard."

GREENE: (Laughter) Well, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here. Hey, Tam.


GREENE: So whether this standard is important or not, any way to give us the report card, I mean, what promises Donald Trump has or hasn't lived up to so far?

KEITH: Let's start with what would he would consider his successes. He has come in, and he did go after regulations. With a Republican-controlled Congress, he was able to sign 13 laws using what's known as the Congressional Review Act to roll back Obama-era rules that hadn't yet gone into effect. And it took a rule change in the Senate to do it, but Justice Neil Gorsuch is in place on the Supreme Court. That could leave a lasting stamp for 30 years to come.

On the other side of the ledger - in many of the areas where - in many things, President Trump would earn an incomplete or not even started yet. His travel ban is held up in court. And that contract you talked about - as part of it, he pledged to introduce, with Congress, and push for the passage of 10 pieces of legislation. Only one of them has been introduced, and that's the bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which hasn't even gotten a vote yet.

GREENE: Hasn't gotten a vote, although it sounds like there has been some last-minute wrangling to try like crazy, if you're Republicans, to give President Trump a success here. Right?

KEITH: That is correct. And the latest is that there will not be a vote this week. There will not be a vote in the House before that 100-day mark. And they had been saying, if we have the votes - if we have the numbers, we will go, and we will vote on it. The fact that they aren't voting is an indication that the numbers aren't there yet.

GREENE: Well, Tam, President Trump gave this interview with Reuters, and he was talking a bit about how he feels like his life has changed in these first 100 days. Let's listen.


TRUMP: I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. I actually - this is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier. I thought it was more of a - I'm a details-oriented person, I think you would say that. But I do miss my old life. This - I like to work, so that's not a problem. But this is actually more work.

GREENE: I feel like, Tam, we've heard this from other presidents. Maybe one of the lessons of the first hundred days is this job is harder than anyone can imagine.

KEITH: Yeah. You know, a lot of presidents have learned this lesson. And I was talking to a former White House chief of staff this week who told me, you know, there's no magic in being president. There's just a whole lot of hard work of convincing 535 people over on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to go along with you. They don't just fall in line because you're president of the United States.

And for President Trump, this reality check has been particularly jarring because he had no experience in government or the military before he came in and because his promises had been so grandiose.


KEITH: And the other thing is just - this president, we know exactly what he's thinking...


KEITH: ...Because he says it.


GREENE: Or tweets it. Or...

INSKEEP: And the president is right - a hundred days is a ridiculous standard. And yet he's proven again and again in the last few days how much he cares about it himself, how much it matters to him. These last-minute lunges for a tax proposal or trying again on health care - he's clearly trying to get everything he possibly can into that hundred days.

GREENE: All right, Tamara Keith, NPR White House correspondent. A hundred days where there are many more days to cover. Thanks a lot.

KEITH: Indeed.


GREENE: And Steve, Pope Francis today making a trip to Egypt.

INSKEEP: As his namesake did, we're told. We looked this up. St. Francis made a trip to Egypt almost 800 years ago. He was trying to end the Crusades; he failed. The Crusades continued for another 72 years. Pope Francis' trip faces a different kind of challenge. He wants to speak up for Christians and also reach out to Muslims, which is a delicate task after ISIS claimed responsibility for attacking Christian churches in Egypt in recent weeks.

GREENE: And this is all something on the mind of NPR's Jane Arraf, who is in Cairo this morning. Hi, Jane.


GREENE: What's that city feel like?

ARRAF: Well, we're very close to the Vatican embassy, where the pope will be staying tonight. And people have never seen it this quiet. As you can imagine, this is normally a crazy, bustling city. But they've...


ARRAF: ...Cleared the cars off the streets. They've block the streets, in fact. They've even essentially blocked the river because we're on the riverside. So there are no tourist boats going by. It's very, very tight security because at the end of the day...

INSKEEP: It's one of the loudest cities in the world...


INSKEEP: ...Jane. And it's quiet now?

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, that must feel really eerie.

ARRAF: It is really quite bizarre. So the street is full of priests and policemen. And, I mean, let's face it - at the end of the day, this is a test for Egypt as to whether they can keep the pope safe as well as all the other significance of this visit.

GREENE: That sounds like the beginning of a book - the streets were full of priests and policemen.

ARRAF: (Laughter).

GREENE: Jane, so just tell me - I mean, the pope wants to reach out to Muslims on this trip. He wants to support Christians who have been targeted by ISIS. I mean, can he pull this off? Can he deliver a message that will satisfy everyone?

ARRAF: Well, that's a really interesting question because you would think that all of this talk of love and peace - I mean, what could possibly be wrong with that? But in fact, this is the Middle East, and it's really quite complicated. So the Christians here are only about 10 percent of the population. Cairo, we'll remember, is - for centuries, it was a center of Muslim thought. So there's some controversy over him reaching out to the Muslim community. Some people say he's actually naive for doing this.

GREENE: Wow. OK. Well, we'll be visiting - we'll be following that trip obviously. That is NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from an eerily quiet city of Cairo on this day as Pope Francis begins a visit. Jane, thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OAKTREE'S "MOLECULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.