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News Brief: Justice Confirmation Process, North Korea Threat


We don't know yet who President Trump is going to nominate to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.


But it is never too early to focus on senators who could decide the fate of whoever the nominee may be. The White House has begun lobbying five senators, we're told - three Democrats, two Republicans.

KING: NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis is with us now.

Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: We have heard a lot about the Republicans, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. They can swing things by siding with the Democrats. But there are also Democrats who could support the president's nominee. Who are they?

DAVIS: They are the three red-state Democrats who are up for re-election this year in states that Donald Trump won big. That's Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. We should note, President Trump is headed to West Virginia tonight for a campaign rally. He's already been at a campaign rally in North Dakota. So that's another factor. We know that that's where the White House is looking.

There were, of course, 10 Democrats in states Trump won. But these are the three that matter for really one reason. They are the only three Democrats who voted for President Trump's first nominee, Neil Gorsuch. There's really no expectation on Capitol Hill that if a Democratic senator was a no on Gorsuch they could get to a yes on the nominee to replace the swing vote on the court, Anthony Kennedy.

KING: All right. Let's hear from one of the Democratic senators who is likely to be in the hot seat. Here's what Indiana's Joe Donnelly told Indianapolis TV station WTHR after his meeting with President Trump.


JOE DONNELLY: I've told the president that I thought what was critical was to pick a justice in the mold of Anthony Kennedy, which is moderate, common-sense and isn't making decisions just based on politics but on what's right for the country. And the president seemed very interested in that.

KING: What does that comment tell us about the pressures that these senators are facing? Does it tell us anything?

DAVIS: Well, one thing we know is that the president is already calling from this list of 25 nominees, all of which have been approved by conservative activist groups. So it's unlikely he's going to turn to a moderate face that Joe Donnelly was talking about there. But think about what's happening in 2018 long before we knew this was going to be vacant. It's already being called the year of the woman, most specifically the Democratic woman. And groups on all sides of the abortion debate - I think on the abortion rights side, groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, are already mobilizing their members. They have huge imprints in states like Maine and Alaska.

And I think for these Democrats, you know, this is going to be one of the toughest tightropes to walk in politics this year. How do these Democrats balance the conservative realities of their states - for Democrats like Donnelly and Manchin, they have often sided with abortion opponents in their votes and their own views - and not alienate the Democratic women in their states that they're going to need to show up and vote for them to have a fighting chance to win re-election?

KING: The president says he'll make his announcement this coming Monday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants the nominee on the bench for the start of the next session on October 1. How likely is that to happen?

DAVIS: It's pretty likely. You know, historically, it takes about two to three months to confirm any nominee once they've been announced. Assuming there is nothing that derails a nominee - there's no scandal, there is nothing that comes out - that should stay on track. For comparison, it took 65 days from nomination to confirmation to confirm Neil Gorsuch. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, will have 84 days from Monday until the next session begins to confirm Trump's nominee.

KING: Eighty-four days.

NPR's Susan Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.


KING: After his face-to-face summit last month with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the president tweeted this - (reading) Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.

INSKEEP: Although let's remember that North Korea never really signed on to that. They only agreed to work on it. And weeks after the summit, we're focused on reports of new construction at North Korean missile and nuclear sites. Satellite photos and news reports come just in time for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to that country this week.

KING: The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Cheng has been covering this story, and he's with us now from Seoul.

Hi, Jonathan.


KING: So what have you learned about new activity at these sites in North Korea?

CHENG: Well, just a few days ago, we saw some satellite imagery over the North's main nuclear research center that showed that buildings there were being upgraded and expanded. And now, just yesterday, we got some more satellite imagery, this one from a missile production facility on the other coast of North Korea. And there, they've been expanding it pretty aggressively there.

And as you point out, the North didn't sign on to immediately stop and to denuclearize. But it certainly doesn't look good in light of the president's tweet and some of the remarks that he's made. There are people that are going to be looking at this and saying, this doesn't bode very well for what we had hoped, you know, the two sides had agreed upon in Singapore.

KING: Well, is it a sign that Kim Jong Un isn't taking denuclearization seriously, or is this some sort of negotiating tactic? Because he's not hiding it, which is interesting.

CHENG: Yeah. And surely, he would be aware that the eyes in the sky would be taking a close look at all of these facilities, not just before that June 12 summit in Singapore but also immediately afterwards. And throughout that entire period, we saw the work taking place and continuing there. And the satellites watched it all, basically.

So it's hard to say exactly what the calculation is here. But there are people who are saying, look, let's not expect that simply shaking hands with the U.S. president is going to mean they're suddenly going to roll over and stop doing everything they've been doing. They've been working on this for decades, and that's likely to continue until the U.S. can secure a very firm commitment from them that we're not going to do this anymore. And then we'll be watching again to see whether or not they are complying with that.

KING: And that commitment has been elusive. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed to North Korea on Thursday. Do we have a sense of whether this might change his priorities or the conversations he has with people there?

CHENG: I imagine that Mike Pompeo will bring this up. I don't know exactly what he's going to say to them, of course. But even before these reports came out, I'm sure that U.S. intelligence had been keeping track of all of these developments. And so you can imagine that that's going to come up in conversation, especially since Donald Trump, in Singapore, said that he would stop U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which is a key demand of North Korea. That wasn't in the agreement, and Donald Trump, you know, basically canceled it. So I think the U.S., especially at this point, is going to be looking for some sort of reciprocation.

INSKEEP: And U.S. officials have privately acknowledged they don't have anything from North Korea yet. And the next thing they want, as one U.S. official puts it, is for North Korea to step on the scale and be weighed, show exactly what is in their nuclear program. And it appears, rather than doing that, North Korea at the moment is gaining weight.

CHENG: (Laughter) That's right.

KING: Jonathan Cheng of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much for joining us.

CHENG: My pleasure.


KING: All right, we're going to go now to a story that has riveted Thailand - and much of the rest of the world - for over a week. The news is good, but it is not completely finished yet.

INSKEEP: Twelve boys and their soccer coach were found alive inside a flooded cave on Monday. They'd been missing nine days. It appears they were trapped when heavy rains filled up cave passages. And their route to safety is still underwater.

KING: Michael Sullivan has been covering this story for NPR, and he has just come from the area outside the cave complex. Michael, thanks for being here.


KING: So who found these kids and their coach? And how did they find them?

SULLIVAN: So it was two British divers and a Thai navy SEAL team that found them more than a mile and a half from the cave entrance on a shelf in the dark. And this cave system is very, very complex. It's about 6 miles long totally, so they got lucky finding them. And the children were in remarkably good spirits and in remarkably good condition, too. And they were very, very happy to see the divers and very politely thanked them, too.

KING: Well, it's extraordinary because we're talking 10 days here, and we're talking children. Do we have a sense of how they managed to survive - food, water, just the basics?

SULLIVAN: Not a lot of food, but they were able to find some water inside the cave, some fresh water. And that's how they survived. Now they've been given energy gel packets to tide them over. And obviously, they've gotten water from the divers as well. And that's what they used basically. They just survived on the water that was in the cave. It's really extraordinary that they lasted as long as they did. But it happened.

KING: And as you point out, this is not a normal cave in the sense that we think of a normal cave. There are some real logistical challenges to getting these kids out. What is standing in the way?

SULLIVAN: There's a number of things standing in the way. I mean, there are rocks. There are huge pools that are completely, you know, flooding parts of the cave that the divers had to get through to get to these children. So they're going to have to take the children through those passages to get them out. And that's a very big challenge right now because, obviously, these kids don't know how to dive. But they might need to be taught how to dive...

KING: Wow.

SULLIVAN: ...If they're going to get out in a timely manner. And there's another school of thought that says maybe they'll just leave them there - supply them there and wait for the rains to stop. But that doesn't sound very likely.

KING: Is there a sense of when the rains do stop, if they were forced to choose that option?

SULLIVAN: Not for months. And the most important thing is - I mean, right now - they've had a couple of days of no rain, and that's allowed them to pump a lot of water out of the cave. But we're scheduled to have a lot more rain coming beginning tomorrow. And as I look over at the cave right now, I see a huge thundercloud right above it.

KING: Oh, wow.

Michael Sullivan, thank you for taking the time.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.


Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.