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News Brief: Government Shutdown, Spying Charges, North Korea


It is up to a new Congress in this new year to resolve a government shutdown. Roughly 800,000 federal employees are unsure when they'll be paid. President Trump demanded $5 billion to help build a wall on the border with Mexico. Democrats offered less for various border security measures. The president told Fox News last night he's ready to talk.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I'm ready to go any time they want. No, we are not giving up. We have to have border security, and the wall is a big part of border security - the biggest part.

MARTIN: The president spoke amid confusion about what he really wants. His outgoing chief of staff, John Kelly, said the administration ditched the idea of an actual wall a long time ago, instead favoring fences, technology and more border guards. NPR's White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe joins us now. Ayesha.


MARTIN: Happy New Year.

RASCOE: Happy New Year. (Laughter).

MARTIN: I'm assuming you, like me, did not go out and party it up last night 'cause we had to talk about the news this morning. So thanks for making the sacrifice.

RASCOE: (Laughter). Yeah.

MARTIN: Democrats - let's get right to it. Democrats and Republicans have been stuck in this stalemate for a long time now. Thursday, Democrats take control of the House. What's expected to change?

RASCOE: Well, at this point it doesn't look like much will change. But you will finally have some concrete action where, up until now, we've had a lot of talk. So Democrats plan to put forward legislation that would fund the government. Basically, it will provide, like, a year of funding for most of the departments and agencies that are currently shut down. For the Department of Homeland Security, which is at the center of this wall fight, it would provide this stopgap spending bill. And that would basically just push the issue back to February.

But this does not include any wall or barrier funding. So it's not clear it's going to go anywhere. Trump is saying you cannot have border security without a wall. And Republicans in the Senate say they won't bring up anything that Trump doesn't support. So it seems like this impasse will remain, even if Democrats pass their bill in the House on Thursday.

MARTIN: I mean, what leverage is even left for either party?

RASCOE: Well, so right now it seems like the White House wants to use the shutdown to pressure the Democrats to come to the table. Basically, you have all of these people out of work. Something has to be done. President Trump is arguing that the government needs to be reopened and that Democrats need to show that they're concerned about border security. But he's making this case at the Democrats with Democrats set to take over the House after they gained all these seats in an election where Trump made immigration a top issue. So his leverage is not what it would have been before the midterm elections.

Democrats, of course, say they're offering money for border security, just not for a wall, and - which they don't see as effective. And they see it as a symbol of what they oppose about President Trump's immigration policies. And Democrats have their own base that they're trying to play to. And basically, they're arguing President Trump said he would own the shutdown. He said that Mexico would pay for the wall. And that - that's their argument that they're making.

And so they're trying to move ahead without any funding for the barrier - I mean, for a barrier or for a wall. But ultimately, something is going to have to give. The question is who is going to do the giving...

MARTIN: Right.

RASCOE: ...And what it might look like. They need each other at this point, the president and the Democrats. They're going to have to come together on something.

MARTIN: Right. So I guess if we thought it was tough for the last Congress to get anything done, 2019's going to be a doozy, right?

RASCOE: It - it will. There won't be - there's no shortage of areas of disagreement. And there's going to be a lot of things that they're just going to bump heads on. And this is an example of the start of it.

MARTIN: All right, NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe with the latest. Thanks so much, lady, we appreciate it.

RASCOE: Thank you.


MARTIN: Now to Russia, where an American citizen has been detained. The FSB - that's the Russian security service - says that Paul Whelan was taken into custody late last week on suspicion of espionage. Here in Washington, the U.S. State Department put out a short statement saying essentially that they're just aware of the arrest.

This comes weeks after a Russian operative was convicted of conspiracy here in the U.S., trying to influence U.S. policy ahead of the 2016 presidential election. For more, we've got NPR's Lucian Kim on the line with us from Moscow. Lucian, Happy New Year.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Happy New Year. Good morning.

MARTIN: Any new details? Good morning. Any new details come out about this arrest yet?

KIM: Well, not really. All we have is this very terse statement from the FSB that was issued yesterday. And it basically named this American citizen, identified as Paul Whelan, who was arrested, quote, "in the act of spying in Moscow" last Friday. And we know that a criminal investigation for espionage has been opened.

As you mentioned, there's also the State Department's statement from yesterday - also very terse - saying the U.S. is aware of the detention and expects Russia to follow its obligations under international conventions. What that means is providing access to this individual by U.S. Embassy officials. But we don't know anything about this person except the name given by the FSB. And the State Department is not commenting due to what it calls privacy considerations.

MARTIN: So I mean, it's hard to ignore the fact that this arrest is coming really close after this Russian national, Maria Butina, pled guilty to conspiring to act as a Russian agent and basically infiltrate American political groups. I mean, are these connected? It would seem real weird if they're not.

KIM: Well, of course there's a lot of speculation right now that this might be a Russian response to Butina's detention and plea deal and that this American citizen accused of espionage may be used to swap out Butina. President Vladimir Putin has been asked about her. And he's said that she was forced to make a confession to U.S. prosecutors because he maintains she never had any Russian government duties.

He's also said the charges against her are baseless and that he's not indifferent to her case. What's interesting is at the same time, he said that Russia will not arrest innocent people just to use them as bargaining chips.

MARTIN: So we also remember last year - right? - Russia expelled 60 U.S. diplomats after the Trump administration kicked out 60 Russian diplomats. So this has been going on for a while. As we look down the pike at 2019, what's the state of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia?

KIM: Well, just about those diplomats - at the time, the Trump administration indicated that those Russians it expelled were intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover. And of course, the arrest last week is not the best way to end the year.

MARTIN: Right.

KIM: In February we expect the Trump administration to withdraw from a 1987 arms control treaty that the U.S. says Russia is violating. President Trump also doesn't look like he will meet President Putin anytime soon because it looks like the White House has made that - a future meeting contingent on Russia releasing two dozen - two dozen Ukrainian navy sailors that it's captured.

Of course, in the U.S. we have the Mueller investigation grinding on. We have the Democrats taking over the House. And these are - of course are also factors that will affect U.S.-Russia relations. So unfortunately, not a lot of bright spots looking forward into this new year.

MARTIN: All right, buckle up. NPR's Lucian Kim from Moscow. Thanks so much, Lucian.

KIM: Thank you, Rachel.


MARTIN: All right, we're going to turn now to North Korea, where Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, has given his annual new year's address. And in this televised speech, Un says he remains committed to complete denuclearization but only if the U.S. keeps its promises. Kim Jong Un also said he'd be willing to meet with President Trump again, anytime. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul. Anthony, happy 2019.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Happy 2019, Rachel.

MARTIN: So just from that snapshot I gave, it doesn't seem like Kim Jong Un is paving the way for a breakthrough on the nuclear issue, does it?

KUHN: No, not at all. The speech was pretty much what analysts expected - especially those analysts who predict that this stalemate on the nuclear issue is going to drag on well into the new year. What Kim said is that, you know, he's serious about improving relations with the U.S. and denuclearizing.

But North Korea's been pointing out for a while that since the Trump-Kim summit in June, they have made gestures such as dismantling nuclear and missile test sites. And so now it's up to the U.S. to reciprocate by easing sanctions or providing some sort of security guarantee. And there is an or-else. Let's hear some tape from Kim's speech here.


LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "If the U.S. fails to keep the promises it made before the world," he says, "if it misjudges the patience of our people and continues to use sanctions and pressure against our republic, then we'll have no choice except to seek a new path to secure the sovereignty and interests of our country."

Now, he didn't say what exactly that new path is, Rachel, but it sounds a lot like the old path of hostility and confrontation with the U.S. - except now with a more lethal nuclear arsenal. And also, we might note that the setting for this, the scene for this speech was different. He was sitting in a wood-paneled, bookshelf-lined office, which was apparently intended to look more like a president's office than a dictator's bunker.

MARTIN: Does he have a wood-paneled, bookshelf-lined office? Or is that a stage set? (Laughter).

KUHN: We don't know.

MARTIN: Unclear.

KUHN: I've never been in his office.

MARTIN: (Laughter). So what's he holding out for?

KUHN: Well, you remember the Trump-Kim summit in June. People saw right then that that was the vaguest of deals and that the U.S. and North Korea have completely different understandings of denuclearization. And they have, you know, emphasized this time and again, that when they say denuclearization, that includes getting rid of the U.S. nuclear umbrella that protects South Korea and Japan.

And today, Kim added in his speech, you know, no new strategic weapons on the Korean Peninsula and an end to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. So it seems that North Korea is holding out for another summit where they're going to try to squeeze more concessions out of President Trump.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, south, in South Korea, the U.S. and the South were supposed to strike this new deal on the U.S. military presence. And this was supposed to happen by New Year's Eve. And it didn't happen, right?

KUHN: Right.

MARTIN: So what's going on there?

KUHN: Well, the White House wants all allies to pay more. According to South Korean media, they're asking Seoul for a 50 percent increase. And they want to cut their five-year agreements down to just one so that they strike a deal with South Korea, and then they ask all other allies for similar terms. And South Korea has said no.

Seoul was not happy about the U.S. pullout from Syria. And they're also worried about the resignation of Mattis, who tried to reassure allies, including South Korea, that he wouldn't either - the U.S. wouldn't pull out, and they also wouldn't attack North Korea without consulting with them first.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Seoul, reporting on Kim Jong Un's annual address. Anthony, we appreciate it.

KUHN: No problem. Take care, Rachel.

MARTIN: Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAMPIQUE'S "EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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