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Morning News Brief: Trump Orders Syria Airstrikes, Hosts Chinese President

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to look ahead now to some of the most important stories of the day.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Up first - the U.S. strike on Syria. This is a story that starts with this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILES LAUNCHING)

INSKEEP: Dramatic video shows flashes of light on the deck of a U.S. warship as it launches Tomahawk missiles at Syria into the darkness overnight. President Trump ordered the attack on a Syrian airfield. And Syria says some people were killed on the ground.

The U.S. says it was responding to an apparent chemical attack this week that in the president's words choked the life out of its victims. He addressed the nation last night from his Mar-a-Lago resort and said the United States acted after the previous administration did not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen. And the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.

MARTIN: OK. So to talk through this story, we are joined in the studio by Will Dobson of NPR's international desk. Hey, Will.

WILL DOBSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Also NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is with us, too. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: OK. Will, big question - is this a one-off strike, or does this mean the U.S. is going to start a military campaign with the intention of removing Bashar al-Assad from power?

DOBSON: I think, you know, to answer that you have to think about the context that the president was making this decision. The most controversial decision - foreign policy decision - that Obama ever made was for the action he didn't take in 2013...

MARTIN: The red line.

DOBSON: ...With the red line, when he - you know, which was widely criticized for not following up on that promise to retaliate if Assad used deadly nerve agents against his own people. And, you know, and the truth is that right now this decision by President Trump is probably something that's being applauded by many of Obama's former foreign policy aides.

The thing is, and this is something that comes through right away, is that the situation on the ground now is far more complicated than it was then. It's changed a great deal in the past four years. Now you have Russian troops that are on the ground intermingled with Syrian forces.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DOBSON: You know, the Trump administration just days ago was expressing interest in coordinating an anti-ISIS strategy with Assad. That now must be clearly thrown out the window. You know, that was the mission above all was to defeat ISIS. Is that still true, or was the coordination ever even necessary?

MARTIN: Yeah.

DOBSON: You know, bottom line is that...

MARTIN: So let me interrupt to ask about Russia because they are more involved in this war than they were during the Obama administration, definitely more than 2013. Now that the U.S. has gone in, how does that affect relations with Putin?

DOBSON: It affects them dramatically. I mean, now any actions going forward have to be coordinated with Moscow. In fact, what happens next, what - whether this is just a symbolic action by the president or whether it actually is meant to be the precursor to something more...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DOBSON: ...Will be decided as much in Moscow as it will in Washington.

MARTIN: I want to play some tape. This was Hillary Clinton at the Women in the World Summit in New York. She said this about Syria. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: I really believe that we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.

MARTIN: Sounds like Hillary Clinton is in Donald Trump's corner, Sue.

DAVIS: Well, one of the things that's so remarkable about this is that Trump's decision to take action is almost in direct contradiction to the foreign policy he said he was going to have on the campaign trail. He ran as a much more isolationist candidate. He said it was not the job of the U.S. to police the world.

And even in recent days prior to the chemical attack, they were saying that it was up to the Syrian people to decide the fate of the Syria - nation. So, you know, what happens next is the bigger question. And how deep does he want to invest in the military operation there?

MARTIN: Is there an appetite on Capitol Hill for a more aggressive posture in Syria?

DAVIS: That's a tough question. There is absolutely bipartisan opposition to it. And he would need to build a bipartisan coalition for it. And if he wanted to expand the military operation dramatically, he would probably need authorization from Congress. And he would probably want authorization from Congress to have a greater buy-in for the country to invest more of its resources there.

MARTIN: Does this give us a clearer sense of Trump's strategy in Syria?

DOBSON: No, it doesn't really, I mean, because it's such an initial action that we don't know what will fall from it. And that's really what matters most because what's so bedeviling about the Syrian problem is that if you're successful and the regime crumbles, you actually create the conditions for Islamic extremists to flourish.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DOBSON: So the next steps are - will tell us much more.

INSKEEP: Let's keep in mind what Will and Sue have just underlined here, that we don't know what the strategy is. That's something to look for today. We also don't know, by the way, if this round of airstrikes is over. We do not know if there could be more of these because certainly the Pentagon has more airfields, more targets on the shelf ready to go.

Whatever happens, we should remember this is a presidential decision. This choice to commit the United States more fully in Syria and get people killed is not something that can be delegated. This was a decision by the president of the United States.

MARTIN: All right. So we're going to move on because, Steve, this U.S. strike in Syria comes in a middle of a two-day meeting - a big one - between President Trump and China's president, Xi Jinping, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah. They're meeting at Mar-a-Lago, you know, the president's resort in Florida, which we were told was a deliberately informal setting for what President Trump advertised as a really tough meeting. Remember, he highlighted the U.S. trade deficit with China which is something over $300 billion per year.

And the two countries also, as we've seen evidence of in recent days, have not found a way to contain North Korea's nuclear program. So what we can listen for today as they wrap up is any sign that these two leaders actually agree on how to address those issues.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, that. So, Will, what are each of these men looking for out of this meeting?

DOBSON: Well, you couldn't imagine two more different men who are now charged with managing the most important bilateral relationship in the world. So that's where you start.

MARTIN: To put it lightly, yeah.

DOBSON: That's where you're starting, right? I mean, from Xi's point of view, his first concern is to come out of the meeting unscathed. And by that I mean he wants to be perceived back home for having been able to go toe-to-toe with the most unpredictable American president the world has ever seen - I think that's probably a accurate statement - and then at the same time prove that he's able to manage and steer this most essential relationship for China going forward.

MARTIN: Of course, all this trade talk that we heard from Donald Trump on the campaign has subsided a bit, Sue, because North Korea has emerged as such a threat in recent months. What are you hearing from - particularly from Republicans on the Hill about their priorities when it comes to China? Is it cooperation with North Korea on the North Korea issue, or is it trade?

DAVIS: It's much more North Korea. I think that one of the ways in which President Trump differs from most of the majority of congressional Republicans is on trade. And on some of his rhetoric on trade, he's more likely to find maybe some counterparts in the Democratic Party who would like him to see crack down on China harder.

In some ways he has more similarities with Bernie Sanders than he does with Paul Ryan on trade issues. But on North Korea, yes. And this is part of the challenge of this relationship - right? - where Trump has probably - no other country has been the direction of his anger...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...But that now he needs them as an alliance.

INSKEEP: Can we just remember what Sue said about Syria? Reality pressed this president into a foreign policy choice that seems very different than what he said on the campaign trail. Today, we begin to get a sense of whether reality is going to force this president into a different approach to China than he took on the campaign trail.

MARTIN: Will Dobson, NPR's international desk editor, and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Hey guys, thanks to you both.

DAVIS: You bet.

DOBSON: Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: All right, we leave you this morning with news from Facebook. Steve, what's the story here?

INSKEEP: Well, I happen to have one here because during the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook was called out for not doing more to stop fake news stories on its site. Well, today the company is introducing a, quote, "educational tool" that users in 14 countries will apparently see at the top of their news feed for about three days, an educational tool offering tips on how to spot fake news.

MARTIN: But only three days. All right, so we have NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani on the line from San Francisco to talk about this. Hi, Aarti.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: What are these tips?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) Well, Facebook's sending us to journalism school. Tip number one for spotting false news is be skeptical of headlines.

INSKEEP: Thank you.

SHAHANI: If it sounds unbelievable, it probably is. You're welcome.

MARTIN: Good advice.

SHAHANI: If it uses a whole lot of exclamation points, that's suspicious, too.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean, that's true.

SHAHANI: And also...

INSKEEP: Oddly, the headline on this says most unbelievable educational tool ever - exclamation point, exclamation point.

MARTIN: Exclamation point.

INSKEEP: Go on. Go on.

SHAHANI: (Laughter) Also investigate the source, right? So like if it - what is the Denver Guardian as opposed to The Denver Post? So pay attention to the URL, the address link.

MARTIN: So this is so interesting because of all the pressure that was on Facebook, this seems, I mean, I guess these tips are important. They're good. But the onus still resides on the consumer, on the user to take responsibility for their choices, right?

SHAHANI: Yeah, bingo. And I think that that's a really key point here, right? Like, take that - the whole pay attention to the URL suggestion. I mean, like, technically speaking, Facebook's engineering team could redesign the app so that the source of the news is a lot more prominent and jumps out at you. You don't have to like squint your eyes on your smartphone to see it, right? They could highlight it for you. They could probably color code to highlight top-tier stuff.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SHAHANI: You know, that's not what they're doing, at least for now. And in that way, I think that the fake news problem is kind of like the password problem.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SHAHANI: Like, you know, you can wag your fingers at the users and say hey, you know, you really should know better. This is what you can do. Or you could, as the expert, take responsibility and say we're going to design a system that's better.

MARTIN: NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani. Aarti, thanks for those tips on the tips.

SHAHANI: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE'S "FIRST LOOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.