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Unpacking The President's Impromptu Press Appearance

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was a rare sight at the White House this morning.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. OK. So let's sort this out. President Trump is at the White House - wakes up there, lives there, likes to get up in the morning and tweet. He starts tweeting, and he says, maybe I'll have to take an unannounced trip down to see Fox News. Because "Fox & Friends" - host of "Fox & Friends" was on the White House lawn before this row of cameras where they're normally set up. And he walks down there. He talks live on the air for something like an hour. At some point during that hour, he turns to a bunch of other reporters on the White House lawn, begins talking to them. And I guess the bottom line is the president ended up covering an awful lot of territory.

MARTIN: He sure did. And, as far as we can tell, this was an impromptu press appearance. But he talked about a whole lot of issues. We're going to try to sort through all of them now with NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe and NPR national security editor Phil Ewing. Hi, guys.

PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. Ayesha, I want to get to something that the president said when he was talking about North Korea. Obviously, this is on the president's mind. It is on our collective mind as he just wraps up this summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un. And we've got a clip here of the president speaking rather favorably about the North Korean dictator. Let's listen to this, and we'll talk on the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's the head of a country. And I mean, he's the strong head. Don't let anyone think anything different. He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.

MARTIN: So Ayesha, I mean, the president doesn't miss an opportunity to praise this particular dictator or other authoritarian leaders. How does this fit into a pattern for the president?

RASCOE: President Trump has had very kind words for Kim Jong Un since his meeting. Now, he was asked about this today, and he said that he's doing this because he wants to make sure there's not a nuclear war. So he's defending his kind words, and he was actually asked about that specific comment that he wants his people to stand at attention...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...And he said he was joking. Now, of course...

MARTIN: So he said this in a follow-up, apparently, with other reporters?

RASCOE: Yeah, in a follow-up with reporters, he said that it was a joke...

INSKEEP: OK.

RASCOE: ...And that maybe people don't understand...

INSKEEP: But he jokes that direction an awful lot, doesn't he?

MARTIN: He also talked about the issue of human rights during this interview, and he basically said, listen, this wasn't the gist of the summit. So he seemed to suggest that he may have brought it up, but he wasn't pushing the issue of human rights during the conversation with Kim Jong Un.

RASCOE: And that's what the White House has said. They have said they did bring up the issue, and so they kind of want to get credit for that. But they said the focus of the issue was this nuclear issue. And, I mean, President Trump was very direct with reporters afterwards when they were asked - when he was asked, why are you doing this? Why are you saying these nice things about Kim? And he said, I don't want nuclear weapons pointed at you and your family. So, I mean, he made it very personal in just saying that, yes, he's saying these nice things, but he's saying that it is with the intention of having a better relationship with North Korea.

INSKEEP: Well, there is strategic thinking there, but it is something that past presidents have had to think about. There was a famous incident where Harry Truman at one point said he thought that Joe Stalin was a really great guy and then realized afterward maybe he shouldn't be saying that sort of thing on the international stage. And so he had to change his rhetoric a little bit. There's also been a different approach to Iran where the administration does very publicly hammer Iran on human rights. Now, the president did talk about this agreement that he signed with North Korea's Leader Kim Jong Un, and he insisted in spite of a blizzard of criticism from both parties that this is a really good deal. Let's listen to some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I signed an agreement where we get everything - everything.

INSKEEP: He said he has already agreed to denuclearize, which is the essence of the problem. So Phil Ewing, is that an accurate description of the agreement that was signed?

EWING: It's an accurate description of the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's impression of what was signed. And this is one of those things you'll talk about, you know, when you buy a house or buy a car. This is why you need lawyers because you need to have a piece of paper with writing on it that says what both parties have committed to. The statements issued by the parties in Singapore included a very broad, open-ended commitment to denuclearization. But there was nothing in there about North Korea declaring what weapons and resources it has, how they'll be verified, how it will disestablish and destroy the facilities it has for making nuclear weapons now. And that's the subject of these ongoing negotiations between Pompeo and North Korea. But that aspect of the deal was not in the statement that president and Kim Jong Un signed.

MARTIN: Which means it's essentially the same thing that North Korea agreed to with South Korea when those two leaders met before the U.S.-North Korea summit.

EWING: Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates used to say of North Korea that he was tired of buying the same horse twice. And this is a commitment that the North has made within Asia to the world powers, to the United States in the past. Pompeo has conceded that, and he says that's why his part of this follow-up is going to be so critical because they're nailing down the details that actually will turn this into something meaningful.

INSKEEP: They keep not having on-the-paper or in-the-agreement things, like verification of what North Korea does with its nuclear weapons. And there's been an interesting trend in conversations we've had privately with people in the administration and things that you hear publicly. What the administration will say is, well, they know what we want. We didn't get it on the piece of paper, but they know what we expect. They know what we want. And that's what they've got, is a statement of their own expectation.

EWING: That's right. And what appears to have taken place here is during the preliminary negotiations between the North Korean side and the American side, the Americans probably pushed the North to agree to something more strong than this with more detail than this, and the North said, we're not going to do that. Here's what we'll agree to sign. They did it for the president and for Mr. Pompeo, the secretary of state. That was good enough. That was the commitment you heard the president talk about which he views as being complete enough to move forward. But there isn't the kind of blueprint there that you could take and establish a path forward.

MARTIN: OK. So we talked about North Korea. Ayesha, he also weighed in on the inspector general report out of the Department of Justice which found that former FBI Director James Comey exhibited no signs of political bias in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, but it did find that his behavior was insubordinate. Let's listen to what the president had to say about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

TRUMP: I think Comey was the ringleader of this whole, you know, den of thieves.

MARTIN: Den of thieves. Sharp words, Ayesha, but similar to what he has suggested about James Comey in the past.

RASCOE: Yes. And he did suggest that maybe there were criminal acts taking place. Now, he did say that he wasn't going to - even though he's saying that he was the ringleader of a den of thieves, he's saying that he doesn't want to get involved with the Justice Department right now because he doesn't want to be accused of interference. But he also left out the possibility that he will get involved if he doesn't feel like things are being handled, I guess, appropriately. So he definitely lashed out at James Comey and at the FBI, and at the same time, while he was talking about about bias, he interestingly said that the real FBI loves him. So I guess he doesn't necessarily consider that biased.

INSKEEP: Did the inspector general's report that came out yesterday find political bias against President Trump in any of the investigations that have gone on the last couple of years?

EWING: No, it didn't, Steve. I'm going to read you what the IG said. Quote, "we found no evidence that the conclusions by Department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations. Rather, we determined that they were based on prosecutors' assessment of the facts, the law, and past department practice." That's a quote from this 600-page doorstop that came out yesterday from the IG.

INSKEEP: So there was an awkward text message. In fact, quite a few awkward text messages showing some people did not like President Trump, but no evidence that it affected anything the FBI did.

EWING: That's right. The story is complicated because both things are true. The institutional department did not make choices out of political partisan bias, according to the IG, but there were individuals within the FBI, according to this report, who personally were very anti-Trump. And there are any number of records substantiating that these thousands of text messages they sent to each other about that.

MARTIN: How does this, Phil, fit into the president's larger strategy of essentially trying to undermine the Mueller probe?

EWING: Well, there are two things happening here. One is the president's critics have said that he wants to dirty-up the Justice Department and the FBI so much over this Clinton case in 2016 to raise doubt among people about whatever comes out of that special counsel investigation. And one of the things the special counsel could be looking into is whether the president committed a crime by obstructing justice in trying to frustrate that investigation. What he says is this portrait of Comey in the IG report makes clear that he was such a bad guy, that he'd done such bad things that the president was not only within his rights as chief executive to fire Comey, but that Comey was a bad man who broke the law, and he was doing the nation a favor, as the president has said, by getting rid of him. In the White House view, that means it wasn't obstruction of justice.

MARTIN: One other issue we want to get to which the president talked about this morning in this wide-ranging press avail. Ayesha, he addressed the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, which has been getting a lot of attention in recent days. Let's listen to what the president had to say here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President, is it humane to separate children from their families?

TRUMP: That's the Democrats doing that, not the Republicans.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But the Republicans...

MARTIN: Ayesha, is that true? The president keeps blaming Democrats here.

RASCOE: The White House does keep blaming Democrats, but this is a Trump administration policy. They decided to go with his policy of zero tolerance. And so that is what has led to the separation of children from their families at the border. Now, they're saying that they're doing that to follow the law. But this is a policy choice that they have made. And so going forward, what they're saying is if they, if Congress wants this to change then Democrats - and they would need Republicans, as well - would need to come up with some type of fix, some type of solution that includes border security, the wall, et cetera.

INSKEEP: In their more honest moments, administration officials have said, we are being harsh here because we want to deter other people from coming. But repeatedly, the same administration falls back on this idea that we're helpless and we're just following the law, even though they're doing it differently than other administrations.

MARTIN: Right. Now there are a couple of bills in Congress that are designed to fix this, perhaps. All right. NPR national security editor Phil Ewing with us in the studio. Also, NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks to you both.

EWING: Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.