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Morning News Brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

From his earliest days in office, President Trump has suggested a big infrastructure plan was coming.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, and that he never quite got around to it in 2017. But he says it's on his mind as a new year approaches. In fact, the president talked about it as he signed a tax bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to have tremendous, Democrat-supported infrastructure, as you know. I could've started with infrastructure. I actually wanted to save the easy one for the one down the road. So we'll be having that done pretty quickly.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is with us once again.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hasn't the president repeatedly, repeatedly said he's ready to do infrastructure?

HORSLEY: He has. And this is, you know, one of the few areas where there is at least a possibility of bipartisan cooperation in Congress. That's especially important now as the Republicans' razor-thin majority in the Senate is about to shrink by one. You heard the president say he could have started with infrastructure. There're a lot of Democrats and some Republicans who wish he had done that.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, at the very beginning, even before the inauguration, said, eh, we could work on an infrastructure bill together.

HORSLEY: I think what remains to be seen is whether this really moves to the front burner now or if this is a kind of bipartisan mirage that's always just off in the distance, disappearing as the government actually gets closer to it.

INSKEEP: Don't the Democrats and Republicans have a very different idea of what an infrastructure bill would look like?

HORSLEY: You know, Gary Cohn, the president's national economic director, has talked a lot about infrastructure. This is an idea that excites him, and he does have some time on his hands now that that tax bill has become law. But most of what Cohn talks about is streamlining the permitting process so you get a faster green light for projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. He hasn't talked as much about some big pot of money to actually improve roads and bridges out there.

INSKEEP: No, which is what Democrats would like. And we're hearing an interesting perspective from one particular Democrat, a senior one - Ben Cardin of Maryland - who says, hey, I'd love to do an infrastructure bill, but the tax bill that Republicans just passed with no Democratic support is going to make that a lot harder. What does he mean by that?

HORSLEY: Well, it leaves the federal government with a lot less money. It's expected to cost the Treasury about a trillion dollars over the next decade, even after you account for somewhat faster economic growth. And also, by limiting the deduction for state and local taxes, it makes it more difficult for states to raise money for public works. Now, some states have boosted their gas tax to help pay for projects. We should point out for the umpteenth time, the federal gas tax hasn't budged in 25 years.

INSKEEP: Umpteenth - that's an official economic term, isn't it, Scott?

HORSLEY: At least that long.

INSKEEP: OK, Scott, I got to ask about one other thing because there's news about a tree on the White House lawn. What's going on?

HORSLEY: Yeah, this is this beautiful Magnolia grandiflora. It has those big, white blossoms in the springtime and a rich history. This was planted in 1829 by newly elected and newly widowed president Andrew Jackson using a sprout from his late wife Rachel's favorite Magnolia on their Tennessee farm. Unfortunately, it is now falling down, according to CNN, which broke this story. Specialists from the National Arboretum were brought in. They warned that it could collapse and hit somebody on the South Lawn, so it's going to be taken down this week. First lady Melania Trump has ordered the wood preserved and perhaps turned into some sort of fitting memorial. And we should take some comfort in the fact that seedlings from this tree have been transplanted over the years at the USDA and elsewhere, so descendants of the Jackson Magnolia will live on.

INSKEEP: I am taking comfort and also taking comfort, Scott, because when you say it could fall and hit somebody, apparently the somebody it could hit is you, right? I mean, reporters like you stand under that tree, watching the president sometimes.

HORSLEY: Yes, but also a lot of civilians whose protection we should be worried about.

INSKEEP: Of course, of course. NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks very much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: All right, Liberia is choosing a replacement for a historic figure.

KING: That is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She's Africa's first woman elected head of state. She is stepping down after 12 years, and the race to succeed her is taking much longer than expected. The first round of this election came in October. Two candidates made a runoff, but then there were allegations of vote rigging. There was a court challenge, and so the runoff was delayed until yesterday. Now, this comes down to a contest between Sirleaf's vice president and a former international soccer star.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been monitoring this vote.

Hi, Ofeibea.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

INSKEEP: What's the campaign been like?

QUIST-ARCTON: Which one...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

QUIST-ARCTON: ...The one for campaign through the one for election? You know, in - the lead-up to October was electric because let me just describe these two candidates. You have George Weah, who won the first round. Now, he is the international - former international soccer star who played for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan. I mean, he was a striker who was legendary. FIFA, the world governing - soccer governing body made him their soccer star of the year, the only African to hold that post. So he is 51 - youngish. And he has gone now twice for the presidency and won on the ticket as the vice president. He sees himself as the candidate of the youth.

And it's very generational because the vice president, Joseph Boakai, who's been in power as vice president for 12 years, describes himself as a race car that has been in the garage, parked for years, and is now ready to hit the road. So you can imagine the campaigns. Liberians are very - you know, they're very excitable people, and they are looking forward to a change of government because this'll be the first time there has been a change from one elected leader to another in generations, in 70 years.

INSKEEP: Oh, that is huge. First, thank you for referring to someone who's 51 as youngish. Those of us under 51 are very grateful.

QUIST-ARCTON: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Second, you have just hit on something really significant - that peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another. What would this mean if it is ultimately - if it ultimately comes off? What would it mean for Liberia?

QUIST-ARCTON: Of course, Liberians say Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has presided over peace after back-to-back civil wars, and don't forget the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15. But this has left this West African country, which should be rich - I mean, it has extractive minerals. It has iron ore. It has rubber. But it is hugely poor with extraordinarily hopeless infrastructure. So now Liberians say they are focusing on the economy. They want jobs. They want employment. And they want more than peace because they feel that their country can give us that. And both men - George Weah and Joseph Boakai, who's sometimes known as Sleepy Joe because his eyes close during meetings - they say they can both launch Liberia into prosperity. We'll have to see who wins and who can deliver.

INSKEEP: Ofeibea, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure talking to you too, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on the line from her base in Dakar.

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INSKEEP: Diplomats from Pakistan and Afghanistan met on Tuesday. It's an effort to get along by two neighbors that often don't.

KING: But what's really interesting about this meeting is who hosted it. That was China. Now, this is a part of the world, of course, where the U.S. is a dominant player, but China is right there. It's close to both countries, and it wants to assert itself on the world stage. Pakistan's foreign minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, spoke warmly of the meeting.

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KHAWAJA MUHAMMAD ASIF: I believe this forum will go in a long way in joint efforts for bringing lasting peace in Afghanistan and enhancing cooperation among our three countries.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz is on the line to talk about this. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's China's interest in getting this involved?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think that China has been wanting to take a more active role in international affairs for some time. And, you know, I think one of the big reasons it wants to do that is the U.S. has sort of stepped out of that role. Under President Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from international trade agreements, the Paris climate accord. And, you know, his guiding principle of America First has sort of sent the message that the U.S. is now more focused on itself under his administration and less on solving problems abroad. And this is welcome news for China's leader, Xi Jinping, who wants to engage his country more internationally, who wants to build economic partnerships throughout the region.

You know, secondly, in this specific case, you know, Pakistan and Afghanistan both share borders with China, so it's natural that China's interested in improving relations between the two. And lastly, you know, China's investing $50 billion in an economic corridor in Pakistan that would link China's remote Western region to the Arabian Sea. So China's also interested in discussing whether that corridor could also include Afghanistan, but it wants to make sure that everything's right before it does that.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks for reminding us that China has been involved in Pakistan for some time, especially with those economic investments. But these are two countries that have been, in their way, close to the United States - a fraught relationship with Pakistan, but the U.S. and Pakistan cooperate a lot. There are still American troops in Afghanistan, fighting a war. Should Americans be a little suspicious of China's motives here?

SCHMITZ: Well, I don't know, you know? I think observers would say, if America should be suspicious, you know, it should've been suspicious before this current administration, you know, pulled the U.S. out of a bunch of partnerships because, I mean, I think a lot of observers, you know, criticized the Trump administration for pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership - you know, a trade deal that would've offered an alternative to a more China-dominated region.

And now that that's gone, you know, China's quickly stepped in and taken advantage of this lack of leadership in the region. You know, China's military is also steadily growing. It just built its second aircraft carrier, and it's beefing up its presence in the South China Sea. So, you know, it's clear that China wants the region and the world to take its role as a global power very seriously, and part of being a global power is not just to be strong militarily, but also diplomatically.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks very much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.