News Brief: Mattis In Asia, Trump's Week, White Nationalists In Tennessee

Oct 27, 2017
Originally published on October 27, 2017 10:08 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. defense secretary stood at the border between North and South Korea today.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, James Mattis visited the demilitarized zone with his South Korean counterpart. Here is some of what Mattis had to say.

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JAMES MATTIS: Behind me to the north, an oppressive regime that shackles its people, denying their freedom, their welfare and their human dignity in pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means of delivery in order to threaten others with catastrophe.

GREENE: OK, tough talk. So what is the message that Mattis is hoping to send ahead of President Trump's own visit to South Korea next month?

MARTIN: Let's ask David Welna. He's been traveling with the defense secretary. Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is a rather poignant time for the U.S. secretary of defense to pay a visit to the DMZ. What did it feel like? Did it feel like a significant moment?

WELNA: Well, you know, these trips to the DMZ by top U.S. officials, including most recent presidents, have become fairly routine over the years. But, you know, this time, it's different. And it's because North Korea has now demonstrated it has missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland and that it's developed what appears to be a hydrogen bomb capable of hugely massive destruction.

So this Mattis trip to the DMZ took place under some pretty tense circumstances. And while there were not any big incidents, his appearance there alongside South Korea's defense minister, I think, was clearly meant to send a message to North Korea - namely, don't you dare use your nuclear weapons or you'll be sorry you did.

MARTIN: Most of us in the audience will never have been to the DMZ. So can you just give us a sense of what it is like going right up to that line separating North and South?

WELNA: Right, well, I had not been there myself before. It was a bit unreal. Here we had the defense chiefs of the U.S. and South Korea standing just a few feet away from a line of cement going across the pavement that looked like a street curb. It's actually the line that separates the North from the South. And they both stood with their backs to North Korea as Mattis compared the North to what he called the peace-loving and free society of South Korea.

MARTIN: Did the North have anything to say about Mattis's visit?

WELNA: Well, Pyongyang had already denounced Mattis's visit as a rehearsal for a nuclear war. But even though this trip to the DMZ had not been announced beforehand, there were maybe a dozen stone-faced North Korean soldiers just across the line who seemed to know he was coming. Several of them marched right up to the line and stared at the two defense chiefs - one them looking through what seemed to be binoculars even though they were all practically within spitting distance of one another. Just before Mattis and South Korea's defense minister left, they turned, in what looked like a gesture of defiance, and took just one look at the North Korean troops and their big stone fortress on the other side of the DMZ.

MARTIN: Wow, that's quite a visual. So this is all to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Trump. He starts this big trip to Asia at the end of next week, and South Korea is on the itinerary. Is the president himself going to visit the DMZ?

WELNA: Well, we don't know. He was asked about it recently, and he just didn't give a definitive answer. I think there's a lot of concern here in South Korea about Trump provoking even more trouble with Pyongyang if he does go to the DMZ. And I think he may be concerned about his own security there. He hasn't said, so we still don't know.

In the meantime, there are now three American aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific. And even though that's not unprecedented, it's being seen here as one more sign that the Pentagon is taking no chances with what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might do. Just this week, his foreign minister said threats of an atmospheric test of a hydrogen bomb should be taken literally.

MARTIN: I wonder if you can get internet connection - if Twitter works at the DMZ. That could be a factor. NPR's David Welna reporting from Seoul. Thanks so much, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Rachel.

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MARTIN: All right, here in the U.S., we're starting to see why rewriting the tax code is a bit messy.

GREENE: Yeah, maybe there are reasons why Congress has not done this since 1986. I mean, just look at yesterday's House vote on a budget plan. The budget passed by a four-vote margin. This was a big victory for the GOP, since this clears the way to begin the real work on a tax overhaul. But this is the thing - 20 Republicans did not vote for this budget blueprint. And House Speaker Paul Ryan knows that he needs every single vote he can get going forward if he's going to get this tax overhaul that he wants.

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PAUL RYAN: The Ways and Means Committee will be putting out a specific plan very shortly. And they're going to work with all of our members to look at and consider and address their concerns.

GREENE: OK, so what exactly are those concerns among Republicans? And how will this shape the tax debate in the days to come?

MARTIN: I wish we had someone to answer those questions.

GREENE: I wish we did.

MARTIN: Oh, we do. NPR's Scott Detrow is here. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Happy to help.

MARTIN: So who were the nay votes on the Republican side?

DETROW: So there was lot of blue-state Republicans voting no - particularly Republicans from New Jersey - because of one idea Republican leaders are embracing, which would be lowering deductibles for state income tax. So if you live in a higher tax state - Democratic state like New York, California, New Jersey - you might end up paying a lot more in taxes. So a lot of concern from Republicans from those states.

MARTIN: That would be the opposite of the intention of the tax cuts eventually.

DETROW: (Laughter) Yeah, but we should point out this did have the votes to pass. And interestingly, California - all of the Republicans from the California delegation did vote yes on this yesterday.

MARTIN: So what are some of the other sticking points here?

DETROW: So another one that's gotten a lot of attention is lowering 401(k) limits - lowering the limit of the amount of money you can put in and save for retirement each year - changing it around so it's taxed on the front end instead of the back end. That's something that would affect a lot of Americans. A lot of people would have to adjust to it, might be unsettled by it. And that maybe is one reason why President Trump came out recently and said, hey, we're not going to do this. Don't worry about it. I mean, it's still something Republican leaders in Congress are considering.

MARTIN: They are?

DETROW: Yeah. And their concern, I think, as they put this together, is this is a lot of tricky negotiations. It's going to take a lot of time to craft all of this and has taken a lot of time. They don't know what else President Trump could tweet on any given topic. What if he comes out and says, hey, don't worry - you know, don't worry about that state deductible issue because then that throws everything off. And you have to fit everything together to get just enough people just happy enough to vote yes.

MARTIN: Right, on any particular day.

DETROW: Yeah.

MARTIN: So we're talking about all these details to this tax plan. But as I understand it, there's not a bill yet, right?

DETROW: That's right. And the plan is for the bill to be introduced next week and for a vote to come as quickly as a week after that. There's talk of getting this all passed before Thanksgiving. You might remember we had a similar conversation about repealing Obamacare and that never happened. But a lot of Republican rank-and-file members are getting frustrated. Matt Gaetz from Florida had a funny quote. He said, you know, I was watching "Indiana Jones" the other night. I feel like this tax bill is like the Ark of the Covenant.

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DETROW: It must be so magnificent if you laid your eyes on it, it would eviscerate you. So I don't know if there are any ghosts coming out of this tax bill, but we'll see it next week.

MARTIN: Look at you making the Halloween connection. That's why you make the big money, Scott Detrow. NPR's Scott Detrow. He hosts NPR's Politics podcast, with us this morning to break down the latest on taxes. Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right. Two cities in Tennessee are preparing for rallies by white nationalists that are supposed to happen tomorrow.

GREENE: Yeah, Rachel. OK, these cities are Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, Tenn. And the white nationalists' rallying cry is white lives matter. Now, residents are getting pretty nervous. Some business owners have started boarding up their windows. And counterprotests are expected. And so people are worried about a repeat of the violence we saw in Charlottesville.

MARTIN: Let's bring in Julieta Martinelli. She is with WPLN, our member station in Nashville. And she's been reporting on this. Good morning.

JULIETA MARTINELLI, BYLINE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Julieta, what do we know about the people behind these demonstrations?

MARTINELLI: Well, this is an umbrella group calling themselves the Nationalist Front. It's made up of a number of smaller groups like the League of the South, Vanguard America and the Nationalist Socialist Movement. And they all have their own individual ideologies. But the one thread that they share in common is this belief in white supremacy.

MARTIN: So why these towns? I mean, Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, these are not exactly, you know, big-name, recognizable cities around America.

MARTINELLI: Well, you're right. And I think that's one of the main reasons. When they announced this rally, they said that they were unhappy with law enforcement response in Charlottesville and felt that police in these cities would be more supportive - whatever that means. But also both of these places have experienced considerable racial tension in the recent years.

In Murfreesboro, in 2010, they made national headlines after big protests when a mosque was going to be built. And people took to the same streets where the nationalists will be rallying this weekend to say that Islam is not a real religion. And in Shelbyville, there's been change in demographics. There's a large poultry plant, so they've seen a big influx of refugees and immigrants to the area. And these groups are just trying to tap into the sentiment of people who are unhappy with seeing things change.

MARTIN: A poultry plant, so presumably they're employing all these new immigrants to the region?

MARTINELLI: That's right, yes.

MARTIN: So these are places that are diversifying. They're seeing an influx of people from other cultures and religions, and that's creating some tensions. I understand you spent some time in Murfreesboro. So what are people saying there about these demonstrations that are supposed to happen?

MARTINELLI: Yeah, so I'll say that overall the mood is hopeful but cautious. You know, people have been recommended to board up their businesses and shut down - the schools have canceled events. People are - believe that nothing will happen, but they're making sure that they're prepared just in case that something does.

MARTIN: Yeah, boarding up businesses sounds - you know, that's a measure that elicits some concern. People there are definitely preparing for the worst - hoping for the best, as you point out. WPLN's Julieta Martinelli reporting on the white supremacist rallies happening this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.