STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's chief of staff took the lead yesterday in defending his boss.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Yeah. John Kelly's been seen, at times, as a man trying to control an erratic president. That wasn't the role he assumed at the podium yesterday though. He denounced a Democratic member of Congress who revealed the contents of the president's call to a soldier's widow.
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JOHN KELLY: I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield - I just thought that that might be sacred.
MARTIN: It was a fiercely personal, emotional discussion that lasted 18 minutes. And it featured a Marine general whose own son was killed in Iraq.
INSKEEP: It all unfolded live on television, and NPR's Susan Davis was among the many watching. She's in our studios. Susan, good morning.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Set the scene here. What happened?
DAVIS: So the White House chief of staff, for the second time, had come to the podium to describe, I think in very emotional detail, the trauma of losing service members, of which - as Rachel referred to - he knows all too well. And he did this with his own unique credibility on this topic to defend the credibility of the president, who has been engaged in a rather sad back-and-forth with another Gold Star family.
INSKEEP: Well, let's work through what that back-and-forth seems to be about. Because of a Democratic member of Congress, who was listening in on the call, we have heard - and the White House generally no longer denies - that the president made this remark to a war widow. He knew what he signed up for, which sounds jarring. It sounds insensitive, and that's what has upset people. But General Kelly was explaining it actually means something else if you're someone who has served in the military. And here's part of what he said.
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KELLY: He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died - in the four cases we're talking about in Niger, my son's case in Afghanistan - when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth - his friends. That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.
INSKEEP: Here's the thing that I can't get past quite, Sue Davis. John Kelly explained what the president meant by a statement that the president at least continues to deny he ever made - calling people liars when they say he made it.
DAVIS: Well, a lot of this seems to be context. It's not so much maybe what Trump said, which John Kelly sort of agreed that the account was true, in that how he had said it. And what we do know is that the widow of La David Johnson was offended by the call. And that is not in dispute. The president has just been incredibly defensive about it because - I think what John Kelly was also trying to say was his intentions were not to offend. His intentions were good.
INSKEEP: And says these calls are obviously impossible to make. What did you think of the broader remarks that Kelly made? He kind of denounced the state of society. Women are no longer sacred, he says. It's not the case anymore that women are sacred. The dignity of life is no longer sacred. That's gone. Religion, that appears to be gone as well - some of the remarks that Kelly made.
DAVIS: You know, it needs to be said that in this - well, again, I think it'd fair to be called a sad distraction - there is also an underlying issue that the White House is going to have to address, which is the military operation that happened in Niger - the fact that the Pentagon is undergoing a military review. And I can tell you, speaking to members of Congress yesterday on Capitol Hill, there is a lot of frustration about what happened on that mission. And people like Senate Armed Services, John McCain, want answers.
INSKEEP: Something that was not brought up during the briefing yesterday. One other thing I want to ask about before I let you go. This came on the same day that both of President Trump's immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, gave speeches about the state of the country.
DAVIS: They did, and they were both seen as sort of veiled criticisms of the president. President Bush talked about bigotry, the rise of bigotry. And President Obama referenced the politics of division that continue in America. I think we found something that Presidents Bush and Obama agree on, and that is the state of American politics right now is rather partisan and nasty.
INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis, thanks very much.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
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INSKEEP: OK. Let's revisit that moment when President Trump - not yet president - announced his run and made a promise that defined his campaign.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.
INSKEEP: OK. The way it's working out is that Mexico's not paying.
MARTIN: Right. First, Congress would have to pay for that wall, which it hasn't. It has paid for prototypes, and crews are hard at work building them, fenced-off construction sites along the border in San Diego. Prototypes are going up. And NPR's John Burnett has been looking at these things, right?
INSKEEP: You bet. John, the president said it's going to be a big, beautiful wall. You've had a look. Is it big, beautiful? How's it doing?
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Well, if you squint, you can think you're in a particularly stark sculpture garden.
BURNETT: There are eight concrete and steel oblong slabs planted in the ground - in the front, the rugged Otay Mountains, in the background, the Mexican city of Tijuana sprawling to the horizon. They're each 30 feet tall. That's as tall as a three-story building. We heard they could be high-tech or creative - perhaps with solar panels on top or with decorative stones artistically set into the concrete - nothing of the sort. They looked like blast walls you might see in Iraq - definitely big, not beautiful.
INSKEEP: So what happens here? Does somebody look at the different prototypes and say, that slab of concrete looks much better than that slab of concrete?
BURNETT: So these are the eight designs that are the finalists that were selected from dozens of designs submitted by construction firms from all over the country. And once they're finished, which is supposed to be later this month, Customs and Border Protection will look at each wall segment using three criteria. Can it be scaled? Can it be drilled or penetrated? Can it be tunneled under? Then the agency picks one or more designs.
But remember, Congress hasn't authorized any money for the new - for construction of Trump's wall. His administration's asking for $1.6 billion for 74 miles of new fencing, and the request faces tough going in Washington. Congressional Democrats are almost universally opposed to funding the border wall, which they consider way too expensive and unnecessary now that apprehensions of undocumented immigrants have dropped sharply this year. And also, remember, Congress is facing billions of dollars in unforeseen spending for hurricane damages in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
INSKEEP: And we should mention there are also some Republicans in Congress who would like more border security but think there might be better ways to do it involving technology. What are you hearing from the other side of the border in Mexico?
BURNETT: You know, some Mexicans are offended by it. One gentleman I talked to - a junk dealer whose recycling business stares right across the border at these tall slabs of concrete - told me, you Americans are building the wall so high. You want to stop even the wind that blows from north to south into Mexico. But most of the Tijuana residents I spoke with just shrugged their shoulders and said, basically, it's your country. Do what you want. Build them as tall as you want. Just don't ask us to pay for them.
INSKEEP: John, thanks very much, always a pleasure talking with you.
BURNETT: You bet, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett who's been on the U.S.-Mexico border.
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INSKEEP: Some other news now. Japan holds an election on Sunday.
MARTIN: Yeah, and there was no long-drawn-out campaign here. This is a snap election. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it just a few weeks ago. And he's looking for a mandate at a time when Japan is increasingly concerned about its next-door neighbor. That would be North Korea.
INSKEEP: You bet. NPR's Elise Hu is covering the race. She's with us now. Hi, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi, there.
INSKEEP: So is it likely that Shinzo Abe will prevail in this election?
HU: Yes. Shinzo Abe's popularity had fallen into the 20 percent range earlier this year because of a cronyism scandal but he has rebounded. And his party is expected to hold the lion's share of the 465 seats in the Japanese Parliament that are up for grabs. And you mentioned North Korea. Voters generally support Abe's leadership on the North Korea question. They're telling pollsters they're prioritizing foreign policy in their voting. And if Abe's party - the Liberal Democratic Party or LDP - does prevail overwhelmingly, as expected, Abe will keep his job, and this will make him the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in the post-war period.
INSKEEP: But amid all those factors, you said that at one point, Abe's popularity was in the 20s, which is not good. Why is his party so dominant given the troubles that he has had?
HU: Well, the opposition party basically fell apart and broke into two different new parties. So there's kind of a lack of a clear alternative. Then there's voter apathy. Turnout in 2014 was about 50 percent, which was the lowest since World War II. And the other reason is the LDP - Abe's party - it's pretty pragmatic. It's considered right wing or conservative on foreign policy issues, energy policy.
But its social and economic policies guard worker pensions, favor stimulus and infrastructure spending like building new bridges. So that is, you know, something that can bring jobs and cash to various regions. Add all this up, Abe's party has been in power for all but a handful of years since - what? - 1955.
INSKEEP: So assuming that his party wins, that means that he's going to be the prime minister who meets President Trump when the president shows up in Japan in a few weeks. And they'll be talking about North Korea. What kind of a partner is he for the president?
HU: So far, he's been consistent and so has the Japanese government. It has stayed on the same page with the United States on increasing pressure on North Korea through those sanctions. Abe, personally, has done a lot to shore up his relationship with President Trump. He was the first foreign leader to visit the president after the 2016 election, which you probably recall. He's played golf with Trump. He's visited Mar-a-Lago. And he was even on the losing end of one of those aggressive Trump handshakes.
HU: So the two men are familiar with each other.
INSKEEP: Hopefully, he didn't, like, hurt his hand because that would affect your golf game.
INSKEEP: Elise, thanks very much.
HU: You bet.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu, who will be in Tokyo Sunday when the results come in.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that White House chief of staff John Kelly's son was killed in Iraq. He was killed in Afghanistan.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.