News Brief: Niger Firefight, Trump Has Lunch With GOP Senators

Oct 24, 2017
Originally published on October 24, 2017 7:35 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a question troubling people who focus on the military. What really led to the ambush of American troops in Niger?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It helps to work through the story step by step. General Joseph Dunford, he's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he laid out a timeline yesterday of what happened. He said U.S. soldiers were helping Niger fight extremists. A Special Forces unit was conducting reconnaissance in this really remote village near the border with Mali. Things went wrong when they were heading back to the capital city.

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JOSEPH DUNFORD: The patrol came under attack from approximately 50 enemy using small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and technical vehicles.

MARTIN: Dunford says the attackers were from a group tied to ISIS. And he himself still has a lot of questions.

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DUNFORD: Did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence equipment and training? Was their pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area accurate?

INSKEEP: Let's take on some of Dunford's questions and a few of our own. NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so we're talking about a dozen Americans in this remote village. And Dunford says, did the mission change? What's that mean?

BOWMAN: Well, the original point of this mission was to go on a reconnaissance patrol out to this village with...

INSKEEP: Find out what was there.

BOWMAN: Exactly - with dozens of Nigerian troops. But there are some reports that perhaps they saw some suspected terrorists on motorbikes and maybe pursued them. So that's a question we don't know. General Dunford was asked that. He said, I have no indications at this point that the mission changed from its original intent. So that's one more question here.

INSKEEP: So the early indication is they weren't lured off by some kind of possible target of opportunity. But the next question is did they have adequate intelligence, which is perhaps a way of asking, were they lured into an ambush?

BOWMAN: Right. Well, they said it was a low-risk mission. So the question is how did they know it was low-risk? Did they sort of have surveillance of this area prior to going out? They've been on patrol with the Nigerian forces many times before. Did they just assume it would be OK? Now, if they did have a drone covering them while they were on the mission or before, you're clearly going to be able to pick up 50 armed fighters in vehicles.

INSKEEP: Now...

BOWMAN: I've seen many drone feeds over the years, and they are very exact. It's - you can see everything from the drones.

INSKEEP: So then you've got to ask, how could they have been surprised? Which leads to a bigger question - when a dozen Special Forces troops are out there, small unit, do they have the kind of massive backup that they can call on if they get in trouble?

BOWMAN: Well, you want to have that quickly as possible. But in some countries, let's say Afghanistan, where there are a lot of American aircraft, helicopters and so forth, you would have help coming very quickly. In this case, they call for help an hour into the firefight. They've got a drone heading their way, an American drone. And then it took an hour for French aircraft and helicopters to come to their rescue. Now, the French did not drop any bombs. But clearly, an hour...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BOWMAN: ...You know, you want to have something faster than that.

INSKEEP: That's an eternity in a firefight when you're outnumbered. One other thing, Tom Bowman. One of the things that you learn in dangerous situations, if you're doing any kind of work in a dangerous situation, is don't linger. Go do your business. Keep moving. The longer you stay in a place, the more chance that someone can find out about you and get you in trouble. Did they stay in this village too long?

BOWMAN: That's one of the questions. Were they kept there by village elders and the village folks too long? So maybe an ambush was set up while they were at the village. That's one of the questions here as well.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks for the answers we have and the questions that remain. NPR's Tom Bowman.

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INSKEEP: OK, once a week, Senate Republicans in Washington meet for lunch. They all show up, or nearly all of them - all who can - Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, Bob Corker, John McCain.

MARTIN: Yeah, and each of them has a certain relationship with President Trump, ranging from good to strained to feuding to pretty darn awful. So today they all make room for the president at the table to talk taxes. It may be one of their last shots to pass major legislation in a year when most big efforts have just fallen apart. The president promoted the tax plan on Fox News over the weekend.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think that there's tremendous appetite, there's tremendous spirit for it, not only by the people we're dealing with in Congress but for the people out there that want to see something.

INSKEEP: Ok, people want to see something, true enough. But what's this something? NPR's Susan Davis is in our studios on this morning when the president plans to lunch with those Senate Republicans. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Do enough Republicans agree on what the bill should look like that a tax plan could actually pass?

DAVIS: Well, they very much agree on the end goal, which is to cut taxes for every American business and almost every individual tax payer. I think when you think about tax legislation, the important thing to remember throughout this entire debate that's going to unfold over the rest of the year is they want the end goal and the political pressure they feel is tremendous to deliver on this. So...

INSKEEP: After failing again and again and again on health care.

DAVIS: And we're 10 months into the first year of a Republican-controlled Washington, and they don't have much to show for it in terms of legislative victories. So the president, on this issue, is going to find a very receptive audience on Capitol Hill because Republicans do want to get this done.

INSKEEP: The president weighed in on a big detail yesterday. There were reports that Republicans wanted to help finance a business tax cut - it increases the deficit, you've got to shrink it somehow - by eliminating deductions including shrinking the deduction on 401k retirement accounts. And the president says, no, not going to do that. Where does that leave the idea?

DAVIS: Well, that's probably pretty good politics on his part 'cause that would be rather unpopular, particularly among middle-class tax payers that he says he's trying to help.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DAVIS: You know, on this issue, the president, he's not a policy wonk. But Republicans say on this issue, he is more engaged, this is more of his wheelhouse, he is a businessman. And on this topic, he feels more comfortable and he really wants to get this done. So I think part of him coming up to Capitol Hill, this is classic political theater, right? The president marches down Pennsylvania Avenue to tell Congress what's what. And part of this is making a broader message push to the public that this is going to get done.

INSKEEP: Although let's be frank, the president is a little more comfortable on tax policy. But he's still - he's playing to the crowd. He's playing to the public. At the same time, there are these sensitive negotiations. Any tax bill, if it tries not to expand the deficit too much, is going to have something unpopular in it.

DAVIS: It is. And remember, the math is always going to be tough. It's the same math you had on health care. You have 52 Republican senators. You can only lose two. And some of the senators that are going to be in that room are senators like Tennessee's Bob Corker, who has already warned Republicans he will not vote for any tax bill that adds, in his words, one penny to the federal deficit.

INSKEEP: And the way you cut taxes without increasing the deficit is by taking something away from someone. And that someone surely has at least one senator who will defend them, I suppose.

DAVIS: There's always going to be winners and losers. We're going to see who those losers are when the tax bill is released, and that could come as soon as next week.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis this morning.

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INSKEEP: Some other news, an enforced school holiday is ending in Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: Some kids are going back to class today. They've been out of school, obviously, for more than a month because of Hurricane Maria, which left the majority of Puerto Rico without power. Inspectors have been checking schools to make sure that they're safe for children to return. Class cannot start soon enough for teacher Eliezer Gonzalez.

ELIEZAR GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: He's saying we want to get started. Life has to go on. NPR's Adrian Florido has been out visiting schools on the island. He's on the line from San Juan. Adrian, good morning.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you seen?

FLORIDO: Well, you know, like most structures on the island, I mean, some have been heavily damaged, some schools have been heavily damaged, and some are in really great shape. I mean, we've seen schools with classrooms that caved in because of toppled trees, classrooms that were flooded with water levels reaching, you know, higher than the chalkboards. And then we've seen schools that have suffered minimal damage.

At some of these schools, teachers have been out since a few days since the storm clearing away debris, scraping away damaged paint, replacing desks and scraping away mold in classrooms, basically just trying to get schools ready for kids to come back as soon as officials give them the green light to do that.

INSKEEP: OK, so some schools just needed a cleaning. But it sounds like other schools are devastated. What's the plan for the schools that are devastated? If you're going to build a new building, that could take a year.

FLORIDO: Yeah, so, I mean, officials are having to figure out all sorts of different sort of solutions to these problems, right? So they're sending out inspectors to each school. And there are 1,100 across the island - 1,100 public schools across the island. So what they're needing to do is essentially figure out if they need to send kids to alternate schools for the time being while they reconstruct some schools. Some schools are, unfortunately, going to have to be shut down. But basically, what's happening is the engineers are going - beginning first in the least-affected regions of the island and giving the green light for those schools to reopen and they're moving on to more damaged regions.

And what the secretary of education told me was that the goal is to have schools online on every part of the island by mid to late November.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the vital role of schools here on the mainland. I'm sure it can't be any different in Puerto Rico. Is it - I mean, you want kids to go to school just so they go to school. But also, if kids aren't in school, their parents can't work because somebody has to look after the kids. And with poor kids, they may be depending on schools to provide them with the school lunch. This has got to be pretty vital to a lot of communities.

FLORIDO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, communities and especially in a lot of rural areas and in urban areas too are just vital community centers, right? And you're right, a lot of parents, not only can they not work but a lot of people are still making - are still standing in line every day just to get water, to get cash out of the ATM, to buy milk, to get gasoline. And these are the sorts of things that become a lot more difficult when you have kids that you can't drop off at school because those kids are needing to be entertained and essentially taken care of.

And so what a lot of teachers at schools that I've visited have told me is they feel like they aren't being able - allowed to do their part - being able to do their part right now because kids can't come back to school and they just want to basically assume that role again of being not only teachers but also these sort of pillars of the community where people can come and feel like they have a place where the kids will feel safe and they can resume their daily lives and try to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

INSKEEP: Adrian, thanks very much. Really appreciate the update.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Adrian Florido in Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.