News Brief: U.N. General Assembly To Open, North Korea Crisis Poll

Sep 18, 2017
Originally published on September 18, 2017 8:34 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is a big week not just for President Trump but for leaders from all over the world. They are just settling in for the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York City.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And can we just pause for a moment and note how critical...

GREENE: Yes, we can pause for as long as you'd like to.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I'm only going to get a moment - but just to note how critical the president has been of the United Nations in the past.

GREENE: Yeah.

KELLY: When he was president-elect, he tweeted that the U.N. is - and I'll quote him - "just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time." So this week, the question is, has he changed his mind? His ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, told reporters at the White House that the Trump administration plans to do a lot more than socialize this week.

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NIKKI HALEY: No one is going to grip and grin. The United States is going to work. And I think with all of the challenges around the world, I think the international community is going to see that.

KELLY: So what else might the international community see?

GREENE: Well, let's ask NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen, who is in New York covering the General Assembly. Hey there, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, David. Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey there.

GREENE: So what's in store this week for President Trump as he makes his debut before the assembly, right?

KELEMEN: Yes. But what's in store is a lot of meetings for him - from the Israelis and Palestinians, the Japanese, South Koreans and many others in between. And he's also going to face a lot of very curious world leaders who have - you know, might have seen what he had to say on Twitter about the U.N. but want to see what kind of approach he's actually going to take to the world body.

His aides say that he's going to be focused on making the U.N. more efficient, cutting the budget but also working with others on, you know, really key challenges like North Korea and Iran. They've often said that this America-first approach doesn't mean America alone. And the way Ambassador Haley put it when she was asked about what people should expect from his speech - she said, quote, "he slaps the right people. He hugs the right people." And she says he'll come out looking strong in this.

GREENE: OK. Well, that that sets up the speech. I'm ready to listen. Well, I mean, we talk about words like America first and different approaches in policy. But are we going to see the Trump administration conduct business at the U.N. General Assembly in some very different way compared to presidents of the past?

KELEMEN: Well, one difference is going to be the smaller footprint that diplomats have here. The word going around the State Department was that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wanted a toe print, not just a smaller footprint. Some U.N. watchers said that's a signal that the U.S. is stepping back from its leadership role here. Tillerson's aides insist that's not the case and were tweeting graphs over the weekend to show that the number of American officials taking part in the U.N. week was just sharply up during the Obama administration. And what they're trying to do is scale it back to what it was before.

GREENE: Well, I mean, Mary Louise mentioned the past criticism of the U.N. by Donald Trump. I mean, obviously, he has a reputation for being unpredictable. You mentioned Nikki Haley trying to set up this speech. But are other world leaders bracing for what they might hear from him?

KELEMEN: Yeah, it'll be interesting. First of all, the North Korean delegation will be sitting in the front row.

GREENE: Yeah.

KELEMEN: So we're expecting a lot of North Korea on that. But also, you know, here's how the secretary-general seems to be bracing for it when he was asked about Trump's America-first agenda and how it would play. Antonio Guterres said, you know, look, I myself was prime minister of Portugal and saw - you know, had a Portugal-first approach then. But he said that it is in America's interest and national security interest to have an effective U.N. What he wants is an engaged U.S. here. And he seems to be appealing to Trump in part by making a big push on U.N. reform. It's a perennial issue here and one where the U.S. and the U.N. at least can align themselves temporarily.

GREENE: OK. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen in New York. Michele, thanks a lot.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

GREENE: Now, Michele mentioned that the North Koreans are going to be front and center - literally front and center - sitting in the front row as President Trump gives his speech.

KELLY: That's right. And this, of course, follows the latest missile launch by North Korea. That was just this past Friday. After that, President Trump told troops that the U.S. and its allies will not be intimidated.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will defend our people, our nations and our civilization from all who dare to threaten our way of life. This includes the regime of North Korea, which has once again shown its utter contempt for its neighbors and for the entire world community.

KELLY: And, David, today, we have some new insight into this question. How many Americans trust the president to handle North Korea and the nuclear threat?

GREENE: Well, it turns out a narrow majority of voters do not trust the president - a narrow majority. We should say it's according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll. And let's talk about that with NPR's Scott Horsley. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK, so narrow majority. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed in this poll say they do not trust President Trump when it comes to North Korea. And that includes 40 percent who say they feel strongly about not trusting him. What does this all tell us?

HORSLEY: David, as with so many issues, there is a sharp partisan divide on this question. Democrats are very distrustful of the president. Independent voters are modestly distrustful. Among Republicans, though, more than 8 in 10 say they do trust the president. So there's sort of the background polarization going on here. But on North Korea specifically, this might also reflect some concern about the president's more bellicose rhetoric tweets about fire and fury and locked and loaded, for example, some of which have been contradicted by members of the Trump administration.

GREENE: And one interesting thing in this poll is that - you talk about fire, fury, locked and loaded. There is some confusion about the president's actual authority to order a nuclear strike.

HORSLEY: That's right. Most Americans don't think the U.S. should ever use nuclear weapons and especially that the U.S. shouldn't be the first to use them. But we asked people what it would take if the president did decide to launch a nuclear strike. And Ipsos Vice President Chris Jackson says most people got that question wrong.

CHRIS JACKSON: The real answer is he just orders it. There's no other check to him ordering a nuclear attack. But the majority of Americans - three-quarters - think that there is some sort of check - that either he has to get approval from Congress, or he has to coordinate with the secretary of defense or has to get confirmation from the Joint Chiefs.

HORSLEY: Only about a quarter of the people we surveyed knew that the president can order a nuclear strike on his own authority.

GREENE: And, Scott, when we talk about this region during the campaign, Trump raised some questions about the cost of the United States defending allies in the region like Japan, like South Korea. What do Americans think about that?

HORSLEY: A large majority of Americans - nearly three-quarters - say the U.S. has an obligation to protect its allies in East Asia. And, interestingly, in this, there was very little partisan divide. We got very similar proportions from Republicans, Democrats and independents. Now, in his speech at the U.N. tomorrow, the president is expected to offer more clues about just what he means by that America-first doctrine. But even though he questioned those security commitments during the campaign, Trump and his administration have since reaffirmed that U.S. support for Japan and South Korea is ironclad.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: And we are watching the city of St. Louis very closely today after a weekend of racially charged protests.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) These racist cops have got to go. Hey hey, ho ho.

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LYDA KREWSON: For the third day in a row, the days have been calm, and the nights have been destructive.

KELLY: That is the voice of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. She was describing the response to the acquittal of a former police officer, Jason Stockley, in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Stockley is white. He claimed self-defense when he fired at Smith, who was black back in 2011. Now, activists, David, have been preparing to protest to this very possible outcome in Stockley's trial for years. And after this verdict came down, some have said they plan to keep on protesting for weeks.

GREENE: Well, Wayne Pratt of St. Louis Public Radio is with us. Wayne, good morning.

WAYNE PRATT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Can you just briefly recap the details of this case that sparked these protests?

PRATT: Well, as we touched on, this dates back to December 2011. That's when former Officer Jason Stockley and his partner noticed what appeared to be a drug transaction going on in a fast-food restaurant parking lot. A chase ensued. Eventually, that chase ended. And Stockley approached the vehicle. And inside the vehicle was Anthony Lamar Smith. The Stockley supporters and lawyers say Anthony Lamar Smith was told to put his hands up. He didn't. He appeared to reach for a gun. And that's when the fatal shots rang out. There's also some speculation about that gun David - about how that gun got into the car. There was DNA from Officer Stockley on that gun. And that has not been explained yet - how that happened.

GREENE: DNA from the police officer on that gun - and some suggesting that maybe it was planted there or something. I mean, but that's not something...

PRATT: Yeah.

GREENE: OK. But we should say - this police officer acquitted. And that has caused these protests, which continued to rage last night, right?

PRATT: Downtown St. Louis last night was the scene of the third night of protests. About 80 arrests when it was all said and done last night. Now, a lot of these protests have been going on during the day, as well. And they've been mostly peaceful. And then when the main protest breaks up, there's been groups that have hung around - smaller groups and that is where the unrest has happened - with the broken windows in businesses and aspects such as that.

GREENE: Just with the memory of Ferguson and everything this area and this region went through, what does it feel like to be confronting these tensions again?

PRATT: We knew this was coming. We were hoping it would not be to the level of what we experienced a few years ago in Ferguson. Right now we'd say it isn't. But the whole thing still has to play out. It's still a little tense to be living here. I'll be honest with you.

GREENE: OK. Tense in the city of St. Louis. Several days of protests, including dozens of arrests last night. Speaking to Wayne Pratt of St. Louis Public Radio. Wayne, thanks for the time. We appreciate it.

PRATT: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF STS AND RJD2'S "FANCY CAR (FAMILY VALUES)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.