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News Brief: Congress Returns, Mattis In Afghanistan, French Elections


And I'm Steve Inskeep with a guide to this day's news. Rachel, what's up first?


Defense Secretary James Mattis, he is in Afghanistan today. And this visit comes after that deadly attack by the Taliban on Friday. This happened at one of Afghanistan's biggest military bases in the northern part of that country. More than a hundred people were killed.

And that attack came not that long after the U.S. dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used. They dropped that in Afghanistan. But the U.S. defense secretary's visit comes amid a bigger question.

INSKEEP: And that question is what the United States wants to accomplish and how, after almost 16 years of war. Gordon Lubold is with us now. He's Pentagon reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He's traveling with the defense secretary. Welcome, Gordon.

GORDON LUBOLD: Hiya. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: And we'll mention there's a little bit of a delay on the line. This war gets overshadowed by so much other news. We have to ask, how many U.S. troops are still there and what are they doing?

LUBOLD: Yes. So there are about 8,500 American troops here in addition to about 3,000 or 4,000, 5,000 other NATO troops. The American troops are kind of divvied up between counterterrorism missions and then kind of the typical train, advise and assist mission that U.S. forces are doing elsewhere. But here in Kabul, they - there's about half of them doing that.

INSKEEP: OK, so still trying to stand up a strong Afghan national security structure there, trying to get that that going and, of course, billions of dollars of U.S. money also being spent. What's Secretary Mattis want to know?

LUBOLD: So there's a history here because when he was a Marine general, he was the (unintelligible) commander here in (inaudible) - a long time ago. So he's back here the first time as defense secretary to really, you know, speak with the ground commander, speak with Afghan officials and really kind of get an assessment.

You know, he owes a plan to his boss, President Trump, on what to do in Afghanistan. It is kind of the re-forgotten (ph) war. And there's so much other stuff going on that I think for Mr. Mattis it's slightly personal, which is he wants to come back and make sure that he's connected over here and provide the best kind of advice on what to do forward.

General Nicholson, who's the commander here, has already said publicly that he thinks he would like another - at least a few thousand advisers, you know, U.S. advisers to help with the mission here. But definitely, the events of the last couple days have pointed up, like, the need for attention on this mission over here.

INSKEEP: Very, very briefly, do Pentagon officials think the training mission is working?

LUBOLD: It's a funny question because I think that they do think it's working but I think folks in the Pentagon and over here probably if they were being honest would say they felt a little bit hamstrung by the efforts of the previous administration to end the war here, which resulted in fewer troops, you know, and troops being drawn out faster than what I think the Pentagon ever wanted.


LUBOLD: I think they think - if it's - if - it can work but they need the troops to do it.

MARTIN: So it's interesting, Gordon, you say the mission - the training mission, advise and assist, advise and assist. We've been hearing those words for more than a decade. American troops have been advising and assisting Afghan security forces in hopes that they could take on this fight themselves. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars.

So the question is when do you decide that that investment is no longer paying off? So it's going to be interesting to hear how Secretary Mattis talks about the U.S. goals in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: We'll be watching for that. Gordon Lubold of The Wall Street Journal, thanks very much.

LUBOLD: Thank you for having me.


INSKEEP: In this country, it's a week when Congress must get some business done.

MARTIN: Indeed, President Trump is hoping for a big win before the end of this week. He's up against this kind of arbitrary deadline that we, as the media, impose on the first term of a new president. It's called the first hundred days.

INSKEEP: And which some presidents impose on themselves, by the way.

MARTIN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: This one, for example - please, continue.

MARTIN: Has talked about it. Yesterday, the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was asked on Fox News Sunday about whether President Trump is especially eager to show that he has accomplished something here.


MICK MULVANEY: What I think folks don't realize is that we've signed more legislation into law in the first hundred days than anybody in the last 50 years. We've put out more executive orders than any previous administration the last 50 years. And importantly, these are not creating new laws. Most of these are laws getting rid of other laws, regulations getting rid of other regulations.

MARTIN: The president wants to move this week on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Congress also has to pass a bill to keep the government open.

INSKEEP: So much to talk about. And Scott Detrow of NPR's Politics team is here to talk about it. Hi, Scott.


INSKEEP: OK, the president wants health care this week. He wants to drop a massive tax bill and there's some other business. So how much can Congress actually give him?

DETROW: Honestly, probably just that spending bill.


DETROW: The White House, you know, because of that arbitrary guideline is really desperate for accomplishments and pushing for a lot of things on a fast timeline. That's not how Congress works. Big complicated bills take a lot of time. And that's a big reason why health care did not pass the last time around.

Over the weekend, we know House Speaker Paul Ryan talked to his caucus. They all got on a conference call. He told them all the spending bill is the primary focus. And he said that health care bill will come up only when we know we can pass the bill. That's polite same-party speak for not going to happen.

INSKEEP: Not this week, (laughter) maybe never, maybe never. Let's remember why that spending bill is the thing that has to get done. That's the other deadline here that's not so arbitrary, right?

DETROW: Right, not arbitrary at all. It expires Friday, the end of the day Friday. So Congress needs to pass a new spending bill. Otherwise, we repeat the government shutdown that we've seen a few times over the last few years.

INSKEEP: Even though Congress and the White House are in control of the same party.

DETROW: That's right because this is one of those moments where Democrats are needed to pass a bill. The White House has all of the sudden insisted that they want money for that border wall in this bill. That's something that House and Senate Republican leaders don't want to do because they want to avoid that whole mess.

INSKEEP: Let's hear John Kelly. He's the Homeland Security secretary. And he talked about this yesterday on CNN.


JOHN KELLY: It goes without saying that the president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for a border wall. So I would suspect he'll do the right thing for sure but I will suspect he will be insistent on the funding.

INSKEEP: What chances are there that border wall funding will be in this spending bill, Scott?

DETROW: It all comes down to how insistent the White House is because honestly, different aides have said different things at different points which happens a lot with this White House. So it'll all depend how hard-line I think they are on this.

MARTIN: President Trump has - so candidate Trump, now President Trump, made all these promises. It's interesting to think about how different his life must have been in the world of business, where a decision will get up to the executive level and then it's a deal. He meets with one other person.

He has to corral Congress. Now he needs the support of all these different people who have priorities that may or may not match with his. So it'll be interesting to see if those self-described dealmaking skills can move the needle for him.

INSKEEP: Scott Detrow of NPR's Politics team, thanks for being up early with us, appreciate it.

DETROW: Sure thing.


INSKEEP: All right, France went to the polls yesterday. And now two candidates are heading for a runoff.

MARTIN: Yep. The pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, they won the most votes in Sunday's elections in France. And they will proceed to a runoff that happens in two-weeks' time. Macron got 23.75 percent. Marine Le Pen got 21.5, so he edged her out. Both candidates ran as outsiders to the French political establishment.

Macron is a former investment banker who has never held political office. Le Pen is known as a firebrand, championing policies that would restrict immigration. She has run before. She received a higher percentage of the votes than she did in 2012.

INSKEEP: And made this final round which NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is covering from Paris. Hi, Eleanor.


INSKEEP: What are French voters saying here?

BEARDSLEY: Steve, first of all, let me tell you last night I was at Macron headquarters and it was very exciting, as you know, the results were announced. Here he is speaking to the crowds.


EMMANUEL MACRON: (Over loudspeaker, speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Now, basically he said despite the divisions in this country, people came together to take the destiny of the country in their hands. So, you know, he has the people's will and the destiny. This election is all about rejection of the mainstream and the status quo. I cannot tell you how much that message can - it cannot be overemphasized.

Let me just give you an example. The mainstream left and right have - in 60 years - have never not been in the second round. This is unheard of. And another example is the French Parliament has more than 500 members. Guess how many members Marine Le Pen's party has in it? Two.


BEARDSLEY: And guess what? Emmanuel Macron founded his party only in August. And he has no members in the National Assembly. So that gives you an example.

INSKEEP: So it'd be almost like if Republicans and Democrats - if neither of them made the general election for president of the United States?


INSKEEP: OK. And - but it's not clear which direction French voters want to go, is it? Or is it clear at this point?

BEARDSLEY: It's becoming clear. Look. It looks really close. The two are running off. And you can think OK, now they're facing off in a mainstream election. But actually, it's not that close because the other parties have called on their voters to vote for Macron. Fillon conceded. He was third place.

INSKEEP: Francois Fillon.

BEARDSLEY: He said that's an extremist party that will - that's Francois Fillon - that will bring chaos, division and misfortune to France. And he said, let's vote Macron. People will probably line up - pundits and polls are showing they'll line up behind Macron against Le Pen but she's very much part of the political landscape now. Her ideas are here to stay.

INSKEEP: OK. So she's not a favorite to win but there she is in the runoff. And who knows, who knows what might happen? Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting on this day that the next round of the French election campaign begins. And we'll be following it on NPR News.


Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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