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National Security Takes Center Stage At GOP Debate In Las Vegas


Substantive seems to be the word of the day to describe last night's two-hour long Republican debate on CNN.


Two hours of statements and assessments that have kept our correspondents busy today, as well as our team at NPR's Politics Podcast. I got to sit down with some of them for a round of fact-checking, and here is our panel.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I'm the justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: I'm White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

CORNISH: All right, well, first I just want to get some impressions of last night. I know for me, I was impressed by the moderator, Wolf Blitzer. I thought he tangled with people a few times and actually got them to be quiet (laughter) and let someone else speak. I know it's not an easy gig.

JOHNSON: Audie, the debate was very long, but you really had to stand on your toes. A couple of times, I had to use the DVR 'cause I heard a big applause line. I had to go back and make sure I caught everything that happened.

CORNISH: My cheat is closed captioning actually. That's how I watch...


CORNISH: ...All the quotes.

HORSLEY: I was just struck by how dominated by security concerns this debate was. The economy was almost invisible.

CORNISH: And, Danielle, for you?

KURTZLEBEN: There way you talked about the moderators tangling with people - I was really surprised at how much people were willing to tangle with moderators and just flat-out talk over them and refuse to stop even when the moderators told them to stop. There was a lot of not just interruption, but flat-out just rolling on through during...

CORNISH: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and one interaction with Sen. Ted Cruz, I think I heard Wolf Blitzer say, these are the rules you agreed to...

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...And I was like, all right, well then. Moving on.

HORSLEY: These candidates have learned, though, over course of all these debates that there's really no penalty for just talking right over the buzzer, talking right over the moderator and making your point.

KURTZLEBEN: In fact...

JOHNSON: Certainly not to the primary...

HORSLEY: Absolutely not. No, you keep just talking over the other people...


JOHNSON: Certainly not in this primary audience. It's actually a benefit to them.


KURTZLEBEN: Exactly, the whole thing of hating on the media, it just does you better.

CORNISH: Yeah, although there wasn't a lot of that last night. I will say that when people describe this as a substantive debate, I felt the same way. I felt I learned a lot about these candidates and their stances on these things, especially on national security. So let's go right to that 'cause that was the big theme of the night. First a kind of round of answers about the federal government and its ability to keep its citizens safe. And I want to get to a piece of tape from Marco Rubio. He was talking about the NSA surveillance programs and kind of what's available to the U.S. to take on terror networks like ISIS. Here he is.


MARCO RUBIO: We are now at a time where we need more tools, not less tools. And that tool we lost, the metadata program, was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal.

CORNISH: The tool we lost. What tool is that?

JOHNSON: So, Audie, it is true that Congress, after the Snowden revelations, passed a law called the USA Freedom Act, which changed the government access to metadata, which is not contents of communications, but lengths of calls, phone numbers and the like. Now the U.S. can still get records from phone companies, but they need court permission and need to have a reasonable suspicion that some terrorist tie is involved here. This process may take longer than it did before. The difference is the U.S. government doesn't store the data; the phone companies do. But there are lots of secret collection authorities - U.S. authorities have. And we don't entirely know whether they're using some of those secret authorities to collect more or less information.

CORNISH: Now, this was on the side of the government. I think the other angle of this conversation that the candidates approached was from the side of the tech companies and what Silicon Valley could be doing. And here is where Carly Fiorina (laughter) - right? - CEO - former CEO at HP, stepped in and talked about what she thought needed to be done. Scott, talk about, like, the quote of the night for you that kind of got at that.

HORSLEY: Well, Carly Fiorina said Silicon Valley just needs to be asked. It does not need to be forced to help the government.


CARLY FIORINA: They do not need to be forced. They need to be asked to bring the best and brightest. The most recent technology...

HORSLEY: And she also mentioned the failed healthcare.gov website. She said that the administration hasn't gone out and gotten the best and brightest minds from Silicon Valley. Certainly President Obama would be the first to admit the health care website was disaster. They did go out and recruit some smart minds from Silicon Valley. But on the particular question of, say, encryption, it's just not correct to say that Washington needs only to ask Silicon Valley companies to help out there.

CORNISH: Oh, they're not jumping on that?

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

CORNISH: They don't want to make money doing - making Uber and all kinds of things?

HORSLEY: The government has asked repeatedly for programmers to build back doors into their encryption system so that federal authorities can peek in, and the tech world have resisted that partly because of a sort of libertarian streak that doesn't want that kind of government prying but also because there's a concern any vulnerable back door that the government can exploit could also be used by hackers to walk through as well.

JOHNSON: And in fact, Scott, there was a huge policy debate within the White House and the law enforcement and intelligence agencies here in the U.S., and the president ultimately came down against recommending building that kind of back door. But the fight has resurfaced again, of course, after 14 people died in San Bernardino.

CORNISH: This does bring us to another issue that has become tied to this debate out of San Bernardino, in particular, which is the issue of the vetting of refugees. This led to a really big discussion about immigration. Like, all of a sudden, these issues are, like, completely locked together. Was there a cut there, Scott, or, like, a moment in the night that you thought, like, OK, whoa, this is where we are in this debate?

HORSLEY: Well, you're right, Audie. I mean, this debate shows, once again, that immigration remains a very hot-button issue in this Republican primary not just for the economic reasons that were there all along, but now for security reasons as well. And so you have Marco Rubio running away from his work on immigration reform, and then you have Donald Trump or Ted Cruz trying to capitalize on this anti-immigrant fuhrer. Let's take a little listen to that.


DONALD TRUMP: Our country is out of control. People are pouring across the Southern border. I will build a wall. It'll be a great wall. People will not come in unless they...

HORSLEY: If you want to fact check the Donald there, it depends on which direction of flood he's talking about because according to the Pew Research Center, there was actually a net outflow of immigrants from the U.S. to Mexico over the last five years. Separate research does suggest the number of migrants coming north has dropped to its lowest level in decades.

On the flipside, though, I should say, migrants are typically staying in the U.S. longer, presumably, and that's at least partly because stepped-up border enforcement has made it more difficult is cross back and forth illegally.

CORNISH: OK, so we've talked about immigration and refugees and, of course, national security. And now I just want to have a wildcard moment because in every debate, there's always a wildcard moment. Usually I'm informed of it by, like, Twitter or social media when everyone kind of, like, explodes in a, O-M-G, did this person actually say that? Scott, what moment was that for you?

HORSLEY: Well, one moment in the debate that got a lot of attention on social media was this quote from Chris Christie.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: When I stand across from King Hussein of Jordan, I say to him, you have a friend again, Sir, who will stand with you to fight this fight. He'll change his mind.

HORSLEY: As the Twitterverse pointed out, a good friend might call the king of Jordan by his real name, which is King Abdullah. King Hussein was his father. He's been dead since 1999. But on Christie's broader point, there is certainly some truth to the idea that there's tension between the United States and its Sunni Arab nations over the Iran deal. Iran is a Shia-dominated government. But on the broader question, the role that Jordan is playing in the fight against ISIS - Jordan has been a solid ally for the U.S. They're taking part in the aerial campaign.

CORNISH: On another issue, Danielle, I know you were interested in a comment from Donald Trump about the Iranian nuclear deal. And you know, I'll just quote him here. He describes it as that horrible, disgusting, absolutely incompetent deal with Iran where they get $150 billion. Now, the first couple of adjectives are adjectives, right? I'm not going to make you fact check...


CORNISH: ...That. But that last part, for you...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, no. This is fascinating, and this is a common point brought up against the Iran deal. So first, does Iran stand to gain money from this deal - yes. So what is that money? That money is currently in foreign banks. Here's what happened. Iran has sold oil to a lot of other countries, but because of existing sanctions, Iran couldn't access that money. So Iran has sold a bunch of oil but hasn't been able to get - freely get at its funds.

The estimates, however - if you're an opponent of the deal, you lambast the deal with the number at the high end of the range, which is $150 billion. That's one of the highest estimates out there. People who are proponents of the deal sometimes go as low as, you know, $29 billion. This range is something that The New York Times reported in August. So there's a lot of waffling over numbers we can do, and that does matter. But you know, to people who are opposed to this deal and who this deal makes very nervous, you know, it's also true that even a few billion in extra recourses does worry them.

CORNISH: Well, that is actually all the time we have. And I had a good time talking with you guys.


HORSLEY: It was fun.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: NPR's Carrie Johnson, Scott Horsley and Danielle Kurtzleben with the fact check of last night's Republican presidential debate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.

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