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Morning News Brief: Chemical Attack In Syria, China's President In The U.S., Beyonce


Now over the next 10 minutes or so, we're going to work through some of the biggest stories of this day.


Up first, the deadly chemical attack in Syria. The attack on Tuesday killed at least 70 people, including many children. The U.S. and others suspect Syrian planes dropped chemical weapons. Just this morning, the Russian defense ministry said Syrian aircraft actually struck a rebel stash of chemical weapons on the ground. Yesterday, the White House blamed the latest attack in Syria on the Obama administration's lack of action there.


SEAN SPICER: (Reading) These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution.

MARTIN: The voice of Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, reading the president's statement on the attack.

GREENE: And Rachel, I want to chat about this with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR's Politics editor Domenico Montanaro. Good morning, guys.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.


GREENE: Domenico, let me start with you. The White House there, I mean, just clearly blaming the Obama administration for the situation in Syria right now. What is behind this?

MONTANARO: It's definitely a remarkable statement. And David, let's remember what the Trump White House is referring to is this.


BARACK OBAMA: We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a redline for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.

GREENE: Well, yeah that's President Obama there. That was the whole redline thing, right?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, look - that was the low point really of Obama's foreign policy and undermined so much of his credibility when it came to foreign policy handling. It's amazing though that Trump now as president is, instead of looking forward, he's looking back to what Obama did. And that's likely because he's in quite a box himself. But Tom, you covered so much of this. You know what Obama did and what Trump's options are.

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, the Trump administration has a point. President Obama was sharply criticized, even by those within his own administration, for not being tougher on Syria early on. Some wanted robust arming of Syrian rebels, taking out President Assad's aircrafts so he couldn't drop bombs or chemical weapons on civilians. Some actually left his administration because he wasn't tough enough.

GREENE: OK. So this whole redline question with President Obama - that brings us to today, this horrific chemical attack. A lot of people pointing the finger at Bashar al-Assad. Does that mean that Donald Trump has some sort of redline? Is it crossed? What does he do now?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know. President Trump could take out these Syrian aircraft on his own. He is commander in chief. He has the power to do that now. It's unlikely he will. My guess is he'll do exactly what President Obama did, focus on taking out ISIS and then, over time, work on some type of political settlement in Syria. That's the way ahead.

GREENE: And it's not just guessing. I mean, already Trump administration officials have been shifting the focus to ISIS very explicitly. I mean, here's U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley last week.


NIKKI HALEY: I think that our goal is to do what we need to defeat ISIS. I don't know that our goal is to talk to Assad in doing that.

GREENE: Taking the focus off of Assad - Domenico, does President Trump have any interest at all in getting rid of Syria's president before or after this chemical attack?

MONTANARO: Well, it's clearly not the focus. And we've heard mixed messages coming from the Trump administration. There's been clearly a shift. You heard Nikki Haley talk about him also being a war criminal when it comes to Assad.

And really, this comes back to the idea of this Trump administration with this marked policy movement away from the way the Obama administration used to talk with at least tacit support for autocracies. He met with Sisi from Egypt, now not saying that Assad must go - and that's raising a lot of eyebrows in the foreign policy and diplomatic communities.

MARTIN: I mean, the bottom line here - there are no good options in Syria. Donald Trump is now learning this the hard way. Easy to criticize when you're on the campaign trail - governing is harder. Working out something like the morass in Syria is much harder when you're in it.

It's going to be interesting to look at this U.N. Security Council meeting today - an emergency session has been called. It will be a test of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, to see how powerful she is in this administration. What she says in this meeting could be interesting. And of course, we have to remember Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, so unlikely to seek consequences for the Bashar al-Assad regime.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Tom Bowman, I know you'll be covering all this. Thanks for coming in this morning.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

GREENE: Domenico, stay with us. I want to turn now to this big visit. China's president is coming, is going to be meeting with President Trump in Florida. And Rachel, there were actually some developments overnight.

MARTIN: There were. There were developments overnight. The stakes as you mentioned, David, incredibly high around this visit of President Xi Jinping. Trump took a tough line against China throughout his campaigning. Let's take a listen.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They are the greatest currency manipulators ever.


TRUMP: Our horrible trade agreements with China and many others will be totally renegotiated.

MARTIN: So one thing to talk tough on the campaign trail. Again, being president is a different game. So we are going to see exactly whether that tough talk continues when he's face to face. Also, the news overnight - North Korea launched another missile launch, the fourth attempted missile launch this year. It's likely to be front and center in these talks between Trump and Xi.

GREENE: Yeah, it's amazing how world events can suddenly change the dynamics of an entire meeting. We have Domenico Montanaro from our Politics team here. And I also want to bring in NPR's Rob Schmitz who is based in Shanghai.

Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what is the feeling about this launch from North Korea over there? And does it really raise the stakes for this summit that's starting?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think it certainly raises the stakes. And I'm sure that China would prefer that that wouldn't have happened. But I - you know, I think China's leadership going into this summit - they've spent a lot of time preparing for this. And I think that they're ready for it. China's leadership thus far has handled Trump and a lot of his negative comments about China - one where you just heard in the opening there - with a fair amount of patience and confidence.

And I think, you know, the Chinese are going to use this summit as a way to get to know Trump face to face and possibly as a way to figure out, you know, sort of how to handle him going forward.

GREENE: Isn't there a weird dynamic here, though, because Trump's first meetings with foreign leaders have been mixed - I guess that's one word we can use.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

GREENE: I mean, Germans felt that Chancellor Angela Merkel...


GREENE: ...Left humiliated. I mean, Trump got in a Twitter war with the leader of Mexico. And, I mean, I know that China really tries to choreograph meetings like this. So is there a tension there?

SCHMITZ: There's a little tension. I think that Xi Jinping might be a little nervous about some of the unscripted parts of this upcoming summit. But I think for Xi Jinping, what he wants out of this is he's going to want to appear strong to the home crowd in China.

This is an important year for China's president. He's going to preside over a very big power shake-up at the end of the year. And in order to (inaudible) as smoothly, he's going to need to appear strong. And the way to do that, I think, is to try and ensure that there's as little drama at this summit as possible. So I think that the goal (inaudible) President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago is to keep this summit as dull and as boring as possible. He's not going to want any...


GREENE: You don't normally hear the goal is to keep the summit very boring.

SCHMITZ: Exactly.


SCHMITZ: That's when he wants, yeah.

MARTIN: Also tough to do with a President Trump who tends to like the drama.

GREENE: Yeah. And who doesn't like to always deal with other people who come across as strong. Domenico, what do you expect from this dynamic? I mean, Trump is not someone who enjoys dealing with someone who is trying to outdo him in strength.

MONTANARO: Well, what we do know is there's not going to be any golf, first of all, because...

GREENE: We do know that.

MONTANARO: ...Xi, in China, is trying this anti-corruption policy and says that, you know, golf has been one of these areas where people - where there's been some graft. And he doesn't want to do that at Mar-a-Lago. He says he doesn't play, so I'm not totally sure what they're going to do there.

But we know that North Korea is top of the agenda for this White House. They know China has economic leverage over them. This trade relationship - you know, Trump talked very tough. There were lots of nasty comments we could have put together on the things that Trump said about trade and China and how China's been a currency manipulator.

But Trump had to walk back his statements about a one-China policy where he took a phone call from the Taiwanese president. And...

GREENE: Really early on and offended the Chinese.

MONTANARO: Really early on - Xi was really annoyed by this. Trump walked it back, but what's he gotten out of it?

MARTIN: Yeah. So clearly, lots of important issues at stake in this meeting. But interesting - one former negotiator I talked with, someone who worked in the George W. Bush administration, says this launch by North Korea actually gives President Trump a little bit of cover. He doesn't necessarily have to go after China in those tough terms on trade because they have this very important, salient national security issue to talk about.

It's going to be interesting to watch the body language, as you guys mentioned. Is there going to be a handshake? How well is this going to be choreographed? And will President Xi Jinping leave feeling like he is on the right step, on the same page as President Trump? We'll see.

GREENE: OK. Hey, Rob Schmitz in Shanghai, thanks a lot.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

GREENE: And Domenico Montanaro, thanks for coming in for this morning.

MONTANARO: It was my pleasure, David.

GREENE: Rachel, I got to ask you. I don't know, but I celebrate my wedding anniversaries with my wife by taking her out to dinner (laughter).

MARTIN: OK. That seems like a safe option.

GREENE: Seems like a safe space. Beyonce does it differently. She and Jay-Z celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary a different way. The queen gave it all to us here.


BEYONCE: (Singing) I don't have a reason to cry. And I have every reason to smile. And I don't have a reason...

GREENE: She released a studio version of a song that she wrote for Jay-Z plus a video to go with it. It's full of home footage. And I have to say - pretty romantic.

MARTIN: OK. So this is surprising to me because if we will remember "Lemonade" - little album she dropped in a surprise kind of way, the same thing - she was kind of giving Jay-Z a little bit of the what's what. Let's take a listen to this.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Tell him - boy, bye. Sorry. Tell him - boy, bye. Sorry. Boy, bye. Middle fingers up, I ain't thinking about you.

MARTIN: Mm-hm, middle finger.


MARTIN: Apparently, everything's fine now.

GREENE: So maybe a different Beyonce, that is what to look out for. And - but maybe a window into a relationship that a lot of us will be paying attention to.

MARTIN: Probably. I can't help myself. Keep watching.

GREENE: Yeah, new video from Beyonce. I can't either.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG, "ALL NIGHT LONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.