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Morning News Brief: Tillerson In Russia, Spicer's Hitler Remarks, French Election


And we're going to talk right now about some of the most important stories of the day.


Up first, Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today. And what a buildup to this meeting. Yesterday, the White House released a report accusing Russia of covering up the Syrian government's role in last week's deadly chemical attack.

This morning, Tillerson said the U.S. needs to clarify areas of sharp difference with Russia so they can understand why they exist and try to resolve them. Which means things could get worse in terms of U.S. relations with Russia before they get better.

GREENE: And let's talk about that with a couple of people. Domenico Montanaro from NPR's Politics team is here. Domenico, good morning.


GREENE: And we also have Matt Bodner, a staff writer for The Moscow Times on the line via Skype from Moscow. Matt, how are you?

MATT BODNER: I'm good, how are you?

GREENE: Good, thank you. Domenico, let's start with you. Why does the White House release this report about Russia and the suggested cover up now? I mean, are they trying to provoke Russia and make this meeting more difficult?

MONTANARO: Well, I don't think it's part of provoking Russia. I think that it is part of the negotiation tactic where the United States has been trying to shame Russia and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, to acknowledge that this chemical weapons attack happened and was was done by at the behest of Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria.

And you had Putin say this is very tedious, this story. So he's trying to downplay it. The United States is trying to draw a wedge there between Russia and Syria and shame them somewhat into coming on the side of the - of Western allies.

GREENE: OK. So, Matt, what is the view from Moscow? You've got Russia trying to downplay this. You have the United States, I mean, trying to say that Russia was somehow responsible. Who is in a stronger position going into today?

BODNER: It's hard to say right now. I mean, this is basically a continuation of the Obama era disagreement with Russia over Syria. I do not think Russia fully expected it to manifest as it has, such as with the dramatic cruise missile strike last week. So I'd be inclined to say that the United States has more of an edge than it has in past discussions right now just from the sheer unpredictability of it. Yeah.

GREENE: Oh, so you think Moscow was caught off guard by Trump ordering these strikes?

BODNER: That's my impression, yes. It is certainly not anything they wanted to have happen.

GREENE: Domenico, Russia being in the news in this different way, I mean, it's almost like you could forget that there's this investigation going on into, you know, the Trump campaign, the possible ties to Russia, the election meddling.

MONTANARO: Well, anytime you're going to have the United States dealing with Russia and the idea that there's something happening when it comes to Russia, it's going to circle back to this investigation. We know that there's an investigation going on and been going on.

And the latest was that The Washington Post reported last night that the FBI obtained a secret court order from a FISA Court for - under the Foreign Surveillance Act - that they were monitoring one of Donald Trump's foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, who wound up leaving the campaign, was more of an informal adviser.

But that's how the Russians operate. They recruit people from the sort of outliers to try to create moles to get into a campaign. Now, Page says himself that he's glad that this is happening because it's proof that the Obama campaign or the Obama era administration was wrong for democracy. But this is something that is going to continue to bubble up.

GREENE: And, Matt, just very briefly, I mean, look forward to today. What should we be looking for in terms of body language or something else when it comes to this question of whether U.S.-Russian relations are really going downhill?

BODNER: That's a good question. In terms of body language, I'm not exactly sure. I mean, Lavrov is a famously cool character. And Tillerson, I guess we're still trying to feel him out. I would look at what the Russian state media says after this meeting. Basically, Russian media exists to promote a certain line to Russian - to the Russian public, and it's very telling.

MARTIN: So it is hard to believe that we're talking about the same administration really. When you take a big step back and remember how the Trump administration and previously the campaign talked about wanting to start anew with Russia, Syria changed all that.

These are two now tough negotiators. That's how they think of themselves, Putin and Trump. It's going to be interesting to see who's going to blink eventually. And Matt didn't want to talk body language. I totally will pick that up because it fascinates me to no end.

GREENE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Rex Tillerson - known quantity there. He's a Texas guy. Is he going to hug him? Is he going to put his arm over Lavrov's shoulder?

GREENE: Body language is important in Texas.

MARTIN: What are their faces going to reveal? I'm going to watch that.

GREENE: Yeah. Hey, Matt Bodner from The Moscow Times, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

BODNER: Thank you.

GREENE: And, Domenico, stick with us if you can because I want to turn now, Rachel, to a White House official who is probably feeling some regrets this morning about what he said yesterday about Syria.

MARTIN: Yeah. So this is White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. He was asked a question yesterday about the chemical attack in Syria. And he started his answer with the following.


SEAN SPICER: You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to the - using chemical weapons.

MARTIN: So the backlash, as you might imagine, was strong, people reminding Spicer of concentration camps where Jews were gassed to death with chemical weapons. Spicer later apologized on CNN.


SPICER: I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week using chemical weapons and gas. And frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which frankly there is no comparison. And for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.

MARTIN: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called last night for Spicer to be fired.

GREENE: Which, Domenico, makes me wonder if Sean Spicer's job is at stake here.

MONTANARO: I think when you are the press secretary at the White House, your job is always at stake. It's one false move and it could be your job. And Spicer, you know, wound up - this was a creation - this was of his own creation I should say because he bungled the apology. He repeated - it's sort of like when you reply-all to an email and you wind up sending out oops, I meant that. Oh, no, I meant that, sorry.

You know, he was actually asked by NBC News if his job is safe. And he said, well, you know what, I made a mistake. I'm owning up to it. And, you know, this is obviously I expect - I'd hope that everyone understands we all make mistakes and ask for forgiveness. Ultimately, this is Donald Trump's decision. And we'll see how long Sean Spicer lasts in that job.

GREENE: But we should say, I mean, Spicer made this other incorrect comment when he said if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president talking about Syria. Of course, Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been dropping barrel bombs on civilians for years.


GREENE: I mean, are there consequences when this administration plays a little fast and loose with the facts?

MONTANARO: You know, there's obviously a bright line when it comes to chemical weapons use. But if they would stick to the international line on that, then they'd be safer than kind of bungling the words and talking about, you know, dropping bombs on babies.

You know, this World War II line actually was something that you heard General Mattis say yesterday without the sort of tortured Hitler analogy. He said the intent was to stop a cycle of violence into areas that even in World War II, chemical weapons were not used on battlefields. So a much clearer statement without the Hitler reference.


MONTANARO: It's always a bad idea to talk about Hitler in - when it comes to politics or pretty much anything else.


MARTIN: So and also, we have to remember that this is a White House that has been accused in the past of not doing enough to speak out against anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish community organizations around the country. In January, the White House released a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and it made no mention of Jews.

So it folds into this broader context. So we will see, we will look towards that palace intrigue. As Domenico says, it's a tough job being a press secretary.

GREENE: Indeed.

MARTIN: Sean Spicer, does he live to fight another day? My bet is that he does but who knows.

GREENE: Domenico Montanaro from NPR's Politics team, thanks as always.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

GREENE: All right, Rachel, one more story from France, right?

MARTIN: From France. Oui oui, my friend, mon ami.

GREENE: (Laughter) Very nice.

MARTIN: France is holding its presidential elections in a couple weeks. The hard-right nationalist candidate is of course Marine Le Pen. She is tied as the frontrunner in the polls right now. There's a left wing candidate though, Jean-Luc Melenchon. He is surging in the polls. That might have something to do with his unique campaign appearances.

GREENE: Unique campaign appearances?


GREENE: Joanna Kakissis. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has been covering these unique campaign appearances. And she's on the line from Paris. What is unique?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So here's how it goes. So the flesh and blood Melenchon will be in the northern city of Lille later today.


KAKISSIS: But he's also planning to transmit himself simultaneously to six other rally locations, including Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.


KAKISSIS: And - yeah. Where he's...

GREENE: Transmit like holograms? Like...

KAKISSIS: Like - exactly. His supporters will see him as a hologram.

GREENE: Is that OK? Like, is that allowed in politics?

MARTIN: It doesn't break campaign rules?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. You know, maybe he's like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of French politics or the Mr. Spock, you know. So like seriously, this hologram sent is actually not new. You know, the leaders of Turkey and India have also used it. And Melenchon himself did this once before when he kicked off his campaign in February. It was a hit, so he's doing it again.

GREENE: Wow. But Le Pen, the nationalist leader, still expected to win, right? Or could this - could multiple Melenchons actually win this election?

KAKISSIS: (Laughter) No. She's still a lead contender. The polls do change every day. But some pollsters are saying that Melenchon is now third and could even come in second and make the runoff, perhaps facing Le Pen.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Paris. Joanna, have fun covering that story. Thanks so much.

KAKISSIS: Thanks, David.

MARTIN: David, I don't know if I'm going to come to work tomorrow.

GREENE: Yeah. I'm glad you're not a hologram.

MARTIN: 'Cause it might just be a hologram.

GREENE: It's really nice being with the real you. I enjoy being...

MARTIN: Might just decide that that's a way to sleep in.

GREENE: Yeah. You always be you. Don't sleep - yeah, no. You have to be you.

MARTIN: Thanks. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBORAN TRIO'S "DUENDE") 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.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.