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Morning News Brief: Trump's NAFTA Reversal, The North Korean Border, 'Textalyzer'


And I'm Rachel Martin, and we're going to start with NAFTA because, Steve, it looks like there's been a bit of an about-face here.


President Trump has signaled the way that he intends to approach one of his signature issues - the North American Free Trade Agreement. As a candidate, you may recall, he attacked the deal with Mexico and Canada constantly.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And if we don't get the deal we want, we will withdraw from NAFTA and start all over again, making better deals for our workers. It's going to be America first. It's America first.

INSKEEP: That was in October. Now, yesterday, White House officials told numerous news organizations that the U.S. was about to withdraw from NAFTA, which turned out to be a head fake. Last night, the president told his Mexican and Canadian counterparts he is not pulling out of the agreement at this time, but he would like to renegotiate.

MARTIN: All right. So what does renegotiate mean? We're going to talk about that with Domenico Montanaro here in our studios. Hi, Domenico.


MARTIN: So some mixed messages coming out of the White House yesterday. What's going on?

MONTANARO: No question about it. I mean, as Steve mentioned, earlier in the day, the White House was threatening to scrap NAFTA by executive order. Now, it's not clear you can actually do all of that by executive order, but the threat was enough to make the Mexican and Canadian leaders stand up and take notice and say, what is going on here? You had the Canadian president, Justin Trudeau, call the White House twice. You had the Mexican peso plummet on the news that there could even be the possibility that something would happen. Later that night, Donald Trump spoke with Canada's Trudeau and with Enrique Pena Nieto from Mexico and said, nope, not going to scrap NAFTA right now, but I do want to bring NAFTA up to date through renegotiation. And if I could just say, this isn't completely brand new. You know, while we play the clip of Donald Trump saying he wants to scrap NAFTA, he's also been saying that he wants to renegotiate NAFTA.

MARTIN: So is that just a tactic? Is that just something the president likes to do, like give this opening salvo that's really extreme knowing full well that he can negotiate in the middle somewhere?

MONTANARO: Well, I don't know if he knows full well he can negotiate in the middle. I think he hopes that he can negotiate in the middle. But it's not clear that he is able to do that. And I think you're starting to see - or not starting to see. I think this hundred days has shown us what happens when you put a transactional person in charge of the presidency. This is somebody who's used to real estate deals in New York where you can just say to your other partner, OK, you know, I don't like how much you offered here. I want X amount, and then you have something in the middle maybe. This is far more complicated than that, affecting investors, infecting - affecting trade, you know, and Trump has talked about this deficit of trade between the U.S. and Mexico in particular. But, you know, trade with Mexico has actually increased sixfold from the United States since NAFTA was put in place.

MARTIN: So do we know what renegotiation would look like, what would change?

MONTANARO: It's not totally clear. We have heard that Wilbur Ross, who's the commerce secretary, would likely be somebody who would be in charge of some start of those negotiations. You saw him be somebody who was out front this week, too, when he was talking about Canadian softwood lumber. And you had the Canadian very polite smackdown of we strongly disagree.

INSKEEP: Can we just remember that it takes more than one person to negotiate? It takes two or, in this case, three nations to negotiate. And Mexicans have been saying for months, if it came to this, they don't want to renegotiate NAFTA, that they've been urging a number of Mexican current and former officials, have been urging the country, to just say no because negotiation would create uncertainty and stop business investment in Mexico. Now, this little threat that the president effectively made yesterday might cause Mexicans and Canadians to reconsider that. But there's going to be a lot of resistance to changing the terms of this deal.

MARTIN: Yeah. OK. Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team. Domenico, thanks as always.

MONTANARO: A pleasure as always, Rachel.


MARTIN: We've been talking a lot about the rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, but we're going to look at that conflict from a different angle this morning.

INSKEEP: The angle of China. Look at a map, and China is right beside North Korea, of course. It is North Korea's only friend and only sponsor, and President Trump insisted in January that China could force North Korea to behave.


TRUMP: China has total control. Believe me. They say they don't. They have total control over North Korea, and China should solve that problem. And if they don't solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.

INSKEEP: That problem being North Korea's nuclear program, its threats against its neighbors, even the United States. Since then, though, the president has shifted tone. After meeting with China's president, he agreed that North Korea is hard to manage. He spoke of China getting better trade terms from the United States if it helps with North Korea. Though, it's still going to be difficult because of that border.

MARTIN: So guess what. Our own Rob Schmitz has actually seen that border. In fact, he can see North Korea right now, maybe, from his hotel room. He is in the Chinese border city of Dandong. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: Can you see it right now?

INSKEEP: Can you - I want to know if you can see Russia from there actually.

SCHMITZ: I can't.

INSKEEP: Go on, go on.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) It's not that clear outside.


SCHMITZ: But I can see North Korea. Yeah, it's...

MARTIN: What does it look like from where you're at?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, it's sunny and clear here. The Yalu River is just below me, and beyond that is Sinuiju, one of North Korea's largest cities with a few hundred thousand people. And there is a very big difference between this side of the river and that one. The Chinese side is full of luxury high-rises, and the North Korean side is what you might expect - factories, smokestacks, drab-colored residential buildings and lots of farmland. At night, when you look at the North Korean side, you wouldn't even know that there's a city there - it's just dark - while on this side of the river, it sort of looks like Vegas. It's lit up with flashing neon lights. There was even a fireworks display last night, and the river walkway is sort of filled with tourists.

MARTIN: So what do they say? When you talk to people who live there or tourists, how do they perceive what's going on in North Korea right now?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, I spoke to a lot of them and, you know, they love it here. I mean, because of that, the city has a very festive atmosphere. Most of the tourists here would qualify as China's new middle class. So they may not be able to afford trips to the U.S. or Europe yet, but they're traveling within China, and a border town like this is sort of a taste for the exotic for them. It's sort of like American tourists in the 1960s heading to Tijuana for their first look at a foreign country. Many people told me yesterday that North Korea reminds them of what China used to look like in the 1980s, and it gives them a sense of how far China has come since then. So they seem pretty happy about that. But when you talk to folks here in the tourism industry, I got a sense that some of them were a little worried about rising tensions between the U.S. and their neighbor. I spoke with restaurant owner Li Juin (ph) about this, and here's what she said.

LI JUIN: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: So Li's saying here that she's worried. If war breaks out, she says, nobody's going to come here anymore and that if she heard about war in a place that she wanted to visit, she wouldn't go either.

MARTIN: What does all this tell you about the degree to which China has any leverage, could pressure North Korea?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, outside my window here is this very large bridge called the China-Korea Friendship Bridge, and this is a lifeline for North Korea. Seventy percent of all the North's foreign trade passes over this single bridge. And during the morning, the trucks are filled with goods that drive from China to North Korea. In the afternoon, they come back from North Korea into China. I think that to the extent that what the U.S. could do is, you know, the Trump administration obviously is putting a lot of pressure on China to do something. China did clamp down on coal. But if it wanted to really do something, I think it would probably put some pressure on this single bridge below me...

MARTIN: Interesting.

SCHMITZ: ...Preventing goods from going across.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz.

INSKEEP: And a good reminder there that while China does have leverage in this situation, the leverage is no different really than it has been for years and years.

MARTIN: Rob, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

SCHMITZ: Thanks a lot, Rachel.


MARTIN: Fess up, Steve Inskeep, you ever text when you're behind the wheel?

INSKEEP: Long pause.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: If, hypothetically, I did text behind the wheel, I would not be alone...


INSKEEP: ...Because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that every day some three-quarters of a million or two-thirds of a million - 660,000 - people use their electronic devices while driving - not so safe. To get people to stop, lawmakers in New York want to give police a device called a Textalyzer. Let's let Debbie Hersman of the National Safety Council explain it.

DEBBIE HERSMAN: The Textalyzer is going to be a game changer when it comes to handheld devices and potentially even in-vehicle systems. It will be the breathalyzer of our electronics.

MARTIN: NPR's David Schaper is covering this story. He's on the line from Chicago. Hi David.


MARTIN: Is it that complicated? I mean, why do you need a Textalyzer? Can't a police officer just look at my phone to see if I've been texting before an accident?

SCHAPER: Actually, they can't, and there's Supreme Court precedent that protects you from from allowing police to access your phone. So under the legislation that's being considered in New York that would be the first state to allow the use of this textnology (ph), police would only be allowed to ask for your phone...

INSKEEP: Did you just say textnology? I think you did say that.

SCHAPER: I kind of, yeah, flubbed there.

INSKEEP: Go on, go on. No, no, no, that's actually a creative word. Go on.

SCHAPER: Yeah, maybe it's a new buzzword. They'd only be able to get to your phone after a crash, and then officers would attach a cord, like a USB, to connect to their laptop or their iPad. And this software would then scan the phone to see how you were using it, if you were on it at all and if it was an incoming call or an outcoming call or if you were tapping out a text or even swiping left or right on some dating app. And then it would have a timestamp so you can compare that to the timing of the crash. And it's still being developed. It's not fully operational yet, but when it is, it will be tailored to the laws of the state or the jurisdiction that it's approved in. So that means that, you know, it would be able to differentiate through use - from uses that are legal, such as maybe GPS or something like using the phone hands free, which is allowed in most states.

MARTIN: Interesting. And also I imagine part of the problem, or part of what they want it to do, is to become some kind of deterrent, right?

INSKEEP: Can't wait for that moment when the policeman asks my phone to breathe into the device.

MARTIN: Ha ha ha. Hey, David.

INSKEEP: It seems to be what it is.

MARTIN: David, thanks so much for explaining that story to us. We appreciate it.

SCHAPER: Oh, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "LULLABY") 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.
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.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.