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News Brief: U.S. Embassy Stormed, North Korea, 2020 Politics


Our first story of the New Year takes us to the Middle East. We're keeping a close eye on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.


For several hours yesterday, that embassy was the scene of a violent protest. People stormed the perimeter, set some fires and threw stones while chanting death to America. They were responding to U.S. airstrikes on militia targets. The protest later quieted, but supporters of that Iran-backed militia remain outside.

KING: NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre is with us in the studio. Happy New Year, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Happy New Year, Noel.

KING: A little while ago, I talked to Mustafa Salim. He's a Washington Post reporter in Baghdad. And I asked him, what does it look like outside the embassy? Here's what he said.

MUSTAFA SALIM: From last night, they have set up their tents, and they spent the night. And this morning, also hundreds of people joined them from around Baghdad and outside of Baghdad. There were a few attempts also to burn more parts of the embassy, but they were stopped.

KING: They set up tents. He said also they brought cooking supplies and food supplies. It sounds like these guys have plans to stay. What do we know about what's happening in Baghdad? What else?

MYRE: Right. So in addition to this, this sort of less volatile version of protests today compared to yesterday, a hundred Marines - or about a hundred Marines or so have been flown in to fortify the embassy. The Defense Department has announced 750 troops to the region. Kuwait seems a likely place where they're going to end up if needed.

But if this goes on, I think there's really two stories to watch here. Now, one is this scene at the embassy and what it means for U.S. policy in Iraq, this very fraught effort to stabilize Iraq. But the second story is what this says about President Trump and his sort of maximum-pressure campaign against Iran. We also need to keep an eye on that.

KING: OK. Well, let me ask you about President Trump. He blamed Iran for the protests at the U.S. Embassy yesterday, even though, of course, they're happening in Iraq. He also tweeted to Iran yesterday, essentially, I am not warning you. I am threatening you. That's not a direct quote, but that was the gist of his message. What does this mean for President Trump and Iran and how we move forward?

MYRE: Right. So very unusual language to explicitly make this a threat, but it's important to remember President Trump has imposed these very tough sanctions on Iran. The U.S. is trying to cut off all of Iran's oil export, which is absolutely crucial to its economy, and this is squeezing Iran. Iran is looking for ways to hit back, and one is to call on these militias to go after U.S. forces. So this doesn't solve Iran's problems by any sense, but it shows that Iran is going to punch back against Trump's maximum-pressure campaign.

KING: And so in some ways here, Iraq is almost caught in the middle. The relationship between the United States and Iraq goes back - this type of relationship - to 1991. How in 2020 are we here?

MYRE: Right. I mean, what we saw yesterday, the latest chapter in this long, painful history that just has never really gone as planned. So the U.S. forces drove the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991. This was the first time the U.S. had ever fought a war in the Middle East. But now we're looking at almost 30 years of nonstop involvement with evolving aims that have gone from containing Saddam Hussein, removing Saddam Hussein, defeating an insurgency, quashing ISIS. So here we are today, U.S. diplomats hunkered down in the embassy, unable to go out on the street.

KING: And President Trump has always said, I don't want to be the guy that gets us more involved in the Middle East. I want us out. What options does he have at this moment?

MYRE: He doesn't have good ones. There's 5,000 U.S. troops there, and, given the circumstances, he can't really pull them out. So I think he is going to have to be, like it or not, committed to maintaining some similar course that he's on right now.

KING: OK. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure.


KING: All right. It looks as though North Korea is not ready to denuclearize.

INSKEEP: Not at all. North Korea's Kim Jong Un delivered what an official had promised to be a Christmas present. In a speech to the ruling Workers Party's Central Committee, Kim announced a change in his approach to the United States. North Korea, he says, will no longer feel bound by a freeze on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Kim has been frustrated by a lack of progress in talks with the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded on CBS News.


MIKE POMPEO: We hope that the North Koreans will reconsider, that they'll continue down that pathway. It's important. It's the right solution. We want peace, not confrontation.

INSKEEP: So will there be confrontation?

KING: NPR correspondent Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul. Hi, Anthony.


KING: So Kim was supposed to give this big New Year's speech that didn't end up happening. Why not?

KUHN: Well, we expected it to go live on TV, but it didn't happen. He probably said all he was going to say to a plenum of the ruling Workers Party, but we don't know exactly why they nixed it.

KING: OK. And so what did he say?

KUHN: Well, he made a lot of very tough and dramatic remarks. He said the North would take shocking action. It would introduce a new strategic weapon, without saying what it was. And at the same time, he stopped short of saying that he was going to break off negotiations with the U.S. as Pyongyang has threatened to do. He said, look, North Korea imposed this moratorium of its own on testing for the past two years, but the U.S. has not responded positively. So they don't feel bound by it anymore.

And he said many times that North Korea was going to conduct a frontal breakthrough, which he seemed to mean they're going to break free of U.S. attempts to isolate and sanction his country into submission. So clearly, very hardline remarks but not quite the total break from last year's policies that was widely expected.

KING: OK. And we heard Mike Pompeo in that tape just now say we want peace. Has President Trump said anything yet?

KUHN: Yeah. He says he believes Kim Jong Un is still a man of his word. He spoke to reporters outside his New Year's Eve party. And he said, look, Kim signed a document in Singapore at their summit in which he committed to denuclearization. But that document doesn't say what denuclearization means, or how they're going to do it or when.

Pyongyang insists that the ball is in Washington's court, and, hence, this threatening language about saying, you know, what you get for Christmas depends on your attitude. The U.S. insists that this is Pyongyang's choice to make. They've given the North creative proposals for moving things forward, but they haven't said what they are.

KING: The United States still imposes sanctions on North Korea, as you mentioned. Kim says that he is going to try to get around them, defeat the blockade. By what means would he do that, or was that just talk?

KUHN: Well, his language is a bit different today. He said that North Koreans know how to overcome difficulties and tighten their belts. But he had said, you know, we've already got our nuclear deterrent, and now we're going to shift gears and focus on raising people's living standards. And that didn't happen. And there are clearly a lot of people who are going to be very unhappy about it. But in North Korea there are not a lot of people who can publicize his shift of policy, much less hold Kim Jong Un to account for this.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Anthony, thanks so much.

KUHN: You're welcome.


KING: All right, 2020 is likely to be a wild year in politics.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I hate to make predictions, but that seems like a pretty safe one. The president's impeachment trial in the Senate could start soon. We don't know exactly when. And then you got your Democratic primary race with a lot of candidates still in the race. And that, of course, all leads up to the presidential election in November.

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us to talk about some of what we can expect. Good morning and Happy New Year, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy New Year to you.

KING: OK. So one of the first things on the political calendar will be the impeachment trial. We've been waiting for some word on how this is going to work. Do we know anything new?

LIASSON: No, we don't.


LIASSON: We're waiting for Congress to get back to Washington to find out when Speaker Nancy Pelosi will send the articles of impeachment over to the Senate and what kind of a trial the Senate is going to have. Democrats have been hoping that somehow a couple of Republicans would decide that they agreed with the Democrats and wanted witnesses at the Senate trial. That hasn't happened yet. President Trump initially said, or has been saying, that he wanted his own witnesses. He wants the whistleblower to testify. He wants the Bidens to testify. But he's also said that he would follow the lead of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has said that witnesses were mutually assured destruction.

McConnell wants a short trial - long enough to show the Senate's taking impeachment seriously but not long enough to allow for new information to come out because what we've learned is that new information will likely be bad for the president. We already saw a Freedom of Information Act suit result in some OMB documents being released that showed the extent to which White House officials not only held up the aid to Ukraine but tried to keep that freeze secret from most everyone in the government.

KING: OK. So in the meantime, with all of these big questions still unanswered, we are one month away from the Iowa caucuses. What does it look like going in for Democrats?

LIASSON: Well, the race looks surprisingly similar to what it did six or seven months ago. Joe Biden is still the front-runner. He's still a vulnerable front-runner. There has been some movement inside the top tier of candidates. Senator Elizabeth Warren rose then fell in the polls. Senator Bernie Sanders has been remarkably resilient considering he's the oldest candidate in the field and just had a heart attack. Although, there is a new poll that shows him slipping in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has moved up. Senator Amy Klobuchar is trying to gain a foothold in Iowa.

And the thing to watch for, I think, is who finishes in the top three in Iowa. Most Democrats say that Joe Biden can't afford to not just finish in the top third, but he has to be a very strong, very close to the top, for him to maintain the momentum to go forward. Next big event for Democrats, five candidates have qualified for an Iowa debate on January 14.

KING: Just quickly, leaving impeachment aside for a second, how does President Trump look entering into this election year?

LIASSON: It's a very mixed bag. He's ending the year with some successes. He's going to sign a first part of a China deal. He'll probably get his new NAFTA agreement, USMCA passed. The economy is strong. History tells us it's very hard to defeat an incumbent in a good economy. Of course, historical rules only work till they stop working.

KING: (Laughter).

LIASSON: He has no external crises. Most of his crises are of his own making, except, as you heard, with Iraq and North Korea. Those things can change. On the flip side, there has never been a more unpopular incumbent running for reelection.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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