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News Brief: Primaries Roundup, VA Secretary Hearing, War In Syria


The clock is ticking. Last night, a federal judge in California ordered border authorities to reunite separated families within 30 days.


Children younger than 5 must be reunited in just 14 days. You will recall that a Trump administration zero tolerance policy separated thousands of children from their parents as they crossed the border. President Trump dropped that approach, but the children are scattered at facilities around this country. Some are very small, and it has not been clear how they would all be reunited.

GREENE: Let's talk about this with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hi, Mara.


GREENE: So what exactly does this decision mean? Could these 2,000 or so children who've been separated - does this mean they might see their families again soon?

LIASSON: Yes, it might mean that they see their families against sooner because the Department of Homeland Security had already announced that they were trying to reunite these families. But the order, as you said, sets a firm deadline, something that they didn't have before. And this week, Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar told Congress that his agency still had custody of 2,047 children who had been separated from their parents. And according to the AP count, that's six fewer than the number he had in custody the week before. So it shows you that things are moving slowly.

GREENE: Slow progress - yeah, very slow.

LIASSON: It's possible this would add some urgency to the process.

GREENE: Well, this decision - I mean, given the mixed messages we've had over time from this administration - you have the president's chief of staff John Kelly telling us at NPR that these separations were meant to act as a deterrent. But then the president backed down from these separations. So is the administration expected to challenge this ruling at all?

LIASSON: Well, the administration hasn't reacted to this ruling yet. But the fact is the president signed an executive order saying he wants these families reunified. And the zero tolerance policy that led to the family separations - zero tolerance meaning prosecuting every single illegal border crosser as a criminal - that has been stopped. And they're essentially back to the catch-and-release policy that Donald Trump didn't want.

GREENE: Well, that's one big story that I know you are covering. I want to turn to another one because it was primary night last night in the country. And most votes went as expected, although not in New York City.

LIASSON: (Laughter) Not - right.

GREENE: The No. 4 House Democrat lost his primary to a challenger from the left. Right?

LIASSON: Right. This was a...

GREENE: I mean, this was crazy.

LIASSON: ...Thunderbolt, a shocker, a huge upset. Joe Crowley, who was the No. 4 leader in the House - he was a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi - big loss. He lost by double digits to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She's 28 years old. She's young. She's progressive. She's Latina. She was an organizer for Bernie Sanders' campaign. And this was like the defeat of Eric Cantor in 2014. He was the No. 2 Republican in the House, also lost in a primary. This usually doesn't happen.

But unlike the Eric Cantor race, which was really focused around one issue, immigration - showed you where the energy in the Republican Party was moving on that one - this was a more general challenge. Ocasio-Cortez ran on a platform of generational change, ideological change. There weren't huge differences between her and Kelly (ph) on issues. Both of them, for instance, were for the House Democrat "Medicare for all" bill. But it shows you where the energy in the Democratic Party is, on the left.

GREENE: On the left. And what about the Republican side? How did President Trump's picks fare last night?

LIASSON: Pretty well. It was a good night to be endorsed by Donald Trump. Henry McMaster, the governor in South Carolina, won his primary. And in Staten Island House race, Dan Donovan, who was endorsed by Donald Trump, won handily against his opponent. So good night for Donald Trump.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Mara Liasson.

Mara, thanks a lot.

LIASSON: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, so it's been about three months now since President Trump fired his secretary of Veterans Affairs Daniel Shulkin (ph).

INSKEEP: The president's chosen replacement, the White House doctor, had to withdraw amid allegations of professional misconduct. Today, the Senate will consider President Trump's latest pick, Robert Wilkie, who was briefly acting secretary of Veterans Affairs.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR's Quil Lawrence who covers veterans and veterans' issues.

Hi there, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: So what do we need to know about Robert Wilkie?

LAWRENCE: Well, he's a veteran. He served both in the Navy and the Air Force, which is important in this community. He's worked for decades both in the Pentagon and Congress before that, usually with Republicans on the far-right side of the spectrum. And he's been doing personnel and readiness issues in Donald Trump's Pentagon, so he's considered pretty much a safe choice.

GREENE: OK. So an unconventional pick for the president last time when he picked the White House doctor. This sounds like a more conventional pick. Safe to say?

LAWRENCE: Yes. I mean, there have been a couple of hiccups. There was a Washington Post story this week on some of the statements that he made when he was working with Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, Southern Republicans. And he made some comments in support of, for example, using the Confederate flag. He was involved in implementing the ban on transgender troops serving. So those are some concerns people have raised. But he's got a long experience with Congress, and Congress really wants to fill this post.

GREENE: Quil, you and I have talked about one big issue at the VA, that they're in the midst of a fight about privatization and how much to privatize. I know the former head of the department, Daniel Shulkin, talked to NPR about this just after he was fired. I mean, what is the state of that debate right now in the department?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, that is the subject of a divide inside the VA, which has gotten pretty nasty, where you had different bureaucrats, different officials within the VA getting involved in very public fights. They've just passed a large set of reforms inside the VA. And there is concern that the new secretary might implement these reforms in a way that pushes privatization. That's the idea that's coming out of the White House, that there should be no - perhaps no new funding for some of these reforms and it should come out of the VA's existing budget. Inside Congress, there's a lot of resistance to that. But the new secretary is going to be the one who implements these. And we're going to see whether he does that, you know, on which side of that line.

GREENE: And is it clear where he stands on privatization in general right now?

LAWRENCE: It's not. You know, he doesn't have a long history with President Trump - Robert Wilkie doesn't. The current acting secretary, Peter O'Rourke, is considered to be, you know, a Trump political appointee. And he's now in a very public fight with the VA inspector general about whistleblowers, which NPR has reported on this.

GREENE: Right.

LAWRENCE: So you can expect some questions about that in his hearing this afternoon.

GREENE: OK, NPR's Quil Lawrence.

Quil, we appreciate it. Thanks a lot.

LAWRENCE: Sure thing.


INSKEEP: Tens of thousands - oh, go ahead. Go ahead, David, please.

GREENE: Yeah, tens of thousands of people are fleeing their homes right now in the southwest of Syria. There are Syrian and Russian warplanes who have spent days striking what's really one of the last rebel-held strongholds in the country.

INSKEEP: It's an area that was ostensibly under a truce negotiated between the United States, Jordan and Russia a year ago. Russia called off that cease fire over the weekend despite U.S. efforts to persuade President Vladimir Putin to stick to the agreement.

GREENE: And let's go to a reporter who knows this story all too well. The Washington Post's Liz Sly is in Beirut.

Good morning, Liz.

LIZ SLY: Good morning.

GREENE: So we're seven years into this war in Syria right now. What is the significance of this offensive by the Assad regime?

SLY: Well, basically, it's the Assad regime ticking off all the places it still has to retake in the country to bring Syria back fully under government control. This is probably the third - the first of three more that have to go. There's the north, the south and the final, the east where U.S. troops are. So we're just seeing him checking off all the places that still need to be retaken. It has an added significance because, as you mentioned, this is the only area that has been under a truce between the United States and Russia. And the United States issued some very strong warnings that it would not let Russia violate this agreement. But Russia is violating the agreement, and the United States has indicated that it doesn't actually intend to do anything about that.

GREENE: Well, what exactly is happening on the ground? I mean, it sounds like there are something like 50,000 displaced people. I mean, where are they going?

SLY: What's happening on the ground is what we've seen in so many battles in Syria before. Government forces are advancing under the cover of airstrikes. People are fleeing those airstrikes. They're fleeing towards the Jordanian border. But the Jordanian border has been closed to Syrian refugees for several years now. And Jordan has said they're not going to be allowed in. So we're going to have, as we sadly always do, some kind of humanitarian crisis where people don't have food; they don't have access to medical care. And the battle will going on.

GREENE: And when you talk about the United States and Russia trying to work on a truce in this area, a truce that appears to have broken down now, I mean, what is the state of that relationship? Could this be a turning point in the relationship between the United States and Russia?

SLY: I don't think so, no. I mean, time and time again, America has said, don't do this in Syria; don't do that. Then Russia does it, and the relationship continues - with many hiccups, of course, but mostly not affected by what happens in Syria. The United States has sent a message to the rebels over the weekend: don't count on us for any help; don't expect any help from us; you are on your own. And so I think that this will kind of go by the by, like all the other times.

GREENE: All right, Liz Sly is The Washington Post bureau chief in Beirut talking to us about the latest in Syria.

Liz, thanks so much.

SLY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "LAU'S LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.