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News Brief: State Of The Union, FEMA Ending Emergency Puerto Rico Aid


The State of the Union address is a lot about institutional traditions - right? - and norms, which are not things President Trump has had a lot of reverence for. But in large part, last night, he stuck to the script. And he had a whole lot to say.


It was among the longest State of the Union speeches on record. The president spoke for an hour and 20 minutes or so. In modern times, only Bill Clinton went longer on two occasions in the 1990s. President Trump used some of his time pledging protection for Americans of every background, color, religion and creed. He also asked for bipartisan support for items like an infrastructure plan.

MARTIN: All right, let's bring in NPR's Mara Liasson, who watched the speech last night.

Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi. How you doing?

MARTIN: Doing well. What'd you think?

LIASSON: Well, my overall impression was that this was a very different kind of speech than his inaugural address. American carnage was the takeaway line from that speech.

MARTIN: Right.

LIASSON: Last night, he talked about a new American moment. It was more optimistic. He hit a lot of notes of unity. He talked about common ground. He talked about wanting to work together. There was less me, less I, kind of less narcissism in this speech. But what also struck me is that when it came to one of the biggest items - there's really only two items on his agenda this year, immigration and infrastructure. When it came to immigration, the rhetoric was just as dark and divisive as it's always been...


LIASSON: ...With him.

MARTIN: So let's talk about what he had to say about immigration. There was one notable moment in the address. He was talking about what he wants to do to restrict legal immigration, actually, by putting limits on migration through what some call family reunification, others call chain migration. Let's listen to this part of the address.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.


TRUMP: Under our plan...


TRUMP: ...We focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children.

MARTIN: So those were Democrats booing there. Is that a sign things are not looking great for some kind of grand compromise on immigration?

LIASSON: Right now, things are not looking great for a grand compromise. Actually, immigrants are not allowed to bring in unlimited numbers of distant relatives. And that's why you heard Democrats booing there. And according to...

MARTIN: Because that was a misstatement by the president.

LIASSON: Right. And according to our reporters who were in the hall, Dick Durbin, who's the Democrat who's leading his party's negotiations on immigration, he was shaking his head and mouthing no during that moment, which doesn't look like things are going too well. What Democrats are objecting to is that the president wants to restrict legal immigration. By some accounts, what he's proposing would cut it by 44 percent.

But inside what the president called the four pillars of what he wants in an immigration deal, there is a smaller two-pillar deal, the wall - border security - in exchange for legalizing the kids who have gotten deportation protection under DACA, that a lot of Republicans and Democrats say they could agree to. But right now what the president is offering, I don't think there's a lot of takers for that.

MARTIN: Well, let's listen to some of what he had to say about infrastructure because this is something he's talked about for a long time and kind of tried to make it more official in the address last night. Let's listen.


TRUMP: Tonight I'm calling on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment that our country so desperately needs.

MARTIN: Is this going to happen?

LIASSON: This is something that could happen. Infrastructure has support on both sides of the aisle. It's not as hot button a cultural issue as immigration. But what the president is offering is underwhelming for Democrats. He's only offering about $200 billion of funding. The rest he thinks will be provided by states and private entities. And for Republicans, the problem is - how do you pay for it, especially after they just passed that big $1.5 trillion tax cut that adds to the deficit.

MARTIN: Right. And the president also wants all that money for the wall.

All right, so we're going to bring in another voice here, NPR national security correspondent David Welna, who was also monitoring the address. So David, we brought you in because there was this other big moment in the president's speech when it came to national security. He said he wants to keep Guantanamo Bay, the detention center there - he wants to keep it open. He signed this executive order to that end before the speech. But Gitmo was never closed. Right, David? So what does this actually change?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, not a whole heck of a lot. There are 41 prisoners there today, just as there were the day that Trump took office. In fact, no new prisoners have been sent there for nearly a decade, even though Trump bragged in his campaign that he was going to load Guantanamo up with what he called bad dudes. And even though five of the Arab Muslim men who remain there were actually cleared for release by half a dozen federal agencies when Trump took office, not one of them has been released. So you know, it looks like these remaining prisoners - most of whom have been there for more than a dozen years and have never been charged with any crime, much less tried - are likely stuck there for more years to come.

Now, in the executive order that he signed last night, Trump tasked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis with coming up with recommendations within 90 days about what to do with foreign fighters who've been captured abroad.


WELNA: Right now there are hundreds of ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq. But so far, U.S. officials have not sent any of them to Guantanamo. And I guess the question now is whether they will.

MARTIN: Yeah. It was interesting also that moment the president called on one of the special guests, a defector from North Korea. He was clearly trying to emphasize the threat that the regime there still poses. And he talked about modernizing the nuclear arsenal.

But I want to turn to Mara to wrap up here, Mara, because after this very long speech, there were five Democratic responses. Five - that's a whole lot. Representative Joe Kennedy spoke. He was, like, the official address. What did he have to say?

LIASSON: Representative Joe Kennedy tried to make a case against Trump - without mentioning his name - based on values and morals, not on identity politics. And he tried to apply to the white working - appeal to the white working class. He was standing in Fall River in his district at a vocational - technical college...


LIASSON: ...Training program. And he said that the president was describing life as a zero-sum game where in order for one to win, another must lose. And he had a very positive vision of immigration. He said DREAMers are part of our story. And he said that Democrats support higher wages and paid leave for parents and affordable child care...

MARTIN: Trends...

LIASSON: ...And tried to present a positive vision.

INSKEEP: When you say a zero-sum game, the president insisted that everybody can win. At some points in the speech last night, he talked about protecting citizens of every background, color, religion and creed. He said it's a moment of opportunity, no matter where you've come from. But that doesn't change the fact that the president, over the past year, has often embraced conflicts between racial and religious groups.

MARTIN: He's tried to exploit those divisions.

All right, NPR's Mara Liasson and David Welna, thanks to you both.

WELNA: Sure.

LIASSON: Thank you.


MARTIN: All right, Puerto Rico got one brief mention in last night's State of the Union address.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the president said of hurricane survivors, we will pull through together always. Now, four months after the storm, about 30 percent of the island is without power. In other words, one third of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been in pre-electric times for one third of a year. As NPR first reported this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is stopping food and water distribution to the island as of today. Florida's two senators, who represent many Puerto Ricans, called on the agency to reverse that decision.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Adrian Florido first reported this story. He's in San Juan and joins us now. So Adrian, you're reporting that FEMA is stopping food and water. Why? Why are they choosing to do this?


Well, the agency says, you know, that there's just simply no need for these emergency supplies anymore - that the number of people who need them is so small at this point that local nonprofits and the Puerto Rican government can handle the demand. So what FEMA's Puerto Rico director told me when I interviewed him was that the agency was, one, no longer shipping new food and water to the island and, two, that as of today, January 31, it was also handing the supplies that remain on the island over to the Puerto Rican government and some nonprofit groups so that they can finish distributing them.

I spoke with some folks at the local level, including one city mayor, who thought that that was a bad idea. A lot of...


FLORIDO: ...Her residents are still getting this kind of help. And many don't have electricity. They don't have jobs to go back to. So they still need this kind of assistance.

MARTIN: So what's been the response to this? I mean, we mentioned that Florida senators are saying FEMA needs to reverse this. What about the Puerto Rican government itself?

FLORIDO: Well, the Puerto Rican government had a very interesting response. After our story published, FEMA issued a statement. I'm sorry - the Puerto Rican government issued a statement saying that it was not aware that these were the plans, to have responsibility for distributing these supplies after the 31 nor that aid would stop coming in. So there clearly had been...

MARTIN: They were in the dark.

FLORIDO: ...A failure of communication here.

MARTIN: So they didn't even know about FEMA's decision?

FLORIDO: They knew that it was coming at some point but not that the plan was for it to begin today. And so there clearly has been, you know, sort of a failure of communication here.

MARTIN: Any word from FEMA on whether or not they are going to reverse this?

FLORIDO: So what they've said is they really don't think that the supplies are needed. And they also say that they will work with the Puerto Rican government, though, to provide supplies if there are instances when they are needed.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan reporting for us this morning. Thanks so much, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICH SONG, "WEST COAST/EST. LBC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.