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News Brief: Government Shutdown, Russia Detains U.S. Citizen, NASA Probe


Congressional leaders are going to go to the White House today for a briefing on border security.


Which happens to be what the current government shutdown is all about. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says the lawmakers will be briefed by senior officials from the Department of Homeland Security. This, though, is the administration's attempt to convince lawmakers they need to fund the president's border wall and end the stalemate that has led to this partial shutdown. When Democrats take control of the House tomorrow, things are also likely to become even more complicated.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is with us in studio. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So who is invited to this meeting today, and what's on the agenda?

DAVIS: The president invited the top eight congressional leaders, so that includes the two top Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate. The White House, as you said, called it a briefing, which is rather unusual because I think congressional leaders are pretty firmly understanding the nuances of this debate here. But it is the first shot that they've had to bring everybody into the same room since the holidays and hopefully begin to create some kind of a path out of this.

KING: Are we seeing - are you seeing any movement toward a compromise, toward a path out?

DAVIS: There's been movement, but there hasn't been much compromise. House Democrats, earlier this week, announced what their plan is going to be this week. They are going to put a bill onto the floor that will fund the government and reopen it and continue the negotiations over the Department of Homeland Security funding. The White House has already called that a non-starter, so there's not much room for compromise there. However, the president, on Twitter - and Twitter is his main mode of communication over the course of the shutdown - did tweet at incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying he wants to make a deal.

KING: Well, the Democrats take over the House tomorrow, so how does that change the dynamic of these negotiations?

DAVIS: The White House has taken this position that they see Nancy Pelosi as being somehow hobbled by these negotiations, that it's weakening her as she's coming into power again. I'm not sure the Democrats really see it the same way. I think that they see this, especially as they come into power on Thursday and take control of the House of Representatives, as a chance to paint a contrast with a president who has been rather erratic over the course of these negotiations.

Remember, this started when the president said he would not sign a bill to fund the government that he had already promised he would sign. So Democrats see it as a chance to vote to reopen the government and then throw the ball back into the president's court.

KING: So in this briefing today, do we have a sense of whether Democrats are entering into it in a stronger position than the president and Republicans?

DAVIS: You know, you still need all three to cut a deal. What is interesting is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has essentially taken a backseat in these negotiations. From the beginning, he said Senate Republicans were not going to do any test votes or, you know, symbolic votes. We just need the president to tell us what he'll sign, and we'll put that on the floor. And he has put that burden on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to figure out what that path is with the president.

The challenge here - and that's going to continue to be the challenge - is that this is an issue where the two parties are pretty dug in, and it is an incredibly symbolic issue over, not just this wall, but the president's entire immigration policy. And so far, there just really hasn't been much room in the middle here to reconcile the two.

I will say, I think as public pressure may change on this, it might change the needle a little bit. I think a lot of Americans weren't really fully feeling the partial shutdown effects. It's been the holidays. People haven't been paying attention to the news. Everyone's back at work. They're tuning into the news. And it might put more political pressure, on one side or the other, to be the one that essentially blinks and caves in and reopens the government.

KING: Sue, let me ask you a last question. Last night, Mitt Romney - of course, a former Republican presidential candidate who will be sworn in to the Senate tomorrow - published a very critical op-ed in The Washington Post. What was it about?

DAVIS: He essentially is - seems to be carving out a role that two former senators, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, played in the Senate, which was to be Republican Party critics of the president and, really, on a matter - on the matters of character and how the president conducts himself in office. It was a really interesting op-ed. I think it's going to raise a lot of questions about who Mitt Romney wants to be in the Senate and whether he himself may be considering angling to run against the president in 2020.

KING: Interesting. NPR's Sue Davis. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.


KING: All right. So from tension in Washington to friction with Russia.

MARTIN: All right. That's where American citizen Paul Whelan is still in custody on suspicion of espionage. And now Paul Whelan's family members are speaking out, coming out against Russia's accusations. Here's Whelan's brother, David Whelan, speaking to Canada's CBC News.


DAVID WHELAN: Paul has a law enforcement background. He is a Marine. He has worked in corporate security. And he is very aware of both the rule of law and the risks of traveling in countries that may have risks to travelers.

MARTIN: Also, of course, just last month, a Russian operative was convicted here in the U.S. for trying to influence American policy around the time of the 2016 presidential election.

KING: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is with us now. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So for the first little while, we didn't know that much about Paul Whelan, but now his family has started talking. What are they saying?

MYRE: Well, an interesting story. I mean, he first went to Russia back around 2006. At that time, he was actually deployed with the Marines in Iraq. But he got a two-week break, and he was a single guy, so he chose to go spend some time in Russia, enjoyed it, developed a real affinity for the country. It's clear. He's gone back several times. He was going - went back this time for the wedding of a fellow ex-Marine who was marrying a Russian woman.

His family got very nervous when he didn't get in contact last Friday, feared the worst over the weekend, learned on Monday that he was, in fact, being held. And so now they're working with the State Department and other U.S. officials to try to figure out what his situation is.

KING: What do we know about what Paul Whelan currently does for a living? What is this man's job?

MYRE: Right. So he's the director of global security for a company called BorgWarner, outside Detroit. It's a big auto supplier. And he has businesses all around the world, but his family is stressing that this trip to Russia was simply a private two-week visit, was not a work-related trip.

KING: Since yesterday, has there been any response from the Russian government and/or from the U.S. government?

MYRE: No, they've been saying very little. Russia first announced his detention a few days ago. The State Department confirms an American is being held but are not saying anything beyond that. Again, the president has often made it - when Americans are being held abroad, he's made it a big deal. He hasn't spoken out yet.

KING: And we don't know why that is at this point?

MYRE: We don't. We don't. Again, we're not hearing much from either side. Obviously, the case of Maria Butina comes to mind, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty just on December 13. So people are wondering if there is a connection there.

KING: There's a kind of tit for tat. Greg, we are at a point where there's a lot of tension between the U.S. and Russia. Does this strike you - does this arrest strike you as a blip or as a major development?

MYRE: Well, I would see it as part of this major tension. And again, Putin was asked - the Russian president, Vladimir Putin - was asked just on December 20 about the Maria Butina case. He said he was concerned, but he said we're not going to do tit for tat. And yet, eight days later, we see this arrest. So I would - I think the best way to look at it is part of this bigger turmoil we're seeing in the Russia-U.S. relationship.

KING: NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: Thank you.


KING: All right. So while we've been monitoring shutdowns and showdowns, a group of scientists have been tracking some things going on 4 billion miles away from Earth.

MARTIN: Right. So just after midnight on New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by a celestial object that is nicknamed Ultima Thule. It was going at 32,000 miles per hour, taking pictures as it passed.


ALICE BOWMAN: We've just accomplished the most distant flyby. We are ready for Ultima Thule's science transmission at 0200 UTC today, science to help us understand the origins of our solar system.


MARTIN: Scientists obviously very excited. This is the farthest object NASA has ever explored in space, and the scientists plan to take some other high-quality images of the object today.

KING: Marina Koren of The Atlantic was with those scientists on New Year's Eve. She's with us in the studio now. Good morning, Marina.

MARINA KOREN: Good morning.

KING: All right. So what is Ultima Thule, and why were these scientists so amped to see it, to get to it?

KOREN: So Ultima Thule is one of potentially millions of icy objects that orbit way out at the edge of the solar system, well beyond Pluto. And these icy objects are left over from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

And so because it's very cold and dark out there, these objects have remained relatively unchanged since then, and that's what's most exciting to these scientists because to visit Ultima Thule means seeing the solar system as it once was and maybe getting some clues about how it came to be. So they were really excited. There was champagne. There were party hats.

KING: (Laughter) Before this mission, what did the scientists know about Ultima Thule?

KOREN: They knew little, actually. They knew enough about its orbit to know where to go. They suspect - they suspected that Ultima Thule was red in color because it spent its lifetime just being roasted by cosmic radiation. But they didn't know what else they might see, and that's because, from Earth, Ultima Thule looks like a tiny speck of light. You know, before, the flyby, scientists weren't even sure if they were approaching two objects or one.

KING: Wow, so at this point, we have gotten a fuzzy picture. It looks kind of like a snowman. What other information do scientists want to get from it in the next couple days?

KOREN: Right. So in the next few days and weeks, we're going to be seeing more and more high-resolution images of this object. And I think we'll be seeing more surface features of this object. And yeah, I think it's a very exciting time because if the flyby went as intended, if the cameras - and there were three on board, so it took a lot of pictures as it went by - if the cameras got the good shots that the scientists wanted them to get, we'll be seeing the most distant object ever explored by humanity.

KING: That is incredibly cool. Let me ask you about the New Horizons spacecraft, because this is the craft that originally got us those amazing photos of Pluto. It's quite a superstar, as far as spacecraft are concerned. What's next for it?

KOREN: It is. It is. New Horizons has had quite a trip across the solar system. It left Earth in 2006, and then, as you said, it made the Pluto flyby in 2015, and it produced some really stunning pictures. And so I think right now engineers are going to have to decide whether they have enough time to look at another target, whether they have the right - enough fuel.

KING: To leave it out there and maybe look at something new and cool. Marina Koren of The Atlantic. Thanks so much.

KOREN: Thank you.

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

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