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Morning News Brief: Trump Implementing Cuba Restrictions, Congress Plays Ball


Cubans really thought that their long era of economic isolation from the United States was over.


And they had reason to think that. You recall President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and lifted portions of the economic embargo against the communist-led government. As a candidate, Republican Donald Trump ripped this policy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The agreement Obama signed is a very weak agreement. We get nothing. The people of Cuba get nothing. And I would do whatever is necessary to get a good agreement.

INSKEEP: Now that he's president, Trump plans an announcement today. Now, you never know what this president will do until he does it. But early word from the White House is this - the basic policy that he once criticized will stay, but it will be tightened. The president is set to tighten rules on Americans traveling to Cuba, for example, and also cut off most transactions between United States companies and Cuban firms that are controlled by the military there.

GREENE: OK, and NPR foreign correspondent Carrie Kahn is in Havana, and she's on the line to help us understand this.

Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, David. How are you?

GREENE: I'm good, thanks. So just listening to Steve there, I mean, tightening some rules on traveling and cutting off some transactions between U.S. companies and firms controlled by the military - is this a big deal?

KAHN: Of course it is a big deal for Cubans here. I think what Steve said is true. You don't know what's going to happen until we actually hear it from Donald Trump.

GREENE: Right.

KAHN: So I think here on the island, there's a lot of confusion and worry. You know, many have been bracing for changes to the warmer relations between Cuba and the U.S. once Trump took office given his, you know, his campaign rhetoric was - hinted at a much harder line towards Cuba. But the devils are in the detail, and people are anxious to hear what exactly that means, you know?

On the street here, you know, Obama was very much admired in Cuba. After all, he was the first U.S. president to visit the island in decades. And this opening of relations had brought a lot of hope here. And so people are just angry and sort of looking at this as a step back. And why now? And why is this happening?

GREENE: So it's...

KAHN: (Unintelligible) Now. And it doesn't look...

GREENE: ...It's sounding like the devil might be in the details. And obviously, we'll look at that. But some of this is just the messaging itself. The Cubans are having a reaction to a president who is just delivering a very different message than his predecessor.

KAHN: Clearly, that is what you hear. You know, Cubans don't get the news as quick as we do. It takes a little while. And the official government communications here has been actually quite mum on the situation. So they don't really know what those details are and when they will come.

GREENE: Well, is there evidence that President Obama's approach just wasn't working exactly as he advertised?

KAHN: Well, I think that's tough to say. You know, it's only been two years. Although the opening of the economy began before the Obama warming with Cuba. It started about 2011. But, you know, on the short answer, you do see great changes in Cuba comparatively. You know, it's very, the opening of the economy. And people are, you know - they want that happening - they want that opening happening quicker. And they see this more as a step backwards.

INSKEEP: You know, the president's announcements today, at least as it's been described to us, sounds like the president's approach to Iran, another country where Trump was very critical of Obama's policies, is ending up keeping those basic policies but working around the edges, looking for little ways to stick it to a government that he strongly opposes.

GREENE: Yeah. All right, we'll be following exactly what all of this means once we hear from the president. NPR's Carrie Kahn in Havana. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome.


GREENE: OK, so there is another Obama-era rule that the Trump administration has officially ended.

INSKEEP: It was known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or DAPA. And it was designed to protect undocumented immigrants who have children who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The parents were to be offered some protection from being deported in order to protect the kids, too. This rule was introduced in 2014, but it was put on hold as more than two dozen states sued.

GREENE: And NPR's Scott Detrow is here in the studio to help us understand this. Hi, Scott.


GREENE: So this plan from President Obama, we should say, never actually went into place. Why was that?

DETROW: It was blocked by the courts before it ever went into effect, much like the current status of President Trump's immigration ban. A federal appeals court held that block up. It went before the Supreme Court last year. But that was the period when the Supreme Court only had eight members. They deadlocked 4-4. They issued a ruling just a couple sentences long. And what that did was kept the lower court ruling in place, putting it in this limbo status. And at the time, everyone just thought this will be decided by the next president. Now it appears to have been that - so.

GREENE: All right, so if you're President Trump, you don't like this policy. But it never actually went into effect. It was caught, as you say, in legal limbo. What is President Trump doing? Why now and, yeah, why?

DETROW: Well, they're rescinding it. The statement in the release that came out last night from Homeland Security Secretary Kelly said that there just wasn't a path forward here. You know, the timing is interesting. It came on the five-year anniversary of President Obama signing a different immigration order meant to protect people brought into the country illegally when they were children. But President Trump did campaign on overturning DAPA.

It was part of his hard-line immigration stance that really resonated with Trump voters, with early Trump supporters. But there wasn't much of a heads-up on this. This came in a press release issued after 9 o'clock last night, at a time when most of Congress and a lot of Washington reporters who cover this were actually at the congressional baseball game.

GREENE: Including you, right?

DETROW: That's right.

GREENE: What was the feeling at that game? I mean, after Wednesday's attack by the gunman on the Republican practice, I mean, that sort of changed the context for this entire game. But they decided that the game would go on.

DETROW: Yeah, it's typically a really light evening, and it still was. But there was an emotional undercurrent there. Twenty-five thousand people came to this game. That...

GREENE: Wow, that's more than, like...

DETROW: Yeah...

GREENE: ...Most baseball games (unintelligible)...

DETROW: ...We checked.

GREENE: ...Many.

DETROW: That's more than, I think, three games last night in the major leagues.


DETROW: A huge outpouring. The Democrats won 11-2. But when the game ended, the Democrats had decided to actually give the trophy to the Republican team...

GREENE: Oh, wow.

DETROW: ...So they could give it to Steve Scalise's office to put in his office as he recovers.


DETROW: And during the game, the hospital actually issued a statement saying that he's still in critical condition, but he did make some improvements yesterday.

GREENE: That's good. So it was a feeling of, like, civil discourse and a moment away from the normal politics we see in Washington.

DETROW: Yeah. And lawmakers from both parties seemed really sincere about wanting to make things more civil. They're certainly not going to get on the same page in terms of policy any time soon. But they said that one step you can take is just talking to each other more civilly.

INSKEEP: Well, this is an artifact of an older style of politics in Washington, which can seem hypocritical from the outside - and maybe it actually is hypocritical, but it sometimes works - where lawmakers essentially say to each other, there's nothing personal here. This is just politics, these horrible things I'm saying to you in public. We actually can sort of get along.

GREENE: And then go out to dinner, even after...

INSKEEP: Or to a game.

GREENE: ...We've said all those terrible things.


GREENE: Yeah. NPR's Scott Detrow fresh off a late-night baseball game. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, a number of stories we are following this morning. We want to let you know we are keeping an eye on reports out of Russia that say the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, might have been killed in a Russian airstrike.

INSKEEP: Word of caution - he's been reported dead before, and that turned out not to be true. The U.S.-led coalition, in this case, has not yet confirmed that Russian report. And it's also worth noting that people don't really know where he has been these last few years. So we'll see.

GREENE: All right, and we're also following the British government, which is now launching a criminal investigation into a London high-rise fire that that left at least 17 people dead.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you saw the images...


INSKEEP: ...If you were anywhere on - watching TV or social media the last few days. Massive building - for London anyway, which is mostly a low-rise city. Many people were trapped on the upper floors as much of that building went up in flames. And one question is why the siding on that building burned so quickly.

GREENE: Yeah. NPR's Frank Langfitt is on the line from London.

Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So police say the death toll probably going to rise from...


GREENE: ...This fire, right?

LANGFITT: ...Much, much higher. There were hundreds of people living in the building. According to local news media, about 45 people - at least 45 still missing. And there's a lot of concern about safety and fire damage to the building, so investigators haven't been able to get into all the apartments on the upper floors. One police official last night said that he hoped that the death toll would not rise into triple digits.

GREENE: And now we have a criminal investigation...


GREENE: ...Which is a big move. Why is that?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, the residents, if you remember, they complained repeatedly about fire safety violations in the building and warned that it would take a catastrophe just like what we've seen to get the management company to act. There's been growing anger. A man named David Lammy - he's a member of parliament with the Labour Party - called this corporate manslaughter. I was reading my - one of the tabloids on the way on the train today called Metro. And its headline was "Arrest The Killers." So a lot of anger here in London about this.

GREENE: A lot of anger and a lot of focus on this material that I had never really heard about - cladding. What...


GREENE: ...Is that exactly?

LANGFITT: Well, cladding, what we would - I didn't know it either. And what it really means, I think, is siding, like what we would think of as the aluminum siding you might put on a house in America...

GREENE: Oh, yeah.

LANGFITT: ...Except this would be on a 24-story tower block. And the reason for it is to improve insulation, also make it look nicer. The focus now, as Steve was just mentioning, is it seemed to burn very, very quickly. And so what government documents show is that these were metal sheets, and they had a thermoplastic compound in the middle of them. Contractor says that these met fire safety requirements. But one of the questions is how fire resistant was the core of these panels? And why did it seem that they were able to burn so quickly?

GREENE: All right, Frank Langfitt reporting for us in London in the aftermath of that deadly fire where we're expecting the death toll, sadly and potentially, to rise. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMIAK'S "TENUOUS GEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.