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Morning News Brief: Trump Blames 'Both Sides,' NAFTA, Sierra Leone Mudslide


And I think it's fair to say President Trump veered way off message yesterday.


Yeah, the president was supposed to talk about infrastructure at a news conference in Trump Tower. Instead, the focus turned once again to the events in Charlottesville. Remember, the president's remarks on Saturday drew criticism because he never called out white supremacists by name. Then Monday, he read scripted remarks that did name the KKK and neo-Nazi groups that seemed to placate critics for a bit. But then, he opened the wound again yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that.

MARTIN: All right. We're joined now by NPR's Geoff Bennett. He covers the White House for us. He was at that news conference in Trump Tower. Hey, Geoff.


MARTIN: So these remarks yesterday by the president seemed to run totally counter to what he had said on Monday. It was the exact same thing that had drawn so much ire over the weekend, this drawing of a moral equivalency between Nazis and anti-hate protesters. Are we to assume that he was forced to read the scripted statement on Monday, but what he said yesterday is how he actually feels?

BENNETT: It certainly appears that way because right as he started fielding questions from reporters yesterday about his response to Charlottesville, he immediately defended his original remarks as adequate and appropriate. He said it was a fine statement, meaning the one in which he blamed many sides for the violence. And, you know, he said he didn't immediately denounce the white supremacists on Saturday because he didn't have all of the facts at the time, and he wanted to wait to gather more information. Now, as lots of people have pointed out by now, the president has, in the past, tweeted and said things without having all of the facts.

And - but, you know, in defending his original comments, Rachel, as you point out, the president really made no distinction between the white supremacist groups and those protesting against them in moral opposition to their message. And, you know, we understand the president, with his words yesterday, really stunned some members of his own staff in undoing all of the damage control involved in that clean up - cleaned up statement he made on Monday. And I'll tell you. There in the lobby of Trump Tower yesterday was Trump's new chief of staff, General John Kelly, standing with his arms crossed, and he mostly stared down at the floor during the entire press conference.

MARTIN: Yeah, wondering what kind of impact he's having over things like this.

CHANG: And keep in mind, this press conference was right in the same place where Trump launched his presidential campaign - when he called Mexicans rapists and said they were bringing crime into the United States.

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. So in that same - in those same remarks yesterday, the president also defended the people who were at the Friday night rally who were protesting the removal of the Confederate statue in Charlottesville, calling them, you know, saying some of them are really good people.

BENNETT: Yeah, it came up a few times, actually, during the press conference. He said it was unfair to suggest that all of the white nationalist protesters were neo-Nazis or members of the KKK. But in defending them, he defended the goals of the original protest, which was the preservation of the Confederate statue. Take a listen.


TRUMP: Was George Washington a slave-owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down - excuse me - are we going to take down - are we going to take down statues to George Washington?

MARTIN: And, clearly, this is raising criticism - new criticism from Republicans - members of his own party. We even saw House Speaker Paul Ryan weigh in on this yesterday, condemning all hate groups. Hey, Geoff Bennett, thanks so much for your time this morning on this.

BENNETT: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Republicans are afraid that self-inflicted wounds, like the one the president has created over Charlottesville, will make it tougher for him to get his legislative agenda through. Nevertheless, the administration is now trying to make good on one major campaign promise.

CHANG: That's right. NAFTA is getting an overhaul. As a candidate, President Trump called the North American Free Trade Agreement, quote, "the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country."


TRUMP: A Trump administration will renegotiate NAFTA. And if we don't get the deal we want, we will terminate NAFTA and get a much better deal for our workers and our companies - a hundred percent.

CHANG: As President, Trump now has the opportunity to strike that deal. Today, officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico meet in Washington to begin renegotiating this 23-year-old trade pact.

MARTIN: All right. What's that renegotiation going to look like? Robbie Whelan of The Wall Street Journal is going to answer that question for us. He joins us via Skype. Hey, Robbie.

ROBBIE WHELAN: Hi. How are you? Good morning.

MARTIN: So President Trump has talked a lot about how he believes NAFTA has destroyed too many American jobs, created an even bigger trade deficit for the U.S. What does the administration want a new NAFTA to look like?

WHELAN: Well, President Trump has promised U.S. factory workers, in the manufacturing industry especially, that he's going to bring back their jobs. So what he wants is for - about a month ago, the U.S. trade representative released a series of objectives that they want to see addressed in this renegotiation. And top of the list was that they want to see the trade deficit between the U.S. and Mexico go down.

Currently, the U.S. buys about 60 billion more dollars a year in goods and services from Mexico than they buy from us. And so the goal, in the eyes of the Trump administration, is to reduce that deficit so that the Mexicans are buying more from American factories. And, therefore, more jobs come back to the U.S.

MARTIN: How does Mexico feel about that?

WHELAN: Mexico has sort of reluctantly joined this process. Mexico's leaders - including the economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, and President Pena Nieto - have sort of - have gone out in public and said that they agree that NAFTA could be updated and that certain chapters could be added to improve it, such as one dealing with e-commerce. So for example, goods that cross the border - when a Mexican consumer orders something from Amazon, for example. Or there's also talk about including more strictures on labor agreements and intellectual property law, for example.

MARTIN: So what's the timeline here? When would any changes begin to affect American workers and the consumers who buy products who are - that are imported from Canada and Mexico?

WHELAN: Well, the original NAFTA agreement took three years to negotiate and sign and was almost fully implemented about a year after that, so around 1995. This time around, the Trump administration, I think because they really would like to get a win on this issue, has said that they - they've adopted a very aggressive timeline. They'd like to get a deal done by the end of the year - this year. And that's also important because there are elections in both Mexico and the U.S. - with the midterms next year - and they could complicate those negotiations pretty seriously.

But as far as implementing a deal, if one is done by the end of the year - I'm sure there's going to be some lag time to implement it afterwards - but we're looking at the end of December as the Trump administration's goal for getting some kind of deal done.

MARTIN: OK, we'll keep following it. Wall Street Journal's Robbie Whelan. Thanks so much for being with us this morning, Robbie.

WHELAN: Thank you.


MARTIN: We're going to move now to some sad news out of Sierra Leone.

CHANG: Sierra Leone's president has declared seven days of mourning after a massive mudslide in the capital of Freetown. Hundreds of people were killed after Monday's mudslide triggered by heavy rains. The government says rescue workers have recovered 400 bodies to date. And at least 600 people are still missing, and 3,000 people are homeless.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is on the line now from Accra, Ghana, where she is watching all of this unfold. Ofeibea, 600 people missing, thousands of people homeless. This is devastating for this country.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: It is a calamity for Sierra Leone, Rachel. I mean, let me just describe the capital Freetown. It's ringed by mountains on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. So the hilly areas of Freetown are vulnerable to floods when there is seasonal torrential rains like now. Mount Sugar Loaf, the area hit on Monday, is on a hillside in region. And it literally collapsed with mud and (inaudible) water surging...

MARTIN: We're having a hard time with Ofeibea's line. We're talking to NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who is reporting from Accra, Ghana. She's been following events that have transpired in Sierra Leone. The president there has declared seven days of mourning.


MARTIN: We're trying to reach Ofeibea again. That's the ring you hear. There was a massive mudslide in Sierra Leone. We've got Ofeibea back on the line, I understand. Ofeibea, can you hear me?

QUIST-ARCTON: Yup, Rachel, sorry about that.

MARTIN: That's OK. It's what happens. So we should remind people - after surviving the devastating Ebola outbreak three years ago, Sierra Leone is now subject to this latest disaster. I mean, is this a country that even has the resources it needs to cope with this?

QUIST-ARCTON: And that is the problem. The president is calling for international help because so many people have died so quickly. Rachel, we heard that families were engulfed within minutes. Parents didn't even have time to pick up their children and babies and run to safety because of the flash floods and the mud coursing down the mountain. So Sierra Leone is appealing for help, and there are going to have to be mass burials because relief workers are saying that there could be an outbreak of diseases otherwise.

MARTIN: Mass burials - I imagine just finding places for the bodies is going to be difficult in a situation like that.

QUIST-ARCTON: The city mortuaries are absolutely overwhelmed - bodies lying on the floor because there's no more room in the fridges. It is a real disaster for Sierra Leone.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, she's been following the story about the mudslide - devastating mudslide in Sierra Leone. She has been following it from Accra. Ofeibea, thank you so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ KRUSH'S "SONG OF THE HAZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Bennett is a White House reporter for NPR. He previously covered Capitol Hill and national politics for NY1 News in New York City and more than a dozen other Time Warner-owned cable news stations across the country. Prior to that role, he was an editor with NPR's Weekend Edition. Geoff regularly guest hosts C-SPAN's Washington Journal — a live, three-hour news and public affairs program. He began his journalism career at ABC News in New York after graduating from Morehouse College.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.