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News Brief: White House Meeting, 'American Taliban,' China's Hikvision


Months ago, President Trump demanded that Congress make a choice. They could work with him or fight him; legislate or investigate. He wouldn't do both.


In keeping with that demand, the president yesterday sabotaged his own meeting on legislation. He hosted top lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at the White House. And then the president walked out, boycotting his own meeting and speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I said, let's have the meeting on infrastructure. We'll get that done easily. That's one of the easy ones. And instead of walking in happily into a meeting, I walk in to look at people that had just said that I was doing a cover-up. I don't do cover-ups.

INSKEEP: Speaker Pelosi had, indeed, previously made that accusation.


NANCY PELOSI: We believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up - in a cover-up.

INSKEEP: After the president left his own meeting, Pelosi called it, quote, "very, very, very strange." That's very three times.

MARTIN: Indeed, it is. All right, so to talk more about this, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us this morning.

Good morning, Mara.


MARTIN: Hello.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So what happened? Did all this spontaneously combust? Or was this a calculated explosion on the part of the president?

LIASSON: It seems calculated. What we know is that the president walked into the cabinet room. He didn't shake anyone's hand or sit down. He said he wanted to do infrastructure, but Speaker Pelosi had just said something terrible about him - the cover-up comment. And there can't be two tracks - can't work on these things and have investigations at the same time. And then he stormed out. But even before then, the podium was already set up in the Rose Garden with the placards on it not about infrastructure but about the Mueller investigation.

MARTIN: Right.

LIASSON: So the president has an instinct for the grand gesture. He likes to make theatrical comments without a whole lot of thought about what comes next. You know, what's the next step? He often ends up negotiating with himself, calling his own bluff and then backing down. We saw that with the government shutdown. And the big question now is, what next?

MARTIN: So we should just remind people that that comment by Pelosi about cover-up, this came after Democrats were meeting about possible impeachment, right?

LIASSON: That's right. Pelosi is facing calls amongst some of her members to start impeachment hearings. She said that the president was engaged, as you heard her say, in a cover-up. What she was talking about was the fact that the president has refused to turn over the rest of the Mueller report or his tax records or let his officials testify before Congress after they've been subpoenaed. And so we don't know if that comment was really what prompted this or not. Now, we should say that the infrastructure talks were already on thin ice. The meeting was called so that the president could tell Congress how he wanted to pay for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, and it was unclear...


LIASSON: ...How he was going to do that.

MARTIN: So what does happen now? The president says, you got to stop these investigations or we're done. We're not going to make any deals. I mean, so Congress, the president, they're not going to get in a room? So what's going to happen to all these issues that they're supposed to be working on?

LIASSON: Well, that is just mystifying because, you know, the public doesn't care about these investigations. What they care about are things like drug prices and infrastructure and other substantive policy issues. And now here's the president saying he's not going to do any of those because he is so obsessed with the investigations. In the past, presidents and Congress have been able to walk and chew gum at the same time. There have been investigations and legislation simultaneously, so we don't know what's going to happen to the debt ceiling or the trade deal or a budget.

MARTIN: Right. But as you point out - during the Clinton administration, the Nixon administration, things - some things still got done.

LIASSON: Some things still got done.

MARTIN: Some things - NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thanks.


MARTIN: All right. Maybe you remember those images of him - long hair, he was bearded, dirt all over his face. John Walker Lindh was only 20 years old at the time.

INSKEEP: He was the man who came to be known as the American Taliban. He was captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan not so long after 9/11. After 17 years in a federal prison, he's scheduled for release today.

MARTIN: And NPR's Hannah Allam is with us to talk about this.

Hannah, remind us John Walker Lindh's background - his story - how he ended up on that battlefield.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Well, it's certainly an unusual case. Lindh was born into a Catholic family in D.C. His dad was a lawyer at the Justice Department. Lindh grew up in California. And then around age 16, he becomes interested in Islam, ends up converting and then, you know, tells his parents he wants to study Arabic and Islam. So that takes him to Yemen and then Pakistan. And then he crosses into Afghanistan, and that's really where the story gets murky. He sympathized with the Taliban cause and goes off to join them and ends up at a training camp, where he even met Osama bin Laden. This was before 9/11 but certainly after other al-Qaida attacks on U.S. interests.

MARTIN: Right. So then how did he wind up in U.S. custody?

ALLAM: In November, 2001, Lindh was captured by the Afghan Northern Alliance. And he's questioned by CIA officers on the ground. Moments after he's questioned, this big prisoner revolt unfolds. And one of those agents, Mike Spann of the CIA, was killed. The revolt is put down. Lindh gets shot in the leg. But after this long and bloody ordeal, he is one of only about 86 of several hundred Taliban prisoners to survive. Afghan forces then hand him over to U.S. forces. He's brought back to the United States. And he ends up with a sentence of 20 years on charges of supporting the Taliban.

MARTIN: So he's getting out today. He's scheduled for early release - right? - for good behavior after serving 17 years.

ALLAM: Right.

MARTIN: Where's he going to go? What's his life going to be?

ALLAM: Right. Well, he's certainly not going to waltz out and start this new life as a free man. He's going to be under heavy restrictions that are going to last for three years. That's the duration of his probation. There is lots of standard restrictions for people on probation but also some really specific ones designed to stop him from becoming an online recruiter for extremism.

MARTIN: Right, because that would be a concern.

ALLAM: That's right. So to that end, he won't be able to own an internet-capable device without his parole officer signing off on it. All of his online activity will be monitored. He's not allowed to communicate online in any language other than English. And then there's a mental health component. He's going to be getting counseling and evaluations. And counterterrorism analysts say, this part - the rehabilitation part - is really important for, you know, when those three years are up because, realistically, the government's not going to be able to watch him 24/7 for the rest of his life.


ALLAM: It's illegal, and they don't have the resources anyway.

MARTIN: Right. So Lindh is not alone, is he?

ALLAM: No, not at all. There's certainly many more Americans in prison for aiding foreign terror groups. And Lindh is sometimes called detainee number one in the so-called war on terror. And now, in a way, he's parolee number one, really, among one of the first of several people in post-9/11 cases to be released. And this is a real concern for counterterrorism analysts who say there's just no plan or national strategy to deal with this. So there's a scramble now to come up with one.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Hannah Allam, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

ALLAM: Thank you.


MARTIN: All right. What would cause the Trump administration to consider cutting off U.S. technology to another Chinese company?

INSKEEP: The U.S. is already moving to block technology from the telecom giant Huawei. And now, The New York Times reports the U.S. is considering a similar move against Hikvision. This is a video surveillance firm. It depends heavily on U.S. components to power its equipment, including computer chips designed in Silicon Valley. The company has been criticized for its role in tracking members of China's mostly Muslim Uighur community. And now it is also caught up in the broader trade war between the U.S. and China.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai is covering all this - joins us this morning.

Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So first Huawei, now Hikvision - another casualty in the U.S.-China trade war. Can you just tell us a little bit about...


MARTIN: ...What this company does?

SCHMITZ: Hikvision is one of the world's largest manufacturers of video surveillance equipment. And its revenue last year was more than $7 billion. It has around 30,000 employees. It's a very big company. The company is so successful because one of its largest clients is the Chinese government. China has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on domestic surveillance in recent years, especially in regions like Xinjiang, where an estimated hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been detained for having what the state called extremist thoughts.

I spoke to Human Rights Watch Maya Wang about the Trump administration's potential crackdown on Hikvision. And here's what she said about it.

MAYA WANG: I think it would be really good news because I think it could significantly make it, at least temporarily, difficult for the Chinese government in this surveillance project.

SCHMITZ: And for the record, Rachel, Hikvision has issued a statement to the media, saying it is not aware of how its equipment is used inside of China. But Maya Wang says the company isn't being honest about that because it has advertisements on its own website boasting of its partnership with the Chinese authorities.


MARTIN: Well - so this would potentially be the first time that the Trump administration was, in essence, punishing a Chinese company for its role in the surveillance and mass detention of the Uighurs, rights? I mean, is that just a happy side effect? Or is that really a motivation for the Trump administration?

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) I think that's with a big caveat. I think many observers suspect this is coming from a desire to inflict economic pain on China rather than out of a desire to help a repressed group in Xinjiang. And it's possible that it could be both.

The Trump administration has always asserted that China poses an economic, technological, geopolitical threat, and that includes a threat to human rights outside of China. Hikvision not only sells its AI-enabled cameras to China's government, but it's also selling them to authoritarian governments around the world so that they can keep tabs on their populations. And members of the Trump administration, namely Secretary of State Mike Pompei, have expressed concerns about the implications of China exporting such an Orwellian surveillance system to other countries.

MARTIN: So what does China make of this move against Hikvision?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, Hikvision's in trouble. It's listed on the Shenzhen exchange. Its stock has been in a nosedive since the news broke. It was down 10% yesterday, 6% today. Beijing weighed in today, saying all of Washington's sanctions are unilaterally escalating the trade dispute and dragging down the world economy. And, of course, this news comes just days after the Trump administration sanctions on U.S. companies selling equipment to Huawei, which is, in many ways, much bigger news given that Huawei is a household name here in China.

So if these sanctions on U.S. companies selling to Hikvision and Huawei materialize, then we are already looking at further decoupling of the American and Chinese economies that will likely have a big impact on global markets.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting from Shanghai this morning.

Rob, thanks. We appreciate it.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "LOST CHILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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