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News Brief: Democratic Debate, Migrant Smugglers, G-20 Summit


Joe Biden has been the clear frontrunner in the Democratic field since even before he got into the presidential race. So if there was any fire on the debate stage last night, it was probably going to come in the form of an attack on him. And it did.


Yes, it did. It came from all directions, but Senator Kamala Harris of California made the sharpest dig at Biden. She challenged him over his recent comments about working through disagreements with the late Senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge. Now, those two men supported segregation.


KAMALA HARRIS: It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And...

JOE BIDEN: I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one. Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights - whether I did or not - I'm happy to do that.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was there in Miami for the debate, and she joins us now. Mara, let's just start with that exchange between Harris and Biden. Lots of Americans watched the debate last night, but I'm guessing some didn't, including me. I was sleeping. So for us, can you explain what precipitated this?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: (Laughter) Congratulations.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Right. What precipitated that moment?

LIASSON: Well, what struck me about that moment is one of the biggest questions in the Democratic race is the battle to emerge as the main challenger to Joe Biden. And last night, it turns out it was Kamala Harris hands down. Biden's answer was defensive. You just heard him. And then he stopped midsentence as if he was watching the clock. Most candidates just keep talking and talking. And he said, quote, "my time is up," which, of course, a lot of people took as a metaphor for Joe Biden himself. So he comes out of that exchange a damaged frontrunner - how damaged isn't clear. Harris, on the other hand, dispelled some of the criticism of her - that she's too cautious, too vague, doesn't know where she stands on issues. And one of her goals last night was to help voters imagine her on the stage one-on-one with Donald Trump as the prosecutor she once was and as the impressive questioner that a lot of people have seen in Senate hearings. And she accomplished that too.

MARTIN: All right, so that's kind of the style of last night. Let's get into some of the policy substance. Health care - this is something that came up in the first round of the Democratic debates on Wednesday. Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio both raised their hand when the moderators asked, hey. Who among you is supportive of eliminating private insurance? Those two hands went up. Same question was put to the candidates last night. What happened?

LIASSON: Two hands went up again - Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. And Bernie Sanders' plan for a mandatory "Medicare for All" - that is the elimination of private health insurance plans - was - really became a foil last night. A lot of other candidates pushed back against that. They said they were for a voluntary public option instead. And here's what Sanders said when he was pressed on whether middle-class people would have their taxes raised to pay for his plan.


BERNIE SANDERS: No premiums, no deductibles, no copayments, no out-of-pocket expenses - yes, they will pay more in taxes but less in health care for what they get.

LIASSON: So there you have it. But in one of the weirdest moments of last night, Harris, who also raised her hand at that, walked it back later, saying she didn't understand the question. She thought the question was, would you give up your own personal health insurance for a government plan? And this is exactly what happened with Harris earlier in the campaign, where she made a comment at a campaign forum that she would like to get rid of private insurance...

MARTIN: Right.

LIASSON: ...And then walked it back later.


LIASSON: So although she did herself a lot of good last night, she wasn't perfect.

MARTIN: Right. We don't - just in seconds remaining, Mara, immigration - what happened on immigration?

LIASSON: Immigration - all of the candidates agreed that illegal immigrants would get health care under a government plan if they were president.

MARTIN: Which then triggered a tweet from President Trump, who thought that might be a problem for Democrats in a general election. All right. Mara Liasson on the debates last night in Miami - we appreciate it.


MARTIN: OK. While immigration remains a top policy priority for U.S. politicians, we are learning more about how it's a matter of business for others.

KING: That's right. Migrants coming into Mexico and the U.S. from Central America will often pay human smugglers to guide them on their way. Those smugglers are called coyotes, and some of them say business is booming.

MARTIN: Freelance journalist Emily Green recently traveled to Guatemala to report on this for Vice. And she joins us now from Matamoros, Mexico. She's on Skype with us this morning.

Emily, I understand you got a chance to actually speak with a coyote on the border in Guatemala. What did you learn from that conversation?

EMILY GREEN: Well, I just want to take a step back and say that big picture, I learned that way more people than you might think are involved in the smuggling business. It's not so hidden, as I imagined. And I just want to give you an example. There's this one town in Guatemala where there's a loudspeaker that announces the news of the day. And part of the news of the day is, hey, for those of you who want to go north to the U.S., call this coyote.


GREEN: And here's his telephone number. So I asked a friend of mine to call and inquire about prices. And I just want to - I want to play you a little bit of that tape.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: What are they saying there?

GREEN: So right there, my friend, the customer, says, how's the trip? Do you take me in trucks? Am I hidden? And the person on the other end says, no, you travel in bus. And then my friend, the customer, says, I don't have to walk. And coyote says, no. Why would you walk? Here in Mexico, you go in bus.


GREEN: If you want to go illegally as a wetback, though, you walk for four or five days in the desert.

MARTIN: Did this person use that phrase?

GREEN: Yes, that was so crazy.


GREEN: They literally used the phrase for wetback.

MARTIN: Wow - which is, obviously, very derogatory. So you spent a lot of time with this coyote you call Daniel. What did he tell you?

GREEN: So I think one of the main things he told me was a confirmation of what we already know - that there's a big market for parents going with their children. He says in the past year, roughly 90 to 95% of his customers are parents with children. And that's a change from years past. And it's created a feedback cycle. So what's happening now in Guatemala is that everybody seems to know somebody who's arrived to the U.S. And so they say, I'm going to follow suit and do the same. Also, I would say that Trump's rhetoric has been very good for business because every time Trump threatens to close the border or deport people, Daniel uses it as a marketing tool. And he tells people, go now before it's too late.

MARTIN: Huh - which is fascinating because that's the exact opposite effect of what the administration would like to happen. They're making these threats to deter illegal immigration. And you're saying it's actually the reason it's going up because people think that they've got to get it while the getting's good.

GREEN: I would say that Trump and his - in a weird way, is his own worst enemy.

MARTIN: Huh. Emily Green for us on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Emily, we appreciate it. Thank you so much.

GREEN: Thank you.


MARTIN: President Donald Trump is in Osaka, Japan, meeting with leaders from the world's biggest economies.

KING: That's right. The G-20 summit is underway. And before things even got started, President Trump began criticizing some of America's closest allies over international security, trade, some other things. But he did not criticize Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Now, this was the first time that Putin and Trump met face-to-face since the release of the Mueller report, which, of course, confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

MARTIN: Michael Sullivan is in Osaka covering the summit and joins us now on Skype.

Hey, Michael.


MARTIN: So this meeting between Trump and President Putin, as Noel notes, the first meeting of these two leaders since the release of the Mueller report - did election interference come up?

SULLIVAN: It did, Rachel, but not in reference to the last election but the next one. Trump started by saying it was an honor to be meeting with Putin again. He said the two men had many things to discuss, including trade and disarmament. Then a reporter asked the president if he would tell Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election. Trump said, yes, of course I will. And then he turned to Putin and said, no meddling in the election. And then he wagged his finger at Putin in a kind of playful way as he repeated it, and that was pretty much it.

MARTIN: So was it...

SULLIVAN: No mention of the Mueller report.

MARTIN: Right. Was it tongue-in-cheek? I guess it was hard to tell.

SULLIVAN: It looked a little tongue-in-cheek, yes.

MARTIN: So what about Iran? I mean, several G-20 nations are still in the Iran nuclear deal. There President Trump is at the G-20. They see the threat from Iran very differently than President Trump does. Is he talking about Iran at the summit?

SULLIVAN: He did. He was asked about it at his bilateral meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And the president said his message for Iran is the same one he's been repeating for the past three days.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a lot of time. There's no rush. They can take their time. There's absolutely no time pressure. I think that in the end, hopefully, it's going to work out. If it does, great. And if it doesn't, you'll be hearing about it.

MARTIN: So, I mean, as we've noted, President Trump isn't a big fan of multilateral gatherings in general and isn't afraid to kind of lambast allies who are sitting right in front of him, although, clearly, he chose not to do that with Vladimir Putin. How has - what's been his tone when it comes to talking about and with allies?

SULLIVAN: He's been very restrained today in his meetings with both the Prime Minister Abe and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trump had been complaining the past few days about Japan not pulling its weight in the U.S.-Japan military alliance, and he'd been threatening Japan with increased tariffs on Japanese auto exports to the U.S. But today he had nothing but praise for Abe and said he appreciated the fact Japanese automakers and other companies are increasing their presence in the U.S. and adding jobs. Before the trip, Trump also blasted India for imposing tariffs on U.S. goods this month. But today, again, it was all love as he met with India's Modi. He congratulated him on his recent election victory and said the relationship between the two countries has never been better. In a statement, the White House said a close partnership between the U.S. and India is central to global peace and stability. And as if to underscore that statement, there was a three-way meeting...

MARTIN: We've got to leave it there. NPR's Michael Sullivan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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