PBS NewsHour

News Wrap: Trump calls North Korea situation ‘unacceptable’

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JUDY WOODRUFF: The countdown is on to a possible government shutdown on Saturday, President Trump’s 100th day in office.

Congress began returning to work today facing a presidential demand for funding a wall on the Mexico border. The White House and Democrats argued today over putting a down payment in the continuing resolution, or C.R.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: Obviously the money for military and our border security and wall have been part of that request. And that’s something that — those are the president’s priorities heading in — with respect to the C.R. and keeping the government open. I think we feel very confident where we’re headed.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: If administration insists on funding for a wall in this bill, it will endanger the prospects of bill passing and raise the prospects of a government shutdown, because a border wall we believe is a pointless waste of taxpayer money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some Republicans oppose money for the wall as well. Democrats do want continued federal payments to make sure that the poor can afford health coverage, but Republicans may oppose that.

President Trump called in members of the U.N. Security Council today, and warned them that the situation in North Korea is unacceptable. The president met with the U.N. ambassadors over lunch at the White House. He said they may need to take firm action.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This is a real threat to the world, whether we want to talk about it or not. North Korea is a big world problem, and it’s a problem we have to finally solve. People have put blindfolds on for decades.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president complained that the U.N. has not been resolving conflicts, but he said — quote — “I think that’s going to start happening now.”

Former President Barack Obama has reemerged urging compassion in dealing with illegal immigration. He spoke today at the University of Chicago, his first public appearance since leaving office. Without mentioning President Trump by name, Mr. Obama called for greater understanding and a little historical perspective.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s not like everybody in Ellis Island had all their papers straight. The truth is, the history of our immigration system has always been a little bit haphazard, a little bit loose.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The former president said he will also focus on issues like gerrymandering and money in politics.

Workers in New Orleans today removed a statue honoring an uprising by whites after the Civil War. The operation was carried out in the wee hours, but still sparked a protest. The obelisk statue had been on display, at different sites, since 1891. Three monuments to Confederate leaders will be removed in the coming days.

The Senate has confirmed former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to be secretary of agriculture. His nomination had been held up for weeks over ethics questions. The Trump nominees for trade representative and labor secretary are still awaiting confirmation.

Wall Street rallied today, amid hopes that a centrist will win the French presidential election. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 216 points to close near 20764. The Nasdaq rose 73, and the S&P 500 added 25.

And astronaut Peggy Whitson has now broken the American record for the most accumulated time in space. As of today, she’s spent more than 534 days in orbit. President Trump, with daughter Ivanka and astronaut Kate Rubins, congratulated Whitson in a video call to the International Space Station. She’s in command there, and spoke alongside fellow crew member Jack Fischer.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a very special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight.

PEGGY WHITSON, NASA Astronaut: It’s actually a huge honor to break a record like this, but it’s an honor for me basically to be representing all the folks at NASA who make this spaceflight possible and who make me setting this record feasible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wow. Congratulations.

And when Whitson returns to Earth this September, she will have spent a total of 666 days in space. The world record is 879 days. That’s held by a Russian.

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As anti-establishment candidates advance, France’s political establishment unites against Le Pen

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Voters went to the polls yesterday in France, the first of two rounds to elect a new president. The field was winnowed to two candidates, neither from the establishment political parties that have governed France for decades.

It sets up a May 7 tete-a-tete run-off between a centrist newcomer and the face of the far right.

From Paris, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The two candidates still standing emerged this morning to crowds of supporters, centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. She fired the first broadside in the northern town of Rouvroy.

MARINE LE PEN, French Presidential Candidate (through interpreter): The reality is that Mr. Macron is not a patriot in any way at all. He is a hysterical, radical Europeanist. He is for total open borders.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Sunday’s opening round saw a 78 percent turnout. Macron won 24 percent of the vote. Le Pen followed with 21 percent, while conservative Francois Fillon finished with 20 percent. And far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon had 19.

This was the scene last night in Paris as news of Macron’s first-place finish reached his supporters. And this was the countdown to the final round in Le Pen’s headquarters in the Northern French rust belt town of Henin-Beaumont.

National Front supporters had been expecting her to take first place, and hid their disappointment, chanting, “We will win.”

WOMAN (through interpreter): It’s the mobilization of the people. She’s been fighting for the same cause for years, defending the people. Marine will be president.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Several times, the Front supporters burst into “The Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

Campaign staffer Mikael Sala resents accusations that the party is racist and insists that Le Pen can be president for French people of all ethnicities.

MIKAEL SALA, National Front Campaign Staffer: Wherever you come from, she’s said a zillion times that she considers every French woman, every French man as being equal.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But political analyst Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer believes that Le Pen has progressed as far as she can go.

ALEXANDRA DE HOOP SCHEFFER, The German Marshall Fund of the United States: People realize that in the Brexit, post-Trump election context, probably, they won’t want to follow that trend. And Macron has a smart way of portraying his mission, which is to show that France is a contrarian.

MALCOLM BRABANT: She supports the popular thesis that Macron will probably win the second round with about 60 percent of the vote.

Marine Le Pen’s success may have ended decades of political domination by the traditional parties of the left and right. But France’s political establishment is in a vengeful mood. The leadership of both the Republican and the Socialist parties have described her candidacy as destructive and have encouraged their supporters to vote for Emmanuel Macron.

Sitting President Francois Hollande, whose Socialist Party had a disastrous showing, was one of those voices.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France (through interpreter): There is a clear choice. Emmanuel Macron is the candidate who enables the French people to come together at this moment, which is so unusual, so serious.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Meanwhile, European financial markets surged with the news that Macron, who opposes withdrawal from the European Union, had come out on top.

Still, the vice president of Le Pen’s party, Steeve Briois, is convinced that Le Pen will pick up working-class support from the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

STEEVE BRIOIS, Vice President, National Front (through interpreter): A lot of Melenchon’s voters who voted for him because of anger will be able to vote for us in 15 days, because they won’t vote for an ultra-liberal, such as Mr. Macron.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in right-wing politics, believes that’s an illusion.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS, Observatory of Political Radicalism: There’s no way she can be elected, unless, of course, of a huge political earthquake or something really nasty such as a terrorist attack.

MALCOLM BRABANT: These National Front supporters were partying as if the ultimate prize was a foregone conclusion. But most people headed home early, as reality sank in that they have a major battle on their hands if they’re to emulate the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in France.

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Deadly Taliban attack on Afghan base underscores insecurity

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JUDY WOODRUFF: More than a decade- and-a-half into the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the country remains wracked by instability.

On Friday, the Taliban reminded the world that it remains a force to be reckoned with. Two of the top national security officials in the Trump administration have just visited the country.

William Brangham reports.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The defense secretary’s surprise visit to Kabul underscored growing U.S. concerns about Afghanistan.

Secretary Mattis made that clear after meeting with President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: 2017 is going to be another tough year for the valiant Afghan Security Forces and the international troops who have stood and will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan against terrorism.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just three days before, Taliban fighters, disguised as government troops, killed at least 140 Afghan soldiers.

Officials believe the final death toll will be higher, making this the single deadliest attack on an Afghan base in years. It happened at a compound in northern Balkh province.

Also today, at least four security guards were killed when a suicide bomber hit a U.S.-operated base in the east of the country, all this amid reports that Russia is funneling weapons to the Taliban, something the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan essentially confirmed.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, Commander U.S. Forces – Afghanistan: We had the overt legitimacy lent to the Taliban by the Russian that really occurred during late last year beginning through this process they have been undertaking.

QUESTION: So, to be clear, you are not refuting that they are sending weapons?

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON: Oh, no, I am not refuting that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Russia has denied aiding the insurgents. But it lends urgency to the U.S. decision whether to deploy more American troops in a war that’s now in its 16th year.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, we turn to David Sedney, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia during the Obama administration. He’s now acting president of the American University of Afghanistan, and joins us via Skype from Kabul.

David Sedney, thank you very much for being here.

Can we — let’s talk first about this attack on Friday. The Afghan forces have already lost thousands of soldiers to the Taliban over the last few years. How significant is Friday’s attack?

DAVID SEDNEY, Former Defense Department Official: I would have to say that this is a very significant attack.

It is probably the largest attack the Taliban have ever carried out on Afghan forces. It was done with a kind of sophistication and planning that I think even surprised many people here. And it shows the Taliban have a reach and a capability that is something that people just didn’t expect.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As you say, this attack shows, I don’t know if you want to call it the audacity, but the audacity of the Taliban.

But it is also, is it not, something of an indictment of the Afghan forces to have allowed the infiltrators who helped perpetuate this attack and to allow themselves to be caught off-guard like this?

DAVID SEDNEY: Well, I think certainly shows a failure of intelligence.

It shows that there needs to be improved leadership on the Afghan forces. But I have to say that the Afghan forces have fought bravely and well in repeated engagements with the Taliban over the last several years, after, to be frank, the Obama administration made a too hasty and poorly planned withdrawal, leaving the Afghan forces without the kind of support and the kind of leadership that they needed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Obviously, we need as robust an Afghan fighting force as we can to counter the Taliban.

Do you think this kind of an attack will hurt recruitment going forward?

DAVID SEDNEY: I don’t think it will hurt recruitment. In fact, the experience that I have seen here is, after attack, recruitment tends to go up.

But the real issue here is not recruitment. The real issue here is leadership, leadership and mentoring. The Afghan forces have a real large number of very capable junior and middle-level officers that the United States and our allies have played a major role in training.

But the upper levels of leadership is an area where we have not given the kind of sustained attention over the last decade or so. And that’s where the real problems lie. And that’s why, as you mentioned earlier, the minister of defense, the chief of staff and some other senior generals have been replaced.

And I would have to say, many people here believe it’s well past time that that kind of change in leadership happened.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: More broadly, the top U.S. commander there, General John Nicholson, said that the security situation in Afghanistan is at a stalemate.

And I wonder, do you agree with that assessment?


You have a situation where the Afghan security forces are able to prevail in direct engagements with the Taliban, but because of continuing support from Pakistan, because of the Taliban’s ability to strike anywhere anytime, and because of weakness in enablers, particularly air and intelligence, the Afghans forces haven’t been able to gain an advantage on the battleground.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We mentioned also at the returning that the Russians have been supporting the Taliban increasingly.

Can you help us understand, why do the Russians want to support them?

DAVID SEDNEY: The Russians see Afghanistan as an area, I believe, where they can try and take advantage of the United States, try and drive a wedge between us and some of our allies, and also an area where they have the ability to strengthen their long-term strategic position.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Lastly, General Nicholson also said, in order to break this stalemate, billions of dollars and thousands more U.S. troops might be needed.

Do you think that will do it? If that is granted, if the money comes, if the troops come, will that fix this?

DAVID SEDNEY: I think that those are important components, but there are two other equally or I would actually say more important components.

The first is improved Afghan leadership, both at the ministry level and at the corps level in the military. There really needs to be a replacement of many of older generals that should have been retired many years ago, and younger leaders need to be moved up.

But finally and most importantly is the role of Pakistan. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is what makes them as capable as they are, the ability to have arms, armed men, explosives sent across the border, with no restrictions at all from Pakistan, that’s what’s enabled the Taliban to continue to fight the way they have.

And until that safe haven in Pakistan is addressed one way or another, this conflict is going to continue.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, David Sedney, acting president of the American University of Afghanistan, thank you very much.

DAVID SEDNEY: Thank you, William.

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In Afghanistan trip, U.S. general suggests Russia is arming the Taliban

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan,
         hold an April 24 news conference at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, hold an April 24 news conference at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States must confront Russia for providing weapons to the Taliban for use against American-backed forces in Afghanistan, top U.S. military officials said Monday.

At a news conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at his side, Gen. John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, wouldn’t provide specifics about Russia’s role in Afghanistan. But said he would “not refute” that Moscow’s involvement includes giving weapons to the Taliban.

Earlier Monday, a senior U.S. military official told reporters in Kabul that Russia was giving machine guns and other medium-weight weapons. The Taliban are using the weapons in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, according to the official, who briefed journalists on intelligence information on condition of anonymity.

Russia denies that it provides any such support to the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Russia says contacts are limited to safeguarding security and getting the hard-line religious fundamentalists to reconcile with the government — which Washington has failed for years to advance. Russia also has promoted easing global sanctions on Taliban leaders who prove cooperative.

Asked about Russia’s activity in Afghanistan, where it fought a bloody war in the 1980s and withdrew in defeat, Mattis alluded to the increasing U.S. concerns.

“We’ll engage with Russia diplomatically,” Mattis said. “We’ll do so where we can, but we’re going to have to confront Russia where what they’re doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries.”

“For example,” Mattis told reporters in the Afghan capital, “any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law.”

Mattis met with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials just hours after the nation’s defense minister and Army chief resigned over a massacre of more than 140 Afghan troops at a military base last Friday.

The insurgent assault was the biggest ever on a military base in Afghanistan, involving multiple gunmen and suicide bombers in army uniforms who penetrated the compound of the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army in northern Balkh province on Friday, killing and wounding scores. The death toll was likely to rise further.

Referring to the Russians again, Nicholson said “anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw” isn’t focused on “the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.”

Given the sophisticated planning behind the attack, he also said “it’s quite possible” that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was responsible. The Taliban claimed it carried out the attack.

Nicholson recently told Congress that he needs a few thousand more troops to keep Afghan security forces on track to eventually handling the Taliban insurgency on their own. The Trump administration is still reviewing possible troop decisions.

Mattis on Monday offered a grim assessment for Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.

“2017 is going to be another tough year,” he said.

Kabul was the final stop on Mattis’ six-nation, weeklong tour. He is the first member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet to visit Afghanistan. As part of the administration’s review of Afghan policy, Trump’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, visited Kabul last week to consult with Nicholson and Afghan officials.

The war began in October 2001. The U.S. has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. They ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014 but are increasingly involved in backing up Afghan forces on the battlefield.

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BBC News

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