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Saturday Politics: Khashoggi, Russian Interference, Midterms


The death of Jamal Khashoggi, the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, charges over alleged Russian interference in midterm elections - so many urgent issues. But President Trump's priorities often reflect his interests, as senior editor and correspondent NPR's Ron Elving can tell us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Let's begin, of course, with the president's reaction to the Saudi explanation as it stands now - it's been in several different places for the past couple of weeks - for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. The president calls it credible. Lots in Congress don't.

ELVING: The Saudis say he was killed in a fist fight with 15 men. Any child in any schoolyard in the world could see through that story, Scott. But it wasn't concocted to be believed any more than the earlier versions of the story the Saudis have now abandoned. It's intended, simply, to be told and accepted as a pretext for continuing business as usual. And that's less about oil these days than it's about billions of dollars in arms sales. President Trump made that clear this week, while he was seated with executives from a number of U.S. arms-makers who are selling those weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The president has made it clear this journalist was not a U.S. citizen and that this is not the president's focus right now.

SIMON: What is his focus?

ELVING: The president made that clear this week by spelling out his agenda like a shopping list. He said this election this fall is about Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense. And the president and other Republicans have been treating Brett Kavanaugh as a martyr, even though he was, in fact, confirmed and is, in fact, on the Supreme Court now.

The caravan is that group of several thousand refugees from Central America who have been stopped at the border of Guatemala and Mexico, far from the United States. But they wanted to be coming to the United States. So the president is using them to symbolize the immigration he wants to stop.

As for law and order, that's a phrase as old as states' rights. And, of course, we all want the rule of law applied equally to all, but the phrase has also been used as code for resistance to social change. And common sense is another familiar phrase recently used as a political cudgel by the Tea Party.

SIMON: As you mentioned, Ron, the caravan's been a feature of the rallies that President Trump has been addressing. But he's also threatened to withhold some foreign aid over it, hasn't he?

ELVING: Yes, the stopping of the caravan and the threat of withheld assistance is substituting right now for the border wall, which the president has made the symbol of his immigration policy and much more, and which, so far, he has not been able to build.

SIMON: All be noted, it does seem, though, that the polls have tightened in recent days, haven't they?

ELVING: Yes. Some of the polls have tightened, and for a variety of reasons, among them that this is October. And that's what the polls usually do in the month before an election, especially if we've seen one party or the other getting well ahead in the early fall. In October, that lead shrinks. Sometimes, that means a close election. Sometimes, it doesn't. But the more lightly attached voters in either party tend to come home in October, and that's been especially true of Republicans in recent years.

And in the late weeks, we also see the nasty ads coming out, and we hear the more outlandish accusations exchanged. And there's little evidence these days that candidates are punished for hitting below the belt.

SIMON: And it almost gets passed over that the Mueller investigation continues. And Paul Manafort was back in the news and back in court this week, and this time, however, in a jumpsuit, not a pinstripe.

ELVING: You know, the Mueller investigation's mandate right from the beginning was to examine Russian interference. And the Justice Department is indicting people for just that. We're also seeing new evidence that that Russian interference continues this fall with respect to this election sowing a lot of dissent and chaos.

As for Manafort, he has reportedly met with Mueller's team as many as nine times in the past month, presumably cooperating in the probe so as to adjust the length of his sentence for those crimes to which he has already pled guilty or of which he has already been convicted.

SIMON: Senior editor and NPR correspondent Ron Elving. As always, thanks so much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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