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News Brief: Paul Ryan To Retire, Trump Threatens Syria Strikes


The Republican Party is dealing with a scramble for leadership at a very critical time.


That's right. So House Speaker Paul Ryan announced yesterday that he is not going to seek re-election, and this will end his three-year run as the Republican leader.


PAUL RYAN: I will be retiring in January, leaving this majority in good hands with what I believe is a very bright future.

GREENE: All right, so last night, Ryan and fellow Republican leaders were meeting with President Trump at the White House, and the president tweeted out this photo of the group. They were giving thumbs-up. They had these big smiles on their faces. And the president's message - lots to discuss as we continue making America great again.

KING: All right, for more on all of this, we're joined now by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel, for the very first time. I'm happy to talk to you.

KING: (Laughter) So Mara, this all comes as we head into what was already shaping up to be a very difficult midterm election season for the Republican Party. Will Ryan's impending departure make it even more difficult?

LIASSON: I think it will. I think it might lead to more retirements. It certainly will be taken as a big sign of no confidence in Republicans' chances to hold the House in November. It raises questions about whether Ryan can still raise money from Republican donors. He's been a prolific fundraiser, but will they give money to a lame duck? And even though yesterday, Ryan said he doubts his retirement will have - make any difference for someone trying to decide to vote yes or no for a Republican candidate, I think it will make him a less effective voice for Republicans in the campaign.

KING: Well, as you point out, Ryan is not the first Republican to announce his retirement. We're looking now at more than two dozen Republicans calling it quits. Are those numbers normal?

LIASSON: No, they are not normal. The - I think they're record-setting. We're up to about 46.

KING: Wow.

LIASSON: Now, some of these Republicans are committee chairmen who come from safe seats, but they don't want to come back to Congress if they can't be chairman, and they're - they've been term limited out of that. But all in all, mostly, these are Republicans who think that they're going to lose. That's why they're retiring - huge morale booster for Democrats.

KING: Mara, let's switch gears for a second because there are a lot of big national security developments this week, right? The president is weighing a decision on military action in Syria. John Bolton takes over as national security adviser. Mike Pompeo has his secretary of state confirmation hearing in the Senate. Given all of this, what do you think we should be paying attention to, keeping an eye on?

LIASSON: Well, I think we should be keeping an eye on Syria, first and foremost, paying attention to whether the administration has a strategy for Syria. The president has been previewing missile attacks in his tweets, and the question is, will this be another one-off, minimal strike like the one he conducted last year after a Syrian chemical weapons attack when he hit a single Syrian airfield? That didn't deter Syria from using chemical weapons again. So the question is, will this upcoming strike be more expansive? And if so, does it draw the U.S. to greater involvement in Syria, possibly a conflict with Russia, just after President Trump announced that he wants to get out of Syria completely and very soon?

KING: And let me ask you briefly about Mike Pompeo. Do you think he faces a tough confirmation process in the hearing in the Senate? Excuse me.

LIASSON: I don't - I think that he'll face a lot of pointed questions. But I think in the end, he will be confirmed. After all, he is a sitting cabinet secretary already.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.


KING: It has been five days since a rebel stronghold in Douma, Syria, was hit by a suspected chemical weapons strike. Now the Russian military says that the Syrian government has seized full control of that area.

GREENE: OK, let's remember, a year ago, just two days after another chemical bombardment in Syria, President Trump ordered a missile strike on that air base in Syria. But this time, so far, he is holding off on taking action.

KING: For more context on all of this, we have NPR's national security correspondent David Welna.

Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right, so a year ago, the U.S. response was pretty immediate, right? Why is it being drawn out this time?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think this is a bit of a political quandary for Trump. After all, it was only last week, as Mara said, that he was saying the time had come for the U.S. to pull out of Syria. And attacking another government in the Middle East is not quite what Trump promised his base when he campaigned on putting America first. There's also the reality that last year's Tomahawk strike against the Syrian airfield failed to stop that country's regime from using chemical weapons. So if this isn't to be simply a repeat, whatever's done this time will likely have to be more far-reaching, which takes more planning.

And there's also an effort this time to get some other countries to join the effort, countries such as France, and the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, which is making things more complicated. And there are at least some U.S. officials with misgivings about carrying out reprisals for an attack that has yet to be investigated by outside experts. And all of this is also giving Syria more time to move some of its assets to safer places, such as with Russian bases and out of harm's - possible harm's way from an American strike.

KING: David, as the president continues a strike, I wonder, there is a big question here. Is there a legal basis for the U.S. to attack Syrian military targets?

WELNA: Well, if you listen to experts in constitutional and international law, it's - there's slim to none legal basis. They say that this would be a clear violation of international law, which requires that either there be consent from Syria for carrying out an attack, which there clearly isn't, or authorization by the United Nations Security Council, which is also lacking, or that the U.S. be acting in its own self-defense, which would not seem to be the case. There's also no clear authorization from Congress for Trump to order military strikes against the government of Syria. And while that did not stop him from carrying out last year's attack, there are members of Congress this time who are saying that constitutionally, he has to get permission from Congress to act.

KING: All right, so Congress is pushing back. If the U.S. were to strike Syria, what do you think would be in store? How might this be different this time around?

WELNA: Well, you know, besides being bigger, it's also likely that a strike would put the U.S. much more in peril of a direct military confrontation with Russia, which has both military equipment and troops bolstering the Syrian regime. Trump's tweet yesterday seemed to be responding to a warning last month from Russia that any threat to Russian lives in Syria from a U.S. attack would prompt a Russian military response, not just to any rockets that are fired, but also to the platforms that launch those rockets. And that raises the possibility of Russia attacking a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean or trying to shoot down any U.S. aircraft that might be involved in a punitive strike.

KING: All right, very clearly a lot at stake here. NPR's David Welna, thank you so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Noel.

GREENE: All right, as David mentioned, President Trump has been active on Twitter, communicating messages to Russia. He's taunted Russia, we should say, on Twitter. Yesterday, the president wrote, quote, "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice, and new and smart." Trump also said the relationship between the United States and Russia is at its worst point that it's ever been.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow this morning.

Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right, so what has been the reaction in Russia to these very bold comments from President Trump?

KIM: Well, President Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said yesterday that the Kremlin doesn't believe in what he called Twitter diplomacy.


KIM: He said the Russian side believes in a serious approach. As for Putin himself, he made his first comments yesterday. He said, we live in a chaotic world, but that he thinks common sense will prevail. Putin's style is really very old-fashioned when you compare it to President Trump's. He's very measured and deliberate. If you look at the Kremlin's Twitter account, for example, it just puts out links to press releases that are already on the Kremlin website.

KING: OK. Let's say the U.S. and its allies do decide to take military action in Syria. What do you think Russia's next move might be?

KIM: Well, really, that's what everyone in Moscow wants to know right now. It's hard to describe, but there really is a lot of tension, and you can feel it here. As David was mentioning before, there has been a threat out there of possible retaliation if Russian lives are in danger. But, again, the Kremlin is trying to play the - all that down. We have heard reports in Russian media that there are contacts or there - that there have been contacts between U.S. and Russian defense officials. What we're hearing today is that the first Russian military police units have entered the town of Douma. That's where the chemical attack is said to have happened. But many analysts say that, really, the Russian - possible Russian reaction is actually quite limited, unless Russia's ready to go for a major escalation.

KING: Do you think Russia wants that?

KIM: No.


KIM: I don't. I do not think so.

KING: Little context - why is protecting the Syrian regime and the Syrian president so important to Russia?

KIM: Well, Moscow historically has had good relations with Syria going back to Soviet times. It now has an air base there and a naval facility. But there's also something more in play. This is about standing up to the United States. Putin is still quite - is still smarting, in a sense, from being called a regional power - Russia being called a regional power by President Obama. And by getting involved in Syria, he really got Russia back on the world stage, turned it into an indispensable player in the Middle East. The big question is - really is, do Russians - ordinary Russians - care that much about Syria?

KING: And any thoughts on that?

KIM: Well, there seems to be a divide. I mean, when there was a conflict in Ukraine, people were very concerned because it's part of the Soviet Union. Many people have relatives there. But Syria is quite far away. It's not clear to people what's at stake for Russia.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thank you so much, Lucian.

KIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "GOLDEN HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
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