News Brief: Fallout From Drone Downing, Roy Moore To Make Another Senate Run

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 21, 2019 8:54 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As of this moment when we're speaking, we know of no U.S. airstrikes on Iraq.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's despite numerous signs that strikes were coming. Some of President Trump's allies called for retaliation after Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. The New York Times, the AP and others report that the president actually approved a strike and then called it off. Several of the president's top advisers were said to be in favor of the strikes. Military officers were warning against unexpected side effects. Amid that debate, the president said yes then no. But we don't know if that decision is final.

INSKEEP: Now, NPR has not independently confirmed those reports at this time. But let's bring in NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe to talk through what we do know. Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why, as best you can tell from the outside, did the president change course?

RASCOE: Well, based on these published reports, no one seems to really know or be clear on what actually prompted the president to pull back. It's just not known whether he just changed his mind or whether there was some other factor at play that kind of kept them from moving forward with these strikes. And - I mean, as you are - said, it's also not clear whether these strikes could still happen or not.

What's driving this, of course, is the downing of this U.S. surveillance drone by Iran. And Iran claims this was over Iranian airspace, but the U.S. says that's not true. They say the drone was flying over international airspace at the time.

INSKEEP: Now, when we think about this reported decision that then changed, I think of William McRaven, who was on NPR News the other day talking about the decision-making process for national security crises and how it's a little bit less formal, to say the least, in the Trump White House. But we are left, Ayesha, with the president's public statements about this in which he hasn't really sounded that warlike.

RASCOE: No. Well - so first he tweeted yesterday that Iran had made a very big mistake in shooting down the drone. Then he told reporters you'll soon find out if the U.S. is planning to kind of respond in retaliation. But like you said, at the same time, he also said he thought Iran may not have shot down the missile - or shot down the drone on purpose.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth. I think that it could've been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it. We'll be able to report back, and you'll understand exactly what happened. But it was a very foolish move. That I can tell you.

RASCOE: And so it was kind of like this back-and-forth. I mean, Trump does seem to be pulled in opposite directions. Like, he wants to show that he's tough, and he's certainly surrounded by some hawkish advisers. But he also campaigned on the idea of removing the U.S. from major conflicts in the Middle East, especially kind of costly military involvement - you know, these never-ending wars. And he sees himself as a dealmaker. But he has launched limited airstrikes before, you'll remember, against Syria when they used chemical weapons.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Where's Congress in all this?

RASCOE: Well, so congressional leaders and key lawmakers were briefed by the administration and met with the president at the White House yesterday. And afterwards, there was agreement that Iran is a bad actor in the region but not necessarily on how to respond. And so you had Democrats kind of saying they were concerned that the White House might bumble into war. And you had Republicans saying, at the time, that they thought the White House was engaged in a measured response to what was happening.

INSKEEP: OK, Ayesha. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

RASCOE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Now, the U.S. is - even if the airstrikes aren't going forward at the moment, the U.S. is taking other actions after the drone shooting.

MARTIN: Yeah. The Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA, did issue an emergency order late last night. The order restricted flights over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. And all this, of course, is coming a day after Iran shot down this surveillance drone. And the issue is that Iran says that it shot it down over its sovereign airspace. The U.S. claims that the drone was over international waters.

The dispute, the latest in a string of escalating provocations. Iran says it does not want war, though. Here's Iran's ambassador to the U.N. Majid Ravanchi.

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MAJID TAKHT RAVANCHI: What is in it for Iran to have a provocation? If, God forbid, a conflict erupts in our region, there is not going to be a loser or a winner. Everybody will lose.

INSKEEP: Ravanchi was speaking yesterday afternoon in an interview with NPR News. Let's talk this through now with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's covered Iran for years, has closely followed the nuclear agreement and the aftermath. Hi there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are Iranians responding to not only the U.S. accusations, but the reports of an airstrike that was called off?

KENYON: Well, English-language Press TV carried a story that quoted The New York Times account of Trump's reported change of mind. But the versions have not included, so far, any reactions from Iranians. And otherwise, the media's been virtually silent on the topic. It's possible Iran still expects the U.S. to make some kind of response and it's waiting to see what that turns out to be.

INSKEEP: Now, we are in a situation where it's "he said, he said," so to speak - one side...

KENYON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...With one version of events, the other side with another version of events. It's hard to verify what anyone says. But Iran is insisting it does have evidence. And the ambassador, Ravanchi, in our interview yesterday, said that they actually recovered pieces of the drone that Iran shot down. Let's listen.

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RAVANCHI: We have recovered some portions of the drone, which naturally fell down within the territorial waters of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

INSKEEP: Now, again, we haven't seen the pieces of a drone. But it does sound like Iran's trying to make the case that they weren't really engaging in a provocation here at all.

KENYON: Well, yes. I'd say the plan at the moment from Iran seems to be defending that narrative - that the U.S. drone crossed into Iranian airspace and that's why it was shot down. I can't give you any expert opinion on how far pieces of a drone might fly after being...

INSKEEP: Sure.

KENYON: ...Hit by a surface-to-air missile, where the current might take those pieces. But I think there's certainly room to question whether just finding pieces of the drone in Iranian waters - if they did - necessarily proves it was shot down in Iranian airspace. Might not prove anything either way. I mean, this strategy by Iran is certainly also being pursued in other venues, too. The foreign minister says they're going to raise this stuff at the United Nations.

INSKEEP: OK. So you just hinted at one possible diplomatic avenue - or at least a place, a venue where people could raise diplomatic questions or push for some kind of diplomatic solution. But is it possible to see a route forward for these two countries when the United States is overtly putting what it calls maximum pressure on Iran?

KENYON: Well, I think there's certainly people in both capitals who genuinely don't want to see a war break out right now. But if the question is how to get from this point to de-escalation without going through a war to get there, I mean, that's a big reversal that usually requires a willingness to negotiate and to be seen, perhaps, compromising with people you've got strong disagreements with. The Trump administration has said pressure is what works, that will bring Tehran back to the table. And that theory is what's being put to the test now.

INSKEEP: And the Iranian response to that is, we can't negotiate when you're putting so much pressure on us all the time. That's essentially what they're saying.

KENYON: Under no circumstances.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon.

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INSKEEP: In the state of Alabama, Republican Roy Moore is making another run for the United States Senate.

MARTIN: Yeah. Moore lost to the Democrat in that race, Doug Jones, two years ago. The race was dominated by allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore. So now Moore is giving it another shot. He announced his candidacy on Thursday in Montgomery, Ala.

INSKEEP: Which is where NPR's Debbie Elliott is. Debbie, good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why does Moore think he'd do any better the second time?

ELLIOTT: Well, he says he thinks he can win. And he claims he would've won last time if not for what he called false tactics used by Democratic operatives. Here's his confident statement yesterday.

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ROY MOORE: Can I win? Yes, I can win. Not only can I, they know I can. That's why there's such opposition...

ELLIOTT: They being the Washington establishment that the conservative firebrand railed against during his last campaign. He also said he might change up his strategy a bit this time by making, quote, "more personal contact with people."

INSKEEP: Maybe not the most fortunate choice of phrase given the allegations against Roy Moore. I do want to note, though, he won the Republican nomination last time. Right?

ELLIOTT: Right.

INSKEEP: And then the surprise was that he managed to lose to a Democrat in a very, very, very, very Republican state because of the allegations against him, which he still faces. So how is he addressing those allegations this time?

ELLIOTT: Well, he's still calling them false claims. And he says he doesn't think they will hurt him with Alabama voters, who he says now can see the truth.

INSKEEP: OK. So what are Republicans going to do about this?

ELLIOTT: Well, after Moore announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was quick to tell reporters we will be opposing Roy Moore vigorously. And even before he had launched this second bid, the president - President Trump had discouraged his candidacy, tweeting that Roy Moore can't win and that the consequences will be devastating.

You know, as you said, Republicans see an opportunity in deep-red Alabama to win back this U.S. Senate seat that was formerly held by Jeff Sessions, and Moore is now a big complication for that.

INSKEEP: Does Moore admit any merit to that argument?

ELLIOTT: You know, he does not. And that's not surprising. He's not dissuaded one bit. He's displaying the familiar defiance that has really defined his career. You know, we should remind our listeners that Moore was twice ousted as Alabama chief justice for defying federal courts - first over this giant Ten Commandments monument he put in the state judicial building and then for rejecting the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

So defying the leadership of his party is nothing new for him. He did, yesterday, accuse national Republicans of launching a smear campaign against him.

INSKEEP: What's the Democratic incumbent Doug Jones have to say about the prospect - the possibility of eventually facing Roy Moore in a general election?

ELLIOTT: Well, I spoke with him by phone yesterday afternoon. And he stopped short of acknowledging that this is some kind of a gift, should Moore win the Republican nomination. But he calls Moore an extremist of a different caliber. Here's what he said.

DOUG JONES: And the real issue now to me is, you know, who comes out. We're either going to have an extremist like Roy Moore or, quite frankly, we're going to have an extremist that's going to be handpicked by Mitch McConnell.

ELLIOTT: Now, the scuttle in political circles in Montgomery suggest that Senator Shelby, Alabama's other senator, and some longtime Republicans are trying to convince former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek his old seat and just clear the field and solve this problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "IN MY THOUGHTS")

INSKEEP: Well, you've got the beginning of quite a story there, Debbie. Thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Always appreciate her insights. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.