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At The World Economic Forum, Trump Tries To Sell 'America First' Message

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, joining us now to discuss immigration and some of the other major political stories of the week are Reihan Salam, the executive editor for the National Review and a columnist for Slate - welcome back.

REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And Kimberly Atkins, chief Washington reporter and columnist for the Boston Herald. Hi there.

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Let's pick up with the White House's immigration proposal. As we just heard, some lawmakers on the left reject it as heartless while some on the right reject it as amnesty. Kimberly, do you see this as just the first phase of a negotiation? Or is this pretty much dead?

ATKINS: I mean, this is where the negotiation starts. But it's hard to see how all sides come together, especially once again under a time deadline of February 8 before the next government shutdown, especially given the hard feelings, frankly, that the last shutdown left everyone with. You had up to a point where Chuck Schumer, for example, was trying to meet someplace with President Trump and even during that course offered $25 billion dollars for the wall or whatever you want to call it and has since rescinded that offer.

Then you add the fact that, as Scott pointed out, you have the Democrats on one side digging in, the Republicans on the other side dig in - digging in probably even more than where they started before. It's going to be tough to see how they come together in just a couple weeks.

SHAPIRO: Reihan, I know you've been working on a book on immigration, so I'm sure you have a lot of thoughts on this. It strikes me that over the decades of debate about immigration, this represents a pretty significant shift of Republicans wanting to crack down not just on illegal immigration, but really reduce legal immigration as well.

SALAM: Well, part of the question is, how should we structure our legal immigration system? Should it be sensitive to skills and economic potential writ large? Or should it be primarily oriented towards family-based admissions? The system as it exists right now is very heavily oriented towards family-based admissions. And there are a lot of folks on the right, including some who want immigration levels to be high as well as some who want them to be low and lower - that we ought to move away from this kind of family emphasis.

The problem is that when you're trying to pair that with amnesty, when you're trying to pair that with some legalization path - we're in this very tricky, awkward position because we're focused on the DACA-eligible. But the thing is that for many people that's seen as just an initial step. You actually want to legalize a much broader swath of the unauthorized immigrant population.

So the kind of deal that the White House envisions is a deal that perhaps you could have if you had a much broader amnesty. But it's hard to see how you could get this kind of a deal if you only have some kind of amnesty for the DACA-eligible. So that, I think, is the big stumbling block here.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you about another big story which broke last night when The New York Times reported that back in June, President Trump ordered special counsel Robert Mueller to be fired and that it only didn't happen because White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign. Let's listen here to Congressman Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, speaking on Morning Edition today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOAQUIN CASTRO: If this news is true, then that is a red line. And I believe that ultimately it could be moving him closer to impeachment.

SHAPIRO: Kimberly, do you think people should be concerned that Mueller could still be fired at this point?

ATKINS: Yeah. I think it'll be a lot tougher to do now, especially given this revelation. There are people who are concerned about Robert Mueller being fired on both sides of the aisle in Congress and really don't want that to happen. I think you'll expect to see an increased effort to bring to Congress - there are a couple of bills that have been filed that would essentially protect him, give him the opportunity to go to a court, essentially, if he is fired to seek to be reinstated.

It has some bipartisan support. I think you might see that grow. It'll probably be Democrats leading the charge on that. But people are concerned not just for the sake of allowing the Justice Department and the process to go about itself, but there are a lot of Republicans who think that this would be politically catastrophic for the president if he takes this step. I tend to agree with them.

But certainly all of this is going to be considered carefully by Robert Mueller himself as he continues this probe about potential obstruction. All of this goes at the very least to the president's intent not only in trying to fire him, but in firing James Comey and pressuring other people within the Justice Department and in Congress if not being seen as an actual act, ordering Don McGahn to fire him as an actual step toward obstruction.

SHAPIRO: Reihan, what do you think? How significant is this story? And why are we learning about it now, six months later?

SALAM: Well, there's an irony to this story because as I understand it, the president is now insisting that the special counsel - he believes he's going to get a fair shake. He's calling the story fake, which implies that he's, you know, insisting the exact opposite, that he has no intention of firing the special counsel. He may well be, you know, lying about that. That's certainly possible. But to Kimberly's point, that actually makes it far less likely that he would make a move to fire the special counsel now. So in some sense, the special counsel may well be more secure.

Now the question is, you know, will this investigation go into his intention? Was his intention to obstruct? And whether or not he is lying if he now claims under oath that he did not intend to fire Robert Mueller. So it just strikes me as a very strange story because, again, the president is insisting that he did not try to fire Mueller before, which again implies that Mueller is in an unusually safe position right now.

SHAPIRO: Well, so some have speculated that this story was leaked in order to protect Robert Mueller.

SALAM: And that certainly makes a lot of sense. And you could say the system worked in that case just as McGahn's intention - you know, making it clear that he would resign rather than push ahead with this move. Another possibility is that this is a kind of back-and-forth when people are dealing with an impetuous president, that oftentimes there may well be orders that people immediately around the president might initially resist and cajole him out of making rash decisions. But none of that is terribly surprising. There are many people who believed six months ago, there are many people who believed for a long time that the president might act rashly. And you get that large pressure from the - you know, a lot of Republican insiders.

SHAPIRO: Well, the last thing I want to ask you about is President Trump's visit to Davos, Switzerland, where he delivered a speech this morning encouraging other countries and businesses to engage with the United States.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the United States. America is open for business, and we are competitive once again.

SHAPIRO: How do you think this message goes over after a year in which Trump has separated the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord and other global relationships? Kimberly.

ATKINS: Yeah. You know, I think this was a surprise, especially given his past statements about NAFTA. He signaled a willingness to sort of renegotiate it and stay in it. He said America first, but not - not America only. It sort of seemed like a safe speech, a speech that did no damage as he did in the past with some of our other overseas trips where he really chastised our allies or things like that. He seemed a little low-energy to me, but he was able to get in at least the very - in a dig to the press. So he seemed a little more like himself then.

SHAPIRO: Reihan, if this was a speech that did no damage, as Kimberly says, do you think it did any help?

SALAM: Well, I think that the president has a lot of goals regarding protecting the tradable sector, protecting the U.S. manufacturing base. The question is whether his instincts actually fit those long-term objectives. I don't think they do. I think that, you know, ideally what he ought to be doing is thinking about research and research and development, making larger investments, human capital investments and what have you, thinking about it in strategic, long-term ways rather than acting reflexively to, for example, impose tariff barriers. But, you know, I agree with Kimberly. I don't think that this is really going to be terribly consequential one way or another.

SHAPIRO: Reihan Salam of the National Review and Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald, good to talk to you both. Have a great weekend.

ATKINS: Thanks for having me.

SALAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BK-ONE'S "TEMA DO CANIBAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.