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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An unhappy kid on the playground may threaten to take his ball and go home. But what happens when a world leader threatens to take his nuclear football and go home?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, blames the U.S. for his invading armies' trouble in Ukraine. And now he says Russia is suspending its participation in a nuclear arms control deal with the U.S. It's a decade-old agreement called the New START Treaty. Putin spoke in Moscow yesterday and, with its usual speed, Russia's legislature applied the rubber stamp today.

INSKEEP: So how much should we worry about the unraveling of a nuclear deal? NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is following the story. Geoff, good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What does this agreement do?

BRUMFIEL: It caps the number of nuclear weapons - bombs, missiles and subs - to around 1,500. Now, each nation is allowed to keep several thousand in storage, but that's the maximum they can actually deploy.

INSKEEP: OK.

BRUMFIEL: It also allows for inspections of nuclear bases and a lot of information exchanged between the U.S. and Russia about their nuclear weapons. Russia's announcement means there won't be any more of these inspections for the foreseeable future. The data likely won't be shared either. But Russia did say it was committed to keeping the number of deployed weapons at 1,500 at least, for now.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they're going to stay in notional compliance, or at least so they say, just not actually going to allow the inspections or anything else. Is that at least a little bit reassuring?

BRUMFIEL: Kind of. But there's a bigger picture, which is several other treaties have actually already collapsed in recent years. So in 2019, the U.S. withdrew from a treaty governing certain kinds of nuclear missiles. About a year and a half later, the U.S. and Russia both withdrew from another treaty related to nuclear weapons. Olga Oliker is with the nonprofit International Crisis Group, and she says the New START Treaty is really all that's left.

OLGA OLIKER: I mean, this was the last big treaty. And if it's gone, then the entire nuclear arms control infrastructure is gone.

INSKEEP: Which, I guess, in theory means that one side or the other could take its thousands of other nuclear warheads out of the closet or the cave or wherever they've got them and deploy them. Is this going to mean a Cold War arms race?

BRUMFIEL: Not just yet. You know, at various points in the Cold War, these two sides had as many as 30,000 weapons each.

INSKEEP: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: That gives you a sense of how far we have to go. But I spoke to another arms control expert, Lynn Rusten at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and she says Russia really doesn't want to get back to those numbers either.

LYNN RUSTEN: They have historically always wanted to constrain U.S. strategic weapons because they don't want to be in an arms race either.

BRUMFIEL: But she adds the way you avoid an arms race is treaties, and those treaties do seem to be falling apart.

RUSTEN: Right now, we're just seeing a total breakdown with no prospect of recovery anytime soon.

BRUMFIEL: With the war in Ukraine grinding on, you know, I mean, the U.S. and Russian relations are at an all-time low. And Rusten and other experts I spoke to think this suspension could be the beginning of the end.

INSKEEP: Geoff, you're the science and security correspondent. I don't feel secure when you say things like beginning of the end.

BRUMFIEL: Sorry.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

BRUMFIEL: I mean that, you know, we could return to a Cold War-like situation, except it would be a lot more complicated because now we have countries like North Korea which have nuclear weapons, and China is undergoing a dramatic expansion of its nuclear capabilities. So getting new treaties is going to be even harder.

INSKEEP: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks for the insights.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A man named Genaro Garcia Luna was once a senior official in Mexico, and now a jury in the United States has found him guilty of a secret life.

FADEL: The jury agreed that Garcia Luna took bribes from drug cartels. He did this at the same time he was working with U.S. authorities who tried to crack down on cartels. He was also found guilty of trafficking tons of illegal drugs into the U.S.

INSKEEP: Let's talk to a journalist who's been covering this case all along, Maria Hinojosa, longtime host of Latino USA and also co-host of the "USA v. Garcia Luna" podcast, all about this case. Good morning.

MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did Garcia Luna do?

HINOJOSA: Wow. What did he do? Well, he was found guilty of - unanimously by this jury yesterday in federal court in Brooklyn - same judge, same courtroom as El Chapo. The difference is is that Genaro Garcia Luna was the top cop, cabinet-level security officer within the presidency of Felipe Calderon in Mexico. And he was working for the DEA and all high-level U.S. government institutions fighting this so-called war on drugs in Mexico, receiving millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers to fight this war. Except - oops - he was also working for the Sinaloa Cartel. He was found guilty of being a member of that cartel. It was incredibly dramatic. But sadly, Steve, not a lot of interest from most of the American mainstream media, which is pretty disappointing.

INSKEEP: But you were there, of course, and also covering this all along. What was the practical effect of a top Mexican official taking bribes from a cartel? How did that affect the United States, for example?

HINOJOSA: Well, I mean, you know, the United States says it has the highest level of intelligence and says that the DEA is the most premier law enforcement agency to fight this war on drugs. How is it possible that for - I mean, the rumors and questions about Genaro Garcia Luna in Mexico began about 20 years ago. How is it possible that the United States, with all of its intelligence, didn't know or chose not to know? - in which case we, taxpayers, need to know exactly what's going on with the DEA? And what is this war on drugs, after all? I mean, the truth is is that right now, Genaro Garcia Luna is probably not going to have a chance to get out of prison. He may be spending the rest of his life in prison. Will that affect the traffic of drugs between the United States and Mexico? No. And, of course, obviously, this is the consuming country of those drugs.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Were you able to just trace the way that some of those drugs get to the United States and the way that, in effect, U.S. law enforcement failed to stop them?

HINOJOSA: Absolutely. So, Steve, what we did in the podcast, "USA v. Garcia Luna," is that we - you know, most Americans just would rather watch this on "Narcos" or on "Ozark" and not actually deal with real life. So we - my colleague, Peniley Ramirez, and I - got on - in a car and went to Queens and we saw the train tracks where the trains were arriving with cargo of soybean oil. We just went to Queens and saw - the train tracks are right there, the place where they used to store these soybean-laden cocaine things. We saw this all, so...

INSKEEP: Oh, it was - cocaine in the soybean oil. OK, fine.

HINOJOSA: Yeah. And being taken into Queens and distributed from Queens throughout New York and to Chicago. We heard about how the Mexico City Airport was also being used as a major transportation hub for the Sinaloa Cartel. This is all happening, but how, again, Steve? How is it possible that this is happening without the U.S., as we say in Spanish, (speaking Spanish) - without them realizing this? So for me, this is not just an indictment of a high-level Mexican government official. It's an indictment of the United States, the DEA and the intelligence that we trust. But how can we trust it when they were working with Genaro Garcia Luna?

INSKEEP: Maria Hinojosa, pleasure talking with you again.

HINOJOSA: As well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, the 2024 presidential election is taking shape.

FADEL: Many Republicans are hoping to prevent another Trump presidency. But so far, only former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has officially announced she'll run for the job. President Biden is also expected to announce he'll seek reelection in 2024. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out this morning takes a measure of how voters in both parties feel about their prospective nominees.

INSKEEP: Domenico Montanaro has the numbers. He is NPR's senior political editor and correspondent. Domenico, hi there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: I guess any presidential election needs to start with the incumbent, if he might be running again. How do Democrats and voters generally feel about Joe Biden?

MONTANARO: Well, Biden's approval rating has actually ticked up to 46% with more than the 1,300 total respondents in the poll. And it's an even higher 49% with the 1,200 registered voters in the poll. And that 46% is the highest since March of last year. He hasn't been at 49% since the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of 2021. And he's really benefited here from a rebound with Democrats. And in this hyper-partisan atmosphere, president really needs his base shored up. One warning sign here, though, is that he's still lagging with independents - just 36% of them approve of the job Biden is doing.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, if he's rebounding with Democrats, does that mean Democrats are no longer looking around for some other candidate?

MONTANARO: Well, this really jumped out in the survey. You know, there's been a reversal here in Biden's favor. Back in November, right before the midterms, we asked Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents whether they had a better chance of winning the presidency in 2024 with Biden or with someone else. Fifty-four percent then said someone else. Now 50% say that their best shot is with Biden. You know, the biggest shifts are coming from whites without college degrees, those who make less than $50,000 a year, voters under 45 and women who live in small cities or in the suburbs. All, by the way, are key demographic groups that helped Biden win in 2020, the kinds of voters that he peeled away from Trump and who made some inroads with these groups in 2016.

And this is happening likely for a few reasons. I mean, first, Democrats had better-than-expected midterms. Secondly, Biden's State of the Union address had to give at least some of them more confidence in Biden's ability to carry out this message going forward. And this poll took place after his State of the Union address. Third, these are Democrats and independents who lean Democratic, so they're already open to Biden's message. And this is likely part of the normal coalescing around a nominee as it becomes more and more apparent that Biden is going to run for reelection.

INSKEEP: Really interesting when you say whites without college degrees. That's a group of voters that Biden would argue he specifically is good at attracting to the Democratic Party...

MONTANARO: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Compared to some other people. What about Republicans? How are they looking?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it's not as rosy a picture for Trump and Republicans and independents who lean their direction. Sixty-eight percent have a favorable view of Trump and a quarter have a negative one. And that doesn't seem too bad, but it's a net 27 points worse than Biden is with Democrats. And it's the worst score for Trump among Republicans and Republican leaners since September of 2016 - that's seven years. And it's worse than how potential Republican voters view Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who could be a key challenger if he runs. When you dig into these numbers, we get a pretty good idea, by the way, of potential Republican Trump and DeSantis primary voters, what they look like. And they are mirror images of each other. Trump does best with white evangelical Christians, whites without degrees, those who live in small towns or rural areas. DeSantis, on the other hand - college grads, people who make more money, live in big cities or the suburbs.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.