RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The upcoming midterm elections were always going to be intense, right? And now just to make things even more interesting, you throw in a battle over a Supreme Court nominee.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah. This was pretty stunning news yesterday when Justice Anthony Kennedy made the surprise announcement that he is stepping down. This now gives President Trump a rare opportunity to name a second justice to the High Court. President Trump says he will nominate a conservative. He has a list of 25 names in his pocket. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised a vote this fall. He also said this.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: It's imperative that the president's nominee be considered fairly and not subjected to personal attacks.
GREENE: But Democrats are saying that the rules here have changed.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: Our Republican colleagues in the Senate should follow the rule they set in 2016 not to consider a Supreme Court justice in an election year.
GREENE: That's the voice there of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer talking about how McConnell refused to bring President Obama's nominee to a vote. But the truth is there's not much Democrats can do to stop this process. And this is a fight that is likely to happen soon, and it could galvanize voters right before the midterm elections.
MARTIN: Right, OK. So let's talk about all of this with NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Hey, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So Anthony Kennedy is thought in certain circles to have been a moderating force on the court. But at the end of the day, I mean, he was a conservative. He was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.
DAVIS: He really was. I mean, Justice Kennedy was a conservative vote on most cases. I think that was reinforced this week in the final decisions of his tenure, in which he sided with the conservatives on the court, most notably on the president's travel ban. Where he has been a swing vote is on tricky social issues, namely abortion. Also, affirmative action is another issue.
So why I think that matters and why I think we're going to be hearing so much about abortion in this fall debate is because there's almost no chance that President Trump doesn't nominate someone who is seen as conservative on those social issues, and is already indicating that they will likely nominate someone in the mold of his previous nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
MARTIN: It's interesting - right? - because I remember talking with a lot of Trump supporters who did not like Donald Trump in the campaign, but they brought up the Supreme Court, and they brought up the issue of abortion. And he talked about that, right? Like, I'm going to be the guy who could have one, perhaps even more, Supreme Court nominees.
DAVIS: I think it's fair to say that this White House - and there's a very good argument to be made that he did win this election because of his promise to nominate conservatives to the court. This has always been a galvanizing issue for conservative voters, especially evangelical voters who, you know, kind of held their nose on Donald Trump. And I think we're glad they did.
I think Neil Gorsuch has been hugely popular among conservatives. The White House gets that, and I think they'd like to double down on that political impact ahead of the midterm elections, in which their congressional majorities are at stake in the House and Senate.
MARTIN: Right. So there are people talking about a couple of names right now, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.
MARTIN: Explain why.
DAVIS: So they are two female Republican senators who support abortion rights. And so they are seen, if this comes down to a strictly partisan vote - Republicans only have 50 votes right now because John McCain's been absent - all of the pressure could come down on these two women who have made clear that they support Roe v. Wade. They see it as settled law, and they would want a justice who respects that legal precedent.
I will say, in terms of expectations, Neil Gorsuch got 54 votes through his confirmation process. That's probably the high watermark for anyone that Donald Trump may nominate.
MARTIN: NPR's Susan Davis for us. Thanks, Sue.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: OK, David, we're waiting for a big reveal this morning.
GREENE: A big reveal. Washington and Moscow are planning to simultaneously announce where and when President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are going to meet for a one-on-one summit. White House National Security Adviser John Bolton met with Putin and a number of other Russian officials at the Kremlin yesterday to start laying the groundwork for this meeting.
MARTIN: John Bolton talked with reporters after this first meeting, including NPR's own Lucian Kim, who joins us now from Moscow. Hey, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What'd you learn? What do we know about the summit?
KIM: Well, the main result of Bolton's meeting yesterday was an agreement on the time and place of the summit. And as you mentioned, we'll know more about that today in a joint statement from the Kremlin and the White House. Based on news reports, it looks like it will be in mid-July after an annual NATO summit. And the most likely location appears to be Helsinki, which, of course, is the capital of Finland - a neutral country.
MARTIN: So interesting that John Bolton was charged with laying this groundwork, right? He has not been a fan of Vladimir Putin's. He has said in the past that the U.S. negotiates with Moscow at its peril. How was he received?
KIM: Well, actually, he was received extremely cordially in the Kremlin. They were all smiles. And based on the time it took Bolton to get from his previous meeting to the Kremlin in with President Putin, it didn't seem like he had to wait at all, which is really unusual because Putin likes to make people wait.
KIM: It's really hard to overstate how much Putin wants a summit. He's watched Trump meet the leaders of all big countries, except - and including the leader of North Korea. And he's just been waiting as president of Russia for his chance.
MARTIN: So let's talk about what each of these men want out of a summit like this.
KIM: Well, it's not exactly clear what President Trump gets out of this. John Bolton yesterday himself said that the mere fact of holding this summit is an accomplishment and that he doesn't expect any concrete results. As you know, usually these kind of summits are the result of these scrupulous negotiations that come up with some big declaration or some kind of agreement. But this is happening in a couple of weeks, so it's starting to look a lot like the summit with Kim Jong Un.
MARTIN: So where - whereas that this would be the beginning of something, not the culmination of a lot of diplomatic work beforehand - that this would be just, basically, these guys getting together, having a photo op, talking politics, or not - just meeting and greeting.
KIM: Exactly. Well, and as for, you know, what's in it for Putin, he really has a lot to gain. The U.S. has isolated and sanctioned Russia since he annexed Crimea four years ago. So this is a great chance to get Trump's ear and lay out his point of view. And we already know that Trump is sympathetic to him. This is going to play out very big in the Russian media, where Putin will be shown as a great statesman. It's really a huge win for Putin.
MARTIN: Any idea if President Trump is going to bring up, perhaps, Russian meddling in past U.S. elections as we approach midterms?
KIM: Well, John Bolton said he does expect that to come up in discussions.
MARTIN: OK. We'll see. NPR's Lucian Kim, thanks so much.
KIM: Thank you.
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MARTIN: The head of the U.S. military is doing some high-level diplomacy today.
GREENE: That's right. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was in South Korea this morning. It looks like this trip was designed, at least in part, to reassure South Korea and other allies that the United States is going to maintain its security commitment in the region. And one reason some assurance was necessary is after President Trump abruptly decided to suspend annual joint military exercises with South Korea as a concession to North Korea's Kim Jong Un.
MARTIN: All right. We have got NPR's Elise Hu on the line from Seoul. Hey, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.
MARTIN: All right. South Korea did not so much like this idea of canceling these military exercises, did they?
HU: Well, I would say that it was surprised more than anything. You know, David mentioned abruptly. And South Korea and the U.S. are longtime security allies, usually coordinate on these things. But leaders here were taken by surprise when President Trump just made that announcement right after his summit with Kim Jong Un on June 12 that they would suspend these joint military drills that have been going on year after year after year.
And North Korea has always opposed them, right? They've said they're provocative. So it was rather surprising that Trump echoed that North Korean line when he called on suspending these, quote, unquote, "war games." But James Mattis today made the point that the suspension does give diplomats some room to do their work.
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JAMES MATTIS: The recent decision to suspend the Freedom Guardian exercise creates increased opportunity for our diplomats to negotiate, increasing prospects for a peaceful solution on the peninsula.
MARTIN: There's a reason, though, Elise, that these exercises happen - so that South Korea is prepared if things with the North get tense again. And, I mean, is there any reason to believe that this moment would be different? I mean, it would make sense that this could all fall apart because it has before.
HU: Well, and that's, you know, what James Mattis is talking about here in Korea, and then also in Japan, another ally where he's going to be meeting with tomorrow. So he's really reassuring both South Korea and Japan that the regional defense commitment is unchanged, despite the suspension of the exercises.
The U.S. does have the 28,500 service members here in South Korea, and Mattis said that - here in Seoul, that the commitment includes keeping U.S. force levels the same here on the peninsula. And the head of U.S. Forces Korea also said earlier this week that he didn't expect an end to all joint exercises altogether in the future, but just this suspension of these key annual drills that have been going on.
MARTIN: So you mentioned, you know, the president's promise to cancel these military exercises caught the South Koreans off guard. I mean, in general, is South Korea comfortable with how the Trump administration is managing this perceived new relationship with North Korea? I mean, this was a fairly significant concession to stop these joint military exercises. And what do they get in return?
HU: In general, South Korea's government is really signaling that it is supportive of the Trump administration's moves toward diplomacy. And the president here, Moon Jae-in, has been full of praise for this shift toward diplomacy because the primary interest in South Korea is peace. And for now, that's holding.
MARTIN: NPR's Elise Hu reporting from Seoul, South Korea, for us this morning. Thanks so much, Elise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.