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Was it a State of the Union address or a campaign speech?


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, the issue facing our nation isn't how old we are. It's how old are our ideas. Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are the oldest of ideas.


Speaking to a joint session of Congress last night, President Biden rejected both concerns over his age and the man he referred to only as his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now for analysis of the president's speech is NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Now, this week feels like the unofficial start of Trump versus Biden part two. Nikki Haley suspends her campaign, leaving Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, and then Biden did not say Trump's name 13 times in last night's State of the Union. So what stood out to you?

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Well, there were a lot of expectations on Biden last night, not just for the content of his speech, but for the performance, for the delivery. And Biden was feisty. He was willing to engage in unscripted moments with Republicans in the crowd. He did have some stumbles, though, and notably, toward the end, he took on the issue of his age directly. You know, this was a speech that, in my view, offered contrast with Republicans on everything from the economy to abortion to immigration. And unlike some of the previous State of the Unions that Biden has delivered, this speech was not about trying to find common ground with Republicans. You know, at the same time, there were a couple of moments where Biden asked Republicans to work with him, for example, on more aid for Ukraine and a border bill, though I should point out that immigration legislation is dead in Congress.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, so on immigration, because that's been one of the GOP's favorite avenues of attack on the president, how did he try to address that?

KHALID: Biden blamed House Republicans for blocking that bipartisan border deal last month, and he did criticize Trump rather directly on this issue - again, not by name, but he talked about how Donald Trump has spoken about immigrants as poisoning the blood of the country. But really, A, the moment that stood out to me was when Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia shouted at Biden about Laken Riley. She's a nursing student who was killed last month, and an undocumented immigrant has been arrested for the crime.




BIDEN: Laken Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal - that's right.

KHALID: You know, this back-and-forth, I think, shows just how complicated it is for Biden to navigate immigration. He is already facing criticism from some within his own party for his get-tough approach, and using the term illegal is only going to underscore that concern. You know, and at the same time, it is unclear whether he'll win over independent voters who have identified border security as one of their top priorities.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, President Biden has come under a lot of pressure from some Democrats on how he's handled Israel's war against Hamas. What did he have to say about Gaza?

KHALID: Well, he's been criticized for showing a lack of empathy for Palestinians. And last night, he spoke in more compassionate terms about Palestinians than we have heard from him before. He referred to the situation as heartbreaking and spoke of orphaned children, families without food. He also spoke directly to Israeli leaders, saying that humanitarian assistance cannot be a bargaining chip, and he outlined plans to establish a temporary pier on the Gaza coast to get humanitarian aid into the region via sea. You know, ultimately, I will say on this issue, though, A, what Biden wants, what his White House really wants, is a temporary cease-fire to free hostages and allow more aid into the Gaza Strip via land.

MARTÍNEZ: That is NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks a lot.

KHALID: Good to talk to you.


MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now to that predecessor Biden kept referring to in his speech. Donald Trump is poised to take control today of the Republican National Committee.

FADEL: The RNC meets to elect new leadership, just as Trump pivots from the primary to the November general election, and the committee members are expected to pick several Trump loyalists, including a family member.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, here to tell us all about it is NPR's Franco Ordoñez. So on the surface, all of this, Franco, sounds unusual. Is it unusual?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I mean, actually, A, not really. I mean, the RNC no longer has to play this neutral role in the presidential primary now that former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has dropped out. That makes Trump the GOP's presumptive nominee, so he'll get a lot of the party resources that he's been craving for months, including access to finances, staff and donor lists. And this is very important for Trump because he and Republicans are looking to close that fundraising gap that they have with Biden and the Democrats.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so these new leaders that Trump is backing - what are some of their plans?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Trump has hand-selected Michael Whatley to be the chair. He's currently the chair of the North Carolina Republican Party. He's known for running a good ground game. You know, North Carolina traditionally has close elections, but under Whatley, they've won a lot of those races up and down the ballot. He does come with some controversy, though. He fought against the results of the 2020 election. Now, co-chair would be Lara Trump. She's of course married to Trump's son, Eric Trump. She actually outlined one of her priorities just a few weeks ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.


LARA TRUMP: The truth is, if we want to compete with the Democrats, we cannot wait until Election Day. If we want to compete and win, we must embrace early voting.

ORDOÑEZ: And, A, I'll just note that she's demonstrating a little independence here, since her father-in-law has repeatedly criticized mail-in ballots as being fraudulent without any evidence, of course. And one more important name to mention is Chris LaCivita. He's a senior adviser on the Trump campaign, who is also expected to take on the role of chief operating officer for the RNC. So he's going to do both.

MARTÍNEZ: Still, Franco, I mean, an in-law as a national committee chair - I mean, everyone in the GOP is good with that.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, it's definitely raised some eyebrows, but...

MARTÍNEZ: Doesn't it?


MARTÍNEZ: I mean...

ORDOÑEZ: Here in Houston, you know, the people I speak with there seem to be OK with it. They've talked to me that it's more of a ceremonial role, a fundraising role.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, of course, apart from the leadership vote, there's been a debate about the possible resolution to prevent the RNC from paying Donald Trump's legal fees. So what's the status on that?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, there are some concerns, especially when it comes to having some money for lower-ballot races, but they don't seem to be going anywhere. I spoke to Morton Blackwell, a member from Louisiana who is here in Houston, and like others, he sees the investigations of Trump as political, and therefore, he says he's open to the idea of the party covering some of those fees.

MORTON BLACKWELL: The fact is that there is something called lawfare going on here, where the Democrats are trying to use the powers of the government to punish Republicans, and particularly Trump, and it's absolutely outrageous.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, we should note that the U.S. Justice Department operates independently of the White House. But for Blackwell and others, the RNC's ability to raise funds is directly tied to its relationship with Trump. And having Lara Trump on board helps with those efforts.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, there you go. That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks a lot.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, A.


MARTÍNEZ: All right. Amid a dramatic standoff, Haiti has extended its state of emergency for another 30 days.

FADEL: Armed gangs continue to demand the ouster of the country's de facto prime minister. They have led coordinated attacks on government buildings, including two prison raids that turned loose thousands of inmates. They are still surrounding the Port-au-Prince airport, and the prime minister - as best we can tell, he remains stranded outside the country.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Eyder Peralta is following the story from his base in Mexico City. Hearing Leila describe it, Eyder, it sounds bad in Haiti. How bad is it?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I mean, it's pretty bad in Port-au-Prince. The airport is still closed, and local news outlets are reporting that criminal groups have been looting the big containers at the city's main port. So the operator there says that they had no choice but to shut down. So the prices of goods and fuel have shot up. Some hospitals have closed. Others are over capacity. UNICEF says that a lot of basic social services are on the brink of collapse. And as far as we know, Prime Minister Ariel Henry is still in Puerto Rico, but he hasn't made a public appearance for a week now. And the group of Caribbean leaders who have been trying to mediate a political solution to this say that the talks have led to no consensus on anything.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So the prime minister is at the center of this standoff. Why?

PERALTA: You know, Haitians have been taking to the streets for more than a year, calling for Henry to resign. And it's important to remember that Henry was appointed, not elected, after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021. And what has happened during his rule is that the country has spiraled very close to anarchy. And even though he promised elections, those have never materialized. And what we're seeing right now is a kind of surreal moment. Nearly everyone is calling for his ouster - the people, the rich, the poor, the intellectuals and now even the gangs. And they used to fight against each other, and now they have united to launch coordinated attacks to try to topple the government. And so now these gangs, which have really brought misery to Haiti, are now presenting themselves as liberators.

MARTÍNEZ: So then, given all that, why is the United States still standing by Henry?

PERALTA: That's a good question. And I asked this to Daniel Foote, and he's a former American diplomat. He was appointed as the special envoy to Haiti after the president was assassinated. And he quit, in part because he says the U.S. wouldn't listen when he told them that they shouldn't back Henry, that he didn't have legitimacy and that picking him would put the country on a path to chaos. Daniel Foote says that this has happened over and over in history, that the U.S. has done the same thing, which is to pick someone they think they can trust, instead of learning to trust the leader who the people choose.

DANIEL FOOTE: It's time to give Haitians a chance to fix Haiti because I guarantee they won't screw it up as bad as we have.

PERALTA: And Dan Foote says this is complicated but doable. He says there's a big civil society in Haiti that had already put together a road map toward elections, but the U.S. ignored it. Instead, the U.S. is focused on bringing in the Kenyans to lead a peacekeeping mission and avoiding American troops on the ground. It's worth noting that U.S. support for Henry does seem to be softening. At least that's what we can discern from the public statements by U.S. officials.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thanks a lot.

PERALTA: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.

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