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Week In Washington


We got another shakeup in Washington this past week. The president calls on the White House physician to save the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs. And the shakeup goes beyond Trump's cabinet, as President Trump expels dozens of Russian diplomats from the U.S. Is the White House taking a harder line against the Kremlin? To talk about all of this, I'm joined by NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Korva. And welcome to the show. Nice to hear you as the host.

COLEMAN: Thank you so much. Happy to be here. OK, Mara. So David Shulkin is out as the head of the veterans affairs department. And the president has tapped Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, as his replacement. So what does this tell us?

LIASSON: It tells us that the president likes people he's comfortable with - people he's seen on TV, people he knows from New York business circles or both in the case of Larry Kudlow, his new economic adviser. But in the case of Dr. Jackson, we don't know what it means about policy. We know that Jackson has been a very well-liked physician for both Democratic and Republican White House staffs. But we don't know what his pick means for the big debate over privatizing the VA. So we got a little more clarity on President Trump's leadership style, less clarity about the administration's future policy.

COLEMAN: Now, this dynamic played out recently with the prince - rather, the president's - foreign policy team, as well, didn't it?

LIASSON: That's right. President Trump seems to be more comfortable now calling his own shots, following his gut, following his instincts. This is the kind of leadership style that he's used his entire life. He's less reliant on his advisers. And that is true with foreign policy. He picked John Bolton to be the new national security adviser. In the past, Bolton has called for pre-emptive military action against North Korea and Iran. But Bolton says in this new role, he's going to play the more traditional role of the national security adviser and collect the best advice from all over the administration to give to the president. So it's unclear what this means for the president's future policy in Iran and North Korea. But we know that Bolton is a hawk.

COLEMAN: All right. Let's stay with foreign policy for a moment. As we said, President Trump expelled dozens of Russian diplomats from the U.S. Is this a tougher line against Russia?

LIASSON: That's the big question. He did agree to expel 60 Russian diplomats who are believed to be intelligence agents, although I should point out he didn't limit the overall size of the Russian diplomatic mission to the U.S. So those 60 can be replaced by others. This was in retaliation against a nerve gas attack against a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. So he was working with allies against Russia. So this could be Trump moving away from what his critics have called a soft approach to Russia, a reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin. And we don't know if this signals a harder line against Russia and Putin, or if it's just a one-off.

COLEMAN: All right. So this past week, the White House also trumpeted a trade deal with South Korea, but there is some confusion there, too, isn't there?

LIASSON: That's right. President Trump came out with sweeping tariffs against imported steel and aluminum. Then he turned around and gave most of our allies exemptions. So it suggested that instead of trying to start a trade war, he was just using these tariffs as a negotiating tool. He did renegotiate a trade pact with South Korea, giving them a permanent exemption from the tariffs in return for South Korea lowering its exports to the United States. But then on Thursday at a rally in Ohio, President Trump threatened to delay finalizing the South Korean trade deal until after he reached an agreement with North Korea over its nuclear weapons. And that left a lot of people scratching their heads.

COLEMAN: Lastly, in a moment, Mara, we'll hear from a Black Lives Matter activist in Sacramento about the shooting death of an unarmed black man by police two weeks ago. Has the president weighed in at all?

LIASSON: No. He hasn't weighed in at all. He's been silent about it. But the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Wednesday called this a terrible incident. And she said it's something that is a local matter better left to the local authorities.

COLEMAN: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.