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News Brief: Candidates Make Closing Arguments, Harvard Admissions Trial


Candidates across the country are making their closing arguments to voters this weekend. There are just days left to campaign before ballots are cast on Tuesday.


Yeah. And in the meantime, President Trump has been talking tough about immigration. The question is, does that translate into policy or is this just about energizing voters who see immigration as a national security threat?

MARTIN: Right. His rhetoric - the president's rhetoric on immigration, often very dark, has made things complicated for some of his fellow Republicans. So another question here. How closely should they link themselves to the president in these last days on the campaign trail? We're going to put those questions to NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, who joins us in the studio this morning. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: So President Trump keeps hammering on immigration. Yesterday, he made remarks from the White House about this topic, seems to be a favorite of his in this particular political moment. Is anything about what he says about actual policy changes?

SNELL: This was incredibly light on policy, and it actually mirrored a lot of what we've been seeing him say in campaign rallies. It felt a lot like those rallies he's been having on a daily basis but from a podium in the White House. The thing that I think would be most telling is if he were to come up with an actual policy prescription because they will be having to deal with immigration in Congress in just a week or two when they get back after the election and have to decide whether or not to fund his request for wall money.

MARTIN: Right. And we should also just point out - the president, when talking about immigration, often does use hyperbole and often just says things that are factually untrue. I mean, for example, in this address yesterday from the White House, he claimed 97 percent of immigrants to this country who are supposed to show up for immigration court don't show up. That is not true. According to data from his own Justice Department, a large majority of those people do appear in court. And this was one of several inaccuracies throughout those remarks.

SNELL: Yeah. He also said that Republicans are the ones who are in unison, working all together on immigration. And, in fact, we've seen that proven that it isn't true because Congress voted on several immigration proposals earlier this year, including one from the White House. And all three of the main proposals failed. And the White House proposal, the one that was modeled most closely on Trump's own policy prescriptions, got the fewest number of votes. So that idea that Republicans are all moving in the same direction just doesn't bear out.

MARTIN: I imagine Republicans would also rather be talking about the economy right now, which is doing pretty well.

SNELL: And if you go out - I just got back from a two-week stretch in North Carolina, New Jersey and Florida - and that is what they're talking about. They're talking about the economy. They're talking about how they would like to save preexisting conditions protections for preexisting conditions. And occasionally, they do talk about immigration. And it's largely because the president's message about this caravan has been particularly effective in engaging some very big base voters. But it is important to remember that those base voters are more likely to be showing up in Senate elections and are more likely to turn out to deliver, you know, keeping a majority in the Senate and not in those battleground seats in the House that are so critical in the suburbs and in the near - near rural areas, where immigration just simply doesn't play that well.

MARTIN: What about Democrats? I mean, they're hoping for a blue wave, Kelsey. They've got a few more days to try to make that happen. I mean, especially on immigration, do they try to combat the president's lines on this issue or do they go their own path?

SNELL: They do try to combat the president. And they often like to say that immigration is a good issue for them, one where they can easily distinguish themselves.

MARTIN: All right. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell for us this morning. Kelsey, thanks as always.

SNELL: Thank you.


MARTIN: A federal trial about race-based admissions policies at Harvard University wraps up today.

KING: That's right. For the past three weeks, a judge has been hearing testimony about whether Harvard is giving Asian-American applicants a fair chance to get in. Now, this particular case could have some implications for affirmative action policies at other selective colleges across the country.

MARTIN: I'm joined now by Max Larkin from our member station WBUR who has been covering this story. Thanks so much for being with us, Max.

MAX LARKIN, BYLINE: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: You've been in the courtroom, I understand. Can you just help us understand what the two sides are arguing?

LARKIN: It may not come as a surprise, Rachel, given the participants, but it's been pretty academic so far, kind of a clash of PowerPoint presentations. For the first two weeks of the trial, Students for Fair Admissions or SFFA - the group that's suing Harvard - that group is led by longtime conservative legal activist and opponent of affirmative action named Edward Blum. They're seeking to show that Harvard is kind of tipping the scale. They say more and more Asian-Americans are submitting really high-quality applications to the school every year, so Harvard should be accepting a lot more Asian-American students if it were following federal antidiscrimination law.

But for the past week, Harvard's been pushing back. They're saying, look at this chart - Asian-Americans actually get preference over their peers in some areas. And their admission rate is sort of varying year to year, and it's also generally increased. They also had students of color and alumni who came on the stand and said their race is an essential part of who they are, and they're glad Harvard takes it into account.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, one of the things you often hear from colleges is that they're looking at a whole lot more than just academic performance. I take it that's come up in this case.

LARKIN: Yes, very much so. Harvard's admissions officers are saying they generally want excellent students across the board for the most part, but after that, they want a little bit of everything. They describe this system of tips. They call them sort of little admissions advantages based on students' identities and life experiences. They do give tips to black and Hispanic students, but they also give them to excellent athletes, to people from rural backgrounds, from low-income neighborhoods and to the children of Harvard alumni, controversially.

Harvard's lawyers have argued that's the way they want to put together their ideal educational community. The plaintiffs are saying it's a recipe for bias. I sort of think of it as the dinner party defense. Harvard's been in business for almost 400 years. They've used this system for almost a century. And in court, they're saying, in effect, listen, we've thrown a lot of these things before. We know how to put together an invite list.

MARTIN: Oh, well, I see in saying - and we're going to determine who gets to come to our party, though. So this case is getting a lot of attention. What are the larger implications?

LARKIN: Well, that dinner party idea is really common. These kinds of weighted admissions standards are central to the way most colleges do admissions in this country. But again, it's controversial. It goes back 40 years to a decision where the Supreme Court did away with racial quotas but allowed for this kind of affirmative action of tweaking variables. That's what Edward Blum is trying to undo. And now when the judge rules on this case, and it may be in months, whoever loses is expected to appeal. And then when that happens, we could expect to see this in front of the highest court in the land in the not too distant future.

MARTIN: All right. Max Larkin from our member station WBUR. Thanks so much for sharing your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

LARKIN: Thanks.


MARTIN: All right. Let's turn back to the midterms, specifically the race that may have the best chance of flipping a congressional seat from Democratic-held to Republican-held. Noel happens to be in the very district.

KING: That's right. I am in the city of Duluth, Minn., right on Lake Superior. This is in the 8th Congressional District. And Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan is retiring. Now, Democrats for more than 70 years have typically strongly held this seat. The Democratic party here, the DFL, has had a lot of union support. Union votes are big up here. But then in 2016, President Trump won this district. And now, the House - the Republican House candidate Pete Stauber has pulled ahead in the most recent polls of his Democratic challenger, Joe Radinovich. So joining me in studio is Minnesota political blogger Aaron Brown of He's also a former Democratic campaign manager. Aaron, thanks for being here.

AARON BROWN: Thanks for having me.

KING: All right. So the big question has been, how did Republicans gain so much ground in this district, right? I talked to a woman named Heather Hill (ph) in your hometown of Hibbing, Minn. She's a nurse and a local union steward. And she said she supports the Democrat in this race, but...

HEATHER HILL: I don't like people telling me how to vote (laughter). I don't know. I don't like to pick a party. I like to pick who is going to be supportive of what we need.

KING: All right. So, Aaron, I heard that from a lot of voters, you know, I don't strongly identify with one party or the other. Is that pretty typical up here?

BROWN: It is. Whether you're supporting Republicans or Democrats, I really feel that that's pretty typical for this district. And I think it's really an extension of political realignment that's happening here. You know, the miners now are upper middle class because of automation and changes in the workforce. And that's created a gap or a divide between other workers. And it's really created a change where there's not a lot of unity. The Democratic Party was a unifying force in this district. And now, that's less the case, especially with lots of national money flowing into the district really changing the conversation.

KING: You mentioned mining there. So in this district, mining for taconite, which is an iron ore, it's been a big part of the economy for decades. And most miners have been in unions, and they voted in a bloc for the Democrats. Interestingly, I learned, that doesn't necessarily mean they have liberal beliefs. This is a miner named Scott Poliner (ph) talking about immigration from Central America.

SCOTT POLINER: If you're already a citizen, you've went through the legal process, you can't keep them out of your country. You can't kick people out. But if there's people that are coming in that are necessarily not the greatest, they don't have the greatest of intentions - you know, like my great grandparents, great-great grandparents, when they came to this country, they didn't want to change the value system by forcing their beliefs on people. They just - they came here because they wanted a better life for their family.

KING: Aaron, I could not believe how much immigration came up when I was talking to people in the 8th District because there's not a lot of immigration in this part of Minnesota.

BROWN: It's one of the quirks because there aren't many people affected by actual immigration policy, but it's a huge cultural and economic issue for a lot of people. It's really interesting hearing that because this area was, a hundred years ago, you know, settled by a mostly immigrant population. And a lot of the people who came over could be described in some of the same ways that he just mentioned. It's really people coming here for, you know, the 20th century were coming here for - to make a better life for their family and to, you know, find some stability from unstable situations. And really, a lot of that is the same way you could describe immigrants today. You know, history is long, but it has a short memory, I guess you could say.

KING: And just briefly, Aaron, a lot of people told me they were disturbed by how much outside money is coming into this district this midterm season.

BROWN: Absolutely. We're one of the most expensive districts in the country. And it's really changing the conversation because it's putting whatever interest groups want to put in front of voters, it's making it the most important issue. And it's making it hard because this is an issue - a district dominated by local issues for so long. Now, it's really dominated by national issues.

KING: Really fascinating place. Aaron Brown is a liberal political blogger from Thanks again, Aaron.

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