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News Brief: Trump Executive Order, Pence In Japan, Sears In Trouble


And we have a guide to this day's news. David, where do we start?


Up first, Steve, we are expecting President Trump to sign this executive order today. And the White House says it's going to follow up on a signature promise.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will follow two simple rules - buy American and hire American.


TRUMP: We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world. But we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.

GREENE: A little bit from Trump's inaugural address there. So today's executive order, it calls for stricter enforcement of laws that require the federal government to buy American-made products. And it's also going to target the H-1B visa program, which admits some foreign workers to fill highly skilled jobs, mostly in the tech industry. And President Trump has, we should say, criticized that program.

INSKEEP: So Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team is here once again. Domenico, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK, buy American - pretty dramatic demand there, pretty stark. But the actual order will be stricter enforcement of existing rules. How much does this really affect?

MONTANARO: I feel like we need the, like, I'm just a bill guy, you know, kind of traipsing through here.


INSKEEP: (Singing) I'm just a bill.

MONTANARO: But, yeah, I mean, the thing is, a president's power when it comes to these kinds of things is extremely limited. You know, he can affect anything in the Executive Branch. But when it comes to making sweeping changes, he's obviously going to need Congress. You know, when it comes to buy American, this is something that has been on the laws, on the books since the 1970s. And it's a difficult thing to enforce. They feel like there's some abuse in that system.

But it can make things more expensive, which is how that free market works.

INSKEEP: And when we emphasize this, this is about federal purchases...


INSKEEP: ...Which is a lot of money, but it's not the whole economy.


INSKEEP: So it's an effort to make that a little bit stricter, a little bit tighter. But nothing is - everything is still (singing) stuck in committee. Sorry, I've...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Got that song in my head now. You did that to me, Domenico. The other part of this, though, the H-1B visas, this does involve tens of thousands of jobs, typically engineers from places like India or China. And the concern is that too many of them are being brought in. Are there Americans waiting for those jobs?

MONTANARO: Well, look, there's obviously a tech shortage in the United States. It's not like, you know, that's why there have been these science, technology, engineering and math programs in the United States to try to up where the United States is compared to other countries. So there aren't a whole lot of people sitting around waiting for those jobs. But the government, in fairness, does believe, and some economists believe, that these H-1B visas do bring down the wages of Americans in the country.

Some people believe that call centers, for example, are things that are one area of abuse where companies that outsource will use H-1B visas to, you know, basically hire lower-wage people than hiring low-skill, higher-wage Americans.

INSKEEP: OK, so these executive orders, these portions of the executive order go to real concerns, but they're tweaks on existing rules. He's announcing this on tax day, Domenico.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: And so I want to ask about that timing. Just yesterday, the press secretary, Sean Spicer, said again that the president will not release his tax returns. Let's listen.


SEAN SPICER: The president is under audit. It's a routine one. It continues. And I think that the American public know clearly where he stands. This was something that he made very clear during the election cycle. Excuse me, and - hold on. So...

INSKEEP: Is the president making this buy-American move today to change the subject from his taxes?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, look, it's certainly convenient timing, right? I mean, it's a day of economics. A White House can push a topic that it so chooses to do. Buy American sure sounds a whole lot better than I won't release my tax returns.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GREENE: You know, changing the subject, I just think of the broader picture here. I mean, the reality for any president, you don't always control the agenda. Events can do that. And I think about President Trump, he promised to put America first. But there have been these forces outside America that have really done some to drive the story - the Russian hacking, the Syrian chemical attack that he responded to, tensions with North Korea.

So right now we're watching a president try today to send a message, in some ways, to his base that he really is focusing on them, that big priority.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Domenico Montanaro's been helping us watch that. Domenico, thanks for coming by this morning.

MONTANARO: Always a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Vice President Mike Pence is traveling the Pacific Rim. After South Korea yesterday, he's in Japan talking about what, David?

GREENE: Trade, trade, trade, trade. Candidate Donald Trump, we should remember, brought up the U.S. trade deficit with Japan quite a bit. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the response was, OK, let's talk. He was the first world leader to meet with the president elect in November. They have kept talking. And today, Pence spoke of strengthening this relationship.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The president is working tirelessly to create forward momentum, to deepen our bilateral economic partnership with Japan. And today's announcement is a reflection of that.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following Pence's visit. Hi, Anthony.


INSKEEP: Bilateral, the word the vice president used there. And he said it repeatedly in that press conference, a bilateral relationship. What's the point of stressing that word?

KUHN: What he means very clearly is that the U.S. is no longer interested in a trade deal for all of Asia, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the U.S. walked out on. The U.S. now wants to work out deals with each individual nation. And it wants those to be better deals than the U.S. had before. It wants American companies to get better access to the Japanese market and make it easier for them to buy and sell goods.

INSKEEP: That's what Pence wants and what President Trump wants. What's Japan want from the United States?

KUHN: When I spoke to Kunihiko Miyake, who's a former diplomat of Japan who used to work with Prime Minister Abe and knows him well, and he says that they want to get beyond sort of what he called Trump 1.0, this campaign rhetoric about trade imbalances and suggesting even that the U.S. might pull its troops out of Japan. And they've got it. And he also pointed out that there's a lot of business that can be done on this trip.

You know Japan's famous for its bullet trains, its high-speed rail. Well, Trump wants to build infrastructure in the U.S. And that's a big deal they could possibly do.

INSKEEP: Anthony, you mentioned the trade deficit there. And there certainly is a large trade deficit. The United States has one with Japan. But that's been true for a while. And hasn't U.S. trade with Japan, the economic picture, changed a lot since the 1980s, which is when President Trump first started complaining about it?

KUHN: It sure has. They've experienced more than two decades of economic stagnation. Another big thing that's happened is that they've invested quite a lot in the U.S., opening plants and factories in places like Indiana, where Pence was governor. And he raised that. That's just the kind of investment that the U.S. wants to get more of now.

INSKEEP: So the Japanese hire a lot of Americans. Very briefly, what does Japan have at stake in this nuclear confrontation that Pence has also been talking about, the nuclear confrontation with North Korea?

KUHN: You know, Steve, Shinzo Abe pointed out that Japan is preparing for hostilities on the Korean peninsula dealing with refugee flows and the possibility that North Korea could bomb U.S. bases in Japan. So they really have to focus on this issue. And it's served to strengthen the alliance and focus attention on the dangers.

GREENE: I just want to watch how this relationship develops. I mean, Japan's prime minister, all these niceties, gave Trump a golden driver to add to his golf bag. But what has Trump done? He's pulled out of the TPP, as you said, Anthony, that trade deal that Japan is a part of. I think we're going to learn some lessons here about leverage, about diplomacy. I just, you know, I'm not sure what those lessons are going to be yet.

INSKEEP: Also about whether a golden driver works very well.


INSKEEP: Anthony Kuhn, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

KUHN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: And, David Greene, I understand you've got some retail news for us.

GREENE: That's right, Steve. Do you remember this?


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) There's more for your life at Sears.

GREENE: Oh, that commercial from Sears, Roebuck & Company from the 1980s. There was the slogan Sears, where America shops. And it was, we should remember, the largest retailer in the United States until 1989 when it was surpassed by Wal-Mart and other stores. And, you know, despite merging with Kmart in 2005, Sears has been losing millions of dollars every quarter. They've closed doors, they've slashed jobs and they've sold off assets including brands we all know like Land's End and Craftsman.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley has been reporting on this from Chicago, where Sears has headquarters. Hi, Cheryl.


INSKEEP: What's wrong with Sears?

CORLEY: Well, as David said, they've been losing money and lots of it. And it's happening year after year after year. And it's basically because they've been late in keeping up with the change in the retail landscape. Traffic at malls where many Sears are located is down. We have those discount big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target and a huge online presence, like Amazon, which is often called the new Sears. And they've all become the leaders of the industry.

And even in its own recent annual report that Sears is required to file with federal regulators, it listed all the risk it faces and said even it had doubts about it continuing to be a growing concern.

INSKEEP: What do you hear shoppers?

CORLEY: Well, I talked to a lot of them. And I also talked to former shoppers, like Susan Mullen (ph), who said she has fond memories of Sears but she hadn't been in the store for years. Here's what she said about it.

SUSAN MULLEN: It fits no niche. You know, it's not a discount place, it's not high-end. It's just - it has no identity anymore.

INSKEEP: So what does the decline of Sears tell us more broadly about the viability of brick-and-mortar stores, Cheryl?

CORLEY: Well, I think that they know that they have to change and that, as I mentioned, the retail landscape has changed. And many of them are working to connect with customers in different ways, to have more of an online presence, for instance.

INSKEEP: Well, that ought to work for Sears. They used to have the Sears catalog, which was kind of online for snail mail or something like that.

GREENE: (Laughter).

CORLEY: Absolutely. And they have this new project that they're calling called Shop Your Way, which is a loyalty program and which they're hoping will bring customers back to them so they'll stick around for another century.

GREENE: I'm still going. I miss the fitting rooms. I like being there getting advice on what looks good and what doesn't. Am I old-fashioned?


INSKEEP: OK. All right, NPR's Cheryl Corley, thanks very much.

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

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.