Trump's 'Decisions From The Heart'

Jul 19, 2017
Originally published on July 19, 2017 6:49 am
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People who advocate for changes to government policies are adapting their tactics to President Trump. The president has shown little interest in policy details. For him, politics is more often personal - driven by anecdotes, personal stories, personal slights. NPR's Tamara Keith reports that shapes what advocates can or cannot accomplish.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When the robotics team from Afghanistan walked into the opening ceremonies at the FIRST Global Challenge in Washington, D.C., the crowd went wild.

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KEITH: In part, that's because of how hard it was for the six girls from Herat, Afghanistan, to get here. Their visa applications were denied by the State Department twice, but then President Trump intervened. Kawsar Roshan is a 15-year-old member of the team.

KAWSAR ROSHAN: (Through interpreter) We were worried that we would not be able to raise our flag and represent our team in person. But we are very happy that we are able to attend in person.

KEITH: It's not clear why their visas had been denied. But the media attention it drew got them on the White House's radar. Dean Kamen founded the robotics competition.

DEAN KAMEN: I don't know which news he saw. But the next thing we knew, the president took it upon himself to say, this is not right. I'm going to fix this.

KEITH: The president's involvement in this case doesn't mark a broader shift. He hasn't yet put his stamp on U.S.-Afghanistan policy. But he has called for significant funding cuts to the State Department, which handles visa applications. Kamen says the girls' story must have struck the president.

KAMEN: I believe our president, for better or worse, does, I think, make decisions from the heart.

KEITH: There are many examples of this, like Trump's tweet earlier this month weighing in on a legal battle over Charlie Gard, a terminally ill baby in the U.K. In April, Trump was deeply disturbed by the graphic images of children killed in a Syrian chemical weapons attack.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I've been watching it and seeing it. And it doesn't get any worse than that.

KEITH: The next day, President Trump announced a U.S. missile strike in Syria. He talked about the beautiful babies there but didn't elaborate on his strategy for dealing with the civil war in Syria. Later that month, Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American woman who had been imprisoned in Egypt for nearly three years, came home after Trump pleaded her case directly with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

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TRUMP: We are very happy to have Aya back home. And it's a great honor to have her in the Oval Office with her brother. And thank you very much.

KEITH: Mohamed Soltan was among many here in the U.S. working for Hijazi's release. He is troubled by escalating human rights violations under el-Sissi

MOHAMED SOLTAN: Every single person that is released, that's one less person facing injustice. But we're talking about a policy here.

KEITH: Policy, he says, is lacking. Trump administration officials say they just have a quieter approach to human rights. Soltan worries this approach gives a pass to bad actors who can curry favor with the president by responding favorably to a single high-profile case. And yet, if that's the way to help the other 19 Americans held in Egyptian prisons, then Soltan will work to raise their profile, too.

SOLTAN: So when you're lucky and you get a tweet to go viral or a video to go viral or a picture that goes viral that'll get the president's attention or the president's daughter's attention or the president's son-in-law's attention or anybody else that's close to the president - that then is able to take on that and champion or advocate.

KEITH: Where he used to sit down with high-level State Department and White House officials to effect change, now Soltan sees a viral story as his best shot.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.