STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What is the United States willing to do about the disappearance of a journalist?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Jamal Khashoggi was last seen alive as he walked into a Saudi consulate in Turkey. Turkish investigators think he was tortured and murdered when he was inside. He was a U.S. resident, and he wrote articles for The Washington Post. But President Trump has repeatedly said he doesn't want to respond in any way that disrupts U.S. weapons sales to the Saudis. He was asked about this in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" and said if the Saudis were responsible for Khashoggi's hoagies disappearance and alleged death, there would be severe punishment.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's a lot at stake, and maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There's something - you'll be surprised to hear me say that - there's something really terrible and disgusting about that if that were the case. So we're going to have to see. We're going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment.
INSKEEP: The Saudis have said they would retaliate for any sanctions. NPR's Jackie Northam follows U.S.-Saudi relations, has been inside the country and followed it for years. Hi there, Jackie.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: When you listen to the president's words, do you hear an actual threat against Saudi Arabia?
NORTHAM: No. Not at all. He seemed to hedge his answer to that question. You know, he's under pressure to investigate what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, and he says his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his senior adviser has been on the phone with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who denies any involvement in the suspected killing. You know, at the same time, as you mentioned, Trump is trying to preserve a multimillion-dollar arms deal to Saudi Arabia and the American jobs that go with that. He says if the U.S. doesn't sell those arms to Saudi Arabia then sure enough the Russians or the Chinese will. You know, but there are increasing calls by Congress to cancel or suspend those arms deals and perhaps place sanctions on Saudi Arabia.
INSKEEP: OK. So the president mentioned severe punishment, but in a way that doesn't actually commit him to impose severe punishment, and yet the Saudis seem to have responded to this quite ferociously the last day or so.
NORTHAM: Yes. The Saudi foreign ministry issued a blistering statement. It said it rejects any threats or attempts to undermine the government through what it called political pressures or by repeating false accusations. And, you know, it warned that if any economic sanctions were imposed on the kingdom then it would respond with what it called greater action. And the statement doesn't actually specify what that action would be, but, you know, there are signs that this whole situation is starting to affect Saudi Arabia's economy. On Sunday, the stock market there plunged 7 percent before rallying slightly.
INSKEEP: And I guess some people also noted that that formal Saudi statement never directly, explicitly denied being responsible for the murder. They simply said, referred in general ways, to false allegations.
NORTHAM: That's right.
INSKEEP: There is this business conference coming up - another opportunity for the Saudis to showcase how much money they want to spend, how much money they want to invest in their own economy. They were supposed to bring in media and business figures from around the world, and now a lot of them are pulling out.
NORTHAM: That's right. Yeah. This is definitely a blow. You know, this investment conference is being called Davos of the desert, and as you say, it's meant to renew excitement about doing business in the kingdom and bringing in all of the major names in the business world and tech giants, venture capitalist and many, many media outlets, as well. But now all the major - or many of the major players are pulling out amid concerns about the fate of Kashoggi.
Just in the past few days, the chief executives at J.P. Morgan, Viacom, Uber, the World Bank, among many others said they're not going to come. So there are others still going, though. You know, because there are business opportunities in Saudi Arabia. And the one to watch right now, Steve, is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. And so far, he's said he's going to attend the event, but that could change before it's due to start October 23.
INSKEEP: And, of course, all of this hosted by Mohammed bin Salman the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the de facto ruler who said he wanted to reform his country. That's what he said, anyway. Jackie, thanks very much.
NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam.
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INSKEEP: Harvard University faces a lawsuit this morning.
MARTIN: Right. This is a high-stakes legal action. It could affect the future of affirmative action in university admissions. And this case is different than other lawsuits that challenge preferences for underrepresented minorities. This lawsuit is on behalf of Asian-Americans and the charge that Harvard gave preferences to whites.
INSKEEP: Kirk Carapezza of Boston member station WGBH is here. Hey there, Kirk.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's this suit about, and who's filing it?
CARAPEZZA: This suit is filed by Students for Fair Admissions, and it claims Harvard caps the number of qualified Asian-American applicants by using personal ratings. And in court over the next two to three weeks, the group will need to prove that Harvard is intentionally rejecting applicants because they're Asian, because of their race.
INSKEEP: I just want to stop for a second. You said Students for Fair Admissions. Who could possibly be against that? But this is a group with a particular point of view on the world, right?
CARAPEZZA: Yes. This group is led by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum. He's filed previous lawsuits against the University of Texas, the University of North Carolina. I spoke with attorney Lee Cheng. He's with the Asian American Legal Foundation, which is supporting this lawsuit. Cheng is Chinese-American, and he's also a Harvard graduate.
LEE CHENG: Harvard is systematically saying that Asian candidates are not likable and don't have good personalities by orders of magnitude, again, less than candidates of any other ethnic group, which is really nothing but racist. It perpetuates and feeds and creates stereotypes.
INSKEEP: I guess we should explain this. Saying that candidates are not likeable, what they're referring to here is a kind of personal characteristics test or evaluation that people are given when they apply, and that has affected the number of Asians, whites or anybody else who goes in. How does Harvard respond to that?
CARAPEZZA: Harvard says there's been no discrimination against Asian-American applicants and points out Asian-Americans now account for 23 percent of all admitted students. At a higher ed event in Detroit last month, I caught up with Harvard's new president Larry Bacow, and he defended the college's admissions process.
LARRY BACOW: Nobody wants to be judged on their numbers alone. People understand and recognize that we learn from our differences, that creating a diverse learning environment enriches the learning experience for every student on campus.
CARAPEZZA: And, Steve, Bacow told me that what's at stake here is Harvard and higher education's ability to create that diverse environment, which he sees as central to its mission.
INSKEEP: And Harvard is defending this how? Well, I want to understand this just a little bit. When we say that 23 percent of the student body is Asian, the accusation is that Asians would be an even higher percentage if it were not for this personal characteristics test. Is that right?
CARAPEZZA: Right. If you just focused on academics and test scores alone, Asian-Americans would would be a significant larger proportion of the number of students at Harvard.
INSKEEP: And how significant is it, Kirk, that the Trump administration has weighed-in in favor of the plaintiffs here?
CARAPEZZA: Right. The Justice Department filed a brief in support of the lawsuit saying Harvard's admissions process, quote, "may be infected with racial bias." Here in Boston, Judge Allison Burroughs, who will preside over the case, she was nominated by President Obama. She's the same judge who blocked President Trump's executive order designed to ban refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. She's really known for her independent streaks so I don't think she'll be swayed by the Justice Department, or the Trump administration or any other political agenda.
INSKEEP: Nevertheless, a pretty dramatic case. Kirk, thanks very much.
CARAPEZZA: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Kirk Carapezza of WGBH in Boston.
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INSKEEP: OK. It's Monday, which means we are two days from a big Brexit summit, and talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union are stalled.
MARTIN: Yeah. The prime minister of the U.K. Theresa May is holding a cabinet meeting tomorrow. There is the threat that some of the members might resign over this. The political party that's propping up her fragile government at this point says walking away from the European Union without a deal is, quote, "probably inevitable."
INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt will never walk away from this story, and he's on the line from London once again. Hey there, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Absolutely not.
INSKEEP: So how'd this go over the weekend?
LANGFITT: Well, the big problem, as we've talked about many times, Steve, is, you know, how does the U.K. leave the EU without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland?
LANGFITT: And this is so contentious, May's working solution is actually just to postpone a solution and kick the can down the road. That's her best idea at this point, and to have the United Kingdom continue to operate inside the EU's customs area. So wouldn't need customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is - Northern Ireland, of course, is a part of the U.K. But the EU and the U.K. can't agree on how long this customs arrangement would expire, and that's one of the main reasons that talks collapsed this weekend.
INSKEEP: I guess we should just remember. So Britain is still, for the moment, part of the European Union, which means there are open borders. People can travel from place to place. They can live from one place to another. And the latest idea is that, for at least a little while, if the British can get the Europeans to go along, they would continue to let goods move across those borders?
LANGFITT: Exactly. Well, at least across the island of Ireland, yes. And, in fact, yeah, the U.K. would actually stay in the Customs Union. The problem with that, though, is for Brexiteers, they say, you know, they're afraid that this is going to go on forever. And this is actually a way that could undermine the whole idea of Brexit. Brexit would never happen.
Also they want to be able to get out of the EU as soon as possible because one of their big pitches back in 2016 during the referendum is they would cut new trade deals with other countries, and this would actually reinvigorate and help the economy here in the United Kingdom. The bottom line is that analysts say May just can't get an open-ended customs arrangement through her own parliament so she's basically having problems in the EU and problems back here.
INSKEEP: Wow. So we're still in a place where Britain's Theresa May does not have enough of her own Conservative Party on the same page that she can go to the Europeans and say we're committed to whatever proposal we just brought you.
LANGFITT: Yeah. And that's part of the problem. And I think particularly the idea of this open-ended customs arrangement is just not flying here. David Davis, he's a former Brexit secretary, he resigned earlier, not too long ago, in protest. He's calling for a cabinet rebellion against May's plan. Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, they're propping up Prime Minister May's government. They're also against this plan, and if they pull out, they could cripple the government by refusing to vote on any big bills. You wouldn't be able to get anything done. And, Steve, in fairness to the prime minister, getting consensus on this so far is proving nearly impossible.
INSKEEP: What happens over the next couple of days then?
LANGFITT: Well, I think what we're going to see is see how the cabinet responds tomorrow. I mean, is there open dissent? Do people threaten to resign? I think that's the next step. May will fly to Brussels on Wednesday, but there are no talks planned between now and then. So it seems like it would be much harder to get an agreement. There's still time left. The EU wants a deal by the end of this year. The U.K.'s scheduled leave at the end of March. And there's the possibility the U.K. still could leave without a deal.
INSKEEP: Frank, thanks so much.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.