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News Brief: Trump's 'Patriotic' Curriculum, Voter Misinformation, German Gas Pipeline

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump has gone out of his way to portray protests in American cities as more violent than they really are.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now he's blaming American schools and universities, saying the teaching there amounts to, quote, "left-wing indoctrination." The president claims there's too much focus on slavery and systemic racism in our country in our schools, even though many American schoolchildren only have the most basic understanding of the civil rights movement.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country. American parents are not going to accept indoctrination in our schools.

MARTIN: Trump says he wants to create a commission to promote, quote, "patriotic education."

GREENE: And let's try and understand what's happening here with NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So can you tell us more about what exactly the president is arguing here?

TURNER: Yeah. He tried to frame the protests in response to the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police as, quote, "rioting and mayhem," that, in his words, are the result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in schools. Basically, he argued schools are teaching kids to hate this country by talking about the things America has gotten wrong, first and foremost slavery, instead of talking about freedom and the promise of our founding documents. He singled out the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project as a big part of that problem. The project is being used in some classrooms to explore the legacy of slavery and present-day systemic inequalities. In his speech yesterday, he also said he would establish a 1776 commission to promote patriotic education and that the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a grant to develop a pro-American curriculum.

GREENE: OK. So that's what the president is saying and doing. I mean, Cory, you cover education. You spend time in schools. You talk to educators all the time. I mean, can you help us, like, interpret what exactly the president is saying here?

TURNER: I mean, first of all, this is politics, and the fact is politicizing the history that we teach our kids has been happening for generations. Also though some important context here - I covered a report back in 2018 by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found many teachers and textbooks still do not talk about slavery and its legacy much or well, for example, focusing on the uplifting stories of Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass without also exploring the awful truth of the slavery that they escaped, you know, what it was, how its legacy survives and the toxic ideology of white supremacy. I spoke last night with several teachers who said President Trump's varnished version of history is still what's being taught, and that is the problem. I also heard from many historians, including Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries at The Ohio State University, that they disagree with the president's basic premise here that studying America's flaws is somehow unpatriotic.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: That's absurd. The highest form of patriotism is critical analysis. How can you make something better if you don't understand the shortcomings, what didn't work in the past and what worked in the past?

GREENE: So, Cory, I mean, when you listen the president, there are words and then there are actions. What actions, if any, is he trying to take here?

TURNER: Well, the grant here to create this pro-American curriculum is relatively small. It's $188,000, came out of the big coronavirus relief act. But some more really important context - the federal government has no authority to impose any kind of national curriculum. The president's own party has argued for years for the local control of schools. I heard from one middle school U.S. history teacher last night in Maryland. He told me the president telling states and districts what to teach in the name of protecting the Constitution is paradoxically contrary to the Constitution itself. So in truth, this curriculum will be like any other, you know, something schools will have the freedom to use or not to use.

GREENE: NPR's Cory Turner. Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: Thanks, David.

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GREENE: So President Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, are going all out to try and win over Latino voters in the state of Florida.

MARTIN: They are a key voting group in a pivotal state where the race has been tightening. And now these Latino voters are being targeted with some alarming messages and conspiracy theories.

RICARDO DAGER: There is this whole campaign of misinformation, and I'm very surprised to see how it has actually taken hold on people that I know very well and that are, you know, very rational people to an extent.

MARTIN: That's Ricardo Dager (ph). He's a retail importer originally from Colombia. NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez caught up with him in Florida.

GREENE: And Franco joins us from the campaign trail. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what exactly are voters telling you in Florida?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, there are - always has been targeted messaging and campaigns, but these messages have become a significant concern here. There's messaging from QAnon, the movement that claims President Trump is saving the world from pedophiles. And there are other messages that equate Black Lives Matters protesters with Nazis. It's not really clear where some of it is coming from or, frankly, who is behind it, but they're often targeting socialist and communist themes that resonate with voters here because, you know, many of the people fled those kind of regimes in Cuba and Venezuela and Nicaragua. And most of this messaging has been spreading on social media and WhatsApp and Facebook. But there also have been some reports of paid advertisements on Spanish-language media as well.

GREENE: Wow. Any idea whether voters are actually believing what they're hearing in these things?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I would say that most people don't believe these conspiracy theories, but some do. And, you know, a lot of people, as always, don't check where the messages are coming from. And for others, it might raise just enough doubts to make a difference. You know, Ricardo told me he's close with people who actually believe if Biden is elected, the United States will soon turn and look more like Cuba and Venezuela.

GREENE: I just listened to you - raise enough doubts to make a difference. You think about Florida being such a key swing state. I mean, that would suggest that there could be some impact here.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, the race is tightening. A few thousand votes could sway things here. Florida is the largest of the swing states with 29 of the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency. I spoke to Frank Mora. He was a Defense Department official during the Obama administration. Now he's with the Latin American Center at Florida International University.

FRANK MORA: For me as someone who was born and raised here, although I lived a lot outside and came back, it's just very sad to see us sort of be engaged in this and people believing it. People really, truly believe this.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he told me for so many people here in South Florida, the feelings about socialism and communism are just really raw. They are very dialed into what is happening in Venezuela, for example, and the feeling is that they just can't take a chance to allow those kind of politics to creep into the American system here. But he and other experts say that's really just fearmongering.

GREENE: That is NPR's White House correspondent, Franco Ordoñez, who is out covering the campaign. Franco, thanks and safe travels.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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GREENE: Two big stories in Germany which might not seem at first related - a gas pipeline from Russia called Nord Stream 2 and also the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

MARTIN: Yeah. Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to impose sanctions on Russia for allegedly poisoning Navalny. And there is debate about whether or not to even continue construction on that pipeline.

GREENE: Let's turn to NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin to try and help us untangle this whole geopolitical intrigue. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Let's start with the condition of Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with this nerve agent. How's he doing?

SCHMITZ: Well, up to now, we've been relying on the Berlin hospital where he's been staying for updates on his health. But this week, it's actually been Navalny who's been doing it. He's out of a coma, walking around, talking about returning to Russia to continue his work and sending updates via his Instagram account. His latest post shows video taken after it was revealed he fell ill on a plane from Siberia to Moscow. It shows his team rummaging around his Siberian hotel room putting items he used in plastic bags for analysis. German authorities later discovered one of the water bottles he drank from had traces of the nerve agent, Novichok, on it. His team originally thought he was poisoned by a cup of tea he had at an airport, but this shows that it happened earlier in his hotel room.

GREENE: Well, explain to us how this attack on Navalny fits into the controversy over this pipeline between Russia and Germany.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. The gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2, it's nearly finished. It's a controversial project. Critics say it makes Germany too dependent on Russia, and poisoning of Navalny has prompted politicians in Merkel's own party to call for the end of this pipeline. Here's politician Norbert Rottgen, who's running to replace Merkel as chancellor, speaking to German media.

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NORBERT ROTTGEN: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, David, he's saying here that Nord Stream 2 is environmentally damaging, anti-European and unnecessary. He says Vladimir Putin needs it and selling energy is the only way he can sustain his regime. But Merkel has so far refused to halt construction of Nord Stream 2.

GREENE: And what is the U.S. interest or position in all this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. The Trump administration has the same criticism of the project and has imposed sanctions on companies working on it. But many analysts believe what Trump really wants is for Germany to buy American gas. And this week, the German newspaper Die Zeit got its hands on what it says is a letter from German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In it, Scholz reportedly offers to spend more than a billion dollars of public money to build two liquefied natural gas terminals along Germany's Baltic coast, terminals that could accept imports of U.S. gas. In return, he reportedly asked Mnuchin to lift U.S. sanctions on the project. I spoke to Felix Heilmann about this. He researches the gas sector for the climate change think tank E3G.

FELIX HEILMANN: It just makes this project a hugely political one and seems to be a really Trumpian way of going about politics, a very surprising move indeed.

SCHMITZ: Though, what's interesting here, David, is Germany has been planning to build these two gas terminals for years, but this alleged letter to Mnuchin makes it sound like Germany's ready to build them just for Trump.

GREENE: NPR Central Europe correspondent Rob Schmitz with us this morning. Rob, thank you so much.

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