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News Brief: Michigan's Great Divide, Economic Outlook, ISIS Fighter Identified

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Four years ago, in the fall of 2016, President Barack Obama traveled to Michigan.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, his move was seen as a last-minute effort to carry a state for Hillary Clinton, and it wasn't enough. Michigan was one of three states that narrowly decided the election for Donald Trump. This weekend, Obama returns to Michigan again, accompanied this time by Joe Biden. President Trump was in the state this week. It's all happening just weeks since the FBI arrested extremists who allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Gun rights activists are pushing to be able to openly carry firearms at polling places after the secretary of state ordered them banned.

INSKEEP: Abigail Censky is a reporter with WKAR in Michigan and is on the line. Good morning.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What makes this year feel different from every other year when Michigan is seen as a swing state?

CENSKY: Well, we're in national headlines as a state primed for militia activity. It was not even a month ago that the FBI revealed this alleged plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer. And there's been a slew of election-related lawsuits. Now the big one is whether to open carry firearms will be allowed in polling places. Our Democratic secretary of state issued a ban the week after the alleged plot was revealed, but it was struck down by a court Tuesday, and now there's an appeal.

INSKEEP: How's that kind of tension affect voters' attitudes?

CENSKY: Well, there's a lot of anxiety given just how critical of a state we are. And even though Biden has been polling high single digits ahead of President Trump here, there's a reticence to accept polls when Michigan broke the blue wall in 2016. There's also a powder keg element of headlines about the kidnap plot and militia activity. I talked to Shawn Williams (ph) in downtown Lansing last week. He was wearing his I voted sticker and had just voted for Joe Biden. He says he's hoping this election will be a reset.

SHAWN WILLIAMS: The fanatics are a little out of control. So I'm hoping after the election and we get Trump out of the office that things maybe will calm down and that. But right now, there's really no - there's no talking - people are just set in stone on what they think.

CENSKY: So just like Shawn, people here are voting early. We've already seen 2.4 million people return absentee ballots as of Thursday. And we're on our way to record turnout overall, as high as maybe 5 million votes.

INSKEEP: And the candidates, I guess, are still appealing to the people who haven't voted yet, the millions who haven't voted yet.

CENSKY: That's right. I was at a Trump rally this week, and the president was really driving home his message that economic survival and a return to normalcy is on the ballot. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But it's a choice between a Trump boom or a Biden lockdown. But you're already locked down. I mean, this state, we got to get her going. I don't know.

CENSKY: So just after that, the crowd began to chant, lock her up about Governor Whitmer. The president also cast COVID-19 as a media obsession and didn't mention the increase in cases in the state or the more than 7,000 Michiganders who have died. And Trump won here in 2016 by just 10,704 votes. So he's hoping to pull off an upset here again, you know, and then on the other hand, you have Joe Biden, who was in Detroit a couple weeks ago, where he spoke about unity and against hate. He'll come back on Saturday to campaign with former President Obama, which is really an indication of just how critical he thinks this state is. He's been spending a lot of time in states like Georgia, which shows a lot of confidence. But coming here shows Michigan is never a foregone conclusion.

INSKEEP: Abigail Censky of WKAR, thanks so much.

CENSKY: Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Taken out of context, the economic news from the third quarter is probably pretty good.

GREENE: Yeah, the Commerce Department releases numbers today that likely show big growth in July, August, September. But that growth is only a partial recovery from the calamities of the spring when the economy shut down for the pandemic.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley covers all things economic for us. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: As best you can guess, how much ground did the economy regain?

HORSLEY: Well, the GDP report from the Commerce Department is expected to show that the economy has bounced part of the way back from the depths of the recession, the springtime. We don't yet know exactly what the GDP number will be, but we expect it's going to show a record level of growth in the most recent quarter. President Trump has been touting that at his campaign rallies as evidence of what he likes to call a V-shaped recovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Having a super V, it's called - nobody even thought. We are doing numbers. And wait till you see that number on GDP. I don't know what it is. The Fed said it may be a 35% increase in GDP.

HORSLEY: In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's forecast has increased. They're now projecting an annualized GDP growth of 37% in the third quarter. But, Steve, I have to caution you, whatever that headline number is, it's an exaggerated snapshot of the recovery so far.

INSKEEP: Why would that be?

HORSLEY: The government routinely reports these quarterly changes in GDP as if they were sustained over the course of a full year, and that makes both the downturn and the rebound look bigger than they really were. And they're plenty big to start with. Back in the spring, for example, the Commerce Department said the economy shrank at an annualized rate of about 31%. That means if the slide had continued for a full year, the economy would have ended up 31% smaller. Luckily, the slide didn't continue. The slump was really sharp. It lasted only a couple months. Likewise, the growth spurt we saw this summer is not likely to continue. Nariman Behravesh, who's the chief economist at IHS Markit, said a lot of that early growth was the result of pent-up demand, and he doesn't expect it to last.

NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: If you pull back on a rubber band and let go, it's going to snap back. But then it kind of goes limp back to that. Certainly the fourth quarter and maybe early next year will be pretty weak growth.

HORSLEY: That's especially true as we've seen a fresh surge of coronavirus infections. You saw that sharp sell off of the stock market this week when the Dow dropped more than 900 points just yesterday.

INSKEEP: What does all this mean for the election?

HORSLEY: You know, back in the springtime, Jason Furman, who was an economic adviser to former President Obama, warned his fellow Democrats that as bad as things were at the time, a strong economic rebound could give a lift to the president just before the election. That's obviously what Trump and his team are hoping for. But when I talked to Furman this week, he was somewhat less concerned about that. A lot of the growth in today's report happened months ago, and some of that momentum has now faded. Nevertheless, expect the president to try to make as much hay out of this as he can. His campaign's already been buying digital ads to promote the record pace of GDP growth without, by the way, mentioning the record drop that came in the quarter before.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks, as always.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: When Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL, went on trial for war crimes last year, the public knew very little about his victim.

GREENE: Military officials said only that the Iraqi was about 17 and had been a fighter for ISIS. He was in U.S. custody when he was killed. Gallagher was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with the teenager's body for a photo. Then after conservative media promoted his cause. President Trump pardoned him. So who was the unnamed Iraqi? NPR's Jane Arraf and producer Sangar Khaleel spent months to find the young man's name, his family and the reason he joined ISIS.

INSKEEP: And Jane Arraf is on the line now. Hi there, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So you start, I gather, with what was known. There was a video of this Iraqi teenager before he was killed. What did that show?

ARRAF: Well, it's Iraqi state TV footage, and it's just after he's captured. An Iraqi commander told investigators that this guy was the last surviving fighter in a unit. They had run out of food and ammunition. So in the video, you can see him lying on the ground. His head is thrown back. He's just painfully thin. And you can hear from that video that he's sedated, but he's still lucid.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KHALED JAMAL ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: So he tells the correspondent that he's 17 and from Mosul and he says his father didn't want him to join, that he beat him to try to stop him from joining. But what really sticks out, Steve, in that video is a single word. He says he joined ISIS because they told him (non-English language spoken) a word here that means - they told him he did a good job and that's why he joined.

INSKEEP: I see. I see. So you tried to find out who this young man was, who his family was. How do you do that?

ARRAF: Well, it wasn't easy. His name appears to have never been mentioned in the military trial. It's not actually entirely clear they knew who he was. But our producer, Sangar, went to the Mosul neighborhood where the teenager said he was from. No one recognized him there. We spoke to the Iraqi commander who was there at the time, the Iraqi TV correspondent. There were no central records with his identity, which is not terribly surprising. And finally, Iraqi security sources who didn't want to be identified finally came up with his name and identity, Khaled Jamal Abdullah. We went to see the police in his hometown, and they put us in touch with his family.

INSKEEP: Well, what did the father have to say? And did he know what happened to his son even?

ARRAF: He didn't. The father, Jamal Abdullah Naser, said a friend of his son had showed up at the door three years ago and said his son was killed in an airstrike, but he never provided proof. So he's never seen this video, right? We showed it to him for the first time, and he and his wife told us, yes, that's our son. And Naser tells us that Khaled regretted joining, but by then, it was too late.

JAMAL ABDULLAH NASER: (Through interpreter) After he joined, they took him for a month to train him. When he came back, he said, Dad, and started crying. He was a child. He said, I can't quit. If I quit, they will punish me.

ARRAF: In fact, they would have imprisoned or executed him. His father says he told them, you've destroyed us.

INSKEEP: What did the family think about President Trump pardoning Eddie Gallagher?

ARRAF: Yeah, they were shocked. The father says America is a civilized country. Why would they do this? He says he was a wounded teenager. And yes, he was a criminal, but they should have taken him and put him on trial. And he notes it's a war crime. And also just to note that the father himself was known by police as not being an ISIS supporter, but because their son joined, like thousands of families, his family was put in a detention camp and allowed to move back to their home and their village only after they disowned their son. No one ever found the body. The relatives of ISIS fighters are forbidden from burying the bodies, even if they have them. And in Khaled's case, the body was never found. After he was killed, Iraqi forces just left it there on the ground, and he was eventually dumped in a mass grave with other fighters. You know, a year after the fighting ended, we were going around Mosul and there were bodies of fighters decomposing in fields of rubble, people who will never be identified. And each one of them is somebody's child.

INSKEEP: Jane, thank you very much for the reporting, really appreciate it.

ARRAF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jane Arraf reporting from Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.