Week In Politics: White House Addresses Staff Turnover NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Mary Katharine Ham, senior writer at The Federalist and Boston Herald reporter Kimberly Atkins about U.S.-Russia relations, the firing of Rex Tillerson and the Pennsylvania special congressional election upset by Democrat Conor Lamb.
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Week In Politics: White House Addresses Staff Turnover

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Week In Politics: White House Addresses Staff Turnover

Week In Politics: White House Addresses Staff Turnover

Week In Politics: White House Addresses Staff Turnover

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NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Mary Katharine Ham, senior writer at The Federalist and Boston Herald reporter Kimberly Atkins about U.S.-Russia relations, the firing of Rex Tillerson and the Pennsylvania special congressional election upset by Democrat Conor Lamb.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Moscow, where I am gauging Russian reaction to all the news you've been following there in Washington this week.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Boy, good timing, Mary Louise. There's been a whole lot of that news (laughter) about Russia over these last few days.

KELLY: There has indeed. To review, there's the sanctions that we know the Trump administration imposed yesterday which the Kremlin is displeased over because they continue to insist that they did not interfere in U.S. elections - also, Ari, that they didn't carry out cyberattacks on the U.S. power grid. Oh, and by the way, they did not poison the former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.

SHAPIRO: All of that.

KELLY: That's the line here in Russia - no. And meanwhile, we got this whole presidential election going on. So we've got lots more on that later in the program. But let me hand it back to you for now for our weekly discussion about U.S. politics.

SHAPIRO: OK, looking forward to hearing more from you in a bit, Mary Louise. But first, for that weekly political discussion, we have Mary Katharine Ham, senior writer at The Federalist. Hi There.

MARY KATHARINE HAM: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: And also here in the studio - Kimberly Atkins, reporter and columnist at the Boston Herald. Hi again, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with that U.S.-Russia relationship and the sanctions that the White House announced this week. Do you think those sanctions, that acknowledgement by the Trump White House shows that this president has finally caught up with his intelligence community in the agreement that Russia interfered with the 2016 elections, Kimberly?

ATKINS: I think not quite yet. I mean, you saw even after the announcement of these sanctions, which are the toughest sanctions that this administration has handed down against Russia so far, there still is not a willingness to say for certain, unequivocally that Russia is a bad actor.

You saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders still saying, well, it depends on what Russia does from here on in. You know, you saw the president not really talk about the sanctions or the actions that Russia has taken against the U.S. even when he was talking about this poisoning in the U.K. that the U.S. issued a joint statement condemning. So it still seems to be a hesitancy there to fully embrace that.

SHAPIRO: Mary Katharine, how do you interpret these sanctions?

HAM: I mean, well, there are - well, first of all, it's a big step to recognize that not only have they gone past the disinformation campaign but into actual infrastructure, which is a huge deal.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

HAM: And so to recognize that with actual action is big. I do think Trump is willing to admit that for a moment, and then he might change his mind later. Other folks in the administration - H.R. McMaster, Nikki Haley, even Mike Pompeo, who will now be secretary of state - have been much harder on this line.

So you've got this strange dichotomy where at times the Trump administration is quite tough on Russia substantially or substantively with closing a consulate in San Francisco or with these sanctions. But you do not have a united front because the leader is missing in action and has sometimes been far too kind to Putin.

SHAPIRO: Let's move on from the U.S. relationship with Russia to this dramatic week of staff changes, from the secretary of state being fired in a tweet to a close personal aide to the president apparently being deemed a risk to national security and walked out of the White House. Last night, there were some headlines that the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was going to be ousted immediately then maybe not so immediately. This afternoon, here's what press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The chief of staff actually spoke to a number of staff this morning, reassuring them that there were no immediate personnel changes at this time and that people shouldn't be concerned.

SHAPIRO: At this time - Mary Katharine, how do you think this turmoil affects President Trump's agenda?

HAM: Well, I think it makes it hard to focus on something like, say, Infrastructure Week, which we've tried several times now.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

HAM: Look; the Trump White House does operate differently just as the Trump Organization operates differently. This is how he likes to manage, and I'm not sure it's that effective. It's like the online dating app of White Houses.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HAM: There's a lot of heat and fire, not a lot of thought about compatibility, very little vetting. And in the end, you get ghosted or texted to be dumped.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Or tweeted.

HAM: But yeah, it's not a great way of doing business, and I don't think it helps him actually move legislation and goals forward.

SHAPIRO: Kimberly, President Trump says this is how he enjoys working. So what's wrong with that?

ATKINS: Well, it is how he enjoys it. I think he is fine with this setup even if the people around him are kind of flailing in this chaos. Remember; he came from "The Apprentice." He likes being at the table and saying, you're fired. And I think he's more comfortable being in that position, going with his gut, with his instincts than necessarily relying on people around him who later on - as we've seen in many instances, he can regret following other people's advice and wishing he would - stuck to his own guns.

HAM: I will say often his second choice is a more compatible choice that actually ends up being more functional - a Kelly at chief of staff or - and I think Pompeo likely at secretary of state. So there is that.

SHAPIRO: I also want to talk about this week's special election in Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, Conor Lamb, the Democrat, apparently just barely won this district that President Trump carried by more than 20 points. Kimberly, do you think this one special election should redefine the way Democrats and political observers go into the midterm elections?

ATKINS: I think they should pay careful attention to it. Look; I always say special elections are special. They are - they measure what's happening on the ground more than the national feeling. But in this sense, there's a lot to draw from it. There is an anti-Trump sentiment that can be palpable here. You - it's about choosing good candidates.

Conor Lamb seemed to be the perfect candidate for this district at this time. And it brings in, you know, this idea of how strong Trump will be. If he's going out on the campaign trail for the midterms like he promises he will, will this be a get-out-the-vote effort for the Democrats?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ATKINS: It's really a lot of things at play here, and I think the - both parties need to pay careful attention to that race.

SHAPIRO: The line we heard this week from Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan was that the Democrat ran as a Republican, and as a conservative. Mary Katharine, does that give any consolation to the Republicans who appear to have lost this race?

HAM: Look; he did run as a moderate Democrat, and I do think that's something Democrats should pay attention to. Notably, he was not picked by primary, so it wasn't progressive activists and that energy that was working on his behalf. It was, you know, committee sort of chairmen who did that. And I think that's how you got a more moderate candidate.

But what you can't ignore is that the swing away from Republicans toward Democrats in every special election has been uniform, right? That's the problem for Republicans. There's a real issue there, and they can't rely on Democrats to pick two liberal candidates in every single race.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly in our last minute, in Washington and across the country this week, we saw students walk out of school to protest gun violence. Do you both think we're seeing a new political movement here, or is this just a moment?

ATKINS: I think we're seeing a cultural change. I think people are finally looking at guns and gun violence, particularly in schools, in a new way that can help change sentiment. I don't think that that can come from the Capitol, from lawmakers. I think it comes from communities, and these students are a example of that.

SHAPIRO: Last word, Mary Katharine.

HAM: I think the question is always whether this is social media and media fire but doesn't actually lead to change. I think that's the question. And as a lifelong contrarian, I'm also worried about dissenting voices and when you're up against the behemoth of your school administration sort of pushing this and national media pushing it. I - my best wishes to those who might have disagreements on these policies and not walk out or walk with a different sign. I support them as well.

SHAPIRO: Mary Katharine Ham, senior writer at The Federalist, thanks very much for joining us. And Kimberly Atkins, reporter and columnist for the Boston Herald - good to have you both here.

HAM: Thanks very much.

ATKINS: Always a pleasure.

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