Week In Politics: Labor Secretary Acosta Resigns NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Eliana Johnson of Politico about Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta's resignation, infighting in the Democratic party and the census.
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Week In Politics: Labor Secretary Acosta Resigns

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Week In Politics: Labor Secretary Acosta Resigns

Week In Politics: Labor Secretary Acosta Resigns

Week In Politics: Labor Secretary Acosta Resigns

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NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Eliana Johnson of Politico about Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta's resignation, infighting in the Democratic party and the census.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All right. Well, let's use the labor secretary's departure as the jumping off point for our Friday conversation about the week in politics. Today our guests are Eliana Johnson of Politico and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School. Good to have you both back.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Great to be here.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Thanks.

SHAPIRO: As we just heard, another administration resignation this morning. And I wonder, with all the criticism of the scandals in the Trump administration, do you think that Acosta's exit shows that the system is working the way it should, Eliana?

JOHNSON: I think it's hard to go that far. It's important to understand that when this scandal hit Acosta, this was really the second time this scandal had blown up.

SHAPIRO: Right.

JOHNSON: The Miami Herald reported this winter that Acosta had struck this deal. And then New York prosecutors decided to charge Epstein, and so it reemerged for the second time. And this is a Cabinet secretary who was already on thin footing with the White House - with many in the White House, as we heard, and had always had a lukewarm relationship with the president, despite what the president said when he came out and spoke to reporters today, praising Acosta as a Harvard graduate and saying that he had the president's full support, that this was Acosta's decision and not the president's.

But really, when this scandal struck, Acosta didn't really have a firm leg to stand on. And his hourlong press conference - so the president was initially pleased with it. He was not pleased with the continuing drip of negative press coverage. And I think from where Acosta stood and with this prosecution ramping up, it was difficult to see the negative news coverage abating anytime soon.

SHAPIRO: I mean, notable that the president never did criticize the decisions Acosta made as a prosecutor in Florida. E.J., what do you see as the significance of this resignation today?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, the president was, despite his denials, very close to Epstein. So that it would seem that he was perfectly happy with the decisions that he had made as a prosecutor. Secondly, I think it is important that he was on thin ice because he was less conservative or more progressive or at least not as anti-labor as Mick Mulvaney and others in the White House wanted.

So from a certain point of view, he was forced out possibly for the wrong reasons. But it was obvious that he had to go because at his news conference, he really wasn't very straight about what happened as soon as a lot of the things he said to justify what he did were challenged. But I think the existence of all of these acting officials is a problem.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I was going to ask about that. We now have an acting defense secretary, a homeland security secretary. Even the White House chief of staff is acting. And below those Cabinet-level posts, so many acting officials. Why are you - why do you think this is so significant, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, you know, there's more turnover in this administration than there is in your average fast-food restaurant it seems at this point. And the problem with acting officials is they are unvetted. This is - they don't go through Congress. They don't have to be confirmed. This is an enormous secession of power to a president, the very sort of thing that conservatives typically complain about.

SHAPIRO: Well, Eliana, there's an argument that that's what the president wants is people he doesn't have to vet through Congress.

JOHNSON: He said it gives him more flexibility. And I would point out that one of the things you didn't hear over the past week were Republican senators calling on Acosta to resign. Even many Democratic senators kept quiet. And I think part of the reason for that is because Acosta was confirmed and vetted. This many - this Cabinet already has several acting officials. And it's going to be problematic for Republican senators to find time on the calendar to confirm a replacement, given the already slim pickings that the Trump administration has for people raising their hands to join this Cabinet.

SHAPIRO: Let's shift to a split that deepened this week among the Democrats. On one side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and more moderate leaders of the party. On the other side, four freshmen women who have come to be known as the squad - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. The squad says the speaker has not been treating them fairly. Here's something Cortez said this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We're not talking about just progressives. It's singling out four individuals. And knowing the media environment that we're operating in, knowing the amount of death threats that we get, knowing the amount of concentration of attention, I think it's just worth asking why.

SHAPIRO: And Pelosi sees it differently. Here is the speaker talking to reporters this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: We respect the value of every member of our caucus. Diversity is our strength. Unity is our power. And we have a big fight, and we're in the arena. And that's all I'm going to say on the subject. If you want to waste your question, you can waste your question.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Eliana, do you think this divide will really undermine the Democratic Party?

JOHNSON: I think it has a real potential to. Look. These two groups - Pelosi and the squad, as they're called - they wield very different types of power. And neither group seems to respect the sort of power that the other wields. One is the power of social media and the sentiment of the Democratic base, and they harness social media to stoke that. The other is the sort of power of inside Washington, pulling the levers of power in the halls of Congress and moving legislation. And this fight really magnified when these four women pressed for changes in a border funding bill and then voted against it. Now, that's an inside Washington thing, but that's a big no-no in Pelosi's world.

SHAPIRO: Pelosi did not like that.

JOHNSON: No, she did not. And it seems to me that the generational and racial differences between the two are making it difficult for these two groups to reconcile.

SHAPIRO: E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: I think the reason she picked out the four, as Eliana said, is because they were the four that voted against that bill. But I think you're seeing a couple of things here. One is if power corrupts, a lack of power frustrates. And the Democrats hold one house of Congress. There are a lot of people, particularly on the progressive side, who'd like to do all sorts of things that are not doable as long as they are being blocked in the Senate and by the president. I think that frustration bubbled over here.

I think, secondly, this is a vast caucus in ideological terms. There are a lot of moderate Democrats from fairly conservative districts who have very different priorities politically from all - these four who come from very urban districts. I am looking, if I may add, for Ayanna Pressley to be a broker here because Pressley has the most, if you will, regular political background. She worked for John Kerry. I think she could be the go-between. This didn't start out this way. Pelosi had reasonable relations...

SHAPIRO: Just before we have to say goodbye, yes or no, do you think this is comparable to the Tea Party split in the Republican Party?

JOHNSON: I was going to say I would underscore what E.J. said about the lack of power here because Democrats are in a similar position to where Republicans were in the Obama administration, where they held only the House, and the Tea Party members were regularly striking out against John Boehner.

SHAPIRO: All right. We're going to...

DIONNE: They're not the Tea Party, that's all I'll say.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School and Eliana Johnson of Politico. Have a great weekend to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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