SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: All right, before we start the show, a quick plug. The NPR Shop features gift items for the public radio fans on your list. T-shirts, totes, hats, mugs and more are available at shop.npr.org. And if you need to stock up on podcasts for your holiday travel, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour teamed up with Lauren Ober from The Big Listen, the broadcast about podcasts, to tell you about some of the best episodes of 2016. They've got highlights from shows both big and small and the scoop on some of the best newcomers of the year. Find our great, big 2016 crossover episode on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast feed at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app. All right, here's the show.
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SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Hey, y'all. It's the NPR POLITICS podcast here with our weekly roundup of political news. We also have some special stuff in store today. We're going to reflect on some of the lighter political moments this year. Also, someone in this booth was up late last night making queso. There are actually three small crockpots of it here in the studio.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Not that small.
SANDERS: Stay tuned. I'm Sam Sanders, reporter.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress. And the lozenge that Scott Horsley just gave me is blowing my mind.
SANDERS: It's really good.
DETROW: It's mentholy. It's great.
HORSLEY: I'm Scott Horsley, lozenge pusher.
KEITH: And you also cover the White House.
HORSLEY: In my spare time.
SANDERS: All right, so we're going to settle this Arkansas-Texas queso debate. It's been bubble...
SANDERS: I didn't write this line, but it's been bubbling here on the podcast for a couple of weeks.
KEITH: Pun, pun.
SANDERS: But first, the news. And to remind you guys, we cannot speak about everything going on these days. There's just too much stuff going on. But keep up with just about everything by keeping up with more of NPR's coverage on air and at npr.org. Let's begin with an update on the story that's been dominating the news this week - that terror attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany. Twelve people were killed there on Monday.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported today from Berlin that investigators aren't yet convinced that this was an ISIS attack, even though that group did claim responsibility. Donald Trump chimed in very quickly after the attack. On Monday night, he tweeted, quote, "today, there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany, and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking." What else was he referring to there? More events this week, right?
KEITH: Yes, so first, there was the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey's capital. It was caught on video, and there are some remarkable photographs. And that was deemed to be a terror incident by both Russia and Turkey.
HORSLEY: And an apparent reaction to Russia's assistance of the Syrian government because the gunman said - the gunman made reference to the attacks by the Syrian government and the Russian backers of the Syrian government on the city of Aleppo.
KEITH: And then the other incident was a shooting at a mosque in Zurich. But that, it turns out, we found out later, was not terrorism at all. As far as investigators can tell, there was no link to terrorism. And the shooter had stabbed and killed someone else that he knew nearby before that shooting and then, I think, ultimately killed himself.
DETROW: And kind of bringing this back to how this all affects American politics and policy, there was an interesting moment on Twitter. After Trump tweeted that - that you just read - Mike Pence kind of tweeted that tweet and added this - (reading) our prayers go out to the victims of today's terror attacks and their families. Those who employ violence to inspire fear will not prevail.
SANDERS: So Pence was kind of softening his president's...
DETROW: Yeah, it was - it was almost...
KEITH: The VP weighing in to say the thing.
HORSLEY: As sort of the reverse-anger translator.
DETROW: Right, like, what - what Donald Trump meant to say was this, which was - which was an interesting kind of public-facing view of their relationship.
SANDERS: But this does display a really, really stark contrast between the way that Obama reacts to global events and foreign policy happenings, right?
KEITH: More to the point, you might remember there was, like, a bombing that happened in New York City where I think it was a pressure cooker bomb. But very quickly, Donald Trump, before police in New York had said what it was, was calling it terrorism. In that case, he was right. But he often gets out ahead of the investigators with his tweets.
DETROW: I mean, there are so many sharp contrast coming in a month when he takes office. But to me, this is one of the top ones, and it was really something I was thinking a lot about this past week because NPR interviewed President Obama. And I was involved in that process, and then I wrote up several of the digital stories based on the interviews.
So I was sitting at my desk, reading the transcript of Steve Inskeep's conversation with President Obama. And just looking at all of his answers written out, it had jumped out to me that President Obama answers questions in essay form. It is the - it is the topic sentence, topic paragraph, three supporting paragraphs reinforcing the point of the main paragraph, and then a conclusion.
DETROW: All out loud, extemporaneously, over and over. And you saw that in that press conference that - that was, like, a more than an hour-long press conference. Some of his answers were 20-minute stretches.
KEITH: The first answer was 20 minutes long in that press conference.
SANDERS: But, you know, when you think about this contrast between Trump and the current president, one reacts very quickly; the other is very, very thoughtful. One of the biggest critiques of Obama has been that his measured, thoughtful, lay-back-and-wait response to, you know, foreign affairs has led to a global climate full of conflict.
KEITH: That he's been too laid back, if you will.
HORSLEY: And we do have sort of a pendulum effect in the political system in this country. Barack Obama's sort of cerebral approach was itself kind of a reaction to the cowboy image that George W. Bush portrayed. After eight years, people have now chosen a president with a very, very different style. I will say, in the case of the Berlin attack, the White House was actually pretty quick to label that as an apparent act of terror. They put the qualifier that it appeared to be an act of terror.
But they have gotten speedier on that. If you think more broadly than just sort of what goes out in a press release or a tweet, President Obama was asked at that news conference just before he left for vacation about one of the foreign policy choices the incoming Trump administration has made - this phone call that Donald Trump had with the president of Taiwan and whether it was sort of OK to upend decades of foreign policy practice there.
I thought the president said something interesting. He said it's certainly appropriate for a new administration to review the traditions of foreign policy. But what the president went on to say was, if you're going to do that, you want to do it deliberately. You want to do it thoughtfully, and you want to think through a couple of moves down the board, not do it casually and impulsively and without thinking through all the consequences.
SANDERS: But don't we end eight years of Obama with a lot of space and room for critics to say, actually, you should have done more?
KEITH: Well, certainly with Syria.
SANDERS: Actually, you should have been there in Syria. You know, you should have followed through on the red line, et cetera. And first, let's just define that for those who don't know.
HORSLEY: Sure. Well, critics have been saying that well before the passage of eight years. Critics have been saying that from day one in the Obama administration. The red line was one that Obama drew saying that he would change his calculation about whether the use of military force in Syria was appropriate if, for example, Bashar al-Assad decided to use chemical weapons.
KEITH: And then he did.
HORSLEY: And then Assad did use chemical weapons, and there was pressure on Obama to say, OK, well, you said - you said we might use military force if that happened. Now what are you going to do about it? And there was that famous weekend in the fall of 2013 when President Obama got all set to give a live address.
And we all assumed he was going to announce the commencement of military action against Syria - probably something limited, something short of a full-scale invasion, but some - some sort of way of backing up this suggestion that there would be consequences if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.
And on the eve of that big speech, the president and chief of staff, Denis McDonough, took a walk around the south lawn. And Obama said, you know what? Before I go down this path, I want to have Congress with me. And, of course, just before this, Great Britain had decided that they were not going to get involved in military force. Then...
DETROW: They actually voted against it, right?
HORSLEY: Parliament had...
DETROW: They voted down Cameron.
HORSLEY: Parliament had told Cameron, you can't use military force. You can't be part of this venture. So Obama said, well, all right, we've been on this war footing for a long time. If we're going to take this step, I want Congress at my side. Congress had no appetite to be at his side. And as a consequence, the United States didn't pursue military action against Syria.
And, you know, you can say, what signal did that send to the rest of the world about the U.S. willingness to use military force? Did that open the door then for Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine? Did it open the door for Bashar al-Assad to be even more despicable in his treatment of civilians in Syria? Was other chaos fomented by that? Certainly critics will read it that way.
DETROW: And I think, as Scott was saying before, that kind there's a pendulum in terms of the types of presidents we elect. And I think this is a good example of a pendulum in terms of what America is willing and interested in doing because, you know, I feel like you can't talk about that hesitance to intervene in Syria without taking the Iraq war into account.
DETROW: And great Britain had no interest in getting involved in another ground war in the Middle East. I feel like the Iraq War has an even darker legacy in Great Britain than it does in America in terms of a lot of people viewing it as a mistake. But President Obama decided this was not an area that the United States was going to be actively involved in.
We've now seen just horrific atrocities in Syria month after month - something like a half-million people in Syria killed. And we've seen this conflict spiral out to a way that it is legitimately threatening to break up the European Union. I don't think that's, like, an exaggeration to say, just in terms of the stress it's put on the rest of the world. So I wonder, you know, you look at the decision to invade Iraq and how much instability that created, then you look at the decision to do nothing in another country, and you look at the instability that created.
And it's, like, these are two extremes, and I don't know what the point is, but it seems like you could do one thing, and it doesn't work out. You could do another thing, and it doesn't work out. And two very different policies and two very different presidents - these will be one of the biggest critiques of both of their administrations.
SANDERS: But knowing that, can we make any projections about what Trump's Syria policy might look like?
HORSLEY: I don't know the shift is going to be all that stark.
HORSLEY: You could argue that U.S. support for the anti-Assad forces in Syria has been tepid at best and obviously ineffective, especially once you had Russia come in and lend some backbone to the Syrian government. Maybe the rebels would have had a chance before Russia threw in full force with the Syrian government.
And the U.S. acknowledged from the get-go that, look, Russia was a whole lot more invested in propping up the Assad regime than we were invested in toppling it. And we were not interested in getting in that kind of head-to-head conflict with Russia. Trump goes even further and says I want to get in an alliance with Russia and turn our guns against ISIS.
Now, maybe Russia will turn its guns on ISIS once they've cleared out the last of the anti-Assad resistance. Up until now, they - while they've claimed to be fighting ISIS, they haven't been doing that very much. But, no, I think Donald Trump is even - even less interested in doing anything to upset Assad's hold on power than President Obama was. And Obama was not willing to put a whole lot of chips on the table for that.
SANDERS: All right, let's move on to a topic we have been talking about for a few weeks. That is the Trump transition and the personal wealth of those involved and potential conflicts that that brings. First, we learned this week that Donald Trump has picked Vincent Viola to be secretary of the Army. He would be the fourth Trump nominee at least who has a net worth in the billions. That is not counting Donald Trump's own fortune. Scott Horsley, before we talk more about these billionaires, what do we know about Viola?
HORSLEY: Vinny Viola is the son of a truck driver. He grew up in Brooklyn. He went to West Point. He served in the 101st Airborne Division. And then, after he left active duty service, he went to the financial sector. He started his own trading company, Virtu, and I think that's the source of a lot of his wealth. He ranks near the bottom of the Forbes 400, but that's still in the very upper reaches of the U.S. income strata.
KEITH: I'd like to rank near the bottom of the Forbes 400.
HORSLEY: Even Mr. 401 is still doing pretty well. But, yes, he - he is one of at least four billionaires now in the Trump administration. And then there's a lot of folks who are just sort of paltry hundred-millionaires, like Rex Tillerson, the designate for secretary of state.
DETROW: You pointed this out in one of your stories - that the CEO of ExxonMobil is one of the - on the lower end of the wealth spectrum of the Trump cabinet, which is amazing.
HORSLEY: He's kind - he's kind of in the middle class when it comes to the Trump cabinet.
SANDERS: So there's lots made of the wealth of Trump's cabinet picks, but he has said for a while now that he thinks it's great to appoint people that have been successful in business because they know what they're doing. How much do we think the public will care once these people are appointed?
DETROW: I think it is clear that if you look at Trump, there's a pretty consistent trend that the people he respects need to either be rich or need to be very successful in a military career.
DETROW: And that's the case that he makes in these thank-you tours. He's been kind of justifying these picks, saying don't we want successful people? Don't we want people negotiating deals who know what they're doing and they're rich? And, you know, you talk to people at these rallies, and this doesn't seem to bother them. But I think a lot of Democrats seem to be thinking that this could be a vulnerability, given he ran such a populist campaign, if at some point the economy takes a turn and Donald Trump and his team of billionaires and millionaires are in the White House and not making things better.
SANDERS: Yeah. Now, these cabinet members, they're going to be subject to ethics laws that President Trump will not be. That said, last week, Donald Trump himself was supposed to hold a press conference to talk about how he would distance himself from his own businesses. Trump team now says that will happen in January. While we're waiting, Tam, What is the latest count on the number of days since Trump's last press conference?
KEITH: It's been 146 days since Trump held his last press conference. And in the meantime, he has tweeted 1,485 times. But just while we were in here taping, he did come out and talk to the press sort of at his Mara Lago resort, where he has been holding meetings. He came out. Reporters shouted some questions. Scott Horsley, you have the transcript there. It was pretty short. It was about less than two minutes.
HORSLEY: That's right, but he did describe - he spoke about the attack in Turkey and the attack in Berlin. He described it as terrible, terrible - what's going on is terrible. He was asked about whether it had caused him to rethink his plan on creating a Muslim registry or banning Muslim immigrants to the United States, plans which he sometimes altered more as extreme vetting. He said there's been no change in plans.
He said he's been proven right, 100 percent correct. Then he was pressed about saying the attack in Berlin was directed against Christians. He asked, who said that? And reporters said, well, you said that in a press release. Trump then said, well, it was an attack on humanity. That's what it is - an attack on humanity. And it's got to be stopped, he says.
KEITH: And that was basically it.
SANDERS: Who said that? You said that.
DETROW: That's such a Trump back and forth. Like, I never said that. Here's the tweet of you saying that; that's not true.
KEITH: But it wasn't a tweet. It was a press release, you know, and a statement that was labeled as an official statement from Donald Trump. But as he said during the campaign, no one speaks for me other than me.
SANDERS: Scott Detrow, there are questions this week not just about Donald Trump but about his children, not just when it comes to business but when it comes to charity. I've been seeing some really weird articles about a possible maybe now scrapped fundraiser set for the day after the inauguration. What's that about?
DETROW: Yeah. It's called - the Opening Day Foundation was the group that was pushing this. And it was basically a big event to hold on January 21. It'll be a concert. But they were offering for people making contributions to this and they've said that the money would go to kind of sportsman-type charities, conservation charities. They were offering access to the Trump sons - Don Jr. and Eric - offering time to go, like, hunting with them, time to spend with them. And this came right on the heels of Eric's foundation offering tea with Ivanka Trump to the highest bidder, a 45-minute session with Ivanka.
And both of these, of course, are basically saying we will give you access to close advisers to the next president if you give us money for charity. Which of course was the basis of the criticism that Trump's campaign leveled on the Clinton Foundation over the course of the campaign. And we saw that that was a pretty effective attack on Hillary Clinton, saying that donors were giving a lot of money to the Clinton Foundation which funds a whole host of global health issues and other things around the world in an attempt to try and cozy up to the secretary of state. So the brunch with Ivanka - it was the brunch or tea, but I think it's tea.
KEITH: I think tea, yeah.
DETROW: Tea with Ivanka was cancelled after reports came out. And...
SANDERS: This outdoors fundraiser for the day after, that's kind of been changed or put on hold?
DETROW: Hasn't officially been canceled yet, but it seems like...
SANDERS: But the website's changed.
DETROW: ...There was a real record scratch with these plans as soon as reports came out. And in a funny moment, it was both TMZ and the Center for Public Integrity were both reporting on this at the same time (laughter). But the website was taken down and Trump's transition is saying, you know, we're not - kind of arm's lengthing (ph) this whole thing.
HORSLEY: Our colleague, Peter Overby, did some reporting on this this week and it was interesting. He interviewed a former FEC lawyer, longtime...
KEITH: Federal Ethics Commission.
HORSLEY: ...Ethics expert Ken Gross. And he said, you know, the whole thing about this access is in Washington it's very commonplace for, say, lawmakers to host a reception where you get face time with the lawmaker, you get access but for relatively low dollar amounts, I mean, low in Washington terms, maybe a thousand dollars or maybe a few thousand dollars. One of the eye-popping elements of the cufflinks and camo opening day event, where it was going to be a...
SANDERS: (Laughter) I love that name.
KEITH: Cufflinks and camo was the reported name of this event with Trump's sons.
HORSLEY: A half-million or a million dollars was the entry fee. And Ken Gross said, you know, when you talk about that level of money, now you're really making an impression on that candidate or the candidate's son that could carry some weight. This reminded me of the old joke about the guy who says, you know, will you spend the night with me for a million dollars? Yes. Well, what about for $5? No, what do you think I am? We established what you are, now we're just negotiating over the price - variously attributed to Winston Churchill or Groucho Marx. It's funny, in Washington it is somehow more honorable to have a low-dollar access event than a high-dollar access event.
KEITH: Yeah. I have to say that leading into inaugurations, inaugurations are a time when there is great opportunity for this kind of thing, for somebody to say I'm throwing an amazing party and the president will be there, just give me a lot of money and maybe the president doesn't even know that you're holding the party. There have been things like this before that have been, like, straight-up scams.
What isn't clear here is whether Trump's sons were in on this or not. And I think part of what allows this to be murky is that Trump and his family haven't set up these clear lines of demarcation yet. They haven't set up these clear ethical boundaries. And in part that's because, you know, Trump hasn't said how he will separate himself from his business, if at all. He hasn't talked about what relationship his family will have to the operation of his administration. And that murkiness allows other murkiness to sort of fester.
HORSLEY: The Trump transition team did make it very clear in a conference call with reporters this morning that the Trump brothers have no involvement with the people who are putting on this opening day event. I remember an event back in 2009, you know, that President Obama took a walk along the Great Wall of China. There was a prominent photo of him in China. And he happened to be wearing this nice looking jacket. And the company that made the jacket put up a billboard in Times Square showing Barack Obama in this jacket and...
SANDERS: Was it a nice jacket?
HORSLEY: ...Like, it was a nice looking jacket.
DETROW: And it was a nice picture.
HORSLEY: They called it the Obama jacket. The White House made it pretty clear right away...
SANDERS: We don't endorse this.
HORSLEY: ...You cannot use the president to sell your merchandise. The Trump family has been for years making its fortune...
SANDERS: On merchandise.
HORSLEY: ...Commercializing the Trump name. So there is a little bit of a learning curve here for the president-elect and his children in terms of what is and is not appropriate. And they are in the early stages. When they were asked about this opening day event on the conference call with reporters yesterday, they had no answer.
There was no sort of antenna in this organization that this is a hot potato and we need to shut this down right away. It took them 12 to 24 hours to figure out this is not going to look good. Those antenna will presumably get sharper over time - or not.
SANDERS: So all of this conversation, at least to my ears, sounds like it's bordering on the verge of being a bit swampy, knowing that during his campaign Donald Trump said he was going to come to Washington, D.C. and drain the swamp and get rid of money for access, et cetera. There's been a development on the phrase that Trump used in those final campaign weeks - draining the swamp. Today on NPR, NPR's own Rachel Martin asked Newt Gingrich, who is a close advisor to Trump, what his role was going to be in the new Trump administration.
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NEWT GINGRICH: Strategic planner.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: That's awfully big. Can you narrow that down? What part of the government strategy are you going to be planning?
GINGRICH: It is big. But on the other hand, you know, as speaker of the house and then later having worked with the Bush administration, I've been working on these issues for 58 years. You know, I have, you know, I have really spent a long time trying to think about, what do we need to do to get this government to be effective?
MARTIN: You say you've been working on these issues, others might say you've been working in the swamp, to use Donald Trump's language.
GINGRICH: Yeah. Although - I'm told he now disclaims that. He now says it was it was cute, but he doesn't use it anymore.
MARTIN: He doesn't want to use drain the swamp anymore?
GINGRICH: I don't know. I saw - somebody sent me that note last night 'cause I had written a - what I thought was a very cute tweet about the alligators are complaining.
GINGRICH: And somebody wrote back and said they were tired of hearing this stuff.
MARTIN: Did you take offense as an alligator?
GINGRICH: I'm becoming more statesman-like in this interview.
DETROW: Gingrich has been walking this interesting line ever since Trump won of being a big Trump supporter and defending him but also at times very pointedly distancing himself and critiquing Trump in these interviews. At one point he said that Trump's false claim about millions of illegal voters was a big mistake and he shouldn't have done it. But right after the election, I was listening in on a conference call that Gingrich did and he said that Trump should not be held to the build-a-wall-and-get-Mexico-to-pay-for-it promise even though he would work on border security. But he said something along the lines of that - that wall and the Mexico will pay for it was a great campaign device. So I feel like Gingrich is, like, real-talking the fact that Trump did not mean what he said a lot of the time in the campaign.
HORSLEY: Well, and drain the swamp was very much adopted very late in the campaign. I mean, build the wall at least you can say was there from the get-go. Build the swamp, I mean...
SANDERS: Build the drain the swamp.
HORSLEY: Build the boardwalk through the swamp.
SANDERS: Put the bridge over the moat.
HORSLEY: (Laughter). Drain the swamp only came in in the late weeks of the campaign, in the last few weeks of the campaign. And Trump himself kind of skated past it the first time. I remember that he was - he debuted that line in the famous Gettysburg address where he spent most of his time talking about...
KEITH: The less famous Gettysburg Address, but yes.
HORSLEY: ...Where he spent most of his time talking about how he was going to sue the women who'd accused him of groping them.
SANDERS: And since he's won election, Donald Trump himself at parts of his thank you tour has basically said, yeah, drain the swamp, whatever. We have tape of that.
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DONALD TRUMP: Funny how that term caught on, isn't it? I tell everyone I hated it. Somebody said drain the swamp. I said, oh, that's so hokey. That is so terrible. I said, all right, I'll try it. So like a month ago I said drain the swamp. The place went crazy. I said, whoa, watch this. Then I said it again, then I started saying it like I meant it, right? And then I said it - I started loving it. And the place loves it. It's drain the swamp. I mean, it's true. It's true.
KEITH: And in other swamp news just out today news that Corey Lewandowski who was Donald Trump's original campaign manager is setting up a consulting firm that will have offices basically a block away from the White House. This is what's known as part of the swamp.
SANDERS: One man who talks a lot about draining the swamp was announced as a Trump cabinet pick this week. South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney. He's Trump's pick to be budget director. Mulvaney is known for wanting to cut the size of government drastically, right? And so Trump has promised things that will cost lots of money, but this is a guy who does not like a lot of government spending.
KEITH: He really does not like government spending. He came in as part of the Tea Party wave into Congress, and he was elected in 2010 in a class of Republicans in Congress who are concerned about the deficit. He distinguished himself as a deficit hawk. He has called for privatizing Medicare. He is a hard-liner among hard-liners on budget and fiscal issues.
HORSLEY: And some of his past rhetoric is very much at odds with pieces of the Trump agenda like a big military buildup.
HORSLEY: And it's going to be interesting to see whether Mulvaney checks his background at the door, if Trump modifies some of those ideas, if they arm wrestle for it - how that's going to play out.
KEITH: Yeah. I mean, I think this is a bigger question with the - some of the Trump cabinet picks which is that some of the people he's picking have positions that are not in sync with things that he has said in the campaign. For instance, he has said I'm not going to touch your Medicare. I'm not going to touch your Social Security. Other Republicans say that they're going to cut your Medicare and Social Security or they're going to privatize, but I'm not going to do that. I'm - because I am just going to grow the economy so much that we won't have to. Well, the person that he has picked to head the Department of Health and Human Services advocates privatizing Medicare.
DETROW: And Democrats are super excited to point out these contrasts and point out Donald Trump's repeated promises to not do this stuff. They've said it a lot. They're going to bring that up over and over again next year.
KEITH: And I think that it's a real open question about whether his picks are sending a signal about what his policies will be or if what he said during the campaign is what his policies will be.
SANDERS: All right. Before we go to a break, something very official happened this Monday. The Electoral College did their thing, so now it's officially official. Donald Trump is going to be the next president. Despite all the talk about faith in the selectors, there were not that many, and those that were defected against Hillary Clinton.
DETROW: Well, there were actually more faithless electors this year than I think in any other election in United States' history.
SANDERS: But how many was it this year?
DETROW: Yeah. So eight people tried to break away from Hillary Clinton. Five of them did that successfully.
KEITH: Wait, who did they vote for?
DETROW: Well, one - Bernie Sanders did get one official Electoral College vote. Three other people tried to vote for Sanders, but because of their state laws, their votes were not counted. They were replaced or they changed their vote to Clinton. And then Washington was interesting. You had three votes for Colin Powell and then one other vote went to a environmental activist who played a big role in the Dakota Access Pipeline fight. And only two people ended up breaking away from Donald Trump. They were both in Texas. One voted for John Kasich. One voted for Ron Paul, not Rand.
SANDERS: And that's out of hundreds of electors.
DETROW: Yeah, 538. So, you know, there was so much hope from liberal activists to peel away enough Republican electors that Donald Trump would not be elected president, and in the end after all that build up, it was Democrats who flaked on Hillary Clinton.
SANDERS: OK. Time for a quick break. We'll have some tape from NPR's exit interview this week with President Obama right after this.
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SANDERS: All right. We're back. As we mentioned, President Obama recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. We've got the whole thing on our website npr.org - audio and video. We'll take a moment now to play a couple of clips from one of Steve's final questions in that interview to the president about politics this year. This cut's about two minutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "NPR'S EXIT INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA")
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We've talked with a lot of voters, and it's clear that for many people this has been an agonizing year...
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yeah.
INSKEEP: ...An agonizing political year even for people whose side won.
INSKEEP: Is it possible, though, that that agony has been good for the country because we are confronting issues of race and identity and the way the economy is structured, issues that have been with us for a long time?
OBAMA: I think that's a really interesting point. I - I've been accused by friends, enemies, my wife of sometimes being overly optimistic (laughter). But what can I tell you? This is my temperament, generally. And I - we are going through some growing pains right now because the world is changing really fast, and it has throughout my presidency. I started my presidency inheriting a massive crisis of proportions that we haven't seen since the 1930s. It laid bare some long-term and troubling trends about globalization and technology and rising inequality, in - and the fragility of our financial systems and the way in which middle-class folks felt they were getting squeezed and the fact that the ladders of opportunity seemed to be farther and fewer between for people who were trying to get out of poverty.
And throughout that process, we also then started seeing - because when the economy's not doing well, some other tensions get laid bare - changing attitudes about sexual orientation and about race and about the nature of families. And all of this has been amped up by the revolution and information throwing through social media and the Internet. And so it's a big dose. It's been a lot of stuff that's been coming at people really quickly, and it's made folks anxious.
KEITH: This is sort of vintage, winding-down-your-presidency Barack Obama where where he is, you know, talking about how far he's come and still claiming some scrap of optimism. You know, it's very much familiar, if you will.
HORSLEY: And one of the things that the president and his aides at the White House have been trying to do is kind of put a marker down on where we were eight years ago and where we are now and what the trend lines have been because they believe that in two years when the midterm elections are staring us in the face, or in four years when maybe Donald Trump is running for re-election, then folks can say, well, are we better off or worse off and where are the trend lines then?
SANDERS: And, like, this is still purple America Obama, you know, like, speaking to the American people, saying there's more that unites us than divides us. The president went on to say that by lots of metrics the country is better off than it was when he took office but that we could still be doing better. Here's another minute and a half or so of him.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "NPR'S EXIT INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA")
OBAMA: There are times where I reflect and ask myself if - is there something else I could have done, something that I could have said slightly differently that would have led to additional progress and less polarization? And I'll probably - you know, as I reflect on my presidency once I'm out of just the day-to-day scrum of this thing, I'm sure I'll come up with a whole bunch of things to add to my list. But I think all of us have to do that. You know, I've said this before. This is an advanced democracy, what the founders set up. And, you know, if we either celebrate or despair just around presidential elections without spending enough time focusing on how in our day-to-day lives, in our local civic lives, in our media, in our culture, if we're not spending enough time reflecting on what am I doing to be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem, then, you know, we'll get better presidents and worst presidents. But we're not going to get to where we need to go.
SANDERS: All right. So that was kind of forward-looking. What is Obama going to do now? He'll be in D.C. for at least the year until one of his daughters finishes high school. But how does he fill his days?
HORSLEY: Well, first thing he's going to do is he's going to get some sleep. He and Michelle are going to go on an extended vacation. He says someplace warm, which Washington, D.C., is not right now.
DETROW: But they're in Hawaii right now, so they're just going to Hawaii, come back for a couple of days, then go back to Hawaii.
HORSLEY: I think someplace other than Hawaii most likely, but we'll see.
KEITH: Maybe Thailand.
HORSLEY: But then...
KEITH: I'm just dreaming for him.
DETROW: He looked really happy with that coconut earlier this year.
KEITH: (Laughter) Yes, he did.
HORSLEY: Get some shaved ice. But eventually they'll be back here in Washington for a couple of years while Sasha finishes up high school. And he'll be spending that time - we know he's going to keep working on the My Brother's Keeper initiative. That's what grew out of the death of Trayvon Martin, his initiative to try to do more to help support young black and brown men. Of course, he's going to be working on a book.
DETROW: And given the fact that he's such a skilled writer and has been his whole adult life, you have to imagine this will be one of the more readable presidential memoirs. I feel like Bill Clinton's especially was infamously, like, thousands of pages of eight-point font and just, like, the densest thing you could ever encounter.
KEITH: All I can say is Barack Obama, please, President Obama, keep this book short. Make it, like...
SANDERS: Will he have a ghost writer?
KEITH: No, he won't, but make it like "Dreams From My Father." Make it like "The Audacity Of Hope." Keep it short.
HORSLEY: But all of those are things that I think President Obama would have done had Hillary Clinton won the election. I think the big question is, to what extent does his post-presidency change as a result of Donald Trump coming into office? And will he have a larger, more activist role than he otherwise would have?
SANDERS: And hasn't he said that he's going to be working with former Attorney General Eric Holder on districting issues?
KEITH: Yeah, redistricting.
DETROW: Yeah, he talked about that with the NPR interview too, saying that, you know, he kind of views himself as almost like a coach or a talent scout looking for younger Democrats and trying to set them up and help them run for office and win office because he admitted, first of all, Democrats have lost - I think it's nearly a thousand state legislative seats total since he took office, which is kind of unfair to Obama because he came in at, like, the crest of this big Democratic wave. But they've lost the House. They've lost the Senate. They've lost governor's mansions. They've lost state Houses. They've lost state Senates. So they've got a lot of work to do, and he wants to work on that.
KEITH: And the only other thing is that he did say in an interview on "The Daily Show" that he does plan to - if he thinks something is happening that is truly out of line with American values, that he won't necessarily stay quiet, you know, dreamers being deported or a Muslim ban being implemented. He says if those things were to happen or to seem like they were going to happen that he would not stay quiet.
SANDERS: OK. A year ago back in December 2015, Steve Inskeep also had a year-end interview with President Obama. At that time, we recorded a behind-the-scenes episode with Steve about what it is like to go to the White House and interview the president. That episode is called "NPR Interviews President Barack Obama." You can go back, check it out if you like. It's from December 19 of last year, 2015. All right. One more quick break. We'll be right back with some lighter political moments from 2016.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: OK. We are back. In lieu of Can't Let It Go today, which is how we usually end the show, we're going to do something a bit different. In a web story for npr.org, our colleague and friend Meg Anderson rounded up 10 election moments that you will not totally hate - that's actually the name of the story - from 2016. We're going to share a few. Let's...
HORSLEY: (Laughter) And she had to work long and hard to find 10.
SANDERS: Yes, she did. But on this happy note, Meg found a few happy moments from the campaign season, one of which is a moment when Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, a former GOP candidate, recited a few lines from "The Princess Bride."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TED CRUZ: One of my favorite scenes is when Westley, the Dread Pirate Roberts, is brought in to Billy Crystal, and he's dead. And Billy Crystal explains, ah, he's only mostly dead.
CRUZ: And then he pumps him up with the bellows and says, so what is it you have that is so worth living for? And he presses on his chest, and he goes true love.
KEITH: (Laughter) Where was that?
DETROW: It was, like, a roundtable in New Hampshire, but he did this multiple times.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CRUZ: And Billy Crystal goes you're right. There's nothing better, well, except for a nice mutton, lettuce and tomato salad when the mutton is so lean, but that's not what he said.
SANDERS: Do we know what question or statement prompted Cruz to go into his "Princess Bride" recitation?
DETROW: I think he just looks for moments to do it, and I think, like, what - it's, like, a fun moment, but it also makes me uncomfortable because you just watch the other people, like, on the stage or at the tables with him and they're like, oh, you're still going.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CRUZ: Ever since Prince Humperdinck hired him - fired him he's been afraid. Do not say that name. What? Humperdinck. Humperdinck. Humperdinck. Humperdinck. Humperdinck. I can't hear you.
DETROW: And he did this many times, and he also, like, quoted "Star Wars." Ted Cruz, who's really big into, like, the '80s movies and...
HORSLEY: The funny thing about this is he sort of makes his point in the first 10 seconds, but then he goes on to proceed to do, like, the whole scene. He thinks, like, once you've committed "The Princess Bride"...
SANDERS: That Ted Cruz.
HORSLEY: ...To memory, you just can't turn it off. It strikes me that "Princess Bride" does have sort of a bipartisan following in this town and maybe every town. There were aides to President Obama who used to say so many times during the administration that such and such an action by Republicans would be inconceivable, that they would go up to the edge of the fiscal cliff or that they would leave middle-class tax cuts at the mercy of tax cuts for the rich or that they would bust the debt ceiling. And they'd say it's inconceivable. And, of course, every time they - those things would happen, I finally said to them Inigo Montoya-style - I said I don't think that word means what you think it means.
SANDERS: All right. Another moment - Bernie Sanders in Portland, Ore., at a campaign rally this year and a bird shows up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: (Laughing).
SANDERS: It first landed beside him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
B. SANDERS: Now you see...
SANDERS: And then...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
B. SANDERS: ...This little bird doesn't know it.
SANDERS: Miraculously, it hopped on the lectern.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
B. SANDERS: Oh.
KEITH: It was supposed to be like some sort of dove of peace or something. In reality, it was more of like a Costco-airport sort of sparrow bird, you know, those ones that live...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
KEITH: ...Inside and dive bomb you sometimes.
B. SANDERS: He looked so happy, though, in that moment. He looked really happy.
KEITH: But here is the true miracle of the Bernie bird.
SANDERS: Do tell.
KEITH: Birdie Sanders - the campaign saw...
SANDERS: They milked it.
KEITH: ...This was a magical moment...
SANDERS: They got merch out of that.
KEITH: ...In the campaign. They created the Birdie Sanders bumper sticker, and they raised $3 million dollars.
SANDERS: Shut up. I did not know that.
KEITH: Three million dollars.
SANDERS: I need a D.C. pigeon to land on my desk, so I can make some money.
SANDERS: Can someone help set that up? All right. Next moment - a Funny or Die video of kids reenacting moments and scenes from a GOP debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "LITTLE REPUBLICANS: PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE HIGHLIGHTS")
GEORGE: (As Donald Trump) This country is in big trouble.
AUSTIN: (As Chris Christie) You think it's bad now? You should've seen it when I got there.
JUSTIN: (As Marco Rubio) I also believe we need a fence.
IFE: (As Ben Carson) I'm a neurosurgeon.
GEORGE: (As Donald Trump) We have to end Obamacare.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "LITTLE REPUBLICANS: PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE HIGHLIGHTS")
LIAM: (As Jeb Bush) Get rid of Obamacare.
EVANDER: (As Scott Walker) Repeal Obamacare.
LIAM: (As Jeb Bush) Obamacare.
JUSTIN: (As Marco Rubio) Obamacare.
TAYLOR: (As Ted Cruz) Obamacare.
IFE: (As Ben Carson) I'm the only one to separate Siamese twins.
FRANCIS: (As John Kasich) Guess what? I went to a wedding of a friend who happens to be gay.
DETROW: I feel like it's not far off from some of the GOP debates like when they have like the car pile up of trying to walk on the stage at that one where Ben Carson...
SANDERS: Oh, yeah.
DETROW: ...Didn't get his cue then Jeb Bush didn't get his cue then Trump didn't get his cue, and it just cascaded - or the one where they're all screaming at each other and then when Carson said, can someone please insult me or can somebody please attack me?
SANDERS: There were - how many debates were there - presidential debates, like 17?
KEITH: To beyond. No.
KEITH: Yeah. I don't know.
SANDERS: Another moment, another person who's kind of, like, near and dear to me, Ken Bone, red sweater Ken Bone.
DETROW: I loved Ken Bone, and I still love Ken Bone.
SANDERS: I'd still like - I stand with Ken Bone.
KEITH: I still don't understand Ken Bone.
SANDERS: He was an undecided voter at one of the presidential debates at a town hall. He asked a question at the event, but he became famous for a fire-engine red, cable-knit sweater he wore. He had a few moments of fame and as more details of his biography were revealed, some not so savory things came up. But, you know what? I'm going to hold onto the happy and be proud of Ken and his sweater.
HORSLEY: Who among us could withstand the Ken Bone microscope?
SANDERS: There you go.
DETROW: I still follow Ken Bone on Twitter, but he's like moved on with his life and just like tweets about his life now. And now you're like, well, who's this? Oh, it's Ken bone. OK.
HORSLEY: So he really is a model for us all.
SANDERS: Yeah. Listen, when your 15 minutes is up, move on. Ken Bone, hope you're taking care of yourself. And speaking of moving on, it is queso time.
HORSLEY: Or Arkansas cheese dip time.
SANDERS: Let's explain. So before we wrap for the day, in the last couple of weeks, we've been talking about queso on the podcast, first because we played a clip of Ted Cruz talking about queso at a queso cook-off on Capitol Hill this month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SANDERS: Queso is made to be scooped up with tortilla chips dribbling down your chin and onto your shirt.
DETROW: Now, wait, wait, wait - before we - which is more uncomfortable?
SANDERS: The dribbling down the...
DETROW: Or the - like Ted Cruz quoting '80s movies word for word or talking about dribbling queso?
DETROW: Take your pick. Who you got?
KEITH: Queso. I'm on team queso.
SANDERS: I'm going to go ahead and say dribbling queso is an image that I don't want in my mind.
KEITH: Except for about to dribbles and queso ourselves.
SANDERS: But this touched off some big debate. So this was actually a bigger battle between Texas queso and Arkansas's queso aka Arkansas cheese dip.
KEITH: Which many people...
HORSLEY: It was a grudge match in the Senate, and it became a grudge match for podcast listeners.
SANDERS: Because I disclosed in a later episode in response to a letter we got about queso that I, as a Texan, am not really into queso. I'm just not.
KEITH: Yeah so...
SANDERS: But today, Tamara Keith - hardest working political reporter in the business - she actually went out and bought three mini crockpots last night and made three quesos for us to try.
SANDERS: What are the three flavors?
KEITH: So I do not guarantee that I have perfectly replicated the regional variations, but I have an Arkansas cheese dip, I have a Texas queso that I've added chorizo to 'cause some people on the Internet said to. And then I have a cheese-less vegan queso - fake-o (ph).
SANDERS: Made with what?
KEITH: It is made with roasted eggplant and nutritional yeast.
SANDERS: Hashtag #nprlife.
KEITH: I'm lactose intolerant. I'm sorry. I just - I wanted to join the fun.
SANDERS: Shall we try them?
HORSLEY: So one thing that strikes me is the recipes are pretty much the same like Arkansas cheese dip is pretty much like Texas queso.
SANDERS: Although one has chorizo in it.
KEITH: Yeah. OK.
HORSLEY: But that's just a...
KEITH: Yeah. Let me just try - I'll try to answer it again.
HORSLEY: And somebody wrote to us and said I really like buffalo chicken dipping thing, and that's also the same. We are not a cheese dip country or a queso country. We are one united Velveeta country.
DETROW: I tracked down a Tex-Mex place, I will say, shortly after we recorded this initial podcast because I was so hungry for queso after all of this. So this is exciting.
KEITH: Let's go.
HORSLEY: OK. I'm going to try the Arkansas cheese dip first. This has got a little cream cheese mixed in, right? It's got a little bit...
KEITH: Yeah. A little bit of...
HORSLEY: ...Fluffier texture, I'd say.
KEITH: A little bit of cream cheese, some Velveeta and two cans of Ro-Tel.
HORSLEY: This tastes pretty good.
SANDERS: All right.
HORSLEY: Its Ro-Tel-Velveeta balance is heavier on the tomatoes with this, and the cream cheese gives it a little fluffiness, a little pillowy softness to it.
DETROW: Is there something spicy in there? In the - yeah.
HORSLEY: The Ro-Tel has a little bit of pepper in it, but it's...
KEITH: It has chilies.
HORSLEY: It's creamier. Yeah. That's the cream cheese.
DETROW: And I just ate the chorizo queso, and that's good. That's really good. That's the - that's Texas stuff. I think I like that a little better, but I like kind of the spiciness hanging out in the Arkansas cheese dip.
KEITH: So what do you guys think of the eggplant one?
DETROW: That's a mystery that will...
KEITH: It looks sort of mushroom-colored.
DETROW: All right. I'll try it. I'll try it.
KEITH: This is...
DETROW: I need a...
KEITH: This fake cheese dip is part of the audacity of taupe series.
SANDERS: All right. So as the person who does not like queso and is not going to sample the Texas or Arkansas queso, I will eat this eggplant situation because it's not really queso. It's just eggplant sauce. And I'm going to tell you what it tastes like right now. Is it hot?
DETROW: No, you're good...
HORSLEY: It's not as orange as the others.
SANDERS: Oh, OK. It's fine.
KEITH: Yeah, it's fine.
HORSLEY: I think you should have a bigger crockpot for the Texas queso because, you know, everything's bigger.
SANDERS: All right. That is a - all right. That is a crunch wrap for this...
SANDERS: OK. That's a wrap for this episode. We'll be back next week with just one episode because a lot of us are going to be out for the holidays. Feel free to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can't respond to every email, but we do read them. And it helps us to know what you're curious about and keep up with more of NPR's political coverage at npr.org, on the NPR One app, and, of course, on your local public radio station. All right. I'm Sam Sanders who still does not eat queso.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House, and I make queso.
DETROW: Sorry. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.
HORSLEY: And I'm Scott Horsley. I'm a white house reporter.
SANDERS: Happy holidays. Que sera, sera, sera.
KEITH: Oh, goodness.
SANDERS: Thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS podcast.
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