Weekly Roundup: Thursday, November 16 The House passed the tax bill, and it's now on to the Senate. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified again before Congress. And there are new allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Senate in Alabama, and now against Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken. Also, can't let it go. This episode: host/congressional reporter Scott Detrow, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Weekly Roundup: Thursday, November 16

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Weekly Roundup: Thursday, November 16

Weekly Roundup: Thursday, November 16

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KELSEY: Hi. This is Kelsey (ph) calling from Buffalo, N.Y. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

2:05 Eastern on Thursday, November 16.

KELSEY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this podcast. To keep up with all of NPR's political coverage, check out npr.org, download the NPR One app or listen to your local NPR station. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS podcast here with our weekly roundup of political news. This week, nearly everything we're going to talk about happened on Capitol Hill. The big Republican tax cut has passed the House, now it's on to the Senate. And Jeff Sessions was back on the Hill this week and getting a lot of questions about conflicting statements he's given about his contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Al Franken is now apologizing for sexual misconduct, this after a woman came forward saying Franken kissed and groped her without her consent during a 2006 USO tour. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: Sue, as the Hill people, I feel some pride in the amount of Hill news that we're going to do this week.

DAVIS: I could use a little less of it, to be honest, Scott.

DETROW: (Laughter) All right. Well, we'll walk through it one step at a time and start with taxes. The tax bill cleared the House today. Now it goes to the Senate. There are a lot of differences to work out. But publicly, at least, there still seems to be hope from Republicans they can get this done by Christmas.

DAVIS: There is. I think that the expectation that the toughest vote in this process is going to be the first Senate vote. In the previous health care fights - right? - the problem has always been the Senate. What can you get through the Senate? And so there was a huge amount of confidence that the House could pass anything - right? - that there's so much support in the House to pass a tax bill, that there was never really a moment where this was in doubt that it would pass today.

Getting the first version of the bill through the Senate is seen as the most critical hurdle because there is a broad confidence that if they can do that, they can get a bill out of conference and they can get that bill to President Trump's desk, yes, still by the end of the year.

DETROW: So, Sue, before the House vote, I was down the hallway when President Trump met with House Republicans. And it was striking to me how relaxed everyone seemed, especially compared to some of the earlier big votes this year. It seemed like there was no question this vote was going to pass.

DAVIS: Yeah. It pretty much - it was a pretty easy vote. Only 13 Republicans voted against it. Every Democrat also voted against it. The core of the opposition still remains Republican senators from high-tax states where they're going to take a hit in this tax bill. And it's a good example of still the old maxim - politics is local, that even though Republicans really want to pass a tax cut bill, when people realize it's going to be bad for their own constituents, they're going to still be against it. And this is a lot of Republicans from New York, New Jersey and California because the House bill calls for eliminating the ability to deduct state and local taxes. And these are high-tax states.

DETROW: That is an issue we dug really deeply into in the last pods.

DAVIS: Right.

DETROW: If you go in your feed, if you look at the Monday pod, we talk all about SALT as they call it on the Hill. Mara, I want to ask your reaction to the news that Senate Republicans are going to add in language that repeals the Obamacare insurance mandate - not the full on Obamacare repeal, but a key part of it, the idea that every adult has to buy insurance. Is this another coyote and roadrunner situation, or do you think the political dynamics are different?

LIASSON: Well, I think it depends on who you talk to. Republicans say this is a good thing for them politically because it allows them to take aim at the most unpopular part of Obamacare. And this has been a real sticking point with them. They've tried and failed so many times to repeal Obamacare.

If they could get rid of the mandate, at least they could say they drove a stake through the heart of one of the most important parts of Obamacare. One of the problems with that is that all of a sudden, the tax bill becomes a health care bill, and it arouses all of the Obamacare supporters that worked so hard to scuttle all the other repeal efforts and succeeded.

Now, there are Republicans who will tell you this helps them politically. It brings in some conservatives who otherwise didn't like parts of the tax bill, but they really would like to strike a blow against Obamacare. But then you have people like Susan Collins who are saying we should not be mixing these two issues together.

DETROW: Yeah. Sue, we know who all the usual suspects are when it comes to Senate Republicans who have halted previous attempts to repeal Obamacare. How are they reacting to this development?

DAVIS: Susan Collins is obviously the most interesting one and that's kind of about it. You know, the thing I've been saying about adding the individual mandate in, if this tax bill can't pass the Senate, it's not going to be because of the individual mandate. If that becomes the one thing that prevents it from passing, they'll take it out because they can try it again next year. There are a multitude of issues senators still have about this bill.

But there is still kind of what you were saying about the House, Scott, like the sort of general attitude that they'll still be able to get this is still, I think, the general attitude in the Senate, that the bill has problems but they think they can pass it. And they can work through it, particularly when they get something out of the Senate and can get to conference.

DETROW: Now, Bob Corker had said for a while he wouldn't vote for a tax bill that increased the deficit. And earlier this week, you had Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson saying he had concerns. Are they short of what they need right now?

DAVIS: It's hard to say because these senators have very clearly voiced concerns. Ron Johnson is interesting because he has said, as of right now, he's a no. He has been clear that that's his position. Even Susan Collins has not indicated she would vote against this bill. She's just kind of making these hedgey (ph) statements saying, I don't really like it. I don't really support it. Bob Corker has also - although I would say he's been largely supportive of this bill so far. So we don't have a hard whip count. We don't - it's just impossible to say. But there is enough of an orbit of senators who have voiced reservation that if they were to come out as no, they could down the bill. But I don't think we're going to have any good sense of that until we get back from Thanksgiving and they actually start debating this on the floor.

DETROW: Can you walk us through the timeline of what we expect to happen when it comes to the Senate bill and then the conference committee?

DAVIS: Sure. So the Senate - obviously, the House passed the bill today. And now all the action shifts over to the Senate. It's moving through committee right now. It's expected to get out of committee this week. Then they're going to take a break for Thanksgiving. And it's expected on the Senate floor that first week they come back, which is the last week of November. And then they're giving themselves essentially the entirety of the month of December to resolve the differences between the two bills.

Christmas could be a rather depressing place to be as a congressional reporter right now. But it's still - again, it is pretty remarkable to think that they are going to try and do legislation of the scope and size and pass it in about four weeks after it gets out of both chambers. I mean, that is still an incredibly ambitious timeline and a million ways in which it could fall apart before it comes together.

DETROW: Mara, do you buy the hype that if Republicans pass this bill, if President Trump signs it, all their problems are solved and they're back on track and they're motivating their base?

LIASSON: No, but I do buy the opposite, which is if they don't pass this bill, they're in really deep trouble, and their donors close their wallets. And they - at least many of them have said they're facing certain doom in 2018. I don't think the reverse is true. In other words, I don't think they get the same positive benefit from passing it that would equal the negative effects of not passing it. But I will say two things, just two little tidbits from the White House.

First of all, Donald Trump really wanted them to include the mandate repeal in the tax bill. So he asked them to do it, and at least they're trying for now. The other thing that isn't happening at the White House, which I think is interesting, is there is not going to be a victory rally after the House vote which happened today. Remember after the House passed the Obamacare repeal, there was a victory rally in the Rose Garden, very famous. And it almost seemed like Donald Trump was saying, we finished, mission accomplished. And then it all fell apart in the Senate. So that's not happening. So the White House is older and wiser now, and it's not going to declare victory until the Senate has also passed it.

DAVIS: And let's just be clear what the Senate bill is calling for. It doesn't fully repeal the individual mandate. What it does is say that tax penalty you are supposed to pay for not having insurance, they just zero that out. So what that does mean is if, you know, if power of Congress changes or if Democrats take control, they can just raise that penalty back up again. So the individual mandate doesn't go away, it just has zero financial penalty for not getting insurance.

DETROW: So last question on this. And I want to hear both of your thoughts because Democrats were really able to rally against the Obamacare repeal. The CBO numbers helped crystallize their message, give them a pretty clear attack that we saw in the public approval numbers, really worked as a way to say, this will make your health care more expensive. This will make it harder to be insured. Do Democrats have as clear-cut of an argument against the tax bill?

DAVIS: This is maybe an incredibly basic way to explain this. But I think part of the reason why you don't see - even though I think Democrats hate this tax bill with an equal amount of passion as they hated the health care bill, you don't see the same element of activism around this tax bill. And in a very simple way, I think health care was about taking something away from people. And tax cuts are still about giving people something.

And the politics are always easier when you're trying to give people something. And, yes, there's these questions of, what does it do to the deficit? And what if the tax cuts expire in 2025? And all these other economic questions, I just don't think voters connect to that in their everyday life the way they did with the health care debate.

LIASSON: That's true. But I think if the mandate remains part of it, they have an angle, you know, to say this is going to hurt the Affordable Care Act. And there is a whole group of activists who are ready to move forward on something like that. There's also the overall unpopularity of this bill. I agree with Sue, it's not a kind of passion issue the way that repealing Obamacare was. But if you look at the tax cuts, corporations get permanent tax cuts. And people making under $75,000 over time are going to get a tax hike. And that's why the bill isn't popular because poll after poll shows that people think it's going to help the rich and not them.

DAVIS: And I think it's worth mentioning here that, yes, the middle class tax cuts or the individual side of the tax cuts will expire, but Republicans are also making a bit of a cynical bet on this in that when that deadline does come up for the tax cuts to expire - I think right now it's about 2025 but that date might shift as the bill advances - they're kind of saying they just think when that fiscal cliff, as that comes up, the Congress will probably just extend them again.

That is what happened in 2012, when the Bush '01 and '03 tax cuts were getting ready to expire. And ultimately, Congress made them permanent. And I think that Republicans are willing to hedge that bet that you make them temporary now. But in five, six, seven, 10 years, when you're confronted with a tax increase - because that's what it will be in that period of time - Congress will vote to make them permanent.

LIASSON: But that doesn't solve their political problem in the short term, which is the Democrats can go out and say they gave permanent tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy in the form of the estate tax, but yours are going to expire.

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: Well, again, the big Republican tax bill passed the House today. Now it goes to the Senate. Pretty sure we will talk about this a few more times going forward. We're going to take a quick break and be back in a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: And we are back. Several more women have come forward this week to say that Roy Moore sexually assaulted them or pursued them when they were teenagers and he was an adult. Moore and his lawyer say the accusations are a lie. And Moore has given no indication he will drop out of the Alabama Senate races most Republicans in Washington want him to do. Then today, a radio anchor in Los Angeles published an essay accusing Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, of groping and kissing her without her consent. This was before Franken was a senator, during a 2006 USO tour. Leeann Tweeden talked about this today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEEANN TWEEDEN: I mean. Nothing like that is ever funny. I mean, is it funny if he does that to your sister or your daughter or your wife? I mean, that's just - all of those things. But like I said, in context of our already assaulting me backstage and all the little petty things he was doing to belittle me and how he treated me in sort of, you know, in succession. And then it ended with that. And then how I was left to feel like without being able to say whatever I needed to say to his face that that's how I - you know, I'm like, oh, great. While I was sleeping, you do that to me. And then I can't even say anything to him.

DETROW: So she's talking there, Sue, about a photo that is part of her essay of when she was asleep on a cargo plane leaving Afghanistan of Franken basically groping her and looking at the camera.

DAVIS: Yeah. And so initially, the senator put out a very short statement in response to the story. And he said, I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it. And that just wasn't really going to cut it, right? Especially if this was happening in a vacuum maybe, but considering sort of the broader cultural moment and the intensity and number of these scandals and allegations happening right now, saying that you remember something differently and it was a joke is maybe the worst way you could respond to a sexual harassment allegation at this point in time.

The senator later went on and put out a longer, more thoughtful statement within probably about an hour in which he said he would welcome an ethics investigation into the matter. Which is exactly what essentially everyone on Capitol Hill is calling for now. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was the first one to call for an ethics investigation. Senate Democratic leaders including Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin quickly followed suit. And that is where it is - leaves it as of this afternoon.

What's interesting about this and what's going to be tough is, generally speaking, the ethics committee, which is a evenly divided three-three panel - so it's meant to eliminate any chance of being partisan, right - you see equal representation on it. It is generally not allowed to and doesn't have the jurisdiction to investigate things you did before you were in elected office. And this incident, this 2006 incident, is before he was a senator.

So I think that it's kind of challenging the role of the ethics committee. And how does Congress respond to these kind of things? And the fact that it's coming at the same time where the Republican Party is facing its own turmoil over Roy Moore in Alabama, one, it probably also speaks to a larger point that these problems and these allegations don't really know a political party.

DETROW: Yeah. Mara, what was interesting about this Franken news is that it came after a couple days where several prominent progressive voices had come forward and said, you know, we need to re-examine how Democrats, how liberals responded to allegations made against Bill Clinton in the past. And it seemed like a reckoning was starting to happen there. And then suddenly, it was not, you know, somebody who's off the national stage anymore but a rising star in the Democratic Party who is facing accusations.

LIASSON: Yeah. Look. This is a new day. Every one of these cases has different facts, but the response has been uniform. You lose your job. You lose your career. You're kicked out of your office, whatever.

DETROW: So we should note, this does include NPR as well. Our top news editor was forced out last month over sexual harassment allegations.

LIASSON: What's really interesting to me is there's a consistency problem because there are Democrats on Capitol Hill already - are saying maybe Al Franken will have to step aside because of this. Because if you don't want to seat Roy Moore, you also have to apply the same standard to your own party. What's really interesting is the kind of paralysis right now at the White House because the president has not said anything about Roy Moore, even though many members of his party have said that he should be speaking out about this.

So you've got Democrats saying, gee, according to this - the new standards, Bill Clinton should probably have been hounded from office. But Donald Trump and Roy Moore have had the same response to the women who have accused them of sexual improprieties, which is to say the women are liars. And that's what puts Trump in such a difficult position around Roy Moore.

I thought that what was interesting about Senator Franken's statement - I agree, the first one was - left a lot to be desired, but the second one was very extensive. He said how ashamed he felt. He said there's no excuse. I look at that picture now, I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by it. What's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it. So he is really throwing himself on the mercy of the ethics committee here in a way that you haven't seen other men accused of the same kind of thing do.

DETROW: Yeah. Mara, you mentioned the Trump dynamic. I was at a press conference with Mitch McConnell earlier this week where he said for the second time that he believed the allegations. And a reporter asked, well, if you believe the allegations against Roy Moore, how do you consider the allegations against President Trump? And McConnell paused and said, well, I'm here to talk about Alabama and I'll take questions on that. Because there really isn't a good answer.

LIASSON: There's not a good answer, and that's why Democrats are finally coming forward and saying, wow, we have to rethink our reactions to Bill Clinton's transgressions if we're going to call for this kind of standard for everyone. If you believe the women, you believe the women in the Roy Moore case and the Donald Trump case, in Al Franken's case, you know, across the board.

DETROW: We should say that White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has addressed this, including today at the press briefing. She says President Trump says if the allegations against Moore are true, he should step aside. But Trump himself has been very silent on this. He has not responded to repeated questions from reporters. And he hasn't said anything on Twitter.

Sue, back to the Franken story. Do you think this stops with referring it to ethics? Because it was striking how women in the caucus like Kirsten Gillibrand, New York senator, immediately came forward to condemn this and say it should be investigated. But investigated isn't and you should step down.

DAVIS: Yeah. Here's the thing. And here's what we don't know the answer to. Will more women come forward? And that is something that I think Democrats, particularly on the staff side that I talked to, is one of the things that when these stories break, you wait for. If there's one, is there five? Is there more? And if there are more, I'm not sure an ethics investigation is going to cut it. I think that will escalate the matter. If it is just this allegation, if it's just this incident, it's possible that an ethics investigation might be enough. And it's just too soon to say on that.

I do think it does potentially give even more momentum behind legislation that Senator Gillibrand introduced this week. And there's a companion bill in the House that aims to completely remake the way that people who are employed up here can file complaints for harassment - sexual harassment, but also any kind of harassment complaints. And they want to make it easier. They want to create in-house victims councils. And they want to put more public disclosure on when these harassment claims are paid out. I think that when these kind of things happen inside the building, it could potentially serve to put more pressure on lawmakers to pass that bill.

DETROW: Yeah. You spent a lot of time this week covering a hearing on this issue, even before this Franken news happened. What was the overall feeling at the hearing on this? Was it embarrassment that this is long overdue, or was it was determination to deal with it?

DAVIS: I would say that I have been almost surprised by how much bipartisanship there has been around doing things to send a message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. And this is even prior to the Roy Moore story breaking. The Senate last week, without any objection, moved to change Senate rules to now make sexual harassment training mandatory at the start of every Congress. And then it has to be certified that you've taken that training. The House is taking similar steps.

I think in the House, in particular, I think House Speaker Paul Ryan ordered this review. You've seen how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now, you know, has come out on the other end of Roy Moore, calling him to step aside. These things have a way of infecting our politics that don't just apply to the races that involve them.

DETROW: Mara, you've been covering Washington for a while. How different is this current moment compared to what you've seen before? Is there anything comparable?

LIASSON: I would say I've never seen anything like this. All of a sudden, bang, tipping point, this kind of behavior is completely unacceptable. And as I said, even though the details of each one of these cases differs, the results or the consequence seems to be pretty uniform. You know, the punishment is harsh. You're out. And it's not acceptable. And people have been fired, lost their careers.

We don't know exactly what's going to happen to Roy Moore or Al Franken. But I think we're in a totally new day. And right now, what we're waiting to see is, how does it affect people who have been president the United States or are currently president of the United States?

DETROW: So we've been talking about things that the ethics committee will have to deal with. They might have a little more time to deal with that because there had been a lot of calls for the ethics committee to deal with the fallout from New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez's trial if he was found guilty of corruption. But today, jurors failed to reach a verdict. And a federal judge has declared a mistrial. What do we make of this?

DAVIS: Well, I can't speak to the substance of the trial. But I can say, politically, I think that there is a breath of relief inside the Capitol about this because what it does eliminate is this question of, if the senator had been found guilty, what would Democrats do about having somebody who had been convicted of a crime serving in the Senate?

And there had been a lot of concern that if there was an effort to sort of force Menendez out of the Senate before the next Democratic governor's sworn in, we could have a fight over a Senate seat. And this delays that fight. It doesn't seem like it's likely to be resolved until the next Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, will be sworn in, who put out a statement following the news of the mistrial that said that he supports Senator Menendez and would support him running for re-election if he decides to do that.

DETROW: Yeah, it was interesting. Usually when people are up on corruption trials, everybody's keeping arm's length at minimum. But Cory Booker came to the trial one day to show support for Menendez. You know, there's been an interesting shift in corruption stuff too. I covered a bunch of political corruption trials at one point.

And there is this general consensus that if a politician is on trial, they're probably going to be found guilty because jurors are very sympathetic to the idea of a corrupt politician. But there's been a lot of court rulings in recent years that have increasingly narrowed what is defined as corruption. And now you have cases where juries just can't reach a verdict or come back saying not guilty. It's an interesting shift.

DAVIS: There's also a question - right? - if this is a mistrial, it becomes a hung jury. If nothing comes of this, there is a broader question of how capable the federal government, the FBI is going to be to bring public corruption charges against any sitting elected official. When you think about the most recent high-profile trials against Ted Stevens, the senator from Alaska, Bob McDonnell, who was the Republican governor from Virginia, and now Bob Menendez, that all of those went sideways. And it is very difficult to prove public corruption cases. And if this falls apart, I don't think there's a lot of confidence that they'll be able to pursue them in the future.

DETROW: Yeah, John Edwards too. All of those were either not guilty verdict, or the verdicts were eventually thrown out by the courts.

LIASSON: Yeah. The idea is that the voters should decide the verdict.

DETROW: All right. Well, we're going to keep talking about the Department of Justice. When we come back, we'll talk to Carrie Johnson about Jeff Sessions testifying on Capitol Hill this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: OK. We are back. And we are joined by Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hiya.

DETROW: So Jeff Sessions on the Hill this week again. How many times is this this time?

JOHNSON: That is four times this year alone, four times and counting.

DETROW: He had a lot to answer questions about. Let's start with the Russia investigation, another round of questions about what Sessions has previously testified and how that conflicts with new evidence.

JOHNSON: That's right. So remember at his confirmation hearing in January, Jeff Sessions denied having any contacts with Russians. That was complicated some period of time later by disclosures in The Washington Post that Sessions had twice met with the Russian ambassador last year. Then he testified again on Capitol Hill under oath and said that he didn't - he wasn't aware of any aides of the Trump campaign or surrogates having communications with Russians about the election. And that was complicated by additional reporting.

So Sessions now, this week in the House Judiciary Committee, said he didn't remember a lot. He talked about the Trump campaign being especially chaotic, sleep being in short supply. And he said only after news reports of this plea deal involving foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos last month did Sessions remember Papadopoulos saying something at that infamous March 31, 2016, meeting about trying to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump - then-candidate Trump - and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Sessions says he now remembers he pushed back on that idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: I would like to address recent news reports regarding meetings during the campaign attended by George Papadopoulos and Carter Page among others. Frankly, I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports. I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting.

After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government for that matter. But I did not recall this event which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago. And I would gladly have reported it had I remembered it because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper.

DETROW: Now, Carrie, this is interesting because the first round of statements and then clarifications from Sessions this year had to do with the fact that he said, well, those meetings happened not in a campaign capacity. Here, this is a campaign meeting and he's saying I just forgot about it.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Democrats were pressing him again and again, Scott, because they didn't understand how it was impossible to forget so many things involving Russians last year. Jeff Sessions didn't really have a good answer to that. In fact, in some of the most difficult questioning he got from Democrats this week on the Hill, people pointed out his selective memory lapses and also the fact that his Justice Department - Jeff Sessions' Justice Department prosecutes people all the time for failing to remember things and testifying to things that are false. And there was a lot of back-and-forth of that at the hearing.

DETROW: Just a farcical detail of how much news is happening today, as reporters were in the Senate office building staking out Al Franken's office today, who walks through the metal detectors but one Carter Page, saying he was there to drop off subpoena material to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

JOHNSON: He just can't stay away from the camera, Scott, Carter Page.

DETROW: One other thing that came up at this meeting today. And, Mara, I want to ask your thoughts on this after Carrie fills us in. But Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee that he is looking into whether or not an additional special counsel would be needed to look into Hillary Clinton.

LIASSON: That's right. And I really want to hear what Carrie thinks about this because this is something that President Trump has been tweeting, asking the Department of Justice to do. Why aren't you looking into the Democrats? Do something. What about the corruption of Hillary and the Podestas and Uranium One? And so he has been asking for this. And there are a lot of different interpretations to what Sessions said he was doing. Was he just entertaining it and saying that his lawyers will look into it and then it will end? Or was he really going to open an investigation into the president's political opponents?

JOHNSON: So on the eve of this hearing, the Justice Department sent a letter to Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who's in charge of the House Judiciary Committee, one of the many people, like Mara said, who's been pressing Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation into Hillary Clinton and alleged misdeeds by the Clinton Foundation, among others. And that letter said the attorney general and his deputy had assigned senior federal prosecutors to evaluate these allegations and figure out whether there was anything there and whether a special counsel might be needed. That letter made no commitment one way or the other.

And when he got to Capitol Hill the next day to testify, Sessions got a lot of back-and-forth from Republicans about whether or not he was actually going to name a special counsel. Remember, Jeff Sessions is supposed to be recused from everything having to do with the campaign, starting with Hillary Clinton, in part because he was such a high-profile surrogate for Donald Trump. But that didn't really satisfy some Republicans like Jim Jordan of Ohio, who were going after the attorney general to try to commit one way or the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM JORDAN: Doesn't that warrant - in addition to all the things we know about James Comey in 2016, doesn't that warrant naming a second special counsel, as 20 members of this committee wrote you three-and-a-half months ago asking you to do?

SESSIONS: Well, Mr. Comey is no longer the director of the FBI.

JORDAN: Thank goodness.

SESSIONS: We have an excellent man of integrity and ability in Chris Wray. And I think he is going to do an outstanding job. And I'm very happy about that. And I would say...

JORDAN: And he's not here today, Attorney General Sessions - you are. And I'm asking for a special...

SESSIONS: I would say looks like is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.

JOHNSON: So again, Sessions, didn't commit one way or the other. But what he's trying to tell the congressman is that they need a factual basis in order to launch an investigation and special facts to suggest that a special counsel needs to be appointed. Remember, the Justice Department investigates allegations of corruption all the time. It needs to be something special, something that would perhaps require the recusal of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general and DOJ brass. We don't know that that's happening or that will happen.

But the very spectre of investigating one's political opponent has got Hillary Clinton and some of her former campaign aides off the rails. They're talking about even having this conversation being reflective of the fact that the White House has trampled all over the Justice Department and the FBI's independence this year. And the very fact we're having this conversation is problematic to them.

LIASSON: What's so interesting to me is that this is a president who ran - one of his most popular chants at every rally during the campaign was lock her up. So what's really interesting is that Jeff Sessions, who is the keeper of the flame of Trumpism and all of the policies and initiatives that Trump believes, and has also become, ironically, a proxy for the rule of law because he's been pressured to fire Bob Mueller. He's been pressured now to open an investigation into Hillary Clinton. And so far, he has resisted.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, Democrats on Capitol Hill, including some who have been U.S. attorneys in the Justice Department, point out that you're not the secretary of justice. You don't just carry out the president's orders. You have a special responsibility at the Justice Department to uphold the rule of law and make sure that politics do not interfere with criminal or national security investigations. And there's open debate now about whether Jeff Sessions is actually doing a good job of that or not.

DETROW: Carrie, last question on all of this. As all of these other news stories were developing, Sessions is testifying. Sessions has been floated by Republicans as a possible solution for their Roy Moore problem, problem in the sense that hardly any Republican in Washington wants to see Roy Moore in the Senate. The idea being floated, and it just seems to be an idea right now, that Sessions could resign as attorney general and run a write-in campaign for the seat he held for so long.

JOHNSON: Well, there's a problem with that, and that's that Jeff Sessions has given no public sign he wants to leave the Justice Department. In fact, to anyone who will listen, he talks about how he reveres the institution. He's never had a better job. He'll never have a better job. Jeff Sessions has enormous power over the immigration system, federal law enforcement, fighting gangs, fighting violent crime. And he loves his job. And there is no reason to suspect that he wants to leave it to go back to the Senate, where after all, he toiled in relative obscurity for 20 years.

DETROW: All right. And now, it is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, where we all share one thing we just can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Mara, I'm going to start with you.

LIASSON: My Can't Let It Go this week is Bernie Bernstein, the fictitious reporter that somebody impersonated on a call that was left on the voicemail of a pastor in Alabama. The call, which was meant to be anti-Semitic, featured a fake Washington Post reporter called Bernie Bernstein. Take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. This is Bernie Bernstein. I'm a reporter for The Washington Post calling to find out if anyone at this address is a female between the ages of 54 to 57 years old.

LIASSON: And he said on this call he was interested in finding women who had stories about Roy Moore and was willing to pay between $5,000 and $7,000 for those stories and that they wouldn't be investigated.

DETROW: Sue, can you tell the joke that you emailed us when we were talking about this the other day?

JOHNSON: Oh, somebody had a really great tweet in response to this that was like, Bernie Bernstein's working on the story with his partner - Woody Woodward.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: Yeah because the thing that was so interesting about this, it's so crude. It seems like it was done by someone who's never met a Jewish person in their lives. And it was so obviously phony. It just reminded me of the time when a friend of my husband's appeared in a courtroom in the Deep South. He had come from New York. And the judge said to him, ah (ph), Mr. Goldberg (ph), so nice to have you in my courtroom today. Do you know Mr. Cohen (ph)? He lives just down the street.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: Not every single Jew in the United States knows the other one.

DETROW: Carrie, I'll give you the task of following up on Mara.

JOHNSON: Well, since we're talking about politically incorrect things...

DETROW: We're there.

JOHNSON: I cannot get over the notion that Anthony Scaramucci, according to the New York Post, is shopping a book now about his 10 days in the Donald Trump White House.

LIASSON: Ten days that shook the world.

JOHNSON: They did shake the world. They shook me, I must say. I haven't laughed so much I don't think all year long. And I cannot wait to purchase this book. I will gladly pay $25.95.

DETROW: I would read that book 'cause you know what? I was on vacation throughout the entire Scaramucci era.

JOHNSON: How could you - really?

DETROW: I was.

JOHNSON: Did you - so you don't remember or you don't know what happened?

DETROW: You know, the book is for me.

JOHNSON: OK. I got a New Yorker article for you when we finish.

DETROW: OK. Sue, how about you?

DAVIS: There are so many things about my Can't Let It Go this week that I have to like sub-tweet my own Can't Let It Go to get at all the things I want to talk about about this. The president just came back from a very long potentially dehydrating trip from Asia and held - had a statement at the White House yesterday to talk about it. And he was a little thirsty. I think we have some tape of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Worth more than $8 billion, 17,000 jobs. Thank you. They don't have water? That's OK. What? Oh.

DAVIS: So one, I Can't Let It Go because this is just this incredibly awkward moment where a president is delivering a statement, and then the middle of it, he's like, does anybody have a glass of water? You know, it's that - if you watch the video, one, it's very awkward. Two, this was so immediately reminiscent of the famous Marco Rubio moment when he gave a response to the State of the Union, believe it was 2013. And in the course of his response, he reached for a bottle of water and drank from it.

And it was mocked incessantly by Donald Trump both at the time that Marco Rubio did that and then repeatedly on the campaign trail in 2016. He kind of used that water moment to kind of poke at Rubio as kind of like being weak or not, you know, not being up to the task or he was a lightweight. Like, he used the water bottle as an attack. And then the third thing I can't let go about it, it was Fiji water. It was imported water, which I would note that Marco Rubio, when he had his water moment, was drinking Poland Springs water, which is American Water.

DETROW: I like the shape of the Fiji bottle. It's got that going for it.

DAVIS: It does. And it's good water. I mean, you know, water's wonderful. Everyone should drink water. You know, always be hydrating is one of my life rules. But I also - the fourth thing I can't let go about it is I think Marco Rubio handled this really well. It was - kind of exploded on Twitter. And Rubio had a very funny tweet in which he just tweeted the video of Trump drinking the water. And it just says - similar but needs work on his form, has to be done in one single motion and eyes should never leave the camera, but not bad for his first time.

JOHNSON: You know, I'm thinking, as people who talk for a living, that we can crowdsource some suggestions of what to do when you're thirsty but can't stop talking just then to avoid what some of our listeners call NPR mouth. You know, that when you get...

DETROW: Well, we could just take a drink of water.

LIASSON: Well, we're on the radio. Nobody can see us drinking water.

DETROW: I'll be honest with you. I took three sips of water while Sue was talking.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

DAVIS: I do it all the time. Well, a lot of times, I go into studio with cold water and hot water just to be safe.

JOHNSON: Cover all of your bases, OK.

DAVIS: ABH - always be hydrated.

DETROW: All right. I'll go last. I'm going to be personal today. So I am not the only person in my family in radio. In fact, there are lots of radio Detrows. My uncle is San Diego's top zany morning zoo host for decades - true fact. And my dad has spent 50 years - 5-0 years - in radio news because he started at the local station at age 14 in Ohio. And this Sunday is his last day. He is retiring. He has worked at 1010 WINS in New York City for the last few years. Most of his career, he did the morning shift.

I always think about him when I'm driving into work at 4:30 in the morning for Up First and then when I pass out and take a nap on the other end of that shift. But I just wanted to say that I'm very proud of my dad. I probably would not have admitted it early on, but I do what I do probably because of his influence. And 50 years is a pretty long run, so congratulations.

JOHNSON: We salute him.

LIASSON: Congratulations.

DAVIS: What's he going to do in retirement?

DETROW: Well, this is funny. He said, he's like, I'm retiring just before Thanksgiving because, to be honest, I'm tired of having to work through all of the holidays for so many years, which is true. And then like right after we had that conversation, our editors emailed and said, hey, can you do that Friday morning after Thanksgiving Up First? But I thought that was funny. And I'm actually - I'm happy to do it. I think he will probably laugh as I'm the one who's like going into a side room to do the radio, and he gets to sleep in for a little bit.

JOHNSON: The passing of the torch.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: All right. So that is a wrap for this week. We'll be back in your feed soon. Keep up with all our coverage on npr.org, NPR POLITICS on Facebook and, of course, on your local public radio station. If you're in D.C. in January, we will be doing another live show at the Warner Theatre. This is in partnership with WAMU. You can find more information and buy tickets on nprpresents.org. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress for NPR.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.

JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS podcast

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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