Weekly Roundup: Thursday, March 29 Russia announced Thursday that it's expelling 60 U.S. diplomats, just a few days after the Trump administration expelled the same number of Russian diplomats from the U.S. That was in response to Russia's alleged poisoning of a former spy on British soil. Also this week, another big shake-up in the Trump administration: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has been fired, and Trump says he plans to nominate his White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, to the post. And there is more upheaval on the president's legal team. This episode: host/political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional reporter Kelsey Snell and editor correspondent Ron Elving. 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, March 29

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Weekly Roundup: Thursday, March 29

Weekly Roundup: Thursday, March 29

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TRASHLEY MADISON: Hi. This is Trashley Madison from the DC Rollergirls practice space in Hyattsville, Md., where we're getting ready for our April 7 bout between the Majority Whips and the Cherry Blossom Bombshells. You're listening to the NPR POLITICS podcast, which was recorded at...

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

1:59 p.m. on March 29.

MADISON: Keep in mind that things may have changed by the time you hear it. Keep up with all NPR's political coverage on the NPR One app, npr.org and, of course, your local station. OK. Here's the show.

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

KURTZLEBEN: Hey, everyone. It's the NPR POLITICS podcast here with our weekly roundup of political news. Russia said today, just minutes before we got in the studio, that it's expelling 60 U.S. diplomats. And that came just a few days after the Trump administration itself expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S. That was in response to Russia's alleged poisoning of a former spy on British soil. Also this week, another big shakeup in the Trump administration. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is out. And on top of that, more upheaval on the president's legal team. We're going to talk about all of it this week. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, president of the Trashley fan club.

(LAUGHTER)

ELVING: And also editor correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, yeah. Have you changed your business cards yet?

(LAUGHTER)

ELVING: No, I'm working on it - with pen.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Let's do that. So, Tam, I would like to thank you for letting me usurp the host seat this week. I'm in it today because you have been reporting your butt off on all of the stories - literally all of the news stories. And, you know, a lot has been happening on your beat. And I figured I would just ask you questions.

KEITH: And, conveniently, your mom can't tell our voices apart.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: You know what? Sometimes I can't, which is really, really...

KEITH: That must be disconcerting.

KURTZLEBEN: It really is. I'm having identity problems.

ELVING: Kelsey Snell, you and I just go get a cup of coffee.

SNELL: We do sound the same.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: It's going to be a good podcast this week. All right. But let's get to serious business. Let's start with Russia, this latest news. So what happened today? Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced today that Russia is expelling 60 U.S. diplomats and closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Now, Tam, there's a bit of tit-for-tat here, right? This is retaliation. The Trump administration announced Monday that it was expelling 60 Russian diplomats and closing the Russian consulate in Seattle.

KEITH: Yeah. So it's basically one-for-one. And let's just say this is not just Russia-USA. This is - Russia is expelling a bunch of diplomats from countries all over the world because it turns out more than 20 different countries, in a coordinated effort, expelled either diplomats or intelligence officers, which is more like it, from their countries because of this attack on U.K. soil using a military-grade nerve agent that is known to have been made in Russia.

KURTZLEBEN: This issue of diplomats versus intelligence agents kind of has been playing out. There is some frustration, I think, among Russians about the idea that they call these people diplomats. And a lot of the countries, in their process of expelling them, are calling them by some other name. And as I understand it, the frustration here is that their job descriptions don't include intelligence analysts, right?

KEITH: Lots of people's - let's just say from countries all over the world have diplomat in their title, and their job is more than just being a diplomat. That is what you call cover.

KURTZLEBEN: I see. So you're saying that right down to how countries are talking about who they're expelling, even the very wording that countries are using is sending a very particular message in this.

KEITH: Yeah. And the Trump administration was very clear. They were not calling the people that they expelled - the Russians that they are in the process of expelling - they did not call them diplomats. They called them intelligence officers.

ELVING: Right, which in some cases may very well be a euphemism for spy. But if we knew these people were in some sense or another actually spies, they would probably have been expelled before. So this is all in the gray area of all those inhabitants, of all of those consulates and all of those embassies all over the world.

KURTZLEBEN: So let's back up. I mentioned this in the intro. This was all in response to Russia allegedly poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil. Now the Kremlin, we should say, still says that it didn't have anything to do with that. Right. Yes, Tam, you're nodding and kind of rolling your eyes.

KEITH: The Kremlin says a lot of things.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

KEITH: They also did not interfere at all - at all - in the U.S. election.

KURTZLEBEN: No, not at all?

KEITH: Not at all.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, so - but like, that's one thing I want to get at here, which is this is in retaliation to something that happened on British soil, but U.S.-Russia relations have been, you know, touchy maybe is understating it. And so help me, you guys, put this into the broader context of, you know, we have sanctions against Russia. Russia meddled in our election. So how does this fit into the broader picture?

ELVING: It's been going on for a long time that we have been sanctioning them for some of their activities such as going into Ukraine, taking over Crimea, doing a number of things on the world front that essentially reopen the Cold War, not to put too fine a point on it. They are going back to a highly aggressive posture towards Europe, towards other parts of the world and towards the United States all as part of Vladimir Putin's plan to make Russia great again, which he, by the lights of Russians, clearly has done.

He has also made it very difficult to run against him, so it's hard to assess the results of this latest election. It was a big landslide win for him, but then the people who might have actually done him some damage weren't allowed to run. So it's that kind of a situation. And autocracy is definitely back in Moscow. And we're all trying in the United States and in Western countries and pretty much the entire world is trying to decide how to deal with a new behavior by a very long-standing big bully on the block.

SNELL: And some of this is NATO muscle flexing and kind of reasserting the power of NATO here because the idea is that a attack on one NATO country is a attack on all NATO countries. And that's why we're seeing something that happened in Great Britain play out in countries all across the world.

KURTZLEBEN: Got you.

KEITH: Yeah. This is the world saying, Russia, you can't isolate one country. You can't turn us against each other. This is the Western world. This is the world order. And despite, you know, various destabilizing activities in a lot of these countries and affecting elections and other things, the Western order is sticking together on this.

KURTZLEBEN: But let's bring this down even from NATO to Trump himself - right? - and his feelings towards Russia because, you know, he famously recently congratulated Putin on his win in the Russian election - I use the term loosely - after his staff told him not to. You know, he had said throughout the campaign, wouldn't it be great if we were friends with Russia? And now, you know, he takes this step against them. So how should we see this in terms of Trump's attitude towards Russia?

KEITH: There is a distinction between the president and his administration or the words that President Trump says and the words that his administration says. Now, the action here is tough. And if you look, going back, there have been tough actions. There have been additional sanctions. There - the United States posture toward Russia has not been particularly lax or friendly in the last - in the Trump administration.

However, the words that the president of the United States himself uses continue to be friendly toward Putin. He, according to aides, believes that, you know, yes, things are bad with Russia now, but if there's going to be any chance of repairing relations or working together on some of these very serious issues that, you know, crises in the world that Russia is involved in, that there has to be some sort of leader-to-leader chemistry agreement, whatever you want to call it.

So President Trump, although, you know, the press release said President Trump takes action to expel diplomats, President Trump, who knows how to use Twitter, has not tweeted about it, has not made a public statement about this action, has not made a big deal out of it personally.

SNELL: Up until this point in the Trump administration, Congress has been more than happy to be heavy in this relationship and to come out and be aggressive with Russia and take a much more defensive posture with Russia. And some people that I talked to, some Republicans in particular, actually think that that's been a good thing is that the legislative body can be the ones taking the strong-arm approach and that the president could be a little softer. And maybe this is a way forward. Though by the same token, a lot of Republicans I talked to on the Hill are just frustrated that we're being nice to Russia in any way, shape or form. That is not something that has been commonly accepted by Republicans or Democrats.

ELVING: And another big shadow over all this, of course, is the Mueller investigation - Robert Mueller, special counsel - looking into potential not only Russian interference in the 2016 election but possible involvement by people in the Trump campaign, in some of that interference the famous collusion, which the president says has never been found and which the House Republican Intelligence Committee has said has not been found. And yet the investigation goes forward, and lots of other things are sort of sprouting out of that investigation.

So because all of that goes back to the allegations of Russian interference, and our intelligence community says certain happened, no question about it, that all then feeds into anything that goes on with our relationship with the Russians. And Donald Trump stands above all of this and says, we've got business with Vladimir Putin. We have business pertinent to North Korea, pertinent to Iran. I want to keep my relationship with Vladimir what it's been - kind of a mutual admiration society at a lot of points. The voters heard me say lots of great things about Putin before they elected me in 2016, so I have license to continue this relationship.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, and one other thing to get at here - right? - is that, you know, we've expelled these 60 diplomats. Russia expelled those 60 U.S. diplomats. But, you know, between those and the consulates closing, this is not a full expulsion of diplomats - right? - or a full closing of consulates. There is still plenty more room to go.

KEITH: No, but it is more difficult to operate. It is more difficult for Americans in Russia. It is more difficult for Russians in Russia. And it is more difficult for Russians in America because there are fewer consulates.

ELVING: It's an indication of direction of policy and relationship. But let's also add here that John Bolton, who is soon to be taking over as the national security adviser to President Trump, has said in the past that expelling diplomats doesn't really do much, that if you really want to get serious with the Russians, you're going to have to hit them where they live. And you're going to have to really cause them, quote, "real pain," unquote.

SNELL: Folks that I've talked to on the Hill say it's about the aggregate effect of all of the Russian diplomats being expelled from all of the countries. There is a domino effect that happens. When you are losing that many diplomats across the world, there are changes that happen within - internally to the Kremlin and that there will be a lot of people who are coming home and who are losing their ability to travel and who are losing a lot of, you know, freedom that they may have had in these jobs before.

KURTZLEBEN: Interesting, got you. And when countries do these sorts of things and choose the consulates to close and the numbers of people to expel, they're being very, very deliberate.

SNELL: Sure.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. So, Ron, you were just talking about Robert Mueller. Well, let's talk more about Donald Trump's legal woes, except the legal woes we're going to talk about are on Trump's legal team. In the last week or so, there has been a lot of upheaval on that team. Now, last week in the podcast, we talked about this when one of Trump's personal lawyers, John Dowd, he said he was going to resign.

KEITH: He did.

KURTZLEBEN: He did. But at the time, new lawyers were about to be added to the president's legal team, Joe diGenova and his partner and wife, Victoria Toensing. But now, as it turns out, those lawyers are not going to be joining the team after all. So what happened?

KEITH: Well, there are two lines on this. The line that I got was that - and this is - we know that this is true - there were conflict-of-interest problems. And we knew about this last week, actually, that Toensing represents a couple of people who have gone in for interviews with the special counsel's investigative team. And, you know, it may not be the best idea for the president of the United States to be represented by someone who is also representing people who are potential witnesses in that case. And then the other line on this that some other organizations are reporting is that there was a chemistry problem, that even though the president had liked what diGenova said about him on TV on Fox...

KURTZLEBEN: That's important to this president.

KEITH: And it is is important, don't underestimate that. So is personal chemistry, and according to some reporting, when they went in for a meeting with the president, it just wasn't there.

SNELL: We hear about chemistry all the time with this president, right? We hear about how he had personal chemistry with Hope Hicks, the now former - or almost former...

KEITH: Today's her last day.

SNELL: Yeah, the almost former communications director in the White House.

ELVING: Farewell, Hope. Farewell.

SNELL: Yeah. And that was part of the reason why he hired Anthony Scaramucci to join the communications team, right? It was because of that personal chemistry.

KEITH: And because he was good on TV.

ELVING: Obvious chemistry.

KEITH: But again, that didn't last.

ELVING: Well, and Joe diGenova has been a celebrity lawyer over the years and a regular defender of President Trump on Fox. He's also been one of the main advocates for this idea that the FBI had cooked up a conspiracy against Donald Trump years ago, back into the years of the Obama administration. So that might have had something to do with why they expected the chemistry to be better.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, so to sum this up, what are the biggest holes that he absolutely needs to fill at this point?

KEITH: So the issue here is, with regard to the Mueller investigation, the team of lawyers working with Robert Mueller on this Russia investigation, that team is the dream team. These are people who specialize in white-collar crime. They're people who worked on Watergate. They're people who worked on Enron. Steve Bannon once called all of these lawyers killers. They are used to - they specialize in big, complicated cases. And they specialize in, like, putting people in a vice. They're quite the legal team. And right now, President Trump does not have a lawyer who is of the same caliber. And he certainly doesn't have the number of lawyers working with him.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And he is having trouble finding lawyers. Carrie Johnson has been reporting this this week as well, right?

KEITH: Yes.

ELVING: The president has also reached out to some very high-powered lawyers, people like Ted Olson, who is famous for handling the Bush vs. Gore case that gave us the presidency of George W. Bush in that Florida recount case down back in 2000, so - and many, many other cases. I mean, that may just be the one he's most famous for. He is also involved in the same-sex marriage case very recently decided in the Supreme Court on the side of people wishing to have their same-sex marriages recognized.

So he is a guy who has an absolutely sterling reputation as a litigator, as a legal mind. And he was spoken of a couple of times as being about to join or maybe join or had been invited, and then he made it clear that he was not joining, that his law firm might have a problem with that because of some of their other interests. Didn't say anything bad about the president. And there have been several other people in that same sort of general league, major league of lawyers who have said, hey, nothing against the president. I'm not saying anything against his case, but I just have other things I have to do.

KEITH: Here's the issue. The Mueller investigation is a wide-ranging investigation that involves a whole bunch of people who are potential targets or witnesses. And all of those people have lawyered up, many of them with the top lawyers in Washington, D.C., and beyond. And that creates a conflict of interest. Those lawyers then - and their firms - can't represent the president. So he's kind of like in a tough spot right now.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, so - and so you're starting to get here at the thing that I've been thinking of as a person who doesn't cover Trump's legal team closely, like, sort of the so what? Because, you know, is is this just about, you know, man, things are chaotic at the Trump White House, Exhibit X or no? Like, so - so the so what here, it sounds like you're saying, is that Trump is facing all of these legal challenges and can't find people who are of the caliber of the lawyers he is facing?

ELVING: You don't want to go into this kind of a legal confrontation - if there is going to be such a legal confrontation - with anything less than the best representation possible because you know you're up against a really heavy-hitting team. So there's that. There's also the enormous distraction of trying to put together your legal defense when you're trying to run a country, and you're trying to negotiate globally, and you're trying to restructure the entire tariff arrangement that we have with the rest of the world. And there are a few other things on the plate. So it is a distraction to the president. And there is no question that, for example, Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon or other people who have gone through heavy waters legally while president have been distracted from their other duties.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, yet more staffing shakeups at the White House, this time in the Cabinet. Yet another Cabinet secretary is out, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURTZLEBEN: And we're back. And yesterday evening, Trump announced that he had fired another member of his Cabinet. This time, it was the secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin. And he also said he plans to nominate his White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, to take over. Now let's back up a bit because we haven't talked about this on the podcast yet. You know, we've known for a while - for weeks, there have been some sort of rumblings about Shulkin leaving, right? So what had we heard?

KEITH: So over the weekend, one of President Trump's friends - he's a member of Mar-a-Lago, he also runs a website called Newsmax, Chris Ruddy - went on TV and said, you know, there's going to be some more changes coming in the Trump Cabinet. And I think Shulkin is next. And internally, there were some emails going around. And our reporter here at NPR who covers veterans issues responded and was like, this is Day 41 of Shulkin firing watch.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: He lasted until day 43.

SNELL: Yeah. I think part of the reason that this felt so almost uneventful for something that is quite eventful for there to be this much turnover in the White House, the thing that is interesting about this is how stretched out this was, I think, made it feel less impactful. It certainly felt that way in the halls of Congress, where they will have to go through the process of advising and consenting on the next nomination. So they were not surprised.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So it was so stretched out. As Tam pointed out, it happened on Day 43 of Shulkin watch. So, OK, so why now? Why Day 43?

KEITH: I don't know exactly why it was this moment. You know, Shulkin had been twisting in the wind for quite some time over a couple of issues.

ELVING: We're speculating here. We don't really know exactly what brings on the moment of the fatal tweet, but it does appear to have something to do with choosing a successor because, right away, the tweet tells you who is going to take over. There are various ways of looking at this firing. He had been viewed widely as doing a pretty good job of turning around the VA under a lot of heavy criticism, including from Donald Trump the candidate, and that he was starting to get his arms around some enormous problems. This is the second-largest federal agency after the Department of Defense in terms of employees.

So it was a big job. He seemed to be doing pretty well. He helped President Trump get some legislation through in 2017 that really pleased the president. So - but in June, he actually stood there in a press conference or in an open availability to the media and said, you're never going to hear me say those words from "The Apprentice." You're never going to hear me say, you're fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll never have to use those words. We'll never have to use those words on our David.

KURTZLEBEN: I feel like it's Chekhov's gun or something.

ELVING: Yeah, a little bit, a little bit. Well, of course, he didn't use the words. What he did was he just did a tweet. But the point is...

KEITH: I think it might have been John Kelly, chief of staff, who said the words.

SNELL: One of the major reasons why it would be hard to fire him or it was considered hard to fire him was because Shulkin was approved unanimously in the Senate. He has wide support. And the VA has been in a pretty dismal place for years. And there was a sense in Congress and in the VA and in other parts of the government that things were starting to look better and that the veterans were starting to feel like they were getting the care that they needed to get. They were happier with this new health care system called Veterans Choice. Things were just, in general, looking better.

ELVING: But then comes the scandal.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

ELVING: And let's not forget that the reason most Americans have heard - if they've heard at all of this man - is not because of the good work he might have been doing at the VA or in career up until then, it's all about a trip to Europe.

KURTZLEBEN: Kelsey, just lay this all out for us. Can give us just the bullet points of the Shulkin scandal?

SNELL: Sure. Shulkin took an official trip to Europe. It was about 10 days long. But his wife came along. And along the way, they did some sightseeing, including accepting expensive tickets to go to Wimbledon. Now, the inspector general took exception to that and said that it was an extreme dereliction of duty. And then his chief of staff tried to cover it up.

ELVING: The way it came across and the way it was handled in terms of trying to, you know, cover it up initially and then trying to put out some other line and having that disputed within the administration was a mess.

KURTZLEBEN: So I have a question for you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Sure.

KURTZLEBEN: You talked about Shulkin being so respected and having been approved unanimously. So, OK, so this scandal breaks. Are people on the Hill - are they moved by this? Does this change their opinion?

SNELL: This has not had as much of an impact on people on the Hill as previous scandals have or even some that are ongoing. I think part of that is because scandal fatigue is a real thing in Washington right now, and that there is a sense that we have become used to hearing about Trump administration nominees and appointees who just are not following the rules. And this is becoming a part of the new normal of things that people in Congress respond to is there is this bad thing happening in the White House, how do you feel about it? And then they either find a way to not answer it, or they say that is an administration problem. And I think that that is something that we're going to see more and more is that Congress just doesn't know how to deal with this White House.

SNELL: All right. So we can't talk the whole time about the guy leaving, although we clearly could go on. Let's get to the guy that Trump now plans to nominate, Ronny Jackson. I should say Dr. Ronny Jackson. He is the president's doctor. You may all remember him. There was a press conference back in January where he talked at great length about the president's health.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RONNY JACKSON: It's called genetics. I don't know. It's - some people have, you know, just great genes. You know, I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old. I don't know.

KURTZLEBEN: That was one heck of a press conference. He did stand there and take all of the questions from all of the reporters.

KEITH: For like an hour.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, he really got into the nitty-gritty of the president's health. But all right. So beyond him telling us the president's mental health is fine and all of that, like, what can you tell me about him, you guys?

KEITH: Well, he is the president's personal physician. He was the prior president's personal physician.

ELVING: And the president before that.

KEITH: And he is a Navy rear admiral. He served in Iraq as an emergency physician. His credentials as a doctor and as a person who has served in the military are stellar. And when he did that press conference at the White House where everybody was like, oh, my God, people from the Obama administration were like, no, no, he's a credible guy. We like him a lot. You know, we have respect for Dr. Ronny Jackson.

SNELL: He's a credible guy that a lot of people like a lot as a doctor, but the concern that I've heard raised a lot is that running the VA is something very different than tending to a single patient or even a small group of patients. The VA, as we mentioned, is enormous.

KEITH: Something like 360,000 employees. To this point, Dr. Ronny Jackson has supervised something like two dozen.

SNELL: Right.

KEITH: So there's a statement - there are lots of statements. There's just a little bit of this one from the VFW, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that I would like to read because the amount of shade in this statement is kind of remarkable. They talk about all the great stuff in his resume. And then they say, however, his biography does not reflect, quote, "any experience working with the VA or with veterans or managing any organization of size, much less one as multifaceted as the Department of Veterans Affairs." So the VFW will be closely monitoring his Senate confirmation process.

ELVING: At a lot of these organizations, there's a lot of politics in the various organizations that represent veterans, as you might expect. And some of these organizations are deeply concerned because they were working with Shulkin. They had confidence in him, like the members of Congress who had worked with him most closely. And they really don't have any kind of an idea of what to make of Dr. Ronny at this juncture.

SNELL: Right.

ELVING: They've seen him on TV like the rest of us, but they don't know what his policies will be. And they don't know what to expect from him with respect to the whole issue of privatization. And they don't really like the idea that that would be taking a greater precedence in national policy.

SNELL: We talked about the firing of Shulkin not being surprising. The nomination or the proposed nomination of Dr. Ronny is the part of this that is surprising.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, and looking back, I was sort of digging into past VA secretaries before we came in the studio. And, you know, there's not a specific mold that they all fit. But you guys talk about, you know, the concerns over whether he can handle a big bureaucracy. And you do have past people, including David Shulkin, including James Peake, who was secretary under George W. Bush, who - of being in charge of large health care organizations. Shulkin was CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. James Peake was the head of Project Hope, which is a big international organization. So you had another one during Obama who was the CEO of Procter and Gamble, which is a different thing. But - right, you do wonder if Ronnie Jackson - I - you can kind of see where these concerns come from because in that sense, yeah, he doesn't have a whole lot of underlings that he is handling right now.

ELVING: So what we know about him is that he is well covered for biology. He has chemistry with the president. But we don't really have any idea about him as management.

SNELL: Oh, thank you, Professor Ron.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: That was pretty good, Ron.

ELVING: Stack those textbooks.

SNELL: It was good.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, that seems like as good a place to end as any. So all right, let's take one more quick break. And when we come back, Can't Let It Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURTZLEBEN: All right, and we're back. And it's time to end the show, as we always do, with Can't Let It Go, when we all share one thing we cannot stop thinking about this week, politics or otherwise. Kelsey, let's start with you. What can't you let go?

SNELL: I was going to talk about baseball because today is opening day. But the thing that I've been obsessing about all week long is this ransomware attack in Atlanta. It is one of the crazier stories that I think is just not getting a ton of coverage, and I can't figure out why. So for people who don't know, there are these hackers who sent a ransomware attack to the city of Atlanta saying that they would be locking up victims' files and giving them a week to pay. They're only asking for $51,000 paid in Bitcoin. Now, that's a lot of money for a person, but for a major metropolitan area, that's not very much money.

KURTZLEBEN: Wait. So they're sending this to, like, city government employees?

SNELL: Their entire computer systems for the city of Atlanta are locked up.

KEITH: They've been using paper for everything.

SNELL: Except for things - so 911 was not impacted, but all of the courts have been in total chaos. They can't issue warrants. They can't process people who have been in jail. But the - you can't park in the airport parking lot.

KEITH: You can't pay your tickets.

SNELL: Yeah. It's not the entire system of government, but it's all these little pieces. And it's been going on for like a week. And there is no real resolution here. And the mayor is calling it a hostage situation. It's pretty striking. And it's over $51,000, in part, because they just don't want to be negotiating with terrorists, essentially.

KEITH: Well, not just that, like, there's no guarantee that if they pay the $51,000, they'll actually get their data back 'cause in other countries, this has come up.

SNELL: Right.

KEITH: There were some major ransomware attacks in Britain. And some paid the money, and they still didn't get their data back.

SNELL: Apparently, they changed the user name to I'm Sorry. And that's...

KEITH: What?

SNELL: I've been reading stories about this nonstop for the past couple of days, and they don't really seem to have an answer. They're letting - the city of Atlanta is letting some employees turn their computers on to kind of assess the extent of the damage, but that's really all they've got. And it's been over a week.

KEITH: Is this the Russians?

SNELL: They don't know, like, they have no idea. Oh, my God. So that's what I can't let go because it's - it feels like we're in a TV show mystery.

KURTZLEBEN: That feels like an Aaron Sorkin movie waiting to happen at this point.

ELVING: You don't think it's just some 400-pound kid sitting on his bed in Georgia Tech?

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: It could be, could be the Chinese, could be that 400-pound man.

ELVING: So I was going to talk about baseball too because it is Opening Day, but I did that last year. So I'd rather do inside baseball instead. For people who care about politics and people who care about polling, one of the gold standards supposedly has been exit polls because you know that everybody who has polled has voted. You know that much at least. And you hope through various and sundry means of statistical weighting and so forth to make sure that when you do the analysis, the people that you polled coming from the exit polls are representative of the people who voted.

There are some problems with that. And studies since 2016 are showing us those problems are pretty big and have a lot of impact. Let me make clear what I'm talking about. Pew Research Center and also the Center for American Progress have looked over the exit polls from 2016 and found that the number of white voters with college degrees was quite radically overstated. And the number of white voters without college degrees was correspondingly understated. In fact, here are the numbers. And it may not sound like that many unless you've ever been involved in a campaign. The Pew study found that white voters without a college degree cast 44 percent of the overall vote for president. That's 13 million more votes than the exit polls.

KURTZLEBEN: That is an incredible difference.

ELVING: Forty-four percent versus 34 percent.

SNELL: That is an incredible difference.

KURTZLEBEN: That's - like, my head is exploding. Like, that's insane.

ELVING: And this has been - this has come down the pike from two different organizations without an agenda other than accuracy and with no pressure to get out a quick judgment, which, let's face it, the exit polls are driven largely by news organizations that want to get a quick read on what happened in the election. This more calm, cool analysis over time, I believe, is probably going to stand the test of time.

And there was a conference at American University yesterday, went on all day long and where much of this data was being discussed by people who are intense quantitative scientists. I believe this is going to stand up. And I believe it's going to have a big impact on the strategy of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party going forward. If we know that more votes are being cast by people who didn't go to college, as opposed to people who did, it has a lot to do with what issues get emphasized and what we assume about what people are interested in voting on the basis of.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, like, you sit right next to me in the newsroom, Ron. And right after you you handed this article to me, my editor sent me a sentence from this article in The New York Times about this. Here is the sentence. It's from Thomas Edsall. Edison exit polls taken on November 8 had Clinton failing to carry college-educated whites, losing them to Trump 49-45. Pew found that she did, in fact, win these voters, decisively carrying white college grads 55-38.

ELVING: That's a huge difference.

KURTZLEBEN: So going from 49-45 Clinton loss to 55-38 Clinton winning those people.

ELVING: It's hard to overstate that.

KURTZLEBEN: It's bonkers.

ELVING: It is. And it also - it also implies that when you go forward and you say, who are our voters? Who are we actually representing as opposed to who might we think we're representing? You've got to get better data than we have had up to now. And the Democratic Party is already engaged in a rather existential debate about what kind of people they should be appealing, to what kind of policies they should be running on in 2018 and 2020. This is going to fuel that debate and in a big, big way.

KURTZLEBEN: Lord. OK. Well, Tam, tell me your Can't Let It Go is not about failures of math.

KEITH: Well, no.

KURTZLEBEN: OK.

KEITH: No, but it is about education. And it is about voters a little bit.

KURTZLEBEN: OK.

KEITH: So in 2015 - in November of 2015, there was a presidential debate, a Fox Business-Wall Street Journal debate where Marco Rubio, then a candidate for president, said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEITH: And make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me, I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

ELVING: Fewer. Fewer.

KEITH: Right? OK. So here's the thing. That was actually the week of our first podcast, our first NPR POLITICS podcast. And I believe that was my first Can't Let It Go because I am a philosophy major and was deeply offended by this...

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: ...As someone who has made the argument that philosophy majors can go on to successful lives. But the reason I come back to this, Marco Rubio tweeted this week sort of a mea culpa. And he says, quote, "I made fun of philosophy three years ago, but then I was challenged to study it. So I started reading the Stoics. I've changed my view on philosophy but not on welders. We need both vocational training for workers and philosophers to make sense of the world."

KURTZLEBEN: Vindication. How do you feel?

ELVING: I can think of a couple other reasons for Marco Rubio to be reading the Stoics.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: So, Marco Rubio, thank you for seeing the light. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Awesome.

KEITH: And, Danielle, what can you not let go of?

KURTZLEBEN: Mine is way less serious than all of you guys', so it's a great one to end on. It's a drama that I saw unfold on Twitter this week between a writer for The Weekly Standard by the name of Jonathan Last and his wife, Shannon Last, who is a speechwriter - as her LinkedIn page told me - at DOJ. So anyway, it's not important except for what they were arguing about. What they're arguing about is dishwasher loading, which is a thing that I feel very strongly about. So I was hoping I could enlist one of you to do a dramatic reading of this back-and-forth with - yeah.

KEITH: I think Ron. I think we need - yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Ron...

ELVING: I, too, have strong feelings on this subject

KURTZLEBEN: Ron, I've highlighted your parts.

ELVING: So I begin?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

ELVING: (Reading) So the Bosch utensil basket is a rectangle with four large compartments on the ends and eight small compartments on the interior.

KURTZLEBEN: (Reading) OMG, please tell me you are not about to do a dishwasher-loading thread. I am sitting right next to it working, and I can make your life so miserable.

ELVING: (Reading) When you deposit utensils, they go in handle-down per the manual, but you arrange them by type in the following manner - the two outermost large compartments are for spoons.

KURTZLEBEN: (Reading) You are so blocked.

ELVING: (Reading) Why? Because you use more spoons than any other type of utensil, and by putting them closest to the door, you save time by being able to only open the dishwasher halfway whenever you put in or take out a spoon.

KURTZLEBEN: (Reading) I am closing the laptop and changing the locks.

ELVING: (Reading) Why do you group the utensils? Because when you unload, you no longer have to sort them individually. You grab the entire compartment of spoons and then transfer them to the appropriate storage space. This probably saves you 60, 90 seconds a day, every day.

KEITH: Oh, good God.

ELVING: (Reading) That's seven-and-a-half hours a year, 75 hours in a decade. You could read "War And Peace," "Middlemarch" and "Lord Of The Rings" with that spare time all because you created efficiency in dishwasher loading. Consider this my gift to humanity.

KURTZLEBEN: (Reading) I will consider it when you actually read "Middlemarch."

KEITH: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: So I just want to add that, like...

SNELL: Who uses spoons that much?

KURTZLEBEN: I don't know. Forgive my yelling, but I want to add that all of Shannon, the wife's, responses were all in all-caps, no punctuation. They were just flat out yelling. I appreciate that very much.

SNELL: But no, I don't - I totally disagree with him. You don't put them in handles-down. Then you have to like - when you take them out, you grab the fork by the tines, and you get your germs on it.

KEITH: Yeah, exactly. And you accidentally stab yourself.

ELVING: It's like, why bother to wash it? Why bother to wash it?

SNELL: Always knives point down, always.

ELVING: The Bosch is a monster.

KURTZLEBEN: It's a dishwasher of earthly awfulness.

ELVING: I despise the Bosh. And I have an argument with my wife about "Middlemarch." I can't believe everything in this, it's just amazing. Belle (ph) is never going to believe this was written by somebody else.

KURTZLEBEN: It's just uncanny, really.

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

KURTZLEBEN: That's a wrap for us this week. We will be back in your feed soon. Keep up with all of our coverage on npr.org, NPR POLITICS on Facebook and, of course, your local public radio station. You can also always catch one of us on Up First every weekday morning. I am Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent dishwasher unloader.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS podcast.

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