Weekly Roundup: Thursday, May 31 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is meeting with a top North Korean delegate to prepare for a potential summit, but do the two countries agree on what it means to "denuclearize?" President Trump surprised the world when he announced today that tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU go into effect at midnight tonight. Plus, President Trump pardons another controversial figure. This episode: Congressional correspondent Scott Detrow, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent Scott Horsley, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and national security and political reporter Tim Mak. 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, May 31

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Weekly Roundup: Thursday, May 31

Weekly Roundup: Thursday, May 31

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MANDY: Hi, this is Mandy (ph) from Seattle, Wash. Right now I'm in the Amazon jungle with no electricity and no cell service. But I'll be sure to catch up with the NPR POLITICS Podcast when I get back. This podcast was recorded at...


Thursday, May 31 at 12:40 p.m.

MANDY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK. Here's the show.


DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS Podcast here with your weekly roundup of political news. This week, President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, made an appearance in court. And as we speak, a North Korean top official is meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to salvage a potential summit. Also, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that tariffs on Mexico, Canada and the European Union will go into effect tonight at midnight. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.

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

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: I'm Scott Horsley. I cover the White House.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. And I also cover the White House.

DETROW: All right. A lot to get to today - a lot of things we've been talking about before that are pretty complicated but that had some big developments this week. And I guess we should start with North Korea because the stakes are big on the tariffs. But, you know, with North Korea, the stakes are always a little bigger.

HORSLEY: Very big.

DETROW: So let's start there. OK. When we last talked about this in the podcast, the summit was off. Ayesha, can you catch us up to speed with what has happened between then and now and how we would even define the offness (ph) or on-ness (ph) of the summit?

RASCOE: So the meeting was off. But then North Korea put out a statement that was really kind of kind and saying they're willing to meet. They really kind of want this to happen. And since then, the two sides and the others involved - Japan, South Korea - they've all been having talks. And according to President Trump, they've been going well. And so now the White House is saying that they are planning as if the meeting is going to happen on June 12 in Singapore. So we've had a delegation from the U.S. go to Singapore to meet with some North Korean counterparts. We have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with a top North Korean official today. And President Trump is saying - the White House is really expressing optimism that something is going to happen.

DETROW: And this is - this official is the most high-ranking North Korean official to come to the United States since 2000. Scott, who is this guy? And what does that say about how serious North Korea is?

HORSLEY: His name is Kim - if you can imagine - Kim Yong Chol. He's the right-hand man of Kim Jong Un. And he has a colorful past. He is thought to be responsible for that hack on the Sony Pictures computer network four years ago. Remember, that was in response to that Academy Award-nominated film - was it Academy Award-nominated?

DETROW: No. But you know what? It was funny. It was funny.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

DETROW: "The Interview" - it was a funny movie. I will say that.

HORSLEY: North Korea did not care for that movie. So they hacked into Sony. And Kim Yong Chol was thought to be part of that effort. He's also, on a more serious note, thought to be responsible for the deadly sinking of a South Korean naval vessel back in 2010. Because of all that passed, he was actually sanctioned by the U.S. And the administration had to sort of relax some of those sanctions just to even allow him into the country. But he had a nice steak dinner last night with Mike Pompeo. And, as Ayesha says, the White House is moving ahead. There's been no official word that the summit's back on. But they're sort of proceeding as if it may be.

DETROW: But, Mara, here's the thing that's puzzled me about all of this - is that there's been so much focus by the White House, by everyone talking about this - is the summit on or off? This summit - it's so high stakes. This is such a big deal. Like, what is the goal of the summit? What does the White House want out of this? Because I feel like that has really been, like, the second or third-tier issue.

LIASSON: Well, that's so interesting because that is actually the most important thing about it. The part that the president has put a lot of energy into is the suspense and the theatrics and all of the kind of show biz aspect of this - on, off, a letter. You are angry. I don't like you. I'm not going to meet with you. Oh, we're back on. He's been so nice. The big question hanging over this meeting is whether North Korea and the United States are talking about the same thing when they say denuclearization. And so far, we don't know the answer to that. We know that the Trump administration says its definition of denuclearization is North Korea giving up all of its nukes, its entire program in some verifiable way.

DETROW: Which, of course, they've not been too into in the past.

LIASSON: No. In the past, North Korea has made it pretty clear that once they became a nuclear power, which they say they are now because they have a missile that can reach the United States, they would be able to negotiate from a position of strength. I think what they're interested in, according to experts, is more of a freeze, kind of stop where we are now. They wouldn't build any more, just like they made a big show of dismantling their nuclear site in that mountain, which some people said was already unusable because it had caved in partially. But we don't know if the two countries are talking about the same thing.

DETROW: OK. So last question on this. I feel like there's probably going to be a lot more could be on, could be off. Like, what are the key things to look for to figure out whether this meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, as we remember last week...

RASCOE: Yes, yes.

DETROW: ...Is on?

RASCOE: I think the key things to be looking for is to see if both sides can keep up this kind of nice act, these kind of kind words to each other, if they keep putting out these optimistic statements and if they can show some type of win for both of them. The White House is saying denuclearization. That is what has to be on the table. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said that is what they will be looking for - is that denuclearization is on the table. The definitions they might have to work out. But if you see that coming from North Korea and the U.S., saying denuclearization is on the table, then I think you could see it moving forward.

HORSLEY: And if, in fact, that does take place, and at the end of it, they put out some sort of joint declaration, joint communique, as typically happens with this sort of meeting, I think you're going to want to pay close attention to the fine print or whether there even is any fine print or if there is just broad generalizations. One could easily imagine a situation where Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un sit down, spend a day together. And at the end of the day, they put out a kind of anodyne statement that says, we made great progress on the course to X, Y or Z.

DETROW: And the ratings were excellent.

HORSLEY: The ratings would be excellent. And we really wouldn't know at that point how much had been achieved.

LIASSON: One thing we would know - if this follows the pattern of past negotiations - that North Korea, by agreeing to the goal, however vaguely defined, of denuclearization, gets to start a protracted, very long period of negotiations, during which the U.S. would lose its leverage to threaten fire and fury. Donald Trump can't really threaten to destroy North Korea while he's engaged in peace talks. And maybe China has no more incentive to agree to sanctions on North Korea if they're engaged in peace talks. So North Korea has a lot to gain just by being well-behaved.

RASCOE: We can say that a top U.S. diplomat has said that the talks going on in New York have been substantive.


RASCOE: So they're making the argument that they are getting into the kind of nitty-gritty with these talks. So we can say - report that.

DETROW: Last thing on this - you all are White House reporters. Are any of you, like, canceling and uncanceling and canceling and uncanceling a room in Singapore as this plays out?

HORSLEY: I've had a room booked in Singapore since before the cancellation last week. And this week, I booked my air tickets. But I did make sure to get the refundable fare.


RASCOE: We'll see what happens.

LIASSON: Oh, that sounds familiar.


LIASSON: But you know what? So one thing we should say - and this is to give credit where credit is due - right now the White House is operating like a normal White House. They're sending actual experts over there to see if they can prepare for a meeting. Is there enough substance that there should be a meeting? In other words, it's not just Donald Trump agreeing on a whim to something that the South Koreans told him and going over there with no preparation at all. This is getting a little bit more conventional.

DETROW: All right. So whether it's our show tomorrow or early next week, I'm pretty sure we'll have an update on this. OK. Next super-confusing international topic.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

DETROW: Scott Horsley, a couple days ago, we had a podcast in your feeds on tariffs. We've talked about this a bunch of times. The conversation then was this increased focus on China. All along, it had seemed like American allies were going to be fine. They kept getting exemptions. Now suddenly today, very different news.

HORSLEY: That's right. Canada, Mexico and the European Union are going to be hit, as of midnight tonight, with steep tariffs on their exports of steel and aluminum to the United States.

DETROW: And this is it. This is real. This is actually happening?

HORSLEY: Well, it's coming up on 1 p.m. So I suppose there's still 11 hours to change course. But it certainly looks like it's going to happen. Remember, back in March, these tariffs were first announced. They were basically worldwide tariffs. But a handful of countries got carve-outs, including Canada, Mexico and the European Union. And the idea there was to give those three players a chance to negotiate some kind of settlement with the U.S. where they wouldn't need to have those tariffs.

In the case of Mexico and Canada, that was part of the NAFTA negotiations. And the administration was also trying to strike a deal with the EU to avoid these tariffs. Those negotiations have proven fruitless. So this morning, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, OK. Exemption's up. The tariffs are going to kick in. And it's important because the EU is our No. 1 supplier of imported steel. Canada is our No. 1 supplier of imported aluminum. And it's going to mean higher prices for businesses and consumers here in the United States.

DETROW: And we already have Canada and Mexico moving quickly to counteract this, right?

HORSLEY: And the EU. They've all threatened to impose tariffs of their own on U.S. exports in retaliation. So I think this is, you know, sort of opening shots in that trade war we've been talking about for a number of months now.

DETROW: Mara, is this one of those moments where the Trump White House that Trump campaigned on all along is finally here and finally a reality? We have retaliation going back and forth with close allies.

LIASSON: Look. He's the one who famously tweeted, trade wars are good and easy to win. Now we're going to find out if that's true. This is something he campaigned on. He said he would do this. And now he's doing it. The problem is that the economic brunt of these tariffs and the retaliation, if they come through as expected, is going to hit states that have a lot of Trump supporters in them - the industrial heartland and the farm belt. And the question is, are voters there going to blame him, or are they going to say, we're willing to put up with some pain because we really agree with Donald Trump about all those other countries ripping us off?

HORSLEY: We might say the steel and aluminum sectors in the U.S. will be pleased with this. It's a protectionist move for them. They'll do a little bit more business. And certainly, steelworkers and aluminum workers have been applauding this move. But the businesses that consume steel and aluminum in this country - they're going to be hard hit. And there are a lot more of those businesses and a lot more employees in those businesses than there are steel workers and aluminum workers.

LIASSON: And this is the other interesting thing about this - is this is the only policy issue that there has been any considerable pushback from Republicans in Congress. For the most part, if Republicans don't agree with Donald Trump, they really bite their tongues. On this one, people have spoken out. Republican leaders have spoken out, saying they don't agree with this. They don't think tariffs are the way to go. The Republican Party in Congress is still a free trade party. I think in almost every other way, they've become a Donald Trump party. But this is the kind of last bastion.

HORSLEY: And then when you look at those retaliatory tariffs, you know, the Canadians the Mexicans and the Europeans have been very calculated in what they're trying to hit. They're going after Harley-Davidson motorcycles from Wisconsin, the home state of House Speaker Paul Ryan. They're going after bourbon from Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They're going to try to put the most hurt on Donald Trump's supporters and congressional allies.

RASCOE: How is the administration justifying these tariffs? And is there any other way that these countries - the European Union and Canada - can fight back other than just imposing their own tariffs?

HORSLEY: The ostensible reason for these tariffs is national security. The president's acting under the authority of a 1960s-era law that's meant to shore up domestic industries deemed vital to national security. And the administration says steel and aluminum fit that category.

LIASSON: Well, you know, the other thing is this morning, Wilbur Ross had a press conference - a teleconference - where he talked about this - these tariffs - and explained the national security section of the trade code that they're going to be introduced under. But he also said very flatly - he said the president's overwhelming objective is to reduce our trade deficit. That's the bottom line for the president. He considers the trade deficit a metric by which you judge a country's strength or weakness. It's kind of like television ratings. It's not a metric that any economist subscribes to. A lot of times when your economy is strong, you have a trade deficit because your consumers want to buy more imported products. But the president has been focused on the trade deficit for many, many decades. And he thinks that this is the way that he can correct what he sees as an imbalance.

DETROW: So we've been talking about this for a couple months now, as this has played out. And we've always talked about the potential repercussions that, Scott, you just listed again right now. How quickly do those actually materialize and become real price increases and real things that we notice in the real economy, as opposed to theoretical, possible future ripples?

HORSLEY: Right. We've talked about this a lot in the context of China, where the U.S. has threatened to impose tariffs on a lot of Chinese goods. And China's pushed back and said, we'll counteract that with tariffs on U.S. goods. In this case, I think the Europeans are pretty well queued up and ready to go. I suspect they will impose those retaliatory tariffs relatively rapidly. They've had a couple of months to get ready. I think you'll see those pretty quickly.

LIASSON: And, you know, the other interesting thing is Wilbur Ross said today that the president has given Sonny Perdue, his agriculture secretary, free hand to protect farmers. Of course, farmers have told the White House they don't want protection. They want markets. But - so I was thinking maybe they would create this strategic soybean reserve...


LIASSON: ...To buy up all our excess soybeans. But then Scott said yes, and they'll require tofu to be in all school lunches. That's the way we're going to protect farmers from the retaliatory actions of China.

DETROW: The NPR cafeteria - way ahead of the curve on that.

LIASSON: Right. Right.

RASCOE: Exactly.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

RASCOE: So, Scott, what does this mean for, like, NAFTA and the other trade talks. Does that mean that they're not happening now? Or how does this affect that?

HORSLEY: Well, this was sort of a cudgel that the administration was using to try to encourage Canada and Mexico to strike a NAFTA deal. But in announcing that these tariffs are going to take effect today, Commerce Secretary Ross said, well, there's no firm date now for when the NAFTA negotiations might come to an end. Of course, we have Mexico's presidential election coming up in July. The clock is ticking on congressional approval. So it could well be many months away before we see any resolution on NAFTA, if then.

DETROW: All right. We're going to shift gears. We're going to take a quick break. Scott Horsley, thank you so much for talking about all this complicated stuff, like you always do. Scott is going to leave. Tim Mak is going to come in. We are going to catch you up to speed on all the latest Russia news and hear some reporting that Tim's been doing about Michael Cohen that is going to involve a lot of bleeped words in your podcast. We will explain why after this quick break.


DETROW: All right. We are back. Scott Horsley is gone. Tim Mak, you are in the studio. How's it going?


DETROW: We've got a lot to talk about with you, but we're going to hold that thought for just a second. So here's what we're going to try and do here. We're going to walk through a few different developments in the Russia investigation and all the related stuff. I want to start with what President Trump was calling as of last week's show Spygate. This was a specific branding effort on President Trump's part making the argument that the FBI, the Department of Justice, was spying on his campaign with an informant. Mara, when we were talking last week, he had led to this highly unusual meeting with Republican lawmakers and the Department of Justice. There was a second meeting with some Democrats. Have we learned anything in the last week about whether or not there is any evidence at all that the Department of Justice did anything improper when it came to investigating the Trump campaign?

LIASSON: So far, we haven't heard anyone who was at that meeting where they saw the classified information about an informant who was asked by the FBI to investigate Russian contacts with some low-level officials in the Trump campaign. This is, we assume, what the president is talking about when he said a spy infiltrated his campaign. The only person who's came out of that meeting and talked about it was Trey Gowdy, Republican oversight committee chairman, former head of the Benghazi investigation and the House, who said that he saw a normal FBI operation, that the FBI was doing exactly what it should be, and if the president understood that he would be happy. He said this is exactly what the president and all Americans should want the FBI to do. They were looking into what the Russians were up to, not what Donald Trump was up to.


TREY GOWDY: I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump.

DETROW: That's pretty notable, right? Because this isn't, like, Mark Warner or Adam Schiff, a Democrat, saying, hey now, nothing improper happened. Like, Trey Gowdy's pretty partisan.

MAK: Well, he certainly isn't unaccustomed to being a partisan attack dog when he needs to be. As Mara mentioned, he was the chairman of the Benghazi committee, and they went after Hillary Clinton pretty aggressively for years. But now he's decided he's not going to run for re-election. This is Gowdy unchained. This is Gowdy saying what he feels comfortable saying without politics being involved.

LIASSON: And what's so interesting also about this is that the president said he wanted this meeting because he wanted total transparency. He said all he wanted to do is get the facts out. Now the facts are coming out, and they're not fitting his narrative. But the White House isn't dropping it, either. The president is still insisting that somehow he was spied upon. But the president set up this dramatic meeting. He wanted to continue to push this narrative that he was spied on, and so far the meeting hasn't corroborated to his charges.

RASCOE: And the president - I traveled to Nashville for a campaign rally with President Trump this week. At that rally, I was struck by he said that his campaign had been infiltrated. President Trump said, my campaign was infiltrated. And he asked the crowd, he said, are there any infiltrators here? Are there any people here trying to infiltrate (laughter) my campaign? I think the crowd was a little confused. They didn't know how to respond to that. But he's still bringing it up.

DETROW: When you compared it last week to the O.J. Simpson defense, like, even though I'd watched every single episode of the FX show a couple years ago - deeply into that - I hadn't thought about it that way. But then it made perfect sense. The defense of, it doesn't even matter whether I did anything wrong, it's all about how you investigated me.

RASCOE: And I think it can be very effective. It was effective for O.J. But I think it can be very effective because you say, look at the people who are looking into me. They're not perfect. I bet they've done something wrong. Look at them. Don't look at what I did or may have done or could have done.

DETROW: And that leads us to Michael Cohen. We're going to talk about him for a few minutes now. First a quick note. He did have a court appearance this week. The short story on that court appearance is, as you remember, the FBI raided his legal office. Big deal. That's really what set this into hyperdrive when it comes to President Trump attacking the FBI and the Department of Justice. This court hearing was, long story short, to weigh what evidence was protected by attorney-client privilege, what evidence was fair game in this investigation. So, Tim, Michael Cohen is kind of being threatened in a legal sense this week. But, as you did a lot of reporting on this week, he is usually in the opposite role, doing the threatening, doing the aggression on behalf of Donald Trump, right?

MAK: Yeah. For a long time, he was viewed as an enforcer for Donald Trump. And he has a long pattern of reaching out and trying to solve problems, or perceived problems, for Mr. Trump by making legal threats. And one of the incidences is an incident in 2015 when I started looking into his divorce proceedings with his first wife, Ivana Trump. I reached out to the campaign, to the Trump campaign, which he doesn't work for, by the way.

DETROW: He worked for the Trump Organization.

MAK: He worked for the Trump Organization, which is the private company. And I got a call back from Michael Cohen. Here's the tape. To be clear, I was working as a reporter for The Daily Beast, an online news outlet, at the time.


MICHAEL COHEN: ...My words for it. I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we're in the courthouse, and I will take you for every penny you still don't have. And I will come after you, Daily Beast, and everybody else that you possibly know. Do not even think about going to where I know you're planning on going. And that's my warning for the day.

MAK: Michael, besides the warning, do you have a substantive comment that I can include in my piece that reflects your views on this?

COHEN: I have no views because there's no story.

RASCOE: How did you feel during that? Like, was it - were you scared? Or were you worried?

MAK: No. I mean, so I was reporting for The Daily Beast at the time, which definitely has more of a tabloid mentality. I was not unaccustomed to getting loud phone calls. And, you know, at the time it was, you know - the Donald Trump campaign was not considered, you know, likely to win the presidency in mid-2015. It was not especially threatening in the context of other, you know, angry phone calls you get just by being a reporter. But he didn't stop there. He continued with his threats. And we've got more tape of that.


COHEN: So I'm warning you. Tread very [expletive] lightly because what I'm going to do to you is [expletive] disgusting. Do you understand me? Don't think you're going to hide behind your (unintelligible) because it's not going to happen.

MAK: Look, I'm...

COHEN: I'm more than happy to discuss it with your attorney and with your legal counsel 'cause [expletive] you're going to need it.

MAK: You know, the funny thing is that he was also talking and referring to himself throughout that conversation and seemed almost proud to talk about previous lawsuits, like one that he filed against Univision. Of course, the Univision dropped Trump's Miss USA pageant because of his disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants when he launched his campaign. And we've got a clip of Michael Cohen talking about that lawsuit.


COHEN: I think you should do the story, and I think you should go ahead and write the story that you plan on writing. I think you should do it because I think you're an idiot. All right? And I think your paper is (unintelligible) a joke. And it's going to be my absolute pleasure to serve you with a $500 million lawsuit, like I told I did to Univision.

MAK: Just to be clear, Michael Cohen never filed a lawsuit against me or against The Daily Beast, ultimately.

DETROW: And this is worth reporting on because this gets to his broader role within the Trump Organization, right?

MAK: Yeah. I mean, between 2015 and now, there have been a lot of other incidences of Michael Cohen reaching out to people and threatening them in some way. And this is in the NPR report, right, that he has threatened everyone from Megyn Kelly of Fox News with a retweet, of a tweet that says, we can gut her. There is smaller targets, like a Harvard student who pranked Donald Trump. He has talked about how he went after a former Miss USA pageant contestant. I mean, it goes on and on. And it seems to be a big part of his role for the Trump Organization.

LIASSON: Tim, why are we hearing this audio now?

MAK: It's interesting because I think it helps illustrate his role in the Trump Organization. What was his role with the president? What was he doing with the president over these years? It shows that in many ways he was viewed more as someone who could be relied on to make legal threats where they thought it was appropriate than someone who was doing lawyerly things, that he wasn't focused on working on documents for the Trump Organization. He was there to solve problems for Donald Trump. And there is a litany of examples, from my example to other examples since 2015 of how he's done that.

LIASSON: Including up to this week, where he's in court and the subject is whether he did or did not - how he did or did not deal with Stormy Daniels.

DETROW: So that's one of the bigger questions about Cohen. The other question is what does Cohen do as this plays out? Does Cohen get to a place where he cooperates with prosecutors as part of their broader investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia, or does he hold out and continue to be defensive? I think that's, like, one of the big questions. And one of the things that gets into that is does President Trump offer people like Michael Cohen a pardon? Is that something that he is thinking about? That's come up a couple different times, and I think there was another interesting moment today where President Trump announced another surprise pardon that had political ramifications. Ayesha, can you catch us up to speed with the pardon that happened today?

RASCOE: Yes. So President Trump tweeted this morning that he was going to issue a full pardon for Dinesh D'Souza, who's a conservative writer who's also been very supportive of President Trump. So D'Souza had pleaded guilty to violating a campaign finance law. Basically he was convicted of giving illegal contributions to a U.S. Senate campaign. But today President Trump tweeted that he had been treated unfairly by the U.S. government and he was going to pardon him. This is President Trump's fifth pardon. All of the cases that he has issued pardons for have involved some type of high-profile case or a case that got a lot of media attention. And, really, most of them have involved public figures.


RASCOE: And this is kind of unusual, especially this early on in a presidency. Compared to his three most recent predecessors in the White House, none of them had issued any pardons at this point in their presidency, and President Trump has issued five.

DETROW: And not only that, but, Mara, he says on Air Force One today that he's considering a pardon for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, he's considering a pardon for Martha Stewart. The through line here is that these are high-profile cases where the defense said, hey, this is the Department of Justice acting improperly, acting with political motivations. Two things, of course, that we hear a lot from Trump about his own investigation.

LIASSON: Right. Especially Blagojevich, who was an elected official who was jailed for corruption. And President Trump has a very different view of that than than other people. What's interesting, of course - and Ayesha's been doing a lot of great reporting on this - is there's usually a process for this. Rod - I'm sorry. Dinesh D'Souza did not apply for a pardon. He hadn't been out of jail for five years yet, I don't think, which is the standard amount of time in the DOJ guidelines for this.

DETROW: And if you are not up to speed on the corruption stories of the year 2008, quick reminder. Rod Blagojevich, before President Trump, had one of the most magnificent hairdos in all of politics. He was the Illinois governor. Barack Obama wins the White House, resigns his Senate seat. Blagojevich basically tries to sell off the Senate seat to the highest bidder, which led to some wiretap tape that - not quite as color - actually, more colorful than the tape that we just heard from Tim - of Blagojevich talking about having the Senate seat and describing it in very colorful terms.

LIASSON: That hair. Maybe that's the hidden link.

DETROW: And "Apprentice."

RASCOE: And he was...

LIASSON: Yes. He was on "The Apprentice."

RASCOE: He was on "The Apprentice," and Martha Stewart also has a connection. I think she hosted a version or a spinoff of "The Apprentice." So a lot of these people have connections to President Trump, as well. His first pardon went to former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was also an early supporter, an early backer of President Trump. So these are people that often have connections to President Trump. The interesting thing he said about Blagojevich, when you look at this idea of corruption, he said - according to the transcript on Air Force One - he said, yes, he's in jail for 18 years for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say. So President Trump is essentially saying that he was just doing kind of business as usual and got in trouble for it.

DETROW: But, speaking of business as usual, the way these pardons have happened is not the usual practice for the Department of Justice. Like, to put it pretty mildly, right?

RASCOE: So the president has constitutional authority to issue pardons and commutations. He doesn't have to go through the Justice Department, but typically presidents have, to kind of avoid controversy and kind of political backlash. So the Justice Department has its own guidelines for the way these pardons should go. People apply. They like for people to apply five years after they have been convicted, or after they've been released. They don't like posthumous pardons. And the president has not really abided by that for many of the people. Joe Arpaio hadn't even been sentenced when he gave him his pardon. Once again, for D'Souza, it hadn't been five years. But, no, so President Trump has not abided by these kind of Justice Department guidelines, and he's also been willing to talk to the Jack Johnson pardon, which was posthumous for, you know, legendary boxer Jack Johnson.

DETROW: Not the more recent singer. The boxer.

RASCOE: No. No. The boxer. That came after he talked with Sylvester Stallone. And you had Kim Kardashian-West coming to the White House yesterday to talk about a pardon for not a famous woman but for a great-grandmother who's serving life in prison for a first-time drug offense.

MAK: What I'm super curious about is how expansive this power is - what it can apply to, what it can't apply to. I understand that you can do it before anyone's been convicted. And you can do it for groups of people. Can you tell me more about...

RASCOE: Well, president...

MAK: ...The limits of this?

RASCOE: Yeah, well, President Ford did this, right? Ford, he pardoned Nixon and - before the legal process could play out.

DETROW: Yeah, Nixon hadn't even been officially charged.

RASCOE: No, he hadn't been charged with anything. So the power to pardon and to issue commutations is really almost unlimited.

DETROW: Except state - you can't do state law.

RASCOE: Except state. You can - he can do federal law, but he cannot do state law.

LIASSON: And that's where he runs up into a problem if he wants to give some kind of a pardon in advance to Michael Cohen...

MAK: Right.

LIASSON: ...Because Michael Cohen is under investigation by New York state.

RASCOE: I do think that one thing I think that's important when you're looking at this is that President Trump has shown a willingness to issue pardons in these high-profile cases. But there are all these people who - such as the woman that Kim Kardashian is advocating for - who are maybe serving life in prison for a nonviolent offense. And in federal prison, they're not - they can't get parole. So their lives are really in President Trump's hands.

President Obama did do a lot of commutations at the end of his presidency trying to kind of write what he felt like were some injustices from the drug wars for nonviolent drug offenders who were serving these really long sentences. So right now, the way President Trump is going is kind of helping people who may not need it the most. I mean, D'Souza was not in jail. Martha Stewart has been out of jail.

DETROW: Worth pointing out the person who led the prosecution of Martha Stewart, when he was U.S. attorney in Southern District of New York, won James Comey. So I'm sure he would have some thoughts if Martha Stewart is pardoned. We're going to take one more quick break, come back and do Can't Let It Go. Be right back.


DETROW: All right, we are back. And this, as you probably know, is the point in the show where we all talk about one thing we just can't let go. It could be politics. It could be otherwise. We're going to do that again today. But tomorrow, when we're in Charlotte doing our live show, we're going to do something a little bit different. And we're going to ask the audience what they can't let go. We're going to have some people in the auditorium recording it beforehand.

So if you're coming to the show in Charlotte tomorrow, bring a can't let it go with you in your brain and let us know. And if you want to come to the show tomorrow, there's still some tickets available. You can get them at nprpresents.org. But we will start with us. Ayesha, you're up first. What can you not let go?

RASCOE: OK. So I think I've become the resident hip-hop head of - I don't know how that happened.

DETROW: Last week established that, I feel like, when I got uhs (ph) wrong.

RASCOE: Yeah. I don't know how that happened because I'm really busy, and I probably - I know more the '90s and 2000s, but somehow if - you know, I'll play that role. But this week, I was listening to the Twitter streets and - (laughter) or had my ear to the Twitter streets. And I can't let go of this beef between Drake and Pusha T.


DRAKE: (Rapping) The nerve, the audacity...

RASCOE: To get everybody up to speed...

DETROW: I'm, like, vaguely aware that this was a thing this week. And that's about as far as it goes.

RASCOE: So Pusha T has released an album, and basically there was some maybe reference to Drake. Drake responded very quickly. He released this freestyle, said some mean things about Pusha. Basically, you know, he's not even top five on his label. That's mean.


DRAKE: (Rapping) You're not even top five as far as your label talent goes. You send shots, well, I got to challenge those.

RASCOE: But Pusha came back this week. And, you know, people on Twitter are saying that he came back with some investigative journalism.

MAK: It was viciousness.

RASCOE: It was vicious. He - one of the key things he said is that Drake is hiding a child. You are hiding a child. Let that boy come home.


PUSHA T: (Rapping) You are hiding a child. Let that boy come home. Deadbeat [expletive] playing Border Patrol. Adonis is your son, and he deserves more than an Adidas press run. That's real. Love that...

DETROW: Whoa, that took a turn.

RASCOE: Yes. He said he's hiding a child. And so basically, there's this idea that Drake has a secret child who he is not acknowledging. That's very deep. And then even deeper was for the cover of this track, he had a picture of Drake in blackface. And this is true. Drake has confirmed he did take this picture in blackface. And he said that he did it when he was an actor. It's from 2007, Drake said on Instagram. And he said that the photos represented - were supposed to represent how black actors are typecast. But this was a vicious record...

MAK: This is bringing hip-hop beefs to a whole new level because it's not just dissing one another through lyricism. It's I'm going to do oppo research on you, and I'm going to find out your every secret. Basically, the way it was described to me when I first heard about it was Pusha T hired, like, the hip-hop Fusion GPS to look up...

RASCOE: And got a dossier.

MAK: ...You know, and put together, like, a dossier to destroy Drake. No one was expecting it.

RASCOE: But this is not unusual. Back in the day, everybody remembers Jay-Z put up, you know, mean pictures of Mobb Deep from back on this - you don't want to be on that summer jam screen. So this is what happens in hip-hop. And I love a hip-hop beef whether it's this...

DETROW: But it moves so much faster now. Before if you were, like, putting out a new album, you'd have to wait, like, months for the album. Everyone would forget what it was. But now you can just, like, put it on Spotify with the cover art...

RASCOE: It's like that.

DETROW: ...Like, tomorrow.

RASCOE: It's like that. So this - so this was - this is something - I can't let it go...

DETROW: I feel like...

RASCOE: ...Hip-hop beef.

DETROW: ...We need - Mara, we need your thoughts on this.

LIASSON: Gee. I have nothing to contribute...


LIASSON: ...Except just a curious - just curiosity. Why? It's not even a funny kind of back-and-forth your mama wears Army boots, you know, updated to hip-hop.

MAK: Is that an insult?

LIASSON: It used to be.

MAK: Really?

LIASSON: Yes. Millions...

DETROW: Can we just...

LIASSON: ...Of years ago. But the point is why? Why?

RASCOE: Well, apparently, Pusha had accused Drake of using ghostwriters. And in hip-hop, that's a very serious charge to level against someone. You don't do that. You don't say people aren't writing their own lyrics.

MAK: But there's also a long history in hip-hop of trading disses, right?


MAK: It's quite seminal to the whole origin of hip-hop to have two people in a group trade rhymes in which they insult each other. That's just part of it.


DETROW: And now that is a defining part of politics as well. Mara?

LIASSON: Geez, I can't hold a candle to that.

DETROW: Well...

LIASSON: I can't let go of the various excuses that Roseanne Barr made for her universally condemned racist tweet, the one that lost her her show and her agent. And among all of the different excuses she gave, one of them was that she was on Ambien. And the makers of Ambien immediately responded by saying, you know, Ambien has many effects, but racism isn't one of them.

DETROW: But like, of all the excuses, she didn't - I don't think she used the classic, go-to excuse of, I was hacked, right? Because everyone's like, oh, I was hacked right away.

LIASSON: No, she didn't use that.

RASCOE: No. This wasn't the first thing that Roseanne had said or outrageous things she had said on Twitter I think - so I think that's why she couldn't use the I was hacked thing...


RASCOE: Because she kind of had a history of that. But Ambien's reply - I mean, that was classic.

MAK: They said it wasn't a known side effect...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MAK: ...Leaving the door open for the possibility that we may one day discover that racism is a side effect.

DETROW: All right. Tim, how about you?

MAK: I can't let go of this crazy story out of Ukraine. There's this journalist.

DETROW: Oh, my God.


MAK: This journalist Arkady Babchenko, OK? He's a Russian journalist, big critic of Putin, decided to flee Russia after he felt that that country was no longer safe for him. So he's living in Kiev. And at some point, the Ukrainian police find out that there is a plot to murder him. So they alert him. And according to the officials, according to Ukrainian authorities, he was shot and killed. There was even a picture of it. And people start mourning him. People memorialize him.

LIASSON: It was a huge international story.

MAK: It was a huge international story because it is yet another example of the Russian government and Vladimir Putin silencing their critics through violence, by killing them and not just through usual threats. But then there's a press conference the next day. And everyone, including his colleagues, are expecting updates on the police investigation into his murder. And he shows up to it. He shows up to it. And it turns out that the entire thing was a scheme in order to catch the individuals involved in the plot. He even apologizes to his wife, who wasn't looped in on this whole plot.

RASCOE: And she found him. Like, she was - reportedly, she...

MAK: Reportedly, she found him with three shots to the back. And...

DETROW: So I don't even know where to start with all my questions about this.

MAK: Well, my girlfriend is Russian. And she said to me basically, if you ever try something like this, I'm leaving you.

DETROW: So that was my first question of, like, how do you deal with the - I pretended to be dead to my spouse? But my second question is, OK, if you have faked your death, and all these people are mourning you, when you are in the window where you are pretending to be dead, do you Google to see what everyone has to say about you?

RASCOE: (Laughter) I'm sure.

DETROW: Do you read your obituaries and see what people are saying on Twitter? I feel like you have to.

MAK: ...What the #Babchenko stream is looking like right now.

LIASSON: Well, you know, it's so outrageous. On the other hand, if he hadn't done this, he might have been dead because the Russians have been killing many, many people in other countries with impunity.

RASCOE: But speaking - with the - but by doing this, it does - some people are saying that this could lend credence to people who say, oh, the government's just making stuff up. Or if you report something - someone died - oh, and try to connect it to some nefarious thing, they'll say, no, that's - the government's just faking stuff. They do fake deaths. They do this. You know, all these people reported this, and it wasn't true.

DETROW: Yeah. I guess especially when Putin's involved, going after Putin with a government disinformation campaign feels like quite the cycle.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes. So...

MAK: Yeah, well, Babchenko responded to these sorts of criticisms. He said, if you know of a better way to protect my family better than I do, I invite you to go ahead. I mean, ultimately, yeah, what's at the heart of this? The heart is, are there ever occasions where officials can and should lie for the sake of catching criminals?

DETROW: There are some intrigue and plot twists in mine, as well. But this is in the U.S. This is the world of sports. I have been totally obsessed this investigative report by The Ringer into the multiple phantom, shady, secret Twitter accounts allegedly run by the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Bryan Colangelo. Short story - Sixers have been a really interesting team this year. They made the playoffs. They went a couple rounds. Into the playoffs. The previous general manager had gone rogue and totally blown up the team. And basically, for a couple seasons, they played as badly as possible in order to stock draft picks - lots of non-traditional ways to build their team.

He gets replaced by this new general manager, never really as popular as the first guy. A lot of tension within the organization, within the fan base. So that leads to this report that Colangelo allegedly had five different Twitter accounts that he was using anonymously to tweet at reporters who cover the team, to tweet at blogs who cover the team and other, like, NBA influencers to defend himself but also to trash his own players. And also, within the context, these tweets were revealing inside information about the team. Like, well, why don't you ask him why he failed his physical? - and things like that.


DETROW: Teams just keep secrets. So it's a very sketchy story. He has denied it. But there's all this evidence that really leads back to him, like the fact that all the Twitter accounts follow the same sets of people, including his personal friends, his son, his son's teammates.

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh. I wasn't even - so that wasn't smart.

DETROW: It was not smart. But, like, the question is, who outed him? How was this first found out?

RASCOE: And wasn't there something about his wife or something that supposedly...

DETROW: Yeah. So there was a lot of reporting that went into it. And then the hive mind of Internet reporting went into it.

RASCOE: (Laughter) OK.

DETROW: And people were, like, doing the thing where you put in the password - the wrong password. So it says, oh, text the number - this recovery number. The last couple digits that pop up are the same number - are the last two digits as his wife's cell phone found somewhere else.

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh. What?

DETROW: A lot there. So as of right now he still has his job. The team is investigating it, but its high stakes because LeBron James is going to be a free agent after the season ends. There's a chance he could end up on the Sixers. They have the salary cap and the team to try and make a run at him. Do you want this, like, loose cannon GM who trashes his own players on Twitter?

RASCOE: No. Who wants to play for him? Like, if there...

DETROW: Right? I don't think Lebron would want to play for him.

LIASSON: Whoa. That raises another question. You mean LeBron would leave his team?

DETROW: It's a possibility.


MAK: But also, for me, I think of it in terms of disinformation, right? - which is essentially we have really related to Russian political disinformation. But it's Twitter bots and networks and things like that. That's not just a political phenomenon. You could imagine business rivals doing it. We see that in this case, the allegations of a sports team GM using it. Friends could use it against each other in crazy social...

DETROW: Right.


MAK: ...Bot battles. I mean, there are so many other applications for this disinformation to apply in the areas of commerce and business and stock prices, things like that that are really worrisome.

RASCOE: But if you're going to create fake accounts, don't follow your friends.

DETROW: Right.

RASCOE: Follow random people.


RASCOE: And it all leads back to you.

MAK: Yes.


DETROW: And that's the moral of the story. If you're going to create a fake Twitter account, don't follow your friends.


DETROW: And with that, that is a wrap for this week. But we are doing that live show tomorrow in Charlotte - nprpresents.org if you're thinking about it, and you live near Charlotte. Our email address for your comments, questions and those timestamps is nprpolitics@npr.org. Been a little bit of pushback on the timestamps lately. I think they're great. I think it's nice to start with some joy and some community. We love listening. Even though we can't use them all, we listen to every single one. So send those in - nprpolitics@npr.org. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.

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

MAK: I'm Tim Mak. I cover national security and politics.

RASCOE: And I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS Podcast.


PUSHA T: Push.

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