TONY: Hello, NPR. This is Tony (ph). I'm stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, home of the Bloody 100th Air Refueling Wing. We just had the privilege to hear our commander-in-chief give a speech at his first stop on his first overseas tour. This podcast was recorded at...
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
3:09 p.m. on Friday, June 11.
TONY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.
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ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: That is quite cool.
DAVIS: That is very cool.
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
DAVIS: Ryan, not that the Justice Department is ever a sleepy beat, but I feel like this week in particular, I'm not even going to be able to talk to you about all the things I want to talk to you about that happened on your beat this week.
LUCAS: It's been a week. It's definitely been a week. Yeah.
DAVIS: There was a very amazing and cool story this week about how the FBI somehow managed to trick a global consortium of criminals into using an app it had created and then ultimately arrest a bunch of them on it. And we don't even have time to talk about it. So folks are going to have to find your story at npr.org, because it is a very good one. But today, we've got more political news we need to talk about. And the biggest headline I think of this week is new reporting out that NPR has confirmed that President Trump's Justice Department used their power to gather information on Democratic lawmakers going back to 2018. So, Ryan, what do we know about what went on there?
LUCAS: So what happened is this. Back in 2013, the Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for communication metadata of about a dozen people connected with the House Intelligence Committee, including two members, the top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, as well as Eric Swalwell. Now, also included in the subpoena word current and former staff of the committee, as well as family, including, in one instance, a minor. And this was part of a leak investigation that the Justice Department had going on. If you remember, back to 2018, a lot has happened since then, but it was a chaotic time. There were investigations in Congress into ties between President Trump and Russia. There were there was the special counsel's investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. It was a chaotic period, and there was a lot of leaking going on.
So the Justice Department did this. Now, we are only finding out about this now because there was a gag order in this matter. The Justice Department secured a gag order on Apple, so Apple could not talk to anyone from the committee or anyone else about this matter. Now, that gag order lifted in May of 2021. So just last month after that happened, Apple informed the committee about the subpoena. The committee went to the Justice Department - now, of course, under the Biden administration - and asked about this.
And I'm told by a source on the committee that what the Justice Department told Schiff and the others was that this investigation was closed. It's important to note that no one with the committee ever faced any sort of charges or legal repercussions because of it. But what this all does really is point to the drive within the Trump administration and the Justice Department, under the Trump administration to really go after leakers. This was something the president talked about a lot, and the Justice Department clearly took it seriously.
DAVIS: But this is a power that is not new. We know that the Justice Department has used their power in previous administrations as well to search out leakers, especially media organizations. What to me seems so shocking about this is that they were going up against members of Congress in their sort of official capacities, which doesn't happen as frequently.
LUCAS: It doesn't. It is certainly rare for the Justice Department to subpoena communication records of members of Congress.
DAVIS: Especially Schiff, who was at the time probably a top political target of President Trump and vice versa, right? I mean, this was like one of his big nemesis.
LUCAS: Absolutely. And that is, you know, the reaction that we have seen from Democrats to this - Schiff and Swalwell and others - is that this, in their view, was an example of the Justice Department being used as a weapon against the president's political opponents. We've seen the Democratic leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer, and the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee call for Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and his second, of course, Bill Barr, to testify under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee about this matter. And they also said if Sessions and Barr don't want to come in and talk, they're willing to issue a subpoena to them to get them to come in and testify.
KHALID: You know, this follows a commitment from the Biden administration that the Justice Department would not look into or, you know, subpoena seize any reporter's records, because essentially word came out that that was happening under the prior administration.
DAVIS: And additionally, Attorney General Merrick Garland gave a speech earlier today focused on voting rights. It's become pretty clear that there is no voting rights legislation that's going to be able to easily make its way through Congress because of opposition from Senate Republicans, among others. So what did Merrick Garland say this afternoon that they're going to do about it?
LUCAS: Well, there are a number of things that he announced. The kind of takeaway message in many ways was something that he said early in the speech, which is that there are many things that Americans can debate about and that are open to debate, but the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them, he said. And so he talked about things that his Justice Department is going to do to aggressively enforce voting rights laws. First and foremost, he said that they are going to double the number of people in the Civil Rights Division who focus on the enforcement of the protection of voting rights. He's going to do that in the next 30 days. He emphasized that the department under his leadership is going to use all of the tools that the department has under existing voting rights laws to ensure that every qualified American's right to vote is protected.
And then he also talked about scrutinizing certain things that are going on right now. He said he's going - he said the Justice Department is going to take a close look at new laws that have been passed that seek to curb voter access, said if there is any sort of violation of federal law that this Justice Department will take action. He said that the department is going to scrutinize current laws, so laws that are already on the books, to determine whether they discriminate against Black voters in particular.
And he also cast a nod to the post-election audits that we've seen in some states, most notably, perhaps Arizona, saying that the department is going to look to make sure that they meet all federal requirements of federal statutes and to ensure, of course, as well, that they are not in some way, shape or form intimidating voters.
KHALID: You know, Ryan, to me, this seems like just a clear sign that the Biden administration understands its own limitations in dealing with this issue in a sort of congressional level, right? We've seen a couple of bills that at this point in time don't entirely look like they will get passed in Congress to deal with voting rights. And yet you have all of these changes happening at the state level. And it feels like to some degree, the Biden administration has a very clear understanding that if they want to be able to fight back on some of these changes around voting rights specifically happening in Republican-led states, they have to be able to deal with it at the Justice Department level. They just don't have any other recourse.
LUCAS: One of the things that Garland said near the close of his speech today was the Justice Department would like to see Congress pass those two bills that are currently before lawmakers. But he also acknowledged that the Justice Department can't wait for that to happen. And as you said at the top, I think, Sue, the prospects for those bills to make it all the way through and be signed into law don't look great right now.
DAVIS: Right. And I think the problem that Democrats have, especially those who are trying to prioritize voting rights legislation, as we've talked about this a lot on the pod, executive orders just don't substitute for laws in the long run. They don't have as much teeth. They don't have as much effect. They can certainly be helpful, but it's not the same thing as policymaking. And there's no sign that policymaking on this is going to be happening any time soon. So today felt more like maybe this is the best we can do right now versus some big, important announcement. It seems like Democrats acknowledging that this is only the thing that can be done in this moment.
KHALID: I mean, there also does feel like there is sort of just increased attention and pressure on this issue from the administration, even if they feel like they can't maybe make huge substantive changes. And we did get word from the White House that next week, Kamala Harris, the vice president, who - her job, essentially her - part of her portfolio includes voting rights.
DAVIS: Her ever-growing portfolio.
KHALID: Her very large portfolio. And that she will be hosting this meeting next week with a number of Democratic state lawmakers from the state of Texas who had fought back against a Republican bill that would change some issues around voting in that state. So it feels like whether or not that meeting will actually amount to, say, like concrete changes seems maybe really limited, given just the fact that Democrats don't hold a lot of power in the state of Texas. But this White House does want to keep the focus on voting rights. And, you know, maybe they feel like some of these other moves, whether they're happening in the Justice Department or with Kamala Harris, might just put additional pressure on lawmakers in Congress.
DAVIS: All right, Ryan, I feel like there's another story about to break on your beat on any minute. So we're just going to let you go.
LUCAS: Thank you (laughter).
DAVIS: Get to work. And we'll take a quick break. And when we come back, we'll talk about a new infrastructure plan being floated on Capitol Hill.
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DAVIS: And we're back. And we're joined by Ron Elving. Hey, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Sue.
DAVIS: So we were talking earlier this week about how the Biden administration is moving on to a new phase of negotiations in the president's push for something around a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The White House is still focusing on this group of about 20 senators that they think might ultimately be able to vote for a deal. But in the meantime, we've seen a smaller group of senators - five Republicans, five Democrats - say they've reached their own compromise on an infrastructure plan. And they're going to try to get the White House and party leaders to buy into their idea.
KHALID: So, Sue, I want to stop you right there, because you are the one amongst us who actually covers Congress. So can you explain, you know, just who exactly these people are, the senators that have come up with this compromise bill, and what exactly did they devise?
DAVIS: Well, this latest round was led by Kyrsten Sinema. She's a Democrat from Arizona. We talk about her a lot in the same context of Joe Manchin as being some of the most sort of steadfast moderate votes in the Senate. And Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, conservative with a good relationship with party leaders. And they put together a proposal that would cost around, they say, $1.2 trillion over eight years. Still a heck of a lot of money, but a lot less than Joe Biden has been asking for. It would include $579 billion in new spending, which is the most money Republicans have been willing to offer up to date. So that's sort of their hope to get some Democrats on board. And very critical to keeping Republicans in the fold, they say their plan would not raise any new taxes.
KHALID: Sue, what are the chances this would actually even make it through the Senate? Because I always think, every time you hear of these new proposals, it feels like you win some senators and you might lose some senators.
DAVIS: Yeah. And 10 senators is nice, but it's not the 60 you need to get anything through the chamber. You know, I don't know. It's hard to say. The key people that would need to sign off on this have not supported it yet. The White House put out a statement last night, but I would call it very lukewarm. They sort of said, oh, we appreciate the work we're doing - you're doing here. But they say, quote, "questions need to be addressed, particularly around the details of policy and pay fors (ph), among other matters" - not exactly a rousing line of support from the White House there. And the key players, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have said nothing about this proposal.
So, you know, it's a conversation starter. It keeps the infrastructure negotiations going. But I'm hesitant to say that, like, hallelujah, they've got a deal, and this is what they're going to be able to do on Capitol Hill. Because, Ron, I think, as you well know, this is not the first type of self-appointed gang in the Senate that's trying to solve a big, hard problem. They don't have a great historical record of being the solutions to the problems at hand.
ELVING: There have been a few times when they've been useful. There was certainly one back in 2005, when Samuel Alito was nominated to be the United States Supreme Court by President George W. Bush at the time. And at that time, it looked like they were going to have a real Armageddon over it because a lot of the Democratic senators wanted to filibuster, but people were uncomfortable with filibustering a Supreme Court nomination at that point. So they came up with something called a Gang of 14. It was seven and seven. John McCain was around in those days, and he was very important in it.
And they negotiated a deal by which the Democrats promised not to vote with the rest of their folks and the Republicans promised not to vote with the rest of theirs. And it actually got the nomination through and saved the filibuster and at the same time presumably kept the options open for both parties. It didn't really hold up down the road. And certainly people were not happy, many cases among the Democrats, about Samuel Alito on the court. And in the long run, they just eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations entirely. So even that one great success of these gangs would have to be looked back on with a certain amount of doubt.
KHALID: So, I mean, I also wonder, even if a piece of legislation makes it through the Senate on a bipartisan level, like, doesn't it ultimately matter where, you know, both the White House and the House fall on these things? And I think back to this very famous example of bipartisan work, which is the Gang of Eight around immigration, right? This was a really, really intractable issue. You actually got it through the Senate, and then it still didn't get anywhere.
DAVIS: Yeah. So I just think one of the big questions for me in this, too, is Democrats are obviously going to take their cues from the White House, right? Like, there are progressives in Congress and they need to get their votes, but they're going to wait for their signals on what the next moves are from the White House. And the thing that I don't know - and, Asma, you might have some insight on - is like, how low is Joe Biden willing to go? I mean, he said this big, bold, ambitious number, but he's also a legislator. He probably knew when he said 2.2, it was never going to end at 2.2. But how do you reach a deal that also keeps your party behind you when you have such narrow majorities? And I don't know how willing the White House is to negotiate on something that they have sort of set up as their big, bold vision for America's future.
KHALID: I mean, I think we've seen some suggestions from the White House that Biden is certainly willing to budge on the number, right? I mean, we've seen even steps that he's taken to drop that just total amount of money that would be spent on infrastructure. To me, maybe the bigger question, though, is, how do you actually pay for this? And that feels like it's been a sticking point between Republicans and Democrats and, notably, between Republicans and the White House. Republicans, as you've said, Sue, really don't want to raise taxes at all. I think it will be challenging for Democrats and for the White House to sign on to something that ultimately doesn't include taxes in some way, right? And if you can't agree on how to pay for something, I don't know that you can really get something sort of even if you agree on the end dollar amount.
ELVING: Well, and let's also note, if I may, that there's a big question mark here about whether or not they're going to address anything beyond basic infrastructure in the sense of physical infrastructure and some energy things, but not really go after climate change, which is a huge focus of what was originally proposed here. And you're going to lose the progressives on taxes. You're going to lose just as many on climate.
DAVIS: Yeah. It's like there's like a Goldilocks problem here for Joe Biden. Like, if it's too big, you're not going to get any Republicans. And if it's too small, you probably can't get enough Democrats to get it through the House even. I mean, part of what the appeal is to a lot of the left is how ambitious this plan is about climate change, about all the electric cars, sort of the future and inspiration of it. And if it becomes more of a traditional roads-and-bridges package - I'm not going to say - I shouldn't say he can't get it through the House, but I think it becomes a whole lot easier for progressives to say, like, we're not going to vote for something that doesn't accomplish any of our goals and protects Donald Trump's tax cuts.
KHALID: So, Sue, I've got a question for you, though. You know, do you feel that the Democrats in the Senate who are working towards this bipartisan package - I'm thinking of someone like Joe Manchin or Synema out of Arizona - is this like a process for process' sake? And do you feel like eventually they might get on board with something, even if basically through budget processes Democrats just get the 50 votes and they pass infrastructure? Like, I guess my question is ultimately, like, is this just a process step to show that they are trying to work with Republicans? Or is it like a substantive move?
DAVIS: Yes. Is this bipartisan theater?
DAVIS: I think it is a little bit. Yeah. I mean, that's a good question. I do think - and I've talked to aides about this. And I think part of this is Democrats only have 50 votes in the Senate. And you have a core group of these Democrats who really do genuinely want to try to do this in a bipartisan way. We talked about Manchin and Synema, but there are others that they think it's the best path forward. And there's a view that if the White House and leadership just tried to go right to the partisan solution, that it would be harder to get their votes. Like, you need to give the moderates as much time as possible to show to them that bipartisanship is not possible, so when the only other alternative is the partisan party line solution, they're much more likely to vote for it because they know that, like, they tried everything else. And I think that that is probably more likely where we end up, because you already have key players like Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders, who's the budget chairman, preparing to go through the budget and reconciliation process to try to do this stuff without Republicans if they have to.
ELVING: Yes, but can they do it without the Democrats that they don't really have in hand? So is this a fish where you can let the line run until the fish exhausts itself and then reel it in or is this just Moby Dick?
DAVIS: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. I also think, too, that there's a sense among Democrats that they have to do something. Like, the worst-case scenario in all of this as we get to the end and there's just nothing to offer. And that goes back to the, like, hey, maybe this compromise that they've put up this week does become the deal if it's the only thing that can get through. Something is probably better than nothing.
ELVING: And those Democrats have their preferences. They also have, in many cases, a 2022 election to look at. And the House Democrats, in particular, are going to be counting on the energy and the enthusiasm of their base voters who really care about some of these things.
DAVIS: That's right. All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.
DAVIS: And we're back. And it's time for Can't Let It Go, where we all share the one thing we can't stop thinking about this week, politics or otherwise. Ron, what can't you let go of this week?
ELVING: Well, apparently, we can't let go of the crown, Sue. The president of the United States and his wife are going to interrupt their summit trip this week and sit down and have tea with the queen, Queen Elizabeth II. Now, on one level, I think this is great. She's been around the throne for 70 years. Biden met with her many years ago when he was a young senator. And at the time, he got a call from his mother telling him, Joey, be polite, but don't kiss a ring.
ELVING: And, you know, this is a very old American contradiction, right? We want to be in some sense or another respectful. And many people in this country are even obsessive about the British royals. And this is, on the other hand, politically, the way you show respect for Great Britain, for the United Kingdom, for all of that and for the special relationship we talk about so much with that one particular country. And if he were not to do it, that would be a huge deal. So he has to go, and they will have tea. And then he'll go on with the real business with all the real leaders of the other countries involved in these summit meetings.
DAVIS: Is Jill Biden going with him?
ELVING: Yes, she is.
DAVIS: I bet that Jill Biden's a little team Meghan.
KHALID: You know, she did go to visit a school, I believe, today with Kate, though.
DAVIS: Oh, OK. Maybe she's team both. I could see that. That's kind of the first lady role, right?
KHALID: A little bipartisanship between Meghan and Kate there.
DAVIS: Asma, what can't you let go of?
KHALID: OK. So what I can't let go of I'm going to, like, visually describe to you. I really feel like you all need to go to the internet and Google what I'm going to say, though, because it's actually so hideously ugly that I feel like I can't do justice to it just by description.
DAVIS: My fingertips are at the ready.
KHALID: So I encourage you to go Google Crocs high heel.
DAVIS: Oh, I don't even have to Google. I saw it. I know exactly what you're talking about.
KHALID: Have you seen this?
DAVIS: I have seen this.
KHALID: OK. So Crocs are these, like, shoes. I'll be honest. Look, Sue; I have never owned a pair of Crocs in my life. They're not so much my thing...
DAVIS: I have not - pandemic hasn't even got me there.
KHALID: I know. Thank you (laughter). I kind of personally think Crocs are a bit of a not-super-appealing style of a shoe just aesthetically. But for you all who do wear them, I am not knocking you. Apparently, they're very comfortable. Anyhow, so Crocs apparently have teamed up with this designer, Balenciaga, and they decided to put a pair of high heels - literally, like, stilettos - on Crocs. Reportedly, these shoes are going to sell for, like, $1,000, which is just mind-boggling because if you Google them, it's like a rubber - it looks like a rubber, like, dart that they just literally stuck on a pair of rubber Crocs.
KHALID: And it made me think so much about just, like, who designs fashion? And I guess they're thinking - my thinking of their thinking is that they must have been like, oh, you know, post-pandemic, go-back-to-work fashion. We need to take the comfort of working from home and somehow, like, attach it to a semiformal, high-heel shoe. What they end up with is just, like, a hideous pair of rubber shoes. So there you have it.
DAVIS: You know, can I be honest - that if they weren't $1,000, I honestly feel like stiletto Crocs is something we could see at, like, NPR headquarters.
DAVIS: It's, like, definitely something you'd see some, like, interns being like, what are they wearing? Like, oh, those stiletto Crocs.
KHALID: Well, I will say, apparently, Balenciaga teamed up with Crocs - I went down this rabbit hole - so, apparently, they teamed up with them before and they made this, like, platform shoe that apparently - I honestly don't know who all was buying these shoes - they sold out before they were even officially released.
DAVIS: Ron, have you ever worn Crocs?
ELVING: I am still a Croc-free zone. And we have no Crocs in the home since our daughter went away.
DAVIS: I can kind of see how this makes sense, though, because I will say I live in - I have a kid. I live in a neighborhood with tons of kids, and Crocs are hugely popular with kids.
KHALID: Really? Is it, like, because you can, like, get water in them? I'm very confused by this idea.
DAVIS: I don't know. But, like, our neighbor boys across the street, like, they all have Crocs. There - and they're, like, the cool shoes to have for young kids, I'd say in the, like, 12-and-under zone. So we might just not be the market for this.
ELVING: But I've always felt as though they were popular largely because they were so popular. Everybody had them, so you had to have them.
DAVIS: That's what I think it is of the kids, right?
DAVIS: It's, like, everyone has them, so all the kids have them. They're not that expensive. And...
KHALID: And this is where I just feel old, though, Sue, 'cause, like, when we were young - I don't know if I'm, like, dating you in the same generation as me - like, Doc Martens were the shoe to have.
KHALID: And I'm like, OK, like, they're kind of aesthetically - you know, you could see the aesthetic appeal. Crocs, I just don't see it. I'm really sorry to you listeners who are big fans of Crocs. I feel like I'm offending a swath of our listenership.
DAVIS: You very well maybe.
ELVING: I assume they're more practical, though, right? They're more practical. You wear them in more situations than Doc Martins, maybe.
KHALID: Yes, perhaps. I don't know. If you are a Croc wearer, please chime in with letters. We would love to hear from you (laughter).
ELVING: Bet we will.
DAVIS: And if you buy those stiletto Crocs, even more so I want to hear from you because I have questions.
KHALID: And take a photo, please (laughter). All right, Sue. What can't you let go of?
DAVIS: The thing I can't let go of this week - or I'd say the person I can't let go of this week is Simone Biles. Simone Biles, the gymnast, who - I actually think this might be my second or third Simone Biles can't let it go, so I think I'm now on record as being a super fan. But she - this past week, she won her seventh title and is basically become the greatest gymnast of all time. And I am such a fan of hers. And she is so spectacular to watch do gymnastics - the same thing. It's like you have to go Google her routines that she just won. I mean, she's like a superhero. She just - her body moves in ways that I can't even comprehend. And I spent early part of the week just, like, watching the clips of her routines over and over. And I'm just amazed by this woman.
DAVIS: And the thing that I like the most about her is, like, her sort of attitude. Because in the championship she just won on her leotard - I don't know if that's the right word to say. We'll call it a bodysuit. That feels like a more appropriate thing to call it. She has a rhinestone goat.
KHALID: Oh, I saw that.
DAVIS: Like, she's, you know - she's, like, the greatest of all time. Like, I like her swagger. I like the way that she approaches it. And so I've just - she's been - the good, happy news of the week is watching her be so excellent at what she does.
KHALID: I agree. I agree. But is this - I mean, this was essentially, like, the USA Championships ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
DAVIS: Yes. And she's definitely going to the Olympics.
KHALID: Of course.
DAVIS: And I'm - you know, it seems pretty safe that she's going to be very competitive there. And it makes me excited because I'm a big Olympics fan.
DAVIS: I love the Olympics, and I'm glad that we're going to have them this summer, so...
ELVING: We surely all need them.
DAVIS: Yeah, right? And she's also getting, like, the documentary treatment. I think Facebook is doing, like, a Simone Biles documentary series leading up to the Olympics. So I feel like it's going to be the summer of Simone, and I'm here for it.
DAVIS: All right. I think that's a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our outgoing intern is Claire Oby. Thank you so much for everything you did for our podcast with all the fact-checking and everything else. And welcome to our new intern, Miacel Spotted Elk.
I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.
DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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