Inflation At 40-Year High; Jan. 6 Committee Wants To Talk To Ginni Thomas : The NPR Politics Podcast Take our survey: https://www.npr.org/podcastsurvey

Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, reportedly said she'd be willing to speak to the committee following reporting by the Washington Post that Thomas was communicating with a Trump legal adviser at the heart of the probe.

And the Federal Reserve escalated its battle against inflation Wednesday, announcing the largest interest rate hike in 28 years as the central bank struggles to regain control over soaring prices.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh, legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, and voting reporter Miles Parks.

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Inflation At 40-Year High; Jan. 6 Committee Wants To Talk To Ginni Thomas

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey there. It is the final chance. Please head to npr.org/podcastsurvey to help us help you and figure out how to make this show better. And thank you.

CAMILLE: My name is Camille (ph), and I'm currently standing at the exact site of the Watergate break-in, which happened exactly 50 years ago. Today it is home of my employer, which, coincidentally, publishes higher-ed resources related to the scandal, which means it's really just not the space.

KHALID: (Laughter).

CAMILLE: This podcast was recorded at...

KHALID: 1:49 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, June 17.

CAMILLE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK. Let's start the show.

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

KHALID: That was a really meta time stamp.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: I appreciated that. I really did. Thank you.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Very timely.

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: And I'm Nina Totenberg. I cover the courts.

KHALID: And on today's show, I've got two names for you all to keep track of. The first is John Eastman. He's the outside attorney who is advising former President Donald Trump that Mike Pence, his vice president, he said, had the power to ignore electors. He later reportedly asked for a pardon from Trump, which he never got. The other name is Ginni Thomas. She's the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a conservative activist in her own right. And previously, there was reporting that Ginni Thomas had been in touch with the then-White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, around the time of the insurrection. Now there is some new reporting from The Washington Post that she was also in touch with Mr. Eastman. So, Deirdre, I feel like there is a lot going on here, but I really am curious as to what Ginni Thomas was saying to these men - as far as we know - in terms of what's, you know, publicly been reported.

WALSH: Well, NPR confirmed the text messages that The Washington Post first reported a few months ago, and these were about 30 text messages from Ginni Thomas to the chief of staff, Mark Meadows. And a lot of it was sort of pushing, advocating for this theory that John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani and other allies of then-President Trump were pushing for Vice President Pence to not certify the election results. And then we learned this week, right before the hearing about the pressure campaign on Vice President Pence, that The Washington Post reported that there were emails between Thomas and Eastman. And as you mentioned, Eastman was really the key Trump - outside legal Trump adviser who was pushing this theory. And he was told repeatedly, again and again, that it was illegal and not in line with the Constitution. And they said he shouldn't pursue it. The thing that was interesting to me is that none of this came up in the hearing yesterday.

I mean, the hearing was all about Eastman and all about his campaign with Trump's inner circle to push this theory. And we know the committee has some documents from Eastman. There's been a big court fight over him handing over emails to the committee. We know they have some, and The Washington Post is reporting they have these, but they didn't actually come up in the hearings. So my sort of takeaway is the committee staff probably doesn't think Ginni Thomas was really kind of a driver of this. Maybe she was a supporter of the effort, but there were a lot of people sort of advocating for this strategy, you know, strong Trump allies. But, you know, there's no indication that she was in any meetings with, you know, the top lawyers like Eastman clearly was.

KHALID: But, Nina, it does strike me, though, as pertinent because of who her husband is, right? I mean, Ginni Thomas is married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. And there is a sense that he could have had a role in potentially adjudicating consequences for the president and those close to him around the insurrection. So there - I mean, I understand what Deirdre is saying, but there are, you know, dots that can be connected here.

TOTENBERG: Well, he did, in one sense, have a role. He participated in a case about whether Trump had to turn over documents to the committee investigating what happened. And he was the lone dissenter. And I should note that the code that applies to lower court judges, federal court judges, says that judges should disqualify themselves from any case in which they or their spouses have financial or, quote, "any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding." Well, he voted in a case like that. He did not recuse himself. He has not said why. The court has - does not have a code that it says it abides by itself - that it is bound to abide by.

KHALID: So to be clear, there's no ethics code for the Supreme Court. I mean, I think of us here at NPR. Like, most employers - you've got an ethics guy that you're, you know, in theory, supposed to follow. But you're saying the court doesn't have its own ethics book, per se?

TOTENBERG: No. It tries to abide by the lower court code, but because it's different, because you can't substitute in a judge for a justice, it has unique circumstances, is what it says. So - and it doesn't have its own ethics code, and it hasn't written one. And it's getting harder and harder to defend that position. And yet, it's not clear that even Congress could make the court create one for itself if it doesn't want to. It's a separate branch of government. And this comes at a time when public approval of the court has plummeted, when the leak of the court's draft decision overturning Roe has put the justices very lives in danger, at a time when huge metal fences have been installed outside the court to protect it, when the justices no longer sit in public session to announce opinions and dissents - not even with the press there - and when, as we have been discussing, the wife of one of the justices was so involved in trying to get the election results overturned that she's been asked to testify before the January 6 committee.

And it's also a time when you don't have to be a genius to see that there are big rifts - personal rifts - developing at the court. Justice Thomas, just a short while ago, said he basically didn't trust any of his colleagues anymore. Justice Sotomayor, I have to say, tried to repair the damage yesterday in a public appearance when she spoke quite glowingly about him as a person, even though she has profound disagreements with him. But she ended up this way...

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SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Look, there are days I get discouraged. There are moments where I am deeply, deeply disappointed. And yes, there have been moments where I've stopped and said, is this worth it anymore? And every time I do that, I lick my wounds for a while; sometimes I cry. And then I say, OK. Let's fight.

KHALID: You know, Nina, it sounds like what you're saying is that morale amongst justices - it isn't great, right? And I do think that the public trust in the court also, as you've spoken about, isn't great either. And yet, it doesn't feel like any of those issues are going to be resolved for the immediate sense. But to move back to the January 6 hearings, I do think that there is a curiosity amongst a lot of people, myself included, about whether or not Ginni Thomas will appear in front of this committee given this level of communication we've seen that she was involved in around the insurrection and whether she'll voluntarily appear.

TOTENBERG: She said yesterday in an interview with a conservative publication that she's anxious to appear and straighten things out. She has said in the past that she has her own thing she does and that Justice Thomas has his own thing that he does and never the twain shall meet.

WALSH: I think the other thing that we learned yesterday was that Eastman actually published a statement on Substack, which is an independent, self-publishing platform, trying to sort of downplay the reports in the Post about communications between him and Ginni Thomas. And he said, you know, he can't comment on whether the news accounts are true, but he says, I can categorically confirm that at no time did I discuss with Mrs. Thomas or Justice Thomas any matters pending or likely to come before the court. But we also know that, you know, he did have a deposition before the January 6 committee.

TOTENBERG: Yeah, and he took the Fifth.

WALSH: Right. And we don't know if at that time they had all these materials that included the communications between himself and Ginni Thomas because there's just been some legal wrangling about the, you know, handing over the rest of those records.

KHALID: All right. Well, a lot of questions that we still don't know the answers to. And it is time now for a quick break. Nina, thank you so much for joining us. It is always a treat to have you on the podcast.

TOTENBERG: And it's a treat to be here.

KHALID: And we will be back in a moment with a different friend of the podcast.

And we are back and joined now by NPR economics expert Scott Horsley. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Great to be with you. But I'm no expert.

KHALID: (Laughter) Of course you are an expert.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

KHALID: And I was going to say, it is great to be with you, but not, perhaps, great news in the economy this week. The Fed delivered the biggest interest rate hike since the mid-1990s to combat surging inflation. And I will say, I know that we have a number of young listeners, and there is, perhaps, not a clear sense of why and what an interest rate hike might do to tame inflation. So please help us understand that.

HORSLEY: Sure. By raising borrowing costs, the Fed makes it more expensive for people to carry a balance on their credit card. It gets more expensive to get a car loan. It's already gotten a good deal more expensive to get a home mortgage, for example. And so what the Fed is trying to do is cool off demand in the economy - that is demand for goods and services - because demand has been really overwhelming supply, and that's why prices have been climbing at such a rapid rate.

KHALID: And the concern, it seems like, is that's a really tricky balancing act, right? How do you curb demand without, maybe, squashing demand so much that you end up in a recession?

HORSLEY: Exactly. Consumer demand is a huge driver of the U.S. economy. It's been really strong. It's been too strong for the Fed's liking, so they'd like to cool it off a little bit. What they don't want to do is see consumer demand go into a deep freeze and tip the economy into recession.

KHALID: You know, Scott, to that point, you know, the president gave an interview to The Associated Press yesterday in which he stressed that a recession is not inevitable as the Fed tries to tame inflation. He tried to emphasize that the economy, overall, is in a relative position of strength to overcome this all. But I will say that feels like, legitimately, a complicated political argument to make. And, Deirdre, the Republican argument feels a lot simpler. Like, they can just point at high gas prices.

WALSH: Definitely. I mean, they are on the floor of the House and the Senate regularly with big posters of how much a gallon of gas costs in their home states. I mean, this has been the Republican playbook going into the 2022 midterms for months. I did a story back last September in terms of, like, what the Republican message was, and it was all about the worries about inflation. And obviously, inflation has gotten a lot worse since last fall. So I think that, you know, as we've been covering, or I've been covering, the January 6 hearings the last couple of weeks, you know, a lot of Democrats in Congress think those are important, but they really admit that it's not what they're hearing about from their constituents back home. They're all worried about the cost of, you know, their grocery bills and filling up their cars and just everyday costs that are going up and are harder to manage. And I think that they're struggling to try to figure out how they're trying to address those concerns.

And, you know, while we were watching the January 6 hearing yesterday, a group of senior White House officials was meeting on Capitol Hill with the House Democratic Caucus, trying to carve out a message going into the midterms. And obviously, maybe this AP interview that the president did was part of that public effort to try to show that they understand people are hurting, and here are the things that they're going to try to do to get over the finish line. I mean, the president was talking about reviving some of this domestic policy legislation, addressing prescription drug costs and other things that are ways that they could try to fight inflation.

HORSLEY: It's an unfortunate political fact of life for the Democrats that whichever party is in power tends to get blamed when gasoline prices climb or when the price of groceries climbs. And that's where they are. And the Biden administration and congressional Democrats are, you know, trying to do what they can to show that they understand the hardship and maybe take some steps that might ease price hikes at the margins. But the truth is, there's not a whole lot the White House or congressional Democrats can do about these soaring prices. The cost of gasoline is largely being driven by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has raised oil prices around the world. To a lesser extent, it's also being driven by very high refinery margins in this country. The invasion has also driven up food prices, and, of course, you've still got the ongoing supply disruptions caused by the pandemic. That's what's really causing all of this inflation. But if people are paying high prices, the Democrats are going to pay a price as well.

One thing that is interesting is that the White House has absolutely given the Federal Reserve full running room to raise interest rates as high as necessary to try to get prices under control. That is not always the approach that presidents take. Historically, it's often uncomfortable for presidents when the Federal Reserve raises interest rates. And, you know, we saw that with former President Trump. If you go back to the '70s, we saw it with Richard Nixon putting pressure on the Fed not to raise interest rates and slow down the economy. Biden has given Jerome Powell and his colleagues at the Fed full independence to do whatever it takes to get prices down.

KHALID: A sign, do you think, Scott, that they're so deeply concerned about inflation that they feel like whatever it takes is necessary to bring this down? And that feels like a really different space than where this White House was at just a year ago when they seemed to think inflation would not be here as permanently.

HORSLEY: I think that's right. I think it's both the right thing to do - to respect the Fed's independence - but it also, in this case, is the politically astute thing to do because, frankly, inflation is a bigger and more immediate threat to the Democrats right now than any potential slowdown in economic growth.

KHALID: All right. Well, a clear sign too, perhaps, Scott, that the economic timeline to bring down inflation and the political timeline for Democrats with the midterms may not necessarily align, and that is definitely a challenge for them. Scott, thank you very much - always also a pleasure to have you on.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

KHALID: And let's take another quick break. When we return, it will be time for Can't Let It Go.

And we are back. And it is time to end the show, like we do every week, with Can't Let It Go. And we are joined now by celebrity guest Miles Parks.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: (Laughter).

KHALID: Hello there, my friend.

PARKS: Hi, Asma. Happy Friday.

KHALID: Thank you.

WALSH: Hi, Miles.

PARKS: Hi, Deirdre.

KHALID: So, Deirdre, why don't you kick things off for us? What can't you let go of?

WALSH: So I normally, in a busy news week, you know, try to get a break and do - think about something outside of politics. But I could not look away and I cannot let go of Eric Herschmann's Zoom background in the January 6 hearings. For those who haven't watched the hearings, Eric Herschmann is a Trump White House lawyer who appeared in taped depositions before the January 6 committee, and several clips of his testimony were sprinkled throughout the hearings last week and this week. But he, like we all have done, living in a pandemic world - we've been on Zooms, and you sort of see the bookshelves or mantels behind, you know, people at work or in congressional hearings. But I could not figure out what was going on behind Eric Herschmann's, you know, home office.

PARKS: I feel like I spent 15 minutes just, like, trying - taking it all in.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKS: It really was a lot - like, a lot to behold.

WALSH: So we should describe it. Over his - I guess it would be his left shoulder was a massive painting. I believe it was a painting - I don't know if was a lithograph or something else - of a panda.

KHALID: Yeah. But it's, like, two pandas, right?

WALSH: Yeah. It took up, like, half of the wall behind him. And then over his right shoulder was this black baseball bat with the word justice on it. And then there were these three - it looked like sort of aluminum sculptures mounted to the wall underneath the bat. And you just were like, what are they? What are they supposed to be represent? Well, thankfully, our friends from Politico were on the case, and they tracked down what was going on. And it turns out they reported that Herschmann is an avid art collector and that the panda painting is by an artist named Robert Pruitt, who I'm not familiar with. But Matt Fuller, who was a longtime Hill reporter, works for The Daily Beast, noted that similar paintings were in the movie "50 Shades Of Grey." But evidently, Herschmann has had this art since before that movie came out, so...

KHALID: He was a trendsetter.

PARKS: So don't draw any conclusions.

WALSH: And the baseball bat was a gift from somebody after he won a big case. And then - this is the interesting part to me - the three sculptures represent his three kids. And I was looking at a still picture the other day, and it looks like it's sort of their hair - like, the top of their heads. Like, one looks like a ponytail.

KHALID: I mean, the one question I have for you, Deirdre, at the end, though, is like, why does he not do that thing where you just Zoom the back - like, blur the background, unless he was very proud of all his artwork, maybe, right?

WALSH: It sounds like he's into art, so I think he wanted to show it off.

PARKS: Asma, what can't you let go of this this week?

KHALID: OK. So this week, I cannot let go - I feel like it was the week of the return of Beyonce. It was a big week for Beyonce. I don't know if you all have been paying much attention to this all, but she has announced a new album. It's going to be called "Renaissance," and it is her first release since 2016.

WALSH: It doesn't seem like it's been that long. Wow.

KHALID: I know, right? This also makes me feel like time goes by really fast.

PARKS: Yeah. She had that live concert come out a couple years ago, right?

KHALID: Yeah.

PARKS: I feel like that thing came out, so it made us, like, feel like we've gotten new Beyonce in the last few years, but it has actually hasn't - we haven't gotten any, like, new songs.

KHALID: I know. Beyonce is one of these people who I feel like has been with me for so long - right? - that you're like - at some point, you forget - you're like, there's all these monumental moments. I was like, I remember you were there with me during the 2016 election...

PARKS: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Beyonce. You were there, like, at all these critical moments. But then the other thing that I saw was actually wilder to me. Her daughter, Blue Ivy - there was this picture of Blue Ivy and Jay-Z at the Warriors game.

PARKS: Yes.

KHALID: They flashed - did you see this?

PARKS: Yes.

KHALID: And I was completely struck because I was like, oh, my God, Blue Ivy is, like, a tween now.

PARKS: I felt 60 years old. I literally...

KHALID: Yes.

PARKS: I mean, it was - like, that way, it was visceral. I felt like my whole body shrivel.

KHALID: I was like, I thought you were just born. So if y'all have not seen this, you should Google it. But Blue Ivy, she's adorable, but she's, like, 10 now, I believe.

PARKS: Already has better style than me.

WALSH: You know, the one thing I did hear about this album, Asma, is that there's going to be some country-inspired songs on it, and I'm fascinated by that.

KHALID: How do you feel about that?

WALSH: I want to hear it.

PARKS: I feel like my unpopular opinion is that "Irreplaceable" Beyonce is still my favorite Beyonce.

KHALID: Is the all time.

PARKS: And like, I know - I mean, I love "Lemonade," but I still just go back to "Irreplaceable." I think that's, like, the greatest song ever written.

KHALID: All right. Well, what about you, Miles? What can you not let go of?

PARKS: So what I can't let go of also comes from the Golden State Warriors. They won the NBA finals last night.

WALSH: They did.

PARKS: And specifically, what I can't let go of and I keep thinking about is Steph Curry, the Warriors' best player, introduced this playoffs like a new kind of celebration that has been really subtle that some people kind of started picking up on a couple weeks ago. And I am a trash talk connoisseur. I play a lot of basketball, not really to go out and get exercise but mostly just to yap at people for two to three hours. And so Steph Curry, at the end of these series where he is basically ending the season for the other team, who have been working all year to get to this moment, when he hits this shot - he did this last night. He did it a couple of weeks ago against the Dallas Mavericks. When he hits the shot that kind of ultimately, you know, stabs them in the heart, to end their season, he does this hand motion that indicates, night, night, like, where you put your two hands and you say, like, you're going to bed now, like dad is putting you to bed. And that is like - he did it again last night ending the NBA finals, and I just respect it so much.

KHALID: So you're a Warriors fan. I did not know that about you.

PARKS: I'm a basketball fan. I'm an NBA basketball fan. But more than anything, I'm a trash talk fan.

WALSH: I'm a Steph Curry fan. He's just amazing. Just - he's amazing to watch.

KHALID: I will say, I fall into the camp of, like, look, I was really bummed that the Celtics weren't able to take this. I don't know that I expected the Celtics to win, but I was incredibly proud of them. I think that there were very low expectations for the Celtics, and they made it far.

PARKS: Yeah. I think that's right. I mean, I do feel like they didn't have a Steph Curry out there who is, like, one of the greatest players of all time. You know, at the end of the day, that kind of matters.

KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. A reminder to please go take our survey if you haven't yet. You can check it out at npr.org/podcastsurvey. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel and Krishnadev Calamur. Our producers are Elena Moore, Casey Morell and Lexie Schapitl. Our intern is Maya Rosenberg. Thanks to Brandon Carter. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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