Biden Says UFOs Are NBD—Plus Our Chat With Second Gentleman : The NPR Politics Podcast In remarks Friday, President Biden said the three aerial objects shot down by U.S. military were most likely tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions. And second gentleman Doug Emhoff is using his platform to combat antisemitism.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and White House correspondent Asma Khalid.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Devin Speak.

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Biden Says UFOs Are NBD—Plus Our Chat With Second Gentleman

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GAY: Hi, this is Gay (ph) from Souderton, Pa. I'm heading into work for the last time because I'm retiring today. This podcast was recorded at...


Congratulations. It is 2:40 Eastern on Thursday, February 16.

GAY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. My life will definitely be changed, but I'll still be addicted to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. OK, here's the show.


TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Jealous. That is the answer, jealous.

DETROW: One day, Tam.

KEITH: In 20 years.

DETROW: Hey there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

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

DETROW: And those unidentified flying objects we've been talking about so much over the past week, well, they have now likely been identified.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The intelligence community's current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.

DETROW: Womp, womp.

KEITH: I don't mean to get you all deflated, Scott...


KEITH: ...But probably not aliens.

DETROW: I mean, I loved legitimately talking about unidentified flying objects all week. And that window is now closed because President Biden just spoke about this for the very first time, about this drama above the North American skies, which led to this unprecedented situation of fighter jets shooting down three objects in three days. Biden did insist, though, that the U.S. stood by its assessments of that initial suspected Chinese balloon. And he said the U.S. is going to remain vigilant now that it has a better understanding of how China has been using that technology.


BIDEN: But make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety, security of the American people, I will take it down.

DETROW: So, Tam, we've been arguing about whether or not UFOs are real on this podcast going on seven years now, I think, eight years now (laughter)?

KEITH: The full existence of this podcast, in fact.

DETROW: You remain right for now, and that's OK. But what was your takeaway being in the room for this announcement? I mean, the White House had been kind of giving pretty big winks that maybe these were benign objects over the last few days. Still, it seems like kind of a plot twist to have fighter jets shooting down totally benign things.

KEITH: Balloons. Yeah, so I think that what stood out to me is that the president was clearly waiting until there was some level of confidence that these were not a threat and that they had shot down something that was most likely related to research or something. But my real takeaway here is that he has ordered this assessment to figure out how to actually deal with these things. So what happened is there was the Chinese balloon, they were like, oh, we need to change the settings on the radar. And then suddenly, they saw lots and lots of things and started shooting them down. And now he came out was very clear to say, we need to come back with some better rules to differentiate between those things that pose a safety risk and those that do not. Interestingly, though, he also said that they're going to keep it secret, that that will be classified and remain classified so that people who want to do bad things with balloons will not know our new rules of engagement.

DETROW: This whole affair, though, certainly ratcheted up tension with China. You had the secretary of state canceling a trip to China. You had increasingly hostile rhetoric between the two countries. What did Biden say today about the current state of relations with China and what happens next?

KEITH: He says he's going to have a conversation with President Xi. We don't know when that will take place, but the White House is emphasizing that they are doing the best that they can to keep these lines of communication open so that they can avoid conflict. President Biden also talked about wanting to develop global norms to keep the skies safe and secure. You can't have global norms if you're not talking.

DETROW: Any regrets or any indications that maybe the U.S. overreacted by sending fighter jets scrambling?

KEITH: He did not express regret. But, you know, I think that it is clear that they are looking for a new calibration setting after shooting these things down over the weekend and causing, you know, a fair bit of alarm and speculation among the public.

DETROW: Well, Tam, this was our last conversation about unidentified flying objects. I was glad it was with you.

KEITH: (Laughter) I'm glad it was with you, too.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back in a moment with Asma Khalid.

And we're back with Asma Khalid. And, Asma, you had a pretty big interview this week.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Yeah, that's right. I sat down with the second gentleman. He's the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. His name is Doug Emhoff.

DOUG EMHOFF: Is it - do you start with Morning Edition on NPR? Or is it you're listening to Morning Edition on NPR?

KHALID: He was doing his best impression of an NPR host, so seems to be a longtime listener of NPR.

DETROW: Why, other than NPR impressions, did you want to talk to the second gentleman?

KHALID: Well, first of all, we've never had a second gentleman in the history of the United States...

DETROW: There's that.

KHALID: ...So that, alone, I thought was interesting and noteworthy to have this conversation about just what the job has been like for him. But, you know, I think that people who are the spouses of a vice president often tend to champion an issue or two, right? And those issues don't tend to get a whole lot of attention. But in the case of Doug Emhoff, he has really become a champion for trying to combat antisemitism.

DETROW: Of course, we've never had a Jewish president. We've never had a Jewish vice president. A spouse of a president or vice president hasn't been Jewish. This is another big first for Doug Emhoff in addition to being the first man in this position.

KHALID: That's right. And he talked about that.

EMHOFF: As a vice president, my wife says the issue really found me. And I was really ready to jump into it. And it's unfortunate that this has to be my issue because it's not just antisemitism. There's really an epidemic of hate going on throughout the world against Jews, against Muslims, gay people. It's just pervasive. And a lot of it is just interconnected. And that's really - there was just a need, especially as the first Jewish person in this role. I mean, I take this issue very seriously. And really, with the encouragement of the vice president and also the encouragement of the president, I really have leaned into it, especially in these last few months, as we've seen very public and very terrible instances of very public antisemitism that's almost becoming normalized. We cannot have it become normalized.

KHALID: You mentioned being the first Jewish person in this role. Talk to us about what that's like. I often wonder, you know, what it's ever like to feel like people believe you're a representative of something larger than yourself.

EMHOFF: It's interesting. Coming into the role, I thought being the first man would be a big thing.

KHALID: The big thing people would highlight.

EMHOFF: The big thing. And it is a big deal. And again, it's pretty shocking that it took all these years to finally have a woman vice president, and that happens to be my wife. And that's really why I'm here. But I really thought that would be the big deal. As it turned out, right behind it is being the first Jewish person in this role. And I really started to feel how big a deal that was with the first Passover Seder that we did virtually year one of the administration, and I think tens of thousands of people tuned into that.

And I cannot tell you how many people, when I was out and about traveling the country and the world, would come up to me or my parents would tell me how many people that affected and impacted and never - and some were in tears. They never thought they'd see a Jewish person in this role. And I really then leaned into it and just decided to continue to live openly as I had as a Jewish person. And that included hanging a mezuzah on the wall - of the front door of the residence, having a live Seder for Passover the next year, celebrating Rosh Hashanah at the White House for the first time, and all these things that everyday Jews do in their own homes, but doing it here as second gentleman. And it's really had an impact.

KHALID: You recently traveled to Poland and Germany, and you toured the sites of former Nazi concentration camps. You also, my understanding is, visited a home that seems like it may have been your family's old home when they were in Poland. These stories of our ancestors, I think, are very powerful. They're a part of who we are. But I imagine it was, you know, it was moving, but I imagine also very difficult. Tell us about that trip.

EMHOFF: You know, I've said a few times, I'm still processing it. And it's been week-plus. It was very intense, very emotional, very heavy, because I went there in part for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And we had a ceremony, a very solemn, sad ceremony at Auschwitz. And I had seen, like many people have seen, pictures of concentration camps. And you've seen the grainy photographs, the horrible images.

KHALID: Had you gone before?

EMHOFF: No. And until you actually step up to that gate and you see the barbed wire, the silence, the coldness - you can literally see the despair and the desolation. And then you see the ovens where people were cremated. You see - they've saved thousands of pairs of shoes, many of them children's shoes. You see the shoes. You see the eyeglasses that were taken off, the human hair. It is so overwhelming to experience that and to imagine what went on there. But then when you add on the fact that I learned just recently as second gentleman that my ancestors came over to the United States around 120 years ago from what is now Poland, we were able to figure out on this trip the small village in Poland - again, what is now Poland - where they came from. And they were able to track to, you know, a pretty high degree of certainty, the records indicate, where they lived. And that house is still there.

KHALID: You visited it?

EMHOFF: We took a detour. And I was able to see the house where they lived 120 years ago, before they came here. And they were lucky. They were the ones who got out. But I also learned, unfortunately, that some of those very same relatives stayed and didn't get out and that were murdered in the Holocaust, shot in the town square. And I was able to see those names at Auschwitz. So a lot of it was just so intense. Again, talking to my parents about it, it's very emotional. And - but then this is a shared experience of millions and millions of people. But I got to experience that as very personal.

KHALID: You mentioned this being a shared experience, and yet it seems like these conversations also have taken on a political dimension. And I mention this in part because we've seen politicians on the far right adopting neo-Nazi conspiracy theories. Frankly, we've even seen the former president who's running for reelection embrace some of those ideas, you know, have dinner with a white nationalist, a white nationalist Holocaust denier. And, you know, you are taking this greater public leadership position on the issue. Are you concerned at all about this effort being perceived as partisan?

EMHOFF: This is not partisan. I mean, there's no two sides to hate. There's no two sides to antisemitism. There's no two sides to denying the fact that the Holocaust happened. And so when so-called purported leaders, people in leadership, people who have big microphones, espouse antisemitic tropes, who deny that the Holocaust happened, then that's not partisan at all. I mean, we all must speak out, speak out and call out when things like that happen. One of the things and one of the messages I really want to put forth, as does the administration, is we have your back. We're working on a national plan for antisemitism and combating hate. But I also want people to be proud of who they are. I love being Jewish. I'm proud of being Jewish. I want everyone, however they are, just to be proud of that so they can be able to live openly, freely, safely and without fear.

DETROW: Emhoff has been responding to a clear, troublesome uptick in antisemitism. But this message and this push also really broadly ties into some of the basic themes of the Biden administration going back to when Biden first jumped into the race. Biden regularly says he was inspired to run after that white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017.

KHALID: That's right. And one of the things I was struck by in conversation with the second gentleman is that, you know, to some degree, he feels this kind of heavy weight of being a minority, right? There has never been anyone who's Jewish in this position. He spoke about that at length. But there's no doubt that this is a part of the conversation we've been hearing from the Biden White House as well.

DETROW: And, Asma, what else did you and the second gentleman talk about?

KHALID: You know, I wanted to ask him about the job, what it's been like for him, and some of the gender dynamics as well, because he left his job as an attorney, a lawyer in California, to take on this very public-facing role as a second gentleman. But, you know, ultimately, there has never been a man in this position. And so we've talked about what that's been like.

EMHOFF: I take this role very seriously. And part of that is - it's the lawyer in me; I do research. I try to learn as much as I can. And that did entail speaking to most of the living second ladies. You know, obviously, I've got our first lady here who was second lady. So she's a great resource and a great mentor.

KHALID: What did they tell you?

EMHOFF: So let's start with Dr. Biden having had this role. She just gave great advice, which was I can't even tell you what to expect 'cause, one, you won't believe me. But two, it'll be different for you because you're the first man, and your wife is the first woman in that role, so - and plus in this, you know, highly charged atmosphere, you know, things were different. But her main advice, and I followed it pretty much to a tee, which is just be yourself. Like, you just got to be who I authentically am, and just go with that. And it's just, I think, really served me well in the role. I had a nice chat with Mrs. Pence. She gave me some great practical advice. So much of this world is just counter or non-intuitive of just the nuts and bolts of living in the residence and just kind of how this all works, so she was very helpful.

KHALID: What did she tell you?

DETROW: I - it's just between us. But it was very good and practical advice, which I have always thanked her for. I had a nice talk with Mrs. Gore, who really tells me about, you know, the history of the residence and some of the things that they had done there; also what it was like for them to raise a family there, which - and having, you know, kids in the spotlight like that. So it's been very helpful for me.

KHALID: So let's talk about what this job has been for you. You've moved from being this lawyer in California to a very different type of job. What's it been like for you?

EMHOFF: Well, here I am talking to you in the White House (laughter), so yeah, it's been a pretty extreme change. But I love my wife. And this is something where she got to be elected the first, you know, woman vice president. But she's vice president of the United States, so I gladly took a step back from a career that I loved. I was very good at it, successful. There are times that I miss it, but it was worth it. And I want to also be able to make sure there are more Kamala Harrises out there. I don't want anyone to look at me and think, wow, I'm not going to go put myself out there in public service because that Doug Emhoff guy was not supportive. I want to be as supportive as I can to help her in her incredibly intense job as being vice president. But I also understand that people are watching me and watching how I do this. I want to make sure I'm setting as good as example as I can in this role so we have more women in leadership. It's - we need that.

DETROW: And, Asma, I think that's a good point to end the conversation on. Because for all of the firsts out there that Doug Emhoff exhibits, he's also taking the very traditional role here of being the spouse who is talking up their partner, who is the person in office.

KHALID: Yeah, right. I mean, there is no conversation here about policy. And when we spoke about, you know, the job that he has, he made it very clear that his job is to ultimately support the vice president, to support the administration. And, you know, I think it was still, though, nonetheless, an interesting and insightful conversation into what his role is like and how he's been able to navigate this position.

DETROW: All right. That is it for today. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And Asma Khalid. I cover the White House as well.

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


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