ICYMI: Politics News From The Week : The NPR Politics Podcast This week, former President Donald Trump got a court date for his first criminal trial, lawmakers take another swing at Ukraine aid and we look at swatting, the growing hoax trend that's hitting America's politicians.

This episode: national political correspondent Sarah McCammon, political correspondent Susan Davis, senior editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and national security correspondent Odette Yousef.

This podcast was produced by Jeongyoon Han, Casey Morell & Kelli Wessinger. Our editor is Erica Morrison. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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ICYMI: Politics News From The Week

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FIONA BELL: Hi. This is Fiona Bell (ph) from Woking in England. And I'm at Heathrow Airport at the moment, about to go on a cycling holiday to Colombia. I'm really looking forward to going to the cycling holiday, but I'm also really looking forward to being on the same time zone as the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. This podcast was recorded at...

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

12:19 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, February 16, 2024.

BELL: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK, here's the show.

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

MCCAMMON: How flattering is that, that someone is going on vacation - she's going on vacation, and one of the things she's excited about is not just cycling, not just Colombia, but being in the same time zone as us. That is really kind.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Yeah, I don't know if it's the accent or the background music or what, but I was just - I felt like I was transported to "Game Of Thrones."

MCCAMMON: Mesmerized. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the presidential campaign.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

MCCAMMON: A lot has happened this week related to the 2024 presidential election, so let's start the podcast this week with a campaign roundup. Circle March 25 on your calendars. That is the day that former President Trump's New York trial begins for his alleged hush money payoff to adult film actress Stormy Daniels after an affair. Domenico, you've been out doing a lot of reporting on all of the legal issues surrounding former President Trump. What is at stake for him with this one?

MONTANARO: Well, I think it's pretty notable that now we have the ball sort of rolling. You know, March 25 is a firm date now in New York as related to this case. You know, some people argue that it's the weakest of the cases but still very consequential. And not only that, but that means that the more serious cases are going to be happening - if they do go ahead and aren't totally delayed past the election - you know, sometime closer to the heart of the general election. And we know that general election voters, including independents and Democrats, have a much different view of Trump and his conduct than Republican primary voters.

MCCAMMON: But, Sue, this is a case where, you know, the needle of public opinion doesn't seem likely to move so much. You know, I'm thinking of the E. Jean Carroll suit or the "Access Hollywood" tape. The public is well aware of this kind of behavior from Trump, aren't they?

DAVIS: True. I mean, it certainly doesn't do anything to really change the Trump brand. And we - as we've said many times in this podcast, in some ways, it's only served to make him stronger within the Republican Party and the base voter, as he's framed this as sort of a grievance campaign. They're coming after me because they want to go after you.

But there is new Emerson College polling out that, I think, put an interesting frame about how to look at this in the context of how voters think about this. And it basically showed that the same amount of voters are as concerned about Joe Biden's age as they are about Donald Trump's potential criminality. And so I do think in a general election, it could be a very big issue for Donald Trump, especially, as Domenico noted - who does this resonate with? - independents. More independents say they are concerned about Trump's criminal indictments raising serious doubts about him as a candidate than they are about Joe Biden's age. And so there's a lot of room there for Democrats to use these trials and these accusations against Donald Trump as it becomes more baked in to this country that this is going to be a Biden-Trump rematch.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And I wouldn't dismiss the fact that polling has found that Trump would potentially be hurt if there's a conviction in one or multiple numbers of these cases. Plus, it takes him off the campaign trail. It's actually one of the arguments that his legal team is making - that being in court from 9:30 to 4:30 every day is going to take him off the campaign trail during the day. He does these 7 p.m. rallies, so you can imagine that he's probably going to use these to his advantage with the base. But there's a very different way in which polling has found that independents view Trump's behavior and that it could potentially hurt him in a general election.

DAVIS: And look. This week was not all bad for Donald Trump and these criminal proceedings. There was a very televised national hearing out of Georgia in which the prosecutor, Fani Willis, was put on the stand to defend a personal relationship with one of the prosecutors in the case. Defense attorneys are trying to use all of this to get her removed from the case or have them recused or even have the case thrown out. It has certainly been a distraction to the underlying election interference case. And depending on how that plays out, that could also change the political calculations of that case and how people view it in Georgia.

MCCAMMON: The FBI has indicted the man who said he had evidence of corruption in the Biden family. Republicans used that testimony to move forward in investigating Hunter and in launching an impeachment inquiry against the president. So where does this news leave that effort?

DAVIS: Yeah, this stuff is always hard to explain 'cause once you start going down this rabbit hole, it's really hard to follow. So I will do my best to explain it. And it was a little bit of unexpected news this week. But a man named Alexander Smirnoff was indicted by the FBI for essentially lying about Hunter Biden and Joe Biden. He's someone who has been an FBI informant in the past, and he was a figure in the Republicans' impeachment effort because they used his testimony to the FBI as proof of a potential bribery conspiracy involving the president.

Well, the FBI this week says, basically, he lied about that whole thing - that there's no proof that any of that happened. And so what does that mean? It means that part of the Republicans' impeachment justification was using the testimony of a man who the FBI now says is a liar about all of those things. What does it mean? I think it makes a weak impeachment case that much weaker. It certainly isn't something that bolsters the cause for impeachment of President Joe Biden in either the public's eyes. But do I think this fundamentally changes the Republican calculus on Capitol Hill? Probably not.

And look. Just earlier this week, they led an impeachment of Homeland Secretary Mayorkas. I think that they are under a tremendous amount of political pressure to find a reason to impeach the president, especially to create sort of a counternarrative to these criminal troubles and trials for Donald Trump. I don't think it's going to derail it. What I do think is an open question, frankly, is, do House Republicans have the votes to impeach Joe Biden?

MCCAMMON: Lots of news about Russia this week, too. We learned today that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has died at a Russian penal colony. And also this week, we learned that Russia is developing a space-based nuclear weapon that could be used against the United States. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have been unable to agree on an aid package that would include funding for Ukraine's defense against Russia. Sue, what's the response to all of this news from Congress, especially this big news today about Navalny's death?

DAVIS: You know, there has been a pretty profound and fast response from Capitol Hill in the - in response to the death of Navalny. And I would say notably, one of them, to me, was from speaker Mike Johnson. As we've well established, the fight over passing more aid to Ukraine has been caught up on Capitol Hill, essentially because of divisions within the Republican Party. And it was very notable to me in his statement that he condemned Putin for the death of Navalny and said that Congress is debating the best path forward to, quote, "support Ukraine."

And I think that that is notable and important because there is still questions of whether Congress can get that Ukraine aid passed because of objections from Donald Trump and, frankly, many members of the Republican Party right now. But sometimes, events have a way of changing momentum and political realities. And I think this, coupled with the news of sort of Russian satellite nuclear weapon space intentions, might have a dramatic impact on Capitol Hill.

MONTANARO: And I know people don't really vote on foreign policy, but this really underscores, I think, the difference - very strong, stark differences between President Biden and former President Trump as they're getting set to face off against each other. Where former President Trump has seemed much more willing to allow Russia to take some part of Ukraine, potentially, or say that - you know, to NATO allies that they need to, quote-unquote, "pay up" or otherwise, he's just going to let Russia do whatever it wants - a much more isolationist policy, as opposed to Biden's more traditional, you know, seeking some degree of American intervention and leadership around the world.

DAVIS: Look. And just today, a group of moderate Republicans, along with a group of moderate Democrats, introduced a new legislation that includes money for Ukraine. So the political reality and the pressure vice that the speaker's going to find himself in is this - they have the votes in the House to pass Ukraine aid. They do. That's clear. No one disputes that. The political pressure is that if Speaker Johnson allows that vote to pass, certainly on the strength of Democratic votes, does it so inflame the right of his party that they try to throw him out of office or create other internal political headaches for party leaders?

But this is sort of the burden of leadership, right? This is a real-time national security, global influence question up against internal party politics. And Mike Johnson is a new speaker. He's a relatively weak speaker in that regard. And he's going to have some very hard and clear choices to make in the coming weeks.

MCCAMMON: OK, let's take a quick break. Domenico, we'll see you for Can't Let It Go.

MONTANARO: All right. Sounds good.

MCCAMMON: Otherwise, when we're back, a look at swatting and how it's upending politicians' lives.

And we're back. Domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef joins us now. Thanks for being here.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Sure thing.

MCCAMMON: Odette, you've been following this growing swatting trend. Remind us what it is, and how widespread is it?

YOUSEF: So swatting is a term that refers to a hoax that's been around really, you know, at least 15 years. It kind of started with the gamer community, and then it migrated more into sort of the realm of extremists. And now we're seeing it much more commonly deployed. Basically, it involves somebody making a hoax call to local police, claiming that there is a crime occurring in a particular location. The intention is to draw a massive law enforcement response to that location, including SWAT teams, hence the term swatting.

This is something, like you mentioned, we've been seeing really hit the news much more frequently in recent months. I think it was just recently over the holidays at the end of 2023 and beginning of this year that we saw just what seemed like a wave of swatting calls that were hitting more high-profile public figures, like members of Congress, people that have been involved in some of the cases against former President Donald Trump. And so it seems to be, unfortunately, a term that is becoming much more familiar to average Americans.

DAVIS: And certainly in the context of politics and political figures, these swatting attacks are sort of meant to inspire terror and fear in their targets. And if you think about how volatile these situations can be - as someone I talked to said, think about how many gun owners there are in America, right? Like, think about how many people are already armed within their homes. And when you're being swatted, oftentimes these calls will happen in the middle of the night, when people are sleeping or are otherwise, you know, relaxing in their homes. There's no actual emergency. And the fear that they could inspire if suddenly there is, like, some massive event outside of your home that might provoke someone who owns a legal firearm to go get it ratchets up the intensity and dangerous nature, frankly, of what these situations can be.

YOUSEF: That's right. I mean, we - there have been cases in the past where people have died in swatting incidents, and it's for the very reason that you just mentioned. You know, what happens when these responses are deployed to the locations is that police are, you know, breaking into a residence or a place, guns drawn. And so it's very terrifying for people inside who are not anticipating that kind of thing to happen where they are. And it certainly could result in some really tragic outcomes.

DAVIS: It's also a tremendous drain on law enforcement resources, depending on what they call in. Oftentimes it's a bomb threat or an active shooter, someone who is suicidal - might provoke ambulance, SWAT teams, multiple law enforcement that is directed to something that's not actually happening and can divert resources. It's also, quite frankly, very expensive. There's also an interest inside the law enforcement community to have more clear laws and penalties about this because, as I'm sure we'll get into, it's kind of a tricky criminal problem to solve.

MCCAMMON: Odette, Sue mentioned this is happening not only to politicians anymore, but to others. I mean, who's being targeted?

YOUSEF: It seems almost like everybody's being targeted, Sarah. You know, we have tracked over the last two years a pattern of swatting calls that have been made to schools across the country, seemingly in every state at this point, literally hundreds and hundreds of calls that have put kids in lockdown situations at schools and created potentially dangerous situations. But we're also seeing just regular people getting swatted.

I mean, there's a man in in Wisconsin who has claimed that he's been swatted more than 40 times after he posted on social media that he didn't find the comedian Norm MacDonald very funny. I mean, it really does create a lot of concern because it does seem like it's happening to regular people. And it's been happening to more and more members of Congress, it seems, and even to lower-level staffers that are working for elected officials, even at the state level.

MCCAMMON: So, Sue, you mentioned it's a tough problem to get a handle on, but it is affecting members of Congress, among others. What, if anything, is Congress doing about it?

DAVIS: There is legislation before both chambers of Congress that has been introduced that would essentially make it more clear that swatting is a federal crime and would also institute penalties of up to 20 years in prison if someone was injured in the process of a swatting event. But this is tricky because one of the things that's really hard to get at with this is that technology has made it very easy for bad actors to provoke swatting-type events and not get caught. You can use voice-masking technologies, AI technologies. You could call from a public place using a phone number that's not yours and direct police to a certain location. And also, frankly, what a law enforcement has seen is that some of these calls are coming from bad actors overseas, which U.S. law enforcement doesn't really have any particular control over. So I think there is broad bipartisan recognition that there's a problem. There may well be legislative action on it, but a new law wouldn't necessarily make this suddenly go away.

YOUSEF: You know, there was legislation that had been proposed earlier by a Congress member from Massachusetts that didn't really go anywhere. But because of the growth in these incidents, I think, as Sue mentioned, there is going to be more bipartisan support for it. But interestingly, because there hadn't been much federal energy behind this previously, the Anti-Defamation League had been working on a state-by-state basis to try to get statehouses to pass anti-swatting bills. And so this does, you know, perhaps show some progress that we're starting to see more members of Congress take an interest in making federal statutes around this.

There's another thing that is quite significant that's happened within the last year, which is that the FBI has finally started tracking in a centralized database instances of swatting. So this was just - you know, it launched in May of 2023. So, you know, just within the first eight months, I learned the FBI had tracked more than 500 instances of swatting. And that is not even a complete picture.

DAVIS: And one thing I'm interested to see, if this debate develops on Capitol Hill, is - my understanding of the legislation, as it's proposed now, would just make swatting a federal crime. But I've asked about whether there should be sort of a carve-out or additional penalties for doing this towards an elected official or a political official because in the context of this phenomenon, which is more increasingly being seen, frankly, as a way of political intimidation or trying to go against your political enemies, could there be a more specific crime for swatting with the intention of creating sort of political disruption?

MCCAMMON: We need to let Odette go in just a second here. But before we wrap up, we've talked about the possibility of legislation helping. In the meantime, Odette, from your reporting, are there some ways that people are advised to protect themselves from these attacks?

YOUSEF: Yeah. I mean, I think that for people that are political figures or even journalists or other, you know, people that might for some reason feel that they may be a target of this kind of activity, they may consider reaching out to their local police department and flagging that to them, letting them know, you know, that this is the kind of work I do. I may be at the receiving end of these hoaxes. I want to just make sure that you have a flag on my address, not so that you don't respond when there's an emergency at my address, but just so that you have some awareness that this actually may not bear out. And so that's one thing that I've heard people recommend.

I do want to mention something in response to what Sue had just said about whether there should be increased penalties when the target is a politician. You know, one of the things that's most sort of befuddling about this increase in swatting calls is that we are not aware of any accompanying messages with those swatting attacks that indicate a desired political outcome. And so for that reason, it is a question as to whether we should be considering swatting a new and increasing trend in political violence. We just don't know what the motivation is behind these calls.

We don't know if it is, in fact, to get some sort of change in that politician's behavior, or if it's just for the kicks, just for - you know, because that is also - we know that most swatting is done by very few people. And so we just need to know more information about who is doing it and what the motivation is before we can really start to even talk about it as a trend in political violence.

MCCAMMON: And we're going to leave it there. Odette, thanks so much for your reporting.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: We'll continue following this story. After the break, Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. It's time for Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things we just can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Domenico, I'm going to start with you.

MONTANARO: Well, what I can't let go of is a very particular immigrant, a cat named Blueberry.

DAVIS: Go on. Tell us more.

MONTANARO: The reason I mention this is because this cat went from Northern Ireland, 150 miles to the west of Ireland, crossing the border between the two countries. And this cat was gone for four years. And just last week, the family that originally lost this cat got a call from someone who said, we have your Blueberry - got the cat after four years. Can you believe that?

MCCAMMON: Aw.

DAVIS: Did the cat. Have, like, a tag on?

MONTANARO: Yes. I think this is the moral of the story - not necessarily the tag or a collar, but microchip. And I think that this is a really important thing that vets always talk about. Microchip your pets.

MCCAMMON: Microchip your pets.

DAVIS: But couldn't they have used the microchip to find Blueberry?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Why did it take four years?

DAVIS: Maybe Blueberry didn't want to get caught.

MONTANARO: I don't think that's how it works. It's not like GPS-related when it comes to these animals. It's like they can get scanned basically at, like, a hospital or a vet clinic, and they can enter them in a database. And they had initially entered them in this database that was just for Ireland. And then nothing came up. And then they entered them in this database for 26 countries in Europe. And that's when they got a hit.

MCCAMMON: Well, I'm happy for them for the reunion, regardless.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

DAVIS: It sounds like a Disney Pixar movie.

MCCAMMON: Aw. Sue, you're up next. What can't you let go?

DAVIS: The thing I can't let go is that Beyonce revealed during the Super Bowl that her next album will be country-influenced. And the reason why I can't let it go is - I don't want to take full credit for this album, but I think I could take partial credit because I like to believe that I've been manifesting this for the past eight years. I almost wish I - there might even be a podcast in which we talked about this, but there's no way to know. But back when "Lemonade" came out in 2016, there's a song on that album called "Daddy Lessons," which is a very country-inspired Beyonce song, and I remember at the time having a very detailed conversation with our old friend Sam Sanders, then of the podcast, about how it awakened in my mind the possibility of a Beyonce country album.

It's not a genre that I had ever, at the time, thought of her really playing in. And the two singles that are out now that are coming from her album, that's coming out next month, that were released this week, very country-influenced, already going very viral. I'm extremely here for the Beyonce country album, and I'd like to think that my support and manifestation of it played a small role in the universe.

MCCAMMON: We can go with that.

MONTANARO: You may very well be responsible, but you know, she's from Houston, and anyone from Texas intersects with country.

MCCAMMON: And anything Beyonce does is going to be amazing. So this is pretty exciting.

DAVIS: There's already a bunch of very funny memes about people being like - thinking, I hate country music and then hearing Beyonce's song "Texas Hold 'Em," and they're, like, immediately in, like, a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and line dancing. So I think that there's going to be some good content around the album, too.

MCCAMMON: It's time for mine. And I'm sorry, but mine is a little more serious. I also have the Super Bowl in my mind. I am a Kansas Citian, and it was - you know, I'd hoped this would be a happy, joyful, celebratory CLIG because we won. But it was a very sad week this week for Kansas City. And I have to say, it was really heartbreaking to turn on the news and see pictures of my hometown Union Station with police officers running inside because of yet another mass shooting. This one's still being investigated.

I've covered a lot of these in my career, unfortunately. And I know that everybody seems to say when it affects their town, you know it could happen here, but you hope it won't. And I felt that this week. And so I am proud of Kansas City. And I am also sad for my hometown. And I am just thinking of everybody who was affected by that. And that is, if I'm being honest, what I can't let go.

DAVIS: It's true. You know, I was at the Super Bowl celebration in Philly when the Eagles won the Super Bowl a couple years ago. And it was like - you know, for big sports fans, like I'm sure many Kansas City Chiefs fans, like, those, days are so fun. Like they're so great. They're so celebratory. And I agree with you. It is very sad that something that should have been just, like, a really good moment for the city became something else.

MCCAMMON: That's all for this week. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Erica Morrison. Our producers are Casey Morell and Kelli Wessinger and Jeongyoon Han. Special thanks to Krishnadev Calamur. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the presidential campaign.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

MCCAMMON: Thanks, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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

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