Mitch Part 4: 'Not A Happy Choice' : Embedded Mitch McConnell says he never expected Donald Trump to become president. And during the campaign, he was openly critical of Trump's rhetoric. So how are these two very different men working together now? And how are they changing the country?

Mitch Part 4: 'Not A Happy Choice'

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Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers.


And I'm Eric Mennel.

MCEVERS: And this is EMBEDDED from NPR.

In the summer of 2016, it was pretty clear that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican nominee for president. By June, he had upset or insulted so many different people, though, there was a lot of doubt that he could actually win a general election.

MENNEL: He'd insulted Mexicans, Megyn Kelly, the Pope. He said John McCain wasn't a war hero, mocked a reporter with a disability, failed to denounce a former KKK grand wizard, proposed banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. and said a federal judge whose parents came from Mexico could not be impartial in a lawsuit against Trump University because Trump was promising to build a wall to keep immigrants out.

MCEVERS: At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell happened to be on tour for his memoir, "The Long Game." You've heard us quote from the book in this series. To promote the book, McConnell was doing a lot of interviews, and interviewers wanted to know what Mitch McConnell thought of Donald Trump. And it was clear McConnell was not happy with Trump's behavior.


MITCH MCCONNELL: What he said was outrageous and inappropriate, and I couldn't more strongly condemn that.

MCEVERS: This is Mitch McConnell with Judy Woodruff on PBS after Trump insulted the judge whose parents immigrated from Mexico.


JUDY WOODRUFF: If he doesn't back off, what are the implications for...?

MCCONNELL: Well, he needs to back off. Plenty things he ought to be talking about rather than taking shots at Americans because of their ethnicity. It needs to stop.

MENNEL: And yet, it's on the same book tour that McConnell says, despite how frustrated he was with the guy, he was going to support him.


MCCONNELL: The choice for many Americans is not a happy choice.

MCEVERS: This is McConnell on Bloomberg's "Masters In Politics" podcast.


MCCONNELL: But this is the choice. And I think for me, and I hope for a lot of others, the question is do we want four more years just like the last eight, or do we want to go in a different direction? For all of his obvious shortcomings, Donald Trump is certainly a different direction. And I think if he is in the White House, he'll have to respond to the right-of-center world which elected him and the things that we believe in. I'm comfortable supporting him. It's pretty obvious he doesn't know a lot about the issues. You see that in the debates in which he's participated.

MCEVERS: And the host, Betsy Fischer Martin, is like, wait, if Trump doesn't know a lot about the issues, then are you going to be comfortable with him nominating someone to the Supreme Court?

MENNEL: Because, remember, whoever won the election was going to get to fill an empty Supreme Court seat, a seat that was open because Mitch McConnell refused to hold a vote on President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland.


MCCONNELL: I know what you get with Hillary Clinton. (Laughter) It'll be somebody like...

BETSY FISCHER MARTIN: Well, but Merrick Garland is a moderate justice.

MCCONNELL: Oh, no, he's not. No, he's not (laughter). We've studied the record pretty closely. He always comes out on the left.

MCEVERS: McConnell says he has no doubt that Trump will nominate a conservative justice. It's almost like, relax. I've got this. But then, at one point, the host asks a question that is on a lot of people's minds.


MARTIN: Is there a line that he could cross that you would decide you couldn't support him anymore?

MCCONNELL: I'm not going to speculate about what he might say or what I might do. But I think it's pretty clear - I've been very clear publicly about how I think he ought to change directions, and I hope that's what we're going to see.

MENNEL: Trump did not change. Later in the campaign, he insulted a Muslim Gold Star family. He encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails. And then, just a few weeks before Election Day, the "Access Hollywood" video leaked where Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women.

MCEVERS: And for a minute, people thought Trump was doomed.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: And Republicans in competitive elections rushed to condemn the comments, calling them offensive, inappropriate, outrageous, demeaning, disgraceful, indefensible and impossible to justify. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called on Trump to, quote, "apologize directly to women and girls everywhere."

MCEVERS: After this, though, Mitch McConnell essentially goes quiet.

MENNEL: Even after Donald Trump is asked if he will accept the results of the election, win or lose - in other words, if he will respect the Constitution - and he refuses to say yes.


HOWARD FINEMAN: I want to hear from Mitch McConnell. I want to hear from Paul Ryan.

MCEVERS: This is Howard Fineman at MSNBC's live post-debate panel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I want to hear from Hillary...

FINEMAN: Especially from Mitch McConnell, who considers himself a constitutional statesman...


FINEMAN: ...And somebody who protects the integrity of the system. I want to hear from him on what Donald Trump said tonight.

MCEVERS: But we did not hear from McConnell. And almost three weeks later, Donald Trump won the election. Republicans kept their majority in the Senate. And Mitch McConnell kept his job.


MCCONNELL: Hope you're having as good a day as I'm having.

MCEVERS: The job he says in his book he had aspired to for decades.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Can you characterize how you see the Senate majority's relationship with President-elect Trump? Is it to be a partner? Is it to be a facilitator of his agenda?

MCCONNELL: We look forward to working with him. I think most of the things that he's likely to advocate we're going to be enthusiastic for. Where we have differences of opinion, I expect to discuss them privately and not sort of hashing them out in public.

MENNEL: Mitch McConnell has spent a lifetime learning how to win. It's what we've been reporting on this whole series, how he used his lack of charisma to his advantage, how he wasn't afraid to make enemies and how he worked the system to further his and his party's interests.

MCEVERS: And he's still doing all of that, only now with Donald Trump, this unpredictable, anti-establishment president. And together, they are reshaping the country in ways that affect us all. That's our show today - the unlikely politician and the most unlikely of presidents, after the break.


MCEVERS: OK, we are back. And before we can get to Trump and McConnell's relationship, we need to go back to the first time many people heard of Mitch McConnell. It was six years before Trump got elected during an interview in 2010.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Senator Mitch McConnell did an interview with National Journal. In it, he said, quote, "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Mitch McConnell says our goal, our priority politically, make this man a one-term president. How do you - what about governing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Forget it. I mean, the next two years, there isn't going to be any governing.

MENNEL: Mitch McConnell says the one-term president quote was taken out of context, that he went on to say, I don't want the president to fail, I want him to change - basically that if Obama's views on things got closer to McConnell's, he would be willing to do business with him.

MCEVERS: But for most of Obama's presidency, McConnell did not do business with Obama. He and other members of his party did everything they could to block things like Obamacare and to block many of Obama's nominations to the Federal Court.

MENNEL: And probably McConnell's most notable act of obstructionism was after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died and McConnell refused to hold a vote on Obama's nomination to fill the seat, Merrick Garland. Dahlia Lithwick covers the courts for Slate.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: He announced within hours of Justice Scalia's death in February 2016 that no one was going to fill that seat. It didn't matter who the person was. People thought that was audacious. People thought it was shocking. For a moment, everybody said, this has never been done before. This can't happen. And he just stuck to it. And people will just accede to it over time, and that's exactly what happened.

If you believe that this is a fight to the death, all the norms fall away, and then see if people can live with that. And I think that that's been Mitch McConnell's MO long before they swore Donald Trump in.


MCEVERS: The thing is Mitch McConnell's Supreme Court move ended up being very good for Donald Trump. Back in 2016, when some Republicans were worried Trump wasn't conservative enough - this according to Al Cross, who has covered Mitch McConnell for decades and has been our guiding hand throughout this series.

AL CROSS: There was a considerable reluctance among evangelicals and religiously oriented conservatives to accept this guy, this objectionable person, as the nominee of the Republican Party. Once they saw there was policy to be accomplished through that election, they said fine.

MCEVERS: So I asked Al how instrumental he thought that was to getting Trump elected.

CROSS: He wouldn't have been elected without it.

MENNEL: Once elected, one of the first things President Trump did, not even two weeks after the inauguration, was nominate a conservative justice to the open Supreme Court seat - Neil Gorsuch.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are gathered here today for a truly momentous occasion in our democracy, the swearing in of a United States Supreme Court justice.

MENNEL: At the swearing-in ceremony, Trump was sure to acknowledge McConnell.


TRUMP: Today, I especially want to express our gratitude to Senator Mitch McConnell for all that he did to make this achievement possible. So thank you, Mitch.


MCEVERS: Mitch McConnell had gotten what he wanted - a Republican president, a conservative Supreme Court justice. But it became clear pretty quickly that the Donald Trump of the campaign had not gone away.

MENNEL: And as one of the most powerful people in the country, Mitch McConnell was going to be expected to answer the question - if Donald Trump crosses a line, will you stand up to him?

MCEVERS: And that was never more pressing than after Charlottesville.

MENNEL: It was August 2017. President Trump said there were very fine people on both sides of a white supremacist rally. And Mitch McConnell did not criticize Trump the way he did on book tour. He did not say this needs to stop.

MCEVERS: What he did do was issue a statement. Quote, "there are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms." The statement rebukes Trump's remarks but does not have Trump's name in it and doesn't even mention the president.

MENNEL: We specifically asked Mitch McConnell why he did not mention the president, and he did not answer why. He said messages of hate and bigotry are not welcome in Kentucky and should not be welcome anywhere in America.


MCEVERS: In January of 2019, it was McConnell who became the focus of many people's anger at Washington, people including New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: OK, guys. We went to Mitch McConnell's office, where we went to the Senate cloakroom. Where - #Where'sMitch.

MENNEL: At the time, the country was in the middle of this big crisis.

MCEVERS: President Trump wanted Congress to authorize $5 billion for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. And when he didn't get that funding, he let parts of the federal government shut down.

MENNEL: You might remember this. Democrats in the House kept passing bills to reopen the government without the border wall money, and Ocasio-Cortez was saying the Senate should vote on these bills, too.

MCEVERS: But the Senate majority leader, who gets to decide what the Senate votes on, is, of course, Mitch McConnell. And he says there will be no vote, so Ocasio-Cortez and some other new congresswomen walked the halls with cameras following, them trying to deliver a letter to McConnell asking him to call the vote.


OCASIO-CORTEZ: The House has voted to reopen the government several times. We have the votes in the Senate. It's Mitch McConnell who refuses to call a vote on it. He's not in the Russell Building. He's not in the floor of the Senate. And 800,000 people don't have their paychecks, so where's Mitch?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This shutdown now belongs to Mitch McConnell. Donald Trump started it, and Mitch McConnell is doing everything he can to keep it going for Donald Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Look. The Democrats have voted nine times to reopen the government. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to take up any of those measures. He and Donald Trump are responsible for those 800,000 people who are not working or who are working who are not being paid.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Mitch McConnell, do your job...

MENNEL: We should say McConnell's reasoning here was, why should I pass a bill that I know the president will veto? McConnell would then need two-thirds of the Senate to override a presidential veto, and it's not clear he had the votes. What was clear is he did not want to go against the president.

MCEVERS: The shutdown ended up being the longest in history - 35 days. Trump eventually did agree to reopen the government, saying Congress had three weeks to figure out how to fund the border wall.

MENNEL: But that did not happen. So Trump went around Congress, and he declared a national emergency so he could get the money to build the border wall anyway.

MCEVERS: And Mitch McConnell, who has long been on the record as being against shutdowns...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Mitch McConnell has said no more government shutdowns. He didn't think it was a smart idea.

MCEVERS: ...In 2013, he called them a losing strategy - and who has been against presidential overreach. Under President Obama, he said executive orders were undemocratic...


MCCONNELL: The action he's proposed would ignore the law, would reject the voice of the voters...

MCEVERS: A man who many people say believes deeply in the institution of the Senate...


MCCONNELL: I've just had an opportunity to speak with President Trump...

MCEVERS: ...Got on board.


MCCONNELL: ...And I've indicated down that I'm going to prepare - I'm going to support the national emergency declaration.

MCEVERS: McConnell told us, quote, "there was and continues to be a clear border security and humanitarian crisis on our southern border."

CROSS: McConnell embracing the national emergency was one of the most uncharacteristic things he has ever done...

MENNEL: This is Al Cross again.

CROSS: ...Because he is an institutionalist. He knows there's no national emergency. He knows that if Congress were to exercise its proper role, it would countermand that emergency declaration. But he's running for reelection, so the institutional concerns fade very quickly.


MCEVERS: The fact that Mitch McConnell is up for reelection in 2020, Al Cross says, is the most important thing to understanding McConnell's relationship with Donald Trump.

MENNEL: Because in Kentucky, Donald Trump has an approval rating around 55%. Mitch McConnell's approval rating is around 36%, according to a Morning Consult poll back in April.

CROSS: He certainly has as his prime directive right now getting reelected in Kentucky. And because Donald Trump is very popular in Kentucky, that means not getting too much distance between himself and Donald Trump.

MCEVERS: Al Cross says one way McConnell has been able to keep winning in Kentucky despite his unpopularity is that he adapts to where he sees the party is going. And right now, in Kentucky at least, the party is going with Donald Trump.

MENNEL: Mitch McConnell himself likes to say if you don't win, you have to go home. You don't get to make a difference. Here's ProPublica journalist Alec MacGillis, who wrote a book about McConnell.

ALEC MACGILLIS: For Mitch McConnell, winning is all. At the end of the day, it is all about what you can do to set yourself up to win the next time. And that's, of course, true to some degree of all politicians, all candidates, but it's more true of him than anyone.

MENNEL: Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump don't have a lot in common, but they do like winning. In the first two years of Trump's presidency, they tried getting legislation passed and had mixed results. But there are ways to change laws that don't involve legislation. Here's McConnell on conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt's radio show.


MCCONNELL: When we did comprehensive tax reform 30 years ago, it lasted four years. What I want to do is make a lasting contribution to the country.


MCEVERS: That lasting contribution to the country after this break.


MCEVERS: OK. We are back.

MENNEL: If you were to walk into the Senate chamber these days, it is highly unlikely you would get to watch any actual legislation being passed. What's more likely is that you'd see Mitch McConnell standing at a podium doing one of his favorite things - reading a list of nominees to the federal courts.


MCCONNELL: Howard Neilson of Utah, Stephen Clark of Missouri, Carl Nichols of the District of Columbia and Kenneth Bell of North Carolina.

MCEVERS: A lot of these nominations are possible because Mitch McConnell and other Republicans spent years blocking President Obama's nominations to the same seats. And now that Republicans control both the Senate and the White House, they have been incredibly efficient at filling these vacancies - vacancies they in part helped create.

MENNEL: We hear a lot about the nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court, but the vast, vast majority of federal cases are heard by other federal judges. Just below the Supreme Court, at the appeals court level, there are spots for 179 judges. And a level below that, the district courts, there are more than 600 seats for judges.

MCEVERS: And these appointments have the potential to change a lot of things that people care about.

JESSICA LEVINSON: Immigration, criminal justice reform, the environment, voting rights, the First Amendment, religious rights - most of those issues are decided in federal courts.

MCEVERS: Jessica Levinson teaches at Loyola Law School.

LEVINSON: People sometimes say, you know, what if I was a one-issue voter? What should be my one issue? And I always say the court. It's not just the Supreme Court. But it's the entire federal branch that really matters because they make decisions that impact people's daily lives.

MCEVERS: The way it works is President Trump sends names of nominees to the Senate, and the Senate has to vote on whether or not to approve. The person who decides when these votes happen is, of course, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. And lately, he has been pushing through a lot of them.


CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The record-breaking pace is a significant victory for conservatives and for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He's made confirming judges his highest priority.

MENNEL: More than 20% of circuit court judges are now Trump appointees - that's in just 2 1/2 years. By many accounts, Mitch McConnell has been more willing than most majority leaders to change the rules for how these nominees get through.

MCEVERS: For example, these things called blue slips, which used to allow a home-state senator to decide whether a nominee got through. Now those are gone for some nominees.

MENNEL: And American Bar Association ratings - they were a sort of stamp of approval saying whether a nominee was qualified to be a judge or not. Those matter a lot less now. Trump has nominated six people who were deemed not qualified, three of whom have gotten through - though, to be fair, conservatives have long thought the ABA ratings favor liberals.

MCEVERS: And, just recently, Mitch McConnell voted to change Senate rules again so that rather than having to debate these nominations for 30 hours each, now they only need to be debated for two hours. McConnell's explanation - he says, historically, there had been more bipartisan agreement on these nominations. And now the Democrats are using those 30 hours to slow down the process.

MACGILLIS: And that, to me, is almost the central hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell.

MCEVERS: Again, this is ProPublica journalist Alec MacGillis.

MACGILLIS: He presents himself as this great institutionalist, this person who is - loves the Senate history and Senate procedure. But at the same time, he has done more than anyone to degrade the norms of the Senate. And it's so completely at odds with his alleged desire to be the guardian of this institution.

MCEVERS: When we asked about this, McConnell pointed out that Democrats have changed the rules, too.

MENNEL: These appointments - they have been a big win for both Mitch McConnell and for President Trump. More than almost any other issue, it is the thing they have united on.

MCEVERS: Because these are lifetime appointments, and several of these nominees are only in their 30s and 40s. Mitch McConnell is making sure conservative judges will be in place for decades. Here's McConnell on Hugh Hewitt's radio show again.


MCCONNELL: So the administration's paying a lot of attention to not only whether they're a strict constructionist, which we think is important, but also trying to find people as young as possible. I remember one week a few weeks ago, we confirmed a 37-year-old woman for the 4th Circuit and a 39-year-old man for the 6th Circuit.

MCEVERS: McConnell told us confirming judges is, quote, "clearly the most long-lasting contribution we can make to the country."

LEVINSON: He's in the process of entirely reshaping one of the three branches of our government.

MCEVERS: Jessica Levinson again.

LEVINSON: Even if President Trump was impeached tomorrow, removed from office the next day, we're going to feel the effects of his presidency potentially even for generations to come. He knows that this is his moment, and I think that's why he's essentially decided to become as friendly as possible with President Trump.


TRUMP: That's right - USA. And hello, Kentucky. Thank you.


MCEVERS: Richmond, Ky. - thousands of people in a big university colosseum.

MENNEL: It's just before the 2018 midterms, and President Trump is stumping for a Republican running for Congress.

MCEVERS: But there is another Republican Trump wants to talk about.


TRUMP: And I'll tell you something. We have a man - one of the most powerful men in the world. OK, comes from Kentucky - that's not bad.


TRUMP: Got to respect him. And he heard about this - he says, I want to be there. He's one of yours. He's joining us tonight.

MENNEL: Mitch McConnell, in a suit, is waiting offstage.


TRUMP: I know tough people. He's tough. He's Kentucky tough, which is about as tough...


TRUMP: He stared down the angry, left-wing mob. He never blinked, and he never looked back. And he got us a man who will be one of our great, great Supreme Court justices.


TRUMP: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Come up, Mitch.


MENNEL: This rally was just 10 days after Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in to the Supreme Court, after Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, an accusation Kavanaugh denies.


MCCONNELL: Thank you, Kentucky. Aren't we proud of President Trump?


MCEVERS: Watching this now, I can't help but think of Mitch McConnell back in the '70s, the unlikely politician who was just starting his career. He didn't have grand policy visions. He didn't make stirring speeches. But as he learned when he was running for student council in high school, he knew he had to win over the popular kids, get the support of the people that mattered - union members, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump.


MCCONNELL: Let me just add, thanks to President Trump and a Republican Senate, 84 new federal judges already this Congress.


MCCONNELL: That's already a record, Mr. President. Keep sending them our way, and we'll keep confirming them and change the court system forever. Thank you for being here.


TRUMP: Thank you. And Mitch is a true fighter for Kentucky. He loves his state. And, you know, we'll be running together in 2020. That'll be a lot of fun.

MCEVERS: The other day, I noticed that phrase Trump used about Mitch McConnell, Kentucky tough, is now the banner on McConnell's reelection Twitter account. Al Cross says once McConnell decided to do business with Trump back in 2016, he also had to decide that a lot of the other stuff that Donald Trump does and says is going to have to be OK.

CROSS: I think one of the most important things McConnell has done is normalize Donald Trump. He treats him as an entirely legitimate president, someone whose behavior I'm sure he abhors but never says anything about that publicly unless it's a have-to case like Charlottesville, and then doesn't even use his name in the written statement. Donald Trump is not a normal president, but Mitch McConnell has done a lot to make him seem normal, largely by not talking about the abnormal things.


MENNEL: Mitch McConnell has been talking about a lot of other things lately, more than he usually does.

MCEVERS: He proudly calls himself the Grim Reaper for leaving the Democrats' bills to die by not bringing them up for a vote in the Senate. He says the proposal for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico statehood is full-bore socialism. And when Congress held hearings on reparations for African Americans, McConnell said slavery was so long ago, it would be hard to know who to compensate. Americans dealt with the original sin of slavery, he said, in part by electing Barack Obama.

MENNEL: And on a recent visit to Kentucky, someone asked him if a Supreme Court seat came open again close to the next presidential election, what would he do? Would he keep it open the way he kept Scalia's seat open?


MCCONNELL: Oh, we'd fill it.


MCEVERS: Oh, we'd fill it. Democrats were outraged. Critics said it was the height of hypocrisy. But McConnell said now that he and the president are both Republicans, unlike when Obama was president, filling the seat would be fair game. Al Cross says he was not surprised by McConnell's comment. It was pragmatic, shrewd, unyielding, the McConnell he has watched for years. But there was something about it that did surprise him, an uncharacteristic bit of emotion.

CROSS: He gave a little smirk before he gave the answer. We'd fill it. I think he was quite pleased with his ability to manipulate the process and pleased that he is in the position that he is to drive that process. I think that's what the smirk was about.


MENNEL: Mitch McConnell's memoir, the one he was doing all those interviews about when Trump was winning the primaries - it ends in 2014 on McConnell's reelection, the election that put him in the position of Senate majority leader, running the one place he'd always wanted to work. These are the last words in the last chapter.


MCCONNELL: One race was over, but another had just begun - to turn the country around, to restore the Senate. I'd been preparing my whole life, and I was ready.


MCEVERS: This episode was written by Eric Mennel and me and produced by Eric with help from Tom Dreisbach and Lisa Pollak. It was edited by Mark Memmott and Deirdre Walsh. Legal help was from Steven Zansberg (ph). Our researcher is Susie Cummings. Huge thanks to NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. Additional music by Ramtin Arablouei and Blue Dot Sessions.

The audio you heard of the shutdown at Mitch McConnell's Kentucky office came from the Louisville Courier-Journal. Thanks also to Antonia Ferrier, Josh Holmes, Scott Jennings, Christopher Schuler, Ryan Aquilina, Kristi Dima (ph), Cinnamon Howell (ph), Vicky Martin (ph) and all the great people at Louisville Public Media. Alec MacGillis's book is called "The Cynic." Mitch McConnell's book is called "The Long Game."

Al Cross directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. You can read his columns in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Subscribe to this podcast if you have not already. Hit us up on Twitter at @NPREmbedded. And come back next week for more when you finally will get to hear from the Senate majority leader himself.

MCCONNELL: I think there are two kinds of people in politics - those who want to make a point and those who want to make a difference. I want to make a difference.

MCEVERS: That's coming up on EMBEDDED from NPR.

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