JENNY: Hi, everyone. I'm Jenny (ph). And ever since the NPR POLITICS PODCAST has gone daily, I can't wait to listen to the show. In fact, I'm currently hiding out in my closet trying to listen so that my three children, who are downstairs eating breakfast and getting their shoes on, won't bother me for the next 15 minutes. This show was recorded at...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
2:34 p.m. on Thursday, October 3.
JENNY: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, like the fact that I will eventually reemerge with hopes that the kids are all dressed and have actually cleaned up their own dishes. OK, here's the show.
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SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: As a parent, I relate to hiding in a closet for a minute...
DAVIS: ...Just to get a minute.
KEITH: You know, we do go sometimes into our closets to record radio stories.
DAVIS: We do actually do a lot of work in closets in radio.
KEITH: (Laughter) Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: Today President Trump walked out of the White House to the South Lawn and had this to say.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine. So I would say that President Zelenskiy - if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens.
KEITH: Which is the thing that he said in private in a call with the Ukrainian president, President Zelenskiy, that prompted Democrats to start an impeachment inquiry.
ORDOÑEZ: It's pretty amazing that he, you know, did this. I mean, this was on the South Lawn. There's all this talk about whether, you know, what the president did was correct and was proper. And here the president is saying publicly that he wants Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son. But not only that - he doubled down. He's also saying that he wants China to investigate the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. And not only that, he's doing it at a time just before the United States is going to restart trade talks with Beijing, which just brings in a whole host of other types of potential influence problems.
KEITH: Why is he talking about China?
ORDOÑEZ: The allegations relate to Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, joining the board of an investment firm with Chinese ties. This all happened when his father was vice president. But Trump still hasn't shared any evidence of any wrongdoing, and we have not seen any.
KEITH: Yeah. And we should say that both with Ukraine and with China, there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe Biden or his son.
DAVIS: What the White House argument seems to be is they don't deny ever that the president has said or done these things, that he has encouraged foreign governments to look into rivals or ask them for favors. Their argument largely seems centered around the notion that there's nothing wrong with doing that.
KEITH: So a question, just to be clear - what is wrong with enlisting the help of a foreign government in a presidential election?
DAVIS: So here's what we know. There is a law that says you cannot solicit financial contributions or anything of value from a foreign national or a foreign nation for help in a U.S. election. That is a law.
KEITH: Campaign finance law.
DAVIS: Campaign finance law. Pretty clear-cut. What is less clear-cut and where we are in the heart of this debate is whether that conversation with the president of the Ukraine would constitute a violation of that law.
KEITH: So this thing that the president came out and said in public today, could that end up being part of the impeachment proceedings?
DAVIS: It could. And the intelligence chairman, Adam Schiff, came out to speak to reporters following the president's remarks. He's on Capitol Hill because the intelligence committee is hearing depositions today from a state official. He came out and told reporters to - in response to his China comments, that the president believes he can do, quote, "anything with impunity." Schiff also said that - indicated this could be a factor in the impeachment investigation and said that request to China was, quote, "a fundamental breach of the president's oath of office."
KEITH: It is truly remarkable the president of the United States is just saying it all out loud. I talked to a professor at Dartmouth named Brendan Nyhan about this because it is just really puzzling.
BRENDAN NYHAN: What's striking about the Trump presidency is the extent to which he makes statements in public which, if made in private, would have generated huge scandals. He routinely admits to things that would seemingly constitute major scandals, but neither the political opposition nor the media know how to react when he does them in public.
DAVIS: He says the quiet parts out loud.
KEITH: Yeah. He read the stage directions - all those things.
DAVIS: I think that's true. I also think, though, that now this has taken on a new meaning because of the fact that it has prompted an impeachment investigation, and now all of this is being seen as actions that could result in articles of impeachment against a sitting president.
KEITH: And I don't know if this is, like, a strategy or if this is just President Trump doing what President Trump always does and has always done, but if he's willing to say it out loud and not just in a call, in a transcript, is he in a way making that argument? Like, well, if there was something wrong, I wouldn't be saying it out loud.
ORDOÑEZ: I think he is kind of saying that argument. I mean, he certainly feels wholeheartedly that he did nothing wrong, and to this point the supporters seem to be backing him. You know, Mike Pence, his vice president, just - you know, just today also said that he backed the president and felt that the American people should know about Joe Biden and his actions and whether they profited off him being in office.
It's quite an interesting time. You know, President Trump has kind of changed the game. You know, a lot of people say that's President Trump being president Trump. And he's kind of softened some of the outrage that with other presidents we would have been outrage, but when President Trump says something, it's kind of like, well, he's just being himself.
DAVIS: This is the thing about Trump, too, where I think a lot of times you have to hear him and not just read him. And when you hear him saying that about China, I think you can hear the White House and people that defend the president and his allies say, these are these moments where Trump's being sort of figurative versus literal, or he's saying, oh, yeah, maybe China should look at Joe Biden. Like, he's saying these things that literally seem - and literally are crimes. Soliciting foreign intervention in an American election is a crime. But doing so is that, in sort of this Trumpian way of, like, an eye roll, and it's a media attack, and it's more figurative. He's not really asking China to do it; he's kind of saying this in his confrontational engagement with the media.
The thing I do think is different now is this is now evidence in an impeachment investigation. This isn't just your usual partisan warfare, your tit-for-tat with the media. These are the things that Adam Schiff, who's the intelligence chairman who's spearheading the investigation, is also saying this is the kind of behavior that we will use in potential articles of impeachment against you.
KEITH: He is the president creating the fog, you know? (Laughter) Like, he goes out there, and he says a lot of things, and it creates this fog that it becomes difficult to see through. All right, we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, how Republicans are feeling about the White House response.
And we're back. Franco, you and Sue have both been reporting on how President Trump's language and how he's dealing with this crisis is resonating in Republican circles. What have you been hearing?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, basically, that Republicans who support the president say the next few weeks - some are saying even three weeks - are really crucial to determine whether Trump can keep Republicans united behind him or if some of these cracks that we've been seeing are going to break open even wider. They're calling for a more coordinated but also a more direct and aggressive strategy to attack this issue. And some are saying that the Republicans need to use a strategy similar to the one used to defend Trump's pick for the Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
I spoke with Republican strategist Scott Jennings, who worked with George W. Bush and is close to the White House, about this.
SCOTT JENNINGS: And it's not like you have, you know, all this time for this to unfold; you've got to be ready for battle right now. That's why I was comparing it to Kavanaugh. That was a short fight. You know, it happened over a period of a few weeks. Democrats had their message. They fired their shots. The Republicans were organized. They fired back. And so, to me, that's really the template here.
ORDOÑEZ: I mean, the key here is that this is not about picking off Democrats, building support among Democrats; this is about keeping Republicans in their camp. And they want this to be a partisan fight because, in a partisan fight, they feel they can win.
DAVIS: The main thing I'm hearing is that they are very grateful that it's recess.
DAVIS: That they are - members are back home and not being confronted with questions from reporters like me, every day all day, in response to the White House.
KEITH: Like, President Trump said this about treason. What do you think?
DAVIS: Yeah, there is...
KEITH: Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
DAVIS: Exactly. And responding to the president's tweet, every tweet, is something that they just get really exhausted by, and they need to come up with a better strategy. I think the culmination of the Republican counterresponse right now has been essentially two things. One - the July 25 phone call in question does not amount to an impeachable offense, that that is not a high enough bar to remove a President from office, especially one that's facing reelection. The second argument that you're hearing a lot from Republicans is attacking the process, and the reality that Speaker Pelosi sort of announced that the House was in an impeachment inquiry without allowing the full House to authorize a vote to proceed with it.
Now, that seems to me and to - many listeners might think, why attack the process? And I've asked a lot of Republicans this - is that they think it helps make the case to the public that this is more of a sham political proceeding. The Democrats are just looking for any reason to go after the president. And if you can kind of undermine the investigation in the public's mind and say, hey, maybe they're not doing this aboveboard, by the rules, the public won't be as willing to believe that the things they're looking at are a problem.
ORDOÑEZ: But the challenge is that the White House and Congress are not speaking to each other in ways that they have in the past, and that's been a big concern among, you know, Trump administration surrogates and those who really feel like everybody needs to get on the same page because the public really is going to start making up their mind within just a few weeks. I mean, there's still a lot of Americans who are still really trying to make out what does this Ukraine mess mean, what does it mean to me, where am I going to fall on this. And among firm Republicans, most of them want to stick with the party. They want to stand by the president.
But there's a lot of concern that there's more information that can kind of dribble out. The surrogates that I talked to, they want to get all the bad news out now so that they can all kind of brace together and fight together.
DAVIS: So I talked to Tom Davis today. He's a former lawmaker. He's a Republican from Virginia. And he's a former chair - he used to chair the Oversight Committee, so he ran a lot of really high-profile congressional investigations. He was also the chairman of the House Republican campaign operation during Clinton's impeachment, so he's lived through one of these impeachment processes. And he also said he doesn't think there's enough there to impeach the president yet, but he said his advice would be - to the president would be to stop talking about impeachment.
TOM DAVIS: Talk about prescription drugs. Talk about infrastructure. Talk about what you're trying to do. And throw it on the Democrats to say, this is what they want to talk about; here's what I want to talk about. That's what Clinton did, and he turned the thing around because of that.
DAVIS: His point was, the president needs to have a really disciplined message strategy right now where he doesn't talk about impeachment.
DAVIS: And I kind of had to laugh - right? - because the only thing the president seems capable of talking about this week is impeachment. I mean, he's really angry about it. He's really combative about it. And you do hear a lot of Republican voices who support the president saying, you need to be more disciplined; you need to focus the country on other things. And I think that is going to be a real challenge for the president because he doesn't like to walk away from a fight. I don't even know if he's capable of walking away from a fight.
KEITH: He loves the fight. I mean, who do they think they're talking to?
ORDOÑEZ: Who do they think they're talking to?
DAVIS: Like, this is advice falling on deaf ears, if there ever was any.
ORDOÑEZ: He - there's no way. I mean, President Trump cannot not have - in many ways, he cannot not have the last word. I mean, he is going to continue to fight, and we've seen this over and over and over again.
KEITH: So I'm going to have the last word today, which is we'll be back tomorrow (laughter). Until then, send us your timestamps for the top of the show. Maybe you're celebrating a big life event or just hanging out with your friends. We'd love to hear about it.
DAVIS: Or hiding in a closet.
KEITH: Well, we - now, we've had that, so something different.
KEITH: But closets do sound good. Just record yourself on your phone and send the file to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, you may be wondering, where is Can't Let It Go? It is Thursday, and we did not do Can't Let It Go. Fear not - as part of our new daily schedule, we are moving the Weekly Roundup to Fridays. So we will be back tomorrow with all the news you need to know about and Can't Let It Go. I promise. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: And thank you for listening to THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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