SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there. Quick reminder - we have a live show coming your way next week in Chicago. It's January 10. We're putting it on with WBEZ. It's going to be great. Only a few tickets left - you can get yours at nprpresents.org.
EMMA: Hi. This is Emma (ph) from Durham, N.C. I'm listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST with my roommate's cat, Frank, who I insist on calling Franco Ordoñez because it's so fun to say, right, Franco?
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Right (laughter).
EMMA: This podcast was recorded at...
DETROW: Its 2:11 Eastern on Friday. It's Friday, January 3.
EMMA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK, here's the show.
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DETROW: Franco, are you a cat person?
ORDOÑEZ: I'm allergic to cats, but now...
ORDOÑEZ: But this is going to change me. I am now going to go get my shots.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: (Laughter).
ORDOÑEZ: I'm a new man. And I really hope my wife hears this because, you know, she's really gone on to me about this issue. But I'm ready.
DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.
PHIL EWING, BYLINE: I'm Phil Ewing, election security editor.
ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
DETROW: So a lot to talk about today - the U.S. has killed a key Iranian leader, Qassem Soleimani. The attack happened in Iraq. He was killed in a drone strike as he was leaving the Baghdad airport. Even with everything else going on, this has instantly become the top issue in U.S. politics. Congress has a lot of questions. There's a lot of uncertainty about what might happen next and a lot of context that we'd add. So luckily, the three of you can all speak to really key parts of all of this. So, Phil, let's start with you, and let's start with this. Many listeners will have never heard Soleimani's name before but are also hearing today that he was one of the most important figures in shaping the Middle East. How big of a deal was he?
EWING: He was a very big deal. He was the head of the Quds Force, which is the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is the terror and paramilitary organization that Iran used to fight outside of its own borders in the Middle East. So with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, with proxies in Yemen, with Shia militias in Iraq against American forces and other places, Soleimani was the planner and the mastermind since 1998, when he took over. He was the main guy for sabotage, spying, terrorism and other malign activities for Iran throughout the Middle East. Now he's been killed. The U.S. has taken him off the map.
DETROW: You say since 1998, this is someone who has been parts of various operations in the Middle East for decades. Franco, including having a role in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq - deadly attacks - why now did the Trump administration make this decision to take him out?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the action came after thousands of pro-Iran protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, potentially putting a lot of American lives in danger. Following those protests, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States military would take preemptive action if any Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and in Syria were to take - if there were some signs of any paramilitary groups taking action. And only a few hours later, after those comments, that's when the attacks took place. That's when President Trump took action. So that was only a few hours. But we do know from comments from Senator Lindsey Graham that there were discussions as early as Monday. He had said he had been briefed on at least parts of this.
DETROW: Sue, a lot of people who worked in the Obama and Bush administrations were saying today that this is something they had thought about doing, targeting Soleimani, but they never decided to because they were so worried about what the consequences could be, what the escalation could be. There seems to be a lot of that worry in Congress today.
DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, the question now is what comes next, right? I mean, I don't think that there's any doubt on Capitol Hill about the confidence in the U.S. military to handle this. It's more about, what is the strategic objective here? So you've seen sort of a fairly standard party line response, where Republicans have very much praised the president and stopped at the praise. Democrats are saying, you know, it's a good thing that this man is dead but raising that question of what comes next? What comes now? And does this escalate tensions with Iran in a way that puts American lives at risk, specifically American lives abroad and the Americans that are still in Iraq that the U.S. government is now saying, get out?
DETROW: Yeah. That's something that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke to today.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: This action may well have brought our nation closer to another endless war, exactly the kind of endless war the president promised he would not drag us into.
EWING: Now, you might be out there asking, why is this such a big deal? Why is this guy who I've never heard of considered such an important figure? - because he was more than just a military commander or a terrorist. He was kind of a symbol for Iran throughout the Middle East. He was part David Petraeus and kind of part Che Guevara. He had this big, red ruby ring that he used to wear. And he had this kind of very swashbuckling pirate personality that he projected. And people would share selfies of themselves with Soleimani for years. And he was this larger-than-life figure. So killing him in this way in a drone strike takes away not only an important operational military terrorism commander for the Iranians but also this export that they had, this cultural export throughout the Middle East and the Shia world. And that's why people are expecting such a big response, as we heard there from Senator Schumer.
DETROW: And the key difference from various terrorist leaders that that are killed by drone strikes is that he was an official in a foreign government with a lot of resources and an army. And what have we seen from Iran in the day or so since this attack took place?
EWING: Iran's leaders have vowed that they'll respond, that they'll take revenge for Soleimani's death. But we're still waiting to see what form that will take and, indeed, whether to see whether the gambit or the strategy that President Trump is pursuing here, if you will, might work. The question is, will the Iranians respond to this and say, the costs are too high for us to continue these malign activities and we're going to negotiate with Americans? Or will they say, we're never going to negotiate because Soleimani is dead, and we're only going to fight the United States from here on in?
DETROW: Franco, flip side of that, you've been reporting all day on the White House thinking behind this attack. Was this something they deliberated for a long period of time and thought through what the Iranian response to this could be? - because a lot of Democrats are saying today President Trump has shown no evidence at any point of his presidency of thinking in this big-term, strategic way of carefully plotting out a move and a response and a countermove?
ORDOÑEZ: No, and that's correct in many ways. And as we heard from Schumer, President Trump has talked a lot about wanting to pull out of these endless wars, and this is an action that could do the opposite. I will say that I did talk to National Security Council officials from previous administrations - from the Bush administration, for example - who said, you know, this was a position that Iran may have pushed the Trump administration into, you know, feeling that perhaps the Trump administration didn't have kind of the muster to take action. And here, they did do that. And they - in a way, they say that Trump kind of called their bluff and took action. And this sends a very clear, very strong message that the United States is willing to take some risks and enter into kind of a war-like stance, unlike what President Trump has said in the past.
DETROW: Sue, often, the president or the White House will alert key congressional leaders when something like this is going to happen. Did that happen this time?
DAVIS: He didn't, and this isn't the first time he's not done that. I mean, there is no obligation for the president to tell Congress that he's going to do these things. It does tend to be a courtesy for the president to alert the so-called Gang of Eight - that's the top party leaders on the Hill - when a major decision like this is going to happen. Oftentimes, it's after the decision's been made but before it's made public so they're looped in. They were not given that courtesy this time around, but it's also not that unusual in the Trump area, who has regularly not informed Congress of his decisions.
DETROW: So you've all been talking to a lot of smart people about this. There is a lot of concern and you hear what we're talking about here; a key figure in the Iranian government, somebody - you know, a country that has clearly taken a lot of actions in the last few years, even before this happened. Tension is already incredibly high with the United States. Is there any sense that this could escalate as quickly as some warnings out there indicate?
ORDOÑEZ: It could definitely escalate. I mean, I think that is a massive concern regardless of what side of the aisle you are on. I've spoken with Republican national security officials from Republican administrations - the Bush administration. I've spoken with Obama national security officials. No one disagrees that Soleiman (ph) was a bad person, that he had American blood on his hands. And he had a lot of blood on his hands. At the same time, both sides say there are great risks that come with it, and their - time will tell what type of response Iran can muster.
DAVIS: One of the things I'm looking for to see how Congress and the public is going to respond is, why did the president justify this decision? We know he's taking ownership of this decision. But what was the intelligence and what were the facts on the ground that led him to make such a dramatic and decisive decision? And I think that the public and Congress needs to know that before they can fully form an opinion on whether this was the right and smart strategic thing to do. This country has a very long and recent history of being misled by administrations into foreign policy decisions that didn't work out as well, namely the Iraq War. And I also think that the - you know, the way that this is going to be seen around the world is important because the U.S. has lost a lot of that trust because of those decision-makings that led to the Iraq War.
DETROW: All right. It's now 3:44, and we were back in the studio after we taped this podcast because President Trump did, in fact, come out and speak failure (ph) here. Let's listen to what the president had to say.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war. I have deep respect for the Iranian people. They are a remarkable people with an incredible heritage and unlimited potential. We do not seek regime change. However, the Iranian regime's aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end. And it must end now.
DETROW: Phil, what did you take from that?
EWING: A couple of key points from the president - he actually addressed the theme that we heard Sue talking about in the pod. This is not about another Iraq invasion or changing the government of Iran. The president described this as a preventative or a defensive action - killing Soleimani - to stop him from plotting attacks in Iraq against American forces and other American allies around the region. We've also learned since we talked in the podcast earlier today that Soleimani was what was called a target of opportunity, according to some reports out of the Pentagon - that Soleimani was not on the Americans' radar for very long before he came into their sights in the airport in Baghdad. And so this was not the subject of weeks and months of planning, according to what we understand now from the Defense Department, but only a matter of a few days. And the decision was taken by the president to act.
DETROW: Wow, so something that a lot of smart people are saying could be the biggest single decision in the Middle East that the U.S. has made since the Iraq War invasion was something made on a relatively short-notice snap judgment.
EWING: That's right.
DETROW: Obviously, a lot more to come on this story - we will be covering it at npr.org, on NPR One, on your local public radio station. This is one of the stories where our reporters spread throughout the globe are digging into it and bringing the latest updates, so check it out there. OK. That's Phil and me around 3:45 in the afternoon on Friday. We are now going to take a break and go back to the original podcast we recorded earlier in the day. The next topic - impeachment.
And we're back. And you may remember that, before the holidays, the House of Representatives impeached the president. Since then, we have not heard too much on this front. Sue, remind us where we left things.
DAVIS: The needle hasn't shifted all that much. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer left town on a bit of a stalemate. And they're back on Capitol Hill, and the stalemate's still ongoing. They can't agree on what terms the trial should take place under. And until they can get to an agreement, everyone's still sort of holding back. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, is still saying she won't name impeachment managers until she knows what the trial's going to look like. And Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer can't agree on what that trial's going to look like.
DETROW: OK, on the articles of impeachment, I was so confused on this. I was out on the campaign trail. I saw this, and I did not understand the thinking behind it, the strategy behind it. Can you explain?
DAVIS: The deadlock here is Senate Democrats want an agreement on what witnesses to call in the trial before the trial begins. And Republicans are saying, you're not going to get that. You have to agree to begin the trial, and then we'll try to get an agreement on witnesses. And Pelosi's holding back naming those managers because a Senate trial cannot start until she does that. So she's essentially just trying to buy Chuck Schumer a little bit more time to try and negotiate this with Mitch McConnell.
DETROW: And, Franco, where is the White House right now on the idea of witnesses, what it prefers? Because I think this is one of those things where President Trump has been all over the place at one point or another - of course people should come testify and clear my name; I don't want any witnesses at all.
ORDOÑEZ: President Trump, as you say, has been Ping-Ponging constantly about that, most recently has been talking about a quick trial. That said, he certainly wants to air his side of the story out. And he continues to talk about wanting to hear from the whistleblower and others, including folks like Hunter Biden.
EWING: Sue, the Senate was back in Washington today. And I saw on TV where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer both talked about this. What did they say about impeachment today?
DAVIS: Well, McConnell made it pretty clear that he is not in the mood to compromise with Democrats on this point. He at length, again, attacked the House impeachment process and said, you know, Nancy Pelosi doesn't get to tell the Senate what to do. And Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, is really dug in.
I think there's a couple of things to point to with Democrats to understand why they are also not willing to budge. Over the past couple of weeks, there's been a couple of pretty big news stories or new revelations in this impeachment process. You've had more reporting on details about the president being advised to release the military aid to Ukraine. There has been some unredacted (ph) documents released based off lawsuits filed from groups against the government shedding a little bit more light into the thinking at the Pentagon and the OMB, the Offices of Management and Budget, on why that money was being withheld. And Democrats say that all gives them firm ground to stand on to say, we need to hear from more people. Specifically, they want to hear from people like acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
So they think they're in a good position politically. I've talked to Democrats who say they look at the polling and say people are open to this idea of witnesses, so they don't think it's a losing battle. And one other interesting point is you have even their most vulnerable senators - and I would point to Doug Jones of Alabama. Probably no Democrat - or no Democrat represents a more conservative that is really supportive of Donald Trump. And he's in favor of this. He even went so far as write an Op-Ed in The Washington Post saying he supports witnesses. And I think Democrats say - are pointing to this all to say we're unified in this argument.
So there's really - no one's blinking right now. And I think when you're at that point, the question now is, can Mitch McConnell move forward on his own?
DETROW: You know, as this all started to pick up speed in September, like a lot of people, I was reading up on past impeachments. And I got to this one detail about the Clinton impeachment that just seemed, like, so out of pace with life in Washington today. And that's even as partisan as things were in 1999, the fact that the entire Senate met in the old Senate chamber behind closed doors and came to, like, a big, broad of agreement on what to do next. Like, I read that, and I thought, seems like there's no way that could happen in 2020.
DAVIS: It just doesn't feel like it. And remember; Mitch McConnell doesn't necessarily need to. The rules of impeachment in the Senate - everything goes by 51 votes. And Republicans have 53 votes. So it is possible that Republicans could begin a trial on an agreement reached just among themselves. I don't think they want to do that because politically, it will give Democrats an opening throughout the course of the trial to say this is fixed, this is a Republican trial, they never intended to have a fair trial. And that's sort of the political back-and-forth we see playing out.
As we sit here today, that partisan outcome feels a lot more likely than some big, grand 100-to-nothing, feel-good Senate vote here.
DETROW: And if that's the case, a 51 votes situation, it feels like we are replaying the 2017 health care debate where Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins are the key votes, except that, like, Mitt Romney has replaced John McCain in that can-they-get-to-51-or-not group.
DAVIS: Yeah, that's exactly it. And, you know, Mitch McConnell has the votes, but they're a very narrow majority. And as we also saw over the break, his comments that he was not an impartial juror that he was going to work hand in glove with the White House on this trial strategy did irritate specifically Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, two senators you do not want to be irritated if their votes are absolutely necessary to advancing your goals.
DETROW: All right, much more on that soon. We're going to take a quick break now, though, and come back with Can't Let It Go.
All right, we are back. And I have actually not been on a Friday podcast in a really long time, so it's the first time in a while that I personally have done the Can't Let It Go segment - excited about that. It's where we talk about one thing we can't let go of, politics or otherwise. Franco, what about you?
ORDOÑEZ: So I got a good one. It's a story about a 64-year-old woman who was learning to play the fiddle. This guy, Justin Heckert, tweeted out that his mother-in-law was - they were sitting at the Christmas dinner table and that, all of a sudden, his mother-in-law pulled out a fiddle and started playing a dozen songs. No one...
DETROW: Dramatic move.
ORDOÑEZ: No one had any idea whatsoever that she was doing this, not even his father-in-law. The only people that knew were her and her instructor. It was supposedly the secret dream that she had forever. The tweet just went viral - over 160,000 likes. I mean, this is the kind of inspiring story that CLIGs were made for.
DAVIS: This is the kind of CLIG we need to set the tone for 2020.
DETROW: 2020 will take a very different tone.
DETROW: I think we've already made that clear. But aspirationally, what about you, Phil?
EWING: I'm glad you mentioned the year 2020 because that's what I cannot let go. And I found this distilled in a post on the website Wait But Why by Tim Urban recently, which also circulated on social networks. The post is called "It's 2020 And You're In The Future." And among other horrifying revelations about this era, it includes that, for example, the Y2K bug - many of us remember that.
DAVIS: Oh, yeah.
EWING: That's now closer to the 1970s than it is to today. And there are a number of other terrifying insights, including this one, which I'll just read you, again by Urban.
(Reading) "The Wonder Years," which is a show back in the day, aired from 1988 and 1993 and depicted the years between 1968 and 1973. When I watched it, it felt like it was set a long time ago. If a New "Wonder Years" premiered today, it would cover the years between 2000 and 2005.
DETROW: That feels like a Netflix show I would watch.
EWING: And I immediately thought, those were fantastic years.
EWING: I had a great time between the years 2000 and 2005. I had a fourth-generation iPod with a touch click wheel...
EWING: ...And an Samsung A680 flip phone with a color LCD display on the outside. It was unbelievable.
DAVIS: Phil peaked in the early aughts.
EWING: I did. I peaked in the year 2004. It's a shame.
DAVIS: The iPod is - never got better than that.
DETROW: So I will go next. And this begins with a confession. This summer, when I was at the Iowa State Fair covering all of the candidates, everyone was raving about the butter sculpture at the Iowa State Fair and how it was amazing. It's the greatest thing ever. And I carried a deep, dark secret in that I didn't think the Iowa State Fair butter sculpture was the best butter sculpture in the land. I had a preferred butter sculpture, and that is the butter sculpture at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which is basically a state fair but in January, indoors, when you're much more excited to be in a fair setting.
Sue, have you ever been to it?
DAVIS: I have not. But I would go now.
DETROW: It's great. It's great. And there's great milkshakes, and there's a great butter sculpture. And once, for NPR, before I was actually a reporter here, I did an extensive story - which is one of the best pieces of journalism I have ever produced - on how...
DAVIS: If you don't say so yourself.
DETROW: ...The butter sculpture, after the farm show is over, is taken to a local farm and put into a methane digester and powers that farm for three days as it decomposes.
EWING: It's environmentally friendly.
DETROW: So here is this week's Can't Let It Go. I was on the fence about whether I would have time to get to the farm show this year because I will be spending most of the time in Iowa over the next few weeks. They unveiled the butter sculpture. And do you know what the butter sculpture is this year?
ORDOÑEZ: Tell us.
DAVIS: I know what it is
EWING: A penguin?
DETROW: Something we have spent a lot of time talking about on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. It is the Philadelphia Flyers' mascot, Gritty, in butter form.
DAVIS: And he is spectacular.
DETROW: And he looks manic as always, but in butter form, and it's glorious.
DETROW: And he - I bet he will power that farm for five days, just based on his Gritty spirit.
DETROW: Sue, what about you?
DAVIS: The thing I can't let go this week is Dr. Phil's house.
DETROW: Oh, us too.
DAVIS: Have you seen this? So Dr. Phil's house - we should be clear, he does not live there, but it is a home owned by his son Jordan - went on the market, and as all houses do, their pictures are now on the Internet for people to see it if they want to buy it. And his $5.7 - $5 million, 6,000-plus-square-foot home...
DETROW: It's a nightmare.
DAVIS: ...It's just weird. It is weird. The only way I would describe it - it's like if Beetlejuice and Lord Voldemort were anime characters who owned an interior design firm.
EWING: With a huge gun rack.
DETROW: It is kind of, like, a Beetlejuicy (ph) vibe of when the yuppies redecorate the house. I didn't think about it that way.
DAVIS: It is. I mean, to think that someone could have so much money to make a house look that weird is the thing I can't let go. I mean...
ORDOÑEZ: What do you have against staircases made of metal snakes?
DAVIS: (Laughter) And there's all these, like, modern animal sculptures throughout the house. The furniture is all clearly very expensive and hand-designed but looks like tree branches and eggs. It's just - it's an incredibly bizarre house. I think it's super weird. The LA Times was nicer; they called it eclectic. And if we had $6 million, I'd say we should go in on it.
ORDOÑEZ: There's, like, a giant chair or seat that is a hanging egg right when you walk in. There's a room entirely decorated with what looks to be machine guns. What else? What else is there?
EWING: Were those sculptures, Sue, or are they giant Lego figures?
DAVIS: I can't...
EWING: They kind of looked like those Lego minifigs (ph), but, you know, 5 feet tall.
DAVIS: There is lots of creepy animal decor all throughout the home.
ORDOÑEZ: I couldn't tell if, like, the legs of the pool table - were those lions? Were those werewolves? You know, there's...
EWING: Maybe there's one of each. That's what I would get.
DAVIS: There's, like, a painting of Darth Vader in a suit in it. I mean, just - it's just - it's an endless - it's - there's endless things to look at if you look at these pictures.
DETROW: Somebody needs to ask Elizabeth Warren for comment because, of course, one of the breakthrough moments of her career was appearing on "Dr. Phil" to give financial advice. See - I brought her back. Brought it all back - politics.
DAVIS: It always comes back to politics. It always comes back to politics.
DETROW: All right. That is a wrap for today. Before we go, over the last month, you've probably heard us asking you to please contribute to your local public radio station. Thank you so much to everybody who took the time to do that. It really meant a lot, and we really appreciate it.
Let's end the week by thanking the team that puts the show together. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producer is Barton Girdwood. Our production assistant is Chloe Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter.
I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.
EWING: I'm Phil Ewing, election security editor.
ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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