NIKOLAI: Hi, this is Nikolai (ph) from Corvallis, Ore. And on November 20, both Joe Biden and I are celebrating our birthday. And this podcast was recorded at...
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Happy Birthday. It is Friday, November 20, at 1:12 p.m. Eastern.
NIKOLAI: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be celebrating my birthday in the company of my girlfriend and my nine other roommates. Enjoy the show.
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DETROW: That's a lot of roommates.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Nine roommates?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: That's a full house.
RASCOE: Yeah, but happy birthday. Hopefully, they can get some time without the roommates.
DETROW: Ayesha just took it to a different spicy level.
RASCOE: I - is that spicy? Oh, my goodness (laughter).
DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I'm covering the Biden transition.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In your view, Mr. President-elect, what do you think the president is doing? What are Americans witnessing here?
JOE BIDEN: Let me choose my words here. I think they're witnessing incredible irresponsibility. An incredibly damaging message is being sent to the rest of the world about how democracy functions.
DETROW: That is, of course, President-elect Joe Biden, who is celebrating his 78th birthday today during a speech in Wilmington yesterday. He's talking about how President Trump is not only refusing to concede the election, but now encouraging - and taking, himself - active efforts to try and undermine and even overturn the outcome of an American election. Ayesha, let's start with that because these efforts have really amped up over the past few days.
RASCOE: Yes. The big thing over the past two days is that President Trump has not been winning in court. His campaign, his representatives - they haven't had any major victories. And you know, even the court cases they have of - they're not alleging, you know, mass fraud in court cases in front of judges under oath. They're not doing that.
But now they seem to be turning, particularly in the state of Michigan, with trying to just sort of gum up the process and to get the states not to certify the results, you know, alleging there was, obviously, this big press conference yesterday with Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, and, you know, Sidney Powell. And they're making all of these wild allegations, once again, not under oath, but just at a press conference, and basically calling for thousands of votes in Michigan, in a predominantly Black area, to be thrown out. And you now have these Michigan officials, a Michigan lawmakers, going to the White House to talk to President Trump.
DETROW: And let's just talk about that for a minute because what is being talked about and encouraged and the fact that the White House says that these two lawmakers are coming to the White House to talk to the president really underscores that this might be a real attempt. What the president and his allies want Republican legislatures to do in several of these key states where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump is to try to appoint alternate slates of electors that do not reflect the will of the popular votes in that state as some sort of, you know, end-run around the election to - so that Trump would somehow win the Electoral College.
Now, Carrie, the legal view of this is that it has absolutely no chance of succeeding. But I mean, we're still in a position where we were talking about the president of the United States in a country that has viewed itself for centuries as the leading Western liberal democracy trying to do an end-run around a popular election. I mean, that doesn't really put him in good company, does it?
JOHNSON: No, not great company at all, Scott. And we have not really seen anything like this. You know, last night after that bizarre press conference Ayesha talked about, we had Chris Krebs, the guy who led the election protection efforts at Homeland Security and was later fired by President Trump, tweet out that, you know, that actually was a very dangerous press conference. You're playing with the legitimacy of our free and fair elections, not just here in the U.S. but the kind of message that we're sending. And we've seen some of President Trump's rhetoric - anti-immigrant rhetoric and other kinds of rhetoric, anti-media rhetoric - creep out around the world, and that dictators are using some of those messages against their own people. This is not funny stuff. This is serious and sometimes dangerous stuff we're talking about.
RASCOE: We have to point out and stress that the areas that they are trying to get thrown out, Wayne County in Michigan, a prime example - these are predominantly-Black areas that they are going after specifically. It is not an accident that they're going after these areas in particular, and they're not arguing to throw out the votes in, you know, white suburbs. It is the Black areas with Black voters that they are raising concerns about, that they are accusing of corruption and who they are not having an issue with saying, let's just throw those votes out, and then we win.
DETROW: Yeah. If you don't count Detroit, we win the election. Like, well, Detroit's actually a big part of Michigan, so that's not how it works.
RASCOE: Yes. And so that is not by accident. That is the history of this country and what's going on today.
DETROW: Ayesha, how does the White House defend what's going on here?
RASCOE: Their argument is that they are trying to make sure that all the legal votes are counted, that they have a right to question and to carry out lawsuits to make sure that - you know, that there wasn't any illegal votes or anything like that. But they are not offering any evidence...
RASCOE: ...That would overturn thousands of votes.
DETROW: And more than two dozen of these legal challenges have failed at this point. And, Carrie, just a dumb legal question - I mean, obviously, we are talking about deadlines. We are talking about the set dates for elections to be certified and for the Electoral College to vote. But is there anything to stop a campaign from just continuing to file lawsuits? Like, would they ever hit a limit of just continuing to file? Because it seems like that's what they're doing, even though they aren't succeeding.
JOHNSON: Scott, it's so bizarre to even be asked that question in this context. I mean, I have seen judges try to sanction people who are incarcerated for filing too many frivolous lawsuits. The notion that we could be talking about that or that could even be contemplated...
JOHNSON: ...For a sitting president and his campaign is sort of beyond the rainbow. I just - I can't go there. I don't think that would happen. But as you point out, there are lawyers out there, serious ones, talking about how some of Trump's attorneys are making these claims in press conferences that just don't have a basis in fact. And that's got to trouble judges when some of these attorneys go into the courthouse.
DETROW: So the other big storyline has been the lack of clear pushback from top Washington Republicans to all of this. We have started to see more and more forceful statements from some Senate Republicans. Last night and this morning, we got pretty blunt statements from, you know, some of the usual Republicans who are the first to break from their party and criticize the president, Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse.
RASCOE: Mitt Romney did come out and call the president's strategy undemocratic. And then you had Ben Sasse talking about how this is beneath the presidency, essentially, this is not what you do in a democracy, all these things that we've been talking about, and that these wild press conferences erode the public trust. And so you have these Republicans coming out.
Of course, it's not that surprising - Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse at this point, them coming out and saying this. They're known for, at least at times, criticizing President Trump. But you're not hearing it from, you know, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. You're not hearing it from the leadership.
DETROW: Carrie, we are almost full four years into an administration that broke norm after norm after norm, especially in the world that you cover, the world of law enforcement and the rule of law. I mean, how does - even knowing that this has a very small chance of succeeding, how does this fit into that picture? How does this rank for you at this moment?
JOHNSON: You know, people had been talking - people like Michael Cohen, the president's former fixer, and Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 11 days in his White House - about the idea that President Trump might actually not want to leave if he lost. This had been in the air. And now that some version of it seems to be happening, it's almost impossible to describe how odd it is for a sense of official Washington, establishment Washington.
Of course, President Trump never wanted to be part of establishment Washington. Some people would say President Trump is just kind of playing. He's playing around with this. It's like, he doesn't really mean it. He's going to go on January 20. It's not that big a deal. But damage is being done just by discussing these kinds of things and taking the kinds of steps he's taken.
DETROW: There's a lot of milestones that will be happening over the next few days that will provide some clarity to the situation. Pennsylvania and Michigan certify their results on Monday, for example. We will be covering all of those updates on npr.org, on your radio and, of course, in the podcast. We're going to take a break on this part of the conversation now. And when we come back, we will talk more about the Biden transition that is still going forward, specifically how he is shaping up his Department of Justice.
And we're back. And, Carrie, we were just having a conversation about how many norms have been busted, particularly in and around the Department of Justice. I think, you know, I would probably put the State Department on this list, but the Department of Justice is certainly up there in places that have just been under a lot of stress. Things have looked nowhere like normal operations for career officials at that department. And the Biden administration is going to have to make a lot of choices and do a lot of work to get those departments moving in the direction that they want again.
You, of course, cover the Department of Justice. That approach starts with who Biden's thinking about for attorney general. What do we know so far about the people that Biden's looking at, and what does that tell you about what he's trying to do here?
JOHNSON: Yeah, the Biden DOJ leader - the next leadership team is going to have two goals, right? One is to kind of restore public confidence in their law enforcement and civil rights efforts, and two is to restore confidence among the employees of the building, who have been berated, in some cases, by the attorney general, Bill Barr, and have felt really beaten down over the last 3 1/2 years.
So what I'm hearing is that the Biden team has not yet made a final decision. They are working on a short list. And there's a bit of a tension. There's a bit of a debate going on about how to prioritize stability in the institution and people who have been in senior leadership roles there in the past versus a desire for change and a desire to speak to some of the concerns about the people who voted for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris - namely, you know, a sense of racial justice, a sense of moving away from those ideas of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s. And that will really make a difference in terms of who they pick to be the next attorney general.
We're talking about people here like Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general under President Obama, who famously was fired by President Trump 10 days into his administration for refusing to enforce his travel ban. We're talking about people like outgoing Alabama Senator Doug Jones, who was famously a U.S. attorney in Birmingham in the late 1990s and early 2000s - prosecuted two KKK members for bombing a church in Alabama, in Birmingham.
And then we're also talking about people like, as I reported today, sitting federal Judge Merrick Garland, who was a top DOJ official under President Clinton and who was a nominee to the Supreme Court under President Obama. That nomination didn't go anywhere. But there's some historical precedent for choosing somebody with a statesmanlike demeanor, like Merrick Garland. And that's what happened, Scott, after Watergate, when President Gerald Ford brought in the president of the University of Chicago, Edward Leavy, to try to restore balance and a sense of public confidence at Justice.
RASCOE: So, Carrie, when you look at those, you know, people who may be under consideration, where do they stand as far as, you know, where the progressives would like, moderates? I know Merrick Garland, when he was, you know, chosen for the Supreme Court - which as you said, didn't go anywhere - the thought was that he was a moderate, right? So is that of concern to some on the left?
JOHNSON: You know, that's really interesting, Ayesha. Merrick Garland is kind of a traditional prosecutor type. He made his bones at Justice building investigations, overseeing the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombers. And he's a guy in his judicial rulings who's been pretty pro-prosecutor. That's, in part, why some folks are pushing for candidates who may be more progressive, maybe somebody like former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Black man who led the civil rights division at Justice under President Bill Clinton, or maybe somebody like Xavier Becerra, who's currently the attorney general of California.
There's also some sense that when they do finally pick a slate of nominees, they want to announce them as a unit instead of one by one, in part to try to alleviate any concerns about diversity and approach. I think they want a spectrum of people, and they're trying to figure out that balance now.
DETROW: And I'll note that yesterday Biden said that he has made a decision for another Cabinet position. He says he knows who he's going to pick for Treasury secretary. He will announce that pick sometime either before or after Thanksgiving, so at some point in the next week or so. It's been almost 24 hours and the name hasn't leaked yet, so - which is, you know, a big...
DETROW: ...Notable thing in a transition like this. We've all been trying. But, you know, Ayesha, as Carrie talks about all of this, I mean, there are so many different areas where the Trump administration just pulled the Justice Department in a totally different direction than the Obama administration. I'm thinking about the total slowdown of investigating police departments for racism, you know? I'm thinking about the way that President Trump has overtly pressured the Department of Justice to investigate political opponents. There are so many different areas.
RASCOE: And that's going to be a part of, you know, one of the questions that you will see and pressure that the Biden administration will face. This might be more of a political class discussion. But this idea of what happens with the Trump administration after there is no Trump administration - i.e., should there be investigations? How far should they go after former officials and including President Trump himself?
You know, in the past, there's been this idea of - and certainly Obama went through this with the Bush administration, where the idea was, we're going to move forward. We're not going to try to go back after, you know, George W. Bush over things that happened in Iraq and, you know, torture - all of those things. And - but there are those who say that is not the approach that Biden should take and that there should be more of - you know, that you should look and if someone has violated the law, even if they were a very powerful person in the former administration, that they should face some type of consequences. So that will be a question.
JOHNSON: You know, Scott, you already know that because I think you posed a pretty tough question to the person who's now the vice president-elect on that topic.
DETROW: Yeah, asking Harris if she thought the Department of Justice should, you know, investigate and possibly charge former President Trump - that's something, you know, she said that she thought they would have no choice to do that. That got her in a lot of hot water at the time. Biden has been asked about that since and has clearly been uncomfortable with the idea, trying to balance the idea of if there are legitimate things out there to investigate, they should be investigated but, of course, after four years of lock them up, not wanting to seem eager or even interested in putting charges toward a political opponent.
And, you know, as we've talked before about the podcast, a lot of the action happening on that front is happening at the state level in New York anyway. And it's totally outside of the Department of Justice's purview. But, Carrie, I think one last question on this - you know, we obviously focus on the Cabinet-level positions when an incoming administration is filling out positions. You've reported on a lot of different positions that will need to be filled in the Department of Justice. So I'm just wondering, like, what is one position that will tell us a lot about the way the Biden administration is thinking of taking things when we see who fills it?
JOHNSON: Oh, well, you know, I think that they are very consciously building a group, as opposed to singling out one nominee or another. You know, and there are several top DOJ posts that require Senate confirmation from the attorney general to the deputy, who is actually the person who runs the day-to-day operations, like, manages 113,000 employees and a budget of, like, almost $30 billion. And I've heard that Neil MacBride, the former U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, is a candidate for the deputy attorney general job. He's been close to Joe Biden for 33 years - volunteered on his first presidential campaign.
But, Scott, there are some other potential nominees who could make history. People like Vanita Gupta who ran the Civil Rights Division under President Obama is being mentioned to be the associate attorney general in overseeing the civil rights and other parts of justice. And also for solicitor general - that is the job that interfaces with the Supreme Court. I'm hearing one name under consideration is Leondra Kruger. She's currently a California Supreme Court justice. She's also a Black woman. And as you know, Scott, President-elect Joe Biden has promised to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. We may see action on that front.
DETROW: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, it's Friday, so we will end the show with Can't Let It Go.
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DETROW: And we're back. And it's time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about things from the week that we cannot stop talking about, politics or otherwise.
I will go first. You know, as we have talked about the stressful thing to cover of the democratic system kind of being under threat right now, ironically, I have been relaxing and avoiding that by spending a lot of time with the monarchy.
DETROW: If you have listened to the show, you have known that I have been obsessed with "The Crown" since the moment it first came out four years ago. The new season is amazing. I love it. It's the '80s. Margaret Thatcher is there. Princess Diana is there. There is a lot going on.
JOHNSON: Scott, the sweaters, Gillian Anderson, the sweaters. I just - and also Prince Charles...
DETROW: (Laughter) Which order...
JOHNSON: Prince Charles.
DETROW: ...Should we do this in? There's a lot...
JOHNSON: Prince Charles.
DETROW: It's like - the '50s and '60s view of fashion has, like, fast-forwarded.
DETROW: And now we are, like, clearly in the '80s. And the Diana sweaters especially are just off the wall. I love them.
RASCOE: (Laughter) So I don't watch "The Crown." I don't.
DETROW: It's so good.
RASCOE: Everyone's talking about it so it's - you know, so maybe I'll have to get into it. I do - you know, I mean, maybe there - maybe they had something with that royal, you know, monarchy thing. I know we gave it up, but (laughter) - I mean, I guess there were fights over transition but not necessarily. I mean, you've had Queen Elizabeth around for a very long time. And I understand that they're not, like, in power like that. I'm just making a joke, people, because I know we'll get letters.
DETROW: Carrie, do you see any sympathy for Prince Charles at all?
JOHNSON: No, I see no sympathy. No...
JOHNSON: ...None. None. I'm a hard-liner on this, Scott.
JOHNSON: I do not like this behavior. I find it very, very, very disturbing - very disturbing behavior.
DETROW: Because over the last few seasons, like, they really made him this tortured, sympathetic character. And all sympathy reservoirs are gone at this point this season.
JOHNSON: You know, all I can say is I didn't think there were supposed to be three people in a marriage, and that's the end of that.
RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah, that sounds about right, Carrie. I feel you.
RASCOE: And what - so do you guys think that, like, if I wanted to start it, could I start this season? Or do you have to go back to the beginning?
DETROW: The baseline you need is that everybody is miserable and married to the wrong person but also very fancy, and everybody drinks a lot. You're good.
DETROW: That's the first four seasons.
RASCOE: That sounds like, you know, "Real Housewives" or something, which I am into.
RASCOE: So yeah. OK. OK. I might have to give it a shot.
DETROW: Like "Real Housewives" meets the BBC.
RASCOE: Yes (laughter).
DETROW: All right, Carrie. What can you not let go of?
JOHNSON: OK. So today our friend and former colleague Jessica Taylor tweeted that her real estate agent was going to give everybody a pie for the holidays but that since she lives alone, she didn't know whether she could accept a full pie. And I strongly believe that people who live alone should be able to eat and accept a whole pie because it is the season for pumpkin pie. And starting next week, I will be purchasing a pumpkin pie and eating it for every meal until it is gone...
JOHNSON: ...Because that is what I do at this time of year. And I have no regrets.
RASCOE: I mean, I - yeah, I don't see why - it doesn't matter how many people are in your house. I went and got four pecan Cinnabons from the Cinnabon place this week, and I've offered it to other people in the house. And they're not eating it, so I'll probably just be eating all of them (laughter).
JOHNSON: I salute you. I salute you in that endeavor. You deserve it.
RASCOE: Exactly. I think we all deserve it. Eat what you want (laughter).
DETROW: A friend was making wedding cakes for somebody else's wedding and kept dropping off at our house the, like, test cakes. And this was right before the election, when things were stressful. I think I ate an entire wedding cake...
DETROW: ...Myself over the course of several days.
DETROW: It was a small one....
DETROW: It was a small one.
JOHNSON: Like, multi-tiers - oh, but still - wow.
JOHNSON: That's a lot. Was there a lot of frosting?
DETROW: Yes. And it was super-buttery and delicious and exactly the way to take a five-minute break from the news we were processing.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, you certainly needed all that energy.
DETROW: (Laughter) Ayesha, what about you?
RASCOE: You know, I was debating whether I was going to do this, you know, because I feel like at a certain point, it's, like, people just expect certain things out of you. Like, maybe Prince Charles felt this way. You know, people have an expectation...
RASCOE: ...Of what you're supposed to do. And you're, like, well, I want to do what I want to do.
DETROW: He did. He did.
RASCOE: But - you know, so I decided - but I'm going to do it anyway because I don't - you know, because I don't care. But last night, there was a "Verzuz." Y'all know what a "Verzuz" is, right? Do y'all know what the "Verzuz" is?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I looked it up. I looked at up.
RASCOE: OK. So there is a "Verzuz" between - which is like a rap battle - not necessarily a rap battle but a battle between two artists. They play their big hits - between Young Jeezy, who's now just Jeezy because he's not very young anymore, and Gucci Mane...
RASCOE: ...Or just Gucci (laughter). So there was a Jeezy versus Gucci, you know, "Verzuz" last night that everybody was talking about. The reason why this was, like, an amazing historic spectacle is because these guys, like, have real beef - like, not like, you know, like rap beef, but, like, you know, like, people done got sent for other people, and, you know, people have been shot - like, real beef.
And they were in a room together, and Gucci would not sit down. Like, Gucci was just up, and everybody felt like something was about to happen (laughter). And they were not - there was no small talk. It seemed like they could - like, things could pop off at any moment.
RASCOE: And so it was actually a very tense - like, because people were afraid. We didn't know what was going to happen. You know, they - these people had real problems with each other. But at the end, they said they squashed it. It was done, and they were moving forward. And so I think - so it was a beautiful thing. And then this morning, I was still on the high from last night. And so, you know, the kids - they wanted to listen to the Barbie song.
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AMERICA YOUNG: (Singing, as Barbie) Who do you want to see when you're looking in the mirror?
RASCOE: And I said, no. No Barbie song. I put on...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON")
YOUNG JEEZY: (Singing) I put on for my city, on, on for my city. I put on for my city...
RASCOE: That's what I'm putting on the radio. That was a Jeezy song, so I put that on (laughter). So that was my thing.
JOHNSON: Maybe if we got President Trump and the Biden transition team in a room together, things would work out there, too.
RASCOE: (Laughter) They should have a "Verzuz." Like, I think so. Like, they could have a "Verzuz." And they could, you know, just do their biggest hits and then, at the end, extend an olive branch.
DETROW: On that note, that is a wrap for today and for this week. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thank you to Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Kalyani Saxena.
I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.
DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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