Christmas Chaos: President Throws Relief Into Doubt : The NPR Politics Podcast President Trump raised last-minute objections, imperiling direct payments and other aid to millions of Americans. He also issued a new round of pardons for politically-connected allies.

This episode: political correspondent Scott Detrow, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, and national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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Christmas Chaos: President Throws Relief Into Doubt

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Christmas Chaos: President Throws Relief Into Doubt

Christmas Chaos: President Throws Relief Into Doubt

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ROBIN: This is Reverend Robin (ph) in Des Moines, Iowa, setting up my sanctuary for our virtual Christmas Eve service. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is 12:45 Eastern on Wednesday, December 23, or Christmas Eve Eve, which is not a thing, but I'd like to think about it that way.

ROBIN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but we will still be lighting up candles and singing.

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

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Do they sing? Oh, we don't get to hear the singing.

DETROW: I was hoping for the organ. How much more organ music do we have? Can we listen to that instead of our theme?

(LAUGHTER)

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: I need some holiday spirit music right now.

DETROW: Yeah.

RACSOE: Yeah.

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.

RACSOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

DETROW: And speaking of holiday cheer, after seven months of roiling congressional negotiations, Congress passed a landmark relief deal. Everybody got on the same page. This seemed to be a problem that was solved. And then last night, President Trump sent a tweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The bill they are now planning to send back to my desk is much different than anticipated. It really is a disgrace.

DETROW: So, Ayesha, this was not an explicit veto threat, but it kind of was. And the president made this after the bill had already been passed. What exactly does he want here?

RACSOE: Yes, so the president is asking for - explicitly asking for bigger payments, stimulus payments for individuals - $2,000 for individuals, $4,000 for couples. He also said he wanted the tax break that was brought back in this bill to last for longer than what is in the bill right now. This tax break is known as the three-martini lunch tax break by critics who say that it benefits, you know, executives more than it will benefit struggling restaurants. But those are some of the things. And he also raised these concerns about other things being in the bill, not seemingly acknowledging that this isn't just a COVID relief package, but this is a spending bill. It's - the relief package is coupled with the spending bill that funds the entire government. Right?

WALSH: Right. I mean, these are programs that the president asked for in his own budget months ago and programs that he has signed in previous annual spending bills - I mean, things like money for the military - more money for the military, money for military pay raises.

DETROW: And, Deirdre, we had talked about this a lot. But it's worth just emphasizing one more time as the president comes out and tries to blow this up after the bill had passed, after Congress has left town, he was absolutely, totally disengaged from these negotiations for the last few months. Right?

WALSH: I mean, really, that's been the president's MO during his - pretty much his entire first term. I mean, he has not really engaged that much with Congress. He left the negotiations on this COVID relief bill, as he had in previous COVID relief packages, to his Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin. And Republicans on the Hill were given the assurances that the administration was signed on to this package.

DETROW: And it's - Ayesha, it's really worth pointing out that the party that the president is undercutting the most here is Republicans because he comes out and says, I want $2,000 relief checks for every American. Republicans had negotiated this down to $600. And it was interesting. You saw House Speaker Nancy Pelosi say right after this video came out, great, yeah. Let's do $2,000 relief checks. I'm all for it.

RACSOE: Yes. President Trump is sort of acting a bit like a Grinch for Republicans, right? He's stealing their Christmas deal. At this point, it seems like he's very angry with Republicans in general and not just about this issue but really about the overall him feeling like they're not backing him in his reelection bid right now, which...

DETROW: And by backing, you mean saying that we're going to overturn the results of an election that already happened.

RACSOE: Of an election - yes, of an election that happened. It seems like he is angry at them, so now he's calling out, you know, different Republicans, whether it's Senator John Thune, who's a top Republican in the Senate, you know, calling out Mitch McConnell. So it seems like this was President Trump - we don't know whether he will actually veto or not, but saying, look; I'm still the president. I can still, you know, demand attention, and I can, you know, gum up the works a bit.

DETROW: Deirdre, do you have any sense how this could play out going forward? - I mean, given that now you have Democrats running in the special election in Georgia. You have the House speaker saying, yeah, we've been pushing for bigger payments. Let's do $2,000. Like, what are the options going forward? And what are the deadlines that we need to think about?

WALSH: I mean, I think what we're looking at is a couple of deadlines. One is tomorrow, the House will come in and has what it's called a pro forma session, which is really just usually, like, a housekeeping day over the holidays. But what they're going to do tomorrow is try to pass a bill calling the president's bluff and say, we would like consent to increase the stimulus check payments to $2,000, like the president said. We would expect a House Republican to object to that. And then the next thing is, obviously, the deadline for when the government runs out of money, which is Monday at midnight.

DETROW: I was at Joe Biden's press conference yesterday, where he again spoke in very specific detail about this negotiation. He seemed to be aware of who was voting for what, how the deal came together, the way that, you know, the dynamics shifted over the course in the negotiations. He's somebody who spent decades in the Senate. And I'm wondering, Deirdre, do you think there are some Republican leaders in Congress who would rather deal with a Democratic president who they might disagree with but who they know takes Congress seriously than the current state of things?

WALSH: I do. I also think people like John Thune would like to work with someone who's not threatening their political future, as this president has done via Twitter and has done to other Republicans over the last couple of years. I mean, I think they don't want a Democratic president. Clearly, they campaigned and are hoping to keep the majority in the Senate. But a divided Congress, if they do maintain control, gives them some opportunity to try to get some things done - limited things done while they try to win back the White House in 2024.

RACSOE: This is one of those things that will be - that will not happen in a Biden administration, right? Like, this is one of the last times in the next four weeks where we'll deal with something like this. I mean, you're not going to have Biden and his White House team sign off on a deal and then two days later, come back and say, you know what? I don't like this deal. That's just not going to happen and generally has not happened in Washington before Trump. This is solely something that happens during a Trump administration at this point.

DETROW: Yeah. All right, Deirdre, thank you for joining us.

WALSH: Great to be with you.

DETROW: When we come back, Ayesha and I will talk about the other surprise late-night twist - a new round of controversial pardons from the president. Carrie Johnson will join us for that conversation.

We are back. And we had been expecting something like this for a while. We expect probably another wave of this. But last night, an email came out from the White House that President Trump had issued a whole big round of pardons. Some of them were pretty controversial. Carrie, can you walk us through some of the headlines here?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah. Two people wrapped up in the special counsel Robert Mueller investigation received pardons. These are brand names for people who followed that investigation closely - George Papadopoulos, the foreign policy adviser who actually launched this whole thing by bragging to an Australian diplomat over drinks about his entreaties with Russia, and also a lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, also who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the course of the Mueller investigation. They both got pardons. And President Trump in his statement basically said this was all to resolve the hurt and the wrong that the Mueller investigation had caused.

DETROW: Ayesha, the president seems very determined. I mean, he recently pardoned Michael Flynn. He had commuted the sentence of Roger Stone earlier. He seems very committed to basically wiping the entire Mueller investigation off the books by the time he leaves office.

RACSOE: Yes. I mean, he's made clear that he argues that it was unfair, that, you know - that it was an attack on him. And, you know, it actually is not unprecedented for a president to do this. George H.W. Bush, on his way out of the door, pardoned a bunch of people in the Iran-Contra scandal. And I talked to someone from his administration way back when. And he said, you know, look; if you really want to end this Russia scandal, one way to do it would be to just pardon everybody. Now, he did not - now, Trump didn't take that stance. He didn't pardon everybody ahead of the Russia investigation wrapping up, but everyone seemingly affected by it other than Paul Manafort has gotten a pardon or some type of commutation.

DETROW: Carrie, the president also pardoned three former Republican congressmen who had been convicted on various corruption charges.

JOHNSON: Yeah, pardons for Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California. And, Scott, you'll remember that these men were two of the earliest Trump supporters in the Congress. And Steve Stockman, who was serving time, got his sentence commuted - Steve Stockman, former lawmaker from Texas. And he'll get out of prison early because President Trump said he was worried Stockman, being 64 years old, might be at risk of getting COVID-19 behind bars.

DETROW: Let's talk about one other set of pardons here. President Trump pardoned several Blackwater private contractors who, in 2007, shot and killed several Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Carrie, this story was an enormous story at the time. It has not been in the headlines for a while. Can you remind us what these men were convicted of and what kind of message a pardon for them sends?

JOHNSON: Yeah. This was a terrible, terrible incident that really resonated around the world and certainly soured - further soured relations between the U.S. and Iraq. These four men, former military guys working for Blackwater, the security firm founded by Erik Prince, a longtime supporter and political ally of President Trump, opened fire and threw grenades at a crowded traffic circle or square in Baghdad in 2007. And over 12 people were killed. One of them was a 9-year-old boy named Ali. I went to the sentencing for these guys about five years ago. It was a really - a very emotional hearing. Ali's mother and father spoke and asked why these men had done that. His brother said that Blackwater was sent to the country to secure Iraq, but it didn't secure anything. And really, the message I'm hearing from legal experts and former military is that when you pardon people who have engaged in what they believe to be human rights type crimes, it sends a terrible message to law enforcement and active-duty military about what the U.S. will tolerate and what its values are. So this set of pardons in particular has really, really touched off a lot of alarm around the country.

DETROW: And, Ayesha, do we expect more pardons like this in the next few weeks?

RACSOE: That's the general expectation - that there will obviously be more controversial uses of clemency. That is not necessarily unusual for a president either, but President Trump could go much beyond what other presidents have done. There is also a hope from some activists that there will be more use of clemency for people who are not politically connected or at least not politically connected in the way some of these people are.

JOHNSON: Indeed. Harvard Law School Professor Jack Goldsmith has done a rundown of the 65 Trump pardons to date, and he concluded that 60 of the 65 clemency grants by President Trump - those people had personal or political connections to President Trump or his family.

DETROW: Well, this was a podcast where we are sorting through a bunch of unexpected things that came out of President Trump's Twitter feed late at night. We've done that hundreds of times over the past few years. There's about four weeks left. I have a feeling we're going to do this a few more times. But we'll leave this conversation here though.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.

RACSOE: 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.

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

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