What Will Justice And Foreign Policy Look Like Under Joe Biden? : The NPR Politics Podcast President Trump's most radical departures from precedent were arguably his handling of the Justice Department and foreign policy. Joe Biden said he would lead a return to normalcy... but what does that look like in practice?

This episode: political correspondent Scott Detrow, national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, and White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

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What Will Justice And Foreign Policy Look Like Under Joe Biden?

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What Will Justice And Foreign Policy Look Like Under Joe Biden?

What Will Justice And Foreign Policy Look Like Under Joe Biden?

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

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

DETROW: And merry Christmas to both of you. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST Christmas special. We have cabaret singers. We've got musical numbers. There are camels coming in.

RASCOE: Wow, and some elves, I've heard - maybe.


JOHNSON: Who are the wise men? Is that us? Oh, my gosh.

DETROW: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Oh, no (laughter).

DETROW: Just - they'll be here next week.


DETROW: Just kidding. We're actually going to have a pretty big-picture conversation about the future of the Department of Justice under a Biden administration. Later, we're going to talk about foreign policy - some big-picture conversations to set you up for next year. We might sprinkle some Christmas cheer here and there throughout it.

But, Carrie, maybe, I guess, the opposite of that - let's start with this. What are the state of things at the Justice Department right now, wrapping up on four years of a Trump administration? I mean, I feel like every other time we talk on the podcast, we're talking about something or another that's just an unprecedented situation in terms of political influence and many other things there.

JOHNSON: Yeah, times are tough over at the Justice Department, Scott. I think a lot of people are feeling awfully miserable and hoping that there's some improvement in 2021 not just because of the coronavirus pandemic, but because they've spent almost four years with President Trump attacking them, sometimes by name, on Twitter or on television and the president attacking successive attorneys general for not doing enough to help him politically or to help his friends or go after his enemies. I haven't seen anything like this in many years in Washington, and I don't think we're going to see anything like this for a while.

DETROW: How did President Trump think about the Department of Justice, think about his attorney general compared to other presidents?

RASCOE: You know, compared to other presidents - I think other presidents have at the very least tried to have an appearance of a distance between themselves and the Justice Department. They wanted the Justice Department to be independent and not be seen as putting their hand on the scale, whereas Trump has clearly taken the position that he has every right as president to intervene. And while at times he says, I'm not intervening, he always says, but I could. But he is intervening publicly, like on Twitter.


RASCOE: So he's intervening.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I got to say that if outgoing - if the former attorney general, Bill Barr, finally stood up this year and said to Trump, your tweets are not helping me, that's a real sign of something.

DETROW: Yeah. And he, of course, left earlier this week with less than a month to go in the Trump administration.

Looking forward, though, Carrie, I mean, I think it's fair to say the next attorney general is going to have maybe the hardest job of anybody in the Cabinet. You know, the challenges, the state of things right now that we just talked about isn't even all of the challenges the next AG is going to have. Do you think that's maybe tied to the fact that this position, as we talk right now, is still not filled? It's the last top-tier, high-profile Cabinet post for Biden to make a selection of.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think it's a really hard choice for Biden. He said earlier this week, there's no obvious choice to be his attorney general, which kind of raised my eyebrows, given the candidates in the field. But, you know, this person is going to have to try to seem as apolitical as possible and to behave that way while they're inheriting an investigation of President-elect Joe Biden's son, Hunter, and a whole bunch of other stuff, including a special counsel appointed by Bill Barr on his way out the door to look at the 2016 election and, it seems like, what the FBI was doing there. Those are two really hot potatoes just on Day 1.

DETROW: Yeah. What - I guess we could fill, like, 40 minutes with this. But top level, what are some of the biggest policy changes that you expect when the Biden administration takes over, regardless of who that AG is going to be?

JOHNSON: You know, at the top level, Scott, what I'm hearing and seeing in the Biden justice platform is this. They believe that it is possible to let more people out of prisons and jails and still retain relatively low crime rates. And so that will mean a reversal of Trump justice policies, which basically told prosecutors to charge people with the most serious crime they could prove and to lock them up for as long as they possibly could. That is a new orientation - going to be a new orientation.

Biden wants to use the justice system more narrowly in some ways and wants to make sure that some police - some state and local police get out of the business of dealing with mental health and other kind of social service experts get into that lane instead.

DETROW: Ayesha, Biden has made a point when he repeatedly talks about the four big crises his administration is going to deal with, racial justice is one of them. How does that factor into federal policing policies, federal law enforcement policies?

RASCOE: Biden has said that he is going to look at, you know, the issue of police brutality, that he's going to do this commission on policing. So you are going to see at least, you know, this high-level approach that will, of course, include the Justice Department looking at this issue and trying to see what can be done. Some activists have raised concerns about having another commission because there was one during the Obama administration and that this could be seen as just kicking the can down the road.

But clearly, like, when you look at these civil rights groups, they are asking for action. That's one of the things that they really want from someone, whoever is chosen to be AG. They want action when it comes to criminal justice reform, voting rights. They want someone to really shake up a bit the status quo. I know we keep saying that, but they want someone to go beyond what has been done and to really make some changes. And I think they see that things can be changed to a certain extent in the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: You know, one example of that is Sherrilyn Ifill over at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She says one of the easiest ways the Justice Department can enact change on Day 1 or early on is to tie some funding for police to civil rights laws and to make sure that police enforce civil rights laws and do not engage in excessive force and patterns of discriminatory policing and if they do, cut off their federal money. That would be a big change.

Some of the other things these activists and advocates want to see require Congress to do something - right? - so things like changing - Congress and the courts, things like making police more accountable, allowing them to be sued individually for wrongdoing. Those kinds of things would have an impact in the pocketbooks and paychecks of police officers who engage in wrongdoing, but that's going to take more work than just an executive order would.

RASCOE: But one thing that we have seen under the Trump administration - well, I mean, we see this with every president, but we're seeing it now with these high-profile pardons and commutations. But you don't have to do just high-profile commutations - right? - or pardons. You - one power that the president has, and he can do it on his own without anyone else, is you can commute sentences. And you can, you know, look at the prison population that exists right now, and if there are what activists would argue injustices there or people that deserve to be out, you can use it more forcefully.

And they - and in the past - and, Carrie, I'm sure you can talk a bit about this - presidents were much more active in doing pardons and commutations. But in, you know, more recent decades, they've been more cautious in the amount of commutations they've done.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, candidate Joe Biden said he wants to return to a more normal use of clemency moving forward. And I got to say I watched President Obama basically pardon or shorten the sentences of a couple thousand people at least, but that left many, many more thousands of people incarcerated.

And so what some activists and scholars, people like Rachel Barkow at NYU Law School, have said is that to really, really promote change in this area, you have to take the pardon operation out of the Justice Department. People who prosecute criminals, people who break the law should not be in charge of who gets clemency and who gets mercy. And that could be a big structural change that President-elect Joe Biden could institute. But it may take some political will to wrestle that away from DOJ.

DETROW: All right. Well, Carrie, thank you for joining us.

JOHNSON: Happy to do it. Thanks.

DETROW: Ayesha, stick around. You and I and Tamara Keith are going to talk about Biden's foreign policy after a quick break. And then after that, we're going to have a holiday Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. Tamara Keith is now with us because we're going to continue this ongoing conversation about different areas of what Biden policy could look like, and then we're going to talk foreign policy. Hey, Tam.


DETROW: So let's start, like we've been doing with other topics, with where we are now. I think, to put it mildly, the Trump administration has led to some strained relationships with a lot of key allies over the last few years.

RASCOE: Yes. And, I mean, I think that's one of the biggest hallmarks of the Trump administration. Even though they always said, you know, "America First" is not America alone, in many ways, it sort of was America alone, right? Like, it was America, you know, doing their own thing and not, you know, kind of thumbing its nose at NATO and the United Nations and the World Trade Organization and all these multilateral groups which the Trump administration did not embrace.

KEITH: Well, and having a better relationship with dictators than with people like Angela Merkel.

RASCOE: Yes. And I would think that Biden will be different.

DETROW: And this is one of those areas where a good chunk of the policies that Joe Biden put forward and campaigned on and repeatedly brought up on the campaign trail really kind of boiled down to, we're going to try and undo what happened the last few years and restore things to a lot of the status quo - I mean, not entirely status quo, but a large - like engaging with NATO - right? - things like that. Biden is very much hoping to very quickly try to revert to how things were before.

RASCOE: Yeah. And, you know, he's going to look at, you know, immediately reversing some of those things that had happened. You know, when it comes to, like, the travel ban, that's something that you would think that he would immediately reverse, you know, take in more refugees. Obviously, those issues have been ones where Trump has taken a really hard line.

But by embracing more kind of international norms, they're hoping that they'll be able to use that to kind of put pressure on those actors, like Russia and China, and be able to put some pressure on them in a way that the Trump administration has tried to do. But the criticism of the Trump administration has been, if you go it alone and you don't have your allies with you, then that makes it harder to have an impact.

KEITH: Well, and simply with his choice of secretary of state, Biden is signaling that he's going to emphasize diplomacy. He's chosen Tony Blinken, who is someone who believes in the power of diplomacy. And that is - just if personnel are policy, that's a big difference from President Trump, who chose people who really didn't put diplomacy first.

DETROW: Right. I mean, Blinken's somebody who's been with Biden for decades and shares the Biden view of a lot of this boils down to personal relationships. Biden always talks about, I know these people. You know, I've met with these people. I've met with Xi Jinping for hours and hours and hours and things like that. And, of course, you know, now that a lot of world leaders will be vaccinated by the time he takes office, maybe he'll be able to actually meet with them again.

But let's talk about one country that's going to probably take up a lot of the Biden administration's time and have a lot of tricky dynamics, and that is, of course, China. And I think, Ayesha, one interesting thing is part of this is going to be very different from how Trump has approached China, but part of this might not be as different as we can expect. And I think trade is an interesting area. It was notable when Biden gave an interview to The New York Times the other week, he said he wouldn't necessarily revert all of these tariffs right off the bat.

RASCOE: No. And I've been talking to some trade experts, and they say the same thing, that they would doubt that he would immediately let go of all these tariffs because in a way, I mean, well, these tariffs - first of all, they think that it would be bad politically because you have people on the left who want to use trade to put pressure on China. Like, trade is one of those areas that doesn't break down neatly, ideologically. And so you have people like, you know, Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, who want to use trade to have more pressure - right? - this kind of populist strain of the left. I mean, even Elizabeth Warren wanted to use trade to kind of exact more things, get more things out of other countries.

And what Trump has shown is that if you put tariffs on countries, they will come to the table. I mean, he's faced a lot of criticism for that, but he has been able to at least get countries to come to the table. Now, how successful he's been at getting the actual results that he said that he would get is another story.


KEITH: If the trade deficit is a concern, the trade deficit is worse now than it was when President Trump took office. You know, tariffs, although they seem like a nice idea, they actually do also hurt American consumers. So there's a lot to balance there in terms of trade.

DETROW: And two other areas that I think we can kind of talk about in terms of China, but it applies to a lot of other countries, too - a lot of the top people coming into the Biden administration in this area talk a lot about how countries can be adversaries in - on some ways, but also partners in other ways, and they don't see it as a one or the other, black or white area. And I feel like climate is a really interesting area - right? - because in order to achieve these international goals that Biden has talked so much about, you need to get China more on board than it is right now. You need to get China to walk away from building new coal plants and a lot of other things like that. So they're going to have some serious conversations where they're trying to entice them on one hand.

But also, you know, at the same time, Biden has talked so much about pushing back on authoritarianism. We have seen that all over the globe over the past decade, and he has said that he wants to make a point to try and counter it. So, like, that's an area where it's like, hey, we'd like to be partners in this idea, but also, you need to do things completely differently.

KEITH: Yeah. Scott, can we talk about Russia, too, because there - you know, there's...


KEITH: There is this principle of there's only one president at a time. But right now, there is this major story out there with Russia hacking into - believed to be an espionage operation - into numerous companies and American agencies - government agencies in the U.S. And the response from the president who is president now and the man who will be president in January is pretty different.

RASCOE: Trump's response has been pretty timid - well, not - beyond timid. He downplayed it. He's - it's beyond timid. He downplayed it, and then he also gave Russia an out by saying it may not be Russia, it may be China, without offering any evidence to support that, even though his own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, says that all evidence points to it being Russia. And so you're certainly not going to get that from Biden at this point. Biden did put out a strong statement. But, Scott, how much can he really do with Russia or do to address these sorts of provocations?

DETROW: You know, I think it's worth spending a moment on that statement that came out last week because, again, it was trying to walk this weird line of check back in with me in a month. But at the same time, it was pretty clear there will be substantial costs. The administration will reserve the right to respond in a time and manner of our choosing. And he said, while our adversaries shouldn't expect us to telegraph our punches, they should expect the president-elect is a man of his word. So that's pretty, like, don't-mess-with-us language.

But the question is, again - I feel like an ongoing theme that I'm going to have for the next couple years is, like, how is this different than what happened during the Obama administration? Under President Obama, the U.S. put really harsh sanctions in place on Russia, but that did not stop Russia from invading Crimea and meddling in our election, among many other things. So, like, it's a very challenging area, and just talking tough or talking more forcefully is a break from what Trump is doing, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get what you want.

RASCOE: No, and I think that's one thing that, you know, you would see during the Trump administration. One thing that Trump would always say is, I have all these problems that haven't been solved. Like, this should've been solved years ago, (laughter) and they never dealt with it. But what I would always think is, some of these problems are really hard. And so the reason why Russia has been an issue - well, obviously, you know, with the Cold War and all of that. But the reason why Russia has been an issue for so long is because it is not something that is easy to solve. And so now Biden will likely not say the same thing, but he will be encountering the same thing in that there are all these issues that have been boiling for a very long time that are not easy to solve for any administration.

DETROW: Yeah. A lot to talk about on all of this. I think we're going to talk about it soon. We're going to take a quick break now, though. And when we come back, Can't Let It Go.

We are back. One more quick reminder that if you are able, if you have not done this yet, you can show your support for this show and Can't Let It Go and also public radio in general by heading to donate.npr.org/politics. And thanks so much if you're able to do that.

All right. Now it is time for the part of the show where we talk about things from the week we cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. But today is Christmas. A lot of us are celebrating. And we are all celebrating the fact that we are days away from the end of 2020. So I thought we'd do something a little bit different here, and instead of what we couldn't let go of this week, what we couldn't let go of in a positive way from 2020. Like, let's all talk about one thing from this year that has brought us some joy and some comfort in our own lives. How about you, Ayesha?

RASCOE: Yes. So one thing - and this is holiday-related - that has brought me some joy over the past month is I got this really cool Disney Advent calendar.


RASCOE: I love Advent calendars because I just love the countdown and, you know, getting to Christmas. And so I got one that you put on the wall, and it's a stuffed little gingerbread person, and you move from day to day. But then I also got this one - this Advent calendar which has these little figurines in it. And then the way it is, you set it up, and so you can make a little scene. So we have, like, Belle from "Beauty And The Beast"...


RASCOE: ...And Alice from "Alice In Wonderland." But with my kids, though, since I have three children, they all fight over who gets to do what. So I have to come up with these very complicated systems every day. I mean, it's basically like - I don't know - like being a master scheduler, but it's like...

KEITH: Yeah, three is a lot of math.

RASCOE: (Laughter) It's a lot. It's a lot of, like, today is my son's day. Today is, you know, the middle child's day. Today is the youngest's day. Like, you have to have a rotation, or there's utter chaos and destruction and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

DETROW: Can I say the Advent calendar challenge on this end is we are at an age where - old enough to be into it, but not old enough to understand the important concept of what a day is?



DETROW: So we'll open it - lots of excitement - and then it's like, all right, where's the candy? It's like, no, we're still on the same day, bud.



DETROW: Check back tomorrow.


DETROW: Tam, what about you?

KEITH: My Can't Let It Go is Sir Yeast-a-Lot, which is my sourdough. And I have a real conflicted relationship with my sourdough. You know, like, it was very trendy at the beginning of the pandemic, so I was like, I'm going to be on trend, and I'm going to try to get a sourdough going. And it was really frustrating. It was so frustrating. But then I finally got my sourdough bubbling and working, and I was making sourdough, and some of them were a little flat and whatever. And then I got a new sourdough cookbook, and I made the most beautiful loaves of sourdough bread. And I was like, the pandemic can end now. I have mastered sourdough.

DETROW: And then (laughter)...

KEITH: And then around the time the vaccines were approved, I don't know what happened to Sir Yeast-a-Lot, but it's over, man. Like, my sour...

DETROW: Oh, no.

KEITH: Yeah. Like...


KEITH: I will send you guys a picture of my last sourdough loaves. I mean, it is so sad that I sliced a piece of this limp, awful, flat bread with a giant bubble in the middle and handed it to my 2-year-old, and he said, this is not good.


DETROW: Well, it seems like you made it a lot past everybody else in terms of sticking to it. And that's a pretty big accomplishment.

KEITH: Yeah.

RASCOE: Yeah. I think you should look at it as the yeast half full and not half empty.

KEITH: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Right?

DETROW: The friends are the yeast you met along the way is the real reward.


KEITH: Scott, what can't you let go of?

DETROW: I guess mine's more cheesy and broader. But just, like, I've had a lot of conversations and just thinking back through the year, and I feel like I've talked about this on the show before. And, like, obviously, I'm not pretending that there weren't a lot of really, really, really hard things and challenging things from this year, right? But I think I end the year just appreciative of the ways that things slowed down in a positive way and the way that, like, seeing friends came down to just, like, why don't you come over, and we'll sit outside a little bit far apart and talk for a while, you know? Like, I feel like things slowed down in a lot of different areas in a really good way.

And I think the best example of that is, like, you know, I've lived in my neighborhood for three years now, and we were on kind of, like, friendly, brief chat level of - with a lot of the neighbors, but, like, everybody had stuff going on. Everybody was commuting. Everybody was busy. I was on the road a lot. And just, like, this pandemic year, like, there has been, like, a real community in my neighborhood and really gotten to know the people across the alley and next door and just, like, endless conversations, like, leaning over fences and talking this year. And that's just been, like, such a nice thing. And I think that's just something that I'm ending the year trying to spend a lot of time focusing on.

KEITH: I, too, am grateful for awesome neighbors. Like, I don't think we would've made it without them.


RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah, me too. I mean, this year, I really appreciated, like, my backyard and just, like - I have a little bit of a nice view. I'm on a hill, and I see some trees. And it's, like, a nice view. And I've been in my house for 10 years, and I never really noticed.

DETROW: Yeah. I mean, little things like the amount of time I stared at the tree in my backyard - right? - and kind of seeing it blossom and bloom and have flowers, and now it's gone. It's just kind of like I would've spent maybe five minutes thinking about this tree this year. I'm getting deeper and deeper as we go on.

RASCOE: No, it's appreciating - it really is appreciating - I think this is a year where I think everyone is appreciating the little things because we - there's so much that, obviously, has gone wrong that you recognize what you do have.

KEITH: Can I add one silly thing? It's not silly.


KEITH: But in 2016, I had to read so many bedtime stories over Zoom - like...


KEITH: ...So many bedtime stories over Zoom. And this year, I didn't have to read any bedtime stories over Zoom. Like, yeah, our jobs completely changed, and everything sucked, and everything was, like, not what we imagined this year would be. But I got to read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" almost every night (laughter) without FaceTime or Zoom.


DETROW: All right. Well, that seems like a good place to end. Ayesha, have a merry Christmas.

RASCOE: Thank you. You, too.

DETROW: Tam, I'm sorry that you can't go to the movies this year, but I hope you're still able to enjoy Chinese food and keep those...

KEITH: Oh, I'm getting some...

DETROW: ...Christmas traditions up.

KEITH: ...Peking duck. Don't you worry.


DETROW: That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. Thank you to everybody who's listened and stuck with this podcast throughout the year. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: And I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


RASCOE: Merry Christmas.

KEITH: Yeah.


KEITH: Aw, yay.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

RASCOE: Yeah. Of course, the...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm Ayesha Rascoe, and I cover the White House.

RASCOE: And you cover the White House? I don't think you do. I don't think you do.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.


RASCOE: I don't think you do.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Are you recording?

RASCOE: Yes, I'm recording. That's the whole point of this thing. That's the whole point of this thing. Thank you.



RASCOE: Now this - and this is the other part of the year, right? This a good way to end it.

DETROW: Yep. Yep.

RASCOE: Happy holidays, everyone (laughter).


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