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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
DETROW: House Democrats are holding a call this afternoon to discuss possibly impeaching President Trump. It is now very possible that Donald Trump could become the first president in history to be impeached a second time. It comes as the president finally issued some version of a concession last night, 61 days after it became clear that Joe Biden had won the election - and, of course, after President Trump had encouraged what happened at Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.
DETROW: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had first urged Vice President Pence and the Cabinet to use the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from power. They said impeachment was an option if that didn't happen. So before we walk through all these impeachment angles, Tam, despite a lot of resignations, despite a lot of distancing, there seem to be no signs that invoking the 25th is a real possibility, right?
KEITH: Right - lots of people leaving the administration with two weeks left to repair their reputations or something, but no indication at all that they are moving in the direction of the 25th Amendment. And I have not been able to confirm this reporting, but there is some reporting that Vice President Pence opposes the idea. Clearly, he is not taking visible action in that direction and, as I understand it, basically didn't answer the call when Pelosi and Schumer called to talk to him about it.
DETROW: So, Sue, that leaves us with impeachment, then. Can we really, with 12 days to go, possibly see the president impeached for a second time?
DAVIS: It's entirely possible. House Democrats are already circulating an impeachment resolution. Nancy Pelosi has been really clear that it is the, in her words, overwhelming sentiment of Democrats that they want to move forward with an impeachment resolution if the president doesn't step down or if the 25th Amendment is not invoked. And again, we have no indication to believe that those two alternatives are going to happen.
So in some ways, I think Democrats feel backed into a corner. They are so incensed about the president's actions and what played out this week that doing nothing just seems simply not an option. And I would note, yes, it's overwhelmingly Democrats, but there are increasingly Republicans on the Hill who seem inclined to, if not only support the 25th Amendment, could be possible yes votes for an impeachment resolution.
DETROW: And Pelosi has said that in addition to the response - to making it clear that, you know, inciting a mob to attack Capitol Hill in the middle of the counting of the Electoral College voting is not acceptable - that she has real concerns about what the president could do with these remaining days. In a letter today, she specifically mentioned that she did speak to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raising her concerns about the fact that President Trump still has the ability to control nuclear weapons, among other things.
DAVIS: She did - and kind of an extraordinary disclosure from the speaker to just say publicly that she did that. Milley's office did confirm that they had a conversation with the speaker, but they would not go so far as to characterize it the way she did. She referred to the president as being unhinged.
I think this is a little bit of a political play. I mean, the - I think part of this broader impeachment talk and 25th Amendment talk is Democrats are trying to build a pressure campaign on the president to leave office. I don't think that's going to work. It doesn't seem like it's going to work. There's nothing in the four years that we've covered Donald Trump that would suggest that he's going to quit now.
DAVIS: But I think Pelosi's doing everything she can to try to create the biggest drumbeat possible if they do move forward with impeachment to make it seem as justified as possible.
KEITH: It kind of feels like an effort at the Nixon play - to make staying in office completely untenable, to make it so that President Trump leaves before he is pushed. But there are timeline issues. There - I mean, there are very serious questions about how quickly any of this could happen or, certainly, how quickly it could be done.
DETROW: I mean, there are so many questions here. There's questions about timing. There's political questions. And let's start with the politics. Tam, you mentioned Richard Nixon leaving office. He, of course, only did that after his own party turned on him. We saw Senate Republicans break with the president on Wednesday by certifying overwhelmingly the results of the election.
But is there any evidence anywhere at all, Sue, that there would be votes in the Senate for removal if the House did pass a very quick article of impeachment and kicked it over to the Senate - again, putting aside the timing of this?
DAVIS: I'm skeptical that the votes would be there. But I do think this is a really volatile, fluid situation. And there has been, certainly in the Senate among Republicans, I think, a real break from the president after Wednesday. I think you saw it even in the rhetoric from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a really fiery speech he gave on the floor. We've heard it from Mitt Romney, from Ben Sasse, from Pat Toomey. And look at all the anger at Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley for supporting the votes to overturn the electoral counts in states.
So, you know, two-thirds margin - it's a lot. They probably don't have the votes. But I do think it's possible that if put to a vote in the Senate, you could certainly get more Republicans than you did the first time around, when it was just Mitt Romney who voted for one of the articles of impeachment.
DETROW: Yeah. Well, this time last year, we were preparing to cover a Senate impeachment trial - impeachment last...
DAVIS: Isn't it wild?
DAVIS: (Laughter) Yeah.
DETROW: But, I mean, in - that impeachment, the last impeachment a year ago, lasted from late September to February.
DETROW: It's a lengthy process.
KEITH: Impeachment is by design supposed to be a slow, deliberative process. And I think that's why you'll see some pushback to going so fast - is that we're not supposed to impeach people this quickly. But there's so much of a record here for the president that even the House Judiciary Committee, led by Jerry Nadler, said they would support bypassing the committee, that they would put the resolution straight to the floor.
It's weird. It would be unprecedented. But they could, in theory, pass an impeachment resolution. And you would need a whole lot of consent in the Senate. But if the Senate wanted to, it could move quickly into a trial. I don't have any indication to believe that they would or that they want to. But it is possible theoretically.
DETROW: And, of course, just to say the obvious thing, there is nothing - it would be unprecedented, but there's nothing more unprecedented than the president of the United States inciting a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol, which is what happened on Wednesday.
DETROW: I mean, we're focusing on the Senate side of Republicans here, but we did see a major split between House Republicans and Senate Republicans and the broader Republican base as a whole this week. Any sense how the broader Republican world, especially, like, House Republican-type mindsets, are approaching all of this?
KEITH: Well, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who's been pretty quiet all week, put out a lengthy statement just while we were talking now. And there's a couple of lines in it that I think are interesting - and I'll be watching to see if this becomes sort of the Republican counter-message - is in it, he says - he notes he was critical of the president, that he called him to try to quell the mob violence. But he says that they shouldn't impeach because all it will do will divide the country more.
But then he says he has already reached out to President-elect Biden and that he wants to work with him to lower the temperature and, quote, "unite the country to solve America's challenges." So I could see Republicans trying to exist in that space, where they're against impeachment, but they're extending an olive branch to the incoming administration to try to just turn the temperature down across the - across all of Washington right now.
DAVIS: And I do think that there is a risk with another impeachment of making Donald Trump a martyr - or making him more of a martyr because martyrdom is sort of part of his brand and part of the identity that he shares with his most hardcore supporters. And if he can say, well, and they removed me from office, and how dare them, we've got to go turn - you know, like, it would certainly feed the extremist view...
DAVIS: ...That there was a conspiracy against this president, and the government was against him. Although I don't know if these extremists could get any more extreme than they already have...
KEITH: Fair point.
DAVIS: But it would certainly seek to further validate their worldview.
KEITH: Right - that the deep state, all of the Republican Party, everybody was out to get him and them.
DETROW: Regardless of how impeachment plays out, it is clear that President Trump is more and more isolated, that more and more Republican allies are putting him at arm's distance. And, Tam, we saw two cabinet resignations to that effect yesterday.
KEITH: Yeah. So Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, and Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, both announced their resignations. Essentially, certainly DeVos in her statement made it clear that she thought that President Trump bore some responsibility for what happened on Wednesday. And they both said that it was just hard to get past what had happened. Now, let's just say there are 12 days left. They were going to leave soon anyway. But they have decided that they want to leave by making a statement. And so that is what they're doing.
There certainly have been other officials in the White House, various people in - deputies to the national security adviser, for instance, and there are lots of rumors of lots of other people planning to leave. But again, this is the time when people would be leaving, and this is also a moment when people are looking to repair their reputations and trying to get new jobs. So, you know, I've spoken certainly to former Trump administration people who are kind of, like, rolling their eyes at some of these resignations at this point.
DAVIS: Scott, one of my questions is, what does Joe Biden want to do here, right? Because he's set to be inaugurated in 12 days. And if the House moves forward with an impeachment process and forces a trial in the Senate, it's not inconceivable that that would be the beginning of the first days of his administration.
And he's talked about wanting to unite the country, to wanting to move forward. And, you know, I don't know if he could stop it even if he wanted to because Democrats are so amped up about this. But where he goes and if he comes out publicly or takes a position on this is going to be really important.
DETROW: We should point out here that that wouldn't be entirely symbolic if that somehow did happen - if the trial was after Trump left office - because it is a process that could lead to him being barred from running for president a second time down the road. The one thing that I took notice of when Biden's transition team put out a statement yesterday was that it was very hands-off. They said, this is something that's up to Congress. This is something that's up to the Trump administration. We're focused on taking office in a couple of weeks.
So as of right now, Joe Biden clearly has a lot of thoughts on what happened this week. We're going to talk about them later and how this could change his presidency. But when it comes to the mechanics of removing Trump from office in the next few days or not, he seems to not want to be jumping into that conversation, at least publicly - at least publicly.
All right. We're going to take a quick break and keep talking through this. But, Sue, we will let you go. Thank you for all your reporting this week. And I hope you have a restful weekend.
DAVIS: You too. See you all.
DETROW: Tam, stick around. We will come back to you in a bit. But after we take a quick break, we're going to talk through the law enforcement angles of all of this.
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DETROW: And we're back with Ayesha Rascoe and Ryan Lucas. Hey there.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hey.
DETROW: All right. So, Ryan, we'll start with you because the Justice Department just wrapped up a phone call with reporters about the siege of the Capitol. You were on that call. What have we learned?
LUCAS: Well, they talked today about the federal cases that they have brought. There are 15 total at this point in time in federal court. Some of them are still under seal. Others are currently under review and will be ultimately unsealed later today or tomorrow. Prosecutors had four or five cases that they wanted to highlight. One was against a man by the name of Lonnie Coffman. He had a red GMC Sierra truck where authorities found 11 Molotov cocktails. Prosecutors say that Cauffman also had two handguns on him. And in the truck, they also found an M4 carbine assault rifle. He faces charges over all of that.
There's also a man by the name of Richard Barnett from Arkansas who was arrested this morning in Little Rock. He, I believe, is famous for pictures with his feet up on the desk in Nancy Pelosi's office.
LUCAS: He faces a number of charges, including violent entry, disorderly conduct and theft of public property. There are a couple of a couple of others who were also charged. One of whom, though, is a West Virginia lawmaker by the name of Derrick Evans, who was charged with entering a restricted area.
DETROW: You know, it's one of the ongoing conversations we've been having with ourselves, with people we know is what images and what moments from Wednesday stick in people's minds. And for a lot of people, that picture of this man leaning back in Nancy Pelosi's chair with his feet on her desk just felt like such a violation of her space, of her office, of what she represents as speaker of the House. I mean, that's someone who really stuck in people's minds. And now he's among the first wave arrested. Is this purposely symbolic or is this just they're able to track down these people because they got so much attention?
LUCAS: I think some of this is - you know, the first cases that we're going to see to an extent are going to jump out because of the evidence that came so easily. There were a lot of pictures of this man. There were instances in which he spoke to reporters. It makes it much easier for authorities to find out who you are when there's an abundance of digital evidence, you know, basically with a big red flag saying here I am. This, however, this is just the beginning. That's what both the FBI and prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office made clear today. This is the first wave of federal charges that we're going to see. The FBI talked about the amount of resources that they are dedicating to this investigation, that they are going to track down everyone that they can. And one of the leaders of the FBI Washington field office here on the call said just because you are no longer in the D.C. area does not mean that you shouldn't expect a knock on the door from the FBI if you were involved in any of the illegal actions that took part at the Capitol.
RASCOE: Did they talk at all, Ryan, about why these people were allowed to leave the area? Why were they allowed to leave the Capitol and not get arrested while they were there? Were they just so overwhelmed that they couldn't do it?
DETROW: They did not talk about that on this call. And that, I think, is something that points to, you know, the complicated jurisdictional aspects of Capitol Hill. The Capitol is defended by the Capitol Police. FBI were called in to help. ATF was called in to help. The National Guard came in. State police from, you know, D.C. - state police from Maryland and Virginia also came in to help later. But this is not something that the FBI or the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. is going to be able to answer. That is something that those who were in charge of defending the building that day are going to have to answer.
RASCOE: There have been accusations and there have been, you know, with people looking on the Internet and stuff like that, concern that this was very planned and coordinated. And a lot of people look at the videos and stuff like that and say these people were - seemed prepared and that maybe these were very organized groups. Do we know if any of these kind of white nationalists or militant militia groups were involved in planning this attack?
LUCAS: Well, there certainly is evidence that we've seen and reporting - public reporting about the involvement of various right wing or self-styled militia groups among those in the crowd. I asked the Justice Department on the call whether there is any indication at this point that there was a sort of organized effort, conspiracy, if you will, to storm the Capitol among these groups, pointing out the fact that there is a - an abundance of public reporting at this point suggesting such.
They said that they are obviously aware of all of that information. They are investigating all angles of this, but they wouldn't get into the specifics of the investigation. Reporters also asked whether authorities had seen any evidence at this point in time to support the allegations that some on the right have made that antifa activists had somehow infiltrated the crowd and created the mayhem in order to frame Trump supporters. And what they said on the call was they have no indication, no indication of that at this time - full stop.
DETROW: So, Ryan, last question. We've now seen both the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms forced out of their jobs. The Capitol - the chief of the Capitol Police has resigned after this stunning failure of planning and manpower that happened. What is happening on the federal side when it comes to figuring out just what went wrong, how this was allowed to escalate, or is that something that's mostly going to be dealt with on the local or the Capitol Hill level?
LUCAS: I think to a large extent that is going to be dealt with by the Capitol Police and the folks who oversee the Capitol Police. There may be a D.C. Metro Police kind of after-action report, so to speak, as well. On the call, the FBI was asked whether there was a lack of intelligence about what might happen when this protest was taking place. And the response that the FBI gave was there was no indication that there was anything other than First Amendment-protected activity that was going to happen that day. And that, to me, was a stunning reply because in conversations that I have had with reporters around town, we all thought that something like this was a distinct possibility. And the fact that authorities were not planning for something like this to happen just seems like a stunning failure.
DETROW: All right, Ryan Lucas, thank you for giving us an update on this.
LUCAS: Thank you.
DETROW: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, Ayesha, you and I will talk with Tam about what all of this means for Joe Biden's presidency.
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DETROW: And we are back. Tam, you're back with us. How's it going?
KEITH: You know, it is lovely here in the basement of the White House, where it is flooding. Anyway, that'll be repaired eventually.
DETROW: So there's no can't let it go this week for obvious reasons, but also because of the fact that there's still a lot of news to talk about as we sort through this. We haven't really had a chance to focus in on what this all means for the next president, Joe Biden. We're going to do that here. He ran on the central theme of restoring the soul of America. That message has been underscored and magnified by this attack on democracy. We'll talk about that in a moment. First, we will talk about some more straightforward news. Joe Biden announced this week his attorney general who will run the Department of Justice, and the name will sound pretty familiar. Tam, who is it?
KEITH: Merrick Garland. And if you don't remember that name, maybe you weren't paying attention in 2016. He was President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy created with the death of Antonin Scalia. And he never got a hearing, didn't even get a hearing because the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that you don't do Supreme Court confirmations with an opposing party in an election year. So there you go. But the reality is he has a much longer resume and actually a lot of experience in history in the Justice Department, though currently he is a judge.
RASCOE: Yeah. He's been around for a long time. And he is on a very important federal appellate court. And at one point, he was the chief judge of this appellate court. And this appellate court is a breeding ground for Supreme Court justices - right? - which is why he seemed to be, you know, chosen to be one back in the day.
DETROW: And this was the very first big decision that Biden made where you can see the impact of Democratic control of the Senate. Merrick Garland, as was much discussed in 2016, is a more centrist pick. He most likely would have gotten the Republican votes needed if Republicans still controlled the Senate. But there was an open question given how much Mitch McConnell showed no problem just not holding votes on judicial openings from Democratic presidents. There was a question of would that key position be able to be filled. Now that Democrats control the floor schedule and can call votes, Biden knows it would be, so he feels comfortable moving Garland off the judiciary and into the Department of Justice.
KEITH: And, you know, Garland, during his career in the Justice Department, he was part of the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing. And there was a sense from his announcement, Scott, that he intends to put a stronger focus or an emphasis on extremism, focused on domestic extremism, you know, in addition to international extremism.
RASCOE: Yeah, I mean, he even said that the Justice Department was organized to combat the Ku Klux Klan, which was, you know, the domestic terrorists of the 20th century.
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JOE BIDEN: It was formed in 1870 to enforce the civil rights amendment that grew out of the Civil War - the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments - to stand up to the Klan, to stand up to racism, to take on domestic terrorism. This original spirit must again guide and animate its work.
DETROW: That's a good place to pivot to the broader conversation. And I don't know if we have any hard answers here, but I think it's worth just talking about now he will be taking office after a mob storms and seizes the capital and tries to stop democracy from functioning. And I just have so many open questions about how this changes the scope of that goal. And I don't know - curious what both of you think. Do you think something like this makes it easier or harder for Joe Biden to make that pitch and have people listen to it?
KEITH: Man, everything is so raw right now - just, like, so incredibly raw. It certainly makes it obvious what his challenges are. And you have a situation now where President Trump is saying that he doesn't plan to attend Joe Biden's inauguration. You know, when Trump put out this video semi-conceding that he had lost, he couldn't bring himself to say Joe Biden's name.
So, you know, you're not going to have this display of a peaceful transfer of power. And obviously, it hasn't been peaceful this week. You're not going to have that traditional display of the outgoing president up on that stage at the Capitol with the incoming president. You're not going to have that handoff visibly.
DETROW: Well, honestly, even if he did come at this point, I feel like everything that has happened over the past few months would have superseded that. I'm not sure that would have given the...
DETROW: ...The symbolic nature of that that it typically does, given all of the events that we've been talking about since November. But yeah, it's notable. And it just shows how dug in corners of Trump's base in the Republican Party are in how they view things.
KEITH: Yeah, and how does Biden say, I'm going to be president for all Americans? How does he get them to believe it? I don't know.
RASCOE: I do wonder, though, with Trump - obviously, he's not going to just go away. But at the same time - and he's still very powerful in Republican circles. But you are seeing people really pull away, right? You are seeing people, even though it's two weeks left - and I'm not calling them profiles in courage because they're leaving the administration now, but I think it does say something that people feel like to protect their reputations, they don't want to be connected to President Trump.
And I don't know how much that changes in the next few weeks. I think in some ways, with him not being the center of the universe, I wonder, does it give some breathing room for Republicans who want to make, if not a real break or not a very vocal break, to at least, you know, maybe just not pretend they don't really hear much about the man in the corner of the room or something or the elephant in the room?
RASCOE: I wonder, does it give space for that?
DETROW: And we're talking a lot about Trump here. But just to bring it back to Biden, I think obviously, the inaugural address is a key moment to set that tone. Biden has circled back to the same big themes over and over in every big speech he's given over the last few months, so I think we have a good sense of what generally we're going to hear from him. But you have to assume he talks about the attack on the Capitol when he is standing on the West Front of that same Capitol just a short time later.
And now he'll have a little more space to kind of put the legislative agenda he wants to see in place with a Democratic Senate. And I think the question is - it's the same question that faced the Obama administration he was part of in the early months of that administration - do you try to cut bipartisan deals and hope the other side comes along? Or do you just say, this is what I'm going to do? This is - these are the bills I'm putting forward. These are my priorities.
KEITH: Well, I mean, one opportunity for bipartisanship could come early if Josh Hawley wants to do some repair and sign onto Joe Biden's $2,000 direct payments to Americans to help weather the coronavirus pandemic.
DETROW: That's a good point. That is what Hawley was pushing before his other legislative efforts got a lot more attention and overcrowded that.
RASCOE: I mean, Biden has said over and over again that he wants to do - he wants bipartisan deals. He doesn't want to just jam things through. And, you know, he looks at himself as this, you know, elder statesman of the Senate and someone who's been able to, you know, call up Mitch McConnell. And these are all people he's worked with. And that's what he wants to do. And it does seem like the U.S. is facing some major challenges that would require some bipartisanship. We'll see what happens, though, with that.
DETROW: All right. That is it for today. That is it, hopefully, for this week. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.
DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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