Exclusive: GOP Strategists Blame Trump For Georgia Senate Losses : The NPR Politics Podcast Republican strategists close to Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue's failed Senate campaigns tell WABE's Emma Hurt that former President Trump's interference made it hard to win January's runoff elections in Georgia.

Now, Democrats are moving aggressively on President Biden's relief proposal and the GOP is feeling stung by life in the minority. Also: Gamestop?

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, WABE reporter Emma Hurt, political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and business editor Uri Berliner.

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Exclusive: GOP Strategists Blame Trump For Georgia Senate Losses

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Exclusive: GOP Strategists Blame Trump For Georgia Senate Losses

Exclusive: GOP Strategists Blame Trump For Georgia Senate Losses

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MR MADRY: What's up, y'all? This is Mr. Madry (ph). I'm a fourth-grade teacher from Philly. We've been teaching online all year, so we've been trying to be creative in the different ways we can keep our students engaged. I'm currently creating my 22nd consecutive freestyle Friday for my students. That's where I make a rap every single week about the things that we have learned in class. The current time is...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is 1:07 Eastern on Friday, January 29.

MR MADRY: ...Things may have changed by the time you hear this. All right, y'all. Enjoy the show.

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

DETROW: I love it. We are approaching a year of remote learning, so it is great to continue to find ways to make that different and interesting.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: But I demand to hear his freestyle rapping. Come on, man. Send it to us.

DETROW: Got to be in his class for that, Tam (laughter).

KEITH: Aw. Well, we're just not in fourth grade, I guess.

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

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

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

DETROW: And we have a lot to talk about in Washington this week. But we're going to start by bringing in Emma Hurt of WABE in Georgia. Emma, how's it going?

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Hey y'all. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: We have talked to you a lot this year, and that is because Georgia has become the center of the race for the White House, the attack on the election results and then the battle for control of the Senate. You covered all of that. But now you have some really interesting reporting out today about that Senate runoff, which, of course, Democrats shocked the country by sweeping and then gaining control of the Senate. So what did you learn about what was going on behind the scenes on the Republican side of this race?

HURT: Yeah, so I think, you know, it was really clear throughout the runoffs and even before November how much influence Trump had on these two Georgia Senate campaigns' strategy. But what I've been learning is how much of an influence people in and around the White House, including the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, were actually exerting on how the runoff campaigns were being run. I mean, the quote from a strategist familiar with the campaigns that sticks out to me is that it was a hostage situation every day.

DETROW: Wow.

HURT: The senators being the hostages. So the campaigns, I'm told, would get these demands weekly, sometimes daily, to kind of cave to whatever these people thought would bolster the president's campaign against the integrity of the election, so whether that's calling for a special session, calling for a hand recount, the $2,000 stimulus checks, objecting to the Electoral College votes. I mean, it was the threat that, like, if you didn't do this, the president will work against you, and you'll lose.

KEITH: But we've learned again and again is that there is never any way to separate yourself from President Trump. And it's like he was focused on this thing that was over and trying to relitigate this thing that was over, the election. And as a result, I mean, it's not hard to imagine that all of his rhetoric about election security and it all being rigged, that that rhetoric could hurt the people who were on the ballot in January.

HURT: And it's certainly where Republicans in Georgia are pointing the finger, saying, why did we lose, Mr. President?

DETROW: So, Deirdre, to put it mildly, this was not the campaign that Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans thought Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue should be running to keep control of the Senate, was it?

WALSH: Not at all. I mean, they wanted to put out there what the stakes were for Republican control and what the threat of Democratic control of the Senate would mean for big priorities. They talked about the threat of, you know, socialism and passing a Green New Deal and sort of these far-left proposals. But the president was so focused on his own grievances that the warning about what Democratic wins would mean in Georgia was completely overshadowed. I mean, they wanted the president to go down there to turn out the vote.

He went down the day before the election - the night before the election, I believe. And, you know, Republicans had their eye on the massive turnout operation for the early vote that the Democrats were mounting, and they needed to make up the gap and wanted the president to go down and to urge people to turn out. And instead, he complained about the rigged election against him and ended up depressing turnout.

DETROW: Yeah. Emma, you were telling us before we started recording this podcast that you saw some really clear evidence while you were reporting this runoff that what the president and his allies were falsely claiming about the election was clearly influencing Republican voters.

HURT: Yeah. I mean, that rally that Deirdre mentioned in Dalton, Ga., I was driving back from it and saw boycott rigged runoff signs. I mean, it was real. The confusion was real for Republican voters. If you trust the president and the president is telling you that the voting system was rigged, why would you use it again?

DETROW: So one last question for you, Emma. We have obviously focused on the Republican side of all of this. It is a fascinating story. It's going to have a lot of repercussions. It has had a lot of repercussions. But a little bit lost in this is that you had Democrats accomplish these remarkable goals that they had long been working toward - winning the state on the presidential level, winning two Senate seats in when they hadn't held a Senate seat for a generation. How much do Democrats think that this is the blueprint to keep winning in Georgia versus how much was just the flukey circumstances of 2020 and 2021, like, for instance, a president urging his base to maybe not even vote?

HURT: Yeah, that's actually the next story I'm working on, just a little tease.

DETROW: All right.

HURT: (Laughter) Democrats, after the runoffs in particular, are really confident. I mean, they say, yes, Republicans' kind of disarray and infighting was - it helped us, but we were doing the groundwork to make these wins happen. I mean, they point to the more than 100,000 new voters who turned out in the runoffs and not in November that they actively targeted and found and said this is our strategy. We've been building it in Georgia for a while, and it clearly works.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, of course, they're saying not so fast, not so fast. We just had this really crazy Trump thing. And, you know, we still did win our Republican public service commissioner seat on that runoff ballot. And Republicans still control the statehouse in the state Senate. So while Democrats think this is - this proves it all, Republicans are going to try their best to make sure that it's not the case in 2022.

DETROW: All right, Emma, thank you for your reporting. And based on the last two months, I'm pretty confident we will have you on the podcast again soon to keep talking about Georgia. Thanks for joining us.

HURT: Anytime.

DETROW: So, Tam and Deirdre, obviously what happened in Georgia has had enormous consequences on what the next two years look like in Washington. One of the storylines that we were really focusing on the last few weeks in the wake of the attack on the Capitol was, is this the moment, especially now that he's left office, now that he is a twice impeached president, that the Republican Party shifts gears, leaves President Trump behind, moves forward? There were some signs that that might happen, and then there were some signs that that might not happen.

And I think the latest example that maybe this is not happening at all is the fact that yesterday Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, made a pilgrimage down to Mar-a-Lago to meet with President Trump. What do we know about that meeting and why does it matter going forward in Congress?

KEITH: Well, what we know is that there was a grinning photo that came out of it, with both men grinning, President Trump more widely than leader McCarthy. And they both put out statements. Now, notably, their statements were a little different. President Trump's - he's - the statement says they discussed many topics. No. 1 of which was taking back the House in 2022. President Trump's popularity has never been stronger than it is today, and his endorsement means more perhaps than any endorsement at any time. That is the official Trump statement.

McCarthy's statement says that they're going to work together on winning back the House in 2022. And that's why the pilgrimage was important. Because Republicans - President Trump is still a potent force, maybe not as potent as he says he is. But also, McCarthy had to repair a little damage because he had delivered a speech blaming President Trump for the insurrection, at least putting some credit at the president's feet. And he's been walking that back ever since.

WALSH: I mean, McCarthy has been one of President Trump's closest supporters in Congress among the House Republicans. But there was a space where he broke with him. He went to the floor during the impeachment debate. And while he didn't back impeachment, he directly called out the president and said he bore responsibility for inciting the riot on the Capitol on January 6. He quickly learned in the days afterwards that that didn't go over so well with the loyal Trump base. And he learned amongst his members, who stood largely with the president on that impeachment vote, as he did, that there wasn't an ability to distance yourself from Trump.

And so McCarthy, as he has done, has sort of moved around inside his conference to try to be where his members are because he wants to preserve his place in leadership. And he does see a window for potentially becoming speaker after the 2022 midterms if the Republican base comes out and - that he needs Trump's help with that.

DETROW: Is it fair to say that the trend line of the Republican Party kind of sticking with Trump and Trumpism and the way that that affects an approach to governing? And we're seeing that in the House and the Senate. A test vote this week made it pretty clear that that he is not going to be convicted in the Senate unless things change drastically. Is it fair to say that that is influencing the way the Republican Party deals with a president who says he wants to work across the aisle, but at the same time is pushing some pretty progressive legislation, a nearly $2 trillion spending package right now?

WALSH: I mean, I think Republicans on Capitol Hill are starting to get religion again on things like deficits that they didn't really seem to care that much about when President Trump was in office and they passed a massive tax package. And they are also seeing that the Trump base does not want to support, you know, the type of massive stimulus bill that President Biden has put on the table, the $1.9 trillion bill. I think there are pieces of it that are popular and have bipartisan support, like more support and money for vaccine distribution. But I think there are limits there.

DETROW: And, Tam, you and I are trying to decipher with each other what exactly the White House is saying and thinking about these dynamics. And I think the big question is, do they go forward with this bill as is and try and get it through reconciliation so they only need Democratic votes? Do they try and cut a deal with a smaller package? If so, what does that look like? What are the trend lines that we are seeing as the White House realizes that maybe they are not going to get a massive show of Republican support on maybe anything at this point?

KEITH: You know, the vibe that you get is that they know they're not getting their $1.9 trillion bill and they are trying to figure out what they actually can get and, yeah, how to reconcile Biden's message that he can work with Republicans and work across party lines with the fact that Democrats on the Hill are moving forward with a process that could mean that no Republicans are involved.

DETROW: It is so interesting - and maybe it's because a lot of people are currently slowly making their way through Barack Obama's memoirs of the same time period. But it's so interesting to me how so many of the dynamics from the early months of the Obama administration are playing out, but on a bigger scale, right? A Democratic president is trying to deal with the bad economy, trying to reach across the aisle, but doing so with a big progressive policy and finding that maybe the other party really has zero interest in reaching back to him.

WALSH: He also has a Democratic Party that's so much more progressive than it was in 2009, so the pressure to go big is so much greater than it was back then.

DETROW: And much smaller majorities in both chambers, which makes anything harder no matter what the circumstances. All right, Deirdre, thank you for joining us to talk through all of this.

WALSH: Good to be with you.

DETROW: Tam, stick around. We're going to say goodbye to you for a bit, but you'll be back at the end of the show for Can't Let It Go. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, yes, we will talk about it. We will talk about GameStop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: And we are back with Uri Berliner of our business team. Hey there.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: And Danielle Kurtzleben. Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hello.

DETROW: OK, so I'm going to admit it. I totally, totally lost the thread on GameStop. And we're talking about it here, so I really want to know more. It is a really interesting story.

KURTZLEBEN: You're fine. Don't worry about it.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: OK, so before we dive in, just help me out here with some pretty basic questions. Right. GameStop, they sell video games and consoles, right?

BERLINER: That's right.

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely.

DETROW: They are not doing well because people mostly buy games online. And also, there is a pandemic. So even people who want to buy games in the store do not want to go into a store, right?

BERLINER: Yeah, pretty much.

KURTZLEBEN: More or less, yeah.

DETROW: So I have further deduced that, because of all that, its stock was not doing well and some hedge funds had decided to place bets on the stock continuing to drop, which is called, as they say, shorting.

BERLINER: That's it.

DETROW: And now I'm confused because its stock price was at 1.3 times what it was the start of the year. Then it went up and down. Then people were mad that they couldn't trade the stock. People were yelling at Robinhood. And this is the point when I muted GameStop on Twitter because I just had no idea what people were talking about. So can you two lovely experts help me understand what happened next and why it's become such an enormous story?

BERLINER: Well, you can try and leave GameStop, Scott, but GameStop doesn't want to leave you.

(LAUGHTER)

BERLINER: So, yeah, it is just insane. So, you know, I think it's up somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000% just this year. And, you know, it's had a few moments where it went down, but mostly it's just gone up, up, up, up, up. And that's because all these people on this Reddit site called Wall Street Bets and elsewhere have come in and just bought up loads of this stock. They've said they've joined a party to push up the stock price, and they all together have enjoyed the run up in the price of the stock. And it's at the expense to of these hedge funders who shorted GameStop.

DETROW: So did this start happening just out of a desire to, in the spirit of "School Of Rock," stick it to the man? Was this an attempt to actually make money? Like, what was the initial motivation? And how did that kind of balloon into what we are talking about right now and, more importantly, what lots of members of Congress feel the need to talk about, too?

BERLINER: Well, it's not entirely clear how it started, but it looks like there was actually some affection for GameStop - a lot of gamers, people who had nostalgic memories of going there to buy video games or action figures or something. And, you know, they thought, you know, this company actually isn't so bad. And then what happened - and they - so they started buying the stock.

Then what happened is this guy, Ryan Cohen - he's the co-founder of the online pet supply retailer Chewy - he and a couple of partners invested in GameStop. And that sort of unleashed all this enthusiasm. Hey, we're right. This company is good. And that just unleashed this momentum where everybody piled in. And at the same time, they're saying, you know, while we're enjoying these gains in the stock price, we're sticking it to these hedge funders who had bet against GameStop.

DETROW: Danielle, this is the point where we say, it is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. How did politics get involved in all of this? And what do you think from the loud noise that was tied to that matters and what doesn't?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, let's start with the loud noise, shall we? (Laughter) Because there was a lot of it this week about this story. And my sense is, it's easy to be mistaken, given the loud noise about it, that this story is thus far more important - that is, that it impacts more people - than is actually true, you know? And I know Uri can fill us in a bit more on that.

But - so tied to that politically, it's not much of a story yet. But tied to what you just said, yes, we have people in Washington who have weighed in. You had Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic representative from New York, and Republican Senator Ted Cruz both say on Twitter that they were angry at Robinhood, the app where a lot of these stocks were being traded, because Robinhood temporarily restricted transactions on GameStop stock.

So they said that. Then they got into an argument, which, of course, got more attention. Elizabeth Warren has talked about the SEC looking into seeing if it is defining market manipulation well enough. So, yes, you have lots of people in Washington using this as an example of things that they were already interested in - for example, in Warren's case of greater regulation of Wall Street by the SEC. So there are going to be hearings about this on Capitol Hill. This may become more of a political story if those result in greater action.

DETROW: It kind of feels like there's a big parallel, though, to what we have seen in politics over the last decade, where the experts, the parties, the people who think they're in charge maybe aren't really in charge so much, huh?

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And this is a point that some of our colleagues at other outlets have made - Kevin Roose at The New York Times, Philip Bump at Washington Post.

And I think that if you are going to draw a political lesson from this, I think the - maybe the most salient one you can draw thus far is just how swift and how non-hierarchical, how quickly those - these sorts of movements can happen now as opposed to before the Internet existed, whether you are a bunch of people on Reddit banding together just to amp up a stock price by a couple thousand percent, or you are a bunch of women in pink-knitted hats that want to take to the streets to protest a president, or whether you're a bunch of people who want to go to Capitol Hill and have a violent coup attempt.

I mean, you could talk about any number of these things as examples of this phenomenon. And the thing is that, first of all, those things are not morally equivalent. I am not saying that. But what I am saying is how quickly things with very real consequences can get organized online.

DETROW: Uri, can this happen again?

BERLINER: Absolutely. Absolutely. There's every reason it can happen again, especially if it happens involving smaller companies. Now, the question is, you know, whether there's anything illegal about anything that's going on or whether it's just a bunch of people are saying, hey, look, this company's underappreciated. Let's send it to the moon. This is cool. We're going to do this, and maybe we'll make some money along the way.

But, you know, one thing that I would like to point out is, you know, Danielle was talking about - there is definitely an element of anti-elitism, the lashing out at the elites, at hedge funders, who are not popular anyway. And there are people who are saying, don't sell your GameStop stock. Let's keep this price high because we really want to stick it to them. So there's definitely a political organizing element to what's going on here.

DETROW: All right, Uri. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast with us.

BERLINER: You're welcome.

DETROW: And, Danielle, stick around because you, Tam and I are going to talk about what we can't let go of after we take a quick break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: We are back. Tam, you are back, too. Hello.

KEITH: Hello.

DETROW: It is 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 the things we cannot stop talking or thinking about, politics, or otherwise. Tam, you're up first.

KEITH: Yes. So what I can't let go is that our friends over at Marketplace commissioned a song, a rap, for Janet Yellen, the recently confirmed Treasury secretary, the first woman to serve as Treasury secretary. When President Biden introduced her as his nominee, he said, maybe we need the guys over at "Hamilton" to write a new song because now we have the first female Treasury secretary. Well, Marketplace commissioned a rapper that they have a relationship with named Dessa to write a little tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S YELLEN NOW?")

DESSA: (Rapping) It only took a couple centuries - the first female secretary of the Treasury. Don't want no tax evasion, forgers faking in the Treasury...

KEITH: So it turns out it's actually pretty catchy. I think Dessa is - you know, Lin-Manuel Miranda was PBS's favorite rapper. Dessa is public radio's favorite rapper or...

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: ...Marketplace's favorite rapper.

KURTZLEBEN: That's fair.

KEITH: But this is - it was actually pretty charming. And there's a line in it about, you know, grab a mojito. She controls the mint.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S YELLEN NOW?")

DESSA: (Rapping) And lift up your mojitos 'cause she manages the mint. Oh, who's Yellen now?

KURTZLEBEN: I get it.

KEITH: And so Janet Yellen then responds. She says, Dessa, your - this is a tweet - your tune is money. Thanks for the mood music. I'll take it from here. And then the Treasury Department responds, U.S. Mint - we'll bring the mint. And then Hamilton responds, raise a glass.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, my gosh.

KEITH: Come on. It's a little joyful. It's a lot joyful. I didn't know I needed a rap about Janet Yellen.

KURTZLEBEN: That's true.

KEITH: Listen; I'm a Dessa stan. I'm here for this. I approve.

Scott, what can't you let go of?

DETROW: I will just keep it quick. What I cannot let go of, as I am months behind on this, as I often am on almost all pop culture these days, especially shows - but I discovered "Ted Lasso" over the past week. I have spent a good amount of time watching it. It's so joyful.

KEITH: I'm so happy for you.

KURTZLEBEN: It's fantastic.

KEITH: It brought me so much joy.

DETROW: I love it. It is on Apple TV, which was, like, the final frontier of streaming I had not yet encountered. It is a delightful, happy show that takes not much time at all to go through. And if you've not seen it - and apparently, millions of people have seen it because I made this discovery, and everyone was like, yes, I watched this in August - it is a delightful show.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm pretty sure it was Sue's CLIG, like, six months ago (laughter).

DETROW: Could be.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

KEITH: But you know what? I share - the only thing that makes me sad is it's a little too raunchy to watch with the kids. And I think that...

DETROW: Yeah.

KEITH: ...Other than the things that they should not see, it's just so lovely.

DETROW: Though when...

KURTZLEBEN: It's very good-hearted.

DETROW: When "Frozen" made a key plot point appearance, though, that was especially great.

KEITH: That was a key crossover event, as they say.

DETROW: It was an ambitious crossover.

KURTZLEBEN: A very...

DETROW: That's what the Internet said.

KEITH: That's the phrase. That's the phrase.

DETROW: All right. So, having discovered something you both knew about months ago, I will move on. Danielle, what can you not let go? (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, let me bring the party down because, like, look. My CLIG is a little bit of a bummer, but it's important to me. So the head of the U.S. Capitol Police, the acting Capitol Police chief, has proposed that there be permanent fencing around the U.S. Capitol. And this has become a big controversy here in D.C. And, yeah, I mean, you guys are both district-area or district residents yourselves. And, I mean, a really special thing about D.C. is how open the Capitol grounds have been up until, you know, the horrific events of January 6.

And this just makes me think of back in 2008, when I was a guileless, fresh-faced young twentysomething who had showed up here in D.C. I lived, you know, not terribly far from the Capitol, and I used to go on runs down there. And it - you know, it seemed just downright magical...

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...To be that close to this big, grand building. I have met a group of kids from my high school down there. They got their photos taken on the Capitol steps. And at the time, it was, you know, no big deal. But thinking about it now, it was, like, what - honestly, if I were a 17-year-old from Buffalo Center, Iowa, that would be really cool to me, you know?

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: So I fully understand the need for more security. But, you know, it's a real bummer, and it breaks my heart a little, and we'll see what happens.

KEITH: You know what? I'm still not convinced it's going to stick because...

KURTZLEBEN: That's very...

KEITH: I just - there is so much backlash to this idea. Like, there has to be a better way to secure the people's house, or - I guess the White House is the people's house - but to secure the Congress than to build another wall. You know, there's a big fence around the White House, and certainly, people have jumped it, so then they made it higher. And then there's a fence around that fence and fence around that fence. And it just feels like a darn fortress.

And people - like, kids just want to be able to, like - families just want to be able to take pictures. You know...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

KEITH: Your selfie is, like, hi, it's me and a really large fence and little, tiny white building in the background.

KURTZLEBEN: Yep, exactly. And there's also armed security around the area, too. It's a little unnerving, so I can't let go of it. We'll see if D.C. lets go of it, I guess. I'm not sure,

DETROW: On that sad, frustrating, confusing note, that is a wrap for today's show 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. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Claire Obi (ph).

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

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

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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