Securing the Capitol or Fencing in Democracy? And, Biden's Policy Strategy : The NPR Politics Podcast As lawmakers and security officials brainstorm security reforms for the U.S. Capitol complex, investigators have yet to disclose any evidence that extremist groups came to DC on January 6th specifically intending to raid the building.

And President Biden's steady rollout of sweeping policy proposals has drawn plaudits, and surprise, from Democratic activists.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, Justice Department correspondent Ryan Lucas, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Securing the Capitol or Fencing in Democracy? And, Biden's Policy Strategy

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Securing the Capitol or Fencing in Democracy? And, Biden's Policy Strategy

Securing the Capitol or Fencing in Democracy? And, Biden's Policy Strategy

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. Before we start the show, we wanted to tell you about a virtual live event we have coming up on April 28. The theme is President Biden's first 100 days in office. But this is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST after dark, so come ready for some games, Q&A and maybe even what we can't let go of from the year so far. You can get your tickets at nprpresents.org.

SHANTELL: Hey, this is Shantell (ph) from England. I'm a performance category judge for the British Association of Barbershop Singers. And right now I'm sitting down to judge a virtual playlist of quartets, since we can't sing together in person yet. This podcast was recorded at...

KEITH: 12:07 p.m. on Friday, the 9 of April.

SHANTELL: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'm pretty sure I'll still be quarteting (ph) with myself rather than my friends for just a little while longer. All right. (Singing) Enjoy the show.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Enjoy the show.

SHANTELL: (Singing) One, two, three, four.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Ba ba da ba, ba ba da ba, ba ba da ba ba ba (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Oh, my God. How cool.

KEITH: I am so glad there was singing at the end because I was, like, she cannot just keep talking about barbershop without letting us hear it.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: That was wonderful.

GRISALES: Yes.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

KEITH: Congress returns to Washington next week. And after two recent attacks on the U.S. Capitol building, there is pressure to increase security around that building. And a lot of that pressure is coming from security officials - right, Claudia?

GRISALES: Yeah. I talked to security officials, past officials who played this role, and even in their role to this day, they say a lot more needs to be done. And it was really interesting getting insight from them on all the concerns that they have now that the Capitol is just this increasing threat.

KEITH: What kind of concerns are we talking about?

GRISALES: So the way it was framed to me is that these are more complex. They entail social media. They entail extremists, homegrown extremists such as white supremacists, such as what we saw on display on January 6 with the insurrection. And so that is one area that security officials are focused on.

And then, you know, last week, we had this deadly attack involving what appears to be a lone wolf. This left an 18-year veteran Capitol Police officer, William Evans, dead. And so it's just a long list of concerns. And right now we have some recommendations. This came from a task force led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - or rather, she charged this task force to look into the insurrection - issue recommendations. It was led by retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore. And I talked to one of those task members about how to go forward from here, and one of the concerns he had is permanent fencing. In the end, they recommended mobile retractable fencing, and he said that was not the best solution. It was a solution but not the best one.

LUCAS: Claudia, is there any indication at this point - and I know it's still early - that this attack had any sort of link to January 6 or extremist groups or anything of that sort?

GRISALES: No. At this time, it appears there is no link. This individual, this suspect - what I heard from security officials and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton alike, this individual was stopped by a barrier that was installed after 9/11. And she uses that as part of her argument that the Capitol does not need permanent fencing. She says it sends the wrong message. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: If you have to fence the Congress in, then you've fenced in our democracy. And you've shown the world that you can't take care of your own Capitol, so how in the world are you going to be able to take care of the country itself?

LUCAS: Claudia, who ultimately makes the decision?

GRISALES: Ultimately, this is going to be up to Congress. Members are going to make this decision. When they return next week, they're going to be going into plans for a supplemental security funding bill. And so this is where they're going to get into all the details as to what this fencing plan could look like, as well as all these other recommendations that came from this task force that was led by retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore that would look into adding more than 800 officers, adding new response teams to the Capitol, for example. We saw that in play last week - the need for these response teams to be there when they do have a breaking emergency. So this is something that we expect lawmakers to make decisions on in - as soon as the coming weeks.

KEITH: Ryan, I want to go back to the January 6 attack. You have been reporting on it ever since. Where do things stand with the investigations, which are now three months on? Is there any sense or better understanding of whether it was a premeditated attack to storm the Capitol or whether it just happened to end up being people stormed the Capitol?

LUCAS: We do not have a final answer on that question. It's important to say that because this is still very much an active investigation. It is ongoing. And we have seen new charges or new people charged on an almost daily basis still at this point. But there are a couple of cases in particular that provide hints at what prosecutors know so far. And these are conspiracy cases that have been brought against members of two extremist groups, the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.

And what we see from the court papers and statements the prosecutors have made in court in those two cases is indications that there was advanced planning for violence on January 6 - people talking about what sort of gear to bring, what sort of tactical military-style equipment to have, what sort of potential weapons - not lethal weapons but weapons - to bring into D.C.

KEITH: Like bear spray and flagpoles.

LUCAS: Collapsible batons - things like that. What we have not seen, however, is advanced discussions about specifically storming the Capitol - a coherent advanced plan to do so. But definitely there was advance planning, from what prosecutors say, about potential violence.

GRISALES: Do you think, Ryan, we have a pretty clear picture then of the motivations that drove a lot of people in this way that day to move in the Capitol in such a way? Or is this something that we may not know for months, maybe even years to come?

LUCAS: Well, in terms of motivations, I mean, the - we have seen the defendants themselves in their postings before January 6 talk about how they think that the election had been stolen. They very much bought into the baseless claims that the president - well, the former president was making about the election.

But you have kind of two groups of people that are very important to bear in mind. You have the people who have ties to organizations who may have engaged in advance planning of some sort prior to January 6 about what they wanted to do on that day.

And then you have a bunch of other people who were part of the crowd and may have taken place in violence, may have entered the Capitol itself but didn't have necessarily plans - specific plans for January 6 and what they intended to do. And that is by far the much bigger group from what we've seen in the cases so far.

KEITH: So at this point, more than 300 people have been charged in connection with that riot, insurrection. But there are also conspiracy cases that, I think, you're alluding to. Can you talk about the Oath Keepers and maybe to a lesser extent the Proud Boys? Or is that what we're talking about here?

LUCAS: It is. The biggest conspiracy case so far as against 12 alleged members or associates of the Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers is this anti-government paramilitary group. It's one of the biggest in the country. It's led by a man by the name of Stewart Rhodes, who is a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate. And what the government alleges is that the members of this alleged conspiracy were talking for months ahead of time about what they wanted to do, what eventually their plans would be for January 6.

They talked about what sort of gear to bring. They had plans allegedly for a - what they called a quick reaction force - armed - to be stationed across the river from D.C. to come into Washington if the need arose on January 6 - if things got messy, as one defendant called it. But at this point in time, the conspiracy that is alleged is that they wanted to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College vote. This is something that the defendants at this point who have entered a plea - they've all pleaded not guilty.

And then you also mentioned the Proud Boys. There are several conspiracy cases against members or alleged members of the Proud Boys. One of the biggest at this point is against four alleged leaders. That is something that - they face similar accusations as the Oath Keepers did about advance planning, plans for violence. This is one group that famously former President Trump, during the debates, told to stand back and stand by - a group that has grabbed a lot of headlines because of its kind of penchant for violence in protests leading up to January 6.

KEITH: Right. Well, Claudia and Ryan, we are going to let you go. But thanks for sharing your reporting.

GRISALES: That was great. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

KEITH: We're going to take a quick break and then talk about how President Biden has been rolling out his plans.

And we are back, and we're joined now by Kelsey Snell and Domenico Montanaro.

Hello, guys.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Tam.

KEITH: So what we have you here to talk about is how President Biden has been rolling out his plans, like that big $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. And, Domenico, Biden said he wants to meet with Republicans about it and hopes to negotiate in good faith. But let's just say that hopes aren't high on that front. We do know that there are supposed to be some meetings next week, but President Biden has said, quote, "inaction simply is not an option." So what's going on here?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, that good faith tenet is not something that's been practiced much in Washington in recent years or decades. So, you know, I think that it's one of those things that the Biden administration, the Biden team, which has been very careful and very methodical about their rollouts, has learned a lesson from the Obama administration, which, you know, Biden kind of had an open-book test for since he was the vice president during that time and a key liaison to the Congress.

And one of those lessons they feel like they learned was President Obama and the Obama administration waited around too long for Republican support that never wound up materializing and that they were never able to kind of overcome and be able to pass the kind of legislation that they really wanted to pass.

There are a lot of reasons for that. You know, President Obama being the first Black president is certainly one of them and not wanting to appear to be too liberal or too progressive. And it's certainly one of the advantages that Joe Biden has as somebody with long ties to senators - and frankly, a lot of strategists I talked to saying that he's an old white guy, and that helps him.

SNELL: You know, Domenico, it's so funny. I heard a lot of this - just people hoping that Biden would learn those lessons. I heard that from Democrats right before inauguration. They also said that they hoped that Biden would learn lessons about how to sell things to the public. They felt like, you know, the Obama administration didn't do that all that well.

KEITH: So, Kelsey, this isn't, though, just about Republicans, right? Like, certainly...

SNELL: Right.

KEITH: Republican opposition in Congress is a thing. But Democrats have such a narrow majority that they have Democrat problems too, right?

SNELL: Right. And they have a kind of an array of problems with Democrats, though it's not clear to me that they are unsolvable problems at this point. To start with, there are the moderate problems. So you've got West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who is opposed to raising the corporate tax rate as much as President Biden wants. And then you've got Senator Mark Warner from Virginia, also kind of in that moderate camp, who has been talking about wanting the tax provisions to be bipartisan.

Notice that I'm talking about tax provisions not the entire bill. I think that's kind of important to think about here - is that some Democrats are staking out positions where they have clear asks for things that they want to change.

And that is, you know, possibly a good sign here because if members of the president's own party are asking for specific changes or are talking about ways to change the bill that the White House seems open to, well, then that's just kind of the regular order of legislating - is the White House comes out with a target. Congress says, well, that's a really nice target. We're mostly there with you. Now it's our turn to put our stamp on things.

Where it gets a little more complicated is on the progressive side of things, with people like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is talking about a package closer to the order of $10 trillion, which, you know, even in a world where Democrats are more comfortable spending big money right now, $10 trillion is, like, big, big money. That's not, like, in - that's not in the atmosphere. That's in the stratosphere.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I didn't - I thought it was funny listening to her interview with our colleague Danielle Kurtzleben. She called that kind of spending, $2.3 trillion or so, papitas - little french fries, she said, because...

KEITH: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: ...You know, that there should be at least a trillion dollars a year on this kind of spending because of the huge change that needs to take place. I do wonder how much of that is her kind of getting tired of hearing about Joe Manchin and how much attention he's been getting and her wanting to kind of flex her muscles a little bit and say, hang on a second here. You know, there's a lot of progressives in the Democratic Party right now and in Congress, and, you know, you've got to kind of listen to us too.

And, you know, I do wonder how much of that is a little bit of a seesaw that's going on just to sort of show, you know, look; at the end of the day, I might vote for this, in her view. But she wants to get as much as she can get.

SNELL: Yeah, that's a really good point. I think people are maybe not used to some of the way that Democrats talk to each other in the press because we've been watching Republicans do that for a long time, right? That's what we watched throughout the Trump years. And it's a different way of negotiating within their own party. And right now we're just kind of getting used to whether or not that's what this is.

KEITH: Can we talk big picture - and emphasis on the big - which is, you know, that these proposals are huge (laughter). It's a lot of money there. You know, when I first started covering Congress, all of the focus was on the debt and deficit. And Democrats made a lot of show of also saying they were concerned about the debt and deficit. And now I don't know that anybody has a stake in the ground on that.

SNELL: So this came up a lot in some reporting I was doing about how Democrats really are embracing the idea of big government. One observation that several Democrats made was that, you know, one thing that changed between, you know, President Obama's years, aside from the fact that there were genuinely more Democrats who consider themselves deficit hawks as a part of their political identity - that was one thing. Those people really - there aren't that many of them left in Congress right now.

KEITH: They're endangered...

SNELL: The other part of it is...

KEITH: ...To extinct, I think, is the...

SNELL: Yeah. We saw a lot of them lose, actually, after the Affordable Care Act passed. There was a big changeover that happened in the party. Another thing that Democrats pointed out is that when President Trump came into office, one of the first things that he advocated for was a huge $2 trillion tax cut. And Republicans went along with that. They embraced it. They embraced the idea of expanding the deficit through tax cuts.

And a lot of Democrats I talked to said, well, if Republicans aren't even going to pretend to care about the deficit, why should we? And that's kind of the attitude that they're bringing to this conversation.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And beyond big government, I think this is about big legacy. You know, for Joe Biden...

SNELL: Sure.

MONTANARO: He's laying out an agenda that he thinks is very big - this big, grand vision on infrastructure that he wants to stick to because he sees this as a way to cement his legacy, which is, by the way, something he's already thinking about. We know that he met last week with historians at the White House. You know, he's been in office fewer than a hundred days, and he's already thinking about that.

He is, of course, 78 years old. You know, one strategist I talked to said that Biden clearly sees this as an opportunity to deliver massive change, the literal infrastructure of the country, and praised him for not being distracted by day to day. And we heard Biden himself say in his speech this week about this proposal that we're at an inflection point in American democracy. This is a moment where we prove whether or not democracy can deliver. And I think you could insert for democracy - Mad Libs in Joe Biden, whether he could deliver.

SNELL: But does that speak to voters, people who are going to have to be making decisions next year about the House and the Senate? Like, are they going to care about the long-term impacts of what this does for Democrats? Or do they care about, you know, what happens to their lives in the next 14 months?

MONTANARO: I think it's a good point. And I think that the Biden White House is, you know, acutely aware of what's popular. You know, it's not so often that you publicly hear presidents talk so clearly about what's...

SNELL: About the polling.

MONTANARO: ...Polling well, you know? And...

SNELL: Yeah.

MONTANARO: They all do it, right? They all think about it. They all look at the numbers. But it's not often that you see them actually talking about it. And I think that when they poll infrastructure elements, they're very popular. And they learned this from the COVID relief bill - that they were able to poll that, and it was, you know, 70% or so of people or more supported a lot of measures within that legislation. And, you know, look; after that, they stepped on the gas, even started talking about tweaking the filibuster.

KEITH: You had to bring in the filibuster, didn't you? We almost made it. We...

MONTANARO: Sorry.

KEITH: ...Almost made it all the way back.

MONTANARO: We can cut that.

SNELL: We can't get out of the conversation about it (laughter).

MONTANARO: I know. I - as soon as I saw the words coming out...

KEITH: Well, you know, clearly, you can't let it go. We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, it will be time for the real Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of our show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop thinking about or talking about, politics or otherwise. Kelsey, what can't you let go of?

SNELL: I can't let go of a special, special place in Washington, D.C. It's been called a hell portal.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

SNELL: It's been called a bus station in an airport. It's been called the worst place to ever wait for a plane. It is Gate 35X at Reagan National Airport, and it is gone. I don't know if you - have you guys ever been through there?

KEITH: Yeah.

MONTANARO: I have. It's not that bad.

KEITH: Ever, ever...

SNELL: Oh.

KEITH: I mean, it's been a year, but how many times (laughter) - like, how - like, I've spent half my life there.

SNELL: People dislike it so much that they hid the entrance to it. You basically have to, like, go behind TSA, around three corners and down a hallway. And then you get to this weird, slightly dark, definitely smelly carpeted space where you - I don't know. It's one of the - it's, like, the worst waiting room you've ever been in. And it's gone now. They heard people's complaints. And when people are coming back from the pandemic, there will be no more Gate 35X. It's, like, the slowest-moving customer service.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Oh, yeah. I do fear that our audience is going to be, like, oh, bunch of D.C. people talking about the D.C. airport.

MONTANARO: And they'd be right.

SNELL: You know...

KEITH: Indeed.

SNELL: They'd be right (laughter).

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

MONTANARO: What I can't let go of is equally strange. And it's the "Q: Into The Storm" documentary. I don't know if you guys have caught this on HBO Max, but it's really fascinating. It is a four-part series with a documentarian director who has basically lived with the people - you know, reported with the people who created 4chan and 8chan and lived in this world for three years before, essentially, the January 6 insurrection happened.

And if you can get through the first episode (laughter), which is a lot of, like, kind of dorky deep-dive stuff in very tech-heavy kind of things - you know, he really dives into that world of, like, admins and how you post something and, like, who these people are and what their beefs are with each other. It is really fascinating.

Now, I almost quit it, to be honest, until I read a Q&A with the director, who said that he basically, by the end, reveals who Q is. And that made me interested, and I stuck with it. And by the end, you are pretty darn sure you know who Q is. And it - you know, to a 98%, you know, probability is kind of what he was saying. And it's really fascinating.

The point of it, I think for him, for the documentarian, was to say, if we, you know, take some of the mystery away, people would look at this - maybe the people who believed in some of this - and see that this was just people creating this. And there wasn't some magic, mysterious, you know, high-up Trump deep-state person who was doing this all along.

SNELL: I think you've got a pretty good audience here for deep dives of nerdiness.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

SNELL: Tam, what about you? What can't you let go of?

KEITH: Well, what I can't let go of is what a lot of people apparently can't let go of, which is small packets of ketchup.

MONTANARO: The shortage.

SNELL: Oh.

KEITH: It turns out there is a great ketchup shortage.

SNELL: Wait; there is?

KEITH: Well, it's not so much that there's not enough ketchup. It's that it's in the wrong size of vessel.

MONTANARO: Oh.

KEITH: So this is, like, a total pandemic problem, right? Like, the ketchup makers realized that people were staying at home. And there were shortages in grocery stores, so they moved all of their production toward making ketchup in bottles that people could use in their homes. Well...

SNELL: Oh.

KEITH: Then, and especially now, people are starting to eat out again. People are getting takeout, and they don't want a giant bottle of ketchup. They want a little packet of ketchup...

SNELL: Well, yeah.

KEITH: ...A little single serving of ketchup. Like, if you go to a restaurant now, do you want to share a ketchup bottle with whoever was coughing at the table before you? No.

SNELL: I was also just thinking about, like, those pumps of - like, at the ballpark. And I'm getting really grossed out just thinking about it (laughter).

MONTANARO: I don't get it. To be honest with you, like, I have always hated those little packets. I don't get them. They're messy.

KEITH: Wait. Why?

MONTANARO: They're really hard to open. You fumble with it. You never get all the ketchup out. I thought the greatest innovation in the single-serve ketchup world was when, like, Wendy's came up with those little plastic containers that look like ketchup bottles, but you peel off the top.

KEITH: Yeah.

MONTANARO: And then you can dip in ketchup.

KEITH: Oh, yeah, yeah.

MONTANARO: That's the way to go.

SNELL: But what about the tub? Like, those little tubs, like, that - with the - like, you get barbeque sauce in so you can dip (ph)...

MONTANARO: Yeah, those are OK. But that's not what they usually come in.

SNELL: ...Nuggets or something. Yeah.

MONTANARO: It was funny. My son came home the other day after hearing, apparently, about this shortage. And out of his backpack, he pulls, like, a 32-ounce ketchup bottle. And he's, like, there's a ketchup shortage, and put it on the counter.

SNELL: What?

MONTANARO: And I was, like, what? (Laughter).

SNELL: Wait. Where did he get this? Does he have an allowance for ketchup?

KEITH: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: He went and bought a bottle of ketchup and brought it home. I was like (laughter), what are you doing?

KEITH: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: Boy likes his ketchup.

KEITH: Right. I think we're going to leave it there for now. 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 Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And 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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