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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Robert Mueller Uses Grand Jury In Russia Probe


So Congress is on vacation, and members went home without any significant legislative accomplishments. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed a hope that things will be different when lawmakers come back.


CHUCK SCHUMER: I hope the fever is breaking. There is a real desire in this body to move past the acrimony of the health care debate and get to a place where we can work together to advance legislation that helps the American people.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now to discuss whether this is a realistic hope and other stories from the week in politics is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to have you with us.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: And Eliana Johnson of Politico, good of you to be here, too.


SHAPIRO: So Republicans control the House, the Senate, the White House. Traditionally, the first six months of a new administration are the most productive time in government. E.J., why hasn't this Congress been able to pass any major legislation, and do you think this is likely to change?

DIONNE: I think they're going to have trouble changing it now. I'm struck by Chuck Schumer hoping that the fever on the Republican side will break. That's a phrase Barack Obama used as long ago as 2012.

I think Trump made a really big error at the beginning. If he had come out, for example, with a real infrastructure program - rebuilding roads and bridges and all the other stuff that needs rebuilding - Democrats would have been put in a very difficult position because they are for all this stuff. If he had proposed anything to help blue-collar Americans navigate the problems he described in the campaign, Democrats would have been happy to cooperate.

Instead, they started out with a repeal effort for Obamacare. And repeal Obamacare was a great slogan as long as it wasn't going to get enacted into law. But as soon as it became a policy that would take health insurance away from, depending on the bill, 16 to 24 million people, the politics changed. The program became popular. Repeal became unpopular. And I also think Republicans underestimated how popular Medicaid is. And so they started with an issue where the very fighting of the battle actually strengthened the other side. That's not how...

SHAPIRO: Well, Eliana...

DIONNE: ...A party is supposed to work things.

SHAPIRO: Eliana, what do you think is going on here? Is it paralysis? Is a political misjudgment? Is it civil war within the Republican Party?



JOHNSON: I think E.J...

DIONNE: Exactly, Eliana.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) I think E.J. is right. The Trump administration missed an opportunity on infrastructure. Republicans really were ready to grit their teeth and give the president a grace period when he got into office and go along with something like infrastructure that they don't really agree with but that would have given the new president a victory.

The other thing I think that's happening is that the things on which there is bipartisan agreement in the Congress, like, for example, the Russia sanction bill that the president signed into law this week, are the sorts of things that the Congress can get done and that the White House may be backed into signing. But they're not things that the American public is going to perceive as big victories for the Trump White House. In fact, when the...

SHAPIRO: Well, because Trump is calling it a bad bill.

JOHNSON: Exactly, in fact when the president signed this bill, he said how terrible it was. So it seems to me that the sorts of things that are fairly easily doable in this conference - in this Congress are simply not things that the president is going to come out and hail as big victories and, as a result, are not going to be perceived as major victories, you know, by the president.

SHAPIRO: And the next big item on the to-do list is tax reform, which is not exactly easier than these other things.

JOHNSON: Yeah, you know, repeal and replace was supposed to be the one thing that Republicans agreed on and that was supposed to be easily done. And of course it wasn't as easy to do as they thought. Paul Ryan likes to say that tax reform is incredibly hard, and that's why it hasn't been done successfully for 30 years. So I think the idea that, you know, Republicans can hop, skip and jump from a failure on health care reform to tax reform without having gotten the savings that would have come from successfully doing health reform is simply wrong.

SHAPIRO: This week the White House lost their communications director and gained a new chief of staff, General John Kelly, who has been described as someone who will bring military-like order to this often chaotic White House. E.J., have you seen any changes this week?

DIONNE: Well, we have seen some changes. A military order to the Trump White House sounds like an oxymoron.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

DIONNE: There are a couple of things that are visible. H.R. McMaster, the chief White House foreign policy adviser, went through with the firing of Michael Flynn, a top intelligence aide, Ezra Cohen-Watnick. And it seems that that McMaster is going to get more freedom to do what he wants. I think one of the tests will be, will Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump still be able to go around the chief of staff, or will they be subject to Kelly?

But I think the real problem is the source of the chaos in the White House, despite all the backstabbing - that's certainly chaotic - is President Trump himself and the ongoing investigation. And I don't know if Kelly can change Donald Trump. No one else has succeeded in doing that. I think that may be too much to ask, even of a tough Marine.

SHAPIRO: Eliana, in your reporting for Politico, have you seen any changes so far since General Kelly came on as chief of staff?

JOHNSON: White House aides are telling me that they've seen this week. And granted, it's only five days, but they've seen two major changes - that General Kelly is putting an enormous premium on limiting the flow of people into and out of the Oval Office. The president really liked to have an open-door policy where his aides were flowing in and out. And aides standing in the outer Oval would - he'd summon them in. He loved - you know, he's a social guy. And number two, the flow of paper and information up to the president - he's limiting the sort of conspiracy theory-type articles that get the president hot and bothered and get him on his Twitter account. So those are the two major changes that he seems to have fixated on.

But I think the question is - the president I think understood a need for a change, and so did Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, his daughter and son-in-law who have been very influential on the personnel side. The question to me is, how long does the president want to stay with this sort of more disciplined regime - because he's not known as a particularly disciplined guy.


JOHNSON: I'm sure that will come as a surprise to all of your (laughter) listeners.

SHAPIRO: I want to end with last night's development in the investigation into potential ties between Trump associates and Russia. This is what the president said at a rally in West Virginia.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They can't beat us at the voting booths, so they're trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want. They're trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us.

SHAPIRO: Of course this came right after the development that special counsel Robert Mueller is using a grand jury in Washington. E.J., briefly, is this significant?

DIONNE: I think it is. First, that argument Trump used - Nixon tried to use that argument. My Washington Post colleague James Hohmann said this is going to make it more difficult to fire Mueller, having the grand jury there. And Mueller seems to be focusing on the financial aspects, Trump's ties to Russia in terms of money. And that could lead down roads connected to other financial aspects of the Trump empire.

SHAPIRO: Final thought, Eliana.

DIONNE: And I think that really worries the president.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it occurred to me that impaneling of the grand jury makes it clear there's a very real chance that Mueller will bring charges against somebody on the Trump team and also that there is a real potential for an all-out political war here because 33 percent of the country, even if they realize Trump is guilty, is going to stand behind him. And that's what you heard Trump, the president, ginning up at that rally in West Virginia.

SHAPIRO: Eliana Johnson of Politico and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT CAPPY'S "ROSE LANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.