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Sunday Politics: McCain, NAFTA


It's been a weekend of remembering old Washington, a place of principled disagreement, honesty and mutual respect. At least that's the romantic myth. And at John McCain's funeral yesterday, that was also the reality as friends and colleagues paid tribute to the late senator. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, is with us to talk about that and the week ahead. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Melissa.

BLOCK: The ceremonies for John McCain started in Phoenix, moved on to the U.S. Capitol. And then yesterday, we saw his funeral at the National Cathedral. Today, his private burial in Annapolis at the Naval Academy. It has been a remarkable outpouring.

LIASSON: A remarkable outpouring. Many people consider John McCain to be the most important politician of his age. He described himself as a flawed individual, like all of us. But he also stood for civility and honor and sacrifice. And considering your political opponents are not your enemies - he was willing to work across the aisle. That's very rare nowadays. And many people feel that this is a moment when a lot of those basic democratic values, along with human decency and character, are really under attack. And that made his funeral even more poignant.

BLOCK: Right. And we notably - we heard two former presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, essentially preach about shared values and a common humanity at his funeral.

LIASSON: That's right. McCain pointedly invited these two former presidents, former adversaries of his. They both defeated him in presidential elections. He pointedly did not invite the current occupant of the White House. No one mentioned Donald Trump's name yesterday, but the entire service was an implicit rebuke to him. And that's how John McCain planned it. When John McCain's daughter Meghan stood up and said the America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great, she got a huge round of applause. That just doesn't happen at funerals. One writer said the gathering at the cathedral was a giant meeting of the resistance.

BLOCK: And that was certainly - that tacit rebuke was certainly a subtext of this part of President Obama's tribute to John McCain. Let's take a listen.


BARACK OBAMA: So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty - trafficking and bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It's a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, when, in fact, it's born of fear.

BLOCK: And, Mara, in other circumstances, those words might not have been quite so remarkable.

LIASSON: Not quite so remarkable. But also, maybe they wouldn't have to be said. But we're in a first-principles moment in American politics. And we have a president who rejects the traditional role as a unifier in American life. And Barack Obama has said that he wasn't going to get involved in every little political battle in America since he's finished his term in office. But he would speak out when he felt basic democratic values were at risk.

BLOCK: Mara, we mentioned that President Trump was literally absent at that funeral. He was at his Virginia golf course during the service at the National Cathedral. But he did tweet while all those dignitaries were gathered.

LIASSON: He did tweet about his usual grievances about the FBI and the Department of Justice. But he also tweeted about NAFTA, which is his - one of his most important campaign promises was to renegotiate NAFTA. It's a very important policy goal. He says he has a deal with Mexico. Mexico says it's an understanding that needs Canada to come along. The president has said that he might just leave Canada out of it. Many members of Congress don't agree with that. And the president also tweeted - he said Congress, quote, "should not interfere with these negotiations, or I will simply terminate NAFTA entirely." It's very unclear if he has the legal power to do that.

BLOCK: Yeah.

LIASSON: But he's got 30 days left, and the negotiations with Canada resume on Wednesday.

BLOCK: And briefly, Mara, Senate Republicans are guiding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh toward a lifetime seat on the high court. Hearings start on Tuesday. Democrats are furious that they're not getting access to a lot of records - about 100,000 pages of Cavanaugh's years in the Bush White House.

LIASSON: That's right. And no matter what happens with NAFTA or the midterm elections, Donald Trump is on course to reshape not just the Supreme Court but the entire judiciary. He is putting judges and justices on the court at a faster clip than any other previous president. And he is remaking the judiciary in his own conservative image. So Democrats are angry, but they are on their back foot. Very few people think that they can defeat Kavanaugh. And this will be the most important part of Donald Trump's legacy, no matter what else happens or doesn't happen.

BLOCK: OK. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.