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Week In Politics: Congressional Investigations, Trump And Pelosi's War Of Words


And we're going to start right there for our Week In Politics chat, for which I am joined this week by Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Bloomberg Opinion, and Sabrina Siddiqui of The Guardian and CNN. Welcome to the studio, you two.



KELLY: All right. Let's stay with these new powers for the attorney general to investigate the investigators. Sabrina, the White House says this is needed to get to the bottom once and for all of what happened in 2016 and needed to restore confidence in our public institutions. Do you agree?

SIDDIQUI: Well, I think the biggest concern here is that the president is trying to blur the lines between court-authorized surveillance and spying on a political campaign. There is no evidence to suggest that the FBI acted improperly in surveilling Carter Page, who was a foreign policy adviser of sorts to the Trump campaign and had contacts with the Russians. The FBI would have had to present evidence to suggest that there was probable cause that Carter Page was acting as a foreign agent in order to have that surveillance authorized.

But I think now that the president is directing Attorney General William Barr to declassify information and reveal what really happened during the course of the 2016 election, it potentially paves the way for selective disclosures that will help the administration frame the narrative in the way it so chooses, to try and suggest that there is some sort of illicit spying on the Trump campaign when, so far, there's no evidence to suggest that was the case.

KELLY: You're raising the danger which we just heard Jeremy Bash allude to of potentially politicizing intelligence. Ramesh, what do you think?

PONNURU: Well, there's no question that the president has the constitutional authority to make this command. The question is what degree of trust we have in the attorney general to make neutral decisions about declassification. And I...

KELLY: All right. What degree of trust do you have in the attorney general to be neutral?

PONNURU: And I would say that his reputational capital has declined quite a bit over the course of this year, that when he was nominated, he had a significant amount of bipartisan support. That has evaporated in the course of the last few months during these hearings. And I would just also point out, just a few weeks ago, Barr himself was saying in testimony before Congress that we have to stop criminalizing - excuse me - we have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.

This move on declassification comes after the president has accused the former team at the FBI of having committed treason against him. And it has to be seen in that context. I think that there are - there's a warring message. They say, we want to move on from the scandal - and then they won't let us move on from the scandal.

So I think that there's a political problem for them. And I think that it's something that we should view with a high degree of skepticism on substance.

KELLY: It also sounds as though you're arguing take the person out of it, take Bill Barr out of it personally. There's a precedent being set here in terms of the norms of separation of government. That sounds like it worries you both.

PONNURU: Well, this administration - this president, in particular - doesn't just seem against the historical norms about how a president should interact with the justice system. He seems to be unaware of the existence of those norms or the reasons they were there in the first place. And so I think this just fits into that pattern.

SIDDIQUI: And look. The president could have appointed an independent commission to look into this matter. Instead, he's issued the directive to his attorney general, who, as Ramesh points out, has significant credibility problems in terms of the way that he disseminated aspects of the Mueller report, misleading the public in that initial letter on what, in fact, the contents of the report were and giving that press conference where he was essentially going to bat for the president.

It also is curious that the president who has wanted, you know, the investigators to be investigated this whole time has made this announcement at the same time that the courts have ruled in favor of congressional Democrats to access, you know, documents relating to his finances and at a time when the White House's efforts to stonewall congressional investigators are essentially being rebuked by the courts.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the back-and-forth that dominated much of the week. This is the increasingly hostile back-and-forth between the president and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Here's a little flavor of what that sounded like.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Watched Nancy, and she was all crazy yesterday - with the hands...

NANCY PELOSI: I truly believe that the president has a bag of tricks and the White House has a bag of tricks that they save for certain occasions.

TRUMP: She's a mess. Look. Let's face it. She doesn't understand it. And they sort of feel she's disintegrating before the...

PELOSI: I pray for the president of the United States. I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would had an intervention for the good of the country.

KELLY: Wow. I mean, it's extraordinary language, even by the standards of 2019. Ramesh, beyond the mudslinging, there's a real battle being waged here between the legislative branch and the executive branch. What's at stake?

PONNURU: Well, I would not say that what's at stake is a robust legislative agenda because I don't think that was really ever in the cards. I think partly what is going on here is an attempt on both sides to blame the other for the absence of progress on things like the much-vaunted infrastructure deal that people were talking about a few weeks ago.

You know, I do think that we can exaggerate some of the importance of this. It is a disheartening display, a demoralizing display. Is it really going to affect the way anybody votes in 2020? I have a hard time believing that it will.

KELLY: You're seeing it more as political theater.

PONNURU: Yeah, of a particularly distressing kind, but yes.

KELLY: I guess the ultimate expression of all of this, Sabrina, would be if impeachment were to be on the table. As we know, Nancy Pelosi's position all this year has been pretty constant - hold the line, that impeachment would be a waste of time. We saw some cracks among Democrats, where some are starting to put more pressure on her this week to maybe start thinking about moving toward impeachment proceedings. Do you see any real movement?

SIDDIQUI: I think the more the White House stonewalls on the subpoenas that have been issued by some of the Democratic chairs in Congress, the more pressure Nancy Pelosi faces to, at a minimum, open up an impeachment inquiry because that would give Congress more powers to access some of those witnesses and documents that they want. But I think that's part of why you saw her really escalate the rhetoric because she earns a bit of goodwill when she really goes toe-to-toe with the president and can sort of show the caucus that she is, in fact, trying to hold him in line.

But I do think there is a question as to how long she can keep the caucus together, especially when she is on the one hand making the argument that he's unfit to serve and that he is obstructing justice at the same time that she's saying we're just not there yet on impeachment.

KELLY: Ramesh, I'll give you last word. If we've learned anything about President Trump, it's that he likes a fight. Are you completely convinced that the White House wouldn't be quite happy for the House to proceed with impeachment proceedings?

PONNURU: Well, I think that the president feels more comfortable talking about impeachment, which he would cast as an attempted coup, than he does, say, talking about his record on health care. And I think that that's the sort of thing that is moving Nancy Pelosi.

But I do think that Sabrina makes a good point here, that there is a kind of put-up-or-shut-up element to this argument. If you're going to say he's unfit for office and he's corrupt, why is the House not taking the one action constitutionally it is able to do against that?

KELLY: We will leave it there for this week. That's Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Bloomberg Opinion and Sabrina Siddiqui of CNN and The Guardian. Thanks, you two.

PONNURU: Thank you.

SIDDIQUI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.