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Week In Politics: Senate Confirmation Hearings And Initial Steps To Repeal Obamacare


This week has been packed with news from Senate confirmation hearings to initial steps taken by Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act to revelations that raise even more questions about the incoming Trump administration's relationship to Russia. We know it was a lot to take in. So we want to recap some of the week's political news with NPR politics editor Domenico Montanaro and NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.



MARTIN: So let's start with what we thought would be the headline of the week, the confirmation hearings. Domenico, what was one of the big takeaways from the hearings this week?

MONTANARO: Well, I think after the first day and a half, it became pretty obvious and clear that a lot of these nominees were going to break with Donald Trump when it came to some of his most high-profile positions, some of these most provocative promises that he'd laid out during the campaign. Let's take a listen to Jeff Sessions on one thing. Remember that Muslim ban from Donald Trump that he had promised? Here's what Jeff Sessions had to say.


JEFF SESSIONS: I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States.

MONTANARO: Now, we should point out that Trump himself backed away from the ban during the campaign. You know, he faced a lot of criticism for it from a lot of different corners - Republicans and Democrats. He began calling it banning people from countries, quote, "with a proven history of terrorism." Maybe that's a bit more euphemistic or, shall we say, politically correct.

KEITH: They never said which those countries would be.

MARTIN: Never said which those countries would be.

KEITH: It could be France.

MARTIN: Jeff Sessions, once again being the Alabama senator who is Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general. Well, were there other instances of nominees breaking with the president-elect on things that were talked about during the campaign?

MONTANARO: There were on almost every confirmation hearing. I counted up at least 10 overall, including the story that dominated the week, Russia, Russian hacking. All of his nominees said that they believed the intelligence community that Russia did in fact interfere in the election. That includes his appointees for CIA, attorney general, defense - James Mattis. And Mattis broke with him pretty strongly on NATO. He called it one of the most important military alliances maybe ever. He said he told that to Donald Trump.

They also all broke with him on torture and waterboarding. His CIA director said that he would absolutely not use waterboarding if it was told to do so. Sessions called it illegal. Mattis had already told him that he thinks it was not effective and something that had surprised Trump because Mattis has this Hollywood-style nickname Mad Dog because some of these quotes that he had.

But big picture, you know, you're seeing a lot of these nominees put Trump in a bit of a box. He's running into the potential of some confines of governing. You know, it showed that someone also who runs with the kind of provocative positions that Trump had - if his nominees had expressed those, they probably wouldn't be confirmed to the positions in his own administration.

MARTIN: Interesting.

KEITH: And one thing to...

MARTIN: OK. Go ahead.

KEITH: ...Yeah - one thing thing to just add to that is that Donald Trump became sort of aware that his nominees were saying things that were out of sync with some of the positions he'd taken on the campaign. And both in a tweet and then later talking to some reporters he said, you know, it's totally fine with me. I want them to have their own views. I don't want them to have to have my views.

MARTIN: Interesting. So on Wednesday speaking of - sticking with Jeff Sessions for a minute - the United States senator from New Jersey Cory Booker, Democrat, made history as the first U.S. senator to testify against a fellow senator in a confirmation hearing for a Cabinet post. We'll play a little tape of that.


CORY BOOKER: If confirmed, Senator Sessions will be required to pursue justice for women, but his record indicates that he won't. He will be expected to defend the equal rights of gay and lesbian and transgender Americans, but his record indicates that he won't. He will be expected to defend voting rights.

MARTIN: Now, the congressman from Atlanta John Lewis, also the civil rights icon, also joined Cory Booker to testify against Sessions talking about the Civil Rights movement. Let's play a little tape of that.


JOHN LEWIS: It doesn't matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you. But we need someone who's going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help, for people who have been discriminated against.

MARTIN: Now, U.S. representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana who's the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus also testified against Jeff Sessions' confirmation. And I do want to mention that there were three African-Americans who testified on Senator Sessions' behalf, but, Tam, I wanted to go to you first on this. How much weight does this kind of testimony hold right now?

KEITH: These - this testimony came on the second day of hearing - hearings for Sessions. Sessions was not there at the time when these people testified, and they were sort of offsetting the three African-American men who spoke in favor of Sessions - were very complimentary, said he was a good guy. They knew him personally.

And so the reality is - and the reality with basically all of Donald Trump's nominees is that Republicans would have to peel off and not support his candidates. Otherwise, they will be confirmed, and so this allowed Democrats to air what they felt had to be aired. But in terms of the ultimate outcome whether Jeff Sessions becomes the attorney general of the United States - it's unlikely to have much of an effect.

MARTIN: Now, fast forward a bit to today because just this morning, we saw that President-elect Trump attacked John Lewis on Twitter. He was responding in this case to an NBC interview on Friday where John Lewis said he didn't see Trump as a legitimate president. Anybody want to talk about this? So...

KEITH: I'll at least read the tweet here that Donald Trump sent out. And this tweet has elicited a rapid and very negative response from a lot of people. It said - he tweeted, quote, "Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district which is in horrible shape and falling apart, not to mention crime-infested, rather than falsely complaining about the election results and all talk, talk, talk, no action or results. Sad." - exclamation point. Which has a lot of things in it that just aren't true both about his district and about John Lewis.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, his district, as Tam is alluding to, has a higher percentage of people who are college graduates. You have Georgia Tech, Morehouse College, Coca-Cola. This is Atlanta. Like, this isn't some, you know, crime-infested backwater in the way that Donald Trump wants to kind of bill it. It also speaks, again, to anybody who puts out any kind of personal insult to Donald Trump. He is going to slam them back even harder than before. And I wonder what kind of effect that will have on folks who try to speak out, may disagree. I think a lot of people who would disagree with Trump, but would want to still maintain a relationship are going to find that to be a chilling effect.

MARTIN: Except that now his Cabinet nominees - that seems to - they seem to have an exemption.

MONTANARO: Yeah. Well, they're doing that on policy...

MARTIN: Policy.

MONTANARO: ...I suppose. And there are also people that he picked. I mean, had one of his nominees said that they think Donald Trump's an illegitimate president, that might have meant something different. But...

KEITH: Yeah. They're being a little bit more diplomatic about it. They're simply saying - they're being - Democrats with these hearings have been trying to - and some Republicans - push these nominees to draw out the differences between them and the president-elect. And these nominees have been quite diplomatic in the way they've responded as they have disagreed with public positions of the person who's nominating them.

MARTIN: We'll talk a little bit more about the whole John Lewis situation later in our Barbershop roundtable. Let's talk a bit more about some of the confirmation hearings. There were also confirmation hearings for Ben Carson at HUD, General Mattis at defense - you mentioned him - Mike Pompeo at the CIA, Elaine Chao for transportation, General John Kelly for Homeland Security...

MONTANARO: Right (laughter).

MARTIN: Help me out here.

MONTANARO: Tons of stuff. So there were...


MONTANARO: ...There were a couple things that were really interesting. I mean, Elaine Chao for transportation talked about infrastructure and how it was probably unlikely that Donald Trump was going to get the kind of money and the ambitious plan that he has laid out. But Ben Carson really kind of stood out to me, interestingly.

You know, Elizabeth Warren grilled him about whether or not he would rule out grants to Trump properties. He said he would not. He was also asked why a neurosurgeon would want to head up Housing and Urban Development. And he said interestingly that he wants the agency to go beyond people thinking of it as, quote, "putting roofs over the heads of poor people" and, quote, "develop our fellow human beings." So he may want to take somewhat of a more activist role never seen before for a HUD secretary.

MARTIN: Well, look, as if this wasn't busy enough - and it was busy enough - there was also other action on Capitol Hill apart from the confirmation hearings - pretty significant - a potentially significant move on the Affordable Care Act. Domenico, do you want to take it from there?

MONTANARO: Yeah. Look, the Congress passed a budget resolution that creates the framework to begin repeal, but that's not going to happen for a while. The big reason why - Republicans have not agreed on a plan to replace it. They set a date of January 27 in this resolution for the committees to report back with repeal legislation, but everyone acknowledges on the Hill, according to Susan Davis our congressional correspondent there, that this is going to slip 'til at least late February, probably go past that, could consume all of 2017 for Republicans.

KEITH: So with this legislation that has passed, Congress can repeal at least parts of - they can potentially repeal at least parts of the Affordable Care Act with only 51 votes in the Senate. But if they want to replace it, they actually need 60 votes which means they're going to need help from Democrats which means they really need to have a replacement that is broadly acceptable. And at this point, they don't have that yet.

And just with this first step that's been taken, you can see the backlash starting to build with people saying, wait, I actually got my health care through the Affordable Care Act. Are you taking it away? And there are - you're starting to see stories of real people with real health conditions telling their stories and that - as that builds, that makes the job even harder of repealing and replacing.

MARTIN: And, again, there's so much news this week, we can't drill down on, you know, all of it. But then yesterday, we learned that a close aide to Trump had spoken by phone with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. on the very day that the Obama administration announced that sanctions against Russia - that there were sanctions being imposed against Russia for meddling in the campaign. So, Tam, tell us about that.

KEITH: Yeah. So this is General Michael Flynn. He's Trump's pick for national security adviser, and he spoke with the Russian ambassador by phone at the ambassador's request, according to Trump aides, on December 29 which was the day that the Obama administration announced it would impose sanctions and expel 35 Russian diplomats.

There's other reporting, including from The Washington Post and Reuters, that it wasn't just one conversation, but several conversations. But Trump's spokesman Sean Spicer insists that it is doubtful that they discussed the sanctions and says that it was really just about logistics for after the inauguration. The reason that this matters is that it raises questions about whether Flynn was trying to influence the Russian response to the American sanctions and also whether he was sort of conducting foreign policy as a private citizen because President-elect Trump isn't president yet.

MONTANARO: We really still don't know all the details about this. It's a very odd situation where you have the incoming White House press secretary telling reporters on a phone call the morning this becomes revealed that it - that they spoke the day before the sanctions were announced. And then it's revealed later and confirmed to us at NPR that Flynn and the Russian ambassador spoke around the same time as the sanctions were being announced.

And the reason that this all matters is because of the Logan Act which says that no one can conduct foreign policy without the U.S. government's permission, meaning if Flynn were discussing something with the Russian ambassador, saying something like don't worry about these sanctions, we'll deal with it when Trump gets in, that would be a violation of the Logan Act.

KEITH: Though, the Logan Act has never been prosecuted. The real point here is, like, what is the relationship between Donald Trump and his team and Russia? Which it turns out is something that the Senate Intelligence Committee now says it is going to investigate, that they - and this is a reversal for that committee - but they are now planning to investigate whether there was contact between the Russian government and any of the campaigns. And they're saying that they could even subpoena people if they have to.

MARTIN: So Inauguration Day next week - it's going to be smooth sailing after that, right?

KEITH: Well, at least the weather will be nice.


MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political editor Domenico Montanaro, thank you both so much.

MONTANARO: Thank you, Michel.

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

Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.