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Week In Politics: Whistleblower Controversy, Iran


While President Trump insists that his communications with world leaders are, quote, "always appropriate," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a different view. I sat down with her this morning for an interview where she described the whistleblower controversy this way.


NANCY PELOSI: Just another example of the lack of integrity, decency and patriotism on the part of this administration.

SHAPIRO: We'll hear more of that interview in other parts of the program. Right now we're going to discuss this debate and other issues from the week in politics with our Friday guests. Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post is here in the studio. Hi, Jonathan.


SHAPIRO: And Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Bloomberg View joins us on the line. Hi, Ramesh.


SHAPIRO: This story is complicated, and there is a lot that we don't know. But the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, provided some insight when he tweeted - a president telling a president-elect of a well-known corrupt country - he better investigate corruption that affects the U.S. - is doing his job.

So reading between the lines here, the implication seems to be that Trump may have asked the president-elect of Ukraine to investigate the Biden family. Jonathan, do you think that that is, as Giuliani argues, the president doing his job?

CAPEHART: In the grand scheme of things, yes. I mean, we have heard presidents, for as long as I can remember, talking to their counterparts, asking them to deal with corruption, to deal with things that the United States views as problematic. The problem with President Trump in this case is that he is asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival.

And that's why you hear in this conversation the allegation that the president is trying to get a foreign country to interfere with the 2020 election. What we don't know, and why this accusation could be potentially explosive is whether the president of the United States said, if you do this investigation of my political rival, I will give you the aid that you've been looking for.

SHAPIRO: A quid pro quo, tit for tat.


SHAPIRO: Well, Ramesh, does this seem extraordinary to you if it is, in fact, what happened here?

PONNURU: I think extraordinary is a fair term to describe it. It is the sort of thing that past presidents would have had some guardrails up to avoid, you know, even the appearance of impropriety. But this is a president that does not recognize that kind of constraint, doesn't tend to separate his personal interests and his political interests and the national interests. And that's, I think, how you get into this situation to begin with. And now we're just trying to figure out the precise contours of it.

SHAPIRO: Well, that leads us to the role of Congress conducting oversight. And the White House is stonewalling at every turn. In my interview today with Speaker Pelosi, she suggested passing legislation that would apply to future presidents. But she did not budge on the question of impeachment. And so, Jonathan, short of impeachment, do you see other steps that Congress can and should take to assert its powers right now?

CAPEHART: Well, right now the House Judiciary Committee is in the middle of doing hearings to determine whether they are going to seek - file articles of impeachment. By doing these hearings and doing them in open forum, even as wild as they were with Corey Lewandowski, they are - what the speaker is trying to do is build the leverage that she needs to build up the public sentiment behind the idea of impeachment.

SHAPIRO: That's what she says she's doing, but do you think she's really just stalling for time or do you think that's actually what she's doing?

CAPEHART: No, that is actually what she's doing because I interviewed her last week. And this is, you know, the way Speaker Pelosi has always operated, no matter what the issue is. And when she talked to me about this, it wasn't in regard to impeachment. It was in regard to gun legislation.

Public sentiment is there - 90% of the American people, for instance, want background checks. And she knows that she's got the leverage on - at least she's trying to squeeze Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on that issue. But in this case, asking - saying that Congress should pass laws goes all the way back to the famed OLC memo.

SHAPIRO: Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.

CAPEHART: Right. That says that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

SHAPIRO: And that's something she would like to change, right.

CAPEHART: Right. And if you could change that, then the president of the United States could be - would be liable in prosecution.

SHAPIRO: And one way to change that is through legislation, which is a long process that might not produce an actual law. So, Ramesh, If there is not some form of accountability, do you think the Trump administration's defiance of Congress will permanently change the standard for what is acceptable behavior from the executive branch?

PONNURU: Well, it depends. It depends on the political reaction, you know. So who wins the next presidential election? If President Trump loses the election, is the way that he conducted himself vis-a-vis Congress seen later as a lesson in what not to do or seen as maybe something that only he could do? So I think that there is a question. But I do think that this whole Ukraine story is going to raise the temperature of the internal democratic debate about impeachment.

At a certain point, I think it becomes hard for the Democrats to make the case next year that they should get - we should get rid of Trump because he's corrupt and he's not fit to lead when they're not taking the step that the Constitution says you take in such cases.

SHAPIRO: This is the argument that the best form of accountability is at the ballot box. In our last couple of minutes, I want to turn you to Iran and the secretary of state's visit to Saudi Arabia this week to talk about an attack on an oil facility which the U.S. and the Saudis blame on Iran. Iran denies that. Secretary Mike Pompeo called the attack an act of war.

Today the president said going into Iran, quote, "would be a very easy decision, the easiest thing." How serious do each of you think the risk of war is? Ramesh.

PONNURU: Well, I think that it would be a risky situation under any circumstances. But when you have an administration as mercurial as this one with so little unity among the top players and an indecisive president, I think it raises the stakes even more. It means that we could sort of bumble our way into a war.

And then you have this oddity that the secretary of state is saying it's an act of war when it's clearly not an act of war against us. It's an act of war against Saudi Arabia.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan.

CAPEHART: Yes, I agree with Ramesh on that. And we've heard the president say many times that things are easy. It's sort of a rhetorical crutch of his. There's nothing easy about going into yet another conflict in the Middle East. And as we know, the American people have very little appetite for the United States getting involved in yet another war.

But one more point. I want to go back to the whole situation with the whistleblower. We cannot forget the role of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Since this is the Ukraine and a foreign policy issue, usually foreign policy issues start in the Senate. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, where is he, and where are their voices on something of national security interest?

SHAPIRO: We're going to have to leave it at that. Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Bloomberg View. Have a great weekend.

Thanks to both of you.


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