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Politics Chat: Donald Trump's Reelection Challenges

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Intelligence officials say Russia is working to harm Joe Biden's bid for the White House just as it did Hillary Clinton's. So why then has the Trump administration just ended election security briefings to Congress? We'll start there with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So the election now 65 days away - and now we hear that National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe told the Senate and House intelligence committees on Friday that they will only now get written updates about election security from here on out. Why?

LIASSON: According to the president, the reason is, quote, "you have leakers on the committee." The national intelligence director says it's to help ensure that the information is not, quote, "misunderstood or politicized," even though the last briefing documented that Russia still is hard at work trying to influence the 2020 elections. As you can imagine, Democrats reacted with outrage. They think this is a complete betrayal of the president's constitutional responsibility to allow the Article I branch, Congress, to do oversight. Adam Schiff, who's the intelligence committee chairman in the House, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying this is a betrayal of the public's right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy. The intelligence belongs to the American people not the agencies which are its custodians. What they're going to do about it remains to be seen.

ELLIOTT: We're going to hear from an intelligence committee member elsewhere in the program. But, Mara, what do you think this is all about?

LIASSON: Well, the president doesn't like oversight. He doesn't like any mention that Russia might be trying to help him, which is what the intelligence community has been saying they are doing (ph). You know, breaking norms is a feature not a bug of this administration. And this is another norm broken. He has defied subpoenas last week. During the Republican National Convention, he used the White House as a partisan political backdrop, which is illegal, even if it probably isn't enforceable - violation of the Hatch Act. And then you have this extraordinary event of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mark Milley, being asked by Democratic members of Congress for reassurance that he would refuse to let the military be used in the election. It's amazing he has to be asked that. But Democrats are worried that Trump won't leave office if he loses or he'll try to use law enforcement at the polls to intimidate voters. Trump has already said he's going to send sheriffs and other law enforcement U.S. attorneys to the polls. He says it's to watch out for fraud, but this is where we are at 60-odd days before the election.

ELLIOTT: You watched the Republican National Convention. The conventions are now over. What's your take now that it's done?

LIASSON: Well, I think the Republican convention had two messages. One was to fire up the base, lots of red meat. But also there was a new message, which is there is a secret Donald Trump you don't know, and he's warm and empathetic and not racist. And (laughter) there was a lot of time spent describing this president who we don't see in his daily television appearances or tweets. The Republicans worked hard to create a permission structure for voters who might like the president's policies but not his behavior, particularly white non-college women for whom Trump's behavior is annoying but not disqualifying, women who might be looking for a reason to come back to Trump. And then, of course, there was the message to suburban America; be afraid. Be very afraid. The Republicans think that the riots are working for them, that people are now more concerned about the looting and the vandalism than they are about racial justice. And here is what presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway said to Fox News on Thursday about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLYANNE CONWAY: The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who is best on public safety and law and order.

LIASSON: So there you have it. There are a couple of polls that have shown Black support for Black Lives Matter plummeting from July to August.

ELLIOTT: Briefly, Mara, we do have violence right now. What's going on in Kenosha - there was deadly violence overnight in Portland, Ore. How does the White House make the case that Trump can end the unrest with a second term?

LIASSON: Well, that is a very good question. It's as if the Republicans are saying, watch the videos of what's happening right now. That's what will happen if Biden is elected. It's a hard argument to make. Usually reelection campaigns are referendums on the incumbent, and they're - 70% of Americans think the country's on the wrong track. In the past, that has been a very bad sign for the incumbent. But maybe we're so tribalized that that doesn't matter anymore. We'll find out soon.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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