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Week In Politics: Biden Embarks On First European Tour As President

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A busy week in Washington, D.C. Infrastructure talks collapse. Oh, come on. But long live infrastructure talks.

JON TESTER: I think it's going to take more than just 10 Republicans - I think the Republicans will tell you that - because quite honestly, there's no guarantee we're going to keep all the Democrats.

SIMON: Montana Senator Jon Tester, who's one of the new gang of 10 now trying to pick up a bipartisan flag on infrastructure - also, more troubling revelations about the Justice Department's actions during the Trump administration. And, of course, the president is in Europe to try to reassure allies and prepare for a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

We're joined now by NPR Ron - NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And let's begin with the president at the G-7. Is this the world stage debut that he would like?

ELVING: It's certainly the stage he would like and that he's been hoping for. It's all but tailor-made for a new president to step up and step into the role, especially a new president with all of Biden's experience. Now, these relationships - the U.K., the G-7, the NATO heads of state - these ought to be his wheelhouse. And these meetings are an excellent chance for relationship repairs after the frictions of the last four years. And then on Wednesday, Biden takes whatever momentum he's gained into the big showdown in Geneva with Vladimir Putin. And this morning, the White House indicated there would not be a joint news conference after this meeting, which might be an indication they're expecting some stormy weather in Geneva.

SIMON: While the president's away, there seems to be a growing scandal left over from the previous administration. The Justice Department under President Trump reportedly had been collecting by subpoena data of journalists and lawmakers. What have we found out?

ELVING: This is the kind of tool federal prosecutors usually use to go after lawbreakers, not lawmakers - or journalists, for that matter. But this data seizure began fairly early in the Trump administration when Trump was accusing some of his Democratic critics - on the House Intelligence Committee, in particular - of leaking sensitive information to reporters.

So we learned earlier this spring that the phone and internet data of some reporters had been secretly seized during the Trump years. Now we know they were doing the same with at least two members of Congress, along with their staffs and even their families, children. This apparently led to no action against any of these people. And it has ended, but the new management at the Department of Justice says it will conduct an internal investigation anyway to see how all this began and how extensive it might have been.

SIMON: And what about the reaction?

ELVING: Well, you'll not be surprised to hear the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee - that's California Congressman Adam Schiff - has called this an outrageous abuse of power. He and his California colleague, Eric Swalwell, on the committee were the two targets. And meanwhile, Democratic leaders on the Hill want to have an investigation of their own calling in the two men who ran the Department of Justice through nearly all of the Trump term. That would be Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr.

SIMON: We've made people wait for the infrastructure discussion (laughter). Let's hold the mirror into the nose of an infrastructure deal. Is it still breathing?

ELVING: Well, look; the big multitrillion dollar bill, that Biden has been pushing, the American Jobs Plan, that does not seem to have the votes as proposed. So the question is whether a smaller-scale effort might have a chance - you know, something that's far less ambitious on climate change and includes no tax increases. And now in the Senate, we have a new bipartisan team. He referred to these new power brokers on the scene, five Republicans, five Democrats. We still haven't seen their details, and there's no guarantee they can get the votes for their ideas any more than Biden can for his.

SIMON: Finally, if we need money to pay for infrastructure, it comes from tax dollars. And there was a big report this week that there are any number of big-name billionaires - I suppose they're all big-name - who reportedly have not been paying any income tax.

ELVING: Tax avoidance by the ultra-rich - it's not new, but we've rarely seen the numbers laid out so clearly as we did this week. The nonprofit reporting organization ProPublica got a huge download from an unnamed source in the IRS, and their report indicates the richest of the rich - Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg - paid shockingly little income tax to the federal government in recent years, far less in percentage terms than ordinary Americans and in some cases in some years, literally no tax at all. So it's possible for a super-billionaire to see their wealth increase at the same time minimize the kind of income that has to be taxed. And that's one place Congress could go if it wanted to change the law and if it could get both parties to agree to do so.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

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

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