The NPR Politics Podcast : NPR

Angelena Iglesia

ALEX: This is Alex (ph)… COVE: Cove (ph). ALEX: …And Boy, our German Shepherd, in Springfield, Ore. We’re walking her right now with our masks on. COVE: Not because there’s anybody nearby, but because ash is raining down on us from the nearby Holiday Farm Fire. ALEX: Thanks to our […]

ALEX: This is Alex (ph)…

COVE: Cove (ph).

ALEX: …And Boy, our German Shepherd, in Springfield, Ore. We’re walking her right now with our masks on.

COVE: Not because there’s anybody nearby, but because ash is raining down on us from the nearby Holiday Farm Fire.

ALEX: Thanks to our local NPR station, we know that the fire’s now over 105,000 acres and still 0% contained.

COVE: This podcast was recorded at…


1:12 p.m. on Friday, September 11.

ALEX: Things might have changed by the time you hear this.

COVE: OK. Here’s the show.


ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Wow. It sounds like a really, really rough situation.

KEITH: Everybody stay safe out there. And the fires are exactly what we are talking about today. Hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And I’m Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

KEITH: And as I said, we are going to start with the wildfires. It’s not as explicitly political as our usual topics, but it’s important. There are fires raging all over the West, as we heard in Oregon, but also in California and Colorado. It’s really hard to just keep track of them all. There are so many. They are so big. The destruction is immense. And we are joined now by Lauren Sommer. She covers climate for NPR, and she’s out in California. Hey, Lauren.


KEITH: You are here to help us sort through this all. I want to start with something that was filling my Facebook this last couple of days, which is the skies over San Francisco. They were this haunting, apocalyptic orange from all the smoke. What is it like out there?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, it’s a full-on, like, “Blade Runner” slash Mordor. I mean, that’s exactly what it looks like.


SOMMER: It looked like nighttime during the day. It was this strange, disturbing orange color. But it’s kind of a sign of what’s been going on for a whole month in California, which is these really destructive extreme fires. It just so happened now that there’s so much smoke in the air that it’s really affecting state – all the West Coast states at this point.

KEITH: Can you put this in perspective? How many fires are we talking about? How big are they? I know there’s also been some loss of life in addition to loss of homes and property.

SOMMER: Yeah. It’s – at this point, I mean, it’s been hundreds of fires, but not all of them have been giant. But unfortunately, a lot of them are quite large. I mean, record-breaking fires. Right now in California, the largest fire that’s burning is actually the largest for the last century, it’s No. 1 now. Five of the fires burning California already made the top 10.

You know, in Oregon, we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. It’s up to thousands of homes that have been burned and destroyed across Oregon, California, Colorado. And so it’s a huge impact. I mean, just a week or two ago, I was with a family returning to the ruins of their house with their two kids. And it’s something, unfortunately, I’ve been doing year after year, and we’re not even through the worst of fire season yet.

KHALID: And, Lauren, these records keep getting met, and these records keep being broken. I guess the inevitable question is, like – is this linked to climate change that we’ve been hearing so much about? Is that the reason why we’re seeing so many of these record-breaking fires?

SOMMER: Yeah. Well we know is that it’s – climate change is making fires worse, right? It’s hotter temperatures, they’re helping dry out the vegetation, and that just really exacerbates these extreme fires. Now fires aren’t abnormal, right? There’s a lot of landscapes here in California and in the West Coast that are supposed to have fire. It’s a normal thing. But what we’re seeing is climate change kind of tipping that balance, you know? Really pushing it into this really extreme behavior.

But then on top of that, it’s really important to point out that, you know, we’ve done stuff to make this worse as well. There’s millions of people who have moved into fire-prone areas, so a lot of people are in danger. And then we’ve had, you know, basically a century of fire suppression. We’ve put fires out over and over because, you know, that was the policy for a really long time. And that’s kind of allowed a lot of vegetation to grow. We’ve got some overgrown forests. And so you’ve got a lot of fuel after a long drought – don’t forget California had a drought – that killed a lot of trees. And that just kind of primed it for these really extreme circumstances.

KEITH: But it’s not just fires, right? Like, there was this heat wave in Southern California recently where it was, oh, well over 100 degrees in Los Angeles. Like, my grandparents’ house in LA didn’t have air conditioning because they didn’t need it. And now, there are these extreme days. Or Hurricane Laura was one of the biggest hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in decades. Is this the new normal?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, I don’t have air conditioning where I am in the Bay Area, and I think a lot of people around me are thinking about getting it. We just had a massive heat wave last weekend. And, you know, my house was 90 degrees. We couldn’t open the windows because the smoke was so bad to cool it off at night. So.

KEITH: Oh, my God.

SOMMER: It’s really hitting home for people I think in a way where it hasn’t maybe before, because millions and millions of people are feeling this right now. And essentially, with climate change, you can just think of it as making all of our existing problems worse, right? Like hurricanes, they become more extreme when the Atlantic is hotter. You’ve got the fires, right? Heat waves. We already had heat waves, but it kicks them up into this extra gear. And it really affects a lot of people. And for disadvantaged communities, it’s really important to point out that, like, all the problems that were there have become so much worse because of all these things.

KEITH: It seems, though, like climate change is not really strongly part of the conversation of this campaign at this moment. I know there’s a lot else going on. But, Asma, am I missing something?

KHALID: No. I mean, you’re right. I mean, President Trump – as you know – I think he’s been fairly noticeably absent from this conversation. But I think what’s surprising to folks when we’re talking about both California as well as climate issues is that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris haven’t really been extremely visible. They’re not a huge part of this conversation.

And I think, in the case of Kamala Harris, that even feels more notable because she’s the sitting senator from California. I did ask the campaign – you know, both Harris and Biden have put out a couple of remarks on Twitter, they’ve been referencing climate change. You know, in one of Joe Biden’s tweets, he mentioned, you know, Jill and I are keeping you all in our prayers. I did ask the campaign about this and I was given a statement from one of Kamala Harris’ press aides saying that both Biden and Harris have been closely monitoring the wildfires, and that this highlights the urgent need to address the threat of climate change. And then went on to say that a Biden Harris administration will build back better – which is, you know, their slogan – by ensuring that the infrastructure is sustainable and resilient while tackling climate change so we don’t keep having a, quote, “once in a generation natural disaster every couple of years.”

KEITH: Yeah. And President Trump, for his part, has made it clear again this week that he was pulling the – he decided early in his administration to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. And he’s campaigning on the idea that Joe Biden would put the U.S. back into it, and that that would be bad for America. So, I mean, maybe it’s just a function of there’s not much of a conversation to have because they’re so – they’re on such polar opposite sides of it. But, you know, this is an issue that polling would indicate motivates young voters. And it would seem to be a moment of receptiveness in the public, at least in the West.

SOMMER: Yeah. I think kind of what’s also interesting to point out too is that, you know, the day after the election is kind of a big day in the climate world, because that would be the first day that Trump could officially pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. He said he intends to, but that’s the day he can actually do it. Biden has obviously said he wants to put the U.S. back in the Paris climate accord.

You know, there were supposed to be these really big climate negotiations this fall, and they’ve been pushed because of the pandemic. So I think, you know, there’s a lot riding on what happens in November, obviously, from a worldwide perspective – both in terms of what the U.S. is doing to combat climate emissions, but also in terms of what other countries are going to do because they’re waiting to see what the leadership is going to be.

KEITH: And that gets us back to that thing that we are all headed towards which is the election. Lauren, thank you so much for stopping by and turning up your air filter to talk to us.

SOMMER: You’re welcome. I’m going to turn it back on now.

KEITH: Yeah. Good plan. Good plan (laughter). All right. We will be right back to talk about newly disclosed Russian election interference efforts.


KEITH: And we’re back. And we have a man with us who’s become something of a Friday regular at this point, Miles Parks. Hello, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Tam. Good to talk to you.

KEITH: You don’t always bring the sunshine, and today is another one of those cases (laughter).

PARKS: I try to give the bad news with the smile, though.

KEITH: Well, this is true.

KHALID: We can’t see you, though unfortunately, Miles.

KEITH: Do you have a mustache right now or not? We can’t see you.

PARKS: I do, actually. I have a very strong mustache.

KEITH: Oh (laughter). OK. So what we’re really here to talk about is hacking. There were new Treasury Department sanctions announced this week against a member of the Ukrainian parliament and employees of that infamous Russian troll farm, the IRA. Tell us what the allegations are, why the Treasury Department felt it needed to act in this case.

PARKS: Yeah. The notable thing here, as you mentioned, a member of the Ukrainian parliament is under sanctions now from the Treasury Department. And this guy’s name is Andriy Derkach. He’s basically – what the Treasury Department says is he’s been working as a Russian agent – the Treasury Department, quote, “a Russian agent for the last 10 years.” And in the last year, he’s been really at the forefront of pushing these conspiracy theories about former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine, basically saying that there was all this corruption happening that Joe Biden was involved in.

He’s published these edited phone calls that purportedly show this. He’s even tried to reach out to Western media outlets, as well as Republican members of Congress. He’s met with President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, a number of times. And so what the Treasury Department says is he’s been pushing this narrative about Joe Biden, specifically to have an effect on the 2020 election. They called it – they say basically it’s outright election interference, and his assets – American assets – now are going to be frozen.

KEITH: That is significant. And the connections to President Trump’s inner circle would seem to also be significant. Where does the president fit into all of this?

PARKS: Right. Well, it kind of goes back to – it feels like 10 years ago. But it goes back to last year with the impeachment, you know, where we were living for multiple months. That impeachment was based on this idea that President Trump was using – trying to use foreign aid money to Ukraine to essentially push Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden and his family. And what the Treasury Department is announcing is that officially these narratives about the Biden family are false and baseless, which, you know, we’ve been saying over and over again that there was no truth to these conspiracy theories. But now you have the Treasury Department saying it.

KEITH: The Trump Treasury Department.

KHALID: So, Tam, I have a question for you because, I mean, the Treasury Department is – it’s part of Donald Trump’s administration, right? And so you have…

KEITH: I mean, heck, the building is on the same block as the White House.

PARKS: Yeah. So you have – I mean, wasn’t the statement actually put out by Steve Mnuchin? I mean, he’s the person who put out this statement to my knowledge. And I’m just curious, like, how you reconcile the politics of this where you have the Treasury Department saying that there is this alleged Russian interference and you’ve had a president who for a long time seems to largely have been dismissive of these concerns.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, there has long been a disconnect on any number of things between the president and parts of his own government, and this would certainly seem to be a big case of it. I don’t think that we’re going to somehow magically see President Trump disavow these conspiracies that he has retweeted himself fairly recently. It just – it is part of the ongoing disconnect where President Trump has shown absolutely no interest, at least rhetorically, in pushing back on Russia. But when he is challenged, when people say President Trump is soft on Russia or President Trump has some sort of weird soft spot for Putin, then the president’s administration, you know, the spokespeople and everyone pushes back and says, how dare you say that. Look at what the Treasury Department has done.

PARKS: The question definitely is, over the next two months, are these sanctions going to do anything to mean that the president maybe doesn’t go and his Republican allies maybe don’t go in the direction of pushing these Ukraine narratives maybe as hard as they would have?

KEITH: There was this other development yesterday where Microsoft disclosed that Russia, China and Iran – groups backed by them – attempted to break into both major presidential campaigns. What is going on? Is this similar to what was happening four years ago?

PARKS: Oh, not just similar. We’re talking about the same folks here.


PARKS: I mean, that was what was so striking about this Microsoft disclosure is that this is this hack – Russian hacking group called Fancy Bear, if you remember.

KEITH: It sounds so cute.

KHALID: That’s such a, like, classic name.

PARKS: Well, yeah, I know. It sounds cute, but you do not want to pet these folks. This is the group that hacked the Clinton campaign in 2016 and released all those damaging emails. They’re back at it is what Microsoft says. They’ve been observed over the last year trying to break into more than 200 organizations, many of whom have some connection to the U.S. election, whether it’s national and state political parties. They say they’ve been observed trying to break into the networks of political consultants who are consulting for candidates on both sides of the aisle, as well as in the think tank world, organizations like the German Marshall Fund who run a tracker on Russian election interference. So this group has really cast a wide net around the election. And then Microsoft also said that, yes, China and Iran are involved here too. They – hacking groups connected to these countries have been observed trying to break into the campaigns of both Biden and Trump – and including at least one notable former Trump administration official, though the company didn’t name who that is.

It’s important to note, though, when we hear this kind of huge announcement that people in the cybersecurity world really view Russia, the Russian threat as more of an existential threat to this, you know, democracy, this election in the next two months specifically because we know a little bit about what the countries’ aims are once they hack into accounts. You know, we saw in 2016, as I mentioned, Russia break into these email accounts and then actually release that information with an effort to kind of directly impact the election results. Whereas we’ve seen previously that when China – groups connected to China hack, it’s been traditionally for espionage purposes to try and find out more information about their targets and not necessarily to directly impact voters.

KHALID: Miles, one sort of related question I have is that so much of the foreign interference in the U.S. election in 2016 was tied to these social media accounts that seemed to be, like, fanning the culture war flames. And I am curious just given, obviously, the current, like, cultural moment that we’re living in if there’s been any indication that we’re having a repeat of any of that type of behavior.

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, there’s been indications that – the disclosures in that – on that front have come mostly from the social media companies themselves who’ve said they have been taking down some accounts. And they have seen accounts tied to Russia. The experts I talk to at this point are really worried less about the actors who are creating content in different countries and pushing it in American social media world and actually are really worried now about how much organic misinformation is being posted on social media by domestic actors. And, you know, there are definitely efforts out there for people like the Internet Research Agency to basically kind of further amplify these divisions. But in general, I think the general consensus is that the level of conversation, the polarization in this country is already in such a difficult place that they don’t necessarily have to jump in and do as much work as they did four years ago.

KHALID: God. That’s a little depressing, reality.

KEITH: We’re doing all the work for them. This isn’t going to be the end of this conversation, that’s for darn sure. But we’re going to take a quick break right now. And when we come back, it’s time for Can’t Let It Go, where hopefully we’ll actually get to have some fun.


KEITH: And we are back. And it’s time for our favorite part of the show, definitely my favorite part of the show, where we talk about the things that we cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Asma, what can’t you let go of?

KHALID: OK. So this was actually, I feel, a couple of weeks ago. But I can’t let it go because it’s just – it’s fun and I feel like there haven’t been actually that many moments of joy lately. So do you all remember Brandy and Monica? I feel like this is very dated to my junior high school years of music life listening. But you guys know Brandy, right? Monica? R&B listeners? “The Boy Is Mine.”

PARKS: Yes. I definitely – I mean, again, it’s like before I was like a cognizant music listener, I have to admit. I’m, like, admitting my youth here. But yes, I am very familiar.

KHALID: Perhaps you were a young lad then.

KEITH: I think I am, like, ever so slightly older than you, Asma.


KEITH: And that, like, that gap puts this in a bit of a black hole for me. But that’s OK.

PARKS: We’re all living in this weird age gap where we all had very, very different teen years.

KEITH: I’m going to – I’m following along with you anyway. Here we go.

KHALID: OK. Brandy and Monica had this epic song – I think it was like in seventh or eighth grade – called “The Boy Is Mine,” two classic R&B singers. And they got together on this platform called Verzuz. And they basically had this music battle the other night.


BRANDY AND MONICA: (Singing) You need to give it up. Had about enough.

KHALID: Long story short, it was amazing. You heard, like, all their classic hits. If you ever liked ’90s R&B, I highly recommend you check it out. But also, what was interesting is that Kamala Harris, running mate to Joe Biden, made this cameo appearance to encourage people to vote.


KAMALA HARRIS: You both used your voice in such a powerful way. And an extension of our voices is our vote.

KHALID: And it struck me as just this, like, really weird moment where so many people are hanging out in their homes – like we have been for months – tuning in to, like, social media platforms like this. And the Biden campaign keeps talking about the fact that they are trying to reach people in these unusual ways. And, you know, they’re not knocking on doors. They’re not doing all these things that you’d normally see in a campaign.

And so she went, you know, essentially there to, like, talk about how much of a fan she was of Brandy and Monica and then made this pitch to vote, which is like the classic pitch we keep hearing from Democrats, which is like, remember to vote. Remember to vote. And they’re not knocking on doors. You know, they’re not holding massive rallies. They’re not doing all the things that a normal campaign, you would assume, would be doing and all the things that Donald Trump’s campaign is doing.

And I don’t know. It just made me think a lot about like, is this actually strategy that’s going to work? Is it really going to get people out to vote When you see Kamala Harris pop into this video for a couple of minutes telling people to vote? Or does it just slide right by you?

KEITH: You know, if this works, if they are able to pull off a ground game without the ground part of it, then does that change campaigning forever? Like, does the pandemic change the way candidates campaign or not? Because the, you know, the so-called ground game, the doorknocking is such a big part traditionally of politics, particularly of democratic politics.

PARKS: Yeah. The place I’ve seen it the most because I’m a huge sports fan is just in every major sport – right now we have all four major sports going on, I think, for the first time ever or definitely the first time in my lifetime all at the same time. And you’re just hearing it over and over again from athletes in a way that you just never have before. And I wonder the same thing as you do, Asma, in terms of like, does LeBron James telling you to vote – how much does it matter? And how much will we know? I’d be really curious. I doubt there’s going to be a lot of exit polling on, like, how much did LeBron James’ message – why are you out?

I mean, even people who come out maybe subliminally have been affected by this kind of general feeling in the air over the last few months of like, vote, vote, vote. I don’t know that people consciously will connect it to, like, seeing Kamala Harris at a Brandy event necessarily. But I would be curious if there’s any way we can quantify how much all of this kind of popular culture – it just feels like it’s everywhere right now in a way that it hasn’t been before.

KHALID: So, Tam, why don’t you go next? What can’t you let go of?

KEITH: Yeah. So I went on our Facebook group, our NPR POLITICS PODCAST Facebook group – which everyone can join – and asked our crew what they couldn’t let go of because I didn’t have anything good this week. I’m having a bad week. And I asked for joy, and joy was delivered in the form of the toddler chef – Little Chef Cade Instagram account.

KHALID: I’m going to look this up.

KEITH: And there is this video that has something like 3 million views. You absolutely need to look it up. Here, maybe I can send you guys the link so that everyone can watch it with me.

PARKS: Cute chef creates some cooking chaos.

KEITH: Yeah, I believe that would be it. So they’re baking cookies. I assume they’re chocolate chip cookies. But so it’s this grandma with her grandson named Cade.


CADE: Cookie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. All right. Let nana…

KEITH: She, like, goes to put the butter in the bowl. And she’s like, no, put the butter in but don’t eat the butter.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No eating the butter, though, OK? OK. Good job, Cade.

KEITH: And then the next shot is like her, like, trying to wrestle the bowl out of his hands as he’s like grabbing the butter and shoving it in his mouth. And then like every ingredient, she’s like, don’t eat it. And then he shoves it in his mouth in a totally cute way. And it’s totally adorable.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Don’t eat the brown sugar. Oh, my gosh. No.

KEITH: He’s grabbing the sugar. It is just like the funniest thing in the world. And as a child who used to just, like, raid the sugar bowl, I have an affinity for Cade here. This is amazing. Miles, what can’t you let go of?

PARKS: The most cathartic moment of my week was, you know, the NPR Music team has been doing these Tiny Desk – they can’t obviously do the Tiny Desk concerts in our office anymore because we’re not in our office anymore. But they’ve been doing these Tiny Desk concerts from home. And I don’t know if you guys know the artist Phoebe Bridgers. She is one of my favorites. She released an album earlier this year that – probably my most listened record this year. It’s really, really, really amazing.


KHALID: I mean, I don’t know – OK, now I’m going to Google.

PARKS: You should – yeah, check her out. It was her second album. But she did one of these Tiny Desk concerts from home and actually did it in front of a green screen with her band. She’s in, like, this gray pantsuit and in front of the green screen, which is the Oval Office. And her band is dressed as Secret Service. And they just do this amazing three-song set that – the first two songs are – she does a lot of like – the album is mostly kind of like slow and meandering. It’s like really good, like, walking late at night music. And then the last song on the album, like, turns like really, really loud. And they do that song.

And in the middle of the song, she like gets up. And you could see at the end of video she, like – they move – they turn off the green screen and go basically grab a bunch of like electric guitars and get this huge band. And they also recorded – they sent out like a shout-out to fans and had everyone, like, record this last section themselves on their phones. And so then at the end, during this, like, the loudest moment of the song, they play basically like a hundred people all doing it with her, this last moment.

And it was like – it’s like this really loud release of energy. And you’re just seeing all of these different people do it in their cars and like with their dogs and like all in – separately in their little quarantine situations but doing this last, like, really loud, amazing moment. And everyone’s should just go watch it. It’s just – and listen to the record, too. It’s just like – I don’t know.

KEITH: That sounds glorious.

PARKS: I can’t get enough of it.


KEITH: That is a wrap for today. You can stay connected with us by checking out the links in the description of this episode. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Our intern is Kalyani Saxena. And thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter.

I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: I’m Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

PARKS: And I’m Miles Parks. I cover voting and election security.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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