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Week In Politics: Grand Jury, Leak Crackdown, John Kelly Begins


Where to begin the week in politics? The Mooch removed, the White House staff shaken - if not stirred - more leaks, a rally and more developments in the Russian investigation. In studio, we have Molly Ball, staff writer who covers politics for The Atlantic. Molly, thanks for being back with us.

MOLLY BALL: I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: Isn't that what we got in the news business? It's never dull, is it?

BALL: It really has not been. And in a way, this White House is really a gift to all of us in the journalistic community. When we might have traditionally been slacking off for the summer, particularly on the political beat - there's usually sort of a summer doldrums - but no, we have the bounty of news that seems to flood every week out of Washington.

SIMON: Let me follow up on a couple of things. Attorney General Sessions and the Justice Department announced the change on affirmative action and a big vow a crack down on leaks, following the leak of White House - of transcripts from White House conversations between President Trump and prime minister of Australia and the president of Mexico.

BALL: Yes. Now, Jeff Sessions, despite his very public dispute with the president, who has been unhappy with him publicly, continues to be quite busy at the Department of Justice. The affirmative action issue is not quite clear. The Department of Justice claims there was less to that story than was originally claimed, that, in fact, they're merely looking at a single lawsuit, not looking to overhaul American policy to attack affirmative action broadly across the country.

On Friday, Attorney General Sessions announced this wide-ranging effort to root out leaks, which have been very rampant in the - under this administration to the great displeasure of the president and those in his orbit, announcing that he will re-evaluate the Department of Justice's guidelines on how they deal with leaks and potentially seek to target journalists more than is already done.

SIMON: And we should note, to be fair, the Obama administration targeted at least one journalist, James Rosen, who was - phone calls from...

BALL: They did. The Obama administration was actually notorious for its targeting of journalists and raised the ire of a lot of First Amendment activists. And the Trump administration now potentially going farther, although Sessions didn't say what was actually going to be done, what might actually be changed in these guidelines. But it did seem that, especially by announcing this so publicly, he really wants his boss to know that this is something he's undertaking because this is something clearly dear to the heart of the president.

SIMON: Anthony Scaramucci was shown the door practically before he could find the men's room at the White House. And General John Kelly has been brought in as the new chief of staff. Have they brought in a Marine Corps general to try and tighten the ship?

BALL: That is the appearance, certainly right now. And this, you know, this is part of a sort of slow-rolling-two-week-long staff shake-up that began with the resignation of Sean Spicer and then Reince Priebus. And then with General Kelly being brought in, he took this decisive action of getting rid of Anthony Scaramucci immediately. We've also seen some shaking up of the National Security Council and a lot of reporting out of the White House that he - that General Kelly is imposing discipline, is controlling access to the president and asserting his authority with the staff in a way that Priebus was never able to do. The question, as ever with Trump though, is whether it can be sustained and whether the president himself can be brought into line.

SIMON: Congress has gone home for the August recess. What do they have to show the folks back home for six months of work?

BALL: Well, interestingly enough, they obviously didn't get health care done, haven't even started on tax reform. The one thing Congress really was able to do on its way out the door was pass this Russia sanctions bill, which was really sort of a slap in the face to the president. It ties the president's hand in conducting diplomacy. It was passed overwhelmingly. The president did sign it but not without a statement indicating that he was not pleased with this action. But that's - there have been no major policy achievements by this Congress so far, despite consolidated Republican control in Washington. And the natives are restless on Capitol Hill.

SIMON: Molly Ball of The Atlantic, thanks so much for being back with us. Always good to talk to you.

BALL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.