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Week In Politics: Longest Government Shutdown In U.S. History


And let's move from personal effects of that shutdown to some of the political ones. Ron Elving, NPR senior editor-correspondent - Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: Does the president have an exit plan for the shutdown?

ELVING: At this moment, no such plan is apparent. The president says that if the Democrats don't give him his wall, he can declare a national emergency. And then he says he can assert the power to build a wall using military construction funds already appropriated for other jobs, perhaps including disaster relief funds for rebuilding areas that have been hit by hurricanes. Now, on Friday, the president explicitly said he was not ready to do this yet, but he hasn't ruled it out. It is, of course, controversial. Conservatives have not liked this in the past. Some of the people in the Senate who would certainly fit in that category, supporters of the president, have urged him not to do it. But some of his allies in the Capitol and back in the conservative media are saying the emergency looks like the only way out.

SIMON: Just a few weeks ago - and, of course, this is all on audio and video - the president in the Oval Office told Senator Schumer he'll take the blame for any shutdown. Since then, of course, he's tried to shift it over to Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer, but who will wind up owning this politically?

ELVING: A shutdown covers no one with glory, Scott, and surely some Americans will accept the shift of blame, as you described it. But let's review the actual action from this past week. The Democratic-led House is passing bills that would reopen the government, the departments that are not open now, one at a time. And they've even had some help on those votes from some of the House Republicans - just a handful basically. But those bills are frozen in the Republican Senate because, there, the party leaders refuse to vote on them at all until they get a green light from the president. So there we are. And if the president's changed his mind here, it could have something to do with the polls that show that only about 25 percent of Americans think the wall is worth a shutdown.

SIMON: I don't want the weekend to go by without asking about something the president said about that wall that he wants. I'm going to quote. He was talking to White House reporters. He said, quote, "during the campaign, I would say Mexico is going to pay for it. Obviously, I never said this and never said they were going to write out a check." I don't know how to follow this syntactically or otherwise. But what do you think it says about the president's leadership and, if I may, his fitness for office?

ELVING: You don't have to watch a whole lot of cable news to see the replays of candidate Trump telling his rallies that Mexico would pay for the wall in no uncertain terms. His own campaign documents - this in print - discussed a $5 billion to $10 billion payment direct from the Mexican government as one of its goals. And, of course, that was never going to happen. And now the president says he was talking about a new trade deal that would be more favorable to the U.S. and that that would somehow pay for the wall and that that had been what he had in mind all along. And, Scott, if you can believe that, then maybe next week he could tell you that he never promised to build a wall at all.

SIMON: Meanwhile, Robert Mueller's work on the Russia investigation goes on. Next week - confirmation hearings for William Barr to be attorney general. He'll be asked if he'll protect that investigation from interference, won't he?

ELVING: Yes, he will. And the Mueller investigation has gone forward because the Justice Department has been led by people who believed it was legitimate and necessary. Mr. Barr has indicated he does not share all of their enthusiasm for the project to put it mildly. He has indicated he thinks parts of the report may need to be withheld from the public. And this week, the president has said much the same. So these hearings are going to be important, not just because Barr will be in - the question of whether or not he gets Senate confirmation but because he can be asked to pledge he will protect the investigation and release its report to the nation.

SIMON: In February, Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer and fixer, testifies in front of Congress. Do we know what he has to tell?

ELVING: Some of it, yes, with respect to the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels and others. But there is a great deal more that this committee will want to know about work that Michael Cohen did for Donald Trump over a number of years, including contacts - possible contact - with Russians or their intermediaries.

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

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.