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Overlooked Political Stories Of 2019


So as this year is winding down to a close, we here at MORNING EDITION have been looking at some of the stories that got lost in this nonstop news cycle. A lot of the constant churn, of course, was driven by President Trump and the investigations into him, first by special counsel Robert Mueller and then, of course, by Congress. So let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith to talk through some of the political headlines that we may have missed that might have been drowned out by this storm.

Hi there, Tam.


GREENE: So when you were first assigned this story - and I saw you do a call-out on social media to see what stories people felt that got drowned out - what did you learn?

KEITH: I learned that there are a lot of ideas.


KEITH: We got more than 200 suggestions, so I'm just going to admit now that this is an incredibly incomplete list.

GREENE: Well, let's look at a few that were on your list, starting with all of these vacancies in the Trump administration - I mean, a ton of people in these really important jobs with acting in front of their titles. You've got acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf who Trump picked in November to replace the previous acting director.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's acting right now, and we'll see where that goes. And as you know, John - as you know, I like acting. I mean, a lot of people say - I like acting. It gives you great, great flexibility.

GREENE: He likes acting, apparently.

KEITH: He does. There has not been a permanent secretary or even a nominee for nearly nine months in the Department of Homeland Security. At a recent Cabinet meeting, President Trump made it pretty clear that Wolf remains in a precarious position.


TRUMP: Have fun as acting, and let's see how things work out.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

KEITH: We'll see what happens. And it's not just Wolf. Only 47% of the top posts in the Department of Homeland Security are confirmed nominees. That is the worst in government according to the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks these things. There's no named nominee for the director of National Intelligence. There are people who he has picked for the two vacant positions on the Federal Reserve. But it's been six months since he named them, and the White House still hasn't sent their nominations to the Senate. And then over at the Federal Elections Commission, they are so short of commissioners that they now no longer have a quorum. So the nation's elections law police can't even meet.

GREENE: That's right. And actually, Ellen Weintraub, who's the chair of that commission was speaking to NPR earlier this year about that.


ELLEN WEINTRAUB: We now find ourselves without a quorum at all. It is just vitally important that there is an agency that is fully functional and able to make sure that money that is being received is being done so legally, that it's not coming from illegal sources - certainly not from foreign sources.

KEITH: And the other thing is that even before there was no quorum, it was basically nonfunctional and in total gridlock. But it doesn't appear at this point that President Trump or Senate Democrats are making haste to work out their differences and get that back up to a quorum.

GREENE: Well, another story on this list of stories that may have gotten drowned out - one out of every four U.S. circuit court judges in this country have been confirmed since President Trump took office. I mean, there's a reshaping of the judiciary happening.

KEITH: Right. And this is sort of one of those stories that is happening every week in the U.S. Senate. Even as the House was voting on impeachment, the Senate was confirming more of President Trump's judicial nominees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell boasted about his success on Hugh Hewitt's radio show recently.


MITCH MCCONNELL: President Obama appointed 55 circuit judges in eight years. President Trump, with our Senate confirmation, has done 50 in three years.

KEITH: And they're all going to be on the court for a very long time - a generation - likely helping to shape policy through judicial decisions. President Trump talks about this regularly at campaign events, and it's one of the things that he sells, especially to evangelical voters. It's sort of like, you may not like the way I talk or some of the things I do, but just look at the judges.

GREENE: Well, another story that ebbs and flows is the news about the president's financial conflicts. There were all these questions when it was announced that the next G-7 summit would be at this golf course that the president owns near Miami. This was in October. And Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, was talking about the concerns people had.


MICK MULVANEY: He knows exactly that he's going to get these questions and exactly get that reaction from a lot of people. And he's simply saying, OK, that's fine; I'm willing to take that - the same way he takes it when he goes to Trump Mar-a-Lago, the same place when he goes to play Trump Bedminster. He got over that a long time ago. We absolutely believe this is the best place to have it. We're going to have it there.

GREENE: So Tamara, remind us what happened next.

KEITH: Well, they didn't have it there. They had to back down. The White House faced a huge amount of pushback, even from Republicans in Congress. And they backed down, and now it's going to be at Camp David. But he points to something that would have been a huge story with any other president. But because it's President Trump and there's so much of it, it gets lost.

According to the GAO, a government watchdog, it cost taxpayers about $3 million a trip when President Trump visits Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, which is where he is right now. There are trips to Bedminster, N.J., where he has a golf club. And of course, some of those expenses to the government are paid to President Trump's resorts.

Then there's the Trump hotel in downtown Washington where the president dines, where political fundraisers are held and where people who are trying to curry favor with the president hold events or book a big block of rooms. Of course, the president says that he has his hands off of this, that it's being run by his sons. But then sometimes he promotes his properties on Twitter.

GREENE: And then, Tam, there were also these photos of President Trump on social media just this past weekend at Mar-a-Lago meeting with Eddie Gallagher. This was a story about a clemency decision. Gallagher was acquitted of murdering a captive ISIS fighter but convicted for posing with the corpse. And the president insisted that Gallagher be allowed to retire as a Navy SEAL, keep his Trident pin. Here's what the president said.


TRUMP: They wanted to take his pin away. And I said, no, you're not going to take it away. He was a great fighter. He was one of the ultimate fighters.

GREENE: It's a really controversial story, Tam.

KEITH: Incredibly controversial. And he overruled the military brass and pardoned two service members - one who was in military prison for killing two civilians, another who was charged with killing a civilian. For all of these cases, President Trump was lobbied by prominent conservatives who talked about the cases on Fox News. He overruled military leaders and, in the Gallagher case, led to the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who clashed with the president on this.

GREENE: Just some of the stories that have been drowned out in the news cycle in 2019. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.