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Week In Politics: How Trump Announces Policy Changes And The Future Of The EPA

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now let's talk about some of the ways President Trump is changing policy and Washington. We're going to do that in our regular Week In Politics segment with Matthew Yglesias, columnist and co-founder of Vox. Hey there, Matthew.

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Hi.

CORNISH: And Eliana Johnson, national political reporter for Politico, welcome to the studio.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: So for a long time people were like, are policy tweets? Are tweets policy? Do we have an answer? Who wants to take this first?

YGLESIAS: Well, you know, I think you see on some of these issues that I think what the president is doing is using public statements to force members of his administration to start working on things that they've been trying to slow-walk. You saw that most obviously, I think, on the Syria issue where the president and the military commanders seem to have a different view about the merits of a long-term presence there. And he is trying to put pressure on them to actually draw plans to implement his kind of vision of these things. And, you know, he has a somewhat unusual style, but that kind of conflict between a president and military commanders isn't new. President Obama had similar issues in Afghanistan even though he handled it very differently.

CORNISH: Eliana, for you?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think Trump is not used to this slow - often painfully slow pace at which government works and at which policy is formulated. And so he was having discussions with his senior aides about deploying National Guard troops to the border, but the policy certainly wasn't ripe when he announced it publicly, and the details weren't hammered out. Where - are these troops going to be armed? How many of them are going to go? And so that did leave his closest aides scrambling to clarify these details. And, you know, as we heard, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen couldn't do that. And we've seen that a lot in recent weeks.

CORNISH: I want to talk about another agency that people had a lot of conversation about this week, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the chief there, Scott Pruitt. Reports are piling up about a number of questionable decisions on everything from personnel to office furniture to his condo rental from a lobbyist. Here is Sarah Sanders being asked at the White House briefing today if President Trump continues to have confidence in Pruitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president feels that the administrator has done a good job at EPA. He's restored it back to its original purpose of protecting the environment. It's gotten unnecessary regulations out of the way. And we're continuing to review any of the concerns that we have. And I'll keep you posted if there's anything further on that front.

CORNISH: So he's on the list of kind of resignation watch in Washington, I think, if I can put it gently. Eliana, for you, does this confidence equal safety in your gig?

JOHNSON: I don't think it does. But this is a really interesting case. In the past couple of weeks, we've seen the president jump ahead of his advisers to fire the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and the secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin. But this is a case where everybody around the president is telling him that it's time for Scott Pruitt to go, and the president is resisting. And I do think it's a good case study of his contrarian nature where he's resisting the advice of his advisers.

And in the previous cases, the president wanted to fire somebody. His advisers were telling him to slow down. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser - today is his last day - a great example of that. The president forged ahead despite the advice, and now he's holding back again despite the advice of his advisers. This is somebody who likes to do his own thing and to frustrate even the people closest to him.

CORNISH: Matthew, people are often complimented on their way out the door. So do we read anything into this?

YGLESIAS: You know, I don't think we can read that much into it. The president has said many times that people's jobs are safe right before they've been fired. Nothing is decided until it's decided. It's clear that Trump likes Scott Pruitt - right? - on a personal level. That's different from some of these earlier cases. But it's a bad look for his administration. Lots of his advisers want this guy gone, and, you know, his job is not safe by any means.

CORNISH: Getting out of Washington for a bit, there was an election in Wisconsin this week where the Democratic-backed candidate won a seat on Wisconsin's Supreme Court. This is not, like, a high-profile kind of thing, right? But the results garnered a high-profile response in this case from Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker. He tweeted, tonight's results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in Wisconsin. And he went on to say that the far-left is driven by anger and hatred. Matthew, for you, every one of these races now is like a tea leaves situation. Did this one mean anything to you?

YGLESIAS: I mean, you know, this is yet another race in a swing state this time where you see, you know, Democrats just doing really well in down-ballot races. It's not a huge surprise. It's typical for the president's party to lose ground in down-ballot races. President Trump is not very popular, so you would expect them to do even worse than usual. But it...

CORNISH: But people read this tweet as panic.

YGLESIAS: Yeah. And it's interesting to me that, you know, Scott Walker is there pushing the alarm bells. He tried to not hold a couple of special elections for state legislature because he was afraid of losing them. He's clearly upset about having lost this seat. And it's been interesting to me that Republicans in Congress - they're aware that these election results have happened, and they're concerned. But they don't seem to be doing anything to try to change the dynamic. You have Walker out there on Twitter saying, you know, somebody do something, but it's not really...

CORNISH: Yeah. I don't know if that's really doing anything either...

YGLESIAS: Right.

CORNISH: ...Gently worded tweets into the void. Eliana, how about you?

JOHNSON: You know, I do think these results were interesting because they go against what we've been seeing as a trend in Wisconsin getting increasingly red. It went to Trump. It went Republican for the first time in over three decades in 2016. And Scott Walker won his election campaigns for governor as a Republican in off-years, in 2010 and 2014, and he won a recall election.

And so I do think that a big Democratic victory in an election that garnered a lot of media attention in the state is a big deal in which it - and I think that's part of the reason why Walker was coming out and saying this is a big warning sign. As to what Republican lawmakers can do or Republican governors, I actually don't think that there's all that much that they can do. I think that they are battling major headwinds because so much of midterm elections is decided by the president's popularity rating.

CORNISH: But is every race a battle? I feel like right now, you know, dogcatcher is controversial.

YGLESIAS: Yeah. I mean, everything has become politicized. Everything has become nationalized. It's a trend we've seen for a long time, but it's only accelerating. And feelings about the president have driven a lot more interest among Democrats in these kinds of races that were falling below the radar. We've seen that in a lot of special elections. We saw it in Wisconsin. And, you know, it is a major headwind for Republicans. At the same time, you know, things like having the head of the EPA out there trying to spend $70,000 on a desk, you know, that doesn't help. And they could try to clean up their act, I think.

JOHNSON: I think that's exactly right. But I also think that congressional Republicans trying to get Donald Trump or his Cabinet secretaries to modify their behavior is something of a fruitless task. Trump is who he is. And that will benefit Republicans in some ways. It will hurt them in other ways. I think he may turn out to be a figure like Barack Obama who when he himself is not on the ballot, Republicans suffer.

CORNISH: Eliana Johnson is national political reporter for Politico, Matt Yglesias of Vox. Thanks so much.

YGLESIAS: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF REAL ESTATE SONG, "DARLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.