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Week in politics: Biden addresses campus protests, Democratic congressman indicted

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Protests continued this week on many college campuses in support of Palestine, a Democratic congressman indicted, and a potential Republican vice presidential pick may have taken herself out of consideration over what she says she did to her dog. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

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

SIMON: The president spoke Thursday about the protests. He said there is a right to protest, not to cause chaos. And he added in response to a reporter's question, the protest didn't move him to change his Middle East policies. Why do you think he made the appearance?

ELVING: Weeks had gone by, and it was time to break his silence. But he wanted to be careful not to break anything else. He didn't want to break news or do more to break down the Democratic coalition. His party's been under enormous strain over Gaza and Israel's conduct of this war. Democrats have reason to fear a deepening divide between their historic blue-collar roots and their more recent base on campus and among the college educated. So that's why we heard Biden talk about dissent without discord, free expression without free-for-alls, lots of executive speak 101.

But as you noted, no change in policy. No withholding of aid to the Netanyahu government. And it's really that regime that's alienated not only many college students but a fair number of others as well. They see the U.S. as enabling an Israeli strategy that seems less a war on Hamas than a war on Gaza. And these are voter groups that Biden carried in 2020 and that he's counting on this fall. And by the way, the election is now just six months away.

SIMON: Department of Justice indicted Texas Representative Henry Cuellar and his wife - several charges yesterday, including bribery - more than $600,000. What can you tell us about these charges?

ELVING: The 10-term congressman and his wife are alleged to have accepted this money from the nation of Azerbaijan and from a bank in Mexico City. Now, that country and that company had separate specific interests pending in Congress. And according to the indictment, the Cuellars both received legislative - both - excuse me - the companies received legislative help from Cuellar and his wife and transferred money to shell companies he controlled.

By the way, this is the second member of Congress in recent months to be indicted by Biden's Department of Justice, and both are Democrats. The first was New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who was accused of accepting payments from three New Jersey businessmen and the government of Egypt, in his case, during his time as Senate foreign relations chairman.

SIMON: Another week in the criminal trial of former President Donald Trump in New York, including testimony from his longtime aide Hope Hicks. What did you note this week, Ron?

ELVING: The former president seems to have settled down just a little bit in the courtroom. The judge in this case has already held him in contempt for his social media attacks on various actors in the trial.

On Friday, he sat rather impassively while his former communications aide, Hope Hicks, a longtime member of his inner circle, testified at the call of the prosecution. And there was one point where she teared up, and she was granted a break in the proceedings.

Now, Hicks has not been seen as a hostile witness or a vengeful former employee by any means, but she was called to talk about how worried Trump was about these tabloid stories and the political harm they could cause him. That's an important link in this case because Trump stands accused of committing bank fraud to cover the hush money he's alleged to have paid to suppress those stories back before the 2016 election.

SIMON: And I have to ask about Kristi Noem - reports that in her forthcoming memoir, she recounts how she shot and killed her family hunting dog, Cricket, after the dog had killed some chickens, and also a family goat who chased her children. The governor of South Dakota says this shows she's willing to make tough decisions. Did she just take herself off Donald Trump's running mate list?

ELVING: It would certainly seem so. Politicians have usually seen puppies as a means of showing their softer, human side more than their decision-making toughness. As for the VP list, Trump had mentioned several women he saw as potential VPs, and Noem was among them despite her hard-line views on abortion. And Trump remembers the role she played in that great photo op he had at Mount Rushmore in 2020.

As for the actual list, sources in Trump's ambit this week leaked to suggested list of four who all turned out to be males. We don't know if any of these are really the final four, but the - three are Republican senators. And then there's one Republican governor, Doug Burgum, who is Noem's neighboring governor in North Dakota.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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.