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Politics chat: Zelenskyy appeals for aid; Robert F. Kennedy Jr names running mate

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This weekend, Russia is again targeting Ukraine's energy system with scores of drones and missiles. Speaking to The Washington Post, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again urged the U.S. to send aid and said he's being forced to respond in kind by attacking Russia's own energy facilities. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So Zelenskyy is sending his message to a Congress that's on break. They come back on the 9, but it seems like lawmakers are more poised to act than they've been in the past. Right?

LIASSON: That's right. House Speaker Mike Johnson has said he would put Ukraine aid on the floor of the House when the House returns. The question is, in what form would that aid be? It could be a loan. It could be a standalone bill or as part of a bill that also gives aid to Israel and Taiwan. The easiest thing would be to pass the Senate bill, which does include aid to Israel and Taiwan and Ukraine. But remember, a majority of House Republicans are against aid to Ukraine, not just because they're isolationists but because Donald Trump is against it. Trump has a long-standing animus to Ukraine. He's often expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin. He met earlier this month with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, who said Trump told him that if he was president, Ukraine wouldn't get a penny from the United States. The problem is that if the Ukraine aid bill was put on the floor, it would pass with a giant bipartisan majority, maybe more than 300 votes, but - and this is the political problem for Mike Johnson - not with a majority of Republican votes. And once again, Johnson would be relying on Democratic votes, just as he did when he passed the bill to keep the government open.

RASCOE: But haven't we heard over and over that if Speaker Johnson reaches across the aisle for votes, his House Republicans would fire him?

LIASSON: Well, they would try. Now, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a MAGA Republican in the House, has filed what's called a motion to vacate, to fire the speaker. She says that if Johnson puts Ukraine aid on the floor, she will move to call for a vote on that motion. But Mike Johnson is in a different position than Kevin McCarthy, the former speaker who was fired by his own Republicans, which is that Democrats this time are willing to help Johnson save his job. They didn't do that for McCarthy. He was fired by his own members, and Democrats didn't come to his rescue. But Democrats think Johnson is an honest broker, and they're willing to help him keep his job. The whole thing shows you how dysfunctional the Republican majority is, because Johnson can't rely on his own party to pass essential pieces of legislation, like keeping the government open, or legislation that would change the balance of power in Europe.

RASCOE: So Donald Trump hasn't named a running mate yet. Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has. And we can be frank. Kennedy's own family members disavow his campaign, and his wife has been careful to say that she doesn't share many of her husband's opinions and, quote, "while we love each other, we differ on many current issues." But that said, him picking a VP can have real consequences, right?

LIASSON: Absolutely. Many states require a candidate to have a vice president before they can qualify for the ballot. So Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has chosen Nicole Shanahan. She's a lawyer. She's a philanthropist. She's the ex-wife of Google founder Sergey Brin. She has tremendous amounts of money. It's very expensive to get on the ballot in all 50 states or even just seven battleground states. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. continues to poll better than any other third party candidate. He outperforms Jill Stein and Cornel West, and Democrats consider him a spoiler. He's polling now above 10%. They think if he's on the ballot that he could throw the election to Donald Trump.

RASCOE: Right, but RFK Jr. is skeptical of vaccines. He's compared the government push to get people to take COVID shots to Nazis in Germany. Why would Democrats be worried about him?

LIASSON: Because third-party candidates hurt incumbents. You know, Trump cannot win without the presence of third parties on the ballot. He won in 2016 with 46% of the vote. Back then, 7 to 9% of the vote went to third parties. He lost in 2020 with the same 46% of the vote, but back then, only 1 to 2% of the vote went to third-party candidates, because in the United States we do not elect our presidents by popular vote. The guy with the fewer votes can win. So you're going to see millions and millions of dollars by the Biden camp spent to convince Democrats and independents that staying home or voting for a third-party candidate is the same thing as a vote for Donald Trump.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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