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Week in politics: Presidential debate, Supreme Court decisions

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

It was a busy week in politics - a big debate, followed by a bunch of big decisions by the Supreme Court. And here to wrap it all together is NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks for being with us.

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

KURTZLEBEN: OK, Ron, this week's debate - President Biden was visibly shaky. Meanwhile, former President Trump issued a torrent of ad hominem attacks and a whole lot of lies. How well was the electorate served on Thursday night?

ELVING: Obviously, the electorate was not well served on Thursday night. There was a feast of red meat for partisans in both camps. But regular folks and swing voters had to be left feeling distinctly undernourished. That was also largely the case when these two men debated four years ago.

One big difference this time was they couldn't talk over each other or ignore the moderators because the moderators could cut off the mics. That was supposed to restrain Trump's ranting and rudeness, and it did a bit, which probably helped him because he seemed not only energetic and animated, as always, but also more disciplined than we have seen him forced to be in the past.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So this was a repeat matchup, but did you learn anything new here?

ELVING: I'm not sure it counts as learning something new, but it's a never-ending source of amazement how Trump can take a real, important issue such as illegal border crossings and exaggerate it and distort it beyond recognition, escalating his numbers and superlatives ever higher, even within the space and length of one answer.

But the news from this debate was all about Joe Biden. You said he was shaky. He was shocking to a lot of his sympathizers and maybe even to his detractors. So now we have major newspaper editorials urging him to drop out and give the Democrats a chance to find a better champion, even at this late date.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, now...

ELVING: Messages - messages too, Danielle, from longtime supportive media personalities who are desperately worried that Trump will now return to the White House. And another thing we're learning is how difficult it is to remove a presumptive nominee who has all the delegates, or nearly all the delegates, already committed to him, even if the party wants to.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, now, January 6 figured prominently into this debate with Trump pointedly not saying he would accept the results of this year's election in much the same way he didn't accept the 2020 results. And then the very next day, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of some of the January 6 defendants. So what did the court say, and does it also apply to the charges that Trump faces?

ELVING: The court ruled that the specific charge of obstructing Congress was written to refer to documents and records being altered or destroyed. So because the rioters did not get their hands on the actual certificates, the actual documents from the 2020 Electoral College, much as they wanted to, the court said the prosecutors had overstepped in using that charge, broadening it to include any kind of impediment or obstruction of an official proceeding.

Now, this charge was used in more than 300 cases stemming from the January 6 riot, so a number of the rioters will need to be resentenced or retried or just released. And it could also affect two of the four charges in the election subversion case against Trump, although that remains to be determined as his specific actions to interfere with the counting of the Electoral College may still meet the statutory test.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And we'll have more on the January 6 legal issues coming up in a few minutes here, but there was also that other huge decision with the Chevron ruling. What do people need to know about that one?

ELVING: It is another landmark for the Roberts' court and its 6-to-3 majority that usually includes the three Trump appointees among the six. This was a challenge to a key element of the federal regulatory regime that's been in place for decades, the target here being a case involving the Chevron oil company back in the early 1980s.

In 1984, the Supreme Court said that when Congress makes laws protecting public health and safety or the environment or other things, it's OK for Congress to delegate the writing of specific rules and standards to executive agencies, the idea there being those agencies would have more time and expertise to do this...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

ELVING: ...And to evolve them over time as they will have the task of carrying out and enforcing those laws. So the Chevron decision back then ordered lower courts to defer to these agency interpretations of the law when there were challenges. And lots of industry groups and others have long challenged these regulations, saying they were written by bureaucrats and not by Congress and should not have the force of law unless they can withstand a challenge in court.

Now, Chief Justice Roberts wrote on Friday, this was unconstitutional because it meant executive branch people were deciding what the law was when it seemed ambiguous or subject to interpretation. Roberts said having agencies do that violated the separation of powers. So critics of this ruling warn that if you make Congress get into this kind of detail when passing bills, you will slow their process down and make laws protecting the public much more difficult to enact in the first place.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Danielle. 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.

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Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Ron Elving
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.