Apr 8, 2022 - Podcasts

Senator Mitch McConnell on his moral red lines

A historic moment yesterday in the Senate, where Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson became the newest Supreme Court Justice after a 53-47 vote. She will be the first Black woman appointed to the high court. The confirmation marks President Biden’s first Supreme Court pick. And it may turn out to be his only one.

  • Plus, states wage new battles over abortion rights.

Guests: Axios' Jonathan Swan and Oriana González.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Friday, April 8th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: The U.S. gets its first Black female supreme court justice. Plus, states wage new battles over abortion rights.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: Jonathan Swan presses Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on his moral red lines.

KAMALA HARRIS: On this vote, the yeas are 53. The nays are 47 and this nomination is confirmed. [applause]

NIALA: A historic moment yesterday in the Senate where Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson became the newest Supreme Court justice after a 53 to 47 vote. She will be the first Black woman appointed to the high court. The confirmation marks President Biden's first Supreme court pick. And it may turn out to be his only one. That was part of the topic of conversation Axios’ Jonathan Swan had yesterday morning with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether he'll hold any hearings if there's another Supreme Court opening after the midterm election.

MITCH MCCONNELL: Uh, I'll be interested in working with the president when he's willing to be a moderate, but with regard to personnel and the other things that we're involved in, I'm not going to signal how we're going to approach it.

NIALA: Jonathan, first of all, is this what the GOP strategy could look like if they were in the majority?

JONATHAN SWAN: Yes. Mitch McConnell is signaling in this interview through his non-response that he is at least contemplating refusing to hold hearings on any Joe Biden nominee for the Supreme Court. And you’ll remember that he did that in 2016 to Barack Obama for Merrick Garland. So what we could be seeing is McConnell's leaving open the door to create a new standard. If you just imagine next year, just-just visualize this: Republicans win the Senate. God forbid, but some health crisis takes a justice out of the court. Joe Biden, names somebody he wants to put on the court. And McConnell says, no, I'm coming up with some new standard for why we're not going to do this. Well, then you've got an eight person court and you could have that court indefinitely, as long as the opposition party controls the Senate. It's a really significant development. If this- if it goes down this path.

NIALA: I want to just stay with the Supreme Court for a moment, because you also asked him about Ginni Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas. And whether Justice Thomas should recuse himself from cases involving President Trump's efforts to overturn the election results. Can you just explain what McConnell's thinking was there, how he answered that for you?

JONATHAN: Yeah, he just reflexively defended Clarence Thomas. McConnell is correct when he says that it's up to Supreme Court justices to decide whether they have conflicts of interests. It's true. They're answerable to nobody. So basically, even though Justice Thomas ruled on cases relating to the what Trump White House’s efforts to overturn the election, while his wife was simultaneously strategizing with the White House staff on all overturning the election, he said he trusts Clarence Thomas to make those decisions.

NIALA: I want to ask you about one other contradiction you tried to get him to address. Which is condemning President Trump's role in the January 6th insurrection, which he did immediately after January 6th, but then later also supporting President Trump. How did he explain that contradiction to you?

JONATHAN: He basically didn't, he just refused to answer the question and I set this up by saying, you know, what are your moral red lines? Is there anything, is there any threshold-anything a Republican candidate could say or do that would result in losing his support. And basically he supports the party's nominee. No matter what. He's a Republican party man and that trumps all, apparently.

NIALA: At the end of the day, what did you learn from Mitch McConnell in this interview?

JONATHAN: McConnell is an utterly ruthless political animal. He is all about winning and doing what's required to win. And there's no difference this year. He wants to be majority leader again. I think he's got history on his mind, his legacy. He's 80 years old. I've done a lot of interviews with difficult subjects, including multiple world leaders. Mitch McConnell is the toughest interview, certainly that I've ever done. And I think actually probably in American politics.

NIALA: Axios national political correspondent, Jonathan Swan. Thanks, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: In a moment, a new lawsuit in Michigan by its governor to protect abortion rights.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is moving to solidify abortion rights in her state. She just filed a lawsuit to protect abortion rights under the Michigan constitution ahead of a possible overturn of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court. And other states across the country are also waging new battles over abortion... Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez has been reporting on all of these. Hi Oriana.

ORIANA: Hi, Niala.

NIALA: Can we start with Michigan? And can you explain why a lawsuit on behalf of the Governor would protect abortion rights in Michigan?

ORIANA: So with her lawsuit, Governor Whitmer is trying to do two things. The first one is to ask the Michigan Supreme court to explicitly say that abortion rights are protected under the state constitution. And then the second one is actually looking at a pre-Roe abortion ban that exists in the state. By this I mean, there was a law that was enacted in Michigan in 1931 that explicitly says that abortion is illegal and the law still exists. It's still in the books, but it's currently dormant because of Roe V. Wade. And what Whitmer specifically asking is for the Michigan Supreme Court to say this law is unconstitutional it completely violates different clauses of the constitution and therefore it will never be brought back.

NIALA: How many states have similar laws like this?

ORIANA: There are at least eight states that we know of that have pre-Roe laws. All of them in general just say abortion in this state is illegal and all of them are currently inactive because Roe V. Wade is still in place.

NIALA: Where else are we seeing new attempts to protect abortion rights at the state level?

ORIANA: Most recently, actually, earlier this week, Colorado became the 16th state to codify the right to an abortion. That means that even if the Supreme Court gets rid of its precedents, protecting abortion rights, abortion access would be guaranteed under Colorado law. This would be a state constitution right. Vermont actually became the first state to attempt to do this. They advanced a constitutional amendment doing the same thing.

NIALA: But Oriana, how many more states are going in the opposite direction and imposing more abortion restrictions.

ORIANA: When it comes to red states, we are seeing a variety of attempts to try to restrict abortion. So most recently, Idaho actually became the first state to officially enact a law that is based on Texas’ six-week ban, which as you remember, it passed last year. It basically effectively bans all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. And what has happened is that states like Idaho have grabbed that law as a blueprint in order to create loss that will restrict abortion. Oklahoma earlier this week passed a law that says that abortion is illegal. It is not modeled after the Texas law. And it was completely unexpected. But it's the first one that has passed recently that explicitly says that abortion is a felony. And at the same time, actually, as soon as today, Oklahoma could pass another law that is also a near total abortion ban except under specific conditions, such as if there's medical emergency or if there's a rape or incest. And what's happening particularly with the Supreme Court, and obviously considering that it has a 6-3 conservative majority, they seem likely to roll back abortion rights. We still don't know whether that means overturning Roe V. Wade, or maybe weakening it. And a decision on this particular case that they're looking at is expected for some point this summer. It could be as soon as June.

NIALA: Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez, thank you Oriana.

ORIANA: Thank you Niala.

That’s all we’ve got for you today!

Axios Today is produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Alexandra Botti is our Senior Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Editor In Chief. And special thanks as always to Axios co-founder Mike Allen.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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