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Week in politics: An upside-down flag and an early debate

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An American flag once reportedly flown upside down at the home of a Supreme Court justice. The presidential contenders agree to debate - and pretty soon. Also, Michael Cohen on the stand at the criminal trial of Donald Trump. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: The New York Times reported this week it had photographs, confirmed by interviews with neighbors, that a U.S. flag flew upside down at the home of Justice Samuel Alito, just days before President Biden was inaugurated in 2021. Now, is this just a matter among Capitol pundits and opinionators, or something more?

ELVING: It certainly has set pundit tongues to wagging, Scott, and it's still a developing story. But there are some facts agreed upon. Alito says he had nothing to do with the flag, but his wife put it up after a verbal dispute with a neighbor over yard signs. Apparently, one sign was reported to have had an obscenity on it. Mrs. Alito took exception to that, had an altercation with a neighbor, and then she ran up Old Glory upside down.

Now, it's a nautical sign of a vessel in distress, but it was also brandished by some of the rioters at the Capitol trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election. That was several days before this flag incident at the Alitos. So Democrats are taking this very seriously. House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries and the Senate Judiciary chairman, Dick Durbin, have both called on Alito to recuse himself from two cases pending now before the high court - cases that are pertinent to Trump's trials and his election denial.

SIMON: And almost suddenly this week, Biden and Trump campaigns agreed to debate - first one, June, CNN, the second, maybe final one, ABC - full two months before election day. What do you think led to this?

ELVING: It started with Trump saying he would debate Biden anytime, anywhere. Then Biden said, OK, how about CNN in June? And within a couple of hours, the Trump campaign had agreed, so the gauntlet was tossed and accepted. And just like that, the two major party nominees have thrown over the rubric of the bipartisan Presidential Debate Commission, which has been producing these events for decades.

Now, the tradition of these debates has aged rather poorly, perhaps, in recent years. No one was happy with the Biden-Trump edition in 2020. So this time, the Biden people wanted the debates to be sooner. They wanted a studio debate without a live audience, and they wanted microphones that could be shut off if a candidate exceeds his time or tries to talk over the other candidate. And Trump, or at least his campaign, wanted a debate badly enough to agree to all that.

SIMON: Will they find any room for third-party candidates?

ELVING: Now, there could be, but the threshold to get there is 15% in four national polls, plus getting on enough state ballots to get a candidate up to 270 electoral votes, potentially, which would be a majority. Hard to say which hurdle is highest, but just now, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says he will clear them both, so we shall see.

SIMON: Finally, Michael Cohen, of course, Trump's former lawyer, testified this week at the hush money trial. House speaker Mike Johnson and Ohio Senator J.D. Vance were among Republicans who came to show their support by sitting in the Manhattan courtroom. What does this say about the Republican Party and Donald Trump as the trial enters its final weeks or even days?

ELVING: Well, it says that the party is not only lined up behind Trump, but available at his beck and call. In the early phases of the trial, Trump sometimes seemed rather isolated in the courtroom. It was noticed that his son Eric was perhaps his most prominent supporter there.

But outside the court, of course, and on social media, Trump had been denouncing the trial and the charges and various figures in the case. And that continued until the judge in the case fined him repeatedly and threatened to jail him if he didn't stop.

So this past week, Trump seems to have calmed down quite a bit on social media and rotating groups of congressional Republicans started showing up in New York to be a kind of Greek chorus, speaking Trump's lines for him. Among them was House Speaker Johnson, Mike Johnson, who had a press conference outside the courthouse to call the case a sham.

And this way, of course, Trump is getting his complaints out into the public with high visibility without incurring further penalties in the courtroom and his supporters have a chance to perform a service for the leader.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thank you 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.