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The Week In Politics

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's stay with immigration as a campaign issue and bring in E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Margaret Hoover. She is host of PBS' "Firing Line." They are here to talk the week in politics because we have made it to Friday. Congratulations, and welcome, you two.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: To all of us.

MARGARET HOOVER: Here we are.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

KELLY: Hey there. So we just heard Tamara Keith there talking about how the president has added immigration to his stump speech because he thinks it's a winner with his base and with voters writ large. Is this smart politics? Margaret, you first.

HOOVER: It's absolutely smart politics. If you look at any poll that asks likely Republican voters if they're going to vote in the election what their top issue is - look at the Kaiser Family Foundation poll that just came out on the 18th of this month. Twenty-five percent say immigration is the No. 1 issue. Twenty-three percent say jobs and the economy is. And one just quick point on this immigration point - immigration is not just about building a wall for the GOP base, but it's also become a proxy for jobs in the economy. So you're hitting two birds with one stone if you're Donald Trump and you're talking about immigration to your GOP base.

KELLY: E.J., if I'd asked you to place a bet a few weeks ago that we would be here inside of three weeks to the midterms and talking about a caravan, would you have taken that bet?

DIONNE: I should have been smart enough to take it because I think it's very clear that Donald Trump is still worried that his base is not mobilized. And I think it's very striking that immigration has not been working this year the way it may have worked for him in 2016. A good example is the Senate race in Pennsylvania where Representative Lou Barletta, a really staunch foe of immigration, you know, unafraid to be very nativist, is running way behind Senator Bob Casey - 14 points, 17 points in some of these polls. So the issue isn't really sticking out there. It seems that's true across a lot of the Midwest. And so Trump has to rev it up with a caravan.

I think it's also worth saying - important to say, as my colleague Greg Sargent, The Washington Post blogger, noted, that there are two big problems here with what Trump is doing. He is trying to cast immigration as a fundamentally malicious and destructive force and that it can only be dealt with with toughness. As Tamara Keith said, that does work for the Republican base, but it's not - obviously it doesn't work for Democrats, and it's not working for independents either. So at best, this is a turnout move.

KELLY: Before we move on, you were just out in Ohio talking to voters. Did you see these themes resonating there?

DIONNE: Well, what was really striking in Ohio - and this echoes across the Midwest in Michigan and in Wisconsin. These are states where Trump made a lot of gains, and the Democrats are bouncing back. Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio is way ahead - the Democrat. Richard Cordray, the Democrat running for governor, is in a very tight race. Democrats are doing quite well in Wisconsin and Michigan. I think on election night, we're really going to learn a lot about how strong Trump's hold is on these key states. If those states go south on Trump, the whole operation is in grave trouble. And the Democrats are sure doing better this year than people would have predicted two days after the 2016 election.

KELLY: Margaret, would you agree with that - Democrats doing a lot better than might have been predicted?

HOOVER: Well, they are doing very well, and it is likely that they'll take back the House of Representatives if you look at every single poll right now. But, you know, even look at the generic ballot. The generic ballot averages Democrats leading Republicans by, you know, the low end, 8 percent, to the high end, 14 percent. So that is not historically a surprise. It is typical for the president - any new president to lose seats in the House of Representatives after the first election cycle. But the proportion and the extent may actually end up being historic.

KELLY: All right, let me turn you to a totally different topic - the case of Jamal Khashoggi. This is of course the missing, likely murdered Saudi journalist. President Trump just this afternoon said for the first time he is open to considering sanctions against Saudi Arabia if it turns out that they were behind this, but he continues to stress Saudi Arabia is a great ally of the U.S., that we need to wait for an investigation, which he says we may know more about by Monday. Margaret, why the reluctance to call out the Saudis?

HOOVER: You know, Donald Trump wants to have it both ways, right? He wants to be able to put his arm around Vladimir Putin and say, wouldn't it be great if we could all just get along with Russia; they have no incentive to intervene in our election. And then he also wants to be a tough guy on the world stage and not be bullied. And it's very difficult to understand the reasoning or the rhyme or reason behind this other than what's on its face - is this was his first diplomatic play as the president of the United States, his first international trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, and he put his arms around Mohammed bin Salman. So this is - frankly, it was encouraging, I think, to see Secretary Mnuchin pull out of the Saudi Arabia investment conference.

KELLY: This is the Treasury secretary who was all set to go to Saudi Arabia.

HOOVER: Right. And - but then again, you get these mixed messages from the Trump administration when you have Secretary Pompeo going to Saudi Arabia and saying, you know what? We're going to need more time. What we really look to and hope for - and I'm hopeful we'll see Republican leadership in Congress also reinforcing this idea that Saudi Arabia must not be allowed to get away with murdering an American resident and a journalist - full stop.

KELLY: Full stop - all right, E.J., jump on that full stop. And I want to ask you about something that The Washington Post, your newspaper, was writing about today. And it's a whisper campaign among hard-line Republicans, conservative commentators against Khashoggi. The theme that they seem to be highlighting is his association with Muslim Brotherhood in his youth. What's going on here?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, it's disgusting. And imagine someone saying - spreading stories like this about Sokurov or Solzhenitsyn, the great, you know, Soviet dissidents...

KELLY: Soviet dissidents, right.

DIONNE: ...Or Lech Walesa.

KELLY: In Poland.

DIONNE: This is appalling - and do anything you have to do on behalf of Donald Trump. It - the Post ran his last op-ed written before he was killed. And it was a defense of free speech. It sounded almost red, white and blue in how much it talked about the importance of freedom. And he appears to have died for this cause. I think all of this in terms of Trump raises a question about the transparency of Trump and his business dealings.

There are so many questions now out there not only about Trump being invested in the Saudis in policy terms, which he clearly is, but what kind of business dealings we have. And we need to know about his - you know, he didn't separate his businesses - himself from his businesses when he became president. We just need to know that because the suspicions that this might - his views on this might be influenced in any way by business - this is terrible for him, and it's really terrible for the country.

KELLY: And we shall watch and see, as the president says, as these investigations play out. And we wait to see what the White House might do next. That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Margaret Hoover of PBS' "Firing Line." Thanks so much to you both.

DIONNE: Great to be with you.

HOOVER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JSTARS' "TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.