SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump hasn't seemed to settle on what he thinks about the chants of send her back that erupted at his rally in North Carolina this week - crowd's response to the racist tweets he directed at four minority members of Congress. President retreated from an earlier claim that he was unhappy with the chant, calling the crowd, quote, "incredible patriots."
NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: What did we learn from all the back-and-forth the president has had on his own position?
ELVING: That the president wants to have it both ways, Scott. He wants to tap this anger and resentment, wants to feed it and nurture it and use it to drive turnout among his core voters in 2020. But at the same time, he also heard the distress and discomfort last week after that North Carolina rally. It looked kind of ugly in prime time. And many of his own allies got worried, so he dialed it back for a day, said he wasn't responsible for the chant. And then, as you say, he was back at it again, siding with those who had taken up the chant.
SIMON: There's debate, Ron, on whether the president's continuous racist remarks are part of a calculated political strategy. What do you think?
ELVING: In the broad sense, yes, it's very much part of a strategy responding to widespread fears that immigrants and people of color are becoming something other than minorities in America - that they're rather redefining America. So it is not hard to exploit this particular sense of anxiety. And at the same time, that tension over tactics is also very real. There's a clear and present danger of going too far, especially this early in the long campaign.
SIMON: How do you explain how and why so many Republicans have declined to criticize the president's remarks?
ELVING: All politicians reflexively think first of their own reelection. And right now in the Republican Party, that means staying on the right side of the president, lest the White House help someone challenge you in a primary or just withhold its help in the general election. And at that same time, again, there were some who did speak up, some who were in positions themselves - let us say - with respect to their own campaigns where they needed something less raw in its appeal to fear and nativism.
SIMON: Meanwhile, there's a real crisis on the president's hands, and the country's, with Iran, isn't there?
ELVING: Yes, we shall see how much of a crisis. This began, like so many others seem to, with a tweet - the president announcing the United States had destroyed an Iranian drone midweek. At first, that seemed like it might be kind of a distraction in the midst of other news, but there's more going on here.
The Iranians are obviously being strangled by some of the sanctions that the United States and other countries have put on them, and they have detained two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, releasing one but holding a second one hostage. It's a British-flagged vessel, so that could engage not only the United Kingdom, but also its NATO allies, including the United States.
SIMON: Robert Mueller has close-up before Congress next week. Democrats have been practicing their questions - probably the Republicans, too. What do you expect?
ELVING: At this point, I'd expect there to be some degree of disappointment, quite frankly, and quite possibly on both sides. The Democrats want Mueller to boldly go where he's never gone before, contradicting the summary of his investigation that we got last spring from Attorney General William Barr while also laying out the full extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the links some had to some Trump associates, and then describing the president's resistance to the probe itself in terms that could be called obstruction of justice.
Republicans, for their part, are going to try to discredit Mueller and the rationale for investigating all of this in the first place. There will be aggressive efforts on both sides, but in the end, neither side is likely to be satisfied with the result, Scott.
SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, senior Washington editor and correspondent, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.