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Is the focus on his staff keeping President Trump from making policy?

February 13, 2017 at 6:10 PM EDT
In recent weeks, several members of President Trump’s administration have come under scrutiny for potentially not measuring up in their new roles. Judy Woodruff sits down with NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report to discuss the latest on Michael Flynn, if the president likes keeping his staff on edge and whether the focus on personnel is obstructing policy progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just over three weeks into the Trump administration, and, as you heard earlier, reports aren’t going away of disarray inside the White House.

For more, we turn to our Politics Monday team, Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

Thank you both for being here.

So, Tam and Amy, we did talk earlier about what is happening to General Flynn, the president himself weighing in.

So, Tam, you were at the White House this afternoon. What is the latest on that?

TAMARA KEITH, National Public Radio: Yes.

So I was at the White House waiting to hopefully talk to Sean Spicer, the press secretary, when the president walked by an area where there were about a dozen, maybe 10 reporters waiting to see Spicer. The president shows up. And reporters asked the president, do you have confidence in General Flynn? What is General Flynn’s status?

And he said, “Oh, there’s a statement coming.”

Then someone else shouted, how about Reince Priebus, the chief of staff? Do you have confidence in Reince Priebus?

And he says: “Reince is doing great. Reince is doing great.”

So there is a real contrast there between saying, oh, there is a statement coming, a statement that says that the president is evaluating the situation, and saying that the chief of staff is doing great.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A contrast between what he says about General Flynn and what he says about Reince Priebus.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But also, Amy, a contrast about what they are saying just an hour after Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, said that the president had full confidence in General Flynn.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Although, Judy, you know this. That is a classic line that folks in Washington use, like they use the, he’s taking time off to spend time with his family.

So, they use — they throw that line out there. It’s really not very definitive. But, look, the issue with Flynn is as much about the frustration within the White House about the fact that he made at least two very high-ranking members of that administration, the vice president and the chief of staff, look like they lied.

They gave information out on television that wasn’t truthful. And it came directly from Michael Flynn. That seems like the bigger question here than whether or not we can talk about a specific law being broken about the fact that he talked to the Russians before he was officially in his position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will see what happens about General Flynn and whether he stays in his job.

But, meantime, Tamara, just quickly, there has been speculation about Reince Priebus. There have been stories out there in the last few days about whether he is on thin ice, whether Sean Spicer, the press secretary, is on thin ice.


JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, how stable are some of these top advisers to the president?

TAMARA KEITH: It’s not clear. I think there has been a lot of self-interested leaking coming out of that White House and a lot of administration officials saying things about other administration officials, and, you know, friends of the president saying things.

And it’s all very hazy. There is some thought that President Trump likes to keep people on edge. But this is a lot of noise and commotion and distraction from what are some pretty major issues that the president ran on and could be pursuing.

But, you know, like, for instance, they don’t fully have an answer yet on what they’re going to do about his immigration ban. They haven’t sent any legislation over to Congress.

AMY WALTER: And that’s the real issue here, is whether or not this is just about internal fighting and that they are not particularly stable is one thing, just stable internally in terms of the functioning.

Whether this impedes their ability to actually get stuff done is the real question. So, does it matter? It matters if it matters, right? If the lack of clear lines of delineation, if the infighting is preventing them from actually putting legislation on the Hill, getting an Obamacare replacement, passing tax law, then it is a very big deal.

If it is just — and, again, remember, this is a president who ran — as a candidate, his campaign looked exactly like this. So the chaos is something that he is either likes or thinks is important, but it didn’t deter him and it didn’t stop him from winning in the first place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Someone who has been speaking very emphatically for the White House — and I want to ask both of you about this — is the president’s — one of his senior policy advisers, Stephen Miller.

Tam, he went on four of the Sunday talk show, interview shows yesterday, went after the judiciary, the courts, backed up the president. He was attacked on the courts. At one point, he said the powers of the president are substantial and will not be questioned.

And when he was asked specifically about — to defend the president’s criticism of the courts, here’s what Stephen Miller said. And this was on ABC “This Week.”

STEPHEN MILLER, Senior Trump Policy Adviser: We have equal branches of government in this country. The judiciary is not supreme.

A district judge in Seattle cannot force the president of the United States to change our laws and our Constitution because of their own personal views.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Amy, we have here someone saying that the president doesn’t have to obey the courts? Is that what it sounds like?

AMY WALTER: Well, there is certainly something, in the way he said it, that makes it come across like that.

But there is also an argument that the White House is making that they do have grounds to make, which is, the president does have a lot of authority, if you look at the statute regarding immigration, on national security issues, that it is there, and that the courts, while they can make judgments, as they did in this Ninth Circuit, on other issues, the president does have a lot of latitude.

And that is where this fight should be. But the bottom line is, it goes back to the dysfunction within the office. Had this executive order been written more cleanly, had the rollout gone better, had they made changes to it, we might not be where we are now, having a fight over what the role of the court is in this, because it wouldn’t have gotten there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Tam, these statements yesterday — I watched all of those interviews that Stephen Miller did. He seems to be clearly expressing the frustration from the president.

TAMARA KEITH: Well, and the president tweeted that Stephen Miller did a great job. He went out there and channeled the president. He went out there and said exactly what the White House wanted to be said.

And, you know, that wins you support from the president of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, the other thing he said, and I want to — if we have time, I want to play this clip. He was asked — I want to see if I can find it now. He was asked about — now I won’t be able to find it it. So, we can’t…

TAMARA KEITH: Oh, was it about …



It’s about the president’s legacy. He was asked a question about Ivanka Trump, the president defending her work and criticizing Nordstrom, the department store.

George Stephanopoulos, the ABC anchor, asked him about that. And here is how Stephen Miller turned the corner.

STEPHEN MILLER: I really hope, George, we can move on to discussing things that the American people care about, like their jobs, like their wages, like their security, like the fact that we have a president who has done more in three weeks than most presidents have done in an entire administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Amy, more than — in three weeks more than other presidents in an entire administration.

AMY WALTER: Not the most recent president. President Obama at this point, literally on this day, the Senate passed his stimulus bill. And that was soon going to be signed into law. So, we haven’t seen anything even get up to the Hill, nonetheless a major piece of legislation getting passed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to say the president has done more in three weeks than an entire administration, that is quite a statement.

TAMARA KEITH: That is quite a statement.

But, also, President Obama, by this point, had signed more executive orders than President Trump has signed. There are a number of metrics to measure this. Superlatives are always perilous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what is for sure is, there is nothing quiet about this White House.

All right, Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, thank you both.

AMY WALTER: You’re welcome.

TAMARA KEITH: You’re welcome.