ROBERT COSTA: America first or America isolated? President Trump’s trade policies and his nod to Russia anger U.S. allies. I’m Robert Costa. As the president travels abroad, we dig into what it means there and at home, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They don’t mention the fact that they have trade barriers against our farmers. They don’t mention the fact that they’re charging almost 300 percent tariffs.
MR. COSTA: President Trump comes face to face with world leaders he has infuriated on a series of issues, from NAFTA, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Iran nuclear deal, to new tariffs on steel and aluminum. Critics say Mr. Trump is stoking division with longtime partners who are now retaliating, not retreating.
FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (From video, through interpreter.) There should be no trade wars between allies.
MR. COSTA: Some Republicans are warning that the strategy could backfire.
SENATOR RON JOHNSON (R-WI): (From video.) Let’s face it, we’re now in the opening shots of a trade war.
MR. COSTA: Presidential power. Advocates argue it’s unlimited.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) And yes, I do have an absolute right to pardon myself, but I’ll never have to do it because I didn’t do anything wrong.
MR. COSTA: Plus, new indictments in the Russia investigation.
Joining me tonight, Molly Ball of TIME Magazine, Charlie Savage of The New York Times, and Manu Raju of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump was certainly prepared for a fight on Friday when he arrived for the Group of Seven summit in Canada. And even before he left Washington, he was confronting long-time allies over trade policy on Twitter. He also made headlines when he insisted Russia should be invited back into the club of industrial democracies.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting? Russia should be in the meeting. It should be a part of it.
MR. COSTA: President Trump received a cordial, but not overly warm greeting, from the other leaders once he arrived. Tensions have been escalating over new U.S. tariffs he put on imports of steel and aluminum last month.
Molly, the talk up in Canada has been this has been the G6+1, that the U.S. is deliberately out on a limb on trade, on even uniting with the West. Why is President Trump so committed to this approach?
MOLLY BALL: Well, in a way, he is simply pursuing the philosophy that he campaigned on and that he brought to the table from the start, this idea that his critics call isolationist, America first or America alone, as you’ve put it yourself. And that is very much his whole – to the extent that he had a foreign policy pitch as a candidate, it was this combating of globalism, right? And it was this idea that America would act only in its own interests.
And I think what has changed now – so this is not the first summit at which he’s been sort of the proverbial skunk at the picnic. And he seems to enjoy that a little bit, even as sometimes he seems a little annoyed because it’s like there’s this little high school clique of European nations who are excluding him and talking about him behind his back, and in literal, physical terms. There have been some very awkward interactions.
I think what has changed, though, is that there is finally some bite behind the bark with these tariffs. For the – for over the first sort of year-plus of his presidency, he talked a big game and it wasn’t clear what he was actually going to do. Yes, he pulled out of the Paris accord. That’s a pretty symbolic measure. There was TPP. But I think with the tariffs – even with the tariffs, he signed the tariffs, and then he put them on hold. And so there was this idea that, OK, we can manage him. This is all bluster. Now that the tariffs are real, things are getting serious. And they don’t know what to do.
MR. COSTA: And maybe he’s not just trying to join the clique, Charlie, of Western Europe and longtime U.S. allies, but you see him in a sense reimagining world order. He threw a curveball today as he was leaving to get on Marine One by saying Russia should be invited back into this club, after they left in 2014. They were booted out after going into Ukraine.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: That was absolutely the most interesting thing today. Out of nowhere, as we were saying before, the cameras turned on. No one even asked him should Russia be brought back in to make this G-8 instead of G-7 again. He came out there clearly wanting to troll the world by declaring, hey, what about Russia? Of course, Russia has very little economy to speak of at this point. And Russia still is in the Crimea, still is messing around in Ukraine, apparently just murdered someone in England, has done nothing that a normal president would say, oh, they now deserve to be brought back in and rewarded by being restored to this group of industrialized nations.
It’s the most elite club in the world, as some people put it. I’m not sure how that’s a sign of strength for the United States, that they would welcome Russia back without any concession or, you know, a sign that they were – had done something wrong and were being punished for it. But that’s now what we’re all talking about. And that’s one of the things Trump loves, is that we’re all talking about the curveballs that he throws into us.
MR. COSTA: We’re all talking about it, but is the president listening, Manu? Because you think about on trade you had GOP senators this week you were talking to, they were taking a different position on that issue. On Russia, Senator McCain and Senator Schumer came out, bipartisan outcry over the president’s comments on Russia. Let’s hear from a few of those Republican senators and what they had to say.
SENATOR BOB CORKER (R-TN): (From video.) We, you know, seem to want to punish our allies and befriend our enemies.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): (From video.) This is more or less an unguided missile because the retaliation can occur in other sectors that really hurt the United States economy.
SENATOR JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): (From video.) Our allies are scratching their heads, saying, you know, what’s going on?
MR. COSTA: What is going on?
MANU RAJU: You know, what’s remarkable is that there is almost unanimity among the Republican conference opposing imposing new tariffs on our allies. They don’t believe this in terms of their free trade policy. However, there is – there is not much support about confronting President Trump within the Senate Republican conference and the House Republican conference, and it really shows the power that the president still has over the members. As I was talking to Jeff Flake earlier this week, he said this should be a layup for us. We all believe in free markets. We all believe in free trade. We should be willing to stand up for this knowing that we disagree with the president.
It’s fine. We’re in the same party. But we disagree with him. We need to push back. But because of the president’s pushback, the Republican leadership is concerned. They don’t want to get in a fight with him in the middle of a midterm year. And some are also listening to him and saying they don’t want to rein him in and hurt his negotiating ability. So the bill that Bob Corker is developing to try to rein him in on tariffs, that’s not going anywhere because the president is opposed to it. And Mitch McConnell, who opposes the tariffs, does not want to do anything legislatively, because he does not want to take on the president.
MR. COSTA: So the Republicans are hands-off. But why were so many world leaders – U.S. allies, Molly – hands-on with President Trump for the last year? They thought they could convince him to come into the mainstream of diplomatic outlook on all these different fronts, yet they seem to be disappointed time and again.
MS. BALL: Well, I think because for the first year it did seem like he was all bark no bite. And it did seem like – and this has been, as you know, a constant feud inside the White House as well, specifically over trade. There is a faction of anti-free trade advisors who very much speak to the president’s instincts and his gut and particularly, you know, Lighthizer, Peter Navarro. And they’ve been pushing Trump to follow his instincts. This is – trade is by far – support for tariffs is the most deeply held belief that Trump has politically. It’s something he’s been talking about, America getting screwed. This has been a tenet of his speech from long before he entered politics.
However, as Manu was saying, the conventional Republican thinking on this is diametrically opposed. And most of the White House is composed of conventional conservative Republicans. And so there’s been this tug of war all around him. They’ve put him off. They’ve placated him. They’ve delayed him. We spent the first six months of the administration arguing about whether there’d be some kind of border adjustment tax. And he wanted his tariff. He wanted his tariff. He wanted his tariff. There was an encounter in the White House where he literally said to a group of advisors: Bring me my tariff. And they wouldn’t do it.
Finally, he’s got his tariff. So – but I think that to your question, because there was so – he’s so easily distracted and so easily waylaid. And he wants to make everybody happy all the time. He likes to try to split the difference and have it both ways. And so he was successfully put off of this for a really long time. And because other countries could see how successful flattery is as a strategy for him – we’ve seen the Saudis do it, we’ve seen the Chinese do it very effectively. I think there was a thought that the president was unschooled enough in foreign affairs that they could just sort of sweettalk him.
MR. COSTA: But if flattery’s not enough – it also doesn’t seem, Charlie, yet, that the president’s playing a political cost for these kind of moves on the international stage. We had an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week, amid a surging Dow Jones, that 6 in 10 Americans are satisfied with the economy. There doesn’t appear to be a revolt against the president’s trade policies.
MR. SAVAGE: Well, the fact that the economy is just roaring right now gives him a lot of wiggle room. Even if the economy is damaged a little bit by a trade war, by the, you know, retaliatory tariffs that our allies are putting on us, we’re still at basically full employment right now. And people are doing quite well, relative to how they’d been ever since the – you know, the slow, but steady, escalation of things following the financial crisis, which now he’s enjoying the peak of. At some point, that party will end and maybe all of this will look very differently. But we also should remember that his unorthodoxy on trade has been – was one of the core appealing things about him to the sort of insurgent campaign that thrust him to the Republican nomination, along with things like immigration of course.
And so being in a position now where he’s feeling more confident about the presidency and he’s figured out where the levers of power are, or decided he doesn’t need to listen to his advisors who are telling him slow down or we’ll get back to you next week about that. And it’s not just about trade, right? There are other things, like finally pulling out of the Iran deal and so forth, where we are also seeing 2018 looking more active than 2017 did in the activity versus rhetoric balance.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk a little bit more about North Korea, because President Trump will fly directly to Singapore on Saturday, ahead of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
When asked if he felt prepared for next week’s high-stakes talks here’s what the president said.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I think I’m very well-prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done.
MR. COSTA: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is traveling with the president. He appeared cautiously optimistic that the meeting could change the course of history.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) The fact that our two leaders are coming to the table shows that the two sides are very serious.
MR. COSTA: President Trump’s goal for Secretary Pompeo, the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. For Kim, a top priority, easing trade sanctions, as well as keeping his conventional weapons and his military.
Manu, when you think about Congress watching this, they see the president maybe having a major moment in diplomacy, but also Kim Jong-un is going to have a moment. Does that raise concerns among Democrats or Republicans?
MR. RAJU: Yeah, both sides. I think people want to give the administration a chance here. They want – they certainly don’t want nuclear war. They want to be able to see if there’s some sort of agreement that can be reached. But, look, there is a lot of concern that the president seems so eager to get a deal. All the talk about the Nobel Prize and they made such a big deal about just sitting down for the meeting. It is significant they’re sitting down, but there are all these things going in that – you know, Sarah Sanders at one point said that there would be – there would be major commitments to denuclearize up front before the meeting. All those are sort of gone away, and now this is just going to be sort of a meet and greet, this meeting. They’ve really lowered the bar.
But nevertheless, there is still a significant amount of concern that the president wants a deal so badly that he may rush into something that is not suitable, to them. And the thing that they’re pushing pretty significant right now on the Hill, on both sides, particularly Republicans, is they want any deal – if there is a deal – to be a treaty, which would mean that the Senate would have to ratify that. And that’s a two-thirds majority. That would require a significant amount of bipartisan support to get that done. So it’s a pretty high hurdle to get to that point, let alone any deal at all.
MS. BALL: Yeah, I mean, the concern has always been that Trump will give away the store. And it seems like ancient history now, but a couple of weeks ago he did actually pull out of the summit. And that was, to many of those who are concerned about the possibility, that was a relief to a lot of Republicans, in fact. You had a lot of them sort of coming out of the woodwork and saying, by the way, we always thought this was a bad idea. And all of a sudden, you don’t hear from them anymore. But, you know, that was a signal that perhaps he was not just so committed to the photo op that he’d do anything to get it.
MR. COSTA: Is there power in that photo op for President Trump, even if he doesn’t get a commitment on June 12th?
MS. BALL: I think he believes that there is, because he believes that he is doing something unprecedented. You heard him just yesterday with the prime minister of Japan, saying all of these other presidents should have done this. I am basically cleaning up their mess. I’m the only one who can do it. So he is very invested in the idea of this. However, the experts will tell you it is also a propaganda victory for the North Koreans. The North Koreans have wanted this for decades. And no previous U.S. president has been willing to give it to them because of the propaganda victory that it represents, because of the legitimacy that it confers on this repressive regime.
MR. COSTA: Could we see some things, Charlie, that come out of this on June 12th, an end to the Korean War? Maybe not a big treaty, Manu, that’ll be sent to Capitol Hill, but we could see an end to the Korean War, a release of Japanese refugees, and the continuation of the process. How would that be received, if it was a little bit smaller bore?
MR. SAVAGE: Well, certainly we’re not going to see – I feel 100 percent confident in predicting – that coming out of this meeting in Singapore, North Korea will completely denuclearize the peninsula. Like, the notion that Kim Jong-un will ever agree to give up his nuclear weapons seems really far-fetched. What seems realistic down the road would be something like the Iran deal, which of course Trump abrogated, which, you know, a cap on what they have now, maybe elimination of certain missiles, you know, certain adjustings and downsizings. But the notion that they’re going to give up their nukes at all seems crazy to me.
And so beyond that, there’s been very little policy-level substance preparation at the working group level between the two countries heading into this. We didn’t even think there was going to be a summit, as it was on again, off again. And so this – at best, this is going to be the photo op and the sort of blessing of talks to continue. At that point, Kim Jong-un has a victory because he sat down with the American president as equals on the world stage. And whether anything more comes out of that may even be incidental from his calculus.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn for a moment to the Russia probe. There’s so much news every week. We’re doing our best here. But Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed an additional indictment on Friday against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. He also added Russian citizen Konstantin Kilimnik as a defendant. The new charges accuse both men of obstructing justice and witness tampering.
Mueller’s prosecutors claim the two men used encrypted messaging applications to contact former business partners to influence their testimony. Manafort, the 69-year-old veteran political operative, is charged with fraud, money laundering, and failure to disclose his lobbying work on behalf of foreign governments with friendly Russia ties. He maintains his innocence and is not cooperating with investigators. His trial, it begins in July. President Trump tweeted days ago that Manafort, quote, “came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time.”
When you think about what the special counsel’s doing here with Paul Manafort, his trial’s set to start in July. With these additional indictments, is Bob Mueller really just trying to break Paul Manafort, to get Paul Manafort to cooperate?
MR. SAVAGE: Well, that’s what everyone thinks, basically. Bob Mueller does not speak. He is the sphinx. We don’t know. But it sure looks like the strategy here is put intense and escalating pressure on Paul Manafort as the most likely link, if there was any sort of collusion, who would have been in a position to know, and get him to flip. And now this looks like a move towards revoking his bail and sending him back to prison before the trial would start. And, you know, so that ramps up the pressure. At the same time, of course, we have President Trump talking about pardons left and right, sending an unmistakable message that he’s willing to use that power without much constraint, which can only mean: Hang in there and don’t flip on me.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, and that was my point that I was going to make too. To Manafort, about cooperating, he has to be thinking about the fact that this is a president who feels emboldened about his use of the pardon. I mean, today on his way to Canada he said he’s considering 3,000 pardons. (Laughter.) A president at this stage – a president that’s suggesting that is remarkable, let him alone saying that he could pardon himself, although he doesn’t think he’ll ever have to do that but he believes he has the power to do so. And he has said repeatedly that he believes that Paul Manafort has been treated unfairly through this process. So if you’re Paul Manafort, and you see these charges piling up, perhaps you’re thinking: Fight this out. And if I do get convicted, I’ll get pardoned. And maybe I’ll get pardoned even before I’m convicted. So Manafort may ultimately decide: Fight it out and see if Trump eventually sides with him.
MR. COSTA: Molly, you have a terrific cover story in TIME Magazine this week. And it’s all about the long evolution of the Mueller investigation. We’re now talking about pardons. The Manafort trial is set to start in just a month. Mueller’s report on the president’s conduct could come this fall or even late summer. Where does this investigation stand, after all your reporting?
MS. BALL: Well, in some ways we still don’t know, because in some ways we do not know what the timeframe is. And a lot of the critics of the investigation, such as the president, have said that this has gone on too long. And at this point, since they believe it is a plot and a conspiracy and a witch hunt, they think the only reason the investigation is still going on is that he’s found nothing, but as long as the investigation keeps going it makes the president look bad. A cloud is cast over his presidency.
Now, if it is true – is the case that he is simply continuing to investigate, it would not be an unusual length of time for an investigation of this complexity to continue. And we have seen steady progress. We have seen, you know, already 19 people indicted. Five of them pleaded guilty.
MR. RAJU: Twenty now.
MS. BALL: Twenty now, that’s right, with the addition of Kilimnik. And I think, as Manu was saying, the signal – every signal that Manafort has sent is that he is fighting this, and not considering caving, including the fact that this new indictment is for allegedly tampering with witnesses. So instead of thinking about copping a plea, he’s out there trying to lean on people not to testify. So this is – but I don’t think anybody knows where this all winds up.
MR. COSTA: We’ll be tracking Paul Manafort and his trial all summer, to be sure. Thanks, everybody, for joining us here tonight.
We have to leave you a few minutes early so you can support your local PBS station, that in turn supports Washington Week. We thank you and your local station.
Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we will talk about presidential pardons, as we were just for a moment, and talk of a possible blue wave in November. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy your weekend.