ROBERT COSTA: The Russia probe widens, shifting the White House into crisis mode again. I’m Robert Costa. We get the backstory on the new revelations involving the president’s son, son-in-law, and a former Russian spy, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I have a son who’s a great young man. Took a meeting with a lawyer from Russia. Nothing came of the meeting.
MR. COSTA: President Trump defends his son’s decision to talk with a Russian attorney who offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
DONALD TRUMP JR.: (From video.) For me, this was opposition research. They had something, you know, maybe concrete evidence to all of the stories I’d been hearing about but that were underreported for, you know, years, not just during the campaign.
MR. COSTA: And the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also under fire for attendance at that meeting and for failing to list dozens of foreign contacts on his security application.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) His security clearance must be revoked immediately.
MR. COSTA: We look at the latest revelations involving the president’s inner circle.
Plus, bleak prognosis. Republican lawmakers roll out a revised Senate health care bill and they face immediate opposition from fellow Republicans and pressure from the president.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We have to get this done, repeal and replace. Mitch has to pull it off. He’s working very hard. He’s got to pull it off.
MR. COSTA: We explore it all with Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, and Ashley Parker of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Even a trip to Paris could not keep President Trump away from the ongoing Russia scandal. Under pressure, his namesake, Don Jr., released emails that revealed he was open to Russian assistance. Earlier this week, Jr. posted that the 2016 campaign led him to have an email chain that prompted a sit-down with a Russian lawyer, who he was told had, quote, “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Music publicist Rob Goldstone, who brokered the meeting with the Russian attorney, told the younger Trump that the information was, quote, “very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.” Once The New York Times broke this big story, Don Jr. tried to set the record straight with an appearance on Fox News.
QUESTION: (From video.) So as far as you know, as far as this incident’s concerned, this is all of it.
MR. TRUMP JR.: (From video.) This is everything. This is everything.
MR. COSTA: Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reviewing the email exchanges as part of the broader Russian meddling investigation, and two congressional committees have invited former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and senior adviser Jared Kushner to testify under oath about their contacts with Russia.
Inside the White House, a case study in crisis mismanagement according to your reporting, Ashley. And, Michael, we see a real big picture here after months and months of denials on the Russia story from the Trump White House. Finally, has this episode cracked open the whole controversy?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, the message, the defense that President Trump has used for months now is that this is all fake news, that this is all bogus, that there’s no substance to it at all. And what we have here is not only evidence that there was an intent to work with Russia to get information during the campaign – we don’t know whether that actually happened yet – but also evidence that, knowing that this email existed, this White House, these senior officials didn’t put it out for weeks after they knew they had it. Jared Kushner didn’t disclose it initially. He had two times he had a chance to disclose on his security clearance application this meeting; he failed the first two times. They say he did it the third time. And even this week, when they were asked by The New York Times about this, they kept changing their story. Even after Don Jr. says on Hannity “that’s everything,” we find out today that it wasn’t everything, that there were other people in the room, including someone – another Russian-American who used to serve in the Russian military. So, you know, the idea – one thing you really haven’t heard much from this White House over the last week is that fake news thing. They’ve lost that defense because they haven’t been able to come out and be transparent, and it makes it look like there’s a lot more to come.
MR. COSTA: And what’s going in inside of the White House, Ashley? You have a team of lawyers, so many lawyers inside of the West Wing, and they still seem to be blindsided.
ASHLEY PARKER: Yeah, the situation inside of the White House is not good, to put it mildly. In sort of my reporting this week, I talked to one Republican very close to the White House who described it at a category five hurricane. Another friend of the White House, Republican operative in close touch with everyone up to the president, described it as House of Cards, the dystopian Netflix series. And there’s just a lot of mistrust and infighting. This is a White House that already to begin with, on the best of days, infighting is sort of a core cultural value. And immediately, when these emails came out, half of the thing, instead of trying to manage the problem, they all kind of turned on each other and were trying to figure out who’s leaking, who gave this to The New York Times. And then, further, you have these legal teams who are sort of siloed and feuding a little bit with each other, the president’s legal team and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s legal team. They don’t want the two men, understandably, talking with each other. There are just a lot of tensions. And then add that you throw in the president’s namesake son, Don Jr. He just hired his own legal team. He is now talking about getting his own PR team. And you’re just having a lot of people who are not coordinating for reasons both legal and sort of cultural, and it’s a really tricky thing to handle.
MR. COSTA: And they were trying to handle it as they were on Air Force One, the president’s flying back from his trip. And, Mark, The New York Times broke this explosive story. Did the Times expect Donald Trump Jr. to release these emails? And what do you make of the news today that a former Russian spy was actually in the room last summer?
MARK MAZZETTI: So, first off on Don Jr., you know, we didn’t know where the story would end up. As Ashley said, the story kept evolving over the weekend – the White House story or the Don Jr. story kept evolving. On Saturday, the meeting was about Russian adoptions. On Sunday, we approached them and said, well, actually we know it was about Hillary Clinton, getting dirt about Hillary Clinton. And then their response was, well, everyone does this. And then the following day we said, well, we know that it was actually based on a promise from the Russian government. And then, finally, we said we were approaching them with the actual emails, we were going to publish them, and that’s when Donald Trump Jr. put his out, a couple minutes before our story ran. So we knew it probably would get to the emails coming out. We didn’t know how it would play out. But clearly, as everyone has been saying, I guess the significance here is that for months we have all been writing about meetings with Russians that at first never existed, until we all reported that they did, and then the question, though, was, you know, what were these meetings about and this question of collusion. Well, now here you have one meeting with actual people on an actual date where there was at least interest on the part of the Trump campaign in getting information, working with the Russians. And, as Michael said, we all need to know what happened afterwards. So I think that is the significance. Without sort of saying this is going to be it, which it’s not, it’s significant.
Now, on the question of the meeting and the – who were the participants, the wrinkle today was the added participant that hadn’t been reported was a Russian-American lobbyist. He had served in the Soviet military in a – actually, he was a KGB unit inside the military looking/hunting for spies inside the military. He has been out of Russia for a long time. He’s been a sort of fixture in Washington, and he has been someone who is well-known to members of Congress because he’s been actively advancing the Kremlin’s interests. So he’s another interesting character we have to look at.
MR. COSTA: Amy, is the president paying a cost for this controversy with Republicans in Washington or with the Republican base voters across the country?
AMY WALTER: Well, everybody here around the table sits and talks to a lot of Republicans in Washington who are wringing their hands, who are telling us privately how worried they are, but nobody’s breaking with the president. Members of Congress aren’t breaking with this president, and clearly voters aren’t either. So the most recent Gallup poll that came out this week, his overall approval rating is at 37 percent. That’s not very good. But among Republicans, he still has a solid 83 percent approval rating. The danger for Republicans right now in thinking that they still have their base two – is two. One, that they don’t have independents. Independents now, for the last, quite frankly, many months, not just since this story broke, but overwhelmingly disapprove of the president. And the bigger challenge for Republicans, especially as we start talking about a midterm election year, is that while the base is sticking with the president, they’re not like rah-rah enthusiastic about him, right? The Democrats dislike Donald Trump with the heat of a thousand million suns. It is not an equal amount of like from Democrats (sic; Republicans). It’s literally a two-to-one difference in terms of enthusiasm. And so I think that’s what we really also need to be talking about.
So the challenge is the base I don’t think is – is not going to leave Donald Trump. That’s not the challenge for Republicans. It’s can you win in 2018 if you’re only getting 30-something percent of independents and your base is still not as excited? And that’s why, really, for Republicans the question is can the Republican Congress pass a health care bill, do something on taxes, and come back in an election year saying, OK, it was kind of rocky, thanks for sticking with us, here’s your reward.
MR. COSTA: And Republicans, Michael, are maybe not just paying attention to the drama over Donald Trump Jr., but they’re looking at policy. You have a sanctions bill that passed the Senate against Russia now sitting in the House. The White House doesn’t really love it because they’d like to have more control over negotiations with Russia over maybe getting rid of some sanctions. And you have the president, as I said, was flying back this week from the G-20, dealing with this issue. But he was trying to reshape U.S.-Russian relations last week, and you had this real endeavor from the president to try to rethink a traditionally chilly relationship.
MR. SCHERER: He went to Poland, he gave a rousing speech that was very much a defense of Poland and NATO, which was different from the last time he had been there. He’s, like you said, trying to reset relations with Russia, talk with Putin about a ceasefire, which seems to have some initial effect at least in Syria. You know, for the president and his team, they keep trying to turn the page on this, and every time they try – I mean, this has been going on for months now – to turn a page, they fail. And I think one of the things that is at the root of that is that they – the president and the family members around him are refusing to do what everyone at this table knows, what all their lawyers know you do in this situation. If you have an email – and they had this email for weeks – that says something that is incriminating, you know, you try to find a way to get out in front of it, and they didn’t do that. Even last weekend they didn’t do that.
MR. COSTA: It’s different story after story.
MR. SCHERER: They were acting as if this email will never come out.
MR. MAZZETTI: And there were certainly divisions within the Trump White House, the Trump organization, the Trump universe about whether to come clean immediately, to draw it out, and Ashley’s reporting –
MR. COSTA: What were those divisions? You must have seen that up close, working on the story for the Times.
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, you know, there were certainly – without getting too much into who was talking about whom about what to do, but there were certainly some who advocated that there was – that the best thing to do would be to sort of produce the email, talk about what the story’s about, what the meeting was about, and not have it drag out because, again, it just looks incriminating.
MS. PARKER: And to be clear, the backdrop of all of this is that Donald Trump is basically the world’s worst client, right? He is not a lawyer’s dream. So, for instance, we have reporting that his legal team goes to the White House and they tell him, you know, whatever you do, Mr. President, just don’t mention this, and they have not yet arrived back at their law office when he has tweeted about that very subject they’ve told him not to mention. He’s also someone who – when you’re under legal investigation or facing legal problems you need to compartmentalize, and he’s someone who basically he’ll be in a meeting about immigration or water policy and he’ll suddenly mention Russia, which, again, is not what lawyers advise. (Laughs.)
MS. WALTER: And isn’t so much of this, too, is that what they learned on the campaign and in his business life which worked for him is not working now? And so it’s this but it worked, but it worked, but it worked, we got to double, triple, quadruple down on what has always worked for us. This isn’t a campaign. This isn’t a real estate business. This is governing. It’s very, very different. And they just refuse to sort of make that turn.
MR. SCHERER: And more important that it worked, it worked even though Donald Trump was being told by people like us it wouldn’t work. And so the lesson for him throughout his career is that these people telling me what to do are wrong, I’m smarter than them.
MR. COSTA: You know, when you talk about the cost of that politically, what’s the cost? You look at all the people from the Trump orbit who have been affected by the Russia controversy. Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman, resigned. Attorney General Jeff Session(s), he had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Former General Flynn resigned as national security adviser. Now, Ashley, it hits the president’s son.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, it does, and it’s an incredibly frustrating situation for the president to be in because he sort of feels like, you know, he ran for office, he can handle this, but he feels like his family is being unfairly brought into this. And the president is someone who, though he does not exhibit necessarily a ton of loyalty to his staff at times, the one loyalty is familial. And you even see that with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
MR. COSTA: Does that extend to Kushner?
MR. MAZZETTI: Yeah. I mean, he may think that his family’s been brought into it, but more than any other president he’s brought his family into it by bringing them into government, right, and having them so – as such close advisers.
MR. COSTA: What’s next for Jared?
MR. MAZZETTI: And so Jared Kushner will testify before the congressional intelligence committees. You know, of the players you mentioned and including a few others, including Don Jr., Jared Kushner is a government employee. So there is – there’s legal implications for him not filling out his background clearance or continuing to having to update and not coming clean in the beginning. So there are implications. He is going to have to answer for why he didn’t. And so the stakes are a little bit higher, not only because of the meeting that we’re talking about now, this meeting that happened last June, but subsequent meetings that everyone’s reported about in November, in December, where he was meeting not only with the Russian ambassador, but he was meeting with a banker, Sergey Gorkov, who’s a head of a bank under sanction, and there’s been all this smoke about what was happening during the transition. So Kushner’s been basically a player in all of these meetings, and that’s why it’s important.
MR. COSTA: So, Amy, if you’re a Democrat looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, do you now seize the Russia issue in a way they did not in the recent special election in Georgia?
MS. WALTER: Yeah, I think if you are Democrats right now, what you’re looking at still is that for the majority of Americans these are the issues that are important to them: health care and the economy. When you ask voters what your top issue is –
MR. COSTA: Not Russia, not yet?
MS. WALTER: Not Russia, believe it or not. Russia’s right there with the environment, OK, somewhere around like 12 or 13 percent. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: When is that going to change, if ever?
MS. WALTER: I don’t – it’s that it is – I don’t know that it’s ever because – and I think this is where – and Democrats are talking – when I talk to Democrats, they understand this too. Look, when it comes to what impacts your day-to-day life, this whole conversation we’ve had does not put food on the table, it doesn’t get your kid to school, it doesn’t take care of your health care. But the health care bill is going to be the biggest, most important vote that Republicans – some Republicans have already taken, that Senate Republicans may take. This is the issue that Democrats – I think you’re going to hear a lot about on the campaign trail, especially a bill that right now is polling at about 30 percent approval rating.
MR. SCHERER: There was – there was something really fascinating that the president said in an on-the-record interview on Air Force One as he was heading to France. At the very end of that, he says the Democrats are making a huge mistake, and he made the argument that by focusing on Russia they were doing something like what they did during the campaign, which was make a character argument about the president. I mean, in the campaign – at the end of the campaign, it was about his treatment of women, things like that, and he ended up winning because voters cared more about the economy and things like that. And so I think it’s very clear that not just the president, but other people in the White House, they’re not in a happy place, but they still see this opportunity.
MR. COSTA: Do we see this, Mark? Robert Mueller, the special counsel, he’s the man everyone’s waiting on. Is he going to be focused more on possible obstruction of justice, or is this Don Jr. email – all these emails, does it change, perhaps, that investigation?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, what we know is – there’s not a whole lot we know specifically about his actual mandate, right, but we do know that his mandate will be to look at what happened last year during the campaign and any possible collusion, right? This meeting fits right into that, right? During the campaign, questions of collusion. So this would be squarely in what he’s looking at. The question really is, how far afield might he go, might he feel authorized to, and might he also – when he might run into real anger at the White House. I mean, remember, the president can fire him, but the – I mean, from these issues of campaign collusion spin out all sorts of different other questions: financial ties to Russia, possibly; you know, real estate deals all over the place. I mean, there are a lot of different places where Mueller could go, and he’s building a team that could lead him there.
MS. PARKER: And also lying. So, for instance, going back to a point Amy made, one thing the president especially in his real estate dealings and his career made his name on was sort of fudging the truth, speaking a bit hyperbolically. You know, one aide called it puffery. But one thing that the president’s legal team and the legal team for his son-in-law and his son are trying to impress upon him is this isn’t Manhattan real estate, and there’s two people you cannot lie to, and those are the feds and congressional investigators. And they’re hoping they figure that out quickly.
MR. COSTA: And speaking of Congress, Russia’s not the only issue this week. On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans rolled out their new plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, and they faced the same old problem: opposition among Republicans. Moderate Senator Susan Collins of Maine and conservative Rand Paul of Kentucky both announced they will vote no on the procedural vote next week. Democratic Senator Patty Murray isn’t a fan of the bill, but hard-right Republican Ted Cruz is.
SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: (From video.) Well, they made their bill even worse, even meaner.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) It’s not the ideal bill I’d like to pass. I suspect there may not be a single senator for whom it’s the ideal bill they’d like to pass. But it does represent a bill that reflects the concerns expressed across the conference.
MR. COSTA: The revised bill, which will be evaluated over the weekend by the Congressional Budget Office to estimate its cost, maintains some of the ACA’s taxes for the wealthy, earmarks 45 billion (dollars) for opioid addiction treatment, and keeps the previously announced rollback of Medicaid, which continues to be one of the biggest sticking points among Republicans. We could talk about Russia and Don Jr. all night, but I want – we got to update on health care, Michael, because this is a key priority for the Republican Party for nearly a decade and it hangs in the balance in the Senate.
MR. SCHERER: It does, and we didn’t really get much closer this week than we were the week before. I don’t think that means this is dead. It’s still very much a live animal. And the reason is that McConnell is sort of systematically testing people here, and what he did in this – in this version is he changed some of the regulatory stuff, won over an endorsement, you heard there, from Ted Cruz. He gave some regional candy to people, you know, for opioid treatments and more money for rural states like Alaska. What he didn’t do is touch the thing that is concerning a lot of moderates, which is the cuts in Medicaid funding compared to current law, and he still has space to address that. And I think what he’s doing is setting up a situation in which he can focus his pressure one by one on, you know, the half-dozen or more people who are still holdouts on the bill.
MR. COSTA: What’s the White House’s role in trying to sell this bill?
MS. PARKER: Well, going into this it was very different than when the White House tried to get it through the House, when it was a, you know, full-out press and they were calling members into the Oval Office and really making a concerted effort to start. Mitch McConnell sort of told the White House privately – told Reince Priebus back off, I want to do this on my own. So the person they have sent out the most, other than obviously their legislative affairs team, is the vice president, Mike Pence, and he – you know, he’s a former House member. He has some of these relationships. He has been working with members. I think one thing, if they do not get the ball across the line – and again, I agree, they very well could – but it’s an open question how much responsibility in the president’s mind the vice president will bear for that failure, because what the president will see is a failure, correctly, and the vice president will have been the closest, you know, most public figure pushing it.
MR. COSTA: Well, the president’s still the president, so –
MS. WALTER: The president’s still the president, and yet when you look at – both at polling and then just the broader sense even on Capitol Hill whose responsibility this is, it’s actually Mitch McConnell, right? Even the president said: Mitch, you got to get this across the line for me. And when you look at the polling, when you ask voters if this fails who will you blame, the majority pick Congress. Very few, either among Democrats or Republicans, pick the president. So the president has delegated this to his folks in the Senate, and he’s been very clear that he sees it as their responsibility to get him something that he can sign.
But it’s really important to – I don’t think you can overstate this – that nobody is selling this bill. We talk a lot about process. We talk a lot about these holdouts. We haven’t heard anything from Republicans about why this is such a great bill and who’s out there selling it. I did a story this week looking at how much money’s been spent on this actual – the health care bill, and a lot of the ads are running in those states that you mentioned, of those holdout senators, about – close to $6 million has been spent right now in advertising; 5.8 million (dollars) of it has been against the bill. Nobody’s out there promoting it. So the question is not just is Mitch McConnell going to be able to get something across the finish line, but who’s going to sell it, then, something that’s right now really unpopular?
MR. COSTA: That’s fascinating. It brings up this vexing question for Republicans, Michael: maybe the Affordable Care Act is actually settled law in the minds of many people, including some Republicans, and as much as McConnell may try to whip certain senators, at the end of the day that’s the reality he faces with many people.
MR. SCHERER: Well, it’s certainly more popular now than the replacement they’ve come up with. It’s not settled law in that it’s broken. I mean, there is going to have to come a point in the coming months or years where they pass another bill to fix it. Otherwise, the individual market is basically going to collapse. It’s already collapsing in a lot of states. And so that will give bargaining power to both sides to actually force some change. We don’t know where that’s going to go. And I think Republicans know that if they miss this chance, they’re going to sit down at the table with Democrats and they’re going to be at an enormous disadvantage because at that point Democrats will have the upper hand and they’ll say, you know, you’re going to do it our way this time.
MR. COSTA: Fantastic conversation. Thanks, Mark, Ashley, Michael, Amy for being here. And thanks, everybody, for watching.
Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you why former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton say partisan politics has never gotten in the way of their friendship. And the photos we have up there are pretty fun, too. You can find that later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time, and enjoy your weekend.