MS. IFILL: Big news on immigration, the Justice Department under fire, candidates hit the road, and tensions with Russia, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people.
MS. IFILL: The president plays his immigration trump card, using executive power to allow undocumented youth to stay in U.S.
GOVERNOR JAN BREWER (R-AZ): He intends to grant backdoor amnesty up to nearly one million people. He says it’s temporary, but we all know better.
MS. IFILL: Acting on principle or picking a fight? The Justice Department under fire.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): Mr. Attorney General, it’s more with sorrow than regret – than anger that I would say that you leave me no alternative but to join those that call upon you to resign your office.
ERIC HOLDER [U.S. Attorney General]: There’s so much just factually wrong with the premises that you started your statement with, it’s almost breathtaking. I don’t have any intention of resigning.
MS. IFILL: The candidates square off in battleground Ohio.
PRES. OBAMA: If you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Don’t forget he’s been president for three and a half years. And talk is cheap. Action speaks very loud.
MS. IFILL: And as Syria falls apart, U.S.-Russian relations fray as well. Covering the week: Pierre Thomas of ABC News, Tom Gjelten of NPR, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, and Peter Baker of the New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The president took matters into his own hands today, moving to allow non-citizen students and graduates under 30 to avoid deportation. It’s a version of the DREAM Act, which stalled in Congress last year but has become for now the leading immigration issue.
PRES. OBAMA: The bill hasn’t really changed. The need hasn’t changed. It’s still the right thing to do. The only thing that has changed, apparently, was the politics. It makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans.
MS. IFILL: Mitt Romney seized on the president’s admission that his was a short-term solution.
MR. ROMNEY: If I’m president, we’ll do our very best to have that kind of long-term solution that provides certainty and clarity for the people who come into this country as with fault of their own, by virtue of the action of their parents.
MS. IFILL: So how far did the president’s actions go today and how far didn’t they, Pierre?
MR. THOMAS: Well, Gwen, we’re talking about roughly 800,000 people age 16 to 30. And what this allows them to do is to apply for work permits and stay here two years. And if they don’t get into any kind of trouble, they can be recertified. And, again, they’re looking at students, people who have served in the military, again, people who have been brought here by their parents.
And I think what was very interesting about this is even though they talked about children, as you can say by that age, 16 to 30, we’re talking about a lot of young adults who will be allowed to stay in the country.
MS. IFILL: Now, they’re also not talking about a pathway to citizenship, but I wonder if that’s a distinction without a difference if you’re allowed to stay and then be certified.
MR. THOMAS: Look, there’s no way you can describe this but a sweeping, sweeping act that the administration did today. Again, you’re talking about nearly a million people who, like you just said, for all intents and purposes, are here unless they make some grave mistake and break the law.
MS. IFILL: In fact, the president said, for all intents and purposes, they’re Americans just without the paperwork.
MR. THOMAS: Exactly.
MS. TUMULTY: But didn’t the president say at some point, about a year ago, that he did not have the power to do this? What changed?
MR. THOMAS: It’s slightly nuanced. He did an interview with Univision, and he said that he didn’t have the executive authority, that he couldn’t do it by a presidential order, to basically keep people from being deported.
Well, we interviewed the secretary of Homeland Security today and she said, I’m using prosecutorial discretion. In other words, I’m not going to do this because I have other priorities. And the priorities have been deporting criminals, people that they considered to be possibly having ties to terrorists. And, in fact, last year, they set a record for deportations of nearly 400,000 people.
MS. IFILL: So this was an executive action but not an executive order.
MR. THOMAS: Exactly.
MR. GJELTEN: Pierre, what’s with the timing of this? It seemed to come out of nowhere on a Friday afternoon. What was the reason for doing it now?
MR. THOMAS: I like to think I cover the Homeland Security Department pretty closely. And I can tell you, no clue this was coming. The Republicans obviously today said this is pure, unadulterated politics. The administration said this is just an evolution of what they’ve been doing.
Look, for all practical purposes, the administration does not deport children. They’re not out hunting for children to deport them. What they have been focused on, again, are criminals, people who have been ordered to be deported who stayed in the country for whatever reason. And they simply didn’t have the manpower. And you’ve even heard Republicans say, we can’t deport 12 million people en mass. That’s not going to happen. But by putting this on paper and saying, you can stay, and say, you can have a work permit, that codifies it in a very meaningful way to a lot of people.
MR. BAKER: But what are the politics? I mean, you’re talking about nearly a million people. As you say, these are not children. These are young adults. And at the moment we have high unemployment. I imagine, then, there were a lot out there today who were thinking those people are competing for my jobs, the jobs that I’m looking for.
MR. THOMAS: Look, this is a white hot issue and you’re likely to see not only a political firefight about this but also possibly a legal challenge as well. I mean, this could well end up in the Supreme Court as many of the other immigration issues are headed toward that way as well.
MS. IFILL: On the “NewsHour” tonight, Jim Sensenbrenner – and there have been other Republicans who have said this, said this is just amnesty. This is just a backdoor way of letting people take American jobs. But I’m also curious about whether this is something that the White House took into account, because you don’t hear Mitt Romney using that same language or even Marco Rubio using that same language. They seem to go after the process more than after the actual act.
MR. THOMAS: Well, the symbolism here is probably what’s important to the administration just from talking to different people that, look, if you’re trying to appeal to a community during an election cycle and you’re essentially saying, look, we’re going to take the pressure off the young people who are in school, who are for all intents and purposes doing the right thing, they’re saying officially, we’re taking you guys off the table. But, again, on the employment issue and on the political issue, this is an issue people feel so deeply about.
MS. IFILL: And also the fact that a lot of the people 15 to 30 are serving in the armed forces so they’re also trying to make the point – the sympathy point on that as well.
MR. THOMAS: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: Thanks a lot, Pierre. Immigration, as you can tell, is one of government’s most reliably hot button issues. If you add to that guns, national security and voting rights, you begin to see why the Department of Justice is Washington’s lightening rod. Attorney General Eric Holder has become the face of that conflict, especially when he takes action, often when he does not. And it all came to a head this week on Capitol Hill, didn’t, Tom?
MR. GJELTEN: Gwen, this week they’re calling for his head. He’s got like 100 members of Congress who are saying that Eric Holder should resign. And next week, Eric Holder faces a possible vote on whether he should be held in contempt for not having cooperated enough with Congress.
Basically, his Republican critics are angry at him for what he’s done, by going up against Arizona and Florida on the immigration and voter rights issue, also what they say for what he hasn’t done. They claim that he has not been forthright in investigating this gun sting called “Fast and Furious.” And the most recent example, they’re saying that Eric Holder is covering up for the administration when it comes to the national security leaks that have come out in the last few days.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about that, because didn’t he appoint two U.S. prosecutors to investigate those leaks?
MR. GJELTEN: He did. Republicans say he did it belatedly, after there was a great deal of pressure on them. You know, these leaks did produce a lot of anger on both Republican and Democratic side.
And I’ve talked to people in the national security community who are very upset by them as well. The administration says it was very upset by these leaks and yet there was a lag before those prosecutors were appointed.
The other big issue is the Republicans just don’t trust Eric Holder. They don’t trust him to keep his hands off this investigation. They say it should have been a special counsel taking charge of this investigation, because then they would have – the special counsel would have subpoena powers and would be able to act independently of Eric Holder.
MR. BAKER: What would happen to – we’ve seen in this administration more leak prosecutions than any previous one. What would happen if they caught somebody? And what would be the consequences of that?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, you know, these are criminal prosecutions, but the truth is it’s almost impossible to prosecute someone successfully for leaks because classified – leaking classified information is not a crime. It’s only a crime under the Espionage Act of 1917 if you can show that the leaker was actually out to hurt the United States or help a foreign government. That’s a very high bar.
Now, when there have been other leak investigations – and there have been several, as you say – six in this administration – you know, they sometimes end up with other charges. Remember, Scooter Libby was actually not charged with having leaked classified information. He was charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements. So sometimes it can end up in other charges.
You know, I get the feeling that people just want to know who did the leaking. And they want to have an investigation just to sort of answer that question, whether it results in any kind of successful prosecution or not.
MS. TUMULTY: But the theory seems to be that if there was a leak, that there was somebody trying to kind of buff up the president’s image. What exactly would the damage to national security have been of the information that was leaked?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, the two cases where that is most clear is in the leaking of the story, the news that there was an informant inside al Qaeda in Yemen who tipped off and the United States and its allies to a bomb plot. As a result of that, that informant had to be extracted from Yemen. Now, if that – if the identity of that informant, that whole story had been kept quiet, maybe that informant would still be there.
There’s also a concern that other governments will not trust the United States so much if there’s a pattern of leaking. So there are some serious concerns here about what the implications would be.
Now, probably the most egregious leak in a sense is the news that the United States was behind this cyber weapon, Stuxnet, against Iran, because what that did, what that confirmation of that fact meant is that the United States is now seen as an aggressor in cyberspace. No one else had ever used a cyber weapon in an offensive way before so now all the U.S. adversaries can say that the United States is out to use cyberspace in a military way. That could really hurt the United States internationally.
MR. THOMAS: Tom, and a lot of people in Washington, in an investigation like this, are about to become very uncomfortable, journalists and people in the government. Give us a sense of what might happen to folks.
MR. GJELTEN: Well, what normally would happen in a leak investigation like this is you’d first determine all the people that had access to that information. That could be a big universe of people.
MS. IFILL: All not here, all not in the United States necessarily.
MR. GJELTEN: Well, they’re certainly focused on people in the administration I think right now.
MR. THOMAS: And they would be in the White House.
MR. GJELTEN: Particularly in the White House. And they would be subject to lie detector tests. They’d be subject to very extensive investigations. It could be quite uncomfortable.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you, Tom. With all their might, both President Obama and Governor Romney were trying to keep the focus on the economy this week. Today, Romney embarked on a battleground bus tour in New Hampshire.
MR. ROMNEY: He said that everyone in America deserves a fair shot. No, I could not agree more. I absolutely agree with him on that. And let me ask you this: do you think when we pass on – or when he passes on trillions of dollars of additional debt to our kids that our kids are getting a fair shot?
MS. IFILL: Yesterday, the president was in Ohio.
PRES. OBAMA: Though we will have many differences over the course of this campaign, there’s one place where I stand in complete agreement with my opponent: this election is about our economic future.
MS. IFILL: They agree. (Laughter.) But we’re about to see the outlines of combat here, aren’t we?
MS. TUMULTY: In fact, I think it was really very clear in Ohio with these two speeches. The president was set to give a big economic speech, which I think everyone recognized was also an effort to sort of regain his footing after –
MS. IFILL: Fifty-four minutes long. It was at least big.
MS. TUMULTY: Exactly. At times it sounded in fact like a state of the union address. But what happened right before that, he’s – the president’s in Cleveland. Mitt Romney is in Cincinnati. Could Ohio be a big swing state?
So just before that speech, Mitt Romney comes and gives his own speech, basically saying, don’t listen to that man. He’s just trying to cover up his own failures with fancy rhetoric.
But what I found really interesting about the speech – and, again, it was a state of the union speech long – were a couple of things.
One, I thought that there was a real contrast between the Barack Obama of four years ago who was supposed to be this figure who would transcend politics and bring people together to find their common ground, and this Barack Obama who was saying, look, I have a vision. Mitt Romney has a vision. They are absolutely irreconcilable and you, the voters, are going to have to pick one. And, in fact, the new line in the speech was, break that stalemate.
MS. IFILL: Isn’t it impossible for someone who’s actually seeking reelection to present themselves as a breath of fresh air, and maybe that’s part of his problem?
MS. TUMULTY: And it is though. He’s not – also no longer in this environment which will present himself as the guy who can bring people together. So he has to – number one, defend his record, and, number two, convince people that there would actually be a better path out toward prosperity with his formula than with Mitt Romney’s.
MR. THOMAS: How concerned are Democrats about the president’s prospects?
MS. TUMULTY: Democrats are very concerned about the president’s prospects because this has been a difficult couple of weeks, starting with the disappointing jobs numbers Friday before last and continuing through a set of gaffes on the part of the president, with surrogates like Bill Clinton being off message. You know, he’s under fire from people in his own party.
So what you have on the part of a lot of senior Democrats is a real sudden fear. I mean, like three months ago, even two months ago, they figured Mitt Romney was enough of a flawed candidate and the economy was improving enough that Barack Obama had a pretty clear path to reelection. I don’t think they think that anymore.
MR. GJELTEN: You know, another big difference between this year and 2008 is that in 2008 Barack Obama, candidate Obama had a big financial advantage over his opponent and that has reversed this year or is in the process of being reversed in some ways.
MS. TUMULTY: That’s right. As of this week, he had done more than 160 fundraisers, and that was more than twice as many as George W. Bush had done at this point in his own reelection campaign. And it is –
MS. IFILL: And that compares how to Mitt Romney?
MS. TUMULTY: Mitt Romney has been also pretty active on the fundraising circuit as well, but one thing that is different is that the Barack Obama campaign says, we are absolutely sure that we are going to be outspent this time, in part primarily I think because the Republicans have such an advantage on the Super PAC side, those supposedly independent, unlimited PACs that are out there essentially to run negative ads. And we saw this week, for instance, that Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who was so instrumental to keeping Newt Gingrich on life support, says he’s going to throw $10 million on the pile for Mitt Romney.
MR. BAKER: You had then him going – I was told – giving a speech on the economy to try to set the agenda. And then, today, with the surprise announcement on immigration, has he – can he keep his message clear to people or is he stepping all over it?
MS. TUMULTY: I think these are two different things. I think this is an effort to box Mitt Romney in with a constituency that really matters in about two-third of those dozen or so states that are up for grabs this time.
MR. BAKER: Like which ones?
MS. IFILL: Colorado, Nevada – but also with the group that is already leaning very heavily toward Barack Obama and theoretically could be open too.
MS. TUMULTY: And people in his own – in the Republican Party as well thinking that demographics are against the party in the long run.
MS. IFILL: We’re going to see some of that play out again next week. We’ll be watching that too. Well, moving on. Only a couple of months ago, U.S. and Russian leaders were putting the best face possible on their post-Cold War relationship. No more. As the international community searches for a way to end the bloodshed in Syria, Russia has become key to any solution.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: We believe that the situation is spiraling towards civil war and it’s now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia and all Security Council members, to speak to Assad with a unified voice and insist that the violence stop.
MS. IFILL: As the U.S. ratchets up the pressure – and that’s what that just was, pressure – Presidents Obama and Putin prepare to meet in Mexico on Monday. How did things get so awkward between these two superpowers so fast, Peter?
MR. BAKER: It has been a real quick change, although some things were always there. I mean, when President Obama came in to do – when it came to Russia – was to reset the relationship. Things were very tense after the Georgia war of 2008. He wanted to get things back on a normal footing. He had as a partner President Dmitry Medvedev, who was President Putin’s successor and predecessor now as he’s returned to the Kremlin. And they managed to kind of put some of the tension behind them. They signed an arms control treaty, they opened a supply route to Afghanistan, and they agreed on sanctions on Iran.
But now they’re hitting some more fundamental issues. And the truth of the matter is Russia and the United States have fundamentally different values and interests. And you’re seeing it in the Syria debate right now.
MS. IFILL: In part because they’re so tied – in Russia’s case, they’re so tied to Assad, and the United States has gone way out on a limb saying he’s got to go.
MR. BAKER: They’re tied to Assad and they don’t want to give the Americans one more chance to meddle in another country. It’s not just that they like Bashar Assad so much as they hate the idea of Americans telling other countries who should be their leaders.
And think about how it looks to President Putin right now. He’s just returned to office in the Kremlin. Outside his office he sees tens of thousands of protesters. Now, they’re not violent the way they are in Syria, but the idea that some other country could come in and say, you’re no longer a legitimate leader, the opposition has the right to change leadership and we from the outside are going to tell you that strikes a very bad note in the Kremlin right now.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, what exactly could Russia do?
MR. BAKER: It’s a very good question. Americans have put so much attention right now on the idea that Russia is the main interlocutor, as if Putin can snap his fingers and suddenly things would be different. I think it’s questionable actually how much control they would have if they chose to push Assad out. They want to – the Americans have this idea that it could be like a Yemen situation. They create an easy transition that doesn’t involve a lot of violence. But nobody’s sure who would come in afterwards. And that’s a big question.
MS. IFILL: Like we saw in Egypt this week.
MR. BAKER: Like we saw in Egypt this week and like we saw in Libya. And, remember, Libya is still a very sore point for the Russians.
MR. GJELTEN: Peter, you mentioned that the Russians have been helpful in getting supplies into Afghanistan. That’s all the more important now because Pakistan is not allowing supplies to come in. Is that – does that explain this kind of weird dissonance between the Pentagon and the State Department this week in talking about whether Russia was supplying helicopters or not? It almost seems –
MS. IFILL: Weird dissonance is a very kind way of putting that.
MR. BAKER: That’s a very good way to put it. Exactly. Secretary Clinton says that Putin supplying attack helicopters to Assad sounds very tough, raised the pressure. The Pentagon says, well, yes, they’re really just three helicopters that have been sent back to Russia for refurbishment and Russia has now returned them according to contract.
MS. IFILL: So why would she –
MR. BAKER: Well, she’s trying to raise the pressure on them and there is a little bit of weird dissonance here. And there is this irony that the biggest success arguably of the reset is also the biggest problem because now we need them. We need the Russian air corridor that we have put in place to supply our war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. They could find another way, if Russia cut them off, but it wouldn’t be easy. And so right now there’s a limit to how much pressure we’re able to exert.
MR. THOMAS: And, Peter, what’s Russia’s role in pressuring Iran?
MR. BAKER: That’s a very good question. Starting on Monday, even as President Putin and President Obama are meeting in Mexico, representatives of the big international powers will be meeting in Moscow on the question of Iran with Iran’s representatives.
And what the administration hopes is that by having the meeting in Moscow, it gives an incentive to the Russians to really start putting pressure on Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program – that they have an investment in success here because they’re going to be the host of the meeting.
MS. IFILL: And we’re going to be watching very closely that meeting because this is going to be the first time we’ve seen President Obama with President Putin. In fact, President Putin kind of blew him off on that trip to Camp David a couple of weeks ago, so this will be body language time.
MR. BAKER: Oh, it will be very interesting. Their first meeting was when Putin was prime minister in July 2009, tough meeting. President Obama opened it with kind of an offhand comment about American relations and Putin gave him an hour-long harangue.
MS. IFILL: So harangue watch. Thanks everybody. The conversation has to end here, but we’ll pick up where we left off online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find that at pbs.org/washingtonweek, along with my blog about civility or the lack thereof in the public square. Keep up with daily developments with me online and on air all week at the PBS “NewsHour.” Happy Father’s Day. And we’ll see you again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.