GWEN IFILL: Iraq flashback: a crumbling nation looks to the U.S. for help. Political earthquake: how Eric Cantor’s defeat is rattling the GOP. And was it worth it? The continuing saga of Bowe Bergdahl, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Major cities fall as Iraq fractures once again.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From clip.) The United States has and will continue to have vital national interest in Iraq, but the progress made there is clearly in jeopardy.
MS. IFILL: But what will, what can the U.S. do?
Back home, surprised defeat shakes up the Republican Party –
REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): (From clip.) Look, obviously we came up short.
MS. IFILL: – as Eric Cantor becomes the first House majority leader ever to go down to primary defeat.
DAVID BRAT: (From clip.) I’m just humbled that the people spoke. And I think they want a new direction in Washington, D.C.
MS. IFFIL: Democrats were smug.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From clip.) That’s too bad for him, but the people have spoken.
MS. IFILL: Republicans were scrambling.
REPRESENTATIVE BROOKS (R-AL): (From clip.) The message is this: We were elected by American citizens, and we better represent the interests of American citizens.
MS. IFILL: What next?
And Bowe Bergdahl returns home, but at what cost?
SECRETARY CHARLES HAGEL: (From clip.) If any of these detainees ever tried to rejoin the fight, they would be doing so at their own peril.
MS. IFILL: The debate is just beginning. Covering the week: Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers, Robert Costa of The Washington Post, John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times and Mark Mazzetti 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.” Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The city names are familiar – Mosul, Tikrit, Erbil. But as insurgents overran those cities and advanced toward Baghdad, the alarm was sudden and real: Was the U.S. going to be drawn into a third Iraq war? In remarks directed today the American people, but also at the Iraqi prime minister, President Obama said no.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the – of the country.
MS. IFILL: Nancy, the Pentagon spokesman said today that Americans had sacrificed blood and treasure in Iraq. But maybe we should have seen this coming?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Yes, frankly, in the sense that ISIS, the – which calls for an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, had been charging for weeks now in Syria and had threatened to move into Mosul and the western part of Iraq, which is Sunni-dominated. And so what happened this week was a series of breathtaking moves by them. In the span of five days, they took over the second largest city in Iraq, a city the size of Philadelphia. They moved into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and then lost it again. The Kurds were able to take oil-rich Kirkuk, which has been key to their independence.
And so all of these moves suggested that Iraq might not be the state that we know it. And events are moving so quickly that the Iraq we see today might not be there next week.
MS. IFILL: So it’s the quickness that everyone is surprised at, as much as the fact of it.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right, because in the addition to the speed at which they moved, the Iraqi security forces didn’t fight at all. When ISIS had taken Fallujah, which we all know in this country very well, there was a fight for that city. And here in Mosul, which has oil, which is split, Sunni and Kurdish, there wasn’t a fight at all. Not only did the Iraqi security forces not fight, they ran, and ISIS forces were able to take U.S.-supplied weapons. We saw them driving with Humvees with the ISIS flag flying over it.
And so they’re now marching towards Baghdad. We’re seeing Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, call up Iranian support and help. We’re seeing Shia leaders tell their citizens and sect to arm themselves. And President Obama essentially laid down his conditions for the U.S. to intervene, albeit limited, in Iraq. And what he said was there had to be some sort of national reconciliation. It hasn’t happened in years, so it’s hard to see a scenario where these very divided groups with so much at stake are now going to be willing to sit at a table and negotiate for the sake of a now fractured Iraq.
JOHN HARWOOD: Now does that mean that we are headed for the very thing that Joe Biden used to advocate a few years ago – that is, that Iraq needs to be partitioned? Is that – is that where this is ultimately fated to end, or is there a way we can reverse this and knit the country back together?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, there’s certainly that potential. Because the Kurds have Kirkuk, they have a vested interest now in a division. The group ISIS is looking for a Sunni state. And the Shia are trying to protect their interests. So there is that possibility.
And as you say, Biden at the height of the Iraq war suggested this as a solution. There is a case to be made that that might solve one problem, but it would create a whole host of new ones. At the minimum, the state that this extremist group is proposing would propose things like subjugating women, flogging, taxing citizens. We saw half a million residents of Mosul flee, which gives you some sense in terms of the level of fear that Iraqis have about the potential of this – of this Sunni state led by ISIS.
MARK MAZZETTI: Nancy, the – President Obama has talked a lot about the Iraq War is the war that he ended and the Syria war is the war he doesn’t want to get involved in, but this group, ISIS, they see this all as one war, don’t they? And they see this all as one big conflict.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right. ISIS was actually born out of the U.S. engagement in Iraq. These were followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was a prominent leader of what was then the Islamic state of Iraq. And he – and his followers call for an Islamic caliphate that would have several capitals in them, which is why they’re going for all these cities. They are trying to recreate the caliphate.
And in a way, it’s much more dangerous than what we were talking about in Iraq because those were terror operations, but ISIS is fighting in a more conventional military way. They’re not just using terror attacks but actually fighting as a military. They have a flag. They have now U.S. equipment. They have a military. They have Shariah law that governs them. And so however you want to define it, it’s potentially a state, maybe not in the conventional sense, but they have the resources to really take over a huge swath of the Middle East.
ROBERT COSTA: It’s really interesting to see the congressional response. And I’m curious how the administration, with knowing that the Democrats control the Senate, are dealing with House Republicans who seemed almost like Republicans back in 2007 during the Iraq surge, committed to the region and committed to being in Iraq. How do you see this, from a political perspective, proceeding in Congress but also ahead of the midterms?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, it’s interesting, because a lot of the Republicans who have called for intervention haven’t been able to specify what that intervention would look like and what goals it would achieve.
And the other interesting thing is a lot of them voiced their displeasure with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, whose sectarian form of governance has really contributed to the rise of these Sunni extremist groups in Iraq. And so it’s interesting to see whether it will be a factor.
It seems that the thing that will decide it is whether the president decides to intervene in Iraq, in what form and whether he continues to support Nouri al-Maliki, who, for both parties, has been an ineffectual leader.
MS. IFILL: Politics, diplomacy, you name it – it’s all part of the same story.
Well, let’s talk about this week’s political earthquake here in Washington in which the House majority leader was pasted by a little-known tea party candidate in Virginia. And he has already – and it’s already given way to other dramas. Who will succeed Eric Cantor as majority leader? And if the leading candidate wins, who will succeed him? But the root of thing is, how did Cantor lose so badly and is it a sign of things to come? House Speaker John Boehner says no, it’s really all the president’s fault.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: (From clip.) I went through a primary process myself. And you have to understand, the American people are being squeezed by Obama’s policies. There’s a lot of frustration that’s out there. And they look to Washington and wonder why we can’t – we can’t resolve these issues. They’re hard to resolve when you got a president who won’t engage.
MS. IFILL: But tea partyer and Texas Senator Ted Cruz sees more to it.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): The voters of Virginia have spoken loudly, and I think they have expressed a sentiment that is present across the country, which is that people are frustrated. They’re frustrated with politicians in Washington in both parties who aren’t listening to them.
MS. IFILL: Notice he said both parties. So how’s that debate playing out tonight, John?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, look, the American people are frustrated, but they’re frustrated in different ways in different places. You go to Republican districts and you hear much different stories than you do in Democratic districts.
And I think, you know, it’s hard to isolate one particular factor that caused Eric Cantor to go down. You could look at his personality. You could look at the demands of leadership that took him away from the district a lot. You could look at the intensity of discontent among the Republican base, which even somebody like Eric Cantor, who was viewed at the White House as a huge obstacle to the president’s agenda, even by doing some of the basic functions of government in cooperation with the White House, you can be portrayed as a sellout.
So I think this is unsettling to every member of Congress, in particular to Republicans, because there is a greater level of ideological intensity among their base. And Democrats are viewing this somewhat warily because their members are in trouble. If we have an anti-incumbent election, they’re going to have a hard time. But if the forces within the Republican Party that ousted Eric Cantor are elevated – that is, the ones who want an all-out in-your-face fight with the president – that may be better for Democrats, improve their prospects of coming back sooner than they think, in the House of Representative as well as in other parts of other parts of the country.
MS. IFILL: Robert, you spend all your time basically embedded on Capitol Hill. Do they see it that way? Do they see it as an existential threat to incumbency?
MR. COSTA: Certainly. I think the stunning thing about this is that the story is not just about Eric Cantor. It’s about a shock wave that went through the entire institutional Republican Party, because Cantor was not just the majority leader who managed the floor. This was someone who from a policy perspective was leading the Republican message ahead of the 2014 midterms. And for him to be taken out in such a fashion, I think Republican officials across the board – Chairman Reince Priebus of the RNC, Speaker Boehner, Leader McConnell – they’re unsure now of how to proceed. They thought the Senate majority was perhaps within reach. They thought they had a good message on “Obamacare,” opposing it on jobs and the economy. Now they’re rattled. They’re not sure what’s next.
And you have the tea party ascendant, perhaps more powerful on the outside than they are in the inside in Congress.
And so just a few weeks ago, we were talking about the establishment feeling good.
MS. IFILL: And we may have done that at this very table, actually. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: And we thought – they thought McConnell was doing OK. Maybe Thad Cochran was going to lose to a tea party in a red state like Mississippi. But they felt they were on – success was on the horizon.
Now everything’s up for grabs in the Republican Party. There’s a power vacuum, and everyone’s trying to fill it.
MR. HARWOOD: But in truth, it is a mixed bag. Mitch McConnell did survive. John Boehner did survive.
MS. IFILL: Lindsey Graham did survive.
MR. HARWOOD: Lindsey Graham survived on the same night that Eric Cantor went down.
So it – some of these are particular to the election. And remember, primary elections are low-turnout enterprises. And if you manage – you know, 1 in 5 Americans show up for those things. If you could mobilize a cadre of people, you can make a big difference in particular places.
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, does that – does that mean, then, it’s possible to read too much into this for the tea party, that this may not herald a wave of victory for the tea party in the fall? It may be more Eric Cantor than a signal about the demise of traditional Republicans?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think there is a significant Eric Cantor-specific component to this. Yes –
MS. IFILL: Or Dave Brat – we haven’t mentioned his name yet, but the guy who beat Eric Cantor –
MR. HARWOOD: Yes, exactly.
MS. IFILL: Dave Brat may have actually been on to something.
MR. HARWOOD: Right, and there are some – you know, Eric Cantor is a Jewish Republican. This is a very rural conservative Southern district where that is not a – you don’t have a lot of Jewish members of Congress from the South.
MS. IFILL: Oh, but he’s been elected several times from this district.
MR. HARWOOD: I understand.
MR. COSTA: He’s been elected since 2000.
MR. HARWOOD: I understand.
MR. COSTA: I don’t think the faith of Eric Cantor had anything to do with it. I think more we saw Brat – I interviewed Brat several times in April and May. And this is someone who is a political amateur, a professor of economics at Randolph–Macon College. And he was talking in the typical tea party way – constitutional values, very conservative; we need a sea change in Washington. And Eric Cantor –
MR. HARWOOD: There’s a lot of God in his rhetoric too, though.
MR. COSTA: True. That is true.
MR. HARWOOD: And cultural identification matters.
MR. COSTA: No, I would agree with that. I think there was some rhetoric about faith. I just think he wasn’t emphasizing it, Brat. I don’t know if that won him the race.
But I think Brat comes to Washington, and he meets Republicans in the House now, conservatives, who – I think you’re right. Maybe there’s not going to be a lot of tea parties taking – tea party people taking over, because we see Kevin McCarthy, the current whip, looking to easily ascend now to be Cantor’s replacement as majority leader. And that’s a story that inside the House – the tea party’s so influential, it’s so large, yet when it comes to making an actual race for the leadership during this time of tumult and crisis, they’re not organized, and they don’t have a clear message.
MS. YOUSSEF: So what is the takeaway, then, for the general election in light of all those competing and seemingly contradicting factors?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, a couple of things. You know, Robert was talking about what do policywise. I don’t think much of anything is going to get done policywise.
MS. IFILL: Was anything going to get done policywise? (Laughter.)
MR. HARWOOD: Probably not.
MS. IFILL: I mean there’s been a lot of discussion this week about immigration is dead. Well, I last – last I checked, immigration was dead before this.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I have been one of the few holdouts – (laughter) – who thought that there was a possibility that it might happen. And I think that possibility is extinguished. So I don’t think much is going to get done policywise.
But I do think if we get – I talked to a former Republican leadership aide this week who said the possibility of a government shutdown is on the table for this fall because we’re not going to get our appropriations bills done, and members are going to have to decide. That is the kind of event that occurred in 2013, hurt the Republicans badly. If that happens again, it could hurt them badly and have an implication for the fall elections.
MS. IFILL: Are you getting that, Robert?
MR. COSTA: I think – I think there’s now a confidence on the right that the leadership can be taken on, and I think part of Cantor’s problem goes back to the government shutdown in 2013. Cantor spent all of August of 2013 trying to talk the tea party away from the ledge, to say that this is not a smart strategy. They didn’t listen to Cantor. And then Cantor spent a lot of time in January, February, March trying to modernize the party, come up with a more even-tempered message, and they ignored him. And now with him losing, I think they’re going to become even more hard-edged.
And I think John’s right. Some of the kind of more intransigent message and tactics could be on the way in the fall.
MR. MAZZETTI: So –
MS. IFILL: So if – go ahead.
MR. MAZZETTI: No, so is this – do Democrats and President Obama – do they look at this as this is all good; they’re fighting; it’s chaos? Or are they worried – anything that worries them out of this –
MR. COSTA: Well, I ran into Steny Hoyer, real quick, and – Steny Hoyer, one of the op Republicans – Democrats in the House – and he said the Democrats will start to run on the mess in the Republican Party.
But I think Democrats have to be careful. It is very messy on the Republican side. Where is their message?
MS. IFILL: That’s the problem.
MR. COSTA: Where – what are they going to sell for the second term and the president’s last two years?
MR. HARWOOD: I do think the White House kind of wanted to get immigration reform, and so even the possibility was small, if it’s gone away, that’s bad for them.
MS. IFILL: So let’s go inside some of the messiness that’s happening right now on the Hill and also what’s happening in the next couple of races up. I want to ask you, Robert, about what’s happening. You said Kevin McCarthy is doing this. How is he going to going to – how is he marching right into Eric Cantor’s old job, the majority leader job, without any real challenge? We have one last standing tea party challenge, but that’s it.
MR. COSTA: Yeah, right, there’s a minor long-shot challenger in Raul Labrador from Idaho. He was part of that Boehner coup attempt in 2013. He does not have much of a chance. He – his aide actually told me on Friday that he was not going to even come back to the Capitol until Monday or Tuesday. So he doesn’t have the time, doesn’t have the organization.
McCarthy started immediately on Tuesday night making calls. He’s someone who has been staffer in the House. He is very well-networked with his deputy whips. He was able – he has Tom DeLay’s former chief of staff counting votes inside of his first-floor Capitol suite. That’s enabled McCarthy very quickly to get ahead. And in leadership races, speed kills. McCarthy had speed.
And I just came from the Capitol to the studio, meeting with Steve Scalise, and he’s a Republican, a conservative, from Louisiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. As a conservative in the House, a heavyweight conservative, he’s thinking now, with McCarthy ascendant and Boehner as speaker, you have a man from Ohio and California in the number-one and -two spots. Maybe the – a conservative has to be in that number-three spot.
MS. IFILL: Wow.
MR. COSTA: And so now it looks like he’s going to be –
MS. IFILL: That’s the majority whip job.
MR. COSTA: Majority whip, number three. It looks like Scalise, I predict, beats Peter Roskam from Illinois for that number-three spot.
MS. IFILL: Ooh, Peter Roskam’s going to be burning up your phone right this second. (Laughter.)
Let me ask you about what’s happening in Mississippi and perhaps Kansas as well. Are they looking at this and going, oh, no?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, in Mississippi, Thad Cochran had in early June a runoff – or an initial primary with a tea party challenger. It – he –
MS. IFILL: Chris McDaniel.
MR. HARWOOD: Chris McDaniel, who pulled more votes, didn’t quite get to 50 percent. Now they’re going into the runoff. The conventional wisdom is when you get to a runoff, turnout goes down, and the one with the more motivated and more passionate supporters is going to win, and that’s likely to be the tea party candidate.
Thad Cochran’s strategy is to now expand the electorate, go after some of the Democrats who would have voted for him in a general election because he’s an institution in the state – very, very difficult to pull off. If smart operatives can pull it off – he’s got Haley Barbour on his side – maybe it’ll work, but it’s going to be tough.
MS. IFILL: And Haley Barbour’s two nephews.
And in Kansas we’re talking about Pat Roberts, who is also the next most endangered incumbent.
MR. HARWOOD: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: We just seem to be clicking them off as we go down.
Thank you both very much, and welcome to “Washington Week,” Robert.
Finally tonight, how do you solve a problem like Bowe Bergdahl? The Army sergeant, who apparently walked away from his post, is the latest flashpoint of disagreement between the White House and Congress. The mutual distrust was on display this week when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel went to Capitol Hill.
SEC. HAGEL: I never said I don’t trust the Congress. Those are your words.
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE CONAWAY (R-TX): Your actions – your actions – no, no, no, your actions said –
SEC. HAGEL: No, I didn’t say. You said I said it.
REP. CONAWAY: – your actions – your actions demonstrate, Mr. Secretary, that you do not trust Congress, because you would not tell the chairman –
SEC. HAGEL: Now it’s my actions.
REP. CONAWAY: – and the ranking member something like this. Your actions say you don't trust Congress. I get it.
MS. IFILL: Everybody had their Wheaties that day, Mark. Where do things stand tonight?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, as we all just saw, things got very heated this week when Secretary Hagel went up there.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions. The hearing this week didn’t get into the issue of how did Bergdahl get captured, did he desert, all those circumstances. They left those aside.
The questions they dealt with were why was Congress not told about the swap; these five Taliban prisoners, do they pose a threat; and this question of did the Obama administration violate this long-standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists by doing this deal.
MS. IFILL: Let’s take those one at a time. Let’s start with the part of congressional notification.
MR. MAZZETTI: The Congress – pretty much Republicans and Democrats agreed they should have been told, I mean, as members of Congress would, and it really – the case wasn’t very strong from the Obama administration about why nobody on Capitol Hill could be told about this. I mean, they knew about the bin Laden raid. They – in advance. So some can keep a secret, and I think that was where Hagel had the biggest trouble this week, was making that case.
On the other cases, I mean, he had a message. He wanted to say, you know, I understand you guys don’t agree with this deal, but this is war. I was in combat. I know war. It’s ugly, it’s messy, but this is what happens in war.
And it was a – it was a – it was a good case, and there was – there was less challenge on that front than on – than on – than on some of the other issues.
MS. YOUSSEF: Mark, now Sergeant Bergdahl has returned, in the middle of the night, to San Antonio for what the Pentagon calls Phase III of his reintegration process. What will that look like? What are some of the things that they’ll be doing to help him reintegrate back in after five years of captivity?
MR. MAZZETTI: You know, he’s apparently just trying to relearn English. It’s basic language skills. It’s psychological evaluations. There’s questions of when he will eventually see his parents, talk to his parents. Apparently he hasn’t yet.
I mean, just think about how far we’ve come in less than two weeks. You had this sort of joyous ceremony on the – in the Rose Garden of the White House, and now it’s looking like there won’t be a big homecoming in Idaho. There’s questions about – you know, the parents have had death threats, I mean, so it’s just such an extraordinary story in less than two weeks in where things have come.
MR. HARWOOD: Mark, have we learned anything in the last week on this question of whether this is just, on the one hand, a troubled young man who had maybe wandered off his base before versus somebody who was a traitor, who had turned on his country, and the relevance that those facts might have to the urgency of trying to get him out?
MR. MAZZETTI: You know, there were certainly stories this week, a very good one in The Washington Post, about his – some letters he had written, his psychological state. He had had a stint in the Coast Guard, and he washed out. Clearly this was someone who had maybe some problems before joining the Army. It didn’t get to this issue, though, of is he a deserter, is he a traitor.
There is a still classified Pentagon report that says that he did seem to, in a premeditative fashion, plan to walk off the base, but he may have come back. He had come back before. So those questions are still out there and they still are things he will have to face, perhaps, when he goes through the recovery, and the military will ask him those questions.
MR. IFILL: But he seemed – reading those emails, he seemed at the very least to be a troubled person.
MR. MAZZETTI: That’s right. And so these are, you know, questions that, you know, they are going to have to delve into. And the Army and the Pentagon, perhaps, are going to have to see, you know, how much – how hard they want to go at him for these – for – because this clearly was someone who was troubled.
MR. COSTA: What did you make of – what was the White House’s take on Hagel, and what do they think about his message, his reception in Congress? And is he the spokesman going forward for them as they deal with this issue?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, he, as we all know, is someone who had a very rocky first sort of debut in his confirmation hearings more than a year ago. And this was seen, I think, by the White House and others as he did a very good job in defending the deal.
Now, again, it’s his background, it’s his personal biography that in some ways can be very compelling, that he can look congressmen in the eyes and say, you know, this is war and I know it, and a lot of them don’t. So I think on that message, he was pretty firm and may be the spokesman for that going forward.
MS. IFILL: And they still have to wait and see what happens with those five detainees who were released at Qatar and find out whether they do come back to attack again.
Thank you all very much. This has been a good show.
We have to go now, but as always, the conversation continues online. The “Washington Week” Webcast Extra streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Among other things, we’ll talk about the first leg of Hillary Clinton’s campaign – I mean book tour. (Laughter.)
Keep up with daily developments with my and Judy Woodruff on the “PBS NewsHour,” and we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.”
And to all the dads out there, including those at the table, happy Father’s Day. Good night.