ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
During marathon hearings on Capitol Hill this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied that he ever lied about the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts. His defense? He is a victim of his own terrible memory. Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee that he now remembers a March 2016 meeting with George Papadopoulos, a campaign advisor who wanted to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Putin. When pressed for more details, the attorney general said he couldn’t recall, more than 20 times.
Sessions’ testimony came just a day after Donald Trump, Jr. released private Twitter messages between him and WikiLeaks that took place during the 2016 presidential campaign. What do we know about the status of the Mueller investigation? That’s what everybody wants to know, Nancy, and the investigations on Capitol Hill?
NANCY CORDES: Well, you know, everybody’s waiting for the next shoe to drop in the Mueller investigation. Congressional investigators that I’ve spoken to assume that if there are more indictments to come that they think Mike Flynn is very vulnerable, perhaps his son is vulnerable. They also wonder whether someone like Tony Podesta could get caught up in questions about why he didn’t register as a foreign agent. Could that be someone that Mueller goes after to show that he’s bipartisan – he’s going after Democrats and Republicans?
As far as the congressional investigations, they’re weeding through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. They feel that there’s still more to understand about that June 9th meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with the Russians. And every week, there’s a new detail about some new Russian connection that they then decide needs to be explored. So it’s kind of hard to see what the endgame is, particularly for the congressional investigations. They’re not very well-defined. It’s not clear how they would ever say, OK, now we know everything there is to know and here’s our – here’s our analysis. So I think they’re just going to drag on through at least the early part of 2018.
MR. COSTA: Jeremy, when you think about Sessions, he’s had this continued, painful falling out with President Trump. Did he help or hurt himself this week?
JEREMY PETERS: I think he didn’t do any damage to himself. I think that if anything he probably made it a little harder for Trump to fire him, if Trump ultimately wants to do that, which he has, from what I’m told. He’s been quite adamant about that, fuming about it in private repeatedly.
So I was struck, though, by how much Jeff Sessions seemed to love his job. There was a moment in the testimony where you could hear the emotion in his voice when he was talking about how he loves coming to work every day, and he cherishes the tradition of the Justice Department. This is more than just punching a clock for Jeff Sessions. So if he is to go, it’s not going to be on his own accord. And it’s not going to be to resign so he can take a Senate seat in some fantasy that Republicans have cooked up about how they might think they can get rid of Roy Moore in Alabama.
JACKIE CALMES: Well, you know, what was interesting about those hearings with Sessions’ testimony is that one of the most dramatic moments was – and contentious moments was not him versus a Democratic member of the committee, but him versus Jim Jordan, the Republican on the committee, who was challenging him, why hasn’t he – why hasn’t the Justice Department started investigating these various, what they consider Democratic, scandals? And that’s right up the alley of what Donald Trump has been tweeting that he wants to see as well.
But despite that, Sessions was actually very adamant in testifying that they’re not going to go there unless their look at this comes back with evidence that this is a prosecutorial matter. And it basically was like just leaving it out there, like we’re looking at it but nothing’s going to happen. And if he was trying to get in with Donald Trump, he would have been more along the – doing what Jim Jordan wanted him to do.
ED O’KEEFE: And I think, to Jeremy’s point, I think, you know, critics of Sessions, critics of the administration probably weren’t thrilled with the exchange in general, and probably relish the fact that he looked so pained to answer those tricky questions about Russia, but have to have been relieved that he was taking that stance of: I’ve asked the professionals to look at this. They’ll get back to me and we’ll make a decision. And that signals that, yeah, he’s serious about this job. He wants it. And he’s pretty much fighting to keep it.
MR. COSTA: Another story on Capitol Hill, the deepening story of sexual harassment. And it took a dramatic turn on Tuesday. Two sitting Congress – members of Congress, House Democrat Jackie Speier of California and Republican Barbara Comstock of Virginia, revealed that two current members of Congress are guilty of sexual harassment – one Democrat and one Republican, both males. Speier went to reveal that the House of Representatives has paid out 15 million (dollars) over the past decade to settle cases, including harassment. Nancy, you covered the hearing and we’ve been talking about this on the show as well, Jackie.
MS. CORDES: Well, I think the first reaction was only two? Only two members of Congress have committed sexual harassment? I think most people assumed it would be larger. And then the second question was, well, who is it? And that started – set off a sort of feeding frenzy to figure out who it was. And the challenge became, when you started talking to long-time female staffers and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, that actually there were any number of people who she could have been talking about.
And it has been something of an eye-opener to male lawmakers on Capitol Hill, I will say, to find out that this problem is so widespread. I can’t remember his exact words, but Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said this week, you know, I had no idea that there were so many creeps out there, and here on Capitol Hill.
MR. COSTA: He did say that.
MS. CORDES: And so, you know, I think that it is – it is – it’s a rude awakening, and not surprising in a male-dominated culture like Capitol Hill. And sort the height of irony that it was just last week that senators, led by Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Al Franken’s Minnesota colleague, decided that finally, at long last, after decades of urging by experts, that they finally do want senators and their staffers to do what everybody else in the federal government does, which is get mandatory sexual harassment training.
MS. CALMES: You know, it’s been 33 years now since I first covered Capitol Hill. I did it 13 years full time. And in that time, I frequently would get people, staffers usually, alleging some sexual harassment. And I would look into it, but you could never get those things on the record. And unless we had it on the record, it wasn’t publishable. And myself, one time, I was sitting in a congressman’s office, and I was – I thought it was unusual that hardly any of his staff was there. It was late in the day, so I didn’t think much of it. And he went to get something to drink.
And I’m sitting there with my notes. And he comes around the corner, and the next thing I know he is flat into my face, tongue in mouth, and I’m having to push his – push him off of me. And I just said: Could we get on with the interview. And, you know, got the typical, oh, you’re no fun. But he sat down and I finished the interview. And that was that. And that’s – but you hear a lot about that. You have 535 members of Congress, all their own little power centers. They’re all 535 bosses. And, like Nancy said, male dominated. It’s bound to happen. And until now, if what comes of this is an effective system for reporting and getting satisfaction, this will be a victory.
MR. COSTA: Can the culture change? I mean, it’s just – it’s tragic to hear these stories, that this is how it is for professional women. I mean –
MS. CORDES: I think it can change if men feel that there are repercussions, and that people are going to believe the women even if there is no, quote/unquote, “proof,” which how would – you know, if you had chosen to report that, how would you ever have proof? So I think that it can change if they know, OK, she’s going to be believed, not me, and it’s going to be much easier for her to find other women who have had a similar experience. I think the reason a lot of women didn’t come forward in the past is they had no idea that there was anyone else out there who had had the same experience, so they thought who are – who are people going to believe, my word or this very powerful, well-known, well-liked man? But I think what we’ve seen throughout all these cases is generally when there’s one woman there are many more right behind them.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, first off, thank you for sharing that, because I think it’s important that people hear these stories and realize that it happens.
MS. CALMES: I’ve got others. (Laughter.)
MR. O’KEEFE: That’s for the Webcast Extra, actually. (Laughter.)
MS. CALMES: Yeah, yeah. (Laughs.)
MR. O’KEEFE: Two things, I think. First off, from this hearing, this extraordinary hearing, I wonder when we will learn their names, and will it be led by fellow lawmakers who finally say, guys, sorry, but it’s time, you need to be called out for this? Secondly, people don’t – many Americans do not realize this. The legislative branch is not beholden to the same disclosure, transparency, EEOC laws –
MR. PETERS: Because they’ve exempted themselves.
MR. O’KEEFE: Exactly – than the executive branch is, and that’s a problem. And I think one of the ways – if you want to really reform the way Congress behaves itself, have all employment and transparency laws that apply to the executive branch apply to the legislative branch, and you’ll see overnight how that place changes in its behavior and its productivity.
MR. COSTA: As Ed said, thank you for sharing your stories and your reporting.
Overhauling the tax code is the number-one priority for Republicans, who want to get a bill on the president’s desk by Christmas. But what other priorities are on the docket for lawmakers, Ed?
MR. O’KEEFE: So there’s – I’ve got this – December 8th is essentially the big deadline right now. There’s like six big things that are kind of hanging out there besides the Republican desire to get tax reform done. The big one is the spending bill – will the government shut down on December 8th, which is the current spending deadline? But that’s the same day that the debt limit has to be raised or they have to come to some kind of an agreement to never really ever argue about the debt limit ever again, which many people would agree they should do. Democrats, who are often needed to help pass Republican spending bills because enough Republicans don’t like it so they vote against it, are insisting that as part of this there’s got to be a solution to the issue of DREAMers, those young immigrants who are going to lose their protections under the DACA program when it expires in March – just saying if you want our votes, let’s settle this issue. Republicans are saying we’re not going to allow for it. That’s going to be an emotional fight.
There’s two health care programs, the S-CHIP program and some funding for community health care centers, that have to be sorted out.
And the other tricky one: funding for Texas, for Florida, and for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The White House today asked for 40 billion (dollars). The entire Texas delegation said you’re joking, you need to give us far more. The Puerto Ricans are asking for $90 billion, which they’re probably not going to get. That’s going to be a tricky fight as well.
All of this with only about 12 legislative days left in the calendar year 2017. Somehow, miraculously, they may get it done.
MS. CORDES: Are you saying I shouldn’t have used all my frequent flier miles to buy a ticket home for the holidays?
MR. O’KEEFE: Only if you can use some of them on the change fee, because you may need to, yeah.
MR. COSTA: It’s going to be busy.
MS. CORDES: Yeah, it’s going to be busy. And you know, the president’s loading on the pressure. He says I want to sign this tax bill by Christmas. You know, one thing we know is that with this kind of legislation the longer that the bill hangs out there the more unpopular it always gets, so they’re highly motivated to pass tax reform as quickly as possible. And, frankly, they’re giddy about it. They have not gotten anywhere near this far in the past decade, even though speaker after speaker has insisted that tax reform is their top priority.
MR. COSTA: Let’s also talk about embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore, whose campaign has been rocked by a series of accusations he made inappropriate advances on teenage girls when he was in his 30s, charges he has denied. On Friday, one of his biggest supporters, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, seemed to step away from the Republican candidate he has endorsed. During a speech in South Florida, Bannon stopped short of defending Moore, and instead echoed the White House line, the statement that said the people of Alabama should decide the election. Jeremy, you interviewed Bannon last week. What’s at stake for him as this whole drama unfolds?
MR. PETERS: Nothing short of his credibility. I do not see how Steve Bannon legitimately builds the type of political revolution that he envisions if he has Roy Moore hanging around his neck. Now, that doesn’t mean that he is going to back away from Moore. I don’t see that happening at all. If anything, Bannon is like Trump – you don’t back down, you don’t say you’re sorry. And that’s worked. It’s a persona right now that gets you where you need to go if you’re a hardcore conservative, if you’re a right-wing populist. But Bannon is thinking long term, and in order to maintain the kind of financial support that he needs, to maintain the credibility that he is going to need with the people he’s trying to recruit to run as these populist insurgents that he hopes will someday take out the Republican leadership, he’s going to need to stay as far away from Roy Moore as he can while not doing anything to alienate the types of voters who are so drawn to an iconoclast like Moore.
MS. CORDES: The problem for Bannon as he tries to navigate the truly terrible situation that he is in is that nobody drew a dividing line as stark as he did after that Access Hollywood tape. He said that’s how we knew if you were truly for Donald Trump or not – did you stick with him through the Access Hollywood tape? And you know, he said that that’s how he knew that Chris Christie and everyone else was a fair-weather friend because they distanced themselves at least temporarily from the president, or criticized him when that Access Hollywood tape came out. He said no, you had to show that you were with the president on that Sunday, and I was.
MR. PETERS: Billy Bush Saturday, that’s what they called it.
MS. CORDES: The Billy Bush Saturday, Billy Bush Saturday. And so, you know –
MR. PETERS: It’s a national holiday in Bannon world.
MS. CORDES: If he were to now have a Billy Bush moment and back away from Roy Moore, it would make him look incredibly hypocritical.
MR. PETERS: That’s absolutely right, because what Bannon needs is for Moore to win. The reason Bannon is sticking behind Moore, other than just pure stubbornness and the fact that it would look terrible to the kind of voters he’s trying to appeal to, is he needs Moore to win so Mitch McConnell will move to expel him from the Senate and the establishment Republican wing of the party will be up in arms about him pursuing all sorts of ethics charges. Bannon needs that because that’s the civil war that he wants in the Republican Party.
MR. O’KEEFE: And Moore has been a martyr his entire more modern or more recent political career. He got expelled from the State Supreme Court. He got in trouble for hanging the Ten Commandments. He wants this. He wants to be the guy that gets kicked out of the U.S. Senate because it would just be the capstone of a renegade political career that has been totally counter to political norm, really, for the last two decades.
MR. PETERS: And then he’d run again in 2020.
MS. CALMES: Well, you said he really wants to get kicked out, or just the attempt made to kick him out?
MR. O’KEEFE: Either one. (Laughter.) It fuels his fire.
MR. COSTA: Remember, it takes – it takes two-thirds of the Senate to expel a senator, and the last time it almost happened was with Bob Packwood in the mid-’90s, a Republican from Oregon. But I was doing some research on that –
MS. CALMES: For a sex harassment-related case.
MR. COSTA: A sex harasser. He was threatened with expulsion, and then he chose to resign. He was not expelled from the Senate. I’m just not sure if Roy Moore would follow the path –
MR. PETERS: No way.
MS. CORDES: No. No, he wouldn’t. Different kind of guy.
MR. O’KEEFE: He says bring it on. Like he said this week, bring it on.
MR. COSTA: Bring it on was the tweet. It was the tweet.
That’s it for this edition of Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, test your knowledge of current events on our Washington Week news quiz. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.