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.
President Trump’s eldest son testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee looking into Russian meddling. Donald Jr. admitted during closed-door hearings that in 2016 he met with a Kremlin-connected attorney because he was looking for damaging information about Secretary Clinton’s fitness to be president.
His remarks came one day after we learned that Facebook sold approximately $100,000 of political ads to fake accounts linked to Russian-operated troll farms during last year’s election. Most of the ads didn’t mention either candidate and centered on divisive issues like immigration, race, and gun rights. Donald Jr. testified for five hours, but senators say that isn’t enough. They want him to answer more questions during a public session. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California says she has prepared a subpoena if necessary if he doesn’t come back voluntarily.
Nancy and Michael, but let’s start with Nancy on this, you’ve been on Capitol Hill. Tell us about Don Jr.’s visit there. And is this really a step forward in the Russia probe?
NANCY CORDES: It was a step forward that they were able to get him there. There had been several months of haggling about when and how exactly he would appear. And appear is sort of a relative term because we didn’t actually see him. He came in through the basement. He was escorted past a partition blocking our view. So we never saw him, although he did spend, obviously, several hours with staffers and some senators.
What I heard from staffers afterwards was that he was obviously scripted. He came in with this prepared opening statement that they felt clearly had been written by someone else. He looked a little bit nervous at times, although we probably all would be if we were facing a phalanx of investigators who were trained to ask questions.
But the thing that was most eyebrow raising to them, first of all, the fact that he said that he never told his father about this meeting, he never brought them to meet his father, that kind of strained credulity, particularly for a Democratic senator like Chris Coons, who said afterwards, you know, so these Russians come in, they meet with Don Jr. and several other top-ranking campaign officials, and the president never hears about it? And yet, the next day he comes out and says, oh, well, we’ve got some information about Hillary Clinton. You better wait. It’s going to be really amazing.
And then, beyond that, the fact that he went before these staffers and said that he didn’t know anything about his father supposedly helping to craft the statement about Don Jr.’s interaction with –
MR. COSTA: Just a few months ago.
MS. CORDES: Just a few months ago. How would you not know that your father had been involved in crafting that statement? So, you know, clearly his story has shifted several times. It seems to have shifted once again when he said that he really wanted to hear from these people because he wanted to get to the bottom of whether there were questions about Hillary Clinton’s fitness for office. Think about how far we’ve come from his original explanation, which was that this was a meeting about adoptions.
MR. COSTA: Michael, what about the Facebook story?
MICHAEL SCHERER: The Facebook story is really fascinating. If you remember back in January, when President Obama released a public version of the CIA report on Russian hacking, like, almost two-thirds of it was about online operations that the Russians had run, most of them clandestinely, in public social networks, in more private ways. The Russian operation during the last election was not just to break into people’s email accounts and steal them and, you know, make them public. It was to try and manipulate public sentiment in the United States in a clandestine way, using a bunch of front accounts on Twitter, on Facebook.
And what’s so alarming about it is that Facebook had no idea this was happening. Facebook has issued several denials, you know, from the beginning. Mark Zuckerberg came out right after the election saying fake news wasn’t really a problem, before he had to sort of eat those words. And what we now know is that Facebook has found several basically front accounts that were buying ads as early as 2015 to sort of test the persuadability of people on different issues – you know, gay/lesbian issues, gun rights issues. And so Russia was using our private sector to sort of test their ability to manipulate the public long before the election actually happened.
And if you talk to Democratic senators, people who are working on the investigation on Capitol Hill, they believe there’s much more here. This is just really the tip of the iceberg. And we still don’t know the full extent of this – of this operation. And it could be really consequential. Not as much for the Mueller investigation and whether, you know, someone in the Trump campaign gets in trouble – although, if they coordinated with this, they would be in trouble – but more about, how are we going to run our future elections if foreign powers, foreign adversaries can basically come in, in a way we’re – you know, under our old campaign finance law foreign governments couldn’t spend money on our elections, and start manipulating.
JEFF ZELENY: And the questions that we have – I mean, after covering the campaign so closely, as Nancy and I did on the Clinton side, I mean, the extent to which that they targeted and microtargeted specific precincts and counties to change public opinion in, you know, be it Wisconsin, Michigan, whatever. It’s, A, astounding that the Clinton campaign didn’t know this was happening in real time because they had what they advertised were the best of the best in the digital world. That obviously wasn’t true. So I think as we learn more about this, as Senator Mark Warner said this week, this is the tip of the iceberg. This is absolutely fascinating, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. This is – we’re about to learn a lot more about what happened last year.
MR. COSTA: One month after being dismissed as White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon says he stands by the president. But his loyalty does not extend to other members of Trump’s inner circle. Bannon called out Gary Cohn, the White House economic advisor, who said he considered resigning following the president’s comments about Charlottesville, and said the administration must do better to condemn white supremacists.
STEVE BANNON: (From video.) If you’re going to break with him, resign. The stuff that was leaked out that week by certain members of the White House I thought was unacceptable. If you find it unacceptable, you should resign.
CHARLIE ROSE: (From video.) So who are you talking about?
MR. BANNON: (From video.) I’m talking about – obviously about Gary Cohn and some other people, that if you don’t like what he’s doing and you don’t agree with it, you have an obligation to resign, not to say that – not to say –
MR. ROSE: (From video.) So Gary Cohn – Gary Cohn should have resigned?
MR. BANNON: (From video.) Absolutely.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, you’ve been following this all week.
MR. ZELENY: The question all week is, is there going to be another Friday round of resignations or firing? As we speak, at this moment, on Friday evening, if you’re watching –
MR. COSTA: Everybody check Twitter. (Laughter.)
MR. ZELENY: – later on in the weekend, Gary Cohn is still there. One friend of his, associate of his, told me he’s not going to give them the satisfaction – meaning Steve Bannon and others – the satisfaction at this point of leaving. But, look, there’s no question that Gary Cohn, who only weeks ago was one of the president’s closest advisors – he’s a – you know, he’s been a Democrat his entire life. He came from Goldman Sachs. But the president liked him. Now, he’s on the outs.
The question is, you know, a lot of people on the outs have – you know, have rebuilt their – themselves. So now we don’t know if he’s leaving immediately. I think he’s not around for the long term, but he is one of the lead negotiators on tax reform. And that is one of the reasons that he could stay. But, you know, Steve Bannon – you know, he said that for a reason in his first 60 Minutes interview. So that’s going to sort of prime the pump for Gary Cohn to leave.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think this interview reminds me of a really fascinating conversation I had with a White House aide, who said that the one thing that General Kelly is really struggling with is prying from Donald Trump’s hands his personal cellphone number, where he’s calling up everybody whose numbers he has memorized and asking them for advice. And he’s calling up Steve Bannon, Omarosa, other people who have been around him for decades, and it’s driving General Kelly crazy. And this is reminding me that, while Steve Bannon is gone from the White House and other people might be gone from the White House and not be on the official rolls, they are very much playing a part in the White House’s strategy and in Donald Trump’s strategy.
MS. CORDES: I think what’s also clear is that Steve Bannon has a pretty fluid view of the term “loyalty,” because on one hand he’s saying that loyalty means, you know, you always stand by the president. And he may have done that when he was in the White House, but he sure had a lot of negative things to say about other people on the White House staff, and that created or contributed to an image of turmoil in the White House, and that’s not necessarily being very loyal to the president. Beyond that, once he left the White House, he said, hey, if I don’t like something the president’s doing, I’m going to use my megaphone – I’m going to use Breitbart to call him out. That’s not necessarily all that loyal either.
MR. ZELENY: And the president’s family. He had plenty of things to say about the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, so.
MR. SCHERER: And Bannon didn’t agree with everything the president said. It’s a remarkable statement for him to say if you don’t agree with everything the president believes you have to resign. I mean, the purpose of advisors is to challenge the president. They’re not all supposed to think in the same mind as the president.
MS. ALCINDOR: Unless you’re a president who wants loyalty and doesn’t want people to push back against you.
MR. SCHERER: I don’t think that’s Trump. Trump wants loyalty, but I think Trump enjoys the give and take. I don’t think Trump is – Trump is not a person who surrounds himself with just yes people who agree with what he says.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s true. I think that the problem with Gary Cohn is that he came out and publicly said that he didn’t like his response to Charlottesville. I think there is playing games and having to deal with in the room and arguing within the room, and then there’s going out and interviewing – and giving an interview to a publication that says, you know what, I really thought that the president should have done better with distancing himself from white supremacists. When I think he did that, that was already a signal that he was going to be going down a road that Donald Trump was not going to be – was not going to like, and he was going to have to deal with the consequences of that decision.
MR. COSTA: Steve Bannon, on – he says he’s going to be the president’s wingman. We’ll see about that. (Laughter.)
I also want to return to a topic we were discussing on the show tonight, DACA. That’s the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. There’s been a lot of talk about the policy fight that President Trump has set up with Congress over whether the estimated 800,000 undocumented people brought to the United States as children should be allowed to stay here. Sometimes what gets lost in the conversation is the stories of the people involved, the self-described DREAMers. These are people that have just started to emerge from the shadows to get a job or an education. Yamiche, how do they feel in light of all the tumult this week?
MS. ALCINDOR: People are terrified. The people that I’ve talked to, the DACA recipients that I’ve talked to, are waiting to see whether or not they have to drop out of medical school or whether or not they have to pack up and leave college or pack up their businesses. A lot of them are business owners. A lot of them came here from countries when they were two or three or four years old, don’t speak the language if they came here from Mexico, and now they’re facing having to pack up all of their things and move back to a foreign country which essentially they know nothing about. So I interviewed – I go back to that interview that I had where I went to go cover this Democratic presser and this girl was completely in tears, couldn’t hold herself together at all. And I interviewed Dick Durbin this week, and he told me about what made him – inspired him to write the DREAM Act. I thought it had to do with border security or something having to do with what was going on in 2001, and he said no, it was a young girl in her teens who had gotten – who was trying to get into college, a girl from South Korea who didn’t realize she was undocumented until she was applying for school and she realized that she – that she was in a bind, and I felt so bad for her that I introduced this legislation. So this legislation is really born out of someone facing odds and facing a really bad problem. So this legislation, I think, is life or death for a lot of people because some of these countries people fled because of death threats, because of drug wars, because of real issues that are going on that are threatening people’s lives. And now they’re hoping that the Congress can do again in six months what they didn’t do in 16 years.
MR. ZELENY: It’s fascinating in the sense that – where President Trump is ending the week on this. By starting the week with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who’s one of the most hardline immigration opponents, you know, being the face of the administration, the president clearly did not like the tone that that set. So I’m thinking back to that meeting last November between President-elect Trump and President Obama in the Oval Office, their really only substantive meeting. It lasted about 90 minutes. I’m told that, you know, now about two-thirds of that time was talking about DACA, this very thing, and President Obama urged him to sort of have a heart and think about that, and think of the images and the pictures. And I think that that has shaped the president’s view, and also what he’s hearing from his daughter and son-in-law. So President Trump, on what he does from here on DACA, is going to be fascinating.
MR. SCHERER: The other voice that matters with DACA with the president is a lot of his Evangelical advisors. Conservative white Evangelical Christians are very much in favor of protecting these and giving work permits or some path to citizenship for these people, and they have said to him during the campaign a condition of my support for you is that you don’t leave these people behind. You know, they have him some of the other immigration rhetoric, but not this.
MS. CORDES: I think, though, you have to remember how complicated the Republican politics is when it comes to immigration. You could even see it in everything that the president said this week. On one hand, he’s saying, look, this is unconstitutional, we’ve got the rule of law here, folks. On the other hand, he’s saying, but they’re going to be fine, we’re going to take care of them, don’t worry. And, you know, that is a microcosm of what’s really playing out in the broader Republican Party, you know, a feeling that you do need to get in line, and if you don’t – if you’re not in line, you jump the line, then you shouldn’t be able to get any kind of advantage for that. And so, you know, for the past four years immigration reform has been such a lightning rod on Capitol Hill they haven’t even bothered to try to do anything. It fell apart in the House in 2013, and they basically haven’t revisited it since. So the notion that now suddenly they’re going to be able to reopen this wound and address it in a thoughtful manner, that’s a really, really tough obstacle.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, how do they do it? If DACA comes up in December or sometime early next year, do they attach it to the budget, to the debt ceiling extension? Do they do it as a standalone bill?
MS. CORDES: I think that matters – whether it’s standalone or attached to the debt ceiling may matter less than what you attach to DACA, what kind of border security measures. I think everyone is in agreement that it’s kind of a waste of time to try to do some massive comprehensive immigration reform bill. That takes an incredible amount of time – Republicans want to focus on tax reform – and it’s just so tricky politically. So maybe attach DACA to one or two other things.
The tricky thing for Democrats here is that they always saw the DREAM Act as something that you could use as a sweetener in a larger, comprehensive reform package – how can you not be for these kids, you know? And it’s something that brings people together on a larger immigration reform package that deals with the 11 million people who are here in this country illegally, and in many cases in the shadows. And some of them worry, as much as they want to help these DREAMers, if you do pass the DREAM Act, then how do you ever get back to comprehensive immigration reform where you do something to address the legal status of these 11 million people?
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. Great to have you. And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra.
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I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.