ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
We talked during the show about President Trump ramping up his rhetoric on North Korea during his working vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey, but the president made a lot of other remarkable comments during two impromptu Q&A sessions with reporters this week. So let’s talk about some of his comments, starting with Russia. In one of the more stunning moments, President Trump was asked about Russia’s recent decision to kick out more than 750 American diplomats in retaliation for new sanctions imposed by the United States. Mr. Trump offered his gratitude to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down on payroll. And as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll.
MR. COSTA: Today the president said he was being sarcastic. Yeganeh, was he?
YEGANEH TORBATI: You know, I don’t want to pretend to look into President Trump’s heart –
MR. COSTA: Fair enough.
MICHAEL DUFFY: Oh, go ahead. (Laughter.)
MS. TORBATI: – to know what he meant by that. All I can say is that it’s a message that really was not taken well at the State Department. Secretary Tillerson has been pursuing this sort of broad redesign. That has people really anxious about how much smaller the State Department might be, what it might look like. And this week Secretary Tillerson’s deputy went out, gave a town hall, and literally said that redesign is not a synonym for layoffs. And then for people to then hear that message from their own president and sort of equating, you know, the diplomatic mission abroad to simply a budget expense and a line item that brings no value to the United States, there was just this disheartened sort of mood and sense among diplomats that like their work is really not valued by this president.
MR. DUFFY: Or that Putin could fire them. But this is just worth noting. In the White House, the question of how many federal employees there are is a point of pride. And one of the things they say when they say they haven’t appointed new deputies or assistant secretaries or deputy assistant secretaries is we’re saving money, which is of course a tiny amount of money.
NANCY YOUSSEF: Except they want to spend more on the military.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, the other striking thing is I thought that the part of the sentence that was interesting is “and we’re not sending them back,” and that was an unbelievable kind of add-on to the comments because it suggested, A, there would not be a response. But on Friday he changed his mind, and so we’re going to have a response by September 1. And then, of course, that suggests what is it that we’re doing? Because it wasn’t just diplomatic; it’s intelligence, it’s other U.S. government officials. And if we don’t want them to return to Russia, what is the president actually saying? Because he never rebukes Vladimir Putin.
MS. TORBATI: And this might be obvious, but let’s just put it out there that U.S. diplomats abroad also help facilitate U.S. business abroad. And the U.S. still does – despite the sanctions that are on Russia, still does a lot of business with Russia. Those diplomats also process visas. Those visa fees are very expensive. Those are Russians wanting to come to the United States. I mean, it’s not simply like they cost this much and therefore, you know, that’s a burden on the American taxpayer. There is value that the U.S. has historically, at least, seen in having diplomats posted abroad.
MR. COSTA: There’s also a little bit of a battle with his own Republican Congress. Congress put the sanctions right on the president’s desk. He was somewhat reluctant to sign it, and now he has to deal with the consequence of that.
Let’s keep talking about President Trump’s comments at Bedminster, New Jersey, because he was also asked about the special counsel investigation into possible Russia collusion being conducted by Robert Mueller. Specifically, he was asked about the predawn FBI raid of the home of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I thought it was a very, very strong signal or whatever. I know Mr. Manafort. Haven’t spoken to him in a long time, but I know him. He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time, relatively short period of time, but I’ve always known him to be a good man.
MR. COSTA: Michael, was this a real turn for the special counsel to go to Manafort’s house?
MR. DUFFY: Well, it’s interesting on five levels, interesting particularly because the president didn’t mention that he was – Manafort wasn’t just on the campaign, he was his campaign manager. And it’s – he’s one of the people who both special counsel Robert Mueller and James Comey, the FBI director, had said earlier that they wanted to talk to about their contacts not just with Moscow, but with other Russian-linked and Russian intelligence-linked companies and interests all across Eastern Europe. So that’s – what the raid was about was banking and tax records of Manafort. The mysterious thing was we all thought that Manafort was cooperating with the investigation, so you would ask, well, if he’s cooperating why do they need to have a predawn raid? I don’t want to speculate exactly, but sometimes there are possibly different levels of cooperation, like I’m helping you this much but I’m not going to give you that. So perhaps finally they, you know, hit the skids and said, no, we want that and we’re going to come get it. I don’t know. We’ll find out.
But what’s important is that now we know – we kind of knew this before, but we have – there’s more momentum behind it – the special counsel is looking at both President Trump’s former campaign manager and his relationship to governments and interests in not just Russia but the former Soviet Union. We also know that he is looking at former Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former national security adviser, and his relationships with governments overseas, including Turkey – and I’m blanking on the other one, but I’m sure Russia is part of it. And so that probe into what those campaign advisors and, in fact, aides, what contacts they had with foreign interests I think probably remains a big part of this stage of the investigation.
MR. COSTA: We now have a grand jury not only for Flynn in Virginia, Alexis, but we also have one in Washington that’s been started by Mueller, and it really puts this White House perhaps in a difficult position with all these investigations going on. Does it affect the agenda?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one – does it affect the agenda? Absolutely. But I also think it did – it did get to the president’s rhetoric because the president understood that a grand jury is kind of a forcefield around the special counsel. He was asked this week what were his intentions with regard to special counsel, and he said I’m not firing anybody, and so he was trying to back away from this suggestion that he would move in to do that. And he did that without a whole lot of quibbling, you know, his rhetoric.
The agenda is already in some dire stress because of health care and the distractions of the Russia investigations on several fronts don’t help. How did we also find out about the June 2016 meeting? It turns out it was Manafort’s cooperation, maybe not Jared’s, that helped us understand, right? Interesting. So we’re learning more, and it is distracting for the president.
MR. COSTA: The investigations continue.
And turning to the military, the president surprised many Pentagon leaders when he tweeted about imposing a ban on transgender troops a few weeks ago. Yesterday, he did not walk away from that move.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I have great respect for the community. I think I have great support or I’ve had great support from that community. I got a lot of votes. But the transgender, the military’s working on it now. It’s been a very complicated issue for the military. It’s been a very confusing issue for the military, and I think I’m doing the military a great favor.
MR. COSTA: Is that actually the view inside of the Pentagon, that the president’s doing a great favor?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, I’ll just say this, what they really want more than anything is guidance on how to proceed. When the – when the president says they’re working on it, actually they can’t because they don’t know the specifics of what the president wants. And for the military, one of the things you’ll hear is the thing that affects them the most is not knowing. Nothing hurts unit cohesion more than not knowing if that servicemember sitting next to you will be deploying with you a few months from now. And so you keep hearing a plea for some guidance in terms of specifically what the president wants.
Now, this comes on a week in which five transgender service members sued in U.S. District Court in Washington claiming that this was unconstitutional. And you had the secretary of the Navy come forward and say: If the order is given we will follow it, but we welcome any patriot who wants to serve. And this comes at a time when the military’s looking to bring in servicemembers. I think it’s hard for them to hear that somebody’s not welcome. If you’re willing to put on the uniform that’s probably the most important threshold that you’ll hear about.
MR. DUFFY: And isn’t there still a shoe to drop, that he – the White House has not officially asked the Pentagon in the way that it needs to do to make something happen to do something.
MS. YOUSSEF: Right.
MR. DUFFY: That still has not happened. And we don’t know if it will.
MS. YOUSSEF: Right. He keeps suggesting, but they’re – the military doesn’t carry out on orders on a tweet. It needs –
MR. DUFFY: A tweet does not a policy make, that’s right.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right. It needs some guidance in terms of what the expectations are. What do you do with currently serving transgender service members? What do you do with medical care? It’s interesting, there was a survey that came out today, or a study, from the Naval Postgraduate Institute, which found that the cost of removing what they estimated to be 12,800 transgender service members would be 100 times more the cost of the health care associated with them, which for some people triggered this crisis to begin with.
MR. COSTA: President Trump has been in a war of words with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all week. It started when McConnell criticized the president’s excessive expectations, that was his phrase, in getting major legislation passed in Congress. But the president has hit back continuously since then.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I just want him to get repeal and replace done. I’ve been hearing repeal and replace now for seven years. I said, Mitch, get to work and let’s get it done. They should have had this last one done. They lost by one vote. For a thing like that to happen is a disgrace. And, frankly, it shouldn’t have happened.
MR. COSTA: It’s worth mentioning that Senator McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, serves in President Trump’s Cabinet as transportation secretary. When Mr. Trump was asked if McConnell should step down as majority leader, he said if he doesn’t get tax reform and infrastructure passed then you can ask me that question. That’s what he said. What explains this suddenly flaring of tensions, Alexis?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that’s an easy explanation is how frustrated the president is that the public appreciation of what he has been doing is that his agenda is stalled, that the health care question has now come back on his desk because the existing law – the Affordable Care Act – is how his responsibility. And he’s deeply frustrated that he didn’t have the control to be able to – to him, it looked like it would be simple to get it through the Senate if it had already gone through the House.
The majority leader, I think, is also a little puzzled, because what this also prompted was some support for Mitch McConnell. And of course, his own conference is who made him the majority leader. The president could try to force some kind of coup against him or a vote against him, but it’s unlikely that they would rise up, you know, before the end of the year. And the president really, really wants to see if he can get an achievement on taxes and on infrastructure, which he continued to mention. And both of those agenda items are incredibly big lifts before the end of this year. The president also counted on Mitch McConnell to help him with – fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
So in Washington-speak, it was puzzling. To the president’s base, it was about – you know, my message is, I came to clean up the swamp. Mitch McConnell is part of the swamp. And the president’s job approval is – we consider it to be low. But Congress’ is lower. So the president made a piñata out of someone in his own party. But he understood what he was doing politically.
MR. COSTA: Yet, he supported – the president supported Luther Strange, the newly appointed senator in Alabama, Michael, ahead of this special election on Tuesday, the first round of voting in Alabama for U.S. Senate special election. So was he perhaps trying to show the base that even though he endorsed Senator Strange he was still, in his rhetoric, anti-McConnell?
MR. DUFFY: I think so much of what he’s doing can be seen this week as an attempt to shore up his base. To me, that is the universal field theory of the week of August, whatever we’re in, 4th, 10th, I’ve lost track. But I think my favorite moment from the week actually came from McConnell, who was addressing some governors or some donors someplace – I can’t even remember where –
MS. SIMENDINGER: The Rotary Club.
MR. DUFFY: The Rotary Club in, you know, God knows where Kentucky. And he said, you know, I have to remind myself that, you know, the president is new to this line of – that was the quote – the president is new to this line of work. Which, coming from McConnell, is as close as you can get to, you know, the mark of Z on your belly, you know? So I think that was his riposte. You know, the president’s new to this line of work. Because it was at the point the president was saying just pass it with 51 votes. Get rid of the filibuster. So these are two men from two different traditions with two different bases and, in the case of the Alabama vote, two completely different constituencies. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can just be cutting with a line that from anybody else wouldn’t be that much. But from him –
MR. DUFFY: Yes, right. One line is all it takes.
MR. COSTA: One line.
Finally, one story the president didn’t talk about yesterday but it’s a real mystery worth talking about now is this: The State Department is investigating a so-called acoustic attack against U.S. diplomats in the embassy in Cuba. Several people felt sick. Others may have had permanent hearing loss. And at least two diplomats have returned to the United States after this attack with sonic devices in Havana.
Yeganeh, to close us out tonight, what do we make of this acoustic attack?
MS. TORBATI: It’s a really strange episode. And, you know, the State Department has been very tight-lipped on this. So the things – the things that we’re hearing are very much sort of on background from, you know, anonymous officials telling us some information. But basically what appears to have happened is there were these sonic devices implanted in the homes of U.S. diplomats that we’re not even – we haven’t even been able to confirm, you know, how many diplomats. But we believe it’s two and maybe some of their family members that suffered first headaches and then unexplained hearing loss.
And this started back in December – late, late 2016, so during the Obama administration even. Kind of continues. These symptoms get worse. These people come home and then sort of – not in retaliation, but sort of in reciprocity to bring down the Cuban delegation in Washington to the level that the U.S. has in Havana, the U.S. asked two Cuban diplomats to go home. Now, Secretary Tillerson I believe today and also the State Department spokeswoman yesterday were sort of at pains to point out that they are not blaming the Cuban government for the attack itself. They are holding Cuba responsible for the safety and security of U.S. diplomats in Havana.
MR. COSTA: So they don’t even know if Cuba’s responsible. So it could have been someone else, a different country working from Cuba?
MS. TORBATI: It could have – it could have been a third country working from Cuba. Of course, Cuba is a very heavily, you know, securitized state. The security forces there are pretty powerful. And so the idea that someone would be able to plant these devices in pretty sensitive locations – meaning, you know, the homes of U.S. diplomats – without the Cubans knowing would seem to sort of be a bit of a head-scratcher. But the U.S. at this point is not blaming one particular government yet for carrying out this very strange attack.
MR. DUFFY: Well, that’s diplomacy, isn’t it? (Laughter.)
MS. TORBATI: Right.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’re keeping our eyes on that sonic attack. Alexis?
MS. SIMENDINGER: No, I was just thinking that it’s just amazing that of all the things that leak out of Washington, that did not leak right away. And that’s a real whopper of a story.
MS. TORBATI: Right. The Cuban diplomats were asked to go home in May. And it’s just – it’s sort of hard to imagine, you know, you’re serving as a diplomat abroad, and all of a sudden you kind of suffer this hearing loss. And I was sort of thinking about it while we also heard President Trump’s comments on the drawdown in Moscow. And it sort of pairs a little bit uneasily, I think, especially for U.S. diplomats.
MS. YOUSSEF: Do you know if they’re changing the security measures for the rest of the diplomats in Cuba now in light of this?
MS. TORBATI: As of right now, the U.S. appears to feel safe in knowing that their diplomats are safe. Meaning, that they don’t think that this threat is ongoing. So they must have made some sort of changes. They’re investigating it right now, what exactly happened. But they don’t believe it’s a continuing threat.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. Thanks, everyone, for joining us for the webcast. And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out my behind-the-scenes report on covering the president when he’s on vacation and news is breaking. I’m Robert Costa, see you next time.