ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
The Trump administration is rolling back access to birth control. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers and insurers were required to cover birth control methods at no cost to women. Today, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new ruling that allows employers and insurers to opt out of the Obama-era mandate. Kim, what’s behind this policy change?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yeah, look, the president is not exactly a religious conservative in the sense of the folks who have been pushing that, so this is likely the influence, in part, by Vice President Mike Pence, who is that kind of conservative. Probably also Freedom Caucus folks, who the president wants to give something as they’re going in to negotiate things like tax reform. And of course, this is something that has been challenged in the Supreme Court before. The Supreme Court wasn’t able to reach a decision on this point when the Court was evenly divided, 4-4, whether this mandate goes too far in violating employers’ rights, religious employers’ rights. Of course, it’s being challenged already. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey already filed a challenge today just within hours of this rule going into effect, saying it’s an equal protection violation for not granting – allowing women this essential health benefit, so it’s going to go back to the courts again. I think in this case it’s tough. I think you have a lot of people, especially on the Supreme Court, who are pro-religious freedom and might rule in Trump’s favor.
MR. COSTA: What about the politics of this?
REID WILSON: And Maura Healey is not the only attorney general who’s sued.
MS. ATKINS: Certainly.
MR. WILSON: I was just looking at this. The attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, has sued over this too.
This is – the politics are twofold here. On one hand we’ve got an administration that is doing something to roll back a part of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans are going to love, but it reignites what Democrats used to call the war on women, which was such a huge part of their congressional campaigns in 2006 and 2008. They tried it again 2010; it didn’t quite work. But this reignites this as a moment when the gender gap between the two parties is wider than it’s been in decades.
MR. COSTA: As Kim said, the president’s not really a social conservative, though he has tight relationships with many social conservatives.
ELI STOKOLS: Yeah, but he loves the culture war. I mean, look what he did with the NFL and that whole situation and bringing that to the fore. And really, you know, rather than – I mean, that was something that divides the country, and he thought that that was a win for him. This is another thing. It’s controversial. It will distract from other things that are not going so well for him. But for him this is a win with his base. And what have we seen so far in the eight months plus of this presidency that hasn’t really been driven by base politics? Not much.
MR. COSTA: Any pushback on Capitol Hill, Erica, to the birth-control move?
ERICA WERNER: Well, Democrats don’t like it, obviously, and there were – you know, the House and Senate were out today. There were statements from Pelosi et al predictably, you know, denouncing this, but it’s not really too surprising.
MR. COSTA: Any moderate Republicans uneasy that we can note?
MS. WERNER: Not that we’ve heard from so far.
MR. COSTA: So far, OK.
As the Gulf Coast prepares for another hurricane to hit as early as this weekend, people are still struggling in Puerto Rico two weeks after a category four storm devastated the island. More than 90 percent of people are still without power, and it could be years before all of the infrastructure there is rebuilt. President Trump traveled to Puerto Rico this week to meet with officials and victims, but his trip just seemed to stir up more resentment with many people there who are also looking for help – perhaps most notably, the mayor of San Juan, who has had some sharp criticism for the president. It was a revealing trip in many ways, Eli.
MR. STOKOLS: Right, and it revealed things that we probably already knew about this president, who was not elected to be a – you know, was not elected for his empathy. He was elected because he’s an anger candidate and a grievance candidate, and so this is not a natural role for him to play. I think the president doesn’t mind attempting to play it. I think he enjoys going out and being around people, going down there. But, you know, some of these visits, including the one that – you know, to the Houston area after Harvey and especially the one in Puerto Rico, he almost treats them as if they’re rallies – people are there to see them, he’s there to give moral support and cheer people up, not really showing a ton of compassion. I mean, there were so many just wrong notes about the Puerto Rico visit, from, you know, shooting the paper towels like a free throw to not even really visiting the most devastated areas, the incredulity that he expressed about the water-purification kits – do you actually use that, really? Just had a real hard time identifying with the people who were hardest hit, and in a way avoiding the people who were hardest hit by going to a very controlled audience and a small audience inside a shelter.
MR. COSTA: But what is the political cost, Eli? Because so often I feel we follow norms, that we think norms should be followed with presidents. And they’re not rules or laws, but they’re norms, and he certainly does not follow most of these norms for the presidency. And I just wonder, when we see him tossing the paper towel, any other president doing that it would be a multi-day story, I would guess.
MR. STOKOLS: Right, but he’s never been held to that sort of standard of normalcy or – I mean, it’s Donald Trump. His behavior, his language, it’s all completely breaking the – breaking precedent with what we’ve seen from the 44 presidents before.
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, the bar – the bar has been lowered very, very low. I mean, just in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, in Houston, he never mentioned the death toll. He never mentioned the fact that people are grieving and the loss of their – of their property and their loved ones. He just doesn’t talk about that. He talks about the success of the response, that he’s looking for –
MR. STOKOLS: He’s actually minimizing it.
MS. ATKINS: Right.
MR. WILSON: Right. In Puerto Rico he talked about how it wasn’t as bad as Katrina, which, again –
MS. ATKINS: Right, like we should be proud, but yes.
MR. STOKOLS: And got flashlights saying you probably don’t need these anymore, even though 90 percent of the country still was without power.
MS. WERNER: Well, and it’s worth noting with Puerto Rico, as well, and the difference in his response to that situation versus Texas and Florida is that, you know, his campaign started off on a campaign against Hispanics, against Latinos. It’s been a population that he has kind of targeted over and over again, and coincidentally are not – you know, this is a group, Hispanics in Puerto Rico, not a lot of political power, no voting representation, can’t even vote in the general election for president. And that’s who he’s kind of taking this out on.
MS. ATKINS: He added salt, yeah.
MR. WILSON: Well, and you asked – you asked about the political cost. Erica, your publication – you know, the AP just put out a poll today that has him hitting a new low at 32 percent job approval, so there’s the cost.
MR. COSTA: Maybe Puerto Rico, maybe other things as well.
Going into that, back here in Washington the congressional investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election continues. In fact, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee says the whole investigation has expanded. He’s also warning people not to be complacent with the midterm elections just 13 months away.
SENATOR RICHARD BURR (R-NC): (From video.) We have more work to do as it relates to collusion, but we’re developing a clear picture of what happened. What I will confirm is that the Russian intelligence service is determined, clever. And I recommend that every campaign and every election official take this very seriously as we move into this November’s election and as we move into preparation for the 2018 election.
MR. COSTA: We should add this is just one of the ongoing investigations. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is working on a parallel path. Erica, how much do we know, based on the comments this week, about where the investigation is?
MS. WERNER: Well, there’s a huge amount of interest, obviously, and that’s why Senators Burr and Warren – Warner, excuse me, held this press conference, even without anything specifically to announce – no conclusions, our investigation continues. Of note, they said that they had not yet determined whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. And Senator Burr also indicated that, contrary to his kind of earlier desires that he had expressed to wrap this up fairly quickly within this calendar year, that this will be going into next year, which means into the 2018 midterm season.
MR. COSTA: When you think about the White House, Eli, how worried are they about the congressional investigations? Because we always hear about their – them being worried about Mueller. Are they – are they – do they think about the congressional investigations?
MR. STOKOLS: I think they think about all of it. I don’t know how much they separate these things out. They’re all running on parallel tracks. I think they’re worried about any damaging information, and every individual who is around this president is worried about their own legal liability and has their own lawyers. And I think it just sort of contributes to the lack of cohesion or people sort of feeling like can I – what can I say, I mean, just being on edge about who they’re talking to in their own administration when they’re all supposed to be working together. And I know the president worries about this. I don’t – he’s done a better job of hiding this publicly, but privately my reporting is that he continues to have conversations with people and say what’s happening, what do I need to worry about, this is bothering me, why isn’t it over. It is something that continues to be on his mind.
MS. ATKINS: And every time we talk about it after the conference with Senators Burr and Warner, then we get this report out after they said, well, they couldn’t really fully investigate this dossier, they couldn’t really determine because they hit a roadblock because they weren’t ever able to interview Christopher Steele. Then we get the news that Bob Mueller, guess what, his team has interviewed Christopher Steele, and we know that that dossier with some of the claims that are in it makes the president’s – makes the president very unhappy.
MR. WILSON: There’s a – there’s a troubling part to what Senator Burr said in that clip you just played there, too, that, you know, there are elections coming up, and the people who are in charge of administering these elections have not taken all of the steps necessary to actually protect the systems that may not have been fully breached in 2016. The hackers have two more years. The Constitution specifically gives the power to run elections to the states, and the states then give it – give the power to their local jurisdictions. These states are not running on systems that are as, you know, highly refined as internal Department of Homeland Security systems. They’re still vulnerable. There are still vulnerabilities, and I think a part of this press conference was a little bit of a kick in the you-know-what to state elections officials to get your house in order.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with you, Reid, because covering states, it’s so important to pay attention to what’s going on beyond Washington, and that includes the big story of this week, guns. And even as Congress is trying to move forward and the NRA expressed openness to banning bump stocks, that seems to be the end of the agreement in D.C. As we mentioned briefly on the show Friday night, at the state level gun-right activists have scored some big victories in the year since the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. Some of these laws have expanded access to weapons and change where you can carry concealed weapons, including daycare facilities and college campuses. I mean, it’s just a stunning contrast, Reid.
MR. WILSON: Let’s take a look at Iowa specifically. The Republicans captured all three branches of state government in 2016, and since then they passed the most significant gun-rights bill that came out of this year’s legislative sessions. It established a stand your ground law similar to the one that generated so much debate in Florida a few years ago. It allowed people to carry firearms openly. It allowed people to carry firearms in a concealed manner without a license, what the NRA and supportive groups called constitutional carry. It also allowed people to carry guns into the state capitol building. You mentioned daycare. That’s a couple of – there are a couple of states that have expanded where people can carry guns to the passenger terminals of airports, to daycare facilities, to college campuses. Georgia passed a big bill. Arkansas passed a bill on that too. And we’re likely to see more of these. There are still some legislative measures that are pending action in states like Indiana and Wyoming.
And then, on the other hand, there are a few states that are moving to restrict, at least a little bit, access to gun rights. California Governor Jerry Brown has three gun-control bills on his desk. He’s got until next – the middle of next week to sign them. He’s likely going to. The state of Oregon has passed a few measures, and is likely to go a little farther on a background-check bill. And let’s not forget the state of Nevada, which – the site of this awful tragedy this last week, has some of the loosest gun laws in America, but a hint that the attitudes – the political attitudes around guns are changing. In 2016, voters passed a ballot measure there that would have expanded background checks. No indication as to whether or not that would have done – it probably wouldn’t have done anything to stop this, the tragedy, but the fact is the voters voted for something that the NRA opposed.
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, I mean, gun control remains largely popular among – if you look at the polling, most Americans favor some sort of responsible gun control. So if this was just a matter of public sentiment, I think the policy would be a lot different. But the NRA is just as strong in the state races in this country as we’ve seen on the congressional side, and it’s really tough to get something like that passed without really incurring the wrath and a lot of negative advertising from the gun-control – the gun-rights lobby.
MS. WERNER: One point on that, though, is that there is something that the NRA really wants on the federal level, a couple things. One of them is concealed carry reciprocity. You’re talking about the concealed-carry laws in the states; the NRA would like it to be the case that if you have concealed carry in one state, you go into another state. And that was a bill – is a bill that’s on the Hill. One impact, in fact, of the shooting is that that bill is probably on ice for quite some time, so that actually could end up being the most tangible legislative impact from the shooting: that bill and another one can’t move forward because of the optics for some time.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, take our news quiz that tests your knowledge beyond the headlines.
I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.