ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
During the show, we told you about the staff shakeup inside the White House that saw chief strategist Steve Bannon exit. But earlier this week, the administration announced another change, this time a promotion: Hope Hicks will take over the job of communications director, at least on an interim basis. And at 28 years old, Hicks is the youngest communications director in history. Geoff, she has been at the president’s side throughout the campaign and in the White House. What does her rise in the West Wing tell us?
GEOFF BENNETT: Yeah, and she rose through the Trump Organization, and when the president decided he was going to run for the nomination she went along for the ride with him. I think what it suggests, again, that we know about this president is that he values loyalty. Hope Hicks has been nothing but loyal to this president. And, unlike the last four communications directors, who have since parted from the White House, there’s no chance that she’s going to fly too close to the sun, as did Anthony Scaramucci, and then found himself – found himself quickly on the outs.
MR. COSTA: Will she ever appear at the podium in the Briefing Room or on TV?
MR. BENNETT: It’s doubtful because Kellyanne Conway, actually, during the transition, floated her name as a potential press secretary, and they decided that she wasn’t quite ready for it yet, and she turned it down. So there’s no expectation that she’ll –
MR. COSTA: A couple Republicans, Molly, told me on Capitol Hill that she may be one of the most powerful women in America because, yes, she’s now the interim communications director, but she’s really the gatekeeper for President Trump.
MOLLY BALL: Yes, that’s right. She decides who walks into the Oval Office. She decides – to the frustration of many of his other aides, who have had more powerful titles. She’s the one who really controls access to him – what he sees, what information he takes in, who he meets with, which as we’ve seen is so influential with a president who is so impulsive and who – and makes decisions on such an individual basis, right? There’s not a lot of convening of councils and making a group decision with this president. On the other hand, she’s kind of a cypher. She just started a Twitter account, I believe, this week. She almost – she never speaks publicly, she’s never actually quoted, and she really prefers to be behind the scenes. I think to Geoff’s point one of the things Trump likes about her is you could not accuse her of being a showboat; quite the opposite. So it’s not clear what that power that she has is for, other than I think the advancement of Trump in whatever form he desires.
MICHAEL SCHERER: The other thing is Trump likes and trusts her in a way that he doesn’t like and trust most of the people around him. And so she has throughout the campaign – she’s never, you know, told him what his message is, but she has constantly over the last couple years kind of nudged him in different directions, made recommendations to him, helped him, advised him. I mean, I think her role with the president has been incredibly substantial, constantly since his rise, even though she’s never really had the communications director title, she’s never really wanted the administrative responsibility. And so the advantage she has as communications director is that relationship, which is really hard to find. I mean, the president has a relationship with his daughter he’s very close to; a relationship with Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, he’s very close to. But there’s just not a lot of other people in the White House – you know, his former security guy, Keith Schiller, is one who he’s also very personally close to, but there’s not a lot of people in the White House who Trump is truly comfortable with on a deep level. And so having someone like that in this position could mean the White House runs better.
SHAWNA THOMAS: He believes that she – her one goal, one sole thing is to make him look good. And during the campaign, like, when we used to try to book the president during the campaign, then-candidate Trump, she was the person who you did that with. She was the one you went through. She was the one who handed him the phone. She was the one who thought about how did he look, where would he go, how this was going to work, did he need to get out of bed too early. Like, you had those conversations with Hope. And she wants him – I mean, I believe – I’ve never talked to her about this, but she makes him look as good as you can make him look, and he really, really values that.
MR. COSTA: You just had an insight. So Hope Hicks is the person behind President Trump making all those calls to television networks from home?
MS. THOMAS: Yeah, no, I’ve been on the phone with her at five in the morning before, yes.
MR. SCHERER: The other thing – just one other thing that I want to say about Hope Hicks is that she’s a total pro. She’s very young.
MR. COSTA: What do you mean by that?
MR. SCHERER: I mean that the president has long surrounded himself with staff who are very unconventional, who do things their own way, who kind of have these like eccentricities about them. I mean, think of Corey Lewandowski, who is just as eccentric a person as you could possibly imagine in the role he had. Hope Hicks is a pure public-relations person. And she’s very young, but she handles her job, you know, with a level of professionalism –
MS. THOMAS: She never loses her cool.
MR. SCHERER: Never loses her cool.
MS. THOMAS: She’s always nice to people.
MR. SCHERER: That’s right.
MS. BALL: Never gets emotional.
MR. SCHERER: Never gets emotional. You know, can be tough, but is tough when she has a point to make. You know, like, there’s a level of ability there that is – that is admirable.
MR. COSTA: And her only ideology – I’ve dealt with her as a reporter – is – she doesn’t have an ideology beyond Trump. So you look at the new – General Kelly, chief of staff, pretty non-ideological figure. Hope Hicks, now interim communications director, she works closely with Jared Kushner and President Trump. This is not a Republican White House or a partisan White House, it’s a Trump White House.
Let’s stay with President Trump because there was a crowded field of Republicans hoping to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ seat in the United States Senate. But after Alabama voters went to the polls on Tuesday, just two men are standing. One is Roy Moore, the twice-suspended former chief judge of the state Supreme Court. The other is Luther Strange, the appointed senator who previously served as the state’s attorney general, and was attorney general while the man who appointed him, Governor Bentley, was under investigation. Governor Bentley, Molly, the person who appointed Senator Strange, has now resigned from office. He left office under criminal charges. This Alabama Senate race, I think your headline for The Atlantic said it all. Was it Moore-Strange – (laughter) – Republican politics gets Moore-Strange?
MS. BALL: That’s right, that’s right. And it was a very interesting race in part because of Donald Trump’s intervention. Now, Luther Strange, the incumbent, as you say is widely disliked in Alabama, in large part because many voters perceive him to be in the Senate as the result of what they suspect to be a corrupt deal. People look at him and they think that the fact that, you know, he was overseeing the investigation of the man who then put him the Senate, they smell a rat there. And so they really don’t – there’s not a lot of affection for Luther Strange. Even among Republicans, I believe his unfavorable rating is about 50 percent. And Roy Moore, on the other hand, is a – is a beloved political brand in Alabama. He’s the 10 Commandments judge. And then, 10 years after he got kicked off the bench for refusing to take down the 10 Commandments monument, they put him back in office, and he got kicked off the bench again for refusing to implement the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. So he’s a colorful figure, someone who’s got a very well-known personal brand apart from any of the sort of politics of the moment. And a third candidate, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, Mo Brooks, appeared to be gaining to the point where he might have come in second in this race, and you would have had the embarrassing specter of the incumbent backed by the Washington establishment, backed by the Senate majority leader and millions of dollars in campaign spending, could have actually come in third and failed to make the runoff. Donald Trump changed all of that when, a week before the election, he tweeted his endorsement of Luther Strange.
MR. COSTA: But it’s not like they’re best friends, President Trump and Senator Strange. The buzz in Republican circles is that President Trump heard Congressman Brooks said some negative things during the presidential primary, even though Brooks is now a vocal Trump supporter, and that was the reason he went to Strange, out of spite.
MS. BALL: That was part of it. I mean, he also, though, could have endorsed Moore if he wanted to – and there were people, from what I understand, urging him to do that – or just to stay out of it. Most of the people in Trump’s orbit thought that he should stay out of it. He viewed himself as doing a favor for Senator McConnell. He thought that he could do something personally nice for McConnell, and then you remember it was later that same day that McConnell’s comments that Trump perceived as insulting – saying he had unrealistic expectations – it was after the Strange endorsement that Trump saw those comments, and he felt he’d been betrayed. He felt he’d done Mitch McConnell a favor and McConnell had insulted him in return. And that is why he went off on that anti-McConnell tirade for two days after that, is he was – he felt personally affronted by someone he had just done a favor for.
MR. SCHERER: Especially with Bannon back on the outside and the Mercer money flowing again, there’s going to be a lot of proxy fights going into 2018 between this sort of Bannonian-Trumpian teardown McConnell wing and the incumbent Washington Republican Party, and Trump is going to have to navigate this. And I had the feeling with this endorsement it was kind of like that Monday statement he gave on Charlottesville, it was the one he had to give but didn’t really feel.
MS. BALL: But then he did double down on it. He tweeted several more times in support of Senator Strange and recorded a robocall, which my sources in Alabama tell me was probably the killing blow to Mo Brooks. But to your point, that’s a really good illustration of what happens when Trump goes up against Breitbart, because all the talk radio guys and Breitbart were for Mo Brooks. Trump endorsed against them, and it turned out the president had more power than they did. So if we are in a situation where Breitbart under Bannon may try to go up against the White House on occasion, that could tell you where that balance of power actually is.
MS. THOMAS: And we have President Trump going to Arizona. He’s tweeted multiple things about Senator Jeff Flake, who is up for reelection. He seems to be supporting the woman who’s going to run against Jeff Flake for that Senate seat. And I am curious to see if Kelli Ward shows up in Phoenix on Tuesday.
MR. COSTA: That’s the candidate running against Senator Flake.
MS. THOMAS: Yes. Yeah.
MR. COSTA: Who the president has now tweeted about.
MS. THOMAS: Yep.
MR. COSTA: And, Geoff, you’re going to go there, aren’t you?
MR. BENNETT: Yeah. And the president is going to Phoenix, against the wishes of the Democratic mayor in that town. The concern is that he’s going to inflame really, you know, raw emotions, coming so close after what happened in Charlottesville. And there’s also the larger question of whether or not the president’s going to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio on that stage there.
MR. COSTA: Arpaio said – a very controversial sheriff – said he would welcome it.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah. (Laughter.) One imagines he would.
MS. BALL: Well, and Trump has publicly said that he’s considering it, which he says about a lot of things he doesn’t end up doing. But he then tweeted about it. And so it’s clearly something that is actually on his mind. And Arpaio’s someone that he views as having been very loyal to him.
MR. COSTA: Michael, I had a conversation with Senator Strange on the phone this week. And it was so – Senator Strange said he called – President Trump called him. And Senator Strange made sure to ask President Trump for his endorsement, and how much he would appreciate it. And so he made the ask to President Trump. And the President Trump’s response, Senator Strange said, was: How about a tweet? I’ll do a tweet. (Laughter.) And it just – as much as there is going to be these proxy wars, a lot of it just comes down to the whims of the president.
MR. SCHERER: That’s right. And that makes it probably more exciting going forward. I do think that there is an untold chapter here of the Bannon-Trump relationship. I mean, you got to remember that Bannon and Breitbart led the effort to destroy Mitch McConnell in 2014. It was vicious. They hate each other. I mean, like – and Bannon also led the effort against Paul Ryan that same cycle. And Bannon now with these, you know, chest-thumping comments today. There’s a war coming there. I mean, it is going to be a war. And Trump’s ability to navigate it – I mean, if he wants to get something through the Senate, he wants to get something through the House, he’s going to have to make some pledges to Ryan and McConnell that he’s going to do something for them.
MR. COSTA: Can you imagine if President Trump works a deal with House Speaker Ryan, Leader McConnell, and he says: We’re ready to go. And then Breitbart goes to war against the deal, says it’s a bad deal? (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: Well, and it’s worth pointing out that while the Trump candidate beat the Breitbart candidate, the Trump candidate still came in second.
MR. COSTA: Second, you're right. Does he really have political capital?
MS. BALL: The Trump endorsement was not powerful enough with Alabama Republicans. This is a state that’s quite red state, although actually –
MR. COSTA: Sixty-two percent for Trump.
MS. BALL: Although actually, a lot of Alabama – sorry – Trump’s approval rating in Alabama is only in the 60s or 70s among Republicans. And the reason is because of his war on Jeff Sessions, who is the hometown boy, who’s very beloved. So it is worth noting that, you know, Roy Moore beat Trump’s endorsed candidate by eight points. And my sources in Alabama believe that he is the favorite to win this runoff. So it remains to be seen if, in a one-on-one race, the Trump candidate actually would beat the candidate who came in first among Alabama Republicans in the first round.
MR. COSTA: I was reading a profile of Roy Moore. I have this here. He once warned against United Nations guards standing outside of every home. So this is maybe the senator who’s coming to join Leader McConnell.
Let’s finish tonight with race, which was the subject of our show Friday – race in America, and how the tragedy in Charlottesville reminds us all that most people are having this uncomfortable conversation about race, they don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation about race. And let’s think back to President Obama, because he tried to address the issue during his term in office, because of other tragic events like the Charleston massacre. And you have to wonder, Geoff, why does race remain this third rail? I know you said on the show that we’re having this kind of open wound and we’re having the discussion. But so many people just shy away from it.
MR. BENNETT: Why does it remain a third rail in our politics? I think because it informs everything about people’s lives, to some degree. And politicians know how to leverage that to their own benefit, and we’re seeing that play out in real time with the president. The president, whether or not these views are closely held or whether or not he thinks that it helps him politically, he’s messing with some really, you know, tough and particularly dangerous issues here. And we’re seeing the real-time effects of it.
MS. THOMAS: And Senator Scott said something to me, that politics is a game of division, especially, like, campaigns are a game of division. And President Trump really was able to harness that, to a certain extent. We are seeing what happens when you harness that, and then you are actually governing, you are actually the president. And it’s not – it’s not supposed to be a game for the president of the United States anymore. That’s not his job. And, but, if it leads to – like, Molly, like you said on the show – if it leads to winning for the president, then he may continue to do this.
MS. BALL: And that – well, that’s the really disturbing question that I have, is what if this is why Donald Trump won? What if because there were lines that John McCain refused to cross, because there were lines that Mitt Romney refused to cross in their campaigns against a black man, against Barack Obama, what if that’s the reason that they weren’t able to win the presidency? And what if Donald Trump’s open weaponizing of racial grievance is the reason that he was able to succeed where they failed? That’s the really disturbing thing for me to contemplate. I don’t have an answer to it, but I –
MR. COSTA: And not just disturbing about the president, but about the country.
MS. BALL: About our country. And I think we’re seeing a lot of disturbing – as Shawna said earlier – a lot of disturbing undercurrents surfacing. A lot of Band-Aids being ripped off, to mix a metaphor. And it is really chilling to think about all of the national traumas we’ve swept under the rug.
MR. COSTA: But here’s what I don’t get, Michael. You look back at The Apprentice on NBC, it had a very diverse audience. And that’s detailed in Josh Green’s new book about Bannon. You think back even to the campaign when the Confederate flag issue came up, the president – then-candidate Trump – said he wasn’t a supporter of the Confederate flag. Has something changed?
MR. SCHERER: I don’t think Trump behaves this way because he has a specific view about race. I think he behaves this way because he has instincts about how to promote himself. And he understands something about the country. So it’s not that he has an agenda here, or he has policies he wants to promote. It’s situational. And a situation comes up, and he reads it very quickly and he says: This is how it’ll work for me and my people. And this is how I can get support. This is how I can take over, you know, all the talk shows. This is how I can get on cable news. This is how I can monopolize the conversation. In this case, it was to say there were a lot of bad lefties there and let’s have a fight over the Confederate war memorial and history.
You know, you mentioned Obama in the initial question. I think it’s interesting to look back at President Obama, who so many people put so much hope in, in terms of seeing him as a healing figure for the deepest and most fundamental wound in the country. And having covered that, that first term he wouldn’t touch race. He didn’t want to go near it. He didn’t want to talk about it. Every time he did, he kind of saw it as a big mistake and he would run back from it. You know, the beer summit, if you remember that. And then he wins reelection and he had – he was convinced by that election, beating Romney, that the demographic change was happening, that there was a period coming where Democrats could just move forward, they wouldn’t have to worry about this, that history had turned and that there was this corner that had been made.
And I think, in retrospect, he made a lot of mistakes in the second term, because instead of addressing the whole country when he dealt with race, he acted as if that corner had already been turned and started doing what he really wanted to do. And there was a huge backlash against that. And I think it’s one the country’s now living through. Instead of addressing the whole country about racial issues, he started, you know, acting as if, you know, people who felt differently had been left behind by history. And we still don’t yet have that healing figure who can really address both sides of this issue.
MR. COSTA: Final thoughts?
MS. BALL: Well, ironically, the one healing figure may be Mitt Romney – (laughs) – who is one of the Republican leaders most loudly denouncing Donald Trump. Now, you can say it’s to no effect. When there was a potential job in it for him, he was happy to suck up to Donald Trump. But you do have these voices – more and more voices saying this isn’t the Republican Party I wanted to join. This isn’t the Republican Party as I envisioned it. An openly racist party is not what I signed up for – people like Senator Scott, obviously. And people like Jeff Flake in Arizona, who has literally put his political career on the line.
So certainly not saying that the entire Republican Party is a profile in courage, but you’re increasingly seeing – you know, those of us who have covered the right for a long time know that the Republican civil war, so to speak, didn’t end when Donald Trump got elected. And we’re seeing the – we’re seeing, in fact, it continues to fracture.
MS. THOMAS: I also think the issue about race in this country, the conversation that should be had – and we’ll see who decides to lead that conversation – the thing is, it is a part of the education. It is a part of health care. It’s a part of where people live. People are even more divided on the internet, in real life. And until you start to work through all of the inequalities that are – that go all the way back to slavery, then we are never going to get over this. And our politicians have a really unique place to actually do something about health care, education, all of those things, and figure out how to, like, try to create something that resembles an even playing field. And I know a lot of people think it is an even playing field and everyone has the same opportunity, but they don’t. And that’s what makes this conversation so hard.
MR. COSTA: Geoff, final word?
MR. BENNETT: Yeah. I was particularly struck this past week that even though members of the president’s business councils parted ways, a number of advisory panels completely were disbanded, and we had some Republicans come out and take the president on in ways they hadn’t before, not a single one of his Evangelical advisors parted ways with this president. And I think that says a lot about where we are politically.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. Thanks, everyone, for being here. Great conversation. And while you’re online you can learn more about the rise of hate crimes and hate groups in the United States. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.