ROBERT COSTA: On tonight’s edition of the Washington Week Extra, the Justice Department rolls back an Obama-era policy that helps states legalize recreational marijuana. Congress returns to work with a narrow Republican majority and a long list of legislative priorities, and a looming deadline to avoid a government shutdown. And President Trump kicks off the new year unleashing a tweet storm aimed at North Korea, and anti-government protests rock Iran.
I’m Robert Costa. We discuss it all, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. It will be a working weekend for President Trump and Republican leaders who are meeting at Camp David right now to discuss this year’s congressional agenda. The most pressing priority, of course, government funding. The continuing resolution Democrats and Republicans approved last month, it expires on January 19th. That gives lawmakers two weeks to work out a longer-term spending deal to avoid a government shutdown.
Another priority in the works, an infrastructure initiative to fund construction of highways, airports and roads. There are also ongoing talks over immigration and possibly plans to stabilize Obamacare. The big question on my mind, what can they actually get done this month, and will anything be bipartisan? Well, after enacting a sweeping tax cut last year, the president at times appears eager for more legislative accomplishments. But there is that power shift in the Senate. And it means Republicans will likely need cooperation from Democrats, maybe Doug Jones.
Joining me tonight to discuss it all, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Peter Baker of The New York Times, and Erica Werner of The Washington Post.
Erica, January 19th, funding deadline looms. You’ve covered so many of these up on Capitol Hill. Will the government shut down? What are the factors?
ERICA WERNER: Well, it’s always unlikely, right? No one wants a shutdown. Usually there’s not a shutdown. It’s not unheard of that there would be a shutdown. The big complicating factor in these talks is that the funding issues, which can usually be worked out and probably will be, have become intertwined with the issue of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that affects hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants, called DREAMers, who were brought here illegally as kids. And as you alluded to, Democrats have leverage in these talks because their votes are needed to keep the government open. And they are determined to use that leverage to get protections for DREAMers.
Even so, things were moving right along, but there was kind of a bombshell today when the administration released an $18 billion funding request for the wall, which really upset Democrats. And they’re very spun up about it. That is definitely going to complicate things. So we’ll see where it goes.
MR. COSTA: About that wall, Peter, inside the White House, can they accept something beyond concrete or bricks? Could it be a digital wall, in part? Could it have different elements? Could the president accept something that wasn’t the big, massive wall he has always sought?
PETER BAKER: Well, I mean, politically, of course, you know, the symbolism of an actual, concrete wall is what he’s talked about and they have focused on. But you’re right, I think he can finesse that to some extent. I mean, you know, Congress passed and George W. Bush approved way back, you know, a decade ago some form of a wall through much of the border. Again, as you say, a lot of it is technological more than bricks and mortars. Some of it has to be, you know, a place where President Trump can go down, stand in front of by 2020, and say: Look behind me. They’re not getting through this. But it doesn’t have to be the entire border. And I think there are ways to compromise.
What’s interesting on the shutdown, I would say, is we have a little bit of a flipped situation where the normal pressure on congressmen to perhaps have a shutdown usually comes from the right, right? The more activist tea party folks who are saying, well, why are you giving in? We should shut down the government if we don’t get a good deal. This time I think it’s coming from the left, people who are very angry at Democrats for going along even with short-term spending bills without getting something on DACA, without getting something on immigration. And Democratic leaders don’t want to shut down the government. It’s not in their DNA. They like government. But they’re facing a real interesting challenge on their side.
MR. COSTA: That’s an interesting point. Amy, what is the price Democrats pay if they don’t get a DACA fix? And what’s the price Republicans pay if they don’t get a wall?
AMY WALTER: Well, I think for both you get – it’s much more significant right now. For Democrats who are making the case that they are the group standing between these young people being deported and not, that they’re going to have to show real – show their mettle here. Here’s – these are – this is something that we’re willing to go to the mat for. Of course, if you are, say, a member of Congress in a competitive state, or you’re in a red state where they’re going to support the president, a government shutdown is not going to be particularly a great thing for you to have to defend. So if you’re Joe Manchin in West Virginia or Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, this is not an issue that you want to have to be debating going into your midterm election. If you are hoping to run for president in 2020 as a Democrat, this is absolutely something that you’re going to be yearning for, right? Let’s pick this fight with the president over something that’s so important to our base.
For Republicans, the wall – for the base Republicans in Congress, the wall is not as important to them as it is for the president and for his supporters. I absolutely agree with Peter, as long as the case can be made: We got more money to build this wall. Remember, the president now is rolling out even just the prototypes of what the wall would look like. I think if you asked Americans: Has he gotten money for the wall? They’d say, yeah. I’ve seen these pictures on TV of what this wall looks like. They’re just putting the prototypes together. So a lot of this is spin.
The other thing that we’ve seen is that the president himself has incredible power to shape the way that Republican voters view this issue of DACA. If you ask about it, just stand alone, Republicans are going to say, I disagree with it. If you say, this bill that the president supports on immigration, they are much more likely to support it. So he has a lot more influence here. And I think that’s going to be important to watch.
MR. COSTA: So far he’s cheerleading a DACA deal. On the other front in all of these different talks on Capitol Hill is health care, Erica. And where do things stand with the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and maybe even trying to get a fix on the Affordable Care Act and shoring up the markets?
MS. WERNER: Yeah, they – the Children’s Health Insurance Program, on a short-term funding horizon at the moment. And that needs to also be extended as part of this deal that has to come together in two weeks’ time. I think they’re going to be able to get there on that. It’s not really a question. It’s more that, again, you know, Democrats won’t sign off on the other pieces until they have something on DACA, whether it’s a deal or an assurance that they’ll get to a deal.
As far as what’s going to happen on the Obamacare/ACA kind of stabilization bills that have been championed so vocally by Susan Collins, we don’t know yet. She has kind of walked back from the brink on that a couple of times, you know, claimed she was going to push for action, demand action by year end, and then let Senator McConnell off the hook and said that she had asked him to bring the bill she’s championing up for a vote in the early part of the year. As of now, we don’t know when or if that’s going to happen, or if a standalone vote would even go anywhere in the House. It probably would not.
MR. COSTA: Peter, there was another development this week. We always talk about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seems to be under siege. Each week, for Washington Week we’re talking about the attorney general and the president having these tensions. Yet, he’s powerful. He’s still attorney general. And he’s going after marijuana policy and the states’ ability to legalize recreational use. What does that tell us about this Justice Department? And what do you make of the new developments on marijuana?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. What he said is states that have effectively decriminalized marijuana will not get any special deference in terms of prosecution under federal law. Under President Obama, before he left office, he said to the Justice Department, in effect, in states that have decided that they’re not going to make this a crime, we should defer, you know, federal prosecution. There are state laws and federal laws. Basically, Jeff Sessions has reversed that and said, we’re going to enforce the federal law in every state in the land. It doesn’t matter whether the local population has decided that they are OK with marijuana being legal or not. It’s a big deal, especially for younger citizens who think this is an issue of their personal rights. It’s an issue for people who use it for medicinal purposes.
And it’s an issue kind of also for blue state/red state because he’s targeting, in effect, some of the blue states that were not supportive of President Trump in the same way the tax bill seemed to do, in the same way this oil drilling decision this week did. California just this month began to allow marijuana to be used. California, of course, is the one state that President Trump will probably never win in 2020.
MR. COSTA: Are the politics of marijuana evolving in this country?
MS. WALTER: They’ve evolved tremendously. I mean, if you look over the last 10 or 15 years, the support for legalizing marijuana has, you know, gone, like, straight up. It’s in the – you know, so much of this debate – what’s interesting is, we’ve had the debates on a lot of the other cultural issues throughout the 2016 campaign, between the red and the blue states about, you know, one type of state trying to put its values on another type of state. The issue of marijuana, though, is one that is – sort of crosses age and class and red or blue state in terms of support for it.
And it’s also not one that the president talked about on the campaign trail. This is a uniquely Jeff Sessions issue. It’s something that we know that he had been against for a long time. And I think your point was a very good one, which is for all the talk that Jeff Sessions is sort of isolated over at the Justice Department, he’s been able to make some pretty significant – you know, he still is able to make pretty significant policy, even as the president is sort of giving him the –
MS. WERNER: Well, Trump has been asked about – was asked at some point about marijuana legalization and said he thought it was a states’ rights issue. And that’s something that Senator Gardner of Colorado has been pointing to a lot. He’s very angry about this decision.
MR. COSTA: Let’s shift to foreign policy, leave domestic policy aside for a minute, because it may be a new year, but many of the old problems in that realm remain the same. And the president kicked of the new year criticizing Iran’s crackdown on deadly street protests over corruption and economic issues. He pulled military and security aid to Pakistan until Islamabad ramps up its counterterrorism efforts. The president also sparred with North Korea in recent days over the size of each leader’s nuclear power, or in the words of the president and Kim Jong-un, their nuclear buttons. In the lead-up to next month’s winter games in South Korea, North and South Korea are preparing to restart high-level talks, which had been frozen for two years.
Joining me to discuss the foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration are Susan Glasser of POLITICO and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker.
Evan, you began this week covering President Trump and his engagement with North Korea. You wrote a piece called Big Button, Small President. What does this brinksmanship mean for U.S. foreign policy?
EVAN OSNOS: Well, the sort of personalization of the conflict is the real gamechanger here. When I was in Pyongyang last fall, they told me quite clearly, members of the government, that they had noticed that the president had not given Kim Jong-un a nickname. This was before “Rocket Man,” this was before it became such a personalized dynamic. They thought that meant something. They thought that was intentional. Clearly since then, the president has adopted a much more pointed, specific, in many ways insulting way of talking about the North Korean leader.
So when the North Koreans do a provocation ‒ and look, let’s be clear, they do provocations all the time ‒ you can either respond by trying to maintain the stature of the United States and say we’re a country that’s above that, we’re not going to get into a tit for tat, or you could turn it into a sort of schoolyard squabble. And unfortunately, that’s the track we’ve gone down. It gives a lot of diplomats cause for concern.
MR. COSTA: Susan, what does it mean for Kim Jong-un back home on the domestic front?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, you know, what is driving Kim Jong-un to the table? Is it the uncertainty about President Trump and what the American intentions are right now toward his country? Certainly, the continued tweeting from here in Washington suggests that might be part of the factor. The other factor is that Kim has shown with this series of missile tests he’s going to be negotiating, if he does come to the table, from a position of much more strength than he was previously.
And I also think that it was notable this week that he seemed to be trying to peel away the South Koreans from the United States, from their allies. President Trump in his first year in office has made it very clear in a variety of ways that alliances, multilateral institutions, bilateral relationships, like that with South Korea, are not his top priority. He’s an “America first,” unilateralist kind of a guy. And I imagine that is also factoring into the North Koreans’ calculation right now.
MR. COSTA: Evan, real quick on the North Korean question and their engagement right now with South Korea ahead of the Olympics there, is this a real thaw?
MR. OSNOS: Well, this is the possibility for real improvement, but it’s really early steps. The fact that South Korea has brought North Korea to the table is a sign that we may ‒ there may be an opening here to get North Korea obviously to participate in the Olympic games, perhaps to consider talking about their program.
But as Susan pointed out, the crucial juncture is that you’ve got South Korea and the United States moving in somewhat different directions at the moment. South Korea wants to get to the table, they want negotiations; the president has indicated he’s not willing to do that. So the president has sort of isolated himself in the last week or so by departing from where South Korea and China are hoping to take this.
MR. COSTA: Susan, turning the globe a bit, spinning it around, looking at what’s happening in Iran, what are we to make of the protests there that dominated that country this week? And what’s next for Iran as they deal with, well, with the uprising?
MS. GLASSER: Well, you know, it’s very interesting. I just ‒ I just came from doing an interview for my podcast with meeting Iranian journalists. And it’s striking how much really the Iranian government and the U.S. government was surprised by the outbreak of protests the very last week of 2017 and continuing into this first week of 2018. It’s coming from a place that’s not the kind of disaffected, upper-middle-class, educated, urban intelligentsia who turned out in the Green Movement after the election of 2009.
What’s striking about this, you could say it’s almost happening in the Iranian equivalent of Trump country, in the smaller cities, some of them very conservative, working-class areas, people complaining about unemployment, complaining about economic hopelessness, complaining about the amount of money and blood and treasure spent by the government of Iran on basically regional adventures. You know, helping the Syrian regime next door, for example.
And so the question is, will these protests be able to continue? Most analysts believe that the government in Iran certainly has the ability to crack down. They’ve shown it as they’ve helped the brutal regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad next door that they’re willing to do what it takes to put down any kind of an uprising.
But, you know, does it herald a new stage of political unrest inside Iran? And, of course, what’s going to happen here in Washington next week over the next 10 days as President Trump has to decide once again whether to waive sanctions on Iran as part of the nuclear deal or whether he’s finally going to move ahead and blow up the deal that all along he said was the worst deal ever?
MR. COSTA: Susan, let’s stick with that for a moment, because when President Trump evaluates what’s happening in Iran and he looks at the decision he has to make, all these protests, are they factoring in that decision-making process inside of the U.S. government and the White House?
MS. GLASSER: Well, there’s no question, of course, that it has to be factoring. This is the most significant unrest inside Iran since the Green Movement of 2009. And so first of all, it allows President Trump and his administration to come out very forcefully and say we’re going to do something that Barack Obama did not and we’re going to speak out on behalf of the protestors, on behalf of democratic protests inside Iran. And you saw that even with an extraordinary op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence literally saying basically Barack Obama screwed up in 2009 and we’re not going to make that same mistake again.
Donald Trump has personally tweeted several times words of support for the protestors. They’ve threatened a new round of sanctions were the protests to be met with a violent crackdown. So obviously, it is factoring into the administration’s calculation. But, you know, people are so uncertain. I asked one veteran Middle East adviser to presidents in both parties this week what he thought President Trump would do next week on the Iran sanctions. And he said, you know, it’s harder to predict what Donald Trump will do on foreign policy than it is to predict what will happen in the Middle East.
MR. COSTA: And that question, what will President Trump do? Evan, that’s on the mind of diplomats and leaders around the world, but it doesn’t seem to be much on the minds of China too much. They’re plowing ahead, reading your piece ‒ it was a terrific one ‒ in The New Yorker, Making China Great Again. As this new year begins, where is China? And are they thinking about Trump or moving ahead on their own with their own strategy globally?
MR. OSNOS: Well, it’s an interesting moment for them. Frankly, it’s not one they expected. They thought when the Trump administration came in that they were going to be dealing with a president who told them that, you know, China was, as he put it, raping the United States, taking advantage of the American openness and economy. And in fact, what Trump has shown them, as far ‒ this is what they tell me and what they tell others ‒ is that he can be managed using some of the tools that they have in their foreign policy toolbox, things like flattery, things like appealing to some of his desire for a close, personal chemistry with Xi Jinping.
They are confident right now. They are feeling as if this is a moment for them that they haven’t had in decades, if not longer, where they can begin to try to expand China’s presence on the world stage. As they put it recently, this is a new era. In a major speech last fall, Xi Jinping said this is a moment in which China will now be taking centerstage, and that’s really partly because of the opportunities created by the “America first” era.
MR. COSTA: And, Susan, that seemed to be the outlook in your story as well, in a sense, the strategic patience that you picked up among diplomats around the world as they evaluate this administration in the new year.
MS. GLASSER: Well, their strategic patience may well be running out. I thought Evan’s piece was terrific. And in a way, this opportunity that China appears to be seizing that Donald Trump has offered, that was a concern voiced I think by many of America’s allies and partners around the world who experienced the first year of the Trump administration as a really kind of shocking and almost jarring series of encounters, not just the tweets, although, of course, they’re paying attention to the tweets, as are we.
But even in many of the private interactions with President Trump when you go back and debrief some of the officials who have taken part in those, who have been involved in their government’s efforts to try to understand this volatile new president, I think there’s really a sense that Trump has turned away or put off many of America’s traditional allies in a way that potentially opens up opportunities for global rivals, such as Russia and China. And I wonder whether 2018 will be the year that you see much more aggressive taking advantage of those openings by Russia and China. If 2017 was the year of taking Trump’s measure, I think 2018 may well be the year where you see actions as a result of those decisions and that sizing up.
MR. COSTA: We’ll have to leave it there. But if you want to understand this complicated world, you must read Evan Osnos in The New Yorker and Susan Glasser in POLITICO, two wonderful writers and reporters, and we welcome you to Washington Week. Thank you very much.
MS. GLASSER: Thank you.
MR. OSNOS: Thank you very much.
MR. COSTA: Before we go tonight, let’s look ahead to next week and talk about the stories we’ll all be covering as we start the second week of the new year.
MR. BAKER: One of the things I’m looking at next week and in the weeks to come is what the president is going to do about Middle East peace. Vice President Pence is scheduled to go to the region. The whole issue has been blown up because of President Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. And this week he threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians if they don’t come to the peace table. The people who don’t want President Trump to cut off aid to the Palestinians? The Israelis because that aid has helped solidify and stabilize the region.
MR. COSTA: Amy?
MS. WALTER: Congress comes back, the House comes back next week and they’re coming back to a drama once again. And the question that I’m looking for ‒ it’s not just next week, but in these coming weeks ‒ is, how many more members are going to hang it up and decide to retire? They passed a tax bill which was their number-one priority. They’re coming back and looking at an environment that’s still not looking particularly good for them if you’re a Republican. And there’s still the threat, we still don’t know where the threat of these sexual harassment allegations. Before we had left for Christmas break, we had heard so much about the fact that there were 20 or 30 members who were being identified by news organizations. Is that going to be an incentive as well?
MR. COSTA: Erica?
MS. WERNER: An issue that we’re going to have to start paying more attention to is trade with NAFTA being renegotiated. There was an Oval Office meeting with some key Republican senators yesterday where they urged Trump to reverse course and stay in NAFTA, not go through his threats on that. There’s also some decisions pending on steel and aluminum where Trump will have to decide whether to in fact crack down on China, as he’s threatened to do, but has not yet done, so that’s going to be an interesting issue.
MR. COSTA: And I’m going to be watching the inaugurations of the new Democratic-elect governors ‒ Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Ralph Northam in Virginia ‒ I want to hear what they have to say about the future of their party.
We’re going to leave it there tonight. Thanks everybody for joining us.
Remember, if you ever miss the show or the Washington Week Extra, you can watch both online Friday nights and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy your weekend.