ROBERT COSTA: Tonight, on this special edition of the Washington Week Extra.
U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. NIKKI HALEY: (From video.) America will put our embassy in Jerusalem. That is what the American people want us to do, and it is the right thing to do.
MR. COSTA: Ambassador Nikki Haley defends President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem and threatens to withhold U.S. funding to the United Nations.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We must protect the American people, the homeland, and our great American way of life.
MR. COSTA: And the president lays out his “America first” National Security Strategy. I’m Robert Costa. We discuss the administration’s foreign policy and the world’s forceful response, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly defied U.S. warnings and voted to condemn President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Here’s what Ambassador Nikki Haley had to say when addressing the General Assembly on Thursday.
AMB. HALEY: (From video.) The United States will remember this day, in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation. We will remember it when we are called upon to once again make the world’s largest contribution to the United Nations. And we will remember it when so many countries come calling on us, as they so often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit. America will put our embassy in Jerusalem.
MR. COSTA: Earlier in the week, the president threatened to cut aid to any country that voted for the U.N. resolution.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) For all of these nations that take our money and then they vote against us at the Security Council, they take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us.
MR. COSTA: Joining me around the table tonight, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times, Eli Stokols of The Wall Street Journal, and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.
Andrea, when you think about the vote in the U.N., 128 to 9, 35 abstentions, a defiant vote by the world, a majority of the nations, at least, against the United States. Why weren’t they scared away by the warnings of Haley and President Trump?
ANDREA MITCHELL: They were infuriated by those warnings. It was interpreted as bullying by the world’s richest country, most powerful country, this superpower. The fact that Nikki Haley was so out there saying we will remember, tweeting we are taking names, the president is watching, and what the president said at his Cabinet meeting earlier in the week saying, you know, we with withhold aid.
We actually contribute 22 percent of the U.N. activities, not just the budget, but all of the U.N. agencies. It’s $3.3 billion, so it’s a very heavy threat. And not that we really think that they would carry this out, but already Nikki Haley has invited the 64 countries that voted with the U.S. to a post-holiday New Year’s party of friendship, an invitation that was ready to go. But it was really viewed as very heavy-handed on her part and on the president’s.
MR. COSTA: Eli, why was the White House so eager to disrupt world politics, a consensus since World War II about Jerusalem?
ELI STOKOLS: Well, the post-World War II geopolitical order means very little to this president. And I just don’t think it was really much of a factor at all. And when you say the White House, we’re not talking about the White House or national security staff or Foggy Bottom, we’re talking about President Donald Trump. This is something he feels strongly about, he put a marker down.
And that speech that Ambassador Haley gave, it was one of those moments where you sit back and you watch and you say audience of one. She wasn’t even directing those comments to the people in the room. That was a speech given for the pleasure of the president.
MS. MITCHELL: Exactly.
DAN BALZ: Right. But nonetheless, it goes all over the world.
MR. STOKOLS: That has an impact, yeah, yeah.
MR. BALZ: I mean, that’s ‒ that’s not a speech that was simply, you know, lasered in to the White House.
MR. STOKOLS: Right.
MR. BALZ: That’s a speech and, as Andrea said, I mean, it was ‒ it was unilateralism on the part of the United States. It was a threat that if they don’t carry it out means the credibility of the United States is weakened as a result of that.
And, you know, it’s also another example of this administration isolating itself in world activities, you know, whether it’s going out of the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the climate pact, the Paris climate pact, any number of things in which kind of the “America first” doctrine pulls the United States away from our allies.
MS. MITCHELL: And the allies included the Brits, the French, the Germans, all of the EU. I mean, this was not some minor issue where we were being picked apart by some third-world countries. This was a major blow to our closest allies.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I also think it, to me ‒ watching Nikki Haley almost felt like you could almost see Donald Trump’s lips moving as she was saying those words.
MS. MITCHELL: (Laughs.) Yes, it did.
MS. ALCINDOR: Because you realize that his influence is all over his Cabinet, all over the world. There was a feeling, I think, when he first got into office that maybe he would somehow be influenced by other people around him, that maybe somehow he would get just the right people to talk to him and he would find a way to get to his presidency and he would understand world order. And I think it’s been the exact opposite. He has turned everyone else into the bulliers. He’s turned everyone else into the hardline speakers.
And I think Nikki Haley just shows you that Donald Trump almost could have written that speech and given it if it wasn’t for her.
MR. COSTA: Andrea, what does this mean for the Middle East peace process?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, it kills any chance ‒ it has been dormant since 2014. And so the criticism that John Kerry and all of their predecessors have failed as well is a valid criticism. But for 70 years, since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, this has been basically the reward at the end of the rainbow. This is the final, toughest issue, the holy city where all three major Abrahamic faiths have a stake. And so this was supposed to be the ultimate bargaining chip. The man who supposedly wrote The Art of the Deal has given Israel this huge benefit without getting anything in return.
MR. COSTA: And, Eli, Dan talked about how this is America at times almost alone in the world, at least in the perception of others outside of the country. But the president’s not getting pushback within his own party on this move.
MR. STOKOLS: No, he doesn’t get pushback on much from his own party these days. And, you know, I think it’s not politically relevant in the sense that most Americans are going to see this and really spend all that much time thinking about it.
MR. COSTA: Or Evangelical voters.
MR. STOKOLS: He made a promise. He can say I made a promise to Evangelical voters, conservatives. A lot of Jewish Americans may applaud this move. But beyond that, I mean, this is something that the impact is not political, the impact is geopolitical and what this does to our alliances. Those alliances will be important, are important, but will ‒ people will see their importance at various times when it calls on a not unilateral response, a multilateral response to challenges. And that’s what’s fraying.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about those alliances, because it wasn’t just Jerusalem this week as a political issue, as a global issue. The week began with President Trump rolling out his new “America first” National Security Strategy. And he devoted most of the speech to painting a picture of the world, of a world in conflict. He downplayed international agreements and took swipes at previous administrations.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) They neglected a nuclear menace in North Korea; made a disastrous, weak and incomprehensibly bad deal with Iran; and allowed terrorists such as ISIS to gain control of vast parts of territory all across the Middle East.
MR. COSTA: He repeated calls for tightening immigration and called out Russia and China.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We cannot secure our nation if we do not secure our borders. We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interests.
MR. COSTA: But the president did not specifically call out Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, even though it was mentioned in the formal National Security Strategy released by the White House. President Trump said his strategic worldview is based on four pillars: defending the homeland, American prosperity, advancing American influence, peace through strength.
The president’s remarks echoed the bleak view of the world that he spoke about in his inauguration speech, yet he presented a rather optimistic view of America’s place in it.
Dan, how do we look at the speech and then the document?
MR. BALZ: Well, the speech more closely reflects the president’s views and the document more closely reflects the views of the national security apparatus in his government, which we know from a year now of the Trump presidency are not always in sync with one another. There is ‒ there is an apparatus around the president that continues to push for, if not actual continuity with past administrations, at least something closer to it than the president.
But the president has his own views. And I think that the issue that other governments look at is, what do we believe? Do we believe this document that went through a lengthy process? Or do we believe what we hear from the president? Or do we not know what to believe because the president sometimes says things about foreign policy, but doesn’t necessarily carry through on them?
MS. MITCHELL: And the document itself was rather reassuring to the foreign policy establishment, to the rest of the world. The speech sounded more like a campaign rally speech and it was very Bannon-esque, if you will. You compared it to the inaugural address and it really did have that feel.
What is coming up next with the new year is renegotiating, trying to renegotiate aspects of the Iran deal, renegotiate it, getting something through Congress, which was too busy with the tax deal and may well be too busy and not interested in doing this. But they’ve already had meetings this week with the key ambassadors from the U.K., from France and Germany, top-level meetings at the State Department trying to persuade them to change their minds ‒ they’re dead-set against any renegotiation ‒ change their minds and go along with some sort of renegotiation to avoid what could happen mid-January, which would be a complete break on the Iran deal with the next deadline.
MR. COSTA: Eli, the president spoke about Russia and China as rival powers, but he didn’t mention the election meddling on Russia’s part. And he also took a little bit of a softer approach on China; at least China was expecting more of a hardline, nationalist take. Why did the White House have this approach? Why did the president have this approach?
MR. STOKOLS: Well, I mean, China is a matter of we need Chinese help on North Korea and I think the president is always trying to calibrate and the national security staff are trying to calibrate their approach. How hard can we really be on China?
And with Russia, I mean, the president doesn’t like to acknowledge the fact that Russia played this role in the election. So it’s no surprise that it would appear in the document, but not in the speech as a line that he would really hit hard or reference much at all, and that’s just because this is ‒ it’s an existential crisis that he faces about his own legitimacy as president every time somebody touches on that.
And you see the same thing, you know, he’s giving this speech, and in the days running up to it there’s a lot of contact between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, almost playing phone tag back and forth ‒
MS. MITCHELL: Right.
MR. STOKOLS: ‒ thanking each other for various ‒ I mean, you know, it’s not just the Republicans on Capitol Hill who have learned that Donald Trump does pretty well when you compliment and flatter him. Putin’s figured that out. A lot of people have figured that out. And that’s their approach to him and it seems to be working to some extent.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, immigration came up in this speech. And he may not have been as hardline on China, but he was hardline on immigration, talked about building the wall. What does that mean for the talks about the DREAMers that are ongoing right now on Capitol Hill, of keeping those who came here illegally with their parents? Does the president’s speech and his remarks on immigration rupture those talks at all?
MS. ALCINDOR: I don’t know if they rupture them. Because, essentially, after both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer kind of said that there was some sort of an agreement with the president, that has not materialized into much. And now with lawmakers going home and not coming together and having a deal on DACA, there are a lot of young immigrants that have been protesting at the Capitol, who have been going on hunger strikes, who have been sitting in jail. Just this week, there were people who were arrested while protesting inside Chuck Schumer’s office. So they’re not just targeting Republicans, they’re targeting Democrats. They essentially feel very let down.
But President Trump is someone who kicked off his campaign by going after Mexican immigrants. So I don’t know if one speech is going to do more damage than his entire presidency and his entire campaign. People knew that when they were electing Donald Trump, they were electing someone that was going to be hard on immigration. And unlike some issues, like tax reform and health care ‒ I think those issues are important to people ‒ but when I hear people talk about immigrants, it’s so much about a personal view of what their towns look like. There’s this idea that America is changing, essentially, it’s becoming browner and there are a lot of people around the country who don’t like that.
MR. BALZ: But it’s ‒ but the DREAMers issue is a losing political issue for the president and for the Republican party. I mean, the polling on that issue is quite clear that a big majority of the country says we need to solve this, they should be allowed to stay in the country. And the longer that they are not able to find that solution, the more damaging it is to the people who are trying to hold it up or are not willing to make the deal.
And so his hardline on immigration goes down well with a lot of his base. But on this particular issue, it’s not even clear that that’s good with them.
MR. COSTA: So you’re saying we shouldn’t read too much into the speech on immigration, that ‒
MR. BALZ: No, I think that his basic position on immigration is unchanged. But the impact on the ‒ on the DREAMers issue, I think, is separate from that.
MS. ALCINDOR: And in my conversations with Republicans on the Hill, both Democrats and Republicans, both really want to get to a deal on DACA. I talked to several Republicans who said that they signed a letter, something like 34 people, saying that they wanted to vote on some sort of immigration deal before they went home for the holidays because they realize that a lot of people are already losing their status. Even though there’s a March deadline, there are young people already being told that they have to start packing up their things and that has scared people.
And Republicans, especially the Evangelical Christians who see these young kids as not ‒ as not being people that they want to get kicked out of the country, there’s some real political will on the Republican side to get something done for them. So I think they also are hearing from that. Yeah.
MR. COSTA: Before we turn to domestic politics, real quick from Andrea and Eli, when you think about Secretary of State Tillerson, they’re always ‒ there’s talk about him maybe leaving the administration. You mentioned the foreign policy establishment within the administration with General McMaster, the national security adviser. What should we expect in 2018 from their foreign policy team inside of the White House and the administration?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, there certainly is a rivalry with Jared Kushner and people inside the White House taking shots at Tillerson. Tillerson at a Christmas party this week told the press and people from all the think tanks who were present that he’s going to be around, basically saying that in the new year he expects to be more engaged, he said, so I am told, joking. He now, for the first time, has an undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. And he, I think, will make himself more available because he hasn’t been that available to the press.
How he navigates this relationship with the president is another issue. Because already in the last week or more, we’ve seen him reaching out to North Korea with an overture about direct talks and being slapped down by the White House. So until he can get in sync with them on diplomacy and on policy, he may still have an issue. And there are people lining up for that job, not just Nikki Haley who is less likely, and Pompeo who has been talked about, but there’s a lot of gossip now about Lindsey Graham who keeps playing golf with the president.
MR. COSTA: The (grand ?) flow from Andrea Mitchell ‒ (laughter) ‒
MS. MITCHELL: The Graham ‒ yeah.
MR. COSTA: ‒ for secretary of state. I’m sure Senator Graham’s watching.
Eli, real quick.
MR. STOKOLS: Well, I mean, I just ‒ I don’t have a ton to add to that, but I just think that it’s clear that people around the world who meet with Rex Tillerson understand that he does not really ‒ he’s not the chief diplomat. The president has said about his Cabinet, not just Tillerson, look, the Cabinet, I’m the decider, I’m going to figure out what this ‒ what we’re doing and I’m going to set the policy.
And so I just ‒ Tillerson has no real legs to stand on when he goes into these meetings. And, you know, it’s a parlor game in Washington to guess how long he’ll be around, but I think his chance to be effective as secretary of state has probably already passed.
MR. COSTA: Congress passed a major tax overhaul this week. It wasn’t all foreign policy and it wasn’t all taxes as well, but it was certainly an accomplishment for Republicans and for President Trump. Let’s look, however, at some of the president’s other domestic policy achievements this first year because some of them aren’t getting a lot of coverage. It’s been a lot about the tax bill this week.
And the Trump administration, as some of you probably know, has been busy rolling back regulations and reshaping the federal judiciary. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is the crowning achievement, but President Trump has also appointed the most federal judges ever confirmed in a president’s first year. The lifetime appointments of young conservative judges will shape policy on issues like gun control and LGBT rights far beyond the president’s time in office.
Not all the nominees have passed muster. This week, Republican Senator John Kennedy questioned Matthew Petersen during his confirmation hearing.
(Begin video segment.)
SENATOR JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): Have you ever tried a jury trial?
MATTHEW PETERSEN: I have not.
SEN. KENNEDY: Civil?
MR. PETERSEN: No.
SEN. KENNEDY: Criminal?
MR. PETERSEN: No.
SEN. KENNEDY: Bench?
MR. PETERSEN: No.
SEN. KENNEDY: State or federal court?
MR. PETERSEN: I have not.
SEN. KENNEDY: OK.
MR. PETERSEN: Yes.
SEN. KENNEDY: Can you tell me what the Daubert standard is?
MR. PETERSEN: Senator Kennedy, I don’t have that readily at my disposal.
SEN. KENNEDY: Just for the record, do you know what a motion in limine is?
MR. PETERSEN: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition right here at the table.
(End video segment.)
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, you are here at the table. We’re going to discuss this because we’re talking a lot about taxes, but the judiciary, how significant has the Trump administration’s moves on this front been in reshaping the country?
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s been very significant. The idea that he was able to get some of these young judges in place, they’re going to be there for decades. And when things come up about abortion or about gun rights, this is going to be the court that people are going to go to and that the country is going to have to realize has become more conservative. So I think when you think about the judiciary, while people think of it as a nonpolitical part of our country, it’s actually very political.
And then you think about people that are ‒ that are also on there as ‒ asking really, are they qualified and you see that back-and-forth. I watched that video, like, 10 times because apart from it being, I think, fully entertaining to see somebody absolutely fail in what is one of their biggest tests in their lives, you also see a Republican senator saying even I can’t check that. And that’s a big problem for President Trump.
MR. COSTA: And Petersen has removed himself from the process. But inside the White House, Don McGahn, the White House counsel, working with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, they’ve made this a priority.
MR. STOKOLS: Right. And I think the report in your newspaper pointed out ‒ you mentioned young. The president wants judge candidates who are young. And yes, this is an embarrassment for the administration this week, and there have been a couple of setbacks, but by and large they are succeeding at putting young conservative jurists on the bench in a place where they will potentially serve for decades. And so the impact of that has not even begun to be felt yet, but there will be an impact, it will be long-lasting. And that has to be counted, if you’re a conservative, as one of the big successes of the first year.
MR. COSTA: And there’s been such a regulatory rollback, Andrea. I mean, Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist, used to talk about the deconstruction of the administrative state. You’ve seen it at the Environmental Protection Agency and so many others.
MS. MITCHELL: And there was one big change this week, the Ex-Im Bank leader was actually voted down. The last time somebody was voted down was when Jeff Sessions was actually voted down.
MR. COSTA: President Trump’s nominee.
MS. MITCHELL: So this nominee was voted down because he was put in ‒ he was nominated for an agency that he said he wanted to destroy, he was on the record wanting to destroy. But the EPA appointments have been just devastating, not only the regulations, but the people they’ve put in there who have ‒ and Scott Pruitt at the head ‒ have been so hostile to the very mission of any kind of action on climate.
MR. COSTA: Dan, from your perch at Harvard ‒ we’re so glad to have you back on Washington Week ‒ what’s been your view as an outside observer, a longtime journalist, as you watch this administration on domestic policy, not only on taxes and health care, the big ones, but on the judiciary, on regulations?
MR. BALZ: Well, I’d say two things. One is the degree to which this has been an enormously difficult and disruptive year for the president and the Republican Party and the tensions that all of these fights have exposed. But I think the second thing is exactly what we’re talking about, which is that they have been able to do a lot of things with the president’s leadership and the president’s priorities to move the country in a different direction. You know, his opponents will say, well, it’s just because if Obama did one thing, he wants to do something else.
But I think it’s more than that. I think it is ‒ it is an expression of his desire to be a disrupter, to be somebody who doesn’t accept the kind of conventional Washington view of how things should be done, coupled with the ideology of the Republican Party that has been in place in the House and Senate. And you put those two together and they are making progress on a number of fronts.
MS. MITCHELL: But I would say on the judicial front, Don McGahn has to take some hits on this because he has approved these nominees. And one of them had not disclosed that his wife worked for Don McGahn in the White House, a complete conflict of interest that was undisclosed. So these ‒ the lack of preparation by some of these nominees, it’s just been quite shocking to Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.
MR. COSTA: Can Democrats seize on the regulatory issues in 2018, Yamiche?
MS. ALCINDOR: I don’t know if they’re going to be able to seize on the regulatory issues mainly because I wonder if the American people are going to actually ‒ if you can soundbite that, if you can make it something that is going to rally people together. While Democrats want to say that they have messages and, of course, they had 18 hashtags rolled out ‒ some, of course, overlapped with Kid Rock ‒ but there’s this idea that Democrats, their best message is going to be that we’re not Donald Trump and that we need to check Donald Trump. And that’s what gets their base riled up. And even though they kind of can’t stand it and they want to talk about the economics, Donald Trump is still the number-one thing that gets people riled up.
MR. COSTA: Final quick thought.
MR. STOKOLS: Well, I just think that, you know, there’s sloppiness in some places, but Scott Pruitt, as we talked about, at the EPA, not sloppy, he knows what he’s doing. He’s been working in this area for a long, long time. And, you know, going after toxic chemical, loosening regulations on toxic chemicals, changing the waters rule, repealing the Clean Power Plan, these are all things he’s doing in plain sight. And because of the controversy and the constant chaos of Trump, of his tweets, of everything going on around the world, it’s not getting a lot of attention.
I don’t know how many voters there are who vote on that issue in the first place, but it’s not breaking through.
MR. COSTA: We shall see. Thanks, everybody, for joining us for the Washington Week Extra. And we’ll be back next week with another edition of the Extra program.
And if you ever miss the show on TV, you can find it online Friday nights and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. And from everyone here at Washington Week, happy holidays.