Editor’s note: We’ll be updating this blog about the Republican retreat in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in real time. The latest news is at the top — scroll down to start at the beginning.
We’re back on the road. That’s a wrap! Thanks for sticking with us throughout the day. There’s likely more news to come tomorrow — from the retreat and possibly from the memo. Follow us on Twitter (@LisaDNews and @JuliePercha) for the latest updates.
On air. The press room is nearly empty as we go on air. Republicans and Democrats are divided over immigration, spending and now, even more sharply over the FBI. We’ll head to the car and home to Virgina after we finish, sorting out plans for covering a memo we expect to be declassified and released, potentially in the next 24 hours.
Protesters? Another reporter shows us a tweet indicating there may be protesters at the main entrance to the Greenbrier Resort, which members of Congress use as they come and go. Lisa decides to break out (walk out) of the media center and take a drive to see the outside world. There is mist and a light rain, but no sign of a single protester. All is quiet at the gates and along the brief drive through White Sulphur Springs. A cupcake shop tempts, but she returns straight away to the press center.
News conference with House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., and Senate Budget Committee member Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.
Bye-bye, filibuster? Womack is just three weeks into his stint as budget chair — but as he took the podium, his first words dealt with what he sees as the biggest problem with the budget: the Senate filibuster. “If we could at least make funding of the government — the appropriations of the federal government — subject to a simple majority vote, and not a filibuster, we would’ve made major progress in our ability to do one of the most fundamental of our duties,” he said. He added that by careening from continuing resolution to continuing resolution, it’s clear the budget process is “broken.”
Lawmakers are supposed to pass 12 separate appropriations bills to fund the government. But the last time Congress actually did this was 1996 (!). Womack wondered why his House Budget Committee would bother spending time advancing budget resolutions if they are essentially dead on arrival in the Senate.
The Romney Factor: Just moments earlier, former Massachusetts Gov. and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted that he’ll make a long-awaited announcement on his speculated Senate run later next month. Perdue praised Romney, saying he’d be a good fit. “We need more businessmen and outsiders” in the chamber, he told us.
(And even more: Judy Woodruff interviewed Perdue on the NewsHour just before the State of the Union address on Tuesday. Check that out HERE.)
Vegetarian lunches arrive. One person claps.
News conference with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan
Memo. The two top leaders in Congress walk into room with notable energy. Ryan begins the news conference with a joking “any questions?” Yes, there are many, and largely about the Nunes memo.
Ryan defends the document, saying it is part of Congress’ job to conduct oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that allows secret surveillance of some U.S. citizens.
“Remember, FISA is a unique situation which involves Americans civil liberties. And if American civil liberties were abused then that needs to come to light so that that doesn’t happen again,” he tells the room. “What this is not is an indictment on our institutions of our justice system.”
McConnell is asked if he thinks the Senate Intelligence Committee should see the memo before its release. His response: He is not going to question the process and thinks Ryan has handled things well.
One other news note: Ryan insisted that all changes to the memo were made in consultation with the FBI and before the committee voted to release it.
Impromptu gaggle with Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.
Dent, one of a few dozen retiring Republicans, tells us he thinks neither the GOP or Democratic memo should be released. He has read them both and says he is backing the opinion of national security officials who believe their release would damage security.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., arrives and becomes the first intelligence committee member from either chamber to step to the podium today.
Memo. Lankford says he is concerned not about the memo itself, which he categorizes as opinion, but about the document’s footnotes, which indicate if the underlying intelligence is sound and if the Senate has seen that intelligence yet. For that reason (the footnotes), Lankford indicates he would like to see the memo before it’s released. But he notes that there is a genuine grassroots movement that wants to see the memo for legitimate reasons.
Divided. While the House Intelligence Committee nabs all the headlines with its internal (turned-public) squabbling over memos, the Senate Intel Committee has stayed mostly out of the spotlight on its Russia investigation. Asked about the House in-fighting, Lankford said: “I would say it doesn’t have to be that way. This is a hard investigation … this is not about the president, it’s about the presidency.”
As soon as the president finishes his remarks, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” booms. Reporters who heard that song roughly 300 times during the election — it was candidate Trump’s walk-off song laugh — and look at each other knowingly.
President Donald Trump has begun his lunchtime speech to Republicans, making it clear he does not intend to stick to the prompter script. Most reporters watch via a feed on a giant projection screen.
Backslapping. The president is verbally backslapping GOP leaders, mentioning that Speaker Ryan told him last week that the Republican Party has “never ever been so united.” (Despite divides outlined below on immigration, the Nunes memo.) He gives shout-outs to a long list of Republican leaders (“Mitch McConnell, he’s great”) and members (“Don Young. Where is Don Young? He’s so quiet”).
ANWR. When the president mentions the GOP’s successful push to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he notes “I didn’t really care about it” until a friend told him it was important. The press corps, many of whom have covered ANWR for decades, erupt in scattered laughter at his frankness about the sometimes-overlooked issue.
Immigration — Not ‘Dreamers.’ On immigration, he describes his proposal to give a status to so-called “Dreamers” but significantly limit legal immigration by families as “a strong but fair bill.” He then questioned the phrase used to describe children brought to America illegally as children. “It’s not ‘Dreamers,’ don’t fall into that trap,” he said. “I said the other night, we have dreamers too, we have a lot of dreamers in America.”
Many other things. Mr. Trump endorses community colleges, but says they would be better called “vocational schools” to focus on specific skills. He speaks for “right to try,” the idea that the terminally ill should have more access to experimental drugs. He talks about the number of confirmed judges, ending the defense sequester and protecting the second amendment.
He ends in a sweeping rhetorical segment stressing American achievement, paralleling the tone of the State of the Union. It seems his speech-writing team has found a voice, a Trump speech style, that we may hear repeatedly.
The Memo. It’s quiet in the room here. But in cyberspace, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is advancing the memo story with an email calling on Speaker Paul Ryan to ask House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., to step down.
The emailed statement has a 40-word headline and includes Schumer’s letter to Ryan. The letter reads, in part, “[Nunes] has now drafted and seeks to release a conspiracy-themed memo that selectively cherry-picks classified information intended to discredit the past work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ultimately Special Counsel Mueller. Even more extraordinary is that the actions of Chairman Nunes and his supporters are being actively parroted by Russian-linked cyber actors on social media with the intent to discredit U.S. democratic institutions.”
We reporters are slated to speak with Ryan at a news conference, alongside Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, in two-and-a-half hours. Given this news cycle, we are guessing there will not be many questions about infrastructure.
Impromptu press scrum with Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
The Memo. The press quickly surrounds the conservative Goodlatte, who says the Nunes memo has been carefully assembled and insists this is just “one aspect of a much wider investigation of what’s going on at the FBI.”
“Then why is it important to release this memo now, when all the investigation’s other findings are being held?” asks our colleague Nancy Cordes of CBS News.
“I can say it’s very important that the American people understand the nature of this,” he replies.
The NewsHour’s Lisa Desjardins follows up. “Are you saying that we will understand why this needs to be released now when we see the memo?”
“Yes,” he responds. “Yes.”
Later, Lisa walked with him in the hallway and asked if he could warmly ask Chairman Nunes to come to the press center to answer questions about this. Goodlatte smiled, and didn’t directly respond
Immigration. Goodlatte is the key sponsor on the central conservative bill on immigration, which would limit legal immigration. Lisa asks if the House would pass Thune’s more moderate back-up idea of an immigration deal on just DACA and border security. (See our notes from 7:55 a.m. below.)
“I don’t think that would pass,” Goodlatte said. “But I think … the Senate would be well advised to focus on the Senate’s work and the House would be well-advised to focus on the House’s work.”
Lunch is here. Ham sandwiches on marble rye! A kind Wall Street Journal reporter offers to be the negotiator for those interested in a vegetarian option.
News Conference. House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Thornberry summarizes a first-ever for the retreat: a session with the Secretaries of State and Defense. It was a 90-minute session covering worldwide threats. Thornberry said both cabinet members stressed the need for a long-term spending bill to help them run their agencies.
The first two questions are about the Nunes memo, and to each Thornberry says that while he can sit in on Intelligence Committee meetings as the armed services chairman, this is out of his area of expertise.
One-on-one: Is Turkey a reliable NATO ally?
Afterward we manage to get some one-on-one time with Thornberry off camera. With the PBS Newshour’s anchor Judy Woodruff scheduled to interview the Turkish ambassador on the show tonight, Lisa asks if Turkey is still a reliable NATO ally. (Turkey has threatened to strike an area where U.S. troops are working with Kurdish forces.)
Thornberry’s reply indicates there is tension: “We have a lot of concern about Turkey,” he told me. “They are a NATO ally, they are a very important NATO ally. We need to find ways to work with them closer. But they also need to make efforts not to impair that relationship.
Coffee has arrived for the group, potentially averting a mutiny. We were among the minority who had brought hot beverages with us. If you are ever in Lewisburg, WV, we highly recommend the wonderful Wild Bean.
Impromptu press scrum with House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
While GOP lawmakers hold a working breakfast with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, Meadows is instead across the street, casually milling about the press file with a cup of coffee. One reporter catches his attention, then another, until he quickly becomes the center of a media scrum. Meadows happily indulges reporters for upwards of 40 minutes — not once sipping that coffee.
Immigration: When asked, Meadows flatly rejected South Dakota Senator John Thune’s “two-pillar” approach to an immigration deal (see 7:55 AM, below). “Senator Thune represents a state that’s a long ways from the southern border,” he tells us. “And so making a suggestion that a two-pillar answer is going to get support in the House is a nonstarter.” He said any legislation can’t separate the issue of illegal immigration (DACA and border security) from legal immigration (visa lottery and family reunification, what President Donald Trump and Republicans often refer to as “chain migration”).
Deal or no deal? Meadows doesn’t think there will be another shutdown (though “I didn’t anticipate one last time, and I was wrong,” he adds). But he said the Freedom Caucus would not vote for a fifth short-term spending deal next week without “substantial changes” on budget caps.
News Conference with Sen. GOP Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D. and House GOP Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
The room is about half full for this first-of-the-day event. But those of us here did get some news.
The memo: “What changes were made to the Nunes memo,” I asked, “and do you believe Chairman Nunes has handled this correctly?”
Non-answer: McMorris Rodgers answered that she has read the memo and she “walked away very concerned.” But she did not reply to my questions, instead recommending we ask those of House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes. (Several reporters ask her to make sure he comes to speak with us, which he is not scheduled to do currently.)
Divide: Thune did not answer on camera, but in the hallway afterward, he made it clear there is division and discomfort in GOP ranks over handling of the memo. “I think the Senate Intelligence Committee should see it for sure (before it is released),” Thune said. And he also believes the Democratic version should be released at the same time, so “the American people can make their decisions and judgments” based on as much information as possible.
Immigration: Thune tells us he thinks that Congress may have to fall back to a smaller deal on immigration, to include two of the four pillars being discussed: DACA and border security. The South Dakota senator said he thinks it may be too difficult to get agreement on wider issues of immigration.
Shutdown next week? No, Thune doesn’t think we will have a shutdown next week. But he admits the issue is now connected to a complicated larger debate over permanent spending levels. He confirms my reporting last week that Republicans want to use any increase in non-defense spending to help pay for their infrastructure plan. (That’s something Democratic leaders vehemently oppose.) Thune says many Republicans want to know there can be a deal on spending levels – and an end to temporary funding bills – before they support the next temporary continuing resolution (CR).
The scene: We arrive in the large sky-blue room set aside for the media. It feels classically antiseptic, but very functional.
This is a large, separate building from the main Greenbriar resort where lawmakers are meeting, a distance so far that they must take a shuttle bus to come speak to us.
The wifi password for reporters to use is “ThanksForTheTaxCuts!$”.