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Amy Walter and Eliana Johnson on Trump nominee battles

Beyond the fight over Mike Pompeo, there are some other Trump nominee confirmation battles looming, with vulnerable Democratic senators considering their votes. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Eliana Johnson of Politico join Amna Nawaz to discuss what’s on the docket, plus Mitt Romney’s Utah Senate bid.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And our Politics Monday team will pick it up right there with some other confirmation battles looming and how vulnerable Democratic senators are considering their votes.

    I'm joined by Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Eliana Johnson of Politico.

    Welcome to you both.

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's talk a little bit about some of that drama today, because Mike Pompeo is not the only one, right, who is going to be facing some kind of battle, some opposition to his confirmation hearing.

    There's a couple more coming up.

    Ronny Jackson, Amy, talk to me a little bit about what he is likely to face Wednesday when he goes before the Veterans Affairs Committee.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

    I think what we have, when we look at what happened with Mike Pompeo and then we're looking at somebody like Ronny Jackson for the VA, these are two very different stories.

    On Pompeo, it's pretty clear this is very much political. This is dividing on political lines. Rand Paul, this is a big deal that he decided to give his vote to Pompeo. He was very critical of him when he was up for CIA director, very critical of him when he is up for secretary of state, at the last minute, changes his mind, so because the president said, I trust — he's my friend, he's going to do the right thing.

    Clearly, this is much more political, and much less about policy. And people know who Pompeo is.

    When we get to Ronny Jackson, nobody knows anything about Ronny Jackson. They know him as the House physician, but they don't know anything about what he would be like as an administrator, what he knows about the VA.

    It's a very big job. It's a very difficult job. It's a job that the former VA secretary took on and got into quite a battle with the president, but he was confirmed with 100 votes. He was obviously one of the only ones to get — he was the only one to get unanimously confirmed.

    This is going to be very different.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As you say, experience wasn't an issue with Pompeo.

    Experience is already an issue for Ronny Jackson, though, and not just with Democrats, right? We have had Republicans already coming out and expressing some concern. Senator Jerry Moran said this week that Jackson "doesn't have the experience you would think would traditionally be required at the VA."

    So, how do we see this lining up, along partisan or nonpartisan lines?

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Yes.

    I think when you look at the three nominations facing — coming up in the Senate, Pompeo, Ronny, Jackson and Gina Haspel, who is the president's pick to run the CIA, you have the think that Pompeo was supposed to be the easy one. And he's just going to squeak by.

    The problem with President Trump, I think, is that he is somebody who unites Democrats, and Democrats see an opportunity to perhaps excite their anti-Trump base if they oppose these nominees. But Trump divides Republicans.

    And so you see some Republicans perhaps splitting on these nominees. Ronny Jackson is one where you see some Republican criticism on him. And Gina Haspel, the CIA — Trump's pick for CIA, her involvement in torture and rendition during the Bush area, we know little about her, but we do know that, as a government employee during that time, when she was involved in torture and rendition.

    That's gotten criticism from Rand Paul. But I do think his turn on a dime tonight to support Pompeo puts his vows to vote no on Haspel in a different light. But if Republicans stick together, these nominees will all get through.

    It's the chance that Republicans will split that threatens these nominations.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

    And the fact that these hearings actually really matter, because we have not heard Haspel defend herself in what she did when she…

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Or Jackson.

  • Amy Walter:

    Or Jackson.

    So, these are going to be really — if you want to talk about drama, tune in to the hearings. So, you normally don't say, well, let's tune in to Senate hearings, they're so exciting, but, in this case, we're going to learn a lot about two people we don't know much about.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what is the calculus here for Republicans moving forward?

    If they have expressed some concern about some of these nominees, can they, especially when they're reconsidering or considering election bids coming up, can they afford to break with the president, when the president is clearly strongly backing these nominees?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, we have had a couple of cases where Republicans did actively split, whether it's with Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski on Betsy DeVos, where you had to have a tie-breaker there. The vice president had to come and do this.

    But with every Republican who might break off, as Lisa talked about, there are those red state Democrats who do worry about their election prospects coming up. Breaking with the president not quite as popular in West Virginia for a Democrat who is trying to hold on to his state.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, in some of these contentious nominations now, with Democrats lining up strictly in opposition, what is the goal for them? What do they gain by digging in at this point like this?

  • Eliana Johnson:

    I don't think any voter is going to go to the polls and vote against a Joe Manchin or a Joe Donnelly or Heidi Heitkamp because they opposed the president's nominee to be VA secretary.

    And that's why I think Ronny Jackson is perhaps in the most dangerous situation. But for a Gina Haspel, who played an integral role in the war on terror and can be portrayed as somebody who was doing her duty, I think that Democrats are far more likely to cave and line up in her defense, because these are partisan, political issues.

    And President Trump presented himself as a man of strength. I think he's far more likely to pound away at that. And you're likely to see those red state Democrats line up in her defense.

  • Amy Walter:

    And, remember, the Democrats who say they're voting for Pompeo now, they had voted for him as CIA secretary. About half of the Democrats who voted for Pompeo now are saying they're no longer going to do that.

    They have the luxury of doing that, I think, because of either they are not up for reelection or they are in states that aren't as Republican. I think it's harder, to Eliana's point, for some of those Democrats in those really red states to come back and say, well, I said he was OK for CIA, but maybe he's not so great for secretary of state.

    It's a harder line to walk in some of those places.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, both sides now are OK considering how this will look moving forward, right, for future reelection bids.

    In the Republican Party at least right now, there's a bit of a void, right, for who speaks for the party, where the leadership is coming from.

    I'm going to talk to you about Mitt Romney now. I want to ask you, because now we have got the fact that he failed to win the GOP nomination in the open Senate seat there.

    What does that mean? For a man like Mitt Romney, where the Republican Party is right now, what does that kind of stutter-start mean for him and his future in the Republican Party?

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, so Utah has this very interesting process to get on the ballot there.

    There's a convention and then there's also a primary. And in order to get on to the primary ballot, you need to get at least 40 percent to make it to the next level.

    The people who show up at these conventions, it's a very small percentage of the electorate. They are very ideological and very anti whatever the establishment is. They don't like it.

    The current governor, who failed to get 60 percent at his convention, ended up getting something like 70 percent of the Republican primary vote.

    So, that just goes to show you that don't look at this group of people who are willing to spend an entire Saturday sitting around and listening to speeches by a whole bunch of Republican politicians, are the kind of people that show up and vote on Election Day.

    What it does — I think the bigger question going forward, I think Mitt Romney is clearly the favorite, both for the primary and then for the general election — is what kind of senator we're with going to expect to see out of him.

    Since becoming a candidate, he has embraced Donald Trump much more. Obviously, he was not a huge fan of Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    He made that very clear.

  • Amy Walter:

    Very clear.

    The president has endorsed Romney. I think you are going to see that Mitt Romney is going to be the kind of senator that we have seen from some of these other Western senators, whether — maybe not in the same exact frame as a Jeff Flake from Arizona or John McCain from Arizona or Lisa Murkowski from Alaska.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Eliana Johnson:

    The first two are faring really well.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, they're doing great in their chances there for reelection.

    But the real question, is, you know, you can say — and he's done this before — can I just oppose the president on some of the stuff he does that I disagree with, but I can make the case for him, while also supporting the policy? I may not like some of this stuff, and I will speak up and say, I don't like what you're doing on X, but I'm not going to make it personal, in the way he made it very personal during the campaign.

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Yes, I don't think it's that easy for Romney not to make it personal, after having been so personal.

    I think the big issue in the Republican Party now, the only issue really, is, where do you stand on Donald Trump? And every politician is being measured in relation to that.

    So, for somebody like Romney, who has said that he doesn't think Trump is fit to be president and that he's a phony, I think it's very difficult for him now to embrace Trump again.

    And I think you're seeing the same thing from Ted Cruz in Texas, who wrote the "TIME" 100 entry for Donald Trump, praising him, after, again, calling him a phony. Trump said that his father was responsible in part for the JFK Assassination.

    I think both of them are sort of case studies in why Trump was successful. He offered a sort of authenticity that neither one of these guys did. And I think they're both case studies in why voters on the right side of the aisle, and on the left with the embrace of Bernie Sanders, feel uncomfortable with establishment politicians.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Strange bedfellows, indeed.

    Eliana Johnson and Amy Walter, thanks for your time.

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Thank you.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

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