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Amy Walter and Stuart Rothenberg on James Comey’s decisions, Correspondents’ Dinner controversy

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections join Judy Woodruff to analyze a NewsHour interview with former FBI Director James Comey, reactions to Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, plus Sen. John McCain’s new book.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For some immediate post-interview analysis of my talk with James Comey, I'm joined now by our Politics Monday team.

    That's Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections.

    And welcome to you both, Politics Monday.

    So, James Comey has been out there the last two weeks, ever since the book came out. He's done many interviews. We did have a chance to talk to him, Amy, as you heard.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, I think that your opinion of James Comey and what he — how he answered your questions, as well as many others that have been asked over these last couple of weeks, your interpretation is based on how you feel really about the president in the first place.

    I think if you're prone to support the president, you're likely to say that there's nothing that James Comey is saying that is either believable or that actually puts Donald Trump in a position of committing any sort of actual crime.

    If you are opposed to the president, if you don't like the president, you see in James Comey a man who is signaling concerns about whether or not this person is able to be a president in the way we want to see a president, as a moral leader.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Something for everybody to dislike, Stu, is that really what we're talking about?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes.

    Judy, I think he said that to you. And he made the exact point. He said — what I wrote down is, partisans are going to be angry at you because they think you aren't on your side.

    He knows that. He acknowledges that.

    My question is, how about those of us that try not to be partisan and are trying to understand his decision-making? I continue to be a little uncomfortable about the role that his political assumptions played in the decisions he made.

    He in the past has sort of grudgingly acknowledged maybe it seeped into his head, but how could it have not been a part of his considerations?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think it affects — basically, what you're saying, Amy, is if you're already disposed in one direction or another, so this book is and what he says about the book is not going to change…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    And The Washington Post/ABC News poll on this question showed 30 percent having a favorable opinion of James Comey, 32 an unfavorable, and 38 having no opinion.

    And if you looked in terms of partisans, Republicans tended to have an unfavorable view, Democrats had a favorable view, and independents, shockingly, were 30 favorable, 30 unfavorable, 40 percent no opinion.

    This is a guy that has been everywhere. Imagine having no opinion. I think it's just a general confusion of uncertainty who to believe.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    Right. It's the continuing background noise of, what does this all mean?

    Because there has been no real new ground broken with this book in terms of the facts laid out. There is still a lot of questions about what actually happened. Is there collusion? Was the law broken? There's nothing new in this book about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Details about what he saw and heard.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I don't think there's been a poll done about it yet, but last night, Stu, or — I'm sorry — Saturday night in Washington, there was the white house correspondents dinner.

    And there are some strong views about — I wasn't there, but there are some strong views about what was said.

    President Trump declined to attend. He was in Washington, Michigan, giving a speech at about the same time that the comedian whose name is Michelle Wolf was giving some comments that there were — there were some strong reactions to.

    Let's listen to the president first, and then a little bit of her.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Is this better than that phony Washington White House Correspondents Dinner?

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • President Donald Trump:

    Is this more fun?

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • President Donald Trump:

    I could be up there tonight smiling like I love when they're hitting you shot after shot. These people, they hate your guts, shot. And then I'm supposed to — and, you know, you have got to smile.

    And if you don't smile, they will say, he was terrible, he couldn't take it. And if you do smile, they will say, what was he smiling about? There's no way.

  • Michelle Wolf:

    I actually really like Sarah. I think she's very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.

    Like, maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's lies. It's probably lies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Stu, some comedians are out there today defending Michelle Wolf.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But there was a lot of pushback about whether that was appropriate, whether she went too far.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Well, I wasn't there either. I was sitting on my couch in my living room watching it.

    And 10 seconds after she ended, I tweeted out that I thought her material and her delivery was — her material was vulgar and mean-spirited, nasty.

    I think much of what the president has said over the years is vulgar, mean-spirited and nasty. But what I found is, if you criticize Michelle Wolf, then critics of the president automatically think that you support — they think they that if you criticize Wolf, then you are — how do I say this?

  • Amy Walter:

    You sort of condone what he's doing. Yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes. Yes.

    And so it's very — it's awkward. I think that they both can — both the president and the comedian can be wrong. But it's hard to hold that position these days — this day and age.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes. And here's the thing.

    Every year, we have the same controversy. A comedian comes. It's been happening since Bill Clinton. A comedian comes…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And even before.

  • Amy Walter:

    And even — probably even before that.

    A comedian comes in, whether it's saying something about the president or people around him, or just saying things that are considered crass or politically incorrect or whatever, there's a minor controversy, and we move on.

    The reason we don't move on is because the president has in many ways used the press as this, you know, place that, as he said in that clip, they're against me all along.

    And, quite frankly, when you hear a bunch of people in the room laughing, right, a room that is filled with journalists laughing at all of those jokes, America can say, well, I guess this is where the press is.

    But if you don't want these controversies, here's a really great idea. Don't have comedians come in.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right.

  • Amy Walter:

    If you haven't watched comedy in the last — if you have watched comedy in the last 10 years, this is how comedians operate.

    So, bring in somebody who will tell knock-knock jokes. I don't know. But don't bring in a modern comedian.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is a question about how much Hollywood and/or New York comedy and Washington really mix.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right. They don't mix.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The last thing I want to bring up, speaking of the embedding views that and the difficulty in crossing barriers, is John McCain, who is — we haven't seen him for several weeks. He's being treated for a cancer diagnosis.

    Stu, his new book called "The Restless Wave" is coming out in a few weeks. Some excerpts were released today. I'm going to read just a small bit of it.

    He didn't name President Trump, but he said, referring to him — he said, "He's declined to distinguish the actions of our government from the crimes of despotic ones. The appearance of toughness, or a reality show facsimile of toughness, seems to matter more than any of our values."

    He goes on in these excerpts to lament the divisions. But he does make it clear where he's coming from about the president.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes.

    One other quick thing. He said: "I don't remember another time in my life when so many Americans considered someone's partisan affiliation a test of whether that person was entitled to respect."

    One thing that struck me is, John McCain was known as a maverick, a disrupter, a guy who would stir the pot. This president is also a maverick, an outsider, disrupter. And yet John McCain has so much dignity and seriousness. He's a hero. He's been a hero as a human being.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    People are going to be poring over this book.

  • Amy Walter:

    They are.

    And he brings up another point — and I'm glad that Stu raised it as well — which is, he says, "Paradoxically, voters who detest Washington because all we do is argue and never get anything done vote for candidates who are the most adamant in their assurance that they will never compromise."

    And Stu and I have been watching this for years, which is, the way that, especially in some of these wave elections and these midterm elections, the incumbents who are the most vulnerable who end up losing are the ones in the middle, the moderates, the people who are willing to work across the aisle.

    There is no incentive because there's no reward to actually trying to broker any sort of compromise. And until that happens, it is not about — it's not just about President Trump. This has been going on for quite some time across Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Words to think about. And we will continue to look at them.

    Amy Walter, Stu Rothenberg, Politics Monday, thank you.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

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