ROBERT COSTA: The impeachment trial ends and political war begins.
CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: (From video.) Donald John Trump is hereby acquitted of the charges in said articles.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It was all bull – (censored).
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I tore up a manifesto of mistruths. You’re impeached forever.
MR. COSTA: Battle lines are drawn after the president is acquitted in the Senate. Republicans rally, but a former nominee breaks ranks.
SENATOR MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): (From video.) What the president did was wrong, grievously wrong.
MR. COSTA: And Democrats reel from chaos in Iowa.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) This is not a good night for democracy.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I am not going to sugarcoat it: We took a gut punch in Iowa.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The end of President Trump’s impeachment trial marked the beginning of a season of bitter political combat defined by the president’s confidence and fury, and by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s own fury about the president’s conduct. The president’s State of the Union address reflected a deeply divided nation, with the president ignoring the speaker’s outstretched hand and the speaker ripping up a copy of his remarks. The acrimony continued Thursday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Nancy Pelosi is a horrible person and she wanted to impeach a long time ago. When she said “I pray for the president,” “I pray for the” – she doesn’t pray. She may pray, but she prays for the opposite.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I pray hard for him because he’s so off the track of our Constitution. He really needs our prayers. So he can say whatever he wants.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight to open their notebooks, Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for National Public Radio; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post and co-author of the number-one New York Times bestseller A Very Stable Genius; Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor in chief of that great magazine The Economist – the newspaper they actually call it in Britain; and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, stellar congressional correspondent for The New York Times.
But let’s start with the news Friday. The president took action that underscored his defiance: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide who testified during the House impeachment hearings, was escorted off of White House grounds and removed from the NSC. And just before we sat down at 8 p.m. Eastern Friday President Trump recalled Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Phil, fresh from the White House and the beat today, is this a president unbound – is he purging the ranks after impeachment?
PHILIP RUCKER: It is, Bob. This is a president on a path for retribution. He is angry, he has grievances that he’s been nursing for months through this impeachment inquiry, and he’s determined to retaliate against everyone he believes wronged him in this process, and that is not limited to the Democratic congressional leaders. It includes those administration officials who testified against him and it includes people within the government that he suspects of betraying him.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, was this a long time coming? Was this in the works?
AYESHA RASCOE: It did seem for a while that Vindman – the Vindman twins, because his twin – Alexander Vindman’s twin also worked for the NSC – that there was distrust in the White House for them, this idea that they – the concern that they might have been leaking and this and that, and so there has been concern there. And I mean, I think that generally I don’t know that people thought that Sondland or Vindman would really stick around for a very long time, but to do it on the Friday after you were just acquitted is to say you are going to do what you want to do and you’re not going to be stopped, and that you’re going to get vengeance and you’re not letting it go, right? (Laughs.) It is not necessarily just celebration; it’s I’m going to do what I want to do and I’m going to get rid of them.
MR. COSTA: Sheryl, you profiled the Vindman brothers for The New York Times. What’s the significance of their departure?
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Well, the Vindman brothers are immigrants. They’re Ukrainian immigrants. They fled then the Soviet republic of Ukraine when they were three years old, truly an American story. They both grew up to be lieutenant colonels in the Army. They became citizens. They worked for the White House. So I think that there’s a symbolism about it. Democrats have held up the Vindmans as great patriots, and you might remember in his closing remarks during the impeachment trial Adam Schiff, the lead House manager, talked about Colonel Vindman, and he said Colonel Vindman said that in this country right matters, and Schiff went on to say right matters, the truth matters; if right doesn’t matter, we are lost. And now you have the spectacle of President Trump getting rid of that symbol, a symbol for Democrats of truth and righteousness and patriotism.
MR. COSTA: Zanny, beyond the president’s frustration with their testimony, is this also a president who feels buoyed by the economy, Republican support during impeachment? You saw his State of the Union address and his remarks on Thursday.
ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Yeah, this is a president who feels emboldened. It’s a president – I keep thinking of words beginning with V. It’s a president who feels vindicated. It’s a president who is vengeful. He’s a vindictive kind of guy. And I think he scented this week, in a week that was, frankly, an extraordinary week for him – you know, a poll puts him at his highest poll ratings ever, the Democrats have a fiasco in Iowa, he is acquitted – he’s scenting victory, I think, too, and so to add another V to you. But yeah, I think this is part of a pattern of a president who’s been able to get away with breaking norms and feeling vindicated. And you know, just a few weeks ago we had the killing of Qassem Soleimani, again something that could have gone very badly wrong; it didn’t. He thinks that he can get away with things. The economy is totally a testament to that. He now really feels that his – he’s made the economy great again. It’s the great comeback. You keep hearing him say that. We’re going to have him say that in the coming months a lot. And he thinks that what he’s done has been great for the American economy, it’s all because of him, and he’s got it right, he’s been vindicated, and he’s going to be very vengeful for people in his way.
MR. COSTA: Phil, inside your book there’s a quote that stood out to me tonight amid all this news from Bill Galston, a senior fellow in governance at Brookings Institution. He says, quote, “We haven’t seen anything like this in my lifetime. He appears to be daring the rest of the political system to stop him.” When you look at the news tonight and you talk to your sources inside the West Wing, what now?
MR. RUCKER: Well, the political system tried to stop him. The Democrats in the House impeached him, which will be with him forever and in the history books, and yet the system isn’t stopping him because Republicans in the Senate are so fearful of him, so fearful of his political power and his hold on the Republican voting base that they’re willing to let him get away with actions that many of them acknowledged publicly they view as improper and wrong, speaking of his conduct in Ukraine. And so what we’ve seen is a president with extraordinary power now coming away from this episode, just as he came away from the Russia investigation by Robert Mueller feeling that he’s not going to be held accountable, he can get away with what he wants to do, and there aren’t repercussions for him.
MR. COSTA: What about the Senate Republicans? I know they just acquitted him in the Senate, but will they push back against this decision on Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and Ambassador Sondland?
MS. STOLBERG: I would not be surprised to hear at least of some quiet pushback. Whether they will push back in public against this president remains to be seen. I feel confident that senators like Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham, even, of South Carolina – a strong ally of the president but who was very much opposed to the president firing Bob Mueller – and others will be very, very uneasy with the actions that this president has taken. But will they say it in public?
MS. BEDDOES: It’s going to be very hard for Senator Collins. She said, you know, that she – just this week she said that she – that President Trump had learned a great lesson from impeachment.
MS. STOLBERG: She walked it back, though.
MS. BEDDOES: She walked it back. She’s going to have to walk it back a lot further in the face of this. I find it very hard to see how, with the – with the notable exception of Senator Romney, the other senators can really push back too much in the face of something where they have vindicated his behavior earlier this week.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about Senator Romney because he was in the Republican caucus the lone Republican to break from President Trump. He broke from his party when he voted to remove the president from office for abuse of power, and he gave a deeply personal speech on the Senate floor before the vote.
SENATOR MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): (From video.) The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor. Yes, he did. We are all footnotes, at best, in the annals of history, but in the most powerful nation on Earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that distinction is enough for any citizen.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, we just heard from Sheryl how few Republican senators and other Republicans generally want to speak out against President Trump because he has immense political capital, a strong economy at his back. But Senator Romney speaking about history and the choices facing the Republicans, what drove him to make this decision, the former standard-bearer of the GOP?
MS. RASCOE: It seemed like he was looking at not the short term here, but really looking at what he would be thought about long term. He’s always someone who, you said, he was – he ran for the nomination for president. He got the nomination. He did not win, but – so essentially he’s been through this process. He’s been – he’s had the biggest loss maybe of his life. And so he has – and he also is independently wealthy. So he doesn’t – he can take these risks because he’s not depending on politics for the rest of his life. And he also said he was a man of faith. And he said he wanted to be able – and he has always been known to be a man of faith. And he was someone who said: I couldn’t – I took this oath, and I want to stand before God and feel good about what I did.
MR. COSTA: A man whose Mormon faith is serious to him. Also the son of George Romney, the late Michigan governor, a Republican who was known in the ’60s for supporting civil rights.
MS. STOLBERG: That’s right. And I did want to pick up on that because I truly believe that Mitt Romney, when he says he’s a man of faith, that really is driving him. And you might remember we saw another Mormon senator, Senator Jeff Flake, who spoke out against the president, ultimately concluded that he couldn’t run again, from Arizona, he couldn’t win again. Mitt Romney doesn’t really have that constraint. He’s been the presidential nominee. He’s been a governor. Now he’s a senator. He may not run again. He doesn’t have to worry about his electoral future.
MR. COSTA: You also wrote a story about Lamar Alexander, retiring senator from Tennessee. Why did Romney vote yes? We’ve covered that a little bit. But why did Alexander stick with the president?
MS. STOLBERG: You know, I think Alexander is a guy who is not one to shake things up. Now, you could argue that there is nothing for him to lose. He’s not running again. He’s at the – also at the end of his long career. He was an aide to Howard Baker as a young man. Howard Baker famously turned against Nixon during impeachment of that president – or, the impeachment inquiry. But I think at the end of the day Lamar Alexander is somebody who is not going to be the guy at the front edge leading the revolution. He was willing to push for witnesses, but he was only willing to go so far.
MR. COSTA: And, Phil, you spent years covering then-Governor Romney, his 2012 presidential campaign, as a long-time reporter on the Romney beat. Your impression of this week.
MR. RUCKER: You know, I think finally, in what is now his second year in the U.S. Senate, we’ve seen Mitt Romney becoming the Romney we thought was getting elected in Utah. He had spoken out against President Trump way back when he was a candidate in 2016 and spoke very strongly about Trump as being amoral and a wrong fit for the Republican Party. He then ran for the Senate seat, and people assumed he would get to the Senate and stand up to Trump from day one. He didn’t. He took his time. But in this impeachment trial he took careful notes. He studied the evidence. He took the process very seriously. And you could see him arriving at this decision. And I agree with Sheryl, it’s entirely based on his faith and his moral center.
MS. STOLBERG: And he also said that he knows this is not going to be easy for him. Like, he said you would never do this if you wanted to take the easy way out. He knows he’ll face retribution from the party and the president.
MR. COSTA: And he’s facing it already. Donald Trump, Jr., the president’s son, calling for Romney to be expelled from the party.
MS. BEDDOES: Absolutely. He was a striking composite of two things, I think. One, it was clearly a very emotional moment for him, but it was a devastating indictment of the – of the president’s case. I mean, it was a really forensic indictment. And I think he stood out in that, his ability to – what strikes me, though, in watching this from a bit more distance is how – I am sure that a large number of Republican senators agreed with every word of what he said. And so the question that history will have is: Why are they unwilling to do that? And one explanation is clearly kind of cowardice, if you will, an unwillingness – a desire to keep their seat, to stay – to stay in the Senate.
But I think there’s also something more – deeper going on, which is that the president has been able to create an environment where he has sort of vilified the whole process. And it is a question of, you know, the liberal media, the liberals in the House, the whole – them. The them and us-ification that he has managed to do has given an excuse, if you will, to the Republican Party to stick with him.
MR. COSTA: What does the world make of this? When you’re working as editor in chief of The Economist, you were just with the president in Switzerland a few weeks ago. When you’re talking to world leaders, business leaders, what do they make of this moment in American politics?
MS. BEDDOES: So it’s really interesting. You know, I was at the World Economic Forum that the president was speaking at. And literally nobody mentioned impeachment to me. It was in the middle then of the trial. And nobody really focused on it, because outside the U.S. everybody has assumed that what happened this week was going to happen. The president – we all knew the president was going to get acquitted. And so from outside people see, one, a president who is in charge of a country whose economy is growing pretty strongly, at least relative to many other parts of the rich world. They see a president which – who has – who has kind of survived impeachment, who is looking pretty good for reelection. Certainly, you know, as opposed to a Democratic field that’s pretty chaotic and divided. So I think outside the U.S., I’m afraid, the view is we’re stuck with this president and he’s here to stay.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ll see because we’re keeping a close eye on the Democratic presidential race. And Monday’s Iowa Caucuses were supposed to bring new clarity to the Democratic presidential field. Instead, they brought chaos. That was due to complications with a smartphone app. And the state party, it had a meltdown. By Friday evening the AP has not declared a winner. But former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have both declared victory – Buttigieg with the lead in delegates and Sanders with a narrow lead in the popular vote.
FORMER SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) We don’t know all the results – (laughter) – but by the time it’s all said and done, Iowa, you have shocked the nation. (Cheers.)
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Some 6,000 more Iowans came out on caucus night to support our candidacy than the candidacy of anyone else. And when 6,000 more people come out for you in an election than your nearest opponent, we here in northern New England call that a victory.
MR. COSTA: The cover story of this week’s Economist captures the state of play for Democrats. Quote, “The left argues that America need a fundamental restructuring. Moderates recommend running repairs. A lot rests on which side prevails – the radicals or the repairers.” Sheryl, when you cover Senator Warren and Senator Sanders, where does that race inside the left wing of the Democratic Party stand as we head in toward the New Hampshire primary? There’s a debate tonight, actually, in New Hampshire.
MS. STOLBERG: Yeah. I mean, frankly, I think the main distinction between Senator Warren and Senator Sanders is that Senator Sanders is a socialist and Senator Warren says she’s capitalist. But beyond –
MR. COSTA: Could she come back in New Hampshire? What’s her plan?
MS. STOLBERG: You know, I don’t know. I mean, I think that she is really facing a run for her money not only from Senator Sanders, but from Pete Buttigieg, who is sort of like the surprise – maybe he’s the Barack Obama of 2020. I don’t know. But, you know, he’s sort of come up through the middle of this party that has been fighting about whether or not we should go for bold change, revolutionary change, or should we go for incremental change.
MR. COSTA: There’s actually a good story tonight in your paper. Elizabeth Warren has a Pete Buttigieg problem. In The New York Times, because college-educated white voters in states like New England and New Hampshire are going toward Buttigieg at times instead of Warren.
MS. STOLBERG: Yes. And frankly I think we do have to acknowledge that it’s hard for a woman to run for the presidency. I don’t think that there’s any doubt about that. And I think Elizabeth Warren feels that acutely, that it is going to be hard for a woman to get elected. And you remember that spat that she had with Bernie Sanders over that very issue.
MR. COSTA: Vice President – former Vice President Joe Biden shaking up his campaign, looking to try to come back a little bit in New Hampshire. But it is it all on South Carolina’s primary at this point for him?
MR. RUCKER: It appears to be. You know, Biden’s the other big story out of Iowa, and not in a good way. He finished a pretty distant fourth. His performance on the campaign trail by those who are at his rallies was less energetic, less enthusiastic reception than some of the other candidates. And he’s had these halting debate performances. He really needs to count on South Carolina. He’s been polling very well there with African American voters. That’s his firewall. He’ll be the first to tell you that. But we should keep an eye on how he does in New Hampshire. And if he continues to be kind of hobbling behind Sanders, and Buttigieg, and even Warren, that spells trouble down the road. You’re looking at Super Tuesday, a lot of big states where he’s going to need to do well.
MR. COSTA: Is this the end of the Iowa Caucuses? Chaos in the count. It’s 90 percent white. They can’t get it right. DNC Chairman Tom Perez is calling for a recanvass, which is not necessarily a recount but they’re trying to re-tabulate some of the math. But a disaster in the eyes of many Democrats. Do they come back?
MS. RASCOE: I wouldn’t bet against Iowa coming back. Maybe this – this idea of caucuses, though, in general is getting a lot more pushback for a lot of reasons. Accessibility – like, if you are – you know, for people with disabilities, for people with kids, for people that work at night, like this idea of standing in a room for hours to – you know, to support your candidate is something that I think that a lot of people are rethinking at this point and saying why in 2020 are we doing that, not to mention the demographic issues that they have. But I wouldn’t vote against this idea or I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t bet against Iowa because people – traditions have a way of holding on, right?
MR. COSTA: Mayor Bloomberg still out there in the Super Tuesday states spending millions of dollars in advertising.
MS. BEDDOES: Still out there.
MR. COSTA: Could the Democrats wind their way toward him?
MS. BEDDOES: Well, it’s a question I’ve been asking myself, and it still seems a longshot but I think it’s becoming less of a longshot.
MR. COSTA: Why?
MS. BEDDOES: Well, several reasons. One, because, as Phil said, you know, Vice President Biden is slipping and fading, and he – even if he limps – he has to do really well in South Carolina, but even with that not clear. Pete Buttigieg doesn’t do very well in the African American vote, so there’s – they all have – and I’m not sure he is an Obama in any way. And so, you know, who do the moderates coalesce around? And I think, you know, you very kindly quoted our article: it’s the repairers and the radicals. But who are the repairers? Who do they coalesce around? And Mike Bloomberg, you know, it seems crazy, right – a New York billionaire – but he has unlimited funds, he’s got a very professional campaign, he’s pouring money in, and he’s got this new strategy of really not coming in until Super Tuesday. And I think if you look at the numbers it’s hard to see him get the nomination, but if we end up towards a contested convention, you know, he might be right there. So I absolutely wouldn’t count him out, and I also think that he is someone who really gets under the president’s skin – really, really gets under the –
MS. STOLBERG: Fellow New Yorker.
MR. COSTA: Can’t count out – can’t count out Senator Sanders. He still has a movement. He’s right there with Buttigieg in Iowa. He’s doing well in New Hampshire polls.
MS. STOLBERG: And you know, young people are very, very high on Bernie Sanders, and the energy with the party is with the progressive left. I think there’s – I know that – I know it’s –
MS. BEDDOES: I know – I’m agreeing with you, but I’m sort of signing because –
MS. STOLBERG: I know, because it could be very dangerous for Democrats to nominate someone like Bernie Sanders. I think that it could be hard for this country to accept a president who is openly a socialist.
MR. COSTA: But his argument is that he’s able to rally new voters in a way almost – President Trump was populist; he argues in a sense he’s populist.
MS. STOLBERG: Well, and interestingly in 2016 I was struck by the number of voters who said to me I like Trump and I like Sanders.
MR. COSTA: Well, how does the White House see it?
MS. RASCOE: Well, I mean, I think that the White House feels like they’re going to be able to paint – that they’re going to be able to say about Sanders: He’s a socialist. He is. But I mean, what Sanders supporters will say is that they’re going to say that about every Democrat, right? But I think that this – that this White House is very ready to say we’re going to – we’re going to paint this guy as a socialist, we’ll be able to do it. But I think they also acknowledge that a Bernie Sanders is going to kind of shake up the map. He could get – maybe pull some people in.
MR. RUCKER: He’s a movement candidate.
MS. STOLBERG: Yeah, he is.
MS. RASCOE: Yeah.
MR. RUCKER: And we shouldn’t discount the advantage that Bernie Sanders has. He’s the only one who has run through this whole nomination process before. He nearly beat Hillary Clinton, and he ran all the way through all those states. He’s known in these states. He’s looking good in California, a lot of big states, a lot of voters.
MS. STOLBERG: He’s raising a lot of money.
MR. COSTA: How do top Democrats feel about this juncture, with a lot of unease and uncertainty?
MR. RUCKER: And there’s real anxiety and alarm. You know, a lot of Democrats feel like this has been the best week Trump has had politically, and we talked about his approval rating being so high and the good feelings about the economy, the State of the Union message he had on the economy, could be a winning argument in November. And there’s real concern in the Democratic Party that they don’t quite have the formula to beat him.
MR. COSTA: So was there a message in all health care, health care, health care, or is it just anti-Trump?
MS. STOLBERG: I think that certainly at the House level they want to talk about health care. They want to talk about those kitchen-table issues that landed them the majority in 2018. And I think that you often say in politics you can’t just be against something; you have to be for something. I don’t think that they can just completely run against Trump, although there is so much energy in the party just to get rid of Trump. They have to be for something.
MS. BEDDOES: But isn’t the lesson of 2018 that you want to run a moderate, that the success in the House in 2018 was that, you know, Speaker Pelosi –
MS. STOLBERG: They flipped Republican districts, yes.
MS. BEDDOES: Absolutely won Republican districts with a moderate message. And for me the prospect of – President Trump must be absolutely hoping for a Sanders candidacy. I mean, that would just be exactly – he’s already teeing up in the State of the Union with, you know, socialism and – he’s going to use that word again and again. And if he has a genuine socialist who, by the way, I think in many ways is to the left of Jeremy Corbyn, who was the, you know, furthest left –
MR. COSTA: How so?
MS. BEDDOES: Well, because he – Jeremy Corbyn didn’t propose a wealth tax of up to 8 percent, as Bernie Sanders has. Bernie Sanders wants to nationalize the whole of the U.S. health service, which effectively we have it in the U.K. already but it’s a huge change. He wants to take 20 percent of big firms and give them to workers. You know, this is not going to play in this country.
MR. COSTA: We could keep going all night – (laughter) – but we have to leave it there. Make sure to check out when we continue our conversation on the Washington Week Extra. We’ll talk about New Hampshire’s upcoming primary, a lot to discuss there. You can find it on our program’s social media accounts and on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.