GWEN IFILL: Behind the scenes at the Iran nuclear talks, inside a sitting senator’s indictment, the uproar over religious freedom laws, and the Jeb Bush money machine. Believe it or not, all that tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) It is a good deal – a deal that meets our core objectives.
MS. IFILL: Two years of talks and a final eight days of nonstop negotiation yield a nuclear breakthrough.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From video.) We have been very clear, both publicly and privately: a final agreement will not rely on promises; it will rely on proof.
MS.IFILL: Now for the details. Does it go far enough? And will Congress buy in?
In Washington, a powerful senator is indicted.
SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): (From video.) These allegations are false, and I am confident they will be proven false.
MS. IFILL: But the corruption charges go wide and deep.
PROTESTERS: (From video.) No hate in our state! No hate in our state!
MS. IFILL: In two state capitals, a fight over gay rights and religious freedom revives the culture debate.
INDIANA GOVERNOR MIKE PENCE (R): (From video.) The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was about religious liberty, not about discrimination.
ARKANSAS GOVERNOR ASA HUTCHINSON (R): (From video.) It has divided families, and that is clearly a generational gap on this issue.
MS. IFILL: Is the debate ending or just beginning?
And the 2016 money chase: how secret donors plan to funnel unlimited cash into the presidential campaign.
Covering the week, Indira Lakshmanan, foreign policy correspondent for Bloomberg News; Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC News; John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; and Matea Gold, political reporter for The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Depending on whom you listen to, the hard-won agreement hammered out in Lausanne, Switzerland this week either paves Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb or represents the last best chance of preventing them from getting one. In either case, negotiators who spent hour after hour sweating the details announced yesterday seemed happy and relieved with the result.
SEC. KERRY: (From video.) We have said from the beginning – I think you’ve heard me say it again and again – that we will not accept just any deal, that we will only accept a good deal. And today I can tell you that the political understanding with details that we have reached is a solid foundation for the good deal that we are seeking.
IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: What I hope is that, through courageous implementation of this, some of that mistrust could be remedied. But that is for us all to wait and see.
MS. IFILL: Both foreign ministers were speaking to the skeptics of the agreement, which will limit Iran’s capacity for nuclear production and open its doors to international inspection. But the deal nearly collapsed more than once, and Indira is just back from Lausanne to tell us what happened, what didn’t, and why. Indira?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: (Laughs.) Well, it was a pretty dramatic time, I have to say. John Kerry spent 19 days in Switzerland this last month, and it was a real slog at the end. The last batch we were there for eight days, and it began to take on a Groundhog Day-like quality, where every single day they were negotiating all through the night and coming back and saying gaps remain, gaps remain. And finally, they didn’t actually clinch it until the very last night, when they were negotiating from 9 p.m. until 6:00 the next morning. And I think that even when John Kerry went to bed at 6:00 in the morning for one hour of sleep, I think they didn’t even know yen thet (ph) – know yet that they had the deal. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: Now, I could say –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I am also sleep deprived. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: – she is also sleep deprived.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I just landed today. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: We talked to you every single night on the NewsHour this week about this, and every night – I remember – you said, well, we thought it was going to be today, not so much.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: What turned the worm? What clinched it?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: All right, so the whole time the secretary of State was trying to put the pressure on Iran, to say nothing is going to change in April or May or June that’s going to make it easier for you to make a deal, so let’s just get this done, to try to make an urgency, make it happen. We were told that the last three issues that they had to work out were research and development, the scope of how much Iran was going to be able to do, both under the main years of the deal and through the extended years; the level of enrichment overall; and also sanctions relief, how was that going to work and how was it going to be possible to snap back the sanctions. So those three items were kind of the last pieces of the proverbial Rubik’s Cube that had to snap into place. And ultimately, from what we’re hearing from U.S. officials, it seems that finally, after that long session the last night, they were able to work out solutions. They were on the phone with Livermore Laboratories, you know, working out different scenarios. And in the end, they got something – they got this framework agreement that they think is going to lead them down the path to, as you say, preventing Iran – having it at least one year out from making a – from acquiring what it would need for a nuclear weapon for at least 10 years of this deal.
PETE WILLIAMS: We tend to think – we tend to think of this as a deal between the U.S. and Iran, but it’s a multinational thing.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Right.
MR. WILLIAMS: So how is it going across in the – in the Middle East – to Israel, the Arab countries?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, I mean, we have seen some grudging willingness on the part of the Saudi king, and you know that the Saudis and the Iranians are really mortal enemies in the region. One represents the head of the Sunnis, the other the sort of head of the Shiites. And there have been a lot of proxy wars going on, like in Yemen, between them. But the Saudi king has said, all right, I’m willing to give it a chance.
Now, Netanyahu in Israel, not so much. But I think we already knew – the president has said this – that Netanyahu was predisposed against the deal. And I think that any deal at all that would not have cut off all of Iran’s nuclear capacity –
MS. IFILL: Yeah, the prime minister said it, too. I mean, it was he – it was never –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yes.
MS. IFILL: He never minced words, yeah.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: There was – so there was going to be no deal that was going to please him unless it was going to completely remove the nuclear program from Iran. So there’s definitely going to be a lot of pushback from Israel, and also from people on the Hill who don’t trust any deal that Iran would be willing to sign.
JOHN HARWOOD: But on that reaction, Indira, I was struck by talking to some Republicans yesterday on the Hill, some who’d served in the Bush administration, by how they were not so fierce in their opposition to this. They were surprised. They were, this is more than we expected. What is your judgment about whether or not there will be a critical mass of opposition – Republicans, some Democrats – to stop this deal, if it materializes in June?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. I think that what this has stopped from happening is the Kirk-Menendez bill, which was going to bring on more sanctions if they didn’t get a deal by the end of March. Well, now I think that’s not going to happen. Now, the Corker-Menendez bill, which is the idea of congressional oversight on top of any Iran deal, I think there’s still going to be an effort to put that on.
I do have to say you’re absolutely right: this four-page parameters for the comprehensive, you know, Joint Plan of Action really was much more than I think anybody expected they were going to be able to get – much more detail; taking down by two-thirds the number of centrifuges that Iran will have installed; limiting them only to their old, first-generation centrifuges, which are like from the 1970s; taking their stockpile of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms down to like 300 kilograms. I mean, if you look at this deal, on paper at least it looks as if the Obama administration got most of what it was asking for.
MS. IFILL: And still you have till the end of June before anything else can happen –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Absolutely.
MS. IFILL: Before it’s finally – if it happens.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: And it could collapse before then. (Chuckles.)
MS. IFILL: Well, thank you. Great work this week, Indira.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: Back here in Washington, a big shoe dropped when the Justice Department finally unleashed its indictment against New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, accusing him of a wide-ranging corruption scheme that involved luxury travel, quid pro quos, and, of all things, American Express points. Bringing a charge against a sitting senator is no small matter. What does the Justice Department think it has, Pete?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, in very simple terms, they say that Senator Menendez did official favors for a Florida eye doctor, and that in return the eye doctor gave the senator a million dollars’ worth of gifts and contributions. Now, some of the official favors seem relatively trivial – the senator helped get visas for three of the doctor’s – (chuckles) – girlfriends from Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine – but there was some heavy lifting here. The government says that he intervened with the Medicare folks over an $8 million dispute about reimbursement, that he urged the government to honor a port security contract that this Dr. Salomon Melgen had a company.
But Senator Menendez’s defense has been to say that none of this was illegal; that they’ve been friends for two decades, they’ve known each other a long time. And, in fact, some of the government allegations do seem to fit in that friendship territory: about a dozen flights with Senator Melgen on his private planes, vacations –
MS. IFILL: Dr. Melgen.
MR. WILLIAMS: Dr. Melgen, rather. Excuse me.
MS. IFILL: Right?
MR. WILLIAMS: You’re the one that’s sleep deprived. (Laughter.)
Private planes – private plane trips on Dr. Melgen’s planes and vacations at the resort that he had in the Dominican Republic.
But I think more troubling for Senator Menendez is that if you look at the timeline, there is some pretty careful dovetailing between checks that Dr. Melgen wrote to Senator Menendez at the time that Menendez is knocking on doors, calling assistant secretaries, meeting with Cabinet secretaries, urging other senators to get involved on his behalf.
MATEA GOLD: And, Pete, how is this different from the case that was brought against Governor McDonnell in Virginia? And how might that case actually help the Justice Department in this situation?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the McDonnell case, the Robert McDonnell case, was a big success for the public corruption unit in the Justice Department, which will bring this case. But remember, there you had someone who had never met Bob McDonnell until he announced for governor, came out of nowhere, and turned state’s evidence – agreed to testify for the government. You have none of these things here. They tried to flip Dr. Melgen and try to get him to testify against Senator Menendez; no deal there. And they have known each other for two decades.
MS. IFILL: But generosity isn’t necessarily corruption, or gratitude or niceness or –
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, that’s true, especially when it comes to friends. And in fact, the Supreme Court has said that mere giving money to curry favor is not illegal. The standard of proof here is for the government to prove that one thing led to another – that Senator Menendez asked for gifts and then did favors, or Dr. Melgen asked for favors and then gave gifts or cash.
MR. HARWOOD: Pete, any lessons from the prosecution not too long ago of the late former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, that was a huge setback for the government, and the public corruption unit has been changed substantially since then. Remember, the Stevens case was quite simple: he just simply failed to report work that was done on his house by an oil company executive. It went off the rails. The judge threw the case out. They tried to retry it. Eric Holder, the attorney general, said no way because there was, he said, prosecutorial misconduct; they failed to turn over evidence that would have been helpful to the defense.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I’m wondering, what if he can prove that, in fact, they were just good friends? You know, they took vacations together. I mean, it doesn’t sound like what happened with Bob McDonnell, where the –
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: You know, these two people were actually close. Can he prove that?
MR. WILLIAMS: I don’t think he’ll have any trouble proving that they were good friends – (laughter) – because they were. There’s a close association. It would maybe be a little different if he was helping a constituent; this guy lived in Florida. But Menendez is a big deal in Florida and in the Hispanic community.
The question is, can he prove – I mean, these were not Christmas gifts. This was not, you know, your Easter basket of chocolates. This was checks to his campaign, checks to Democratic PACs that would help Senator Menendez at the time he’s doing official favors. So it’s not like Christmas gifts.
MS. IFILL: The senator said in his defense that he was going to prove this wrong, they’ve been after him a long time, people are just trying to slime him. How strong is his defense at this point?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, he’s right, certainly, about the kind of strange, tawdry origins of this, about rumors of what they were doing in the Dominican Republic that turned out not to be true, which is what got the government curious about their relationship.
I think the indictment proved to be more detailed than we were expecting. The number of plane flights – and remember, he also is charged with not only bribery and corruption, but also failure to report a lot of these things. And at the very least, the government probably has a pretty good case there.
MR. HARWOOD: Pete, how long do you think it’ll take for this to come to trial? And will he be in the Senate for quite a long time with this hanging over him?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the government’s already talking about trying to get a trial date within the next few months, but it – I’m sure it’ll take probably a year or so.
MS. IFILL: He stepped down as ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
MR. WILLIAMS: Foreign Relations. Foreign Relations.
MS. GOLD: Foreign Relations Committee.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, guys. (Laughter.) I got sleep. I don’t know what my excuse is. (Laughter.) But he’s still in the Senate.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. IFILL: Just in time for the 2016 campaign we are right back in the middle of a major culture clash, this time in the states, and this time an outgrowth of old fights about freedom and discrimination and freedom from discrimination. Add to that a rattled business community and indignant religious and gay rights activists and you have a spicy stew that has already leaked into the presidential campaign, John.
MR. HARWOOD: It absolutely has. And this is a fascinating, Gwen, window into an aspect of the sweeping change that we’ve seen in national attitudes toward gay marriage. Remember, just 11 years ago the Bush campaign, in 2004, was running and raising the specter of gay marriage as a way to mobilize conservatives. Well, public opinion – younger generation has dramatically changed public opinion. Now most people are in favor of gay marriage.
MS. IFILL: But was this about gay marriage or was this just about businesses being able to decide they didn’t want to –
MR. HARWOOD: Well, it’s about businesses, but it comes out of that shift. And what you had is, in the state of Indiana, in the wake of a decision that occurred in New Mexico, when you had a photographer that didn’t want to shoot a same-sex wedding, you had the state of Indiana enacting a version of a law that existed on the national level and in 19 other states – the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – that was designed to tell cultural conservatives that we’re going to protect your beliefs as Christians, which in many cases are not tolerant or welcoming toward same-sex marriage.
This was different from some of those other laws because of the specifics. This law said that a for-profit business could claim as a defense religious belief against a suit not brought because of government compulsion, but because of an individual. So it was designed – and some of the proponents said it was designed to accomplish what was not able to be accomplished by conservatives in New Mexico, that – to vindicate the rights of the photographer not to shoot the same-sex wedding.
It produced a tremendous backlash. You saw many large companies – it shows the limits of how red states, pockets of the country, can advance their agenda in culture wars that they’re losing nationally because you had national and multinational companies under pressure – Apple, Eli Lilly, Angie’s List – all –
MS. IFILL: NASCAR, Walmart, yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: All speaking up and saying, we’re not for this. Backlash was tremendous, and they – Indiana passed legislation to try to calm the storm at the end of the week.
MR. WILLIAMS: And this was going on in Arkansas, too. So does this take the air out of this movement? Because other states want to do the same thing.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think other states are going to think very long and hard about doing what Mike Pence tried to do in Indiana. In fact, his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, a very well-known politician to those of us in Washington, counseled a couple of years ago, we need to take a truce in the culture wars, step back from those. That’s because Republicans are on the losing side of this nationally. Mike Pence was beat up badly. I think he got a lot more than he bargained for. And Asa Hutchinson, the governor of the state of Arkansas, saw what was happening, backed away. Said, no, I’m not going to buy the bill that’s moving through the Arkansas legislature with the same intent as the Indiana law. And he cited the fact that his own kid disagreed with him and made those disagreements known.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Wow. I want to ask you about Governor Pence and how much his actions are a bellwether for how the GOP candidates in the next election – how might they campaign on culture war issues, given the fallout that Governor Pence saw?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, look, this is an aspect of the culture war that Republicans have lost. The only question is how much they keep trying within primary competition, within the presidential race and state races, that conservatives will compete with one another to try to speak to the aggrieved conservatives and say: I’m your champion. That’s what Ted Cruz did. That’s what Bobby Jindal did this week, standing up and saying these shameless Fortune 500 companies are trampling on the rights of religious conservatives.
The ones who have their eye on the prize, the long game, which is to win the presidency, are going to step away from this. And we saw George Bush – excuse me – Jeb Bush take two different tacks at different points of the week. One, he said that Indiana had done the right thing. And then, after the backlash occurred and Indiana moved to fix their law, he said, you know what, they should have had a more consensus-oriented approach. I think that is where the smart Republicans are going to go.
MS. GOLD: And, John, how does this spotlight this divide in the Republican Party right now? What are the implications for that in 2016?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, look, the Republican Party has a hugely disproportionate influence of evangelicals, conservative Christians. It’s more than half of the Iowa caucus electorate. But they’re not anywhere close to a majority nationally. They’re about a quarter of the vote. And Republicans have got to figure out a way to appeal to their primary voters without turning off especially young people who are moving very rapidly in the direction of tolerance.
MS. IFILL: It feels like that’s going to be a theme that we see coming up again and again this year.
That debate in Indiana and Arkansas really took off after a big business got involved, as we were discussing. It’s a reminder that, as often as not, money drives debate. That’s what Matea Gold is watching this campaign year. She wrote this week about a new twist: an ideological nonprofit group that raises money from anonymous donors with the scarcely disguised goal of supporting a single candidate. That’s what a network of Jeb Bush supporters have created, a new hybrid money funnel, as it were. Explain how it works, Matea.
MS. GOLD: So what we’ve seen Jeb Bush do in this pre-campaign – because he’s not yet a candidate, as he tells everyone as he goes around the country – is really he and his advisers are creating sort of an unprecedented outside infrastructure that will support his candidacy once he’s actually officially in the race. So a lot of this energy has been devoted to funneling and stockpiling money in a super PAC called Right to Rise, and he’s been raising millions upon millions of dollars for that super PAC.
Well, very quietly in February a new group was formed and filed in Arkansas by a former Walmart executive, also called Right to Rise, formed as a nonprofit group. The Bush folks did not announce this, but my colleague Ed O’Keefe and I stumbled across this. And what’s so fascinating is this is really going to be a dark money outlet for supporters of Governor Bush. And if you give money to a nonprofit – they can accept money from individuals and corporations – that money does not have to be disclosed. And these nonprofit groups actually have quite a bit of latitude about how they engage in politics.
MS. IFILL: But they’re not supposed to collaborate with the actual candidate. Not that he’s a candidate, but they’re not supposed to collaborate. But the name is the same?
MS. GOLD: The name is the same as his super PAC – which, by the way, you know, Governor Bush has a sort of arm’s-length relationship with right now.
MR. WILLIAMS: It must be a coincidence.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MS. GOLD: Yeah. His leadership PAC is also named Right to Rise. But he – and he is doing a lot of fundraisers for both of the PACs. But this ally of his said they chose the name and set up this group just because they believe in his principles and they want to promote his policies. They say they’re not going to run ads and this is really going to be a policy shop. And what I find so fascinating is, in order to avoid making donations to a campaign or super PAC, which would be really political activity, this group is going to post online all of its policy papers, just for anyone who might be interested. And so it’s a way really to get some undisclosed money into sort of the infrastructure of a campaign in a way we haven’t seen before.
MR. WILLIAMS: But if they don’t buy ads and they’re not giving to the candidates, what are they doing with the dough?
MS. GOLD: They are going to do – basically, the policy shop of the campaign has been essentially outsourced to this group. So there will be policy advisers within Bush’s campaign as well, but what we’re increasingly seeing is, because campaigns can only raise money in very limited increments, that advisers to candidates or would-be candidates are becoming very creative about outsourcing these functions to other external groups.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, we had already seen that there were independent groups who didn’t have to disclose all of their donors. Now we’ve got this nonprofit policy shop that doesn’t have to disclose its donors. So how much of the money in 2016 is going to be completely secret, where we don’t know where it’s coming from and there’s no accountability?
MS. GOLD: Well, it’s a really big question because there are other would-be candidates for 2016 who also have nonprofit groups right now that are supporting their efforts generally.
MS. IFILL: Who?
MS. GOLD: Governor Huckabee is an example, Governor Jindal, Governor Perry. Several of the governors have they set up. And if those groups remain active while they’re candidates, those also will be institutions that will help bring more undisclosed money into the campaign.
MS. IFILL: So – go ahead.
MR. HARWOOD: I just have a Jeb Bush question. He’s encountered resistance to the right to his campaign on Common Core, immigration, that sort of thing, for some of the reasons we were just talking about, because he’s eyeing the general somewhat more than the primary. How much can this nonprofit and other financial – bags of money that he’s got in various places, how much can that protect him from that conservative resistance?
MS. GOLD: Well, I think it depends on how they use the money. I mean, if he – he seems very wedded to his stances on immigration and Common Core. So I think that his outreach and his focus is going to be in the primaries convincing people, even if you don’t agree with me on those points, here is why I think I’d make a strong general election candidate. A lot of this money could come from corporations that share his views on these things, and we just won’t know that.
MS. IFILL: We just won’t know. Isn’t that the key to all of this money?
Thank you, everybody. Thanks a lot – especially for Indira, who’s still falling off. (Laughter.)
Before we go tonight, we’d like to take a moment to offer our condolences to the family of Sarah Brady, the outspoken gun control advocate who found her national voice and platform after the attempted assassination of President Reagan, and her husband, former White House Press Secretary Jim Brady. She died of pneumonia today at the age of 73.
There is more to say but no time to say it, except online where our conversation continues on the Washington Week Webcast Extra where, among other things, we’ll explain why so many candidates are choosing this month to formally announce they’re running for president finally. It’s not what you think. That will be up later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
As always, keep up with daily news developments with me and Judy Woodruff over at the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Wishing you a happy Passover and a happy Easter. And if basketball is your religion – John Harwood – may your brackets not be busted. (Laughter.) Good night.