ROBERT COSTA: A year of upheaval. President Trump has rocked American politics, but to what end? I’m Robert Costa. We assess a transformational year for the Republican Party and the country, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.
MR. COSTA: On election night, Donald Trump called for unity.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) It is time for us to come together as one united people.
MR. COSTA: One year later –
PROTESTERS: (From video.) No Trump! No Trump!
MR. COSTA: – President Trump leads a deeply divided country, unemployment is at a 17-year low, the stock market is booming, and Justice Neil Gorsuch sits on the Supreme Court. But many campaign promises remain unchecked, including a massive border wall, the repeal of Obamacare, and so far tax cuts. There are mounting foreign policy challenges, the Russia probe, and the power struggle between Trump’s inner circle and the Republican establishment. What everyone agrees on is this: President Trump has thoroughly disrupted Washington and his own party.
We discuss the first year and look ahead with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Michael Duffy of TIME Magazine, and Ann Compton, veteran of ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Maybe you talked politics around your Thanksgiving table, or maybe you made sure to avoid it. But here at this table, I’m thankful it’s all we do, and what a year it has been – so much, so fast. And tonight’s a little different. We’ve gathered respected veteran Washington reporters to talk about it all, the big picture on what’s happened and what’s next.
Let’s start at the beginning. American carnage, as you remember, was the theme of President Trump’s inaugural address, and executive orders soon followed.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
MR. COSTA: Peter, American carnage, a flurry of executive orders. How has that man on that stage, President Trump, changed since then? Has he evolved? Has the presidency shifted him?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s a great question because he had a very tumultuous start. Remember, not only did he use this very dystopian vision of America in his inaugural address, right out of the bat he’s coming out with the travel ban, the first version of it; he’s coming out with canceling or withdrawing from the trade pact with Asia; he’s reauthorizing the Keystone Pipeline; all these things meant to show from the very start he’s going to undo a lot of what his predecessor had done, and he’s going to set a new tone. It wasn’t all very smooth, though. He had never been in office before, any office of any kind before, and you got – you saw that for a while. It was – it was chaotic. At the airports suddenly they are can people come into the country, not come into the country. Courts are suddenly jumping in. Protests are in the streets. I don’t think you’ve ever seen a start to a president quite as turbulent as that one was, and no honeymoon. No honeymoon whatsoever.
MR. COSTA: And part of that turbulence, Andrea, was seen within the Cabinet and the phrase that Steve Bannon, the former strategist, used to use was “deconstruction of the administrative state.” And you’ve seen it up close at the State Department this year, and how he’s not only dealt with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson but the entire Cabinet.
ANDREA MITCHELL: The entire Cabinet and the intelligence communities. And I’m thinking as Peter was just talking about day one he goes to the CIA and really disrespects the intelligence agencies. You can already hear what became his criticisms of the Russia investigation to come. And also brags about the size of the crowd, which led to all of the controversy with his press secretary. But the Cabinet was the most disruptive. Bringing in Rex Tillerson, a non-diplomat, a businessman, looked like a great idea at the time if you’re looking for someone to manage, but the wrong man, arguably, for the wrong time because he not only wasn’t a diplomat, but his mission, he feels, is to downsize and not appoint. And so now you have vacancies everywhere in the State Department. You have an absence of real leadership on global policy now in regions around the world. That really exacerbated by what you saw with different Cabinet secretaries having to step down, Tom Price. The lack of ethics, the lack of understanding the processes for getting a nominee to a Cabinet hearing really caused him great disruption, and we’re still seeing it with Jeff Sessions. The answers that he gave at that initial hearing are haunting him to this day.
MR. COSTA: And part of the way he rattled Attorney General Sessions and part of the way he’s rattled Secretary of State Tillerson has been through Twitter. And you spent 40 years covering the White House. You’ve seen so many presidents. But this one’s different in how he uses social media, especially with the press too.
ANN COMPTON: Absolutely. It’s the attitude toward the press. At least presidents before him held some respect for the idea that journalism is part of my job here and I’ve got – Jimmy Carter started having news conferences every two weeks, saying it’s part of my job, I’ve got to do it. Ronald Reagan had his own version of Twitter. He had – he invented the Saturday radio address. He had five minutes live from the Oval Office. He could say anything he wants, and the networks would carry it. So every president has had kind of the technology, but Donald Trump ran a campaign of busting up the furniture and shouting out on Twitter. I don’t think we can be surprised that that unconventional candidacy gave us an unconventional presidency, where Twitter is a policy tool. And I don’t think we can look for that to change.
MR. COSTA: It’s really changed the briefing room.
MS. COMPTON: Well, the briefing room has changed. And over the years, when – well, Mike, when we were first at the White House, the briefing room was a lobby. It was leather sofas and literally Currier and Ives – you don’t even know who Currier and Ives are – (laughter) – on the wall because none of the briefings were televised. Now there’s such a fascination with it. They were never made to be one-hour dramas with a climax and a nice ending. It’s not a productive time in that briefing room.
MICHAEL DUFFY: I’m struck by a couple things in his – in his first year. One is that he clearly didn’t fully understand what the presidency was, and he’s learned that it has checks and balances, and that Congress gets a big say. The courts have a big say. And you sometimes get the impression – and you get it often enough that you can believe it – that he thought it would be a little bit like running a family business, that what he said would go. And anyone who has studied the presidency or has even watched the news knows that’s just not true. You get some of the calls, but you certainly don’t get all of them, and you don’t even get a majority of them. That seems like a surprise, so much so that last Friday he even went out of his way to say, you know, I don’t really have a lot of control or influence over the Justice Department. And you can – he was clear he just learned that. So we want that independent. That’s been the way for a long time. So he didn’t – he didn’t quite really get that.
He also has learned, I think, that the job is a little bit of a mousetrap, as you were saying. You know, if you don’t follow certain procedures and you don’t do certain things right, it’ll bite you. There are little hidden springs in the presidency that will trigger – (snaps fingers) – and suddenly you have an investigation on your hand(s), and by agencies you probably have never heard of.
And the third thing, I think, that he’s discovered – and this is maybe something he’s gotten right – is that there’s a part of being president that’s just the performance part of the job – you have to just act it to be it. Ronald Reagan was excellent at this, others not so much. And he has his own – you may not like the nature of his performance, but it’s different. And he’s created it, as you were saying, kind of for a new era.
MS. MITCHELL: I actually think he does that part rather well. He does it at summits, he does it around the world, and I think he enjoys that. That’s the Celebrity Apprentice Donald Trump.
He’s also learned that he can reverse something – the Fish and Wildlife elephant designation that he reversed, which brought him great acclaim from different sectors that he never expected to be praised by.
That said, I think ignoring some of the ethics rules, firing James Comey – just think back, if you could re-rack it, reel it back. If he had not fired James Comey, what – of all of these other unintended consequences that flow from that decision, including an investigation that is going into whether that is obstruction of justice or there are pieces of it that are, that was really a major event that he thought was just something he could do. And –
MR. BAKER: I think the other politicians who become president come in with a certain experience set that has automatic warning bells when they get too close to the stove, right? In other words, they are the cat who touched the stove before they – and they understand that you don’t touch it when it’s hot. And he’s never been a politician, he’s never been a public officeholder, so the things that a senator, a governor, congressman would know instinctively – you know, you fire an FBI director and then you admit that you were thinking about the investigation into your campaign when you were doing it, warning, warning, warning. You know, most politicians would say that’s not a good idea, you just don’t do it. Bill Clinton hated his FBI director, would have loved to have fired Louis Freeh, understood that it would have been politically a huge backlash if he did.
MR. COSTA: You say he’s not a politician, and Ann, he’s certainly not a politician, a traditional one. He’s also really not the kind of Republican who often comes into the White House. And so often this year we were asking: What’s guiding President Trump’s decisions? Is it an ideology? Is it the Republican creed? Or is it more his own performance, as Andrea was saying? And that’s impacted his relationship on Capitol Hill, with Leader McConnell in the Senate, Speaker Ryan. They’re not always sure, it seems, where the president wants to go, and will he go in the traditional GOP direction?
MS. COMPTON: Alliances are something that this town is built on. And I don’t know what it’s like to be a New York developer, where you’re always negotiating to get the best position, but to pull people together and make them work in the same direction, or help them to work in the same direction, is a real skill. And of recent presidents, most have been governors, which means they have worked with the legislature, which is often under another party’s control. And they have tried to build coalitions. You look back at Ronald Reagan. First thing he did was go to the Democratic conservatives in the House to get them on board for his tax and spending cuts. Donald Trump doesn’t have that. And he hasn’t surrounded himself with people who will give him that.
MR. COSTA: He’s tried, though. You look at Chuck and Nancy, the deal he cut on the debt ceiling. Michael, he did try to wade into bipartisanship, but it’s never really worked. He’s struggled on health care with Republicans early on, still trying to get tax cuts. What to make of his experience with Congress?
MR. DUFFY: Well, I always felt that – by the way, the entente with Pelosi and Schumer came in September. So it was after another – a few other things had been tried. You got the sense, watching that, he did it as much to hurt his fellow Republican partners as he did to actually make a deal with the Democrats. And the actual fruit of that deal with Pelosi and Schumer hasn’t totally been clear yet. You know, I’m struck as we – first years of first-time presidencies are often rocky, avert your eyes affairs. I mean, George W. Bush’s wasn’t great. Bill Clinton’s was certainly not great. You can go back. JFK’s wasn’t great.
But as Barbara Bush once said of the Clintons: Don’t worry, they’ll learn. And presumably, they will get smarter at this. Although we can’t be sure, as I usually am, that past is prologue here – that isn’t past. And so it’s quite possible that they aren’t going to figure this out the way other presidents have in the second year.
I was struck by one other human factor thing that I think is unique to this. For the first six or eight months, he’s alone in that White House at night. And I’m not saying that’s a big issue. I’m just staying that most people have a partner who’s there, they can talk to. And I’m struck by the very small universe of advisors this president has, outside of the people he works with.
MS. MITCHELL: The other thing I’m struck by, and I think it’s really telling in foreign policy, is how much he enjoys flattery. Now, we all enjoy flattery, but he – he goes to Riyadh as his first summit, and on this most recent Asian trip, and they – the foreign leaders know now what they have to do, whether it’s Vladimir Putin or President Xi or, you know, Prime Minister Abe, just flatter him. He will love that.
And the Saudis are the greatest beneficiaries of this, because they changed the whole policy of the region just because they knew that they had Donald Trump and Jared Kushner’s support for a new policy, even one that was not endorsed by Defense Secretary Mattis or Secretary Tillerson. But this policy against Qatar, this whole ramp up against Iran, is not something that Tillerson wanted or welcomed. But if you flatter this president – he came back and he talked for 25 minutes about the red carpets.
MR. COSTA: Peter, have we seen this nationalism take hold, that American carnage, the nationalist speech on inaugural day? Has that become the defining issue in foreign policy?
MR. BAKER: I mean, to some extent, yes. What’s interesting about this president is he comes to office not fully formed on a lot of issues. He doesn’t really have a strong ideology. One reason he doesn’t get along necessarily so well with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan is because he hasn’t actually been in the trenches fighting for conservative policies for all these years. And to the extent that he does have one sort of very consistent belief set – that goes back all the way to the ’80s, if you watch the tapes, and so forth, of his interviews back then – is this idea that America is getting shafted somehow – is getting shafted by our allies, which are taking advantage of us. It’s getting shafted by our trade partners which are getting the better of us. It’s getting shafted by our adversaries who don’t respect us and who are laughing at us. That underlies so much of what he has done this year. It underlies the whole idea of America first. It underlies this idea that he’s not going to put up with nonsense from North Korea the way Barack Obama did and the way George W. Bush did. And it defines where his trade policies are with NAFTA, with Asia, with Korea, and so forth. So, you know, to the extent that you want to understand where he might come out on national security policy, it seems to be seen through that lens.
MR. COSTA: Well, what do you make, Ann? As I recall, you were with President George W. Bush on 9/11. I mean, what a way to see a president up close. And what about President Trump, when it’s come to his own challenges with the hurricanes that hit Florida and Houston and Puerto Rico, and the Las Vegas massacre? The unexpected often hits you in the presidency.
MS. COMPTON: The first year for any presidency is a vulnerable time. For a president – for a president who has never governed before – he’s management, never governed – it’s particularly vulnerable. And when 9/11 hit for President George W. Bush, he had had nine months to figure out who the real enemies were. He had ordered a report asking: What could – what could al-Qaida do in the United States? Every president has had kind of a fundamental working understanding of the fact that – I think history judges presidents not by that laundry list of ideas that they bring in with them, but what they do in the face of terrible, terrible crisis, and that nobody saw coming.
And I think the president, when he – kind of the mixed reaction to do you go to the site of a natural disaster, do you stay back because you’ve still got – they’re still pulling bodies out of the rubble? What do you do in terms of some of the foreign threats? He didn’t have a structure or an understanding of exactly how that kind of governing could be.
MR. DUFFY: I’m struck by, when you think about what his best and worse moments were, you know, that it’s hard for me to put my finger on the best. The question of what’s the worst is – it’s a richer buffet. And so, I think, you know, Charlottesville was a moment that was particularly tough, where he didn’t quite know how to respond and when he did he was all wrong.
And I’m struck by, though, he talks about, you know, America getting the shaft. He spends a lot of time relitigating that past. And it always comes down – you know, he spent a lot of time overturning and repudiating the previous president – an unusual amount of time for a sitting president to be so obsessed with his predecessor, who left office after two terms and in fairly good standing. And relitigating the election, particularly with respect to Hillary Clinton who is, for him, just a powerful, unifying symbol for his base.
MS. MITCHELL: And getting to what you’ve discussed on the trade issues, in particular, he’s not fact based. And that is so galling to allies and adversaries alike, I mean, because when he talks about some of these trade deals, he’s really hurting America with some of the things he’s retreated from. When he talks about negotiating 27 bilateral trade deals instead of having one deal that we would get preferential tariffs under. So the fact that he doesn’t study and doesn’t try to make up for what he did not know coming in is really very glaring on some of these policy issues. And is – he doesn’t seem to be studying or trying to take in the briefings in any kind of meaningful way. I don’t know –
MR. BAKER: We do see – it’s interesting. You know, the question is does he learn, has he changed, has he evolved? Obviously, in some ways, he’s always going to be the same. He’s 71 years old. People tend not to change after a long career in which they feel like they’ve been very successful. Why would they change? They got to where they are doing the thing they’re doing. You people want me to change because you don’t think – you don’t agree with me. Understood.
But there is some differences. I mean, for instance, he did fire Jim Comey in May. And while he may want to fire Jeff Sessions, he may want to fire Bob Mueller, he hasn’t. He’s been talked out of it repeatedly. He may want to take on Bob Mueller. His initial instinct was to attack Bob Mueller. His lawyers have said: Don’t do that. That’s a mistake. It’s counterproductive. And for the most part, he’s abided by that. So it’s not that he can’t restrain himself or exercise discipline or do things differently than he did before. He just chooses to do so in some cases and not in others.
MR. COSTA: And that Mueller probe is the asterisk on this first year, because we’re not really sure yet where these grand jury investigations will go, where the special counsel will go.
MS. COMPTON: They take years. It takes months. They are – they are living, dynamic creatures that will – that can consume and overshadow just about anything else a president wants to do.
MR. COSTA: And when you look at Alabama coming up, the special election on December 12th, it’s a microcosm of the Republican civil war that continues to erupt day by day.
MR. DUFFY: Right. Well, this is a party that is literally cracking open in the president’s first year, over everything from trade, to taxes, to spending, to foreign policy, and who should be in the Republican Party and who should lead it. They’re fighting about all of that. And for President Trump, who used to be a Democrat, you know, to be sort of presiding and – now, he didn’t start this war. It started five or six years ago. But he stoked it. And he stoked it in the campaign. And that just constantly is a – reduces the influence of all the Republican institutions while they fight about this. So that’s just a weight on his ankles. And I don’t think that goes away anytime soon, and it will probably get worse – probably get worse.
MR. BAKER: It’s corrosive in any White House too. I mean, they literally – I talk to White House people and they say: You know, I’m afraid the guy sitting next to me at the table is wearing a wire, you know? I mean, how do you have a meeting in which you are sitting and wondering –
MR. COSTA: It’s that tense.
MR. BAKER: It’s that tense. The people in the same room with you, who has a lawyer, who’s been to the grand jury – or, not the grand jury – who’s been talking to Bob Mueller at this point? Who hasn’t? What have they said? George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI, had been a cooperating witness for the special counsel for two months without anybody in the White House knowing about it. That is a scary thing to any White House. And that just hovers over you at all times.
MS. MITCHELL: I do think that Twitter is another really defining difference. You touched on it earlier, but the fact that he can strike out at the UCLA basketball player’s father and say, we should have left them in China, these four young players. Those kinds of responses, when we talk to Trump voters in red states, all of our polling is that that is the one thing – they might still vote for him, they still support him, but they just think he’s not presidential. They don’t like the – they don’t like him on Twitter. They don’t like the attitude. They don’t like him lashing out at people.
MR. COSTA: It always comes down to these questions of norms and what is presidential when people talk about President Trump. And you’ve seen presidents up close.
MS. COMPTON: And every president has a sense of respect for opponents, for challengers, for a political – but they – and for the press.
MR. COSTA: Right. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. I could talk with you all night. I appreciate you all coming here. And thanks, everybody, for this conversation.
We leave you a few minutes early to give you the chance to support your local PBS station, which in turns supports us. Our conversation about the president’s first year will continue on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk more about the culture of power and social changes in the time of President Trump. You can find that later tonight and all weekend long at our website, PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a wonderful weekend.