ROBERT COSTA: Storm watch. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Hurricane Dorian heads toward Florida and President Trump reassures residents his administration is ready.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Our highest priority is the safety and security of the people in the path of the hurricane.
MR. COSTA: Political storms hover. Uncertainty over his trade war with China keeps investors on edge. His fight with former FBI Director James Comey is back on following a watchdog report. And Democrats face storms, too, as the Iowa caucuses are suddenly challenged, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. From Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: President Trump will spend the weekend at Camp David monitoring Hurricane Dorian as it approaches the United States. He has canceled his trip to Poland. Vice President Pence will go instead. The coming storm has revived scrutiny of the administration and the president’s use of executive power. As CNN notes, President Trump is without a permanent FEMA administrator or a confirmed secretary of homeland security, and is still dealing with criticism over his handling of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. Here’s what President Trump said today.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I like the word “acting.” I think acting is great. As far as I’m concerned, acting to me is good. And if I like the people, I make them permanent. And acting gives you great flexibility that you don’t have with permanent.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight to discuss these issues and more, Shawna Thomas, Washington bureau chief for VICE News; John Harris, founding editor of POLITICO; Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; and Michael Shear, White House correspondent for The New York Times.
Shawna, presidents are often tested by storms. What kind of test is Hurricane Dorian for President Trump?
SHAWNA THOMAS: I think really what people will be looking for, kind of, basically, what does he tweet over the course of this weekend and what does he encourage people to do. Is he the person that says, OK, everyone actually listen to the Florida governor, listen to FEMA, do what they need to say, if you need to get out get out? Is he reiterating that message, or is he getting distracted by other things? And I think you want to – you do want to see in times like this some level of consistency from the president because if it is a category four and it is a direct hit on Florida, that can be major devastation. And there are parts of Florida – it’s not the same parts – that are still recovering from last year’s storm. So I think what you want to see is that he’s focused on making sure FEMA and everyone else has the resources they need and are doing what they need. That’s what we’re hoping for.
MR. COSTA: That’s what people are looking for, but what about inside the administration, where you have many acting officials? Will the president pay a political cost for having so many?
JOHN HARRIS: I would think not unless, like, a catastrophe happens and the government is seen as failing to respond. As far as the atmosphere, I think it shows just how much Trump has changed the way we perceive the presidency. In conventional times you would expect a president of either party to be seen as a unifying force and a reassuring force and a highly engaged force, but this is not a conventional presidency. So in some sense, as far as the atmospherics, who cares? As far as the substance, if we have a catastrophe – and we might well have one – we’re going to expect the government to respond.
MS. THOMAS: I do think it’s worth noting we spent last year some time at FEMA while Florence was hitting and they have a system for this. There’s lots of people who have been working there for years. They know how to spin up their emergency operations system. I think we have to sort of rely on the fact that there are – that there are people who have a plan for these things too.
MR. COSTA: But this raises more than questions about presidential leadership; it also shines a bright light on the Trump administration’s use of federal money for FEMA and their move to redirect millions to the border. The New York Times reports that Democrats have targeted the administration’s efforts to transfer more resources to the border, decrying the move as a shift of more than 150 million (dollars) from FEMA disaster relief in order to pay for immigration courts. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the decision “reckless stealing for an inhumane agenda” – her words – but President Trump remains undaunted. As The Washington Post reports, he is so eager to complete his border fence that he has directed aides to fast-track billions of dollars in construction contracts, seize private land, ignore environmental rules, and even considered pardons for those who run afoul of the law. President Trump later denied considering pardons.
Michael, you’re writing a book about immigration and President Trump. He’s going around Congress, executive order after executive action. What’s next on this front? Is he going to build the wall through executive power?
MICHAEL SHEAR: He’s certainly going to try. Look, the wall has, from before he ever became president and certainly once he took – once he took office, has been sort of the totem of this presidency. Is it the – you know, the thing that symbolizes so much of how he won the presidency and what he wants to accomplish with it. You know, but he’s been incredibly frustrated because it’s been the – it’s been the one big promise that he has had so much trouble advancing any real success with. He’s certainly pretended that he’s had success. He talks a lot about how much of the wall has been built when, in fact, almost a hundred percent of what has been built is essentially old wall that’s been essentially, you know, rebuilt and repaired. He has made very little progress on extending the wall any further across the border. And he sees – and he rants frequently to his – to his kind of internal advisors, the people in the White House, about how frustrated he is that this is making him look foolish, that it’s undermining his authority, that it is costing him politically with his base. And so, you know, part of what we’ve seen over the last two-and-a-half years is him trying, as you said, to do anything he could – executive authority – push the – you know, one of the reason(s) that people are gone from the – from his administration in these roles that have to do with immigration are because they stood up to him and said, Mr. President, we can’t do the things you’re saying that you want us to do, it’s against the law or it’s against – or it’s not practical. And he’s become so infuriated by that that he’s pushed them out.
MR. COSTA: But what about now? To Michael’s point, all this money is being redirected from FEMA disaster relief to border projects or immigration projects. Is there pushback inside of this administration at this moment or from Republicans?
VIVIAN SALAMA: Oh, there’s certainly a lot of pushback, especially with regard to taking away money from FEMA, which, I mean, the timing is everything. He’s already – the timing could not have been worse. I mean, this president has already been accused repeatedly of neglecting Puerto Rico. The storm was at Puerto Rico’s doorstep when this announcement came out, literally couldn’t have been worse timing. Obviously, the optics not important to him; he would rather fulfill this. This is not just about a campaign promise or even an administration promise; this was the slogan of his – of his rallies. It was a catchphrase that was chanted back to him by his supporters. For his base, this is one of the things – they carry signs that say build the wall. They all repeat that Mexico was going to pay for that wall. It was a defining feature of the rallies. And now we’re going into 2020 and we don’t see a wall in the way that he has promised his people. So this is something for the president where come hell or high water he wants that wall.
MS. THOMAS: And if the – if the economy takes a downturn, that will be the only thing he has to run on in some ways. He wants to build the wall as sort of, I don’t know, a backstop for if the economy isn’t what it is currently right now.
MR. COSTA: We’ve heard that he’s considering pardons. He’s denied it. President Trump has said he’s not considering pardons, but he appears to be personally involved in all of these negotiations inside the administration on the border wall, on immigration. Is he working with Stephen Miller? Is this a president who’s directing the strategy himself, John?
MR. HARRIS: I think this is a president who is directing the strategy on any subject that he cares about and is happy to delegate the vast majority of other subjects that he doesn’t care about. But if he does, he’s going to be involved, and he’s going to overrule or contradict things that his own administration says. So yes, of course he’s involved, of course, because he cares. What I would say, it is a huge problem. Republicans ran this town. They had not just the presidency but the Congress in the first two years, so it’s hard to say that this is Democratic obstruction.
MR. COSTA: So he’s lashing out about the wall. He’s also lashing out at some former critics, some current critics, and he reignited his feud with former FBI Director James Comey this week after the Justice Department’s watchdog released a scathing report documenting how Comey violated FBI policy. The DOJ’s inspector general said Comey broke Bureau rules in his handling of memos documenting his private conversations with the president and when he gave an unclassified memo to a friend to share with a reporter. Attorney General Bill Barr has decided not to prosecute Comey. So what’s next, Shawna?
MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think what we’ll continue to see. We had James Comey on Twitter. We have the president tweeting about James Comey. (Laughs.) I think what we’ll continue to see is something that both the Democrats and the Republicans play up, it becomes somewhat of a campaign issue. It was already a campaign issue. But basically what Barr decided to do was be, like, I’m kind of done with this.
And the thing is, this story can be read any way you want. People in Trump’s camp can say, look, they said he broke the rules. He was the FBI director. He left. He did not follow his contract. And you know, if you watched Fox News last night, that is what they said. You could also see it, based on the quotes that he gave to the investigators, Comey saw himself as kind of a patriot. And if you’re on the liberal side, and you’re saying he gave this memo over to someone to give to The New York Times because he thought everyone needed to know what the president said, then you can take it and run with that too. But I don’t think this solves anything or makes anything better, clears anything up.
MS. SALAMA: Comey insisted that he also kept those memos in a personal capacity. And so one of the interesting things to watch is the DOJ process of basically retroactively classifying these documents. And it’s something that will really be a defining thing for the Barr Department of Justice in terms of whether or how they deal with these protocols.
MR. COSTA: And is the White House – is the White House, Vivian, also keeping an eye on the next report from DOJ, an investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham about the origin of the Russia investigation? You see the president, of course, knocking Comey, along with his allies on Fox News. But is that report the one the White House is really looking for?
MS SALAMA: The White House is obviously always keeping an eye on things, but I think for the White House the Mueller testimony was the big one, the – in terms of whether or not the president was going to be in any way implicated in anything. And I think they feel that they’re in a better position since then.
MR. SHEAR: And I also think that one of the side effects of the way Trump handled the Mueller investigation over the last few years is that the pieces of it, whatever piece you’re talking about, is viewed through intensely partisan lenses, right? And so how you view Jim Comey, how you view the other pieces of this is almost entirely dependent on how you view Trump in the first place. And so –
MR. HARRIS: Yeah, but by the Trump standard Comey should be saying: I’m exonerated, because there was no credible charges, even though the report, as you say, Bob, was scathing. But I think Comey’s all alone. He’s not a Democratic hero. They’re not going to embrace this guy. Comey’s by himself.
MR. COSTA: While those fights heated up, President Trump’s trade war cooled down this week, for now. Less than a week after the U.S. and China had a dramatic tariff standoff, markets made gains when Chinese officials said they are eager to continue face-to-face negotiations with the U.S. And President Trump also expressed optimism. Michael Shear asked the president about his trade strategy at the G(-7) summit in France on Monday.
MR. SHEAR: (From video.) Is that a strategy? Is it a strategy to call President Xi an enemy one day and then say that relations are very good the next day, and then – you know, and gone back and forth several times.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Yeah. No, no, no. It’s the way I negotiate. It’s done very well for me over the years. And it’s doing even better for the country.
MR. COSTA: Whiplash strategy. But are we seeing a truce, a thaw?
MR. SHEAR: Maybe, but I think the – I think the point of my question, and I think the sort of revelation in his answer, is that uncertainty is the coin of the realm when it comes to Trump and the way he handles a lot of stuff in the presidency, but especially the negotiations over trade. And so, you know, we look to be in a moment of relative calm. The Chinese have indicated they want to come back to the – you know, come to the table and work on this. The president has indicated the same for his team. And yet, I don’t think any of us would bet on, you know, whether that will be the reality a day from now, or a week from now, or two weeks from now. And so I think that uncertainty is what is making everybody concerned.
MR. COSTA: But you’ve covered Capitol Hill, Shawna. What about the uncertainty about the USMCA, the new version of NAFTA? Will Speaker Pelosi bring that up for a vote this fall?
MS. THOMAS: Apparently Speaker Pelosi is going to have some kind of meeting or conference call with other Democrats. It’s clear people want to move forward with the USMCA or new NAFTA. I can’t remember which way the letters go anymore. (Laughter.) But there are major issues to work through. And the Democrats do not seem to be budging on this. But I think the point about uncertainty, whether it’s with the president, whether it’s with the markets, we’ve talked to a lot of Iowa farmers over the last month. And the thing they point out, even though they are not willing to abandon President Trump, they are conservative –
MR. HARRIS: Not yet.
MS. THOMAS: Not yet. A couple have said they’re getting a little bit tired of the tweets. But they are just – they are freaked out because of the level of uncertainty. And one of the things one said to us was: If China decides really to fully pull out of the American soybean market, go to Brazil fully and totally, that kind of thing, they’re worried they will never come back, because why would they shift?
MS. SALAMA: And that uncertainty even comes back into the Oval Office in terms – I had a story a couple of days ago about Trump’s own closest advisors, including Lighthizer, the trade representative, including everyone in his White House staff, trying to tell him to shift his focus to the USMCA and to Japan trade, because they felt that China was just not going to deliver before 2020. And they were worried that it was just going to have a negative impact on the economy, and he wouldn’t get his win. And so even they feel like that’s where you should put your eggs for now.
MR. COSTA: So if – John, if the president doesn’t get USMCA, doesn’t get a China deal, and he’s still trying to navigate on all these different fronts, what about a U.S.-U.K. trade deal? We saw the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspend Parliament this week, move to – and in conversation with the queen to do so. Could both of these leaders – Prime Minister Johnson, President Trump – look to that kind of deal?
MR. HARRIS: Well, they might because there obviously is a kinship between the two of them, and they’ve spoken favorably of each other. You know, just on this larger question of uncertainty, though, there is a strategy to Trump’s trade policy, which is I believe I can inflict more pain on you a lot more than you can inflict on me. And that’s actually not a bad strategy, except when it turns out to be obviously untrue. And if all these uncertainties in all these areas – in trade, China, the renegotiated NAFTA – if those start to cause recession fears, and we’re right on the verge of that, then his strategy no longer works.
MR. COSTA: POLITICO does great work on Capitol Hill. How much pain can Republicans take? They’ve been on recess for the last few weeks. When they come back to Washington will they pressure this White House?
MR. HARRIS: They can’t take a collapse in the stock market and they can’t take a collapse in agricultural states. And so not much more pain, is the answer.
MR. COSTA: We’ll keep an eye on what happens on Capitol Hill in a few weeks when everyone’s back. But for now, in the summer, all eyes on the Democratic race for president. This week 10 contenders qualified for September’s debate in Houston, Texas. It will be the first time former VP Joe Biden will share the stage with Senator Elizabeth Warren, who’s rising in the polls and courting the party establishment, and as others work to improve their standing. Ten others will try to stay in the hunt despite not making the stage. But it’s a tough road ahead.
This week New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out of the race. All of this comes as the political map is redrawn for 2020 with Georgia looking more and more like a possible battleground. It’s now home to two Senate races in 2020 following the announcement this week by GOP Senator Johnny Isakson that he will retire at the end of this year due to his health. We wish him the best.
When you think, though, about the Iowa caucuses, there was big news on Friday. You have the Democratic National Committee saying we don’t want to have virtual caucuses, caucuses by phone. People should be showing up. They were concerned about the security of that whole process. Will Iowa still stay first?
MS. THOMAS: It appears so. Iowa said they are still going to do a caucus. They are still going to call it a caucus, so that New Hampshire who likes to call themselves the first primary in the nation doesn’t try to skip ahead of them and it causes a whole thing. So it seems like everyone’s on board with Iowa being first, and Iowa being a caucus. Now how do they deal with the fact that the DNC asked Iowa to try to figure out how can you make this thing more inclusive?
And they came back with a plan. The DNC doesn’t think it’s secure enough – which makes sense after what happened in 2016. But there is a real question of if you can’t get there, if you have to work, is the Iowa caucus process representative? And are they going to be able to, in the sort of short amount of time left, figure out a way to make it secure enough so people can figure out other ways to participate? They said they’re committed to trying to look into that. But I’m not sure there’s enough time to figure that out anymore.
MR. SHEAR: Well, and I think – I think the time is the problem, because presidential campaigns are built around strategies of turnout, and especially at a caucus, you know, how do you – you know, each candidate will have, you know, sort of tried to determine for themselves what is their best, you know, path to winning by turning out certain groups, certain amounts of people. Barack Obama, when he was there, tried to vastly expand the number of people who actually turned out to the caucus. That benefitted him. But you know, to the extent that the process is scrambled for a long period of time – so the campaigns don’t really know what’s the universe of people that they’re likely to be working with – that’s going to make it very difficult for all of the campaigns to figure out.
MR. HARRIS: Well, Bob, if the standard is, is Iowa inclusive, we can answer the question. No, it’s not, any more than New Hampshire is. (Laughter.) So if you start having this discussion if you’re these states you can’t go very far down it because there’s no justification for these unrepresentative small states to have their outsized role – except that they’re very intimate, except that an effort by a particular candidacy that otherwise wouldn’t get noticed can somehow penetrate in these small states. So I think it puts the whole logic behind these states in kind of a harsh light.
MR. COSTA: Vivian, inside of the White House, when they look at Vice President Biden struggling this week a bit politically as he responded to a Washington Post report about how he told a war story and his encounter with different U.S. military personnel. They see Senator Warren rising. What’s on their radar?
MS. SALAMA: I mean, it’s definitely ammo for them. Certainly I think the one that’s really got their attention is Biden still because of the fact that he’s leading the pack. It’s just the obvious one as a frontrunner. But I mean, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are on their radar. A couple of others pop up here and there, but for the most part they’re not too worried about them. I think the White House believes that it’s too early, but they’re watching and they’re collecting ammo with every gaffe that happens and every sort of internal dispute that happens between the Democrats. They’re watching very closely.
MR. COSTA: VICE sat down with Senator Bernie Sanders this week. We often hear about Senator Warren and Vice President Biden, Senator Warren and Vice President Biden. What about Senator Sanders? Is he in this race?
MS. THOMAS: He definitely is in this race. I mean, we were in Kentucky and we were in Pennsylvania. He had a big crowd in Kentucky. He got his first union endorsement in Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh – sort of Joe Biden’s Scranton backyard. But the interesting thing is Elizabeth Landers, our correspondent, really pushed him on this idea of how do you differentiate yourself between – between you yourself and Elizabeth Warren, and she pushed him over and over again, and he refused to really, one, go after Elizabeth Warren – which I kind of understand – but, two, really give us a clear answer of how he is different. And at a certain point he turned it back on our correspondent and said, hey, that’s a media question, no one’s asking that. And the thing is people have asked him that; like, people in public have asked him that, other than – other than the media. But at some point – and this – we’ll see if next week’s debate is that point – he is going to have to say why his plans are different than hers and what can he articulate that makes him better than her. Now, maybe – it might be that all eyes are actually on, like, what Biden does in between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but at some point who are you in comparison?
MR. COSTA: And sometimes politics is about not just what you do against another candidate, but how the map changes. You look at Georgia, suddenly a real state for 2020 – two Senate races. Stacey Abrams, the former state minority leader, said she will not run for Senate. But Georgia, the Atlanta suburbs, perhaps a competitive battleground.
MR. SHEAR: Right, and I think part of that is a reflection of the sort of – the follow-on effects of the 2016 campaign, which really scrambled the map in a lot of ways, that upended the traditional thinking about that. But it’s also changing demographics in the country. When I started as a young reporter in Virginia, for example, 20, 25 years ago, it was a solidly red state that Democrats didn’t even think of competing in. Now it’s, you know, I used to call it a purple state; I think it’s maybe even solidly blue in some ways, depending on the – on the time. So I mean, I think these things do change, and one of the tests for both political parties is whether they can adapt by finding candidates to run – Stacey Abrams a big disappointment to the Democrats that apparently she’s not going to run. But, like, can you find the candidates to run, and can you – and can you mount successful campaigns in a state that you don’t have a lot of experience on.
MS. SALAMA: Well, and the Trump campaign is keeping a close eye on this too, and they are really beefing up their political game – their ground game in a lot of these states which are purple, as we say, or whatever you want to call them, just because they believe that that’s going to be their key.
MR. COSTA: Which states are they looking at?
MS. SALAMA: Wisconsin is definitely a big one. You guys help me out. You guys cover the campaigns more than I do.
MR. COSTA: And Sean Duffy just announced, the congressman from Wisconsin, that he’s retiring this week.
MS. SALAMA: Yeah, for sure. So you know, Michigan is another one. Pennsylvania, obviously, is always a battleground. And so, you know, the Trump campaign is pouring money, resources, and everything else into those states.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Gillibrand’s exit from the race? Is this the first of a wave to come as it just becomes harder and harder, John, to make the debate stage?
MR. HARRIS: Well, sure, and it’s welcome. You know, the good news is we only have one debate to cover –
MR. COSTA: Well, you mean it’s welcome in terms of coverage for reporters.
MR. HARRIS: I think it is, certainly for us, and you know, there’s grumbling about the DNC rules, which, you know, they are somewhat arbitrary. But ultimately, voters can’t decide among 20 people and the race has to narrow, and so I welcome it. I mean, it’s – but it is going – one debate night, but it’s going to be over three hours, so it’s going to be like watching the Jerry Lewis telethon. (Laughter.) Anyway, we’re finally seeing some fluidity. Really, you look back over the summer, we haven’t seen that much fluidity. A lot has happened, but not a lot has changed. And as summer turns to fall, the structure of the race is changing.
MS. THOMAS: I also just think this – in some ways this idea that the debate rules are – were not explained well enough and they’re not fair, the thing is there had to be some kind of rules. There were a lot of candidates. The DNC – I remember interviewing someone at the DNC sort of early on this year and they were, like, we are trying to be incredibly transparent. I remember asking them who – what was their list of candidates that were officially running, and they wouldn’t even give that to me because they didn’t want to be seen as putting their thumb on the scale. Everyone’s known the rules. A lot of people were on the stages for the first two debates. Yes it’s turned into this culling process, but you got to say if you can’t get 2 percent and you can’t get a certain amount of donors, you’re not competing.
MR. SHEAR: And look, the magic thing about democracy in this country is that you can’t plan it out, right? They set up – the Democrats, and the Republicans do this too, set up a process that they hope will come forward with a certain number of candidates. You end up with Steve Bullock off and Andrew Yang on, and that’s the way democracy works.
MR. COSTA: And that’s the way it is. That’s the way democracy works and that’s all for tonight. Thanks, everybody, for being here on a Friday night.
On the Washington Week Extra we will discuss climate change and its implications for the Amazon, Alaska, and global politics. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great Labor Day weekend.