ROBERT COSTA: A turn for the better. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s doctors say there’s a good possibility he will be able to make a full recovery after being shot during baseball practice. I’m Robert Costa. The high stakes and consequences of a polarized political nation, tonight on Washington Week.
(Music: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)
MR. COSTA: Bipartisanship came to play at the congressional baseball game one day after a gunman opened fire on some Republican lawmakers.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans, and that we are strongest when we are unified.
MR. COSTA: Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise remains hospitalized. Two other victims, both Capitol Hill police officers, are being hailed as heroes.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) Without these two heroes, Agent Bailey and Agent Griner, many lives would have been lost.
MR. COSTA: While investigators worked to determine what led to the crime, renewed calls for solidarity.
SENATOR EDWARD MARKEY (D-MA): (From video.) It’s an actual attack upon democracy. And we all stand united – Democrat, Republican.
REPRESENTATIVE RODNEY DAVIS (R-IL): (From video.) We can’t let our policy differences tear this country apart with polarization. It’s up to us as Republicans and Democrats to really say enough’s enough.
MR. COSTA: Plus, a bombshell development in the Russia probe as President Trump confirms that he is now under investigation for possible obstruction of justice.
We’ll get the latest on these stories and more from Jeff Zeleny of CNN, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, Geoff Bennett of NPR, Erica Werner of the Associated Press, and Adam Entous of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Washington is known for its bruising partisan bickering, but things shifted this week in the wake of a shooting that turned an all-American ballpark into a battlefield. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise remains hospitalized after multiple surgeries, but his trauma doctors said late today that they are hopeful the 51-year-old Louisiana lawmaker will make an excellent recovery. Scalise was one of five victims injured when a lone gunman ambushed an early-morning practice. Scalise is the 17th member of Congress shot while in office. Let me say that again: 17th. The most recent, of course, was in 2011 – Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who was critically wounded when a 22-year-old man opened fire at a constituent event. He killed six people and wounded 12 others.
Geoff, Erica – Geoff, you were on the scene; Erica covering Capitol Hill – we saw the fallout. And I wonder, was it a turning point?
GEOFF BENNETT: I think it was certainly an inflection point for this Congress, as members think about the way they talk to and about each other, about the debates they have about legislation. But even I think, you know, if there’s a sense of civility on the surface, when it comes to the substance of the policies that they’re talking about, I don’t know, I think people are really entrenched, you know, on both poles when it comes to things like health care, when it comes to things like taxes, infrastructure. We haven’t even had that debate yet. So those are really engrained – people have really engrained, deeply-felt feelings about those things, so I think, you know, it remains to be seen, really, how this manifests itself.
ERICA WERNER: I agree. There has definitely been a lot of soul-searching on Capitol Hill in the past several days in the wake of the shooting, and I do believe that it’s very sincere on the part of the lawmakers. I mean, you know, for all of the partisanship that we see in Washington, a lot of people who participate in that and are guilty of it don’t actually enjoy that it’s gotten to this point, where partisanship has so overwhelmed Congress that the legislating that’s supposed to happen day to day on the basic issues really doesn’t take place. There’s no hope of a big bipartisan deal on anything. It’s just grinding it out day after day, partisan warfare. That’s not enjoyable for a lot of members of Congress. That said, you know, we’ve been here before with the Giffords shooting where there’s a lot of pledges of this is going to be the turning point, let’s unify, we all want to unify. That falls away very quickly. So I don’t know that that’s going to be any different in this case.
MR. COSTA: Perhaps some of the burden extends to Pennsylvania Avenue in terms of how this national moment continues. And, Jeff and Alexis, when we think about presidents, we think about how they meet these kind of moments – national tragedies, tough moments that are political curveballs, life curveballs. And what did President Trump’s response reveal?
JEFF ZELENY: Well, I think it was the first time, really, almost six months into his presidency, where he has had to play this role. Thank God, I mean, there haven’t been school shootings and other things. But, you know, every president has to do that. But watching him walk into the Diplomatic Reception Room and making that statement, it was definitely a different moment for him. He could have gone a variety of ways in his speech, but he went the way a leader goes, and he says, you know, we have our differences, but we do well in times like this to remember that everyone is serving because they love our country. So I think it was a moment for him. Now, again, that dissipated pretty quickly because these things don’t happen in a vacuum. There’s so much else going on. At the same time, he is sending out a fundraising appeal, you know, sort of accusing Democrats and all of his detractors for a variety of things. His language and own words are very harsh and sharp. But I’ve been wondering if he was going to use this as a moment to give a bigger speech or something, and the White House said no, the way he’ll bring people together is through his agenda. So I’m not sure that this moment is, you know, anything more than fleeting. I hope it is, but I think that, you know, we’ve seen too many of these to think that it might be.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: One of the things that, having covered previous presidents, we have seen in the history of this is exactly what Jeff is saying. We saw Bill Clinton remake his presidency after Oklahoma City. We saw Barack Obama rise to the occasion more times than he would have cared to do, obviously, in the face of tragedy, whether it was Sandy Hook or in Charleston. And it was interesting to see so quickly that the president could rise to the occasion, as Jeff was suggesting. It was good staffing. It was good writing. It was hitting the right notes. But it didn’t hold because very quickly after that – this is a president who’s known for his very personal attacks that can be quite partisan, and within hours he was back on Twitter doing the same thing and talking about his enemies being Democrats, you know, in addition to Republicans in the investigation. So it went by the by.
MR. COSTA: Geoff, is there going to be any legislative response in terms of gun-control policy or something else emerging on Capitol Hill?
MR. BENNETT: Not gun-control policy, but members of the House in particular are giving more thought about using their own budgets, the budgets they use to fund their offices, to pay for their own security. One of the reasons why the episode on Wednesday wasn’t as – wasn’t as bad as it could have been was because Steve Scalise was there, and as a member of House leadership he had a security detail. Most members of the House, and Senate for that matter, don’t have that. So there is more thought – members are thinking a lot more about their own personal security as they go about their daily lives.
MR. COSTA: When I was down in Georgia this week, I was just struck by how many people just want to have a civil discussion about these kind of national moments, and it’s so rare to find a place where you can come together and have a conversation about what this country’s all about. And you’re right, Jeff, the scene in Washington may have taken a pause, but there are a lot of divisions, Erica, still on policy and in Congress, in particular on health care, where the House legislation remains stalled. But it’s being done much in secret, the Republican talks. What’s the holdup as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tries to seek consensus?
MS. WERNER: What’s the holdup? I mean, there is any number of holdups. There are senators, individual senators, from Susan Collins to Rand Paul, that are holdups. There are policy issues on Medicaid, on Planned Parenthood, on abortion, on taxes, on tax credits, the list goes on. And yet, Mitch McConnell’s goal, apparently, still is to have a bill on the floor before the 4th of July recess. As has been pointed out by Democrats repeatedly and even by some Republicans, this is all going on very much in secret, behind closed doors. That said, that’s how all the big deals happen on Capitol Hill, so it’s not like this is an unheard-of breach of, you know, legislative protocol of some sort. This is how it gets done. But I don’t know that they will be able to get there. There are still a lot of disagreements, and it might just be a bridge too far.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, the problem with the health care bill still is that it has no core constituency. Democrats across the board hate it. Republicans, as you say, are split. But even groups like the AARP are against at least the House version because of the tax that it puts on older Americans.
MR. COSTA: And not only those groups, but what about the White House, Jeff? The president called the bill “mean” in a private discussion with senators.
MR. ZELENY: It’s so unusual. I mean, this president has really not talked much about health care at all since the House-passed bill and he had that big sort of session in the Rose Garden. So he invited some Republican senators – I think 15 or so – to the White House earlier this week, the day before the shooting actually, and in a private session he referred to the House bill as “mean, mean,” it was mean-spirited, and he said the Senate bill should be more generous. Well, that raises a whole host of questions, as Erica was just talking about. What does more generous mean, more generous tax credits? It mainly means, you know, there is a consensus in the Senate that they need to do more for senior citizens and lower-income Americans, and the president recognizes that. You never know if he has a full sort of a grasp of the policy here, or – but he does have a grasp of public opinion and sentiment, which is very important here. But I was in Milwaukee with him later that day – just a couple hours later he flew there – and he had four victims of Obamacare standing with him as he walked off Air Force One, and he said hopefully we can get this done. But he did not mention a timeline for this. That’s a lesson he learned, I think, from the House bill.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that, I think, we need to be fair about, the president in the Rose Garden talking about the House bill and celebrating it, but he also during that event said, and we can make it better. So he was celebrating a House bill he knew was going to change in the Senate. And the theory of the case in the White House always was that the Senate was going to do something quite dramatically different than the White House had accomplished with the Freedom Caucus to get the House bill.
But the president is not steeped in all the details of the health care. And what he – really made an impression on him is that the House version got some really negative publicity and he was very aware of that.
MR. COSTA: Especially for the Medicaid – the rollback of the Medicaid expansion. And that’s one thing I’m watching. Will Majority Leader McConnell roll back some of the House proposals on the Medicaid expansion? Because that’s – when Senator Portman and others are talking about issues that matter to them, Erica, it’s that issue.
MS. WERNER: Yeah. I mean, he’s going to have to if he’s going to get votes from – I mean, Senator Portman is one who’s not going to leave Mitch McConnell in the lurch. But other senators that are maybe Senator Capito, Senator Collins, Senator Murkowski – I mean, you have to have a more generous bill to get these senators. But to return – I mean, the idea that the president is calling this bill mean, that did not sit well with a lot of House members who walked the plank on it.
MR. COSTA: But they still all have to work together. Let’s remember, the shooting overshadowed some major developments in the Russia investigation. President Trump confirmed via tweet that the federal special counsel is looking at him for possible obstruction of justice. The president tweeted, “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.” Adam Entous, one of the Washington Post reporters who broke the story, joins us.
Adam, great to have you.
ADAM ENTOUS: Good to be here.
MR. COSTA: Former FBI Director Jim Comey, Adam, testified earlier this month that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation. What has changed?
MR. ENTOUS: Well, really what changed was the encounters that Comey had with the president following that notification. So he tells him this in the first time in January when he’s still a president-elect. And then basically there are other encounters that Comey has with the president that basically are going to be at the center of this investigation into possible obstruction. And Comey, of course, being a prosecutor, an investigator, you know, he has a very good memory. He took notes of all these encounters. And those notes have now been shared with the special counsel. And the special counsel will start interviewing other officials. He was supposed to start this week with some senior intelligence officials. And basically, he will do these interviews, you know, evaluate, you know, these documents that he’s collected from Comey and others, and decide whether or not he has a case for obstruction.
MR. COSTA: Adam, it’s not just the special counsel who’s busy. The Department of Justice seems to be fighting back against some of these stories. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein released an unusual message about the Russia investigation. He warned Americans to exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous officials. What do you make of this, Adam?
MR. ENTOUS: It was a really bizarre statement, frankly. And sources have told us that – you know, that there was quite a bit of, you know, consternation within the Justice Department over the decision to issue this memo, which apparently Rod does without coming under any pressure from the White House. He decides on his own to do it. So is that – is that designed to show solidarity with the president at a moment when obviously the president is looking at the FBI and the Justice Department with – as a threat? Is he – is he – was that the goal of issuing that statement?
It was very strangely worded, particularly the first sentence, because he refers to stories in particular that don’t say the origin of the officials – whether they’re U.S. officials or foreign officials. We don’t have any idea what he’s referring to with that. The sources that we’re dealing with are American officials. We’re not dealing – we’re not getting information from foreign officials to educate our stories, inform our stories about the FBI’s investigation. So we’re really not clear what the intention was there with that statement. Clearly he’s – you know, Rod is in an incredibly difficult position right now. And maybe he is kind of doing – making these – some people would call them mistakes under that pressure, because he’s feeling the pressure.
MR. COSTA: It seems to be scoop after scoop and then anger and more anger from the administration. And that’s reflected in a lot of the response around the president in the West Wing. Stay with us, Adam, because the week began with a close friend of President Trump, Chris Ruddy, the CEO of conservative news site Newsmax, telling Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour that the president was considering perhaps terminating special counsel Robert Mueller. The White House claimed Ruddy never spoke to the president about Mueller, but they didn’t rule out firing him. Among Republicans, there was overwhelming support for Mueller when he was named, which for the most part continues today.
Jeff, is the president considering firing Bob Mueller?
MR. ZELENY: Well, I think he would like to, in a perfect world. And he’s certainly being advised to. Roger Stone told a colleague of mine earlier today that he should fire Mueller and he should fire Rosenstein as well, and he said it’s witch hunt. Hmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So you know the president is having a lot of these same conversations. But, look, it’s very difficult to do. And the White House said just a couple days ago that he has no plans of doing so.
He knows, I think, just the reaction to the firing of the FBI director, I mean, that was a firestorm. This would be a full-on inferno if he were to do that. Republicans would fall away from him on Capitol Hill. This has been a trial balloon of epic proportions here. And it didn’t go very well. It crashed. So I do not believe he’ll be able to fire him. Sure he wants to, but he’s not king. He’s president.
MR. COSTA: What’s your insight, Alexis, into Marc Kasowitz, the president’s outside counsel? What kind of advice is he giving to this furious president?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, it’s interesting because they have a relationship together as client and attorney. And in the past, in previous business experiences, the lesson that they have together is always counterpunch, fight back, you know, defend yourself. But in this particular case, Kasowitz, while he might not be a constitutional lawyer or known in Washington, I think there is lots of evidence that the combination of legal advice that the president is getting is to be very careful about what it is that he may act on.
The president, although he is getting advice to stay off Twitter and not inject himself into this, he’s ignored that – (laughter) – definitely ignoring that. There was also a theory that the president might be trying to pressure Mueller by basically saying, I could fire you, to dangle in front of him a threat that would supposedly be – have a chilling effect on him. But we’re also seeing that, you know, there is no evidence that the special counsel is even responding to any of this. That he’s going ahead, he’s hiring, you know, he’s building his team and moving ahead.
MR. COSTA: And then the administration, Erica, is battling back on Capitol Hill. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in the hot seat on Tuesday. He testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee and defended his role in the Trump presidential campaign, and his actions at the Justice Department. Erica, you got to wonder, is Sessions – who has an uneasy relationship at times with the president – is he reflective of where the administration is? And what’s the mood on Capitol Hill as the administration fights back?
MS. WERNER: Well, as for Sessions, he did seem to be trying to give testimony that if the president were watching – as perhaps likely he was – that the president would like to hear. He was quite combative, defensive of himself, of the administration, would not reveal anything about conversations that he’d had with President Trump, which did not go over well with senators of either party, really, particularly because he didn’t seem to have much of a rationale for why he was not able to disclose those conversations. He said that Trump had not claimed executive privilege, but that perhaps at some later date he would, which – OK.
As for the broader situation on Capitol Hill regarding the special counsel, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, are backing Mueller. They were both asked in this past week and firmly behind Mueller. So were it to come to pass that the president would listen to these other people – Roger Stone or someone else – and go down that road, one can only imagine what would happen on Capitol Hill. I can’t believe it would go over very well.
MR. BENNETT: And the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said the same thing. He said: Mueller’s a man of integrity. So, but I do – I would add that I think – setting aside the merits of what the president has tweeted, I think it’s effective messaging to his core of supporters. And that’s because if you go to Trump country, the western part of North Carolina, certain parts of Ohio, certain parts of Florida, people say the exact same thing he’s saying in those tweets, that he is the subject of a witch hunt, that the Washington establishment doesn’t want to work with him because he’s an outsider. You take it to another level, you have folks like Newt Gingrich who said that Mueller is the tip of the spear of the deep state.
So even though you have his supporters who say they don’t necessarily like that the president tweets so much, in talking with people throughout the country who, you know, are tried and true Trump supporters, they say a lot of the things that he is saying about himself. So I think, you know, if they’re looking for him to fight what they perceive to be the establishment, I think he’s doing that in some of this messaging.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The flipside of that, though, is that the president has promised those supporters and that base a lot in terms of an agenda. The president in every tweet now where he is distracted and talking about this investigation, he is taking his party’s eyes off of the agenda that he – it was already a very substantially ambitious agenda. And it has made Republicans on Capitol Hill extremely nervous, and the president’s allies in the Cabinet and in the administration also very nervous, because they don’t want to go into 2018 without delivering on some of these agenda items.
MR. ZELENY: All that’s true, but he sees it as a political fight, though. I talked to one of his top advisers today. He said, look, the legal stuff will come later, but this is a political fight that they want to win. But you’re right, when there’s no substance that happens – you know, he can blame a lot of it on Democrats, and he says, you know, they even call themselves “resist.” That could be effective, actually, because, you know, there is some level of that, but the reality is Republicans control the government for the first time in 10 years; the burden’s on them.
MR. COSTA: What about the policy fight among Republicans? They passed a sanctions bill this week that really goes against the administration’s softer line, Erica, on Russia.
MS. WERNER: Yeah, that was very interesting. Going back quickly to what Jeff just said, you know, the president is not running in 2018, Republicans are, and they have to have something to run on, and he’s not really helping with that. But the sanctions bill was fascinating because you could only see it was a rebuke of Trump in that it gives Congress the authority to review any change – any weakening or change of sanctions on Russia. Of course, there was a lot of concern coming into the administration that Trump would try to weaken sanctions on Russia, and now Congress has said you can’t do that without our say-so.
MR. COSTA: And, Geoff, everybody in the White House seems to be getting a lawyer. The vice president got an outside counsel. You have the president’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, now getting an attorney. There seems to be real unease in the West Wing.
MR. BENNETT: There does seem to be real unease. And those lawyers, by the way, don’t come cheap. And you have to imagine that for President Trump, one who values loyalty, by some of his actions, some of his tweets, the way he’s handled this investigation, you have to wonder, the people that work for him are having to deal with the blowback from that.
MR. COSTA: Adam, glad you’re still with us. We also learn not only did the vice president hire outside counsel, but the outside counsel is continuing to review Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and his senior adviser, his dealings with Russia. What have we learned about any kind of progress that investigation has made on the Kushner front?
MR. ENTOUS: Yeah, so a few weeks back we reported that the FBI was investigating Kushner in connection to meetings he had with Russian officials, particularly in December 2016. And what we reported this week to update that information is that investigation, in addition to looking into those contacts, is looking at potentially his financial dealings. So this obviously opens up a new avenue for investigators, which could be potentially very troubling for Trump and for his family. Obviously, here we’re talking about his closest adviser, really, at the White House, and somebody who is playing a key role in particularly dealing with foreign governments in these meetings that they had in the run-up to the election, after the election, and in the early part of the administration.
MR. COSTA: When are we going to hear from Jared Kushner, Adam?
MR. ENTOUS: You know, frankly, I don’t know. There was talk that he would be speaking to investigators on the Hill from the Senate Intelligence Committee. They talked about doing that this month. I’ve heard that’s now been put off. There’s an issue of deconfliction, as they call it, where if he’s going to be speaking to the special counsel, you know, he wants to make sure that anything he says to the Senate investigators, which could be shared with the – with the FBI, with the special counsel, that he’s not putting himself in jeopardy. That prompted Mike Flynn to seek, effectively, immunity that what he says to one isn’t going to be used against him in the other. So that’s basically the issue in front of him.
MR. COSTA: Thanks so much, Adam.
MR. ENTOUS: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: Tough week in Washington. A lot of questions continue. Thanks, everybody, for being here.
And welcome to Washington Week, Geoff.
MR. BENNETT: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about the Trump administration’s new Cuba policy that tightens travel and trade restrictions, and a surprise decision to reverse a campaign pledge to deport DREAMers – undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
To all the dads out there, happy Father’s Day. I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.