ROBERT COSTA: In this divided government, is compromise possible? I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE COHEN (D-TN): (From video.) Flynn, Manafort, Gates, Papadopoulos, and Michael Cohen, and dozens of indictments including 13 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, and Roger Stone. Are you overseeing a witch hunt?
MR. COSTA: Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testifies before the House Judiciary Committee, the latest showdown between the Trump administration and Congress.
ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL MATTHEW WHITAKER: (From video.) At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided, any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation.
MR. COSTA: Democrats are stepping up oversight, launching new investigations of the president’s finances.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s called presidential harassment.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, another government shutdown looms unless the president and Congress cut a deal. And remembering John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The consequences of elections and divided government were on full display this week. President Trump delivered his State of the Union address with a sharp message for Democrats.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. (Laughter.) It just doesn’t work that way.
MR. COSTA: House Democrats ignored that warning; they announced new investigations of the president’s finances.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We will not surrender our constitutional responsibility for oversight. That would make us delinquent in our duties.
MR. COSTA: Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker defended his handling of the Mueller probe testifying before the House Judiciary Committee.
ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL MATTHEW WHITAKER: (From video.) I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Dan Balz, chief Washington correspondent for The Washington Post; Katty Kay, Washington anchor for BBC World News America; and Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR.
Dan, we step back from this Whitaker showdown today with House Democrats and we see the beginning of divided government. What did we learn?
DAN BALZ: Well, I think we learned that this is going to be a very long and difficult year for President Trump, that House Democrats are not just gearing up but geared up to go after him in all kinds of ways, that this is going to be a contentious year. And I think one of the things we learned from the State of the Union, from the clip that you just showed, is the degree to which he is nervous about that. There is a certain amount of I don’t know whether it’s insecurity, fear, or whatever, but he has a sense of what is coming and he is very unhappy about that. So I think we’re – you know, despite his calls for bipartisanship in the State of the Union, I think we’re in for a very, very partisan year.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you have been up on Capitol Hill covering this all for NPR. Matthew Whitaker, a loyalist for President Trump, he refused to engage on the witch hunt question.
SUSAN DAVIS: He did, and there’s no surprise there. And as he did note multiple times in his testimony, you know, he’s a very short-lived AG. We’re going to have a full-time AG next week.
I think to Dan’s point, this was just a trailer for what’s to come this year, that it’s going to be contentious. This is not going to be a Congress where legislative accomplishments is what it’s going to be known for. It’s a Congress that is going to make issues of accountability and of oversight its top priorities.
To the president’s point that it just doesn’t work that way, this is pretty much exactly how it works, right, oversight of the administration. You know, I also think that, to the point of him attacking the investigations, there’s a playbook here. It’s similar to what he’s done to the Mueller special counsel investigation, that you start early, you attack the investigators, and it will help I think in the president’s mind weaken the standing of whatever Democrats may or may not find in the course of these investigations.
MR. COSTA: Talking about the position of Whitaker, he was pretty combative with Chairman Nadler, said at one point, sir, your five minutes are up. Saying that to a chairman caused an uproar inside of the room. Is this what we should expect from other Trump officials this year as they head to Capitol Hill?
AMNA NAWAZ: Oh, if they’re taking their signals from Whitaker it might be. But there was a gasp in the room when that moment unfolded, and there were just a series of moments in that hearing today, combative moments with members of Congress asking questions, reminding him I’m the one asking the questions here. At one point there was a snide remark back to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and she said your humor is not appreciated here. There’s a tone that’s being set here, and it’s not unique to Whitaker. We saw it in the family separation hearing earlier this week and we’ll probably see it again. This family separation issue is coming up again and again. Democrats are making a point here – we are not here to play, we’re setting a tone – and I think we’re going to continue to see this in all the hearings ahead.
MR. COSTA: And Whitaker on family separations today said the administration doesn’t have that as a policy.
MS. NAWAZ: That’s right. Well, we’ve heard that again and again. Secretary Nielsen had said that originally as well. The administration’s playing a bit of a game with the words there, right? They say we don’t have an official policy, we never had an official policy of family separation. We all know that the zero-tolerance policy they put into place is what resulted in family separation, and they’ve got a real mess on their hands right now. They’re facing down investigations where people have said you could have separated thousands of more children than you officially reported. There’s no way for them to clean this up in a good way. The more this is investigated, the worse it gets for them.
MR. COSTA: Katty, it’s not just the Judiciary hearing and Matthew Whitaker and Chairman Nadler. That was just the latest flashpoint in the Trump administration’s faceoff with House Democrats. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff is now looking into the president’s finances and his ties to foreign companies. Schiff also said this week the panel would hand over more than four dozen transcripts of interviews from its Russia probe to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. President Trump called these latest moves by Democrats presidential harassment. What do you make of Schiff and his moves? We also see the Ways and Means Committee trying to get the president’s tax returns. Are the Democrats being strategic or doing too much?
KATTY KAY: When the president tweets in all caps and when he calls Adam Schiff a political hack, you can get the sense that it’s getting under his skin, right? And I think there were the two moments this week. One was the extent of the bigger-than-expected extent of the Democrats’ probe into the finances, and then the robust way they came out of the Whitaker hearing – we’re not holding back at all. And I think those two elements together have unnerved the White House because they know that the Democrats, whatever – there’s some concerns about whether Democrats may be at odds over the issue of impeachment. Make no mistake, Nancy Pelosi wants to hold this White House to account. She has spent the last two years saying they have not been held to account. She now feels the onus is on her to do that, and she’s going to let these investigations go as far as they want, impeachment and the Mueller probe being something slightly separate.
MR. COSTA: How long can that hold, though, Dan? You look at Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire; he’s pressuring Democrats to move quickly on impeachment. Richie Neal from Massachusetts, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, trying to tread carefully on the tax returns. Can Speaker Pelosi keep off the left and keep this chairman focused right now in terms of the investigations?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think she can until we see what the Mueller report looks like. At that point I think all bets are off and a lot will depend on what’s in that report, and we simply don’t know how damning or not that might be.
I think that the point you raise, though, is an important one, and that is what is the overall strategy here. Is it to, you know, in a sense flood the zone with investigations? That can get difficult. In other words, each of these chairmen has some latitude on what to do and they’re going to be aggressive. Speaker Pelosi has to think about, OK, what are we really trying to accomplish with this? Who are we really trying to go after? What questions do we really want to answer? Those are strategic questions that I think the Democrats have to answer and that I suspect the speaker is quite mindful of at this point. But nonetheless, it’s not going to be an easy job of management.
MS. KAY: One of the things I’ve heard from Pelosi repeatedly is this issue of corruption, and I think that’s why you’re seeing Schiff go after the finances. And although the president has said that’s a red line for him, people going after his businesses, the Democrats are just going to blow through that red line. There is a – this is something they take very seriously and that Nancy Pelosi takes very seriously, the idea that this is a White House that is corrupt, that has misused government – misused its power and its position as the presidency in order to enable – to enrich the president himself.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you referend earlier Bill Barr. He was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week on a partisan vote, 12 votes to 10 votes, expected to be confirmed in the coming days. But he hasn’t given a clear answer about that Mueller report, whether he would release it to the public or not.
MS. DAVIS: I mean, this is the million-dollar question, right? What is he going to do? What is Bob Mueller going to send him? What is he going to do with it? And how hard is Congress going to fight to get it? I think that one of these oversight questions is, if he does not release the full report to Congress, this is one of the things that they’re going to fight the Justice Department on. They want that report. That want as much information as possible. And also, once Mueller wraps up work, remember Congress can call him to testify too. And that is going to be – when we say that you think the Whitaker hearing today had a lot of headlines, imagine when Bob Mueller’s going to be coming up to Capitol Hill to testify in public. And that is something very much that Democrats are going to want to do.
MR. COSTA: When you look about the Democrats, what do you make of the Republican handling of this? Are they rallying to President Trump on Capitol Hill or are they being cagey themselves as they look ahead to their reelection campaigns?
MS. NAWAZ: I think they’re probably weighing all the possible options right now. We haven’t seen much of a response yet, right? I mean, first out the gate the Democrats are kind of taking up a lot of the territory and going on the offense. And in this first week, that’s what you’d expect. In the long run, I agree, look, a lot is riding on the Mueller report. And in a lot of ways you’re seeing some hedging going on here because no one really knows what that will hold. But in the meantime, if you go back to how you brought us into this conversation, that line in President Trump’s State of the Union address, when he set up his opposites, right? Peace and war, and then legislation and investigations, to some degree he’s right. This Congress, and Democrats in particular, have to find a way to move forward beyond something that’s not just being an adversary to President Trump and to past policies of this administration, because that is ultimately what people want to see and why this new class got elected – was to get things done.
MR. COSTA: And they feel, though – many Democrats – the president just doesn’t have the appetite for doing a bill on prescription drugs or doing a bill on infrastructure. And that seems to be part of the reason they’re moving forward with their strategy as is.
MS. NAWAZ: Maybe. And maybe it’s a question of appetite. And maybe it’s a question of the right people not bringing forward those ideas. But, look, we saw the president’s State of the Union float some things that there has been common ground on before, right? When you talk about prescription drug prices, you’ve already seen Secretary Azar make a lot of progress there. There could be something there. The question is whether or not Democrats and Republicans come together after this one big piece of border security they have to get past first.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with this theme about could there be a deal, because it all is about the contention today and this whole week on Capitol Hill. But lawmakers amid all this are still discussing details about a border security funding agreement ahead of next Friday’s deadline. The bipartisan group says they’re making progress. Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby says the president, quote, “urged me to get to yes,” and is hopeful an agreement could be reached by Monday. Do we expect an agreement by Monday to be signed by the president, or does he continue to hold back, Dan?
MR. BALZ: I think everything we’ve seen over the course of these negotiations pre-shutdown, post-shutdown, would suggest they’re probably not going to get there by Monday. We might be completely surprised by that, but I think that the difficulty of this is still what it’s always been, which is how much are Democrats prepared to move in the direction of Trump? They’ve given not much indication publicly of much willingness. And what would the president be willing to sign off on, depending on what happens in that room? I mean, those are the two big unknowns.
MR. COSTA: But there’s a lot of talk – what are the details of what we know so far about what could be in this? Two billion – down from 5.7 billion (dollars) to 2 billion (dollars) for a barrier, not necessarily a wall? What are we looking at?
MS. KAY: A few rose bushes. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: A few rose bushes. That’s what you’d have in an English garden, perhaps.
MS. DAVIS: Here’s the deal. The wildcard here is not Congress. If you talk –I’ve talked to a lot of the 17 appropriators that are trying to cut this deal. And they’ll all say, left to their own devices they could do this on the back of a napkin in an hour amongst themselves. The wildcard has been, will be President Trump up and until the point he puts pen to paper and signs that deal into law. And the unknown factor here is I think these congressional negotiators can reach a deal. Will he support it? And will it be good enough for him to be able to declare a victory? And will the media reception to it be one that he feels like is a victory?
And I think we saw the first time what led to the shutdown was the president really, you know, taking it from conservatives, from conservative media, that he was faltering on the wall. This has always been a political fight. This – the wall is – this fight right now is not a policy fight. It’s a political knife fight. And I think the president is looking for a way to save face, and Republicans are desperately trying to give him something he can call a win.
MS. KAY: Yeah, because in Trump’s mind the wall is so much bigger than just a wall, right? This is his presidency. It’s his ability to negotiate, his ability to be tough, his ability to stand up to Democrats, his ability to give the base what they want, his ability to deliver onto the promises that he made on the campaign. It’s all of those things wrapped up into the symbolism of the wall. And the question at the moment seems to be is how low is he prepared to go and still feel that he can sell this to Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh and say, you see, I’ve got more than rose bushes, I’ve got a wall?
MR. COSTA: But there’s the right wing, like Rush Limbaugh on radio and others on the blog saying: Don’t accept anything less than that 5.7 billion (dollars). But what about Republicans on Capitol Hill? They don’t want another shutdown.
MS. KAY: Right, saying: Please don’t shutdown, and please don’t declare a national emergency. And people on his reelect campaign also saying to me that they would much prefer that he accepted a deal, because they realize that the shutdown is killing them, and to tune out some of those more extreme voices on the right on immigration.
MR. COSTA: Is there an escape? Katty brought up the national emergency. Could the president – he’s been tweeting about a so-called human wall, sending more troops to the border, maybe declaring a national emergency, maybe not. What do – you’ve been down to the border. What do people on the border want?
MS. NAWAZ: Listen, you talk to people on the border and what they want is some kind of solution, not necessarily in the form of a wall. Walls work in some places. And they’re absolutely right when they talk to some Customs and Border Protection people and say the wall worked here, it worked there. It doesn’t work everywhere. The president himself has been shown that evidence in some of these briefings.
Where the common ground exists, and I’ve talked to some members who are on this bipartisan conference commission before they started talking, there is common ground there. To your point, they could absolutely hammer it out in a moment if they wanted to. They need to be able to give the president the cover to be able to go back to his base and say: I secured the border. Even if it is not a concrete sea-to-shining-sea wall, I secured the border in some way. And you’ve seen that movement already.
I’ll say two signs of hope. We saw Republican members of that commission coming out and saying, we think we’re going to get there very soon. And then you saw the president yesterday hedging his language just a bit. A week ago, the talks were a waste. Yesterday, he said let’s see what happens.
MR. BALZ: I think one thing to keep in mind is the way that the end of the shutdown was covered, and the degree to which it was interpreted across the board as a defeat for the president, he certainly does not want another round of that as this comes to a head.
MS. DAVIS: And Republicans really don’t want a national emergency. That is one of the subtexts here.
MR. COSTA: Why not?
MS. DAVIS: Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both publicly and privately to the president, has cautioned him against this path. You know, if you’re a conservative who’s worried about executive overreach, this is a really good example of executive overreach. And I think the concern is if the president goes down this path, what is to prevent a future Democratic president from also invoking a national emergency when they lose a budget fight with Congress? I mean, it does set a dangerous precedent. I don’t think this president cares all that much about norms and precedents, but I think his partners on Capitol Hill really do.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of norms and precedents, the speech was important for what it laid out on immigration as these border talks continue. But what about people, our U.S. allies around the world, watching this speech? Do they see a president changing his tune at all? Were they alarmed at all by his language?
MS. KAY: Look, we’ve had two years in Europe of getting used to the president’s language. And there’s a certain amount of sobriety amongst European diplomats that I speak to that you don’t always take them at what they say. You take them at the relationships you have with members of the State Department and members of the White House and see if you can get things done. It was noticeable that there was no mention of NATO. It was noticeable that there was actually no mention of Europe at all, only of Russia, and that in not particularly critical terms. And that is the one issue that Europeans are particularly focused on.
MR. COSTA: And you’ve been traveling around Europe, Dan. What’s your take?
MR. BALZ: Well, there’s a lot of nervousness.
MS. KAY: It’s not like we don’t have problems of our own, right? (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: Well, yeah, every – you know, every country’s got internal problems. And they’re – you know, they’re absorbed by it. Certainly Britain is with Brexit. But there is a feeling that the president does not share the values that European – you know, our closest allies have had over the years in terms of transatlantic relationship and in particular the multilateral relationships. There is a belief that maybe they can ride it out, that some damage has been done, but perhaps they can contain it. They’re nervous about what might happen if the president is under pressure either from the Mueller report or because of the reelect that he might lash out in some other way, and that they could be on the receiving end of that. There’s also a recognition that some of the questions that he’s raised are legitimate questions, whether it’s NATO funding or things like that. So there’s a – there’s a time of worry. There’s also a concern about if he were to get a second term what the real lasting damage might be.
MR. COSTA: We also got a glimpse with the State of the Union of the Democratic Party. Stacey Abrams from Georgia gave the Democratic response. She’s being recruited to run for Senate in 2020 in that state. We also saw this week the pressure Speaker Pelosi is facing, a rising left in her conference. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposes, along with Senator Markey, the Green New Deal. What do we make of the Democratic Party this week? And can Speaker Pelosi in these border talks and elsewhere contain them?
MS. NAWAZ: Yeah, go back to Stacey Abrams on the night of the State of the Union delivering the response, making history by doing so as the first black woman to do that. You couldn’t have had two more opposite sets of optics, right? You see where the Democratic Party is. You see where it is that they’re headed. And that’s what we saw reflected in the State of the Union audience too, right? All the women, all the diversity, that’s where the Democratic Party is going.
Moving forward, when you talk about how Speaker Pelosi actually handles that part of her party, so far it seems like she’s been handling it pretty well, right? She allows them to sort of say what they need to say, protest the things they need to protest. You saw this great big Green New Deal come out. Does it have any teeth? Probably not, but it – she’s giving them room to run to be able to move the party and to bring in those folks to that part of the tent and open it up to that part of the electorate. But it hasn’t created a problem for her yet. So if it does, we may see what happens then.
MS. DAVIS: I think a lot of people try to look at the new progressives in Congress as sort of the mirror image of the tea party movement that came in, and I think that’s a really false way to look at it. They’re just fundamentally different things. And I’ve talked to a lot of these progressives, saying, you know, what do you say to that when people call you the tea party of the left, and they’ll say we see ourselves differently because the tea party by design came here to vote no and tear it down, and progressives on the left are for government and want to vote yes. And that is something for a leader like Speaker Pelosi, when most of your members want to get to yes, it’s a lot easier to keep them together than when everybody wants to vote no.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stay in the House and end tonight with a farewell to the dean of the House, Congressman John Dingell. He passed away Thursday at the age of 92. The Democrat from Michigan was the longest-serving representative in U.S. history, spending nearly 60 years in the chamber. Dingell, a veteran, served in the seat previously held by his father. He twice chaired the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. He is survived by his wife, Debbie, who holds the House seat he once held.
Dan, you’ve covered Dingell for a long time, the late congressman now. What’s his legacy?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, his legacy is as long as, you know, you can make it. I mean, he’s been there through every significant fight. He’s been there through every fight in terms of advancement, of progress, whether it’s, you know, Medicare and Medicaid, civil rights. You know, he’s been somebody who’s held people in power accountable. He’s run any number of investigations. I mean, he’s just been there throughout the whole modern history of the United States. And when you look at that, there’s basically almost no one who’s had that combination of longevity and impact that John Dingell has had.
MR. COSTA: And he often would talk about his father, being with his father after Pearl Harbor, being there in Washington as FDR made his case to the nation – lived through so much history, made so much history.
MS. KAY: Yeah, it’s not just that he served under I think it was 11 presidents, right, John Dingell, it’s that he has that – he was there, you know, for the Second World War. We’re losing those people. We’re losing that memory of what the country can be like, what the West can be like, the country that was built and the society and the liberal democratic values that were built after the end of the Second World War. And I think for people who are concerned about the threats to those liberal democratic values, John Dingell represents a time when they were really thriving and when nations worked together to protect them. And as he, you know, lamented in his Washington Post piece on the day he died, this is a time of much more divisiveness.
MR. COSTA: I know you were reading that, the Washington Post piece by Dingell.
MS. NAWAZ: I was. It was such a beautiful thing if you imagine someone dictating the final words they want to leave behind in those final moments. And I’ll tell you, the one line that stuck with me was something he wanted to leave for other people to carry forward, and he talked about elected officials not having power but holding power, and that power coming from the trust that people place in them. And one of the last lines that he – that he wrote in there was about how he prays to God that we’ll, all of us – not just officials, but all of us as Americans and participants in this great democracy – find the wisdom to recognize the responsibility we hold.
MR. COSTA: Susan, he was a man of powerful words. He was also a lot of fun to cover. I remember his –
MS. DAVIS: He was so much fun to cover. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: We used to stake him out, he’d have that scooter with “the dean” on his scooter.
MS. DAVIS: He is so much fun to cover.
MR. COSTA: On his scooter, the license plate that said “the dean” on it, pretty cool. And he was – he was a man who enjoyed the House, a man of the House.
MS. DAVIS: He was – he was an original. He was an American original. When I first came to the Hill after the 2002 elections and I started covering John Dingell, Republicans were trying to pass the Medicare Part D bill and Dingell was in the minority. And he went to them and said you need to invite me to your meetings as you write this bill; and they said why would we invite you, you’re not going to vote for it. And he said, you’re right, I’m not, but you – and quoting LBJ he said you’d rather have me inside the tent looking out than outside the tent looking in. (Laughter.) We’ll clean that up. And they were right, he didn’t vote for it but he did help them write it. And I think it was proof of a time when you could be both an unabashed partisan and a good legislator, and those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive even though they increasingly feel that way now.
MR. COSTA: And he became a Twitter star in retirement.
MS. DAVIS: He became a Twitter star. You can still be relevant into your 90s on social media and in politics.
MS. KAY: A quarter of a million followers on Twitter.
MS. DAVIS: And that’s a good legacy to leave behind, so –
MR. BALZ: And wickedly funny, wickedly funny on Twitter. I mean, just – I mean, he had a great sense of humor, and it – and it came – the world could see it in a way that people who covered him were able to see it or who were his colleagues, but on Twitter the whole world could see it.
MR. COSTA: Yeah, a special guy. I remember just reporting on him, and it’s – he was someone who appreciated the institution of the House. And even if you were a young reporter, he’d answer your questions. He took the job seriously. So we wish everybody in the Dingell family all of the best this week.
And thanks, everybody, for joining us. And thank you for joining us tonight. And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. We will discuss all of that political chaos in Virginia. Watch it on our website after 10 p.m. on Friday every Friday or listen on your favorite app.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.