SUSAN DAVIS: President Trump charges ahead with his “America first” agenda. I’m Susan Davis. We examine the president’s worldview and the world’s view of the president, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do: I fix things.
MS. DAVIS: President Trump’s fixes include extreme vetting of refugees and foreign visitors from seven targeted nations, a warning to Israel about expanded settlements, new sanctions against Iran, and the threat of more sanctions against Russia. And contentious calls with two of America’s closest allies have some Republicans questioning the president’s tough-talking diplomacy.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From video.) This, in my view, was an unnecessary and, frankly, harmful open dispute over an issue which is not nearly important as United States-Australian cooperation and working together.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.
MS. DAVIS: Plus, the latest on the Senate confirmation battle for the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court. We’ll get analysis from Margaret Brennan of CBS News, Michael Duffy of TIME Magazine, Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal, and Pete Williams of NBC News.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
Once again, from Washington, Susan Davis of NPR.
MS. DAVIS: Good evening. President Trump’s second week in office was as frenzied as his first. It began with the chaotic rollout of new restrictions on refugees as well as visitors from seven majority-Muslim nations. The week ended with new sanctions against Iran. And in between, the president fired the acting attorney general, nominated a justice to the Supreme Court, and talked his way into a couple of foreign policy clashes with two of the nation’s closest allies.
The pace of these two weeks, Carol, suggests that President Trump is not easing into the Oval Office. What’s the strategy here?
CAROL LEE: No, he definitely isn’t. The strategy – well, there are those in the president’s inner circle who really like this. It’s sort of a shock-and-awe kind of strategy that’s designed to keep the opponents off their toes, you know, and that includes us, the media. You know, you’re covering one thing one day and then you’re moving to the next. And so it’s not just his political opponents, but it’s also the people who are covering him, and they really like that. And yet, there are others in the president’s inner circle that are arguing for less of a kind of move, you know, as fast as you can kind of strategy. And they got a little bit of leverage when the president hit a speed bump over the weekend with his refugee policy and that rollout did not go very well. And then you have the president himself, who loves this, and he wants to go faster, and he’s constantly busy and he prefers this atmosphere and he thrives on chaos. And so all of that is resulting in a lot of different things happening at a lot of – in a lot of different – in a very small time frame.
And to go to what the – you know, what world leaders are looking at this and saying is, you know, they’re just – it’s unpredictability from the United States in a way that they haven’t seen before. There’s a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of that on Capitol Hill. And so, you know, there’s no signs that – there are those in the president’s inner circle who want him to slow down a little bit, and he discussed that with them, but it’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump is going to slow down.
MS. DAVIS: But you say unpredictable, but essentially everything the president has done in these first two weeks is something he campaigned on. So in one hand, isn’t this just a president making good on his promises?
MS. LEE: Yes, although I think that people didn’t realize what some of that would look like. I don’t think people realized that that would mean picking a fight with Australia, for instance. (Laughter.) That kind of surprised everybody. And so that – I think, in that sense, that is more what has people worried. We all expected him to be tougher on Iran. I think we haven’t seen how he’ll approach China yet, which everybody is wondering what that’ll look like because the consequences there are pretty high. But people didn’t expect that he would take on Australia or Mexico in this particular way, and that has – you know, if you’re talking about world leaders, they’re looking at that and allies are really nervous about that and thinking what is this going to mean for them, what if they get in our crosshairs next. And so it’s caused a lot of kind of consternation.
MS. DAVIS: Michael, one of the key drivers of this strategy in the White House is Steve Bannon. He’s on the cover of TIME Magazine this week, which calls him the “great manipulator.” Why is that?
MICHAEL DUFFY: Well, I think if you want to be an important White House advisor, no matter what president you’re for but particularly this one, you need a – you need to have the president’s ear, you need to have a keen sense of storytelling, and a narrative that puts that president right at the center of that story. And Bannon, who five – just five or six months ago was running a conservative news site that worried a great deal about the future of the country, has become that person, an advisor like we haven’t seen in quite some time. And it is – he is the one who has emerged as the person who is at the – responsible for the tone, if not the exact words of that memorable inaugural speech, who very much pushed the timing and the tone of the refugee ban which we were talking about all week long, and by the beginning of the weekend had managed to put himself on the National Security Council without everyone in the White House – or many people outside of the White House knowing about it, which means he’s quite a smooth operator in the back sort of corridors of the West Wing. And it’s really the first time, really, a political advisor, going back to almost 30 or 40 years, has had a seat like that. So if it’s chaos that this White House thrives on, if it’s shock and awe that they want to advance – and they clearly do – Bannon is really at the center of it.
PETE WILLIAMS: So does he play two roles? He is not only the person who translates Mr. Trump’s message to the public, but does he also push Mr. Trump in certain directions?
MR. DUFFY: You know, there’s no question. I think, again, this is a little bit about Bannon’s narrative not just of his own sort of worldview, but of Trump’s place in it.
MS. DAVIS: And in his words in an interview with The Washington Post, when Bannon talked about we’re seeing the birth of a new political order, that’s a pretty dramatic statement for –
MR. DUFFY: Yeah, Bannon has a worldview that can really only be described as semi-apocalyptic. He sees the United States in a series of 80-year cycles that kind of begin with crisis, move on to revolt – these are words that you can find in his considerable work and speeches and films – goes past revolt to destruction. That’s the – he thinks we’re in that cycle now, we’re going to basically blow up the current order, and it’s followed by rebirth. And he has a – he thinks we’ve been through four of those in the history of the country. This is a now a destructive cycle, in his view, and that means the ruling elites – whether it’s in business or politics or media – need to go away. And that very much informs not just some of the policies that they’ve been advancing in the first two weeks, but also some of the language. And I think we all know you can kind of just pick any of them and hang them on that chart.
So, yeah, that’s how – that’s how they are positioning themselves. It’s how they justify, in many ways, with their own audience and their own backers, what they’re doing. And it’s really what powers them intellectually.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But I would say – I would say, too, he as a figure is someone who perhaps is most troublesome for some of our allies, because they question, is he thick-skinned enough to truly be the revolutionary he has described himself to be, and is he not just a disruptor but perhaps destructive? And you heard that from one of the European leaders this week, the former prime minister of Poland who is now leading the European Council, putting the United States in the same context as China, Russia and terrorism in terms of being an external threat because of some of the language that particularly this advisor to the president has used in terms of blowing up multilateral agreements and blowing up things like the European Union and NATO. And so some of our allies are saying, do I need to take him at his word, and is this truly what the president of the United States is looking out at the rest of the world with, this idea of breaking up rather than strengthening some of the alliances with some of our oldest friends and allies. And that’s something that really, beyond our own borders and TV screens, is causing concern.
MS. DAVIS: Margaret, specifically on the immigration ban, how has – what has been the global response to that, particularly from the countries that have been affected by the travel bans?
MS. BRENNAN: Well, I mean, if you talk to people within Washington on Capitol Hill, they would have said – and plenty of Republicans – look, I would have been fine with the content if you hadn’t been so messy in the rollout.
And I think some of that would have been easier for some of our diplomats around the world to have executed if they had adequate warning. And by most accounts, the American diplomats I’ve talked to around the world, they were very much caught off-guard in terms of just going through some of the loopholes, particularly in a place like Iraq. That is a country that really was, for many of the people crafting our National Security Strategy, the most troublesome. When you have people who are on the battlefield – Iraqi generals who have fought alongside Americans in this fight against ISIS who can’t come to the United States to visit their own families, that becomes a problem. That’s not just a matter of feeling. That’s a matter of alienating your friends. That’s a problem when it comes to America’s overarching national security. When it comes to some of the other countries that are on that list – Sudan, Libya, others – it’s not as troublesome.
The refugee ban, even our European partners have had a hard time – that’s a – that’s a different duration; that’s a four-month halt versus the three-month halt on the seven countries – and that just from a humanitarian point of view they’ve raised issues with.
But the question is, who was left off that list who was considered, and what was the review process going into this. And I don’t think we really know what went into crafting this beyond some of the folks that we think have their fingerprints on it.
MR. DUFFY: There doesn’t – there doesn’t appear to have been a review process, except –
MS. BRENNAN: Well, that is a key point, yeah.
MS. DAVIS: And, Pete, the president also learned this week that there are limits on executive power. This is being challenged in the courts. The immigration ban has already been immediately challenged in the courts. What’s the latest there, and what’s likely to come of that?
MR. WILLIAMS: There are at least 10 lawsuits now. There will be more next week. Every civil rights lawyer in America is currently at the word processor trying to figure out a better way to attack this. (Laughter.)
Today, a judge in Boston said, you know what, I’m not going to extend a temporary restraining order, but a judge in Seattle agreed with Washington state and Minnesota, who said this is killing our economy, this is very bad for our states, asked the judge to put a hold on the executive order nationwide, and the judge said yes and imposed just very late today a nationwide stop on enforcing the executive order. Now, as a practical matter, it doesn’t mean much because all the people who had visas to come to the United States, those visas all went poof when the executive order went into effect last week. They’re no longer valid. So before anybody can start to come in and take advantage of this lull from the court order, they’d have to go to the consular office in their country and get another visa. In the meantime, the government will have rushed to an appeals court and tried to put a stay on this order. So guess what? This is going to be going on for the next several weeks, all sorts of different courts orders popping up all over the country, making this rollout just as uneven as it was in the beginning.
MS. DAVIS: Is there any consensus over whether it’s legally sound or not?
MR. WILLIAMS: No, there isn’t. And here’s the problem. At its core – there are constitutional arguments about it, that it treats people unfairly, it – but there holds all sorts of issues about whether the due-process rights apply to immigrants. But at its core, there’s two conflicting federal laws. One says the president has the power in order to protect national security to prevent, the law says, a class of aliens, is the term the law uses, from entering the country. The president says, that’s all I’ve done. On the other hand, another federal law says, you can’t discriminate against immigrants on the basis of what country they come from. So the courts are going to have to resolve this apparent tension.
MR. DUFFY: When the acting attorney general resigned, did – was more made of than needed to be or was that an invitation to being sacked? And were there people at the Justice Department who thought perhaps that was a perfectly fine regulation to revoke?
MR. WILLIAMS: Yes to both questions. Sally Yates, we’re talking about, who was the holdover from the Obama administration, the acting attorney general, that’s the sort of tradition at DOJ. And what she said is in this memo, I just can’t enforce this because I don’t think it’s wise or just. It wasn’t a detailed legal analysis of it. It was almost an invitation to the president. He took the bait. And, of course, you know, she’s – no matter what happens, she would only be there a short time because Jeff Sessions is about to get confirmed, it would appear. And he will come in and obviously enforce it.
MS. DAVIS: Carol, the White House this week, or today, also levied sanctions on Iran. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn says Iran has been put on notice. What is driving those decisions? And what’s driving this tougher stance on Iran?
MS. LEE: Well, this is one of President Trump’s campaign promises. He always said he would be tougher on Iran. He did not agree with the Iran deal. He was very critical of that. And you know, Iran kind of gave him an opening in the sense that they’ve tested a ballistic missile. And the president responded very swiftly. The interesting thing about that – there’s a couple interesting things. One is, these sanctions that they levied are ones that the Obama administration pulled together, and they still have Obama’s main sanctions person at Treasury leading this, who was a big – played a huge role in the Iran deal that the president – current president hates.
So there’s that. And that’s why they were able to move very quickly. But the rhetoric – and, you know, Margaret knows this – the rhetoric when you talk – the rhetoric matters. And that sort of tough talk just leads – I think the people who are concerned about it, is that it can lead to a real escalation. And there’s a tit for tat and what does that mean and where does this go. And so when you have the national security advisor – and my understanding of what I was told is that the president himself said the day before, I want a strong statement, I want you to make it, and I want you to make it from the White House podium.
And that’s a big deal. And that’s a dramatic shift from President Obama who, you know, while he would maybe get behind sanctions against the ballistic missile program that did not conflict with the Iran nuclear deal, he didn’t do them in such a bombastic way. And that matters.
MS. DAVIS: David Axelrod, Obama’s political advisor, tweeted today that these are essentially Obama-era policies delivered through clenched teeth. (Laughter.) Margaret, does any of this undermine the 2015 deal the U.S. struck with Iran?
MS. BRENNAN: Potentially. I mean, it depends – look, Iran’s got its own politics. And they’ve got an upcoming election. Let’s see how that plays out and how this is swallowed in Tehran. But I thought it was interesting the administration officials who did brief us on this, very much indicated this is separate and apart from the nuclear deal that we on the campaign pledged we were going to blow up, now we’re putting that aside. We’re specifically dealing with ballistic missiles. The things that I took note of, though, were the add-ons.
I thought it was very interesting that Michael Flynn, the national security advisor, from the podium of the United States, said – from the White House, lumped in a group of rebels within Yemen involved in a civil war with one of our allies, referring to them in a paper statement today as terrorists when they’re not under U.S. law designated as that, when he essentially characterized an attempted attack on a U.S. vessel as the same thing as an attack on a U.S. vessel, and started to really lay broader groundwork towards confronting Iran in terms of how they engage in the Middle East.
And this is going to be fascinating to watch. Do we – does this now extend to Syria? Do we start confronting Iran and their proxies everywhere they are within the region? Certainly some of our allies in Israel, within the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are very interested in how we complete that sentence. And I think it was just started today at the podium. And if you talk to policymakers they’d say, whoa, we haven’t caught up yet with the rhetoric. We can’t tell you what the policy is yet, and whether we want to engage more.
MS. LEE: And not only that, you have a president who has a Republican Congress who would love to get tougher on Iran – not only Republicans but also Democrats. And so that’ll be a real test too, because there were a lot of things that Democrats and Republicans wanted to do that President Obama would block on Iran. And now you have a president who’s way out there and who has said that he’ll go really far. And that’ll be a test. Will he, you know, go where Congress wants him to go, because there’ll be a lot of pressure for that?
MR. DUFFY: And while I don’t know if it’s clear whether he wants to scuttle the deal or not, and it’s quite tantalizing to imagine that he might not and actually still get tougher on Iran while he keeps the deal, where we did see him this week try to scuttle the deal and take the first steps to do that is he informed Congress officially that he was going to open the door to renegotiating NAFTA. And he left both our Canadian and Mexican allies know that, to the extent that they are still allies, right? (Laughter.) It’s worth checking at any rate.
MS. LEE: Right, right. (Laughter.)
MR. DUFFY: OK. So but that’s a real change. And that’s not one of Obama’s policies through gritted teeth. That’s a change in going back to George Herbert Walker Bush through four presidents who followed. So that’s a dramatic – and he said he would do that on the campaign trail as well. But I do think this is a place where there’s less of a question about whether he wants to undermine the original deal.
MS. DAVIS: The White House did seem to take a more diplomatic tone this week about Israel and settlements, saying we don’t think it helps the peace process but we don’t encourage it. But then we have the president, as you mentioned, in these conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, is his sort of tough talking diplomacy? Does that apply to our allies now too?
MR. WILLIAMS: And by the way, is tough talking diplomacy? (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: I know, I know. Exactly.
MS. BRENNAN: Do those go anywhere?
MS. DAVIS: Does it work? Is it working?
MR. DUFFY: Well, the most interesting thing isn’t so much that the conversation with Australia ended badly, but it leaked from U.S. officials so quickly.
MS. DAVIS: Yeah. And what does that mean?
MR. DUFFY: They were very keen – well, that tells you they were keen to – whether or not – whether or not tough talking is diplomatic, certainly it’s a part of public diplomacy for this president. He wants to put out to his nation – I mean, if Australian officials leaked it, then we would have been one – but it was very clear that U.S. officials leaked it, which means they wanted to tell the American public that this was a tough-talking president – back to that, again, idea of –
MS. BRENNAN: Or there were U.S. officials who didn’t like it, who were concerned.
MR. DUFFY: It’s quite possible that that was true. But given the pattern, it seems to me they want to project an air of difference, of changing the tone, of changing how we relate to other countries. So, I mean, in the simplest explanation it’s that it was of a piece. And that is a change. Whether – as he said one of the tape you had going into this, don’t pay attention to that, the phone calls are fine. That he wants to convey this air, but not actually change relationships is one of the questions on the table at the end of this week.
MS. BRENNAN: Mmm hmm. But I think it’s – as someone who often travels with secretaries of state or folks outside the borders of the U.S., you often hear around the world a longer memory than Americans have. And this idea of hitting a restart with this president or in this moment or the idea that what the president tweets at 6:00 a.m. may not be the policy by 4:00 p.m. because you haven’t listened to his surrogates and those he’s empowered to explain it, is something that I think is potentially a risk because things get lost in translation as they are. And so I think particularly on the national security front, there are so many things that so sensitive. Where in diplomacy words always matter, I think it’s interesting he got Rex Tillerson, a man who ran one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world, who knows words matter because he could move global oil markets with them, if he’s empowered enough to either – is he the guy who does the cleanup on the tweets, or is he the guy who’s actually crafting the policy that follows the tweets?
MR. DUFFY: What do you think?
MS. BRENNAN: We don’t know yet.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, don’t our allies have to try to figure out what are the –
MS. BRENNAN: Who to listen to.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, what are the relationship with Donald Trump on the one hand and the United States on the other, and are they always the same?
MS. BRENNAN: Well, yeah. I mean, this is the question. And who has which portfolio? Is Michael Flynn – did we learn this week that he has the Iran portfolio, when he walked into the White House briefing room? I don’t know. Does Steve Bannon –
MS. LEE: I don’t think we learned that.
MS. BRENNAN: Right. Does Steve Bannon have the Europe portfolio? I don’t know that yet. I think it’s interesting that the vice president will be going. I think it’s important that he’s going to Europe within the next week and a half or so. He’s going to be going to Munich to the security conference and on to Brussels as well. And there was a lot of concern amongst some of our allies that the United States sit-down with the allies before we sit down with Russia. And I think vice president going there sends a message that we are going to commit.
MS. DAVIS: Now, Pete, normally the nomination of a Supreme Court justice would be what was driving the show. (Laughter.)
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, yeah. Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: President Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch. He’s 49 years old. He’s currently the judge for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He holds degrees from Columbia, Harvard, Oxford. And he’s clerked for two Supreme Court Justices, Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. Pete, Gorsuch was in a group of about 21 justices that President Trump identified in the campaign that he would choose from for the court. Why did he rise above the rest?
MR. WILLIAMS: I think a couple of reasons. Number one is, he approaches the law the same way Scalia does. He’s an originalist, a textualist. He believes that you should interpret the Constitution based on what the founders meant when they put the Fourth Amendment in there, or what other provisions. And that you should interpret laws – you should start with the text, not with what the drafters meant. So that’s a very Scalia thing. And he’s written – his legal writings tend to be sort of like Scalia’s. They’re very accessible, they’re very readable. Sometimes even, if one can say this about a court ruling, entertaining.
So he’s smart. And I think the second thing they think he was more confirmable. There were some people on the list who had – for example, William Pryor From Alabama, who had said some very incendiary things about the Roe v. Wade decision, which was a problem for him the first time he got confirmed, but he said I stuck with that. That would undoubtedly come back at him. So I – and he’s young. He’s 49. He’s going to be on the court potentially, if he’s confirmed, for a long time. And finally, he’s somebody that Anthony Kennedy can be comfortable with. He’s a former clerk. Kennedy went out for his swearing-in in Denver.
MR. DUFFY: When you say comfortable, how comfortable? Because there are some people who think that one of the great advantages of having nominated Gorsuch is it might actually lure Tony Kennedy to retire early.
MR. WILLIAMS: There are some who say that. And the theory of that is that – it’s no secret that Anthony Kennedy has said to some that he’s thinking about retiring within the next year or so. That would give, obviously, a huge opening for the Trump administration, because here you’re going to swap Neil Gorsuch for Anthony Kennedy, conservative-conservative.
MS. DAVIS: Doesn’t fundamentally change the court.
MR. WILLIAMS: But Anthony Kennedy is the decider. He’s the swing vote on the court. So if the conservatives can get that seat, it’s a whole new Supreme Court in every single sense. So the theory of that, what Michael is talking about, is that Anthony Kennedy would look down the bench and see Neil Gorsuch and not think, well, there goes the neighborhood, I better stay. And he might be more inclined to feel that the court was in good hands. Whether, on the other hand, he would say, well, you know, this guy was a former clerk of mine, I guess I can defer to him now, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve talked to some people involved in the process who strongly deny that that was any kind of a factor, but others who say it might have been. Who knows finally what the final analysis was?
MS. DAVIS: Well, and we know that we have quite the confirmation process ahead of us.
MR. WILLIAMS: Six weeks from now.
MS. DAVIS: We have to leave it there. Pete gets the final word. Thanks, everybody, for being here. I appreciate it.
(Laughs.) Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about President Trump’s unconventional remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, and the influential role of another top White House advisor. You can find all that on the Washington Week Extra at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek after 10:00 p.m. on Friday and all week long. I’m Susan Davis. Have a great weekend.