ROBERT COSTA: The end of the beginning. On the eve of his 100th day in office, President Trump talks candidly about his biggest achievements and unexpected setbacks. I’m Robert Costa. We’ll explore why Mr. Trump thought being president would be easier, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear –
MR. COSTA: Since taking the oath of office nearly 100 days ago, President Trump says he’s tried to stay true to his contract with American voters. His biggest victory? The confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But even with a Republican-controlled Congress, the president has come up short on other issues, including health care, a border wall, and his promise to withdraw from NAFTA.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I decided rather than terminating NAFTA, which would be a pretty big, you know, shock to the system, we will renegotiate.
MR. COSTA: This week’s rollout of a tax reform plan was delivered with big promises.
SECRETARY OF TREASURY STEVE MNUCHIN: (From video.) This is going to be the biggest tax cut and the largest tax reform in the history of our country, and we are committed to seeing this through.
MR. COSTA: But few specifics. And other initiatives, including a travel ban and funding cuts for so-called sanctuary cities, are stalled in the courts.
On the world stage, former foes –
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) China a currency manipulator.
MR. COSTA: – have become international friends.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I have great respect for the president of China.
MR. COSTA: And unlikely partners against unpredictable enemies like North Korea.
Plus, another investigation involving Russia and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
We tackle it all with Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, Abby Phillip of The Washington Post, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times, and Jake Sherman of POLITICO.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week.
Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Today marked the final day in the mythical first-100-day milestone that all new administrations are measured by. President Trump traveled to Atlanta to thank some of his most strident supporters at the NRA’s annual convention. His message was aimed at reinvigorating the conservative base that’s become a bit wary after watching the White House reverse course on a series of campaign promises.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you. The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: Julie, fascinating speech by the president today, defiant in tone. But he gave this revealing interview to Reuters the day before, talking about how he’s grappling with power, the brutal reality of governing, and the presidency. Which Trump are we seeing at the end of this first 100 days?
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, I think we’re seeing a president who really is starting to recognize the limits of the powers of his office, and also how much of a paradox it is. He is the most powerful person in the world, by some accounts, but he has very little personal autonomy. And I think there’s this sense of being kind of cloistered in and limited, not just in his movements – he talked about not being able to drive a car and being in a cocoon – but also in terms of actually being able to flip the switches that he wanted to flip and have things happen. And what we’ve seen in the last hundred days is that’s really not happening for him. It didn’t happen on health care. It’s not happening on immigration. And he was fairly frank in a way that I don’t think we’ve heard him be about how surprising that’s been to him. And the question really is, what’s he going to do to change that reality? Can he do anything?
MR. COSTA: Well, he keeps coming back, Michael, to one of his core issues from the campaign, to trade. But even on trade, we saw this week he has to shift his position. He talked about possibly withdrawing from NAFTA, then backpedaled a bit. What does that tell us about Trump?
MICHAEL SCHERER: I think about three weeks ago there was a real shift in the whole way Trump is approaching his presidency, and it went from this initial phase of trying to disrupt Washington, sort of wreck everything in sight and tear down what Obama had left behind, to the failure of Obamacare repeal, the strike on Syria, the internal fights between Bannon and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And I think he came out of that thinking that he had to recalibrate. We have always talked about the Trump pivot. He doesn’t really pivot, he kind of zigs and zags. But there is something that has shifted. And he is bending now to reality, and he is recognizing it. And he has decided that his main goal here is not just to fulfill every campaign promise, it’s actually to get wins on the board – you know, to figure out how to accomplish things. So it wasn’t just that that he backed down on. He backed down this week on the funding for the border wall. He’s backed down on currency manipulation for China. I mean, there’s a long list of these things. But I think it’s Trump recognizing that in this job he has to reckon with something we in the press were never really able to force him to reckon with in the campaign, which is just the reality of the world.
MR. COSTA: Abby, if there is going to be a recalibration in the next 100 days for the rest of the year, who’s going to lead the president along? Who’s the chief advisor now in his ear? Because we’ve talked about, for these first 100 days, the factional infighting within the White House.
ABBY PHILLIP: Well, he’s kept the core group pretty much the same so far, which has come as a surprise to some people who know him and who know that at times he likes to just see who comes out on top and then replace them when they don’t. But the issue area here is going to be the determiner of who has the lead, who’s next up to bat. In this case, he really wants to focus on taxes. Two of his advisors – a Cabinet secretary, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and his National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn – are up now, and it’s their turn to show what they’ve got. There’s no really telling whether they’re going to actually be successful. They have some of the same problems that some of Trump’s other advisors do, which is that none of them have ever passed anything on the Hill. And what Trump wants more now than anything else is a legislative victory. He wants something durable and big in his administration. He thinks tax reform is that thing. So going forward, you know, you have some folks out there who – like Gary Cohn – who have some managerial ability and might be better able to sort of manage the situation. Can they get legislative wins? We don’t really know that yet.
MR. COSTA: The president seems pretty torn, though, between the populist wing and the more business wing of his White House. He’s talking about in this Reuters interview how he’s both a nationalist and a globalist.
MS. PHILLIP: Well, I mean, that was the fascinating thing, I thought, about the NAFTA sort of back and forth this week. You know, you have Steve Bannon whispering in his ear that, you know, the anti-trade stuff is really important, you know, the fact that trade agreements haven’t been fair to American workers is a really important theme, we need to get that executive order signed and withdraw from NAFTA. And then you have Reince Priebus and Sonny Perdue, actually, the agriculture secretary, showing him a map, saying well, yes, but if you did that this is how it would affect American farmers, this is how actually that would play out in real time. And sort of – that was sort of the real-time example of the struggle that’s going on right now for him, and he really has to figure out, and I think in a way that he didn’t reckon with before he took office which of those routes he’s going to take. These advisors are just advisors in the end. He is the decider. And with NAFTA, he basically ended up coming out where he started, which is we’re going to renegotiate and if I don’t like the results then we’re going to withdraw.
MR. COSTA: What a scene that is, the president looking at the map of his supporters, then, Jake, he’s going to Atlanta to talk to his base. But when you think about the conservative base, so many of my sources – you and I were at the Capitol this week together, reporting – they say his failure to pass repeal of the Affordable Care Act, being stymied again and again, is not just a disappointment to the conservative base, but it’s revealing about how he’s not been able to get a handle of the Republican-controlled Congress.
JAKE SHERMAN: First, he tried to negotiate and work with Speaker Ryan to pass this bill, the repeal-and-replace bill. That went up in flames. Now he’s working with Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. That effort has all but gone up in flames. He doesn’t have anyone that’s guiding him on Capitol Hill and figuring out who are the honest brokers, who are the people he should spend his time with. And I think on the health care issue specifically, he’s starting to contend with the issues that you and I have covered for so long, which is this is a very deeply divided House Republican Conference. And you’re seeing a reality that about 10 to 15, and maybe even 20 percent of the House Republican Conference does not think it would politically advantageous, smart, or, you know, good strategy or good politics to repeal this law. They think it’s taking away benefits. And we heard that back in 2010 when the Democrats passed the law. Republicans were privately telling many of us: We’re never going to be able to take this away. This is a benefit.
MR. COSTA: But, Jake, well, for Americans who are out there wondering if this repeal effort is for real or not, they look at the House, the House still hasn’t brought it up for another vote, where is it actually going? Is there going to be a vote in the House of Representatives to repeal the Affordable Care Act? And even if it passes the House, does it stand any chance in the Senate? Are we talking about a political drama or a political reality?
MR. SHERMAN: Political drama right now. I think they will bring it up in the House. And I think they are actually closer than they have been, and have been in many years, to passing this. I think – I don’t mean to underestimate Mitch McConnell, who’s obviously the Senate majority leader and a legislative guru, but I don’t think this stands much of a chance in the Senate. If Mitch McConnell wants it to pass, it’s going to be significantly changed. And whether that can come back to the House, where it would need another vote, and pass the House and get the president’s signature I am deeply, deeply skeptical of.
MR. SCHERER: One of the things that’s going on here is it’s not – Republicans are positioning themselves to figure out who they can blame for the repeal and replace not coming out. This negotiation with Meadows, if nothing else, allows the Freedom Caucus to say: It’s not us holding this up anymore. It’s the moderates. If the House somehow finds a way to get some turkey out of, you know, their body and it goes to the Senate, then they can say, oh, it’s the Senate blocking it. And if – and if Mitch McConnell can send it back to something like a conference, then, you know, it would be back on the House. And I think we’re going to see this football be passed around. And ideally, as it’s passed around they’ll get closer and closer to something they can come to agreement on. But what’s happening right now with Meadows doesn’t seem to be any closer to what would actually pass the Senate.
MR. COSTA: And it comes down to what I’ve picked up in all of your reporting this week, that there’s a frenzy of activity at the White House, in Congress. But when it comes to actual law moving forward, it seems to be pretty – moving at a glacial pace. And that turns to the tax reform issue as well. And the president did try to jumpstart his economic agenda this week. He announced a sweeping tax reform plan. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn laid out Trump’s vision on tax policy, which was one of his biggest campaign promises.
The plan will reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 15 percent. Tax relief for middle-income families would come in the form of doubling the standard deduction, and create three basic tax rates: 10 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent. Also, repealing the alternative minimum tax and estate tax. Democrats called the plan wildly unrealistic. And even some Republicans are raising questions about the lack of details. Julie, I was reading your front-page story today in the Times, and it just seems like the White House is trying, again, to say they’re doing this and moving forward on taxes, but they don’t have many details about the cost, about who’s going to pay for it.
MS. DAVIS: Well, I mean, when President Trump, at the end of last week, came out and said. and I’m going to have my tax plan out by Wednesday, even a lot of people in his administration were – said to themselves, really? I mean, is – we didn’t know about that. That’s news to us. I mean, they have been talking about this and working on it, to some degree, behind the scenes for weeks. But there’s no question that the timing of the announcement was designed to come before the 100 days. If he’s not going to have a health care bill, if he’s not going to have an actual tax bill, at least he wanted to have a proposal out there.
But what we got on Wednesday was a sheet of paper that was essentially a wish list of cuts. It wasn’t a tax reform plan. It wasn’t a plan of any kind. It was basically a list of ingredients in a piece of legislation that he was endorsing. And because it didn’t have any cost estimates, because it didn’t have any, you know, specifics about which income levels were going to be paying which rates, it’s almost impossible to say what the net result of it would be, other than that most of it’s going to go to the wealthy and big and small businesses, and families that have a lot of wealth that’s going to be inherited.
And so it may be that in the end the way that the brackets are designed, the way that the deductions are condensed and eliminated and replaced does help the middle class, does help, you know, folks other than big businesses and wealthy people. But what they provided was just a list of cuts for the rich, essentially, and not really a reform, either. They talk about simplification, and we’re overhauling the system. And you heard Steve Mnuchin in the lead-in there saying, you know, this is going to be the most significant reform in, you know, 30 years. This was not actually a reform. This is actually just a package of cuts.
MR. COSTA: And when I spoke to Larry Kudlow this week, the economic advisor to the president, an informal one, he said the president just wanted to move on taxes. He wanted to be a supply-side conservative. But, Abby, when you’re reporting on the White House, how’s the White House dealing with the fact that its base – blue-collar, manufacturing areas of the country, how are they dealing with the fact that all the headlines are about tax cuts for the wealthy?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, there are a lot of internal disputes within the White House about some of those details that Julie mentioned that are so unresolved. And one of the big disputes that happened this week in the parts that they did release was about who gets a tax cut. Do wealthy people get a tax cut? And there were definitely some people in the White House arguing not to do that, because that does not jive with the president’s message – the populist economic message that he had out on the campaign trail.
But those people lost that fight. And the tax cuts are both for high-income earners and also for corporations. So there are quite a few unresolved things that touch on this central question of how populist is Trump’s tax plan really going to end up being? So far, the plan that’s out there is not very populist at all. That has some people quite worried about how this is all going to go.
And, you know, the White House is still trying to figure out to how to get the president something that feels really big. And I think that the tax reform plan that they put out they’ve convinced him is reform, even though, as Julie says, a lot of people are looking at it and they’re saying: This is really just a lot of tax cuts, and when you don’t pay for it it’s going to have to sunset at some point. And that’s going to look just like the Bush era tax cuts that have to go away after 10 years. And it’s not a sort of big, systemic overhaul that we saw Reagan do in the 1980s.
MR. COSTA: Jake, I feel like I keep coming to you for cold water from the congressional side.
MR. SHERMAN: I have lots.
MR. COSTA: The president has these ambitions on taxes, but how has Congress reacted?
MR. SHERMAN: This is a non-starter. He might as well put out nothing. This is not going anywhere. There’s nothing that looks like this that is going to ever pass Capitol Hill. So it was a nice exercise to satisfy an itchy and aggravated president, but I think the people on Capitol Hill who have been working on this for upwards of a decade say, thanks, but no thanks. This has procedural issues. It cannot get through the Senate on what we call reconciliation. It has budgetary issues, as Julie mentioned. It doesn’t have any plans. Now, I do think that there is a process that’s going to begin. The Ways and Means Republicans are here this weekend, the tax-writing committee, and they’re having a conference – a private meeting, where they’re going to discuss the actual plan that they’re considering. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: We’ll see how this moves.
MR. SHERMAN: Right. I think this is going to – I mean, remember, Mnuchin said they’ll pass this by August. I don’t think they’ll pass it by August of 2018. (Laughter.) So I think we’re a long way away. And this is going to be – people should be very patient.
MR. COSTA: The big picture I keep getting from every story and everything you guys are saying is on taxes, on health care, things are stalled. Big initiatives of this White House are stalled. But let’s turn maybe to the world, because beyond the domestic agenda the president has faced a number of global threats in his first 100 days. He launched a missile strike on an airport in Syria after the Assad regime launched a deadly chemical attack on its citizens. He dropped what they called the mother of all bombs on ISIS targets in Afghanistan. And he forged a newfound partnership with Chinese President Xi Jinping to work together to apply economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. Are we seeing a worldview develop, Michael, from the president in his first 100 days?
MR. SCHERER: I think we’re seeing not an ideological big-picture view like other presidents. There is no Trump doctrine that is really intelligible. But what we have seen is a shift from his campaign, which was I can fix and change everything, to a recognition that the world is actually far more complicated than he thought and toward following his national security team. And I think there’s an enormous sigh of relief across this city over the last month or so that people now believe he’s listening to the right people. Even people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are saying, you know, we’re not as worried as we used to be. He’s listening to very smart people.
And I think he has recognized in office that there are real lives at stake here, that this isn’t just rhetoric like on a campaign. It’s not just something I can say to juice a rally or get a tweet going. And he’s become much more cautious. And so I think what we’ve returned to is something closer to the consensus, the Republican and Democratic national security consensus of the last several decades. But that doesn’t mean he’s left a clear mark one way the other.
MR. COSTA: But his rhetoric and his statements are not always cautious. There was breaking news before the show tonight about North Korea firing another ballistic missile, the 75th of Kim Jong-un’s tenure. And on North Korea, Julie, we’re seeing the president in interviews saying there could be a, quote, “major, major conflict.” And the city, as much as they see maybe a more traditional Republican worldview, it’s on edge with North Korea.
MS. DAVIS: Yeah, I think Michael’s generally right that, you know, in the first few weeks of the Trump administration folks were really on edge about what kind of foreign policy player on the world stage he was going to be, and really nervous about some of the statements he had made on the campaign trail. And that has subsided a lot in recent days. But on North Korea, he has been talking pretty tough, and at a leader who is known for his own kind of incendiary, crazy statements, and is easily set off. And it started a couple weeks ago when he did that interview with Fox and talked about we’re sending an armada, which of course now we know we weren’t actually sending the armada at that point. I think we are now. But he also talked about the submarines and how powerful those submarines were. Well, that’s sort of a veiled threat because the submarines are nuclear-tipped submarines. So I think there is still a little bit of wariness about what is he going to say that might upend this whole process, what is going to happen if China doesn’t have the kind of influence on North Korea that President Trump is constantly saying he hopes they will have, how is this going to be different for the Trump administration than it has been for any other administration that’s been confounded in trying to figure out how to deal with North Korea?
MR. COSTA: And it wouldn’t be a week in the Trump administration without talking about Russia. This week the Pentagon launched a new investigation into whether former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn broke the law by receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from the governments of Russia and Turkey. Republican Jason Chaffetz, who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is asking the Pentagon to confiscate the money from Flynn as it continues its probe. Democrat and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings accused the White House of covering up for Flynn after President Trump fired him. Jake, when you look at Chaffetz – the congressman, the chairman from Utah, is now stepping away from Congress – it makes you wonder: Where does oversight of this administration, of Flynn, of Russia stand?
MR. SHERMAN: I think it’s a very difficult thing when a Republican’s in the White House and a Republican – with a Republican-controlled House. I think you don’t get the oversight. Everything has to check out, and everything goes to the top, right? Speaker Paul Ryan is going to have to improve a lot of these investigations because you’re pressuring the White House for documents, and you saw that this week the White House wasn’t willing to cough up some documents. And then you get into the question of are you going to subpoena somebody or how hard are you going to go at them. Jason Chaffetz, this might have a little pause because he’s returned to Utah. He said he was going to resign – he was going to not run again. He signaled he might leave Congress early, and he’s now having a foot surgery where he’s going to be away from Washington for three or four weeks. So some of this investigation might get pared back because of the congressman’s bad foot.
MR. COSTA: Abby, Russia remains this cloud over the White House, and in particular General Flynn. Does the White House recognize how much this has in some ways hampered their ambitions for the first 100 days?
MS. PHILLIP: I do think they recognize that this story is just like a dark cloud hanging over their heads. They can’t get past it. But the problem for them is that it’s unclear that they understand the depth of what is – what is even there. It’s hard for them to control a story when they don’t know what they’re trying to control, and that’s where they are right now. There was not a lot of attention to detail, not a lot of attention to staff and to vetting during the campaign and in the transition. They are –
MR. COSTA: The Trump administration is actually blaming the Obama administration for not vetting Flynn enough?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, you know, the Obama administration fired Michael Flynn. And in spite of what they’re saying about that, I think they were right in that the security clearance was approved under Obama, but no one forced Donald Trump to take Michael Flynn on as an advisor and then to turn around and make him his national security advisor at a time when people were already raising a lot of questions about his actions in that dinner that now is the subject of so much of this conversation. So the White House does not know the depths of where this investigation goes. It makes it impossible for them to deal with it as a result, so they are going to stonewall for as long as possible and see how far that gets them. And it may get them pretty far, because as Jake notes, it’s a Republican-controlled Congress. They can kind of control the pace of how this whole thing goes.
MR. SCHERER: One thing that has changed, though, is that the White House is no longer escalating this issue. For the first couple months, you saw the president tweeting about Obama wiretapping, which wasn’t true, or even before he took office saying that the intelligence community was making a lot of stuff up about Russia. They’ve just backed off that completely. And I think they’ve been chastened. They’ve lost most of those fights. Whenever they try and escalate this issue or elevate the issue with more confrontation, they lose the fight. And now they’re sort of doing typical damage control. It’s a much more conventional approach. And so it may – it may help them over the coming weeks.
MS. PHILLIP: Although it’s worth noting that none of those times when they’ve escalated has been really strategy. It’s often –
MR. SCHERER: Trump.
MS. PHILLIP: – because the president is unable to control his urge to fight back. So it’s unclear whether he will ever get that urge under control.
MS. DAVIS: And what is unusual about this damage-control effort is that in a conventional White House you would actually have the people who know something about this and have access to the information go back and try to recreate what actually did happen – what can we say, what is reality and what is not. That’s not happening here. They just want to push this away. And it’s unclear how long that’s going to be able to be possible.
MR. COSTA: We’ll be watching. Thanks, everybody, for coming tonight.
And welcome, Jake, to Washington Week.
Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you who President Trump signaled may be his Democratic challenger in 2020. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. While you’re online, check out a visual representation of all the top headlines from President Trump’s first 100 days, and follow the top stories from our panelists over the next 100 days with News You Need to Know. That’s every day at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.