ROBERT COSTA: Convictions, immunity deals, and a showdown with the attorney general. Is the Trump presidency at a turning point? I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He took the job and then he said I’m going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this?
MR. COSTA: The attorney general stands up to President Trump’s criticism that he never took control of the Justice Department and vows the agency will not be improperly influenced by politics. But the feud between the once-close allies has Republicans taking sides.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice.
MR. COSTA: And the president’s former attorney Michael Cohen pleads guilty to eight criminal counts, including campaign finance violations connected to payoffs of two women.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) By the way, he plead to two counts that aren’t a crime, which nobody understands.
MR. COSTA: Trump insists the convictions of Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort have nothing to do with him.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Where is the collusion? You know, they’re still looking for collusion. Where is the collusion?
MR. COSTA: We cover it all next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. What a week: two courtroom dramas featuring the president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime attorney Michael Cohen, and immunity deals with two close allies. All of it could change the course of Donald Trump’s presidency. On Tuesday a jury convicted Manafort on eight of 18 counts of tax evasion and bank fraud. The Washington Post reported that the president has privately considered a pardon for Manafort, but his lawyers have so far advised against it.
That same day, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen brought the legal clouds even closer to the president. Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws. Under oath, Cohen stunned the Manhattan courtroom when he said that payments to women alleging affairs were, quote, “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” That statement contradicts what the president once told reporters.
REPORTER: (From video.) Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) No.
REPORTER: (From video.) Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I don’t know.
MR. COSTA: The president this week appeared on Fox News with his latest defense: the payments were not campaign-related.
AINSLEY EARHARDT (Fox News): (From video.) Did you know about the payments?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Later on I knew, later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did – and they weren’t taken out of campaign finance. That’s the big thing. That’s a much bigger thing, did they come out of the campaign. They didn’t come out of the campaign. They came from me, and I tweeted about it.
MR. COSTA: But Mr. Trump’s word will not be the final one. Federal investigators have granted immunity to two Trump confidants familiar with the matter: David Pecker, the CEO of AMI, the publisher of the National Enquirer; and Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg.
Joining me tonight, Molly Ball, national political reporter for TIME Magazine; Paula Reid, White House and legal affairs correspondent for CBS News; Abby Phillip, White House correspondent for CNN; and Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post.
Dan, you wrote this week: “What took place Tuesday will ratchet up the pressure on the president, will embolden his critics, and will no doubt inflame and rally his supporters.” Dan, in so many ways it feels like we’ve been here before, a crisis moment for President Trump, candidate Trump. What makes this week different?
DAN BALZ: Two things, Bob. First, on the Manafort conviction, what that did, though it had nothing to do with Donald Trump, is it strengthened the hand of Bob Mueller and his investigative team. Had that – that jury deliberated a long time, and on 10 counts they could not reach a verdict because of one lone holdout. But those eight convictions were very, very important. It sent a signal that this is a real investigation that has real power, so that’s the first thing.
The second is with Michael Cohen, to see him make the deal that he did and to plead to what he pleaded, and to implicate the president, brings this to the White House in a way that it hadn’t been before. And, as we now know as a result of everything else that’s happened this week, that there is greater cooperation among people who know a lot about Donald Trump. We don’t know where it’s going to end up, obviously, but if you’re in Donald Trump’s position you have to feel much more pressure today than you did a few weeks ago.
MR. COSTA: What’s your read, Molly? TIME’s got a cover this week: “In Deep” – “President Trump In Deep.”
MOLLY BALL: Well, yeah, and I think that that’s a good metaphor, the waters rising until they perhaps get all the way up to your head, because, you know, there is this sense that there’s such a perpetual outrage, perpetual controversy from this White House that it can seem that something blows up, it happens, and then in the rearview maybe it wasn’t that significant because a week later we’re all talking about something else. In fact, those have all been cumulative. All of these significant moments, from the appointment of the special counsel in May of 2017, the first indictments, the Manafort indictments coming down in October of last year, it has all led up to this.
And so, in fact, each of those was its own turning point, was its own step in this process. And it just continues to snowball. And so the president, I think, as Dan said, has to feel like the walls are increasingly closing in on him. It is significant that, you know, before this week there wasn’t someone going to jail. And now there is. Now there’s actually two people going to jail. So the – Manafort’s still got another trial. But him being convicted closes, in a sense, one chapter. And then Cohen, surprising everyone with this plea deal, opens yet another. And it’s rather a Pandora’s box.
MR. COSTA: But are the walls closing in? Because those are the facts, but you look at the president tonight in Ohio, he’s not acting like it.
ABBY PHILLIP: Right. He’s acting like a man who has a job to do. But actually, interestingly for President Trump, relatively disciplined tonight in Ohio. Not making any major headlines. And that might be actually a sign that the president feels like he needs to be a little bit more circumspect. There is a sense of uncertainty right now more than anything else about what this all means. What is it that Michael Cohen provided that would have allowed the prosecutors to want to give him a plea deal? What is it that his chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, had that allowed prosecutors to give him immunity? There’s a lot of unanswered questions. And I think for now the president is lashing out in certain ways, maybe on social media in 1:00 a.m. tweets, but otherwise just trying to kind of get through his day and not look rattled against of all what’s going on.
MR. COSTA: What did we learn about the rally? Are the voters with him at the rally in Ohio? Are they – were they with him in West Virginia earlier this week?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, I think they are. I think they are. By all accounts, Trump’s voters are unmoved by this. They take his explanation for all of these things – that what Michael Cohen pled to was not a crime, that he’s being treated unfairly – and they take that as face – at face value. Tonight he’s speaking before some Republican Party officials. And that’s a room of people who are – they both love Trump, because he can raise money, he can bring out the base, but they also are worried. These are the very people who will be worried about what Trump means for them come November given this culture and this environment of prosecutions, guilty pleas, and criminal investigations.
MR. COSTA: And whenever I think about Ohio, I think about Ohio Governor John Kasich. He could run against President Trump in 2020. He’s certainly making noise about it, moving toward that possibility. But, Paula, when you think about what happened on Tuesday with Manafort and Cohen, it’s not over. Manafort still has another trial.
PAULA REID: That’s right. He has another trial next month in Washington, D.C. And this one will be similar, but it will focus more specifically on his work on behalf of pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians. He’s charged with conspiracy against the U.S., failure to register as a foreign lobbyist. So this one will have a lot more to do with Russia. And I think, as you noted, a lot of people saw this first trial as a referendum on the legitimacy of the special counsel’s investigation. And this was a mixed verdict.
They got their first jury convictions, but there were 10 counts where they couldn’t reach a decision. And I think it’s sort of a Rorschach test. If you believe in Mueller you say, yep, this is vindication. If you don’t, if you think it’s a witch hunt, you say, look, the majority of counts, they couldn’t get a consensus. We now know that was one holdout juror. So they really have to look at what they did in Virginia and try to sort of boost their game once they get to D.C. Because this one juror thought they were sleeping through part of it. What was that? Why did they think that? And they have to really bring their A game for this one.
MR. COSTA: What about on the Cohen side? How big is it to have people like David Pecker get immunity and how far does that extend?
MS. REID: Well, so it’s not unusual to grant people immunity if you think that they may have unwittingly or wittingly committed a crime but you’re more interested in the other person. Now, Cohen fully expected to be charged with several counts months ago, long before these immunity deals were granted. But we have to remember, Cohen didn’t flip on the president. He could potentially cooperate as part of this plea deal, but he’s not required to. And one of the reasons is that Cohen is a very problematic witness. It would be easy to undermine him if he was your only witness against the president or anyone in his inner circle, which is what makes these immunity deals so interesting. What did they provide? Did these people provide anything about the president’s involvement in these payments? We don’t know. It’s just sort of a tease for what could potential be to come.
MR. COSTA: And when I mentioned David Pecker, I was talking about David Pecker, who is head of AMI, who runs the National Enquirer, which has had this cozy relationship with Trump for decades, Dan. And you think, how vulnerable really is Trump right now with David Pecker getting immunity? Allen Weisselberg, who knows everything about the Trump Organization, the CFO, getting immunity as he – they all cooperate? It’s more than just campaign finance violations here.
MR. BALZ: Well, I guess it’s – I think that’s the big question. Is the grant of immunity to the two of them mostly aimed at shoring up what Michael Cohen has pleaded to? Or does it open up other areas for the special counsel to investigate, to explore, and perhaps to find other things where Trump or the Trump Organization have committed crimes or have done – you know, done shady things. We don’t really know the answer to that, but I think that one thing we see, as Molly suggested, is that this case continues to build. And it builds up and it builds out. And all of that surrounds Donald Trump at this point. And so we – you know, we have to wait for the conclusion. But these two men know a heck of a lot of stuff that could be problematic for Trump.
MR. COSTA: And, Molly, you know a heck of a lot about Michael Cohen. You’ve covered him for years. What drove him as a – you know him as a reporter. What – his whims, his personality. What drove him to cooperate, to make this – to plead guilty?
MS. BALL: Well, I should say, I’ve spoken to him in the past. I haven’t spoken to him recently. And I don’t think a lot of reporters have. But this is someone who had such an incredible – incredibly close relationship with Donald Trump. Back in 2011, he was the guy putting up the website trying to get Trump to run for president against Obama. And so he has been by his side for a very long time. He has had a very, very close relationship. He was the one who would, you know, call reporters and scream obscenities at them when he didn’t like a story. He was very much there in Trump’s orbit. But as many have pointed out, Weisselberg had a lot more official responsibilities in the Trump Organization, had access to a lot more of the really significant dealings of the organization, as opposed to just Trump personally.
They’re both very significant. And I think it’s important too that the significance isn’t just that they’ve decided to turn around, you know, be disloyal and say nasty things. They have access to a lot of information. And so whether, you know, a potential jury or someone examining this case decides that they find Michael Cohen credible or not, that may not matter because of the information that is being collected. Things like the tapes, that we already know that he has. In the Manafort trial, the jurors were told by the prosecution: Our star witness isn’t Rick Gates. It’s this pile of documents. And this juror that went on Fox News said: I am a Trump supporter. I didn’t – I wanted him to be innocent. But based on all of this evidence that we looked at, I couldn’t do it. It was – it was just all there. And so it’s – you know, we know already from the Cohen indictment, there’s internal emails, there’s all kinds of information that prosecutors now have access to.
MR. COSTA: So we thought it was going to be a two-front war for the president this week. He’s fighting on Cohen. He’s battling on Manafort, which is part of the Mueller probe. There’s a third front, Paula. His own Attorney General Jeff Sessions, already a target of the president’s venting due to his recusal from the Russia probe. He punched back this week, defending himself and the institution he leads. In a written statement Sessions wrote: While I am attorney general, the actions of the department will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards. And when they are not met, I take action. He continues to refuse to resign. Is that because the president doesn’t want to be seen as obstructing justice?
MS. REID: Well, we’ve asked the president this. You may have been there with me. We’ve asked the president at some of these gaggles we’ve had at the White House. Why don’t you just fire Attorney General Sessions? You have the power to do it. Clearly you’re not shy about firing people. And he just always sort of waves it off and says, oh, we’ll see. So it does appear that there’s some sort of issue with optics. That’s a reason he doesn’t fire his attorney general. But remember, when the president is tweeting at this point about the attorney general, he’s not pressuring him to resign. That’s not going to happen. That’s clear. Jeff Sessions loves his job. He’s unilaterally enforcing policies he could never get through the Senate. The president obviously isn’t going to fire him. And if he wanted someone to look into Clinton emails or some of these other matters, you actually have to pressure Rod Rosenstein.
So who are they talking to? Jeff Sessions is talking to the rank and file. They’re extremely frustrated that he has not been more forceful in pushing back on the president and his allies and all the criticism that they have really put on the Justice Department and the FBI. And the president? I think he is more talking to his supporters, trying to undermine the legitimacy of the Justice Department and federal law enforcement. So some of us see this as a feud between the two. I think they’re sort of talking past each other, because neither one is going to get what they want out of the other.
MR. COSTA: You know, it’s interesting, Abby. You were talking earlier about the president in Ohio. The voters seem to be with him. He’s defiant. But there were some cracks among the Republicans on Capitol Hill this week. Some of the Republican senators said: If you move on Sessions, you may lose us.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah. I think there have been some changes on Capitol Hill. There are still a lot of Republicans who support Sessions, who think it’s a bad idea for the president to fire him. But I think we are starting to see some other Republicans – many of them friends of Sessions – who used to hold the line, saying: You know what, Mr. President? If you want to do this, you need to wait. Do it after the midterm elections when we have more bandwidth and when we can actually take this up. That’s significant for a lot of different reasons. One, because it does open the door for the president to potentially do this at some point. But it’s an acknowledgement that this is a toxic situation that cannot continue.
Jeff Sessions’ friends like Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, are now the ones saying, you know, you can do this but do it later, Mr. President. I think the Sessions situation for Trump is one that he’s been unwilling to deal with because he knows what the consequences are. He knows that he probably can’t tolerate those consequences. And to Paula’s point, he has to continue to talk to the base. Every night there is a drumbeat: fire Jeff Sessions, fire Rod Rosenstein, fire all the people that Trump actually appointed to those jobs within the Department of Justice. And the president has to respond to that in some way, and this is how he does it.
MR. COSTA: Do you see a break in the GOP as the president continues to chip away at Sessions, Dan?
MR. BALZ: Not yet. I think the – I think the Republicans have – are sticking with the bargain that they’ve made, which is that they will – they will try to get as much from Trump being president as they can of their own agenda, whether it’s judges, the tax bill that they got earlier, all of those things, and they will stick with him until there is something more significant than we’ve seen. That could be the midterm elections. I mean, that could be the inflection point that affects Republicans in a much broader way. If the Republicans take a real beating in November – and I’m not saying that that’s going to happen, but if that were to happen then Republicans are going to have to reassess what it means to be as loyal as they have been. But until then I think they’re going to try to ride it out. I don’t think they want to create additional controversy now, heading into those elections.
MS. REID: And we have to remember, Jeff Sessions pays very little attention to anything outside of immigration. Since the day he took office, he has been squarely focused on strict immigration enforcement. Some people think he’s been too strict – obviously, the separating families – but that’s something the president campaigned on. The president’s supporters know that Jeff Sessions is working to staff up immigration courts, give them resources, expedite deporting people out of prisons. He has done so many things to deliver on that campaign promise. So I think one of the consequences, if you did try to oust him, is some of the president’s supporters will say, well, wait a second, he was the one delivering on that campaign promise.
MS. BALL: Not just immigration, but also criminal justice, right? He’s pushed this tough-on-crime agenda, and that’s what he talks about when he goes around the country talking to police, talking to sheriffs. And that’s another huge plank of Trump’s agenda and that was another part of the statement that Sessions issued at the very beginning, said that, you know, he feels that he is winning for the president. He feels that he is executing the president’s agenda, as Paula said, and he never gets credit for that from the president. The president doesn’t appreciate it very much, but that’s really what – the utility that Sessions sees for himself.
MR. COSTA: As the Democrats watch all this, Molly, I mean, we’re saying this is a pivotal week for Trump, but what about for the Democrats? They still seem to be pretty muted when it comes to talking about impeachment.
MS. BALL: Yeah, it’s very interesting, and you had Nancy Pelosi send another letter to the rank-and-file Democrats in the House this week saying let’s keep focused on the economy, let’s talk about the corruption of the Republicans, talk about their enabling of Trump; let’s not talk about the I-word, impeachment. The feeling is that this alienates independent voters because it seems like a partisan political battle and it seems like a personal battle against the president. Of course, the Democrats’ base is quite activated and, you know, it doesn’t get a lot of coverage, but in a lot of cities practically every weekend there’s an impeachment march, there is a protest against Trump for one thing or another. And so that is driving the enthusiasm that Democrats expect will power them to big gains in November, but they’re very much, most of them, in lockstep with this message that is trying to focus on something substantive, trying to – trying to turn the focus to the Republicans they’re actually running against rather than the president, who’s not on the ballot.
MR. COSTA: Smart politics, or are they missing the opportunity of a lifetime to energize their base?
MR. BALZ: Their base is pretty energized, and I think that to put the impeachment issue front and center would create conflict, particularly in a lot of the districts. I mean, it’s not as though every district is – you know, is deep blue. I mean, a lot of these districts have swing voters. You know, they’re – you know, they’re competitive districts, so I think that’s difficult. I think both Republicans and Democrats right now are sort of playing a double game on the impeachment issue. We’ll see what happens after November, but it is – I mean, it’s pretty mature, frankly, based on everything we know yet, to get too far into that discussion.
MS. PHILLIP: I think if there is one thing that the – that Republicans and perhaps even the president thinks might work in their favor here is that this encircling of the president with all of these various different probes – the special counsel probe, the Southern District of New York, potentially one coming from New York state prosecutors – could create an atmosphere in which he is perceived to be unfairly under siege. It’s something that they always cite Bill Clinton, during the impeachment fervor his approval ratings rising. There is some argument to be made that they can use that as a tool to help inoculate the president. I’m not sure how much, frankly, it will inoculate Republicans writ large at a district-by-district level, but certainly the president has already proven to be pretty resilient in spite of all of this. He’s stayed much where he’s been for most of his presidency in terms of his approval ratings, and I think that they believe that some of that has to do with the fatigue of all of this – fatigue from Russia and fatigue from all these investigations.
MR. COSTA: What about inside of the White House? Are they pretty fatigued? Is the president – I mean, you say he’s resilient, but maybe he’s isolated as well. It seemed almost on Wednesday, after Tuesday’s events, quiet from the West Wing.
MS. REID: Very quiet, very quiet. I mean, I think – we saw Sarah Sanders come out clearly at the behest of President Trump to say almost nothing, surprisingly scheduling a briefing, which she does not often do. And she went out there, basically, to repeat a single talking point, that the president has not been charged with a crime and there is no collusion and he did nothing wrong. She did that over and over again, but added not much, and she seemed weary from all of this.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Appreciate all of you being here tonight. Great conversation.
And before we go, a moment to recognize Senator John McCain and his family. The veteran Arizona senator has decided to discontinue medical treatment in his battle with brain cancer, and today his wife, Cindy, tweeted about her love for her husband and expressed her appreciation for the outpouring of support. The Senate halls and American politics haven’t been the same with him away.
And we need to leave you early tonight, but please stay tuned and support your local PBS station.
And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. You can find that after 10 p.m. Eastern every Friday at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.