ROBERT COSTA: The Mueller report coming soon according to the attorney general. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Total exoneration. The collusion delusion is over.
MR. COSTA: President Trump claims vindication as the attorney general prepares to release a redacted version of the Mueller report. Plus, the president revives the health care debate, alarming some Republicans and uniting Democrats.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) The president wants to go back to repeal and replace again? Make our day.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Attorney General William Barr says he will deliver a version of the Mueller report to Congress by mid-April, if not sooner. In a letter, Barr said that the Justice Department is reviewing the nearly 400-page document and considering redactions such as grand jury materials, information about sources, and any information that could, quote, “unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of third parties.” What does that mean? Well, it’s pretty unclear at this moment, but Barr is prepared to testify publicly in early May. And in his response to Barr, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler wrote, quote, “Congress requires the full and complete Mueller report without redaction as well as access to the underlying evidence by April 2nd, and that deadline still stands.”
Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Hallie Jackson, chief White House correspondent for NBC News and anchor for MSNBC Live; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Eliana Johnson, White House correspondent for POLITICO.
Peter, inside the West Wing tonight, how are they interpreting this letter from the attorney general? Do they feel like they’re in the clear legally but still have some exposure politically?
PETER BAKER: Well, there’s definitely political exposure because we don’t know what’s in this 400-page, now we learn, report. All we know are two sentences, basically, or fragments of two sentences that Bill Barr has quoted previously, which is that he did not establish a criminal conspiracy with Russia and that the – he did not charge that the president committed a crime of obstruction, even though he’s not exonerating him. We don’t know anything else. And so, obviously, the rest of this report is going to have things in it that the president’s not going to like. What he’s trying to do before then is set the table, is cement in the impression that he is completely cleared, he’s completely exonerated. It’s almost as if he was on Law and Order and he’s saying, look, they got the wrong guy, and the DNA test came back and it ain’t me, OK? That’s not what we’re seeing here. What we see here is Bob Mueller saying I don’t have enough to charge a crime, but we’ll see what else he found.
HALLIE JACKSON: The interesting piece of the Barr letter that came out today, Bob, that you’re referencing is that line, I think for the White House folks at the table, that said based on what the president has said publicly we do not expect to essentially hand over this report, to seek executive privilege. That is the line that I think tonight has folks in the West Wing really looking into, trying to figure out what does that mean. What does it mean when, critically, Attorney General Barr says no plans to do this, right? Is that leaving them some wiggle room for the White House to call up and say, well, he had no plans, but guess what, we have some plans. So I think that’s where this fight goes over the next 48 hours or so.
MR. COSTA: Well, Yamiche, based on that point, what – you talk to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, often, and you know Emmet Flood is inside of the White House thinking about those executive privilege questions. Is the White House prepared at some level to start raising questions about privilege?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think the political exposure is a real big issue here. I think that the president today said that he has confidence in Attorney General William Barr and that he has “nothing to hide,” quote/unquote – that’s the president’s specific words. So in some ways the president at least publicly is saying do whatever you need to, I already feel cleared. And I think the fact that William Barr had that letter now last weekend that said I and the deputy attorney general looked at this evidence and said we don’t think the president obstructed justice, so I think William Barr is in some ways giving the president cover and has given him something to feel good about because he’s really coming out and saying the president should be all clear on this. But I think I go back to that idea of James Comey and that press conference that he did about Hillary Clinton’s emails and the fact that he said she’s clear criminally, but she acted negligently – this is not the way that someone should act – I think that there’s – now that we know it’s over 400 pages, Robert Mueller could say you should not be – you should not return phone calls of Russian officials if they offer dirt on your campaign official – or your campaign opponent, as President Trump did.
MR. COSTA: That’s a smart point. And you think about Barr, he’s also trying to protect his own reputation, Eliana. Inside this letter he’s saying my summary, well, “I wouldn’t use that word ‘summary,’” he writes, I would use the phrase “principal conclusions.” He’s saying this talk of him summarizing everything is not entirely accurate.
ELIANA JOHNSON: Yeah, I think there are a couple things people have to remember about Barr. The most important one is that he didn’t want this job as attorney general; he was really pressed to take it, and he did it out of a sense of duty – not duty to President Donald Trump, but duty to his country. So the Trump administration came to him and I think he doesn’t particularly care about getting on the wrong side of Donald Trump as, say, his predecessor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, did. But Barr, I think, probably does care about his reputation in the Washington legal community. The one thing in today’s letter that I thought was interesting is Barr laid out the kinds of information he’s going to be redacting from the report. Democrats are sure to seize on those redactions. One of them was information that could cause reputational harm to somebody, and I’ll be curious if – so reputational harm to somebody who is not charged with a crime. Well, we know Trump isn’t going to be charged with a crime, so will there – it be information redacted that may have caused reputational harm to the president who behaved improperly but may not have behaved criminally?
MR. COSTA: Let’s go over the details for a second, because in that letter as you mentioned, Eliana, Barr, the attorney general, laid out a timeline for the release of the report, and he explained that although the president would have the right to assert privilege over certain parts of the report there are no plans to submit the report to the White House for a privilege review. And that comes to your point that maybe the attorney general is going to operate beyond the White House here, is not going to check the box with the president.
MS. JACKSON: I almost see it as him throwing the ball in the White House’s court to a degree, saying, hey, I have no plans to submit this to you before I submit this publicly or to Congress to whatever degree it’s going to be redacted or not in just maybe a few weeks here, mid-April – which, as has been noted, Democrats on Capitol Hill are not happy with that at all. They want to see Attorney General Bill Barr – he, by the way, says I’ll come and talk to you in early May; I’ll sit down and testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, House Judiciary Committee. What I’m curious about is, what about Robert Mueller? I’ve spoken with several members of Congress this week on the Democratic side who say, yeah, the threat of subpoena is entirely possibly because they want to hear from Robert Mueller.
MR. COSTA: And there’s also a big-picture question here, Peter, and you had such a sharp article this week. You reported that the lasting legacy of this Mueller probe could be, quote, “that the president has successfully thrown out unwritten rules that had bound other chief executives,” and that the president had effectively expanded presidential power in a dramatic way. So even before we’ve seen this full report, you’re concluding as a reporter that it’s pretty significant what the attorney general has done.
MR. BAKER: Well, if the conclusion is that the president did not obstruct justice, or at least even if we don’t – if we don’t exonerate him as Robert Mueller said in the Barr letter, if they conclude that there was no obstruction of justice then we know then the next president can get away with firing an FBI director, can dangle pardons, can fire his attorney general with the explicit motivation of this investigation in mind, and it’s setting a precedent. And after Watergate we sort of established certain understandings of things, that we were not going to interfere with the law enforcement system when it was investigating a president. We set up an independent counsel law, in fact, that now expired. But now I think if this is the outcome of this – if at the end of the day there is no political consequence or legal consequence for a president’s actions – then the next one’s going to say, well, then I can do the same thing.
MR. COSTA: And there’s political fallout everywhere. California’s Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, summed up the view of many Democrats who say the Trump campaign did step out of bounds.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) You might think it’s OK that the president himself called on Russia to hack his opponent’s emails if they were listening. You might think it’s OK that later that day, in fact, the Russians attempted to hack a server affiliated with that campaign. I don’t think that’s OK.
MR. COSTA: Leader McCarthy from the Republican side, he called on Schiff to resign.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) All Americans should be concerned with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee taking a position of judge and jury. He needs to resign from the committee.
MR. COSTA: Why is Chairman Schiff, Eliana, continuing to plow forward on the Russia questions?
MS. JOHNSON: You know, I think Democrats believe that having put forward the view that Trump colluded with the Russians and was therefore an illegitimately elected president is a politically useful argument for them. But you see the president really in a campaign rally in Michigan last night turning that around on them and really using it as a political brickbat, and I think you’re going to hear more and more Democrats try to get Schiff to pull back from that a little bit because of what’s laid out in the report. And you have to remember that Robert Mueller was put forward – I mean, you had people buying votives with his image on it and putting him forward sort of as the paragon of propriety. So given that he’s concluded that this campaign didn’t collude with Russia, I think there’s going to be a bit more unease about Democrats continuing to make that argument, and the president wielding that conclusion over the head – beating his opponents over the head with it.
MR. COSTA: What’s Speaker Pelosi’s strategy, Yamiche, on Capitol Hill as she deals with these Democratic feelings about how the attorney general’s handling everything?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think Speaker Pelosi is dealing with a caucus and, frankly, a base that had a collective gasp when they heard of Robert Mueller’s findings, or at least the summary or the principal conclusions as Attorney General Barr wants to call it, because I think that there are a lot of people who saw all the things that President Trump was doing and said to themselves is this possible that you can do all of these things without any of them being criminal, is it OK heading into 2020 for candidates to be talking to Russia, is it OK for a president to dictate a statement and say it came from my son and then turn around and say actually no I – actually no that’s not what happened, it wasn’t – the meeting wasn’t about adoption it was actually about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. I think there’s a lot of – a lot of behavior that the Democrats saw and were looking at and saying we think that some of this has to be – there has to be something wrong with some of this, and now Speaker Pelosi is in some ways having to shepherd her caucus away from that idea and say look, we need to focus on health care, we need to focus on 2020. But it’s a fine line because there are a lot of people who are still mad.
MS. JACKSON: I do think it’s worth noting that I think part of where Speaker Pelosi and others are coming from is they’re looking at what people are talking about, human beings out in the world who don’t live inside the Beltway bubble, and it is simply not – when you’re on the campaign trail it’s not Russia and it’s not some of these issues that Democrats are getting questions about when they’re out at these town halls, when they’re talking with voters. And I think that the speaker may be keying in on some of that because while there is a lot of discussion in more – in certain Democratic circles about this idea of what did the president do, and questions that are very serious about his judgment and about his behavior and how that reflects on the office, there is I think a desire to get to some of the issues like health care, as you point out.
MR. COSTA: But on that point, Peter, when you think about the obstruction front here, we may learn a lot in this report about the president’s conduct, things that have not been reported, but we won’t necessarily know his intent – was it corrupt intent – because he never sat for an interview with Robert Mueller. So if you’re a Democratic leader knowing it’s hard to prove that intent, do you still pursue an obstruction case on the impeachment front?
MR. BAKER: Well, I mean, there’s intent, that’s one issue. The other issue Bill Barr raised in his letter is if there’s no underlying crime it doesn’t mean you can’t be charged with obstruction of justice, but it’s harder, right? If you haven’t actually something to obstruct, then why should you go after that? It has happened. Scooter Libby was convicted of obstruction in a case that didn’t have an underlying crime. Arguably, President Clinton was impeached for obstruction of justice, for lying about something that wasn’t an underlying crime. But I think on the terms of impeachment right now, Hallie’s point is exactly right. It’s just the air is out of the balloon here, and it’s – and Nancy Pelosi knows that there are not 20 Republicans in the Senate who are likely or even conceivable at this particular moment, anyway, to vote for conviction. If you’re not going to have conviction, what’s the point of going down that road? It could backlash.
MS. JOHNSON: I think that’s exactly right, because what would President Trump do with that? He would take – even if the House did vote to impeach him, he would take an exoneration from the Senate and say I win – see, innocent.
MR. BAKER: Exactly, exactly.
MS. JOHNSON: And I think Pelosi can see where that train is headed and she doesn’t want to put her foot on the gas.
MR. COSTA: This brings up why the Democrats this week and the Republicans are turning to health care. So let’s turn to that ourselves because President Trump surprised his own party this week when he announced that the Justice Department would once again try to strike down President Obama’s health care law. The president insisted the move would help people, but many Republicans were unhappy with the decision.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And remember this because it’s very important – and I’m speaking now for the Republican Party – we will always protect patients with preexisting conditions, always, always. (Cheers, applause.)
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): (From video.) I’m very disappointed and vehemently opposed to the administration seeking to invalidate the entire Affordable Care Act.
MR. COSTA: Eliana, we have in your reporting this week some really good insights into why the administration chose to go in this direction, to suddenly turn to health care. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a conservative hardliner now at the president’s side, why was he encouraging the president to do this?
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, he was a founder of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress when he was a member of Congress from South Carolina. He’s been able to bring in some allies, and Mulvaney along with those allies – head of the Domestic Policy Council Joe Grogan and others – and they told the president you made a campaign promise to repeal Obamacare and you have not delivered on it. You’ve got two more years and you should fulfill that campaign promise. The problem is that Republicans don’t have a plan with which to replace Obamacare. And so those in the administration, including Attorney General Bill Barr and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, they were pressing the president not to do this because they said you can push to repeal Obamacare but you’ve been here – been there, done that back in 2017, first year of the administration, where Republicans simply could not unify behind an alternative health care plan. And the president’s move really landed with a thud on Capitol Hill.
MS. JACKSON: You heard the president say in that clip that you played that he wants to protect people with preexisting conditions. OK, how? That’s the question, and based on my reporting inside the White House there is an acknowledgment from the sources I talk to they don’t have an answer to that question.
MR. COSTA: So then why are they doing this?
MS. JACKSON: Because the president sees this as a political winner despite the fact that Democrats proved for them it was actually more politically advantageous in the midterms. To Eliana’s point and her great reporting, we also understand that Vice President Pence had some questions about not the actual policy, which he supports, but about the political ramifications and exactly what you’re talking about with these Republicans coming out and going what are we supposed to do, we’re now backed in a corner with no way forward.
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, I would say it’s very telling that the president himself said to Republicans on Capitol Hill come up with a plan, I’d like you guys to come up with a plan. You know, that is not usually how it works. It’s usually left to domestic policy aides inside the White House to come up with a plan and then get Republicans on Capitol Hill onboard with the plan that they’ve written.
MR. COSTA: And Democrats on the campaign trail for 2020, they want to talk about kitchen-table issues. They’re not talking about the Russia probe.
MS. ALCINDOR: This is – the Republicans are in such a bad political position on health care precisely because of the president. Today or this week Hallie and I were on the lawn screaming questions at the president.
MR. COSTA: Well, I’m sure you weren’t screaming. I mean –
MS. JACKSON: Respectfully raising our voices.
MS. JOHNSON: Shouting questions at the president.
MR. COSTA: They were screaming because the helicopter was in the way.
MS. JACKSON: All the context that we need.
MR. COSTA: OK.
MS. ALCINDOR: And the one word I could come up with was timeline – what is your timeline for coming up with a plan? The president says once we get to the Supreme Court and this lawsuit is dealt with, we’ll come up with a plan. But if you’re talking to suburban women, who are very much what Republicans need to win in 2020, there are a lot of women looking around saying, OK, but what does that actually mean? If you take away my health care today, what am I going to be left with? And all the sourcing that I’ve been doing and all the talks that I’ve been having, the White House is not even trying to act like they have a plan. They do not have a plan.
MR. BAKER: What’s surprising about him doing this, of course, is that this has otherwise been the best week of his presidency, right? I mean, this is – you know, he’s been cleared, in his way of putting it, on the Mueller report – we’ll see what it actually says, but for the moment, anyway, it is true that he doesn’t face an allegation of criminal conspiracy with Russia. That’s an important moment for him. So why, then, change the subject to a strength of your opponents? Why change it to something that they themselves would like to change the subject to? It’s kind of a mystery.
MR. COSTA: And it was really interesting. It was a mystery to Leader McConnell in the Senate to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who reportedly privately urged the president to not pursue this initiative.
MS. JACKSON: They had to – it’s our understanding from our team that covers the Justice Department there was a deadline, so something had to be done, there was an action that needed to be taken, but this was the moment that acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney and others decided to pitch, in the words of one person we talked to, pitch the president on this idea and try to get him to do it.
To Peter’s point, remember Sunday and Monday, which feels like a hundred years ago, the president – the attorney general’s letter came out. Michael Avenatti, his biggest nemesis, his chief antagonist, ended up charged criminally. He had one of his closest allies, Benjamin Netanyahu, over to the White House to spend some time with him. He was riding high for a good 48 hours. Then this happened.
And while Democrats – to your point, Yamiche – may have gasped, as you put it, about the Mueller report, boy, did they cheer when this happened and this went down.
MR. BAKER: My colleague Maggie Haberman asked a White House official, why are you doing this? And he – and he sent a message back – tongue in cheek – he says too much positive news, we had to change the subject.
MR. COSTA: But I keep coming back, Eliana, to your reporting and the question of why. And when you look at someone like Mick Mulvaney or Russ Vought, a name most Americans don’t know but he runs the Office of Management and Budget as the acting director, even though President Trump says he’s a populist, he’s an everyman, a businessman, inside of this administration, so many conservative ideologues.
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah. And Mulvaney is case in point of that, really an ideological conservative and the first ideological conservative to be chief of staff. John Kelly was a military man. Reince Priebus was really an establishment political operative. But this is really the first window, I think, that we’ve gotten into how Mulvaney is wielding his power. John Kelly really tried to restrict access to the Oval Office, he was shutting the door, keeping people out of meetings; Mulvaney came in and said I’m not going to do that.
But what he has done is brought in a lot of ideological allies, about a half dozen of them, into the West Wing. And while he hasn’t tried to keep anybody out, he’s given those people he’s brought in, who share his views, access to the president. And those were the people who carried the day in these arguments about whether to pursue this path on Obamacare.
MR. COSTA: If that’s the case, does this make divided government and deals between Speaker Pelosi and President Trump on prescription drugs, on infrastructure harder if conservatives are driving the agenda inside?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think it could be – it’s possible. I think it was already going to be hard because from the very beginning when the president realized he was going to be faced with a House that was controlled by Nancy Pelosi, she said if – he said if you investigate me, I’m going to already have issues with you and not want to legislate with you. So I don’t know if looking forward people were saying that this was – that a lot of things weren’t going to get done to begin with.
But I go back to President Trump’s personality. I remember at inauguration, one of his first crises, one of the first kind of issues that we had was him comparing his inauguration crowds with President Obama. And everyone thought you just got inaugurated president of the United States, why are you picking this fight? And I think some of it had to do with the fact that it’s actually called Obamacare and he likes the idea of really repealing and talking about a program that was passed by President Obama.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of respectfully engaging with the president outside the White House and not screaming – (laughter) – there was a telling exchange you had, Hallie, with other reporters with the president this week that underscores this conservative drift that we’re paying attention to as reporters.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she learned a hard lesson this week when she proposed cutting the federal funding for the Special Olympics and for two days she faced tough questions during a budget hearing over this proposal to zero-out federal funds for the Special Olympics. And then on Thursday, the president turned the tables on her.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I just authorized a funding of the Special Olympics. I’ve been to the Special Olympics. I think it’s incredible. And I just authorized a funding. I heard about it this morning. I have overridden my people, we’re funding the Special Olympics.
MR. COSTA: And not just Majority Leader McConnell or Minority Leader McCarthy who seemed to be a little uneasy with this shift to the right, even President Trump has some reservations.
MS. JACKSON: And let’s keep in mind that when the president says “I’m going to authorize funding” he does not do the authorizations for the budget, Congress does and lawmakers had already said we’re not cutting the Special Olympics. The program was never really at risk. It was symbolic. And in conversations that I had had with Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, others in the organization, they said the administration has weight. What President Trump sets forward as his priorities have weight with people around the country, and so for them to have changed their mind – and they credited the White House and the president for having changed their mind – they felt like this carried symbolic significance.
I was frankly very surprised to hear that response to my question to the president. He does not reverse course often, as I think everybody sitting around this table knows. It seemed like the political pressure had built enough. And now one of my big questions is, what does this mean for Secretary DeVos’s future? She had become the face of this controversy very much. She came out – and I spoke with her folks right after this moment happened – she said, well, she’s been fighting behind the scenes on this for years, yet there she was for days publicly defending her boss’s budget.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Well, that’s the problem. If you’re working for President Trump, this is a position you’re likely to be caught in, right? Suddenly, you know, you’re defending the policy that you have been handed. I mean, this is – this is probably the Mick Mulvaney crowd creating a budget that President Trump has probably not read in detail, in any detail.
MR. COSTA: Well, in detail.
MR. BAKER: And it includes a lot of, you know, conservative lists, you know, let’s go ahead and get rid of this funding and that funding, things we don’t think the government should be involved in, but it will never actually happen because Congress won’t go along with it and it’s been in the budget for years, now his budget for years, nobody really paid attention to it until suddenly it got a little bit of attention from an entertainment reporter. And Betsy DeVos is left to defend something that she really didn’t have that much to do with, I understand. And then suddenly the president cuts the legs out from under her after she has gamely gone forward and given his line.
MS. ALCINDOR: And she was out there by herself saying, you know what, we like this program, we understand this program, but at the end of the day this can be done through philanthropic endeavors. And in some ways, Betsy DeVos, when she got that job, people were very worried with the idea that she was going to have the private sector starting to fund all sorts of things that the federal government usually takes – usually takes – usually takes the lead on.
But I think that this is, as Hallie said, I think now maybe we’re a little bit in DeVos watch in that the president let her kind of be the face of this and then when he felt like it was advantageous to him he reversed course. But I don’t know what that means for Betsy DeVos.
MS. JACKSON: As Congressman Mark Pocan said, who was involved in that first fire exchange, the one that went viral, he said, has anybody checked on Betsy DeVos to see if she’s still under the bus that the president just threw her under?
MS. JOHNSON: You’re right. The president does not like when his Cabinet officials attract negative PR, particularly in televised exchanges. He’s somebody who doesn’t follow the detailed, day-to-day operations of his Cabinet agencies, but he does pay attention when Cabinet secretaries appear in hearings on Capitol Hill that are televised. And so he certainly was aware of those uncomfortable exchanges that Betsy DeVos had on Capitol Hill this week, was not particularly pleased with them.
MR. COSTA: Thanks everybody for another good conversation. We’re going to have to leave it there for tonight.
But our conversation will continue as ever on the Washington Week Extra. It’s available on our website or Facebook or YouTube every Friday after 8:30 p.m. And while you’re there, take our Election 2020 survey. It’s on the homepage.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.