ROBERT COSTA: Standoff between the U.S. and China, and the White House and Congress. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We have a great attorney general. Now the Democrats are saying we want war.
MR. COSTA: President Trump asserts executive privilege over the Mueller report and Democrats move to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) There might be some other contempt of Congress issues that we want to deal with at the same time.
MR. COSTA: Republicans want to move on.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) The Mueller report has been filed, the case is closed, and I think it’s time to move on.
MR. COSTA: Plus, trade dispute. Top U.S. and China officials negotiate as markets remain on edge, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: The battle this week between the White House and Democrats over the release of the full Mueller report has sparked a still-raging debate over power and politics, oversight and executive privilege. Many Republicans insist it’s case closed, but there are some cracks on the GOP side. And Democratic leaders frustrated by President Trump’s refusal to comply with their demands declared that the U.S. is in a constitutional crisis.
Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Laura Barron-Lopez, national political reporter for POLITICO; Abby Phillip, White House correspondent for CNN; and Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC.
Peter wrote about the president’s strategy in Friday’s Times. His bottom line: Mr. Trump is daring Democrats to impeach him. The message from the West Wing: put up or shut up, impeach or move on. Peter, you’ve written a book, The Breach, about the Clinton impeachment. You’ve co-authored a book about the impeachment process. When Democrats talk about a constitutional crisis, one, are we actually at that moment? And is this battle any different than things we’ve seen in the past on impeachment and the efforts to move toward there?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s a great question. I don’t know whether we’re at a constitutional crisis. We’re certainly at a constitutional confrontation. I think that’s a fair way of putting it. We might get to a crisis if a court were to weigh in, for instance, and somebody were then not to obey the lawful order of a court. That would certainly be a crisis.
But we are seeing a more – we’re seeing what we’ve seen in the past on steroids, right? We have in the past presidents who have defied or resisted the Congress when they tried to subpoena things, when they tried to solicit testimony that a president didn’t want to have. He has – other presidents have asserted executive privilege. But this one is saying we’re doing it across the board, and he’s basically saying I’m done with this, I’m not participating anymore, I’m not playing your games, and if you want to come after me come after me.
MR. COSTA: Laura, why is Speaker Pelosi holding back on impeachment? Is it to protect vulnerable Democrats? What is it?
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: I think that’s a big piece of it because we know that if Democrats go down this route – and she’s mentioned this before, right, that when Republicans did this under Clinton they suffered the consequences politically the next election cycle, and she doesn’t want that to happen. They just got a hold of the House. They have 40 seats that they have to defend, ones that they flipped from red to blue, and there are plenty of vulnerable Democrats. And I was actually speaking to some of them today, and right now they aren’t too nervous about the escalation in the investigations. They still feel pretty good that Pelosi is firm on no impeachment. But if this keeps going on for six more months, I was talking to some of them today and they said that’s when maybe they will start speaking out and there the tension could bubble up amongst the Democrats.
MR. COSTA: Abby, what’s the mood inside of the administration? The attorney general, he’s about to be held in contempt of Congress – the House Judiciary Committee moved in that direction – yet he was making jokes about it this week at a farewell ceremony for Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
ABBY PHILLIP: Well, this is all just part of the president’s natural instinct to just simply push back on all of these things. President Trump views all of the various investigations, which are actually on a number of different disparate topics, as all part of the same effort by Democrats to buttonhole him and trap him into some kind of legal jeopardy, or at the very least some political damage in the future. So I think he and the White House are pursuing a strategy of giving not even an inch on any of these things regardless of whether the strategy is ultimately going to succeed. There is a sense in the White House that they haven’t really thought through the entirety of all these legal battles, but just the mere fact of delay is part of the strategy in and of itself, frustrating the Democrats, making it more difficult for them to create a seamless narrative to the public. That is what they’re trying to do, even if down the line some of these things they might not actually succeed on because there is not actually a firm bedrock to stand on when it comes to the legality of some of these moves.
MR. COSTA: The House Ways and Means Committee, Eamon, they issued a subpoena on Friday for the president’s tax returns, another escalation of their efforts to get documents about the president’s finances. Where does this lead? Do they actually end up in the hands of Richie Neal, the chairman?
EAMON JAVERS: You feel like ultimately the Democrats are going to get the president’s tax returns here at some point. The question is when and how many layers of court battles do they have to go through. Does this ultimately end up in the Supreme Court is the – is the big question right now. Ultimately, though, you would think that the Democrats will be able to get these tax returns. And then the question is, what’s in them and is there anything in there that’s politically damaging. The president’s made a calculation that whatever heat he’s taking politically for not putting them out is worth taking because whatever’s in there will be worse for him politically. So we’ll find out at some point. I would imagine in this term we’ll find out the answer to that question. And the president has had a remarkable ability to roll through all sorts of things that might have been devastating politically to any other politician; he might be able to roll through this one too, even if the tax returns do come out.
MR. COSTA: So they’re holding people in contempt. We may see Secretary Mnuchin held in contempt about the tax returns. Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, the White House has asserted executive privilege about his testimony; he could be held in contempt. But you’re the resident expert here on impeachment. Could impeachment proceedings, if they formally moved in that direction, actually help House Democrats compel testimony and get documents?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, so the argument is that – on the part of some of Trump’s allies is that the Congress doesn’t have a legitimate legislative purpose for some of the things it’s trying to do. What law are they trying to pass here? What is the reason for their asking for this information? If they were to actually formally open an impeachment inquiry, there’s very little argument against it because that’s so squarely in the four corners of their power under the Constitution, and it would get – and courts have made clear in the past that a Congress pursuing impeachment has, you know, a greater call for overcoming things like executive privilege. Now, it’s one of these things where the president may get something he may not really want; it’s, you know, the dog chasing the car. He may push them so far in resisting on the subpoenas that they decide to go for an impeachment inquiry to strengthen their hand, and then suddenly he’s in a different place. Now, he may think that’s a political winner because it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of votes in the Senate to convict him, but once you open that kind of thing you don’t know where it leads.
MR. JAVERS: But isn’t this a president who just likes a fight, right? I mean, to some extent this is a president who thrives when there’s a political foil, right? So if it’s the opponent during the general election, if it’s the Democrats now, when he can be out there fighting and punching somebody in the nose rhetorically, he thrives, he wins, he rallies his base. To some extent, whether you delay, delay, delay, just the idea of fight, fight, fight helps him, doesn’t it?
MS. PHILLIP: And I think there is also the risk for Democrats in just the fatigue of all of this. The Mueller investigation took two years. An impeachment proceeding – getting to the point of impeachment will take some time, but an impeachment proceeding will take a long time. There is the risk here, and I think the Republicans and the president are banking on it, that the public will get so tired of all this they will start to tune it out. And it’ll become less important to them. Steven Bannon used to talk a lot about just sort of throwing things out there so that people can’t focus on any one thing. And I think that, and President Trump, it has become kind of a mode of operating. Not so much perhaps a strategy, but just simply a way of being and operating that he is always doing so much that people have to focus on that no one can really pay attention to one thing at a time.
MR. COSTA: Will we hear from Special Counsel Mueller?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, right now we aren’t sure. (Laughter.) It looks like the May 15th marker is going to come and go, and he’s most likely not going to testify on that day. Negotiations, Democrats are saying that they’re still ongoing, they’re still trying to find a way for him to come and testify. But there’s no set date. It could take much longer than we think.
But I want to go back to what Abby said about throwing all these things out here and the fatigue that Democrats may face, because on the campaign trail right now, whether you’re out with the 2020 Democrats running or you’re in the vulnerable House seats, they’re not talking about Mueller, they’re not talking about impeachment. They’re asking about health care; they’re asking about prescription drug costs. And so they really aren’t focused on this. And if continues, maybe they will start to – start to be worried about it.
MR. BAKER: Mmm hmm, and that’s one difference with Bill Clinton, right? In some ways they approached impeachment similarly, but one difference is that Clinton didn’t talk about this stuff. He didn’t want to bring it up every day, the way Trump does.
MR. JAVERS: He didn’t fight that fight. He did school uniforms and all the other small-ball stuff.
MR. BAKER: He says I’m focused on issues that matter to you. I’m focused on the things that you’re talking about on the campaign trail. And let those people deal with the muckety stuff. And he rose in the polls. Didn’t go down in the polls during impeachment. He went up in the polls during impeachment. It was a successful strategy for him. Trump has taken the other way. As you say, he likes to fight. He wants to have the argument. And he’s got a pretty powerful argument, right? He says Mueller didn’t charge me, therefore you guys are just partisans. And it’s more complicated than that, right? Everybody who’s read the report know it’s more complicated than that. But his argument is simple, and straightforward, and easily salable.
MR. COSTA: And it’s more than an argument. It’s a fight. You have the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, going over to Ukraine to try to urge the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden and other rivals for President Trump. I mean, this is a White House fighting not just on Capitol Hill over documents, but across the board.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, really, and very much trying to use what they believe were the strategies that were used against them in 2016 against their future 2020 –
MR. COSTA: What do you mean by that?
MS. PHILLIP: So in the White House’s view, in President Trump’s view, that they were under investigation and that they were hurt by these efforts to kind of criminalize them after the campaign. And I think that they want to basically take that and throw it against Joe Biden. And also do what they did with Hillary Clinton, by trying to frame Hillary Clinton as someone who was corrupt, framing Joe Biden in that same way. So this is going to be a really ugly fight, especially since at this early stage this is how we’re starting out.
MR. COSTA: But the Democrats aren’t the only people debating their path forward. President Trump sharply criticized Richard Burr, the Republican Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, after it was reported that Burr issued a subpoena to his eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) My son testified for hours and hours. My son was totally exonerated by Mueller – who, frankly, does not like Donald Trump, me.
MR. COSTA: The Republican-led committee wants the younger Mr. Trump to answer questions about his earlier testimony about that Trump Tower Moscow project. Why is Chairman Burr holding firm while so many Republicans are saying move on, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said, case closed?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Right. So Burr is, I think, one, not up for reelection. He has been known for being independent and trying to maintain this bipartisanship on the Senate Intel Committee, which is a contrast with House Intelligence, which totally, you know, fell apart in partisanship. And so he, as you mentioned, seems – they seem to believe or are thinking that Don Jr. may have lied to them when he testified before. And so that’s why they’re – they subpoenaed him and took this step.
MR. COSTA: Take me through Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s thinking here. He goes to the floor and says: Case closed. But then, on Tuesday at the Senate lunch, privately he doesn’t go after Senator Burr. He’s saying, let the process play out. What’s going on here?
MR. JAVERS: Yeah. No, to me this was a reminder of the old days on Capitol Hill, where you had the independent committee chairman – the old bulls, they used to call them – who were able to do pretty much what they wanted. And leadership had to kind of go along with that. And this seems to be a case where you’ve got maybe one last old bull out there still doing what he wants, despite what leadership is saying. The overt messaging from leadership is: This is over. It’s done. Shut it down. We’re moving on. And here you’ve got one chairman out there saying, you know what? I still have a few questions about this, and I’d like them answered.
MS. PHILLIP: And he’s not running for reelection, and that gives him a lot of political power at this time.
MR. COSTA: But, Abby, Senator Thom Tillis from North Carolina, just like Senator Burr, he’s up in 2020. And he’s not echoing Burr. He’s going – he’s rallying behind President Trump and Donald Trump, Jr.
MS. PHILLIP: No, he’s not, because this is Donald Trump’s party. And if you’re running for reelection in Donald Trump’s party, you have to be very clear about where you stand on this issue of Donald Trump, Jr.’s subpoena. It is not one of those things where the president and his allies will look the other way if people are suddenly saying, oh, it’s OK for this to happen. And perhaps –
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, this is family.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, and perhaps the only exception to that might be Mitch McConnell, but, you know, it’s Friday. I don’t want to say what’s going to happen next week. I mean, the president has been known –
MR. COSTA: I don’t want to say what happens next hour. (Laughter.)
MS. PHILLIP: Exactly. The president has been known to really lash out at people if he doesn’t believe that they’re loyal enough. And McConnell is no exception to that.
MR. COSTA: And Tillis – Senator Tillis has a primary foe.
MS. PHILLIP: Right. So, you know, this is where it hurts the most for Republicans, when they are at risk of being primaried. This is about the Republican Party politics, where the president has 90 percent approval. You cannot go against the president in that party. And you will face a real challenge in the primary. And the president’s allies have been more than willing to back some of these primary challengers in other races. So you can’t put that – you know, they’re not going to really stick with the incumbent every single time.
MR. COSTA: So you could feel the heat between the White House and Congress this week – some Senate Republicans and the White House, House Democrats and the White House. But that was not the only battleground. Trade talks between the U.S. and China continued on Friday without a deal. And amid the standstill, the Trump administration raised tariffs on $200 billion worth of goods. President Trump nonetheless sounded optimistic on Twitter, writing Friday that his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, quote, “remains very strong,” and that tariffs could be removed. For now, Reuters reports it may take three or four months for American shoppers to feel the pinch, but the tariffs would affect nearly 6,000 products from handbags, to electronics, to clothing. Trade Partnership, a consulting firm, estimates the tariffs could cost an average U.S. family $767 a year.
Peter, trade has been the signature issue for the president. I think back to your January interview with the president in the Oval Office. He’s talking about tariffs. Even if there’s a deal with China, he wants tariffs to perhaps be part of it. He’s pushing Xi Jinping to the brink. How does this play out as the markets watch?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s a great question, actually, because in fact they felt that the Chinese had backed off of something that had been agreed to during these talks, that they had agreement on some changes that would be made, that the Chinese now are saying that they would require us to change our laws and we’re not willing to change our laws. And the Trump people kind of flipped out about that. And he’s trying to play hard poker with them. He’s raised the bet here. But the question is whether or not it has an impact at home. He’s trying to make the case that this is actually good for Americans. Actually, if we – even if – this is better than if we get a deal, he said, which seems to misunderstand that these are actually Americans paying the tariffs, right? These are not the Chinese paying the tariffs. These are our consumers paying them. And it may be three or four months until the effect is seen.
So far, it looks like a lot of Americans who have been affected by tariffs have been willing – who like Trump – have been willing to give him a break, thinking he’s at least on our side. We know he’s getting someplace. We know there may be some short-term pain. But that’s a short-term situation that may not last.
MR. COSTA: Does it affect the 2020 map, Laura, if the people in the Midwest feel the pain on these tariffs?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: I think it could. I mean, there was a study in March done by UCLA and Berkeley that said that the impact of these tariffs is felt the most in Republican-leaning counties in the Midwest. So if they decide that they don’t want to put up with this anymore, after sticking with Trump for a little bit, then that could not only hurt his chances in 2020, but also down ballot, whether it’s the Senate or House campaigns.
MR. COSTA: What about the markets, Eamon? Over at CNBC you’re tracking it. You’re talking to investors as well as White House officials. They took a dip earlier in the week. But they seemed to end on a pretty positive note on Friday because of the optimism from the administration. Is it warranted, that optimism?
MR. JAVERS: This was the biggest head-scratcher of the day, right? We came in this morning at 6:00 a.m., the futures were up this morning. And all week long leading up to Trump putting the tariffs in, the debate was: Will the Dow be down 1,000 or will it be down 2,000 on Friday? And the answer is, the Dow ended up going up. We don’t really fully know why. The market clearly –
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ve seen Liu He, the vice premier of China, he’s still here. We see President Xi Jinping sending a letter to President Trump, hoping to get engagement. So there are some tea leaves out there.
MR. JAVERS: And that’s the question, is where do we go from here now, right? I mean, we had – you say the talks continue. Well, they continued through the mid-morning, and then they stopped, right? And we saw the leaders leave. We saw the Chinese leave the room. The question is, where do we go from here? I talked to Stephen Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, late this afternoon and I asked him if there are any meetings scheduled next with the Chinese. He said there’s nothing planned for right now. So we don’t know – as we sit here, you know, in the 8:00 p.m. hour on Friday night, we don’t know what the next round of talks is. We don’t know who’s going to go to whose capital. We don’t know where this goes from here. And there’s a very indefinite timeframe. The president put out that the talks will continue, this will go on, but we don’t have a date certain to look forward to as we had this week and we’ve had in the past with that March 1st deadline. So now the markets really have no certainty about where this is going to go, and maybe that’s the way markets like it because they seemed to warm to it today.
MS. PHILLIP: And it’s not clear when President Trump and President Xi might actually engage. In the past they’ve often needed to do that in order to push past certain logjams in these conversations, and they didn’t, just the fact that between yesterday and today they didn’t actually have a conversation beyond that letter that the president received from President Xi Jinping. And so I think that to me is a signal that the president and the U.S. side is not yet ready to engage with China. They kind of want China to sit out there and sit in these tariffs for a little bit longer. They are trying to up the pressure so that Xi Jinping believes that he has no choice but to take some really tough steps. And as Peter points out, the Chinese would have to change their laws. That’s a pretty major step. There are some real reasons why they may not want to do that. And so it really puts a lot of pressure on that government to act, and that’s what President Trump is hoping is going to make the difference.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stay with that, Peter, for a second, because take us inside of China. Xi Jinping, just like President Trump, a head of state facing his own internal pressures within his Communist Party, from the Chinese people. What’s the dynamic over in China as they deal with President Trump?
MR. BAKER: That’s a great question. It’s not the same kind of system, right? They don’t have a democracy as we would know it, but they do have domestic pressures and they do have economic pressures. And this is a – you know, a big country with a lot of consumers and a lot of workers that you can’t simply say, OK, let’s just, you know, make a decision that moves hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of 10 years without some consequences. They face enormous pressure to make sure there’s employment for a restive population.
And what’s interesting about what’s happening in China is it mirrors something happening a lot of places this week. We’re seeing a lot of the world kind of defying President Trump. We see China saying wait a second on these – on this trade deal. We see the North Koreans firing off missiles again. We see Iran doing something that’s got our people worked up so they’re sending a carrier there. We’ve got, you know, the Venezuelan coup – you know, the failure of the overthrow that happened this week. That’s a lot of things happening on the map right now, and I think all of these kind of are independent but kind of play into each other a little bit because they see people standing up to Trump and not necessarily paying a price.
MR. COSTA: Why are the – the Chinese have about a million to 2 million Uighur Muslims in camps over in China. Why isn’t the administration, based on your sourcing, talking to officials, bringing up this issue with the Chinese as the talks continue?
MR. JAVERS: This is an administration that has said that we’re not going to be lecturing other countries about human rights; we’re going to negotiate in a realpolitik way in terms of getting American interests represented. And they, obviously, have not raised that issue to a level of prominence for American interests. Look, this is a president, to your point, who calls himself tariff man for a reason, right? In a very complicated world where a lot of things can go against you, the tariffs are a very simple and the president believes very effective unilateral diplomatic and economic tool that he can use to apply pressure to get the deal he wants. It’s very appealing to him. He feels like he wants to leave these in place even if they do get a deal because, ultimately, it’s going to reset U.S. trade relationships around the world and benefit his core voters ahead of 2020.
MR. COSTA: And another current that we have to pay attention to as these trade frictions happen comes as the U.S. is facing new challenges with North Korea. Its dictator, Kim Jong-un, launched short-range ballistic missile tests this week, rattling U.S. allies in the region. And meanwhile, the U.S. seized a North Korean cargo ship carrying coal for violating sanctions. Is this whole situation with North Korea, the missile tests, a reminder from the region that – and from the Chinese in a sense that the U.S. and China need to be working on North Korea together? These issues are coupled in some way, perhaps?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: I think they might be. I mean, I think also that we’re seeing the ramifications of, you know, the failed summit. We’re seeing Trump trying to grapple with these issues. And so far, I mean, even though Trump appears to be not too concerned about what’s going on, I think that we’re hearing more and more from lawmakers a bit of uneasiness about what happened this week.
MR. COSTA: Is the White House uneasy?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, you know, I think President Trump even today telling POLITICO in an interview that he’s not too worried about what Chairman Kim is doing with these ballistic missiles, he’s significantly downplaying this step even though he spent about a year talking about how the absence of these kinds of tests were a sign of progress in these talks because the failure of these talks to succeed really might be a harbinger of a failure of President Trump’s overall approach, not just in North Korea but with China, with Iran, with Venezuela. He cannot always use his personal relationships with other leaders to resolve all of the underlying problems, and that’s what he’s – that’s been the bedrock of his strategy with North Korea and it just simply hasn’t worked.
MR. JAVERS: You know, I was in Hanoi for that summit, and when it fell apart it fell apart very quickly and you could sort of feel a level of chaos there at the end as the U.S. side decided, you know, we’re out of here and we’re leaving early. After that, when you talk to White House officials, they say, well, look, we didn’t get the deal we wanted, but we walked away from a potentially bad deal; and more importantly, North Korea has been put in a box, right? They haven’t been launching missiles. They haven’t been taking aggressive steps. They’re talking to us. So all that’s to the good. And the fact that we didn’t get there on the deal means we’ll come back in six or eight months and try again. But now if they’re going to start going back into a phase where they’re launching missiles again, retesting, that takes that talking point away, and it’s going to make the administration a little bit nervous about where North Korea is going. The question is, what can they do about it? Because they’ve already done the face-to-face diplomacy.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate you all being here tonight on a Friday.
Our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra. We will discuss more foreign policy and how it’s being tested for President Trump and debated inside his administration. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
And to all the moms out there, happy Mother’s Day.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.