ROBERT COSTA: President Trump changes course, but sticks to his hard line. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Brinkmanship at the southern border. President Trump threatens to close it, then backs off.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I may shut it down at some point, but I’d rather do tariffs.
MR. COSTA: The attorney general under pressure as Democrats request the Mueller report and the president’s tax returns.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) So let us – let’s rise to a level of presidential in all of this. Show us the Mueller report. Show us the tax returns.
MR. COSTA: Plus, the former vice president’s conduct faces scrutiny as he nears a 2020 run.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) It is incumbent upon me and I think everybody else to make sure that if you embrace someone, if you touch someone, it’s with their consent regardless of your intentions.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump came close to shutting down the U.S.-Mexico border even as advisors and business leaders warned him that it would rock the economy, then he backed away. He gave Mexico, quote, “a one-year warning,” warning of auto tariffs and a shuttered border if they don’t crack down on migration.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Our country is full. Our area’s full. The sector is full. Can’t take anymore, I’m sorry. Can’t happen. So turn around. That’s the way it is.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Katty Kay, anchor of BBC World News America and host of Beyond 100 Days; Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal; Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News.
Geoff, you’re at the White House day in, day out tracking this president. What led him to back away from this decision to close the border?
GEOFF BENNETT: Well, in some ways the president really had no choice because you had Mitch McConnell on the Hill making clear that the president’s decision or his threat, rather, to close the border would cause financial disaster. And so we saw the president stake out these seemingly conflicting positions all week and there are a couple of things that account for his sort of hardline approach, or at least his return to it, and even his trip to the border today.
One, absent any sort of real domestic agenda, the president is returning to an issue that he thinks works for him. But two, on the – on the sort of political atmospherics of it, when you’ve engaged in the kind of demagoguery about this issue of immigration in the way that the president has, he makes it so that he can’t reposition. He can’t sort of find common ground now because to do anything less than to pursue one of these sort of positions that he’s staked out would seem as if he’s capitulating to his base.
MR. COSTA: What about Mexico? Did Mexico change its behavior at all? The president said Mexico has been helpful this week. Is that accurate?
MR. BENNETT: It is and it isn’t. I talked to a couple of immigration experts who say the president was right on the numbers when he on the South Lawn today said that Mexico had apprehended something along the orders of 1,400 people over the last couple of days. That’s true, but it’s also true that Mexico has had tough immigration enforcement since 2014. And so there is no causality between the president’s tough rhetoric, his tough approach, and anything new that Mexican authorities are doing. They’ve been doing it all along.
MR. COSTA: Just because the president backed away from his decision to close the border doesn’t mean he’s suddenly upending his immigration policy, that he’s moving away from his hard line. In fact, on Friday morning President Trump announced he’s pulling the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, saying he wants someone tougher – his words. The Washington Post is reporting that Stephen Miller, the president’s top policy advisor, was unenthused about Vitiello’s nomination. A White House official told the Post, quote, “Stephen wants to put Attila the Hun as director of ICE.” Ashley, you’ve tracked Stephen Miller and his conservative wing inside of this White House. How much is he shaping immigration policy at this time, and what does it reveal to have this ICE nomination pulled?
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, Stephen Miller has always been the driving force on immigration. And throughout Trump’s presidency there have been moments where the president will seem to flirt with the Democrats, maybe offer up something on DACA, maybe move a little to the center, and when he gets pulled back it is Stephen Miller who is pulling him back. To be clear, Stephen Miller’s not making the president do anything he doesn’t want to do. The president’s sort of gut instinct is that far right. That’s a position he’s taken for decades, frankly, if you go back and read his books and what he’s said before, but it’s Stephen who has always been doing this. But to see this nomination pulled, Miller is absolutely behind this. He was one of the people who was in the president’s ear about this, and the Post also reported that the president in the Oval Office told a group of people – he said Stephen Miller, he’s in charge of immigration now. And while that was sort of always the case, to have the president say that in the Oval Office and kind of codify it, it just elevates Stephen even more on this key issue as we head into 2020, where as Geoff said immigration is going to be one of those divisive issues that the president sort of tries to inflame to bring out his base.
MR. COSTA: And Democrats are watching all this and they’re calling for increased attention not to building a border wall, but to the humanitarian crisis on the border, where many migrants from Central America are seriously ill or in need of medical care, including children. And the Democrats are fighting the president’s use of executive power to direct immigration policy, and they are planning to file a lawsuit to block the administration from diverting more than $6 billion from the Pentagon’s budget to pay for a barrier. And in addition to that lawsuit from the House Democrats, a coalition of 20 states is also challenging the Trump administration’s decision.
The Trump administration says based on the data there is a surge of migrants at the border, but the Democrats say it’s a humanitarian crisis, there’s not enough being done. Is that message being heard? Is it breaking through?
KATTY KAY: It’s certainly true that there does seem to have been a surge just during the course of the last month or so. Now, some immigration experts are saying this happens around springtime, that it’s not uncommon to have a huge group of people coming. Some people who are on the border are saying that they have been hearing back at home in Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador that the border might be closed, and so they’re trying to get here before that border is closed. The one thing that immigration experts say you need in order to deal with what is a crisis on the border – a humanitarian crisis on the border is more judges to process asylum seekers. So when the president says as he did today that we need – that we have a crazy legal system and we need less court involvement, actually what immigration experts say is that we need more court involvement, more judges to process these asylum seekers.
The other thing that the president said when he said he was going to shut the border, of course, is that he was going to cut aid to those three countries, the three countries that are driving much of the migration. This is no longer Mexican single men coming across the find work so much as it is people coming from those countries. Cutting aid would probably not help the situation; in fact, it might well hurt it because as people who look at immigration, whether it’s in Europe and people coming from the Middle East and Africa or whether it’s here people coming from Central America will tell you, you have to deal with the source. If you’re really going to address the migration issue, it’s not about walls, it’s not about borders; it’s about what happens at the source.
MR. COSTA: Jerry, if you step back for a moment and think of the politics of this week, you also had the president pulling back, stepping back from his decision on health care. He had called for a new Republican health care plan, then he said we’re actually going to punt it until after the 2020 elections. You couple that with the decision on the border, what is it telling us about this presidency at this time?
GERALD SEIB: Well, you know, two things, really. I think – first of all, I sense a frustrated president, you know: I still have to deal with this Mueller report, so I’m going to change the subject to health care. That’s why that happened. I really am frustrated by what’s happening on the border, so I’m going to stake out a whole new position on Mexico even if it means I have to retreat from it. I think it’s a sign of frustration, A.
B, I also, though, have a sense of a kind of a president unbound and unfettered, Donald Trump. And you have been seeing this all year, that he spent much of his first two years kind of constrained by staff – by a John Kelly, the chief of staff, to some extent. That’s gone now. He’s in a sense his own domestic policy director, his own foreign policy director, and his own spokesman. And so I think he’s saying what’s on his mind and doing that increasingly whether it’s on Twitter or whether it’s live. And if he has to roll back the next day or the next week, fine, I’ll move on to the next one. And I think what you’re seeing is pure Trump in many ways.
MS. KAY: It’s also an interesting relationship with the Republican Party that we’ve seen over the last week because on two big issues – health care and the border – he has had to roll back after pressure from the Republican Party and from businesses, who have said: This is not going to fly.
MR. COSTA: Specifically, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, as Geoff mentioned.
MS. KAY: Right.
MR. COSTA: What is McConnell’s power right now?
MS. KAY: Well, McConnell has always had this close influence with President Trump, because in a way he spent the first two years doing what President Trump wanted. And so it does give some clout now. And he has the Republican Party behind him, particularly on the issue of the border where business leaders were saying: You can’t do this. The cure would be far worse than the problem if you do this.
MR. SEIB: But what’s really fascinating, though, is how often those people, those congressional leaders of the president’s own party on Capitol Hill, are taken by surprise. It says something about the communication, or lack of communication, the lack of consultation. It’s pretty stunning, in some ways.
MS. PARKER: But this is also what the president is going to see and have to grapple with going into 2020, which is the rhetoric versus the reality. So the rhetoric of health care, saying Republicans will be the party of health care, we will cover all preexisting conditions for a lower deductible, well, that sounds wonderful to Republicans and Democrats alike. The reality is it’s very difficult to craft a plan that does that, and Republicans couldn’t even do it when the controlled both chambers of Congress. The same is true for immigration.
MR. BENNETT: Right, and it’s because the president so often engages in this sort of bumper sticker-style politics, where he throws out a phrase that works well on a bumper sticker, without investing at all in the policy and the political nuances of it. And on, you know, health care and immigration, he’s staking out positions on two issues that the Republican Party paid dearly for in the midterm elections, because, you know –
MR. SEIB: But, you know, there’s also an element of this working for him. I mean, he’s made threats against the Chinese, and they’ve come around on trade. He made threats against North Korea, famously, and they came around on negotiations to some extent. You know, the idea that you make a threat and then you have to pull it back maybe sounds terrible to some people. To him I think he says: Well, that’s worked before. Let’s try it again now. Even if I retreat it will – the point will have been made.
MR. COSTA: And we see another battleground this week, not just on immigration and health care but the Mueller report. Members of the special counsel’s team, Robert Muller’s team, are reportedly frustrated with Attorney General William Barr, who has so far only updated Congress on the broad strokes of Mr. Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible obstruction of justice. The New York Times was the first to report that Mueller’s associates are concerned that Mr. Barr’s letter has given only a limited view of their findings, including their summaries. And in a statement, the Justice Department’s spokesperson defended Barr and wrote that the report will not be released until it has been reviewed and partially redacted.
When you look at the Post reporting and the Times reporting on the Mueller team, 22 months without a leak from Robert Mueller’s team. Now, based on these reports, they’re talking to their friends at DOJ, talking to other friends, the newspapers are hearing whispers of these conversations. Is there a crack finally? And is that frustration for real?
MS. PARKER: Well, there is a crack finally, for those of us for 22 months who’ve been trying to find ways in. (Laughter.) And I think that it cannot be overstated how striking this is. This was a wildly disciplined shop. And the fact that these frustrations are coming into public view reflects that, to your second question, they are very real. And Mueller’s team, we understand, has been very frustrated by the limited summary that Barr has given. And one of their frustrations, for instance, was that they wrote these summaries that they felt were sort of camera ready, and ready to go out into the public and provide more nuance and more context.
And to be clear, there was stuff that needed to be redacted, but their thinking was that the redactions could happen very quickly. The Justice Department says that the redactions would have taken a while. But the long and the short of it is that they think as much out as possible is the best possible thing, especially if you look at the obstruction bucket, where it was very mixed from that summary. We understand that it seems like Mueller found some evidence on one side, some evidence on the other side, and couldn’t reach a conclusion. And there is some thinking that the American public should know just what is weighing the scale on each side.
MR. COSTA: Democrats are suspicious, Geoff, about Attorney General Barr. Is there a cover-up? You’ve heard that word this week from some Democrats. Other Republicans are saying the Democrats are overreaching.
MR. BENNETT: Right, and Democrats make the point that this whole thing really adds to their argument that they need to see the entire report, and they need to see all of the underlying evidence to figure out how Barr reached his conclusions surrounding the summary and how the special counsel reached his own determination. So, you know, I think Barr has made clear what he will and will not release. You have Democrats who’ve already issued subpoenas. But what’s interesting here is that, you know, whereas before in the administration’s past where I think just the mere threat of a congressional subpoena would be enough to cajole, compel or shame an administration into complying, this White House has made fairly certain that they don’t think the subpoena’s going to hold up in court, and that they don’t think they have to comply.
MR. COSTA: What’s your read, Jerry, on the attorney general at this moment?
MR. SEIB: Well, I find it hard to believe that he would mischaracterize in any fundamental way the conclusions of the Mueller report. I think he’s too smart to do that. I mean, eventually we will know what’s in the Mueller report. So I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here. I think we’re talking about his attempt to control the release, and also dealing with what I think is inevitable that in, what is it, 300-400 pages there are bound to be embarrassing details in there for the president, right? So I’m distinguishing between what’s in the report when it’s seen in its full glory and what the bottom-line conclusions are. I suspect the bottom-line conclusions have to be correct. I don’t think William Barr would misstate those. But he does have some control over how much of the rest of it comes out.
MR. COSTA: We saw Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a Republican, call for the full Mueller report to be released. Is there a clamor on the GOP side for more disclosure?
MS. KAY: Well, Democrats that I’ve spoken to this week have pointed to the fact that there’s a certain amount of unity. And they talk about Chuck Grassley amongst Republicans and Democrats who would all like the Mueller report to be released. And I think we’re getting into a battle now over timing. Timing of these summaries that we understand from the reporting the Mueller team actually provided, the level of redactions, and then even possibly the issue of whether Mueller himself is asked to come and testify, to answer questions if Democrats feel they still have them.
MR. COSTA: When you think about the Democrats, Geoff, they’re not just looking for the Mueller report. They’re also requesting the president’s tax returns this week. Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts, of the Ways and Means Committee, sent a letter to the IRS, not to the White House, asking for the president’s tax returns from 2013 to 2018. Do the Democrats expect to get them, or will this be settled in federal court?
MR. BENNETT: I think they’re preparing smartly for a protracted legal battle. The fact – the point you made is important to point out. He sent this request not to the White House, but to the IRS. So when you see Donald Trump say he’s not inclined to comply, this is one of the rare moments in American public life where the view of the president does not matter, not directly, anyway, because there is a – it’s written into the IRS code that when the relevant congressional committee requests the tax returns of any taxpayer, the IRS has to turn those over.
Now, the president, we found out today, has retained an entirely new legal team – (laughs) – to help him with this. So clearly he’s not inclined to let Steve Mnuchin turn over these tax returns. But the Democrats say they are doing this on the policy. They are trying to make sure – this is their argument – that they want to make sure that the IRS is doing the job that they’re supposed to be doing in auditing routinely a sitting president and vice president.
MS. KAY: To which the president’s response – or, the president’s lawyer’s – new lawyer’s response is: Well, then why are you asking for the tax returns from 2013 to 2016, which is before he became president if this is a procedural issue about how the audit is being done?
MS. PARKER: And it’s worth noting on all of this that the White House, for as uncomfortable and unpleasant as both the tax returns and the Mueller report, some of those potentially unflattering details that don’t necessarily change the underlying conclusion, may be, the White House views this all, as of now, as a political winner, because they say when Democrats are issuing subpoenas and going after the president, that it will look like overreach and it will look like what the president has been claiming for two years now, a witch hunt. And that they can use that to dismiss not just the Mueller probe or the Mueller report but, frankly, any future investigations and future misbehavior that they don’t like.
MR. SEIB: Which, ironically, was why Chairman Neal was so reluctant to move ahead and ask for these tax returns, because he knew they’d be accused of that.
MR. COSTA: Why is that? Is the chairman – Chairman Neal, Speaker Pelosi, they say, as Geoff noted, they’re doing this for policy reasons. But are they also under pressure from the Democratic base?
MR. SEIB: A lot of pressure. A lot of pressure. And, in fact, they’re resisting that pressure. I think you saw the speaker resist the pressure on impeachment right up front, saying it’s – we’re not going there. It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it, was her famous line. And Chairman Neal resisted for three-four months now. The base wanted him to go directly to the administration immediately upon taking the majority in the House and ask for the tax returns. And he told them explicitly: We have to be careful. Whatever argument we make for why we should have these tax returns is going to be challenged in court. So we have to do it carefully.
MS. KAY: And she has – Pelosi has to juggle with a base that is clamoring for more investigations, more subpoenas, more tax returns and the Mueller probe. They also have to juggle Democrats who are in Trump districts who are saying: Hold on a second. We are the ones who actually swung the House. And we are hearing from our constituents that they want – they actually want us to move forward on the issues like health care, and education, and economics and jobs. And they don’t want to be talking about investigations nonstop for the next two years.
MR. COSTA: And, Ashley, Katty noted the president has a new legal team. But the White House seems to have been preparing for this moment for quite some time. The president was also pushing back in February, based on a Times report, for the IRS’s chief counsel to be a Trump ally.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, that’s right. It’s not a position you would necessarily expect the president to take acute interest in, until you realize that this is a person who is in a position of power to make one of these key decisions potentially defending, protecting the president. And you understand that taxes have been on the president’s mind for quite some time. It gets to not just these issues in the White House, but the president is someone whose sense of self is so tied up in his net worth. There’s a number of reasons why he doesn’t want his tax returns to come out.
MR. COSTA: And in that letter to the IRS you had the chairman pushing for more disclosure from the White House, but you also had the White House ask in their own response to that letter for the Department of Justice to weigh in. So you have Attorney General Bill Barr at the center of everything – the tax returns, the Mueller report.
But let’s leave that on the shelf for a second because the 2020 presidential race, it’s simmering. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who advisors say could launch a campaign this month, has long been a leading Democratic contender in the polls, but he has faced allegations from women who say he inappropriately touched them. And on Friday Biden addressed the matter during remarks at a union event in Washington.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: And he also said this.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m sorry I didn’t understand more. I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman.
MR. COSTA: Katty, when you watch that clip, him talking about I had permission from a woman or whoever Lonnie was – a man, I’m not sure of the person – to give them a hug, and then you see him kind of apologizing, what does it tell us about this possible candidate for the White House?
MS. KAY: Look, there he was, he was making a kind of joke about the whole issue of personal space and the accusations against him. And actually, if you listen to the recording of the room it seemed to go down pretty well. I mean, this was a largely, I understand, male audience, and there was a lot of cheering when he made that kind of joke. And I think that gets to an interesting issue in the whole state that we are in between people who feel that the #MeToo movement may have gone too far and that there – it needs – now it has overcorrected and then people who feel, no, it hasn’t gone far enough and we still need to push this issue of personal space.
And then the other thing that Joe Biden said coming out of that was I am still a Biden-Obama Democrat and I believe the Democratic Party is still fundamentally the same. That’s going to be the challenge for Joe Biden: Is the Democratic Party fundamentally the same, or has there been a real sea change in not just society but in the Democratic Party that says this is not OK and you are too old and you are too out of touch?
MR. BENNETT: I think he realized that his attempt at humor was a miscalculation.
MS. KAY: Or his staff did.
MR. BENNETT: Right, because he was not – he didn’t intend to speak to the press. In fact, our colleagues were told that he wasn’t going to address the issue at all, and then he came out afterwards and spoke to reporters there.
I think Democrats/progressive liberals are going to have to figure out what is an acceptable level of political fragility because whomever emerges as a Democratic candidate is going to face a Donald Trump who has perfected the art of political shamelessness, and being politically shameless in a public realm, and using that as a political cudgel against his perceived or real enemy. And even this morning on the South Lawn when the president was asked about that video that he retweeted mocking Joe Biden, the president said he felt justified in doing it because people got a kick out of it. That’s how he defended it. So it’s a really fraught thing politically, setting aside the substance of what these women say about how they felt.
MS. PARKER: And that is what is so striking. When you have a president who has been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women, a president who on the Access Hollywood tape boasted about grabbing and groping women, and you have Biden encountering his own different gradation but problems with women, you don’t expect that sort of president or politician to eagerly leap into a public dialogue about sexual misbehavior. But President Trump is not any politician, and I think this is one thing the Democrats will have to grapple with, is that if you are running against someone who as Geoff said is shameless it becomes a little bit of asymmetrical warfare. And what Trump’s base may forgive him for Joe Biden’s base or the Democratic base may not forgive them.
MR. COSTA: Does he still run, Jerry, after all of this?
MR. SEIB: Well, look, I think it’s 95 percent sure he runs, but it’s Joe Biden so the last 5 percent really matters. But yeah, I think so. And look, we should not forget there’s an enormous reservoir of respect and admiration and fondness for Joe Biden at the base of the Democratic Party and among some important constituencies – African Americans, African-American women, blue-collar workers in the industrial Midwest that Democrats will have to get back from Donald Trump if they’re going to win the 2020 election. And this gets to a point you were making: Where’s the energy in the Democratic Party? Where are the winning votes? And in 2018 a lot of those winning votes were moderate voters, soft Republicans in the upper industrial Midwest who switched back to Democrats, and those are Joe Biden voters. So does the party want those people or not?
MR. COSTA: And the party, Katty, thought Joe Biden was the ticket to those voters in 2020, yet they have other contenders now who fit a similar profile from the Midwest – Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. There are other options now competing.
MS. KAY: Yeah, there are. Joe Biden has a bigger profile and more access to Democratic Party operatives than perhaps those candidates do just because he’s better known. He was vice president for eight years. But he has to get through the primaries. Between now and till the time that there is a nominee, the issue of Donald Trump is not really who he’s running against; he’s running against all of those candidates. Now, he’s going to – you could tell from what he said today he’s going to go out and say it’s – I am the one that can get you Michigan and Wisconsin, basically.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody, for being here. Appreciate it.
And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. We will discuss a security breach at Mar-a-Lago and what it means for the president’s security. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube starting at 8:30 p.m. every Friday night.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.