GWEN IFILL, "WASHINGTON WEEK" MODERATOR: The news tonight -- Harry Reid's exit, old and new debates in Afghanistan, and the first official 2016 candidate steps up. We will cover it all tonight on WASHINGTON WEEK.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: We've got to be more concerned about the country, the Senate, the state of Nevada than us. And as a result of that, I’m not going to run for re-election.
IFILL (voice-over): Harry Reid's announcement he's quitting the Senate sets off a scramble for both his Nevada seat and for the top Democratic post in the Senate.
The fallout, two ways of looking at Afghanistan --
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed, so that we don't have to go back.
IFILL: -- as its president pleads for the U.S. to stay just a little longer.
And Bowe Bergdahl, once hailed as an American hero, is instead branded a trader.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sergeant Bergdahl is charged under the uniform coach of military justice with one count of Article 85, desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty.
IFILL: Plus --
SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America.
IFILL: Ted Cruz beats the rest of the field to the punch by making his 2016 plans official.
Covering the week: Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for "Politico", Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for "Real Clear Politics", Nancy Youssef, senior national security correspondent for "The Daily Beast", and Dan Balz, chief correspondent for "The Washington Post."
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens. Live from our nation's capital, this is WASHINGTON WEEK with Gwen Ifill.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
IFILL: Good evening.
For us, Friday surprises are the best surprises. So, by that measure, Senator Leader Harry Reid won the day, announcing today he will leave the Senate when his term ends in 2016.
The 75-year-old Reid, who suffered a grievous injury to his face and eye earlier this year in an exercising accident, said his forced recovery gave him time to think but he insists that is not why he's stepping down.
He posted this video online.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REID: These bruises I have on my face, on my eye, are an inconvenience but trust me, they're nothing compared to some of the bruises I got when I was fighting in the ring.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: Yes, Reid was once a boxer, something that surprises no one who has run against him, negotiated him or covered him.
Manu Raju is one of the latter.
What do we know tonight about why he really stepped down?
MANU RAJU, POLITICO: You know, he was facing a very typical reelection next year. There's a very good chance he could have won but he would have to fight aggressively to keep his seat.
IFILL: Doesn't he fight all the time?
RAJU: He does fight all the time, but he just does not have it in him. He decided late last year this probably was not the race that he wanted to take, even before his exercise accident. And during that at a time when he was recovering, he really realized that it was probably time to hang it up.
I mean, this was a guy who came to Congress in 1983, has really risen in the ranks and has done what few thought he could do in maintaining his leadership position for such a long time, for a decade as a Senate Democratic leader.
But on top of that, he has faced increasing amounts of dissension within the Senate Democratic ranks. What we saw at the end of last year, after the midterm elections, in which the Democrats, of course, lost control of the Senate, handful of these Democratic moderates did not want him to return as Democratic leader. They actually openly voted against him and announced it, even though he ran unopposed.
So, the view point internally was that Reid for the first time was vulnerable. I think he recognized that too, he probably his hold within the caucus was starting to loosen a bit. He would have to fight increasingly hard, not to just win re-election but also to stay as Democratic leader and that was enough for him to decide maybe I just don't have it in me.
IFILL: Here's the interesting thing about Harry Reid, for people who don't watch him very closely, he's a cluster of contradictions. He's a tough guy. He’s known as master of Senate as it were. He's gotten incredible loyalty among most of his ranks. And yes, he also has a reputation for being kind of rude and brass.
RAJU: Yes, he's been a really, really colorful character even if he comes across as a bland guy because of his style. He's very shrewd and calculating. He doesn't seek the limelight the way other folks do.
And he is such an insider. He knows how to work the institution and pull the levers of the institution to get what he wants, which is so critical when you operate a place like the Senate where the process is very arcane and you need to really be an insider, an operative, to get stuff done and that's what he's been doing effectively for a very long time.
DAN BALZ, THE WASHINGTON POST: What do you think his legacy will be?
RAJU: You know, I think as Democratic leader, he is certainly ushering through the health care law, during Christmas Eve in 2009, that was really a hardball move. I mean, this was done almost exclusively by Democratic votes, of course, and it was negotiated in Harry Reid's office. He spent weeks and weeks negotiating this.
He jammed this through on Christmas Eve on a party line vote and that was a huge, of course, momentous change. And Barack Obama would not have gotten that law if it were not for Harry Reid.
I would also say, the other huge thing he did was invoking the so-called nuclear option, which is in 2013, the rule, the effort to gut filibuster rules on presidential nominees. Now, that is significant because no other leader has done that before. And that can be used to further weaken the filibuster, which could presumably alter the institution for years and years to come. That would certainly outlast Harry Reid's time in office.
NANCY YOUSSEF, THE DAILY BEAST: What do we know about his likely successor?
RAJU: Chuck Schumer is almost certainly the guy who’s going to run the Senate Democratic caucus. He and Harry Reid had a private meeting last night, Thursday night, where they discussed the possibility or discussed Reid was retiring. Reid said he would back Chuck Schumer to be his successful. Chuck Schumer is the New York Democrat, number three in the caucus right now. And that essentially leapfrogs the number two man in the caucus, Dick Durbin, the Senate minority whip.
But in the eyes of a lot of Democrats, Schumer had already supplanted Durbin as the de facto number two, just by virtue of his political skills, his tactician-like mind and that helped him get to the place where he is. Schumer spent all day Friday on the phones locking down support and he does have the support, according to his office, to become the next Democratic leader.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: So, why do Republicans sound cheered that the Nevada seat may look more vulnerable for Democrats?
RAJU: Because you can never count Harry Reid out. Even as lousy as his approval ratings are, somehow Harry Reid finds a way to survive. And that's probably one of the things Republicans are kind of happy about, that this is actually an open seat.
Now, there are several people who could run on the Republican side. The Republicans hope the Republican governor out there, Brian Sandoval mounts a run, but it's very unlikely that he does. There are other candidates who can come up as well, including state Republican leader Steve Roberson is mentioned as a possible candidate. On the Democratic side, Catherine Cortez Masto, she’s the former Nevada attorney general, looks like she's a likely candidate and Reid wants her to run as well.
IFILL: Remember when Nevada was not at the heart of the political world and now it kind of is. We have Harry Reid to thank for that in part.
Now to the continuing fallout from America's longest war. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani came to Washington this week to essentially prove that he's not Hamid Karzai. Karzai was the last president of Afghanistan who started off as America's great hope and turned into America's great thorn in the side.
I asked President Ghani about that soured relationship in a "NEWSHOUR" interview this week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: As you know, that was tense towards the end and President Obama alluded to that today. How has that changed?
ASHRAF GHANI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: It has changed fundamentally because we believe and have revitalized partnership. We're not engaging in a blame game. We're engaged in common understanding and common action.
And part of this, of course, is also that the combat role of the United States has ended as was agreed between our two governments and the "train, advise, assist" mission that U.S. forces are currently engaged in does not involve combat roles.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: So, at Ghani's request, President Obama did agree this week to push back the deadline he had imposed for pulling out U.S. troops.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: You know, the bottom line is, our men and women in uniform make enormous sacrifices, their families do, too. They serve alongside them. This will mean that there are going to be some of our folks who are in Afghanistan under the new schedule who would have been home.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: So, how does the White House justify this? It's basically an unkept promise in some respects?
SIMENDINGER: It is and the president understood that would be the case in making this agreement with Ghani.
The way the president put it was interesting. He talked about Afghanistan still being a dangerous place and probably the most frank thing he said was: we don't want to go back.
So, in some ways, the president was saying we want to protect our investment. This is an investment in security that we, the United States, are interested in -- and you can see why that would be the case. Working with the Pentagon, there was a determination that the United States would like to continue to be present at the bases in Kandahar or Jalalabad, and to continue to have the presence in that area, to use drone strikes, do counterterrorism.
And then, you can see in Ghani's presentation is the concern he has is about the Islamic State and made no bones about warning members of Congress about that, talking to the administration about that.
So, this is an agreement the president talks about as maintaining a level of troops. Nearly 10,000, but he continued -- the president continued to say this doesn't deter us from the timetable that I had set originally for basically winding down to 1,000 troops, that would include Special Operations and intelligence, by the end of 2016, by the time he gets ready to leave.
So, one of the things that was most striking is these two men really seem to get along. They really seem to click and the anti-Karzai presentation that President Ghani presented seemed to go over well on Capitol Hill. And it certainly seemed to go over well with the administration.
YOUSSEF: I’m curious then, how much does that relationship factor into the president's decision?
SIMENDINGER: The president as we know what beyond frustrated with Hamid Karzai, because he was so mercurial, and that’s a nice word for it, uneven, and he’s unreliable.
And the word continually used this week was partnership, that this was a partnership between Afghanistan and a desire to build even on diplomatic and international, financial, economic and develop a role. And that was just not something that the administration talked about.
The other thing about President Ghani that was interesting is he very much seemed to know the west. He sort of talks the talk, colloquial --
IFILL: He went to Colombia.
SIMENDINGER: He’s an anthropologist. He lived in the United States. He went to Columbia, shares that with the president. They communed over the fact the president's mother was an anthropologist and they really seemed -- he seems to have the knack, politician's knack of bonding over a common cause.
One of the other things that President Ghani said that seemed to go over well and made headlines was he changed the American taxpayers, that's the way he put it, I want to thank the American taxpayers, we, Afghanistan want to thank the taxpayers, and he talked about the sacrifice the United States has made. Very politics.
YOUSSEF: And soldiers.
RAJU: It is interesting. You know, he came in -- the president came in as anti-war candidate, but here, he’s limiting the drawdown, and, of course, the war with ISIL. I’m wondering to what extent the president, the factor in his legacy in making his decision?
SIMENDINGER: It's been a painful thing to see President Obama tackling what's happening in Iraq, and that idea we don't want to go back is an echo we had to go back in Iraq. So, the president is wrestling with this idea he wanted to end these wars and he continues to talk about that, but the administration actually in terms of its briefings to reporters, it's talking about this maintenance as short term and those discussions are down the road.
So, that leaves the door open to maybe actually handing this off to his successor.
IFILL: Well, there was additional, and for the White House unexpected residual fallout from the war in Afghanistan this week. In the space of only nine months, former Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl, one hailed as honorable hero after the U.S. traded five Guantanamo detainees for his release, has become a pariah, charged this week with desertion. Next up, a military court-martial. Questions about how he came to be captured were raised almost immediately after his release last year, but it took until now for them to gain the weight of official condemnation.
So what happened between then and now, Nancy?
YOUSSEF: I was in Afghanistan when Bowe Bergdahl first disappeared in the summer of 2009. And even then, there were quiet whispers he maybe walked off base and been a deserter, but people were very hesitant to say that publicly because he was missing, and people didn't know the circumstances for sure.
And then over time, members of his platoon started to come out, and by the time that the trade happened, the five Guantanamo detainees for his release in 2014, he was being heralded as a hero and there was real frustration among those who serve alongside him, those who risked their lives trying to find him and Rose Garden ceremony where the president was flanked by his parents and he was celebrated as an hero. A month later, Susan Rice came out and said he served with honor and distinction. I think really it was sort of final tipping point of leading to this backlash of people saying that this is not someone who should not heralded as a hero. The U.S. fought for him to come back because the military motto is we don't leave a soldier behind, but that doesn't make him a hero.
BALZ: Why did the White House get as far out in the direction they did when he was released? And what's been the reaction within the White House since then as they watched this thing unfold and in a sense unravel from where it was?
YOUSSEF: My own sense is that there was an underestimation of how angry people were in the military of the circumstances that led to his disappearance, because remember, for five years everybody on patrol in eastern Pakistan, on that border were ordered to go and look for Bowe Bergdahl. People risked their lives. There are conflicting reports about whether people lost their lives. Some family members who think their loved one was killed in the search for Bowe Bergdahl.
And at the time, remember the narrative was the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan, that we're winding down. I think there was an understanding in the White House this is victory because we brought everybody home.
And it's interesting that we have the news of the extension of the troops this week in this because here were two instances in which the narrative of the war was challenged. In the case of draw-downs that the war was going to be over, and the case of Bowe Bergdahl, that he was a hero. So, it was interesting to see our understanding of Afghanistan in a sense change so dramatically in the span of 48 hours.
RAJU: What do we know about the charges that he may face and could he actually face jail time?
YOUSSEF: Yes, that's a great question. Right now, the charge of desertion carries five-year sentence, but the more interesting charge is misbehavior before the enemy which actually carries a life sentence.
The climate inside the Pentagon that I’m seeing is one that's not looking to put him in jail. Remember, he served in a sense five years in captivity. But there had to be a sense of accountability.
So, it seems the expectation is that there will be a negotiation of something. Not just time but that he had to be in a sense held accountable as much for him as sort of the expectations within the military community.
SIMENDINGER: Nancy, what has been the reaction? You’ve already hinted certainly an up-swell of counter thinking from inside the military about what happened to him. What's the reaction now the charges have been at least laid out in the report?
YOUSSEF: The sense you hear the most is he had to be charged, someone cannot walk off base and leave his Kevlar and his gun behind and not face charges. That there has to be a sense of accountability.
And so, that was probably the most common reaction coming out of the Pentagon. But where the case goes, we’ll see. He will have Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of grand jury in civilian court. Scheduled date, although it could change, is April 22. So, we’ll start to see after that.
IFILL: But there's a defense to be mounted? Surely, he's not just saying yep, I did it. But there has to be other argument that’s being made.
YOUSSEF: Not only is he have a defense, he has one of the best defense attorneys, Gene Fidell, and he started to put out information that says he put out a letter that was given to General Milley, who put the case together, and he said things like he didn't desert. He was going to try to walk to another base to make a complaint. That he --
IFILL: Described the circumstances of his --
YOUSSEF: That he was tortured, held in isolation for weeks at a time in dark room when's he tried to escape -- by his attorney's count -- a dozen times, and you can't say he was an enemy because he kept trying to get away. So, he didn't behave, if you will, dishonorably.
IFILL: And all of that will play out. Thank you, Nancy.
And if we turn once again to our weekly check-in on the 2016 presidential campaign. This week we have our first official candidate -- whatever that means. It is Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who went to the world's largest Christian university to declare flat out that he's running and why.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CRUZ: Instead of the joblessness, instead of the millions forced into part-time work, instead of the millions who lost their health insurance, lost their doctors, have faced skyrocketing health insurance premiums, imagine in 2017, a new president signing legislation, repealing every word of Obamacare.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: But before he gets to run against an actual Democrat, Cruz has first to face down more than a few Republicans.
So, how is that shaking out, Dan?
BALZ: Well, I talked to one of his folks today and they said well, at this point he's the only candidate so he's kind of got a clear field ahead of him. So, for another couple of weeks, he's the only one.
Seriously, there is no Republican in this field who has more excited the Republican conservative base over the last couple of years than Ted Cruz. I mean, when he goes before an audience, he speaks their language and they respond.
At the same time, there isn’t a Republican in the Senate who has so irritated Democrats and Republicans -- and in a sense that is the totality of Ted Cruz and his candidacy. I mean, he's running as the pure essence of conservatism. He does not buy the argument that you can be too conservative and become president of the United States. And he has long argued that the Republicans lost in 2008 and 2012 not because their nominees were too conservative but because they were not authentically conservative. And he's going to put that proposition to the test.
IFILL: Are there several guys kind of stake out that very same ground?
BALZ: Oh, yes, he’s going to have a lot of competition. I mean, normally, we think of this race and you describe it in brackets or buckets or lay-ins or whatever, but there's an establishment battle to who becomes the establishment favorite. And then there is kind of insurgent side, conservative side.
He's got a lot of competition on this side. I mean, obviously for him, the path begins in Iowa. The Iowa caucuses typically favor somebody conservative. But he will face Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, who won the caucuses in 2008. Probably Rick Santorum, who won the caucuses in 2012, with former senator from Massachusetts. Ben Carson is a factor in this race, neurosurgeon who is a novice politically but has lit up conservatives almost to the extent that Ted Cruz has.
There are a variety of people he has to jostle against just to get to, in a sense, the finals of this contest.
RAJU: I wanted ask you about his path. Because if he wins Iowa, to say he wins Iowa, where does Ted Cruz go after that? Because those folks that you mentioned, Santorum and Huckabee sort of petered out after they won the Iowa caucus.
BALZ: Right, that's the dilemma that people run with sort of the notion that he has, that they can't make it all the way. Now, his view obviously is, Iowa, New Hampshire is not necessarily going to be great for him probably, but then South Carolina might be. If he can then by then consolidate that conservative portion of the electorate, he's betting.
And part of what he did in his speech when he announced his candidacy was essentially to say, there are millions and millions of religious and social conservatives who stayed on the sidelines. They have not been energized by the people we put up. If he can tap into that group, if he can in fact bring out an army of those voters who have stayed on the sidelines, then he thinks he has the opportunity to do that.
SIMENDINGER: Dan, you mentioned we had a couple weeks and then we’re going to see more, Ted Cruz is the first to get in officially.
Can you explain who's coming next and what is the thinking about waiting, which I guess it seems like it's in a rush now but it's actually kind of late actually?
BALZ: It is later in previous campaigns for an interesting reason, which I will get to in a minute. We assume that the next candidate is Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He's supposed to do it around April 7th. Marco Rubio will probably be in soon after that.
We don't know on the Democratic side when Secretary Clinton is going to put some stamp on herself as a candidate. But we think that that will be relatively early in April.
Jeb Bush seems to be in no hurry. He seems to be on his own timetable. He’s doing things his own way.
Scott Walker, all of these people are out there active but Scott Walker's timetable is a little later.
But we're going to see more and more people get in now. The reason they have waited is the power of super PACs. Super PACs in this election play a more significant role than they have ever played. The rules on super PACs make it very difficult for a candidate to really begin, really court super PAC donors once they're an official candidate, so they're doing it now.
IFILL: OK. We’re going to be watching that money again.
Thanks to you, everybody.
We have to go for now but as always the conversation will continue online. That's on the WASHINGTON WEEK Webcast Extra, where we will talk, among other things, about whatever happened to the Loretta Lynch nomination. That’s you, Manu.
And you can find it later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the "PBS NEWSHOUR".
And we’ll see you next week here on WASHINGTON WEEK. Good night.