ROBERT COSTA: Words have power. President Trump insults African nations and Haiti, sparking outrage. I’m Robert Costa. The charged and changing debates over immigration, plus the Russia probe, tonight on Washington Week.
REPORTER: (From video.) Mr. President, are you a racist?
SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): (From video.) He used these vile and vulgar comments, calling the nations they come from – (censored): the exact word used by the president, not more – not just once, but repeatedly.
MR. COSTA: Senator Dick Durbin, who was in the room, confirms President Trump insulted the people of Haiti and African nations. But the president denies making racially-charged remarks, saying in a tweet “the language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.” His words have ignited bipartisan condemnation. Republican Congresswoman Mia Love, whose parents are from Haiti, demanded an apology. She called the president’s comments “divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values.” The controversy exploded just weeks after The New York Times reported the president made similar comments at another meeting last summer, claiming then that all Haitians have AIDS and that once Nigerians have seen the U.S., “they will never go back to their huts.” The White House denied this reporting.
Plus, new developments in the Russia probe. Testimony about a Trump-related document is released, and the president skirts questions about testifying before special counsel Robert Mueller.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’ll see what happens. But when they have no collusion, and nobody’s found any collusion at any level, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview.
MR. COSTA: We cover it all with Annie Karni of POLITICO, Jeremy Peters of The New York Times, Ashley Parker of The Washington Post, and Manu Raju of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The uproar over President Trump’s description of Haiti and the nations of Africa, it continues to echo tonight following a rollercoaster day at the White House. Critics accused him of racism, while some allies stood by or they looked away. The president’s advisors initially downplayed his obscenity, releasing a statement that read, in part: “President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy, and assimilate into our great nation.”
President Trump denied he used offensive language. He said: “I never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country.” That was his tweet. He also said: “Never said ‘take them out.’ Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians.” And he also added we should “probably…record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!” That’s all from President Trump.
Witnesses, however, inside of that Oval Office meeting, they were divided. Two Republicans who were part of the session say they could, quote, “not recall” the president using vulgar language. Others have chosen to, well, stay quiet. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, insists the president did use “vile and racist” language, his words, in that immigration meeting. What a day.
Ashley and Annie, welcome to Washington Week. Take us inside the White House, because the president – he was at a Martin Luther King, Jr. event today at the White House. He didn’t take any questions. Reporters were yelling at him: Are you a racist? He didn’t say anything in response. But what’s really happening behind the scenes? Is this a White House in crisis, or are they defiant?
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, for this White House, crisis is often standard operating procedure. So was it chaotic in the fallout? Absolutely. But they’re now used to operating this way. My sense from talking to aides and advisors inside the White House is, yes, this was bad. It’s not as bad as some other things they’ve had to weather. It’s not as bad as some things that haven’t come out yet, or they’ve heard at other times. And the president himself, my sense, again, from people inside the White House who had spoken to him was that last night, at least, he was not particularly bent out of shape.
He spent some time calling friends and confidants and kind of trying to get a sense of how this was playing. When he woke up in the morning, it was not playing well – to put it mildly. And of course, he doesn’t like negative news coverage. That’s why you saw him sort of tweeting and trying to walk it back. But again, they said the president has a sense of what Washington goes crazy about and what dominates cable news is not necessarily what his base, what people out in the country care about. And he doesn’t necessarily think it’s that bad for him there.
MR. COSTA: Annie.
ANNIE KARNI: I would say I agree that for aides that have been with him since the campaign, there’s this sense of, like, this has happened a million times. We survived Access Hollywood is always a talking point they come back to. This language isn’t out of the ordinary for what they’re used to hearing from the president. A little bit of a bind they were in, though – and we saw this with the White House not denying the story last night – was that this was different because Trump made this remark in front of Durbin, a Democrat, and other lawmakers. So we saw Trump, the White House, push back very hard on a New York Times report, where he made similar comments saying people from Africa have AIDS and live in huts.
And they pushed back really hard. That’s because it was in a closed environment of just White House aides, where they could agree amongst themselves, we’re not going to confirm or deny this. Here, it was let out of their hands. The audience was too big to just deny it. So that caused more of a hiccup. But in general, I saw a lot of kind of shrugging it off. And a few aides, actually though, were kind of demoralized because it was a week to shift away from the mental state conversation –
MR. COSTA: All those questions raised by Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.
MS. KARNI: Yeah. And they actually had a good economic message to press yesterday. Chrysler announced it was moving a factory from Mexico to Michigan. Walmart announced it was raising the minimum wage for some U.S. workers. There were aides in the White House who were hoping that they would talk about that yesterday, and then it just gets blown up. So there was some discouragement, but not thinking this is a turning point.
MR. COSTA: And the base seemed to stick with him, Jeremy, today.
JEREMY PETERS: Yeah. I mean, they are either going to not believe that he said it, or they’re not going to care. I think more of them fall into the latter category. But, look, the president that we maybe believed earlier this week was walking back his promises on immigration, he was maybe considering some type of amnesty for the DACA kids – no. The president that we voted for, that president who’s tough on immigration, who doesn’t want unskilled labor coming into this country, that’s a guy who would say that vulgarity about these countries who are sending people here.
So I think there was a sense – two things playing in the president’s favor today. One was that, oh, our guy is back. Two, is that the left is overplaying their hand. You heard commentators from Rush Limbaugh on down saying that this is moral preening. This is pearl-clutching by the left. Once again, oh come on, like they’ve never heard a bad word before? Please. So I do think that it’s – there’s so much noise out there. Just think about what happened this week. We started with the president’s mental fitness. The president has dementia. Then Oprah’s going to be president. Then the president is cutting a deal with Democrats on DACA. Then Steve Bannon is fired. Then the president is walking back that deal with Democrats and calling Haiti and these other predominantly black and brown countries an incredibly derogatory, borderline racist – if not outright racist term. So it’s just too much for people to catalogue in their brains.
MR. COSTA: And it’s too much perhaps, Manu, for lawmakers to catalogue, because we hear it from your reporting that the White House in part may be shrugging off the controversy, the base may be shrugging off the controversy. This has a cost perhaps on Capitol Hill. They’re trying to avoid a government shutdown. The funding bill expires on January 19th. They’re trying to cut an immigration deal. And it seemed today that the law makers on both sides were reeling in the wake of all this.
MANU RAJU: Yeah, no question. There’s so much uncertainty heading up into that January 19th deadline. We really don’t know what’s going to happen. And most likely they’re going to have to just kick the can down the road, extend government funding for another few weeks, avoid a shutdown and deal with this immigration issue at a later time. But it’s just so difficult to see in this environment cutting an immigration deal after what the president said. I think one thing that Dick Durbin made a comment on – though this is probably correct – is that any deal is going to have to essentially be cut between the Republicans and the Democrats in the Senate, absent the White House.
I mean, of course, the president’s going to have to sign something at the end of the day, but it’s going to have to be a deal that the leadership agrees on. And they can’t – the Democrats in particular just don’t trust this president to be on the same board with them when it comes to immigration. They’re going to have to get some buy-in from Republicans in the Senate, the leadership in the Senate, and go take that to the White House and say: Take it or leave it. This is the deal. We’ll see if that plays out. But most likely for the short term, it’s going to be punted, yeah.
MS. PARKER: And if you watch that extraordinary 55-minute basically reality TV show might not be quite right, but where the president –
MR. PETERS: He called it the studio, right? He said welcome to the studio.
MS. PARKER: The studio, yeah, exactly.
MR. COSTA: Welcome to the studio.
MR. RAJU: With high ratings also.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, ratings bonanza. We’re all riveted. I went back and watched it a second time. But if you looked at that on immigration there, the president was very much an empty vessel. I think at one point he was almost asked: Well, where are you ideologically? And he said, well, I’m kind of nowhere. I’m wherever these guys tell me I am. They’re going to put something together and they’re going to – I’m going to sign it. And on the one hand, that makes it easy, theoretically, if Democrats and Republicans can come together. But on the other hand, while he may be an empty vessel in some ways on policy, he actually has a very gut, visceral sense of where he is on immigration. And he’s very unpredictable. So this is someone who says: I’ll do anything. I’ll sign anything. Oh, except, by the way, a wall absolutely has to be involved. And, well, wait a minute, I won’t sign that. So it’s very tricky for lawmakers.
MR. COSTA: But if he’s flexible on ideology, Annie, could he maybe agree – is the White House prepared to maybe agree to some extent of border security that’s not a physical wall in all aspects?
MS. KARNI: Well, that is – that’s a big question of debate. Like, it depends what your definition of wall is. Like, is an electronic wall a wall? But Trump made it very clear in this interview to The Wall Street Journal that he means a physical border wall, like he described during the campaign. He said, that’s what I’m talking about. So for now, he seems to be taking the position that a wall means a physical barrier. It can be – you can see through it. That’s what he’s willing to, you know, shake on. But he seems to think a wall’s a wall.
MR. COSTA: And Senator Flake said today, from Arizona, the Republican moderate, that there’s a deal ready. A deal’s ready on the table. Is there a chance the president could sign that because, as Flake said today, that’s the only deal available?
MR. RAJU: And that’s what the president rejected himself. I mean, he said that he wouldn’t accept that. I mean, this is the thing that just boggles a lot of Republicans and Democrats minds on Capitol Hill, is that the president says one thing, but how do you know that’s where he’s going to be at the end of the day. He said this week –
MR. PETERS: You don’t. Because it’s not where he’s going to be at the end of the day.
MR. RAJU: You don’t, exactly. He said this week, you guys do everything. I’ll sign it. I’ll take the heat. You do it. I’ll do it. And then 24 hours later, he’s out rejecting the one deal that could presumably come along.
MR. COSTA: That brings up the bigger question, Jeremy. Can this president govern? As Ashley says, she watched the whole thing again. How long was it? Ninety minutes? Fifty-five minutes?
MS. PARKER: Fifty-five minutes. Wonderful television. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Fifty-five minutes. Well, we can argue about that. (Laughter.) They’re trying to showcase to the country that he can handle these kind of negotiations, but then as we all just said, it all unravels. Can he govern?
MR. PETERS: He doesn’t as we’ve known. This is – the president that America elected does not care to understand policy. It’s not that he doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t care to. He feels he doesn’t need to. Other people will do that for him. He will defer to their better judgement. This is why he’s so swayed by the last person to speak to him. And that’s clearly what happened overnight, after that meeting in the Oval Office where he was basically agreeing with Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin about what to do with the DREAMers who are here illegally. So – (laughs) – you had this extraordinary scene with Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority leader, who’s jumping out of his seat reminding the president that no, no, no, no, no, these are what Republican principles on this issue are.
So he doesn’t really care to know. It’s only after the fact when he’s reminded, hey, this is what you campaigned on. When people come into the Oval Office and tell him no. When Steven Miller is in his ear about immigration especially saying: This is not a – this is not someplace we can go, Mr. President, that he comes around.
MS. KARNI: It could be – it could be – it could be a good strategy for White House aides trying to push him to put more of these meetings on camera, because he performs for the camera. That 55-minute televised meeting with lawmakers was a win for him in that the White House was trying to show he can stay on topic for a long time. Unlike what Michael Wolff writes in the book, he doesn’t repeat himself every minute. He doesn’t tell the same stories. And he said a very out-of-character thing, which is I’ll take the heat. (Laughter.) When does – when does the buck stop with Trump? So maybe –
MR. PETERS: When has he ever shown thick skin?
MR. COSTA: Who knew? What about the DREAMers? We have hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who are looking at their permits and wondering if they’re going to expire.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. I mean, that’s the ultimate question, right? I mean, and we know that the ultimate deadline is March. And as we know, Bob, for Congress, is that they’re going to take it almost certainly all the way to the end of the deadline to get a deal. The Democrats want to attach this to the spending bill in order to force the Republicans who may be skeptical about this to accept it to keep the government open, but today Paul Ryan made a very clear pronouncement that he does not want to tie it to the government spending bill. And that’s going to make things presumably more difficult.
MR. COSTA: Let’s not forget the issue that drove everything today, race. The president talking about preferring people from Norway versus those from African countries or from Haiti. And he has a history on race. You look at the birther moment in America. You look at his statements on the Central Park Five. How is this White House grappling with the charges of racism that came fast and furious today?
MS. PARKER: Well, today you sort of didn’t see them publicly grappling with them at all. I mean, their official position is the president is not racist and anyone who thinks otherwise that is a gross misunderstanding. That said, there’s a number of things. You named a few. There were his comments in the wake of Charlottesville, where he said both sides were to blame. And then you mentioned birtherism briefly, but a lot of people see that as sort of the original sin. It wasn’t just refusing against all evidence to believe that President Obama – to accept that he was born in the United States, but it was to fuel his rise. There almost is no candidate Trump, is no President Trump without birtherism. So sort of issues of race are inextricably bound with this president, and have followed him into the Oval.
MR. PETERS: They’re not going to have to answer for it until the Republican Party makes him answer for it. And so far –
MR. COSTA: Well, the world is asking for answers.
MR. PETERS: They are.
MR. COSTA: Leaders around the world have condemned the president. U.S. allies have condemned the president.
MR. PETERS: But I don’t think that he will feel any pressure until the Republican Party makes him answer for it, and right now you’ve seen lawmaker after lawmaker basically take a pass.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, the Republicans for the most part have been silent about this. I mean, oh, I don’t remember hearing that.
MR. COSTA: Why? Why the silence?
MR. RAJU: You know, I think that they have just made the calculation that they need this president on their side to get stuff done. Lindsey Graham is a clear example of that. He’s someone who has been a sharp critic of the president up until the last several months, in which he has made the calculation I should ingratiate myself with the president, go golfing with him, and then maybe perhaps we can get something done. He is now central on this immigration deal, and he realizes if he’s at loggerheads with the president perhaps we cannot get a bill to help the DREAMers. He more moderate than the president is on immigration. And as we now know from – according to Durbin, it was Lindsey Graham who confronted the president and the White House after he made those vulgar remarks, and – but when Lindsey Graham put out that statement today, he did not address that specifically. He alluded to it, but he did not confirm Durbin’s account, perhaps because he’s trying to play this middle ground and not anger the president.
MR. COSTA: And Jeremy mentioned Steve Bannon. He’s out of the White House now. People thought earlier last year maybe it was Bannon, the puppet master behind the president, but so many aides say this is who he is.
MS. KARNI: Well, Bannon wasn’t around in Bedminster the weekend Trump made the both sides remark about Charlottesville. Bannon wasn’t around when he called – used this vulgar language to describe people from Haiti and from African countries. So, like you’re saying, there’s a long track record here.
I think Trump will continue to get a long leash as long as he’s delivering on a Republican agenda. Like, he’s got tax reform done. I heard, you know, he moved the embassy in Jerusalem; that mattered to a lot of big-time Jewish donors who are willing to overlook questions about his mental state, questions about whether or not he’s a racist if he’s delivering on their issues.
The other thing is, I think, you know, Sarah Sanders canceled her press briefing today, so we don’t know. The White House kicked the can down the road on is the president a racist. But his defenders were saying it’s just kitchen-table talk, as one person said to me. It’s like locker room.
MR. PETERS: Locker room talk.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to keep an eye on all of this, because there was some more issues this week. As Jeremy mentioned there was a laundry list of things that happened this week, but there were as well new details in the Russia probe, with the release of transcripts revealing how a former British spy who compiled that controversial dossier on President Trump and his campaign team was concerned that then-candidate Trump was being blackmailed by the Kremlin. In fact, former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele was so alarmed about a potential national security threat he personally went to the FBI in July of 2016. That’s according to transcripts of testimony by Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, whose firm commissioned the so-called Steele dossier.
And this week the president dodged a question about whether he would testify before special counsel Robert Mueller.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Bottom line they all say there’s no collusion. But again, I’ll speak to attorneys. I can only say this: There was absolutely no collusion. It has been determined that there is no collusion, and by virtually everybody, so we’ll see what happens.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who we have been talking about – and he has avoided the spotlight in the fallout of that book, Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff. Bannon has now lawyered-up in preparation of his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee next week. Manu, why did Senator Dianne Feinstein of California move to release these transcripts, and what does it tell us?
MR. RAJU: Well, she wanted to make the case that the – push back against the aggressive Republican effort to discredit the dossier, to discredit Christopher Steele, that Republicans have said – the president has said that this was a Democrat-funded dossier aimed at – you know, going after the president is the reason why the FBI investigation into these connections happened. This has been their target for a long time. What Dianne Feinstein wanted to show from this transcript from Glenn Simpson, who’s the co-founder of Fusion GPS, was that this is what actually happened behind closed doors over 10-hour testimony. He discussed why he hired Christopher Steele as a – to investigate this matter. He said under oath that Christopher Steele had no knowledge of the funding sources behind the reason why he was over there. He also explained why. He’s a notable Russia expert, and that he was so alarmed that he decided that he had to brief the FBI on multiple occasions about what he learned about this effort by the Kremlin to help the Trump campaign. Now, this is not going to at all stop the efforts to go after him, because the Republicans believe that the dossier still – there are a lot of questions about why he was doing what he was doing, and they believe that there were some nefarious actions by the FBI. But the interesting thing, though, is that in this election year the Democrats want to focus more on Russia, the Russia – what happened with the Russian meddling and any collusion, and the Republicans want to focus on what they believe is FBI misconduct in that Russia probe. And that’s just going to continue.
MR. COSTA: What should we expect from Bannon, Jeremy, when he heads to Capitol Hill?
MR. PETERS: I think probably as little as possible, right? (Laughter.) He’s –
MR. COSTA: He’s still on Team Trump.
MR. PETERS: It’s going to be the exact opposite of what we’ve come to expect from Steve Bannon, which is, to use an overused phrase these days, fire and fury. He’s lawyered-up, as you point out. I can’t imagine that he’s going to get too far out there ahead of himself. He’s loyal to this president, as you point out very correctly, despite what he is quoted as saying. He may understand, as almost everyone around President Trump does, that this is a man with deep flaws, but he has not given up on his ideas that he campaigned on or the possibility for what I think Bannon sees as real change in certain policies.
MR. COSTA: Such a back and forth, Ashley, between the president’s legal team and the Mueller probe. Where does that stand in terms of the president ever meeting with the actual investigation?
MS. PARKER: Well, you can understand from the president’s point of view, certainly, and from his legal team’s point of view that that’s something they would prefer to avoid. And if they do have to do it, one of the things that makes this president a challenging client for lawyers is that he’s so unpredictable and that he engages in what in the real estate world might be called puffery or exaggeration, to put it generously. And early on his legal team was trying to teach him, you know, that there’s two groups of people you can’t lie to, and it’s a special investigator and congressional investigators. And so that’s why we’re hearing and seeing about this effort to make sure that, ideally from the president’s point of view, it’s written questions; it’s responding to stuff written. That gives them a lot more control, and it prevents the president from saying something that may not quite align with what Mueller’s team has heard.
MR. COSTA: Final thought, Annie, on the president’s legal team? He keeps insisting no collusion.
MS. KARNI: He does keep insisting no collusion. A subject he likes to address less is whether there was any obstruction of justice. We don’t see him kind of trying to broach that topic. He did a little bit with the Wall Street Journal interview, putting it on Rosenstein, but that doesn’t quite add up with how he’s defended himself in the past.
MR. COSTA: Annie, welcome to Washington Week. Great to have you on the program. And, of course, our regulars are the top reporters in the country. Thanks, everybody, for being here.
Our conversation will continue online – we have to leave it there tonight – on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about reports Oprah Winfrey may run for president. I wrote a story about that this week. It could happen. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching, and have a wonderful weekend.