ROBERT COSTA: Battle lines are drawn as President Trump faces impeachment. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections. Therefore, today I’m announcing the House of Representatives moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.
MR. COSTA: A whistleblower complaint sparks action in the House – under scrutiny, exchanges between President Trump and the president of Ukraine. Did President Trump abuse his power? Republicans fight back.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) This phone call is a nothingburger in terms of a quid pro quo. The president of the United States did not remotely suggest to the Ukraine if you don’t do my political bidding against the Bidens I’m going to cut your money off.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s a joke. Impeachment for that?
MR. COSTA: But the acting director of national intelligence did not dismiss the complaint.
ACTING DNI JOSEPH MAGUIRE: (From video.) I believe that the whistleblower and the inspector general have acted in good faith throughout.
MR. COSTA: We go inside a momentous week, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: It was a chaotic scene at the Capitol this week following Speaker Pelosi’s announcement of an impeachment inquiry. When I pulled aside senators and House members down by the basement trains and near the floor, you could sense them adjusting – at times uneasily – to the new political dynamics and to the serious questions now facing Congress and the Trump administration. At the heart of the debate, a seven-page whistleblower complaint that claims President Trump misused his office for personal gain and endangered national security, and that White House officials tried to keep his conversations with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a secret. The complaint alleges that Mr. Trump pushed the Ukrainian president in a July 25th phone call to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, all as hundreds of millions in U.S. military aid for Ukraine had yet to be released. The president, the whistleblower wrote, was, quote, “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election.” The whistleblower goes on to say the record of the call was put on a separate computer system as a way of shielding it from wider view.
Joining me tonight, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post; Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; and Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent for CNN.
Let’s begin with Speaker Pelosi’s decision. Here is what she said Thursday.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) It’s a sad week for our country. Very prayerfully and patriotically, we had to come to a decision to move forward with an impeachment inquiry of the president of the United States. This is nothing that we take lightly. We wanted to have a full – fuller understanding of the facts.
MR. COSTA: Why was this complaint the breaking point for House Democrats? Nancy, you’ve been on Capitol Hill all week. I’ve seen you in the hallways. Why now for Speaker Pelosi.
NANCY CORDES: Couple of reasons. Number one, this complaint – this issue Democrats feel is easier for the American public to understand than the Russia issue. It goes to the heart of the president’s actions, whereas the Mueller investigation that we all lived through for two years had to do with a lot of the people around the president, layers removed from the president. This was the president himself in a phone call with the Ukrainian president, also withholding military aid, and that gets to the heart of national security, foreign affairs, something else that’s deeply troubling to Democrats and privately to some Republicans as well.
MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, inside the White House do they feel the same way, that this moment is different?
KAITLAN COLLINS: Yeah. They didn’t at the beginning of the week. They were dismissing it as this was starting to develop, starting to take shape. It was just you guys are overplaying it in the media, Democrats are taking advantage of it. A lot of that changed after Nancy Pelosi launched this formal impeachment inquiry, came out, and then the next day of course the president – or that day the president made the decision to release that transcript and it came out the next day, and it was much worse than they thought it was going to be. So people who typically in the past have dismissed everything – they weathered the incremental developments in the Russia investigation – they realize this is different and it’s making them nervous.
MR. COSTA: What was part of that tipping point for the Democrats? You look at the op-ed some of the moderates, the House freshmen wrote in The Washington Post. Was that on Speaker Pelosi’s mind as she moved forward?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The sources I talked to close to Speaker Pelosi told me very much what Nancy just articulated, which is that for a long time Democrats were articulating this idea that they felt like the president was using the office wrongly – that he was doing things that was completely out of the norm, that he was profiting from the presidency, that he was essentially just a bad actor in the White House. But this week they got something that they could explain to the American people almost in the old Twitter 140 characters. It was this really, really short thing to say the president was on the phone with a foreign leader trying to get them to meddle in the 2020 election. That’s it, that’s the argument that Democrats are making. That’s a lot different than the – than the Mueller report and all the things that were going on there. So I think Nancy Pelosi also felt I think a little pressure from her caucus because we saw John Lewis, the conscience of America in a lot of ways, this iconic person, this civil rights leader, come to the House floor and say I am now in favor of impeaching the president or an impeachment inquiry. And what we saw there was John Lewis going out before Nancy Pelosi, so she was following her caucus and a lot of people were ready for this.
MR. COSTA: Phil, you cover President Trump day in, day out. When you read the whistleblower complaint and you saw how he had an interaction with the Ukrainian president, what did it reveal to you about how he uses his power?
PHILIP RUCKER: It revealed, Bob, a pattern of behavior in such granular detail in that whistleblower complaint. And it wasn’t just the whistleblower, by the way; it was corroborated based on the whistleblower’s contacts within the government, other White House aides, other officials who were alarmed by the president’s behavior, and it documented a president who really sees himself as above the law. We have just had a two-year national conversation about how it is illegal and improper for a president or a government official to coordinate, to seek help in a campaign from a foreign government or a foreign leader, an yet that’s what the document shows President Trump tried to do with his Ukrainian counterpart.
MR. COSTA: If that’s what it shows, why did the White House choose to release a memo about the call?
MS. COLLINS: It’s a mystery to so many people, and it’s interesting to see who was divided in the West Wing of who wanted it out there – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying don’t do this, advising the president that it was going to set a bad precedent. But the attorney general, Bill Barr, was pushing for it. He was saying, yes, we should just release it, it’s going to help dispel some of this drama that’s been surrounding it. Then of course it comes out and you see how many times the president was telling the Ukrainian president to get with the attorney general, equating him with his personal attorney, and it left a lot of people in Trump world wondering why they pushed for it. Some people in the aftermath have said they think that Barr realized it was going to be ugly no matter what and he wanted to just get it out there and not have the drip, drip, drip of information, but it’s still confounding to people.
MR. COSTA: And congressional Republicans were pressuring the White House as well because they were wondering why the president delayed the aid, 250 million (dollars) set aside by the Pentagon, by Congress for Ukraine, held up by the president. Even if it wasn’t a quid pro quo, do Republicans worry about the aspect of foreign interference that’s raised by this memorandum?
MS. CORDES: Absolutely, and the fact that we learned this week that even the leader of the Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell, who should ordinarily be a top ally of this administration, even he says that he was left in the dark about why that aid was withheld for months. He says he spoke to the secretary of state, he spoke to the secretary of defense and was given no explanation. So you really saw the leader of the Senate putting some distance between himself and the president on this issue, not throwing him a lifeline at all, saying even I didn’t know what was going on. And yes, that is troubling to Republicans because they see a huge strategic advantage in an alliance with Ukraine, they believe that the U.S. needs to protect Ukraine against Russian aggression, and that made this whole situation all the more troubling.
MR. COSTA: This was more than a phone call. You talk to Rudy Giuliani all the time as a reporter. He was –
MS. ALCINDOR: We all do. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Seems like – (inaudible). But he was mounting a pressure campaign. What alarm did that raise among Democrats when they read the report and maybe even some Republicans?
MS. ALCINDOR: Rudy Giuliani is claiming that the State Department called him up and said we need your help with Ukraine. So that in and of itself is Rudy Giuliani essentially saying that he was being tasked by the United States to be a diplomat to Ukraine. That’s problematic to Democrats. They say, how is the president’s personal lawyer now acting as a sort of ambassador to the Ukraine? It’s also because, of course, he’s the president’s personal lawyer. So what you see is the president, at least in the Democrats’ eyes, and in some Republicans’ eyes, putting his own – his own political interest in front of the national interest of this country.
You also have in Rudy Giuliani someone who is saying now that he wants to testify before Congress. And I think that that’s going to be an interesting – I think an interesting decision on his part, because Democrats are very, very eager to talk to Rudy Giuliani. They’re also very eager to talk to I think a number of other people mentioned in this complaint because I think like the Mueller report, what we see in this complaint is a whole number of people around the president doing two things. Either, one, helping his actions along, if you’re Rudy Giuliani, or, two, trying to mitigate what he’s doing by giving Ukraine advice to say, look, this is how you can navigate the president telling you to do this, and investigate the Bidens.
MS. CORDES: And it’s interesting to see the debate play out among lawmakers about whether they should have Giuliani testify because, on one hand, obviously he’s at the heart of this controversy, there is no one who knows more about how all this went down. On the other hand, if his appearance before Congress is anything like his cable news appearances, it’s going to be, you know, frankly, a little over the top. And Democrats do worry that it has the potential to sort of turn the entire impeachment process, which they’d like to be very serious, into something of a circus. And so that’s the tradeoff.
MR. RUCKER: And at a certain point there may start to be questions within the Trump orbit about whether Rudy Giuliani is effectively serving as the president’s lawyer in this case. He is now an actor and a principal, a subject of this investigation, given his many months of the pressure campaign, as Yamiche was talking about, in Ukraine. And at what point does that become a distraction for the president? At what point is he too focused on explaining his own actions with Ukraine that he’s not focused entirely on defending the president?
MR. COSTA: What about this issue of a separate computer server? What do we know about how the White House counsel’s office, the national security officials are using that, and maybe shielding some information from others in the administration?
MS. COLLINS: Well, that’s what so interesting about what happened today. You saw the president on Twitter questioning the credibility of this whistleblower, saying that they had a lot of inaccurate information. Really, we’ve seen the opposite. A lot of what was in this complaint has actually come to match what the White House itself has confirmed. One of those things – one of the biggest parts, I think, that we learned in the complaint was that the transcript of this conversation with the Ukrainian president was moved from where these transcripts with heads of states, calls with heads of state are typically stored, and it was put on a server where you have to essentially enter a codeword to be able to access this information. It’s typically for national security information, really sensitive stuff, not just readouts of calls with foreign leaders.
This was put there in an effort to limit the amount of people who could see it. That was really interesting to people. And that – the White House hadn’t commented on it, but today the whistleblower’s complaint said White House lawyers directed staff to move it there. Today we saw – we got a statement from the White House saying it was a National Security Council lawyer who told officials to move it there. What that tells you is the White House counsel’s office wants to say: We didn’t have anything to do with this. It was a National Security Council lawyer who did it. So that’s something that people are going to be paying attention to.
MR. COSTA: We just also learned Friday that the House Foreign Affairs Committee has subpoenaed the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Could we learn more about this whole operation if he’s called to Capitol Hill?
MS. CORDES: Absolutely. And what they really want from Pompeo is documents. They’ve been asking for these documents for weeks. They want to know more about foreign affairs officers at the embassy in Ukraine, who apparently expressed concern about Rudy Giuliani’s freelancing in that country as a sort of quasi-diplomat. And you know, what exactly the concerns were that they were expressing. They want to know more about, you know, Giuliani is arguing that he did this all at the behest of the State Department. And so Democrats have been asking for an enormous cache of documents from the State Department. They haven’t gotten anything so far. And so they took the next step this week. They now say that they – that the secretary of state has a week to turn the documents over. Let’s see if the administration is more receptive to this tactic now than it has been in the past.
MR. COSTA: And so we’re grappling with the substance of the complaint. There’s also the politics. Acting DNI Joseph Maguire testified before Congress Thursday to address questions about the whistleblower complaint and why he and the White House delayed handing it over. Political battle lines were quickly drawn. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff laid out the Democratic argument.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) The president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office, betrayed his oath to defend our national security, and betrayed his oath to defend our Constitution for his personal political benefit.
MR. COSTA: Ranking Republican Devin Nunes laid out the GOP case.
REPRESENTATIVE DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): (From video.) In the Democrats’ mania to overturn the 2016 elections, everything they touch gets hopelessly politicized. With the Russia hoax it was our intelligence agencies which were turned into a political weapon to attack the president, and now today the whistleblower process is the casualty.
MR. COSTA: What a pivot point for President Trump, his entire presidency on the line, impeachment now on Capitol Hill. Has he changed his own view of how he’s going to move forward in the next year?
MR. RUCKER: He doesn’t seem to have changed his view. He’s following a traditional playbook that we’ve seen from him, which is to try to go after and discredit the accusers, and then to counterattack, and then kick up a lot of dust, to create distractions, in this case, around Biden, to divert attention from the facts about his own conduct. This is probably going to continue. The problem that he faces is that the White House is understaffed right now, in some respects they’re demoralized over all of the heat that they’ve been facing, and they don’t have a full operation. They don’t have a war room –
MR. COSTA: Are there tensions about how to move forward strategically?
MR. RUCKER: There are. I mean, there’s actually talk of bringing in an outside – an outside team that can handle this PR battle and the legal battle so that other people in the White House can focus on governing. But remember, it’s – there’s an acting chief of staff right now. The press secretary is actually holding three jobs at once. It is not a fully running machine at the moment.
MR. COSTA: Will there be a war room?
MS. COLLINS: Less talk of a war room, more of a team that could potentially be on the inside or outside that would help strategize communications, essentially just fight back against the Democrats and provide them with someone who could spearhead that strategy. What’s been interesting is that there are people who are outside the White House now from Trump’s campaign world that are trying to get into this, trying to step in.
MR. COSTA: Like who?
MS. COLLINS: Corey Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager. A few other officials. They’ve got a list. And there have been conversations about starting this inside the White House. They haven’t made it up to the president yet because what we’re hearing is multiple people say the president is kind of in denial about the situation he’s in. He doesn’t realize the gravity of it. He essentially doesn’t think he needs a team like this to come in, to help, and of course there are mainstays inside the White House who are also pushing back because it’s a very territorial West Wing. So that’ll be the question of whether or not they go forward. But of course, he’s going to need someone to help him push back against this, and right now –
MR. RUCKER: But he’ll drive it all himself, as he always does.
MS. COLLINS: Yep.
MR. RUCKER: And we saw on Twitter this morning him launching a series of attacks that he presumably thought up himself.
MR. COSTA: So if it’s political war from the White House, whether they have a war room or not at the end of the day, what about Democrats? Can they keep this impeachment narrowly focused on Ukraine?
MS. ALCINDOR: Nancy Pelosi says she wants to keep this narrowly focused. And it’s smart on the Democrats’ part to just talk about this call instead of saying, well, let’s really try to back up Hunter Biden. Let’s try to make the case that Joe Biden wasn’t corrupt. Let’s try to see if Don Jr. and emoluments, and all the issues with the president’s own children and whether or not they’re profiting from the president’s tenure here. They don’t want to have all those other conversations. I think they learned in the Mueller report that there were so many different avenues to go down that the president kind of threw things on the wall and they all got distracted, and the American people, frankly, got confused. If you just keep talking about this call, just keep saying, look, he was on the call with the president of Ukraine. He’s pressuring him, he’s pressuring him. Democrats want that message.
But I want to also say, on the war room aspect, I’ve been talking to people inside the White House, as we all have. And they sound like they just are still trying to formulate what to do. But then when you talk to the Trump campaign they’re saying, well, we’re going to be putting out millions of dollars of ads to try to fight this online, on Facebook, and in TV ads. So what they have is essentially a war room operating in the Trump campaign. But that is set up to reelect the president, not to fight impeachment.
MR. COSTA: So the Trump campaign and Corey Lewandowski may be ready to go to the barricades, but what about Senate Republicans? Are they going to do the same?
MS. CORDES: Well, there are two camps. There are Republicans who are still standing by the president. Anytime you ask them they say this whistleblower just has secondhand information, the president has the right –
MR. COSTA: OK, that’s what they say publicly, Nancy. What do they say to you privately?
MS. CORDES: Well, I mean, there is a group that is standing by him. And they say it’s unfair, and all Democrats care about is impeachment. There is another group of Senate Republicans who feel deeply uneasy about the president’s strategy, who frankly are worn out by – after defending him for several years, but who can see where this is all headed. That’s the reality. They can see now this is going to land in the lap of the Senate, whether they like it or not. And in fact, Leader McConnell himself has said: We go immediately into an impeachment trial.
MR. COSTA: What’s your read on McConnell?
MS. CORDES: You know, I think that McConnell is – he’s walking a fine line here. He is someone who in the past has always stood by the president if he can find any rationale whatsoever. He really tries to – you know, to parse out the times when he – when he looks for distance with this president because that’s not a very comfortable place to be, particularly in this party. But I do think for the first time Republicans appear to be thinking about what could possibly come next. I mean, that’s several steps down the road. They don’t want to go there yet. But the reality is this is no longer just a PR war. We’re now looking at real life developments. The ambassador, essentially, to Ukraine has just stepped down. Democrats in the House are planning to conduct depositions with five State Department officials just in the next two weeks. So you know, we’re going to see a snowballing effect here.
MR. COSTA: How significant are the statements by Senator Sasse of Nebraska, Senator Romney of Utah, where you’re seeing some concerns as Republicans?
MR. RUCKER: They’re pretty significant because I think it’s pretty clear that they speak for a number of their colleagues who are just afraid to say so attributing their own names, and the dynamic can change quickly as Nancy was just pointing to. If you have more evidence coming forward in this impeachment inquiry in the House, if you have a vote on the House floor to actually impeach the president and it kicks over to the Senate, it could be a very different calculus that some of those Republican senators make. And they don’t – the Democrats do not need all of the Republican senators to vote to convict the president, they only need, what is it –
MR. COSTA: Two-thirds.
MR. RUCKER: Seventeen or twenty? It’s a two-thirds majority of the chamber, and there’s a world in which that could actually happen.
MS. COLLINS: And Trump has always been deeply mistrustful of these people. He doesn’t think that they’re all on his side, and a lot of them privately don’t like the president. They’re these mainstay establishment Republicans who the president has made their life very difficult. And so I agree, I don’t think that it’s likely, but I just don’t think it’s guaranteed that he’ll be fine.
MR. RUCKER: Exactly.
MR. COSTA: Well, and part of the thing that may crack – open these cracks even wider, public opinion. And for now, here’s where public opinion stands: a new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll shows Americans are still divided on this start of an impeachment inquiry; 49 percent of adults surveyed nationally approve, 46 percent disapprove. The divide is more stark when broken down along party lines: 88 percent of Democrats approve, 93 percent of Republicans disapprove. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, all up for reelection in 2020. When you’re talking to your White House sources, are those the people they’re paying attention to on the Republican side, is it the senators who are retiring like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, maybe all of them?
MS. ALCINDOR: I could imagine that the White House is looking at all of these people. I think of Representative Turner from Ohio. In the meeting – in the hearing with Joseph Maguire he says, look, I have a message for the president: this isn’t OK. So I think the White House is in some ways keeping their ears open for all Republicans who are thinking about this. I also think it’s important to look in that poll, we asked people in that poll how much of this is going to impact how you vote in 2020. The majority of people said it was not going to have any factors, like 58 percent of them. So it’s important to also note that as Republicans think about how this might impact the election, we’re already getting a sense from people that this isn’t going to impact their vote, which is in some ways pretty remarkable because this was a historic week in Washington.
MR. COSTA: How does this – how is this different than we’ve seen impeachment before in American history? You now have Twitter, cable news. You have a conservative infrastructure out there that’s echoing the president at very turn. Does that buoy the White House, that they feel like even if the Republicans are cracking at times that they feel like they have a wider universe of support?
MS. COLLINS: Well, and with Trump in particular he’s got something about him that has helped him evade things that would have brought any other politician down – of course, there are so many stories over the last few years since he’s been in office, since he was on the campaign trail. With the president we’re talking about having a team to help him strategize, fight this off, publicly defend him; he may not need that because, of course, he’s the president, he’s got his Twitter, he’s sometimes his own best spokesman. But he also has, you know, entire news channels that typically are in his favor. He’s got radio shows. He’s got a huge Twitter following of people that are ready to defend him. That could help, potentially. That’s still something that’s an open question.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, when you’re on the Hill and you’re talking to Democrats and some Republicans, what’s the timeline? Are we looking at an impeachment vote in the House next spring, is it going to be next summer, maybe this fall?
MS. CORDES: The timeline really depend on which Democrat you talk to because there are some, particularly from swing districts, who don’t want this to overshadow the agenda for the next six months. They believe that that would be very difficult politically for them. So you – I was talking to one swing-district Democrat this week who had just kind of come over from the other side and was now supporting an impeachment inquiry who said that he thought that perhaps they could vote by the end of this week. So – (laughter) – so there are Democrats who want to get this over and done with, and then there are others who say look at this whistleblower report, we have 17 new leads to follow, new names to track down, so much more investigating to do, and they want to follow every thread to the end and be able to put together the most airtight case possible. So the reality is I think Speaker Pelosi herself has said multiple times that she wants to be expeditious – that was her word this week, “expeditious.”
MR. COSTA: Expeditious.
MS. CORDES: And I – (laughs) – I –
MR. COSTA: Well, expeditious is what this show has been. (Laughter.) This has been quick. It is already the end.
MS. CORDES: What?
MR. COSTA: I know. (Laughter.) Thank you for sharing our evening with us.
We will continue the conversation on the Washington Week Extra. We will look at how the impeachment debate affects the 2020 presidential race. Catch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.