ROBERT COSTA: A standoff with Russia, talk of pardons, and another Cabinet shakeup. I’m Robert Costa. Inside the latest diplomatic showdown and changes at the Department of Veterans Affairs, tonight on Washington Week.
STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON HEATHER NAUERT: (From video.) Russia is responsible for that horrific attack on the British citizen and his daughter. Once again, they have broken the Chemical Weapons Convention. They don’t need to act like a victim.
MR. COSTA: Days after the Trump administration announced it would kick out 60 Russians, Moscow kicks back, telling the same number of U.S. diplomats to leave and shutting down a U.S. consulate. And as the international community unites in solidarity to hold Russia accountable for a nerve gas attack in the U.K., the Kremlin raises global tensions with its test launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile named Satan 2.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You’re fired!
MR. COSTA: President Trump gives Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin his walking papers weeks after damaging reports revealed he used taxpayer money to pay for a European trip with his wife. Will the president’s personal physician, Navy Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, be confirmed to take over the second-largest department in the federal government? Plus, new revelations surrounding the Russia probe. Did President Trump’s legal team consider pardons for a former campaign advisor?
We discuss it all with Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, Shawna Thomas of VICE News, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and Jon Decker of Fox News Radio.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The friction between Russia and the West is escalating after the Trump administration and a number of U.S. allies moved to expel Russians over a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy inside the United Kingdom. Russia announced it would expel 60 U.S. diplomats and close the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg in retaliation for a similar move by Washington. So far more than 20 countries have kicked out more than 100 Russian intelligence officers in solidarity with the U.K. The backstory: The Kremlin is believed to be behind a chemical poison attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter who live in England. Both are now recovering. Yet, tensions flared again on Friday when Russia tested its new intercontinental ballistic missile. President Vladimir Putin claims the new ICBM is capable of reaching any point on the map.
Andrea, we have been studying the president and reporting on him and Russia for over a year now, and we’ve seen these warm overtures and now this new chill. What to make of it?
ANDREA MITCHELL: The president is sending mixed messages. First of all, it’s been more than three weeks since that attack and he has not said one word about it. He didn’t say a word about it to Vladimir Putin on the phone, and much to the surprise of his own advisors he congratulated Putin for his sham election. Now, we are told by people in the White House that he’s actually been tougher on the phone than has been let out – that he actually said: If you want an arms race, I’m going to win that arms race – but that’s not explicit. And what foreign policy experts, Democrats and Republicans, former officials, current diplomats are saying is he has to speak out. And without his voice, this is not going to be received in Moscow by Putin, anybody else in the Kremlin. It doesn’t have the power of the voice of the president of the United States. And it’s extraordinary that these expulsions have taken place – the worst in history. Worse than at anytime in the Cold War. And we’re getting involved in this tit for tat. But what we really ought to be doing is speaking out more forcefully from the Oval Office and imposing economic sanctions on Putin’s cronies, the oligarchs.
MR. COSTA: But when you look, Jon, at the White House’s response, is the U.S. now in sync with Western Europe in its – in its strategy towards Russia?
JON DECKER: Well, in terms of what they did this week, the answer is yes. There was unity. There was a coalescing of what the U.S. and its allies – NATO, Australia even – coming together and booting out, essentially, these Russian diplomats who all of these countries said were operating as spies in their country. But to Andrea’s point, there is this schizophrenic type of approach that the administration appears to be taking on Russia. And we hear it from Republicans – John McCain, very critical in his statement when the president came out and congratulated Vladimir Putin on his election victory. Mitch McConnell also having a much harsher tone towards Russia. That’s what they want to see from the president. And they haven’t seen that so far.
MR. MAZZETTI: And one of the interesting things about this episode is there actually was a tit for tat. The Russians responded, right? The last time was at the end of the Obama administration, where the Obama administration expelled Russian diplomats for the election interference. And notably, Putin didn’t respond. And that led to all sorts of questions of why not. And the phone calls the Michael Flynn had with the Russian ambassador. So this is interesting, the Russians have responded. And it does sort of signal the escalation here.
MS. THOMAS: And the mixed message is even bigger than that. We have an omnibus, an appropriations bill that the president signed, that had multiple things in it that were against the Russians. It tried to codify more of the sanctions. It provided a lot of money for the Ukrainians to be armed. And what you have is not just in Moscow, but around the world America is sending multiple messages and no one quite knows what to do with it, even if in this one case we seem to be in line with at least the U.K.
MR. COSTA: Andrea, when you think about messages, you look at the president’s comment this week on Syria, and maybe moving U.S. troops out of there pretty soon. What kind of message does that send to Russia?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, in fact, he has been saying that privately, we understand now, to his aides. He wants out of Syria. And the message to Russia is that Russia is now in charge. Russia and the Iranians, ironically. It makes no sense. It’s also really pulling out the rug from our Kurdish allies there, the Syrian Kurds. And that is very much in the interests of Erdogan, the strongman in Turkey, who views those Syrian Kurds as terrorists and enemies. So we are really not only retreating from the world, from world leadership in Europe, but also in Syria.
MS. THOMAS: I mean, it’s telling – it’s telling Putin to stick around in Syria and see what he can get out of it, basically.
MR. DECKER: But there’s some hope that Republicans feel with this new national security team coming on board. Mike Pompeo, if he’s confirmed, the CIA director as the new secretary of state, and John Bolton as the new national security adviser who will come on board in April, that they will take a more hardline approach towards Russia and convince the president to speak out on these issues more regularly.
MS. MITCHELL: One point about Bolton, though, is that there’s a lot of concern, even among some people at the State Department and at the Pentagon – Jim Mattis has tried very hard to show that he is on board with Bolton – but privately there’s a lot of sourcing from other people in the military that Mattis is very uncomfortable with this because of Bolton’s posture towards the Iran nuclear deal.
MR. COSTA: Well, Andrea, we saw the exchange they had at the Pentagon this week. When the defense secretary introduced himself to Bolton, he said: I’m meeting the devil incarnate.
MS. MITCHELL: And he knew the cameras and the microphones were there. I think he was trying to defuse reports that he was very concerned about it and that he might even leave the administration. The interesting thing about Pompeo is that even though he’s hardline and has been very hostile to Iran and the nuclear deal and a lot of the diplomatic initiatives from the Obama administration, the State Department is throwing out the welcome mat. They are so happy. Finally, a secretary of state who can talk to the president, actually knows the policy that the president wants, and actually believes in the political process, is a former politician – a former Kansas Republican congressman and might actually understand how to govern and how to lead a large bureaucracy.
MS. THOMAS: And State Department rank and file, some people have told me, even if there are people who don’t necessarily agree with President Trump’s policies but do their job at the State Department, they think Mike Pompeo will actually put people in the open positions. They’re just happy that maybe their offices can be fully staffed and they can actually do their jobs, to a certain extent.
MR. DECKER: And our allies are pleased by this because when they speak to the country’s chief diplomat, they want to know that he is speaking on behalf of the president. Mike Pompeo has a very close personal relationship with President Trump. And that mollifies them. That comforts them to know when he’s speaking, he’s speaking on behalf of President Trump.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn from Russia abroad to the Russia issue here at home, because The New York Times broke the story this week that President Trump’s personal defense attorney, John Dowd, who resigned just last week, reportedly dangled pardons for two key defendants in the Russia probe. The Times wrote that Dowd spoke with the lawyers representing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort about presidential pardons last summer, before Manafort was charged with financial crimes and before Flynn cut a deal – a plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in exchange for pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.
Last December, President Trump was asked if he would consider granting Flynn a pardon. He left the door open.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We’ll see what happens. Let’s see. I can say this, when you look at what’s gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.
MR. COSTA: When you look at your reporting at the Times, Mark, John Dowd, who is now gone from the legal team, he has denied having these discussions. But what did your story reveal about what happened?
MR. MAZZETTI: The fact that this issue was raised by Dowd to the lawyers for Flynn and Manafort indicates that there was concern in the legal team about what they might say if they were to cooperate with the special counsel. Now, as we said, Flynn has agreed to cooperate. Manafort has not. But certainly, this period of time is important, the summer, the fall of 2017. Mueller’s building a case against both people, and the White House is clearly concerned.
What we don’t know is a couple things. The specifics of the conversations. And also, whether President Trump put Dowd up to it. Did he encourage Dowd to make those calls? Those are still key questions that we don’t know, because it gets to this issue of is it – you know, is there – is there anything illegal or untoward about this? The president has broad powers to pardon. He can pardon anyone he wants under the Constitution. However, if you’re dangling a pardon in exchange for something else, possibly to buy someone’s silence let’s say, that’s where you get into obstruction of justice territory, witness tampering, et cetera.
MR. COSTA: Do we have any sense of if Bob Mueller’s team is looking into Dowd’s role?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, we reported that he has talked to witnesses who were in the White House about the pardon issue, about what discussions were held at the White House on the issue of pardons. So it’s certainly an issue that he’s looking at.
MS. MITCHELL: And one of the things that’s so extraordinary about Mark and his colleagues’ terrific reporting on this is that usually pardons are offered after adjudication. Usually they’re requested by the person involved, not dangled this way. And there’s a whole office about pardons in the Justice Department which is supposed to coordinate with the White House counsel’s office, not something that is offered by the private attorney of the president of the United States.
MR. COSTA: When you think about Dowd – I know it’s inside baseball, Jon – I mean, John Dowd, he’s a white-shoe Washington attorney. He worked for the president. Now he’s not there. But he matters in a sense that the president has been negotiating with the Mueller team a possible interview. And John Dowd has been a voice in the president’s ear saying: Do not interview with the Mueller team. Now that he’s gone, are we going to see the president maybe sit down with Mueller in the coming weeks?
MR. DECKER: I doubt it. I’m going to put my lawyer hat on, a member of the D.C. Bar, and I’ll tell you your story was fascinating. It doesn’t have the elements of a smoking gun, though. You know, you think about the things that you brought out there, Mark – possible witness tampering, possible obstruction of justice, possible conspiracy to commit bribery. But you need to know more information in terms of what was said in those meetings, and whether or not the attorney, John Dowd, was getting his instructions from his client, President Trump, in making those perhaps – dangling of those efforts. We don’t know that yet. And that’s important to remember.
But as far as what you mentioned, Andrea, there’s precedent for actually putting forward a presidential pardon even before a criminal case takes place. 1992, Christmas Day, we had George H.W. Bush issued six presidential pardons, one of them to Caspar Weinberger. That presidential pardon came less than two weeks before his criminal trial was set to start. It upset the independent counsel at the time, Lawrence Walsh, upset Democrats. But the president did it, because he has the power to do it under the Constitution.
MS. MITCHELL: Of course, there had already been an indictment and a trial was scheduled.
MR. COSTA: That was at the end. So that’s the historic context for pardons, and the atmospherics matter, too, here in Washington right now because this all comes as the attorney general is deciding not to move forward with a special counsel. There’s a clamor among many congressional Republicans to have a special counsel to look into the conduct of the Department of Justice. Why didn’t the attorney general decide to move forward with a special counsel, instead decided to move forward with an inspector general investigation?
MS. THOMAS: I mean, I can’t necessarily speak to what’s going on in Attorney General Sessions’ head, but I can imagine that the PR of trying to do dueling special counsels – how are they going to work together, who gets what – it’s just – it just creates almost more attention, more look at me, look at this, when I think they want to – I think Attorney General Sessions wants to do his job in some ways, but he also wants to push attention over to other things. I mean, he is running immigration stuff with DHS the way people want it to be done, especially the way Republicans want it to be done. He is one of the most successful Cabinet members there is, and I think he knows that calling more attention to this, in some ways just more fire for the Russia investigation, is a bad idea.
MR. MAZZETTI: And this – but it goes to this sort of strategy, right, for – the Republicans have tried to use over the last year, which is in the – in the – with all this smoke about Russia, the strategy is go after the investigation, right, examine the FBI, examine the Justice Department, the Deep State – the so-called Deep State, discredit the investigators as a way to discredit the investigation. And so this has been the issue that’s gone up with Comey, Andrew McCabe. So this issue of what’s going on in DOJ and FBI is something Trump talks about all the time. Just on this clip about Flynn he was talking about it, and it’s not going away.
MR. COSTA: Is it only going to ratchet up, Andrea? If you think about former FBI Director James Comey has his book coming out in a few weeks, A Higher Loyalty. The White House is on edge about that based on my reporting. And you also have a combative president who on Twitter and elsewhere is becoming more comfortable in office, turning to his loyalists more often. And Dowd, Dowd’s the part that is important also in the sense that he was the link to Mueller – two former Marines talking on the phone occasionally. Now he’s not there, and it’s the combative consultants and aides who are around the president.
MS. MITCHELL: It’s the combative aides and former aides, because he’s now been reaching out to some of the former aides. He doesn’t have Hope Hicks as of this – end of this week she’s gone. So he’s really alone and alone with his own feeling that he can be Trump. I mean, he’s the president of the United States, but he doesn’t have any moderating influence; less and less influence from John Kelly, that’s clear, however long he stays. He certainly doesn’t have any restraining influence. He wasn’t there when the president was calling Putin. He hasn’t been there for key decisions. And here you had Trump trying to hire Joe diGenova and his wife, not vetting them, not even having met them. I mean, there are all kinds of ways that we’re seeing the president acting out in this regard.
MR. MAZZETTI: And this issue of the legal team is really significant, right, and who is he going to get to represent him during this very critical period, whether he has an interview with Mueller or not. And what you’re finding is this extraordinary situation in Washington where the most sort of, you know, reputable, well-known lawyers and firms are shying away from representing the president of the United States, which would be like the pinnacle of someone’s career. And some firms are hearing from clients worried about the possible representation, what that might do. This is not normal.
MR. COSTA: And I talked to one attorney this week, big attorney, and I said – they kept saying it’s about conflicts, it’s about political risk. But you know why the say the real reason they don’t want to join the Trump team? Because the president, in their view as veteran lawyers, he wants to be his own lawyer, and they don’t think he really wants to accept the counsel’s recommendations. They look at the Dowd experience. So let’s think about this point Andrea brought up about the president losing Hope Hicks, some of his confidants, some of his associates. There was another Cabinet shakeup, this time at the Department of Veterans Affairs. President Trump dismissed David Shulkin on Wednesday and nominated Navy Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to lead the VA. Dr. Shulkin was brought in during the Obama administration, but his leadership was rattled by recent reports that he used taxpayer money to take a European trip with his wife. Shulkin downplayed the report, saying he has repaid the government for the charges. In a New York Times op-ed he’s fighting back, claiming he was the victim of politically based attacks. He also told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, our colleague here, that he was fired, in his view, because of his strong opposition to privatizing the VA, something President Trump supports.
FORMER VA SECRETARY DAVID SHULKIN: (From video.) I just don’t see privatization as a good thing for veterans. And I think that those that are really sticking to a political ideology or doing this for other reasons, like financial reasons, don’t have the interests of veterans at heart. And I think you just have to talk to the veterans groups to hear that.
MR. COSTA: My colleagues at The Washington Post reported that many people inside of the White House, including Dr. Jackson, were surprised by his nomination. They wrote that Jackson was taken aback by the nomination and he hesitated to take on such a big job. But the president continued to push, and told the senior staff on Monday that the doctor was his top choice. A senior White House official says Jackson went through a, quote, “informal interview process,” but without the extensive vetting that typically accompanies a Cabinet selection. That’s a bit risky in the view of some insiders, since Jackson must be confirmed by the Senate. And we’re looking at a tough confirmation, perhaps, for the – for the doctor.
MS. THOMAS: We are, despite the fact that a lot of people in Washington, D.C. on both sides like Ronny Jackson – Dr. Ronny Jackson, Admiral Ronny Jackson even – because of his relationship with the Obama administration and he’s – and his relationship with the Trump administration. The problem here is – and we did sort of a dive into the VA yesterday on VICE News Tonight – is that we couldn’t find any mention of something that looked like management for Dr. Jackson in terms of running any kind of large organization or even small organization, really. And so while he may be a very good doctor, it is hard to see how he is going to go into something as large as the VA – something that, you know, David Shulkin had actually been part of before, didn’t really successfully get through his term as VA secretary – and do anything. And he is going to face a lot of questions just about management, how he’s going to do this. And he’s going to face the other question, which is about privatization, which the clip about – that you showed with Mr. Shulkin touched on. And that most people around town think it is that idea of privatizing the VA – something that, you know, there are outside parties that definitely want that – that that was why he was not going to survive there.
I think the other thing you have to remember is the VA is huge. It is – it has 351,000 full-time employees. It is, I believe, the second-largest organization behind the Defense Department.
MR. COSTA: It is.
MS. THOMAS: Lots and lots of hospitals, lots of outpatient sites. It is basically a bank as well; it gives loans, it gives the GI Bill, and – sorry, not the GI Bill. And it is unclear how Dr. Jackson is going to answer these questions.
MR. DECKER: Seven out of the last individuals who have headed the VA – seven out of the last nine have either resigned or been fired. I mean, that’s – it gives you a sense about the troubles that exist at this huge department.
MS. THOMAS: Well, it’s three VA secretaries in four years, right?
MR. DECKER: Yeah, $200 billion budget, and as you mentioned there is no management experience associated with the president’s choice to lead the VA next. And those tough questions on this are going to come from both Democrats and Republicans. And you look at the veterans groups that are out there – AMVETS, which represents 250,000 veterans, has expressed concern over this particular choice of the president. You have the VFW also expressing those same concerns. Between the time that he’s nominated and the time that the confirmation process takes place, it’ll give time for those organizations to get mobilized and convince those senators who sit on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to vote against this nomination.
MS. MITCHELL: And he has perhaps 25 or 30, maximum, employees now in the physician’s office in the White House. So when you speak, Shawna, about no management experience, there’s really zero management experience for this kind of step up.
I think also, in fairness to Dr. Shulkin, who had to explain after an inspector general’s report his wife accompanying him on a trip to Europe which he said had been pre-approved but still was questioned afterwards, and that he paid back – in addition to working, there was a lot of sightseeing – but that does not even come close to some of the questions that have been raised about other Cabinet secretaries like Zinke and Pruitt in particular for first-class travel to Morocco and potential conflicts of interest.
MR. COSTA: We only have half an hour on this show. I mean, there’s so much Cabinet unrest. It’s not just with Shulkin and the VA, it’s with Pruitt. We’ll save that for next week, but who knows what the news will be. We’re going to have to leave it there.
And welcome, Jon, to Washington Week. It’s great to have you here on the program. And, of course, to our favorites who are back – Shawna, Andrea, Mark – always a pleasure. And it’s a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for watching.
This week on the Washington Week Extra, we’ll discuss the controversy surrounding a question about citizenship on this year’s Census. Plus, President Trump’s message to the leader of North Korea ahead of their planned summit. You can watch it online later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. And from all of us here, happy Passover and happy Easter.