GWEN IFILL: Collapse in Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and the future of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Congress weighs in trade, privacy and getting things done. And on the 2016 campaign trail we track the emails, the money and the candidates. Tonight on Washington Week.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From video.) Ramadi’s fall is a significant defeat.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From video.) We know that hope is not a strategy. The president’s plan isn’t working.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: (From video.) Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?
MS. IFILL: As the Islamic State group takes need ground, a full-blown debate erupts at home. Are we doing the right thing in Iraq?
Meanwhile, Congress heads toward vacation with votes on NSA surveillance, transportation spending and trade.
SENATOR SHERROD BROWN (D-OH): (From video.) These free trade deals are not free trade.
MS. IFILL: And the rubber hits the road on the campaign trail.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) I have said repeatedly I want those emails out.
MS. IFILL: We get a first peek at Hillary Clinton’s emails, as Republicans try to stand out in a crowded field.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From video.) In Washington, during my brother’s time, Republicans spent too much money.
WISCONSIN GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER (R): (From video.) I’m probably the most scrutinized politician in America, after having gone through three elections in four years.
SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From video.) And I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.
MS. IFILL: The jockeying begins in earnest.
Covering the week, Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine; Charles Babington, congressional and political correspondent for the Associated Press; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; and Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. From our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well, the plan seemed clear: End two wars, get the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan to step up, and count on allies in the region to set the balance. Then ISIS came along and changed the formula. This week, the city of Ramadi fell in Iraq and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, Syria was overtaken as well. ISIS is now expanding in Libya and elsewhere in Africa. All of this presents a dilemma for the Obama administration, which insists the week’s events were only a tactical setback.
MR. EARNEST: (From video.) We have seen a lot of success, but we’ve also seen significant periods of setback. And that’s what a military – that’s part of what a military conflict is going to be, particular one that’s going to be a long-term proposition like this one.
MS. IFILL: The president’s critics pounced.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): (From video.) This takeover of Ramadi serves as just the latest example of a president whose policies are altogether rudderless in the Middle East, even as that region is riled with growing instability and grotesque violence.
MS. IFILL: Rock, meet hard place. How tough a spot is this, Yochi?
YOCHI DREAZEN: I think it’s also, unfortunately, politics meet reality. The reality is that by almost any measure, ISIS is spreading in Iraq. They’re spreading Syria. They’re spreading in Libya. U.S. intelligence believes that there have been ISIS commanders sent – physically sent from Syria to Libya to take command of an ISIS branch there. They’re operational in Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, and the list goes on and on and on.
The president, if he were to admit any of that, the immediate question would be, why aren’t you doing more? Why is that what you’re doing in Iraq and in Syria so limited that you’re not rolling them back there and they’re continuing to expand? And this week when he was asked, his answer was, no, I don’t think we’re losing, and then went through a long litany of reasons why Ramadi may have fallen.
Those are all accurate. The Iraqi army isn’t up to the fight. They fled, et cetera, et cetera. But that quote – the, no, I don’t think we’re losing – will haunt him for a long time, because I think by almost any measure we are.
MS. IFILL: But if the foreign policy – if the U.S. foreign policy in this region is we’re getting out and you got to take over for yourselves, and we will do what we can do to help support you, what is the other option when that doesn’t work, than to say we’re not losing?
MR. DREAZEN: And I think that’s the hard part that he faces, to get back to your first question. There needs to be a game changer of some sort. And clearly relying on the Iraqis won’t work. There’s a quote this week from a top U.S. general that they didn’t become driven out of Ramadi, they drove out of Ramadi, to talk about how they basically just surrendered.
And if that’s your strategy and it’s not working, if those are your allies and you can’t trust them, option one is send U.S. ground troops, which he doesn’t want to do because of casualties; ramp up the bombing campaign, he doesn’t want to do; or hope. And I think the hope is contain this, try to keep it as limited as you can, hope there’s a war of attrition that eventually wins. But there are no good options and the game changer he might need he can’t do politically and doesn’t want to do because of his own view of the world.
DAN BALZ: Yochi, when he outlined this policy initially it was to destroy ISIS. You just talked about a containment policy. I mean, that seems like an enormous gap from the ambition to the reality of where we are. What has brought that about?
MR. DREAZEN: I think the reality is when he was first saying destroy when you would talk to anybody in the military, as we did, they would say that that was nonsensical. You cannot destroy a terror group. You can’t destroy an ideology. At this point, the Islamic State is both – it is both an ideology and a group. Israel has tried to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah for decades. They can’t do it and it’s right next door to Israel. The idea that we could do it thousands of miles away was always an impossibility.
So then the question was, can you degrade them? Can you make them weaker? Can you make them smaller? And we’re not even doing that. So you’re right, there’s a gap between the goal of destroy and the word degrade. But we’re not even degrading. So the gap is all the bigger.
MOLLY BALL: Well, you mentioned Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan. What is the extent of the spread of ISIS beyond Iraq and Syria? And what kind of dangers does that pose?
MR. DREAZEN: If you talk to people in the intel world, they’ll say that there are roughly 16 countries where there’s some ISIS presence. They’ll say that it’s not always clear whether a group that says it’s part of ISIS is. But they do believe Libya is actual Islamic State. They do believe Egypt is actual Islamic State. They do believe Afghanistan is actual Islamic State. So you’re seeing it in not just the Mideast, but also in parts of Southeast Asia, parts of North Africa, parts of West Africa. So it’s growing and growing and growing.
CHARLES BABINGTON: Yochi, what’s the status of President Assad in Syria? He’s been fighting this long war, really against two different foes. What’s going on and is he going to survive?
MR. DREAZEN: He’s now lost half his country. I mean, the conquest this week means at least half the country belongs to the Islamic State. Everyone’s been saying he’s wobbling. This has been the – this year he’s going to fall, and this year he’s going to fall, and this year he’s going to fall. (Laughter.) I think there is a chance that this year he does. And then the question is, is whatever comes next worse? If you have anarchy without him there, is that actually worse than this brutal man being there?
MS. IFILL: And isn’t part of the backdrop for all of this Iran, everyone’s mistrust of Iran? Even people who are supposed to be allies with one another cannot – yet you need them to push back ISIS. So how is that sorting itself out?
MR. DREAZEN: That’s exactly right. You need the Gulf States. You need Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, both to contribute militarily and financially and ideologically. If you have the Saudi clerics saying, Islamic State, what you’re doing is not allowed, that would help under Islamic law. It would help to be the messaging. But they’re not willing to do it, in part because they look at the Iran deal and they simply don’t trust this White House.
The Camp David meeting accomplished very little. There were was nothing that came out of it that either party could say, look, we have a victory, we have agreement. If they don’t trust the U.S. on Iran, which they see as existential, they won’t work with them on the Islamic State, which they don’t.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you, Yochi. I guess, I mean, this is not a cheerful story, but neither is the next.
Members of Congress were scrambling to flee Washington today for a holiday week off, leaving the detritus of a big trade deal, a major transportation deal and the Patriot Act in their wake. Some of the standoffs were predictable, some not. There were close votes, deal cutting, more than a little arm twisting and a few odd bedfellows, especially on trade, Chuck.
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah, especially on trade, Gwen. It’s the oddest political alignment that I’m aware of in Congress, and that is you’ve got a Democratic president who very much wants a more aggressive trade – he wants this fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals that would have a better chance of winning enactment in Congress. And his own party, the Democrats in both the House and the Senate, overwhelmingly oppose him on this. So he’s going again and again for help on this to Republicans – Republican leaders who, you know, are very strongly against him on almost every issue. So it’s an almost upside-down type of politics, and it’s very strange.
MS. IFILL: When it comes to this whole idea of bulk collection of phone metadata, which is part of the Patriot Act which is supposed to be renewed or not, there’s also mixed bedfellows – (laughs) – I got to think of a different term, but you know what I mean – on this one – unlikely allies, how’s that?
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah, it’s a different – again, here you got the Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly approved a fairly significant change to this program that would essentially do away with the bulk data collection. The president and his administration is totally on board. You’d think that would be enough momentum, but you’ve got some senior Republican senators, starting with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who says no. Not good enough. We want to stick with the program exactly as it is. And the way the Senate works, you know, it doesn’t take a whole lot of opposition to really, at a minimum, clog things up.
MR. BALZ: The trade bill cleared an important hurdle this week in the Senate, but it seemed to take a lot to get that done. Can you talk about the deals that were made to try to get that through?
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah, I was in the Senate gallery where the reporters stand for that. And it’s so rare to see true drama on the Senate floor. And this was. There was a pack of senators right in front of the table there where they vote, and talking and talking and talking. And at the center of it was Maria Cantwell, the Democrat of Washington state. Mitch McConnell was there.
And at that point, the roll call was going to be that the Obama agenda was going to fail, was not going to go forward, and they needed several more votes. And these Democrats were holding – mostly Democrats were holding out. And you could tell – we couldn’t hear them – but you could tell that a deal was cut and they immediately turned to the presiding officer and voted aye and got it over the hump.
MS. IFILL: And the deal was about this obscure organization called the Export-Import Bank that most people don’t even know what it is.
MR. BABINGTON: Exactly, Gwen. It’s so odd that there was a handful of – Cantwell and other senators who – the Ex-Im Bank, which guarantees loans for exported – export sales, is set to expire on June 1. And there’s quite a few conservatives, especially, who don’t like it and they think it’s a corporate giveaway and they’d like to kill it. So these Democrats who were holding out wanted a promise that there would be a vote in the Senate at least on renewing the Ex-Im Bank. As odd as it sounds, that was the – that was the pivot.
MS. BALL: Well, so the trade bill cleared that Senate hurdle with some difficulty. Now can it get through the House?
MR. BABINGTON: Molly, it’s got a rough road ahead in the House. Certainly it might. Democrats in the House, even more so than in the Senate, many of them virulently oppose this. Over the years, since NAFTA really – the two decades since NAFTA – trade has got an increasing – or free trade agreements have got an increasingly bad reputation among labor unions, among many liberal groups. And of course, these are very important groups to Democrats, especially when they run for re-election. So really, it’s an easy vote for almost any Democrat in Congress to vote against this. And Obama, even more so in the House than in the Senate, is going to have to rely very heavily on Republican votes.
MR. DREAZEN: Some of the tone of his comments towards Elizabeth Warren, towards other Democrats were so personally almost insulting and angry. What was your reaction to that? And what was the reaction among other Democrats to hearing a senator referred to that way?
MR. BABINGTON: There were some Democratic colleagues of Elizabeth Warren who did not like that and said that they just thought he went too far. I think the president felt –
MS. IFILL: What, by calling her by her first name? Was that the insulting part?
MR. BABINGTON: No, and that – I think that – and I think you can see that Obama calls Harry Reid “Harry” and he calls John Boehner “John.” I think that was not a particularly legitimate shot. But he said, she’s –
MS. IFILL: She’s just a politician.
MR. BABINGTON: – just a politician, which may have been –
MS. IFILL: The worst thing you can say about a politician. (Laughter.)
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah, exactly. Lo and behold. They felt that he made it a little too personal. But really, this – it’s not so much personality driven, it’s very ideologically driven. And you know, these liberal groups, these labor unions, are not going to look favorably on Democrats who helped this trade legislation get through, if it does.
MS. IFILL: You know, the date June 1st has been on my calendar for a long time. Why does this always sneak up on us? Why are these deadlines always so frantic?
MR. BABINGTON: You know, increasingly it takes deadlines, unfortunately, to get Congress to do almost anything. And so often what they do is just a punt, it’s just a stopgap. And we’ve seen that, you know, repeatedly in budget areas. We see the CRs, the continuing resolutions. And now we’re seeing that stopgap measure apply to more and more policies.
MS. IFILL: OK, well, let’s keep following it. Thank you, Chuck.
If you want a sense of how strange this 2016 campaign already is, look no farther than Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hillary Clinton answered five questions, among them: What about those emails?
MS. CLINTON: (From video.) Nobody has a bigger interest in getting them released than I do. I respect the State Department. They have their process that they do for everybody, not just for me. But anything that they might do to expedite that process, I heartily support.
MS. IFILL: Clinton was not the only one making news. Republican candidates, announced and unannounced, began to test the field, hoping to secure a place on upcoming debate stages. Dan and Molly – starting with you, Dan – what’s at stake for Hillary here in this?
MR. BALZ: Well, credibility, authenticity, likeability. I’m not sure that the release of these – this initial release of the emails is going to cause significant ripples. Everything we know so far about them is that there’s no particular smoking gun that tells you something radically different about what was going on with Benghazi at the time. And so I think she will probably get through that.
But the interesting part of the week was that the big news was she answered a question – (laughter) – which, you know, may tell people more about us than about Hillary Clinton. But there’s two things that are going on. She and her campaign have set a strategy for how she wants to roll out the opening stage of her candidacy. And they are going about it methodically, in the way that Hillary Clinton goes about everything else. And they are walling off and screening out of all the chatter that comes toward them.
And yet, at the same time, there is criticism of the way she is doing it from the outside, but not just from the press. There are some people who are supporters of hers who do not think that she is handling herself particularly well in this stage, either by remaining quiet, by appearing cloistered, by not doing other kinds of events, by not opening herself up to more.
MS. IFILL: And that’s why, Molly, watching her answer those questions, I noticed her tone was very lighthearted, very almost coy sometimes. Oh, I’ll get to your questions if I think they’ll help me. And she almost shrugged it off. Is that because she is under – feels she’s under pressure to answer questions, but doesn’t necessarily have to answer them in a particularly transparent way?
MS. BALL: I think for – especially for Democrats, the hurdle for Hillary at the beginning stages of the campaign is to show in a very robust way that she’s not the candidate she was in 2008. And so – and so you see her and her handlers working very hard to create, like Dan says, this impression of someone who is down to Earth, who’s relatable, who’s authentic, who’s human.
And so within these very controlled settings she has come off that way, but she has not wanted to engage with anything that might present a risk. And so that old risk-averse Hillary is still in some ways the candidate she was in 2008, who was a little bit rigid, who wasn’t able to deal with anything that didn’t go exactly according to plan. And so I do think that that is a danger for her.
MR. BABINGTON: What kind of reviews is this strategy and behavior by Hillary Clinton getting from other Democrats – important Democrats in important states? Are they – do they think it’s a good idea? Are they worried?
MS. BALL: I think a lot of Democrats are not enthusiastic about the way that she’s stiff-armed the press. And so it’s not just our self-interest saying that she ought to open up a little bit. It does create a bad impression. It does – it doesn’t help her seem accessible when she is literally not accessible to everyone except the everyday Americans that her campaign has carefully screened in advance. And you know, her campaign would insist that regular people don’t care about that stuff, the griping of us in the press, but –
MS. IFILL: Hmm, they may have a point.
MS. BALL: They may – and they may have a point. But I do think that it is something that is corrosive to this image she’s trying to create.
MR. BALZ: You know, it’s interesting. I had a conversation with a longtime supporter of hers recently, and his view was she’s doing exactly the right thing by not talking to you all – he pointed to me as the press – because, he said, the minute she starts to answer your questions, that’s the only story that’s going to be out there. That’s the only thing the press will write about, and that’s not in her interest at this point. It may be at some point that she’ll want to do more of that and do a more formal press conference than answering three or four questions at the end of an event.
But at the same time, you look at how she’s handled herself on some issues that are out there. We just talked about the trade issue. She promoted this trade pact as secretary of State.
MS. IFILL: She did.
MR. BALZ: And now everything she is saying about it is hesitant, is reserved. It goes exactly to what Molly was talking about, risk-averse. She recognizes the divisions within her party. She wants to bridge those as best she can. And yet people see that and they say, wait a minute, what’s going on with her?
MR. DREAZEN: Dan, when you talk to supporters like the gentleman you just mentioned, do they have a feeling that better that this all come out now, then the election’s so far away, or do they feel like this may just build, build, build and dominate until you get to the actual election?
MR. BALZ: It’s a very good question, and I don’t think anybody has a good sense of that. I mean, I think that people believe that there will – there will be questions that will trail her throughout this campaign in one form or another having to do with the very issues we’re looking at. They may not be exactly the questions about how she handled the emails or the server, but there will be questions about the Clinton Foundation, about the way they have raised money, about the connections that they are tied into, about potential conflicts of interest, about what role Bill Clinton will play. These are – you know, these are things that I don’t think she can ever escape from.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s take Yochi’s question and apply it to the Republicans, because also timing is very important, and half of them – the ones we know who are running, are announced; about half of them are not. But does it matter at this point, or are the people who announced trying to get certain things out of the way that they don’t want to dog them later, and are the people who are not announced saying it can wait?
MS. BALL: Well, I think Jeb Bush obviously is the most prominent example of someone who’s having to deal with an obvious question and yet still isn’t doing it all that well, right? You have – Hillary had to know that these questions about the Clinton Foundation were going to come up, and yet she still has not managed to handle them very nimbly or deftly, or put them to rest. And it’s been the same with, you know, Jeb and Iraq and his brother and his family legacy. This is the most obvious possible question anyone would want to ask him.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. BALL: And yet he keeps not answering it in a way that would satisfy anyone. And so, you know, that is another one of these things, like Dan said, that I don’t think Jeb can fully put to rest.
MS. IFILL: We did hear him this week – we heard a little bit of him saying, you know, my brother’s spending, spent too much money.
MR. BALZ: Or that spending went up too much while my brother was –
MS. BALL: Right.
MR. BALZ: He didn’t quite pin it on his brother, but – (laughter) – although he suggested his brother could have used –
MS. IFILL: Mistakes happened.
MR. DREAZEN: Mistakes were made.
MR. BALZ: – could have been more robust on the – with the veto pen.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. BALL: And you know, I don’t like to make predictions, but I can pretty confidently predict we’re not going to see Jeb go fully negative on George W. Bush and say, yeah, I never liked that guy either, you know? (Laughter.) So there’s an – there’s an obviousness to it. But you know, I think, for the candidates who have announced already – Rand Paul and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and – not Jeb – but they obviously feel that they need to – need this period of time to get traction, that they need to be out there wooing the activists and building an infrastructure. And the ones who haven’t are in maybe a wait-and-see mode, feeling like once everybody gets tired of those guys they can – they can swoop in. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: I know – go ahead.
MR. BALZ: Gwen, I think that – I was just going to make a quick point. I think that the Bush people the Clinton people have a – have a similar view, which is there’s a lot of attention being paid to them right now, but not by real voters, and that they want to run a campaign in which they have the resources, the organization and the preparation at that point when the voters really begin to check in. We’ll see whether it works.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about what the vote – when the voters check in, we presume, will be during the debates. And so this week we discovered that at least two of the networks who will be sponsoring early debates have tried to figure out, what does one do when you have 20 people running for president? And they’ve come up with rules. Who do the rules help so far and who do they hurt?
MS. BALL: Well, so CNN is – or, sorry, Fox is hosting the first debate. It’s in Cleveland in August. And they say they are going to take the top 10 candidates based on polling, based – and they are saying reputable national surveys.
MS. IFILL: Five surveys or something like that.
MS. BALL: Right. And they’re going to take the top 10 candidates and cut off there, and those 10 people will get to be onstage. CNN is taking a modified version of that approach for the second debate, where the top 10 will be on stage, but then there will be a JV debate that happens first – (laughter) – with the candidates who aren’t in the top 10 facing off against each other. So it’s a very bizarre situation. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches for Republicans –
MS. IFILL: That’s one way of looking at it.
MS. BALL: – because a lot of the candidates who are at the bottom of these polls are still quite qualified people. You also have individuals like Donald Trump, who polls well enough to be onstage by these metrics and who is a continuing thorn in the side of the Republican elites who feel like he doesn’t necessarily reflect well on the party. But it’s an impossible problem for Republicans to have a debate that’s substantive, that gives longshot candidates a chance of introducing themselves to voters and making an impression if they do a good job and give – and gives everyone a fair shot. And yet, you know, you can’t do that with 15 people onstage.
MR. BABINGTON: The RNC wanted more control, more structure after the 2012 election. This is not making it – they’re – it’s very difficult for them, isn’t it?
MS. BALL: Yeah. Well, and it was such a free-for-all in 2012. There were 20-odd debates and people got real tired of it.
MS. IFILL: But isn’t it a little early in this, even in our obsessive early interest, to decide who is really going to be in that top tier by the time the summer is over?
MR. BALZ: It is. I mean, there is almost no doubt that somebody who is not on that stage for the first debate will have a greater impact on the campaign than one or two people who are on the stage. It’s just almost inevitable. For one, the field is so tightly bunched and compressed that the cutoff line, you know, is very artificial. So, you know, the RNC wanted to manage these, but they were happy to let the networks make the decision about who was going to be in them.
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) I’ll bet. And the Democrats, well, so far we got three people onstage, so that’ll be – that’ll –
MR. BABINGTON: It’ll be a very different picture, won’t it?
MS. BALL: It might expand more. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Very different. Thank you, everybody. (Laughs.)
We have to go now, but as always the conversation continues online on the Washington Week Webcast Extra. You can find it later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff over on the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Have a solemn and a thankful Memorial Day. Good night.