ROBERT COSTA: Unrest at Justice, in the White House, on the Hill; and conflict in Syria. I’m Robert Costa. A former FBI director’s book ignites a firestorm and the Russia probe continues, tonight on Washington Week.
FORMER FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY: (From video.) No one, to my recollection, asked: So what’s coming next from the Russians? How might we stop it?
MR. COSTA: President Trump reacts with fury, unleashing a barrage of tweets about Comey’s allegations. “James Comey is a proven LEAKER & LIAR,” Trump wrote, adding “It was my great honor to fire” him.
And the Russia investigation takes a dramatic turn: the president’s personal lawyer now in court after an FBI raid may have captured audio recordings. And the future of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the federal probe, remains uncertain, even as he visits the White House.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan tells congressional Republicans, already nervous about the midterm elections, that he will not run again this fall.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) But I will be retiring in January, leaving this majority in good hands with what I believe is a very bright future.
MR. COSTA: We go inside Ryan’s exit, and what it means for the GOP and the president.
The world turned its attention to Syria. How will the Trump administration respond to the chemical attacks?
We discuss it all with Abby Phillip of CNN, Michael Crowley of POLITICO, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, and Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The headlines from James Comey’s tell-all book, A Higher Loyalty, come amid a torrent of developments in the special counsel investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The FBI raided the home, office, and hotel room of President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, this week. The raid gathered documents and electronic devices. In federal court Friday, Cohen asked the judge to block the Justice Department from having access to the materials, which may have included conversations with campaign advisors, recordings, and – perhaps of even his most famous client. Court papers filed Friday say the searches are, quote, “the result of a lengthy investigation into Cohen” that seek – and “seeking evidence of crimes.” The raid sparked the president’s fury, to be sure, and ruptured talks with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Up until this week’s raid, it seemed the president was prepared to sit for an interview with Mueller. Now that may be off the table. And today there are reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who heads the Mueller investigation, has expressed concern that he may be fired. Abby, you’ve been at the White House all week reporting. Where is the White House moving tonight in light of all this activity with Michael Cohen? We’ve heard and there have been many reports that the president and Cohen spoke by phone.
ABBY PHILLIP: Right, which is not unusual for this president, who has a pattern of reaching out to people who are under investigation who he probably shouldn’t if his lawyers had any say. But at the White House this morning there was a sense of anxiety on multiple fronts, one about how the president would react, what he would do. He’s here in Washington for the whole weekend, which is a change of plans. He was supposed to be in Peru, far away from the television screens, far away from the triggers that would cause him to react as harshly as he could have on social media. So now he’s here and he’s going to let loose. And this weekend started earlier than I think even the White House imagined with some of the excerpts coming out overnight. There was anxiety about what he would do, but also real anxiety about where this is all headed. Michael Cohen is a gatekeeper in Trump’s world – in his personal life, in his business life, and also in the campaign in some ways – and so it’s a huge Pandora’s box for this White House in a way that a lot of people had not experienced up until this point.
MR. COSTA: And it’s been confirmed, Phil, he’s under criminal investigation.
PHILIP RUCKER: He is. And a big challenge, I think, for Trump’s team is they don’t know where this investigation’s going. They don’t know what was seized in those raids. They don’t know what information the FBI and Robert Mueller may have about Michael Cohen. There’s concern in Trump’s orbit – our colleagues at the Post reported this yesterday – that they may have seized tapes, that Cohen would record a lot of his conversations, including potentially with the president and before he was president. They don’t know what kind of information is in those tapes, so there’s a real heightened sense of almost alarm about where this is all going.
MR. COSTA: What about attorney-client privilege? The president’s saying that this violates that.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Well, it’s unclear what kind of communications they had. Presumably, if Michael Cohen were giving Donald Trump legal advice, then attorney and client privilege would be invoked. But what if Michael Cohen were just a campaign advisor, a friend, a close confidant? It all depends on these communications, and this will be something that will have to be sorted out. We’re told at the Times that the president is more concerned about this Michael Cohen criminal investigation than he is even about the Mueller probe.
MR. COSTA: And you’ve been editing stories all week, Michael, about the Russia probe. Bob Mueller seems to have sent this to the Southern District of New York, the U.S. attorney. Why?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, there are a few reasons for that. One could be that the charges or the suspected crimes involved here don’t directly relate to the Russia investigation. So, in fact, what Mueller might have done is stumbled on evidence that, for instance, the payment that Cohen made to Stormy Daniels, he has information that there was violations of campaign finance law, illegality, bank fraud, that Cohen is lying about what he did. So it could be that it’s just out of his lane.
It could also be sort of extra caution, where he may think that there is some element of the Russia investigation involved in the evidence that was turned up, but that he wants to create a little bit of distance, anticipating that the president is basically going to freak out over this raid. And that – you know, all the reporting we’ve seen is that for President Trump this was taking things to a new level, a new level of outrage, lines have been crossed, and Mueller might have made a kind of strategic decision that it might be nice if he can justify having someone else carry out that work that he would.
One quick point on attorney-client privilege. Remember, a lot of people have to sign off on a raid like this, and you have – it goes to the Justice Department, a federal judge. And so the fact that there could be some violation of attorney-client privilege, despite the normal protections that it faces, I think shows the seriousness of the I guess you would call it probable cause that was at issue here.
MR. COSTA: And Sheryl brought up this great point, which is so much of this is about the context of what Cohen was doing. Was it as his being the president’s attorney, or is it trying to cut some of these side deals the president or Michael Cohen have allegedly struck with different figures in the president’s life, different alleged relationships? All these seem to be coming under the umbrella. But, Phil, you got the big story this week. You read the Comey book before anyone else. Former FBI Director James Comey’s book hasn’t hit the shelves yet, but the quotes coming out so far are incendiary. Talking with President Trump, according to the book, gave Comey flashbacks to his career as a prosecutor against the mob, the boss in complete control, Comey writes, loyalty oaths. And he summed up by saying the result is, quote, “the forest fire,” tough words, “that is the Trump presidency.” Explosive.
MR. RUCKER: It is. It’s a really scathing portrait of President Trump, not only of his conduct in office but of his character and his ethics. And Comey portrays Trump as truly unethical and unfit for this office, as a congenital liar, as somebody who just creates a web of alternative reality around him and tries to wrap people – including Comey as the FBI director – in it. You know, people who are looking for this book to kind of spell out articles of impeachment are going to be really disappointed. There’s not a real smoking gun, I don’t think. But there’s a lot more texture and context and dialogue about some of the encounters that he had with Trump that he found so troubling.
MR. COSTA: And it’s fueling a lot of anger with the president today. He’s also raging against former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. The inspector general came out with a pretty critical report of McCabe. He’s tying McCabe with Comey.
MS. PHILLIP: That’s right, in a really improbably way because in that inspector general report it actually said that McCabe would have lied to Comey or misled Comey about some of the details around the Clinton investigation. But the president is tying these two people together because they represent to him these forces who were within his own government trying to undermine him. And at the White House there’s also a sense that in the Comey book, not only did James Comey talk about the president and his demeanor in governance, but also about his physical appearance, about the nature of his marriage with Melania Trump, about the size of his hands. These are such deeply personal and cutting critiques of the president, that are almost Trumpian in a sense, but are designed to underneath the president’s skin. And you felt from his advisors today a channeling of the president’s anger about those kinds of characterizations as well.
MR. COSTA: What about Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general? He oversees the Mueller probe. If the president gets rid of Rosenstein, and maybe even gets rid of the Mueller probe, is Congress or congressional Republicans – you cover every day, Sheryl, are they going to try to protect that investigation?
MS. STOLBERG: Well, that’s a big question. You know, the Senate Judiciary Committee next week is going to possibly vote on legislation that would offer a special bill – special protections for Mueller, to keep Mueller from being fired. That bill is probably actually not going to go anywhere. That’s really the only leverage that Congress has. Even if the bill passes the Senate and passes the House, guess what? President Trump would likely veto it. So I think there would be a lot of outrage if Rosenstein were fired, and even more if Mueller were fired. But really, it’s unclear what Congress can do to stop that.
MR. COSTA: Is Rosenstein going to be fired? He was at the White House this week, but he’s telling associates privately he expects to maybe get fired this weekend.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, he seems to be saying he’s at peace with it, almost you get a sense of inevitability from some of this reporting, that he thinks it’s going to come. There’s nothing he can do about it; it’s his fate. Look, it’s impossible to predict. It’s interesting that President Trump has obviously walked up to the line of trying to fire Mueller a couple of times. We know this from reporting one time last summer, also more recently in December. He seems to go up to the brink. The people around him talk him out of it. Many of his advisors do seem to think that the political backlash would be so severe that it would be counterproductive.
You could imagine a scenario where he fires Rosenstein. Republicans fulminate for, you know, a week or so. And like so many things in the Trump presidency, it kind of fades. Someone else comes in. And what could happen is you could – Mueller could remain special counsel, but he would report to a new person who would put narrower limits on his investigation. For instance, a Rosenstein replacement could prevent something like the referral of the Michael Cohen evidence to the Southern District of New York and prevent that step of the investigation from unfolding. So you could kind of rein Mueller in without ending his investigation entirely, and sort of imagine a scenario where the political system can bear that.
MR. COSTA: Certainly a chorus of voices out there urging the president to fire Rosenstein. So far as of this broadcast, there hasn’t been any movement. I spoke with Steve Bannon this week, the former chief White House strategist, who said the president has to fire Rosenstein to get this cloud outside of his White House.
But let’s turn from 1600 Penn to Capitol Hill, because House Speaker Paul Ryan announced this week that he will not seek reelection this fall. The announcement comes at a critical time as record numbers of Republicans announce their retirement and the party faces a possible blue wave of energized Democrats. Ryan says he’s staying through January, but the race to replace him has certainly started. Ryan today endorsed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, but others are considering bids.
Sheryl, you’ve been covering Ryan for a long time. You were just up in Janesville, his hometown.
MS. STOLBERG: His hometown, yeah.
MR. COSTA: Is it the end of an era for the Republican Party?
MS. STOLBERG: I think it is the end of an era. And, you know, the Republican Party is very fractured. That’s how Paul Ryan got to where he is in the first place. When John Boehner was kind of pushed out by a band of unruly conservatives, Republicans couldn’t settle on a leader. McCarthy tried to become speaker at that time, but he was not able to gain the backing of the conservatives. So the party drafted Ryan.
And he came in and he’s managed to sort of maintain an uneasy peace among the factions. He’s very well-respected. He’s a consummate fundraiser for Republicans. He’s raised $54 million just this cycle. And so his leaving is now throwing open, you know, an era of uncertainty for Republicans. As you said, they’re looking at a possible blue wave. His leaving could spark another wave of retirements. People are worried about how will fundraising go if Ryan isn’t there to rake the money in. And of course, there’s this leadership – this jockeying for leadership.
MR. COSTA: Where’s the president going to come down on this, Phil?
MR. RUCKER: Well, we know the president has a close relationship with Kevin McCarthy. He’s the number two in the House. He’s likely to probably try to become the speaker this time. Ryan actually effectively endorsed him in an interview earlier today. He calls – President Trump calls him “my Kevin.” That’s how close they are. But I don’t know that the president’s going to give an official endorsement yet. The White House press secretary was asked today whether the president would back McCarthy and was just told to stay tuned. So it’s a little dicey for him to jump right into this politics in the party.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, and it will be tricky for him, considering that there might be a Freedom Caucus contender perhaps vying just for some influence in this race. But the president has to kind of monitor and babysit that faction, while also perhaps wanting McCarthy in. I think at the White House there’s a perception that McCarthy has the kind of closeness to the president that’s necessary to be successful in that role. And he has the respect of his fellow members. And the two things are probably as good as you’re going to get in this particular cycle. Even with the loss of Paul Ryan, I think there are some people in the White House who say they are just fine with a McCarthy coming back in.
MS. STOLBERG: But, Bob, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about Steve Scalise, the Republican whip. He is really kind of the sentimental favorite. And should McCarthy stumble, Scalise, who you may remember was grievously injured during a congressional baseball practice – he was shot, and he’s been walking on crutches, and he’s made this incredible comeback – is really an emotional favorite for Republicans. So he has said that he would not challenge McCarthy. But clearly should McCarthy not be able to rally the support of his caucus or his conference, Scalise would be there ready to step in.
MR. COSTA: Now that Ryan’s stepping away, Michael, he’s been supportive of the Mueller investigation to continue its work. But he’s also allowed House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to go about his work and his pretty tough charges against the Department of Justice. Where does Ryan – does Ryan change his tune at all now that he heads for the exit?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, that’s a very interesting question. You know, we saw Trey Gowdy, who was a member of the House Intelligence Committee, who after announcing his retirement in particular has really I think spoken critically of Republican colleagues and the way they have tried to change the narrative from the Russian interference in the election and alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Some Republicans are trying to make it more of a story of misbehavior and misconduct at the FBI and the Justice Department. And Trey Gowdy, to take one example, has come down pretty hard on that, but particularly after announcing that he was leaving Congress, and feeling more liberated to do so. We’ll see if Ryan does do it.
But I do think that a lot of Democrats were very disappointed that Ryan kind of gave Devin Nunes and other Republicans a leash to take on law enforcement officials in that way, and really to try to paint a narrative of extreme misconduct in the – in the Russia investigation, without Ryan himself ever really investing in that narrative. Kind of saying, well, you know, that’s not – that’s them doing that, not me. But I think there was a sense from a lot of Democrats he was trying to have it both ways – staying above the fray but letting them have a long leash.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to foreign policy, because tensions remain high in the Middle East as the White House is debating a response tonight to the chemical attacks in Syria last weekend. At the U.N. Security Council today U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused Russia of covering up for the government of Bashar al-Assad. As of airtime, the world is watching to see how the Trump administration will react.
Joined now by Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal. Nancy, thanks so much for being with us. Where is this debate going inside of the administration? And how close are we to action, if any?
NANCY YOUSSEF: It seems that it’s pretty close indeed, that it could be in a matter of hours or sometime this weekend. It seems that the debate that we’re seeing from inside the White House is the scale of it, how many targets, and what sort of end state the administration hopes to achieve. That is, does it want to completely disable the Assad regime’s airpower? Does it want to destroy its facilities that hold these chemical weapons? How much does it want to take out its proxies, Iranians and Russians? And so on one side we’re hearing that Trump wants a more aggressive strike, certainly more aggressive than we saw last year, and on the other side we’re hearing that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wants a more conservative approach, fearing the unintended consequences of an expansive strike campaign inside Syria.
MR. COSTA: Is the new national security adviser, John Bolton, part of the camp inside of the White House urging that aggressive posture?
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s our understanding, that essentially Secretary Mattis is standing alone because the scale, the number of strikes we’re talking about, one that would involve a coalition of at least three nations – the Brits, the French, and the United States. And again, we’re seeing the Assad regime do things like hide their assets amongst Russian bases, near Russians, and so there’s the possibility that in trying to disable the Assad regime that Russian targets are hit. And so I think there’s a real concern about what are the consequences of a strike campaign. Could we see a scenario where the strikes do damage, but also lead to new conflicts with Russia? And remember that the United States has a deconfliction line with the Russians on the eastern side of the country to make sure that U.S. troops are not put in harm’s way during the ongoing battle against ISIS.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, stay with us. Michael, Russia has been denying the chemical attacks. In fact, they’ve been blaming the United Kingdom for having some kind of covert operation to do this. What’s the state of play?
MR. CROWLEY: Look, I mean, that is a tried-and-true Russian tactic. It’s to deny and to blame the other side. I mean, kind of, you know, to reduce it, I know you are but what am I, that’s the Russian approach. And it doesn’t have much credibility at this point, if it ever did, but the Russians like to confuse and divert. But I do think that there is a huge risk here of an escalating conflict with Russia. You know, we’re in this strange situation where President Donald Trump calls Vladimir Putin to congratulate him, against the explicit advice of his advisors, on his election victory, which is widely seen around the world as an anti-democratic election. He congratulates him and invites him to the White House – let’s talk, let’s get along, let’s be friends. But gradually, U.S. policy in the last several months has actually gotten pretty tough toward the Russians, and diplomatically there is a real escalation of tensions even as there is this still – this leader-to-leader relationship everyone is watching and trying to understand.
The Russians are talking in very bellicose terms about potential American action against Assad, who is a Russian ally. Russia came in, essentially, to prevent Assad from being toppled. They hate seeing America use force around the world, and there’s a battle for influence in the Middle East specifically right now. And they’re threatening to retaliate. They’re threatening to try to shoot down our missiles or potentially even strike assets of ours that fire at the Syrians. And when you have two leaders like Trump and Putin, even if they want to get along, we know that these are two men with big egos and chips on their shoulders, and I think there is a real dangerous possibility for escalation.
One last quick point. There are a lot of people in Washington who think that Jim Mattis is sort of the last representation of foreign policy establishment stability in this administration. It’s really interesting to see whether this is a hill that Mattis is willing to risk dying on, so to speak – standing up, trying to slow this down, trying to talk the president out of aggressive action. Is he choosing this as a battle for him to fight that could put his job at risk? We know how quickly the president turns on advisors like Mattis. And that is a subplot here to watch that I think is hugely important.
MR. COSTA: We’re talking a lot, Nancy, about proxies in Russia and the U.S., but what about Iran? What’s their – what’s their position here?
MS. YOUSSEF: So Iran has ground forces in Syria and have a vested interest in seeing Assad stay in power. We heard rumblings from Iran about objections to any strike campaign, but the complicating factor that they bring to it is because they’re on the ground and so intermixed with Syrian forces there is the potential of killing Iranian proxy forces on the ground. And I think it’s an important thing to point out because this is very different than last year’s strike. Last year’s strike was a show-of-force strike. It was a messaging strike. And the terrain was not as sort of complex with proxy forces as it is now. In addition, the U.S. had more clear evidence last year. This has been much harder. This is an area that’s surrounded by the regime, and so it’s been harder to actually prove precisely what happened. While the United States holds the regime responsible, the specifics of what kind of chemicals were used are still being worked out. And so for proxy states it’s an open opportunity to sort of challenge the U.S. premise about what happened, what responsibility the Assad regime had in attacking the citizens of Douma. And so we’re starting to hear those rumblings, but –
MR. COSTA: OK, great. All right. Nancy, as always, really appreciate you and your fresh reports on the Pentagon. And, Sheryl, welcome to Washington Week. Great to have you here.
MS. STOLBERG: Thank you. Great to be here.
MR. COSTA: Great to have you.
We’ll continue this discussion about Syria online in the Web Extra. You can watch that later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
And stay tuned for the premiere of the new PBS program In Principle. Here are the co-hosts, Michael Gerson and Amy Holmes, with a look at what to expect.
AMY HOLMES: (From video.) Tonight we explore bridging the political divide and fostering meaningful conversations.
MICHAEL GERSON: (From video.) My co-host, Amy Holmes, asked conservative radio personality Glenn Beck about his role in creating a divided nation.
MS. HOLMES: (From video.) Do you feel that there was any moment that you were cranking up the volume to get those ratings?
RADIO HOST GLENN BECK: (From video.) No, not intentionally.
MR. GERSON: (From video.) A fascinating interview, next.
MR. COSTA: In Principle airs Friday nights at 8:30 p.m. on this PBS station.
Thanks for watching tonight Washington Week. As always, have a great weekend. I’m Robert Costa.