ROBERT COSTA: President Trump confronts new memos from former FBI Director James Comey and brings a trusted ally onto his legal team. I’m Robert Costa. Inside the latest on the Russia probe, plus the looming challenges and opportunities in North Korea, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) There was no collusion. And that’s been so found, as you know, by the House Intelligence Committee.
MR. COSTA: President Trump expresses confidence that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election will not find collusion by the Trump campaign. In a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump contests reports that Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s jobs are in jeopardy.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) They’ve been saying I’m going to get rid of them for the last three months, four months, five months, and they’re still here.
MR. COSTA: The Justice Department releases redacted memos from fired FBI Director James Comey, while former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and two other attorneys join President Trump’s personal legal team.
U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. NIKKI HALEY: (From video.) You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down. Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday.
MR. COSTA: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said sanctions would be coming, but the White House walked back that assertion.
NATIONAL ECONOMIC ADVISER LAWRENCE KUDLOW: (From video.) She got ahead of the curve. There might have been some momentary confusion about that.
MR. COSTA: And the country says goodbye to former First Lady Barbara Bush.
We discuss it all with Nancy Cordes of CBS News, Josh Dawsey of The Washington Post, Mara Liasson of NPR, and Vivian Salama of NBC News.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. What a rush of news. Just in the past 24 hours the Justice Department released memos written by former FBI Director James Comey; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani joined President Trump’s legal team; and the Democratic National Committee filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the Russian government, WikiLeaks, and the Trump campaign, alleging a conspiracy to support Trump’s 2016 bid. And earlier this week, lawyers for the president and his personal attorney Michael Cohen argued against releasing materials that were seized this month in a raid by the FBI. Trump allies on Capitol Hill, like Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, have been threatening impeachment or contempt of Congress for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein unless he handed over those Comey memos.
But let’s begin with breaking news. Josh, welcome to Washington Week. Big story tonight that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has warned the White House that he would step down if Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe, the special counsel investigation, is fired. And it really brings up this whole bigger theme. It’s not just about the Comey memos this week. It’s really about the tensions between the White House and the Mueller investigation, Republicans and the Mueller investigation.
JOSH DAWSEY: Right. And that’s a fundamental distillation of it, Bob, is that there’s tumult in the ranks of DOJ. And there has been for more than a year, really. President Trump has been at war, to some degree, with the top leaders of the FBI, of DOJ, who have not bent to his will. And he has mused at times about firing Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who frustrates him to no end as we have reportedly seen over and over and over. And what happened this time is that the president again last week, frustrated with the raid on his personal lawyer’s apartment, his office, his hotel room, says, you know, I might want to fire Rod Rosenstein, something he said for months. And Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, stepped in and said: Hey, if you do this, I may go too. And that would create a whole domino effect that would be kind of unparalleled, I think, in our government.
MR. COSTA: How close are we, Mara, to that domino effect happening? The president watching the coverage of the Comey memos, watching the coverage Michael Cohen and the FBI raid, is the U.S., the Trump administration, on the brink of having some kind of crisis moment?
MARA LIASSON: In a constitutional crisis? I think that we’re in the midst of a stress test on democratic institutions, maybe not a full-fledged constitutional crisis. But what’s amazing about this is usually you’ve got the legislative branch versus the executive branch. This time, it’s Donald Trump at war with people he appointed, his own executive branch. Everyone Josh just listed was appointed by Donald Trump. And he’s got his allies in Congress to put pressure on his own branch of government. That’s unheard of.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, you’ve been on Capitol Hill all week. And this is really not – the Comey memos aren’t part of the Comey book tour. It’s about Congress fighting DOJ over document production. Where does that whole drama stand at this moment?
NANCY CORDES: Well, the problem, if you’re a Trump ally, is that at this point you’ve learned over and over again you really can’t do anything to shrink this investigation or stop the investigation. The only thing you can try to do is discredit the investigation. And so you demand document after document from DOJ, hoping that there’s something in those documents that indicates some kind of a political motivation to starting this probe, or at least something in there that you can spin that way. That’s what they were hoping for from these Comey memos. They didn’t get it. And that’s why they’re still pushing for other documents from the start of the special counsel probe.
MR. COSTA: What’s your read, though, Nancy, on Congress? Who’s more influential at this moment, the Capitol Hill leaders like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who doesn’t want to move on legislation to protect the Mueller probe, or is it people like Meadows, the Freedom Caucus, who are pushing the president to act against DOJ?
MS. CORDES: I think it’s less about power and more about everyone having their roles to play. You’ve got the leadership very consistently saying, you know, we’re not going to get involved. We want to let the investigation play out. President Trump should do the same. That’s what they see as the line that they should consistently take. But then you’ve got some of these rabble rousers, the Mark Meadowses and the Jim Jordans who – and the Devin Nuneses – who are saying, you know, no. We’re out there. We need to fight. We think that this entire investigation has metastasized. It’s going in directions we don’t like. It’s getting too close to the president. And we’re going to fight. And that’s their role. That’s something that, you know, really wouldn’t work if leadership tried to do it.
MR. COSTA: And Vivian, you’re back from Mar-a-Largo down in Florida, covering President Trump all week. You spotted Rudy Giuliani there just before he joined the president’s legal team. What does his addition mean at this time?
VIVIAN SALAMA: Well, obviously he’s a very competent attorney. He is a very highly respected attorney back in New York. He also has a long-time relationship with people like Bob Mueller. He knew Comey back from his days from being major of New York, and they were over in DOJ and the FBI. And so he believes that he’s coming in, sort of bringing in the rapport of an attorney, but also someone who can sit with these men, look them face to face, and say, you know, this is the way it’s going to be. Let’s wrap this up right now. And he really believes – and he’s been out there in the last two days since this news emerged really saying, you know, I’m going to wrap this up. I’m going to get this in control – under control, and we’re going to just finish it.
MR. DAWSEY: The fundamental question for Rudy Giuliani, though, will be what is his approach? The legal team has been besieged by infighting, lots of different strategies, how much do we cooperate. John Dowd, the president’s lawyer, departed amid some squabbles internally. So what does he do differently? Ty Cobb for months told the president, listen, this’ll be over by Thanksgiving, then by Christmas, by New Year’s. Now it’s April and we have Rudy Giuliani coming in and saying, oh, we’re going to wrap this up soon. What are the president’s expectations? Can he do anything differently with Bob Mueller than any of the other lawyers have done?
MR. COSTA: Well, one of the key questions, Mara, is will the president actually sit for an interview with Mueller and his investigators? I spoke with Giuliani this week. He wouldn’t give me a clear answer.
MS. LIASSON: Well, that’s because this is a really huge question. There are tons of people saying: Don’t do it, Mr. President. It’s just a trap. If you look at histories of how the president behaves when he’s deposed, he can perjure himself pretty easily. So he’s got all sorts of people saying: Don’t do it. On the other hand, maybe he thinks Rudy Giuliani can somehow negotiate terms for an interview that will protect him. But I think the other big question is which is better, to try to shut down the Mueller probe by firing Rod Rosenstein or something else, or just keep on discrediting Mueller, undermining his credibility, so in the end no matter what he comes up with, you can tell your base: Just dismiss it as fake news?
MS. CORDES: I think that’s absolutely 100 percent the strategy. The problem is that historically Republicans have had a lot of really great things to say about Robert Mueller, who himself is a Republican. And that’s why these arguments – you know, they may work with the base, but, you know, as the investigation moves closer and closer to the president himself, has now ensnared his personal lawyer, it becomes more and more difficult for Republicans to make that argument.
MR. DAWSEY: And the personal lawyer is really an important development. I mean, it’s now a two-pronged investigation. You have the Southern District of New York who’s probing his personal lawyer’s finances, listening to his recordings his made phone calls. I mean, they’re really seeing Donald Trump’s entire life, and a lot of it before he became president. And what we reported is that the president was inclined to do an interview before this raid of his house, even with his lawyers saying to him: Mr. President, don’t do it – exactly as you said, Mara. The president wanted to do it. Then they came in, they sieged Michael Cohen, they raid all of his properties early in the morning. The president’s furious about it. And now he is less likely to do it. And that’s a big – that’s a big difference there.
MR. COSTA: And it’s not just the president being furious. The president’s attorneys, and Michael Cohen’s attorneys, are challenging in court whether federal investigators will be able to have access to those materials that they seized, including some audio recordings.
MS. SALAMA: Sure, absolutely. And all of this, mind you, is very unsettling for the president, and I think a big reason why he brings someone like Rudy Giuliani, who he goes way back with, they have a personal relationship, it’s a comfort level for him. I mean, all of this is sort of playing out. And, remember, this is a president who very much relied in his life – in his previous life on nondisclosure agreements. And suddenly, so many elements of his life is coming – are coming out to the public. And it’s been very unsettling for him. Certainly the last couple of days with Jim Comey out there talking on the different shows, his book coming out. That’s been something that’s been really unsettling for him. But it was really last week and the raid of Cohen’s office and home where all of a sudden, you know, he’s gone on this whole rant about the attorney-client privilege being violated because ultimately that means that he is exposed, he is vulnerable.
MS. LIASSON: And you have this incredible conversation among all these Trump associates, speculating on whether or not Michael Cohen will flip.
MR. COSTA: Will he flip? A lot of reporting out there that –
MS. LIASSON: Will he flip? Won’t he flip? Lot of reporting out there, which means that the assumption is that he has something to tell prosecutors.
MR. COSTA: There’s a fascinating story in The New York Times tonight that Michael Cohen has had a tough relationship with President Trump. He said he would take a bullet – he’s said that publicly – but he’s also been up and down with the president over his – the last 10 years.
MS. LIASSON: As many people have. There are many people who profess their loyalty to Trump who are then treated really badly.
MR. COSTA: Well, there was an interesting legal and political development today. The DNC, the Democratic National Committee, Nancy, decides to sue the Trump campaign, sue WikiLeaks, about a conspiracy regarding the 2016 election. For so long you’ve been chronicling the Democrats running ahead of the midterms. They haven’t really been talking about the Russia probe. Are they now really starting to take on that issue and put it front and center?
MS. CORDES: Well, the DNC is, because the DNC first of all believes that it lost a lot of money, a lot of credibility as a result of its emails being hacked by the Russians and shared. I mean, just think back to that time and how embarrassing it was to have all of their emails about Bernie Sanders, about Hillary Clinton made public right before the convention. It made for a very rocky first couple of days of the convention, a lot of bad feelings that lingered among Bernie Sanders supporters in particular. They lost a lot of donations. In a lot of ways, they’re still trying to come back from that. And so this was the head of the DNC saying, you know what, this cost us. We really had serious damage to our reputation, to our operation, so we’re seeking damages. But also the DNC believes that Russia really hasn’t paid a price for what it did to meddle in the election, and it believes, you know, yes, the special counsel is investigating, but when you look at the – you know, a civil case, we think that there’s enough there to make the case that the Trump campaign at the very least, if it wasn’t colluding with the Russians, it was egging them on, it was benefitting, it was encouraging this operation. There’s a lot of communication that we know of by now, and that’s what they’re going to try to prove in civil court.
MR. DAWSEY: But I think there’s rightly some reticence from Democrats to talk about this too much because it’s a complicated storyline. It has, you know, figures in foreign countries, money transfers. What does the average person even define as collusion? Who is Bob Mueller? I mean, to an average American I’m not sure how much some of the intricacies in the day-to-day retinue of a story really resonates.
MS. LIASSON: They don’t resonate, yeah.
MR. DAWSEY: What does resonate, I think, you know, for the president’s benefit here, is that the economy’s doing well. Unemployment’s low. He’s made some inroads on foreign policy, particularly with North Korea it seems. A lot of what they see and feel and what tops the news is not this. And you can make these arguments. We’ve done this reporting, other people have. There’s a lot to see here. But how much of it – how much of it delves down and is a voting issue for people? I’m not sure.
MS. LIASSON: I don’t think it is. And I think if you look at successful Democrats who’ve run in these special elections or off-years, they’re not talking about Russia. They know that when you look at the list of issues that voters care about, Russia is way down at the bottom.
MS. CORDES: And that’s a reason that some Democrats did not like this idea of this lawsuit. They said, hey, wait a minute, we should really be focused on the special counsel investigation, and this lawsuit only politicizes it. It only creates more political overtones. That’s the last thing that Democrats need right now.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to turn to breaking news. There’s so much breaking news. I mean, breaking news every hour, it seems, these days. But there was breaking news tonight not only with Josh’s story and Rosenstein and the Trump administration, but out of North Korea. State media there announced plans to suspend nuclear missile tests and close a test site. This happened just days after President Trump confirmed that CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo recently huddled with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a secret meeting ahead of the planned talks between the president and Kim.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I think Mike Pompeo will go down as one of the great secretary of states. And by the way, he just left North Korea, had a great meeting with Kim Jong-un, and got along with him really well, really great.
MR. COSTA: Vivian, when you – when you think about Pompeo right now, he’s going to meet with Kim, but what does he – what does he accomplish in that conversation, that exchange, that maybe led to Kim taking these steps tonight? Was it because of the Pompeo meeting, based on our knowledge and our reporting, or it is because of different actions China has taken or others in the region have taken?
MS. SALAMA: Well, there’s definitely a number of factors playing out. The South Koreans have been working the process with the North Koreans now over the last couple of months, and they were the ones to really push this process forward at a time where things were very precarious with the United States after the death of Otto Warmbier, the American who was brought out of North Korea in a coma, President Trump firing all kinds of accusations at Kim Jong-un, calling him “little rocket man” and saying that he would respond to their testing with “fire and fury.” And so for the United States, things have been sort of going forward in baby steps. There’s cautious optimism. I spoke to a couple of folks since this story broke. There’s a lot of cautious optimism. Everybody sees this as going in the right direction ahead of the planned summit with President Trump and Kim Jong-un in a month or so. However, North Korea has promised these things before and have reneged on their promises, and so a lot of people are saying, well, Pompeo’s going the right direction, but everyone just play it cool.
MS. LIASSON: And what are they promising? They’re promising to suspend their tests for how long? Until they can meet with President Trump. North Korea just got something it really wanted, a side-by-side meeting with the most powerful person on the planet as two equals. So that’s something they got. This at least is something that President Trump can say he got in advance. They’re going to suspend for now their tests. They don’t really need to do more tests. They just know that they have a long-range missile. They accomplished their goal. Now they’re ready to sit down.
MR. COSTA: What is the strategy here, Josh, inside of the White House?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, the president made a telling joke at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington a few weeks ago where he said dealing with a crazy problem – a crazy man, that’s his problem, not mine. (Laughter.) And inside the White House, what you sense is this is an unorthodox president on foreign policy where he says of course I’ll meet with North Korea, President Kim Jong-un.
MS. LIASSON: Yeah, yeah, with no preconditions.
MR. DAWSEY: No preconditions, we’ll do it anyway, we’ll talk to him. There was a lot of guffawing at that, a lot of people saying this could go really poorly, and it still might. But so far you’ve seen North Korea say tonight they are going to get rid of their missiles. You’ve seen some –
MS. LIASSON: Well, suspend testing.
MR. DAWSEY: Well, suspend for now, but that is a concession and a win for the president. And you see a lot of optimism inside the administration that we’ve got these people at the table, we could do something. I mean, one of the things – we had a fundraiser a while back, and we got the audio of it, and what President Trump said behind closed doors: These people for 25 years – Bush, Obama – all of them have pushed these policies; nothing’s ever gotten done. I’m not going to be like these people.
MS. LIASSON: Except for Clinton did make a deal with the North Koreans, and it was a huge thing at the time, and it didn’t end up –
MR. DAWSEY: And then it dissipated.
MR. COSTA: So there’s optimism inside of the administration. Does it translate to a confirmation for Pompeo on Capitol Hill?
MS. CORDES: Possibly, but he got some very bad news just Friday, which is that he is not going to get a favorable recommendation out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and that is unheard of.
MS. LIASSON: First time in 70 years.
MS. CORDES: Exactly, because all of the Democrats and one Republican, Rand Paul, have now all said that they are going to vote against him in committee. The Republican leadership has some cards it can play, some procedural moves to get his vote to the floor, but it’s not a good look, especially when you’re talking about the secretary of state. There’s this longstanding tradition on Capitol Hill that senators set their political views aside and they rally around the secretary of state nominee because they want to show a unified front to the world in support of the – of the nation’s biggest diplomat, and that’s not happening in this case.
MR. COSTA: So all these issues with North Korea, Pompeo, it brings up bigger questions about U.S. foreign policy. As Josh was saying, is this president and this administration going on instinct? Is there a doctrine at play here? Well, this week there was another issue. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Sunday that the U.S. would issue sanctions against Russia for their involvement in the chemical attacks in Syria, but then White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow struck a different note, saying perhaps Haley had been confused. Ambassador Haley fired back with a statement, telling Fox News that: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” President Trump later weighed in from Florida.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We’ll do sanctions as soon as they very much deserve it. We will have – that is a question. There has been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: Yet, on Capitol Hill lawmakers are unsure about the administration’s position both on Syria and Russia. Where does – where is this administration right now? You have Pompeo about to have his confirmation process finalized. You have National Security Adviser John Bolton playing a major role inside of the West Wing. How does this affect the president as he makes these decisions on North Korea, on Syria, on Russia sanctions?
MS. SALAMA: I think the fact that he’s such a foreign policy novice has led him to be such a risk-taker. He’s thinking outside the box, and that is something that has appeal to a lot of people who say, you know what, the old way didn’t work so let’s see where he goes from here. However, patience will wane at some point when we don’t see results – if the North Koreans don’t really follow through and abandon their nuclear program, if the Syrian war doesn’t come to some sort of resolution and Assad continues to use chemical weapons. And this is why there was a lot of pushback recently when President Trump tweeted mission accomplished after striking Syria, because they felt it was a bit too hasty and that he’s just jumping on a win.
MS. CORDES: You know, Larry Kudlow, veteran broadcaster, rookie Trump advisor. And if you’ve been in the White House for a while, you’ve learned how to spin the president’s changes of heart because you can’t say, obviously, well, the president changed his mind; he thought one thing one day and a different thing the next. And so he pinned it on Nikki Haley, also a big mistake, one that he himself came out and said, OK, my bad.
MR. COSTA: Is Haley’s – is Haley’s job at risk?
MS. LIASSON: I don’t think Haley’s job is at risk. Are you kidding? No. I think what’s so interesting to me about that whole episode – first of all, Larry Kudlow, affable guy, real gentleman, apologized, said she was put in a box; the policy changed and nobody told her. That was an absolutely truthful statement.
MR. COSTA: Why did the policy change? Was it because Bolton’s come in, he gutted the NSC?
MS. LIASSON: No, because – no, because President Trump decided, as he just said, he didn’t want any more sanctions on Russia. He said we’ll put sanctions on them when they very much deserve it, meaning they don’t deserve it now. He has been reluctant all along to punish Vladimir Putin, and he always steps back to that position even when his administration occasionally will get him to agree to expel some diplomats or sanction some oligarchs.
MR. DAWSEY: But that’s the entire fundamental understanding of his presidency, right, is that he will change his mind at any moment. One day he says we’re pulling out of TPP, then he says we’re back in it. One day he wants to do X on Russia, one day he wants to do Y. He’s embraced various health care proposals at different times. He can be swayed really easily by whoever the last person is with him. So someone comes to him and says we should no longer do these sanctions, you know, Russia did not respond that aggressively to these Syria attacks, maybe, and the president goes, oh, that’s interesting, OK, we won’t do it. And he, for better and worse – and I think it cuts in both directions for him – really can change his position on a dime.
MR. COSTA: We’ve got to leave it there. You’re so right. Whenever you talk to sources, they say if you’re in this administration you have to talk to President Trump, not just talk to staff if you want a clear answer.
Also this week, former First Lady Barbara Bush passed away, the 92-year-old matriarch of a political dynasty. She was the wife and mother of presidents and of a governor. Amy Holmes and Michael Gerson of In Principle, the new PBS show, interviewed former President George W. Bush the day after his mother died. Here’s a clip.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From video.) She and I used to kind of needle each other in a friendly way. And we were – I was kind of teasing her and she was teasing me, and then the doctor walked into this hospital room. And mother said, “Do you want to know why George W. is the way he is, Doctor?” And the doctor kind of didn’t have any choice. And mother said, “Because I drank and smoked when I was pregnant with him.” (Laughter.) And so – (laughs) – I knew she was feeling pretty good.
MR. COSTA: The grace and wit of Mrs. Bush. For more of that interview, watch In Principle on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.
We’ll continue this conversation about Mrs. Bush and so many issues and her legacy online on the Washington Week Extra. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.