ROBERT COSTA: A legal storm looms over President Trump and the nation remembers Senator John McCain. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Our Justice Department and our FBI have to start doing their job and doing it right and doing it now. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: President Trump, facing mounting legal challenges, rallies his supporters and says he is frustrated with his attorney general and the head of the FBI.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I want them to do their job. I will get involved and I’ll get in there if I have to. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: In rapid-fire tweets and several interviews, the president lashed out at other targets this week ahead of a potentially stormy season in his presidency. He called the Russia probe an “illegal investigation.” He railed against Google, social media, and books about him, calling them all fake. And he downplayed the coming departure of the White House counsel.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Don McGahn’s a really good guy, been with me for a long time. Privately, before this, he represented me. He’s done an excellent job.
MR. COSTA: We make sense of the week.
(Singing: Amazing Grace.)
MR. COSTA: Remembering Senator John McCain – his heroism, his love of country, and his legacy.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. A week of stark contrast. The nation paid tribute to the late Arizona Senator John McCain with powerful scenes and powerful words, but politics didn’t stand still. President Trump, he continued to lash out at targets old and new, and in the process he previewed the battles to come this fall. The president’s fury with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it remains, but by week’s end he said Sessions was safe until after the November elections. And ahead of those midterms the president, he’s returning to his core issues: immigration and trade.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) A vote for Democrats in November is a vote to erase our borders and leave innocent Americans at the mercy of hardened criminals. That’s what will happen. We are replacing NAFTA with a beautiful, brand-new U.S.-Mexico trade deal. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: While those trade disputes with Canada linger on, the White House is also facing legal headaches: the exit of White House Counsel Don McGahn and the ongoing special counsel investigation.
Joining me tonight, Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour, Mark Landler of The New York Times, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times, and Erica Werner of The Washington Post.
Mark, you’ve been tracking the trade developments all day, and what a change from earlier in the week when the president was touting progress with Mexico, trying to rewrite the whole North American Free Trade Agreement. Now the talks have stalled with Canada. Where does the president go from here?
MARK LANDLER: Well, I mean, the Canadians will be back in Washington next week to continue the negotiations, so this process – like it often does with Donald Trump – despite these various milestones, it seems to be a sort of a ceaseless, endless negotiation. So that continues. But I think what was telling about the Canadian episode these past two days is that even as the negotiators were closeted in a room trying to work out a deal, President Trump was giving an interview to Bloomberg in which he had an off-the-record passage where he basically sounded off on what he really thought about the kind of deal he wanted to do with the Canadians, and he said there will be no compromises; I can’t say this publicly because they’d be so insulted they’d never agree to a deal. Then those remarks were promptly leaked to the Toronto Star, which is one of the largest papers in Canada, in the eleventh hour of this negotiation. And so, again, as always with Donald Trump, the question became who leaked it, what was the motive, was someone trying to blow up the talks. And in the end the talks kind of petered out, not, you know, ending entirely, but with a commitment to come back and try again next week. So, again, it was the drama of Donald Trump, and it underscored the extent to which he’s always willing to make these things personal. He’s willing to go at the Canadians, and I’m sure it’s going to leave a very sour taste in the mouths of the Canadian negotiators as they go back to Canada and reassess this weekend.
MR. COSTA: Erica, beyond the intrigue of the leak – we’ll leave that aside for the moment – what’s Congress doing when they watch all of this? The administration says it could pursue a deal on its own with Mexico and leave Canada to the side for the moment, but is that actually possible under the NAFTA agreement?
ERICA WERNER: Well, I think that there is some question as to whether that is technically possible, but I do think it comes down to a political question more so than a legal or a policy one in that if Congress wanted to take up a bilateral agreement, they could find a way to do that. But the reality is that they don’t. Republicans want nothing to do with an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that leaves aside Canada.
NAFTA knits these three countries together. Republicans think that’s been good for the economy for their states. They want Canada in, so they are not going to pass a bilateral agreement. And the reality is that even a trilateral agreement is not going to pass this year. There’s just not time under fast track with the midterms, but what some Republicans will tell you is that, given the pain that Trump’s trade policies have exacted on farmers and others in middle America, they want to be able to show some progress and so that announcement of a deal, however kind of fleeting or perhaps nonexistent in the end is, is in fact progress that they can point to politically.
MR. COSTA: When we think about why the president is making these decisions, you often think about the political dynamics around them. And you look at the most recent polls, disapproval of President Trump is at a new high according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll that was released on Friday. The national poll found 60 percent of Americans now disapprove of Mr. Trump’s job performance and 36 percent of Americans approve. His support among Republicans remains strong at 78 percent.
Yamiche, is the president not only trying to rally his voters here, but also reassure voters in the Midwest and the Northeast, farmers, manufacturers, who may not like where he’s going on trade?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, I think that the president wants more time to try to keep this promise that he made on the campaign trail. In city after city, he stopped by and talked to people and said I’m going to get your job back, I’m going to get these factories that were closed back. And I should say Bernie Sanders on the other side was almost making the exact same pitch on the trail saying NAFTA was a problem and that it hurt America. So President Trump, I think, wants to get some sort of deal done because there are all these people that are looking at him saying, are you going to actually get this done?
When I go to the approval ratings, I think about the fact that, at the end of the day, Republicans still support him. Now, that might be because there’s a smaller number of people who consider themselves Republican. Americans are increasingly getting independent. But the fact that we’ve seen all these guilty verdicts and guilty pleas – and I’ve been out reporting, talking to Trump supporters – they’re all still with the president. And the majority of them say, until the president’s actually convicted, until there’s actually concrete evidence that the president committed a crime and he’s going to be charged for it, they’re going to stick with him.
MR. COSTA: Why is that? Why are the voters sticking with him, Julie? You’ve been tracking the president all week. He’s railing against the media. He’s saying you can only really trust me. What’s the view inside of the White House about how they have to handle all of this?
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, I think they feel like they have no choice other than to do what the – what is the president’s instinct, which is to double down, to become more intense about his complaints about the press, about his complaints about his own Justice Department, as we heard just this week.
I think Yamiche is right. Clearly, his core supporters are staying with him. But I think the bigger issue both for him and for Republicans in the midterm elections looking forward here just a couple of months is that what really appeals to people, and not just really conservative Republicans and populists who are the ones who will never desert him, is what appealed to some independents, what appealed to even to some Democrats who voted for Barack Obama was him being willing to say these trade agreements don’t work, this is not doing any good for you, I’m the one who’s going to get in there and say I won’t have it anymore, I don’t want to deal with the Canadians, this is not fair to us. And they liked that.
But what they’re not seeing is the result. What is he doing about it? What agreements is he going to be able to strike that’s an alternative that’s going to be good for Americans? And until they start to see that, I think you’re going to see more and more of those poll results that you talked about in terms of the majority of the country feeling like he’s not delivering.
MR. COSTA: And so much of this is you have the Mueller cloud hanging over all of it. So the news today is really that that news wasn’t made, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, didn’t issue his report. And so now you wonder, if you’re the White House or if you’re an American voter, does that report on the president’s possible obstruction of justice, on his conduct, does that now wait until after the midterm elections?
MR. LANDLER: Well, I think, to some extent, this Labor Day milestone that Mueller was either going to act before Labor Day or keep his silence until November 9th, perhaps that was a little artificial and maybe we all spun ourselves up a bit around that.
I thought – just to come back to the poll for a second – the interesting number in that poll was about the public’s attitudes toward the Mueller investigation. And I’m forgetting the exact number, but it was in the 60s.
MS. DAVIS: Sixty-three percent.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: Sixty-three percent.
MR. LANDLER: Sixty-three percent. That’s a – that suggests to me that after weeks and indeed months of President Trump’s daily efforts to impugn the integrity of Mueller and his prosecutors, calling it this week an illegal investigation, it’s clear to me he hasn’t made as much headway perhaps as he hoped in discrediting this effort.
And the other number that jumped out in that poll was 49 percent of people were in favor of impeachment proceedings, also, I thought, a rather high number – I was surprised by that – and a number that would no doubt put pressure on Democrats were they to take the House in the fall.
But to get back to your question, because the Labor Day thing was somewhat artificial, I don’t think the White House can feel that they’re really off the hook. You know, I think as soon as this midterm is over, he’s probably going to drop one or two really problematic things. Roger Stone’s been pretty open that he thinks he’s going to be indicted. So that, combined with the results of the midterms, probably is going to mean President Trump will continue to act more and more unhinged in his tweets and in his reaction.
MR. COSTA: Erica, Mark brought up impeachment. If the Democrats take over the House, a lot of Democrats are ready to move in that direction. But is the White House ready for it, for that barrage of subpoenas? You have White House Counsel Don McGahn preparing to leave.
MS. WERNER: Right. Well, that’s a question that was brought up with the announcement of McGahn’s departure. We also learned that the overall Office of White House Counsel is, like, drastically understaffed now compared to what it was at the beginning of the administration. I believe they have 25 attorneys now compared with something like 35 when the administration began. Some of those deputy positions right under McGahn are unfilled or about to be unfilled. It would appear that a lot of people don’t want to work in that office and that will become a very big problem if Democrats take over the House, not just because of the specter or prospect of impeachment, but just the investigations, the subpoenas. I mean, every committee in the House is going to be investigating one aspect or another of the administration and they have to be able to respond to that. And clearly, they’re not really in a position to be able to do so.
MR. COSTA: And the White House has Emmet Flood, one of their attorneys who’s a specialist in impeachment, worked for President Clinton in the ’90s on that issue, but they still haven’t decided who’s going to be the White House counsel.
When you think about the attorney general, how long does this drama continue with the attorney general? Anyone else in the Cabinet would resign if they lost the president’s confidence like this.
MS. ALCINDOR: I think the drama of Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump will go on until Donald Trump feels as though when he fires Jeff Sessions the Senate will be able to give him another attorney general.
Lindsey Graham this week was saying, after saying before that Jeff Sessions should keep his job, was saying, well, maybe that’s not the case anymore. Mitch McConnell, though, said that he has – he has confidence in Jeff Sessions.
But obviously, President Trump is really, really angry at him. And he’s really, really blaming him for this cloud on Russia. And just this week, one morning I woke up, maybe it was Wednesday, and before 10 a.m. there were nine tweets about the Russian investigation from President Trump. And he was just getting – it felt like he was just getting angrier and angrier because he can’t deal with this and he has someone working for him that he feels like isn’t loyal and loyalty obviously is something that the president really, really feels is the number-one priority for him.
MR. COSTA: Does the president feel that if he moved against Sessions now it could be construed as obstruction of justice with the Russia probe? Is that what’s holding him back?
MS. ALCINDOR: I’m not sure if that’s what’s holding him back. I feel like other people might be able to weigh in on that. To me, it’s more, can I fill the job? Look, the sources that I’ve talked to are about, can Jeff Sessions actually have a replacement from this president? And will the Senate actually confirm somebody? Because the Cabinet members that he has now that are Senate confirmed, none of them really are likely to be an attorney general-type person that you could put in that job, so he would have to go back to the Senate. So I think it’s all about filling that job.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of the Senate, let’s turn our attention there, to the Capitol where there were tears and tributes today for the late Senator John Sidney McCain. Family, friends and colleagues paid their final respects to the longtime lawmaker and former Republican presidential nominee.
A former prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain was held captive for five years. When he returned home, he decided to serve again in a different way and ran for Congress. A generational figure in American politics, he had his critics and his supporters on policy. But on issues of character, he was remembered this week for his bipartisan and patriotic spirit.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) John McCain stood up for every value that this Capitol Building represents, so it is only right that today near the end of his long journey John lies here in this great hall under this mighty dome, like other American heroes before him.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) This is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) John understood that America was first and foremost an idea, audacious and risky, organized around not tribe, but around ideals.
MR. COSTA: On Saturday there will be a ceremony at the National Cathedral where former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama will deliver eulogies. So many big names at the Capitol today; powerful to see them all laying their hands on the casket. But I was intrigued and interested in the everyday people you encountered there, Julie, at the Capitol. This was not just a political scene; this was an American scene for a lot of folks.
MS. DAVIS: Absolutely. I mean, obviously, the vice president spoke. You had clips there of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, the House and Senate leaders, and there were lots of dignitaries in that hall. But when the ceremony ended there was just a flood – and it was still going on at nightfall, with people snaking in lines on the street around the Capitol – of just ordinary people, many of whom had never met John McCain. Some of the folks we talked to were veterans who came wearing their hats, you know, with patches and studs sort of denoting their own service, and said that they felt they owed it to John McCain to honor him and come and, you know, be there in the room with his casket. Some of them – many of them said they were Democrats who had never voted for him and would never have thought of voting for him, but felt that he represented a dying breed, a fading breed of statesmen, of elected official who was willing to put his country over his own party and over himself, and really inspired them in ways that they don’t feel inspired by the politics that they see today. So it was – it was quite powerful to talk to some of these people. And there was a lot of grief in that room, but also a lot of inspiration. People were – seemed very elevated by the experience of being under the dome sort of looking at the casket and thinking about what John McCain had meant to them.
MR. COSTA: You mentioned Senator Graham. Who is going to actually fill the role McCain leaves now, that maverick role, sometimes challenging the president – I know that Senator Graham has become close with President Trump, but just that kind of figure on the American political scene, if anyone?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, you think about all the Republicans that have been critical of the president, both in the House and the Senate, and a lot of them are leaving. They’re retiring. Paul Ryan, who, well, wasn’t a big critic of the president, but who privately said he would go to the president and talk to him, he’s gone. Jeff Flake is gone. So there’s really a void, I think, in the Senate for Republicans that are going to push back on the president. But if Mitt Romney comes to the Capitol, that could be someone who was a voice, obviously, during the campaign – Mitt Romney had that really famous speech where he laid out why President Trump would be bad for this country. He then went back and was seen dining with the president, trying to get a job out of the president. But if he comes to the Capitol and he’s Utah’s senator, he might be someone who’s vocal.
MR. COSTA: What’s your thought on what’s next in the Capitol, in Congress?
MS. WERNER: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s a question that senators have been asked all week and asking each other, and the reality is that McCain just leaves an enormous void and I don’t think that anyone fills it anytime soon. It’s not just a question of who is going to push back on Trump, because perhaps someone can do that. Maybe it will be Mitt Romney. But it’s his very unique biography, it’s his legislative ability. He is one of those, you know, old bull legislators from that generation of Ted Kennedy and others. And that’s why I think so many people poured out to the Capitol today from all over the country to pay their respects, and there was a lot of sadness in that people feel like he is passing and that something is leaving with him that is not going to be replaced.
MR. COSTA: You’ve been a reporter on foreign policy and national security for a long time. A complicated legacy on those fronts for Senator McCain.
MR. LANDLER: Well, yeah, to be sure. I mean, he was an avid and defiant supporter of the Iraq War and never apologized for that. You know, he was always extremely hawkish. He was – you know, remember the famous “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” you know, thing that probably wasn’t featured much this week. So that was on the sort of – that side of the ledger. On the other side of the ledger he was a tireless traveler around the world. He had his own relationships with world leaders. Probably no senator had that kind of stature – perhaps Joe Biden came close – overseas and that deep a knowledge of America’s relationships. And again, just keeping with the theme of something’s leaving with John McCain, here we are in an era where our alliances are coming under pressure, Canada and other countries are wondering about their standing with us and our relationships; John McCain embodied all of the post-World War II liberal international order that the United States built. He was really a symbol of that, and he worked hard at preserving and building that up. And again, you have to ask, who picks up that important work and keeps going if not John McCain? Biden is certainly one, but you know, he’s older now too. So the question is who are the next generation of American statesmen, and it’s not at all clear.
MR. COSTA: And President Trump, his tensions continue with the senator even in death for Senator McCain. There was this skirmish earlier in the week about whether the flag was at half-staff or not at the White House. What did this week reveal about the president and how he handles these kind of things?
MS. DAVIS: Well, what I found striking was not only the fact that John McCain had clearly made it clear before his death that he didn’t want President Trump to take part in the celebrations of his death and his life and his legacy, but that President Trump himself seemed to have no interest in taking part in that himself, which is a rare thing to see in a president. Generally we have seen presidents who take it as – embrace it as a key part of their role that when the nation is grieving, when the nation is reflecting on what it means to be an American, the president is leading that and wants to be in that conversation. President Trump had no interest in being in that conversation, even though ultimately he did issue a proclamation to keep the flag lowered and said – and he said, I think, he respects the senator’s service. He couldn’t bring himself to praise John McCain at all this week, and that is really quite something, and I think that is one of the things that all the people – both elected officials, Cabinet members, and ordinary people in the Capitol today – look around and see and wonder, you know, if that’s the politics of the future, whereas John McCain’s breed of politics is the politics of the past.
MR. LANDLER: It was just an extraordinary moment in that Bloomberg interview where he declined to say whether he thought John McCain would have been a better president than Barack Obama, a president he has pilloried nonstop since his election, so.
MS. WERNER: And apparently Sarah Sanders was standing there glaring at him and he –
MR. LANDLER: And he said I think I’m going to give Sarah a nervous breakdown, right.
MS. DAVIS: A nervous breakdown.
MS. ALCINDOR: I mean, I will say this. There are also Republicans on social media, or maybe at least Trump supporters on social media, that were attacking John McCain after he died. So you have to also think that out in the country there are people who are at least echoing and repeating some of the things that President Trump is saying and echoing his behavior. So we have a country also where, when you have someone who maybe you didn’t agree with but who was a certified hero – five years in – five years in capture is not something that you can just kind of dust up. That’s not something that you can argue about. And people online were still attacking him for that. So not only was the president somewhat problematic in his responses, but there are Americans out there that were problematic too.
MR. COSTA: And there’s a difference in how people approached these issues. I mean, you talked about President Trump. I continue to think back to that moment in 2016 where the president, then as a candidate, went after Senator McCain about his service in Vietnam, and it raised alarms then but it didn’t destroy his candidacy. And that was – that was a time I really thought, if Trump could survive that, then the norms truly have changed.
MR. LANDLER: I think that might have been the first moment where Trump’s political invincibility started to become sort of clear to people.
MS. WERNER: Yeah, we all said, oh, this is the end of him. He said, “I like people who weren’t captured,” and everyone said, oh, there’s no way he can survive this. And lo and behold, that was the first of a trillion things like that.
MS. DAVIS: I think it also speaks to how personally threatened he felt by John McCain. Just the fact of John McCain and his biography, the fact that he is a war hero, the fact that he represented – McCain represented, I think, to him all the things that he wanted to define himself as against, and you know, this was a way of sort of trying to cut with the establishment and I’m not part of that and I don’t want any part of that. I think it was also partly a response to the fact that there was a portion of the Republican base that really loved Sarah Palin and didn’t love John McCain when he was running for president, and that was the segment of the electorate that Donald Trump knew that he really had to lock down and ride to victory if he was going to, and that is what he did.
MR. COSTA: When you think about the tensions between the president and Senator McCain, there is also a moment tomorrow when you’ll have President Obama and President Bush delivering eulogies, an historic thing to see presidents come together like that.
MS. ALCINDOR: I think it’s a historic thing. Imagine President Trump sitting in the White House watching these two presidents, who are going to not only eulogize someone who criticized the president, but who are going to be celebrated for what they say. People are going to be talking about Barack Obama’s words. People are going to be saying President Bush gave a beautiful eulogy. And then you have President Trump, who has called himself an outsider but who really wants to be celebrated like Obama and like President Bush. And he’s going to be sitting there alone, isolated, stewing. I think that Sarah Sanders absolutely wants to make sure he doesn’t tweet and White House aides are hoping that he can maybe put his phone down. But I would be watching his Twitter feed tomorrow because that’s going to be a really tough moment for the president.
MR. LANDLER: And also the largeness of spirit that it took for John McCain to ask the two leaders who had defeated him to be the ones who eulogized him, it’s just – when you think about Donald Trump in that context, the gap between them, the chasm is so great.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. We’re going to miss seeing Senator McCain in the hallways. Regardless of what your politics are, if you’re a reporter, he was someone you always wanted to talk to. Thanks for joining us tonight, and thanks everybody for being here.
Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra. You can find that Fridays after 10 and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and enjoy the Labor Day weekend.