ROBERT COSTA: The nation and Congress at a crossroads. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Deadly shootings in two cities leave the nation shaken. President Trump says he is open to tougher gun laws.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We need intelligent background checks.
MR. COSTA: But makes no commitments, and the NRA pressures him to back off. Democrats insist the targeted attack on Latinos in El Paso is a reckoning.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation. Trump offers no moral leadership.
MR. COSTA: A new focus on domestic terrorism as tensions continue between the president and the intelligence community, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Days after the shootings in Texas and Ohio claimed the lives of 31 people, the gun debate has returned to Washington. President Trump expressed confidence on Friday that he could persuade Republicans to eventually back expanded background checks, and said he is talking with the National Rifle Association.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think a lot of really meaningful things on background checks will take place, including red flags, including a lot of other very, very important items. The NRA – they love our country. They love our country so much. And frankly, I really think they’re going to get there also.
MR. COSTA: But many challenges remain. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said in a statement that his group remains firmly opposed to the measures under consideration, calling them soundbite solutions. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declined to call the Senate back. And while the president said Friday that McConnell is, quote, “totally onboard,” McConnell’s spokesman said he has not yet endorsed any legislation.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From recording.) I don’t want to just engage in finger pointing or making a point. What’s happened after every one of these shootings is there’s been a temptation to just engage in political discourse rather than actually passing something.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News; Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Josh Dawsey, White House reporter for The Washington Post.
Nancy, you’re on Capitol Hill talking to lawmakers and their advisors. What is Mitch McConnell’s position right now? What is the Kentucky senator going to do?
NANCY CORDES: It’s a great question, Robert, and I think a lot of Democrats and Republicans still don’t know. He has said – you played the clip – that he wants to get something done on background checks. That in and of itself is notable. We have not heard that from this Republican leader before. He said that there is growing support for some kind of background-check legislation. However, we haven’t seen that increase in support from Republicans in the Senate, and McConnell’s own staff made it clear to reporters today that he himself has not endorsed anything specific.
MR. COSTA: So, Nancy, is this talk among McConnell and his aides and fellow Republicans about giving cover to vulnerable Republicans who are up for reelection in 2020 like Cory Gardner in Colorado, Susan Collins in Maine, or is this real?
MS. CORDES: Well, that’s – Democrats believe it is not real. They’re very skeptical. They think that these overtures that he has made have to do with him trying to alleviate the pressure that was on him and other Republicans to act. He had protesters outside his home in Kentucky this week, and they say the proof will really come when the Senate comes back in 30 days. As we know, the Senate is not going to come into some kind of emergency session now over the month of August, so they believe that McConnell is still trying to just wait this out, wait until the headlines subside, wait until the country moves on to something else, as we’ve seen happen time and time again.
MR. COSTA: Josh, is the White House going to give any political capital to gun control legislation?
JOSH DAWSEY: Well, that’s the question everyone in Washington is asking, too. So (furthest we – you heard ?) President Trump say I can bring recalcitrant Republicans onboard, I can bring the NRA onboard, I can bring Mitch McConnell onboard, talking about, you know, his popularity, his numbers. You talk in the building to anyone on Capitol Hill, anyone Democrat and Republican, it comes down to what the president wants to do. I talked to Joe Manchin this week, the West Virginia senator, who said the only way we get something done is if the president gives these Republicans cover to get this done. McConnell’s people say the same thing. But if you talk to lawmakers who have talked to the president this week – Lindsey Graham, Joe Manchin, Pat Toomey – they say he’s serious. They say this is a president who’s not a natural sportsman; he’s not necessarily the biggest, you know, proponent of guns in the first place. It’s kind of – he was a New York Democrat previously; he’s not someone who wants to protect it at all costs. That said, the president said before after Parkland that he wanted to do background checks and then the momentum fizzled, it kind of went away. What will be the question here is if the president’s willing to use his bully pulpit, if he’s willing to go to rallies and sell this to his supporters, if he’s willing to go in districts where folks are vulnerable who may not be onboard, whether in five weeks when the Senate comes back if there’s still an appetite from the president to do it. I mean, he’s –
MR. COSTA: What’s your read on that? Is he going to lean into it or not?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, Bob, you and I both cover this president and it’s really hard to know. I mean, he says this week he’s deadly serious about it. He said it at a fundraiser in the Hamptons today. He said it to Democrats. He said it to the NRA. He said it to Republicans. The NRA is obviously concerned in that they’re calling him. Wayne LaPierre’s talked to him four or five times this week. They are thinking about launching a campaign against this. You know, they feel real pressure to do something. But time – five weeks from now, I mean, the president could be in six or seven other issues of his own making or someone else’s making.
MR. COSTA: Pierre, what’s under consideration right now, at least among Republicans and some Democrats, are what’s called red flag laws. What are red flag laws?
PIERRE THOMAS: These are basically proposals that would allow the police to go to a court and temporarily remove the weapons of someone who is at risk to themselves or others. The big debate over – the debate is over whether you can put enough due process in the process to make conservatives, you know, comfortable that you won’t take people’s guns for willy-nilly reasons, and that you won’t, you know, have extraordinary periods of times where people would not have their weapons. So that is part of the debate.
But I have to tell you, Bob, right now I think is a seminal moment for the country because, I was talking to a colleague, where can you go where there’s not been a mass shooting? There is no safe haven. You can’t go to elementary school. You can’t go to the mall. You can’t go to church. You can’t go to synagogue. Literally, every place that Americans once held as safe havens are no longer safe. So I think that’s part of why you’re seeing – the Walmart. Think about all the people who go to Walmart every week. So I think that’s why this debate has a different feel to it right now, even though a lot of people said after Sandy Hook and those children were murdered that if it didn’t happen then, when would it happen.
MR. COSTA: You feel that when you’re on the ground as a reporter. I was in Georgia this week and spoke to a 52-year-old Republican, a father of two, who said this. Quote, “I’ve always supported the Second Amendment and I grew up hunting with my dad, but you saw what happened over the weekend. It’s scary.” The man added, “I’ve got two daughters and I don’t want to see anything happen to them. It’s simply out of control and something has to be done on guns.” Amna, you’re out in the country every week as a reporter. What is – is this a threshold moment, a tipping point for the gun control debate?
AMNA NAWAZ: You know, unfortunately, if history is a guide we have a tendency to come back to this issue in a serious way immediately in the aftermath of one of these mega public events, and then another story takes over the news cycle and we don’t revisit it until another tragic kind of event happens. But the data is clear, and this is what I’ve been digging to all this week. Public opinion is where it is. So President Trump saying that Mitch McConnell is totally onboard with background checks basically puts Mr. McConnell in line with the rest of the country. You know, the last poll that we did – PBS NewsHour, NPR, and Marist; which was before El Paso, before Dayton, before the Gilroy, California, shooting, even – showed that the floor for public support among Republicans, by the way, for universal background checks that cover all gun sales and transfers and close the gun show loophole was 86 percent. It goes up to 96 percent for Democrats, and independents are somewhere in the middle there. So the public support for these incremental kind of steps that we know would have a provable difference in reducing our very serious gun violence problem, that’s there; the political will isn’t.
MR. COSTA: So what about Toomey-Manchin? If there’s public support, as Amna says, for background checks – Toomey-Manchin’s what failed a few years ago, expanding background checks to almost all gun purchases. You could have a red flag law passed, but background checks, could you see Leader McConnell allowing that to move forward?
MS. CORDES: So here’s the reality check on Toomey-Manchin, is it got four Senate Republicans onboard back in 2013. Only two of them are still there – Toomey, so he’s still for it; and Susan Collins of Maine. To this date not a single other Senate Republican has said that they support it. And guess what, in that time a lot of Senate Democrats have come to the conclusion that actually Toomey-Manchin doesn’t go far enough; and they say the House passed a much stronger bill back in February, it’s sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk right now. They prefer that bill. They want to take that up. And so you’ve got a really difficult situation here where if you’re going to get any more Republicans onboard you might need to water down a bill that Democrats already believe isn’t strong enough.
MR. COSTA: Josh, you raised a question earlier I want to come back to about the NRA. It’s been under siege because Wayne LaPierre’s spending habits have gotten a lot of coverage in the Post and elsewhere. Does that give the White House more of an opening to move on guns because – do they perceive the NRA to be in a weakened position?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, that’s a calculation the president is trying to figure out. I talked to several officials in the White House this week who said the president’s asking in Oval Office meetings, does the NRA have the power that it used to have? Can they bring the heat if they go against us in a fundamental and significant way? I think the president’s calculation right now, if my sources are to be believed – and I believe they’re right on this – is that the NRA is weakened somewhat, but still has a lot of clout. And even if you look at the NRA itself and you take the institution away, a lot of its members separately care about what the NRA cares about. The president I think sees an opening to take on the NRA. What he’s trying to do, though, if you talk to some of the folks around him, is not have the NRA oppose it; to have the NRA basically stay neutral; to have the NRA maybe put out some statements, to maybe say a little bit on the fringes, but not wage the full-throttle campaign that the White House is afraid they might wage.
MR. COSTA: But this – but this debate is bigger than guns. Here is what FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee during hearings last month.
FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY: (From video.) Domestic terrorism, violent extremism of all shapes and sizes, when it turns to violence, is something that is of great concern, that is a continuing, steady, persistent, serious threat that we’re taking very seriously. An awful lot of the racially-motivated violent extremism is motivated by what you might call kind of a white supremacist type of ideology.
MR. COSTA: Pierre, you’re at the Justice Department, longtime correspondent. How is the DOJ addressing the rise of white supremacy and domestic terrorism?
MR. THOMAS: Well, they’re deeply concerned. Right now the FBI has roughly about 850 open domestic terrorism cases. A good chunk of those – about 40 percent – involve so-called white nationalism, white supremacists if you will. And what people are concerned about is if you look at the tempo, more so even than ISIS or al-Qaida they are the people – the white supremacists – who are killing people right now. If you look at what happened in Charleston at the AME Church a couple years ago, Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh just last year, and now this in the Walmart, they are concerned. The Gilroy, California, incident involving the garlic festival, that is being investigated as a domestic terrorism potential incident. So it’s of great concern. The FBI set up something called a domestic terrorism hate crime fusion cell this past spring to sort of try to marry the information that the Bureau’s getting in terms of the criminal side and the terrorism side. So it’s a(n) ongoing concern, and there is a real feel that hate crime reports are picking up, that something’s afoot out there, and they want to deal with it.
MR. COSTA: Amna, we learned Friday that the El Paso shooter said he was targeting Mexicans. You’ve been to El Paso. You’ve been part of the coverage. How has this shooting in El Paso affected the Latino community nationally?
MS. NAWAZ: So this is something I don’t think has been reported enough as we talk about the shootings: this was the largest anti-Latino shooting in America in modern history. And I think for the shooter to say, as he did tell officials – and we saw – we learned that today – that he was targeting this one specific group – sort of confirms what we – what we knew to be true from the beginning – and we have linked that manifesto online to this young man as well – we knew this to be true, that this is a growing sense of anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, sort of anything other than white and male right now movement that is afoot in America. And I think, you know, we talked about this earlier when we knew the shooting happened, we knew this was someone who came from outside that community and went to that community to target Latinos and Mexicans there.
To Pierre’s point, institutionally we’ve had a reluctance to talk about terrorism in this context because it is something that’s really part of the fabric of America and who we are, and we had trouble moving from a conversation about sort of imported, foreign, Islamic extremist terrorism to what we know is endemic to America. But the numbers are clear and the resources are not. And the Obama administration tried to put some resources to it – after the 2015 Charleston shooting there was an office created under Homeland Security, actually, that worked to try to recruit – anti-recruit, really – people who were seen as vulnerable to this ideology, which is a global network of people. These aren’t lone-wolf actors anymore. The Trump administration in its early days basically gutted that office, so there’s a real concern among national security officials that we’re not putting the resources where they need to go.
MR. COSTA: What’s the scene inside of the West Wing, Josh, when they’re confronted with criticism about the president’s rhetoric on immigration and the funding for different programs looking at white nationalism and white supremacy?
MR. DAWSEY: If you talk to some of the president’s advisors – Tom Bossert, his former homeland security advisor, is still close to the president. He said this week, you know, the president has to do more about white supremacy. He has to go and take the allocation of resources and put them back to where they were pre-9/11 is what Tom Bossert told me this week.
MR. COSTA: What about the rhetoric? Could they cool it down?
MR. DAWSEY: The rhetoric – the rhetoric on immigration, there could be an effort in the White House to cool that. But the president going into a reelection term sees words like invasion, talking about the illegal caravans, talking about immigration as key part and parcel to his message. It’s hard to imagine a president who’s going to tone down his rhetoric on immigration. I mean, we’ve watched him from 2015, when he came down the escalator, all the way through the ’16 campaign, all the way through the midterms; when he is in situations where he’s up for election – it’s a vote on him, it’s a vote on his party, it’s a vote on his beliefs – he dials up immigration rhetoric. And it’s hard to imagine in the next 15 months you’re going to see a president who’s facing the biggest political test of his life say I’m going to done down immigration when he sees it as central to his being.
MS. CORDES: And his campaign was asked point blank this week whether he would stop using the term “invasion” to describe Mexicans trying to cross the border, and the answer was unequivocal: no.
MR. COSTA: So what about Congress? Are they going to act on white supremacy or mass shootings?
MS. CORDES: I don’t think that Congress has a good handle at all right now about what could be done to deal with white supremacy. I think that they view it primarily as a law enforcement issue right now, and I think that there is real confusion about is there any way to try to curtail, you know, message boards and speech and the way that these ideas get spread without cutting down on people’s First Amendment rights. I don’t think anybody really has a legislative answer to that problem right now, partly because, as Amna said, it really has been sort of swept under the rug for such a long period of time.
MR. COSTA: Does the DOJ have an answer for these websites and social media efforts that foster white supremacy?
MR. THOMAS: Well, it’s a free speech issue, in part. You don’t have the tools that the FBI used to apply to ISIS and al-Qaida, for example, that they can apply to the KKK or neo-Nazis, for example. If the FBI sees someone on a website, you know, saying that they’re contributing money or funding or any kind of thing to ISIS or al-Qaida, they can charge them with providing material support to terrorists. No such law exists to combat domestic terrorism, so that’s a real issue.
MR. COSTA: What about the Dayton shooter? What has the FBI learned about that shooter’s motives?
MR. THOMAS: They’re still investigating it. He, obviously, was a troubled person, killed his own sister in that attack. They’re still trying to exploit some of his devices. We understand from our sources that at least one device he had, they have not been able to crack it to get into it to see what he may have been doing.
But, Bob, I’ll share one other thing with you. A number of people have come to me this week and said, well, what is different now? What are we seeing that’s different now? And the biggest change that we’re seeing is that the number of instances where someone armed with a gun comes into a public place and tries to kill a bunch of people has grown exponentially. The FBI began to study this in 2000, and the country used to average about six incidents a year where someone would come into a public place and attempt to kill someone. In 2017, the last year they did analysis on it, it was 30 cases in a year. So that’s schools, malls, all the places I discussed; there is an exponential increase in people showing up in these kind of places. And there will come a point where I think the American public is going to demand that something be done.
MR. COSTA: Amid all of this there was another Cabinet shakeup. The president has chosen Joseph Maguire, a retired Navy admiral and current director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to serve as acting director of national intelligence. Maguire will replace Dan Coats. The announcement came just hours after Sue Gordon, the number-two official at the agency, resigned. Are members of the intelligence community, Nancy, and leaders on Capitol Hill concerned about this tumult or not?
MS. CORDES: They’re very concerned, and in fact the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, had made it very clear that he did not want Sue Gordon to leave. He had a great deal of confidence in her, and it’s been very important to Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill that the president have an independent voice at the DNI, somebody who’s going to tell him things that he doesn’t want to hear, especially since this is a president that we know does not always believe what he’s told by his own intelligence community, and so they were very concerned by the reports that she was going to be forced out. Burr did say some kind things about Maguire – he said he’s known him for a long time, he has confidence in his ability to step into the role. I think the thinking is that it could have been worse.
MR. COSTA: And we’re seeing many acting people inside of this administration. Is there a cost to having that across the government?
MS. NAWAZ: Oh, absolutely, I mean, especially when you’re looking at intelligence officials, right? One of the reasons we have those public airings and we go into the background of what is your expertise and how would you handle this is we get a sense of how this person would report to the president, what kind of information is going to the decision-makers. There are I think now more acting heads for national security and intelligence offices than ever before. I mean, we went several months at the Pentagon without a head as well, and it’s troubling for a number of reasons. Also, we’re moving into an election year. Russian interference is going to be a big problem. It’s one of the reasons that the nominee that President Trump had floated, Congressman Ratcliffe, was eventually sort of dismissed in a bipartisan way, because they weren’t serious about – they were worried about his credentials.
MR. DAWSEY: The president for his part, though, has said on many occasions that he likes acting heads. He think they’re more pliable. He thinks it’s easier to get them to do what he wants them to do. He prefers is to be that way. And there’s been historic turnover in this administration. You look at all the studies that’s been done, almost double any other president in departures. The president doesn’t seem concerned about it. He named John Ratcliffe, the congressman from Texas, to run DNI, publicly says the media does the vetting for me – names him on a Sunday in a tweet; by Friday, he drops out and he’s on to someone else. And there’s been time after time after time where there’s been disclosures that have come out about Cabinet secretaries; there have been, you know, damaging where lawmakers say we’re not going to – we’re not going to do this, we’re not going put this person confirmed, folks who have been thrown out of office or had to resign because they’ve had all these troubles, and it continues. There have been no changes. There’s no more vetting than there were two-and-a-half years ago. It’s no different.
MR. COSTA: What does this signal to the intelligence community to have Dan Coats and Sue Gordon leave at the same time?
MR. THOMAS: Well, some of the career professionals are obviously concerned, but when I talk to my sources across the board they say, Pierre, look, we got a job to do. Politics may be what they are, but we have threats from al-Qaida to the situation with Iran to North Korea; we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball. So that is a bit of good news, that even though there is disruption at the top the career people who are doing the job, who are out in the field, know they’ve got to get it done.
MR. COSTA: Who is in your notebook, Josh? Who next? Who could the president nominate for DNI?
MR. DAWSEY: There have been – a lot of the names that have bopped around. Pete Hoekstra, the Netherlands ambassador – I think Netherlands, I’m not exactly sure on that.
MR. COSTA: Netherlands, yeah.
MR. DAWSEY: Netherlands. Fred Fleitz, who’s Bolton’s old guy, is one that the president liked seeing on TV. There would be a lot of concern, I think, on the Hill on the Intelligence Committee and others about him. The president says he has six, eight, 10 names, and he says that one of the things he’s going to be doing in Bedminster is analyzing DNI choices and interviewing them. And he claims this time, after the Ratcliffe debacle, that he’s actually asking Senate Intel officials what they think of people in advance, so we’ll see.
MR. COSTA: Does this mean, inside of the Cabinet, that Secretary of State Pompeo is firmly in control, along with National Security Adviser Bolton? You have a CIA director in Gina Haspel who’s very low profile, an acting director at DNI.
MS. CORDES: Yeah, and then you have to wonder how long Pompeo is going to stick around if he decides that he wants to run for Senate in Kansas. You know, this, I think, reflects the president’s longtime frustration with the entire DNI apparatus. He would rather it not be there at all. He has chafed against the authority of the DNI. And so, you know, frankly, he’s looking for a way to diminish the role that the director of national intelligence has. The problem is that anybody who he nominates, if that person doesn’t have the approval of Republicans in the Senate, it’s not going to go anywhere. So he’s realized now he does need to work with the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and other top Republicans.
MR. THOMAS: And whoever he hires, that person is going to face the pressure from the people doing the work to say these are the facts, this is what you need to know about this particular threat, and we will not have it fudged. And they will figure out a way to get that message out.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. I appreciate you being here on a Friday night, and thanks for watching us.
But next on the Washington Week Extra, we will talk with reporters from Texas and Ohio about how those communities in El Paso and Dayton are coping with this week. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.