ROBERT COSTA: Is the meeting off or on? I’m Robert Costa. Inside the brinksmanship between President Trump and North Korea, plus the latest on the Russia probe, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I believe that this is a tremendous setback for North Korea, and indeed a setback for the world.
MR. COSTA: President Trump calls off a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un, but both sides say they are ready for diplomacy.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) If and when Kim Jong-un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting.
MR. COSTA: North Korea responds and say they will talk at any time. They call Mr. Trump’s decision to back out of the June 12th summit “extremely regrettable” and insist they are ready to talk peace after claiming to dismantle a nuclear test site. Is the president’s high-stakes gamble still on the table? And what role is China playing in the negotiations?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) If they had spies in my campaign during my campaign for political purposes, that would be unprecedented in the history of our country.
MR. COSTA: The president steps up his efforts to discredit the Russia investigation, claiming the FBI spied on his 2016 campaign. Then he sends his newest White House attorney to a classified briefing about a secret informant.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) But there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign.
MR. COSTA: We discuss it all with Mark Landler of The New York Times, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post, and Anita Kumar of McClatchy Newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump was optimistic on Friday that the U.S.-Korea summit he called off just one day earlier may now happen as once planned on June 12th in Singapore.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We’re talking to them now. It was a very nice statement they put out. It could even be the 12th. We’re talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it. We’re going to see what happens.
MR. COSTA: It was a dramatic shift from the letter he sent Kim Jong-un on Thursday, where he blamed the tremendous anger and open hostility of the North toward the United States for his decision to cancel the meeting. The letter also contained a threat about U.S. nuclear capabilities. The president wrote, quote, “Ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God that they will never have to be used.” North Korea issued a diplomatic and encouraging response, quote: “Talking about the historic summit, we highly appreciated the fact that President Trump made a brave decision to seek a meeting.” Mark, as you evaluate this back and forth – the meeting’s off, now it’s maybe on – what do you see from this president? Is this the president who wrote The Art of the Deal in the 1980s saying you have to be able to walk away from a meeting or a deal in order to really have leverage? Or is this the negotiations actually falling apart?
MARK LANDER: I think it’s probably the former, from his perspective. I think probably in his own mind he thinks he’s being very adroit and putting Kim Jong-un on the hind foot, and he’ll get a lot of advantage from it. I think the difference is, of course, he’s not doing a real estate deal. He’s not buying a piece of property. He’s dealing with an opaque, erratic, unpredictable country that happens to have nuclear weapons. So I think there’s a higher risk factor that’s obvious.
I think it is a fact that both of these men really want to have a meeting. I think President Trump by now has left no doubt that whatever his advisors have to say about it, whatever the experts have to say about it, he wants to go to Singapore. He wants to have that encounter. And I think Kim Jong-un does too, for the simple reason that he gains so much prestige by sharing a stage with President Trump. But I think one thing we can probably all agree on is there will be many more twists and turns. If it happens on June 12th, I’m a bit skeptical on the timing, but even so I think between now and June 12th there’ll be time for two or three more of these flips.
MR. COSTA: And the flips could be caused by people around President Trump. Andrea, when you’re at the State Department, when you’re covering the White House, how much are the people around the president influencing him to maybe walk away from the negotiations at this point? National Security Advisor John Bolton, the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, what’s their influence?
ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, John Bolton seems to have the most influence right now in persuading him precipitously, really, to cancel it on Thursday morning, without first warning his closest ally President Moon – the closest ally in the region – nor Japan. And the fact is – nor members of Congress. It was done so quickly Secretary of State Pompeo was brought into it, but it was really Bolton who was in the president’s ear. Proximity is everything with the national security advisor, one that he trusts. And it’s not the first time that John Bolton – he did this to George W. Bush – has blown up a potential discussion or negotiation with North Korea. He’s been against it from the beginning.
Pompeo has the most invested in it, since he – just days after he became secretary of state – was delegated to go to North Korea and have that meeting with Kim Jong-un and had one previously as CIA director. So he’s got a lot more at stake. And then Pompeo had to – at his first Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, read the president’s rather unusually crafted letter – personally written letter, which sounded more like a breakup of a high school romance at times – (laughter) – rather than a nuclear negotiation.
MR. COSTA: The president wrote: Call or write anytime. Anita, but thinking about U.S. allies, you were in the room with President Trump and President Moon of South Korea when he was at the White House. How rattled are the South Koreans about this development?
ANITA KUMAR: It is not good for them. I mean, if you hear what they have to say, they did not get a heads-up that this was going to happen at all. And President Moon has staked his reputation on this meeting. He’s tried to broker this meeting, bring these two leaders together. And it just is a humiliating sort of defeat for him. But he does see a silver lining because they’re talking again.
You know, I was in the room on Tuesday. You mentioned President Moon was here. And it was just – it was an extraordinary day because, you know, usually we go in for about a minute or two and then we’re quickly ushered out. But everybody kind of knew that we were in for the long haul when we went in. I mean, President Trump clearly had something that he wanted to say. He wanted to talk about the meeting. He wanted to say that he wanted to do this, he wanted to send that message. And that was the first time he had also blamed China for – President Xi – for this – for maybe changing President – for blaming – Chairman Kim’s mind. So, you know, it was – he had a lot of things he wanted to say. And it was really interesting because they weren’t relaxed. They were sitting sort of at the edge of their chairs, ready sort of for all the questions from us.
MR. COSTA: The comments about China you made are so important, because I’m really wondering as I look back at my notebook this week, what caused this breakup? At least, the momentary breakup? (Laughter.) Was it President Xi of China whispering in the ear of Kim Jong-un? Or was it the hawkish comments made by John Bolton and Vice President Pence?
KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: I mean, you could see elements of both. But, look, when you’re talking about North Korea, you cannot take China out of that equation. China has been the economic lifeblood of that country, basically keeping them afloat. If China doesn’t put pressure on Pyongyang it doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing, John Bolton or otherwise, because it’s so important. So there was that meeting. There’s been two meetings in close proximity between the North Korean leader and the Chinese president. The fact that one happened really just a few days before we started seeing a total shift in tone I don’t think you can discount, even if we weren’t in the room to actually hear that conversation.
And so what you’ve got is this weird game of – you know, it’s the United States talking to North Korea, but China’s really the person on the outside that matters. And they have interests, right? The North – the Korean Peninsula’s right there. China does not really want to see the rise of a unified Korea, which is one of the things the South Koreans certainly want. And yet, they also don’t need to see complete instability and war on their border, because that’s bad too. Meanwhile, we’re talking to China about all kinds of different trade deals, ZTE, trying to win them back over to kind of play ball with us a little bit better. And this is all kind of the other part of this negotiation that’s behind the scenes that is vital if you’re actually going to get the negotiation that everybody was saying, June 12th or no, to actually happen and mean anything.
MR. COSTA: And, Andrea, you wrote this week you spoke with retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who said the way this summit was moving we were going to end up, as Karoun was saying, with the U.S.-North Korea summit, South Korea playing a bit part, and China not even on the stage. This is unacceptable to President Xi.
MS. MITCHELL: President Xi wants in. He wants to be the influencer that he is. What he does not want is a reconciled, unified Korea on his border, which will begin moving towards a capitalist, democratic society, with all of these offers and incentives coming from President Trump. So he wants to be part of the equation. As we said – as you say, he wants stability. He doesn’t want nuclear war, certainly, on his border and refugees coming over. But he doesn’t want to be excluded. And in this matter, he is excluded. And I think if the summit does get back on, down the road I think both South Korea and China have to play a part.
MR. LANDLER: You know, Karoun mentioned the trade talks that are also going on in parallel with the North Korea drama. And I think that’s really important because, after all, it was President Trump himself that linked trade with security last year when he said to President Xi: If you help me on North Korea, I’ll go easy on you on trade. I think in a way the coin has turned, and President Xi is now saying to President Trump, two can play that game. We’re in the middle of this difficult trade negotiation and suddenly Kim Jong-un’s getting a lot more challenging. And so I think that’s part of what’s going on here.
MS. MITCHELL: And in fact, if you look at that very confusing photo opportunity in the Oval Office that Anita was at, the president was pivoting from trade and China into the Kim summit and China. I mean, it was a very strange conversation and it was, as you point out, the first time that he had said that – or hinted that President Xi might have toughened the negotiating stance of Kim. The other thing is there is a growing military escalation in the South China Seas between the U.S. and China, the Pentagon disinviting China from participating in exercises and China very prominently landing a bomber on one of their manufactured islands.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Yeah, and the think you’ve got to keep in mind is that, you know, China is better versed into pulling all of these strings at various moments at which it’s advantageous to them than the Trump administration is too. This is a tricky game. And if they don’t do it right, they lose leverage to China. And if you lose leverage to Beijing, then they can kind of call the shots on this a little bit more, and then that’s when you see, you know, North Korea potentially making fast moves that have to be, you know, trumped – I should use a better word – but, you know, shown up by what the United States has to do.
MS. KUMAR: Look at what President Trump has said over the last week – even just since Tuesday. He’s gone back and forth. He’s blamed China. And then he said what a wonderful trip he had there last year, and that no one has been given as much of a warm welcome as he was. And it was – I was there. It was quite a – quite a thing. But he’s gone back and forth. It’s been good. It’s been bad. And it’s kind of like he doesn’t really know where he wants to leave that.
MR. COSTA: When we think about what’s good and bad, I mean, the facts matter because there’s this war of words and we’re all covering the war of words. But this week, we also saw North Korea, though it hasn’t been verified by the U.S., demolish a nuclear testing site, coming weeks after they released U.S. prisoners. As much as there’s a breakdown, Mark – and I want to hear, Anita, your take on this too – as much as there’s a breakdown, how much has actually happened in terms of progress as this talk approached?
MR. LANDLER: Well, look, I mean, if you remember back to where we were a year ago, you had a hostile adversary testing long-range missiles, testing nuclear bombs. All that’s been halted. These three Korean-American detainees have been released. Kim Jong-un has said in principle he doesn’t have a problem with a continued U.S. troop presence on the Korean Peninsula. There was a statement he made, which he seems to have reneged on a bit, that he wouldn’t object to joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States. So a lot of progress has been made. And President Trump is not wrong to say that.
This is a young leader who’s undertaken many steps to show he’s serious. I think the big unanswered question – and most people are skeptical of it – is will he then go the next step and be willing to really surrender any significant portion of his nuclear program.
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, here’s the problem. I totally agree. There has been so much progress from six months ago, or 12 months ago. But the problem is that President Trump raised the expectations so incredibly high. It was going to be in one fell swoop denuclearization, so it was just everything was going to be done in one time. There wasn’t even going to be, you know, tears or anything like that. It was – it was all going to happen at once. And so he raised the expectations so high, higher than – you know, it just wasn’t going to happen. And all the North Korea experts you talk to say it’s not going to happen. They haven’t done it in decades. They’re not going to do it now. And so then it looks like he fails.
MR. COSTA: Talking to some of my sources in the White House this week, they say by this meeting being called off we’re lowering the expectations if this meeting ever happens.
But we’re going to have – we’re going to have to turn to the showdown. I’m coming to you, Karoun, because there was another showdown here at home between the Justice Department and Republicans, continuing this ongoing standoff over the handling of the federal probe into Russian interference during the 2016 campaign, especially during its early days. President Trump rallied with his Capitol Hill allies this week, claiming without presenting evidence that the FBI implanted a spy – his words – into his ranks. Leaders from the Justice Department and the intelligence community met twice in recent days with top Republicans and Democrats, hoping to calm the tensions in all of this partisan fighting over the FBI’s use of a confidential source to aid the investigation into Russian activity. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House lawyer Emmet Flood showed up at the start of those sessions, angering Democrats and raising concerns among some Republicans. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who represents the president, defended the attendance of both men at the classified meeting. The FBI source whose efforts are under scrutiny is Stefan Halper, a retired University of Cambridge professor and veteran of past Republican administrations. Multiple news outlets reported on his name over the past week, including The Washington Post. And in full disclosure, Halper was my professor a decade ago while I was a graduate student at Cambridge. As Karoun noted in a story this week, it is common practice for the FBI to use confidential sources to help advance investigations and they are not considered spies. But the fight, Karoun, is about the context of this confidential source – who is he, and his conduct, and was it appropriate at the time in 2016?
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Right. And so even if – you know, informants are fairly standard practice for these types of investigations. The president has kind of taken this into his own hands. He’s been saying spies were implanted into the campaign, even though as we’ve reported there’s really no evidence that went to that extent or that happened. But they’ve been driving this campaign. They’ve had help from Capitol Hill. Devin Nunes has been asking for this information. That’s kind of what tripped off the entire thing. And we’ve gotten to this point where, yet again, there is a faceoff between leading House Republicans against DOJ. And it resulted in the back-to-back meetings that we saw on Thursday where first Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy went to the Department of Justice to have that meeting there, and then two hours later the officials from – the DNI and the DOJ officials came to Capitol Hill to talk with the whole Gang of Eight. There was – and Adam Schiff ended up being in that first meeting as well.
There’s been a push and pull about whether this is a partisan thing or not. It was a strange kind of setting once they got to Capitol Hill to talk to the whole group because Devin Nunes apparently didn’t say a single word during the meeting. Apparently some of the officials had documents, but nobody asked to see them. And so it’s this – it’s this strange thing of there being a lot of people, Democrats especially, who don’t think this ever should have happened in the first place, think that the Trump team is trying to weasel their way into these classified briefings to get information they can then use to try to undercut the Mueller probe, and yet everybody kind of trying to say we’re going to do this as much on the up and up as we can. I think a lot of Republicans felt like they were caught in the middle, especially from the Senate side, and had to kind of go along with this even though they weren’t that comfortable. And I think the end result is that we’ve had a lot of weird silence from the people who were actually pushing for this in the first place and just people like Mitch McConnell coming out and saying, yeah, look, I still support Bob Mueller in that probe, which means where did the 8-ball go? I think everybody’s wondering what’s going to be next from Devin Nunes at this point because it doesn’t seem like anything really happened.
MS. MITCHELL: And the concern from former intelligence officials who served both Democratic and Republican White Houses is that this is a terrible precedent, that this is an intrusion into a classified process that should not be partisan. The Gang of Eight are the bipartisan oversight leaders of intelligence and the – you know, the speaker and the – and the majority and minority leaders, and it never should have been put in this context, and initially of course was not even going to include Democrat Adam Schiff. So for the president, the White House to order this to take place – to demand it, really, through Devin Nunes, on his behalf – when he is a subject, if not a target, but a subject of a criminal investigation of which this is a material part is just so inappropriate that lawyers who’ve worked in the Justice Department in the past, as well as intelligence officials, are very, very uncomfortable with that and think it is a terrible reversal of decades of precedent.
MR. COSTA: But it’s not deescalating; it’s escalating. You had – right before we went to air the AP reported Mayor Giuliani said he’s now going to request more documents, that he is urging the president to push on this issue, and that they may use this whole fight over the origin of the Russia probe as a way to think about ending the Mueller special counsel investigation.
MR. LANDLER: Yeah, that – I think what Mayor Giuliani said was that if we can show that this spy was used inappropriately or that the agencies behaved inappropriately, then it turns the entire – it casts the entire Mueller investigation into doubt and removes all credibility from Mueller’s effort. And, you know, it’s obvious that President Trump views this as perhaps his most appealing target yet in terms of a long-term effort to discredit Mueller. I just was struck this past week. It was a very busy week for Trump’s tweeting, but if you were to count up the number of tweets that were about Spygate, which I really think by now the president should trademark – he really wants to get this notion of Spygate into the bloodstream. And, you know, as I’ve said before, these things do register. They do damage over time. They register particularly with Republicans, and it has an impact.
MS. KUMAR: I think there was a real shift. I mean, we’ve seen for a year now that President Trump has been undermining the investigation, right? He’s called James Comey names and Robert Muller names, and he’s talked about it on Twitter. I mean, definitely he’s said all these different things. But what really shifted was that he was getting the federal government – Congress and DOJ – to actually act, to actually undermine the investigation, and that’s the first time we’ve really seen that. So now he’s getting some House Republicans, he’s getting – he’s forcing the Department of Justice to meet with them. He brokered that agreement, or his chief of staff did. Now he’s asking for information. I mean, this is a real shift in this investigation.
MR. COSTA: We still haven’t seen the documents that Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman from California, keeps requesting. Are we going to ever learn more about what this confidential source was doing? The White House keeps casting attention on it. What do we expect, if not the classified documents? And what are we ever going to learn more about why someone was maybe put in motion to learn more about Russian activity at that time?
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Right, I think this is going to be one of those things that we’re going to see several more rounds of fights over before we actually get the substantive information behind it because it still requires declassification that not everybody in Congress wants. I mean, remember, Richard Burr and Mark Warner had the chance to be briefed on this previously; they said no because they were worried about leaks coming out, right? And so you’re definitely going to have Republicans continue to push. I mean, this is the most arched that this kind of standoff has become. But we’ve seen this in various rounds, right, where first they were asking for the documents that went into the dossier, that led to the memo and the whole Memogate that occupied the first two months of this year, and that was the back and forth between the Hill and DOJ then. Now we’re at this point. Now there probably will be something else, too, down the line. This is kind of the play that just keeps getting –
MS. MITCHELL: Before that you had the unmasking.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Exactly, exactly.
MS. MITCHELL: And they’ve all been fake claims and unsupported claims from – both Democratic and Republican sources say that the Devin Nunes approach has all been attempts to undermine the investigation, but with no credible fact. And I think that the branding of this, as you were referring to, the president has managed to, I think, really question the credibility of the investigation in an effective way with “witch hunt,” with these other names. He’s a great marketer. And by using Spygate over and over again in social media and on Fox and other of the shows that he – that his surrogates appear on, he has managed, I think, to plant the idea that there was a spy when an informant is a regular practice.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: And that’s the thing that matters, right, because you’re playing to two different audiences here. One is the federal government, right, which is, you know, are you going to get the information you want. There’s always something there that’s real and part of the investigation that you blow out of proportion to try to pull DOJ in and create this really, you know, conflict that’s just very intense. But the other is the American public, and right now sometimes it kind of looks like this is working to Trump’s benefit heading into the 2018 elections.
MS. KUMAR: He did something really – he did something interesting in just a couple days here. It was maybe there was a spy; I’m not sure. If there was, this would be a horrible, unprecedented thing. And two days later, I mean, just over time, it was a definite spy, right? It’s Spygate now. Now we’re calling it Spygate.
MS. MITCHELL: He’s saying – and all of you are talking about it as Spygate.
MR. LANDLER: Well, I think we have to acknowledge that the mainstream media is put in an exceedingly awkward position here because some news organizations have decided to name this person, other news organizations have decided not to. Even those who have decided to name him are being extremely careful with how they characterize him. So the normal aggressive search for truth that people like us do, I think we’re somewhat hamstrung in this. Perhaps it’s self-imposed, and some people would criticize us for that, but that’s one thing that if we weren’t dealing with a spy we might be able to drive to the answer more quickly.
MR. COSTA: Complicated stories, that’s what we cover here every week. (Laughter.) Thanks, everybody. We’re going to have to leave it there.
Coming up next on many PBS stations, In Principle. Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson discusses the #MeToo movement.
AMY HOLMES (co-host, In Principle): (From video.) A lot of people are also seeing that maybe #MeToo is going too far and accusing people that don’t deserve it. What do you say to that?
GRETCHEN CARLSON (former Fox News anchor): (From video.) I say that that’s a cop-out.
MR. COSTA: Stay tuned and check your local listings.
Let us also pause for a moment ahead of Memorial Day – pause to remember the women and men who served and gave their lives for this country. We remember them and their families.
I’m Robert Costa. Thank you for joining us.