ROBERT COSTA: President Trump’s former national security adviser pleads guilty to lying to the FBI and Republicans move closer to overhauling the tax code. I’m Robert Costa. A legal storm and the politics of taxes, tonight on Washington Week.
Michael Flynn becomes the first Trump administration official to plead guilty to lying to the FBI as it investigates Russian interference in the 2016 election. The retired Army general, who also worked on the Trump campaign –
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.): (From video.) The next president of the United States –
MR. COSTA: – has promised his full coordination with the Mueller investigation. We explain the far-reaching implications of the guilty plea.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) What’s in this for the American people and for small businesses, obviously, is tax relief.
MR. COSTA: – Senate Republicans hoping for a legislative win fall in line and get close to passing a long-promised tax overhaul. But who would benefit and who would pay more?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing. Believe me. Believe – this is not good for me.
MR. COSTA: Democrats disagree. They say corporations win and the middle class loses.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Democrats remain united against any middle-class tax increase. Our economy is already stacked against working men and women.
MR. COSTA: Plus, as the clock ticks down to a government shutdown, can crisis be averted?
We discuss it all with Jonathan Swan of Axios, Shawna Thomas of VICE News, Michael Crowley of POLITICO, and Alexis Simendinger of The Hill.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The federal investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election has dominated Donald Trump’s presidency, and today his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, became the first Trump administration official to be charged. Flynn plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with Russians last December, before Mr. Trump took office. Flynn was then forced to resign last February, after he misled Vice President Pence about a meeting he had with a Russian official. And today he released a statement after his court hearing that read, in part, “My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the special counsel’s office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country. I accept full responsibility for my actions.”
The charge brings the criminal case into the Trump White House, and certainly raises questions about who else in this administration is under scrutiny. Joining me tonight from Washington is POLITICO’s Michael Crowley, who has been covering today’s breaking news. Michael, so great to have you with us. You’ve been editing and writing all day. And the big question is, what does this reveal, this news about General Flynn, this decision to cooperate? What does it reveal about how President Trump could be affected, his own decisions and relationships and conversations during the transition?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Thanks, Robert. Well, it reveals that Robert Mueller is getting deeper and deeper into the Trump White House. Obviously, what you have here is Michael Flynn, former national security adviser, who himself held a very senior position in the Trump White House. But what’s interesting is that in this plea agreement Flynn is making reference to senior officials around him who participated in conversations he had about which he later lied to the FBI. So you have the inherent drama of a president’s national security adviser pleading guilty to the crime of lying to the FBI, describing activities which are, at minimum, highly controversial and some people say potentially illegal in terms of his activities, specifically – particularly in talking to the Russians. But then you have the question of who are the bigger fish here that Mueller might be preparing to fry with Flynn’s cooperation?
MR. COSTA: And with regard to those bigger fish he may be trying to interrogate and get questions from, this was a signal, perhaps, to future witnesses to not lie, that this special counsel takes that seriously. And if you lie, you’re in trouble.
MR. CROWLEY: Absolutely. This is the second time we’ve seen court documents that are part of the Mueller investigation which show that someone has pleaded to lying and is now cooperating with the investigation. And a lot of legal analysts think that part of Mueller’s strategy here is to demonstrate, number one, if you lie to me I’m going to nail you for it. And number two, I have people cooperating who know a lot of things. They may know what you, hypothetical witness or Trump associate out there, did. And now is the time to come forward and come clean. Do it now before your situation gets worse.
MR. COSTA: At the heart of what we saw today in these documents, Michael – you read them and I read them – is this act we don’t really talk a lot about, the law called the Logan Act. And it prohibits private citizens from meddling in foreign policy. So what did these documents, in your view, reveal about that? Was the law potentially broken with regard to the Logan Act? Was there collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign?
MR. CROWLEY: So I think that there is a clear case to be made here that this is a potential violation of the Logan Act which, as you say, is a law that prevents private citizens from meddling – from cooperating with a foreign government to interfere in American foreign policy. But the Logan Act is a 1799 law that is almost never invoked and has never successfully been used to prosecute anyone. So I don’t see anyone going to jail over a Logan Act violation. And I certainly don’t see Donald Trump being impeached over the possibility that he was aware of or directed activity by Michael Flynn that might be considered a violation of the Logan Act.
What we have here is much more about concealment, about Flynn’s lies to the FBI, and possibly now lies or inaccurate statements by other Trump officials regarding those activities, regarding in particular his conversations with the Russians. On the question of collusion, I think, Robert, that you could say in a narrow sense there was collusion here when Michael Flynn communicated with the Russian ambassador in late December, at a time when the Obama administration was imposing new sanctions on Russia to punish the Kremlin for its clear interference in the 2016 election.
And Flynn was signaling to the Russians: Please don’t retaliate dramatically. We’re going to be coming into office next month. We want better relations with you. Don’t escalate this because we’re not going to follow through on that same path. That, you could say, is kind of a form of policy collusion, maybe a violation of the Logan Act. What I don’t see, Robert, is anything like the kind of collusion we’ve been talking about more generally this last year or so, the idea that there was a quid pro quo, that the Russians assisted Trump in return for some kind of policy favor. It is still possible that that’s the case. It’s absolutely possible. The court documents today do not advance that narrative.
MR. COSTA: Thank you so much, Michael. Really appreciate your time tonight. Always great to have you on Washington Week.
MR. CROWLEY: Thanks for having me.
MR. COSTA: Thank you.
Back here at the table, it’s fascinating to think about how the White House was reacting to this today, a major moment in the presidency to have someone from inside the administration now cooperating with the special counsel. Jonathan, you were on the White House grounds today. What was that scene like? What does Ty Cobb, the president’s attorney on this matter, telling the president’s advisors and the president himself?
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, Ty Cobb himself has had this strategy of, you know, open kimono, tell everyone everything, everything’s going to be fine. It’s been very positive talk internally. And his strategy has been, reveal everything, we’ve got nothing to hide, and there will be a swift conclusion. I would say that in the last couple of weeks there has been growing skepticism internally that this is actually going to be the case, that this thing’s going to be wrapped up by the end of the year. And today was really interesting because publicly, of course, they were all projecting: Everything’s fine. We’re working away. But I’ve heard privately, personally, from several sources in there, genuine concern about this on a number of grounds. One being that Flynn knows a lot. He was around a lot. He was –
MR. COSTA: A total confidant of the president.
MR. SWAN: Total. People don’t understand. You understand, you were there. Some of us covered the campaign. He was by his side the whole time. He saw everything. And he’s in a very desperate situation, frankly. He lied to the FBI. Mueller has a ton over leverage over him. And it’s very clear from this that Mueller thinks that he has something of value to offer. And so the question being asked internally, and it’s all speculative, is what is that thing of value?
MR. COSTA: What about Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law? He recently spoke with the special counsel team. And he had relationships with Flynn, General Flynn, during the transition. Had different conversations with foreign officials.
SHAWNA THOMAS: And he was down in Mar-a-Lago when Flynn supposedly – or, when Flynn admits to talking to a senior administration official before he made one of the phone calls to Russian Ambassador Kislyak – former Russian Ambassador Kislyak. So that he – it is obvious that there is something around here that’s wrapped up in that when it comes to Jared Kushner. I think the other thing is that – one of the things Michael Crowley said was that we still don’t know if there is this, like, very formal idea of collusion with the Russians, with Vladimir Putin.
But what this starts to point out, and Kushner is a part of this, is was there obstruction of justice somewhere within the White House? Like, how – because of how all of this played out with Michael Flynn, because of the president going to Comey after Flynn was fired, all of that stuff. What does that mean? And did more people lie about things related to that? Which, as we know, Mueller can take this wherever he wants to.
MR. COSTA: A new phase for Robert Mueller?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: It’s a shot – a real shot across the bow. In this case too, what’s interesting about Michael Flynn is that the documents indicate that there were two tracks that the special counsel was going on. One had to do with lying to the FBI, and the other has to do with his business dealings. And the documents suggest why Michael Flynn and his attorneys felt that they were under such pressure, because the special counsel was suggesting, you know, we want this – this is the lightest deal that you’re going to get. This is the best deal you can get on the lying to the FBI, because we can go down this road if you don’t – if you don’t cooperate.
And Michael Flynn suggested that for the good of his family he felt that that was the best way to go. He could have gone to prison, potentially, under the law, technically, for five years or more. It looks like in this particular case, if he cooperates, he could do zero to six months. So you can see why Michael Flynn, at the very beginning, why the White House is concerned now that he, knowing so much about the campaign, knowing so much about the president, knowing so much about the president’s family – the relationships that they had in terms of talks about the campaign – why they’re so worried about it now.
MR. SWAN: And that point you made is so spot-on, because to me the most telling part of the statement for Flynn was whatever it was, for the good of my family. This is a prosecution team, if you look at their history, if you look at what they did on the Enron taskforce, that has a history of going after family members. They apply extreme pressure in order to get people to flip. And their track record is the best predictor of what they’re doing right now. We don’t have much visibility into what they’re doing. But he has assembled a team of people who are used to putting extreme pressure on people’s family members. There’s been reporting that his son has been involved in these conversations. And I think that it was very telling that he included that line in his statement.
MR. COSTA: And if you look, Shawna, you’re a veteran of Capitol Hill. The response from both parties today was taking Robert Mueller seriously. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, says he’s going to move forward, try to bring Jared Kushner, others to testify. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican and close friend of President Trump’s, says: Mueller has a mandate. No one is above the law. And you don’t see the White House combatting Robert Mueller today either. This is a legal team, a special counsel, that has a lot of capital.
MS. THOMAS: It is. It absolutely is. And what I think the – what Capitol Hill knows is that there is no point to getting in front of this. There is no point in trying to push back on this. They – I believe the Senator Grahams, Republicans, Senator Warners of the world want to work with Muller, want to not get in Mueller’s way, and want to solve this. And there is something political about this, especially for someone like Senator Warner, when it comes to Democrats. Maybe this will get at the president. Maybe this will be the smoking gun. Maybe we’ll get there. We could be years away from that. But I actually believe there is something about preserving America and preserving democracy. And that is somewhat a part of this for them. They want to know what happened.
MR. COSTA: It’s a divisive issue, though, Alexis. When you think about President Trump, he said throughout the campaign he wanted to have a different kind of relationship with Russia. And there were a lot of Republicans today who were trying to shrug this whole thing off, and say this is just the president being the president. But I think that’s the gray area everyone’s trying to figure out here, politically and legally. Where did the president and his team, perhaps, go wrong?
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that’s fascinated me about this, between the executive and the legislative, is how much the legislative branch, obviously controlled by Republicans, has been willing to step up and say: We are a co-equal branch of the government and we’re worried about what’s happening in the executive branch. We’re concerned about the White House, that maybe the president doesn’t understand what the repercussions of this is. We’ve seen reporting where senators are openly talking about the president pressuring them: end this, end this investigation.
MR. SWAN: That’s amazing.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Cut it off. We’ve seen bipartisan support for legislation to put a nice fence around Robert Mueller and his team to make sure the president doesn’t fire him.
There is concern on Capitol Hill, and maybe a misunderstanding in part of the White House, about the Republican concern about Russia, right? Republicans –
MR. COSTA: They’re hawks.
MS. SIMENDINGER: They’re hawks.
MR. COSTA: They’re hawks when it comes to Russia.
MS. SIMENDINGER: They are not in love with Vladimir Putin or Russia, and there is a mystery on Capitol Hill about why is the president so enamored with President Putin?
MS. THOMAS: And we also have to remember this is a Congress that literally passed sanctions against Russia that the president of the United States didn’t want. Now the president of the United States and his people haven’t really implemented those sanctions yet, but they sent a warning shot across the bow a while ago being like –
MS. SIMENDINGER: In August –
MS. THOMAS: – you know, prove to us, one, that you are willing to sign this legislation, and two, do something. They interfered in the election in the United States.
MR. SWAN: There’s a constant dance going on when you talk to senators and members – a constant dance going on in their head. On one hand, they see things that deeply concern them – every day almost – from this president. And on the other hand, they know what the polling tells them which is that the president is still very popular among Republican voters. His – I think the last time I looked at the approval rating it was about 78 percent. Mitch McConnell’s approval rating is about 23 percent. They know the base is with Donald Trump, and if they turn against the president, the base will turn on them. Congress has got approval rating, you know, rivaling some epidemics, you know, so that is something in their heads.
MR. COSTA: A momentous day politically, legally, and we’re going to keep an eye on General Flynn and everything that happens with the special counsel, but let’s remember there was other late-breaking news on Friday night on Capitol Hill where Senate Republicans are now set to pass a massive tax package. Nothing is certain until the final votes are in, but what we do know is that that has been a messy, messy process with many Senate leaders negotiating details behind closed doors.
Two of the key changes to the tax code are this: deductions for student loans and medical care would be eliminated, and the individual health insurance mandate would be repealed. When you think about the proposal, it would also slash the corporate rate which the president argues would boost economic growth. Democrats argue the plan benefits the wealthy and raises taxes on middle-income families.
Alexis, this bill seems to be moving along. It’s late here on a Friday night.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Lurching – lurching along. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Lurching along is the better word. How did Mitch McConnell, and perhaps President Trump, get these deficit hawks to come along?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, it’s a little bit like the deal-making that Mitch McConnell disparaged during the health care debate during 2010, but it was trying to buy off votes in his own conference based on principled concerns – I’m putting quote marks around “principled concerns” – about specific provisions. So, for instance, if six different senators in his conference had concerns, he listened carefully to those and adjusted health care for Susan Collins and adjusted the passthroughs for Senator Johnson. And in the end he managed to pull together the votes to bring it to the floor.
One of the things that I think is interesting is that the Republicans are rushing this through in such a way that the senators we know are still trying to read what’s in it, even though this is hurtling now through to a final vote.
MR. COSTA: And there is a lot in it, Shawna, because when you look at this bill, it is a massive tax package, but there is so much more in the legislation.
MS. THOMAS: There is so much more, and really, the most recent version of the legislation dropped, what, an hour or two before we are on this show – 500 pages.
But, you know, you mentioned, one, health care, so there’s an individual mandate repeal which brings in the entire health care conversation, and we’ve already had the CBO basically say that maybe around 13 million people over the course of 10 years will end up losing their health care because of taking away the individual mandate. There are some people who say it is actually less, and they are over – they are overthinking it, but – that’s one thing.
We have now – drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve is a part of this bill which is something that Senator Murkowski wanted and has wanted for a long time, and it does – it will raise some money, so I think that’s why it’s part of the bill, but also it’s something that she – and actually her father – have been fighting for forever.
You also have little things in this bill. There is a provision that allows unborn children – it allows families to create basically college savings plans for their unborn children, so they are trying to identify kids that are still in the womb as someone you can have a savings plan for, which is not something you could do before, which can get you into an entire debate about right – about life and abortion and everything like that.
There is – this bill, other than touching all of our pocketbooks –
MR. COSTA: And you have to do SALT and – have more deductions for state and local taxes.
MS. THOMAS: Exactly.
MR. COSTA: They call them the SALT provision side of the bill. So they’re piecing everything together. And part of it is a political equation, Jonathan, because this is a huge moment for the president.
MR. SWAN: Right.
MR. COSTA: Yet, it comes the same day as the Michael Flynn plea agreement, and it has been the unifying thread for his entire presidency with his own party.
MR. SWAN: Imagine an alternative universe in which President Trump’s inner circle don’t lie to the FBI and this tax package gets to the point – it’s going to pass, by the way. They’ve got the votes. It’s going to pass. This is huge. It’s a huge deal. It’s as you said in your introduction. This is a major, consequential achievement on the signature issue for the Republican Party, and it is almost a footnote today in today’s news.
MR. COSTA: Does it hold them together as a party?
MR. SWAN: It’s the one thing that they all kind of, in their own messy way, sort of agree on with different levers. I actually think it’s almost the only thing that they now agree on in this party. There’s basically nothing else. We’re going to probably get into some very messy trade conversations early next year, and I’ll tell you what, that ain’t going to be clean at all.
MR. COSTA: We can talk about the health care. You could spend a whole discussion on health care alone. What’s the Republican political cost next year on health care if they repeal the individual mandate?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, it’s not just health care, because when I’ve interviewed Republicans, when my publication and my colleagues are interviewing, what’s interesting is that – and we’ve commented on this – no Democrats voted for this in the Senate. They did not feel the pressure to do that. They understand that Republicans are going to go out there alone and try to argue the fairness of every provision in this. If you’re trying to say this is fair for lower-income, who are going to lose their insurance or their insurance gets more expensive because of that, then how is that fair? If you find out that the average family is getting – I think the data is 80 percent of families earning 50-75,000 (dollars) a year would get a modest – relatively modest tax break of $850, if everything goes well. Is that fair? So they have to defend it.
MR. COSTA: They will have to defend it. It is quite intriguing that Democrats who are in states President Trump won, they’re not moving over. They see the politics of this perhaps favorable in this direction. We’ll be following it all, but we’re going to have to leave it there tonight, my friends. And thanks, everybody, for joining us.
And stay tuned for a special edition of the Washington Week Extra. It’s coming up next on many PBS stations. We’ll be talking about the sexual harassment spotlight on Capitol Hill, plus the final lap in that Alabama Senate race, and what it means for the state and both parties. Remember, you can also watch the Extra every week online Friday nights after 10 p.m. at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa, and enjoy your weekend.