ROBERT COSTA: The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election gets turned inside out. I’m Robert Costa, and we’ll have the latest on the federal probes. Plus, why President Trump has declared war on leaders of hardline conservatives, tonight on Washington Week.
President Trump’s fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, wants to make a deal. The retired three-star general is offering to testify about alleged Russian meddling in last year’s election, but only if he gets immunity. Flynn had a different view of immunity last year, when Secretary Hillary Clinton’s aides were questioned about her email server.
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN: (From video.) When you are given immunity, that means that you’ve probably committed a crime.
MR. COSTA: Ditto for then-candidate Donald Trump.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And if you’re not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for, right?
MR. COSTA: But today President Trump supported the idea of immunity for Flynn, calling the congressional inquiry a “witch hunt.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee held an eye-opening hearing into Russia’s interference in American democracy.
CLINTON WATTS (Foreign Policy Research Institute): (From video.) Follow the trail of dead Russians. There’s been more dead Russians in the past three months that are tied to this investigation who have assets in banks all over the world. They are dropping dead even in Western countries.
MR. COSTA: And we learned that White House staffers secretly provided House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes with information to support the president’s claim that he was wiretapped by former President Obama.
We cover it all with Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, and Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post and CBS News.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week.
Once again, from Washington, Robert Costa of The Washington Post.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election continue to plague the Trump administration. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes is under scrutiny for reportedly receiving top secret surveillance reports from White House officials. President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is looking for legal protection from prosecution in exchange for his testimony about any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. And three former Trump aides – former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former advisor Roger Stone, and former policy advisor Carter Page – have agreed to testify without the promise of immunity. An immunity deal, of course, is not a sign of guilt, but it would make it all but impossible for the Justice Department to prosecute Flynn. Lots to unpack here, and let’s begin with Flynn, who President Trump fired last month because he misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the transition. Kelly, what is the response on Capitol Hill amid all this controversy?
KELLY O’DONNELL: Well, on the issue of immunity, there’s a bit of surprise because I’m told that the attorney for General Flynn did not expressly ask for immunity in his letters, but did so in a public statement. So, like so much of what we’ve seen in this, there is kind of the real track and then there’s the theatrical track. And so there’s resistance to the idea. Early in the investigation, people aren’t sure yet what the right questions are, and would General Flynn be able to bring something to this investigation. Also, concerns about getting in the way of what the FBI may be doing.
Tonight I’m told that Adam Schiff, the Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, spent about 10 minutes with the president – imagine being a fly on the wall for that conversation – just after he, too, saw the same information that Devin Nunes, the Republican chair, was able to see. A lot of tension on that committee. That’s one of the problems in the Flynn investigation. That tension has made it hard to move forward. I’m told they want to get back on track next week. What did they talk about? I’m told it was more about infrastructure and legislative things, and not so much about Russia – which would be appropriate, given the fact that Adam Schiff’s been talking a lot about trying to keep separate from the White House that investigation.
MR. COSTA: Is that possible, though, Dan? Can they – can the White House escape the shadow? Flynn came out of nowhere on Thursday night with this statement that he’s seeking immunity.
DAN BALZ: I don’t see any way that they can escape it. I mean, they’re in it for the long haul whether they want to be or not. I mean, the House investigation, we’ll have to see what happens on that. I mean, that’s been badly compromised by what Chairman Nunes did in going to the White House and looking at these documents without sharing them with the members of his committee. The Senate investigation, as we know, is in the opening stages. I mean, the hearing they had this week was quite interesting and provocative, but it wasn’t anywhere really close to the meat of what they are trying to get to the bottom of. And they – both the chair and the ranking Democrat on the committee have made clear that they recognize that one of the questions they have to try to get an answer to is whether there was, in fact, collusion or cooperation between the Trump campaign or Trump associates and the Russians. So there’s all of that, and then you have the FBI. I mean, we are – we are months and months and months away from it. And the White House has compounded the problem by now their handling of what they did with Devin Nunes. I mean, they have now opened a new front on the investigation, which is what did White House officials do, why did they do it, who else knew about it. All of that still remains to be figured out.
MR. COSTA: Ed, when we look at the congressional sphere, it’s complicated. You have Devin Nunes, who has all of these questions over him about his relationship with the White House. But then you have Senator Burr from North Carolina working with the Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. They seem to be taking a different kind of approach than the House Intelligence Committee when it comes to all of these questions.
ED O’KEEFE: After they had their news conference this week, the word I kept seeing was adults – finally, there are adults in charge. They were reminding people that there are adults leading an investigation on the Hill. And it is by all accounts a much more serious, substantive, and secretive investigation. These senators are not talking. Marco Rubio, who’s a member of the committee, says he spends eight hours a week on this stuff. That’s a significant amount of time for a senator to be devoting to anything, other than fundraising maybe. (Laughter.) You know, and the fact that they signaled that they have seven investigators on this when they only had three investigating the Benghazi situation a few years ago, plus that those investigators now have clearance to see the most sensitive information that anyone in the government ever sees, shows you how seriously they’re taking it. And if that investigation can be maintained and can remain free of partisanship, it probably will emerge as the most significant one next to the FBI investigation.
MR. COSTA: Alexis, I saw you sitting up there in the White House Briefing Room asking tough questions of Sean Spicer, the press secretary, and it seemed like every question today was about Russia, was about General Flynn and his immunity request. How is the White House handling this? What’s their strategy?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, as Dan foreshadowed, not well. And why I say that is because the White House has had two narratives going at the same time. One is there’s nothing to see here about Russia and collusion, and the other part of it is let’s all look over here at this distraction, which is supposedly not about Russia at all, and directing us to the president’s team’s own investigations. So today what was interesting to me, listening to this agonized discussion about what Chairman Nunes has, who gave it to him, what Schiff was going to see, and the fact that that is in essence a distraction, is where do they think this is going to go if the president day after day from the podium, his spokesperson, is showing that the president wants to be the prosecutor, he wants to be the judge, he wants to be the investigator? And that, as Dan was suggesting, keeps it alive beyond what any attorney, White House staff would have ever advised a president to do.
MS. O’DONNELL: We’ve all covered presidents who would stay so far away –
MS. SIMENDINGER: So far away.
MS. O’DONNELL: – from any kind of investigation, and this president uses such evocative words. “Witch hunt” is such a strong word. “Immunity,” that sounded so great today on Twitter, was the absolute last thing that you could ever request when he was a candidate. Not understanding how potent that is now, and maybe not caring – that he is of the moment, and he’s trying to drive a narrative about this, seems to still be protective of Flynn in some way.
MR. COSTA: Is there a political cost for the president’s response? During the campaign, he railed against Secretary Clinton and her associates for their immunity in that investigation with the FBI, but now he seems to be embracing the concept, Dan.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think he’s already paid a political price for it. I mean, if you look at his approval ratings, which – they started out low, lower than any incoming president. They’re lower now than they were when he came into office. Now, that could be for a variety of reasons, because there have been other missteps along the way. But there’s no doubt that when he has done what he did, particularly the accusation that former President Obama illegally in essence wiretapped Trump Tower, or ordered an illegal wiretap of Trump Tower – I was talking to a Democratic pollster this week who said that broke through. There was a lot of this that hasn’t really broken through with the general public. That broke through. And it has caused them no end of grief. I mean, they – because of that tweet, they have gone to great lengths to try to prove what apparently cannot be proved. And they have gotten themselves into this problem with Devin Nunes now and the other problems in the White House. So the president is creating – is inflicting this wound on himself and his administration.
MR. O’KEEFE: And it is a bacteria, Bob, that has spread across the Capitol as Congress tries to do anything else but this. It overshadowed the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch. It played out while Republicans stumbled on health care last week. It is tying up the ability to get a spending bill done by the end of April, because this festers. And we go a few days with nothing, and then suddenly Devin Nunes or Adam Schiff run to a microphone and announce some new surprise that we didn’t know about that totally upends things yet again.
And I call it a bacteria and not a virus because a virus takes time to cure itself. A bacteria can be cured very quickly with medicine. And I think there are so many Republicans I’ve talked to privately up there who say: If only they would shut up and get out of the way or get everything out there and let the investigators deal with it and move on, then, you know, maybe we’d be able to move on and focus more substantively on legislation.
MR. COSTA: The challenge for the Republican Party – and when I was at the Capitol this week I encountered the same challenges and reservations among many Republicans. They said: You have the controversy with Devin Nunes, the Intel chairman in the House. You have the Flynn immunity situation. But you also have this broader Russia question and interference.
MS. O’DONNELL: A serious and enduring problem, right?
MR. COSTA: It’s enduring. And let’s remember, the Senate Intelligence Committee held their first public hearing into Russia. And we learned Secretary Clinton was just one of the people they targeted with misinformation. Florida Senator Marco Rubio said his presidential campaign staff was targeted twice. The testimony we heard was alarming. We learned about the size, the scope, and the sophistication of Russia’s cyberwarfare operation, that is believed to have employed 15,000 hackers and cyber specialists who disseminated disinformation during the 2016 campaign.
MR. WATTS: (From video.) They were in full swing during both the Republican and Democratic primary season – and may have helped sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed.
MR. COSTA: Ed, you paid close attention to the Senate hearing. What did we learn, and how is this Russia question of interference going to continue to hover long after, perhaps, some of the these political dramas pass?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, this explains why Jeb Bush lost. Now we know, because he was targeted by the Russians. No.
MR. COSTA: Explain what you mean by that.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, no, because the experts said that Bush, Rubio and other candidates, plus Clinton of course, were in one way or another hacked or attacked, in essence, by these Russian hackers. And what I found most interesting with the Rubio situation is it now perhaps explains why last summer he was urging caution among Republicans to sort of say, hey, if the shoe were on the other foot you would feel much differently about this. And this suggests now that maybe he knew as an Intelligence Committee member last summer that this had gone on, and was aware that his own campaign had been targeted. But it was quite revealing, and I think is the beginning of now really starting to put together the pieces of what Russia has been doing, is still doing, and could do in the future. And I think sort of helped snap this back into a little more serious focus for lawmakers, especially, who had been obsessed with what Nunes had been doing.
MR. COSTA: Let’s get – let’s talk about Nunes for a second. This is someone who just seems to be on television every second. And he has become a top ally of President Trump. But is he hobbled in any way by the way this has all unfolded, with his visit to the White House to meet with these officials about intelligence information, Kelly?
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, I’m told that House Speaker Paul Ryan is still fully confident in Nunes in this role. At the same time, there are questions from others in the conference about how he had handled this. He’s an affable person who will answer your questions in the hallways. That maybe should be a red flag right there because – not that he’s giving away secrets, but he’s willing to engage. And sometimes that can be treacherous.
Today he gave an interview back in his home district where he talked about the fact that some of the names that have been circulated of National Security Council staffers may not have been his source, but might have been someone who was aware of his presence on the White House grounds. That’s adding a big more oxygen, which is maybe not the thing that he should be doing. While he might be trying to explain or answer, he opens a new pathway. And so I think there is frustration among other Republicans. But we know that to topple a committee chairman would be so significant. So we’re not there yet.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the interesting things about the congressman, when he came to the White House, was how quick he was to, again, repeat that there is no evidence that Barack Obama or the Obama team had wiretapped Trump Tower. But then he wandered into this discussion with great preparation in terms of what he intended to do, not preparation in terms of what he was saying, that he was concerned about this idea that there was surveillance that the United States is doing and is incidentally picking up innocent Americans in this context.
And this was the – really the meat of the concern. The White House is also trying to say: This is what people should be up in arms about. The leaking, not what Russia is doing in our democracy. And if you listen at the White House, and we’re repeatedly asking what is the president of the United States doing to respond to Director Comey’s evidence, testimony that this is continuing now and that it is continuing not only in the United States but in Europe by Russia. And you just get kind of silenced.
MR. COSTA: Because Nunes, Alexis, shares the president’s view, according to all of their advisors and associates, that there’s a so-called Deep State. And Nunes articulates this a lot, that there’s this Deep State of current intelligence officials and former officials, in their view, who are leaking against the White House. And this perhaps explains the “witch hunt” tweet by the president and the whole response by the White House.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But remember, one of the things that we have to not forget is on March 4th the tweet about the wiretapping is what set off an entire government looking for the evidence to support the tweet. And there has been nothing that I have seen or heard to suggest that this effort inside the White House to search through intelligence is anything other than that.
MS. O’DONNELL: Perhaps just the Michael Flynn quotes that unsealed his conversations with the Russian ambassador is a bit mixed in there as well. But you do get the sense that there is a search mission to find something that would support the tweet.
MR. COSTA: Everyone wants to learn more about what General Flynn has said. I love the line from the lawyer’s statement for General Flynn, saying: He has a compelling story, quite the story to tell. We’ll see if he’s able to tell it.
But the cloud of Russian intrigue isn’t the only thing distracting the White House. The failure of the GOP’s replacement health care plan last Friday has left the president frustrated, especially with the House Freedom Caucus. He put them on notice, as he does, on Twitter. Trump wrote, “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
Ed, members of the Freedom Caucus fired right back, saying they’re doing the will of their constituents.
MR. O’KEEFE: They did. I brought some of these quotes, because I think it’s illustrative of what they were doing. Scott DesJarlais from Tennessee, very conservative guy, told Roll Call, “In my district, we’re very conservative. So if he gets me out of office, he’s going to get someone more conservative than me.” Trent Franks from Arizona, one of the most ardent conservatives in the House, said, “If somebody can get to the right of me in the primary, God bless them.” And that’s the problem that the president is potentially setting himself up for, that if you think these guys are inflexible just wait till you see the alternative.
MR. COSTA: But I’ll tell you, the White House is defiant. I spoke to one official who had this quote that they’re going to send Air Force One, Dan, down to the districts of the Freedom Caucus. And they said nothing’s more clarifying than the smell of jet fuel. (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: I talked to a couple of Republicans right after the bill fell a week ago. And these are people who used to be in the House, but no longer are. Their view was that the president would be smart to literally target one or two of them and, you know, give them a lesson in what presidential power could be. So there’s some view that there ought to be a price paid for defying a president in his first, what was it then, 65 days, or whatever it was. But I mean, the reaction of them is indicative of what’s happening. He drives them together. He makes them more resistant. He hasn’t found a way to appeal to them. And he couldn’t cajole them on the health care bill. And now it’s not clear he’s going to be able to threaten them to come his way.
MS. O’DONNELL: One theory I heard was that while he’s naming some of these members, the prominent ones, that perhaps the tweet message is really intended for some of the noes who are less well-known, that not wanting to incur the wrath of the president. I also heard the Air Force One strategy, touch down in the district when the member’s not there. But they are showing themselves to be the fearless caucus more than the Freedom Caucus. They are impervious to the president’s threats. But what we don’t yet know is what will happen when they go home.
MR. COSTA: Yeah. Is the health care coming back, Alexis? Is this actually going to be revived?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, I think that it would be impossible to imagine that happening right now because there was such quick eagerness on the part of all the Republicans who felt so stung by this to move on. Paul Ryan, the speaker, sounded that way. The president sounded that way. His first initial reaction to that was to move on, after spending three long weeks working on it. And it just – there doesn’t – no one I have interviewed has described it as a realistic possibility, although what some Republicans have said is that they so – this is really getting into the weeds – but they so wanted the revenues out of the health care to keep it going, keep it on the stove, at least to keep talking about how this is important to tax reform as an inducement to these arch-conservatives.
MR. O’KEEFE: And the raw politics – the political reality is that both parties would love to run another midterm election next year on health care, and to some extent even immigration – two of the largest, most tricky – or trickiest issues domestically to deal with. They are good in election years. If they don’t do anything, at least it’s out there. And the president has signaled he will blame Democrats, because it is their law. Democrats, the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, told me this week: We have ideas. We are ready to talk to them. We will present them so long as Republicans start to back off this idea that this law is going to be repealed.
MR. BALZ: But realistically, the Democrats are not going to play ball with them.
MR. O’KEEFE: Probably not, right.
MR. BALZ: I interviewed Tom Perez, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee this week. And I said to him: Would you all work with the president on health care? And he said, I would be happy to work with the president to get a public option into the Affordable Care Act. (Laughter.) So those are – those are the kinds of lines –
MR. O’KEEFE: They’re over here. They’re never going to come together, yeah.
MR. COSTA: So that was a showdown. (Laughter.) There was another showdown, and that’s brewing right now in Congress between congressional Republicans and the White House over a stopgap budget bill to keep the government operating after late April. President Trump, here’s what he wants: $33 billion in new defense and border spending to help pay for a border wall. Eighteen billion dollars would be cut from health, education and labor programs to offset some of that increased defense spending and pay for part of the wall. Democrats and Republicans, however – conservative Republicans – are rejecting the proposal on fiscal grounds.
Kelly, we’re facing a potential government shutdown if Republicans and Democrats can’t get this appropriations package through.
MS. O’DONNELL: We’ve lived through a few of them. We know what those late nights are like. And what I’m being told right now is they want to turn the drama down, especially after what happened with what was supposed to be the signature issue, the easier one to coalesce around. To deal with something like this, they want to just quiet things. I am assured – and we’ve heard these before – no government shutdown.
What’s different now, I do think the pain of what happened with the past government shutdown and these brink moments is a real pain that has been seen at the ballot box and drives the phone calls to Capitol Hill, which are a potent way of getting to Congress members. But I think that the conversations are going on about what to present. A lot of questions about how they can fashion a bill that will be acceptable. I think the border wall money, off the table.
MR. COSTA: So the Democrats don’t want the border wall to be included in the package, Ed. And I want to get, Alexis, your take on the White House’s view of all this. But, Ed, you spoke to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer this week. Are Democrats really going to work with Republicans to keep the government open and get this spending package done, or is it going to all fall apart?
MR. O’KEEFE: If it doesn’t have the border wall money, if there’s nothing about defunding Planned Parenthood, if they don’t ask for money to hire what they call a deportation force at ICE, then yes, Democrats will go along with it because those are – and, you know, no going back to sequestration-style spending cuts and whatnot, as long as everything’s on parity – and it is. And it’s because Republicans know they need Democrats in the Senate. They’re probably going to need some of them in the House to offset the Freedom Caucus because of the price of all this, and they want to get this done as fast as they can when they get back from Easter because, let’s face it, they’re probably going to spend two weeks getting yelled at back home and they need to come back quickly and demonstrate some progress.
MR. COSTA: But, Alexis, to get Democrats, you got to court Democrats. The president has a trust gap with many top Democrats going back to the birther issue and so many other fronts.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that I heard this week was – because we were surprised to hear President Trump. Initially his blame was the Democrats, and then he came out a day later and changed his mind – maybe I should talk to Democrats, right? But there’s some method to that, because he thinks he is going to need some Democrats on some other big things, right? He’s hoping to be able to court some of their support on some other things that he would like to accomplish. But in this particular case, Democrats have signaled yes, they’d like to talk to him about their agenda. The White House is saying we’d like to talk to them if they want to work with us on our agenda exactly the way we have it. And so there is still this definite clash.
MR. O’KEEFE: And it is exactly that approach – here’s what we’re doing, get in line, Democrats – that Schumer said they will not tolerate and participate in at all.
MR. BALZ: And it’s a little difficult when he tweets let’s – we have to fight both the Democrats and the Freedom Caucus in 2018, and the White House continues to make accusations about the Obama administration and what they may have done to try to increase the awareness of the surveillance or what the Trump people were doing. Everything they’re doing goes in the opposite direction of finding a way to get together.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. What a week. And welcome, Kelly, to Washington Week. (Laughter.) It’s great to have you here.
Our conversation continues online, as ever, on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about the shakeup at the Democratic National Committee, where the new chairman has asked the entire staff to resign. Plus, why Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, may be the ultimate power couple in Washington. You can watch that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks so much for watching, and enjoy your weekend.