ROBERT COSTA: Back-to-back bombshells. A White House official is named a person of interest in the Russian meddling probe, and why did President Trump boast to Kremlin officials that he fired FBI Director James Comey? I’m Robert Costa. We’ll tackle it all, tonight on Washington Week.
QUESTION: (From video.) Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn? And also, as you look back –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) No. No. Next question.
MR. COSTA: President Trump, eager to move on, calls the ongoing Russia investigation a “witch hunt,” slamming the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.
MR. COSTA: While Congress is divided, Mueller’s appointment has generated bipartisan praise.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) Well, I think it was perfectly appropriate to do that.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The action shows the urgency of investigating Trump-Russia possible collusion and interfering in our election.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) There is no collusion between certainly myself –and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself – and the Russians. Zero.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller and wrote a memo critical of Comey, briefed Congress behind closed doors.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) The takeaway I have is that everything he said was that you need to treat this investigation as if it may be a criminal investigation.
MR. COSTA: And former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn stonewalls a congressional committee’s request.
SENATOR RICHARD BURR (R-NC): (From video.) General Flynn’s lawyer said that he would not honor the subpoena, and that’s not a surprise to the committee.
MR. COSTA: We explore it all with Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times, Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, and Manu Raju of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Just as Donald Trump was taking off for his first presidential trip, two big stories broke that have upended the White House. The New York Times is reporting that President Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that firing FBI Director Comey, who he called a nut, relieved great pressure off him about the Russia probe. The conversation was during the same Oval Office meeting where the president shared highly classified intelligence about ISIS. The Washington Post then broke the news that a current White House official has emerged as a significant person of interest in the Russia investigation.
The latest reports capped an already chaotic week, and have raised questions on Pennsylvania Avenue not only about order, but about credibility. And, Michael, there is this specter that hangs over this administration of Russia and its influence. But it’s not just about the Russia cloud, it’s about what I find in all my reporting this week, a disconnect between how President Trump sees the issue and how many Republicans see it – and they’re alarmed.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yeah, and it’s really a drama that’s playing out within the president. He is incredibly, and he has been for weeks now, emotional about this issue. He feels wronged, he’s telling everyone around him they’re not doing enough to protect him, and he is making decisions that are just not based in clear thinking. You know, one of the parts of the New York Times story today was that he told the Russians the day after he fired Comey that this Russia thing is now going to go away for me, which in retrospect is a – is a crazy thing to say. But I think he really believed when he came back from his weekend in New Jersey and decided he was going to fire Comey that there would be, as he said in his press conference yesterday, bipartisan support for this, and that he could actually help himself in the Russia investigation. I mean, that reporting actually seems to be true. And it was just so far gone from what – the way Washington works, the way we know the situation is, and I think that’s because he’s not comfortable yet in his position. He doesn’t fully understand how Washington works. He doesn’t fully understand the boundaries of the presidency. And there’s nothing that gets him as agitated as this allegation that there was somehow collusion between his campaign and the Russians, and it has led to a series of mistakes that keep making it worse for him.
MR. COSTA: Julie, knowing that he wants to avoid the appearance of collusion, why would he – and as your paper reported today – why would he tell the Russians in the Oval Office that Comey now has relieved great pressure by being fired and that he’s a nut? Why would he do that?
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, I mean, I think he is – he seems to be obsessed with this issue of the legitimacy of his own presidency. And one of the things that came out in the story about what he – the classified information that he shared with the Russians was that he was essentially boasting that I have access to great intelligence, the best intelligence, and let me share what I know. And it almost feels like this was in that vein, that I’ve taken care of – this was going to be a bad thing for me, but this guy was crazy and I just took care of it and now I’m fine. But perversely, of course, by saying that, whether or not it is the case that he was trying to obstruct justice by firing Jim Comey, by asking Jim Comey before he was fired to drop the investigation of Mike Flynn, whether or not any of that is the case, what he has said to the Russians, what he – what is now public appears that he was trying to do that. And by saying that the pressure on him was relieved, he’s essentially given new life and new breath to the storyline that he was trying to shut it down by dismissing Jim Comey, and so it’s sort of all worked the opposite way for him.
MR. COSTA: But, Alexis, the pressure wasn’t really relieved. When I was calling my White House sources today, they’re alarmed by this new Washington Post report that someone inside of the White House, a senior official, may be part of this federal probe.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Yeah, the reason why they’re alarmed and the way it was explained to me – and I think this is the first thought I had too – is that the White House had been saying – arguing that this – all of this may have been for nothing, but it also had to do with the campaign, something in the past. In the president’s mind, this was in the past. Now the discussion publicly is that it involves people who are now in the government and very close to the president. So that changes the dynamic for the investigation itself, what’s to come with the investigation in terms of witnesses and demanding information and documentation and perhaps interviewing the president in the future, and it also creates a new thought about how to do communications – how to do crisis communications because it now involves people who are under the roof with the president.
MANU RAJU: Yeah, and no question about it. The focus of Bob Mueller’s investigation, the new special counsel that was named, will almost certainly focus on the circumstances around James Comey’s firing, what James Comey apparently is alleging in that conversation that he had with President Trump, that the president urged him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. That’s going to be a key part of the investigation that has significant, very broad latitude.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And we’re going to hear from him.
MR. RAJU: And we’re going to – yes, we are. We’re going to hear from James Comey when he testifies now. He agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open session after the Memorial Day holiday. The question is, how far will he go in his testimony? But the real concern is that – for the White House is that Rosenstein’s authority is sweeping, and he made that very – or Mueller’s authority is sweeping, and Rosenstein made that clear in conversations with House and – House members and senators over the last two days, that his purview in this investigation – Mueller’s purview – is as far as he wants to go. And that means those conversations that occurred around – with James Comey and around his firing, which, you know, as Julie mentioned, could be potentially obstruction of justice.
MR. COSTA: And Mueller’s so widely respected. He seems to separate, Manu, from the congressional investigations, which are still ongoing.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, and that’s right. And the question is, what impact will that have on the congressional probes? I was talking to Lindsey Graham this week, who is on one of the several committees that is looking into this issue of Russia meddling, and he’s concerned that his Judiciary subcommittee, which is trying to assert itself in this area, will no longer have access to key information because it’ll be shut down, Mueller won’t tell him as much as the Justice Department would. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees believe that they can still look into the issue of Russian meddling, but if Mueller wants to interview some key witnesses, perhaps those witnesses may not want to talk to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. So it’s a real question about whether their roles are diminished, as Mueller’s authority will be pretty expansive.
MR. COSTA: Michael, there’s this flurry of stories today. But those are not the only stories. And you’re such a student of President Trump, you’ve interviewed him so many times, there’s also the lingering issue of General Flynn, the former national security advisor. A grand jury in Virginia has subpoenaed his business records, looking at his lobbying work and money he may have received from the Turkish government – did receive from the Turkish government and allies of Turkey. And you also had the Senate Intelligence Committee asking for his records. But he’s stonewalling. He says he doesn’t want to perhaps give over those records, or at least his lawyer says that. Yet, the president, I’m told, continues to defend Flynn behind the scenes. Why is that? And how much of a problem is Flynn for the administration?
MR. SCHERER: There’s two issues here. One is what – who knew what about Flynn when, which could be a problem for the administration. The second is how the Flynn issue fits into this Russia anger that the president has, and whether the people around Trump can mitigate that going forward. I think we know – we can walk through all the mistakes that Trump has made over the last couple weeks.
What is unclear is whether there’s anyone around him who can, at this point, sit him down and say: Wait a minute, if you continue to make these decisions by yourself or by talking to people outside the White House or by just talking to a couple people around you who are really representing you in the White House, as opposed to the presidency and the institution of the presidency, then things will get worse. And Flynn was a great example. Trump fired Flynn. But the day he fired Flynn he came out and he said: Flynn’s a great guy. I really like Flynn.
And he has never backed down from that. And so that was a decision where clearly the presidency, the office of the White House, needed to fire Flynn. He’d done too many things that were too suspicious. He’d become too big a liability for the building. But Trump never bought into that decision. And that tension between the presidency and the president has to be resolved if the president’s going to get back on track.
MR. COSTA: And where is Vice President Pence in all this? You wrote so well about him this week. He seems to not always know, Julie, about these decisions that are being made, what General Flynn was up to. How is he helping the president, if at all, when it comes to Russia?
MS. DAVIS: Well, I mean, I don’t think he is. And the only question now really about Mike Pence is whether he is willfully sort of pushing these erroneous storylines that the White House will put out there and then walk back a minute later, or whether he’s being sort of duped and, you know, being asked to say something that’s not true, and he doesn’t know that it’s not true. It’s now been three times that he’s come out and said something, you know, to sort of further the administration’s storyline on a tricky issue, only to – only for the public to find out later that he’s actually given the wrong version of events.
That Jim Comey was not fired because of his handling of the email investigation, he was fired because of the Russia investigation, that the president felt that, you know, that relieved a lot of pressure on him. He went out to reporters on Capitol Hill and said exactly the opposite, as did other top White House officials. And so, again, the question is, is he allowing himself to be used, or is he simply not in the loop? And neither one is a particularly good position for him to be in.
But the other issue here – and I think Michael raises a really interesting point – Donald Trump really sees things in an us versus them way. And he thinks about you’re either on my side, you’re with me, you’re one of my guys or you’re not. And he thinks of Michael Flynn as one of his guys. And he still thinks of him that way. And when – now that it’s coming to light what Jim Comey was thinking in the weeks after Trump was inaugurated and he was having phone conversations with the president, being invited to dinner, having other meetings that we are only now starting to learn of – he felt that the president was trying to push him and influence him. And in a lot of ways, it seems that he was trying to feel him out. Is he with me or is he against me? And it seems like he concluded he was against me. And that’s why, ultimately, he had to go.
MR. COSTA: Alexis, when you’re sitting that briefing room every day, it’s not just Vice President Pence who has credibility questions, it’s many of the spokespeople for the president. H.R. McMaster coming out and giving his statements. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Are they aware of, beyond Russia, the credibility gap they face with the press and many Americans?
MS. SIMENDINGER: They are well-aware of it. But the challenge for them is that you’re between a rock and a hard place. You do or you don’t. And the pressure from the president himself is I need people to help explain this, or he’s urging them and is irate about it. I need someone to cover for me. And the president gets into, you know, a mode of trying to argue you have to get out there and say something for me. What’s interesting about whether it’s McMaster or the vice president, to me, is look at how many people are circling around the vice president – and it’s not just his staff – concerned that he has to keep that halo above his head, because they’re not sure where this is going. That, politically, is one of the interesting stories to watch.
MR. RAJU: And also, politically, if the president’s credibility continues to erode, his approval ratings continue to erode, the harder and harder it is going to be to convince his own party to walk the plank for him on some key issues. I mean, remember, with all these controversies, there are still some huge things that he wants to try to get done on the domestic agenda.
MR. COSTA: Are they stalled? Is health care stalled? Is tax reform stalled?
MR. RAJU: It could be. I mean, we’re not quite there to say they’re dead yet. They’re still trying behind the scenes to cut a deal in the Senate on health care. They’re still – they’re at square one on tax reform.
MS. DAVIS: Not even.
MR. RAJU: Not even at square one on tax reform. So it’s going to take a lot of presidential involvement to get this done, especially since these bills – particularly the health care bill – is so unpopular. So if the president continues – all these controversies continue to overshadow him, and he continues to get less – more unpopular and his credibility continues to erode, as they change their stories on all sorts of things, this has an impact on his domestic agenda and ability to sell things.
MR. COSTA: And just – one Capitol Hill, it wasn’t just about health care and taxes that could be affected by all this. Democrats are bringing up the word “impeachment,” and possibly moving forward with that, Michael.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah. I mean, we’re not at the point yet where that’s likely, or Republicans are going to sign onto that. I mean, I don’t think there’s even really going to be discussion of that until we get to a point where the investigation actually comes forward and says there was a crime committed here, and then there’s a discussion about that. I think what’s interesting is that during the campaign we often got around this table and talked about how this was really unprecedented, we’d never seen something like this, he was making big mistakes. And he was always to overcome them because he was able to connect with the American people. Politically, he could win. He could win with message.
What’s interesting about this set of scandals is that the politics could matter at some point in Congress, but right now the things that are threatening him are not politics. And he doesn’t seem to have internalized that. He’s still trying to tweet himself out of this box in the morning and message his base. You know, if you have a special counsel coming after you, if you have Jim Comey coming after you, you can’t groom your way out of that.
I mean, the calls with Comey were so interesting because it came after he fired Preet Bharara, the New York federal prosecutor after saying to Preet, you can keep your job. And Preet afterwards came out and said, you know, it was weird. He never told me why he fired me. And between the time he said you can keep your job and the time he said I was fired, he called me a few times. And Preet found that very unusual. But I think Trump came into office thinking he could run the government –
MR. COSTA: Comey felt very uneasy about how he was treated. There’s a story, I believe it was in The New York Times, about how Comey tried to blend into the curtains inside of the White House, but the president still tried to embrace him. I mean, what I hear from my sources on Capitol Hill – Republicans and Democrats – and they talk about Mueller, you know why they really like Mueller? Because Comey had credibility questions with both sides. The Trump administration has its obvious questions about Russia interference and its own role.
But Mueller is at least seen by both parties – by most people – as a steady hand here. And it reminds me that they’re still searching for a new FBI director. It looks like former Senator Lieberman, Julie, is going to be the frontrunner. But the administration decided not to name that person on Friday.
MS. DAVIS: Well, that’s interesting, because I wondered when our story came out about what he had said to the Russians in the Oval Office about firing Comey, I know that they were given some notice for the story so that we could get a comment from them. And I had to wonder whether their decision, which was a fairly last-minute decision – they were saying all the way up until this morning that they were still hoping to name someone on Friday – had something to do with that, that they didn’t want, like, the new story line, because I think they are looking for something of a reset with whoever they announce, to be all caught up in, you know, this backward-looking why was Comey fired, you know, was it about Russia?
But for sure, I mean, I think it’s sort of an extraordinary circumstance the president finds himself in. He is – his White House – now we know a top member of his administration in the White House is being investigated by the FBI and he is – he has now fired the FBI director and is naming another one. And that person is going to come in with an enormous sort of cloud and in the midst of a lot of turmoil, following Comey’s firing.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Can I just add, you know, we were talking about one of the impacts of this inside the White House or inside the administration. I think it’s worth it just reminding people that when you have a scandal like this that is very consuming inside the West Wing, things freeze. And we were already talking about a president who was thinking about changing his staff. Then you start thinking about making hires. And then they’re getting pushback from people who don’t want to come in. You’ve got vacancies in the executive departments and agencies. You have people who cannot further the agenda. So when Manu’s talking about what’s happening on Capitol Hill, it’s also happening inside the executive branch. And government kind of freezes in a crisis. And we’ve seen that in the past. And you can see it inside the West Wing.
MR. RAJU: And it’s going to freeze even more as we get closer to the midterms. It’s going to be harder and harder to get anything accomplished, either legislatively or administratively. And, you know, you mentioned the FBI director pick, Joe Lieberman, if he does get the nod, that will still be a heavy lift. He’ll probably still get confirmed by the Senate, because the Republicans have the votes. But Democrats, even though he was one of their own, their vice presidential nominee in 2000, are prepared to fight him.
MR. COSTA: They’re already crowing. They don’t want –
MR. RAJU: They’ve already crowed. They don’t want him.
MR. COSTA: They don’t want Senator Lieberman, and they’re on the record saying that.
MR. RAJU: They are on the record saying that. They said an overwhelming majority – the leadership is saying an overwhelming majority of their caucus will vote against him. So that could take some time to get approved because of that.
MR. SCHERER: There’s also a real possibility that in the coming weeks Trump loses more of the support of the people he needs around him. And you already saw it happen this last week. At the beginning of the week you had people – and last week – you had people coming out on the record defending the president with bad information and then seeing their reputations tarnished. At the end of the week, when the report came out about Comey having written a contemporaneous memo, the White House puts out a statement with no name attached to it denying it. But nobody in the White House would even put their name to it. At the same time, what we got, what other publications have gotten in terms of blind quotes from West Wing officials and senior administration officials, I mean, you read the words they’re saying, it’s real despair. I mean, these are things you don’t normally hear anyone talking, whether their name’s on it or not, on – you know, people texting their friends on the outside about how their whole life is sort of falling apart.
MR. RAJU: Especially if they start lawyering up, too.
MR. SCHERER: That’s right.
MS. DAVIS: Well, and that’s probably what’s happening right now.
MR. COSTA: And the reason so many of these White House officials I’m speaking to don’t want their name on it is they feel the president could undercut them a day later with a tweet and undercut everything they’re talking about.
This all overwhelms, in a sense, the foreign trip which the president left for on Friday. He was hoping to escape the swamp during this first international trip as president, but that seems unlikely. First Lady Melania Trump is traveling with the president. The nine-day trip includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Italy, where he will meet with the pope and with G-7 leaders. Mr. Trump will also travel to Brussels to meet with key NATO allies. Julie, can he leave this crisis behind and actually accomplish something with this trip?
MS. DAVIS: Well, I mean, that’s the hope, but it’s hard to see how. I mean, for his first foreign trip – and he hasn’t even really traveled very much domestically since he took office – but it’s just a huge, ambitious trip. He’s going to give a major speech in Saudi Arabia about Islam. He’s going to give a major speech in Israel. He has nine different stops. We know that he doesn’t particularly like being outside of his home, away from his bed and the food he’s familiar with, so –
MR. COSTA: Supposedly they’re going to give him steak with ketchup in Saudi Arabia. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: That’s what we hear. So, you know, this is – so he’d be under duress in this environment that he’s not used to anyway, and given the ambition of the trip and the extent of the issues and all of the world leaders he’s going to be interacting with. But having this hanging over him – and literally 30 minutes after Air Force One took off on Friday these two stories came out about, you know, all of the problems he’s facing domestically at home – it’s hard to see how he makes a lot of headway with this trip. And the White House officials I have spoken to in the last few days say – basically sound like, you know, they feel like it would be a win if there are no major incidents, no major international incidents or gaffes on this trip. And I mean, that’s just the reality that he’s facing right now.
MR. COSTA: Alexis, when he goes to Saudi Arabia, what’s his message to the Muslim world? He can’t erase what he said during the campaign, the Muslim ban and the hardline rhetoric.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, it’s interesting because he wants to give a very formative speech to describe his feeling about Islam, and he wants to be very encouraging, and as you say he has this background. He also wants to morph it into a discussion of Judaism and Christianity, because he’s making stops in Israel and then in – at the Vatican. And one of the challenges is how will he talk about – try to make the distinction between terrorism and his language, his rhetoric from the campaign, and maybe pivot to talking about extremism? Because he’s going to be making some stops that talk directly about that and how there’s an alliance – he’s trying to build an alliance with Middle Eastern allies and partners to fight this back. And so rhetorically it’s going to be a nuance that I haven’t seen him want to willingly exploit.
MR. RAJU: And we know one of his chief speechwriters here is Stephen Miller, the former Jeff Sessions aide, the hardliner on immigration, the anti-globalist. How does Stephen Miller write a speech that appeals to the Muslim world while also not – while staying true to his principles? He is a very ideological guy. And will he get overruled internally? I mean, will Trump sound more diplomatic than, say, maybe a Stephen Miller speech may sound?
MR. COSTA: I hear Stephen Miller will have his fingerprints all over the NATO speech as well. Western Europe is a little, well, disquieted by Stephen Miller determining the future of the Western alliance. (Laughter.) But real quickly, Michael, close us up here. I don’t see Secretary of State Tillerson having a heavy influence over this trip, but is this all about Jared Kushner, the shadow secretary of state brokering Middle East peace?
MR. SCHERER: We don’t even know what exactly is happening, but it’s definitely true that Jared has been the point person in Mexico, been the point person in Israel, and he’s on this trip.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. We could keep going all day. (Laughter.)
Let me pause for a moment to extend my appreciation to everyone I met at the PBS annual meeting in San Diego, and for all the good wishes and support. Please know I’m very proud to be part of the public television family, and look forward to visiting many of you in the near future.
Our conversation, as always, continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about the legacy of Roger Ailes, a controversial TV executive. He revolutionized cable news when he created the Fox News Channel and transformed conservative politics. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy your weekend.