ROBERT COSTA: New clues in the Mueller probe – is it winding down or up? I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He was my first choice from day one, respected by Republicans and respected by Democrats.
MR. COSTA: President Trump nominates William Barr, a former attorney general under the late President Bush, for another stint at the Department of Justice. And as Robert Mueller plows forward the president steps up his attacks on the special counsel, setting the stage for political and legal war. But what did new court documents reveal about former Trump associates, and what’s the game plan for the president’s counter-report? Plus, staff turbulence shakes up the president’s circle and we remember President George H.W. Bush, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. New federal court documents are giving us a glimpse into the progress and scope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and the roles of three key figures.
First, Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but has been cooperating with Mueller, who recommended little or no prison time for Flynn this week.
Then there is Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer. He pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. Prosecutors say he deserves substantial prison time despite his cooperation. The president has railed against him as a turncoat.
And, of course, Paul Manafort. The former Trump campaign chairman pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, but violated his plea agreement and is now in solitary confinement just down the road in Virginia.
What a week. Joining me tonight: Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post; Abby Phillip, White House correspondent for CNN; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.
A busy Friday, Andrea. Appreciate everyone being here. I know you all just came from your newsrooms. Start with Michael Cohen. A revealing document. They’re being pretty tough on him, saying he should still go to jail. What stands out to you? What’s important for President Trump?
ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, for President Trump, who is really central in all of these filings – for President Trump it’s important that Cohen was, according to the prosecutors, coordinating his false testimony to Congress with the White House. Who in the White House we don’t know, but that coordination is certainly troubling for the White House, for the president as well. And also that President Trump himself directed those payments. We knew this from his plea, but this is very specific that the president of the United States directed those payments when he was a candidate to those two women, and this is a violation of campaign finance law, as has been admitted to, and that they believe that Cohen does not deserve a lenient sentence, at least those from the Southern District. They say that his cooperation was not immediate, it was not full, and in fact the details about his – the allegations that have now been established of tax violations – millions of dollars in unpaid taxes – there’s a lot more to Michael Cohen than we knew before.
MR. COSTA: The president said in a tweet, Phil, he’s not worried about any of this. He says he’s in the clear. But is that really the sense inside of the White House tonight?
PHILIP RUCKER: Well, he’s not in the clear, but this is an attempt by the president to create something of an alternate reality – to message directly to his supporters through those tweets that there’s nothing to worry about here, that it’s a witch hunt, that it’s all phony, don’t believe what you see in the news, when in reality these court filings detail in meticulous detail all the instances in which he’s not clear.
There’s one other important thing in the Cohen filing, by the way, which is a new contact that Cohen had with Russia, and this was in November of 2015. It’s detailed by the prosecutor that a Russian national who claimed to be representing the federation reached out, offering synergy – that’s the quote used, synergy and synergy with government – to connect the Trump campaign with Russia, try to set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Cohen didn’t accept the meeting, didn’t respond, but it is another example of the Russians trying to infiltrate the Trump campaign.
MS. MITCHELL: And that there were more Russians as well as that one.
MR. RUCKER: Correct.
MR. COSTA: So synergy may be the new word, not collusion. If Michael Cohen, Abby, provided all this information to Robert Mueller’s investigation, why are the prosecutors still being so tough on him?
ABBY PHILLIP: Well, part of this has to do with the cases involving the tax issues that are separate from the Mueller investigation, and they basically said that Michael Cohen was using his position and being greedy and trying to evade taxes in order to make money, lying about it, and then when he was being caught wasn’t being fulsome about the truth. So in that particular case the federal prosecutors are saying Michael Cohen doesn’t deserve any leniency because he basically flagrantly violated the law and did so repeatedly, to the tune of millions of dollars.
When it comes to Robert Mueller, I think that Michael Cohen’s cooperation is a – is a different story, and I think that they – you know, they are – Michael Cohen wants zero prison time. He’s probably not going to get that. But his cooperation is not – in that case is not going to nullify the sort of tax evasion that he was accused of and found guilty of in the other case involving federal prosecutors in New York.
MR. COSTA: Carl, House Democrats take the majority in January. They must be watching this tonight and they say – they see individual one was involved in some way, individual one meaning President Trump, with this campaign finance violation, a felony. What does this mean for the investigations next year?
CARL HULSE: It took about five minutes from the time these documents were released before I got my first release from an incoming member of the Democratic leadership saying these are incredibly serious charges and we are going to hold the president accountable. Now, he was arguing – and Senator Diane Feinstein also came out with a really blistering statement – she’s, of course, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee in the Senate – saying that this looks like a felony committed at the direction of the president, which, of course, you know, in days past this would have gotten the wheels churning pretty quickly here. I think this is the kind of thing that Democrats will really sink their teeth into. They would like to see the Republicans do something about this, but it’s just not going to happen in the time remaining. But now they’ve got something to work with. There is a little bit of a roadmap that’s coming out in all these documents and filings that are being released.
MR. COSTA: Why did Michael Flynn get this – Robert Mueller to say he really shouldn’t go to prison, very little time, he’s been so helpful and cooperative? What’s the difference with Flynn?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, there are – there are two big differences. First of all, he cooperated early and often and told the truth. Second of all, the mitigating circumstance is that for 33 years he was considered an exemplary intelligence officer in the field. So he was military intelligence, you know, in Afghanistan. He’s been in battle. He’s been a combat officer. He did very badly as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and was fired by Jim Clapper, his then-boss, under the Obama White House, which made him so bitter against President Obama. And that’s when he apparently turned and did all of these other things – wanted money, dealt with the Russians, and also dealt with Turkey. And that is the other big part of this. Plus, a third investigation, and we don’t know what that was because that was redacted; that was all blacked out. But they said that he did – he did give everything up, and he only pleaded guilty to one count of perjury. So that is zero to six months, apparently. The sentencing guidelines are very different for the one count, in contrast, of course, to Cohen, for which those tax violations are very, very serious and it’s a much higher penalty, so that it would be really impossible for him to avoid jail time.
MR. COSTA: And Flynn met with Ambassador Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, during the transition. It brings back a lot of thoughts about that transition period in 2016, you covered it, Phil, and Flynn’s role.
MR. RUCKER: That’s right. And there was a discussion between Flynn and Kislyak, as we understand, about sanctions, the sanctions that were imposed by the Obama administration for punish – to punish Russia for their interference in the 2016 election. One thing that sticks out from the prosecutor’s – from the Mueller filings earlier this week about Flynn is that he’s met with the special counsel’s office 19 separate times. That is a big number. That’s a lot of cooperation. You wonder what he was saying in all of those meetings. We simply don’t know right now. But it has the president and people around him in his orbit quite worried, including key Republicans in the Senate.
MS. MITCHELL: And one quick point is that The Washington Post, David Ignatius, according to the filing, he kicked this all off by noting in a column back in January of 2017 that Kislyak had met with Flynn around the time of those sanctions, and that it was probably about telling Putin, you know, don’t worry, once we get in office we’re going to pull back those sanctions. And that’s what set Mueller off on this path.
MR. COSTA: As Paul Manafort sits over there in solitary confinement, and the Mueller investigators are wondering if he’s going to break, President Trump keeps praising his old associate, Roger Stone, for having guts and fighting back against investigators. What’s the White House view on Manafort? Is he going to hold, even as he continues to get in trouble for lying?
MS. PHILLIP: Right. And President Trump also continues to praise Paul Manafort, basically saying that he’s being treated unfairly. When President Trump talks about the Mueller investigation ruining lives, one of the people he’s talking about is Paul Manafort, who he – and also Michael Flynn – but Paul Manafort, who he believes is getting the short end of the stick on this. The view among the White House about Paul Manafort might be very different from how President Trump views it.
MR. COSTA: Are they considering a pardon, Abby?
MS. PHILLIP: President Trump continually thinks about pardons. Whether or not he actually wants to do it or is willing to do it is a different story. Every couple of months we hear from White House aides that President Trump is talking about it, that it is a topic of discussion. But I think a lot of people around the president believe that it is a bad idea politically. It’s a bad idea in terms of the president’s own legal fate, that he could be putting himself in even greater legal jeopardy if he even starts to have those conversations. And on occasions in the past, he’s been talked out of it in real, concrete ways. So this is a real thing that’s constantly churning. But like a lot of things in the Trump White House, all it takes is the president to finally make a decision to move forward. So far he hasn’t done it, but I think a lot of people continually hold their breath that it’s on the horizon that it could –
MR. COSTA: Let’s not –
MR. HULSE: I do think that is something that Democrats will be looking at very closely.
MR. COSTA: A pardon, you mean?
MR. HULSE: Because of the dangling of the pardons, and how that – how that is –
MR. COSTA: So you think they’re going to bring people up to Capitol Hill next year and ask about that?
MR. HULSE: I think they will definitely try and do as much as they can. It’s going to be aggressive.
MS. MITCHELL: And today’s filing said that Manafort has been in touch with the White House, with the administration, as recently as May 26th of this year from prison through an intermediary. That is another big, suspicious red light in Mueller’s filing tonight.
MR. COSTA: Finish up what you were saying about impeachment. Where are Democrats going to go here?
MR. HULSE: I didn’t say the word “impeach.” (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Well, I know, but I do think –
MR. HULSE: Democrats know when you look at what was in that – those filings today, that this – you know, part of this has been, well, what would you impeach the president for, and how can you start looking at this? There’s nothing there. I mean, there’s accusation in there that many experts are interpreting as implicating the president in the commission of a felony. That is the kind of thing that you look at when you are conducting oversight into the White House and what’s going on.
MS. PHILLIP: And felony about something very specific that President Trump continues to be closeted about, which is his taxes, essentially. So if Michael – if Michael Cohen was willing to lie about all of this stuff in order to evade taxes, the Democrats are basically saying: This is one of the reasons why we want to see President Trump’s tax returns. What else is there out there that he has been lying about for years?
MR. COSTA: And all this will come back to the Department of Justice, whatever Robert Mueller finds. And the person who’s the head of the DOJ matters. Let’s not forget, President Trump also announced today that he will nominate William Barr to be the next attorney general. Barr held that role in the 1990s under the late President Bush. And if confirmed, he would oversee the Russia investigation. A safe pick for the White House? A reassurance to Congress that they’re not going to put a Trump loyalist in there?
MR. RUCKER: As safe a pick as they could have had, potentially. He certainly comes from the establishment legal community of the Republican Party here in Washington. But he has made some controversial statements about the Mueller probe in the past that is sure to come up in his confirmation hearings. And he’s going to have to figure out, Barr is, how to navigate the questions and demands from senators, mostly Democratic senators but I think also some Republican senators. Will he pledge to let Mueller continue the investigation? Will he pledge to be an independent – to voice an independent actor at the Justice Department without being influenced on the Russia matter from the White House? And he’s going to have to figure out how to navigate that, while still making sure Trump views him as loyal and that he doesn’t get on the wrong side of the president.
MR. COSTA: Andrea, I want to follow up on what Phil just said. In May of 2017, Barr wrote an op-ed for the Post defending President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, really a fan of presidential power. He also told the Post the same year – or, actually, pretty – more recently than that, that Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, should be further investigated by the DOJ. So his bio screams establishment, but a lot of alliance here ideologically with President Trump, perhaps.
MS. MITCHELL: Yeah. I’ve heard that Rod Rosenstein was saying today that he’s happy about Barr, that he worked for him years ago. So there’s that. But I think under questioning in confirmation he’s going to have to make some declaration about willingness to protect the Mueller probe. That’s going to be, I think, the bottom line.
MR. COSTA: What’s your outlook on the Senate confirmation?
MR. HULSE: I think that there’s a high comfort level about Barr among Senate Republicans. He’s a grown-up. He’s done this before. They trust him. You know, it’s not – and I think the Democrats are going to do exactly what you said. And we’ve already seen this today from Senator Blumenthal and others. He’s going to have to commit to protect the investigation. I think it – I think that he was confirmed unanimously when he was confirmed attorney general the first time. Democrats actually liked him. So you know, I don’t – it’s not going to be a Kavanaugh situation. You know, it’s going to be – it’ll probably be OK.
MR. COSTA: And if you think about it’s not just Barr today. The president also announced his pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. President Trump has tapped Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson and former Fox News host, to replace Nikki Haley at the U.N. You’ve been at the White House all day, Abby. Is she someone who’s going to be shaping U.S. foreign policy, or is she more of a spokesperson for the policy, a lower-profile figure?
MS. PHILLIP: It does seem that the pick signals a shift in that role. Nikki Haley was a Cabinet-level U.N. ambassador. She wanted to be in that role on equal footing with the secretary of state and other national security officials. She viewed herself as an advisor – a policy advisor to the president, not just a spokesperson. Heather Nauert is quite literally a spokesperson, someone who was a former journalist, who communicates well and effectively what the president wants her to communicate. But the big question mark in her bio is her lack of experience in foreign policy, or at least a lengthy experience there. But that might be exactly what the president likes about her, and also what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo likes about her. Pompeo, you know, our reporting at CNN, wants that role to be not a – not a Cabinet-level position, in part to streamline the foreign policy through the State Department, again, which is more traditional for Republican presidents. So I think we’ll see that role diminishing with Nauert in that role.
MR. COSTA: Your read, Andrea?
MS. MITCHELL: In that it is not going to be a Cabinet post. She doesn’t have diplomatic experience. She was a spokesperson, and a very effective one, for Pompeo at the State Department, her current role. And there is criticism that she’s not a diplomat. She’ll be going up against a Russian with 30 years’ experience. How is she going to negotiate with these people? How is she going to have leverage there? Especially with a subordinated role, not a Cabinet officer reporting through Pompeo. This was a victory for Pompeo over John Bolton.
MR. COSTA: Phil, the other story – how many stories are there today, on a Friday? It’s hard to count. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, still there as of 8:20 in the evening. Will he be there tomorrow as chief of staff? Or Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, coming in?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, we’ll have to see. We’re on Kelly watch right now. And all signals from the White House, all of our reporting suggests that his days are numbered, that he and Trump are at sort of a breaking point, and it might be a mutual decision to split. But as far as we know, he’s not been fired or resigned yet. It could happen this weekend. It could happen Monday. Stay tuned. Nick Ayers, the Pence chief of staff, is the leading contender to replace Kelly, but that is by no means a done deal.
MR. COSTA: For a divided government, how important is that role next year, Carl, chief of staff?
MR. HULSE: Oh, it’s tremendously important, and it’s a person who a lot of time runs interference directly on the Hill and can be more of a surrogate for the president. Now, Nick Ayres, you know, has worked for Pence and has some connections there, but yeah, that’s an important job. I still think that the Trump administration hasn’t really adjusted to the new reality yet and how different their lives are going to be, and it’s going to take some real expertise, I think, to make this work at all. You talk about at the U.N. going up against some experienced people. Well, they’re going to be going up against some experienced people on the Hill, too, in the Democrats, who have been in this position before, and it’s going to be tough.
MR. COSTA: Final thought on John Kelly?
MS. PHILLIP: It could also signal the president shifting his own mindset toward his reelection more fully than even thinking about governance. I think the president is really kind of pulling back from the idea of getting things done in Washington and leaning into needing to figure out how to brawl his way through a reelection fight. Nick Ayres is viewed by President Trump as someone who has a political head on his shoulders and can help him do that.
MR. COSTA: Before we go tonight – there’s a lot of news, but it’s important – we have to pause, and we should, to remember President George H.W. Bush, who passed away this week at the age of 94. Family, friends, and dignitaries, along with five presidents, attended the funeral at the National Cathedral. Then, after a service in Houston, President Bush was laid to rest next to his wife, Barbara, and their daughter Robin on the grounds of the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. What a legacy, Andrea, for President Bush. What’s his legacy in the world?
MS. MITCHELL: He fought for the reunification of Germany against the advice of Margaret Thatcher and others in NATO and in the alliance, reshaping Europe, which means reshaping the world. He navigated the end of the Cold War and did it so brilliantly that Gorbachev was left able to save face. It ended with, you know, not a bang, but a whimper. It was a peaceful succession. As well as the restraint he showed in not going to Baghdad and not risking the lives of Americans on the ground. He created that incredible coalition, including Arab states, including, you know, Egypt and Syria, in fighting against Saddam Hussein, but then withdrawing immediately. It was a brilliant worldview. And he also compromised on the budget and knew that he was probably killing his chances for reelection in making that – in defying his own “no new taxes” pledge. I think that he will be treated very kindly in history for that kind of restraint, and for the decency and humility he showed.
MR. COSTA: Back at home, his reputation in Washington, his legacy.
MR. HULSE: Well, I think one thing that came through this week was dignity, civility, the interest in compromise, and I think that was a message some people would like to see more take to heart here, but I don’t think that we’re going to see this. I think, to me, he was a transitional president, and – but he – on his economic policy, exactly as she said, he took a big risk and set up Clinton for, you know, a real time of prosperity. But he also did things like the Americans With Disabilities Act. He was somebody who thought of government as a – as a calling and a service, and he wanted to see government and people do the right thing. Now a lot of times people look at government as they want to stop things and this is about not doing much, and he was somebody who wanted to accomplish things.
MR. COSTA: And the White House was pretty engaged this week in trying to work with the Bushes. The president, of course, has his own style. But what was it like to be at the White House this week as history happened and the – they said – the nation said goodbye?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, it was a very different kind of experience for this White House. It was without much controversy for a change. I think there was a lot of concern that maybe President Trump couldn’t do this, even after the Bushes, as The Washington Post reported, extended an olive branch over the summer, basically saying we want to bring you into this process. There is still always the possibility that President Trump, who is often driven by grievance, could not have allowed this to go forward, especially given all the comparisons that were happening on cable television about their styles and about their demeanors and their temperaments. But he did, and I think he seemed to very much enjoy the sort of retrospective, seeing the kind of presidency go from beginning to end and seeing for himself what legacy looks like. And I think for the – for White House aides there was a sigh of relief from a lot of them that he kept it low-key, and I think, you know, for once in Washington it felt like a very normal thing had happened.
MR. COSTA: And, Phil, you wrote an essay for the Post reflecting on the day. It was about President Trump and President Bush, but also really about the presidency as an institution, the way it’s changed in the past three decades.
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, well, this was the first time – the state funeral was the first time President Trump was with all his – all of his living predecessors, and he was plainly uncomfortable there. He was seated with them, but he was standing alone, and there were a lot of moments through that ceremony when the eulogers – the eulogists were talking about President Bush – his humility, his call to service, his military heroism, his bravery, his dedication to leading from the heart – where you could just see the implicit contrast to Trump. I think it was an uncomfortable moment for Trump and a – and a moment where the country sort of paused to realize how different this president is from the others.
MR. COSTA: And the Republican Party has changed so much.
MR. RUCKER: It has. And, Carl, you mentioned some of the things that Bush did in office. He negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump is now undoing. He signed into law the Clean Air Act, which the Trump administration is undoing. It was a very different Republican Party and a different kind of agenda than we have today.
MS. MITCHELL: The decency of the man came through and, I mean, he was a very tough competitor. The 1988 campaign that I covered was a wicked campaign, and the Willie Horton ads and all the rest, so there were those – both sides of it. But I was so touched, also, by his son, the president – the other President Bush’s eulogy and by Jim Baker’s tribute to him, the friend, in Houston. That was terribly moving.
MR. COSTA: Powerful moments. We’ll remember those moments, and we send our best to the Bush family. And thanks, everybody, again, for being here on a busy, busy Friday night.
Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find that on our website Fridays after 10 p.m. and also on your favorite podcast app.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.