PETE WILLIAMS: A week of big surprises, from the Russians and the House speaker in waiting. Plus, another mass shooting prompts tough words from the president. I'm Pete Williams, in for Gwen Ifill, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.
MR. WILLIAMS: Presidential outrage at yet another mass shooting, but what comes next? On Capitol Hill, a government shutdown is headed off, but not before a combative hearing over federal money for Planned Parenthood.
CECILE RICHARDS: (From video.) This is about women's choice to me. This isn't about Planned Parenthood. It's about allowing women in this country to make their own decision.
REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ (R-UT): (From video.) If you want to be a private entity, be a private entity. But you don't need federal dollars in order to do this.
MR. WILLIAMS: And the likely new House speaker comes under fire for suggesting the congressional Benghazi investigation is politically motivated.
REPRESENTATIVE KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi Special Committee.
MR. WILLIAMS: Overseas, the United States and Europe are caught off guard by Russia's intervention in Syria.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From video.) We are seeing the true intentions of Vladimir Putin to maintain a strong position in Syria, his foothold in the Middle East, and his propping up of Bashar Assad.
MR. WILLIAMS: Decoding Russia's motives and the Obama-Putin relationship.
Covering the Week, Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics; Susan Davis, congressional reporter for NPR; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Nancy Youssef, senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation's capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Pete Williams of NBC News.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening. It has become agonizingly familiar, a mass shooting in America, this time again on a school campus followed by presidential outrage over the issue of guns. This time it was Roseburg, Oregon, a 26-year-old man opening fire in a community college building, killing nine students and injuring nine others. The ATF says he carried six guns with him and had seven more at home. Just a few hours after Thursday's shooting, as he has more than a dozen previous times during his presidency, Mr. Obama condemned the violence and forcefully called for stricter gun laws, but acknowledged that politics are driving the debate.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It's not enough. And, of course, what's also routine is that somebody somewhere will comment and say: Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.
MR. WILLIAMS: That political debate was quickly joined by the candidates for president.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) This is a much deeper thing than some law we can pass. Not every problem before America has a federal solution.
FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR MIKE HUCKABEE (R): (From video.) I keep waiting for someone to tell me what new gun law can we pass that would have prevented this shooting or Sandy Hook or Aurora or Charleston.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From video.) Look, stuff happens. There’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it's not necessarily the right thing to do.
MR. WILLIAMS: So the president was asked about that today in his news conference. What did he say about Mr. Bush's comments?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: He kicked it right out of the room. It was interesting because he had, for two days, including today at the news conference, talked about how he – it was a political issue and he wanted to politicize it. When the introduction was that Jeb Bush, a candidate for president who wants to succeed him, had said some comments that indicated that this was a broader problem than, you know, just guns, the president said, I'm not going to deal with that.
MR. WILLIAMS: But is there any reason to think that this time something will change, that it'll different?
MS. SIMENDINGER: There is no suggestion either at the White House or on Capitol Hill that there is any appetite to revisit this as a legislative issue in the time that President Obama has remaining in office. And the president himself has been pretty candid about where the opposition is. He puts the blame on the National Rifle Association. He's arguing that the money that goes into politicians' pockets for their races is the preventative measure that keeps legislation as it was blocked in 2013 and that it's not going to come up again successfully. In effect, he is saying this is a project for the next president.
PETER BAKER: He did offer some things earlier in his second term and failed, as you said, to get them through. So did anything come out of his latest statements that indicated they would have stopped some of these shootings, as the Republicans were talking about? Does he have some specific ideas that would have applied in these particular cases, or is it a more generalized, let's see what we can do about guns?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It is such an interesting question because sitting in the briefing room yesterday when the president came out, he was not dealing with the specifics even of what had been promoted in 2013 as part of the legislation that failed. He did not repeat or even get involved in the specifics even today in the news conference. What he says is, look, you know, we can't stop troubled people from having mental illness or feelings that they want to harm innocent people, but he’s saying they shouldn't be given – have an arsenal to do that.
Now, he didn't even advocate any measures that would even come close to the idea that you have a limit on how many weapons you're allowed to purchase. He didn't offer any specifics about that. He didn't talk about that being a problem. And in fact, what we've learned about the Oregon massacre is that the guns purchased by that family, by the shooter's family, were legally obtained. So he has not addressed it specifically, other than this feeling that guns are at the root of this.
SUSAN DAVIS: Have guns and gun policy issues come into play at all in the presidential election before this?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, there has been a lot of discussion on the Republican side of the aisle about the Second Amendment. And it's not necessarily that candidates are reacting to events, as much as they are appealing to base Republican conservative voters in criticizing either the administration or aligning themselves with the protection of Second Amendment constitutional rights to bear arms. And that's how it's come up, appealing to the base.
NANCY YOUSSEF: You mention that he gave this very passionate speech after this shooting, and yet there aren't legislative measures in place to back them up. So what comes next? Is this something that goes to the states? What was the expectation or the hope that this speech that he gave from the podium, that – where would it lead?
MS. SIMENDINGER: President Obama answered that question today by saying, no, he is just going to talk about this. So for the remaining 15 months of his presidency, he said, his weapon is to speak to the American people and try to use the politics or the – I guess, the shaming, or the responsibility – he's actually arguing that the American people are – looking at polls – are supportive of measures that are gun safety or background check expansions, or assault weapons ban. He argues they are supportive of that, and he wants to encourage them to say: This is my responsibility. I should choose my future representatives, my members of the Senate, the next president, based on, as he called it, be a single issue voter.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right, Alexis, thank you. Back here in Washington, the House Speaker John Boehner surprised everybody, including his Republican colleagues, when he said that he'll step down at the end of the month. His departure helped assure that a bill passed to keep the federal government going for at least another few months, but the focus quickly shifted to his likely successor, Kevin McCarthy. And it was a moment of accidental candor from the speaker in waiting that ignited a political firestorm.
REP. MCCARTHY: (From video.) And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi Special Committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable.
MR. WILLIAMS: The criticism was instantaneous, and it came from both parties, and that prompted McCarthy to go back on television and backtrack.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) One of the things that you have to be very specific about is that none of your taxpayer dollars are used for any political purpose. And I think he clearly – gleefully claimed that this had a political purpose and had a political success.
REP. MCCARTHY: (From video.) This committee was set up for one sole purpose, to find the truth on behalf of the families for four dead Americans. Now, I did not intend to imply in any way that that work is political. Of course it is not. It’s been a setback, yes, because I do not want to make that harm Benghazi Committee in any way, because it's not political.
MR. WILLIAMS: McCarthy says he'll be a different kind of speaker. But, Susan, how did he do on his tryout?
MS. DAVIS: It’s a little stumbling out of the gate. I think that when McCarthy made the Benghazi comments, he said the one thing that Republicans have insisted from the beginning when they started this committee that it wasn't true, that it wasn't about politics. And now you have someone that’s poised to be speaker of the House, although it’s not entirely certain that he’s going to be there yet, saying this was politically aimed, that this was in part to take down Hillary Clinton in her presidential race.
It was a gift to the Democrats. They were – immediately jumped on it, as you said, to say this committee should be disbanded, it should be discredited. And it has created criticism of McCarthy from his own party. Jason Chaffetz, who’s a Republican from Utah, criticized him publicly. And today it's been reported that he is now considering getting into the speaker's race himself, probably in part because of frustration over comments like the Benghazi statement.
MR. WILLIAMS: So there – he didn't get a lot of help from his colleagues saying, no, no, you misunderstand him?
MS. DAVIS: No. And I think, partly because what do they want from party leaders? They want clear messaging. They want people that can go on television and say what the Republican message is and have a winning argument, not make very significant misstatements.
MR. BAKER: You say he’s poised to be next speaker, but it is not definite. As you mentioned, Chaffetz may run. Who else may run? Is there a strong well of opposition to him? Or does he have a pretty good shot at this?
MS. DAVIS: He has a pretty good shot. He is certainly the presumptive favorite. There’s only two declared candidates in the race, McCarthy and a Republican from Florida named Daniel Webster. If Chaffetz gets in, he’d be the third. The problem with the speaker is it’s a two-prong race. Not only do they have to win Republicans first, then they have to go to the entire House. And the speaker, because it is a constitutional officer, is elected by the entire chamber. Right now, that means he’s going to need about 218 votes, if every member votes. And right now, he does not have that 218 votes. The thing that he has going for him is, no other Republican does either.
MR. BAKER: I mean, he couldn’t count on all of the Republicans to vote in the big vote.
MS. DAVIS: Yes.
MR. BAKER: Even if he won there.
MS. YOUSSEF: So, Susan, if he doesn’t have those 218 votes, how damaging were these comments about Benghazi in his campaign to become speaker?
MS. DAVIS: Well, we'll have to see. The leadership elections are going to be next Thursday. It seems close, but that’s a long time in leadership races. These are the ultimate inside game. They don't campaign publicly. It's all done behind closed doors. It’s member to member. And what I think is going to be interesting is if Chaffetz does get in, if members start endorsing Chaffetz and getting behind him publicly, it might suggest that he’s got some real trouble.
MR. WILLIAMS: One thing that Boehner's departure did do is keep the resolution going. And it wasn't tied to Planned Parenthood. So tell us about that, and how likely is it we’re going to go through something similar in December?
MS. DAVIS: It is fairly likely that we’re going to have more budget confrontations this fall. I think Republicans are trying to move the Planned Parenthood argument on to a separate track. They want to create a select committee, similar to the Benghazi Committee, to investigate Planned Parenthood, to appease conservatives that still want to keep that issue up. They’re probably pass more legislation on abortion rights. And they're going to look at other avenues, different budget bills, to try and defund Planned Parenthood. But they’re going to try and keep that separate from the shutdown argument.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Susan, today at the White House the president was talking about the upcoming fights that he imagines there would still be in December, but he also said talks are underway to try to reach some sort of longer-term budget agreement. What do you think that either Democrats or Republicans think the chances of that might be? He talked about leadership talks with the White House. And you just mentioned the potential weakness of stumbling out of the gate, if you're Kevin McCarthy. So what's the lay of the land look like for that?
MS. DAVIS: The likelihood of a budget deal, I think, is good, in part because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who every time he goes up to a microphone says Republicans aren't going to shut down the government and we're not going to default on our debt. So he’s saying he’s willing to negotiate. They have reached out to the White House. There’s back channel talks going on. And Mitch McConnell is very motivated not to have these fights again, because he thinks Republicans in Congress’ most important job is prove they can govern to help the Republican – their eventual nominee win the White House next year.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And the president said he won’t sign another CR, a short-term CR.
MS. DAVIS: Right. And the president wants a deal, too. So there is room here. There is room here to negotiate. But as usual, it will probably happen at the 11th hour. (Laughs.)
MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s take it back to Benghazi, though. How does this reposition Hillary Clinton when she goes up there to testify later this month? Was she on the ropes before? Now is she in a position of strength?
MS. DAVIS: I think she certainly is probably – I think it’s going to be very known by – made very known by Clinton and the Democrats on the committee. Those comments are going to be reused – (laughs) – again and again when she comes up here to testify. She’s coming up later this month. I think that, you know, again, it was a gift. It was a gift to Hillary Clinton. She came out almost immediately and seized on the comments and said this is proof that this is just a political witch hunt.
MR. WILLIAMS: But, on the other hand, the Republicans are not going to pull their punches because of this, are they?
MS. DAVIS: No, and Republicans will say, if not for this select committee, we might not know about the email server, about the emails. And so for a lot of their lawmakers and their supporters, they say, look, this committee really did find something substantive that other investigations had not found.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. We’ll all be watching when she testifies. Thank you.
President Obama began this week by meeting with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, at the United Nations, a meeting that one Obama insider called simply businesslike. The focus was the civil war in Syria, but just 24 hours later Russian planes ran bombing raids against what the Russians said were ISIS targets. But there are, to say the least, conflicting reports on whether the bombs were actually aimed at opponents of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) A military solution alone, an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population, is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work. And they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.
MR. WILLIAMS: And so it’s been a week of questions on Russia’s involvement in Syria and whether a military solution is the answer. But first, Peter, was the president caught off-guard by what the Russians did?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think the Russians have kept him off-guard for the last several weeks on this for sure. I mean, it’s been two years since President Obama met with Vladimir Putin in a formal sit-down session. You got to think this one didn’t exactly encourage the idea of more of those conversations, right? As soon as they walk out, as you point out, the bombs are flying.
You know, President Putin and President Obama don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, and they’re having this sort of long-distance as well as close-in debate over the right approach to Syria. Putin’s point is you guys undermined President Bashar al-Assad, and as a result terrorists like the Islamic State, or ISIS, has gotten a foothold, is your fault. And of course, President Obama, as we just heard, said you can’t bomb your way out of this anyway, and especially if you bomb the only people who could participate in an eventual political settlement that has to include some of the legitimate opposition.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Nancy, let’s just pick up on that. How does this complicate the fight against ISIS?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, it was so fascinating how it started. It was almost like a spy novel. A three-star Russian general shows up at the embassy in Baghdad and says, we’ll be starting our bombing imminently – they started an hour later – and you should probably get your personnel out of the country or off the ground and get the flights stopped – suspend your flights because we’re here. And just like that, the entire tenor of the war changed. You now have Russia at the – at the seat of the table on an eventual negotiation for the end of the war in Syria. We’re talking about Russia now in a way that we weren’t just last week. On top of that, these strikes that they’ve done have been mostly targeting opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad outside of ISIS.
MR. WILLIAMS: OK, so tell me how we know that.
MS. YOUSSEF: OK.
MR. WILLIAMS: The Russians said they were going to target ISIS, but how do we know for sure they weren’t?
MS. YOUSSEF: So in a – I’ll sort of oversimplify the map, so forgive me. Northern Syria primarily are rebels that are not affiliated with ISIS. Some of them you’ve heard about – Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, al-Qaida affiliates. Western Syria is largely regime-controlled, but not exclusively. Northeast Syria is largely ISIS-controlled. And then the far east portion of northeast northern Syria is Kurdish-controlled. And so these strikes were hundreds of miles away from those ISIS areas.
MR. WILLIAMS: Not even close.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right, in areas that were lost by the Syrian regime in just the last few months – for example, Idlib and parts of Hama, which are part of that western area. And so they just today started hitting ISIS areas. And are they – but the question becomes, were they token strikes? Time will tell.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, sitting in the State Dining Room today at the White House with the White House correspondents, asking the president questions about Syria, the president’s opening answer was something like 20 minutes long, right, and the questions were, what do you think about no-fly zones? Are we, the United States, going to defend the rebels who are fighting Assad? You know, what’s the new – what are the new elements that we might be thinking about? The train and assist – trying to train the Syrian rebels – and the president said that hadn’t gone so well. But we didn’t actually – reporters all came away not getting a lot of answers about, is the strategy staying in place or is something changing? And what do you experts make of the president’s remarks? Where are we?
MR. BAKER: I think that the strategy is not changing. I mean, I think he made that somewhat clear by saying, basically, it’s not for us to engage in this beyond what we’re doing. He may change the tactics, right? He talked about bolstering the Kurds more because they’ve had more success on the ground than the American-trained rebels, of whom we recently learned only five or six are actually in the fight. And so, you know, clearly they’re talking about ways of shifting around the things that they doing, but you’re not going to see a wholesale change in strategy. And you saw the president say very clearly he’s not planning to cooperate with the Russians in any kind of military intervention. That is a disaster in the making, he said.
MS. DAVIS: What does Russia want? And specifically, what does Vladimir Putin want?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, that’s the question that sort of hovers over all of this. Very simply – well, I guess not simply, actually. It’s a complicated sort of mosaic of factors, isn’t it? And I guess the top reason, if you will, is that he wants us to be talking about Russia, to consider it a number-two spot in the – in the – on the world stage and as a world military. And at the same time, he exposed the weakness of the U.S. superpower hold on the region. And then – so there was that dual purpose. At the same time, there is a sense that he really fears a Syria that falls into ISIS hands, that he believes a Bashar al-Assad is a more stabilizing force than the opposition on the table.
And militarily, he has a lot to gain, too. There is an airfield that the Syrians use and there’s a naval base off of the Syrian coast, and that’s their strongest military hold in the region.
And so all those factors come into play. And frankly, it was some would argue an opportunity for him to take advantage of a U.S. strategy that seemed to be not as committed to the war in Syria.
MR. BAKER: I would – I would add one more thing. I think all those things are exactly right, and I would add one more thing. In some ways, he’s not just defending Bashar al-Assad’s government, he’s defending his own government, because in his view, if you can simply come into a country and topple a government because it happens to be autocratic, because it happens to treat its people badly, that’s a precedent that he doesn’t like because he’s seen it in his own neighborhood in Georgia, in Ukraine, and he fears it desperately in Moscow. And that’s something that has been on his mind for years to come. And so for him in effect this is stating a point of principle, which is, yeah, you may not like autocracy, but guys like Mubarak in Egypt, guys like Assad in Syria –
MS. YOUSSEF: Qadhafi.
MR. BAKER: – and guys like me in Moscow are better than the chaos that you, the West, have created here.
MS. YOUSSEF: Also Qadhafi in Libya was another figure.
MR. BAKER: And Qadhafi.
MR. WILLIAMS: Speaking of possible chaos, what are the chances, with both Russian and American planes over Syria, that they will end up banging into each other and we’ll have a superpower conflict or a proxy war?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, you might have heard a word this week, “deconfliction.” And that means – it is the effort by both countries to figure out how to not run into each other in the air. And so we started to hear talks between the two countries about that. The challenge becomes how much can you trust the Russians to hold to their agreements? And how frank of a conversation can you have?
Now, practically speaking, because the U.S. and the Russians as of now are flying in two different spaces, the risk is less, but certainly not eliminated. And so in the immediate it doesn’t seem to be the – a real risk. But remember –
MR. WILLIAMS: On the other hand, we haven’t done exactly a lot of military rehearsing and training with the Russians, have we? They’re not a NATO country. (Chuckles.)
MS. YOUSSEF: Not recently. The biggest challenge, I think, for the Russians is, what happens if, for example, a car bomb goes off in front of that airfield or one of those planes are shot down? How do they – how do they extract themselves from this situation? But in terms of running into each other, remember, the United States has basically said it doesn’t have an interest in turning this into a proxy war. When it was offered the chance, for example, to defend some of its moderate rebels, as they call them, on the ground, the U.S. said we’re not going to – we’re not going to take that risk. We’re not going to risk elevating this into something bigger.
MR. WILLIAMS: Peter, we’ve talked about the – how inconvenient this is for the U.S., but what is the risk for Putin here?
MR. BAKER: Oh, a lot of risk. And in fact, some people in Washington think what he’s done here is sown his own, you know, bad oats, in effect – that this will come back to bite him in a very big way. You know, you got to remember Russia has a sizeable Muslim population, some of which has been radicalized over the years, particularly in the Caucasus – that would be Chechnya and the surrounding areas. And as President Putin noted at the U.N. this week when he spoke there, about 2,000 Russian citizens have gone to Syria to fight in that war. He is afraid of them coming home. You know, he’s put a target on the backs of the Russian government at this point from radical Islamists who might want to take revenge against them. And we’ve seen over the years, you know, bombings in the Moscow subway and so forth. So I think that he’s entered a fray where he may find that he’s created an issue that he wouldn’t particular like.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One last question I have. What is Iraq’s role in this? Because we’ve heard at the U.N. about intelligence sharing, and you were talking about the heads-up. What is Iraq’s role? Obviously we’re so invested in Iraq and the government there.
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, the difference between Iraq and Syria for the United States is that the United States feels it has a ground force and a government that it can put the nation’s hands into once ISIS is defeated – in the case of Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi, who the United States has great faith in won’t be a sectarian. In addition, there are 3,000 U.S. troops there working aggressively to try to train the Iraqi army to defend space. And so it’s interesting that Iraq was used in the run-up to this to sort of message to the United States that, for all your efforts, for all those troops and strikes, we’ve got a presence now, too, in the form of intelligence officers who are sharing information.
MR. WILLIAMS: Peter, let me just very briefly ask you – a quick answer here – what else came out of the meeting in New York with the two presidents? Anything?
MR. BAKER: Well, they were supposed to actually talk about Ukraine. In fact, you know, what the Americans wanted to make clear was we’re not giving up on Ukraine, we’re not allowing the Russians to simply put that on the back shelf while they distract attention in Syria. So that came out. But the problem is that Syria has distracted from Ukraine, and it’s left that situation sort of up in the air.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Peter, thank you. Nancy, thank you. Thank you all.
That will have to wrap it up for tonight, but the conversation goes on. It continues on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we’ll talk about some rather pointed words the president offered on the difference between being president and a presidential candidate. Note to Hillary Clinton: he meant you. That posts later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Pete Williams. Gwen is back around the table again next week on Washington Week. Good night.