GWEN IFILL: The gloves are off for both Republicans and Democrats, as the final countdown to voting begins. Plus, hostages are released and the Supreme Court picks up yet another political hot potato, tonight on Washington Week.
FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: (From video.) Three weeks is an eternity in politics. In New Hampshire, it’s an eternity.
MS. IFILL: Bill Clinton should know, because the race in Iowa and New Hampshire is suddenly tight.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Guess what? That inevitable candidate ain’t so inevitable today. (Cheers, applause.)
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) I know what it’s like to be knocked down, but not knocked out.
MS. IFILL: Tension is building among Republicans as well, with Sarah Palin back in the mix.
FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN (R): (From video.) They stomp on our neck, and then they tell us just chill. Well, look, we are mad, and we’ve been had.
MS. IFILL: And Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, tagging the other as creatures of the establishment.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) There’s a reason the establishment is attracted to Donald Trump, because he’s written huge checks to Hillary Clinton.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Here’s a guy with two bank loans, and now he’s going to go after Goldman Sachs? Doesn’t work that way. Goldman Sachs owns him. Remember that, folks. They own him.
MS. IFILL: Meanwhile, the Supreme Court steps in to stir the pot again, agreeing to take another look at President Obama’s immigration policies. And five long-held U.S. hostages are freed in Iran, as the nuclear deal meets its first big test.
Covering The Week, Jeff Zeleny, senior political correspondent for CNN; Molly Ball, political correspondent for The Atlantic; Joan Biskupic, legal affairs editor for Reuters; and Michael Crowley, chief foreign affairs correspondent for POLITICO.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. From our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. You can always tell when the rubber is about to hit the road. That’s when the politicians who once promised to stay above the fray dive in head-first. New polls show you trailing by double digits, take a shot.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Senator Sanders doesn’t talk very much about foreign policy, but when he does it raises concerns because sometimes it can sound like he hasn’t really thought it through. For example, he suggested we invite Iranian troops into Syria. That is like asking the arsonist to be the firefighter.
MS. IFILL: Under attack, fight back.
SEN. SANDERS: (From video.) From the bottom of my heart, above and beyond ideas, if you want somebody who is going to beat Donald Trump, who is going to beat the other Republicans, I think Bernie Sanders is that candidate.
MS. IFILL: And that’s just the Democrats. On the Republican side, the common target is Donald Trump. His target is Ted Cruz.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Cruz is going down. He’s going down. No, he’s having a hard time. He looks like a nervous wreck. He’s going down. He had his moment. He had his moment. He had his moment, and he blew it.
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) Conservatives are uniting behind our campaign. And we will see, like “The Empire Strikes Back,” the establishment will strike back because they don’t want an end to the cronyism and the gravy train from Washington.
MS. IFILL: But something’s changed. Everyone wants to be in Donald Trump’s crosshairs.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From video.) While I’m doing worse than him in the polls, the simple fact is why would he spent his time tearing down someone who’s so low compared to him? This is – this is because we’re moving up.
OHIO GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH (R): (From video.) We’re now in second place in New Hampshire, so hell’s coming, OK? (Applause.) No, I mean, you know, the slime machines are getting cranked up here. You know, and so they’re all going to come and bash me because I’m rising.
MS. IFILL: The spin is enough to make you dizzy. Starting with the Democrats, what do we know to be true tonight in Iowa, Jeff?
JEFF ZELENY: Well, Gwen, we know that we have a tight race. The race is on. Never mind all the polls. So many polls this year, but watch what the candidates are saying. And I was with Hillary Clinton on Thursday in Indianola, Iowa. And never mind – she was not talking about Donald Trump, as she usually does. She had one person in mind, Senator Sanders.
Again, and again, and again – from health care, to his liberal ideas, to foreign policy as we just heard there – she was squarely focusing on Senator Sanders. You may ask why she’s doing this. Well, the reality is her subtle messaging at this hasn’t seeped through to voters yet. So her campaign believes that she needs to essentially shake them, in the words of one adviser – shake some sense into some of these Iowa Democrats, they say, and remind them specifically of what Senator Sanders stands for.
The problem with that is though, Gwen, the energy and the excitement and the enthusiasm is on the left side of the party, with Senator Sanders. So what I was struck by this week, traveling across Iowa all week long with both candidates, is that the excitement and the energy is with Senator Sanders. And people are willing to give him a shot, at least to listen right now. Remember who the audience here is. They’re Iowa caucus goers, true believers, you know, the Democrats of the Democrats here. And they like what Bernie Sanders has to say.
So what Senator – Secretary Clinton is trying to do is trying to stop his rise, and convince people that she is the most electable one. But Senator Sanders almost sounded like Donald Trump there. Every stop he went to, he would talk about how he was leading in the polls, how he’s the one who could actually win. And I caught up with him, and he said that’s his biggest challenge here, is convincing people that he’s not just an idealistic hopeful candidate, convincing people that he can build a movement. So it’s a revolution on Sanders’ side, and her argument is results – I’m going to bring results. But we’ll see what kind of mood the voters are in.
MS. IFILL: Well, and we’ll circle back and talk about the Republicans on that same point, but first I want to ask Molly about New Hampshire. You just got off the plane, essentially, from New Hampshire, and you’ve been talking to Democrats and Republicans. But let’s start with the Democrats. How is that beginning to shake out?
MOLLY BALL: Well, it’s similar to Iowa. I mean, except that Hillary Clinton has been pretty far behind Bernie Sanders for quite a while in New Hampshire. And so you know, Bernie Sanders was in New Hampshire this week, he’s trying to shore that up as a must-win state, I think, for him. And so that’s another symptom of exactly what Jeff is talking about, that you do see Senator Sanders getting these big crowds, getting a lot of enthusiasm.
And you have – in addition to that, you have the independent factor in New Hampshire. This is a factor on both the Democratic and the Republican sides. A lot of – this very large segment of independent voters in New Hampshire are being compelled to Bernie Sanders’ message. He’s also an independent. And he’s someone who, in a way, is running against the Democratic Party, the institutions of the Democratic Party, the party establishment.
MS. IFILL: Is my memory faulty here, or were the Clinton people saying at the beginning of this enterprise, he’s from Vermont, of course he’s going to do better in New Hampshire, but now they seem a little bit more panicky about the prospect?
MS. BALL: Well, that was their way of lowering expectations early on, right?
MS. IFILL: Right, right.
MS. BALL: And I think the expectations are pretty low at this point. They don’t have to do that anymore. And now they’re scrambling because it is going to be an issue for Hillary if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, most Democrats I’ve talked to think that she’s still guaranteed to win in South Carolina, but nothing is a sure thing when the momentum is going the other way in – that strongly. So there is – there is a lot of nervousness in the Clinton camp. And they don’t really know what to expect. You know, the polls are all over the map. And at this stage, it’s hard to know what people are going to do.
JOAN BISKUPIC: Jeff, what do Democratic voters in Iowa want to hear from Hillary Clinton? Is there anything she could be saying in terms of substance or tone of her message that would change minds at this point?
MR. ZELENY: Joan, it’s a good question. I mean, when you talk to a lot of voters, I mean, they basically know Hillary Clinton so well. She’s been in their lives a long time. Of course, she ran here eight years ago. So I don’t know that they want to necessarily hear anything else from her, but it’s just the mood that some of these voters are in. And they really are – income inequality has become a central message and theme in this campaign. And they believe just that Senator Sanders speaks to that issue more.
And it’s so interesting here. I mean, she has tried sort of everything in terms of messaging. But it is just the mindset that these Democrats are in. But the question is, is this more like 2004 when we have Howard Dean sort of rising here, you know, is that the Bernie Sanders? And of course, he crashed. Or is this more like 2008, when Barack Obama created a movement and it kept going here? That’s what we don’t know exactly yet.
The dynamic is different across the map, of course, because some Democrats, you know, are frustrated with President Obama, that he hasn’t accomplished enough. So those Democrats are fueling Bernie Sanders’ rise here. But will they actually turn out at the caucuses on February 1st? Has he organized them well enough? That is an open question here. And this has all happened kind of – sort of just recently, within the last couple weeks or so. And there are some questions if Senator Sanders is able to properly channel this enthusiasm into actual turnout at the caucuses.
MS. IFILL: Well, I don’t want to make it seem as if all the big fight is happening on the Democratic side, because this week we had the return of Sarah Palin, we had National Review coming out with a special cover edition basically saying no to Donald Trump in a way which the conservatives have not been able to find their voice to do. It feels like there is a war going on now, really, within the Republican Party.
MS. BALL: That’s right. And you had – when I was up in New Hampshire this week, you had – John Kasich is there. And again, it’s impossible to know what to think from the polls right now. Some of them have him in a very strong second place. Some of them have him trailing. Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush – all of them are banking on New Hampshire because that is seen to be the place where a so-called establishment candidate, loosely defined, could consolidate that segment of the Republican electorate. But you know, looming over all of this is a candidate who wasn’t there this week, the front-runner, Donald Trump. And New Hampshire is his strongest state – strongest early state at this point.
And then Ted Cruz spent all week in New Hampshire on a bus tour. He’s still there. I saw him a couple times. He’s doing multiple events every day. Some people saying, why would he do that? Isn’t his candidacy much more about Iowa? But he thinks, first of all, if he makes a strong showing in New Hampshire, that could really cement what he hopes is a win in Iowa. And second, that there may be enough – you know, New Hampshire is not a state with a lot of the types of sort of Evangelical conservatives you have in Iowa, but Cruz thinks there are enough of them that he could place respectably there.
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, a question for Jeff out there in Iowa. You brought up the example of Howard Dean in 2004 and how an insurgent candidate’s ground game may be less than advertised. What about Donald Trump on the ground? Is he going to be able to translate this excitement into people actually coming out? Or you know, may it turn out that he’s sort of a celebrity phenomenon and people weren’t actually willing to give up a whole night for him in the cold?
MR. ZELENY: It is the central question here. And a couple data points that we know to sort of lead us to the answer. Donald Trump knows the name and phone number and email address of every single person who has attended one of his rallies across Iowa over the last six months or so. And if even half of those would come to the caucuses on February 1st, he would almost certainly win. The question is how many new people are coming into the process here. He’s not been building a traditional organization like most people are. Ted Cruz is doing that, the 99-county network all across Iowa, from the Missouri River to the Mississippi, you know, from Minnesota to Missouri. Ted Cruz has been everywhere in this state.
Donald Trump has been not everywhere, but he’s drawn a lot of people. You know, there is some anecdotal evidence that Donald Trump has some make-up work to do in terms of even telling people how to caucus, where to caucus. There are 1,681 precincts across the state. And he needs to get his supporters into their own precincts on February 1st. But Sarah Palin at his side this week in Iowa, I was so struck by, you know, is that going to help him? And I think it does help him here in Iowa, at least, because if there’s anyone with lingering questions about his New York values or other things – and that plays differently out here in Iowa. I think that she solves that problem.
MS. IFILL: Than it does in New York, you think? (Laughter.)
MR. ZELENY: Totally. She wraps him in her sort of hunting arms, you know, her every-woman arms. And I think that helps him here.
MS. IFILL: Her hunting arms, Jeff? (Laughs.)
MR. ZELENY: But Ted Cruz has a leg-up in organizing, at least it seems, but we won’t know until the night of the caucuses.
MS. IFILL: Her hunting arms. I want you and Molly both to just concisely explain to me what you’re watching for in the next 10 days before the voting begins in Iowa, and it’s a little longer before New Hampshire but still, Iowa’s a big deal, what you’re watching, what you expect. You first, Molly.
MS. BALL: Well, I think now that we are in attack mode, as you mentioned before, we’re going to see the tenor of these attacks change. And it’s very interesting, Donald Trump put out his first negative ad today, and it attacks Ted Cruz on immigration. It’s a very tough ad. It features a recent interview in which Cruz got a bit flummoxed on the issue. And he does have some things to answer for on this issue. And so you know, I think that’s something that’s potentially very effective on an issue where Trump clearly sees that Cruz has a potential credibility issue. You know, this battle between Trump and Cruz, there are some Republicans who are hoping that they could both be taken out.
MS. IFILL: Blow each other up? (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: Blow each other up, I think that’s probably wishful thinking. But I also don’t think this is a two-man race. There is this idea that this Republican nomination is between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. I don’t think that’s true. I think that the establishment is going to be looking at whoever is basically third after Trump and Cruz. And then they can all get on that boat.
MS. IFILL: And, Jeff, what are you watching for?
MR. ZELENY: Can, quite simple, Hillary Clinton get a little more enthusiasm from her supporters? Can she convey to them the urgency and the importance of this? The reality is, if the turnout is high, like 2008, where there were 230,000 people, that is good for Bernie Sanders. If the turnout is more average, like ’04, 130,000 people, that is good for Hillary Clinton. But if there are long lines the night of the caucuses of new people registering to vote, she is in trouble.
MS. IFILL: Oh, well, I’ll be watching. That makes it edge of my seat. Thank you very much. Out there in Des Moines for us tonight, Jeff Zeleny. See you soon.
The Supreme Court, in its own way, is stepping back into the political fight as well, by agreeing to decide whether President Obama’s decision to shield certain immigrants from deportation is constitutional. They’ve placed themselves right in the middle of this year’s big debate again. Here we go again, Joan.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. Just think of what’s going to happen in late June. We’ll get a ruling in this, and it’ll be right before the two political conventions. And it will be a very important decision for what happens to over 4 million people who’ve come here illegally, but who President Obama would like to defer their deportation and offer them work permits, but also a big question about presidential power. So let me just tell you how this case came about. As we all know, Congress has struggled for years, decades, on the immigration question, and has never been able to go anywhere. So in November 2014, President Obama by executive order said some 4 million people, parents of children who are here as U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, should be low priority for any kind of deportation.
It would be deferred deportation and they would have access to work permits. Immediately Texas and other states sue, saying this is an overreach of presidential power. You can’t do it. You’re going against what Congress’ interest is. The Obama administration lost in lower courts in this lawsuit, that ended up with 26 states now against the president. And just this week the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear the Obama appeal. The arguments will likely be in April. And then, as I say, a very momentous decision in June.
MS. IFILL: The Obama administration doesn’t seem very upset that the court has decided to take this. As a matter of fact, they seem like they’re rolling the dice for the outcome.
MS. BISKUPIC: Oh, yes, because, see, they lost in the lower courts. So they said, please, intervene here. In fact, yes, you’re right, Gwen, usually it’s not the Obama administration saying –
MS. IFILL: Please.
MS. BISKUPIC: – Roberts Court, please listen to us. (Laughter.) But the president’s initiative lost, as I say, in lower courts. So the only thing to do would be to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. And it even filed early and said, you know, like put this on a fast track because look at the compressed time we have. This program, if it is allowed to go forward, would only have a couple months before the president leaves office. And as I say, a lot rides on it on the ground. Politically it could be a big wedge issue, Hispanics a key voting bloc. And the president wants this authority to carry on.
MS. BALL: Well, so reading the tea leaves, do we have any indication of which way the justices might go? And are there ways that they could creatively thread the needle and avoid the question, as they sometimes do?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, there are a couple questions – yes, right. And often in these tight cases it comes down to a narrower decision, rather than something broad. But, Molly, when they took this case they said not only are we going to look at President Obama’s specific executive order here, we’re also going to look broader at the constitutional question of his power relative to Congress’ power to enforce the laws. So they could go really broad in terms of the authority of the executive branch or, stepping back a little bit, they could decide it on what we call legal standing – did Texas and the other states even have grounds to bring this kind of case? Because they first have to show that they had an injury, that these states somehow are injured by the president’s program here. So they have a procedural out.
MR. CROWLEY: And I wonder if it could have implications for the rest of his term. For instance, I know he’s considering an executive order to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Congress is saying would be a wildly unconstitutional use of his powers, so that could be interesting.
MS. BISKUPIC: Right.
MR. CROWLEY: But in terms of specific justices, once again, are we all watching Justice Kennedy? And are there any tea leaves in his past rulings and opinions that guide us?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, Justice Kennedy and the others, in a majority decision, went in favor of the – not this administration, but an earlier administration in terms of environmental issues. But you – as you said, President Obama has wanted to do executive orders on gun control, for example, and this is a very common route that presidents – any president, especially starting in 2017, would want.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be watching. Yet one more shoe to drop in June.
MS. BISKUPIC: Right.
MS. IFILL: We end on something everyone can – is supposed to be able to agree about, that the secret deal that resulted in the release of five American(s) imprisoned in Iran was a good thing. On the NewsHour, Judy Woodruff sat down with Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy who helped cut the deal. He conceded that the tradeoff some have criticized was essential.
BRETT MCGURK (special presidential envoy): (From video.) To get them out, you can’t get them out by just saying, hey, get them out. And so we had to figure out a formula. And I think, if you really look at it in terms of on the Iranian side you’re looking at nonviolent individuals, all – some of them quite elderly, people who – in some cases their sentences were about to run in less than a year anyway –
MS. IFILL: But what turned the key in the lock was the nuclear deal, which appeared to provide much-needed leverage. Explain the connection between those two things, Michael.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, so officially the prisoner release talks were on a separate track from the nuclear negotiations. The nuclear negotiations began over two years ago. The prisoner talks began about 14 months ago. And so the official line is they were happening in parallel, there was never any connection, America never made any concessions on the nuclear side to get the prisoners out. But, you know, I think undeniably there was a sort of larger context here, which is that America and Iran are doing business, somewhat grudgingly. Not everybody’s happy about it, but we were talking, we were getting some diplomatic momentum, we were slowly establishing some trust. And then, once the nuclear deal was signed last summer, it was in July, what U.S. officials say is that those prisoner talks took on a little more momentum, that they had actually been kind of spinning their wheels on this prisoner question when it was clear the nuclear deal was going forward. Then you kind of had a breakthrough. So, again, officially not connected, but I think they’re happening in tandem, in sync to a certain degree.
MS. BALL: Well, how did the deal come about? What did it take to – you mentioned that the nuclear deal sort of broke the logjam, but do we know more from behind the scenes about how they were able to make it happen?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure. So, I mean, part of it was an important decision by the Obama administration about whether they were going to reciprocate, because the feeling at the White House was these Americans were being unjustly detained on trumped-up charges – basically, phony espionage charges – and that they were essentially not so different from hostages, you know, political prisoners. Iran was demanding the release of Iranian-Americans and one Iranian national in the U.S. who, in the Obama administration’s view, had violated U.S. law, in most cases dealing with the sanctions that we had against Iran, most of which are being lifted, and that these were pretty legitimate criminal cases. And there was actually resistance at the Justice Department by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who said, you know, we shouldn’t – we have to be careful about creating an equivalence here; if another country grabs somebody on trumped-up charges, do we have to release people who are legitimately on trial for actually violating our laws? Obama ultimately said in a sort of one-time humanitarian gesture we’ll do this, but it’s not a precedent, this is not going to be our regular practice.
My final point on this is you said it’s something that nobody can complain about. Indeed, there were complaints from Republicans –
MS. IFILL: Lots of Republicans.
MR. CROWLEY: – about that last point. So everyone is thrilled that these Americans are free, but there is a complaint that Obama gave up too much, and that had he taken some sort of a vague, harder line the Americans would have been released without us having had to do anything in return.
MS. BISKUPIC: Michael, can I ask you just one thing about the sanctions? What kind of market opportunities might there be now, for them and for us?
MR. CROWLEY: Right. Well, fewer market opportunities for us. In fact, trade between the U.S. and Iran is still heavily restricted. There are some select items – pistachios, caviar, carpets, airplanes and airplane parts – we can exchange those. But it’s actually Europe and the rest of the world to which Iran has opened up, and Europe in particular I think is already diving in, big European corporations. So that’s where the opportunity is. And for Iran, the sky’s the limit, and the big question will be how much they get out of this.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, as it happens, this – shoes keep dropping everywhere for this, but welcome home Jason Rezaian, Washington Post reporter.
Thank you, everyone. Hang in there with us as we tackle what looks like it’s going to be a crazy year of politics, voting, deal-making, Supreme Court decision-making, and we’re not done yet. There’s more to talk about on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we’ll dig a little deeper into where the candidates stand on all these issues. You’ll be able to find that shortly at PBS.org/Washington Week.
And before we go tonight, a big shout out of congratulations to Wash Week-er Martha Raddatz, who today was officially named co-anchor of ABC’s This Week. Excellent news all around.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff at the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.