ROBERT COSTA: President Trump returns from Vietnam with more challenges than when he left. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
President Trump faces criticism following a report that he secured a top secret security clearance for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Overseas –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that.
MR. COSTA: – the president walks away from talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And on Capitol Hill –
MICHAEL COHEN: (From video.) I made mistakes. I own them.
MR. COSTA: – remarkable testimony from Mr. Trump’s former lawyer.
MICHAEL COHEN: (From video.) The president of the United States thus wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws.
MR. COSTA: We cover it all next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump arrived back in Washington Thursday night from his summit in Vietnam with Kim Jong-un with his presidency troubled by the collapse of his talks with the North Korean leader and intensifying scrutiny of his conduct. The New York Times and Washington Post are now reporting that the president last spring overruled concerns flagged by intelligence officials and ordered top White House aides to secure a high-level security clearance for his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. Just one month ago the president denied ever getting involved.
Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Carol Leonnig, national investigative reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; and Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for CNN.
Carol, what were the concerns about Kushner among intelligence officials that led to all of this?
CAROL LEONNIG: So you’ll remember, Bob, as everyone else at this wonderful table will remember, that Jared Kushner, senior advisor to his father-in-law, had an interim clearance, and the CIA and the FBI were looking at should he be able to get a permanent security clearance for top secret information that is always embedded in the presidential daily brief. And along about February 2018 you discover, as a result of another scandal involving an advisor in the – in the White House, that a bunch of people have interim clearances without having the permanent decision, and Jared was one of them. And at that moment Don McGahn and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, were discussing the fact that the CIA wants to hold back this information from Jared because we have intercepts in which foreign officials are talking about how easy it would be to manipulate him for a host of reasons: his financial debts, his inexperience in foreign policy, and honestly his attempts to try to get financing from foreign banks.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you sat with the president along with your colleague Maggie Haberman back in late January, just about a month ago. The president said he wasn’t getting involved at all in the clearance process, yet he does have the authority to do so. Why did the story change?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question, right? The president is the ultimate decider when it comes to things like security clearances. He runs the executive branch. If he wants to overrule the recommendations of the people below him, he has every – he’s entitled to do it, and we asked about this. My colleague Maggie Haberman asked about this during our interview: Did you have any involvement in your son-in-law’s security clearance? I had nothing to do with it, he said. And why he didn’t choose to say it I don’t know; it’s a good question. He could have simply said yes, I did, and this is the reason I did it, and he could have owned it, but he chose not to. He chose to say something not true. And it’s interesting and telling that his own chief of staff, John Kelly, felt the need to put it down in writing in a memo that the president had ordered him to do this, because clearly he felt the need to have some sort of a record that would – that would memorialize this moment. And that’s, I think, a very – so there are two elements to this story, right: the decision itself – was it wise or not, what does it tell us about Jared Kushner; and the decision not to tell the truth about it.
MR. COSTA: You were just racing here from the Capitol, Manu. Will congressional Democrats, House Democrats now in control, be able to get those documents, the memos from John Kelly and Don McGahn?
MANU RAJU: Well, they’re going to certainly try. Late this afternoon the House Oversight Committee had a discussion with the White House staff to try to get the memo that John Kelly wrote and another one that the White House counsel, Don McGahn, wrote, and according to the Democrats they said that the White House would not confirm or deny the existence of that memo. Now, Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the committee, has actually sent a – he’s been trying to investigate this when he was in the minority; the White House ignored him for the past two years. Now he’s the chairman. He sent a letter at the beginning of this Congress demanding a whole host of documents on all of the issues that Carol was referring to – why certain people didn’t get – got security clearances, the whole practice and protocol, and Jared Kushner. That deadline was February 6th. We’re now – it’s now the beginning of March. He’s saying if he doesn’t have the documents now in the wake of this latest reporting that by Monday – if they aren’t turned over by Monday, then it’s going to be subpoena time. So we’ll see how the White House ultimately decides to comply, or not.
MR. COSTA: Susan, I’m so looking forward to your book on Barbara Bush, The Matriarch, coming out next month. You’ve been a student and reporter on presidents and their families for a long time and you understand those complicated dynamics. Is this situation with Jared Kushner and President Trump unusual in history, or not?
SUSAN PAGE: It is – it is unusual, and this is an example of why presidents often choose not to have their relatives in jobs as senior officials. Now, there are exceptions. Robert Kennedy is an exception, attorney general for his brother. But remember when Bill Clinton, for instance, put his wife in charge of health care, his biggest domestic initiative when he became president, and it made – it made things enormously complicated? It meant when there were questions about how she was proceeding he was really unable to fire her, and I – and it meant that people were more reluctant to come and say to him she’s making a mistake, we need to take a different course. It just – it’s complicated to be president. These issues are big. And when your relatives are involved, it just makes them more complicated.
MR. COSTA: A quick follow-up on that, Peter. Jared Kushner’s going around the world, going to the Middle East, working on the peace process. What does it mean for diplomacy when other countries look at what’s happening with his clearance?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, obviously, he’s in charge of this Middle East peace and he’s been meeting this week with six – the leaders of six countries in the Middle East trying to pitch the idea for him. His idea is, basically, let’s put some money forward and try to rebuild the Palestinian areas, and as part of that maybe they’ll make some political concessions to the Israelis and finally come up with an agreement. I don’t know how much they watch the security clearance process or it matters to them. I think in general they watch these investigations broadly, and obviously it has an impact on their view of the administration’s ability to deliver. That’s what really matters. They don’t care whether or not President Trump did the right thing or not; they want to know can he deliver on what he or Jared Kushner are promising.
MR. COSTA: And they want to know is his presidency under threat or not. Let’s keep on that investigation theme because another vexing issue for President Trump this week was the testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee. Cohen leveled a number of accusations against Mr. Trump and talked about his business practices.
REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?
MICHAEL COHEN: (From video.) Yes.
REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) Who else knows that the president did this?
MICHAEL COHEN: (From video.) Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari.
REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) And where would the committee find more information on this? Do you think we need to review his financial statements and his tax returns in order to compare them?
MICHAEL COHEN: (From video.) Yes, and you’d find it at the Trump Org.
MR. COSTA: Carol, the Cohen testimony a reminder that the president faces so much beyond the Mueller investigation – Southern District of New York, congressional investigations into his finances. How much of a challenge will that be for him moving forward?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, emotionally and mentally it’s a significant challenge. As for his presidency, we’ll see. Remember, the report from Robert Mueller is expected any day. But the Southern District of New York is bearing down, and we don’t know every avenue that they’re traveling but clearly they’re talking to Michael Cohen because several times in that hearing the other day, Bob, he references: I can’t talk about that because it’s part of an open investigation with the Southern District. There are several former prosecutors that I’ve spoken to who, of course, have lots of old alumni pals in New York. And they say this is the most serious threat to the presidency. And it’s off in the horizon. We don’t know what will happen. But they view it as the most dangerous thing.
MR. COSTA: Republicans said Michael Cohen wasn’t credible.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. And they made a criminal referral, two of them did – two of the very close allies of the president – Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican, Mark Meadows, another close ally of the president. They said that he was – he was – they said he lied under oath, again, to Congress – this time they cited a number of instances, one of which is that – whether or not he sought a White House job. He was pretty adamant in the hearing that he did not actually seek a White House job, but there’s reporting otherwise that suggests that he did. Plus, the Southern District of New York had seized text messages suggesting he was interested in the job. He said, well, he disputes how the prosecutors characterize that.
But nevertheless, there are a number of allegations that they have raised. Their whole strategy going forward was attack his credibility, attack him as a witness, don’t believe a word he says. They were not really defending the president’s actions. But I’ll tell you, Bob, I mean, afterwards I talked to a number of Republican leaders, rank and file members in the Senate and the House, very few are willing to go after the president for what was a pretty blatant major scandal – the president involved in hush money payments while sitting in office and paying a check that Michael Cohen provided a copy of to the committee involving keeping this – an extramarital affair quiet right before the elections.
Republicans not raising nearly any concerns, really. This is all going to be driven by the Democrats. Elijah Cummings was going to, of course, move forward in a hush money investigation. But at least five or six House committees led by Democrats are going to look at all the different allegations that came out of Wednesday’s testimony.
MR. COSTA: And let’s remember, Cohen will return to Capitol Hill next week for more closed-door hearings. He will begin serving a three-year prison sentence for tax fraud and lying to Congress in May. And one of the political moments that came out of this testimony was a warning to Republicans who say – Cohen said: If you continue to go down this path of defending President Trump, you’ll end up where I am right now.
MS. PAGE: You know, and I thought it was really a sign of the weakness that Republicans feel at the moment that they attacked his credibility without defending the president’s honor. There was virtually – I don’t think there was a moment where someone stood up and said: This is outrageous. The president I know would not have done any of these things. Instead, they only attacked the credibility of the witness before them. And one problem they’re going to have is this is not going to be the last explosive testimony in public in Congress this year. We’re going to have a series of hearings with Trump organization officials possibly, with others close to the president.
MR. COSTA: What about his children?
MS. PAGE: Even his children could be called to testify in Congress. This is not the end of the story. This is the beginning of a new phase politically for the president.
MR. COSTA: Impressions, Peter, of the Democrats? Are they laying the groundwork for impeachment?
MR. BAKER: Well, they wouldn’t – they would tell you no. The leadership is still very wary of that idea. They made very clear that they think that that’s not – there’s not a basis for it right now to go forward politically. There is a basis to make an argument that the president has committed a crime. Elijah Cummings said that after the hearing. But the leadership has made clear that unless they feel like they can get Republicans support, it’s sort of a wasted effort and it may, in fact, backfire on them.
So the question is whether what Susan is talking about will change that larger dynamic. Today’s – this week’s hearing probably didn’t, by itself. Does a succession of them, week after week after week, change anybody’s minds? Does it change, in particular, the minds of 20 Republican senators? Because if you don’t change the minds of 20 Republican senators, you’re never going to convict him and remove him from office. And that raises the question of why you proceed in the first place.
MR. COSTA: What stood out to you, Carol, on the Russia front from Cohen?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, there were – you know, much of the hearing was – the value, I guess, of the hearing, if you’re a Democrat, is that Chairman Cummings brought together all of the story of one man who worked for 10 years for a boss, and how ethically compromised he viewed that boss. But on the Russia front, there were three interesting things from my perspective. One was that in June of 2016 he says – Michael Cohen says – he was present when Don Jr. wandered into his father’s office and said: Hey, you know that meeting? It’s all set. And Donald Trump responds, then the candidate, OK, good. Let me know. It’s around the time of the Trump Tower meeting, where a Russian lawyer comes to offer, allegedly, dirt on Hillary Clinton which, as you know, Donald Trump has said he didn’t know anything about.
The other two important things are that Cohen says he was present – which is a much more direct piece of information – says he was present when Donald Trump got off the phone and said: I’ve just talked to Roger Stone. He just talked to Julian Assange at WikiLeaks. And they’re going to dump a bunch of emails pretty soon. Again, Donald Trump has said in public but also in written answers to Robert Mueller that he knew nothing about that and he never talked about WikiLeaks with Roger Stone. Those are two biggies.
And finally, one last thing – forgive me – but the third thing, I believe –
MR. COSTA: Carol is always thorough – a thorough reporter. (Laughter.)
MS. LEONNIG: There’s a third – (laughs) – I can’t say three and – I can’t say three and not do the third. Yes, the Trump Tower, which is this idea that Donald Trump was basically telling him: Here’s our story. We’re sticking to it. I’m paraphrasing. All these discussions of the Trump Tower negotiations ended in January 2016. But a lot of text messages, emails, and other evidence that Michael Cohen brought to the hearing show that it went on far longer into the campaign.
MR. COSTA: A John Dean moment? Like a Watergate moment when John Dean testified about President Nixon before Congress, or not?
MS. PAGE: Here’s the extraordinary – there was a John Dean moment for John Dean. But you look and there were, like, 17 of them. (Laughter.) You know, one of the extraordinary things is that there were disclosures that didn’t even make the next day’s paper that would have been major scandals in some previous administration.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to the negotiations with North Korea. President Trump abruptly walked away from the talks in Vietnam this week, and both sides offered conflicting accounts in the aftermath. There was talk of potentially removing some of the sanctions on North Korea in exchange for dismantling part of its nuclear program, but they could not agree on the terms.
The president also made headlines when he was asked about the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who spent 17 months in captivity in North Korea. President Trump said Kim, quote, “tells me he didn’t know about it. And I will take him at his word,” end-quote. After the Warmbier family rebuked the president for that, and blamed the, quote, “evil” Kim regime for their son’s death, Mr. Trump defended his remarks, writing on Twitter, “I got Otto out, along with three others. The previous administration did nothing. And he was taken on their watch. Of course, I hold North Korea responsible.”
Manu, when Republicans and Democrats see this on Capitol Hill, do they see the collapse of one-on-one diplomacy?
MR. RAJU: I’m not sure, but I do think that what they see is that the Warmbier – the handling of the Warmbier situation and his comments really overshadowed everything that happened this week, particularly Republicans. The Republicans have been very wary about his handling of North Korea. They’ve been concerned that he’s rushing into something with a dictator. They criticized, of course, Hillary Clinton – or Barack Obama for saying that he would negotiate without preconditions with some authoritarians, like the way the president’s doing right now to Kim Jong-un. But the fact that he walked away from the talks without agreeing to anything make Republicans want to praise him. Say – Mitch McConnell went to the floor and said: Great job, Mr. President.
But the problem was that the Warmbier comment just completely overshadowed what the – what their message was, the Republicans’ message was. We asked Mitch McConnell about the president’s comments about Warmbier. He said, I’m just going to stick with what I said on the floor, which was nothing to do with his comments about Otto Warmbier. So the president has a tendency to step in it and hurt his own message. And I think he did that with this comment.
MR. COSTA: How significant is this standstill, Susan?
MS. PAGE: With North Korea? Well, of course, the president hoped to have a big breakthrough this week that would take attention away from the Cohen testimony. That didn’t happen. He had a collapse of talks. You cannot portray the conclusion of the North Korea-U.S. summit in any way but a failure to make any breakthrough. And the extraordinary thing was, back in Washington, almost no criticism, even by Democrats, because there was so much concern that the president would choose to make a deal that was unwise in an effort to get a headline. He didn’t do that. Even Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, gave him a kind of backhanded compliment, by the fact that he did not take an unacceptable deal.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. And in fact, actually, you know, not only did he not take an unacceptable deal, he didn’t break the relationship. So in other words, he didn’t go straight from we’re in love to fire and fury again. We’re not back in the hostility that we’d seen in 2017. He’s still saying, look, we might still get there. I still want to work with this. I’m not giving up. So it’s still in a better place, he would argue anyway, than it was, you know, about a year and a half ago. It’s a rare thing when a failed summit actually does get you praise, but for a change, anyway, people see him as having had, you know, a level-leaded approach to it.
MR. COSTA: Stick with that for a moment, just real quick, Peter. Is there an upside in the region to contain North Korea if you have that kind of dialogue with Kim Jong-un?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think the idea is that if you keep the dialogue going, you keep him contained to some extent by not provoking him to do provocative things. No missiles over Japan, no threats toward Guam. At some point, though, you have to have push come to shove – is this going to lead anywhere? And what the Americans walked away from that hearing in Hanoi is that he’s not ready; Kim Jong-un is actually not ready to give up his nuclear weapons. Ironically, that’s what they were told, of course, by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, about a month ago, and the president got very mad about that. But, in fact, President Trump heard it with his own ears, Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to give up his program.
MR. COSTA: Back to Warmbier; what a tragic story. The president’s comments, part of a pattern, Carol?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, it really struck me at how frequently the president chooses the words – you know, I take him at his word – of a strongman over his intelligence agencies. And in terms of a pattern, this reminds me of Helsinki with Putin, you know – he told me he didn’t interfere in our election, you know, I’ve got to – I’ve got to believe him. Or, sadly for the Washington Post family and for the family of Jamal Khashoggi, he said he took the word of MBS, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, when he said I wasn’t a participant in ordering the hit of this man in a Saudi embassy – consulate in Turkey. Yet, we have him from Vietnam railing and saying that Michael Cohen is not to be trusted, a man who he had in his employ for 10 years.
MR. RAJU: He said on Twitter today that his comment was misinterpreted, but there was nothing to misinterpret about the president’s remarks. He said very clearly he believes Kim Jong-un at his word that he did not do anything or did not want to see Otto Warmbier tortured. So while he tried to clean up the mess that he created from his comments, he also didn’t – wasn’t actually truthful about the fact that he was pretty blatant here. He was trusting a dictator the way he has other authoritarian figures.
MR. COSTA: What explains that, though? Is that because the president sees everything in transactional terms?
MS. PAGE: Yes, and I mean, he’s often been skeptical of U.S. intelligence agency conclusions; we’ve seen that over and over again. But he’s a – you know, he’s a salesman. If you – you’ve met the president. He’s very compelling one on one, and he’s in that moment, and he’s making a deal, and he’s convinced he can do that. And I actually think the North Korean leader feels the same way about him. I mean, it was like two people who believed they had the ability to strike a deal no one else had been able to get, and yet they both failed.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it looks like Kim Jong-un miscalculated here, right, because if he went into this meeting thinking that Trump was actually just going to roll over and give him what he wanted and let him keep a nuclear program but get rid of most of the sanctions, that was a misjudgment. He may have thought that the Cohen hearing weakened him and he was up for a deal; it didn’t happen.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there, my friends. Thanks, everybody, for joining us.
Our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra. It will stream on our website, YouTube, and Facebook starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. Check it out.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.