ROBERT COSTA: A presidential order months ago upends Washington this week. I’m Robert Costa. President Trump’s handling of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe once again front and center, all as he makes his sales pitch to the world, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’m very excited.
MR. COSTA: President Trump’s debut at a global summit is overshadowed by bombshell reports that he demanded the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Fake news, folks. Fake news.
REPORTER: (From video.) What’s your message today?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Typical New York Times fake stories.
MR. COSTA: But one of the president’s confidants, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, told the PBS NewsHour last June that Mr. Trump was actively considering firing Mueller.
CHRISTOPHER RUDDY: (From video.) I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he’s weighing that option.
MR. COSTA: And there are new reports that at least 20 current and former White House staffers have spoken with Mueller’s team. It all comes as the Senate Intelligence Committee prepares to release transcripts of interviews with Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner. Some Republican critics of the Russia probe are raising questions about the integrity of the FBI. The Democratic response to reports of a secret club of anti-Trump agents?
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Paranoia. Delusion. Why?
MR. COSTA: Plus, President Trump strikes a more inclusive tone on his “America first” doctrine.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) “America first” does not mean America alone.
MR. COSTA: We will get insights and analysis from Brian Bennett of The Los Angeles Times, Ylan Mui of CNBC, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, and Jake Sherman and Michael Crowley of POLITICO.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. New developments in the Russia story with multiple outlets reporting that President Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller just weeks after he was appointed special counsel. That revelation comes amid reports that Mueller’s probe has engaged with top officials in the White House and the Cabinet. Twenty White House staffers have voluntarily talked with the special counsel. He has also spoken with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director Mike Pompeo – excuse me – CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and former FBI Director James Comey, among others.
The New York Times broke that story, that President Trump ordered White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller last June, based on what he perceived to be conflicts of interest. McGahn refused and threatened to quit, insisting that firing Mueller would cripple Trump’s presidency and spark a crisis. Here’s what the president said last August when he was asked if he considered the dismissal.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I haven’t given it any thought. I mean, I’ve been reading about it from you people. You say, oh, I’m going to dismiss him. No, I’m not dismissing anybody. I mean, I want them to get on with the task.
MR. COSTA: White House Lawyer Ty Cobb responded with a brief statement: “We decline to comment out of respect for the special counsel and its process.”
Joining me now are investigative reporters Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times and Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post. Mark, your colleagues Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman broke the story this week about President Trump’s demand. Just how far did he go? And what are the implications for the Mueller probe?
MARK MAZZETTI: As they reported, the president pushed his White House counsel, Don McGahn, last June to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, giving a number of reasons for why he thought Mueller had a conflict of interest and couldn’t oversee the probe. But recall that this was the time that Mueller was – it was publicly being reported that Mueller was directly focused on Trump in the investigation. He was actually investigating possible obstruction of justice as part of his broad Russia investigation. So it is – I think the timing is quite interesting. And despite, you know, McGahn pushing back and not, ultimately, following through on what the president wanted, it clearly shows the president’s intent to get rid of Mueller and concern, possibly, about what Mueller was doing.
MR. COSTA: Carol, that question of intent hovers over all of this. So what’s next for the White House Counsel Don McGahn, a confidant of the president? Should we expect him to be asked to testify on Capitol Hill, to meet again with the Mueller team?
CAROL LEONNIG: I don’t know if that testimony’s the most central point. There may be people who want to ask him that exact thing. But what’s more interesting is what he’s already told Special Counsel Bob Mueller. You may remember, Bob, you were there when we saw him enter the special counsel’s office for his interview. And it strikes me that what he’s already told the federal investigators looms large over the president as he faces his interview in the coming two to three weeks, soon-to-be-scheduled interview. Did McGahn say the president pressured me to fire someone and I threw down the gauntlet? How does ‒ how does Don McGahn, the White House counsel, describe that? That will be gripping testimony.
MR. COSTA: Carol, just a follow on that. If you think about McGahn even going to meet with the Mueller team, is it unusual to have this kind of cooperation from a White House that’s under scrutiny?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, I think it is unusual how many aides have volunteered for an interview that are very, very much the inner circle of Donald Trump’s White House. Imagine the White House counsel being used as a witness against you on a case, whether it’s a charge or not, a case of obstruction. That’s very striking.
But ultimately, the White House aides and advisers don’t have a choice. If Robert Mueller and his team want your cooperation, they’ll either get it voluntarily or they’ll get it through a subpoena as evidenced by the one they served on senior adviser ‒ former senior adviser Steve Bannon when he declined to have an FBI interview when agents visited his home earlier this month.
MR. COSTA: Mark, when we look at this incident, how does it fit into the broader Mueller investigation with regard to possible obstruction of justice? Because the Mueller investigation, as we know, was started about Russian interference in the election, but now it seems the scope has broadened.
MR. MAZZETTI: Yeah. And it’s always, I think, dangerous to try to read too much into any one incident or thing that gets reported as signaling what Mueller is or is not doing. But I think that what we’ve learned in the last couple of weeks about his interview of Jeff Sessions, some other interviews, indicates that clearly he is focused as one part of the investigation on a possible case of obstruction against the president.
We reported this week that he interviewed Sessions last week and was particularly interested in the question of the firing of Comey and other matters that might play into this overall category of obstruction of justice. However, when you look at the Sessions testimony, of course, Sessions would be able to speak to not only what the president did since taking office because Sessions was attorney general, but he was also questioned about what happened during the campaign because Sessions was a campaign adviser. And this goes to the other half of the Mueller inquiry, which is, was there any collusion between Trump ‒ the Trump campaign and the Russians? And since Sessions was in so many of those meetings discussing these topics, certainly Mueller wants to know about that as well.
MR. COSTA: Carol, what does this mean for that presidential interview you mentioned that hasn’t happened yet? The president strolled down through the halls of the West Wing to his chief of staff’s office, General John Kelly, this week and said he’d be willing to meet with the Mueller team, to do it under oath. Is that going to happen or not in light of all these events?
MS. LEONNIG: The president’s lawyers have told me that, you know, they’re ultimately leaning towards having their client, the first client, be interviewed by Bob Mueller’s team, but they’ll make that decision as they negotiate the terms. They felt that the president spoke sort of off the cuff and maybe a little prematurely by offering this interview.
I think that it will be fascinating because I wonder if really the president realizes how many people have been interviewed that he’s spoken to directly about some of these instances, like his interest in firing Comey, his interest in Sessions stepping down or being forced out, his interest in Mueller being removed. I wonder if he really has a sense from his team or from his memory about how many times he’s brought up these things, because all of that information is now in the hands of Bob Mueller.
MR. COSTA: Mark, final read on where President Trump stands, is he leaning towards sitting down with the Mueller team or is he going to fight back, as he told reporters this week?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, I mean, I think it’s fascinating, to Carol’s point, that there’s an ongoing negotiation here. And clearly, his lawyers were worried about losing leverage in the negotiation when the president just comes out and says it. You know, take the president at his word and that he does want to talk to Mueller. He thinks that he can ‒ he can negotiate with Mueller or he can ‒ he can give himself a clean bill of health. But as Carol has pointed out, he has no sense of what has come before him, what else people have testified to.
And the biggest concern or one of the biggest concerns of his lawyers would be perjury and that this is a perjury trap. So, you know, the lawyers did try to walk it back a little bit. I do think something certainly will happen, but this will be a bit of a back-and-forth.
MR. COSTA: Well, the president’s also probably going to be paying attention to what’s published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. What a war, what a great war for our country to have all this reporting this week.
Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, thank you.
MS. LEONNIG: Thanks, Bob.
MR. MAZZETTI: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: Republicans have supported Mueller and his investigation saying he’s an honest man doing his duty. But this twist, it could raise questions about whether the president was trying to fire him and whether Republicans will respond.
Jake, that’s the question on Capitol Hill. How do Republicans, who you cover every day in Congress, respond to this kind of news?
JAKE SHERMAN: They’ve said back ‒ a little bit back and forth that they would pass legislation to ensure that Mueller doesn’t get canned. Lindsey Graham ‒ and these aren’t ‒ you know, these are people who are friendly with the president, have said they want to protect Mueller, they want to protect the government, they want to protect the investigation. They’ve not done so yet and we’ll see if they do. I think, as we all know, doing anything proactive in Washington is very rare.
MR. COSTA: Is there some Republican support that could grow in the coming days for those bills to protect Mueller?
MR. SHERMAN: That’s a good question. Probably not. I think it would be very difficult to get that through the House where you have a conservative wing of the party that would like to see Mueller go and thinks that his investigation is a sham and he’s a quack. And that’s a real dynamic. You have some of these conservative Republicans, many in the House Freedom Caucus, who are on TV pushing all sorts of conspiracy theories about Mueller and about the FBI and about the investigative process in this country.
BRIAN BENNETT: I think that’s exactly the thing that increases the stakes in the midterm elections. If the Senate or the House flips in the midterm elections ‒ and you know that in the first elections after a new president is elected, oftentimes there’s a wave election ‒ and so I know the Republicans are very nervous about that. And if the Democrats gain control of one of the houses, then suddenly you’ve got investigative committees and you’ve got momentum to try to pass legislation to do things, like protect Mueller, like increase the powers of independent counsel or special counsel.
MR. COSTA: Could it even be more than that, Brian? Are the Democrats prepared if they take the House? Because of the president’s conduct, in their view, regardless of what Mueller concludes, are they ready to move on something like impeachment?
MR. BENNETT: So the Democrats have tried to stay away from talking about impeachment. They’ve held off right now. In fact, there are Democrats that don’t want Tom Steyer out there from California who’s been doing ads on impeachment. They don’t want him out there right now, they want to try to keep the focus on the Russia investigation and not take that next step because they don’t think there’s a political advantage yet to talking about that. It’s too early, it’s not ripe. But certainly, that’s something in the back of their minds and certainly something that they might bring up in a year or two.
MR. COSTA: Ylan, there’s a policy question that overhangs all this discussion, too, about Russian sanctions, U.S. sanctions on Russia. Where does that stand amid all of the Mueller discussion?
YLAN MUI: Well, the Trump administration has tried to show that it is willing to take a strong stand against Russia. Just today, the Treasury Department issued sanctions against 30 officials and firms in both Russia and Ukraine who had supported Russia’s invasion of Crimea. So that was a first step, but what everyone is really waiting for is the Treasury Department to next week release a report that’s supposed to pave the way for perhaps even more onerous sanctions that would be targeted potentially against Russian officials, against Russia’s top business leaders. And that would be the sanctions that are related to the bill that Congress had passed back in August requiring the administration to pass sanctions on Russia because of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 elections.
Now, Russia says that these sanctions are absurd, that they’re not working, in fact their economy is growing. It’s expected to grow about 3 percent next year. So it’s unclear exactly how much of a direct effect some of these sanctions will have and how effective they will be in ensuring that Russia feels the economic pain that the U.S. is hoping to impose to avoid a more direct political involvement.
MR. COSTA: Michael, you’ve been editing stories this week about House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, Republican of California. We’ve been talking about the clamor on the right about Mueller’s credibility. How far is he going to take this memo that he has yet to release?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: It looks like he’s going to push it far. To set the stage briefly, if you’re following conservative media only, you might barely even know that Trump threatened to or tried to fire Robert Mueller in June. What you would really be following is the supposed real scandal, which is that the Justice Department and FBI are tainted with anti-Trump bias and that officials there basically let their supposed hatred for Trump poison the initial investigation which, you know, through a chain of events has led to special counsel, Robert Mueller, including an initial surveillance warrant that was issued against Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy advisor. It’s a complicated story.
But to boil it down, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, led by Devin Nunes, have compiled this secret memo, which actually is locked in a secure facility in the House, and they have – you have to go in and read it if you’re a member of Congress – that purports to expose how this bias launched the Russia investigation at the Justice Department and the FBI. So what Nunes and Republicans in the House want to do is release this memo to the public, even though the Justice Department has said there would be terrible consequences. I believe in a letter from a senior Justice Department official the word was “reckless” – it would be reckless to put this out in part because it draws from classified information. It could threaten sources and methods. If and when the House votes to do this, they’re likely to do it Wednesday of this coming week. Then it goes to Donald Trump’s desk, and Trump gets to decide whether or not to make the memo public. And so you have the Justice Department saying don’t do it, you have the House Republicans saying please do it. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., has tweeted 35 times at least, last time we counted, on this one issue. Trump is going to be the decider. It’s going to be an explosive issue next week.
MR. COSTA: So that’s all happening in the House, Jake. That’s where you live in Washington, covering the U.S. House. We used to hear from those House Republicans when we were on the Hill together that if he – the president ever fires Mueller, that’s a red line. Is that still the case?
MR. SHERMAN: No. But on this memo, this came up in the government funding debate. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus pushed the speaker and the majority leader to release the memo as a condition for their support for keeping the government open. In the House it’s not a red line, firing Mueller, at all. And I really do think in the coming weeks and months there’s going to be a flashpoint here, and there’s going to be some sort of movement toward the top of the party – the Lindsey Grahams of the world, the Paul Ryans of the world – to pass something like this.
MR. CROWLEY: I just want to add before we run out of time, it’s really important to note that Democrats call this memo misleading and a distortion of the underlying intelligence, and they say that it does not show actual bias. And it’s just important that people understand the Democratic position is this is a cynical stunt by Republicans to undermine the credibility of these Russia probes.
MR. SHERMAN: And a lot of tension between Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence Committee because of this investigation.
MR. COSTA: So while that’s all happening here at home, President Trump took his “America first” message directly to the people he has cast as villains in his rise to political power: banking titans, corporate bosses, and international leaders who have spent years preaching the virtues of global integration. This week he showed up as a president of a superpower, and to a standing-room-only crowd he made his sales pitch.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) The stock market is smashing one record after another, and has added more than $7 trillion in new wealth since my election. Consumer confidence, business confidence, and manufacturing confidence are the highest they have been in many decades. America is open for business.
MR. COSTA: Many world leaders hear that “America first” message as one that promotes isolationism and protectionism.
IRISH TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR: (From video.) I think Davos in many ways represents that view of the world that is about free trade, free enterprise, that takes the view that globalization on balance is a good thing. And to a certain extent, it seems that America is moving away from that path.
MR. COSTA: Let’s discuss. Brian, is this a new President Trump? Is it the end of Bannonism? Steve Bannon, the former strategist, articulated that nationalism inside of the administration. Was this a different tune, a different tone?
MR. BENNETT: It was a different tone. He did bring his “America first” message. And actually, I looked at Breitbart. Breitbart had actually pretty good reviews of Trump’s speech, which was very, very surprising. It seems like he walked the line. He brought this message of we’re going to – “America first,” we’re going to serve self-interest, and other countries should serve their self-interest, but it was a moderated tone. And he hasn’t blown up any of the major trade deals yet. You know, he’s still playing footsie with NAFTA, for example, but hasn’t made any big impact on that. And I think his presence there reassured the people in Davos, in the room. I mean, just a year before at Davos, the discussion was also about Trump. He wasn’t there, but a lot of the leaders there were really nervous that Trump was going to really upset global markets and launch a trade war with a bunch of very serious trade practices, and that hasn’t happened yet. He’s really just been nibbling around the edges on those things, and I think actually his presence there kind of reassured the people in the room that he wasn’t going to do anything major to upset global markets while at the same time projecting his “America first” message to his base.
MR. COSTA: Ylan, you’re so plugged in with business leaders. What did they make of it? And he was touting the U.S. stock market, of course, but what’s their broader view of all the policy implications Brian mentioned?
MS. MUI: I think that this was really an opportunity for President Trump to play a role he hasn’t been able to play a while in the U.S., which is CEO in chief. Ever since his business council here in America was disbanded, you haven’t seen the parade of corporate titans coming to the White House, you know, sitting around the boardroom table as they were in Davos. And so that is a stage and a situation, I think, that President Trump feels like it plays to his strengths. And you’re hearing a lot of optimism from the business community because the rhetoric that he used during the campaign trail – that populist, isolationist rhetoric – has not turned into reality. He did withdraw from TPP, but that was already dead. As you mentioned, the – you know, he still is renegotiating NAFTA. And by and large, they’re very excited about tax cuts. You know, that’s the president’s biggest legislative achievement, and it’s something that big businesses are directly going to benefit from.
MR. COSTA: Michael?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, you know, yes, you know, the rich are getting richer, and there’s a real irony. First of all, what’s amazing is Donald Trump was never invited to Davos before he was president, and for him this must be this wonderful vindication. This is the kind of thing he lives for. They have to listen to me. They have to suck up to me because I’m the most powerful man in the world now, and they didn’t want me before but now they kind of have to eat it.
MR. COSTA: He loved the moment. You could see it when he was walking around. He loved it, the attention.
MR. CROWLEY: That is just what he’s all about. But at the same time, I’m sure there is this burning insecurity inside of him about whether they really respect him. And, you know, this will never end with Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’re not psychologists here.
MR. CROWLEY: OK. Fair enough. (Laughter.)
MR. SHERMAN: You play one on TV.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, we can play them on TV. But the – but the more important point, I do think, is that he was, I would say, remarkably temperate. And particularly – and, Brian, I think you touched on this – compared to the Trump of the campaign, who, you know, was running ads about a global elite that was sort of out to get the working man, here he is in Davos, he’s feted, he’s applauded, he’s talking about how everyone’s getting rich and they can get richer. It just seems like such a far cry from that Steve Bannon vision.
MR. COSTA: So, Ylan, what does – what does his base make of this?
MS. MUI: Well, I think it’s a little bit of a stick in the eye, right, because he’s able to still project that “America first” message, even though he added the phrase “America first” but not America alone, and say, hey, even though I was elected on a populist wave, we have a strong economy in the U.S., you know, looking at 3 percent growth almost; stock market has reached record highs; unemployment rate is at a record low of 4.1 percent. So even though all the things that you guys said last year were going to – were going to happen when I was elected, they didn’t come to pass, and in fact America’s economy is looking stronger than it did before.
MR. COSTA: And he doesn’t act in this because of the stock market, on a lot of these trade deals, because he fears the stock market would react poorly.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, absolutely. And look – you know, and there’s a lot of talk about what’s going to happen in the midterms and can Donald Trump get reelected. The best thing any president could possibly have going for him is a strong economy, falling unemployment rate. He has that wind at his back. He loves it. He knows it. I expect a huge portion of his State of the Union speech next week is going to be about that.
MR. COSTA: Final thought.
MR. BENNETT: We did see a little bit of the real Donald Trump come out, the Donald Trump from the campaign trail, at Davos. It wasn’t in his remarks, which was temperate. It was at the end, when he said the media was vicious and fake, and said the stock market –
MR. CROWLEY: He got a boost for it, 50 percent.
MR. COSTA: We got it leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for being with us. And stay tuned for that Washington Week Extra. We’ll all hang around. That will be on most PBS stations. And be sure to watch Judy Woodruff and the PBS NewsHour next Tuesday for the State of the Union address.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.