ROBERT COSTA: No regrets. President Trump upends both parties, cuts a surprise deal with Democrats, and rattles Republicans. I’m Robert Costa. Why is the president reaching across the aisle, and will the GOP revolt? Tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I had a great bipartisan meeting with Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress, and I’m committed to working with both parties to deliver for our wonderful, wonderful citizens. It’s about time.
MR. COSTA: President Trump undercuts Republicans, strikes a deal with Democrats, and wraps hurricane aid to a fiscal package. Stunned GOP leaders didn’t grumble, at least publicly.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL: (From video.) His feeling was that we needed to come together to not create a picture of divisiveness.
MR. COSTA: Hardline conservatives see it differently, blaming the Republican establishment, not the White House.
STEVE BANNON: (From video.) The Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election. That’s a brutal fact we have to face.
CHARLIE ROSE: (From video.) Who?
MR. BANNON: (From video.) I think – I think Mitch McConnell and to a degree Paul Ryan. They do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented. It’s very obvious. It’s obvious as – it’s obvious as – it’s obvious as night follows day.
MR. COSTA: Will the president’s alliance with Democrats spark a Republican rebellion?
Plus, the president opens the door to an immigration bill –
PROTESTERS: (From video.) DREAMers here to say! DREAMers here to stay!
MR. COSTA: – just days after the administration announced it would phase out the program protecting young undocumented immigrants.
We will talk policy and politics with Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times, Michael Scherer of The Washington Post, Nancy Cordes of CBS News, and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump welcomed Congress back from its summer recess with a curveball: he bucked Republicans and aligned with Democrats on a three-part agreement to bundle hurricane relief with a short-term extension to fund the government and lift the debt limit. It all happened inside the Oval Office, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan sat side by side with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. The president threw the usual playbook of fiscal showdowns out the window, and the Senate and the House soon approved the multibillion-dollar package. It marked a significant legislative victory for the president. Trump is calling this a bipartisan moment that Americans want, but there wasn’t really any compromise where the two sides met in the middle. Instead, he caught the GOP off-guard and embraced the Democrats. Michael, what drove the president to go in this direction?
MICHAEL SCHERER: He’s been frustrated – obviously, when you read his Twitter – for months at Republican leaders’ inability to get anything done in Congress, and he saw an opportunity here to create essentially a competition between Democrats and Republicans. And by not only making this deal, where he accepts the Democrats’ terms on their face, but then going around for the next two days and bragging about his close relationship with “Nancy and Chuck” – (laughter) – people who he’s spent, you know, months excoriating on Twitter and elsewhere, he’s basically put a challenge in front of the Republican leadership to get their act together to begin passing his platform, you know. And the most interesting part, it’s sort of a double win for him. He gets to do this sort of victory dance. The most interesting part to me is that the conservatives have largely not blamed him for this. He essentially gave away negotiating leverage in December that’s going to mean probably more government spending, a different compromise with DACA, maybe less leverage for him to build his wall. And conservatives, instead of blaming the president for doing something that wouldn’t have been allowed before, you know, in their philosophy, are blaming their own leaders.
JEFF ZELENY: It’s fascinating in the sense that without a doubt it’s the most, you know, mysterious move he’s made. It’s something that really no one was expecting. But I am told by, you know, talking to a variety of people, even his own Cabinet, they were not expecting this. I’m told that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was in the middle of talking about, you know, the argument for a longer-term deal, the president cut him off and said we’re siding with the Democratic plan. So it is – I think the shortest answer is he wanted a win. He wanted a short-term win that showed that he’s in charge, you know, this sugar-rush high of the press coverage. And, you know, talking to someone – the next day he called Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and the other leaders on the phone as well, and I’m told that he was raving about the press coverage, you know – “I looked so good.” He told Senator Schumer: you look good on my channels, I look good on your channels. So he really was taken with this.
The question is, where does this go from here? And it’s – you know, it’s why covering this White House and this administration and this town at this moment, there’s not a script for it. And he liked this. You know, he was walking out – I was watching him on Friday afternoon, this afternoon, walking to Marine One as he flew to Camp David, a bounce in his step like we’ve not seen for a while. We talk a lot about his bad weeks. This was, I think, one of his best.
NANCY CORDES: But I think we also have to consider the possibility that the main driver for him making this deal was simply presidential impatience. Nancy Pelosi recounted the next day how this conversation went down. She said it was going back and forth for a long time there in the White House, and the president finally said, OK, well, you know, the Democrats, you know, want three months, the Republicans want 18 months, the Republicans don’t have the votes for 18 months on their own, let’s just do three months. And this is someone who is well-known for having a short attention span and someone who – Jeff, you’ve been watching him all week – clearly was very fixated on hurricane preps, hurricane relief. He had a lot more details at his fingertips when it came to hurricane relief than he has on other issues that have been facing the White House and Congress lately. And I think it’s possible that he just wanted to wrap up that conversation and get back to focusing on the hurricanes.
MR. COSTA: And wrapping up that conversation – I ran into Yamiche at the Senate carryout at the Capitol. We were talking to lawmakers all week. And they got – they actually got stuff done. The debt ceiling’s extended into December. The budget is extended into December. And they got hurricane relief to Texas. So is Washington working?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: It’s incredible that with this president that people have said is impulsive, that can’t get things done, who’s really faced a lot of criticism for not really getting a lot of wins, that this is the week where Washington is actually functioning in a way that it’s supposed to, in some ways, function. Of course, the debt ceiling probably should not be something that is a continual crisis, but the idea that you actually have things functioning, I think, is why you see that pep in his step.
But I think I will go back to the idea that there are so many Republicans that were talking to me. I think Darrell Issa who told me, Republicans essentially need to up their game. That now – we’re now dealing with a president that’s not just a Republican who’s going to be in our corner, but now he’s really set himself up as this neutral arbitrator where if we go to the White House with an issue we should not think that he’s just going to take the side of the Republicans because he’s a Republican.
So I think that that, to me, changes the game for a lot of Republican leaders. And the fact that there are people blaming the Republican leadership rather than the president tells me that he has – that the president understands his stance, understands that he is the one who’s leading the Republican Party now, and that he is the one with the leverage. When he’s talking to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, that he can say, look, this is what I want and you have to do what I want to do.
MR. ZELENY: I think, though – I mean, despite – I think the reason he got so much good coverage and we’re sort of giving glowing praise, is because it’s just so different. We’ve seen eight months of just, you know, no action, inaction. It is, you know, setting up a very hectic end of the year. I mean, we’ve all be on Capitol Hill – Nancy and I have logged holidays it seems on Capitol Hill doing deals and stuff. So this is where it’s going to come down to in December.
So I still think, again, the next day the president said – he was in the Cabinet Room. He said, look, this is signaling a new governing style. I think that’s yet to be seen because what you said earlier, that the base doesn’t blame him. They don’t this week, which is remarkable. We’ll see if that lasts, though, because once the coverage of this sort of deal moves beyond, you know, the actual substance, I think some conservatives will have some, you know, buyer’s remorse.
MR. SCHERER: And it could definitely backfire in December because Democrats will have much more leverage than they would have had otherwise. But I think what it highlights is something Nancy said. Trump has come to terms – when he came into office, he was told by his advisors that the House and the Senate had it under control. Go through – we’re going to do, you know, Obamacare repeal first, then we’re going to go to the tax cuts. They’re going to take care of it. You know, you’ll have to make some calls, but we’re going to get this done. It’s going to go like this.
None of it went anywhere. And the president’s realized that there just is no functioning Republican majority in the House or the Senate. And what you said, he was sitting in a meeting in which one side was saying, we could sign this today and make it happen. And the other side was saying, well, we can work on this and negotiate and do all this stuff. If Republicans can’t get their act together and start coming to him and saying, OK, here’s how we’re going to do this, he is saying to the country, to the Republicans, I’m going to start moving away from you. And that puts enormous pressure on them.
MR. COSTA: And, Nancy, it wasn’t just the deal that was cut. The president made other gestures to Democrats. He really championed Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota at a presidential event. And he’s working with Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, on a possible deal to get rid of the debt ceiling extension process entirely. So Republicans have to be watching this and wondering.
MS. CORDES: And Pelosi asked him, hey, would you mind just tweeting to the DREAMers and telling them not to worry, they won’t be deported over the next six months? And he was like, duh, duh, duh, done. And so, you know, that raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill as well. And I asked Pelosi after that, so, does this signal some kind of renaissance in your relationship with the president, some new era of cooperation?
And she said, well, that would assume – if you use the word renaissance – that there was a relationship before that is now being reborn. And she said, no, the reality is, and this is a political reality that all of these leaders know, they’ve very savvy, is, you know, sometimes your opponents on many other issues can be your – you know, your wingmen on areas of agreement. And you’ve already – always got to be open to that, she said. So she wasn’t ready to embrace this notion that suddenly they’re besties and they’re going to get all kinds of things done together.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, what about her counterpart in the House, House Speaker Paul Ryan? He’s under siege. Conservatives are still blaming him for a lot of the inaction on Capitol Hill. There’s talk of even a rebellion, though it’s probably not going to happen. Ryan retains support. Where does Ryan go from here?
MS. ALCINDOR: Ryan is facing so much pressure. I think where Ryan goes from here is trying to really figure out how – really trying to lay out a plan for how the next couple months are going to go, and really trying to shore up his base and say, OK, what do you guys actually want? What can we actually get done? Because when I was on Capitol Hill this week and I was watching Mark Meadows and Freedom Caucus members hold court as if they were the speaker of the House, it made me sit back and think: This is not the way that this is supposed to function. And Paul Ryan has to be frustrated when he watches these people say, well, we might come out with our own tax reform plan if Paul Ryan doesn’t get it together.
MR. COSTA: Can the speaker, Yamiche, can he count on the president on tax reform to follow through?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think that – I mean, I think that Donald Trump has been, in some ways, pretty clear that he wants to get this done. Can he count on the president, I think, as a president who’s so impulsive, and, as Nancy said, as someone who wants to get a deal done? If tax reform starts looking like health care, where it’s going to start dragging on and on and on, I can imagine the president saying, let’s just go with the deal that we can get done.
MR. ZELENY: Maybe, I mean, but tax reform is, I mean, harder than health care in some respects. And it’s – you know, hasn’t been done – we’ll see. I’m a little skeptical that, given the – you know, the other, you know, crises – Hurricane Irma, of course, at this moment, this weekend, you know, might be worse than Harvey, likely will be. There’s a lot for this government to sort of deal with now. So I’m a little skeptical of tax reform. But now, you know, there’s a new possibility as Senator Schumer is suddenly his new partner on this. I mean, at some point will Republicans rebel on this? Seventeen Republicans in the Senate, 90 Republicans in the House voted against this. What if they sort of reach a critical mass against a deal? That’s a problem for this White House.
MR. COSTA: But what have Republicans missed in understanding President Trump, Michael, that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi recognized?
MR. SCHERER: Well, in that meeting, it’s that President Trump is always transactional. And he operates in the moment and he operates in the room. And he will change from day to day on what he’s saying based on who he’s talking to. And he doesn’t see a problem with that. I mean, that’s the way he’s always been. They came in with a deal. Republicans didn’t have a deal. They presented a deal. And Trump was willing to make the jump. I think the difference –
I’m not super optimistic about tax reform either. But the difference between tax reform and Obamacare repeal and replace is that tax reform is sort of a sliding scale. You can keep moving the numbers to get more votes – even Democratic votes. You couldn’t do that with Obamacare, because it was such a black and white issue. Democrats were never going to go along and provide any help. And so there’s a lot of places here for negotiation. And if Ryan and McConnell can’t come up with the votes, that’s the signal the president’s saying, to get something done on their own – you know, that brings the rates really low, that does what the president wants – the president’s saying, well, look, we’ll just change the numbers, I’ll go talk to my friend Chuck.
MR. COSTA: That’s exactly what Jeff was talking about too. Are we seeing, Nancy, a new coalition on Capitol Hill – mainstream Democrats, mainstream Republicans, and maybe not having the Freedom Caucus and the fringes of both parties dictate where everything goes?
MS. CORDES: Well, I think they would like that. And they’re certainly eager to work together, been eager to work together on issues like health care and tax reform. But as recently as the middle of this week, Paul Ryan reiterated that they are going strictly in the Republican direction when it comes to tax reform. They are not going to try to work on some bipartisan deal. His definition of bipartisanship when it comes to tax reform is: I think some Democrats might like our Republican plan. But that’s it.
They’re still going to – you know, they experienced a failure on that front when they tried to go that way with health care. But they think that they can get it done this time. It’s not at all clear, because, you know, when you talk about tax reform and you’re going to lower individual rates, corporate rates. You’re going to cut a huge hole in the revenue, how are you going to make it up? There are going to be at least a handful of Republicans who are going to be very concerned about that.
MR. COSTA: But, Jeff, who’s the president listening to? We saw in the open Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, talking to 60 Minutes. Bannon had often advised the president to work with Democrats. Is he – is he talking to the president, or is there someone else who’s pushing the president to the center?
MR. ZELENY: I have no doubt that the president and Steve Bannon are still communicating. We know who the president’s not listening to, that’s members of his own team, his Cabinet. I mean, the Treasury secretary is a key negotiator in this, he cut him off at the knees. I mean, so I think that – the president, I think, largely is operating on his own instinct after – and we see all presidents grow in the job and learn in the job. You know, this president has seen now for seven-plus months what doesn’t work. I think he wanted to sort of take the reins a little bit. But there’s no doubt he wanted to mix things up this week. And he likes the outcome, at least in the short term. But again, this does not solve all of, you know, the challenges before him – never mind Russia and everything else.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to a big issue that’s going to be a consequence of all of these swirling forces in Washington, because the president says he also wants to work with the Democrats on a new immigration plan to protect an estimated 800,000 undocumented young people from deportation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration will begin phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program over six months. That’s how much time the president is giving Congress to create a legal alternative, or he has threatened to take action himself. Michael, we’re looking at a president who really seems to want to make a deal to protect these 800,000 people, working with the Democrats. Is that what we should expect in December, when all of these deadlines come up again?
MR. SCHERER: I think so, in part because he just gave them leverage with the deal he made over the debt ceiling. You know, the president has been very consistent since the election that he doesn’t – he sees the childhood arrival group as a very distinct group from the other illegal immigration problem, and that he wants to take care of them. I think he did have a real problem and the Justice Department had a real problem with the fact that it was put through in an executive order, and so he wanted to handle it. And again, this is sort of a twofer. He’s released the executive order program, but now he gets to play the moderating, you know, bipartisan hero here, at least so far through tweets. He’s made very clear, for instance, that he’s – you know, that the people who are here under DACA don’t have to worry, at least for the moment.
MR. COSTA: Well, they do have to worry a little bit, Yamiche. They’re in flux.
MS. ALCINDOR: Everyone I’ve talked to that’s a DACA recipient is very worried. When the Democrats had this press conference just this week talking – with Nancy Pelosi and other leaders talking about how they wanted to push for DACA, I interviewed this young girl who was crying the entire press conference because she’s a young DACA recipient who owns a cleaning business, who’s a student in college. And she says even as this deal is being – is really being brokered, her life and the life of her family really hangs in the balance, so there’s – she’s under such intense pressure and such intense stress when this is happening. But I think that the thing that goes back to me as a reporter, this has been going on for 16 years. For 16 years – before there was DACA, there was the DREAM Act. In 2001, when Senator Dick Durbin introduced this – and I interviewed him this week – he said I would never have thought that 16 years later we would still be trying to figure out how to deal with this. Now Congress is going to try to do in six months what it couldn’t do in 16 years. Now, while that sounds like we’re in this critical mass where everyone really agrees, I’m very skeptical of the fact that these two parties are going to come together and really broker a deal.
MR. COSTA: But, Nancy, the Republican leadership – House Speaker Paul Ryan, McConnell in the Senate – they seem to be willing to move in the direction of approving a DACA fix.
MS. CORDES: Sure, and Paul Ryan said this week he hopes that Congress can find consensus, which is very different from saying he’s confident that Congress can find consensus. There is a lot of support on the right and the left for the DREAM Act, but the challenge is that on the right there’s a lot of discomfort with the notion of just pushing through the DREAM Act by itself, because many Republicans will argue that if you do that you are only encouraging more people to bring their young children to this country illegally. So they say it’s got to be combined with border security measures.
MR. COSTA: Exactly.
MS. CORDES: What are those border security measures? Democrats would happily go along with some of them. If you’re talking about billions of dollars in wall funding, they’re going to argue that that’s a nonstarter.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, you nailed it. What is going to be the deal? If the president’s going to be this big dealmaker right now, in December, Jeff, he’s going to have to maybe cut a deal for the border wall. But if he’s – the Democrats don’t want a physical wall.
MR. ZELENY: They don’t want a physical wall, and they’re probably, I mean, not going to get one. The reality here is as these proposals for the wall have come in – this hasn’t gotten a lot of attention – it’s a fence more than a wall. And, you know, the experts here are saying a wall, a concrete wall that we heard about on the campaign trail, is not feasible here. But we’ve seen the president’s flexibility, as Michael was talking about earlier. He wants to cut a deal. So I think that, you know, there may be a piece of a wall, the rest of it’s a fence, whatever. He’ll call it a wall whether it is or not, and he’ll call it a victory. He can claim victory on something and move on, and his base seems to follow along with him. You know, we’ll see how far that goes.
MR. SCHERER: You essentially could have a debate about building materials – (laughter) – you know, whether you’re just steel or how much concrete is OK in this bill. And Democrats, like you said, they say border security, fine, so there is room to maneuver here. Both sides have room to maneuver, they just will have to fight over whether they’re calling it a wall or not.
MS. ALCINDOR: But for years Democrats have used the DREAM Act and DACA to really ask for comprehensive immigration reform that includes millions of other people, and I think there are a lot of Democrats – some that I’ve interviewed this week – who say they still want that. And it’s a less sympathetic group; it’s not just the people, it’s their parents. So I think that that’s a big part of this deal.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there.
And I want to take a moment to tell you about a new program premiering on PBS tonight, Third Rail with OZY. Each week, the program will ask the hard questions that many people are debating among their friends and family. Host Carlos Watson joins us now from New York. And tonight you debate the provocative question: Is truth overrated? With all the talk about fake news, do Americans see the truth as relative?
CARLOS WATSON (Host, Third Rail with OZY): Hey, Robert. It’s really good to be with you tonight, and I think that’s a terrific question. I think the reality is that more Americans are worried that the truth has become relative. In fact, in the poll that we did for the Third Rail with OZY, almost double the number of people now say that they feel like they’re lied to some of the time versus 30 years ago, so we’ve seen a huge surge. No doubt part of that is the critique that President Trump has lied not just as much as other politicians in the past, but maybe more. So a lot of muddiness, really heated question, and it’s a big reason that the Third Rail with OZY wanted to dive right in and kind of hit one of the main veins of conversation.
MR. COSTA: Carlos, you’re also inviting the audience to be part of the debate. Tell me about that.
MR. WATSON: You know, Robert, one of the things that we love at the Third Rail with OZY is, one, we’re getting really great, important guests like Malcolm Gladwell, Amber Rose, Mark Cuban, Jeb Bush, others to jump into the arena on these important questions. But maybe more important, we think we’re allowing the audience to weigh in. I mean, so many people have talked about this at home, debating it, frankly sometimes in incredibly frustrated ways. And we want to provide a forum, whether it’s online or whether people come and join us in the studio audience, that they get a chance to share their voice. We think it’s really important. We hope it’s a big part of the reason that the Third Rail with OZY becomes a main staple.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, Carlos. Should be a fascinating discussion. I’ll be watching. The Third Rail with OZY premieres tonight on PBS. Check your local listings.
And that’s it for us. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you about Donald Trump Jr. and what he revealed to Senate investigators about his meeting with a Russian attorney during last year’s election. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
And a quick thanks to everyone who joined me this afternoon for my Facebook Live chat. That was fun. And if you missed it, you can watch the chat on the Washington Week Facebook page.
Before we go, we really want to send our thoughts to those in the path of Irma and to those in Texas who are still recovering from Harvey. Stay safe.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.