ROBERT COSTA: President Trump prepares to tilt the Supreme Court to the right, but who will he pick? I’m Robert Costa. We discuss the confirmation fight ahead, the resignation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and China strikes back on trade, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’ve spent the last three days interviewing and thinking about Supreme Court justices. Such an important decision.
MR. COSTA: President Trump, in New Jersey this weekend, considers his shortlist to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY SARAH SANDERS: (From video.) He’s looking for somebody with tremendous intellect, he’s like somebody with the right judicial temperament, and he wants somebody who’s going to be focused on upholding the Constitution.
MR. COSTA: We examine the leading contenders and the confirmation battle that’s brewing on Capitol Hill.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Administrator Scott Pruitt.
MR. COSTA: Not anymore – he resigns one day after celebrating July 4th at the White House. Pruitt worked relentlessly to roll back environmental regulations and had a close relationship with the president, but scandals and multiple probes into spending and potential ethics violations cost Pruitt his job. We look at the legacy he leaves and his successor.
Plus, after months of threats and brinksmanship, the U.S. begins a trade war with China, but at what cost?
We discuss it all with Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post, Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, and Mark Landler of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The decision looms, but President Trump is still deciding who will replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. The top three contenders, all federal judges, could secure a conservative majority on the bench, but not before facing a political firestorm on Capitol Hill.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I think you’ll be very impressed. These are very talented people, brilliant people, and I think you’re going to really love it, like Justice Gorsuch. We hit a home run there and we’re going to hit a home run here.
MR. COSTA: The finalists are Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, both of whom clerked for Justice Kennedy; and Amy Coney Barrett, who clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Barrett is the youngest, at age 46, but both Kavanaugh and Kethledge are in their early 50s, a sign the president is intent on leaving a lasting legacy. President Trump says he’ll make a formal announcement on Monday.
Seung Min, welcome back. When you think of the president there at his New Jersey golf club this weekend, what’s he thinking about? Who’s he talking to as he makes this decision?
SEUNG MIN KIM: Well, the interesting thing about how the White House has handled this confirmation process is that they are – I mean, he’s talking to everyone you can think of. He’s talking to advisors. He’s talking to members of Congress. But up until nine p.m. on Monday night, when we’ll know who he ultimately picks, it’s going to be very closely held to – you know, Trump is going to hold it very close to his vest. It’s mirror-imaged to how he rolled out the nomination of Justice Gorsuch in January 2017. Recall that we had no clue – I mean, we knew it was down to Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman, but we weren’t sure until Gorsuch appeared on that – basically on that stage with his wife that he had picked him to replace Justice Scalia, and we expect that process to play out very similarly this coming Monday.
MR. COSTA: And he’s reading the papers I’m sure, Mark. We know the president reads the print edition of the newspapers. We can thank him for that, reading the print edition. But one of your stories in the Times this week looked at Judge Kavanaugh, and there’s been a lot of scrutiny not only from Democrats, but from Republicans, some conservatives this week on Judge Kavanaugh, even though he’s the front-runner. Why is that?
MARK LANDLER: Well, a couple of reasons, and it depends on what angle you’re approaching him. There’s one ruling that he made on a jurisdictional issue involving the Affordable Care Act that some conservatives point to as maybe evidence of squishiness, but there’s also his history as a member of Ken Starr’s team investigating the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair way back in the late 1990s. He was one of the prime authors of the Starr Report, and in that report he laid out grounds for impeaching a president. And in this case, it was Bill Clinton, and those grounds were remarkably broad. They involved things like lying to your aides about what you did, or lying to the American public, or misleading the American public.
The concern that some around President Trump have is that a lot of these same grounds could be applied to President Trump in the Russia case. And I think that the fear among some is that if he is the nominee and sits through a Senate confirmation hearing, Democrats will seize on this to turn the hearing into a referendum on what are the standards for impeachment, and could the standards you laid out 20 years ago apply to the president who nominated you? I don’t think it derails his candidacy by any means, but it is a red flag to some people.
MR. COSTA: And the other red flag, when you look at Judge Kavanaugh, is his experience in George W. Bush’s White House. The president is said to be weighing the political cost with his own base should he pick someone with that Bush link. Does that really matter to most Republicans?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Well, it matters to a lot of Republicans, especially those who are very strongly aligned with President Trump. They don’t like that very close alliance with the Bush family. But, on the other hand, President Trump, we know, likes to judge by his gut. Now, 90 percent of the work on this was done for him by the Heritage Foundation – by the Heritage Foundation, who put together this list that he had since the campaign of conservative folks that conservatives would love that would keep the Evangelicals with him, and others. But the – you know, the conservative groups helped to get him that far. Now he’s going to judge by his gut. And from the interviews, he really liked Kavanaugh. He saw something about him. He liked his look. He liked his family. And I think that’s one thing that has put him ahead of the game here. And I think the Bush connection was less apparent.
MR. COSTA: Kim, you’re hitting on this list from the campaign, and it’s an important part of this whole discussion because the president’s pulling from similar ideological profiles with a lot of these judicial potential nominees. But you think about why is he sticking to this list, Seung Min? One of your stories this week was about Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. And he’s recommending to the president: Go with Merrick Garland, the federal judge in D.C. who President Obama nominated in 2016. (Laughter.) And you think for a moment, the president’s pretty unconventional. But is it because of that list? Is it because Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, that he’s not thinking about that kind of option?
MS. KIM: I think it’s a promise that the president had made since before he was the president that he would stick to this prescribed list of jurists that were drafted with help from the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. And well before there was a vacancy with Justice Kennedy’s retirement you heard key White House officials, such as Marc Short, the legislative affairs director, saying, if there is a vacancy, when there is a vacancy, we will stick to that list, because that list, if you recall, during the presidential campaign, gave reassurance to conservatives who were initially a little bit skeptical about this Donald Trump, who was a Democrat, who had proclaimed that he was pro-choice. It gave them – it gave conservative voters assurances that he would govern like a Republican president, like a conservative leader. And so that’s why this list is so important.
What was interesting to me is that, aside from the Schumer anecdote, when I was speaking with some key swing votes on the Hill shortly after Justice Kennedy’s announcement, that they were really pushing for the president to look off that list. Lisa Murkowski was pretty blunt with me, saying: This list didn’t come from us. This list didn’t necessarily come from the White House solely. So why is it out there?
MR. COSTA: So if not Kavanaugh – let’s say the president moves away from Kavanaugh. What about Judge Kethledge? University of Michigan Law School graduate. Also clerked for Justice Kennedy. And you have Amy Coney Barrett really being pushed by a lot of social conservatives who say: She’s young. She’s a Notre Dame law professor. Yes, she was just nominated to the bench a year ago, but she could be someone who really galvanizes the culture wars on issues like Roe v. Wade.
MR. LANDLER: I think to the extent that there is a difference between this list of finalists, it is between Amy Coney Barrett on the one hand and Judge Kethledge and Judge Kavanaugh on the other hand. And that is to say that the social conservative side of Amy Barrett is a big issue for some people. You’ll recall there was this famous prior hearing where Senator Dianne Feinstein said to her, about her Catholic faith: The dogma lives within you. That’s something that Feinstein was harshly criticized for by Catholic leaders. But it got at a deep concern that people would have about Amy Barrett, particularly if Roe versus Wade was ever again on the table.
I think Judge Kethledge is more of a traditional Gorsuch-style jurist. I think, you know, one of the things that’s remarkable about him is how much he looks like Gorsuch in some ways, how they’re fishing buddies. They have the same kind of lifestyle. They come from the middle of the country. To some extent, if what makes you comfortable is another Neil Gorsuch, you’re going to go with Kethledge. And so the extent that there’s a split, it’s between the more traditional, perhaps pro-business types that would be comfortable with a Gorsuch/Kethledge and the social conservatives, who would like to really strike a blow with Judge Barrett.
MS. ATKINS: And that raises a potential fight, right? Democrats are really focusing hard on Senator Susan Collins right now, who has said she doesn’t want anybody who expresses a hostility toward Roe. And I think that would be – raise a lot more questions with someone like Barrett than it would with the other two candidates, not that she may not vote for any of them but that would be a tougher sell.
But I think for President Trump himself, while he has said that Roe v. Wade is probably a foregone conclusion that it’s gone in his presidency, he said that during the campaign, he has always fought against what he sees as judicial activism, as Democratic judges who he thinks are biased and who are going to, you know, importantly, rule against some of his administration’s policies as they are challenged.
So I think that sense while, yes, as I said, this list was compiled by conservative groups for him, I think he’s pretty comfortable sticking with it because I think if he – he’s not a judicial guy. He has a list of people who he thinks are conservative, who are Republican, and who are going to rule on his side. And I don’t think that he has a big problem sticking with it.
MR. COSTA: Final thought on this. You’ve been covering the Senate for years. Can Senator Schumer keep his conference together or, in this rocky midterm season, does he let some red state Democrats go and vote for the nominee?
MS. KIM: Well, he is under tremendous pressure from the base to keep his caucus together. And recall that he was able to keep all of his members together during the fight to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, where they were able to pluck off Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski who, again, are the swing votes this time around, and to fight back against repeal. But you’re dealing with really complicated and difficult midterm dynamics here for the Senate Democrats. You have 10 Democratic senators who are up for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016 and three of them voted for Neil Gorsuch last year.
So we’re really looking at Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who have all expressed openness to considering fairly the president’s nominee once he puts forward that person on Monday. Speaking of Amy Coney Barrett, has deep Indiana ties. Joe Donnelly’s from Indiana; he voted for her. If it is her, he’s going to be under tremendous pressure.
MR. COSTA: Joe Donnelly, also a Notre Dame graduate. And Indiana, that’s a lot of pressure on these senators. We’re all going to be trying to break the story this weekend. Pretty hard to break exactly who is on this short list the last few days, but we’ll try.
And let’s turn to another big story: former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Despite months of unwavering support from President Trump, Pruitt resigned on Thursday.
There are multiple probes into Pruitt’s alleged misconduct. Among the controversies, extravagant spending on travel, office furniture, and a $43,000 soundproof phonebooth, renting a D.C. condo from an energy lobbyist wife, asking his staff to put his travel charges on their personal credit cards, and Pruitt also assigned some staff the task of finding his wife a six-figure job. The mounting scandals generated criticism from both parties.
REPRESENTATIVE DON BEYER (D-VA): (From video.) It’s just unbelievable. In any other administration, Democrat or Republican, he’d have been gone months and months ago.
SENATOR JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): (From video.) I know some of them are allegations. Some of them are facts. He is acting like a moron and he needs to stop it.
MR. COSTA: In his resignation letter, Pruitt wrote, “The unrelenting attacks on me personally, and my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizeable toll on all of us.” President Trump stood by Pruitt until the end. He tweeted, “Scott has done an outstanding job.” Pruitt will be replaced for the moment by his deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist.
Start there. Mr. Wheeler. We know about all the controversies, we just laid them out, about Mr. Pruitt. But Mr. Wheeler comes in and this same agenda of pulling back Obama-era regulation continues, of working closely with different industries and energy companies, that continues. That, to me, may be the big story here, that the Pruitt agenda goes on without Pruitt.
MS. ATKINS: And perhaps even more effectively. I mean, some people have said that some of the regulations or the rollbacks have – they’ve faced legal challenges, they haven’t always gone the way that was planned, and has really been overshadowed by all of the controversy around Scott Pruitt. You have someone who is coming in, who’s very close to the coal industry, who understands this regulations and rulemaking very well, might actually do better at carrying out this – the president’s agenda of rolling back these things and being more pro-business.
MR. LANDLER: I mean, I think one of the points to make about Scott Pruitt’s demise is that people have failed for very different reasons in this administration. Rex Tillerson failed because of his inability to develop a relationship with the president. In Scott Pruitt’s case, that was never a problem. He had by all accounts a robust relationship with the president. The president stood by him because of his success in rolling back Obama-era initiatives through just an absolutely staggering number of questions about ethics, about corruption, about abuse of his office. And so this to me is a case where it’s mostly remarkable how long this guy survived, and that tells you how successful he was viewed as being by the people who are in Mr. Trump’s base who cared about rolling back environmental regulations.
MR. COSTA: And he had an impact. If you think about not only the greenhouse gas regulations and coal plant regulations, the Paris Climate Accords, in the president’s ear for that decision.
MS. KIM: Yeah, you saw his influence in so many ways throughout the administration in terms of the environmental policies, but at some point there was something – there was a point where for the administration and for the president it was just – it just went too far. And frankly, for Senate Republicans, who have had to deal with this mounting drama from the EPA, from the administration, you know, that point where it went too far was months ago. I mean, I was talking with several Senate Republicans in early June when the last batch of negative stories towards Pruitt broke about his behavior at the EPA, and I remember Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who is not a Trump antagonist by any means, saying her patience level was, quote, “pretty much fed up.” John Thune, who is a party leader, told me he was wearing thin on Pruitt. Pruitt was actually supposed to testify on Capitol Hill sometime in August before John Barrasso’s committee, the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, but he was able to escape in time before he came under quite the Capitol Hill grilling.
MR. COSTA: And those grillings were part of the whole equation here. It was also he was isolated at the end in the Cabinet, didn’t have a relationship with Chief of Staff John Kelly, and his own staff was burning him in these congressional testimonies.
MS. ATKINS: Right, the one person who was still on his side was the most important one, which was the president of the United States. And the reason that they were able to keep that close relationship, he spent a lot of time at the White House. And if you looked at his resignation letter to the president, which was so effusive in his praise for the president, he literally deified him. He spoke of him in – you know, saying that he was blessed by –
MR. COSTA: My friend, I’m serving you.
MS. ATKINS: My friend, I was blessed with this opportunity. That is the thing that Trump likes. Trump likes people who are loyal to him. Trump likes that praise. Trump likes that closeness. And that’s what kept him onboard for so long when even people close to Trump who wanted to advance Trump’s agenda within the EPA were fed up with him. So that’s what ultimately led in the end to his exit.
MR. COSTA: But it’s a revealing moment about the president, even at his rally this week didn’t want to really pile on on Mr. Pruitt. It appeared to be, based on a lot of reporting this week, that it was John Kelly, the chief of staff, who said it’s time.
MR. LANDLER: I thought that was an interesting footnote to the story because I think if you’d ask people in our business a month ago to handicap who would last longer, Scott Pruitt or John Kelly, we probably would have said Scott Pruitt. I mean, a lot of us have – work at places that have been running articles predicting John Kelly’s hasty exit for quite a while now, and it turns out that it was John Kelly who administered the death blow to Scott Pruitt, which may suggest that John Kelly – even if these are his waning days, and I think most people think they are – is still exerting influence and still has the ability at critical moments to say, Mr. President, this has gone far enough.
MR. COSTA: Can the Democrats take the Pruitt controversies, take what the EPA has done under President Trump, and make it a midterm issue, or does this fade with the president’s trip to Europe, with the president making a Supreme Court pick?
MS. KIM: I think it fades in many ways because, again, the Europe trip and the Supreme Court nominee are monumental news stories that will consume all of our attention in the coming weeks. But Democrats will continue to hammer home the point that, look, the president promised to drain the swamp, he promised to come to Washington and clean it up, and this seems to be as swampy as it gets. So that is a message you will hear. But I also don’t expect a confirmation battle over a permanent replacement to the EPA anytime soon because, as we talked earlier, Andrew Wheeler is the acting administrator; he is sure to carry out the policies that were already in place. Part of the reason why Senate Republicans were more confident when they started to speak out against Pruitt was that after Andrew Wheeler was confirmed a few months ago you had someone that they trusted in place. So I think that will fade away.
MR. COSTA: Let’s leave it there because trade war. China has accused the United States of starting one. On Friday, U.S. tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods took effect. The Trump administration’s 25 percent tariffs cover more than 800 Chinese products, including heavy machinery, medical devices, and auto parts. China immediately implemented its own tariffs on U.S. goods including soybeans, pork, and other products. This is the president being the president. Is it – where does Secretary Mnuchin, who seems to be a little bit more free trade inside of this administration versus Peter Navarro, the trade advisor – is there an internal fight going on right now in this administration over trade, or is the president just driving it all?
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, I don’t think it’s that much of an internal fight. I think that the president and Navarro are winning in this case. Look, the president didn’t just campaign on this tough trade talk and this idea that the U.S. has been in awful trade deals and that’s hurting the American worker and the American company; this is something he’s believed for decades. So this is – this is a genuine – this is as genuine as it gets when it comes to this president, and he believes that being tough and issuing tariffs and starting trade wars with China is a good idea. Some people agree with him, but even some who agree with perhaps tariffs – China needs increased tariffs would say, well, you know what, it would be nice if we had some allies who would join us in this fight. Unfortunately, the president is picking trade wars with everyone, and so we’re standing alone while we are picking trade wars with the EU, with – we don’t even have Canada by our side right now; we’re fighting with them too. So that’s bringing a lot of concern that a protracted trade war could really affect the economy. And there’s no chance, it seems, that China’s going to back down, at least not now.
MR. LANDLER: I mean, Kim makes exactly the right point that this is on the list of core beliefs of Donald Trump. Trade and the need for fairer trade, in his view, is a core belief, and he’s delivering on it. I think what’s interesting about the internal battle is that Gary Cohn, who has since departed, and Steve Mnuchin, and to some extent Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, have all warned President Trump that if he really goes down this path the stock market is going to get hit and long term the economy is going to suffer. And I think in the past that has caused Trump to pause a little, to second guess, and to reconsider, and to perhaps throw it open to a negotiation. I think what’s emboldened him a little bit in the last few months is as the job market has continued to strengthen, the economy has continued to hum along, and the stock market has kind of shrugged off a lot of these trade-related shocks, I think he’s feeling that he has a lot more room for maneuver than perhaps these more traditional advisors told him. And that makes him even more inclined to side with the nationalists, with the Peter Navarro-Steve Bannon school, which is really where he firmly is now.
MR. COSTA: Well, what about the map? The president cares about his base in the middle of the country, farmers. You look at the people who get hit by trade, it’s a lot of these agricultural producers.
MS. KIM: We mentioned soybeans, we mentioned pork. I mean, that is the heart of Trump country right there, who will definitely get hit as the trade war escalates.
MR. COSTA: But do they care? It seems like they’re sticking with him, or no?
MS. KIM: I’ve been talking to a lot of Republican lawmakers, particularly from these agricultural states as they try to push President Trump away from the tariff and away from the trade war, but a lot of what lawmakers are saying, which is really interesting to me, is that their voters – the farmers back home – a lot of them are saying we trust the – President Trump. We’re going to give him a little bit of maneuvering room, a little bit of negotiating room. We may not traditionally like what he’s doing, but we have faith in the president that he has – that he knows what he’s doing, which I think is a really interesting dynamic.
MR. COSTA: I want to – the grievance towards the global economy seems to keep the bonds together in the Republican Party, even if people are actually individually getting hit.
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, I think that tough talk is really popular, and I think it’s early enough in this process that the tough talk is still winning the day. The tough talk may take him through the midterms. The question is, come 2020 when we start seeing the job losses, when we start seeing farmers feeling that, will they stick with him?
MR. COSTA: And it’s fascinating to watch the Democratic Party because they’re not exactly countering the president on trade on every respect. They have their own concerns about China and trade as well.
MS. ATKINS: They do, and this started even before the election with Hillary Clinton, who went against the TPP. And the Democrats have sort of been figuring out where they are when it comes to trade, and they haven’t really landed yet.
MR. LANDLER: I mean, the one point I would make is as this begins to unfold, the question is, what is the president’s endgame? Is he really ready to stomach a series of retaliatory measures leading to some uncertain end, or does he still view this to some extent as I’m going to scare these guys enough that they’re going to come to the table? I think that he would probably tell you it’s the latter, but I’m not sure some of his advisors don’t just see the value in a punishing, all-out, grinding trade war. And I think the next big question is going to be what’s the plan. You’ve now scared everybody. You’ve scared the Europeans, you’ve scared the Chinese, you’ve scared the Mexicans and the Canadians, but to what end? When are we going to actually sit down and try to work something out?
MR. COSTA: We’ll keep an eye on all of that. Thanks, everybody, for the great conversation tonight, and thank you for joining us.
Be sure to watch the PBS NewsHour on Monday for special coverage of President Trump’s announcement of his Supreme Court nominee.
Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for coming to the table, and see you next time.