ROBERT COSTA: It was a sleepy week in Washington, but not in American politics.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They had nothing. How do you impeach? You had no crime.
MR. COSTA: President Trump is in Florida and the fight over his Senate trial continues. And as the year ends, that’s far from the only battle he faces.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We need to restore the integrity of the presidency, and it’s about time we get that underway.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): (From video.) If the president claims that he is so innocent, then why doesn’t he have all the president’s men testify?
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Is the outcome of President Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial all but certain? For weeks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been saying yes, predicting Senate Republicans will acquit the president, but there was some movement this week – some flashes of uncertainty. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has broken with the GOP on major votes in the past, spoke to a local reporter and said she does not approve of McConnell’s alliance with the White House.
SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK): (From video.) In fairness, when I heard that I was disturbed. To me it means that we have to take that step back from being hand-in-glove with the defense.
MR. COSTA: And Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat, told ABC News in recent days that he remains undecided.
SENATOR DOUG JONES (D-AL): (From video.) I’m trying to see if the dots get connected. If that is the case, then I think it’s a serious matter; I think it’s an impeachable matter. But if those dots aren’t connected and there are other explanations that I think are consistent with innocence, I will go that way too.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight, Kimberly Atkins, senior news correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station; Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Bob Woodward, associate editor of The Washington Post and author of Fear: Trump in the White House. Welcome to all of you.
Kim, to start us off, Senator Murkowski taking her position as this negotiation continues about a Senate trial for President Trump, are her concerns about the president’s conduct – is it about the substance of impeachment or is it about the process?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Well, it seems so far to be about the process, because when Mitch McConnell was talking about working with the president, Mitch McConnell was talking about this quick trial that he expects, I think that is what’s troubling, and it reminds of me of the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in a way. Remember then it was Republicans then led by Jeff Flake who wanted to take a step back, all of a sudden there was the request for that additional FBI probe. It was short. It was, you know, very constricted in what it was, but it gave Republicans a chance just to pump the brakes a little bit as the pressure ratcheted up, and it seems like that’s what Senator Murkowski is interested in doing. I could see her possibly convincing other more moderate Republicans like Susan Collins or Senator Mitt Romney or Cory Gardner, other people who are vulnerable who are facing reelection too, to get behind a plan on the rules, when they’re the setting the rules of how this goes, that it doesn’t look like this is just going to be rammed through on a fast track and not be fair.
MR. COSTA: And Amna, when you think about the process complaints that are out there from Senator Murkowski, but there’s also political capital the president has with Republicans that may also help them fall into line eventually on impeachment. President Trump said this about the senator last month at a donor event, according to The Washington Post. Quote, “She hates me. I kind of like her, but she doesn’t really like me,” adding, quote, “We do so much for Alaska you’d think we’d get her vote for something one of these days.” GOP just passed a $1.4 trillion spending deal. The Republicans have been there for Alaska, along with the president. Will that ultimately maybe force her hand?
AMNA NAWAZ: I think Senator Murkowski would disagree. That’s President Trump being his prime transactional self, right, that we do so much to help you in your state, why wouldn’t you back me when it comes to this one political battle I’m facing. But you know, you said it really well, I thought, in the opening, which was this was a flash of uncertainty and it wasn’t that bright a flash, to be honest. To express a mild discontent with the way the process has unfolded so far is not exactly a forceful show of this is an abdication of our constitutional responsibility, this is problematic; it was a bit of hesitation. And for all the speculation about now that the door is opened and has been opened by Senator Murkowski in this time where the Senate is still waiting for the articles of impeachment to be sent to them so they can begin the process, the door is open now for some other potential senators – maybe some vulnerable Republicans, people who have criticized the president before; Senator Mitt Romney, as Kimberly mentioned, who’s actually been specific about his criticism of the president when it comes to foreign influence in the United States – it’s a chance for them to walk through that door. Will they? We really have no idea, but the longer this process drags out the more pressure there could be on them to have to answer to that.
MR. COSTA: Bob, it brings up the big question I have as a reporter: Could there be a surprise on the horizon? Everyone thinks this cake is baked, Washington is sleepy this week. But you’ve been a student of history; you’ve been writing about the presidency for decades. Could there be a surprise?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, of course. And what’s interesting, the psychology of the senators is, wow, this is a high-stakes game, we’re going down in history this way or that way; we better handle it right. I recall back to the Clinton impeachment, right, 20 years ago he was impeached in the House, waiting for a Senate trial, and who parachutes in? Two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, writing an op-ed piece in The New York Times saying the solution here is censure, and proposed a deal where Clinton would have to acknowledge he had lied or he had not told the truth under oath. Of course he’s not going to do that, and so everyone’s trying to position themselves on this and make a judgment. Is there some compromise? We know politicians are always looking for some middle ground. And so I think we are in Never-Never Land in a very significant way, not necessarily on the outcome but on the maneuvering.
MR. COSTA: But what about Leader McConnell and President Trump? How do you read that relationship?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, it’s supposedly close. I’m not sure the – you know, there are not a lot of interests they share other than trying to ensure their political future and making sure it’s long. So you know, but I think that’s the most important relationship in Washington.
MR. COSTA: The most important relationship.
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, in the short run, in this trial, you know, everyone’s going to be judged. People in our business are still looking at Trump – the Trump presidency. I think there is an effort – I know, second Trump book I’m working on – to look in other areas that don’t have to do with Ukraine, and there’s a lot of research to do, a lot of reporting, and I think there has to be an effort to get Trump’s side as much on all of these issues.
MR. COSTA: And you think about all the other issues that are out there, that’s part of the challenge that’s confronting House Democrats. Speaker Pelosi, who’s holding up the articles of impeachment from the Senate, there was news this week House Democrats’ counsel Doug Letter suggested President Trump could be impeached twice if witnesses such as former White House Counsel Don McGahn are forced to testify. In a federal filing Monday the House counsel wrote this: quote, “If McGahn’s testimony produces new evidence supporting the conclusion that President Trump committed impeachable offenses that are not covered by the articles approved by the House, the committee will proceed accordingly, including if necessary by considering whether to recommend new articles of impeachment.” What is the speaker’s ultimate goal in holding up these articles?
MS. ATKINS: Well, I think she still realizes that she has power to wield, and as long as she has that she is going to use it. We have seen it could be – look, we’re over break. Nothing was going to be happening anyway immediately. She saw that bit of time, she’s buying it. Now, it comes with a risk. If Democrats wait too long, it can look purely like political maneuvering. It can make the entire impeachment process look like political maneuvering because one of the fundamental arguments, right, was that impeachment is necessary now instead of waiting for an election because these actions are ongoing, and they’re urgent, and it presents a threat to the Constitution. The longer you wait, the harder it is to make that argument. But one reason that it’s so tight, it’s so focused on Ukraine, has always left open that door, that even if he is not convicted if he does something else – even if he wins reelection – there can always be another impeachment. The Democrats still have that power in the House that they will try to wield if they think they have the ability to do so.
MR. COSTA: Amna, you just co-moderated the Democratic presidential debate. They have Iowa and New Hampshire just a few weeks away. Are they in lockstep with Speaker Pelosi in this delay?
MS. NAWAZ: Well, let’s be clear, all of the 2020 Democratic primary candidates have said that they support the impeachment inquiry, right? Beyond that, some of the candidates who are currently in the Senate, who would be jurors in that trial, have been walking a very fine line, trying to maintain at least an air of impartiality because they know what their constitutional duty would be. And they are saying: I’m going to reserve judgement. We’re going to follow the process and allow it to unfold.
That said, to Kimberly’s point, the longer that this sort of plays out, the longer there is any kind of a gap – and there are diminishing returns if it goes too long – but a lot of those vulnerable GOP senators we mentioned already will continue to face questions about where they stand, whether they agree with Murkowski, whether they have their own hesitations. And we all remember back in October when Cory Gardner was pinned down in a hallway by a reporter and asked repeatedly – three, four, five times – is it OK for the president to invite foreign influence into domestic politics, to look into a domestic political rival. And he didn’t answer each time. It was incredibly damaging for him. More than half of his state supports the impeachment inquiry, at least right now. It’s a tenuous position for a number of these senators to hold.
MR. COSTA: Bob, when you think about President Trump, there was a headline in Roll Call newspaper this week, Mar-a-Limbo. He’s just waiting to see what happens with the Senate trial. But when you look at this process and compare it to Watergate, in terms of the evidence, Democrats keep looking for more documents, more witnesses. They’re trying to, perhaps, bolster their case. Is there a real difference between what’s happening now and what’s happening then in terms of the evidence that’s on hand?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, in the Nixon case there were, before he resigned, dozens of hours of tapes, and testimony, and actual documents. People wrote things down. You know, let’s put the fix in. Let’s do that. And so it’s very different in terms of magnitude. What strikes me from looking at this from a distance, and considering Nancy Pelosi, there were really extraordinary political muscle on her part to take the position, we’re not doing impeachment. Then they get the Ukraine information, we’re doing impeachment. At the same time, incredible political muscle on the Republican side. A hundred and seventy-three Republicans voting unanimously against impeachment. That is staggering. So we’re in a situation where the – people have staked out their sides. And, you know, how this – I think –
MR. COSTA: Does the White House buckle at all, and yield, in terms of witnesses or documents? Or do you believe President Trump will hold the line?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, I think he’s kind of committed, and it’s in the courts. But the courts are going to decide this week or next month. It’s going to the Supreme Court. And there is a classic, you know, power context going on here that is very – couldn’t be larger. And the Supreme Court might want to really do something very serious, if they get one of these cases. I think I’ve tried in my own mind to calculate the number of possible scenarios here in the next year. And I can list 14. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: I think I could add a few myself. I mean, it just – Kim, you’re the – you’re the attorney here at the table.
MS. ATKINS: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: You think about Chief Justice Roberts. Will he play by the rules, be low key, based on your reporting, or not?
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, I think so. We’ve seen from – I’ve seen from covering the Supreme Court and covering politics and that Chief Justice John Roberts is not a guy who wants to take on the political – take the political wand and run with it. He is very aware about his role as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the role of the court, and the reputation of the court. He will be equally as concerned that this be – this look like a fair process, this looks like he did his job. And I don’t think – I think there will be pressure by Donald Trump, maybe through his Twitter account, that Chief Justice John Roberts is one of the people who are there to protect him, and he doesn’t see his role that way.
MR. COSTA: Let’s step back for a second. We’re at the end of the year. This is the last show of 2019, and it’s a year that ends with a standoff, and that’s not that surprising because if you remember at this time last year the U.S. government was shut down as President Trump clashed with Democrats over funding for a border wall, and that did not end until late January. Immigration since then has remained front and center. Amna co-moderated this month’s Democratic presidential debate and had this exchange with Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
MS. NAWAZ: (From video.) You said last month that the U.S. owes compensation to children separated from their families at the southern border. The consensus among child welfare experts is that those thousands of children will likely suffer lifelong trauma as a result of that separation. Are you committing as president to financial compensation for those thousands of children?
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) Yes, and they should have a fast track to citizenship, because what the United States did under this president to them was wrong and we have a moral obligation to make right what was broken.
MR. COSTA: Amna, a year on from that immigration standoff, that shutdown, where are we? Where is the United States in terms of immigration policy? Where is President Trump?
MS. NAWAZ: You know, if there is one thing President Trump has succeeded in doing it is raising immigration back to a top issue when it comes to American voters, even making it a voting issue around this identity issue and who we are as Americans, who should be allowed to become an American. And it hasn’t been that way for many, many years. But where we are is dramatically far away from where we were when the Trump presidency began. The entire immigration landscape, not just when it comes to illegal immigration, but legal migration as well, has been changed. There’s a number of changes still held up in the courts. And the conversation has changed dramatically too.
You see now among the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side people staking out much more progressive positions than they had in the past, as a counterbalance to many of the Trump administration’s policies. And the family separation policy, of course, that we’ve all talked about before, we’ve all covered in many different ways, that was one of sort of the deciding points of 2019, when people – even among the president’s own supporters – when we knew the extent of it, when we knew the details about the ways in which it was carried out, about the complete lack of planning that went into separating minor children from their parents, that was for a lot of people a breaking point. It's not something as a policy matter that President Trump wants to come back to, but immigration remains something he comes to again and again when his back is up against the wall.
MR. WOODWARD: Can I ask, but how would you compensate people? A very good question to the mayor about that. And he said, oh yes, and then he slid off. And I mean, that’s just – that smacks of – how do you administer that? How do you decide what – and remember –
MS. NAWAZ: It’s a great question.
MR. COSTA: And where – brings up the bigger question, where are the Democrats on immigration? How are they – if we look ahead to campaign 2020, where are they going to be on immigration?
MS. NAWAZ: So I’ll say on that one specific policy, so far Mayor Buttigieg is the only one to go that far out, to say, yes, we should be accountable to these families to whom we caused great harm, and compensation – financial compensation is the way I think that should go. No other candidate is saying that right now. But it’s a very easy policy position and a very easy political messaging position for a lot of these candidates to say: What I will do is change these morally repugnant policies that the Trump administration has put into place. When you press them on the details, on things that should be easy – like providing a path to citizenship for DACA recipients – they will all pledge, in the way that they have in the past, to make it a priority. Democrats haven’t managed to do that yet.
MR. COSTA: And there are other issues on the domestic front beyond immigration. You have the economy for so many people front and center as well. President’s trying to get a trade deal done with China. Is that the key issue facing him on the economy in 2020, especially with the jobs numbers pretty strong and the stock market so high?
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, I mean, the important part about the trade deal with China is that the trade – the trade – the tariff war was really harming a lot of people in a way that they could feel. It was harming farmers. It was harming manufacturing. There were real working people who were feeling the pinch from that. And that coming to a conclusion will be a big problem for him, because otherwise – that coming to a conclusion will be a big benefit for him, because otherwise the economy has been really strong. I thought that the one thing that could be the biggest problem for Donald Trump’s reelection prospects would be if the economy somehow tanked before the election. Now I’m not so sure. If it tanks for some reason other than his – what he does, I think that his core supporters may still stay with him because they stayed with him longer than I expected them to, particularly farmers, throughout this China trade war, and they are there at the conclusion. So I think the strong economy is the biggest – is the biggest wind at the president’s back right now.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, and it’s almost a hurricane, at least at the moment. And I’m trying to step back a little bit and think about this, and what have we got? We really have two Americas, and they are split on impeachment, they are split on Trump, they are split on immigration. I think there’s an important split on healthcare. I think this idea of, you know, Medicare for All, understand the force behind it but, what, there are 160 million people or more who have private insurance, and one of the old rules of management at The Washington Post was don’t try to fix it if it’s not broken. And those people think it’s not necessarily broken; they’d like it to be better. So –
MR. COSTA: But the other half of America feels like they want the whole system to change. You hear about systemic change from Senator Sanders, from Senator Warren, and that’s gaining traction on the Democratic side.
MR. WOODWARD: Well, that’s – we’ll see. I mean, I just think there is this sense right now of is there going to be a crisis that defines Trump. If it’s the economy, that hurricane at his back, you say the – and you’re right – that Trump supporters stick with him, but I think there are lots of people who really don’t like him who are sticking with him because of the economy.
MR. COSTA: What’s your perspective reportingwise when you were sitting on that debate stage moderating, talking to them about healthcare? Do the Democrats – is there a debate in the Democratic Party about where they’re moving on healthcare, and how do you see that playing out in the coming weeks?
MS. NAWAZ: Very much so. I mean, I think one of the most significant changes we saw in that debate within just the Democratic Party was, you know, in the spectrum of, you know, Medicare for All and changing the entire system or slight changes to the system as it exists, building back up the Affordable Care Act first, was that Senator Warren herself shifted her position, and she went from wanting to immediately implement a Medicare for All plan early in a potential presidency to basically adopting the plan that some of the more moderate candidates had, which was a slow rollout to a single-payer system in the first three years and then eventually moving into a Medicare for All system, which – can you imagine in your presidency like your third or fourth year trying to do something like that? But it was a bit of a walkback for her from what was an incredibly progressive position. You’re seeing that still very much play out. I don’t – I don’t think the Democratic candidates have figured out which way that the party needs to go.
MR. COSTA: I also wonder about nationalism. You look at President Trump’s message in 2016 on issues like immigration. You look at the U.K., Boris Johnson, the Conservatives winning over there just a few weeks ago. Is nationalism; President Trump’s message on race, immigration, identity; is that again at the heart of his 2020 message?
MS. ATKINS: Yes. I mean, look, everything that Donald Trump has done in terms of policy echoes what he said on the campaign trail, and there has been no reason to believe he would change that because he really hasn’t suffered any – aside from the impeachment which is its own specific thing – really hasn’t suffered any pushback to that. He really hasn’t paid any political price for all those things. He thinks that that’s what his supporters want – by and large, he’s right – and he is giving everyone the nationalistic part, he’s given them that; conservative judicial appointees, he’s given them that. He is doing – he is checking all of those boxes that he laid out during his campaign, and I don’t see any reason that he thinks that he needs to change that. The Democrats will have to change their message in order to defeat this.
MR. WOODWARD: It sounds like you think he’s going to be reelected.
MS. ATKINS: I think it depends on the Democrats. I think all of the factors that led to Donald Trump’s election are still there. The difference, the X factor, is going to be the Democratic candidate and how that candidate campaigns.
MR. WOODWARD: You see, nationalism is a little fuzzy, I think. I think what it is, in the way Trump looks at it and practices it, is being tough, being a hard-ass, in almost every opportunity that comes his way, and that’s very appealing to people in this – I think this is an era of, on the international front, great instability, great risks are being taken. It’s not clear what the policies are, but you know, there he is. And he can tweet anything; as you know, people who work for him wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, my God, what has he tweeted? And if he’s tweeted nothing, they can go back to sleep for three more hours and then check for the 6 a.m. tweet. I mean it is tough, tough, tough. And I think it’s – I was fascinated that you say he’s been successful on immigration. You mean politically.
MS. NAWAZ: Absolutely.
MR. COSTA: In his eyes.
MS. ATKINS: Right, yes.
MS. NAWAZ: In his eyes, absolutely. I mean, you look back even to the 2018 midterm elections, what message did we hear from President Trump and the White House again and again and again? It was not just the economy’s doing well; it was we need to fix immigration.
MR. COSTA: We have to leave it there. We could talk all night. And thank you for sharing your evening for us and this year. It really is appreciated. On behalf of our whole team, I wish you only the best in 2020.
In the meantime we will continue this talk and conversation on the Extra with a focus on President Trump and foreign policy. It airs live on social media and is later posted on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.