ROBERT COSTA: Threats, intrigue and broken bonds over an explosive new book. I’m Robert Costa. We examine the chaotic first week of this new year and new questions over conduct at Justice, tonight on Washington Week.
Bombshell betrayal: former White House strategist Steve Bannon goes after the president, his family, and inner circle in a behind-the-scenes book that raises questions about Trump’s fitness to serve, according to the author.
MICHAEL WOLFF: (From video.) We thought this presidency could work. We thought Donald Trump is an interesting, unique character. And they saw him over that time come to the conclusion he cannot do this job.
MR. COSTA: The president and his staff say the book is full of lies.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: (From video.) There are numerous mistakes, but I’m not going to waste my time or the country’s time going page by page talking about a book that’s complete fantasy and just full of tabloid gossip.
MR. COSTA: We sort through the fire, fury, and fallout from the new tell-all and new reports on the role Attorney General Jeff Sessions played in the firing of FBI Director James Comey. And the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, and one of the president’s biggest supporters, announces his retirement, clearing the way for one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics, Mitt Romney, to return to the national stage.
We discuss an extraordinary week with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Erica Werner of The Washington Post, and Josh Green of Bloomberg Businessweek.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. What a week. President Trump’s on-again, off-again confidant Steve Bannon, who was in the West Wing for eight months and is a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment, took direct aim at the president and his family in the new book Fire and Fury by longtime magazine writer and author Michael Wolff. In the book, Bannon offers razor-sharp comments, calling the president’s son, Don Trump Jr., “unpatriotic” for meeting with a Russian attorney and claiming to have dirt on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. He also says that Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation could turn up matters of money laundering in Trump’s orbit.
Trump’s initial response read in part “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” Trump then stepped up his attacks today, on Friday, when the book was released, and taunted Bannon for losing the support of the billionaire Mercer family, which holds a stake in Breitbart News, where Bannon now serves as chairman.
Among our stellar roundtable of reporters tonight we are joined by Josh Green, the author of the bestselling Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. Josh, wonderful to have you back. When you look at this break by Bannon with President Trump, was it a strategic break, or is it just another turn in this complicated relationship?
JOSH GREEN: No, I don’t think there was anything strategic about this. I think in the end Bannon was done in by his own grievances. And, you know, at one point he had been the architect of Trump’s presidential victory, the most important strategist in the White House, really viewed himself as a historical figure, and then pretty much from the get-go the administration kind of went off the rails and Bannon began feuding with many of the people that he goes after in Wolff’s book: Don Jr., Ivanka Trump, and most aggressively Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
MR. COSTA: Peter, White House chief for The New York Times, did you see Michael Wolff poking around? And how did he end up inside of the West Wing in this administration? And just who is he? (Laughter.)
PETER BAKER: Well, Michael Wolff’s been around for a long time, written a number of books – a complicated and controversial writer to some extent. Very vivid writer. Tells gripping and fascinating stories. Sometimes people challenge the veracity of them. Sometimes people say that he used material that wasn’t meant to be used on the record. He was in the White House. You did see him hanging around. He was – you know, he’d be sitting on the couch in places that we weren’t allowed to go all the time. He had a blue pass for appointment rather than a gray pass for press, cleared in apparently by Steve Bannon a lot of the time, who helped him get interviews with other people there.
MR. COSTA: Amy, Bannon wanted to play a big role in the midterm elections this year. What does this split mean for that effort to try to get more outsider, anti-establishment candidates in some of these Senate and House races?
AMY WALTER: Yeah, he sort of saw himself as the leader of this insurgency that was going to topple people like Mitch McConnell. He was asking candidates, in fact, to come and speak with him, and if he was going to help them they had to commit to not voting for Mitch McConnell for leader in the next election. Yet, there wasn’t a whole lot of there there behind all of the threats. His one candidate he got behind, obviously, Roy Moore, that was a disaster. And that, of course, turned a whole lot of people against him in the immediate aftermath of that. And even the people that he’d been supporting, it wasn’t really clear that he was going to have a whole lot of muscle to put behind them, especially money muscle. It’s not really clear where any support was going to come from. He didn’t provide real support in terms of monetary support for Roy Moore either. And so there’s a – there’s, you know, a lot of talk about this was a – really a lot more bluster than reality.
But here’s the truth: this insurgent movement has been around a lot longer than Steve Bannon. It started really you can say back in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s election in 2009. You had the rise of the so-called tea party movement. Insurgent candidates were getting themselves involved in races without any other outside help. So I think they are still going to exist whether Steve Bannon is there or not. And this is the challenge for the party, right? It’s a party that is still trying to figure out who we are, how we work together, how we govern. People like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump have been very successful at creating chaos, at sowing controversy, at taking the anger and frustration of voters and pushing it into elections, winning elections that way. But nobody’s figured out how to channel it to build something. They’ve just used it to really blow stuff up.
MR. COSTA: So those candidates are still out in the country.
MS. WALTER: They’re still out in the country and they’re still – I think in a couple of these races they’re still going to be potential problematic for some Republicans.
MR. COSTA: I spoke to one of them, Danny Tarkanian, running in Nevada for Senate against Republican Dean Heller. He said he’s sticking by Bannon. But what’s interesting, Erica, is on Capitol Hill there seems to be a bit of a shift with Bannon having this falling out with the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was – he was all smiles.
ERICA WERNER: He could not have been happier.
MR. COSTA: He said everything’s changed now. So the question is, does Bannon leaving the scene a bit in this Trump orbit, does that mean the agenda on Capitol Hill for the Republicans will be a little more mainstream, driven by McConnell, the president working closely with the leadership?
MS. WERNER: Well, I mean, one side effect of this is that McConnell and Trump of course have had a famously rocky relationship at times. They feuded over the summer. As you alluded to, McConnell could not have been happier over Bannon’s comeuppance with Trump. The statement that Trump put out about Bannon where he said that after Bannon got fired or lost his job he lost his mind, McConnell spoke directly to Trump and said he wouldn’t have changed a word in that statement. (Laughter.) So he was very pleased. So it brings the two of them closer together.
And as much as some of these kind of electoral threats were empty threats, and Danny Tarkanian may not go anywhere, Michael Grimm, Kelli Ward, these types of people may not have much of a shelf life, it does make things easier for kind of the mainstream Republicans. John Cornyn said it clarifies things; it makes it easier for us to start backing people that are electable. And I think by the same token it kind of makes the legislative agenda, the path forward just easier. It eliminates distractions. It, you know, lessens the potential for controversy, eliminates the power of some controversial figures that would ally themselves with Bannon, be in his orbit. So I think it is good news for the establishment wing.
MR. COSTA: Picking up on that point, Josh, does that make the fight over the young undocumented immigrants, the DREAMers, a little bit more easier to pass a solution in a bipartisan way because of this new dynamic?
MR. GREEN: Yeah, I think it does because the one thing that Bannon was very effective at from his perch at Breitbart News was kind of channeling this right-wing anti-immigrant anger that you can find in the base and among some of the more far-right members of the House and a couple people in the Senate. And it was very difficult for Republicans running in primary races like the ones that are going to be coming up next spring to compete against that. I mean, Bannon really did have a voice. I talked to Jeff Sessions – then a senator, now the attorney general – for my book, who said, you know, I do a lot of right-wing radio, and I can tell that all of these hosts read Breitbart News because of the questions that they ask me when I go on there. So the fact that Bannon is now weakened, there’s talk that he might get ousted from Breitbart News, I think is wonderful news for moderate Republicans hoping to come to some kind of a resolution on DACA.
MS. WALTER: And I think that part of the reason you might have seen the temperature sort of go down on Capitol Hill, as Erica was pointing out, was just the success of passing the tax bill. I mean, it took – a lot of the anger at the establishment was really this frustration that they had been so incompetent at being able to pass an Obamacare repeal, then they seemed to be stumbling and bumbling along. The president was blaming them for their ineptness. Now they pass something. They seem to be able to put one foot in front of the other. And the we hate Washington so much, it’s still there – believe me, the base is not like, yay, we can’t wait to be the establishment –
MR. GREEN: Well, but the donors are happy now too. I mean, they were threatening to abandon the ship if tax reform fell apart. And the fact that it passed, you know, put some wind in their sails.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, the thing that’s interesting is that the president basically had no time to enjoy his one big victory, right? He comes back from vacation and boom, right away we’re back into the – you know, this constant churning and fighting and controversy.
MR. COSTA: But is it really constant churning and fighting? Because you think about – the Republican leaders are at Camp David this weekend. They just did a tax bill.
MR. BAKER: No, I don’t mean fighting with the Republicans. I just mean that instead of like talking about the tax cut this week, instead of savoring their victory and showcasing their unity, what are we talking about? We’re talking about whether the president or not is just fit for office or not. We’re talking about his fight with his own chief strategist. We’re talking about everything except for the victory they just had about a week or so ago, a couple –
MR. COSTA: Can they ever get beyond the drama inside this White House?
MR. BAKER: It doesn’t seem like it. This is like the opening episode to season two. You know, we’ve got a big start to the new season with a – you want to grab the viewers and readers and make sure they’re paying attention. Well, they’re paying attention.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of season two, there’s another part of this week that was really – you saw things turn in the Russia investigation because there’s now talk of potential obstruction of justice because of this New York Times report, from Peter’s paper, that the president – and confirmed by other newspapers like the Post – pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stay in charge of the Russia probe. And when you think about this, Josh, the president was saying, where is my Roy Cohn, referencing the late former advisor to Joe McCarthy, the hard-charging attorney who went out of bounds at times. It shows that the president really wants loyalty. But that could raise some legal questions for him at this moment in his presidency.
MR. GREEN: Yeah, it can. And we actually saw a preview of this in a New York Times interview that was done down in Mar-a-Lago, where Trump said effectively, you know, I think that the Justice Department works for me. That conflicts with the history of Justice Department independence from the White House that’s existed at least since Watergate, and really goes to show that Trump views the attorney general as his personal lawyer, as somebody whose duty is not to the country or to the legal system, but to protecting him personally from his enemies.
MR. COSTA: Amy, what do you make of this clamor that’s on the right and the Republican Party? You have Paul Manafort, who was indicted. He went to federal court on Wednesday and said Mueller should pull back the charges, doesn’t have the legal authority. On Capitol Hill, Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, he’s going after the Justice Department, its handling of that salacious dossier about President Trump. We heard the FBI, encouraged by members of the administration, are investigating the Clinton Foundation. Is that heat in Washington over all of these issues about the probe and Mueller – what’s the scene out in the country? Is that clamor out there among Republicans nationally?
MS. WALTER: Look, I think that this is sort of a tried-and-true strategy when your party or the leader of your party is under investigation or there’s controversy, that you lash out and try to discredit the institution that is investigating them. So there’s – that’s not particularly new. What’s different, of course, is the fact that you have now both Democrats and Republicans at different times embracing and also calling out the FBI, right? So you had all of 2016 with Democrats saying the FBI is basically a viper pit, these folks are all leaking bad information about Hillary Clinton, and it’s getting out into the ether, and they are rigging this thing for Donald Trump. And of course, now here we are, not too long later, that it’s Republicans making that same claim. It’s not clear if it’s really getting into the public. We’ve seen that not a whole bunch of folks know who Bob Mueller is. I mean, he has higher name identification than he did, say, a few months ago. But it is clear, when I was looking at the most recent poll from the NBC-Wall Street Journal that came out at the end of the year, it’s dropped a little bit in terms of his overall approval rating, so I think Republicans are taking their cues from their leaders. Where this ends up ultimately, though, I think for Americans, unless there is something really clear-cut about what the president did or didn’t do, I think voters, Americans, are going to be divided by party on whether the charges or the issues that were raised by the final Mueller report are credible or not.
MS. WERNER: I was just going to mention it’s been interesting to watch kind of the division that remains in the Republican Party in their posture towards Mueller, who was almost universally hailed when he was initially selected as impartial, fair, a great choice. And by and large, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, the top leaders have not wavered too far from, or at all, from that. But it’s kind of creeping – the water’s kind of creeping higher and higher with Chuck Grassley, for example.
MR. COSTA: On that point, Chuck Grassley, the Iowa senator, Erica, it’s another fastball of news today. He said he’s recommending that they have a criminal investigation at the Justice Department of Christopher Steele, one of the British intelligence people who’s behind the dossier about Trump. What’s most significant this week, the Grassley move on the dossier and the Justice Department, Nunes working with Speaker Ryan to try to figure out some kind of strategy over the dossier as well? What matters?
MS. WERNER: Well, I’m not sure, frankly, that what Grassley did matters all that much. I mean, you know, the Justice Department and the FBI are perfectly capable of deciding, you know, who they’re going to investigate. They don’t need a member of Congress to refer something that’s in the public domain to them. So that – and Grassley’s been really a partisan attack dog on Trump’s behalf throughout the administration. So that’s what that kind of looked like.
The Nunes piece could take on a little bit of a different profile, because here’s an investigation that is in his committee’s domain. And Paul Ryan has sided with him on it. Where it goes, though, is – remains to be seen.
MR. COSTA: Peter.
MR. BAKER: One of the things I think is striking, though, about the FBI deciding to ask questions again about the Clinton Foundation is an example of where the president has actually not done himself a favor. Because he had badgered and publicly pressed the Justice Department and the FBI again and again and again to go after Hillary Clinton, this decision by the FBI to ask questions about the Clinton Foundation is automatically going to be suspect, is automatically going to be perceived to be a response to the boss, in effect, telling him what to do. So even if there’s a legitimate question there, and there could be – certainly been lots of questions raised over the years about the Clintons and the foundation and so forth – it’s now automatically seen through a partisan lens because the president put it there in the first place.
MR. COSTA: And the significance of the McGahn call to Attorney General Sessions?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think what that shows is once again that, first of all, Robert Mueller is focusing at least partly on obstruction as perhaps the likelier avenue for prosecution in this case. It’s almost always easier for prosecutors to prove obstruction, it seems like, than the initial crime that they end up looking at. And in this case, you’ve got a very strong indication of the president’s view, as Josh said, that the Justice Department should be his own personal fiefdom rather than an independent agency. And it shows, you know, a real, concerted effort on his part to stop an investigation that he thought was coming after him.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to keep an eye on all of this swirling issues, to be sure. But let’s turn back to Capitol Hill, because this week the longest-serving Republican senator in history announced his retirement. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said he would not run for reelection this year, giving up the seat he has held for four decades. The 83-year-old Hatch is the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and he closely worked with the Trump administration on the major tax bill that passed late last year. President Trump had urged Hatch to run again, in part because one of his fiercest critics, Mitt Romney, is considering running for the reliably Republican seat.
Romney coming back on the national scene, are traditional Republicans like him – should he choose to run – are they still welcome in the party of Trump?
MR. GREEN: I don’t know if they’re welcome or not, but what’s so interesting about the possibility of Romney running is that if you look at the developments over the last year or so, there have been very few, you know, Republican elected officials and senators willing to be openly critical of Trump. And the ones that have, like Jeff Flake from Arizona or Bob Corker from Tennessee, are retiring. They’ve decided to kind of throw in the towel. So most of the energy in the party, as we’ve talked about, seems to be in the direction of Trump and supporting Trump.
Here comes Romney, somebody who’s been very willing to stand up and say explicitly that he doesn’t think Trump is presidential. Said before the race didn’t think Trump was fit to be president, and has criticized him pretty consistently throughout his administration. If he were to now come in and serve in the Senate, it would really be a beachhead, or maybe a bulwark would be a better word for this kind of encroaching pro-Trump sentiment within the Republican Party.
MR. COSTA: And Democrats are feeling energized, Amy. You had Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat, sworn into office this week. Senator Tina Smith from Minnesota replacing Al Franken. What does Doug Jones mean for the U.S. Senate?
MS. WALTER: Well, it certainly limits the flexibility that McConnell and Republicans have in getting an agenda passed with one fewer vote in the United States Senate. And I think you’re right, it really was just a shot of adrenaline for a party that now is talking about being able to compete in all kinds of places, not just in the blue states. They’re feeling very bullish about their chances. They’ve always felt bullish about their chances in the House, now feeling much better about their chances in the Senate. They go from having to pick up three seats to now just having to pick up two. And Arizona and Nevada, two states that are pretty purple-blueish – certainly conceivable.
MR. COSTA: Erica, what’s Hatch’s legacy?
MS. WERNER: Senator Hatch has an incredible legacy. He’s been a bipartisan dealmaker over decades, working with Senator Kennedy on the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He’s had a role in every key piece of health legislation that you could think of over decades. Most recently, of course, chairing the Finance Committee that wrote the tax bill that just passed. And that’s what he leaves behind. It’s so interesting that he – after being someone who has such a bipartisan aura with – especially partnering with Senator Kennedy – that he embraced Trump so closely. That was kind of interesting and curious to see in recent months.
MR. BAKER: Well, but they – but Romney has his own sort of, like, shifts, which will make it interesting to watch what he is like if he gets to the Senate, because in fact, as a governor of Massachusetts, he was a bipartisan figure, worked with Ted Kennedy as well on health care. Remember, Romneycare, which was so similar to Obamacare. Then ran for president from the right, severely conservative he called himself at that point.
And I think that we can assume that if he gets to the Senate, he’ll actually be a reliable vote for Trump on a lot of the policy issues. He was certainly a vote for tax cuts. He was certainly a vote on a lot of these, you know, economic conservative issues. He might be more of a partner, though, for some Democrats on some issues like perhaps DACA. I think he wants to reshape his legacy, because the immigration issue didn’t go the way he would have liked, I think, in 2012. And it’ll be interesting to see him play out on that stage.
MR. COSTA: It seems like no one really wants to play that role of Trump foil.
MR. GREEN: No, they don’t. And it’s possible that Romney will. And I think another issue where he might stand up, should it come to this, is if Trump were to make a move to try and remove Bob Mueller, the special counsel. Romney seems like the type of person whose own sense of honor and decorum and what’s right and what’s wrong would compel him stand up and block that. And I’m not sure that that’s true of all the Republicans in the Senate or the House.
MR. BAKER: And one thing he really stood up this year – this past year on President Trump was Charlottesville, and the racial issue. He was very, very strong in condemning the president for equating the white supremacists with the protesters.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. We’ll see if Governor Romney actually runs. He’s been keeping pretty quiet, but there’s been talk for a long time. He’s been looking at that race.
Thanks, everybody, for being here tonight. And don’t go anywhere, if you’re joining us from home, because the Washington Week Extra is coming up next on most PBS stations. We will talk more about that legislative to-do list, plus a conversation about thorny and high-stakes issues around the globe. If you ever miss the live show or the Washington Week Extra, you can find both online Friday nights and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.