SUZANNE MALVEAUX: President Trump marks his first month in office boasting about his successes and shifting blame for his setbacks. I’m Suzanne Malveaux. We examine the truth and consequences of lies, leaks and alternative facts, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I inherited a mess.
MS. MALVEAUX: President Trump insists his administration is a fine-tuned machine, and that reports of disarray inside the West Wing are simply not true.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake.
MS. MALVEAUX: But less than a month in office, the national security advisor, Michael Flynn, is forced to resign over his conversations about U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador before the president was sworn in.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I said I don’t think he did anything wrong. If anything, he did something right. I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him because that’s his job.
MS. MALVEAUX: As the fallout over Flynn’s resignation continues, the White House is facing new questions about its relationship with Russia.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Russia is fake news. Russia – this is fake news put out by the media.
MS. MALVEAUX: But Defense Secretary James Mattis sees things differently, calling Russia’s action in the U.S. election and elections overseas aggressive and destabilizing.
We’ll get analysis on the first 30 days of the Trump administration from Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, Nancy Youssef of BuzzFeed News, and Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week.
Once again, from Washington, Suzanne Malveaux of CNN.
MS. MALVEAUX: Good evening. It was one-hour-and-17-minute press conference described as epic, at times feeling like a one-man improv. While I’ve attended my share of press conferences in the East Room, covering Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, but I have never experienced or seen anything quite like this.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine. We had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban, but we had a bad court. Speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia. The whole Russian thing, that’s a ruse. That’s a ruse. The press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.
MS. MALVEAUX: But late Friday, the president ratcheted up his attacks on the media with this tweet, saying “The FAKE NEWS media (failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” So, Dan, I got to go to you first here because, I mean, the fact-checkers, of course, have their hands full with all of this in the press conference. But react to this first, this tweet. What does this hearken back to, the times when you hear that the press now, the media, is the enemy of the American people?
DAN BALZ: You know, it’s one thing, Suzanne, to say the media is dishonest, and all presidents have had their problems with the press. But to declare that the press is the enemy of the American people ratchets this up in a dangerous way, frankly, because it seems to give license to anybody who has a grievance with the press to take it out in some way, hostile way. I mean, we get phone calls, we get emails that go in that direction, and now you have the president of the United States saying the same kind of thing. So it’s a – it’s a scary moment to hear him or to see him tweet that out.
MS. MALVEAUX: And what do you think he was trying to accomplish with this press conference, the tone of it, and even just in a hastily-managed way rushing to get reporters to the East Room?
MR. BALZ: I thought it was a classic effort to reset, to change the discussion. I mean, he’d been through – he’s been through a very tumultuous opening of his presidency. This was a very bad week. He had to, you know, dismiss his national security advisor, one of the real loyalists in the campaign and in the administration. His labor secretary withdrew. He’s frustrated by the coverage that he’s getting that suggests his administration’s in disarray. He wanted to come out and take control of it himself. He wanted to say everything he wanted to say about what he thinks he’s accomplishing. And he particularly just wanted to take on the press.
MS. MALVEAUX: And, Alexis, you were there. You were inside that room. It was like no other press conference we had seen before. Take us behind the scenes a little bit, even from the seating arrangement to how this was done just an hour before. I mean, I understand some aides didn’t even realize what was going on.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Yeah, it was interesting because the day was set the night before and the president obviously in the morning decided he wanted to do something different, and indicated to his staff he did. We had – many of our colleagues that we all know were doing other things, were in other places, and all of us had to rush to, you know, show up at the White House for what we knew was going to be something very interesting. But we had already seen the president in news conferences with heads of state, so we were scratching our heads about why would he want to be – right after meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu or the prime minister of Japan or the prime minister from Canada. And there was this rush to come into the room, lots and lots of people, and of course we’d all been in there in the past few days. There were no labels on the chairs, so it was a free for all. Usually we have, you know, place cards, kind of. And most journalists didn’t have that, and everybody was just trying to find their seat, and not – and reporters were not even sure that this was really going to be a question-and-answer session because we thought that what he wanted to do was introduce the replacement labor secretary because had had lost the one the night before because the Senate was not going to vote to confirm. And, in fact, that secretary nominee – designee was not even there. So –
MS. MALVEAUX: The labor secretary, right, usually is rolled out with his wife, the family, the whole thing. Didn’t happen.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Right, exactly. His name is Alexander Acosta, and CNN got a lot of mileage out of the Acosta name. (Laughter.)
MS. MALVEAUX: The name reference, yes; no relation to my colleague Jim.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Right, and the president tried to throw in some humor for that. So it was a – very unscripted in every possible way: in terms of the duration, how he called on reporters. And I just want to add, we all are aware from the Obama years – President Obama’s years that he got a list of people he was going to call in. He usually was there 45 minutes to an hour, and he called on eight news organizations, usually, President Obama. You know, we had an hour and 17 minutes and the president called on 17 news organizations. So he packed a lot into not just what he was saying, but also calling on a lot of different questioners.
MS. MALVEAUX: It was very surprising. Ed, I want you to talk a little bit about the fact that this was wide-ranging, but this is really something in terms of the style of the president as governing, how this came together, it was chaotic, it was fractured, a lot of people in the White House – White House staffers and aides – talking to you, telling you about how difficult it is inside that building as well as on Capitol Hill to get organized. Do you think that this is a sign of how the president is going to govern?
ED O’KEEFE: Well, it’s not much different than how he ran his campaign. I can remember a hastily-arranged press conference that, Dan, you and I sat through in a gymnasium in Iowa where he suddenly showed up and made some big news, and it was free-wheeling, and he took, you know, about a dozen questions, and he was doing that almost every day. You heard several colleagues who covered him on the trail say this is like last year, this is like we were out on the trail again with him, and some suggesting, you know, maybe this is what we’re going to see more of, maybe this is what we should expect. And I don’t think any of us here should fault the guy for taking questions from 17 different news organizations. That’s a good thing. We want that. But it was different and it was very much a departure from what we’ve seen before. People who work at the White House are exhausted. We know that. Everyone in this town, frankly, I think is a bit exhausted. But this is what he promised. He promised to shake it up. He promised it would be different and chaotic, and it’s certainly been that way.
MS. MALVEAUX: Ed, from your perch, the Republicans – covering Congress, how do the Republicans see this press conference unfold? What was their reaction? I saw a lot of people running. (Laughter.)
MR. O’KEEFE: They do – they do a lot of this. They keep their head down and they say, oh, I didn’t see it, I’m sorry. And look, as long as he is committed to revamping the Affordable Care Act, putting together a tax reform plan, making sure that Neil Gorsuch gets to the Court – the Supreme Court, and moving on all sorts of Republican priorities, lawmakers up there for the most part are going to be OK. I think the only place we continue to see a real big departure is on questions about Russia and the American standing in the world. We saw John McCain today at a conference in Europe go after the president without using his name, but very clearly making it apparent that he remains strongly in disagreement with him. And I suspect we’ll start to see a little bit more of that, because the Flynn resignation this week really did ratchet up pressure among Republicans to be investigating this whole situation.
MS. MALVEAUX: And I think it was interesting too, it wasn’t just the normal suspects – the usual suspects, McCain and Lindsey. But you saw Senators Blunt and Corker joining in. And that really, to me, seems like a departure, that they are willing – at least when it comes to Russia – to put themselves out there.
Dan, I want you to talk a little bit about the timetable here. When you listen to Ed and you wonder how – what’s that window – that very limited window that Republicans have to get things done, because back in Obama he was able to get that economic stimulus pretty quickly. But that window is going to close.
MR. BALZ: He had the economic stimulus package by this point in his administration. I mean, the interesting thing to me is that this White House has been so consumed by the problems that have been created, many of them by their own doing, that there’s – it’s questionable how much real work is getting done, and therefore how much the Hill will be able to do. The president said at his press conference yesterday they will finally have their plan for revamping the Affordable Care Act by early next month. Well, you know, we would have expected that – you know, they were promising on day one they were going to repeal and replace. They’ve had six years in the Congress to come up with a consensus plan. We know that they’re struggling on tax reform. Both of these are enormously complex issues, and they’ve basically got to get them done this year. And they’re, frankly, off to a slow start.
MS. MALVEAUX: And just a week ago, The Washington Post broke out the story about the National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s phone conversations about U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador. And then we saw four days later that the president asked him to resign. But the following day Trump blamed Flynn’s firing on the media. So late this week we also learned that Flynn reportedly lied to the FBI when he was questioned, not to mention misleading the vice president. So take us inside the Pentagon, Nancy. Tell us how they received this. And what we were they hearing when this unfolded, that this was such a crisis that was happening in the fourth week?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, it was interesting because the Pentagon is desperate to stay out of politics, and yet you have all these generals, many who are colleagues with Pentagon officials now and seeing this turmoil happening. For them, I think the big surprise – more, in a way, than Flynn’s firing – was that Vice Admiral Harward didn’t take the job as his successor, because there’s such a feeling of service that comes within the military that when the commander in chief asks you to step up, you step up. And the idea that a retired vice admiral would turn down the job from the president I think was almost more shocking than Flynn’s firing because it was so unprecedented by anybody, let alone by –
MS. MALVEAUX: Why did he do that? Was that because of the disorganization within the – within the administration, or was it something else?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, we’ve heard a couple reasons in his letter – or statement that he put out publicly. He said it was about the fact that he wanted to spend time working on his finances and his family. And yet, we started to hear murmurs that he was concerned about the disorganization, that he wouldn’t be able to put in the kind of staff that he wanted. He was not going to use the same staffers that retired General Flynn had put in, which are very, very different in sort of approach and tenor. And he wanted the ability to replace people who had been, in some cases, loyal to President Trump throughout the campaign. And so it seemed that that was a source of friction, because they’re very different personalities –
MS. MALVEAUX: Alexis, what does it mean not to have a national security advisor? I mean, you have Pence overseas, you have Mattis, you have various administration officials. You don't have your national security advisor, who is there to assemble and bring this before the president to make some very tough decisions.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It's such an interesting question, because President Trump campaigned to be a law and order and security president. And he was trying to explain to the voters that he was going to take charge and lead in a way that would make America safe. And the National Security Council is a large entity that is full of not only appointees from the president who are politically loyal to the president, but also career professionals who really know their stuff around the world. And the concern always was, from the very beginning, about whether General Flynn was going to be a good fit there. And I have to agree that the idea that someone who was – the president described yesterday it made it so much easier to fire General Flynn because I thought I had this great guy in the wings, ready to go. And it turned out that we found out that he was telling the president, I’d like to think about it for a few days. President Trump was surprised by that.
MS. MALVEAUX: He's not used to that.
MS. SIMENDINGER: He is not used to that. And then to be turned down, I think part of the collateral damage of this is not just to the National Security Council and who they are able to find, and how they sort out the organizational chart inside the White House, but it also sends a message to good, skilled people around Washington who really know their stuff: Beware of this place. Don't come near it, because these questions have not been sorted out. And it's like a warning sign to, you know, really talented people: Don't come in.
MS. MALVEAUX: And they have – they still have a lot of vacancies. This is pretty unusual, wouldn't you say, Dan, the this point, the level of vacancies, the difficulty that they're having?
MR. BALZ: It's a terrible situation that they've gotten themselves into. The transition was chaotic – the campaign was chaotic, but successful. The transition was chaotic. He got some – you know, some very impressive people into the Cabinet. But the sub-Cabinet level doesn't exist at this point. So, you know, Secretary Tillerson at State was turned down on his hope to try to get Elliott Abrams in there. He doesn't have a real senior staff. Most of these departments don't. And there's nothing in the pipeline.
I mean, there are very few of these sub-Cabinet nominations that have been put forward. So they're way, way behind on that. And we know the confirmation process has been slowed down by the Democrats. So simply putting a functioning government together – I mean, he finally got his OMB director, but I was told yesterday by someone that most of those other key appointment jobs in OMB are not filled at this point. And they've got to do something about putting a budget together.
MR. O’KEEFE: He's got nine of his 15 confirmed – or, sorry – 10 of the 15 Cabinet-level positions, if we count the U.N. ambassador as some people do. And Dan’s right, all these deputies – the reason they matter is they're the ones that actually run things. You know, Tillerson, General Mattis, General Kelly, they go to the press conference and the ribbon cutting and they meet with the top-level dignitaries. But these are the folks underneath who actually run things. And the fact that qualified people all across the country have said no – competent managers who have done this work before are saying no – is a sign of real trouble.
The labor secretary pick that he brought in, the replacement, is a guy who served George W. Bush in the Justice Department. But that was hastily done. They made a few phone calls. He said, would you like the job? And the guy basically said yes. And we'll see whether he sticks with it.
MS. MALVEAUX: And weigh in, if you will, on the fact that you have multiple – potentially multiple investigations against this administration, potentially about the leaks. Not necessarily on Russia, but you have intelligence, you have congressional, you have this independent guy that Trump decided – the billionaire buddy of his that he's bringing in. How does that complicate matters in terms of just trying to get something done?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that I think was really fascinating to watch in the news conference is to listen to the president talk about the things that have surprised him about Washington. I mean, we’re watching in real time a leader learn to be a leader in government, transfer his business skill or – he talked about he was surprised that the intelligence community might have information that would leak out and would be detrimental to him as the president of the United States. He was surprised that the judicial branch would challenge his power over immigration and national security. You know, he's been surprised at the idea that Congress might not have been in total sync with him and that he can't dictate to the House or the Senate exactly. The only thing he didn't seem to be surprised about was how to use the media as a foil. And he did that for most of the time.
MS. MALVEAUX: Quite successfully. (Laughter.) At least for his supporters.
Nancy, very quickly here, we know that Defense Secretary Mattis really – I mean, he was the one who really spoke out this week, and he seems to be an independent person. How did that – how did he manage that role? And how did that play itself out in front of NATO?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, it's fascinating. He went to NATO and said: We're going to stick by you. He started by saying, we need you to step up and provide 2 percent of your GDP. And then came back and said, we're going to stick by you, which seemed to be a contradiction of what Trump was saying. And so he was offering a message of stability to an alliance that's very uncertain about the U.S. commitment to the alliance.
MS. MALVEAUX: We understand that over the weekend, too, we're going to see a Trump that perhaps is invigorated and revitalized. He, again – you know, he's going off to Central Florida. He's going to get a little bit of his mojo, his juice, from people who are at this rally here. What does that mean to him? I know that, at least for President Obama, in the first couple of months, he needed that too. He needed that energy to get out there and feel supported.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah. This is an event that the White House says is being paid for by the campaign, which we presume is the 2020 reelection campaign.
MS. SIMENDINGER: That’s right.
MS. MALVEAUX: Didn't he announce that that the day of his inauguration, the reelection campaign? (Laughs.)
MR. O’KEEFE: Pretty much, yeah. It’s underway. You know, send your checks, I guess, is what he's trying to tell supporters. And he's been sending text messages this week, raising money still. And it will be a primarily political rally. Even the White House went out of their way to say that Air Force One will not be in the backdrop, unlike the Trump plane, during the campaign. And it's designed, yes, to give him exactly that – juice, energy, and put him back in touch with his supporters who really made his campaign possible. It will be very interesting to see, as you said, with all these different officials overseas, what he gets into and what he says at that event.
MR. BALZ: I thought he looked more himself starting with that press conference and then today in South Carolina and I presume tomorrow, than he has looked – (coughs) – excuse me – since he was inaugurated. He has looked unhappy. He’s looked caged up. He's been overly scripted. He hasn't communicated, until this week, in the way he's used to communicating. And I think, in one way or another, that press conference was the authentic Donald Trump, the sort of let Trump be Trump that all of his loyalists wanted to see.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The other thing I would add is the familiarity. We were just talking about someone who has never been in government, had not been in Washington. And the fallback for someone like that is, what are they familiar with? What makes them comfortable? And you're describing the feeling of caged in. It's also his unfamiliarity with almost everything he’s presented as president, right? Policy after policy, executive action, who’s is in charge, how is the government organized, who do we need to have in? His idea that maybe we shouldn't approve someone to come into the government because they weren't for him, right, during the election and people trying to persuade him, no, no, you need, you know, certain skillsets. And so this – going out to campaign is what makes him comfortable. It's what he knows and he feels so confident about.
MS. MALVEAUX: And then, how did the military respond to this, Nancy? I mean, are they starting to get a sense that they are being politicized in some way? Because it has become so political, everything that he does.
MS. YOUSSEF: It's hard for them not to feel that way when you have so many generals being brought on. And even the names we're hearing for national security advisor are almost exclusively retired generals. And so you’re starting to see a very gray line between an apolitical military and National Security Council. And at the same time, I think there’s an anxiety because we've now seen a major military operation, this raid in Yemen that was carried out in January 29th, in which we saw the absence of the National Security Council, arguably, that didn’t have the ability to sort of ask the military the questions that sometimes need to be asked to sort of make sure that they’re asking themselves the right questions. Sometimes you can be too fixed on sort of the intelligence you have and the plan that you have, and you need a National Security Council that sort of challenges those assumptions. And I think the absence of that has sort of left the military a little disoriented in terms of how to approach military matters when it’s not clear who is the checks and balances, what is the role of the White House, what is the role of the National Security Council, and who is the civilian who doesn’t come in with a military mindset towards everything that they do, because sometimes that outsider view is exactly what’s needed.
MS. MALVEAUX: And now we’re seeing members of Congress have gone on recess. They’re going back home. Before it was the Republicans who were faced with these big town halls and boos and demands about repealing Obamacare. Ed, talk about the Democrats, what they’re going to be faced with now.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, they’ll face it as well. There are various movements that have been sparked by Trump’s victory that are concerned about the future of health care in this country and just the idea that in general everything Trump wants to do should be stopped in its tracks to whatever extent Democrats can do it. You will see hundreds of town halls and coffees and other public events held by lawmakers across the country next week. Republicans in the House were advised by the sergeant at arms to make sure that they had sufficient security at their events, just given the rancorous nature of our politics right now. But there are Democrats who are concerned about this as well. There was a meeting earlier this week of the top Senate Democratic leadership, and they kind of leaned on Bernie Sanders and said, look, you’re close to these different groups – there’s groups called Indivisible across the country, or others who have taken up the mantra of – the Resistance they call themselves. And they said, look, make sure that they train their fire on Republicans and not on us; we are in lockstep on protecting Obamacare and fighting against his nominees and other issues. The real focus should be on Republicans. And we’ll see next week what kind of public response they get and how Republicans really deal with this, especially if the crowds are predominantly independent or Republican voters.
MS. MALVEAUX: Dan, do you think that’s going to – that’s going to work? I mean, you’ve got – they’ve been in office for just four weeks now.
MR. BALZ: The problem for the Democrats is that there is so much energy that has been unleashed on the left because of President Trump that they don’t quite know how to deal with it. I mean, they – A, on the one hand, they want to harness it; B, they don’t want it aimed at them. But they are hearing so much more than they ever expected to hear at this point in a new administration that they’re trying to get their arms around it. And I think Ed’s right. I mean, I think next week will be interesting to see not just the kind of flak that the Republicans get – because I think in some ways that’s predictable – but what happens with these Democrats and how they try to channel things.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And also, if we looked at the president, look how he is trying to describe the Democrats. The face of the Democrats is either Chuck Schumer or Hillary Clinton, right? He used that news conference to talk about both of them and denigrate them as the obstructionists. And Hillary Clinton is not, you know, in office – in any office.
MS. MALVEAUX: It is Trump. (Laughter.) It is Trump. Thank you, everyone. Really appreciate it.
And of course, our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll discuss why many Democrats are turning to Bernie Sanders, of course, to help them with their constituent town halls. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek Friday night after 10 and all week long. And while you’re online, test your news knowledge on the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Suzanne Malveaux. Have a good weekend.