ROBERT COSTA: President Trump purges his ranks and exerts his power.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re draining the swamp. I just never knew how deep the swamp was.
MR. COSTA: The intelligence community is rocked as the president installs loyalists, and the Justice Department faces new pressure as pardons are issued.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’m actually the chief law enforcement officer of the country.
MR. COSTA: And loom.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Roger has a very good chance of exoneration, in my opinion.
MR. COSTA: In Las Vegas, the gloves come off as Mayor Bloomberg takes the stage.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.
MR. COSTA: And Senator Sanders rises.
FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (D): (From video.) The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin tonight with this week’s explosive developments, as President Trump overhauls his national security team and clashes with his own officials. The New York Times reported on Thursday that the president, just weeks after his acquittal in the Senate, remains furious and still believes the intelligence community’s, quote, “assessment of Russia’s 2016 interference is the work of a deep state conspiracy intent on undermining the validity of his election.” And when Mr. Trump heard that intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get him reelected, he berated Joseph Maguire, the outgoing acting director of national intelligence, for allowing the briefing to take place, and fumed that Democrats would use it against him. The president’s anger is the driving force behind a flurry of moves that have upended this administration, including tapping a loyalist – Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany – to replace Mr. Maguire. This all comes amid other expressions of executive power, from the president urging the attorney general to clean house to his issuing of a number of pardons.
And joining us tonight is Elisabeth Bumiller, assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief for The New York Times; Shannon Pettypiece, senior White House reporter for NBC News Digital; Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios; and joining us from New York is Michael Schmidt, Washington correspondent for The New York Times.
Michael, we’ll begin with you. This purge inside the intelligence apparatus in the administration, based on your reporting, what is going on and what’s next?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, the president is, obviously, very upset about anything that ties the upcoming election and Russia’s help to him, but this is a story that we’ve seen before, a story that dates back to 2016. Some reporting in this area that I’ve seen and I’ve heard myself is that trying to get their hands around election meddling and preventing that is extremely difficult, and what it usually requires is the person at the top – the president and his national security adviser – to use their power to make sure things are working across the government, to make sure that foreign countries know that they are paying close attention to this issue. And what folks in the government see when this happens, when the president does things like this, is they worry that they will not be prepared for what may be coming, because there’s no one at the top of the government who’s using every power that they have to stop this. And it’s a complex problem – it’s something that can involve hacking, it can involve social media, it can involve contacts – and we’re starting to see the beginnings of it, obviously, with these briefings that have come out this week, the briefing up on Capitol Hill, and then learning about the one today that the Sanders campaign received.
MR. COSTA: What was that, the – Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont, was briefed that the Russians are trying to interfere to help him?
MR. SCHMIDT: Correct, that they’re trying to interfere to help him, and Sanders having a very different reaction than Trump, forcefully coming out to say that this is – this is not something that he wants help from and that, you know, all should be done to try and prevent it, a very different posture than the president’s, who still will not even acknowledge that in 2016 the Russians helped to get him elected.
MR. COSTA: Elisabeth, this is happening inside the department (sic) of national intelligence. At the same time, there is an upheaval across this administration. What can you share about what The New York Times has learned about what’s happening at the Pentagon and other agencies?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, it’s basically Trump is going after what he perceives as his enemies in the – in the deep state across the national security apparatus of this government. For example, the number three at the Pentagon was let go this week, a very important position, policy planning. There is an uproar at the State Department; the number two at the State Department who was just sent in who’s sort of a classic garden-variety Republican from an earlier era, the question is whether he can quell a simmering revolt at the State Department. There’s an uproar at the Department of Justice about Trump’s tweets and about whether or not Barr is really standing up for the Department of Justice or whether he’s protecting Trump. At the Director of National Intelligence, where Rick Grenell just started yesterday, the number two there has been fired and let go. And I’m out of agencies – let’s see, what have I lost? (Laughs.) The –
MR. COSTA: There’s a story on A1, on A5, on A7.
MS. BUMILLER: Right, right, right. So basically, what we’re seeing is a pattern here. And interestingly enough, Trump, you know, who denounced this information that the Russians were trying to get him – help him in 2020, he sees this as enemies everywhere. You know, he feels and from his point of view that the Mueller report is over, impeachment is over, and he thought he had put to rest this idea that the Russians had helped get him elected in 2016, but now it’s coming back again.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, I’ve been fascinated by your reporting at Axios because you’ve painted a portrait of the president having his own fingerprints on so many of these personnel moves, including installing a longtime loyalist, Johnny McEntee, his former personal aide, to now run personnel inside the White House. Who is Johnny McEntee and why does this matter?
JONATHAN SWAN: Johnny McEntee is a 29-year-old former college quarterback who worked on the Trump campaign, was his body man, and was fired by the former chief of staff, John Kelly, for it’s unclear exactly what, but security clearance problems; was brought back in. Jared Kushner played a role in that. Trump brought him back in and he’s now elevated him to run the presidential personnel office. He has given Johnny a pretty clear brief. He said he wants him to get rid of the, quote/unquote, “bad people,” and he said he’s fed up with it, he’s fed up with these people staying in these jobs, and he wants it done quickly. So on Thursday evening this week, Thursday afternoon, Johnny McEntee summoned White House liaisons from each Cabinet agency to a meeting in the White House, he sat them down – it was an introductory meeting – and he said we need to know who the Never Trumpers are among the political appointees across agencies. He wants names, and he said we’re going to stop promoting them, we’re going to stop letting them move laterally across agencies. He foreshadowed sweeping personnel changes across government. He did say that some might have to wait until after the election, but the clear message was we need to know who these people are, where – you know, we need lists of names and we need to deal with this problem.
MR. COSTA: As this purge unfolds, Shannon, is the president or any of his top advisers getting pushback from Republicans or Democrats on Capitol Hill?
SHANNON PETTYPIECE: His allies only seem to be encouraging him and he’s getting a resounding applause for a lot of these activities. For example, where this began, with the firing of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, a lot of people’s jaw dropped to see a key witness in the investigation escorted out of the White House, but the president’s allies and his advisers, they were applauding him. There is a sense that impeachment pulled back the curtain on these, quote/unquote, “snakes” – is what this allies refer to some of these people as – has pulled back the curtain on the dissent within this administration, and that now that impeachment is past them, like, within 24 hours of impeachment being past them it was time to stamp out the snakes, to go after the deep state. And really, the paranoia that we saw in the first year about, you know, dissenting forces being around him is still here three years later. I think that’s kind of what seems to be amazing about this. It’s like we’re back in year one.
MR. SWAN: To be clear, most of these are people Trump hired. This is not the deep state. Johnny McEntee has no ability to fire career officials. This is political appointees that Trump agreed to – (laughs) – that in many cases were put there by the Cabinet secretaries that he appointed over the objections of people at PPO. But Trump is convinced that these agencies are populated by people that he hired who are deep state.
MR. COSTA: Mike, any thoughts on what you’ve just heard here from the table about what your notebook has on the president’s motivations and his next steps?
MR. SCHMIDT: I guess I’m struck by the fact that it’s a news story, but it’s not really a news story. It’s the same things that he’s been complaining about since before he came into office. It’s these same accusations that the government is out to get him. Now he is at the top of the government and still claiming that people within it are trying to hurt him. What I wonder is how this will translate into his reelection. He did a very effective job in 2016 in running against Washington. And could he get away again, after four years as president, of running against Washington again, and running against the executive branch and the people in it, who he says he needs to continue to get rid of? I don’t know, but it seems like a familiar theme.
MS. BUMILLER: I just want to say, it’s a little different this time. This seems much more like a vendetta. This is getting his enemies. It’s different. It’s not just running against the bureaucracy that’s too big and bloated. This is running against people who are disloyal. It’s something we actually haven’t seen in a long, long time.
MR. COSTA: And this week President Trump also flexed his power over the Justice Department, issuing pardons to white collar criminals. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and Michael Milken, the former junk bond king, among others. Another pardon possibly looms for Roger Stone, the president’s long-time political advisor. Mr. Trump was outspoken about the department’s initial sentencing recommendation for Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering.
And on Thursday, Stone was sentenced to just over three years in prison, much lighter than the seven to nine years originally proposed. The judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson, said Stone, quote, “Was not prosecuted for standing up for the president. He was prosecuted for covering up for the president.” And she went on to say, quote, “The truth still exists, and the truth still matters.”
Jonathan, based on your reporting, where is Attorney General William Barr at this moment in terms of his relationship to President Trump? Is he on his way out the door or not?
MR. SWAN: I spoke to someone who knows – literally two hours ago – who knows him very well. And they do not get the sense he’s on the way out the door. But they said that perhaps the half-life has shrunken a little bit. It got pretty tenuous this week. I don’t think that that was total spin, you know, the idea that was considering resigning. I do believe that he was really questioning, based on my reporting and the people I spoke to inside the White House and inside the agency. But basically he’s in a situation where he’s under so much pressure because Trump wants results.
And in Trump’s mind, results is really getting some of these people indicted. I mean, Trump was really irritated that Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy, was not, you know, locked up. Trump is now putting a whole lot of pressure on the Durham report, which is the investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation. If that report turns out to not be a blockbuster, there’s going to be huge pressure on Barr.
MR. COSTA: What’s driving the pardons?
MS. PETTYPIECE: Well, in this latest batch of pardons, it is the recommendations of President Trump’s friends and allies who have been asking Trump to pardon a lot of these individuals. If you actually look at the pardon announcement this week – so Ron Blagojevich, Bernie Kerik, Mike Milken, they are all white-collar criminals, so they all have that in common. But the White House actually listed people who have gone to the president recommending, asking the president to pardon these people.
In a lot of cases, those people who have asked for the recommendations are some of Trump’s biggest donors. Sheldon Adelson was one of those. You know, Rudy Giuliani, one of his closest advisors had advocated for some of these people. So you know, President Trump sees he has this ability to put his finger on the scale of justice. So as he is frustrated in other areas where he cannot carry out indictments, he does have this ability here with the power of the pardon.
MR. COSTA: Mike, you’ve covered Judge Berman Jackson throughout the Russia investigation. You heard her statements. Based on your reporting, what’s the view inside DOJ as the president personally intervenes?
MR. SCHMIDT: Well, I think that folks obviously, as we’ve seen, are very concerned. But there are signs to others that things are not completely out of control. We had the announcement this week that there will not be a prosecution of Andrew McCabe, someone the president, as Jonathan was pointing out, desperately wants to be thrown behind bars for a slew of different things. And that is a line that a lot of folks have looked towards. What happens in terms of prosecutions, the real enemies?
Now, we know that some of these folks have been investigated because the president wanted them looked at. But will it ever go beyond that point? This week we didn’t see that, but as we’ve seen before there are other investigations that are looking at leaks and such. And these things the president is counting on and does think would be a good way at striking back at his enemies. But Barr has not crossed that line yet. And I can’t believe Trump is happy with that.
MR. COSTA: Elisabeth, when you step back as an editor in running the Washington bureau of The New York Times, how do you pull all these threads together, and what does it all tell you about how the president is testing the presidency?
MS. BUMILLER: He is every day testing it. (Laughs.) He has gone farther than any other president in our lifetime in pursuit of, you know, executive power. And he’s gone over the line a number of times. But I would just say, certainly about pardons, one of the reasons he likes pardons is because he can be like a king. Congress can’t stop him. The courts can’t stop him. That’s pretty much unfettered power. And we also know he hasn’t actually gone through the formal process, through the Justice Department. He just, as Shannon said, he just, you know, calls up his friends and business associates and gets ideas, and then does it in a matter of hours.
So I think – but what he is doing every day is expanding presidential power to the point where I predict that the next president who’s not Trump, there’ll be legislation trying to curtail executive power the next time around. I don’t know how far it will go. But I think he’s just – he’s gone beyond anything I’ve seen.
MR. COSTA: Because the Democrats control the House, but after impeachment what are their real options for oversight?
MS. PETTYPIECE: Well, there’ll be hearings on the Hill. But you raise a good question. And a lot – certainly if Trump is reelected and it’s still a Republican Senate, I don’t – you know, I think there’s more of the same.
MR. COSTA: Michael Schmidt, up in New York, our friend, thanks for joining us on a Friday night, from The New York Times, appreciate it. Thank you.
MR. SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.
MR. COSTA: And let’s turn now to 2020, because Democrats nationally are grappling with their party’s unsettled presidential field. And Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada could provide some clarity days after former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made his debut on the debate stage. In Las Vegas Bloomberg was under attack from the start.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) The mayor has to stand on his record. He has gotten some number of women – dozens, who knows – to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace. So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral.
FORMER SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out.
FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (D): (From video.) I can’t think of a ways that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation.
MR. COSTA: Joining us from Las Vegas, where she had been reporting all week, is Laura Barron-Lopez, national political reporter for POLITICO.
Laura, thanks so much for being here. Appreciate it.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Thanks for having me.
MR. COSTA: I know you could be doing other things on a Friday night in Las Vegas. So to be on Washington Week, it means a lot. What does it tell you that Michael Bloomberg on Friday decided to now release women who have nondisclosure agreements with him to now speak up publicly if they choose to do so?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, it shows that this pressure that mounted on him from earlier this week, starting before the debate, actually, because Elizabeth Warren had called on him to release women from those NDAs even prior to the debate, slightly telecasting that she may bring that up. And she, indeed, did, repeatedly, standing side-by-side with him on that debate stage. Former Vice President Joe Biden also earlier today added to that pressure. So it shows that Bloomberg is getting more and more scrutiny now that he is considered in the top tier of candidates, even though no votes have been cast for him, simply because he is spending an exorbitant amount of money in the Super Tuesday states and a number of campaigns see him as a serious threat in those states.
MR. COSTA: Laura, you’ve been doing a lot of reporting on the ground in Nevada. Latino voters in that state, the union worker, is Senator Sanders, who’s now leading in national polls and rising in national polls, poised to win there in the caucuses?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Yes, the entire sense on the ground is that Sanders is far and away the leading candidate in Nevada and that he has strong support among Latino voters. The question is how many turn out in a caucus because a caucus is far more detailed and takes up a lot more time than just going to cast your ballot in a typical primary. So it’ll be important to watch those numbers to see how many actually turn out and how many turn out for Sanders. He has spent – his campaign says that they’ve spent millions on Latino outreach alone in Nevada. They are also spending a lot in states like California and in Texas to turn out Latinos. The race for second is really the big deal here: Who is going to get that slot? And Joe Biden’s campaign is projecting that he’ll get it, but I was just talking to a Nevada Democrat who is well – who’s well-connected who said not to sleep on Pete Buttigieg because he appears to be really hitting the pavement in the rural parts of the state, and that could prove pivotal for him.
MR. COSTA: Shannon, what about – stay with us, Laura – but what about Senator Warren? She took on Mayor Bloomberg. Is it too late for her revival?
MS. PETTYPIECE: Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily too late for anybody. It’ll be too late in about two weeks, but – (laughs) – she certainly has – you know, could carve out a second lane for herself. But you know, the Bernie Sanders coalition/wing or whatever seems to be really solidifying behind him, and of course, you know, that’s so much where her support was coming from – as people had questions about Sanders, they went over and gave Warren another look – and as we’ve seen the Biden supporters drop off they have not gone to her. You know, you can see them going to Sanders or going to Bloomberg, so I’m not sure where she really picks up support. And I think in that last debate the takeaway – at least the takeaway I heard from a lot of people – is that she was more like an attack heatseeking missile rather than doing any favors for herself and building herself up too much as a candidate, but we’ll see. I mean, anything can happen at this point.
MR. COSTA: Bloomberg – you’ve covered city hall in New York – can he come back from this?
MS. BUMILLER: Well, he’s got to have a better performance in the next debate, that’s for certain. I think his performance, even his advisers were taken aback by how poorly he performed. I think in the second – yes, he can – I mean, he could come back, but I think he has to have a strong debate performance. Although, you know, the money goes a long way, he certainly looks – he looks very good in his ads, you know? (Laughs.) But there’s a difference when he gets onstage. I think that – I think he was better in the second part of the debate. He was more like himself when he was asked, should you have made all that money? I think it was a good answer – yes. You know, what was he supposed to say, no, I feel bad about that? And I think if you’re an ordinary American watching you would think that seems to be the right answer.
MR. COSTA: What’s the White House’s view of Senator Sanders and his ascendancy?
MR. SWAN: They want to run against him.
MR. COSTA: Really?
MR. SWAN: Yeah, they do. There are some people who have a view of, you know, be careful what you wish for, and I’ve heard that line a few times from people in there just because it’s such a divided country, Bernie’s got –
MR. COSTA: An outsider versus an outsider with Sanders versus Trump.
MR. SWAN: Right, he’s got – he’s got real energy behind him and he can appeal to some of the same voters as Trump. But the predominant view that I find talking to people in the campaign and in the White House is they want to label whoever they run against as a socialist. They’re going to do it anyway. If Joe Biden happened to be the nominee they would call him a socialist; I’ve been told that. But Bernie calls himself a socialist so it actually makes it much easier to do that, and they want to make the campaign capitalism versus socialism and go to these women in the suburbs who the Democrats managed to win over in 2018 and go back to them and say, you really want to risk it on Bernie Sanders? And then is when the money starts piling in and they start to try to win back the House going down ticket.
MS. PETTYPIECE: I do think that careful what you wish for, though, is real with Sanders, and I think they see more strength in Sanders than they do in other candidates, though, as well. Like, while they may see his policies as completely toxic and unappealing to most Americans – at least that’s their – the Trump campaign’s assessment – they see him as authentic, he has a likeability factor, he has a loyal base that will stick with him even if he has a heart attack, and those are Trump’s strengths and they see those in Sanders. So I think he is still a little bit of a wildcard, and he could reshape the map in some ways that they’re not used to, putting places like, for example, like Texas in play.
MR. COSTA: Laura, final thoughts out there in Las Vegas as you look ahead to tomorrow? Where are you going to be and what’s on your to-do list as a reporter?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, I’ll be in a caucus site in the surrounding Las Vegas area, in Henderson, and I’m going to be looking forward to see how well this caucus runs. Of course, they are a little bit on edge after Iowa. They did scrap two apps that they were planning on using. They’re using Google forms now on iPads. There’s been some concern about the lack of training on those. Nevada Democrats say they’ve been working around the clock to make sure that there are no issues. They have a two-step voter verification process. So no matter what they are going to be calculating the vote totals manually. Some campaigns, though, are worried –
MR. COSTA: Laura, we have to leave it there.
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: – about how this new early-vote total, which is the first time data has ever offered –
MR. COSTA: Can Laura hear me?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: – the early-vote option to make it more accessible, how that’s going to factor in.
MR. COSTA: Laura, we have to leave it there. Laura, I really appreciate it. We’re going to be following your reporting the whole time. Thanks so much for joining us from Las Vegas.
We have to leave it there tonight. The show goes quick, but mark a calendar: We will have a special show next Friday, February 28, a Super Tuesday preview for a full hour. Check your local listings to make sure you don’t miss it, but for now make sure to watch our Washington Week Extra. Thanks again to everyone for being here, and Laura out in Las Vegas, thank you very much again. I’m Robert Costa. Good night.