ROBERT COSTA: Isolated in his own party, at odds with advisors and, as ever, defiant. President Trump ignites a political firestorm over Russia. I’m Robert Costa. We dig into the latest reporting on the Trump administration tonight, on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.
MR. COSTA: Under pressure from some Republicans and Democrats, President Trump insists he did confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about election interference. But earlier in the week, he mostly accepted Putin’s view.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. He just said it’s not Russia.
MR. COSTA: Those statements led to confusion and concern on Capitol Hill and raised new questions about the president’s handling of foreign policy. Does he trust his own administration’s intelligence on Russia?
DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DAN COATS: (From video.) I think anybody who thinks Vladimir Putin doesn’t have his stamp on everything that happens in Russia is misinformed.
MR. COSTA: Now the president is planning another summit with Putin, this time at the White House.
DIR. COATS: (From video.) That’s going to be special. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says Putin will not be invited to Congress.
We go inside the story next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome back to Washington Week. And welcome to our new home. You can be assured that even with a fresh look and feel, our commitment to in-depth conversations remains the same.
Now, to the news. The fallout from President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin has only fueled Mr. Trump’s resolve. And he invited Putin to the White House this fall.
But that wasn’t the only flashpoint this week. Dan Coats, the president’s Director of National Intelligence, gave a candid and revealing interview during a security summit in Aspen Colorado. When asked about the Trump-Putin summit, he had little to say.
DIR. COATS: (From video.) I don’t know what happened in that meeting. I think as time goes by, and the president has already mentioned some things that happened in that meeting, I think we will learn more. But that is the president’s prerogative.
MR. COSTA: And he was surprised to learn a second summit was in the works.
ANDREA MITCHELL: (From video.) That Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.
DIR. COATS: (From video.) Say that again. (Laughter, applause.)
MS. MITCHELL: (From video.) You – Vladimir Putin coming to the –
DIR. COATS: (From video.) Did I hear you – yeah.
MR. COSTA: The interview made instant headlines, with White House aides wondering if Coats was going rogue and national security officials alarmed that the DNI was out of the loop. Still, a new poll shows Republican support for the president’s performance in Helsinki is sky high. Seventy-nine percent approve, and 18 percent disapprove.
Some Republicans, however, are not cheering. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas wrote this, “Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the CIA, I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people. I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.”
Quite a week. And joining me around the table this evening, Margaret Brennan, moderator of CBS’ Face the Nation, Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour, Jonathan Swan of Axios, and Dan Balz of The Washington Post. Let’s go back to Director Coats and the question that has gripped Washington this week: What is going on at the highest levels of the government with the people around the president?
Margaret, you’ve spent much of your career covering the State Department, talking to top national security officials. What is the reality of what’s happening around this president?
MARGARET BRENNAN: The reality is that there is one Trump administration policy on paper, and then there is one that the president carries out. And they don’t always match up. And no one on the national security team can actually honestly tell you with certainty that when the president walks into the room that he will stick to the principles they’ve laid out. The president celebrates this as flexibility. He says this has been an asset when he’s been negotiating real estate deals.
Obviously the risk level is much higher when we’re talking about national security objectives. And so this is where it creates this tension. You heard that from the DNI Dan Coats, and looking gob-smacked on stage, almost making light of this idea that he, even though he oversees 17 intelligence agencies, didn’t know that at one time the Russian ambassador and the foreign minister were going into the Oval Office. And he didn’t know that Vladimir Putin was about to be warmly welcomed around the time of the upcoming congressional races.
That’s not a good look. But at the same time, the DNI I think was showing here that this was some space between him and the president because he wants to stand with the people in the intelligence community whose work he was defending on that stage.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, what’s the view inside of the West Wing as they are watching all of that?
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, I got two phone calls in pretty quick succession. One – the first one was literally while it was still going, going are you seeing this? Have you seen this? Did you know about this? I didn’t know about this. Did you know about this? And the second one was pretty shortly after that, was a senior White House official who was already speculating about Trump firing Coats. This is not having yet spoken to the president about it. They’re all completely blindsided by this interview. My understanding is John Kelly didn’t know about – the first he learned about it was when he saw it and sort of went, oh, OK.
So that’s not atypical in this administration. They are – if you talk to anyone at the moment in the West Wing, you can get pockets of information in a particular siloed area based on what they spoke to the president – you know, the last time they spoke to the president two days ago. But no one feels confident in giving you – imparting information. Like, people aren’t even really pretending to – you know, eight months ago everyone was giving you these great theories of how, oh, actually he’s really playing 4-D chess and deep insight into how the president thinks. Now they just sort of go – it’s a big shrug. They really don’t even pretend to interpret the president anymore or pretend that they know what’s coming next.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, Jonathan used the word “silo.” Is the president isolated as he makes foreign policy? And if Director Coats didn’t know about the invitation to Putin, who’s driving that second invitation to Putin inside of this administration?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think President Trump is absolutely driving everything. And the fact that he spent two hours when he was supposed to spend 90 minutes with President Putin alone in a room with only translators – he didn’t take the people that are close to him, he didn’t take at least Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or John Bolton. He didn’t say, I need to have at least my super top aides with me in this room. He said, no, I’m going to go at this alone.
And the fact that the DNI Dan Coats is saying that, well, we’ll figure out what was said at some point, at some point things will kind of leak out to us, it’s almost like they’re waiting for journalist like me, you, and Jonathan, and others to tell them what happened. I think that as much as we as reporters think that we’re wondering, OK, how do we kind of get at the information, the people that are in the West Wing, as well as the people who are working for the president are themselves kind of searching for information.
And I think President Trump likes this. There’s this idea that he feels as though he knows what’s best for his administration. I think at the very beginning there was some idea that, you know, he was young, and he was – or, not young, but he was not someone who was very experienced at being president or in politics, so he needed to have people around him that would kind of usher in and kind of guide him. And now he’s saying, look, I’ve been doing this job for more than a year and a half. I know what’s best, and this is what I’m going to do.
MR. COSTA: Dan, you’re writing your Sunday column about Coats and President Trump. What’s grabbling your attention as you sit down to write that and you talk to your sources?
DAN BALZ: Well, I mean, the first thing that grabs all of us is what we just saw again with that reaction by Dan Coats. That is an extraordinary moment, to see the director of national intelligence caught by surprise about a meeting with the Russian president. We’ve never seen anything like that. And you walk this week back to Helsinki, and everything that has happened has been out of the ordinary and different than what you would expect.
I talked to a person today who had been in a previous administration in a senior national security position. And he made this observation, which was a decision to bring the Russian president – particularly this Russian president – to the White House in prior administrations would have been done only after national security meeting, principals meeting. He said, there seems to be no process in this White House to make these kinds of decisions. Similarly, he said there seems to be no process for assessing what happened in Helsinki. And Dan Coats was in the dark about what happened in those two hours between the president and Putin.
So, you know, as Margaret said, we have a situation in which you have a president and his national security operation going in separate tracks, and a White House staff trying to constrain a president who’s determined to make his own rules.
MR. COSTA: And we all remain in the dark a little bit about what actually was discussed at that meeting between President Trump and President Putin. Based on your reporting, what have we learned about what has actually been agreed to or may be agreed to between these two countries?
MS. BRENNAN: Well, because only the interpreters were in the room, the top advisors are relying on what the president is retelling. And from what I’m told from my sources, the president was insistent that he held a firm line specifically on the conflict in Syria, saying that he wouldn’t be drawing down the 2,000 or so U.S. troops there until Iran withdraws its forces. That’s a pretty indefinite timeline. Iran is firmly entrenched there. But what that does is that’s relief to Israel perhaps. It’s a relief to the president’s own national security team who had been told at one point by the president himself: I want them out within the next six months.
So that’s a huge reversal from the president. But it also was a sigh of relief to many because they feared this was a chip that the president might bargain away with Vladimir Putin when he got into the room, and that that would hurt U.S. leverage in the region. But on everything else, the main message I’m hearing is the message was the agreement – the meeting was the agreement, I should say, the next one. There was no major national security objective that was achieved in Ukraine, in Syria. There were proposals floated.
The White House shot down, pretty forcefully, one of them today, saying that they weren’t going to accept Vladimir’s Putin’s idea of holding a referendum that would essentially allow Russia to annex more territory in eastern Ukraine. So a pushback pretty hard from the national security community to some of the proposals that the president said he was actually going to take time to think about.
MR. COSTA: What about the confusion in the briefing room this week when you were there, Yamiche, about whether the administration would send over former U.S. officials, like former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, to talk to Russian intelligence officers? The White House seemed to consider that, then swatted away the idea.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, the idea that – the fact is, the president first called that an incredible offer. I was in Helsinki at the press conference when he said: Well, Putin has really interesting ideas about how we can get at this election interference stuff and has interesting ideas about how we can work together. And of course, all the reporters in the room are thinking, well, what is that interesting idea? Fast forward, we learn that Putin was essentially saying: If you allow us to interview and talk to and interrogate Americans, including the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, we’ll invite Mueller to come over here and he can talk to some of those Russian officials that he thinks interfered in your election.
Sarah Sanders said – when asked about this very bluntly, she said: Well, we have to think about it. We’re going to get back to you on that. A couple of hours later, the State Department said, that’s absurd. That would never happen. So what you had was two messages, kind of like two messages coming from the intel community and President Trump. You had two messages coming from the State Department and Sarah Sanders. And finally, about 24 hours later, Sarah Sanders cleaned it up and said: No, President Trump does not agree with that. He’s not going to do that. But the fact that they were entertaining it in the White House briefing and that State Department knew very quickly to say it was absurd, tells you that, again, this is an administration that’s not on the same page.
MR. COSTA: Where is Defense Secretary Jim Mattis? Where’s Chief of Staff Kelly? Where is Secretary of State Pompeo? I mean, we keep hearing that they’re the guardrails in this administration, but they’ve been pretty quiet this week.
MR. SWAN: Well, it’s funny – it’s funny you say that, Bob. Like, when – I was on the trip as well. And when – I was in Brussels for the NATO summit. And when you talk to European officials, they will – and I’m sure Margaret has had many of these same conversations – they have these perfectly normal conversations with Jim Mattis where he – it’s like everything’s normal. It’s like we’re dealing with a normal administration. And actually, in many senses, they are doing normal things. Trump has actually invested more military resources in Europe than Obama did. So they’re quite happy with some of the substantive things. And Mattis is a very reassuring presence.
But they’ve all come – they’ve all come to the conclusion that this line that has been sort of fed to them of 12 months of, don’t listen to the tweets, ignore the tweets, pay attention to what we do – that’s kind of reaching the end of its use-by date, that line, because the rhetoric actually matters in lots of different ways. And they know – these European officials and other officials know that when they talk to James Mattis, he is not speaking for the president of the United States – not even remotely.
MR. COSTA: Well, if that’s the case, Dan, then why do they stay? If you’re in this Cabinet or you’re National Security Advisor John Bolton, why do you stay? You’ve studied administrations for years.
MR. BALZ: Well, Bob, I would say there’s a high-minded reason and a not so high-minded reason. The high-minded reason is a belief that they are serving their country. I mean, somebody like Secretary Mattis, you know, lifetime career in the military – duty, honor, country. They believe in what they’re doing. They believe that when the president asks them to serve, they should serve. I think they suspect, or they believe, that they are, in fact, providing at least some guiderails, that they are in some way or another being able to reassure allies that there is – you know, that there is a government that can function effectively.
I think the less high-minded reason is that some people are attracted to power, and it is very hard to give it up when you have it. And once you get to those positions – and I’m not ascribing that to any particular individual but just to human nature – that that makes it difficult to step aside.
MR. COSTA: You’ve spent some time interview National Security Advisor John Bolton in the past month. And he seemed to try to navigate that, sometimes uneasily, with you.
MS. BRENNAN: Well, it’s interesting, because this is where we get into the policy on paper. When you say from – the national security advisor often says, well, that is not the policy of the U.S. government, but leaves the door open to that policy –
MR. SWAN: A wonderful line. A wonderful line.
MS. BRENNAN: It’s a wonderful line. And you say –
MR. SWAN: He said it to you, like, three times. (Laughter.)
MS. BRENNAN: Exactly. And you’re like, well, yes, this is why I’m asking you why the president is saying otherwise. Why is the president saying things that aren’t the policy of the U.S. government? Because it’s very, very confusing to the European friends and allies that you were just mentioning there.
And the reason that the rhetoric matter is not – this is a president who was elected as a disruptor. And that’s not necessarily what the outcry on these national security matters is about. It’s because those guardrails are in place not only to protect the president from himself, but to protect the country and to protect the institutions. I mean, when you were talking about words mattering before NATO, the collective defense premise is what NATO is about. You know, protecting each other.
If you are drawing into doubt that Montenegro or one of those members is worth defending, then that stops working. It doesn’t matter if you up defense spending if Vladimir Putin doubts whether or not you’d come in and defend any of those countries in the first place. So that’s where the words on NATO really matter, where the president is also leaving the door open – that conversation with Bolton and others on, well, maybe we can talk about parts of Ukraine being up for grabs.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I spoke to Douglas Lute, who is a former U.S. representative to NATO. And he, shortly after the Helsinki summit, told me two things. The first thing was, that he expects NATO allies to start crafting workarounds of the United States, because he thinks that NATO allies are going to stop trusting President Trump. We saw the leader of Germany come out and say: I don’t know if we can trust the U.S. with Trump at the helm.
But then he also said, things could be a lot worse. He didn’t change the U.S.’s relationship with NATO. He didn’t pull out any troops. He didn’t change any military exercises. There was all this idea coming into the NATO summit that people were very worried that he was going to do that in his meeting with Putin, and none of that happened. So Douglas Lute was saying, yes, it looks kind of crazy in some ways because of all the things that President Trump is saying, but that things haven’t changed.
MR. COSTA: And they’re also watching all this not only in the administration, but on Capitol Hill. I was at the Capitol this week and you see the alarm among some Republican Senators, like Jeff Flake of Arizona. And then you talk to others, like Senator Rand Paul, and they take a much different view about the president’s actions. Let’s hear what they have to say.
SENATOR JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): (From video.) We have indulged myths and fabrications, pretended that it wasn’t so bad. And our indulgence got us the capitulation in Helsinki. We in the Senate who have been elected to represent our constituents cannot be enablers of falsehoods.
SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From video.) Absolutely, I’m with the president on this. The intelligence community was full of biased people, including Peter Strzok, McCabe, and dozens of others. I don’t think anybody doubts that the Russians got involved with leaking email and hacking into email. But there is a question of whether or not the election was legitimate. And all of this is a sideways way for those on the left to try to delegitimize Trump, and to say he didn’t really win the election.
MR. COSTA: Dan, we’ve been talking about all of the hawks around President Trump. But it’s interesting to note that Senator Rand Paul, that Libertarian, more dovish wing of the Republican Party, has actually been embracing President Trump’s position on Russia. Is President Trump almost more of a non-interventionist Libertarian on foreign policy than we sometimes recognize?
MR. BALZ: Well, he may be, Bob. His comments during the campaign were certainly contradictory. He’s somebody who on the one hand wants to project strength, muscularity, increased defense spending. But in other ways, as we’ve seen both as a candidate and his instincts as president if not necessarily the policies, is to pull back. I mean, he wrestled with his advisors over what to do about Afghanistan for a very long time, and finally agreed with them to put some more troops in, rather than his view is why are we still there? We’ve been in there 17 years, 18 years. Let’s get out of there. Similarly with Syria, as Margaret just mentioned.
So the president – the president may not know his own mind about these things. He doesn’t have a kind of fully formed sense of national security issues. He is a gut player. So he responds in certain ways when he’s asked about things, but he hasn’t necessarily thought deeply about them. And I think that creates the confusion.
MS. BRENNAN: And I think it’s a great point. I also think on Syria in particular, I was speaking with a former Obama administration official about it. And I said, really, tell me, what’s the difference in the policy here? Because a lot of this looks very similar. And the only thing the Obama administration official said to me was: At least we felt bad about it. At least we felt bad that we weren’t intervening in any humanitarian –
MR. COSTA: So in the actual details, it’s the same?
MS. BRENNAN: On the details it’s the same. The matter of two strikes actually being followed through on, those pinpoint strikes that were carried out by President Trump in the wake of two chemical weapons attacks. But when President Trump was standing there next to Vladimir Putin, he didn’t say, hey, by the way, why are you breaking the deal you made with me in Hamburg last year to have a ceasefire zone in the south of the country? Why aren’t we talking more about the humanitarian aid corridors and things like that? Secretary Pompeo is out there saying, we’re going to talk about that. But President Trump was talking about saving lives with Russia in Syria, instead of Russia bombing hospitals, as they continue to do.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, we saw the Axios poll, 79 percent of Republicans support the president’s handling of Russia this week. Is that why we didn’t see Senator Flake’s bipartisan bill with Senator Chris Coons of Delaware even get a vote in the Senate? Republicans may be handwringing over – about his style, but at the end of the day they still want to stand with him politically.
MR. SWAN: They’re terrified of crossing him, almost to a person. And the profiles in courage are retiring profiles in courage. And there’s a reason for that. And it’s because they know he’s vastly more popular than they are. The polling shows it. It’s – McConnell’s got a 25 percent approval and Trump’s is up 80s. Most popular Republican president at this point in his presidency. I think he’s even passed George W. Bush after 9/11 with Republican voters. So, yes.
And he also has the ability to – it’s almost a superpower. You take an issue like Russia, that it doesn’t get much more orthodox than that in terms of the Republican Party being tough on Russia. He has flipped that party on that issue. And you can go down the list. FBI, the Republican Party’s view of the FBI. Pick your issue. I mean, it’s quite uncanny. Tariffs. Republican voters now support tariffs. So, yeah, they’re terrified. But just to pick up on that point that we were talking about his foreign policy. I think, yes, he oscillates, but his default position is always: Why is this our problem? Why is this our problem?
MR. COSTA: Sounds a lot like Senator Paul. Yamiche, you’ve, beyond covering the White House, have spent a lot of time covering Democrats. Let’s watch a clip of Margaret’s interview with former Secretary of State John Kerry for a moment.
MS. BRENNAN: (From video.) What did you make of President Trump’s news conference with Vladimir Putin?
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From video.) I found it shocking. I found it to be one of the most disgraceful, remarkable moments of kowtowing to a foreign leader by an American president that anyone has ever witnessed. And it wasn’t just that it was a kind of surrender; it’s that it is dangerous. A president stood there and did not defend our country. He stood there and did not defend the truth.
MR. COSTA: Margaret – then I want to get Yamiche’s take on the Democratic Party – Secretary Kerry – I mean, that reflects a lot of angst among former Obama officials as they watch all this.
MS. BRENNAN: It does. And, you know, this is someone who spent a lot of time negotiating with Russia. Diplomacy with Russia is not a toxic idea to him. That wasn’t his objection here. It was that the president standing beside Putin didn’t use forceful language, didn’t confront, and then after the fact this walk back – it wasn’t believable, given that he spoke at length about his belief that all of this is fundamentally a witch hunt. And it was interesting to hear Secretary Kerry also describe being there in China when President Obama confronted Vladimir Putin for the first time about meddling.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, we’ve heard the word “treason” this week from Democrats. The Republicans are having their own debate, but Democrats appear to have their own turning point.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I think Democrats see this as one of many issues that they can use in the midterms to say, look, you should elect us because we’re going to be tough on Russia, because we’re not President Trump – even though they said that wasn’t going to be their message over and over again. So there’s this idea that Democrats just see another thing to add to this – separated families, tariffs, trade, jobs. All these things that the Democrats kind of want to argue about. The problem is that what Rand Paul said and the poll from Axios tell us that Republican voters feel as though people think that President Trump is illegitimate. And because of that, that’s why they’re being mean to him. And they see that as people being mean to him because they don’t want him to be president.
MR. COSTA: Churning dynamics in both parties this week. We’ll keep an eye on it all. Thanks so much for everyone being here.
And let me pause to thank the terrific crew here at WETA. This new set wouldn’t be possible without their hard work.
And as always, our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra. We will discuss the latest reports on the President’s long-time lawyer, Michael Cohen, and possible audio recordings of his conversations with President Trump. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.