ROBERT COSTA: An economy and a presidency on the edge.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center.
MR. COSTA: The death toll climbs as the nation’s economy craters, and the soaring jobless rate stokes fear about a great recession or depression. Under pressure and ahead of the fall campaign, President Trump pushes to reopen the country and pushes back on guidance from the CDC; are health experts being sidelined?
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I think everything should be based on science and, again, not bury what the CDC is recommending. Then who is making this decision?
MR. COSTA: Plus, the Justice Department drops charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, reviving questions about power and the Russia probe, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. I hope you’re staying safe. To get up to speed on this important week, let’s just turn to the latest reporting about what’s happening with the Trump presidency and in the nation. First, as Toluse Olorunnipa writes for The Washington Post, the Trump administration has now sidelined or replaced officials not seen as loyal. They’ve rebuffed congressional requests for testimony, dismissed jarring statistics and models, praised states for reopening without meeting White House guidelines, and briefly pushed to disband the coronavirus task force. Here’s what the president had to say earlier Friday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) What we’ve done has been incredible. We’re going to continue to do it. We go – we’re going into transition, and I call it transition to greatness. It’s going to be transition to greatness because we’re going to do something very fast and we’re going to have a phenomenal year next year.
MR. COSTA: But was Peter Baker writes in The New York Times, for a president who had staked his legacy on an economic record that was shredded by the crisis, moving on may seem like the best way to salvage his chances for reelection this fall even as the latest death-toll estimates have more than doubled from what Mr. Trump predicted just weeks ago and polls show the public is not ready to restore normal life. So the question in my notebook is this: What’s next? What does it all mean? And what will Congress do?
To get answers we turn to one of the best reporters on Capitol Hill, Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for National Public Radio; to the author of a revealing new biography, a terrific book, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine and author of Pelosi on the speaker of the House; to Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post.
Toluse, begin with you. You’ve reported all week on the president clashing with health experts, with scientists. What does it look like behind the scenes in the White House?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Well, aside from the daily chaos that we have seen in response to the coronavirus, we are seeing this major shift. The president was actually pretty transparent about the idea that he wants to transition away from focusing on the public-health crisis, which continues to ravage the country with tens of thousands of deaths, and he wants to shift towards talking about the economic comeback. He has six months between now and his election, and he realizes that that’s a very short amount of time to try to restore the economic situation that was in place before this crisis. Now we’re at a place where we’re at close to 15 percent unemployment, and the president wants to shift towards completely focusing on the economic comeback, turning the story around from being this public-health crisis where tens of thousands of people are dying into this story of an economic comeback. That is why he is sidelining a lot of these health officials. That’s why he’s saying that top public-health officials are not being allowed to testify before Congress. His administration is downplaying all kinds of scientific data and models which show how bad of a situation this is and they’re trying to sort of shape the narrative by not letting some of this bad news and some of these negative statistics get out. Instead, the president’s focusing on the economy completely and having this shift that’s really about the political calendar in which he has six months to prove to the country that we are in the middle of an economic comeback.
MR. COSTA: But they’re not the only players, the White House and the president. Sue Davis, when you talk to lawmakers, they are bringing Dr. Fauci before the Senate next week. Dr. Rick Bright, the whistleblower from HHS, he’s going to go before the House. What do they want to learn next week when those two figures come to the Hill?
SUSAN DAVIS: Well, I think both hearings illuminate why so many lawmakers are eager to get back to Washington. The Senate, obviously, returned this week; the House is looking at returning as early as next week. You know, Fauci will face a much more bipartisan room. Lawmakers across the spectrum have an interest in hearing from him directly. There’s a lot of questions that Congress still has about testing capabilities, why testing isn’t where many of them thought it would be in the previous packages that they passed into law. Many of them want to hear directly from him about what the timeframes look like for vaccines or possible treatments. And a lot of them are trying to grasp what the long-term scope of this looks like in the debate over what and how much more legislation they’re going to have to pass. Dr. Bright is going to face a much more partisan hearing, and I think that reflects that the tone on Capitol Hill is shifting to some familiar partisan battle lines here. He’s accused the White House of removing him from his job because he wouldn’t support the White House line about using an antimalaria drug because he said it didn’t have the scientific backing. Government lawyers today said he may have a point and said he should be put back into his job until they can sort of figure out what was involved here. And Democrats are going to use this hearing to point to what they say has been mismanagement across the board at the White House, and I think that’s going to be where a lot of the conversation is on Capitol Hill going forward: less about the pandemic and how it happened, but how is the Trump administration managing not just the public-health crisis but the economy going forward.
MR. COSTA: Molly, you’ve been studying the speaker, talking to the speaker. You think about we only have six months between now and the election. There’s already been an impeachment process. What are her tools? Does she issue a subpoena to Dr. Fauci to come to the House? What does she do to try to contain this president?
MOLLY BALL: Well, she did say in an interview earlier today that she did not – she hoped not to have to subpoena Dr. Fauci, and I think at this point, you know, her eyes are – as far as containing Trump, trying to stop Trump as so many on the left would like her to do probably more aggressively than she has. I think she’s set her sights on November, the way – and she’s trying to signal to her party that if they want to constrain the president they should focus on the election. What she’s trying to focus on now is dealing with the crisis, getting legislation through the Congress, doing oversight, but as Sue said focusing the oversight on the ongoing management of the crisis. There have been a lot of calls from the left to also do investigations and oversight of what led to this point, but that is not the focus, I think, even for the speaker and the congressional Democrats. They want to focus on what they can still do, particularly since so many believe that the White House has not been up to the task. The Congress is trying to fill that void. They’re trying to figure out what they can do to try to help all the Americans who are out of work, to try to address the public-health crisis, to try to shore up the public-health system, to try to help the states that have been given so much responsibility, and try to ease some of these coordination blockages that have been occurring. So it’s – but at the same time a lot of lawmakers are really confused because they haven’t been on the job in Washington, because they’ve been all over the place. There’s not a lot of – not everybody is on the same page, and I think there’s a lot of confusion about how and where they’re going to proceed.
MR. COSTA: That point about confusion, Peter, it reminds me of the story you just filed for The New York Times tonight about the coronavirus now being part of the White House story – a staffer for Vice President Pence, a personal valet for President Trump. Is having the virus now up close and personal in their life affecting their thinking, their decision-making at any level?
PETER BAKER: Well, not so far as we can tell at this point, but the timing is rather remarkable. In the same week that the president is telling businesses and states across the country that it’s OK to start reopening – not only OK, but they should definitely start to do that – he sees the virus literally surrounding him now in the White House. Just two cases so far – hopefully that’s all there will ever be – but to have it be a personal valet who, you know, helps the president in the residence, and to have a top aide to the vice president who is often with him and in fact has been one of the chief spokespeople for the White House efforts to curb this virus both turn out to be infected I think is a really pivotal moment because it suggests that if the – if the White House, the most prestigious and resource-intense workplace in the country, cannot completely shut itself off to this virus, how can workplaces across the country do that? If the White House, which has access to tests – not only tests weekly or monthly, that other businesses might try to impose, but daily, cannot in fact prevent the virus from being in part of its workforce, what will these other businesses do?
And I think that’s a moment where the president could give some examples or could give some guidance to the country about how he thinks they should proceed, given how he is proceeding. But instead, today I think he tried to brush it off. He said nice things about Katie Miller, of course, who’s been a loyal aide to him and is married to Stephen Miller, another loyal aide to him, but he said this is the problem with testing. We can be tested negative one moment, and then tested positive the next, and therefore testing is of limited utility. That leaves the country wondering, OK, then what are we supposed to do?
Just this week the Harvard Global Health Initiative said: We need to be doing 900,000 tests a day. And right now we’re doing 250,000. And that’s a real problem for a lot of businesses as they think about what to do going forward.
MR. COSTA: And I hear it from governors I’ve interviewed, sources across the country – testing, testing, testing, to that point. But as we saw Friday, the economic pressures on the White House, and every American, are just enormous. The Department of Labor released a jobs report that shows more than 20 million American jobs were lost in April, as the unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent – the worst number we’ve seen like that since the Great Depression. And the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, released an ad this week blaming the economic carnage on the president.
ADVERTISEMENT: (From video.) There’s mourning in America. And under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country’s weaker, and sicker, and poorer. And now, Americans are asking: If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?
MR. COSTA: Toluse, we see this pressure on President Trump, on many Republican governors. But you wrote this week that many Republican governors, despite all the testing challenges, are moving to reopen because what they’re seeing in their own economy. What’s that dynamic like out in the states in places like Arizona?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, the president realizes that he is vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. And that’s why he’s pushing these governors to go ahead and open up their economies, even though they haven’t, by a large – in a large portion they haven’t met the guidelines set out by the White House for what they should do before – what they should see before they actually begin opening up. The president is – was planning to campaign on the economy, 3.5 percent unemployment before this virus hit. Now we’re at a level of unemployment, 20 million jobs lost just in the month of April, that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. And the president realizes that he’s going to be the victim – or the target of relentless attacks for his handling of this virus, especially the fact that so many millions of Americans have lost their jobs, others are just struggling to get by.
And I think that’s part of the reason he’s pushing these governors, some of whom are also seeing the same numbers in their own states, to quickly open their economies, potentially put people at risk by opening up their economy, relaxing some of these social distancing measures, just because they realize that if they don’t do that people are going to continue losing their jobs. And that’s going to have a very heavy political price for everyone who’s up for reelection in November, especially the president.
MR. COSTA: Molly, I was reading your book, Pelosi, right here, and you have a line in the book right here where you say: Her favorite word is leverage. Is that correct?
MS. BALL: Yeah, absolutely. It’s the focus of all of her efforts.
MR. COSTA: So to take that point, her favorite word is leverage, now Congress has to debate what they’re going to do on funding the states. Are they going to have a bipartisan deal that has liability protection for businesses? Is it just going to be money for states? As the speaker, this veteran politician, approaches this crossroads, what’s on her mind?
MS. BALL: I think she definitely feels like she has leverage in this situation. And she feels that, you know, under heavy criticism from both sides – from the right for negotiating too hard and the left for not negotiating hard enough – she feels that she did maximize her leverage in the rounds of legislation up to this point. But that was part of the reason that you saw in the last big bill, that 3.5 bill, that the demand for state and local funding was dropped in those negotiations because the Democrats have calculated that the political pressure from the states will be too overwhelming for the Republicans to ignore.
And especially as other types of funding run out – whether it’s business funding, unemployment funding – that the Republicans are going to have to come to the table and get something else across, even as, you know, Mitch McConnell has said that the liability funding is a red line for him – not funding – the liability measures. And even as others have tried to sort of downplay the notion of bailing out the states, I think we’re going to hear increasingly from states, red and blue, that they need this money.
And that, you know, because they’ve been explicitly put on the front lines of this effort by the president, who said that the states ought to be taking the lead and has sort of deferred to the states, even if you take that on its face as a sort of federalist argument, that the states are best positioned to be closest to the people and lead the charge, the states are saying: Well, you can’t give us all this responsibility and then not equip us to actually follow through with it. We’re going broke. You know, our revenue has cratered.
So you know, there – a lot of states do want to try to signal to people that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. They want to be able to show people there is a plan for opening up. We have a way to do this gradually and safely, and make people feel protected and taken care of. But it’s hard to do that, you know, without leadership from Washington, without coordination from Washington, and especially without funding from Washington.
MR. COSTA: Sue, can you jump in on that? Because when you’re talking to sources, Republican, Democrat, are you hearing details about a deal in the works that is going to provide more direct payments to Americans, that is going to provide the kind of payments that states need to shore up their budgets?
MS. DAVIS: Well, what’s really interesting what’s happening right now is the parties are taking two very different tactics to the next phase. Republicans on the whole are saying: Let’s slow down. Let’s see where this goes before we commit to anything. There’s a sense that they want to put the brakes on the spending, certainly by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There’s even an indication that they don’t want to do anything in May. They want to get to the summertime to figure out how much more economic assistance is going to be needed.
Democrats are taking a very different tone. They’re talking about passing as soon as next week a minimum of a trillion dollars in additional assistance with that state and local funding that Molly was talking about, with additional direct assistance to Americans, with more money for food stamps and other federal programs. When you talk about the word “leverage,” I think it’s important to think about the reasons why Democrats may have more leverage here. I talked to a Republican strategist recently that told me they did internal polling on the CARES Act, that first big economic wave of support that had things like the small business loans in it. And they told me it was the most popular piece of legislation they had ever polled Congress passing.
So right now the public is actually very supportive of not only congressional action but big government spending that’s going to directly improve their lives. And that’s just a reality that Republicans will have to confront if we’re still talking about high unemployment come this summer.
MR. COSTA: So we’re going to be tracking all your reporting, Sue, on that, and Molly’s, and Toluse, and Pete’s as well.
But let’s take a little bit of a turn here, because Congress is happening, the pandemic’s happening, President Trump’s response. But it’s all coming as the attorney general, Bill Barr, is flexing his own power. And this week the Department of Justice dropped the criminal case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI. The AG decided to reexamine the case as the DOJ reviewed the Russia probe. And as I wrote with my colleagues in Friday’s Post, the decision was greeted as a triumph by the president and his allies, who have argued for years that Flynn was set up, but with dire alarm by Trump’s opponents who saw the move as an attack on the rule of law. Asked by CBS News about how historians would view this decision, Barr said this.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) Well, history’s written by the winners, so it largely depends on – (laughs) – who’s writing the history.
MR. COSTA: Peter, this isn’t over, though. The judge still has to sign off on the motion.
MR. BAKER: That’s exactly right. Judge Sullivan has been skeptical of Michael Flynn’s defense in the past. As recently as December rejected a lot of the arguments his defense team had made. He’s already ruled on this issue of materiality. What the Justice Department did in dropping the case was they said – they didn’t say that Michael Flynn didn’t lie. What they said was he shouldn’t have been asked the question in the first place, because there was no viable investigation going on at that time that would have required that interview, and that the answer that he gave, untrue as it might have been, was not material or especially relevant to such an investigation.
Well, the judge has already ruled on materiality in the past. And it’s possible he will look at this with, you know, askance and say maybe he’s not so interested in dropping the charges. However, it would be pretty unusual for a judge to insist that the Justice Department go forward with a prosecution that it itself doesn’t want to go forward with, even though in this case the defendant has already pleaded guilty not once but twice. So it’s likely to be approved by the judge. We’ll see what he does.
But you know, it’s important to remember what this is and what it isn’t. It’s not a statement by the Justice Department that Michael Flynn didn’t lie. What it’s a statement about is that the previous Justice Department and FBI shouldn’t have prosecuted him – that they exceeded their authority, they abused their authority, that they seemed out to get him or entrap him rather than to genuinely be interested in finding out the truth.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, is the administration going to bring him back, going to bring back General Flynn or maybe put him on the campaign trail? What are you hearing?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, I would be surprised if we see General Flynn back at the White House, but this is already a very unusual situation in which somebody who pleaded guilty is now sort of saying that he was wrong to plead guilty and that he’s essentially being let off the hook. President Trump has said a lot of positive things about Michael Flynn. The White House has tried to use this to distract from the broader challenges that they’re facing. The White House press secretary spent about 10 minutes talking about the case of General Flynn during a less than 20-minute press availability today in terms of the White House press briefing. So they want to spend a lot of time talking about this. They think this is a political win for them. They’ve seen Attorney General Bill Barr deliver a number of political wins for the president by intervening in cases, by essentially trying to redo the Mueller investigation and discredit it and discredit its origins, and this is the latest iteration of that in which the president can say, you know, the Mueller investigation was all part of this witch hunt, part of this deep-state coup against my administration, even though, you know, there’s a lot of evidence that shows that the Mueller investigation was a real investigation – it did lead to a number of guilty pleas by people who are in President Trump’s orbit during the campaign and there was a willingness by the campaign to accept information that was coming from the Russians that was negative about Hillary Clinton, to promote some of that information such as what we saw through WikiLeaks. And even if collusion wasn’t proven, the Mueller probe made it very clear that there were a lot of contacts between Trump acolytes and, you know, folks who were trying to push disinformation during the 2016 election, and this latest episode shows that the attorney general is trying to sort of discredit all of that.
MR. COSTA: So, Molly, if the president’s going to relitigate the Russia probe between now and the election, what’s the speaker going to do? Is she going to engage? Are House Democrats going to be out there talking about their own Russia investigation?
MS. BALL: I doubt it. I think, you know, the campaign strategy for the House Democrats in 2020 and for Democrats mostly in general is the same as what they feel won the election, the midterms in 2018, which is to ignore Trump, assume that the backlash to Trump whatever – to whatever extent it exists is basically baked in. Part of the reason that we’ve seen the president’s approval ratings be so incredibly stubborn and stable is that so many people have already made up their mind about him and nothing can change their opinion because they already didn’t like him or they had already been completely bought in. So the feeling that the Democrats have had is talk about health care, talk about, you know, the handling of the – of the coronavirus crisis, talk about the issues, and try to make an impression that the Democrats are interested in governing rather than – because, you know, the president said today everything they do is because they are haters, and that’s the case that he’s going to make, and that’s – you know, the Flynn development plays into this entire narrative that the Trump campaign and the sort of MAGA media world have created, this sort of alternate universe where, you know, General Flynn has been a victim of this terrible witch hunt. And so to the extent that they can continue to make that reality seem real, they can shut out everything else. And so the Democrats have tried to focus on, you know, trying to show that they’re focused on issues instead of being drawn into that whole debate, which gets very messy very fast.
MR. COSTA: Sue, quickly, I’ve been seeing some grumbling from Republicans about FBI Director Chris Wray, pressuring the president to maybe push him out because he’s not doing enough to overhaul the FBI. What are you hearing about the director?
MS. DAVIS: Well, there’s certainly a lot of Republican frustration in the Senate about Christopher Wray, in part because they don’t feel like he’s been transparent or proactive enough at rooting out what many Republicans see has been a politicized Justice Department against the president, and also to the public concerns that were unearthed in reports – internal reports suggesting abuses of the surveillance courts, and that he hasn’t done enough to make them feel like he is taking their concerns seriously. I think it’s important to remember, though, Christopher Wray was confirmed with 92 votes in the Senate, including every Republican vote, and the thing that Republicans also don’t want right now is a contentious confirmation hearing for a new FBI director. So I think a lot of that discontent, while they’re comfortable talking about it publicly, realistically I think a lot of them are settled in to have him stay in that job – although, as always, it’s entirely up to the president what happens there.
MR. COSTA: Peter, 10 seconds, what are you hearing on Wray, the same?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think the president’s disenchanted with Wray. He’s not found him to be the loyal person that he wants in that position. And while I don’t think he’s necessarily going to fire him, there’s clearly some bad blood there and with this president anything can happen.
MR. COSTA: Peter, anything can happen; we’re going to have to leave it there. As always, anything can happen these days in the Trump administration. Thank you very much for being here to our reporters: Molly Ball, Peter Baker, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Susan Davis. And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can when anything can happen.
On the Extra we will head over to the Washington Week bookshelf and discuss Molly’s book Pelosi with her. Find it on our website and our social media. And to all the moms out there, including my own, happy Mother’s Day. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.