ROBERT COSTA: A standoff over executive power and the rule of law.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody.
MR. COSTA: The attorney general asserts his independence following a crisis of confidence at the Justice Department, but the president insists he has a legal right to intervene and pursues a vendetta.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Where is Comey? What’s happening to McCabe? It was a whole setup, it was a disgrace for our country, and everyone knows it, too – everyone.
MR. COSTA: We dig into the reporting on this critical showdown and the latest in the Democratic presidential race as it heads west and south, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Following his acquittal in the Senate, a confident and vengeful president is testing the limits of executive power. But President Trump’s efforts to protect his friends and punish his foes have sparked a firestorm at the Justice Department, prompting resignations and forcing the attorney general to answer questions about the department’s independence and integrity. In brief, it began on Monday when prosecutors on the Roger Stone case recommended that the longtime Trump adviser receive a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for his conviction on charges of obstruction of Congress and witness tampering. The next day the president denounced the move and the DOJ filed a softer sentencing recommendation, leading four prosecutors to quit the case, and one left the government entirely. Democrats were outraged and Republicans were mostly muted.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) This is an abuse of power that the president is again trying to manipulate federal law enforcement to serve his political interest, and the president is what he is. He thinks he’s above the law. He has no respect for the rule – but where are the Republicans to speak out on this blatant violation of the rule of law?
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) The president made a great choice when he picked Bill Barr to be attorney general. I think the president should listen to his advice.
MR. COSTA: Attorney General William Barr, who has been deeply supportive of President Trump, then decided to speak to ABC News’ Pierre Thomas on Thursday. He said he planned to modify the sentencing before the president tweeted. Barr then told the president to step off.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) And whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president, I’m going to do what I think is right. I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.
MR. COSTA: By Friday a new development has further challenged the bond between the attorney general and the president: The Justice Department will not bring charges against former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe for lying to investigators about a media disclosure.
Joining us tonight, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine; Josh Dawsey, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Josh Lederman, national political reporter for NBC News; and Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.
Let’s begin with the president. Josh, you’ve been publishing all day about Andrew McCabe and the president. What’s the latest? What’s the president’s response?
JOSH DAWSEY: Well, the president has a deep vitriol for Andrew McCabe. He believes Andrew McCabe’s wife worked for Hillary Clinton and Andrew McCabe was one of the officials who was out to get him. Some of this is, obviously, disputed; part of it’s not true. But anyway, the president wanted Andrew McCabe to be charged, and today when DOJ said that Andrew McCabe would not be charged the president did not get a heads up from DOJ. He was very upset, and Pat Cipollone, his lawyer, came in to explain to him what was happening, then the president and Barr spoke this afternoon. There’s been a pretty tense few days, as you said in your opening, between the president and AG Barr, and it’s an interesting dynamic because Barr is his favorite Cabinet member with the exception of Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. Barr handled the Mueller probe like the president wanted him to. He’s done repeatedly what the president has wanted, and this is a first tangible rift that we’ve seen between these two men.
MR. COSTA: You just said that President Trump spoke with the attorney general today, on Friday. What do you know about that conversation?
MR. DAWSEY: We’re still trying to figure out all the details. What we know is that Attorney General Barr has been trying for several weeks to communicate to the president: please stop tweeting, please stop making these public comments about DOJ probes; you’re hurting me inside the building, these comments are not helpful to you, they’re not helpful to me, can you please just step down. We know that the president wanted McCabe charged. We know that the president has wanted James Comey charged for a long time. We know that there’s been a number of disagreements between these two men and that Barr has tried, it looks, in recent days to get some distance from the president.
MR. COSTA: Amna, you’ve been talking to former federal prosecutors all week on the NewsHour. What does your reporting tell you about how career officials, former and current officials at DOJ, are interpreting all this? Do they see the attorney general reclaiming the institution’s integrity and protecting it or do they see him at risk?
AMNA NAWAZ: First of all, I think it’s worth noting how extraordinary it is that AG Barr had to go into a public interview on television to deliver exactly this message that Josh just reported it shows he was trying to deliver behind the scenes. I mean, there’s, obviously, an incredibly strong relationship between those two men. We know that they’re very, very close. So the fact that he had to go to that extreme I think shows where the relationship is.
But we know that there was a fallout he was also trying to contain. You know, when he stepped in over on top of the line prosecutor’s recommendation on Roger Stone’s sentence – they’d said seven to nine years, he came in and said that’s too excessive, we have no idea where that’s going to land until the sentencing next week – that upset a lot of people, rank and file prosecutors within the DOJ. Even though it’s totally legal, even though it is absolutely within his power and purview to do so, it is totally unusual and it is – it’s very, very rare that that kind of thing happens.
And for a lot of line prosecutors within main Justice, that undermines their ability to move forward with similar cases. Why would you stick your neck out there if you don’t think that your boss has your back? When they left en masse from that case, it sent a huge signal to AG Barr that he had to do something and it probably informed why he felt he had to go out and publicly make that statement.
MR. COSTA: Molly, what’s your read as a reporter on the attorney general? He is, at one level, sending these messages to the president. But it was still reported this week that he’s appointed an outside prosecutor to look into the Flynn case – former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn – and whether that was done appropriately, the softer sentencing that’s come out on Roger Stone. Where is he right now in this Cabinet with this president?
MOLLY BALL: Well, he has – you know, as Josh and Amna said, he has been very – has had a very strong relationship with the president. He’s been trying to walk this fine line, a tightrope that may not actually exist, between being the president’s personal lawyer, which we all know is what Trump wants from his attorney general, and at least maintaining a sort of fig leaf of respectability under the guise of – and he is a true believer in a very expansive theory of executive power. He’s given a lot of speeches to this effect. He really does think that the president can do almost whatever he wants and he has justified a lot of actions of the president’s on that basis.
But he doesn’t see himself as a minion. He doesn’t see himself as merely doing the president’s bidding. So when the president is out in public doing things like these tweets, it undermines not only, you know, Barr’s credibility in the – in the building but the ability to say, you know, I’m acting on the basis of the law. I’m not acting on the president’s whims. It makes it much harder for him to have any credibility when he says that.
And, you know, when he does this – sends this public signal, that’s, obviously, an extreme step to take when the private signals weren’t being heeded. But for these line prosecutors who are disturbed by the president’s behavior, it’s simply a rhetorical move. He hasn’t actually done anything to contain Trump and he didn’t do anything with regard to this case when the prosecutors resigned from it.
MR. COSTA: Josh, welcome to Washington Week. You’ve reported on the White House, on the Mueller investigation. We see the president, as Josh Dawsey was reporting, frustrated about the McCabe decision. What’s next for this president post-acquittal? Is he still going to go after in a vengeful way against his foes from the Russia probe? Is he going to lean into this Department of Justice and ask for action?
JOSH LEDERMAN: All indications are yes because, look, this isn’t taking place in a vacuum. This has been part of a flurry of activity since the president’s acquittal that have suggested that he’s out for vengeance. We saw, obviously, the dismissal of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman as well as ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland.
The president seems to be emboldened by the fact that there weren’t any real repercussions other than perhaps some political repercussions to the actions that he took in Ukraine, and one of the challenges for his critics is there’s not a lot of remedy left. There’s very little appetite among Democrats in Congress to reimpeach him. There’s concern that that will look like Democrats are just out to get the president as opposed to pursuing things that really need to be looked at and, barring that, what are Democrats supposed to do?
MR. COSTA: Josh?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, you heard no palpable frustrations from Republicans this week either. I talked to Senator Cramer from North Dakota, who said he agreed with all of these steps. He thought the president was right to fire him. He thought the president was right to tweet about Roger Stone. I talked to several people close to Mitch McConnell. He has no desire to get involved. You’ve, certainly, seen Kevin McCarthy. He has no desire to get involved.
The president has a Republican Party that he has over 90 percent approval on. He has a total grip on it in the districts across the country. There are few people on his side that are really trying to harness him in, and, as Josh says, what are the Democrats going to do outside of the election and campaigning? They’ve tried for the impeachment. They’ve tried for the Mueller report. I feel like they feel like their hands are a bit tied, too.
I mean, it’s a – it’s a spot where of the first three, three and a half years of his presidency in some ways he’s in the strongest position yet to do as he wants, to run the White House as he wants. This week we saw he brought back Hope Hicks, one of his first top advisors who was in the Mueller probe.
He put one of his former aides in charge of the personnel office. Fired a whole number of people in there. I mean, he now is running this, in some ways, like Trump Tower. All of the people who were trying to rein him in, who were trying to stop him, are not there anymore. It’s a different show.
MS. NAWAZ: He’s getting the band back together. I think that’s clear, and for these last, you know, final months of his first term, that much is clear. But also, to Josh’s point earlier about none of this happening in a vacuum, you have to remember how absolutely livid he was when his first attorney general – when Jeff Sessions recused himself from that investigation, the Russia investigation and the special counsel’s probe into the 2016 interference, because he feels all of this grew from that, right – that that led to the Flynn indictment and to Stone’s charges eventually, eventually to impeachment trial as well. And so all of this has been building for the president up until this point.
MR. COSTA: And he’s always asked the question to his advisors, where is my Roy Cohn, and at this point, do you see the attorney general maybe being forced at some point to resign or step away? Is it a breaking point or not? Because at some level, you also see the Durham investigation of how the CIA and other officials have handled the Russia investigation and other issues still working its way through the Department of Justice.
MS. NAWAZ: You know, there’s few categories of people who actually come out and publicly disagree with the president on the Republican side. Like, Democrats, yes, and political partisans, yes. But you have people who have either left the administration and feel comfortable speaking out once they’re out of his purview and out of his circle of power, and you have people who are so confident in their relationship and know that the president relies on them that they can publicly disagree with him on a few things, people like Mitch McConnell and people like Lindsey Graham.
Attorney General Barr is now in that category of people. But to Molly’s point earlier, he does see himself as a true believer. There are certain things that he believes to be true about the rule of law. We don’t know where that’s going to go.
MR. COSTA: Molly, you’re writing a biography – it should be coming out in a few months – about Speaker Pelosi, “Pelosi” by Molly Ball. It’s a great-looking book. She already has been through the impeachment process. She is going to bring up Attorney General Barr on March 31st to the House Judiciary Committee. He will testify. But what now for House Democrats?
MS. BALL: It’s a real question and, you know, Pelosi spent months resisting impeachment, in part for exactly this reason, because it was so clear from the beginning that Trump had thoroughly domesticated the Republicans in the Senate and that impeachment was not going to bear any tangible result and, indeed, might only embolden this president, and that is exactly what has happened.
And I think to someone like Speaker Pelosi, who’s an institutionalist, who cares very deeply about the Constitution, that not only is this a problem for holding this particular president accountable because it’s been proven that any remedy is toothless, but it’s a challenge to the Constitution and the rule of law itself, as she sees it, because it has, basically, said that the only accountability measure in the Constitution now just doesn’t work if the partisanship doesn’t line up.
MR. COSTA: What about Roger Stone’s case? He’s now demanding a new trial because of concerns about the jury.
MR. LEDERMAN: And there’s several people who are close to the president who are all under some type of legal situation where the president seems to want Attorney General Barr to intervene. Again, as far as looking at this not in a vacuum, we have this development with Roger Stone at the same exact time that we’ve got these developments with Michael Flynn, and a real eagerness by Attorney General Barr to take a heavy-handed approach to how those cases play out as long as it doesn’t publicly seem like the president is ordering –
MR. COSTA: But do you think the pardons could come before or after the election?
MR. LEDERMAN: I think that probably the president will see some advantage in waiting until just after the reelection.
MR. DAWSEY: And that’s the whole point. The president has repeatedly criticized these cases against Michael Flynn, against Roger Stone, against Paul Manafort. He’s defended them vociferously at different times. But he hasn’t done anything about it, and you see a lot of his kind of, you know, most –
MR. COSTA: He’s tweeted about it.
MR. DAWSEY: Tweeted, but not done anything about it. But if you’re Paul Manafort and you’re in solitary confinement or you’re in jail –
MR. COSTA: Are pardons – when are pardons – are pardons on the table right now?
MR. DAWSEY: I think the president has not ruled them out. But all I’m saying is heretofore the president has made a lot of noise about these cases. But when the rubber hits the road, he hasn’t really done much legally about them. If you have – after an election the dynamics change politically. It all – it’s all a different – I mean, there will be a lot of folks around him heading into reelection who would say do not pardon these guys – it could hurt you politically, it could knock your poll numbers, it could turn folks off. Once the election’s over, things change – whether he wins or loses, things change entirely.
MR. COSTA: All this is playing out as the Democratic presidential race enters a new phase following Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Senator Bernie Sanders won the contest. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg finished close behind him, followed by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump.
FORMER SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) Vulnerable Americans do not have the luxury of pursuing ideological purity.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): (From video.) Hello, America. I’m Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump. We have beaten the odds every step of the way.
MR. COSTA: But former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg looms, and he is making overtures to African American voters.
FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (D): (From video.) I think we’re going to do very well in the African American community. They need a good economy, they need better schools, and those are the kinds of things that I can bring –
MR. COSTA: Josh, you’ve been on the campaign trail with Mayor Bloomberg all week. Can he get over his stop-and-frisk policy from New York and win over African American voters in South Carolina, but more importantly perhaps in Super Tuesday states in early March?
MR. LEDERMAN: I was really stunned to see the number of African American supporters that showed up at his events this week as we were with him in Tennessee and North Carolina even in the wake of these tapes coming out. And I asked them, you know, is this something that bothers you, and they largely said no. I think there’s an element that’s similar to Joe Biden where people feel like they know Mike Bloomberg because he’s been on the stage for so long. They say things like I know where his heart is. But look, there’s – Mike Bloomberg is a double-edged sword in a couple of ways. The same elements that make him appealing as a former Republican, because he seems like he might be able to peel off some Trump voters – center-right Republicans – make him anathema to the part of the Democratic base that wants a progressive firebrand to push their cause. And the same part of him that is sort of a technocrat, data-driven, let statistics inform your policy makes him appealing – and successful as a businessman and mayor – also means that he has said a lot of things in his career that may be numerically accurate, but are also very off-color and really rub people the wrong way.
MR. COSTA: And Mayor Bloomberg’s not the only one facing challenges with African American voters. Mayor Buttigieg still faces questions about his policing record in South Bend, and Senator Amy Klobuchar – on the rise from New Hampshire – facing some scrutiny of her prosecutorial record.
MS. NAWAZ: Yeah, look, Iowa and New Hampshire are very different states from Nevada and South Carolina. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: Ninety percent white.
MS. NAWAZ: Very different from the states that will dominate on Super Tuesday as well. And for all the support we’re seeing nationally – like, you look at the African American vote in particular, right, and no Democratic nominee has won the nomination without winning the majority of that vote; it just doesn’t happen. Everyone has been looking at former Vice President Joe Biden, but when your whole message is electability and you come in fourth and fifth in the early contests you start to lose ground, and we’re seeing that already in South Carolina. Who’s benefitted from that? So far in South Carolina Tom Steyer is picking up some of those voters, but Bloomberg’s not competing there.
MR. COSTA: Is he spending a lot of money on TV?
MS. NAWAZ: He’s spending a lot of money. He’s messaging in all the right ways. He’s picking up on the people who are picking up on their own doubts about Biden. But nationally, in the same national polls we’ve seen where Biden’s support among African Americans has been dropping Bloomberg has been stepping in to pick up some of those votes. So it’s still a very fluid race.
MR. DAWSEY: I was down in – I was down in South Carolina last weekend writing a story about Joe Biden there and his campaign certainly sees it as a firewall. It’s a place where he has to turn it around, has to bring African American voters out.
MR. COSTA: Can he?
MR. DAWSEY: A lot of folks in the state think he still can. I talked to Jim Clyburn this week, who’s the most prominent Democrat in the state. He says if the election’s held today Biden wins. If you look at the polls in the state, Biden still has a lead. But –
MS. NAWAZ: But he hasn’t endorsed him, right?
MR. DAWSEY: He has not endorsed. But Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, the capital there, said to me if your whole argument’s electability and you’re coming in third, fourth, and fifth in these states, voters are going to start taking other looks at different people. He has a – he has a firmament in South Carolina of black pastors and state legislators and others who are with him right now. The question is, if they see momentum fading, what do they do?
MR. COSTA: What about Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator? He won New Hampshire. Can he stitch together a coalition, especially as Senator Elizabeth Warren struggles on the left?
MS. BALL: Well, he won New Hampshire and he very nearly won Iowa – he won the popular vote in Iowa – and so from his perspective he ought to be the overwhelming frontrunner or considered that way. If you win the first two states you ought to be on a glide path to the nomination. However, I think you – there’s a lot of caveats around that from the so-called Democratic establishment, right, which –
MR. COSTA: Is there a Democratic establishment anymore?
MS. BALL: Absolutely there is. Absolutely there is, and they are fearful that a Bernie Sanders candidacy would not be electable, and that’s on the minds of a lot of Democratic voters as well. That’s why people are flocking to Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg, because they so desperately just want to beat Trump they’re willing to forgive almost anything else. Now, that’s not true of every Democratic voter, but it’s true of a lot of the non-Bernie supporters. And so this faction of the Democratic Party – the sort of mainstream of the Democratic Party – is saying, you know, just because he’s able to win in a fractured field with 25 percent of the vote does not show that he can be the standard bearer for the whole party, that he can broaden his appeal versus being just a factional candidate. So it’s going to be his challenge going forward to see if he can consolidate more of the party around him.
MR. COSTA: Josh, I remember when I first met you it was at Pete Buttigieg’s campaign announcement in South Bend, Indiana, a year ago. You’ve been covering his campaign closely as well. A narrow second-place finish in New Hampshire, how is he capitalizing as he looks to not only South Carolina and Nevada, but Super Tuesday?
MR. LEDERMAN: Well, he’s started to really ramp up his operations in other parts of the country. He say that he now is going to have staff in every state that is competing on Super Tuesday.
MR. COSTA: What’s the message, though?
MR. LEDERMAN: The message is that he is a coalition builder, someone that can bring people together, and that as some of these other candidates start to drop out and the field winnows that he will start to consolidate some of that support from these other moderate candidates. But one of the things that we’ve heard over and over again from voters this cycle as we’re talking to them around the country is that, you know, in Washington we talk about sort of the progressive lane and the moderate lane, and they’re not thinking of it that way. You talk to Bernie supporters who say, you know, my second choice is Pete Buttigieg, and you talk to Warren supporters who say my second choice is Joe Biden, and so it’s difficult to predict how that’s all going to play out as the field continues to get smaller and smaller.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Klobuchar? You’ve seen minority candidates struggle in 2020 in this Democratic race, female candidates have had a rough time, but Senator Klobuchar suddenly comes almost out of nowhere and finishes a strong third in New Hampshire. Can she capitalize on that quickly enough to actually make a dent in this race and be a contender?
MS. NAWAZ: You know, we’ve seen her kind of step up to seize the moment, in her own words there. She sees that they have momentum. She thinks her message is starting to resonate with people.
MR. COSTA: What is that message right now?
MS. NAWAZ: It’s that message of this is what makes sense, America – (laughs) – that you know, you don’t have to go all the way to the left to go with a super progressive candidate, you’ve got to have someone who can speak to some of these parts of America that voted for Obama in ’08 and ’12 and then went to Trump in ’16. You had a Midwesterner come into New Hampshire and do surprisingly well and that is a very strong message for her. Whether or not it carries her forward we don’t know; she’s not polling as well as some of the others in Nevada and South Carolina. But she’s got momentum on her side, and the best – at this point in the race that means a lot.
MR. COSTA: Real quick, Josh, you think about the White House watching Mayor Bloomberg. We’ve seen the tweets between the president and the mayor, but inside the West Wing how do they really see Bloomberg? Is he a threat?
MR. DAWSEY: People around Trump are fearful of his money. People are divided on whether they could – Bloomberg could actually beat Trump or not. What they do think is he can be a kingmaker of sorts in the party, that he could spend so much money he could shape the race, he could shave percentage points off the president’s numbers – he could be a real factor in the race. And some folks around the president, and including the president I think, are worried about Bloomberg totally. I will say there’s a different note that I have heard this week, though, repeatedly: The White House loves watching Bernie Sanders as a frontrunner. I think of all of the folks in the field, the people that I talk to around Trump would love to go against Bernie Sanders. They love that matchup. They love the splintered field. They’re clamoring for a brokered convention. I mean, so far if you talk to Trump people on this primary, they’re very happy with what they’re seeing.
MR. COSTA: Final thing, Molly, real quick. You used to report in Las Vegas, head of the Nevada caucuses. What’s the outlook there? Important demographic, Latino voters in that state, what’s the scene?
MS. BALL: I think it is absolutely up for grabs, I mean, and this is a state that historically has sort of followed Iowa and New Hampshire that we’ve seen big swings in polls and Nevada voting after the first two states. So the candidates are on the ground and they’re – it’s all up in the air, I think.
MR. COSTA: And the unions don’t seem to make a strong decision on their endorsement.
MS. BALL: They are not – they have anti-endorsed Bernie Sanders but they haven’t chosen a candidate.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to keep this going. We have to leave it there for now, but stay with us for the Washington Week Extra. We will continue this conversation about the presidential race. You can find it on our program’s social media accounts and on our website. And thank you for spending your Valentine’s evening with us – nothing more romantic, right, right? (Laughter.)
Anyway, I’m Robert Costa. Good night.