ROBERT COSTA: Disruptions and eruptions. President Trump looks to box in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and a staff shakeup rocks the West Wing. I’m Robert Costa. We explore the looming showdown over pardons, conflicts of interest, and Trump family finances, tonight on Washington Week.
Bombshell reports reveal the president’s legal team is looking to blunt the Russia investigation, scouring the professional and political backgrounds of special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators, looking for conflicts of interest they can use to discredit the investigation. Mr. Trump is also exploring his authority to pardon aides, family members, and even himself. As Mueller checks Trump’s business transactions, the president issues a warning: his family’s personal finances should be off limits.
MICHAEL SCHMIDT (The New York Times): (From tape.) If Mueller was looking at your finances or your family finances, unrelated to Russia, is that a red line?
MAGGIE HABERMAN (The New York Times): (From tape.) Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From tape.) I would say yeah. Yeah, I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t – I don’t – I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something. So, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody – somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia.
MR. COSTA: And inside the White House, sudden staff changes. The spokesman exits as a Wall Street player comes in.
We explore it all with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, and Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump’s first six months have been defined by executive orders, a stalemate over health care, and Russia. He has governed as he campaigned: independently, defiantly, and often with controversy. The one constant? That shadow cast by the ongoing investigations into Russia’s election meddling.
The president shared his frustrations with The New York Times this week in an Oval Office interview. He questioned the scope of the special counsel and called out his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From tape.) So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have – which – which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself?
MR. COSTA: This wasn’t an ordinary rebuke. Sessions as the first sitting senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy. He says he will continue doing his job.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: (From video.) I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It’s something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. And I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.
MR. COSTA: But another high-profile member of the president’s team handed in his resignation today. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned over the hiring of a new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall Street financier. Peter, we’re looking at a president at his six-month mark, deeply disappointed with his loyal soldiers – Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now the resignation of Sean Spicer.
PETER BAKER: Yeah, no, he – and beyond that, he expressed disappointment at his deputy attorney general, the acting FBI director, and a number of others this week. His legal team seems to be in something of an uproar. The spokesman for his personal legal team also resigned. I mean, this is a – this is a big week, and it’s – it shows that this is a White House that hasn’t yet got its footing. Now, he hopes that the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci will be the beginning of getting a little bit of a firmer grasp, but the problem is that instead of solving the tribal conflicts that seem to exist in this White House, it only seemed to exacerbate them. Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, was said to be against the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci. Other staffers, possibly including Steve Bannon and some others, might have also been opposed. So this has not yet been a moment of bringing people together.
MR. COSTA: Is he trying to contain with the legal team, Dan, all this unfolding drama on the Russia investigation and politically to find his footing?
DAN BALZ: Well, politically it will be difficult to find his footing as long as the Russia investigation is going on, and I think he understands that. Whether he can find that footing even if that didn’t exist is another question which we can deal with another time. But it’s clear that he sees the Russia investigation as getting in the way of everything else he would like to do or believes he would be able to do, and it appears as though he is looking for a way to provoke some kind of conflict. We don’t know whether it will ever come to that, but in all kinds of ways he seems to be moving toward what could be a huge collision with the special counsel.
MOLLY BALL: But to your question, I mean, a president who’s trying to contain the damage of an ongoing scandal doesn’t talk about nothing else, right – doesn’t tweet about it constantly, doesn’t call New York Times reporters into the Oval Office to talk about it for an hour and say a lot of things that seemed to actually get him in deeper trouble, sort of pointing a neon sign for the prosecutors at where they shouldn’t look. I mean, part of the problem that Anthony Scaramucci’s going to have that Sean Spicer had and that everyone around the president has had is that Trump isn’t interested in doing anything himself to fix the problems. He sees this as a communications problem. It’s the fault of all the people around him who are not fighting for him hard enough. He does not internalize any of the responsibility.
MR. COSTA: That’s a sharp point. Peter, and you were up close with the president in the Oval Office in that New York Times interview. Was he the one who kept bringing up Russia? Was it him who seems to not be able to walk away?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s interesting. We saw him literally after he had lunch with the Republican senators to talk about health care. He thought he could revive a bill that most everybody else seemed to think is dead, and he was in a good mood. I have to say he was not a besieged president. He did not come across as somebody who was agitated or upset or even focused on poll numbers or other issues. He talked about the economy doing well. He said the stock markets were up. He seemed in a good mood. So I’ll be honest, we were the ones who, of course, brought up Russia. But he didn’t steer away from it. I mean, as Molly said, any other president, I think, would have said, well, I can’t talk about that, that’s under investigation, but let me tell you about health care or let me tell you about infrastructure. He made no move to move the subject back to what the chosen talking points are. He wanted to talk about it. And this has been what we’ve seen for six months. Staff may want him to focus on this or focus on that. He likes the fight. He wants to have the fight. He wants to engage in the fight. If there’s going to be an investigation, he wants to be the one out there pushing back.
MR. COSTA: Let’s listen to Anthony Scaramucci for a second. He had his debut today at the White House at a news conference. And taking to Peter’s point, if the president’s looking for a fighter, he seems to have found one.
ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI: (From video.) The president has really good karma, OK, and the world turns back to him. He’s genuinely a wonderful human being. And I think as members of Congress get to know him better and get comfortable with him, they’re going to let him lead them to the right things for the American people.
MR. COSTA: Dan, a fellow New Yorker, a combative Republican donor, a Wall Street personality. Is this the presence that can come in and steady this White House?
MR. BALZ: Maybe, and I think we should all give him an opportunity to do that. But I think that you’re dealing with a president who in the end makes his own decisions, whether he’s the communicator in chief, the commander in chief, the chief of staff in chief. He makes those decisions, and he – and he makes them impulsively, which means that anybody who is serving him has very little ability to proactively prevent those things from happening. We’ve seen this time and time again, the president goes into an interview and says things that his staff has no anticipation or expectation that he’s going to do.
I think the other – the other element of this, Bob, is that the president in one way or another seems to believe that if you just get the right people in the right places these problems will begin to melt away, when in fact the problem is the problems; it’s not the people around him.
MR. BAKER: I was struck, by the way, in this interview, people seem to think that we lead him down a primrose path by asking these questions and so forth. And he can’t help himself. He’s actually more disciplined than we think – I mean, we give him credit for. When he doesn’t want to talk about something, he doesn’t. We asked repeatedly to say what he would do with Robert Mueller, the special counsel, if he crossed a line. And he repeatedly refused to say what we expected him to say, well, I might fire him. He left that open. He was very clear, I thought, in making that a veiled threat. But he didn’t go the direction where we thought he might end up. Whereas, with Jeff Sessions he did go there. He did choose to say: I wouldn’t have hired this guy. I wouldn’t have appointed this guy had I known he was going to recuse myself. So he did show, even in that 50 minutes, places where he would rule off talking about and places where he decided to go down, even though you wouldn’t want him to.
MR. COSTA: Well, why was that, Molly? What is the president, if he’s interested in firing Mueller, not firing the special counsel? Is it because of the political cost?
MS. BALL: I don’t know what is on his mind, but I do think to Peter’s point that’s a very good point, that he is strategic in certain ways. There is a message that he intends to drive. He’s not just saying whatever bubbles to the top of his brain, it’s just that the message that he wants to send is a message to the investigators who are conducting this investigation. He wants them to know, he is watching. I think he wants them to be a bit intimidated. He wants them to know, you know, that there is oppo research, basically, being conducted on the special counsel’s team. He wants to dangle this threat that’s not quite a threat over Mueller and the people doing the investigation. I think he wants them to feel the heat a little bit, so that they – so I think his hope is, I think anybody who knows Bob Mueller or has followed his career would not think that he would be intimidated by that, but I think that Trump –
MR. COSTA: Did he want – did he want the attorney general to feel the heat as well?
MS. BALL: He clearly did.
MR. COSTA: It’s striking that the Attorney General Jeff Sessions decides not to resign, even though the president publicly rebuked him.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Well, look, you know, this is something that’s been in the president’s craw, clearly, now for three, four months. It was – what was it, February, March that the attorney general recused himself from this investigation. Since then, they’ve worked on a lot of issues where they really agree. They agree very closely on immigration, on criminal sentencing, on a lot of these issues. But this is the thing that’s sticking in the president’s craw. And while we brought it up, he went much further than we expected him to go. I’ve never heard a president say that about an attorney general.
MR. BALZ: I was going to go back on one of the points that Molly just made, which is about the veiled threats and the – sort of the strategic nature of them. I think one of the things that undermines that for the president is that it’s a common tactic that he uses and he doesn’t necessarily follow through on it. He will – you know, whether it’s talking about North Korea or talking about legislators, he will suggest certain things. But he doesn’t actually act on them in any real time. So there’s no – there’s no muscle behind some of those threats. And I think at a point, people just kind of let it wash past them. Now, if you’re Bob Mueller and his team, I’m sure that you’re taking it all in. But everything we know about Mueller is that it’s not going to intimidate him very much.
MR. BAKER: Bob Mueller has nothing to lose, right? He was the FBI director for 12 years. I mean, if he were to be fired tomorrow he would be perfectly fine.
MR. COSTA: And it’s striking, Molly. I mean, the president keeps talking about containing the special counsel and having opposition research against all these investigators. But the Republican Party isn’t falling in line with this White House strategy.
MS. BALL: That’s right. And you know, I wrote a piece this week about, people keep asking when are the Republicans in Congress going to finally have enough? When are they going to turn on Trump and really go hard against him? I don’t think they have any motivation to do that, or inclination really. They are starting to turn on each other. And so part of what you’re seeing is a lot of what one of my sources called Republican-on-Republican violence in the Capitol, where Republicans – you know, maybe the person they’re really mad at is down on Pennsylvania Avenue, but they’re taking it out on their sort of proximate targets.
You have the House firing at the Senate, the Senate firing at the House, all kinds of disagreements between different factions on the Hill. And of course, we know the end result, which is a complete stalemate. And so where, you know, the Republicans really thought that having consolidated control of the Congress and the White House would mean they could really implement an agenda, they haven’t gotten anywhere. There hasn’t been a single piece of major legislation signed by the president, in part because they don’t feel they have strong leadership, strong direction.
MR. COSTA: And you’re seeing, Peter, some inklings of how Republicans are a little fed up with this Russia matter. The Senate Judiciary Committee, there was news tonight that Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, Donald Trump, Jr., who had the meeting last summer with the Russian lawyer, they’re at least going to meet privately with the Senate Judiciary Committee. So you see Republicans on Capitol Hill being active in pursuing these questions.
MR. BAKER: Well, and Jared Kushner will be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, exactly right. And that’s a big deal. And you know, Jeff Sessions could be in further trouble, by the way, in the same thing. Your paper is reporting tonight that the ambassador from Russia, Sergey Kislyak, actually did talk about campaign-related things with Jeff Sessions last year when he was a surrogate for the campaign, contrary to the assertions that General Sessions has made. So this has not played out yet. There are so many shoes left to drop.
MR. COSTA: Is Sessions – because of this new Post story, Dan, and because of his distance from the president – is his time limited, perhaps, in the Cabinet, or is this an administration where you can have these kind of tensions within the Cabinet, with the president, and still linger on?
MR. BALZ: I would – I would say it’s the latter rather than the former. I mean, I think people have these situations. They seem compromised or humiliated. They stay in their jobs and somewhat indefinitely. This latest story about Jeff Sessions will put him in – you know, in trouble again. I’m sure he will argue that Kislyak could say whatever he wanted to to his leaders in Moscow, but that was a lie and it wasn’t the case. And how do you disprove it? But it’s going to put him in further hot water. But I think Peter’s right, that he has things he’s doing that are in concert with the president. He’s going to try to get those things done. And like everybody around the president, including the president, they want to push this to the side. Republicans on the Hill, they want to push this to the side and try to move ahead.
MR. BAKER: Donald Trump likes to keep people around him sort of off-balance. This is a habit of his. It does back way before this six months of his presidency. And I think you’re right, people have learned that, you know, you can stick around for an awful long time, even if he’s publicly – Steve Bannon is still there. Reince Priebus is still there. How many times have we fired them –
MS. BALL: Kellyanne Conway is still there.
MR. BAKER: Kellyanne Conway is still there and so forth. And even those who end up getting pushed out, end up kind of coming back, right? I mean, Corey Lewandowski was fired last year, but he’s sort of still in and out.
MR. COSTA: But today’s a major moment, in a sense. The most public person in some respects, besides the president, Sean Spicer, I mean, he has become a national celebrity because of his portrayals on Saturday Night Live. He stepped away. He had enough at six months.
MS. BALL: Well, and that’s what’s interesting, right? Is that he wasn’t fired. He quit. And Trump was surprised. Trump really thought that even though he might have said this was a bridge too far, he didn’t expect him to leave, because Trump views this as a sort of endurance contest, where he just keeps giving people more and more crap, if I can say that on public television, and they keep –
MR. COSTA: I’m not sure of the rules.
MS. BALL: They keep on taking it. And that’s what he expects. I mean, I think – you know, Peter’s exactly right. You said at the top of the show, he has governed very much as he campaigned. And this was certainly the pattern in the campaign, was that there was constant conflict all around him. There’s just this feuding cloud of personalities. And he gins it up. It’s very reality show-like.
MR. BAKER: I was struck, though, talking with a White House person this week, who said basically that for all of that during the campaign, looking back now they look back at the campaign as having been a moment of – where the team was together, where they actually were more cohesive than they remember. And that today it’s gotten so much worse, and that they’re sitting in this toxic environment in which everybody is out for themselves.
MR. BALZ: But part of that was, that was a much smaller, tighter team.
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MR. BALZ: For one. And as a campaign, you have the ability to control events a little bit more – or, probably a lot more – than you do in a White House. Stuff comes at you, and in this White House, that Russia thing just keeps coming.
MR. COSTA: It seems like, when you look at the Spicer departure, it’s not just about Sean Spicer as a person, it’s about what it reveals about Trump’s relationship with the Republican Party. Sean Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are really the symbols of the mainstream Republican Party in this White House. And as you said, Molly, six months in the major accomplishment has been the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch. They’ve struggled on health care. They’ve had this Russia cloud. I mean, the Republican Party, I think, is having its own reckoning, perhaps, right now.
MS. BALL: Yeah, well, and I would also put up there as accomplishments the appointment of the Cabinet. It’s a very conservative Cabinet and it’s one that a lot of Republicans are quite pleased with, taking apart a lot of the executive actions taken by the Obama administration at the – at the agency level. And then the deregulation bills that the Congress has passed, those are the bills that members will point to when you ask them what they’ve done so far. But on the other big-ticket issues, you know, these divisions between and among Republicans were a preexisting condition of Trump coming along.
And you can argue that Trump exploited them to get the nomination. But he hasn’t done anything to settle those disputes. He doesn’t have a clear enough position that he would bring everybody around. Everybody knows he wants a win on health care, but nobody knows what he wants in the bill, right? He has them at the Rose Garden one day, the next day he turns around and calls them mean. They never know what to expect. Kind of like his staff, they’re always tiptoeing around him on eggshells, afraid he’s going to – they’re going to be the next ones humiliated by him.
And you know, as a congressman told me this week, there was – yes, Republicans were divided. That’s nothing new. There was one thing that could have united the clans, and that was leadership from the president.
MR. COSTA: Peter, turning back to Russia for a second, when I read through your transcript with your colleagues, how nervous is this White House about Mueller’s pursuit of the Trump family’s financial records about Trump associations with Russia over the year, Russia purchases of Trump properties? Is this the issue, as Michael Schmidt put it in the interview, truly the red line that’s going to make this situation erupt even further?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think you heard it in the clip that you played, listened to him volunteer I have nothing to do with Russia, maybe some people bought some condos, I don’t know, who knows. It was a very kind of almost disjointed explanation of what financial ties he did or didn’t have with Russia, not very – not very precise or clear, basically trying to suggest he has none. But, in fact, there have been, you know, some purchases of these condos that are, you know, sizeable, millions of dollars, and I think they’re very worried about that. And you’re right, that was the one thing where when we said what about this, what about that, it was the finances that got him to say –
MR. COSTA: And perhaps the tax returns.
MR. BAKER: The tax forms are a big deal.
MR. COSTA: Do we know if Mueller actually has access to tax returns?
MR. BAKER: I don’t think we know that at the moment. I think we think that he can get them, but I’m not an expert on that one, be careful. But I don’t – we have no indication so far, I think, that he’s got them.
MR. BALZ: I mean, one thing we know is that Mueller has hired some people onto that team who have expertise in financial forensics, in a sense, and that has to worry the president. It probably has to worry Jared Kushner as well. And to the extent that that investigation widens and goes into that area as well as the other areas that we are aware that they are pursuing, that has to begin to cut very close to the president. And, you know, he’s been very private about those finances, very guarded with any real details about them, and who knows what’s there. But if he thinks that there’s a team of prosecutors combing through all of that and subpoenaing it and gathering records, that’s going to keep him on edge.
MR. COSTA: The Scaramucci news was the big news today, Molly, but who really speaks for this White House when it comes to Russia? Is it the president himself? Because this legal team seems to be in tumult, with the resignation of Mark Corallo, the spokesman, and Marc Kasowitz, the longtime personal lawyer, being pushed aside. Is it the president himself, or do you pick up a strategy in your reporting?
MS. BALL: Well, it is the president, and I think everyone around him knows that they are going to have to scramble to adjust to anything that he puts out. He does have these many unfiltered channels of communication that he refuses to put down, and there – and I know that there are people that have declined to work for the White House just because they know that there is no guarantee that the president won’t sort of step all over their toes. But he also, as we know, watches a lot of television, despite his protestations to the contrary.
MR. COSTA: Part of why Scaramucci got the job.
MS. BALL: I don’t know if he watches PBS on Friday nights, but he does watch a lot of cable TV, and he likes to hear himself sort of reflected back to him. So he likes someone like a Kellyanne Conway, an Anthony Scaramucci, a Jay Sekulow, the personal lawyer who has risen in stature as others have fallen because he goes on TV and he defends the president. The president likes a fighter and he likes someone who is out there in public.
MR. COSTA: Molly, I assume all political junkies are watching Washington Week on Friday nights. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: If they have any sense.
MR. COSTA: Peter, when you think about the six-month mark, what kind of political capital does this president have with Russia hanging over him?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, well, I mean, Dan, in your paper’s poll a 36 percent approval rating is the lowest anybody’s ever had at this position of their presidency. Obviously, that gives you a real headwind you’re fighting against. You know, he pointed out in our interview, and he’s not wrong, that President Obama hadn’t gotten health care passed by this point of his presidency, he didn’t get it until March of 2010; that, in fact, most first-year presidents don’t necessarily have their biggest accomplishments legislatively in the first six months. But the problem for him, I think, at this point is that nobody can see the path to get there. And you know, do they keep going on health care? Do they move on to tax cuts? Do they move on to infrastructure? The Republicans are restless and they’re about to head home at some point for an August recess where they’re going to face voters and have to explain to them what they’ve been up to.
MR. COSTA: Final thoughts, Dan, on what’s next?
MR. BALZ: Well, I guess I would say that to the degree to which he has political capital, and I do think he has some, is the base that elected him. And he has – he has built his presidency around them, toward them, with them, and they are still very much with him. And that provides for him some buoyancy as he takes on all these other battles. He thinks he is doing for them what he promised. They think he is doing for them what he – or is trying to do, and is being frustrated by all these other forces. So that’s the political capital he’s using.
MR. COSTA: And, as Anthony Scaramucci said today, the president has karma, at least in his view, that he can survive anything. We’ll see.
We’re going to have to leave it there. Molly, Peter, Dan, great to have you. Thanks, everybody.
And before we go, we just want to pause tonight to send our thoughts and prayers out to Arizona Senator John McCain. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee is battling brain cancer. It was discovered during surgery to remove a blood clot from above his left eye. McCain, an 80-year-old former Navy pilot, survived five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Tributes and heartfelt words of support came from presidents and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. The six-term senator took to Twitter to let people know he may be down, but he’s not out. He wrote: “I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support – unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” Godspeed, Senator McCain.
Our conversation continues online now on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about Republican efforts to resuscitate health care reform and why President Trump is blaming Democrats for the collapse of the Senate bill this week. You can find that Friday night after 10 p.m. at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Till next time, I’m Robert Costa. Thanks.