ROBERT COSTA: Checks and balances. Tensions flare between President Trump and Republicans over health care, sanctions, and the special counsel; and the Russia investigation heads to a grand jury. I’m Robert Costa. Recess in Washington starts with last-minute drama, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They can continue their obsession with the Russian hoax, or they can serve the interests of the American people.
MR. COSTA: While the president fumes, the investigation into Russia’s election meddling ramps up, again. The special counsel convenes a grand jury. President Trump rallies his base.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We don’t need advice from the Washington swamp. We need to drain the swamp.
MR. COSTA: Aggressively pushing conservative policies on immigration and jobs. But his low approval rating and sharp jabs at Congress are sparking friction within his own party.
SENATOR JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): (From video.) That’s not conservative for elected officials, those of us in Congress, to watch this and not say anything.
MR. COSTA: Congress heads out of town, but not before putting new limits on the president’s ability to lift Russian sanctions, a bill Mr. Trump reluctantly signed. Will the summer recess bring clarity or bipartisanship to a long list of unresolved issues? We get answers from Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Susan Davis of NPR, Carol Lee of NBC News, and Franco Ordoñez of McClatchy.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. This was supposed to be a week for the White House to reset after a tumultuous first six months. A new chief of staff was enlisted to stabilize a divided West Wing. But instead President Trump found himself in a familiar place: up against the ropes, with new developments about the ongoing Russia probes. Special counsel Bob Mueller – he’s assembling a grand jury as part of the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
Last night the president did what you’d expect: counterpunch.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) The Russia story is a total fabrication. There were no Russians in our campaign. There never were.
We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you.
MR. COSTA: Dan, the Russia issue, day in, day out, seems to be the issue the president just cannot escape.
DAN BALZ: You know, you can call it what you will – the dark cloud, the – sort of the festering wound, the low-grade fever that could become a – you know, an acute fever. No one knows how it will end. But he’s totally obsessed with it. And whether it was coincident or not, the fact that the news came out yesterday that Bob Mueller is now using a grand jury to advance the investigation and the president did what he did in West Virginia with that speech – which was not a kind of an offhand, you know, ad-libbed rant; this was a prepared speech – to go right after this, to sow doubt about it and to reinforce with his people, his base, that this is an investigation designed not just to hurt him but to hurt the things that he’s trying to do for them.
MR. COSTA: Sue, the congressional Republicans are watching the president’s speech in West Virginia. They see him venting, and they’re trying to put up a stop sign in case he ever decides to move toward firing Bob Mueller. They’re even moving some legislation.
SUSAN DAVIS: They’re putting up a lot of stop signs. You know, rhetorically you don’t hear a lot of pushback against the Trump administration from Republicans in Congress. But the actions that Republicans in Congress have taken tell a very different story. Congress, by almost unanimous margins, passed a Russia sanctions bill. When the president fired James Comey, members of the Senate made very clear that they needed a nominee who was not a political nominee, who was aboveboard. The – Christopher Wray was approved this week, the new FBI director, by, again, almost a near unanimous vote, sending a message.
And when the president attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Republicans made a – sent a very clear message that firing Jeff Sessions was not on the table and doing so would have severe and dramatic consequences in Congress.
MR. COSTA: But do you think the White House, Franco, is still considering firing Mueller? Is that part of their – the options they have on the table?
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think this is something that he has floated a few times. I think this is something that he’s considering. I mean, it’s like one of those trial balloons has gone out.
But I think the pushback that we’ve heard about how “holy” et cetera would come across if he did that – I think he’s very hesitant to make such a move, because he knows there would be a lot of pushback.
MR. COSTA: Carol, a grand jury is the beginning of a process. It’s a new investigative tool. But we know from various news reports that Bob Mueller is possibly looking into financial crimes with President Trump or his family.
CAROL LEE: And if you notice, when that news came out, that is when you saw the president really step up his criticism, and he really – I mean, he’s obviously been critical of this from the start, but there is this narrative that that was what made him very nervous. And you know, that’s – that – and then he also felt like – that Mueller was moving in a direction that was out of the zone of what his investigation was supposed to be about.
And so, you know, you could – yes, it’s about, you know, whether or not the campaign colluded with Russia, but if you move into looking at businesses and the Trump – Trump Inc. and the whole – that is a very large space, and that makes the president even more upset about this.
MR. COSTA: Is this the issue, Sue, that just, as Dan said, maybe clouds up everything right now for this entire administration?
MS. DAVIS: You know, in a lot of ways what’s happening in Russia hasn’t really affected Congress. But I do think firing Mueller would be that thing that finally really does blow up the agenda. And I think that’s also part of the reason, as you referred to, that there are bipartisan groups of senators right now working on legislation that would give recourse to any special counsel, but specifically aimed, obviously, at Robert Mueller, to protect him if they were to fire him. And that’s sending another message to the White House: Do not do this.
MS. LEE: Also, we don’t trust you.
MS. DAVIS: Yeah.
MS. LEE: Which is the same as the Russia sanctions bill was.
MR. BALZ: I agree with Sue that it’s – that it’s possible that Congress can continue to do its work while this hangs over Trump. We’ve seen this in past administrations when there are investigations. They’re able to, in one way or another, compartmentalize. There’s an investigation that’s going on that consumes the attention of a lot of people, but nonetheless a White House can do business in the absence of that.
This is so interesting because it’s so personal to Trump, and I think that that affects him and therefore, because of the way the White House has operated pre-General Kelly, it has made it more difficult for the White House to operate effectively. We’ll see whether that changes.
MR. ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it’s something that he really believes in. It’s a fight that he wants to keep having. I think we saw that in West Virginia. I mean, he is going at it. He is not backing down. He is pushing and pushing. And what better place to do that, in front of like essentially a hometown crowd? I mean, that’s your – that’s a local ring that you can attack, and it’s a message, I think, that’s been effective from – for the base.
MR. COSTA: Let’s dig into this, because that hometown base in West Virginia, it is a constant theme for this administration as the Russia questions continue to linger over the White House. We’re watching in real time this president recalibrating, and it’s amid dismal poll numbers. Six months after taking office, Mr. Trump’s approval rating has dipped to a new low. In the latest Quinnipiac survey, 61 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Mr. Trump is doing. Just 33 percent approve. That’s 7-point drop from just a month ago.
The president is returning in this environment to his signature campaign issues that fire up that conservative base. Last week it was a ban on transgender troops from serving in the military. This week it was a plan to cut illegal immigration by nearly half – excuse me – let’s put an asterisk there, because it was actually cutting legal immigration. That’s where this debate has moved. That’s a – that’s a core issue for the right – cutting legal immigration.
And the Justice Department is now looking to investigate affirmative action and how it may discriminate against white people.
Carol, we’re looking at a president now in West Virginia – and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, today, on Friday, is starting to go after the media. You have not only the president but top Cabinet officials targeting these enemies for this White House and the administration. Sessions said he may even subpoena journalists to talk about leaks. So it’s leaks, it’s transgender issues and that ban for the Pentagon, it’s affirmative action over at the Justice Department, it’s red meat. Will that work? Will the Trump base stay with him?
MS. LEE: That’s the big question, how long this can last. You know, you’ve seen presidents – President Obama a number of times, for instance, tried to pivot, and he would pivot to being a moderate and try to, you know, broaden the tent. And you’ve seen and what you’re seeing with President Trump is he’s going very narrow and very targeted, and, you know, he was saying things in his speech last night about “we” – we don’t need this, we don’t need Washington, we’re going to do this, and it was like this collective. And so these are the true believers, and we’re going to see in the next few months whether or not they stick with him if he can’t get health care, if he can’t do anything on immigration or tax reform or infrastructure or bring back coal jobs. So I just think – and, you know, he’s heading into a period of his first year in office where there’s a lot of must-dos in Congress that are going to make life even trickier, and we’ve seen it to be very – it’s been very difficult in the first six months. He’s got a debt limit and he has to pass spending bills. And so, you know, if we’re in this same position a year from now, I don’t really – it’s hard to imagine that all of them would still be with him.
MR. ORDOÑEZ: You know, I guess I take a little bit of a different perspective in that. I think they’re – the base is pretty loyal. I mean, I think when you get down to these groups, they love Trump. I mean, you go to Iowa, you go to these different communities in Alabama, the fan – the fever that they have for Trump is so large. I think we’ll know a lot next month – or, pardon me, later this month with the Alabama special election coming up. Who will they come? Will they go with Larry, or will they go with a more moderate Republican?
MR. COSTA: On the immigration legislation, cutting legal immigration by half, does that have any chance of passing?
MR. ORDOÑEZ: I think it has very little of passing. But let’s just remember, I mean, the most – the most popular line that Trump would ever give was about immigration, about building the wall. This goes even further. This is about legal immigration. It was kind of overshadowed during the campaign. But this really attacks essentially one of like the national tenets of the national immigration system. It talks about family unification. This is something that our immigration system was built on. It really will change that dramatically. And we could have – if this were to pass, you know, over the next several decades, perhaps we could – the idea is to maybe cut legal immigration in half, and that’s significant.
MR. COSTA: Sue, it seems like we’ve been talking about Attorney General Sessions for weeks, how the president called him beleaguered, yet his agenda – this affirmative action move, you talk about his work on illegal immigration, cutting legal immigration – the Sessions populism that infused the campaign now seems to be at the fore of this presidency.
MS. DAVIS: That was also what was so remarkable about the president taking on Jeff Sessions, is was there any Republican in Washington who was more loyal and with Trump from the very beginning than Jeff Sessions? And so much of Jeff Sessions’ ideology fueled the Trump campaign. So many of Jeff Sessions’ staffers now populate the Trump White House, including Stephen Miller, who we also saw on television this week. I also think when Trump went after Sessions, that’s part of the reason why I think you saw the establishment types of Republicans really come out hard for him, because Jeff Sessions is still a guy that the traditional conservative base knows, likes and trusts. And I think Congress likes him because a lot of senators there feel like they have a personal connection with him and they trust him in that job, even if a lot of his former colleagues in the Senate may not always agree with Jeff Sessions, particularly on that question of – questions of immigration. But there is – they’re comfortable with him in that job.
MR. ORDOÑEZ: In the immigration issue, let’s remember Sessions was the one who almost – with Stephen Miller, almost singlehandedly ended the Gang of Eight effort to bring a comprehensive package that would have put these undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. When he attacked Sessions – when Trump attacked Sessions, those people, the base that want immigration enforcement, Trump’s signature issue, were pushing back. So it’s a dangerous move.
MR. COSTA: Yet Stephen – yet Stephen Miller, this longtime Sessions confidant, he’s out there this week as the spokesman for the administration. Dan, you have to wonder, is the president retreating to this populism from the campaign, or is it part of a strategy?
MR. BALZ: Well, I – with this president it’s always hard to say there’s a particular strategy behind it, but I think that there are core principles. And it ebbs and flows with him, and there are – there are times at which it looks like he has strayed completely from kind of the campaign agenda, and then he comes roaring back to it. And what we’ve seen over the last 10 days or two weeks with the things that you outlined are a reminder that those are core issues that connected him with the people who brought him to the White House, and he is remaining true to those issues and to them. It’s a combination of this “America first” notion, this sense of national identity, the social and cultural issues – beyond the economic issues, the social and cultural issues that have bound him to a part of the electorate who remain quite loyal.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for a moment, because President Trump’s low approval numbers have rattled members of his own party. Many of them, amid all this populism and the president going to rallies, they’re suddenly putting a little distance between themselves and the president. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott laid out his priorities. He said: “We work for the American people. We don’t work for the president.” And, Carol, what we’re watching is a Republican Party really unsure at this six-month mark about how close they want to be with this president.
MS. LEE: Right. And if you look at Senator Jeff Flake’s – you know, he stuck his neck out there, and it doesn’t appear to be working so well for him. And so they are very uncomfortable with –
MR. COSTA: Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, he took this big step against President Trump with a new book.
MS. LEE: Right.
MR. COSTA: And, I mean, why don’t you think it’s working?
MS. LEE: Well, it seems – if you look at it, there are some polls that say his support is eroding and that it seems like it could hurt him. We don’t know where that will be in a year from now. But I think what you’ve seen with Republicans is this kind of resistance to – not wanting to criticize. The private criticism has been increasingly becoming public. The things that Republicans have told all of us on background or off the record or in private discussions is now becoming a little bit more public. And I don’t know – when you look at what Congress has to do and all of the challenges that they have, you know, at a certain point they’re going to need each other. The president and the Republicans are going to need each other to do anything because they have been promising that once they got control of all the – of the House and the Senate and the White House that it would be great for all these people who voted for them, and they need to put up.
MR. COSTA: Sue, was health care the turning point? When health care fell apart in the Senate, is that what prompted Senator Flake and others to walk away? Or was it more of a temperamental difference? Maybe it’s both.
MS. DAVIS: I think Flake is his own man on this. I don’t think Jeff Flake wrote this book and thought this is going to help me in my reelection. I think Flake is the one that is most willing to voice the concerns that Republicans have about the president, not just in terms of what he believes but in terms of character. And for Jeff Flake, who is a Mormon, who is I would certainly say a conservative before he would consider himself a Republican, and who had been battling these sort of conservative wars in Congress long before Donald Trump ever really entered onto the political stage with his good friend Mike Pence – who is now the vice president, which is such an interesting parallel between these two warriors during the Bush years – so he is the most vocal. But I think his concerns are privately, as Carol said, shared by other members.
Health care was a failure, and they know this. You know, they left town a week earlier than planned. They left quietly. The things that they have to go home and campaign on are a Russia sanctions bill and a new FBI director. I mean, the Republican Party’s not in a good place. And I think that that is now where you see them doubling down and saying tax reform or tax legislation, tax cuts are the next big issue, and if we don’t deliver there then I think it’s going to be even worse for the party.
MR. COSTA: So, Franco, is health care dead? I mean, I saw a picture online today of Steve Bannon’s office at the White House. It had taxes in big, bold letters on the whiteboard. Are they just moving on?
MR. ORDOÑEZ: I’m not sure I would ever count out health care at this point. I mean, it’s always going to be a tough slog to get health care passed. I think certainly the Republicans want to move on. They’re desperate to move on, to get some victories before the 2018 elections. I’m not sure if they’ll necessarily be able to. Trump is certainly pushing, his administration is certainly pushing it. They seem to be saying want to move on and pushing them off, but I wouldn’t count out this issue. I think Trump has shown that he can kind of turn the screws on the party. I’m not saying they will move, but I think they’re going try to shoot for any hole they can.
MR. COSTA: Well, one thing we’re going to keep watching as all of this unfolds and as we mentioned earlier was this was the first week for the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly. The retired four-star general was hired to bring some military discipline to this White House. And, Dan, everyone’s asking in Washington: Can General Kelly actually change the culture of a place that has been riven by division?
MR. BALZ: Well, it’s an unanswerable question right now. I think one thing we can see is that he has been very effective at managing down, which is to say he has set down marching orders for the staff that works for President Trump and now for him. He has – he has created lines of authority that did not exist under Reince Priebus. If he is able to continue that, that will bring a significant change to the operation of the White House. The question is, is he going to be effective managing up? There’s no particular sign that he’s closing off the Twitter account of the president of the United States.
MR. COSTA: None at all. The president keeps tweeting, Dan.
MR. BALZ: If anything, we’ve seen more tweets this week than we’ve seen in the past. (Laughter.) We know that the president has a particular style, an operating style, a temperament, a personality that no one has been able to tame, and that can continue to get in the way of an effective chief of staff with the rest of the operation.
MR. COSTA: And Carol, you wrote a terrific piece this week on Afghan policy. The strategy in Afghanistan’s a real subject for debate. You have H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, on one side; Steve Bannon on the other. Is that going to be resolved by General Kelly?
MS. LEE: Well, it’s – that totally remains to be seen, but the Afghanistan discussion has become THE staging ground for these two different – very different policy views and ideologies. And it’s unclear where this is going. And this a strategy that was supposed to be decided several months ago. And what we’ve seen is that the president’s really increasingly frustrated, and he’s getting a pull from the Steve Bannon crowd, and then you have the McMasters and Kelly and others who want him to make a decision and kind of keep going at the pace we’ve already been going in. And that’s – and then so it keeps getting pushed further and further along, and you know, it’s going to have to come to a head at some time, and who wins that, I think, will be very significant in what direction the White House takes.
MR. COSTA: Sue, what’s the impression on Capitol Hill of General Kelly? Can he spark maybe some bipartisan talks? He’s not really an ideological figure.
MS. DAVIS: No, and I think people underestimate, though, that if you’ve been a general and have served in the past 15 years, when we’ve been at war, you have very good relationships on Capitol Hill. A lot of senators on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees know him. They have personal relationships with him. They have met him overseas during CODELs. His hire, I think, was very reassuring on Capitol Hill, not just for Republicans. I’ve heard from Democratic senators who know John Kelly and like John Kelly and trust John Kelly.
And in a lot of ways he’s much more suited to this kind of role than Reince Priebus ever was, who was sort of an unconventional White House chief of staff, but Trump is an unconventional president.
MR. COSTA: Franco?
MR. ORDOÑEZ: It was more – it was also reassuring at the White House. I mean, there was so much dysfunction. There was so much fractured thinking and so much backstabbing among the different factions at the White House that as soon as – soon as that announcement that Kelly was in, we were already hearing from members of the West Wing who were saying a little bit of a – breathe a sigh of relief, of calming down and saying, this is going to be OK.
MR. COSTA: And General Kelly also reached out to some Democrats. We’ll see if there can actually be some deals – or not.
We’re going to have to leave it there, my friends. Thanks, everybody, for watching. And welcome to Washington Week, Franco. Great to have you on the show.
MR. ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: We have to leave you a few minutes early, so you can take the opportunity to support your local PBS station, which in turn supports us.
But our conversation, as ever, will continue online, on the Washington Week Extra, where we will keep talking about President Trump’s frustration with the Pentagon strategy in Afghanistan, based on that Carol Lee story. And you can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching. Have a great weekend.