ROBERT COSTA: President Trump retaliates. He lashes out, alarms intelligence leaders, and rattles some Republicans. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY SARAH SANDERS: (From video.) Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets.
MR. COSTA: President Trump at war with his critics. He revokes John Brennan’s security clearance, citing the former CIA director’s link to the Russia probe.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’ve gotten tremendous response from having done that.
MR. COSTA: Some Republicans support the move.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) Mr. Brennan has gone way over the line, in my view, and I think restricting his clearance – pulling his clearance makes sense to me.
MR. COSTA: Others sharply disagree.
SENATOR BOB CORKER (R-TN): (From video.) I thought it was just kind of a banana republic kind of thing and, you know, I don’t like it. I think it’s inappropriate.
MR. COSTA: And as the president considers stripping access elsewhere, more than a dozen intelligence community leaders have signed off on a statement of solidarity supporting Mr. Brennan.
That fight comes as the White House battles on another front – a tell-all book by a former aide – and waits to hear the legal fate of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. We cover it all next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump, increasingly weary of the Russia investigation, punched back as he watched members of the national security establishment criticize him this week. He revoked former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance and is considering taking away the access for others. It’s all part of an effort to diminish Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which has brought the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to trial. While Mr. Trump has called it a witch hunt, Mr. Mueller has been defended by many intelligence veterans. Mr. Brennan, as you remember, testified last year that he saw a troubling pattern of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Joining me tonight, Julie Pace, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press; Michael Scherer, national political reporter for The Washington Post; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for Bloomberg News; and Josh Gerstein, senior White House reporter for POLITICO.
What a fight, Michael, Brennan versus President Trump. Why did the president choose now to pick this fight?
MICHAEL SCHERER: He always needs something to be fighting and someone to be fighting. There was a really fascinating moment today on the South Lawn before he boarded that helicopter, when someone asked him: Are you trying to silence your critics? And Trump answered, I think very honestly: No, I’m making his voice bigger; I like taking on voices like that. And this is part of the president’s effort to basically discredit the entire Russia investigation. Anyone who says there’s credibility to this investigation, he’s going after them, and he’s going to keep hammering them because he has a political goal in mind. And that political goal is that whatever the report says when Robert Mueller releases it, whatever the outcome of this investigation is, he wants to be able to dismiss it. And to do that, he needs a new enemy every day to keep fighting on this. And Brennan, you know, is a willing participant. Brennan will be out there, I’m sure, over the coming days, fighting back at the president. The president will love that and he’ll be tweeting in response.
MR. COSTA: The intel community, however, is not sitting idle. At least 15 former intelligence chiefs have signed that letter of support for Brennan; and retired Navy Admiral Bill McRaven, who was the architect of the Bin Laden raid, wrote this in a letter published by The Washington Post. Quote: “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well.”
Julie, a lot of pushback from the foreign policy establishment, but does it really matter? Is that – is this a breaking point, this letter, or are we still waiting to hear from Secretary Mattis, General Kelly, people inside the administration breaking with the president?
JULIE PACE: I think it’s a question of who it matters to. So if you are Trump’s base, if you’re his loyal voters, this doesn’t matter. To you, this is just another sign of the Washington establishment, the national security establishment pushing back against an outsider. I do think for a smaller subset of voters, perhaps independents who are already a little on edge after this summer where we’ve seen President Trump appear to buddy up to Vladimir Putin, to see so many national security officials who have worked for presidents from both parties come out with this united voice, then it could potentially make a difference. You know, there is no love lost, though, between Trump and the intelligence community. This is something we’ve been dealing with since his days as a candidate and certainly those early days of the presidency as well with his controversial visit to the CIA.
MR. COSTA: What about inside the intelligence community? When the president does this, uses executive power in this way, could it have a chilling effect?
JOSH GERSTEIN: Oh, yeah, it’s definitely intimidating to people inside places like the CIA and the NSA. A lot of those folks rely on the fact that when they get out of the government, when they go into retirement, they can get much more lucrative jobs in the private sector and they do that by using their security clearances. You see these ads in the paper all the time that we need TS-SCI people, that means top secret secure compartmented information. They have access to those clearances. And it becomes not just a status symbol, but an actual way to get a very successful and remunerative job after you leave. So to see that being pulled for what people see as arbitrary or political reason I think will have some repercussions in the rank and file.
MR. COSTA: Should we expect more people in the intelligence community, more critics of President Trump to see their clearances revoked?
MR. GERSTEIN: Yeah. It sounds like Trump is lining up a bunch more revocations behind this one, that it’s not just going to be Brennan, that other people the president feels have crossed him in some way are going to have their clearances revoked for disloyalty not to the United States, but disloyalty to President Trump.
MR. COSTA: Context is everything, Toluse. When you think about this moment, the Trump White House, the president facing a possible subpoena from Robert Mueller, a report on the president’s conduct and possible obstruction of justice. How much are those challenges influencing the president’s fight on the security clearance?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, all of that is front-and-center. If you look at the long list of people that the president is reviewing their security clearances, these are all people who have been part of the Russia investigation – James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page. These are people who in some ways were part of the Russia investigation and the president’s trying to discredit them and say that these are people who are part of the deep state.
And he’s getting a lot of backing from Republicans in Congress, members of his base who believe, if you look at the long list of people who have been dismissed from the FBI, dismissed from the intelligence community or have left under a cloud of scandal – sometimes scandal created by the president himself – they’re saying that these are people who are out to get the president, they were trying to undermine the president’s campaign and anything that Mueller comes up with is going to be discredited because there’s such a large number of people who the president has managed to discredit. So that’s really what this is all about.
MS. PACE: And I think you could argue that the president is being successful with this strategy to discredit the Mueller investigation. If you look at the polls, it has been a pretty partisan split for months on this, but the fact that Mueller is coming forward with indictments and you aren’t seeing any movement toward people thinking this is a more credible investigation.
And then if you look at what Republicans on Capitol Hill are saying, there was a period of time where most of the rhetoric around Mueller was he needs to do his job, we support Bob Mueller. Now you hear more and more Republicans saying we need to wrap this up. I do think that is the effect of the president really politicizing this investigation.
MR. COSTA: Why is that, though, Michael? Is it – why are the Republicans not speaking out on this issue of security clearances in the same way they did about Helsinki and the summit with Putin?
MR. SCHERER: I think one of the reasons we keep seeing these Republican primaries around the country and every time anyone who has criticized the president – just this week, former governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty went down for having criticized in 2016 the president for the Access Hollywood tape. That was – that was a deal too far for Republicans in Minnesota. He lost his attempt to become governor again because of that. I think we’re getting closer to the election, so both parties are going to become more political.
The other thing I would mention about the way the president’s rolling out this Russia strategy, he takes away the clearance from Brennan, but then introduces a list of other potentials, right? So he, you know, he knows what they’ve said, he could have just taken it away. What he’s doing is creating suspense. He’s creating the drama here. And what he wants is to keep this in the news. You know, maybe tomorrow it will be Susan Rice, maybe in three days it’ll be, you know, Jim Clapper. The drama, the kind of constantly showing him fighting against this is the goal.
MR. COSTA: Well, what do federal prosecutors and your sources in that world think about Brennan? Do they worry that he is being too political in his own comments?
MR. GERSTEIN: There are some people that have been critical of things that he’s said about the president over the last few months. But the step of stripping somebody’s clearance is just an extraordinary thing. I can’t conceive of anything like this being done in the past several decades. I mean, people lose clearances, but they lose them for very different reasons than comments that are considered critical of the White House or critical of the president. They lose them due to issues of personal behavior or concerns about foreign intelligence penetration. But the notion that they would lose it because of an op-ed they wrote or because of an appearance they made on cable TV, it’s just, once again under the Trump administration, an extraordinary departure from the norm in this area.
MR. COSTA: Is this interview ever going to happen between the president and Mueller?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: It’s looking less and less likely. We heard the president on the South Lawn today basically say Mueller should just go ahead and write his report, basically admitting that the president believes that Mueller has what he needs, they’ve provided information, they’ve provided interviews with other people from the Trump campaign, and the president is basically saying that Mueller should get this over with. He said that Mueller is conflicted. We’ve heard from Rudy Giuliani that September 1st is some kind of deadline and then after that that the Trump legal team is going to really crack down on Mueller in some way. So they are not sounding like they want to be very cooperative with the Mueller probe at all and they’re really gearing up for a fight at this point.
MR. COSTA: And they’re facing not only a fight there, but they’re facing a fight with Manafort, the Manafort trial. It hangs over everything this week as well. He’s facing a fraud case, tax and bank fraud case, and that can – and the jurors in that case continue to deliberate in federal court.
Manafort did not testify and his lawyers did not call a witness. And on Thursday, the jury asked the judge, Judge T.S. Ellis, for clarity on reasonable doubt.
Josh has been in the courtroom since day one. No cameras in there, Josh. What does it mean when the jury’s asking a question about reasonable doubt and they’re still taking more time today on Friday?
MR. GERSTEIN: Well, reasonable doubt questions from any jury are not that uncommon. But I thought there were a couple of things of other questions that they asked in that same list they sent to the judge on Thursday that suggested that the government may not have the kind of slam-dunk case that they were suggesting publicly that they had. It sounded like a couple of the charges, which involved bank accounts that Manafort had overseas, that the jury or at least someone on the jury might not be totally persuaded by some of the theories that the government put forward.
And there were also indications that these deliberations could go on for a long time. They were asking for sort of cross-referenced indexes to all the evidence in the case, which amounts to something on the order of 400 exhibits that actually required the jury to move out of the jury room and into a larger room in the courthouse so that they could all sit around and talk and still have these documents with them. So it’s a very fact-and-number, dollar-intensive case, and so it seems like they’re going to go through the evidence rather methodically and we could be in for a long wait.
MR. COSTA: I thought this was supposed to be an open-and-shut case for the Mueller investigators, the Mueller prosecutors. How big of a blow would it be if it goes the other way, if Manafort’s actually acquitted?
MS. PACE: Well, I think it would be a significant blow for people who want to have Trump to ease up on what Toluse was talking about, this politicization of the investigation. Because if Manafort gets off here, Trump is going to wrap that verdict in this entire investigation. He’s going to say, see, they are over their skis, they are going too far, they were going after my campaign chairman and he’s innocent and, therefore, there is no collusion, therefore, I did nothing wrong, even though the Manafort trial really has nothing to do with the investigation into Russian interference or obstruction of justice, which is the other thing that we know that Mueller is looking at. But I don’t think Trump will let that get in the way, those facts get in the way of his political argument here.
MR. COSTA: What about the wink-wink game going on between the Manafort lawyer on Friday, he said we really appreciate President Trump’s support? Is that a sign that maybe they are looking for a pardon? And the president was pretty complimentary of Manafort before he got on Air Force One.
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah. While the jury was deliberating, the president said that the government, his government, is treating Manafort unfairly and it’s sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort. And obviously, the Manafort lawyers were happy to hear that. And when President Trump was asked whether or not he was considering a pardon, in the middle of the jury deliberations he said I don’t talk about that and just sort of left it out there hanging.
MR. COSTA: So how serious is the talk inside the White House and at least the president’s legal team about a pardon?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, we’ve heard the president say I have absolute power to pardon. He said I could even pardon myself if I want to. And we’ve heard him talk about this entire investigation as a witch hunt, as rigged, as something that’s sad that the government is doing to his former campaign manager. So he is really sort of dangling it out there and basically saying that it’s something that he has the power to do.
MR. SCHERER: There’s two arguments the president and his team have been making here. One is that, you know, this is a prosecution that’s baseless, there’s nothing here, it shouldn’t be done. But if he’s convicted, they still have this argument that this is for stuff that no one else would ever be taken to court for, which is – which is a way of protecting whatever else could come out of the Mueller investigation.
It’s possible you could have further charges against, you know, members of Trump’s family, against other parts of his campaign. And if even if they’re guilty, the president’s team is reserving this argument that maybe they did something wrong, but it’s a technical violation, it’s tax fraud, it’s something small; and therefore, a pardon would make more sense down the line.
MR. COSTA: You’ve been at the courtroom in Alexandria, such a heated environment. You have Judge Ellis now saying he’s getting threats, he has security around him. We all often talk about what this means for Mueller, but also people on the left and right are plugged into this trial and what it means.
MR. GERSTEIN: Yeah, we had members of the general public on both sides of the aisle, Trump supporters and hardcore Trump opponents, showing up to sit alongside the reporters in the courtroom for days of testimony – especially when Rick Gates, a former Manafort aide who’s considered the government’s star witness, was on the stand – just ordinary folks lining up early in the morning in order to go in and see this. And the dynamic in the room has been interesting because it’s not quite like your normal trial. You have these other things looming in the background, like the pardon, which seems to have shifted the usual way these things play out, the normal situation with plea bargains. You don’t normally have a possibility of a pardon hanging out there and an incentive for somebody to maybe go through a trial they wouldn’t otherwise. And it’s also important to keep in mind this is only the first Manafort trial. There’s supposed to be another one coming behind it on issues that are somewhat closer to the Trump campaign, more having to do with some of the oligarchs and ways that Manafort may have been indebted to them. That’s coming up in September – mid-September, probably less than a month after this trial concludes. So you have these things looming in the background that really alter the normal flow of these kinds of trials.
MR. COSTA: One of the best things about the jury keeping its deliberations going is we get to actually have you at the table. (Laughter.) We were worried we were going to have to get Josh remote because the jury would maybe be coming out with a verdict. That didn’t have to happen tonight.
And there’s just another controversy on the White House’s plate, more of it: the fallout from Omarosa Manigault Newman’s new book, a tell-all. The onetime apprentice turned White House aide spent this week on a media blitz, releasing secretly recorded audio of exchanges she had with Trump advisors. When you think about the White House, the Trump campaign, they are alarmed. The Trump campaign is trying to have a legal fight with her about the non-disclosure agreement she signed. But a tell-all book from a government employee, hard to stop in the court.
MS. PACE: I think that it is hard to stop in the court, and even if it could be stopped in the court it’s already out there at this point. This is sort of like the Trumpiest of Trump stories right now. We have a reality show contestant who’s now out there using a lot of Trump’s own strategies – not just the taping, which is a real part of Trump culture, but the idea of kind of dripping out these revelations day after day after day, which is something, as Michael alluded to, is really Trump’s forte to create a lot of drama. I do think that this creates headaches inside the White House because it’s clearly getting under the president’s skin. And we know that when he is irritated he lashes out not just against the person he’s irritated at, but it can really spiral out of control quickly and to a whole bunch of different issues.
MR. COSTA: Is this really going to last, this fight with the president and Omarosa Manigault Newman? You think about Steve Bannon. He got in trouble for things he said in Fire and Fury, the Michael Wolff book; now he’s trying to fight for President Trump in the midterms. Could they reconcile?
MR. SCHERER: I’m not sure this two – these two think so. You know, the difference is that, like Julie said, Omarosa is the one on offense here. And you saw today the president pick fights with Mueller, pick fights with Brennan, pick fights with the mayor of D.C. over parade costs, pick fights with Andrew Cuomo – the governor of New York – over something he said earlier this week. The president wants to be choosing the fights he’s in. And where the president is weak right now is that Omarosa has however many more tapes. She seems to have a strategy of releasing them one every few days. She clearly wants to sell a lot of books. And he doesn’t control that narrative, and so you see him this week trying to constantly push the debate into friendlier terrain.
MR. COSTA: And it’s not just about what the president is doing to fight Omarosa’s book; he’s using words like “dog” in his rhetoric. What is the cost for the White House politically for him to wade into those waters?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, you have started to see some pushback from even some Republican leaders who are not comfortable with that language coming from the White House, coming from the – you know, the top leader of the free world, calling American citizens dogs. But it’s clear that this book – and I read the book earlier this week – has gotten under the president’s skin. Omarosa has known the president for more than 15 years. She knows what makes him tick. She put a lot of that in the book, talked about his mental abilities, the fact that he might be declining mentally, he has a tanning bed next to – next to his bedroom in the East Wing, he and the first lady aren’t getting along, a lot of the insider information that really embarrasses the president, and I think that’s why you’re seeing him lash out. And it’s – you’ve even heard on Fox News that the president is being outsmarted by his former protege, and I think that’s part of the reason he’s lashing out with such vitriolic language.
MR. COSTA: A year after Charlottesville, still he’s fighting the NFL players who take the knee, he’s using “dog” when talking about an African-American woman. What does this reveal about this White House, this president?
MR. GERSTEIN: He doesn’t seem to be concerned by the criticism he faces over his use of some of these terms. It’s not only that; there’s his repeated use – saying there’s a low IQ, referring to Representative Maxine Waters and some other African-American lawmakers. It just seems to be a pattern with the president, and he doesn’t seem terribly concerned when people say that there’s clear racial overtones to these things. In fact, he seems to do them again and again, not just defend – not just defend them.
MR. SCHERER: I think they’re a central part of his strategy. Go back to that first debate – Republican debate in 2015. Megyn Kelly asked him about calling women “dogs.” That was one of the things he listed in there. He answers, I don’t care much about being politically correct, got a huge ovation from the audience, was the front-runner from that point on. You know, basically, you know, that was one of the key moments where he probably began to wrap up the Republican Party. This controversy, when he says something that’s offensive to many people, it gets people in the press talking about it, people talking about it over the water cooler, it sort of makes his message go viral. It gets him the ratings he needs.
MS. PACE: And one of his lessons learned from Charlottesville was that even if there is a short-term cost, it doesn’t last. So that was probably the moment where you saw the most Republican pushback at him; it faded. They were still with him on tax cuts. They are still with him on the Supreme Court. They are still going to the White House for events, for meetings with the president. And we know his base is with him still. So it’s – for Trump, I think the lesson learned is that, you know, he can energize his base and there’s very little political cost to doing these controversial things.
MR. COSTA: What’s the endgame for Ms. Newman here?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: I think she just wants to sell as many books as possible. She wants to – she realizes that in large part she lost a lot of credibility based on, you know, her time on The Apprentice, her time in the campaign. She’s sort of gone back and forth. She’s been seen as this big villain. So she wants to basically say that, you know, I’m here to be a whistleblower and expose what this president and what this White House has been up to behind the scenes, and be sort of a hero in some ways to the left by providing these tapes and some of these embarrassing details about the president. She wants to be embraced and really allow her star to shine, and obviously cash the checks as more books come in.
MR. COSTA: She was there with him on Access Hollywood, on all – what turned her?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, according to her – and she’s been doing this major media tour – she basically says that she was blindsided by the celebrity of Donald Trump and that she thought that he was just, you know, being a political figure, just using different strategies to try to get into office. She thought that when he got into office he would change, and that he actually did not change and was – you know, basically, did not represent the White House as he should, and she basically said that she was no longer – and her – that President Trump was no longer her horse in the race, basically.
MR. SCHERER: But she was – she was making these recordings early in the campaign.
MS. PACE: Early, yep.
MR. SCHERER: So, you know, this is a woman who’s always been the TV villain and she’s playing to type. And she knows the game – again, she learned it from President Trump – and I think she’s beating him for the moment.
MR. COSTA: Got to go watch those old episodes of The Apprentice to catch up on all of this and all the tactics. We’re going to have to leave it there tonight. Thanks, everybody, for being with us.
And we need to leave you a little early tonight, but stay tuned and support your local PBS station. And later, on the Washington Week Extra, we will update you on Mr. Trump’s postponed military parade. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.