ROBERT COSTA: Looking for a win. President Trump turns up the heat on Congress to repeal Obamacare before the end of the month. I’m Robert Costa. Do Republicans have a plan or the votes to get it done? And Bernie Sanders returns to the campaign trail, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We are going to have a big win soon because we’re going to have health care, and I believe that’s going to happen.
MR. COSTA: President Trump puts pressure on Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act before his first 100 days are up.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I’d like to say next week, but it will be – I believe we will get it, and – whether it’s next week or shortly thereafter.
MR. COSTA: And as Congress faces a looming deadline to avert a government shutdown, the president insists any spending measure must include funding for a border wall.
Republican lawmakers, who got an earful from constituents at town-hall meetings, are starting to distance themselves from the president.
SENATOR JONI ERNST (R-IA): (From video.) I think that we have a president that has a number of flaws.
SENATOR DEAN HELLER (R-NV): (From video.) When I think Trump is right, I’ll support him. What I don’t, I won’t.
MR. COSTA: Plus, is the president’s keep-them-guessing foreign policy working?
We get answers and analysis from Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Ylan Mui of CNBC, Jeff Zeleny of CNN, and Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week.
Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. As the 100-day mark of the Trump presidency approaches, Mr. Trump is pushing his “America first” campaign promises, looking for a legislative win. Priority one: health care.
Before the break, the conservative Freedom Caucus rejected the GOP’s plan because it wasn’t a complete overhaul of Obamacare. And at the time, President Trump said he was ready to move on to tax reform. But this week, the president seemed more optimistic that Congress has the votes to move quickly on both fronts.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) The plan gets better and better and better, and it’s gotten really, really good, and a lot of people are liking it a lot. We have a good chance of getting it soon.
MR. COSTA: Kelly, when I’m talking to White House officials this week, they feel under immense pressure from the president himself to get moving on health care. But over on Capitol Hill, where you’ve been roaming all week, they’re saying we don’t really have the votes to the White House officials; take care as you move forward. What are you hearing?
KELLY O’DONNELL: There is a conflict, and part of what I’m hearing is that obviously the 100-day aura is affecting the president and the White House. The practical realities don’t change based on that. What I’m being told is that they are counting on some of those most-conservative House Freedom Caucus members to be at sort of a fatigue point, don’t want to deal with health care again, don’t want that on their plate, needing to move forward. I’m being told that it’s being now viewed as a bottleneck to do anything else, so they’re hoping that will be pressure. Now, that’s not a big substantive difference.
And I’m also being told that the White House is working directly with certain members to try to get something done, not simply relying on the powers of persuasion of House Speaker Paul Ryan. They have a good relationship with Ryan, but they’re moving on some separate tracks as well to try to get something. And not next week, they don’t think, despite the fact that it’s possible mathematically; they think it will spill into the following week, more than likely. And they are really counting on the visits home, the frustration over not completing a campaign promise, not really big substantive changes as the reason they think – this is a White House perspective – this could be passed. But on the Hill they’re saying we haven’t worked through this yet, we haven’t seen all the language yet, how has anything really changed?
MR. COSTA: But why trust the Freedom Caucus, who walked away from the deal last time with President Trump? Why trust them this time around, if you’re the White House?
MS. O’DONNELL: It’s one of the harder questions because they’re also working with the more moderate Tuesday Group, fewer in number, and so that’s hard, but really believing that the president – the president believing that, because of his success in those districts, that he can leverage them. We haven’t seen that yet. I think this is really the president trying to use the bully pulpit in a way we might not have seen before, where he has now decided this has to be done and he’s going to shoulder it through mostly by pressure, not so much by substantive changes.
MR. COSTA: Dan, speaking of shoulder, the president seems to be putting this burden about 100 days and accomplishments on his own shoulders.
DAN BALZ: You know, well, he’s tweeted both that it’s a ridiculous marker – which in some ways it is, frankly – but also the pressure within the White House, as you say, is enormous right now to rack up something. I mean, they know where they stand in terms of public opinion. They know where they stand particularly in terms of legislative accomplishments, which is they don’t have any at this point. They can point to other things that they have done or that he has done that set a direction, but they can’t say that they’ve accomplished anything great. You know, most administrations now set out a 100-day plan and a 200-day plan that really kind of gets you through to the August recess, which is in many ways a more realistic timetable. But because they have done so little in terms of legislation, now there’s a much greater pressure to do something by next week.
MR. COSTA: And, Jeff, you spent a lot of time with the president this week on the campaign trail in Wisconsin. What are your observations of the president up close as he approaches this 100-day mark and also tries to get some action on health care?
JEFF ZELENY: Well, I think the biggest thing – he was in Kenosha, Wisconsin this week. And, you know, first and foremost you’re just reminded at how little he travels. This is someone who, you know, won this campaign – the improbable Republican primary first of all and then the general, of course – by really being out there with the people. This is a president who likes the Oval Office, likes the trappings of the White House or Mar-a-Lago. So just the fact that he was out in a factory in Wisconsin was interesting, the first time he’s visited Wisconsin, which of course went for Trump, the first Republican since 1984. But the – he was on the ground in Kenosha for an hour and five minutes, so that gives you the sense of how, you know, it was sort of for show. He went out there to sign an executive order.
And again, I was struck by the fact he’s in Speaker Ryan’s home legislative district. It wasn’t apparent that that was for any reason, necessarily, although they’ve been trying to get to Wisconsin. The speaker was abroad. He was at a NATO meeting in Europe; interesting. But I think that the president, he does – when he talks about winning Wisconsin, he lightens up some. So I’ve been wondering, why haven’t his aides sent him out in the country more? He’s much more beloved in these small settings. Of course, it’s a friendly crowd and things.
But he was signing an executive order out there; again, not legislation. At this point of George W. Bush’s presidency, he’s visited 23 states; President Trump, around six or seven or so, other than Florida. So I was just struck by the fact that, you know, he is – the applause was slightly softer, I think, and he now is trying to – he has his own record to run against. He can’t about Obama as much as he used to.
MR. COSTA: Ylan, one of the reasons the president hasn’t been signing a bill and he wants to move on health care, my sources on the Hill tell me, is because they need to do, in their view, Obamacare first to get rid of some of those taxes, and then move on to tax reform. So there’s a policy that’s driving this discussion of – this revived discussion of health care as well.
YLAN MUI: Right, so there’s a math question here. There’s about a trillion dollars in Obamacare taxes that they would like to get off of the table before they address tax reform. No one’s talking about trying to pay for that trillion dollars in Obamacare taxes, but once they get to tax reform, you know, they’re very concerned – at least the Republican leadership is very concerned – with ensuring that that’s revenue-neutral and that it doesn’t add to the deficit. So if you do health care first, it makes tax reform a lot easier. Politically, however, it doesn’t look like that may happen. The president has said today that they want to put out their tax reform plan – reform plan on Wednesday, so –
MR. COSTA: How can they do all of this? How can they do health care, taxes and the budget?
MS. MUI: How can they – next week is only five days, four days depending on which chamber of Congress you’re in.
MR. COSTA: Well, what’s driving the revival of tax reform as well next week? There’s only a limited time in the congressional schedule next week.
MS. MUI: Well, tax reform is part of the president’s economic agenda. It’s part of the jobs agenda that he ran on. And at least for businesses, corporations, small businesses that have been so important to Donald Trump’s support, that’s what they want to see him tackle. There has been a lot of debate within the White House over whether or not they really did this in the right order. They had set out this plan of doing health care, tax reform, and then infrastructure, but some people believe they should have put health care aside, let that run on a separate track, and really address tax reform and infrastructure, which was sort of that heart of his economic message.
MR. COSTA: You hearing about the rates we’re going to see on tax reform?
MS. MUI: Well, it depends on whether or not they can solve these fundamental questions, such as is it really going to be revenue-neutral, and how much economic growth will they support.
MR. COSTA: But, Kelly, we also have –
MS. O’DONNELL: I’m getting a sense on this, though, just to pick up what you were saying, that the president sort of called an audible. He, on his own, without kind of running it through his comms team, talked about Wednesday in an interview and then as a part of a signing ceremony on other matters. And what I’m told is the president is itching to get to tax cuts, which I’m told will mirror what he suggested on the campaign trail – 15 percent for businesses, no greater than 25 percent for individuals. That’s just a guide. That’s not necessarily what’s in it. But he wants to force those House Republicans to get on board. Hey, we’re moving on to tax cuts. We’re moving on to tax reform. Get health care done.
MR. ZELENY: Of course, introducing it is so much harder than actually getting it done and passing it.
MS. O’DONNELL: World apart.
MR. ZELENY: He wants to introduce it next week to show more action.
MR. COSTA: And there’s also, Dan, a possible government shutdown next week, if they don’t figure out how to keep this government funding extended. So you’re looking at government funding, tax reform, and health care next week.
MR. BALZ: The great irony being that the government funding has to be done on the hundredth – by the hundredth day, and the border wall now stands as one of the great obstacles to getting that done. You know, they couldn’t have written, in a sense, a worse script for the hundredth day week than they’ve got right now – a revival of health care with an uncertain end to that after a major failure earlier, a government shutdown looming. And they’ve thrown some new things into the hopper.
MR. COSTA: A border wall. They’re trying to make a demand on defense spending and a border wall.
MR. BALZ: Right, as a way to try to, I think, muscle – you know, their view – muscle the Democrats to come to the table and work something out. And he wants to do health care. And I think Jeff’s exactly right. I think that is for show. We want to get this out. It’s going to be a big deal. There’s not going to be any legislative action on it, but it’s a way, again, to say I’m keeping my promises. But the spending issue has to be the first and most important priority. They have to get that done. Everything else can wait. That can’t.
MR. COSTA: Know who’s paying really close attention to all this? I was down in Atlanta earlier this week for that special House election. Suburban voters in some of these traditional, more moderate Republican districts – the one in Atlanta’s pretty conservative. They’re wondering what’s going on in Washington? I think they’re really the weathervane paying attention to the president. And Republicans did get a wakeup call this week when a Democratic newcomer nearly pulled off an upset in that special election for a House seat down in Georgia that Republicans have held since 1979.
Democrats invested more than $8 million to support political newcomer Jon Ossoff, who fell just shy of the 50 percent he would have needed for an outright victory. The 30-year-old Ossoff will face Republican Karen Handel in a runoff election for the House seat formerly held by Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price. Dan, was this a bellwether of what’s to come in 2018?
MR. BALZ: I think it was. You know, we always over interpret special elections. And so I think we should take everything with a grain of salt on that front. But this is a district that I think Democrats in, like, 50 elections that have been held in that district – statewide offices, but the results in that district – it’s only one Democrat who’s ever gotten a majority over a dozen years. This is not a district that is overly friendly to Democrats, even though Secretary Clinton did quite well there. And as a – as a bellwether not of exactly what will happen in 2018 but of where the Democratic base is, where the energy is, and this idea that districts that have a higher preponderance of college graduates, a more affluent district, these suburban districts – these may not be particularly friendly to Republicans in 2018, no matter how the runoff comes out down there.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, when you look at this candidate, Jon Ossoff, he supported Secretary Clinton last year in the election, and he didn’t run as a progressive – some out there, on the left, really proud progressive. He was more of a mainstream Democrat. This week we also saw Senator Sanders out on the campaign trail. And if you look at Ossoff down in Georgia and then you see Sanders out there with DNC Chairman Tom Perez, there is this battle – at least a discussion – about the future of the Democratic Party. Who is the beating heart of the Democratic Party right now?
MR. ZELENY: It is the central question in all of politics. And Democrats are trying to figure it out because it’s not – the answer is not what some would like. I mean, Bernie Sanders is still the driving force at the head of the party. He is still a senator, so he still has a platform. Hillary Clinton was also speaking this week, accepting some type of an award. She is no longer the leader of this party. Bernie Sanders is trying to be. It makes so many Democrats nervous, though. They’ve been watching what Republicans were doing, and they do not want the reverse to happen in the Democratic Party by sort of lurching too far to the left, as some would say Republicans did on the tea party.
But finally Bernie Sanders, I think by like the third or fourth day, said – you know, he was reluctant to get behind Ossoff because he didn’t think he was progressive enough. The reality is, though, I think as the week went on, he also supported a candidate in Omaha, Nebraska – my home state of Nebraska. They are going across the country, Senator Sanders, to try and get some Democrats fired up in these red states. Bernie Sanders is going to give the party a lot of trouble in the next couple years. He is still occupying a lot of oxygen that Elizabeth Warren thought was hers, that some other Democrats thought was theirs. The reality is, the Democratic bench is very, very thin. Look at the governors – almost nonexistent, the ranks there. State senators decimated in the Obama years. In the vacuum, Bernie Sanders, in all of his glory, is rising up and loving every minute of it.
MR. COSTA: Ylan, when you think about that economic populism that Senator Sanders represents, is that going to be the way of the future for Democrats?
MS. MUI: Well, I think this is the question for 2018. Who is the decisive demographic? And that will drive the kinds of policies that they try to run on. So, you know, the forgotten man that everyone talked about during the 2016 elections, you know, the disenfranchised factory worker left behind by globalization – you know, is it important for the party to reconnect with those workers? Or do they reconnect with the affluent suburban centrists who are eating at Panera Bread and, you know, enjoying their French onion soup –
MR. COSTA: Is that the new voter? The Panera Bread voter?
MS. MUI: Yeah, that’s what Brian Fallon said, right? The road to 2018 runs through the Panera Breads of America, right? So that’s the question. And those voters may be turned off by the type of talk of – tough talk on trade, and talking about how NAFTA is a disaster. These are probably voters who, you know, travel to Europe, travel to Asia, enjoy the fruits of globalism in a way that the forgotten man has not.
MR. COSTA: Suburban professionals. Kelly, one thing I was struck by, let’s not forget the Republican who was the top finisher in this Georgia race, Karen Handel, former state secretary of state in Georgia. When I spoke to her down there she didn’t really embrace President Trump, said she was more of a traditional Republican. And you look at Senator Ernst and her comments and Senator Heller, and of course Ms. Handel, Republicans in some of these more swing districts aren’t exactly running to embrace this economic populism of Trump.
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, we’ve learned that Trump is really a man on his own populist island politically. His successes don’t necessarily translate to other candidates. And so especially women Republicans, I think, have a challenge with this. And I think Republicans now see that the energy that led marches after the inauguration and has lots of liberals and progressives on their feet and trying to do something, that can’t go unanswered in Georgia’s 6th. So you’ve got the president under his own sort of signature, if you will, in the electronic age, trying to raise money for Handel, trying to do things to get people to go to the polls. Special elections are so hard to predict in terms of turnout. And often after there’s a lot of buzz about a candidate who attracts outside support, and large support based on what we’ve seen over time, often voters go back to where they have been in the past. It’s a Republican district. She has a very good shot at it.
MR. COSTA: Do you think President Trump will campaign with her?
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, in the let’s get him out into the country it could be useful. But she would probably prefer the help in fundraising alone. It’s a challenge for especially some of these traditional Republicans who are still uncomfortable about the Trump brand.
MR. BALZ: Bob, one thing to think about in terms of these races, for the House races, there’s going to be two factors that will determine what the outcome is. One is President Trump’s overall popularity or lack thereof in 2018. But the other is the degree to which Democrats can find candidates who match these districts. That’s different – that’s a different set of decisions that they have to make than you think of in terms of a presidential campaign and a national message. So the question is, can they find the candidates to compete in some of those suburban districts and more moderate Southern districts that could be up for grabs? Or do they end up with an overwhelming progressive message that doesn’t play as well in those districts?
MR. COSTA: And one thing I’m also watching is retirements for Republicans. You saw this week House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, for personal reasons, wants to spend more time with his family he said, decided not to run, may even resign his seat. And if Republicans start to lose some of these key committee chairmen and powerful names, that could be a problem perhaps, Jeff.
MR. ZELENY: It’s striking. I mean, you get the sense that – you know, we’ve seen this for a while, but being an outsider is much better than being in Congress. Mr. Chaffetz is very ambitious, as we’ve all seen. He, you know, said he was resigning for personal reasons. But I think he also does not want to be saddled with this Trump agenda and record, as he decides to run for governor potentially in the future here. But the retirements, you’re right, are going to be absolutely important to watch. But as Dan was saying, recruiting. Democrats have to be recruiting right now. Who is their Rahm Emmanuel who sort of led that charge in 2006? I don’t know that they have a person like that. Again, the party has been somewhat decimated. You know, so that’s a big challenge.
MR. BALZ: And I think another interesting thing that sort of got lost in the focus on this Georgia race is the Democrats came out of the presidential election saying: We have to figure out a way to compete in these more rural areas. And now they’re very focused on suburban areas. So they haven’t – they haven’t got their act together yet in terms of their strategy on what they want and need to do.
MR. COSTA: The Chaffetz retirement brings up questions about oversight for the Trump administration. Who’s actually keeping an eye on this administration in Congress? We’ll have to see who takes over that chair.
But another big story in this first 100 days, and it really was a dominant one in a surprising way in some respects, was foreign policy. And President Trump’s worldview as well really came to the fore. In the past few weeks, the U.S. launched missile strikes in Syria, bombed ISIS targets in Afghanistan, and the president has turned to China for support in curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Kelly, are we looking at a Trump administration that’s developing this confrontational, maybe even flexible foreign policy?
MS. O’DONNELL: I think one of the questions is, what is the Trump doctrine on foreign policy? And so far what we’ve seen is to try to project strength, to try to push other nations to do what the president feels they need to do. And on China, he is both pressing and praising. So he is quite effusive about President Xi, and at the same time needs him to exert influence over North Korea. I think on Syria we saw the president’s presented with options, he makes a decision.
So he’s trying to show a decisiveness, not necessarily focused on the details after the fact, but trying to send a message to the world that he is willing to act. And some of the partnerships of the past, they can get bruised here and there. And then he will come back to them and try to build some of these relationships. So if you ask the president how he defines his own foreign policy, I’d be curious if he has a full thought on that or if he’s looking at it situation by situation.
MR. COSTA: Ylan, do you really see a shift, though, especially in the position towards China and currency manipulation? Is this actually a turn by the president?
MS. MUI: I think it is, actually. And you have to remember that Trump sees the world as a businessman, right, and he’s very obsessed with who’s up and who’s down, who are the winners and who are the losers. And one way that he keeps score is looking at things like trade deficits, looking at things like how much are we exporting to this company and looking – country – and looking at those markers of success. And so that’s why you’re seeing some of these traditional alliances get upended, such as calling out Canada and its treatment of dairy farmers and its subsidizing of the dairy industry, calling out Mexico as being as concerning in terms of our export imbalance with Mexico. So I think a lot of world leaders are uncertain about which way Donald Trump will fall, depending on which way the economics go.
MR. ZELENY: You mentioned flexibility earlier. I think that is something we’re really seeing here as we assess – you know, this is a man who is growing into the job, as all presidents do, but him I think more importantly because he’s not been in public office before. He is showing that flexibility is a positive thing. He’s not a flip-flopper, in his view; that, you know, he proudly says he’s flexible. China the most important example of that, I think. In Wisconsin, as we were talking about earlier this week, he was not talking about China is raping our country, taking our jobs. He is now counting on President Xi to help him with North Korea here. So he has turned that language 180 degrees, and now using China to potentially box out Russia. Who would have thought that was going to happen here? So his foreign policy doctrine is a sort of moment-by-moment thing. It’s still very much being built.
MR. COSTA: Dan, there’s been some missteps, however. When the administration talked about this so-called armada of ships moving over in Asia with the North Korea situation, they got called out.
MR. BALZ: They did get called out. I mean, when’s the last time you heard the word “armada” used about what – (laughter) – what our Navy was doing? That was an unfortunate choice of words. But beyond that, it was – it was incorrect. You know, the ships were moving in the opposite direction.
I think that when those kinds of things happen on top of everything else about what President Trump has said on foreign policy, it adds to confusion. And while he prizes unpredictability, as he has said consistently as a candidate, unpredictability is not necessarily great in foreign policy, and there are a lot of allies and perhaps adversaries who are trying to figure him out.
MR. COSTA: Thanks so much, everybody.
Let me take a moment to tell you how humbled and honored I am to be taking over as moderator of Washington Week. The program debuted on public television 50 years ago, and it’s become appointment viewing for many of you. Please know that I plan to continue the tradition of Paul Duke and Gwen Ifill, bringing you fact-based reporting and analysis every week. My mission is to make sure the conversation is always illuminating, civil, and when possible fun. Thanks for inviting me into your home.
I’d love to hear from you, too. You can write me at WashingtonWeek@pbs.org
. I hope we’ll be seeing each other every week: same time, same station.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.