ROBERT COSTA: A showdown with the Saudis, who just confirmed the death of a journalist. I’m Robert Costa. President Trump faces challenges and choices, tonight on Washington Week.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) We made clear to them that we take this matter with respect to Mr. Khashoggi very seriously.
MR. COSTA: The Trump administration calls for patience amid the fallout over the disappearance of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The alleged killing by Saudi operatives continues to command the world’s attention.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense. That’s what’s it’s going to be.
MR. COSTA: President Trump rallies his base, attacking Democrats.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Democrats produce mobs; Republicans produce jobs. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: And amid a debate over migrants, offers sharp words.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) As you know, I’m willing to send the military to defend our southern border if necessary.
MR. COSTA: And sparks tensions as he shrugs off a past assault on a reporter by a sitting congressman.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I had heard that he body-slammed a reporter. Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my guy. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: A reckoning on many fronts, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The week began with President Trump calling for caution following the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. By Friday, officials in Saudi Arabia confirmed Khashoggi was dead, killed in what they are describing is a fistfight inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Turkish media is reporting that Saudi agents with close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were involved. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he met with Saudi leaders this week, but he has also denied reports that Turkish officials shared an audio recording and transcript of the alleged murder. As the world watches, President Trump is facing growing criticism from members of both parties for his approach. This week he was asked why he didn’t urge the FBI to assist the investigation.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Well, he wasn’t a citizen of this country, for one thing, and we’re going to determine that. And you don’t know whether or not we have, do you?
REPORTER: (From video.) Well, I – I –
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) No, but do you know whether or not we’ve sent the FBI?
REPORTER: (From video.) Have you sent the FBI?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I’m not going to tell you.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, three White House correspondents – Hallie Jackson of NBC News, Abby Phillip of CNN, and Mark Landler of The New York Times – and, as ever, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post.
Mark, you were in the Oval Office with President Trump on Thursday. He’s been trying to take this wait-and-see approach. Can it hold with this latest news about Saudi Arabia acknowledging the death?
MARK LANDLER: I think that the nature of the statement they put out is not really going to satisfy anybody in terms of resolving the questions. I mean, there are obvious questions. If he’s dead, where is his body; can the Saudis produce it? If we are to believe these horrible reports, they won’t be able to produce it because the man was dismembered in that consulate. So I think there is the simple fact of whether this statement will fly.
The president at that meeting that we had on Thursday was actually uncharacteristically careful and disciplined in his – in his statements about he case. He wasn’t willing to speculate with us. He did say that he felt it had, quote, “caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately.” And as you said, the word “unfortunate” was rather telling. This is a major foreign policy crisis for him, perhaps the biggest one he’s faced. He’s really made Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of his Middle East strategy. He has cultivated this Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and most of the intelligence is pointing a finger at least in the direction of the crown prince. We don’t know yet conclusively whether the crown prince ordered this, but it’s very hard based on everything we already know not to believe that he at least had a hand in it, and that puts the president in a terrible box.
MR. COSTA: And so can the president keep invested in that relationship with Mohammed bin Salman with all this new information coming out?
HALLIE JACKSON: All signs are that he wants to and likely will, given that what we’re seeing tonight is the crown prince essentially – apparently overseeing now the reshuffling of the Saudi security agency. There is no indication coming out of Saudi that they, in fact, want to hold Mohammed bin Salman in any way accountable for what has happened to Jamal Khashoggi. When you talk to folks at the White House and when you talk to folks close to the White House they say, listen, it’s obvious; we need Saudi, they need us. That is just a geopolitical reality in the minds of many in the administration. You also have tonight, though, to Mark’s point, even Republican allies of the president now reacting to this, saying at best – this explanation is at best highly improbable.
MR. COSTA: But why is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – you read the White House statement tonight from Sarah Sanders, she says the investigation into the fate of Jamal Khashoggi is progressing. The U.S. is enabling Saudi Arabia here to conduct the investigation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went over there to meet with the royal family, but he’s really taken a step back in overseeing the process.
ABBY PHILLIP: He is facilitating the slowing down of this process to allow the Saudis to handle it the way that they would prefer to handle it, and frankly, that’s essentially on the orders of his boss. The president wants this to unfold not in a hasty way, because I think he believes in a lot of ways this will be the fulfillment of his foreign policy if this – if this follows through the way that it looks like it will. Transactional relationships are very important to President Trump. The ability of the Saudis to finance certain parts of his agenda, also to back him up on Iran, this is what he thinks is important to him when it comes to his foreign policy, and I don’t think he wants to blow it up. And Pompeo is the person helping to slow things down, to put the brakes on it, and to allow the Saudis to come up with something.
Now, it does seem, though, that the story they have come up with is so outlandish that it might actually backfire in a major way. It is very hard, even for the president’s supporters, to back this story in any reasonable way because it doesn’t – it defies belief.
MR. COSTA: Let’s take a step back here, Dan. You think about the Saudi – the Saudi family making this announcement tonight on state TV acknowledging the death, but it’s taken so long for them to even acknowledge the death. They wouldn’t do that for a long time. And what’s not being discussed here? Human rights, freedom. And let’s turn to Jamal Khashoggi’s last piece that was written in The Washington Post this week, his final story. It was about freedom, the Middle East, and the role journalists play around the globe. He wrote, in part, “Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.” And, “There was a time when journalists believed the internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the internet. They’ve also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.” That’s his message. Regardless of the news tonight, what does President Trump face when he’s confronted with human rights, freedom?
DAN BALZ: Well, in none of the relationships that he’s forged around the world has human rights been an important, even a – even a minor factor. As he was talking about this episode early on, it was all about the money that they’re prepared to spend on arms – fanciful as the figures he was throwing out were – or the investment that they’re prepared to make in the United States. It was all about dollars and cents; it had nothing to do with human beings or human rights. This case, I mean, we’ve now had two versions from the Saudis of what happened. One, that nothing happened; that he entered the consulate, did his business, and was gone, and they have no idea what happened to him. Now one tonight that is completely contrary to that and yet, everyone here acknowledges, totally incomplete, totally unsatisfying, and will not fly on Capitol Hill. So the president is far from out of the woods, and in many ways is deeper into this tonight than he was before.
MR. COSTA: And what about Jared Kushner? He was the one who was working with Mohammed bin Salman, saw him as a reformer. Where does that stand with Jared Kushner? You think about the secretary of state’s over there meeting with the royal family. But does the peace process continue? Does Jared’s role continue?
MR. LANDLER: Well, I mean, Jared Kushner really made this relationship with Mohammed bin Salman kind of his claim to have influence in the White House. He cultivated this guy. They’re both young men in their 30s. They’re similar to the sense that they’re heirs to families with large fortunes. So there was sort of an affinity that Jared Kushner really, really played on. And so for him, it’s arguably an even bigger setback than it is for his father in law. We understand, and we’ve reported, that Jared’s kind of advice leading up to tonight’s announcement was to stand by MBS – we know him by his nickname, MBS – and that in effect the world would move on after a decent period. That’s clearly not going to happen.
In terms of what it means concretely for Jared, I mean, it’s worth pointing out that MBS and the Saudis had already told the Trump administration: We will not publicly advocate on behalf of your peace plan because you moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which was so alienating to the Palestinians and other Arabs –
MR. COSTA: But they like them – they like the Saudis helping them with Iran.
MR. LANDLER: They love the Saudis helping them with Iran. And actually, that’s really important because next month the president will impose the next set of very serious sanctions on Iran for oil and central bank sanctions. And if they don’t have Saudi support for that, it undermines that effort.
MR. COSTA: So they’re making sanctions on Iran – taking sanctions out on Iran. What about on Capitol Hill? Is there – are the Republicans on Capitol Hill going to really push the president to take some action?
MS. JACKSON: I think that’s one of the pieces that’s going to have to unfold. Again, you are seeing a lot of displeasure from people like Lindsey Graham who, unsurprisingly, is highly concerned about this, particularly given the explanation coming out from the Saudis tonight. You have the president now saying that he would – he just said today in Arizona, he wants Congress to be heavily involved in whatever this sort of nebulous severe punishment against the Saudis he may impose. But he’s also potentially opening the door to sanctions, although our reporting is that is maybe unlikely here given the relationship between these two.
There’s also another administration figure who plays into this, and that’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Because he may have cancelled that trip – and he did – that he was supposed to take to the business conference next week in Riyadh. The Washington Post reports he is still going. And I’m told by a senior White House official that is because it relates to counterterrorism, that’s where the center is, that’s where it happens to be. He’s got to go in order to facilitate this agenda. But what signal – the question is, what signal does it send to the Saudis if a top Cabinet member in the hours and days after this news comes out and as this continues to unfold over the weekend, Monday, Tuesday, ends up taking this trip?
MR. COSTA: So that’s a great point, because you got the secretary of the Treasury saying, Abby, that he was not going to go to the conference, but he’s still going to Saudi Arabia. And you have congressional Republicans saying, we’ll talk about sanctions, but we’re not going to really take a move before the midterm elections. And then you have on the side of the American right a smear campaign against Jamal Khashoggi, talking about him as a friend of Osama bin Laden. Well, he was an embedded reporter covering bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s. Talking about him as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He had associations with them back in – early in his career, but he moved to the more – to the center, the more secular side of politics. A journalist. All this is swirling around and it’s getting more noise every – almost every hour.
MS. PHILLIP: And that is the story of the Trump administration – the mixed signals, the mixing of messages, the creation of noise around things that would at other times be fairly straightforward and fairly clear. And I think that is part of what is happening here. Republicans on the Hill are making a lot of noise right now, but I think we should be very careful to assume that they’re somehow going to step out too far in front of President Trump. They might push him in a particular direction, but by and large I believe what’s likely to happen is that they are going to come up with something – some form of punishment that President Trump can live with. He’s already said he’s in favor of some kind of severe punishment but continues to reiterate that he doesn’t want to pull back from the arms deal.
And I think that on the other issue of human rights, on journalism, on free speech, the administration has already made their position on that clear. It’s notable that tonight, after all of this has unfolded, the White House has said absolutely nothing about who Jamal Khashoggi was. He was a person who spoke out against things he disagreed with in terms of the Saudi Arabian government, which is what made him a target. The administration is not acknowledging that even with a single word. And that, in and of itself, tells the Saudi Arabian government everything they need to know.
MR. COSTA: Final thought on this, Mark. When you think about Mohammed bin Salman, could the Saudi royal family purge him at some level, or is it just the people below him? Could he actually face some consequences?
MR. LANDLER: Well, the truth of the matter is American intelligence has limited visibility into the inner workings of the Saudi royal court. It looks like his position is solid. He was the designated heir. He’s amassed a lot of power. On the other hand, a Saudi expert that I interviewed earlier in the week told me that in the time he’s covered Saudi Arabia, which is since 1978, he’s never seen a period of greater domestic political instability. So it is conceivable that this could be the prelude to some upheaval within the kingdom. And if that happens, that would be a greater level of upheaval than we’ve really seen in decades in Saudi Arabia.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to the midterm elections, just weeks away. President Trump has been crisscrossing the country, campaigning for Republican candidates and raising money for his own reelection bid. In just the past quarter, Mr. Trump pulled in more than $18 million. And since the start of his presidency, Mr. Trump has raised more than $100 million for his 2020 reelection campaign. But his short-term goal is to capitalize on the momentum created by the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and tap into the culture war, hoping to ensure Republican control of Congress. His message? This is a referendum on him.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) All of this extraordinary progress is at stake. It is at stake. I’m not on the ballot, but in a certain way I’m on the ballot. So please go out and vote.
MR. COSTA: Immigration is also at the fore this week in the closing stretch, with a caravan of migrants traveling from Central American to Mexico, and possibly the U.S. The president is threatening to send U.S. military forces to protect the southern border. Immigration right now, is it a base play by this president? He hasn’t gotten the wall done for his core voters. Now he’s thinking more about the family separation policy. He’s talking about immigration at every rally.
MS. JACKSON: Yep. You are seeing shades of the closing arguments of 2016 now as the president makes what one White House official described to me as the closing arguments now headed into the midterm. Yes, it’s jobs and the economy. Yes, it’s the Supreme Court battle because you know that energizes Republicans. But increasingly, over these last few days, as the news of this migrant caravan that, by our reporting, should be making its way close to the United States border in two to four weeks – a.k.a. right around the midterms – the president is increasingly seizing on this topic. He and the officials around him believes this is highly motivating for Republicans.
Yes, it’s a play to the base, because they know historical precedent is against them. The historical headwinds are fighting them. Only twice since World War II have the midterms not been bad news for the person whose party held power inside the White House. The president acknowledges that. But I will tell you this: A lot of discussion about the House. Probably going to go Democratic if you look at the numbers. There’s a little bit of optimism now. Hey, maybe that’s maybe not quite as much of a done deal as everybody thinks, although when you look at sort of the probability, I think a betting person would say maybe blue.
MR. COSTA: Dan, Hallie brought up the closing days of the 2016 campaign. It’s an interesting comparison, because you have the president out there at these rallies giving all these interviews.
MR. BALZ: No president has – in modern times – has done what Donald Trump is doing in this midterm. No president who’s been underwater with his approval rating has come close to doing what he’s doing, which is to make the midterm all about him. All midterms – particularly the first term of a new president – all midterms are about the president. They are a referendum. But he’s putting that on his shoulders. I think he has confidence in his own ability to rally the base. He is going to back to basics with the message. It is a very hard-edge message. It’s law and order, and it’s crime, and it’s borders. It’s all the cultural hot buttons that he used in 2016. He is – he is giving interviews constantly. He’s gaggling with reporters constantly. We may not have White House briefings anymore, but the president is out there all the time. He controls the conversation. And in that way, he is trying to gin up his base.
MR. COSTA: But it’s a lot of tension inside of this White House. They’re ginning up tension and emotion on immigration. But Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly got into a bit of a squabble with the National Security Adviser John Bolton about the border.
MS. PHILLIP: It’s become a venue for a power struggle that is often inevitable in this White House, that John Bolton and John Kelly are fighting over who can be closer and more influential with the President Trump. And I think there is – you should probably put your money on the person who sides with Trump on the idea that this caravan is a huge issue and it isn’t being dealt with adequately, because that’s how he views this issue. But, you know, I think that John Kelly is someone who is trying to protect his protege over at the Department of Homeland Security.
MR. COSTA: Kirstjen Nielsen.
MS. PHILLIP: Kirstjen Nielsen. And this issue has, for many, many months, put her in President Trump’s crosshairs. And he’s angry about it. This isn’t just something that he’s doing on the campaign trail necessarily just to gin up his base. He is genuinely foamed up about it because it is also, for him, something that people can point to, to say, well, you made this promise and you haven’t kept it. It’s not fulfilling the promise to a base.
MR. COSTA: Hallie brought up the Republicans are a little bit more maybe enthusiastic on the House side. Not supposed to win it based on polls, but is that energy on the Republican side because of the Kavanaugh confirmation?
MR. LANDLER: Yeah, I think it’s – I think it is. I think they very effectively developed this theme around sort of what they call jobs, not mobs; the idea that the Democrats behaved like a mob and voters need to turn out to prevent the mob from taking power. I think that’s an effective line that they’ve been able to push.
I also think it’s worth noting that President Trump has been, in my experience, more energized, more optimistic, more self-confident and in control than maybe I’ve seen him through the course of his presidency. This is a period and a type of governing and campaigning that he loves, and I think that people may look back on this period as peak Trump.
MR. COSTA: But he still – amid all the Khashoggi news that’s pouring out day after day, he’s taking a shot at a reporter, in a sense, by saying about Ben Jacobs, the Guardian reporter who was assaulted by Greg Gianforte, a Montana congressman, that he – Gianforte’s in the right.
MS. JACKSON: And let’s just set this out: there is no question of the facts. Gianforte plead guilty to this and apologized to Ben Jacobs for what happened, so it’s not as though there is a question of what exactly went down. But the president did joke about a guy who can body-slam and –
MR. COSTA: What’s he doing there?
MS. JACKSON: So a couple of things. So, first of all, number one, he doesn’t regret it. We learned that today. He was specifically asked, do you wish – given what we have learned and what we are learning about Jamal Khashoggi, do you wish that maybe you hadn’t said what you said about Congressman Gianforte? And the president said, no, because it’s two different worlds; it’s two totally different planets. And, Bob, I believe that there is a sense from the president that this is apples and oranges. I’m not sure that he’s making the connection between what’s happening, even though, for example, the White House Correspondents Association – which represents, I think, all of us at this table – have said the American people should recoil when there is a praise of a violent attack against a journalist, particularly in light of what we’ve seen in Saudi.
MR. COSTA: Where are the Democrats in all of this, Dan? Is it just a referendum on President Trump? And if you look at a race like Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race, Scott Walker, the Republican incumbent, struggling because Democrats keep talking about health care. Is there an undercurrent beneath the referendum?
MR. BALZ: Sure, and for Democrats health care is probably the most potent issue, the issue of preexisting conditions. You’re seeing that in the money they’re spending on advertising. So that is part of it.
But I think that beyond that, I mean, it is – it is a national climate. You have a situation in which party loyalty is stronger than it’s ever been and presidential approval affects voting behavior more than it ever has. So, ultimately, this comes back to the basics of the way we are.
I think if you look at the state of the House races, this is still set up for Democrats to be able to win the majority. If you – if you look at the playing field, for every one Democratic seat at risk there are nine or 10 Republican seats at some form of risk, so the imbalance is significant. I think what’s important on the other races is in the Senate things have moved in the Republican direction over the last few weeks, and instead of Republicans worrying about holding their majority some of them are now actually talking about picking up seats in the Senate races.
MR. COSTA: Is part of the challenge for the Democrats they’re almost a leaderless party, out of power? Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts this week came out and talked about her heritage, trying to clarify questions from the past. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, not very popular with all voters nationally, but still has a grip on power in the House. It’s a party with a message, perhaps, but no leader.
MS. PHILLIP: And I’m not even sure they really have settled on the message totally. I mean, they’re still working that out. Race by race, health care has emerged as the top issue. But when you look at all of these people, this whole group of them, they all have different ways of approaching this moment, whether it’s health care or going after Trump in Trump-like ways or going after Trump in non-Trump-like ways. So they’re trying to work it out. They’re trying to see what’s catching fire.
And it could also be because the Democratic base is not sure where they are either. I mean, the voters themselves are, in fact, worked up about Trump, but to the extent that that is enough for Democrats to regain power, it’s not clear that it is.
And I think there is also a lot of self-doubt in the Democratic Party. In the same way that Trump feels like this feels like 2016 to him, Democrats probably do too. Trump thinks that he has an instinct, that everybody is wrong about the polls and that he’s going to emerge victorious. There is – you get the sense that some Democrats are actually a little bit fearful that maybe he might even be right, that they don’t know where this is really going, because they’ve never really quite lived through a moment like this with a president like this, who’s unpopular as he is but still has such a hold over his own supporters that it really changes the dynamic.
MR. BALZ: Every Democrat I talk to makes this point, which is no matter how much they express confidence about at least getting the 23 seats they need, there’s always that sort of asterisk, which is but we remember 2016.
MR. LANDLER: I thought it was also telling that in this week of sort of slight Democratic anxiety who should sort of come back into the conversation but Hillary Clinton, in part because she and her husband are heading off on this very high-profile speaking tour, but in part because there’s been some articles suggesting that maybe, just maybe, there’s a, you know, less-than-zero chance that she would think about running for president in 2020. That’s, I don’t think, a prospect that Democrats would welcome. But to your point about how leaderless the party is, into that vacuum come unexpected people.
MS. JACKSON: And she herself has said she’s not going to run, but that POLITICO piece created some anxiety. I’ll tell you this, as somebody who covered an incredibly wide and diverse field in 2016 with Republicans, Democrats are facing that when it comes to what happens in 2020 and who will be – to your original point to Abby, Bob – the leader of the party.
MR. COSTA: You covered Senator Cruz in 2016 when he was running for president. Does he pull off a win in his Senate race?
MS. JACKSON: Oh, I think – so I’ve talked to a lot of folks who are in and around that race. All of the numbers have been fairly consistent that he is up, and a pretty good amount.
MR. COSTA: He’s up.
MS. JACKSON: Yeah, seven, eight points.
MR. COSTA: Seven, eight points. We’ll check in on election night, see if Hallie’s right. (Laughter.)
MS. JACKSON: Yeah, that’s not my quote; you know, my citing numbers, right, right.
MR. COSTA: All right, based on your reporting, OK. (Laughter.)
We’re going to leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for being here. I really appreciate it.
Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek and on your favorite podcast app.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.