GWEN IFILL, "WASHINGTON WEEK" MODERATOR: What's gone wrong with the Secret Service? And with the Iran negotiations? And with Hillary's emails? Plenty to talk about, tonight on WASHINGTON WEEK.
IFILL (voice-over): The president's protectors under fire again, with new revelations about their behavior on duty and off.
On Capitol Hill, 47 Republican senators stage an international rebellion, sending a warning letter to Iran.
SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Iran's leaders need to understand that under our Constitution, Congress plays a critical role in approving international agreements.
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: My reaction to the letter was utter disbelief.
IFILL: And in a single press conference, Hillary Clinton plays offense?
HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material.
IFILL: And defense.
CLINTON: When I got to work as secretary of state, I opted for convenience to use my personal email account.
IFILL: But will questions about transparency complicate her bid for president?
Covering the week, Carol Leonnig, national reporter for "The Washington Post," Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for "The New York Times", and Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens. Live from our nation's capital, this is WASHINGTON WEEK with Gwen Ifill.
IFILL: Good evening.
The hits just keep on coming. Unfortunately, the agency taking the hits is the U.S. Secret Service, which among other things, is responsible for keeping the leader of the free world safe. It's also an agency that just got a new leader to help them recover from earlier setbacks that included White House breaches and international incidents.
Carol Leonnig, who's been breaking all these stories, was on the case again this week.
Recap for us what happened this time March 4th, Carol.
CAROL LEONNIG, THE WASHINGTON POST: So, the Secret Service has confirmed that they're investigating this, after we came to them about a week later, that two very, very senior agents, not rank-and-file people, but two of the highest ranking people in the agency were coming home, rather coming back from a party in a downtown bar, drove a government car onto the White House grounds, went through an area that was then undergoing an investigation, a live investigation for a possible bomb. And that the officers, the palace guards, if you will, that protect the White House, suspected very strongly that the two men were intoxicated and wanted to stop them, question them, and possibly test them for sobriety but were told not to.
IFILL: By? Told not to by?
LEONNIG: By supervisors on deck, on duty that night, much the service says, you know, we're verging this and also asking the -- investigating this and also asking the Department of Homeland Security, the inspector general to take over the investigation. But we've heard these allegations as well, and we're taking it very seriously.
IFILL: So, help me with this again. Were they on duty? Were these two senior, high-ranking guys on duty coming back from this party?
LEONNIG: So, duty at the headquarters of Secret Service is typically 9:00 to 5:30. The presumption is that they were not, that they were at a retirement party for the spokesperson, longtime spokesperson to the Secret Service, ironically, and that they just had a great time at a retirement party.
The problem is, the Secret Service, like most government agencies, but the service has a much higher standard for this. The use of a government car for something that's not a business purpose is an automatic violation. Getting in the car with any alcohol in your system, also automatic violation.
So, it will be hard to tell ultimately because there were no sobriety tests, what exactly happened in terms of their level of drinking that night, although I’m hearing that the investigation has been very thorough, that there is a look at even the bills for that night for drinks at the bar.
PETER BAKER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Carol, we didn't learn about it until you told us about it in the newspaper. When did Mr. Clancy, the new director of the Secret Service, learn about it?
LEONNIG: Really good question. So, the director told lawmakers and confirmed to us today that he learned about this Monday, a good five days after the event happened. That has caused a lot of consternation, not just for him, but also for lawmakers who are saying, if you're the new director taking over in the wake of all these problems, if this is when the Secret Service is supposed to be on its P's and Q's, why are you just learning this so late?
That's still to be answered and he says he's still looking into that.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN: He's going to the hill obviously next week and obviously will take tough questions on this. But he was going to be the director who was going to reform this agency. So many problems -- I mean, just the long list of them.
Is there any chance of that now? Does he even have a hope of doing that? How do you think he stands now and is reform possible?
LEONNIG: So, that is so interesting because I think he has huge support in the form of the president and the first lady, Michelle Obama.
IFILL: He was the president's personal guard?
LEONNIG: He was his personal detail leader at the very beginning, when the president was learning to be the president. You know, 2009 to 2011, this was a steady hand. People call this guy "Father Joe". He's got a wonderful reputation in terms of his integrity.
So, that is in his favor. What is not in his favor is that, as you all know, the administration independent panel that looked at who should be the new director said, you need somebody from the outside. You can't have somebody so close to this group. He's been a 27-year veteran and he is friends with one of the men who is under investigation.
IFILL: Is there a culture problem that is so pervasive? You cover the agency. Should we as citizens should be worrying about the safety of the first family?
LEONNIG: So, what I worry about after covering this for a while is that nearly every person who has come to me from inside the agency and people who have recently left say that there is a culture of senior, senior people feeling that they're above the law, that they’re untouchable, they’re made, and that that sort of perception if real on the part of those senior officials could lead to significant risks for the president. If you think you're not going to get in trouble for anything, then a lot can go wrong.
IFILL: I’ve never -- go ahead.
BAKER: I was going to say, what do the president and first lady must think about this? I suppose that we don’t really know. They said they have confidence in the director, but it must be disconcerting for them to have gone through this again and again and again.
LEONNIG: I think when the president said that he was disappointed, I think there was probably a stronger word that he was considering. I mean, how -- how much more can we go through? I interviewed Congressman Cummings today, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and he’s pretty passionate about this subject and he said, I do not want you and I to be talking about anymore of these incidents ever again after this, not because I don't like talking to you, but because the president's life is on the line.
And -- a pretty strong statement.
IFILL: You know, and this takes us back to when the stories first broke that you covered, which was in Colombia, when it was the questions of prostitution, and then there was the questions of the breach at the White House itself, when someone getting into the front door and now this.
So, it's been quite a series of incidents, some of them international, and there are other international incidents this week.
Forty-seven Republican senators set out to create one of their own, breaking protocol and enraging the White House by sending a letter to Iran, asking them to step away from nuclear negotiations. Their argument that any deal the U.S. agrees to could be null and void once this Democratic president leaves office in 2017.
The ringleader was Arkansas freshman Tom Cotton.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COTTON: The deal that is emerging would allow Iran to develop a path towards a nuclear weapon, and that's not acceptable because it's too dangerous to the United States and too dangerous to the world.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: The Obama administration did not take this lightly.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It's an unusual coalition.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: The prince of understatement, the unusual coalition.
John Kerry said this was unprecedented. How unprecedented was it really?
BAKER: Well, it's not unprecedented for members of Congress to sort of interfere or interpose themselves into foreign policy. But it’s not an every day thing either. You've seen examples in the past where people have been accused of inappropriately insert themselves. Senator George McGovern went to Cuba, Nancy Pelosi went to Syria, and, you know, Jesse Helms wrote a letter on the front page of "Izvestia", the Russian paper, just as Bill Clinton lands in Moscow to negotiate an arms control deal in which Jesse Helms, the conservative senator --
IFILL: I forgot about that.
BAKER: -- this is a lame duck and it's dead on arrival. So, don't negotiate a deal with him.
So, it’s not 100 percent unprecedented. But it is pretty out of the ordinary, especially for 47 senators to do it all at once, 47 Republicans. So, you know, it definitely upset the White House and it upset people on Capitol Hill who want to question what the president is doing, who actually don't think he is making the best deal but wonder whether this is making things too partisan.
IFILL: How did Tom Cotton, a freshman, I mean, he got the majority leader to sign on and many, many of his colleagues, many more that didn’t, how did he get this ball rolling?
BAKER: It's a good yes, right. He, apparently -- give him credit for being dogged. He just worked the caucus. He was walking around with his letter and getting everyone to sign up.
I think a lot of people didn't fully pay attention to what they were signing and think through the long-term consequences.
IFILL: That’s reassuring.
BAKER: I think there is some regret on the part of some of the Republicans who signed it. One its face, it's a fairly straightforward letter, what it says is, this is how our system works, the system is that the president has to submit a treaty. If he doesn’t submit a treaty, you know --
IFILL: To Congress?
BAKER: To Congress and then the Congress can vote on it. So, in other words, it's presented as a factual statement rather a -- you know --
IFILL: A point of view.
BAKER: But it's got a point of view. It does have a point of view, and that's the ultimate bottom line message.
ZELENY: The problem was, who it was addressed to? It wasn't addressed to the American people saying, like, hey, Congress has a role here.
But Congress is so skeptical of the deal that's been in the works anyway. I mean, so many Democrats are opposed to what this White House is doing. You know, they had a veto-proof majority almost. What is -- after sending this letter, has it blown up the bipartisan deal? Is that one of the possible outcomes of this?
BAKER: That's a great question and I think that's the real risk for the people who are skeptical of this deal. The president and John Kerry I think were genuinely angry about this, but there is also a strain inside the White House which they won't say it on the record, is they're kind of happy, too, because they think that this does give them more leverage to get those Democrats back on board to say, look, you don't want to be part of this. They’re playing games here. You want to be with us, even if you don't like this deal.
And Democrats like Tim Kaine, Bob Menendez, a lot of folks who have been opposed to the administration's handling of this, you know, were very upset about this letter. I think it does have the potential of making what had been a bipartisan coalition something much more partisan again.
LEONNIG: So, Secretary Kerry and you have both talked a little bit about the tradition of it. What about the legal framework? Where does this fit in law?
BAKER: There is a law called the Logan Act, much discussed in Washington, never enforced. It was passed in 1799 when John Adams was president and it says no private citizen, nobody other than the president of the United States in effect can conduct negotiations with a foreign government to influence their actions, to communicate actually to foreign government, to influence their actions, or to oppose American interests.
A lot of people in Washington today, liberals and Democrats especially, were saying, well, this is a violation. They should be prosecuted. On the White House Web site, 277,000 people have signed a petition asking the White House to prosecute these 47 senators. I think we can guess right now, it's not going to happen.
Only one person has ever been indicted for this. That was 1803. He wasn't convicted.
It’s probably not a constitutional law. But it is a point saying this is where our standard and our standard is only the president should be negotiating with foreign powers.
IFILL: Well, as soon as this law, I mean, this letter, got to the person it was intended to, did Iran have any reaction to it? Do they intend to exploit it?
BAKER: Well, they did have a reaction. First, we should mention by the way, it wasn't actually sent to them. It was styled as an open letter and published on a Web site. So, in that sense, it’s not like -- that's another thing that would make prosecution problematic. I think Senator Cotton did tweet it at President Rouhani and the Ayatollah Khamenei, but I don't know if tweeting counts. I mean, John Adams wasn’t really helpful --
BAKER: But the ayatollah did say, you know, this is a sign of the decline of America and a sign than they will backstab us.
And the question is, will they use this as an excuse to blow up the talks? Or if the talks fail for their own reasons, for their own substantive --
IFILL: They can say.
BAKER: They can say, well, it really wasn’t us, and that’s what the White House is worried about, they say, look, we don't think it's going to blow up the talks, but if they fail, it's going to make it harder for us to blame the Iranians for being the obstructionist (ph) because they'll say it's really Congress' fault.
IFILL: And do we know where the talks stand? John Kerry is on his way back, right?
BAKER: He's on his way back. He’s on Egypt today, and he’s heading to Switzerland on Sunday to begin a new round of talks. They've got an end of March deadline and try to see if they can get a deal. They feel like they're close. And the question is, can they make it across the --
IFILL: Both sides feel like they’re close?
BAKER: Yes. Even Foreign Minister Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, has suggested that they're getting closer. But, you know, getting that last five or 10 yards is often the hardest.
IFILL: Oh, boy, this is going to be so interesting to watch. OK. Thank you.
She hasn't announced yet that she's really running for president. But already, Hillary Clinton is in the middle of the first full-scale political drama of the 2016, "House of Card" aside. Complete with secrets, questions about trust and transparency, and a news conference that seemed to leave more questions than it answered.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: Looking back, it would have been better if I'd simply used a second email account and carried a second phone, but at the time this did not seem like an issue.
IFILL: Well, when you're running for president, everything can be an issue, and the question of what is contained in the 50,000-plus pages of emails Hillary Clinton has turned over to the State Department and the presumably many more that she deleted from her private e-mail server remains a live one.
First of all, bottom line, Jeff, did Hillary Clinton break the rules?
ZELENY: She skirted the rules at the very least. And I was standing in the room just about 10 feet from her at that sort of raucous press conference and she struck me as Hillary Clinton, the lawyer. She was answering questions in very specific legal terms. She was reading from a prepared statement.
So, the rules, as we found out this week, are entirely inconsistent, crazily so across the administration. The White House requires people to preserve and save everything. Other agencies, not quite as much.
So, it's not clear that she broke any law, but clearly, the spirit of the policy of retaining things and setting up this private email raised so many questions because she made that decision on her own right before she became secretary of state in January 2009, to set up this private server. And that was a decision that she made with, so -- she's trying to compare herself to Colin Powell and others, and other secretaries of state have used private email. She's the first one who has not even had a state.gov address.
ZELENY: And email technology has changed so much since these others, so that comparisons aren’t as relevant.
IFILL: Here's the other thing. She also said as part of her defense, for convenience, she only used one device. Let's listen to what she said to Kara Swisher from Re/code, earlier this week, or I guess it was this week -- last month. It was last month actually at a Silicon Valley conference. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: I don't throw anything away. I’m like two steps short of a hoarder. So, I have a -- you know, an iPad, a mini iPad, an iPhone and a BlackBerry.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: Now, it's possible this is since she left the State Department. But the idea that she's a hoarder? And we find out all these emails are missing?
ZELENY: I asked a Clinton person about that specifically and they say that she only had one device when she was secretary of state. She got her iPhones since she’s left the office. OK, that's certainly possible.
At the time of ’09, a lot of people are using BlackBerrys, including the president. But I think the most damaging thing or the issue that raised the most questions, or leaves the most things open, that she was policing this herself, and she decided that her own private email server, what she was going to hand over to the State Department and what she wasn't, and there were 62,320 emails, 30,000 were deemed government-related, 31,000 she deemed privately related.
But what's in the private ones? Is that a political discussion? If she’s having a discussion about the new president, who was her rival? So many other things were going on. And how did they determine which ones they were turning over? They were searching by who she sent emails to, top aides, and using anything with Benghazi in it or Libya in it.
But there were so many other issues going on. So, the problem is, she’s making the rules and she’s policing herself, and that leaves it open to interpretation from her critics.
BAKER: To be clear, you're saying she searched for Benghazi and saved those. Those are not the ones that are deleted?
BAKER: Right? But that would be the concern that a lot of people have.
ZELENY: As far as we know.
BAKER: This is a process thing, it seems like at times. And yet somehow, it has really taken on legs, right? People are really -- why do you think that is? Is it specific to the Clintons? And does it have long-term impact?
ZELENY: I think part of it is specific to her family, of course, and through so many scandals of the 1990s and 2000s. But I think it speaks to everyone's been wondering what type of presidential candidate will she be? Is she going to be a different candidate, run a different kind of campaign?
She took eight days to respond to this at all and I think that created a problem and a vacuum. Do voters care about this specifically? No, probably not. You know, the people who didn't like her have a fresh reason not to, the people who like her will probably come to her defense.
But it put a window into the idea that transparency does not always necessarily apply to them and how she was reacting, as a lawyer up there, I think is a potentially problem going forward. Is she going to run a different kind of campaign?
LEONNIG: And I’m curious, Jeff. I thought so many questions weren't answered then and so many questions weren’t answered after by the State Department about, you know, who reviewed this? Who decided this? How -- what key words were used? Why was she -- who at State approved or didn't approve this decision?
Is she sort of courting more political fallout by not answering those questions and letting this continue and continue?
ZELENY: The short answer is I believe so because Congress now has a fresh reason to look into her. The Benghazi scandals, the whole reason this is coming about is because the House committee on Benghazi has been looking in on this. And that’s still going on, it kind of seems like an old story. Now, it has fresh legs, if you will. So, she's going to be called to testify before the committee twice, at least twice.
And it is going -- this going to be played out throughout her presidential campaign, which I’m told is beginning probably in April. So, this is going to be there for a long time and who knows whatever else is in there?
IFILL: If it begins in April, does that mean she’s moving up her time to prove to everybody that she's not concerned about that?
ZELENY: I don't think she’s moving up her time, but I think they’re doubling down on that that is the time to do it. Some people have said during the summer, but most people believe April, and that looks like where she’s leaning.
IFILL: And you will be on the case, Jeffrey, I’m sure.
Thank you all very much. We have to leave you a few minutes early again this week to give you the chance to support your local station, which in turn supports us.
But we plan to keep on talking, off the air but online in our WASHINGTON WEEK Webcast Extra, about politics, maybe Selma, and maybe even the politics of Selma. You can find us later this evening and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff at the "PBS NEWSHOUR".
And we'll see you here, next week on WASHINGTON WEEK. Good night.