ROBERT COSTA: The acting attorney general under fire, Democrats rising, and Washington divided. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re looking at different people for different positions, you know, as very common after the midterms.
MR. COSTA: President Trump begins cleaning house. Attorney General Jeff Sessions steps down; Matthew Whitaker, a critic of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, rises; and Democrats express alarm about the fate of the probe.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) It would create a constitutional crisis. Protecting Mueller and his investigation is paramount.
MR. COSTA: Plus, Democrats win control of the House with a diverse field of newcomers and look to the future.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We will have a responsibility to honor our oversight responsibilities, and that’s the path that we will go down.
MR. COSTA: And the president remains defiant, blaming Republican incumbents for their defeat.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Some of the people that, you know, decided for their own reason not to embrace whether it’s me or what we stand for, they did very poorly.
MR. COSTA: We discuss this turbulent moment next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin tonight with the shakeup at the Justice Department: Jeff Sessions out as attorney general; Trump ally Matthew Whitaker, he’s in as acting AG. The exit, while long expected, still rattled Washington this week, raising new questions about the future of the special counsel investigation that’s looking into Russian interference. And it’s all as the Democrats are poised to take over the House next year following gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Joining me tonight at the table, Chuck Todd, political director and moderator of Meet The Press on NBC; Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine; Karoun Demirjian, congressional reporter for The Washington Post; and Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times.
Let’s start with Mr. Whitaker. He is an Iowa lawyer and former federal prosecutor who was unknown to the country just days ago, and he has taken a tough line on Mueller’s investigation.
ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL MATTHEW WHITAKER: (From video.) There is a red line. There is a very specific scope to this investigation, and anything that is outside of Russian coordination or the 2016 campaign would be outside of the scope of that investigation.
MR. COSTA: Democrats have urged Whitaker to recuse himself because he has spoken out about the probe. And today, before leaving for Paris, the president was asked about him.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I didn’t know Matt Whitaker, but Matt Whitaker is a very smart man. He is a very respected man in the law enforcement community, very respected at the top of the line.
MR. COSTA: Chuck, the president says he doesn’t know him, but he knows enough. He knows he’s a loyalist. He’s known he said those things about the Mueller probe. What does it mean for Robert Mueller and his independence?
CHUCK TODD: I don’t think we know yet, in fairness to Mr. Whitaker. First of all, you don’t know what happens when you’re actually in the job. He expressed those opinions when he was a political pundit for CNN. He has taken that oath as a U.S. attorney in Iowa. You don’t know what happens when he’s actually getting briefed by Robert Mueller about what he’s found, what he hasn’t found. So I think in fairness to Mr. Whitaker we have to see what happens when he gets briefed.
But don’t forget Robert Mueller knew this was coming. This was – as you pointed out, this was telegraphed. He knew he was probably going to have a new supervisor pretty soon. And he has offloaded parts of investigation, and I think it’s very protected. He’s put some of it at the Southern District of New York. I think the Eastern District of Virginia has also gotten a piece of this. So he has, I think, protected the probe in such a way that there isn’t much Whitaker can do.
Now, Whitaker may be the eyes and ears for the White House. That is not illegal. Many people would call that unethical. Perhaps he’s there to launch another investigation, maybe. He has also talked about opening an investigation into Hillary Clinton, so maybe he’s not there to curtail or trim the sails of Mr. Mueller but maybe to add a probe, which of course as far as the president’s concerned is all about diluting the scandal pool, if you will. But I actually think Mueller’s probe is as safe as it can be given the circumstances.
MR. COSTA: The Democrats, you’ve been covering them all week, Karoun. They don’t believe that. And they’re – what can they do in the lame duck before they take power in the House next year to try to protect the Mueller investigation?
KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Make a lot of noise, basically. And once lame duck is over and they’re actually in power, at least in the House, they can try to use that power to investigate anything they possibly can that they think is untoward or fishy or happens to be where Mueller may have had to leave off in their estimation. I mean, at this point you’re right, Chuck, we don’t know what he’s going to do. But the optics are already bad because by making the switch it gives Democrats all the ammunition they need if they are not satisfied with the findings that Mueller puts out. If it falls anything short, frankly, of President Trump and finding wrongdoing there, you’re going to see people saying, wait a second, wait a second, there could have been interference here, and it’s going to launch and fuel the investigations that were already going to happen into what sort of activity was going on at DOJ. And we knew that the Congress was going to try to step in under Democrats to look at least at the Russia probe, even once Mueller is done, even if they felt he’d been fully protected the whole way through. So this is just putting more fuel on the fire that we already knew was coming.
The question right now, really, is they’ve been clamoring for him to recuse himself. They can’t force that to happen at all. Republicans don’t seem to be stepping in on that.
They’re also going to have to deal with whoever the president chooses to actually nominate to fill this role on a consistent basis that’s not just interim, and that could start a whole new round of fights, and we don’t know quite where Mueller will be at that point. But like I said before, this is optics. This is partisan politics for however that plays out. And we know now this is going to amp that up.
MR. COSTA: Molly, Karoun just said that the Republicans don’t want to act right now to protect Mueller. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said today he’s not going to move forward with legislation. Senator Susan Collins of Maine said it would be appropriate to bring some protect Mueller legislation up. Where is the GOP here? Is it because of the president not really seeing a blue wave on Tuesday that they’re still standing by him and how he’s handling all this?
MOLLY BALL: Well, I think they’re in the same position they have always been, which is to try to pretend that none of this is happening, and that is something that I think at least Mitch McConnell feels has done them in good stead so far. They’re not going to – to Karoun’s point, they’re not really going to be able to continue to do that as long – once the Democrats get into power in the House. But, you know, the danger is, I think, not only optical; there’s a potential legal complication as well because a lot of legal experts, including conservative legal experts, argue that Whitaker actually cannot be appointed, cannot actually act as the attorney general because he hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate, and that sets up the potential for anything that he actually does in that position to be challenged in the courts. So anything that he actually tries to do, I think, as Chuck is saying, could – he hasn’t actually done anything. We shouldn’t prejudge something he hasn’t done. He hasn’t gone in and fired Mueller. He hasn’t interfered in anything that we know of so far. But when and if he did, that could potentially be undone by the courts.
MR. COSTA: But you’ve been looking at some question marks this week, Mark, when you think about, Mark, Whitaker. It’s not just his statements about the Mueller probe; there are also real issues about his business dealings. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday the FBI in Miami is looking into his past business experiences. He’s friends with Sam Clovis, a name a lot of people don’t know, but he is a witness in the Mueller investigation. What else have you found that’s hanging over Whitaker as a cloud?
MARK LANDLER: Well, one of the things that many legal theorists talk about as being the most fundamental is his view of the role of the courts. He was asked once years ago to enumerate what he thought were bad decisions by the Supreme Court and he singled out Marbury versus Madison. Well, Marbury versus Madison lays the predicate for the Supreme Court to engage in judicial review to determine whether what the White House and the Congress does is or isn’t constitutional.
By raising a doubt, by criticizing that ruling, you could read that to mean that he sees the courts as having a fundamentally inferior position in the government. And so for the legal theorists in Washington, that more than maybe any of these other issues including his prior public statements on the Mueller investigation are what has them worried.
Again, it doesn’t – past statements are not necessarily predictive of future action. But in this case, he’s well outside the legal mainstream and I think a lot of people in Washington are worried about that as well.
MR. COSTA: What about the president’s pick to replace Attorney General Sessions and to put someone over Whitaker? Could he look to a federal judge, a U.S. senator, or is it going to be an ally – a Chris Christie, an Alex Acosta, who’s the current labor secretary?
MR. TODD: It looks like he’s going to get stuck with Chris Christie and I say this because I find it interesting – Secretary Azar, I think, would love this job if Marco Rubio had been president. But, apparently, Secretary Azar has put out word, ask me again after Mueller’s done. You know, I think there are some people that do not want the responsibility or the burden of having to be in that awkward position. They saw what happened to Jeff Sessions.
I mean, the amazing thing on the Jeff Sessions thing is he enacted the president’s agenda when it came to law and order, immigration. There isn’t a bit of separation on policy. The sole reason that he was fired was his recusal over this and that – by the way, you can tell the bitterness in Jeff Sessions. He made sure we knew that he – that he was asked to resign, meaning, I was fired.
Ironically, I think if the president had actually waited until Thanksgiving maybe Sessions would have resigned. But I think the panic of the House getting – going Democratic has the president panicked and that’s why he made this move so fast and so quickly and, frankly, done in haste. It looks like this White House didn’t even vet. They didn’t look. They didn’t realize that the guy actually speculated, well, you know, maybe a recess-appointed acting attorney general could defund the Mueller probe. So he described exactly what perhaps he’s thinking about doing. That part of this is a head scratcher.
MR. COSTA: Talking about Sessions, a final note, Karoun, on his legacy. Sessions, of course, got the president irritated because he recused himself from the Mueller probe, overseeing it. But on immigration and so many signature issues for President Trump, he was right there.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Right. I mean, he pushed forward an agenda, like you were saying just a second ago, was all Trump all the way. I mean, the zero tolerance policy at the border. He held the line when it came to criminal justice reform, angering people in his own party. Anything else that the DOJ touched that – I mean, that had – that didn’t have anything do with Russia he was right there in lockstep.
He had cover on a lot of that because Democrats didn’t want to touch him because he was so important to keep in place in order to protect the line of command above Mueller. Otherwise, you would have seen a groundswell of opposition toward him. You would have seen so much more vitriol come out of Jeff Sessions, and there was none.
MR. TODD: Exactly. Democrats have been so comfortable with him. But you’re right, it’s all about the Mueller probe.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Right, no, it was amazing. And even when Jeff Sessions – even when Democrats thought Jeff Sessions had lied under oath to them about what he knew when having to do with Trump, they still said, oh, you know what, we don’t have time to get into that, because they were so all focused on just protecting this guy because he recused.
It’s almost comical in a sad way that that’s his legacy now. I mean, he went from having a very, very conservative, very kind of – noted for his anti-immigration policies when he was a senator that could have carried him to the DOJ. He would have been a hero of the conservatives. But right now, he’s been, you know, turned into an enemy because of the Russia probe.
He was always an enemy of the Democrats and he’s leaving with his tail between his legs, in a way, even though people feel bad to see him go, especially on the Democratic side, and like we were saying before, whoever signs up next is kind of signing themselves up for the same fate. You don’t want it to be your last job in Washington if you’re somebody like a senator who’s looking at that possibility.
MR. COSTA: And the trigger for his exit, the midterm elections. That was it this week. It’s hard to – sometimes we forget it actually happened this week on Tuesday. Things move so quickly in President Trump’s Washington. But let’s think about what happened. Democrats seized control of the House majority, winning 225 seats. That’s according to the Associated Press’ latest count. Republicans won 197 seats.
In the Senate, Republicans held on to their majority with 51 seats. But there are two races that remain too close to call. In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott, who holds a narrow lead over Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, is suing two Democratic counties – Broward and Palm Beach – claiming the county supervisors are engaging in, quote, “rampant fraud.”
FLORIDA GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT (R): (From video.) I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida.
MR. COSTA: And in Arizona, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has taken a slight lead tonight over Republican Martha McSally. There are still many, many votes – thousands of ballots – that have not been counted. Most of the outstanding ballots down in Arizona they’re coming from Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa County, which is home to Phoenix and includes Sinema’s congressional district.
Molly, the headline from your TIME cover story this week seems to tell the story of post-election America. It says, “Redder. Bluer. Trumpier.” It’s a great story. You think about this country – a split decision in the midterm elections. What did we learn?
MS. BALL: Yeah. I think – well, first of all, it was a split decision but it was mostly for the Democrats. Let’s not, you know, falsely equivalize here. The Republicans kept the Senate but, overall, this was an incredible night for the Democrats and it’s just become more so as more results have come in.
There’s still several races yet to be called that could add to the Democrats’ House majority. There is – if, you know, those two Senate races are really on the knife’s edge and then there’s also a run-off in Mississippi that we assume the Republicans will win, but even if – but if the Democrats manage to win those races that are still being counted, the Republicans only will have picked up one seat in the Senate in what was the friendliest environment for them in decades, probably.
So it was mostly a good night for the Democrats. But there were some unexpected results that went the Republicans’ way. I think most of the polls would have led you to expect that Claire McCaskill could pull it out in Missouri, even though that’s a pretty red state at this point, and that Joe Donnelly, the Democratic senator from Indiana, he also did not survive and it wasn’t close.
And so I think what we saw was Democrats were hoping that what we would see was that the backlash to Trump was so overwhelming that he was repudiated completely, and I think what instead what we saw was an intensification of all of the trends that began in 2016 – all of the – all the galvanization that Trump started to put into place because he inserted himself so completely into this election cycle, sometimes often to the chagrin of his own party.
Yes, Democrats were enthusiastic and were aroused and wanted to send that message to Washington, and a lot of independents and educated suburbanites and so on. But Trump’s base was activated, too, and that’s why this was such an unusual midterm election turnout, off the charts of what we’ve seen in almost a century of a nonpresidential election, because the Republicans were almost as riled up as the Democrats.
MR. COSTA: Florida native Chuck Todd.
MR. TODD: (Laughter.) I’m sorry.
MR. COSTA: What a tight contest down there for U.S. Senate.
MR. TODD: I have to apologize for my state. It’s embarrassing.
MR. COSTA: I mean, what’s going on in Florida? What happens there?
MR. TODD: Well, look. First of all, what’s been – what was interesting about Florida in general is that it is the microcosm of America, as I always say. Sometimes I joke it’s America’s sediment because everybody comes, you know –
MR. COSTA: Chuck, it’s better than that. (Laughter.)
MR. TODD: Trust me, I – there’s great parts of Florida. Trust me, it is. But we have everything, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that as polarized as the nation is is as polarized as Florida is. There are very few swing counties anymore and everything was about margins and it was margins, and every county that didn’t touch saltwater was, once again, just like 2016 – showed up in big numbers. The counties that touched saltwater were the places that Democrats did pretty well in.
Look, this recount is going to be, I think, the first round of what is going to be a bloody partisan warfare for the next two years. This is going to be the backdrop to the beginning of 2020. The president is inserting himself into this. There’s going to be a lot of court battles. Believe it or not, there’s going to end up probably being three recounts, two by hand – one for a state agriculture commission race, one for the Senate race. The governor’s race continues to shrink, too, as these numbers come in. Don’t think it’s going to get into the hand recount, but it’s something else.
One larger point I want to make, though. This was – this was a blue wave but there was more realignment than necessarily wave because you saw – so, for instance, Ohio – I think we – I think Ohio is moving itself off the presidential battleground. A Republican won in a fairly comfortable – I mean, it’s still under five points but I think by a bigger margin than we thought – for the governor’s race. Indiana – normally, when there’s a Democratic wave Indiana moves. Indiana comes with the Democrats. They always win Indiana Senate seats in wave years. That didn’t happen this year.
On the other hand, you saw Oklahoma – the suburbs went so blue everywhere whether it was Northern Virginia, Oklahoma City, Seattle, or – you can name it. And so in that sense, I think, we’ve seen this metropolitan versus urban – versus rural/exurban divide now show itself across the country.
MR. COSTA: With those Democratic gains, Karoun, when you think about the Democrats, their strategy, they look at where they won, does that mean they push for impeachment next year of President Trump, or is it trying to work with him on infrastructure and prescription drugs, based on the kind of people who won, the kind of conference they’re going to be?
MS. DEMIRJIAN: There’s not going to be any impeachment. I mean, there will be people in the party that want impeachment, but the leaders are not going to let it happen unless Mueller finds something so obviously glaringly unconstitutional that Trump did that Republicans would hop onboard too. The leaders just don’t want it, and what they’re nervous about is that the Democrats who won in Trump country, in districts that Trump carried handily in 2016 and may again in 2020, they ran on a message of we’ll work with the president. And so they don’t want to have them have to campaign on answering for an impeachment voter – or explaining an impeachment vote that can never get through the Senate anyway. He’s not going to get removed from office. They’re going to put a lot of capital in investigations of his finances, in investigations of the security clearance process at the – at the White House, in investigations of why DOJ didn’t back up the – didn’t defend the ACA, the health care bill, in court. And then they will also probably focus on infrastructure and other areas where they can work with the president, but they’re not going to go whole hog into impeachment.
And I think that is just kind of a representative real thing that’s – in terms of the legislative priorities that reflects what’s going on in the Democratic Party as a whole. They need to figure out who they are before 2020, and there’s two answers to that question right now. The answer in the suburbs for the House, the people that won those races, is, you know, be your own person; say you’ll work with the Democrats, say you’ll work with Trump. The answer at the Senate level, that didn’t work so well for Claire McCaskill and for Joe Donnelly. I mean, I guess it worked OK for Joe Manchin, but he had a stronger footing in that state anyway than the other people did.
MR. COSTA: He voted for Justice Kavanaugh.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: He voted for Justice Kavanaugh. You could say it’s all about the Kavanaugh vote or you could say that McCaskill and Donnelly made a mistake by running to the center and abandoning their base. It’s not clear yet, because one strategy didn’t work across the board. But they have to figure out how to campaign as one party in two years’ time.
MR. COSTA: Mark, what about inside the White House? Of course Sessions is the news this week, but are we expecting more departures inside the Cabinet, maybe Chief of Staff John Kelly?
MR. LANDLER: Well, Kelly has said he will stay on through 2020; we’ll see whether that’s right. I mean, I think the next name that everyone’s focused on is Jim Mattis. If you recall, President Trump described him as being a Democrat, so that’s a possible shoe to drop and one that would be in some ways more consequential than almost any other.
I think the other, bigger question around Trump is if you look at the progression of his psychology this past week, from his sort of rather hapless effort to say this was a success and not a setback to the greater degrees of anger he’s shown all week – lashing out at reporters, getting involved in the Florida Senate race, alleging vote rigging – I think we’re seeing what we may see in the coming year. He’s not responding well to losing the House, and how well he deals with the incessant round of investigations he faces next year I think is going to be one of the major stories to watch coming out of this midterm.
MR. COSTA: What about the Democratic stars who didn’t win, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Beto O’Rourke in the Senate race in Texas? Democrats were hoping for a kind of new generation to emerge. Some did – many women won across the country – but not a total win for the Democrats.
MS. BALL: Right, and some of those rising stars really had captured the heart of Democrats nationally, become celebrities on the left. And we should say the Georgia race still has not been called; and Andrew Gillum in Florida also, although the margin is shrinking, it’s a lot of votes for him to make up there but that race hasn’t been called. But Beto O’Rourke also certainly – these were all longshot races. These were all really tough states, maybe Florida a little bit less so; he was leading in the polls going in. But these are all uphill states for Democrats. Still, I think there are a lot of brokenhearted people. These were – these were – these were all very promising, charismatic candidates. And what Democrats are looking for more than anything is not someone who checks a bunch of boxes in terms of ideology or resume or anything else; they want to be swept off their feet. They want to be inspired. And that’s why they haven’t really flocked to one of the many sitting senators who are talking about possibly running or the old guard and all of the seemingly zillion Democrats over the age of 70 whose names are out there. They do need that influx of new blood. This has been the complaint against, you know, Pelosi as well, is that there hasn’t been the opportunity for the Democrats to really put forth an inspiring new generation of leaders because of the old guard.
MR. COSTA: Let’s finish with that, the House leadership races. Looks like Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, the frontrunner, Chuck, for minority leader now in the U.S. House. Pelosi, a lot of dissatisfaction among the moderates in the House Democratic Conference, but not really a rival at this moment.
MR. TODD: There’s nobody to run. I just interviewed Abigail Spanberger, who’s one of the new members of Congress, from central Virginia just outside the Richmond suburbs. It’s a very tough district that she won, and she was defiant: I’m not going to vote for Nancy Pelosi. I’m not going to – I’m not going to hedge. She wasn’t going to be vague. And then you ask her: Has anybody contacted you to get your vote that isn’t named Nancy Pelosi? And no, because there’s nobody there. I have to say I am stunned, but I guess this is happening that Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn – Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat; Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat – who were the one-two-three the last time the Democrats had power, I guess they’re going to end up the same one-two-three. Right now nobody’s running against Hoyer, and there is one candidate against Jim Clyburn but I don’t think that person can win. It’s a head-scratcher to me that the Democrats – you know, in our national exit poll, that network exit poll, she had a fav-unfav rating of 32-56.
MR. COSTA: Is that because they think she’s going to be a transitional speaker, she may just be there for a year?
MR. TODD: I guess she must have made this promise. I think it’s interesting Hakeem Jeffries, who’s a New York Democrat, somebody that the Congressional Black Caucus wanted to get behind for a perhaps higher position, has agreed to run for the number four spot. I think something is up there. I think they cut a deal.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: There may be something up there, but also there is no obvious person in the Democratic Party anywhere to take over leadership. So if you try to have a big free-for-all mess of challenging Nancy Pelosi, you fritter away some of this great momentum you have coming off the midterms because you can’t actually be seen as anything cohesive, and everything matters about looking ahead to 2020 right now.
MR. COSTA: It’s just interesting, there’s all this debate inside of the House Democratic Caucus: Where are the new leaders? But there will be certainly many Democrats running for president in 2020. We’re going to have to leave it there tonight.
Our conversation continues on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find that on our website Fridays after 10 and also on your favorite podcast app.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend, and thanks for joining us.