ROBERT COSTA: President Trump holds off on declaring a national emergency at the border, for now. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
President Trump launches an all-out offensive to build a border wall, calling undocumented immigrants a security and humanitarian crisis.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They need a wall. If you don’t have it, it’s going to be nothing but hard work and grueling problems. And, by the way, and death. And death. A lot of death.
MR. COSTA: He is prepared to use executive authority, starting a legal debate even on the right.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Now the easy solution is for me to call a national emergency. I could do that very quickly. I have the absolute right to do it. But I’m not going to do it so fast because this is something Congress should do.
MR. COSTA: Democrats dig in and urge Republicans to reopen the government.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: (From video.) Why are you rejecting it at the expense of the health, safety, and wellbeing of the American people? Did you take an oath to the Constitution or an oath to Donald Trump?
MR. COSTA: We cover it all next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The 21-day government shutdown, a standoff over President Trump’s demand for a border wall, will become the longest in U.S. history at midnight Friday. And this week, some of the 800,000 furloughed workers held protest around the country, calling for the government to be reopened. The president, meanwhile, visited the border on Thursday. His pitch: Undocumented migrants have created a crisis. And he’s ready to declare a national emergency.
Joining me tonight, Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post; Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times.
Phil, you’re fresh back from a trip with President Trump to the border. You were the pool reporter. You’ve been talking to your White House sources all week. There was this expectation of a national emergency declaration. Yet the president held off on Friday. What’s going on?
PHILIP RUCKER: It’s interesting, Bob. It seems like the president can’t decide yet whether to make that declaration, which is really a bit of a Hail Mary move. It’s a risky move. It would help empower him with executive authority to build that wall without congressional approval, but it would ignite a firestorm politically on Capitol Hill, and certain court challenges in federal courts. All week we saw the president, Vice President Pence, other administration officials try to make the case for an emergency situation, try to say that the situation at the border is of crisis proportions, American lives are at stake, lay a predicate, a foundation for that declaration. But the president said today he’s not ready to do it yet.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, are Republicans – of course Democrats – but Republicans on Capitol Hill warning the president against taking this sort of action? That executive power in this way is something that maybe – not something conservatives can support.
NANCY CORDES: Some of them are saying that. I mean, you’ve got really Republicans from across the spectrum – some moderates, some deeply conservative, who say: If you do this, if you declare a national emergency, you’re opening the door for future presidents to declare emergencies that Republicans might not want. What if the next president is a Democrat, and they declare that gun violence is a national emergency, or climate change is a national emergency? They say that’s not why this whole system was created. And you just can’t control what happens down the road.
On the other hand, you’ve got other Republicans – like Lindsey Graham – saying, you know what, it’s a last resort. And we’re at the last resort, because it doesn’t look like there’s any other way out of this standoff than for the president to save face by declaring a national emergency. And so he, and some others, are encouraging the president to do it.
MR. COSTA: Your point about history really matters. The National Emergency Act of 1976 is what set the parameters for how a lot of this goes. And if you look back, Mark, and you think about President Truman in 1952, nationalizing the steel unions – nationalizing the steel factories during the Korean War. That created a big court battle. If the president did pursue this, what would the challenges be in the courts? Would it go all the way to the Supreme Court, like it did with Truman?
MARK LANDLER: I think the assumption is it probably would. President Trump certainly believes it would. He said today he’d expect a negative ruling in the famous Ninth Circuit, which is sort of his bogeyman in the courts, that he would be challenged in the lower courts and probably held up, and then it would work its way through the process, and then lead to this sort of epic showdown at the Supreme Court. But, remember, he feels pretty confident that he’s now named some justices to that court that might be inclined to look very broadly at executive privilege and executive prerogatives in Brett Kavanaugh and in Neil Gorsuch. So perhaps he figures this is a risk I’m willing to take, because I feel relatively good about the Supreme Court that I would face.
That said, it’s an extremely unpredictable process. But I think fundamentally, from the president’s point of view, is: Do you want to have a long, legal battle that will allow you to reopen the government and, in essence, kind of remove this crisis from, you know, the day-to-day lives of 800,000 federal workers, and into the slightly more rarified precinct of the courts? That might be, as Nancy was saying, a good option not only for the president, it would take some of the lawmakers off the hook as well.
MR. COSTA: Let’s think about what would actually happen if the president did this – declared a national emergency? According to the Post, the administration is eyeing unused money in the Army Corps of Engineers budget, specifically a disaster spending bill passed by Congress last year that includes $13.9 billion allocated but not spent for civil works projects.
Yamiche, you’ve been tracking the fallout from these hurricanes, the horrendous situation on the ground in Texas, in Puerto Rico. What would the outcry be if some of these funds for disaster relief would be used to be build a border wall?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The outcry is really already starting. You have Republican senators on the Hill already signaling to the president publicly, tweeting out about it, that they would be – they would fight the president if he tried to do this. For example, Marco Rubio tweeted today: If he tries to do this, we will try to overturn it. So Marco Rubio’s been pretty clear. Senator Cornyn’s been pretty clear. He’s also from Texas. These are people who are from the states where this money is supposed to go. We’re talking about $14 billion that was supposed to be used for natural disasters and hurricane funds.
I also want to say that the president today said that using a national emergency would be the easy way out. This is someone who made his brand on being a dealmaker. So he wants to be able to say, hey, I can make this deal. Let’s make this deal. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you want. But at the end of the day, this doesn’t look like Democrats want to give this president a wall. And they are under their own political pressure. Democrats came in in this wave election with all these seats. And people want the Democrats to stand firm against President Trump.
MS. CORDES: And the lawmakers that he needs on his side are the very ones who are opposed to this idea. I mean, John Cornyn of Texas went with the president to the border, but then said: Hey, wait a minute, don’t take Hurricane Harvey funding. You know, we need this to rebuild in Texas. And you’ve heard from several other members of the Texas Republican delegation who say: I am going to fight this. They argue that, you know, this is not just some sort of piggybank that you can dip into for your preferred project. This is money that has been allocated for a specific purpose. And that’s just not the way it works that you can say, oh, I know that this money was set aside for the wildfires, or hurricanes, or even some other Army Corps of Engineers projects, but now I’m going to use it for some other purpose.
MR. COSTA: Nancy had an amazing exchange with President Trump at the Capitol this week about the crisis. The administration keeps saying there’s a crisis about the number of people trying to enter the country illegally. It’s actually at a 20-year low, according to federal data. Let’s listen to Nancy’s exchange with the president.
MS. CORDES: (From video.) If illegal immigration at the border has gone down, why is it a crisis now?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You know why it’s gone down? Because of good management, because of me and my people. Because we’ve managed it well.
MS. CORDES: (From video.) But then why is it a crisis?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It is brutal. We have more people coming up. You have caravans.
MR. COSTA: This was the pitch from the administration all week, that there is a crisis – humanitarian, security. What’s it about? What’s driving that message? The base? The political base in the GOP?
MS. CORDES: A couple of things. First of all, it seems pretty clear that they are trying to lay the groundwork for the president to declare a national emergency. If he’s going to do that, he needs to be able to say: I’m declaring this emergency because there is a well-documented crisis at the border. So the vice president, in fact, came to Capitol Hill, spoke to reporters for about 45 minutes, and said over and over again it’s a crisis, it’s a crisis. It’s a security crisis. It’s a humanitarian crisis.
However, as you pointed out, the numbers are way down. And obviously the wall is something that the president has been calling for for years. So, you know, whether it’s a crisis now, whether it was a crisis a few years ago, obviously Democrats dispute the notion that things are getting worse not better.
MR. RUCKER: And the other thing President Trump is doing is he’s using imagery and rhetoric to try to scare Americans about the situation at the border. We saw in that address he gave from the Oval Office Tuesday night. He painted a harrowing portrait of really death and danger at the border. He talked about people who are being beheaded, people who’ve been killed, and murdered, and dismembered, and raped by illegal immigrants.
And then I was with him yesterday in Texas at the border. He did a security briefing. And before him were, you know, huge stacks of bricks of heroin and methamphetamine and then a sack full of cash and guns – all things that have been seized at ports of entry. And the whole takeaway from the image and from his words was: We should be scared. That there’s something wrong at the border. Even though the data show that the illegal crossings have gone down.
MR. COSTA: And the Democrats aren’t budging. He keeps making the argument, so does Vice President Pence. But the Democrats aren’t moving. Is that because the president, Yamiche, just don’t have an out here?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think it’s because the president doesn’t have an out. It could also be because the president has worked himself up, and really does believe there is a crisis. My reporting shows that apprehensions are down on the southern border. My reporting also shows that there were only six people who were apprehended in the early part – or, the first half of 2018 who were suspected terrorists. Forty-one on the northern border in Canada, where the president doesn’t talk about. So we have a president who’s been saying there are terrorists flooding in through the southern border. And that was really six people. So what we have is a president who is continuously using the facts as he wants to use them, and sometimes meddling with the facts, and spreading misinformation.
MR. COSTA: And speaking of misinformation or inaccuracies, the president has been trying to clarify his campaign pledge that Mexico would pay for the wall.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) When during the campaign I would say, “Mexico is going to pay for it,” obviously I never said this, and I never meant, they’re going to write out a check. I said they’re going to pay for it.
MR. COSTA: Mark, I’ve been following your reporting. You’ve been following the USMCA, the new version of NAFTA, the trade deal. That hasn’t even been ratified by Congress yet, but the president is declaring it the way to pay for the wall?
MR. LANDLER: Yeah. And that, of course, has absolutely no relevance to the way he pitched this during the campaign and in the early days of his presidency. He said over and over again: Mexico will pay for it. So even if the USMCA, the Mexico trade deal, were ratified, it wouldn’t be legitimate for him to say that whatever notional economic benefit derives from that trade deal would be revenue to build a wall. It’s a sort of a specious argument.
I wanted to make one point relative to the question of the president’s marketing of this. The other curious thing that happened this week was we learned, because he had an off-the-record session with network anchors that sort of leaked out, that in fact the president himself has deep misgivings about the marketing of this campaign. He didn’t really want to do the televised address. He said that the trip to Texas was a photo op and he didn’t understand the value of it, and that in fact he was being pushed into it by his communications staff.
And to me, this suggests something else, which is that at some level I’m not sure the president believed he needed to market this. I think he saw it as something that was the president’s privilege. And I think partly this reflects what has been, for him, this process of trying to understand how to operate in divided government. I think he felt that it was his prerogative to declare this. He’d been elected president on this platform. And so for him, the last few days has been an educational process, in realizing I have to sell this.
MS. CORDES: And you know what? We’re starting to get evidence that the marketing isn’t working, because CBS News has a poll that just came out that found, first of all, more Americans believe that, first of all, there’s no crisis. That there is a problem at the border, but not necessarily a crisis. And they’re more apt to blame the president. So his advisors realized that if he’s – you know, if he’s going to go this route, he needs to sell it. Clearly he’s reluctant to do so, because the feedback that he’s getting from his base is that he’s in the right. But when you look at the bigger picture, he’s not winning the war of public opinion.
MR. COSTA: So if you’re a Republican base voter, Phil, the president has gone – it’s become the longest shutdown in U.S. history. He can say he went to the brink, even if he didn’t – doesn’t declare a national emergency. Where does it go from here? Does the president say: I’ve done all I could, let’s reopen the government, I’ll keep fighting for my wall? Or does he continue to fight through the State of the Union in late January, into February?
MR. RUCKER: The president, according to my reporting, and yours as well, feels he has to keep fighting, that if he were to give up now – even though it’s been a shutdown that’s been the longest in history as of tomorrow, even though he’s sort of dug in his heels for the border wall funding – he would have failed. There would not be a border wall. That is a signature campaign promise. He had two years of Republican control in Congress and he could not secure the wall. He ran for president as the dealmaker who would make this happen, who would get – convince Mexico to pay for the wall, who would be building it, who would protect everybody. That’s why people are so passionately behind him. And he’s not delivering.
MR. COSTA: Phil had an exchange with the president during his trip to Texas. You asked the president, as the pool reporter, about the possible deal that’s been floated: Protecting DREAMers, undocumented migrant children, in exchange for funding for the wall. Let’s watch that, if we have it.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We could do that, Phil. We could help the DREAMers. We want to help the DREAMers. I was ready to help the DREAMers, and then we got a decision that the folks representing the DREAMers very strongly – which is us also, if you want to know the truth – but they said, well, we don’t have to do it anymore. So now it’s before the Supreme Court. We’ll see what happens.
MR. COSTA: We’ll see what happens. Phil, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, pushing the deal with Senator Graham on Capitol Hill, yet the president kills it himself – Vice President Pence on Thursday goes to the Capitol, ends those discussions. Why?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, you know, they’re all over the map, the administration this week, in terms of negotiating on immigration. I think that President Trump would really like to have a more comprehensive bill. He said that several times yesterday. But he would love for that to include the wall. It would have to include the wall, according to him. The trouble is he has a different message than the vice president, who has a different message than people in the administration, and they’re making inconsistent demands, and so lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t know what to believe or who to trust.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, federal workers throughout all of this going through painful experiences, struggles of their own. The air traffic controllers union on Friday decided to issue a lawsuit about their lost pay and having to work in these circumstances. What’s happening inside of the federal government Friday, this weekend, that’s going to maybe prod this whole situation forward in a negative or a positive way?
MS. ALCINDOR: People are feeling the strain of not having money. They’re not – people are postponing surgeries. People are not being able to move into apartments. People are not being able to sell their homes because now they don’t know whether or not they’re going to get a paycheck.
The other thing is Congress passed this bill that said at some point everyone’s going to get back – you know, federal workers will get back pay. A lot of people in D.C. and in other areas are private contractors. They’re not going to get back pay, so they’re going to be hard hit. They’re not going to be able to make up this money. I was talking to some people that said that the numbers of food banks are going up – the calls to food banks are going up. These are federal workers reaching out. Local governments, especially in Loudoun County – it’s a Virginia county where a lot of people commute into D.C. – their local government is giving $25,000 to food pantries because they expect federal workers to have to go there for their nutrition.
Add to that the fact that all of this argument is about a wall that people in border cities think isn’t really necessary. I interviewed the mayor of McAllen, Texas, yesterday when I was in Texas along with Phil. The mayor said I appreciate the president coming here; I don’t think a wall is going to fix our issues. Drugs are being smuggled in through legal ports of entry in cars, people that are being trafficked. It’s true we want to have resources for that, but he said a wall isn’t going to fix our problems here.
MS. CORDES: And we talk about a crisis and whether or not there is one at the border. I think there’s no question that as this continues to go on there will be a crisis having to do with hundreds of thousands of federal workers who aren’t being paid. S&P said that by the end of this week the economy will have already lost more money than the president is seeking to build his wall, and it just compounds every single day that this goes on, and I think we’re going to see more and more effects as the days go on.
MR. COSTA: What about Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Mark? He has been AWOL.
MR. LANDLER: In a witness protection program.
MR. COSTA: In a witness protection program?
MR. LANDLER: Yeah, no, he’s taken the view that this is between the president and the Democrats, and he has, you know, foresworn the role he took in prior shutdowns of being the guy that you cut the deal with. And I think that that’s probably a stance he can’t afford to do much longer, particularly if the emergency declaration scenario is not on the table so it takes everybody off the hook. If they continue to be dug in in this position, I think Mitch McConnell has to step forward. But then the interesting question is, does he step forward and start to speak some political reality to the president? He might be one of the few people in Washington who could do that.
MR. COSTA: Are you seeing some cracks in the GOP, Phil, as this heads into its fourth week?
MR. RUCKER: We saw them emerge in the middle of this week. We started to hear Senator Gardner of Colorado, Senator Collins from Maine – these are Senate – Republican senators who are in vulnerable positions heading into their own reelections in 2020 – start to say, look, reopen the government, let’s get on with this; we’re supposed to be governing. You saw some possibility of cracks among House Republicans as well. For the most part this week – right, Nancy?
MS. CORDES: Yeah.
MR. RUCKER: President Trump and Vice President Pence kind of held it together, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to last very long, and that dam could be breaking.
MR. COSTA: And, Nancy, you’ve been covering Congressman Steve King of Iowa, who made some casual comments in a New York Times interview about white supremacy and white nationalism. He was then – he was – the Republican leaders in the House rapped him and they said we don’t associate ourselves at all with Congressman King. But we see issues of race popping up, as well, as this shutdown drags on. It’s not just a clean immigration discussion; it’s messy.
MS. CORDES: Right, I mean, you know, he’s someone who in the past they’ve sort of treated like a crazy uncle, and when he’s said divisive, racially-charged things they sort of said, oh, well, that’s Steve. This time was – it was different, and they came out and called his comments offensive even though he said that he was misinterpreted. And now you’ve even got some party luminaries saying that they should go further and support primary opponents of his so that he isn’t able to remain in the Congress in the next term.
MS. ALCINDOR: I was talking to protesters when President Trump landed in Texas. And one man I talked to, he was 71, he had never protested before; he came to this protest because he said at the end of the day I see the wall as a racist political tool. I see this as the president looking at people of color, looking at brown people, and saying these people are not allowed to be here and I don’t want this to be the future of America.
The other thing that I think is important to note, negotiations are so stalled because they cannot at all even agree on what the facts are. I was at the White House when Vice President Pence and the president and the Democratic leaders sat down. Chuck Schumer came out and said President Trump got mad, he slammed his hands on the table. Vice President Pence comes out. I posed the question: Did the president slam his hands on the table? He said, oh, no, he was very calm; he was – he was handing out candy. That’s what we’re dealing with in Washington.
MR. COSTA: What a disconnect.
MS. ALCINDOR: So there’s this complete disconnect.
MR. COSTA: And we’re dealing with this complete disconnect, but there are also so many other issues in the world that are happening as this government shutdown unfolds. Big story this week in Syria: the U.S. policy there. Is the U.S. truly removing troops, as President Trump says, or is National Security Adviser John Bolton correct in saying that there are going to be caveats for any removal of troops? Did we get any clarity, Mark? As this shutdown happens, it is the story, but did we get any clarity on Syria this week?
MR. LANDLER: Well, it’s interesting, it feels like the theme is a muddle all around. It’s a muddle on the shutdown and it’s a muddle on this most important foreign policy issue. Because you had President Trump before Christmas appear to order an abrupt withdrawal of troops, which rattled everybody, precipitated the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis. Then you had John Bolton go out to the region and present a very different message; you know, we will withdraw in an orderly manner, there will be a timetable, it’ll be gradual; and oh, by the way, we won’t withdraw at all if the Turks don’t agree not to attack our allies the Kurds. He got a very bad reception in Turkey from President Erdogan, who apparently felt he had a different understanding with President Trump on the phone. And now we’re left with kind of as an unresolved picture, where, you know, you had today the U.S. military issuing a fairly anodyne press release saying we’re beginning to withdraw; a lot of the media jumped on this and said, well, they’re withdrawing troops. Well, it turned out that wasn’t quite the case. The military was beginning to withdraw some equipment. But I think the confusion around a simple announcement by the U.S. Army today kind of gets at the broader confusion. We really don’t know. We don’t know what the president wants. We don’t know whether, if the president has a phone call with President Erdogan this weekend, things could shift again. There’s just no clarity at all on what is an issue that normally would be consuming Washington, but this week is, you know, buried under the shutdown.
MR. COSTA: Phil, when you think about that issue of clarity, you have a new acting chief of staff in Mick Mulvaney. Who around the president is going to be that person to try to bring some order, if anyone, in 2019?
MR. RUCKER: Well, the big question is will anybody around the president try to bring order. What we’ve seen is Mick Mulvaney has stepped in to replace General John Kelly, who was the chief of staff, four-star Marine Corps general, as an acting chief of staff, but he’s very much an accelerant for Trump. He’s encouraging his instincts.
MR. COSTA: On the shutdown.
MR. RUCKER: He’s encouraging this political fight on the shutdown.
MR. COSTA: Wow. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. This show goes too quickly, and I thank everybody for being here on a Friday night.
Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. We will discuss new developments in the Russia probe. You’ll want to hear them. You can find it on our podcast app or you can watch it on the website.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend, and thanks for joining us.