ROBERT COSTA: The White House denies a report that the president urged his lawyer to lie, but Russia-related questions pile up. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The government shutdown has no end in sight and the challenges are only mounting for the Trump administration. The latest is a BuzzFeed News report that claims President Trump directed his former personal attorney to lie to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. On Friday BuzzFeed posted an update that, quote, “A spokesperson for the special counsel is now disputing this BuzzFeed News report.” The White House also called it false and ridiculous. Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to the FBI and Congress, and has been cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He’s also preparing to testify before Congress next month, just weeks before he begins a three-year prison sentence. That report comes less than a week after Michael Schmidt and his colleagues at The New York Times broke the story that the FBI had launched a counterintelligence investigation into President Trump after he fired FBI Director James Comey.
Joining me tonight is Michael Schmidt, a Pulitzer Prize-willing Washington correspondent for the Times; Kelly O’Donnell, White House correspondent for NBC News; Laura Jarrett, Justice Department correspondent for CNN; and Jake Sherman, senior writer at POLITICO and co-editor of Playbook.
Many news organizations are still working on this story to see if it’s true or parts of it are true, but it raises questions about whether President Trump obstructed justice. Michael, it’s a difficult story. The special counsel is coming out tonight, breaking news just a few minutes before the show, saying it’s not accurate. When you look at this story as a veteran investigative reporter, what matters here?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, first of all, for these reporters, this is the worst nightmare, to have someone like the special counsel who never talks coming out and saying that this isn’t correct. The reason why this story mattered so much is that the obstruction case against the president is very difficult because a lot of the decisions he made are intertwined with his executive powers. So instead of going down all that area, this would have been cleaner. This was him telling someone to lie. That’s a much cleaner obstruction case. He doesn’t have the right to do that. He did have the right to fire his FBI director. And because of that, that’s why within just minutes or hours of that story coming out last night you saw the House Democrats and even some in the Senate talking about impeachment. They knew it was a clean case. And now it looks like it doesn’t exist.
MR. COSTA: What, to you, though, is the key issue with the Trump Tower Moscow project, with regard to the special counsel investigation?
MR. SCHMIDT: Well, the whole issue is, is that could the Trump Tower Moscow explain – start to explain a lot of Trump’s behavior on the campaign? Is that truly why he wanted to embrace Russia – he just wanted to build a tower there, he never thought he would win, and that’s why he became so Russia – that’s the whole thing, the mystery of Trump. You have to remember, the Republican candidate before him ran as Russia is our greatest threat and he ran as Russia is our best friend, and we’ve never understood that. We’ve never understood the intellectual underpinnings of that or anything, and maybe the tower provides an explanation.
MR. COSTA: Laura, you’re an attorney. You also cover the Justice Department. When you digested this story today and you talked to your sources – put aside even the details of the BuzzFeed report – what’s the legal peril facing the president at this moment?
LAURA JARRETT: Well, in the beginning when everyone was trying to vet it and trying to figure out, if true and if anyone could corroborate it, the issue was immediately, as Mike pointed out, OK, this is suborning perjury. This is a felony. This is serious. There’s not any sort of shading about whether he’s within his rights to do this. The president cannot obstruct justice by suborning perjury. And so that was his immediate exposure that I think everyone recognized, but then no one corroborated it. No one matched it. None of our outlets, at least that I saw, could provide anything to substantiate it. And part of, I think, the backbone that left everyone thinking, OK, there’s a there there is a piece of the article that said the special counsel had documents – text messages, emails, other sort of documentary evidence – but no one saw what any of that looked like, and at least one of the reporters said that they hadn’t seen it. And so it sort of left us with a lot of questions today that ultimately the special counsel is saying are not true.
MR. COSTA: Kelly, the White House jumped on this today, defiant, both the White House spokesperson and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. What was it like at the West Wing?
KELLY O’DONNELL: It was very tense today, and we expected a response more quickly than we got it. The initial wave of response was discrediting Cohen, which is something that’s been done for months. It was sort of a re-warmed, reheated anti-Cohen message: don’t believe him, therefore anything else doesn’t hold. It was striking that it took so long for them to address the underlying issue, did the president instruct anyone to lie to Congress, and they have refuted that. Now, with the Office of Special Counsel putting out this statement that says that the reporting is not accurate, this is difficult for every reporter in Washington. This is not a good day for media and it will be a gift to the president to revert to fake news and some of his claims, and I would expect they will trumpet that. If there are aspects of the story that prove true that could easily be lost in the fact that it is so rare for the special counsel’s team to comment. It’s a very challenging day.
There’s also this concern that I think there are many people who are anxious that there will be a big smoking-gun moment, when will that come. And this reporting, because of what you mentioned with the supporting documentation, could it have been there, going beyond the words of a now-convicted liar – Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer – could there be some document, kind of digital fingerprints on this that would point at the president or those close to him? Now we really don’t know. And so when there’s an absence of certainty, the void gets filled with a lot of conversation, a lot of talk, and a lot of speculation, and now we don’t really know where we are.
MR. COSTA: So a lot of questions about this BuzzFeed story, but the questions about the president and obstruction, they’re not going away. They came up this week at the confirmation hearings for attorney general nominee William Barr. Here’s an exchange with Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): (From video.) In your memo, you talked about the Comey decision and you talk about obstruction of justice. And you already went over that, which I appreciate. You wrote on page one that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?
WILLIAM BARR (nominee to be attorney general): (From video.) Yes.
SEN. KLOBUCHAR: (From video.) OK, and –
MR. BARR: (From video.) Any – well, you know, any person who persuades another to – yeah.
SEN. KLOBUCHAR: (From video.) Any person, OK. You also said that a president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?
MR. BARR: (From video.) Yes.
MR. COSTA: Jake, the Barr nomination, where does it stand on Capitol Hill? What did you make of the hearing this week?
JAKE SHERMAN: I think he surprised a few people. I think he was much more forceful in defending the Mueller probe than some would expect, and I think he’s going to probably sail to confirmation. And Senate Republicans have bigger numbers, and along with bigger numbers go a – confirmations go a lot easier. But I do think that people were caught off guard, and I think that is an important thing to keep in mind here as the vote gets closer to the floor.
MR. COSTA: When you talk about the Barr hearings, we heard a – Kelly was talking about the digital fingerprints, the evidence we’re all looking for, and that could come, Mike, in the Mueller report. What did we learn about that Mueller report, whether it will be actually released to the public or to Congress, this week from Barr?
MR. SCHMIDT: So the conventional wisdom in Washington was, what I’m about to say, is not right, was that there was going to be a report – Mueller will give his report to Congress. Well, we sort of knew about that if you had studied the regulations, but the public sort of got a lesson on that this week as Barr tried to answer questions about this. And basically, what it is, is that Mueller is supposed to send a report to the attorney general and then the attorney general can decide what goes to Congress. But the attorney general could be very limited in what they can do because of the way evidence comes in, whether it’s classified, whether there’s executive privilege stuff. And the Democrats on the Hill wanted this commitment. They wanted Barr to say: Yes, I will give you the unredacted copy of Mueller’s report for you to do whatever you want with. And Barr is basically saying, look, I haven’t even found out what Muller has arranged with the – you know, the person overseeing the investigation at the Justice Department. I don’t know what’s going to be in the report. I can’t make those commitments to you. And I think you’ll see some Democrats, some senior Democrats, use that as an excuse to not vote for Barr, saying that he will not commit to giving the full report to Congress.
MR. COSTA: Just following up, Jake, you’re so plugged in with congressional Democrats, are Democrats talking about impeachment more?
MR. SHERMAN: Yes. I mean, I don’t – yes, they are. And I don’t see a scenario in which they could avoid impeachment one way or the other over the next couple years.
MR. COSTA: But is Speaker Pelosi trying to control that discussion?
MR. SHERMAN: Well, so far Speaker Pelosi has said impeachment needs to be bipartisan; it needs to come from members of both parties. Now, as she’s antagonized more and more by President Trump, her patience might wear thin and she might change her mind and say, listen, I’m going to let people have a longer leash in these investigations. I actually think from a congressional point of view impeachment is the least – one of the least-damaging – it’s very damaging – but investigations from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Judiciary Committee, the Intelligence Committee, those are incredibly damaging to the president too. And those will go on. And they will drag on for months on end, even perhaps before impeachment takes hold.
MR. COSTA: And there are bigger questions about what’s happening with the president and Russia, because amid all this reporting by Mike and the Times, and BuzzFeed, The Washington Post broke the story that the president has gone to great lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including confiscating the notes of his own interpreters. Greg Miller reported: U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of President Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Laura, when you think about that story, what are the questions inside of the intelligence community, the Department of Justice, about the president’s role with Russia, with Putin?
MS. JARRETT: I think the question with all these stories is why. Why are you concealing these, you know, communications? Now, to be fair to them, I think Kellyanne Conway, his senior advisor, has said: Well, look, leaks were a real issue at the time. But then that just raises the question of, you don’t have anyone close to you who has, you know, a classified – (laughs) – like, intelligence briefing that you trust to receive these communications? I think that’s a – that’s a real problem. And I think it raises questions about exactly – you know, what exactly is going on there and why. I mean, we’ll wait to see what more comes out of that, but I at least I think some other reporting from The New York Times and others suggests that Mueller is interested in those meetings with Putin. And so there’s more there.
MS. O’DONNELL: I think what is hard to sometimes put into decades of convention – and this is a president who likes to use the force of his personality and relationships to deal with these world leaders. And he seems to find it a nuisance to deal with some of the rules, where the work product of a meeting with a world leader like Vladimir Putin would be of value to his State Department in the right setting, to other parts of the government. He seems to view it as the one-on-one of two presidents, and not see that there is a real need, and a history, for sharing that information more broadly.
And there were leaks that were a concern. And this does raise questions, because it always seems to come back to Russia. The president would say: If I have meetings with other world leaders, no one seems to be all that interested. But when it’s Putin, people zero in on it. If he could embrace the fact that there is a purpose for things like those kinds of reports and reading in his own senior officials, perhaps that would tamp down some of the controversy that swirls around him. But he likes to be his own – his own chief of staff, his own communicator, and apparently his own secretary of state sometimes.
MR. COSTA: Laura’s point about the intent matters so much. Is he breaking the norms or is there something else at play? That really gets to the heart of what your story was about with your colleagues.
MR. SCHMIDT: Yeah, and the thing is the president complains a lot about Russia, but he continues to do things that raise the questions him – you know, and through his own actions. This thing just a few weeks ago, at the end of last year, where he’s talking about how the USSR went into Afghanistan, and why they went into Afghanistan, lining up on a very sort of narrow issue in terms of world history – lining up directly with the Kremlin on such a thing. You know, the president is not a student of history. And just going forward with that, there are these things. His behavior in Helsinki. I mean, we could cite all these other things. He continues to do this to himself.
And if you’re Bob Mueller, you inherited this investigation that, at least in the beginning, was a counterintelligence investigation looking into whether the president – you know, his ties to Russia. You still have him in office doing things like that, like the Greg Miller report in the Post about destroying the – or taking the documents away. If you’re Mueller do you just say OK? Like, I’m going to close up shop and say there’s no problem here, as he continues to do that?
MR. COSTA: Well, the attorney general nominee Bill Barr, he has said he’s going to allow Mueller to continue on. And actually, CNN reported they’re pretty close friends, and that surprised the president.
MS. JARRETT: Which is bizarre because by all accounts Bill Barr was pretty transparent with the president about how well he knew Mueller. He said, look, I think he’s a straight shooter and if you kind of just let this play out, you’ll be OK. And you sort of see this in that 19-page missive and also his opening statement. He kind of previews this idea that it’s needed for the country and a sort of open and airing of everything that happened is sort of required here, given how big the stakes are. But apparently during the hearing the president is bristling at the fact that he is so glowing about Bob Mueller.
Now, again, he was Mueller’s boss when Mueller is leading the Criminal Division at the Justice Department. How he didn’t know that these two men know each other – they’ve got to their children’s weddings – again, is mystifying. But he clearly, and perhaps it’s just because it was on TV, he did not like the optics of the chumminess.
MR. SCHMIDT: But the thing about Barr’s testimony and what he was saying is that we know a lot of what Donald Trump wants in an attorney general. He wants someone who – and he’s open about it – who’s loyal to him more than anything else, puts his priorities first, is sort of a personal lawyer to him. If you’re the president and that’s your view, and you saw Barr testify, you had to say: Where’s the guy from the memo that I was sold on? Bill Barr came across as a man of justice, you know, someone who, you know, spent all this time in the Justice Department, who, you know, says I’m going to do the right thing. I’m at the end of my career. I’m can do these things. The president had to say, that’s not what I wanted.
MR. COSTA: But he signaled, at least, in the email to The New York Times, Bill Barr, that he at least in recent years had some pretty conservative views, some pretty Trump-friendly views.
MR. SCHMIDT: A very, very partisan statement that he had given to us in November of 2017 about how Uranium One was much more of an issue than collusion or obstruction that was being looked at. That, at the time, was a fairly partisan thing. That’s not the person you saw testifying the other day.
MS. O’DONNELL: So the president thought, you had me at Uranium One. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHMIDT: Yes, exactly.
MR. COSTA: But that’s what the senators have to consider. And as the senators don’t have to just deal with the Russia questions that are everywhere this week. There’s also the partial government shutdown that soon enters week five, and the dramatic developments in the battle between the president and congressional Democrats. First, Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the president to postpone the State of the Union because of security issues. Twenty-four hours later, President Trump denied the speaker’s request for military transport for her and other lawmakers to visit Afghanistan and NATO leaders in Europe. Speaker Pelosi said she was prepared to fly commercial until, she alleged, the president leaked her planned trip.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We weren’t going to go because we had a report from Afghanistan that the president outing our trip had made the scene on the ground much more dangerous.
MR. COSTA: There’s the shutdown, and then there’s the relationship that’s dominating Washington – Speaker Pelosi, President Trump. Where does it stand? Is it totally a stalemate?
MR. SHERMAN: The president is getting used to, getting accustomed to the fact that Congress is not on his side, that the House is not on his side. He’s had a Congress for two years that’s mostly bowed to all of his desires and all of his wishes – although, sometimes, dragged kicking and screaming. I think that – listen, let’s lay this out: The president can do what he did. He can say that Pelosi cannot use military transport. The speaker has enormous sway over all of the president’s priorities. Pelosi is an appropriator. She’s somebody who understands the congressional budget process and how to use it to maximum impact to starve the president of any achievements going into the 2020 election. Those are facts. The other fact is the two sides are not speaking at the moment. And –
MR. COSTA: Didn’t Vice President Pence go to the Capitol on Thursday?
MR. SHERMAN: Vice President Pence went to the Capitol to speak to Mitch McConnell. Those two people are in the same party. Democrats control the House. There are no talks at the moment – again, as you noted, week five – there’s no deals being traded. There’s no offers being traded. Now the president’s going to come out and make a statement tomorrow afternoon about the shutdown, he says, in which he’s expected to lay out some pathways to getting this solved.
MR. COSTA: What does that mean?
MR. SHERMAN: I don’t know what it means. And I’m not sure that he knows what it means, because he has been so vastly misguided by his aides it’s criminal. It’s really – it’s really scary –
MR. COSTA: Politically criminal.
MR. SHERMAN: Politically criminal. (Laughter.) It’s very bad for the president that he’s been misled to believe things that are just – if you have even elementary knowledge of politics you would know that the president – the Republican president would not have more leverage when a Democratic House took over. He’s been led to believe these things, and he’s a political novice so we can understand it, but it’s really scary for him.
MR. COSTA: What are you hearing about the Saturday announcement?
MS. O’DONNELL: What I don’t expect to hear is that it would be the national emergency.
MR. COSTA: Why not?
MS. O’DONNELL: The reason for that is that I think the trajectory of opinions going to the president and the circumstances politically have been moving away from that because he recognizes that it gets tied up in a court battle, it creates a power of the presidency that could be used by future presidents in ways they don’t want, and it doesn’t really solve the problem. Also, appropriators from the Republican side don’t want to see money pulled away from things that were already designated. It’s not the way Washington is supposed to work. So at least from the officials that I have talked to, I have not gotten any sort of a flicker that the national emergency is likely for this Saturday announcement.
Having said that, they absolutely say the president retains that power, has that power, thinks about that power. It almost feels, as hard as it is to say at nearly a month into the shutdown, that the time has not yet come for that. Is there a way to jolt Democrats to negotiate? Democrats have not wanted to sit across the table from the president. The president has not wanted to hear what they have to say. It’s really been cold.
MR. COSTA: Well, they’re waiting to see if moderate Republicans in the Senate are going to crack. Could those moderate Republicans like Senator Lamar Alexander, Senator Portman of Ohio – not necessarily moderate, but they’re moderate at least on the shutdown and wanting the government to reopen – could they push McConnell?
MS. O’DONNELL: They’re more governance types of Republicans and people who are up for reelection in 2020. They would love to see some action, but they don’t have sway over the House Democrats. So we have a situation where it’s not two sides; it’s a myriad of sides. And Mitch McConnell, who many people are saying where is McConnell, McConnell can see where this isn’t going, and he plays his game behind – and I mean that in the legislative way, not in a pejorative way – behind the curtain. He’s not someone who craves the camera. So at a moment when he knows there’s a deal to be had, he will be present. Right now, can the president offer something to Democrats that would get them to negotiate? I think that’s the big question for Saturday.
MR. COSTA: Would the Justice Department and your sources there think this national emergency, if the president leaned in that direction, would it be challenged in the courts, in the federal courts?
MS. JARRETT: I think it is universally seen as something that would at least get challenged. How a court rules on it I think is up in the air, but it is almost certainly – I mean, immediately, Democrats will hop on that.
But I think the larger point is, you know, in Washington we focus on, like, who’s up and who’s down politically. There are hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are not getting paid. The government isn’t shut down; people just aren’t getting paid.
MR. COSTA: Even DOJ is having issues, correct?
MS. JARRETT: Even the FBI is facing a situation where workers are resorting to food banks. That is how bad –
MR. COSTA: The FBI has food banks?
MS. JARRETT: In certain – in certain districts there are food banks being set up for FBI members who are making, you know, $35,000 a year and don’t know when a paycheck is coming. And that is, at least for some people I’m hearing, a national security issue.
And the other issue is that they also are asking for DOJ for opinions about outside employment because they’re getting to a certain point where they’re thinking, OK, we don’t know how long this is going on. It’s part of the uncertainty. And so, because there are certain ethics rules, DOJ has to sign off on any outside employment.
MR. COSTA: What about the Mueller investigation? Does it continue regardless of the shutdown?
MR. SCHMIDT: Yeah, Mueller is funded as – doesn’t have funding issues and they’ve continued to do the work there. But the thing about the shutdown that I think we’re not talking about is what it’s done to the favorability numbers for the president and the fact that we saw the unfavorability numbers be higher than the favorability in terms of non-college-educated white males, and that’s the president’s base, and that is so crucial to him.
MR. COSTA: There was a PBS poll this week that shows him dipping below 40 percent and losing support among those non-college-educated white voters.
MR. SCHMIDT: The moat around his presidency is the support of his base, and if he were to lose that then, if there’s momentum against him in the House on impeachment, he could get himself into a lot of trouble. So, you know, is this shutdown, you know, really, really damaging himself politically for really important things down the road?
MR. COSTA: What breaks it open?
MR. SHERMAN: I’m not sure, but I talked to a senior House Democrat today who basically said to me: If you look at all the polling, no one’s blaming us yet; everybody’s blaming Republicans and the president, so our incentive is not there at this moment. What breaks it open? I don’t know the answer to that. There are pathways. The deal here is very clear, it’s some DACA protections for a wall. It’s been the same deal that has been feasible for a year, that Congress has punted on for the last two years, very clear.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Kelly, we’re going to get to you in the webcast. We have so much to discuss. Thanks, everybody, for being here tonight.
Our conversation will continue on that Washington Week Podcast. You can find it on your favorite app or watch it on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend and thanks for joining us.