ROBERT COSTA: It’s done. The Mueller report is now in the hands of the attorney general. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
The special counsel has completed its investigation. The big question now, how much will be released to the public?
Plus, the president picks fights with House Democrats who want documents and answers.
REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): (From video.) It’s time for the Congress, House and Senate, to grow spines and do what is necessary to protect this democracy.
MR. COSTA: Those battles come as he picks another fight, attacking the late Senator John McCain even as Republicans urge him to stop, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report to Attorney General William Barr late Friday, formally concluding his long probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and a possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. Mr. Barr, who was sworn in last month, then sent a letter to congressional leaders advising them that he may brief them as soon as this weekend. He said he would consult with DOJ officials and Mr. Mueller to decide what will be released to Congress. The attorney general wrote, quote: “I remain committed to as much transparency as possible, and I will keep you informed as to the status of my review.”
Joining me tonight, Michael Tackett, political reporter for The New York Times; Lisa Desjardins, congressional correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; and Anita Kumar, White House correspondent and associate editor for POLITICO.
Dan, what a reckoning for the Department of Justice, a test for this new attorney general. What do we know about how he will handle this moment, perhaps based on his testimony?
DAN BALZ: Well, based on both his testimony and the – and the letter, the excepts from which you just read, we know that he will be careful with this, that he has – he recognizes that there is enormous public hunger to know what’s in this report and pressure that will come from Capitol Hill to release as much of it as possible. The Democrats – the leadership of the – of the Democrats have already demanded that the entire report come out. In his testimony when he was before the Congress for his confirmation, he said he would release as much as he could within the law, which gives him some wiggle room. And the letter today – tonight said that he will consult with Special Counsel Mueller and the deputy attorney general, and perhaps others, to figure out exactly how much of it to release. But he’s under tremendous pressure to release the entirety of the report.
MR. COSTA: Inside the White House, Anita, are they hands-off or hands-on?
ANITA KUMAR: Well, they don’t have a heads up about what’s in there, not yet anyway. They have been preparing for this for months. And this is a White House, as you know, that does not prepare very much. (Laughter.) And you know, they’re always short staffed. But this is something they’ve been looking towards, waiting for it to come out. In the last few weeks they’ve been working on talking points for all kinds of contingency plans, right, for every possible thing that this report could have. They think that the president’s going to be exonerated and they’re hoping that’s what it is. They are more prepared for that than anything else. But they have talking points for inside the White House, they have statements ready to go for when they find out what’s going to happen.
MR. COSTA: So that’s the hope, Michael, but what do we know so far about this report and what could be in it?
MICHAEL TACKETT: Well, we know what you’ve seen in many newspapers – in The Washington Post, in The New York Times, in POLITICO and other places. You’ve had a lot of people charged. You’ve had a lot of people convicted. There’s a lot of paper out there. There’s a huge trail of evidence and we haven’t seen it yet from Robert Mueller. So how that all adds up is what the White House really ought to be worried about.
MR. COSTA: Let’s look at the investigation by the numbers: 37 people and entities have been charged, seven people have pleaded guilty, and five people have been sentenced to terms in prison. As Congress looks at this, especially congressional Democrats, how are they going to push to make this public, whatever it is?
LISA DESJARDINS: We already saw within basically the hour that it was announced that this report had been handed over to the attorney general, we saw Democrats’ united front – Pelosi and Schumer, the leaders of the House and the Senate for Democrats, with a joint statement saying this must be made public. Chuck Schumer held a hastily put together news conference in which he also said this is part of American democracy, there is a demand especially because the stakes are so high for everyone to see this. It’s important that not just the report be released, but Democrats are stressing the supporting documents because there is an open question here. If as is being reported there are no new indictments in this report, there’s a question of whether the president can be indicted. There’s a question of if there’s any material in this that Democrats will want to further investigate. Even if it’s not an indictment, where does the path lead after this?
MR. COSTA: Are you saying that Democrats may want to use the supporting material for impeachment proceedings?
MS. DESJARDINS: That’s exactly right. Thank you for cutting me to the point. Exactly. (Laughter.) I think that’s right. They are curious if there are any impeachable offenses in this, and it’s not clear if Special Counsel Mueller feels he can indict the president. So they want all the materials because they want to decide for themselves if they should impeach the president or not.
MR. COSTA: That’s what they want, Michael, but when you think about the rules of the Department of Justice, if you’re not pursuing prosecution you could be really limited if you’re the attorney general about what you could release to Congress.
MR. TACKETT: That’s how the regulations would read. Now, the Democrats have a different path, though. They have the power of subpoena, so they can go and use what documents they do get as a roadmap – as a roadmap to draft their own subpoenas and get information in a different way. So it doesn’t totally block them just because those regulations are in place.
MR. COSTA: Inside of the president’s circle he has Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer. Spoke to him this morning; he said there is a counter-report ready. You were talking, Anita, about talking points that are ready, but what about Republicans? Are they in touch with the White House to mount a defense for whatever this report has in it?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, so the White House has been working but so has Trump’s reelection campaign and so has the RNC, the Republican National Committee. They are ready for the political talking points, and so they’ve been in touch with Republicans. They’re going to give talking points to state parties. They’re going to talk to congressional Republicans about what they should say. Now, that’s all if it’s good news. If it’s bad news, you know, they’ve got to – they’ve got to cope with that, and you’re not going to see a lot of Republicans wanting to stand with him if there is bad news.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about that, because what will define politically good news and bad news? Is it no indictments, further indictments, Dan? Is it –
MR. BALZ: Well, I think that the – that the – that the White House and Trump’s allies will see the fact that there are no indictments coming in addition to what has already happened as good news for them. And if the findings are that there was no collusion or certainly no collusion that the president was a part of, he will take that as exoneration and run with it. I mean, we’re – this has been a legal proceeding up to now. This investigation is legal. There’s still a lot of legal matters that are ongoing in the Southern District and the Eastern District of Virginia, et cetera. This now becomes a political matter. The issue of impeachment is ultimately a political decision by elected officials as to whether the president in one way or another abused the powers of his office. That’s what Democrats will be looking for, and they will – they will – as Mike said, they will be looking at the underlying information to see what else is in there. But I think, you know, they’ve got – they’ve got some difficult choices to make depending, again, on what’s in the report.
MR. COSTA: Political matter, really also a political war; on Capitol Hill the Trump administration this week in a battle with House Democrats over the Judiciary Committee’s investigations of the president, his campaign and businesses. The White House so far has rejected all requests to hand over records pertaining to Mr. Trump’s private talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s according to Anita at POLITICO. Lawmakers are also raising concerns about Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, who has been using personal emails and an online messaging service to communicate with foreign leaders. These tensions continued this week. Does the White House just sit it out? Do they just wait to – this to maybe go to the courts, to be faced with subpoenas?
MS. DESJARDINS: If they’re looking at the history of the past 30 years, yes. Every White House, including Democratic White Houses, when they’ve been investigated like this by Congress, and even when that rises to subpoenas being issued, they have waited it out. Sometimes they claim executive privilege. This White House is choosing neither to claim nor not claim executive privilege. It’s a very strange limbo that’s making it more difficult for Democrats. However, I think Democrats’ mission here is not just to get to the bottom of this, but to raise questions about the Trump administration. And they see those as justified.
But we saw this week kind of a quiet storm from Democrats. None of these things was the massive – was one massive headline. But as you mentioned, House Judiciary’s been taking action. House Oversight – Chairman Elijah Cummings wrote an op-ed saying that he has been stonewalled on half a dozen different investigations. They are doing furious work in these committees on a large number of fronts, including Kushner’s emails, including president’s communications with the attorney general about pardoning, for example, Michael Cohen. There’s a huge field of investigation still ahead.
And coming back to Mueller, one other thing coming up this week as part of investigations, House Intelligence will talk to a man named Felix Sater who worked with President Trump when he was a candidate on a potential Moscow hotel deal. So whatever comes from the Mueller report, there’s still more questions happening, coming.
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, I totally agree with you, but I am hearing something that’s different this time around, which is no president wants to give documents over to Congress. Nobody wants that. But there’s some reality there, that they can negotiate a little. Well, we’ll give you something, but not everything. We’ll give you something by our deadline, but not the deadline you want. But what this White House is doing, they’re not even responding by letter. Deadlines are coming and going. They don’t send the courtesy letter back to Congress, to these chairmen, saying: We’ve gotten your letter, we’ve gotten your request. They’re just ignoring them. I was told by David Bossie who’s a – as you know – an advisor to the president, who went through this with Bill Clinton. He was an investigator on Capitol Hill then, who said: Let them subpoena us. We’re going to ignore those too. So I mean, they’re taking a really hard line, and they’re just going to wait it out.
MR. TACKETT: And that strategy is totally consistent with their witch hunt narrative. If Robert Mueller’s investigation – which we should all remember was part of the Trump Justice Department that initiated that investigation – if that is a witch hunt then of course that’s what they’re going to say about the Democrats, and they’re going to try to stonewall as long as they can.
MR. BALZ: I think this was, in part, foreshadowed in two ways. One is, just the way the president has approached this entire matter from the very get-go. And the rhetoric on that has ramped up. I was looking at some polling after the Mueller report landed about public opinion toward Muller. And what we’ve seen is Democratic opinion is still strong on his behalf. Independents has dropped a little bit but is still basically at 50 percent support of what Mueller is doing. Republican support has dropped. The president has been able to create a political polarization around this. But also the choice of Emmett Flood to come into the White House as one of the lawyers in the counsel’s office, he’s a hardliner on just issues of executive privilege and the power of the executive versus Congress. So I think you have both the president’s instinct and some legal firepower behind that to do what Anita’s talking about.
MR. COSTA: Anita, when you were talking to those Democrats, do they recognize the political challenges they face because the president has been slamming the DOJ for over a year, that they may want to mount these investigations, but they also maybe need to make a political case as well?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah. You know, they’re asking for – you know, nearly every House committee now is investigating the administration. I didn’t really hear a realization from anyone – and maybe the speaker, Speaker Pelosi, has to deal with this. They can’t pursue all of them. They can’t subpoena everybody on all of those things. They’d be tied up in court for years, way past the president’s term first – even if he had a second term. So there needs to be some realization by House Democrats they have to pick their shots and really go after what they want to go after.
MR. COSTA: And when you think about this week, the president was in fighting mode day after day, picking battles and making dramatic moves. It puts a lot – the Mueller report finally being released on Friday puts a lot of this in perspective. And each of these fights this week revealed something about his presidency in this moment, and how the president’s going about pursuing his aims. And during a visit to a military plant in Ohio, President Trump criticized the late Arizona Senator John McCain.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I endorsed him, at his request. And I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted. I didn’t get a thank you. That’s OK. Not my kind of guy.
MR. COSTA: In the past, Mr. Trump’s attacks against the late war hero have been cheered at his political rallies, but that wasn’t the case, The New York Times reported, this week. In Mike’s article he writes: At the Army tank plant in Lima, in front of veterans, the denunciations drew no cheers. Reporters around Washington, Michael, were wondering: Why was the president going after Senator McCain? Why was he continuing to play to his base? The Mueller report was always on the horizon.
MR. TACKETT: I think it was not just reporters. I think it was a lot of his fellow Republicans were wondering why he did this. And you see that, and it’s as though he thinks that the concentrated base of 30 percent is what he needs, because that’s the kind of people who would cheer the line about John McCain. Every time he says things about John McCain I think it puts in peril any kind of suburban, independent-leaning person, independent-leaning voter, and also any kind of senator in a swing state, because most people I think would agree that there’s a certain lack of grace in speaking ill of somebody who’s passed away.
MR. COSTA: The president goes to his base, whether it’s these attacks on Senator McCain, usually it wouldn’t work. Senator McCain’s a former Republican nominee, he’s a fallen war hero, someone who has just recently passed away. Many Republicans in Congress revere him, Republicans across the country, others, Democrats, independents, revere him. What is the point the president’s trying to make here? Is it that McCain – late Senator McCain is anti – is seen as the establishment, and the president wants to be seen as anti-establishment by attacking him?
MS. DESJARDINS: I think he’s drawing on a few threads. I think, first of all, it’s not a coincidence that the president launched these attacks the week after he saw the largest Republican rebellion against him in the U.S. Senate, when 12 Republican senators voted against his emergency declaration. Now, that’s a very small minority of the Republicans in the Senate, but that’s a very large amount to President Trump. And the truth is, talking to senators behind the scene, there were a lot – there were six to eight other Republican senators. They had to work hard. It was – as Rand Paul told me, it was a bloody fight behind the scenes over those votes. So that was something the president’s sensitive about. He’s signaling to them: You go against me, I’m never going to forget it. I’m going to bring it up forever.
I also do think that John McCain has come to represent the establishment in a way that is ironic for John McCain. He never saw himself as an establishment kind of character, right? You know, but somehow because, say, maybe campaign finance was part of that, when he bucked the more conservative wing of the party, the kind of fundraising wing. I also think when he lost to Barack Obama, that’s something that the kind of Trump wing of the party has held against John McCain. And that John McCain stood up for Barack Obama. All of that folds into this.
MR. BALZ: I was struck at his performance at the tank factory. The bill of particulars that he laid out against Senator McCain started with his recalling that it was McCain who had given the Steele dossier to the Justice Department. So in the context of a week in which I think everybody thought this Mueller report might land, that was clearly on his mind. And then he also mentioned the vote that McCain did to sink the repeal of Obamacare, which was in many ways a crushing defeat for the Republican Party as a whole, but for the president, because he needed – he desperately wanted an early victory, and he didn’t get it. And so his anger at McCain just – it’s so full at this point. And in the context of the Muller report it seemed to me that it was just kind of boiling over.
MR. COSTA: Was there a strategy here? Was this just a personal grievance by President Trump? Anita, then we’ll go to Mike. Was this about the president also continuing to rail against Secretary Clinton at rallies, continuing to rail against the late Senator McCain? He just picks these targets again and again. And often, though not in Lima, his base cheers him on.
MS. KUMAR: Right. I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this with Senator McCain. I think he’s going to bring it back up. Now, he’s more likely to bring it back up at these campaign rallies where people do cheer. You know, we’ve been hearing that a lot of his advisors want him to continue to do – maybe not say the thing he did about John McCain, but to go around the country and do these economic events – do this for his election. But actually, what he’s wanting to do is kind of itching to get back out on the campaign rallies. And we’re going to hear about these things – Hillary Clinton, John McCain.
MR. TACKETT: He’s the only incumbent president that I can remember who has done nothing to try to expand his base once he was elected – in fact, spends all of his time just trying to solidify his base. And that’s going to be one of the bigger challenges as they go into the campaign.
MR. COSTA: Is that about stoking the base even more? Is that his strategy for 2020, just ratchet that base up even more?
MR. TACKETT: You know, it seems to be. It’s hard to understand why you would say something petty like, you know, McCain, you know, didn’t pay for the funeral – you know, I didn’t pay for the funeral, I gave you permission, say thank you. That part made no sense. And so – but he has that amen corner that so far has been immovable.
MR. BALZ: In talking to Democratic strategists, one of the things that several have noted – and they have been involved in campaigns that have been tough campaigns – they have said that when Trump does what he does and goes into a place and, you know, rallies his supporters, that has a big effect. And it has a real effect on turnout. And the more that he’s able to ramp up both the turnout and the margins in some of these smaller communities, rural areas, counties that are outside the metropolitan areas, the more it offsets what the Democrats are able to do in the urban areas. And so there is – there is a strategic reason for this even though he’s talking to the already converted.
MR. COSTA: And on foreign policy we saw a lot of activity this week. The president met with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, a fellow nationalist. We saw the president recognize Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, angering many U.S. allies in Europe who don’t want to see the U.S. take sides in that skirmish, that land between Syria and Israel. Inside of the White House, why the moves on North Korea on Friday to make sure the North Koreans don’t have all these sanctions over them, or these Chinese companies that are related to North Korea don’t have sanctions on them, why the meeting with Bolsonaro, and then on top of it all the recognition of the Golan Heights and Israel’s control?
MS. KUMAR: On at least two of those things his aides didn’t even realize that they were coming, right?
MR. COSTA: What do you mean by that?
MS. KUMAR: It took them by surprise. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was surprised about North Korea. So, you know, these two things he – you know, presidents in the past spend weeks/months deciding things, deciding policy and how they might roll it out. In a couple of these cases, President Trump just tweeted something, said something, and just decided it. You know, the Israel – what you were talking about was a perfect example. This is something that the Israeli prime minister has been pushing him to do. This is a good friend of his. His election is coming up. He pressed him personally and there it was; he sent out a tweet and took his whole administration by surprise.
MR. TACKETT: It was a total gift to Netanyahu, and it’s really rare for an American president to be so forward in trying to affect the outcome of an election in another country. But he’s been consistent on that and I think you have to give him credit for that.
MR. COSTA: When you think about the challenges President Trump faces, it’s not just the Mueller report, it’s not just all of these issues abroad; he’s also looking at a situation with the economy the Federal Reserve has said they’re not going to raise rates for the rest of this year, and he’s also trying to get a trade deal, the USMCA, the new revised version of NAFTA, through Congress. Yet, Democrats on Capitol Hill appear to be intent on stopping that.
MS. DESJARDINS: I think that’s right, and I think they realize that apart from a scandal – a Mueller report or another investigation that takes down the president – the economy turning sour is their greatest large-force hope of having, you know, help in 2020 against this president. And there are signs that the economy, while robust right now, may be slowing down. There is a little tiny tick of concern. We saw CEOs from The Business Roundtable this week downgrade their GDP estimate for the last quarter. We see Wall Street starting to rattle again, as it has been for the past few months. And none of this is helped by the president not yet having a deal with China over tariffs. So all the more does he need the North American version of his trade deal prowess to show how good he is and it get through Congress, but all the more do Democrats are they interested in blocking it.
MR. COSTA: Two years in, is this moment the real significant test we’ve seen for President Trump with all of this on his plate?
MR. TACKETT: He’s got so much on his plate, and just one point on the economy. Remember when James Carville said that if he believed in reincarnation he’d want to come back as something really powerful, like the bond market? (Laughter.) The bond market today sent a very strong signal that Wall Street paid attention to on the – on the yield curve in the bond market, and that suggests that a recession could be looming. It’s been a predictor of that in the past. That’s something the White House will focus intensely on.
MR. COSTA: Why does the – why does that yield curve matter to most people in the market?
MR. TACKETT: Because they see that as a debt problem, they see that as a slowdown indicator, and they see that as a contraction measure.
MR. COSTA: About President Trump two years, two-and-a-half years in, all of this on his agenda, all these challenges.
MR. BALZ: You know, I’m tempted to say you’re absolutely right, and you are. On the other hand, we’ve had a number of moments over the first two-and-a-half years where on any given Friday night we might be saying the same thing. But I think that – I mean, we have reached a different point because we’ve been waiting for a long time for the Mueller report. We now move into a different phase. We don’t know what’s in the report tonight, we don’t know what will happen as a result of that, but we’re clearly moving into something different. And I think that the – that the president and the White House are certainly going to be geared up to battle this in every way they possibly can. And ultimately this may not be something that Congress decides; it’s going to be the American people in the election of 2020, and we’re a long way from having any sense of what that’s going to look like.
MS. KUMAR: I do think that even though we don’t know what’s in the report, whatever it is this is what the campaign’s going to be about in 2020. Democrats are going to say if there’s something bad in there that there’s something bad and we don’t want him to be reelected, but the president is going to say if he’s exonerated, look, they wasted all this time, they wasted two years on this, the Democrats are going to waste two more years on more investigations and I’m just sitting here doing what I need to be doing. So he’s going to be pushing back hard. If we think we’ve seen him the last two years trying to fight, I think we’re going to see another phase of that.
MR. COSTA: We’ll keep our eyes on all these phases. This is just one tonight. More news will happen this weekend. We’ll keep reporting on all of it. Thanks, everybody, for being here.
Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. That’s every Friday night.
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I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend and we’ll see you next time.