PETE WILLIAMS: Fired or forced out? President Trump replaces more senior staff with likeminded advisors. I’m Pete Williams, in for Robert Costa. We discuss the churn inside the White House as Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation looks at the Trump Organization’s business practices, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) But there will always be change, and I think you want to see change.
MR. WILLIAMS: Just 14 months into office, President Trump reshapes his administration.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.
MR. WILLIAMS: This week he fired the secretary of state and chose the CIA director to take over. The president is also reportedly preparing to name his third national security adviser in less than a year. Scandals and embarrassing headlines have put other Cabinet secretaries on thin ice, including VA Secretary David Shulkin, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over their lavish travel spending, and HUD Secretary Ben Carson over a $31,000 dining table for his office.
Also this week, the Trump administration slaps new sanctions on Russia to punish Moscow for 2016 election meddling and its attempts to penetrate the U.S. power grid. All this as the U.S. joins allies in blaming Russia for a nerve agent attack in Britain.
We discuss it all with Jonathan Swan of Axios, Abby Phillip of CNN, Peter Baker of The New York Times, and Susan Glasser of POLITICO.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, substituting for Robert Costa, Pete Williams of NBC News.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening. Here’s a tip for top officials in the Trump administration who are eager to keep their jobs: Don’t leave town. James Comey found out he’d been fired last year while on a trip to Los Angeles. Rex Tillerson was warned that he was about to be fired on a visit to Africa and got the final word just a few hours after returning home. President Trump insists that reports of West Wing chaos and more purges to come are exaggerations, but the president acknowledges that he is considering more changes after his sudden firing of Rex Tillerson. For Tillerson’s replacement, the president has chosen CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a hawkish Trump loyalist who’s a former Kansas congressman and a graduate of West Point and Harvard Law. Mr. Trump wants Gina Haspel to become the first woman to lead the CIA. She’s a career CIA employee, currently the deputy director. Her confirmation could be complicated, though, by the fact that she oversaw a torture program at a CIA prison after 9/11. And Mr. Trump is apparently ready to replace National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. That word comes just a few days after the president suggested that he wants to build a new team of advisors who are aligned with his agenda and style. Here’s how The Washington Post summarized the turnover and the turmoil: “The mood inside the White House in recent days has verged on mania as Trump increasingly keeps his own counsel and senior aides struggle to determine the gradations between rumor and truth.” So, Peter Baker, what is going on? Is the president more comfortable making these decisions, or does he want people to fight it out to see who’s going to win?
PETER BAKER: Well, this is definitely the wildest week we’ve seen in the Trump presidency since, well, last week probably. (Laughter.) I mean, the thing is he likes this kind of chaos, if you want to use that word. He likes this kind of churning. It keeps things exciting. Remember, he spent 14 years as a reality show host, and he wants us coming back for the next episode. So we have a cliffhanger this week: H.R. McMaster’s supposed to be fired, but not today; so come back next week, we’ll see whether he’s there.
MR. WILLIAMS: Now, is this your own metaphor, or do you think that’s the way he really thinks about it?
MR. BAKER: I do think it’s the way he thinks about it. Our reporting has shown that he told people at the beginning of this presidency think of this like a reality show with a weekly episode; you have to keep the viewers interested. I don’t think that’s the only way he thinks of his presidency, of course, but it is part of his way of keeping us engaged, and he doesn’t mind that we get off-discipline. You know, other presidents really, really resist, you know, hosting – or, sorry, sponsoring a big trip to California for the purposes of showcasing his big policy initiative on the border wall and distracting with something else. This president has no problem with that. If you want to pay attention to the other thing, fine. He’s going to do three, four, five things a day; keep up with him, please.
MR. WILLIAMS: OK. So, on Rex Tillerson, let me ask you again: What was most surprising about that, that it happened or that it took so long to happen?
MR. BAKER: I think that it took so long to happen, in a way. He’s been kind of the, forgive the phrase, but dead man walking for quite a while. Remember, it was last August he was reported to have said by NBC that the president was a “moron.” It’s really hard to come back from that. And I think the president only left him there so long because we had all been writing stories and reporting stories on air about how he was on the way out, and he, you know, decided to show us that he was the one in charge, not us, so he left Rex Tillerson in place for a while. But it was ultimately going to happen.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Abby, could he have lasted longer if he had been more adept at internal politics within the administration instead of being such a lone cowboy?
ABBY PHILLIP: Perhaps, but probably not. It seemed very much that the problem with Rex Tillerson in this administration was a personality misalignment with the president and that they didn’t have a style of communicating with each other that was effective. And beyond that, Tillerson had a very hard time being second fiddle to another chief executive. He came from Exxon, where he was the top man, and wanted to run things his way. He wanted to take his time restructuring the State Department, for example, which some people have criticized as essentially a gutting of that department. But all in all, Tillerson did not fit into the government particularly well, and he certainly didn’t fit into Trump’s chaotic world well at all. At the end of the day, the “moron” issue became kind of the big elephant in the room with Trump in part also because Tillerson never actually denied it. He still to this day has not denied it. He simply just doesn’t answer the question. And with Trump, he – you know, he knew about it. He wasn’t happy about it. But Tillerson’s insistence on continuing to just let it be there was something that kept it front of mind for Trump every time they, you know, were face to face on – whether on the substantive policy issues or on other more minute things, just simply being in the same room.
MR. WILLIAMS: Susan, we know about their big differences on the Iran nuclear deal, for example, but does Rex Tillerson deserve some credit for setting the table for the North Korean talks, or did that happen in spite of him?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, it’s interesting. Obviously, the president’s decision to go ahead and announce that he was going to meet face to face with Kim Jong-un was a surprise to everybody, including the South Koreans who were there to present the offer, including his own staff. Remember, he – this was last week’s episode, so we might have forgotten – but, you know, President Trump did an extraordinary thing. He actually walked in, pulled his aides out of a meeting with the South Koreans, said no, no, no, I know I was supposed to meet with them tomorrow, I’d like to do this right now, brought them into the Oval Office. Look at that picture and it tells you an awful lot, I think, about how the Trump White House is working right now. You have H.R. McMaster in there. You have Jim Mattis, his secretary of defense. You have poor Rex Tillerson off in Africa, not even consulted. Everybody sitting around; Donald Trump says I’ll just do it. So, sure, Rex Tillerson was advocating for negotiations for months, but remember President Trump started to publicly undercut him on that. That also began over the summer with tweets, by the way, while Tillerson was on overseas travel. And, you know, no one believes that this is part of some carefully planned out strategic summitry that Donald Trump is engaging in. So, you know, we don’t know what the background work is. Remember, there’s no ambassador to South Korea. The State Department’s longtime envoy, Joe Yun, just quit the State Department. And so, you know, you don’t have a long preparation already underway for this summit between Trump and Kim.
MR. WILLIAMS: So there may be a new secretary at the State Department, Mike Pompeo. What do you know about his style, about whether he might go about fixing the hollowed-out State Department that Rex Tillerson has left him? And how will he be different?
MR. SWAN: Well, he’ll be different – the most important way he’ll be different is you had a secretary of state which did not speak for the president. And that was very obvious to everyone. It was obvious to foreign leaders. It was obvious to people on Capitol Hill. One senator who is very close with Mike Pompeo and is very close with Donald Trump said to me: You can have separation between the president and his attorney general. I mean, we’ve seen that. Trump is – obviously loathes and despises Jeff Sessions, takes great glee in humiliating him. But actually, that can be kind of useful. You can have a bit of a separation between the Justice Department and the White House.
You can’t have that with the secretary of state. Mike Pompeo has a personal intimacy with Trump. He briefs him daily. He’s a guy’s guy. They joke. They – it’s actually kind of a jocular relationship in a similar way that Trump had actually with Mike Flynn. They just, you know, shoot the whatever. And so I think you’re going to have a secretary of state that there is no distance between him and the president. And that is going to be the biggest difference.
MR. WILLIAMS: Thank you for saying “whatever.”
MS. PHILLIP: Or even – of even when there is, Mike Pompeo knows how to talk to Trump. The major task with people who work for Trump is that even when you disagree with him on policy or on something else, you know how to say it to him in a way that doesn’t get his back up. Trump tends to react to people trying to school him or trying to tell him what to do, and it’s simply managing your manager. I mean, it’s a simple skill of being in a workplace, perhaps.
MR. WILLIAMS: So which do the allies – would they rather have? A secretary of state who speaks for the president or one who speaks in ways that they find more acceptable?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. I think the first, actually. I think they would rather have somebody that they believe genuinely represents the president, because then they know what they’re dealing with. Then they can actually get a message to the president. Then they can actually have some influence, perhaps, in reshaping the thoughts. If they convinced Rex Tillerson of their direction, it meant nothing. So if they convince Mike Pompeo, they can get something.
MS. GLASSER: Well, the stylistic thing is really important too, because, you know, it’s been portrayed in sort of conflicting ways. On the one hand, is this about loyalty and President Trump wanting somebody who blindly reflects his policy priorities? On the other hand, he’s shown with his new economic advisor – who is against the tariffs, was publicly coming out against them, and now he’s willingly appointed somebody like that – same thing with Mike Pompeo. I don’t think that he is just an America firster. He’s much more really a kind of hawkish conservative, almost in the Dick Cheney mold, than he is. Which means that he and Trump will have policy disagreements. But it’s more about his art in flattering Trump and making Trump feel like he’s on the team.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let me ask you a question about Gina Haspel because there’s some question about whether she might have a tougher time getting confirmed. What about that? She has the fact that she’s the first woman going for her, but is there a chance that she might not make it?
MR. BAKER: There’s a chance, certainly. Rand Paul has already come out against her. He has also come out against Mike Pompeo. With a 51 to 49 margin, the Republicans cannot afford to lose a whole lot of people. In her case, obviously, there’s the issue of torture. Is going to bring that up in hearings. What was she doing in Thailand? What responsibilities did she have? Having said that, she does have the support of some Democrats who worked with her, including some people who worked in the Obama administration and found her to be professional, who defended her. She would be the first woman at the CIA. She’s a career person at the CIA, which, you know, probably benefits her in this effort. So we’ll see. I think it’s unknown at this point.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, moving on to Russia, the Trump administration announced new sanctions to punish Moscow for interfering in the election in 2016, and for cyberattacks targeting U.S. and European electrical systems and nuclear power plants. This week the U.S. also joined Britain, France and Germany in condemning Russia for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K., that has left both critically ill. During an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday, the U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted the Russian government for that attack.
U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. NIKKI HALEY: (From video.) The United States stands in absolute solidarity with Great Britain. The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom using a military-grade nerve agent.
MR. WILLIAMS: The British government expelled more than 20 Russian diplomats after announcing that the poison used in that attack was developed by the former Soviet Union. President Trump left it up to the U.S. ambassador to deliver the strongest combination. And he didn’t mention the sanctions at all. So question to you all, first of all to Peter, this step against the Russians, the sanctions, I’ve got two questions. One is, does it have any practical significance? Is it more symbolic than practical? And secondly, are you more interested in the fact that it mentioned the hacking than in the fact that it mentioned – I mean, the hacking attacks, the cyberattacks, than the election hacking?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, both good questions. I think on the issue of tangible impact, no, not a lot. These are a handful of people, a handful of organizations that probably don’t have assets here anyway, probably weren’t planning to travel here anyway. The important thing about it is it’s the first statement made, in effect, by the Trump administration since taking office that the election hacking requires a retaliation, it requires a response by the United States.
Having said that, we still have this dual government system where you have Nikki Haley willing to say tough things about Russia. You have Rex Tillerson, until he got fired, willing to say tough things about Russia. We have the Treasury Department now taking action. And the president of the United States, still not. He did not blame Vladimir Putin. He did not put a finger on him. But you’re right about the other thing. The part about the electric plants is the scary part. And this is something we’ve known about for a while, but it had not been confirmed by the U.S. government, not been put out there by the U.S. government as a Russian enterprise. And it’s a sign of how serious some of this stuff really is.
MR. WILLIAMS: And, Jonathan, we make a lot about the fact that the administration issued the sanctions. That means that they endorsed the finding of the intelligence community that the Russians really did hack. Do you accept that as a fact? And I guess the other part of this is, given the fact that this is sort of secondary to what we were really putting out the message on the cyberattacks. But do we accept the fact that the Trump administration is fully onboard with the intelligence community’s findings?
MR. SWAN: Well, you asked me about the Trump administration. You didn’t ask me about Donald Trump.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I revise and extend my remarks. (Laughter.)
MR. SWAN: And they are two separate entities that require very different answers. So does the Trump – has the Trump administration effectively given the Good Housekeeping seal of approval Mueller’s indictments? Yes. Of course. Because they’re sanctioning 13 of the – like, literally every single person that they indicted. But does Donald Trump accept Mueller’s investigation as legitimate? No, of course he doesn’t. Anyone who’s spoken to him privately will tell you that. So you do. It’s this dual track system again with the Mueller investigation, where you will have senior officials who think that it’s completely credible. I was with Mike Conaway this morning who’s been on the Republican House Intelligence Committee running that investigation. He won’t say a bad word about Mueller. He says it’s a totally legitimate enterprise. Trump doesn’t think that. Trump thinks it’s witch hunt.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I want to ask you about that investigation, because we had their preliminary report out – their sort of initial take on it. They’re through doing the interviews. Do the Republicans all pretty much agree with what the – with what we heard this week about how there was – the Russians weren’t really trying to help Trump?
MR. SWAN: No. So Mike Conaway actually regrets the language that they used in that first talking point. And it’s sort of – to get in the weeds a little bit, the talking point basically said that they don’t agree with the assessment that the Russians wanted – that Putin wanted Trump to beat Hillary. What he’s actually saying is a more nuanced point and he regrets that it came out that way. His point is he doesn’t trust the tradecraft that lay under that, that it meets the standards of the IC. So, look, it’s a muddy point and it’s just one committee. It’s the House Intel Committee. We haven’t heard from the Senate Intel Committee.
MR. BAKER: Just one party on the committee.
MR. SWAN: And it’s just one party on the committee. And we’re going to get a dissent from the Democrats. By the way, the report hasn’t come out. It’s probably going to – we’re going to get some of it next Thursday. And it’s going to be very controversial on that point, and also the central point they’re making, which is that there is no evidence that there’s been any collusion.
MR. WILLIAMS: Abby and Susan, let me ask you about the U.S. statement on the Russian attacks in the U.K. Was it slow coming out, Susan? And what’s the significance of the U.S. adding its voice to this and sort of saying, yeah, us too?
MS. GLASSER: Well, look, of course it’s slow. The bottom line is that, you know, the United States and the United Kingdom have had a longstanding special relationship. And this week I think we did not show ourselves to be the very best friends of Great Britain in the world. We signed on. We did sort of the formal things that one would do as allies. But the president of the United States was not there right alongside Theresa May, who gave, you know, really one of the speeches of her career in Parliament this week, in which she personally blamed Vladimir Putin for this attack.
This nerve agent, this chemical weapon is one of the deadliest things manufactured in the former Soviet Union. It is – it is only produced by a state. There are only two possibilities. Therefore – for this – which is, number one, the Russian government launched a terrifying attack with a chemical weapon in a crowded British city. Or, number two, they’ve lost control of this deadly weapon. Either outcome, obviously, is terrible. The British government has shared intelligence with the United States and its partners saying that it was the British government.
Now this –
MR. BAKER: Russian government.
MS. GLASSER: The Russian government. This now happens days before the Russian presidential election. And I can put that in quotes; we know the outcome of the election on Sunday. Vladimir Putin, you know, will be reelected to another six-year term. And he’s already, by the way, the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin. This may be exactly what Putin wants. He’s not only attempting to knock off, you know, his turncoat former spies and sending a message of tough-guy-ism, he’s now got the West days before his election playing right into his campaign theme, which is by the way the West is united against me and therefore you need me as your leader.
MS. PHILLIP: But for the White House to put out that statement was the bare minimum that they needed to do at that point in time to reassure not just Great Britain, but also all of Europe that the United States is there, that they are actually willing to stand with them when literally a chemical weapon is essentially deployed in the middle of a city, a crowded city. But the president was that same day hours later asked about the attack and his own words were very muted. He essentially said it’s a sad thing that happened, it looks like it might have been Putin. That’s not in any way what this sort of situation warranted, and President Trump still is demonstrating this reluctance to go as far as he needs to go. The White House and the administration and people like Nikki Haley are trying to do the forceful part, but when it comes to the president and his mouthpiece – Sarah Sanders, the press secretary – there is always a little bit – it’s always a step below in terms of the volume of the condemnation.
MR. WILLIAMS: Peter, I want to ask you about the report that Mueller’s team is subpoenaing business records from the Trump Organization because it was at your newspaper where the president said if the Mueller team started going after his business that would be a red line. What do you make of that statement, and what does it mean?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, well, to be clear, it was in an interview we did last July with the president. And when we asked the question, we did couch it. We said if he went into your finances that went beyond Russia. So there is that, you know, extenuating clause there that’s important to that. Would that be crossing your red line? He said yes. So we don’t know whether Mueller’s subpoena covers business matters that go beyond Russia at this point.
Now, would that cross President Trump’s red line? What would that mean? We don’t know. President Trump’s red line on many things can change from week to week. So it’s – but it’s an important issue and it’s something to watch.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right, thank you all. Thanks very much.
Stay tuned to find out how you can support your local PBS station that, in turn, supports Washington Week. And our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about the secrecy surrounding the soon-to-be-released book by former FBI Director James Comey, plus big lessons from Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania where a Democrat appears to have won a reliably Republican district. You can watch it online later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Robert Costa returns next week. I’m Pete Williams. Thanks for watching.