ROBERT COSTA: A standoff over congressional oversight. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) In the history of our country there has never been a president that’s been more transparent than me or the Trump administration.
MR. COSTA: An emboldened president slams the door on Congress.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re fighting all the subpoenas.
MR. COSTA: House Democrats won’t back down, demanding answers on obstruction and the president’s finances.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) The way we step up is to begin impeachment proceedings.
MR. COSTA: And Joe Biden jumps in.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.
MR. COSTA: Will Democrats rally behind the former VP or look to a new generation? Answers and analysis, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: What a week. In the wake of the Mueller report, House Democrats have kept up their investigation of President Trump’s conduct. They want to know more about his interactions with advisors like former White House Counsel Don McGahn. They want to probe whether the president’s actions were obstructive, like when he urged McGahn to seek the firing of the special counsel, which is detailed in the report. It’s a process that some Democrats say should end with Mr. Trump’s impeachment.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I never told Don McGahn to fire Mueller. If I wanted to fire Mueller, I would have done it myself. It’s very simple. I had the right to.
MR. COSTA: The president has challenged Congress’ oversight authority and vowed to reject all subpoenas to current and former officials.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Now see the administration engaged in stonewalling of the facts. It is an existential threat, this administration, to our democracy in terms of our Constitution.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight are four reporters who have been on the beat all week: Julie Hirschfeld Davis, congressional correspondent for The New York Times; Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN; Karoun Demirjian, congressional reporter for The Washington Post; and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal.
Julie, Don McGahn matters. He is the keystone for obstruction if the Democrats move in that direction on Capitol Hill. But will they be able to compel him to testify?
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, listen, it’s an open question whether they’re going to be able to compel him. There’s no question they want to hear from him. If you read the Mueller report, you know, it’s clear that many of the questions underlying the obstruction issue were answered for Mueller and his investigative team by McGahn, and that he has some important contributions to make in terms of people’s understanding of whether the president did try to obstruct the investigation in this case. So they’ve – you know, they’ve issued a subpoena. They want to talk to him. You heard – we just heard the president say he’s going – he’s not only going to try to block that, he’s going to block any of these requests that he’s going to get from the congressional oversight committee. And I think that it’s an open question how they’re going to proceed, but the Democrats are not going to back down here. They really want to hear from McGahn. They also want to hear from Mueller and a lot of other figures in this investigation, but McGahn is key. And so, you know, they have a few avenues that they could pursue. They could try to hold him in contempt of Congress. They could try in various ways to enforce the subpoenas. But it takes a long time, and that is a challenge that they’re facing. The White House has signaled that they’re not going to sort of submit to any of this, and so they’re going to have to pick and choose their spots and figure out what makes sense in terms of are they going to pursue this into a court battle, are they going to try to impose fines, are they going to potentially try to impose, you know, prison time for, you know, contempt of Congress, and their options are going to be limited by the fact that this is not the only issue they want to pursue. They’re going to have to figure out where they’re going to – where the pressure points are, and the White House is clearly not backing down.
MR. COSTA: Karoun, you live and breathe the House, and inside the House Judiciary Committee you cover Chairman Nadler. You just heard what Julie had to say. What’s his strategy to build this obstruction case about the president? McGahn’s part of it. What about Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager? He’s mentioned in the Mueller report for trying to urge the president to have Attorney General Sessions, who was attorney general at the time, limit the probe. What’s the House Judiciary outlook?
KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Well, I think you saw the opening move of House Judiciary before Mueller came out was to send dozens and dozens and dozens of document requests out. Then you saw them prepare five subpoenas for McGahn, for his chief of staff, for Hope Hicks. Lewandowski wasn’t in that group of five, but this was the opening potential salvo that we were going to see. And he’s so far issued one of those, which is for McGahn. So we kind of have seen him chart the big macro plan for what the full map might be, even though he said he could even go beyond that, and then what the opening targets are. But if he’s going to move to expand that small circle and grow that number of people that are going to be having to go through subpoena processes, potential court battles, what have you, he’s going to have to move fairly quickly if they’re going to move through enough of those people to get to the stage of the court battles in order to make a decision down the line if this is going to lead to any sort of process that looks like impeachment proceedings, because, like, there’s still pressure on Jerry Nadler to do that from the more progressive left side of the Democratic Party. Of course, leaders don’t want to go there unless they have evidence, but they have to replicate much of Mueller’s investigation into obstruction on that panel in order to be able to even make a judgment call that their party can sit with as we near election time.
MR. COSTA: What about McGahn? You wrote about him this week, Jerry. He’s sitting there watching all this, the White House possibly asserting executive privilege. Could he say to heck with it, none of this is privileged, it’s already in the Mueller report, I’m going to put my hand in the air and testify?
GERALD SEIB: Well, I mean, he could, I suppose. And you’re right it’s not privileged anymore, right, because the White House didn’t assert privilege before the Mueller investigators. They have basically decided not to invoke privilege, and he could say that. I find it hard to believe he would, though, because I don’t see Don McGahn acting as if he wants to get crossways with the president. I mean, he’s kept his mouth shut so far. He’s not risen to the bait. I suppose anything could happen, but if you step back from this and you look at the posture the president has taken it’s got to be sending some signals to McGahn. I mean, essentially the president could have said after the Mueller report was in: vindication is mine, there’s no collusion here, and walked away from it. And instead he’s sort of saying vengeance will be ours; we’re going to go after the people who started this whole investigation, and that’s the tone that’s being set. And I find it hard to believe Don McGahn would go in defiance of that. I think more likely we’re heading into a summer in which you’re going to have the president basically demanding that the White House defy subpoenas, Democrats in Congress pushing the case, and both sides going to the courts to say you’re going to have to referee this. We’re going to have all three branches of the government out on the battlefield doing battle over this this summer.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, take me inside the West Wing. The president told me this week in a brief phone interview that the White House hasn’t made a final final decision on asserting executive privilege. But when Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, is plotting this all out, is it to block everything on all fronts and to send a message to McGahn, sit tight?
JEFF ZELENY: It seems like that, and I think first and foremost it is to slow things down, stall things. There’s 18 months before the reelection, basically, and if you look at the history of the president before he came into office his strategy often, as many strategies or legal strategies are, just to use every ability you can through lawyers and the courts to slow things down. So I think first and foremost that’s what he is trying to do, buy himself some time.
He loves a fight. He loves an opponent. One would think that, you know, he could have embraced – I mean, he’s already tried to define the Mueller report as no collusion – as you said, vindication; why not accept that and be talking about the GDP numbers today? Why not talk about the positive? Because that is not the core of who he is. He is fueled by a fight, so that’s part of this.
But the question is, you know, how long will this go on? I don’t think we know the answer to that. But it’s conflicting his ability and constraining him from, you know, really using this summer as a time to turn the page and move on beyond this. People outside of Washington aren’t following all the ins and outs of this, but they know there’s a fight going on and he’s in the middle of it, so he’s trying to fire up the base. But I think he – we’ll see how this – how this works for him, but he has not declared victory and gone home.
MR. COSTA: Certainly not. I mean, you mentioned the president is not moving on. He’s playing to his base. He’s ratcheting up this fight. If you watched the president on Friday, he amplified his attacks on the probe and he trained his fire on Democrats during the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Corruption at the highest level, a disgrace. Spying, surveillance, trying for an overthrow. They tried for a coup, didn’t work out so well.
MR. COSTA: Julie, that’s strong language to say the least, a coup. The president was on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox on Thursday night talking about this was a possible overthrow of the U.S. government. This is not just a president attacking the investigation; he’s saying they were trying to undermine our whole country. What’s the play here for the president? He already feels like he was, quote, “exonerated” by the Mueller report; why do this today?
MS. DAVIS: I think the answer is, he doesn’t actually feel like he was exonerated. He wanted the public to believe that he was exonerated.
MR. COSTA: Is that’s White House aides are telling you?
MS. DAVIS: He – well, he still – yes. I think when you talk to people at the White House, he still feels that this whole investigation and all of the stuff that has come out since the Mueller report – the redacted Mueller report has come forward – has undercut him. So, yes, he may be legally exonerated, but he doesn’t feel vindicated by it. He feels threatened by it. And as much as he likes personally in his sort of personal history and his history in business, his loving a fight, he also I think believes that it’s politically important for him to fight as much as he can, to be seen by voters as fighting back against Democrats. They’re trying to take me down and I’m not going to let them. And in that regard, having a prolonged legal fight with the Democratic House of Representatives over all of these subpoenas and all the oversight requests is exactly, I think, where he wants to be.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: It’s he – well, I mean, the thing is that it’s not just a fight against Democrats though, right? This is a fight against the system at this point, which has been right where he can lose some of the Republicans. So it’s a risky move, right, because the whole GOP has to decide they’re going to go along with him for this fight, to give him that support and that cover for the whole way.
MR. COSTA: Are they going along with him, when you’re on Capitol Hill?
MS. DEMIRJIAN: They may, but that’s the thing, they may. You’ve got Lindsey Graham saying, yeah, let’s looking into FISA abuse on the Senate Judiciary Committee. You have enough people in influential positions willing to give him some support on this. And he feels like it plays really, really well to his base. It’s kind of like a rally around me as the flag sort of mentality as you’re heading into the election cycle, by putting everybody on the defensive – not just the Democrats who have always been critical of him, but the law enforcement agencies that left a lot of breadcrumbs out there that people could choose to use and follow, either through the congressional process or other legal processes if he’s not in office anymore for a second term. That’s a potential weakness that he’s very aware of.
MR. SEIB: And to go to Jeff’s point, this may be a fight that he wants because not only does it help him with his base, it helps him to say to his supporters: What I told you about the Democrats from the beginning has been proven correct. This was always a conspiracy against me. This was a hoax. This was a completely trumped-up thing to get me out of office and to destroy the legitimacy of my presidency. I’m now going to prove that to you. So that’s a fight he would like to have, I think, at this stage of the game.
MR. COSTA: And what’s fascinating, Thursday night Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, goes to the Yale Club in Manhattan. And he shows that he, inside of the Department of Justice, is taking shots, on the inside, at his own department. Saying the FBI mishandled some things. The media mishandled some things with the Russia probe. So on one level, Jeff, you had the president making these broad attacks on the investigation. But it’s also been complicated this week by the deputy attorney general muddying the waters with his own comments. And the Post has a story out Friday saying that according to people inside DOJ, Rosenstein at times seemed to be wanting to support the president while the probe was happening. A lot of factors now starting to emerge, even in the wake of this report.
MR. ZELENY: A lot of factors. And I think, one, that speech in New York that you mentioned by Rod Rosenstein, it seemed to me like sort of some face-saving as he’s leaving – as he’s going out the door, you know, into his next chapter here. But also that excellent story in The Washington Post on Friday evening about, you know, how he was trying to save his job. The quote was: I can land this plane, or something, Mr. President. So the reality here is he’s always been, at least to me, one of the biggest sort of mysteries in this whole situation. Him standing behind the Attorney General William Barr the other day without basically blinking. You know, he sort of looked like a hostage in that moment. But I think we’ll hear more from him, I’m sure, after he leaves government. But I think –
MR. COSTA: And the Attorney General Bill Barr has used the terms “spying” to talk about the investigation.
MR. ZELENY: Well, he started that. And that, of course, in – you know, which is exactly why the president is talking about it now. I mean, like, he was delighted by that. But I think the language that we heard on that Sean Hannity interview on Thursday and at the NRA on Friday in Indianapolis – an attempted overthrow of the government, a coup? That is very dangerous and inciteful language. So I think – I mean, without question, the president is trying to scare, fire up his base, and everything else, leading to 2020. But we’ve not heard language like that before.
MR. COSTA: We have not heard language like that. It’s severe language, to say the least. And it puts Democrats in a real corner. And they have to make a decision: Do they move toward impeachment or not? That as the debate when you watch the presidential field this week, when you watch what was happening in Congress. And they have to look at the polls. A majority of Americans say they oppose calls for Congress to launch impeachment proceedings against the president. That’s according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll out Friday. According to the poll, currently 37 percent of Americans favor starting the process, a slight dip over the past month, while 56 percent say they oppose the idea. And that’s about the same as a month ago. How does Speaker Pelosi, Julie, look at that poll and look at the president’s language, and make a choice on impeachment?
MS. DAVIS: Well, I think the reason that we’ve heard leader Pelosi – or, Speaker Pelosi talk in the way she has about impeachment, which is to say very cautiously and saying we’re not ready to go there yet, is because she understands both of those things. She understands that the president is sort of setting this sort of trap, daring Democrats to, you know, look as if they are trying to overthrow the president, and that they have some sort of agenda beyond, you know, protecting the Constitution and the prerogatives of the Congress when, you know, a president engages in behavior that could be impeachable. But also, she knows that the electorate is not there yet, that people are not there yet. She sees these polls. She sees these numbers. And she has a lot of pressure on her, obviously, from progressives to go in that direction. And I think she’s been pretty strategic in trying to tamp down on that.
And somewhat remarkably, Democrats have actually been following her lead on that. Of course, you have people like Maxine Waters who are talking about impeachment. But they’ve made it clear that they’re not sort of agitating for other people to join them yet. I think the problem, though, for Democrats –
MR. COSTA: Well, people in the 2020 field – Senator Elizabeth Warren, she’s clamoring for it.
MS. DAVIS: Right. I mean, that’s – the problem for Democrats is that some of their presidential contenders are definitely pretty aggressively talking about this. And secondly, the Mueller report is so full of, like, Karoun said, these kind of crumbs that would allow someone to potentially make the case for impeachment, but don’t actually sort of present an open and shut case, that it presents a real dilemma for them. They can no longer say – and you don’t hear many Democrats saying – there would be no foundation for us impeaching him. It’s all a political question.
MR. COSTA: Plus, they know even if they impeach in the House, what happens in the Senate? A Republican-controlled Senate?
MR. SEIB: Plus, they’ve seen this movie before. You know, they – Nancy Pelosi lived through this in the 1990s. The Republicans, in that case, impeached Bill Clinton in the House, which they controlled. It did not succeed in the Senate, no surprise, because there weren’t enough votes there. What happened? Republicans lost five seats in the House midterm elections. Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, lost his job. Bill Clinton survived. And he exits office with 66 percent job approval rating. So I think Nancy Pelosi says: I’ve seen this movie and it doesn’t have a happy ending.
MR. ZELENY: And speaking of that, someone who added their voice to that this week was Hillary Clinton, who perhaps is uniquely suited – (laughter) – I mean, she wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post and she said she was on the Watergate committee as a young lawyer, and of course she was the first lady during all of that. Of course, she has sat across from Vladimir Putin. You know, she was in the 2016 elections. So she kind of touches every circle. And she said: No impeachment. Use this as building blocks. And essentially, impeachment is too easy. So, that was interesting.
MR. COSTA: Secretary Clinton, talking about Senator Warren on the campaign trail, 2020 more and more becoming a cloud that’s looming over all political discussions. And this week it was jolted. Former Vice President Joe Biden jumped in. And he took direct aim at President Trump. In his announcement he called out the president’s handling of that deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) That’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, “some very fine people on both sides.”
MR. COSTA: On Friday, Mr. Trump defended his response.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals.
MR. COSTA: One of the great generals. The president, defiant as ever. But can Vice President Biden’s message about returning to traditional U.S. values, can that be a compelling message in this modern 2019 Democratic Party?
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Well, it’s almost like the mirror image of Trump’s make America great again, right, returning to when things were simpler, better, what have you. I think the president helped Biden today by doubling down on his defense of his Charlottesville comments. I mean, talk about giving Biden a lift and making his references to what happen in 2017 that much more relevant on the day that he’s rolling it out – or, the week that he’s rolling it out.
But I think that the – just generally, the question for Biden is he the steward to make that happen? Is he the person to actually carry this mantle, given that he’s had half-a-century in public life, in which he had been part of all of the mistakes and blunders and chapters that everybody is trying to think that they can correct at this time? Maybe the answer is yes. There is a faction of the party that believes that Biden having been through that is only person to, you know, really legitimately say: Here’s what we came through, here’s where we can go.
And yet, there’s many other people that say, you know, there’s another generation – generations, actually – of candidates that are, you know, waiting in the wings for their turn, and also that they appeal to what the Democratic Party – the diversity of the Democratic Party now. Maybe it’s better to run somebody like that. And that’s going to be his main challenge.
MR. ZELENY: I mean, we’ve obviously been anticipating Joe Biden jumping in, really all year. But I think how he did it was so striking this week, really by taking the bull by the horns and saying this is a serious race, people, focus on the matter at hand here – not the Green New Deal, not inmates voting, not any of this sort of extracurricular talk; this is about defeating President Trump. So it was a strong electability argument. So I thought it was a very good, you know, and successful rollout on Thursday. When you take it all together, though, the last three months or so, I’m not sure it’s as successful.
But the vice president was able to do something that I don’t know that we’ve seen before, to pull Trump into the conversation. Usually it’s the other way around. So the rollout continued when the president was talking about Charlottesville, and even Republicans find that – many Republicans find his defense of that bizarre and unacceptable.
MR. COSTA: You mentioned the challenges facing Vice President Biden, and there are certainly many challenges. He’s faced criticism over his conduct with women and his role in the Anita Hill hearings during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The former veep called Professor Hill this week before announcing his bid, but she told The New York Times that she was left, quote, “deeply unsatisfied” and that she was, quote, “not convinced that Mr. Biden truly accepts the harm he caused her.” How does the vice president deal with this? His history of statements and actions on Capitol Hill, the question about his conduct, does it haunt him or can he overcome it?
MS. DAVIS: I mean, I think it can be overcome potentially, but I do think it’s going to continue to hang over him. And frankly, as you saw from the – my colleague’s piece in the Times, you know, Anita Hill is not satisfied with his explanations. A lot of other women who were involved at the time still harbor, you know, a lot of anger about – not just about what happened, but about Biden’s handling of it. And what we saw today in his – or saw on Friday in his interview when he was asked about this on The View is he for whatever reason is not willing to just make a direct –
MR. COSTA: Why not? Why?
MS. DAVIS: – I’m sorry, I apologize – not to the women who feel that he may have crossed a line, not to Anita Hill directly, and I don’t know why. I mean, I think –
MR. COSTA: When you talk to top Democrats, what do they say about his thinking?
MS. DAVIS: I think that there’s a sense that if he, you know, apologizes in the way that, like, a traditional apology, straight-up apology would be given, that you know, that makes him vulnerable; that that would be a weakness that Trump would seek to then exploit and maybe have a lot of success in exploiting, and he doesn’t want to show weakness. But also I think that he genuinely feels, if you listen to him today, if you’ve listened to him in the past, that he didn’t do anything wrong, and so it’s all about, well, I’m sorry if you felt offended, which of course is insufficient for people.
MR. SEIB: I think he thinks he mishandled Anita Hill’s moment, but that he didn’t do anything to abuse her himself.
MS. DAVIS: Correct, yeah, I think that’s right.
MR. SEIB: You could see that in the View conversation. But look, I think the key for former Vice President Biden is, as Jeff suggested, he has to establish and then maintain the idea that he’s the most electable Democrat; that being on the center left, not the far left, is the ticket to defeating Trump, that wins you the voters in Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio and Pennsylvania that Donald Trump has stolen from us and we need back.
MR. COSTA: He’s got a real base, Jerry.
MR. SEIB: And he does.
MR. COSTA: I mean, I was down in South Carolina at a historically black church in Charleston and asking some older black voters there who do you support – Biden, Biden, Biden. Anecdotal to be sure, but he has a legacy – he’s seen as a true ally of President Obama, who has decided not to endorse.
MR. SEIB: Right, and having the support of African Americans and particularly African American women in the Democratic primary is not a bad thing to have, for sure.
MR. ZELENY: In fact, it’s essential.
MR. SEIB: Yeah, exactly. And you know, across the party there’s a pretty deep reservoir of affection for Joe Biden and a lot of moderate voters who you don’t get hear from – heard from as much early in the primary season but who come to the polls at the end. So we’ll see. There are big obstacles.
MR. COSTA: But a generation gap could confront him as well.
MR. ZELENY: I mean, it will confront him. I mean, if you look at the age range from 37, who is Pete Buttigieg, to like 76, will be 77, but I think the question is what type of change are Democrats looking for. Joe Biden would represent change of one variety, but certainly not the Barack Obama variety of change. So I think that is his challenge here. But when it comes time to pick a president, will Democrats go for someone who’s experienced and wise or someone who’s new? We don’t know the answer to that question yet.
MR. COSTA: We don’t know the answer and we won’t know for some time, but we will keep covering it all. Thanks, everybody, for being here.
Coming up on the Washington Week Extra, we will talk about the She The People event which hosted several presidential candidates. Join us for that on our website, on Facebook, or YouTube starting at 8:30 p.m. every Friday night and all weekend long.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.