ROBERT COSTA: Fallout over foreign intelligence. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Tensions between the United States and Iran following explosions on two oil tankers.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed, and extortion.
MR. COSTA: Backtrack. President Trump now says he would alert the FBI if a foreign power offered him political dirt one day after he scoffed at the idea. All this as Speaker Pelosi holds the line on impeachment.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I don’t think there’s anything more divisive we can do than to impeach a president of the United States. And so you have to handle it with great care.
MR. COSTA: We cover it all, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: President Trump insisted on Friday that Iran was responsible for the recent explosions on two tankers, bringing the United States and Iran closer to a confrontation. On Thursday two petrochemical tankers were crippled in the Gulf of Oman, an area that is key for global energy supplies. U.S. military leaders released photos and this video, which they claim show Iranian special forces removing an unexploded mine. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it a crisis moment.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran.
MR. COSTA: But Iran has denied involvement and accused the Trump administration of stoking talk of war.
Joining me tonight are four of the sharpest reporters who cover this president: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC.
Peter, when you look at all of the facts and all of the different cues from this administration, is President Trump leaning toward military intervention?
PETER BAKER: That’s a great question. He was very straightforward today in saying that Iran is responsible, didn’t hedge it. He said it’s got, essentially, Iran written all over it. And yet, if you listen to what he was saying, he was not threatening action. He didn’t actually use the more bombastic terminology that he often does, and he even said, for instance, that he was still open to talks if the Iranians wanted to have it – I’m ready when they are, he said; I’m not in a rush. And I think he was trying to be more measured – more measured, perhaps, than his more hawkish advisors – Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, who are more forward-leaning, I think, on Iran. This is a president who for all of his, you know, bellicose language, is actually not somebody who’s eager to get into war overseas. So I think he’s holding back at the moment.
MR. COSTA: Is that what your reporting tells you? Is the president still this non-interventionist at heart, but he’s surrounded by hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton?
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, he is until he isn’t. On the whole he is an anti-interventionalist. There’s a couple core values he holds despite being not particularly ideological, and that is one of them. And especially he was pretty forward – not always – but against the Iraq War, and so it’s sort of the same region, the same concerns you have rising up. Is it Iran? He said very forcefully it was. But there was some talk that no one has actually provided the evidence and there would be some hesitancy to getting into a war in that region with no evidence. But again, in addition to being surrounded by these hardline hawks, the president is also someone who can be provoked. Everything is about him and his ego, and he doesn’t like to be diminished. And so there is a world in which, if Iran – there’s a tweet that provokes him or goes too far, or a statement, he could change his position on a dime and then, frankly, change back again.
MR. COSTA: It all comes down to this video that we saw from Secretary of State Pompeo. The Japanese shipping company involved has contested the U.S.’s conclusion that it was definitely Iran. Is the U.S. going to stand by this video?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: It seems as though the U.S. is going to stand by this video. I, in some ways, share Ashley’s idea of the fact that people can change their mind, including the president being the key person who is obviously always changing his mind. I’ve talked to some sources that are part of the national security apparatus and are White House advisors, and they’ve been really stressing the idea that Iran is this corrupt nation in the U.S.’s eyes, that they are someone who has corrupted the national banks in their country, they’re someone who’s really a bad actor in that region. But I think it’s – so in some ways I think the president has been clear about the fact that he thinks this is Iran because of that – those background ideas. That being said, who knows where this goes? Because I think the president, as both Peter and Ashley said, he was someone who got into this race understanding that war was not what his supporters wanted. And I remember thinking – talking to this woman in Pennsylvania who was very concerned about the Iran nuclear deal. So these are people, I think, that sometimes are talked about as working-class people who are interested in the economy and other things; as a reporter, I was taken aback by the fact that she was really focused on the Iran nuclear deal. She was really focused on not getting into more wars.
MR. COSTA: But people are focused on the economy. When you’re over at CNBC and you’re talking to investors, what do they think this whole standoff means for the global economy?
EAMON JAVERS: Well, look, the oil market is looking right at this. And as we were covering the Mike Pompeo statement yesterday, one of the, I think, real tells there was Pompeo emphasized that this is – there’s going to be a diplomatic and economic response here. You know, he kept all the options on the table, as they always do, but he was really emphasizing diplomacy and economic response. So I think that sends a signal to the market that this is a government in the United States that doesn’t want to get into a shooting war in the Gulf, doesn’t want to be in a shooting war with Iran, and will do what it can to keep out of that. So I think that sent a message of reassurance to global markets, but that’s –
MR. COSTA: Could it affect gas prices this summer?
MR. JAVERS: Absolutely it could, yeah. Absolutely it could. I mean, that is – it is – if you look at the map, the Gulf there is such a tiny little space, and so much of the world’s oil goes through there, and there are so many hostile countries and military forces right there that it’s just a real bottleneck.
MR. COSTA: Coming back to the foreign policy challenge here, what kind of test is this for President Trump? He’s faced a lot, but this is a particular bringing him close to the brink.
MR. BAKER: Well, it is a test. It’s a test on two levels. One, it’s a test in terms of his handling of Iran, right? How do you exercise a tough policy, which is what he wants, short of getting into a shooting war – through sanctions, through diplomacy, what have you? Right now he’s trying to convince the Europeans that he’s right about these tankers – there’s some skepticism there – and that’s the second test. The second test is this is not a president whose relationship with the truth has been particularly close. And we’ve seen this now for three presidents, right? Ever since George W. Bush and the Iraq War went south with the failure to find WMD, the public at large, the world at large has been skeptical of Americans saying, hey, look at something bad that somebody has done. That happened to Barack Obama when he was accusing Syria of gassing its own people. This is a president whose own credibility is much more questioned than either of those presidents, and I think that’s a challenge for him.
MS. PARKER: And this is also a president, when you talk about needing to – if they were going to take actions, ideally he would be able to bring allies and the rest of the globe onboard. And these are people who, for the reasons Peter stated but also because of the way the president has behaved – which is that he pulls out of treaties; he alienates, you know, our neighbors to the north and to the south; he has threatened to destroy NATO. And you know, I’ve been on a lot of trips, actually, with the vice president, who is always sort of coming in behind him and saying that thing the president said, don’t worry, it’s not quite as bad as you think. So he’s now in a position where he has to convince allies who he’s alienated in a lot of ways to come onboard and do something that they may sort of agree with in theory, but not in policy and tactics and in practice, and it’s a(n) uphill battle.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to be keeping an eye on – you wanted –
MR. JAVERS: I was just going to say one last thought is the hawks are a little bit in retreat in this administration after the Venezuela episode, you know, where the United States was backing a challenge to the incumbent government in Venezuela. It seemed like we were sort of on the verge of something there, and then on the verge of potentially changing the governments; that didn’t work out. I think the hawks took some of the blame for that internally inside the White House, and so that means that they’re a little bit on the back foot right now.
MR. COSTA: And so much you wonder is this hard line from the president and his advisors right now about pushing Iran to come to the negotiating table since the administration walked out of the Iran nuclear deal. We’ll be keeping an eye on it.
But let’s turn to the firestorm President Trump ignited this week when he told ABC News that he did not see anything wrong with receiving information on political rivals from a foreign actor. On Friday he then told Fox News that “of course” – his words – he would alert the FBI after reviewing the material. The president’s remarks outraged Democrats in Congress, and some said as they have been saying it’s time to begin the impeachment process.
REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) It seems as though we’re kind of sitting on our hands. So if now isn’t the time, then I think a lot of folks would like to know, when is the time?
MR. COSTA: Speaker Pelosi, facing a lot of that pressure. We’ve been talking about it for weeks, about the impeachment question. But the president’s comments about foreign intelligence, what message does that send to the intelligence community? People like FBI Director Chris Wray?
MS. ALCINDOR: It says that the president is going to openly criticize you, and the president’s going to do that really with his own political success in the back of his mind. So I think when we think about all that this president has said, all the scandals, all the controversies, something like this will stand out, I think, in time and in history. Because what we had was the president essentially saying in 2020 I’m open again to talking to foreign countries about dirt on my political opponents. And I think Nancy Pelosi is in a space where AOC and other freshmen on Capitol Hill, they want fast movement. They want some reaction. Nancy Pelosi, though, this week was very cautious. And she said, look, I’m not going to be pushed into any one thing being the thing that’s going to push me into trying to get impeachment proceedings.
And I think what she wants at the end of this, whenever she – if she ever does end up going for impeachment proceedings, is to say: Look, I held out as long as I possibly could. This is now about patriotism. This is now about the country. And I think when we see her weathering all these scandals and not going knee-jerk reaction into impeachment talk, that might give her more credibility.
MR. JAVERS: Look, I mean, one of the things you have to think about here is how vulnerable is this president, right? I mean, he views the idea of getting intelligence from a foreign power for his campaign as a potential strength for his campaign. But the same thing could happen on the other side, right? The Chinese could go out and get his tax returns from an American computer, steal those, put them onto WikiLeaks, or the equivalent thereof, and put that out there. Or, you know, the next Stormy Daniels set of documents, whatever the president’s vulnerabilities might be. Those are hackable. So if the president is sending a signal here to foreign intelligence services, look, you know, it’s OK for Americans to take a look at whatever you guys produce, you’re going to have a lot of hostile foreign intelligence services playing in the 2020 elections.
MR. COSTA: It is illegal, though. I mean, you look at what FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub said this week, she said – she had to issue a tweet saying: I would not have thought I needed to say this. She said, it is illegal to accept a campaign contribution or information from a foreign national. You have to report it to the FBI.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, there’s – I mean, there’s a legal debate here as to whether, you know, derogatory information about Hillary Clinton would constitute a thing of value under the law, right? We haven’t tested that in a court, I think, before. You could make the argument it is. But –
MR. JAVERS: Mueller shied away from saying that.
MR. BAKER: But Mueller shied away from that. Nobody accused any – made a legal assertion in that regard. The more interesting thing, in some ways, is how a president who had basically kind of moved on past the Russia thing, and the conversation now was about obstruction of justice and this subpoena fight, could be impeached for things that were actually not about Russia specifically, and now he’s put Russia back on the table.
MR. COSTA: But why can’t he move on?
MR. BAKER: Well – I mean, Ashley probably has a better sense of it. She wrote a good piece on impeachment this week. But I think he’s just absolutely obsessed about this and he just wants to, you know, prove he’s right, and undercut anybody who’s questioning his legitimacy.
MS. PARKER: Well, one reason is – first, I think what he said, that he was open, again, to foreign intelligence, you have to take him at his word. That’s what he said in a public interview. But something people close to him have said is this also comes down to what a lot of things with him come down to, which is his legitimacy. And so when he went out there in that interview and said this, part of it was him sort of trying to say: I did nothing wrong the first time. That whole thing you were attacking me for, that witch hunt, what I’ve called it, there was nothing wrong with it. And therefore, I would do it again. So they sort of stress, it’s not so much that he would do it again, he was trying to defend what he had done before. And also, frankly, defend his son – his namesake eldest son – who did take that meeting. And so he’s in this tough place where it felt almost deeply personal, rather than the info he really wanted.
MR. BAKER: Was on Capitol Hill that same day testifying.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, exactly.
MR. BAKER: So it was on the top of his –
MS. PARKER: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stay with this legitimacy point, because it’s so important to understand, if you’re asking why doesn’t Leader McConnell in the Senate move on this legislation about reporting on the FBI if you get foreign information, is that because, Ashley, you have Republicans wary of angering this president, knowing he’s so sensitive about the legitimacy of what happened in 2016? They don’t want to pursue these kind of things in the Senate because of that underlying issue.
MS. PARKER: Well, they don’t want to – they’ve shown a deep unwillingness to cross him on any number of issues. And there’s certain case studies where you do, if you look at Justin Amash, who’s now going to get a primary, where they just don’t want to go there. But they are aware of the legitimacy issue, that that is what drove everything. When they talk about the Mueller probe, they sort of say the whole obstruction bucket would not have even happened, but for the fact because of what the president felt was a threat on his legitimacy, he basically – we watched him self-sabotage and self-destruct in real time for two years.
MR. JAVERS: Now, imagine if you’re the U.S. intelligence community watching all this this week. Earlier in the week we had the president say, when it was revealed that Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, or family member, had been a source of information for the CIA. The president said, well, that wouldn’t happen under my watch. So you’re in effect suggesting to the CIA that they shouldn’t gather intelligence on hostile governments from useful sources. And then they see this. Their heads must be spinning at Langley trying to figure out how do they gather intelligence in a world where the president’s saying: We are not going to – or, we’re going to put a slowdown on spying on the North Koreans, and we’re also sending signals that says that the United States election in 2020 is open for foreign interference?
MR. COSTA: And this issue is not some issue that’s way out there in left field. There was a hearing this week on deep fake videos, all the different social disinformation campaigns that are going to be expected in 2020.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, one of the most remarkable things – and Ashley’s talked about it – this idea that he’s worried about his presidency not being seen as legitimate. But it’s also about his ego, and this idea that he can sell to the American people that this is just the way that things work. I think enveloped in his conversation was this idea that, oh, if you look at lawmakers, who wouldn’t want this information? Who would call the FBI? What kind of person calls the FBI? It’s almost like saying: No snitches. And this idea that this is the president of the United States talking sort of like a mobster. And I think that that is part of the president’s ego, part of his personality.
He thinks that, I think, as a result, he can – he can ride this wave and be politically successful, regardless. You know, when Eamon was talking about this idea that, you know, people could hack and his tax returns, or get the next Stormy Daniels. But I was thinking to myself, he’s already weathered those things. He’s already weathered Stormy Daniels. He’s already weathered people knowing that he was a millionaire at eight years old. So in some ways, in his mind, he might –
MR. JAVERS: Maybe he’s invincible.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, I’m invincible. Go ahead and try to hack me.
MR. COSTA: Ashley?
MS. PARKER: Yeah. I mean, this gets to a sort of different point, but one thing I think we’re going to see the Democrats struggle with is sort of what I think of as asymmetrical warfare, which is that the same rules of engagement, for whatever reason, don’t apply to the president. So that could be hacking a different candidate’s tax returns, if they choose not to release them, could be devastating for his Democratic rival. But for him, there’s absolutely no problem. Same thing with lies or mistruths. He can go up, and he’s paid no price generally with his supporters. And you could see him on a debate stage with someone else who fudges the facts, and they pay a tremendous price.
MR. COSTA: Peter, we’re talking about the impeachment issue in the House. It seems like it comes up every week. The Democrats, Speaker Pelosi say the president has committed offenses that could be impeachable, but they don’t really move forward on impeachment proceedings. Is that because, regardless of each week’s controversy – and this week it’s the ABC News interview – Democrats are seeing polling or hearing from constituents that they’d just rather not see the Democrats go in that direction?
MR. BAKER: I think a mix of things. I think – I mean, we are sort of in an impeachment inquiry, we’re just not calling it that, right? And their strategy is to see if over time they get enough testimony or evidence that somehow changes that dynamic. You’re right, polls show Americans don’t want him impeached right now. None of them do. Like 40-45 percent have said that they might be for opening impeachment inquiry, but a majority doesn’t. So do you overcome a democratic election without a mandate from the public? And it is a political process. The framers rested it in the House of Representatives for a reason. That’s a political body. And so it’s not – it’s not surprising that they would have an eye to what’s happening politically if they took this risk.
MR. JAVERS: Look, what they’re struggling with is what happens if you impeach in the House and then send it to a Republican Senate, right? So they can have an impeachment vote. They can probably get it done in Pelosi’s caucus in the House. But then, you send it to the Senate for a trial, and it looks like, with the Republican majority, that the president would be acquitted. So their – at that point, Democrats have kind of run this flag up the flagpole, then back down again. And they feel like that would be a political loser.
MR. BAKER: And you’ve exposed, what, 20-30 Democrats who sit in Trump districts, right? They may have just won their seats, who are, you know, leaning to the center or to the right, as it is. And you’ve exposed them on a vote that might cost them.
MR. JAVERS: Right.
MR. COSTA: And I was talking to a House Democrat this week who was prepared to rally around the impeachment idea because of what was happening in that ABC News interview. Then they said a torrent of new things happened. You got the president flips his statement on Fox News in a call-in. You got what’s happening with Iran. That even if Democrats try to seize on something and bring it to public attention, there’s a wave of new pieces of news that make it harder for them to make that case.
Finally, President Trump had nothing but praise for outgoing Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who announced she would leave the White House at the end of this month. Sanders has been one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal defenders during a tumultuous period. The president called her, quote, “a warrior,” and urged her to run for governor of her home state of Arkansas. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, press secretary, what’s her legacy? Ashley?
MS. PARKER: I mean, her key legacy is that she effectively ended the White House briefing. I think today is the 95th day when we have not had a briefing. Does that mean it won’t be reinstated again? I don’t know. It seems less likely under a Trump presidency. But if we’re talking about her key legacy, I would argue that’s it.
MR. COSTA: Did that hurt the press’ ability to report?
MS. PARKER: So two things. I believe that the press briefing is important. There was sort of lots of intellectual chatter about should reporters boycott the briefing. I always believed that when you have an opportunity to show up and ask someone in a position of power questions and get them on the record, there is value in doing that. That said, a lot of what you see in the press briefing is posturing and them being antagonistic, us. In a lot of I think all of our reporting that we really got done, the reporting we’re proud of, that told something new to our readers, happened behind the scenes and not from an answer we got at the podium.
MR. COSTA: What about her relationship with the truth? You think about what she said in May of 2017, that she had all these pieces of information coming in from former FBI agents, FBI employees, and then she had to correct that when she was interviewed by Robert Mueller. Her legacy on the truth.
MS. ALCINDOR: She had pretty much no credibility by the end of her job. I hate to say that because I think she’s a nice woman, but most of the information that she shared with reporters had to be checked and rechecked because we knew that this was someone who was not going to be always, if not the majority of the time, telling us the truth. I think on whether or not you’re judging her on the president’s – the way that he would view her, she was obviously a good spokesperson for him and she definitely set out his agenda. But as a reporter, I was dismayed by her, frankly, not telling us the truth a lot of times.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, look, Sarah Sanders had the title of press secretary, but she didn’t have the job of press secretary. That job happens to be filled by Donald John Trump, and that’s the way he wants it. And so because of that there was no briefing, right? She was afraid that or she was – you know, she was not supposed to get out in front of the president. That’s a mistake in the sense that a press secretary can take arrows for a president that he or she might not want to take. But you know, on the other hand, this president allows us, reporters, to ask him questions in a way that his predecessors did not. We get much more access to him directly than we did under President Obama. That’s absolutely sure, and definitely under President Bush as well.
MR. JAVERS: That’s true, but the access that we get is in these scrums out on the South Lawn where we are literally shoulder to shoulder and sometimes on – people are climbing up on top of your back, everyone shouting a question, and –
MR. BAKER: I keep telling you, actually, to stop doing that. (Laughter.)
MR. JAVERS: And some of these people are vicious in that scrum.
MS. PARKER: Get that extra boost. (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: And she can dodge questions that way if there are things – if there are topics that the president or Sarah Sanders doesn’t want to talk about – immigration, the fact that he was named in the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto. These are all things that the president and Sarah Sanders could just dodge when they didn’t feel like talking about that.
MR. JAVERS: The president stands there and he hears all the questions coming at him simultaneously, and so he can pick the ones that he wants to answer.
MR. BAKER: And you have to ask the question in a short burst – what about Iran, sir; what about this. You can’t ask a predicate – Mr. President, you said this on this day, but on this day your Pentagon said this. And he had –
MS. PARKER: It’s like word association, you just shout out the name and have him go –
MR. JAVERS: Topic.
MR. BAKER: Go, right, right.
MS. PARKER: Which is not the most effective way to do it. One –
MR. BAKER: But he does talk to us. I mean, let’s not underestimate the importance of that.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, that’s true.
MS. PARKER: Yes.
MR. BAKER: Obama – President Obama, weeks went by without any opportunity for White House reporters to ask him questions. Whole controversies came and went, we never asked him once about it. And I think that, you know, it’s not ideal; we do get more than we used to get.
MR. JAVERS: I was in – I was in Sarah Sanders’ office yesterday just after the announcement was made public, and she was talking to a few of us. And on a human level, she seemed really choked up and really emotional as she was talking to us about her tenure. She was asked if she felt that – she regretted not holding more press briefings, and she said no, for exactly that reason. She said the president speaks for himself.
MS. PARKER: And one brief thing that I think people don’t know about Sarah Sanders, despite all these other legacies of hers we’ve discussed, is I think a lot of reporters would say that behind the scenes often she could actually be professional, polite, courteous, and frankly, helpful in moments. So there was that side of her that was not as public-facing and will not be her legacy.
MR. JAVERS: A lot of the antagonism at the White House is for show, right? A lot of the stuff that you see from the White House aides that we see on camera is, you know, bluster and posturing, and very much for show. And behind the scenes those same people are not that way all the time.
MS. ALCINDOR: She was certainly personable.
MR. COSTA: But there’s being personable behind the scenes, and then there is the public face of the administration and how it handles the thorny questions it faces.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, absolutely. And look, the discipline of having the White House press briefing is that the administration itself has to check its facts because they have to anticipate what questions are coming, go out into the bureaucracy, and get the answers, be aware of the information themselves. It forces that daily discipline every day of knowing what you’re going to be criticized for or questioned about and making sure you have your facts straight.
MR. BAKER: It’s accountability in a democratic system that a representative of the most powerful person in the planet day in, day out has to take questions, whether they want to or not, and if they choose not to answer fine but it’s there on the record, on camera for everybody to see. I think that’s something that does have value, even though the press briefings weren’t the most informative under any president.
MR. JAVERS: And it’s not coming back in the Trump –
MR. COSTA: Her father is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, a populist conservative. Does she run for governor in 2022?
MR. BAKER: Job’s not open. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Who has the reporting on this?
MR. JAVERS: She’s definitely going to run. She was asked yesterday – I was sitting right there – whether she was going to run. She did not say no. She said that she did not rule anything out in this life.
MR. COSTA: She did not say no.
MR. JAVERS: And then she was asked if she had permutations about it and –
MR. COSTA: Sounds like a politician already – did not say no, being coy. We’re going to leave it there. Typical politician.
Thanks, everybody. Up next on the Washington Week Extra we will discuss the race for the Democratic nomination and who is breaking out of the pack.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.