ROBERT COSTA: The president at a crossroads as Congress seeks answers.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) And I can assure you that Americans in the region are much safer today.
MR. COSTA: Iran’s top general is killed by a U.S. airstrike, sparking unrest in the Middle East and debate on Capitol Hill.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) This action may well have brought our nation closer to another endless war, exactly the kind of endless war the president promised he would not drag us into.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump ordered a drone strike this week that killed Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad, Iraq. That decision came days after pro-Iranian protesters attacked the U.S. embassy there. And on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) There was, in fact, an imminent attack taking place. The American people should know that this was an intelligence-based assessment that drove this.
MR. COSTA: Democratic leaders, however, are concerned about the president’s handling of the strike. A senior aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told me this morning that she got no advance notification, but did speak later to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Republicans remain united. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) I recommend that all senators wait to review the facts and hear from the administration before passing much public judgment on this operation and its potential consequences.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight to discuss this crisis moment in foreign policy as the 2020 election countdown begins, Lisa Desjardins, congressional correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; Michael Crowley, White House reporter for The New York Times just back from Mar-a-Lago with President Trump; and Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal joining us from Capitol Hill.
As Michael and his colleagues wrote on the front page of today’s New York Times, quote, “General Soleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past decade, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict. The strike was also a serious escalation of Mr. Trump’s growing confrontation with Tehran.” Michael, thanks so much for being here. I know you needed a little coffee – back from Florida, now on our set. Take us inside the decision in terms of the intelligence. We said – we saw from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that there was intelligence that led to this. What do we know about that intelligence?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, this is a critical question, and part of the problem here for people who want to know what happened and for Democrats on Capitol Hill – who are very frustrated right now – is that we don’t have a lot of details. Now, the administration did not brief virtually any members of Congress about this operation before it happened. There was no congressional buy-in. I say virtually any because Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina who is a friend of the president’s, was down golfing with him and apparently was looped into this. And people don’t know exactly what the basis for this extraordinary act of aggression against Iran, this essentially provocation that the Iranians will see as an act of war, why was this a catalyst for the United States to take this action. What administration officials are saying is that Soleimani was planning specific new attacks that had the potential to lead to the deaths of hundreds of Americans in the Middle East, military members and diplomats, but we’re not getting more details on that. And there is a lot of skepticism on Capitol Hill. Number one, there’s the history of intelligence being cooked up in the example of the Iraq War with weapons of mass destruction. And number two, you know, let’s be frank about this, the Trump administration has squandered a lot of its credibility through a thousand small falsehoods over the past several years, and so there is real doubt that Soleimani was doing something much different than he has been doing for many years, menacing Americans and others in the region.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, you’ve been at the Pentagon all day talking to top U.S. officials. Can you add, based on your reporting, any new details to what Michael just said in terms of the intelligence, in terms of the rationale?
NANCY YOUSSEF: So one of the things that they said at the Pentagon today was that Qassem Soleimani had been traveling from Damascus to Beirut and to Baghdad, where he was struck, as part of this plot; that this was a targeted campaign, multifaceted, that extended across Syria, potentially troops in northeast Syria; to Lebanon, potentially diplomatic quarters there; and then to Iraq; and they have said that this was something that was imminent, potentially within days. But as Michael said, they haven’t offered more specifics than that, and I think one reason people have a lot of questions is that Qassem Soleimani has posed a threat to U.S. interests and troops for some would argue decades and I – one could argue that the threat that he posed through his paramilitary and militia troops in countries like Lebanon and Syria and Iraq had continued and was not markedly different. And so what the Pentagon sought to say was that this time this threat had to be acted upon quickly and through the strike campaign.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, how will Iran respond, based on your conversations with U.S. officials?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, what’s interesting is you sensed within the Pentagon an anxiety about what the response could be because in a way there are endless possibilities. Qassem Soleimani controlled dozens of paramilitary and militia groups throughout the region where U.S. troops are based, and so – and this is speculation, but these are some of the possible responses. You could see attacks on allies in the region. You could see attacks on U.S. interests in the region. You could see an uptick in terms of how these militia react. I should point out that the other challenge is that Iran doesn’t necessarily control the response because some of these groups potentially could act out on their own in response to their own anger about Qassem Soleimani’s death; that is, you could see a group say in Lebanon begin to target Israel or something along that, not because they’ve been ordered by Iran but they’ve chosen to act out on their own to express their frustration by U.S. actions.
MR. COSTA: Michael, just following up on that, what would an escalation look like? The U.S. is now sending thousands of more troops to the region. Would it be boots on the ground? Would it be cyber warfare? What have you heard inside this administration about what war or a conflict would look like?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think one thing we’ve heard is an apprehension within the administration which says we don’t know what’s coming next. There are a lot of different things the Iranians can do, and trying to prepare for all of them is not easy. And in particular I think there is a real concern about Iran’s cyber capabilities. You know, viewers – look, today anecdotally I had a lot of friends and relatives sending me text messages, what’s – should I be afraid? A friend in New York City was going to take his family to see The Lion King in Times Square and he said, I don’t want to go to Times Square on Sunday, you know, I’m worried about this. And my response to people like that is that I think that the threat of something blowing up in Times Square seems low, but the way this could affect ordinary –
MR. COSTA: Is that what U.S. officials are saying, that there’s a lower – not too much of a threat of an attack here in the U.S.?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me phrase it this way: What U.S. officials are saying is that Iran has very good cyber capabilities in a way many Americans may not appreciate, and the threat of attacks on American critical infrastructure – for instance, computer systems, banking systems, corrupting data, spreading viruses – that is a very plausible scenario. That’s the thing that I think the average American could worry about. Then you have this whole bucket – and Nancy touched on this – threats in the region, diplomats, U.S. troops. We have a small contingent still in Syria. They do not have a lot of force protection. And that would be the more traditional way the Iranians could hit us, or allies like Israel or Saudi Arabia.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, stay with us. I want to pull back, bring in the whole table here, because President Trump made such a critical decision for his presidency. Here’s what he had to say today about that decision.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Soleimani has been perpetrating acts of terror to destabilize the Middle East for the last 20 years. What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. We do not seek regime change; however, the Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end, and it must end now.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, you and I have been working together all day for The Washington Post trying to figure out why this happened. Based on your conversations with your sources, was it the hawks or the hawks perched on the president’s shoulder, the generals in this administration, urging action? Were Republicans pressuring him? Why did he do this?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And the fact that the president doesn’t seem to have sort of a core foreign policy means that sometimes when people get in the room with him they can convince him one way or the other. The president is battling dual impulses. He’s in some senses an isolationist. He says American first, I don’t want to be involved in these quagmires in the Middle East. But he also wants to be a tough guy. He wants to project strength and say: If any of these countries, if any of these leaders threaten anyone in the U.S., threaten Americans abroad, then I’m going to go after them with fire and fury. And I think he’s battling those two impulses.
The fact that the Iranians had stormed into the embassy in Iraq, the president saw that as an affront to his presidency and wanted to take strong actions. And the fact that, according to the intelligence that he’d been briefed on, he saw that there was what he called an imminent threat to Americans in the region. And for that reason, he took this drastic step. But let it be very clear that he is still apprehensive about this idea that he’s sending more troops into the Middle East. He’s going back on some of his promises of the campaign trail that he’s going to get Americans out of the Middle East. And actually having to do something that’s opposite of that, I think he’s concerned about that.
MR. COSTA: So apprehension, but also taking action. Susan, is there a Trump doctrine?
SUSAN PAGE: I think if you – if you would have said 24 hours ago what the Trump doctrine was it would have been: end endless wars. What did he campaign on in 2016? Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Let’s get out of Iraq. And yet now, with this action, he has guaranteed an Iranian retaliation, a war of some sort – maybe not a traditional-looking war. Maybe something more like Michael was talking about. And you know, there are no defenders in the United States of General Soleimani. There’s no one saying he was a good guy; he didn’t deserve to die this way. There is concern that President Trump has not thought through the consequences of what’s going to happen next. This is something that’s going to, to some degree, shape and define the rest of his presidency, dealing with the consequences of the action that was taken last night.
MR. COSTA: What we heard from Michael, Lisa, that Senator Graham, when Michael was down at Mar-a-Lago was playing golf with the president, briefed by the president, familiar with the plans. What about Congress, Democratic leaders? Were they in the dark?
LISA DESJARDINS: They were completely in the dark. They were not briefed on this. It’s not the first time a president has had a very sharp and important military sensitive operation and has not briefed Congress. It’s not the first time. However, the fact that one member of Congress, Lindsey Graham, knew about it days ago is something that particularly rankles and concerns members. But this speaks to your earlier question: What is motivating this president? Lindsey Graham is one of the top hawks on Iran. He’s not the only one. Tom Cotton is another one, so is Ted Cruz. They have been working to try and keep up the pressure, and military pressure, on Iran for months. Who’s been working on the other side? Senator Rand Paul.
Now, remember when that drone strike happened, when Iran shot down our drone and we did not retaliate? Rand Paul had recently been talking to the president at that point. And he was advising him not to retaliate. Now we’ve had this strike. It’s after he’s spoken to Lindsey Graham. This – we don’t know what happened, but it does seem like he has these two voices around him – Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham. Rand Paul, sharp criticism today for the president. He said this is a president, as Susan pointed out, who campaigned on ending perpetual war. Here Rand Paul said on Fox News today this could lead to exactly that, which is a striking comment from an ally.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, when you hear what Lisa just said about Senator Cotton and Senator Graham really being concerned about the president’s policy in the Middle East, does that reflect concerns of U.S. allies in the region about the U.S. withdrawal of troops and what that could mean for Israel and other U.S. allies in terms of stability?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, I think one of the challenge for the allies is they are now susceptible, arguably, because of these strikes. There’s a coalition of dozens of countries in Iraq, operating there. The message that the U.S. has sent is that the Americans can’t be killed. But one way Iran could potentially retaliate is to target its allies. The other thing I would point out is that the U.S. has said its presence in Iraq is a counter-ISIS campaign, and yet carried out a message – mission – excuse me – targeting arguably the number-two most important person in Iran. And so how that will sit with allies I think will be a challenging argument for the administration to make, because they made a promise to the allies that they were there to stop counter – or, excuse me – to counter ISIS, not to go after Iran.
MR. COSTA: So that’s the – we’ve heard from Lisa, the Republican side, and Nancy, how the world sees it. What about Speaker Pelosi? What does she do now? She’s one of the most powerful people in Washington. Does she push for an Authorization of Use of Military Force? Do the House Democrats have any options in terms of countering the president’s military action?
MS. PAGE: Well, Democrats have talked about trying – the need to get an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, but without very much success. And I’m sure we’re going to hear that talk again. Senator Kaine of Virginia has been a leader in that push. I’m not – I just don’t know if that’s realistic in this. She can – she’s going to complain about this. She is angry about this. You know, the idea that the president didn’t bother to brief the congressional leaders, this so-called group of eight, which is a very elite group and one that does not leak. Presidents have briefed the group of eight, the congressional leaders and the leaders of the intelligence committees before big military actions in the past. And it’s not been a leaky process. And it gets Congress to feel like they’re a part of it. Remarkably, maybe members of Congress might have something to say to the administration that would be useful for them to hear. They’ve lost that opportunity.
MR. COSTA: Does the president understand how pivotal this decision was to his presidency? When you’re talking to his advisors, do they now know he’s at the center of a combustible situation?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: I’m not sure that the president fully grasps how much has changed in the Middle East with the death of this commander, who had been, as the president said, a thorn in the side of the Americans for 20 years. But he had been someone who other presidents had the chance to also go after, but they did the calculation and said: Taking him out could possibly make things worse. It could lead to a war that could cause perpetual fighting with Americans for, you know, years to come. And I think the president, his decision-making process, I talked to Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary earlier today.
MR. COSTA: What’d he say?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: He said he was very concerned about the decision-making process that President Trump goes through. When presidents make these types of decisions, they usually have the national security team around them, they have a large number of options that they’re given, and they make a decision based on all of the input. Panetta was concerned that President Trump is making decisions based on the last person he spoke to, listening to Fox News, listening to people who are outside of the national security process. And because of that, he’s making what appear to be, from the outside, impulsive and rash decisions that have led to circumstances where the president may not know or fully grasp what he’s gotten himself into.
MR. CROWLEY: You know, who knows how much Trump really thought through this, but if you step back this decision is classic Trump. It’s this: Oh my God, old stroke, he can’t do that, can he? I mean, there was a real debate last night among people who follow this stuff: Did they mean to hit Soleimani? Could they really have meant to hit Soleimani? Were they trying to hit the other guys and Soleimani was collateral damage? But this is what Donald Trump does. He does the thing everyone says: You can’t do that. Everyone’s astonished. And –
MR. COSTA: Did he mean to do it, based on your reporting?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes. It seems quite clear at this point that he did mean to do it. I think that we’re quite confident of it at this point, that this is something that had been in the works for days. And multiple people have attested to that. But – and then something like 40 percent of the country says this is an absolute brilliant master stroke. Forty percent of the country is terrified and horrified. And somewhere in the middle there are people trying to figure it all out.
MS. PAGE: You know, and the president makes a fair point in saying his predecessors have tried to deal with this issue and failed to solve it. And –
MR. CROWLEY: Mmm hmm, classic Trump also, yeah.
MS. PAGE: That’s right. And on both North Korea and on Iran, he has tried a new and different approach. And I think that is – I think you could think that’s a good idea, to try to be disruptive. The problem is, in both those cases this week I think we’ve seen the situation become not better for the United States but more threatening for the United States.
MR. COSTA: And you think, Lisa, when you’re at the Capitol there’s also a pending Senate impeachment trial.
MS. DESJARDINS: That’s right.
MR. COSTA: Where do those negotiations stand amid talk of possible war?
MS. DESJARDINS: Yes, good question. I think we’re waiting to see – we’re waiting for Speaker Pelosi, essentially, to transmit the articles of impeachment. Why isn’t she doing it? Well, part of it is actually this timeframe is not out of line with Clinton. It’s not really a delay yet, so to speak – the Clinton impeachment. However, she does – she is saying that she’s believes the Senate process is unfair. She wants to know that witnesses will be called. That is not something that Senator McConnell’s going to do.
MR. COSTA: Does all this change the negotiations over a trial?
MS. DESJARDINS: Yeah, not yet, I don’t think it does. We heard from Senator McConnell today. He seems to be very confident that he controls the rules of the Senate. The real question about impeachment comes down to four Republican swing senators and what they want to do. And they have signaled so far that they’re willing to start out with McConnell’s plan. We’ll know more at the beginning of the next week. But right now, that looks like it.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, I really appreciate you joining us. We’re going to let you go here, and let you get back to the Pentagon. I’m sure on a Friday night you’re still talking to your sources. Thank you very much.
MS. YOUSSEF: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: But as we move on from the White House, we got to remember that this escalation of tensions happens in the shadow of not just the impeachment trial but the 2020 presidential race. I was in Iowa all week covering Senator Bernie Sanders. Here’s what he had to say about the military strike.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Trump ignored the advice of his own security officials and listened to right-wing extremists – some of whom were exactly the same people who got us into the war in Iraq in the first place.
MR. COSTA: So now we have, Susan, a Democratic presidential race perhaps with new fault lines, the antiwar Democrats versus those who supported intervention in the early 2000s like former Vice President Joe Biden.
MS. PAGE: You know, Bernie Sanders did not mention Biden’s name when he said the people who led us into war in Iraq, but you know he implicitly was thinking about Biden when he said that. You know, Bernie Sanders has been I think underestimated by all of us for the past year, as he was in 2016. He had an incredible fundraising quarter – what, $35 million he raised? He has a base of support that’s going to be with him from start to finish. He knows exactly what he thinks. You know, there’s been no variation in the past decade in what Bernie Sanders thinks about –
MR. COSTA: Including on Iraq.
MS. PAGE: Including on Iraq. He is – he is – I think reporters tend to think he won’t in the end be the nominee, he’s just too far left, but maybe we’re wrong.
MR. COSTA: I don’t think – I saw him up close for four days, five days; it’s very real movement. Toluse, when you think about President Trump, is he watching Biden – Vice President Biden, and does he see Biden perhaps using this moment to underscore his own credentials?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, well, President Trump has been obsessed with Joe Biden for the better part of the last several months, going back to why he’s being impeached because he tried to get the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. And the fact that he’s now sort of embroiled with this Iraq situation in which he, you know, authorized the strike in Iraq against this Iranian commander, he’s trying to contrast his role in the Middle East with the Bidens, with the Obama administration. He’s said it, that previous administrations should have handled this. He said that, you know, the Obama administration had not done enough to curtail Iran’s aggressions in the region. And he’s trying to use that to contrast himself with Joe Biden, who right now is leading in a number of polls nationally for the nomination.
MS. DESJARDINS: There are two other campaigns, talking to campaigns today, that think they can maybe seize on this moment in addition to Biden and Sanders. Also Pete Buttigieg, his military experience is a comfort zone for him talking about this. He feels like he has authority there. The other one to watch, Tulsi Gabbard. I know her polling puts her at the low end, but you know, I think she – this is her issue. She likes to say she is against perpetual war. I had a family member text me tonight, I’m donating to Tulsi Gabbard right now because of what the president did.
MR. COSTA: And you look at the past, we’ve seen presidential races before turn on foreign policy – the Democratic primary race in 2004 around this time in the race you saw – you saw a real move with the capture of Saddam Hussein change the way Democrats thought about who they would pick, moved away from Howard Dean toward Kerry. We saw in 2007 a move toward McCain amid the surge in Iraq. Could this be a critical juncture?
MR. CROWLEY: It could be. I mean, I think it can play in different ways. Is this a moment where the Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbards of the race focus voter attention on foreign policy in a way that it has not been before and say we’re headed into a really dangerous moment and, look, all the forces that pushed us into war with Iraq – which was such a catastrophe and Democrats hate so much – they’re back at it, and you need someone strong like me, like a Bernie Sanders, who has been on – you know, unwavering on this to be the nominee and prevent that from happening? Or are voters looking for experience and the guy who has been in the Situation Room for hundreds of hours, you know, has traveled all through the Middle East, and that’s a Joe Biden, and that’s a guy who knows how the machinery of foreign policy works and knows how the national security machine works? And I think it’s unpredictable. I mean remember, you know, John Kerry may have benefitted from the capture of Saddam, but boy, he was all over the place on his position on the Iraq War. A lot of Democrats were very frustrated he was not standing up more firmly against George W. Bush at a time when the war – the insurgency was taking off, and still managed to grab the nomination in Iowa, which is a pretty dovish state overall. So I think it’s very unpredictable.
MR. COSTA: Susan, any thoughts on that?
MS. PAGE: Yeah, only time will tell. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: Only time will tell, yeah. We shall see. (Laughter.)
MS. DESJARDINS: Not a lot of time. Not a lot of time.
MS. PAGE: Before Iowa, no, because it’s coming up.
MS. DESJARDINS: Before Iowa.
MS. PAGE: I mean, we’ve had – we’ve been talking about 2020 since, like, 2016, but now we’re right in the weeks leading up to the point –
MR. COSTA: We’re a month away from Iowa.
MS. PAGE: – where the first vote will have a big impact on the second vote in New Hampshire, which will have a big input on the third, and the third vote – we are into it.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, we were talking to White House officials all day who said the president is paying very close attention to this. He thinks the Democrats are stepping into a political trap in the sense that they’re criticizing him over this strike and he believes he can get a lot of credit from independent and swing voters.
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, Trump campaign officials have pushed this message for several weeks in that whenever President Trump does something that’s good for national security the Democrats cry foul, they whine, they can’t root for America, and they are not happy that the country has done something well. And President Trump is keyed into that as well, and I think you will hear that from him on the campaign trail when he talks about, you know, we got Baghdadi, we took out Soleimani; this is something that the whole country should be proud of, and the Democrats are whining about it and complaining –
MR. COSTA: But we’re not hearing the phrase “regime change” yet, are we?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: He has only said that in that he’s not pushing for regime change. He knows how much of an undertaking that would be for the country, and he knows that he has campaigned on not trying to change the cultures of the –
MR. COSTA: But past presidents have thought they could control situations like this.
MS. DESJARDINS: Exactly, the two biggest risks for approval ratings for any president are an economy that tanks and a war that goes south.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Sometimes I really do wish we had an hour. (Laughter.) Thanks for sharing our evening with us. And make sure to check out our Washington Week Extra. We will continue this conversation on 2020 and everything else. It’ll air live on social media and later be posted on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.