ROBERT COSTA: Raucous rallies, defiant tweets, and a looming showdown with the special counsel. I’m Robert Costa. August is anything but quiet, tonight on Washington Week.
Just hours before President Trump hosted a rally in Pennsylvania, his national security chiefs were sounding the alarm.
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: (From video.) Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs. Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries.
MR. COSTA: A stark warning from the White House: Russia used and continues to use cyber weapons to interfere in American campaigns.
DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DAN COATS: (From video.) The intelligence community continues to be concerned about the threats of upcoming U.S. elections, both the midterms and the presidential elections of 2020.
FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY: (From video.) Make no mistake: the scope of this foreign influence threat is both broad and deep.
MR. COSTA: But the messages on Russia were not in lockstep. At the Pennsylvania rally, Mr. Trump maintained that he wants a better relationship with Vladimir Putin.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything. I had a great meeting. (Cheers, applause.) By the way, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. That’s a really good thing.
MR. COSTA: It was the latest example of the president’s singular approach.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
MR. COSTA: And the presidential shattering of norms extended to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Now, we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax. It’s a hoax, OK?
MR. COSTA: It all comes as his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, goes to trial for federal tax and bank fraud charges. We cover it all next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The week has been revealing, showing the tensions inside the Trump administration over Russia in the scenes that played out at the White House and on the campaign trail. Thursday was a microcosm. That morning top intelligence officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, appeared at the White House, and they said the upcoming midterm elections remain a target for Russia.
DIR. COATS: (From video.) We acknowledge the threat. It is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in. In addition to that, it goes beyond the elections. It goes to Russia’s intent to undermine our democratic values, drive a wedge between our allies, and do a number of other nefarious things.
DIR. WRAY: (From video.) This threat is not going away. As I have said consistently, Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.
MR. COSTA: The president did not appear alongside them, but later Thursday rallied his core voters in Pennsylvania. Instead, he had a great meeting – his words – with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and, quote, “got along really well” with the Russian president. And he sharply criticized the Russia probe.
What’s next and what matters? All this president and his advisors face mounting challenges.
Joining me for tonight’s conversation, Paula Reid, White House and Justice correspondent for CBS News; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News; and Molly Ball, national political reporter for TIME Magazine.
Peter, when you think about a company, when it has its executive vice presidents come out and say a statement, the market pays attention to what the CEO says. Why does it matter if President Trump’s deputies come out to the White House lectern and have a different message, a starker message, on Russia than him?
PETER BAKER: Right. Not just the markets. People pay attention also in the Kremlin in this case. And the message that they’re hearing is, of course, this two-pronged approach. And what matters of about this, among other things, is Vladimir Putin puts great stock in what the leader says, what the number-one person says. That’s the way he runs his country. That’s the way he presumes other people run their country. And that’s the way, in fact, Donald Trump likes to run his country.
So I was in Moscow for four years. I remember interviewing him. And when we would bring up to him criticisms of him that had been issued by American officials underneath the president, he would just brush it off saying: That’s not what my friend George says. At the time, George W. Bush. So he places great stock in what the president says, not on what Dan Coats says, not on what Chris Wray says. What those people are talking to is a different audience. They’re talking to us. They’re talking to people who actually cover this issue or care about democracy issues and are worried about Russia. They’re trying to say: We actually do take this seriously. Don’t pay attention to the president. But that’s an extraordinary thing for a government in which you had this bifurcated policy.
ANDREA MITCHELL: There’s another issue as well. You correctly point out – you know better than anyone how Putin sees this. But the rest of government – bureaucracies don’t move unless there’s leadership from the top. The fact is that they had their one and only meeting at the, you know, presidential level last Friday, just a week ago, and it was less than an hour devoted to the whole issue of Russia and its attack on the election, and its continuing attack. And that was two to three weeks after Dan Coats had warned publicly at the Hudson Institute that the red lights were blinking and it was the, you know, most important, urgent warning since the 9/11 pre-warnings about terror, in the area of cyberspace.
We’ve been told that the Senate Intelligence Committee has been told that in fact they are – the Russians are into our electric grid, they’re into our infrastructure, to say nothing of the propaganda, the false and malign information that was outlined, at least alleged, in the Mueller indictments. So the fact that the president has not led a meeting or signaled the importance of this – and keeps denying it out on the campaign trail and contradicting them – is sending a signal it doesn’t matter. And until he shows that it matters to him, it’s not going to get fixed.
MR. COSTA: It wasn’t just the president there, Paula. Where was Attorney General Jeff Sessions?
PAULA REID: That’s a great question. And under the previous administrations, the National Security Division at the Justice Department would be actively involved in this. But from the outset, from the time Attorney General Sessions took over – I had asked sources within the National Security Division and it was clear – Russia was not a priority. Then, he had to, of course, recuse himself from the ongoing Russia probe. Then Rod Rosenstein handed it off to the special counsel. So right now, it really seems like a lot of the leadership is either Mueller investigating, and handing it off to Rod Rosenstein to sort of prosecute anything that they find, or the FBI. That’s why you saw the FBI chief there. But, yeah, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, I have not seen any leadership on his part on this issue.
MR. COSTA: So, wait, where is the FBI in looking at what’s happening with Russian interference this year, in the next few months?
MS. REID: Well, the FBI director came out and he talked specifically about these two – these sort of two different levels, that we all kind of know about. This was nothing new, right? There’s the disinformation campaign, and then there are the physical intrusions – the attempt to either break into voting machines or, more likely, voter databases. He said, we’re looking at that. But also, interestingly, he also said that they are investigating possible campaign finance violations. And that’s something new and I think something – definitely a thread we want to keep pulling on.
MR. COSTA: Is this the traditional Republican Party who’s inside of this administration, like Senator Coats, who’s now Director Coats, just rearing its head inside and saying: Well, the president may have one different view, but we’re just going to continue to articulate our own?
MOLLY BALL: In a way, that is what it is, or some might even call it the deep state. Or the – but, you know, the moderate Republican Party really was built on the Cold War and opposition to the Soviet empire. And so there is very deep antagonism to Russia and to this foreign – long-time foreign adversary within the Russia hawks of the Republican Party. People like John Bolton. But also, you know, people like Dan Coats, others in the intelligence and national security apparatus. It’s not ideological. It’s based on what’s actually happening. It’s based on what they’re seeing happen.
And what I think this week brought into such sharp relief is up till now I think we have tended to think of the Russia probe as a mostly retrospective affair, looking back on 2016, looking back on what was already done. This is something – this week really showed that this is – how intensely ongoing this is, with also the Facebook announcement that they are actively investigating this. And it was also telling that it was Facebook that was self-policing on that. It wasn’t the authorities that were coming forward in the first place to say: Here is what we’re finding, this disinformation that’s coming out right now.
So I think, you know, if what Trump – if Trump’s strategy has been to cozy up to Putin to defuse the antagonism between the United States and Russia, I think what this shows is that it has not at all called off the dogs, and Russia’s attacks are continuing.
MS. MITCHELL: And there was one really important signal in that briefing. General Nakasone, who heads the Cyber Command and also the National Security Agency, he suggested that they are ready to go on offense against Russia, against any adversaries. And there are some signals that that may – that order, which has to come from the president and hadn’t been done yet, we’re told – that might be coming.
MR. COSTA: Is this a strategy, Peter, from the president? Or is it an emotional response, when he takes this different tack than his own – his own administration?
MR. BAKER: You know, or a year and a half now we’ve been asking that question on so many topics when it comes to this president: Is it a strategy or is it, like, impulse control issues? And it’s really hard to actually pin it down. I think we tend to look for strategy – (laughs) – more often than perhaps it might exist.
MR. COSTA: Well, what would the strategy be, if there was one here?
MR. BAKER: Well, look, you know, it’s not – it wouldn’t be the first president who tried to keep things at a reasonable level, leader to leader, while you allow your government to take actions to counter an adversary. I mean, certainly George W. Bush and Barack Obama weren’t wagging their fingers in Putin’s face. They – and particularly Bush early on when he had great hope for making Putin more of an ally – they would state their differences, but they would say it politely and they wouldn’t – you know, they weren’t openly confrontational, per se. That’s changed over time, as Putin has become clearer and clearer as an adversary.
So that’s not necessarily new. What’s different is that Trump doesn’t go just politely to Putin. He seems to be catering toward him. He seems to be kowtowing at times to him. That’s certainly what a lot of Republicans think, anyway. And that seems, to a lot of people, to be curious. Why is that? Why would you go so over the top in flattering a guy who’s clearly out to, you know, sabotage American democracy?
MR. COSTA: So one of the reasons this all happened, Molly, is because the president has his cloud, he calls it, the cloud of the Russia investigation hanging over him. And he took some new steps this week. He tweeted earlier – a few days ago. This is, quote, “a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.” Yet, as the president tweets, his lawyers, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are engaged in negotiations with Special Counsel Robert Mueller about a presidential sit-down.
RUDY GIULIANI (attorney for President Trump): (From video.) I’m not going to give you a lot of hope it’s going to happen, but we’re still negotiating.
MR. COSTA: We’ve been here for weeks now, with Giuliani pushing the deadline up on this decision about an interview. But you think about the president right now. He’s facing this question over an interview. He’s facing all these different challenges on the Russia probe. How is that influencing what’s happening on Russia?
MS. BALL: Well, I think it’s always been obvious that the crux of this, for the president, is his own feeling of victimization, and the idea that this is, as he calls it, a rigged witch hunt. But it is all directed at him. The investigation isn’t actually of him. It is an investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Whether or not that comes to involve him – and as his defenders always point out it has not yet directly implicated him. And yet, he takes everything personally. This is one of his chief personality characteristics, I think you should – you could say. And so he sees everything through the prism of himself being targeted.
I think there is – suppose it is the case that Trump is completely innocent of absolutely anything having to do with anything Russia, anything in 2016, and this – and when he refers to a cloud, he’s just saying these suspicions, these unfounded suspicions, have made it difficult for him to operate as president, to do his job, to govern, to create normal relations with all kinds of different countries, because of this suspicion. And so that is the case that his defenders would make. Nonetheless, the continued – I think any lawyer would tell their client in this situation: Don’t keep talking about the investigation. Don’t keep – especially when you are, you know, the boss of these people, don’t put pressure on them like this. Even if you don’t actually mean that as a directive to stop the investigation, it looks that way.
MR. BAKER: Well, if – and we saw recently reports that Mueller is looking at previous tweets and statements as perhaps adding up to a pattern that could amount to obstruction of justice. President Trump just handed him one more piece of evidence. If that’s in fact a case he’s building, he’s building it with one more brick thanks to the president this week.
MR. COSTA: Paula, you’ve studied his depositions – the president’s depositions when he was a businessman. Does he change his style from the President Trump we know when he actually sits down for these sorts of interviews?
MS. REID: Absolutely. He is the consummate executive. He’s been through this a lot. It is interesting to read his depositions or listen to them because he understood the game. He deferred to his attorneys, his answers were very tight, he demonstrated a very nuanced understanding of his business, and there wasn’t a lot of emotion. So you watch this back and forth between him and his lawyers. He says I would love to testify; his lawyers go, oh, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea for you to sit down for an interview.
MR. COSTA: So maybe he will testify at this point.
MS. REID: Maybe he will. But if he truly believes in sort of a very expansive definition of executive power and he truly believes that he did nothing wrong and he will stick to the truth, there may not be as much risk as his attorneys believe. But he is exposed on obstruction of justice and potentially lying, as anyone would be.
MS. MITCHELL: And the exposure also, the meeting in Trump Tower with him just one floor away, the proximity with his son Don Jr., just all of the patterns of behavior, the memo that he was involved in authoring, and all of the other witnesses that have been collected, you have to believe that Mueller has been collecting a lot of evidence to that matter.
MR. COSTA: When are we going to hear – when are we going to hear more about it, Andrea? When is this report going to be issued? It is going to be – come before the election or after the election?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, I think it has to come, something. There’s a lot of pressure for Mueller to deliver this month, in fact, or shortly after Labor Day, because there’s a lot of practice – and certainly it was reinforced by the inspector general report against what Comey did to Hillary Clinton – that there should be a blackout period of anything involving election cases. And so he would be reporting to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy AG, who would then be deciding what to release and what not. There could be an unindicted co-conspirator. There could be, you know, any manner of reports that come out of this, but something. And it could be a partial report.
MS. REID: I would be surprised if we get a report this month because the special counsel’s office continues to exist through any prosecution, and we know Manafort has trial number two in September. You take that through any appeals. It would be surprising to me if he releases a report. I don’t know that he necessarily feels the pressure about the midterms. And then Rosenstein has this decision to make. He has to decide: Do I make this public and fall into the exact same situation that Comey fell into, or do I hand it off to Congress, let them decide, or do I put it in a drawer?
MR. COSTA: Talking about the pressure of the midterms, when you think about what Bob Mueller’s facing right now, he has – he has the timing issue, but so does President Trump have the pressure of the midterms on his shoulders. Is that the reason the president hasn’t actually pulled the trigger and fired Mueller or fired Rosenstein, because he’s hearing from his own party that it would be a political disaster for the GOP if it actually went over the line – that they’re OK with his tweets to a point?
MS. BALL: That may be part of it. I think he does heed the warnings that it would be a political disaster for him personally. I think he is less concerned, frankly, about the fortunes of other politicians. He’s mostly concerned about himself. And even with the midterms, what we’ve heard from our reporting is he’s concerned with Republicans losing the House and Senate only to the extent that it may impede his agenda, his ability to get things done, or his ability to not be buried in investigations by a Democratic Congress. So he’s concerned primarily, I think, with his own room to maneuver, but he has heard from a lot of people – and I think it’s true – that firing Mueller would be a red line that a lot of Republicans, especially in the Senate, would actually get up and do something about. Now, they haven’t yet, and they’ve had plenty of opportunities. Who knows?
MR. COSTA: They certainly have not yet. But inside the White House, Peter, quick, is John Kelly, who just announced on Monday he’s going to stay through 2020 – we’ll see if that happens, but he says he will – is he the one pulling the president back from going after Rosenstein or Mueller?
MR. BAKER: No, I think actually – I think Molly’s right about this. I think, you know, he has crossed every line that other presidents would have respected when it comes to this kind of thing, when it comes to the independence of the law enforcement apparatus, but that is one line he has stayed on the wrong – this side of because he does see it as potentially dangerous to himself, because he does see that as being a backlash that he has been told that would be even worse after he fired Jim Comey.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to the Manafort trial, which began at a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, this week. Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman and longtime lobbyist, is facing tax and bank fraud charges. His international wire transfers are being scrutinized by prosecutors. Paula has been in the courtroom all week, where they don’t allow cameras or computers, just notebooks – old school. Where is the prosecution going right now with this?
MS. REID: Their theory of the case is that Manafort made tens of millions of dollars lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian officials, but instead of having his paycheck sent to one of his six or seven homes they went to offshore accounts. And then, the prosecutors allege, that he got that money into the U.S. by laundering it through these luxury purchases – expensive cars, homes, and this now-infamous ostrich coat. (Laughter.) And that’s their theory of the case. That’s how he was trying to avoid tax reporting requirements. So they’ve put – they’ve put on the stand vendors and they asked them, is it – is it common for someone to pay for their ostrich coat through a wire transfer from Cyprus. Of course, the answer is no. And then they put on his accountants, who talked about how they didn’t know about these offshore accounts.
MR. COSTA: So we’re learning a lot about Paul Manafort, his finances, but is this really about getting Manafort to flip and talk about President Trump, talk about the Trump campaign?
MS. MITCHELL: I’m not so sure because he has been resilient in refusing, especially having been locked up and gone through all of the indignities and, you know, the trial itself. I think this has a Russia undertone in that what they are hoping to prove is that he was completely in debt by 2016, late 2015, after the Ukrainian Russian-backed leader had gone into exile in Russia. He was out of money. They were broke. And he was continuing this lavish lifestyle, he was in hock, yet he volunteered his services to Donald Trump. So he had all these Russian connections and all these offshore banks, and he was not being paid. How was he sustaining that, and why was he sustaining that? And that is sort of the odor of Russia that permeates this trial as well.
MR. COSTA: Is he going to be pardoned? If you read a little bit into the president’s tweets this week, he’s certainly showing some sympathy for Mr. Manafort.
MR. BAKER: No, he does, he does, and certainly it’s possible Paul Manafort is counting on there being a pardon and that’s why he’s standing strong and not flipping, not offering anything to the special counsel if he has anything to offer. The flipside is I’m not sure whether the pardon actually gets President Trump out of hock if that’s – if there is something there to be worried about, because if you give a pardon to Paul Manafort – and Paula probably knows this better than I do; I’m not a lawyer – but if you pardon Paul Manafort, then he has no – he has no ability to refuse to testify. Then Robert Mueller can put him on the stand and say you now have to testify because you’ve been pardoned. You can’t claim the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination if you don’t face any criminal liability; you have to tell us about Donald Trump. So that could be – that could backfire on the president.
MR. COSTA: Molly, you’ve been writing cover stories for TIME on Democrats this year. Why aren’t they bringing up Russia more and Paul Manafort more?
MS. BALL: Well, they do in the context of Capitol Hill, right? Democrats have obviously been the most outspoken in the oversight role, particularly, you know, Mark Warner in the Senate, Adam Schiff in the House. They are on television networks all the time talking about this and they take it very seriously, as do many Republicans. As a campaign issue, the conventional wisdom of both parties has been that they’re better off not talking about it. Republicans feel that it doesn’t matter to their constituents, therefore they are not motivated to speak about it, positively or negatively I suppose. You don’t hear them defending Trump a lot on this score; they’re just avoiding it. And for Democrats there’s a feeling that – I think it’s two things. I think it’s, number one, that it feels like a faraway issue, not a kitchen-table matter, not something that affects the lives of the people that they’re campaigning in front of. And, number two, that it so permeates the news that they don’t have to talk about it. If there are voters who care about, you know, the threat to American democracy, the threat of our Russian adversary, all of the disruptive influences that are – that are coming out of this case, they’re hearing about it on cable news all the time. Democrats who run campaigns feel that what voters might not be hearing about is any kind of positive or policy message that Democrats might have to offer. That’s what’s struggling to break through. That’s what they want to be talking about on the campaign trail.
MR. COSTA: Going back to the courtroom, Paula, as Peter said, we are glad to have you, a lawyer – (laughter) – as well as a reporter, here at the table. When you’re sitting there in that courtroom, you’re of course watching Manafort, you’re looking at the evidence, but you’re also watching Mueller’s investigators. A lot’s at stake for them. The judge, T.S. Ellis in this case, has raised some questions: Is Mueller really in his lane with his mandate? What’s at stake for Mueller right now?
MS. REID: Well, this is ultimately a referendum on the special counsel investigation. If he is convicted, that certainly bolsters the special counsel’s case. People will say, all right, this is what they were up to; they were building this very specific forensing – accounting case and it turned out that a jury, who looks like a jury that pays their taxes, convicted him. But if there’s an acquittal or even a partial acquittal, that will bolster the president and his allies who want to argue that, look, this is politically motivated; he was investigated before, he wasn’t charged because there wasn’t enough evidence, he was prosecuted this time for political reasons. So there is a lot at stake here for the special counsel team.
MR. COSTA: And he’s fighting a public war. Well, he’s quietly fighting a public war with the president. The president’s mounting a war against Mueller with all of his tweets and his words. Where does Mueller go from here? Is it just in the courtroom in Alexandria where he’s waging his battle?
MS. MITCHELL: And the next court – the next case, of course, would be in district court here in D.C. where we are. Mueller, from all reports, is absolutely zeroed in and trying to, you know, ignore all of this noise. But the president has, especially in the last week, been really ramping up. That tweet that you quoted on Wednesday, in fact, was the most hostile and aggressive. It’s not true, of course, that Sessions could – because he’s recused – actually fire Mueller, but it was a very threatening tweet indeed. And so there are a number of things that could be in play. This could be the result of these behind-the-scenes negotiations. It could be the result of the Manafort attorneys sharing information that has been now shared with them, as the defense needs to have access to, and that could be really frightening him that it’s closing in.
MR. COSTA: Well, where is this Peter? The president keeps saying at his rally after rally – Tampa, Pennsylvania – this has nothing to do with me, speaking about Paul Manafort. And to a –
MR. BAKER: And yet, he keeps bringing it up, right? If it has nothing to do with him, why does he keep talking about it? And, in fact, we shouldn’t let it go without commenting on the fact that his comments on an ongoing trial are another line that other presidents would never have crossed. The few times a president ever made a comment on an existing court case they got blasted for it and they regretted it because it was seen as putting undue influence on the part of the chief law enforcement officer, arguably, of the country. So the fact that he’s weighing in on it makes you wonder about that. Now, it doesn’t directly relate on him, but you know, he seemed to think it does.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. Thank you, everybody, for joining us.
Our conversation will continue online, as ever, on the Washington Week Extra. We will talk about the president and the press. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.