ED O’KEEFE: U.S. intelligence chiefs tell President-elect Donald Trump: You’re wrong. The Russians did meddle in the election. And on Capitol Hill, battles over Obamacare.
I’m Ed O’Keefe. Welcome to 2017, tonight on Washington Week.
DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE JAMES CLAPPER: (From video.) I don’t think that we’ve ever encountered a more aggressive or direct campaign to interfere in our election process than we’ve seen in this – in this case.
MR. O’KEEFE: The nation’s top spy agencies release evidence that the Kremlin was behind hacking, propaganda, and fake news that may have influenced the 2016 elections. Senators in both parties have condemned Russia, but the president-elect continues to cast doubts. Vice President-elect Mike Pence stands by his boss’s criticisms.
VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) Given some of the intelligence failures of – of recent years, the president-elect’s made it clear to the American people that he’s skeptical about conclusions from the bureaucracy.
MR. O’KEEFE: On Capitol Hill, Republicans push to quickly repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, drawing familiar partisan battle lines over health care.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The Republicans say repeal and replace. The only thing that has going for it is alliteration. They have no replacement plan.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) We have a plan to replace. We have plenty of ideas to replace it. And you’ll see as the weeks and months unfold what we’re talking about replacing it.
MR. O’KEEFE: And will Mexico reimburse the United States for a border wall that Trump and Republican lawmakers plan to build with your money?
We’ll get answers and analysis from Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, Robert Costa of The Washington Post, and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, Ed O’Keefe, of The Washington Post.
MR. O’KEEFE: Good evening. Today President-elect Donald Trump came face-to-face with the U.S. intelligence chiefs he’s disparaged for months over their insistence that Russia meddled in the presidential election. Mr. Trump came away from the briefing acknowledging that the U.S. has been the target of cyberattacks, but in a written statement assured all Americans, quote, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
But according to the unclassified version of the intelligence report, quote, “Vladimir Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Hillary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.” It then when on to report, “We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.”
What does Trump have to gain from his relentless skepticism towards U.S. intelligence and praise for Putin and the hackers, Jeff, and were there any other bombshells that you saw?
JEFF ZELENY: Well, Ed, I thought it was a fascinating report. I mean, seldom do we see a declassified version of a report like this. And you’ll remember it was controversial several weeks ago when President Obama ordered up this review. But I think this certainly will sort of stand for history, coming on the heels of the hearing this week on Capitol Hill. But I think the headlines were, as you said, he ordered an influence campaign. President Putin ordered this campaign to discredit Hillary Clinton.
One of the interesting things I saw in this report was that Moscow and President Putin also thought that Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. So they were trying to denigrate her and sort of, you know, change her legitimacy, if you will, and have this whole plan for after she won. Well, that, of course, didn’t happen here. But the one thing it also said that – you know, it made clear that this was definitely a concerted effort, but there was nothing tampered with in terms of the voting machines or the vote tallying. But it said it was a concerted effort by Vladimir Putin here.
And I think that the response from Mr. Trump was so interesting. He did acknowledge for the first time today that Russia was involved in this. He said the DNC should have done more to protect its own material. But he sort of left it at that. Didn’t talk about sanctions at all. So left so many open questions here about what the next steps are. And that is what is going to sort of be waiting for him when he takes office here in two weeks from today.
MR. O’KEEFE: Right. Two weeks from tonight, that’s right, he’ll be president. He’ll be at the balls.
You mentioned the fact that there was no tampering with the machines, something that Speaker Ryan and a few others picked up on as well. But a lot of members of his party obviously have had disputes with Russia and concerns with Russia for years. Does this continued insistence that this is, as he told The New York Times earlier today, a witch hunt – does that further isolate him from the Republicans on Capitol Hill?
MR. ZELENY: I think it does, if he declines to have a more aggressive stance against Putin. I think that that is going to be a big challenge for him. I was up on Capitol Hill all week. And if you talk to Republicans, who are just ready for this all to be over because they think that – look, he is going to be president. The Electoral College was actually ratified today in the Congress. It actually happened. He’s going to be president. But so many Republicans are concerned about his view toward Putin.
And they also – what’s the constituency for this? He has a lot of other disagreements with the Republicans on trade, on other issues. But there’s not a big constituency out there in the rust belt, other states, for pro-Putin or a softer-Putin policy. So I think that this is going to be one of those buzz saws he hits with the Republicans.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, Michael and Robert, you guys have spoken to him several times, especially in the last few months. You have been in his office and are able to get inside his head. Remind us. Why does he think this way? Why does he continue to insist that this is the way it should be?
MICHAEL SCHERER: I think there are a couple things going on. I think he feels threatened. He feels this is a threat to him, if people are saying Russia did this and helped him and the nation concludes that he was helped by Putin, that it somehow delegitimizes his victory. And that's the thing he's always been most focused on. Even in his statement today he asserted – he didn’t attribute it to anybody – but he asserted point blank this had no effect on the election result. The intelligence community in this report say they didn’t make an assessment on that. They’re basically silent on it. But he wants everybody to know this had nothing to do with helping me win.
I think the other thing is he likes punching up. And politically, it’s worked for him for quite a long time. I mean, when he can punch at, you know, what Pence called the bureaucracy, and say, I don’t trust these people in Washington, remember when they lied to us about WMDs, it works for him politically. But I do think you saw the beginnings of a pullback, a truce of sorts today. He was now praising the intelligence community after weeks of denigrating them. And he was not contesting the idea that Russia was the author here. I think he’s happy to sort of quietly cede that point – it looks like, although who knows what he’ll tweet tomorrow. And in exchange for trying to take away the idea that it was Putin who delivered the election for him.
MR. O’KEEFE: And we should point out, as you said, an important point – you’ll see Democrats suggest otherwise in some other statements, but this only looked at what they did. It did not surmise at all whether or not it had an impact on the election. That’s very important to point out.
But, Bob, is there anyone around him these days that plays devil’s advocate or tries to sort of drag him over to the beliefs of the intelligence community? I mean, his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was fired by James Clapper, one of the guys that they met with today. There’s obvious tension here.
ROBERT COSTA: There is obvious tension. And there’s also a deep-seated skepticism within Donald Trump, the president-elect, about the intelligence community. Going back to my conversations and interviews with him in 2013, 2014, part of his political identity was formed in the wake of the Iraq War, a war he supported at the start. But as he began to think about his presidential campaign, his anti-hawkish worldview, his skepticism of the CIA, of the intelligence that led to that intervention, remained part of who he was and who he was as a politician. And that also led to the influence of General Flynn during the campaign, one of the first people from that military world to be loyal to Trump, to be an advisor to him.
So you had not only the deep skepticism but throughout the campaign, especially toward then end, when he got the intelligence briefings, Flynn was someone in his ear during the intelligence briefings, telling him to be wary, based on my reporting, of what he was hearing. And there’s reporting out there from many outlets about how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who sat in those meetings, thought Flynn was too combative with the intelligence officials, many of whom he knew. And that has shaped Trump as he prepares for the presidency.
MR. O’KEEFE: And that had something to do with James Woolsey’s decision to leave the transition team this week. A former CIA director who’s worked for at least four presidents backed away saying he wasn’t comfortable anymore with the situation, right?
MR. COSTA: And he’s one of the lone – Flynn is one of the lone people around Trump really talking to Trump every day about intelligence. And Woolsey’s frustrations, as we’ve reported at the Post, were because he wasn’t able to be part of the circle around Trump. Even with all of his experience, being director of Central Intelligence for President Clinton, Woolsey never really found a way in. Flynn has kept that room pretty small.
MR. O’KEEFE: I know, Michael, that you guys wrote in TIME this week, there were actually three versions of this report – the most super-duper secret version, the version that went to members of Congress, and then this unclassified, watered-down version we saw – and that the White House actually played a role in slowing its release this week out of political concern?
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, our reporting this week from Massimo Calabresi was that the report was actually done earlier this week but that the White House requested that it not go up to the Hill, which was triggered the release and the briefing, until after the president had gone up to speak about Obamacare on Wednesday, because they didn’t want that event to turn into a discussion about the hacking.
You know, one other point to mention that I think is a part of Trump’s calculus here. I think there is a real desire on his part to reset relations with Russia. I think he does see his government as part of this rising nationalist, populist turnover that’s happening in the West, that Putin has sort of been leading up until now. And I think he’s worried about the hawkish voices in his party and in the Democratic Party taking over this debate early on and poisoning the well. And so I think that’s one of the other things that’s sort of keeping him back here.
MR. O’KEEFE: Alexis, the Obama administration imposed a series of sanctions that expelled 35 Russian officials. They took back some pretty nice property on Long Island and out in coastal Maryland in response to all of this. Is there anything the new president, in two weeks, could start to do to undo that? And what kind of blowback might he get if he does it?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, the Obama administration, from the get-go, set it up to challenge the president-elect, the incoming president, to question what it is he would do, what kind of reaction he would have. And the National Security Council, under President Obama, made no mystery that they believe that Donald Trump would have to make a choice. Did he want to invite them back in, the spies back in? Did he want to openly alleviate the punishment that was applied to the intelligence, you know, apparatus of the Kremlin, and try to set it up that this would make no sense, right? If this is what the president-elect wanted to do from the get-go.
But as Michael was just saying, if there is a whole series of things that the new president is going to want to do to reach out, you can see that he could quietly later on lift these sanctions – which are designed to be punishment, but really have very minimal teeth in the relationship with Putin or the Kremlin – and you noticed, how was President Putin’s reaction? His reaction was –
MR. O’KEEFE: To do nothing.
MS. SIMENDINGER: To do nothing.
MR. O’KEEFE: Real quick, Jeff, it was Republicans on Capitol Hill this week that started this, by bringing intelligence chiefs to the Hill. It continues next week with some hearings on hacking. Is there anything he can do to rein in his party and these skeptical Republicans, or does he sort of have to give them the space they want?
MR. ZELENY: I think very little that he can do to rein in his party. I mean, we saw John McCain obviously leading the charge. John McCain is just freshly reelected. So he has six years to kind of be a voice, you know, as he likes to do on Capitol Hill – the conscience, if you will, at least of his point of view. So I think there’s very little Donald Trump can do with those leaders. Perhaps the rank and file in the House, or other things. But I think these hearings are going to unfold, as we saw this week. And that was a very, very interesting hearing to start off the 115th Congress.
MR. O’KEEFE: I think it was Lindsey Graham who said: Today, now is the time to throw rocks not pebbles.
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MR. O’KEEFE: And a good place for us to start would be to institute additional punishments on Russia.
MR. ZELENY: And that was not in Donald Trump’s statement at all. No mention of sanctions. But of course, that can come. I mean, we, you know, are two weeks out.
MR. O’KEEFE: Right. Well, speaking of Congress, the 115th session of your United States Congress kicked off this week, once again giving Republicans full, if slightly diminished, control of the House and Senate. After a stumble out of the gates for the House, related to some questions about an independent ethics office, two of Mr. Trump’s biggest and most expensive campaign promises made it to the top of the new agenda – repealing Obamacare and building a border wall. The current president made a personal plea to Democrats on Capitol Hill to save his signature health care law. He urged them not to rescue Republicans by helping them pass a replacement measure. And he reportedly referred to the GOP’s evolving plans as Trumpcare. But there is no actual plan yet, Bob, for Trumpcare, right?
MR. COSTA: Republicans have voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care law, multiple times. But there has yet to be genuine consensus on Capitol Hill about exactly what to replace it with. Part of the hesitation at this moment, based on my experience on the Hill this week, was Republicans wanted to make sure Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Price, congressman of Georgia, has an opportunity to work with Trump and put forward his own plan, which mostly involves tax credits and making health care kind of a series of tax credits.
But it’s been a struggle for House Speaker Paul Ryan over the last couple years to really get together a plan that everyone seems to agree on, because there’s so many different factions in the House. But there’s an expectation now that something has to be done. And there’s a little bit of on-edge feeling among many Republicans that they haven’t done enough to sell a replacement.
MR. O’KEEFE: Because they don’t – they really – I mean, there are various plans. You and I have covered this that – you know –
MR. COSTA: But only the real insiders seem to know –
MR. O’KEEFE: Exactly.
MR. COSTA: – what the details are.
MR. O’KEEFE: Exactly. And amid all that, as they begin the process next week in the Senate of starting to undo this, there’s talk – especially in the House – of adding plans to defund Planned Parenthood, Jeff, which is –
MR. ZELENY: Right, which –
MR. O’KEEFE: – is sort of another nuclear issue.
MR. ZELENY: – which of course has been an issue for a long time on Capitol Hill. It’s one of the main reasons of that government shutdown back in 2013. It passed in 2015. Of course, defunding Planned Parenthood. The president vetoed it. It will pass the House, no question. But in the Senate, that diminished Republican majority is – as you said, is going to come into play. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are opposed, generally speaking, to defunding Planned Parenthood. Rand Paul is also someone to watch on this, because he is watching the bottom line of spending and other things. So it – we’ll see if that defunding Planned Parenthood provision ends up staying in there at the end of the day on this. I’m not sure that it will.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And I think we should add that the Vice President-elect Mike Pence – this is important to him. Donald Trump, however, during the campaign said – sent mixed signals about Planned Parenthood, right? He embraced the health care that Planned Parenthood provided at one point, right? So we’ll see whether the president and the president-elect have – are unified in their view.
MR. ZELENY: And it’s not over money. It’s over ideology.
MR. O’KEEFE: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s an emblem, right?
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah. And I want to talk about Pence’s role in a moment. But one of the things Obama told these Democrats behind closed doors is to find a way to replicate the tea party movement to help fight off these changes. How would that happen under what he’s proposing?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, President Obama, and even Michelle Obama, on their way out are talking a lot about the power of citizenship, and the mobilization of, you know, kind of a grassroots concern, and arguing that this is where power lies and that they want to work on this in their post-presidency.
One of the ironies, though, is that this is something that President Obama thought that he was going to be able to harness coming in, even to mobilize support for the Affordable Care Act at the time that it was enacted in 2010. And he, in this same session with lawmakers, apologized to them for having failed to communicate appropriately. This is something he’s been apologizing about for six years. Usually it means when a president is apologizing for communications, they’re having a problem with policy. And he’s been talking this way for a long time.
MR. O’KEEFE: And I guess what’s ironic is this is an outgoing president who said right after the election: We’re going to try to make this as smooth and controversy free as possible. I really like the way George W. Bush handled himself eight years ago. But then he goes and hides in basement corridors with Democrats and tells them to stand in the way of the new president. This seems to run counter to what he was promising just a few weeks ago.
MR. SCHERER: There’s two things going on, though. I think he’s fighting on policy. There’s a number of executive orders and actions he took in the last few weeks to try and cause problems for Trump. But I think by all accounts the actual conversations that are going on at the White House with the incoming Trump administration – Kellyanne Conway was over there this week, one of Trump’s advisors, meeting with officials – is cordial.
And I think in the conversations I’ve had with Obama administration officials is, to a person, they are still grateful for the advice and help they got from the outgoing Bush administration. And they’re trying to replicate that. That doesn’t mean they’re going to help them succeed on their policy issues once they’re in office. But in terms of giving them tips about how to actually run the government, it – you know, it’s sort of a shocking thing to walk in on January 20th to an empty building with a desk with your name on it and have to start running a government right away.
MR. ZELENY: Because the threats stay the same. I mean, we saw the threats today in Florida, and other things. All those stay exactly the same, just the people in the offices rotate.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah. And even the first lady today, Alexis, getting into it a little bit, talking to educators. But seemed, at least visually to be –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Emotional.
MR. O’KEEFE: – much more emotional than she has been.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Emotional and sort of bittersweet about – I know that she has said that she’s looking forward to her private life. But it is a bittersweet thing to think back on the eight years. And she spoke pretty emotionally about it.
I wanted to add too, it’s interesting that President Obama and Donald Trump, in speaking on the phone together multiple times, seem to have a cordial way of speaking to one another, either calling one or the other. And that, in my experience, is a somewhat unusual thing. And both of them seem to have gotten something out of those conversations.
MR. O’KEEFE: And we should point out, the Clintons, the George W. Bushes, the Carters will all be at the inauguration alongside the Obamas. It will make for some very interesting cutaway shots as Donald Trump takes the oath. (Laughter.)
One of the bedrock issues of the Trump campaign was immigration reform and building a wall. You remember this?
PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We are going to have a strong border. We are going to build the wall. It will be a real wall. A real wall. (Cheers, applause.) Who is going to pay for the wall?
AUDIENCE: (From video.) Mexico!
PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: (From video.) Who?
AUDIENCE: (From video.) Mexico!
PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: (From video.) By the way, 100 percent.
MR. O’KEEFE: Reminds me of that James Taylor song. Michael, in your year-end – Mexico, remember? (Laughter.) OK, thank you.
In your year-end person of the year interview with Trump, you guys asked him whether Republicans care too much about the bottom line, about deficit spending. And what did he tell you guys? Because it’s instructive about what may happen.
MR. SCHERER: He said, sometimes you got to prime the pump. He basically rejected wholesale the defining thesis of the tea party, which is that we have to end government debt and eliminate deficits. He says – his argument privately and I think publicly has been: Right now, we need to get this country moving again. I need to deliver on my promises to get jobs back in the country. We want 4 ½ percent growth. We don’t want 2 percent growth. That’s not the agenda of the House Republican Caucus. It’s not the agenda of Senate Republicans.
And so there’s going to be a clash. And we don’t know exactly how that negotiation’s going to work out. The Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, seems to think there’s some space for him to fit in there. You know, he’s willing to deal on things like infrastructure, if he can get real spending from Trump. And he’ll bring Democratic votes along. And so that’ll be one of the big dramas, I think, going into the new year.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah. The price tag on a border wall is still yet to be determined. But in reality, this is settled law. There’s an old law from a few years back that basically authorizes constructing at least 700 miles of wall, right?
MR. ZELENY: There is. And, you know, a lot of people support that, in theory. But the wall may become more of a fence. And the idea of Mexico paying for it, you could not find a Republican – or at least, I couldn’t find one – who believes that that will actually happen.
MR. O’KEEFE: And what it would look like, yeah.
And, Alexis, this is – this kind of jams Democrats, because they know that that’s part of the reason he won. A lot of moderate Democrats are up for reelection in the Senate in two years. There may be very little that Schumer and friends can extract in the midst of all this.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But Democrats are also lying in wait, in a way, for the larger immigration initiatives. It’s not just the wall. It’s what will Donald Trump do with his agenda on immigration to crackdown, to enforce the law – which is what he’s been advertising. But he’s going to have some pretty quick decisions to make, because the DACA, which is for the DREAMers, the children who arrived here, he’s going to have to make decisions. Do I – that’s going to expire under my watch. What am I going to do? Am I going to deport them? Democrats are looking at that as the terrain in which they are going to build up a base of support.
MR. O’KEEFE: And, Bob, it’s important to remember that amid all these discussions about intelligence and the border wall and health care is Mike Pence, a former member of the House, outgoing governor of Indiana who, as you wrote this week, alongside Trump and the way he comports himself, there are “jarring reminders that there will be two distinct managers working at the White House, and likely tensions between them.” And you’ve got an accessible and stable force at the Capitol in Mike Pence. And you’ve got the guy who can rally support for himself and his policies by Twitter. Pence was on Capitol Hill this week, and he’s expected to be a pretty constant presence, right?
MR. COSTA: He is. And working with my colleague Ashely Parker, it was a jarring contrast to be in the Capitol basement and to see Vice President-elect Pence mingling with House members as they had Chick-fil-A breakfast biscuits and then cups of coffee in their hand in a windowless room talk through the minutiae of western lands policy and health care. And as that meeting’s happening, the president-elect’s up in his tower glimmering in New York, tweeting away. And these are the dynamics that are the reality now in Washington, and especially for the congressional Republicans.
And they’re comfortable with Pence. As Senator Graham told me in the hallway: Mike Pence sounds like Indiana, looks like Indiana, and we’re fine with that. (Laughter.) He’s a mainstream Republican, a conservative. And as this populist outsider takes the Oval office chair, Mike Pence is someone who reassures his own party that this administration still has some elements of Republicanism.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah. And he was alongside Trump today during that intelligence briefing as well. So a person to keep an eye on, for sure.
Great conversation. Thank you, guys. Good way to start the year. And thanks, everyone, for watching.
Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you about some eye-opening intelligence that was tucked into the back of that unclassified report that was released this afternoon. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And while you’re online, find out about the Office of Congressional Ethics, and why lawmakers wanted to gut that operation earlier this week.
I’m Ed O’Keefe. Thanks for tuning in and have a great weekend. Good night.