AMY WALTER: President-elect Trump gives us a first look at his policy priorities while Democrats decide who will lead the party moving forward. I’m Amy Walter, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) My agenda will be based on a simple core principle: Putting America first.
MS. WALTER: The president-elect lays out his plan to turn campaign promises into White House priorities, including immigration reform.
PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: (From video.) I will direct the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker.
MS. WALTER: A comprehensive national security plan, and a stop to the TPP.
PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: (From video.) I am going to issue a notification of intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potential disaster for our country.
MS. WALTER: But questions remain about possible conflicts of interest between Trump’s international business operation and his duties as commander in chief. We take you inside the Trump transition process, where loyal allies, former rivals, and possibly some family members are vying to join the new administration.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT): (From video.) Well, I think the Democratic Party has got to make a fundamental choice. Which side are you on?
MS. WALTER: Bernie Sanders offers Democrats a reality check about identity politics, and a plan to rebuild the party to better connect with the middle class. And Nancy Pelosi faces a challenge to her leadership in the House.
Joining us for a post-Thanksgiving feast of facts and analysis, Matea Gold of The Washington Post; Joshua Green of Bloomberg Politics; Ashley Parker of The New York Times; and Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, Amy Walter.
MS. WALTER: Good evening. I imagine that Thanksgiving dinner for many Americans, maybe your own family, including a political food-fight, of sorts, about the election, right? Well, tonight we’re going to use our indoor voices to talk about the new normal surrounding presidential politics.
President-elect Trump spent the week interviewing candidates for his Cabinet. There were familiar faces, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. There were also fierce critics, like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, as well as former Texas Governor Rick Perry. They also sat down with the president-elect. And at least one Democrat, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a combat veteran from Hawaii, met with Mr. Trump behind closed doors.
Before we talk about the people the president-elect has – president-elect has picked to join his team, and others who were under consideration, let’s talk about a couple of issues that Mr. Trump backed away from this week. Candidate Trump called climate change a hoax and said he thought waterboarding was an effective interrogation tool. Ashley, this week he sat down with your newspaper, The New York Times, where he seemed to back away from a lot of the statements that he made on the campaign trail. So what do you think is going on here?
ASHLEY PARKER: He sure did. And what I think is going on is that Donald Trump is someone who is always trying to win over the people directly in front of him in the room that he is in. And he understands The New York Times. It’s, you know, one of the papers he reads every morning. And I think that when he went into a room that was filled with, you know, not just New York Times reporters, but a columnist and a publisher who perhaps he knows skew a little more liberal, he was trying to win them over. And the other thing you know, following Donald Trump, is that whenever he says he deeply believes in that moment. So everything you just said he said on the campaign trail, he absolutely said it. And when he said it he 100 percent believed it to be true. And in that New York Times interview, everything he said then he also in that moment on Tuesday afternoon in The New York Times also meant it.
MS. WALTER: So how are Americans supposed to know which one of these views is going to be the one that holds as president?
MS. PARKER: Well, that’s the tricky part of Donald Trump. And I think that’s something some voters were a little worried about, and even some of his own advisors. When you ask them what’s going on, who’s he going to appoint? And they’re sort of like, look, it’s up to Mr. Trump – or, now, President-elect Trump. And I think it’s an open question, who he’s surrounded with at that moment he’s making those decisions.
MS. WALTER: Well, and, Josh, one of the things that we heard a lot from – on the trail, if you spent any time with him, was the chant of “lock her up.” And now he also in this interview said that he’s not interested in pursuing any charges against Hillary Clinton. Is there going to be some sort of backlash from the people who had been supporting this for a while?
JOSHUA GREEN: There didn’t seem to be a big backlash yet. In talking to the advisors around Trump they say, look, it doesn’t make any sense to pursue this any further. He soundly defeated Hillary. He’s won. He’s the alpha male he wants to be. And we need to focus on the battles ahead with other people. So we’re not going to focus on that. But it was interesting, if you look around at the reaction among conservatives, Breitbart News, which has been sort of the house organ of Trumpism throughout the campaign, ran a headline that said: Promises broken. You know, Trump says he will not prosecute Hillary Clinton. So it’s certainly been noticed among the most extreme elements of the conservative base.
MS. WALTER: And, Kristina, you spend a lot time on Capitol Hill. There were also some things missing from President-elect Trump, even in the video that we saw where he was laying out his policy platforms. We didn’t hear a lot about building a wall. We didn’t hear about some of the other prescriptions that he made on the campaign trail. So what do you think that Republicans on the Hill are hearing when they see him either go back or not mention some of these campaign promises?
KRISTINA PETERSON: Right. Well, there are many kinds of Republicans on the Hill. So to the extent that he backs away from his boldest campaign pledges, that may may like – may make life easier for some of the GOP leaders, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who don’t necessarily want to be building a wall. But there are hardline conservatives, particularly in the House, who are really going to be upset, I think, if he doesn’t. I think they’re willing to give him a little leeway. They want to see a tough border enforcement bill, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical wall on immigration. But if that issue doesn’t come up, they will be pretty unhappy.
MS. WALTER: If the immigration issue doesn’t get put –
MS. PETERSON: Right.
MS. WALTER: Do you think they’d come and bring it up themselves?
MS. PETERSON: Absolutely. Yeah, there’s a lot of appetite to do that. It may not be the first thing, because there’s a lot of appetite to repeal and replace the health care law. But it’s going to be right up there.
MS. WALTER: Well, he did say also in this meeting that Republicans love me now. They didn’t always love me, but now they love me. So could they fall out of love once again with him, do you think?
MS. PETERSON: Yes, absolutely. You do see some skepticism on foreign policy, for instance. But we are in that honeymoon period on the Hill. Certainly very few people are directly, openly criticizing him on anything. But I’m sure that that kind of party unity can’t maintain itself for that long.
MS. WALTER: Forever, right.
Well, there’s another simmering controversy involving Trump’s international businesses, and the possible conflict of interest. The Trump family operates more than 100 companies in 18 countries. And, Matea, you know that another thing that Mr. Trump told The New York Times was that – he said, the law is, quote, “totally on my side,” and that a president can’t have a conflict of interest. So can you tell us what’s going on here? Is that true? The president can’t have a conflict of interest? This looks pretty conflicty to me.
MATEA GOLD: So there’s a couple different issues at play here. He is right that Congress actually exempted the president and the vice president from conflict of interest laws that apply to officials in the executive branch. And this was in the 1970s. And the reasoning was the president has so much power and so much authority, it would be very difficult to create some kind of wall around his or her interests that would not conflict with something that had to do with policy.
But there are several other legal issues and ethical issues that can come into play. The president is still subject to anti-bribery laws. And some ethics officials believe if the president brings up a business interest as part of a discussion with a governmental official from another country, that could be construed as soliciting or offering a bribe. There’s also this until recently little-known clause in the Constitution, called the Emoluments Clause – (laughter) – which his –
MS. WALTER: Can anybody spell it?
MS. GOLD: That’s what everyone says, can anyone spell it? But that actually speaks directly to something that could impact President Trump, which is that a company owned by the president cannot accept something from a governmental official, or a company controlled by a foreign government, rather – controlled by a foreign government or foreign government official. And that could really come into play because he has a lot of businesses that have dealings with foreign countries.
And then lastly, there’s just the issue of ethics and perception. So while there might not be legal jeopardy on some of these issues, there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny about whether he is mixing his own business empire with his governmental actions.
MS. WALTER: And where his family fits into this, Ashley, because we also have Jared Kushner, who’s his son-in-law, who’s actively involved in this campaign, and his daughter, Ivanka, who’s been on the campaign trail with him and now sitting in on meetings with foreign leaders. So how’s this going to work out?
MS. PARKER: I mean, it’s just hard to imagine him disentangling his family from governing, from his business, because this entire campaign they have been so wrapped up in this. I mean, I even remember the first time I heard Jared Kushner mentioned, right, you’re sort of, like, what is this son-in-law, who doesn’t really have any expertise in any of this, doing? And within two weeks of first even hearing the name, he was basically the de facto campaign manager. And so you can’t imagine them leaving – and especially someone like Ivanka, who – she was the one who was most acutely concerned and aware with how the campaign was hurting the Trump brand and her brand personally.
And what I’ve heard from talking to advisors and people close to her is that she now realizes she has this platform and she’s going to use it to sort of pursue – almost the way a first lady would – and make an impact on the issues she cares about, which for her – and you saw all throughout the campaign – are issues of working women, working moms, that’s what she devoted her convention speech to. So she’s definitely going to be player, both privately, as though a sort of whisperer to her father, and publicly on these issues she really cares about.
MS. WALTER: And what can the – what can the folks on Capitol Hill do? I mean, they have sort of watchdog role, right? And do you expect to see them playing that role, especially since it’s controlled by the Republican Party?
MS. PETERSON: Right. Well, I think we expected to see Republicans playing a big watchdog role when the assumption was that Hillary Clinton would win. That did not happen. So it is changing a little bit. Republicans have said – a few have said that they don’t want to let the investigations go on Clinton and the email server, the foundation. Jason Chaffetz has said, in the House, that he may still look into that. But I really think you see Democrats looking at what Ashley was talking about, at the business conflicts, whether Jared Kushner should play some type of role, if that violates any nepotism rules. So especially after a drain the swamp election, they feel like they have a toehold onto this issue by keeping the spotlight on any potential conflicts of interest.
MS. WALTER: Well, we have so much to cover on that, but we’re also going to talk about the people that the president-elect has surrounded himself by, the transition team. And we’ve seen this parade of people, Josh, going in and out of Trump Tower, in and out of his golf course in New Jersey. It looks and feels a little bit like “The Apprentice,” where people are kind of coming for their – right? (Laughter.) And yet, is it really as random as it seems, this mishmash of people coming forward?
MR. GREEN: You know, I think it’s just an amazing scene when you go to Trump Tower and see these people coming in and out. It’s almost as if they’re, like, walking down a runway – (laughter) – you know, auditioning for these different jobs. And if you talk to Trump officials, what they’ll tell you in candor and off the record is that, look, we weren’t necessarily prepared to win the presidency. (Laughter.) And we didn’t really have a transition plan ready to go, in the way that Hillary Clinton would have.
But there is a real debate going on in Trump world. And I think there are two competing interests. On the one hand, Trump very much wants to reward the loyalists who stood by him through all the scandals and the outrage. And that’s why you hear people like Rudy Giuliani and General Flynn either installed in or being talked about for senior positions. But on the other hand there are people in Trump’s orbit, like Steve Bannon, his senior advisor, who want Trump to appoint people in a way that will signal to Americans that this isn’t your ordinary Republican president just installing, you know, donors and friendly conservatives.
And you so have people like Michelle Rhee considered for education secretary. You have people like Tulsi Gabbard, who the Trump folks consider Democratic stars and fighters, was the term that people used. That’s a brand that Trump wants to bring into his fold. And so it’s not impossible that there may be a Democrat appointed to a high-level Trump position.
MS. WALTER: Well, and Matea, that’s what I wanted to get to too, because he disavowed these and condemned these alt-right comments that we heard this week. But it’s also hard for him to separate himself completely because of Steve Bannon, who is his chief strategist. So can you tell us a little bit – back up a little bit, tell us a little bit about Steve Bannon, the role he’s going to play in this administration, and whether or not he’s just going to continue to be this lightning rod for the foreseeable future.
MS. GOLD: So Steve Bannon has a really fascinating background for someone who’s taken up sort of the populist drain the swamp cause. He comes from very elite institutions in this country. He went to Harvard Business School. He had a turn on Wall Street. Worked for Goldman Sachs. He was an investment banker with his own boutique investment bank in Hollywood, and was an investor in a lot of film productions. He went on and got involved in the creative side of film as the director and writer of a lot of conservative movies. And has really emerged as sort of one of the canniest strategists who recognized this emerging populist wave.
Now, he has gotten caught up in this controversy about whether that populism extends to sort of more strident brands of xenophobia and even white supremacy, because he embraced the term alt-right, which has become a real lightning rod. He said before he joined Trump’s campaign that he saw Breitbart News, which he was running as its chairman at the time, as a platform for the alt-right. And, you know, that is a very wide term that encompasses lots of points of view, but there’s no question that people who have been drawn to that cause and drawn to that movement have come from some of these backgrounds where they are touting white supremacy and touting the need for sort of an etho-nationalism.
That’s something that Bannon himself has said that he disavowed but, you know, we just did a deep dive looking at some of his statements and, you know, he has often shown a tendency to dismiss the influence of these people and say they’re going to wash out over time, was one of the phrases he uses. And that, I think, is what makes a lot of people nervous, the sense that he hasn’t been very firmly, aggressively condemning these elements. And I know Josh has written about it a lot too.
MR. GREEN: Well, it’s no mistake, too, I was going to say, the Democrats have chosen Bannon essentially as the first fight they’re going to pick with Donald Trump, both for those reasons and because if you look at Bannon’s background, one of the interesting things about this fight is that there have been no Republican defenders who have come out and said, now wait a minute, I know Steve Bannon. I trust him.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, literally just went silent in front of the cameras when asked about Steve Bannon and refused to answer a question. One of the reasons why is that Breitbart has been as aggressive in attacking establishment Republicans as they have Democrats. And those establishment Republicans in return feel no obligation to defend him, and might like to see him suffer a little bit. And Trump himself finally was the one who came out and said, well, I don’t like this alt-right stuff, but I – you know, I think Steve’s a solid guy.
MS. PARKER: And you had also before mentioned before Breitbart sort of being the house organ of the Trump administration. And one thing that will be fascinating to watch is Bannon is already sort of feuding internally with Reince Priebus, and where will the power center be. And one thing to watch will be if something happens that Bannon doesn’t like, you may – the White House may put on a good public show, or put out a statement, this is the policy, this is what’s happening. And every one will correctly turn to Breitbart and say, well, what does Bannon really think? (Laughter.) What is that power center in the White House really fighting for?
MR. GREEN: You know, it was funny, I was talking to someone in the circle who likened it to the portrait of Dorian Gray. You may not be able to see what’s happening in the White House, but if you look over here at Breitbart News and their headlines, you’ll see the ravages of what’s going on in the Trump administration, and how it’s being received by people on the far right.
MS. WALTER: Well, we also have to talk about the Democrats for a little bit. We talked a lot about Republicans, and we’ll continue. They obviously are the main event. But the Democrats are having sort of their own identity crisis right now, and some intraparty power struggles. Senator Bernie Sanders is telling Democrats to pull away from identity politics.
SEN. SANDERS: (From video.) I believe the Democratic Party has got to be firmly on the side of working families, taking on the big money interests who today, to a very significant degree, control our economic and political life.
MS. WALTER: So, Josh, you sat down with Senator Sanders this week. What is the core message now from Sanders?
MR. GREEN: Well, it’s tough. I mean, Sanders is in a spot – I was at a breakfast with reporters and Bernie Sanders last week. And Sanders was essentially asked, you know, what is your critique of the campaign. And the game among reporters is to try to get him to say, look, I could have won and Hillary messed this up and here’s how we should move ahead. But I asked him, I said: If you look at the vote results, it’s clear that Democrats have lost white working class voters. And what is your message to kind of bring them back?
And his answer really didn’t differ a whole lot from what he talked about on the campaign trail. He talked about raising the minimum wage and about how the working class is coming to comprise people of color more and more. But there really wasn’t a specific message aimed at, you know, white working class men of the sort who fled the party consistently for 20 or 30 years, but especially in this last election.
And one of the – one of the struggles I think Democrats are going to have to go is do they kind of stick to Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama plan of assembling this coalition of the rising American groups of young people and minorities, or do they push more in the direction of where a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would like to go, a more populist economic message that, at least in theory, ought to be able to appeal to white working class voters who turned to Trump.
MS. WALTER: Well, that’s right, Kristina, because we’re seeing that play out at the House level too. Tim Ryan from one of those white working class areas that went overwhelming for Trump, was formerly Democratic, coming out and announcing this week that he’s challenging Nancy Pelosi. A couple of things. Tell us a little bit about what his chances are to do this. And then what is he saying about where the party at least on the House side goes forward?
MS. PETERSON: Yeah. I think he’s considered something of a long shot. Nancy Pelosi’s been the leader of House Democrats for almost 14 years. She is a fundraising powerhouse and a formidable leader. And a lot of people have lined up behind her already. But Tim Ryan is positioning himself as someone from the Rust Belt who could connect with these white working class voters, and deliver a more sharper – a sharper economic message. That’s something that we’ve seen on the Senate side too. Senator Charles Schumer, the new Senate Democratic leader, is saying we need to address these concerns from white working class Americans, that they are being unfairly treated, that the system is rigged against them, with a bolder economic message.
I don’t think Democrats have figured out the identity politics question yet. (Laughter.) On both sides they’re saying, well, let’s just expand leadership and include everyone. But you know, if you have 10 people in leadership and 48 Democrats, you know, someone’s still going to have to make the final decision.
MR. GREEN: And they did elevate Bernie Sanders now into a leadership position.
MS. PETERSON: They did.
MS. GOLD: Yeah.
MR. GREEN: So they have taken some steps. What they haven’t done –
MS. PETERSON: And Joe Manchin.
MR. GREEN: And Joe Manchin.
MS. WALTER: From West Virginia.
MS. PETERSON: Yeah.
MR. GREEN: What they haven’t done is sort of confront the dilemma of do we go this way or do we go that way.
MS. GOLD: And I think the real question is – at its heart is, what is the agenda that the party’s getting behind. They seem incredibly focused right now on the mechanics and the messaging, and that’s something I heard a lot from Democratic donors who were gathered here in Washington after the election, sort of taking stock, stunned, trying to figure out where do we go from here. They’re wrestling with this issue that they’ve been really focused on, investing in let’s get Latinos out, let’s get women out, and all these sort of very granular political mechanics, and really coming to terms and reckoning with the fact that they need to have an agenda that’s compelling before they attach those mechanics to that.
MS. WALTER: Well, and they have new leadership on the Senate side, too: Senator Chuck Schumer, very different from outgoing Senator Harry Reid. Chuck Schumer, much more – he wants to make deals. He’s not quite as caustic, doesn’t rub Republicans quite as harshly as Reid did. So how is that going to work, do you think?
MS. PARKER: Exactly. I mean, there’s all this talk right now about President Trump has the Senate and the House, but I think one of the real relationships to watch is going to be between Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer because they are both dealmakers – they are both stated dealmakers. And I think Senator Schumer’s people, they didn’t expect that result, but if you know anything about Senator Schumer he immediately sort of took stock of it. And it’s a – it’s a chessboard for him, so he looked at the new set of pieces and he began gaming out. And the one thing they see in Trump and sort of recognize in Trump in their own offices, Trump has a desire to get stuff done. And I think they think there will be opportunities for them to team up and do deals.
MS. WALTER: Do you think, though, that there’s a price to pay for Democrats who go along with Trump in the way that Republicans paid the price if they looked like they were supporting Obama or at least, you know, compromising in any way?
MS. PETERSON: Well, one of the fascinating dynamics in the Senate coming up is that the moderate Democrats are the ones who are up for reelection in 2018. So they’re going to be the ones that Republicans are courting on some of these conservative policy agendas, but they’re also the ones that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may not want to give legislative victories to. So that’s going to be a really interesting tug of war.
MS. WALTER: About how they figure out how to get all of that done.
MS. PETERSON: Yeah.
MS. WALTER: And the other piece of the story, of course, is what does Paul Ryan do, right, and what is his role now. He seems to have been diminished somewhat. Do we see the fights going on on the Republican side, as well, over deficit spending, entitlements, trade? Or this seems to have sort of been healed by a win?
MS. GOLD: I think there’s a sense of biding a little bit of time and seeing what can be done. One thing that’s going to be striking is that the call from the conservatives to deal with debt seems to have quieted for now. That’s largely because that is not a top priority that we’ve heard out of President-elect Trump. But I do think – I mean, Ryan has told associates he is very hopeful, that he believes he can get this agenda pushed through. He wants to do some kind of entitlement reform. Obviously, tax reform is a big priority both for him and for McConnell. So I do think that they are – they are bullish on getting pieces of the agenda through. The wild card is sort of what we talked about earlier, that Ashley mentioned: sort of which Trump is going to be in the White House, and is it going to be a Trump who’s going to do a deal with Schumer or do a deal with McConnell.
MS. WALTER: I would love to do more, but we can’t because we do have to wrap it up and say that that is it for this week. But I do want to pause and say, on behalf of the Washington Week family, thank you to everyone who sent a condolence card or a note or an email to Gwen Ifill’s family or to the staff. Your thoughtfulness is appreciated more than you can know.
Our conversation will continue online, Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you about the Trump Foundation’s tax problems and an undecided governor’s race where ballots are still being counted. You can find that at www.pbs.org/WashingtonWeek. I’m Amy Walter. Good night.