ROBERT COSTA: Civil War in the White House and a possible trade war coming. I’m Robert Costa. Staff tensions, proposed tariffs, and stalled gun talks, tonight on Washington Week.
As extreme weather batters both coasts, a storm of controversies and conflicts are creating disturbances inside the White House. From power struggles and investigations of President Trump’s family, to Trump’s ongoing attacks against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the president finds himself isolated and angry. This week he took aim at the National Rifle Association and his own party over guns.
SENATOR PAT TOOMEY (R-PA): (From video.) We didn’t address it, Mr. President. Look, I think –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA.
MR. COSTA: But changed course the next day after meeting with the NRA. He surprised many inside and outside the White House with his plan to impose heavy tariffs on global imports of steel and aluminum.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Workers in our country have not been properly represented. So we’re going to build our steel industry back and we’re going to build our aluminum industry back.
MR. COSTA: But the announcement sent stocks plummeting and stoked fears of a trade war. What’s the cost of President Trump’s disruptive and unpredictable tactics?
We’ll discuss it all with Hallie Jackson of NBC News, Michael Crowley of POLITICO, Nancy Cordes of CBS News, and Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump vowed he would shake up Washington, and has always embraced the idea that unpredictability has power. That approach was tested this week when the president rattled global markets with his surprise decision to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, stepped up his public feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, engaged the National Rifle Association over guns, and faced challenges with two of his closest advisors – son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks. Scrutiny of Kushner continues to grow. This week he lost his top-secret security clearance amid reports that he may be vulnerable to manipulation by foreign countries over his business deals. His White House meetings with executives from two lending companies that issued more than 500 million (dollars) in loans to his family’s real estate business have also drawn attention. And Hope Hicks, one of the president’s most loyal confidants, resigned just one day after she testified before the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian election meddling.
Hallie, welcome to Washington Week.
HALLIE JACKSON: Thanks for having me.
MR. COSTA: Such a week of turmoil inside of this White House. And we’ve talked about that before, week after week. But this week in particular seems different. The president’s family under scrutiny, his closest confidants and advisors under scrutiny as well. What made it different? Was it just that?
MS. JACKSON: His inner circle dissipating, Bob. So I think that there’s a couple of things that made this week different. And I think it comes from the intersection of the personal and the policy, of the relationships and then how that affected policy moving forward, because our reporting has been that according to a couple of officials familiar with this, the president midweek, after Hope Hicks testified in that sort of very dramatic moment on Capitol Hill, to lawmakers about the Russian investigation – the thing that annoys him the most, as we know, from talking to folks close to him.
He then was simmering over that. He was simmering about the conduct of his attorney general. He was frustrated by the beating that his son-in-law was taking in the press and the continued headlines about Jared Kushner. I was told by one person he was feeling angry and depressed – not clinically but feeling low from a morale perspective, which turned into him beginning to spoil for a fight. And the one he picked was on trade with the help of, for example, Wilbur Ross, Peter Navarro – people that were pushing him towards that from the very beginning of the administration over the advice of others – the so-called globalists, like Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin. That all came a head this week when, on Thursday morning, the president made that seemingly surprise announcement that caught even some of his own staffers off-guard about tariffs.
MR. COSTA: And it caught Republicans in Congress off-guard, Nancy. When you think about what Senator John Thune of South Dakota said this week – he said, quote, “There’s no standard operating practice with this administration. Every day is a new adventure for us.”
NANCY CORDES: Right. And several things about that whole episode troubled not just Republicans, but a lot of Democrats as well. First of all, they don’t agree with the president that a trade war is a good thing that will end well for the United States. That’s number one. Number two, just the very cavalier way that he appeared to go about this by, as Hallie said, leaving a lot of his top aides in the dark, maybe not running the numbers and thinking about all of the consequences beforehand, was another reminder to them about the way that this White House operates, kind of on an ad-hoc basis.
At the same time, they are now waiting to see whether he pulls back a little bit after seeing how the stock market reacted, after seeing the threats coming from the EU that it might end up imposing tariffs on U.S. products. And, you know, they’re holding some of their fire until they see the final announcement from this White House. Do they make these tariffs a little more narrow than the president initially made them sound?
KAREN TUMULTY: But there was also this whole series of tweets started – which we say practically every day in this administration. But there was this whole series of tweets starting before dawn this morning where the president is declaring that trade wars are a good thing, and that they’re easy to win. And, you know, there is just – it suggests that he is operating completely on impulse. And I think he’s also operating with an eye to a special election in Pennsylvania 10 days from now, where there is going to be a big – it’s a lot closer than it should be for the Republican candidate. And a lot of these voters are going to be people like steel workers and coal miners, who will actually be cheering these tariffs.
MS. JACKSON: I do think it’s worth noting, this is not a new position for the president. And as somebody who covered his campaign, he was talking about this at rallies in Pennsylvania and in Ohio and in some of those really critical Rust Belt states. His supporters knew he was going to be tough on trade. And I think that, based on folks that we’ve talked to, he feels like he’s delivering on a promise. Now, the numbers, the specifics, as Nancy points out, are where the devil’s in the details there. Where’s he going to go over the next five, six days?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: What’s interesting to me is that although the markets did swoon at this, at the end of the day the Dow was basically flat and the NASDAQ was up 1 percent. And one thing you’ve seen through the chaos of the Trump presidency is a stock market that continues to grow. Now, we did have this sort of pseudo-correction last month. And we’re in a little bit of a wobbly phase. But generally speaking people on Wall Street don’t seem to be expecting trade wars, wars with North Korea. And you wonder if their theory is that Donald Trump tweets a lot of dramatic things, and says a lot of dramatic things, but the follow-through has thus far been limited. And investors seem to be betting it will continue to be.
MS. CORDES: One of the things I found very interesting was the EU threatening to potentially impose tariffs on bourbon. And who’s from Kentucky? Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate. So they may be hoping that he gets more involved in this discussion and tries to convince the president to change his mind.
MS. TUMULTY: Oh, bourbon and cheese.
MR. COSTA: Bourbon and cheese.
MS. TUMULTY: Wisconsin.
MS. CORDES: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: I mean, this – let’s turn to tariffs, because when you look at what happened this week, a 25 percent tariff on foreign-made steel, 10 percent for aluminum. And as Hallie said, maybe some of this is a play for the base. But, Michael, when you think about the consequences here inside of the White House, when we talk about the staffers and the advisors, it’s not about palace intrigue. It’s because this administration is driven by relationships with the president, it’s driven often by the president’s instincts, based on my reporting. And you see someone like Gary Cohn, the national economic advisor, looking at what’s happening with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Trade Advisor Peter Navarro. He sees the administration tilting in a new direction, perhaps.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. And there’s talk that he may leave in frustration if the president does follow through and impose significant tariffs. And personnel can be policy. And that’s why, you know, another interesting component right now is the fate of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who’s seen as a kind of establishment, conventional, stabilizing force on U.S. foreign policy. So if Cohn leaves – I do think the markets would react badly to Cohn leaving. I think that would actually be a signal that Trump is willing to take actions with real significant economic consequences. That it’s not just about tweets and quotes.
And I think if McMaster leaves, it depends on who replaces him, but that could be a sign that Trump is kind of breaking the shackles of some of the relatively conventional foreign policy he’s followed up until this time. That’s been changing a little bit. It looks like there’s an excellent chance he’s going to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Next key deadline comes up in May. He announced that he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, against the advice of many of his advisors. And what else may he be thinking in terms of North Korea? So I think that’s going to be another big test.
But I think you’re exactly right that who is in the White House is more – there is this kind of, let’s be honest, like, epic reality show that is the greatest drama American politics has ever seen. But it has real policy implications.
MS. JACKSON: I do think there’s a lot of folks that listen to some of the things that you just ticked off, Michael, and say: Hey, promise made, promise kept from Donald Trump, because that’s exactly what he did. When you look at the roller coaster ride in the markets, this was not a surprise to people inside the West Wing who study economic policy and who have been working on the potential trade fallout here. They predicted this was likely going to happen. And our reporting is they told the president this probably would happen.
MR. COSTA: So not a surprise to them, but a surprise to Republicans at the Capitol.
MS. CORDES: Right. This is normally the type of thing you like to sort of forecast, this is where you’re heading. Maybe you’d consult with top Republican leaders. Or, at least, you know, make sure you’ve run the numbers and you understand the consequences of the action you’re about to take. Absolutely, you know, folks are not surprised that the president cares about this issue. He’s talked about it a lot. But the fact that he did what he did on Thursday took everyone by surprise. And, you know, Republicans were already reeling over, you know, a very unusual conversation on guns just 24 hours earlier.
MR. COSTA: What does it mean, though, Karen, when you think about Americans and how these trade policies affect them?
MS. TUMULTY: It means, essentially, that if Donald Trump follows through on this, he’s picking winners and losers. The losers will be American consumers who will – prices of anything that has steel and aluminum in it will go up. And there have been estimates that they will go up – prices will go up more than the benefit people are getting from the tax cuts that Republicans plan to run on. The industries that he is trying to protect here will benefit in the short run, but, you know, insulating them from global economic trends is not necessarily in their interest in the long run. This is a very dramatic break with Republican economic policy.
MR. CROWLEY: And it’s the kind of thing that can get out of control. So once you kind of break that membrane and you start taking some of these steps and other nations retaliate, it can escalate quickly. And we have a pretty stable international system where the countries that are part of the sort of global economic order don’t generally play these games, particularly the United States. And once we start changing that norm, it’s hard to say how far out of control it might get.
MS. CORDES: The losers will also be industries that the president cares a lot about – car companies, Boeing. You know, companies that use a lot of steel in this country and will see their prices go up, and they are sure to be beating down the door of the White House trying to change the president’s mind. And they could have an influence as well.
MS. JACKSON: There’s also another piece of this. We talked to a guy named Ken Wood today. He farms wheat in Chapman, Kansas. And he’s concerned, because if the president does go through with these tariffs there’s a concern that there will be retaliation on things that Americans export, like wheat, and corn, and soybeans, which is a huge, obviously, industry. Ag is big in the middle part of the country. And there’s some real concern that their prices are going to go up as well. So it’s not just the bourbon and the cheese and the blue jeans. It’s everything.
MS. TUMULTY: And finally, it punishes everybody – our allies as well as our adversaries. There’s maybe an argument to some sort of targeted trade measures that are targeted against China or targeted against Russia. This hits Canada. It hits Europe. It is a very blunt instrument.
MR. COSTA: And China, Michael, has said they’re going to fight back. I asked a White House official today – I said what’s this all about, and they said, look, the president keeps being told the trade deficit’s over $500 billion, he’s frustrated, and he wants to move on to something in a midterm year, not just sit on the tax bill that passed last year. But China’s not going to walk away from this.
MR. CROWLEY: No, China’s not, and that goes back to the point I made about possible escalation with unforeseeable consequences. And a bigger point here, Robert, is that China – the U.S.-China relationship is so important in so many ways. And we spend a huge amount of time here in Washington talking about America and Russia, and that’s very important for a lot of reasons, but actually if you talk to people who kind of take a big-picture view of how the world is evolving and geopolitics, they say the U.S.-China relationship is actually the more important one. And it’s been surprising so far because Donald Trump, who hammered the Chinese on the campaign trail constantly and his audiences loved it, has actually been pretty soft on China, partly because he’s trying to get their cooperation to rein in North Korea. But he’s getting frustrated that he’s not seeing more results there, and this could be a sign that we might be getting a little more confrontational. And that has dramatic consequences, potentially.
MR. COSTA: It is so true. I mean, if you look at President Xi Jinping, he continues to assert his power in China, one of the biggest stories in the world. But one of the other biggest stories here in the U.S. this week was the gun debate. And on the same day students from Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School returned to class, the president convened lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to discuss gun safety policy at the White House. During the televised gathering, the president said he supported an immediate ban on bump stocks and suggested raising the age limits for purchasing assault-style rifles. He also seemed to support expanded background checks, an idea that’s generally opposed by Republicans. Democrats in the room urged the president to take the lead if he wants to make any progress.
SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): (From video.) Mr. President, it is going to have to be you that brings the Republicans to the table on this because right now the gun lobby would stop it in its tracks.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I like that responsibility, Chris. I really do. I think it’s time. It’s time that a president stepped up, and we haven’t had them. And I’m talking Democrat and Republican presidents, they have not stepped up.
MR. COSTA: The president’s apparent openness to new gun legislation did not last long. The NRA leaders who met with him this week signaled that the president may back off. That makes some congressionals probably pleased on Capitol Hill, Nancy. When we look at the president’s talk on guns, does it translate to action in the coming months?
MS. CORDES: Only if he keeps with the same position, which he’s already indicated he may not. He could have some impact if he were to kind of hammer away at his party day after day saying we need to change our stance on this, we need to be open to universal background checks, but it doesn’t appear that that’s going to be the case. Just as with immigration, where he initially appeared to side with Democrats but then got hammered not just by his base and by conservative news outlets, but also by some of his own staffers who told him, no, you got to go this way, it looks like this same scenario is playing out here. And that’s why Republicans, you know, by and large didn’t freak out when he really appeared to break with them on some pretty significant aspects of the gun debate, because they assumed that if past is prologue he’ll get back into the fold, they just got to wait a couple days.
MR. COSTA: Neither did the NRA. They went to have dinner with him at the White House. And Chris Cox, the chief NRA lobbyist, he tweeted the president and the vice president support the Second Amendment, support strong due process, and don’t want gun control. Hallie, who’s the President Trump that matters, the President Trump in that gathering with lawmakers or the President Trump who’s having the dinner with the NRA?
MS. JACKSON: I don’t think you can say either one matters less than the other because, remember, one is a publicly televised moment, this sort of remarkable moment; the other is a private session meant to sway the president. But I will tell you this, I do think you are already seeing the walk back from the White House, saying things like, well, that was a debate, that was a get the ball rolling kind of a session with the president. I spoke with one source close to the NRA today about what I think is one of the most interesting pieces of this gun debate, which is raising the minimum age to buy semiautomatic weapons to 21. You’re already seeing a lot of businesses – L.L. Bean the latest now – coming out and saying we will put this in place on our own, for example, Dick’s Sporting Goods of course. The NRA is not going to compromise on that. And I think where you’re going to see this debate go, I think you may see a push to say states can do that.
MR. COSTA: You’ve been tracking some of the companies, Karen. Dick’s Sporting Goods, you see all these companies reacting to the gun debate. It makes you wonder, as you look back at political history, though the president may not be able to execute on some of what he’s talking about, is having a Republican president talk in this way about guns some kind of breakthrough in the gun debate?
MS. TUMULTY: If he were consistent, but he is probably not going to be consistent. And we are seeing corporations responding to their customer bases. You look at Dick’s Sporting Goods, it’s – their stores are out in the suburbs, where there are a lot of suburban women, young people, their big customers. While the polling will show that young people are as likely as any other group to own a gun or live in a house with a gun, their attitudes about the balance between gun ownership rights and gun control are completely the opposite of those of older Americans. These corporations are looking out there at their customer bases and I think they are seeing where the debate and where the public sentiment is going – not where it is right now, which is completely stuck in Congress.
MR. CROWLEY: Look, it may be that this is a pivotal moment, but I still remember, you know, you had the Million Mom March after the Columbine shooting. I think that did get the assault weapons ban passed for a while but, you know, that had a limited effect. Eventually, that expired. This was now close to 20 years ago. To change the laws in this country, you need really sustained attention and commitment and passion on the side of people who want to make the change, and what you haven’t – you just haven’t seen that. Whereas, on the other side, you have this intensity of commitment, money, determination by the NRA and its allies. And I think a likely outcome is that Donald Trump, like many Americans in the aftermath of a school shooting, got fired up about this stuff, was appalled and horrified and talked about doing things, but the moment will pass and you won’t see the follow through, and it’ll be the same pattern.
MR. COSTA: When you look at the states, they’re taking some action in Florida following the shooting there. But when you look at congressional candidates as they look to the midterms, are they really pushing for something right now?
MS. CORDES: I think the challenge is that for the Democratic Party, while certainly their base is pretty united on the gun issue, it never ranks in polls as the number one or number two or number three issue for voters. On the other hand, it does often rank pretty high up there for conservative voters. And so that’s why you don’t see a sustained push among Democrats. You know, look, they had this bump stock issue. They had finally reached agreement with Republicans a couple of months ago after the Las Vegas shooting to get rid of bump stocks. What a – you know, what a huge breakthrough. And then you didn’t hear a lot about it for a couple of months, and that’s because, as passionately as they may feel, it just is not necessarily a winning issue for Democrats. Can these Parkland students change that? Can they raise the issue’s profile in a sustained way, as Michael was pointing out? It remains to be seen.
MR. COSTA: They have been everywhere, those Parkland students. They are activists, and respect them and wish them the best as they go back to school.
Hallie, Michael, Karen, Nancy, thanks so much for being here tonight. We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll continue the conversation on the Washington Week Extra, where we will talk about President Vladimir Putin’s claims that Russia has created an invincible nuclear missile system – his word. And believe it or not, President Trump has named his 2020 campaign manager. It’s 2018, but he’s done that. You can find it online Friday nights and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy your weekend.