ROBERT COSTA: Turnover in the White House. President Trump reshuffles his national security team ahead of critical negotiations. I’m Robert Costa. What it means for U.S. foreign policy, plus the president’s lead attorney in the Russia probe resigns, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I say to Congress I will never sign another bill like this again.
MR. COSTA: A defiant President Trump calls out lawmakers for pushing through a $1.3 trillion spending bill that he considered vetoing just hours earlier.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) As a matter of national security, I’ve signed this omnibus budget bill.
MR. COSTA: The threat of a government shutdown capped off a wild week of staff shakeups and surprise resignations.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Thank you all very much.
MR. COSTA: The president continues to reshuffle his foreign policy team, naming John Bolton to be his third national security adviser. Does the appointment of Bolton, a hardliner who supports a preemptive strike against North Korea and Iran, signal a radical shift in foreign policy?
And the revolving door at the White House, it keeps turning with the departure of John Dowd, the president’s lead attorney in the Russia probe, and the addition of a hard-charging former federal prosecutor, Joseph diGenova.
We discuss it all with Geoff Bennett of NBC News, Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal, Jackie Calmes of The Los Angeles Times, and Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump is rebooting his foreign policy team as he prepares for talks with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs. Next month he will replace National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star general, with hardline hawk John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton, who has served three presidents, has been an outspoken advocate of preemptive military strikes. In 2015, Bolton wrote a controversial op-ed in The New York Times with the headline “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” And in February, following the Olympics in South Korea, Bolton wrote in The Wall Street Journal, quote, “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded to Bolton’s appointment in a tweet. The New York Democrat wrote “Mr. Bolton’s tendency to try to solve every geopolitical problem with the American military first is a troubling one. I hope he will temper his instinct to commit our armed forces to conflicts around the globe.”
Geoff, when you look at H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, was he let go because of a personality clash with the president, because of a policy difference, or was it because of that leak earlier in the week of the president’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
GEOFF BENNETT: Well, what’s so interesting about this is that McMaster’s departure had nothing to do with matters of competence. It really had more to do with the personality clash between him and the president. They’ve disagreed over issues of policy, of course; you have Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia. Remember, last month the president publicly rebuked McMaster for neglecting to defend his electoral win when McMaster was speaking more broadly about Russia’s election interference. But on the issues of personality, in McMaster you have a guy who’s relentless, he’s aggressive. He’s also a scholar. In Army parlance, as one person put it, he’s all transmit, meaning he likes to lecture. And the president was said to have grown bored and frustrated in Oval Office briefing sessions with that aspect of McMaster’s approach. So what we’re told is that one of the reasons that here had been a delay in McMaster leaving the White House was that the White House wanted to make sure that there was some sort of soft landing in place so that his ouster wouldn’t be as unceremonious as Rex Tillerson’s was.
MS. CALMES: You know, what’s interesting to me about McMaster is this is a man who took this job and his main claim to fame, aside from his military career of more than 30 years, was that he had written this Ph.D. thesis turned into a widely read book called “Dereliction of Duty,” that was about his conclusion that biggest mistake of the Vietnam War era was that military officers were not candid enough with the presidents they served, mainly Lyndon Johnson, and were complicit with the untruths that were told. And so I think he went in there and his whole model for operation was to be as candid as possible and live by the very lesson he took from his research. And candor didn’t endear him to Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: So will that candor – with Bolton in and McMaster gone, what kind of candor does Bolton bring to these conversations with President Trump, especially when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, that possible meeting with Kim Jong-un, the head of North Korea?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, as you mentioned, John Bolton has some very rigid positions on North Korea and Iran. He’s held those positions for years, at times promoting preemptive strikes on both North Korea and Iran. Most immediately, he will be a key person in sort of negotiating in the run-up to the talks that the president said will happen in May. And we’ll see if they do. And so he’s in a position where he could potentially advocate for those talks and try to get the best position for the United States.
Or, he could sabotage them, because remember he will have an advantage that incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will not have. He will be in the White House and will be there every day and can really shape the president’s thinking. He doesn’t have to get in a car to talk to the president. He will be there all the time and be the sort of first round of advice that he gets. And so in that regard, he could be quite influential.
Now, that said, the mitigating circumstance will be all those around them, particularly the Defense Department, which has warned against any strike and see it as just cataclysmic in terms of the consequences, and the generals at Central Command and Strategic Command, who have said that they find that the Iran deal has worked. And so that will be the balance between what he’s hearing in the White House and what he’s hearing around him at key national security positions.
MR. COSTA: Dan, we see this throughout history. Sometimes the national security adviser’s a major power player in an administration. Sometimes it’s the secretary of state. I’m told by a person close to Bolton that he does have a pretty strong relationship with the incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But what do you make of the apocalyptic response to the Bolton appointment in some quarters of the political community? Is Bolton this hardliner coming in? Is he going to totally disrupt U.S. foreign policy? Or is he also someone with a long background in Washington, in three administrations?
MR. BALZ: Well, he’s been in many administrations. And he’s had establishment mentors. And he’s – you know, in recent years he has come forward much more as a hardliner. I mean, I think that there are a couple of things about him that we’ll have to watch. It’s one thing to be a Fox News analyst as an expert on foreign policy and state your views in the way you think they ought to be done or the policies that you would favor. It’s another thing to be in the White House advising a president and have that responsibility on your shoulders. And so I think that the one thing to watch is the degree to which he tempers himself a bit in the kinds of things he says.
I think that when you look at this new team you have to think that Pompeo is likely to be the strongest member of that team, because he has a longer relationship with Donald Trump than any of them, other than Secretary Mattis. But he’s got a comfort level with the president that I’m not sure any of the rest of them have. Bolton will have to develop that. He obviously has some of it. But there are a lot of people in the foreign policy community who are alarmed by his appointment. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted today that we’re in one of the most perilous moments in recent U.S. history, in part because of this nomination.
MR. COSTA: And if you look at what’s happening, that comfort level Dan’s talking about, the president appears to be moving to that comfort zone across the board inside of this White House. And you’ve been reporting and editing on it all week. You look at the appointment of Larry Kudlow to be the White House’s economic advisor, Peter Navarro ascendant with these new tariffs on China. You have, of course, McMaster gone and Bolton coming in. What is – what’s happening inside of the White House that’s making the president move in this direction? Is it an ideological shift, a personal shift, a transition?
MS. CALMES: I think it’s a personal shift, a matter of personal style. The president doesn’t really have an ideology. And so these are people, you know, commonly – these are people that appear on TV a lot, which he likes. I remember in 2015 he told Chuck Todd that when Chuck said, where you get your advice? And he said, I get it from the – I watch the shows. And now he’s not only watching the shows. Even though he’s got all the best advice in the world, he’s bringing people from the shows into his administration.
And, you know, one thing they have in common is like, you know, these jobs we’ve talked about – whether it’s Bolton as national security adviser or Larry Kudlow as economic advisor, head of the National Economic Council, those two jobs within the White House are jobs that are – you are supposed to be an honest broker and not hold forth with your own opinion so much as bring the opinions of the administration to the president and lay out options. And these are both two people that you cannot see standing by and not expressing.
MR. BENNETT: You make a great point. And I think what we’re seeing is the continuation of a trend that is – we’ve seen sort of develop over the last two weeks, with the exit of Rex Tillerson, of H.R. McMaster, of Gary Cohn – internationalists, sometimes people derided as globalists within the White House. But these are all people who have tried to put some guardrails around the president’s hawkish sort of America first instincts. And now that they’re being replaced by John Bolton, by Mike Pompeo, those guardrails, those brakes are off. And this is all happening just weeks ahead of crucial decisions that could really affect the role of the U.S. for decades.
MR. COSTA: But why is this happening? I mean, is it because there are allegations of infidelity out there on the president that are on cable television, which he watches by the hour? There’s a lot of political pressure from Capitol Hill on different fronts. Why is this happening?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, the indications that we’re getting is, frankly, is that he’s feeling more comfortable in the job. And rather than needing to hear from people who sort of offer conflicting views, he’s forming his own sort of comfort level. So rather than looking for people who may disagree with him, but he seems to be forming a circle of people who actually validate how he thinks national security policy should be carried out. So in some ways it’s an argument for someone who feels more comfortable.
I would point out, though, as we talk about Bolton, there is one key area where he disagrees with the president, which is on Russia. He has called Russia a foe. After the Salisbury attacks where a suspected Russian spy was poisoned, as was his daughter, Bolton tweeted out that he wanted stronger measures against Russia. That’s very different than President Trump, who’s called for talking to Russia and, of course, notably congratulated Vladimir Putin on his election win Sunday, despite advice to the contrary.
MR. COSTA: Dan, you used to go up to Trump Tower, meet with then-candidate Trump, 26th floor in New York. Didn’t have a chief of staff. Flat structure. Everyone would could to that office and meet with him. Is that where we’re going with this White House?
MR. BALZ: I don’t know whether we are. There are some people who are speculating. Stephen Bannon has speculated that if General Kelly leaves as chief of staff that the president will not replace him, he’ll just have a different kind of structure. Bob, I think that in part what we’re seeing is the transition that never happened the first time. That transition, as we know, was rocky. It was not well-organized. And they made a lot of very hasty decisions. And I think what you’ve seen now as the president has spent enough time in office and has gotten to know different people, some he has found comfort with and some he has clearly not. And he is sorting through that at this point and repopulating his administration in a way that he’s most comfortable.
MR. COSTA: And he’s repopulating it elsewhere, because let’s talk about another significant change in the president’s inner circle this week. John Dowd, Mr. Trump’s lead attorney in the Russia investigation, resigned. The 77-year-old lawyer reportedly encouraged the president to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But as we were just saying, Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist, he suggested that Dowd was perhaps fired for not being aggressive enough or talking too much about cooperation.
STEPHEN BANNON: (From video.) I think that’s why essentially more aggressive attorneys got brought in that are now – you know, I think President Trump’s going to war. I think it’s very obvious he’s going to go to war on this.
MR. COSTA: Trump did hire former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova to join his team. He is a Washington lawyer known for defending the president and attacking the special counsel investigation on cable news.
When you look at diGenova – excuse me. I’m Italian, I sometimes can even mispronounce an Italian name. (Laughter.) I mean –
MS. CALMES: I’m glad you said it because I’m just going to use the pronoun “he.”
MR. COSTA: DiGenova. My grandparents would be unhappy with that. (Laughter.) But when you look at him coming in, he’s a lot like Kudlow, a presence the president has seen on television – same with John Bolton. But the real story also seems to be, Jackie, white-shoe attorneys in Washington are turning down the offers from the White House. Ted Olson said no thanks. A lot of other law firms, we’re told, have said no thanks because of the political risk involved, or conflicts.
MS. CALMES: Yeah. Well, you know, from the very beginning when the president – when you saw the lawyers that he surrounded himself with – Michael Cohen, Marc Kasowitz – and the others he’s brought in – John Dowd subsequently – I mean, it was just open talk in Washington about how is it that a man who’s the president of the United States could have much a low-wattage, second-rate legal team around him? And so then he started to bring in people, or tried to, that were more reputable.
MR. COSTA: Dowd, Ty Cobb.
MS. CALMES: Exactly, and he – but he just – the way he’s treated them is now, you know, who would – who would – of any repute would want to go in and work with him? And I think that’s what we’ve seen when people like Ted Olson said no this week and others that you mentioned.
MR. BENNETT: And Ted Olson said that he’s turned down the Trump legal team twice, this last go-round said he was apprehensive at best about joining them and about accepting their request. And you mentioned the fact – the way that John Dowd was treated. Of course, one of the reasons he said he stepped down was because he was frustrated, one, that the president wasn’t taking his advice, but also that the president was also bringing in other people to the legal team, to include Joe diGenova. And don’t forget Marc Kasowitz, who’s another tough talker, buy guy type – (laughs) – is also still in the president’s ear even though he officially stepped down in his lead capacity leading the legal team as it relates to Russian matters last year. So he could still be in the loop here too. And this is all happening as there are ongoing face-to-face negotiations between the Trump legal team and representatives from the special counsel about a face-to-face meeting between Robert Mueller and President Trump.
MR. COSTA: Where do those stand?
MR. BENNETT: Well, they’ve been saying this for months, right, like this face-to-face testimony is expected to happen. But the Trump legal team has been trying to limit the scope of that interview by providing key documents related to different moments throughout the investigation that the special counsel team wants more information about so that those questions may not come up in the interview with the president.
MR. BALZ: The president has said, you know, any number of times I would like to testify personally; and yet, it’s been clear for months that the lawyers around him think that is a bad idea. And so it will be interesting to see as he brings on new lawyers whether that posture changes, the degree to which those negotiations take a different turn about will he or will he not testify in person, will it have to be in writing. And I think that’s a very big question, and it’s a very – I mean, if you’re his attorney, that is a very tough decision to have to make on his behalf, particularly when he keeps saying I want to do it.
MR. COSTA: And we’ve seen the posture turn a little bit with a – in a significant way in how he goes after the Mueller probe. For months his attorneys kept saying, Mr. President, lay off the tweets about Bob Mueller, but yet in recent days he’s been tweeting about Bob Mueller – more combative than ever.
MS. YOUSSEF: By name, and that was something that we hadn’t expected because of all the implications behind it, because of the message it was sending, because of the fears that he could fire Mueller and that that was maybe a trial balloon to see the reaction to that, and at a time where even Republican senators have come out and called that a red line. And so some interpreted the decision to start using him by name and sort of floating the idea as his attempts to sort of see whether that would be allowed, where was that line, was it a real red line or was there something short of that that he can do. And so these tweets are just seen in the context always of this investigation, and his ways possibly to shape it or impact it.
MR. COSTA: I spoke to Senator Flake this week, of Arizona, and he’s brought up impeachment if the president fires Mueller without cause.
MS. CALMES: And Lindsey Graham.
MR. COSTA: And Lindsey Graham of South Carolina did the same. But there doesn’t seem to be a move, Jackie, to protect Mueller with legislation.
MS. CALMES: No, and you know, it’s interesting how they’ve put a lid on that. And I’d note one thing that happened this week: both Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and Senate Majority Leader McConnell came forward and told reporters on Capitol Hill that they have assurance from the president, from the White House, that he will not fire Mueller, so legislation isn’t necessary. He’s fine. He’s not going anywhere. Well, the same two leaders – McConnell and Ryan – also said yesterday in no uncertain terms that they had talked to the president and he’d promised them he would sign the 1.3 trillion (dollar) spending bill, only to wake up this morning like the rest of us and see Trump’s tweeted that he’s thinking of vetoing it. In the end he didn’t veto it, but it does make you wonder, if that assurance about his signing it was not 100 percent locked in, how reassured should we be about the talk that Mueller isn’t going anywhere, that Mueller will be allowed to finish his investigation?
MR. BENNETT: And it’s a really difficult thing to test in the abstract, right, to ask Republican lawmakers or any lawmaker for that matter how would you react if the president took steps that ultimately led to the ouster of the special counsel. So, you know, we’ll have to see if we ever get to that point. But again, you know, it’s fairly remarkable that I think in many ways the president felt emboldened sending out that trial balloon via tweet based on the fact that he did not get the necessary, I guess, pushback that he expected he would get from Republicans.
MR. COSTA: He’s so unpredictable. It was a hot week I sometimes say in the newsroom; just every day something new. And more happened today, Friday, because despite a Friday-morning veto threat, the president signed off on a $1.3 trillion funding package to keep the federal government operating through September. Standing next to the more than 2,200-page legislation, Mr. Trump warned lawmakers that he would never again approve such a bill, citing unnecessary spending on some programs and, of course, insufficient funding for his promised border wall. He also called out Democrats as talks continue to stall over the status of undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers. We see the president right now on – he’s erupting, Dan, and he’s saying I don’t want – I want my wall, I want the money for the wall, I’m unhappy with congressional leaders just like I’m unhappy with my legal team, I’m unhappy with different facets of my administration; yet, he still signs the bill.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think he probably had no choice but to sign the bill in the end, and I think everybody assumed that he would. And I think that the tweet he put out this morning is his way of kind of blowing off steam, and when he says I’ll never sign another bill like this I think also that is potentially a hollow promise, although we may not go through another where we have an omnibus like this. But, you know, I think it’s a reminder to Republicans and everybody on Capitol Hill that he’s going to operate the way he sees fit for himself, that he’s not going to play ball in a team way. He wasn’t part of these negotiations, and so he was going to say I’m washing my hands of it.
MS. CALMES: But his team was.
MR. BALZ: His team was, but that’s not the president.
MR. COSTA: Only Trump speaks for Trump.
MR. BALZ: (Laughs.) Right.
MS. CALMES: That’s true.
MR. COSTA: And beyond all the drama, there was a big development with the military in the spending in this package.
MS. YOUSSEF: Right. I mean, he brought up military spending repeatedly in his announcement today, $60 billion more than last year. What was interesting is, you know, at the Pentagon they’re stressing readiness and training and maintenance parts of this budget, and yet he was stressing the nine new aircraft that he’s going to build, the 14 ships, the toys if you will. And it was an interesting dichotomy because you haven’t heard the Pentagon talking about procurement. They’ve talked about sort of getting back to basics. And he was really focused on these multibillion-dollar platforms – the F-35, more Black Hawks, even an aircraft carrier, two destroyers. I mean, these are kinds of developments and building of equipment that we haven’t seen in a long time, and also just so embraced at a time when there are so many strains on the military because of all the 17 years of war and the implications behind it.
MR. COSTA: Any concerns in the White House, Geoff, about the spending here, over a trillion dollars? The GOP or the Tea Party movement, they were deficit hawks. Has that just faded away?
MR. BENNETT: And I think that’s what influenced the president’s tweet this morning. Remember – he said something in his speech that struck me. He said there were parts of this bill that we were unhappy about, but it reflected our priorities for the most part so I had to sign it. That’s exactly what Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters in the White House Press Briefing Room yesterday. He came out and answered his own hypothetical question. He said is the bill perfect, no, but reflects our priorities so the president’s going to sign it. Of course, the difference between those 24 hours as the president sent that tweet suggesting that he wouldn’t. I think what he was trying to do was trying to thread the needle. He was trying to reflect the concerns among the conservative base who tried to cast this bill as wasteful government spending and framed his change of heart through this lens of trying to do what was right for the military. As we know, the president often views the military as one of his constituencies. And so, you know, he couldn’t necessarily throw away the argument made by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the military needed this funding.
MR. COSTA: So true. And final thought, Jackie. You look at the president, everything we’ve discussed tonight. He’s calling his friends late at night like Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina. He’s watching cable television. And despite what his advisors say, he’s saying I’m going to go in a different direction.
MS. CALMES: Well, you know, the direction he’s going is not going to win him any battles in Congress. And it’s – and to the extent there’s all this chaos, it’s the last thing in the world that the Republicans want in this midterm election year because he today, you know, put it – he’s triangulating so that it’s against the Republican-controlled Congress, and this is not going to help his party in the midterm elections as they struggle to hold onto their majorities.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much, Geoff, Jackie, Dan, Nancy. Always a pleasure. And thanks, everybody, for watching tonight.
And our conversation, as ever, will continue on the Washington Week Extra, where we will preview this weekend’s March for Our Lives, the whole march in Washington and in states from coast to coast that will address school safety and gun regulations. Plus, those three pending lawsuits against President Trump. You can watch it online later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.