ROBERT COSTA: The art of ditching the deal. President Trump walks away from the historic Paris Climate Accord and embraces his “America first” worldview. I’m Robert Costa. The politics of climate change and the expanding Russia probe, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States.
MR. COSTA: President Trump makes good on his campaign pledge and pulls out of the Paris pact.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We’re not going to put our businesses out of work and we’re not going to lose our jobs. We’re going to grow.
MR. COSTA: But the decision has drawn criticism from world leaders who reject the president’s offer to renegotiate, saying the multi-nation agreement is irreversible.
FRENCH PRESIDENT EMANUEL MACRON: (From video.) We all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again.
MR. COSTA: Former President Obama, who signed the deal, called out the administration for the absence of American leadership and said the plan was meant to protect the world we leave to our children. Inside the West Wing, a power struggle among the president’s inner circle pitting family advisers and moderates against the hardliners. Plus, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new theory about who may have meddled in the U.S. election.
We explore it all with Indira Lakshmanan of The Boston Globe, Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, Kelly O'Donnell of NBC News, and Jonathan Swan of Axios.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump’s decision to exit the Paris Climate Accord has sparked an international debate, in particular among allies who would like the U.S., the world’s second-greatest carbon polluter, to share the burden of reform. But in his Rose Garden remarks, the president talked less about global warming and more about his “America first” agenda.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris. Our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty. We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore, and they won’t be.
MR. COSTA: They may not be laughing anymore. They’re paying attention. But, Indira, you were born and raised in Pittsburgh. You know the area. You know, industrial places like it. What’s the economic and environmental effect on a place like Pittsburgh because of this decision?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Yeah, well my ears really perked up when I heard the president say that he was elected to represent Pittsburgh and not Paris, and I think many people in Pittsburgh were probably pretty surprised to hear him say that because, as the mayor of Pittsburgh pointed out yesterday, Pittsburgh voted 80 percent for Hillary Clinton in the last election. And, in fact, the city of Pittsburgh is not that kind of Rust Belt, you know, idea that Donald Trump has put out there. In his inaugural, he talked about the hulking, rusting tombstones of empty factories scattered across the American landscape. That’s not Pittsburgh. When I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s true, it was the end of the steel industry. It was a time when unemployment hit 17 percent. It was a really dire period for Pittsburgh. But the city leaders came together and they managed to really reinvent the city. And right now the city has high-tech jobs, Google has a campus there, they’ve doubled their engineering staff in the last couple of years, Uber launched their self-driving cars there just last year. You know, it’s medicine, it’s high-tech, it’s green energy, clean energy jobs. So Pittsburgh has completely reinvented itself. And I just want to point out the average per capita income in Pittsburgh is now 7 percent over the national average, and 21 percent of the jobs in Pittsburgh now are clean energy jobs. So Pittsburgh is not happy about Donald Trump pulling out of the climate agreement.
MR. COSTA: That’s a smart point because it is debatable about the economic impact of getting into this Paris Accord or getting out of it. And, Michael, you’ve been such an observer or the president. If the economics of doing this are debatable, what else was behind the decision? Was this really about disrupting the political class here at home and abroad?
MICHAEL SCHERER: This is the rationale of Donald Trump as a politician, that he is the guy who is fighting for the forgotten American against global elitists, international orders that have been mistreating them for decades. This is what got him elected. This was the reason – it was the message he found kind of in the course of his campaign, although it goes back to the late ’80s when he said Japan was, you know, robbing us blind and he was going to fix it. So I think that was Trump where he is most comfortable, and it’s the rationale of his presidency, and he’s been losing that thread off and on over the last few months.
Now, on the policy side, this is not actually going to in itself do anything to the amount of carbon the U.S. is releasing. The Paris Accord is a voluntary accord. We made commitments. He can back out of those commitments whether he’s a part of the Paris Accords or not. And so we now have some – still some suspense about what is going to be the carbon policy of the president. He said at the Rose Garden, well, maybe I can renegotiate a new deal, that would be OK, maybe not, that would be OK as well. There’s two issues here. One is, is he going to continue to give foreign aid to developing countries which were part of this to help them get away from carbon emissions? The answer is almost certainly going to be no, unless Congress stops him. And then the second issue is, in terms of regulatory changes, other things he does, you know, to the Clean Power Plan that Obama got in place, what is he going to do to allow for more carbon pollution in the U.S., with the rationale that it would lower electricity rates and actually increase some employment?
MR. COSTA: So if the policy aftermath is still kind of unclear, Jonathan, I’m so glad to have you here. You’ve been scoop after scoop this week on Paris and the climate deal. When I looked at the Rose Garden crowd on Thursday and I saw Stephen Bannon, the White House chief strategist in the front row, beaming when the president was talking about American sovereignty, was this decision by the president a return to power and influence for Steve Bannon, and perhaps a demoralizing moment for the more moderate forces within the White House, like Jared Kushner, the son-in-law, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump?
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, it was definitely demoralizing, particularly for Ivanka Trump. She really did – I mean, I’ve seen people complaining about the media narrative about, you know, Ivanka’s attempt to be a moderating influence. But the fact is, it’s true. She tried. She really tried. She worked hard, as we saw. I think you guys reported that she tried to place opinion in The Wall Street Journal, with business leaders. And she really worked it. And you know how I found that out? Not from her PR aides, from movement conservatives and people who were involved who were complaining about her. They’re saying, you know, we – like, Trump has never really wanted to stay in this deal.
The misconception, I think, was that he was ever actually going to stay in. I don’t think there was ever a moment where he said anything positive about the deal. When I spoke to people close to him for weeks he was saying he was going to get out. He told Scott Pruitt last week. He told at least one senator he was getting out. So I think the idea that he was ever going to stay in –
MR. COSTA: So you don’t buy that he was convinced by Steve Bannon?
MR. SWAN: No.
MR. COSTA: You think his instincts were always get out of the Paris agreement?
MR. SWAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. So the byproduct is, yes, it looks good for Bannon. But I don’t buy that this is, like, a Bannon puppeteer move. I just don’t buy that Trump was ever going to stay in this deal.
MR. COSTA: Well, there are a lot of people around the world, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who thought that maybe the president could be convinced to stay in – that it would be the best thing for him to stay in and for the United States to stay in. She said recently: The times when we could completely rely on others are now, to an extent, over. Everyone saw that as a shot, Kelly, at President Trump. And when you look at the reaction, especially in Western Europe, so visceral about this decision. You were abroad with President Trump. And I really wonder about the contradictions now in his foreign policy. He talked at NATO about burden sharing, how more countries need to do more to share that burden. Yet, when it comes to the climate, he doesn’t want to share the burden. What explains that contradiction?
KELLY O’DONNELL: Well, it’s sort of not only “America first,” but let me kind of blow past you in the elbow and get to the front of the line policy, right? We saw him do that with the president of Montenegro. It is a very classic Donald Trump persona, now on the world stage, where he is willing to upend the norms. He is willing to not shake hands when it suits him, and at other times embrace leaders, and lead us to think there’s a change. One of the most puzzling times on the trip was when we were told by a top advisor, one who wanted the U.S. to stay in this pact, that the president’s views were evolving, that the conversations were so fruitful and that he was really listening and taking in the views of the leaders he was having a chance to meet with.
There was a moment where it seemed like perhaps they were signaling a change. Now, in retrospect, that looks like that was part of the leverage trying to be placed on the president by those around him. He clearly is the man who wants to rip up anything that Barack Obama led to in terms of a deal, and is always willing to float the idea of a better deal is at hand. And so, as you mentioned, he sort of equivocated there, but we could get a better deal. He always wants to be seen as an environmentalist. He is so quick to point out to those world leaders awards he said he won in his business life for environmental, you know, different types of that. It might be the LEED in building, you know, where they have the environmentally friendly buildings.
So he wants it both ways in some ways. He doesn’t want to look like a climate hater. And yet, we have twisted every arm to try to get officials to say what are the president’s views today, separate from candidate Trump, who mocked and called climate change a hoax. What does he believe today? And doesn’t he need to have a belief about the science to decide what the policy should be? And they will not answer that.
MR. COSTA: Indira, you haven’t just lived in Pittsburgh. (Laughter.) Following up on Kelly’s point, you’ve lived abroad. What’s going to be the cost for the United States? Is it more isolation in global affairs? And how does this rock perhaps global environmental policy?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah, well, among my time overseas as a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe, I spent seven years based in China. And China has some of the most polluted cities in the world. And of course, China and the United States lead the world in terms of carbon emissions. And it’s most important for those two countries to be involved in reducing carbon emissions and to be so-called leading in the commitments in Paris or other commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
What’s interesting, I thought, in the reaction this week was even before Donald Trump formally made his announcement at the Rose Garden, when it was clear that he was going to pull out of the Paris Accord, China and the EU came together and said, that’s OK, we’re still going to stick by the deal. We’re still going to keep our commitments. And India said the same thing. And this is key. Why? Because China and India have literally hundreds of millions of people who live on the coastlines who will go underwater if climate change proceeds.
MR. COSTA: And who else is doing it here? You look at the states, Michael, the coasts, the blue states.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Cities – 83 cities.
MR. COSTA: California’s governor Jerry Brown, a lot of blue states and blue cities in the U.S.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
MR. COSTA: Republican Massachusetts. They’re saying they’re going to do their own – or have their own policy on climate.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: They’re going to keep going.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, that’s why this discussion at a policy level is just beginning. You’re going to have blue state governors – you know, California is, what, the 11th largest economy in the world? I mean, we’re talking country-sized economy. They’re going to fight this. You have a number of big companies, even companies like Exxon, who’s making a lot of money right now from natural gas, has an incentive – an economic incentive to push this transition, are going to continue to fight this.
And so it may be that even if Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump pull back on regulations that the U.S. doesn’t actually fall that far behind. The other thing to mention is that there is a four-year withdrawal window. Donald Trump’s going to be office less than four years. So it’s very possible that, you know, if he doesn’t win a second term, you know, the U.S. never really actually leaves the Paris climate deal in any real way.
MR. COSTA: The Pruitt point’s so important. Every Republican I say tells me, don’t just pay attention to Paris. Pay attention to what Pruitt’s doing to dismantling regulation. Kelly, you were at the White House today. The White House doesn’t have a clear answer: Does the president actually believe in climate change?
MS. O’DONNELL: They won’t answer that. And I think they won’t answer it in part because if they were to say he now does and embraces the science, then it raises questions about why would you do this from a policy standpoint? If they allow him to still be candidate Trump, calling it a hoax, that’s also problematic. And so a non-answer is the safest political move at the moment. Pruitt today did acknowledge that there is a change in the climate. There is a human factor. And yet, he is often described as one of the more skeptical about science. So they’re trying to have it all ways. But the fact that they won’t answer a very straightforward, simple question, and the president has not responded yet either, is problematic, because if you’re making policy, you have to have a basis.
MR. COSTA: Real quick, Jonathan, when you look at the business community, they’re revolting against this administration. And Gary Cohn, the national economic advisor and so many other people within the administration couldn’t convince the president.
MR. SWAN: Yeah, that’s right. And Gary Cohn was one of those people who was still holding out hope, even on Wednesday was saying, this isn’t over, privately. These are the people that he’s been working with for a long time. And it was telling that Lloyd Blankfein, the boss of Goldman Sachs, the first time he’d ever tweeted was about this incident. And Gary Cohn said it took him by surprise. It didn’t take him by surprise. He knew what these guys were.
MR. COSTA: It wasn’t just the climate this week. After months of denying Russia interfered in the presidential election, President Vladimir Putin conceded his country could have had a connection. His alternative theory is that private citizens, who he called patriotic hackers, may have acted on their own.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (From video, through interpreter.) But they are patriotic. They contribute in a way they think is right. They fight against those who say bad things about Russia.
MR. COSTA: Indira, he was dismissive of this idea that Russia’s had a prominent role. How’s this, do you think, going to affect the ongoing probes?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, he also said to Megyn Kelly in the interview they had that a child could have hacked the American election. And he referred specifically to her daughter, saying your underage daughter could have hacked this. So it’s akin to Donald Trump saying some –
MS. O’DONNELL: That’s creepy right there. (Laughter.)
MS. LAKSHMANAN: It’s very creepy that he even knew that she had an underage daughter. But it’s akin to Donald Trump saying that it could be someone’s – some 400-pound guy sitting on a bed in New Jersey could have hacked the election. I mean, what I found interesting – and, you know, I’ve, you know, been in the Kremlin before with Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry, and been up close to Vladimir Putin in Washington, he’s a very smooth guy. And, you know, the way that he behaved with Megyn Kelly, saying don’t worry, be happy, saying it in English about saying, you know, don’t worry about climate change. It’s only 2 degrees. Be happy. And by the way, here in Moscow it’s cold and rainy. So we’re happy that Donald Trump pulled out of the climate accord. I mean, this guy is a smooth operator, defiant.
MR. COSTA: Defiant. Smooth, defiant.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: And, you know, he’s not giving any ground on what happened in 2016.
MR. SCHERER: Well, the other thing – the other thing he’s doing is he’s gloating. He’s bragging to the world that not only does he have now an American government that is much more favorable to him than anything in the past, that his policies are coming his way –
MR. COSTA: Are the sanctions going to go away, Michael?
MR. SCHERER: Well, the sanctions are difficult because you have to go through Congress to get the sanctions – a number of the sanctions away.
MS. O’DONNELL: Some of them are executive orders, though, that can just be lifted by the White House.
MR. SCHERER: Some of them are executive, so they could be, and there’s also been discussions about giving them back some of the diplomatic facilities that they lost. But I think the – you know, the thing that Putin is doing in this media tour is telling the world that it’s sort of a new day for Russia. And I can joke about it: this is an authoritarian who controls Russia. You know, people who oppose him get thrown in jail or killed. For him to say that he doesn’t know what his hackers are doing or that anyone’s doing this and I have no idea is just laughable.
MR. COSTA: But Putin’s opinion on this is only one part of the story, Jonathan, because inside the White House a lot of people feel under siege. Bob Mueller, the special counsel, he’s moving forward. It’s been reported that he’s now looking into a grand jury investigation on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. What’s the atmosphere inside of the West Wing as former FBI Director James Comey prepares to move to Capitol Hill next week?
MR. SWAN: Yeah, it’s – “under siege” is a good way of describing it. There’s a high level of anxiety. People are spending a lot of money on lawyers, particularly, and these are not just people who are inside the White House but people who are close to the White House are lawyering up. People don’t know where this thread – once you start pulling on the thread, they don’t know where it’s going to go. And something that I’ve heard in a lot of conversations with people in the West Wing, they’ll say – it’s a cliche, but they say these investigations never end where they start. And what they’re all aware of is that the Bill Clinton impeachment stated with Whitewater. It started with a real estate transaction and it ended in the Oval Office with an intern, and no one could have foreseen that. No one knows where Mueller’s going to go with this. No one knows what kind of sloppy things they did during the campaign. But he’s going to put out subpoenas. This is – they really are going to be put under a microscope.
MR. COSTA: And the campaign’s documents have been requested by the congressional committees.
MR. SWAN: Totally.
MR. COSTA: Kelly, let’s stay with Capitol Hill for a moment because so often we hear about the special counsel, we hear about all these different ongoing probes, but there are these committees on Capitol Hill and there’s – there was a curveball this week. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has issued subpoenas to the FBI, CIA and NSA for information about alleged unmasking by former Obama administration officials. Nunes wants to know why the names of Trump aides who were in contact with Russian officials were caught up in surveillance of foreign officials. The three people named in the subpoenas are former NSA – adviser Susan Rice, former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, and former CIA Director John Brennan. So you have Nunes, Kelly, a Trump ally on Capitol Hill, now going after the Obama administration on Russia.
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, he has recused himself from the Russia investigation, but he is still the chairman of that committee, and with that comes a lot of power. And he had to notify Democrats, but he could go it alone when it comes to these subpoenas. And part of what he’s able to do is run a simultaneous, parallel sort of investigation, at least raising on a continuing basis this notion of unmasking, which is what the president wants the focus to be about. He wants to show that there were Obama officials who were unfairly looking at people in the Trump world. And by doing this, it sort of rocks the plan of the committee to give it to the next person in charge and to have both on the Senate side and the House side these above-reproach committee actions where it’s bipartisan. Nunes has the power to do this unilaterally, to put out these subpoenas, and he can take some criticism over it. But he also was that person who came to the White House to tell the president about what he had learned, and I was standing there near the West Exec driveway when he came out and talked about how troubled he was. And so perhaps there’s a link between what he was telling us about that day, where he felt that there were concerns, and what he has done with his subpoena power.
MR. COSTA: Michael, the administration wants to have all these different sides heard on the Russia matter. Are they going to block Comey from testifying in citing – by citing executive privilege?
MR. SCHERER: Well, Sean Spicer said today that they’re considering it. I think it would be very surprising if they did, for a couple reasons. One, it wouldn’t be effective. You know, there’s a legal gray area of whether Comey could come out anyway and just give a press conference. I mean, maybe he wouldn’t be able to testify before Congress, but he could certainly just say publicly what he knows. And beyond that, even if he didn’t say publicly what he knows, so much of what he knows has already been leaked by his friends. So the – you know, it would just look like a coverup – (laughs) – more than it would achieve any objective. But I think the fact that they didn’t answer the question today shows that they’ve very much considering playing hardball.
The other thing to note is that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is setting up a separate operation inside the White House. He’s been talking to prior chiefs of staff about how to handle a crisis like this. And the idea is to take the day-to-day Russia stuff, the legal stuff, the communications problems out of the hands of people like Sean Spicer and other senior staff so that they can get on with the business of government and have a separate operation. Now, this is a White House that has lots of separate operations, so it could – it could be a good thing or it could be more cause for confusion.
MR. SWAN: The way someone described that to me was, you know, every time one of these stories lands, there’s a whole lot of communications staffers who just don’t know what they’re doing with this. They don’t know the details. They run off in like mad directions trying to scramble to find a response. And one person said to me, you know, during the campaign, if you asked me anything about Hillary Clinton, I could have told you like that – (snaps fingers) – because it’s – I lived and breathed that stuff. And he said we need people just focused on this so they can actually be nimble when these requests come in.
MR. COSTA: That shakeup hasn’t happened yet, Jonathan. (Laughter.)
MR. SWAN: It hasn’t. (Laughter.)
MS. O’DONNELL: I look forward – I look forward to this war room, though, so they will actually answer some questions, because right now it’s all in an abyss of no answers.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: But the whole idea that you even have to have a war room just a couple months into an administration, that’s –
MR. COSTA: The war room’s coming though, I think, Indira. (Laughter.) We got to leave it there. Thanks so much, everybody.
Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about the White House’s decision to take its case for a travel ban to the Supreme Court. You can find that later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
While you’re online, check out my recommendations for the five must-read articles to understand he Paris Accord. I got a Swan article in there as well. (Laughter.)
Anyway, I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next time.