ROBERT COSTA: Indictments in the Russia probe and paralysis in Washington over gun control. I’m Robert Costa. Seventeen Americans gunned down in Florida. Another week where leaders face the question what now, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Today I speak to a nation in grief.
MR. COSTA: In the wake of another mass shooting, an emotionally charged debate.
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE THOMPSON (D-CA): (From video.) Mr. Speaker, can you tell us when the House may muster the courage to take up the issue of gun violence? (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: Democrats demand action. Some Republicans say tougher laws would not have prevented the massacre.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) The struggle up to this point has been that most of the proposals that have been offered would not have prevented not just yesterday’s tragedy, but any of those in recent history.
MR. COSTA: From Columbine to Sandy Hook to Parkland, Florida.
PROTESTER: (From video.) President Trump, please do something!
MR. COSTA: Is Washington any closer to addressing gun violence?
Plus, breaking news: The Justice Department charges 13 Russians with interfering in the U.S. election, and turmoil once again in the West Wing.
REPORTER: (From video.) Mr. Bannon, do you plan to answer questions today?
MR. COSTA: As Steve Bannon is questioned in the Russia probe and Congress investigates Rob Porter, who resigned amid accusations of domestic violence.
We discuss it all with Michael Crowley of POLITICO, Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Jeanne Cummings of The Wall Street Journal, and Carl Hulse of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Once again, another school shooting, another heart-wrenching tragedy, a massacre that has rattled the country, and it has reignited the partisan debate over the Second Amendment. Big questions keep lingering each time these nightmares flash: Should Congress and President Trump take action? And what is the government’s role in protecting citizens from gun violence? Nikolas Cruz is charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, one for each of the people he is accused of gunning down inside his former Florida high school. In his remarks to the nation, President Trump stressed the need to address mental health issues but steered clear of any discussion of gun policy.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Our administration is working closely with local authorities to investigate the shooting and learn everything we can. We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health.
MR. COSTA: Investigators say Cruz fired nearly 150 shots from his assault-style AR-15 rifle, a weapon he purchased legally. Gun policy sharply divides this country, as you know. When it comes to gun control, 18 percent of Republicans support the idea, 78 percent of Democrats do, according to a Pew Research poll, at least, from a gun poll last June. So where we stand, Carl, is we have this issue of gun control that comes up after every mass shooting. Who’s going to drive what comes next? Will it be President Trump, or will it be Republicans in Congress?
CARL HULSE: The question is, will anything come next? After every one of these events I’m always asked: is this going to be the one that forces the issue? I just don’t see it happening again. There’s no enthusiasm for it among Republicans, and they have the majority and the votes. The NRA has a stranglehold in some respects on that party. They don’t want to move away from that. They’ve got a tough election cycle coming up. They don’t want to do something that could dampen enthusiasm among their voters. I think there’ll be some plans that come up, but it didn’t get through after Newtown.
Now, I do think there’s a couple of differences. Democrats, for years, were staying away from this issue entirely. They didn’t even bring it up. And now they see this as something they do want to talk about. I think it’s going to be an election issue. I would say that eons ago I was a reporter in Broward County, where this occurred. And at the time, Broward County enacted one of the toughest gun control laws in the country for background checks. It was later overturned by some state policy. But that’s an area that has embraced gun control and gun safety. And I think that’s one of the reasons you’re hearing this outcry from there, from people who want something done.
MR. COSTA: And you can hear it, the powerful statements from these parents, the families this week, Jeanne. I mean, the people in Broward County certainly asking President Trump for gun control. And Carl mentioned that some plans could come up. There was breaking news tonight that Senator Feinstein of California, a Democrat, wants to try to propose legislation to raise the age of purchasing a firearm to 21. Nikolas Cruz, of course, was 19. Could, as Carl said, the midterms and concerns about suburban voters prompt some action on something like that?
JEANNE CUMMINGS: No. It won’t. The NRA is just too good. What they’ll do is we have a very familiar cycle that we’re going through. We have initial outrage, sadness, and demands for action. Then we have a few things proposed. And then they put the brakes on it. And then two weeks from now, or two days from now, some other big story’s going to break, people are going to forget about it, and all – the fever will go down, and the bill will never come up. I mean, if they couldn’t do those bump stocks after Vegas, that – you know, that has nothing to do with whether you can own a gun or not. But to say an 18-year-old or 19-year-old can’t buy a gun is going to be – that’s a much bigger step for them to take, than to ban bump stocks. And they couldn’t even do that.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: I think the one difference that we might see here – and I generally agree with everything that you said – is this time, unlike Newtown, unlike some of these other instances – you had young people, high-school age students, describing and videotaping a massacre taking place in their schools, and then speaking afterwards about it and the need for change in a very eloquent way, that I think is at least registering on a local level at the very least in terms of local officials.
Maybe on a state level you already see them calling out people like Senator Marco Rubio to act. I mean, all the way up to the president. So I think if that approach – really a systemic community saying, look, we want a change here, starting at the local level, going to the state, and then going to Washington – that could be the beginning of something that’s going to change. But in terms of Washington, I think you’re right.
MR. COSTA: What about President Trump’s response? You’ve observed presidents for decades. He was confronted with another crisis, another tragedy.
DAN BALZ: Yes. You know, he struggles at moments like this. The statement that he read off the teleprompter had certain notes that were necessary, and, you know, things that people expect from a president. But his unwillingness to talk even a little bit about guns and the gun violence that exists in this country, even rhetorically, says that he’s not prepared to take up this challenge on that side. He talked about mental health, there are – there are legitimate and important issues on the mental health side that need to be dealt with as well. This is not an either/or situation. But he, in a sense, has cast his lot on one side of that and not the other. And I think that that reflects, in a sense, the great cultural divide on this issue. I mean, this issue has severely divided this country. And as long as we are as divided as we are politically and culturally it’s very difficult to see a way forward to try to get any action on it.
MS. CUMMINGS: Just one last note on Florida in particular. The one person who’s really in a bad spot, or a difficult spot, is Governor Scott because he – those are his constituents who are demanding action, and he wants to run for the Senate, and he was going to make the decision about running for the Senate at the end of the legislative session. So a lot of important things are all coming together at the same time for the governor, and that’s going to make his every decision he makes have much bigger meaning.
MR. COSTA: Scott a key player, but what about President Trump again? Because he is in some ways so ideological on some issues, but on others he’s very non-ideological, and he reads this New York Post –
MR. HULSE: Well, in the past he had supported an assault weapons ban. And, you know, this is sort of the New York Trump history that comes out, where he has said that, you know, there could be some compromise there. But I just don’t see it happening now. He has – you know, he’s thrown his lot in with the NRA. They became a really important group to him, and he –
MR. BALZ: Well, they were one of the earliest endorsers of his candidacy.
MR. HULSE: Right, and he’s like, you know, nobody’s going to protect your Second Amendment rights like I’m going to protect them.
MR. BALZ: He is aware of who was with him early and loyally.
MS. CUMMINGS: They were the only outside group that advertised on his behalf, and they spent $31 million – twice as much as they spent in any other presidential campaign.
MR. COSTA: And that’s what we’re going to have to watch: Does he look at that New York Post that urged him to take action, or does he listen to the NRA? So much of this is about the Republican Congress, but it’s about President Trump.
We’re going to have to turn to some breaking news that dominated Friday, breaking news in the Russia probe. The Justice Department announced today that it has indicted 13 Russian nationals for alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROD ROSENSTEIN: (From video.) The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.
MR. COSTA: President Trump responded to the indictments with a tweet. He wrote: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
Joining me now with more on the indictments is Michael Crowley, who covers national security for POLITICO and a friend of Washington Week. Michael, the indictment accuses the defendants of using social media platforms and fake American personas to meddle in the 2016 election, specifically to support President Trump’s campaign and damage other candidates. What’s the significance of these indictments, and especially of the detail that Rosenstein spelled out?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Yeah, Robert, we have known for a while that there was this widespread Russian government-directed effort to influence the election, and that it had heavily used social media – Twitter bots and trolls, fake news on Facebook – as a way of trying to change voter attitudes, mainly to work against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. We had – we have seen prior revelations to this effect over many months. But what the Mueller indictment shows us today is a new level of detail that, number one, gives us a sharper focus than we had before into how these operations worked; number two, you know, presents the U.S. government as saying we are so confident about this that we can bring criminal charges against specific individuals. Previously, it had been kind of shadowy internet operators whose names we didn’t necessarily know, organizations with names like Cozy Bear. Now there are 13 named defendants. And also, I think most startlingly, and something that should really wake Americans up to the seriousness of this, the fact that Russians actually came into the United States to, according to the indictment, collect intelligence and to essentially recruit what the indictment calls unwitting U.S. citizens to participate in this scheme to divide Americans during the election, and to support Trump and to damage Hillary Clinton. So these Russians were actually helping to arrange campaign rallies in favor of Donald Trump, and in some cases paying these unwitting Americans. Two amazing examples. One is that a woman was paid to dress up in a prison costume like she was Hillary Clinton behind bars, and the Russians also paid someone to build a cage to imprison this Hillary impersonator.
MR. COSTA: It was wild.
MR. CROWLEY: Just incredible.
MR. COSTA: Wild details, Michael, and it revealed a lot. The Russians were here on the ground, working on their variety of efforts during the course of the campaign. But if you step back, was this a protection effort for the whole Russia probe, to protect Bob Mueller as he moves forward? Because President Trump and others in the administration have called this whole enterprise at some level a hoax.
MR. CROWLEY: So it’s hard to know exactly what’s on Mueller’s mind, but this would be consistent with that. And you heard Democrats come out today and say this really shows how serious the nature of this underlying case is, that the Russian interference is not fake news, it’s not a hoax, it’s a dire threat to our national security and our democracy, and you have to take it enormously seriously. You can’t dismiss it, as President Trump has. And Democrats are saying it’s more important – it’s clear now it’s more important than ever that Bob Mueller be able to continue doing his job, that he have political independence, and that Donald Trump back off and not try to disparage and dismiss his work as part of some kind of a witch hunt.
MR. COSTA: Michael Crowley, thank you, as always.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you, Robert.
MR. COSTA: Dan, the significance for President Trump as he confronts the seriousness of these indictments?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think two things. One is he no longer can describe this investigation as a hoax or the allegations of Russian meddling as a hoax. He can continue to say there was no collusion on his part. We wait to see what special counsel – where he comes down on that. But on the question of genuine interference, that has been wiped away by the detail that’s in this indictment. It is extraordinary in the level of detail that they have. But that also puts pressure on him to act, to do something to prevent this in the future. One of the other criticisms is this administration under this president has done nothing in any serious way to head this off for 2018 or 2020. It will become more difficult for the administration to avoid that.
MR. COSTA: Will that change at all, Carl? Will there be pressure from Capitol Hill to address Russian interference?
MR. HULSE: Yeah, I think that the Senate Intelligence report is intended, when it comes out, to force that action. I think the Republicans have been very frustrated, who have been involved in the Senate investigation particularly, that the administration just hasn’t been acting on this because they think it undermines the president’s credibility, and I think people are seriously worried that the Russians are going to do this again. I do think your point on the – I think this was good job security for Bob Mueller to get this out and show – it would make it really hard now to push him out. You would look like you’d be undermining a credible investigation.
MR. COSTA: And Mueller keeps moving, Jeanne. I mean, this week we saw that Rick Gates, a former advisor to Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman, looks like he’s cooperating with the Mueller probe amid all of these indictments. And yet, so little is known about what Mueller’s up to until these things are revealed.
MS. CUMMINGS: Absolutely. They’ve done a fabulous job of keeping everything under wraps, and largely that’s because they know that they’d be the first dead body if they said something and Mueller found out. But we have – we’ve gone from Ukraine to lobbying to lying, and now we’re getting to the heart of the Russia probe itself. So his – it is an expansive investigation.
But getting back to Carl’s point, you know, we have every head of an intelligence agency on the Hill this week saying Russia is trying to influence our elections, they’re doing the same things again. And so now this report does add substance to it. The Senate report will add more momentum to it. And I – there is a tension between state and federal election officials because these are state events, they’re not federal events. But there are all kinds of things Congress could do. They could give them grants so they could upgrade their machines. They could give them grants so they could hire cybersecurity people. They can help. They just need to engage and do it.
MR. COSTA: Steve Bannon also talking to Robert Mueller’s team this week, the former White House chief strategist, and went to Capitol Hill, but had a little bit of an altercation with the House Intelligence Committee.
MS. ATKINS: Yes, he’s still exerting some form of an executive privilege, which neither I nor any other lawyer that I’ve ever talked to understands and believes actually exists. So there’s that constant tension there. But again, he’s talking to Robert Mueller I think is the most important thing. And we’ve seen from this indictment, from everything else that Robert Mueller and his team has done how meticulous, how careful, and how thorough they’re being. So to have him before that – before those investigators has to be something that is unnerving for the Trump White House. They don’t know what he’s going to say, and they’re probably not going to find out until Mueller is ready to disclose that.
But I also think the important thing about the indictments that we saw against these 13 Russians is in part in order to get movement on the local level, state level or wherever, you have to convince people that there is a problem. And I think this indictment – this speaking indictment was meant to tell a story to convince the American people that this is a big problem, and how deep and expansive it was.
MS. CUMMINGS: It also puts a lot of pressure on Facebook and Twitter. You know –
MS. ATKINS: Yes.
MR. COSTA: Are they publishers? Where is their responsibility? Those questions –
MS. CUMMINGS: Exactly. And, you know, they’ve been slow-walking whatever they were going to fix so that, after the complaints from the Senate Intelligence Committee, this should light a fire under them to do something.
MR. COSTA: Amid all this Russia discussion, Dan, we had more intrigue in the White House. They’re scrambling amid the scandal over Rob Porter, the former staff secretary who faced allegations of domestic abuse. General John Kelly, the chief of staff, issued a memo today that we obtained at the Post about how they’re trying to change up the whole security clearance process. It’s still pretty hazy in the West Wing on that issue.
MR. BALZ: Well, it is. I mean, earlier in the week there were rumors flying that John Kelly might be gone by the end of the week. The vice president then went out and said: I expect to be working with General Kelly for many, many months. Now we have the release of this memo, which you obtained earlier today, outlining the changes that they’re going to do the security clearance process, which has clearly been a problem. I took that as a sign that they knew that they had to try to get out ahead of some of these things, that if that sat there for another week or two that they would be under tremendous pressure to try to do something. I mean, they are scrambling to try to bring order back into the White House after a very, very bad couple of weeks because of the Rob Porter investigation.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to this stalemate over immigration, because that was another big story this week. This week the Senate failed to advance four immigration bills, including one backed by President Trump, and a bipartisan proposal that included protections for young, undocumented immigrants, known as DREAMers. The Trump-endorsed bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, checked the boxes of the president’s four pillars -- $25 billion for border security and the wall and an end to both the diversity visa lottery program and extended family-based migration, and a path to citizenship for DREAMers, whose protections are set to expire in early March. Mr. Trump had threatened to veto any legislation that did not include those four components. But last month Republicans assured Democrats that there would be a good-faith debate on immigration as part of a deal to avoid another government shutdown.
Carl, you were up on Capitol Hill. What happened?
MR. HULSE: Gridlock. You know, this is – the Senate was right where they’ve been for quite a while. This was supposed to be this big, old-fashioned debate, and it never really materialized. And, you know, immigration is sort of like gun control in some respects in the political divide that it causes. They just can’t conquer it. I think that the thing for the program now is what happens in the courts. Congress has pretty much thrown up its hands at this point.
MR. COSTA: So what happens to the DREAMers?
MR. HULSE: I think that they’re in the Supreme Court – what happens in court is going to decide it.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, there could eventually be some kind of just DACA fix that Trump could do by himself, without actually doing a whole lot. So we do have the court cases that are moving through. The courts had prevented the president from abandoning the DACA program. So the DREAMers can’t be deported immediately or by March 5th, when Trump had said he was – wanted them to get –
MR. HULSE: And you can still sign up if you’re expiring.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes. So Trump has said he might move March 5th. And he can do that. So we could just see that date – (laughs) – just keep moving deeper and deeper into the calendar year, because it’s such a hot issue for the political season.
MS. ATKINS: But I’m not sure that’s going to happen. I think when report that says that he’s not interested in moving that March 5th date, I’m inclined to believe them, because Trump is incentivized to use this as a midterm issue and to continue to hammer away saying: Look, the Democrats ruined DACA. The Democrats didn’t want to move on DACA. I don’t think he’ll let that issue go, which makes it also unlikely to me that he would back just a clean DACA bill, even if it were to come out of Congress.
MS. CUMMINGS: Not a bill, just move the date.
MS. ATKINS: I understand that.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yeah.
MS. ATKINS: I don’t think he’ll do that. I also don’t think he’d sign a bill that was DACA or DACA plus some wall funding, because that takes that issue away. Without some sort of movement on legal immigration I think that that’s going to be dead in the water in the White House.
MR. BALZ: Talking to – talking to people on both sides today I got the sense that they believe – both sides believe that if and when the Supreme Court does something that reopens this – in other words, removes the current protection from the DACA, from the DREAMers – that there will then be movement. The question is, how narrow is that movement? To what extent is going to be simply something for the DREAMers and something for border security? Will the president and the White House demand something more? I’m not sure they will. But, again, I don’t know that there’s much room for real compromise, even in that environment.
MS. CUMMINGS: But even then, it could be months before this ever gets to the Supreme Court because, unlike most cases, the administration has skipped over appellate courts and taken it straight to the Supreme Court. That’s something the Supreme Court doesn’t typically like.
MR. COSTA: We’ll keep an eye on immigration, a core issue for a lot of people. There’s so much news this week we had to get through it quickly, but we did our best. Thanks, everybody, for being here.
Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about two more Trump Cabinet members who are facing scrutiny over their lavish travel expenses. Plus, new questions surrounding a $130,000 payment from President Trump’s personal lawyer to a pornography star. You can watch that Extra online later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.