ROBERT COSTA: On the brink. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Iran shoots down an American drone, and the president for now backs off a military response.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This drone was in international waters, clearly. We have it all documented. It’s documented scientifically, not just words.
MR. COSTA: Iranian officials insist the aircraft violated its airspace. Inside the president’s circle, hawks hover.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) I would encourage forceful action to stop this behavior before it leads to a wider conflict. Doing nothing has its own consequence.
MR. COSTA: Democrats seek restraint.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) The president may not intend to go to war here, but we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war.
MR. COSTA: And the race for the White House heats up, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: The United States was minutes away from launching a strike against Iran when President Trump abruptly called off the mission. The operation would have been a response to Iran shooting down a U.S. military drone. The New York Times broke the story and reported that the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets. On Friday, the president then said he shelved the plan after a general told him that 150 people could die in an attack. In an interview with NBC News the president also said he had not given final approval to strike Iran and that no planes were in the air.
Joining me tonight, Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times; Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent for CNN; Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-editor of Playbook; and Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter The Washington Post.
Elisabeth, the Times broke the story. Why did the president back away?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: A lot of reasons. He says, by the way, that the planes were not in the air. That’s very much contradictory to what we have heard from senior administration officials who would know.
I think one reason is because he was told that there would be – there could be as many as 150 deaths. What’s curious is that that’s not something you generally tell the president 10 minutes before an attack; it’s something that should have been told to him – perhaps it was told to him – long before.
There are other reasons as well. He was – a lot of political advisors were telling him this was going to be disastrous for his reelection chances, and there is also some talk that the Americans really did think that the Iranians had made a mistake, and there was a rogue commander who had shot down the drone, and that the Iranians were upset with him. The president, he had hinted at that the other day. So it’s a little bit of a mystery. It could be all of the above.
MR. COSTA: Kaitlan Collins was in the Oval Office with the president on Thursday, asked him some tough questions about Iran. Let’s take a listen.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Iran made a mistake. I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth. I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.
MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, you’re there in the room with him. What was your read on the president? He’s getting intelligence, as Elisabeth was saying. What else is on his mind when you talk to his advisors?
KAITLAN COLLINS: Well, that was the first time we really saw his reaction to this because other than that he had just been saying that they’d made a mistake and we’d find out how he was going to respond. But then I asked, do you still feel that Iran is a different country? Because that’s something he has said repeatedly, saying essentially that since he’s been in office he feels that they have changed their ways, and he said it just a few days ago. And so there the president seemed to be minimizing what they did, shooting this over $100 million military drone out of the sky and leaving some leeway that essentially it could have been a rogue general, even though the Iranians were saying: This was intentional. We did this to send a message to the president. So I think that was actually our first indication they weren’t going to strike, or it at least showed the president’s ambivalence about doing so.
MR. COSTA: So if he’s not going to use a military strike at this moment, what about other action? Could he add on additional sanctions?
MS. COLLINS: Sure. And the administration officials say that they have sanctions that they could do if they wanted to. But the president claimed this morning when he was explaining his decision that sanctions were added last night. That is not true, based on what we’ve been reporting, because the Treasury Department hasn’t announced any new sanctions today. And though Steve Mnuchin did say that if they wanted to they could impose additional countermeasures, they have not done so yet.
MR. COSTA: What about the president’s advisors – Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton? Who’s the driver?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, so the president says he likes to put differing views around him, and this is a very clear example of that. The president has hawks in his administration, people that are sort of pining for war, pining for regime change in Iran. And the president also has people who are saying politically this is horrible for you, if you decide to go to war with Iran. And his own instincts are not to, you know, get involved in another conflagration in the Middle East. He wants to maybe do the same thing he did with North Korea, which is sort of get to the brink of potential military conflict and then deescalate and have discussions or have talks.
And he’s been sort of pining for these discussions with the Iranians, saying that, you know, when they’re ready to talk, I’m ready to talk. And I think he wants to have a similar situation that he had with Kim Jong-un, where he’s able to get a lot of cameras, really great ratings, where he’s having discussions that previous presidents have not had directly with the Iranians, and showing that, you know, even though previous administrations have struggled with Iran, I’m able to sit down across a table with them. And it’s not clear that other advisors that are close to the president are supporting that. People like John Bolton are not in favor of that kind of diplomacy. But right now, the president seems to be calling the shots.
MR. COSTA: The president’s not the only stakeholder. What does Congress want? Do they want more talks with Iran?
JAKE SHERMAN: Well, they’re worried about the president being in the mushy middle, so to speak, not taking action after an American asset was shot down in the region. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois who was in the Air Force, is in the Air Force Reserve, said: If I’m a pilot in the Middle East today, I’m worried – as he was. He was a pilot in the Middle East – because you’re in danger. I mean, he said, it just as well could have been an aircraft with human beings on it.
You know, the president said he has a different relationship with Iran. That’s true. Iran actually doesn’t want to talk to Donald Trump, and they’ve made that abundantly clear. They did talk to the Obama administration. And I think that by and large – and you can’t paint Congress with a broad brush – but by and large Republicans do not support an additional round of talks with Iran at the moment. They believe Iran’s a malign actor. They don’t believe that any sort of deal, beyond the Iran agreement reached under Obama, will be reached.
MR. COSTA: Will Congress have authorization over any strike?
MR. SHERMAN: That’s a – probably not. This administration has made clear behind the scenes they believe they have the leeway to conduct strikes without an additional AUMF, authorization for the use of military force.
MR. COSTA: Jake brought up Adam Kinzinger from Illinois, a hawk, a Republican in the House. Where is the president? This is such a test for him. Is he leaning towards the hawk, toward Senator Graham, toward Kinzinger, or is it more towards Senator Paul, the non-interventionists?
MS. BUMILLER: Right now, you know, there’s a struggle within the president. You know, he talks. He’s – you know, he talks very tough. He waves a big stick. But in the end, he is not an interventionist. He is an isolationist in a lot of different ways. And I think he was pulled, and pulled, and pulled in this direction for a strike by Pompeo and by John Bolton. And in the end, as he’s done a number of times, he just – he just changed his mind. It’s a – it was interesting. He got some praise from liberal quarters today for doing that. It was very interesting to see. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: So what about John Bolton, the national security adviser? Is he overestimated? Is he this person perched on the president’s ear, influencing him toward war?
MS. COLLINS: I think it depends on where the president stands, but lately we’ve seen him really discount John Bolton’s advice on several occasions. And the president has dismissed him at times in meetings that they’ve had. So I think we’re seeing a little bit of a change with John Bolton. But I think a lot of that has to do with the president doesn’t like this idea that John Bolton is goading him into conflict. And you saw that in the Oval Office when the president was asked, are some of your advisors – meanwhile, Pompeo and John Bolton are literally standing over his shoulder – goading you into conflict? And he said, no, I actually think it’s the opposite sometimes. But of course, that’s because the president doesn’t like this narrative that any person, no matter John Bolton or whoever, is telling him what to do.
MR. COSTA: And one person we’re not talking about is the acting secretary of defense, all this turnover at the Pentagon. What does that mean for these discussions inside the administration?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, we’re told in some of our reporting that Thursday while top military officials were trying to decide what military options the president should be looking at, he had – the president has both his outgoing acting defense secretary and his incoming acting defense secretary both in the room, very clearly showing that there is no actual Cabinet-affirmed – or, Senate-confirmed Cabinet-level defense secretary in the last six months, since Jim Mattis left the administration. And that’s showing how much this administration is sort of in turmoil, having a lot of acting officials, not having people who have been confirmed by the Senate who can really show that they have the full confidence of the Senate to carry out foreign policy and to carry out defense operations. This is an administration that is struggling to fill the top ranks of the Cabinet. And that’s clear from some of this decision-making that that is having an impact.
MR. SHERMAN: And who fills the void? A person like Tom Cotton, who told POLITICO this week he’s for bombing Iran. He said it very outwardly. He said he’s for military action in Iran. And you know, as we know from three years of experience, Donald Trump is talking to these members of Congress daily, sometimes multiple times a day. And when there’s no kind of commanding figure in the room, people are going to fill his mind and fill his brain with all sorts of ideas which, in the normal White House is not happening.
MS. BUMILLER: Right now there’s a power vacuum at the Pentagon. And right now the secretary of state is filling it. He seems to be playing the role of both secretary of state, secretary of defense and a little bit of CIA director, which was his job before he got to State. And so Pompeo, I think, is the one to watch here.
MR. COSTA: But there are other voices here. You have the hawks, like Secretary Pompeo. But when you’re on Capitol Hill some Democrats are war weary. Republicans, some of them are war weary. Do we know anything about Secretary Esper, the Army acting secretary of defense who’s going to now be confirmed?
MS. COLLINS: He – we’re told by sources he was actually in favor of some kind of action against Iran. Now, whether it was the strike that John Bolton wanted, we don’t know about the varying degrees of that. But he actually was in favor of it. And so it’s interesting how he was involved in these discussions because Sunday night at midnight is when he assumes the power as the acting defense secretary. Of course, whether or not the president nominates him formally that’s going to throw a whole loop for that, because he can’t serve as the acting defense secretary if he’s been formally nominated. So there’s a lot of questions about how that leadership is going to go.
MR. COSTA: And you’re heading to Japan for the G-20.
MS. COLLINS: Yes.
MR. COSTA: So what’s the rest – where’s the rest of the world as the president heads abroad next week? Europe’s trying to maybe cut their own deals with Iran on oil. Is the rest of the world – are they on edge about war?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: There’s a lot of concern from other countries that aren’t necessarily on board with the U.S. intelligence about what Iran has done, even before this drone shooting. We had a situation where the U.S. was basically saying that Iran was responsible for a number of tanker attacks. And it wasn’t clear that the rest of the world was along and sort of supporting the U.S. intelligence on that front. So they’re asking for more information. They’re asking to make sure that the U.S. is sort of crossing all of its T’s and dotting its I’s, to make sure the intelligence clear before moving forward with any type of war. And you have to remember that a lot of these countries support the Iran deal that the U.S. and the president pulled out of. And they’re not in favor of the idea that the president and the U.S. is sort of leading to more tension with Iran, when they felt like they had a good deal to deescalate some of those tensions.
MR. COSTA: Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen Senate Republicans take action against the arms deal this week.
MS. BUMILLER: Yes, it was a real show of force against the president. It was a bipartisan vote against him. There were seven Republicans who voted with the Democrats not to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Now, it’s largely a symbolic vote because the president’s going to veto it and he’s got a veto-proof majority.
MR. COSTA: Where do they play in the whole Iran discussion?
MS. BUMILLER: They’ve been largely silent. We’ve heard, again, from Rand Paul and from – we’ve heard from Lindsey Graham. But we haven’t heard a lot from anybody else on the Hill generally. They stick with the president or they don’t say anything because they don’t want to get involved with antagonizing Trump.
MR. COSTA: Just a final thought, based on all your reporting this week are we heading toward war?
MS. BUMILLER: No. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: No?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: I think the president’s impulses are not to get involved in a war. You have to remember this is a political animal here when you think about the president. His instincts are not to get involved in a war that would be political damaging for his prospects in 2020.
MR. SHERMAN: And, remember, he wants deals. And he wanted – I mean, everything we’ve seen – we’ve seen the president tweet probably a dozen times: Iran, call me. I mean, he’s said this many times, that he thinks he could do the deal. And he’s urged Iran to come to the table. Now, Iran has said thanks but no thanks. And last night Reuters reported he sent a message through Aman – Oman, not Aman – that he wanted to talk to Iran immediately. And Iran said, no thanks. So this might be a tough one for him to crack.
MS. COLLINS: Yeah, but that’s the question here, because essentially he’s at the brink of I’ve got to follow through on this promise not to get more involved in the Middle East, or am I just not going to respond to them consistently provoking me – because they don’t want to talk to him. But it’s likely they’ll keep up with their antics. So the question is going to be, what does he do the next thing that they do? Because we already were very close to a strike in – a military strike. So the question is, what does he do the next time they try to provoke him?
MS. BUMILLER: I mean, the real question is, what does he do when they reach a nuclear threshold? That’s what they’re really concerned about.
MS. COLLINS: Which they’re close to.
MS. BUMILLER: Close to next month. And that is what they’re really concerned about in the administration. That’s not, you know, shooting down unmanned drones. I mean, this is bad, but it – but getting close to a nuclear weapon is the real – the real concern at the White House.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to the race for the White House. President Trump kicked off his second bid for a term in office in Orlando this week, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the latest polls, faced criticism from rivals over remarks he made about his past work with senators who supported segregation. Toluse and Kaitlan covered the rally.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Remember, the only thing these corrupt politicians will understand is an earthquake at the ballot box. That’s what they will understand, and they’re going to see it. (Cheers, applause.) We did it once, and now we will do it again, and this time we’re going to finish the job. Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it. Not acceptable. It’s not going to happen.
MR. COSTA: The Trump campaign announced Wednesday that Mr. Trump raised nearly $25 million in the 24 hours after his rally. That haul gives the president a financial advantage over his Democratic challengers. Mr. Biden for his part is dealing with the fallout from those comments about finding common ground with others, even segregationists. He has defended his record on civil rights.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The point I’m making is you don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like the people in terms of their views, but you just simply make the case and you beat them.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, inside the arena in Orlando grievances, immigration, trade. Is this a revival of 2016?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: This is a complete doubling down on the president’s base. He thinks that they helped him win in 2016. Even though he’s raising all this money that would presumably allow him to, you know, reach out to new voters, reach out to moderates, he is actually focusing specifically on his base. You even heard him say that he was going to go after Hillary Clinton and lead chants of “lock her up,” and it was really a throwback to 2016 because he believes that whipping up his voters and getting them sort of aggrieved and angry gets them enthusiastic about voting for him, gives them an enemy to focus on, and he thinks – he’s said it in the past that he thinks, you know, fear is much more of a motivator than hope, and that’s what he’s campaigning on, and that’s how he’s going to run in 2020.
MS. COLLINS: And he talked about Hillary Clinton before he even got to anyone who he’s running against in 2020, so it does show that not only is it a revival of 2016, he’s just consistently carried that same message throughout. So the question is going to be if he’s, you know, just settling old scores, talking about his grievances, not setting forth a new agenda, is that going to be enough for the voters. But we were there; it was 20,000 people in Orlando, and the question is if they’re going to care or if they’re fine with the president repeating his old statements.
MR. COSTA: What are they really into when you’re talking to those voters, Toluse and Kaitlan?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: They think the president has kept his promises – that he said he was going to be a fighter, he said he was going to be a disrupter, and he’s definitely done that over the past two years in Washington. They are also focused on not only bread-and-butter issues like the economy and taxes, but some of these cultural flashpoints, everything from the Mueller investigation to abortion to immigration. The president is really touching on some of those issues, and he’s getting a lot of support from his base voters who wanted him to shake things up in Washington on those specific issues, and he’s doing so.
MS. COLLINS: What’s interesting is we did talk to voters and we asked them if there is one Democrat that you think is worrisome for the president. They all said the same one that’s been on his mind so much and occupied so much of his headspace, which of course is Joe Biden.
MR. COSTA: And what did we think about how Vice President Biden handled the controversy this week – not apologizing, defiant? He faces a debate next week in front of many contenders. Is this the Senator Biden, the Vice President Biden you’ve covered? Is this in character for him?
MS. BUMILLER: He’s taken a page from Donald Trump, take no prisoners and apologize for nothing. And I’d have to say that I think, you know, the – Biden is being held to a different standard than the president’s being held to, you know, given the president’s record on race. And I think there is something to be said for Biden saying, look, I can work across the aisle, I can work with people, you don’t have to like what they stand for. And I thought also when he said you know I am not a racist, you know my record on civil rights, you know, get real, I really thought he – it was a different kind of Joe Biden and it was very much taking a page from Trump.
MR. SHERMAN: You know, Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who’s the number three in the House of Representatives, came into the Speaker’s Lobby behind the House floor and we asked him about the episode, and he just immediately leaped to Biden’s defense.
MR. COSTA: Why?
MR. SHERMAN: You’d have to ask him. I think that he believes – he said this is – this reminds me of my work with Strom Thurmond, who I, you know, vehemently disagreed with – this is Clyburn saying it, not me – and you had to – his basic point was – he didn’t say this directly, but – you have to work with people you don’t agree with and that you find abhorrent at different times. Now, a lot of – we read in the Post and we’ve heard from other people that the president’s – sorry, Vice President Biden’s advisors basically said don’t do this, this is a bad message, you don’t need to talk about these people who, you know, are really out of step with not only these times but, you know, the last 50 years, and he did it anyway. So that and the leaks from the campaign throwing Biden under the bus should be concerning for the campaign.
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, there’s a concern that Biden in his past presidential campaigns was a gaffe machine, even though he started this time around with a much more organized operation and he was able to raise a lot of money and sort of stay on message, not take questions from reporters. There’s a sign that he might be sort of reverting into that gaffe mode and getting into trouble with unforced errors. And he’s had some help from some senior black lawmakers who have come out and have supported and talked about how they don’t think what he said was offensive, but it was definitely an unforced error and you did see people like Cory Booker come out and use it as an opportunity to draw a contrast between himself and Biden. I think a number of Democratic candidates are looking for ways to draw a contrast with Biden because he’s the frontrunner and we’ll likely see that during the debates, them showing how they can be different from Biden.
MR. COSTA: Let’s go back to Orlando for a second. You had – the president had a pretty ragtag campaign in 2016. Now Brad Parscale’s running it. They’ve raised millions and millions of dollars. What’s the difference this time around behind the scenes?
MS. COLLINS: Well, they’re touting it as a completely different machine – that they know what they’re doing this time, they’ve got the power of the incumbency, they’ve got a lot of money, which is true. They do have a lot of money that they’ve raised, I mean, just evident in what they raised in the 24-hour period there in Orlando. But of course the question is going to be, is this really going to be any different? Because you saw what happened with that poll episode recently, where the negative numbers leaked out that he was trailing people like Joe Biden, and when it first leaked out the campaign was not that worried about it. They didn’t deny the numbers; they just downplayed them. But then when the president read it on the front page of The New York Times and it really got under his skin, that’s when you saw them come out. So sure, it can be a new campaign. They have a lot of money. They’re still dealing with the same candidate.
MR. COSTA: What about the immigration focus by the president? He’s now pledging to have all these crackdowns. There are many reports from the AP and others, the Times, about migrant children at the border facing really difficult, terrible issues. Does the president pay a political cost, or does he see and his team see it as a political winner?
MS. BUMILLER: Well, he certainly plays a – pays a political cost with suburban voters, suburban women particularly, who are horrified by the separation of children from their parents at the border. But he believes that immigration plays really well with his base. It certainly played well last time. You talk to people who support the president and they say it’s terrible about a family separation but, you know, they’re crossing the border illegally, what do they expect. And I – you know, the strategy has always been to hold the base really close and to annihilate your opponent, and that seems to be where they’re going certainly in 2020.
MR. COSTA: How much does – when you’re talking to lawmakers, Jake, on Capitol Hill, does the economy matter? The Federal Reserve indicated on Wednesday it’s likely to cut rates. Is the economy much more of a factor than maybe some of the issues we heard at the rally?
MR. SHERMAN: Well, I think people who want to win back the House of Representatives, Republicans, think it’s a concern and are very nervous about the saber-rattling with China and what might come out of the G-20 next week, and if there’s a deal with China or are there more tariffs, is there more tariffs with Mexico. I mean, people are very concerned about that. And the thing that’s concerning – and this was concerning in 2018 too – the president – Republicans say the president has all these great things to talk about. He has an economy that’s pretty healthy. I mean, he has a tax bill which he thought was good and Republicans thought was good. Why aren’t – why isn’t he talking about any of these things that most Republicans agree with? Instead, he’s going down some of these rabbit holes.
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, this is the – this is the president that likes to talk about things that make people angry, he likes to talk about more divisive issues. He has said it himself.
MR. COSTA: Is that a strategy?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: It is his strategy. He thinks that it’s much more interesting to talk about things that are divisive. You’ve seen him reading from teleprompter or reading from a prepared speech in the past, and he’s sort of stopped himself and said this is boring, let’s talk about something else, and then he’ll talk about the hot topic of the – of the day. We’ve seen this president weigh in on anything from NFL protests to the Academy Awards to celebrities in Hollywood. He connects with some voters that way. He’s able to gin up his base that way and get people to think, you know, this guy is on my side, he’s a layman, he’s talking about the issues that I can’t maybe vocalize but he’s saying the things that everyone else is thinking. So this is a president that would much rather talk about those hot-button issues than talking about the economy or using the same speech, the same stump speech that people write for him about how good the economy is.
MS. COLLINS: Yeah, but it’s funny because today at the congressional picnic he talked about the economy for a good six or seven minutes, which is probably the longest he’s talked about it than any campaign rally, but it’s because he’s in front of all these Republicans there on the South Lawn. But I mean, this isn’t a traditional president. I don’t think he’s going to win or lose in a traditional way. And traditionally they would win on the economy, so I don’t really think that’s going to play a factor.
MS. BUMILLER: And the polls have shown that voters actually don’t give him that much credit for the economy anyway, that started before he came into office. So I also think that in Orlando, when he – when he tells the people the elites are looking down on you, they hate you, you know, he really does play up that culture war in a way that I’ve never seen with any other president, you know, just this anger, and it seems to really work. You guys were there. It seemed to really work.
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, and one thing that’s fascinating to me is how he talks about draining the swamp when we’ve seen so many scandals out of his administration and it’s clear that he’s vulnerable on that issue.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody, for being here on a Friday night. Much appreciated.
We will continue our discussion on election 2020 on the Washington Week Extra. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube starting at 8:30 p.m. every Friday night.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.