ROBERT COSTA: A reckoning on race and President Trump. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) When you see the four congresswomen – if they don’t like it, let them leave. Let them leave.
MR. COSTA: President Trump enflames racial tensions, criticizing four minority women who serve in the House.
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (From video.) Send her back! Send her back!
MR. COSTA: After Republicans voice concerns, he backs away from the chant but defends his supporters.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots.
MR. COSTA: Democrats and just a few Republicans rebuke him in the House.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS (D-GA): (From video.) I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it.
MR. COSTA: We discuss another turbulent week, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: This week, as my colleague Ashley Parker wrote in The Washington Post, a racist suggestion from President Trump that four congresswomen of color go back became an angry rallying cry, and tonight the fallout continues to grip Washington and the nation. President Trump is defending himself and his supporters. He is swatting away accusations of racism, even as thousands roared “send her back” at a rally in North Carolina on Wednesday. Here is what the president said today.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’m unhappy when a congresswoman goes and said I’m going to be the president’s nightmare, she’s going to be the president’s nightmare. She’s lucky to be where she is.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Democrat, was welcomed home on Thursday night and spoke out against the president.
REPRESENTATIVE ILHAN OMAR (D-MN): (From video.) We are going to continue to be a nightmare to this president – (cheers) – because his policies – because his policies are a nightmare to us and we are not deterred.
MR. COSTA: What’s next, and what have we learned?
Joining me with insights and analysis, Bob Woodward, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and associate editor of The Washington Post; Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Bob and Susan, you’ve been covering politics for years. You’ve observed the presidency up close. The stock market is up, the economy is strong, yet the president, he turns to race, turns to these tweets. Why does he do this?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, easier to describe the creation of the universe, but we have to try to understand where it’s coming from, and if you’ll give me papal dispensation here I go back to Nixon and Watergate the day Nixon resigned in that very famous farewell address. And he was sweating and talking about his mother and his father, and then finally kind of like, this is the essence of what I’ve learned, he said: Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself. Hate was this piston, this poison in the Nixon presidency. And I think now, 45 years later, we’ve seen it in various incarnations, but this is about hate. This is about the legitimization of anger and hate, and it’s one of the saddest moments for the country, I think, and quite frankly I think Trump is not going to help himself with this even though people say, oh, the base loves it. I don’t believe it.
SUSAN PAGE: You know, race is the piston, I think, for President Trump’s political career. The animating principle from the beginning of his first presidential campaign was Mexicans are rapists and criminals, build – we need to build a wall. We heard it just in recent weeks before we had this latest controversy, adding a citizenship question to the Census, dealing – reducing asylum applications, making it harder for people to get asylum, refugees to come into this country. There is a consistent pattern here, but I do think that the president crossed a new line this week. He’s always been provocative. That’s been part of his appeal. But to suggest that four U.S. congresswomen should go back to the countries they were originally from is something we’ve just never heard from a president in modern times.
MR. COSTA: Does it fit a pattern, Amna?
AMNA NAWAZ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, look, the president trafficking in racist tropes is nothing new, as both Bob and Susan have said, right, but this is one of the oldest racist tropes in the book. This goes back to the founding of this country. Every single group that has arrived on this country’s shores – from the Jews, to the Italians, to the Irish, to the Chinese who helped us build all our railroads, to the Mexicans who were brought in to do – fill a labor shortage and then deported, to Japanese Americans interned after Pearl Harbor, to black kids who were sent into schools being integrated, to brown kids after 9/11. This is something that has been with us since the beginning of this country. The president rolling it out at this point changes the game, but also let’s not forget the president has this impulse. He had a bad week last week. He started off the week with a federal judge basically saying you cannot change your legal team as you fight this question to try to get this question of citizenship onto the Census, so that was a loss for him. There was a whole week of headlines about the terrible conditions at the border; he’s not doing what he said he would do there. And then the week was capped off with what’s basically a disastrous visit by Vice President Pence to one of those border detention centers sort of highlighting all the many failures and this fight he had ahead of him, and at that point the president chose to lean in, put his finger on the scale, and get into the middle of this battle that Speaker Pelosi was having with the members of the squad.
MR. COSTA: Did he walk back his comments? Was he trying to walk away from the “send her back” chants? What do you make, Nancy, of how he’s handled not only the tweets, but the rally?
NANCY CORDES: He walked them back for 24 hours and then he walked back the walkback, and he was back to praising the people who were chanting “send her back” in the White House throughout the day on Friday. And you know, it almost – you know, we’ve seen this time and time again. He was clearly annoyed by the reporting that his wife had had to step in, and his daughter, and that even congressional Republicans had sent a message to him via Vice President Pence that they didn’t think that this was going to set the right tone for the party. And so after saying the day before that he was unhappy with the chanting – which, you know, frankly, didn’t make much sense because he in that exact same speech said himself multiple times they should leave, they should leave – but regardless, he was expressing some contrition, and all that changed 24 hours later and he was back to saying that it was a great group of fine people.
MR. WOODWARD: But whatever label you put on this, it really is intolerable. It’s not something – I know a lot of Republicans, and they don’t like this. Maybe they’re not going to speak out at this point, but this is not something that works. And the other side of this – and I say this in a straightforward way – I think The New York Times did a wonderful story talking to people who come from other countries, and they told their stories of being in the parking lot or being in school and someone says go back home, go back to where – and as you go through this you realize this is really painful. This is awful. This is not just being told something that is impersonal, and it’s a stab at the heart for people. And that the president is doing this –
MR. COSTA: It’s bigger than politics – about identity, about what it means to be an American.
MS. NAWAZ: I will say as someone who has been on the receiving end of some of those comments over the course of my life as an American, born and raised in Virginia, it’s awful, and it’s awful whether it is someone, you know, into your Twitter messages, or your DMs, or someone screaming out the side of a car. And you’re absolutely right, it gets to the heart of something else. It is different in this time. But to your earlier point about Republicans at this point, Bob, what’s been striking for me to see is how President Trump has basically forced everyone to pick a side. And even if you are not coming out and saying, as a fellow party member of his, yes, this is racist, the failure to do so at this moment, the failure to unequivocally say, I believe this to be harmful, I believe this to be damaging for our country, is almost just as damaging.
MS. PAGE: I think there are really two big questions. One is, what does – how does this reverberate through our culture in a big way? But there’s also a more narrow political one about does it work politically? And I think we don’t know the answer to that. We had a poll this week, after the president’s tweet – before the rally but after the tweets, in which we said – we asked Americans: Is it un-American to – were the president’s tweets un-American? And we found that Democrats said yes, and Republicans said no. And we found that, do you agree with the president’s tweets, Republicans by two to one said that they agreed with the president’s tweets that the four congresswomen should go back to where they originally came from.
So it clearly works with part of his base. And the question is, is the reaction that other Americans have in finding it offensive and un-American, how does that play out in an election where it’s – we know the states that are going to determine this next election. It’s going to be Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which have a lot of the white working-class voters.
MR. WOODWARD: But a poll 15 months before the election, that’s a –
MR. COSTA: It gives us a snapshot. It gives us a snapshot. Let’s –
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, but it’s an invalid snapshot, I think.
MR. COSTA: Well, here’s another snapshot, is we got a snapshot of the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke with Nancy this week. It’s a snapshot into the Republican Party. Let’s take a look.
MS. CORDES: (From video.) You said a short time ago that the chants of “send her back” have no place in this country. So why is it a problem when people chant it, but not when the president tweets it?
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) The president – no, the president clarified very clearly that he did not tell somebody. He talked about the love of his country.
MS. CORDES: (From video.) No, he said they should go back to where they came from.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) No, he talked – he clarified inside his tweet – if you want to read the clarification of his tweet – he talked about the love of this country and said if you don’t love this country you can leave. That’s a –
MR. COSTA: Nancy, what was your takeaway from Leader McCarthy and talking to other top Republicans on Capitol Hill this week? Only four Republicans and one independent broke from the president on that House Democrats resolution condemning his remarks.
MS. CORDES: Well, I was pretty startled by his willingness to tie himself in rhetorical knots in order to avoid criticizing the president. He was clearly uncomfortable with the chant, and wanted to get that message out there, and yet completely unwilling to criticize the president at all, even though the president’s words inspired the chant. So he had a number of different caveats why there was nothing problematic about what the president did. And I think that Republican leaders really missed an opportunity here – Mitch McConnell was mildly more critical, but really did sort of a both sides need to tone it down – with something that was so egregious.
You know, it’s clear that Republican leaders want to choose their battles with the president. And they want to avoid criticizing him and creating a rift with him unless they absolutely have to. But this was one of those cases where what he said was so universally judged to be over the line and inappropriate that I thought that they had some cover to basically, you know, as a bloc, stand up and say: That was wrong. And they didn’t do that. And I think, you know, there are so many situations where it’s more of a gray area. This one wasn’t. And yet, you still saw Kevin McCarthy and most Republican leaders really shying away from any condemnation whatsoever.
MR. COSTA: Real power is fear, that’s the quote from your book. President Trump told us that a few years ago. Is that what drives Republican decision-making on this front?
MR. WOODWARD: You know, we – I think you’re absolutely right. We don’t know what the play is on all of this. I think there comes a point where political badminton becomes moral badminton. And this may be an example of where this is a moral offense. I mean, I know – if we had Kevin McCarthy here on truth serum, sodium pentothal, and we really – you know he is not applauding that.
MR. COSTA: So why doesn’t he say it?
MR. WOODWARD: Because he – it’s party unity. It’s Trump’s power. And it’s weakness that people have. But I am convinced that – you know, how somebody can really think this is a great thing to say, I –
MS. CORDES: Well, they don’t like what he said, but the problem is they do like the fact that he’s making these four women the face of the Democratic Party. That part of the strategy they’re on board with. So that’s why they’re sort of walking a tightrope here, because they don’t mind the Democratic Party being painted as this far-left progressive socialist party.
MR. COSTA: You know, and you’ve gotten to know some of these women. You were with them recently at a few events in Washington, Amna. How have they handled this, being in this intense spotlight?
MS. NAWAZ: Well, I think so far, if you look at these four women, they have been nothing but consistent. This is exactly what they ran on. This is exactly what they said they were going to do. And they’ve continued to send the same messages and stick to their messages, even through this battle with the president.
To Nancy’s point about Republicans twisting themselves in knots, though, over the last 48 hours we’ve watched people like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham, even – who four years ago himself called the president a race-baiting bigot – twisting himself in a pretzel trying to explain and add nuance into language that doesn’t really require nuance to understand. But at the same time, I’ll say that the president seems to be pushing focus onto these four women, trying to make it a battle in an election year about these four very, very progressive women.
MR. COSTA: Calling them anti-Semitic.
MS. NAWAZ: Absolutely. And calling them socialists. That’s the battle he wants to have politically, right? At the same time, he’s sort of pulling the entire Republican Party further and further right. And that’s where this battle is going to be fought.
MR. WOODWARD: But he doesn’t want a battle with just those four women. He wants them to be the label and the face of the leftist socialist Democratic Party. And now, whether he’s just accidentally stumbled on something that may work for him in the end or not, but I – you know, as we – Trump doesn’t think strategically. He thinks impulsively.
MR. COSTA: But he has got instincts.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes.
MR. COSTA: What about Speaker Pelosi? You’re writing the book on the speaker, a historic speaker. She has had her tensions with members of this group. Representative Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic Socialist. Representative Omar has had a different view on Israel than many mainstream Democratic members of the leadership. At the same time, this has unified the Democratic Party. Is there pressure now on her to move forward with impeachment with urgency because of what’s happened this week?
MS. PAGE: I think it’s been enormously complicating for her. You know, on the one hand, it united the Democratic Caucus. On the other hand, she was trying to minimize the squad, these four young members of Congress. I mean, they – other Democrats in the caucus make the point that they – and she made this point – they are only four votes. They, in fact, do not represent in the caucus more voters than they have themselves, although they have a huge social media presence and a lot of momentum among the most progressive Democrats. This upended her efforts to put a little distance there and to put them down a little bit, because of course the Democrats united behind them. And it did fuel calls for impeachment, but Nancy Pelosi remains totally consistent that impeachment would be the wrong thing for Democrats to do. And she is trying to hold that back.
MR. COSTA: And we’ve discussed, this debate over the president and race is not isolated. It affects the entire presidency and the Trump White House’s relationship with Congress. This week immigration remained at the fore. The debt limit looms, and former special counsel Robert Mueller is preparing to testify next week. On immigration, the ACLU and several other organizations filed lawsuits trying to block the Trump administration’s move to end asylum protections for most Central American migrants. The new rule was put in place to tamp down the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Amna, what does this new rule mean for migrants?
MS. NAWAZ: Well, so the rule is already being challenged, of course. But what it basically does is effectively end any ability for largely Central American migrants who are coming from noncontiguous countries to come into the U.S. and claim asylum, which is by and large what’s been happening with those numbers that we’ve seen going up over the last year and a half, but in the last couple of months have begun to tick down to seasonal kind of historical trend. The rule, however, basically said: You can’t come into the United States and make an asylum claim if you haven’t already made an asylum claim in another country you passed through, which is basically everybody from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which is where most people crossing the southern border are now coming from.
The reason it’s problematic is because it’s illegal. I mean, anyone under international law and U.S. law can come into the U.S. and either make a claim at a port of entry or on U.S. soil. And it also just puts vulnerable populations into a more vulnerable position. So you have to have agreements with other countries. We know the Trump administration was trying to get Guatemala to sign on as what they call a third safe country. They weren’t able to do that. They pushed ahead with the rule anyway. It’s now going to be challenged in court. It’s the same story again and again with some of the Trump administration’s efforts to end even legal migration to the country.
MR. COSTA: And we also saw this week the acting secretary of Department of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. He was grilled on Capitol Hill about the migration centers, about this immigration policy. Are Democrats making progress, or are they still feeling like they’re stymied with this administration on immigration?
MS. CORDES: I think they very much feel like they’re still stymied. I mean, you know, this issue sort of sank away from the headlines this week because so much energy was taken up by the feud with the squad, but I think you had something like 20 or 25 Democrats from the House and Senate down at McAllen, Texas, just yesterday and today, and so they’re very eager to put that back in the headlines. And you know, this is becoming a partisan fight, too, the president and Republicans arguing, well, if conditions are bad it’s because Democrats haven’t given us enough money to improve the situation there; and Democrats arguing, well, you’re the one that’s putting all of these people in detention camps, if you didn’t then they wouldn’t be overcrowded and you wouldn’t have these terrible conditions.
MR. COSTA: Let’s not forget the White House and congressional leaders continue to negotiate over a spending agreement that would also raise the nation’s borrowing limit before Congress leaves for its August recess. The U.S. government hasn’t been able to borrow since March, when a congressional cap on borrowing took effect. That prompted these latest talks. The debt limit again. You wrote a whole book on it, The Price of Politics.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, unfortunately, I did. (Laughter.) And it – and it sounds like an abstraction, but it’s not. It actually can sink the economy, and people don’t really get that. I think lots of people on the Hill really don’t get that, and so it’s a dangerous time. And I think we may look back on this summer, and a lot of these skirmishes, though important, the real issues are financial stability and possible war.
MR. COSTA: Why does it matter, though? Would interest rates spike? Would the stock market be rattled if the debt limit’s not extended?
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, because the Treasury bills that people have all of a sudden aren’t as valuable because they’re not going to pay the interest because they’re not allowed to pay the interest, and you’ve got a whole financial system in the country and the world built around that. But I agree it’s not something that somebody’s going to go to the barricades over.
MS. PAGE: But you know, both these issues – raising the debt ceiling and trying to reach some kind of accord on immigration – we’re not able to do either one of them, at least not easily, and it’s a sign of how our politics has just broken down. So all we can do, it seems, is have a big fight over provocative tweets.
MR. COSTA: Could Speaker Pelosi cut a deal?
MS. CORDES: Well, it’s interesting because Speaker Pelosi and Republican leaders seem, you know, to have some consensus over the fact that we don’t want to mess with the debt limit and we want to go ahead and raise it. But, interestingly, I think we’re headed towards a showdown between the president and his own acting chief of staff, because President Trump, who has criticized Republicans in the past for cutting deals too quickly on the debt limit – he wanted them to hold out – now says the debt limit is something very sacred. This is a new line from the president. He’s now saying it’s very sacred, you don’t want to mess with it. We know for a fact that his acting chief of staff felt very differently when he was in Congress. He was one of the rabble-rousers who was – you know, who was forcing showdowns over the debt limit because he felt so strongly about getting concessions from Democrats in exchange, most importantly budget cuts. And so it will be very interesting to see how those two negotiate, let alone how Democrats and Republicans negotiate.
MR. COSTA: But this is a different time, Amna. When the president came in, the U.S. government had roughly 19 trillion (dollars) in debt; now it’s surpassed 22 trillion (dollars). It’s a different time. Even if you’re Mick Mulvaney, you’re now on the inside with President Trump.
MS. NAWAZ: It’s all a different time, right? And really, truly, to Nancy’s point, as well, we don’t exactly what’s happening inside the administration. It was interesting to see both Steve Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow out with that same line, really stressing this week, oh, no, we will absolutely reach a deal, we do not want to default on this, this is crucial.
MR. COSTA: They want that market to stay up.
MS. NAWAZ: They absolutely want to. The messaging is there. The question is what’s actually happening behind the scenes to make them get towards some kind of agreement.
MR. COSTA: What does Speaker Pelosi want? Is it just more spending on nondefense programs? Anything else?
MS. PAGE: Yeah, she wants more spending on veterans programs and some other things. Republicans are insisting on some offsets. That’s one of the things that’s getting negotiated on the Hill. You sort of feel like the congressional leaders could negotiate a deal; it’s just getting it through this process, including the White House, that makes it so difficult.
MR. COSTA: And next week, Bob, Robert Mueller comes to Capitol Hill. We have about a minute left. One thing you’re looking to hear from Mr. Mueller.
MR. WOODWARD: Well something new, something concrete, some hard evidence. And you know, he made it clear in his report on the major issues Trump gets off for the moment. Now, that can change in a minute when something – the other issue is a potential war. I did a chronology – 20-page chronology just about –
MR. COSTA: With Iran, you’re talking about –
MR. WOODWARD: About Iran, and –
MR. COSTA: Are we headed to war? Is the secretary of state –
MR. WOODWARD: Well, you read the chronology and you say – the title of this is “The March to War,” and –
MR. COSTA: A march to war.
MR. WOODWARD: God help us.
MR. COSTA: What a way to end this program. Indeed, God help us all, and thanks, everybody, for watching.
Coming up on many stations, the PBS NewsHour presents “Inside the Mueller Report,” a look at the results of the special counsel’s two-year investigation. Check your local listings. And tune in next Wednesday for the PBS NewsHour’s live coverage of the Mueller hearings starting at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.