ROBERT COSTA: What happens when a president goes to war against the government he leads? President Trump approves the release of a disputed Republican memo alleging the FBI and Justice Department abused their surveillance power. I’m Robert Costa. We discuss the fallout, civic and political, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think it’s a disgrace, what’s going on in this country. I think it’s a disgrace.
MR. COSTA: President Trump ignores warnings from the FBI and signs off on the release of a Republican memo he says shows bias against him in the Russia probe.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that.
MR. COSTA: Democrats accused the president of trying to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the entire Russia investigation.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) This is not about the facts. This is about a narrative that the chairman wants to put out to undermine the FBI, undermine the department, and ultimately undermine Bob Mueller.
MR. COSTA: The release has pitted Republicans against Republicans.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) This memo is not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice. It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general.
MR. COSTA: But Senator John McCain strongly disagrees. The Arizona Republican released a statement that read in part: “If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.” At the heart of the document, a controversial dossier paid for by Democrats during the general election, and by a Republican client in the early primary season.
We discuss it all with Molly Ball of TIME Magazine, Michael Scherer of The Washington Post, Rachael Bade of POLITICO, and Carl Hulse of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The White House approved release of a House Intelligence Committee memo. It landed like a hand grenade in Washington on Friday, roiling already simmering tensions over the ongoing Russia probe. It was a day of unrest nationally, with the U.S. stock market plunging as the pillars of the nation’s justice system were challenged by President Trump and the Republican Party, which controls both chambers in Congress. There are many names involved in this complicated story, lots of parts and competing perspectives. But at its core the memo drafted by Republican House staffers who work with Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, it asserts that the FBI and the Justice Department lack integrity and are politically biased, an explosive claim about apolitical institutions. In particular, it accuses law enforcement leaders of overstepping their authority to obtain a warrant.
Democrats railed against the memo’s release, so did a number of Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain who said Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded. Former FBI Director James Comey, he was incredulous. He tweeted, “That’s it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with the Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what?”
For what? That is a question that seemingly sparked a thousand answers in Washington on Friday. And our reporters tonight have been at the White House and on Capitol Hill here in the Mall looking for the facts as both parties clashed. Let’s start with the president, who put this all in motion and approved the release of the memo without redactions. What drove him to do so, Michael?
MICHAEL SCHERER: For President Trump, the Russia investigation has never been about Russia, it’s never been about the election. It’s always been about him, he sees it as an attack on him. And for the better part of a year, he has been doing everything he can to fight back and this is just the latest gambit in that.
I think it’s fair to say that the thrust of that memo is political, it’s a political argument, it’s not a legal argument. It’s not saying that a court would not have accepted this warrant or that the warrant was wrongly gotten. It’s saying that there’s a political motivation at the FBI and that’s the story that the president wants out. And we know that because today in a spray in the Oval Office, the president gets a question about it and he says it’s a shame and he, you know, is sort of lambasting it. And I bet we’ll see over the coming weekend more tweets about this. It gives him a talking point so that in the daily news fight over the Russia investigation he’s able to feel like he’s taking the upper hand.
MOLLY BALL: Yeah, I mean, there have been some Republicans arguing for the memo’s release by saying that it was about something else, saying that it was about corruption in the FBI, saying that it was about, you know, the need for oversight of certain institutions, and I think there are a lot of holes in that rationale, but the president hasn’t even really tried to do that. The president, it’s been reported, has even told his own friends this is just about discrediting the Mueller probe. This, to him, is just about undercutting in the public’s view because he knows where this is going eventually, if Mueller comes up with something that touches him, it’s going to become a political matter, it’s going to hinge on public opinion.
And so the important thing to me about this whole episode is that far from being pushed by some crisis into having to decide whether to defend the president against the Mueller probe, Republicans in Congress actually took it upon themselves. Nunes and the Intelligence Committee staff, they came up with this memo and gave it to Trump in order to help him, in order to help him discredit the Russia investigation.
MR. COSTA: Democrats say, Carl, there are many omissions and inaccuracies.
CARL HULSE: Well, did you say it landed like a hand grenade? I would say it landed like a thud. I’ve talked to both Republicans and Democrats today who sort of agree with Comey: Is that it? In fact, there were some elements of the memo that really pointed that the investigation started with a story The Times had broken last month or two months ago with a Trump associate talking to an Australian diplomat and that was upheld in the memo.
I think that, you know, the memo, in some ways, accomplished its main goal. There were two weeks of discussion about this and people ‒ you know, there’s a lot of smoke about it and they were trying to undermine the investigation. But the Republicans I was hearing from tonight are saying, OK, well, let’s move on and this really did not touch the Mueller investigation in any way.
And that’s ‒ and Senate Republicans really have been distancing themselves from this, and Lindsey Graham said, OK, let’s move forward. I don’t think that it did what the staff of the ‒ the House Republican staff of the Intel Committee wanted it to do.
MR. COSTA: And you’ve covered Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, so closely up on Capitol Hill. How did we get here? How did he lead this?
RACHAEL BADE: So there’s different factions of Republicans and they’re sort of all over the map on how they see this memo. Obviously, Nunes and a lot of Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill, Matt Gaetz is another vocal one, a Republican from Florida, they have tried from the beginning to undermine the investigation and have ‒ I think Matt Gaetz even has said that Mueller is leading a coup against the president. Now, I just want to clarify that this is a very small fraction of Republicans, most Republicans are not saying stuff like this on Capitol Hill.
But there are Republicans who are sort of seeing these documents. I think Trey Gowdy, the Oversight chairman, is a former federal prosecutor, and he actually saw these documents and he had an issue with them. He thought that perhaps there should have been more information that was presented to the court to justify these warrants. And so he worked with Nunes, didn’t want him to get over out ‒ get out over his skis, but wanted to also raise this as just an oversight issue and so he proceeded to work with him.
The issue here is that Senate Republicans do not agree with this at all, as you were mentioning. A lot of them said, why didn’t we get to see this memo first? We could have crafted it more delicately. It clearly looks like a political document at this point in time.
And Speaker Paul Ryan is also in this super-awkward situation where he wants to support Nunes as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and he thinks perhaps there’s an oversight issue to look into. But he also made a point this week to say I’m not trying to discredit the FBI, I’m not trying to undercut the DOJ and this has nothing to do with Mueller himself and the Russia investigation.
MR. HULSE: But he seems to be one of the only people in town who actually thinks that, you know, that this really was about the Mueller investigation. I mean, that’s a general agreement.
I did want to say one thing about the Democrats. You know, we’re going to ‒ the Democrats have this rebuttal, I presume we’re going to see it at some point. And our reporting tonight was that in that rebuttal that there is ‒ that they did tell the court that this was a politically motivated dossier. They didn’t say it was being paid for by the Clinton campaign, but they ‒ and that is going to satisfy a lot of people, I think, if that turns out to be true.
MR. SCHERER: The other thing is it’s very common in these situations that sources used to get warrants are politically motivated. I mean, informants to the police, informants to the intelligence community often have agendas. There’s nothing wrong with that. The question here is whether the court was deceived and we don’t know the answer to that from this memo.
MR. COSTA: Let’s get back to the charges in a little bit more detail.
And I want to come to you on this, Molly, because they’re asserting in this memo that law enforcement leaders in this country abused their power to obtain wiretap warrants. The memo states that the warrant was issued for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page because of that dossier we’ve been discussing put together by former intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Republicans say the use of that dossier in the process was inappropriate since its research was funded by Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But remember, that was after initially being funded by conservative donors.
Republicans seized on all this today saying the way the Page warrant was handled raises broader questions about how the Justice Department and the FBI have handled the Russia investigation from the start. And that’s a perspective shared by the president. But that conclusion has been contested by some Republicans, Democrats and the FBI in their own statement.
And the memo isn’t just about Carter Page and that controversial dossier. The memo also indicates that actions taken by former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos triggered the federal Russia probe. He was charged by Special Counsel Mueller’s team and is now cooperating.
In the middle of this political storm: the leaders of the Justice Department. Because named in the memo is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who was appointed by the president and oversees Mueller’s investigation. His approval of that Page warrant has made him a target of the president’s political allies who throughout Friday called on Rosenstein to step down. Rosenstein supporters say the president is simply looking to discredit the Russia investigation and using the memo as a weapon to discredit the man who overlooks it and to protect himself.
MS. BALL: Well, I would say ‒ I would add to that I think Rosenstein is a target for a couple of reasons, right? Rosenstein is a target because of this warrant, but he’s also a target because he’s the man standing between Trump and Mueller. And as we found out last week, Trump’s already tried to fire Mueller once and was prevented from doing so last year. So that’s the real reason, I think, Rosenstein is in Trump’s crosshairs.
But there’s a couple of issues to tease out, right, about what is supposedly objectionable in the evidence presented in the memo. And I think it’s good to try to clarify this. Number one is the assertion that this whole investigation sprang from the tainted dossier. Right? That as you mentioned, Trump opponents, whether they were conservative donors, the original funders or the DNC that then picked up the funding and led to the creation of the actual dossier ‒ in any case, anti-Trump ‒ an anti-Trump faction is funding this research, creates this dossier and then hands it over to the FBI. And the FBI takes it and goes straight to the court with it without doing any of their own homework. That’s the allegation, right, that they were just sort of carrying water and they were politically motivated. The charge is not so much that they overstepped their authority as that they had political motivations. They were out to get Trump. They were staging this investigation based on flimsy evidence because they jus wanted to take down the president.
And so there’s a couple of things wrong with that. Number one, evidence in the memo itself that it wasn’t only – that the – that the stuff that was in the dossier was checked out before it was brought to the court, that it satisfied the court for other reasons. And then evidence that it wasn’t just the dossier, that as you said there was this investigation into the Papadopoulos matter that preceded the dossier, and so the FBI was already on this case before this supposedly tainted material came into their possession. So I think those are the two sort of arguments with what’s in the memo.
MR. COSTA: Important points.
MR. SCHERER: The other thing is that Carter Page had been a target of Russian intelligence years earlier, before the Trump campaign. We know this from other court documents. They had tried to recruit him. He had given PowerPoint presentations to people who were later convicted and kicked out of the country for being, you know, Russian recruiters for their intelligence services. So the idea that going after Carter Page was somehow an arbitrary thing, this is a guy who had been targeted before who was traveling to Russia, again, during the campaign.
MR. HULSE: Well, really throughout this it’s been the Trump campaign – administration’s also really sought to push themselves away from Carter Page, so it’s kind of interesting that he would become this person, one, to Molly’s point. And this warrant was extended. They had to go back and get multiple renewals. And so it wasn’t just this one time you have to convince these judges. Judges do tend to go along with prosecutorial requests, but you know, you still have to justify this.
MS. BALL: It’s a surveillance request, so you have to convince the court that you’re getting something worthwhile from the surveillance that’s happening.
MR. COSTA: Let’s pull it back for a second, because Rosenstein’s under fire from the right today. Are there efforts to protect Mueller inside of Congress, to protect Rosenstein, to protect the whole Russia investigation process?
MS. BADE: Not that are making it to the House or the Senate floor. Yeah, of course Democrats and some more centrist Republicans have been talking about legislation that would actually protect Muller and make sure that Rosenstein couldn’t be fired or, you know, that if somebody else were to be in his place that nobody could touch Mueller. But the leadership in the House and the Senate, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, have said time and time again they do not think that is necessary. They do not think the president is going to come after Mueller. But obviously there are questions on this, right? Today his answer to what about Rod Rosenstein, he said you figure that one out. It was very clear that he was ticked off about the memo, and that Rosenstein had basically continued the reapplication or reupped the application. And so it looks like he is starting to come after Rosenstein on that.
MR. COSTA: You figure that one out he said about Rod Rosenstein.
MS. BADE: Yes, you figure that one out.
MR. COSTA: So what happens if Rod Rosenstein decides to step down or is fired by the president?
MR. SCHERER: He has said that he’s not going to step down, that he would have to be fired, and that he’s not going to dismiss Mueller unless he finds some evidence of misbehavior and he’s seen no evidence of that. If he steps down, then his deputy, the next person in line, would take over. Jeff Sessions has recused himself. That recusal would stand. The reason this matters – and you can just keep going down. I mean, in theory you could – you could have the president continue to take people out, and then eventually he would have to nominate somebody else for that position, but Congress would have a say in that nomination.
The issue here is that whatever Mueller finishes doing when he’s done with his work, he’s going to deliver that report to Rod Rosenstein or whoever is in that position, and then it’s that person who has the authority and the responsibility to decide what to do with it. Mueller does not go to a judge and, you know, prosecute the president. Mueller does not go to Congress and call for impeachment. Mueller delivers a document to the Justice Department, and then that person at the Justice Department decides what to do with it – whether to release it publicly, whether to give it to Congress, whether to take some other action. And so that’s the moment – at this point, the investigation is so far along the idea that you can get rid of it, you know, just by firing somebody doesn’t seem very realistic.
MR. COSTA: The process is supposed to be apolitical.
MR. HULSE: Right, well –
MR. COSTA: It’s supposed to be removed from politics.
MR. HULSE: Actually, and that’s been one of the interesting things about all this. These are administration appointees and Republicans, and for the House Republicans and the president to be attacking the FBI is a very big role reversal. The one thing I would say about Rosenstein is that if the – Devin Nunes and those folks thought that this report was going to come out and build up a big push to fire Mueller or Rosenstein, I think that that did not work from what we’ve seen.
MR. COSTA: What about FBI Director Chris Wray?
MS. BALL: Well, I think there’s two other pieces of news this week that we should connect this to. Number one, the disputed resignation of Deputy FBI Direct McCabe. That was unexpected, that was very sudden, and it – he appears to have been forced out in part because of this very matter, the investigation into FBI behavior.
MR. COSTA: Or an IG report into –
MS. BALL: But this is what the IG is looking into, is the FBI and how it behaved. And then the other thing is the report in The New York Times that the president’s former legal spokesman has been talking to Mueller about this meeting – the conference call with the president deciding how to respond in the – in the meeting – to the meeting with the Russians that his son had had. And that, to me, is an indication that the investigation may be getting closer to the president himself.
MR. COSTA: Let’s pick up on that because, as Molly was saying, the Mueller team is now turning its attention to a meeting that took place on Air Force One last July. In that meeting, the White House aides decided to release a statement describing a Trump Tower meeting Donald Trump Jr. had and that is was focused on Russian adoption policy. Mueller reportedly wants to know how this release came together, according to The New York Times. Hope Hicks, the president’s communications director, is under scrutiny for her role, especially about emails related to the meeting.
And in another piece of news around Mueller’s Russia probe, the attorneys for Rick Gates, an associate of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, have requested to withdraw from the case. Their reasons are under seal.
All these moving parts in the Russia probe. And as Molly was saying, Hope Hicks now, one of the president’s confidants, under scrutiny for her conduct.
MS. BADE: Yeah, I can barely keep up with all the news these days, right? (Laughter.) Look, I think Republicans – some Republicans are realizing that they may have overstepped this week. Paul Ryan just a couple of hours ago specifically called for the Democratic rebuttal of this memo to be released and be released as soon as possible. Yesterday, at a press conference, he tried to say over and over this what this document is, it’s oversight – congressional oversight of the FBI; it is not an allegation that the FBI and the DOJ are corrupt, it’s not anything against Mueller. But it’s very clear that he has lost control of that narrative because there are Republicans in the party like Nunes who want to go further with this, and they’re the ones who are winning out right now in terms of the narrative.
MR. COSTA: Does that hold? Can you critique the leadership of law enforcement institutions and then say you’re not actually critiquing those law enforcement institutions?
MR. HULSE: No. I mean, I think that that is their big problem. The Republicans have always postured – portrayed themselves, you know, as the big defenders of law enforcement. The president has taken some steps, well, the rank and file, it’s OK, but you’re still attacking the institution. And I think actually that that’s been one of the dangerous aspects of this, and where the long-term repercussions are going to come in because, you know, intelligence oversight by the Congress is difficult. The intelligence agencies, they’re not sure. They don’t trust members that much. They don’t like to share that much information. I think that this is going to make them even less apt to do that.
MS. BADE: And that oversight, it should be bipartisan, right? I mean, one of the number one –
MR. HULSE: Right, it has traditionally really been.
MS. BADE: Traditionally been – well, that’s been of the biggest criticisms today of this memo, is that Democrats were not included in the creation of this memo. They were excluded for a long time. And even the Senate Republicans on the Intel Committee are saying specifically it doesn’t have to be like this; oversight of intelligence should be bipartisan.
MR. HULSE: It has been over the years. I mean, I said earlier today, you know, somebody who’s seen quite a few years here on Capitol Hill, it’s almost unimaginable to me to think of some of these past intelligence groups and to have this kind of thing happen. It just does not happen.
MR. SCHERER: These are exactly the things that President Trump doesn’t care about, though.
MR. HULSE: Right.
MR. SCHERER: And we know that. I mean, that sort of tradition he doesn’t care about. And we also know that he cares a great deal and believes he’s a salesman, right? He can create sort of a reality forcefield, at least for a portion of the country, and that’s what he’s doing here. I mean, he’s got his 35, 38, 40 percent base. He’s trying to create an alternative set of facts that will play on Fox and Friends, that will play on his Twitter feed, that will allow him to keep the base, and it’s an alternative narrative. And even if it’s one that most in Congress eventually don’t follow along with, even if it’s one that hurts Republicans in the midterm elections, I think the president is convinced that if he holds to it it will protect him and –
MR. COSTA: There’s a cost to that. Molly, this was the week of the State of the Union.
MR. SCHERER: That’s true. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: It was earlier in the week, sometimes feels like a century ago with this news cycle. He has an immigration deal he’s trying to cut, or at least a vote to have in the Congress, trying to get a spending bill done before the February 8th deadline. Does this choke all of those efforts?
MS. BALL: Yes and no. I think on the one hand we are seeing in the big picture a rebound for Trump since the beginning of the year. I think since tax reform and since his aggressive sales push on tax reform we’ve seen the president’s approval rating has ticked up, the positive rating for the tax bill has ticked up very markedly, and the congressional ballot the Democrats were previously running away with has narrowed quite considerably. So in the big picture I think voters are giving Trump and his party another chance since the new year, and his State of the Union was very well received. The sort of instant polls off the State of the Union, most of the people who watched it had a very positive impression of it. The question for Trump is, is the Russia investigation background noise? Can he convince people that it’s background noise, especially when he is obsessed with it, right? It’s not as if he has kept Paul Ryan’s laser-like focus on tax reform to the – and let everybody else handle Russia, right?
MR. HULSE: And they could have controlled that message a little better. You know, there was no real rule that they had to have this big fight right after the State of the Union. He could have played that out.
MS. BALL: Trump doesn’t do message discipline. That’s definitely not his thing. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ll get to that next week. We’re going to have to leave it there.
Rachael, Carl, welcome to Washington Week. Molly and Michael, great to have you back. And thanks, everybody, for joining us tonight.
This Friday night we’ll be streaming the Washington Week Extra on our Facebook page starting at 8:35 p.m. Eastern time. Check it out. We’ll be discussing the president’s first State of the Union address. We’ll actually get into it in the webcast and look ahead to next week’s looming deadline to fund the government to avoid a shutdown. Remember, if you miss the show or the Extra, you can watch both later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching, and go Eagles!