PETE WILLIAMS: An indelible debate over the forecaster in chief. Robert Costa is away on assignment. I’m Pete Williams. Welcome to Washington Week.
Legislative sprint. Congress returns from its summer recess with a long agenda and a looming deadline to avoid a government shutdown October 1st.
A fight over firearms. After so many mass shootings, will Congress do something to address gun violence?
Building a wall. The Pentagon is diverting billions from other projects to work on the border wall.
And House Democrats launch an investigation into whether President Trump offered pardons to officials who carry out his immigration policy.
Plus, as Hurricane Dorian churns along the Eastern Seaboard, the president remains fixated on his claim that Alabama was once in the path of the storm when it was not, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, substituting for Robert Costa, Pete Williams of NBC News.
MR. WILLIAMS: First, we send our sympathies to people coping with the misery left by Hurricane Dorian. We’ll have more on the political storm a bit later, but we begin with Congress. It’s back next week facing more calls for new restrictions on guns. We now know that the gunman responsible for the most recent mass shooting, in Odessa, Texas, failed an FBI background check and bought the gun he used from a private seller. The New York Times reports that inside the White House the issue of new gun restrictions has largely been theoretical, in part because the White House has new polls showing that gun control is politically problematic for the president. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said this week on a radio talk show that he won’t bring up any gun bill unless President Trump supports it.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From recording.) If the president took a position on a bill so that we knew we would actually be making a law and not just having serial votes, I’d be happy to put it on the floor.
MR. WILLIAMS: Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post; and Abby Livingston, Washington bureau chief for the Texas Tribune.
So, Abby, let me start with you. We know about this background check issue. It brought it much more into the fore. Could Congress pass a background check bill?
ABBY LIVINGSTON: I would guess it’s highly unlikely. And what I see going on in the state of Texas, which I think is reflective of the rest of the country, is I put out a call to a friend in Midland, which is where part of the shooting got started, and I said is there any change in sentiment on the ground of the people who actually felt this, who had to go get shelter, and he said absolutely not. But on the flipside, you go across the state of Texas and you go to Houston, and that is – the suburbs of Houston is where these elections in the House races are being fought, and Democrats think they have a real shot at luring Republican women over to their side to vote for their candidates. And so I just don’t see it happening. I think several members of my delegation have actually been in a mass shooting at the baseball practice, and so if that didn’t move them on the issue I don’t see how any other mass shootings will.
MR. WILLIAMS: More mass shootings in Texas. This is what, three of them so far? Has that changed the views of the Texas delegation in any way?
MS. LIVINGSTON: They’re not outwardly getting in front of this this week. What I can say is Senator John Cornyn, who’s an extremely powerful member of the Senate, there was a church shooting several years ago in Sutherland Springs and it really did seem to rock him, and so he did get involved in some smaller changes but nothing sweeping, and he was successful at it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, these were changes that required federal agencies to do a better job of giving information – disqualifying information to the FBI for background checks. But what about the president, Peter? Does he actually believe in any kind of gun legislation, or is it going to be a total dead letter for him?
PETER BAKER: Well, you know, we’ve seen this with him before, of course. In the immediate aftermath of a terrible tragedy like that, his first instinct is to think about gun legislation. He’s from New York. He may be a conservative Republican now, but he has been a Democrat in the past. I don’t think this is a red line for him, and he was open to the idea. And then after time passes, after the NRA weighs in, after the pollsters weigh in, after he, you know, considers what his base is going to think about it, he tends to back off. Now, he may come up with something. It’s possible we get some kind of legislation of a probably cosmetic basis through. But I think Abby’s right; I think if it didn’t happen in a major way after Parkland, after, you know, Newtown, after the congressional baseball game, what makes now any different?
MR. WILLIAMS: You know, every time one of these happens someone in Congress like the speaker or someone says enough is enough, this will be different. But you don’t – do you get any sense at the White House that things will be any different or ever will be after one of these?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The president was really strong in the first couple of days after those back-to-back shootings during that tragic weekend where there were shootings in both Ohio and Texas. He said I’m going to bring people together and get them to do things that they haven’t done in the past. Then what we saw was a slow backtracking of the president. He admitted to being on the phone with Wayne LaPierre, the chief of the NRA. I put the question to the president on the White House lawn: Are you also speaking to mass shooting victims about what they want? I’ve talked to a number of them in Ohio who told me they do want to see some sort of change. And the president said I went and visited them at the hospital and they love me, but he would not say that he was having any sort of real constructive conversations with mass shooting victims. And what that tells me is that the president is listening to the NRA and having deep conversations with Republicans and making political calculations, and that usually leads to inaction on the Republican side when it comes to gun control or gun law changes.
MR. WILLIAMS: Philip, what about the NRA? It’s having its own problem, but in terms of its influence on the White House or indeed on Congress, is it still as powerful as ever?
PHILIP RUCKER: It’s very powerful, Pete, at the White House and with Republicans in Congress. And you’re right, there’s a lot of scrutiny on the NRA institutionally; they’re having difficulties as an organization. But they still represent a really powerful part of Trump’s coalition and of the Republican voting bloc, and that’s why you see the president so reluctant to provide that sort of political cover and presidential leadership to push for any meaningful gun laws. I do, however, think it’s likely that the White House will put forward a set of proposals, probably next week or soon thereafter when Congress gets back, that deal with mental health issues, that might deal with capital punishment, other things that would address mass shootings without actually changing gun laws.
MR. WILLIAMS: But no – do you all agree that it’s unlikely Congress will change the gun laws in any way?
MR. RUCKER: Absolutely correct.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. So we saw something else that’s going to – troubling to some members of Congress, the fact that the Defense Department said this week that work on 127 military construction projects will be delayed because nearly $4 billion is being transferred from the Pentagon budget to build parts of the border wall. This move affects projects in nearly half the states. So is there anything that Congress can do to change this, or is this a done deal for this budget year?
MS. LIVINGSTON: Well, it – the Democrats are trying to figure out what to do, and I think one of the most important things to remember in this is that the speaker of the House has been in that chamber for over 30 years. Her father was a member. And Trump has just taken a shot at the House of Representatives’ singular power of the purse, and this is extremely troubling to Democrats. Their weekly address this week is about this issue. But whether or not they’re able to pull something together amid the funding fight that we face every September is an open question.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, they can’t change it for this fiscal year, right, and there was a court challenge and the Supreme Court threw it out, saying that the parties that sued in California, environmental groups and some communities, didn’t have any legal standing. And that sort of seemed to end this, to make it clear the president had the power to do this, so what about next year? Will Congress try to put this money back into the budget and try to get these projects funded?
MR. BAKER: Well, the question is whether they want President Trump to pay a price for it, right? In other words, is it in the Democrats’ interest to say we’re going to be the ones who rescue these military families who are not going to have a new middle school, for instance, on their base or something like that? Or is it to their interest in a political way to say your president is the one who did that; if you want to change that, you have to vote him out? This being Washington, I would vote for – you know, my guess would be the political answer. But the argument that the president has actually penalized people who are normally part of his base, the military community, is one that resonates with the Democrats. The difference, of course, is the president can say, look, I’ve given the military a lot of money, a lot more money than Obama did, and the question is whether that overcomes the concerns about these particular projects.
MR. WILLIAMS: So a showdown over funding the border wall. Shut the government down for a while, are we going to see that again? Is the president going to again ask for more money, the wall, and Congress is not going to give it to him?
MR. RUCKER: We very well may. I don’t think the president’s going to stop asking for money for that border wall, and here’s why: it was the signature promise of his 2016 campaign and he knows the election – his reelection is now 14 months away. He’s got to show some movement in terms of constructing that wall. He feels he needs to deliver on that pledge. He’s not getting the money he needs for it from the Democrats in Congress, and I think he’s going to continue demanding for that money but also continue these sort of budget maneuvers that we saw this week and may see in the future where he’s trying to reallocate money and to Abby’s point doing so in a way that Democrats allege is unconstitutional.
MS. LIVINGSTON: And one Democratic leadership source I spoke to today said that there is a real reluctance to backfill this money into the military for these projects because it only encourages the president to continue to do this again.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, that’s cutting off your nose to spite your own face, though, isn’t it? And there are some interesting people that are affected by this, members of Congress. I mean, this is normally the thing that they would howl about. For example, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in Mitch McConnell’s home state, but he seems not to be objecting to what the president’s doing here.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, what’s remarkable is how much the Republican Party is in lockstep with President Trump in a way that we haven’t seen, actually, very often. I mean, a lot of presidents have loyal members of their party, but they often quarrel even with members of their own party about issues like home state projects and things like that. We don’t see that with President Trump. He has instilled a discipline or a fear or a loyalty or whatever word you want to find in this Republican Party so they don’t – they might stand up to him from time to time on points of principle, but they’re not going to get in his face. They don’t think that’s a constructive way of influencing him.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yamiche?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I think what’s most striking about the loyalty that Peter’s describing is the fact that they’re choosing to side with the president over a middle school that is overcrowded, over a middle school where children have to eat in the library because they can’t fit into the cafeteria all at one time, where teachers are being – are having to use their own money to educate students. And these are the children that are the children of servicemembers. One principal told Helene Cooper in The New York Times that these are the children that are bearing the burden of the wars that we’re fighting. So it’s an incredible thing that the Republican Party is sticking with the president, but it shows you why they stick with the president on such other controversial things.
MR. WILLIAMS: It’s a hard time to be a member of Congress, and maybe that’s why we learned more this week about how the face of Congress will be changing with more Republicans saying they will not run for reelection. This brings to 13 the number who won’t be back in the House; four is the number of Senate Republicans who are retiring or resigning. So what is this, is they – they just don’t like being in the minority party in the House, is that what this is about?
MS. LIVINGSTON: That is the dominant thing that is happening right here, but I think the thing to take from Texas and why we’ve had so many could translate nationally. The filing deadline in the state of Texas is the first in the country, so members of Congress have to decide sooner than anyone else from Texas whether they’re going to run.
MR. WILLIAMS: The filing deadline for the general election?
MS. LIVINGSTON: For reelection.
MR. WILLIAMS: For reelection.
MS. LIVINGSTON: Yeah, so they have to decide sooner, so this is probably a leading indicator of other places. I think what we’ve entered into in Texas, as well, as – the first few were people, generational change, or maybe they thought they were going to lose reelection. I think we’re now hitting a point where Congress is a very sociable place; people are looking around and saying my friends aren’t coming back, we’re in the minority, why am I here. And so I think that’s a – it’s entering into new territory, at least within my delegation.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is this also a sign, Philip, that the Republicans in the House don’t think they’re going to take the House next year?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, I think, Pete, if they thought there was a likely chance of retaking the majority in the House they’d stick around for the possibility of chairmanships in these committees or subcommittees, or at least to have the power to lead the agenda and pass legislation. But it looks likely, according to their calculations, that that may not happen.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is it also the fact that they’re tired – the fact is – could it also be that they’re tired of defending the president?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, when I think about all these retirements I think about being a reporter who is really sticking my camera or my notebook in Republicans’ faces and saying what about this tweet, what about what the president said, how are you going to defend this, how is this part of the Republican ideals. A lot of times a Republican will say, yes, we back the president, and then as soon as the cameras are off and you’re off the record you have Republicans rolling their eyes and saying I don’t want to talk about this. So I think there is a little bit of fatigue and the idea that their legacies, their reputations, are tied to President Trump.
MR. BAKER: Well, remember it’s a different Republican Party than the one many of them joined, right? Many of them joined for principles of fiscal discipline or standing up to Russia or free trade or a lot of these issues that they’re now on the opposite side of their own president, and so it’s not a lot of fun, I think – you, Abby, would know better – but not a lot of fun if you’re a conservative in Congress to have to swallow your principles on some of these things in the name of party unity.
MR. WILLIAMS: Peter, I want to ask you about the economy, too, because of a piece that you wrote, but the latest report on new jobs came out Friday and the number was lower than expected. Employers added 130,000 jobs last month; that was well below Wall Street estimates even though the unemployment rate remains at a historic low. You have written that the president is sort of blaming companies and not any of his own policies for the drag on the economy. Tell us about that.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, he’s looking ahead to next year, of course, and the strongest card he has to play for reelection has been the economy. He gets the most credit from voters in the polls for his handling of the economy. And if these indicators that we’re seeing of a possible change in that economic growth that we’ve been seeing come to fruition he’s knows that’s a problem, and he’s looking for people to blame it on. Number one, of course, would be Jay Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve; obviously, Democrats; us, the media, because we’re talking down the economy. I don’t know how much effect we have on it, but he seemed to ascribe great power to us. And lately he actually has added American companies that are upset about these tariffs. He says, well, if you’re upset about the tariffs it’s because you’re doing a bad job of managing your businesses. And what’s interesting is we’re starting to see a little bit of a turn. One thing that President Trump’s done very well is sell the economy. He took an economy that was growing under President Obama and unlike President Obama sold the heck out of it, right, in a way that made consumer confidence go up, it made poll numbers go up. For the first time in August we saw a poll that said more Americans now think the economy is growing worse than better, and we saw the consumer confidence index go down larger – more in August than any time since 2012. These are bad indicators for the president. He’s trying to talk the economy back up.
MR. WILLIAMS: How does he think tariffs are working, and could we see more tariffs? Is he going to want to get tougher with China?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, that’s the million-dollar question, this idea that the president feels as though – and his administration has said – we might all have to pay – we meaning American companies and Americans – might have to pay a little bit more because someone needs to get tough on China. And when you – when you listen to the president he says I have to do this. There was that moment where he says – he looked up to the sky and said I am the chosen one. So the president in some ways is selling this idea that he’s forced to do this, but I think he realizes that companies are buckling under this and people are getting frustrated.
MR. WILLIAMS: Philip, let me ask you this question. The president says he’s imposing these tariffs to help American workers and to even the playing field in the international markets. Is there any sign that these tariffs are helping any sector of the economy, are helping any American workers?
MR. RUCKER: I’m not sure that there is a clear sign about that. We’re seeing a lot of signs that these tariffs are having a strain on particular industries in America. And you know, just the way the math works with these tariffs Americans – consumers – oftentimes end up paying more, for example washing machines and dryers became more expensive over the last few months because of this trade war. But to get to something Yamiche said that I think is really important, the president sees this war with China, the trade war with China, as central to his sort of leadership and commitment with his political base, this feeling that people are screwed.
MR. WILLIAMS: OK, so – but what can he say next election, look at what tariffs did for you? How can he – what will he say about that?
MR. RUCKER: That’s the trouble, because we’re in the middle of this trade war where the ramifications right now seem to be negative, and you see it among farmers and in the ag community in the Midwest, some of those key states he needs to win reelection. He’s hoping for a deal, some sort of a deal with China. We’re not sure if that’s ever going to come to pass.
MR. WILLIAMS: But what you’re saying is it may not matter as long as he just acts tough with China?
MR. RUCKER: There is a calculation, and according to some of his advisors that I talked to this week who say his voters want to hear him stand up to China, take on China, say you’ve been screwing America for years and I’m here to stop it, and continue this rhetorical war with China, and that that is resonating with his base.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, President Trump this week made his mark on the federal response to Hurricane Dorian – don’t you wish you could write like that? (Laughter.) He said it threatened Alabama initially on Sunday, which brought an immediate response from the National Weather Service in Birmingham saying, no, Alabama would not see any impact. Then a few days later the president showed this chart in the Oval Office to justify his Alabama forecast with a line drawn in by hand showing that the hurricane would keep going beyond the official projection, and he tweeted this map of early storm models apparently from a Florida state agency that included a few possible tracks over Alabama and Georgia seeking to justify his original statement. So what happened here? Is everybody just a little bit right here? How much of a howler was what President Trump did?
MR. BAKER: Well, look, you know, at the very least it was imprecise, right? If another president had said something like that, and says well – you know, and was called on it the way he was – he said, well, I didn’t mean that it was going to be, you know, the same as in Florida or the Carolinas; I was just trying to say that there could be some side effects. He doesn’t back down. Once he’s challenged, he doubles down, he digs in, and he’s going to push it. Here we are on day six – day six – of this story, a story that otherwise any other president would have not given the kind of oxygen by continuing to fight it out, but he wants to fight it out. It’s part of his case against the establishment, against the media, against the elites who are taking him on, and they’re even fundraising off of this now as part of his campaign.
MR. WILLIAMS: In what way?
MR. BAKER: They’re selling pens. You can buy –
MS. ALCINDOR: A fine-point marker.
MR. WILLIAMS: Mark your own weather map.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, five for $15. Go to Brad Parscale, he’s going to sell them to you.
MS. ALCINDOR: With the signature of the president, no less.
MR. BAKER: With the signature of the president, yeah. Not Sharpie, I don’t think, though, right?
MR. WILLIAMS: So let’s get down to the specifics of this for a little bit because it has consumed a lot of airtime on cable and in the papers this week. So the initial statement of the president was – implied that Alabama was going to be hit when, in fact, the forecasts from the National Weather Service said the storm track could bring tropical-force winds to Alabama, which if you look at the maps were up to 30 miles an hour, and in my home state of Wyoming that’s a calm day. (Laughter.) So was it wrong for the president to say hit? Was it wrong for the Weather Service in Alabama to say Alabama wouldn’t be affected? Is everybody a little bit guilty here?
MS. ALCINDOR: It seems as though everything’s a little bit murky in terms of the president’s language and NOAA’s language, but it is – it is remarkable that we have a National Weather Service now rebuking and chastising, essentially, the local Alabama office saying you should not be saying that the president was wrong. So if the national service is to be believed, then you would say that the local service or the local office was not a hundred percent correct. That said, it’s very clear that someone, likely the president, drew an extra part of the National Weather Service’s map that was not included in that day’s forecast. That was clearly –
MR. WILLIAMS: Is there any question about who drew it? (Laughs.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Not to me, but who knows?
MR. WILLIAMS: OK. (Laughs.)
MS. ALCINDOR: So in that regard he was clearly wrong, and I think what we saw was the president double down as he does on healthcare or on immigration, and he’s in some ways had good political consequences by showing that in his character he’s someone who won’t back down from a fight and will even fundraise from it.
MR. WILLIAMS: By the way, he said on Sunday Alabama would be hit. Today he said it would be grazed was his original statement. Phil, you and your colleague Ashley Parker had a piece looking at how some senior White House people assess the president’s summer. Here’s a line from it. It said, “The two months between Independence Day and Labor Day offered a fresh and vivid portrait of the president as seen by Trump’s critics: incompetent, indecisive, intolerant, and ineffective.” So what were the missed steps?
MR. RUCKER: Well, this is the summer before the reelection campaign really gets going, and historically – traditionally this is a period when presidents get their political house in order – they try to broaden their appeal, they lay a foundation for their reelection campaign. And Trump, according to some of his own advisors, even, missed that opportunity. He spent a summer attacking the squad, the four congresswomen of color, attacking the city of Baltimore. He had his botched visits to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso following those mass shootings. We could go on and on, and it ended the week before Labor Day in France where you were, Yamiche and Peter, where it was whipsaw diplomacy and he left allies really uncertain about American leadership. And it was just a series of consequences and controversies that he in large part created himself that his allies and advisors feel was a period of self-sabotage.
MR. WILLIAMS: What about the possibility of impeachment? That’s another I that was not in your – in your list from the person you quoted. Is the House going to seriously move on impeachment? And what about this thing that the House wants to look into about whether the president offered pardons to homeland security people who apparently said, if I do that, Mr. President, it would be against the law, and he said, no, I’ll pardon you; is that for real?
MS. LIVINGSTON: We’ve seen an escalation in members signing on over the recess with moving forward on impeachment with different levels. Pelosi still seems to be very reluctant on this. What’s been interesting about those – the new topics they’re bringing up is that this goes beyond Russia, but what I can tell you is that the freshmen who are in Trump districts are not wanting to have this debate. And I think the question I have, you’ve got some very impassioned House members who want to move forward on this, but the political climate’s changing. The presidential campaign is moving in, and does that enthusiasm within the larger Democratic world remain there?
MR. WILLIAMS: Let me ask you both in the little time we have left – about two minutes left – is the election going to be about the economy, and how worried is the president about it?
MS. ALCINDOR: I just don’t see an election about the economy. The central thing that the president continues to talk about is immigration, and he continues to use what a lot of people see as racist language. I think the economy will be part of it, but I think largely a lot of Democrats that I talked to really feel as though there’s a segment of the population that are under attack for their identity, and the thing that moves Trump supporters is their identity and their sense of the president really feeling as though he’s protecting the future of America. That has a bit to do with the economy; I think that has a lot to do with race.
MR. WILLIAMS: Peter, how worried are they about the economy?
MR. BAKER: I think they’re really worried about it, actually, not that they’ll admit that in public. But I think this is, in fact, the strongest calling card they have. I think Yamiche is right that it’s not just going to be about the economy, but I think that’s super important to them because it’s the most salient, you know, achievement he can point to: see, I’ve given you the greatest economy ever. It doesn’t matter that the numbers don’t actually add up to the greatest economy ever; it’s a good talking point.
The larger question, though, is I think it’s going to be an election about Donald Trump, right, and we’re going to define that however it is defined. And the question is, can he make it also about the other candidate. In 2016 he did. He made it about Hillary Clinton and she helped elect, in a way, Donald Trump by being a foil. Can he make the Democrat an unacceptable alternative to him?
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Thank you all very much. Thank you. Excellent discussion. Thanks for watching. Robert Costa will be back next week.
Coming up, we’ll have our conversation continuing on Washington Week Extra. You can watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube. We’ll be discussing Vice President Pence’s trip overseas and the chaos surrounding Brexit, which makes our politics seem normal.
I’m Pete Williams. Have a great weekend.