ROBERT COSTA: Deal or no deal? President Trump and Democrats agree again, but there is outrage on the right. I’m Robert Costa. We take a closer look at these bipartisan handshakes and the challenges ahead, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) No, we’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here. We’re working with everybody.
MR. COSTA: Donald Trump cuts another West Wing deal with Democrats.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) These were discussions, not negotiations. There isn’t an agreement.
MR. COSTA: Breaking his campaign pledge to deport undocumented immigrants, the president agrees to protect DREAMers and boost border security. But Democrats say a wall isn’t part of the package.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Ultimately, we have to have the wall. If we don’t have the wall, we’re doing nothing.
MR. COSTA: Hardline conservatives are furious and warn of Republican civil war.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE KING (R-IA): (From audio.) The base will leave him. They won’t be able to defend him anymore.
MR. COSTA: While the fate of 800,000 young immigrants hangs in the balance, the president turns to the next front.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) More than ever, we now need great tax reform and great tax cuts.
MR. COSTA: Plus.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Health care in America must be a right, not a privilege.
MR. COSTA: Senator Bernie Sanders unveils his Medicare for all health care bill and Republicans roll out their new plan to overhaul the nation’s health care laws.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) There are three choices: prop up Obamacare, Berniecare, or our bill. This is a defining fight for the future of health care and the Republican Party.
MR. COSTA: We discuss it all with Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Erica Werner of the Associated Press, and Yamiche Alcindor and Peter Baker of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump continues to court Democrats, putting legislative progress over party loyalty. His latest deal, it signals a shift away from his signature campaign promise to crack down on all illegal immigration. Just days after telling the Republican-controlled Congress that they had six months to come up with a new plan to provide legal protection for young undocumented immigrants, Trump made a pact with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. But almost as soon as Democrats announced that new agreement, which included beefed-up border security but not a wall, there was debate if there was actually a deal at all.
SPEAKER RYAN: (From video.) You cannot fix DACA without fixing the root cause of our problem: We do not have control of our borders. So we need border security and enforcement as part of any agreement.
MR. COSTA: Immigration hardliners, who are among Trump’s staunchest supporters, see the move as a betrayal to the Republican base.
Yamiche, you were here last week and we’re so glad you’re back. We were talking then about a deal, the president with the Democrats. This time, another deal, but it’s different. It’s not a fiscal deal. It’s about DACA. It’s about immigration. And there seems to be a lot of uncertainty about this one among DREAMers, the 800,000 who are here, and also among all those lawmakers you’ve been talking to on Capitol Hill all week.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, this was as chaotic a week as you can get. On one side you had Republicans who were playing defense but also very confused about what the president actually agreed to, and on the other side you had Democrats who wanted to kind of wave the flag and say we got another deal out of him but also had rank-and-file members who were telling me we’re wary of what this deal actually is. The Congressional Black – the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman said to me that she was – she actually was interested in having two separate bills if there is a bill that has to do with border security because a lot of her members are worried that if they have to cast a vote for the DREAM Act that they don’t also want to cast a vote that will hurt the families of the DREAMers.
So what we really see here is a White House that is willing to do whatever it can to make the president look good, and Republicans are realizing that and in some ways they’re very, very nervous. I talked to Dave Brat, who is a member of the Freedom Caucus, and I asked him, well, how is amnesty different from what the president is saying he’s going to do, which is giving a path towards citizenship to DREAMers? And he had the longest pause I’ve ever heard on Capitol Hill and said, well, you know, I just want to make sure that these kids – I’m not really sure, you know, I have to go, and never answered the question. And to me, that was the embodiment of all that was going on on Capitol Hill this week.
MR. COSTA: That Republican unease, Erica, it came through in your interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan. The leadership in the Congress seems to still be trying to navigate this agreement.
ERICA WERNER: Yeah, well, it was interesting what Ryan had to say this past week. It was kind of shades of Bill Clinton saying as president I’m relevant, a president is relevant; Ryan saying the president knows that he has to work with the congressional majorities. It’s like, does he know that? Because that has not been on display these past couple of weeks with these deals. But of course, for anything to become law it does have to go through the House and the Senate, and the House is where immigration reform has gone to die for years and years, and it’s hard to see anything happening there unless Trump really sells it. Interestingly, Ryan himself has a long history on this issue of really being committed on it, but I’m not sure that that’s going to matter given the hardliners like Steve King, Dave Brat, who might not go along with any deal.
MOLLY BALL: Well, here’s the thing, though. I mean, that is the irony of it, is that even though Paul Ryan was cut out of this process this is something that he wants to do. He has been in favor of immigration reform. He’s even been a leader behind the scenes on this issue. And this is an issue where, even in the last Congress, you had majority support for comprehensive immigration reform, much less something like the DREAM Act or something to protect the DACA kids. So this is, you know – you are going to lose some Democrats on the left who don’t like having any kind of enforcement measures. You are going to lose some Republicans on the right. But the – but the majority of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate do want to do something on immigration. It’s a complicated issue. It’s a tricky issue. There’s a reason the last two presidents, Republican and Democrat, failed to push it over the finish line. But if there’s anything I’ve learned talking to Trump supporters, it’s that they will rationalize anything he wants to do and blame the Republican Congress for not getting it done. So when he says, you know, Mitch, get back to work, they’re saying, yeah, why can’t you guys – you clowns get anything done like the president says, and they don’t really mind if it’s something he campaigned against.
PETER BAKER: Well, it seems to me, though, you see already the defensive crouch in the White House about this criticism from the right. They were clearly caught a little off-guard. You know, to have Ann Coulter say now we’re all for impeachment is a pretty stark thing. Now, she’ll say a lot of things, but the fact is that they are a little unnerved. And so you heard Sarah Sanders today at the White House podium say, wait a second, any deal we agree to should include a lot of different things. It might include things like not just amorphous border security or border enforcement, but – things which people can probably get around or swallow, perhaps – it might include restrictions on sanctuary cities. That’s a lot harder for Democrats. It might include, you know, the RAISE Act. The RAISE Act is a piece of legislation that would cut legal immigration in half to this country. I can’t imagine the Democrats going along with something like that. So it’s still very possible to see how, you know, the White House might take a harder line in order to make sure it doesn’t lose base, and then this deal or understanding or whatever we want to call it blows up.
MS. ALCINDOR: Some sources that I’ve been talking to, though, say that the Republican leaders in some ways are happy to see President Trump play point person, mainly because the two presidents before him failed and they want to see the White House basically have to take this over the finish line and say, OK, you think that you can get immigration reform done, actually show us how that actually happens. The problem with that, of course, is that Trump has not – President Trump is not someone who’s really steeped in policy knowledge. On the other hand, you have Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who might end up writing the actual bill and might end up actually going through and negotiating the details. And that’s really problematic for Republicans.
MR. COSTA: Molly, the Republican base, they usually are the people who erupt when an immigration bill comes to Capitol Hill. Can we expect Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, Breitbart, Ann Coulter as Peter mentioned, can they actually knock this whole bill off the playing field?
MS. BALL: I don’t know, and I think that’s going to be a really interesting thing to see because you do have – Breitbart is freaking out about this – the big headline “Amnesty Dawn,” claiming people are burning their Make America Great Again hats; Ann Coulter, as you mentioned; Laura Ingraham. On the other hand, other figures on the sort of populist right – Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh – have been cautiously supportive. And so, you know, I think it’ll be very interesting to see which was the dog and which was the tail, so to speak, when Trump and Breitbart were working together. Was Breitbart popular because people like Trump, or was Trump popular because people like Breitbart? And if it’s the former then it’s Breitbart that has more to lose from this than Trump does.
MR. COSTA: Erica, it’s not just immigration, though, that Leader McConnell has to deal with right now. He’s trying to move something on tax reform. So is this White House. How does this all play out on Capitol Hill this fall?
MS. WERNER: Well, it just creates an enormously complicated stew with really unpredictable outcomes on various fronts. I mean, the deal that was struck last week, you know, kicking everything into December as far as spending and debt ceiling – even though the debt ceiling may end up, you know, going farther – Democrats have leverage on these issues and they want to use that leverage to get the DREAM Act. I mean, the whole reason these deals are happening is because Paul Ryan can’t go to the White House with 218 votes. It’s not possible for him. So that gives the Democrats leverage.
MR. COSTA: You’ve called him an independent president, Peter. You’ve made the case that he’s so frustrated with his own party and he doesn’t have those deep ties to the GOP that he’s actually able to navigate and operate in a different way.
MR. BAKER: Right. We say – what I said, just to be clear, I said he in some ways, many ways, seems like the first independent president we’ve had since the Civil War era. And by that I don’t mean that he’s not – some people took that to mean bipartisan or centrist, and I don’t think the last week proves that. I think it’s a momentary tactical shift that could go a completely different way a week from now.
What I meant by that is he’s not tethered to the party. He’s not tethered to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Remember, the only living Republican presidents voted against him. These are not people who are – you know, see themselves as part of a team. Now, he’s governed pretty strongly from the right for the first seven months of his presidency, relying on these Republicans, and feels like it didn’t work. He didn’t get the wins he wanted. So now he’s trying something different. It could change again tomorrow. But that is what we’re talking about, is somebody who is, in fact – he would use the word “flexible.” And in some ways, that is where Trump has had a potential for a long time, whether he chose to use it or not. He didn’t choose to use it across the aisle in the beginning. Now he’s trying it out. We’ll see –
MR. COSTA: Do Democrats buy it though, Yamiche? Democrats have loathed President Trump since day one. Now they see their leadership working with the White House. What’s the base’s reaction?
MS. ALCINDOR: They do not buy it, the base or lawmakers. When you – when I talked to Democrats this week, and last week I should say, they say, OK, this looks like this might be good for our party, that he might be listening to our leaders, but this is still the president that attacks a lot of the people that are – that are our base or that are really, really important to our base, so we can’t just say, OK, we’re going to completely ignore the last, I would say, year and a half of not only his presidency, but his campaign and say that we now trust him.
They also think that if his own Republican leadership can’t trust him – if Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan can’t trust him – how in the world would Democrats trust him? And I think the base, it showed how wary they were because a lot of the immigration groups came out this week and said, look, we want a clean DREAM Act, we don’t know who this person is in the White House. We understand – we know that he’s someone who has talked very – has talked very offensively about our communities. And in some ways people are harping back to the idea of what he was talking about after Charlottesville and said, look, that’s the same person and I don’t trust that person.
MR. BAKER: And he doubled down on that this week, too. I mean, for a person who the last two weeks he seemed to kind of wash away the sting of the Charlottesville thing by focusing on the hurricane relief, therefore being a president of the people – of all the people, not just one party or one ideology, and then he had this deal last week and seeming a deal this week. But then he comes back and mentions the Charlottesville thing all over again, taking the same position with Senator Tim Scott. That reminds Democrats that this is not somebody who’s suddenly become, you know, one of them.
MS. WERNER: And Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who’s probably the top immigration advocate in the House, made a point to me that, you know, Trump has fallen out with so many people in his own administration, the people who backed him for president. And Gutierrez said I’d feel a lot better if the DREAMers were his daughters or his sons and son-in-laws because it’s, you know, only Trump’s own relations that he doesn’t get crosswise with. But obviously they’re not.
MS. ALCINDOR: And he told me that he also wouldn’t vote for a DREAM Act if it – if it was attached to border security. So you have someone who is a top member saying that I’m not going to support so far what the agreement is.
MR. COSTA: Molly, when you think about the other big issue facing both parties, it’s taxes. And Republicans, are they going to be able to work with Democrats on this issue? The president said this week that he may not even have a tax cut for the wealthy, he may even think about tax hikes. Are we looking at a big tax reform package in this political environment or a more incremental, smaller package?
MS. BALL: Well, nobody really knows at this point, and there are a lot of possibilities on the table. And you do have the incredibly unpredictable element of the president and what he might suddenly decide he wants to back or who he might suddenly decide he wants to work with. You know, we’ve seen Republican leadership going forward on a plan that looks more like – you know, the centerpiece would be a cut in the corporate tax rate, and it would be much smaller bore than the kind of large-scale tax reform that was envisioned at the very beginning. But any kind of tax reform, really, really, really hard to do. So where they end up is both a mystery and a challenge. You know, you’re not going to get a bunch of Democrats voting for a corporate tax cut if that’s all it is. But if he really did decide to go in the sort of populist Bannonite direction and even like raise taxes on the rich, as Steve Bannon was talking about before he left, that would be a very interesting test of a lot of things about this.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of his populist promises, Peter, is the wall dead? Is the wall going to happen?
MR. BAKER: The wall, are you kidding? It’s already being built. Didn’t you listen? (Laughter.) Look, you know, the truth is actually there’s been parts of a wall along the border now for years. It’s always been a more complicated situation than the campaign rallies would make you think. So he tried to spin a little bit this week by saying we’re renovating the fences and the walls that are already there, and that counts at least toward the goal.
Look, it is the most central promise he made, identified with his campaign: build the wall, build the wall. A lot of other ones are easier to fuzz. What you said, I think, is right that a lot of people are willing to rationalize changes on his positions on various things. This one is harder, I think, because it’s so concrete, literally – literally.
MR. COSTA: It is.
MS. BALL: And it’s very popular with Republicans, right? I mean, protecting the DREAMers is broadly popular even with Republican voters, but they are – they’re behind the wall and not, I think, as Senator Ron Johnson said this week, as a metaphor. It has to be a real wall. Yeah, so that’s a real concrete thing. It is, however, funny to see Republican leaders who don’t want to fund the wall and have rebuffed the White House’s requests to fund the wall so far through Trump’s presidency now saying, well, why – we have to have a wall as a part of this.
MR. COSTA: Politics, such a chess game. One day you’re for this, the next day you’re for that.
Let’s take a minute and turn to health care because two new plans were unveiled on Capitol Hill this week. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders rolled out his Medicare for all plan surrounded by 16 Democrats who support the idea of a single-payer plan. On the same day, four Republican senators presented their last-ditch effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Two rival packages on the Republican side, but Senator Sanders pushing the Democratic Party, Erica, in a more progressive direction and getting some major senators to sign on. Is this a sign of where the Democrats will go in 2018, maybe even 2020?
MS. WERNER: Well, I mean, Republicans would certainly like us all to believe so. I mean, Sanders, who is – you know, is someone who outside of the Capitol has a lot of support, can raise huge money, but is a man on his own inside the Capitol, where he’s not even a Democrat, doesn’t have buddies among Senate Democrats, and now he’s putting all of them in an incredibly difficult position. I mean, all you need to know is that Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer are not onboard with his plan and kind of hem and haw when asked about it. So, you know, for Republicans this is the biggest gift they could get because now they can paint all Democrats as, you know, for government-run takeover of health care. But for many Democrats, it’s kind of a lose-lose proposition where you piss off progressives or you make yourself a target. And, you know –
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, you covered Senator Sanders on the campaign trail. He’s trying to – is he trying to make this a litmus test for Democrats, even if you’re in a red state?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think he is, and I think that part of this has to do, as you talked about, the fact that the wall was a defining factor in this election. Medicare for all. Anybody who covered Bernie Sanders – and I listened to hundreds of his speeches – he would say Medicare for all. And it was something that he said and he understood, and people understood when they were going to those rallies that he was going to say that. And I think that when you look at those 16 senators that signed on, to me it looks like a potential 2020 list because you don’t want to be on a podium three years from now, and when asked, well, how did you stand on this, how did you vote – where did you stand on this issue, not how did you vote, because it’s not going to get on the floor per se – but where did you stand on this issue, they have to be able to say yes to get at the progressive base. And their base is getting more progressive. The base is saying that while they know that this might not be something that passes, that they want to know that the Democrats are bringing their will to the Congress. But I think it’s what – the hardest part of this is, of course, the financing, right – the idea that –
MR. COSTA: We haven’t found out anything about the cost yet.
MS. ALCINDOR: The CBO is supposed to be looking into it, and Senator Sanders is offering a bunch of different kinds of taxes that can – that could pay for it, essentially.
MR. BAKER: This is – this is the Democratic version of repeal and replace. For seven years the Republicans had President Obama there and so they could say we want to repeal and replace, we’ll even pass repeal and replace, and we don’t actually have to make it work and explain how it will work because we know it won’t actually go anywhere.
MR. COSTA: But it wasn’t always a rally cry on the Democratic side.
MR. BAKER: No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. But my point is only now it can be without the actual practicality of worrying about having to actually vote on something that would be a real bill.
MS. BALL: But the fact that it’s a rallying cry is an incredible thing.
MR. BAKER: That’s true.
MS. BALL: I mean, the fact that the debate has moved that far in that direction. I was talking to a Democratic Hill staffer today who was there when Obamacare was being legislated and remembering when the farthest-left option was including a public option in Obamacare, and single-payer was not even part of that discussion except maybe in some outside groups on the left. The debate has really moved on this issue. I think Bernie Sanders gets credit for moving the debate on this issue. It’s a sign that there are a lot of – there’s a very active Democratic base that wants these kinds of bold – this kind of bold pledge, even if it’s not possible to put it into action. And that’s a real – and you know, you do – it’s always interesting to me when you have something that both parties think is a political winner. Republicans think they can kill Democrats on this issue, but you have a lot of Democrats who think that this is good politics for them and that, you know, someone like Donald Trump, who in a way ran on universal health care, proves that there is some kind of support across the political spectrum for something like this.
MR. COSTA: Erica, Leader McConnell in the Senate, though, remains wary, even as the Democrats are making all these moves on their side on health care. Republicans still frustrated about what happened in the summer with their bill failing in the Senate. They have – Senator Graham from South Carolina, Senator Cassidy from Louisiana have this block grant plan to give federal money to states on health care, but McConnell seems to be wary of bringing anything to the floor. It seems like this is more messaging ahead of the September deadline. Talk about that deadline, why all of this is coming up right now.
MS. WERNER: Right, so they have until September 30th to be able to pass a health care bill in the Senate that would not be filibustered by Democrats due to these complicated budgetary rules called reconciliation. So Senators Graham and Cassidy are rushing to try to get their bill on the floor before then, but they are not getting a ton of real support from leadership. They don’t have a CBO – Congressional Budget Office – cost estimate, which is necessary, and McConnell’s stance has kind of been show me the votes and I’ll put it on the floor.
MR. COSTA: And the president has been supportive of Graham and Cassidy, but he hasn’t been making calls, it seems.
MS. WERNER: Right. I mean, he’s been more paying lip service than actually working for it, and that was after Senator Graham basically called him out that he issued a statement that was supportive but hasn’t really been doing anything.
MS. BALL: You know, Mitch McConnell wants health care over and done with. He never wants to think about it again. This is basically a rogue effort for like a Hail Mary pass, to mix some metaphors, I guess. But it’s not getting the traction that they want among their colleagues.
MS. ALCINDOR: It is incredible, though, to see both parties trying to do this thing, which is, you know, pass some sort of health care that works, because on the campaign trail, especially for the people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, I heard over and over again that health care was a thing that was on the back of their minds. Either they were a small-business owner that was mad at Obama for making them have to buy health care for their employees or they were very, very sick and they wanted more health care and it was too expensive for them. So I think Americans overall, across the political spectrum if we get to 2018 or 2020 and there’s been no resolution on health care, the American population’s going to be very depressed about that. And I don’t know what that’s going to mean overall for the polls.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there tonight. Thanks, everybody, for joining us.
And we all know that if you’re watching this show you’re probably a huge fan of Ken Burns. So before we go, we want to remind you to watch his latest documentary with Lynn Novick about one of America’s longest wars. It starts this weekend. Here’s a preview.
NARRATOR: (From video.) It was fought in the jungles and in the White House. It was fought in America’s streets and colleges and living rooms. And we continue to ask: What happened? The Vietnam War.
MR. COSTA: You can watch the premiere of the The Vietnam War this Sunday at 8 p.m. on your PBS station. As always, check your local listings.
And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. We’ll talk about the president’s decision to revisit the Charlottesville protests and why he keeps blaming both sides for the violence. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.