Full Episode: Trump begins transition to the White House after deeply polarizing election

Nov. 11, 2016 AT 9:28 p.m. EST

President-elect Donald Trump traveled to Washington to meet with President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress just days after he was elected as the 45th president. Trump and Obama exchanged harsh words on the campaign trail but have pledged to have a smooth transition. For the first time in a decade, Republicans will control the White House, Senate and House. How will the new administration shift U.S. foreign policy? And days after Hillary Clinton's defeat, Democrats are trying to figure out how to rebuild their party. What did the election reveal about the deep divisions in America?

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

PETE WILLIAMS: Donald Trump goes from political novice to commander in chief. Can the ultimate outsider turn campaign promises to make America great again into real policy? And what will it take to unite a deeply divided nation? Plus, Democrats must decide what their role will be as the minority party. I’m Pete Williams, in for Gwen Ifill, tonight on Washington Week .

The transition begins.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) It is important for all of us, regardless of party and regardless of political preferences, to now come together.

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I very much look forward to dealing with the president in the future, including counsel.

MR. WILLIAMS: President-elect Donald Trump starts plotting his agenda knowing he’ll have a Congress led by Republicans.

HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) Donald Trump heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard. He turned politics on its head. And now Donald Trump will lead a unified Republican government.

MR. WILLIAMS: And with a stroke of a pen, he can dismantle much of what President Obama did through executive orders. Plus, there’s a Supreme Court vacancy to fill. But overseas, this soon-to-be president faces uncertainty and skepticism from countries concerned about his foreign policy. For Democrats, their historic nominee conceded the race with a message of hope and optimism.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.

MR. WILLIAMS: But the party is left scrambling to find a new path and new leadership. We examine how discontented voters changed the way Americans elect a president.

With Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post ; Lisa Lerer, national politics reporter for the Associated Press; Michael Crowley, senior foreign affairs correspondent for Politico ; and Jennifer Jacobs, national political reporter for Bloomberg Politics.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill . Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Pete Williams of NBC News.

MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening. Donald Trump came to Washington this week, surveying the swamp he promised to drain. But he was respectful, almost reverential, and this city seemed determine to stress a peaceful transition of power. It was a welcome tone after a long and bitter campaign. Exit polls show his victory was fueled by older, whiter, middle-class voters who felt ignored by the government and left behind by the economic recovery. Ironically, it was a billionaire who stoked that anger at his rallies, but his acceptance speech was about healing.

PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: (From video.) Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division. We have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.

MR. WILLIAMS: Dan, very few people seemed to see Donald Trump’s victory coming. What fueled it?

DAN BALZ: Well, you mentioned it in the opening. I mean, this was a – this was an angry electorate that elected Donald Trump on Tuesday night. I mean, these are people who are fed up with Washington. They’ve very discouraged at where they fit into the new economy and the future for not only themselves but for their children. They are uneasy with a lot of the demographic and cultural changes in this country. They’re uneasy with the direction that that’s going. And finally, Pete, this is – this is a group of people who have lost complete faith in the political, economic and media establishments in this country. They stopped listening to that part of the country and they listened to Donald Trump. You know, they believed that Donald Trump understood them and that he would be their voice in Washington.

MR. WILLIAMS: So are these people – they were there certainly four years ago. Is it just that he reached out to them and nobody else has?

MR. BALZ: Nobody else has been able to tap into it in the way he has. I mean, he had a populist message, make American great again, which you can take that in a variety of meanings. He talked about immigration and terrorism in ways that they responded to much more than other candidates have been able to do. And they turned out particularly in those northern industrial states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – in numbers that no one had anticipated.

MR. WILLIAMS: Lisa, at one point Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump’s followers a basket of deplorables. How damaging was that to her?

LISA LERER: Well, I think it wasn’t so deplorables as ignorables. She simply didn’t fight for those voters. The last time she was in Wisconsin was in April when she was fighting the primary race against Bernie Sanders. She really only went to Michigan at the very, very end of this campaign. Her campaign banked on the fact that they could get the Obama coalition – young voters, female voters, minority voters – to turn out for her. But Hillary Clinton, it turns out, is not Barack Obama. She couldn’t motivate those supporters in the same number. And she wasn’t making outreach to these white working-class voters that were fueling Trump. So she just wasn’t fighting for them. And in the end, that hurt her.

MR. WILLIAMS: And she didn’t have women to make up the gap?

MS. LERER: And women didn’t turn out, right. Women did not turn out in the numbers that her campaign had expected, particularly non-college-educated women. But she wasn’t really making the argument for them. She wasn’t going to these places making this fight. They didn’t see a battleground map. They weren’t really calculating Wisconsin and Michigan in their calculations until very late. So this came as a complete shock. And the irony here, of course, is that these are the people that fueled Bill Clinton to victory twice. These are his voters. These are people he understood – he understands. And throughout the campaign he was arguing to her campaign staff: We need to go to Wisconsin. We need to go to Michigan. And they said, no, no, that’s not how it works anymore. We’re OK. We don’t need to go to those places. And it turns out he was right.

MR. WILLIAMS: Jennifer, I said that nobody saw it coming, but did Trump’s own people see it coming? Were there people in the backroom there that thought this would happen?

JENNIFER JACOBS: Well, if you ask Kellyanne Conway she says yes. But she was tweeting on Election Day that if Trump lost – she was tweeting about who was to blame if he did lose. You know, Trump was going on TV on Election Day grooming people to believe that if he lost it was a rigged election.

And actually some of the staff were telling me that on the very last day, that final push, when they were on Trump’s jet between that last rally in New Hampshire and the very final rally in Michigan they were debating about, you know, what are his chances for winning, and somebody said 40 percent. Several of them – most of them said, like, 75 percent. And just a few very true believers said 100 percent. So, you know, even amongst his staff they weren’t certain.

But, yes, there were analysts – there were data analysts within the Trump campaign who were seeing rumblings of this. They were predicting a different electorate. But no one, even Trump who was, you know, on the stump saying this is going to be Brexit II, believed that this is the way it was going to turn out.

MR. WILLIAMS: And let me ask any of you, did Donald Trump set out to appeal to these people that ended up voting for him, or was this sort of just a coincidence of the way he talked they ended up flocking to him?

MR. BALZ: Well, I – you know, when Donald Trump started this campaign, I don’t think he had a sophisticated sense of this group versus –

MR. WILLIAMS: This is what I’m going to tap into.

MR. BALZ: This group versus that group. But that immigration message, he understood. And the trade message is something that’s been part of his belief for a long, long time. So in a sense, he was – he was in touch with that group of people. I think he was probably surprised early on at the response he was getting, and then he figured out how to expand it.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, there’s been a different kind of response the last few nights because every night since the election thousands of people have turned out in the streets in at least 10 cities from coast to coast to express their frustration with Donald Trump’s victory and their anxiety about what’s to come. Michael, what do these protests signal to the rest of the world? What do they say to them about stability and democracy here?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: So I think that America’s allies, liberal Western democracies, for instance, if you think about it in Western Europe, are gratified to see this. They don’t want to believe that this is possible. You know, Great Britain, France, Germany, they can’t believe that Trump won and they don’t want to think this is the kind of America that has such power over the world. So I think they’re happy to see dissent.

America’s rivals, particularly authoritarian regimes – China, Russia, Iran, for instance, are delighted. They like to see America unstable, in chaos, riven by dissent, having trouble finding a way forward. We can talk more about the uncertainty in our foreign policy. And in a broader way, Pete, I would just add, I know that for a while, you know, senior officials in the Obama administration have been concerned that it seems as though American democracy just isn’t working.

We’ve seen this stalemate between the president and Congress, a, you know, sclerotic democracy. And this just contributes to this idea that democracy on some level doesn’t work, which is an argument that authoritarians around the world have been making – the Vladimir Putins of the world, the Xi Jinpings in China – saying democracy’s just not a good system. It doesn’t work. Doesn’t get good results. It’s leading to instability. Come to our way of doing things. That’s a big setback for America around the world.

MR. WILLIAMS: So Donald Trump ended up tweeting about these protests. He had one tweet that came out the night of the protests and then another tweet the next day. In the first tweet he said that it looked like professional people were riling them up, and that’s not fair. And then in the next tweet he said, well, it’s good to see that we have this democracy where people get to express their views. Does this tell us anything about what kind of Trump we’re going to have in the Oval Office? Which Donald Trump is it?

MR. BALZ: I think that’s still an open question. I mean, we’ve seen a more subdued Donald Trump. I mean, he looked sobered, frankly, by sitting next to President Obama in the Oval Office and having gotten 90 minutes of what he’s about to run into. But I don’t think we know. And everything about Donald Trump throughout the campaign was that he reverts back to a certain style and personality, particularly when he’s under pressure or particularly when he’s criticized. So he’s in – he’s in the glow of winning right now, but we don’t know what happens when he runs into a crisis.

MS. LERER: And it’s been fascinating in the past 48, 72 hours to see him move on some of the mainstays of his campaign. The Iran deal, which he promised to eliminate right away – well, now he’s going to reexamine it, his foreign – one of his foreign policy guys was reported as saying. You know, he’s sort of softening a little bit on health care, although he did always say that he would keep coverage for people with preexisting conditions. He’s saying, well, I talked to President Obama and, I don’t know, maybe we got to figure out a way with this thing.

So you see on a number – the wall. You know, you have Newt Gingrich out there saying, well, he’s not – you know, maybe Mexico won’t really pay for the wall. I think it was a really good campaign device. So on these big, big promises, these mainstays of his campaign, you now see a little bit of waffling from him and his team. That could put him in trouble with his supporters, who really took this literally.

MS. JACOBS: He’s always kind of changed his positions indiscriminately, though. And do you think it’ll affect his supporters? I think if he goes out and justifies keeping parts of Obamacare in place, even if he just says, you know, they’re separate. He calls it Trumpcare, and he says we’re going to have these particular provisions that are similar to Obamacare, but it’s different. You know, Trump can go out there and justify just about anything and it seems like his supporters would be OK with it at this point.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, let’s talk about this, because whatever he wants to do he’s going to need the support of Congress. And like President Obama, he will enter office with his party in the majority in both the House and Senate. Obviously, that’s a boost for that top priority of repealing Obamacare.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Let’s just stipulate that every single Republican thought Obamacare was a mistake, without exception. That’s still our view and you can expect us with a new president who has the same view to address that issue.

SENATOR AL FRANKEN (D-MN): (From video.) If we’re going to repeal and replace, we need to replace it with something that doesn’t take health care away or insurance away from 20 million people.

MR. WILLIAMS: So, Lisa, can – whether he wants to or not – but can Donald Trump repeal Obamacare?

MS. LERER: He can repeal it. They have to go through Congress. There’s mechanisms there. The question is what does he replace it with? Republicans haven’t had a replace plan for six years or more. You know, they haven’t put forward a really comprehensive plan. And the whole problem with Obamacare is you can’t keep the things that everybody likes – the preexisting conditions, the allowing your child to be on until they’re 25 – without the individual mandate if you want to pay for the whole thing. That’s how it’s structured. So they’re in the same tricky spot, Republicans are, that they were before the election, which is how do you make this all work and keep the things people like and get rid of the things that your party doesn’t?

MR. WILLIAMS: So it was reported today that after meeting with the president he said, well, I want to keep those parts of Obamacare. And it was being reported as though that was a change. But has that always been his position during the campaign?

MS. JACOBS: Yeah, he said way back in the early days of the primary that he liked the idea of having people be insured for preexisting conditions. And he said many times that he didn’t want to leave people dying in the streets. And he would talk about how he wanted to make sure everyone was taken care of and he didn’t want to have a gap. Once he’d repealed Obamacare, he didn’t want to have a gap where people who were insured would suddenly become uninsured. He didn’t want that. So he has been saying that for a while.

MR. WILLIAMS: So he’s going to need the support of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, two people who were rather cool to his candidacy. So what is it now? Is it forgive and forget, or just forget, or forgive, or what?

MS. JACOBS: Well, Paul Ryan said that their meeting was very good, that they’re really excited to work together. I think if Trump chooses Steven Bannon as his chief of staff, which is a possibility, that will be a big signal. Steve Bannon, you know, of course, of Breitbart fame, has – there’s friction between him and Paul Ryan. I think that would send a signal that, you know, Trump is, you know, giving a nod to those forces of division that, you know, establishment Republicans, you know, are not very fond of. But I did talk to some of the staff and I said, you know, what was he saying? Well, what was he saying to you privately after he left these meeting with Obama and McConnell and Ryan? And they said, he didn’t gossip. He didn’t dish. I said, he didn’t say anything sarcastic about them? And they said, no, he didn’t. He was very respectful.

MS. LERER: But it’s hard to see this being an easy relationship, given what went on in the campaign. And I think certainly if you’re Paul Ryan, when things get tough – as they always do in politics and in Washington when you’re now governing – you got to wonder if you’re going to be the first guy that Trump throws under the bus when he gets a chance. So I think this is a pretty fraught dynamic and we’ll have to see how it plays out.

MR. WILLIAMS: So the Democrats now have to decide what their role is going to be as the minority party. They don’t have any of the major branches of government. How are they going to sort that out? Who’s going to be in charge? What will their role be?

MS. LERER: That is a really, really good question. (Laughter.) Well, of course, in the Senate it looks likely that Chuck Schumer will be the top Democrat there. But there is this soul-searching divide happening right now in the Democratic Party, where you see the Bernie Sanders’ of the world, the Elizabeth Warrens of the world saying, well, what we – what the party did wrong here was they didn’t embrace a populist enough message, that Hillary Clinton leaned too far to the Wall Street side of this party. Chuck Schumer, of course, represents New York – i.e., the Wall Street side of the party.

So there will be some tensions there as they try to figure out the best way forward and how to recover from this loss. I mean, Democrats are just in shock. People are – everyone I’ve talked to this week just has been totally dumbfounded. They’re not even in a place, most people, where they can even discuss moving forward quite yet. They’re still in sort of a mourning period.

MR. CROWLEY: I think a very interesting question will be what does the most popular Democrat in America do at this point? It’s Barack Obama. He probably could have been reelected. Typically, when you leave as president you kind of set aside and, you know, let other people run the show. But Trump is such an extreme case, the party is in – has such an extreme leadership crisis. Will we see Barack Obama who, by the way, plans to stay in Washington, D.C., maintain a voice and try to keep a profile and play a role in the public conversation?

MS. LERER: And of course, it’s his legacy that’s going to be totally undercut here.

MR. CROWLEY: With his legacy very much under siege.

MS. LERER: Right.

MR. WILLIAMS: So, Dan, how much do numbers count in the Senate, because the Republicans don’t have much of a majority. So will the Democrats be – will they have to deal with the Democrats if they’re going to get things passed?

MR. BALZ: Well, generally you still have to get 60 votes for most things, particularly for legislative things. And they’re going to have to try to figure out a way to do that. So they’re going to have to work with Democrats, if possible, and they’ll try to pick some off. There are a lot of Democrats who are going to up for reelection in 2018 who will be vulnerable. And so they’re going to be thinking about their own futures. But, you know, nothing is as easy, once you get into it, as it seems now.

I mean, you know, the Republicans are gleeful that they now have control of the government. But we’ve seen in the past, particularly when they are in Washington, that Republicans have some trouble governing because what do they do with the federal government? Most of what they’ve done is say we want to run against it. We want to tear it down. Now, they want to tear down Obamacare but, as you said, what do you replace it with? They’re going to face those questions. What do they do about spending?

Donald Trump – I mean, when he came out on election night the one thing he really talked about was a big infrastructure program that would put millions of people to work. That’s an old-fashioned Democratic idea. So how are they going to reconcile that with Paul Ryan’s old budgets?

MR. WILLIAMS: And how are they going to pay for it while cutting taxes?

MR. BALZ: Right.

MR. WILLIAMS: One other thing about – I wonder about. You know, it seemed like the Republicans in the Congress, when Obama was president, basically had a strategy of trying to stop whatever he wanted to do. Is that what the Democrats are going to do with Donald Trump?

MS. LERER: Well, I certainly don’t – they’ve said they want to try to work with him where they can, but it’s hard to really see that happening. I think after – they ran so strongly against him. And I think they still suspect, as sort of Dan was alluding to, that there might be divides within the Republican Party that could be exploited in some way. But at the same time, if he does do a big infrastructure bill, that’s a Democratic idea. That’s a – so how do they –

MR. WILLIAMS: Didn’t Hillary Clinton propose something similar?

MS. LERER: Similar. Not quite as much spending, but very similar. (Laughter.) I know. It’s a topsy-turvy election we were in. (Laughter.) So I mean it’s going to –

MR. WILLIAMS: I read that somewhere.

MS. LERER: Right. It’s going to be really interesting to see if they do work with Republicans at all, or if they just try to be totally in opposition.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, one of the surprising things that came out after the election was statements from Russia’s deputy foreign minister and a spokesman for Vladimir Putin who said each week that each of them – that is to say the spokesman and the foreign minister – had been in contact with members of Donald Trump’s campaign, something the Trump campaign insists never happened. But the disclosure raises some questions about Trump’s relationship with Putin and the Kremlin’s role in the election. So, Michael, does Donald Trump have a foreign policy? (Laughter.)

MR. CROWLEY: Not yet. And we are all eagerly awaiting – waiting to find out what it will be and what it will look like. I do think – so he has said things that are ambiguous and even contradictory about what he would do on foreign policy. There are some consistent themes, Pete. And I think one of the main ones is, I mean, really he – this was his slogan, America first. He is not interested in adventurism. He is not particularly interested in our alliances and spending a lot of money on flexing military muscle and getting involved in conflicts around the world. I think we’re going to see a withdrawal, a shrinkage of American power.

That may be something that a lot of Americans are happy about. In the case of Russia, for instance, if there’s one – maybe two main threads that have run through his campaign, there was one that he was going to try to get rid of the Iran nuclear deal, which he said was a fiasco. And the other was that we would get along with Russia. And in the latter case, that would really mean deescalating and shrinking our posture, for instance, in Eastern Europe and in Syria, and sort of ceding some of that strategic global terrain to Russia. A lot of Americans might be happy about that. A lot of strategic thinkers think that America has an obligation to maintain a bigger role in the world than that.

MR. WILLIAMS: So you mentioned the Iran nuclear deal. Is that something that the president by himself can nix?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s not quite that simple. Remember that that was a deal among five nations and Iran. So it included China, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, and France. It ended with a Security Council resolution. There is some debate about, you know, would we be violating international law if we tore up the deal, and what would that really mean? What would it mean for us? There are things Iran could do in response to that that span a variety of scenarios, including trying to divide – split us – play us – play us against Europe or, you know, cut side deals with Russia and China.

So it’s not as easy as with a stroke of a pen the Iran deal is dead, Iran’s nuclear program starts again. And I think that’s true of a lot of the things that Trump has said about foreign policy on the campaign trail. When you get to the implementation they’re a lot more complicated than he said they were. And we just don’t know what he’s going to follow through on and in some of these cases, if he tries, whether he will be able to and how it will play out. We’ve just almost never seen ambiguity like this on foreign policy.

MR. WILLIAMS: And events have a way of intruding. I mean, he’ll have his own priorities, but things happen that he’ll have to respond to. And I’m just wondering about one of them, for example, Syria. Won’t he have to make some pretty big decisions early on about what we’re going to do there?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure, but that is an example, going back to what I said about American engagement around the world, he is not interested in us being a party in the Syrian civil war. He does not share the Obama administration’s view that we have to have a change of regime in Syria. He probably will stop our program of arming Syrian rebel fighters, so-called moderates. All he really wants to do there is knock out ISIS. And he says he’ll partner with Russia to do it. But I think the idea that we are going to be increasingly engaged in some covert way aiding rebels, trying to shape the future of a Syrian government, is probably over at this point.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, he has 70 days to pick the members of his Cabinet, his closest aides, and start to put together the kinds of people that will be running this government, thousands of political positions. Names floated so far for some of the top positions include some outsiders, people from the business world, but also some familiar Washington figures, including Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Ben Carson, one of his opponents in the primary. So, Jennifer, what does this tell us about whether he’s going to be an unconventional president?

MS. JACOBS: I think he can choose outsiders and unpopular people and, you know, people that – you know, he’s pledged to drain the swamp. But if he chooses people who have been part of D.C. for a long time, I think he can justify anything, like I said. But, you know, for this transition team he chose people who are his allies. He rewarded people who stuck with him throughout the campaign, through his hardest times. And I think he’s signaling a little bit about, you know, who he’s going to have be surrounding him. It’s going to be those people he trusts and believes he can lean on.

But also, Donald Trump has always been willing, if you act respectful to him and you come forward – if you’ve had disagreements in the past and you come forward and you shake hands again, he’s willing to forgive and forget. He always has been.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, very briefly, let me ask you what it means today that Chris Christie was running the transition now is sort of demoted and he’s got his vice president in – his vice president-elect run that. What does that mean?

MR. BALZ: Well, it’s a clear demotion for Governor Christie. And the reasons are not entirely clear. We know that Donald Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, is not a big fan of Governor Christie. And we also know that there was unhappiness about sort of the basic outlines of what they were doing, or that they weren’t moving fast enough. But we saw this in the campaign. I mean, he had three different campaign operations over the course of six or seven months. And this may be another sign that the administration will be the same way.

MR. WILLIAMS: All right. I thank you. Thank you all very much. Definitely to be continued.

That’s it for now, but our conversation tonight continues online on the Washington Week Extra . That’s where we’ll tell you about a Republican woman who made presidential history on election night. Plus, from the Washington Week vault, a look back at another presidential election when voters were dissatisfied, demanded change, and got it. You can find it later tonight, and all week long, at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. But don’t look just yet. While you’re on the site, though, check out what a transition of power actually means.

We’ll take a moment now to salute all the veterans and their families for their service on Veterans Day. Thank you.

I’m Pete Williams, in for Gwen Ifill. Good night.


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