Special: Rex Tillerson arrives at State Dept., Kellyanne's Conway's role in the White House and Senate Dems strategy for SCOTUS nomination

Feb. 03, 2017 AT 9:42 p.m. EST

After being confirmed by the Senate, Rex Tillerson arrived a the State Department this week to begin shaping American foreign policy. Plus, inside Trump's White House, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway is a key voice for the president. And Senate Democrats debate whether or not they should try to block the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


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

SUSAN DAVIS: Hello. I’m Susan Davis, and this is the Washington Week Extra , where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.

This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sworn in. In the same week, the White House spokesman said career diplomats should, quote, “either get with the program, or they can go.” Margaret, what challenges is the new secretary of state facing in this role?

MARGARET BRENNAN: How much time do you have? (Laughter.) You know, up till the last minute with Rex Tillerson’s confirmation, it was sort of like, does he really want this job now that he’s got it? Because walking in – he was walking into one of the most demoralized buildings in Washington, and that dissent memo – that cable really showed that.

MS. DAVIS: Explain that. There’s been a lot of talk this week about the dissent cable.

MS. BRENNAN: So this is a channel of communication for the – essentially the rank and file, the Foreign Service officers who follow issues to have a direct line to the secretary of state and to those who are formulating U.S. policy. It originated in the Vietnam War. It’s been used for sort of famous moments of dissent about four or five times a year – Vietnam, Bosnia, others, and notably with the Obama administration on Syria. Before we really were a week into the Trump administration, you saw this happen saying this executive order freezing all refugees, banning indefinitely all Syrian refugees, and halting for three months the entering into the United States – wasn’t clear or not if it was all green card holders, dual nationals, and/or travelers from these seven countries – was damaging to the United States from a national security policy, certainly alienated some of our allies. These are some of the things articulated in the letter. And the idea is that this is supposed to be sort of a safe place to raise a red flag to your boss, because as we all know sometimes the worker bees realize things the big bosses don’t from on high. However, the White House response really shook people up. People who were already quite shaken, to have Sean Spicer from the podium refer to these people not as Foreign Service officers who had been training for years, that the United States government has spent a lot of money on to teach language to or to be abroad, and refer to them as just career bureaucrats added, you know, salt to the wound.

And so Rex Tillerson, in that opening speech saying I’ve got this job now, I think he tried to be very careful in saying we need to respect each other, there’s a political shift here. He avoided the difficult situation his boss did at the CIA when he stood in front of the Wall of the Fallen. At the State Department, Rex Tillerson made a point in saying I’m going now to honor those State Department employees who have been killed in the line of service. I mean, it was very solemn. It was very respectful. And I think he knows he’s got a lot of cleanup to do internally as a manager. How he fits into the broader national security and foreign policy strategy of the Trump administration we’re all going to have to wait and see because, as we said, the rhetoric’s ahead of the policymaking here, and he’s the one who’s going to have to be doing that.

MS. DAVIS: Carol, we talked about Steve Bannon in the show, but there’s another White House advisor that I think the public’s maybe more familiar with: Kellyanne Conway, who seems to be on TV every time I turn on the news. What is her role in this administration? And do you see her – does she share sort of the Bannon worldview? Or what does she bring to the table?

CAROL LEE: She does and she doesn’t. She brings to the table that she’s a fierce defender of Donald Trump, and that is her calling card and that’s what you see her do on TV in her regular appearances. She keeps getting kind of out there a little bit further and further in some of her appearances, and this week she said – she referred to the “Bowling Green Massacre” in a television appearance in talking about President Obama’s policy towards Iraqi refugees. And she mixed some things up, and it wasn’t accurate at all, and then, you know, she – and what we’ve gotten into is a place where she has set the tone for attacking journalists, and so she made a misstep – intentional or not, I don’t know – but she was called out for that, and she apologized – or didn’t apologize, but corrected herself and said she made a mistake, and this was what she meant. But she’s also the advisor who created the phrase “alternative facts.” And so there’s not a lot of – people aren’t giving her a lot of leeway on her alternative facts. And it’s just – to me, she is – she’s kind of a flamethrower, and she threw a big flame this week and she kind of got caught in it, and there’s not a lot of sympathy because she’s so critical of anyone who makes any kind of mistake whatsoever; and not only that, but accuses us – the media – of being biased or incorrect in ways in which we aren’t. And so –

MS. DAVIS: Do we have any sense of the hierarchy of who has the president’s ear here?

MS. LEE: I think there’s – it’s Steve Bannon, clearly, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, I would say are the two who really have his ear. I think his daughter Ivanka still very much has his ear. Kellyanne – you know, there’s six senior advisors who have walk-in privileges in the Oval Office where you can just walk in at any time, you don’t need to go through the chief of staff or whoever the gatekeeper is. Of those – so of – there’s those six, and I would say they have access to the president, but I think at the end of the day who he listens to are largely Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.

MS. DAVIS: Pete, we talked about Neil Gorsuch and the confirmation process he faces, but Senate Democrats are seriously considering or strategizing over whether they should try to force the Senate to blow up the rules and make it easier to confirm Supreme Court justices. And I think a lot of people just look at Washington and say, why does this – why does it even matter?

PETE WILLIAMS: Well – (laughs) – it’s a good question. And curiously, I think the discussion about Neil Gorsuch is a lot like it was about Merrick Garland. You heard the Republicans saying, you know, it’s not about Merrick the guy, it’s about the principle that the next president should have the choice. Now you hear the Democrats say it’s not about Neil Gorsuch the guy, it’s about what you did to Merrick Garland. And, you know, so it’s a strange kind of debate.

So the issue is this. The thought has always been that by requiring – you don’t really require 60 votes to confirm a Supreme Court justice. You do it by a simple majority. Many of the justices on the court didn’t get 60 votes. But if you don’t have 60 and the other side decides to filibuster, and you can’t cut the filibuster off, then the nominee is doomed, and that’s happened before as well. I guess the theory of it is, that if you require 60 votes or if that’s your goal, you have to get some bipartisan support.

And maybe that’s better for Supreme Court nominees or for the Congress to have more of a consensus than just whichever party is in control gets the nominee they want. On the other hand, elections have consequences. Presidents get to choose their Supreme Court justices. So, I mean, you can make policy arguments on both sides. I don’t know how this is going to come out, except that the Republican leadership keeps saying this nominee will be confirmed. Well, the only way they can say that is that they’re willing to change the rules and allow a simple majority to do the confirmation.

MS. DAVIS: You know, I cover the Senate. And when you talk to Senators, they say doing this would blow up the institution and end the traditions of the Senate. I wonder if there – if the legal community has a feeling about the filibuster. Do they think that the 60-vote sort of filibuster threshold is important to protect the court? Or do they just not have a dog in that fight?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think there are some who think that this idea of having bipartisan support is always a good thing, that is sort of evens out – that you don’t get these radical shifts in the kinds of justices that would be on the court. But I think they are more concerned about the judicial philosophy and the pedigree, as it were, of the – of the – and who’s going to retire. (Laughter.)

MS. DAVIS: That’s another episode. I cannot end the week without talking about Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, which was unconventional, to say the least. I believe we have a clip of what he said. It’s better it hear him say it directly.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK? (Laughter.)

FORMER CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R): (From video.) Hey, Donald, I have a great idea: Why don’t we switch jobs? You take over TV, because you’re such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job – and then people can finally sleep comfortably again, hmm?

MS. DAVIS: So we have the president, at the National Prayer Breakfast, talking about The Apprentice and reality show ratings and making jokes with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Michael, is it safe to say this is going to be a presidency like no other?

MICHAEL DUFFY: I don’t think we can comment on anything like that tape. That’s the best two pieces of tape – (laughter) – in a 10-week period of amazing tape. Nothing comes close. (Laughter.) You know, that was an argument they had about television ratings. And that’s how Trump opened his National Prayer Breakfast, an event that’s been happening in the Washington – in the capital since 1952, or something, with Eisenhower. So that was interesting.

But Trump did say some interesting things in his prayer breakfast comments. Not a lot. Not very much at all. But he did say he was going to say – as he said in the campaign – that he would, you know, overturn or revoke or pull or – trash, I think he may have used the word – complete trash the Johnson Amendment, which was a 1954 –

MS. DAVIS: I think destroy was his word. Destroy.

MR. DUFFY: Destroy was the word. Destroy the Johnson Amendment, which actually prevents – well, if you – if you’re a tax-exempt NGO or nonprofit organization, you can’t actually endorse candidates, whether you’re, you know, a little neighborhood group or you’re a church. And this is something that some Evangelical and other pastors have said we got to get rid of, and campaigned for during the campaign, and Trump bought into. And it was put into place in the ’50s because Lyndon Johnson felt that conservatives – organizations, not churches – were coming after him and calling him a welfare communist. So he wanted to cut off their money. And that’s how he –

MR. WILLIAMS: This is when he was a senator.

MR. DUFFY: This is when he was a senator, right. Exactly, senator. He wasn’t president yet. So that’s what’s happening there. I think the other thing to watch, though, in this space is that, you know, they are beginning to draft a regulation about religious freedom that will actually have some significant impact on employers and how they treat gays, transgendered, and even rights that are attributed to straight people for health care benefits – as we know on that, with churches and contraceptives and other things. So there is a – there is a change coming about religious policy in this country that the Trump White House is getting ready to do. He flicked at that as well. And that’s why that prayer breakfast, not counting the question about the new Apprentice show ratings, was actually important. (Laughter.)

MS. DAVIS: Well, that – the appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast made me really look forward to his joint address to Congress later this month. I can’t wait to see how he makes that one his own too.

MR. DUFFY: I’m sure it’ll get good ratings. (Laughter.)

MS. DAVIS: The best – the best ratings. (Laughter.)

Thanks, everybody. While you’re online, you can test your knowledge of current events on the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Susan Davis. See you next time.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064