Special: Massive cuts to HUD budget, Huntsman tapped as ambassador to Russia and Trump's new travel ban

Mar. 10, 2017 AT 9:43 p.m. EST

In President Trump's proposed budget, the Department of Housing and Urban Development could lose $6 billion and would cut housing and meal assistance. The State Department's budget could be cut by 37 percent. Former Ambassador to China and Utah Gov. Jon Huntstman, a notable Trump critic during the campaign, has been tapped by the president as the new ambassador to Russia. Plus, Trump issued a new executive order banning travel from six majority-Muslim countries, an order that is already being challenged in federal court.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is Washington Week Extra , where we pickup online where we left off on the broadcast.

We learned this week that the Trump administration is considering more than $6 billion in cuts from the Housing and Urban Development budget. Yamiche, what could this mean for millions of low-income Americans?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: It could mean that people are pushed out and that there’s an increase in homelessness. It could mean that people are getting less money for housing subsidies. It could mean that housing projects don’t get the repairs that they need. A lot of the money that we’re talking about is to fix boiler rooms, to fix elevators, to fix broken doors. But also it means that in some ways Donald Trump is keeping his promise in that he said that he was going to be increasing defense spending, and we all knew that that was going to come from somewhere, or at least a lot of the experts understood that that meant that it was going to hit entitlement programs. And so while his budget has said that he’s not going to cut Social Security or Medicare, which would be some of the biggest things that you could do to reform entitlements, it’s about all the other different entitlements that people maybe don’t think about. So this idea about free lunch, this idea about childcare subsidies, there are all these other ways that the government helps people’s lives that are critical, really, to helping people go from being working poor to middle class that are going to be hit, and this is just one of them.

MR. COSTA: It’s interesting to see the Trump administration really lay off the main entitlement spending drivers and go after different things in the budget. It reminds me of Steve Bannon’s phrase, the White House chief strategist, “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

PETER BAKER: Yeah. The problem is, if you want to increase military spending by $54 billion and you don’t go to those big entitlement programs, it means bigger – disproportionate cuts in what’s a really small part of the budget, the discretionary domestic budget.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Or at the State Department.

MR. BAKER: Or at the State Department, 37 percent there.

MS. BRENNAN: Right, which makes up what? Foreign aid is like 1 percent of overall federal spending. It’s a very small portion. And I think doing things like that, I mean, it sounds nice. People think diplomats are at cocktail parties having wine, but they’re also very important boots on the ground in places we don’t have troops. And for someone like Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil now the secretary of state, it also sends a message around the world when you are basically gutting the budget by 37 percent or around there, or at least vowing you’re going to do so, that this is de-emphasizing diplomacy at a time when there’s growing global risk and conflict.

MS. ALCINDOR: The other thing that I think is really interesting when you look at who benefits from entitlement programs, it’s non-college-educated white people. A lot of them are in rural areas. And that’s Trump’s base. Think tanks all around the country are saying you’re going to be hurting the same people who voted for you. So whether or not these people are going to – somehow I think in their minds they’ve thought that, you know, these are caricatures of who – the welfare queen and all these kind of stereotypical images that we’ve seen in American history, but I think once these cuts go through it’ll be very interesting to see if they become a political liability or if somehow he retains his support and people say, OK, well, I’m going to do something different.

MR. COSTA: Maryland is also the latest state to take action to block President Trump’s new travel ban. Washington and Oregon have filed suit, and New York and Massachusetts officials say they plan to join the case. The new executive order is set to take effect on March 16 th . What does this revised travel ban and its execution, Margaret, tell us about the Trump administration and how they’re working through this issue?

MS. BRENNAN: Well, they’re trying to find a more legally sound version of President Trump’s campaign promise. Whether you believe it was a Muslim ban as he said as a candidate then walked back or as a president that it’s purely focused on security, there are challenges to all of those claims right now. You just had today over a hundred former U.S. officials, including former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, writing letters here saying that this continues to be deeply troubling to them. Yes, it’s now six countries, not seven; Iraq’s off of that. That was damaging because Iraq, of course, is a huge ally in this fight against ISIS, literally on the battlefield alongside American troops.

But still hit by this travel ban are refugees, and refugees from Iraq, and many of those who had worked with the U.S. government over the past years of engagement there were trying to come here and have status as refugees. So it’s still a blow to Iraq. But if you look more broadly, some of the broad strokes are still there. It’s still cutting the number of refugees from 100,000 goal down to 50,000. It’s still, you know, 120-day ban, 90-day ban on travelers and refugees. It’s still damaging on that front. But it allows President Trump to say he’s doing something. However, there are many countries that have had serious terrorist threats that are not on there. So it’s not a complete thought.

MR. BAKER: Well, that’s the interesting thing, right? Those six countries in fact are not the source of large terrorist attacks in the United States. But John Kelly, the DHS said – Department of Homeland Security secretary this week did say they’re considering other countries being added to it. So this is not the end of the word, even if the courts decide this is more legally defensible.

MS. BRENNAN: And most of the examples that are constantly brought up by Kelly and others – San Bernardino or even the Chelsea bombs – those were not immediate immigrants or refugees coming to the United States. And the countries they originated from in the first place weren’t even on the list. And some of the people were American born. And that lone wolf, homegrown terrorist portion we haven’t heard them explain how they’re going to combat.

MR. COSTA: The president tapped one of his former rivals and toughest Republican critics to be his ambassador to Russia, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. In 2009, Huntsman joined the Obama administration as ambassador to China. He’ll now be a key player, working in one of the most complicated areas of the world and one of the most complicated U.S. foreign policy relationships.

Peter, you’re former a Moscow Bureau chief for The Washington Post , now with The New York Times . What are we supposed to make of this former Trump critic now signing on to be his man in Moscow?

MR. BAKER: Yeah, look, there are a lot of Trump critics that the president would like to send to Siberia. And Jon Huntsman happens to be the guy who won the prize. So I don’t know how much of a prize it is. It’s interesting. Would you want to be the ambassador to Russia at this time, when the relationship is so fraught – for all the reasons we’ve been talking about this evening in terms of the investigation, in terms of the suspicions, in terms of President Trump’s, you know, interesting dance with President Putin.

It’s a very odd time. And it’s an ambassador who does not have the president’s ear, not a like-minded friend of the president, and not a Russia specialist. He was ambassador to China. Spoke a fair amount of Chinese. Doesn’t have a background in this. So it’s going to be a real challenge for him. But he is a moderate figure, a pragmatist, somebody who probably will not be particularly ideological. You know, and has some stature. So that’s, you know, to his benefit.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, we always hear that the president’s thin-skinned, but then he seems to also be courting some of his former rivals. It’s not just Huntsman. He had dinner this week with Senator Ted Cruz. So what are we supposed to make of it? Is Trump changing, or not?

MS. ALCINDOR: Trump is definitely not – I think I’m completely in the camp that Trump is never going to change, that there will not be a Trump 2.0. But I think in some ways he’s learning that he has to govern. And that to govern means that you have to have allies, and you have to have people who understand how things are passed, how policies are made, how relationships are forged. So this idea that he’s turning into a pragmatist, this idea that he might be – apologize to Ted Cruz for what he said about his wife, I think those are the things that are showing that maybe Donald Trump is trying to be maybe a little bit more presidential, and this idea that he is trying to forge these alliances and not go after people.

But I also think that he is someone who would quickly turn on any of these people if they did something that was upsetting to him. So I think that as much as he can go into dinner with Ted Cruz, if Ted Cruz starts coming out against his health care policy or does something in a way that he thinks is a liar or did something, we can hear about it at 6:00 in the morning on Twitter. So I think we have to take all of these new relationships with a grain of salt.

MR. COSTA: Real quick, Margaret, what does the foreign policy community think of Huntsman joining the Trump administration?

MS. BRENNAN: Well, I think the cynical take is that he can make it through the Senate pretty easily on a topic that is very difficult for the administration to answer questions on, which is why we’re having congressional hearings about Russia on the intelligence front. But I think, you know, that there’s this, oh, he wants to be secretary of state. He did for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. (Laughter.) And maybe a few years down the line he’ll be up for the job.

MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. Thanks for clicking on this edition of the Washington Week Extra . While you’re online, test your knowledge of current events on the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa, and we’ll see you next time.

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