Special: The impact of President Trump's Jerusalem decision

Dec. 08, 2017 AT 9:50 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has triggered unrest in the region and raised concerns about the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The conversation also turned to the latest revelations from special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation.

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ROBERT COSTA: Tonight, on this special edition of the Washington Week Extra , President Trump’s seismic policy shift on Jerusalem, and new developments in the Russia probe involving Donald Trump Jr. I’m Robert Costa. That’s next.

ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra . Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. This week, an announcement made in Washington, D.C. has rippled throughout the Middle East and beyond.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Today we finally acknowledge the obvious, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.

MR. COSTA: The decision is sparking outrage from world leaders, and rage from protesters across the Middle East from Beirut in Lebanon and Tehran in Iran. Clashes have erupted, too, at military checkpoints in the West Bank. U.S. flags have been burned. But Friday prayers in the holy city of Jerusalem occurred without incident.

Joining me tonight for this special edition, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post , Yamiche Alcindor and Peter Baker of The New York Times – all good friends, all phenomenal reporters.

But, Peter, to start with you, you’ve worked in Jerusalem. You reported from there for years. What drove the president to make this decision to take this risk?

PETER BAKER: Right. Well, we should start with the idea that, of course, everybody, every president has – understands that Jerusalem is and will be the capital of Israel, but we had not said that because it seems to presuppose or prejudge what will be a final outcome of eventual peace deal with the Palestinians. Both the Palestinians and Israel claim Jerusalem as their capital. Most scenarios envision the Israelis having West Jerusalem, the Palestinians having East Jerusalem. But presidents haven’t said this, even though it’s basically, you know, an acknowledgement of reality, as he said, because they don’t want to give away the chip in bargaining in advance. And for some reason the president, who is about to release, he says, a plan for Middle East, this ultimate deal, gave away one of his chips early on. Why did he do it? Probably for domestic reasons more than foreign reasons. He had made the promise. He didn’t like the idea that he had to sign a waiver once again saying I’m not moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Under the law, he has to sign it every six months. He hates that. It’s like the Iran deal, having to certify that. And his Evangelical Christian base, in particular, and some of his Jewish supporters like Sheldon Adelson, have been pressuring him, why don’t you live up to your campaign promise.

MR. COSTA: Your reporting tell you that, too, Phil, that domestic concerns helped drive this decision?

PHILIP RUCKER: That’s right, and there were allied inside the administration really pushing for it too, including Vice President Pence and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who’s taken the lead on the Middle East peace efforts. President Trump wanted to fulfill this campaign promise. He felt deeply about it, and took the risk. And this is what he does.

MR. COSTA: Peter mentioned the peace deal, Andrea. And the big question I have is, what did this mean for that, those peace talks? Has this actually sparked anything? Has this brought the Palestinians to the table? If you’re going to use the chip, what does it actually mean for the process?

ANDREA MITCHELL: To the contrary, it actually drives them and their Arab allies away. If there was ever the chance of getting – of leveraging the Saudis and the Israelis because of their common enemy with Iran into some sort of agreement, some sort of Sunni-Israeli accord, that is temporarily, at least, off the table because I am told that despite the White House and the Israelis saying, oh, the Saudis are winking and nodding, that is not the case. They are really offended. They warned against this. They did not have an agreement with Kushner on this. And when they say it’s not – it’s unacceptable and offensive, they really mean it, as does the rest of the Arab world. Today, Friday night, it comes right after a meeting in the Security Council where Nikki Haley was saying we’re not going to, you know, be lectured to by you people. Well, it was 14 against one, and the 14 calling for this – for the Security Council meeting, and all against her, included the British, the French, Egypt, Russia, a lot of other countries, but all of America’s European allies. Tillerson was in Europe this week and was just warned and lectured by all the NATO allies and the EU. We are basically isolating ourselves in the world and making it much, much harder to get a peace agreement.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, know where we didn’t see that ratio, 14 to one as Andrea was saying? On Capitol Hill, your beat. You had Republicans and Democrats, they were pretty quiet about President Trump’s decision.

YAMICHE ALICNDOR: Essentially because they had so much other things to deal with. You think about the fact that they have the tax plan, they had sexual harassment going through, so for the most part lawmakers were running away from people. But I think – when I think about how this administration has kind of dealt with foreign policy, this is a person who, of course, ran on “America first,” and some of the biggest controversial things that he’s done are his relationship with Russia and now this move with Israel. And if you see Nikki Haley kind of yelling at the U.N. saying that they don’t know – they don’t know anything, they don’t respect Israel, to me it’s remarkable that we would isolate ourselves in this way.

MR. RUCKER: To that point, it’s like deja vu this week because earlier in the administration we were isolated on the Paris Climate Accords. All of our allies were encouraging Trump not to pull out of the Paris agreement, and he decided to do it anyways. We saw it again with the Iran deal. This is something that the president – President Trump ran on. He wanted to disrupt the world order and the status quo. And, you know, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is another piece of that.

MS. MITCHELL: And to Peter’s point about Jerusalem and the centrality of Jerusalem to any final agreement, the White House and the State Department are saying, well, it’s nuanced and he’s not defining what the borders of Jerusalem are. But when – I interviewed the Israeli ambassador, and he said an undivided Jerusalem with no capital in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians, that is our position. And so that is the position that the Israelis – that’s their takeaway from all of this.

MR. BAKER: Yeah. No, I think the thing is about a negotiation, this is now – so Jared Kushner is leading a plan to do this Middle East peace deal, and a couple weeks ago when I was talking with people who are involved with it, they said, well, we’re thinking about rolling it out in January or February. When I talked to them last weekend, they were like, well, we’re thinking late spring or early summer. (Laughter.) And the reason why that’s changed is because they know this has blown it up, at the very least for a while. Now, they are calculating that it will be put back together again. They’re calculating that if they give it a few months people will get over it, the anger will subside, and eventually they’ll come back to the table, because what do the Palestinians have to lose? They want a deal as much as anybody. And their argument’s going to be that President Trump now has credibility enough with the Israelis to force the Israelis to give on some pretty key issues that they otherwise might not give on.

MR. COSTA: What position is Prime Minister Netanyahu in now with this – with this decision?

MR. BAKER: Well, obviously, he’s stronger – he’s stronger on this. It’s not something that he had actually been agitating for. I mean, it’s like a perennial. Obviously, the Israelis on both sides of the political spectrum have always said that Jerusalem is our capital and America should recognize it, but it wasn’t something that was being agitated for. He’s got, actually, more pressing priorities. But now that that’s happened, it’s given him a little bit of running room on his right. He’s got a tough, fragile political coalition. He’s got his own domestic problems with some investigations of his own. So it gives him a little bit of space in that regard. But there is a wariness in Jerusalem on the right right now that they have given up – they’ve gotten something and that President Trump is eventually going to come an ask them for something, so it is kind of complicated.

MR. COSTA: Andrea, you mentioned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. You cover him so closely. You said he was in Europe. He’s been traveling, correct?

MS. MITCHELL: Right. He just got back Friday night.

MR. COSTA: And he wasn’t behind President Trump when he made the announcement; it was Vice President Pence. What has been the debate inside of the administration over this decision?

MS. MITCHELL: He did have that previously scheduled trip because it was a NATO meeting and an EU meeting, but the fact is he asked for it to be delayed, the announcement. He and Mattis both opposed it and asked for it to be delayed for a couple of days because they wanted to put security procedures in place, including moving some troops and sending out alerts. A worldwide caution was sent out, which is the most serious one since – on a policy issue since the eve of the Iraq War in 2003. So they were very concerned about reactions.

MR. BAKER: I did live in Jerusalem last year, as you pointed out, for five months. It’s a wonderful city, and most days the people there get along actually quite well. But there are moments like this where it just is bristling with tension, and you can feel a city on edge. And I have to imagine, not being there this week, that this is one of those moments where anything can happen anytime. And that’s why the Americans are concerned about their security, that’s why the Israelis and the Palestinians are worried about the potential for further outbreaks of violence.

MR. COSTA: Where anything can happen anytime sometimes, Phil, I think of the Trump White House in that way. (Laughter.)

MR. BAKER: There’s a pin for you.

MR. COSTA: And Phil had a scoop – you had a scoop, Phil, about Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for the Trump administration, she’s deciding to leave the White House. And so this major foreign policy decision comes at the end of his first year in office, for the president, and as some of his key advisers are thinking of moving towards the exits.

MR. RUCKER: Yeah. So Dina Powell is the first of what we think is going to be a wave of departures at the one-year mark of the presidency. There are a number of other officials eyeing the exits, including, reportedly, Rex Tillerson, who has signaled for a while now that he plans to leave at some point in the new year as secretary of state.

Dina Powell is a key figure, though, deputy national security adviser. She took a lot of this Middle East portfolio. She also helped draft the National Security Strategy over the past year. And she’s been a key conduit between this new president and the foreign policy establishment here in Washington and has helped Trump sort of prepare for his meetings with foreign leaders and keep things a little smoother than they otherwise could have been. We’ll see how she’s ‒

MR. BAKER: And look at those pictures of those meetings.

MR. RUCKER: ‒ filled, yeah.

MR. BAKER: Look at those pictures of those meetings. She is the only woman in almost all of them, on either side often.

MR. RUCKER: And that’s a really important point.

MR. BAKER: And that’s ‒ and there’s nobody like that in the administration.

MS. MITCHELL: And it’s also interesting that Martin Indyk and other former ambassadors and negotiators were tweeting how sorry they are to see her leave. She was universally well regarded by Democrats, Republicans, diplomats, all of the professionals.

MR. COSTA: And we’ve seen Dina Powell and Jared Kushner at the president’s side, Yamiche, but it was Vice President Pence, it’s the Evangelical community, the conservative Evangelical community that has had, based on my reporting, so much sway in this administration. In some ways, has this decision encapsulated that power?

MS. ALCINDOR: I don’t know if it’s encapsulated it, but it obviously shows that while Vice President Pence has kind of made a really ‒ he’s been really good at being quiet and kind of being a behind-the-scenes player, he obviously is someone who’s wielding some sort of power. And the base, the people that he actually represents, lasted longer than Steve Bannon and what he represents. So even though Bannon’s obviously on the outside, there was this ‒ there were all these stories at the beginning, who really kind of has the president’s ear? And it seems as though Mike Pence has some lasting power.

I think the other thing I would say is that Rex Tillerson, I think, and most reporters feel like he’s on his way out mainly because, of course, the “moron” comments, I think, probably earned him a very, very angry place in President Trump’s heart. But there’s also this idea that he came from this place where he was the ‒ he was running a big company, he was in charge, he could make real decisions. Now he’s essentially being undercut all the time. He doesn’t want ‒ he wants you to postpone something, you don’t postpone it. He wants to talk to North Korea, you tweet that you’re wasting your time. There’s this idea that Rex Tillerson is essentially not being empowered to do anything.

MR. COSTA: Tillerson has denied those comments.

MS. MITCHELL: The “moron” comment?


MS. MITCHELL: No, he did not.

MR. BAKER: His spokeswoman denied it for him.

MR. COSTA: His spokeswoman denied it for him.

MS. MITCHELL: No, he did not.

MR. COSTA: He didn’t actually do it. Welcome to politics, right?

MS. MITCHELL: He did not deny it. It’s actually been ‒ it was reported, I guess, first by NBC, but others have also reported it, including The Washington Post. But the other thing is that Pence is going to be in Israel at the end of next week.

MR. COSTA: He’s the salesman for this, abroad? As much of Western Europe ‒

MR. RUCKER: With Dina Powell on that trip.

MR. BAKER: Or the arrow catcher because he’s going to also go to Egypt.

MR. COSTA: Vice President Pence ‒ influential. But we’re going to leave Jerusalem there for a second because there was a lot of news on Russia this week. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling has heated up. And the president’s son, Don Trump, Jr., was grilled for hours by the House Intelligence Committee.

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn also reportedly sent a text message to business partners about Russian sanctions minutes after President Trump was sworn in. And this all comes amid a growing drumbeat from Trump loyalists to media outlets on the right trying to discredit the investigation and the man who heads it.

When you think about it, Yamiche, the drumbeat on the right, you have this ‒ you see the White House this week and so many of the president’s allies, they’re starting to question the entire investigation itself. What does that tell us about where this administration is heading and about how they’re using some of the politicization of the FBI. An FBI agent associated with the probe has been ‒ he was fired, dismissed from his position in the probe for sending political text messages. Is this becoming now a political war as much as an investigation?

MS. ALCINDOR: I think it’s been a political war. President Trump has been one of the presidents, I think one of the first presidents in recent memory, that has actually gone against some of his agencies. When the agency said that, hey, Russia meddled in our election, he was trying to say, hey, we’re not sure, like, where do these agencies ‒ why are these agencies saying this? So he’s essentially second-guessing some of the top agencies, the people that are supposed to keep Americans safe.

So there’s this idea that now they see this Mueller investigation and they see that maybe that same tactic is going to work. And I think it tells me that President Trump is very worried about it. I mean, when the Mike Flynn news broke, it was such a remarkable moment because it came almost out of nowhere, so there is this idea that they’re running a really tight ship and President Trump is essentially very worried about it.

MR. COSTA: Flynn, General Flynn, hangs over this White House like a cloud, Phil. And as the news continues to break almost daily about different elements of cooperation, what’s the scene inside of the West Wing?

MR. RUCKER: Well, they don’t know what Flynn’s telling Mueller. That’s the biggest concern, I think, because he’s cooperating now with the Mueller investigation. Flynn was privy to a lot of conversations. He was national security adviser for 24 days, but before that he traveled around the country with candidate Trump. He was a key figure at Trump Tower every day during the transition helping staff this government and put it together. And he was in a lot of meetings. He had a lot of one-on-one time with the president and on those foreign leader calls those first few weeks of the administration, including with Vladimir Putin of Russia. So there’s a lot he could be telling Mueller. The White House obviously doesn’t know what’s happening in that Mueller investigation and it’s a cause for some agita.

MS. MITCHELL: And one of the things that became apparent at the end of this week was Mueller issued some filings showing just how detailed his Manafort investigation is, the financial trail, and also that he’s leaving what some lawyers are describing as legal bread crumbs for state prosecutors in case he is decapitated, in case they try to shut it down or in case there are pardons, because the president can pardon for federal crimes, but not for state crimes. So he’s creating a record that any other prosecutor can follow.

There’s talk on the Hill of coming up with legislation to protectively, preventively stop a firing, but they don’t have the votes to get it on the floor, and the Democrats don’t certainly. But there would probably be an outcry.

The other things was what you were alluding to earlier, was this hearing in House Intelligence this week, which sounded almost like the Joe McCarthy hearings where Louie Gohmert and some of the other House Republicans were going after Chris Wray, the new FBI director, and saying, do you know so-and-so, do you know this agent, do you know that agent, is that agent connected to Democrats? I mean, they were trying to inoculate against any negative report that might come from Mueller down the road and say it’s all prejudiced, it’s all biased and political.

MR. BAKER: Well, that’s, look, that’s a tried-and-true tactic in Washington, you know, over the last number of years. I have many flashbacks to the Clinton era when they went after Ken Starr and they went after all the people who worked for Ken Starr, and they’re partisans, you can’t trust it.

And it’s because a president in trouble needs to give his supporters a narrative other than the one that the investigator is putting together. And that narrative is I’m being unfairly persecuted, don’t believe the stories you’re seeing in the paper that suggest, in this case, collusion or obstruction of justice. It’s all partisan, don’t buy into it.

And, you know, Robert Mueller has played it very, very, very close to the vest. He’s seen as a straight arrow by Republicans and Democrats who have worked with him. He’s done a very good job of controlling his information and putting it out, as he chooses to, strategically. And it does not sound like an investigation that’s going to be over by the end of the year, as the president once said.

MR. COSTA: And speculating about this Robert Mueller investigation is almost impossible. I’ve staked out the building, I’ve tried to find out some things as a reporter, but it’s tough because you don’t know what’s going on inside of a special counsel.

But you do know what’s going on, Yamiche, in the congressional investigations. And these are almost two tracks right now. You have congressional investigators bringing in Donald Trump, Jr. to talk. And did we learn anything on the congressional side this week on Donald Trump, Jr.?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, the thing that’s interesting is that ‒ yes, there are leaks. What we learned is that people that are on the Hill are essentially looking at Donald Trump, Jr. and essentially saying that he, if not his father, he might be a target because of his own interactions with Russia. And they’re also trying to figure out what he told his father. And it seems as though the younger Trump is trying to protect himself from his father, trying to say, you know, my dad didn’t know anything.

But I think there’s going to be some real issues when it comes to records. It’s obvious that he talked to his father very frequently. It’s obvious that after he had this controversial meeting that he spoke to his father. So, essentially, lawmakers are trying to barrel in on when and how and trying to create a timeline. And that’s probably what Robert Mueller is doing.

MR. COSTA: And he wouldn’t reveal his conversations with President Trump citing attorney-client privilege about conversations with his father.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, and it’s remarkable because he might be able to get away with that in a congressional hearing, but that’s going to be a completely different ballgame if he gets ‒ if he gets subpoenaed or if he gets indicted. That’s going to be a completely different thing.

MR. COSTA: And when you look at, Phil, Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, he’s on the House Oversight Committee, he released a document this week about a whistleblower talking about General Flynn. And Flynn has only been brought in online to the FBI, now cooperating, yet there’s so much evidence that’s coming out about Flynn’s other activities that make you wonder the extent of this cooperation.

MR. RUCKER: Yeah, this whistleblower detail is quite interesting. It was the day of the inauguration. Flynn was on the steps of the Capitol behind President Trump as he was giving that American carnage speech, and about 11 minutes into the speech he’s sending a text message, according to this whistleblower, to a former business partner, who has an interest in developments in the Middle East with a connection to Russia, saying, you know, basically, we’re good to go, we’re going to get rid of the Russian sanctions, you know, as soon as we take office and you’re good to go. And Mueller’s going to be digging into that as will the congressional committees.

MS. MITCHELL: And the significance was also that Cummings said he did not release it until Mueller said it was OK to release it.


MS. MITCHELL: So Mueller now has already investigated that whole line of questioning.

MR. COSTA: And it makes you wonder about the ‒ there is coordination, to an extent. Coordination may not be the right word, but there’s conversations between congressional investigators and the federal investigators.

MS. MITCHELL: Sure, they’re deferring to Mueller in most cases. I think the ‒ it’s pretty well acknowledged now that, certainly on the House side, the committees are not functioning very well at all, that there are so many disagreements on the House Intelligence that it’s going to be hard to accomplish very much.

Senate Judiciary began to break down the accord between Feinstein and Grassley, which had been bipartisan, started really fraying. Senate Intelligence is the one committee that seems to still be working in a bipartisan fashion.

MR. COSTA: Peter, you mentioned the 1990s with Bill Clinton and when that president was under investigation with a special counsel and the right was defensive ‒ excuse me, the left was really critical of Ken Starr. But Ty Cobb, the president’s lawyer right now, is playing a wait-and-see game. He’s telling the president and others in the administration to stay calm, that this investigation will run its course. Is there a breaking point inside of this White House where it starts to become more combative that a Ty Cobb strategy isn’t followed anymore?

MR. BAKER: Well, that’s interesting, right? Because Ty Cobb is advising doing exactly the opposite of what some of the president’s supporters have begun doing in terms of trying to discredit Robert Mueller because he says, look, you have nothing to hide, you didn’t do anything wrong, so let him say that. And if he is a credible figure, Robert Mueller, and says that you are innocent, then people are going to believe it. If you have muddied up the water and attacked him, you’re only jeopardizing your own ‒ your own future. So that’s his argument.

And so far, that’s largely held. When the president is angry and he puts out his angry tweets, it tends to be against Hillary Clinton, it may be against the FBI, it may be against the investigation in general as a witch hunt, but it’s almost never about Robert Mueller specifically or his office. He has in fact restrained himself in that. And I don’t know how long that can last.

MR. COSTA: Where is the president right now? Is he really restrained by his aides and Ty Cobb to hold back?

MR. RUCKER: He actually, despite the criticism in President Trump’s broader political orbit about the legal strategy of Ty Cobb and of John Dowd, his other lawyer, Trump, by all accounts, maintains a pretty close relationship with the two of them. He trusts them, he believes in their strategy, and he believes what Ty Cobb in particular has been telling him over many months now, which is that this probe is reaching an end point soon, that he expects this stage will be over by the end of the year or early in January and that there will be some form of public exoneration.

President Trump spent Thanksgiving down at Mar-a-Lago in Florida and was telling his friends that he expects exoneration by Christmas. That may be delayed a little bit, but he anticipates soon in the new year.

MS. MITCHELL: But the one ‒ the one fly in the ointment of that scenario is some indication, widely reported and acknowledged, that Deutsche Bank, which was the banker for Donald Trump and for the Trump organization, I should say, is cooperating with the investigation and that they’re looking at financial interactions that may well involve Russia.

MR. BAKER: I think the Flynn guilty plea completely argues against the idea this is somehow about to wrap up.


MR. BAKER: If you thought Flynn was your big fish and that was going to be the big capstone of this investigation, you would have charged him with a lot more. Instead, they let him off basically with one relatively minor charge when they had all this evidence obviously gathered against him that could have been used for a whole series of other charges. Why do you do that as a prosecutor? You do that because you think you’re getting something of value, and that value is not going to be over by Christmas.

MR. COSTA: And Hope Hicks ‒ and you meet Hope Hicks. One of the president’s closest advisers sat down with Mueller’s team Thursday and Friday. That was the first conversation she reportedly has ever had yet with the special counsel.

MS. ALCINDOR: I mean, the idea that she had a sit-down, to me, goes back to that idea that everyone in the White House is always whispering about this, always figuring out if they have to lawyer up next. It’s part of the reason why this White House has been so dysfunctional, because everyone that’s working there is wondering, are they going to have to be, at some point, have to tell a legal team what’s going on? Are they going to, at some point, be privy or be ‒ or be charged with some sort of accessory to something?

I’ve had meetings or I’ve had talks where I’ve heard that Omarosa is talking and is interrupting meetings saying, have you guys hired your lawyer yet? So there’s this idea that people are really kind of waiting to see when the next shoe is going to drop. And it might be multiple shoes.

MR. COSTA: Well, we’ll all just keep reporting. This is an unfolding story, to say the least.

Thanks, everybody, for being here for this Washington Week Extra conversation. And if you missed the – Washington Week , the first part of it or the Extra , you can always, of course, watch it online on our Washington Week website. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching and have a wonderful weekend.


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