Special: Top Justice Department official steps down, latest developments in the Russia probe

Feb. 09, 2018 AT 9:10 p.m. EST

The table discussed Rachel Brand's departure, the latest updates in the Russia probe, and the impact of former Republican National Committee finance chair Steve Wynn stepping down from his casino empire.

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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 the Washington Week Extra , where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.

Late-breaking news out of the Department of Justice today. The New York Times is reporting that Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand is stepping down. Brand was one of the leading officials at the nation’s top law enforcement agency, which has come under attack from President Trump for its handling of the Russia probe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, and there have been reports that the president considered firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which would have left Ms. Brand next in line for that position. Big development, Peter.

PETER BAKER: Yeah, it is a big development, and seen of course in the context of the Russia investigation. She didn’t, obviously, give that as her reason for leaving. She’s got a new job as the general counsel of Walmart, a good job. But she was one of the ones who was respected in that Justice Department. She had worked in the Bush administration. She was seen as a rising star, potentially even a future judicial nominee for some post or another, and a lot of people in Republican circles anyway were counting on her to be a figure of resistance, if you will, if the president were to try to do something that they didn’t want him to do, which was to fire Robert Mueller.

KRISTEN WELKER: And I think even though, as Peter rightfully points out, her official reason is that, look, she got a job that she felt was too good to turn down, it does yet again raise the issue of the tensions between the White House and the Justice Department. And we’ve seen them mount in recent weeks, particularly with the release of that Republican memo, which essentially alleges that there was some type of misconduct at the highest levels of the FBI in terms of handling these investigations. And so that has only increased the president’s ire, I think, in this instance, and it’s something that a lot of officials at the FBI and Justice Department are really concerned about.

MR. COSTA: There was late-breaking news tonight, on Friday night, about the Democratic memo, the counter-memo to what House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes is doing: it’s going to be released.

KELSEY SNELL: Well, it’s – I mean, not right away.

MR. COSTA: Not right away.

MS. SNELL: Yeah, they’ve asked for additional review. They’re sending it back to the committee for additional review. Democrats are going to be incredibly upset about this. This is something that they believed that they had reached an agreement with leaders and with Nunes himself that this was going to come out, and it drags on the drama about the memo another week or more, which is something that I think a lot of people would have liked to move on from.

KAYLA TAUSCHE: But Democrats have acknowledged the complexity of their memo compared to the memo that the Republicans released. Congresswoman Jackie Speier called it a term paper or a dissertation compared to a book report – (laughter) – just the couple pages that the Republicans put out. So they acknowledge that there are parts of it that may need to be redacted, and it appears that that’s what – that’s what Don McGahn wants to work with the FBI and the Justice Department to do, to essentially make sure that it is clean of any classified information about sources and methods so that this does not come back to create an even bigger situation than they want to deal with.

MR. BAKER: The problem is there may be completely legitimate reasons that the FBI and the Department of Justice don’t want this memo out or don’t want it out in the current form, but the fact that the president decided to heed those warnings for this memo when he ignored them for the last memo is a problem for him politically. It looks like a double standard. The last one the FBI director said he had grave concerns about releasing; the president said I’m going to release it anyway. So if he had grave concerns that were not enough to block the release of that memo, why are these concerns enough to block the release of this memo? And it won’t matter, ultimately, if the memo is released in the next few days and the redactions don’t seem to matter, but for the moment anyway you hear people like Chuck Schumer already saying this is appalling, and they’re going to hear a lot of that this weekend on the Sunday shows.

MS. WELKER: Well, I think you’re right, it’s a matter of the optics. I mean, remember, the president said when he was leaving the State of the Union address, before he had even looked at the Republican memo, when he was asked by a lawmaker are you going to release it he said 100 percent. And so it looks like he’s being a lot more cautious, a lot more careful with this Democratic memo.

Now, as Kayla points out, this memo is 10 pages versus the three pages for the Republican memo. I spoke with a White House official who said, look, there are source and methods that we feel are being exposed, and so we are sending it back to the committee to work with DOJ and the FBI to scrub some of that.

MR. COSTA: Looking at the #MeToo movement, there was more developments this week in the broader circle of President Trump, not just the White House staff that’s had some resignations with Rob Porter and Sorsenson, the speechwriter, on Friday. This week Steve Wynn, he resigned as CEO and chairman of Wynn Resorts, the company he created. The Gaming Control Board in his state opened an investigation into allegations that (the) Las Vegas casino magnate and confidant of the president, and a record-breaking Republican donor, engaged in a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct. The allegations include a $7.5 million settlement to a manicurist who worked at one of Wynn’s properties. Wynn refuted the charges, then released the following statement: “In the last couple of weeks, I have found myself the focus of an avalanche of negative publicity…I have reached the conclusion that I cannot continue to be effective in my current roles.” We’re seeing this across the board.

MS. SNELL: Yeah, and the thing that I think is embroiling a lot of politics in this is that Democrats say this is a double standard, that Republicans were willing to stand behind Wynn much longer than they were – they immediately came out and said that Democrats needed to distance themselves from people who had had similar accusations. And again, we get into this partisan food fight about just about everything these days.

MR. COSTA: Are they going to give back the donations from Wynn on the Republican side?

MS. SNELL: Some have. Some have donated. The speaker of the House received a donation, a very small donation, from an organization related to Wynn, and he donated that to a charity back home. We saw Senator Rob Portman do the same thing. Some people are taking those steps.

MR. COSTA: And Steve Wynn, the president doesn’t have a lot of deep ties on Wall Street; he was a central player on the finance side for the president – not your traditional donor close to a president, but certainly a central player.

MS. TAUSCHE: But when you are CEO of a public company and you have a board of directors, you have very different checks and balances than really just about anyone in Washington. What’s striking is that the president seems to be acknowledging these situations with a grain of salt. He stood behind Roy Moore, and said that he was innocent, that he denied the allegations. He defended Bill O’Reilly. And this week, he defended Rob Porter, his staff secretary, saying he was sad that he left and that he did his job very well. We haven’t really seen the president take a defiant stance one way or another on Steve Wynn. It will be interesting to see if he does so.

MS. WELKER: The statements that the president made about Rob Porter and Roy Moore were almost identical. He said: You have to believe him. He denied it. You have to pay attention to that. The question, I think, for the president and Republicans, is are they ceding the moral ground when it comes to this issue? We’ve seen Democrats come out very forcefully, some would say too forcefully. For example, you had Senator Kirsten Gillibrand saying that former President Bill Clinton should have resigned. That enraged a lot of Democrats. But the question is, when voters go to the polls – and this is a big issue right now – has there been a line drawn? And will that be one of the issues that they vote on?

MR. COSTA: If you’re watching this webcast maybe over the weekend, maybe it’s in between watching the Olympics. Remember, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where my sister lives now, that was when I really first started getting into the Olympics. Those were great games. But there were also politics. Always politics involved in everything. And especially this year with foreign policy. And North Korea held a massive military parade this week in what many say was an attempt to steal the thunder from the Olympics. The parade was originally scheduled to happen in April to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s military founding. Observers and analysts say the event gave leader Kim Jong-un the opportunity to strike a defiant, nationalistic tone ahead of the games and the opening ceremony. What do you make of what Kim Jong-un was trying to do this week, and North Korea’s presence over these entire games?

MR. BAKER: Well, I think he read your paper and saw that President Trump wanted to have a military parade, decided to one-up him. Look, you know, it’s a – it’s a very unique – it’s definitely a unique moment, where you have these two Koreas, in effect, coming together, despite their political differences, for these games. They’re having a shared team. There was this, you know, obvious moment of sort of a family coming together despite, you know, years of feuding, in effect. And it really creates an odd dynamic for the president, who had this big confrontation with Pyongyang. You had Vice President Pence sitting next – not next to, but within a few feet of the sister of Kim Jong-un today – or yesterday at the opening ceremony. Not speaking.

But you’re right, these politics always infuse these things. I remember in the 2000 – in Beijing in 2008, remember President Bush was there right when Russia invaded Georgia. And he ended up sliding over in the stands to talk to Vladimir Putin and say: What are you doing here? You’re causing real problems. So you do see politics in these things. And it’ll be interesting to see how they play out in the next few days.

MS. WELKER: There’s a concern at the White House about the optics being glorified, quite frankly. I had a conversation today with one official who said, look, we are still very much dealing with a crisis when it comes to North Korea. And we can’t forget that, despite the pageantry of the games and the fact that you do have these optics, the vice president sitting very close to Kim Jong-un’s sister, for example.

MS. TAUSCHE: But there is a very clear softening coming from the White House as the games have been going on. You can tell just from the readouts that the president’s had with his calls with foreign leaders in the last week. In his calls with the prime minster of the U.K. or the prime minister of India, there was talk of ramping up pressure on North Korea, making sure that there is a path to denuclearization in North Korea. But in the readout with the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, it was about improving the human rights situation in North Korea. So certainly they are taking a much softer tone. Some have even gone as far as to call it a temporary détente.

MR. COSTA: Final thought. Vice President Pence, over across the ocean, at the Olympics as all this drama unfolds at the White House. He seems to dance around, or at least be – avoid wading into a lot of the trouble that surrounds this administration.

MS. SNELL: Yeah. As your colleague, Ashley Parker, asked him: How does he manage to be on the outside of these things all the time? It is –

MR. COSTA: She asked him a pretty frank question.

MS. SNELL: She did. (Laughter.) You know, it is pretty striking and it is getting harder for him to avoid talking about that, because on almost every big issue that we have seen happen, he has come out days later, weeks later, in saying, well, I didn’t know about this, or I’m sad to hear about this. And it gives him convenient distance from some of the chaos at the White House.

MR. COSTA: He is on message though.

MS. SNELL: Yes.

MR. BAKER: He is.

MR. COSTA: When Ashley Parker asked him that question, of why do you seem to be out of the loop, he said: It’s an honor to serve President Trump. (Laughter.) Thanks, everybody.

While you’re online, I invite you to read my blog post on the lessons I learned covering the Philadelphia Eagles, the birds, in high school, before they became Super Bowl champions. Plus, as always, you can find the Washington Week quiz. This week there’s a quiz about a favorite PBS personality who will soon appear on a U.S. postage stamp.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.

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