Special: A look at primary elections around the country and the North Korea summit

May. 18, 2018 AT 9:10 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed trends that emerged from this week’s primary elections, along with the latest on the North Korea summit and the Trump administration's new rules on abortions.

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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.

Joining me around the table are Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour , Mark Landler of The New York Times , Kelsey Snell of NPR, and Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post .

Thursday marked one year of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and another election is right around the corner. There were primary elections this week in Pennsylvania, Idaho, Nebraska, and Oregon. Court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania made the congressional map more favorable for Democrats there, and there has been a lot of talk about a blue wave, potentially, in the midterm elections. Kelsey, as you look back at this week on Tuesday, what are some of the trends you see?

KELSEY SNELL: The continuing trend that women are doing very, very well in these primaries and that Democrats are getting the candidates they wanted. Except for one or two spaces, they – the House Democratic campaign arm has been able to move more moderate Democrats into positions where they could be running for seats where that’s a good idea to have a moderate Democrat, a traditional Democrat.

I think the other thing is we are seeing more of the trend that it’s not great to be a House Republican running for higher office. We’ve seen a number of them lose, Lou Barletta being the – you know, the outlier there. But it’s not a great time to be a House Republican trying to become a senator or a governor or even really anything else. (Laughs.)

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, real quick, you and I covered Senator Bernie Sanders. You were full-time on Sanders in 2016. When you look at the Democratic Party in some of these primaries, any impressions?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The impression I got is that Bernie Sanders kind of continues to have a lot of influence on the party. I was thinking about a race in Nebraska where there was a woman who was running and she beat a Democratic establishment candidate. And it tells you that people want to look at Bernie Sanders’ campaign and think that they can in some ways copy some of the things that he did and talk more progressively than Democrats have been willing to do in the past. I think Bernie gave them a voice and really gave them a boldness that they didn’t have before.

MR. COSTA: To another topic, the Trump administration moved forward on Friday with a proposal that would take federal funding away from health clinics like Planned Parenthood that support abortion services or provide referrals to other clinics with abortion services. Yamiche, sticking with you, you’ve been reporting on this development. What do you make of it, and what does it tell us about the Trump administration’s next move?

MS. ALCINDOR: What it tells us about the Trump administration is that they are still very much in line with the pro-life groups and idea that they want to keep this base, that some of them are Evangelicals that are holding onto President Trump because of his views on being pro-life and because of his stated intent to try to lessen abortion. So this new rule, right now it’s been set in motion; it hasn’t happened yet. But it would make – it would do a couple things. One of the things it would do is mean that if you’re getting abortions that they would have to be in a separate building, a separate physical structure than any other place that’s getting federal funding. The other thing it does is that it says that health care providers don’t have to provide the idea of an abortion as they – as an option to a woman. So if a woman has some sort of life-threatening issue, that doctors no longer have to say, well, you could have an abortion and that could relieve your – relieve this medical issue. So it says that President Trump is sticking with that. And, you know, he was one of the first presidents to speak via video camera to the March for Life, so this is a – this is a core group that he really cares about.

MR. COSTA: Who’s driving this inside of the administration – Vice President Pence, or is it Trump himself?

MS. ALCINDOR: There’s a lot of – it’s a lot of back and forth. I think that Vice President Pence obviously is someone who is very much an establishment Republican, very much the kind of conservative that Republicans used to be before President Trump kind of stormed the party. That said, President Trump on the – on the campaign trail talked about abortion, talked about the idea of being pro-life, talked about the idea of wanting to kind of temper this down. So he – this is not something new for him. This is something that he ran on and that people backed him for. And I would think when we think about it, the Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, he was a big win for not only Donald Trump, but really the people that are looking at abortion and saying that they want justices that don’t want that to be something that women can get in the future.

MR. COSTA: Turning abroad, the upcoming summit with North Korea seemed to be on shaky ground this week. North Korea suspended talks with South Korea, then threatened to pull out of the negotiations with the United States, saying it did not want to be forced unilaterally to abandon its nuclear program, and pointed to states like Libya and Iraq that gave up their nuclear ambitions at the request of the United States. The White House and President Trump, however, said this shift in tactics was fully expected, that American and North Korean officials are moving forward with preparations for next month’s meeting in Singapore. Mark, you’ve reported extensively on the White House and the North Korean negotiations. What to make of North Korea’s statements this week? Are they actually moving away from the deal – or a summit, or not?

MARK LANDLER: I think really what this amounted to is a reality check. This was always going to be a very difficult negotiation because you have one side, the U.S., which wants total denuclearization, they want them – the North Koreans to give up their entire arsenal up front, before they get any incentives. And you have another side, the North Koreans, that want to do it in a sequenced way, where they give a little, and they get a little, and they give a little. So this was always going to be tough. And I think what happened is there was so much euphoria around the idea of this meeting with President Trump, his supporters beginning to chant “Nobel, Nobel” at his rallies, the South Koreans also speaking in extremely upbeat terms about this, that it was almost inevitable that someone had to throw cold water on it. And it turned out to be the North Koreans.

My gut is, it still goes forward. I think both leaders have a lot invested in having a successful meeting – President Trump in particular. So I think this meeting will happen. But it was – it was a very timely reminder that when the two get together, the issue on the table is going to be a very difficult one for them to unravel.

MR. COSTA: When you define – if this administration’s trying to define success, could success be something beyond denuclearization or some full-throated pledge for denuclearization? Could it be ending the Korean War? Establishing diplomatic ties?

MR. LANDLER: Well, I think that the administration is going to want to bring home at least some tangible evidence of denuclearization. Now does that mean agreeing to shut off the entire program and mothball it? I think that’s unrealistic. But there could be some kind of a scenario where Kim could say: I will turn over five of my nuclear bombs. Or, I will turn over X number of my nuclear installations. Or, I will give you my ballistic missile supply, ICBMs. So there are some tangible things they could do that fall short of the total denuclearization. I think just having an agreement on peace in our time is not actually going to be adequate for the president, given how high he’s set the bar.

MR. COSTA: And back to where we started, the Mueller investigation, and possible involvement by the Trump campaign in different kinds of associations they had during the 2016 election. Devlin, you’ve covered law enforcement for 20 years. And you wrote a great piece this week that took a deep dive into all the elements Special Counsel Robert Mueller is exploring. What strikes you as the most important element at this time?

DEVLIN BARRETT: I think Michael Cohen is a really important figure in all this. And I think, weirdly, the fight over – so, Michael Cohen is Donald Trump’s long-time personal lawyer. His offices were searched, his home was searched, and a lot was seized in that. And I think that’s telling, in the sense that I don’t think – in my experience, prosecutors do not take that sort of aggressive search action unless they are fairly certain that they will eventually bring a case. Now, there is a legal question that still has to be sorted out among the New York prosecutors.

But the specter of Donald Trump’s – the president’s personal lawyer facing an actual criminal charge I think is a real possibility now in the near future. And I think that could change everyone’s perception of how serious this investigation is, how critical the notion of people flipping or not flipping will be for the outcome. And I again go back to the notion that he has – Mueller has flipped a number of people. And as long as that continues to happen, this case only gets more serious.

MR. COSTA: What’s the timeline for a possible indictment of Michael Cohen?

MR. BARRETT: Well, lawyers love to put things off. So it’s hard to predict a date. I would say that once they get through this attorney-client issue – and it’s unclear exactly how long that will take – there’s a general ballpark frame of maybe by the end of the month, maybe sometime next month the judge will have settled that question. But once they get through that issue, I think prosecutors are going to have a decision to make. And so I would expect them to make that decision not long after that happens.

But if you remember, if you think back to the Paul Manafort case as a comparison, you know, they did a search, and then it was two or three months before the charges were filed. I think you could see a similar pattern play out here, because that is the federal prosecutor playbook.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week -ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.


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