Special: President Trump grants fifth pardon, culture clashes over recent racist, vulgar celebrity language

Jun. 01, 2018 AT 9:02 p.m. EDT

The panelists recapped the president’s latest pardon, a new study that says more than 4,600 people died during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and the culture clashes over recent racist, vulgar celebrity language.

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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 Peter Baker of The New York Times , Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and Shawna Thomas of VICE News .

One of America’s largest coffee chains, Starbucks, closed 8,000 stores on Tuesday for racial bias training. That same day actress Roseanne Barr used a racial slur in reference to a former Obama official, Valerie Jarrett. ABC, the network that airs Roseanne’s show, swiftly canceled her program. Less than a day later, comedian Samantha Bee made demeaning remarks about President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. Bee and TBS have both apologized. That show has not been canceled.

Shawna, we’re in the middle of this cultural firestorm. Television, comedy, politics, infused together seemingly by the day with these new controversies. How much is this dominating our politics, or is it really just more of a cultural issue? Or do you see it constantly intersecting?

SHAWNA THOMAS: I mean, it definitely intersects, especially when you look at what Samantha Bee said. She said the C-word about Ivanka Trump on her show. Roseanne, in some ways a lot of people attribute the fact that ABC even brought back that show and the storyline of that show has to do with Roseanne being an actual Trump supporter, the character and also Roseanne in real life – a Trump supporter and other members of her family not being Trump supporters. So politics is interwoven into our culture at all times, and what we saw was just something kind of erupt this week. And the thing is what Roseanne tweeted about Valerie Jarrett was racist and unconscionable, but I don’t think that necessarily means – even though it’s gotten wrapped up into this – that that means – ABC didn’t cancel her show because Roseanne is a Trump supporter. ABC canceled her show because Roseanne tweeted something racist. And the fact that it all gets mixed in together is just a symbol of where we are right now.

MR. COSTA: And it gets mixed in with this partisanship because some people on the right say if you’re going to fire Roseanne, how about Samantha Bee? And then President Trump weighs in with his own perspective, where he says ABC’s chairman, Bob Iger, Disney’s chairman, should be calling me on the phone to talk about how ABC has made mistakes against me. It’s just all mixed together every day.

ANDREA MITCHELL: He had leaped into praising Roseanne when she had these great ratings after he show was first on, and it was a huge success. It was the biggest success in broadcast television of this kind of program this year. So the fact that it was such an economic success, he was bragging about the ratings at a rally. And for him not to weigh in – and Sarah Sanders said, well, he had more important things to do, he’s working on North Korea. He eventually did weigh in on Twitter, demanding an apology from ABC for himself. But for him not to call out Roseanne for that kind of racism is what is raising a lot of questions about the president –

MS. THOMAS: Or don’t weigh into any of these things at all as president of the United States.

MS. MITCHELL: Exactly, but he weighs into these things all the time. And the fact is, what Roseanne did was so racist, and she had done this before. Before ABC brought her back, she had said the same kind of outrageous thing about Susan Rice, who’s African-American, years ago. So this is a consistent behavior from her. And what ABC did was arguably a business decision. They have an enormous amount of programming that is aimed at the African-American audience. They have African-American leadership in ABC Entertainment. And they had to do something. They were going to face a boycott.

MS. THOMAS: And they’re owned by Disney. It’s a wholesome – or it tries to be a very wholesome brand.

MS. MITCHELL: And there are commercial considerations.

MS. THOMAS: They have to think about that too.

PETER BAKER: What’s striking to me is the politics of grievance here. To listen to the president and to listen to Sarah Sanders at the podium today – or not today, this week – spill out this anger and frustration and sense of resentment, how come they say this about us, they’re mean to us in this way, they’re mean to us in that way – the other side, by the way, feels equally aggrieved. Their concern is the double standard is the other way: How come you let Trump get away with this when you never would have let Obama get away with that? The sense on both sides throughout Washington is just suffused with anger, resentment, grievance, and that reflects the overall polarization of our politics today.

MS. MITCHELL: And let me just say that what Samantha Bee did and said about Ivanka Trump was hideous, outrageous, offensive. She apologized. We don’t know what the final result is of that. So there’s a lot of coarsening of the language on all sides, and a lot of people say it’s because of what we’ve heard from the Oval Office on Twitter and in person at rallies.

MR. BAKER: Mitt Romney said I don’t think – I like some of the president’s policies, but he’s not a role model. You heard Senator Jim Lankford, I think, say the same thing. And I think you’re right. I mean, like, when did it get acceptable to compare people like Valerie Jarrett or Ivanka Trump in such horrific ways as opposed to simply arguing about their policies. Let’s say whether they’re wrong or right about policies.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, I can tell you when it became acceptable, you know, very early in the campaign to talk about John McCain as not being heroic because he was captured. And that’s – and again this week twice the president, without naming McCain, in public blaming McCain for the failure of the repeal of Obamacare. This is a man dying of cancer who was already demeaned by a White House aide.

MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to the president’s decision to pardon influential conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who plead guilty to violating campaign finance laws in 2014. It was the fifth pardon Mr. Trump has granted since taking office. Peter, in your front-page story, you write that the president has bypassed “the traditional system for granting pardons and disregarded more than 10,000 languishing applications to focus instead on prominent public figures whose cases resonated with him given his own” – to use one of your words – “grievances with investigators.” Mr. Trump has also told reporters that he’s considering a pardon for Martha Stewart and commutation for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat who is still serving time in federal prison.

MR. BAKER: This comes back to that whole double standard thing. President Trump is justifying this pardon and other possible acts of clemency on the idea that these people were unfairly targeted by the justice system, that they had a double standard. They didn’t go after Hillary Clinton, but they’re going after me. They went after Dinesh D’Souza; how come they didn’t go after some liberals or something like that. And that is at the core of his political identity right now, is this idea that he has been mistreated and that people who like him, who are Trump supporters, have been mistreated. What you don’t see, of course, is, you know, any action on the behalf of, as you point out, 10,000 applicants who don’t have celebrity advocates and who aren’t – were never part of The Apprentice or Celebrity Apprentice .

MS. MITCHELL: Kim Kardashian and other advocates for pardoning.

MR. BAKER: Or Sylvester Stallone calling up and so forth.

MS. MITCHELL: You know, Dinesh D’Souza did not apply for a pardon. This was so far outside the bounds. And as Michael Beschloss and Doris Kerns Goodwin and other prominent historians are saying, and certainly legal experts, he has an unchecked ability to pardon. That is in the Constitution. But legally, what he does not have an unchecked ability to do is pardon someone who might be part of an investigation into himself. That becomes an obstruction. That can become an article of impeachment. And that is what legal experts are saying could be a real pitfall for the president.

MR. COSTA: Well, was the president sending a signal, based on what Andrea just said, to witnesses who are subjects within the Russia probe about how they could be pardoned down the line? Or is that reading too much into all of this?

MS. THOMAS: I personally think it’s reading a little bit too much into this. I think there is a little signal there. This is President Trump saying: Look at the power that I have. I can do this. I can do this for a somewhat conservative celebrity in Dinesh D’Souza. I can do this for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is a conservative celebrity in his own right in the political world. It’s saying: Look at the power I have. I’m not totally sure that when he does that it is also a message to the Paul Manaforts and Michael Cohens of the world, or the Michael Flynns of the world. But it could be perceived that way. I also just think that when he brings up, you know, Martha Stewart or Rod Blagojevich, these are also people that he has some knowledge of their, you know, illegal problems, and he knows how to create a headline. He is brilliant at creating a headline. And he knows – because most of that conversation on Air Force One was off the record. But they put that part on the record because he knew we would be talking about it.

MR. BAKER: One thing he forgot, though, is if he were to actually pardon somebody around him like a Michael Cohen or a Michael Flynn, there’s a backside to this, which is that once you are pardoned you no longer can plead the Fifth Amendment.

MS. THOMAS: Because you’re admitting guilt.

MR. BAKER: You cannot – you cannot incriminate yourself if you’ve been pardoned. And so therefore a prosecutor can then say, fine, you’ve been pardoned, you now have to testify. You have to now go and tell everything you know about Donald Trump or whoever else they might be targeting. So there is a backside to the possibility of a pardon.

MS. MITCHELL: A Duke law professor whom I interviewed today said that he thinks we’re underplaying this, this connection to the signal that he’s sending to the insiders who are being targeted by the Mueller probe.

MS. THOMAS: Really?

MR. COSTA: Why?

MS. MITCHELL: Thinks that it is the biggest thing that has happened, because it happened the day after Michael Cohen had a very bad day in court with Judge Kimba Wood. And that he was deliberately sending this signal with the Dinesh D’Souza pardon.

MR. BAKER: But it requires him to wait. The pardon would have to come years down the road because if it came today, it wouldn’t help him.

MR. COSTA: And on the first day of the 2018 hurricane season, we take a look at a story that isn’t getting enough coverage. According to a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria in September 2017 may be over 4,600 people – much higher than the Puerto Rico government’s official death toll of 64 deaths. Thousands of people there are still without power or proper living conditions and are facing the upcoming hurricane season. We’re talking about Roseanne. We’re talking about pardons. What about Puerto Rico?

MS. MITCHELL: Well, the president said he gave himself an A-plus in how FEMA and the government handled Puerto Rico, but the fact is according to this very well-regarded Harvard study in The New England Journal of Medicine , more than 4,600 people, compared to 64 deaths that were cited by the federal government. And what happened – the difference is that the correct way in public health policy to categorize fatalities is to look over the long term at all the people who did not get medicine, who couldn’t get to hospitals, who didn’t have electricity, who didn’t have clean water. And those are the numbers that really should be attributed to this storm. And now we are again – the hurricane season starting again, on June 1 st . And Puerto Rico is still not back to normal, by any means.

MR. COSTA: VICE has been covering Puerto Rico. What do expect next there from Congress and on the ground?

MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think, number one, that the country does not feel ready for hurricane season necessarily, by any means. I think we need to see what Congress is willing to fund when it comes to Puerto Rico. I think we need to see how much more money FEMA is willing to give to the – to Puerto Rico. But it’s funny, it still doesn’t resonate, even though there was all of that reporting around Hurricane Maria, that the people in Puerto Rico are Americans. And that – and the other thing is, they can come here. And they can go to Florida. And they can go to other places. And there is definitely, especially in some of those Florida elections, there are members of Congress and there are people who are running for office who are aware that the Puerto Rican vote has gone up in Florida and that they need to target them. And that is an issue in 2018.

MR. COSTA: How does this administration look at Puerto Rico? I mean, they see this study with the deaths being much higher than is being at least originally reported by the government in Puerto Rico. And this is, as Shawna said, part of the United States.

MR. BAKER: Yeah. No, you don’t see the sense of alarm that you would expect to see if there were –

MS. THOMAS: That we even saw from New Orleans, yeah.

MR. BAKER: Right. Even – you know, exactly. Whatever you want to say about President Bush, he was slow perhaps off the mark, but he went back there 17 times after Hurricane Katrina to show his demonstration. He pumped in $100 billion. And you don’t see that kind of, like, demonstration of concern, at least by this White House. That may or may not be fair. It may or may not be just symbolic. But the truth is, symbols matter when you’re president. It matters what you take your time to show what you care about.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out our blog on the Right to Try bill that President Trump signed into law this week, allowing terminally ill patients to get experimental treatments. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.

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