Full Episode: Post-election turmoil in Washington

Nov. 16, 2018 AT 9:35 p.m. EST

In wake of elections that fractured Republicans' control in Washington, the Russia probe looms over President Donald Trump. What’s next for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation? Plus, the CIA concludes the Saudi Crown Prince ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And, House Democrats confront a leadership tussle on Capitol Hill.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Robert Mueller wants answers, and there’s a leadership fight on Capitol Hill. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) My lawyers aren’t working on that. I’m working on that. I write the answers.

MR. COSTA: The president says he has prepared answers for Robert Mueller as he escalates his attacks against the special counsel.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) No indication that the Mueller investigation will not be allowed to finish, and it should be allowed to finish.

MR. COSTA: And Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker faces tough questions. Plus, House Democrats confront a leadership tussle.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I have overwhelming support in my caucus to be speaker of the House.

REPRESENTATIVE MARCIA FUDGE (D-OH): (From video.) Sometimes you just need a different voice. Sometimes you just need a different kind of a vision.

MR. COSTA: We discuss the president’s looming decisions on the Mueller probe, his team, and the new Congress, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. The special counsel is once again front and center in President Trump’s Washington, with the president and his lawyers writing answers for Robert Mueller amid news reports of possible indictments coming pretty soon.

Joining me tonight, Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios; Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal ; Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press; and Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for The Washington Post and a CNN political analyst.

Here’s what the president told reporters inside the Oval Office today.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I was asked a series of questions. I’ve answered them very easily, very easily. Have to always be careful when you answer questions with people that probably have bad intentions. There should have never been any Mueller investigation because there was never anything done wrong. There was no collusion. There never has been. You would have known about it a long time ago if there was.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, what’s the scope of the questions that the president’s actually prepared to answer here?

JONATHAN LEMIRE: Well, what we’ve seen today is the return of the special counsel, who’s been working behind the scenes for months but publicly tamped down ahead of the midterms. And these questions, a series of negotiations between the White House lawyers and the special counsel, focus on the question of collusion during the campaign. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s attorney, and others in the White House have really pushed back; they don’t want the obstruction to be part of this. These questions, we hear, focus on collusion. The president spent a few days this week going over the answers with his lawyers. It has been in the forefront of his mind. There is concern, as you just said, that we’ve heard Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, other allies have spoken publicly that they think indictments could be coming for them. The president has been frustrated at the criticism of his new acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. And it burst into light Thursday morning with a rather remarkable tweetstorm, his first public comments about the special counsel in a while. And then today in the Oval Office, asked about where things stand, suggested – you know, made it very clear that he was involved, not just his attorneys, in preparing these answers, though they have not been submitted yet to Robert Mueller.

VIVIAN SALAMA: It’s interesting to hear how much he wanted to take credit today for writing the answers, insisting that he was the one who answered the questions. Actually, we have it on good authority that it was his lawyers who took control of that process, and the president obviously was consulted on that.

But, obviously, in the last two days the president had gotten back from Paris a couple days ago, and Robert Mueller is clearly on his mind. Yesterday he came out swinging on Thursday and he said that the entire investigation is a compete mess. He once again accused Mueller of being biased and being favorable to Democrats, said that he worked for Obama for eight years – again, not true. He was actually – the Senate actually extended his term during the Obama administration for another two years, but he had actually been appointed under President Bush. Robert Mueller, a registered Republican. I mean, a number of things to keep in mind here. But the president very frustrated, again, with this investigation, clearly wanting to see it end sooner than later.

As far as where the investigation for Mueller stands, there are two tracks that we have to consider. The first is before the presidency and the second is during the presidency. And so President Trump’s lawyers really pushing back on any kind of cooperation that involves answering questions that involve anything that happened during the presidency, but they are willing to play ball a little bit with things that happened during the campaign. And so these are the two tracks. Obviously, the Mueller – the Mueller team wanting more answers about the firing of former FBI Director Jim Comey and a number of other things that have happened since the president took office, but they’re starting with the pre-presidency period first.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, is there anything that’s going to stop the president and his lawyers from submitting these written answers at this point? The president says he’s writing them, but could there be a snag along the way?

JONATHAN SWAN: I mean, with President Trump there always could be. You know, I spoke to a source with direct knowledge of the situation today, and they were very confident that they were going to be submitted imminently.

I think one thing to kind of pull back a little bit, this really is a literal moment of truth for Trump. He has spent his entire public life – decades – facing scant if any consequences for saying things that are untrue, and it’s very clear from his public behavior and also from what we’re told privately that he understands the stakes. He understands what would happen if he lied to the special counsel. And even though he’s not conferring this in words, just the simple act of putting this letter – sending this letter to Mueller is Trump conferring legitimacy upon the special counsel and acknowledging in act, if not in words, that this is a really important and serious investigation, and that it behooves people who are powerful to cooperate with it. So the very act of submitting it, even though yes, it’s true, that is sounds like from Giuliani’s public comments that they are not playing ball on corrupt – on obstruction, it is an acknowledgement and an acquiescence to Mueller.

MR. COSTA: Where does Congress figure here, Seung Min? You think about Senator Jeff Flake, retiring, from Arizona. He wants to have legislation come to a vote in the upper chamber to protect the Mueller probe. Is that happening at all?

SEUNG MIN KIM: Well, I mean, as the president has ramped up his rhetoric against the special counsel in recent days, it’s really aggravated the situation on Capitol Hill on many fronts. You’ve mentioned Jeff Flake. In his twilight hours as a senator, he’s taking that bold stand that so many of his critics wanted him to take and vowing to block a litany of judges. We’ve got about 20 in the Judiciary Committee, many more waiting on the floor to be confirmed, that he says he will block and do whatever he can until he gets a vote on that special counsel protection bill that he believes can pass the Senate. And he’s telling McConnell: All I want is a vote. But remember what McConnell really – Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, really loves. His top priority is transforming the judiciary. And so for Flake to push at that is really getting under McConnell’s nerves a little bit. And there’s other – so Flake is one situation. And there’s other factors as well. Obviously this is going to be an issue with the confirmation of a new attorney general in the coming weeks.

MR. COSTA: Who’s it going to be?

MS. KIM: (Laughs.) Your guess is as good as ours for now. I mean, he’s interviewing. There’s a short list in mind, perhaps beginning the interviews soon. But it’s been interesting. We’ve asked a lot of Republican senators if they’ve had concerns about the acting attorney general’s comments, Matt Whitaker, in his earlier comments disparaging the Mueller probe. And they’ve said, you know, those comments were made when he was a private citizen. We’re OK for now. But the permanent acting attorney – or the permanent attorney general, whoever that person, when they are nominated almost every Senate Republican we’ve talked to says: That person will almost surely have to make a public commitment that he or she will not interfere with the Mueller probe if they want to get confirmed.

MR. COSTA: Has Matthew Whitaker, the acting AG, made that commitment? And how uncertain is his position tonight?

MR. LEMIRE: Well, he did tell – the AP’s reporting that he told Senator Graham that, you know, he would let the Mueller probe continue. He has received criticism from both sides of the aisle. And this is part of the thing that – one of the many factors behind the scenes that has sort of aggravated the president this week, according to our reporting, that he did not – he thought it would be more of a glide path for this choice. He didn’t think he’d find much in the way of resistance. He’s been taken aback by the problems with it. And we saw in his tweets yesterday where he said that, you know, Whitaker’s come under criticism for not being Senate confirmed. And he – the president said, well, neither is Robert Mueller, the special counsel, not noting that you don’t have to be confirmed for that position, and that Robert Mueller has previously been confirmed for other positions.

That that, as well as Michael Cohen’s presence here in the Capitol this week, was something else that frustrated the president, feeling that he might be talking to the special counsel, what could that mean – his former personal attorney who, of course, knows a lot of the inner workings of the Trump organization and the Trump campaign. To this point, the White House certainly is standing behind Whitaker, but there is a growing sentiment that his time in this job may be relatively short, that there’s an effort to get the president to accelerate the time table to pick a more permanent post.

MR. COSTA: You mentioned earlier the names of Julian Assange, Jerome Corsi, a conspiracy theorist on the right, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. There’s Roger Stone, the long-time Trump advisor. There are so many names as part of this process who could be facing indictments. That’s the talk in many news organizations. How much are those possibilities hovering over this White House?

MS. SALAMA: Oh, it’s definitely hovering over. The question is how much do they know and how damaging could it be to the president, or any of the members of the inner circle of his campaign? But certainly, you know, the president came out and kind of tried to downplay the knowledge of a number of these people, and especially Roger Stone, where he’s come out and said, well, he actually didn’t know anything and I’m not that close with him. He’s done that now with Michael Cohen. He’s done that with a number of different people who have gotten so close to the Mueller investigation that it seems like they could be talking. And so obviously any of this. And, again, the president is someone who is very – believes in secrecy, believes in nondisclosure agreements. And this is how he’s basically operated in his life before the presidency. And so for his allies to be talking to investigators, it’s very unsettling.

MR. COSTA: On Capitol Hill, Seung Min, what do you make of the House Judiciary Committee – the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee, deciding to bring up former FBI Director Jim Comey to testify in a few weeks, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to talk about the Hillary Clinton email investigation? Does this show that Republicans are trying to kick back amid all this talk about Robert Mueller?

MS. KIM: Well, there’s been – they’ve kept their focus on that chapter of the 2016 campaign for some time. But remember, they’re going out of power in the House Judiciary Committee in a few weeks. By January 3 rd , it’ll be Democrats who control the gavel in that committee. And they have a whole – a whole list of questions going the completely other direction in terms of investigating the president.

I do want to point out, though, the new – the likely incoming new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to be Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Once a very, you know, Trump enemy, now a very close ally who has indicated that he those exact issues will be matters that he would be more than happy to investigate should he become chairman. So –

MR. COSTA: Does he become Trump’s warrior in the Senate on all the investigations? As the House Democrats go after the president, is Graham there in the Senate?

MS. KIM: He’s already shown he’s going to be quite the defender against the – or for the president in these matters. And I think we can definitely expect that he’s going to be a very vocal ally in the next Congress as Democrats in the House be very aggressive in terms of their oversight and their investigations. And Lindsey Graham also has a political imperative here. He’s up in 2020. And always is facing a challenge from the right.

MR. COSTA: All these battlegrounds – Lindsey Graham – Senator Graham and President Trump versus House Democrats, all as Robert Mueller does his work. But I want to turn to some breaking news tonight about journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The CIA has determined tonight that the Saudi Crown Price Mohammad Bin Salman ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor. The Washington Post broke the story, that the CIA looked into a phone call between the crown prince’s brother, who also serves as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and Khashoggi.

Jonathan, talking to your sources tonight at the White House, how do we expect President Trump to react to this development? The CIA is tying it directly to the crown prince.

MR. SWAN: Right. I don’t know how Trump’s going to react to it yet, but I think it’s very, very important to – as, you know, we see these official denials from the Saudis –

MR. COSTA: Let’s see that real quick. The Saudis have officially denied it. I’m going to come back to you, Jonathan. The Saudi foreign ministry and the brother have tweeted tonight: As we told The Washington Post , the last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text in 2017. I never talked to him by phone. I never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the U.S. government to release any information regarding this claim.

MR. SWAN: So I have a text message – sorry – a WhatsApp message from Prince Khalid bin Salman Monday the 8 th of October. This shows you how credible he is. It includes this line: I assure you that the reports that suggest that Jamal Khashoggi went missing in the consulate in Istanbul or that the kingdom’s authorities have detained him or killed him are absolutely false and baseless. That’s what he told me, and I’ve published this text exchange. And now he’s saying it’s all false. So you need to put that through the filter –

MR. COSTA: So where’s the administration line up here?

MR. SWAN: So here’s the challenge for Trump, is Trump has invested so much in MBS. Trump wants to put this – Trump would love nothing more than to be able to go back to doing business with the Saudis, keep selling weapons, keep putting jobs into America, let the Saudis chop off five people’s heads and blame these rogue, you know, operators.

MR. COSTA: It’s all transactional?

MR. SWAN: Hundred percent transactional. And when Trump talks about this privately with aides he said, oh, well, you know, it’s one guy. You know, look at the Chinese. Look at all these other guys around the world. It’s a tough world. There’s all these other dictators.

MR. COSTA: You all were on your phones talking to sources before the show. What are you hearing out there? Jonathan.

MR. LEMIRE: Well, I mean, at this point – I mean, Jonathan is right. I mean, the president has not – at least before airtime – has not commented on this. The White House has not said anything yet. He has indeed invested so much in MBS, and Saudi as sort of, you know, maybe the United States’ bulwark in the Middle East against Iran and so on, to making these arms deals.

MR. COSTA: But the CIA’s spoken up.

MR. LEMIRE: They have. And, you know, there has been moments before where – we’ve seen it with the FBI – when the president did not agree with or like a conclusion that that agency gave him.

MR. SWAN: I remember there was a press conference in Helsinki, you were somewhat involved in. (Laughter.)

MR. LEMIRE: I may have been. I may have been. But he’s – the president has not been shy in denouncing members – his own agencies. We’ll see if that happens here.

MR. COSTA: Vivian, you’ve covered the Pentagon. You’ve covered foreign affairs. What do you make of it?

MS. SALAMA: Well, obviously his hands are tied at the moment because of the fact, as these guys said, he just – he invested so much in MBS, who was really an unknown when he came to power last year. He put a lot of power into his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s hands in terms of managing that relationship. Part of it was supposed to be a legacy relationship in the sense of turning things around from the Obama administration, you know, getting close with Riyadh again instead of Iran, which had – you know, the Saudis had been angry over the Iran nuclear deal. And so all of these things at play, plus the fact that he, you know, really touted this historic military deal with the Saudis, which he said were all about jobs, were all about pumping money into the U.S. economy. Now he’s got to step back and say, well, you know, we’re going to have to put our foot down at some point.

MR. COSTA: We’ll keep an eye on all this. It’s late-breaking news. And the reason we keep asking about who’s talking to the president in all of this is because it’s a fluid time right now inside of this White House, inside of this administration. The president had made no secret about his plans to shake up his team. And the name at the top of the list in the Cabinet per many reports, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Nielsen’s expected departure raises questions also about the job security of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who brought her into the White House. Are we seeing a shakeup pretty soon at DHS? And is Kelly on his way out?

MS. KIM: Well, I think, much like the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, we’ve felt that Kirstjen Nielsen has been on her way out for some time. The president in private has made no secret of the fact that he is displeased with her job performance, which the vast majority of her portfolio is immigration and what’s going on at the border. She – I mean, it’s important to point out that Nielsen – I mean, she is constrained under immigration law with certain things that she can do. But under the administration, there was a family – the zero-tolerance policy earlier this year. You know, separate from DHS the president did dispatch troops to the border to try to clamp down on security. But regardless of all that, the president is clearly displeased with what she has done.


MS. SALAMA: Because for the president she just hasn’t gone far enough, and the president doesn’t understand that part of things. We know that she has – she has indicated that she wants to stay on until at least December 6 th , which would be her one-year – one-year tenure on the job.

I did find it interesting earlier today in the Oval Office where he was asked, you know – he mentioned that he was pleased with almost all of my Cabinet and their performance, and standing right behind him was Kirstjen Nielsen.

MR. COSTA: What a scene. Jonathan, Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, is he coming in soon as chief of staff, or is this early, too-soon chatter?

MR. SWAN: So it’s not too soon because Trump has been talking to him about the job for months now, actually. And in any normal universe, what Trump has said to Nick privately, according to multiple people who are in a position to know, is he’s basically offered him the job. But when Trump offers you a job, it’s not a normal job offer. You know, he does this sort of loose, oh, I want you to do this, and then the conversation continues, and there’s never a finality to it. The problem for Nick is that there is a very aggressive internal backlash against him, and Trump tends to get unsettled when he hears from lots of people telling him not to do something.

MR. COSTA: What’s the reason for the backlash?

MR. SWAN: People in there – there’s a lot of people in there who simply don’t like him. It’s really that simple.

MR. COSTA: Now, some people say that, oh, this is inside baseball, but personnel with this administration can be policy in a sense. It’s a revealing way to see this administration and what’s really driving President Trump’s agenda. You saw this week the first lady even got involved in national security personnel.

MR. LEMIRE: Right, and ousted a deputy security adviser –

MR. COSTA: Mira Ricardel.

MR. LEMIRE: That’s right. That’s right, one of John Bolton’s top deputies. And you’re right, it is – personnel can be policy. We saw that, you know, Jeff Sessions, who was the target of the president’s ire for so long, but of course was very successful moving forward the Trump agenda in the Department of Justice even as he drew the president’s wrath for recusing himself from the Russia probe. And certainly John Kelly, as you just mentioned, I mean, his fate here is – remains uncertain despite that proclamation a few months back that he’d serve till 2020. That was one that was not really taken seriously either inside or outside the West Wing. You know, his departure – we’ve all written John Kelly’s on his way out the door stories a number of times. That is not certainly the – he’s still in this position, but that could change at a moment’s notice. And certainly if Nielsen were to leave there is some suggestion that Kelly may go out too because the two of them are so tightly allied. And if he were to leave, then whether it’s Ayers or someone else, the force of that next chief of staff would play a significant role in the next few months or years of the Trump administration. We saw at least for a time Kelly was somewhat successful sort of organizing the paper process in the building, moving out legislation and such. He’s certainly lost some of the sway over the president, but the next chief of staff could perhaps regain it.

MR. COSTA: Perhaps, or is the president alone? You’ve been traveling with him, a president alone in the world. Is he also alone sometimes even inside of the West Wing?

MS. SALAMA: Well, he – he’s definitely stated numerous times that he thinks he’s his own best spokesman and could probably – would probably like to kind of call the shots for himself and not have to answer to other people in the White House –

MR. COSTA: Who’s his main confidant these days?

MS. SALAMA: I mean, it’s hard to say. Certainly his daughter is somebody that he’s always kept close to him. But as far as the main confidant, that changes every couple of weeks, that people fall and out of favor with this president pretty quickly. But you know, we have to – we have to understand that John Kelly came into a pretty chaotic situation where they were – it was a new administration, they were kind of just getting their sea legs, and he was supposed to, as this retired four-star general, really instill some discipline into this White House, and he managed for a time to do that. Some things changed. But of course, things loosened up again and it just – over the course of time.

But what we’re talking about is no ordinary personnel matter. I mean, the chief of staff is so significant, and basically handles the daily issues of this White House.

MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to Capitol Hill. This week senators and House Republicans chose their party leadership. There were few surprises. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were reelected to two-year terms. Republicans elected Kevin McCarthy House minority leader by an overwhelming vote. And House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, she’s hoping to be speaker of the House, a position she held before, from 2007 to 2011. But there is a rebel group of House Democrats at least 17 strong, and today Pelosi met with one of them, Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge, who is considering a run for speaker. Pelosi by far the frontrunner, but there’s a lot of grumbling going on in the Democratic ranks.

MS. KIM: Exactly, and it’s interesting. I think the sentiment on Capitol Hill generally is that Nancy Pelosi will somehow find the votes, whatever she has to do to get to 218 on the floor to become speaker again, but clearly right now she does not have them. I mean, by the Washington Post count we have about 20 members of the Democratic caucus and incoming members as well who have vowed to oppose her on the floor. That’s clearly not enough, but there is a lot she can do with, you know, handing out valuable committee assignments on Ways or (sic; and) Means or Energy and Commerce, or promising to create new panels like we’ve seen with the climate change issue or whatnot. And we’ve seen, you know, various factions within the Democratic caucus use that to their leverage to gain more influence within the caucus. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is a major bloc among the House Democratic ranks, met with Pelosi and got some promises from her that their members will play a more prominent role in these very powerful committees and in influencing legislation, which is a big deal for them. The Congressional Black Caucus, which is another major influential bloc, is split because, as you talked about with Marcia Fudge considering a candidacy.

MR. COSTA: Marcia Fudge from Cleveland, Ohio, what is her – does she – she doesn’t have the Congressional Black Caucus, as Seung Min was saying, totally with her. I mean, Pelosi has done a pretty good job of consolidating power.

MR. LEMIRE: That’s right. She’s peeled off enough votes, as you said, and I’m certainly going to defer to you on the expertise on the Hill. You know, that she still would be – as you said, she doesn’t have this locked up yet. She would still be, a betting person would say, would be the favorite, and she’s someone who has survived power struggles before. She’s someone who has a remarkable grasp of keeping onto power, and one that it’s interesting to see a lot of Republicans sort of almost rally to her support in part because I think they feel she is a useful foil. We’ve talked to people inside the White House. The president certainly does have some respect for Nancy Pelosi. They have been able to work some deals together, the “Chuck and Nancy” sessions we all remember. But I think there’s also a recognition there that she is someone who they can easily sort of run against, an easy foil for them.

MR. COSTA: Can they really cut deals? What should we know about Kevin McCarthy, the new minority leader? He beat back the Freedom Caucus in this leadership race.

MR. SWAN: Kevin McCarthy, no one would call him a policy wonk, least of all himself. He is a political animal and he – I mean, he is like Nate Silver reading the polls, looking at the states, looking at the maps, getting on the phone. He’s a hustler. He has great relationships. He’s got all the soft skills, the EQ. He knows what every member needs, what they want. He really –

MR. COSTA: Is he going to try to build back the party in the suburbs?

MR. SWAN: He is a much – he is a much better politician than Paul Ryan in the sense of – in the pure sense of, you know, glad-handing, knowing what people need, knowing what people want, having a feel for the caucus. What will that amount to? I actually don’t know because I don’t think they’re going to get anything done in this new configuration.

MR. COSTA: We’ll see. Infrastructure, prescription drugs, we’ll save that for next week. We have to leave it there tonight. Thanks, everybody, for being here. I really appreciate it.

And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find that on our website Fridays after 10 p.m. and also on your favorite podcast app.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend, and we’ll see you next time.


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