Full Episode: President Trump on defense, Democrats in damage control

Mar. 08, 2019 AT 9:46 p.m. EST

As special counsel Robert Mueller's probe appears to be winding down, Democrats are stepping up their investigations into President Donald Trump. The panelists discussed the latest in the investigations, the resignation of White House communications director Bill Shine, the latest economic numbers, and the recently-passed congressional resolution denouncing bigotry.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Democratic demands, talk of pardons, and tensions in both parties. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

President Trump outraged and defiant as Democrats push ahead on probes into his campaign, administration, and business.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s a collusion hoax.

MR. COSTA: And he knocks his former lawyer, who is cooperating with investigators.

MICHAEL COHEN: (From video.) I have never asked for, nor would I accept a pardon from President Trump.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Michael Cohen lied about the pardon. That was a stone-cold lie.

MR. COSTA: And tensions come as a top White House official exits and Democrats clash over anti-hate legislation, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. House Democrats are now waiting for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to finish his work. Two months into their majority they’re stepping up their investigations of President Trump, and this week the broad scope of their efforts became clear. The House Judiciary Committee contacted 81 individuals and organizations associated with Mr. Trump, requesting documents as they seek answers on possible obstruction of justice, corruption, and abuse of power. And if anyone stonewalls, subpoenas could fly.

Joining me tonight, Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios; Shawna Thomas, Washington bureau chief for Vice News ; Susan Glasser, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the weekly Letter from Trump’s Washington ; and Joshua Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek .

Shawna, you’ve covered Capitol Hill for years. Democrats now are broadening the scope of this investigation, all of these requests, yet they’re getting ahead of Robert Mueller and his timeline. Why is that?

SHAWNA THOMAS: I mean, I don’t think they see it as getting ahead of Robert Mueller; I think they see it as for the last two years of the Trump administration we haven’t had any power to really do anything, it’s time to now gather information and see what’s out there. And if you don’t start now, you’re going to put out 81 requests, who knows how many documents they are going to get back. That’s going to take a long time to go through that. So while it seems like they’re getting ahead of Mueller, we don’t know what’s going to come out of all of this. And just like with the Mueller investigation – as we’ve said so many times that it was going to take a long time, we don’t know what the conclusions are – anything that House Judiciary Committee does or Intelligence or whatever is going to take a long time. So I don’t totally see it as getting ahead. It’s trying to dig down into the information that they can actually maybe get ahold of now, maybe.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, is the White House ready for this onslaught?

JONATHAN SWAN: So they were very slow to get ready. They basically – I mean, when it was very obvious early last year that they were probably going to lose the House, it still took them until November, really, to start preparing. I mean, you know, Don McGahn was obviously on his way out. The new White House counsel comes in and he has to build a team quickly. They got ready in a hurry. But I think to add to Shawna’s point, what the House and the particularly Judiciary/Oversight Committees, Intelligence, are doing is they’re assuming that Mueller is going to be fairly narrowly constrained in his investigation, that he’s going to really stick to Russia collusion, the campaign. And they’re saying, well, hey, we want to investigate Trump’s personal business, we want to maybe look at Jared – I mean, we reported this morning some of these members and Chairman Cummings are saying we want to look into Jared Kushner’s family real estate deal they did, bailout last year. So there’s all these other threads that they’re going to pull which really probably won’t turn up in Mueller’s report because he’s a man from all accounts who sticks to the confines of his brief.

MS. THOMAS: And they don’t know what they’re going to get from Mueller’s report, either, that’s actually going to get delivered to the House of Representatives. That is still a murky thing, so they’re trying to get as much of that stuff as they can on their own.

MR. COSTA: But what is the White House’s message? We saw news Friday Bill Shine, the deputy chief of staff, a former executive at Fox News, he’s leaving. He’s resigned his post. You wrote the Devil’s Bargain all about inside the White House, Steve Bannon, President Trump. What does the departure of Bill Shine mean for President Trump? And as Jonathan said, the White House is fighting back, but who’s actually doing the fighting for President Trump?

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, I think the answer in all these cases is Trump himself. You know, he came out today, and before he got on Marine – or on the helicopter to head down to survey tornado damage in Alabama – I counted – he said no collusion 10 different times. I think the message for Trump on these Democratic investigations, on Mueller, is that he’s done nothing wrong, there was no collusion. Bill Shine, who had been such a powerful executive at Fox News, I think got into the White House and discovered that maybe he didn’t have that same kind of power, and that Trump is the one who decides his own message and conveys that, and that’s going to be true regardless of who’s staffing his White House.

MR. COSTA: And, Susan, you wrote about in your Letter from Washington this week the White House’s lack of having news conferences anymore, how they’re really in a bunker mentality at times inside of this media operation around President Trump. You’ve also covered foreign affairs for years. We saw, as Josh was saying, the president referencing the Paul Manafort sentencing – 47 months in prison, significantly less than was expected from prosecutors and sought by Robert Mueller’s team. What is the significance of Paul Manafort getting that reduced sentence?

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, look, first of all, he’s now going to be sentenced on the other set of violations here in the District that he has pleaded guilty to, so he may well get more than these four years once it’s all added up. Let’s pull back, right, to President Trump, who’s the main subject here, OK? So, number one, you have his former campaign chairman, his former national security adviser, a whole array of people around him who are guilty of criminal conduct or pleading guilty to it. This is extremely significant if nothing else happened. If Robert Mueller shut down tomorrow with no report, this would already be arguably, you know, the most serious set of criminals around the president of the United States that we’ve had since Watergate, so number one.

Number two, President Trump, as Josh alluded to, has been sort of mounting his own defense, right, but he is essentially trying to get us to define it as no collusion and therefore, if that’s what comes out of this, that everything is fine. And I think Trump once again is showing his communications skills here, perhaps, but no amount of spinning around no collusion can eliminate the facts on the record, which are already quite damning when it comes both to the criminal world surrounding Donald Trump, the serious questions that are already a matter of public record not only about his campaign’s interactions with Russian – agents of Russia during the campaign, his own apparent foreknowledge of these criminal hacks of the Democrats during the 2016 campaign, and then there’s the whole unfolding bucket of his businesses. And the question is whether that’s relevant in his presidency or not. But I just – if there’s one thing to say, it’s that the president faces jeopardy that far has metastasized beyond what the Mueller investigation is.

MR. COSTA: And he faces potential legal problems on the issue of a pardon, at least his legal team does. We see Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress, but he’s now talking about the Trump team this week – his lawyer’s words, “dangling a pardon” in the summer of last year. Is there any vulnerability there for President Trump? How is his team handling it?

MS. THOMAS: I mean, they’re – I’ve talked to some former U.S. attorneys who say that dangling a pardon could equal obstruction of justice; it depends. It would be a hard case to prove because you don’t know, like, what’s in people’s heads, basically.

I think the thing about Michael Cohen, though, is that because all of the information around this – like, did he talk to his lawyer about it? Did his lawyer talk to President Trump? Was that Michael Cohen asking for a pardon? Also, Michael Cohen has already admitted to lying to Congress before. He’s just – he’s not the most reliable source. And while sometimes the president of the United States is also not the most reliable source, when the president gets on – you know, on the chopper and basically says Michael Cohen is a liar, it’s really hard to refute that, and so that all kind of plays into the president’s narrative.

MR. GREEN: We also know, too, I mean, Cohen spent hours and hours this week testifying before the House, and we don’t know what was said because that was in private. However, a number of Democrats who were in those hearings have suggested in various interviews on TV that there really was important information that will come out. And when those transcripts are released maybe in three weeks, in four weeks, it could clarify some of this and maybe kick into gear some additional scandals.

MS. THOMAS: And he apparently brought a lot of documents with him, a roller bag’s worth of documents, so – to help prove what he’s saying.

MS. GLASSER: Well, that’s the one thing I wanted to say, is that we are focusing on – Trump is, you know, winning his spin game, at least. Every time we’re talking about Michael Cohen, and did he ask for a pardon or not, and is he credible or not, we’re not talking about the serious allegations of wrongdoing by the president of the United States that have been made under oath in public testimony before Congress. We’re not talking about the documented checks. And again, this goes to why did I write about the lack of professional press briefings, the lack of any kind of normal transparency for any administration, Democrat or Republican, from this administration; because they would be forced to answer basic questions like, well, why did President Trump sign these checks, why did it switch from the president’s trust to the president’s personal account. There are so many basic questions that aren’t about spin.

MR. COSTA: And all-important questions. But when the White House is looking at Congress, Jonathan, do they think the Democrats are overreaching?

MR. SWAN: Yeah. Yeah, they do. This week they saw as a gift. They did.


MR. SWAN: Because Jerry Nadler, the chair of Judiciary Committee, puts out 81 requests, you know. And you look at the list, it’s exhaustive. It includes people that, you know, are they really going to yield much information? Some of these people have been dragged before – you know, Michael Caputo, you know, it’s this –

MR. COSTA: A former Trump campaign advisor.

MR. SWAN: Right. So compare that to the Elijah Cummings approach on oversight – very targeted, very deliberate, very narrow, and really concerned with sequencing. Trump wants to call this a witch hunt, and a lot – I’ve spoken to Democrats who have honestly – House members, senior House members who were disturbed and irritated by what Nadler did because they thought they just – he just handed Trump a witch hunt. So, yes, we can say the PR – you know, publicity doesn’t matter, but it actually does because the Trump Organization doesn’t have many legal tools to fight back against Congress; they know that. It’s a political fight for them. They’re going to fight every step of the way. It’s going to become a congressional fight. It’s going to go up to the courts. And you know, of course, the ultimate question of impeachment is a political fight too.

Nancy Pelosi’s nervous about public opinion. She does not want them to get ahead of public opinion on the question of impeachment. And when Jerry Nadler puts out a list like that, he gives Trump exactly what Trump wants.

MR. COSTA: So it’s not a legal – it’s a legal war, it’s a political war, and it’s also not an isolated battlefield because there are other issues beyond all this investigation that’s going on, all these investigations, such as the economy. And the Labor Department said Friday that U.S. employers added 20,000 new jobs in February, far below the 180,000 jobs forecast by economists. At the same time, unemployment fell to 3.8 percent, down from 4 percent last month. Meanwhile, the president, who has railed against trade deficits for years, but he saw this week the trade deficit surge to a historic high, more than 891 billion (dollars) according to the Commerce Department.

Shawna, the president also facing some disappointing job numbers on Friday, a trade deficit amid a trade war. When you’re on Capitol Hill, does that cause Republicans to maybe get a little more uneasy about this White House? There are already tensions about a national emergency declaration, now new economic numbers.

MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think Republicans behind closed doors are a little nervous about this White House anyway and what 2020 is going to mean for them. But I also think the problem for Republicans, especially because – and you can talk about this more, but the tax bill is kind of all wrapped up in this as well – is that they want to run on Trump’s economic numbers, and it has been a good refrain for him for the most part for the last two years on – that he has built whatever is going on with the economy that’s doing well, that he’s continued it, and that’s great. If the president doesn’t have that to run on and he – and the Republicans behind him do not have that to run on, then all he really has to run on is running against really Jerry Nadler and his witch hunt, and that may not help.

MR. SWAN: I would just say two things. One is, OK, Trump has had pretty good growth, you know, which is a continuation of Obama growth. The unemployment numbers are good. But Trump made two promises on the campaign trail which were fantastical – fantastical – and they’re now running up against reality, OK?

The first one is that he’s somehow going to be able to change and reverse these giant structural trade deficits. The idea that a $330 billion trade deficit with China, where this is a country that has low wages and they sell a ton of cheap goods into America, the idea that one president through his personal magic can reverse that, it’s coming up against reality.

The second one, people forget this, but on the campaign he said we’re going to – I’m going to get rid of the debt, I’m just going to eliminate the debt.

MS. THOMAS: And it is the highest it’s ever been.

MR SWAN: And by the way – and by the way, the way I’m going to do it, I’m going to eliminate a few departments –

MS. GLASSER: Those aren’t the only two fantastical pledges. Saying that Mexico was going to pay for the wall was fantastical.

MR. SWAN: That was.

MR. GREEN: But there’s some real economic things here, though, that the White House is going to have to deal with beyond just the political aspect. The low jobs number was scary to economists because it jived with other recent data. We’ve gotten a slowdown in consumer spending in December, a slowdown in housing starts. We’ve seen GDP falling as the stimulative effects of Trump’s tax cut wear off. That isn’t something you can easily turn around. So the fear for Trump is if these numbers aren’t an aberration – (inaudible) – could be in real economic trouble.

I do think it’s worth pointing out two things. There was some positive news in these reports. One, the low number very well could have been an aberration. You tend to look at these things in three-month averages, and the three-month average for jobs is about 186,000. The other good news was that year over year wages are growing faster over the last year than at any point in the last decade. So there are some takeaways that Trump can hold up and say, look, things are getting better under my watch.

MS. THOMAS: But those are some really nuanced takeaways, other than, like –

MR. GREEN: Well, I don’t know that wages going up is a nuanced takeaway. I mean, I think that’s one thing that a lot of Americans could feel in their own lives if –

MS. THOMAS: If they do feel it in their own lives.

MR. GREEN: But if, in fact, the economy slows downs and goes into recession, well, then that could be a problem they’ll also feel in their own lives. (Laughs.)


MR. COSTA: Do you think this could prompt the president to take some more dramatic action on trade with the Chinese, with Xi Jinping?

MS. GLASSER: Well, it’s – I mean, it’s an important point because the timing is everything, right, and these numbers are coming right in the middle of trade talks culminating, right before there’s going to be – and the White House did announce this week that there is going to be a meeting between President Trump and Xi Jinping. And it’s also coming, I think, right after the collapse of President Trump’s North Korea summit with Kim Jong-un. So the pressure on him has really increased to come up with a deal. Again, the question will be, is it any deal? Is he so looking for a positive result that he can tout that he’ll make one – very few experts – and I am not among them – that I’ve spoken with who are China trade experts believe that structural revolution of the kind that Trump has effectively promised is realistic at this point. So then the question is, will he nonetheless meet with Xi Jinping and declare it to be the case even if it’s not.

MR. SWAN: And the thing that – and to pick up on Susan’s point, the thing that China hawks, people who are really concerned about this, are worried about is something like Trump said today to the pool, where he said I think a China deal would be great for the stock market. And the fear –

MR. COSTA: So a reactive deal.

MR. SWAN: Correct, correct.

MR. COSTA: China hawks are worried about the president just lashing out and taking a deal.

MR. SWAN: And to explain what that means, I mean, basically the Chinese want to pull out the checkbook. They want to go and buy a bunch of soybeans and gas, and Trump, you know, can beat the chest and show off all the deals, and then give some very vague wishy-washy language about stealing American intellectual property and forcing the transfer of technology from American businesses, the stuff that really matters. China has no interest in delivering on that.

MR. COSTA: And meanwhile, as all this happens – job numbers, trade talks, investigations – on Capitol Hill there was infighting this week over a resolution condemning hate and bigotry, revealing cracks among Democrats who debated it intensely. The Democratic-controlled House eventually adopted the anti-hate bill. The vote was 407 yeas, 23 nays, and one present. The measure was in response to comments related to Israel from freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, that have been criticized as anti-Semitic by some Democrats and Republicans.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I don’t believe it was intended in any anti-Semitic way, but the fact is if that that’s how it was interpreted we have to remove all doubt, as we have done over and over again.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They’ve become an anti-Jewish party.

MR. COSTA: The country is understandably on edge about the rise of anti-Semitism, when you think about the tragedy in Charlottesville, you remember what happened at the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue. This debate about the congresswoman’s comments, a freshman Democrat, have also exposed fault lines in the Democratic Party about Israel and foreign policy. What’s your read on what happened this week as the Democrats went at each other about how to frame this legislation?

MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think what they realized is that they stumbled into an even larger conversation not just about anti-Semitism, but about racism and a bunch of other things. And while a lot of people are pointing to sort of Bernie Sanders’ and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s support of Ilhan Omar, part of the support that she got was also from the Congressional Black Caucus, not because of the words she said and the things that were seen as anti-Semitic, but because they felt that a person of color was being attacked in a way that a lot of people who say things that are almost just as bad, or just as bad – especially on the Republican side – have not really been attacked for. And so there was this fissure of: Do you understand kind of how this looks and how this feels when everybody is ganging up on this woman?

But I think the thing that happened when – after they passed that anti-hate resolution, which was anti-hate on multiple levels not just anti-Semitism – is that 23 Republicans voted against it, which showed a weird – they has messaged this pretty well against the Democrats. They had really forced the Democrats into a corner to really, without naming her, condemn one of their own. And then 23 of them voted against an anti-hate measure that was also anti-white nationalism, anti-Semitism. And it sort of changed the story almost instantaneously, because we all had to deal with, wait, you voted against the anti-hate measure? Why did y’all do that?

MR. COSTA: And we’re seeing a new debate across the world, in the U.K. with the Labour Party there, about Israel, a reckoning among those that count themselves part of this rising left.

MR. GREEN: Yeah, there is. And I think that was part of what drove so many American Jews and other people to be alarmed about the comments by Omar, a fear that could the Democratic Party turn into something like the Labour Party in the U.K., which has been roiled by issues of anti-Semitism. What was interesting here, though, was that there really was a kind of a revolt or a backlash, as Shawna said, to the idea that Omar would be singled out.

A lot of Republicans I talked to this week on the Hill were not happy about her comments but were galled by the fact that a Democrat would have to stand up and apologize for this when such terrible things, they say, are being said every day by Republicans like Steven King, who’s made comments in support of white nationalism and white supremacy, President Trump, who has retweeted anti-Semitic images and said all sorts of other things. What it did, I think, was illuminate a split in the Democratic Party too, that might not have been there 10 years ago, before you had this rising wing of progressives coming in.

MR. COSTA: And President Trump, who’s had his own incendiary comments over the years, certainly saw these comments and commented on them today, and seems to be already running against the Democrats as anti-Israel for 2020.

MR. SWAN: Well, and – I mean, Jewish voters have overwhelmingly voted Democrat for a long time. This is something that they’re trying to shift.

MR. COSTA: We’ll be paying attention to all of these issues, important debates. Thanks, everybody, for being here tonight. Our conversation continues at 8:30 p.m. live on the Washington Week Extra, live on Facebook, YouTube, and our website.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend


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