Special: What's getting done in a divided government?

Mar. 15, 2019 AT 9:03 p.m. EDT

Months into a divided government, the reporters opened their notebooks to give insight and analysis on what's really getting done. Plus, the conversation also turned to the latest in the 2020 race.

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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. Welcome to the Washington Week Extra, live tonight across many platforms. We certainly had a rich conversation on the show, and we’re continuing it now with Bob Woodward, author and associate editor at The Washington Post; Margaret Brennan, moderator of Face the Nation and senior foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News; Susan Davis, congressional reporter for NPR; and Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-editor of Playbook.

We’re two and a half months into divided government. The president has challenges abroad and at home. But what do we make of it all so far? What have we learned? Where are we going? Let’s open our notebooks. Bob, I’ll start with you. Divided government. You wrote the book, “Fear: Inside the Trump White House.” The initial part of the Trump presidency. Now the president appears to have hit some stumbling blocks with his own party on foreign affairs.

BOB WOODWARD: Yes, and the really interesting question now is, has Trump grown or changed at all, or is it just he has different advisors? And he certainly has a different crop of advisors and Cabinet officers. And I thought it was very important when he said he liked the title “acting” for people like chief of staff and defense secretary. It gives him more power. So he’s doing it his way again. And I’m – you look at it and you say: What’s going to be the tall pole in the tent? What’s going to be the event? Is it in foreign affairs, North Korea, the Middle East somewhere, the economy, China? I don’t know.

MR. COSTA: Margaret, he now – you mentioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the broadcast. How is the president working with Pompeo? Is that relationship an enduring one on foreign policy, even as the talks with North Korea seem to fall apart?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, it’s clear coming out of Hanoi that the National Security Adviser John Bolton kind of won the argument. And Secretary Pompeo would argue he did too in terms of setting some real parameters for the president to say what is and is not enough. Let’s be clear here, North Korea is still making enough fissile material and has, between Singapore and Hanoi, to make about six to eight nuclear weapons. They’re just not testing. They are a growing threat. But the idea that diplomacy remains alive in any way is to the credit of Mike Pompeo, because he has kept envoys on the ground continuing to engage. And really, it’s one of the few things that Democrats will give the president even some credit for on the foreign policy front, that he’s even going this route at all.

But I think there are so many huge things that we could and should be talking about as a country, including what’s happening in Afghanistan right now. You know, the president campaigned on the same thing President Obama did: We’re out of Afghanistan. Right now you’re having a huge argument about this draft agreement to withdraw troops that the United States is cutting with the Taliban. There are so many things being argued about.

And as Bob just brought up, it’s interesting to see who the president has started to listen to. It was surprising he listened to Bolton coming out of those North Korea talks because many people really focused on the fact he wasn’t in the room for a lot of the conversation going into it. Really interesting on Afghanistan too, and on Syria, that Lindsey Graham, who is not the secretary of defense, seems to be making really persuasive arguments from the outside on what the president should be doing with U.S. troop presence in Syria and in the battlefields of Afghanistan. So it’s still kind of hard to come up with what the Trump doctrine actually is going to be here.

MR. COSTA: Sue, when you look at the House of Representatives, Speaker Pelosi, and we talked about it on the show, it’s a power struggle between her and President Trump. She’s had a lot on her plate. Some success in pushing back the Republican agenda. But also debates over Israel within her caucus. She’s dealing with tensions about how to handle the investigations on Capitol Hill. What’s your reporting reveal about her inner circle and how she’s been handling it so far?

SUSAN DAVIS: You know, I think the next two years Nancy Pelosi’s going to be one of the most fascinating figures. I mean, she has been, but in some ways how the next two years play out really will define her legacy in Washington. I mean, she’s the first speaker since Sam Rayburn to have the speakership, lose it, and get it back. And I think she is kind of seen in that caliber of speakership. So what she does with that power. Being able to get the speaker’s gavel when a lot of people campaigned saying they wouldn’t vote for her. And a lot of those people ended up voting for her. The way she held the caucus together during the shutdown. I mean, she’s had a lot of early successes.

The thing that I think that is always important to remember about Pelosi she’s one of the most seasoned pros at the table right now. And I think she has been – maybe undercut a lot of her career, but she’s one of the smartest tactical politicians that I’ve ever covered. She knows where – almost all the time where the votes are in her caucus. She knows where her party is. And I think a lot of the story is, oh, they’re divided on this, they’re divided on this. I think the difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans are divided, and they derailed their legislation a lot of times. Democrats are divided and at the end most of them still want to be a yes. So the fundamental push of the Democratic Caucus is generally to move the ball forward versus blow it all up.

MR. COSTA: When you think about Speaker Pelosi, yes, the Muller report hovers out there as something that’s probably coming soon. We’ll see when the exact release of that is when it goes to the Justice Department. But when she says she’s not moving right now toward impeachment, does that say to the country she’s willing to work with President Trump in a serious way on infrastructure, prescription drug reform, prescription drug pricing? Or is that stuff really off the table when you talk to top Democrats?

JAKE SHERMAN: Very difficult to say. President Trump has said his top legislative priority is passing the new NAFTA, the USMCA as he calls it. The White House is actually acting quite good on that, to get it done. And they are working with Pelosi. I will agree with everything Sue said, and add one more point here. Pelosi has an amazing ability to burn the candle at both ends. She knows where she’s going to end up. She knows, I would imagine, whether the trade deal will pass. There’s a lot of skepticism among Democrats that it will pass. She brought in Bob Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, for a big talk in front of her caucus this week. And the White House kept telling me: This is a great sign. Pelosi’s letting our guy in. And I just kept thinking about all the times where Pelosi has just let the string play out for months at a time, months at a time, and everybody ended up coming around to her position anyway.

MR. COSTA: You said the White House has been pretty good in dealing with Congress on trade. Do you mean the U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer? Has he actually been able to build a rapport with Democrats?

MR. SHERMAN: He and C.J. Mahoney, who are the two top trade officials – United States trade officials – they’ve been listening, which is good. And they – the White House legislative affairs team on the House side is actually quite able and has done a good job in the past of putting things together – to the extent they’ve been able to with a president who changes his opinion a lot. But they haven’t messed up yet. And that’s a big thing on something as complex as a trade deal.

MR. WOODWARD: But in the end, when Boehner was the speaker and they had a majority, they always talked about themselves being a blocking majority, they stopped things. And if Pelosi can only stop things, if everything gets stopped really in the Senate and there’s no scorecard where you can say, hey, this is what we accomplished – in the early months you can see how let’s have this combat, and so forth. Scorecards matter.

MS. DAVIS: I think that the presidential leadership here matters though, because we do know we have a record with Pelosi. She was speaker – or, she was a leader under Bush. And she worked with a Republican president, right? And they did actually pass legislation together. I think she has proven herself to be willing to cut deals with Republicans. I’m not as convinced that this is a White House that wants to have a legislative accomplishment with Nancy Pelosi.

MS. BRENNAN: Well, it may be even more of a risk for the Democrats to hand that ahead of a 2020 race too. But I think trade is something that’s undercovered and we should be talking more about because it is hugely also uncomfortable when it comes to that USMCA vote for a lot of progressives to be voting for some of the things in the free trade deal or, you know, the sequencing of how these votes play out on NAFTA, then you’ve got to have the negotiations with the Europeans finalized. We were fighting with our allies over that. We still have tariffs on Canada and Mexico. And then you have the big thing President Trump really wants, that China deal that they want to be able to finalize as soon as next month. And Nancy Pelosi knows that the sequencing of that is important, get the deal with your allies so you can pressure your enemies, like China.

MR. COSTA: Let’s finish for a moment on the 2020 presidential race. We have a lot of new voices, new figures jumping into the race. One of them is former Texas Congressman Robert O’Rourke, also known as Beto O’Rourke. He is in. He was in Iowa this week. You covered him in the House. I know he’s gotten a lot of attention for his Senate race last year against Senator Ted Cruz, but you’ve observed him up close for a few years when he was more of a backbencher in the House. A serious contender, someone to pay attention to, or what should we know about him after having reported on him?

MR. SHERMAN: I think Sue would agree – I’ll let her veto this if she disagrees – I don’t think former Congressman O’Rourke made a big mark on Congress in any way. He was, as you mentioned, a backbench member who had served for three terms. There are perhaps thousands of backbench members who served for three terms that don’t even merit a footnote in history in many cases, I would say. I think he has gotten a bunch of endorsements. People like him. I understand a lot – and a lot of his colleagues intellectually understand the appeal. It’ll be interesting to see how he frames his experience as a member of Congress, which is really his only – not his only, but one of his chief calling cards

MS. DAVIS: They also talk so much about – in the 2020 field about lanes, and I’m – Beto is interesting because I’m not sure exactly what lane he fits into. He’s not the obvious electable lane. He’s not the diverse lane. He’s not the progressive lane; he’s actually much more of a centrist. So I think it shows that there is a lot of room in the field, but I think – I’m curious to see how he plays in – when he’s not in Texas, when he’s not running against Ted Cruz, can he really win in Iowa? I don’t know.

MR. WOODWARD: I think experience really matters, and I think it’s going to matter against Trump. And there are a number of candidates or prospective candidates like Joe Biden who can wear the experience label with great credibility, and I think that’s going to be an issue more than how somebody’s campaign rollout is. And there are just so many things. I mean, if we had a pool and, you know, listed all these people and who’s going to get the nomination, no one’s going to win that pool. (Laughter.)

MR. COSTA: But we do –

MS. DAVIS: But Americans also proved they like their last new – their last two presidents were two of the most inexperienced candidates, right? Donald Trump and Barack Obama were pretty inexperienced candidates.

MS. BRENNAN: I think the celebrity and the rhetoric, I mean, people are kind of looking for – my interpretation of events at least – the soaring rhetoric of someone like Beto is such a contrast to President Trump’s description of the world in very dark terms, in very stark terms, very sort of keeping you from the abyss versus the aspirational rhetoric of Beto. It seems to me there’s a lot at least that the media is focusing on in terms of that descriptive characteristic, not what he ran on or what he legislated around.

MR. COSTA: And my favorite development this week in 2020, Democrats pick Milwaukee for the site of their national convention. I love our friends over at Milwaukee PBS. Good beer, good cheese, good people.

We’ll leave it there tonight. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re online check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.


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