Full Episode: How far will President Donald Trump go to address the migrant surge?

Apr. 12, 2019 AT 9:23 p.m. EDT

The president underscored his hardline stance on immigration this week, confirming reports that his administration may transfer immigrant detainees to sanctuary cities. The panelists discussed the crackdown on immigration. Plus, the conversation also turned to the continued fallout from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, along with the recent arrest of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Just how far will President Trump go to address the migrant surge? I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

President Trump confirms reports that his administration may transfer immigrant detainees to sanctuary cities.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ROBERT BARR: (From video.) I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It’s a big deal.

MR. COSTA: And the attorney general under fire from Democrats after claiming U.S. intelligence agencies spied on the Trump campaign.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) He is the attorney general of the United States of America, not the attorney general of Donald Trump.

MR. COSTA: All as the nation waits for the Mueller report and the president tests his executive power, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump underscored his hard line on immigration this week. On Friday he confirmed reports that he is considering transferring migrants from the southern border to so-called sanctuary cities. According to the Washington Post the White House believes it could punish Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by busing detainees to their districts. The speaker fired back; she said the administration is using human beings, including little children, as pawns in their warped game to perpetuate fear and demonize immigrants, and said the move may be criminal. This comes on the heels of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stepping down after clashing with the president on many policy issues.

Joining me tonight, Nancy Cordes, chief congressional respondent for CBS News; Jake Sherman, senior writer at POLITICO and co-editor of Playbook ; Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News and anchor of Andrea Mitchell Reports ; and Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for The Washington Post .

Seung Min, you’ve been tracking these immigrations all week. I know we all need a little coffee. You have these ups and downs. (Laughter.) But this is a serious threat, it appears, from President Trump. How serious is it in terms of becoming policy?

SEUNG MIN KIM: Well, let’s look at – kind of step back and see how the president’s announcement – surprise announcement earlier today actually materialized. We reported last night that this had been proposed at least twice, first back in November when there was the movement of caravans towards the U.S.-Mexico border that really infuriated the president and prompted a lot of ideas from within the administration on what to do to crack down on the increased migration. It was proposed again internally again in February, when we were embroiled in the shutdown fight and Democrats and Republicans were clashing over how many migrants to detain in the country – in the country who were apprehended at the border. News broke out, other outlets matched our reporting, but what the – and while the White House officials indicated last night that this was an idea that was quickly under consideration, it is no longer on the table, the president surprised us all midday today during your show, in fact – (laughs) – that –

MR. COSTA: What changed? What changed?

MS. KIM: What changed? Well, I reported – our latest reporting is that part of it is that after seeing the media coverage of the plan all morning, the president decided that it was a good idea and decided to announce it, so a lot of it is kind of a self-perpetuating news cycle.

MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with that. He’s watching the television, based on Seung Min’s reporting, and he’s reacting to it, Andrea. Is he watching conservative media? Are they frustrated about this migrant surge and he’s trying to signal something to them?

ANDREA MITCHELL: Signaling to his base – the Lou Dobbs base, the conservative media – but also I think in reading your stories he resents being told, well, I can’t do that, and law doesn’t seem to matter if something is illegal. He’s seeing what clearly is something favorable to Kirstjen Nielsen, that they pushed back against it, and, well, I think that gets his – whatever it is, it gets his anger up and he says he can do that. And he has been defiant about believing that he can violate court rulings right and left. He views them as impediments and not as, you know, restrictions that are legally arrived at.

MR. COSTA: On Capitol Hill, what’s the response among Democrats as the president moves forward, at least potentially, with this idea?

NANCY CORDES: Outrage. They say that it’s beneath the office of the presidency and unlawful. Republicans sort of their attitude seems to be at this point, well, let’s wait 24 to 48 hours and see if it sticks because, you know, just in the past week you’ve had the president say that he’s going to shut down the border altogether and then he walked that back and said, well, no, I’m just going to use that to pressure Mexico and I might do it if I don’t like the negotiation that we – that we – that we reach. And so, you know, Republicans have a kind of a wait-and-see attitude at this point. They know that the president is frustrated on the issue of immigration and they don’t necessarily believe that anything he says one day is going to materialize the next. They think he’ll be on to something else.

MR. COSTA: And one of those Republicans, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, he spoke with Seung Min this week. He said the president is pulling out the rug from the very people that are trying to help him accomplish his goal by doing this purge at the Department of Homeland Security. But back to Andrea’s point, Jake, about Lou Dobbs and the conservative media pressuring the president to take these kind of stances. So is the Freedom Caucus. So are other conservatives on Capitol Hill, Stephen Miller inside of the White House. How influential have those hardliners been in shaping the president’s decision?

JAKE SHERMAN: They’ve dictated his policy for two years. I mean, it’s important to take stock of this. Number one, if he does this it’s going to shut down any chance of anything over the next two years, period, hard stop. Democrats are not going to do business with somebody who’s busing people into their districts as political retribution.

MR. COSTA: But doesn’t this demand a bipartisan solution at some level to address the migrant surge?

MR. SHERMAN: Yes, but – yes, it does, but the president has stumbled over and over again on immigration policy to a point where you wonder who’s paying attention, is anyone minding the shop here. That’s number one. And number two, I mean, what happened to the White House that said they were working on a bipartisan immigration plan? I mean, the White House on these – on this issue specifically is an ideological black hole. This is the same president who, by the way, told Dianne Feinstein last year that he wanted to do a deal with her. So I just – it’s tough to follow the logic at all here.

MS. MITCHELL: And I was talking to a prominent Republican who was just two days ago talking about, well, he could do a deal – he could do a deal with Dick Durbin, we could revive all of that – and then if the House Democrats reject it, fine, he tried. So the Senate – there was an appetite in the Senate among Republicans to actually begin and resume negotiations. But exactly as you say, if he does this, it’s game over.

MS. KIM: There was one interesting development I will point out this week, though, and Jake knows more than anyone I’m very skeptical of the prospects of immigration reform on the Hill. But White House officials and administration officials actually reached out to about six moderate Senate Democrats and met privately on Capitol Hill I believe Wednesday afternoon. So it was Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, and Kevin McAleenan, who at that point had been sworn in as the acting DHS secretary. So you had a group of those two officials plus people like Dianne Feinstein, Jeanne Shaheen, Jon Tester, Dick Durbin, so not the type of Democrats who are running for president but more the Democrats who do want to get things done, and Democrats tell me this was a meeting that the White House precipitated.

MR. COSTA: But don’t Democrats still have concerns even if they’re being given some outreach by the White House – some concerns about family separation policy perhaps popping back as an administration idea?

MS. CORDES: Sure, absolutely. I mean, Joe Manchin called – he’s a senator, one of those moderates – called his relationship with the president one of the weirdest or – if not the weirdest relationships that he has ever had because, you know, there is no through line. And you know, Democrats, they don’t – you don’t even hear them talking that much right now about DREAMers, which is really – you know, when you bring up immigration, that’s the issue that Democrats talk about the most, is legal protections for people who were brought to this country illegally as children. They just don’t think they can get a deal done with this president. So, you know, he may talk about it, there may be outreach, but they’ve seen that rug get pulled out from under them before, and I just don’t think that they believe that anything could change.

MS. MITCHELL: But I do think that the revelation a week or so ago in court, when the administration acknowledged that they had started the separation policy months before, that there were now thousands of children, and that they could not promise to reunite these families for two years or longer, that is a shocking – just a shocking fact. And the feeling among people you talk to on the Hill and among other people around the country, active Democrats, is you cannot let this stand; they have to do something.

MR. COSTA: Does the administration, then, if they can’t get a deal with Congress, is this all about executive power? NBC has reported the Pentagon is considering so-called tent cities at the border to house some of these migrants, these detainees. More executive action possible on the horizon.

MS. MITCHELL: Which is a violation of posse comitatus.

MR. SHERMAN: And it’s also just a plain – it’s a move that’s going to, again, prevent anything from happening on the Hill, number one. Number two, we know – Seung Min knows this better than anybody – the outlines of a deal on immigration, no matter what the deal is they’re – we all know what it’s going to look like at the end of the day. And the White House has done things that just prevent that deal from coming together time and time again. This is not a complicated deal to put together, it just requires political courage. And the White House has not put itself in a position to do that.

MR. COSTA: Is it all President Trump right now, or is there a short list for DHS secretary to come in pretty soon, get a nominee to Capitol Hill?

MS. KIM: So we’ve seen how often the president likes to rely on actings. He’s indicated publicly that it gives him more flexibility. He’s obviously shown no hurry to fill these vacancies, such as even at the Pentagon with Mr. Shanahan still there months after Jim Mattis left. Some people who’ve been talked about for DHS, Ken Cuccinelli, Chris Kobach, clearly not confirmable in the Senate. And Senate Republicans are basically flat out saying that that this point and trying to send that bat signal to the White House, whether they want to receive it or not, that these guys will not get the votes, even with a 53-vote majority.

MR. COSTA: Is Leader McConnell playing any kind of guidance here for the president as he moves ahead?

MS. CORDES: Yeah, I mean, he said point-blank to reporters that he’s not fond of Ken Cuccinelli. Doesn’t think very highly of Cuccinelli as a possible replacement, which is really, you know, interesting that the Republican leader of the Senate, rather than picking up the phone and telling the president, felt that it would be more effective to deliver that message via reporters instead because, as we’ve just been talking about the president’s tweets today, that’s often, you know, where he – where he gets a lot of these ideas.

MR. COSTA: Before we go on, I just want to pause on that point, because it’s a challenge for reporters in this Trump era to have on a Thursday the White House saying one thing, and then on a Friday the president appears to undercut his own officials by changing his position. How, when you’re dealing with officials telling you one thing on a Thursday and the president says another on a Friday, how do deal with that as a reporter?

MR. SHERMAN: I think the one thing – and we all get asked the same question a lot, how has Washington changed under Trump. I think one of the chief ways is that no one speaks for the president besides the president himself. It’s not worth, in a lot of cases, talking to other people.

MS. MITCHELL: You can’t have other sources. But the other thing is, the president will say one thing one day – whether it was on health care or some of these other issues – and then say, well, I never said that four or five days later. And that wasn’t my position. So he has reversed himself on some of – some of these things that the Republicans in the Senate have managed to, you know, get him to back down on.

MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to the other political and legal battle this week. Attorney General Bill Barr. He set off a firestorm when he testified that he believes U.S. intelligence agencies spied on the president’s 2016 campaign, sparking sharp criticism from Democrats for using that charged term.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) Yeah, I think there’s – spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think what he said was absolutely true. There was absolutely spying into my campaign. I’ll go a step further, in my opinion it was illegal spying, unprecedented spying.

MR. COSTA: Barr also testified that he plans to release an edited version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia and President Trump’s conduct within days. Many Democrats and some Republicans say the AG must share the full report with Congress and the American people and worry that he has too much say over the report.

SENATOR JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-NH): (From video.) I am concerned by recent media reports that those working on the special counsel’s team believe your summary to Congress glossed over the severity of the damaging actions of those in the White House, including the president. The American people should be allowed to see the report in its entirety so they can make their own judgements about its content.

MR. COSTA: Senator Shaheen reflected the view of many Democrats, Nancy, when she seemed to be taken aback by the attorney general’s position – his use of the word “spying.” What has the attorney general’s remark meant for the credibility of the Department of Justice as we wait for this Mueller report?

MS. CORDES: Well, the speaker of the House point-blank said she does not trust the attorney general, which in and of itself is pretty remarkable, that you have the leader of the House saying that she doesn’t trust the top law enforcement officer of this country. You know, this is a very new relationship. He has only been in this position for a short time. And his efforts, and his aides’ efforts, to sort of clean up or clarify what he meant have only left things more confusing and left some wondering whether he intended for there to be a lot of confusion, a lot of murkiness over whether or not he thinks that his own department spied on a presidential campaign.

First he said, yes, I do believe spying occurred. Then he said, well, I don’t know if any spying occurred but just want to – I just want to be clear on that. And it’s not like I’m creating a team to look into it, but I am going to create a team to look into it. So no one on Capitol Hill really understands what it is that he believes.

MR. COSTA: There is an inspector general inside of the Department of Justice already looking at the FISA Court and the surveillance from the 2016 campaign. Why did the attorney general get ahead of his own IG? Any reporting on that?

MS. KIM: That’s a really great question. And we actually asked Mitch McConnell yesterday when we sat down with him about those spying comments, and asking him, don’t you think this was kind of a loaded term? What was your reaction to it? And he said, look, I’m going to defer to the inspector general report and let that play out. But there’s no doubt that those comments have really made what was already – I mean, let’s admit it – what was already kind of this very partisan atmosphere that much more divisive.

And I think that, you know, going back to the trust issue that you mentioned with Pelosi, something that Mitch McConnell has said several times this week is that you either trust Bill Barr or you don’t. And he’s absolutely right. Now he’s in the camp where he does trust Bill Barr, but he was also telling us that I anticipate – you know, without having seen what the Mueller report is going to be, he says, I anticipate being completely satisfied with what the attorney general does. (Laughter.) I believe – yeah, I’m anticipating being satisfied with the level of disclosure that he makes. And he’s, like – basically, like, you’ll see my point next week once we see the report. But he hasn’t seen the report either.

So, I mean, no matter when the report drops, you kind of already know where Democrats will be, you know where Republicans will be, and it’s not going to be any more closer to the same conclusion.

MS. MITCHELL: And what has happened is because of the attorney general’s initial four-page memo, and because of the president’s reaction, you know, I’m exonerated, you know, I’m cleared, it’s all over, they have controlled the narrative. And they have branded this as a complete exoneration. And if there are a number – you know, a lot of redactions in this report, and if it’s not conclusive, it’s going to be very hard, I think, for the Democrats, in a protracted legal argument, going to the courts, trying to get this out. They really are going to be on the defensive. And I don’t know how they can get ahead of it. They really need to start talking about health care and other things. As important as this is, I don’t know how they can get on top of it.

MR. COSTA: That term, “spying,” Jake, it echoes what many congressional Republicans – House Republicans you cover, like Congressman Meadows of North Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, they’ve been saying this for over a year, that the origins of the Russia investigation, in their view, had many problems. Now they have the attorney general of the United States backing up a line, a point of view they’ve been stating for months.

MR. SHERMAN: They’ve been very frustrated over the last two years, because they’ve taken out this frustration on me primarily – (laughter) – that reporters have not dug into the spying narrative. And some people have explained to them that they’ve been all over the place, and the stories that they’ve weaved about the 2016 campaign, and the dossier, and the investigation have been very complicated and difficult to follow. And that’s kind of prevented a lot of reporters from writing about it. And it’s also not rooted in the kind of fact-based arguments that reporters are interested in.

MR. COSTA: Well, that’s their partisan Republican view.

MR. SHERMAN: Correct.

MR. COSTA: You’ve done a lot of interviews, Andrea, about – with former intelligence officials – about how FISA courts work, and how the FBI believes it did the right thing in how it was looking at Russian interference and seeking FISA warrants to try to look at different aspects of the 2016 campaign.

MS. MITCHELL: I mean, the intelligence committees used to be very different. They used to be bipartisan. And that really changed with Devin Nunes when the House – and when he went up to the White House and he started –

MR. COSTA: Former House Intelligence Committee chairman.

MS. MITCHELL: And he, as a Republican, was back-channeling the White House. And that changed the whole dynamic. So both sides went to their camps. But the bottom line is that there was a lot of very obvious alarms. There were – you know, there were red alarms going off at the time in 2016. They had to do a counter-intelligence investigation. There were so many meetings that were not acknowledged by Mike Flynn and others, and lied about, which they’ve established. They’ve got guilty pleas to that point. So any way you look at it, they had a credible witness in Christopher Steele who had been working with them. And they had to check out that dossier. And they had to begin looking at Russian investigation.

MR. COSTA: What is the battle to come, Nancy, on the redactions, as Democrats and Republicans, some of them calling for a full release of the Mueller report. If the attorney general gives a 400-page document with 200 pages redacted, what does that mean for Congress?

MS. CORDES: Well, I did think it was interesting that in the Senate hearing Barr said that he is deferring completely to Mueller’s team of investigators about what to redact and what not to redact. And he was asked, you know, have you overruled them? He said, no, and I don’t intend to overrule them. If that’s the case that will, you know, give Democrats some comfort that he’s not putting his thumb on the scale one way or the other. Regardless, the chair of the Judiciary Committee in the House, Jarrold Nadler, is really elevating this fight. His original position was, look, if we get a document and a whole bunch of it is redacted, I’m going to take the subpoena and we’re going to fight – we’re going to – we’re going to fight this out in the courts to get a hold of the full document. Now he’s saying if there is even one line redacted, if there – if there are any changes whatsoever, we are going to issue this subpoena and we’re going to have a fight.

MR. COSTA: Well, just – Andrea just mentioned how that some Democrats want to talk more about other issues, like health care. Is Speaker Pelosi prepared for Chairman Nadler to move forward in that direction, to maybe pursue a subpoena? Maybe this becomes a major fight in the federal courts.

MS. CORDES: Sure, I think that this is one of those fights that they think is worth fighting, not only because, you know, they believe that this is a very important investigation and Congress has the right to look at the fruits of that investigation, but also because they’re conducting their own investigations in several different House committees and they need that material. They need to be able to look at the underlying material to aid in their own ongoing investigations, and that’s why there’s a fight not just over getting the report itself but also getting the grand jury material and making sure that Barr and Mueller and others come up to testify once they’ve got that material.

MS. KIM: Yeah, and I think you saw kind of in the – particularly in the – in the hearing before House – before the House on Tuesday how Democrats were kind of starting to lay their groundwork in formally issuing that subpoena for that report. Remember, they’ve already voted to authorize it; they just haven’t sent it up yet. But when they were questioning Bill Barr, for example, would you be willing to go to court to allow Congress to see this grand jury material, and he declined – he basically said, well, you can go to court; I’m not so inclined to do that – I think Democrats could look at that and say, well, you’re not willing to do everything possible to accommodate us. And I think another important thing from that hearing that we should remember and what’s causing Democrats a lot of heartburn is that Barr wouldn’t answer if he had briefed the White House after his four-page summary had been released. He had said not before, but in between that time that was something that he dodged on. He said I have said all I want to for the day. And then the second day of the testimony Senate Democrats couldn’t nail him down on that either.

MS. CORDES: He also three times was asked whether he shared the Mueller report with the White House and refused to answer every time.

MR. COSTA: We don’t know what’s going to be in the Mueller report. Everybody, every reporter in town, can’t wait to get their hands on it, even if it has redactions, to figure out what we’ve been reporting on these past few years, and we’re going to find out more about the intelligence activity from 2016 about Russian interference in the elections. And what we’re going to learn, part of these – is the part about what these players are doing. And one of those players from 2016 who was in the headlines this week was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He was indicted in London on a single charge of conspiring to steal U.S. military secrets. He has not been charged in relation to WikiLeaks publishing stolen Democratic emails from 2016. But he’s back in the news, Andrea, and what did his arrest in London reveal about him and about the broader story of U.S. intelligence and what happened in 2016?

MS. MITCHELL: It doesn’t reveal anything about 2016, to the frustration of a lot of people. It was based on what Chelsea Manning, who in the time was a private in the Army. The allegation is that he conspired to get a password – to get him to break a password and to get documents that were from a secret government computer. That is a very narrow single charge, and it’s deliberately so because otherwise the Ecuadorians and the Brits would not be as willing to go along with an extradition; he couldn’t have been arrested. They will not send him to the U.S. or agree to an extradition if there is any – going to be any kind of, you know, capital sentence, if there’s any kind of espionage or a higher charge. That said, what they claim in their defense is that they were doing journalism – that WikiLeaks is doing journalism – and they still said that today and – doing an interview with an editor from WikiLeaks. But when you look on the face of it, the Mueller indictments make it very clear that organization one is WikiLeaks, and they say that the Russian GRU were working hand in glove with WikiLeaks with the data dumps that they handed over to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks won’t acknowledge that that was their source, but that the Russians gave the Democratic hacks, the Podesta emails and all the rest, and that that was dumped in very strategic ways by WikiLeaks at times such as right after the Access Hollywood .

MR. COSTA: So it’s not directly related to President Trump, but what do your sources on the Hill say when they see the headline, when they see Julian Assange back in the news?

MS. CORDES: You know, I think that there is bipartisan, you know, agreement that this is a good thing, and that, you know, there are a lot of Democrats and Republicans who see Assange as an enemy of the United States. Certainly, that’s something that the – that the secretary of state feels as well. And so, you know, I think that there are a lot of people that are happy that this is finally moving forward.

MR. COSTA: We’ll keep an eye on it. Thanks, everybody, for being here.

Up next on the Washington Week Extra we talk with Jake about his new book with Anna Palmer, The Hill to Die On . It takes us inside the wild relationship between President Trump and Congress. Watch it starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern every Friday night on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.


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