Full Episode: FULL EPISODE: Trump administration rolls out merit-based immigration proposal, United States reaches deal with Canada and Mexico on tariffs

May. 17, 2019 AT 9:13 p.m. EDT

After the Trump administration reached an agreement with Canada and Mexico to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum being shipped to the United States, the panelists discussed if the move could jolt the negotiations to end the trade war between the U.S. and China. The show’s conversation also turned to President Donald Trump’s new merit-based immigration proposal, the rising tensions between the United States and Iran, and the Republican-led state legislature’s recent passing of a near-total ban on abortion.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Tonight: trade, immigration, and the nation’s abortion debate. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

The U.S. strikes a deal with Canada and Mexico to lift steel and aluminum tariffs. Could a trade deal with China be next?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Our proposal is pro-American, pro-immigrant, and pro-worker. It’s just common sense.

MR. COSTA: President Trump rolls out a new immigration plan seeking to prioritize migrants with high skills, but the reception on both sides of the aisle is cool.

Plus, inside the latest push to restrict abortion, next.

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

MR. COSTA: The Trump administration has struck a deal with Canada and Mexico to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum being shipped to the U.S. President Trump imposed the tariffs a year ago, citing national security concerns. The tariffs were a response to what the president called a flood of excess Chinese products in global markets. The agreement removes a key obstacle to passing a new trade deal, known as the USMCA. It could also jolt the negotiations with China on trade.

Joining me tonight, Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour ; Philip Rucker, Washington bureau chief for The Washington Post ; Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR; and Hans Nichols, correspondent for NBC News.

You have all the sides coming together on this, trying to get a deal. Does this now grease the skids for the USMCA on Capitol Hill?

SUSAN DAVIS: It was a very good week for the president on Capitol Hill in terms of his trade agenda, and part of that is because his trade rep, Robert Lighthizer, came up to the Hill purposely to meet with Democrats – met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a number of other Democrats. And I think there was a lot of skepticism going into that meeting, and I think that Democrats came out of that meeting thinking that this administration and particularly Lighthizer are very committed to getting this done. His message to Democrats was what do I need to do to get you onboard. They know they need Nancy Pelosi to bring this up to the floor and I think they recognize that. And I would say in sort of the ebb and flow of what can this Congress do with this president, at the end of this week I talked to more Democrats who thought trade was much more of a possibility than some of the other things that have been mentioned –

MR. COSTA: When? When could a vote happen, Sue?

MS. DAVIS: You know, I think everybody says anything that’s going to happen substantively in this Congress probably has to happen this year. You know, by the time you get into a presidential election year I think next year the chances get slimmer. Nancy Pelosi said she’s not in any rush, so I can’t imagine it happens anytime soon. But I think if you’re going to start to see movement on it the fall is probably a time.

MR. COSTA: Well, this wasn’t the only movement, Hans, on trade this week. We also had the president saying we’ll have a six-month delay for the Europeans – the European Union and Japan on the auto tariffs.

HANS NICHOLS: So the president doesn’t want to fight a multifront war. So we saw, you know, today in the morning he says the six-month delay, as you mentioned, and then with Canada and Mexico he says, look, we’re suing for peace, right, we are going to have some sort of agreement. It’s unclear to me what actually changed on the substance from when the president decided to put those tariffs in against Mexico and Canada and what actually happened now. Did we actually extract anything? But the president gets to focus all of his energy on China. And when you talk to administration officials, it’s so clear that what they really want to do is fundamentally alter the relationship with China. It’s salted throughout the president’s speeches. It’s in his rhetoric pretty much every time he addresses it. He almost seems more comfortable without a deal with China than he does with it. He can live in a world where there are tariffs for quite some time. And even if he can’t, he wants to send the message that he can. And that’s, I think, what we saw this week very clearly.

MR. COSTA: You say the deals may not have changed that much, but maybe the markets changed, Phil. And that – did that influence the White House as they proceeded on trade?

PHILIP RUCKER: I think it has. You’re seeing the president be slightly more cautious now, delaying those auto tariffs with Europe and Japan, lifting these tariffs with Mexico and Canada. He’s a little bit spooked, I think, by the markets, and it all goes to the 2020 reelection plan. He believes he gets reelected if the economy is strong and humming, and right now we’re seeing agitation, we’re seeing nerves on Wall Street, and a sense that maybe all of these trade wars coming together at the same time without a lot of certainty and clear forward agenda could rattle markets and have an economic impact that hurts the president politically.

MR. COSTA: Talking about 2020, Amna, you just got back from reporting on the road in Iowa. A lot of farmers there and their senator in Iowa, Chuck Grassley, have been very unhappy with the tariffs on Mexico and Canada because you saw the Mexican government, for example, have retribution against farmers and have their own retaliation. Now that this is somewhat coming to a peace agreement on trade, what does that mean for farmers in the Midwest?

AMNA NAWAZ: It’s important to point out, too, farmers, a lot of folks in the agricultural field, felt a lot of the effects of those tariffs first and early, as usually happens. It’s also important to note some of the other tariffs have a bit of lag time before they reach the everyday American consumer. And one of the things we saw this week was some of those folks who speak to what the consumer landscape could be, those major CEOs of places like Walmart and Macy’s, on their earnings call saying we think we have no choice but to start to raise prices very soon. I can’t help but think that contributed to some pressure on the president and this White House to say maybe we need to ease up a little bit, because when these tariffs really start to trickle down to Main Street, to the average American consumer, that’s where it starts to blow back on them.

MR. COSTA: But can there actually be a trade deal on Capitol Hill if you have a White House this week saying we’re not going to cooperate with Congress, with Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, blocking any requests. We had just news Friday afternoon the Treasury secretary is not going to hand over the president’s tax returns. So you have an all-out fight on the Mueller front still, even though the report’s been completed. Does that hover over everything on trade?

MR. RUCKER: Absolutely. I mean, it changes the posture between the administration and Congress because you have the White House basically blocking all oversight investigations from the Hill, and so Pelosi, as you just said, Sue, is going to take her time on this trade deal. She’s in no hurry. And that might be because she wants to try to use that as some leverage and see what she can get out of the administration and the White House to break this logjam.

MS. DAVIS: But also remember trade is one of these issues where the ideological curve sort of bends between Trump and a lot of Democrats. In some ways his trade agenda has upset Republican orthodoxy more than Democrats. He has natural allies here. He has natural allies in Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, as well, who has always been tough on China. And it is one of those issues where the president, if he chooses to work with Democrats, will find some willing partners. I do think that Republicans in the Senate will have to realize that this is going to have to be a trade deal that can pass with Nancy Pelosi’s vote, and that means a very different looking trade deal than what maybe Mitch McConnell would write. But I also think Republicans have shown that if the president’s onboard they get in line.

MR. COSTA: So the president’s hammering the issue on trade this week, but it’s not the only signature issue for President Trump that he’s been hammering. With the 2020 election ahead, he returned to immigration this week. His new plan, which was outlined in the Rose Garden, would revamp legal immigration. It would prioritize educated and high-skilled migrants. It would also favor immigrants who speak English. The proposal does not address the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country or have protections for so-called DREAMers, those who were brought to this country as children. Is this immigration plan from President Trump on legal immigration dead on arrival on Capitol Hill?

MS. NAWAZ: That is the phrase we have heard a lot from folks who have been tracking this for a while. I have to say, having tracked the president’s comments and his rhetoric and previous proposals on immigration, what was actually put forth in the Rose Garden was pretty muted in comparison to what we’ve seen before.

MR. COSTA: Why was it muted? Is it Jared Kushner, his senior advisor, who is wanting it to be more muted?

MS. NAWAZ: Perhaps. I mean, we know Kushner was on the Hill briefing Republicans about this. Maybe there was some feedback in terms of what might actually get pushed through. You know the old adage that if everyone is angry at you, maybe you’re doing something wrong? People on the far right end of the spectrum, very strict immigration restrictionists, who say we actually want low immigration, were very unhappy with it. On the far end you had people who were unhappy on the left who – this didn’t address DACA or any of the DREAMers or the previous – or the current undocumented population. But on the whole, look, when the president called it a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system, it would be – if it actually went anywhere, which we don’t think it will.

MS. DAVIS: I think it was weird. (Laughter.) I just think it was a weird – if the goal was to get a compromise, there was nothing in there to get Democrats on board. So you’re not actually trying to legislate. And if it is just a politically messaging tool, make it something your guys on Capitol Hill get excited about. You know, get it to be a bill that you think is going to excite your base, that’s going to align with the ideology that has been the driving force of your administration. And it came off as maybe he was trying to soften these views a little bit. It was just – it was very confusing.

MR. COSTA: Were they worried about – are they worried about swing voters in some of these suburban districts they lost in 2018?

MS. DAVIS: I think they are but, again, you know, you can’t pick and choose on this issue now. A lot of those suburban swing voters, the thing that offended them was family separation at the border. And if you’re going to do – offer an immigration proposal that doesn’t really address that, it doesn’t really solve the concerns of the voters that are motivated on this issue to begin with.

MR. RUCKER: Yeah, and immigration is such a powerful part of the president’s agenda, and the record that he’s going to be running on in 2020. And it’s family separation. And it’s the border wall. Those are the two things people – voters out in the country think about when they think about Trump’s immigration plan. They’re not going to be looking at the details. And, you know, with all due respect to Jared Kushner, they’re not going to be studying that plan. They’re going to be looking at the president’s rhetoric and what he’s doing with the wall, sending troops to the border, talking about the caravans, separating those children.

MR. COSTA: And there’s reporting from the Post that the president’s personally involved in the wall.

MR. RUCKER: Personally involved, to a very specific degree. He’s actually having meetings with Department of Homeland Security officials to decide what that border wall would look like, what the architectural details would be. He wants it painted black so that it’s hot, which would hurt immigrants if they tried to climb the wall. And he wants it to have spears at the top to injure them if they tried to cross over.

MS. NAWAZ: I will say one thing about the immigration plan as it was put forward, if it was just for messaging, if you were someone who has looked at previous immigration patterns and been unhappy about the fact that the majority of immigrants in America now come from Asian and – Asia and Latin America, the president’s plan would have addressed that. By changing it to a merit-based system, it would mean that largely people coming – and highly skilled immigrants, they wouldn’t largely be coming from those countries. It would change the face of who we are as a country.

MR. COSTA: Behind closed doors, the president is facing another possible crisis, Iran. And lawmakers in both parties are alarmed. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. intelligence shows that Tehran and Washington may have misread each other. And that prompted Iran to prepare a possible counterstrike. Hans, you’ve covered the Pentagon for years, you’re covering the White House, there’s a lot of confusion out there about what’s going on with Iran. What do we know, based on your reporting, about the evidence?

MR. NICHOLS: So the evidence from a wide variety of reporting, including NBC, is that they have aerial pictures, they have something from the sky, that shows missiles being loaded in a way that haven’t been loaded in the past into these dhows, these small Iranian boats, and that those could potentially be filtered throughout the Middle East. And it could pose a threat to U.S. troops and U.S. interests. And there’s a lot of this going back and forth.

To me, the more interesting aspect of what’s happened is the rhetoric coming from John Bolton. In a lot of ways, what we saw last week from the president, at least moving a carrier strike group, that’s fairly routine. They accelerated this by about two weeks. What mattered was Bolton really going out and making a big deal of it. It’s clear that Bolton wants to have some sort of rhetorical strategic effect on the battlefield, on the battlespace.

MR. COSTA: So you’re saying you don’t read these tea leaves as preparing for war, removing some of the nonessential personnel and family members from Iraq, sending the aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf. You’re not overreading –

MR. NICHOLS: It’s all messaging. I think you can count a lot of that and classify that as messaging. When you listen to the president’s rhetoric, it almost seems as though he’s a regulator on Bolton’s bellicose throttle, all right? He almost – he does this thing – and he does it with his own speeches sometimes, where he’ll be reading a speech and he’ll say, oh, that’s actually true, what I just said. Or, you know, he’s almost commenting on his own speeches. And with Bolton, he says, well, you think I’m crazy? This guy is really nuts. I mean, we’ve seen him say that. In the Roosevelt Room, for example, he was, like, well, you know, you think I’m scary, like, look at John Bolton. So the president wants to speak with multiple people in his administration.

MR. COSTA: Raises a question. We saw with Steve Bannon early on if you get on a TIME cover, if you get too out there with your profile, the president doesn’t like it. Is Bolton at risk at being thrown out?

MR. RUCKER: He could potentially be at risk. What the president doesn’t like is this narrative that we see taking shape in the media this week of Bolton as a puppeteer, as somebody who’s directing the moves of the administration, who’s manipulating the president’s decision-making process. But I have to say, to the point Hans just made, what a sea change this is from earlier in the administration, when it was General Mattis, General Kelly, Rex Tillerson were seen as the guardrails against the president. Now it’s the president who’s the guardrail against Bolton.

MR. COSTA: Is there any appetite on Capitol Hill for military engagement with Iran?

MS. DAVIS: (Laughs.) No. And I think the way that this – the administration handled this really – there was a lot of upset on Capitol Hill about this, because a lot of times too when you have these global threats where you think the U.S. military would be – intervention would be needed, they notify the Armed Services Committee, they talk to the gang of eight. There is a protocol by which this happens. And the administration didn’t do any of that. So I think there was real concern among Republicans and Democrats alike that, what is happening on the ground? They were hearing a lot about this in the media before they were hearing it from the administration and the overall message was: This does not have this – military interaction – action in Iran does not have the support of the Congress right now. And Democrats would argue if the president did want to do that, they would need a vote.

MR. COSTA: And things are difficult. Iran feels crippled with its economy because of the sanctions.

MS. NAWAZ: A lot of this is about interpreting what maximum pressure means. And that’s a battle within the White House right now too. The economic sanctions that have been advocated by Secretary of State Pompeo versus military action, which the U.S. and the president himself has said we’re prepared to take if necessary. But the military and national intelligence consensus here is clear. Any kind of military action against Iran would be devastating and destabilizing for the region in a way that the U.S. does not want to take on right now, for a number of reasons.

MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to Alabama, where the Republican-led state legislator – state legislature passed a near total ban on abortion. The law has no exceptions for rape or incest, only when the mother’s health is at risk. Women seeking an abortion would not be punished, but the doctor who performed the procedure could face up to 99 years in prison. Alabama is just the latest state to pursue new abortion restrictions. Eight states have passed laws restricting abortions this year.

Joining my now from Montgomery, Alabama, Don Dailey, news and public affairs director and host of Capitol Journal on Alabama Public Television. Don, thanks for joining us tonight.

DON DAILEY: Hello, and thanks for having me.

MR. COSTA: Don, what does this law mean for the women of Alabama?

MR. DAILEY: Well, it’s been a divisive issue here in this state this week, as you might imagine. Those who oppose this abortion ban have said that for women it means possible backroom abortions from the days of yore, and severe setbacks to women’s reproductive health rights. And those on the other side, of course, say just the opposite, that it’s about preserving life and presenting a test case that they hope goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

MR. COSTA: Was that the legal strategy all along in Alabama? We’ve heard advocates say, in effect, it was, that they wanted to kick this issue to the highest court in the land.

MR. DAILEY: Indeed. The sponsors of this legislation have said from the get-go that their ultimate goal was a legal challenge, one that they hope goes all the way to the Supreme Court and forces a review of the Roe versus Wade decision. And they said, in keeping the abortion ban as restrictive as possible, and again as you noted it’s being heralded this week as the most restrictive in the country – keeping it restrictive would help their case when and if it goes before the nation’s highest courts.

MR. COSTA: When you’re there in Alabama and you’re talking to the leaders in the Republican Party who have been pushing this, what’s their answer to the question of why now? Why the urgency in going to the brink here on this issue? Why at this moment are they pursuing it?

MR. DAILEY: They feel the time is right on a number of levels. First of all, last year Alabamians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that declared Alabama to be a pro-life state. In doing so, Republicans who supported this abortion ban said they felt emboldened to take this step, that they felt like they had the majority of Alabama citizens behind them on this. And then too, there’s the issue about the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court. They feel that the climate is right there too, now, to possibly take up this challenge if, indeed, this case makes it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So it was sort of a two-pronged approach they had in initiating this legislation.

MR. COSTA: Don Dailey from Alabama Public Television. Hope to see you down there soon when I’m covering Doug Jones, his reelection in 2020. Thanks very much, Don.

MR. DAILEY: Thanks, Robert. Nice to be with you.

MR. COSTA: Good to be with you.

He mentioned the Supreme Court. Brett Kavanaugh recently confirmed. Is there a thought on the American right inside the Republican Party that this Supreme Court has moved to the right because of the confirmation of Kavanaugh, and for that reason this is the moment across the country – we saw Missouri today and elsewhere – to pursue –

MS. NAWAZ: Yeah. You know, this has been part of a broader conservative strategy since about 2012, when we started to see these legislatures pass these laws very much with this intention of trying to get something to court to try and overturn Roe v. Wade. The fascinating thing about the Alabama law is that so much abortion debate is between – we see it as between right and left. But what I think the Alabama law did was expose divides within the Republican Party on this. You had leaders of the party, people like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, coming out saying he thought the law went too far, the head of the RNC coming out saying he thought the law went too far. You’ve seen intellectuals and influencers in the party debating amongst themselves whether this was advancing the cause or whether lawsuits like – or, excuse me, laws like this will be thrown out in the courts and ultimately derail the cause, that they’re not advancing the policy, and are the politics so divisive that you are actually turning away the voters you’re trying to persuade.

MR. COSTA: Is this now one of the key issues for 2020?

MS. NAWAZ: Absolutely. We’ve already seen it come up with some of the presidential candidates on the Democratic side because their positions are largely in line and clear. And just to build on what Sue was saying, you know, this is sort of the culmination of several years of chipping away at the constitutionally – at the protected right for women to get an abortion. More than 400, I think, pieces of state legislation have been put into place over the last several years, and this is the latest acceleration, and it’s clear there has been an acceleration. Since Justice Kavanaugh took his seat on the bench we’ve seen more restrictive laws going into place. The ironic part is the legal experts I’ve talked to have said some of these more aggressive restrictive measures are probably less likely to be the ones that the Supreme Court would eventually even take up.

MR. COSTA: And we saw Missouri today pass its own new restrictions on abortion.

MS. NAWAZ: That’s right, and they’re coming in all different forms: gestational age bans, fetal heartbeat bans. It’s important to know some of even the six- and eight-week bans we’ve seen are basically backdoor all-out bans because gestational age is calculated from your period, so if you’re six weeks pregnant you’ve basically been two weeks late on your latest period, and that’s a business trip for most women. So a lot of these measures are sort of hidden behind language and have been going in place for years and years and years. But it’s clear, look, antiabortion activists think this is their moment in time, 30-plus years in the making. If ever there was a chance they’re going to get Roe v. Wade reconsidered, it’s now.

MR. COSTA: One of those longtime activists is Vice President of the United States Mike Pence. How is this administration, this White House, reacting to this?
We saw – we heard from Sue that top Republican leaders in Congress are distancing themselves. Is the White House?

MR. RUCKER: Yeah, it’s interesting, for now President Trump and the White House have not sort of fully embraced this Alabama law. They’ve said very little. They’ve tried to avoid sort of taking a clear position, although Vice President Pence has said he is pleased to be part of a pro-life administration. And he’s an interesting figure here because he is the connection between Trump and the religious right, the Evangelical Christians. And for Pence the issue of abortion is an issue of real personal conviction, whereas for Trump it’s an issue of politics and political convenience. President Trump was pro-choice before getting into the presidential race as a Republican, now of course he’s antiabortion in line with his party.

MR. NICHOLS: You get the sense the president’s doesn’t have a great feel for the abortion issue. Like, there are not a lot of topics that President Donald Trump doesn’t feel qualified to weigh in on. Whether it was Beto’s hands or Theresa May and Brexit, he weighs in on just about anything at any moment. He’s very silent on abortion. He rarely wades in. And this week the silence from the White House has been deafening. There was one short statement that came out on Wednesday on these bills that are percolating up. The president likes to talk about what a good feel he has for the electorate, what a good feel he has for the economy, the markets, trade, all these deals; he doesn’t seem to have that feel on abortion, and he seems to be avoiding the issue.

MR. COSTA: Maybe not on statements he doesn’t have the feel, but on action he’s filled the federal judiciary with many, many conservative judges. The fingerprints of this administration on the issue of abortion and abortion rights, they’re everywhere.

MS. NAWAZ: That’s absolutely right. And I think for people who he is speaking to, he’s messaging to in a political way, that’s what they want to see. And a lot of Trump supporters I’ve spoken to over the last couple of years point exactly to that. They may not support anything else he does. They may not like the way he carries himself or conducts himself. But we got our Supreme Court justices, and that’s what we were here for.

MR. COSTA: You mentioned the 2020 race, and we saw Senator Elizabeth Warren come out with her own plan. Is this now the galvanizing issue for some Democrats, at least, in the presidential race? Does this move up maybe past the Green New Deal and other things that have been out there for a long time? Is this now about abortion and protection – protecting rights?

MS. DAVIS: You know, I do think one thing to know is that one of the most driving issues in the 2018 midterms were women voters and the issue of healthcare, and for a lot of women voters abortion is a healthcare question, so I think they look at it through that spectrum. I think that Democrats see this also as a way that – I mean, women voters have already been very excited in our political climate, but this is also something that absolutely will continue to galvanize them. I also think it’s important when we talk about this it’s not just about women. If you look at polling data on the country’s attitudes on abortion, men and women actually track pretty similarly.

MR. COSTA: How so? What’s the tracking?

MS. DAVIS: The views are shared in that a majority of men and a majority of women – roughly the same numbers – think that there should be some legal access to abortion and then, you know, when you get into what those restrictions are the numbers shift. So it’s not – there’s not really a gender divide; there’s a political divide on the issue. And so I do think Republicans also risk turning off a lot of men who share the views of women and independent men who do not – you know, may believe in some restrictions, but the kind of laws like Alabama are something that just really turn them off to the party as a whole because it is not something that they want to associate themselves with.

MR. COSTA: We’re going to leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for being here tonight. I appreciate it on a Friday night.

Up next we’ll stick with this. Stick with us; we’ll have the Washington Week Extra. We’ll talk more about 2020. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.


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