Full Episode: President Donald Trump vs. Congress

May. 24, 2019 AT 7 p.m. EDT

After President Donald Trump left a meeting with Democratic leaders this week, the panelists discussed the current political warfare in Washington. The group also previewed the president’s upcoming trip to Japan.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Partisan warfare. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

A rough and tumble week in politics as the president and speaker of the House clash.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Crazy Nancy, I tell you what, I’ve been watching her and I have – I have been watching her for a long period of time. She’s not the same person. She’s lost it.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I pray for the president of the United States. I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.

MR. COSTA: All this as Mr. Trump heads to Tokyo, where issues on trade and North Korea hover, next.

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

MR. COSTA: President Trump issued an ultimatum to Democrats this week: end congressional investigations or forget about any deals between now and the 2020 election. The president delivered that blunt message to Speaker Pelosi during a brief White House meeting on Wednesday. Earlier, the speaker had accused the president of being, quote, “engaged in a coverup” amid tensions over documents and witnesses related to the Russia investigation. She did not appreciate the president’s walkout, which stalled talks over infrastructure.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) And the White House has a bag of tricks that they save for certain occasions. They don’t necessarily apply to the occasion, but they’re a distraction, which is his – he’s a master of distraction. We will all agree on that.

MR. COSTA: The relationship continued to fray as both the speaker and the president made cutting remarks like this one about the speaker’s knowledge of the latest trade agreement.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You know, she’s a mess. Look, let’s face it, she doesn’t understand it and they sort of feel she’s disintegrating before their eyes. She does not understand it. They want to have her understand it before we – it’s finished.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME magazine; and Toluse Olorunnipa, White House correspondent for The Washington Post .

Nancy, you’ve been on Capitol Hill this week. What prompted this escalation?

NANCY CORDES: Well, the president says what prompted it was that word, “coverup.” This is a loaded term in Washington. It has connotations of Watergate. And Nancy Pelosi uttering that just an hour before she met with the president, he said when he made that impromptu appearance in the Rose Garden that that really made him angry and that he wasn’t going to deal with her if she was going to use that kind of language. According to Pelosi and many Democrats, the real reason that he walked out is because he doesn’t have the goods on infrastructure, and they believe that he’s looking for a way out because they were supposed to sit down in that meeting and talk about ways to pay for this $2 trillion infrastructure package and they know that the White House is going to have a very difficult time selling a spending package of that magnitude to the president’s own party.

MR. COSTA: So what’s the power dynamic, Molly, between the speaker and the president?

MOLLY BALL: Well, it appears that the speaker has the upper hand, and that’s very frustrating to the president. I don’t know that that’s a new dynamic – I think she’s demonstrated her ability to confront the president at least since she prevailed in the shutdown fight back in January – but it certainly marks an escalation. It certainly marks an escalation of rhetoric, particularly on the president’s part. He has – he has handled her a little more delicately in the past, which has surprised some people who are accustomed to his confrontational style. But as Nancy said, he felt like he’d had enough, whether it was because he hadn’t done his homework or because he heard a word he didn’t like and flew off the handle. And the Democrats described this as a temper tantrum, but also as a pre-planned stunt. They pointed out that he already had this sign printed out to put on that lectern in the Rose Garden that had statistics about the cost of the Mueller investigation and how long it had gone on and other – and other numbers, so he clearly was planning to make a statement that wasn’t about infrastructure but was about his displeasure over the Democrats’ continuing oversight of him.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: And it’s clear that Speaker Pelosi is living sort of rent-free in President Trump’s head. You look at some of the comments she’s made talking about how I pray for the president, I’m concerned about his well-being. Earlier this year she said that impeachment is not worth it, President Trump is not worth impeaching. So sort of these condescending comments seem to really get under the president’s skin. The fact that she’s a woman in power seems to be something he hasn’t had to deal with before, and it’s – if you see how he’s lashed out when he’s supposed to be talking about infrastructure, they’re supposed to be talking about a farm aid package –

MR. COSTA: Did he lash out, though, Toluse? The word from the White House seems to be calm.

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, lash out sort of rhetorically. He was not angry or yelling, but he was supposed to be talking about infrastructure on that day, on Wednesday. The next day he was supposed to be talking about a farm aid package. And he spent the better part of half an hour talking about how calm he was the day before and talking about how Speaker Pelosi was a mess. So he’s being rattled and he’s being knocked off his message. Even if he doesn’t have to raise his voice, it’s clear that she is in his head and he’s having trouble figuring out how to deal with a powerful woman who has the levers of power in the House and is using it to pursue all of these investigations against him, which is another thing that’s getting under his skin.

MR. COSTA: The speaker is calling for an intervention. What led her there, to couch these things in those terms?

MS. CORDES: Well, I think it serves her purposes to, you know, make the case slowly that he’s unbalanced, that he doesn’t actually respect the office of the presidency. In an interview earlier this week she said point blank that she believes that she respects the office of the presidency more than he does. I mean, Democrats have been making this case for quite some time, that they don’t think that he really gets it and gets the presidency. And so, you know, that’s in her interest. But beyond that, you know, the president is – you know, he acted as if this was some great power play that he made by walking out of that meeting and saying that he wasn’t going to work with Democrats, but then the very next day, you know, the two sides finally signed off on a disaster aid package worth $19 billion. You know, we saw this a few months ago when he walked out on another meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer saying he wasn’t going to meet with them, and then guess what, criminal justice reform got done, and that took two sides. So the idea that actually he’s going to walk away and there is not going to be any bipartisan conversation anymore just hasn’t played out, and you know, even within 24 hours of him saying he wasn’t going to work with the Democrats he did.

MR. COSTA: The speaker is throwing some punches rhetorically at the president. She’s still trying to hold her caucus together on the impeachment question. Where does that stand inside of Democratic ranks?

MS. BALL: So far she’s been successful at least at not – at suppressing any kind of outright rebellion. There are certainly divisions within the caucus between the more moderate members who don’t believe they should ever go down the impeachment route and the more liberal members who think that impeachment ought to start right now. But what they haven’t been doing is publicly criticizing the speaker’s strategy. They’ve been voicing different opinions, but they haven’t said that they think she’s wrong. They haven’t tried to get something started on their own. So far they are falling in line behind her strategy, which is not necessarily to not do impeachment, but it’s to not do impeachment yet; it’s to pursue this process of going through the courts, trying every possible avenue to get witnesses and documents and information from the White House before they then potentially go to that next step.

MR. COSTA: On that point, is she able to keep them in line in part because the Democrats keep winning in federal court to get documents from places like Deutsche Bank and Capital One about the president’s finances?

MS. BALL: Absolutely, if it reaches a point where all of the other avenues have been frustrated and they’re still not getting that information, that’s when I think you’d have a much more vocal potentially majority of the caucus saying, well, now impeachment is our only way to hold the president accountable. But so far, I mean, anyone who’s covered Nancy Pelosi knows that she’s very, very good at keeping her caucus together, but at this point she’s able to do it because they mostly agree with her argument that there are still avenues they can pursue.

MS. CORDES: Robert, those court victories, a pair of them in federal courts this week, made a huge difference for Democrats, as Molly was saying. I mean, the Democrats were coming out one after the other this week saying: We may need to pursue an impeachment inquiry after all. We’re frustrated, they said, that the White House is completely stonewalling, they can’t get the documents that they want, they can’t get the witnesses that they want. This is the only way to do it.

But once they started winning in federal court and, you know, judges were saying that Deutsche Bank and Capital One need to turn over the president’s financial records they said, oh, wait a minute, A, that didn’t take that long. They were worried it would take years to get a judge to rule. And, B, he ruled in their favor. And so that made Democrats more confident that they actually have the legal standing to do this, and that they will win victories like this in the future without resorting to an impeachment inquiry, which opens up a whole can of worms politically, obviously, that Nancy Pelosi would rather not open now, if she doesn’t have to.

MR. COSTA: So there’s all this debate over impeachment on the Democratic side. But I want to come back to the infrastructure point. The talks just fell apart this week, as you mentioned. Is that because, Toluse, Republicans at the end of the day in Congress don’t want to raise taxes, and taxes would have to be part of any deal?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah. So infrastructure has always been a difficult issue in Congress because no one wants to raise the gas tax. No one wants to raise taxes to pay for the billions and billions of dollars that need to be funded. President Trump came out and said: I’m for $2 trillion in infrastructure. But he didn’t say anything about how to pay for it. And once the rubber hits the road on figuring out whether or not he’s going to raise taxes, that seems to be where the idea of a deal fell apart. It seemed like President Trump was not in favor of raising taxes, but he wants to have a big infrastructure package that he can put his name on, and not having a way out he decided to walk away.

MR. COSTA: And back to the disaster relief bill, $19 billion for disaster relief. What greased the skids for that?

MS. CORDES: Well, Democrats have been pushing for money for Puerto Rico for quite some time. This bill was actually five months overdue. And, you know, there was something for everyone. It was Western wildfires, Southern – Southeast hurricane relief. And so this was something that everyone acknowledged was necessary, but there were a couple of things holding it up. Number one, that Democratic demand for more money for Puerto Rico than the president wanted. And the president’s insistence, for quite a while, that it also include humanitarian aid at the border and a way to deal with overcrowding.

At the end of the day, he backed off on that requirement. He said he would put it in another package, and that sort of opened the door to bipartisan agreement. And it was almost over the finish line, the Senate passed it almost universally, but the House had already left town. Which meant that the House – every single member of the House would have to agree in order for it to go through. One Republican, you know, from Texas had a problem with it. He said that it’s too much money, wasn’t offset by anything –

MR. COSTA: But it’s still expected to pass.

MS. CORDES: It is going to pass, yes. If it doesn’t pass next week during congressional recess, then it will pass when they get back in 10 days.

MR. COSTA: One last thing on this. Molly, I was going back through some of your older articles for TIME . And you wrote earlier in the year that, quote, “America’s new political reality is a non-functioning federal government whose leaders, each insisting the stakes are too high to budge, have retreated to their corners.” So an escalation this week in all the fighting between the White House and Congress, but has this moment changed that much since back in the days of the shutdown earlier this year?

MS. BALL: Well, if anything, it’s improved, since the federal government is now up and running again. But what we have to look forward to, as we have so many times in the past several years, are a series of high-stakes congressional deadlines that require bipartisan agreement in order to meet and not cause disaster. And that’s going to be a real challenge. It’s a challenge for Speaker Pelosi. It’s a challenge for the president and the Senate and the whole Congress. But they’ve got appropriations bills to pass, or at least some kind of continuing resolution that they – that’ll have to be done as a stop gap. They’ve got to raise the debt ceiling. They’ve got to raise the spending caps. So there’s a lot that they’ve – that has to be done. And given this state of partisan warfare, it’s going to be very difficult for them to get there.

MR. COSTA: And Bob Mueller hasn’t even testified yet. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat, announced this week that the special counsel, Bob Mueller, would prefer to testify in private, and then allow that transcript to be released. Still, a new CBS News poll shows that 58 percent of Americans say they have heard enough about the Mueller probe, while 37 percent want to hear more. We’re hearing from the White House that now the president’s complaining on Friday en route to Japan that he may not want Bob Mueller to testify. Is the White House actually going to try to block that?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: They haven’t actually taken the steps publicly to – or, privately to do that, but publicly the president is making the case that, you know, the Democrats are really just trying to do a do-over of the long Mueller investigation, which took two years and $30 million, and resulted in a 400-page report. The president’s trying to block any efforts by Democrats to revisit some of the information that was pretty damaging about his administration. And the idea of Bob Mueller, who would be a star witness for the Democrats, who would be a highly rated television spectacle if he were to appear before the cameras – the president watches those ratings very closely. The president does not want to see that happen again.

MR. COSTA: Who decides whether we see it or not? Is it Bob Mueller with his demand, or is it Congress?

MS. CORDES: I mean, witnesses don’t usually get to dictate the format in which they testify, but he’s obviously got a lot of leverage in this situation. Of course, as Toluse was pointing out, Democrats absolutely want him testifying in public, talking as much as possible about how difficult it was for him to decide whether to recommend charges of obstruction of justice against the president, going through all of the evidence that he laid out. Democrats want the public to be able to see that. They think that that is very powerful, especially coming from someone who is seen as this sort of independent arbiter, someone like Robert Mueller, one of the few genuine nonpartisan actors in this town – at least, according to most people.

MR. COSTA: But is it that powerful, Molly, if the CBS News poll, at least, shows that some Americans are moving on?

MS. BALL: Americans are moving on, but they also do not believe the president’s argument that he’s been exonerated. You know, in terms of the politics of this, the president continues to falsely state that no collusion, no obstruction, that that was the conclusion of the report, when no such conclusion was drawn. He continues to exist that he was exonerated by the report, when the report very pointedly pointed out he was not exonerated. And the public – a pretty robust majority of the public – have seen that and do not believe that the report cleared the president.

So it is true that this is – this has never been the public’s most important issue. And the Democrats are anxious about the appearance that they are disregarding bread and butter kitchen table concerns in favor of this – what the president considers a persecution. However, when it comes to the substance of the charges against the president, of the argument against the president, the public does not support the president’s view. And the Democrats are on pretty safe political ground, I think.

MR. COSTA: The president’s launching a counter offensive to the possible Mueller testimony, granting Attorney General Bill Barr sweeping new powers to declassify documents related to the start of the Russia investigation. What started this whole movement to get the attorney general to have these powers? Was it congressional Republicans, who’ve been scrutinizing these events for months?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, the president talked a little bit about this earlier today. He said that people have been calling on him for much of the last year to declassify documents related to the origins of the Mueller investigation. He does have now an attorney general who’s shown himself willing to sort of pull out all the stops to defend the president publicly and back up the president’s assertions that there was some sort of improper spying on his campaign in 2016. And now this attorney general will have unfettered power to go through the intelligence community and declassify documents to back that up.

MR. COSTA: Is that intelligence community worried about methods or sources being exposed?

MS. CORDES: They are. They are. In fact the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats voiced some of that concern and said: Hey, be careful about what you declassify. Some of this material is very sensitive. And so, you know, he’s – it’s pretty unusual to see, you know, one leader in the intelligence community telling another to put on the brakes. But that’s the message that he’s sending, because there is a worry about where this goes.

MS. BALL: And it’s pretty incredible. You know, the Democrats’ whole argument is that the president is disregarding the constitutional checks and balances and undermining the rule of law. And in order to prevent the Democrats from investigating those same allegations, he is simply doing more of that. He is doing more and more to undermine those checks and balances, and to potentially extend executive power in ways that a lot of experts find disturbing.

MR. COSTA: And what’s the institutional cost to the Department of Justice when all these methods and sources about the counterintelligence side get exposed?

MS. BALL: It’s potentially huge. And that is the worry, is that he could throw the balance of power out of whack permanently, and that could really have lasting consequences for the presidency, for the Congress. What holds a president in check if the oversight responsibilities of the Congress are vitiated, if the independence of the Department of Justice no longer exists? Those are real questions.

MR. OLORUNNIPA: And the broader argument that we should not have a president using the full power of the federal government to investigate his political perceived enemies is an argument that sometimes gets lost in all of the discussion. But it is a powerful argument that the president shouldn’t necessarily be organizing and ordering these investigations.

MR. COSTA: Turning our eyes abroad, the president is traveling to Tokyo, where he will be the first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor. The trip comes during a trade war with China and following the collapse of those nuclear talks with North Korea. Mr. Trump will meet with Prime Minister Abe.

Joining me now is David Sanger, our friend and New York Times national security correspondent and author of The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age . David, thanks for joining us.

DAVID SANGER: Great to be back with you, Robert.

MR. COSTA: David, the president heading to Japan; what’s the importance of the U.S.-Japanese relationship as President Trump confronts China on trade?

MR. SANGER: You know, it’s pretty vital right now, and the reason is that the president’s relationships with almost all of his other major allies are so strained. Obviously, we’re in the midst of a big trade war with China and much longer issues over technology. Iran and North Korea are both ramping up as confrontations, particularly in Iran; the Europeans feel alienated; and even South Korea has got a lot of differences with the president about how he’s been dealing with the North. So he’s going to one of the safest territories he can. He’s nurtured a really great relationship with Prime Minister Abe, and he is going to be the first foreign leader to meet the new emperor and empress, a change in generation; in the case of the empress, Masako, American- and British-educated. So that’s likely to be a feelgood meeting.

MR. COSTA: You mentioned Prime Minister Abe. Is he encouraging a hard line on North Korea? I saw John Bolton, the national security adviser, was over there today meeting with him.

MR. SANGER: Yes, and the reason he is is that politically at home in Japan the big issue, apart from the nuclear question, is the question of abductees, when the North Koreans took a number of Japanese. They would come over in boats and kidnap people, bring them over; they’ve never fully accounted for them. The Japanese are demanding their return. Many of these are people who have lived in North Korea now for 10, 20, 30 years. That is an issue on which Prime Minister Abe has had to hold extraordinarily tough, and he has sort of been urging the president to be much tougher on the North Koreans as well. And I’m sure you’ll hear a bit of that, although as you know President Trump blows hot and cold about whether or not Kim Jong-un is a great dictator or his great friend.

MR. COSTA: The U.S. recently delayed the auto tariffs on Japan. We talk so much about trade in China. Should we expect a trade deal between the U.S. and Japan?

MR. SANGER: Well, certainly the president wants one, and I think the Japanese would like to get there as well. It’s not as high-stakes as it was 25 years ago, when I lived in Japan and you’d see American presidents show up every six months with a different kind of trade deal on autos or access of Americans to the market. Obviously, China has eclipsed Japan as the second-largest economy. Nonetheless, I think it’s highly likely that you will see one; the question is whether you’ll only see it after a deal is reached with China. You know, I think the president at this point –

MR. COSTA: But David, is – David, is a deal with China going to be reached anytime soon? We saw this week Chinese telecommunications companies being blacklisted by President Trump. Has that rattled Beijing?

MR. SANGER: It certainly has, and the action you saw was against Huawei, which is of course the state champion for telecommunications equipment. And what the United States has done is two things: it’s banned Huawei from building the new fifth-generation or 5G networks here, which are designed not only to speed up your cellphone but also to allow machine-to-machine communication over cell; but the other thing they did was cut them off from American technology. And I think there’s a very good chance that this may not only poison the well some, but force the Chinese to speed up their own plans to go produce their own chips, their own material, their own software independent of the United States, and certainly raises the question of whether the president’s sort of helping push the world, as the Chinese have been, into an authoritarian internet run by China and a free internet run by the West.

MR. COSTA: And what of this – what has this blacklisting meant for the Chinese economy, to have Huawei being affected in this manner?

MR. SANGER: It hasn’t meant much yet. There’s a 90-day stay on this to allow companies to sort of sort their way through. But the main thing to remember is that Huawei is the world’s second-largest producer of cellphones. They’ve eclipsed Apple. And this week they learned that they won’t be able to load Google Maps and Google Search and all that on Huawei phones that are sold around the world because it would be a violation of the president’s orders, so Google’s begun to pull back from them, as have others. The question is, is that just a temporary blip for them or is it a permanent and truly hurtful one?

MR. COSTA: Well, we know this is all a preview of that G-20 meeting next month, and this is quite an exchange between Abe and President Trump right now to give us a preview of what’s going to happen then. David Sanger, thanks so much for joining us tonight. I appreciate it.

MR. SANGER: Great to be with you.

MR. COSTA: And before we go, let’s pause to remember a longtime Washington Week panelist, Georgie Anne Geyer. She began her reporting career in Chicago and later became a foreign correspondent. She authored 10 books and was a regular guest on this program for many years. Geyer died earlier this month at her home in Washington. She was 84.

And thanks, everybody, for being here tonight. Much appreciated. The Washington Week Extra is coming up next. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.

I’m Robert Costa. Good night.


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