Special: Boris Johnson becomes new UK Prime Minister

Jul. 26, 2019 AT 9:56 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed the UK’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The pro-Brexit conservative assumed the office on July 24.

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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. And this is the Washington Week Extra.

Joining me tonight, Mark Landler, London bureau chief for The New York Times; Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent at NBC News; and Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent at CNN.

On Wednesday British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned. Minutes later, Boris Johnson bowed before Queen Elizabeth and was asked to form a new government. The new prime minister is making big promises to deliver Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union.

U.K. PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: (From video.) We’re going to get Brexit done on October the 31st. We’re going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of can do.

MR. COSTA: A former journalist, London mayor, and foreign secretary, Johnson is hailed by rank-and-file Tories for his commitment to Brexit and his pluck.

U.K. PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: (From video.) I say to all the doubters: Dude, we are going to energize the country. (Applause.)

MR. COSTA: But critics claim his populist style and record – which includes incendiary articles, exaggeration, and offensive statements – are a problem. Several senior members of his party have already left the Cabinet as part of a reshuffle, including his rival, former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. Meanwhile, President Trump has been a staunch supporter of Johnson, who has been eyeing a U.S.-U.K. trade deal.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Good man. He’s tough and he’s smart. They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump, and people are saying that’s a good thing. They like me over there. That’s what they wanted. (Cheers.) That’s what they need.

MR. COSTA: That said, Johnson criticized then-candidate Trump for his proposed plan to ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

BORIS JOHNSON: (From video.) I think he’s betraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him, frankly, unfit to hold the office of president.

MR. COSTA: Mark, you’re heading to London soon. What does the ascent of Mr. Johnson mean for the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K.?

MARK LANDLER: Well, at the top level it means a kind of a warming trend because you have, you know, these two ginger-haired entertainer-showmen leaders who clearly have a meeting of the minds. They’ve spoken, notwithstanding the clip you just showed, very warmly and praised each other in recent weeks. Donald Trump all but endorsed Boris Johnson when he was in the U.K. last month. So I think at the top level a lot of friendship and rapport.

What’ll be interesting to see is does that translate into the things that Britain cares about, particularly if it faces a future outside of Europe. Britain would desperately love to have a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. Donald Trump has said they’ll do a deal like that, but that’s a lot easier said than done.

And it will be interesting also to look at the security side. Boris Johnson isn’t in the same place as President Trump on Iran; he did not want Trump to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, came to Washington as foreign secretary to make the case for staying in the deal. Now, as we have this tense period in the Persian Gulf, it’ll be interesting to see whether Johnson aligns with President Trump in his maximum pressure campaign against Iran or sticks with his European allies – Britain, France, and Germany.

So at a personal level, a lot of happy talk. Beneath, I think very much up in the air.

ANDREA MITCHELL: And in fact, that issue about Iran is coming to a head immediately. This weekend they are in Vienna, the Europeans and the Iranians, to try to see if they can salvage the deal, even though the U.S. sanctions are putting so much pressure on Europe to cut off even humanitarian aid to Tehran. I mean, it is a real chokehold on the economy of Iran. And Iran is behaving badly with these, you know, poking the eyes of the U.K.

MR. COSTA: What do you make of the U.S.-U.K. relationship with regard to Iran? Are they on the same page?

MS. MITCHELL: No, not at all, but I think that Boris Johnson will do what he can to ameliorate it. And as Mark has just said, this is going to be a very warm relationship going forward at that level, at the leader level. He has – Boris Johnson has dismayed the diplomatic corps by the way he really delivered the final blow by undercutting the British ambassador here, Kim Darroch, who was very popular, and permitting the U.S. president to basically drive a U.K. ambassador at the most important post anywhere in the world out of office.

MR. COSTA: And you’re referencing how, when Boris Johnson before he became prime minister was asked about Kim Darroch, the British ambassador here in the U.S., he didn’t give a full-throated defense.

MS. MITCHELL: And it was interpreted as completely undercutting him and making it – making it necessary for him to resign. I just think that going forward Boris Johnson has overpromised, and for him to deliver a Brexit – an exit with some kind of deal, some kind of deal to protect the Irish border for instance, is something that Theresa May – now, admittedly, not a very good politician – but for him to deliver this by October 31st, the EU deadline, is going to be a Halloween story in the worst way.

MANU RAJU: And remember, the president – President Trump has turned on allies very quickly throughout his presidency, whether it’s in Canada or in France or even Theresa May. I mean, he was – he was sharply critical of May over Brexit. Perhaps Boris Johnson, if he fails to deliver by his deadline, President Trump could become critical of Johnson, and Johnson will have to respond to criticism – or things that President Trump says that are controversial and that are not popular in the U.K. And if he distances himself from the president, that relationship could go south potentially.

MR. COSTA: What about trade? When you’re on Capitol Hill, we talk about Boris Johnson needing to get Brexit done and get a deal with the EU, but President Trump has had stalled talks with China on trade. The USMCA continues to be stalled on Capitol Hill. Could the president be looking to cut a deal with the U.K. on trade to try to shore up his own trade position here in the U.S.?

MR. RAJU: Yeah, and that’s certainly what he wants to campaign on. And you mentioned the USMCA; very difficult to see how that gets through in this political environment because, of course, Democrats control the House, the Republicans control the Senate, and – but there are deep divisions within the party about – in the Republican Party about how to deal with the issue of trade. A lot of Republicans are generally free traders. The president is not a free trader. Democrats tend to be more in line with them, but you deal with all the political ramifications of siding with the president in an election year. And that’s not easy to be – to see that happening, particularly in this House and this environment.

MR. COSTA: Mark, as you head over there you mentioned how both President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson have a similar look, hair, style. Are leaders in the U.S. and the U.K. contending with the same forces of nationalism? Is it identical? Or are there some differences between what’s happening here in the Trump era and what’s happening there with Boris?

MR. LANDLER: There’s a great deal of parallels between the two. You have two men who are not really men of principle, who are showmen, who are as much celebrities as politicians. Boris Johnson began his career as a journalist, and kind of became famous as the mayor of London for his theatrics, famously getting stuck on a zipline in front of TV cameras. So to that extent, there’s a lot of parallels. And below that level, there are as well. A lot of the Trump phenomenon is about fear of immigration and about how in particular working-class white men deal with the reality of a changed country they live in. Those phenomena are all also evident in the U.K., and in particular in the U.K. with this notion of migrants coming across from Southern Europe and the Middle East.

So to that extent, there’s a lot of similarity. I think the difference between the two men is that Boris Johnson, for all his buffoonish imagery, is actually a highly educated, erudite, extremely articulate, very clever. He’s –

MR. COSTA: Wrote a book about Churchill.

MR. LANDLER: Yeah. He’s, in some ways, out of the classic background of pedigree of a British elite leader, except disguised in this cartoonish sort of exterior. Donald Trump is something truly different. He is a Queens-born New York City real estate developer who became a celebrity TV star, right? Reality TV star. He’s not a reader. He’s not a particularly thoughtful or introspective guy. So I do think that beneath the superficial similarities there are important differences. Now, how those differences translate into how each country navigates this very interesting moment in our histories remains to be seen. And I think to some extent, if I could go out on a limb, I’m not sure Boris Johnson is up to the challenge he set for himself. In some ways, President Trump has succeeded beyond many of our expectations in the challenge he took on in becoming president.

MR. COSTA: Andrea, I believe you interviewed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at some point?

MS. MITCHELL: I did, several times. (Laughter.) She was a tough interview.

MR. COSTA: And Tony Blair, you’ve sat down with, of course.

MS. MITCHELL: Of course, yeah.

MR. COSTA: You’ve been with prime ministers. Where does he fit?

MS. MITCHELL: He doesn’t fit at all. (Laughter.) And I think that Mark’s analysis is brilliant, because he is classically trained, a classic scholar, you know, very erudite man. But under the – I mean, we’ve seen him literally before he gets on camera go and, you know, mess up his hair so that he looks disheveled. That is his image. That’s the persona. And it is cartoonish. It has gotten him very far, but in a minority sense because Brexit still is, you know, 50/50 proposition here, possibly influenced as well as our election was by outside interference from Russia. And it’s part of a populist trend throughout Europe as well – Eastern Europe in particular. We see it in Hungary, we see in Poland, see it in Italy. And there was the Le Pen movement in France. So he’s not alone in Europe. And we don’t know what’s going to happen in Germany as Merkel steps off the stage. It’s a fascinating story. Mark, we all envy you. (Laughter.) Take us with you.

MR. COSTA: Final thought, Mark. You’re heading across to London. You’re leaving the White House beat. You’re leaving the Trump beat for the Boris beat. Any final thoughts on the Trump White House, being a reporter there, as you step away?

MR. LANDLER: Well, I spent six years covering the Obama White House. And I guess my overwhelming thought as I leave is that I just could never have conjured up the last two years in my wildest dreams. I was thinking about a day right before I left the beat where President Trump held a sort of a crazy no-question news conference in the Rose Garden. And after he left there was a shouting match between Sebastian Gorka – (laughter) – a right-wing former foreign policy advisor to the president, and Brian Karem, who is a freelance writer for Playboy Magazine. And they were sort of fighting over the dignity of the Rose Garden as the rest of the press watched in a state of sort of stupefied amazement. (Laughter.)

And to me, it kind of summed up the way this president has turned the White House into a stage set for a reality show. And there are – there were many, many days like that in these last two years. And if I contrast it to the proceeding six with Barack Obama, and the incredible discipline, the methodical approach to the office – not to say that he didn’t have all of his flaws and weaknesses – it just is, like, I had two completely different jobs that had nothing to do with one another.

MS. MITCHELL: He is the most accessible president that we’ve ever seen, in that he will talk to people –

MR. LANDLER: Mmm hmm, 10 times a day.

MS. MITCHELL: Ten times a day. And you know what’s on his mind.

MR. RAJU: And he can the narrative by saying whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And he does that intentionally, both – not just to push his message, but also to distract from something that’s happening as well.

MS. MITCHELL: And facts don’t matter.

MR. LANDLER: This is all by way of saying I’ll miss a lot of this too. (Laughter.)

MR. COSTA: You’ll miss it. The Boris beat is quite a beat. I’ll only say this, respectfully to Mr. Hunt, can you imagine if Jeremy Hunt had won? It would be a different beat, to say the least. (Laughter.)

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. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.


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