Full Episode: A special edition on President Donald Trump and impeachment

Nov. 28, 2019 AT 9:49 a.m. EST

On this special Thanksgiving edition, moderator Robert Costa sits down for one-on-one conversations with Maggie Haberman of The New York Times and historian Jon Meacham.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Tonight, a special edition: President Trump and impeachment.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) This president believes he is above the law.

MR. COSTA: A divided nation.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s a hoax. It’ a disgrace. It’s an embarrassment to our country.

MR. COSTA: And an embattled president. We go inside this moment with Pulitzer Prize winners Maggie Haberman, White House Correspondent for The New York Times and historian Jon Meacham, for conversations on the presidency and history, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. I hope you enjoyed Thanksgiving. For me, it’s always time to see family in Pennsylvania and talk politics and take stock of the year. And here, at this table, we will do just that tonight, take stock of President Trump and impeachment, days after the latest round of public hearings concluded.

Joining me are two of the nation’s brightest minds on this front, Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer, celebrated journalist and editor, and contributor to Time. We’ll talk with John a little later. But, first, Maggie Haberman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning White House correspondent for The New York Times and CNN political analyst. She has covered President Trump with vigor and a keen eye for many years, going back to his days in New York. Maggie, welcome back to Washington Week.

MAGGIE HABERMAN: Thanks for having me.

MR. COSTA: Maggie, when you think about President Trump and cover him at this moment, this juncture in his presidency, do you see him employing many of the same tactics he used to use in New York when you were reporting on him then?

MS. HABERMAN: I do. Bob, he is doing the Donald Trump playbook. This has been –what’s doing with impeachment, some folks have compared it to what he did during the probe by Special Counsel Robert Muller, which was essentially, you know, hammer away at the facts, argue that they’re not true, argue that people are out to get him, throw up enough dust around everything that people were sort of confused, and insist that he had done nothing wrong. And that did turn the dial somewhat on public opinion before that report came out. And then after it came out it just sort of disappeared.

This is not just a tactic that he used with Mueller. This is a tactic he has used his entire life. His entire business life, his political life, his real estate life has all been about bending other people to his will. And I think you are going to see that now, where he is using some combination of blunt force and, you know, typical Washington wooing with Republican lawmakers to try to keep them on his side.

MR. COSTA: Speaking to that point about bending the Republican Party to his will, how does he see that dynamic with his own party? Why does he believe there’s so much continuing loyalty within the GOP?

MS. HABERMAN: I think that he attributes it to a couple of things, but the main one is that the Republican establishment still, I think, has not quite come to grips with being caught totally off guard in 2016 by his rise, and then by his win. You have Republican members of Congress, both in the House and in the Senate, who aren’t quite sure where their voters are, but who know that they do have a sizable portion in their districts and in their states of Trump voters. And they do not want to alienate them. They know that that is a real risk. They know it’s a real risk if the president then tweets about them. They know it’s a real risk of the president attacks them publicly. And so none of them want to earn his ire. I think all of this is why you are seeing enduring loyalty.

I do think, from Republicans I’ve spoken to, that a number of them have genuinely come to agree with him, that they think that the way that this inquiry is being conducted by House Democrats is not fair, or is not proper, or is not sticking to practices done in previous impeachment inquiries – bearing in mind we’ve had only three others in the nation’s history. But they’re very frustrated by the fact that they can’t question witnesses or call their own witnesses is the same way that Democrats can.

MR. COSTA: When you look back at your time reporting on President Trump, going up to Trump Tower, that 26th floor office, him making calls, has this impeachment process revealed that way he operates outside of the chain of command, talking to people like Rudy Giuliani, or Roy Cohn, or Michael Cohen?

MS. HABERMAN: Look, I think that everything about this presidency, Bob, has been some version of revealing that he has never changed his MO from the time he was at Trump Tower, where everything was kind of boiled down, reductionist, with him at the top and then a bunch of orbits around him, that only he really knew what was going on. You’ve seen the same thing with the White House. He does not believe in following typical White House protocol. He does have all kinds of outside lines. I think that when he was first elected there were a lot of questions certainly that I had about whether he would try to outsource certain functions still either to his company or to aides who worked for his company.

We haven’t seen any evidence of that, but we do know that he has invoked people like Rudy Giuliani and deployed them on these missions in terms of trying to find, as has been described, as dirt against the Biden family. There are other areas where he has outsourced pieces of the government, whether it was at the VA involving some, you know, members of his club, Mar-a-Lago in Florida who had managed to get their hands in there. I think we may see other instances of this as the next year, or possibly five years, progress.

MR. COSTA: He turns to Rudy Giuliani at times for help on foreign policy, but who’s he turning to inside of this White House, inside of his Cabinet, as he faces impeachment? Who’s influential right now?

MS. HABERMAN: So it’s interesting, because so many of the people who have been influential in the last year are also people who are proximate to this inquiry as subjects themselves or at least as witnesses themselves. The two people who he has trusted the most over the last year have been Bill Barr, the attorney general, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. Pompeo certainly is all caught up in this because of the work that Giuliani was doing. Giuliani has repeatedly tried to, you know, back Pompeo’s way, or back the State Department’s way. And I think that that has created some tension between Pompeo and the president. The president’s not really sure who he can trust right now. He’s been relying very heavily on Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, but in general there are not a number of trusted aides around him anymore.

MR. COSTA: But is there a war room inside of this White House or not?

MS. HABERMAN: (Laughs.) Yes and no. There is a war room that is not called a war room. There are a couple of officials who were hired in the last couple of weeks, maybe month at this point, on the direction of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. And we should note the president tends to get very burrowed into his family in times of stress, and this is no exception. Jared Kushner is basically running the impeachment battle plan for the president. He instructed the White House to hire Tony Sayegh, a former aide at the Treasury Department, and Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, who’s a favorite of the president’s on television, defending him.

Now, they have been running not a conventional war room in the sense that they’re not pushing a lot of things out publicly. There’s not a ton taking place on television. The president is still his own best public-facing messenger, as far as I can tell. But what they are doing is a lot of coordinating of communications with the Hill. They are doing a lot of daily meetings, making sure they’re on the same page. And that is new.

MR. COSTA: Does he ever grapple with the charges against him on Capitol Hill, with concerns about his own conduct? Or is this a president who remains unchanged and really unwilling to examine his own behavior?

MS. HABERMAN: Self-reflections is not really one his familiar suits, I would say, if not strong suit. I’ve seen no indication and heard no indication that he is thinking that he did anything wrong in how he handled this Ukraine matter, whether it was the military aide that he put a phrase on or the call that he had with President Zelensky of Ukraine in July 25th. In fact, he’s been very frustrated so several weeks that Republicans have been fighting this on process grounds, that they had been arguing that the impeachment process itself was unfair but not really delving into the question of his conduct on that call. He wants people saying he did nothing wrong. And that is part of why the notion of a Senate trial does appeal to him on some level. He likes the idea of being able to bring out witnesses to say he didn’t do anything wrong, which would be contrary primarily to what we saw in the House inquiry.

MR. COSTA: So much of what happened with that phone call with President Zelensky was driven by the 2020 Democratic presidential race, Vice President Biden. When he looks at that race right now, and he sees the entry of Mayor Bloomberg from New York, he sees Biden still doing OK in the polls, he sees Mayor Buttigieg rising, what’s his own understanding of that contest?

MS. HABERMAN: It’s interesting, Bob. His understanding of that context tends to relate, as most things do for him, back to himself. So he’s been very surprised that he has not permanently destroyed Joe Biden. He’s been very surprised that he did not permanently destroy Elizabeth Warren. He has said both of those things to people. He still thinks that Biden is somebody who would be an easier opponent for him. Bloomberg is something of an X factor. He has a – I wouldn’t say a friendship with Bloomberg, but they certainly know each other from New York days. Bloomberg took a lot of whacks at him in the 2016 presidential race, at the – at the Democratic convention, as you remember.

And Bloomberg, most significantly, has a much larger bank account. And that is something that gets in this president’s head. This president knows that Bloomberg can spend in ways that this president, frankly, never could, even as a self-funder, and never would, most likely. He tends to resort to using other people’s money in that kind of situation. But Bloomberg is running as something totally different. And Bloomberg is going to talk about jobs. The only other person in the presidential campaign that you hear really talking about jobs as a message across the board is Donald Trump right now. Mike Bloomberg’s ad focused on the word “jobs” pretty aggressively. And the president knows this. His aides are hoping he will not be baited into a back and forth with Bloomberg, which will only serve to elevate Bloomberg as a general election candidate.

MR. COSTA: So what’s next, Maggie? You studied him. You’ve reported on him. Is it constant war, political war between now and November 2020? What’s the strategy? What’s the end game?

MS. HABERMAN: I don’t – well, the end game is winning. The strategy, I think, is an open question because, as you know, he tends to treat, you know, the world in terms of dealing with the ten-minute increments of time that he has to get through. And so right now the increment of time that he has to get through is the impeachment inquiry. And that is where his focus is. I think what you are going to see – if what we expect happens happens, if there is no further information that comes out, if there are no additional witnesses – and there could be – but if all things stay as they are, the anticipation is that he is, in all likelihood, going to be impeached in a House vote and then be acquitted in a Senate trial. And then I think you are going to see a very, very angry President Trump campaigning over what he feels like he went through this year.

I always go back – my framework for this is that weekend, that Access Hollywood tape weekend, October 7th to October 9th, 2016, where he was suffering his – one of his worst ever wounds of any kind when that tape came out. And his response was to go to the debate in St. Louis against Hillary Clinton and just savage her by forcing her to walk across a parade of women who had accused her husband of sexual improprieties, or in one case rape. I think that you can expect that next year is going to be ugly.

MR. COSTA: Grievance politics and political warfare. Maggie, as insightful as ever. Thank you so much for joining us.

MS. HABERMAN: Thank you.

MR. COSTA: Now, a turn to history.

Jon Meacham recently wrote for Time magazine that a grasp of a past can be orienting as Americans navigate the turbulence of impeachment proceedings and the rise of populism, both here and abroad. And he wrote, it is hard to predict the way the current impeachment debate will end, noting that Andrew Johnson survived impeachment and Richard Nixon’s support held until the very last moment of Watergate. But whatever happens, the start of the hearings mark the beginning of a test for the country.

Joining me from Nashville is Jon Meacham. Jon, welcome.

JON MEACHAM: Thanks, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Let’s begin there. What stands out to you about how this president and this nation are handling that test?

MR. MEACHAM: Well, I think that we’re having a basic argument in the country about what the facts are and what we should make of those facts. And that’s a moment that has been bubbling along, forming really 50 years or so. But these are perennial forces. Walter Lippmann said 100 years ago, 1921 – he wrote a book called “Public Opinion,” in which he defined that the setting sin – the setting problem of the modern age might be that we would define and then we would see, instead of seeing and then defining. And it’s only gotten worse in the ensuing hundred years. So I think we have to find two things, really: A common set of facts. And if we can agree on those, then there’s a basic kind of democratic, lower-case D, health to that. And then we have an argument about what to make those facts.

My own sense is that we live in these two – on these two different planets. And the fate of the country may well hang – the fate of the Republican system may well hang on the people who are willing to admit that their minds have been changed. And part of the American Revolution, part of the reason we were able to undertake this experiment, was the insight that the Enlightenment had created an era in human affairs where we could react to changing circumstances, we could change our opinions based on differing discernable realities, as we were able to see them. And that insight, that reason had to take a stand against passion in the arena, was very much, in some ways, the formative insight of the Constitution that’s being tested anew right now.

MR. COSTA: Speaking of the Constitution, take us back to the Constitutional Convention when the founders came up with the idea of impeachment and included it. Why was it important then? Why does it matter now?

MR. MEACHAM: It fits into the checks and balances. The essential insight – James Madison was the clearest articulator of it – that divided sovereignty was essential because if you made any one branch, any one element in the compact too powerful, the interests of that sect would take over and run away with the system. They were aiming for a balance. They were aiming for the insight that we were all sinful, we were all driven by appetite and ambition, and therefore we had to divide authority, divide power in a way that would prevent any one element from knocking the whole system out of whack. And impeachment was one of the checks and balances on the executive and the judicial branches.

It came out of the English Common Law. It’s a 14th century idea, basically. The three things that were named in the Constitution – it’s a very brief article – were treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. And as Gerald Ford famously said in the 20th century: High crime and misdemeanor is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives decides it is at a given moment. But the essential element, the reason for having impeachment, was, as George Mason said of Virginia, he asked: Shall any man be above justice? And can that – should that man, who has the most extensive power to commit the most extensive injustice, be above justice? And so there was this clear understanding that there had to be a failsafe, in a way to mix anachronistic metaphors. There had to be a final check on an executive or a judge who was violating the compact of divided sovereignty, respecting the rights of the other elements, the other contractors to the American compact.

MR. COSTA: You’ve written a stellar biography of Andrew Jackson. When you look at this current age, are we in another populist moment, and the institutions and norms in this country being challenged by that populism?

MR. MEACHAM: We are in a populist moment. We’re in a nationalist moment. The forces that are flowing right now are perennial American forces: xenophobia, racism, nativism, isolationism, extremism. They ebb and they flow in American life. We have always been divided. We were divided patriot versus Tory. We were divided North versus South. We were divided Jim Crow versus integration. Now we’re divided in red versus blue. The key element, and the way history – what history tells us about how we’ve gotten out of these moments is we have managed to understand that our best moments come when we more generously apply the implications of what was really the most important sentence ever originally rendered in English, by Thomas Jefferson, that all men were created equal, and were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

And this is not a homily. It’s not a Thanksgiving prayer. It’s historically true. When we think about the eras that you would admit – one would admit they want to go back to, they are always eras where we have more widely opened our arms, not eras where we’ve closed doors. And populism does not have to be a disruptive force to the constitutional order. In this case, in many ways, it is. President Trump is, I think, not Jacksonian in the sense that Jackson, for all of his faults, believed in the union. He believed in that system – again, however flawed it was at the time. This is – so for him, it was an end. For Jackson and populism and America was the consuming drama. For President Trump, the consuming drama is President Trump. And that’s an essential difference.

MR. COSTA: What about the Republican Party? You’ve often spoke of the McCarthy years, and Margaret Chase Smith, the late senator from Maine, how she spoke up against Senator McCarthy. And we saw Senator Goldwater in the Nixon era go to the White House and confront President Nixon during Watergate. Where is the GOP today?

MR. MEACHAM: They are nowhere near the Barry Goldwater of 1974. And they aren’t even within the same zip code as Margaret Chase Smith in 1950. Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, gave a speech very shortly after McCarthy’s Lincoln’s birthday address in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he launched his crusade. And she gave a statement called the Declaration of Conscience. She only got six Republicans to support her. McCarthy dismissed them as Snow White and the six dwarves. And yet, for years later that’s where half the Republican Caucus, 22 Republicans, voted to censure McCarthy in 1954 – that’s where they ended up.

And we are here. And this is what I would say to the Republicans today who have suspended in many cases their critical faculties in exchange for raw power. I mean, you know this very well, the reasons Republicans are acting the way they’re acting is they’re seeing numbers that show Republicans in their state or their district not only support the president, but strongly support. That’s the category that’s so disorienting to them. The Republicans we talk about, the Democrats we talk about in a warm and venerable way, are the leaders who took a risk and actually told their base of support something that base of support didn’t want to hear.

Think about American presidents. What’s the one thing we think when we think about Nixon, and we think on the positive side? It’s going to China. The old cold warrior, the guy who Alger Hiss, opens up this vast communist nation. Lyndon Johnson, from a segregated state in Texas does civil rights. Ronald Reagan, the cold warrior, ends the Cold War. We honor people – we honor presidents and we honor lawmakers who tell us what we don’t want to hear. And what I would urge Republicans to do is think about: What do you want us to think when we look at your portrait on the wall? And it has a small chance of working, because no politician can imagine a world where we’re not staring adoringly at their portrait. I think that has to be the test.

It has to be not what’s going to get you through the next couple of months, but what’s going to get you viewed in history the way that you would want your family to view you, and the way you would want history to talk about you.

MR. COSTA: Jon, we just have a few seconds left. You’ve written about America’s soul, about its better angels. Do you remain an optimist here on this Thanksgiving week, or not?

MR. MEACHAM: I am optimistic, if only because we’ve – as Wellington said of Waterloo – getting America this far was the damndest close-run thing you ever saw in your life. And, you know, Winston Churchill’s alleged to have said that you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing once they’ve exhausted every other possibility. We’re in the midst of doing that, but I think that ultimately the 242-year experiment, the 55-year experiment since the Voting Rights Act, creating this polity, that that’s going to win.

MR. COSTA: Jon, we’ll have to leave it there. I’ll bring you back for a show on Churchill. Look forward to that. (Laughter.) Thank you very much for joining us.

And thank you for joining us for this special edition of Washington Week. I’m Robert Costa. Good night.


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