Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, March 24, 2023

Mar. 24, 2023 AT 8:57 p.m. EDT

Former President Donald Trump makes a new threat amid developments in the criminal cases against him, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized both Trump and the Manhattan DA investigating him. Join guest moderator Laura Barrón-López, Devlin Barrett of the Washington Post, Heather Caygle of Punchbowl News, Eugene Daniels of Politico and Hans Nichols of Axios as they discuss this and more.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


Laura Barron-Lopez: Former President Trump's chilling threat amid mounting legal challenges.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY): The twice-impeached former president's rhetoric, it is dangerous and if he keep it up, he is going to get someone killed.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Democratic outrage after former President Donald Trump issued an ominous warning in response to a possible historic indictment.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH): If they can do it to a president, they can do it to anybody, and they are.

Laura Barron-Lopez: House Republicans rushed to defend him as new developments emerge in multiple probes into the former president.

Plus --

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL): I don't know how to spell DeSanctimonious. You can call me whatever you want as long as you also call me a winner.

Laura Barron-Lopez: One of Trump's likely rivals for the GOP presidential nomination takes aim at him for the first time, next.

Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. I'm Laura Barron-Lopez.

Former President Donald Trump's legal troubles escalated this week with significant developments in two of four criminal cases against him. On Friday morning, Trump threatened, quote, potential death and destruction if he is indicted by the Manhattan district attorney. That office is investigating Trump's alleged hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. It was his most explicit call to violence yet as possible criminal charges loom. And it sparked swift criticism from Democrats.

Hakeem Jeffries: We have already seen the consequences of incitement from the former president. He is principally responsible for inciting the violent insurrection that happened on January 6th but, clearly, he has not learned his lesson.

Laura Barron-Lopez: At least one top Republican, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, said, quote, there is no ace in America for political violence of any kind.

This comes as a federal judge pierced attorney-client privilege between Trump and his defense attorney, Evan Corcoran, in a separate investigation into classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago. Today, Corcoran testified in front of grand jury. He was also ordered to turn over his notes and transcripts of audio recordings.

In addition to these probes, Trump is being investigated by the Justice Department and Fulton County, Georgia, for his efforts to subvert the 2020 election. If he' indicted in any of these cases, it would be the first for former president.

Joining me to discuss this and more, Devlin Barrett, a reporter at The Washington Post, and joining me in the studio, Heather Caygle, Managing Editor of Punchbowl News, Eugene Daniels, White House Correspondent and co-Author of Politico's Playbook, and Hans Nichols, a political reporter at Axios. Thanks to you all for being here.

Devlin, I want to start with you because one of the most significant developments was in the classified documents case that the special counsel is investigating. Essentially, what happened was the judge totally blasted through attorney-client privilege. What does that mean?

Devlin Barrett, Reporter, The Washington Post: So, it means that one of the people closest to Donald Trump and one of the people who knows the most about the events that followed a government subpoena demanding the return of classified documents had to walked into the grand jury today and provide testimony.

Now, we don't know what the answers were, we don't know how contentious those question and answer sessions were. Certainly, this is something that Trump, this is something that his lawyers try to avoid but they lost at appeals court level, and so Trump's lawyer was called into the grand jury to testify. And that is a big step. And it is really -- another example of how the documents, the classified document investigation, is really entering a kind of crunch time.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And, Devlin, that same judge, Beryl Howell, also rejected executive privilege claims in the investigation into Trumps efforts to overturn the 2020 election and ordered Mark Meadows, the former chief of staff, to the former president, as well as other aides to testify. What is the significance?

Devlin Barrett: So, I think, again, the significance is that they are forcing people in Trumps inner circle to come into the grand jury.

Now, I think sometimes people hear that close aides of the president have to testify and they think, oh, this will be evidence against the person. I don't think we can assume that. Remember, a lot of these witnesses are essentially people who support Trump and people who have argued publicly that they do not think Trump that anything criminal.

So, it's not necessarily that they are gathering evidence incriminating the former president, although that is certainly possible. Part of what may be going on here is gathering a better understanding for prosecutors of what any Trump defense might be. And that has been an important objective for prosecutors looking at the conduct around all of these events.

Laura Barron-Lopez: So, Eugene, former President Trump has not really talked about this week the cases that Devlin was just talking about, but he has been very explicit online, issuing threats in regards to Manhattan district attorney's investigation. He posted a photo of himself holding a baseball bat alongside the district attorney, Alvin Bragg. He posted online the threats of death and destruction.

This also comes as Trump is about to go to Waco, Texas, for one of his first big rallies. And Waco is a really big place for the far-right extremist movement due to what happened in 1993 and the anti-government movement. What is the message that the former president is sending?

Eugene Daniels, White House Correspondent, Politico: Yes. I think we saw this on the debate stage with Joe Biden when he said, stand back and stand by. He does like a wink and nod a lot of times to folks. Because if you talk to him and the people around him, they will say he didn't expressively call for violence, but the other people that are watching, that's the concern.

Experts will tell you that they are taking cues from the president when he talks about if you're not careful here, it's going to be death and distraction, that it is telling some of these folks, some of these right-wing groups that he wants us to do these things. Whether or not Donald says it explicitly, that is what they have seen. We saw that on January 6th and we've seen that over the years. And I think that's something that the experts are so worried about.

People I was talking about Waco for tomorrow, his rally tomorrow, they are very concerned about the security of what is going to happen. And also as these cases start coming down, if he is indicted in any of these cases, what that looks like around the country because of these calls for violence.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And, Hans, as Trump is attacking District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who actually recently received death threats this week, Republicans in the House are vowing to investigate Alvin Bragg. Where is this attempt to investigate the investigators going to go?

Hans Nichols, Political Reporter, Axios: Well, you saw Republicans on the Senate side come out and say, well, not so fast. This is not a great idea, which seemed to be like the first sign that this may not happen. The other sign is just sort of the back-and-forth of the separation of powers. This is a local prosecutor. The Congress can try to subpoena them.

They can try to force him and compel testimony. But to do that, you know you need? You need the Justice Department. And the Justice Department is controlled by Joe Biden. It's a Democratic Justice Department. It is really hard to see how you actually had hearings on Capitol Hill with a local prosecutor justifying an ongoing investigation and decisions he or she may have made, which puts us into sort of familiar territory in Trump -- the Trump era, and that is a lot of things are performative.

So, the president comes out and says this, a lot of lawmakers make their say, well, we are going to investigate. But do they really have the power to really summon that guy, bring him before them and force him to answer questions?

So, I suspect, ultimately, it will be decided by the courts and, as we know, there are other cases going on that are probably going to overtake this one. So, we're back to sort of these three investigations that Devlin is talking about and I do not know which one is going to go first, I don't think any of us do.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And so far, the district attorney's office has rejected those requests for documents from Republicans.

Hans Nichols: Pretty forcefully. The rejection is pretty forcefully. So, I think we know where Mr. Bragg stands.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Yes. He called in unlawful, his office did.

But, Heather, speaking of attempts to attack Bragg and discredit this investigation into the hush money payments, there is also among House Republicans, again, an attempt to discredit investigations into the January 6th attack and Trump s efforts to overturn the election. Just today, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene as well as a dozen other House Republicans went to the D.C. jail to visit with accused January 6 defendants. There seems to be a pattern here.

Heather Caygle, Managing Editor, Punchbowl News: Yes. And this is -- interestingly, this goes back to Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the deal that he made with conservatives in early January after 15 ballots, right, to secure the speakership. And part of that was to shed some light in their eyes on what really happened on January 6th and things like that.

Now, you talk to Democrats on the Hill and, frankly, Senate Republicans and they say a lot of this is nonsense. January 6 was an insurrection, it was violent. Why are we trying to rewrite history in the House? And I think there is a lot of hurt feelings, even among Senate Republicans and anger about this. But, yes, it is part of a pattern.

And Speaker McCarthy met with Ashli Babbitt's mom yesterday. We saw that. He also released those 41,000 hours of tapes, of security footage to Tucker Carlson, not any other media. There was a lot of criticism about that. And then we have Barry Loudermilk, who is a House member who is promising to investigate the January 6 committee and kind of say, here is what they did not look into.

So, I think a lot of this is just him, McCarthy, trying to make peace with the conservatives that gave him the speakership and keep them happy. The question is, none of this looks good for House Republicans especially those that continue to downplay the violence of that day. And as we get more into the election cycle in 2024 when voters are returning to the ballots, will they keep hammering on this or will they turn to something else?

Laura Barron-Lopez: And a significant amount of the Republican -- of the GOP base and Trump supporters still believe that January 6 was not as dangerous as it actually was and believed that the 2020 election was stolen.

But, Devlin, I want to come back to you because there are a number of indictments that the former president could be facing across these multiple cases that we laid out. What happens next in the two we are specifically talking about right now, which is the special counsel's investigation in the classified documents as well as the Manhattan D.A.'s investigation into the hush money payments?

Devlin Barrett: Right. So, let's start with Manhattan. In Manhattan, there were signals last week that they were, according to people familiar with that grand jury, very close to voting on whether to indict or not. And then something seemed to change a little bit in the public understanding of what was going on and that process seemed to slow down a little.

So, next week is going to be a week of waiting to see if that grand jury actually moves forward or if there is some wrinkle brought on by the last-minute sort of Hail Mary defense strategy to give the grand jury additional information to try to change their minds or change their momentum.

In the classified documents case, what we are really seeing, I think, is, if you look at the witnesses that they have come in, particularly Evan Corcoran, the lawyer who did the search originally at Mar-a-Lago for the documents that the FBI and the Justice Department decided was so problematic and so insufficient, I think that really -- the fact that that person was in the grand jury today really suggests that there is just a very tightening circle now of people that the government has not talked to. And they have done a great deal of evidence gathering so far. And now, it is really -- it seems to me like there are not that many more people to talk to once you have talked to Evan Corcoran.

Laura Barron-Lopez: So, you think that that investigation could wrap up soon?

Devlin Barrett: I mean, wrap up is always a tough term in federal investigations. Most federal criminal investigations take years. So, I don't want to overpromise anything or overspeculate or overpredict. But I will say, like if you think about who the witnesses are, Evan Corcoran is the type of person who should be among the last to go in the grand jury, and that is how I think of this.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Devlin, if there is an indictment, what is the process after that?

Devlin Barrett: Well, if that happens, we will be in uncharted territory, obviously for the historical reason that a former president has not been indicted before, but also for a very practical -- a couple of very practical, technical reasons, that this is a person who has a Secret Service security detail that cannot leave him. And so, I think it is not a specific predictable thing as to exactly how they would process someone.

But what normally happens when you are indicted, especially for a white collar crime, a financial crime, a nonviolent crime, you are generally allowed to self-surrender to the courthouse where you are processed, you're fingerprinted, you're photograph for a mug shot, and then you go and you appear in court and then you are released. Something like that would happen if Donald Trump is ultimately indicted for something. But you would have to do it with the sort of protective barrier of the Secret Service. And, again, that is just something we have never seen before.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Heather, the one thing we have not talked about here is the way Democrats have been reacting to the specific legal developments. What's their response been so far?

Heather Caygle: Well, I think until today, they were mostly silent. Actually, I mean, they did weigh in just a little bit. But today, we saw the House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries come out, as you played at the beginning, and pretty clearly respond to Trump's seeming threat overnight of like death and destruction, or whatever he wrote.

But for the most part, they have kind of stayed on the sidelines. And this has been a pattern that we have seen especially since Republicans came into the House majority. Part of that is you have a whole new leadership on the Democratic side that's trying to find its footing, but part of that, I think, they have realized that there are a lot of issues within the Republican Party, there are lot of differences between Senate and House Republicans, there is a lot of debate over whether they should support former President Trump and Democrats are kind of happy to step to the sidelines and be in the minority and just let Speaker Kevin McCarthy deal with it on his own, right? And they don't want to add any fuel to the fire. And so that is really what we have seen.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Well, as Devlin said, we are going to be laser focused on that Manhattan district attorney, the developments there and the grand jury. But thanks, Devlin, for joining us and sharing your reporting.

Devlin Barrett: Thanks for having me.

Laura Barron-Lopez: It is unclear how Trump's growing legal issues will impact his support among the Republican base. But after months of jabs, one of Trump's likely 2024 challengers, Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, took aim at him for the first time.

Ron DeSantis: I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just -- I can't speak to that.

Laura Barron-Lopez: But DeSantis went on to say the Manhattan D.A.'s office was, quote, pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing office.

That was a very cautious jab at Trump there from DeSantis.

Hans Nichols: Yes. I think the important thing is he is making the jabs, right? Up to this point, no one has really taken -- I mean, Chris Christie, Mike Pence a little bit, but this is the first time DeSantis has really thrown a punch, not to do this all on boxing metaphors during March, which should only be basketball metaphors. But you saw him taking shots.

And, you know, he walked it back a little bit but I am not so sure the walking back or the sort of when he kind of says, well, he sanitizes a little bit, I do not know if that matters with Trump, right? You kind of have an audience of one here. And the audience of one is Donald Trump to see to what extent he responds and then it gets interesting. And I think we are just at the beginning of this. But I think what we learned from DeSantis this week is that he is in this fight and he is prepared to take a swing.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And he's trying to have it both ways essentially there, hit Trump, also defend him in the hush money payment case. But, Heather, DeSantis also backtracked on recent comments that he made about Ukraine. He had said that Russia's invasion was a territorial dispute at first, now he is calling it a real invasion and called Russian President Putin a war criminal. What is behind that change?

Heather Caygle: I mean, I think if you look at the backlash he received from establishment Republicans, and DeSantis will claim that he does not want the support of the establishment, sure, that helps him in a primary. But, in reality, if you are going to be the general candidate, you do need the support of the establishment, right?

But the backlash on Capitol Hill, especially from Senate Republicans who are mostly united and aligned behind continuing to fund this war and support Ukraine, and also the donors. A lot of them, frankly, were just taken aback by this. I think a lot of folks realize Republicans, if you talk to them on the Hill, they see him as their establishment candidate.

Now, Chip Roy is the only member of Congress who has endorsed him so far, and he is conservative and was a longtime Trump-backer, but if you talk to Republicans especially on the Senate side privately, they see him as kind of Trump light, someone who can maybe bring this base along, if anyone can that's not Trump, but will also appeal to more establishment Republicans and the donor base that they are looking at. And so a lot of them, I think, just thought this was a very unnecessary error.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Republicans think that DeSantis can bring the base along in part because he is very much aligned with the former president on policy and message, Eugene. But aren't we seeing that base actually move away from Trump and towards DeSantis or anyone else that's in or potentially going to get into the 2024 field?

Eugene Daniels: The short answer, no, not seeing that, right? That's the thing that has been, I think, frustrating for a lot of Republicans whose names are not Donald Trump for years is that his base is with him. They have been with him from the very, very beginning and it is hard to shake that. I mean, we went through January 6th, all types of things that he has said and done over the years, and they haven t moved.

And I will say with DeSantis punching a little bit or you have Pence doing the same thing, it has to be sustained, and more importantly, it has to be on a debate state. It can't just be in a dark room where reporters can't record or not in an interview. It can't just be sitting down with Piers Morgan. It needs to be in front of Donald Trump to see how he reacts to it as well, because voters have not seen that. It did not happen in 2016 and when it did with Marco Rubio, for example, it did not go over very well, right?

And so that is something that when I talk to some of these strategists who want someone like Ron DeSantis to jump in and be that Trump light, that is what they want to see, but they also -- one of the other reasons they like Ron DeSantis is not just because he is like tough with media and reporters, it is because he has been able to use the levers of government in Florida to take on the cultural issues that they care about, right? And that is something I think that Republicans, especially conservatives, are looking to do on the federal level. And that is another reason that he is their man to beat him, I think.

Hans Nichols: They also like that he won. They like the margin. I mean, he like -- they like -- and you saw DeSantis sort of wink at that when he says, I'm a winner, talking about putting points on the board. But that's like when you have -- the core of the DeSantis is sort (INAUDIBLE) boomed with or a bit interested, is that he won, he won big in a state that used to be tight. And donors look and notice that.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Right. Florida is very different, though, than a lot of the swing states across the country where Trump didn't win.

But Republicans back in Washington are also working out on another disagreement over increasing the debt ceiling, which needs to be done to prevent a default, a fiscal cliff, which, as we all know, would cause catastrophic damage, send the economy potentially into a recession and the U.S. would default, not be able to pay its obligations.

But, Heather, Punchbowl was just reporting about this as House Republicans are demanding that President Biden negotiate over spending cuts in order for an exchange on increasing the debt ceiling. They're also struggling amongst themselves to even figure out what spending cuts they are trying to do. Where is this all headed?

Heather Caygle: Yes. So, right now, Democrats, and including Biden, are saying, show us your plan, put your budget out, right? We put ours out, you may not like it, but show us what you have. Because, remember, House Republicans want to roll this back to fiscal 2022 levels but they do not want to touch defense, they don't want to touch most entitlements. So, where are these cuts going to come from?

Well, the problem is they only have a five-seat majority in the House and most of them do not agree on what these cuts are. So, they have not put a budget out yet. They keep saying that they will probably put something out in April or maybe as late as May, but in the meantime, they want Biden to continue to negotiate with them. If you look at Democrats, and Democrats say, we have nothing to negotiate. What are we supposed to do?

So, it is a very interesting position that they have put themselves in. And we actually reported this morning that Senate Republicans are getting a little bit nervous about this and saying, all right, we are getting close, we need to get you guys to the table and figure it out.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Hans, do you think that there is any appetite among Republicans? I know Heather is essentially saying they still want those spending cuts. But any appetite for a clean debt ceiling increase given --

Hans Nichols:  I mean, there might be privately but none that anyone can take and expect to still be speaker of the House, right? So, I mean, that is McCarthy's challenge and he's letting the House work its wheel. And I think, Heather, you guys are doing a great job, you guys at Politico too, sort of on how he has kept his coalition together and how he has gotten the votes, and that is by listening.

And so, you know, if you we are all going to be taking a bet right now on whether or not it's going to be April or May for the budget taking over, right, it's going to be May, there has to be a lot more conversations on just what is doable.

And I think, you know, we might all be nervous about it, Wall Street might be nervous about it, there are some Senate Republicans that are nervous about it. The nervousness does not seem to have really seeped into the core of the House Republican conference. And until that does, and no one knows what the event is going to be that makes them nervous, is it going to be a massive market correction, is it going to be a big sell-off, no one really knows yet, until that happens, I think, where all kinds of, sort of in the prelims on this and not really in the fight yet.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And, Eugene, the recent bank failure prompted some Republicans to argue that we should make spending cuts. This is a good reason to make spending cuts. What has the White House response been to that?

Eugene Daniels: Yes. I talked to a White House aide today about this exact same issue, and they said, especially with the SVB issue showed, is that, one, it had nothing to do with spending cuts, it was about regulation, right, that these things don't have much to do with each other. There were also some Republicans who are saying this proves that we should not be moving the debt limit, that we shouldn't do that, and that's another thing, obviously, the White House, surprise, does not agree with, right?

They don't want these things coupled. I don't see them changing their mind on that. And they -- over and over, aides will tell you in the White House that Republicans have done this before and they eventually blink, right? They eventually shake kind of -- the donors start panicking, the business community starts to panic and then Republicans kind of get in line.

The House Republicans, this set of house Republicans do not seem to have that same kind of fear of those groups of folks. And so it's the Senate that I think we should be watching, right, Senate Republicans who are going to have to kind of take this over at some point. That is how a lot of folks in the White House feel. Because they do not see Kevin McCarthy, though he is listening, they are worried that he is not going to be able to lead his people into doing something that could keep this country from economic catastrophe.

And we have some income that is going to be coming into the government based on taxes in April. That will kind of tell us exactly when that X date is. Right now, it may be August, it might be September, we might need to push it off, but it is very unclear and that is not good for anybody.

Laura Barron-Lopez: No, it is not good at all. And let's hope that we don't reach economic catastrophe at all.

But we have to leave it there for now. And so thank you to my panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting. And thanks to all of you for joining us as well.

Don't forget to watch PBS News Weekend on Saturday for a look at the barriers preventing people from receiving basic medical care and screenings.

I'm Laura Barron-Lopez. Good night from Washington.

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2023 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Danielle Manning-Halsey,

Director, Principal and Major Gifts

dmanninghalsey@weta.org or 703-998-2812