Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, June 16, 2023

Jun. 16, 2023 AT 9:19 p.m. EDT

Former President Trump went on the attack after being arrested and pleading not guilty to charges over his handling of classified documents and Republican voters appear to be sticking with him. Join moderator John Yang, Sadie Gurman of The Wall Street Journal, Domenico Montanaro of NPR, Toluse Olorunnipa of The Washington Post and Charlie Savage of The New York Times to discuss this and more.

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

John Yang: Running for president as an accused felon, the road ahead for Donald Trump.

Donald Trump, Former U.S. President: This day will go down an infamy.

John Yang: Former President Trump goes on the attack just hours after being arrested, fingerprinted and pleading not guilty to charges over his handling of classified documents.

Merrick Garland, Attorney General: These kind of matters are adjudicated through the judicial system.

John Yang: The attorney general defends the prosecution.

Unidentified Female: I think he's being set up.

Unidentified Male This is election interference.

John Yang: Despite Trump's unprecedented status as a criminal defendant, enough Republican voters appear to be sticking with him that the former president remains the 2024 frontrunner, next.

Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I'm John Yang.

It's been a week for the history books. Former President Donald Trump is now in a category all by himself. In a Miami courtroom on Tuesday, Trump entered a not guilty plea to 37 felony counts dealing with his handling of classified documents. That makes him the first former American president to face federal criminal charges.

Trump ended his historic day with a campaign fundraiser at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. He attacked both the indictment and Jack Smith, the special counsel who's leading the prosecution.

Donald Trump: Today, we witness the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country.

The prosecutor in the case is a thug. I've named him Deranged Jack Smith.

John Yang: On Wednesday, in his first public comments on the indictment, Attorney General Merrick Garland defended Smith and his team.

Merrick Garland: He has assembled a group of experienced and talented prosecutors and agents who share his commitment to integrity and the rule of law.

John Yang: The now twice indicted former president has been aggressively using his prosecution to raise money for his presidential campaign, some $6 million since news of the indictment broke, and he remains the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Most of Trump's rivals are struggling with how to address his legal issues without alienating his supporters. Some focus their attacks on the Justice Department while steering clear of the accusations against Trump. Others have tried taking a more neutral stance. Here's former Vice President Mike Pence during an interview with conservative radio host Clay Travis. They're talking about the possibility of pardoning Trump.

Mike Pence, Former U.S. Vice President:  We either believe in our judicial process in this country or we don't.

Clay Travis, Conservative Radio Host: But what I'm hearing is you're fine with Donald Trump being put in prison, sir. And that, to me, since you were his vice president, feels pretty disrespectful.

John Yang: Joining us discuss this and more, Sadie Gurman, The Wall Street Journal's Justice Department reporter, Domenico Montanaro, the senior political editor and correspondent for NPR, Toluse Olorunnipa, The Washington Post White House Bureau Chief, and Charlie Savage, Washington Correspondent for The New York Times.

Well, this has been quite a week. Sadie, I want to start with you. We heard on Tuesday night in that speech in Bedminster, the former President Trump essentially say, yes, I had the documents, but I had every right to keep them. Is that what we expect the lawyers to say in court?

Sadie Gurman, Justice Department Reporter, The Wall Street Journal: Well, we've heard Trump, in these campaign appearances throw a ton of things at the wall that could possibly be used as defenses. He said that he had a right to these documents, and even if he didn't have a right to these documents, he didn't know they were there. Somebody else packed the boxes for him. It was a mistake. And even if it was a mistake, he declassified the documents. So, it sort of remains to be seen how this will play in court.

Trump's lawyers could argue that he had power as president to declassify the documents, but they're up against some pretty astounding facts that are laid out in the indictment, namely that they have a tape of Trump saying that he knew that these documents were classified and that he shouldn't have them and that he shouldn't show them to people. So, if they go with that route, they might be confronted by some pretty significant evidence from prosecutors.

But I think what is clear that they're going to do is just try to downplay the significance of the criminal charges here, play up the fact that they are coming during the 2024 election cycle, and just try to delay, delay, delay. That's something we've seen historically from Trump's lawyers in the past to try to push this trial in any sort of major criminal proceedings well into 2024 and maybe even beyond the election.

John Yang: Charlie, that indictment really was detailed, as Sadie said. Some people have read it and think it's a slam dunk case. Bill Barr, Mr. Trump's former attorney general, said this past weekend that even if half the things in the indictment are true, that Trump is toast, in his words.

But by the very nature of these charges, so much of the evidence is classified. What challenge does that pose to prosecutors?

Charlie Savage, Washington Correspondent, The New York Times: Well, there's going to be a huge fight that plays out in the coming months behind closed doors. We're not going to see it. The filings are going to be sealed. The hearings will be closed over what classified evidence can be used in trial.

And the judge, Aileen Cannon, is going to have a lot of say over this. There's a law called the Classified Information Procedures Act, CEPA, and we're going to hear a lot about that in the coming weeks and months.

Basically, there's a fundamental conflict when it comes to cases that involve classified evidence and charges of mishandling national security secrets are at the core of that kind a problem. The problem is Americans have a constitutional right to a public trial that comes from the Sixth Amendment. The public has a constitutional right to see a trial that comes from the First Amendment. And so this stuff has to play out in the open.

But for classified material that the government says would damage national security if a foreign adversary learned about it, they don't want to display that in the public and accentuate the damage. And so this leads to a concept called graymail, where a defendant will say, well, I've got to have a fair trial, I've got to put all this information out in the hope that the government will instead just drop the charges.

CEPA, this law is referring to that's going to govern what's coming now, is an attempt, it was passed in 1980, to solve this problem by allowing, in some cases, substitutions, summaries redactions to evidence. The jury doesn't need to see everything in this document. Maybe they need to see this or this other piece. It's always going to lead the defense attorney to say, no, no, we need the entire context or it's not fair. And this is where the judge, Aileen Cannon, is going to have a huge say over what happens in the courtroom.

John Yang: Toluse, the White House is seemingly radio silent on this. What's their calculation? What's their thinking?

Toluse Olorunnipa, White House Bureau Chief, The Washington Post: There are a couple of different reasons they're not weighing in on any significant fashion on the substance of these charges. The first reason is that you do hear from a number of Republicans that are defending Donald Trump that this is Joe Biden's administration that's going after their political opponent, trying to interfere in the 2024 election.

The Biden administration does not want to play into that at all. They don't want to be seen as putting their thumb on the scale. They don't want to be seen as trying to direct the Justice Department to go after Donald Trump and go after President Biden's potential running opponent in the 2024 election. And so they want to be hands off on this. They want to make sure that they're not crossing any lines. They want to make sure this is all being done by the book. This has never been done before, a former president being indicted, being prosecuted in the court of law.

And so the Biden administration wants to show that if Donald Trump is prosecuted, that they were not doing anything that was improper from the White House.

And the second reason is that President Biden has a number of challenges when it comes to classified documents because he also took some documents from the White House from his time as vice president. And some of the Republicans that are defending Donald Trump are saying that this is a two-tiered system of justice. Now, obviously, they're skirting over some of the facts involved, but they are trying to make it seem as if Donald Trump is being singled out while Joe Biden is not being singled out for his actions.

And so by not commenting on this, Biden and the White House can sort of blunt some of those attacks and say, we're just following the law, we're just following the protocol call and there's no reason why we should be involved in any of these discussions.

John Yang: And, Toluse, another thing that the Republicans are talking about is the Hunter Biden case. What's the current thinking inside the Washington about -- inside the White House, rather, about that?

Toluse Olorunnipa: The White House aides say that they are in wait and see mode, just like everyone else. They obviously believe that Republicans are making more of the facts around the cases involving Hunter Biden, the president's son, than the current evidence indicates.

Now, Hunter Biden is under investigation for some tax allegations, tax crime allegations as well as allegations involving the purchase of a gun but it doesn't appear that some of the trumped up ideas that Republicans are pushing on the House about whistleblowers and money being paid to the president and bribes, that we haven't seen evidence of that play out yet.

And so while we wait for the potential action from the Justice Department, the potential conclusion of that case, we're all sort of in weight and see mode, and it all is connected to what's happening with the former president, because you do hear a number of Republicans saying that while President Biden is being prosecuted, why isn't Hunter Biden being prosecuted as well? And so until anything happens on that case, we're all going to have to wait and see to find out what kind of comparisons we can make between those two cases.

John Yang: And, Dom, we all know that former President Trump likes to fight these things in the court of public opinion, but the details in the indictment goes into a great amount of detail. Does that play a role in the court of public opinion?

Domenico Montanaro, Senior Political Editor, NPR: Well, that's if you can get people to read it, number one, right? And we've seen over and over again that people who have supported Trump, people who have supported any number of candidates, but especially with Trump, they really are echoing and parroting a lot of the things that he's said.

I've talked to them. People who've been in part of our polling, for example, just talking to them, they say a lot of the same things that you'll hear from the former president. I mean, just this week, we have a poll out today from the NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll that shows that Republicans, in fact, throughout all of this indictment proceedings, have actually gone up eight points in how they feel about former President Trump. 76 percent, now of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, have a favorable view of the former president. That was 68 percent or 64 percent just a few months ago, back in February.

So, you're seeing this divergence, this American political divergence where you have Democrats and independents, independents who mostly will decide these elections, who are going the opposite direction. You have 50 percent of independents now saying they think Trump did something illegal, which is up nine points from the last time we asked the question back in March.

So, you're seeing a huge distance between these two things and you're seeing some Republicans start to speak out and say Trump has an electability problem. Sure, he might be able to get through a GOP primary, and our poll found that two-thirds of Republicans want him to be the guy, the opposite is true where he's grown more toxic when it comes to general election voters.

John Yang: By the way, around here, Don, we prefer to think of it as the PBS Newshour/NPR/Marist poll.

Domenico Montanaro: Whichever works for you.

John Yang: Sadie, Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith to really put some distance between himself in this case, but he did come out Wednesday and defend Smith against the attacks from former President Trump. What was his calculation in doing that?

Sadie Gurman: So, you're right, Garland has taken very deliberate steps to keep his distance from Smith and to make it seem as though he has really kept a hands on approach to this case. I saw him on Thursday walking into the Justice Department around the time that the grand jury returned the indictment and he said basically that he was out getting a COVID vaccine shot. So, insinuating that he was nowhere near Jack Smith when this came down, I think that's by design.

President Biden appointed Garland to insulate the Justice Department from political attack. And that's what Merrick Garland has tried to do for better and worse. So, in defending Jack Smith, he basically is saying, this is somebody who I appointed to uphold the Justice Department's independence, somebody who can help restore some confidence in this investigation, that, no. Biden-appointee is meddling in the investigation and making decisions.

But he did appoint him under special counsel regulations that require the attorney -- that require Jack Smith to notify the Attorney General of any major decisions. So, he would have been privy to the decision to charge Trump. And so he can't totally take a hands-off approach to that.

But in answering the question, he sort of just basically said, this is somebody who is operating independently. These are people, prosecutors with integrity. And that's all I'm going to say.

John Yang: He's trying to get an innocuous relation of another kind, it sounds like.

Sadie Gurman: Yes.

John Yang: Charlie, earlier this week, you wrote about the judge in this case. You mentioned her, Aileen Cannon. There has been so much said about her. The fact that she's a Trump-appointee, the fact that she has relatively little trial courtroom experience, the fact that she got involved in this case actually earlier and was overturned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. What do people who know her say about how they think she's going to handle this case?

Charlie Savage: Well, Judge Aileen Cannon, it's not that she has relatively little trial experience. She has absolutely very little trial experience. Four trials as a judge, she was on the bench, adding up to 14 total trial days when she was she was an assistant US. attorney, but she mainly did appellate work. Four trials there, two of which she was an assistant, all very basic cases, like a felon had a gun, according to her Senate Judiciary questionnaire.

Now that's the system, the judge is to -- who the judge is. And the Clerk of Courts in Miami told me that this was assigned randomly, that normal procedures were followed. There was maybe a one in four, one in five chance it would land on her, and it did land on her. And it seems like for all the sort of resistance Twitter talk of Jack Smith trying to seek her recusal, I don't see any sign that's going to happen. It looks like they're just going to go with the judge they got.

And we will see whether she continues to behave as she did last fall when she issued a series of rulings that really shocked ideologically -- shocked experts in the law, across ideological lines in defense of Trump, only to be overturned by not just any appeals court panel, but a conservative one that included two other Trump-appointees.

Maybe she sees this as a chance to redeem herself. Maybe she sees it as a chance to double down. But she is going to be the judge, and Jack Smith is going to just have to go forward with that.

John Yang: And not only do the appeals court sort of overturn her, they said she had no basis in law to get involved in the case.

Charlie Savage: That's right.

John Yang: Now, as we've said, Donald Trump is both on trial and running for president. And the day Trump was in court, the Newshour's. Judy Woodruff was in a Des Moines studio of Iowa PBS. She was watching a focus group of Republicans who voted for Trump twice. It's part of her Newsour series, America at a Crossroads. Here's some of what those voters had to say.

Unidentified Female: I think he's being set up.

Unidentified Male: It's plain as day that he broke the law.

Unidentified Female: Trump is the nominee versus Biden. What will you do?

Unidentified Male: I would vote for him for the third time.

Unidentified Female: You would?

John Yang: Dom, plain as day, he did it, but I'm still going to vote for him. What do you make of that?

Domenico Montanaro: Well, we were talking about whether or not you can get people to read the indictment and whether it would make a difference. That was the one guy on the panel who read the indictment and said that he definitely feels like Trump broke the law, but these elections are binary. And when was asked by Sarah Longwell, the GOP pollster who hosted that focus group, would you vote for him again even though you know this, and feel like he broke the law? He said, yes, if it's a choice between him and Biden, that's the way it's going to go.

And, look, we know, I know it's cliche, but elections are choices, and they have to pick one or the other. And a lot of times, especially right now, when it comes to Trump and Biden, both are so unpopular that people are basically holding their nose to pick who they're going to choose.

And I have to tell you one thing, though, that I feel like I'm starting to notice with this election coming up, is it's really going to depend on the third party vote. Trump is sort of like Mr. 46 percent, right? He got about 46 percent in both elections in 2020 and 2016. He won in 2016 when the third party vote was about 7 percent. He lost in 2020 when it was under 2 percent.

So, this no labels effort, for example, where they're trying to put a well heeled sort of centrist candidate on ballots in some of these key states, they think that that's going to hurt Trump. Mostly, though, they're wrong about that. Because when you talk to pollsters, they say that for the people who dislike both Trump and Biden, they are breaking overwhelmingly to Biden by about 40 points or so.

So, if that's the case and you see the track record from 2016 and 2020, if there's a serious third party candidate who has good backing, money-wise, and can get on these his ballots, it's going to hurt Biden more, bring that ceiling down for Trump, and offers him a path to potentially winning again.

John Yang: And as we said, the candidates are in the Republican primary challenging Donald Trump are all reacting in a variety of ways. Let's take a look at some of those ways.

Chris Christie, Republican Presidential Candidate: How about blame him? He did it.

Nikki Haley, Republican Presidential Candidate: It would be terrible for the country to have a former president in prison. So, I would be inclined in favor of a pardon.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL): We will ensure that the weaponization of government in this country ends.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC): You can't protect Democrats while targeting and hunting Republicans.

John Yang: Dom is the political guy. What is the calculation each of those candidates and other candidates are making?

Domenico Montanaro: Well, they have to walk a very fine line between the Trump base and being able to win the nomination themselves. And I think it's very difficult to actually not hold Trump accountable for his conduct if you're somebody who's running against him to be able to win the nomination because Trump basically is blotting out the entire GOP sun at this point.

For me, though, when you look at the fact that you have even more candidates jumping in the race this week, Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami, to me, there's three primaries going on here. One is to actually get the nomination. Two is for who can be Trump's vice presidential running mate, if he does win the nomination, and third and I know we don't want to talk about this 2028. Because both guys, Trump and Biden, can only serve four more years. 2028 is going to be wide open.

And, hey, politicians are pretty self-confident people, I think we can say pretty plainly, and that they feel like this can raise their brands and offer a little bit of a preview of what could be their chance in 2028, four years from now.

John Yang: Toluse, you talked about how the White House is steering clear of this. They don't want to be seen close to this at all. But what about the President's re-election campaign? Why are they not capitalizing on this or cashing in on this?

Toluse Olorunnipa: Well, there have been some reports that Biden himself has ordered the Democratic National Committee and the campaign folks to not weigh in on this. They don't want to be seen as putting their thumb on the scale or trying to take advantage of this.

But we have started to see a little bit of a piercing of that strategy. We did see the first lady out in the West Coast earlier this week. She wanted to draw that split screen. She wanted to say, look at the chaos going on in the Republican Party. She even said that she was surprised that Republicans are still sticking with the former president even after he was indicted.

And then compare that to President Biden, who spent this week meeting with the leader of NATO, speaking about junk fees, taking action as president, and looking at the things he's done over the past year and marking the anniversary of the bill, on the bipartisan bill he signed on gun violence.

And so they're trying to draw that split screen, even if they're not going to be explicit about it. They want to be able to show, as Dom said, that this is a binary choice, not the only choice about what happened over the past four years with Biden, but also what we could go back to with a former President Trump coming back into office or any other Republican.

They want to make sure that this is a choice election, not only a referendum on Biden's time in office, but a selection between the chaos that we see on the Republican side with indictments and with a lot of the candidates not willing to call out behavior that's taken place under Trump compared to what's happening in the White House under Biden.

John Yang: Charlie, all this is going on. The prosecutors, of course, are going to be focused on what's going on inside the courtroom. But does any of this affect, you think, how the prosecutors proceed, how they handle this case going forward?

Charlie Savage: Any of the political noise surrounding the case?

John Yang: Yes.

Charlie Savage: I think that the prosecutors led by Jack Smith have made a very deliberate decision to insulate themselves. You do not see him in public even very often. Every now and then someone catches him coming out of a Subway sandwich shop or something, and it's like a rare sighting.

He is going to speak through his court filings, as Merrick Garland said as well in defending him, and there's really nothing he can do. He can't fight fire with fire in the sort of political noise arena. And so it would only diminish the old saying, wrestle with the pig, you both get dirty, and the pig likes it. That is what would happen if Jack Smith and prosecutors tried to interact with these criticisms coming their way politically.

John Yang: Sadie, the arraignment, many people noted that the prosecution didn't ask for any conditions, very few conditions on Donald Trump, and even the magistrate judge seemed a little taken aback by that. What's the calculation there? Why did they do that?

Sadie Gurman: So, throughout this entire investigation, we have seen the Justice Department trying to take and the FBI trying to take sort of a measured, balanced approach. When do we search? When do we subpoena? What can we do that will allow us to proceed with our investigation in a way that doesn't affect the campaign? The Justice Department has taken great pains to stay out of presidential campaigns and there are sensitivities rules designed to prevent that from happening. So, this is a particular challenge, and now it's playing out in court too.

We saw that prosecutors didn't request Trump to be held old in jail. They allowed him to keep his passport. They put no restrictions on his travel. And that, in some ways, is designed to prevent him, to allow him to continue to campaign and to allow the politics end of this to unfold without any and to avoid the argument that they are taking steps to interfere with the election, something that they're very sensitive to.

So, that was different than what we see in a lot of cases involving criminal defendants. Prosecutors usually seek bond. They didn't seek any of that this time, and that really was very striking.

John Yang: The next phase of this trial is going to be pretrial motions where actually sometimes cases can be won or lost. What do you think the defense is going to push forward in a pretrial motion, Sadie?

Sadie Gurman: Well, I think they're going to take, like I said, any sort of steps that are going to allow this to drag out as long as possible. I think, like Charlie pointed out, they might raise some doubts about which type of evidence can actually be shown in public, since so much of this is classified. That dispute alone could take months to play out if it comes up. They could make any sort of accusations against the prosecutors. There's just a number of different steps that they could take to try to prolong this. And so I think that's absolutely what they're going to do, because like you said, it works in their favor.

And Jack Smith's team, on the other hand, is going to try to make this -- he's promised a speedy trial. He's going to try to make that happen in part so that the Justice Department can get out of the way by November 2024.

John Yang: Sadie got the last word because we've got to go. Thanks to all our panelists for joining and bringing their reporting. And thanks to you at home for watching.

Be sure to join me tomorrow on PBS News Weekend for a look at the changing tactics and strategies of extremist hate groups in America.

I'm John Yang. Good night from Washington.

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