Full Episode: Washington Week with the Atlantic full episode, 10/27/23

Oct. 27, 2023 AT 8:56 p.m. EDT

A week ago, barely anyone in Washington knew Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana. Now the pro-Trump election denier is speaker of the House. What does it mean for the country, for Congress, for Ukraine and Israel? And what does his win say about the GOP? Join moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, John Dickerson of CBS News and Nia-Malika Henderson of CNN 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.

Jeffrey Goldberg: A pro-Trump election denier, Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, wins the speaker's race. A week ago, barely anyone in Washington knew his name.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA):  People are curious, what does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun? I said, well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That's my worldview.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL):  If you don't think the movement from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you're not paying attention.

Jeffrey Goldberg: What does MAGA Mike mean for the country, for Congress, for Ukraine and Israel? And what does his win say about the GOP? Next.

Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. There are so many questions about the speaker's race, which came at a tumultuous moment in the world.

I'm going to discuss all of this with McKay Coppins, a staff writer and my colleague at The Atlantic. He's also the author of the new book, Romney, A Reckoning. John Dickerson is the anchor of CBS News Primetime with John Dickerson. It's a good name for a show. Nia-Malika Henderson is CNN's senior political analyst. Thank you all for being here. John Dickerson, welcome back to the show. Welcome back. This is your one-millionth appearance.

John Dickerson, Anchor, CBS News: No, it's good to be back. You spend a lot of time around this table and I'm lucky to be back.

Jeffrey Goldberg: All right. That's very lovely the way you said that. I appreciate it. McKay, welcome to the show. Nia, welcome back.

Let's just talk about, Nia, let me just start with you, this speaker's race, one of the stranger events in a pretty strange period in a strange city, obviously. But what does it mean that the House just picked one of its more obscure and most right wing members, to serve as speaker?

Nia-Malika Henderson, Senior Political Analyst, CNN: Well, listen, if there was ever any doubt that the Republican Party was the party of Donald Trump, this should end that doubt. This is a congressperson who came to power in 2016, the same year, obviously, that Donald Trump was elected.

He has garnered the nickname MAGA Mike primarily because he has been a Trump loyalist, right? If you think about his role in denying the election, it was a pivotal role. He was sort of the whip, right, in gathering support to try to overturn the election, particularly in these swing states joined with Texas in filing this lawsuit. And this is how he sort of becomes to power.

In part, I think the fact that he is little known was more like a feature rather than a bug to a lot of the Republicans who joined hands unanimously in supporting him. Donald Trump will be pleased with this, I think, also in many ways.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Donald Trump actually kind of took out the previous guy.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Yes, the previous guy.

Jeffrey Goldberg: The guy was speaker for four hours.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Exactly, because he wasn't MAGA. No, Republicans will be pleased, but Democrats will be pleased as well, right? I mean, they are also calling him MAGA Mike. They think that it's a good thing that he is an election denier, that he is very much a sort of social conservative, a culture warrior. They think in terms of branding the Republican Party as an extremist party, that his being in this role will help them do that.

Jeffrey Goldberg: John, two things. One is, have you noticed that MAGA Mike sounds suspiciously like Magic Mike?
John Dickerson: Yes.

Jeffrey Goldberg: We don't have to. We can do that in the web. We'll do that on Twitter, but I just -- it just keeps -- it's an earworm, you know?

John Dickerson: Exactly, it's to trade baseball cards with MAGA Mike.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It's a problematic earworm, let's just say that.

But the serious question is, you know, a couple years ago, a little bit more than a couple years ago, right after January 6th, it was obviously considered -- you were in bad odor if you supported the insurrection or you were an election denier. Now, we have this election denier in the speakership. It seems like it's a prerequisite for Republican success.

To go to your point, this is Trump's party. But how did we get from there to here?

John Dickerson:  Well, as Nia mentioned, Tom Emmer, who was briefly the speaker-elect for four hours or so, the Congressman from Minnesota, Donald Trump had a heckler's veto over him, basically because Tom Emmer had voted to certify the 2020 election. Mike Johnson spearheaded the effort to block that.

And when he was asked --

Jeffrey Goldberg: And, wait, just go into that a little bit, because this is important. He wasn't a follower.

John Dickerson:  No, he was a leader, so people were Googling his name to figure out who he was. But those who did know about him knew one thing, which is that he had spearheaded this effort to try to declare the votes in various states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, unconstitutional, to block the certification of Joe Biden's election.

And then later he went on the radio, he talked about how Hugo Chavez had been a part of the election, which is thoroughly debunked.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Because he just did.

John Dickerson: Well, yes.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, that's a technical issue, yes.

John Dickerson: But in other words, he wasn't making just constitutional critiques. He was also engaging in some of the most bananas, which is I think a legal term, claims about the last election.

Okay. So, he was asked about this after he'd been voted by his Republican colleagues to be the speaker, but before the official vote. And there were a number of his colleagues around him, and they booed down the questioner from the press who had asked about it, as if it were rude to bring this up, or it was something in the distant past.

Jeffrey Goldberg: One of the congresswomen told the reporter -- yes, told Rachel Scott to shut up. Yes, actually said the word shut up.

John Dickerson: As if it were rude or something in the distant past. This is in the absolute present, and it should be at the heart of what Mike Johnson thinks of in terms of his job. Because what do we have legislatures? For to peacefully adjudicate disputes. Well, that's what happened on January 6th. The system for peacefully adjudicating a dispute, which is what an election, in a way is, was overthrown or attempted to overthrow, and I should say by violence, by people who thought, I don't like the outcome. So, I'm going to engage in violence to get a better outcome.

Some lawmakers, spearheaded by Donald Trump, tried to overturn that outcome through a number of other methods. Johnson was a part of that team.

Well, now he leads an institution that is supposed to take disputes and work them out and come up with an answer. And the losers in those legislative fights can't go around and engage in violence, can't go around and try some other way. He is now the head of an institution. And so as the head of that institution, when people bring up 2020, he should say, we believe in a system where you abide by the rules and you abide by the outcome. But he didn't say any of that.

And you would think as the head of an institution that exists for that purpose, you would at least want to be saying, you know, I am now the fire chief and I'm not a party that believes in arson.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, you know, it's interesting because we've been through this drama before. There was hope, misplaced hope, that Donald Trump would grow in office.

But, McKay, what are the chances that Mike Johnson, who, really, we haven't heard very much about at all, what are the chances that he understands this role or are the incentives not to understand the role?

McKay Coppins, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: I think the problem is that there's really no incentive for somebody in his position at this moment in his party to grow in any way, right? I think he could very easily, seems like a smart enough guy, understand that he has a certain job to do and that he needs to set aside or at least try to move on past his election denialism or whatever.

But the way he got here was by towing the Trump line, right, by doing the things Donald Trump wants. And Donald Trump is still the boss. He's the party boss. He's the leader of the party. He's going to have to -- in order to hold on to his job, he's going to have to continue to do what Donald Trump and the MAGA wing of the party wants.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is this -- one more question on this about Trump, because you've been following Trump since before the beginning, actually. Is this further proof that Trump has the nomination locked up?

McKay Coppins:  I mean, I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary. The fact that he has this much control over the House of Representatives, for a guy who really doesn't wade into congressional affairs at all, doesn't seem to care that much about legislation, the fact that he can make a few calls and put out a few posts on Truth Social and basically swing the speaker election, I think, shows that there really is no serious challenge to his status.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It's actually extraordinary, yes.

John Dickerson: And his attempt to overthrow the last election, as we've already said, is not a liability. It's the centerpiece of his campaign. So, in other words, the thing that should make him an objectionable choice for the office, which is to say you can't be a protector of the Constitution if you tried to thwart the Constitution by reversing a free and fair election, that should be the number one thing that should hurt him. And, in fact, it's helped him in his party.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, gravity is upside down?

Nia-Malika Henderson: No, I think that's right. Joe Biden was asked about this at the press conference when Johnson ascended to power. Was he worried about what will happen in 2024 if Joe Biden is re-elected and Donald Trump loses? He sort of had, I think, a gracious answer and essentially said he's not really worried about it. He believes in the Constitution.

But, certainly, all eyes will be on what is the House going to do in 2024.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, let me ask you this. Let's go deep on Mike Johnson. Listen, tell us about him, where he falls within the Republican conference, within the Republican caucus.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Listen, I think he is on the far right of the Republican caucus. You heard him there talk about what do you want to know about him, how can you learn about him. He says, read the Bible. He is a true Christian evangelical. He's a southerner from Louisiana. We haven't had a southerner in that position since Newt Gingrich in the mid-90s.

And he's sort of in the way that Newt Gingrich was very much a culture warrior, very much partisan. He is that as well, very much a part of wedding conservatism to Christianity, right? He uses his background, I think, as a constitutional lawyer to push for some of these causes and to sort of push for the sort of collapse of the separation of church and state.

So, I think in this position, he's going to be very vocal. He's not going to maybe be as sort of combative. He kind of has a warm and conversational demeanor, but his ideology is very much, I think, in keeping with the far right of the party.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You know, something you just mentioned, I want to mention this to John, because we're older than you two. No offense, John. But, no, I mean, you mentioned Newt Gingrich. And I hadn't really thought -- I've thought about this victory as a victory for Trump, but we covered Newt Gingrich.

This seems like a victory for Gingrichism in a kind of way, like to turn a hyper-partisan House, in other words, without even the make-believe of comedy. Tell me I'm wrong.

John Dickerson: Yes and no. When Newt Gingrich was bounced from the House, he railed against the cannibals in his own conference, own Republican conference, who didn't find Gingrich sufficiently pure. That's also what John Boehner essentially said when he was bounced. It's also what happened to Kevin McCarthy. So, it is a different form of what Newt Gingrich may have been the initiator of in terms of being more partisan, in terms of treating the opposition as the enemy.

But also remember, before impeachment during the Clinton and Gingrich years, Clinton and Gingrich were meeting privately to try to find a way to come up with a budget deal and actually get some work done. What's interesting about the moment we're in now, and the big challenge for Mike Johnson is, as I was mentioning earlier, does he feel an obligation to the stewardship obligations of being a speaker? And that includes making deals with the other side when you don't own every part of the legislature.

Jeffrey Goldberg: But, McKay, add on to that, if he turns out to be a statesman, what's the overunder on when he gets overthrown?

McKay Coppins:  Well, this is the problem, right? The current rules that have been put in place by the House Republican Conference are such that, very quickly, any small number of Republicans can essentially band together and bounce the speaker, right?

And so I think if this new speaker does veer from kind of towing the MAGA line, I would not expect him to last very long.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Right, and the test will come up very quickly, right? When you think about the deadlines that are coming up for funding the government, Ukraine aid, for instance, Israel aid as well. So, we're going to see very quickly if, in fact, they're going to give him a bit of a leash.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

John Dickerson: There's one other trend that his election suggests, which is the idea that basically a novice can come into these very complicated political jobs and just, bing, bing, bing, that everybody else has failed only because of a lack of will, that the jobs are not inherently complicated.

And he doesn't come with any of the skills that are a part of what you have to do in the job, which is massage your members. You have to build coalitions. You have to sometimes massage the truth in order to get a coalition together.

He was elected where all of those are signs of selling out.

Jeffrey Goldberg: There's no incentives here for governance in the traditional model.

John Dickerson: And if you perform governance in the traditional model, you're seen as a sellout. So, it works, yes.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So like eight to ten days, we have a new speaker's race I think as well. That's what I'm hearing.

Let me go to McKay and to frame this out. So, you've written this wonderful book about Mitt Romney. I would say that even if I didn't like you. It's really one of the most important books of the whole Trump era, I really do believe.

And you are the Boswell to Romney's Johnson, the Sonny to his Cher (ph). You're everything.

McKay Coppins: I'll take the first. I'm a little more uncomfortable with the second, but go on.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I kind of like the second one. You have almost a mind meld with Mitt Romney. It's an interesting moment for Romney, I think, to watch the party completely drift away from where he is.

I'm sure you've talked to him recently about what's been going on in the House. How does he understand this? And how do that remnant faction understand what's going on?

McKay Coppins:  So, for him, I mean, just on the question of Mike Johnson, there's kind of two problems for him. The first is just, for Mitt Romney, election denialism is the litmus test that if you don't pass to him, you're not a serious political figure.

I mean, for Mitt Romney, he's been alarmed ever since January 6th by this kind of what he considers creeping authoritarianism within the party.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Would you do one favor for our audience? Give us one example of how Romney feels about anybody in his own car, because there's some amazing stuff in this book.

McKay Coppins:  Well, you know, okay. So, he talked about Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and he told me that he considers those two guys some of the smartest people in the Senate, and that's why he's kind of so repelled by them, because he knows that they're too smart to believe the things they say. And what drives him crazy is hearing them kind of tout these election conspiracy theories, because he basically told me that it's so disingenuous, like they know better, but they pretend like they believe this stuff, because they think so little of the Republican base.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Romney actually has more sympathy for the true believers, the daft ones.

McKay Coppins: Yes, he told me -- so, Ron Johnson, he said, you know, he's had to --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Wisconsin senator.

McKay Coppins: Yes, the Wisconsin senator, who's a known kind of conspiracy theory fan, he often gets into fights with him and says, you know, Ron, are there any conspiracies you don't believe in, but at the same time says, I actually respect him, because I think he actually believes all these crazy things, and that's not true of these other senators.

Mike Johnson, the other problem, though, that Romney has with him, is the point that John just made, he doesn't have any leadership experience. And for Mitt Romney, that's just a non-starter. You need -- these are complicated jobs. Being Speaker of the House is an actual job. And, you know, traditionally, ask Nancy Pelosi, ask John Boehner, you would have to have some knowledge of the inner workings of Congress, how to, you know, manage all the egos, how to, you know, form coalitions, and Mike Johnson has shown no ability to do that.

John Dickerson: And you have to do all of those things to do the people's business, addressing the problems of the day through this system that was set up to do so. I mean, it's not just like you don't know how to slap backs. If you don't know how to do it, you don't get results for the people who are out there voting for you.

And that's the real challenge here. It's that the standard is now just barely keeping the government open. The country faces severe and significant problems, not the least of which are these corrosive forces we've been talking about, which make it impossible to answer the problems that the country faces. But that's at the heart of this.

Nia-Malika Henderson: But it's also true that Mitt Romney, I think, recognized the power of Donald Trump in 2012, when he wanted to get the endorsement of Donald Trump, got the endorsement of Donald Trump, even though at that point Donald Trump was still sort of Donald Trump and running around with the sort of birther conspiracy theory. So, he recognizes the power, and, in some ways, I mean, helped to elevate Trump in 2012 and kind of put the veneer of --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Agree or disagree?

McKay Coppins: So, we talk about this a lot and he reckons with this a lot in the book. His argument is that in 2012, Donald Trump, he still considered kind of a buffoonish celebrity with crazy ideas, yes, but like his argument was that Barack Obama can take endorsements from Kanye West, why can't I stand on a stage with a celebrity Apprentice host?

I think that he and I disagree a little about that, but like his argument is that ever since Donald Trump has actually become a major political force, he has been an outspoken opponent of him, and that outweighs whatever he did to help him.

Jeffrey Goldberg: One more question on Romney. Is there anything that Mitt Romney sees, any trend in his party that he thinks is that runs opposite to Trumpism, election denialism, the elevation of Mike Johnson? Is there anything at all?

McKay Coppins: I have not heard in my two years of conversations with him a lot of hope about the future of the Republican Party. If anything, from the time I started talking to him in early 2021 to when I finished the interviews for the book earlier this year, he was more alienated than ever and feels like he has no home in the GOP anymore.

So, his only hope is that some future generation of Republicans will come in and kind of wash out the older set. But the problem is a lot of the younger Republicans, Matt Gaetz is one of these like younger members of Congress and he's one of the most radical --

Jeffrey Goldberg: And Matt Gaetz has a lot more power in the Republican Party than Mitt Romney.

McKay Coppins:  Yes, no question.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Go ahead. No, go ahead.

John Dickerson: It depends whether if you're coming up in the next generation, you've been taught by the previous generation to use your skills as a lawmaker. And I think this is what irritates Romney about Cruz and Hawley is to use your considerable skills to shine up the objectionable for public consumption, that you are not trying to strive to match your values with your actions, but you're really just in an elaborate game of making things look good to retain power, to gain influence or do whatever.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Nia, I've got to ask this question because I just don't understand this. Donald Trump, Mike Johnson, we understand 91 felony counts on the Trump side, election denialism, all of the craziness, Johnson, the rightmost edge of the Republican Party. I understand how they've taken control of the House and understand how they're taking control of the party. How do they possibly win a general election? Do they have a plan to win a general?

Nia-Malika Henderson: Well, listen, I think if you look at where the polling stands now, it's a neck and neck raise. Is it early? Absolutely. It's quite early. You have a challenger now to Joe Biden in Dean Phillips who filed, I think, in New Hampshire to compete with Joe Biden.

Joe Biden's problem now is that Democrats are sort of souring on him. If you look at sort of the internals, only about 75 percent of Democrats approve of Joe Biden. They would need that to be 90 percent or so.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is that the age primarily?

Nia-Malika Henderson: I think it's primarily age. Yes, it's primarily age.

And if you think about what the Biden coalition is, it's obviously part of the Obama coalition, young folks, people of color, progressives. There's some souring on Biden with those groups. And so that's why you see this neck and neck race.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is that souring partially happening over Biden's support for Israel right now? That's in this moment. But is that -- if they're faced with Trump v. Biden, where do those progressives go?

Nia-Malika Henderson: No, I think this is a really good question. Joe Biden recently met with some Muslim-American leaders because they have a problem with his red around this war, his rhetoric around Palestinians who were in Gaza. So, yes, there is worry right now about the frame of this coalition and the ways in which they don't really approve of Joe Biden's handling of the conflict in Israel. But, again, it's early.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Let's just stay on this question. The Republicans, how do they grow from what they are right now? Or are they just banking on Biden's unpopularity and certain structural advantages to get them through?

John Dickerson: Yes, I think that's all true and good. And I think also that chaos helps the out team. So, in other words, all the chaos that happened in the House fits into Donald Trump's view, which is basically like it's all chaotic in Washington. He's selling chaos and offering order. In other words, I can fix it. Remember he said, I alone can fix it.

And you would think, well, his presidency, in which there were considerable failures because he didn't recognize or build a team to manage the complexities of the job. Nevertheless, we've been talking about this idea that you can have a speaker rise with none of the skills for a speakership, and, nevertheless, now he's the second -- well, now he's the most powerful Republican, or at least has the most powerful post.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, second in line for the presidency as well.

John Dickerson: :So, if all view -- if there are a lot of people in country who think all this stuff in Washington is foolishness, and so why not send somebody in there who is promising order, and who also upsets the ruling class in Washington?

McKay Coppins: But isn't the problem with that argument that we all lived through the Trump presidency, right? Like, he sold order in 2016, and I think it worked to a certain extent. Remember his convention speech at the Republican convention was all about, you know, the chaos and lawlessness in the streets. I'm not sure that that message works the same way this time.

John Dickerson: I think you're absolutely right. That is totally possible. But people also said after January 6th, well, the Republican Party has touched the hot stove, and they won't do that again.

McKay Coppins: That's right.

John Dickerson: The party is sitting on top of the stove right now. The leading person --

Jeffrey Goldberg: They're having big meetings on top of a hot stove.

John Dickerson: The speaker is a part of that crew, and the nominee, the likely nominee of the party, maintains the delusion that the election was stolen from him.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Yes, and there's the thought, I think, among many Americans that the economy was better under Donald Trump. You add that to perhaps there are going to be at least maybe two third party candidates in the ballot in some of these --

McKay Coppins: Right. I mean, this is why the election is going to be close, because the way that our country is structured right now, no matter who the nominee almost is, there's going to be 48 percent on each side.

Jeffrey Goldberg: McKay, let me -- last question to you. Does this new speaker help the Trump cause? Does it solidify him further? Does it do anything to expand Trump's reach?

McKay Coppins: I think that Trump is going to have somebody in his pocket, right, who can do what he wants. I think the question is just whether he'll know how to use that power. And, you know, I think it is an open question how Johnson will govern. Maybe he'll surprise us.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. And I just want to ask one final, final question related to that, final, final, final question, which is, are we all sure that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee? Quick answers.

Nia-Malika Henderson: It seems likely.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Good answer.

John Dickerson: It seems hard to conjure a way in which he doesn't win within the normal structures of politics.

Jeffrey Goldberg: McKay?

McKay Coppins: I am even more sure of than then, I would say. I think it's very likely.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, thank you all for joining me tonight. This was great. Unfortunately, we need to leave it there for now. But I want to thank our wonderful panelists for joining us and sharing your reporting. McKay's book is excellent, as I mentioned.

For the latest on the Middle East, visit theatlantic.com and be sure to tune into PBS News Weekend Saturday for a conversation with an American family desperate to escape Gaza.

I am Jeffrey Goldberg. Good night from Washington.

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