Full Episode: Washington Week with the Atlantic full episode, 1/19/24

Jan. 19, 2024 AT 9:26 p.m. EST

Donald Trump secured a big win from Iowa caucus-goers and appears poised to become the Republican nominee in New Hampshire as President Biden contends with an increasingly unpredictable world in the Middle East. Join moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, Eugene Daniels of Politico, Adam Harris of The Atlantic, Asma Khalid of NPR and Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal for a discussion on these stories.

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

Jeffrey Goldberg: After Iowa's caucus-goers behaved exactly as predicted. It would surprise absolutely no one if New Hampshire Republicans give Donald Trump a big win.

Donald Trump, Former U.S. President: If you look at Iowa, nobody knew we were going to blow it out like that. I think a similar thing's going to happen here.

Jeffrey Goldberg: What is unpredictable these days is the entire rest of the world, Iran and Pakistan fighting, Houthis attacking ships and Americans retaliating and on and on and on. It's a lot for any president to handle, especially one who is 81 years old, next.

Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK.

After Donald Trump's win in Iowa, more Republicans are coalescing around the former president. Unless something completely surprising happens in the coming weeks, Trump will be the GOP nominee. We're a long way from January 7th, 2021, when Republicans expressed horror at his behavior a day earlier.

Here to discuss with me the state of American politics and also the state of the world are Eugene Daniels, a White House correspondent for Politico and a co-author of Politico's Playbook, Adam Harris, my colleague and a staff writer at The Atlantic, Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR and a contributor at ABC News, and Nancy Youssef is the national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our freezing studio. People don't know this at home, but it's actually 40 degrees below zero right now. So, we're very, very primed for sharp insight. We're going to talk about Iowa and New Hampshire, right? There's no Hawaii primary that we ever get to cover. It’s amazing.

So -- all right. So, Iowa. Eugene, let's start with you. What are we supposed to think after Iowa, like it's done?

Eugene Daniels, White House Correspondent, Politico: We're supposed to think, duh, right? Like what you said is exactly right. It's like what we saw happen in Iowa is exactly what you would expect, right?

He is not running Donald Trump as like this insurgent. He talks like an insurgent, but he's not. He's running as an incumbent, right? So, we're going to probably end up with two incumbents running against each other in November.

And so when you talk to voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina or anywhere, if they believe, and most of them do, that he did not lose the 2020 election, why would they think he's a loser, right? So, the argument that Ron DeSantis and sometimes Nikki Haley say is when they talk about we need to move past the losers in the party, we need to win again, why would they believe that if actually what they believe is that the 2020 election was stolen from him?

And so Iowa showed us that. It showed us how dominant he is. It also kind of, I think, took a lot of wind out of the sails for both Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well Ron DeSantis didn't have a lot of wind. To be fair to wind, he didn't have a lot of it. But Nikki Haley -- I mean, I want to get to Nikki Haley in a minute, but, Adam, Asma, anything surprising at all in the results there?

Adam Harris, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: No, I think it went exactly the way that we expected it to go. I mean, if you think about what this primary has been, it has been people trying to catch up to Trump's poll numbers. So, from the beginning, it has been, he was the leader of the sort of horse race, and everyone was trying to build some form of base that would support them, whether that was college-educated voters, whether that was folks who were in that never Trump bucket, right.

But his base has always been the sort of base of the party. Since he was elected in 2016, he was firmly -- he's had a pretty firm grasp on the party. He's been indicted several times over and he still has the support of the party. And so I don't think that the results in Iowa --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. And something you said just reminded me that like an incredible proportion of the people who voted in Iowa, went to the caucus in Iowa, believe that the election was stolen. So, it's like -- I mean, Asma, it's kind of like an uphill battle for any reality-based candidate.

Asma Khalid, White House Correspondent, NPR: I mean, you look at that, when you look at someone like Asa Hutchinson or Chris Christie, both of them men who actually did take on them.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Asamania is formally over.

Asma Khalid: It's over. That's the point, right? Like neither one of those candidates actually had any longevity. And then you look at someone like Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, his argument was essentially that he was kind of Trump-lite, and voters saw that and they were like, no, no, we want the original, right?

And so, ultimately, that's what we wanted.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You call him Coke Zero, but it still doesn't taste like Coke.

Asma Khalid: Yes, indictments are not. I mean, I think voters saw that, Republican --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Indictments make the Coke taste even Cokier, right, I mean, in a certain kind of way.

Well, I want to talk about Nikki Haley. Let me stay with you, Asma, for a second. What does Nikki Haley have to do in New Hampshire next week in order for people who follow politics to go, oh, huh, you know, like a kind of a Howard Dean kind of thing, like, oh, maybe she really could do this? How well does she have to do?

Asma Khalid: I mean, I think she has to do exceedingly well. People have talked about becoming --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Like actually win?

Asma Khalid: In my view, yes, right? I mean, and I don't think that's going to happen. Some folks have talked about losing in single digits.

Now, my argument about why I don't think that's convincing is that then you look at where the primaries go. It goes to South Carolina, a state that is much more demographically similar to a voter base of Republicans like Iowa.

You know, folks talk about New Hampshire being this independent, somewhat libertarian-minded state, but I think what they've forgotten is 2016, and I remember being there, that's a state Donald Trump won. He did very well in. And so I think it's somewhat foolhardy to think that Nikki Haley is going to be more attractive to many Republican voters who actually gave Trump his first primary victory in 2016.

Nancy Youssef, National Security Correspondent, The Wall Street Journal: What I find so interesting about that viewpoint is I wonder then is there any opportunity of this being a two-man race or one-man, one-woman race and if she has to win, if the idea of 2 or 3, 4 or 5percentage points is not on the table, is there a scenario where he, former President Trump, faces competition where there's a real threat to his candidacy or is there inevitability that could come out of New Hampshire?

Asma Khalid: I mean, I also don't know, sorry, if there is a two-man race, like people say if Ron DeSantis drops out, the assumption is that all of his voters would go Nikki Haley, and I don't really buy that assumption, right? And so, therefore, I've always thought this idea of a two-person race doesn't necessarily disadvantage that one.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, Adam, what are the chances that we get to Super Tuesday and there's only one candidate? I mean, it's not zero.

Adam Harris: No, it's not out of the question, and particularly after a convincing win in Iowa, if he has a convincing win in New Hampshire followed up by South Carolina, which, as Asma mentioned, right, it's very demographic.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Nikki Haley has to win South Carolina.

Adam Harris: She has to win South Carolina and if she doesn’t – yes, but it does. It feels like there is an air of inevitability around.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes.

Eugene Daniels: And the thing about New Hampshire is that it is uniquely tailored for someone like Nikki Haley, right, in demographics, right? If she can't win in New Hampshire, where can she win? Because you have much more highly educated people, she tends to do better with those kinds of folks. You have a little more diversity than Iowa, but not much.

But the kinds of people that she's been talking to, right, these kind of middle of the road Republicans, people who used to be the mainstream of the party, but are now kind of on the outskirts and are technically the fringes, because they're not Trump Republicans, a lot of them live there.

It's also an open primary. So, you have Democrats who are up because they're not playing in the Biden, Dean Phillips lane. They're probably going to vote on Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary. And a lot of those folks are going to vote for her.

If she does not win there, then what that says is she can't win really anywhere else, because most of the other states are very Trump-like.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You just, by the way, discovered the new slogan for New Hampshire, way more diverse than I am.

Speaking of diversity -- good transition, right? Speaking of diversity, let's talk for a minute, Adam, Nancy, about Trump's approach to Nikki Haley. He's going back to the kind of the O.G. playbook, right, birtherism. He's saying that Nikki Haley can't run. There's nothing in the Constitution that says this, because her parents are from another country. And he's calling her by her birth name, an Indian name, and also mangling it. This has caused some newspapers that can't keep up with the times, calling this racially charged as opposed to what it is, which is racist.

But is this stuff still work? I mean, is this what base wants?

Adam Harris: To Trump's mind, yes. This is -- I mean, it's firmly within his playbook. If you think -- if you go back to sort of roots in New York real estate, right, with housing discrimination against black people, when you think about birtherism, you think about him calling Ted Cruz Rafael during the last primary cycle.

And so, you know, this is a thing that he believes is animating towards his base to other -- another candidate to say, hey, we are trying to make America great again. When was America great, when America was led in a more monolithically colored way.

Jeffrey Goldberg: But it's putting Nikki Haley in this kind of -- she doesn't seem comfortable fighting him or calling him out for straight up racism. She's very, very, very tentative around all these race questions.

Nancy Youssef: Well, what I found so interesting in her approach is, on the one hand she's trying to gain Trump supporters, gain voters. She's done things like say she would not -- she would pardon him if convicted and at the same time say I'm a different candidate, I'm trying to delineate myself from him.

And yet she -- and in that vein she hasn't gone after him directly on this issue, one where you think she could because her story has been so intertwined with her upbringing and having to live in a world of racism in between a black and white culture and we haven't seen her sort of utilize that experience which she's done in the past to really point out how one would argue that these ideas are outdated and are not part or shouldn't be part of this election.

Eugene Daniels: Instead, she's saying that this was never a racist country, right? That's the thing about Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy have this, Tim Scott as well in the Republican Party, and this primary, is that they are people of color tangling with and trying to win the nomination of a party that does not want to have a fulsome conversation about race, right?

When you think about the last couple of years and how the Republican Party has waged war against critical race theory or fulsome conversations about race, don't teach our kids like this, don't make white kids feel uncomfortable about what their ancestors did, there's no world in which someone like Nikki Haley can do anything but what she's doing, which is really struggling and kind of failing, I think, to talk about race in kind of this more patriotic way, right, when she's saying that this country was never racist.

You can say, you know, Republicans say this all the time, that it's not a racist country anymore. We've moved past that. But saying it was never a racist country is completely wrong.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, what you're saying is that Nikki Haley and maybe Ramaswamy and Tim Scott and others, Marco Rubio, maybe they understand that in order to win in this Republican Party, they have to downplay their own ethnic, racial background? I mean, in other words, that pivot that the Republicans were supposed to have made eight years ago toward party of universal opportunity, that didn't happen?

Adam Harris: And the thing is they don't try to downplay their backgrounds. You have Tim Scott saying, you know, we went from cotton to Congress in several generations. So, they try to play up their background --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Their individual background.

Adam Harris: Their individual background.

Jeffrey Goldberg: But not the larger questions.

Adam Harris: Yes. It sort of tries to place a realm of individuality on what has been a sort of systemic system of racism. So, they say that there's no systemic racism because I, a single individual, am able to overcome.

Jeffrey Goldberg: What's interesting about it is that it's -- the Trump playbook is an open playbook. It's been there for years He's going to it. It still works. It's kind of like, you know, there's this kind of Back to the Future feeling right now around these questions.

But let's go to the vice presidential sweepstakes for just a minute. I want to get to the Houthis, things of actual paramount importance, but let's talk about the vice president for a minute, because Nikki Haley was talked about as a possible vice president, probably not anymore.

I want to play the -- what I think of now is the audition video of Elise Stefanik, and I want you to talk about that for a minute.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY): Calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?

Claudine Gay, Former Harvard President:  Again, it depends on the context.

Elise Stefanik: It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes, and this is why you should resign.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. So, that was -- I mean, Claudine Gay, inadvertently, and those other two university presidents, inadvertently brought Elise Stefanik a level of fame that she didn't previously have, and also drew the attention of Donald Trump more to the point. He has said to have called her a killer, which is obviously a compliment.

Asma Khalid: And he likes winners.

Jeffrey Goldberg: And he likes winners, and she got two of those universities -- two of the three university presidents, and she was, who were, you know, admittedly, remarkably inept in their testimony, she got their heads, they both resigned.

So, is she in the front row of this, or is she in the front of the line because of that?

Asma Khalid: I think she certainly is in the frontline. And she's also been rather successful, I think, as a lawmaker doing well in terms of winning her district year after year. I mean, she doesn't have any real electoral losses to her name.

I think the one big question mark where she wasn't always loyal to Trump at the outset, he loves loyalty. And so will he be forgiving of her past? I don't know. I think she's making certainly a strong case.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is it hers to lose?

Eugene Daniels: I think so. I mean, there are a lot of names that get thrown around, right? It depends on what he's looking for. He's going to look for someone who's completely loyal, and not just loyal like Mike Pence was, right? When Mike Pence was loyal to him for that whole four years, just that one day that Trump is really pissed off about. But someone like Elise Stefanik seems more likely to do the opposite of what Mike Pence did, right? And so that is something that he's going to be thinking about.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Wait. What do you mean? You mean that she would not certify an election that Donald Trump didn't want to certify?

Eugene Daniels: She has dodged that question when folks have asked her that. And so that is her auditioning further to tell Donald Trump, wink, wink, nod, nod, I have your back no matter what, and I'm on your side.

You can see that as she's going, there's people like Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who's on that list. Nikki Haley seems to have maybe torched her chances. I think he's someone who's going to want someone of a central casting who kind of looks like a stereotypical Tim Scott, someone who looks like a vice president in his mind. And so there are a lot of names, but I think at this point, Elise Stefanik is at the top of that list.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. It seems like it could be hers - I mean, it raises a larger question of, and you brought this up. Donald Trump made it pretty clear that he didn't care if his previous vice president lived or died on January 6th. So, it's kind of a dangerous job to take. But why would anybody want that job? I mean, do you want that job?

Adam Harris: When you think about the folks who are auditioning for that job, the folks who may potentially be in that position, you think about Elise Stefanik, you think about Tim Scott, these are people who are effectively saying that I have bought into the sort of Donald Trump ethos of the Republican Party. I am willing to sort of -- if there's something that I disagree with, I'm just going to sort of be quiet about it.

You don't necessarily see Tim Scott out there negatively talking about Donald Trump. You didn't see him talk negatively about Donald Trump during his own campaign. It was something he was sort of routinely quiet about. And so, you know, if we move forward and Nikki Haley is sort of out of the running, I do think that --

Jeffrey Goldberg: It is almost definitely going to have to be someone who Donald Trump believes will do what he needs done in a constitutional crisis, in an election.

Eugene Daniels: And ambition is why they would take the job.

Nancy Youssef: But it's interesting, it's not sort of traditional things that we look for in a vice president, someone to help you with a state or a certain demographic, and yet it still is a position that can catapult you to be the future leader of the party. So, it's so interesting to me the dynamics that are still in play and the ones that aren't as much, at least in this case.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, Donald Trump is the dominant Republican, he's 77 years old. Whoever gets the slot is next.

Eugene Daniels: And also, I think, one, it's ambition, right? So, all of these people want to be the future of the party because there is going to be a post-Trump party, whether that's in four years or whether that's in one. But you also never think the lion is going to eat your face, right? They are unlikely to think that Donald Trump is going to do to them what they saw him do to Mike Pence.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, Mike Pence provided an alternate roadmap, a map of where not to go.

Eugene Daniels: Exactly. So, don't do that and you’ll be okay.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Nancy, let's go to the rest of the world. Let's go to the rest of the world. And my first question for you is -- okay, so Pakistan and Iran are suddenly attacking each other, and we did not have that one on the bingo card. Is it a blip and a burst and it's not something that the American administration is going to pay attention to, or is this just a sign of decomposition and destabilization across the greater Middle East?

Nancy Youssef: So, I'll tell you what I thought was really interesting, that you saw those strikes and counterstrikes between Pakistan and Iran. And in the 24-hour period around that, we saw Iran conduct strikes by its military in Iraq and in Syria, three countries in a 24-hour period.

Remember that Iran historically has used proxies in places like Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and in Pakistan.

And so, to me, what was interesting this week, we saw a much more aggressive Iran coming forward with its own military to assert itself. Some of that, I think, was for domestic politics. Some of that was to sort of position itself in the region as a voice in a state that has to be reckoned with. Some of it was what it saw as self-defense.

In the case of Pakistan, what we saw almost immediately was an effort to de-escalate. I think what we saw from both nations was an effort to say, we're not going to tolerate these kinds of strikes in our borders, but we're also not looking to escalate.

And so you saw diplomatic efforts almost immediately after the strike by Iran and the counterstrike by Pakistan.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I mean, Iran is busy right now in Lebanon, Gaza and the Houthis. I want to come to the Houthis really quick.

Nancy Youssef: But they're not at the frontline. They're not at the front --

Jeffrey Goldberg: No, but they got to pay attention to this, especially with the Houthis who seem uncontrollable. I mean, they're a proxy that's very hard to get a handle on.

But I want to ask you this and then join the rest. The interesting thing to me about the Houthis right now is Elliot Cohen, writing in The Atlantic, made this point. He called the American strikes against the Houthis, he called it therapeutic bombing, which I thought was an interesting expression. It's like it's bombing designed to make us feel like we're doing something, we, the Americans, are doing something, but it's not enough. It's obviously not stopping the Houthis. They seem to be pretty filled with vinegar about the whole, the whole thing.

So, the question is, as we move into this fateful year for America, American national security, American foreign policy, are we going to be in June, July, August still talking about the Biden administration's inability to get the Houthi situation under control?

Nancy Youssef: I think potentially. The thing is, remember, the Houthis have been in a war for a decade with the Saudis and have not been put down. Their capabilities are vast. While the U.S. has done at least six strikes since January 11th, that in and of itself isn't going to be able to stop them from being a threat to ships transiting. Now, they could be less of a threat, have less radar, less launchers to do those strikes over time.

But if the U.S. is not looking to escalate and face a potential direct conflict with Iran, who's the Houthi backers, and at the same time it wants to put down the strikes, I don't think this is something that can be solved strictly through military strikes. I think the key country is actually not the US, but China.

If we start to see China speak up and say, look, your strikes are hurting our ships' ability, our economy, because we can't transit through the Red Sea, then I think we see an impact. We saw a little sign of that this week when China said to publicly, we need you to sort of clamp it down. They're not willing to work with the U.S. so far, but they are signaling that this potentially hurts our economy.

So, when I think about putting down the Houthis, I don't think this is within just U.S. military capability. It has to be some of countries like China coming forward and saying this is hurting us, and therefore we need you to stop conducting these strikes.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, here's like a big looming question. You know, Biden is fighting with Netanyahu now about the two-state solution and about the actions in Gaza. You've got the Houthi situation, of course, and managing the Saudis is a huge challenge for any American administration, for Biden especially. You've got North Korea being especially bellicose-sounding. China is talking about that.

I mean, it's interesting how -- no, no, no. What's interesting is how for the last couple of years, Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine now falls into this like category in the -- in this middle category.

But here's the key Ukraine question. If Russia starts gaining territory back, you know, or starts going on the offense against Ukraine, even taking a few square kilometers, you know, you could see a narrative develop that, wow, Joe Biden doesn't really have a handle on the way the world is going.

And so the question is, you know, could this be, you know -- you cover the White House. I mean, how worried are they that the world seems to be spinning a little bit too much out of control, worried for the world's sake, worried for national security's sake, but also worried politically?

Asma Khalid: I think as it relates to the Israel-Gaza conflict, you do hear a degree of optimism from them that the fighting will move to a less intense phase, more humanitarian aid will be able to get in, and that the conflict will look different.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Maybe some hostages will come out and a ceasefire.

Asma Khalid: They seem optimistic about that. But to your point, I think, to me, this is bigger than what's going on specifically in Gaza, which is President Biden, he gave a very prominent foreign policy speech before he ever took office during the campaign. And his pitch was essentially that America was back, that American leadership was going to be back on the world stage in a way that it, in his view, was not there during Donald Trump. And you're seeing that.

Now, it's striking to hear you talk about China being the country in this moment that could potentially alleviate tensions, because that's really not where the United States is at this point. And I think that there is a question about America's reliability if Congress can't particularly provide this funding for Ukraine. Then where does Europe look?

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes, go ahead.

Nancy Youssef: I think that's such a good point. And he also said that the U.S. would be the defenders of democracy and here, in Ukraine, you're seeing that fight. To me, it could go one of two ways in that you could argue that the world is so unstable right now in conflict in so many places and that the Biden administration is not handling it well.

You could also argue that because the world is so complex and there are so many conflicts going on and they're so nuanced, you need somebody with decades of experience to manage it. So, it seems to me, if you're a voter, I think that's the question you're asking yourself.

Jeffrey Goldberg: But, Adam, I somehow don't think that Donald Trump is going to take the position just articulated by Nancy that, oh, well, Donald Trump is going to say, hey, look, Joe Biden, he's an old guy and he can't handle all this.

Adam Harris: Well, one of the first things, a couple of days ago, maybe about a week ago, Trump actually said on the campaign trail, right, I am the first president in years and years that didn't have any wars, right? And to voters, are they going to go back and check that? Are they going to read the Snoops or Washington Post fact-check? Is this base actually going to be --

Jeffrey Goldberg: I mean, if there's a meme on TikTok, then they will definitely go check it but I'm not so confident that they're going to fact-check it.

But no, Eugene, in the last seconds that we have left, I mean, can you imagine -- it's very rare that an election hinges on foreign policy but can you imagine this one?

Eugene Daniels: Yes, absolutely. We wrote in playbook months ago. Not to shake our shoulders, but we did say that this could be one of the first foreign policy elections that we've ever had because of what's going on. And Donald Trump and Biden have such stark different views of the world in ways that we haven't seen in a really long time.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, it's very interesting. I could talk all night about this, but we can't, because it's a television show, and I have to say that we're going to leave it here for now. And I want to thank our panelists for a great discussion, for sharing all of their reporting and insight.

For more on The Atlantic's coverage of the Republican presidential race, be sure to check out theatlantic.com. And on "PBS NEWS WEEKEND" tomorrow, why air travel costs so much.

I'm Jeffrey Goldberg. Good night from Washington.

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