Full Episode: Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 3/15/24

Mar. 15, 2024 AT 8:57 p.m. EDT

Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Speaker Johnson’s changing positions on hot button wars abroad are causing rifts within their parties, as President Biden fights to salvage his foreign policy agenda. Join moderator Laura Barrón-López, Zolan Kanno-Youngs of The New York Times, Scott MacFarlane of CBS News, Todd Zillich of NPR’s 1A and Jim Sciutto of CNN to discuss this and more.

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Laura Barron-Lopez: Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Speaker Johnson's changing positions on hot-button wars abroad are causing rifts within their own party, as President Biden fights to salvage his foreign policy agenda.

Meanwhile, former President Trump suffers legal setbacks as the general election kicks off, next.

Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. I'm Laura Barron-Lopez in tonight for Jeffrey Goldberg.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a stinging rebuke of Israeli Leader Benjamin Netanyahu this week, calling him an obstacle to peace.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY): Prime Minister Netanyahu has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take the precedence over the best interests of Israel.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And House Speaker Mike Johnson insists he's still looking for a way to pass aid to Ukraine, even if it risks angering his far-right members, notable moves from both party leaders that could have far reaching implications for U.S. allies and America's standing as a global power.

Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, Scott Macfarlane is a Congressional correspondent for CBS News, Todd Zwillich is with 1A of NPR, and Jim Sciutto is an anchor and the chief national security analyst at CNN. He's also the author of The Return of Great Powers, Russia, China, and the Next World War.

Thank you all for being here tonight.

Jim, I want to start with you with Senator Schumer's blunt critique of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He blamed Netanyahu's actions for pushing support for Israel to the lowest that they've been historically. How significant is this shift and will it actually result in any policy change?

Jim Sciutto, Anchor and Chief National Security Analyst, CNN: First of all, it's hard to imagine the senior Democrat in the Senate did not do this in conjunction with the White House. And Schumer gives the Biden administration a way to communicate. In even starker terms, it's clear upset with the progress of the war in Gaza, the lack of sufficient humanitarian aid, et cetera.

This is a very public break, arguably the most public break in decades, at least, between U.S. and Israeli leadership at a critical time when Israel is at war. The irony is that despite even deep divisions in the Israeli public and, frankly, deep skepticism of Netanyahu, I mean, if he held the vote today, he would almost certainly lose.

Getting this kind of criticism from the outside, even from Israel's closest ally, to some degree, galvanizes his support or gives him a little bit of a lease on life because they don't like to hear that sort of criticism from outside the country while they're at war.

Laura Barron-Lopez: I mean, Zolan, it's no secret that President Biden is clearly frustrated with Netanyahu. Vice President Harris recently met with Netanyahu's top political rival, Benny Gantz, and today, President Biden said this in response to Schumer's speech.

Joe Biden, U.S. President: I'm not going to elaborate on the speech. He made a good speech, and I think he expressed a serious concern, shared not only by him, but by many Americans.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Zolan, is Schumer essentially saying what Biden won't in public?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House Correspondent, The New York Times: Well, sometimes I was just about to say what you don't say is just as important as what you do say, and there you don't see the president condemning Schumer's statements, criticizing it at all. That does say a lot.

Look, the president and the White House, their public statements, they know, have to be -- they're very sensitive about their public statements because you still have ongoing negotiations when it comes to a hostage release and a temporary ceasefire, and they don't want to do anything to take away from that.

That being said, we do know that as these comments are made, we have seen tensions increasingly raising when it comes to private calls with President Biden and that of Netanyahu. That goes towards Netanyahu not fully backing a potential two-state solution, not doing enough in the White House's view to lower a civilian death toll that's now at 30,000, as well as what we've seen recently with a potential military campaign in Rafah, where we know that many of the displaced Palestinians are at this point staying. So, tensions are definitely rising. And as these statements are made, it's reflective of an overall tense relationship.

Todd Zwillich, NPR: I also think you can't discount the importance of domestic consumption here.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Oh, absolutely.

Todd Zwillich: Of course, Israelis don't want to hear it from Americans. Republicans hate this statement. Joe Biden has a massive rift and a big problem on his progressive left. He's been looking all along for ways to show that he's not 100 percent full bore behind Netanyahu, even though, practically, he has been because of his support for Israel. And the importance, I think, much more than sending a message to the Israelis, which they can do through private channels, is domestic political consumption to Democrats and the Democratic base, to say, we hear you. We're not with this guy. Yes, we support Israel, but Netanyahu is not our guy.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: You know that's going to matter in Michigan as well.

Laura Barron-Lopez: It is.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: And we've seen that with the number of administration officials that have been deployed to Michigan to talk to pro-Palestine advocates.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And a number of those key swing states with Arab and Muslim voters, as well as young voters.

Scott, another U.S. ally that -- Ukraine has been in urgent need of ammunition, of aid. Speaker Johnson says that he intends to bring a bill to the floor with Ukraine aid. What are the chances that that actually reaches the president's desk any time soon?

Scott Macfarlane, Congressional Correspondent, CBS News: Ukraine aid, that was a job the White House wanted done in 2023. We are in mid-March and it's still not done. The speaker's office has said, told us today, in fact, that they're going to have to wait until government spending and funding is buttoned up next week before they can move on to foreign aid in Ukraine.

So there's another week that's going to burn by before next Friday's deadline. And they're going to have to pass it with Democratic votes too, which is such a novel thing that Congress is functioning now, needing the minority to provide all the requisite votes for all the vital things.

There are these two discharge petitions that end-run, they run to circumvent leadership and force something onto the floor. Those are sluggish right now. They're not going to move in the next few days. It's going to take time. And time is burning.

I think for some Americans, no matter what they think of TikTok, they got that bill from the floor to pass it in eight days, and Ukraine money is sitting there month after month.

Jim Sciutto: And Ukrainian forces are suffering. They are running out of ammunition, they are already being out-fired, out-shelled by Russian forces there. And I've been told by Ukrainian commanders that I keep in touch with who are on the ground there that they are losing lives, that this is costing Ukrainian lives to have U.S. aid stalled.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: I think it's so important to remind folks that these -- when we report on the daily sort of updates of congressional negotiations, there are lives at stake. I spent time recently with a Ukrainian family that's currently on parole, temporary refugee status, for lack of a better word. And they said that their relatives in Ukraine are calling them each morning to ask specifically about whether or not the U.S. will pass aid and whether or not they're closer, and it seems we are no closer at this point.

Laura Barron-Lopez: I mean, Todd, when the Senate passed Ukraine aid in May of 2022, only 11 Republicans opposed it. But a vote earlier this year, more than two dozen Republicans opposed it. What's changed?

Todd Zwillich: The House Republican Conference is MAGA land. The Congress is in this situation, not because of Congress writ large, but because of Republicans. Republicans are in this situation because Donald Trump is against this aid. He relied on Viktor Orban, authoritarian leader of Hungary, this week, to filter his message to the world that he is not going to spend a penny on Ukraine if he's re-elected.

And I think it's important to look at this holistically. We don't have time to go down the entire history of Donald Trump's relationship with Russia, but started in 2016, if you like, when he looked into the camera and asked Russia to interfere in the election on his behalf. They did.

2018, he went in front of the world in Helsinki and sided with Vladimir Putin instead of his own intelligence services. Russia interfered in 2020. Trump campaign officials, in fact, Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, gave private polling information to a Ukrainian-Russian agent named Konstantin Kilimnik. That is in the Senate Intelligence report.

I recount all this to give you the holistic vision of somebody who's running for president who has completely divided his party because he has upended decades and decades of pro-NATO, pro-Western, anti-Putin states.

Jim Sciutto: And it's not secret. I mean, he's made public statements praising Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. And I spoke to several of Trump's former senior advisers for the book. And they told me that in a second Trump term, Ukraine aid is done. It's finished. And that's just one piece of a larger reversal in U.S. policy.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Yes. And I do want to get to the stakes and what those former officials told you.

But, first, Jim, in your new book, which is out this week, which I have right here, you issue a warning. You say that we're in this post-cold war global order and that the U.S. is in a 1939 moment. Why do you say that?

Jim Sciutto: So, I'd been reporting on the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Russia for a number of years, written about it, and Russia and its -- our European partners. But when I was in Ukraine in February 2022, when the tanks started rolling across the border and the cruise missiles started falling on Ukrainian cities, it struck me that this was a clean break. Putin had already taken small pieces of Europe before, a piece of Georgia, two pieces of Ukraine, in 2014. But he was attempting to absorb the largest country in Europe by force of arms. And he had been telegraphing this for some time.

It didn't happen as quickly as he wanted, but he's still at it and has killed tens of thousands of people, including many civilians in that process. And that, to me, and I traveled around the world for this book from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, to Asia, and to others that I spoke with, is a challenge, not just to the U.S., but to the system we and our allies. And much of the word has relied on for 80 years since World War II, a general respect for the sovereignty of borders, open trade lanes, et cetera. He's challenging that.

And there's a parallel to 1939 in that we had a leader like that in 1939, went by the name of Adolf Hitler, who attempted the same thing. And you had many of the same -- you had appeasers at the time as well who said, well, if you give him a little piece, it will be fine. But I think Churchill's quote about an appeaser is someone who feeds the crocodile and hopes that it will be its last meal applies here. And when I ask world leaders, that same question, is this a 1939 moment, they put it in similar terms.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And --

Scott Macfarlane: The domestic political calendar isn't just November, though. I mean, we're in the heart now of congressional primary season, where your only threat in some of these Republican districts is a threat to your right, somebody to outflank you on the Trump side.

These are the people the speaker will have to go to to try to get votes for Ukraine aid right now. I think that this gets more perilous the further we get into 2024 because of those primaries.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And you think it could very well go beyond the election, Ukraine, that it may not pass before then?

Scott Macfarlane: The Congress is going to become more paralyzed as the year moves on, as if it wasn't paralyzed enough already. And I think the calendar works against this in every possible way.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: There was some hope as well in the White House, maybe around November, December, when the trade-off, when it was looking like it would be Ukraine aid, as well as much as money for the South China Sea, as well as for Israel, for border restrictions.

I talked to White House officials who were a little optimistic. Just maybe this month, I've been asking those same questions, and I get no articulation of a clear path forward for Ukraine aid.

Laura Barron-Lopez: I mean, how are they feeling inside the White House about the prospect?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Not good, not good at this point. They did move forward and thought that they actually proposed immigration restrictions that I know that Trump administration officials were telling me when President Trump was in office, that they wanted, they were calling for, raising credible fear, making it harder for asylum seekers. They thought that gave Republicans an olive branch with that. But when politics, you know, took over with the deal, they're not feeling good about the prospects for the Ukraine aid.

Todd Zwillich: You should be clear on Capitol Hill, too. It is 100 percent true that Speaker Johnson is searching for votes. He's going to have to use a lot of Democrats. It's usually a death knell for a speaker on a high-profile vote, but it's more than that.

Donald Trump's viceroys on Capitol Hill, Marjorie Taylor Greene, are directly threatening him. She said if -- it might have been ten days ago -- if this aid passes in any form, discharge petition, funny procedures that get around the speaker, any form, Mike Johnson, we will do to you what we did to Kevin McCarthy. That means you're done. That's the threat.

And so it's not just used to be with old speakers passing big bills with lots of the other party was really, really dangerous. It didn't make you a good general. Now, it is that times ten. And now it's if this passes, you join the ranks of other Republican speakers who have been out.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Especially if it passes with Democratic votes, which he said he may very well have to try it with that.

But, Jim, you also spoke to multiple former Trump officials for your book, including retired Marine General John Kelly, who was also former chief of staff to then-President Trump. And Kelly told you that a second Trump -- a second term with him, speaking about Trump, particularly when he would not be worrying about re-election, it would be fundamentally a catastrophe for us. What are the stakes of a second Trump term?

Jim Sciutto: Think of this. He served 40 years as a Marine general. He's a gold star father. This is a serious man who loves his country, and, by the way, largely a lifelong Republican saying Trump is unfit for office, fundamentally a catastrophe. That's remarkable appraisal to hear from a former chief of staff to a former U.S. president.

John Bolton told me, and, again, I'm quoting from him directly here, that Trump doesn't have enough of a brain, his words, to articulate a China policy. You couple that with former Vice President Pence saying today he cannot, in good conscience, endorse him.

These are people who worked with him for four years, advised him at the highest levels, were in the room with them as he was making consequential decisions about this country, and they judged that decision-making and his priorities to be fundamentally problematic for this country, it's remarkable. And I don't think there's any precedent for that.

So, when -- you know, those appraisals are not coming from journalists, they're not coming folks on the left or the Democratic Party or RINOs or whatever. They're coming for folks who served in the Trump administration. And we should take pause. We should pause.

John Kelly, by the way, also described to me multiple instances where Trump expressed praise for Adolf Hitler, which is just a remarkable thing to be discussing in the 21st century.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Right, praised Adolf Hitler, praised a number of other dictators.

Jim Sciutto: Putin, Kim, Xi Jinping, you name it.

Laura Barron-Lopez: I do want to get to the number of developments that we saw this week across the Trump's criminal cases. And so, first, Scott, in the case against Trump for his handling of the classified documents, Judge Aileen Cannon denied his motion to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the Espionage Act was too vague. But this case isn't headed for trial any time soon, is it?

Scott Macfarlane: There's four different cases, four different sets of allegations. One thing is consistent. The clock is ticking in all of them and they don't seem to be getting anywhere. So, the time is being stretched, which is the M.O. of a Trump legal team, and has been for years.

In the Aileen Cannon, Fort Pierce, Florida, classified documents case, the readout from the room was, this all could have been an email. We didn't have to have a hearing about this. These arguments were profoundly flawed. We did not have to go through the process of scheduling and staging a hearing. This could have been expedited.

And in all these cases, you can hear, you could hear the voices, if you listen close enough, of Trump opponents saying, we can move this all more swiftly, but they really can't. I mean, the legal system is made to be judicious, it is made be deliberate, and because these case were all unveiled so close to the election, the prosecutors left themselves vulnerable to this, to the clock ticking toward November.

Laura Barron-Lopez: In the case of the classified documents, though, I mean, isn't it true, some legal experts have told me that Judge Cannon could have just dismissed this motion almost immediately.

Scott Macfarlane: You've never seen a docket as clogged as that case in Florida. The number of entries, the number filings, it is herculean and it's just getting started.

Jim Sciutto: Well, the issue was the Espionage Act, right? And even she who, at other times, I'm sure we've talked to lawyers with similar opinions on this case, someone who's cut a lot of brakes for Trump could not make the leap to say that, in effect, the Espionage Act, which has been the law of this land for many decades, does not apply here.

Now, she's left open the window for that to be a case to be argued or an issue to be argued later in the case, but even she could not say, you know what, forget about that.

Todd Zwillich: The one thing, though, that prosecutors are trying to hang over Judge Cannon's head here as she takes a lot of time to rule on a lot emotions and schedule hearings, sometimes when she doesn't have to, is the 11th Circuit. The special counsel has already made clear in filings, you might want to reverse this decision over here where you missed the law or this decision here, because we've got the 11th Circuit where we can appeal to.

She's already been reversed by the 11th Circuit twice, very early in this case, back when the search on Mar-a-Lago, when the search warrants happened. Far be it for me to say that that was embarrassing, but if you ask a judge about the ruling that came from the 11th Circuit, reversing her summarily on both of those decisions, it's not something that a district court judge wants to happen again.

Scott Macfarlane: It was unequivocal, it was emphatic.

Todd Zwillich: It was a bench slap, as they call it, in legal circles. That's what it is. It was hardcore, and the special counsel has made clear, we will go back to the 11th Circuit judge if you don't get with the law, especially on a couple of motions that have been out there.

Laura Barron-Lopez: The other thing that happened was an Atlanta judge rejected Trump's motion today to disqualify District Attorney Fani Willis. That's in the Georgia case that has been brought against him for his attempts to overturn Georgia's election -- presidential election in 2020.

And so, Todd, what's the big takeaway here from that development?

Todd Zwillich:  Well, Fani Willis can continue on the case. That was the question. Most of experts that I talked to all along never thought that there was sufficient evidence to disqualify her based on her relationship with another prosecutor on that case, Nathan Wade, that it wasn't enough of a conflict of interest that would have disqualified her.

That doesn't mean it was good judgment. That does not mean that it is a good look. And that doesn't mean that there hasn't been political damage here. So, Nathan Wade, who is the other prosecutor in question, has stepped aside now. That means the Fani Willis and the Fulton County D.A.'s Office, writ large, can stay on the case.

But if the goal here from the defendants who brought this motion to disqualify her was, sure, get her disqualified if you can, but also get here in front of the public, to get her out in front of potential jurors in Fulton County, dirty her up, drag her through the mud, make questionable pictures of her behavior and her judgment, well, the damage is done. That's a good thing.

Now, this trial may not take place for months. It probably won't. May or may it not place before the election. This is a sprawling indictment. It's a conspiracy RICO case. There are still 14 defendants plus Trump. It is massive. But if the goal here, delaying, number one, number two, dirty up the prosecutors and anyone who opposes us, they probably --

Jim Sciutto: It's also the case with the most tactile piece of evidence, arguably of Trump's attempts to overturn the election, a recorded phone call of Trump to state election officials saying, find the votes to overturn the election. And for weeks, there's been almost no discussion of that piece of evidence as it relates to this case. It's about a relationship and how it affects the prosecution. And that, in itself, is a loss, right, in the court of public opinion.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: And important to say here, the judge also in this decision did say there was no -- they did not find evidence of a conflict of interest as well. But to your point, in terms of having a distraction hang over this case, that's going to matter here, you know, especially if you're the Trump campaign. Something to point to, to basically continue the rhetoric around the fact that this is, a quote/unquote, witch hunt against you, which we know he's trying to. He is using these courtrooms almost as a way to galvanize his base.

Laura Barron-Lopez: For his campaign. Scott, I mean, how do you see what we saw this week, whether Fani Willis being able to carry on in prosecuting the case in Georgia, the classified documents development, as well as now this delay in the New York hush money case, does that also impact the federal Jack Smith special counsel case into the January 6th insurrection?

Scott Macfarlane: It frees up the schedule if they want to put that thing back on the calendar.

I still argue that case is just different. That's the one that resonates most with Americans because that's the case they kind of watched on live television. They watched the efforts to overturn the 2020 election. They watched the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

And there is something cathartic for Americans and the victims among Capitol Police and congressional staff to just see a trial. Put the outcome aside, to see a trial for what everybody watched on T.V. is just a little bit different than the other three cases. I think it's one with which Americans are most viscerally connected. All of this is now in the hands of the Supreme Court, April 25th. They'll decide, they'll hear oral arguments.

Jim Sciutto:  They'll hear it. We don't know when they will decide.

Todd Zwillich: When will they decide is the question. They've given themselves a lot of time.

Scott Macfarlane: And the real estate is shrinking. I mean, if they take a month or two to come up with that ruling, the judge in the case, Judge Tanya Chutkan, has pledged she's going to give the parties a few more months to get ready for trial because her clock has been halted.

All of this gets right into September and October, and you have to ask yourself, is it really tenable to have that trial literally days before potentially breaching Election Day.

Laura Barron-Lopez: But what's striking is that we may very well reach November. And, I mean, will any of these cases have gone to trial?

Todd Zwillich: It looks like -- I say, looks like. Don't predict that any these trials will have got off on time. It still looks the hush money, election interference, Stormy Daniels case in Manhattan likely will go forward before the trial.

So, today we got a delay because new documents came in from the Southern District of New York into -- right into this trial at a very late stage. People are still trying to figure out where these documents were a year ago, two years ago when the prosecutors in Manhattan first asked for them. But at any rate, they're here. Now, everybody needs time to read them. You can't just drop evidence into a case and go to trial.

So, a 30-day delay from the trial date, a 30-day -- pardon me --30-day delay from today, which is 20 days from on the trial date, that's the delay. That puts us into April. Judge Merchan will evaluate it then. But they were getting pretty close to going to trial.

And he has been intent on not allowing too much delay, he swatted away a lot of Trump lawyer attempts to dismiss, delay, sideline this trial, I think there's still a good chance that that trial, which is about a lot more than a hush money payment to an adult film star, that case is a about election interference. It's about a candidate hiding disparaging information about himself through illegal means to hide that information from the American public. That's what the case is about. I think there's still a good chance it will go.

Jim Sciutto: Two elections ago, by the way.

Todd Zwillich: That is right, 2016.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Jim, in the time that we have left, I mean, the political ramifications of this. Some voters have said they wouldn't vote for Trump if he is convicted. That's if we see a conviction. What do you see as the ramifications?

Jim Sciutto: Listen, you're right that the New York trial is most likely to happen prior to the election, but also the one most easily portrayed as a New York blue state D.A., right, on a less central and more distant alleged crime than the worst one. I mean, let's be frank, the worst alleged one which was attempting to overturn an election in all the events of January 6th.

Listen, there's a lot of blame to go around here as to why we haven't gotten to that point earlier, including the attorney general's decisions, when to appoint the special counsel, how quickly they moved, et cetera. But those are the cards we're dealt with. The American people have a lot of the evidence at least before them before they vote, and it's going to be up to them to make a decision.

Fundamentally, that's the most likely outcome, that the decision will come in the ballot box as opposed to in the courtroom.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Well, we'll have to leave it there for now, unfortunately. But thanks to all of our panelists for joining us and sharing your reporting.

For more on the former president's controversial legal strategies, be sure to check out theatlantic.com.

And on "PBS NEWS WEEKEND" tomorrow, after a string of fatal crashes, a look at the safety and reliability of helicopters. I'm Laura Barron-Lopez. Good night from Washington.

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