Full Episode: Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 5/31/24

May. 31, 2024 AT 8:57 p.m. EDT

For the first time in American history, a former president, who is also his party’s presumptive nominee for president, has been found guilty in a felony criminal trial. Join moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Ashley Parker of The Washington Post, Asma Khalid of NPR and McKay Coppins of The Atlantic to discuss this and more.

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Jeffrey Goldberg: We try not to use the word unprecedented on this show when talking about the 45th president, but here we are. For the first time in American history, a former president, who was once again his party's presumptive nominee, has been found guilty in a felony criminal trial.

Will the next president of the United States of America be a person convicted of hiding hush money payments to a porn star? Will the Republican nominee for president go to prison? And will any of this even matter come November? Next.

Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. Donald Trump isn't a convicted felon yet. Sorry to be pedantic here, but he technically acquires that status only at sentencing come July 11th. But a New York jury has spoken, finding him guilty of engaging in a financial scheme to keep the porn star, Stormy Daniels, quiet about their sexual encounter, one that occurred shortly after Trump's wife gave birth to their son. Trump, in addition to this guilty verdict, was recently found liable for sexual abuse in a civil case. In total, more than 25 women have accused him of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The reaction of the Republican Party leaders to the verdict was to rally around Trump. Evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, also doubled down on their support. Graham, writing on X, said, what we saw today has never happened before, and I think for the majority of Americans, it raises questions about whether our legal system can be trusted.

Joining me tonight to discuss the fallout and the consequences of this historic verdict, Peter Baker, the chief White House reporter for The New York Times, Ashley Parker, senior national political correspondent for The Washington Post, Asma Khalid, White House correspondent for NPR, and my colleague and staff writer at The Atlantic, McKay Coppins. Thank you all for joining me. It's been the sort of week that you never would have imagined earlier in your journalism careers. You'd never, you'd never see, but here we are.

Peter, without using the word, unprecedented, we've talked about this in the past, right?

Ashley Parker, Senior National Political Correspondent, The Washington Post: He can't do it. He's incapable.

Jeffrey Goldberg: No. no. It's, it's hard. It's banned. It's hard not to. We've never had this before. But without -- try to not use the word, unprecedented, describe the meaning of the events of the past couple of days.

Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent, The New York Times: Yes. You know, wouldn't you think history is kind of getting a little tired at this point, like we keep making so much of it in these last five years, it's almost become normalized. And that's the thing, right? We have almost forgotten how extraordinary this is because we move immediately from the notion that a president, a former president of the United States has been convicted on 34 felonies.

To the next question is, oh, what does it mean for his campaign? How about fundraising? And look at these statements of support from his backers. And what is the president, President Biden, saying about it? We don't stop and take a breath and say, wow, this is extraordinary.

Now, for many people, not probably a majority, sorry, Reverend Graham, but for many people, it will raise questions about the legitimacy of the system. For others, it's going to be, though, a validation of it. Finally, there is a sense of a rule of law, that even the most powerful person in our democracy can be held account if they commit crimes.

And so the question, of course, is which side of that lens are you on, because we're seeing it like a Rorschach test.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. Ashley, I want to watch with the panel a little passage of Trump's very unusual press conference today. Let's just play that.

Donald Trump (R), Former U.S. President, 2024 Presidential Candidate: You saw what happened to some of the witnesses that were on our side. They were literally crucified by this man who looks like an angel, but he's really a devil. He looked so nice and soft. When we wanted to do things, he wouldn't let him -- he wouldn't let us do those things. But when the government wanted something, they got everything. They got everything they wanted. It's a rigged -- it was a rigged trial.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Obviously, knowing my personality, I would like to dwell on the use of the word, literally, because if there was literally a crucifixion in Manhattan and we missed it, shame on us, obviously. But let's go to the -- I want to ask you a technical question first. I mean, the trial is over, so Trump is not bound by the gag order anymore, right? He can say whatever he wants.

Peter Baker: He knows. The gag order is still in place.

Ashley Parker: Yes, I think he is.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Ashley Parker: And he is still bound by it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: He's still bound. He's still bound. So, talk about that moment today in the context of going before this judge in a month-and-a-half to be sentenced. Explain this behavior.

Ashley Parker: Right, well, my understanding is one of the things that this judge or any judge would consider when they're doing the sentencing just basically four days before the Republican National Convention is set to begin is if the defendant, if the person who's convicted has shown any remorse or contrition. And, obviously, that's not what we're seeing here.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Asma, do you think that Trump is going to go to jail?

Asma Khalid, White House Correspondent, NPR: I don't know that I would say that with certainty. I think a lot of folks would say that there's not an expectation that he will necessarily actually go to jail. There are other possible consequences.

But I think regardless of whether or not he goes to jail, I think that there are certainly political consequences. He's going to be sentenced four days before the Republican convention, and I really do want to. Sit with that for a moment. You are going to see the likely Republican presidential nominee be a convicted felon when his name is on the ballot come November.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Peter, go back to this question of what could happen. I mean, and there's going to be more and more speculation. On the one hand, this is a class E felony in New York State. It's the lowest seriousness. He's a nonviolent offender, first time offender, 77 years old. Putting everything else aside, it doesn't seem likely that he's going to go to prison.

Peter Baker: Well, especially if you consider recidivism, how often is he going to be sleeping with a porn star and hiding it again? We don't know. But the truth is, you're right, there are a lot of factors that would mitigate against a prison term. However, I think Ashley's right. I think that he has violated the gag order so many times, he's not showing remorse, he's not taking responsibility for his actions. In fact, he's doing the opposite. And that would, in fact, naturally make a judge more willing to consider something that -- including some prison time.

Now, is he going to serve that before the election? No, there's going to be appeals and that will take forever. And we know that he will get through November almost certainly without having to put on a jumpsuit. Apparently it's not an orange jumpsuit in New York, I read today. But --

Jeffrey Goldberg: the things you learn these days.

Peter Baker: Yes, right. But it could be a question after the election if he were to win, right, because he cannot pardon himself. It's a state crime, not a federal crime. What does that mean? The Supreme Court would almost certainly have to decide what would happen. If he doesn't win, then he does face actual, you know, possible punishment.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the only way to be pardoned would be to have a Republican governor, presumably, of New York State. And that's not a very likely scenario in the near future.

McKay, I want to talk to you about something I mentioned at the top of the show. This is probably the least important, in fact, in terms of national consequence of the four cases that have been brought against Donald Trump, but it's certainly the nastiest, I mean, that's the sort of the skankiest, let's just say, not a word one hears on PBS that often, but so be it.

McKay Coppins, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: The legal term.

Jeffrey Goldberg: That's the legal -- I don't want to get too technical, but it's a, it's a nasty, sleazy business. And, you know, Peter and I, at least, are old enough to remember the 1990s, not like you young people, when Bill Clinton was president and Republicans were outraged and many other people were legitimately outraged that the president of the United States was having sexual relations with a White House intern. Explain to us, if you can, the different dynamics here, the party of family values.

McKay Coppins: Well, Donald Trump has fundamentally changed the way the Republican party, the conservative movement, think about morality and public leadership. Something that I always think about when issues like this come up is that before Donald Trump came on the scene, I can't remember, it was 2013, 2014, if you surveyed Republican voters and asked them how important is public -- it is personal morality in an elected leader to you. Something like two-thirds of them would say it's very important, that I would rather have somebody of high moral character than somebody with policies I agree with. A couple years into the Trump presidency, that had flipped and it was only a third of voters said that that was the case, if you were a Republican.

And it just shows kind of the sea change in evangelical ethics and social conservative ethics. I think a lot of conservatives now, because of negative partisanship and polarization and all these forces that political scientists like to talk about, they want to, you know, line up with their team right? They want to be with their guy, and then they kind of create a moral architecture around being able to do that. And so when you have a case like this, where Donald Trump has engaged in some pretty nasty behavior, skinky behavior as you might say --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, you don't have to keep hitting the word, but all right, go ahead.

McKay Coppins: But, you know, cheated on his wife with a porn star, and then, you know, is now been convicted of committing fraud to cover it up, you know, almost a cliche to say if a Democrat had done that, we know what we would be hearing from social conservatives and evangelicals, but they want Donald Trump to be elected. And so they are pivoting away from the specifics of the case and the underlying facts of the case to this is a rigged system, this is a legal persecution, Donald Trump is a victim, and we need to back him because they're going to come after us next.

Peter Baker: To be clear, it does go beyond just skankiness, though. I mean, you know, the argument is --

Ashley Parker: Should everyone just drink every time we say, skankiness?

Jeffrey Goldberg: Everybody at home, just drink, because we're just going to keep hitting.

Peter Baker: But the argument is that he was trying to cheat an election, right, that this is not just about covering up bad behavior, but that he was trying to influence an election in an illegal way.

Ashley Parker: But going back to McKay's point, I have to say the teams of everyone just retrenching to their teams was still so striking to me. In every statement that came out, you almost didn't have to read that, right? You just had to know if it was a D or an R to know, right? Like Whole Foods around America, the shoppers were erupting in cheers when they heard the verdict, right? Every Republican member had the same line as Trump. And the one person I can think of off the top of my head, Larry Hogan, who released -- who didn't even take a stance was just said, like, I think we should respect the rule of law immediately.

Chris LaCivita, you know, top person of the Trump campaign was like, well, your career is over. It's not necessarily true. He's running in very blue Maryland. But it was just telling that that was the --

McKay Coppins: That this is the litmus test, right.

Ashley Parker: Yes, that that was the reaction.

Jeffrey Goldberg: This is the red line.

Ashley Parker: Yes, exactly.

Asma Khalid: I mean, it was actually in part, because I think at the very top, you've seen Trump say that this was rigged and then you heard President Biden come out today and specifically say that you ought to respect the rule of law. And so just saying that you respect the rule of law has become in itself a partisan position, right?

Jeffrey Goldberg: Let's actually, let's actually listen to what President Biden said today. This is one of the first times -- probably the first time he's commented on this trial. He's been very disciplined about not -- talking about not interfering in any way. Let's listen to this for a second.

Joe Biden, U.S. President: After careful deliberation, the jury reached a unanimous verdict. They found Donald Trump guilty on all 34 felony counts. It's reckless, it's dangerous, it's irresponsible for anyone to say this was rigged just because they don't like the verdict. Our justice system has endured for nearly 250 years and it literally is the cornerstone of America.

Jeffrey Goldberg: But not the cornerstone for everyone in America, apparently. So, my question, Ashley, jumping off something McKay said, who among people predisposed to support Trump is going to say, you know what, now that he's a convicted felon, or technically a convicted felon, I can't do this anymore? Is there anybody who's going to abandon ship, the voters?

Ashley Parker: Of predisposed --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Predisposed, yes.

Ashley Parker: Probably not. I mean, one question I have, and it's too soon to know the answer to, but if you go back several months, there were some polls when this outcome was a mere hypothetical. And voters were asked, would your opinion change if Trump was a convicted felon? It was also a debate question. It's worth noting most Republicans said no, of course not, I'd still support him.

But there were some voters who said, and, again, I don't know that they were totally predisposed to support it, but said, yes, that would influence my decision. I mean, it will be fascinating to go back to those people and see if it actually makes a difference.

Another thing I'll just say, which is a little different. I was in Wisconsin last week talking to a ton of voters. I talked to more than 60 voters just about the election, in general. Not a single one unprompted brought up the trial in any way, shape or form. These were voters who, like much of the country, don't really like either option, right, and there were a number of reasons they gave for not liking either option. For Trump, the trial did not come up once.

And it will be fascinating to see if now, when you talk to them, if it's top of mind and if it influences how they're thinking.

Asma Khalid: If I could echo one thing on the poll to plug NPR, PBS NewsHour, Marist poll, that came out just the morning that the verdict came out, what was interesting is they found a majority of voters said they would not be swayed by the results of the verdict, guilty or not. But I think it was one in six. So, you're talking about, what, 17 percent said that they would be less likely.

And to me, that was striking because, you know, elections are won on the margins. Georgia, what was it? About 12, 000 votes by the one, Wisconsin, 20, 000 votes. So, you don't need a whole lot of voters to be swayed.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Asma Khalid: And it arguably is a net benefit, I would say, for Bide.

McKay Coppins: And I do think it's worth noting how many Americans, to Ashley's point, are not paying attention to this trial, or have not up to now. But I do wonder if that's changed now that he's been found guilty, right? That is an unprecedented thing that's happened. That's a big news event, and I can see voters who are not interested in following a Trump trial, who are not even following the election that closely. But then hearing that, that might puncture their kind of information bubble and it could change that.

Peter Baker: And it is because we have nothing to compare it to, right? So, we have no history to look back on and, say, well, this is what happened when so and so got convicted of skanking crimes, right? We don't have any of this. So, we don't know the answer to that. But I think you're right.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Huge porn scandal in the Buchanan administration that you're all forgetting.

Asma, come back to the -- as a White House correspondent, I'm particularly curious to hear you on this. How does the Biden campaign go -- what do they do with this to take advantage, political advantage of? And you're all right, by the way, like we have done that thing that everybody is doing. We're moving away from the moral and the theological and the constitutional right to the race. But --

Asma Khalid: But we are, what, like six months away from a presidential election.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Less, yes.

Asma Khalid: It's a totally valid question, I think, given where we are.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, here's the -- how do you take advantage of the fact that you're running against a convicted felon?

Asma Khalid: I think it's been a very big challenge. I mean, so what we've seen from the Biden campaign, I would say, in the couple of days is this -- you know, you saw them refer to Trump as a convicted felon. But what they've tried to do, and I think this is what you're going to continue to see the White House try to do is make this a contest about democracy. It is something that they thought was effective for them in 2020.

Now, I would argue that Biden is fighting a very different fight than he was fighting in 2020 and the circumstances are very different for a whole bunch of reasons, whether it's immigration, inflation, the war, there are many other factors, but I would say they feel that the fight for democracy is to their advantage, and that that this is part of that broader fight for democracy, because they say that Trump is a threat to democracy.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. McKay, you are an expert on, among other things, Republican, let's call them dissidents at this point. You're the biographer, the Boswell of Mitt Romney. He's a man who insists -- I'm just going to throw out words. You've written a great book about Mitt Romney, who is probably along with Liz Cheney, dissonant number one or two, right? They're not -- it's not a huge list, obviously, but you listen to them and you talk to them all the time. What is their analysis of the Republican base, both in terms of the morality issue and the constitutional issues, the democracy issues?

McKay Coppins: You know, and I talked to Mitt Romney, something that he would bring up a lot is that Trump's superpower is his ability to become an avatar for these people who are really nothing like him, right? But part of what made him so successful in 2016 was convincing them that the establishment disdain for him was the same thing as the establishment disdain for them.

And I think that the thing that Trump is going to try to pull off here, and he's been driving this message for years now, but certainly throughout this trial is to say you know, if they can do this to me, they can do it to any of you. On its face, that's kind of a ludicrous argument because, of course, this particulars of what got Trump into this mess are not something that an ordinary Trump voter would ever be in.

But, you know, talking to Mitt Romney, talking to Republicans of his ilk, they kind of almost have like a grim admiration for the stranglehold Trump has on his base in the sense that like Romney would always say, you know, Trump says something every day that if I had said in 2012, it would have been the end of my political career, right? But it doesn't matter because the base feels this emotional connection to him that, frankly, people like Mitt Romney never had with the base.

Asma Khalid: But isn't that a cult of personality that inevitably sort of dies with the personality? Like how is that a sustaining political vision?

McKay Coppins: I don't know that it is, but I do think that as long as Donald Trump is the dominant figure in Republican politics, we're kind of trapped in this cycle.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Peter, let's talk about the way this is going. Looks to the rest of the world. And there are things happening and the world is in a very perilous state in Middle East, Ukraine, et cetera, questions about the future of American engagement in Asia and Europe. What does this signal? There are a lot of people who think that this shows, oh look, we hold our leaders accountable. There are a lot of other people who would say, makes us look like a banana republic or whatever pejorative term you would use for a non-democracy.

Peter Baker: Yes, I mean that's, of course, what the argument is going to be. The Trump folks are going to say, this is just about victor's justice, right? This is just about the next person coming in convicting the last one. And, by the way, Biden, you ought to watch out because you're setting a precedent. When we get back in, we're going after you.

Ironically, of course, ironically, but notably, Trump is promising to do what he accuses, without any evidence, Biden of doing, which is, he says he's going to use the justice system to punish his foes. That is definitely something a lot of the world would recognize.

But it's not unheard of for advanced democracies to hold their former leaders accountable in a criminal setting, France, Israel, Italy, plenty of the biggest, most important and most respected democracy in the world have convicted their former leaders of crimes when they had evidence of that.

And so a lot of people will say, I think, Jeff you're right, that this is America cleaning its own house in some ways, that it will not, in fact, defer to somebody simply because he has a stranglehold on party electorate.

Ashley Parker: And there's also the question pushing it forward to Election Day, which is because there's nothing that prevents a convicted felon from running for office for serving, right? We've now learned that I believe you can serve from prison, potentially, like a fact I didn't know. But the question of what it says if Americans go to the polls and affirmatively choose a convicted felon to return to office. That also says something about our country and our values.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You know what it says about our country? This wasn't written into the Constitution because no one imagined when the Constitution was being written that anyone who is a convicted felon --

Ashley Parker: That there was a need for this.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. I mean, you also -- it's beyond the imagination of the founders and framers. Not to be too depressing about it, but it does show a kind of devolution in our --

Peter Baker: Some of the founders did actually imagine this, though, just to play devil's advocate. Because they actually did write in the Constitution that if you are impeached as president, you can still be tried and convicted afterwards, which is ironically an issue the Supreme Court is now taking up. But there were also founders who said, if you have a criminal in the presidency, which is what we may have come next January, then we are risking -- it was turning us to the king that we had when we threw him overboard in the American Revolution.

There were people who considered this and were worried about it, but they never came up with a real solution.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Peter, 25 seconds, what does it mean if a convicted felon wins the presidency of the United States for our democracy?

Peter Baker: Well, I think it says that our democracy is very torn about what that means, right? Because it means that at least half the country or something like half the country will believe the system doesn't work and that he's not a convicted felon worthy of approbation, worthy of holding and disrepute. And the other half is going to say, what is up with this? How can we have a criminal, right, what is up with this in the Oval Office? That's --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Next week's subject, democracy, what is up with this?

Unfortunately, we do need to leave it there for now. I want to thank our panelists for joining us, and thanks to all of you for watching.

Before we go, we want to thank our longtime lighting director, Charlie Ide, for his 43 years of incredible work here at Washington Week and WIDA. Charlie, we wish you all the best in your well earned retirement.

I'm Jeffrey Goldberg. Good night from Washington.


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