ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me around the table, Shawna Thomas of VICE News, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Anne Gearan of The Washington Post, and Michael Crowley of POLITICO.
In the early days of the Trump administration President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, leveraged his role as Trump’s attorney into a lucrative consulting business. Cohen sold himself as a Trump insider who could help negotiate the administration’s views on key issues. Cohen had deals with the telecommunications company AT&T, pharmaceutical company Novartis, and also had a deal with a company linked to a Russian oligarch. Cohen was never registered as a lobbyist. AT&T and Novartis CEOs have both apologized for what they are calling a mistake.
Peter, Cohen in the news, every day we seem to learn more about his business relationships. How much of a burden is this for the White House as they look on?
PETER BAKER: Well, this is why you heard a few weeks ago that the White House is more concerned about Cohen and this investigation in the Southern District of New York than they are about the Russia probe by Bob Mueller for the moment. Now, that may be a short-term dynamic on their part, but there are so many different tentacles to this thing and so many things that haven’t come out yet that seem very – at the very least threatening to the president, if not necessarily directly implicating him in anything.
MR. COSTA: What were the companies paying for with Cohen? Was it access to the president? Was it just to try to have an in with an administration that was led by an outsider?
SHAWNA THOMAS: Well, what they basically said was – I think Novartis said they were interested in trying to understand the Trump administration and their positions on pharmaceuticals as well as health care. AT&T also said something along the lines of trying to understand the Trump administration. So it looks like what they were paying for was someone who knew President Trump, and Michael Cohen knows President Trump. Whether that’s lobbying or not, that gets into a whole other thing. But basically they wanted some I would think direct path to President Trump.
MR. COSTA: How different is this? Every administration has lobbyists trying to build relationships inside of the White House, inside of Congress. Is just this run of the – is this run-of-the-mill lobbying, Michael, or is – because of Cohen, his close relationship with the president, does it ring different?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: I think it rings different. I know that there’s a debate about this and people are trying – there are some people who have been arguing that, look, let’s not be naive about how Washington influence peddling works. But there’s the close relationship with the president. There is the – let me say the alleged criminality surrounding Michael Cohen, which has many tentacles to it. So it just makes everything associated with him, I think, feel a little different. There’s also the fact that this money was coming into an account that was also used for the settlement with Stormy Daniels. Some of that money appears linked – is linked to a prominent Russian oligarch. So, you know, I was sort of calling it the big bang, that you had finally the Stormy Daniels storyline and the – and the Russian storyline colliding, and you kind of start to imagine, like, there’s a theory of everything in there, maybe not. But I think that that supercharges it also.
And also brings in this new dynamic to the sort of Russia/Stormy scandals, which is, you know, drain the swamp. You know, what did that – what did that really mean when Donald Trump took office? And actually, there seem to be a lot of examples, sort of mini-Cohens, around Trump, people who are just having money pouring in because of their access to the president. So it’s really bad on a lot of levels.
MS. THOMAS: I also thought it was kind of interesting that we knew that Mueller’s team had sort of given the Cohen investigation over to Rod Rosenstein and said maybe the Southern District of New York should do this and not us, and I think we all thought it was because it wasn’t in his purview. But then with the documents that Michael Avenatti, who is Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, released, we still found ourselves back to Russian oligarchs, which I found to be interesting just in that it seems like Mueller has tried to – Bob Mueller, the special counsel – is trying to sort of spread the wealth of the investigation in a certain way.
MR. BAKER: Or delegate. Well, the fact is – yeah.
ANNE GEARAN: Well, it’s also that that’s protection, right?
MS. THOMAS: Yeah, for the investigation in general.
MS. GEARAN: Yeah, right. That’s right, yeah.
MS. THOMAS: So that was one of the things that sort of surprised me.
MR. CROWLEY: I think they call that a dead hand, you know, so that a key – it lives on even if he gets fired, yeah.
MR. BAKER: Right. Well, but also, look, as he – it doesn’t mean he’s not being investigated by Mueller, right? Mueller investigates, finds Russia things he’s interested in, finds other things along the way that are not directly related, passes those particular parts off to the Southern District of New York. But that doesn’t mean –
MS. THOMAS: That has more resources than Mueller does.
MR. BAKER: Right, exactly.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of Mueller, does the president actually sit down with him, Anne? Rudy Giuliani is now his lead personal lawyer. They continue to kind of hedge on whether they’re going to actually do an interview.
MS. GEARAN: I – my gut for a long time has been no. I mean, I just – in the end, I don’t see how he himself will think it’s a good idea, and certainly almost all of his lawyers will tell him it’s not a good idea. Another question there, though, is will Mueller accept some approximation of an interview?
MR. COSTA: Or will he issue a subpoena?
MS. GEARAN: Or will he issue a subpoena.
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s a very interesting thing. So the history on this is that Ken Starr issued a subpoena to Bill Clinton in the impeachment case of 1998. The Clinton people believed there was no way to fight it in court because the Nixon case made very clear that executive privilege didn’t apply, in their view. And so they negotiated with Starr to lift the subpoena and agree voluntarily to have testimony on conditions that they set – only four hours, in the White House, not at the courthouse, and so on. Trump’s people are trying to say, no, we think we can challenge this in court. We think that a president cannot be subpoenaed. And we can win all the way to the Supreme Court. That would be a big, big constitutional question.
MR. COSTA: If Peter sounds like an expert in this – (laughter) – it’s because he’s actually written a book on it called The Breach, a great book about the whole Clinton impeachment process.
MR. BAKER: I’m feeling deja vu here.
MR. COSTA: Deja vu. But you remember the facts. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: Well, Peter wrote a book on impeachment and a book on Putin. And never did he imagine, I think, that one day they might – (laughter) –
MS. THOMAS: All together.
MR. CROWLEY: So there may be a third book.
MR. BAKER: So true.
MR. COSTA: I can’t wait for the next one.
Moving to Capitol Hill, Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, was on the Hill this week for confirmation hearings. A career CIA employee, Haspel has spent 33 years at the agency, most of that working on – in the intelligence in different operations around the world. Very little was known about her background, except the fact that she oversaw a detention facility in Thailand, where a high-level al-Qaida suspect was famously waterboarded three times during her watch. While on the campaign trail, President Trump advocated, as you remember, waterboarding and the use of torture. And Haspel was asked during her testimony if she would restart the program.
GINA HASPEL (nominee to be CIA director): (From video.) I want to be clear. Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment clearly and without reservation that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program.
MR. COSTA: Senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture, said in a tweet that Haspel’s involvement with enhanced interrogation disqualifies her nomination. Where does it stand on Capitol Hill?
MR. BAKER: Well, despite John McCain’s tweet there, it looks like she probably does have the votes. The committee will vote next week. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, has said he’ll support her. Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham, both of them are friends of John McCain, said they’ll support her. So she’ll probably get through with a, you know, Mike Pompeo-like vote of in the mid-50s.
MR. COSTA: So, strong confirmation hearings. It was only about a week ago there was talk that maybe Haspel would withdraw her nomination because there didn’t seem to be sufficient support.
MS. THOMAS: Yeah, but it seems like the White House was able to buck her up a little bit. They finally sort of started to take her to people’s offices. We saw a little bit of that at the beginning of this week and the end of last week. And she got through. I don’t think we learned – I don’t think we had the conversation in this country that we sort of maybe kind of thought we were going to have in that confirmation hearing, which was a much more intense conversation about what does America stand for, and what constitutes torture. But she answered the questions, I think, in a way that was very similar to, if you look back at John Brennan’s transcript from his confirmation hearing, saying waterboarding is bad. We’ll never do that again. Not calling it torture because that has implications that are legal. And then just trying to move on from that question.
MR. CROWLEY: You know, what I’m struck in all this is that it’s a reminder that for all the china that President Donald Trump has been breaking, and all the norms he’s violating, the outrageous comments, one thing that you haven’t seen is a return to the rhetoric from the campaign in which he talked about torturing terrorist suspects, executing their entire families. That is really, you know, one of the few ledges that Trump, I think, seems to have been talked down from. Seems like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played a really important role in that. And he respects Mattis a lot. Doesn’t respect Mattis enough to stick with the Iran nuclear deal. So there are important exceptions.
So one thing that’s interesting about the context here is you don’t have a president who is sending signals from the Oval Office that this is actually something that he wants. Now, I think we still have to consider it a possibility, because Trump is Trump and he is unpredictable. But it’s worth pointing out a dog in this case that is not barking.
MR. COSTA: When you think about Haspel, part of the reason she was nominated, Anne, was because she’s close with Secretary of State Pompeo while he was director of the CIA. Does her nomination reflect his power within the administration?
MS. GEARAN: Yes. I think on two fronts. It reflects the power that he could make a recommendation or – of a career person who the administration, the White House, would accept. And, he clearly is still going to be partly in charge, from – you know, from down the street.
MR. COSTA: You think so?
MS. GEARAN: Oh, I think so. I mean – yeah.
MR. BAKER: And it blocks out a rival. Tom Cotton, who at one point had been seen as a possible CIA director, like Mike Pompeo, strong figure, would have strong say in some of these national security conversations. Also like Mike Pompeo may want to run for president someday.
MS. GEARAN: And also was interested in being secretary of state.
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MS. GEARAN: Now he’s going to be sitting in the Senate.
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ll keep an eye on Haspel, a previously unknown figure now at the center of everything here in Washington.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.