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, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and Jon Decker of Fox News Radio.
California and New York are now suing President Trump over a new question on the upcoming 2020 Census. Are you a citizen, it asks. And 12 other states may follow suit. Critics argue this question has wide-ranging detrimental consequences. When you think about this Census controversy, what does it reveal about the Trump administration and its agenda with this particular project?
SHAWNA THOMAS: Well, number one, they’re saying basically that in one version of the Census, which is the American Community Survey, which they do every year but they do it for a smaller amount of the population and then they use algorithms, basically, to widen it out, they do ask a citizenship question, so what’s the big deal, to a certain extent. The problem with this is that, one, even though we’ve been talking about this citizenship Census question for a little while, you know, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross insisted that it be put in almost under the deadline for making questions for the Census. Number two is even if it’s for perfectly logical reasons – I think the Justice Department has said it has to do with enforcing the Voting Rights Act – it doesn’t matter because it now looks political. When you are working with an administration that has approached immigration the way it is, has approached trying to deport people the way it has, people are going to look at this and they’re going to tie it to that, and even if you try to break those things apart it doesn’t – it doesn’t matter. And so it is going to offend some people, and other people are going to defend it, and it just gets thrown into this political thing that the Census isn’t really supposed to be.
ANDREA MITCHELL: And it will – it will – it will depress participation, and that’s a big problem because we need the Census to be accurate not only for congressional districts and the like; we need the Census to be accurate for the CDC, for communicable diseases, for all kinds of health reasons. We need to know these facts. And if fewer people participate or are afraid to participate, you’re not going to have accurate data.
JON DECKER: But this is why California, New York, and other states – Massachusetts, Ohio – say that they will join with lawsuits against the administration, just the political aspect of it, and that is they fear that with an undercount in their particular states they may lose seats in the – in the House of Representatives, which is a major concern to California, which has large representation – the largest in the country – and New York State as well. And so although the plan is for this particular question to be on the Census in 2020, I don’t know whether it will be because it’s going to be tied up in the courts for some time before the Census actually goes out to every citizen in this country.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to foreign policy. Defense Secretary James Mattis welcomed incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton at the Pentagon for their first meeting on Thursday. We talked about that during the show and that exchange. The two, though, will now need to work closely on a number of issues, which many – which on some fronts the men do differ dramatically, including on the upcoming summit – the proposed summit with North Korea. Mattis has said he’s a firm believer in diplomacy. Bolton has long been, of course, a hardliner who advocates for a preliminary strike and regime change in North Korea. This week was interesting because China confirmed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Some experts believe China is reasserting its dominance in the region ahead of these talks between President Trump and Kim and five other countries in the region.
Andrea, what to make of all of this? We have, as we were talking about in the show, a new dynamic on national security – Pompeo perhaps at State, Bolton in the White House, the president – but there’s also regional positioning going on in Asia.
MS. MITCHELL: Well, first of all, you’ve got China very nervous about this new North and South Korea detente, if you will, the beginnings of movement, you know, a meeting between them at the end of April already, and also nervous about the U.S. role. And so they wanted to make sure that they welcomed Kim Jong-un to his first – what we believe to be his first foreign trip, done in great secrecy, with a red-carpet welcome and the full state visit treatment to show that they’re in charge in their own neighborhood. They very much want to also be coordinating and part of this conversation.
That said, the Bolton factor is going to be a major potential disruption. And Pompeo is already, as CIA director, doing a lot of the advance work; we don’t have a secretary of state, and so he is filling that role. And he’s also been very hardline, even talked hypothetically about regime change in North Korea back in – at the Aspen Security Conference last summer. So there’s a mismatch between the president’s somewhat idealistic views of how he can exert personal diplomacy through his personality on this young man – who has been underestimated, I think, by American intelligence – and the realistic approach and hardline approach, I think, by John Bolton and Pompeo, who are preparing the summit.
MR. COSTA: What was the message from the Chinese to Kim?
MS. MITCHELL: The message to Kim is that denuclearization is, you know, the important fact that he has to stick to. But how does he define denuclearization? Is he talking about the Americans withdrawing their nuclear umbrella from our allies there? So these are the kinds of details. The real risk here is that the president agreed to this spontaneously, surprising the South Koreans before he had even been briefed on the details, and are his expectations too high? If it disappoints him – if both sides leave disappointed, the only fallback option is military.
MR. DECKER: I’m an optimist by nature. I’d love to see a diplomatic solution to what has really troubled many administrations. But I’m also a realist. And the fact of the matter is, is that Kim Jong-un, since this was announced several weeks ago at the White House by South Korea’s national security advisor, has not announced to its own people – North Korea has not announced to its own people this possibility of a meeting with President Trump, this possibility of denuclearizing, which would be just against everything that country stands for. This is something that gives them strength. It gives them power. It puts them on equal footing with other superpowers around the world. And to give that up, I just don’t see happening. I’m an optimist that a meeting can happen. But I’m a realist. I don’t think much is going to happen if that meeting happens.
MR. COSTA: It’s interesting. You read about China and how they’re pulling back on some of their trade with North Korea, and that’s maybe brought them to the table a little bit – of course, there are other factors. But when you think about the conditions that Bolton could set, anything come to mind? I mean, he’s the long-time hardliner.
MARK MAZZETTI: Right. And he’s going to have the president’s ear. And so it’s interesting he comes in at this moment right after Trump, as Andrea said, surprised everyone with this. And now enter John Bolton who has, you know, decades of thinking about this issue. And what is going to be the interplay between especially Bolton, Mattis, and Pompeo? And who – kind of the war for the president’s mind over this issue. And in – you know, we’re coming up to the moment. And so I think, you know, we kind of know where John Bolton stands. The question is whether he’s going to sort of change his position at all.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about the Russia probe, and stick with you, Mark, and your reporting, because President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his deputy at that time, Rick Gates, they were in contact with a business associate known to have ties to Russian military intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign. According to court documents filed this week by Special Prosecutor Bob Mueller, Gates has admitted knowing that the associate was a former officer with Russian military intelligence, the GRU. How significant is this story?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, in a way, you know the headline that Trump campaign advisors had contacts with Russian intelligence doesn’t really shock anymore. I mean, we have now multiple cases where this has happened. But it’s significant for a few reasons. First of all, you know, Manafort has long said that this former associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, he didn’t know whether he was a Russian intelligence officer or had any Russian intel background. But Mueller’s document comes out and says, in fact, that Gates knew and told others that he had been with the GRU, and that they were doing this, you know, weeks before the election, so September/October of 2016.
The other interesting thing that comes in the document is that Mueller says directly this – these conversations are, quote, “relevant to the investigation.” And the person who he was charged and sentencing in that document had withheld that information. So with Mueller you’re always reading between the lines. You have to look at the public statements, the documents. But it is interesting that Kilimnik and the role in these conversations is brought out by Mueller. And one other point, Manafort has long said that his case is a sideshow, right? Whatever they were going after him and Gates for doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect the Russian collusion question, the question of Russian interference. Well, this kind of brings the two a little bit together more than it’s been in the past.
MR. COSTA: Manafort’s going to trial.
MR. MAZZETTI: Right. He’s going to trial.
MR. COSTA: He’s fighting.
MR. MAZZETTI: Gates has cut a deal. Manafort’s continuing to fight.
MR. COSTA: And we just keep hearing about Rick Gates. I mean, we were talking during the show about John Dowd having conversations with Gates and Manafort. Was it with Gates? Was it with Gates’ attorney?
MS. THOMAS: Manafort and Flynn.
MR. MAZZETTI: Manafort and Flynn.
MR. COSTA: Manafort and Flynn. But Dowd never talked – did Dowd ever talk to Gates’ attorney?
MR. MAZZETTI: Not that we know of.
MR. COSTA: OK. But is the White House, the administration – just based on your conversations with sources – are they alarmed about Rick Gates and how he continues to work with the Mueller investigation?
MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think they’re alarmed about everything that Mueller keeps bringing out about Rick Gates. I mean, we talked about this filing this week. There’s no way to not be alarmed, basically because of what you said, because now we are inching closer and closer to whatever Mueller is trying to do with Manafort and everything that he’s found about his businesses, clearly there may have been a deal to be made somehow. Manafort’s not making that deal. But something else is there. And that’s the thing, is every time there’s a new filing, every time something hits our inboxes and we’re all like, whoa, what is happening, there’s something else there.
MR. MAZZETTI: And Gates lasted on the campaign a lot longer than Manafort did.
MS. THOMAS: Well, he was there at that time, unlike Manafort.
MR. MAZZETTI: And into the – and into the year – the first year in the White House as well.
MS. MITCHELL: And that Mueller filing was the most fascinating, because it was explicit. It said: This is what we are looking at. And it was a big deal. The other thing that there’s been some reporting on this week is that they’re – Mueller is also looking at the way the platform at the Republican National Committee was changed, was altered to favor the Ukrainian – Russian Ukrainian influences and to satisfy Manafort’s client.
MR. DECKER: And who was running the convention for the Trump campaign at the time? It was Paul Manafort, right?
MR. COSTA: With Rick Gates at his side.
MS. THOMAS: And he also had to leave right after that.
MR. DECKER: That’s right.
MS. THOMAS: Yeah.
MR. DECKER: Well, with all of this, though, all of these stories that have come out – we mentioned Rick Gates, and we mentioned Paul Manafort – but where does Donald J. Trump fit into the picture? To what extent does he know about what they are doing, perhaps behind closed doors and perhaps behind his back? That’s the real key here, because we already know that these two individuals are, you know, in the – in the crosshairs of the special counsel’s office. That’s why one of them has already cut a deal and the other one has said I’m not cutting a deal, I’m going to go to trial – perhaps because he has the means to do so and perhaps, getting back to our conversation earlier, he’s banking on a presidential pardon.
MR. COSTA: That’s a crucial point. So often when you talk to witnesses or lawyers familiar with the case, it’s about what was the extent of the candidate, now president’s, knowledge of Manafort and all of his activities and Rick Gates and all of his activities? And then it comes down to intent when he was president, with all of these different decisions he made. There’s been potential obstruction of justice alleged. Intent, and then knowledge.
We’re going to keep an eye on all of it, but that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, take our Washington Week-ly Quiz. And read my take on President Jimmy Carter, who just published his 32nd book at age 93. I hope we can all be that productive at age 93. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.