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.
While President Trump continues his war with congressional Republicans, former GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich, the Ohio governor, is reportedly considering running as an independent in 2020. The governor has been talking with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, about forming a unity ticket. Both governors would run as independents, with Kasich at the top of the ticket and Hickenlooper as his running mate. Dan, could this ticket actually happen?
DAN BALZ: I am very skeptical. I know there’s talk about it, but – and I know each of them is thinking about running in 2020. But the question is, can – A, would Hickenlooper actually agree to do this; and does it make sense for them to do it as independents? It may well be that that’s the only course that they could see. And maybe, given the politics of the moment, that’s the smartest thing to do. But there are so many obstacles to people who run independently for president that in many ways it could end up being kind of a fool’s errand, which is they could go out, they could get a lot of publicity, but could they get enough vote to affect the outcome? And would it be that they would elect a Democrat in the process, which – is that in Kasich’s interest? I don’t think so.
MR. COSTA: Are they thinking, maybe, Dan, that a progressive Democrat gets the Democratic nomination, President Trump remains the Republican nominee, and there is that path up the center?
MR. BALZ: That’s the possible path, but that’s easier to put together on paper or to imagine it than to actually do it.
JULIE PACE: And then there’s the very obvious governing question, because if you actually could get through all of those obstacles and you had a Republican governor – or a Republican president and a Democratic vice president who disagree on a lot of major issues, what would the actual practical implications of that be? I think that would be something you would hear people talking about quite a bit.
MR. COSTA: Didn’t Senator McCain, Julie, think about picking Senator Lieberman back in 2008?
MS. PACE: Sure, absolutely, but they were a little more aligned on some of these issues. I mean, Hickenlooper and Kasich I’m sure can find a few things where they’re – where they are on the same page, but Kasich truly is a Republican in the traditional mold and Hickenlooper truly is a Democrat, and those two parties believe in different things.
JAKE SHERMAN: I talked to Hickenlooper about this a few weeks ago and reported what he said at the time, which was, you know, we don’t agree on much; we like each other as people. Remember, Hickenlooper is a – was a business executive, a very successful one at that. He redeveloped most of downtown Denver. So somebody like that, who has been a chief – you know, an executive of a – of a large and diverse state, for him to take a backseat to a governor who ran for the Republican nomination and lost, and – I just – it would be very hard to believe. But it is a fun little story.
MR. COSTA: It is fun. (Laughter.) 2020, keep it up. (Laughter.) It’s a fun thing to talk about.
We’re going to move on to the Pentagon. And as they prepare to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan, the White House is moving forward with its ban on transgender people serving in the military. Nancy Youssef, she joins us from Washington. Nancy, the president tweeted about this policy a month ago but offered no specifics. What more do we know right now? And what has the reaction been inside the Pentagon?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, the Pentagon today officially received its guidance – that is, essentially the attempt to translate that tweet into a policy – and there are three major parts of it. It spells out that transgender servicemembers will no longer be admitted into the military. Those currently serving, who are receiving medical care or funding towards their medical needs, won’t be funded anymore. And the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, will have six months to sort of determine what should happen to currently serving transgender servicemembers. So the guidance as it is spelled out gives broad discretion to the secretary of defense to really shape the policy going forward.
Within the Pentagon, it’s of course a mixed reaction. I think the most universal one is it’s hard for some to accept the idea that somebody who’s willing and able and wants to put on that uniform and serve the country would then not be allowed for anything other than they can’t actually serve. And so there’s a – there’s a real conflict in there because the president argued that this was for military readiness, and the critics would argue that this actually hurts military readiness because you now have units with servicemembers who don’t know if they will be in that unit six months from now.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, did the president move on this, based on your reporting, because the Pentagon was getting cold feet?
MS. YOUSSEF: No, the sense that we got was that because of these tweets and there was all this pressure to come up with direction that this guidance was the result of that. What we’re really getting a sense of is that the White House hasn’t really formulated a clear policy in terms of how it wants to proceed, and therefore has given that discretion to the secretary of defense.
MR. COSTA: Dan?
MR. BALZ: Well, it’s obviously a very controversial decision, and controversial within the military. And I think that, you know, General Mattis, the secretary of defense, will carry out that order as he’s required to do. But to the degree to which he has discretion, my guess is that he will create some space so that this doesn’t look like a complete reversal and a complete ban.
MR. COSTA: How is this playing as a cultural war move by the president?
MS. PACE: Well, it’s interesting, we talked in the main show about Trump trying to play to his base, and certainly this is another one of those areas where he is expecting that his base will reward him for this. But there has been just this massive shift in the country on LGBT issues, and it’s – this is pushing us in a different direction than what we certainly saw under the Obama administration, where there was basically a steady drumbeat, both from the public and then also on the policy side, toward expanding rights. So this is a – this is a rollback. It is interesting to note that he is taking this action to restrict access to military service at a time when he’s also announcing plans to increase the number of troops that we’re sending abroad, and I’m sure that will factor into the way the Pentagon thinks about this as well.
MR. SHERMAN: This was a tricky decision on Capitol Hill, where – this was kind of sparked on Capitol Hill, where in the House there was a debate over an amendment that threatened to – that actually ended up failing, but it was an amendment to do just that. And I know the leadership went to the White House and said please do something on this, and they didn’t expect that the president would announce a new policy. I think they meant this is an issue that you – should be on your radar that you’ll need to handle at some point, and then Trump announced this.
MR. BALZ: And that amendment didn’t go as far as what Trump has done.
MR. SHERMAN: No, it did not. It did not.
MR. COSTA: Was this the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative group, that wanted it?
MR. SHERMAN: No, it wasn’t. It was actually a – I don’t remember exactly who it was. I think it was someone from the Midwest. It was not a Freedom Caucus member.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, thanks for being with us. I appreciate it.
Republican leaders have supported Trump throughout this tumultuous presidency and despite the ongoing probe into possible collusion by his staff with Russia and controversial staff shakeups. But it appears that the president’s remarks about the violence in Charlottesville have created a crisis of conscience for some conservatives, who are publicly speaking out against the president. What are we seeing, Julie? What’s changed?
MS. PACE: Well, I think that what changed in – with the Charlottesville situation is that Republicans are, one, actually opposed to what he said. Not so much talking about the Confederate monuments, but this idea that there was some kind of equivalence between the white nationalist groups and those who were out there protesting. So there’s that actual piece of it. But it also revealed something that has just driven Republicans crazy in Washington, which is that they can’t just get Trump to do the right thing sometimes, you know. He can go out there and read off the teleprompter and deliver a fine speech. He can – he can stay on message for a couple days, sometimes a week at a time. But he always goes back. He always reverts back, and they know that that’s the constant danger to them. They want him to be out in the next couple weeks talking about tax reform. He’s going to be traveling the country. He might be talking about everything but tax reform. He’s just not a reliable partner for them when it comes to the messaging. And that was just on display in a pretty profound way the last several days.
MR. SHERMAN: And the political – the tricky political situation is that members of Congress go home, and they don’t have a health care bill to talk about. They don’t have tax reform to talk about, an infrastructure bill. So all they get asked about are these comments, which they don’t want to defend but they don’t want to split from the president because that’s also news. So they’re kind of stuck in this weird place where they’re forced to answer for somebody they don’t agree with.
MR. BALZ: In the wake of the Charlottesville statements that the president made, I talked to a Republican who’s been a long-time party official. And he said the worst aspect of this is that it goes right to a Republican vulnerability, which is the issue of tolerance, and that time and again they are tagged as being an intolerant party. And I talked to several who said, you know, we are the party of Lincoln. And we get tagged for being a party that, you know, is sympathetic to racism. Party activists who’ve been in it for a long time are aggrieved at that. And Donald Trump, the president, put them back into that with what he did in Charlottesville.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with this theme, because when Congress returns from its August recess in early September, it will begin a four-week stretch of major battles over the debt ceiling and government funding. For House Speaker Paul Ryan, September could prove to be a critical and consequential test of his speakership.
Jake, Ryan reluctantly took the job and seems to have a bullseye on his back from day one. And now he’s facing all these different battles. But on this moral question – moral authority of the presidency, the conscience of Paul Ryan, where is he right now?
MR. SHERMAN: He’s torn. You have to kind of take a step back and recognize that Paul Ryan, despite the rap that he got, was very vocally against Trump during the campaign, remember, didn’t endorse him, told his members – his conference that they should not worry about defending him, he wasn’t going to defend him. And the way that the Ryan world, the broad Ryan world sees it, is he lost the argument. And he – Trump won the election, despite kind of Ryan’s tacit – you know, I don’t want to say that he worked against him, but he got pretty close. And Ryan speaks out when he has to, but it’s always – he doesn’t – he didn’t mention Trump this time. He got some flak for that. And it’s a really tricky issue for him when it comes to Trump. And it’s a tricky issue when trying to put his legislative agenda together, because there are things that Trump wants him and Republicans to do that he just simply doesn’t believe in.
MR. COSTA: McConnell? It seems like that relationship’s unraveled with President Trump as well.
MR. BALZ: It’s unraveled in a very public way. I’m not sure there was a real relationship there, other than that Senator McConnell saw Trump as the vehicle to finally get things signed into law that the Congress would do. I think with the hope that the Congress would really lead on the agenda and lead on the things that they have been wanting to do throughout much of the Obama administration. He was, I thought, shrewder than Paul Ryan in the way he kind of dealt with Trump’s excesses during the campaign. He would – he would say a limited amount, make clear his displeasure, but otherwise keep his head down.
But I don’t think there was any illusion in his mind as to what he was going to get if Donald Trump became president. But what’s happened as a result of, I guess, the health care bill – that seems to be what sticks most in the president’s craw – but just, I think, the general course of things over six or seven months, that relationship, despite the efforts of the last few days to kind of paper over the differences, seems like it’s irreconcilable, other than that if the Congress sends stuff, they’re still confident that Trump will sign it.
MR. COSTA: So, Leader McConnell, that relationship’s on ice and difficult situation. Speaker Ryan, the relationship’s difficult. (Laughter.) But you mentioned tax reform.
MS. PACE: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: And in spite of all of this, they could actually get a tax cut through because it’s mutually beneficial to everyone.
MS. PACE: They could – look, this is so important to Republicans heading into 2018 because – Jake mentioned this earlier – I mean, they have nothing really to stand on right now in terms of this agenda that they have promised voters: If you can just put us in the White House and put us in the majority in Congress we can pass this agenda. They really feel like they have to go into 2018 with something.
I was talking to a Republican operative who is working on a lot of these competitive races who basically said that on the House side this is the whole ball game in terms of maintaining that majority because they just don’t feel like they can campaign successfully in competitive districts and have nothing to stand on. This is a huge – this is a huge moment for them. And that’s where you see these mutual interests start to align again, despite all of the rhetoric.
MR. COSTA: You seem skeptical?
MR. SHERMAN: I’m a little bit bearish. (Laughter.) I’m bearish for a few reasons. There’s a difference, let’s make a distinction, between a tax cut and tax reform.
MS. PACE: Absolutely. It’s a great point.
MR. SHERMAN: If they’re just going to cut taxes without –
MR. COSTA: You mean the difference is tax reform’s getting rid of a lot of deductions –
MR. SHERMAN: It’s rewriting the tax code in a way that Paul Ryan thinks would be – and a lot of Republicans think would be beneficial to the country, which actually is a pretty popular issue. People don’t like paying taxes. They don’t much like the IRS. And they think it’s too complicated. They have to hire people. So it’s a popular issue. If Republicans decide to just do a straight tax cut, cut rates, that’s a much easier thing. But that runs against everything that they’ve been talking about, about deficits and debt and the nation’s fiscal health. I think they could get a tax cut. I am very, very skeptical about tax reform.
MR. COSTA: The president’s different, I would say, based on my reporting, on ideology. Has a real difference with Speaker Ryan, right Dan?
MR. BALZ: Oh, sure.
MR. COSTA: Speaker Ryan is a green eyeshade conservative. The president’s this outsider, populist, nationalist who’s not really thinking about deficits.
MR. BALZ: Well, Speaker Ryan is a combination of a green eyeshade and kind of old-fashioned Jack Kemp Republicanism.
MR. COSTA: The late New York congressman, supply-sider.
MR. BALZ: Right. And what we found is that that combination doesn’t have the full support that he needs, even within the House of Representatives. So I think the other point about President Trump is he’s not really a Republican, right?
MR. COSTA: You think he’s an independent, an outsider?
MR. BALZ: I wrote – I wrote, you know, right after the election, he’s in many ways our first independent president – certainly since, you know, 100 years or 200 years or Washington or whatever. But his allegiance to the Republican Party is only one of convenience when it suits him. And so attacking Republican leaders is just attacking the swamp. And that’s what he ran against. So I think he thinks of it in a different way.
MS. PACE: I think you’re right. I do wonder, though, how much he’s thought through the consequences, though, of separating himself – not Republicans separating from him but Trump separating himself – and the potential implications. If he were to be president with a Democratic Congress, talk about the Russia investigations. I mean, that changes the dynamic.
MR. SHERMAN: He would be impeached.
MS. PACE: He could potentially be impeached if he had Democrats.
MR. COSTA: You think the Democrats would move on him that quick?
MR. SHERMAN: I do. I do. And that’s not my opinion. That’s based on what people tell me. I mean, Nancy Pelosi, who’s historically as strong a congressional leader as we’ve seen in decades, is really trying to hold everybody in line. Her statement about the censure resolution, which is – a censure resolution is important. It says a lot, but it doesn’t mean anything in a significant sense. She said she supports anything Democrats want to do to rein in the Trump – I mean, she was very – it was very kind of circuitous.
MR. COSTA: Whew, I thought these times were wild. Imagine if Democrats take the House.
We’ll leave it there tonight. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, take our news quiz and read our blog on what you need to know about the Justice Department under President Trump.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.