ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is Washington Week Extra, where we pickup online where we left off on the broadcast.
Senate Democrats have vowed to filibuster the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch. Michael Scherer, is this a fight that Democrats can win?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Probably not. I mean, there’s an outside chance they can, and what it would require is them convincing a number of Republicans to refuse a rules change if they block it by filibuster, because what will happen is Democrats will be able to deny 60 votes initially, and then Mitch McConnell almost certainly will then say, well, we’re going to change the rule and we’re going to allow the Supreme Court justice to pass with just 50 votes. All he needs to do that is 51 votes, and so if he can hold his Republican caucus together the Democratic protest has really no effect except it sets a precedent so that at no point in the future almost certainly will you ever be able to filibuster a Supreme Court justice.
MR. COSTA: Is it all driven on the Democratic side by their anger, their frustration with President Obama’s failed nominee, Merrick Garland?
MR. SCHERER: I think that’s part of it. I think the bigger factor, though, is the anger of their base and the penalty they would pay if they didn’t try and filibuster, especially Chuck Schumer. I mean, he was having protests outside his house because he voted for the defense secretary. I mean, he just – they’re not in a position now, given the anger in the country, to do that. At the same time, I think if you – if you hook them up to a lie-detector test, at least a third of the Democratic caucus really don’t want to do this.
MR. COSTA: Has Schumer been pretty savvy in navigating the Democratic base?
MR. SCHERER: I think you saw him change his behavior. So he voted the first two or three Cabinet secretaries. He’s a guy who by disposition basically would give a president his Cabinet secretaries. And then he started not doing it. He voted against Elaine Chao, the wife of his governing partner. I mean, that’s a sign that he was responding. And there’s nothing controversial about Elaine Chao. I mean, she’s already had the job before. She’s qualified for the job. You may not like all her policies, but she’s the kind of Cabinet secretary who gets nominated. But I think Chuck Schumer realized pretty early on that he has to respond and channel this, and that in end if he does channel this – if he successfully channels the progressive furies and a lot of other furies that aren’t really ideological happening in the country right now – he’ll be in a lot better position next year.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of Secretary Chao, let’s turn to another member of the Cabinet. Late Friday we learned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will attend a NATO summit on March 31st. He has originally planned to skip the meeting at a time when many allies are feeling insecure about their relationship with the United States. Michael Crowley, we also learned that Tillerson is traveling to Russia for a meeting in April. What’s your take on Tillerson’s maneuvers?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, Tillerson has kept a curiously low profile so far. He’s been avoiding the press. He doesn’t have – hasn’t staffed up his department, and is now defending deep budget cuts to the State Department that are horrifying a lot of longtime career Foreign Service officers there. And now we have this new element where NATO allies were very alarmed by the idea that he wasn’t going to go to this meeting and are saying, wait a second, but you’re going to be going to Russia soon afterward; what are this guy’s priorities? He’s really scrambling all our expectations about a secretary of state. And the NATO thing was particularly touchy because our NATO allies are extremely insecure right now. They’re not sure what Donald Trump’s intentions are. During the campaign in particular he was very skeptical of NATO. The Trump administration has sent more reassuring signals generally since he came into office. But I would say more than all of that this trip to Russia, to me, is actually very surprising. I mean, I would think that the Trump team would not want to go anywhere near Moscow. They probably wouldn’t want to go very far east of Warsaw if they can help it.
MR. COSTA: Well, based on your reporting, though, why Russia?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, they haven’t told us what the meeting is yet. But we do know that the Trump foreign policy team does feel like Russia can be an important U.S. ally in fighting Islamic terrorism, particularly ISIS in Syria. And I think there’s still, despite all of the cloud around them over the campaign, there’s a feeling that a partnership with Russia would be in our strategic interest. I just think the politics of it are really hard. And even if you want to do it, whoever you’re going to meet with in Russia, meet with them in Switzerland. The optics of going into Russia right now are really fraught. I wouldn’t be shocked if that trip didn’t end up happening.
MR. COSTA: On another front, President Trump tried to establish a relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus. This week, Yamiche, many people have been critical of the president’s pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who some believe has a weak record on supporting voting rights and alleged police misconduct. Was there any progress made during this meeting with the CBC?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I don’t think there was really any progress made. This was really an hour and a half of African-American lawmakers really detailing for the president their issues that they have with his policies and their issues that they have with his Cabinet members. They talked about criminal justice reform. They talked about voter fraud. They talked about health care impacting African-Americans. But they also reminded the president that, yes, they do represent 14 million African-Americans, but they also represent 78 million constituents all across the board who are not majority African-Americans. So these lawmakers were really trying to in some ways establish this relationship because they know they need to have a working relationship with the president, but they were also I think trying to at least start this conversation and try to see if he’s going to change or even – I guess even touch a little bit on the other issues that are impacting African-Americans’ lives. But so far I don’t – I didn’t think there’s really going to be any progress. One lawmaker told me that President Trump was boasting at how many African-Americans he got to vote for him; he got 8 percent of the African-American vote, which is still better than Mitt Romney but still pretty dismal numbers. And of course, this idea is that he was across – he was – across the campaign trail he was saying what do you have to lose to African-Americans. So there’s still a lot of anger and a lot of fear in the African-American community about the president, and this was kind of just a meeting to start that conversation.
MR. COSTA: Is there anyone within the CBC who has a rapport with the president, any kind of relationship that could lead to better relations in the future?
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s really tough to know. I had that same question. Someone pointed out that Elijah Cummings was talking about prescription drug care costs with the president, that he might be someone that they can talk to. But I think most of these lawmakers, they’re facing a base much like Chuck Schumer, who do not want to see them at all even seem to capitulate to this president. I talked to a lot of the lawmakers, who told me that they had to explain to their constituents and their family members and other lawmakers why they would even take a meeting with the president, and of course their answer was that he is the president of the United States and we need him to get things done. But they’re facing a lot of pressure not to work with this president.
MR. COSTA: Did the whole caucus show up at the White House?
MS. ALCINDOR: No, it was just the executive leadership that showed up. The caucus – the president is continuing, and Omarosa said that they want to see all the members of the caucus. But I think the CBC is very cautious to have the president meet with all their members, mainly I think because they don’t really trust a lot of what he’s doing, and they really, frankly, don’t have a lot of overlap with the president.
You think about Jeff Sessions. You think about voting rights and voter suppression. And when we think about this idea of the president and what he’s saying in truth, a lot of people think that when he talks about voter suppression and voter fraud, he’s really setting himself up to then suppress the vote of African-Americans in urban centers who are – who vote usually Democratically. So there’s a lot of fear there that they really are just gearing up for a fight.
MR. COSTA: And Omarosa, you mean Omarosa Manigault, the former reality television show star. She’s now, I believe, the president’s chief liaison to the African-American community within the White House.
MS. ALCINDOR: This is true. And she was – she’s in one – in a lot of ways, she touted the fact that HBCUs weren’t cut in the budget. And she basically said, you know, that’s part of the reason why I’m here in the White House to do these things. But African-Americans – and some of the stories that I’ve been writing are about all of the cuts that he made to this budget that would affect mainly African-Americans, but also people that are low income. So you think about his cuts to the Education Department, his cuts to the – to HUD, to the Housing and Urban Development Department. So there are a lot of people, I think, that look at his budget and look at his policies and say, look, there’s really not much to work with here. But Omarosa is saying that she’s advocating for African-Americans in her position.
MR. COSTA: Phil, our paper, the Post, had an intriguing story about the Trump administration’s – always intriguing in The Washington Post – (laughter) – about appointing – the Trump administration appointing political minders, that’s the term, to watch over different agencies and serve as the president’s eyes and ears at all the different departments. Has any president ever had these type of people spread throughout the administration?
MR. RUCKER: Well, it’s normal for the White House to have people who serve as liaisons in the Cabinet departments. What’s different here is this is a real escalation of it. These are senior White House advisors. That’s their title. They’re in a number of agencies – at the State Department, at the Pentagon, at the EPA. And they really report to the White House. They are there to make sure that the senior staff in these departments are loyal to the president, that they’re executing on what he wants, that they’re not playing any games to sort of short-circuit the White House. And they report directly into Rick Dearborn. Some of them are very close to –
MR. COSTA: The deputy chief of staff.
MR. RUCKER: The deputy chief of staff. And some of them are very close to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor and, by all accounts, perhaps the most powerful aide in the White House. So it’s a pretty striking move. And I think for a lot of people in the bureaucracy in Washington it was a chilling story.
MR. COSTA: One of the names that came up in the story was Matt Mowers, a longtime Republican political operative, close to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. I believe he’s close to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
MR. RUCKER: He is.
MR. COSTA: And he does not report to Secretary of State Tillerson.
MR. RUCKER: That’s right. And Mowers is in a pretty senior role at the State Department now. When Tillerson went to Foggy Bottom on his first day after being sworn in to greet the State Department staff, it was Mowers right behind him in that photo op. And he travels with the secretary. But he’s really keeping an eye on the State Department and making sure that everything Tillerson and his deputies are doing is in keeping with what the National Security Council and the White House more broadly want to see happen on foreign policy. And when we’re talking about foreign policy, I mean, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is so in control of things right now. He’s overseeing some of the key relationships in the Middle East and China, Mexico with the wall, Canada as well. So they’re taking orders from Jared.
MR. COSTA: But you got to wonder, does Attorney General Sessions have a minder? He’s so close with the president. I wonder if it’s the same for every department and every agency. (Laughter.)
Anyway, that’s it for this edition of Washington Week Extra. But first, a question for you. More than 30 years ago, the Equal Rights Amendment declared women and men are equal under the law. So which state waited more than 30 years to pass the ERA just this week? If you know, you have at least one correct answer on the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week vault, marking the 7th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. It’s an interesting look back at how the bill got passed and what it was supposed to accomplish. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Thank you so much. I’m Robert Costa, and we’ll see you next time.