ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
This week congressional testimony highlighted controversies at the Justice Department centering around the leadership of Attorney General William Barr. Two career officials warned that under Barr’s leadership political appointees had interfered to advance the personal interests of both Barr and President Trump, arguing it was a threat to the department’s independence. Here’s what prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, a federal attorney that withdrew in protest from the case into Trump associate Roger Stone, told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week.
AARON ZELINSKY: (From video.) In the United States of America we do not prosecute people based on politics, and we don’t cut them a break based on politics either, but that wasn’t what happened here. Roger Stone was treated differently because of politics.
MR. COSTA: While Republicans defended Barr’s actions and sought to undermine that testimony, House Democrats signaled it may be time for them to take more action. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler reportedly planned to subpoena Barr, but a DOJ spokesperson said that Barr has now agreed to testify before the House in late July, July 28th. At the hearing, Nadler decried the attorney general’s conduct.
REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): (From video.) These are merely the symptoms of an underlying disease. The sickness that we must address is Mr. Barr’s use of the Department of Justice as a weapon to serve the president’s petty private interests.
MR. COSTA: Joining us for more analysis of all of this: Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN; Kasie Hunt, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and host of Kasie DC on MSNBC; Dan Balz, the chief correspondent for The Washington Post; and Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press.
Jonathan, is the president standing by the attorney general despite all of this criticism?
JONATHAN LEMIRE: So far he certainly has, Bob. I mean, he has – we have not seen much daylight between the two of them yet, but certainly this is a moment where the attorney general is under a lot of scrutiny. The testimony you just – of course, just referred to there at the top of this segment, but also questions about the Department of Justice’s conduct in the Michael Flynn case, the questions of last weekend where he in a late Friday night letter that the attorney – U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York was suddenly being ousted and we had 24 hours of real turmoil there in terms of who would be the replacement and the reasons for it, and we saw some – not a lot, but some – Republican pushback to that. But to this point, the president – you know, William Barr has carried out what the president has wanted. Democrats certainly charge that that has crossed the line into pure politics.
MR. COSTA: Kasie, Speaker Pelosi told me this week that she does not support an impeachment process against the attorney general, even though some Democrats are calling for just that. What’s next for House Democrats as they try to bring oversight measures forward?
KASIE HUNT: Bob, I think you have seen a pattern of this Justice Department trying to resist and use the courts to lengthen the amount of time that any inquiry that House Democrats may try to make in an oversight capacity is stretched out for as long as possible. That’s certainly how Democrats view it. And I think that there is limited appetite to go through another process that potentially has a political cost for House Democrats heading into the election if they’re not actually going to get anywhere with it and if the November election is actually going to solve their problems by effectively replacing the Cabinet with a Joe Biden Cabinet come January. So I do think that there is a push-pull there. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re willing to let the attorney general skate on a lot of these things, and I think that every single time we see another incident – there was the prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, who was fired recently. That was the latest kind of impetus for Democrats to focus their attention and energy on the attorney general in this kind of way, and I think there is deep concern about what is going on at the Justice Department, but with the polls showing what they show and the president continuing to seem to dig a hole for himself Democrats are increasingly confident that the quickest way to fix whatever is going on at the Justice Department is the November election.
MR. COSTA: Abby, what’s your reporting on how this is all playing out politically?
ABBY PHILLIP: Well, this is one of those things where at this point we talked about Trump fatigue. This is part of the Trump fatigue that is being experienced by voters on all sides of the political spectrum. It is in some ways something that people are used to and maybe they might glaze over. It’s one of the reasons why for Democrats as a political strategy trying to dive too deeply in this may not pay the political dividends that they – that they might seek. But where it could pay dividends in a political context is when you look at the Biden campaign and Biden’s allies. They are going to be prosecuting this case about corruption against this administration and all of these things are part of that pattern. So I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this. This is going to come up time and time again in ads. It’s going to come up as, you know, these two potentially face off on a debate stage. What is the pattern here that is being established of how the president runs the government? That’s become a key part of the Biden campaign strategy, which is that this is – this is a president who runs the government in a way that they believe is not acceptable to many Americans, and we’ll see whether that argument is – has any, you know, resonance come November, but it’s clearly there – although I don’t see how anything that could happen outside of these hearings on Capitol Hill would change the fact that, as Kasie said, the best way out of this for Democrats is to simply win in November.
MR. COSTA: Dan, when you step back as a reporter and look at this attorney general and the political charge that’s around his Justice Department, what do you see? Is this a Watergate-type moment? Have we ever seen the Justice Department be in this kind of political crossfire, or is it just another round of political fighting between Congress and DOJ?
DAN BALZ: Well, I can’t remember anything other than perhaps the Watergate period that would come close to what we’re seeing with this attorney general and this president. Look, Justice Departments have different priorities under different presidents. Some are tougher on civil rights issues; some deal differently with antitrust issues. Those are – those are priorities of an administration. But in terms of the fair application of the law and justice, and particularly with career Justice Department employees, they play it straight. They have tried to play it straight. And what we’re seeing now is an outcry within the Justice Department and particularly from people who once served in the Justice Department. They see an undermining of an institution, and it focuses on the attorney general but it also goes back to the president, who has systematically tried to undermine a variety of institutions whether it’s the news media or the Justice Department or other aspects of the executive branch. So this is part of what will be looked at in November by voters, this question of do they want four more years of this kind of approach that the president has given them?
MR. COSTA: Let’s wrap up here with a little politics – a little campaign politics, because the campaign rages on and parties are preparing for their conventions later this summer. While Republicans have moved their convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville to allow for a big crowd for the president, Democrats are now scaling back their convention. The Democratic National Committee said its convention will remain in Milwaukee in August, but they’re now planning for major convention events, including voting on the floor, to be done virtually. The convention itself will be moved from an almost 20,000-seat arena to a smaller convention center. The presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, will accept the nomination in person, but a final decision has not been made about how many people will be in the room to see it.
Abby, what does this mean for Democrats? Do they worry they’re not going to get a big bounce out of Milwaukee if it’s just a few people in a room in Wisconsin?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, when I talk to Democrats about this convention I’ve been surprised to hear how little enthusiasm there is for a convention to begin with. I think the idea of a convention bounce has been falling out of favor for quite some time now. And so this is just seen as a kind of necessary, but perhaps really unimportant in the big scheme of things, change to plans. I mean, on the other side of the spectrum, however, what we could see coming out of the Republican convention is basically a scenario that solidifies the view of Americans that this is an administration that’s not taking the pandemic seriously.
The polls are showing there is widespread support for public health measures, mask wearing, social distancing. And if the scene coming out of Florida and the Republican convention is the opposite of that, that could be sort of a commercial for how not to lead in this era. And I think that could actually potentially backfire on the president.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, for the Republicans, is it still full steam ahead in Jacksonville for that Trump speech?
MR. LEMIRE: That’s what the president wants. He wants to have a full convention. And of course, you know, some of the satellite events, you know, the parties, the breakfasts, the things that come to define these conventions, where you have a chance to talk to party leaders. Some of that will probably fall by the wayside. But the president wants – he wants that event. He wants that big moment. He wants the speech. He wants a few days’ worth. Some of the backroom stuff will still happen in Charlotte, the original host city. But he wants – he wants some sort of coronation in Jacksonville.
But let’s remember, Florida’s one of the states where the coronavirus right now is absolutely surging. That’s a state that has had to roll back some of its reopening measures. I think I talked to someone in the administration, you know, in the last 48 hours or so who wondered whether it would still be feasible to have a full-on convention in Jacksonville, especially if the virus trends continue in such a harrowing – a harrowing way. They want the contrast.
There are risks to it, as Abby just said. You know, Americans support things like social distancing and face masks. And if the president and the Republicans don’t display that, that could actually turn off a lot of voters. The president, again, this is a base play. He’s counting on Republicans staying in line with him, with his beliefs, including his handling of the pandemic. He wants to have that display. And he wants a moment – he’s a showbiz president – a moment to propel him forward into the fall and the general election stretch run.
MR. COSTA: Kasie, I was talking to a couple Biden allies this week and they told me to pay attention to Representative Karen Bass, head of the CBC, California lawmaker from Los Angeles, as she used to be the speaker of the California State Assembly, the statehouse up there in Sacramento. She’s on my VP watch list. Who’s on your VP watch list at this point?
MS. HUNT: I think it’s smart to have her on your list, Bob. And, you know, my reporting lines up with the thinking about Karen Bass’ future as a standard bearer for the Democratic Party. Now, whether that’s as Biden’s vice president or potentially a future speaker of the House, I think the jury is still out on that. I do think it’s pretty clear that they are leaning towards picking a person of color, considering what the country has been going through, the reckoning over the death of George Floyd.
And Kamala Harris, the senator from California, still the name that continues to come up, especially as the Biden campaign considers the reality that they do feel a very heavy burden to choose someone who they are confident could step into the top job at a moment’s notice. That is obviously always important in a vice presidential selection, but it’s particularly weighing heavily on the Biden campaign right now.
Val Demings, the congresswoman from Florida, former police chief in Orlando, also someone who has been getting a look. And they are, according to my reporting, entering the most intense stages of this vice presidential vetting. Anyone who has been through it before knows that they really dig into your history. If there’s anything that you ever didn’t want someone to know about your past, they will find it. If they don’t, they’re not doing their jobs. But that’s the phase of this search that we’re in right now, Bob.
MR. COSTA: Dan, any thoughts on the VP search?
MR. BALZ: Bob, I think that, as others have said, there is heavy pressure on Vice President Biden to pick someone of color, to pick a vice president who is not White, frankly. And he has a lot of choices, as people have said. I mean, there are any number of people. Susan Rice is also on that list, the former national security advisor in the Obama administration. People keep saying that, you know, Kamala Harris probably is a little bit more of the odds-on favorite. I don’t know if that’s true. I think one thing that they will have to get past is the attack that she leveled against Joe Biden in that first debate last year, when she went after him on the issue of race. How much that still nettles either the former vice president or those around him, we don’t really know . But I think if you were betting now you would bet that there would be a – you know, an African American vice president running mate chosen by Joe Biden.
MR. COSTA: Abby, before we go, you want to jump in?
MS. PHILLIP: You know, I agree with what Dan said. I would say what I’ve heard from Biden allies and friends is this idea of being experienced enough to be president themselves is so top of mind, not just because of Biden’s age but also because of the crisis that he could be facing if he is elected. I mean, this is a country that could be facing a significant economic recession, bordering on a depression, beyond just the racial tensions. That person needs to be able to help the president handle a huge economic crisis on top of social unrest.
So for that reason, I think that just looking at it from the perspective of who could help Biden deal with racial tensions is not broad enough. And they are looking, from what I have heard, at someone who has a broad range of experience at a significant – a significantly national enough level that they could step in at a moment’s notice and also help Biden actually govern. Because that was his experience becoming vice president for President Obama back in 2008.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Extra. Thank you very much to our visiting reporters: Abby Phillip, Kasie Hunt, Dan Balz, and Jonathan Lemire. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, sign up for our Washington Week newsletter. You will get an advanced look at our show every week, and a note from me.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and we will see you next time.