ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
The White House, like the rest of Washington, was transfixed by Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee. But, Julie, this was supposed to be infrastructure week. Even before Comey’s testimony, the president seemed to get knocked off his own message by delivering a speech about health care and naming a new FBI director. What does this say about the administration’s message discipline? (Laughter.)
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Pete’s laughing. There’s –
PETE WILLIAMS: There’s a question which answers itself.
MS. DAVIS: There is – there is no message discipline. You know, there’s no – there really – I mean, when you have the president tweeting out the morning of the Monday of infrastructure week that he has selected a new FBI director, I mean – or the Wednesday that he’s giving this big speech, I mean, there’s really not even an effort or even really a point of trying to keep him on message. He’s going to talk about what he wants to talk about, what he thinks is, you know, politically compelling, what he thinks he needs to do for his reputation to talk to the American people directly, and it’s not going to matter whether they put together, you know, the best plan in the world for a policy rollout. That being said, they didn’t put together the best plan in the world for this policy rollout. They basically had a series of kind of PR events with no actual infrastructure plan to offer people. So they’re sort of doubly handicapped here because not only do they have a lot of stories and investigations and coverage that’s detracting from their message, but they don’t actually have a message to sell. And that’s, I think, the real – the real hard part for them. I mean, we heard from a senior White House official at the end of last week that, you know, they were concerned that, yes, the investigations were preoccupying members of Congress who should be, you know, paying attention to legislation, but they don’t actually have any legislation that’s really ready to go. They’re actually – they don’t have a tax plan. They don’t have their infrastructure plan ready. So it’s very difficult to keep people focused on something that essentially doesn’t exist.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: And in the issue – on the issue of infrastructure, it was a double blunder because this was the one – one of the few, few areas where Democrats tell me that they are willing to work with him, willing to roll up their sleeves and get something done. So he could have rolled this out in a way – you know, having a plan would help, yes, and then having some Democratic support at a time where everything is very polarized. So it was a big blown chance by the White House.
MR. COSTA: Are Democrats biting at all?
MS. ATKINS: I think at this point it’ll be a little harder. But it’s also harder for Democrats who are going to have a tough time in 2018 to walk away from infrastructure when that’s something that people in their districts care about very deeply. So I think that was some leverage that the White House could have used, but they squandered it.
MR. COSTA: You know, it’s interesting, whenever I bring up infrastructure with a Democrat, they talk about we’re going to have federal funding for bridges and roads; and when I talk about it with a Republican, they talk about tax credits for companies in their districts. So the definition of infrastructure is often debatable.
Anyway, let’s stick with you, Kim. As we mentioned earlier, as the fired FBI director was telling his story to Congress, the president was moving on. After a monthlong search with a revolving door of candidates, the president nominated Christopher Wray to be the nation’s top cop. Wray has been in government before. He served as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department Criminal Division during the George W. Bush administration. I want to get Kim on Wray, and then Pete.
MS. ATKINS: Well, obviously, it’s a choice that drew a lot of praise from both sides of the aisle; again, a very smart thing to do. But, again, to the point that – your point that this came out when it was – was it infrastructure week, was it health care? I mean, he should have gotten the sort of rollout that Neil Gorsuch got when he made that nomination, given the fact that he is so well-respected, given the fact that that’s a tough position to fill right now. I’m sure it was tough to find somebody to say yes to it.
MR. COSTA: And he’s a close ally of Governor Christie, Christopher Wray is.
MS. ATKINS: He is, he is. He represented him personally during the Bridgegate scandal, so he is somebody who the governor knows very well.
MR. WILLIAMS: They worked together as prosecutors, of course, both assistant U.S. attorneys – or U.S. attorneys at the time. But you’re right about the rollout thing. If you go back and look at for Comey, for Mueller, for Freeh, for Sessions, they all got a Rose Garden ceremony with the president announcing them, by the way in either June or July it turns out. But nothing like that for Christopher Wray, who now has the tough position of – no question about his qualifications. The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are all saying, yes, he’s qualified on paper. The question is, can he persuade us that he’ll be sufficiently independent at a time where it turns out that’s kind of an important question with the current president? He’s among the younger people the president looked at; he’s 50. Of course, it’s hard to get people to take this job. It’s always hard. Remember, it took – it took two years to get James Comey to agree to do it – they had to extend Bob Mueller’s term two extra years while Comey thought about it – because it’s one thing to agree to be the secretary of labor; it’s another thing to basically take what is normally a 10-year hitch, especially at a time like this.
MR. COSTA: Do we expect Christopher Wray to be asked by lawmakers on Capitol Hill about whether he took a loyalty oath?
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.) Yes, I’m sure we expect – I’m sure that question will come up. And if they hadn’t thought about it before, now they know do it.
MR. COSTA: You’re such a student of the FBI, Pete. Does he restore confidence in that beleaguered institution?
MR. WILLIAMS: You know, that begs a question about whether there is a lack of confidence in the FBI, and I’m not sure that there is. I mean, the president said that it was demoralized within; that’s just not the case. Yes, there were agents who thought Comey screwed up the Clinton thing, but for the most part they liked him. And, you know, within the FBI, there’s good cohesion, and I think the public still has a pretty good view of the FBI. I think the public view of the FBI changes based on your age and whether they’re trying to get into your Apple iPhone or not. That’s a bigger issue for the public.
But, you know, I think the – it goes back to a classic story I heard from an FBI guy who was an assistant director here in town, and he said his first job was running out to a bank robbery. And the robber had a shotgun, and there he is in his summer weight suit and all he has is this little revolver, and he say, “Freeze, FBI!” And just hearing that, the guy dropped the shotgun. Now, that’s what you want to have happen, and I’m not sure that that isn’t still the case with the FBI. I think for the most part public confidence in it is still pretty high.
MS. DAVIS: Well, I was just going to say that, you know, whether or not Democrats feel like they need to know whether Wray took a loyalty oath, his firm is a firm that has advised Trump’s businesses, so I think this will definitely become a question in his confirmation. And whether or not there’s a lack of support for him in the agency – which, by all accounts, he’s very well-respected among the folks at the FBI and at the Justice Department – I do think he is going to have a very rough confirmation hearing. I don’t question whether he’ll get confirmed, but that is going to be a really tough session where they’re asking – where the Democrats are going to be pressing him on, you know, what did Trump ask you, what did you tell him, and can you really be an independent FBI director the way the country needs an independent FBI director under the current circumstances.
MR. COSTA: Kim, real quick, where does the GOP agenda stand amid all these Russia probes and questions?
MS. ATKINS: I think a lot of Americans are asking that, or a lot of viewers of news right now. It’s tough. I mean, you have House Speaker Paul Ryan, who would love to talk about anything other than Russia, trying very hard to move forward – you know, nothing to see here, you know, we’re carrying on as usual. And I think that’s one reason that we saw Ryan sort of defend the president, just to sort of kind of set this aside and say, hey, you know, he’s new at this, he doesn’t really quite know what he’s doing, in an effort to try to quell that and allow – give the GOP cover in order to sort of push this aside without causing any more damage, and then maybe turn the focus back to things like health care and tax reform and all the things that they wish they were focusing on but all the oxygen has been stolen out of the room.
MR. COSTA: I want to turn to one of my favorite topics, Dan Balz and the United Kingdom. (Laughter.) Let’s take a quick trip overseas, where the results are in the for the parliamentary election for America’s closest ally. Just weeks after a series of terror attacks, the United Kingdom’s prime minister held on to her job, barely. Theresa May’s Conservative Party actually lost seats, but the prime minister isn’t dwelling on the results with Brexit negotiations set to begin soon.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: (From video.) I have just been to see her majesty the queen. And I will now form a government, a government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country. This government will guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks that begin in just 10 days, and deliver on the will of the British people by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
MR. COSTA: Dan, you were in the U.K. for the last election, in 2015, Snapchatting, filing stories. You know the country, you know the people, you know the politics. What led to such a dramatic shift?
DAN BALZ: A couple of things, Bob. Although, I have to say, this outcome was a surprise. When the exit poll popped last night, on Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. in Britain and 5:00 p.m. here in the U.S., and it showed the Conservative Party falling short of a majority, I think jaws were dropping.
Here’s what happened: Theresa May became prime minister a year ago, after the Brexit vote, when David Cameron, the then-prime minister, resigned because of what happened with the Brexit vote. She had never faced the public in the way she had to face them in this time. But in the – and she had always said she was not going to call a snap election. But she was looking at the polls that showed the Labour Party 20 points behind her in popularity. And she thought, if I call a snap election, I can have a huge majority in Parliament, which will give me much more strength in the negotiations over Brexit. And so she called the election.
What happened? There were two terrorist attacks. She made some very bad policy choices – including something which became labeled as the dementia tax, which as you can imagine anything that’s called that is going to be bad politics. And she turned out to be a woefully weak candidate. She would not debate her opponents in a televised debate. She was stiff on the trail. And over time, her strength eroded. And so she made this – she took – she made a bet. And it backfired completely on her.
And so they ended up short of a majority. They’ve had to cobble together, you know, a coalition government with one of the Northern Ireland parties. She’s weakened going into Brexit. Her standing within the Conservative Party is weaker. She will face challenges to her leadership. And her government will be in a very fragile position in the Parliament, because even with the coalition she’s put together, she’s only a few votes beyond a majority.
MR. COSTA: It’s not always smart to say we can take lessons from the U.K. over in U.S. politics, but it is interesting across the pond to see a rising left, a rising Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, did better than expected. Does that show that maybe this populism is on the wane?
MS. DAVIS: I think it’s really difficult to know, and certainly to draw parallels between here and there. But, listen, Theresa May was one of the leaders in Europe to whom Trump was closest. You know, he was – the rest of – you know, Angela Merkel has been critical of him. Marcon in France has been critical of him. He had this trip, you know, to the G-7 and NATO where there was a really chilly dynamic there, except for with May. And it’s not the warmest relationship in the world, but it was fair to view them as sort of two peas in a pod.
And it’s difficult to look at this result and think that there isn’t some sort of shift going on there in the same way that we felt a real shift going on here after our last election. And it was so interesting to hear her talk about certainty and we have to have certainty, because to me I look at what happened in the U.K. in this election, and all I see is murkiness and uncertainty. And you add to that the fact that they are now going into these Brexit negotiations, and it’s just – it’s a really – it’s sort of an upended time there, like it – like it is here.
MR. COSTA: Do you think it could upend the relationship, perhaps, with Trump – the May-Trump relationship?
MS. ATKINS: Well, I think it’s difficult to say what factors go into a relationship with the U.S. president at this point. I mean, alliances that we thought we might see have been strained to a great extent. So I think we have to wait and see. I just think – just watching this without as much insight as Dan, but I just thought it was really interesting to see Theresa May choose to call this snap election based on polling, after the polling for the Brexit indicated that it was going down in flames, and yet that was still a political gamble that she chose to take, even before the terrorist attacks and the other things that happened subsequently.
MR. BALZ: Yeah. It’s interesting. You know, the president is supposed to make a state visit to the United Kingdom sometime later this year. And that’s – that was even before this election hugely controversial. She’s going to have to make a decision about what to do on that. You can’t rescind the invitation, and yet how they handle it or what they – what they do is tricky.
You know, on the question of what it means for the left, one of the things that happened in this election – which is directly contrary to what happened in France, where the two major parties cratered – both the Tories and Labour Party increased vote. UKIP, which was behind the Brexit vote, completely cratered. And what Theresa May was hoping was that those UKIP voters – conservative, you know, anti-immigration voters – would do was back Conservative candidates. Instead, in many places, they seemed to back Labour candidates. That might be a sign for the Democrats here, although it’s difficult to read too much into it. I think the one thing you can read into it – whether it’s, you know, there or here or France of whatever we’ve seen – is there is still a lot of discontent.
MR. COSTA: I used to be an intern at the House of Commons over in the U.K. And if you think American politics is rough, watch those guys yell at each other – and ladies. (Laughter.)
Anyway, that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, learn more about the new guy at the FBI, Christopher Wray. And see if you really are a news sleuth, by taking the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time on the Washington Week Extra.