ROBERT COSTA: Tonight, on this special edition of the Washington Week Extra, the Russia probe. Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is issued a subpoena by Robert Mueller, cuts a deal to avoid a grand jury, then refuses to fully testify before a House committee until his terms are cleared by the White House. And rewriting the rules of health care, the short- and long-term impact of the Trump administration’s new work requirements for Medicaid recipients. I’m Robert Costa. We discuss President Trump’s unconventional first year, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was served with two subpoenas this week relating to investigations of Russian election meddling. First, special counsel Robert Mueller’s team sent a subpoena for Bannon to testify before a grand jury. Then the House Intelligence Committee issued another subpoena after Bannon refused to answer questions, claiming possible executive privilege. Bannon wasn’t the only former Trump campaign advisor to appear before the House Intelligence Committee this week. Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was also on Capitol Hill, and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors. Bannon joined the Trump campaign as chairman in August of 2016, and went on to serve as the White House’s chief strategist for most of last year. But his critical remarks about the president and the president’s family in that explosive book, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, cost him his job pretty recently as the head of the conservative website Breitbart. The president also disavowed Bannon, saying he had, quote, “lost his mind.”
Joining me now with the latest developments in the Russia probe are Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times. Carol, Mark, great to have you on the program.
Carol, when you look at Bannon’s appearance on Capitol Hill, what was the significance, if any, of his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee?
CAROL LEONNIG: I think two things were important about that appearance, and both of them we’ve reported in the Post. The first one is that Bannon, who was really in a fiery kind of breakup with President Trump, appeared to be trying to sing from the same songbook with the president and with the White House. He’d hired the White House counsel’s – I’m sorry, the White House pool lawyer. He was conferring through his lawyer with the White House about what he should and should not answer questions about. So I think it was an effort, at least symbolically, to come in from the cold and to mend fences with the president.
The second part that I thought was significant was the issue of how angry his refusals to answer questions made Republicans and Democrats. And we quoted a lawmaker saying, essentially, Bannon was one of the only figures who could unite Republicans and Democrats on the Hill. The chairman fairly famously authorized a subpoena, which – in the middle of the testimony, which was unheard of, a sign of real frustration.
MR. COSTA: Mark, what’s your read on why special counsel Robert Mueller decided to cut a deal with Bannon this week, and issued a subpoena to testify before a grand jury but then decided to work with Bannon and only have an interview?
MARK MAZZETTI: Yeah, it’s certainly unusual, first of all, to have the subpoena and then to work out a sort of less-formal interview. It’s hard to read exactly what is going on behind the scenes, but it certainly appears that this was an opening move by Mueller; then Bannon’s attorney countered, offering an interview; and that this is preferable for Bannon, that this is something that he’d rather have than to have to appear before a grand jury. There are some critical differences. If you’re appearing before a grand jury, you don’t have your lawyer present. It’s a little bit more confrontational, adversarial. Grand jury testimony can be used later if there is an ultimate jury trial. Having an interview is less formal. You have your attorney present. So this is something that Bannon was able to get from Mueller. And, you know, whether he – you know, it does appear that he would be sort of cooperative as opposed to someone who is, you know, a hostile, hostile individual towards the Mueller probe.
MR. COSTA: Carol, on that point, do you see Bannon as cooperating here by agreeing to an interview, or is that kind of a loaded term in these sort of investigations?
MS. LEONNIG: Yeah, very good point, Bob, about that word. I don’t see it as cooperating, more cooperative. Remember, FBI agents went to visit Mr. Bannon and he shrugged them off in some way, resisted an interview. And that is when he was served with a subpoena. So it seemed important to the special counsel to make clear to the former senior advisor to the president that he would be talking to them one way or another. And perhaps this was the way to get that message across.
It also to me was interesting about the timing, not so much coming after the book but coming before the House Intel hearing. And, you know, obviously Bannon declined to answer a lot of questions. We’ll see what happens. He won’t be able to decline very long in answering questions from the special counsel.
MR. COSTA: Mark – and Carol, I’d like to get your take on this too – but first, Mark: When you think about the White House special – White House counsel’s office communicating with Bannon’s attorney and talking about possible executive privilege, what kind of legal standing does the White House have? Will they be able to prevent many former Trump campaign advisors, whether it’s Bannon or Corey Lewandowski or Hope Hicks, from sharing anecdotes or testimony about the president’s time in office?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, I mean, clearly it was – it was clear they hadn’t worked out things in advance. I mean, remember that Bannon was kind of the first person – senior person to appear before the committee, where the questioning was really focused on the time in office as opposed to primarily about the campaign. And of course, when you’re talking about the administration, the time of office, that’s where the question of executive privilege comes in. Now, it always has to be pointed out that the witness can’t just assert executive privilege. The White House – the president has to assert executive privilege. So they certainly believe that they have a case to make that these are privileged conversations and therefore not something that Bannon would have to testify to.
MR. COSTA: Carol, when you think about the president here, his lawyer, Ty Cobb, told CBS News this week that, quote, the president would be “very eager” to talk to Bob Mueller’s team, that a conversation could be coming in the – maybe in the coming weeks or months. Yet, at the same time, the White House is trying to prevent this kind of testimony on Capitol Hill. What do you make of Ty Cobb’s comments, and what do they tell us about the White House?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer, specializing in responding to the Russian probe with the media and with Bob Mueller, has said over and over again: We are cooperating here – (laughs) – to quote the movie Fargo. You know, we want to be as transparent, as open as possible. In some ways that’s optics, and in some ways that’s true. I don’t think that the president is going to resist an interview. He may – and his lawyers may actually set some quite strict terms, or try to set some terms about the categories, so he knows what he’s going to be talking about.
And they are seeking, according to our reporting, to try to have some of the question and answers to be in written form in some way. And I’ve been told multiple times that ultimately they’re going to have a hybrid kind of interview. Yes, we’ll sit down with you. Yes, we’ll agree probably to a videotaped conversation. And we hope that some of it can be in writing rather than, you know, extemporaneous debate format.
MR. COSTA: Mark, final thought on –
MR. MAZZETTI: Can I just add just one thing as well?
MR. COSTA: Sure, please.
MR. MAZZETTI: That there may be some, you know, client management going on here with the White House lawyers, right? Ty Cobb has said over and over again, this probe is nearing an end. We’ve heard it. We heard it last year that it was going to end by the end of 2017. You know, there may be a little bit of trying to manage President Trump and kind of keep him in check. This is someone who we know tweets on impulse sometimes. And, you know, Ty Cobb would certainly want to keep his client from doing things that may get him in more trouble with Mueller. So managing it with, you know, this thing is about to end, it may be partly a strategy to deal with Trump’s impulses.
MR. COSTA: And, Carol, real quick, it’s going to be maybe hard on that impulse question because there’s a real clamor on the right. You look at House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. He’s briefing House Republicans about missteps he thinks were taken by the Justice Department. Democrats say he’s just reading talking points and misleading Republicans. But you have all this anger on the right about Mueller’s credibility, about the Justice Department. And the president sees all of that too.
MS. LEONNIG: Absolutely, Bob. I think the president is just as hot and bothered about this probe as he was, you know, months and months ago, when there was internally a lot of speculation that the president was trying to pressure the attorney general to quit, and believed that this probe was corrupt and unfair and conflicted and that many members of Mueller’s team had a donor relationship with Democrats. And it’s – I don’t think this temper has been cooled by any one thing that anyone says. But I think Mark’s right about Ty Cobb’s strategy, which is let’s just try to get this thing over with and get it done, and keep the train moving forward of cooperation. Behind the scenes, it’s a whole ’nother story.
MR. COSTA: Client management. Thank you very much, Carol Leonnig, Mark Mazzetti, two of the best in the business, sharp reporters, Pulitzer Prize winners. Thanks, again, for joining us.
MS. LEONNIG: Thank you, Bob.
MR. MAZZETTI: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: As President Trump approaches the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, the stock market continues to soar and unemployment is down to 4.1 percent – a 17-year low. While the economy is strong, the president’s poll numbers are weak. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Thursday finds that Americans consider President Trump’s first year a failure, 53 percent to 37 percent, 10 percent were unsure. Mr. Trump and his fellow Republicans find themselves heading into a midterm election where one or both houses of Congress could switch control should the Democrats make gains.
Joining me to discuss all of this, the president’s first year, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Kelsey Snell of NPR, Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.
Jeff, you’ve been covering presidents for over a decade now. What do you make of the president’s first year? Was it about the policy and all the efforts he made on the judiciary, in taxes, in ripping apart some of the Obama regulations? Or was it really more historically and now about the style, about the temperament and the conduct?
JEFF ZELENY: I think overall, certainly, the easiest to remember are things about the style and the conduct, because the president has not done the best job amplifying his accomplishments. And there are – let’s start with those – there are some accomplishments. He got the Supreme Court justice through. I think what is one of the biggest impacts probably is the effect on the judiciary. With, you know, the Senate in Republican hands he – you know, a lot of judges have sailed through.
But I think one thing I’ve been struck by going into the White House, you know, virtually every day this year, certainly five days a week, is that there’s no sense of what the message is, and there’s no sense that this president is driving a message or there’s a strategy. It is a lot of confusion. There is a lot of chaos when there really doesn’t need to be, and a lot of obfuscating, you know, sort of what the next move should be here. So I think in some ways he gets in the way of himself. In some ways, he gets in the way of actual progress. We hear again and again and again he’s been the most successful first-term of any president. You know, that’s just not true, in terms of the legislative accomplishments.
But he’s made a mark. And all presidents learn on the job. Certainly much different than the first year of the Obama administration and Bush administration, which I covered. But it’s still a – you know, a work in progress.
MR. COSTA: What’s the view on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans?
KELSEY SNELL: Among Republicans they think that he’s been quite effective. They’re very proud of the gains that they made on the judicial side. They’re also very proud of what they did on regulations. So that is the thing that you will hear Republicans come back to over and over and over again, that President Obama thought that he could enact much of his agenda through that pen and phone strategy that he used. But the result of that, was that Congress could then reverse much of it once they – you know, once it switched hands. And they’re very proud that they were able to do that. And they’ve – if you were to ask them what their greatest achievements are, they will say judicial nominations, but they will also say the regulatory side.
MR. COSTA: Has it united the Democratic Party?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Well, it certainly has united the Democratic Party against the president. I mean, the Democrats don’t have a lot of power right now, right? They’re a minority in both houses of Congress. And so all they have been able to do is consistently message against this president. So in that sense, it has been a unifier. But I think even on the Republican side, yes, they are proud of some of their accomplishments. But the Republicans, over the course of the year, have also found themselves on the receiving end of the president’s punches very frequently, especially after the failed efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
You have someone like Mitch McConnell, who was instrumental in the judicial accomplishments that this president had, was on the receiving end of this president. The Republicans also had to frequently run from the president when he made his comments after Charlottesville, or when he talked about where these countries are coming from in immigration. So the Republicans have been put in a really peculiar position of having to both align themselves with the president, also while running away from them and, at times – running away from him, and sometimes fearing what he might do or say.
MR. COSTA: Dan, we saw those images of the stock market. And the president and White House officials tell you, they tell me, the president always talks about the stock market. He’s proud of it. How much will that – does that matter for a presidency, the success of the market, the success of the economy versus everything else?
MR. BALZ: Well, it’s not unimportant. But I think that the president has gotten in the way of all of that with the way he has behaved with the tweets, with the comments that he’s made after Charlottesville. There’s one distraction after another. And the Republicans are clearly hoping that they can move the focus of voters by November toward the economy, which they believe will continue to be in good shape. Their argument is that the tax bill is going to spur more investment and that will create more jobs and in fact perhaps lift wages.
If all of that comes true, they have a message. But the reality of the first year of the Trump presidency is that it has been all about the president and not as much about the policies.
MR. ZELENY: And I think that one thing else, the soundtrack has been the Russia investigation, which Mark and Carol were just talking about. And this is – we’ll know by the end of the year, but this is an extraordinary opportunity for a president to come in with, you know, controlling both chambers of Congress, the first time in a decade. And at the end of all this, should Republicans lose one chamber or the other – which we don’t know yet; that’s the great thing about midterm elections, we don’t know – it will look like an opportunity sort of squandered and lost and time wasted on big things like infrastructure, other bills.
I’m constantly reminded – and I asked the president this when he was signing the tax bill last month if he wished he would have started with infrastructure, because what a different presidency that would have been had he had Chuck Schumer in to talk about infrastructure. He said, no, no, no, we’ll save the easiest stuff for the second year. Well, that’s obviously hard. But they made a decision to go the base way. They didn’t get health care repealed as they thought, and now they’re sort of set on this course here. But Dan’s right. He gets in his own way.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of that, the infrastructure proposal, could we see in 2018 the president – he was talking with Senator Schumer ahead of the possible shutdown – could we see him move to the center, or is it the same old playbook for 2018?
MS. SNELL: I think he could move on to infrastructure. And even if he moved to the center on that, I do not see how that could get passed in 2018. It is potentially easier to agree on the broad themes of infrastructure, but Democrats and Republicans have very different approaches to how they want to get to a point where we’re investing more in infrastructure. And those are not simple questions because it comes down to fundamental issues of, does the government spend more money? Do we enter into more public/private partnerships? And how do you prioritize what work gets done? And those are very, very difficult questions to be doing in an election year with, as we’ve talked about, no trust and not a lot of sense that there are good negotiating partners.
MR. COSTA: And who’s shaping it on Capitol Hill, Ryan or McConnell?
MS. SNELL: Oh, gosh, when it comes down to infrastructure?
MR. COSTA: Policy. Policy in general.
MS. SNELL: Policy in general. I think that if you ask Ryan’s office, they would say they would. And if you ask McConnell’s office, they would answer the opposite. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Final thought, Kim?
MS. ATKINS: You know, I think that’s a good jumping point to look into 2018 and what comes ahead. I mean, if they can’t get infrastructure, how are they going to try to get some of the things the president has talked about he wants to do, like welfare reform or entitlement reform? I think it’s going to be another year of big fights between the White House and Congress ahead.
MR. COSTA: Let’s keep – let’s keep talking about this, because when you look back at 2017 it was not just about all the legislation, it was about the rollback, of the Trump administration’s efforts on regulations. And let’s – one of those regulatory efforts across this administration was the first of its kind work requirement for Medicaid recipients. That didn’t get a lot of attention, but worth paying attention to, because this change will require adults between the ages of 19 and 64 to work, go to school, take job training, care for a family member or perform community service. There’s an exemption for pregnant women, full-time students and the physically impaired or medically frail. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s office estimates the work rule will save Kentucky almost $2.5 billion over five years.
The PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff asked Governor Bevin about these new work rules and how they could possibly improve Kentucky’s Medicaid program.
KENTUCKY GOVERNOR MATT BEVIN (R): (From video.) We simply want, for those that are able to be engaged in their own health outcomes, we want them to be because there’s dignity and self-respect that is offered to people through the ability for people to do for themselves.
MR. COSTA: Joining me from Washington is our friend Reid Wilson, political reporter for The Hill.
Reid, so often we hear about the Trump administration’s rollback of different kinds of regulations. But inside of the states, there’s a lot going on that doesn’t often get a lot of attention. And Kentucky has become ground zero for the national Medicaid debate. Who is going to lose coverage with the governor’s latest decision?
REID WILSON: So the state estimates that about 95,000 people would lose coverage over the next five years of this initial test run that Kentucky has now been authorized to do. They would require people between the ages of 19 and 64 who are able-bodied adults, that is people without certain diseases or disabilities, to work at least 20 hours a week – I should say, by the way, to engage in the community at least 20 hours a week, whether that’s working or working towards an education, going through a substance abuse program or volunteering in the community. If that program works, the state thinks that, you know, almost a hundred thousand people who got expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would no longer be on the state rolls.
MR. COSTA: Reid, is Kentucky isolated in how it’s going about this Medicaid rules change? Or are other states looking at this kind of thing as well?
MR. WILSON: Well, already nine other states have made formal requests to create these sort of testing regimes under which they would implement work requirements. And we’re already starting to see some other states say that they would implement their own tests, states like South Dakota, Mississippi and maybe even Louisiana, which is notable because it’s a state with a Democratic governor. Most of these states that are trying to implement new work requirements are run by Republican governors with Republican state legislatures. Only a very few have Democrats anywhere near control.
MR. COSTA: How much of a blow is this for Kentucky’s health care system? Kentucky was a place that many Democrats celebrated as a state that was embracing aspects of the Affordable Care Act. Now Governor Bevin seems to be just tearing that apart.
MR. WILSON: Yeah. And no state benefited more from the Affordable Care Act in terms of the number of people who gained coverage after Obamacare was implemented. And whether or not it’s a blow to the state I think depends on where you sit on whether or not work requirements are a good – a good idea. But there were hundreds of thousands of people who gained coverage when Medicaid expanded to those who made 138 percent of the federal poverty rate or less. Now, at least 95,000 of those could be kicked off.
So it’s a blow in terms of how many people would be covered in Kentucky, but there’s still a lot of people who have coverage now who didn’t before the Affordable Care Act passed.
MR. COSTA: Seema Verma, that’s a name not everybody may know. You cover her closely. She runs the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. She’s an ally of Vice President Pence. How much is Vice President Pence and Seema Verma, his longtime ally, shaping these health care changes at the national level that are then trickling down to the states?
MR. WILSON: Yeah, it’s fascinating. In Indiana, they made some big requests of the Obama administration in order to accept Medicaid expansion money. They didn’t want to call it the Affordable Care Act so they called it Hoosier Care or HIP 2.0. And Seema Verma was the architect of that. Now she is taking some of those ideas nationally. The Trump administration has been a lot friendlier to states requesting waivers and permissions to change little aspects of the Affordable Care Act than the Obama administration was.
This is the next step, something that Republicans have wanted for a long time, work requirements in Medicaid. There are already work requirements for programs like SNAP, the food stamp program, and TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. But there have never been work requirements for Medicaid. Now Seema Verma is taking what Mike Pence proposed in Indiana and allowing other states to experiment with it.
MR. COSTA: So Seema Verma and her agency are taking up these work requirements. States are taking up, at least Kentucky for the moment. When should we expect, Reid – final thought – should Congress – will Congress take this aspect of the law up? Sometimes Congress seems to follow what happens in the states.
MR. WILSON: Right. Everything that happens in the states today is going to happen in Washington tomorrow. Remember, welfare reform started as an initiative of Republican governors in the Midwest before it went national. And in that 1996 welfare overhaul, there were work requirements involved, despite objections from Democrats. President Clinton signed that into law.
So I don’t think you’re going to see Congress take this up now in an election year, messing with entitlement programs. That’s a pretty fraught political task. But if Republicans maintain control, perhaps in the future this is something that’s going to trickle up from the states to Washington.
MR. COSTA: We’ll keep an eye on it. Reid Wilson of The Hill, thank you so much.
MR. WILSON: You got it.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. Remember, if you miss the Washington Week Extra or the regular show, you can always watch it online Friday nights and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
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I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.