ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra. The famed Mar-a-Lago Resort is President Trump’s favorite getaway, and as a reporter who’s covered him in Palm Beach it’s easy to understand why. He owns the private club in Florida and he loves the social scene there – allies and friends relaxing by the pool, golf nearby. But while President Trump calls it his Winter White House, Mar-a-Lago isn’t a federal property. That complicates security, with the Secret Service having to work with resort staffers on the guest list. Those tensions flared this week when it was reported that a 32-year-old woman from China was recently arrested after she gained access to Mar-a-Lago carrying four cellphones and computer material designed to cause damage. The Secret Service then issued a statement saying it, quote, “doesn’t determine” who is invited or welcomed at Mar-a-Lago.
Well, welcoming our guests tonight, let’s introduce Katty Kay, anchor of BBC World News America and host of Beyond 100 Days; Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal; Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News.
This week Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, and Mark Warner sent a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray saying the arrest “raises very serious questions about vulnerabilities at Mar-a-Lago” and asking the agency to review its security. When you think about the Democratic response, you cover Capitol Hill as well, Geoff – based at the White House, but you keep an eye on the Hill – is this something that’s going to pick up significant traction, this investigation of Mar-a-Lago?
GEOFF BENNETT: I think so because the Democrats aren’t framing it as a political issue so much as a national security issue. And Cindy Yang, this Chinese national who was not previously known to authorities, I mean, this is one of the unintended consequences of having a president who does like the social interaction at a place like Mar-a-Lago, where anyone who can pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a club fee has direct access to the president. And the reporting is such that the only way this woman was stopped was because of a Mar-a-Lago receptionist who kept her from getting to where she wanted to go.
MR. COSTA: And the president, Ashley, this weekend is heading to his own private club in Los Angeles as part of his trip. He just continues to go to private club after private club. Is that because he’s trying to promote the brand? Is he comfortable there? Is he aware of the security concerns?
ASHLEY PARKER: It’s all of the above except the security concerns. He loves promoting the brand. He’s also a creature of comforts. On the campaign trail when I covered him every single night he did not do what most candidates do, which is you do your last event in Iowa, you sleep in Iowa, you get up the next morning and fly to New Hampshire or South Carolina. Every single day, just about no matter where we were in the country, we would board his private plane and we would fly back to New York because he wanted to stay at his home there, at Trump Tower. And he just – for someone who has that much money he actually is very much a homebody, and he also – as you said before, he loves the social interaction at these private clubs that are his, and especially as his bubble becoming president has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller and more constrained. That’s one of the things he chafes at. And when he’s at these clubs he can wander around the patio and people can come up to him and he sort of has that freedom that he really otherwise misses now that he’s in the White House.
MR. COSTA: Why doesn’t the Secret Service do more to try to monitor if there’s foreign intelligence at Mar-a-Lago? They seem to be keeping their distance, or they’re at least complaining about it a little bit with the statement they’ve issued.
KATTY KAY: Well, you know, it’s a challenge for every – with every president because all presidents like – through history have liked to spend time away from the White House, and the question is how do you secure that property. And clearly, it sounds from this statement that the Secret Service is kind of saying, look, this is not our fault; we tried to do what we can but we can’t get there. And you know, if you are the Russian or the Chinese or any other adversary’s foreign intelligence service, you would be politically negligent – professionally negligent not to be trying to get into Mar-a-Lago. And since it is such a porous place where the public can come and go – and we’ve seen the president even holding kind of quasi-national security meetings around a table over dinner with people that just happen to be there and passing by – of course you’re going to try and tap that.
GERALD SEIB: I can’t help but think that the people who run Camp David, the presidential retreat in Catoctin Mountain, are saying, hey, hey, we’re here, we’re OK, we’re secure. (Laughter.) I also can’t help thinking that there’s something going in the backdrop of the Democratic response to this, which is Hillary Clinton and her email private server that she used when she was secretary of state, and for which she got a huge amount of grief from Republicans for taking a security risk by using an unsecured private server for her emails, which she used for doing government service. And I have a feeling there’s a little payback going on here. You think we created a security problem? Well, you’re creating a security problem. So that’s another reason I think Democrats don’t mind having a conversation about this problem.
MS. PARKER: Although, one irony is this might be the rare area – and I’m hypothesizing here, to be clear, but where the White House aides actually agree with the Democrats. Because I can tell you, when the president goes to Mar-a-Lago, when he goes to his private golf clubs there, White House aides are nervous. You’ll recall that some of the interviews that President Trump has done where there’s not a single staffer around, it’s just him and a journalist answering questions, have happened at his private golf clubs in Palm Beach, because a club member brings a journalist into the club, walks him over to the president’s table, and then it’s just an on-the-record chat that White House aides don’t know is coming, don’t know what is said, and can’t control. So I think they would be very happy, frankly, to have stricter protocols in place for these private clubs as well.
MR. COSTA: But that’s not President Trump’s style. (Laughter.)
MR. BENNETT: No, it’s not. Clearly, clearly.
MR. COSTA: Earlier this week the House Oversight Committee said it had interviewed a whistleblower. Their claim? Senior Trump administration officials overruled national security concerns to approve clearances for 25 people. Ashley Parker, here at the table, reported that one of them was the president’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner. She wrote, quote, “The new details about the internal debate over Kushner’s clearance revives questions about the severity of the issues flagged in his background investigation.”
Ashely, you just told us that White House aides are looking for a little bit more security, some more protocols at Mar-a-Lago. Yet many White House aides have security problems of their own. And the House Democrats are raising new questions.
MS. PARKER: They sure do. Probably the biggest example of that, frankly, was the Rob Porter incident a little while –
MR. COSTA: Former White House staff secretary.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, staff secretary, who it turned out had not met these security protocols. He didn’t have the correct clearance. He was getting very sensitive information. And this all came out when allegations of domestic abuse came out by two of his ex-wives – or, both of his ex-wives. But it’s true that there is often a different standard, frankly. This is what the Democrats would argue, at least, for people in the president’s close orbit, including his son-in-law. And there were concerns raised, we now know, about Jared Kushner. But he did go ahead and get that security clearance anyhow.
I will say, Jared allies, their explanation is sort of twofold. They say, first of all, the president has discretion to give clearance to whoever he wants. And so if the president does it, therefore it can’t be wrong. And their second argument is that, look, Jared has just spent, you know, hours being interviewed by Hill investigators, being interviewed by Mueller’s team. If there was anything really compromising, for instance, on Russia, don’t you think that would have come out? The rub, of course, is that what is criminal liability or evidence of collusion, what they’re looking for in these background checks can be as simple as something that would open you up to blackmail, that you bet on sports.
MR. COSTA: Does the president, Katty, pay any political cost for intervening or at least allowing these security clearances to go through?
MS. KAY: Well, the cost, I suppose, is being paid now, if there is going to be one, with these questions being raised, and the reporters coming up with the stories, and then Democrats wanting to investigate further. I mean, in a sense the conversation we had earlier on the program about tax returns, Jared Kushner’s security clearances, it all ties into a similar issue of whether there are people around the president, or the president himself, who have any compromising – potentially compromising material in their – in their background the country should be worried about that would suggest that they might be acting not in the national security interest, the national interest, but because somebody has some kind of leverage over them – whether it is financial, in the case of either the president or Jared Kushner.
MR. SEIB: I doubt that he pays much political price, because people’s feelings about the president are so locked in anyway. And I suspect if you’re a Trump supporter, you probably hear this, see these stories, and you say: There’s the deep state working against our president again because, you know, these are career professionals who make these decisions about security clearances, by and large. And the president overrules them because they’re probably trying to get in the way, in the Trump loyalist view, of him doing the job of being president the way he wants to do it. So it just fits into a conspiracy theory, I suspect.
MR. BENNETT: It’s certainly a time of the times that even security clearances have now become a partisan issue, given what used to be a consensus view that anybody who was in any way compromised should not have access to, you know, the country’s innermost secrets. But yet, here we are.
MR. COSTA: Here we are. (Laughter.) Here we go. It’s time for the weekend.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.