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.
President Trump has broadened his search for a new FBI director to replace James Comey. He’s reportedly looking for someone who would be seen as independent from the White House. Pete, who are some of the names on the shortlist?
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, among them are, of course, Andrew McCabe, who was the deputy FBI director and is now the acting. He’s one of them. Another is Senator John Cornyn of Texas from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Alice Fisher, who’s been – has some experience in foreign policy, law enforcement circles. And a judge from Texas – or from New York, rather.
Interesting thing: they’re actually going to start interviewing these people this weekend. And you know, by virtue of the law, McCabe immediately became the FBI director. That’s the way federal law works, the Vacancy Act. But then the Justice Department said we are already talking to people who could be interim FBI director, which made you wonder – under the law, again, they could serve for 210 days – made you wonder would they keep that person in place until the Russia investigation is over? Because many members of Congress were saying, well, if you want us to confirm your FBI director, we want a special counsel or we’re not going to vote for him. Well, it appears they’re going to move ahead with this very, very quickly. They’re already interviewing people.
MR. COSTA: What’s your sense about where it goes? Does it go to someone who has close ties to the FBI, or does it go to a politician, a John Cornyn?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, it’s going to be the president’s choice. I have no idea what he has in mind. I can see plusses and minuses about all of them. I think on the one hand, for example, John Cornyn is well-liked in the Senate, he’s popular in a bipartisan sense. But on the other hand, he is a Republican senator, and would that – would he be seen as somebody who would be beholden to the White House? Would he be less independent than someone who comes from a completely nonpolitical background? So that’s the kind of questions they’re going to have to ask, who do they want and who could get confirmed.
MR. COSTA: And it seems like everyone in Washington’s floating names. I was most struck by Merrick Garland from the D.C. Circuit being floated as a way for the Republicans, it seems, to maybe get a seat on that court and get Merrick Garland into the FBI. But when I was on Capitol Hill, Erica, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that’s a pipe dream.
MR. WILLIAMS: One problem is Merrick would have to say yes. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: That’s right, he would have accept it.
ERICA WERNER: That’s probably the biggest problem.
MR. COSTA: Well, this week the president established a commission to review alleged voter fraud. Vice President Pence will chair the effort, along with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Dan, the president said he’s making good on a campaign promise and this is a major investigation, but there are a lot of questions about voter fraud and whether it should really be at the fore of a national agenda.
DAN BALZ: Yeah, and it wasn’t really a campaign promise so much as it was a reaction to suggestions that, you know – or his difficulty in accepting the fact that he lost the popular vote to Secretary Clinton while winning the Electoral College. This started when he claimed that there were 3 to 5 million illegal immigrants who had voted illegally in the election, and had they voted he would have won the popular vote. So to a lot of people it’s a commission in search of a problem, as opposed to a commission that’s going to solve a problem. They’ve got a number of credible people on it, a number of secretaries of state from both parties. But I think there are concerns, particularly among civil liberties people and a lot of Democrats, that instead of looking at, you know, some of the aspects of this, it will provide ammunition for more Republican-led efforts to suppress vote through voter IDs and things like that, which have been controversial.
MR. WILLIAMS: Does it have the portfolio to look at the vulnerability of the election system to foreign hacking?
MR. BALZ: I don’t know that. I would assume they would want that, but that’s a whole other – I mean, you could have a separate commission doing that, and you might well once we know more about what happened during the election.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I asked that question and I wasn’t given a very direct answer. (Laughter.) I was told they will be looking into infrastructure when I said specifically cyber. And that threat, I was told, well, we don’t want to get into that level of detail, we’ll see where the commission goes. So, to your point, that’s a whole other level of complexity. I don’t know if it will be included in this.
MS. WERNER: But it’s very difficult to conclude that this springs from anything other than the president’s own obsession with the number of votes he received in the election, which is an issue that he’s returned to time and again under a series of kind of inappropriate circumstances, including, we found out during Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, that one of the first things the president said when he was interviewing Gorsuch for the Court was to bring up whether he could have won Colorado in the election, Gorsuch’s home state. So it’s just clearly a preoccupation.
MR. BALZ: One of the people on the panel is Bill Gardner from New Hampshire, who’s been the secretary of state there for many, many, many years, and is a very independent-minded person. One of the charges that came up at the time that the president was complaining about illegal votes was that there had been thousands if not tens of thousands of people who had streamed across the New Hampshire border to vote in the election. I suspect that Secretary Gardner will have his own views on whether that did or didn’t happen, and will have a loud voice on the conclusions that the committee makes on that.
MR. COSTA: Bill Gardner, that name – that is so tied to New Hampshire politics.
MR. BALZ: The legendary – the legendary Bill Gardner.
MR. COSTA: Indeed, indeed. Hello, Bill, if you’re watching. (Laughter.)
Next week President Trump will make his first overseas trip, visiting the capitals of three major world religions – stopping in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and at the Vatican. Margaret, what type of reception is the White House expecting?
MS. BRENNAN: Well, they picked these capitals, I think, not only because in appealing to the religious sort of symbolism here that may appeal to their base, but there’s some redemption, perhaps, in the first stop for the president to go to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the custodian of the two holy mosques. You’ll continue to hear them reference that. White House communications very focused on that. Subtext of that, we’re going to try to repair the image that was maybe damaged with this so-called Muslim ban, or the ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries, which is still being argued about in the U.S. court system.
So that is actually where the president will spend the majority of his time, the longest stop. Then he’ll go on to Israel. And he’ll go also meet with the pope. And there’s a big itinerary here. I mean, these are not small – your typical Canada, Mexico, Europe, the easy stops. They’re – there’s a level of complexity in that first stop. That’s going to be really interesting to watch the president and how he messages and how he reaches out. He’s going to have a number of leaders from throughout the Arab world, a number of Islamic leaders there. And you’ll hear a lot about fighting ISIS. You’ll hear a lot about pushing back against Iran. And those things will make him very popular – more popular and more warm of a reception than he might have received in, say, London.
MR. COSTA: Is the Russia issue going to play into any of the conversations about – perhaps with Saudi Arabia about Iran, Syria?
MS. BRENNAN: I asked General McMaster that today, saying you had Russia’s top diplomat in the Oval Office this week. What did you agree on in Syria, because the president at the end of that meeting said it was very positive, and we see all these opportunities to work together to stop the killing – the horrible, horrible killing, is what he said. What is he actually going to say to the Saudi Arabian government that continues to allege that there’s ongoing genocide happening and that the Russians are part of it? So how do you warm up to Russia when that means you’re also helping those who are carrying out the killing, in the view of many? So that’s going to be a difficult thing for him to actually try to explain since it’s not clear yet that there’s a full policy, as McMaster explained it.
MR. COSTA: And I’m very curious to see what he does with his former campaign foe, Pope Francis. (Laughter.)
MS. BRENNAN: Fair point. And can he put all this to bed and focus on some of these very pressing national security issues and the – and the messages he has to bring of reassurance when he’s still got this, you know, firefight here at home?
MR. BALZ: And what should we expect when he’s in Israel, in terms of Israeli-Palestinian discussions, talks, et cetera?
MS. BRENNAN: So there’s going to be some meetings Monday and the rest of this week to sort of hammer out some of this, particularly with the diplomats involved. The White House still won’t answer the question of whether they will actually get Palestinian and Israeli leadership in the same room. Looking at the politics in both places right now, that is a very difficult proposition for Mahmoud Abbas or for Bibi Netanyahu right now, the prime minister of Israel. But the president will be going to Bethlehem. He will be going into Palestinian territory. He is reaching out. General McMaster said today: We are supportive of Palestinian self-determination. That’s eking you closer to something the president wouldn’t say before, which is that maybe we are going to commit again to a two-state solution.
So again, these are broad promises. We haven’t actually heard what he’s going to do with the negotiations. But we’re hearing very good things about Jason Greenblatt, his diplomat leading this, who’s actually winning over Palestinians and a lot of Arab leaders in a way that they were not expecting to, given the deep ties to the Netanyahu government.
MR. COSTA: We’ll be keeping a close eye on that trip, and you’ll be going there as well.
Erica, you wrote an interesting story this week about how mild-mannered Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is building a working relationship with the always-outspoken President Trump. How have they managed to make this relationship work, at least in some respects, during these early months?
MS. WERNER: Well, it’s really interesting. I mean, as you know, you cannot conceive of two people who are more polar opposites. I mean, just in practically every personality trait you can think of. Trump being impulsive, undisciplined, shoot from the lip, et cetera. And McConnell supremely disciplined, always playing the long game, very guarded, plays his cards very close to the chest. But they obviously need each other. And they both have – they do have something important in common, which is that they want wins. McConnell wants legislative victories on health care and taxes. He can’t do that without the president.
So McConnell’s been very interesting, the way he’s handled the president from day one. Unlike Speaker Ryan, who equivocated about endorsing him and was kind of all over the place and therefore earned Trump’s suspicion, McConnell endorsed him right away, stuck with that, and just kept quiet about it. And even now, will kind of barely talk about him, in a certain way. He criticizes him for tweeting – that’s, like, his one thing he’s decided to criticize him for. But if you ask him, you know, on another issue he’ll just say, I choose not to answer that, and move on.
MR. COSTA: I love that McConnell sometimes says: I did tell the president to stop tweeting. He did not listen.
MS. WERNER: Yeah. That passes for humor from McConnell.
MR. COSTA: And when I’m over at the White House, know why they love McConnell? Gorsuch.
MS. WERNER: Yes.
MR. COSTA: They just say: It was a tough first few months, but McConnell got us the Supreme Court justice through.
MS. WERNER: Right. He delivered the one victory that Trump has had so far, and thereby demonstrated his mastery of Congress – unlike Speaker Ryan, again, who fumbled health care so badly before.
MR. COSTA: It’s going to be tested with health care in the Senate. You and I were roaming around the halls, and they have a road ahead to get any kind of legislation through the Senate on health care, won’t they?
MS. WERNER: For sure. Oh, yeah. No doubt. I mean, it’s very unclear how that’s going to happen, if that’s going to happen, especially now that that issue has totally gone underground with the FBI and Comey stuff really consuming center stage on the Hill.
MR. COSTA: Well, that’s it for this edition of Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, take this week’s Washington Week-ly News Quiz, that includes a question about a former president who’s launching a new career with best-selling author James Patterson, and find out why talk about death panels has become common at many town hall meetings about health care.
I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.