PETE WILLIAMS: I’m Pete Williams. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me tonight, Robert Costa, who joins us from Indiana; Kristen Welker, of NBC News; Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post; and the very lovely Ed O’Keefe of CBS News. (Laughter.)
Traditionally, former presidents step out of the spotlight after their term is up out of respect for their successor, but today former President Barack Obama broke his silence in a speech at a college campus in Illinois. He attacked Republicans and he called out the sitting president, Donald Trump, by name for the first time.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. We are Americans. We’re supposed to stand up to bullies – (applause) – not follow them. We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. (Cheers, applause.) How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad? What happened to the Republican Party? They’re cozying up to the former head of the KGB. I complained plenty about Fox News – (laughter) – but you never heard me threaten to shut them down or call them enemies of the people. As a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president but as a fellow citizen, I am here to deliver a simple message, and that is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Bob, do you think there are a lot of Democrats wondering where has Obama been on this, why are we only hearing from him now?
ROBERT COSTA: In a sense, yes, Pete, but this Obama speech really tells us a lot about where the Democratic Party is right now. There’s so many possible future leaders – Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Warren, there are mayors like Mayor Landrieu – former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – probably more than two dozen Democrats who could run for president in 2020, yet no one’s really emerged as the leader of the party at this time in the era of Trump. And the party needs President Obama to come back – to come roaring back in a speech like this to motivate them to go to the polls because there isn’t a Newt Gingrich-like figure for the Democrats like there was in ’94 for the Republicans who could really galvanize at the congressional level or a future presidential contender who is seen, like Secretary Clinton was last time, as the heir apparent to the nomination and will – and will push the voters out. It’s still Obama, as it was years ago.
MR. WILLIAMS: But, Ed, you know, we wonder sometimes, people ask, why don’t Republicans speak up if they don’t like what President Trump is doing? But it strikes me there haven’t been these sorts of big set-piece speeches like this from the Democrats either.
ED O’KEEFE: No, there haven’t. And look, he’s doing this at a moment of maximum exposure and maximum opportunity because the campaign now really is beginning. Kids are back in school, parents are thinking about this stuff, you know, they’re seeing the ads on TV. This now makes sense for a time for him to break through. And if you listen and read that speech, he’s not just speaking to Democrats; he’s speaking to independent voters, he’s speaking to disaffected Republicans, who probably agreed with the guy or the woman who wrote that op-ed in The New York Times this week, who are concerned about the future of the Republican Party and worried that it’s gone. Those are the people Democratic candidates need this year, especially in those House races, where the Republicans may have a voter registration advantage but for whatever reason they feel they can win with Donald Trump in the White House.
MR. WILLIAMS: But have the battle lines politically, are they so jelled now that you really can’t move anybody?
SEUNG MIN KIM: I think the hope for Democrats is that those lines still are possible that you get some of those disaffected voters back to the party because we know that Trump – President Trump in 2016 were able to reach out to the very non-traditional voters to vote and pull the Republican lever for him. And I think it’s the Democrats – Democrats have been struggling to get them back, and that’s why they’ve been testing out different messages to see what really works.
KRISTEN WELKER: And, Pete, that is Obama’s whole argument, that there’s been this sense that the battle lines are already drawn and you can’t win over new voters. And he is basically making the point that’s how I got elected, by winning new voters. He gave that speech today in a Republican stronghold. He’s making the case that what Hillary Clinton did didn’t necessarily work, that he’s going to do it differently, and he’s making this broader argument to Democrats that they have to get more engaged in midterm elections.
MR. O’KEEFE: Also very important, he didn’t do this in a vacuum. All of this is being done in close consultation with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the one that elects House Democrats, the committee that elects Senate Democrats, the DNC, the Democratic Governors Association. Remember he released a list of like 70 people he had endorsed about three or four weeks ago? All of that done in consultation with the Democratic campaign committees. He won’t go anywhere or speak about anything generally unless he’s checked with all of them and makes sure is this too much, is this just right, and it’s all in close consultation.
MR. WILLIAMS: Bob, you think we’d be paying this much attention to the Obama speech if it hadn’t been for the prerelease of the Woodward book and the anonymous op-ed?
MR. COSTA: He’s been quiet enough that even without the Woodward book and the New York Times op-ed President Obama would still command attention because of the way he’s kept a low profile over the past year. But Ed’s right about the timing being not only ripe – because kids are back at school and people are paying attention now that it’s the fall, getting towards the November elections – but there’s a lot of concern among Republicans, and that’s really the thing to watch, as others were saying. Where do Republicans go, the Republicans who may have liked President Trump as a change agent in 2016 but may have voted for President Obama in 2012? Can the Obama message here be a magnet for those types of voters?
MR. WILLIAMS: I want to ask you all about a criticism that’s come up about the anonymous op-ed, and that is, how much concern should we have that anonymous, someone who isn’t elected, is trying to derail the activities of somebody who was elected? Is that a legitimate criticism?
MS. WELKER: I think it is a legitimate concern in terms of the critique. You have some Trump allies who say this is potentially the beginnings of what looks like a coup. That’s overstated, I think. But I think there is a concern for a commander in chief to be undercut by people he works with. Nikki Haley came out with an op-ed today. She said if you disagree with President Trump, go talk to him, tell him or resign. And I hear a lot of people making that same argument.
President Obama said today, look, this is not a real check on power, writing an op-ed, and so I think that there’s going to be a broader call for those who might disagree with the president to say so.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah. President Obama also said, you know, how much is this person who wrote this doing a favor if they – if they try to block 10 percent of what he does, but facilitate 90 percent of what he does?
MS. KIM: Exactly. And that’s again, a similar complaint that we heard from Capitol Hill. And it’s this anonymity issue has really overshadowed, in some ways, the message of the op-ed. And I think that’s why you’re hearing all these kind of questions and mixed messages about what it all kind of really means at the end of the day.
MR. O’KEEFE: Two of the most notable modern movies about the American presidency that I can think of, Murder at 1600 and Dave, featured staffers who were trying to do what this writer is essentially saying is going on, which is that staffers were going in and trying to manipulate or control the president when they are unelected bureaucrats, essentially, or unelected political appointees.
MR. WILLIAMS: And I thought you were going to say All the President’s Men because of the Woodward book. (Laughter.)
Speaking of which, Bob, let me ask you this. Many of the people who are quoted in the Woodward book are now saying I didn’t say that. General Mattis, General Kelly have all said the things that I’m quoted in the book I didn’t say. What are we to make of that?
MR. COSTA: Well, we should take it seriously when people deny making these comments. But the Woodward book is written, as many of – all of his previous books have been, for the most part, on what’s called deep background. And as we all know, that means people are quoted, but that doesn’t mean the quote is attributed to the person who is being quoted. So Rob Porter, the former staff secretary, is quoted throughout this Woodward book, describing different scenes and the president’s comments, but it’s not clear if Woodward spoke to Rob Porter because the sourcing is not specified in the book at all, it’s just all conducted on this deep background basis, so you have to trust Woodward’s credibility to believe this book. And Woodward is offering this to the readers saying if you believe my credibility – he hopes you do, going back to his history with Watergate and All the President’s Men and The Final Days and his books about the Obama and Bush years – he’s saying this is what I’ve found out.
And talking to Woodward, you get the sense that he records everything for every book. So he does deep background interviews on recordings and he’s relying on his credibility to convey these scenes.
MR. WILLIAMS: This is probably a good time to ask you to tell us, Bob, about next week’s special edition of Washington Week, a one-on-one with Bob Woodward.
MR. COSTA: I just want to walk through the process with Woodward about, what’s he really hearing from these people inside of the administration? What’s it like to talk to them, to bring them to his house in Georgetown, to really walk through what’s going on with this presidency, a presidency that has the whole world’s attention? And Woodward has spent – what makes Woodward interesting to me is we’re on the front lines reporting day to day. Everybody at this table is reporting day to day on this White House and Congress and campaigns. But Woodward stepped back for over a year and said I’m just going to focus on this book and not be part of the daily news cycle. And there’s got to be some different lessons learned from that kind of approach.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I’m probably the only person at this table who can say I got the Woodward treatment, because when I was a lowly government official, I actually did go to Bob Woodward’s house and had some dinners and I was a source for one of his books, the books he wrote about the Pentagon called The Commanders. I will also say this, that when Woodward started his interviewing at the Pentagon, my boss at the time, Dick Cheney, was very suspicious of him. When the book came out, Mr. Cheney gave it to his mother for Christmas. (Laughter.)
That’s it for this edition of Washington Week Extra. I’m Pete Williams. Robert Costa will be back next week. Have a great weekend.