ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is Washington Week Extra, where we pick up where we left off on the broadcast.
Michael, this week’s TIME cover story is about one of the president’s closest advisers, Jared Kushner, who’s made headlines recently. And I’m not going to talk about a glowing profile here because it’s – there have been tough headlines for Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. The FBI considers him a person of interest in the Russia probe, but not a target. So why on this cover do you dub him “The Good Son”?
MICHAEL SCHERER: The reason is that there’s two father figures in his life, and in both cases he’s played a similar role. The first is his father, Charles Kushner, who was sent to jail for two years. He was loyally by his side defending him publicly, visiting him in prison, despite rather embarrassing crime that Charles Kushner committed, setting up his brother-in-law with a prostitute and videotaping it. In that case, Jared Kushner was the person who redeemed the family name. He took the real estate company from New Jersey into Manhattan, very much like Trump had taken the real estate company from Queens and Brooklyn into Manhattan. And, you know, there were some setbacks along the way, bought a newspaper, and basically turned the Kushner name back into the name – a mogul name.
Just a year and a half ago, he kind of fell into the same role with Trump. Now, he had married Ivanka years earlier, but he was never in Trump’s inner circle. And it was only when Trump started running for the presidency, he went to a rally, he was really impressed, and he said I can help out. And he became a sort of Mr. Fix-It man. And so the role he’s playing now for Trump, another big New York area real estate guy, is actually very similar. There are people in the White House who are there because they want to serve their – they come primarily because they’re serving their government. They’re Washington people. They want to serve the country. There are other people – and it’s a smaller group, and probably more influential – who are there because of Donald Trump, and Jared it definitely in that latter group.
MR. COSTA: But he’s not an ideologue.
MR. SCHERER: Not an ideologue. Doesn’t mean they always agree. Doesn’t mean Trump is always going to go with what Ivanka or Jared say. But Trump knows that there’s this – that that’s the loyalty that Jared has, and that matters inside the White House, especially these last few months where Trump has really found himself out of sorts, not entirely trusting the people around him, not entirely happy about the direction things are going.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, you’ve covered Kushner, and in this TIME spread he’s put in the background. He’s in every photo, but he’s in the background. The joke in Washington is that most people have never actually heard Jared Kushner speak. (Laughter.) When is he going to actually speak out to either defend himself, articulate his views on the world? It just seems like this quiet maybe can’t continue.
JONATHAN SWAN: He’s offered, obviously, to testify to Congress. I think we’ll see it probably in a congressional setting. He’s not the type to race towards the TV cameras, very much in the background. When you talk to him, he talks – you’ve spoken to him; I’m sure everyone at this table has spoken to Jared – he’s softly spoken, but he talks in the language of, frankly, it sounds to me like a Silicon Valley kind of guy. It’s sort of almost business cliche sometimes. Like, it’s sort of efficiency, it’s all about iterations, he talks about the White House as if it’s like a small startup, you know?
MR. SCHERER: But it’s hip Millennial entrepreneurial. (Laughter.) It’s not –
MR. SWAN: That’s exactly right. No, no, that’s exactly right. That’s how he speaks.
MR. SCHERER: And we break stuff and make it better.
MR. SWAN: Right. And he will say, you know, this is a – you guys are used to – he would say this about the campaign as well – he said, you guys are using to covering this old way of doing things; you know, you’re used to covering a static campaign. Well, we weren’t that. We were entrepreneurial. We changed things up. So –
KELLY O’DONNELL: And he believes that’s better, yes.
MR. COSTA: It was always “we,” “we” with Kushner. It was never just “President Trump.” “We.”
MR. SWAN: You talk about him in the background, though. So even though there have been a lot of – like Forbes did this big thing “How Jared Won the Election” and whatever, so there has been some, you know, good PR. I will say Jared’s very smart in the way he deals with Trump. Trump doesn’t – there’s a reason Trump has had a bit of friction with Dave Bossie, who was on the campaign. It’s because Bossie’s an alpha guy, gets in his face, and it irritates Trump. If you see the way Bannon interacts with Trump, it’s really interesting because Bannon is an alpha guy. Around anyone else he’s domineering, he speaks loudly. But you watch with Trump.
MR. COSTA: So you’re saying in this White House there can only be one alpha?
MR. SWAN: There can only be one alpha. (Laughter.) Bannon sits back with Trump. He sits back in the room. He doesn’t speak. He sits quietly and talks when he talks.
MR. COSTA: That there can only be one alpha in this White House is the least surprising thing I’ve heard tonight. (Laughter.)
So let’s stay on politics. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused me to sit up and listen this week when she seemed to suggest that one of the reasons she didn’t win the White House was because the Democratic National Committee, in her view, didn’t sufficiently support her as the party’s nominee.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) I think it’s important that we learn the real lessons from this last campaign. I get the nomination, so I’m now the nominee of the Democratic Party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party.
QUESTION: (From video.) What do you mean, nothing?
MS. CLINTON: (From video.) I mean it was bankrupt, it was on the verge of insolvency, its data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong. I had to inject money into it.
MR. COSTA: This week we also learned that former Vice President Joe Biden has launched a political action committee. Biden, who’s 74 years old, has sent mixed signals in recent months about his intentions to make another run at the White House. Kelly, what’s the state of the Democratic Party? And what do you make of Secretary Clinton and Biden – and Vice President Biden making these kind of moves? Are they getting ready for a 2020 run because they see a vulnerable Donald Trump?
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, Democrats are searching for their own alpha, right? They’re trying to figure out who is the future of the party. It was stunning to hear Secretary Clinton talk about the DNC. And if we all kind of go back in our minds, the DNC was supposedly set up to advantage her over Bernie Sanders, so the raw quality of what she said there was striking.
For Joe Biden, who is, you know, the affable uncle, the former politician who tried to run for president, loves to keep that door open. So when I’ve spoken to him in person, he has said yes I’m going to run, and then two days later no I’m not. So with American Possibilities, his PAC, it raises that question. It does a few things for him. It reminds everyone that he is around, that he wants to influence the Democratic Party. If the age of the Clintons is now over, if Barack and Michelle Obama are writing their books and preparing the library and not wanting to be in the day to day, Joe Biden is a man willing to go out and campaign for a state senator or gubernatorial candidate, getting out there. So the PAC allows him the resources to do it and a platform to do it, and people in his circle say never say never. Now, the age and the generational quality is certainly an issue, but to be a voice for the party in this gap between now and the midterms, and when other Democrats try to sort of flood the zone of potential candidates, Joe Biden wants a place at the table.
MR. COSTA: What about Secretary Clinton’s inner circle? Do they have that same never-say-never approach?
MS. O’DONNELL: She has been pretty clear about no. And I think, given her – the bruises that she has taken in two runs, it seems like that time has passed. And I think most Democrats say thank you for your service, you have a place in our history, and it’s time to move on. For Joe Biden, there was that sense of his grief may have robbed him from a chance with the loss of his son. But remember, he has run before, not successfully. So I’m not certainly the party is all that anxious to have him. But when you have been the vice president at a time when that just enlarged his personality and his acceptance within the Democratic Party, those good feelings still exist. The moment you stick your toe in the water to run, boy, all bets are off.
MR. COSTA: Bidens and Clintons have been running for president since at least 1988.
MS. O’DONNELL: Yes. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: The White House is asking the Supreme Court to allow the president’s travel ban to go into effect. The executive order blocks people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Multiple lower federal courts have blocked that ban. Jonathan, is the administration counting on Justice Gorsuch to save them here?
MR. SWAN: I think that’s always been in the back of their minds. I mean, this issue has sort of disappeared from the news, but it’s never really disappeared inside the White House. And, you know, when you go inside Steve Bannon’s office in the West Wing he’s got these famous whiteboards with all of his priorities. It’s very hard to find health care on those whiteboards, but you see a lot of national security, trade, immigration, sovereignty. This is something that he cares deeply about. It’s something that the White House is going to push through and take all the way to the top, I think.
MR. COSTA: It’s been a real struggle, though, for this White House to see their signature issue on immigration struggle in the courts.
MR. SWAN: I think they’ve learned a lot from the experience. I’ve seen them be more careful with some of the other executive orders, that they’ve been – you know, there’s been so much churn behind the scenes on certain executive orders that haven’t seen the light of day because of this experience. I can think of at least one trade executive order that I’ve seen the original draft of it. I mean, it effectively would start a trade war in Asia. And this went to the Commerce Department and just disappeared into a black hole. So the lawyers are looking at things much more carefully. And I think that this experience has really burned them.
MR. COSTA: Indira, in addition to your column in The Boston Globe, you hold the Newmark Chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, one of the most respected journalism organizations. And recently you wrote a story about the importance of press freedom, not just here but around the world, and how it’s now being perhaps threatened. What’s changed?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, what’s changed in this country is that we have always had a First Amendment, and we suddenly have a president who rather than defending that First Amendment has actually come out and deemed us all the enemy of the people and has declared war on the press. Now, I believe that the reason that President Trump has called us the enemy is because he fears journalism as an institution, because we question, we criticize, we hold up what the government is doing, you know, to truth telling. And that is, of course, a threat to someone who has always been the CEO of his own family-run company, has been surrounded by yes-men and has not been used to having to undergo critical press coverage. So he chafes at it.
Now, the problem is that in so doing, in sort of trying to undermine the credibility of the press to be able to undermine any criticism of him and of his policies, he is whipping up within his base a distrust of the press, a distrust of our work, and also hatred of the press. And we saw that just last week with the physical attack on Ben Jacobs of the U.S. version of The Guardian newspaper, by a GOP candidate, who won, for Congress, Greg Gianforte.
MR. COSTA: Montana.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: In Montana. And that’s not the only case. There have been a number of similar cases.
MR. COSTA: He was charged with a misdemeanor assault.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Absolutely right. And a number of other reporters have been attacked by officials. And that is a very worrisome trend. I’m also worried about President Trump talking about going after journalists, and asking James Comey when he was FBI director to jail journalists for going with leaks – for publishing leaks. And I think that after Theresa May complained about leaks that were published in The New York Times after the terror attack in Manchester, you know, we really have to be very vigilant about how Trump may use that as an excuse to go after journalists again.
MR. COSTA: Indira, you say that the president may be operating out of fear in his exchanges with the press, but so often when I talk to people close to Trump they say, in fact, maybe it’s out of fear, but he’s also trying to politicize the press, to make the press, in the public view, a political organism that he can define and make into an opponent. How does the press, after your studies and conversations, how can the press resist becoming – taking that bait, from becoming politicized?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: You’re absolutely right that that’s why he’s doing it. But he’s politicized – he’s trying to politicize the press out of fear. I think that’s the reason for it. And you’re also completely right to say that we have to resist the instinct to allow ourselves to become politicized. I think that we all – that reporters and editors need to maintain impartiality, need to be careful to guard against bias. And the biggest problem we have is trust, maintaining public trust.
And all the studies have shown – the Pew study, the Gallup polls have shown that public trust in the media has dropped to the lowest levels in the last 25 years that they’ve been looking at this. And that is a real concern, and something that all of our news organizations need to be doing, is working on rebuilding that trust by being very transparent about our sourcing, about our reporting, about how we get the information that we get, even when we have to use anonymous sources.
MR. COSTA: Couldn’t agree more about transparency. Kelly, you had something to say?
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, I think it’s also a part of the president viewing that the product of the modern media doesn’t fully understand the conservative point of view. And that’s where we have these echo chambers, where you have the right and its media and radio and online, and you have left-leaning organizations where people feel that the sort of sentiment is from the left. And I think he believes that not only does he need an opponent just for his own way of sort of engaging with the public, but this notion – this profound notion that they have that they are not understood.
And I think when you go into local media markets – whether it’s newspaper or local radio or around the country in red-state America, you will find a much closer relationship between those journalists and the community in which they live, because they’re a part of one community. They have the same frame of reference. When you take it to the national level, there’s just this sense of not being understood on all sides.
MR. COSTA: It’s a great point. The decline of regional newspapers and regional news organizations is sad. And it does have a cost for the political discourse.
Anyway, great discussion. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.