ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Abby Phillip, White House correspondent for CNN; Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC; and Laura Barron-Lopez, national political reporter for POLITICO.
On the broadcast we discussed the latest flashpoint in American foreign policy, North Korea, but it’s far from the only one. The president and his top aides are also confronting Iran. The administration has abandoned the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which aimed to limit the country’s nuclear weapon program in exchange for lifting sanctions. Mr. Trump took direct aim at Iran’s economy with those strict sanctions, and this week the Trump administration issued more sanctions and announced an increase of military presence in the region after classified reports of an imminent attack by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq. As the president navigates the U.S. position on Iran, he criticized former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the 2015 deal and has relationships with Iranian leaders.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me. You know, John Kerry speaks to them a lot. John Kerry tells them not to call. That’s a violation of the Logan Act, and frankly he should be prosecuted on that.
MR. COSTA: A spokesman for Mr. Kerry released this statement in response, quote, “Everything President Trump said today is simply wrong, end of story. He’s wrong about the facts, wrong about the law, and sadly he’s been wrong about how to use diplomacy to keep America safe.” So what is the U.S. Iranian policy, exactly? How much is President Trump being influenced by the hawks in his administration like National Security Adviser John Bolton, Peter?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, John Bolton’s whole – I mean, his most important passion has been Iran for a number of years, and to him this strategy is exactly the way to go. It’s all pressure, maximum pressure. It’s all about tightening the screws. They do not believe the Obama nuclear deal was worth keeping, and now a year after they got out of it the Iranians are signaling that they’re going to start breaking or violating some of the tenets of it that they had otherwise stuck to. And the question is, does that drive a wedge – a further wedge between the United States and Europe? Europe wants to keep that deal. They want to keep Iran onboard. They like the business relationship that they have been trying to have. The sanctions are making that harder. And that’s another pressure point between America and its allies.
EAMON JAVERS: But you’ve got a – you’ve got a hawkish national security adviser in there, but you don’t necessarily have a hawkish president, right? This is a president who ran on getting the U.S. out of military commitments around the world, not into them, and so you wonder how much he’s willing to entertain – I don’t know the answer to this – but how much is he willing to entertain the idea of military force against Iran. We’re talking about Venezuela; I asked the vice president last week whether they think they have the political will in the country to use military force there. The vice president wouldn’t really address that because you’ve got to think that the president himself doesn’t want to get into more wars.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: And we’ve seen Trump and Bolton be a bit more at loggerheads recently, right? We had the Washington Post report that said that Trump was kind of complaining that, oh, I think Bolton wants me to get into – wants to get me into some wars. And so how that develops and whether or not that relationship continues to fray as these things are going on across different, you know, countries.
ABBY PHILLIP: I mean, Trump is the only person who can pull back, and he has often trusted his advisors on foreign policy for the last two years. He started out by putting all of these generals around him believing that they would give him the best advice on this stuff, and I think he’s starting to feel more confident in his own foreign policy instincts, and I think he’s signaling that he does want to pull back on some of these things. When it comes to Iran, you know, he always likes to keep options on the table, but he’s making it very clear what he really wants to do with Iran is talk to them. He wants them to come to the negotiation table and to have the same kinds of conversations that perhaps he’s having with North Korea. So, you know, ultimately, John Bolton will have to fall back to President Trump. And I think that even on Venezuela, especially after the efforts to push Maduro out failed, I think President Trump has made it clear that he can’t – he doesn’t want to go too far there because he simply doesn’t think it’s even worked, especially in that particular case.
MR. COSTA: What have we learned, Peter, about Patrick Shanahan, who is now set to be nominated – he’s been the acting secretary of defense, now set to be nominated to be secretary of defense, to run the Pentagon. Has he developed a rapport with President Trump? Is his addition, if confirmed, to the Cabinet going to change how power plays out on foreign policy?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it’s really stunning we’ve been four-and-a-half months without a confirmed defense secretary at a time of war, rather remarkable, and the president was more than happy to leave Shanahan in there because he was just basically a – you know, he’s not the kind of person Jim Mattis was. He wasn’t going to challenge the president. He wasn’t going to stand up to him. He wasn’t going to resist him the way Mattis did. There are all these, you know, stories about how Mattis would quietly but, you know, persistently resist something the president wanted to do – wouldn’t send strategists to a meeting, wouldn’t send war plans that were being asked for, that kind of thing, on transgender –
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: In his resignation letter.
MR. BAKER: His resignation letter made very clear that they had this rift. Shanahan’s not that guy. That’s not him, and he’s not a person who has the stature and the gravitas that Jim Mattis had as a retired four-star Marine general to stand up to the president. So the president got a defense secretary he wants. He wants somebody who’s going to do what he wants and not be a powerful figure who would resist him when he wants to go one direction or another.
MR. COSTA: What about Secretary of State Pompeo? Where does he fit in all this? He was the one going to the Middle East this week.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, I mean, I think he is one of those officials in this White House, a survivor really, in this President Trump White House, and I think he has quite a bit of respect from President Trump. What is an open question, though, is do other world leaders believe that Pompeo really does speak for President Trump? That’s been a difficult thing for his predecessors, and he might have the best chance of all of them because President Trump does trust him, does empower him on a lot of things, but Trump undermines Pompeo just like he undermines everybody else with his public statements and tweets. But of all the officials in this administration, especially on foreign policy issues, Pompeo has been a smooth operator. He’s dealt with President Trump deftly. He’s dealt with this almost in a political fashion, understanding how to navigate these really difficult waters. And he’s survived because of that and has maintained the trust of President Trump.
MR. COSTA: This week the Trump administration introduced two major health care policy efforts. First, the president rolled out a new proposal on reducing certain high medical bills.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The Republican Party, I have to say this, is really very much becoming the party of health care. You see what we’re doing. We’re determined to end surprise medical billing for American patients. And that’s happening right now.
MR. COSTA: This proposal would make sure patients have more awareness of medical billing. Earlier in the week, the administration also announced that pharmaceutical companies will now have to include the price of drugs in their television ads if they cost more than $35 a month. Why the sudden slew of health care initiatives from the White House?
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: Right. Well, I think that Republicans, especially probably Trump’s advisors, are telling him: Look, we lost on health care in 2018. That’s why Democrats won. They were, you know, pushing against Republicans because they had repeatedly tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is now more popular than it ever has been before, and said that also the administration’s lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act would have attacked specifically the protections for preexisting conditions. And so you can see the president now is trying to take a different path on health care, hopefully to rectify some of those issues on the – in this coming election cycle.
MS. PHILLIP: And to simply have something to offer to voters. They can’t go empty handed, and they know they’re not going to have a replacement bill for the Affordable Care Act by the next election. So if they can cobble together a series of different things he can bring to voters, perhaps they might have a chance. But there’s no way they’re going to have a full health care package to offer them. That would be –
MR. COSTA: What about a bipartisan bill?
MS. PHILLIP: On the full Affordable Care Act?
MR. COSTA: Prescription drugs?
MS. PHILLIP: On prescription drugs, that’s very possible. I mean, even this thing that they were rolling out about surprise medical billing, that’s something that could get quite a bit of bipartisan support. There was talk this week about HIV medication. They are moving on things that are bipartisan issues. The question is, will President Trump allow bipartisanship to flourish? And that’s really an open question. It has been difficult for Democrats to deal with this White House, because even while he moves in bipartisan fashions on some things, he poisons the well on other major issues for the party.
MR. JAVERS: Look, the president believes in both of these ideas on the merits, right? And White House aides will tell you that on the surprise medical costs he’s been talking to families and hearing the stories of people who, you know, somebody had a heart attack, they go to the hospital, they’re out of network, and suddenly they’ve got $100,000 hospital bill that they can’t afford and it’s devastating. So on the merits he does believe in that, and also lowering prescription drug prices, which he’s been talking about for a while.
But it also strikes me that these are almost Bill Clinton-style small-ball rifle shot proposals that are much less than the vast, sweeping overhaul of health care that they tried before, and more single-issue things that are rationally appealing to Democrats and Republicans that the White House can at least talk about. Even if they can’t get the legislation passed, they seem very reasonable to a lot of people. So this gives them a very good talking point publicly.
MR. BAKER: But here’s the missed opportunity, right? This is something that would be, you know, persuasive to a lot of voters. I mean, it would be very familiar to them. Gosh, I know that, or I can see that happening in my family. I would like something like that to be focused on. And yet, the problem is, rather than focusing on that exclusively so that would have to be something that was – you know, he can’t break away from this conflict he’s having with the Congress. He wants to engage in it. And so infrastructure week is always going to lose out to shark week, right? (Laughter.) I mean, we’re always going to see more coverage of the conflict, and more talk about the economy than we are about these policies, if he chooses to do that.
MS. BARRON-LOPEZ: And even – and even if – yeah, sorry. And even if House Democrats end up working with him on something related to health care and somehow get it through the House, there’s also Mitch McConnell in the Senate. And there is a big question of whether or not Senate Republicans want to give what would be probably considered a win, not just for Trump for definitely for Democrats, ahead of this 2020 cycle.
MR. JAVERS: And Democrats – I mean, you know, Nancy Pelosi made a big show of going down there for infrastructure day – which has been shortened from infrastructure week. Now it’s infrastructure day. So – (laughter) –
MR. BAKER: Starts at 90 minutes, maybe.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, exactly. So she made a big show of saying: We’re open to this. We want to work with the president. We’re not just all about impeachment and investigation. But in reality, you wonder how much the Democrats would ever give this president a win on anything. They want to beat him.
MR. BAKER: Or whether they could. Would their own base allow them to? There would be a penalty for House leaders to do a deal, even a good deal on a good topic, with the president.
MS. PHILLIP: You also have to wonder how much Republicans will too, because after that infrastructure meeting the pushback I was hearing was from Republicans who were saying: There is no way a $2 trillion infrastructure plan is going anywhere in this town.
MR. COSTA: How do you get to 2 trillion (dollars) without raising federal fees or taxes?
MS. PHILLIP: There is no – that’s what I was being told. White House officials were saying, oh, it’s not going to be 2 trillion (dollars). But that’s what the president wants. His instincts on some of these things allow him to potentially –
MR. JAVERS: And Pelosi talked him into that 2 trillion (dollar) figure.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah. it allows him to potentially get in line with Democrats, but then he’s going to hit a rock with his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who is who is as hardline as you can get on some of these fiscal issues when it comes to spending. And he’s going to line up right with those Republicans in the House and in the Senate in pushing back.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.