ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me around the table, Nancy Cordes of CBS News, Josh Green of Bloomberg Businessweek, Vivian Salama of The Wall Street Journal, and Ana Swanson of The New York Times.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on Capitol Hill this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to address questions about President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. In his opening statement, Pompeo said the United States would never recognize Crimea as part of Russia. It was certainly a testy hearing, as the senators pushed for details on what was discussed in President Trump’s two-hour private meeting with the Russian leader.
SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): (From video.) Did he tell you whether or not – what happened in those two hours?
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) Yes, Senator. The predicate of your question implied some notion that there was something improper about having a one-on-one meeting. I completely disagree with the premise of your question.
SEN. MENENDEZ: (From video.) I didn’t ask you a predicate. I asked you a simple question, and I hope we’re going to get through it: Did he tell you what transpired in the two-hour meeting?
SEC. POMPEO: (From video.) I have had a number of conversations with President Trump about what transpired in the meeting.
MR. COSTA: Pompeo was also questioned about progress in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. He admitted North Korea is continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs despite its pledge to denuclearize. And, in a sign of potential progress, North Korea handed over the possible remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War on the 65th anniversary of the armistice.
Nancy, you were on the Hill. Pompeo, defiant, and revealed a few details about where this is all going.
NANCY CORDES: But no new details about what everyone there wanted to know about, which was this two-hour conversation between the president and Vladimir Putin. You know, you assumed that he was going to throw them a few scraps, new information. After all, these are not just, you know, random rank-and-file lawmakers; these are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But he essentially told them no dice, the president –
MR. COSTA: Why is that? Does he not know?
MS. CORDES: Well, he claims he does know, but he insisted that the president has a right to a private conversation and that, you know, if he believes that keeping those details secret enables him to build a relationship with Vladimir Putin that will create, you know, progress down the road, then he has every right to that. And that was somewhat astonishing to these senators, who say, look, we’re learning more about what happened in this meeting from the Kremlin and the Russian media than we are from our own government.
MR. COSTA: Ana, what do you make of Republicans and how they’re handling this foreign policy question? You see on trade they’re breaking with the president at times, people like Senator Bob Corker, and Corker’s out there too on foreign policy raising sharp questions.
ANA SWANSON: Yeah, that’s right. Well, I think he – the president has kind of put them in a tough spot. I mean, a lot of these more free-trade Republicans were elected on the basis of a – kind of a devotion to free trade and to free markets, and the trade policies in particular really put them in a tough spot when it comes to that. So we’ll have to see, you know, how this plays out with the midterm elections approaching, but I think they’re very wary of crossing the president on some of these policies and, you know, having some kind of potential negative reaction from them as they’re out on the campaign trail.
MR. COSTA: What did the White House make of Pompeo’s performance?
VIVIAN SALAMA: In general, the White House is very fond of Pompeo. The president – Pompeo’s the president’s guy right now, and that is a very fluid title I would say. (Laughter.) It changes quite a bit. But right now Pompeo is someone that President Trump trusts tremendously, gives a lot of responsibility to, and he really thinks that he’s doing a really good job. How long that lasts, if it goes on for a long time, we’ll wait and see. But that’s why he’s giving – given him such tremendous responsibility, and in some cases sort of phasing out a lot of other advisors. You know, we see that General Mattis over – the secretary of defense not as engaged as he used to be and not kind of in the inner circle as he used to be. General Kelly, obviously, chief of staff, a lot of questions about whether he lasts. But right now Secretary Pompeo has held two very significant positions in the administration and he’s still in the president’s favor, so we’ll wait and see.
JOSHUA GREEN: One of the things that’s remarkable to me is Congress is a coequal branch of government and could take steps to pass laws to roll back some of these trade sanctions or really lean on the White House in a way that it had to respond to to get more details of the president’s meeting with Putin and that sort of thing. So far they haven’t been willing to do it, and what you’ve seen is the line they’re willing to go up to and toe is they’ll say, you know, nasty things in hearings. You’ll have senators like Ben Sasse of Nebraska call trade policy stupid. They’ll criticize things in press releases. But they won’t take that actual step of forcing concessions or forcing things from the White House, I think by and large because they’re still afraid of Trump and all the voters they know in their own party who still support him.
MR. COSTA: But they’ve been tougher on Russia with sanctions than the president may want them to be, it seems, over the last year, the Congress. I mean, they’ve pushed Russia on sanctions.
MS. SALAMA: Oh yeah, absolutely. And this is the issue that we see, is that you have the president’s rhetoric on one side and the administration and Congress’ take on the other. And finding some sort of middle ground between the two is very difficult because the administration insists that it is tough on Russia, and you can actually look and see that there is a track record to prove that. But then the president’s rhetoric doesn’t always go in that direction.
MR. GREEN: Right, and even on the sanctions there was some talk in the White House that, well, you know, we may not – we may not enforce those sanctions. And so you never really know what you’re committed to as far as U.S. policy toward Russia.
MS. CORDES: I thought one of the fascinating things about that hearing was Pompeo telling these very frustrated senators, hey, don’t pay attention to what the president says; pay attention to what U.S. policy is. And, you know, they said, look, our allies and our adversaries respond to what the president says. They take action based on what he says. You can’t separate his comments or his tweets from U.S. policy. You can’t say just, you know, don’t pay attention to what that man is tweeting; here’s what U.S. policy is, it hasn’t changed. It doesn’t work that way.
MS. SWANSON: Exactly. He seemed to walk pretty far down that line, you know, saying that policy is policy and the president’s statements are just statements, but then sort of seemed to realize what he was saying in the moment, Pompeo, and then had to reverse himself, thinking the president is not going to like this line of argument.
MS. CORDES: Right. I mean, the EU may not actually be our foe, but if the president says the EU is a foe, you know, that is going to have repercussions with our relationships.
MR. GREEN: Yeah. At the same time this has been enormously frustrating to Democrats and Republican senators I talked to because, in fact, you know, the things that the administration says when it’s not Trump speaking, including Secretary Pompeo himself, tend to differ sometimes quite dramatically from what Trump himself is saying or tweeting. So, yeah, it isn’t necessarily clear that the two are one and the same.
MS. CORDES: Right.
MR. COSTA: And I wonder about Pompeo and North Korea. The president – you go to the White House these days, you see pictures of Kim Jong-un near the lower press office on the way to the Oval Office, and the president had this embrace of the North Korean leader. Yet, Pompeo in his own dealings takes – appears to take a tough line in talking with North Korea.
MS. SALAMA: Sure, and actually the North Korean foreign minister was quite critical after he met with Pompeo the last time in Pyongyang, and said it was a tense meeting. He was not thrilled with the outcome of the meeting. And so there are definitely very tough negotiations going through. We understand that the North Koreans are not sort of 100 percent sticking by the rules that they had committed to when they met in Singapore in June. And so the administration, definitely Secretary Pompeo, going in there and saying, listen, we’re not messing around here. You’ve got to do this.
MR. COSTA: The Helsinki meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin seems so long ago, but it was actually only last week. (Laughter.) There have been so many twist and turns since then, that is for sure. President Trump surprised many of his advisors, including deputy – Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, by inviting Vladimir Putin to the White House this fall. After a week of criticism and concern for that overture, the White House said the meeting was now going to be delayed until 2019. And today it looks like Vladimir Putin is inviting President Trump to Russia. Was the White House getting a lot of pushback from congressional Republicans to not have Putin come?
MS. CORDES: Not only were they getting pushback, congressional Republicans were flat-out saying: Vladimir Putin is not welcome here on Capitol Hill.
MR. COSTA: The leader said that.
MS. CORDES: Right. And this is a, you know, courtesy that is typically extended to foreign leaders when they come to the White House. But the Russians were not agreeing to the meeting. And so the White House had to do something and had to walk it back and had to look like it was in charge because Russian officials were signaling that perhaps Vladimir Putin wasn’t going to come to this meeting after all, which is kind of a slap in the face, and added more fuel to this notion that the president was being subservient or submissive to Vladimir Putin, who was playing it cool.
MR. COSTA: Is Putin going to have Trump actually come to Moscow?
MS. SALAMA: So, I mean, rhetorically he said that he would be open to the idea, but the White House today saying that they would want an official invite. So we’ll wait and see what happens. Obviously that’s something I think that they would like to show, that image of President Trump going into Moscow, kind of on Putin’s turf, that would be a big deal for them. The question is whether or not the U.S. will go for it. And obviously with all of the backlash that happened after last week’s meeting I can’t imagine that, you know, they would really kind of go for this. And obviously we’ve seen just them walking back the initial invitation of having Putin come to the White House, where they said: We will do it after the first of next year – or, after the first of the year when the witch hunt is over, obviously referring – they’re referring to the Russia investigation. We don’t know when that’s going to be, and if it’s going to ever happen. And so we’re going to have to wait and see on that one.
MR. GREEN: At the same time, though, we know that Trump loves the drama and the theater of official state visits and summit, and really gets jazzed up for these meetings with Kim Jong-un and President Putin. So really, I don’t think it would surprise me that much if Trump did agree, against the advice of his staff, to go to Moscow and meet with Putin, if he feels he can get something out of that deal.
MR. COSTA: What do U.S. allies think in Europe when they see the president cozying up to Russia? I mean, he’s – President Trump’s clashed with Canada, he’s clashed with European leaders. What do they make of this continued push toward Russia?
MS. SWANSON: I think they’re pretty stunned. So the president has called the European Union a foe. He said on trade that they were possibly as bad as China. And those are just really unprecedented statements. The administration, through their trade actions, has also branded Canada and the European Union and Mexico national security threats, in a way, because of how they import steel into the country. And so it’s really a new era. I mean, I think, you know, the president has targeted these countries for several reasons. You know, one is just that he doesn’t have as much respect for the kind of international system and alliances as some of his predecessors. Another is that he’s very focused on trade deficits. So when he sees a trade deficit pop up, for example with Europe, they then necessarily kind of become an enemy or a foe.
MR. COSTA: When you think about what’s driving all of this with President Trump, his foreign policy, you’re the author of a book about Steve Bannon and President Trump, the former chief strategist, “Devil’s Bargain.” Bannon’s a nationalist. Is that what’s pushing President Trump to work with Putin and to continue this Russia relationship – another nationalist leader? Or is it just more that Putin’s a strongman in the grand theory of foreign policy?
MR. GREEN: Well, I think it’s both of those things. I mean, Trump has certainly internalized the Bannon worldview of antipathy to multilateral organizations, the idea of U.S. primacy, America first, and the idea that America, because we’re such a strong country, ought to strike bilateral trade deals with individual countries, which is what Trump is trying to do. But I think it’s jarring to a lot of our allies. You know, there was tremendous fear among Europeans that Trump would – and still may – impose auto tariffs. And one of the reasons there was such relief and the stock market shot up on, I think it was Wednesday afternoon, after the meeting with President Juncker was that, you know, there seemed to have been truce for now.
But I don’t think Europeans know what to make of this. And as far as Trump, I think instinctively he is a nationalist and a protectionist. You can go back and look at his interviews going all the way back to the 1980s. And he would be talking about how America struck lousy trade deals with Japan. He has been saying the same thing for decades now. The countries have switched from, you know, the EU and China, where it used to be Japan. But I think he has a way of looking at the world that he is putting into action and is so different than the way U.S. presidents before him of both parties have behaved, that we’re all still trying to wrap our head around it.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. Wrapping our heads around it all every week. (Laughter.)
MR. GREEN: Trying to.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.