ROBERT COSTA: Tonight on this special edition of the Washington Week Extra.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Infrastructure is by far the easiest. People want it. Republicans and Democrats. We’re going to have tremendous Democrat support on infrastructure, as you know.
MR. COSTA: President Trump hopes for a big bipartisan win in 2018. Plus, how the U.S. plans to extinguish North Korea’s nuclear threat. I’m Robert Costa. We discuss culture wars and a shifting political landscape next.
ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump took office promising disruption and change. Some of it happened quickly, while his first major legislative victory came just last week with the passage of the Republican tax bill. Some of it happened mostly out of the spotlight. Beyond new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, the president has appointed 19 conservative judges to federal district courts. He also launched an aggressive rollback of regulations that he argued were choking economic growth.
Here’s where we stand: Unemployment is low. Consumer confidence is high. And the stock market continues to set new records. But the president’s job approval ratings sit in the mid-30s, a historic low for a commander in chief in his first year in office. And the job approval of Congress, it wallows in the low teens. As we prepare to ring in the new year, 2018, the question on Capitol Hill and in Washington is this: Will Republicans in this atmosphere be able to hold their single-party control of Congress next year? Or, will Democrats make significant gains, after picking up seats in Virginia in November and Alabama just a few weeks ago?
Yet, what has happened in America and what’s next is about more than the electoral map. The president has had to address public protests and long-simmering culture wars. Remember, the day after the inauguration, grassroots activism led to millions of demonstrators taking to the streets in Washington and around the country protesting their support of equal rights for women – supporting equal rights for women. At airports, there were protests too over the travel ban. And later, athletes became advocates with the taking the knee during the national anthem. And then there was the national reckoning over sexual harassment and conduct in the workplace and elsewhere. And then, there was Charlottesville.
PROTESTERS: (Chanting.) Jews will not replace us!
MR. COSTA: Joining me around this table tonight, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Alexis Simendinger of The Hill, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, and Shawna Thomas of Vice News.
Shawna, those images, Vice News images from Charlottesville, they stick with you. They stick with me throughout this whole year. I mean, so much has happened, but Charlottesville, it remains in the American mind, the American political debate as this seminal event, and an unfortunate event. Looking back, what does it mean for the president to say there were both sides at fault in that horrific situation? And what does it tell us about race in America right now?
SHAWNA THOMAS: Well, I think what the president said there showed – the piece itself, the Charlottesville piece that Vice News Tonight did showed a deep divide and, like, brought something to people’s TV screens. And that’s interesting in itself. The president saying that, equating those two things, was one of those things where I think there were – there were white people in this country that were like, well, that sounds crazy. And there were black people in this country who were like, well, people believe that. People believe that. And we know they believe that. And we’ve been living with it. And now it’s out in the open.
So there is one way of thinking about this. The president helped drive a conversation after Charlottesville, whether you agree with what he said or not, that we could not get out of. And that is a good thing in this country. But the fact that that is also in some ways an OK thing to say, equating those two sides, says a lot about where we are, and how politics is playing out right now. It says that politics is playing out in such a way that that kind of rhetoric, it is OK to say that. And it may bring some people over to his side for saying it. And, I mean, I just think at least we’re having the conversation. And the fact that we’re still having it right now is actually a good thing.
AMY WALTER: Yes. I agree. But I don’t know that the president himself was interested in starting a conversation as much as he was interested in putting yet another cultural wedge into the political environment. And whether it’s NFL players, whether it’s Charlottesville, a whole host of things, he’s been very clear: You’re on my side, or you’re on the other side. You’re with me or you’re against me. And this is where he was obviously very successful on the campaign trail was you’re with me because the other people aren’t – they have not been paying enough attention to you. And he continues – believes that everything that worked in 2016 is going to work in 2017 as president.
I think there are, again, a lot of people in this country who voted for him, who thought that when he was president he was going to shift a little bit, that the bombast on the campaign trail was going to shift into more presidential bearing. He said himself: I’m going to be so boring when I’m president. You guys are going to be bored with me. And so what it’s done is it’s really hardened his core base, it’s true, by saying certain things that he says. But he has energized the left in a way that nobody, including President Obama, has been able to do.
Democrats for the last eight years have been trying to figure out: How do we get this Obama coalition engaged without Barack Obama on the top of the ticket? We can’t get young people. We can’t get people of color to come out and vote without Obama on the top of the ticket. Well, now they have their agitator. They have the person to bring these folks out. You’re seeing in Virginia – the turnout in Charlottesville was through the roof. Turnout among young people was high. And the gap between those who voted for the Republican and the Democrat was significant. So I think what he’s doing is, yes, he’s concentrating on his base, but what he’s really done is energized the other side in a way that we didn’t see in 2016.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: And I think – listening to what Amy’s saying, I think that’s also part and parcel of why so many Democrats on Capitol Hill are feeling much more confident to suggest that that level of discord or hatred of President Trump is – the hatred is stronger than love, right, that they will turn out.
The other element of this, about race, that just keeps recurring with President Trump, I think is worth adding, is his disposition toward Latinos, or his suggestion that refugees are criminals or are coming here to attack, you know, Americans, and his instant, effortless ability to come back to those threads in terms of if you’re born outside the United States you are in some way inferior, that you mean harm to Americans. And that, also, I think many, even in his own party, are upset about that.
MR. COSTA: Phil, inside of the White House, what do they make of the president’s actions when it came to the NFL, clashing with the players about taking a knee, the “both sides” when it comes to Charlottesville? Do they see him as a racially incendiary president? Do they acknowledge that privately? Is it something they hope doesn’t happen as much next year? Or is it something they just say is media bias or a media view of the presidency?
PHILIP RUCKER: Yeah, many of his advisors privately will acknowledge how ugly those episodes were, in particular Charlottesville, and how the president handled that. And some of his advisors, including Gary Cohn, the Economic Council, had said so publicly. But they also say they don’t think Trump himself is a racist. They don’t think he means anything personally by it. They see the political play that Amy was talking about. They also think the media has a tendency to whip these things up.
But what we saw with Charlottesville, and what we saw in a few other instances over the course of this last year, is the president just changing our definition of presidential leadership. We’re used to our presidents – we saw this with Bush; we saw this with Obama – at these moments of national division try to be a uniting force. And Trump instead is being the one doing the dividing.
MS. THOMAS: And also, when he gets that reaction that he wants, when he was in Alabama campaigning for Luther Strange and then also talked about the NFL and taking the knee, and the reaction he got in that room was huge. When he gets that feedback, so that is still working, he will keep doing that.
MR. COSTA: Sexual harassment, another major front in 2017. We saw careers ended in the media, on Capitol Hill, resignations. Major progress for the country in the political world on this issue, long – probably long-simmering. These issues should have been addressed long ago. But now they were addressed, or not?
MS. WALTER: I’m trying not to be a pessimist about this. I do want to see this as a good opportunity that we finally are putting all of this out there, that women are able to come forward in a way they just were never – they never felt comfortable doing 20 years ago. But I first came to Washington in 1991. I was here, one of the first things that I witnessed was the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. And it was right after that that you had the so-called year of the woman, record number of women elected that year, in part because what they saw was a panel of all men looking down on this African-American woman and questioning her in a way that was really out of bounds for a lot of women.
And yet, here we are, all these years later, and it feels like we haven’t really made a tremendous amount of progress. That was supposed to be the breakthrough. We had all these women now in Congress, we had the conversation about sexual harassment, and then it kind of died back.
The theory is that it can’t go back anymore, now it’s out in the open and we’re never going back to where we were. I hope that’s the case. But I think people are still trying to figure out, now that we’ve opened these floodgates, what do we do with all this water? And there’s still, for example, a lot of Democrats frustrated about how Senator Franken’s case was handled, even back in Minnesota, even a lot of women who say he was sort of ‒ that’s a different category than, say, somebody like Harvey Weinstein. So I ‒ I don’t ‒ we’re still feeling our way through a lot.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, and you could ‒ you could feel that in Senator Franken’s own remarks about his view that there’s a sexual harasser in the Oval Office. And he called it an irony, and yet he was stepping down from the Senate for what he felt or what he described as maybe improper conduct, but not in the same way that he feels about President Trump.
But Democrats, politically, what we watched, were this leadership among female senators who went in just a wash of a day stepping forward and feeling that they had to cleanse their party in order to make this argument about what was happening in the Republican Party. And that is an element that I think is the next phase of what you just described. And as you say, the end is not written on that.
MR. RUCKER: It’s been such ‒ it’s been such an uncomfortable topic inside the White House, too. For months now, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, has had a difficult time dealing with questions about sexual harassment because her boss, the president, has all of these accusers who have told stories. And by stories I mean their accounts, their what they believe are truthful accounts of his actions over the years. Trump has not been held accountable in the same way a lot of other leading figures in the media and public life have been in the last year and it’s created an awkwardness at the White House.
MR. COSTA: And that question of accountability, how does this sexual harassment issue, the whole way it’s affected both the White House and the Congress, how does that play next year in the midterms, if at all?
MS. THOMAS: Well, I think one of the things that Democrats were trying to do with Senator Franken was, OK, you see we are ‒ we are proactive about this, we are willing to stand up even to our own party and say that ‒ in some ways, the Republicans, Senator McConnell, other people, when it came to Roy Moore and the situation with him, they were, like, this is not what we want our party to stand for.
The question is, as more ‒ as more accusations come out there and there are these hints of other accusations that involve politicians, what does each party do? And is it worth it to try to push people in your own party out if they have a hard race, if that is something that you need that incumbency? And I’m not sure either party has had to face it in a particular race or seat where that is actually a hard decision yet. Like, where do your principles stand versus your politics if you could lose that seat by pushing somebody out?
MR. COSTA: And Republicans aren’t ready to walk away from President Trump. They see the tax bill, they’ve somewhat come together on a lot of these issues. They’re not trying to go rally around that issue on the right.
MS. WALTER: On the issue of sexual harassment, yeah. And if you, you know, if you look at the polling on this, it’s also interesting that Democrats and Republicans see the issue not just of sexual harassment and whether it’s a really important top issue, but also the role of women in society, they see it differently about what it means to be a woman working versus when it’s a man working, who gets the ‒ who has a tougher time. So Democrats and Republicans really do see the role of women in our society writ large very differently, which means they’re going to have different reactions within the parties.
But I think Shawna is right that we still have really ‒ we really don’t know where this is going to go in terms of the number of retirements or resignations we may see. Those are big, big problems. And even for the parties politically and even in Minnesota, that’s a state that is competitive that they now have to defend, which they didn’t have to a few months ago.
MR. COSTA: Let’s dig into this, because when we think about all of the disruptions inside of the parties, the resignations, the parties are rocked on different fronts, how are they aligned or maybe realigned for next year’s midterm elections? Is the Democratic Party different today as it heads into 2018 than it may have been a year ago?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, what a great question. And that’s not one I think is easy to answer or maybe not easy for me. Because in all the interviews and the reporting that I’ve been doing lately with Democrats, it is hard for them to answer the question, depending on whom you ask, what does your party stand for? What is your agenda going forward? How have you changed from 2016? What did you learn from that presidential race that you’re carrying into the midterm race? And mostly what I hear is the fact that we’re so focused on Donald Trump and the Republicans is masking the churn inside of a party, a Democratic Party, that is there’s a war between the left and the progressives and maybe what you might think of is the argument that you hear from others like Howard Dean recently.
MR. RUCKER: Yeah. What the Democrats have is opportunity and energy out in the country that we were talking about, but they do not have a message, they do not have a game plan, they don’t have an agenda and they don’t have a leader. Right now their leaders are Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House and they’re not bringing the sort of fresh ideas that I think their base out in the country is clamoring for.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Gillibrand, mentioned by Alexis, of New York and Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the most popular Democrats in the country?
MR. RUCKER: There’s a whole new generation. And Bernie Sanders of ‒
MR. COSTA: Oh, he’s an independent.
MR. RUCKER: He’s not even a registered Democrat. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: Aligned with the Democrats, but an independent.
MR. RUCKER: But there are a lot of Democrats who want the chance to be leaders of the party nationally, but there not in there yet?
MR. COSTA: Party of Trump?
MS. THOMAS: The party of Trump? I mean, I think the Republican Party, as long as he is president of the United States, is the party of Trump and they’re going to have to figure out, how do you take the good things about that, which are there is a base of support that’s energetic and in some of these districts that’s a lot of people? And how do you deal with the stuff we talked about at the very beginning, where you basically get speeches that have dog whistles that turn a lot of people off?
MS. SIMENDINGER: But, boy, does it make Republicans nervous on Capitol Hill. You know, the ‒
MS. THOMAS: Trying to balance it?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, the idea of going into these races with President Trump at such a low job approval number and their own feelings that there’s a certain discord that he just creates and instability that they’re not ready to deal with.
MS. WALTER: Yeah. And if you’re the party ‒ if you are the party of the White House ‒ and this happens every time in every midterm election ‒ you’re the party of the White House, you’re defined by the president, period. Every candidate is going to say, well, I have my own district, I have my own race, I have my own identity. It is very hard to do. And the party out of power, they get to be the opposition party. They don’t have to have a big message, they don’t have to have a messenger, they just get to be the opposition.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there on the domestic front, but let’s turn our eyes to foreign issues, foreign affairs and to North Korea, one of the biggest issues of this year, and an offer recently from Russia to serve as a broker to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has enlivened that whole discussion. Moscow is now blaming the U.S. for inflaming tensions with the country after Washington and the United Nations announced new sanctions.
On Tuesday, Russian Minister Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. needs to tone down the tough talk and get on a fast track to negotiations. Here’s the message the president delivered at the U.N. last September.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. “Rocket Man” is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.
MR. COSTA: Joining me now is David Sanger of The New York Times.
David, North Korea launched 15 missile tests this year and you have reported that one of the biggest intelligence failures of 2017 was the failure to detect how quickly President Kim Jong-un was able to build and expand his missile system. As we look at this new round of sanctions, how are we going to be sure that they’re going to have an effect, that Kim Jong-un will maybe follow them and try to change his ways?
DAVID SANGER: You know, I don’t think there’s any assurance, Robert, that he will change his ways. In fact, the official CIA estimate, the public estimate is that no amount of sanction will actually change his behavior.
Now, I think there could be an exception to that if China actually did cut off North Korea’s oil and their refined product and basically starved the country out. It might make a difference in his calculation. But so far, we have no indication that the Chinese believe that the nuclear problem, bad as it is, would be worse than having so much chaos and regime collapse in North Korea that they may have to deal with the United States that’s right up on their border. So I’m not sure sanctions here are going to work the way they worked, say, against Iran which had a very integrated economy with the rest of the world.
MR. COSTA: So on that point, what would actually prod China to try to choke off some of these resources in commerce and trade going on with North Korea?
MR. SANGER: Well, I think the first thing that might change their calculation, I think President Trump’s assumption is that if they believe the United States may take military action, in other words that the status quo won’t remain on the Korean Peninsula, then they may decide that some kind of drastic action is better than taking that risk.
The problem is that the Chinese don’t know, and I’m not sure that President Trump and his advisers know whether or not he’s really willing to go pull the trigger on that. And as you know and as we’ve discussed before on the show many times this year, the fear is that an escalation with North Korea could take out millions of South Korean lives. And we have every indication that President Trump is aware of this, concerned about it, that it actually has sort of sunk through in his briefings. What we don’t know is whether he has cornered himself by his own rhetoric, by his declaration that North Korea will not launch an intercontinental ballistic missile ‒ well, it has already ‒ by his statements that they will not be able to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon that could reach any city ‒ well, they have already.
MR. COSTA: How serious are those talks within the administration, David, about a preemptive strike? And where do the key players stand, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser?
MR. SANGER: Well, those talks are quite serious, Robert, and they have to be because among the threats that North Korea has made is that they will conduct an atmospheric nuclear test. And the United States did some atmospheric tests back in the ’50s. The Soviet Union and the U.S. banned them in the first nuclear Limited Test Ban Treaty that was signed during the Kennedy administration. So it’s been a long time since the U.S. has done these. But you can imagine what the impact would be if North Korea launched a missile, even just over the Pacific, and then set off a nuclear device that spread radiation around.
Within the administration, the division is between those who believe that there is still considerable time left and those who argue that there isn’t. And so far, it’s been Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, who have made the argument that you really need to exhaust every diplomatic option before you used any military force. And we believe there’s some sympathy for that from the National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, although he’s the one who has come out making these repeated declarations that says ‒ that keep saying time is not on our side, time is running out. Now, that’s clearly to pressure both the North Koreans and the Chinese.
The big issue is, what would precipitate the president’s decision to actually use military force? And I think that would be if he saw any indication they were actually loading a weapon onto a missile, but you might miss that.
MR. COSTA: And should we expect any more tests from North Korea in the coming weeks and months? Are they going to be more aggressive in 2018?
MR. SANGER: Hard to know. They went through the first part of 2017 without many tests, and then starting in May they had a big series of successes. But there are some provocations underway. The Olympics are going to be taking place, the Winter Olympics, in South Korea. There will be some North Korean participation, but they may well decide that this is a moment when all eyes are on South Korea to go make a point, either with a missile test or some other provocation. It could be right after that. The U.S. and South Korea are conducting a series of military exercises. And while the U.S. indicates it’s going to be a little bit quieter about these, the North Koreans, of course, see them. So there are any number of things that could make Kim Jong-un decide to conduct a test.
And, of course, the biggest one of all is that if he does want to enter a negotiation with the administration sometime this year, he wants to do it from a position of strength. And that means showing that he’s got the capability to reach any city in the United States.
MR. COSTA: David Sanger of The New York Times, thanks so much for joining us.
MR. SANGER: Thank you, great to be with you.
MR. COSTA: And thanks everybody for joining us here tonight.
And remember, if you missed a show or the Washington Week Extra on TV, you can find both online Friday nights at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. And from the whole Washington Week team and crew, best wishes for a very healthy and happy new year.