ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on our broadcast.
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney is running for U.S. Senate in Utah. He made the announcement in a short video posted on social media.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): (From video.) I have decided to run for United States Senate because I believe I can help bring Utah’s values and Utah’s lessons to Washington. Utah is a better model for Washington than Washington is for Utah.
MR. COSTA: Romney is running for the seat currently held by Senator Orrin Hatch, the veteran Republican who is retiring, much to President Trump’s chagrin. Romney’s return, is this all about a 2020 bid, Dan? Does he actually want to be a senior statesman representing his adopted state?
DAN BALZ: I think in a simple sense he wants back into service and he wants back into elective office, which would give him a platform. I think beyond that it’s not clear what he really wants to do. I mean, I know there are a lot of people who think he’s getting back in to be the leader of the opposition to Trump. I suspect that’s not quite the case. He’s got kind of a tricky balancing act that he’s got to figure out. He has taken on Trump in a number of instances, but the fact of the matter is most of those have to do with Trump’s behavior and not his policies. There are a few foreign policy issues where he might have differences. But how strongly he wants to be a leader of the Trump opposition as opposed to having some things that he wants to do as a senator I think are still open questions that he’s going to have to wrestle with. That video announcement today was indicative of where he’s starting. He’s starting in Utah. He’s going to stay local for a while. He’s going to work Utah. And if he gets to the Senate, he’ll have to begin to answer those other questions.
MR. COSTA: I was trying to count how many times he was mentioning the word “Utah” in that speech. (Laughter.) Carl, you roam the halls of the Capitol. If he gets elected as Senator Romney, he can’t just keep his head down and be a low-profile freshman working on Utah issues.
CARL HULSE: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. We all know governors don’t like the Senate that much when they get there, and he’s a former governor. You know, even with his name, though, it’s still hard. You’re the new guy, and I’m not sure – it’s interesting to me that he’s making this choice. I can actually see him being a good member of the Senate. You know, he’s a sort of consensus guy. He’s worked in a – in a blue state. But it can be really, really frustrating, and everybody – on every issue people are – on every Trump, you know, little uproar, they’re going to run to Mitt Romney and say, well, what do you say to that. So we’ll see how he deals with it. I think it’s pretty interesting.
MR. COSTA: Senator Hatch welcomed Romney into the race, but the Utah Republican chairman, Rob Anderson, he gave a pretty barbed interview to The Salt Lake Tribune, said this is someone who’s coming to the state that doesn’t really have a deep connection to the state. Yet it doesn’t seem, Kim, that Romney’s going to have much of a primary challenge.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: No, he won’t. I mean, that’s why he’s in this. He wouldn’t have gotten into a perilous fight to get back on this road. I mean, and in terms of how well he works bipartisan, I think if you talk to some folks in Massachusetts in the statehouse there where I used to work, they would have a different view of Mitt Romney.
But look, from what I understand from the people who I talk to, the best they know is that Mitt Romney’s approach is going to be not necessarily to attack Trump, but to take aim at the Trumpism that he thinks is threatening the Republican Party. So I think that’s what we will see from the campaign trail and into Washington, where he seems to have a pretty clear path to winning that election.
MR. COSTA: Think there’s anything to the point I was trying to make earlier about 2020, that he – some Republicans know President Trump could struggle in the coming years and there could be room for someone to run against him in a primary or a different scenario.
JEANNE CUMMINGS: I’d be really surprised, really surprised if he went three times. You know, he always consults with the family. That last experience was not good at all. I think the way Trump would go at a primary opponent he knows; he’s seen it. I’d just be really surprised. The one that maybe wouldn’t surprise me is if retiring Senator Jeff Flake did it.
MR. COSTA: Or Ohio Governor John Kasich.
MS. CUMMINGS: There you go.
MR. COSTA: Two members of President Trump’s Cabinet are under scrutiny for their unusually high travel expenses. EPA Director Scott Pruitt has apparently been spending taxpayer funds on luxury hotels and first-class flights. One roundtrip ticket to Italy cost more than $7,000. Pruitt’s staff initially says he can’t fly coach because of security concerns. They also claimed he had, quote, “blanket permission” to take the more expensive flights. An EPA spokesperson retracted that claim a few days later.
And Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin offered what appeared to be a veiled apology to lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday after an internal watchdog’s investigation revealed he improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets for tennis and wrongly used taxpayer money to cover his wife’s airfare for an 11-day European trip. Shulkin accepted responsibility and has offered to reimburse that $4,000 that was used for his wife’s travel expenses.
We saw this with the former health secretary, Tom Price, these plane flights, these limos, the travel receipts. It’s a constant plague for this administration.
MS. ATKINS: It is, but oh what a difference a couple of months makes, right, because that was the end of Tom Price as HHS secretary. It appears that both Shulkin – neither Shulkin nor Pruitt have any intention of stepping down, at least not voluntarily. And in the case of Secretary Pruitt, he’s pushing back; you know, it’s a security issue for all of these first-class flights that he has to take, which is obviously silly. I mean, one of these first-class flights he took was from Washington to New York City. I take the Amtrak train fairly frequently between D.C. and New York.
MR. HULSE: The regional or the –
MR. COSTA: Regional or the Acela? (Laughter.)
MS. ATKINS: Usually Acela, sometimes regional.
MR. COSTA: Oh, ho, ho, we have an Acela rider here!
MS. ATKINS: I know it’s Acela. But you know who I see on that Acela train? I see lawmakers. I see federal officials.
MR. COSTA: Oh, so you do it for reporting? I like it.
MS. ATKINS: I see a lot of people who manage to mingle with the hoi polloi and not feel under threat that someone may actually come up and speak to them. So this excuse I think is pretty slim. I think at the very least you may see him having to open up his pocketbook and pay some of this back.
MR. HULSE: This whole administration needs a travel ethics seminar. I mean, it’s just been incident after incident, and I think some of that does flow down from the top. They’re like, you know, OK, well, we can do some of these things. This is the kind of thing that the public picks up on and it drives them crazy, because they don’t get to live this kind of life. And, you know, there’s been – Ryan Zinke also had – the interior secretary’s had some issues. The interesting thing about the VA – and we’ve all, I think, had stories about this today – the secretary’s trying to now portray this as an internal effort to undermine him because he’s not enacting the Trump administration’s policies. He’s a holdover from Obama. So that one’s getting pretty ugly.
MR. BALZ: But he was one of Trump’s favorites as – I mean, Trump has on a number occasions citing him for the kinds of things that he’s been doing.
MR. COSTA: Correct.
MR. HULSE: But he’s not for privatizing, I think, as much as some of the administration is. And it was really interesting that that letter got out there that helped his cause.
MR. COSTA: It always surprises me when these Cabinet members think that things can remain private when you’re in public office. Almost everything comes out eventually.
MS. CUMMINGS: The biggest surprise for me in the Pruitt scandal is that he says – his team says that he’s so recognizable that he gets verbally assaulted almost every time he goes on a trip. I would love to walk with him through an airport and see how many people recognize Scott Pruitt.
MR. COSTA: Sounds like a good Wall Street Journal profile. (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: You know, the other aspect of this is, if you want a definition of the swamp in the minds of most Americans, it’s this kind of thing, right? It’s this notion of special privilege, they take care of themselves. Donald Trump spoke about that in his inaugural address. He was directly pointing at that kind of behavior, that these are people who have enriched themselves at the expense of ordinary Americans. And yet, it’s happening under – you know, under his watch.
MR. COSTA: It’s so true. And to Carl’s point, I remember during the 2016 campaign about how voters pay attention. I’d always see Senator Bernie Sanders in the middle seat of a coach flight.
MR. HULSE: Does he request the middle?
MR. COSTA: Sometimes I wonder, does Senator Sanders request the middle seat in coach just to make a point? (Laughter.)
Anyway, it was a stormy week all around for the White House. President Trump’s long-time lawyer Michael Cohen admitted he paid an adult entertainment star who once claimed to have an affair with Mr. Trump more than $100,000 a month before the 2016 election. Cohen said he paid Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the name Stormy Daniels, $130,000 out of his own funds. Cohen says he was not reimbursed for the payment. It was not a campaign expenditure and was completely legal. That’s his view of the matter. The payment does raise several questions, however. Did President Trump know about the payment? And why did Mr. Cohen make the payment? The Wall Street Journal’s been all over this story.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, the reason he made the payment’s pretty clear. It was to make sure she did not tell her story, particularly before the election. In terms of the money, it’s hard to prove. You know, money’s fungible, right? And Mr. Cohen and the president had lots of different relationships. He was his private lawyer. He worked for the Trump organization. He was a quasi-advisor to the campaign. So he’s getting money from Trump bank accounts. And most of it privately. So there’s no campaign transaction that we can track. So, you know, hard to prove. We can’t tell whether he got a bonus at the end of the year for $130,000 and that became reimbursement.
What’s more interesting on this story that’s starting to happen now is that she had a nondisclosure agreement that some of this – our coverage and the people who have followed up have created these exchanges between her attorneys and Cohen. And her attorneys are beginning to feel as though Cohen has violated the nondisclosure agreement and that she could now come forward and tell her story in her own words. That would be a big break in the story, if that is what happened.
MS. ATKINS: And it just shows how this letter that Cohen wrote just created far more trouble than it tried to solve. I mean, from the squishiness of the language that it used about the money, that he facilitated a payment and it wasn’t reimbursed from these two specific sources, but he didn’t say anything about anything else. He says he will always protect the president, which makes him seem like a really credible witness when he comes – if it comes to that. And then the statement itself, possibly opening the door for this woman to come forward and start making the media rounds, which will be a political problem, maybe, for President Trump. We were just talking about how this story is still not at the forefront, despite all of its bombshell allegations.
MR. HULSE: But it does feed into the other big scandal that they’ve had recently with their – the aide who was accused of domestic abuse. And it’s just the treatment and regard for women. And I think this is part of a really growing problem for the Trump administration, contributing to this gender gap. But also, the letter seemed – the statement seemed aimed a little bit at resolving a FEC, Federal Election Commission, issue, which is also strange because they’re barely doing anything at the FEC right now. I don’t think it was really a threat to them. The whole thing is kind of strange.
MR. BALZ: But I think your point about the gender gap is so important in the political climate heading into the midterm elections. I mean, if you – if you look at what’s going on around the country, women are powering the opposition to Donald Trump. And women are likely to be the ones who come out in bigger numbers than normal. You know, it’s hard to predict this far in advance, but every sign we have is that women are very energized. And these are the kinds of issues that will keep that flame alive.
MS. ATKINS: And it’s an important demographic for Donald Trump, because he won the majority of white women in the 2016 election. And there is polling that shows that he is losing that point. He’s actually underwater with women in suburban areas, a lot of places that’ll be key not only for reelection but for 2018. So that demographic is – I agree, that’s definitely an important one to watch.
MR. COSTA: I saw that up close in the Alabama Senate race, where Democrat Doug Jones won in December, talking to female voters on the ground there. They said conduct does matter when they were talking about Roy Moore, the candidate President Trump endorsed who was defeated by Doug Jones. And you wonder – we talked in the main show about gun control, how does that play in the suburbs, how does that play with parents, including women. And you just look at how different things have played out, the political winds in Alabama and elsewhere. It’s not a storm yet, perhaps, but there’s something.
MR. HULSE: Well, I think that one of the big issues – because I hear from people who say, well, you know, Trump had the famous Access Hollywood tape and people disregarded that. But the entire culture has changed – #MeToo, right – post-Weinstein. And people are now – it was, well, that was in the past and you can’t be held accountable for it. Now people are like, well, you can be held accountable for your behavior in the past. And I think that’s a really big problem for Trump and the Republicans.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for joining us. And while you’re online, check out the Washington Week news quiz. From the Olympics to the Westminster Dog Show, we’ve got it all covered. And if you’re listening to the podcast, remember you can watch the video on our website, PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.