ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week podcast, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me around the table, Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post, Geoff Bennett of NBC News, Mark Landler of The New York Times, and Molly Ball of TIME Magazine.
President Trump was in New York this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting. He advocated for American sovereignty and said the United States rejects what he has called globalism. Trump took a hard line on North Korea last year, but this year he was more focused on Iran, telling the U.N. Security Council this.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons. We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues.
MR. COSTA: He also told the U.N. Security Council that China is meddling in the 2018 midterm elections.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration. They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade.
MR. COSTA: Mark, you had an exchange with President Trump at his news conference about China, about the way he seems to take a proactive view some days and then other days takes this hard line.
MARK LANDLER: Yeah, I mean, one thing that interested me is he has always talked about this great personal relationship he has with the president of China, Xi Jinping, and yet this week he essentially accused Xi Jinping’s government of trying to hurt him and his party in the midterms, and so I wondered how the president can justify being friends with this guy. And he said to me, in essence, he’s trying to help his country; I’m trying to help mine. And you know, so he sort of deflected the question.
The other thing I wanted to ask him is, how did he compare China’s interference, alleged interference, with Russia’s interference in 2016. And his answer was, well, I think they’re different, then he did not explain how he thought they were different. In fact, China’s – the evidence we have for China’s interference is pretty run of the mill. They’ve taken some ads out in Iowa newspapers targeted at farmers who are the victims of retaliatory tariffs. That’s a fairly standard strategy by a country that’s engaged in a trade battle with another country. Japan did it years ago in the United States. So on the face of it there’s no comparison between what the Chinese are doing and what the Russians did. What we don’t know, though, is does he have other evidence. He said rather tantalizingly there is other evidence, it’s going to come out, I’m not going to tell you what it is today, so we’ll just have to wait and see. My hunch is we may discover that what China’s doing is really less spectacular and undermining than what the Russians were doing.
MR. COSTA: Geoff, you were in New York as well with President Trump, covering him. Last year at the U.N., all this talk about “little rocket man” and Kim Jong-un. Now he’s talking about bettering the relationship and maybe having another meeting.
GEOFF BENNETT: And he’s making the – or did make the case, tried to make the case that his, you know, brash brand of diplomacy is the thing that actually eased tensions with Kim. Now you have the president and Mike Pompeo floating this notion of a second summit even though, you know, as NBC has reported, Kim’s regime continues to build upon its weapons program. So what’s interesting, though, is that, as you mentioned, this past week the president had a new top target, Iran, and he’s trying to – it appears he’s trying to use the same playbook against Iran that he used against North Korea, this maximum pressure, his tough rhetoric, all aimed at bringing Iran to the negotiating table, although there’s a completely different dynamic between North Korea and Iran and there are very – a lot of people who are concerned that we could tip ourselves into some serious conflict with Iran if we’re not careful.
MR. COSTA: Molly, what about this Middle East peace plan that Jared Kushner and President Trump have been working on for over a year? Is this different approach to Iran part of that, from your read of the whole situation?
MOLLY BALL: I sense more that the Iran push is about the hand of John Bolton in the administration. He is a new element here. He came in right when the administration was finally carrying out Trump’s promise to cancel the Iran nuclear deal – a deal, by the way, that many people said if he could get anything like that with North Korea it would be quite a big victory. But there they were canceling it and then proceeding to make these very bellicose noises toward Iran. So it is actually not very clear what their endgame is, but Bolton has been an Iran hawk for a long time and so has Pompeo, frankly. And so this is the new sort of aggressive push that they’re making, having canceled the deal, to try to get the rest of the world to come along and help to further isolate Iran.
MR. COSTA: Seung Min, Molly’s talking about the hawkish wing of the Republican Party liking the president’s approach here at the U.N. When you’re on Capitol Hill, are Republicans, in a sense, heartened by the hawkish tone he’s taking with issues like Iran? Or ahead of the midterm elections, would they want a little more calm, a little less strident President Trump?
SEUNG MIN KIM: I think, generally, in any topic, whether it’s domestic issues or foreign policy, they would prefer a little bit of a calmer Trump. But you had seen some concerns from – because you have seen some concerns from some congressional Republicans because the president, as we’ve talked about, doesn’t necessarily take the traditional hawkish Republican Party view when it comes to foreign policy. I think that especially when the president first announced that he would want to meet directly with Kim Jong-un, which would be – is a historic meeting with sitting presidents of those two countries, you had some skepticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
But we’ve seen in so many issues where Republicans cannot – congressional Republicans cannot distance themselves from the president all too much because their base supports the president that much. So you saw this kind of willingness to essentially hope for the best and support whatever the president decides. But if you recall, immediately after that summit, there wasn’t a lot of clarity as to what was agreed to between the two leaders. There was a lot of concern on Capitol Hill, particularly, I recall, from Senator Cory Gardner and kind of that wing of the Republican Party, on, recall, the potential suspension of the, quote, “wargames.” That was a major issue that, actually, Vice President Pence had to talk to them about. So you see just kind of how the congressional Republicans have struggled to adapt to some parts of the president’s foreign policy agenda.
MS. BALL: Well, and I – and I – and I think that we’re very far from getting a coherent sense of what the Trump doctrine is in foreign policy, right? Because he is still, you know – and his speech at the U.N. was very much about this “America first” agenda and talking about not being the president of the globe and so on. And yet, you – and he does continue to, at the same time as he is cozying up to some of America’s traditional enemies, like Kim and Putin, and dramatically alienating some of our closest allies, like the U.K. and Canada, engaging in these trade wars, including with China, whose assistance he would need to get any kind of agreement with North Korea. And so it isn’t strictly an isolationist policy, it does have a lot of elements of the more hawkish, traditional Republican type of belief set. But it’s really, more than anything, all over the map.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, this was the third gathering of world leaders in recent months. You have the G7, NATO and now the U.N. where the president in his speech made clear that he sees little use for multinational organizations. Right? But there was that one moment at the very beginning of the speech, you’ll remember, where the president trotted out that campaign line – it tends to work for him on a campaign stage – where he said, you know, my administration has accomplished more in two years than any other administration in recent history. And that line drew laughter from the room. I think it was a glimpse, in some ways, of what, you know, world leaders’ view of President Trump, although he says that he intended to make that joke and he was in on the joke. Who knows?
MS. BALL: I mean, he literally said I didn’t expect that. (Laughter.)
MR. BENNETT: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
MS. BALL: And then he tries to claim that he did. And also, to me, it was a reminder of how infrequently he is ever in front of an audience that doesn’t just consist of adoring crowds and White House staff. Right?
MR. BENNETT: Right, yeah.
MR. LANDLER: To some extent, the Security Council was a smaller example of the same thing, because he found himself being criticized by one speaker after the other for abandoning the Iran nuclear deal. The Chinese had a chance to respond to his charge of interference and they slapped it down. And he had the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who is a classic Latin American anti-American leader, basically blast the United States for colonialism and imperialism. It’s absolutely unprecedented to have Donald Trump sitting listening to that kind of blast.
I was fascinated to see how he would respond to it. And when they – and the camera cut back to him, he said in a very monotone voice thank you, Mr. President, and then moved on to the next leader. So he wasn’t rising to the bait. I wasn’t sure whether he wasn’t because he hadn’t been listening or because he was being smart and not rising to the bait.
MR. COSTA: Seung Min Kim, Mark Landler, Geoff Bennett, Molly Ball, that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week podcast.
While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. And be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.