ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Bob Costa.
One of the president’s main foreign policy goals has been to negotiate a nuclear weapons agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but that effort has had its stops and starts over the past year and North Korea has recently declared that it has been testing at missile sites. In recent days North Korea went so far as to threaten a possible “Christmas gift” if the United States refuses to offer concessions in the negotiations by the end of the year. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested in an interview with Axios that the White House is bluffing about its ability to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, North Korea is not the only outside threat the administration faces; one of many. And in his public comments on his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, as you may remember, former Special Counsel Bob Mueller warned of the continued risk of foreign interference, saying the issue, quote, “deserves the attention of every American.”
Joining me tonight to discuss these issues, Kimberly Atkins, senior news correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station; Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Bob Woodward, associate editor of The Washington Post and author of Fear: Trump in the White House.
Bob, you’ve been studying North Korea and reporting on it for quite some time. The “Christmas gift” didn’t happen, yet –
BOB WOODWARD: Didn’t happen, and we had all these analysts saying it’s going to happen, that Trump’s policy has failed. I think it’s a high-risk policy. It’s personal diplomacy. And you know, he has not shot off a nuclear weapon test or an ICBM test since there was a(n) informal agreement to not do that. That’s a big advance. But I still think it’s the ghost in the machine, that it could rear its ugly head. Kim Jong-un has – is unpredictable, he’s young, he has a CIA profile of really being not somebody you can trust. But it’s worked, and you know, working – when something happens, if it – if there is – I mean, I know this. I’ve looked – spent too much time looking at this. And if something bad happens, it could be really bad. So you know, keep your seatbelts on.
MR. COSTA: And we’re going to have to keep our seatbelts on for so many issues as the president looks abroad. You think about the protests in Hong Kong, what’s going on with the Muslim population in China, Modi in India, U.S. troops in East Africa being considered to be drawn out by President Trump, nationalism and Brexit in the U.K. When you look at the world beyond North Korea, what are you focusing on or interested in as a reporter in 2020 in terms of foreign policy?
AMNA NAWAZ: Oh, all of the above – (laughs) – as you listed them. And as you’re listing them, I’m like, that’s right, we have covered all of these things just in the last week or two weeks alone. Look, it is a complicated and troubling landscape in the rest of the world right now. Some of the forces at play that we see in places like the U.K. when it comes to Brexit and the rise of nationalism and the upsetting of political systems as we know it, that’s causing unrest in a lot of places, in a lot of places that the U.S. has long required and relied upon as reliable partners out there in the world. What we see happening under Narendra Modi’s India right now is deeply troubling when it comes to the persecution of some minority communities. What you see happening in China with the human rights violations against the Uighur populations, what you see happening even in Iraq and Afghanistan where the violence continues. We still have U.S. servicemembers who are dying in service to a war that the U.S. has been struggling to get itself out of in Afghanistan. There hasn’t really been a plan laid forward by the Trump administration because a lot of the foreign policy, to Bob’s point, has been what the president personally wants, and that’s untenable. That’s not something that you can pass on to the next administration or carry forward for another four years.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: And I think this is yet another area where in a way Donald Trump is delivering what he campaigned on, what he said. I remember sitting at the inauguration speech when he talked about, you know, America first, and he painted this very clear picture that we are going to take care of ourselves and other countries should take care of themselves. And what we have seen as part of all of this, and not unrelated, is a withdrawal of America in all of these places. It’s not just that they are countries that the United States has relied upon for history; it’s that they’ve relied upon the United States and they are now not doing that anymore.
MR. COSTA: You know what’s interesting, Kim, is that the Democrats, to counter President Trump, are not arguing in favor of interventionism. You don’t see the Democrats on the debate stage calling for a huge U.S. footprint abroad.
MS. ATKINS: Right, right, no, you don’t, and for a lot of reasons. They are very focused – A, they’re hyper-focused on domestic policy right now, because that’s what they hear on the campaign trail and that’s what they think is most important. And there’s probably some fear that there will be pushback about pushing some massive interventionalism message. I think it’s more to do with the Democrats really don’t talk about foreign policy that much at all. They’re focused on the domestic. You saw a couple candidates try to do that, Seth Moulton, others. It just didn’t go very well. And I think that’s just a different – in the primary, that’s just a different conversation to be had. But again, I think that this is Trump delivering on what he campaigned on.
MR. WOODWARD: And he’s scared lots of people. He’s very – I mean, not just abroad, but – and he is unpredictable. And people who work for him live in that state of anxiety about is the policy this way, is the policy that way.
MR. COSTA: Well, it’s that balance sheet mentality to foreign policy that jars many people in his administration and around the world.
MR. WOODWARD: And the question is, it seems to have worked. I agree with you. But it’s a dangerous place out there. And as everyone will say in the Pentagon, the enemy has a vote. And they can do something surprising or something unpredictable, or something that could be catastrophic. And let’s not kid ourselves, it – these things are not fixed. And since 9/11, things in foreign policy haven’t been fixed. And I’m not sure how you do it, but you know, I get too much in the weeds on this. And I worry about, you know, nuclear weapons.
MR. COSTA: And what about Russia? We talked about Russia intervention. The Mueller report was one of the big stories of 2019. President Trump continues to not take a hardline on Russia. Will that continue in 2020? And to what end?
MS. NAWAZ: You know, you look at – just look at one specific agency. You look at Department of Homeland Security, right? They are tasked with securing our election infrastructure. They are also tasked, as part of their big and very broad portfolio, with immigration enforcement and border patrols. And because the administration and the president have so much more focus directed towards one of those priorities from their administration and not the other, it means something when it comes to the resources and when it comes the support that those leaders get, and when it comes to the attention that they get to pay to these very real threats. And this is something we’ve seen again and again with the administration, that because the message from the president focuses on one thing it’s not focusing on the actual threat.
That does mean something on the ground. It means that the resources aren’t going where they necessarily need to. And I don’t know – you know, when you talk to people who work within Department of Homeland Security they will say they are working just as hard as they ever have, that they have the resources they need, that our elections will be safe and secure. We know that the threat remains there. And every professional who testifies before Congress on this says: This is still one of our biggest threats.
MR. WOODWARD: Real. Real. I mean, people not only say it’s a threat, but they’re doing it, particularly the Russians. They are in systems, or they are embedded there, so.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. That’s it for 2019. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our website. While you’re there, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next year.