ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast, where we continue the conversation where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me at the table, Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios; Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press; and Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for The Washington Post and a CNN political analyst.
President Trump heads to California on Saturday, where wildfires are burning in the north and south and have claimed at least 66 lives as of this moment. Northern California’s Camp Fire is the worst fire in state history. It has burned over 140,000 acres and destroyed almost 10,000 homes. Mr. Trump will meet with individuals who are affected by the wildfires when he’s there this weekend.
Jonathan, you will be traveling with President Trump, I believe part of the White House reporting pool.
JONATHAN LEMIRE: That’s right.
MR. COSTA: The president rarely travels to California, but this is a presidential moment for him, perhaps.
MR. LEMIRE: Right, he’s certainly painted California as the enemy in many ways, blaming them in some ways inaccurately for problems with illegal immigration and unlawful voting. He says they’re the source of many of the millions of illegal votes that perhaps cost him the popular vote in 2016. But yes, this is a moment where, you know, he’s the president and this is part of the job description, is to be out there to provide some comfort, to provide federal resources, disasters like this. It is one that he has perhaps struggled with, at least the idea of displaying empathy. We remember him in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of that hurricane a year ago, you know, shooting paper towels into the crowd like they were basketballs and later feuding with the officials and suggesting they manipulated the death total. Tomorrow he’s expected to meet with first responders, meet with victims, people affected by these terrible fires. He’s going to be on the ground for a number of hours. And interestingly, despite his feuds with the state, the current governor of California, Governor Brown, and Governor-elect Newsom, both Democrats, are going to meet with him and meet with us tomorrow in California.
MR. COSTA: Do we expect Congress to consider some more funding for California this winter?
SEUNG MIN KIM: It’s definitely one of the many agenda items. Senator Patrick Leahy, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has estimated about $720 million just for wildfire relief. That’s on top of emergency funding that’s needed to deal with the continuing hurricane relief in Texas, in the Carolinas, and elsewhere. But that doesn’t even begin to get into the complications of the funding fight that we have in the coming weeks because we know that the president is still insistent on funding for his border wall. The top Senate Republican leaders met with the president earlier this week. Mitch McConnell came back to Capitol Hill saying – kind of saying to us that he has a plan and not really disclosing that plan to us – (laughs) – in order to make President Trump happy on his border wall funding, but that’s another – on the list – many list of things that Congress has to get done before the end of the year.
MR. COSTA: Is this a check-the-box trip for President Trump, or do we expect this administration to focus on California for quite some time?
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, I don’t think there’s any – he has any choice. I mean, it is a disaster such magnitude that he really doesn’t have any choice. Were it not for this disaster, President Trump has no plans to visit California. I mean, you could probably go eight years without visiting California. I don’t think he’s been there once, has he, in his –
MR. LEMIRE: Maybe once.
MS. KIM: He has. He has, yeah, once, to visit a border wall prototype.
MR. SWAN: Maybe once? OK. So, you know, again, all that’s been said. But he really does struggle sometimes with these disasters, and Puerto Rico is a good example. I mean, we reported last week he has been saying privately no more money, not another penny for Puerto Rico. He’s got – he’s come to a theory actually based on a story he read in your newspaper that he perhaps misinterpreted where he believes that Puerto Rico’s government is using the disaster relief to pay down debt, and there’s no evidence of that. But he has come to the conclusion that they’re scammers, and he has made very clear to congressional appropriators and leadership that he does not want any more money going to Puerto Rico. In a meeting in October he asked to rescind money already given to Puerto Rico; this is with administration officials. So, you know, yes, there will be this moment tomorrow, but I wouldn’t expect some kind of, you know, awakening about, you know, California and some sea change in his view.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Yeah, I agree. I mean, like Jonathan said, it’s – he really had no choice because there have already been other wildfires and mudslides in California that have also been deadly and he has not chosen to go to visit victims there. But this, because of the magnitude, obviously, it’s compelling for him to go. Also, you know, this whole entire role of consoler in chief that we so frequently talk about, it’s just never been a natural fit for him. And so to also go to a place that is politically unfriendly, in his view, is just something that has never been very appealing to him. Now, when disasters struck in Florida and Texas, he was very eager to go and be among the people he felt like it was a natural place for him to be. Places like Puerto Rico and California, not so much.
MR. COSTA: In the days and weeks leading up to the midterm elections, President Trump spoke a lot about the caravan of migrants en route to the southern border of the U.S. He called it an invasion and deployed active-duty U.S. troops. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited soldiers in Texas on Wednesday, but the topic appears to have faded into the background for the Trump White House, at least until Friday night. Jonathan, we’ve seen the president starting to tweet about the caravan on Friday. How do you see this White House handling this matter – focusing on it politically, leaving it a little bit on the shelf in the wake of the midterms, now coming back to it?
MR. LEMIRE: That’s right. It’ll be interesting to see how much it really is revived, if this almost might be the president responding to all this wave of stories noting that he hadn’t been talking about it in a while, the AP among them; wrote about how this was sort of the dominant storyline for him in the – as his closing argument of the midterm elections. Night after night at the rallies he would talk about it, he would tweet about it, and so on, but once the election came and gone there were no tweets. He mentioned it once when asked at a press conference, and it really seemed to fade. And now, you know, he – this evening he did revive it and he did tweet about it again. Whether or not this leads to actual substantial policies we will see. He is still talking that he’s going to reevaluate, say, birthright citizenship. You know, there are troops deployed to the border; will there be more sent? You know, the White House is certainly looking at this stuff, but it’s clearly not the front-burner issue that it was a few weeks ago.
MS. SALAMA: There already has been the effort, though, to reinterpret the asylum law. And that’s been very controversial, although perhaps not grabbing headlines as much, where this has been something that’s concerned a lot of people because the law is very set. But there’s a statute in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act which says that the president has the executive authority, essentially when there’s a national security issue, that he can reinterpret the asylum laws and anything to protect the borders. And so that’s something that the White House has really grabbed onto post-election, and they’re really looking to kind of manipulate those laws in their favor.
MR. COSTA: What about Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Mattis? Are they trying to rein the president in at all, or are they encouraging him behind the scenes?
MS. KIM: Well, I think the fact that – well, Mattis has gone ahead with – before the election – with the president’s request to go along with these troops. And we saw that with his visit to the – with his visit to the troops this week. But again, we’ll have to wait and see how long this goes on, I mean, whether this is just a temporary revival of the issue or not. But in terms of going back to Vivian’s point about the asylum law issue, I mean this is something that Democrats on Capitol Hill are very resistant towards. And it’s also going to be a subject of many legal challenges. So this issue, on those fronts, is not going away anytime soon.
MR. COSTA: What’s your read, talking to people close to the administration? Stephen Miller’s in there. You have the Cabinet members. Is this caravan going to be a signature issue in 2019, late 2018? Or is it just a flash here and there?
MR. SWAN: This seems much more, to me, to be Trump reacting to television –
MR. COSTA: Political?
MR. SWAN: And images, and political. It really doesn’t seem to be much more thoughtful than that. But birthright citizenship is something he’s been thinking about for months and has been causing quite a lot of internal consternation both in the White House counsel office and some people on the – on the policy side of things. Trump has formed the view, based on conversations he’d had with certain people on the outside, including Michael Anton who wrote an op-ed in your newspaper, that he can get rid of birthright citizenship without changing the Constitution, which obviously the vast majority of legal scholars say you can’t. He is really quite dug in on that issue, and I expect he will do something, because it’s something that he has formed a core belief on.
MR. COSTA: For a final topic tonight, President Trump was in Paris last weekend to commemorate the end of World War I. He met with Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders but cancelled a planned trip to a cemetery. That experience, and an awkward relationship among Trump, Macron, and other world leaders like Angela Merkel, came to dominate coverage of the trip. Two of our panelists tonight were on that journey with President Trump as pool reporters – Vivian, Seung Min. When you think back to your time in Paris, what is – well, beyond the croissants, and the coffee –
MS. SALAMA: The wine. (Laughter.)
MR. LEMIRE: It sounded so nice. It’s like, wow.
MS. KIM: We did have a lovely time.
MS. SALAMA: We did work in the middle. We did. We did work.
MR. COSTA: Well, when you were working, Vivian, hopefully more play than not.
MS. SALAMA: So I actually – I actually went – I was pool for last year’s Paris trip and this year’s Paris trip. And let me tell you, it was like a one –
MR. COSTA: Can I have your – can we switch jobs?
MS. SALAMA: Yeah. I mean, it’s really hard, you guys. It’s a really hard life.
MR. COSTA: I’m missing out. I’m going to Erie, Pennsylvania. I love Erie, but you’re going to Paris, I’m going to Erie on the pool.
MS. SALAMA: Play it right. You just got to play it right. But, yeah, so it was – it was like a 180 change in terms of the relationship with the pats and the hugs and, like, the bromance that everybody was reporting. And this time, we walked into the Elysees and there wasn’t a smile in sight. Of course, the president had gotten off the plane – no, we hadn’t actually gotten off the plane yet where he accused Macron of insulting him, because Macron suggested that the Europeans need their own army to protect themselves. And so President Trump –
MR. SWAN: Against the U.S.? That was kind of hot. That was a bit of a hot take.
MS. SALAMA: I mean, but it was also misinterpreted.
MS. KIM: Exactly. There as a mistranslation of his comments.
MR. COSTA: Explain this.
MS. KIM: So what happened was –
MR. SWAN: It wasn’t that much of a mistranslation. (Laughter.)
MS. KIM: So Macron had given an interview to Europe 1 radio where he said he did want to build this, you know, true European army. And the reference to Russia, China, and the United States was more in terms of cyber threats. And if you look at his comments, it was kind of allying with Trump’s view in some sort of way, because the president keeps talking about how the United States can’t protect everyone. They can’t spend all this money protecting other countries, it has to be America first. And Macron was kind of almost trying to make that point, that we want to be self-sufficient as well. But there was – there was a little bit of mis – you know, lost in translation –
MR. SWAN: But it’s one thing to be self-sufficient. It’s another thing to say the U.S. is an adversary that we need to defend against in the cyber realm and lumping them together with Russia and China. Like, that was – I felt like that was, like, red meat to his base with, like, 20 percent popularity.
MS. KIM: And there was – definitely. And there was also another awkward moment – I don’t know if awkward is the right word. But on the second day of the Paris trip, when Macron did give that speech under the Arc de Triomphe, celebrating the centennial commemoration of the end of World War I, where he made these really pointed remarks about nationalism, when we know that the president has proudly called himself a nationalist at campaign rallies, saying: I’m a nationalist. I’m America first.
MS. SALAMA: Just days earlier at the press conference he said it.
MS. KIM: Exactly. And then – but then Macron really rebuked that, saying: Nationalism is not patriotism. Look what happened to our continent 100 years ago. The president, I don’t believe, has commented publicly on Macron’s apparent rebuke of him, but it was really a fascinating kind of latest chapter in that maybe perhaps bromance gone bad.
MS. SALAMA: He actually did lash out at France in general and the way that it’s been governed. And he said that the French were speaking German before the end of the war. And that’s something that really got under the skin of many French people. And so –
MR. SWAN: I think it ended with all caps, “MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!”
MS. SALAMA: Make France great again. It was the second tweet by itself, “MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!” And so obviously some tension going into this meeting and coming out of it. And we have to remember that there are also differing policy views in the middle of everything, where Macron has been very outspoken against Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. They differ on climate issues. They differ on the way Trump has gone –
MR. SWAN: Tariffs.
MS. SALAMA: Trump has imposed tariffs on EU allies on steel and aluminum. You name it, just the president going after a number of NATO allies for their lack of contribution – or what he says is a lack of contribution.
MR. LEMIRE: And the president also generated a wave of bad headlines for not going to that cemetery that’s so important, where a lot of American dead lie, very important to the Marines, because of bad weather. The helicopter couldn’t go. They nixed a long motorcade ride. And instead of finding a site closer to Paris, he remained in the ambassador’s residence for hours on end, drawing consternation from both sides of the aisle. He did the next day attend a cemetery, as you guys know. He did pay tribute there. But then returned to the United States and on Veterans Day did not go across the bridge, the short ride to Arlington.
MR. COSTA: He told Chris Wallace of Fox News in a Friday interview, that’s going to air on Sunday, that he regrets not doing more on Veterans Day.
MR. LEMIRE: A rare – a rare moment. A rare admission of a mistake, where he said that he should have made the ride over to Arlington to pay tribute to the fallen on Veterans Day.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. And while you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.