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.
Joining me around the table, Abby Phillip of CNN, Molly Ball of TIME Magazine, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, and Paula Reid of CBS News.
It was a rough week for Republicans. Representative Duncan Hunter of California and his wife were indicted for using more than $250,000 of campaign money to pad his family’s lifestyle. The charges include using the money to pay for their children’s private school tuition, trips, and even included airfare for the family’s pet rabbit. The Hunters attributed these charges to charity or campaign events, but of course campaign funds cannot be used for personal expenses. Hunter has called the charges against him politically motivated and without merit, and pleaded not guilty to all of them, but he did resign from his committee positions this week in the House. On Thursday Hunter said this.
REPRESENTATIVE DUNCAN HUNTER (R-CA): (From video.) This is the new Department of Justice. This is the Democrats’ arm of law enforcement. That’s what happening right now, and it’s happening with Trump and it’s happening with me, and we’re going to fight through it and win, and then the people get to vote in November. So we’ll see.
MR. COSTA: Up until Friday, Hunter had said he would not drop out of his race this fall. Another indictment for a House Republican, Paula. I mean, we saw Chris Collins of New York, now Duncan Hunter of California, DOJ keeping a close eye on these lawmakers.
PAULA REID: Yes, this is what they do. And to be clear, there is no new Justice Department. Jeff Sessions is still running the Justice Department, and this was a U.S. attorney in Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department. This is not Democrats doing this to him. And, you know, this is the bread-and-butter kind of work, the corruption-type stuff that the Justice Department focuses on, and this is not something that if you try to push through that a jury is very sympathetic about. You know, most people don’t fly their pet rabbit anywhere or get to go on trips to Hawaii. So this is the kind of thing that’s deadly serious and this is not a political conspiracy. I read this indictment. The charges are clearly supported by a significant amount of evidence, so it remains to be seen whether or not he wants to plea to make this go away or if he wants to fight it. You know, politicians who try to fight this stuff, doesn’t go well with juries.
MR. COSTA: Dan, maybe I’m wrong in my read of this, but when you think back to 2006, House Republicans struggled with this corruption argument against them. They lost the House to the Democrats in a wave. You would think these kind of indictments for House Republicans these days would maybe play into a similar narrative. But maybe it’s because of Trump being overwhelming in the national discussion; it doesn’t seem like the House Republicans are getting called out day in, day out on these kind of developments.
DAN BALZ: Well, that is partly for the reason you say, which is that the president so dominates everything that people kind of get lost in a lot of the other things. But if you put what happened this week with Chris Collins and then with the various ethics issues involving members of the Trump administration, there is a compelling case that the notion of “draining the swamp,” quote/unquote, has not happened under President Trump, and Democrats may be able to make an argument about that in the context of we need a check on this administration and the one way to do that is to put one of the houses of Congress in the hands of the Democrats. I think that’s the way they try to go at it.
MOLLY BALL: And, in fact, you do hear the Democrats using the exact same talking point that they used in 2006, when Nancy Pelosi was there then and she’s there now, and it’s the culture of corruption, trying to fairly or not implicate all Republicans in the sins of a few. And I think, you know, it works because it is partly about Trump. If you are a Republican member of Congress, you spend your days hiding from reporters who want to ask you about Trump. That’s your whole life. And you might have some beautiful bill that you’ve proposed that does something for bunnies or something – (laughter) – and all anyone wants to talk about is Trump, so they’re tired of that. And this does add to that, right? It’s just more questions about where do you stand on this latest outrage the administration has committed, and now that your fellow Republicans also are committing. So I think – I think Republicans really have been on the spot for all of this, again, fairly or not, and that’s going to continue.
ABBY PHILLIP: But what is also potentially problematic for Republicans is what Duncan Hunter is doing, which is taking Trump’s argument against the DOJ and using it as a blanket explanation for some pretty apparent grift, and that’s not just a Duncan Hunter phenomenon. I think we’ve seen down ballot a lot of Republican lawmakers under siege for various, you know, alleged illegalities are using Trump language – you know, Trump tone, Trump arguments – to try to defend themselves, and I think that’s what also makes it about the president. It’s that they are really just adopting his whole ethos around dealing with his own legal problems. And not every problem is the same. I think some voters will see through certain things. As Paula pointed out, it’s pretty clear that flying around your pet rabbit with campaign money is not appropriate.
MR. COSTA: You think, Dan, back to corruption in political history, right? This seems like the characters are somewhat unique, to say the least. You have Chris Collins of New York trading stock tips, getting called out for insider trading, alleged insider trading. And then you’ve got Duncan Hunter of California, when his wife is somewhat blamed for this, he kind of goes along with the blame on his own wife on television this week. What a scene.
MR. BALZ: Well, it is, although in a sense it’s not that new. I mean, there has been public corruption throughout history. And, you know, as Paula said, you know, U.S. attorneys for many, many years have pushed this. I mean, Chris Christie, when he was the U.S. attorney, put a lot of people in jail for various kinds of things. Misuse of campaign funds is not – you know, Duncan Hunter isn’t the first person to have been charged with that. Insider trading. I mean, these are things that human beings do, and some of them happen to be elected officials, and when they get caught they get – they get more attention and more bright light shined on them than if an ordinary person has that done.
MS. REID: And I don’t think voters forget when you sort of throw your wife under the bus as part of your defense. I mean, Governor McDonnell, that was part of his defense, right? Oh, it was my wife, she did it. That didn’t sit well with people. When you talked – they really didn’t like that. That was a reflection of not so much criminality, but character. So he’s got to be careful with that.
MR. COSTA: You wonder how long he stays on the ballot.
MS. BALL: Well, and to – and to Paula’s point, juries aren’t necessarily sympathetic to this argument, and we’ve seen with Trump’s political argument as well. It doesn’t really work for people who aren’t Donald Trump, right? You get Republicans going out there in, say, the Virginia gubernatorial election trying to say, yeah, my political message also is about MS-13 and Confederate statutes and crime and immigration; it didn’t work for them the way it worked for Trump. So it may be also that this argument about the legal system, the argument that the Justice Department it out to get me and it’s all a conspiracy and there’s a rigged witch hunt, that also may be a particular type of magic that only works for Trump and doesn’t work for all of his acolytes.
MR. COSTA: President Trump made a surprise announcement on Twitter on Friday that he is asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel his fourth trip to North Korea. The president said he didn’t think the North Koreans were making enough progress on their nuclear agreement with the U.S., and said China was partially responsible for this, and attributed that to the administration’s trade battle with China that’s been ongoing. But the president’s not ruling out upcoming talks. He tweeted: “Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved.” “I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!” the president tweeted. Trump has hailed the June Singapore summit with the North Korean leader as a huge success and said the country no longer posed a nuclear threat to the world, but the agreement was vague and would be hard to verify. The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report this week that said North Korea was continuing its weapons activities, nuclear weapons activities, and it has been unable to conduct the inspections that it wants to. Who’s conducting foreign policy in this administration? Reports that State Department was shocked by how this all played out on Friday.
MS. PHILLIP: They were. They were planning to go on this meeting. I mean, Pompeo had actually just announced it publicly, State Department officials were working behind the scenes to, you know, brief their allies in Europe and elsewhere about their objectives for the meeting, and then suddenly it’s called off. But it’s called off because there has been a longstanding situation with North Korea in which there has been no progress, and the president has denied that publicly but privately it’s been a source of frustration. And I think everyone looking at the situation has been talking about that. The administration has been denying it. Now I think they’re acknowledging it because they have really no choice. He may very well be right about the fact that China’s not helping him out here, but at the same time that’s because he chose to wage a singlehanded war against China on trade at a time when he’s also trying to get China to help him with North Korea. It’s a foreign policy strategy that is not entirely coherent, and now we’re seeing the consequences of that.
MS. BALL: Yeah, I mean, I think it actually reveals in a way the failure of two separate policy initiatives, right? On the one hand it is – it is, as Abby said, a tacit acknowledgement that the North Korea deal wasn’t really a deal at all and there hasn’t been very much progress there. It is also a tacit acknowledgement that this trade war with China is having a lot of unpredictable effects, and one of the effects – although I suppose it could have been predicted, and was by a lot of people – but one of the effects is when you’re waging a trade war on someone, they don’t want to be your friend in other ways and help you with other things you’re trying to do. There’s no way to get a deal with North Korea without the assistance of Beijing. And so – you know, he also did call off the North Korea summit like five minutes before he actually went to the North Korea summit – (laughter) – so this may all be a false alarm.
MR. COSTA: And the president just can’t pull back on trade, even if it would help him with North Korea. He continues to plow forward. Why is that?
MR. BALZ: It’s pat of his DNA. I mean, if there’s – I mean, we’ve talked about this before. If there is one issue where he has been consistent over a long period of time, it is on trade. He has a view of the world about trade and the United States that is entirely negative, that is postured on a belief that we have been taken advantage of by everybody, but particularly by the Chinese, and he’s determined to do something about that. The problem is what he’s determined to do is kind of, you know, blow things up without a clear strategy of how to get to a conclusion. For whatever reason, he may have thought he could – he and the Chinese could compartmentalize North Korea here, cooperation; trade here, combat. But it has not worked out that way. And, as we know, for whatever he had to say about the meeting in Singapore with the North Korean leader, there was nothing concrete that came out of that that would lead you to believe that there was, in fact, an enforceable agreement. So they’ve been dealing with kind of a mirage on that and it’s been left to Secretary Pompeo to try to put flesh on those bones, and that’s been very, very difficult.
MS. PHILLIP: And the last time Pompeo went to North Korea he was embarrassed very publicly. He was expecting to meet with Chairman Kim and didn’t. They were late to meetings. I mean, they clearly made it so that it was an uncomfortable meeting for him the last time around. There was a risk of a repeat performance this time around. So I think the administration has been back on their heels on this issue for quite some time now.
MR. COSTA: When you walk around the West Wing and you walk up to the Press Office area, there are these pictures – big blowup pictures – of Chairman Kim and President Trump. And in some ways it appears behind the scenes the administration already got what it wanted, which was that picture, even if the details are still being worked out.
MS. REID: Well, that picture may not age very well. I mean, I think one of the things – one of the reasons you see that is because that is something that he believed was a foreign policy accomplishment. To him, he thought this was an achievement. I know for a time it certainly took the attention off of all of his legal and political problems here at home. But it will be interesting to see if that picture is still hanging up in six months.
MR. COSTA: Have you seen it over there?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, they rotate them pretty frequently. But –
MR. COSTA: Oh, really? Maybe it’s rotated out. (Laughter.)
MS. PHILLIP: I think it was also astonishing –
MR. COSTA: I saw it, though. I did.
MS. PHILLIP: It was astonishing to people that this man, who is accused of mass murder and all kinds of horrific crimes, is just literally hanging up in a place of prominence in the West Wing.
MR. COSTA: Right on the way to the Oval Office.
MS. PHILLIP: Right on the way to the Oval Office so the president can see it.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of Washington Week Extra.
While you’re online, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.