ROBERT COSTA: I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Well, the week began about speculation about Oprah Winfrey and a possible 2020 Democratic run against President Trump. And that’s someone everyone in America knows, Oprah Winfrey. It’s been the talk of Washington for the last few days, talk of Hollywood, ever since Oprah delivered an impassioned speech at the Golden Globes over the weekend.
OPRAH WINFREY: (From video.) A new day is on the horizon. (Cheers, applause.) Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.
MR. COSTA: Here’s what the president had to say about Winfrey’s chances in 2020.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) That would be – Oprah would be a lot of fun. I know her very well. You know, I did one of her last shows. She had Donald Trump. This is before politics. Her last week, and she had Donald Trump and my family. It was very nice. No, I like Oprah. I don’t think she’s going to run. I don’t think she’s going to run. I know her very well.
MR. COSTA: “I know her very well.” Both Trump and Winfrey are rich and famous. Forbes says Trump is worth $3.1 billion; Oprah Winfrey, 2.9 billion (dollars). He’s 71; she’s 63. So, as we were talking about before we came to this special webcast edition, I wrote about Oprah this week, reported throughout the Democratic Party, Ashley, I detected some energy, that maybe the field doesn’t have a celebrity figure, that there are some prominent names in the Democratic Party but no one who’s overwhelming like Secretary Clinton was in 2016. But you seem to be a little bit skeptical behind the scenes – not to put you on the spot – a little skeptical about Oprah as a 2020 presidential candidate.
ASHLEY PARKER: More than a little. I agree with what the president said, I think it would be a lot of fun, and I have learned not to pass judgment about who can or cannot win, so we may be talking about a President Oprah four years from now. But I think she would have an incredibly steep learning curve. I think the minute you become a politician, you lose the wonderful Oprah sheen of giving everyone a car and hosting a feel-good show. And I also think people who have not been in politics have a tough time – and President Trump, I remember, on the campaign trail talked about this – adjusting to inherently a number of people simply do not like you. And it is really hard to go from being universally beloved to having people not liking you, and to getting largely positive coverage to the onslaught of the media – not just the daily stories that are tough to handle, sniping about an offhand comment she makes or an outfit she wears, but also there’s – her life has not been pored into. One thing that always comes to mind but – and I would love to be the reporter who gets sent on this investigative assignment – but is her house in Hawaii, where she fought to carve, if I understand it correctly, you know, a path through the island so she can reach a private beach. It’s a wonderful thing –
MANU RAJU: I’ve been there and I’ve seen that, yeah. (Laughs.)
MS. PARKER: The pictures look lovely when Gayle Instagrams them, but it’s, you know –
MR. COSTA: The life of a CNN – the life of a CNN reporter, wow.
MR. RAJU: Not to the house – not to the house, but I’ve seen the road that we can’t drive on.
MR. COSTA: Oh, OK. (Laughter.)
MS. PARKER: Yeah, it’s a wonderful thing for Oprah to do; it is a tough thing for a presidential candidate to justify.
MR. COSTA: Look, she – look, in 2008, President Obama was a transformational global figure when he was running for president in 2008. President Trump runs in 2016 as a global celebrity. Maybe that’s the new model.
ANNIE KARNI: I do think she could win. I think there’s a clear path for her. I agree with Ashley that she would probably hate it, and if I was an advisor to her I would say don’t do it. But I think there’s a path. I think she would clear a lot of the field. And I’ve heard Democratic operatives trying to game out who to work for in 2020 say that they’re working backwards, and their analysis is who can win the South Carolina primary because that’s where the African-American vote will coalesce around, and that’s most likely an African-American candidate. Oprah would definitely win the South Carolina primary. And then, if you can motivate more of the black vote than Hillary was able to, you could potentially beat Trump. So I think there’s a path.
JEREMY PETERS: This is insane. (Laughter.) I mean, we’re talking about who’s going to win the South Carolina primary and – it’s like –
MR. COSTA: People were saying that – well, in 2014, don’t we all wish we paid a little bit of attention – more attention to Trump?
MR. PETERS: I mean, Ashley’s right, we shouldn’t pass too much judgment because a lot of us said that Trump was never going to run either. I wrote several stories saying what a joke, this is never going to happen, he has done this election year after election year and never really pulled the trigger. So who knows?
MR. COSTA: Right, he was more of a tease about it. But you’ve covered populism – you’ve covered populism on the right. There could be a populism on the left.
MR. PETERS: There was a populism on the left. We saw it with Bernie Sanders. I don’t think it’s burned itself out yet.
MR. COSTA: That was more progressivism, I would say – maybe?
MR. PETERS: Yeah, there’s some – I mean, I think it’s similar. I think – I mean, Trump and Sanders, that’s when I knew something was up in this election, in the New Hampshire primary, when I was interviewing voters, and I ran across several who said that they were deciding between Trump and Sanders. And I just sat back and said, whoa, what is going on here? And I think that that has not run its course, and that you really – for there to be a true populist Democrat who could excite those voters who got excited by Trump in places like Macomb County, Michigan, could be a real competitor.
MR. RAJU: It’s also emblematic that this Democratic field heading into 2020 is wide open. I mean, it’s going to be a free for all, many candidates. There’s no clear frontrunner. And, you know, that’s why if Oprah were to run she would probably be the favorite.
MR. COSTA: Real quick, when you were walking around the Senate, as you do covering the Senate, did you detect any nerves after the Golden Globes speech by Oprah that maybe someone else was taking the spotlight?
MR. RAJU: Oh, you know, I think they – it was interesting to see Elizabeth Warren respond to questions about Oprah. She was very happy, and then someone asked her – I can’t remember where – you know, do you think that she could win. And she said, oh, I don’t know, you know. So I don’t think that – maybe she was, you know, being a little diplomatic but throwing a little shade, perhaps. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: So also on Capitol Hill this week, the House reauthorized FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but that was not before the president sent some contradictory tweets about the national security program. FISA allows the United States to intercept communications from foreigners suspected of terrorism, and President Trump prompted confusion with a tweet at first claiming the program had been used to abuse his campaign. He wrote that “This is an act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to…badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign.” Ashley, you studied this whole flip-flop, back and forth; “ping pong,” I think, was the phrase you used in your story. What happened with the White House? Was he just watching Fox News and then got his mind turned by lawmakers?
MS. PARKER: That’s exactly what happened. (Laughter.) He was – he was watching Fox News I believe around 6:46 a.m. Judge Napolitano, a fervent Trump supporter, basically said, you know, this is – I’m scratching my head, I don’t understand why the president is supporting this. And then about 47 minutes later, I believe, the president tweeted verbatim the Fox chyron from that moment, and this created a mad scramble on Capitol Hill and in the West Wing. The White House immediately – the president’s aides called Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan called the president back. The two men spent 30 minutes on the phone, with the speaker basically explaining the nuances between the domestic and foreign surveillance programs, and it was the Section 702, which is the foreign section, that was getting voted on. The president got a lot of pressure. General Kelly headed over to Capitol Hill. He was scheduled to go there anyhow, but he was now in a position of fielding a ton of questions from very confused lawmakers. And then 101 minutes after that first tweet, the president sent out a second tweet that said: That being said – which basically meant my aides have now explained to me that the White House position is to actually support this bill. And he walked it back and the vote passed as expected.
MR. COSTA: Ashley mentioned General Kelly. Supposedly, based on all of our reporting – many of our reporting, he had organized Oval Office meetings, he has kept the schedule tight, he has organized the paper flow. Yet, he’s not controlling the tweets. What is the chief of staff doing at moments like this, and why is he not controlling the tweets?
MS. KARNI: I’ve thought a lot about this. On the one hand, no one can control the tweets. So maybe – so in some sense, it’s a smart strategy. Why waste the energy trying? It’s not going to work. The longest it’s ever held is a few days. So it’s a losing battle. So Kelly has just given up. On the other hand, when the tweets really drive so much of the news coverage and the policy, and are so much a part of this presidency, how can you really say you’re running the White House and imposing order when you’re just not even looking at the tweets? The weekend when he tweeted that he was a stable genius, reporters – I think the pool reporters said to Kelly – like, read it to Kelly. And his reaction was, OK. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Any takeaway from the vote?
MR. RAJU: On the – you know, I asked Paul Ryan about – specifically about his conversations with Trump. And this is after they passed this FISA bill. And I said – I asked him – my question was: Did the president understand that his administration is supporting a bill that he has criticized – that he criticized on Twitter? And Paul Ryan basically said that – suggested that the president did not understand the bill. He said that he had to – he said that, oh, well, he was concerned about the domestic part. We were voting on the foreign part. So that’s why – you know, we talked about it. And I said, so does that mean the president didn’t know what you’re voting on? And he suggested the president did not know.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of Congress, two California Republicans announced their retirement from Congress this week, Darrell Issa and Ed Royce. Joined some – almost over two dozen other Republican House members who are not seeking reelection this year. And while they are bowing out, former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio – he announced his bid for the Senate. The 84 – 85-year-old Arpaio, a staunch supporter of President Trump, is running now to fill the seat held by Republican Jeff Flake, a Trump critic who’s retiring.
When you think about this, let’s remember that just last year Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt for defying a court order to stop racial profiling of Latinos. A month later, President Trump pardoned him. The retirements, Republicans running scared or is there another explanation for all these Republicans saying no thanks to 2018?
MS. PARKER: I think – and Manu might have a better sense of this – but I – you know, you have to take each one at their face. Maybe some people really do want to spend more time with their families. But, look, a lot of these Republicans, they were in seats where they probably would have won again but it would have been a much tougher race. They would have had to raise a lot more money. And there’s also a sense that it’s frustrating to be a member of Congress right now. And so the practical effect is for whatever reason they’re leaving is it makes it a lot harder for Republicans to keep all of these seats. Those incumbents might have won, but in an open race it’s a lot more tricky.
MR. COSTA: Jeremy, you’ve covered the civil war in the Republican Party so well. And so often it seems like when people would retire in the past it was because they’d want to avoid a primary fight. It seems now that it’s less about the primary fear and it’s just about the chaotic environment. No one wants to keep being told about Trump tweets and being forced to respond to them.
MR. PETERS: Yeah, it’s about fatigue and it’s about fear. Fatigue of this just dysfunction, the inability to pass legislation, the inability to do what they said they would do when they were running for office. Think about it. It took them a year and they finally got a tax bill passed. And it’s a tax bill that most of them will privately tell you they don’t really like, they don’t think is all that great. It doesn’t go toward the conservative goals of reforming the tax code in the way that they promised and that they would have – would have preferred.
The fear aspect of it is the Democrats. The Democrats are fired up. And any Republican will tell you that, that that is what they worry about. That’s what keeps them up at night, that they see a level of intensity and energy on the left that rivals if not exceeds what happened in 2010 with the Republicans when they took control of the House.
MR. RAJU: A bad sign this week for the Republicans was when Ed Royce announced his retirement from his seat in California. That was going to be a –
MR. PETERS: Orange County.
MR. RAJU: I was going to say, they probably would have held that seat. A good chance they would have held that seat. Now it’s a very tough seat to hold. If you’re a Republican and you’re running, if you’re in a competitive seat you’re going to have to face all these questions about all the controversies that Trump is dealing with, all the energy on the left that Jeremy was talking about, and there’s a very good chance you could come back, if you win, in the minority. Nothing is worse than being in the House minority, because you have very little power. So perhaps a lot of these members are seeing the writing on the wall.
MR. COSTA: Especially Royce, a committee chairman.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, a committee chairman.
MR. PETERS: The seventh committee chairman, by the way, in the House, to announce his retirement.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. Very significant.
MR. COSTA: What’s – final thought, Annie. What is the White House’s role going to be in these midterms? If the president’s toxic in some of these states and races, will he stay out or is he eager to get in? There’s an upcoming special election in Pennsylvania in March for the House.
MS. KARNI: Which he’s getting – which he’s getting into, I think.
MR. COSTA: Why?
MS. KARNI: They are worried about losing the House. They are worried that they went, like, zero for five in the special elections so far. They – the year ended with a big internal fight between Trump aides about who’s leading the political operation and what’s our strategy for the midterms. Bannon being out of the picture, I think the midterms are what matters the most in terms of him having little juice anymore. It’s no longer a fight between Bannon and McConnell for the soul of the Republican Party. The question is will Trump just flee into the arms of McConnell or will he stake out that Bannon-like position and support outsider candidates?
MR. COSTA: What is the count for the midterms for President Trump, the special elections? They lost in Alabama in December, but they’ve won a few House races.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, they won – they won the seat in the Atlanta suburbs, which was probably the most heavily contested seat up until then. But that was a Republican seat – a long-held Republican seat. They’ve won in Montana and Kansas as well. So – but those are Republican seats. The question’s going to be – in the midterms is going to be fought in those districts in which Hillary Clinton won. She won nearly two dozen districts in which Republican seats are now held. They need 24 seats to take back the House. There’s a good chance that they do. It would be a huge disaster for the Democrats if they don’t. They’d be reeling getting into 2020 if they don’t.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of those districts, I texted a Republican – a House Republican after the vulgar remark by the president at that immigration meeting. And I was asking, what’s your take? And the lawmaker just texted back: Not helpful. Not helpful. (Laughter.)
We’ll leave it there. Thanks, everybody. While you’re online, take the Washington Week news quiz and text your knowledge of this week’s news headlines. And thanks for watching, as always. I’m Robert Costa. And we’ll see you next time.