ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. Today we turn to the investigations swirling around the Trump administration.
Joining me at the table, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Kimberly Atkins, chief Washington reporter for The Boston Herald; and Jake Sherman, senior writer and co-editor of POLITICO’s Playbook.
Retired Army Lieutenant General and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about interactions with Russian officials. Flynn is now cooperating with federal investigators and had hoped to be sentenced to probation rather than spend time in jail, but at his sentencing hearing this week U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he was disgusted at what he called a very serious offense and said that Flynn would probably spend time in jail if the sentencing proceeded. Flynn agreed to delay until March.
Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee voted to send testimony from Roger Stone, longtime advisor to Donald Trump, to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And advisors at the Department of Justice said Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker does not have to recuse himself from the Mueller probe, even though DOJ ethics officials recommended recusal.
And the Trump Foundation, it’s shutting down. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood accused Trump and his three children of improperly using the funds there and said an investigation found a shocking pattern of illegality, including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more.
President Trump has been wishing Flynn good luck, but Peter, he is facing a lot of challenges with all of these angles of the Russia investigation.
PETER BAKER: Oh yeah, absolutely. Look, there’s a reason why Robert Mueller’s prosecutors said they didn’t necessarily want jail time or prison time for Michael Flynn. He met with them 19 times. Now, we don’t know what he told them, but if you meet with prosecutors 19 times and prosecutors then come out and say this guy has been really cooperative, don’t give him any prison time, there’s something there. We don’t – you know, we’re to find out eventually, but if I were the president I would look at that and I would worry. There’s a reason why he asked Jim Comey to go easy on the guy to begin with. Michael Flynn was there throughout the campaign. He was the conduit to the Russian ambassador during the transition, when they were talking about sanctions. There’s a lot of focus on what any contacts with Russia could have led to while the president was in office. Did they go easy on sanctions or try to lift sanctions as a result of any kind of discussion that happened prior to taking office? We’ll find out those answers, and it may not be good.
MOLLY BALL: Well, and a couple points to make about this, you know. Judge Sullivan, during the sentencing, a lot of figures on the right had high hopes for him, that he would be sympathetic to Flynn and to Flynn’s lawyers’ claims that he’d been treated unfairly by the FBI. They could not have been more wrong. Judge Sullivan actually came out with a false claim that Flynn actually had been an unregistered foreign agent while serving as national security adviser, but he wasn’t that far off because it was as national security adviser that Flynn continued to lie about having been an unregistered foreign agent. He didn’t register until after he quit. And Judge Sullivan’s outrage was saying you sold out your country, you betrayed this flag, the United States of America. So there was a real deeply felt – and the other thing to remember is that Judge Sullivan knows a lot more about what’s in the evidence than we do because Judge Sullivan requested the files, the evidence files, from the FBI. He has seen a lot more of all of that secret testimony that Flynn gave to the special prosecutor and the people on that team, and so he has a much fuller understanding of just how bad it was. The things that Michael Flynn has confessed to, has admitted that he did – this is a man who was the national security adviser of the United States, the only person in the whole Cabinet that President Obama took Trump aside during the transition and said do whatever you want but do not hire this man in your administration, and Trump went ahead and did it.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: And there was a difference – another difference, too, is Michael Flynn, unlike a lot of other people involved in the Mueller probe, has not been speaking, has not been talking publicly, isn’t on Twitter doing all the things that you see a lot of the other figures doing. But at the very least minute he sort of took a Trumpian turn, right, and tired – his lawyer argued, well, the people or FBI agents who interviewed him kind of tricked him; he didn’t really know. And that really annoyed Judge Sullivan, who called him on the carpet and made him say in court, no, that isn’t true, I wasn’t – I wasn’t duped; I know that lying to an FBI agent is wrong, and I did that, and I accept responsibility for it. That’s also a bad omen moving forward as we wait to see what happens to Roger Stone and all the other people involved in this probe as they move forward. The Trumpier their response and the more they defend, the worse it’s likely going to be for them.
MR. COSTA: Jake, with all of this news on the Mueller front, it doesn’t even get to what the president should expect on the horizon with House Democrats about to take power and the gavel in many of these investigative committees. What do you expect to see in January?
JAKE SHERMAN: I mean, the committees are already sending letters. They’re already – they’re already in full swing here, and I think what you’re going to see, Republican – the House Republicans gave the Trump administration really the benefit of the doubt and also gave them courtesies that Democrats are just not going to give them. They’re going to have public hearings. There’s going to be constant questioning of every decision the president makes, not only in relation to his past activities but, like, for example, if the president pulls troops out of Syria you could almost guarantee that people who are involved in that decision will be brought up to the Hill and forced to answer questions as part of budgetary hearings. So I don’t – I really have the suspicion and know that the president is not prepared for these investigations, both mentally, and actually tactically I think he doesn’t really understand what he’s getting into.
MR. COSTA: Is that your read, Peter, when you’re at the White House, when you think about new White House counsel Pat Cipollone and there’s Emmet Flood in there, associate White House counsel. Are they ready for the gathering storm?
MR. BAKER: No, I don’t think so. The president in particular has never experienced anything like this, right? He hasn’t been in politics. Remember, the first president in our history who was never a day in government office, in the military. He’s had a pretty friendly Congress to him for the last two years. He has no idea what’s really coming. He may know intellectually, and I think he does, but once he starts getting those blizzard of subpoenas and, as Jake said, not just about himself. What about Ryan Zinke, by the way, just resigned as interior secretary, multiple investigations? What about let’s go back to Scott Pruitt or Tom Price? Or, you know, what is Jared Kushner’s business up to?
I mean, these guys have a lot of avenues that they can explore. There may not be any fruit there, but they can make life miserable for President Trump and his team. And I don’t think he has a staff yet in place ready to deal with that.
MR. COSTA: Roger Stone, Molly, you’ve covered him for a while. He’s not been indicted or anything, but his name just keeps coming up. What does – what does that mean to President Trump?
MS. BALL: Well, we know that Roger Stone was close to Trump, even after he was supposedly kicked off of the Trump campaign, has known him for many, many years. We know that Roger Stone is a liar and a dirty trickster and someone who has delighted in building this persona for himself of someone who was willing to do all kinds of dirty deeds, if you will. And we know that he was talking to Guccifer, the Russian agent who was the liaison to WikiLeaks, who was dealing with a lot of this hacked material from the DNC. So Roger Stone is potentially the linchpin for the entire potential conspiracy with Russia that the Mueller team is building a case around if in fact the facts are there. So Roger Stone could be really crucial to this.
But just to follow up on Peter’s point and connect a lot of the dots from this week. We are starting to see independent institutions rein in and lash back at Donald Trump. For two years, he has had, more or less, a free ride. In the midterms, we saw the first instance of sort of political accountability for the – for his first two years in office. We’re starting to see legal accountability in the form of this gathering storm of the investigation. You saw a Republican-appointed judge stand up and say no, this isn’t acceptable, we’re an independent institution here in the judiciary and we have the power to lash back. You saw the Fed, despite the president’s pressure on them, do what they were going to do and say no, we have our own power, we’re not controlled by you, Mr. President. And now with the Mattis resignation, you have both the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, and the Congress, as Kim was saying, this extraordinary statement from Mitch McConnell, who doesn’t usually question anything the president does, you have these institutions all around the president starting to stand up and say we’re not going to take this anymore.
MR. COSTA: Kim, speaking about the institution, one of those institutions in a way politically is the Mueller investigation. Were they dealt a blow by what happened to Flynn in court? He had cooperated, they were urging him to just have probation, a lighter sentence, yet the judge said wait a second, I’m not going to let Robert Mueller run the table here in all my decisions, I’m going to make my own.
MS. ATKINS: It depends. I mean, this investigation is far in and well on its way. If this was early on and this is one of the early sentencings and the judge did not accept the sentencing recommendation, that would have been a really big blow because then it would have taken away the ability to offer these deals in order to get this information.
Michael Flynn has already testified – has already been in for an interview 19 times with Bob Mueller and his team. It’s hard to say what more he could give in order to convince this judge that he deserves a light sentence. And the other people who were involved, too, still have not been sentenced, folks like Rick Gates, they have been – they have been cooperating for a long time, too. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a blow, we don’t know, but it seems it’s far enough along that they’ll likely still push forward.
MR. COSTA: Jake, final question for you. You cover House Speaker Paul Ryan closely, you’re writing a book about him and his experience with President Trump. He was on a farewell tour this week giving a major speech and some interviews, issuing his videos from his office. When he looks back and other Republicans look back and they see all this Mueller news building and building, are there any regrets with him or people close to him about how they handled the Russia issue in Congress among Republicans?
MR. SHERMAN: No. They feel like they let the Mueller investigation go on, they did not undermine it. They feel like they fostered an independent committee process that allowed – that investigated the Russia issue. And I don’t think they have any regrets. And I think – I think we’re too close to it. I think time will tell whether that’s true. But I think that they feel like they’ve fostered an environment that let this go on. Remember, there are people on Capitol Hill, very senior Republicans, as you know, who have basically called for Mueller to either be fired or be limited in his scope. And so I think that Ryan didn’t do that and neither did McConnell, so I think they feel OK about that.
MR. COSTA: But they didn’t pass the Mueller protection in the Senate.
MR. SHERMAN: They did not. And, you know, the president keeps calling to change the threshold, the 60-vote threshold. If that were changed, the Mueller investigation would be protected to President Trump’s peril. So I think it’s, you’re right, it’s a complicated issue. They didn’t do it and McConnell keeps saying I didn’t feel like I had to do it because the president has given me his assurances.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, Jake, and thanks, everyone.
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. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.