ROBERT COSTA: Hello, I’m Robert Costa. And this is a special edition of the Washington Week Extra, a conversation among veteran reporters about the presidency and the country, next.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Welcome to a special Thanksgiving week edition of the Washington Week Extra. Tonight, we have a stellar roundtable of journalists to discuss the first year of the Trump administration. Joining me around the table, Peter Baker of The New York Times; Andrea Mitchell of NBC News; Michael Duffy of TIME Magazine; and Ann Compton, veteran of ABC News.
Michael, starting with you, I was peeling open your book the other day, “The President’s Club.” And what a book it is, because it tells about the chummy relationship many presidents have had over the years. And it makes me wonder, where does President Trump fit in that club?
MICHAEL DUFFY: Well, he doesn’t fit in yet. You know, this is a great tradition where presidents like Truman relied on President Hoover, Johnson and Kennedy relied on Ike, Bill Clinton relied on Dick Nixon. But so far, rather than actually turning to his predecessors for advice, President Obama (sic; Trump) has sort of trashed President Obama at every turn. He’s become like kind of almost an obsession. Not with Obama’s sort of wisdom and advice that he could impart to the current president, but all the mistakes that Trump feels he made and decisions that need to be overturned.
So to have a conversation between presidents current and past, you have to have some basic respect for the office and the experience that people who have sat in the chair have had, and the lessons they’ve learned, and the bruises they’ve picked up along the way, because they can maybe save you from taking on some of your own. He doesn’t have that. I’m guessing that probably never comes. And in fact, what we have instead is an interesting conversation between some of the former presidents, including president – both Presidents Bush, who are gently but firmly, clearly, trying to, you know, push – not – they’ve given up on Trump. But they are trying to push the conversation politically in a more moderate direction.
MR. COSTA: Well, if he’s not talking to former presidents, Peter, who is he talking to inside of the White House, in the residence late at night, or inside of the Oval Office?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s a great question. He has a small circle of advisors he really trusts. And then there’s a sort of like interesting layers of – and you know this better than anybody, Bob – but layers of people who have been part of his world for a while, who have been in his world, out of his world, back in his world. There’s never a complete excommunication from Trump world. People who are fired sometimes manage to work their way back into his trust.
And it’s not a conventional group. He’s not talking to senators. He’s not talking to congressmen or former presidents or governors. He’s talking to people that he feels comfortable with, who ratify his worldview to some extent. And they don’t always agree. You do have the Bannon types versus his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who have very different points of view. But it’s not a conventional Washington point of view, which is why there is such a reaction to him from the professional class, both Republican and Democrat here.
MR. COSTA: And you covered Secretary Clinton so closely, Andrea, when she was in the State Department and on the campaign trail. And sometimes with President Trump it seems not so much about who’s in his ear, but what’s driving him. And he still seems haunted at times by Secretary Clinton and that 2016 campaign.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, and I think he plays that to effect, because he knows it works with the base. It really energizes his base, the Trump base, which is different from the traditional Republican establishment base. But they get so angry about Hillary Clinton. She’s been demonized through the campaign, and now since the campaign. And this continues to be his best play in terms of getting people to rally around him against her, because a lot of people who voted for him say that they weren’t so much voting for him as against her.
MR. DUFFY: And that became very transparent last week when he actually said: I wish she would run again – (laughter) – so he could have her to kick around some more.
MR. BAKER: And part of it, though, I think is a resentment at this investigation, because the investigation challenges his very legitimacy. It says: You didn’t win fair and square. And he’s trying to say, yeah, I did. She was a terrible candidate. I beat her fair and square. Stop questioning my win. So in some ways, it is partly a defensive mechanism.
MS. MITCHELL: And, for instance, bringing up this whole fraud commission, which itself is really a fraud –
MR. COSTA: Talking about voter fraud.
MS. MITCHELL: – to say that there was so much voter fraud. He just really can’t get over the fact that she got more popular votes than he did.
MR. COSTA: How much a burden has this Russia probe been, you think, on the Trump presidency, Ann, compared to past presidents and how they’ve dealt with challenges in their first year?
ANN COMPTON: Well, I think the president in this case – most presidents really are haunted by them, and certainly their staff around them. But President Trump has so many opportunities to go talking about other things. Where you really see his vulnerability, the raw spot for him, is when he begins to tweet or attack. And this is a guy who always needs an enemy out there, not only demonizing Hillary Clinton and some of the political world, demonizing the enemies of the American people. He says that the mainstream White House press. But he needs to have an enemy out there. He pushes back against an enemy. But this thing will take on a life – has taken on a life of its own. And it’s impossible for him to really push back on it.
MR. COSTA: Michael, when we step back – we’re covering it so up close in Washington – it’s really the voters who have to decide whether they like what’s happened or whether they don’t like what’s happened. And when you look at the recent elections in Virginia, the gubernatorial race there, a Democrat won, same in New Jersey. And also in local elections in Pennsylvania and other states, suburban voters – some of who may have voted for President Trump last year – they seem to be turning. There’s a turn toward the Democrats. Maybe an uneasiness about either the agenda of the temperament of the president.
MR. DUFFY: Yes, possibly. I think it’s best measured if you were to probably take a poll of Republicans in terms of how they feel next year’s elections are going to go. They have gone from being fairly optimistic in the first half of this year to being fairly pessimistic now. They are concerned about losing one if not two houses in the Congress. That’s a year off. A lot can change. But it’s also true that we shouldn’t extrapolate from some Democratic wins here in the first year of the Trump administration anything about next year, or really anything beyond that. It’s not entirely clear to me that if the election weren’t held against today the results might be too different.
MR. COSTA: Why do you say that?
MR. DUFFY: Because if you actually put Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton, are we sure – are we sure the election would be different? I’m not so sure. Partly because of the reason you mentioned. This remains a very unpopular candidate on both sides. So I don’t think we know by looking back what could happen in the future. I think what’s interesting is that the Democrats have gotten themselves together organizationally, and they have gotten themselves together at the grassroots level. But they’re not ideologically any more cogent than the Republicans at the moment.
MR. BAKER: Oh, I think the best thing that’s happened for the Democrats in their own civil war is there’s a Republican civil war at the same time, and that’s overshadowed it because it involves this president. The Democrats have a real issue finding a coherent message that they all can wrap themselves around, and a leadership. They don’t really – they have a – they have a leadership in Congress and in terms of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – all of whom are in their 70s, basically. And they don’t have a next generation who has come along and captivated them the way, say, Barack Obama did in the 2006, 2007 –
MR. COSTA: Speaking of the Democrats, who stepped up this year, in terms of the Democratic side, to be a counter to President Trump? Or is it yet to be seen?
MS. COMPTON: I don’t think it’s been seen yet. And I think you can look at statehouses or mayors, the idea that some mayors have big-city backing, and they’ve got a solid –
MR. COSTA: Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Rahm Emanuel in Chicago.
MS. COMPTON: And any of them could put out their credentials as having governed a small city – or, a large city. But you’re absolutely right. The Democrats for many years had kind of all these possible horses. And it’s become an old crowd. Republicans had all the Howard Baker, Bob Dole era. And they kind of ran out of steam. And by the fact that you had so many voters who, anecdotally, would say, in Virginia and in New Jersey, I’m voting for this candidate because I want to send Donald Trump a – what does that say to the idea that – the massive – the overall American populace is looking for something – the party value. The value of that party affiliation has really, really crumbled.
MS. MITCHELL: I think the value of both party affiliations, as you pointed out, has crumbled. And you’ve got some people – Cory Booker, Kamala Harris – some people who have stepped up at these hearings, the investigating committees. (Laughs.) Ironically, Al Franken. But at the same time, no one really has punched through. That’s why we’re talking about Joe Biden. A lot of people are talking about Joe Biden. Joe Biden’s talking about Joe Biden. (Laughter.)
MR. DUFFY: Which isn’t a change.
MS. MITCHELL: Which is not a change. (Laughter.) But I think what one of the potential hopefuls said to me – a Democratic senator who’s been talked about in this realm – said: You know, none of us have a message. We can’t – we tried to articulate it. Hillary Clinton tried to talk about the economy and tried to appeal to red state Democrats. And none of us can really do this because he is a reality television president, and we can’t compete on that stage.
MR. COSTA: Michael, that’s such an important point, because a lot of Democrats I talk to say they’d like to run against President Trump as a tax-cutting, Wall Street-friendly Republican. But so often, he’s consumed by grievance politics and he plays to the culture – whether it’s criticizing NFL players over kneeling during the national anthem or other issues. He’s a different kind of opponent if you’re a Democrat.
MR. DUFFY: Right. He’s a walking, talking basket of grievances, speaking directly to people’s own grievances, which he’s very clever about sparking. And Democrats who think they can go to an election and talk about policy against Donald Trump need to go back and watch the 2016 movie again, because in that reality show he was playing a completely different game. They were playing football, he’s playing basketball. So that’s the game that will be played next time. And they either have to – regardless of who it is, they have to play on that playing field if they hope to win.
MR. COSTA: Next time, though. It’s a difficult culture as well, Ann, because if you think about the sexual harassment debate we’re having right now in this country. It is tragic to hear the stories of all these women and what they’ve gone through. Last year, when President Trump was running, he was able to escape the Access Hollywood controversy and numerous accusations from different women. Now it seems like we’re perhaps in a different time.
MS. COMPTON: Well, there’s certainly – there has been a watershed moment. And 2016 – this is 2017. But there’s also something about timing. The accusations in the Access Hollywood tape came very, very late. What if it had been early in the primaries? When you look at presidents – and there have been presidents in our history who’ve had everything from illegitimate children to war hero records but the mistress on the side – there are any number who have faced accusations. And Bill Clinton faced impeachment over the tangle of his – of his second term. So there’s something special that protects a president. And I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not a level playing field.
MS. MITCHELL: Well, and I would also point out that the Access Hollywood tape happened. And then an hour later, WikiLeaks dropped. And so those, you know, people in the Clinton camp would say that they could not get past that, because all of those emails were released – and they believe it was deliberate, after the Access Hollywood tape. And then a couple of days later, Donald Trump brought all of Bill Clinton’s former accusers to the debate.
MR. COSTA: What do you think of the culture change, Andrea? I mean, on one hand the president’s paying to his base. Grievance politics is at the fore of our national discussion. But there’s more accountability now when it comes to things like sexual harassment. Both things are happening at the same time.
MS. MITCHELL: I don’t think that the president’s past and the Access Hollywood tape and all of that – I think that’s all factored it. You know, they’ve discounted that, his supporters. So if he can get past 37, 38 percent, and if there is a three-way race again where there were some other independent candidates who took away enough in those critical states from Hillary Clinton, you don’t know what the mix is going to be in 2020. I just believe that his behaviors are all discounted. It was when he was a celebrity. It wasn’t when he was in the Oval Office. And I don’t think that he is going to have to pay a price for that.
MR. DUFFY: But I do think that his behavior is driving some of the reaction now. Not entirely, I just think it’s a piece of the culture because having – for I think a lot of people, having missed the chance to get that one – to make him accountable in a way they now think he should have been. And these – and the context changes constantly. I think there is some of the reaction that is going on now that is directly tied to remorse over having not held Trump more accountable.
MS. MITCHELL: And not held Bill Clinton more accountable.
MR. DUFFY: Yes. And that’s true too.
MR. COSTA: You know, the interesting debate about Bill Clinton is, I mean, why is he keeping his head low? Because, in fact, he doesn’t want to be part of this conversation. You see Juanita Broaddrick, and you see Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones, you know, coming back and having their day. Saying: Well, wait a second, when you say me too, when you say you must believe them, why didn’t you believe us? And you see not just conservatives cackling over that – which you can imagine them saying, ha, we told you so, but you see liberals saying: Maybe we should rethink what we said or thought about in the 1990s.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to defend him, simply because he’s from our party and he agrees with the things that we agree with. Most prominently Kirsten Gillibrand, who may herself want to run in 2020, senator from New York, Senate seat held by Hillary Clinton, campaigned with the help of Bill and Hillary Clinton, say that she thinks now – at least in the light of hindsight – that Bill Clinton should have resigned in 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened.
MR. COSTA: Ann, when I was talking to some White House officials about our discussion they said, oh, the markets are up. And we got Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. And we filled lower courts with many conservative nominations. We’re so frustrated, they told me, that they’re not getting enough credit for that. And I said, well, most presidents struggle to get their achievements to be at the front and center of national politics, because there’s controversy and scandal and other political dramas. It’s not unusual for a White House to be frustrated like that.
MS. COMPTON: Well, and every White House is frustrated with a press corps which always goes for the negative. And we really are the only smoke alarm out there that’s going to tell you when the smoke is smoldering and it’s going to turn into a bonfire. And presidents are frustrated by that. And we do report the economic news. We did report on Neil Gorsuch. We did – when things – when some of the relief began flowing for hurricanes, I think the administration got some credit for that. But let’s face it, any president is going to have to answer for what doesn’t work.
MR. COSTA: How do we look at the staff shakeups? Reince Priebus, chief of staff, gone. Steve Bannon, chief strategist, gone. Sean Spicer, the first press secretary, he’s now left the White House. John Kelly, the general, is in there at the president’s side as a confidant, but a lot of tumult in this first year.
MS. MITCHELL: Really unprecedented. I mean, there have been staff changes. And certainly I covered the Clinton White House in those first years, and it was one thing after another. But you had not had so many gone. And it shows a lack of both respect and understanding of the process. And we sound like, you know, Washington insiders, which we are, but there is a certain knowledge base that you need to come in and be the chief of staff.
MR. COSTA: Has Kelly steadied the scene inside of the White House?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, you would know this better than any of us.
MR. COSTA: No, you would – what’s your take? (Laughter.) You know the Cabinet. You know them all.
MS. MITCHELL: I think he’s had some missteps. And certainly his performance in the briefing room and his refusal to apologize for misunderstanding the relationship between that Florida congresswoman and that Gold Star family – which was a longstanding relationship. She was part of the family. They were on their way to the burial. And he should have better understood that.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. I think it was striking that he did that, because he stepped out of the normal chief of staff role, where you’re there to, you know, advance the president’s agenda, but not to be a political actor, per se. And there he seemed like a political actor. Having said that, I do think that the operations below the level of the president is running more, you know, professionally than it did. I mean, there – this is small stuff, but they’re just getting – you know, they’re getting fact sheets out. They’re rolling out their policies in a better way. They’re bringing people in for briefings. There’s less of a fight in the briefing room every day – do we have the cameras on, do we not have the cameras on? You know, people are not able to walk into the Oval Office anytime they want –
MS. MITCHELL: That may be the biggest change.
MR. BAKER: That’s a big change. And there’s a structure to it. That doesn’t mean it’s working perfectly, by any stretch, but it’s certainly different than the first few months.
MR. DUFFY: The overhanging –
MR. COSTA: Ann –
MR. DUFFY: Go ahead.
MR. COSTA: Sorry. No, I was just curious, is Bannon stronger on the outside or was he stronger when he was in the White House?
MR. DUFFY: Oh, I would say no less strong, and probably stronger. He has a freer hand, because he doesn’t have half the White House staff trying to hem him in. So I would say stronger. And the Republican Party, you know, civil war, about establishment versus anti-establishment, is going every bit as strong as when he left. I think the overhang of the staff churn goes – I mean, you just can’t leave out, you know, the departure of the NSC advisor, you know, General Flynn, which it will have legal implications, it seems, from every estimation for the president going forward. So there are – there were questions of just sort of the confusion and the tumult, but then there are real, legal implications of some of those original choices that the president made that now seem unwise.
MS. MITCHELL: And in fact, the fact that they were warned against Michael Flynn.
MR. DUFFY: They were, yeah.
MS. MITCHELL: They had plenty of warning from the intelligence probes.
MR. DUFFY: Obama had fired him.
MS. MITCHELL: And there was all sorts of information about Michael Flynn. Bringing him into the National Security Council, bringing him into the White House with the top clearance that he had is perhaps, when we look back, in addition to the Comey firing, the biggest single mistake, because he potentially compromised national security in profound ways, in unethical ways. He was representing Turkey at the time, and taking money that he had not disclosed. And who knows what other secrets giving – being given to foreign agents.
MR. DUFFY: Right. That looks like an original sin that’s even more formidable than the Comey –
MR. COSTA: What about the choice of General Mattis to run the Defense Department, Ann? And you think about that you have General Kelly in there, National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster. There seems to be a strong military contingent inside of this administration that has some influence.
MS. COMPTON: Which brings some order and structure, but it doesn’t bring their own kind of policy history. They don’t come out of a political field. And the people I’ve spoken to say they kind of like the fact that there’s a stability and at least men in those positions who believe in the effectiveness and the positive nature of governing. And from that, that’s been kind of a stabilizing force.
MR. DUFFY: It’s probably also something of a relief, given the uncertainty about President Trump’s foreign policy, to have, you know, a handful of, you know, three-, four-star generals who actually have been around the world and know the territory. It’s interesting that Trump, who went to military academy as a kid, is so enamored of generals. Typically, we like our civilians to be in charge of the government. And we’ve got a lot of retired and active duty guys at the front lines.
MR. COSTA: Peter, to close us out, I mean, we think about the president at the inaugural address – this outsider, defiant, populist. Now it’s the end of the year. He’s pushing for a traditional Republican tax cut. Politically – Ann brought up the political point – is he more conventional than we may think?
MR. BAKER: Well, look, he tried disruption. And I don’t think he’s done with the disruption. Disruption is, you know inimical to his political identity. But, you’re right, this is a more conventional thing. Tax cuts is a bread and butter Republican issue. And if you can’t get tax cuts passed as a Republican president, that’s pretty – that’s pretty tough, because giving away money is always the easy part. I think there’s a very good chance they do get a tax cut of some sort through. There’s obviously challenges. There’s a lot of possible pitfalls before they get to the end. But I think that it’s very possible they do get that through. If that goes into the new year with an economy doing pretty well, then he might – you know, he might take that as not a bad first year, despite everything, if he could then translate that momentum into something more. The question is whether he can do that.
MR. DUFFY: And what it would be.
MR. BAKER: What it would be. Could it be infrastructure? Could he actually work with Democrats on something more meaningful on health care? Could they solve the immigration issue – at least the DACA program, as it allowed younger immigrants to stay who were brought here by their parents.
MS. COMPTON: Does he have a plan to do it?
MR. BAKER: Does he have a plan?
MS. MITCHELL: And will he have the opportunity, or will North Korea or another adversary change the whole dynamic?
MR. BAKER: That’s right.
MR. COSTA: Wonderful conversation. Ann, so great to have you here, all your years of insight and experience.
MS. COMPTON: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: Peter, Andrea, Michael, really appreciate the conversation.
And thanks, everybody, for joining us tonight. If you missed the regular show, remember you can always find that on the Washington Week website Fridays after 10 p.m., and all weekend long.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. And we’ll see you on the next edition of the Washington Week Extra.