ROBERT COSTA: Hello – or should I say bonjour? (Laughs.) I’m Robert Costa, and this is the Washington Week Extra.
President Trump is spending the weekend watching the U.S. Women’s Open Tournament at his resort in New Jersey. But he just got back from France, where he spent a few days with French President Emanuel Macron as the guest of honor at the Bastille Day celebration in Paris. As President Trump reminded us, France is America’s oldest ally, and they really rolled out the bleu, blanc and rouge carpet. (Laughter.)
Tell us about the trip, Ashley.
ASHLEY PARKER: So this was an interesting trip because the president originally was not scheduled to make it. He has had some problems with the French president, to put it mildly, on the Paris climate deal. When he pulled out, he actually said that one of the secondary upsides was that he got to sort of annoy the French and the Germans. And so he was not going to go. There were no plans for him to go to celebrate Bastille Day.
And then he found out there was going to be a parade. And Donald Trump loves parades. This is exactly what he actually wanted to do for his own inauguration. He found out there were going to be horses and military machinery, and people watching and marching as well, and planes flying overhead, and so he agreed. And they scrambled to throw this together.
And once he got there, in fact, it seems like he had a perfectly lovely trip. And that’s one thing that’s so interesting, is he and Macron have really kind of feuded. They had this very tense handshake the first time they met. But when you saw the two of them together – and this classic Trump – when he’s with someone he often is trying to please them and likes them a lot more than when he’s lobbing bombs at a distance. And they even came out. They had really good body language. And he even said, well, maybe he would reconsider Paris. We’ll see where things go. And of course, that’s not going to happen, but it was an indication of how, you know, sort of after in the wake of this parade, everything for the moment at least had changed.
MR. COSTA: Is this a new relationship to keep an eye on in the foreign affairs?
MR. SCHERER: You know, I think it’s – like Ashley said, Trump is a very transactional guy. He responds in the moment to who’s in the room. I don’t think it’s a big shift in foreign policy. I think the biggest notable fact here was that he was not going to Bastille Day to celebrate with Marine Le Pen. The vision that Trump and some people in his administration had, that he was the beginning of this global nationalist wave that was going to sweep through Europe next, is just not coming to pass, and that’s a big shift.
MR. COSTA: Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton talked about leadership this week during an event at the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas. They explained why partisan politics never got in the way of their friendship.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From video.) I think it starts with Bill Clinton being a person who refused to lord his victory over dad. In other words, he was humble in victory, which is very important in dealing with other people. And I think dad was willing to rise above the political contest. In other words, it starts with the individual’s character, and both men, in my judgement, displayed strong character, and therefore their friendship was able to be formed.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: (From video.) If you want to be president, realize it’s about the people, not about you. And when it’s over – and that’s what a lot of these people who are real arrogant in office, they forget: time passes, and it passes more quicker than – more quickly than you know.
MR. COSTA: Amy, what a relationship. What a pair.
AMY WALTER: Right. It seems like that is such a far ago time, and it wasn’t all that long ago. And in fact, I was looking back at the 2000 election and its immediate aftermath. And remember, we thought 2000 was the most contentious election we’ve ever seen, and people were talking about the election being stolen and we thought that the country was never going to recover. And what was interesting was that George H. W. Bush immediately, after the Supreme Court decision came down, he reached out to Ted Kennedy and to others to put – other Democrats to put together the No Child Left Behind bill.
MR. COSTA: George W. Bush.
MS. WALTER: George W. Bush did. And Al Gore gave his concession speech, and then he disappeared and we didn’t hear from him for an entire year. And that era is long since passed. I think that a lot of people, though, especially those folks who voted for Donald Trump, are going to look at the two of them and say that’s nice that you can be friendly and thank you for your advice, but over the course of the time as president, a lot of the problems that had been building that led to the election of Donald Trump – you know, it happened under your watch, right? And so we have to sort of think about all the issues beyond just the two of them as their personalities, but what got us to this place was partly because they saw two presidents who didn’t solve problems that were really important to them, and also these were two presidents that had their own scandals that defined their presidency.
MR. COSTA: Michael, it’s always complicated, though. You look at President Clinton, he was involved, of course, in the 2016 campaign, so he has this relationship with former President George W. Bush. They don’t even mention President Trump once in this presentation in Dallas. But he’s still political, President Clinton, so it’s always – the role of an ex-president, it can be –
MR. SCHERER: There is a bond between them. We’ll find out what happens when President Trump leaves office, whether he joins what my boss at TIME, Nancy Gibbs, and Michael Duffy have called the Presidents Club. But they – there’s a long history of former presidents getting together. It’s an experience that nobody else has. And once you’ve gone through it, you just sort of feel a kinship for your fellow president. I think it can be said for every president we’ve had, you know, in our lifetimes that, you know, they had failures, they made mistakes, but that they all had a similar sense of mission in the job, and I think that’s what binds them.
MR. COSTA: Ashley, looking at those images at the Bush Library in Dallas, I wonder, is there any preparation going on right now inside of the White House for a Trump presidential library? I know it’s early.
MS. PARKER: So I have to be clear. I actually have no idea, but my educated guess is no. This is a White House that sort of deals in the moment and just barely looks around corners, and that feels way too far off.
MR. COSTA: Had to ask.
Turning to another front, a majority of states are not embracing President Trump’s Commission on Voter Integrity. According to public comments released by the White House, most Americans reject the idea that there was widespread voter fraud in last year’s election, and believe the panel and its vice chairman, Kris Kobach of Kansas, of only being interested in voter suppression.
Michael, what do we know about this, this voter fraud? And the president seems so committed to pursuing this goal.
MR. SCHERER: Well, so this fight’s been going on for decades. Republicans want more rules to prevent voter fraud. Democrats want less rules, or at least the status quo, when it comes to voter fraud. What’s changed is the president got involved late last year with a number of outrageous, unsupported claims, including that 3 million undocumented immigrants had voted in the last election, therefore giving Hillary Clinton her popular vote majority. And then he created this commission to investigate his own claims that had no basis. And what it appears is happening is that the same Republicans who were fighting these battles before the president came along are going to use this commission to try and fight the battles further. And what this initial effort shows is that they’re trying to build a database of – sort of a national database, to the best they can, of voter records so they can then later compare those records against – between states and compare them possibly against other citizenship documents to build a factual case that could, if they find anything, lead to different court decisions in the future, lead to further legislation in the future. The challenge is that the history of these investigations haven’t always been positive for the democratic process. Case in point is the crosscheck program that Kris Kobach ran in Kansas in which he was comparing Kansas voter records with other states. There are a lot of people with the same names, same birthdays in lots of different states, and so it looks like someone’s registered in multiple states, you start challenging them at the polls, and you can actually have a negative effect. You’re disenfranchising more people than you’re finding fraud, and that’s the concern of Democrats.
MS. WALTER: And there’s also a privacy concern, which is one of the lawsuits as well, is where is all of this data going? And they said, well, it’s going to go into this Department of Defense server or whatever sort of system. And they say, well, OK, these are people’s Social Security numbers, their addresses, their voter information. How can we, as secretary of state and my – you know, if you’re secretary of state, of any state, say how can I assure my constituents that this stuff is going to be safe and it’s not going to be hacked. And that’s part of the reason why now the administration even saying, OK, we’re holding back now until we deal with this lawsuit. But Michael is exactly right. This is a fight that’s been going on for decades between Republicans and Democrats about this issue of actual voter fraud, and it looks as if it’s going to still be stuck sort of in the same place it’s been for these last many years.
MR. COSTA: As contentious as ever, to be sure.
MS. WALTER: Yes.
MR. COSTA: Last week, we talked a bit about new policies at the Pentagon in the 16-year long war in Afghanistan, and this week we learned a little more about how the Trump administration is working to define its strategy for a way forward. White House adviser Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner have asked two private businessmen to develop an alternative to the Pentagon plan that would send 4,000 more troops to the region. The two businessmen, who own two different private security firms, recommend sending contractors instead of troops.
What’s behind the Trump administration’s push and how the Pentagon – and how is this Pentagon receiving the idea?
Mark, you’ve been paying close attention.
MARK MAZZETTI: Yeah, so my colleagues reported this week that the – this plan that involves some outside input from some interesting players, including one Eric Prince, former head of Blackwater Worldwide, a notorious company. He’s in himself a – you know, a somewhat notorious figure in – there’s something he likes about that. I’ve covered Eric Prince for a long time, and it’s always interesting to see him back in the news. He has ties into this White House, especially with Steve Bannon.
And the heart of this, though, is this sort of – this fractious debate about the future of Afghanistan and what to do about this war that President Obama tried to end but then couldn’t fully withdraw United States troops from. And now we have this – what seems like an annual ritual of troop increase or renewal, and so I think if you’re looking at it generously – right? – the president’s looking for other options. But the other side of this is that you have people who are part of the private war business advocating inside the White House for private war, for mercenaries, contractors – who have been part of the war since 9/11, but, you know, where we might see this something – as something in the future.
And the big problem with contractors is – one of them is that who are all they ultimately accountable for? Are they accountable to the United States? Are they accountable to a bottom line in some company? So it’s an interesting – certainly it’s an interesting twist here. We’ll see whether the Pentagon accepts it. Now we’ve heard that James Mattis, the defense secretary, is at least open to this idea. Now, we’ll see where it goes. But it does see the input that this White House relies on from some outside players.
MR. COSTA: Is it – do you think the White House could be intrigued by it because it put contractors on the frontlines instead of U.S. soldiers, and there’s maybe less of a political cost to play?
MR. MAZZETTI: There could be, and there’s also – I think there’s probably a calculus in the White House that if they authorize this troop increase of 5,000 or however many thousand, if you have, God forbid, a disaster, you know, dozens of troops killed in a helicopter crash, something like that, the president will say why is this happening and, you know, I basically vowed – I was elected that I would end these kinds of conflicts, and so why is this happening? And so that’s probably what’s partly feeding these different ideas.
MR. COSTA: Any insights into the relationship between Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, and General Mattis? It seems like Bannon’s comfortable enough to go to Mattis with this kind of proposal
MR. MAZZETTI: Yeah, I think that there is a relationship there, and I think that’s been developed – obviously, they didn’t really know each other at all before, you know, December. And so I think that Bannon has been playing – and my colleagues at the table might know more than I do – has been playing a role here and developed a relationship where Mattis listens to him. And he certainly respects Mattis.
MR. COSTA: Michael.
MR. SCHERER: Well, you know, the most notable thing, I think, when it comes to foreign policy in the White House is that more than other types of policy, it has been outsourced to the professionals. And there’s great relief from the first couple months that political people have been kind of pushed to the side. I do think they’re good relationships, but for the most part – and there’s disagreements and fights and a lot of the problems that bedevil other areas are still there, but for the most part the president is relying on these generals around him to make these decisions. And he’s comfortable doing that, whereas, when it comes to communications strategy or some domestic policy things, he’s just not comfortable trusting anyone else around him, and that’s a big difference.
As for Bannon, I think this is part of – I mean, Republican presidents have long tried to privatize lots of parts of the military. Dick Cheney did it when he was defense secretary. There was big controversy in the Iraq War over what role private contractors were going to play, especially after the invasion. This, I think, is just a more extreme, more dramatic version of that. And Bannon has said openly that he’s trying to take apart the government as it now exists. I mean, that’s his ideological goal and it fits squarely –
MR. COSTA: Deconstruction of the administrative state.
MR. SCHERER: That’s right.
MR. COSTA: I remember that line at CPAC.
We’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out our report card on the Environmental Protection Agency and what changes the Trump administration has made there. Plus, check out a fan favorite: the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.