ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. This is the Washington Week Extra.
President Trump is the third person sitting in the Oval Office who’s had to figure out the best strategy for the nearly 16-year war in Afghanistan. Carol Lee and her NBC colleagues reported this week that the president is growing frustrated with his military advisors, and suggested firing the top commander in Afghanistan. Carol?
CAROL LEE: Yes, that’s right, and he got pushback – gentle, because it was a very contentious two-hour meeting – from his defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who – and particularly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said, well, maybe you should meet him, because the president has not yet met this commander. But their view is, A, that this commander is qualified; B, that the president is right, we’re losing the war, but we’re losing the war because he hasn’t settled on a strategy that can sort of move things in a better direction. But they went into this meeting and they thought he was going to finally come to a decision, or at least hoped so, and instead he criticized them, questioned the merits of their advice. He was telling – you know, comparing the situation to a restaurant renovation in New York, and they were all pretty stunned. And the only winners that came out of that discussion were the Steve Bannon crowd, who want the president to take a very different direction and completely withdraw. And if you talk to people who were in the room, when that option is presented to the president, it’s presented in a way that says if you do this, this is what it could look like – and what it could look like is in 90 days Afghanistan is back to what it was pre-2001, when the U.S. went in, and is a haven for terrorists and basically deteriorates. But the president didn’t feel like he had enough – the options that he wanted, and part of that is because there are no good options. And, you know, there’s no – no one has been able to figure out how to get out of Afghanistan and leave it in a stable way, or stay in a way that makes it worth your time.
MR. COSTA: What I found, Carol, so intriguing and revealing about these details is that the president during the campaign, he had audio of him or video on The Howard Stern Show talking about his support for the Iraq War, but really at the core of his political identity he’s more of a non-interventionist, and it seemed to come through in these conversations behind the scenes.
MS. LEE: Yes, and also he’s a – kind of has a way – his thinking about these things is very practical. Like, you know, OK, so you want me to send 5,000 more troops into Afghanistan, and we’re going to get what? Like, how is this going to be different in five years or at the end of my first term? And there’s – the answer is, you know, frankly, that it’s probably not going to be that different. Afghanistan is – it has so many problems, corruption in the government and everything else. And so he – yeah, he doesn’t want to intervene. At the same time, he campaigned to, you know, protect the country and to be very strong against terrorism. And if you’re going to take that view, you need to be in Afghanistan.
DAN BALZ: There’s a couple of interesting things to me about this. One is the role of H.R. McMaster, who wrote this definitive book about what happened in Vietnam and the failure of the military, and what kind of flashbacks he must be having as he’s now immersed in what also looks like an unwinnable conflict and one in which various strategies have been tried, none which have really gotten the job done. And so I would think that that tension just within him is pretty profound.
The point about the president is he is non-interventionist in one way, and at the same time he never wants to be seen as weak. And that’s a – that also is a kind of an irreconcilable problem for the president as he addresses these things. So whichever way he is pushed or pulled, it goes against one side of that personality.
MR. COSTA: We talked a bit in the show about the administration’s crackdown on leaks, which has bugged President Trump since day one, and this week we saw leaked transcripts from the president’s phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia shortly after taking office. These calls really pulled back the curtain on the president’s understanding of foreign policy. Franco, you got to wonder, as the rest of the world watches and diplomats read these transcripts, what’s their interpretation? What’s their reaction?
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: It’s been fascinating. I mean, these leaks of these transcripts were really like a rare glimpse into the workings of how this president is addressing diplomacy. And, frankly, what they found out, among the people that I spoke to around the world, is that when they woke up on Thursday morning and started reading these leaks, you know, they had been thinking for a while, like, wow, this is – you know, this is a little bit crazy, this is a little bit different, but it reached another level where they’re actually chortling and a bit laughing at what is going on because of the extent of some of these conversations where Trump, after campaigning for months and months about not – about building this wall and forcing Mexico to say that they are going to pay for the wall – Mexico, obviously, always denied that it would – but in these conversations what you see is Trump trying to bully the Mexican president and push him to say you can’t – you just can’t keep talking like that in public. And he did not seem to recognize that the president of Mexico had his own political calculations. And these language, as one diplomat told me, it made Trump kind of look like a used car salesman, the language that he was using in these about how they would stay friends, about how they would work together. And I think what it shows is that it also shows a little bit more revealing about some of the other conversations. The other things that we’ve seen in the reports say the facial expressions and the uncomfortableness that Angela Merkel kind of saw when she was talking with Trump, or that extremely long handshake that the French president had with Trump. And you start to understand maybe – get why because in public they’re being very diplomatic. And what one diplomat told me is that it shows that the diplomats are kind of holding back and not really revealing what they’re hearing from Trump.
MS. LEE: It has a real policy implication, though, too, in American foreign policy. If you’re a foreign leader and you are having a conversation with the president of the United States and you can’t guarantee that there’s not going to be a transcript leaked of your conversation, that’s troubling and you would calibrate what you’re going to say. And that – you know, if you want to conduct policy on very serious life-and-death issues, as these leaders do, you know, it could change that dynamic. And so it’s not just – I mean, I think we obviously learn a lot about the president in seeing this raw material, but there’s also – you know, there’s a policy implication that comes with that.
MR. COSTA: A policy cost. Sue, there’s a political cost, perhaps. You look at the president’s comments in the transcripts about the state of New Hampshire. He called it a drug den, and the people of New Hampshire don’t seem too happy about that. Could it – could it hurt him in 2020?
SUSAN DAVIS: I am not going to make any predictions about what happens in 2020. (Laughter.) Can we get through 2018? You know, it goes back to your earlier point, too. There’s always this question of at what point will that rock-solid base of Trump ever give in, or will they ever? And when he makes comments like that, that’s the kind of thing you would think might start to erode.
I also think the way Trump talks and the way it’s often interpreted is different than the people that support him, right? Have we not learned this time and time again, that they hear him differently than a lot of times we do? And I think, while that was an inarticulate comment, Trump also has campaigned a lot on the drug crisis. And I think he could go to New Hampshire and say, you know, the drugs here are bad and you know they’re bad, and he could – he could make up for that. It was a very inartful statement, and certainly not the way a president should be talking about a state. But I don’t think that – I don’t think that that changes – if you were a hardcore Trump supporter in New Hampshire in 2016, I would be shocked if that comment changed the way you view the president.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of Trump voters, President Trump was in familiar territory this week, campaigning again in West Virginia, which he won by more than 40 points last year. This time he had a new Republican face next to him: Governor Jim Justice.
WEST VIRGINIA GOVERNOR JIM JUSTICE (R): (From video.) Today I’ll tell you as West Virginians I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor. (Cheers, applause.) So tomorrow I will be changing my registration to Republican. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: With Governor Justice’s party switch, Republicans now hold a record-high number of governorships. Dan, does this signal trouble ahead for the Democrats?
MR. BALZ: Well, not necessarily, but it is a reminder of how deep the hole is that they have found themselves in in just eight years. I mean, eight years ago, at the beginning of the Obama administration, they had a – Democrats had a majority of the governorships. They had 28 governorships. Today they’re at 15. I mean, it is a remarkable decline. Now, I think if you’re a glass-half-full Democrat you say, well, that can turn around fairly quickly. Republicans will have to defend many, many more seats in 2018 than Democrats. There are going to be 36 gubernatorial races; 26 of those are held by Republicans at this point. There are some targets of opportunity. But one of the – one of the realities is there are some Republican governors in blue states like Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, one of the most popular governors in the nation; Larry Hogan in Maryland, one of the most popular governors in the nation. So winning these back is not going to be that easy for the – for the Democrats.
MR. COSTA: Sue, when you’re on Capitol Hill, are you picking up any move among Democratic leaders to try to appeal more to working-class voters like those in West Virginia?
MS. DAVIS: Yes, absolutely. Particularly, the Democrats are starting to unveil their 2018 agenda that they’re calling a Better Deal, which is very much aimed at trying to come up with an economic message that they felt that they lacked in the 2016 election. In their own postmortem, they felt that that was one of the driving reasons not only why Hillary Clinton lost, but why they lost down the ballot. The conflict or the complication that Democrats are going to have with an economic message in 2018 is the economy’s doing pretty good. You know, that’s one of the odder backdrops of the Trump presidency, is that the economy at the – right now is doing a lot better than it was four years ago. So trying to combat Trump on the economic message and come up with an agenda that distinguishes them from President Trump, which is one of those weird issues where a lot of times he sounds like a Democrat when he’s talking about these issues – and Democrats this week, as part of that agenda in the Senate, unveiled their trade message, and it could have been written – I mean, these are ideas on here: renegotiating NAFTA, cracking down on China, you know, bringing back American jobs. I mean, these are just rhetorically issues that the president has maybe coopted, and voters believe more.
MR. ORDOÑEZ: And Trump doesn’t have many issues to – for the Republicans to run on, and the economy is certainly one. You got the jobs numbers. You got the stock market doing well. I mean, it’s one that people listen to. And he – if this can keep going, I think it’s going to – it’s going to pay some dividends.
MR. COSTA: You wonder about the recess. The Labor Department said Friday that nonfarm payrolls increased by 209,000 jobs last month. So maybe, Carol, is that what they talk about when they’re on the recess?
MS. LEE: Well, they can definitely talk about the economy. The irony in all of this is that if you look at 2009, Barack Obama had this – the economy in deep recession, and he was constantly saying, like, it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t my fault. And then it gets to this point and there are certain things that President Trump has done, like on regulations, that could credit for boosting the economy, but it’s largely this is where it was going, it doesn’t matter. And you see Trump fully taking credit for all of that.
MS. DAVIS: As any president would.
MS. LEE: As any president would, I know. (Laughter.) And so he’s really benefitting on that. And if they – you know, the Republicans should be talking about that.
MR. COSTA: Great, we’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. As always, test your news knowledge with the Washington Week-ly News Quiz, and challenge your friends too. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.