ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. As the partial government shutdown heads into week five with hundreds of thousands of federal workers on unpaid furlough, we take a look at the two people in the nation’s capital who could negotiate an end to this shutdown and their battling for control.
Joining me to look at the dynamics between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and President Trump: Michael Schmidt, a Pulitzer Prize-willing Washington correspondent for The New York Times; Laura Jarrett, Justice Department correspondent for CNN; Kelly O’Donnell, White House correspondent for NBC News; and Jake Sherman, senior writer and co-author of POLITICO’s Playbook.
He’s known for the book The Art of the Deal and she’s been making deals with lawmakers on Capitol Hill for three decades. Now they’re facing off in the longest government shutdown in history. Each one of them feels they have a strong position; no one wants to budge at this point. Two powerful players. Kelly, what do you make of this new power dynamic in Washington? What has the shutdown told us about how 2019’s going to play out?
KELLY O’DONNELL: I think past shutdowns that we’ve covered were about issues and numbers and exchanging things of value. This feels existential. For President Trump, this is about his presidency. It is about his reelection because the wall is his core issue in the larger issue of immigration and national security. For Speaker Pelosi, to come back to the gavel at a time when she was so responsible for helping Democrats secure the House, it’s existential as well. To begin her time and to see where Democrats go, they are believing they were sent to Washington to block the president. So how do we find a middle ground there? That’s the real challenge. I feel like this is so much bigger than issues, facts, and dollars that some shutdowns tend to be about. This is so much about these two people.
MR. COSTA: She seems to relish it, Jake – the moment, the challenge, the foe.
JAKE SHERMAN: She does, and she believes based on not gut or any other kind of feeling like that but based on numbers that her position is much more sustainable than his, that people don’t identify with a wall on the border. But it is a phony issue, and Kelly alluded to this, which is there is a border on the southern border with Mexico. We have –
MR. COSTA: You mean a fence, or a wall?
MR. SHERMAN: A fence. There is a wall. I mean, we do have a wall on the border with Mexico that is 600-something miles long. Congress said it can’t be any less than 700 (miles), so obviously it is less than 700 (miles). But it’s just the way that the president has turned a 90/10 issue – 90 percent of people really want this border secure – they’re not really into the wall, but the president can’t stop talking about this inherently very unpopular policy proposal.
MR. COSTA: And one of the things they’re clashing over is the crisis on the border. The administration, whether they call a national emergency or not, keeps making this case – Secretary Nielsen, Department of Homeland Security; President Trump; Vice President Pence – that there’s a humanitarian and security threat at the border, but those facts are disputed. How does the Justice Department and DHS handle that?
LAURA JARRETT: Well, and even the narrative I think you’ve seen change a little bit, right? We’ve gone from everyone should be frightened, this is a real national security issue, to, no, it’s actually a humanitarian piece, we should be really worried about the women and children. And now I think the latest treat was a – was a humanitarian and a national security crisis all at once, and so they’re all balled up together. The real issue, I think, is that historically the numbers are way down, even under from, like, where we were under the Bush administration or under Obama. The border crossings are happening. Facts on the ground support that. But it is so much fewer than they were seeing before at the height of some of the – you know, the – in the really extraordinary numbers previously. And so when the administration is trying to make their case, sometimes I think they run up against those facts, and so people aren’t feeling the exigency of the crisis in the way that they want to paint that narrative.
MR. COSTA: When you think about Speaker Pelosi, Mike, she also has these allies in the committee chairmanships – Elijah Cummings of Maryland at Oversight; Adam Schiff from California, a longtime friend of hers, at the Intelligence Committee; Jerry Nadler from New York, Judiciary. How powerful are they? What do you make of those chairs, and who are you watching?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, I – look, they’ve been sitting on the sidelines with all this Russia stuff for the past two years, so they’re very anxious to come out. We haven’t really seen a ton from them yet, you know – you know –
MR. COSTA: Why not?
MR. SCHMIDT: I think that if they had come out on day one and smacked everyone with a lot of subpoenas it would, you know, play maybe, perhaps, into the witch hunt narrative of such. But the problem that we still have here that I think that we don’t really kind of look at a lot is that after major terrible things have happened in American history, we usually get both parties to come together and give you, you know, a real accounting of what happened and ways to prevent it from happening again. After 9/11 it was – included rearranging the government, creating new parts of the government. What happened in 2016, regardless of what party you’re in, is very, very significant. And whatever these Democrats find, Republicans aren’t going to take seriously. The Democrats don’t find what the Republicans did before them on 2016 seriously. So – and if we don’t get from Mueller a report, then what are we going to have when we look back at 2016 and when folks go into the 2020 election? When people go to vote in 2020 are they going to think, well, we had this problem the last election, but everyone came together to come up with a way to prevent it from happening again? That’s not in place right now, and there’s no sort of elder statesman, you know, in these sort of commission-style things –
MR. COSTA: Well, what about the Senate Intelligence Committee? You have a pretty bipartisan relationship there between Senator Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Senator Burr of North Carolina, a Republican.
MR. SCHMIDT: That’s probably the best bet. That is probably it. But at the same time, even that committee wouldn’t be empowered as much as a commission would, you know, and they don’t – we’re going to get to a point where they get done and there will be classified information, things they can release and can’t release. And will the country listen to Burr and Warner in the same way that they would listen, you know, to other folks – like a George Mitchell, or someone, you know, who would come out and say authoritatively, you know, with blind of politics, I have done that. You know, I don’t think a lot of the country looks at the Senate and says, you know, that’s a real nonpartisan place.
MR. COSTA: Well, it’s the people waiting for the Mueller report more than the committees perhaps to be that bipartisan –
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, the erosion of institutions plays into that. And this has been going on a long time. And people have been hearing all of the stories we’ve been doing, and reporting on it and talking about it in incremental ways. And I am often asked by viewers: I want to know more about it when it’s over, or when there’s something.
MR. COSTA: You think they’re overwhelmed by it or exhausted?
MS. O’DONNELL: I mean, we live in this world and find, you know, a lot of interest in each incremental development. A lot of people are living their lives. And when you see the shutdown, and you go out across the country and find out all the places where people work for the federal government and are suffering now, and all of the tributaries and ripple effects. If they’re not buying lunch, that affects the mom and pop diner on, you know, anywhere, USA, where federal workers are. A lot of communities are anchored by their federal businesses in places all across the country, where a whole community is kind of economically centered around the fact that there are good paychecks from the federal government. Right now, we’re seeing how that’s being tested.
I go to the White House for work every day and I talk to Secret Service agents. And a number of them – and I asked them, and it’s not for reporting it’s for conversation. But they feel it too. And they’re on the job with the responsibility of protecting, you know, a centerpiece of American life, and the president.
MR. COSTA: And what did you tweet on Friday about President George W. Bush delivering pizzas to Secret Service agents?
MS. O’DONNELL: Yes, yes, and calling for an end to the shutdown. So despite the fact that there are legitimate ideological divides that have created this shutdown, there are real world consequences, and a cost to the economy, and a cost to all kinds of people. And this is government not functioning. And people don’t like that. They want the people they send to Washington to be able to get something done. So the malaise of not believing in institutions and being frustrated only is exacerbated by all of this.
MR. COSTA: When do federal workers start really pressuring Democrats to make a deal with President Trump? Or maybe that never happens?
MS. JARRETT: I think that’s always been the question in all of this, is who was going to blink first because who’s feeling the political pain? I mean, they’ve already missed, I think, at least one pay period now. I mean, it’s going to start to really show. You see even with TSA workers who have been calling out sick, looking for other work. If airports start shutting down in certain ways, we’ve seen sort of the lines piling up over the last couple weeks, I think those are real pressure points. The question is just who feels it more, and if it is Democrats or if it’s the president. Because at least from all the polls I’ve seen so far, the majority of Americans do not think a wall – at least in the way that he’s pitched it, there is a fence, but at least in the way that he’s described it – is what’s needed. And so if they feel like their paycheck is being held up over the wall, do they punish him for that?
MR. SHERMAN: I do think, though, that we have ample evidence that Congress has not been, at least in recent memory, responsive to national crises. I mean, no matter what your politics are, there have been a rash of shootings, I mean, in everywhere from grade school to malls and movie theaters. And Congress has not done anything really to – either party – to curb that violence. So I just think that there isn’t always an immediate response from our legislature to things that are considered national emergencies.
MR. COSTA: And when you think – when you pull – you had something, Mike?
MR. SCHMIDT: Well, the thing that when I look at what could be a trigger and what could solve this, is what does Donald Trump care about? He cares about his approval ratings and he cares about bottom line economic stuff. And he loves his economic numbers. And if this starts to drag the economy down, and jobs are down, and there’s a reduction in growth, then maybe that would put the pressure on him to say: Look, I can’t have the federal government shut down like this. It is really hurting the economy.
MS. O’DONNELL: Nancy Pelosi talks about we want our values, the president likes his victories. Figure out the terms to define that, where she can say that the Democrats are standing up for their values and the president has some win in some form to say he stood up for the things that he believes in – which national security, the wall, immigration, those sort of things. It’s really about defining the press releases when it’s over. That’s where we have to get.
MR. COSTA: And there are these two political titans – Speaker Pelosi, President Trump. But Speaker Pelosi – President Trump has his rivals certainly on the right. But you saw newly elected New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, over 2 million Twitter followers. She walked around the Capitol this week with freshmen, challenged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She’s driving a lot of the discussion as well as Speaker Pelosi. They’re not rivals, but she’s competing for that spotlight.
MR. SHERMAN: She is. And I don’t think Pelosi minds that, to be honest with you. I think Pelosi benefits politically from having younger people who are different both in demeanor, style, age – I mean, any sort of – any number of differences – she benefits from them taking the spotlight and them getting out in front of issues, and them joining the battle with Mitch McConnell, and she doesn’t have to do it as much. And I think that’s a benefit to her.
But what Kelly said is so right. Like, there is such an easy way for both sides to declare victory here. Neither side is ready to. And neither side is even talking about when they might be ready to. A victory here for both sides is really easy. They just have to get to accepting it.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcast or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.