ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Let’s talk about President Trump’s national security team and the officials who were with him when he was briefed about the Syria strike this week. David, when you look at this picture, what does it tell you about the inner circle?
DAVID SANGER: Well, first, the most important thing in any decision a president makes is who do you invite into the room, OK? So you look at this and the room was a little bit unusual because they were doing this in Florida. They weren’t doing it at the White House. So there were a few people in this picture who probably wouldn’t have been in it had this been going on in the Situation Room. Wilbur Ross is there, the commerce secretary. Steve Mnuchin is there, the treasury secretary. Not the people you would necessarily invite in for a Syrian strike conversation. There’s one woman in the picture, the rising star of the NSC, Dina Powell; worked for President Bush, then went off to go work for Goldman. I’ve known her for a number of years. She’s a serious strategist. She’s sort of emerging up within the NSC. Steve Bannon was in the picture. So just days before, Bannon had been removed from the principals committee of the National Security Council by H.R. McMaster, who’s sitting in a spot at the table where he and Bannon probably really couldn’t see each other’s eyes. I don’t think that was completely by coincidence. And, of course, Jared Kushner is there, sitting opposite the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. There’s a little bit of debate in Washington about which one of those is really the secretary of state. (Laughter.)
MICHAEL SCHERER: Plus, Bannon doesn’t get to be at the table, but Jared does. I noticed that.
MR. SANGER: That’s right. Bannon was hanging back a little bit. He did that before as well. Also, look at President Trump’s body language. So if you think to that iconic photograph when they’re going after bin Laden during the Obama administration, Obama is just in from golf; he’s sitting at the corner. He’s sort of – you know, he’s sort of like watching this. Mr. Trump is bent over. He’s got that same look he had when he was driving that 18-wheeler, you know, or up in the cab of it. (Laughter.) You know, he’s leaning forward. You know, he’s all intensity.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: One thing we should add, though, is they were not watching Tomahawk missiles in real time. What they were watching was the vice president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and they were having a conversation. That’s a less-gripping – no offense to the vice president, but that’s a less-gripping image – (laughter) – than watching –
MR. SANGER: Watching a Special Forces team.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, yes.
MR. SCHERER: Mr. Pence would agree with that.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely.
MR. SANGER: Right. Also, there were no American human lives at risk in this raid, whereas of course in the bin Laden raid there were many.
MR. COSTA: Bannon just keeps reappearing. He appeared at another National Security Council meeting earlier this week, according to the White House; even though he’s not on the principals committee, he’s still part of these broader discussions.
MR. SANGER: He has walk-in privileges to go sit into these. And so, you know, he’s sort of the Zelig of this week. He didn’t show up at the press conference with King Abdullah, but he did show up for the missile strike.
KAREN TUMULTY: But the backdrop of this is – of course, is all these stories that are suddenly appearing in the press about the rivalry, the tension between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump’s most-trusted advisor, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
MR. COSTA: His son-in-law. We got that right here in the Post today. I wrote about it with my colleagues, about Kushner and Bannon were close during the campaign but they’ve really had this split apart. It brings up another point, Karen. President Trump may be considering a staff shakeup to deal with some of the power struggles that you’re talking about inside of the White House. There are reports that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus may be on the chopping block in the wake of last month’s health care mess. Karen, what do you know about Priebus and his standing inside of the West Wing?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, Reince Priebus, I talked to him shortly – I did a profile of him shortly before he took the job. And he said, look, you know, I’m not going to be in this job forever, in part because this is easily the second-hardest job in Washington, and in part because chiefs of staff don’t last very long. When things go wrong, very often the White House chief of staff is the first person to take the blame.
The second thing is that Reince Priebus has never been, you know, truly, truly, truly in Donald Trump’s circle of trust the way some of these other characters in the White House are. And so, again, when you’re – when you’re looking for a fall guy, he’s a – he’s a likely candidate.
MR. COSTA: Are any of the names that are being floated believable, based on your reporting? Or is this all about people in Washington who have allies or confidants they want to see as chief of staff floating names?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, one thing you’ve got to – you’ve got to wonder is whether somebody who has other options would even want this job at this point and at this chaotic moment. But, yes, this is the moment where – when you have rumors of staff shakeups, that’s where people start just sort of throwing names in for no apparent reason, and at least no apparent evidence.
MR. COSTA: And it seems like whoever gets that job should Priebus leave, whether it’s in six weeks or six months or a year, it’s going to have to probably be with Jared Kushner’s approval.
MS. TUMULTY: That’s right, and he is – that’s the other thing, that is people talk about Jared Kushner’s influence. He’s shown that influence time and time again when it comes time to get rid of people.
MR. COSTA: Michael, you have an interesting story in TIME Magazine this week about the incredible shrinking power of the president’s threats. His mocking, sharp tweets and insults have become part of his signature communications style and helped him eliminate a number of GOP challengers in last year’s primary race. But what’s changed in terms of Trump’s threats?
MR. SCHERER: So Trump’s political brand, somewhat like his business brand, was one of domination. He was the guy who dominated anybody else he was next to, and if you came after him, you know, with a club, he’d come after you with, you know, a building. I mean, he would – he would light up the stage and out-shout anybody. And what was interesting to watch during the health care debate, there were several points, usually privately, he and his staff tried to do this again, with blunt threats – saying, you know, if you don’t do this, I’m coming after you. And basically everybody he did this to in Washington – moderates, conservatives – laughed it off. They are not scared of him. And I think it’s been a very humbling experience for a not-very-humble guy to have to figure out that the power to threaten is not what it used to be.
The best example of this was last weekend. He went out golfing with Rand Paul, who he had attacked viciously for more than a year – you know, belittled regularly. And he went out to play golf with him on his terms, and then let Rand Paul go to the cameras afterwards and talk about how they had a great discussion about health care and were making real progress, which was basically code for I’m winning the health care debate, you know, with the president. So it’s a real shift from where he was before.
And I think, like I was saying on the show, this is a guy who likes wins. He wants to – he likes keeping score. He wants to know he’s winning. And I think what he’s realized over the last two or three weeks is the system he set up when he came in was not giving him a lot of wins. So I think a lot of this is a reevaluation of –
MR. SANGER: Which could well drive him to more foreign policy, right, because it’s the one area where he can operate pretty much on his own authority. People complain in Congress, but people complain in Congress when presidents have acted unilaterally in both Democratic and Republican administrations. He’s going to discover more over time he’s got more freedom in foreign policy than he does, obviously, in tax policy, in health care and anything else.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And you can tell in the White House they’re very, very conscious of this 100-day formula that we in the media have about what is a president doing and what is he achieving and how successful and how many wins. And they were, you know, getting a little concerned this week because it was looking like a lot of zeroes. Gorsuch getting the Supreme Court seat filled is a win. Deploying missiles, if you’re a new president and you’ve got Russia standing up and paying attention, that’s probably a win. But legislatively, we’re not seeing those wins. And as Michael’s suggesting, the president is trying to figure out not just a system, but what techniques does he need to conquer a city that he said he could conquer easily during the campaign, “drain the swamp.”
MR. SCHERER: I think this goes back to – well, look, we’re covering the Jared-Bannon drama, but there’s another issue here. Reince Priebus was brought in because he had close ties with Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan said to the president I have a plan, trust me, I’ll get you tax reform, I’ll get you Obamacare repeal, and then we’ll go for infrastructure. It’s not working. And nobody really has a plan now.
Paul Ryan was out this week, I think, saying, well, we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on taxes, which is huge from where he was a month ago saying we have a plan, we’re going to pass it through. So I think the president is looking at his staff. You know, Bannon said we got a plan. Reince Priebus said we got a plan. And no one has a plan. So he’s going to have to figure that out, and part of that is probably going to be personnel.
MR. COSTA: David talked about Dina Powell being an ascending force on national security and foreign policy. She also is an economic advisor to the president. But, Alexis, who are we – who is the president looking to to help revive health care, tax reform? Is it Gary Cohn, the national economic advisor to the president? Is it Vice President Pence? Who?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, I think the president has more confidence in his economic advisors, who have from the beginning been formulating their own thoughts about what the tax plan should be. And I’ll offer this example. Because we know that Speaker Ryan came at this idea with the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of a border tax, and that they had this great formula for a tax plan, and everyone in the Senate is telling the president there is no way that this plan is going to be passed in the Senate, and his own economic advisors are saying that may not be the direction that we should go in, the president has naturally, I think, looked at them with more confidence – just the way he’s looked at the military advisors with much more confidence that they seem to know their – the profession and how things work. So I don’t think the president’s answered that question quite yet. Was his legislative director at fault? I don’t think you could say exactly that. Is the vice president at fault? No, he deployed him to go try to see if he could rescue health care 2.0 and that didn’t work before the break. So we’ll see. I think he definitely wants to make sure that they iron out the funding for the – for the government at the end of the month and not have a shutdown, and then we’ll see what happens after that.
MS. TUMULTY: And I do think the lesson of health care is, too, that the administration is going to have to actually get down into the weeds on policy. They cannot outsource this to the Hill.
MR. COSTA: In all the palace intrigue, the one person I keep coming back to in my notebook is H.R. McMaster. He doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t do speeches. But this national security advisor, along with Dina Powell, is really seeming to be a powerful force within the West Wing. And if you can push around Steve Bannon in this White House, that’s power.
MR. SANGER: He’s an experienced player. The thing to remember about H.R. McMaster – and I’ve known him a bit, for a number of years – is he wrote the definitive history of what went wrong in the relationships among the generals and the politicians that led to the disaster of the Vietnam War, and those lessons have stuck with him. He is now converting the National Security Council to something that looks a lot more like Brent Scowcroft’s National Security Council in the George H.W. Bush administration, considered to be sort of the model of how this is done. And that helped – that move to that model helped him get a political figure, in Steve Bannon, off the principals committee.
MR. COSTA: That book came out in 1997, called “Dereliction of Duty.” I’m telling you, when I walk around Capitol Hill, it seems like almost every senator is reading “Dereliction of Duty.”
MR. SANGER: Go look at the Amazon ratings. I mean, I’ve rarely seen a book that came out 20 years ago shoot up the charts the way this has, yeah.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, the main one of those lessons, by the way, out of Vietnam was that the generals should have stood up and said no when they saw that things were going wrong.
MR. COSTA: Yeah, stood up to the president.
All right, that’s it for this edition of Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out six interesting facts you may not have known about the just-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; and, of course, as ever, the Washington Week-ly Quiz to test your knowledge of current events. I’m Robert Costa, and we’ll see you next time.