A pivotal week in the history of the Trump presidency


PETE WILLIAMS: President Trump at odds with his own White House and a Supreme Court nominee moves a step closer to confirmation. I’m Pete Williams. Robert Costa will join us from the road. Welcome to Washington Week. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The so-called resistance is angry because their horrible ideas have been rejected by the American people, and it’s driving them crazy. PETE WILLIAMS: But the resistance is operating from inside the Trump administration according to a blistering op-ed said to be from a senior official. The anonymous author says the root of the problem is the president’s amorality and claims to be working with other insiders to thwart parts of the Trump agenda and his worst inclinations. President Obama warned that a resistance inside the White House, even with good intentions, should concern all Americans. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) They claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders. (Laughter, applause.) That is not a check – I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy’s supposed to work. PETE WILLIAMS: As the president urges The New York Times to identify the writer, the White House braces for similar revelations in journalist Bob Woodward’s new tell-all book Fear. It quotes senior staff and Cabinet officials talking about what he describes as a “nervous breakdown” of the executive branch. We cover it all next. ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, substituting for Robert Costa, Pete Williams of NBC News. PETE WILLIAMS: Good evening. President Trump says the Justice Department should investigate who wrote this week’s devastating op-ed in The New York Times, described as a “senior government official.” The author claimed to act with others in the administration reining in the president’s worst impulses out of a sense of duty, writing this: “The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency, but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” On Friday former President Barack Obama spoke out amid the controversy, attacking his predecessor and the state of American politics. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) The threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of Republicans in Congress or, you know, too much compromise from Democrats or Russian hacking. The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. PETE WILLIAMS: All this as the White House prepares for the release of veteran reporter Bob Woodward’s tell-all book Fear: Trump in the White House, which quotes current and former senior officials and Cabinet members as being alarmed by the president’s conduct. Joining me tonight, a familiar face – the moderator, Robert Costa, who’s on the road; Kristen Welker, my colleague from NBC News, our White House correspondent; Seung Min Kim, congressional correspondent at The Washington Post; and Ed O’Keefe, the political correspondent for CBS News. Bob, first to you. The president was said to be fuming over the anonymous op-ed which was a single source, anonymously. You, among us, the only person who’s actually read the Woodward book. It quotes people on the record. So when this book comes out, how explosive is it going to be? ROBERT COSTA: What a week for President Trump, to read this report about Woodward’s book and to see Gary Cohn, his former economic adviser, according to Woodward’s account, taking documents about trade off the president’s desk, Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, ignoring the president’s orders on national security and foreign policy. Then just a day later, you have this New York Times op-ed by someone inside of the administration in a senior role. Talking to White House officials today, Pete, they say this problem for the president and the closest advisers to him goes back to the transition. This administration is full of Republicans who aren’t really aligned with President Trump but with the traditional Republican Party. And that alliance, which has lasted for about a year somewhat uneasily, is really beginning to fray. PETE WILLIAMS: But doesn’t the book say it’s more than just a difference of philosophy. It’s a concern about the president’s governing style, is it not? ROBERT COSTA: It’s a concern about his behavior, his conduct, his alarm. There are certainly ideological differences in this administration that have been relatively muted as the president has taken the Republican Party in a different direction. But now, all these quiet conversations reporters have heard for months about advisers trying to push the president away from making quick decisions or decisions that they think are really totally out of line of American foreign policy in a traditional sense, out of the norms that have usually been followed, that’s starting to bubble up because they think the president’s isolated inside of this White House. PETE WILLIAMS: You cover the White House. Did you read this book and say, wow, I had no idea? Or did this confirm a view that you had? ROBERT COSTA: We had known about the concern around President Trump. What makes this book important when you read it is that people inside are taking action. And Woodward in meticulous detail – dates, scenes, talking to people with firsthand knowledge – he paints a bleak picture of people taking action repeatedly to rein in President Trump. That’s the difference. It’s the aides and the advisers and the officials now stepping at times over the line to try to pull him back. PETE WILLIAMS: Kristen, you cover the White House, too. What was the president’s response to Barack Obama picking up on these themes in that speech? KRISTEN WELKER: Well, he tried to laugh it off, Pete. He said I fell asleep watching this speech. But the reality is this was a striking political split screen today. On the one hand, you had former President Obama taking on, condemning President Trump in very personal terms, saying that that op-ed that you were just discussing with Bob is not a check on the president’s power and really calling voters to go to the polls not just to get Democrats into office, but to really defeat what he casts as a dangerous brand of politics, one that he said was born out of fear and divisiveness. But he also attacked President Trump personally and I thought it was just so striking. For example, he took on what happened at Charlottesville saying, how tough is it to call out Nazis? So it’s a preview of things to come, Pete. And one of former President Obama’s main points was he is going to be heading to areas that are not just Democratic strongholds, so he’s going to be trying to rally independents and some of those swing voters as well. PETE WILLIAMS: So I want to talk about the politics of this and the midterms in just a second. But before we leave this anonymous thing, how obsessed is the president with trying to find out who wrote this column? KRISTEN WELKER: I think it’s a good word for it. We are told that he erupted with volcanic anger when he first read this. And now there is an effort underway to try to get to exactly who wrote the column. You saw that incredibly long list of top officials come out and saying it wasn’t me, a list of about two dozen senior officials. And I think they’re trying to determine who this is and how many people really are trying to thwart the president or to block him. You asked Bob how dissimilar was this to what he understood was happening within the White House. I think what was so damaging about that op-ed is that it echoed the fundamental argument of the Woodward book, which is that there are people within the president’s administration trying to work against him. And it really echoed a lot of the reporting we’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half, which is that he has a lot of staffers who don’t agree with him. PETE WILLIAMS: Bob, how is the White House trying to find out who wrote this? What will they do? ROBERT COSTA: They’re trying to figure out the person, but they’re really lost. Talking to some of the president’s closest advisers today, they say they really don’t know what to do. The president’s urging the Department of Justice to get involved, but they know that’s really a maze, it’s not going to go anywhere. They’re trying to figure out who could be disloyal, but they know that so many people have been leaking inside of this administration since January of 2017. As much as people are coming up with their own lists, they really have as much of an idea inside of this White House as we do on this show. PETE WILLIAMS: You’re a current newspaper reporter, you’re a former one. This reminds me of trying to figure out who leaked something, leak investigations. Do you think we’ll ever know who wrote this? ED O’KEEFE: We might because, look, we were reminded this week that for almost 30 years Mark Felt denied being “Deep Throat” publicly in newspaper reports, and yet he was “Deep Throat.” So it’s, you know, it’s possible. It may not be tomorrow, it may be years from now, but I suspect one day we will. One thing to keep in mind and it’s important for people far outside Washington to keep in mind, the term “senior official” could conceivably apply to as many as 4,000 confirmable positions and hired political guns across the federal government. This could be some deputy assistant to the assistant deputy at the Commerce Department. (Laughter.) It could be somebody at the Office of Management and Budget right next door. It could be somebody in the West Wing. But it’s possible that this is somebody that is not so senior and yet gets away with that because in Washington there’s a lot of title inflation. PETE WILLIAMS: Well, if that is the case, if it is some sub-sub-sub-sub-Cabinet-level official, wouldn’t The New York Times have a lot of explaining to do? SEUNG MIN KIM: I think perhaps they might. And I think the fact that it remained anonymous relates to some of the congressional Republican reaction we saw this week, because a lot of the Senate Republicans that we and my colleagues talk to at The Washington Post kind of – they were dismissive of the fact that, look, they need to put their names on those criticisms, we can’t take it seriously. But I also want to go back to Kristen’s point earlier about how the general concerns that were related, both the op-ed and the Woodward book, were the details may have been interesting and news, but the overall theme was not a surprise at all. And that was not an exception for congressional Republicans. I was very struck by comments from Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska this week. And keep in mind he’s a Trump critic, but he told Hugh Hewitt’s radio show that, look, this is the same kind of message we hear from people over at the White House three times a week. Just think about that. That is pretty remarkable that, you know, Senate Republicans are freely relaying the fact that they openly hear this chaos several times a week and they’re just used to it by now. ED O’KEEFE: And a lot of Senate Republicans could also cosign that op-ed. They’ve told us similar things – SEUNG MIN KIM: Yes, right. ED O’KEEFE: – off the record or on background as well. KRISTEN WELKER: And I also think, to your point, Pete, how obsessed is the president? When you talk to some of his closest allies, they say, look, The New York Times is not giving us any sense of what “senior administration official” means, but they’re really adhering to the very traditional sense of that term. And so they think this might be just a couple dozen people who they’re looking at. I think that’s why you have President Trump lashing out today calling on Jeff Sessions to try to get to the bottom of it. As Bob points out, it’s not going anywhere. PETE WILLIAMS: I gather they’ve tried to figure that out based on sort of word analysis and phrases and that kind of thing. But let me ask you, Bob, you, too, about the journalistic ethics behind what The Times did. Normally speaking, something like this anonymously, Bob, would never be published without some attribution. So what do you think? Did the – is there some room for criticism of what The Times did? Or are these extraordinary times for The Times? ROBERT COSTA: It’s going to be up to The New York Times editorial page to speak for itself, Pete. But what’s going to be interesting here is, if it’s not a Cabinet-level official, if this isn’t someone who’s really close to the president, it’s not going to be as explosive and the president may not pay as much of a political cost. The New York Times may get questions, tough questions about whether, as Ed was saying, was the title fully explained as it really should have been in the editorial? But I don’t want to speculate too much because we just don’t know who this person is. What really the White House is saying is, even if they never figure out who the person is, they don’t think they’re going to have to pay too much of a political cost because Republican voters aren’t paying attention to this – they argue to me. We’ll see if suburban voters really care about this as this is another move to push those skittish suburban Republicans and independents away from President Trump and the Republican Party this fall. PETE WILLIAMS: OK. So, Ed, the Obama speech, is this the rebuke that Democrats have been waiting for? Why now? ED O’KEEFE: Why now? It’s because, you know, it’s campaign time and he has been called upon by eager Democrats across the country to show up either for fundraisers or to give speeches and to campaign. He’ll be in Pennsylvania soon with Senator Casey, he’s going this weekend to California to help shore up support for as many as seven Democratic candidates for the House out there. Democrats have to win at least four or five of those seats in order to get over the 218 number in the House. And he’ll continue to do this, so will Mrs. Obama. They now feel a need to do it both for the sake of encouraging and building up Democratic support, but also, clearly, a need to speak out on what’s at stake for the democracy. And only he and George W. Bush, as he did in the McCain memorial service speech last weekend, I think, feel that they can really speak out about these things and express their concerns. Obama’s going to do it a little more overtly perhaps than George W. Bush. The risk, of course, is if he overplays this it becomes a midterm election about two presidents and not about congressional and gubernatorial candidates all across the country. PETE WILLIAMS: Well, is there also a concern that there are only some places where he should go and some places where he might do damage? SEUNG MIN KIM: Exactly. I mean, we are already getting comments from Republican officials saying, hey, we welcome Obama as a – as a character, as a person in the 2018 race. And while the House, a lot of the territory is favorable to Democrats, particularly in the districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, let’s look at the Senate map. We have talked all over the last year and a half about how difficult this Senate map is for Democrats. You have 10 Senate Democrats up in states that Trump won, several of them in double-digits, in 2016. You talk about the Obama factor. Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat who’s up in West Virginia, he won’t even say whether he voted for Obama in 2012. So this would be – if Obama does become a larger figure in the 2018 races, it could be difficult for a lot of Democrats. ED O’KEEFE: And one other way to trace where they’ll go, Obama will focus on House races and governors races. Where the president’s going is primarily Senate races and some governors races. That’s what he did today. PETE WILLIAMS: Why? ED O’KEEFE: It’s because those hot Senate races are in states that he won. The 10 vulnerable Democrats are in states that the president won, in some cases by several double-digits. In other cases it’s Republican governors who need his support; they need his base to show up. KRISTEN WELKER: And I think the messaging is going to be important to watch. I think part of what you saw President Obama say today is that Democrats have traditionally sat on the sidelines when it comes to the midterm elections, and that’s part of what he’s trying to change. He’s making the case you can’t just get engaged in presidential elections; this election is just as critical. PETE WILLIAMS: And yet, you know, we talked about what a terrible week this was for the president, Bob, but you know, didn’t he have some pretty good economic numbers that came out Friday, very strong job numbers? You know, he says no matter what you may think of me, the economy is doing great. Does he have a point there? ROBERT COSTA: That’s the case the White House is going to continue to make, and they’re urging members of Congress running for both House and Senate to talk about the Kavanaugh nomination, to talk about the economic numbers, and to use the media as a foil; and to not maybe follow the president rhetorically in every way, because that’s not going to work in the suburbs of Philadelphia or Columbus, Ohio, but to follow the president in at least not focusing on the White House chaos stories that we’re reporting out of the Woodward book or from The New York Times op-ed. And it’s going to take a steady message from Republicans to really break through on that, but they feel confident that President Trump, in his disruptive way, has somehow kept a grip on this GOP and the base is with him in poll after poll, even though his disapproval numbers nationally are ticking up. PETE WILLIAMS: Well, let me ask you about – since we’re talking about all this campaigning going on – what are the chances that the Democrats could take the House or the chance that they could take the Senate? ED O’KEEFE: The House certainly looks like it’s going to happen if you – if you believe the forecasting that’s done by various organizations – CBS, NBC, and others. The Senate still seems to tilt towards Republicans, just given the fact that there are so many uphill battles for Democrats in states that the president was able to win. Best case for Democrats, the 51-49 margin probably flips from Republican control to Democratic control, but that requires a really strong night for Democrats in parts of the country where they haven’t traditionally been strong in midterm years. PETE WILLIAMS: Let me just ask you one quick question. The president said in his speech in Montana that the only way impeachment could happen is if Democrats get control of the House. Is he right about that? And how strong a motivator is that? SEUNG MIN KIM: I think that – I mean, it’s fascinating to see how much Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer – I mean, this applies more to Nancy Pelosi since it’s a House issue, but how much they’ve just veered away from talking about the impeachment issue. They think it’s a dangerous issue, that it’s going to turn off the independent swing voters that they need to win back these elections. But it is an issue that we see that excites the base, and we’ve seen in our polling – in The Washington Post polling that came out recently that there is a large swath of voters who think impeachment is a valid issue. But Trump – but the president sees that one of his best political opportunities is to run against adversaries, and a Democratic House threatening impeachment is a great adversary, he believes, for him. PETE WILLIAMS: Well, as you know so well, because you spent the week watching, one of the high points for the president this week was the confirmation hearing for his second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Judge Kavanaugh was peppered with questions about his views of the Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion ruling and his position on presidential power, and the Democrats also launched a revolt over lack of access to documents related to Kavanaugh’s work in the George W. Bush White House. So let me ask you: How big a deal was this document access thing? It seemed at times that this was a hearing about documents, not Kavanaugh, but is it going to make any difference? SEUNG MIN KIM: I don’t think it’s going to make any substantive difference at the end of the day. I do think it does raise issues of transparency because effectively we’re not able to see about 60 percent of Brett Kavanaugh’s history and records in the George W. Bush White House, and I think that’s an important point to remember. But setting that aside, does it – can he still get 50, 51 votes? And I think after the four days of the hearing so far, two days where he was grilled for almost 24 hours by senators, he did what he was supposed to do. Basically, his challenge was to do no harm, and I think he largely did that. There were a couple times where he did get flustered under questioning. The exchange that I’m thinking of is with Kamala Harris of California. I don’t think he saw that question with whether he had any conversations with President Trump’s law firm coming, so you could see him kind of stumble a little bit. PETE WILLIAMS: Yeah, we should just explain what that was. She said have you ever had any conversations with anyone from Marc Kasowitz’s law firm, and then she said be careful how you answer this, implying that I know something you don’t know. And it turns out what did he eventually say? SEUNG MIN KIM: So the most – the most evidence that Senator Harris gave us was that she had, quote, “reliable information,” and that’s all we have. So we’re wondering, what did you really know, if anything? PETE WILLIAMS: Bob, let me ask you this: Do you think that anything that happened in these hearings is going to peel away any of the support from any of the Republican senators, including Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins? ROBERT COSTA: The abortion issue remains important for some moderate Republicans, like those you just mentioned, but Republicans are banking right now on red-state Democrats like Senator Joe Donnelly here in Indiana, who already in certain respects embraced the president’s position on immigration. Could they now be pressured to vote for Kavanaugh? So even though there are some wary Republicans, like the moderate Republicans from Alaska and Maine, and Senator Rand Paul has had his concerns about Kavanaugh on national security policy, they think mostly they’re going to be able to get the Republicans and even pull off some of those red-state Democrats who are vulnerable right now. PETE WILLIAMS: So at times Supreme Court confirmation hearings can seem like a civics lesson, but this one seemed especially yeasty because of the fact that Brett Kavanaugh had written before he became a judge about whether a president should be beyond the reach of a civil lawsuit or a criminal trial. So many of the senators wanted to ask him, well, you know, what about that? Does a president have to answer a subpoena? What did you make of his answers to those questions? KRISTEN WELKER: I don’t think he had any missteps. He was very artful at stepping around them – not saying definitively, for example, whether a president can pardon himself – and so I don’t see any major stumbling block to him getting confirmed. I do think what we witnessed were these political moments, potentially the beginnings of presidential campaigns. (Laughter.) Kamala Harris, you mentioned one. Cory Booker, who by the way may have overstepped. Some people are saying he made a big issue about documents that were basically free and clear to be released, so – PETE WILLIAMS: Not when he first asked about them. The next day they were. KRISTEN WELKER: Right, right. And so I think that those were some of the standout moments, but I don’t think he had any major missteps when it came to answering those very thorny questions. PETE WILLIAMS: Cory Booker said at one point this may be the closest I come to my Spartacus moment. (Laughter.) ED O’KEEFE: Yeah, and he’s been mocked for it ever since. But Kristen’s right, this was the opening salvo of the 2020 race. You have three Democrats on that committee who are openly toying with running for president. PETE WILLIAMS: Who’s the third? ED O’KEEFE: Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who normally is a less-partisan figure, but in the runup to the hearing certainly was raising a lot of concerns on behalf of her Democratic colleagues about access to documents and whether this was a fair hearing. One other point we should make. You’re the court guy; I don’t want to linger too much into the – (laughter) – PETE WILLIAMS: Go for it. ED O’KEEFE: – into judicial history, but I think what we’re on the verge of now – we’ve had the Warren Court and the Rehnquist Court. It bears mentioning here we are entering the era, I would argue, of the McConnell Court. The two seats that have now been confirmed under Donald Trump are because Mitch McConnell held open the seat that would have gone to Merrick Garland, the old Scalia seat, and then saw Trump get elected, and now there are two reliably conservative justices – or going to be two more reliably conservative justices – on the Court. McConnell today, to Hugh Hewitt – the same guy we talked about earlier – crowed about it and said, yes, this is my most significant accomplishment as a senator. PETE WILLIAMS: He said that before. ED O’KEEFE: And it’s true. And at this point, having done that, you know, he may have cemented American certainly legal history, and to some extent political history, for the next several decades. PETE WILLIAMS: One of the things that was unusual about this hearing is the continued protests – people standing up in the back of the room, yelling, and getting hauled out. Were you surprised that Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, decided to let that happen? And what difference does it make for these hearings going forward? What did you make of that? You were there. SEUNG MIN KIM: I thought Senator Grassley was probably pretty patient, letting the protesters have their couple seconds of screaming and making their message known. And actually at the end of this week there were 227 arrests by Capitol Police of protesters throughout these hearings. But I think – PETE WILLIAMS: That’s got to be a record for any congressional hearing. SEUNG MIN KIM: It is. And I was actually surprised there were at least a dozen or two dozen today when Kavanaugh wasn’t even in the room to hear those protests. But I think the interesting thing to hear, an interesting contrast that I noticed during all 227 protests, was that if you listened to what they were protesting, they were protesting the substance of issues – you know, abortion, gun rights, voting rights, disability rights. And it at times to me was such a contrast with what the Democratic senators were arguing, which were again about documents and process. And I’m wondering if sometimes the division that you see between elected officials who sometimes may get into the weeds of these process arguments and what the voters in the base really care about. PETE WILLIAMS: Although if you were watching the hearings on PBS or anywhere else on television, it was very hard to hear what they were actually saying, even though the audio engineers sort of brought the sound up so you could see what was going on when everyone stopped. But basically, you all agree no missteps, he did what he had to do. Did you also think that perhaps he was a little overprepared? SEUNG MIN KIM: We know he prepared a lot – (laughs) – before the – before the hearings. I had talked to some sources who are very familiar with how he had done, even 10-hour mock hearing sessions. PETE WILLIAMS: Oh man. (Laughs.) SEUNG MIN KIM: He was in the seat from 8:30 to 6:30 on a day before the confirmation hearings and there were at least four Republican senators who played the role of Democratic senators to throw questions at him. But that goes back again to the point where he was getting questions that he expected, such as what do you think of Roe versus Wade; he says it’s settled law. Is it correctly decided? You got the same answers over and over. PETE WILLIAMS: Well, thank you. Before we go, Bob has a special announcement about next week’s broadcast. Bob? ROBERT COSTA: Thanks, Pete. And I really appreciate you being there and guiding this conversation. We have a fun show next week, a special one. Bob Woodward, the veteran reporter, the author of Fear, which is coming out next Tuesday, he’s going to sit down with me one on one on Washington Week to go through this book and talk about his method. It’s going to be quite a conversation. I hope you all join us. PETE WILLIAMS: And we can all wonder how you managed to land that interview. (Laughter.) Thanks, Bob, and everybody here tonight. Our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra. You can find it every Friday night after 10 p.m. at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. I’m Pete Williams. Have a great weekend.

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