ROBERT COSTA: On the brink. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week. Iran shoots
down an American drone, and the president for now backs off a military response.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This drone was in international waters, clearly.
We have it all documented. It’s documented scientifically, not just words.
ROBERT COSTA: Iranian officials insist the aircraft violated its airspace.
Inside the president’s circle, hawks hover.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) I would encourage forceful action to stop
this behavior before it leads to a wider conflict. Doing nothing has its own consequence.
ROBERT COSTA: Democrats seek restraint.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) The president may not
intend to go to war here, but we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war.
ROBERT COSTA: And the race for the White House heats up, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
ROBERT COSTA: The United States was minutes away from launching a strike against Iran
when President Trump abruptly called off the mission. The operation would have been a
response to Iran shooting down a U.S. military drone. The New York Times broke the story
and reported that the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets.
On Friday, the president then said he shelved the plan after a general told him that 150
people could die in an attack. In an interview with NBC News the president also said he
had not given final approval to strike Iran and that no planes were in the air.
Joining me tonight, Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times;
Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent for CNN; Jake Sherman, senior writer for
POLITICO and co-editor of Playbook; and Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter The
Washington Post. Elisabeth, the Times broke the story. Why did the president back away?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: A lot of reasons. He says, by the way, that the planes were not in the air.
That’s very much contradictory to what we have heard from senior administration officials
who would know. I think one reason is because he was told that there would be – there
could be as many as 150 deaths.
What’s curious is that that’s not something you generally tell the president 10 minutes
before an attack; it’s something that should have been told to him – perhaps it was told
to him – long before. There are other reasons as well.
He was – a lot of political advisors were telling him this was going to be disastrous for
his reelection chances, and there is also some talk that the Americans really did think
that the Iranians had made a mistake, and there was a rogue commander who had shot down
the drone, and that the Iranians were upset with him. The president, he had hinted at
that the other day. So it’s a little bit of a mystery. It could be all of the above.
ROBERT COSTA: Kaitlan Collins was in the Oval Office with the president on Thursday,
asked him some tough questions about Iran. Let’s take a listen.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Iran made a mistake.
I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth.
I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.
ROBERT COSTA: Kaitlan, you’re there in the room with him. What was your read on
the president? He’s getting intelligence, as Elisabeth was saying.
What else is on his mind when you talk to his advisors?
KAITLAN COLLINS: Well, that was the first time we really saw his reaction to this
because other than that he had just been saying that they’d made a mistake and we’d find
out how he was going to respond. But then I asked, do you still feel that Iran is a different
country? Because that’s something he has said repeatedly, saying essentially that since he’s
been in office he feels that they have changed their ways, and he said it just a few days ago.
And so there the president seemed to be minimizing what they did, shooting this over $100
million military drone out of the sky and leaving some leeway that essentially it could
have been a rogue general, even though the Iranians were saying: This was intentional.
We did this to send a message to the president.
So I think that was actually our first indication they weren’t going to strike, or it at
least showed the president’s ambivalence about doing so.
ROBERT COSTA: So if he’s not going to use a military strike at this moment, what about
other action? Could he add on additional sanctions?
KAITLAN COLLINS: Sure. And the administration officials say that they have sanctions
that they could do if they wanted to. But the president claimed this morning when he was
explaining his decision that sanctions were added last night. That is not true, based on
what we’ve been reporting, because the Treasury Department hasn’t announced any new
sanctions today. And though Steve Mnuchin did say that if they wanted to they could
impose additional countermeasures, they have not done so yet.
ROBERT COSTA: What about the president’s advisors – Secretary of State Pompeo, National
Security Adviser John Bolton? Who’s the driver?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, so the president says he likes to put differing views around
him, and this is a very clear example of that. The president has hawks in his
administration, people that are sort of pining for war, pining for regime change in Iran.
And the president also has people who are saying politically this is horrible for you, if
you decide to go to war with Iran. And his own instincts are not to, you know, get
involved in another conflagration in the Middle East.
He wants to maybe do the same thing he did with North Korea, which is sort of get to the
brink of potential military conflict and then deescalate and have discussions or have
talks. And he’s been sort of pining for these discussions with the Iranians, saying
that, you know, when they’re ready to talk, I’m ready to talk.
And I think he wants to have a similar situation that he had with Kim Jong-un, where he’s
able to get a lot of cameras, really great ratings, where he’s having discussions that
previous presidents have not had directly with the Iranians, and showing that, you know,
even though previous administrations have struggled with Iran, I’m able to sit down
across a table with them. And it’s not clear that other advisors that are close to the
president are supporting that. People like John Bolton are not in favor of that kind
of diplomacy. But right now, the president seems to be calling the shots.
ROBERT COSTA: The president’s not the only stakeholder.
What does Congress want? Do they want more talks with Iran?
JAKE SHERMAN: Well, they’re worried about the president being in the mushy middle, so to
speak, not taking action after an American asset was shot down in the region.
Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois who was in the Air Force, is in the Air Force
Reserve, said: If I’m a pilot in the Middle East today, I’m worried – as he was.
He was a pilot in the Middle East – because you’re in danger.
I mean, he said, it just as well could have been an aircraft with human beings on it.
You know, the president said he has a different relationship with Iran. That’s true.
Iran actually doesn’t want to talk to Donald Trump, and they’ve made that abundantly
clear. They did talk to the Obama administration.
And I think that by and large – and you can’t paint Congress with a broad brush – but by
and large Republicans do not support an additional round of talks with Iran at the
moment. They believe Iran’s a malign actor. They don’t believe that any sort of
deal, beyond the Iran agreement reached under Obama, will be reached.
ROBERT COSTA: Will Congress have authorization over any strike?
JAKE SHERMAN: That’s a – probably not.
This administration has made clear behind the scenes they believe they have the leeway to
conduct strikes without an additional AUMF, authorization for the use of military force.
ROBERT COSTA: Jake brought up Adam Kinzinger from Illinois, a hawk, a Republican in the
House. Where is the president? This is such a test for him. Is he leaning towards the hawk,
toward Senator Graham, toward Kinzinger, or is it more towards Senator Paul, the non-interventionists?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Right now, you know, there’s a struggle within the president.
You know, he talks. He’s – you know, he talks very tough. He waves a big stick.
But in the end, he is not an interventionist. He is an isolationist in a lot of different ways.
And I think he was pulled, and pulled, and pulled in this direction for a strike by
Pompeo and by John Bolton. And in the end, as he’s done a number of times, he just – he
just changed his mind. It’s a – it was interesting. He got some praise from liberal
quarters today for doing that. It was very interesting to see. (Laughs.)
ROBERT COSTA: So what about John Bolton, the national security adviser? Is he overestimated?
Is he this person perched on the president’s ear, influencing him toward war?
KAITLAN COLLINS: I think it depends on where the president stands, but lately we’ve seen
him really discount John Bolton’s advice on several occasions. And the president has
dismissed him at times in meetings that they’ve had. So I think we’re seeing a little
bit of a change with John Bolton. But I think a lot of that has to do with the
president doesn’t like this idea that John Bolton is goading him into conflict.
And you saw that in the Oval Office when the president was asked, are some of your
advisors – meanwhile, Pompeo and John Bolton are literally standing over his shoulder –
goading you into conflict? And he said, no, I actually think it’s the opposite sometimes.
But of course, that’s because the president doesn’t like this narrative that any person,
no matter John Bolton or whoever, is telling him what to do.
ROBERT COSTA: And one person we’re not talking about is the acting secretary of defense,
all this turnover at the Pentagon.
What does that mean for these discussions inside the administration?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, we’re told in some of our reporting that Thursday while top
military officials were trying to decide what military options the president should be
looking at, he had – the president has both his outgoing acting defense secretary and his
incoming acting defense secretary both in the room, very clearly showing that there is no
actual Cabinet-affirmed – or, Senate-confirmed Cabinet-level defense secretary in the
last six months, since Jim Mattis left the administration.
And that’s showing how much this administration is sort of in turmoil, having a lot of
acting officials, not having people who have been confirmed by the Senate who can really
show that they have the full confidence of the Senate to carry out foreign policy and to
carry out defense operations. This is an administration that is struggling to fill the top
ranks of the Cabinet. And that’s clear from some of this decision-making that that is having an impact.
JAKE SHERMAN: And who fills the void? A person like Tom Cotton, who told POLITICO this
week he’s for bombing Iran. He said it very outwardly. He said he’s for military action in Iran.
And you know, as we know from three years of experience, Donald Trump is talking to these
members of Congress daily, sometimes multiple times a day. And when there’s no kind of
commanding figure in the room, people are going to fill his mind and fill his brain
with all sorts of ideas which, in the normal White House is not happening.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Right now there’s a power vacuum at the Pentagon. And right now
the secretary of state is filling it. He seems to be playing the role of both secretary
of state, secretary of defense and a little bit of CIA director, which was his job
before he got to State. And so Pompeo, I think, is the one to watch here.
ROBERT COSTA: But there are other voices here. You have the hawks, like Secretary Pompeo.
But when you’re on Capitol Hill some Democrats are war weary. Republicans, some of them
are war weary. Do we know anything about Secretary Esper, the Army acting secretary
of defense who’s going to now be confirmed?
KAITLAN COLLINS: He – we’re told by sources he was actually in favor of some kind of
action against Iran. Now, whether it was the strike that John Bolton wanted, we don’t
know about the varying degrees of that. But he actually was in favor of it.
And so it’s interesting how he was involved in these discussions because Sunday night at
midnight is when he assumes the power as the acting defense secretary.
Of course, whether or not the president nominates him formally that’s going to throw a
whole loop for that, because he can’t serve as the acting defense secretary if he’s been
formally nominated. So there’s a lot of questions about how that leadership is going to go.
ROBERT COSTA: And you’re heading to Japan for the G-20. KAITLAN COLLINS: Yes.
ROBERT COSTA: So what’s the rest – where’s the rest of the world as the president heads
abroad next week? Europe’s trying to maybe cut their own deals with Iran on oil.
Is the rest of the world – are they on edge about war?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: There’s a lot of concern from other countries that aren’t necessarily
on board with the U.S. intelligence about what Iran has done, even before this drone shooting.
We had a situation where the U.S. was basically saying that Iran was responsible for a
number of tanker attacks. And it wasn’t clear that the rest of the world was along and
sort of supporting the U.S. intelligence on that front. So they’re asking for more information.
They’re asking to make sure that the U.S. is sort of crossing all of its T’s and dotting
its I’s, to make sure the intelligence clear before moving forward with any type of war.
And you have to remember that a lot of these countries support the Iran deal that the
U.S. and the president pulled out of. And they’re not in favor of the idea that the
president and the U.S. is sort of leading to more tension with Iran, when they felt
like they had a good deal to deescalate some of those tensions.
ROBERT COSTA: Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen Senate Republicans take action against the arms deal this week.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Yes, it was a real show of force against the president.
It was a bipartisan vote against him. There were seven Republicans who voted with the
Democrats not to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Now, it’s largely a symbolic vote
because the president’s going to veto it and he’s got a veto-proof majority.
ROBERT COSTA: Where do they play in the whole Iran discussion?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: They’ve been largely silent. We’ve heard, again, from Rand Paul and
from – we’ve heard from Lindsey Graham. But we haven’t heard a lot from anybody else on
the Hill generally. They stick with the president or they don’t say anything because
they don’t want to get involved with antagonizing Trump.
ROBERT COSTA: Just a final thought, based on all your reporting this week are we heading toward war?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: No. (Laughs.) ROBERT COSTA: No?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: I think the president’s impulses are not to get involved in a war.
You have to remember this is a political animal here when you think about the president.
His instincts are not to get involved in a war that would be political damaging for his
prospects in 2020.
JAKE SHERMAN: And, remember, he wants deals. And he wanted – I mean, everything we’ve
seen – we’ve seen the president tweet probably a dozen times: Iran, call me.
I mean, he’s said this many times, that he thinks he could do the deal.
And he’s urged Iran to come to the table. Now, Iran has said thanks but no thanks.
And last night Reuters reported he sent a message through Aman – Oman, not Aman – that he
wanted to talk to Iran immediately. And Iran said, no thanks.
So this might be a tough one for him to crack.
KAITLAN COLLINS: Yeah, but that’s the question here, because essentially he’s at the
brink of I’ve got to follow through on this promise not to get more involved in the
Middle East, or am I just not going to respond to them consistently provoking me –
because they don’t want to talk to him. But it’s likely they’ll keep up with their
antics. So the question is going to be, what does he do the next thing that they do?
Because we already were very close to a strike in – a military strike.
So the question is, what does he do the next time they try to provoke him?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: I mean, the real question is, what does he do when they reach a
nuclear threshold? That’s what they’re really concerned about.
KAITLAN COLLINS: Which they’re close to.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Close to next month. And that is what they’re really concerned
about in the administration. That’s not, you know, shooting down unmanned drones.
I mean, this is bad, but it – but getting close to a nuclear weapon is the real – the
real concern at the White House.
ROBERT COSTA: Let’s turn to the race for the White House.
President Trump kicked off his second bid for a term in office in Orlando this week, and
former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the latest polls, faced criticism from rivals
over remarks he made about his past work with senators who supported segregation.
Toluse and Kaitlan covered the rally.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Remember, the only thing these corrupt politicians
will understand is an earthquake at the ballot box. That’s what they will understand,
and they’re going to see it. (Cheers, applause.) We did it once, and now we will do it
again, and this time we’re going to finish the job. Our radical Democrat opponents are
driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to
destroy our country as we know it. Not acceptable. It’s not going to happen.
ROBERT COSTA: The Trump campaign announced Wednesday that Mr. Trump raised nearly
$25 million in the 24 hours after his rally. That haul gives the president a financial
advantage over his Democratic challengers. Mr. Biden for his part is dealing with the
fallout from those comments about finding common ground with others, even
segregationists. He has defended his record on civil rights.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The point I’m making is you don’t have
to agree. You don’t have to like the people in terms of their views, but you
just simply make the case and you beat them.
ROBERT COSTA: Toluse, inside the arena in Orlando grievances, immigration, trade.
Is this a revival of 2016?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: This is a complete doubling down on the president’s base.
He thinks that they helped him win in 2016. Even though he’s raising all this
money that would presumably allow him to, you know, reach out to new voters,
reach out to moderates, he is actually focusing specifically on his base.
You even heard him say that he was going to go after Hillary Clinton and lead chants of
“lock her up,” and it was really a throwback to 2016 because he believes that whipping up
his voters and getting them sort of aggrieved and angry gets them enthusiastic about
voting for him, gives them an enemy to focus on, and he thinks – he’s said it in the past
that he thinks, you know, fear is much more of a motivator than hope, and that’s what
he’s campaigning on, and that’s how he’s going to run in 2020.
KAITLAN COLLINS: And he talked about Hillary Clinton before he even got to anyone who
he’s running against in 2020, so it does show that not only is it a revival of 2016, he’s
just consistently carried that same message throughout.
So the question is going to be if he’s, you know, just settling old scores, talking about
his grievances, not setting forth a new agenda, is that going to be enough for the voters.
But we were there; it was 20,000 people in Orlando, and the question is if they’re going
to care or if they’re fine with the president repeating his old statements.
ROBERT COSTA: What are they really into when you’re talking to those voters, Toluse and Kaitlan?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: They think the president has kept his promises – that he said he was
going to be a fighter, he said he was going to be a disrupter, and he’s definitely done
that over the past two years in Washington. They are also focused on not only
bread-and-butter issues like the economy and taxes, but some of these cultural
flashpoints, everything from the Mueller investigation to abortion to immigration.
The president is really touching on some of those issues, and he’s getting a lot of
support from his base voters who wanted him to shake things up in Washington on those
specific issues, and he’s doing so.
KAITLAN COLLINS: What’s interesting is we did talk to voters and we asked them if there
is one Democrat that you think is worrisome for the president.
They all said the same one that’s been on his mind so much and occupied so much of his
headspace, which of course is Joe Biden.
ROBERT COSTA: And what did we think about how Vice President Biden handled the
controversy this week – not apologizing, defiant? He faces a debate next week in front
of many contenders. Is this the Senator Biden, the Vice President Biden you’ve covered?
Is this in character for him?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: He’s taken a page from Donald Trump, take no prisoners and apologize
for nothing. And I’d have to say that I think, you know, the – Biden is being held to
a different standard than the president’s being held to, you know, given the president’s
record on race. And I think there is something to be said for Biden saying, look, I can
work across the aisle, I can work with people, you don’t have to like what they stand for.
And I thought also when he said you know I am not a racist, you know my record on civil
rights, you know, get real, I really thought he – it was a different kind of Joe Biden
and it was very much taking a page from Trump.
JAKE SHERMAN: You know, Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who’s the number three
in the House of Representatives, came into the Speaker’s Lobby behind the House floor and
we asked him about the episode, and he just immediately leaped to Biden’s defense.
ROBERT COSTA: Why?
JAKE SHERMAN: You’d have to ask him.
I think that he believes – he said this is – this reminds me of my work with Strom
Thurmond, who I, you know, vehemently disagreed with – this is Clyburn saying it, not me
– and you had to – his basic point was – he didn’t say this directly, but – you have to
work with people you don’t agree with and that you find abhorrent at different times.
Now, a lot of – we read in the Post and we’ve heard from other people that the
president’s – sorry, Vice President Biden’s advisors basically said don’t do this, this
is a bad message, you don’t need to talk about these people who, you know, are really out
of step with not only these times but, you know, the last 50 years, and he did it anyway.
So that and the leaks from the campaign throwing Biden under the bus should be concerning
for the campaign.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, there’s a concern that Biden in his past presidential campaigns
was a gaffe machine, even though he started this time around with a much more organized
operation and he was able to raise a lot of money and sort of stay on message, not take
questions from reporters. There’s a sign that he might be sort of reverting into that
gaffe mode and getting into trouble with unforced errors.
And he’s had some help from some senior black lawmakers who have come out and have
supported and talked about how they don’t think what he said was offensive, but it was
definitely an unforced error and you did see people like Cory Booker come out and use it
as an opportunity to draw a contrast between himself and Biden.
I think a number of Democratic candidates are looking for ways to draw a contrast with
Biden because he’s the frontrunner and we’ll likely see that during the debates, them
showing how they can be different from Biden.
ROBERT COSTA: Let’s go back to Orlando for a second. You had – the president had a
pretty ragtag campaign in 2016. Now Brad Parscale’s running it. They’ve raised millions
and millions of dollars. What’s the difference this time around behind the scenes?
KAITLAN COLLINS: Well, they’re touting it as a completely different machine – that they
know what they’re doing this time, they’ve got the power of the incumbency, they’ve got a
lot of money, which is true. They do have a lot of money that they’ve raised, I mean,
just evident in what they raised in the 24-hour period there in Orlando.
But of course the question is going to be, is this really going to be any different?
Because you saw what happened with that poll episode recently, where the negative numbers
leaked out that he was trailing people like Joe Biden, and when it first leaked out the
campaign was not that worried about it. They didn’t deny the numbers; they just downplayed them.
But then when the president read it on the front page of The New York Times and it really
got under his skin, that’s when you saw them come out. So sure, it can be a new campaign.
They have a lot of money. They’re still dealing with the same candidate.
ROBERT COSTA: What about the immigration focus by the president? He’s now pledging to
have all these crackdowns. There are many reports from the AP and others, the Times,
about migrant children at the border facing really difficult, terrible issues. Does the
president pay a political cost, or does he see and his team see it as a political winner?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, he certainly plays a – pays a political cost with suburban
voters, suburban women particularly, who are horrified by the separation of children from
their parents at the border. But he believes that immigration plays really well with
his base. It certainly played well last time.
You talk to people who support the president and they say it’s terrible about a family
separation but, you know, they’re crossing the border illegally, what do they expect.
And I – you know, the strategy has always been to hold the base really close and to
annihilate your opponent, and that seems to be where they’re going certainly in 2020.
ROBERT COSTA: How much does – when you’re talking to lawmakers, Jake, on Capitol Hill,
does the economy matter? The Federal Reserve indicated on Wednesday it’s likely to cut rates.
Is the economy much more of a factor than maybe some of the issues we heard at the rally?
JAKE SHERMAN: Well, I think people who want to win back the House of Representatives,
Republicans, think it’s a concern and are very nervous about the saber-rattling with
China and what might come out of the G-20 next week, and if there’s a deal with China or
are there more tariffs, is there more tariffs with Mexico. I mean, people are very
concerned about that. And the thing that’s concerning – and this was concerning in 2018
too – the president – Republicans say the president has all these great things to talk
about. He has an economy that’s pretty healthy.
I mean, he has a tax bill which he thought was good and Republicans thought was good.
Why aren’t – why isn’t he talking about any of these things that most Republicans agree
with? Instead, he’s going down some of these rabbit holes.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, this is the – this is the president that likes to talk about things
that make people angry, he likes to talk about more divisive issues. He has said it himself.
ROBERT COSTA: Is that a strategy?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: It is his strategy.
He thinks that it’s much more interesting to talk about things that are divisive.
You’ve seen him reading from teleprompter or reading from a prepared speech in the past,
and he’s sort of stopped himself and said this is boring, let’s talk about something
else, and then he’ll talk about the hot topic of the – of the day.
We’ve seen this president weigh in on anything from NFL protests to the Academy Awards to
celebrities in Hollywood. He connects with some voters that way.
He’s able to gin up his base that way and get people to think, you know, this guy is on
my side, he’s a layman, he’s talking about the issues that I can’t maybe vocalize but
he’s saying the things that everyone else is thinking.
So this is a president that would much rather talk about those hot-button issues than
talking about the economy or using the same speech, the same stump speech that people
write for him about how good the economy is.
KAITLAN COLLINS: Yeah, but it’s funny because today at the congressional picnic he
talked about the economy for a good six or seven minutes, which is probably the longest
he’s talked about it than any campaign rally, but it’s because he’s in front of all these
Republicans there on the South Lawn. But I mean, this isn’t a traditional president.
I don’t think he’s going to win or lose in a traditional way. And traditionally they
would win on the economy, so I don’t really think that’s going to play a factor.
ELISABETH BUMILLER: And the polls have shown that voters actually don’t give him that
much credit for the economy anyway, that started before he came into office.
So I also think that in Orlando, when he – when he tells the people the elites are
looking down on you, they hate you, you know, he really does play up that culture war in
a way that I’ve never seen with any other president, you know, just this anger, and it
seems to really work. You guys were there. It seemed to really work.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, and one thing that’s fascinating to me is how he talks about
draining the swamp when we’ve seen so many scandals out of his administration and it’s
clear that he’s vulnerable on that issue.
ROBERT COSTA: Thanks, everybody, for being here on a Friday night. Much appreciated.
We will continue our discussion on election 2020 on the Washington Week Extra.
Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube starting at 8:30 p.m.
every Friday night. I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.