#WashWeekPBS full episode: Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushes ahead on impeachment
ROBERT COSTA: The speaker pushes ahead on impeachment. HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) This is about the Constitution of the United States and the facts that lead to the president’s violation of his oath of office. REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): (From video.) The president is a continuing threat to that Constitution and to our democracy. ROBERT COSTA: And Republicans fight back. VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) The impeachment hearings today reached a new low. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) That’s a hoax. It’s a hoax. It’s a big, fat hoax. ROBERT COSTA: What does it all mean for President Trump and the nation? ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa. ROBERT COSTA: Good evening. It’s official: Speaker Pelosi has directed the House Judiciary Committee to draft articles of impeachment against the 45th president, Donald Trump, moving this process closer to a floor vote. The speaker made the announcement on Thursday, following weeks of testimony about how the president and his allies pressured Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son. HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The facts are uncontested. The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit at the expense of our national security by withholding military aid and a crucial Oval Office meeting in exchange for an announcement of an investigation into his political rival. ROBERT COSTA: President Trump immediately responded on Twitter, claiming his conduct has been “totally appropriate.” Most congressional Republicans, who at times have been uneasy with this president, remain firmly at his side, with few evident cracks. HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) Today, with the speaker’s announcement, she has weakened this nation. It was not new news; they always had this prewritten timeline from the day they got sworn in. ROBERT COSTA: Joining us tonight, Kimberly Atkins, senior news correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station; Josh Dawsey, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. The tense nature of this moment, it was revealed at the speaker’s Thursday news conference. QUESTION: (From video.) Do you hate the president, Madam Speaker – Speaker? Representative Cohen – HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I don’t – I don’t hate anybody. QUESTION: (From video.) Representative Cohen six – HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I don’t – I was raised in a Catholic house we don’t hate anybody, not anybody in the world, so don’t accuse me. I was raised in a way that is full – a heart full of love and always pray for the president, and I still pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time. So don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that. ROBERT COSTA: Carl, that quote – “don’t mess with me” – this is a speaker who reluctantly came to this impeachment inquiry; now she’s the face of it, she’s out in front. What does that scene, that exchange with James Rosen from Sinclair Broadcasting, tell you about Speaker Pelosi in this political moment? CARL HULSE: Well, she’s tough, that’s for sure. This was a question meant to provoke a response, and it got one. “Don’t mess with me” I think will be the catchphrase in Washington for quite a while. I also think she wasn’t feeling that well that day, and it sort of provoked a sharper response. But I think it was beneficial to her because this was unscripted – she didn’t know it was going to come – and it allowed her to lay out the case that this isn’t for her – and I think very credibly – that this isn’t about her feelings towards the president; this is about the Constitution. I think in some ways it gave her a good opening to do this. And you’re right; I mean, she has come around to this reluctantly. But we all know Nancy Pelosi, and once she makes up her mind she is going to move forward, and that’s what they’re doing here. ROBERT COSTA: Are House Democrats comfortable with the decision to move forward when you’re talking to them behind the scenes at the Capitol, Sue? SUSAN DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, they really are. I think if you go back and look at the vote that they had to officially, you know, authorize the investigation and formalize the process in the committees, that kind of told you where the caucus was. I mean, every vote on an impeachment is kind of a test vote. One thing that Pelosi did tell members this week in a closed-door meeting is she told them I’m not going to whip this vote. They’re looking at the vote on articles of impeachment similar to the way they look at votes on war: it’s a matter of conscience, it’s going to be up to you. That being said, Pelosi wouldn’t be moving forward unless she was fairly confident when they – when they go to the floor they will have the votes that they need. ROBERT COSTA: I was at the Capitol, Kim, and I ran into Vice President Pence a few days ago, and he was about to rally the House Republicans at their morning meeting, and you don’t see many cracks in the GOP. What explains that unity when you’re out there reporting? KIMBERLY ATKINS: Well, it’s unity on both sides. I mean, the GOP has galvanized around this issue that this is an impermissible inquiry, just casting aspersions on the legitimacy of it, and they’ve moved away now because it’s harder to keep arguing about process the more – the farther you go, and certainly once articles on impeachment are on the table. So they’re settling in on this. It’s the same message that President Trump is giving. It’s the same message that President Trump’s campaign is spending millions of dollars on, that this is just a Democratic effort to – ROBERT COSTA: What are they doing in terms of campaign spending? KIMBERLY ATKINS: There’s been tens of millions of dollars on Facebook ads alone, the campaign. And so – and the message there is that the Democrats are trying to undo the election, the Democrats hate Trump, and the Democrats are trying to be un-American. And it’s a pretty solid, simple message that Republicans can get behind, and that’s what you’ll see. Both sides are rock solid. ROBERT COSTA: Josh? JOSH DAWSEY: If you talk to folks on the campaign, they say record fundraising numbers. They say for Trump supporters they feel he’s been victimized, they feel that this is an unfair process, and they are promoting – every single day they’re sending solicitations, and they’re raising quite a bit of money. It’s not saying that will be the end all, be all for this election, but if you talk to people around the president, in the beginning of this process there was a deeper fear than there is now. I think if you – if you talk to some of his closest advisors, they say it’s fait accompli he’s going to be impeached. He’s not going to be convicted in the Senate. They think they can turn the tables in the Senate and make a more compelling case, and they think that this will end in a place that will not be fatalistic to him. Now, I’m not sure that’s true. I think we’ve got to wait and see how it plays out. But – ROBERT COSTA: But what explains that? Well, you think about the jobs numbers Friday, Josh. The president got some positive jobs numbers. You’re seeing the economy in a solid spot. Is that what gives the White House that kind of optimism? JOSH DAWSEY: What gives the White House that kind of optimism is the fact Republicans have not broken. Early on, when the transcript came out, you saw folks who were reticent to go out and praise the president. You even saw some of the president’s defenders – Lindsey Graham made comments that were, you know, we’ve got to wait and see how this plays out. There weren’t a lot of people on television for a couple weeks as the facts were emerging. And now you see the GOP kind of at a cavalry behind the president, in some ways more unified than they have been in the past. CARL HULSE: Yeah, I think if you go back to the Clinton impeachment with the Clinton White House, that whole time they’re worried about Democrats. And even when it got to the Senate, Democrats like Joe Lieberman, they were worried how they were going to react. I think you’re right about the White House. The Republicans are solidly behind there. I think Nancy Pelosi in some way also motivates them; you know, they want to push back against her, they want to push back from the people who testified this week which they thought was a waste of time. ROBERT COSTA: Let’s talk about that testimony this week because House Democrats continue to say this isn’t about politics. You see it in Speaker Pelosi when she talks about prayer and she’s praying for the president, trying to take politics out of it. And part of that process is having these constitutional experts testify, and on Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee questioned several constitutional law experts on whether President Trump’s actions are impeachable offenses. Democrats called three of them, while Republicans called one. NOAH FELDMAN: (From video.) On the basis of the testimony and the evidence before the House, President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by corruptly abusing the office of the presidency. JONATHAN TURLEY: (From video.) The problem is not that abuse of power can never be an impeachable offense; you just have to prove it, and you haven’t. I believe this impeachment not only fails to satisfy the standard of past impeachments; it would create a dangerous precedent for future impeachments. ROBERT COSTA: Turley’s criticism that this is moving too fast, how are Democrats countering that both privately and publicly as they talk amongst themselves? SUSAN DAVIS: The timing is one of the things that I think politically Democrats are the most nervous about, in that they don’t want to be seen like they are rushing towards impeachment. I think what gives them the confidence is they do really feel like the facts are there, and I think when you talk about the polling and impression in the White House Democrats are also looking at polling and raising money and doing all these things, and they still see a country that a majority of which not only says the president should be impeached, but removed from office. They see independents breaking their way on a lot of these tough questions. And even the Trump campaign this week that tweeted out some polling about Kendra Horn, a Democrat in Oklahoma, meant to kind of dunk on her, but also showed in this ruby-red district 45 percent of people support impeachment and removing him from office. If you extrapolate that to more, you know, competitive swing districts and states, I’m not sure the politics of this do play well for the president in the long term, and especially for the Republicans down the ballot who have given themselves no daylight with this president on this question. ROBERT COSTA: Well, so if the Democrats calculate – they’re moving forward. They’re taking the steps. The speaker’s requested articles of impeachment to be drafted. But what do we know about what those articles will be, what’s in them? Will they include obstruction of justice when it comes to the Mueller investigation, or will it just be about Ukraine? KIMBERLY ATKINS: There is definitely an appetite among some Democrats that they do want something from the Mueller report. Obstruction of justice would probably be the easiest. Of course, there were those 10 points that Robert Mueller laid out as potential obstruction of justice articles. But, on the other hand, there are some more conservative Democrats that are really nervous. They don’t think that the Mueller report landed well. They want this to be as clear and narrow as possible, and that’s the one area where all Democrats are united when it comes to the Ukrainian issue. And so they haven’t worked that out yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an obstruction article, but it’s not clear yet. ROBERT COSTA: Carl – CARL HULSE: Let me get the cynical view, too, that it’s good to have an article you can vote against, right, so that you could say, oh, well, you know, I gave this serious thought and not everything – ROBERT COSTA: Well, so, Carl, what does your reporting tell you? When this actually comes to the floor, what will the speaker bring to the floor? CARL HULSE: Obviously, abuse of power, obstruction of justice, probably obstruction of Congress, and we’ll see how long they – how broad they make it. I do think we’ll get a lot of hints from this hearing on Monday where they’re – where the attorneys for the various committees are going to testify, and I think through the questioning and their testimony we’ll see what they’re up to. ROBERT COSTA: Let’s talk about that, Josh. You’ve been reporting on the White House all week. We got some news just before the show went to air on Friday that the White House will not participate in the House Judiciary Committee hearings that are upcoming. What do you know about the White House’s position? JOSH DAWSEY: The fundamental calculation is that there’s nothing in it for them, that they – House is going to impeach him and the House has laid out these facts; they’re not going to be able to do it the way they want to do it. They think in the Senate, with the GOP senators, they can participate in a way that’s more advantageous to them. And basically, they’ve written off this process. The White House Counsel’s Office today said, go ahead, impeach us, and do it fast. And I think what you’re going to see is the White House continuing just to hammer away at the House Democrats as they secretly behind the scenes prepare for the Senate trial – prepare for, you know, strategy, prepare for the lawyers, prepare to even have some administration officials testify in the Senate, potentially. But they’re going to just write off this whole House process and call it illegitimate and not participate at all. And part of that, Bob, is because the president knows he’s going to lose in the House and the president does not want to participate in something where the outcome is going to be a loser. It’s easier for him to say we just didn’t play. We didn’t lose the game; we didn’t show up to the field. You played without us, right? That’s a more effective message the president sees than doing it the other way. KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yeah, no, I think that’s absolutely right. We know this is a president who doesn’t like to go forward and lose, and we know – and the president also knows that he has the advantage in the Senate, and that – SUSAN DAVIS: But does he? I’m just a little skeptical that the White House thinks – I mean, I know it’s – Republicans control the Senate, but the idea that he’s going to see the same level of fealty and loyalty from Senate Republicans than he’s enjoyed in the House is a risky play. JOSH DAWSEY: Well, who votes against him in the Senate? SUSAN DAVIS: Not that he votes against him, but this idea that the White House is going to get to call whoever they want to the floor of the Senate or they’re going to be able to write the rules of the game – KIMBERLY ATKINS: Right, that’s not what I mean. I think they’re just – I think that there would have to be a dramatic shift in the axis in Washington for them to get the supermajority that they would need for this. As long as he comes out at the end winning and he can use that as a – as a campaign message, I think that he will see that ultimately as a win, and that’s precisely why they’re using the strategy that Josh laid out. CARL HULSE: I do think that the nonparticipation, though, does speed up the Democrats. I think if the White House had said we want to do some things, the Democrats might have to slow down. Now they look like they’re on a course to do this before Christmas. ROBERT COSTA: And I wonder, Sue, when you think about the senators, the GOP senators, are they different in terms of how they see this than the House Republicans? Because when you look at everything that’s happened this week, Republicans have launched a counteroffensive in the House, as I reported with my colleagues at the Post: Much of the party is citing “debunked claims right now about Ukraine as they defend President Trump from possible impeachment,” going against testimony we’ve heard from many U.S. officials who say Ukraine did not interfere in the U.S election in the way House Republicans are describing. Senator Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat, said this week he thought maybe four to five Republicans would be considering voting against President Trump. SUSAN DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, there was this moment in time where the Republican defense, they were trying to land on a place where they could say, well, what the president did was wrong but it was not impeachable, and the White House hasn’t really given them that wiggle room, and Republicans have really settled on the president has done nothing wrong. That is the line from House Judiciary Ranking Member Doug Collins. You hear that more and more in the Senate. They’re not really giving Republicans any room to give any criticism to the president. I think the Ukraine strategy here is one that we’ve seen before and we’ll see continued. They’re just trying to create sort of the counter-narrative, an alternative explanation to what went down and why it was justified. ROBERT COSTA: Josh, we’re seeing it right now. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, back in Ukraine this week. What is he doing, and what is the White House up to? JOSH DAWSEY: Rudy Giuliani is over in Ukraine with OANN, One America News Network – it’s kind of a right-wing, conservative network – who is meeting with prosecutors, some of them whom have been seen by the U.S. government to be ethically deficient, needless to say, meeting with some of his allies that he’s met with before. He’s essentially doing what he did the first time all over again. He’s looking for more evidence. He’s looking to tout this narrative that Ukraine interfered in the election and was out to get President Trump. Obviously, that has been debunked and disputed, as you said, in lots of places and lots of ways, but what Rudy is trying to do is to show there is something here. Even if it’s just a kernel, it gives people a chance to talk about what he’s finding over there. And he’s not giving up. I mean, there were lots of White House officials, GOP allies, even some House members who I talked to this week who were stunned that he would return back to what one person said was the scene of the crime to essentially moon dance onstage at the scene of the crime. (Laughter.) I mean, that was a quote we had in a piece. It’s a remarkable move for him to do that. KIMBERLY ATKINS: When you’re – yeah, and when you’re talking about the timing for the Democrats, the one thing that has united Democrats about the timing is that – this idea that it is an urgent matter that is ongoing and that you can’t wait for an election to try to out President Trump, that we need to act right now. And Rudolph Giuliani is just giving them the ammunition to push that. ROBERT COSTA: As Rudy Giuliani’s over there in Ukraine, you have House Democrats releasing hundreds of pages at the House Intelligence Committee this week, a serious report in their view. How do they talk about the Giuliani counter to their own report? CARL HULSE: Yeah, I do think that the Democrats look at Rudy Giuliani as someone who helps them throughout this entire process because – ROBERT COSTA: Even though he’s muddying the waters? CARL HULSE: Right, but he – they point – it’s like, look at these phone numbers. There’s dispute over who he was actually talking to. But it’s like, who is Rudy Giuliani talking to in OMB? For the Democrats, I think this raises questions in people’s minds like, wow, Rudy Giuliani was really doing something nefarious. So I think that when you look at this reporting from over in Ukraine, people go, oh, wow, this is still happening, and to your point I think it does add to the Democratic argument. I do agree it muddies the waters. But the whole Ukraine thing, you have a few Republicans in the Senate – John Kennedy – who have sort of embraced this, but if one thing senators like to do, they want to look more thoughtful than House members, and so they’re going to look at this and go, we’re not going to get caught up in this; we don’t want Hunter Biden over here. I had John Cornyn tell me and other reporters this week that this’ll be a three-ring circus if we start to get these witnesses in the well of the Senate. ROBERT COSTA: So if the Senate Republicans don’t want to call Hunter Biden and Joe Biden and Chairman Schiff, who do Republicans call, if anyone? Is it White House officials, as Josh said, or some administration officials? SUSAN DAVIS: You know, this is where I say the Senate trial is a lot trickier than people are thinking, right? Like, you – sure, maybe they bring Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to the floor, but you need to be real confident that you know what Mick Mulvaney is going to say because he is someone that Democrats have been wanting to question a long time. ROBERT COSTA: And why – and why not wait for the courts? What is the factor of the courts? The courts are holding up Don McGahn from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. Could Ambassador Bolton testify in the Senate or not? What’s your reporting on that? SUSAN DAVIS: The challenge here that’s difficult is that if he is subpoenaed to appear in a – in a Senate trial, Bolton in the House investigation said he wasn’t going to do it unless a court told him to. A Senate trial is a fundamentally different matter, and that’s one of these open questions. If people are subpoenaed to appear before the Senate, do they show up? I’m not sure that the White House – you know, this idea that having Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the chief of staff come up is going to help their case. I mean, these are fact witnesses to any number of details we already know, and the people that the White House are saying they want to call, they simply don’t have the votes to bring these people to the floor. So it could ultimately be that we don’t get any number of witnesses that either side would like to see. CARL HULSE: I think House impeachment managers would like to question John Bolton in the Senate. SUSAN DAVIS: There you go. Yeah. ROBERT COSTA: What do you make of the Democrats and how they’re handling this delay on the court side? You’re our resident attorney here, Kim. KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yeah, well, court delays take a lot of time, and the Democrats for a number of reasons – including the fact that they want to strike while public sentiment is with them – don’t want to wait that long, and they see just tacking on articles of impeachment for obstruction as a better move right now, to move forward now. They don’t want to get into the primaries. They don’t want to say that out loud, but they don’t want to get into the primaries. ROBERT COSTA: And there’s a real tension about the idea is refusing to testify before Congress obstruction of justice or not. KIMBERLY ATKINS: It is. It is. Well, they can certainly make the case it is obstruction of Congress because we have seen so far in the court rulings that have come out have been for House Democrats, saying this is a viable – this is a – this is a real process, it is viable, you have to – you have to answer to these requests, and if you don’t that’s a problem. JOSH DAWSEY: I think, though, the president, as you said, may be a little bit more reluctant to let people testify because in the Mueller probe they let a lot of their top officials testify – Don McGahn spent 30 hours with them, Reince Priebus, Rob Porter, a whole litany of officials went in – and they revealed a lot of damaging facts about the president; not things that brought him down, but the minutiae of the way he was running the Oval Office and the dishonesty and lots of pervasive conduct that damaged him, and that really frustrated when that came out. So I think the question will be, for the White House, do they see these witnesses as entirely on their side or not? And I don’t think the calculation’s been made yet. ROBERT COSTA: And this isn’t all occurring in a vacuum. Could this impeachment showdown affect the government spending talks? Government funding, Carl, is expected to expire on December 20th. CARL HULSE: Yeah, I think – I’m hearing signs of progress in these talks. I think the House members and the senators really want to get to a deal. I talked to Richard Shelby about this a couple of day ago; he said I’d like to wrap this up. You know, does anyone really want to be shutting down the government right now? Who’s the – going to be culpable for that? I don’t – I don’t think it looks good. I think they’ll try and avoid it. SUSAN DAVIS: I think if it’s up to Capitol Hill there is absolutely not a government shutdown. The wildcard here is President Trump: Will he sign whatever Congress sends him? You ask Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, they can get a deal, even if it’s a CR. Where will the president be? That’s always the question up and until he signs the piece of paper. ROBERT COSTA: Josh, answer the question. JOSH DAWSEY: And every time we’ve had one of these showdowns the president has played this kind of rope-a-dope game until the last minute where he tweets, I hate this bill, I may not sign it, and they rush over and try to convince him otherwise. And he sees these moments as leverage, and he’ll use them for that. ROBERT COSTA: Thank you all for joining us. Great discussion. And thank you for joining us tonight. Check out our Washington Week Extra, where we will continue this conversation and discuss President Trump’s visit this week to the United Kingdom for the NATO summit. You can find it on our program’s social media accounts and on our website tonight and all weekend long. I’m Robert Costa. Good night.