#WashWeekPBS Extra: Discussing political turmoil abroad


PETE WILLIAMS: Vice President Mike Pence meets British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as Brexit chaos brews, and Hong Kong’s government reacts to protests. This is the Washington Week Extra. And I’m Pete Williams, in for Robert Costa who is away on assignment. Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Philip Rucker, the White House bureau chief for The Washington Post. Vice President Pence wrapped up a weeklong visit to Europe on Thursday with a visit to Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Number 10 Downing Street. Their exchange focused on trade. VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) I’m grateful for your hospitality. I spoke to President Trump this morning, your friend, and he asked me to send you his very best greetings and to assure you that the United States supports the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. But he also wanted me to convey that the United States is ready, willing, and able to immediately negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.K. BRITISH PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: (From video.) The U.S. economy is a – is a wonderful, massive opportunity for the U.K. I know that you guys are pretty tough negotiators, so we’re going – we’re going to work very hard to make sure that that free-trade deal is one that works for all sides. PETE WILLIAMS: Blue tie day at Number 10. The prime minister is pushing for Brexit at all costs, even if it means leaving the European Union without a deal in place. He faces opposition inside and outside his Conservative Party and is weakened politically in Britain. And meantime, in Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters took to the streets even though Hong Kong’s leader withdrew the extradition bill that ignited the months of protests in the first place. With a China trade deal still unresolved and talks scheduled to resume soon, President Trump has been fairly muted in his comments on the situation in Hong Kong. So let’s start with Brexit first. Boris had a pretty bad week. He’s going to have to have a general election. It’ll be after the Brexit deadline, and the Parliament did not accept his idea of pushing through with a no-deal Brexit before the deadline. So does the – what’s the U.S. interest in all of this? How do we care how it ends up? What’s the – what’s the stake for the U.S. in this fight? PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s really interesting. First of all, it may be the first week in a long time in which Washington, as you said, seemed kind of calm and stable by comparison to another world capital. This is a prime minister who is obviously struggling, the first one in a century to lose his first vote in Parliament. He lost Winston Churchill’s grandson from his party. He lost his own brother from his government. That’s a pretty tough week. I don’t know that – you know, President Trump’s interest is basically in weakening the European Union. He sees the European Union as an adversary, not an ally. He’s said that repeatedly, a trade adversary. So he’s not in favor of anything that keeps it strong. He thinks that Britain should get out because then they can have their own separate trade deal. But largely it’s part of his sort of nationalist populist, you know, view of politics these days. You know, he’s on the side of those in Europe who are emphasizing their own sovereignty, their own nationalism over integration and globalization. PETE WILLIAMS: A funny thing about watching this. You know, we talked about how much Congress is unwilling to buck President Trump on anything, even if it means losing money for pet projects in their districts, and here we have the British Parliament pushing back against their brand new prime minister. Does that make you wish that we had a parliamentary system? PHILIP RUCKER: It would be different here in Washington if we – PETE WILLIAMS: It would be more interesting cover. PHILIP RUCKER: Much more interesting to cover. The prime minister’s questions earlier this week was quite good television. You know, look, it’s a really difficult week for Prime Minister Johnson and a lot is on the line personally for Trump in addition to what Peter talked about because Donald Trump, President Trump, has staked so much on his personal relationship with Boris Johnson. He helped advocate for him during the elections of just a month or two ago and has seen this as a future, as like a Reagan and Thatcher partnership. And you know, if Johnson goes down or if this all blows up over the next few weeks it could be very damaging for Trump. PETE WILLIAMS: You were in the U.K. when the president made his trip there in June. What did it look to you like the relationship between Trump and Boris Johnson was? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, at the time Theresa May was the prime minister, and that was – and he – President Trump essentially said: I told Theresa May that she should do Brexit with no deal, and she won’t listen to me. So I think there was this – there was this feeling that once he got the prime minister that he wanted that things would go more smoothly. Obviously this week has taught us that that’s not what’s going to happen. But I interviewed some members of Parliament at the time and they were essentially reminding me, hey, this is Parliament. This is not Congress. You will see fireworks here, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen this week. I think it’s pretty telling that Boris Johnson’s own party was willing to break with him. And I think it made a lot of Republicans, I think, at least look at them and say, wow, I wonder what that would look like here. PETE WILLIAMS: Let me ask you each if you can make a prediction. Is it pretty clear that the U.K. is going to go ahead with Brexit no matter what? Or is it possible that Boris Johnson’s problems could mean that Brexit is if not just pushed way down the road, it just fades away? PETER BAKER: (Laughs.) I think one thing the president taught us this week is that making predictions is a hazardous thing. (Laughter.) The one thing more unpredictable than a hurricane is British politics right now. I think anything is possible. As a non-expert in British politics, it looks to me like anything is possible. Obviously they feel they have this deadline coming up at the end of October. Nobody, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, nobody has figured out how to unlock this puzzle. You know, does this potentially lead back to a new referendum? That’s the open question. PETE WILLIAMS: The other thing that I’m curious about here is what would the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. be if it does come down to a trade deal? Are we going to have a tariff battle with the U.K., then? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I wouldn’t put it past the president. What we’ve seen, and what I’ve seen personally in covering him now for two G-7s, is the president in some ways look at our allies and treat them as though they’re not our allies. I remember last year with G-7 him trading words with Justin Trudeau and treating Canada as if they were adversaries. This year at the G-7 the president was having a little bit less of a confrontational experience, but the sense still was that everyone was waiting for the shoe to drop, and everyone was on edge that the president might again attack his allies. So I don’t know what that would actually look like, but Boris Johnson hinted at it. He said, you guys are tough negotiators. That tells you that Boris Johnson isn’t seeing a friend across the aisle that’s going to give him a nice deal. He’s seeing someone who is going to stake his claim on putting America first. And that’s going to mean the U.K. will not be our friendly trading partner. PETER BAKER: He also made clear, by the way, in Biarritz, right, when we were at the G-7, that he’s not akin to Trump on every point. His point was, we actually think free trade is a good thing. We have 200 years of good experience with free trade in Britain, which was what he called a – what he called a sheepish, a sheep-like, you know, gentle rebuke to the president, partly because it’s not necessarily a good thing politically in Britain for him to be seen as too close to President Trump. PETE WILLIAMS: Philip, we saw some spectacular pictures from the Hong Kong protests. And this extradition bill basically would have said – if it passed, it would have said people charged with crimes in Hong Kong would be sent to China and put on trial in the Chinese justice system, which was not very attractive to the protesters. Were you surprised that the U.S. basically sat this one out? PHILIP RUCKER: I’m not surprised that President Trump sat all of this out, because we’ve not seen him take a stand on human rights issues or pro-democracy movements before, which by the way is a real departure from past presidents, Democratic and Republican alike. I was traveling with Trump in Bedminster, New Jersey a couple weeks ago and actually we asked him in a press gaggle there, you know, what’s going on in Hong Kong? What’s your response? Do you believe in what these protesters are advocating for, and the democracy movement? And he had such a sort of mealy-mouthed answer. He does not have clear, strong convictions on this. He’s thinking much more about the dynamics vis-a-vis President Xi, of his possible trade deal with China, as opposed to a sort of ideological view about democracy. PETE WILLIAMS: Well, could it also be that he was thinking about if he took a position here how would it affect the negotiations with China? PHILIP RUCKER: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s paramount to him, as opposed to advocating for human rights or for democracy movements just carte blanche around the world. PETER BAKER: He’s got a very consistent position on this. America first means we don’t interfere in other countries because we don’t care how your governments treat you. That’s your problem. Saudi Arabia, China, any of these places. And it’s consistent. And I think there’s – you know, it’s inconsistent with the American tradition of other presidents. But it’s consistent with the views of a lot of Americans who think we spend too much time policing the world. PETE WILLIAMS: Does it seem feasible to you that we would have seen this backing down in Hong Kong without the acquiescence of President Xi? What does it say about his calculation there? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I’m not sure. I think it’s remarkable to see the protesters have this big win. I think we’ve seen protests all around the world. Sometimes they’re successful. Sometimes they’re not. In Hong Kong’s experience these protesters got what they want. But I think what these protesters have also learned is that they have power now. And that that might put Xi in a tough position because these protesters now have had time to talk to each other and had time to say, well, what are the other things that we’re not happy about here? What are the other human rights violations that we should be calling attention to? And that could put the president in a tough position. PETE WILLIAMS: Although, it’s one thing to see this in Hong Kong. I would be quite another thing to see how the government would deal with it if it was in mainland China itself, you all agree? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Yeah. PETER BAKER: Yeah, very much. PETE WILLIAMS: All right. Thank you very much. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen where you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. And while you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Pete Williams, in for Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.




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