#WashWeekPBS full episode: Back from the brink of war with Iran


ROBERT COSTA: Back from the brink of war, but the debate rages in Congress. SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) It was very clear Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests, and those attacks were imminent. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He was looking very seriously at our embassies, and not just the embassy in Baghdad. ROBERT COSTA: The Trump administration insists the killing of Iran’s top general was a response to imminent threats, but on Capitol Hill members of both parties are furious about the lack of information and how lawmakers were bypassed. SENATOR MIKE LEE (R-UT): (From video.) It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch to come in and tell us that we can’t debate. It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s wrong. SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) The bottom line is we did not hear that there was any imminent attack being planned against the United States, period. ROBERT COSTA: And the president’s Senate trial draws near as Speaker Pelosi prepares to send over the articles of impeachment, next. ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa. ROBERT COSTA: Good evening. Congress is simmering tonight with mounting anger in both parties. Questions continue to be raised with new urgency about the president’s decision to kill Iran’s top general last week. While the administration firmly stands by its claim that Qassem Soleimani was involved with an imminent threat on American lives, details are scarce, prompting lawmakers to speak out. REPRESENTATIVE MATT GAETZ (R-FL): (From video.) I support the president. Killing Soleimani was the right decision. But engaging in another forever war in the Middle East would be the wrong decision. SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From video.) They have justified the killing of an Iranian general as being something that Congress gave them permission to do in 2002. That is absurd. That’s an insult. REPRESENTATIVE GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): (From video.) My reaction to this briefing was it was sophomoric and utterly unconvincing. SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) One of the questions I raised just right after this came out is, does this have anything to do with the fact that Donald Trump is right on the eve of an impeachment hearing? ROBERT COSTA: Most Republicans, however, have remained supportive of the president, especially the party’s hawks. SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) I think a third grader could have believed that there was an imminent threat coming from the man that we killed because the man we killed was a walking threat. REPRESENTATIVE MARK MEADOWS (R-NC): (From video.) The information that was shared was both compelling and decisive. I think it leaves little doubt in my mind. ROBERT COSTA: The rumblings nonetheless continue, and the House – controlled by Democrats – passed a war powers resolution this week to limit the president’s ability to approve further military engagement with Iran. That now heads to the Senate. And joining me tonight to discuss these developments and what’s next are four of the nation’s best reporters: Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post, who was in the White House briefing room today as the secretary of state announced new sanctions against Iran; Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook, who has been closely tracking Speaker Pelosi and members of the House; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times who, in the best sense, seems to live near the Senate chamber, pen and pad in hand; and Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, a force on the Pentagon beat who has spent years reporting from the Middle East, including a stint as a Baghdad bureau chief. But let’s start with this congressional outcry. What a moment, Jake and Carl. You have Senator Lee, Senator Paul, noninterventionists, libertarian-type Republicans, out there speaking out against President Trump. You were at the Capitol. What have you heard about what went on in that room and why lawmakers on both sides are so unhappy? JAKE SHERMAN: I think there’s a convention, Carl would agree, for administrations to share information in some sense with Congress either before an attack or shortly after, and not have to get dragged kicking and screaming to share information. This administration doesn’t believe – based on evidence, doesn’t have the belief that Congress deserves the information, can’t be trusted with the information. They are a coequal branch of government. And if you don’t build coalitions – this isn’t complicated stuff – if you don’t build coalitions, people are not going to be for what you’re doing. It’s not difficult to get people on your side, but this administration has chosen not to do it. CARL HULSE: Well, it was quite a moment for Mike Lee, who’s not exactly this kind of outspoken guy, so you know when he was saying it there was a real problem. I think the members felt that they were condescended to, that there was an arrogance on the part of the administration, and also a lack of information, and maybe one of the reasons they weren’t giving them information is that they didn’t have the information to back up their position. Interesting, this is not the first time an administration’s gone into a briefing like this and said, oh, don’t question us, you’re only going to help the enemy, but I think it was sort of refreshing that some of the people were able to come out and say with credibility this isn’t sufficient. ROBERT COSTA: Ashley, the White House and President Trump, he went on Fox News earlier today and talked about the threat. He said there was a threat on four embassies. Does the White House feel like they’re under any pressure to provide more information to the Congress and to the public? ASHLEY PARKER: Well, I was just going to add on Carl’s point that you have an administration – and by that I frankly mean a president – who exacerbates the frustration. He sends his top national security officials to Congress to brief senators in a secure room. That is precisely the sort of the place where you are supposed to share those classified details. They don’t share them. The lawmakers are frustrated, bipartisan frustration. Then you have a president who not just shares it on Fox News, but I was at his rally in Toledo last night, and he took the stage there and shared it with 10,000 MAGA supporters in Toledo. And so you can see where the frustration comes when you have these administration officials claiming we couldn’t possibly say and then the president’s sharing it in every conceivable venue. ROBERT COSTA: So what can the Pentagon, Nancy, share? We keep hearing the word “imminent,” but beyond that – that phrase, an imminent threat – what do you know talking to U.S. officials about why the U.S. attacked Soleimani? NANCY YOUSSEF: So I think when you hear the explanations over the course of the week – and we’ve heard several of them – it wasn’t just an imminent threat. There were sort of three things that they were trying to achieve with these strikes: to deal with the imminent threat, also deterrence against Iran – remember that the U.S. has seen increased attacks by Iran since May on U.S. forces there, increased rocket attacks, downing of a drone in the Persian Gulf, and it had not been met by U.S. response up until this point. And I think the third one’s to take someone who they considered very dangerous off the battlefield. This is someone who has been influential throughout the Middle East for the past 20 years, and as one defense official described it this was a target of opportunity. And so I think part of the confusion we saw this week is the focus on an imminent threat didn’t get at the trifecta of reasons that led to the strike, and so when the administration would come out and say things like this was a form of deterrence it was hard to reconcile that when you couldn’t answer what the imminent threat was. And so they were trying to use three justifications but hadn’t really explained it well. I think for this administration the strike was the message and they didn’t necessarily consider the messaging that you had to give to the American public, to their allies, to the world populations outside of the strike itself. ROBERT COSTA: But you take all of that information, Jake, that Nancy just outlined, you have the executive branch – the Trump administration – making its own moves. And we saw the House Democrats this week, along with a few Republicans, pass a war powers resolution. Any insights into how that vote unfolded and what it tells us about whether Congress is really going to make a move on asserting its own power? JAKE SHERMAN: So I’ll take that backwards: Congress is not going to – (laughs) – going to rein – ROBERT COSTA: You mean the Senate won’t do it, pass it? JAKE SHERMAN: Well, the Senate will, but these are nonbinding resolutions. The Congress has ceded power for a long time to the administration, not only this administration by the two previous administrations, and has not been eager to wrest back any of that power for various reasons. One, they don’t really want to own some of the military decisions that the White House or any White House – ROBERT COSTA: And there hasn’t been a resolution since World War II for war. JAKE SHERMAN: Right, there – the big problem is by and large this is turning into tribalism, right? I mean, if you talk to some Republicans off the record, they will say they have huge problems with how the president exercised his power here and wish he hadn’t done what he’d done, or at least wish that he came to Congress. People will say they need to write a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, but they don’t want to pass it; it’s too politically difficult. So a whole kind of host of problems and political dynamics that are tough to reconcile in an election year. NANCY YOUSSEF: I’m so glad you brought up previous administrations because I think the trend line that we’ve seen is that we’ve seen more brazen, more aggressive strikes, and fewer and fewer people involved in the decision-making process. And I think that’s one of the reasons this strike in particular evoked so much reaction on Capitol Hill and from the president’s opponents and critics. ROBERT COSTA: Let’s turn back to get into this executive branch discussion and the president’s speech Wednesday, his announcement of the decision to pull back from the brink of war with Iran. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The American people should be extremely grateful and happy. No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime. Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world. ROBERT COSTA: Here is what Ashley and Phil Rucker wrote for the Post after that speech: Quote, “Trump’s handling of the Iran crisis is in some ways epitomizing his presidency, with his remarks containing striking contradictions and remaining open to interpretation. He was at once unyielding in his rhetoric against Iran building a nuclear weapon, while open to talks with its leaders and pushing to involve NATO allies in diplomacy.” You watched that speech. You’ve reported on the president for a while. What does it tell us about him at this moment? Is it Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hovering over his shoulder? Is he now a hawk, or is he still a noninterventionist in part? ASHLEY PARKER: The president at his core in many ways is whatever people want him to be. Different people can listen to that speech from Republican lawmakers, from Secretary Pompeo, from world leaders around the globe parsing every single word and hear what they want to hear. I do want to stress this was the president’s speech. It was written with input from a number of people, but he was making edits in the Oval Office right until he went out, and that’s one of the reasons he went out about 15 minutes later or so into the Grand Foyer. But if you watch it, what was striking to – many things were striking to me, but one thing was he came out, the first thing he said – he walks out, he’s sort of silhouetted in golden light, and he says, while I am president Iran will never get a nuclear weapon, and then he kind of paused. So that’s the tough talk; that’s what he wants to convey. And then he kind of pauses for a second, straightens his arms, and says good morning, and then gets into the meat of his speech, which is much more conciliatory and offers some – simultaneously, while talking very tough on Iran, also says Iran could be a great nation, we look forward to potentially working together to fight ISIS, and I look forward for peace and prosperity for the Iranian people – he addresses them directly – for the Iranian leaders. So you can take away whatever you want from that speech, but the final key thing is what the Iranians could take away was there was nothing in that moment that they absolutely had to respond to. He had taken the offramp and he had not escalated it in a way where they felt to save face or for any other reason they would then have to respond. CARL HULSE: Well, this is the dichotomy of this president, right? He wants to be the tough guy, but he also doesn’t want to get – you know, his promise was to not get into these wars in the Middle East, so he’s stuck in this situation. And part of the twist on this is that folks on the Hill – you had Lindsey Graham there earlier – there’s a lot of people on the Hill who want him to be more aggressive in the Republican Party. They think he’s held back too much, so they were happy to see this. So you have that whole wing of the party, who’s happy to see him being more assertive in this area. It’s a difficult juggling act for the president, and in that – those remarks I think he seemed somewhat, you know, anxious about how this was all being interpreted. ROBERT COSTA: What about Iran’s juggling act, its response? What do you make, based on your reporting, of how Iran has responded to President Trump, and what’s next for them? NANCY YOUSSEF: So it additionally depends on whether you believe they intended – when they launched about a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. military installations, whether they intended to kill Americans and cause significant structural damage or not. We’ve heard mixed messaging from the Iranians on this. We’ve heard the United States say that they intended to do so. If you go – regardless, we’re at a point where that didn’t happen and they haven’t escalated. And so I think the challenge for Iran is they have faced criticism internally that they didn’t do anything more aggressive, that they weren’t able to respond in a more aggressive way. They’ve been critical – ROBERT COSTA: Will they respond aggressively to the new sanctions? NANCY YOUSSEF: I mean, we’ll have to wait and see. There are two kinds of responses: there are the response from the military, openly and acknowledging it; and there could be a response through their proxy forces and their paramilitary forces. And so those are the kind of responses we have to look for. I think the challenge they have is they’re under incredible internal pressure, in part because of the economic sanctions that have been imposed and in part because this was just months after protests asking for reforms in their country. And so if it’s seen that they didn’t respond in a way that was in kind for what they saw as the act of killing Qassem Soleimani, we may see military responses either directly or through their paramilitary forces. JAKE SHERMAN: And the larger question is, what does the president want, right? What is his larger strategy? We’ve already engaged in a deal, in a negotiation as a country with Iran, and got a pretty robust global agreement – (laughs) – from Iran, and it seems like their internal political dynamics are not going to allow for another negotiation. So he says he wants to negotiate, but the deal that America got last time, while imperfect in many respects, did achieve many of the goals that he says he wants to achieve. They were winding down their nuclear program. They had eyes on their kind of nuclear facilities. So what does he want? And that’s not clear to me still. ROBERT COSTA: Well, we’re in a reelection year, Ashley. What does it mean for how the president sees his reelection strategy, his reelection message? We already – we showed Senator Warren earlier. We see the Democratic race somewhat scrambled by this entire episode, Senator Sanders ascending in Iowa in the latest Des Moines Register poll, Vice President Biden underscoring his experience. ASHLEY PARKER: Well, you know, some of the Democratic candidates, including Senator Warren, have sort of gone up to the wag the dog line, and I think – the one thing I think is the president – ROBERT COSTA: Saying the president did this on purpose – ASHLEY PARKER: Yes, to distract from impeachment. I think it may very well have had that effect. You remember we all went into the holiday break focused on impeachment and we came back from the holiday break focused on being on the precipice of war with Iran. But having covered the president for three years, I don’t believe he’s sort of a master of strategic distraction. I think he does things that do distract, but they are often – CARL HULSE: Just a master of distraction. (Laughter.) ASHLEY PARKER: Yes, but they are often not as intentional as some people like to give him credit for. But what was interesting was, you know, the president is generally, with certain notable exceptions, anti-intervention, right? That was something he ran on, and he does have this fine line where a lot of his supporters feel that way as well. A lot of the people at his rallies, it’s their sons and daughters who are serving overseas. And so in talking to voters in Toledo last night, they said pretty overtly we don’t want to go to war again in the Middle East, we don’t want another messy foreign entanglement, we don’t want to get into a war with Iran; but to a person, we support the president, we think he’s being tough, we think he’s – ROBERT COSTA: Sounds like Matt Gaetz, the congressman from Florida. ASHLEY PARKER: Exactly, demonstrating peace through strength. And so it’ll be interesting to see how the president finesses that as we move forward. CARL HULSE: But I do think that what Ashley said is part of the reason people are skeptical of this, because they – without the explanation, a good explanation – actually, I thought you gave the explanation that the administration should have given and stuck with it. But without that, everybody’s like, why now, why now. So without them having a good reason for why now, everyone is skeptical. ROBERT COSTA: Because they don’t want to be seen as just doing it for deterrence reasons. That appears clear, based on your reporting. NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, and again, I think they thought the strike was the message, and there just didn’t seem to be a layout in terms of how to explain this to the American public. This was decisive. This was overt. This was done in Baghdad. This wasn’t done through, example, a CIA strike. This was designed to send a message. And I just don’t think there was a thinking of it. And so what you heard over the course of the week was several explanations. I mean, at one point they stopped using this term “imminent threat” because it wasn’t working; it reappeared today. And I think it’s a reminder that when you’re doing things based on intelligence and these sort of – and you can’t talk about it, the messaging becomes all the more important. That strike was not a way to speak. It might have spoken to Iran. It sold part of the story, but you needed an explanation behind it is the takeaway, I think, this week. ROBERT COSTA: And as Ashley just said, all of this comes, all these tensions on the Hill, extend of course this week to impeachment. Reporters at this table and elsewhere were hustling all week amid the standoff between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the transfer of those two impeachment articles to the upper chamber. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) There will be no haggling with the House over Senate procedure. We will not cede our authority to try this impeachment. The House Democrats’ turn is over. HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) At some point we would hope that we would see from them what the terms of engagement will be. ROBERT COSTA: Then on Friday the speaker released a statement that seemed to end the logjam, saying she is moving forward and has asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to appoint managers and transmit articles of impeachment to the Senate. Still, much about this trial is unresolved, including whether there will be witnesses. As Carl Hulse and his colleagues wrote this week in the Times, with the former national security adviser, John Bolton, now volunteering to testify in the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, the circumstances of the toxic 2018 Kavanaugh showdown could provide a template for what to expect as senators extend their clash over the ground rules for opening the proceeding. Are we going to see John Bolton testify? CARL HULSE: Well, I don’t know. Jake and I disagree on this a little bit. I do think that it’s going to be hard for them to not call witnesses. Their entire argument of Senator McConnell and Republicans is let’s follow the Clinton precedent, let’s follow Senate precedent. Every previous Senate impeachment trial has had witnesses; going to be hard as this goes forward to argue. But are the numbers there? It’s going to take four senators from the Republican side to potentially make that happen. We all know who three of them are; it’s really hard to figure out who that fourth person is. But I still think that people – the public are going to – is going to watch this and say, well, if John Bolton wants to testify, why are you not hearing from John Bolton? So I’m leaning a little more towards witnesses now than I was earlier in the week. ROBERT COSTA: Jake, you said you disagree. JAKE SHERMAN: Yeah, I do – (laughs) – but not vehemently or aggressively. I think Carl definitely could be right. I have trouble finding the fourth person. And my only thinking is after two weeks of trial and just a lot of being in the Senate and not being at home, senators are going to want to close up shop, and it’s really tough to be the deciding vote. And Carl and I were talking off set; maybe it’ll be six people or 10 people. That would make it easier. I just think then the president’s going to get involved and he’s going to try to block the testimony and it’s just going to be an entire mess. ROBERT COSTA: Real quick, why did Speaker Pelosi move now? Was it pressure from Senate Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein, who said it’s time to bring these over? JAKE SHERMAN: Nancy Pelosi had no leverage. Leverage exists when one side – when both sides need something from each other. Mitch McConnell needed nothing from Nancy Pelosi, so he wasn’t going to give in to anything Nancy Pelosi wanted. She first wanted to change the – to have a say in the Senate rules; he said no. He then wanted – she then wanted to see the rules; Mitch McConnell said no to that. He had his votes locked up, so he had the power, and Nancy Pelosi, the string kind of ran out a little bit on this play, which wasn’t actually much of a play at all. We all in the Capitol kind of wondered what was up and why she was doing this, and still to this day it’s not clear to me what she achieved beyond what her people say – her aides say – was a weeks-long discussion over witnesses. If that’s what you wanted, then you got that at least. I’m not sure how much impact that will have. ROBERT COSTA: And the managers, what does the White House want? These are the prosecutors, the defense attorney type in this process. What do they want? Do they want it to be Matt Gaetz or Jim Jordan, the hardcore conservative, or are they going to delegate to Leader McConnell? ASHLEY PARKER: Well, let’s just start more broadly and also specifically with what the president wants, and what the president wants is what he always wants, which is what – he wants fighters who, quote/unquote, “look the part” out there on TV or out there in the halls of Congress, on the floor of the Senate, defending him in sort of the most fiery, feisty way possible. So yes, does President Trump want a Jim Jordan or a Matt Gaetz, even though he’s frustrated with him now for his war resolution vote, out there supporting him, defending him, making the case in the court of public opinion? Absolutely. If you even go back to the Mueller probe, when he was looking for lawyers he wasn’t necessarily looking for the best legal expertise, the best person who could hole up in a law office and flip through the documents and figure out the best strategy; he wanted someone who could go on TV and make that case in the court of public opinion. That’s one of the reasons he ended up with Rudy Giuliani, although people can disagree if he was the best public face of that messaging. So that’s what the president wants. It’s not what Leader McConnell wants. It’s unclear to me where that will ultimately end up. ROBERT COSTA: Nancy, how does the world see this? When you’re at the Pentagon talking to U.S. officials and they see a president about to face an impeachment trial, does North Korea, Iran, do they see a weakened President Trump, a vulnerable President Trump, or is it a minor matter? NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I think it’s one of the reasons that senior military officials this week had to answer the question was this a wag the dog scenario. I think there was this fear that these strikes, because it wasn’t explained very well, because it wasn’t well understood, that this was a wag the dog moment, so you’ve seen it in that way. And I think because of that it raises questions about U.S. intentions. I could – one could argue that one of the reasons Iran kept doing strikes was because it saw a president distracted and unable to retaliate because of impeachment. You could argue that North Korea is conducting itself the way it is, a little bit more brazen than perhaps one would have expected, because they see a president too distracted by impeachment to really challenge them. So the intersection, as I see it, is people making decisions to challenge America’s foreign policy or military strategy because they are betting on a president too distracted, too politically weak to retaliate, and I think that’s one of the reasons the Qassem Soleimani strike was so surprising. ROBERT COSTA: Jake, you live at the House – essentially, you do. JAKE SHERMAN: I do. ROBERT COSTA: I’m curious about the process of transferring the articles from chamber to chamber. How is it going to work? What do you know about the timing and how this is going to play out? JAKE SHERMAN: Well, I think – and Carl could help me out here; I’m going to lean on Carl a little bit here – no, but on Tuesday – the House comes back Monday. Tuesday the House Democrats are going to meet. We expect sometime Tuesday or Wednesday they will vote. Now, Senate procedures when it comes to impeachment indicate that on – 1:00 the day after the articles are transmitted – and they’re transmitted in a cedar box, in a very kind of strange – ROBERT COSTA: A cedar box? JAKE SHERMAN: Walking across the – CARL HULSE: There will be a little ceremony. ROBERT COSTA: Is that true? Is it a cedar box? CARL HULSE: There will be a ceremony – ceremonial walking over of – ROBERT COSTA: Did they have that for Clinton’s trial in 1999? CARL HULSE: You know, I’m sure they did. JAKE SHERMAN: I think they did, yeah. CARL HULSE: I don’t really remember it, but I think they did. JAKE SHERMAN: And then the Senate has to start. There’s a lot of procedure at the front end, but they have to vote on the rules – which, by the way – ROBERT COSTA: How many votes do they need, 51? JAKE SHERMAN: They need 51 and Mitch McConnell has already said he has that locked up. And then they’ll – within the – there’s 24 hours for both sides to present their case, 16 hours most likely for the senators to question, and then we get going. ROBERT COSTA: What a show. Thank you for joining us. (Laughter.) What a week. Make sure to check out our Washington Week Extra. We will discuss foreign policy on the campaign trail. It airs live on social media and is later posted to our website. I’m Robert Costa. Good night.




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