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Robert Costa Reporting on Trump Transition

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The transcript:

HH: Robert Costa is in D.C. He is the Washington Post reporter who really, more than any other reporter in the country, is wired into and reports the best information from Trump Tower, the Trump transition. So Robert, good morning, welcome, good to have you.

RC: Great to join you.

HH: Robert, would you begin with just sort of a factual statement of your understanding of how the transition is running?

RC: So the transition began as a project that Trump didn’t pay attention to run by the New Jersey Governor. Trump didn’t want anything to do with it. It was superstitious in a way, didn’t want to touch transition until he won. Then he actually wins, he starts looking it over with his key team, and I think a lot of misconception about who his key team is. It’s Mike Flynn on national security, the retired general, it’s Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, and Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator. That’s your core group. They looked at this Christie group, and they said hey, we want to take control of this. And so some people are calling it a purge, but it was really, in a sense, that, moving these people out from Christie world. They didn’t want the Christie people all over the government. He kind of started from a blank slate of people that Trump knew and trusted, and that’s what’s happening right now.

HH: Now in terms of these reports of chaos, I have been trying to tell people every transition past, there was exactly one, Ronald Reagan didn’t make appointments until the sixth week of his transition. Richard Nixon did not make appointments until the fifth week of his transition. George H.W. Bush made four appointments early in the second week. Bill Clinton didn’t make appointments until like week six. This is crazy, Robert Costa, what’s going on in the media. Does anyone, have they lost their historical perspective?

RC: I think it’s because he’s an outsider. It’s a lot like Jimmy Carter in ’76 or Bill Clinton in ’92, because this town, to use that phrase, I mean, it really doesn’t matter in this sense. This town of officials and pundits and journalists and former officials doesn’t know Trump, doesn’t understand Trump Tower. They don’t have a way in. And so when you don’t have a way in, or you don’t have a grasp of what’s really happening, you speculate. And you also kind of misinterpret some of these moves.

HH: I couldn’t agree more. Now Robert, you did not mention Vice President-Elect Pence in the big four overseeing the transition. And what role do he and Reince Priebus play, because they have organizational lines which are important. And are they also relevant to the transition staffing?

RC: Very relevant, and I didn’t mean to exclude them. What I meant by the four I mentioned were those I see as the core four around Trump himself. But Pence in terms of capital with Trump, influence, Priebus, they are peers. And they are working closely with the President-Elect. But the thing about Pence is he’s really right now focused on the legislation, forming an agenda for the first 100 days. I was at the Capitol all day yesterday, Hugh. I met with a lot of Senators, top committee chairmen in the House. And they think Pence is the key here for them, not, Pence is of course going to offer his counsel to Trump on cabinet appointees, but Pence has been a place for a lot of Senators to go through to say hey, maybe for this cabinet post, this is who could get confirmed, this is how much you could expect if he picked this person. So Pence is someone who really has a feel for the Hill, and that’s his role, as well as being a counselor to the President-Elect.

HH: Now Robert Costa, this is kind of a hobby horse for me. You can never start too early. You can often start too late, according to Mitch McConnell, and this goes to inaugural addresses. Does Donald Trump have a writing team that will help him rise to that occasion, which is so important for him?

RC: He has Steven Miller, the longtime Sessions aide, who’s still involved as a speechwriter, though I hear Miller is more inclined to be kind of a policy advisor, domestic policy advisor working on immigration policy and other fronts. You have Cliff Sims, comes out of the Yellowhammer, whatever it is, down south in Alabama, conservative writer. He’s on the staff. But I think just like they’re looking to some lobbyists now to help fill the government, people who have real experience with past officials, they’re going to have to look to some former speechwriters. Now Manifort, during his time in the campaign, he did think about bringing in people like Peter Robinson from Hoover and others who have real experience. It’ll be fascinating to watch if those people actually come in, or if Trump and Steven Miller just try to do it themselves.

HH: Yeah, for an inauguration, you go and you ask Peggy Noonan to come to the Tower. You go and you ask Peter Robinson to come to the Tower. You go and find Ken Khachigian to come to the Tower. You go and find Ken Khachigian in California. It is a special moment in history. It’s a moment in history, and so you have to go to the best and the brightest. I just named the three best and the brightest in the Republican speechwriting world, those three, and you ask them to help and you get it right. Tell me a little bit about the insider/outsider dynamic. I have been floating names that are outsiders, like Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma to be AG, because he led the state AG’s to fight back against Obama, but he’s an AG for six years, and people like Andy Puzder to go over and take over Labor, or Rick Grenell to go to the U.N., or Jim Talent to go to Defense, people who are not part of the D.C. deep state, I call it. How much emphasis is there on outsider versus insider?

RC: I think there is a big emphasis on outsider. And one of the things I think why there’s confusion around this transition is that dynamic isn’t really being fleshed out in a lot of stories, because you have Bannon in there and Sessions, and they are outsiders. They like the Kris Kobach’s of the world. And they like the people who come from the states. And so everyone is still, as you say, being vetted. And there’s movement to contact a lot of people. And even a Ted Cruz, I mean, people are laughing on Twitter, but I hear he’s seen very favorably if he was willing to leave the Senate to maybe be an AG, or perhaps a nominee for the Supreme Court. And so there are people from the conservative movement from the states who are part of these lists. The challenge for the Trump team is they’re facing immense speculation, 24/7 media about what they’re doing, who’s in for what. And on many fronts, they’re just not ready to make decisions, and that’s seen as either paralysis in a lot of places and all that. But this is a group that’s just starting, a week later, grappling with the presidency.

HH: Now Robert Costa, let’s talk about Senator Cruz. I have not spoken to him or any of his staff. I have no inside knowledge. There are three potential master strokes for the United States Supreme Court. One is Ted Cruz, the second is Justice Willett in Texas for a lot of reasons having to do with the culture and humor and age. And then the third would be Mike Luttig at 62, like Merrick Garland, a sop to the Democrats for not being as young as might otherwise come in, but the conservative’s conservative. Who is running the Justice project, because to launch that early will get the confirmation done, and that will actually save cases. This is the one thing where if you start now, they can take the bench on January 21st and matter a lot to the future of these cases.

RC: I think there’s only one person who really matters here besides Donald Trump, and that’s Senator McConnell. I mean, everyone I talk to at the Senate, Hugh, the top Senators, are saying McConnell has his hand in the judiciary helping out Trump, thinking through not just the Supreme Court, but the entire judiciary. This is something that’s been a project of McConnell’s for years, and I think it’s important to remember on the House side, you’ve got Ryan already thinking about taxes and regulations and health care, and in the Senate, McConnell has a lot of focuses, but it’s really the judiciary that’s his focus.

HH: And he executed no hearings, no votes so well. Do you believe, Robert Costa, that Ted Cruz would take an appointment to the United States Supreme Court?

RC: I can’t get inside of Ted Cruz’ head. I don’t know. I mean, and part of him has to be tempted by the prospect, but he also is a political fighter, and he wants to have a political career, and he’d be giving that up.

HH: There are 13 Appellate court justices open right now. Those are the next 13 most important appointments, because they’re lifetime appointments. They’ll each decide between, well, the thousands of cases and tens of thousands of rulings. There are many state supreme court judges on the Trump list for the Supreme Court, each one of whom, I believe, would take a circuit court judge. Is McConnell also overseeing the circuit courts? Or is it limited simply to the Supremes?

RC: No, it’s, those appellate courts, it’s the entire federal judiciary.

HH: Oh, that’s such a relief. That’s great reporting, Robert. Have you written that story, yet?

RC: Well, we’re working on it, and I think you’ve got to pay attention to what Bob Barnes and others right here at the Post, one key thing is going to be on Thursday and Friday when the Federalist Society is here in Washington, and you’re going to have most of these possible appointees gathered together. And McConnell’s in touch with all of them and knows them all.

HH: I’ve started a hashtag #100judgesin100days. Is that possible? There are 100 judicial vacancies, one Supreme Court, 13 Appellate, and then the balance are in the lower courts and trade court and things like that. Is it possible to do it?

RC: I think there’s going to be a lot on the plate. It’s possible. But I think that’s the kind of, that’s the kind of speed you could see.

HH: You know, I asked Senator Cotton earlier about the Reid rule and its applicability to Supreme Court, and he said the precedent is there, and it can be applied to the Supreme Court. It just never has been. Is that the general view of Leader McConnell?

RC: I think so. McConnell’s held his cards pretty close to his vest, but he knows he can’t be over the top in running the process publicly and being out there in front of Trump. It’s got to seem like a Trump thing. But McConnell is so ready, based on my conversations with various Senators on these issues, Hugh, if this is the kind of thing you care about, I mean, this is clearly what McConnell is up to.

HH: I read every page of The Long Game, and had a great interview with the Leader, and he’s been waiting his whole life for this moment – a Republican president and a House that is under Republican control and he in the driver’s seat. It really is fascinating. Let’s talk about the Department of State and the Department of Defense. There are no, and the Department of Homeland Security. And my nominees for that, if I got to be king of the world, not queen, not duke, not earl, would be Bolton and Talent and Stanley McChrystal. But Paul, come on, help me out from Kentucky, our Senator…

RC: Rand Paul?

HH: Yeah, Rand Paul. Rand Paul stepped up yesterday and said he would not appoint, he might even filibuster John Bolton, and I just shook my head. What’s the reaction to threats like that inside of Trump Tower?

RC: They know Paul’s real. I mean, Paul has his views on non-interventionism. And I think Paul is trying to pressure Trump to stay more toward the Trump wing of the foreign policy arena, which is really a realist side of foreign policy. I think Paul’s going to be someone who wants to be taken seriously as a libertarian, non-interventionist voice. So that’s, you can’t be surprised when he says he’s going to have objections.

HH: I can’t, but I can also say to filibuster an incoming president’s choice without even a hearing is remarkably indifferent to the facts on the ground. John Bolton may be the best prepared man I’ve ever met on everything. What is his standing in Trump Tower, to the extent that you know, Robert Costa?

RC: Positive, in part, because he’s someone Trump knows from watching on TV. So Trump’s a long time watcher of Fox News, and he sees Bolton on there. Bolton, what I’m told is Bolton is beyond, before George W. Bush, he came out of the more realist core foreign policy, and that’s kind of the case being made for him, that even though he’s tagged as a hawk, and he has been at times aggressive in talking about bombing certain countries or doing this or that with intervention, they think his instincts are more Dick Cheney-Reagan-like from the 80s. But we’ll have to see if the base can swallow that, if the Rand Pauls of the world can accept that argument.

HH: And finally, about Steve Bannon, there was this very interesting BuzzFeed transcript put out yesterday which cast Bannon in a completely different light than he has been cast up to date. How is the relationship between Bannon and Priebus? And what do you think, we’ve got 30 seconds, Robert, is it good?

RC: It’s a strong working relationship, from what I can tell. I mean, it’s something that had to happen during the campaign. They are the yin and the yang. They’re not entirely alike at all. One’s kind of a gruff, grizzled thinker of history. The other is an operational, political tactician. But they’ve found a way to make it work. We’ll see if that can continue.

HH: @CostaReports is his Twitter feed. If you’re not following him, you really don’t have what’s going on inside of Trump Tower. Thank you, Robert Costa of the Washington Post.

End of interview.


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