Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 8/18/23

Jeffrey Goldberg: Donald Trump’s historic felony charges.

Fani Willis, Fulton County District Attorney: We look at the facts, we look at the law and we bring charges.

Donald Trump, Former U.S. President:  Justice and the rule of law are officially dead in America.

Jeffrey Goldberg: GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is charged with overseeing a criminal enterprise meant to overturn his defeat in Georgia’s 2020 presidential race.

Rudy Giuliani, Former Trump Attorney:  This is a ridiculous application of the racketeering statute. There’s probably no one that knows it better than I do.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Trump Attorney Rudy Giuliani, the politician formerly known as America’s Mayor, is indicted as a co-conspirator.

Plus, next week, the Republicans are staging their first presidential debate without Trump, apparently. Never before has the frontrunner for a major party nomination faced 91 felony charges, or one felony charge for that matter, next.

Good evening and welcome to Washington Week with The Atlantic.

Tonight, Donald Trump has big problems. Late Monday night, Fulton County Georgia D.A. Fani Willis gave new meaning to the cliché, sweeping indictment, when she named Trump and 18 others, including Rudy Giuliani and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as co-conspirators in a plot to subvert democracy.

Fani Willis: Rather than abide by Georgia’s legal process for election challenges, the defendants engaged in a criminal, racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Trump responded to the latest indictment in much the same unmodulated way he responded to the previous three.

Donald Trump: This marks the fourth act of election interference. They know they can’t beat me in a fair fight at the ballot box, so they’re weaponizing the legal system to try and defeat me.

Jeffrey Goldberg: As things stand now, reporters will spend much of 2024 running between campaign rallies and court appearances by the man who, as of today, is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

Joining me to discuss this and more are some of those reporters, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post, Zolan Kanno-Young, White House correspondent at The New York Times, Tia Mitchell, she’s Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elaina Plott Calabro, staff writer and my colleague at The Atlantic.

Okay, Tia, answer this question. We all want to know, is this trial going to happen before the November election?

Tia Mitchell, Washington Correspondent, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Well, Fani Willis would like it to start as soon as March, but a lot of people, including Governor Brian Kemp, don’t believe that the trial will start until after the November 2024 election.

And one of the reasons why a lot of people agree with Governor Kemp is that, at the end of the day, this is a very complicated case. There are 19 co-defendants that, as of now, the district attorney would like to try all together. That’s not the type of case that plays out quickly.

So, it kind of behooves itself that it’s going to take a while, and about a year to bring a complicated case is not unheard of.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, let me just ask this as an obvious follow-up. 2025, let’s say that Donald Trump is president of the United States, the trials could still be going on or could start as he’s president?

Tia Mitchell: That could happen.

Now, again, we’ve talked a lot about the fact that a lot of this is just uncharted territory. The fact that a sitting president or even a former president would face such serious charges has never happened before in America.

And so to see how it unfolds particularly, I mean, we already expect Trump to become the Republican nominee. So, that might be apparent as soon as March, April, or May. So, it really means that no matter what, should Trump become the nominee, he will be on trial. The question is, should he also become president in November 2024, sworn in January 2025, what happens then? We really don’t know.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Dan, you’ve been writing a lot about the various stress tests that democracy in America have been undergoing. This seems like a very large stress test. Could you put this in the context of some of your recent work at looking at the role of minority rule and some of the other stresses?

Dan Balz, Chief Correspondent, The Washington Post: Yes. I mean, this is like a pile on to the stresses of the system. I mean, I think most people, almost no matter what side of the aisle they’re on, think the system is broken and many people don’t feel represented at this point.

But there are some clear reasons why democracies under stress and democracies at risk. I mean, one obviously is former President Trump, not just because he’s been indicted four times in four different jurisdictions this year, but because of all of the things he did as president to attack institutions, to attack the legitimacy of elections. So, that’s one element.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is he — by the way, is he the symptom or the cause of a lot of what you’ve been talking about?

Dan Balz: Well, he is an add-on to it. I mean, some of the strain on the system predated him. I mean, we were polarized before Donald Trump became president, but things have gotten much worse as a result of him being in office.

And you may mention to this situation of minority rule, which is to say, we have an electoral system, in which twice in this century, the person who lost the popular vote became president. That only happened three times in the previous 200-plus years.

Four members of the Supreme Court, four conservative members of the court, were confirmed by senators who collectively represented a minority of the country. We’ve done a lot of deep diving in the data to go through this and publish today some of the findings.

A third element, Jeff, I think, is simply the change in the Republican Party and particularly the Trump wing of the party, which is resistant to compromise, which, as everybody here knows, is essential to a functioning democracy.

So, there are all kinds of things that have come together. But these trials, these criminal indictments, only add to that. And as you suggested, it intersects with the presidential election year. We obviously have never been through that.

We don’t know what it’s going to be like. We don’t know where the real focus will be. We don’t know what voters are going to be thinking or doing. We don’t know what other issues may become important. I mean, it’s obviously unlike anything we’ve gone through, and I think there’s reasons to be worried about it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: We’re going to have to find new ways to describe uncharted territory as we go forward.

Elaina, I want to ask you something about another person who was indicted this week. For the first time, Rudy Giuliani, once known as America’s mayor, you’ve covered him for years. What happened to Rudy?

Elaina Plott Calabro, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Well, we could be here for a long time talking about that, but I think the simplest explanation is that following Rudy Giuliani’s cratering in the 2008 presidential Republican primary, when he sought that nomination, didn’t go well, he really fell into a deep depression after that. And Donald Trump’s ascent offered an opportunity for Rudy Giuliani to ascend at the same time.

But I think one reason their relationship has fascinated me to the degree that it has is that you don’t see necessarily the mutuality that you have in their relationship with other people in Donald Trump’s life. Rudy Giuliani is somebody who’s never been disposable to Donald Trump.

And the primary reason for that, based on my reporting covering this relationship for years, is that they see in each other what the other prefers to see in themselves, which is to say, Donald Trump really cherishes his identity as the person who wrote the Art of the Deal, who ran The Apprentice, who is the king developer of Manhattan. Rudy Giuliani really cherishes his tagline as America’s mayor. They see that in each other, and they really fulfill each other in that way in terms of communicating in that respect.

And I think during the campaign in particular, after the Access Hollywood tape, Rudy Giuliani was probably the only person in the larger Republican Party apparatus who remained relentlessly loyal to Donald Trump. And he has never forgotten that.

And so I think to understand why he’s never discarded Giuliani, in the way he has so many others close to him, they fulfill a need for each other.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Giuliani also has a grandiose sense of himself. I remember several years ago, you received a kind of strange phone call in the back of an Uber from Rudy. Tell that story.

Elaina Plott Calabro: Yes, gosh. So, I got a phone call from Rudy Giuliani. I had been trying to reach him for a story that day. And this was actually — I think this was in the midst of Donald Trump’s first impeachment when Giuliani’s contacts with a pair of Ukrainians was kind of complicating Donald Trump’s defense that he was not trying to imply some sort of quid pro quo with Zelenskyy.

This all feels like ancient history at this point. But he called me in the back of Uber and insisted to me kind of shouting almost, that when this is over, he would be remembered as the hero, and referring to anyone who disagreed with that analysis perhaps as morons.

And the Uber driver was a little bit concerned when I hung up the phone because I was having to kind of move it a slight distance from my ear. But that was reporting in 2019.

Jeffrey Goldberg: All politicians have an inflated sense of themselves, but that was a new level, as they say.

Zolan, I want to talk to you for a minute about the current president. You just got back from Camp David. You rushed down to be here. Thank you. It’s so interesting, the contrast. We’re talking about Donald Trump’s next court appearance, turning himself in for booking, being on bail.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden is at Camp David organizing the first ever summit between the leaders of South Korea and Japan. He wasn’t asked about Donald Trump today, but I’m wondering, when is he going to start being asked and when is he going to be forced to start talking about this very unusual situation?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House Correspondent, The New York Times: I think he’s been asked in recent weeks but the kind of collective agreement between the DNC and the White House is this silence when it comes to anything that has to do with the Justice Department, they say, when it has to do with the Trump indictment, when it has to do with the special counsel review of his son Hunter Biden, which he was asked about today, as well. The president and Democrats, when you press them on this, will say, well, look, he campaigned on restoring a sense of independence to the Justice Department, and if he comments on this, then that would undermine that.

At the same time, I think they’re also very aware that if the president or anybody in the White House was to comment on this indictment, it would quickly be seized on by the Trump campaign, and they would say, look, actually, there is some involvement between the Justice Department and the White House on this.

That being said, I do think as the election moves forward, you won’t start to see a shift in him singling out, him being present, Biden singling out Trump by name, but I’ve been talking to some people around the DNC that have said, look, you can’t expect us to continue to say that this election is going to be a choice between those that represent or are affiliated with a January 6th and those that are in the weeks ahead going to be seen governing.

And that’s really their strategy, moving forward to almost have a split screen of Republican candidates continuing to decide, am I going to defend Trump in these indictments? Am I going to condemn him? Meanwhile, the president will have a summit with two key allies, the leaders of Japan and South Korea.

But I think the challenge is, can you actually break through? Do things like capping prescription drug prices and talking about infrastructure break through to your base when many members of that base still are concerned about the state of democracy here?

Recent polls have shown that many people in the Democratic Party still are unclear about Biden’s agenda. So, events like this, it will be interesting to see if that does resonate (INAUDIBLE).

Jeffrey Goldberg: Dan, talk about that for a minute. How does Biden eventually use the fact, assuming for the moment that Trump becomes the nominee, use the fact that this is a man facing 91 felony charges? How do they turn that?

Dan Balz: Well, I mean, I think for now, there’s a euphemism, MAGA Republicans, which takes in Trump and everything about Trump. And he has to stay away from the indictments at this point. But if Trump is the nominee and they get into the fall of 2024, in one way or another, I think he has to address it.

I don’t know how you avoid the fact that your opponent, who you are trying to say for all the reasons that the president will say the former president is unfit to be in office, how you ignore that piece of it or how you bring it in.

I think it’s going to be very difficult as you get into the closing weeks of the election, if those two are the nominees, to deal with it without going explicitly on the question of, well, and by then we also may have a conviction in one case or another.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, which doesn’t stop running necessarily. Go ahead.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Another thing to remember here too is it’s not just a matter of the president and whether or not he’s going to call out Trump. Trump hangs over everything, including a summit like today.

I thought it was interesting that even though he wasn’t mentioned, you have the president there saying, look, I’m committed to these two allies, not just for today, but for weeks and decades to come. If you think that’s not a message to the concern that allies have about you keep making these promises, but that all could be upended with a forthcoming election.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. You only talk about an unbreakable alliance when it’s breakable.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: That’s right.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. No, that’s fascinating.

Tia, in Georgia and elsewhere across the south, do you see any signs that all of these legal troubles are going to affect the MAGA base?

Tia Mitchell: No. We’re seeing in Georgia what we’re seeing across the nation, which is that the MAGA Republicans, those members of the Republican Party who are loyal to former President Trump, if anything, the indictments make them further entrenched in their loyalty, makes them question the legal system.

They believe that these investigations in different jurisdictions all are politically motivated. They believe that this is Biden and Democrats trying to keep President Trump from winning the election in 2024. And so that’s why we’ve even heard it from former President Trump, he was like, one more indictment and I’m going to be the nominee. He thinks and he’s right in a way that he’s only gone up in the polls of Republican primary voters.

Now, I think the indictments are having a different effect in the general body. That includes independents, swing voters that any president would need in order to be elected. I think we do see in polling that, in general, Americans are concerned about these indictments. They think it’s proper that President Trump be held accountable for his actions after the 2020 election.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You just interviewed Marjorie Taylor Greene this week. It’s quite a humdinger of an interview. She’s not moving. I mean, she thinks she’s a possible vice president under Donald Trump, but no sign across any of the politicians you cover of any wavering of any thought that this is not sustainable or possible?

Tia Mitchell: No. Even after the Fulton County indictment was announced, we had most members of Georgia’s delegation, the Republicans, either they were along the lines of Marjorie Taylor Greene accusing Biden in the Justice Department and Fani Willis of politicizing the law enforcement, the criminal justice system against Trump.

We had a lot of Republicans who have been silent, just kind of quietly not touching it because they don’t want to weigh in. And we had one member of the delegation, who’s a DeSantis person, who kind of said, hey, this is proof that Donald Trump is a distraction and we need DeSantis. That’s freshman representative, Rich McCormick.

But for the most part, the Republicans in Georgia who are willing to stand up to Donald Trump to some degree aren’t those in Congress or at the federal level. It is people like Governor Kemp, Secretary of State Raffensperger, former Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan. Now, they are more willing to question Trump, but they’re not considered — at this point, they’re not considered MAGA Republicans.

And that, to me, is also a testament that MAGA Republicans have nothing to do with ideology or politics. It’s about fealty to Trump above all.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You mentioned Ron DeSantis. Next week, first Republican debate, a lot of people on the stage with a lot to prove. Trump says he’s not going to be there. We don’t know. Maybe he will eventually show up. But whether he’s there or not, he’s there, right?

Dan, what does DeSantis have to do at this debate to turn himself into the primary challenger to Trump?

Dan Balz: I think he’s got to begin make a pivot into a more positive direction for the campaign. I mean, he’s obviously had a very bad opening act and, frankly, a second act. When I was out in Iowa last week, I saw some indication that he’s got some assets that he may be able to deploy, but I think the onus is on him to be able to show that.

There’s a lot of time for him to recover. We’ve seen other candidates who’ve had slow starts and then they recover. I think his may be more difficult to overcome, but it’s not as though he can’t.

So, he’s going to need this debate to find a way to make the argument that he really is the alternative to Trump. What he needs in this campaign is to come out of Iowa close to Trump and away far from everybody else. He needs to be tight. We’ll see if he’s going to be there.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Elaina, you’re a close student of Republican leadership. I know who’s going to have a good time at the debate, which is Chris Christie. But who are you keeping your eye out for? Who, apart from DeSantis, do you think could possibly break out of the pack?

Elaina Plott Calabro: I think somebody I’m going to be watching is Tim Scott for the reason that I’m going to pick up what Tia was saying about Rich McCormick, saying, you know, Trump is a distraction, which has been really kind of the line that a lot of people towing the Trump line have tried to put forth. But Trump is not a distraction. He is the story of the Republican Party right now.

And I think one of the primary forces animating this primary at this point is an unwillingness to reckon with the fact vocally and upfront that this is not an open field. This is running actively against Donald Trump.

Tim Scott, I bring him up because his spokesman has, in the past few days, sort of made pointed references to sort of like a blanket response to the reporters who are reaching out and saying is Senator Scott running for vice president? Is that what all of these people are doing at this point?

A lot of these aides get offended when reporters ask that, but I think it’s an incredibly valid question. And so Senator Scott, in particular, it will be interesting to see if, on the debate stage, you see these people actually present themselves as people who are running, in fact, for the nomination and not hoping to clinch the number two when Donald Trump inevitably wins.

So, actually articulating a case for themselves and against Donald Trump, as opposed to pretending that just because he’s on stage, the specter of him doesn’t exist.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Zolan, who does Joe Biden want to run against?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Oh, man, this is an interesting question. Each time I —

Jeffrey Goldberg: I assume he’s told you.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: He just called me, actually texted me and told me. For the past two years, whenever you would press Democrats or White House sources, the question I would sometimes press them with is, actually, tell me the reasoning for him for president running again. Why does he want to run again for a second term?

And often what would come up is two consistent answers. One would be, if not him, who else, which I think says a lot about the Democratic Party, but two would be, he already beat Trump. That would be the second thing that would come up to defend Joe Biden.

I think there are those around the White House that are still running with that argument that are preparing for Trump to win the nomination and are prepared to say, look, we’ve seen this story before, we’ve seen how it played out and there is one person that’s beaten him in a presidential election so far.

That’s something, though, that, you know, this that they’ve been saying for a while now.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. No, it’s fascinating. It is all uncharted territory. I’m going to spend the next week looking for alternative expressions, but we’re going to be talking about this again and again around this table.

We have to leave it there for now, I’m sorry to say. Thank you to the panel for joining us and for sharing all of your reporting. And thanks to all of you as well for joining us.

Don’t forget to watch PBS News Weekend on Saturday for a look at how families in Montana are preparing for a new law banning some medical treatments for minors.

I’m Jeffrey Goldberg. Good night from Washington.


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