Susan Glasser: This is Susan Glasser and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I’m so delighted to be here once again with Andrea Mitchell. And she has had a big and newsy week. Her show, of course, is always newsy but, in particular, it really feels like this first 100 days of the Trump Administration has been foreign policy, foreign policy, foreign policy. And when the subject is foreign policy, Andrea Mitchell is in the middle of it.
Let’s go ahead and start right with the controversy of the day. You got an exclusive interview with Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, denying in her interview with you that she did anything wrong in potentially asking to unmask the identities of Trump or his officials when it came up with the Russia hacking.
You earned a personal attack back from President Trump himself in an interview with my friends and former colleagues, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush at The New York Times. Donald Trump said it was a “horrible” interview and you were “Hillary Clinton’s PR person.” Anybody who knows you had to laugh. You’re usually called the “aggressive” reporter asking the pesky question. What did you make of this week’s back and forth?
Andrea Mitchell: I was a little stunned by that because that isn’t my reputation with the Hillary Clinton team, with the Obama White House, with the Bill Clinton White House, with the Ronald Reagan or George Bush White Houses. I’ve covered seven presidents now and have not been—have not endeared myself to any of them. That’s the job. We are adversarial. I thought I asked the tough questions. You know, I don’t shout at people.
But I was asking her, “Did you leak? Did you break any rules? Did you reveal Mike Flynn’s name, you know, when you were unmasking these officials?” And she kept saying that this was her job, that she did nothing that no other national security advisor wouldn’t have done, which is when you get the raw data, if there’s something that is flagged by the intelligence community or something that really sparks your interest and you are the national security advisor, you would be remiss if you did not follow up by asking the head of the NSA, the head of the CIA, or in some instances, the head of the FBI, “Can you reveal the identity of the American who has been caught up incidentally in a conversation that has been surveilled involving foreigners, two foreigners, generally?
And she said that all of this was part of her responsibility. I kept pressing as to whether there had been an accelerated pace of these requests towards the end of the Administration, whether they were really zeroing in on the Trump Administration and I had other sources telling me that part of this was because of the President’s order on December 9th for a full national security review of the Russian hacking and of any possible Trump associates who might have colluded. This was following up on what the intelligence communities had said, all 17 of them had concluded, on October 7 was indeed the fact that there was a Russian attempt to interfere with the election and that it had started at the very top with Vladimir Putin.
And this review that was ordered by the President—
Glasser: President Obama.
Mitchell: By President Obama, excuse me. It was suggested that that meant that the intelligence community went back, they reviewed all of the data, they looked at all of their prior surveillance to see if there was anything suspicious and started flooding the zone, if you will, sending it up to the White House because they were preparing this review and so a lot of stuff was coming in and there was a lot more to review and that is one reason why it was an intensified number of people who may have been unmasked towards the end of the administration.
Glasser: That’s fascinating and I haven’t heard anybody report that. That’s a classic example, I think, of sort of staying on the story. But why do you think Donald Trump is so personally obsessed with elevating the Susan Rice story. You can imagine he wants to distract from the underlying Russia investigation of him and his campaign itself but he just seems to be obsessed with always making it about the media. And how ironic, right, that he said this in an interview with the news organization that he labels the “failing New York Times“? Does it make it much harder to cover the Trump Administration given that he’s determined to turn you and us into the story?
Mitchell: That does not concern me as much as the behavior of the President and his aides and the press secretary to ignore facts. It starts at the top, and the most obvious example is the March 4 tweet saying that President Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower. There’s no way of getting around that. It’s just not factually correct. Director Comey said it wasn’t, Senator McConnell said it wasn’t, Speaker Ryan said it wasn’t true, yet the President and his advisors and the press secretary seem to be twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and justify that. That seemed to me to be the first—most obvious attempt to divert attention from the Russian investigation and they’re in such denial of the Russian investigation, which was the conclusion of all of the intelligence communities.
I think the well was probably poisoned by Mike Flynn very early on towards the intelligence community because he had been fired by General Clapper. He had been put in that job as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under the previous administration because of his very good work, by all accounts, in Afghanistan, and under General McChrystal and then really messed up at the Defense Intelligence Agency and was fired by General Clapper. So when he showed up as this national security advisor during the campaign, there was already a wariness, I think, on the part of the intelligence community. But you’ve had this unprecedented attack from candidate Trump and President-elect Trump and then President Trump on the intelligence community.
Glasser: Do you feel comfortable saying not just that what he says isn’t true if it’s proven not to be true but that it’s a lie? There’s a big debate about that.
Mitchell: Well, there is a big debate about that and I’ve avoided using the word lie because I don’t know his motivation. I don’t know if he’s confused. I don’t know what he’s being told. So is it purposeful? I can’t tell his motivation. I can just say it’s not accurate and what Sean Spicer then said was not accurate and other advisors. So you also have a willingness by top officials to just flat-out mislead you when you ask them for confirmation or verification of events. I’ve never experienced that.
Glasser: Let’s talk about this context for this, right? I think that’s what really missing from a lot of it. How unusual is their reluctance to deal with the press and we’ll get into your fascinating and contentious dealings with the State Department in a minute under new Secretary—
Mitchell: My close and personal relationship with the Secretary of State?
Glasser: Yes, you and Rex Tillerson are on a first-name basis. But let’s go back first, right, to this biggest brush question: Reagan’s Washington, Bush’s Washington. You’ve covered the Clintons from the very beginning. You covered, of course, all eight years of the Obama presidency, George W. Bush. Where does the Trump presidency, as nascent as it is, fit in in terms of its dealings with the press?
Mitchell: It is totally sui generis. I’ve never seen anything like this. I had a very contentious relationship with the late Larry Speakes, the acting press secretary—
Glasser: For Reagan.
Mitchell: For Ronald Reagan. Jim Brady never lost the title of press secretary even though he lost so many of his faculties but the Acting Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, I thought misled people, was misogynistic, very contentious. I had a terribly adversarial relationship. I had a very difficult relationship with Don Regan, the chief of staff in the second term. Everyone at the time knew that. He was very abusive to me and really went after me after I was investigating Iran-Contra and asked the questions of the President in a news conference. It all blew up and that was a very difficult and frankly, frightening time for me. I didn’t have a great relationship with the Carter press people.
I filled in as the junior reporter behind my colleague at the time, Judy Woodruff and the late John Palmer and so I often was on weekends and other trips. In the Reagan years full time, but under Carter just part-time, and they were tough also, some of the officials. It was not easy being a woman in the White House then unless they really knew you well and I think they maybe trusted some of the people who covered them in their campaign and I had not. But I have never seen anything like this where people just flat-out lie. You know, black is white and white is black and they mislead you and it’s really disconcerting to see the podium in the White House briefing room being used to mislead or misdirect or obfuscate.
Glasser: Well, and I think what people don’t understand maybe perhaps is that it’s not just a question of the public theater of the Trump White House and clearly, this is a public spectacle in many ways. But what I’ve always admired about you is that you’re the quintessential working reporter and not just somebody who is talking on television all the time. You know, even as we began this interview, you were on your phone, sending emails, trying to get information about the unfolding developments in Syria and things like that. It’s trickled down, right, into the actual working of the government and the kind of relationship between reporters and the U.S. government that you’re used to having over seven different presidencies?
Mitchell: Well, particularly at the State Department now, there is just an attempt, and it’s successful, to shut down not just me but The New York Times, The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, CNN. I mean, we’re all just shut out. They aren’t answering questions and part of it is that there are no officials appointed under Rex Tillerson. No one has been nominated. You don’t have ambassadors in place. You don’t have an undersecretary, you don’t have deputy secretaries, you don’t have assistant secretaries in place. And since they are not including some of the holdovers, the few holdover people, in their deliberations, it’s very, very hard to cover.
This comes at the same time as the NSC, the National Security Council, was in turmoil under Mike Flynn and you can see that General McMaster is just now beginning to get on top of it and weeding out the Flynn people, getting Bannon, Steve Bannon out and away from the table where a political advisor has no business sitting on the Principals Committee, and getting the head of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s back at the table so those executive orders were redone.
And so McMaster is regaining control. He was overruled on one appointment, the intelligence director for the NSC, which was one of the officials who has been identified certainly, but The New York Times as the contact point for Devin Nunes.
Glasser: Right, part of the ongoing series of unfolding new subplots in the Russia investigation.
Glasser: But so let’s go back to the State Department for a second. You have both the disarray that comes from simply having no one, literally no one, appointed, except for Rex Tillerson himself. Then you have a Secretary of State, who by his own account in the one interview he’s given, he basically said, “I didn’t want this job and my wife told me to take it.” They’ve really dismantled the procedure by which the U.S. State Department briefing was, in effect, an important statement of policy here in the United States and also globally.
Mitchell: Going back to 1953.
Glasser: Well, that’s exactly right and there’s no indication that it’s going to return anytime soon as the focal point for understanding U.S. foreign policy. What I am amazed by though is just in terms of your decision to go ahead and say, “I’m not going to accept this. I’m not going to just roll over.” And you have done something I haven’t seen in a long time. Reporters like you; you’re a host of your own show. You’re a senior correspondent here. You’ve taken to showing up at Rex Tillerson’s photo ops and shouting questions as if you were Sam Donaldson, you know, shouting at Ronald Reagan while the helicopter blades were whirling.
And actually he finally answered one of your questions over the last week. I think he’s answered you twice but what inspired you to take to this sort of guerrilla tactics?
Mitchell: Well, it’s the only time to see him. I’m not on the plane. We’re not included in the travel bubble so they say—they said originally that it was he likes to fly with a small footprint. Well, I think when you’re the Secretary of State of the United States, you’re supposed to fly in a blue and white plane with American flags and be received as the representative of American foreign policy. And unless you’re doing a secret mission to China like Henry Kissinger, that’s the way every Secretary of State has always traveled and briefed the press on background, on the record, off the record. Secretaries of state who are rarely, you know, friendly with the press understood the value of this.
Because in particular, the Russian foreign minister at Tillerson’s very first trip, foreign trip to Bonn contradicted and tried to embarrass Secretary Tillerson—a novice in diplomacy even though an experienced oil executive—and there was no American press corps or very few there to contradict that and to say, “This is—this is the Russian mischief-making.” And then the French tried the same thing. Then we’re in Korea and the South Korean acting government, right after an impeachment, puts out a fake story—we talk about fake news—that there was a canceled dinner (which had never been scheduled) and that the Secretary was fatigued. Well, we weren’t with him so we could not contradict that. We were there but we had no access to him. We weren’t even permitted to stay in the same hotel.
And so we were flying commercially. It’s not that easy to fly commercially to Japan and South Korea and then try to get to Beijing and go to the DMZ and not be on a helicopter as you would normally travel if you’re in the pool, the group of traveling reporters can’t keep up.
Glasser: Well, and then they’re not even giving you the basic information. You’ve traveled thousands of miles around the world and they’re not even engaging with you. I thought it was a remarkable moment and not a high point in American diplomacy when Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at that same meeting that you weren’t allowed to cover, was teasing the American Secretary of State for why are you pushing those reporters out of here? How is it that the Russians have given more access than the Americans?
Mitchell: Well, just another example: the Republican and Democratic secretaries of state are diplomats first and foremost and when they travel to places like Ankara, Turkey, or Moscow or Beijing or Cairo, where reporters are being jailed, where dissidents are being arrested, they travel with a press corps and they insist on holding a press conference even if the host country refuses to. So if you don’t see the foreign minister or the head of state in these countries, the secretaries will hold a press conference just to make the point that Americans have a free press. We help brief Iraqi and Afghan journalists when they come to Washington at the request of the State Department to teach them the rules of the road, how to be challenging and how to cover their governments in newly freed countries where governments are just beginning to learn that they have to deal with the free press or that they should deal with the free press.
And so this is a core American value. So you should not be flying into Beijing without a press corps. You should not be going to Moscow without the press corps. It’s wrong.
Glasser: And what did the State Department people who, not once, but twice, basically forced you out of the room when you tried to ask questions?
Mitchell: Well, I was a little embarrassed by that because they are longstanding veteran employees and they’re just following the procedure and it was unfair. I didn’t realize they were on camera when all that happened, frankly. And I felt badly about that but they just don’t want to answer questions. And the other thing is that my questions have been universally substantive. They’re not—I’m not—
Glasser: Right, they’re on the news of the day. They’re not about the press or access or things like that.
Mitchell: It was very interesting that Secretary Tillerson last week gave the first hint of separation between the U.S. and Russia on this issue of chemical weapons in an answer to me at a photo opportunity and then followed it up when he made his statement at Mar-a-Lago, on arrival at Mar-a-Lago with a very stern warning to Moscow. We then had a briefing saying that when he arrives in Moscow this week, he’s going to bring this up if they are still in denial of the chemical weapons issue, that is of Assad’s responsibility for that. 00:17:49 Glasser: Right, to your point that these are opportunities to substantially engage with the Secretary.
Glasser: But so then I guess this already went viral on the internet and then it really took a turn to “Andrea Mitchell has to go into guerrilla journalism mode” when Bill O’Reilly called you “unruly” on Fox the next day.
Mitchell: I didn’t respond directly but I did sign off my show saying, “This is another unruly edition of the Andrea Mitchell Report,” simply because I don’t want to engage in the back and forth but to call a reporter, a correspondent, unruly for just asking a question just seems undemocratic and I’m very surprised that someone on Fox News would be so antagonistic to the First Amendment.
Glasser: Well, I want to ask you more about the State Department but I do have to ask you about Bill O’Reilly. In the same interview with President Trump where he was talking about your interview with Susan Rice and diminishing your work as if you were a PR person for Hillary Clinton, he also said that he thought the sexual harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly were warrantless and that he shouldn’t have settled these cases. There’s clearly a huge scandal engulfing him. What do you make of all that? I mean—
Mitchell: Well, I was surprised because it wasn’t a question asked by The New York Times correspondents.
Glasser: No, he just brought it up.
Mitchell: He brought it up and I guess he feels an affinity with his friend Bill O’Reilly but I’m not sure how the President of the United States would know that Bill O’Reilly shouldn’t have settled because there was no—he did nothing wrong. I don’t know how he would know whatever happened between Bill O’Reilly and his accusers but the other point is he was about to come out and hold a news conference with King Abdullah of Jordan. He had health—trying to salvage healthcare on his agenda. He had the Supreme Court nomination, although that wasn’t in jeopardy but all of that.
And he was about to have a major news conference with a visiting ally and talk about Syria on the day when there was clear evidence that the chemical attack, the horrific attack had actually been from the regime and it was obvious from his very interesting news conference that that had had a big impact on him. That it had, he said, changed his views.
Glasser: His thinking, yes.
Mitchell: He began to signal that there would be action. It was fascinating. We were on live—
Glasser: And yet what is on—
Mitchell: And so why would he want to distract everyone by talking about Bill O’Reilly? How does that serve tactically, serve the interests of the White House, the President, or his media game plan?
Glasser: Well, gender is kind of the third rail in a way for figuring out how to cover the new Trump Administration, which is perplexing us in so many different ways but I think there’s an added layer here too, right? You know, they’re promised an “alpha male” foreign policy in the words of one of President Trump’s advisors, Sebastian Gorka. There clearly is a very male, macho even, atmosphere among those who are in the room when these national security questions are being discussed in this very small team. How much do you consider that element when reporting about them? How do you factor that in? Without it being seen as, “Well, you know, you’re just a, you know, woman, special pleading or something?”
Mitchell: Well, I do think that it was remarkable that he defended Bill O’Reilly without knowing the facts. So I found that sort of ironic and it is true that there aren’t many women. I mean, the women who are in the White House are powerful women: Ivanka Trump, you know, principally; Kellyanne Conway. Now Dina Powell will be at the table of the national security meetings, so that’s important. I think she’s an important addition to that.
Glasser: But in some ways, it takes you back to the Reagan era, right? When you first covered the White House, that’s—I guess this is the same—this is the lowest number of women and minorities in the cabinet since the Reagan era.
Mitchell: Yes, and that is maybe not surprising but it is the first—he is the first President elected by a campaign managed by a woman. You would think that there would be more women and there are a number of strong Republican women. There were some women in the cabinet but they’re not in the key roles. Not at Treasury, State, Defense and there were some options for Deputy of Defense that had been proposed by Secretary Mattis, according to all reports, and those were overruled by the White House.
Glasser: So Steve Bannon, Trump’s still influential by all accounts advisor, started out the Administration in January calling the press the “opposition party” and Trump then quickly echoed that theme. Do you think that’s a fair label? Is that something that journalists should wear proudly? Is it something that we should reject? How do you just go about your business while also being pulled into being a political player?
Mitchell: I think we are adversarial appropriately in challenging. I mean, there are times when I think we also need to be reporting important initiatives and so there’s—it’s not the word boosters but that we are—our jobs are to analyze their proposals and there are going to be plenty of times when an administration initiative, whether it’s in education or the environment, might be considered, you know the glass is half full and not half empty. I mean, it’s not necessarily a negative, you know, taking a negative approach but you have to look at the facts and see whether something adds up. I think we are the fourth estate. We’re not the opposition party. We are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the public on evolving administration policy, whether you’re in the White House or covering the State Department. It’s hard to explain that to people and bring people in and let them see how their government is working: Is it working on your behalf? Is it not?
Glasser: Well, it’s really interesting going back and looking at all of the different White Houses and campaigns you covered. There is this incredible consistency, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans talking about you and your work as aggressive, as scrappy, and now here’s a new group of outsiders in effect come to town. You’ve seen outsiders come to town before. Why does this set seem to be even more contentious when it comes to journalists? That’s the part I don’t really understand, especially since Trump, by all accounts, loves the press. He’s more media-focused, I think, than any recent president we’ve had.
Mitchell: Well, one of the things that’s so surprising is that he is so media-focused. He seems to get his information, you know, accurate or inaccurate, from television or from cable news in the morning rather than his intelligence brief. He’s privy to the most—the best-scrubbed analysis and raw intelligence available anywhere in the world, maybe the Brits could compete with it. But our intelligence services are remarkable and the fact that he pays more attention to what he sees on Fox &Friends in the morning because that’s what he repeats and tweets back about rather than the presidential daily brief, by all accounts.
I do think that you can see a change. I mean, you can see after the chemical attack, he was sobered and chastened. I think that—
Glasser: Right, and you wonder if he was getting—
Mitchell: He had had a briefing.
Glasser: Exactly. Did you know Trump before this campaign?
Mitchell: No, not at all.
Glasser: You had never interacted with him before?
Mitchell: I had run into him once or twice but no, I didn’t know him and I had no, you know, ax. Maybe he saw the Clinton press corps as some sort of a support group but that was hardly the case. We had very little contact. We were harassing her and, you know, shouting questions at her all summer long about the private server. She had that really badly constructed initial news conference eight days after The New York Times revealed in March that there was the private server. She was at the UN.
Glasser: Yes, the famous UN—
Mitchell: It was horrible.
Glasser: The Guernica press conference, as I call it because there was that mural of Guernica right behind her.
Mitchell: Exactly and the UN Security Council officials were furious about that and by the way, we had to stand in line for three hours to get—
Glasser: I remember. They didn’t know how to credential for it.
Mitchell: Right, so I couldn’t even anchor that day my show because I was standing in line for a credential to the UN, which I wasn’t covering, just because she happened to be there rather than her going two blocks away and having everyone in. And then she did not answer questions or do an interview until September 4. From March to September, she dissipated all of the momentum she might have had after a launch of a campaign by not resolving the email issue. And so no one in her—and I think the WikiLeaks may also prove it.
No one in her command and control center would think that I was an easy mark. I was on that rope line. I don’t have to go on the rope line to try to get a question to her on the hottest days of the summer in huge crowds, climbing over chairs and people in the most undignified way. I was crawling under people and under cameras and doing it, and I didn’t have to take the bus tour coming out of the convention.
Glasser: Well, that was reminding me of your Rex Tillerson questions actually was how much of a physical contact sport it still is to cover these campaigns.
Mitchell: It is.
Glasser: And we ran a whole article on POLITICO actually about your coverage of the Clinton campaign and how you had emerged as an ombudsman of sorts for your colleagues, the other reporters on the campaign trail, because they had so many complaints about access and that it was a pretty contentious relationship throughout.
Mitchell: So we were on her campaign but we were hardly part of her campaign. That’s why I was a bit surprised by the president’s comments.
Glasser: Well, I was wondering if they were getting this from—there was a Wikileaked email from—from the Podesta—sorry, one of the hacked emails of Podesta’s emails in which they’re talking about how should Hillary Clinton finally come clean or at least give an interview about her own emails and Jennifer Palmieri, who was Clinton’s top communications advisor, was suggesting that you were her first choice and her second choice, which is interesting, and I wondered if that was the origin of the Trump people believing—
Mitchell: I don’t think so but I can tell you that I was pressing them for an interview for months and months and I finally thought that I had come up with a peg to get their attention, which was that it was the anniversary of the women’s speech in Beijing and I was the only correspondent who had been on that trip who was still with her.
So I argued since this was, you know, 2015, it was the 20th anniversary, and that I wanted to do a story on that anyway. I was—you know, I said I’m going to obviously, ask you all of the tough questions about the emails and it was a very tough interview but I do want to ask that question and that would be a peg to finally get an interview. And I waited and waited and they finally agreed.
Glasser: Let’s step back for a second and talk about Clinton and the campaign now in hindsight. Obviously, it was a super close election. Obviously, the outcome was a surprise.
Mitchell: Not according to the president of the United States.
Glasser: That’s right.
Mitchell: It was a landslide.
Glasser: Well, it was a landslide. He keeps talking about it. It is amazing, right? He’s obsessed.
Mitchell: He can’t let it go. Well, I—
Glasser: He just—the other day, he just mentioned it.
Mitchell: Just parenthetically, the day when he went right after being sworn in, the day when he went to the CIA and stood in front of the Memorial Wall. I’ve covered the intelligence communities for many years and know how sacred that place is and talked about how he had more Time magazine covers than Tom Brady and the biggest crowd at the inauguration. The day of the Sean Spicer crazy briefing and the one—that first briefing where they were arguing over the size of the crowd at the inaugural and the viewership and all that and also, his election victory and the number of, you know, fraudulent votes. All of that. He just can’t let it go. He’s the President of the United States. No one’s arguing with that.
Glasser: Move on, agreed, yes. Well, he wants—maybe he wants to argue about that. He feels more comfortable maybe talking about the election than talking about Syria and the gassing of children. Did we in the press get the Clinton campaign wrong? I’m sure you’ve thought back to, you know, did we understand what was going on at the time?
Mitchell: I think we did not understand how flawed their analytics were, their data, and we were asking lots of questions. Why aren’t we going to Michigan? Why didn’t we go to Wisconsin? During that—the reason I wanted to go on that Pennsylvania bus tour is I had gone on the original bus tour in ’93 with Bill Clinton and Al Gore and Tipper and Hillary Clinton.
Mitchell: It was a similar route after the convention, the same routine coming out of the convention. So I wanted to reprise it because it was my favorite retail political moment. It wasn’t, you know, getting on a bus—I mean, it was a bus tour but it wasn’t—it wasn’t, you know, leaping from airport to airport, I should say. Being close to the ground and seeing how they would spontaneously stop, Bill Clinton would stop at a crossroads if he saw 10 people to talk to them in Iowa. So I wanted to see Pennsylvania—I came up through journalism in Pennsylvania, in local politics and covering local politics.
And I was shocked that weekend at how few stops there were and how unspontaneous it was and how little interaction she had with real voters. That should have been a bigger warning and then on the election, the day of the election, I was interviewing Ed Rendell, whom I’ve known from being—you know, when I covered him as governor and DA, and later as Democratic chairman. And I was interviewing Rendell on my show at noon and he said, “I don’t think we’ve got Pennsylvania.” And I thought, you know, “Are you spinning me? Are you low-balling?” But he said that the numbers aren’t coming in and I’m not liking what I’m seeing.”
Glasser: And that was at noon?
Mitchell: That was at noon on Election Day.
Glasser: Yes, and so then election night, you were in New York?
Mitchell: I was in New York at Clinton headquarters and people were not only bought into the narrative that she couldn’t lose because she had so many paths to victory and President Trump derides that and that’s where the media really got it wrong. We didn’t have state polling and so the national polling was pretty accurate if you look at the popular vote but the state polls we relied on, which were generally from, you know, local newspapers or television stations, were just not dead on.
Glasser: How early that night did you have a sense that this wasn’t going to turn out—
Mitchell: I went on the air shortly after eight when I got word from a good source in Michigan in the Democratic Party that the turnout was not turning out in Detroit and Flint. And I went on the air and said that. It was right after Chuck Todd at 30 Rock, at our headquarters, had gone on with Lester Holt and said that the vote in Florida wasn’t looking good for Clinton. And then I came out and said that Democratic Party sources in Michigan were not liking what they were seeing. That was at 8:15, 8:30.
Glasser: Did you get any pushback from the Clinton people or did you know at that point they started—
Mitchell: I got some pushback.
Glasser: That’s interesting. So they were still a little bit in denial?
Glasser: What do you think happened backstage with Clinton and John Podesta that night?
Mitchell: I think what happened was that John Podesta and Clinton thought that a vote count, you know, absentee ballots, I don’t think they realized—and it was only 77,000 votes in three states so we’re talking about a small number of votes. I think that they didn’t realize the extent that they had made a mistake by focusing so heavily on the early vote in Florida and North Carolina and not going to Michigan until the Friday—really the Friday before the election and then again, adding a stop on the Monday in Grand Rapids.
Mitchell: They had been in Michigan but not outside of Detroit and Flint.
Glasser: But they clearly hadn’t told Hillary Clinton that night to be prepared for losing? I mean, they weren’t prepared.
Mitchell: They weren’t prepared and the Republicans, despite their denials—I wasn’t in these briefings because I was on the road but apparently, the RNC went to the various media outlets—
Glasser: They did.
Mitchell: On Monday before the Tuesday of the election and said that they only had a 20 percent chance of winning.
Glasser: Yes, that is an accurate statement.
Mitchell: And it was an off-the-record briefing but I wasn’t part of it so I couldn’t say but I heard that that happened.
Glasser: Well, you do have good sources.
Mitchell: And the fact is no one really expected this and there was a lot of second-guessing about it. I think we should have—we kept asking Robby Mook and the others, you know, “Why aren’t we doing Michigan and why are we doing Michigan so late?” And they started. They added Pittsburgh on the Monday before the election and then Grand Rapids and then the big, very showy, Independence Hall, which was to be the grand finale—
Glasser: The sort of closing rally, yes.
Mitchell: But then, we got back on the plane and flew to North Carolina to UNC and went to a basketball arena. There were 6,000 kids there and when Chelsea Clinton got up to introduce her father and said, “How many of you have early voted?” They all raised—you know, said, “Yes, we have.” And I think they had. So this was not a get-out-the-vote rally at 2:00 in the morning with Lady Gaga and Jon Bon Jovi, of all things, who had jumped on the plane in Philly and said, “Well, I’ll go, you know, do some duets with Lady Gaga.” Just kind of on the spur of the moment. So we got back then to—
Glasser: The plane went to the wrong place.
Mitchell: It was an add-on so they were beginning to see some data. I think what happened with Comey—you know, there was so much: Comey on July 5 basically reading an indictment of Hillary Clinton when he was supposedly clearing her and then telling—saying all of the terrible things and that was the day that President Obama was finally in North Carolina, going to be campaigning with her. That was the big, you know, duo and that whole day what ruined for them by Comey. And WikiLeaks. Right after Access Hollywood hits, WikiLeaks came out. That’s not an accident, clearly.
One hopes the investigation will prove what the cutouts did and how that timing worked. I did a lot of homework to prepare for the Harvard post-mortem, which I did with Dan Balz from The Washington Post and we added up—our team here—that in the last 100 days, Donald Trump went to 133 stops in battleground states. I may be off by a number or two, and she did 87 in that same time. Because she took so much time off to prep for the debates. Well, it turned out the debates were not definitive here. The debates didn’t matter as much as their strategy thought they would.
Glasser: Right, so they’re talking about winning on points, in effect.
Mitchell: Exactly, and they thought that making him unacceptable was enough to win. So starting with the San Diego speech on foreign policy, which was considered very, you know, a very effective speech.
Glasser: Right, it’s interesting. All of these things discretely were seen at the time as, you know, a good performance—
Mitchell: As big moments.
Glasser: Exactly, as big moments and yet they weren’t able to stitch it into a narrative that succeeded.
Mitchell: She didn’t have the theme, the message. That was one of the big problems. I also think that there a flaw that goes back to when I covered her in the Clinton White House in those early years when she was embattled and really shut down. The secretive healthcare plan.
Glasser: Well, right. You were the person who asked the question that led to the famous tea and cookies remark.
Mitchell: Yes, that was me. So if Donald Trump thinks that I’m doing this just to them… iI was after a very bad debate performance by Bill Clinton, right before—on a Sunday night where he—I think with Jerry Brown challenging him in a primary debate. So it was February and so it was the day The New York Times broke the story about Whitewater and the Rose Law Firm.
And so that night, there was a debate and Jerry Brown started asking Bill Clinton about his wife’s legal work and conflict of interest. And Bill Clinton got full of umbrage and outrage and said, “You know, you can come after me but don’t go after my wife,” or something to that effect. So that next day, Monday morning, she was supposed to campaign for him at the Busy Bee Diner under the elevated with the morning rush hour commuters around 7:00 in the morning, so I figured if I go at 6:00 in the morning, get there before they put up the rope lines, sit down on a stool and start drinking coffee as a customer, they can’t throw me out.
So that’s how I was close enough to ask the question about, you know, her Rose Law Firm work. And she said, “Well, if I had stayed home and just had teas and baked cookies.”
Glasser: Amazing. And we remember that statement by Hillary Clinton to this day, all these years later. So before we finish up, I want to ask you just a little bit about the Washington that you operate in and that you live in and how much that’s changed. The Clintons were a previous example actually of outsiders come to town who didn’t really—
Mitchell: Yes, as the Carters were.
Glasser: Like the Carters were, even the Obamas. Remember, you and I, we’re all representative of the foreign policy “Blob” in the thinking of the early Obama Administration and now, here comes to town the Trump Administration, outsiders. Many people have made valiant efforts to make you into sort of the personification of the Washington establishment. In recent years, my good friend, Mark Leibovich, and his book, This Town. You’re making a priceless face, which I’m not even sure I can characterize . It was a bestselling book and it attempted to look at the nexus between how we all live here and it affects or doesn’t affect the journalism that we produce.
What do people not get about the Washington establishment? What makes it that different than any other company town where there’s one industry and lots of people whose jobs revolve around it?
Mitchell: Well, I think there are plenty of examples where people have been too close. Joe Alsop, Scotty Reston, memorably. You know, names out of the distant past who were advising JFK and being close to presidents and being inappropriately conflicted.
Glasser: Peter is reading Scotty Reston’s book right now. It’s a great read, Deadline. It’s a different era.
Mitchell: Well, and I think that that is a real risk and the risk of schmoozing at the White House Correspondents Dinner and all of that—I don’t disagree with all of that criticism. But I do think when President Reagan came and one of the first things—and you couldn’t be more of an outsider than this governor from California who had been a movie star — and Kay Graham had a dinner party. Sam Donaldson and I were standing on R Street shouting questions at motorcades because that’s what our jobs were. Because then, we didn’t rely on pools. Correspondents were there in the snow or whatever. And the people inside included Democrats and Republicans, and then when George W. Bush came to town, you know, Mrs. Graham did the same thing.
And her dinner parties were always 50-50, almost rigorously. That doesn’t happen anymore. People are in their silos and so there is a certain value to the Senate Wives Club, the Congressional Women’s Club. They get to know each other. Their kids have the same problems, being uprooted from school and living in two places and late night sessions when there are late votes and, you know, parents aren’t around for their kids and all of that. That was a very male-dominated time. But there used to be a much better fabric of life here in politics and journalism between people who could talk after hours and that didn’t mean that anybody was going to learn state secrets.
But people could have dinner. We were on the road in Santa Barbara for all of those weeks and weeks every summer and we would have dinner with Ed Meese or Jim Baker or any of those people. And they were off-the-record conversations but it was to better understand what the policy and the thinking was. And I think that—
Glasser: So you’re unapologetic about that aspect of this town?
Glasser: You’re still willing to go to anybody’s dinner who will invite you?
Mitchell: Or NBC dinners and talk to diplomats, and I wouldn’t say anybody’s dinner. [LAUGHTER]
Glasser: Not anybody’s dinner?
Mitchell: But I would just say that there is a value to talking not in the briefing room and not on camera and getting a better idea of, “Well, why did you do that? I mean, I would like to know if I could really understand, given the data points on trade, what about NAFTA really ought to be torn up? Because they’re about to trigger the 90-day notice and I’ve talked to the Mexicans, I’ve talked to the Canadians. I’ve been to private foreign policy seminars where this comes up and the Mexicans and the Canadians just don’t understand why this is such an article of faith and—you know, I’ll bet if you put a, you know, truth serum to Gary Cohn and some of the other economic advisors, they would acknowledge that our relationship with Mexico has been transformed over the last 20 years as has their economy and it’s been all to the good.
And what you want is a healthy middle class and, you know, people with better earning power in Mexico. That’s why illegal undocumented migration from Mexico has just dropped off to almost nothing.
Glasser: So do you see a lot of these early missteps by Trump as an encounter of just another outsider who is going to find that Washington, you know, it’s like the casino? The house always wins, that the establishment will beat them out?
Mitchell: No, I’m not so sure about that. I mean, I’m not so sure—I’m not sure it’s winning and losing because—
Glasser: Well, he would define it that way.
Mitchell: He would define it that way. That’s right.
Glasser: He has defined himself in opposition.
Mitchell: They can win if their goal is to keep us from covering the Secretary of State and if their goal is to diminish the Secretary of State and not have a viable, you know, a diplomat who can go around the world and be credible. If that’s what they want, they can do that to him. He is a very smart man and has a lot of relationships and I think that they should take advantage of that. That’s why they brought him in and I think he needs people around him. I think it’s almost criminal negligence to not have nominated people and to then complain that the Democrats are slow-walking.
Well, the Democrats are slow-walking—were. But right now, there are no nominations up there to be even looked at.
Glasser: No, that’s what—I saw the statistics today. It’s amazing. They’ve approved all of Trump’s nominees. That’s not the issue.
Mitchell: And then they sent up nominations without having vetted them and here you have these multimillionaires and some billionaires without any FBI vetting and then expect the Senate to hold a hearing. Well, since this is a Republican-led Senate they were willing to play ball but it just leads to trouble down the road.
Glasser: So if Trump decides to grant you an interview, which is not completely impossible since he gives the “failing New York Times” an interview. What would you ask him?
Mitchell: It would depend on the time and where we were. I would like to better understand his thinking because if there’s nothing to this Russian investigation, throw the doors open. But to keep being in denial about it, I just think that he relied heavily on Steve Bannon, on Mike Flynn, at critical moments during the campaign and the transition and that formed his thinking. I am very impressed at how hardworking he is. He’s bringing people in from different walks of life and different points of view.
When I saw that Zeke Emanuel, the author of Obamacare, was being brought in—now, it’s turned out it was a large group and there was no real chance for dialogue but he seems to be partly—probably because the First Lady is still in New York mostly, you know, at night instead of being upstairs with the kids as President Obama was, he’s having people in and having working meetings. I think he is a very hardworking and I think by all accounts—I don’t know him, charming and well-intentioned person. So I just don’t understand why they are so self-destructive. Why they can’t stick to a narrative.
The Reagan success was largely Mike Deaver saying one theme of the day and repeat it over and over again. We would die of boredom at these rallies because they would—he would repeat the same speech but that’s the way they drove the message home.
Glasser: You know, I think this is such a great conversation and we could keep going all day but I have to tell you, I feel like this has been one of my very favorite episodes of The Global POLITICO so far. It’s just so important to have the context for this “sui generis presidency,” as you described it, the Trump Era in Washington, it is reshaping America’s footprint in the world.
So we’re delighted to have this conversation with you, Andrea Mitchell, today and thank you again to all of our listeners for tuning in for another episode of The Global POLITICO. You can reach us anytime at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. Give us feedback. Some of you have even sent me great ideas for new guests and so thanks again for listening and Andrea, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mitchell: Well, thank you so much for letting me talk. It’s been great—great fun. I’ve really enjoyed it.
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