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Trump's Latest Vulgar Comments Cast Shadow Over Legislative Agenda


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us for a shapeup today, Sarah Westwood. She's the White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios once again. Welcome back.

SARAH WESTWOOD: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We also have two people with us who used to work in the White House. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a senior fellow for presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs. And she's back with us from Charlottesville, Va. Glad to have you back with us.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And also with us, Fred McClure. He is a former director of legislative affairs for President George H.W. Bush, a colleague of Mary Kate. He also advised President Reagan on legislative affairs. Now he is the executive director of leadership initiatives at Texas A&M University - his alma mater - and he's with us from College Station, Texas. Fred McClure, it's so good to talk with you once again.

FRED MCCLURE: And you, as well, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So here we go again with the story of the weekend. It starts with those meetings between President Trump and lawmakers earlier in the week where they were trying to hammer out some kind of agreement on the DACA program. That's the program that protects people who came here illegally as children. It protects them from deportation. And this is where I say that to understand the story you need to know that multiple sources have reported that President Trump said some very vulgar things, which have caused offense around the world - I'm assuming you've heard it - in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. Now the president has denied saying this. But Democratic Senator Dick Durbin who attended the meeting and Republican Senator Jeff Flake who was briefed on it by people in the meeting backed up those reports. I want to start with the reporting, Sarah. As we sit here now, is the White House still denying this? I mean, how are they dealing with this publicly?

WESTWOOD: Well, it's interesting. The denial that we saw from the White House was just denying that those comments were used in the context of Haiti. He didn't issue a broader denial that they weren't used to describe other countries. And he even admitted via Twitter that he did use tough language in this immigration meeting. And this is really - has the potential to gum up the wheels of the immigration deal.

Already, Democrats and Republicans were very far apart. They're not just trying to issue a legislative fix for DACA. There's - border security is on the table, an end or changes to the visa lottery program, and we're talking about so-called chain migration. So there are a lot of moving parts and to have something so polarizing and so vulgar come from the president really lessens the incentive for Democrats to give any concessions to Trump on those issues.

MARTIN: OK. I want to hear more about that from the folks whose job it was actually to make something like that happen. So I'm going to go with my veteran White House folks. So feel free - so, Fred, why don't you pick up where Sarah just left off? You know, feel free to tell me your personal reaction to this, if you care to, and then tell me how you think this is going to affect the negotiations.

MCCLURE: I think that it's a stick in the mud, if you will - or a stick in the eye, even that far, Michel. It makes it very difficult to have communications with Congress and convince them in a negotiation process if you're going to have a situation where there is a questioning of the thought process, the values, the value judgments of the leader in charge - in this instance, the president. I think he went beyond the pale in making those kinds of statements. Frankly, I'm surprised. He should have had this one on full-air broadcast as he did earlier in the week when he kind of surprised them and had a negotiation session live on television being recorded.

I don't think it helps him, particularly in a situation where we have a government shutdown pending on Friday and a situation where you've got dollars that have to be done for disaster relief, for the Children's Health Insurance Program and to come up with some sort of a budget solution as we go down the road for the next few weeks.

MARTIN: But, Fred, why couldn't it be the other way - that there might be an incentive for him to come to a deal to make this go away - to say that, you know, I may have said those things, but I still know how to get the job done, which was his selling point to begin with?

MCCLURE: Because he will never admit that he didn't say it. He will develop his own set of facts to describe what took place, even if there are other people in the room that have different facts, or at least that's the way he's being portrayed to us and to what we see. And as a result, the question becomes, can I trust him?

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what do you say about this?

CARY: Yeah, I agree with Fred on that. The - I was disappointed that more Republicans didn't denounce the vulgar language right off the top because I think you could still have a rational discussion about changing immigration law and denounce that language. And so the silence was very disappointing to me. I wish McConnell and some of the other senators had come forward and really shut it down.

MARTIN: Why do you think they didn't, Mary Kate, since, you know, communications is your - that's what you do? Why do you think they didn't?

CARY: I saw an analysis in one of the papers that the people who had spoken out the loudest were the ones who are in states or congressional districts that Hillary Clinton had won, and they were now up for re-election. And so those were the ones - Mia Love, for example, in a tight race - who came forward the quickly - quick - quickest. Sorry, (laughter) the quickliest (ph).

MARTIN: Speaking of words...


MARTIN: Now, you know, if you're listening to our conversation, people might be wondering, you know, why did we call two former Republican White House aides - you know, why not a Democrat? To which I say, this is an easier issue for most Democrats because most support extending DACA. This was an initiative that came under the administration of President Obama. And most Democrats don't like President Trump anyway, so it's not hard for them to criticize him. And as we are discussing here, you know, really, the issue is on the Republican side. So, Fred, going back to you on this. Do you have any broader concerns about how this affects the way people see Republicans?

MCCLURE: Yes, I do. And here's where it stems from, Michel. I think, frankly, that Democrats have the upper hand in this conversation about the extension of DACA. They have all the chips, basically, because what it - particularly, if it's done in context with the government shutdown at the end of this week. They have the position to be able to say, OK, you guys got to come to the table and deal with us. The president, of course, is being very strong in terms of getting dollars to build his wall.

And Republicans are put in a difficult position because it's like, do you want to be perceived as being heartless to these 800,000 folks who came here and who are here as a result of no fault of their own, but it is a part of the government policy that we have in place at this point in time? So it's a very mixed bag from a political standpoint, in my view, given the fact that Democrats had all the cards. Republicans were having to - being dragged to the table. And now the president has laid down a gauntlet, if you will, by making the comments that he made in that Oval Office meeting.

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, how would you encourage your fellow Republicans to talk about this right now given everything that Fred just said?

CARY: My advice would be for the president to not do what he did on health care, which is he gave no public speeches. He had no sort of public push for his repeal effort. And as a result, it failed. So the best thing I think he would do is give a public address to the nation. Maybe he does it in the State of the Union. I don't know. But to talk about two things - one is that extending DACA should be done by congressional legislation, not by executive action as Obama had done it because we are a nation of laws. And it's not really our option to neglect to enforce those laws. We should enforce the laws that are on the books, whether those are marijuana laws, sanctuary cities, extending DACA, things like that. If you disagree with it, then we should change the law.

The second thing I think he could do is talk about what some of the other western industrialized democracies have done. Canada, for example, about 50 years ago, decided to change their immigration laws and ignore race and your country of origin and, instead, admit people based on their education, their fluency, in the case of Canada, English or French and their work experience. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore followed them. They've now added whether or not you're holding a job. And that is a rational argument that needs to be made. And I think that is where the language should go. Just as we saw, you know, here in Charlottesville, this summer, there's an interesting argument to be had on, say, civil war monuments, but the minute the president started saying things that were taken as racist, the argument gets shut down. And Sarah was saying it's hard to build a coalition.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, for the record, Mary Kate, you don't think it's racist what he said?

CARY: No, I do think it's racist.

MARTIN: OK. I just...

CARY: I think it was implied racism, like Jeb Bush pointed out.

MARTIN: Sarah, before we let you go - I want to save a little bit of time for my last two guests - do we know what the president wants? What President Trump really does want to do on immigration? I mean, on Tuesday, he said that he wants this to be a bill of love. And then he seemed to be, you know, calling his most hard-line supporters to get their view. So do you have a sense, as a person who's there every day now, what he really does want to do?

WESTWOOD: Well, I think the White House recognized that DACA was their best chance - their most effective leverage to get funding for the wall and to achieve some of these other policy items that they wanted, like I mentioned earlier - chain migration, like, ending the diversity visa lottery program and making the system a little bit more merit-based, which is something that Trump has talked about a lot. I think that this is a really sympathetic group of people. Republicans recognize that. And there's a reason that the White House pushed really hard to uncouple DACA from the spending bill. That's because the actual deadline for DACA to expire isn't until March, and they wanted to have more negotiating time.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, the one-year anniversary of Trump's inauguration is in a week. We're planning special coverage. But since I have you here - and we only have a little bit of time to talk about this, but I did want to ask my former White House staffers what effect do they think President Trump has had on the country. It's interesting that both of you are now in academic settings where, presumably, you get to think a little bit about this - a little bit more deeply than you did when you were actually running from issue to issue every day. So, Mary Kate, I'll start with you.

CARY: You know, I think - that's a tough question. In a lot of ways, he has really polarized our country. The communications in terms of Twitter and the insulting and the - I don't know what you call that - the volatility has really been remarkable, and I think very damaging to our country. On the other hand, some of the legislative things he's been able to accomplish and some of the stuff going on below the surface - the deregulation, the things that are going on with the economy - are in sort of the positive category. So it's a mixed bag, and I hope it gets better.

MARTIN: Fred, more from you - last word? I'm afraid you have to have it as quickly as you can.

MCCLURE: Well, you know, those who want to say that the president has been, at best, racially ignorant or insensitive, I think are being very generous to him. The comments that he has made have been divisive. The issues - many of the issues that he has engaged in, whether it's Charlottesville, whether it's NFL and the national anthem or David Duke or Muslims or Mexico or Haiti or other African nations or El Salvador - the way in which he has gone about supposedly talking like people talk around the kitchen table makes me wonder about what the kitchen table conversations are about.

MARTIN: That's - we're going to have to cut you off there, Fred. More - I hope we'll talk again soon. That's Fred McClure. He's a former director of legislative affairs. He advised both Presidents Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. Mary Kate Cary was with us - also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush - and Sarah Westwood, White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

WESTWOOD: Thank you.

MCCLURE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.