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Politics Roundup: From Comey's Book To Syria Strikes


The military strikes against Syrian targets are over, but President Trump remains in fighting mode, so we'll start the program there. The president was particularly active on Twitter today. He defended his use of the phrase mission accomplished to describe the weekend missile strikes. But many more of his tweets were dedicated to aggressive personal attacks on former FBI Director James Comey and Comey's new book, which will be available to the public starting this week. We wanted to know more about this, so we called Robert Costa, national political reporter at The Washington Post.

Robert, welcome. Thanks for coming over.

ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, the big news this weekend was the U.S.-led strikes on Syria. What do those airstrikes tell us about how the president's national security team is working and how this policy was developed?

COSTA: You said fighting mode. And know who else is in fighting mode is Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader. He's reportedly in a good mood today because of the limitations of the strike. And that limitation and the scope of the strike was really a debate inside of the administration. The defense secretary, Jim Mattis, was wary of having an extensive attack that could maybe become a proxy war against Russia. But you had John Bolton, the new national security adviser and the president having an aggressive posture.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the other aspect of this story, which is the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said today that new sanctions are going to be announced tomorrow against Russia because of Russia's support for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Now, this is, you know, noteworthy, in part, because this president is seen as highly desirous of a closer relationship with Russia, particularly its president, Vladimir Putin. So how do you understand this move? And how do we understand this administration's evolving Russia policy?

COSTA: It's evolving, and its often contradictory because you look at this president - over the past year, we've so often covered him being friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, with Ambassador Haley at the U.N., with other members of this administration, you have this more hawkish line when it comes to Russia. But the president is not being driven by any kind of new ideology on foreign policy. This is really a reaction to images he saw from the chemical attacks. When I asked my sources inside of the White House, is he really changing his tune on Russia? They say, no, he's responding to the attacks themselves.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the story that a lot of us have been following today, which is the president's tweets about former FBI Director James Comey and his book. There's a big televised interview tonight. This kicks off a big campaign of media and public appearances, and the president's been denouncing Comey in very personal terms, calling him a slimeball and slippery and things, so that's what - I'm going to let people judge the language for themselves. But it just seems to me that if he didn't want people to read the book, this would be the wrong way to go. So how do you understand, you know, this reaction? And is the president taking counsel from anybody in particular about how to approach this?

COSTA: He's not taking counsel from almost anyone. He's in control of his Twitter account according to my White House sources. It comes at a very highly charged moment. It's not just a publisher's dream to have this kind of attention. But you look right now at what's happening with Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the investigation. There are - there's talk inside of the White House every day, will the president fire Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general? And now he's going to war with the former FBI director. People are worried, inside of this administration, that he could make - in light of everything with the Comey drama, he can make a decision to make changes at justice.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, there's still the full array of presidential tasks this week. I mean, the president's spending the week in Florida, he's visiting with the prime minister - he's hosting the prime minister of Japan and his wife. You know, how is - how it just - if you could just give me a sense of, how are they handling all this? I mean, on the one hand, the business goes on as usual, and then, there were all these extraordinary other things going on as well. How are they balancing all that?

COSTA: They're fighting these fronts - right? - that are right around them - the battlegrounds on Comey, on Syria. But the real big picture that's worrying this administration, based on my reporting, is the midterm elections, and you look at the news last week of Speaker Paul Ryan announcing his decision not to seek re-election. They see all the retirements - Ryan heading for the door. They're worried about what's going to happen in November, and they're worried about what's going to happen this week.

MARTIN: That was Washington Post national political reporter Robert Costa. He's also the moderator of the PBS program "Washington Week."

Robert, thanks so much for speaking with us.

COSTA: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.