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Trump Says Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson Is Still On The Job

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Flynn guilty plea, the Senate Republican tax bill, the talk of a shakeup at the State Department - those are the developments we're going to discuss now with our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne, columnist with The Washington Post and co-author of "One Nation After Trump." Good to see you, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And Eliana Johnson, national political reporter for Politico. Hiya.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Eliana, let's start with you. Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty and made a deal. Prosecutors make deals with people to get at their higher-ups, not their subordinates. Who do you think you should be worrying right now about the Mueller investigation?

JOHNSON: We've seen reports already that it is Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, who directed Michael Flynn to speak to the Russian ambassador and urge him not to retaliate against the United States' imposition of sanctions, to wait for President Trump to be inaugurated. But the White House is pushing back on that, saying that it was a group effort.

I would say we really don't know right now. And what strikes me is administration officials I've spoke to have said it's a - it's one thing to make contact or be directed to make contact with a foreign country during the campaign. That would be deadly. The laws are a bit murkier in terms of making contact with a foreign country during the presidential transition - less clear how damning that may be.

On the other hand, Bob Mueller would not have entered into a plea agreement with Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, if he didn't think that he had something to trade. And that to me is what the White House really has to worry about.

SIEGEL: E.J., do you think it's harder at this point for Donald Trump to dismiss this investigation? Does it look like a more serious investigation with the Flynn guilty plea?

DIONNE: Well, knowing Donald Trump, he will continue to dismiss the investigation. But those dismissals become less and less believable. I think one of the things we've seen over the last month and a half is Mr. Mueller is systematic. He's disciplined. He's tough. He knows what he's doing, and he's working his way up. It's, as we've talked about before, something very similar to an investigation of the mob as he tries to gather people below to get at people above.

And so I think the White House has a lot of reason to be very concerned that this - that he is working his way up. And whether he gets to the very top, we're going to know soon. But there were reports today that President Trump was given a very, very grim accounting of what's going on out here. And I think a grim view rather than Ty Cobb's Pollyannish view is the right one for the White House to take.

SIEGEL: Eliana, before moving onto another subject, do you get the sense that they are concerned at the White House? E.J. says they should be. I mean, do you have a sense that they're worried about this.

JOHNSON: Rank-and-file aides at the White House are absolutely worried. I think there's a general sense of paranoia this whole house of cards could fall. And I think the president himself is concerned about either - both what he knows and what he doesn't know. We're not quite certain how this will play out. But it's clear that Bob Mueller is systematic and clinical in his approach to this and has a plan and a strategy.

SIEGEL: Let's move onto - this is - we haven't said this in a long time. A big piece of legislation actually is moving toward success. The Republicans appear to have a bill they'll be able to tout. It's a tax bill. According to independent estimates, it's a budget-buster. It helps a lot of corporations and rich people most - doesn't simplify our taxes. Eliana, can the Republican Party run on a bill like that in November and win and say, this is what we're for, this kind of a tax bill?

JOHNSON: I'm not sure the Republican Party will be running on the details of this bill. I think the Republican Party will be running on the fact that they have gotten something done in Washington and passed a major piece of legislation. And there's a distinction to be made there. I think if we see economic growth in the next two, three years, the Republican Party will reap great benefits. But as we know, tax cuts and economic growth are sort of loosely connected. But the president does tend to reap the benefits of that.

SIEGEL: E.J., can Democrats credibly say that the debt was OK when it was pushing 20 trillion under a Democratic president but 22 trillion is really fiscally irresponsible?

DIONNE: Well, what Democrats can say is that with the debt we have and when we are in relatively good economic circumstances, it's a terrible idea to cut taxes more than that and add to the deficit. More than that, this is one of the most reckless operations we've ever seen. It represents government for the few by the reckless, this tax bill does.

One Democrat told me that for the first time in a tax debate that he could remember, the Democrats have the upper hand because in the past when Republicans cut taxes a lot for the very rich, they also cut taxes for the middle class and others. This bill gives this giant corporate tax cut, pulling the corporate rate down to 20 percent from a nominal 35 percent. And it actually raises taxes, especially when the middle class tax cuts expire in 2025. Somebody wrote in The New Yorker that this is like a teaser rate in mortgage, which is up front. People will see some benefits.

SIEGEL: But you're saying...

DIONNE: But they disappear. And so I think...

SIEGEL: You're saying, E.J., that Democrats have the upper hand with public opinion. Obviously the Republicans are showing they can pass a bill, that they have the votes (unintelligible).

DIONNE: They think that for both their donors and a - the very, very conservative part of their base, it's worth passing a bill which was being rewritten at the last minute like a sophomore writing a term paper at 4 in the morning. They think that they have to get something done for their base and for their donors. But the polls show this bill to be very, very unpopular.

SIEGEL: I want to ask Eliana about one other thing that happened this week, which was the reports first in The New York Times that Rex Tillerson was about to be fired. Plans were being made. Then today, Donald Trump, after the weakest expression of support for Tillerson you could imagine yesterday - he's here.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: He tweeted...

JOHNSON: Statement of fact.

SIEGEL: Yeah. While we disagree on certain subjects, we work to will to get - we will - we work well together, and America is highly respected again. Do you think Tillerson has a future in Foggy Bottom or not?

JOHNSON: No.

SIEGEL: No.

JOHNSON: And that's been the case for the past six months or so. Donald Trump soured on Rex Tillerson very early. And for Tillerson supporters who rue the fact that they're losing a more moderate voice in the administration, I would say he may be a moderate voice, but he has no influence. And the fact that he's likely to be replaced by a more hawkish person like the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, I would say I think it's useful for the president to have somebody smart and who actually has influence over policymaking. And I think that's a good thing.

SIEGEL: Eliana Johnson of Politico and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAXWELL YOUNG'S "SPARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.