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Week In Politics: Reactions To The Trump-Putin Summit

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's hard to imagine a story about President Trump that could knock the Russia saga out of pole position in the news cycle this week. But today a challenger arrived. The New York Times reported that President Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen secretly recorded a conversation where Trump discussed payments to a former Playboy model to keep quiet about an affair. And that is where we will begin our Week in Politics conversation. Don't worry; we will get to Russia.

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution is here in the studio, and Margaret Hoover, who hosts the PBS program "Firing Line," joins us from New York. Welcome to both of you.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Thank you. I see no reason why I wouldn't say happy to be here.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET HOOVER: Delighted to be here as well.

SHAPIRO: So this recording was apparently made two months before the presidential election. The FBI now has it. Cohen and Trump talk about hush money payments to Karen McDougal to cover up an affair. And the Trump team has made contradictory statements about what the president knew. Today the latest line from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani is that Trump and Cohen were discussing buying the rights to McDougal's story from the National Enquirer, effectively reimbursing the tabloid. Margaret, beyond the tawdry aspects of this story, do you think serious people should take this as a serious matter?

HOOVER: Well, of course. I mean, there could be a - one absolutely has to investigate and look at the facts because any time any amount of money is exchanged within a certain window of a presidential campaign or any political campaign, there are laws that must be abided by. One must know whose money is going into what effort and whether that is a campaign finance violation. That's just one place to start.

And so that's - I mean, if $150,000 - this was the problem, as you recall, with the Stormy Daniels transactions as well. There was this question of whether that was an in-kind donation to that campaign and ought to have been disclosed. The American people need to know who's paying what to certain campaigns so that they know more and have more transparency into their candidates and who's supporting them. And any measure of hush money is...

SHAPIRO: Problematic at least. E.J., the outlines of this story have been clear for some time despite the frequently changing explanations from Trump's team. So why do you think this new development could be significant?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I think Margaret is absolutely right about the campaign finance law. And that's a problem for him across all of these stories. I'm sure, by the way, we're all shocked that we're getting contradictory statements about the - out of the White House at this point. You know, it's a strange thing to say, but these are strange times. Trump might actually welcome that we're talking about sex and lies instead of his sort of relationship with Putin. Many Trump supporters have already decided to accept his sexual life and the idea of payoffs. But I think what certainly is troubling Trump's lawyers right now is the question of what Cohen has on tape and how much of it will lack the protection of the attorney-client relationship.

SHAPIRO: Right.

DIONNE: This may be the tip of a tape iceberg, to construct an awful metaphor.

SHAPIRO: Well, to pivot from these tapes to Russia, I want to ask you about the most recent development of this Putin-Trump saga, which is Trump's proposal of a summit in Washington this fall. E.J., do you think it'll happen?

DIONNE: Well, Republicans are hoping, hoping, hoping that it doesn't happen before November's election because nothing could be worse, I think, for them than to put this relationship with Putin at the center of things. And, you know, as people have reported, it was shocking that the national security - head of national security for our country, Dan Coats, was talking to Andrea Mitchell at the moment this was released. It came as a complete shock to him.

SHAPIRO: Totally taken aback. Yeah.

DIONNE: And he spoke very kind of sarcastically about it. And so I think there's no good reason for this meeting other than Trump's bromance with Putin because as far as we can tell, Putin made no concessions to us on anything in the first round.

SHAPIRO: So, Margaret, given the buzz saw that the White House ran into this week, why do you think Trump would do this?

HOOVER: It - there's - are you asking me or any sane person to try to have real clarity and insight into the rationale behind the president's - Trump's completely inexplicable - you called it a bromance with Russia, but really inexplicable inability to honestly account for Russian actions or responsibility in the election? Even when he was trying, as we know, this week to go clean up this horrible characterization of our intelligence agencies on the world stage with the leader of Russia, he couldn't even appropriately give back the intelligence agencies the credit they deserved without really stepping on himself. What's revealed is that he has some ability - so little ability to say anything that is critical of the leader of Russia.

SHAPIRO: But even from just a raw politics standpoint, there are two things that may well happen this fall. One is the confirmation vote on Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which Republicans and conservatives love and might make people flood to the polls and vote for Republicans in the midterms. And the other is a possible summit between Putin and Trump which Republicans vocally criticize and seems to alienate people. Why would President Trump step on his own possible great news story of a Supreme Court confirmation with something that is so opposed within his own party?

DIONNE: Well, you know, the most plausible case that Trump's defenders can make for the idea that he's not a Russian agent is no agent would behave this way and be out there in the way Trump is. And, you know, this could create new problems for Kavanaugh because the Democrats are making a big deal out of the fact that Kavanaugh has an extremely expansive view of presidential power and whether even a president can be investigated or should be investigated while he's in office.

And by sort of demonstrating over and over again that he is so close to Putin that he doesn't want to say a bad word about him, he's feeding the Mueller - what we might expect out of the Mueller investigation. And that's going to strengthen the democratic case that somebody in this position shouldn't be allowed to name to the court someone who so believes the president should be protected.

SHAPIRO: Margaret, to wrap up this conversation, we've seen a lot of weeks that would have been extremely consequential for other presidents that with this president have sort of been water under the bridge. Do you think years from now we will see this week as a pivotal moment in the Trump presidency?

HOOVER: Oh, that's impossible to predict. I mean, there's just no way. We all know - (laughter) we all know that it's just impossible to predict anything. But I do want to comment on just one piece that E.J. said. You know, you said that Brett Kavanaugh's position is that the president has to be protected. And I just think for clarity's sake what is true - and you're absolutely right, E.J., that Kavanagh's position is that the president cannot be prosecuted while in office. But he is not immune from prosecution, civil or criminal prosecution, once he leaves the presidency. And I think that's an important distinction.

SHAPIRO: That is Margaret Hoover, host of the PBS program "Firing Line," and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

DIONNE: Good to be here.

HOOVER: Great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "GYPSY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.