This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report" January 14, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
PAUL GIGOT, HOST: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.
In a wide-ranging and much-anticipated news conference Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump urged Republicans to move quickly to replace Obamacare, insisted that Mexico will pay in some form for a border wall, and denounced as fake news unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising personal and financial information about him. Trump also acknowledged, for the first time, that Russia was behind the election year hacking of Democrats and promised he'd be tough in his dealings with President Vladimir Putin while not ruling out a better relationship.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability. Now, I don't know that I'm going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there's a good chance I won't. And if I don't, do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; editorial board member, Mary Kissel; and foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens.
Dan, I want to ask, first, about a question of style, OK? Have you noticed any change from this, a week before he becomes president, between this and the campaign?
DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: No, very little, as a matter of fact.
What you see is what you get.
GIGOT: This is what we're going to get as a president.
HENNIINGER: This is what we're going to get as a president. Look, Paul, President-elect Trump, that press be conference, for years, if not for decades, the average person sitting out there watching these presidential press conferences has always said, why doesn't the president just punch back against these people, these rhetorical questions, this spin, this insinuation? Well, they've got him now --
-- because Donald Trump is punching back.
BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: No, it reminded me of that scene in the movie "Gladiator" when Maximus in the arena says, are you not entertained.
There is that quality that it's not really a press conference, it's something meta, I'm not quite sure what. But it's more than simply an effort to offer news or information, but more to kind of entice viewers to keep watching.
MARY KISSIL, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Well, I don't know. What's the saying, when you go low, we go high? It seems like with Trump and the media -- Trump and the media, when the media goes low, he goes lower. I never thought I would see a president call "Buzzfeed" a failing pile of garbage. But --
GIGOT: OK, get used to that.
KISSIL: -- I think we've got to get used to it.
GIGOT: That won't be the last organization like that.
HENNINGER: But he did make news. One little item, he attacked Big Pharmaa. Big Pharmaa's getting away with murder, he said, they make drugs overseas, they sell them back in the United States. The pharmaceutical industry's stock prices dropped immediately.
GIGOT: Not only that, but his jab against Mexico, saying they will pay, sent the peso into freefall as well.
And that's a little bit of the downside, Bret, for this kind of "let's just wing it" press conference behavior because as president, you can have a huge effect on stock prices, on individual companies. And Mexico is a neighbor, and he's making it more difficult to manage their --
STEPHENS: I remember watching George W. Bush weighing his words so carefully that he hardly knew what to say because I think he was -- he understood the consequences. But I think there's going to be a problem for Trump over the long term, which is that people are going to begin to tune this out, and he's going to be saying things whose shock value is inevitably going to diminish over time. Now, that may be good in terms of not roiling waters, but it's also going to make the effectiveness of this form of communication diminish over time.
GIGOT: What about the Russian dossier news, Mary? He dispatched that in categorical terms, denied everything. And if -- and so it's kind of gone away because there wasn't much "there" there. But is there any residual risk for the president-elect?
KISSEL: Well, the risk is that Donald Trump came out and denied every charge in the Russian dossier, and it seems to have backfired on the media that publicized the report.
KISSEL: The risk is the press continues to dig, and god forbid they find any part of that dossier correct, that's the political liability here.
GIGOT: Right. But most of -- I agree with you, Mary. I think the press, though, does come out looking the worse for wear in the short term.
KISSEL: Oh, for sure. It was a definite win for Trump.
STEPHENS: It gave him an opportunity to bully Jim Acosta, a CNN reporter. And that kind of instinct he has to stomp on the media will only get sharper when the media makes its own goals like this.
GIGOT: And the Russians, Dan, he seemed tougher on Putin and Russia. He acknowledged that it was -- the hack -- for the first time -- which I certainly was, I was glad to see.
HENNINGER: Yeah. I mean, that's clearly -- his position on Russia has been so sort of out of phase with what virtually everyone, in Congress especially. I mean, here --
GIGOT: Republican Congress.
HENNIKNGER: Republican Congress. He took a hit at Lindsey Graham in that press conference, saying, oh, is he still down there underneath 1 percent?
Lindsey Graham is one of the three Senators who has doubts about his secretary of state. He needs a majority of votes, and these people have votes, and if they don't vote for Rex Tillerson, he's got a problem.
GIGOT: So you think he should not be picking fights like that with Senators, or do you think that the Senators, like the country, are just going to have to get used to this kind of presidential jostling and let it roll off their back?
HENNINGER: So long -- Trump's agenda is based on votes in the Senate and in the House. And if you certainly don't sacrifice votes like that. I think he's got to be a little bit careful about --
STEPHENS: I think the first rule of politics or good politicians understand is you never have enemies in politics. You just have friends and potential friends, and Trump is moving in the opposite direction.
GIGOT: You think it's a mistake to single out Lindsey Graham like that?
STEPHENS: And Lindsey Graham owes Trump nothing and made that perfectly clear through the election and even now, so Lindsey Graham is one-third of his majority.
KISSIL: It's also beneath the president to just have these offhand remarks. He needs to rise above it given -- it's a different office than it is being CEO of the Trump Organization.
GIGOT: That's going to be interesting to watch.
When we come back, the president-elect unveils his plan to de-Trump the Trump Organization, but will it be enough to quiet his critics and protect him politically?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: The president-elect will have no role in deciding whether the Trump Organization engages in any new deal, and he will only know of a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees it on TV.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: My two sons -- who are right here -- Don and Eric, are going to be running the company. They are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They're not going to discuss it with me. My two sons -- and I hope at the end of eight years I'll come back and I'll say, oh, you did a good job. Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I'll say, you're fired.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: President-elect Donald Trump this week rolling out his long-awaited plan to separate himself from his business empire while serving in the White House. Trump's holdings, which include more than 500 companies with $3.6 billion in assets, will be placed into a trust during his presidency overseen by an independent ethics adviser and managed by Trump's adult sons and longtime chief financial officer. The president-elect's decision not to divest his stake in the Trump Organization is being met with skepticism by some critics who question whether the plan adequately addresses conflict-of-interest concerns.
Attorney Edwin Williamson is a former State Department legal adviser. He joins me now from Fort Lauderdale.
Mr. Williamson, thank you for being here.
EDWIN WILLIAMSON, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT LEGAL ADVISER: Thank you.
GIGOT: Let's take the issue, first, from this -- you saw what Mr. Trump did this week. Do you think it was adequate, first, as a legal matter to avoid conflicts of interest?
WILLIAMSON: Well, from a legal standpoint, it's important to understand that Trump, the president, Trump is not -- will not be subject to the federal criminal conflict-of-interest laws.
WILLIAMSON: The president and the vice president are exempted. Though what he has done, given the nature of his assets, I think, is about as much as he could do. The critics, and particularly Richard Painter and Norm Eisen, who are constantly in the media on this, are demanding that he divest all financial interests, and that is just not workable. The Trump business is built on the Trump name. The Trump name is essentially un- transferable. In addition, the proposals that they've put forward, such as a public offering of his organization or a leveraged buyout by others, would only breed an entirely additional set of conflicts.
GIGOT: Let me ask you about one of those options in particular. You mentioned the Trump brand not being transferable. It would be transferable to the children, of course, because they're Trumps. So why not do a leveraged buyout on their behalf? They would do it. They'd have to borrow, no question about it but, presumably, the banks would lend to them at market interest rates, and you could do that, and he would be able to divest his assets.
WILLIAMSON: So who is going to -- who is the boss of the regulators of the banks? That'll be Donald Trump. So, you have an entirely additional set of conflicts created right there. Besides, it's a massive transaction. It has a -- I have no idea what the tax cost would be. The president is not entitled to use a certificate of divestiture which, say, his secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, can use to defer capital gains on his Exxon stock. So it would be a massive hit. And I think people would still be concerned because of the -- because the Trump name would still -- he would still have an interest in the Trump name.
GIGOT: OK. Now, let me take up this issue that Mr. Trump mentioned, the ethics officer who's going to sign off on any domestic, new domestic deals that the Trump Organization does. Now, they've ruled out foreign deals for the duration of this, of the presidency, but in domestic, you're going to have an ethics officer. How important is it for the ethics officer's advice to be transparent and that is open to the public so they can see it?
WILLIAMSON: Well, I think the issue, as Trump tries to set up these things like, you know, no communications with his sons and so forth --
WILLIAMSON: -- is that those are going to become targets in and of themselves. So the ethics officer absolutely has to be transparent. He has to address each issue that comes up, and he has to give an explanation as to why it was not something done for the purpose -- I don't think the doing new deals and things like that is the real issue. The real issue's going to come up when Trump proposes corporate tax reform.
GIGOT: Right. Right, right.
WILLIAMSON: And there's a great how does this benefit him.
WILLIAMSON: We faced that issue somewhat in the gulf war when the decision was made to impose sanctions on Saddam Hussein. The question was, well, does that create a conflict for, say, his secretary of state, the secretary of state who might have had some oil and gas investments, domestic oil and gas investments. And the office of legal counsel ruled that where there was a -- the focus was on trying to un-do the Saddam Hussein aggression, that that was not a particular matter, which is the key term used in the ethics rule --
WILLIAMSON: -- and, therefore, there was no conflict.
GIGOT: All right, so --
WILLIAMSON: So I think people have to step --
GIGOT: Step back from that and make a -- it sounds like what you're saying is this is ultimately a question of political judgment. And that's my question I wanted to ask you: Is the fact that he maintains his stake in the company, setting himself up for some political attacks when Democrats inevitably take back Congress or and the media discovers some deal that they can say -- they can imply benefits Trump himself?
WILLIAMSON: Yes, that's -- and those are going to be constant. I think he should just say that he will not participate in a decision, in what is referred to in the ethics rules as a specific party particular matter to which one of the Trump entities is a party, he will just recuse himself. And that's the standard that's set forth in Section 502 of the standards applicable to employees of the federal government. And I -- he would make those transparent, and it would be clear that he was not involved. But when he is -- it's got to be understood that when he does tax reform, it's going to have an impact on his interests, but it's going to have an impact on my interests, of Fox's interest --
WILLIAMSON: -- or the "Wall Street Journal's" interests, or what have you.
GIGOT: Thank you, Mr. Williamson, for being here. It's ultimately going to be the American public that has to decided. Thanks for being here.
Still ahead, as confirmation hearings get underway for some of Donald Trump's top Cabinet picks, a look at what we learned this week about the administration's evolving foreign policy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REX TILLERSON, FORMER CEO, EXXSON & SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE: Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: Hearings got underway this week for top members of Donald Trump's national security team. The president-elect's picks for state, defense and CIA all facing a grilling on Capitol Hill and often disagreeing with the man who nominated them.
Here's secretary -- defense secretary nominee, General James Mattis, Thursday on cooperating with Russia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY NOMINEE: I'm all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to, and there's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: Trump tweeted Friday morning, quote, "All of my Cabinet nominees are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine."
We're back with Dan Henninger, Mary Kissel and Bret Stephens.
Mary, just looking, big pictures, how are the nominees doing?
KISSEL: I think they're doing very well. I think you're seeing experienced, sober people speaking their mind, as Donald Trump says, and feeling free to express positions that are at odds with the president- elect. And it's not just about Russia. For instance, you saw secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, say he was in support of the 12-nation Trans- Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump said he's against.
I have to say, Paul, I think it's taken a lot of the Democratic Senators by surprise, because they're answering every question. There's no dodging here. And I think it puts the opposition politically on a little bit on the back foot.
GIGOT: Bret, let's talk about Tillerson first, because his main problem right now is not necessarily the Democrats, though many will oppose him, it's Republicans like Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Marco Rubio, who have doubts about his business deals while he was at Exxon with Russia. Did he allay those concerns enough, to your mind?
STEPHENS: Yes, I think he did. And, first of all, of course, Exxon was going to have business interests, and he was going to have to be a steward to the interest of Exxon's shareholders globally. The secretary of state is a very different job, and he was clear-eyed about Russia.
One important point, he came under sharp questioning from Marco Rubio when, on the question of whether Putin is a war criminal.
GIGOT: From Syria.
STEPHENS: Look, it's one thing for me to say as an opinion writer what Putin has committed in Syria or elsewhere, Chechnya, are war crimes --
GIGOT: And you would agree he did?
STEPHENS: And I would agree he did. But it's a much more serious matter for a secretary of state nominee at his confirmation hearing to say, off the bat, that Vladimir Putin -- with whom he will have to deal with one way or another -- is a war criminal. That's a term of art of which any senior administration official has to use very carefully.
GIGOT: And has potential international legal interpretations --
GIGOT: for whether you go before the International Criminal Court or things like that.
But I want to pursue this question of sanctions with Russia because he got some criticism from Chuck Schumer, Tillerson did, because he didn't commit to supporting continuing sanctions against Putin. And the Congress is moving right now to strengthen sanctions against Russia on a bipartisan basis.
HENNINGER: Yes. For what reason? For the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
HENNINGER: I think it's too big an issue for the Senate to get out in front of a new president and impose sanctions for this discreet event when we're trying to talk and --
GIGOT: You do?
HENNINGER: I do. You're trying to shape policy towards Russia. And we saw in this -- these confirmation hearings that General Mattis and Rex Tillerson have views -- Trump acknowledged -- are at odds with his public views. And I think we have to think Trump is operating on two levels here. You have the public Trump who says these things to set the agenda. There is a private Trump who will talk to General Mattis and Rex Tillerson and out of that will emerge a policy towards Vladimir Putin. I think the Senate should wait until we have a clearer idea what the actual U.S. policy is towards--
GIGOT: Go ahead.
KISSIL: Let's be clear, too, that none of these nominees are doves. Tillerson said American power must not only be renewed, it must be asserted. That's an important word. He talked about American moral leadership. He said we don't have trade-offs between our values and human rights. This is not a guy, I think, who's going to be snookered by Vladimir Putin. And you saw similar muscular language coming out of Pompeo and coming out of General Mattis.
STEPHENS: I think it's important -- look, I'm for sanctioning Russia, but there are other ways of punishing Russia, short of - or that aren't sanctions. If you put three combat brigades in Poland, that would also send a very unequivocal message.
GIGOT: Well, and General Mattis said he was for the deployments on the eastern fringe of NATO that Obama and NATO have done. And he's in favor of even permanent deployments in the Baltic States, which is not going to go down well with Vladimir Putin.
STEPHENS: It's the new West Berlin.
GIGOT: Well, that's very interesting because if that's going to be a variable tension with perhaps President Trump, President-elect Trump's ambitions to do a deal with Vladimir Putin.
KISSIL: But even Trump is backing away from that, isn't he? You notice the flexibility he exhibited in the press conference. He said, well, I might get along with Vladimir Putin, or I might not. He --
STEPHENS: But when he said it was an asset, Putin heard it as intelligence asset.
GIGOT: What about the idea of disagreeing with the president-elect's views here? Trump heralded it in a tweet. You know, I happen to think personally it's a good thing. You want that kind of advice. You want people who are strong enough, confident enough to say, Mr. President, you know what? I think you're wrong here.
HENNINGER: Yeah. And I think, as General Mattis said, he made that clear to Donald Trump when he is talking to him in the interviews for the job. And, you know, he said he thinks NATO is the most important alliance we have, perhaps the most important alliance in history. We're -- Trump and Mattis and Tillerson are going to have some long conversations about these subjects, and then we're going to get a foreign policy.
GIGOT: All right. Thank you, all.
Still ahead, as Democrats line up against Donald Trump's pick for the nation's top cop, we'll talk to someone who's done the job himself. Former Attorney General Mike Mukasey joins us next.
GIGOT: Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, announced Thursday he would vote against President-elect Trump's pick for attorney general following confirmation hearings this week for the nominee, fellow Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama.
Schumer's announcement came just a day after another Senate Democrat, New Jersey's Cory Booker, took the unprecedented step of testifying against Sessions, questioning his colleague's record on civil rights.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CORY BOOKER, D-N.J.: If one is to be attorney general, they must be willing to continue the hallowed tradition in our country of fighting for justice for all, for equal justice, for civil rights. America needs an attorney general who is resolute, and determined to bend the arc. Senator Sessions' record does not speak to that desire, intention or will.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: Judge Michael Mukasey served as the 81st attorney general of the United States under President George W. Bush. He testified this week on behalf of Senator Sessions.
Judge, good to have you here. Good to see you.
MICHAEL MUKASEY, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good to be here.
GIGOT: So let's first take -- I want to talk to you about Jim Comey, the FBI director, and this report that the inspector general of the Justice Department has announced. He's going to investigate the FBI and Justice Department handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. Is that investigation warranted?
MUKASEY: Well, it's at the -- it's at the instance of the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley, who wrote a letter saying I want you to investigate this. He responded saying he would investigate.
But the scope of the investigation is limited to the press conference, the famous press conference, where he said no reasonable prosecutor would bring this case, which I think is incorrect, and then the later letter where he disclosed that he was reopening the investigation because they had found e- mails or thought they had found e-mails on the laptop that Huma --
GIGOT: The former Congressman had, yeah.
MUKASEY: Right, exactly.
GIGOT: So, OK. So, the scope, you think, is a little narrow of the investigation. You would broaden it to include how he investigated it?
MUKASEY: Well, sure. How he investigated it includes not having a grand jury, includes not getting subpoenas, includes agreeing to let two of Clinton's aides provide their laptops only on the stipulation that they would be destroyed after they were examined by the FBI, which is, as far as I know, is unprecedented. Allowing them in the room when Hillary Clinton testified, notwithstanding that they were witnesses. It's just --
GIGOT: An FBI director, though, is not -- his job is not to make a decision to prosecute or not to prosecute.
GIGOT: And it's not to preempt the attorney general and the prosecuting authorities, U.S. attorneys, in their decision.
GIGOT: That's what he did. That was a violation of procedure, was it not?
MUKASEY: Yes, it was a violation of procedure. It was also -- I think he kind of slid in behind -- you'll recall she had the famous encounter on the tarmac --
GIGOT: With Bill Clinton.
MUKASEY: -- with Bill Clinton, and that kind of immobilized her. She then said, well, I'm going to rely on Jim Comey. And, of course, he slid in and took the bit in his teeth. But that's not what the function is of the FBI director.
GIGOT: Now, he has a 10-year term, but the president can fire him.
GIGOT: Is -- do you think that James Comey, with this new administration coming in, should resign?
MUKASEY: Should? I think so.
MUKASEY: He -- the trouble is that the agency, the FBI itself --
MUKASEY: -- is -- I think the faith of the people of the FBI is somewhat shaken in their leadership, and I think the faith of the country is, in the director of the FBI, is somewhat perilous. Given all of that, I think he ought to spend more time with his family.
GIGOT: All right, thank you.
Let's turn to Attorney General Sessions. You testified on his behalf.
What did you make of Cory Booker, a former colleague -- a colleague now, because he hasn't been confirmed yet -- testifying against him? Extraordinary.
MUKASEY: Extraordinary. I think if that was the launch of -- and people speculated that was the launch of Cory Booker's presidential campaign --
GIGOT: I think it is, yes.
MUKASEY: Maybe. If it was, I think it -- I think it -- I think it fell back on the launch pad. The fact is that the atmosphere in the room -- I sat through the whole hearing., except for I left after my own testimony, but the atmosphere in the room was all in Senator Sessions' favor. I think he was -- he was superb in the way he answered the questions. And a lot of the axes against him and the suspicions raised about him were based on fallacies and falsehoods about the cases that he had handled and the acts he had performed when he was attorney general of Alabama. And he was -- he cleaned that up superbly.
GIGOT: Yeah. That seems to have pretty much vanished, though some Democrats may vote against him.
So, you've run the Justice Department. It's a huge organization, OK? How do you, as a new leader, go in and set a direction? How do you change it? I mean, you can't just go in there and start giving orders.
MUKASEY: No. You have to rely on two sets of people, one are the senior people that you're bringing in with you, if you're bringing -- I got senior people when I arrived, and I was -- I can't have been more fortunate in the people who were there. And the other is, of course, the professionals at the department, many of whom, I think, or most of whom, I think, are going to be relieved at the fact that they can now simply stick to applying the law and determining the facts rather than pursuing a political agenda.
GIGOT: Where do you --
MUKASEY: You don't go in there saying, hi, I'm the new guy, I'm going to change everything you've been doing.
GIGOT: Yeah, because they'll resist.
How do you think -- where do you think Sessions will make the biggest change? How will the public see a change from Jeff's -- from the previous leadership of justice to Jeff Sessions?
MUKASEY: I think one thing you're going to see is that the Civil Rights Division is going to be investigating discrimination, rather than doing statistical stunts and coming up with theories of disparate impact.
GIGOT: Ah, OK.
MUKASEY: I think that's going to change --
GIGOT: They're going to investigate actual cases of discrimination with evidence that there was discrimination, not based on statistical analyses that there might have been somehow?
MUKASEY: Right. I think the point of those cases is supposed to be that there's a pattern or practice of discrimination, and people lose sight of the last part, and say, well, there's a pattern. Well, a pattern doesn't do it. It's got to be a pattern of discrimination. And I think there'll be a focus on that.
I think also that there will be a revisiting of some of the use of the Justice Department as a profit center and, you know, going after record fines and not individuals.
GIGOT: Yeah. This is against some of the big banks and for the practices during the financial crisis.
MUKASEY: Right. I'm not suggesting they're going to be more permissive. I think, if anything, they will focus on determining which people are responsible for crimes, if crimes were committed, and going after those people.
GIGOT: Individual accountability.
GIGOT: Thank you, Judge Mukasey. Appreciate your being here.
Still ahead, as the hope-and-change president delivers his farewell address, a look at the Obama legacy, both at home and abroad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse the Great Recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history --
OBAMA: -- if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran's nuclear weapons program without firing a shot --
OBAMA: -- take out the mastermind of 9/11 --
OBAMA: -- if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
OBAMA: But that's what we did.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: President Obama in Chicago on Tuesday touting what he sees as the domestic and foreign policy achievements of his administration as he delivered his farewell address to the nation.
We're back with Dan Henninger, Mary Kissel and Bret Stephens.
Bret, what do you think of the president's case?
STEPHENS: Well, it's refuted, unfortunately, by the evidence of eight years, which is the weakest recovery in history, a country that is probably angrier than ever, and that's true on both sides of the partisan divide, a feeling around the world that we are moving into a new era of disorder after our president kept telling us that the tide of war was receding. Allies who are furious with the United States and enemies who are emboldened to act against us. And that's, unfortunately, the facts that the world confronts after eight years of President Obama.
GIGOT: What do you think, though -- I mean, he's still popular.
GIGOT: He's still got an approval rating of 55, something like that, which is Ronald Reagan levels, maybe a little lower than when Ronald Reagan --
STEPHENS: Yeah, because I think people separate the man from the policy, and the man --
GIGOT: They admire the man.
STEPHENS: The man has a cool temperament, he's well spoken, there's the sense that he's a good family man and, basically, a thoroughly good human being, who happens to have been a pretty bad president.
GIGOT: And, Mary, what do you -- do you -- well, let me ask you this. What would you -- what do you think is his most significant achievement, a positive point of view?
KISSEL: Well, I think killing Osama bin Laden is probably the highlight of his presidency. And also just the fact of his election. Let's be clear, it was a historic election. Unfortunately, as we put it in the editorial, it wasn't a consequential presidency, for all of the reasons that Bret outlined. And, you know, if you wanted to maybe poke a bit of fun, you could say his greatest achievement was getting Donald Trump elected, because you could never have had a Donald Trump presidency without a Barack Obama before it.
GIGOT: Yeah, now, Democrats really hate that point that Mary made, but I agree with it because, I think as Bret pointed out, Obama governed in a polarizing fashion. He didn't want to deal with Congress after the first two years. And even the first two years he said, OK, Pelosi, you write the health care bill, you write the stimulus package. He hated to deal with Congress, and that's a big part of the president's job. And so, when you govern in a polarizing fashion, you create your polar opposite, and Trump in many ways is that.
HENNINGER: Well, let's -- in that context, let's talk a little bit about the farewell speech he gave Tuesday night, which I do not think was exactly a farewell speech.
It was a speech by -- no, I don't mean in the sense that he's not leaving, it was a speech directed to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is undergoing a battle now for the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. They are all, indirectly, Obama for making the party spend too much time on his presidency and not enough time on their needs out in the country because they got plastered in the last election. And I think what Obama said in that speech, he defended his presidency, but it was also a defense of the Democratic Party and its aspirations. And he wants to make sure he's still a player in the Democratic Party's future.
GIGOT: Well, and I -- well, and I think he feels somewhat responsible --
GIGOT: -- for the losses that the Democrats have suffered over his presidency, which have been considerable, and not just at the Congressional level, which often happens over an eight-year presidency. But at the state and local level, they're even more severe.
STEPHENS: You have a decimated Democratic Party. And even though you had, you know, Cory Booker's effective -- you know, the first step on his road to New Hampshire --
-- the other day, you have a very weak bench among the Democrats. Democrats, I think, feel that very palpably.
I do want to say -- and this is important, I think, for us to say this -- the election of an African-American as president, and a man who carried the office with so much dignity and was able to transcend racial issues and be a president for all America, is a huge achievement, and that achievement will loom larger over time. And I think it's --
GIGOT: It affirms American principles and how we like to see ourselves as a country of opportunity and fairness.
STEPHENS: Right. An "E Pluribus Unum" presidency. And as we move away from these policy battles -- ex-presidents look better over time. But that will stand up not only for Obama's legacy, but for America's as well.
GIGOT: What would you give President Obama credit for the most? What do you think is his big achievement?
HENNINGER: We've mentioned a couple -- Osama bin Laden. I'll tell you, quite honestly, it was getting elected the second time. He had a rocky start. His approval rating was down then. But Barack Obama, for all of the inability to do politics with Congress, put together a very effective political machine. It was remarkable. It was extraordinary. We learned a lot about how to run elections from Obama and the people who worked for him.
GIGOT: True. And yet, it didn't transfer over to his designated successor, Hillary Clinton.
All right. We'll see what he does after he leaves.
When we come back, Donald Trump hasn't even taken office, but Democrats in California are bracing for battle, putting Eric Holder on the payroll to take on the new Republican administration.
GIGOT: Bracing for battle against the incoming Trump administration, Democrats in California announced last week that they're bringing in the big guns, hiring former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm to represent them in any legal fights against the new Republican administration. All for the bargain price of $25,000 a month.
"Wall Street Journal" editorial board member, Colin Levey, joins us with the details.
Colin, now, state attorney generals, they hire private law firms all the time for help on cases, so why is this an unusual arrangement?
COLIN LEVY, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Well, it's really unusual, Paul, because it's completely preemptive. Donald Trump isn't even in office yet, and they're already getting out there. Clearly, first of all, Eric Holder is very much a political figure, and California, by hiring him -- all of these politicians in California, you'll notice, have gotten an awful lot of free air time just by doing this.
They get to get out there, they get to talk about the policies and California's values and what they're going to defend, and, you know, how much that is very anti-Trump. And so, this has been a boon to them, I mean, really. For the bargain price of $75,000 or so, they've probably gotten millions of dollars in free air time to talk about their policies.
GIGOT: All right, but here's the other angle on this that puzzles me. He's being hired by the legislature, OK, the state legislature. Usually the state attorney general's office, the executive branch does the hiring for help and when they're going to challenge a federal regulation or something like that. What interest does the legislature have in taking on the Trump administration, other than pure politics?
LEVY: Right, for sure. I mean, and that's -- there is an assemblyman, Kevin Kiley, a Republican in California, who's saying what they're doing violates the California constitution. There's an article, Article VII in the California constitution, that says that the state basically can't hire any -- can't hire outside contractors for any job that can be done adequately by people already in the civil service. So, you look at the California attorney general's office, you know, they have a budget of more than $800 million, they have 1500, I think, attorneys on staff. So, you wonder what exactly Holder has that all of those, you know, smart people don't.
GIGOT: What are they bracing to fight? What -- because it's usually -- I mean, when Republican state attorney generals took on the Obama administration, it was almost invariably to oppose some new regulation that imposed burdens on the states. There's been no such thing right now from the Trump administration, which isn't even in power, so what are they bracing for?
LEVY: Right, for sure. I mean, California's going to be interested in issues like immigration, sanctuary cities, a lot of environmental regulations. But you're right, I mean, they're looking for inspiration probably to states like Texas that sued the Obama administration to challenge policies there, so they're sort of finding a new breadth of federalism there in California.
GIGOT: Ah. So, they're discovering the wonders of states' rights. Very, very, very interesting.
GIGOT: So what about Holder's -- Eric Holder's law firm? Big firm based in Washington, takes on a lot of clients.
GIGOT: They're declaring themselves here, in taking this case on, quite early as an opponent of the Trump administration. What do you think -- will there be any political blowback from that?
LEVY: I mean, I doubt it. That's, unfortunately, the double standard here. You know, there have been issues in the past where, you know, former solicitor general, Paul Clement, when he took on some litigation about the Defense of Marriage Act, you know, his firm at the time, King and Spaulding, backed out of that, and he ended up having to resign in order to continue to represent his clients. So, you know, there was a bit of a double standard where the conservative cause was not as easily embraced by, you know, big law.
GIGOT: All right.
What do you make of the double standard point, Dan?
HENNINGER: Well, you know, it's a good point, and it makes it look as though these political parties are hiring law firms essentially as mercenaries. They're holding and sitting there in case they want to fight via the courts, which is what the Democrats have been doing for many years now, using the courts, using litigation to kneecap their opposition. They're taking on the president of the United States out there in California --
GIGOT: I do love the idea, though, that Californians and progressives are discovering that the states really do have a role under the constitution --
HENNINGER: You think they have?
GIGOT: Well, they're going to try. They're going to try to exploit that. That's terrific news, if you believe in the constitution.
We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits & Misses" of the week.
GIGOT: Time now for our "Hits & Misses" of the week.
Colin, start us off.
LEVY: Paul, Vaccination skeptic, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, announced this week that he had been asked by President-elect Donald Trump to chair a vaccine review panel. The president-elect office said no decisions have actually been made on that, but Mr. Trump has previously expressed interest in theories that a childhood vaccine can cause autism, even though those theories have been debunked by scientific evidence and the medical journals. Elevating Mr. Kennedy in this this sort of role would really send a dangerous message to parents. I hope it doesn't happen.
GIGOT: Thanks, Colin.
STEPHENS: A jury sentenced Dylann Roof to death for murdering nine African-American parishioners at a Methodist church in Charleston. I think it's justice served for one very psychopathic young man. Right after the mass murder in 2015, parishioners said they forgave him. That's not the role of the state and the people. And I think this is justice served for one of the most heinous crimes in recent memory.
KISSEL: I'm going to give a rare hit to George Soros, the hedge fund billionaire, for putting his money where his mouth is and betting that the stock market falls after Donald Trump was elected president. Well, as the "Wall Street Journal" reported this week, he lost almost $1 billion on the bet. And you have to appreciate the irony of a guy who has largely statist visions getting ripped by free-market forces and the Republican president- elect.
GIGOT: Courage of his convictions, though.
HENNINGER: I'm going to give a miss, Paul, to the list of presidential hopefuls emerging in the Democratic Party. Cory Booker we know about. He threw his hat at Senator Sessions this week. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, he's on the list. Then you get down to the fourth tier, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, California Senator Kamala Harris. And Bernie Sanders, when asked about it this week, said he's not ruling it out. He'd only be 79, Paul.
GIGOT: They need a better bench.
And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, be sure to tweet it to us, @JERonFNC.
That's it for this week show. Thanks to my panel. Thanks to you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. We hope to see you right here next week.
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