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How will Woodward’s Trump revelations affect American voters?

With Election Day now less than two months away, how will revelations that President Trump intentionally misled Americans about coronavirus risk affect voter intent? The Washington Post’s Gary Abernathy and Kansas-based journalist Sarah Smarsh, author of “Heartland,” join Judy Woodruff to discuss that as well as what they are hearing about the pandemic and the economic downturn it caused.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the presidential election moves into the final stretch, we want to regularly check in on how things are playing out across the country.

    Tonight, we turn to Gary Abernathy. He's a columnist for The Washington Post. He's based in Ohio. And Sarah Smarsh, she's a Kansas-based journalist and the author of the book "Heartland."

    Hello to both of you. You were with us for the conventions. And it's great to have you back with us.

    We just heard Yamiche's report about the pandemic, the disproportionate effect on people of color.

    I want to start out by asking you about Bob Woodward's book, revelations out today, Gary Abernathy, that the president knew in late January how serious it was. He told Woodward he knew it was much more deadly than the flu.

    And yet he continued to tell the public that it would go away for many weeks after that.

    I know it's early. This has just come out, but what's your sense of how voters where you are going to react to this?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Yes, thanks, Judy. It's good to be with you and Sarah.

    I read several of the stories today about the book. I like Bob Woodward's books. I have read several of them and look forward to this one.

    I don't know that there's a big contradiction, like some people are saying. I know the president said early on, it was a deadly situation. He did compare it to the flu. Of course, the flu can be deadly, too.

    But I think the president's motives, you know, and the way a lot of people here will look at it, he wanted to keep the economy open. He wanted to keep things rolling. I don't think he ever really bought into shutting things down, even though, eventually, he kind of had to.

    But I think most people here who support him are going to say, yes, we all kind of knew it was deadly, and that's not really big news.

    Now, others will, of course, make a case that, hey, he was hiding this, he was covering up. But I think a lot of people here will just say, yes, he knew it was deadly, but he was trying to keep people calm. He didn't want a panic across the country. He wanted things to remain as normal as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, it also meant that he didn't take some of the sweeping steps that some say he could have taken, should have taken, arguably, if he had publicly acknowledged the severity of it.

    But, Sarah Smarsh, what about you? What about Kansas? What do you think? It's early, but what's your sense of how people may react?

  • Sarah Smarsh:

    Well, I agree with Gary that his existing supporters, the president's existing supporters, likely will not bail from the Trump ship over this, if they haven't thus far over other controversies.

    So, just like with data about the coronavirus, we are seeing over and over that, along partisan lines, we can pretty easily predict and track the way that people will respond to news based on their party affiliation or political leanings.

    So, while this might hold some bearing on independent swing voters, to whatever extent they're still out there, I doubt that folks who are supporting Trump will be moved by this news.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, I mean, there's so much else to ask you about the book, a number of other derogatory comments about the president by people high up in the administration.

    But I do want to move on to the economy, to — however people see, Gary Abernathy, where you are, the economic message coming from the president vs. what they may or may not be hearing from Joe Biden, what's your sense of how people are reading that?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    I think that a lot of people — again, it kind of goes back to what we talked about before, Judy.

    People weren't happy where I live that the — that everything was totally shut down to begin with. They felt like a more targeted approach was necessary. Where there were hot spots across the country, yes, more drastic action was needed. But to shut down everything across the Southern Ohio area, for example, where I'm at, people generally weren't very happy with it.

    So, to say — that means they gave Trump credit for the economy that existed before everything shut down for the pandemic. And I think that they believe his policies worked then, and if we can just get back up and running, they will — they will work again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sarah, what about you?

    I know you talk to folks a lot. And you were sharing with us today. But tell us what you're hearing, what people are perceiving as they sense or hear the messages. What's coming through to them about the economy?

  • Sarah Smarsh:

    Sure.

    Well, I should start by saying that the state of Kansas had a kind of woefully outdated infrastructure at its Department of Labor when they were suddenly slammed by a flux of historic levels of unemployment claims last spring, and they have spent every day since toiling to sort of update, restructure and address that demand.

    So, meanwhile, while the state is waiting for Congress to act with a renewed aid package, we recently were approved for $63 million in FEMA funds. And so I think that Kansans are aware that there's some help coming from a different revenue stream.

    But, as far as how this relates politically to what's going on with the election and what messages are sort of landing, the economic crisis, of course, dovetails with the pandemic.

    And people's essentially belief in, or lack thereof, regarding the coronavirus kind of predicts how they feel about the economy and whether Trump is doing a good job or not.

    So, yesterday, the city of Wichita, their city council — that's our largest city in the state of Kansas — held a meeting as to whether to extend the city mask mandate. That was passed in response to the broader county basically revoking the governor's state level mask mandate.

    There's been a lot of different jurisdictions battling here. And their passing yea or nay on masks definitely correlates with partisan political leanings. Yesterday, at that meeting, for seven hours, anti-mask-wearing sort of self-proclaimed freedom advocates who are definitely giving a line about the economy and the economic imperative to stop imposing such measures on small businesses held fort at this meeting at the microphone.

    I think that they are sort of a very vocal minority. Most people that I see around here think that the economy is currently a disaster, and that it's absolutely related to the pandemic. But the messages about questioning the mask-wearing and social distancing and the validity of numbers about the virus have definitely gotten through to a large contingent of people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much more that I'd love to ask you two about. We will be having you back to continue the conversation.

    Sarah Smarsh, Gary Abernathy, we thank you both.

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Thanks.

  • Sarah Smarsh:

    Thanks for having me.

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