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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on Trump vs. health experts, Stone’s commutation

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report join Amna Nawaz to discuss the latest political news, including President Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s prison sentence and the Lincoln Project’s TV ad response, Trump’s attacks on U.S. health experts during the pandemic and what poll numbers in states struggling with COVID-19 could mean for Trump and Republican senators.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over the weekend, President Trump's critics seized on that Stone commutation.

    The Lincoln Project, a group working to elect Joe Biden in November, released an ad calling the Trump administration a criminal enterprise, and listing the members of the Trump team who have been convicted of felonies.

    Here to break down the political implications of this and more, our Politics Monday team. That's Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of public radio's "Politics With Amy Walter," and Tamara Keith of NPR. She also co-hosts the "NPR Politics Podcast."

    Welcome to you both.

    And let's just start off with that ad.

    It's worth mentioning, Tam, it was on Friday that President Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone. On Saturday, The Lincoln Project had that ready to go. An ad like that, leveraging Stone's commutation, what is the messaging there, and who is the messaging going towards?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, The Lincoln Project has been a rapid-response unit coming out with ads quickly whenever President Trump does anything that they think deserves an ad.

    And some of their ads are very trolley, seemed to be aimed at an audience of one who might be watching "FOX & Friends" that morning, the president of the United States.

    In terms of who they're trying to reach, arguably, they're trying to reach Republicans who the last time around, in 2016, may have had some discomfort for President Trump, but couldn't bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton.

    And now there is a push, and it's broader than The Lincoln Project, certainly — that's just one example — now there's a push to try to win over people who do feel uncomfortable with President Trump and his norms-busting or his handling of the coronavirus.

    It's not clear to me, though, that the Stone commutation is going to be the thing that puts people over the edge. I mean, President Trump has, as Lisa reported, done a lot of these things. And look to how he sort of has rewarded his friends and gone after people like Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and others who testified in the impeachment trial.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, what do you make of this?

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, I agree with Tam's point about that.

    If there's anything that is hurting the president politically, it's the coronavirus. It's the fact that, in the most recent polling, on overage, the president's disapproval rating (AUDIO GAP) the crisis that we're in right now, his disapproval rating (AUDIO GAP)

    The majority of Americans believe that, on the most important issue facing (AUDIO GAP) the president is not doing a good job on that. That's what's weighing this president down, much more so than what is either happening with the commutations or the continuing back and forth with the president and (AUDIO GAP) as his political enemies and the tweetstorms.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Amy — or, Tam, rather, let me ask you about the president's pandemic response.

    We have seen an administration struggling to message on it consistently and coherently, and this new development our colleague Yamiche Alcindor reported on earlier of attacking the very same experts who are working with the White House Task Force to help them respond to the pandemic, specifically Dr. Anthony Fauci.

    What do you make of that messaging, and also the fact that the president was seen for the very first time wearing a mask this weekend?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, the president was seen for the very first time wearing a mask this weekend. It's been months since the recommendation was put out, and he actively avoided wearing a mask.

    He wore it, and then his campaign was sort of shouting from the rooftop, spiking footballs, whatever you want to call it, on Twitter, saying how manly and amazing he looked, and now he's going to win the race. It was sort of an over-the-top response from his campaign to what is a fairly standard thing that most people are doing, politicians or not.

    So, the White House, in its response and its inability to sort of land on a message, this effort to separate from Fauci or to have Dr. Fauci be less of a public face, part of that is, when Fauci goes out and does these interviews, he often is asked questions that lead to him revealing that there is space between his view and the White House view.

    And White House officials I have spoken to are frustrated about that, and keep saying, like, well, he's just one of the experts.

    And yet Fauci has been held up as the expert. He's on socks. He's on donuts and prayer candles. He's everywhere. And the White House is sort of frustrated by that. But the bigger question is, what is their plan? What is their response? And that is much less clear, sort of the going-forward strategy on how they're going to deal with the coronavirus.

    I mean, the president is doing his best not to really talk about it, and, when he does talk about it, he's often downplaying it or downplaying the deaths.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, some people are looking at the way the White House has been messaging recently, specifically with regard to Dr. Fauci, and saying he's trying to undermine Dr. Fauci.

    When you look at how people are viewing those two messengers, what do we know about how people are taking in those two sources of information?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, we do know that, at least in the most recent polling, Dr. Fauci has much higher favorable ratings than the president does. He's certainly not as polarizing as the president.

    The other thing we know that this president loves to do is muddy the waters. And the Russia investigation is a perfect example of that, throw enough stuff out there that people really start to question and doubt what it is that they're seeing and hearing.

    And if they throw their hands up and say, well, I don't know, it all seems kind of like a mess, that's kind of a win for the president.

    The problem in muddying the water on a public health crisis is that it actually puts people's lives in danger. And there's absolutely no way for the president to get back to the economy that he would like to have, talking about how great the economy was before COVID started.

    He talked about how important it was to get schools back in session this fall. None of that can happen unless COVID is under control and unless people in this country feel safe doing their everyday activities.

    So, this is — again, the president goes back to his traditional strategy of just make it somebody else's fault, or make it unclear, so that I don't get the blame.

    But, in this case, when you're president of the United States in a major crisis, the buck definitely stops with you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tam, let me ask you about how we're already seeing some indication that the virus could help to shape in some way the presidential election.

    When you look at some new poll numbers out from CBS News, and you look at three key Sunbelt states, all states that have been hit very hard by the pandemic, are seeing surges, in Florida, Joe Biden is now leading President Trump by six points.

    They are virtually tied in Arizona, and Biden is now competitive in Texas. When you look at those numbers and how close they are, where they are today, what do they say to you?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, one thing about those three states, it's that they are demographically shifting, in that they are states that are growing more diverse.

    And that would matter. But what matters more now also is that President Trump is doing really poorly with older voters. They have been a critical part of his base. And it's possible he can get them back, but, right now, Biden is performing quite well with older voters, who are certainly a presence in those states and are a significant part of why President Trump was able to perform as well as he did in 2016 in those states.

    And the issue with older voters is, the coronavirus is affecting their lives in a very real way. I was talking to a Republican pollster who also does a lot of focus groups with women, who said, grandmothers are mad. Grandmothers are livid. It's not just about having to shelter in place or feeling at risk from coronavirus.

    They can't see their grandkids, and that affects them in a very visceral way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, let me ask you about some related or possibly related Senate races, too.

    If you look at these battleground states and you see that President Trump could be vulnerable there, what about other incumbent senators in red states? Should they be similarly concerned?

  • Amy Walter:

    They should be very concerned. And they are very concerned.

    Amna, going into 2020, Democrats, they had a little bit of an advantage on the overall playing field. They're not playing as much defense as they were, say, back in 2018. But they didn't have a lot of obvious targets.

    As the president's numbers sink, that means that Republicans' numbers are sinking, even in places that theoretically, at least earlier this year, looked safe for them, like Iowa, or we put up — in Arizona, which is a purple state.

    But we are starting to see states like Montana come online. And so what this means now is, if you're a Republican incumbent in a state that is at all competitive, you should be very nervous, in part because the president is not just a little bit of a drag, but he's like an anchor right now around the ankles of these incumbent Republican senators.

    If he doesn't see his numbers go up as we get closer to the election, it's going to be very hard for some of these senators.

    And Arizona is a great example of that for the incumbent Republican senators to be able to get enough oxygen to win these races.

    The other thing I would note about — about Arizona and Texas, we had a preview in 2018 of why those states are more competitive. And that is, as Tam pointed out, not that they're diversifying, but they're very suburban.

    Arizona especially, most of the vote, more than 60 percent of the vote comes from Maricopa County, which is Phoenix and its suburbs. As those suburbs are changing and as places like Dallas and Houston, San Antonio suburbs, the Austin suburbs become more Democratic-leaning, it gets tougher and tougher for Republicans to pull out the kind of margins that they're used to seeing in those kind of states.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is a lot to track in the weeks and the months ahead.

    That is Amy Walter and Tamara Keith breaking it all down for us again in Politics Monday.

    Thanks to you both. Good to see you.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Good to see you.

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