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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on Trump’s briefings, key Senate races

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including the evolution of the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, President Trump’s shifting approval ratings and possible electoral implications for Senate races this fall.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House at first said there wouldn't be a briefing by the president today to update Americans on COVID-19, and then announced that there would be.

    For a look at how all the White House briefings have been seen by the public, I'm here with 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."

    It is so good to see both of you. Thank you very much.

    Tam, I am going to start with you, because you have been looking at this question of these White House briefings. They have been going on now for weeks. They were — we were told these were all about updating the country on COVID-19.

    But they have branched out beyond that. What have you seen in examining them?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, so I have been looking back at these briefings, and got some help from the data analytics firm Factbase. They have a Web site that crunches all of — transcribes all of the president's press conferences.

    And what we have learned is that it started out as Vice President Mike Pence was going to come out of these briefings, and come out of the task force meetings, and sort of brief the public on what the task force covered.

    Well, very quickly, President Trump started attending. And then he started dominating. And the analysis we found is that, over the course of these briefings, President Trump has spoken for 30 hours. And Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci, the two medical experts, that are part of the task force most prominently, combined, they have spoken for eight hours.

    The sort of traditional approach that public health communicators advocate for is that, you know, the politicians get out, they give a clear, concise, simple message about what the public can do, actionable information, and then they hand it over to the medical experts to talk about the science.

    Well, President Trump has shown that he likes to talk about the science too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, Tam, staying with you, he got in, I think it is fair to say, hot water last week after he was musing, in the White House words, about whether to inject disinfectant into humans, whether to inject ultraviolet light.

    After that, the White House announced there weren't going to be any briefings today. As we said, they did put one on. And there is one that has been under way.

    But has the White House taken, frankly, a different view of these briefings? What have we learned about that?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, one of the things that is happening right now is that the president and his new chief of staff have completely overhauled the communications operation at the White House.

    There is a new press secretary. There is a new communications director. And they are attempting to get their sea legs as this crisis is going. The White House has said that they sort of see this as an inflection point, that they are trying to transition — trying being an operative word — to talking more, focusing more on reopening the economy, rebuilding the economy, which is going to be important for the president's reelection.

    But, instead, so much of this has just become the Trump show. And, certainly, there are people concerned that the president spent the better part of the weekend sort of offering new explanations for why he was asking medical experts about injecting disinfectants into human beings for treatment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amy, we know that a lot of Americans have been watching these briefings, wherever they have been able to find them, on television, on cable, streaming online.

    What have we seen about the reaction of the public to what they are seeing and hearing?

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, Judy, what we have seen is, the more time that the president has spent in front of the cameras, the more his approval rating numbers have dropped.

    If you look at where this president was, both in opinions of Americans on his overall handling of his job as president, as well as handling the coronavirus, his numbers were starting to inch up at the end of the March.

    But now they have gone on this sort of downward trajectory. This is in contrast to governors and other state and local officials who have also been on TV a lot, who are also really under the public eye every week or every day in front of TV cameras, talking to their residents. They have seen their numbers increase, their approval rating numbers increase to heights that they had not seen before.

    And a big part of the difference is, as Tam pointed out, about the Trump show, is that we're in a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, and the president has chosen to meet this moment with the same sort of behavior, style, personality that he has met every moment, whether it is a crisis or not.

    And we know that that behavior is incredibly polarizing. And for people who like it, who believe that this is the way that the president gets stuff done, and it's straight talk and taking it directly to the mainstream media and others who they feel are undermining him, then they they're getting something good out of these briefings.

    But, for everybody else, they are seeing something that they have come to dislike over the course of this presidency, they continue to dislike.

    And so, for this president, who has been sort of desperate to capture the moment, perhaps the best thing for him to do is to retreat from it. And we know he won't do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Tam, just quickly, this is a White House that does watch — as every president does, they watch the ratings.

    And so this is something they have to figure out. They are absorbing it and figuring out what to do about it..

  • Tamara Keith:

    Right. And what the new White House communications team thinks should be done or wants to be done may not be super relevant, because there is one person who watches it all extremely closely, who has expressed opinions about who should be sitting where in the White House Briefing Room, even, and that is the president himself.

    And if the president is continuing to pay very, very, very close attention to this, continuing to not want to be upstaged by others, then there is a decent chance that the president is going to keep doing what the president does.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amy, sort of related to all of this, depending on how you see it, you have also been looking at not just how the president is doing in terms of his approval, but what some Senate races, which are critically important to Republicans holding on to their majority in the Senate.

    What are you seeing this year so far?

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

    And there has been a lot of talk, at least for the last couple of weeks or so, about the fact that the president's numbers, as they are declining, we are seeing Republican numbers decline over the course of that same amount of time up and down the ballot.

    But, Judy, here is the challenge. When your party is in the White House, wherever you are on that ballot, your political fortunes rise and fall with the political fortunes of that person in the White House.

    The other thing that we have known for quite some time is that Democrats are on the offense this year. They have been able to put about eight Senate seats in play. Republicans have two seats in play.

    Democrats, if they hold all of their seats, they just need to win three and the White House to take control of the Senate. So, you know, there is a very strong possibility, Judy, that, if Joe Biden were to win the White House, he brings with him a Democratic Senate, and Democrats hold the House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Amy, just in the little bit of time we have left, are there specific races that you are seeing that you are watching where there is a change in the fate of these Republicans?

  • Amy Walter:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, I think North Carolina is a perfect example, Arizona to a certain extent as well. Democrats early on were worried about these two states, especially when it looked like Bernie Sanders might be the nominee.

    With Joe Biden, who has a better appeal in those sort of purple states, they are feeling much better about their chances there. And then we have seen some challenges for Republicans in places like Georgia, where the appointed Republican senator there has gotten caught up in a stock-selling scandal.

    And, in Kansas, there is a candidate, Kris Kobach, who is very a polarizing figure who remains ahead in that primary. Republicans worry about Kansas. And, of course, in Montana, a state — these are all red states I just mentioned — the popular Democratic governor announcing a couple weeks ago — or maybe it's a month ago — I don't know — all the days are running together, Judy — that he was running for the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, they are.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Walter:

    So, they are all the same now.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    So, between putting a lot more seats in play, having Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, and a president whose approval ratings are dropping, all of these are making Democrats look and feel a lot better about the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating, all this fascinating.

    Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, we thank you both.

    Please stay safe.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You too.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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