ROBERT COSTA: American carnage and American character.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) These are anarchists. They're looters. They’re bad people.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Protesting is protesting. But none of it justifies looting, burning, or anything else.
MR. COSTA: Faceoff over law and order –
JUSTIN BLAKE: (From video.) Say his name! Say his name!
CROWD: (From video.) Jacob Blake!
MR. COSTA: – in a battleground state. And President Trump roils the military community with alleged comments, which he denies.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It was a totally fake story. I have done more for the military that almost anybody else.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) You know in your heart. You know in your gut. It’s deplorable. It’s deplorable.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin tonight with a story on character that dominated the presidential campaign on Friday. Now, speaking as a reporter who has covered President Trump and before that candidate Trump through too many controversies to count, it is still unclear how this episode will affect the presidential race. But with less than two months before the election, it’s certainly the kind of story that could draw interest from swing voters in the suburbs in the industrial Midwest who might weigh matters of conduct in this final lap and perhaps even spark a reckoning among some Republicans. The Atlantic’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, reported late Thursday that President Trump once called U.S. soldiers injured or killed in war, quote, “losers” and “suckers,” and made other offensive comments about those who serve. Now, a note on sourcing: Goldberg cited four unnamed people with firsthand knowledge of the president’s comments. The White House has called the report patently false. The Washington Post and other outlets have confirmed the story since it was published. The president, who received a medical deferment from Vietnam, has at times been sharply critical of POWs, including of the late Senator John McCain, and once publicly said “I like people who weren’t captured.” Here is what the president said Thursday night.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s a disgrace that a magazine is able to write it. If people really exist that would have said that, they’re lowlifes and they’re liars. And I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Joe Biden responded on Friday.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m always cautioned not to lose my temper. This may be as close as I’ve come this campaign. It’s just a marker of how deeply President Trump and I disagree about the role of the president of the United States of America.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight to discuss the politics of character and the latest from Wisconsin are three top reporters: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Nikole Killion, correspondent for CBS News; and Arlette Saenz, political correspondent for CNN.
Peter, what is the context here in terms of a president who in 2015 made those disparaging remarks about now late Senator McCain to 2020 and this latest episode?
PETER BAKER: Right, that’s a good point. This is a president who has made one of the pillars of his campaign his support for the military, his support for increased spending on the military and for pay raises and so forth, and so for him the idea that he privately denigrates combat heroes as “suckers” and “losers” carries a great deal of political cost or political danger, right? He doesn’t want to let that remain unrebutted out there because it might undercut his support in a community he considers to be an important part of his constituency. Now, he was already losing support, it looks like, among active-duty troops according to the Military Times. They put out a poll this week saying that the president was actually trailing Vice President – former Vice President Biden 41 percent to 37 percent among active-duty troops, and that reflects a lot of tension that we’ve seen actually in recent months over the use of troops in terms of protests in American streets and the issue of Confederate-named Army bases, the issue of clemency for accused and convicted war criminals. And so this is coming at a time when this relationship between the commander in chief and his – and his military has already been pretty fraught, so that’s why I think you saw the furious reaction by the White House today trying to tamp down this story, trying to stamp it out and deny it, because they recognize that it could do a lot of damage to a president just 60 days before an election.
MR. COSTA: Arlette, we also saw a furious reaction from Vice President Biden, an emotional response on that news conference Friday. You cover the Biden campaign. You’ve been covering it closely for years. What did you learn about the campaign’s response today and why the VP decided to say what he said?
ARLETTE SAENZ: Well, Bob, I’ve covered Joe Biden’s campaign from the very beginning and some time before that, and this is the angriest that I’ve ever seen him. It’s really he showed exactly why he believes there’s a fundamental difference between himself and President Trump. You know, Biden when he was vice president would carry a card in his jacket with the number of troops that were killed as a reminder of what he sees as the sacred obligation to the military and their families, and he also – you heard him talk in really, really personal terms about his own son Beau Biden, who while he was attorney general in Delaware served in the Delaware National Guard and went to Iraq, Biden saying that his son was not a sucker for doing that, for the – that the servicemen and -women who lost their lives alongside his son, that they were not losers. And so Biden has that personal understanding of what it’s like to send a child to war, and he’s also had to deal with the military as in his role as vice president, and I think that this also just gets to the heart of part of the reason why Biden got into this race. Biden has said that were it not President Trump being in office that he may not be running this time around, but he was so upset and frustrated with the president’s response to Charlottesville, when he said that there were very fine people on both sides, and he just fundamentally disagrees with the division that he believes that the president is sowing. And so you saw that anger and that frustration as he said today that this just shows that they view the role of the presidency differently on the issue, especially when it comes to the military, in Biden’s view.
MR. COSTA: Nikole, you’ve spent a lot of time covering President Trump. You went to West Point to cover him earlier this summer when he spoke to cadets. What is the power of this story with the military community, and what have you learned in your reporting about the White House’s response?
NIKOLE KILLION: Well, I think to Peter’s point, you know, this runs the risk of undercutting the president’s argument that he is a big supporter of the military, that he has helped to rebuild the military, but yet we have seen some cracks when it comes to his position versus how some servicemembers actually view this president. And so for instance, if you look back to that visit that he made to West Point over the summer, the context of that visit was that it had happened not long after the shooting or the incident involving George Floyd, of course, when we saw him fatally killed as a police officer put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and so in the wake of that of course we saw these mass of protest, and so the president’s visit to West Point came against the backdrop of that and came against the backdrop of that now-infamous photo op where the president went through Lafayette Square and stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church with a Bible in hand. And so right before he addressed cadets at that graduation ceremony over the summer, several West Point alum and grads penned a letter criticizing the role of defense officials in that event, and we saw Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley express regret, who was in uniform at the time, for being there. And so that was one example of where we saw this real divide between the president and military leaders, and of course now with the timing of this Atlantic story it runs the risk of doing the same again, certainly potentially of impacting morale within the military. And as Peter also referenced, you know, you have this poll that came out earlier this week by the Military Times showing nearly half of respondents having an unfavorable view of this president, and given that this is a base and a sector that the president relies upon then it certainly could spell trouble for his political future and fortunes as we get closer to the election.
MR. COSTA: Such an important point, Nikole. And Peter, I want you to jump in on that because, as Nikole laid out, this is not an isolated incident. This didn’t come from left field. It’s one of a series of flashpoints over the past three and a half years. And, Peter, you and your wife, Susan Glasser, at The New Yorker, coming out with a book later this week – I can’t wait to read it – about former Secretary of State James Baker. And you are as plugged into that national security establishment as any reporter I know, and I mean that seriously. So I have to ask you, after listening to what Nikole said, why aren’t the sources for Jeffrey Goldberg speaking out? The possible former generals or former officials, why do they stay quiet at this critical time?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s a great question, and one we spent a lot of time today asking. I think that you’re right that there has been great frustration among the generals who have served President Trump and those who have just watched from the outside. They don’t – they don’t think that he respects the military the way that previous presidents have, that he sees the military as another political tool or political prop at times, that doesn’t respect service. The way he treated John McCain I think continues to rankle, I think, a lot of the uniformed service, particularly the officers.
But why they haven’t come out? It’s a good question. I think there are some, particularly those who served President Trump, who tell themselves that it’s wrong for generals to participate in the political election season, that to come out and be an actor on the campaign stage, in effect, is unbecoming for somebody who’s had a career in the military. And yet, of course, you know, there’s a lot of speculation today about who these sources could have been. I think there are a lot of people who think that they know. And it may not – you know, it may be better off if the persons would simply come forward and be open about it, so we can evaluate the information and give it the due scrutiny that it deserves.
MR. COSTA: Especially when the White House continues to have these denials, and The Atlantic stands by its story. Arlette, when you’re talking to top Biden campaign officials, do they see this particular story as something that will change the election, actually peel off some suburban voters, some moderate Republicans? Or is it just another headline inside the Biden orbit?
MS. SAENZ: Well, I think that Biden and his aides have frustration with these words and types of comments being attributed to the president of the United States. And ultimately what they’re hoping to do is draw this distinction when it comes to character. And having the president reportedly making these types of comments, that is something that Biden just would never see himself doing when it comes to the military. So as they are going forward into the campaign, and really from the beginning, they have made this all about character. Biden saying that he’s engaging in this battle for the soul of the nation, that he fundamentally disagrees with the direction, the division that the president has sowed.
And the Biden campaign believes that that is something that will tire with voters, that they want to see more stability, perhaps, in their president, someone with a more steady hand, is their argument for Joe Biden, and someone who has that respect for the military and has shown it throughout his career as a politician and also just personally on that level – with his own son having served. His wife, Jill Biden, was deeply involved with the military families when she was second lady. So these are all, you know, talking points that they can kind of push forward as they have the current president reportedly making these denigrating comments about service members.
MR. COSTA: Arlette, your comments about voters being tired, perhaps exhausted, and suburban voters – they’re the group we’re watching on this story, and we’ll keep watching them. And they’re also one of the groups we’re all watching as reporters amid the racial reckoning in this country. The latest front this week is also a key political battleground, Wisconsin. Both President Trump and Vice President Biden visited there this week. President Trump had a searing law and order message.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Violent mobs demolished or damaged at least 25 businesses, burned down public buildings, and threw bricks at police officers. These are not acts of peaceful protest, but really domestic terror.
MR. COSTA: Vice President Biden met with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot by a White police officer last month in Kenosha.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If I get elected president, I promise you there will be a national commission on policing out of the White House, where I’ll bring everyone to the table.
MR. COSTA: Nikole, was Wisconsin this week a microcosm of the campaign and where this nation is on race?
MS. KILLION: Well, I think it certainly is a microcosm of the campaign. I don’t know if it is where the nation currently stands. I mean, I think to me what struck most searingly is that this really is, as we pointed out even with the military story, you know, a tale of two campaigns, a tale of two different candidates. And so I think the president has been very clear that he is going to continue with this law-and-order message; and Biden, on the other hand, of course, is trying to paint himself as the more empathetic figure, as someone who is a uniter not a divider.
So we saw in his visit, you know, him sitting down with members of the community and hearing some of the pain that many in the African American community feel, versus the president who took more of the approach of sitting down with law enforcement. And certainly we need to bring all of those communities together. And so in the context of this visit this week, you know, I think you saw echoes of that too with the conventions. You know, with the Republican National Convention we did not even hear the president mention Jacob Blake’s name. Whereas during the Democratic National Convention we saw members of the Floyd family speak at that convention. And so, again, you’re just seeing this – these two different approaches.
You know, as far as the president is concerned, while certainly the law and order message may resonate with his base, I think many within the African American community want to see more empathy from this president, and really see him address the elephant in the room – which is systemic racism, which underlies this more – broader problem – as opposed to simply painting protesters as agitators, as looters, when the bulk of these protests have been peaceful and certainly the president and the White House have acknowledged that, but really haven’t gotten under the hood of the car to talk more specifically about those issues of race. It didn’t even really come up during the convention. And so that is not lost on many African Americans voters.
So that being said, we certainly know many in the Trump campaign feel that they will do well with Black voters. And, you know, they think the president has a record that speaks to that. You know, Biden, on the other hand, I think really wants to target members of the African American community. Certainly, that is a key part of his coalition that he – and currently he leads with that demographic. And certainly one that he feels will be instrumental, I think, to his campaign going forward.
MR. COSTA: Arlette, can you jump in on that? George Packer wrote a story for The Atlantic this week about how Biden could possibly lose if he doesn’t have a forceful enough message on law and order. How are they trying to balance the appeal to White voters in the suburbs who may like that law and order message with Biden’s own calls for racial reform and reconciliation?
MS. SAENZ: Well, I think the Biden campaign was feeling a lot of pressure to have him more forcefully speak out against some of the violence that was seen in the protests after the president and his allies last week spent the week trying to paint Biden as soft on crime, and suggest that Americans wouldn’t be safe under President Trump’s America. Biden instead at the start of the week, I was there in Pittsburgh when he delivered a fiery speech. And he tried to turn the tables right back on President Trump, saying that these images that have played out in some protests across the country, that’s happening under President Trump’s watch. And he’s also trying to bring in the larger picture of safety in America when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, when it comes to foreign policy. He believes that the president has failed on those issues.
And so right now what you’ve seen from Biden – you know, at the start of the week he denounced the violence on all sides. He condemned rioting and looting and setting things on fire, saying that that’s not part of protesting, that that is lawlessness. But then you also see him reaching out to that community that is now grappling with that police shooting, talking about those issues of racial justice. This is something that we saw Biden do also after the death of George Floyd.
MR. COSTA: Arlette –
MS. SAENZ: Biden went down to Houston, met privately with the family. He held a listening session back in Delaware, trying to hear concerns from community leaders, African American leaders. That’s something he did again yesterday in Kenosha. I was there. You could still see – you know, right before Biden arrived there were several dozen protesters who showed up outside the church, still very frustrated with the racial injustice that they have seen occur in this case. And they want to see more action from the former vice president. So you’re seeing him kind of skirting this line, where he does – he has, you know, denounced the violence that has occurred, but then also trying to speak to those issues of racial justice that so many people are concerned about.
MR. COSTA: And, Peter, what does this all mean for the state of play in Wisconsin, a state President Trump won by just 22,000 votes in 2016? Is this all about revving up his turnout in the mostly White Milwaukee suburbs?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think that’s a lot of it. Obviously, it is a critical state; the president wants desperately to hold onto it. If he manages to hold onto even one of those Midwestern states and then doesn’t lose in, say, Florida and Arizona, he has a much better shot at, you know, holding onto the Electoral College majority that he had from last time even if he doesn’t win the popular vote. So yeah, Wisconsin’s a key, key part of that. And I was talking today with somebody who went out with him to Kenosha this week – I wasn’t on the trip – but the said he was charged up by the reception he got. He felt like he was welcomed there, that people were glad to see him there, that they were lined up on the streets, and they said that there were protests – people who didn’t want him there, people who thought it was wrong for him to come or he would enflame the situation; he didn’t see that. And so I think what you are seeing is a president out there who wants to get back out on the campaign trail – I was with him last night in Latrobe, Pennsylvania – wants to have these big rallies, gets a charge out of it. His schedule tells a tale. He’s going to North Carolina once this week, once next week; Pennsylvania; Wisconsin. I think you’ll see him, obviously, elsewhere in the Midwest and probably in Florida and Arizona as well. So it’s a president who understands that he has some making up to do in the polls, but feels confident that this law-and-order issue is a way to get traction even if the polls haven’t yet shown that it’s working for him.
MR. COSTA: Nikole, we have about 30 seconds left. You’ve also done some reporting on the political map. Which states are you looking at in terms of where the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign are focused?
MS. KILLION: Well, I think it’s important to go back to those three critical states back in 2016 which made the difference for President Trump, which is Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Now, again, I think the Trump campaign doesn’t necessarily feel that it has to win all three of those again, that it can still succeed and surpass 270 without all three, but hands down to me those are the three states to watch. We are seeing the Trump campaign increasingly spend more time in Pennsylvania, which to me says out of the three that’s certainly one of the ones they’re focusing on the most.
MR. COSTA: Arlette, would you add anything to that when you open your own notebook?
MS. SAENZ: Yeah, I mean, I think that Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are going to be huge, Biden, you know, making his first real campaign visit outside of the Delaware-Pennsylvania area there yesterday, also due to this moment that the city and state is in right now due to Jacob Blake. But I think that those states, I think Arizona and Florida are something that the Biden campaign are also hoping to bring over to their corner.
MR. COSTA: Well, that’s all the time we have tonight. It is a pledge week here at PBS, so we’re a little shorter than usual. Peter Baker, Nikole Killion, Arlette Saenz, thanks so much for being here. Really enjoyed this discussion. Appreciate your time on a Friday night.
And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to this campaign as we can, and the final weeks – the final weeks, they’re upon us. Our conversation will continue on our Extra. We’ll talk about that big Joe Kennedy-Ed Markey primary up in the Bay State, Massachusetts, this week. Find it on our social media and on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.