YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The battle for democracy. In statehouses across America, Republicans are introducing bills restricting voting.
TEXAS STATE REPRESENTATIVE JACEY JETTON (R): (From video.) There should be consistency between the counties.
TEXAS STATE REPRESENTATIVE JESSICA GONZALEZ (D): (From video.) It’s – really, this is a witch hunt. It’s a witch hunt that is aimed at people of color.
MS. ALCINDOR: While in Washington –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Democracy itself is in peril.
MS. ALCINDOR: – Democrats are pushing the Senate to pass a law to expand voting.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) I simply think that a commission is not necessary.
MS. ALCINDOR: And trying to find common ground on a January 6th investigation, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. Inauguration Day was 135 days ago, but Republicans are still contesting the 2020 election. At least 14 states have passed GOP-backed laws restricting voter access, including in Georgia, Arizona, and Florida, and in Texas this week Republicans were on the verge of passing their own set of laws – that is, until Democrats in the statehouse walked out. Here’s what they said.
TEXAS STATE REPRESENTATIVE NICOLE COLLIER (D): (From video.) We will continue to fight and speak out against those measures that attempt to silence our voices. They don’t want you to know the truth on that bill.
MS. ALCINDOR: Last month I interviewed Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes. He’s a co-author of the Texas bill. Here’s part of what he told me.
MS. ALCINDOR: (From video.) What do you say to the criticism that, regardless of the intent of this law, that it will make it harder for some people – including people of color, Black people, disabled people – to vote?
TEXAS STATE SENATOR BRYAN HUGHES (R): (From video.) Well, so I hear that generalization, but no one has shown me any evidence of it.
MS. ALCINDOR: What do these state-level battles mean for the future of American democracy? Joining us tonight are four reporters covering it all: Leigh Ann Caldwell, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News; Astead Herndon, national political reporter for The New York Times; and joining me here in studio, Anita Kumar, White House correspondent and associate editor for Politico; and Annie Linskey, White House reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you all so much for being here.
Astead, how does this bill in Texas fit into the national push to restrict voting?
ASTEAD HERNDON: Yeah, I think what we see in Texas is a microcosm of what we’ve seen across the country from Republicans. That’s in the wake of a 2020 election that at the top line didn’t go how they wanted but had some good Republican results down ballot. They have decided to do a full frontal assault on lower-D democracy, right? We are talking here about a party that has tied itself so closely to the former president’s lies about election security that the base is demanding that their elected officials act on this front. They are demanding that, in the – in the words of Trump, that they stop the so-called rigged election. So you really have Republicans here that are looking for solutions in search of a problem.
But I think that what you have also, as I talk to Republican voters across the country, is really a base that is motivated by this idea that they are being – that there is a sense of cultural and political loss that’s happening, and so wokeness, cancel culture, even these type of voting restrictions all play within this larger feeling that is happening amongst kind of core Republicans that they think that the country is changing in ways and new populations are emerging with new politicians, and they are trying to stop that even if it comes up against what we typically see as the core principle of the country: one person, one vote.
MS. ALCINDOR: Annie, you know, Astead talking about the Republican base here. The White House, though, continues to stress that this is a top priority for President Biden, stopping these voting bills. You were there Memorial Day when President Biden said democracy is in peril. What’s the Biden administration’s strategy when it comes to these voting laws, and how do you think that will impact how things play out in Congress?
ANNIE LINSKEY: Yeah, Yamiche, I mean, as you know quite well, Biden has been involved with this issue for a good chunk of his career, I mean, kind of going back to when he was the chair of the Judiciary Committee and pushing through similar sort of voting rights legislation at that point, so he has a long history with this and he really internalizes it. I’ve spoken with historians who he likes to meet with – this is something that presidents tend to love to do – and they have said that Biden has sort of talked about, you know, what his one sentence might be – you know, what is the one thing he could be remembered for – and in those conversations voting rights is one of the things that comes up.
But you also saw this week that this portfolio was handed to Vice President Harris, who has taken it – has been really interested in doing it. There have been a number of conversations before that happened, and she has sort of laid – she has a three-pronged strategy, her advisors tell me, you know, where she will, you know, sort of use the public – sort of the bully pulpit of the – of the vice presidency. And in that instance you’re talking about, you know, there’s been so much focus, you know, in the last few days, really, on Texas, but it’s – it gets to the broader point that there are so many other states that are doing similar bills, and I think Harris’ people feel that she could help bring attention to that. She also has sort of a convening power where she can bring together business leaders who, you know, were quite effective, as we saw in Georgia, in having a strong voice, you know, opposing some of this kind of legislation. And of course, the third point is the legislation, the For The People Act, that Harris has been very supportive of, of course Biden has been supportive of, and of course reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.
MS. ALCINDOR: Leigh Ann, Annie just brought up the For The People Act. I’m wondering on Capitol Hill there do Democrats really have the 50 votes even for this bill? And is Senator Manchin, who of course a lot of Democrats point to as the person who’s holding all of this up, is he a fall guy here or are there other Democrats who are also – have cautioned and have issues with this bill?
LEIGH ANN CALDWELL: Yeah, Yamiche, it’s an excellent point and an excellent question. One thing that Annie said is that President Biden, this is something that he’s been focused on and interested in for so long. You know another person who has pretty much made their career on this issue? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He has come through the Senate, became very popular in the Senate because of his opposition to campaign finance reform and greater access to voting, so there’s a lot of parallels there and part of the reason why McConnell and Republicans are so vastly against this. But as for Democrats, there are 49 cosponsors among Senate Democrats on the For The People Act in the Senate. Senator Joe Manchin is the lone vocal holdout. He has said – he repeated again this week – that he is – that this legislation is not good for West Virginia, it’s not something that he is able to support. But I’m told by my sources, Yamiche, that it’s bigger than Joe Manchin, that there is probably 10 Democrats who do not – are not ready to vote for this legislation if it were to come to the floor and be on the verge of passage. Now, Senate Majority Leader Schumer has said that he’s going to bring it up on the floor for a vote at some point over – in the month of June. Now, I expect most Democrats to vote for it or all Democrats except for perhaps Senator Joe Manchin, but that’s because at this point it’s a messaging bill. It’s not going to pass. It does not have the support of 10 Republicans, and so it’s not going to matter if this becomes law. So for the time being, most senators – most Democrats, anyway – are able to satisfy the progressive base, not go out on a limb and oppose this legislation, even though they have problems with it, and they’ll be – they’ll maintain on the right side of their voters for the moment, Yamiche.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I had a quick follow-up question for you, Leigh Ann: How much power does Congress really have when it comes to changing or impacting the laws that states are passing? They’re attacking, in some ways, secretaries of states, the power that governors have, the power that nonpartisan election bodies have. What’s your take on the power of Congress on this?
MS. CALDWELL: Well, that’s one of the big debates in Congress between Republicans and Democrats if you just come down to the core issue of the federal role in elections, if you take aside, you know, the former president and all of the politics wrapped into that and why this is actually happening. But this is one of Republicans’ main thing traditionally, anyway, is that there should not be federal – there should not be a federal mandate and federal requirements of elections, that those are a state-run system and they should be left to the states. Now, the For The People Act, it does a lot of the things that counters a lot of the things that is happening in the states like with the states trying to restrict early voting access and restrict voter registration, kicking people off the rolls. What this would do – this would, in fact, expand early voting. It would do automatic voter registration. But as for the state legislations – the legislations in the states that is trying to criminalize and have a major impact on election workers and election officials, this legislation mostly falls short.
MS. ALCINDOR: Anita, I want to come to you. There are also these ongoing audits. There’s at least one in Arizona, but there are talks of others possibly being in Pennsylvania. How does that connect to what we’ve been talking about and what President – former President Trump has been pushing?
ANITA KUMAR: Yeah, I think a lot of this is about the rhetoric, right, because we haven’t seen the evidence. We’re not seeing it in Arizona. We don’t have a lot of evidence that there was fraud. But Republicans start, you know, with Donald Trump at the top of the list, continue to talk about it. When you look at these polls you see a majority of Republicans still believe Joe Biden did not win this election legitimately. They still believe Donald Trump won. And so I think so much of this is the rhetoric that Republican leaders are talking about. Both Donald Trump – and we’re about to see him speak a bit more – but also the leaders in Congress and governors. And so, so much of it has to do with what people are talking about. Are they moving onto the next thing or are they still talking about 2020? And so far they’re still talking about 2020.
MS. ALCINDOR: Astead, I want to come to you. What does your reporting tell you, when we hear Anita talking about kind of what’s going on, about the way that civil rights leaders and Black leaders in particular see this voting rights push? And are they worried at all that their power might actually be eroded by some of these laws?
MR. HERNDON: Yeah, it’s an interesting kind of dynamic of this legislation. You have on the activist and civil rights side a group that really feels that there’s a real sense of urgency around those two bills in Congress, that really that democracy is at stake if those bills don’t pass. I think about former Attorney General Eric Holder, who was obviously – served under President Obama. He told me about two or three weeks ago that he said – he believes if those bills don’t pass that elections as we know them will not – will not be the same, right? And so you have one group that really believes in those type of stakes, but you have a group of elected officials – particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus – that are uncomfortable with H.R. 1. And that’s specifically around these provisions around independent redistricting committees. So trying to target gerrymandering and kind of spread out districts and draw them, quote/unquote, “more equitably,” in those states.
You might wonder why that makes them uncomfortable. But remember in these Southern states gerrymandering has packed Black voters into certain districts, has given the rise of Black representation in some of these places, and has kind of made these folks very comfortable with the way that their districts are drawn and the way that they will not be primaried or really pushed on the electoral front. That’s made some people uncomfortable, so much so that we know that Eric Holder had to come to the Congressional Black Caucus to actually try to convince them and make sure they stayed on board. Bennie Thompson from Mississippi ended up being the only Democrat to vote against H.R. 1, specifically on this issue. That is the kind of dynamics that are happening here. The urgency that comes from one side and some of the un-comfort that comes from the elected officials’ level, partly because it’s just changing the game in the way that they’ve known it to be played. Some folks say that is necessary for Republicans who are staging an attack on the state level. But that does still make some Democrats uncomfortable.
MS. ALCINDOR: Anita, I want to also ask you about what Annie brought up and something I wanted to talk about, which is the fact that Vice President Harris is going to be taking on this role on voting rights. She requested it. What does that say about what she wants to – the role that she wants to play? But also how much of an impact can she really have on this issue?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah. I think as Annie said, it’s really something that she – that’s been something that she’s really tried to champion in her career. So it’s not surprising that she went and talked to the president about that. Some of the – some of the assignments that she’s gotten have been just that – assignments. (Laughter.) They’ve been tough assignments. Like, she’s dealing with, you know, immigration right now, and migration of people coming from Central America. This is something that was near and dear to her heart. So she wanted to do that. But it’s going to be very tough for her to be effective on this.
I think in some ways she can. She can talk about it. She can, you know, use her – the attention on the vice president to bring attention to this issue. She can talk to business leaders. And that is a place where she could be effective. But her speaking to lawmakers is going to be very tough. In the states, it’s going to be as if the vice president’s sort of bigfooting them, right? These are Republican legislators that are not going to be receptive to her. But then on Capitol Hill, remember she – obviously, she came from Capitol Hill. She came from the Senate. She was not there very long. She did not have the time to have some of those relationships.
And the people that she really needs to convince are moderate Democrats, like Joe Manchin, as we just mentioned. You know, is Joe Manchin going to really want to hear from a, you know, progressive vice president about this issue? That’s really going to be tough. And we’ve seen this enormous threshold in the Senate that they would have to get 60 votes. It’s going to be very, very tough for her.
MS. ALCINDOR: Amid all of this, former President Trump is plotting his return to the public stage. This summer he is planning campaign-style rallies. Yes, I’m talking about rallies again. According to reports Trump is also telling allies that he expects to be back in the White House by August. That, of course, is not happening. Still, a recent poll found that 53 percent of Republicans actually believe that Trump is the, quote, “true president.” That’s compared to 3 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of all Americans. Meanwhile, today Facebook also announced that Trump – who was kicked off the platform after the insurrection – is suspended for two years.
And Anita, I want to come back to you. On Saturday, President Trump is going to speak at North Carolina’s annual state Republican convention. What does this moment mean for the GOP? And I’m wondering, what more do we know about what former President Trump is telling allies?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, this is a really pivotal moment for the Republican Party because, remember, many Republicans still consider him the leader of the party. So you’re going to have Republicans all across the country in localities and states, and in Congress, really trying to see what that message is. This is our first time really seeing him in person giving a speech since he left. And so they’re going to be wondering: What is that message? And so really he has two ways to go. There’s the message that his allies and his supporters, you know, people around him, his advisors, want him to give. Which is to contrast the policies between President Biden and President Trump. So contrast on the border, immigration, taxes, spending –
MS. ALCINDOR: I can’t help but smile while you’re describing this, because – (laughs).
MS. KUMAR: Then there is the other thing that we think that President Trump might be doing, the thing that you and I are so familiar with from four years of covering President Trump. Which is he can’t help himself but to talk about the grievances: the Russia investigation, the impeachment, you know, the 2020 election. And so this is really a moment where we’re going to see, is the Republican Party going to be able to move forward on policy – sharp policy issues? Are they going to relitigate 2020 and continue on that path? And this is really pivotal because so many Republicans are going to follow his lead. We’re going to see that in small local elections, state elections, and on Capitol Hill, based on what he says tomorrow and what he says in these rallies that you’ve just mentioned this summer.
MS. ALCINDOR: It just is a familiar fight there, right, between do you talk about policy or grievances? We saw time and time again that the former President Trump always wanted to go on the side of grievances. Leigh Ann, I want to come to you. Tell me a little bit about how all of this connects to the January 6th commission, the discussions there. Is there any sort of possibility that there could be a commission, and what are things looking like there?
MS. CALDWELL: As far as a commission is concerned, it looks highly unlikely, unless Senate Democrats can find three more Senate Republicans. You know, there were six who voted for it. Senator Pat Toomey missed the vote but said that he would have voted for it if he were here. So let’s just say three more Senate Republicans are needed. Until McConnell gives any sort of signal that he would support a commission there is very little chance that it is going – they are going to find the 10 Republicans needed for it to pass.
And, you know, there’s a lot of landmines in that commission. You know, people are under questioning, what was the big deal about creating a commission to look into what happened? But for Republicans, there was a lot of problems with it. For one, the final report could implicate a lot of members of their own party. So they obviously don’t want that. Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is potentially a witness, since he talked to the former president on that day.
And even for McConnell, he would have the role in any sort of commission to appoint some of the Republican commissioners. And that is filled with landmines too. What sort of Republican does he appoint? Does he appoint a Never Trumper or does he appoint a pro-Trump Republican – something that would be scrutinized left, right, and center all day long for – until election day in 2022. And so it’s going to be a very uphill battle for a commission to be formed, and I just don’t see it happening at all, Yamiche.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s all fascinating, what’s going on on the Hill. And we want to go to another former Hill lawmaker, that is. This week former Vice President Mike Pence, who had to be ushered to safety during the insurrection, spoke about how he sees January 6th.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office. And I don’t know if we’ll ever eye-to-eye on that day. But I will always be proud of what we accomplished for the American people over the last four years.
MS. ALCINDOR: Annie, I want to come to you. What does this say about the fact that Vice President – former Vice President Pence is kind of showing daylight between himself and the former president? And is he – is this an early test, possibly, for him running for president?
MS. LINSKEY: Well, it’s been so interesting to see how the different Republicans who are in this potential field are contending with Trump, who’s sort of the center of gravity. And you know, you see some Republicans kind of cozying, getting – trying to get closer to him who hadn’t been in the past, but you know, Pence, I mean, I think this was sort of a jaw-dropping moment for Pence because for him to make that statement and to, you know, as you put it put a little bit of daylight between him and the president, he clearly sees something in his future to where he can be a Republican who, obviously, has the Trump record but is going to – would potentially govern in a little bit of a different way, which is, I think, what he was signaling there.
MS. ALCINDOR: And there’s been a patten, Astead, in the minute and 30 seconds that we have here – about 30 seconds – that President – former President Trump, he attacked the former President Obama for the racist birther conspiracy theory, claiming that he wasn’t born in the U.S. He did this – a familiar thing with Kamala Harris. Now he’s questioning whether or not President Biden is legitimate. What does this say about this tactic being used over and over again and it working sometimes?
MR. HERNDON: Yeah, I think it is a party and a base that have come to embrace conspiracy as a means of demonizing the enemies that they share. And so I think from President Trump all the way on down to the base it has been one that they have embraced, and it is forcing the elected officials in Congress to do things that they are even uncomfortable with. I mean, we had that moment of reflection from Republicans in the immediate aftermath of the 6th. The reason why that doesn’t last from then to now is because the base is not with them; they’re with the former president.
MS. ALCINDOR: Anita, in the 10 seconds we have left – (laughs) – we have a little bit – a little bit of time – what do you make of the fact that this is a tactic President – former President Trump has used over and over again?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, I mean, it’s just this is his – this is his pattern, right? I mean, he has been successful. He has gotten millions – tens of millions of votes based on this, so he sees that. We can criticize him, but we see what these supporters want, what his base wants, and he kind of – he knows that and he’s playing to that.
MS. ALCINDOR: And it is a pattern that he’s just used over and over again, one that we’ve just seen, one that was successful for him. It’s how he got his political career started and now he’s doing it again, and there are – as we showed through polls, a lot of people are following him down that kind of conspiracy theory road.
That’s all we have for tonight. Thank you so much to Leigh Ann, Astead, Anita, Annie for sharing your reporting, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to join us for the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about democracy around the world. Catch it live at 8:30 Eastern on YouTube, Facebook, and our website. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.