YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Disinformation on voting and vaccines.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.
MS. ALCINDOR: President Biden blasts Republicans for their efforts to restrict voting.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Have you no shame?
MS. ALCINDOR: As Democratic state lawmakers flee Texas to stop the GOP from passing more voting bills, the state’s governor threatening them.
TEXAS GOVERNOR GREG ABBOTT (R): (From video.) As soon as they come back into the state of Texas they will be arrested.
MS. ALCINDOR: And new details about top generals fearing former President Trump would attempt a coup. Plus, the coronavirus surges in areas with low vaccination rates as the surgeon general issues a stark warning about the danger of health misinformation.
SURGEON GENERAL VIVEK MURTHA: (From video.) Simply put, health information has cost us lives.
MS. ALCINDOR: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. It has been another week full of news. Much of it has been focused on the state of our democracy. On Tuesday President Biden delivered one of his most passionate speeches of his presidency. In it he called out Republicans for trying to restrict voting rights.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) With recount after recount after recount, court case after court case, the 2020 election was the most-scrutinized election ever in American history. The big lie is just that, a big lie.
MS. ALCINDOR: This comes as Republicans in dozens of states are pushing to limit how and when Americans vote. Democrats are vowing to fight back, but it’s not exactly clear how they plan to do that effectively. This week a group of Texas Democrats fled the state – yes, fled the state – and flew to Washington. The move meant Republicans didn’t have the quorum to pass new restrictive voting laws. Meanwhile, we learned shocking new details about top generals worrying that former President Trump would try to hold onto power at all costs.
Joining me tonight are four reporters covering it all: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News; Abby Livingston, Washington bureau chief for Texas – for the Texas Tribune; and Jasmine Wright, White House reporter for CNN. Thank you so much, all of you, for being here.
Jasmine, I want to start with you. There was this passionate speech by President Biden. He talked about this being Jim Crow-like legislation. He talked about this being almost as bad as the Civil War and the issues that led to it there. That being said, civil rights leaders afterwards told me I didn’t hear the word “filibuster” and I want to see more urgency and action from Democrats. What’s the plan on the – from the White House perspective, and what are Democrats actually going to do to change what Republicans are doing?
JASMINE WRIGHT: Well, I think that that speech in Philadelphia really showed that President Biden views this as a top priority and he wanted to use that bully pulpit, which is something that civil rights advocates asked for him to do, really, to push the issue of voting rights. Now, when you talk about strategy, that is really the open question because, you know, he tasked Vice President Harris – she asked for it – to lead voting rights efforts, and when you ask sources in her office what they will do they talk about building coalitions, they talk about educating voters, and they talk about that she will push Congress. But that last part, pushing Congress, that is where the difficulty comes in because, frankly, as we saw with the For the People Act, they just do not have the votes. So you see them trying to exert outside pressure, right? She went to Detroit, she talked about voting rights issues there, she met with Texas Democrats, something the president hasn’t done yet, talking about voting rights there. Today she met with Black women in the Roosevelt Room talking about voting rights, so you see her building the coalition and all of them together, but they haven’t exactly outlined exactly when it comes to Congress, other than just pushing, what they want to do, and really especially because, you’re right, he didn’t talk about filibuster in that speech. He didn’t mention those words and he didn’t lay out a strategy, so if the White House is not going to endorse the filibuster, which is what these civil rights advocates have asked both President Biden and Vice President Harris – I spoke to Melanie Campbell, a civil rights advocate, today at the White House and she said that, yes, in our conversation the filibuster did come up. But again, if they’re not going to advocate for it, there is really kind of a shortage of things that they can do to actually get legislation passed.
MS. ALCINDOR: A shortage of things that they can actually do is a very eloquent way to put it, the fact that they don’t know what they’re going to do, right? Peter, what’s – what are you hearing from White House sources about the actual plan to have some action behind these words?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, I don’t think there’s a plan, really. I mean, what really was surprising about this speech was not just that it was passionate. It was passionate, but it went so far in pushing this idea that it is the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War. That’s an extraordinary claim to make, one that many historians might think is a little overheated but one that requires you to then take action if that’s the case. If you’re saying this is such an extraordinary challenge, it’s an extraordinary problem in our society, and then you don’t actually do anything to change it, to fix it, you’re setting yourselves up. Now, it may be that they’re trying to simply say to the left, yeah, we get it, we understand, we agree this is, you know, horrible what the Republicans are doing, and trying to basically keep them, you know, happy, but it may be also that we’re trying to set up the election issue for the midterms in 2022 because without a stronger majority in the Congress they’re just simply not going to get through what they would like to get through even with – even if they got rid of the filibuster. They don’t necessarily have 51 votes, much less the 60 votes, and I think that this may be more about setting up the issue than setting up legislation.
MS. ALCINDOR: Sahil, we’ve been, of course, talking about Congress. I’ve seen you in the corner of my eye nodding your head. You talked to Senator Warnock today, the senator from Georgia. Talk to us a little bit about what he told you, but overall where does voting rights legislation stand – either the For the People Act or the John Lewis Act – in Congress?
SAHIL KAPUR: The landscape for voting rights advocates on Capitol Hill is, frankly, a very, very tough one. The only way to get something major done on voting rights on Capitol Hill is to pierce through the filibuster, and the reality is there are two Democratic senators who are outspoken in defense of the filibuster; that is West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema, by the way, is a cosponsor of the For the People Act. She supports everything in there, she wants it to become law, but she doesn’t believe it is worth abolishing the 60-vote rule to get done. Now, President Biden met with Senate Democrats on Wednesday and I spoke to Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who came out of that meeting talking to President Biden, and asked him what he told the president. He wouldn’t say, but he was emphatic that Democrats cannot give up, they still need to try to get voting rights done. He said there’s a lot of talk in Congress about Democrats doing, you know, a $4 trillion economic package, whether it’s infrastructure, the safety net, families programs, in addition to the 1.9 trillion (dollar) COVID relief bill. Warnock’s point to me was that none of that would have happened if they didn’t – if he didn’t win in Georgia, and in his view what the Republicans are trying to do is prevent Democrats from being able to win in Georgia, so he said voting rights should be a priority still for Democrats and his path forward was a carveout for the filibuster. His suggestion, his proposal to Democrats, was a carveout for the filibuster the same way there is for budget issues for voting rights issues, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is coming up sometime this fall. It likely has a path to passage in the House; it will face the same exact problem as the For the People Act in the Senate – no path to 60 votes – and his view is that they should pair with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act some of the provisions in the For the People Act such as federal – a federal holiday for election day, 15 days’ early voting, things like that.
MS. ALCINDOR: Abby, I want to come to you. We’re so lucky to have a Texas reporter to explain what’s going on. Please just take us through this. What have these Texas lawmakers accomplished here? What is the endgame here as they are still, I think, in D.C. avoiding giving GOP lawmakers the quorum?
ABBY LIVINGSTON: Well, what is the endgame is the key question there, and I can probably assure you that a lot of those Democrats who fled the state don’t know, but the question is – so they all got onto some private planes on Monday and flew to an airport in Virginia and then they came to Washington. Back home in Texas the Republicans are threatening them with everything but the kitchen sink to get them back in the state and make quorum, including a threat of arrest. But with regard to what the efficacy of this is, it remains unclear if they’re going to move any legislators. The people they’ve met with are mostly friendly audiences, senators who already agree with them. The one senator they’ve – they’re targeting over and over is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is the most powerful player in this debate, and he has welcomed them into their office and they have felt good about their conversations with him and felt he’s been receptive, but then at the end of the week – this is sort of the coda of all the frenzy and the excitement – we come to learn that Joe Manchin attended a fundraiser in Houston, Texas, where most of the cohosts of it were Republicans, and these are donors who’ve given to the governor, the speaker, those folks who are the archnemesis of these Democrats.
MR. KAPUR: Manchin has a method, by the way, I’ll add. He will take all the meetings, he will listen to everyone, he will listen to every argument, but at the end of the day he just refuses to budge on the filibuster, and that’s where the voting rights advocates have a real challenge.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to circle back really quickly to you, Jasmine, before we go to this coup news, because obviously we have to get there. But the vice president, you cover her closely, it’s part of the reason why we wanted you on tonight because you are a sort of Kamala Harris-whisperer, vice president-whisperer. Tell me a little bit about what’s going in that office. There’s all these reports of dysfunction. And how does that really connect to her ability to get something done on voting rights?
MS. WRIGHT: Right, so there were those reports of dysfunction. And I think afterwards you saw a real concerted effort on the part of the White House to shield them, really, and say that we have support. And Tina Flournoy, who is the chief of staff, which is what a lot of those reported accusations were against, we have – they say that they have, you know, support for that office and they view that Vice President Harris is a real influential partner.
Now, a lot of times when we talk about these issues that come up with Vice President Harris I talk to former staffers, former aides, folks who are close to her, and they always say: This seems like déjà vu. This is something that came up in the primary campaign. This is something that they have had to deal with before. And also sources tell me that, you know, it is also a facet of sexism and racism, and that she’s playing at this high level and folks don’t know exactly how to cover her, and so sometimes they do a bad job.
Now, as a Black woman in the media, I would say that, yes, there are double standards, so there is merit to that argument. But there is also a kind of trajectory of problems that we see sometimes coming out of Vice President Harris’ office. And I think one of the ways that they react to it, especially Vice President Harris, is that she then puts her head down and gets back to work. And that’s something that, if you talk to folks in the office, they will say that that is what they are focused on.
So going forward, I think that there will be – you know, we’ll be looking to see, OK, what action comes out of it, if there is any rejiggering in the office. But right now, what they want to focus on is getting back to work.
MS. ALCINDOR: Gotcha, well, I mean, that’s a story we’re going to have to keep watching, the vice president’s office. Meanwhile, there is, of course, all this shocking reporting in the new book I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. According to an excerpt published this week Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley feared former President Trump would launch a coup and made plans to stop him. Milley reportedly told aides, quote, “They’re not going to f-ing succeed. They can’t do it without the military. We’re the guys with the guns.” Milley also reportedly saw parallels between the rise of Hitler and the final months of the Trump presidency. He feared former President Trump would have a, quote, “Reichstag” moment, a reference to the burning of the German parliament that helped usher in the Nazi regime.
Peter, I have to come to you. I know you’re working on your own reporting here. But tell me a little bit about how worried top officials were about President Trump going – possibly having a coup and trying to stay in power and using the military?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, no, it was a serious issue, and a serious concern at the Pentagon at that time. You’re right, this is great reporting from our friends, Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig. My wife, Susan Glasser, and I are writing a book as well. We’ve got reporting of our own on this very subject, and Susan has an article up for people who want to read it. They were concerned about two things, Milley was, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. One is the use of military in settling political issues here at home, settling the election, in effect, in Trump’s favor. And the second one was starting a war in the last days of this presidency with Iran, that would get the country in the middle of a full-blown confrontation in the Middle East – something he was also trying to stop.
And he was very, very concerned, to the point where he told the Joint Chiefs, he told the senior military officers of the government not to take any illegal orders from the president without talking to him first, very much like what Jim Schlesinger, the defense secretary, did when Nixon was on his way out at the last days of Watergate. So this was a big deal for him. Now, the president has issued his – former president has issued his statement this week saying I didn’t consider any coup. And if I did, I wouldn’t have done it with him, which of course is kind of a curious response, right?
MS. ALCINDOR: Curious? It’s incredible. (Laughs.)
MR. BAKER: Right? It makes you wonder, OK, well then who would you have done the coup with?
MS. ALCINDOR: Who would you have done it with? Right.
MR. BAKER: But, in any case, I mean, I think what you see happening even to this day, even as he’s putting out the statement saying I didn’t want to do a coup, he’s still arguing that the election was invalid based on completely false allegations, trying in some way or another to find a way to invalidate the will of the people. So he may not have used the military to do so, and Mark Milley clearly was not going to participate in that, but you still have a president out there, a former president out there, trying to reverse the democratic election that he lost.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Sahil, I want to come to you. Talk a bit about how this might impact – all of this new reporting – how it might impact the January 6th select committee. And are we seeing a sort of swelling of witness lists? Could we see General Milley possibly called in to testify?
MR. KAPUR: It’s certainly plausible. Now, the Democrats on that committee, and Speaker Pelosi who appointed them – I should say Republican as well, Liz Cheney – they’ve all held their cards close to the vest. They’ve not officially had their first hearing yet. It could happen as early as next week.
But the fact is, according to many Democratic sources that I’ve spoken to – some of them said this publicly as well – President Trump’s actions and his behavior leading up to that January 6th attack on the Capitol is absolutely going to be part of this investigation. And the fact that there were people around him, people close to him, people advising him that are now speaking publicly about things that they saw, things that they felt, it seems quite likely that either on a staff level behind closed doors or at a public setting that some of these individuals – including potentially General Milley – will come up to testify.
One other point I wanted to make about President Trump’s second statement on General Milley, he asked that – he called on Milley to be punished and to be tried in a military tribunal. This is part of a pattern with the former president, people who criticism him, he calls on them to be sued, he calls on them to be fired, sometimes he calls on them to be jailed. This goes all the way back to lock her up. This is a bit of an authoritarian instinct he has within him.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, that is definitely true. It’s a pattern there.
Abby, I want to come to you. This threat that General Milley was concerned about, of course, President Trump is now not in office, but the idea of conspiracy theories and people trying to take over the government and Nazis on our own soil, that’s not a threat that’s going away. Talk a little bit about how misinformation is spreading in red states like Texas and other places.
MS. LIVINGSTON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you see it on the vaccine front. You see it on the voting. I mean, the entire premise of what we just discussed previously, the voting, the voter suppression bills that – as the Democrats describe them – the entire reason this is being debated, there is not a widespread problem of voter fraud. And it’s – but the premise is based on this belief that the election was overturned or was thrown to the Democrats illegally. And so this is just infiltrating every sector of politics, every sector of American life. And it is going to be difficult for us to get on the same page ever again.
MS. ALCINDOR: Meanwhile, COVID-19 numbers are on the rise again in America. Things have not gotten as bad as they were in 2020, but in the last two weeks the U.S. saw an increase in new cases, in hospitalizations, and deaths are also slightly up. That’s according to data complied by The New York Times. This week Los Angeles County announced it will require masks again indoors, even for vaccinated people. Yet, after facing pressure from GOP lawmakers, officials in Tennessee abandoned all vaccine outreach to adolescents, according to local reports. And Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned in personal and stark terms about the dangers of vaccine misinformation.
SURGEON GENERAL VIVEK MURTHY: (From video.) It’s painful for me to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented. I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID-19, and who wishes each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
MS. ALCINDOR: I want to come to you, Jasmine. You can sense the feeling when you talk to White House officials that they’re getting more and more concerned. But that being said, what can they – what can the White House do? What are the president’s options to really try to get more people vaccinated when politics are so intertwined in this, as Abby was talking about?
MS. WRIGHT: That’s right. And I think that one of the things that you see the White House leaning into, especially the later half of this week, is this misinformation campaign, trying to combat misinformation – both people’s personal responsibility and, you know, passing it around, and also social media’s responsibility. And so we saw White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly calling out Facebook, saying – like, clearly the White House was not unhappy, clearly they were not doing enough to remove these posts off of their website in fast enough time, right?
We see Vivek Murthy coming out with that really unprecedented advisory, all trying to make the case that with as much – with the amount of misinformation around, that is going to immediately dampen vaccination efforts, immediately turn people away from getting these vaccines. So that’s one of the things that we have seen them really lean into. But I think another thing that they’re battling is just the rise of cases around the country. We hear them talking about sending in surge teams to Nevada and Missouri to try to combat the rise of cases and to bring up vaccinations.
But still, even with all of their efforts I think that there’s still a real question of, regardless of their strategy, how much can the federal government do to actually change the minds of this voting bloc, and really this bloc of Americans that say that they just don’t want to get vaccinated? That is always going to be really unclear.
MS. ALCINDOR: Peter, I want to come to you. Jasmine was just talking about the press secretary calling out Facebook. The president said – the quote is, “they’re killing people,” when asked about Facebook and their responsibility for virus misinformation. Now, Facebook did push back and say, actually, we’re saving lives. That said, talk a little bit about the strategy here, and really the challenge here when it comes to vaccine misinformation. And what can the president really do?
MR. BAKER: Well, the problem is that the person who vaccine skeptics are looking to for validation and guidance is not President Biden, right? In other words, he is not the person who has the sway with the people who are so reluctant, and the people who are influential with that group either haven’t chosen to speak out very visibly or have but haven’t made much of an input. I mean, I think, obviously, President Trump, right? Not all these vaccine resisters are President Trump voters, but a lot of them are, and even though he has every political reason you would think in the world and legacy reason in the world to take ownership of the vaccine, since it was developed on his watch – you would think he would want to go out there and talk about it – he hasn’t made a point of going out there and saying to people it is your – not only your – you know, for your benefit to get vaccinated, it’s your duty as an American citizen to get vaccinated because it will help the, you know, country as a whole. He hasn’t done that even though you might think he would. How effective that would be with a lot of his voters and the people who are skeptical I’m not sure, but he hasn’t tried and the Biden – the problem for the Biden people is that the people who like Biden, who are listening to Biden and listening to people who like Biden, are the ones who have already been vaccinated.
MS. ALCINDOR: Abby, I want to come to you. We saw this development in Tennessee where they’re halting vaccine outreach to adolescents for all vaccines, not just the COVID vaccine; it’s pretty stunning. Talk to a little bit – talk a little bit about how you’re seeing misinformation play out in red states, in places like Texas, in Tennessee? And as that’s going on, is there anything to learn from these states in what they’re trying to do to get people more vaccinated?
MS. LIVINGSTON: Well, we saw the first lady and second gentleman come to Texas a few weeks ago just to promote getting vaccines because the rates were so much lower than the rest of the country, and that is an alarming statistic for the state. But what I can tell you is I’ve seen it in my own personal life with the folks I know back home, and I think it’s – I think the vaccine has become yet another marker of which team you’re on, and I think what’s extraordinary is you hear folks talking about I don’t believe the science. And you know, I think when we look at it from a bigger picture, I think we also need to look at our education system and how biology is taught and registers with folks because it is definitely – folks think that they know this stuff better than the public health officials and it’s a major problem.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s such a good point that this has really become just another football; it’s like, what team are you going to be on? Sahil, I want to come to you. Republicans, they – at least some of them are weaponizing vaccines, including we’ll say conservative media personalities. What do you make of that, and is there an endgame here for the GOP when it comes to – I mean, there are people, of course, that are now dying, and the CDC director is essentially saying that this pandemic is turning into an unvaccinated pandemic.
MR. KAPUR: Yeah, this has become – this issue has become the latest casualty of the never-ending red versus blue culture war, and you know, the constituencies – the groups of Americans that say they are most likely to reject the vaccine are self-identified Republicans, rural Americans, and White Evangelicals. That is literally the heart of President Trump’s base. I think he could be very influential if he were out there encouraging these people to get vaccinated because it is right now a self-perpetuating cycle. Voters tend to distrust – you know, these groups of voters tend to distrust scientists. The politicians in their party, many of them, at least – not all of them – are stoking that distrust, and the conservative media personalities that you talked about are reinforcing that as a way to present themselves as the only arbiters of truth for these people that are looking for alternate sources of information. So it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. How you break through that is unclear, but I can think of one person who would be very good at that; he is not talking about it, though.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, President Trump, of course. Jasmine, I want to come to you. Most of the people that are dying, they said – officials now are saying 99.5 percent or 99.9 percent of the people who are dying are unvaccinated. That said, there is still this virus that has disproportionately impacted people of color. Talk a bit about what’s at stake in this country and who are the people that are most vulnerable.
MS. WRIGHT: I mean, the people who are most vulnerable are those that the White House is just not reaching, right, and that includes Black and brown communities, and I think that you know, you see Vice President Harris really leaning in to target those communities. We saw here in Detroit talking about vaccines. We’ve seen her in some of these smaller communities talking about vaccines. We’ve seen the White House setting up those mobile clinics all really trying to attack this demographic. But a lot is at stake here, and I think that a lot of times when you look at the vaccine rollout something that I’ve heard is, you know, why do – why are they pushing vaccines so hard in our communities but they are not coming in bringing economic incentives to our communities.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah.
MS. WRIGHT: So I think it is something that the White House has to balance, but you’re absolutely right that this is a core constituency that often feels ignored.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, well, that’s all the time we have tonight. A lot at stake. Thank you to Peter, Sahil, Abby, and Jasmine for your – for your sharing your reporting. Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker will be at the table next week to discuss their book, I Alone Can Fix It. Be sure to join us. And tune in Monday to the PBS NewsHour for an in-depth look at the scorched earth on the ground as the western U.S. witnesses extreme drought. Join us for the Washington Week Extra streaming live on our website, YouTube, and Facebook. And thank you for joining us. Good night.