GWEN IFILL: The August politics puzzle, what’s real? Is Joe Biden about to jump in? Is Hillary Clinton in trouble? And can Donald Trump get any more outrageous? Both parties are trying to figure it out and so are we, tonight on Washington Week.
Democrats make their case.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Their flamboyant front-runner has grabbed a lot of attention lately, but if you look at everyone else’s policies, they’re pretty much the same. They’re Trump, without the pizzazz or the hair.
FORMER MARYLAND GOVERNOR MARTIN O’MALLEY (D): (From video.) I, for one, will not remain silent in the face of the lies, the distortions and the racist hate being pumped out over the airwaves from the debate podiums of the once proud Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: But could Joe Biden turn everything upside down, the way Donald Trump has for the Republicans?
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You know what’s nice part about me? I don’t need anybody’s money.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From video.) This guy doesn’t have a plan. He’s appealing to people’s angst and their anger.
MS. IFILL: At the White House, as the post-vacation president eyes the exits, he gears up for fresh fights with Congress.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) Nobody gets to hold the American economy hostage over their own ideological demands. You, the people who send us to Washington, expect better. Am I correct?
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Carol Lee, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal; Michael Scherer, Washington Bureau Chief for TIME Magazine; and Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: If Hillary Clinton ever once thought that the march to the Democratic presidential nomination would be a triumphal, unimpeded one, the month of August has proved that emphatically not so. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is attracting crowds coast to coast, questions about her email handling dog her every day, Vice President Joe Biden is openly considering the option of challenging her himself, and every one of the Republicans competing for the GOP nomination have her in their sights. For that, at least, she has a response.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Who watched the Republican debates a few weeks ago? Seventeen candidates, all trying to outdo each other in their ideological purity, all either oblivious to how their ideas would hurt people or just not interested.
MS. IFILL: Clinton was in Minneapolis today, along with other candidates, wooing Democrats at their party’s summer meeting.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) In 2008, I got a lot of votes, but I didn’t – I didn’t get enough delegates. And so I think it’s understandable that my focus is going to be on delegates, as well as votes, this time.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) The same-old, same-old will not work. The people of our country understand that given the collapse of the American middle class we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.
MS. IFILL: Dan Balz is there tonight in Minneapolis. So, Dan, is Clinton simply working kind of to box the other candidates out?
DAN BALZ: Well, this is obviously a time of real uncertainty within the Democratic Party. The email issue continues, as you said, to dog her. There are Democrats who are nervous about that. They don’t think she had handled it particularly well. She was trying today to do two things, I think, at this summer meeting of the DNC. One was to show that she can rally the party, and to really take the fight to the Republicans. And she delivered a very strong speech that got, not surprisingly, a very strong response from this audience.
The other thing she was doing, as she alluded to in the thing we just showed, was she is trying to, in essence, flex her muscles, to show that this campaign has got its eye on winning the nomination, as a signal to Bernie Sanders or to Vice President Biden or to anybody else, that she is going to be a very tough competitor, no matter who the challenger is.
MS. IFILL: Assuming that her walk into that room today was a little kind of triumphal in its way, is she assembling behind the scenes kind of the organizational support you need to box – as I said, box people out, or to put people’s concerns to rest?
MR. BALZ: Well, it’s a – it’s a combination of both. Now, frankly, this is – this is an ideal audience for her. This is the Democratic National Committee. This is party insiders. She knows a lot of them personally. A lot of them are partial to her. Bloomberg reported today that she’s already signed up about 400 of the superdelegates. These are the people who automatically get a seat the convention, elected officials and members of the DNC. But they – yesterday, before the – everybody really arrived, the campaign put out memos about all the work that they have done in the four early states to show that they’re – you know, they’re focused on what they need to do to win the primary, not to take anything for granted, as she said today. And so that’s part of what she’s doing.
But they’re clearly cognizant of the fact that there’s all this stuff swirling around, whether it is the concern about the emails, the talk about Vice President Biden possibly getting into it, and truthfully the energy that Senator Sanders is generating out on the campaign trail. All of that is the background to making her campaign as focused as they are on doing the mechanical things, and also her showing that she’s got the spirit, the spunk, the fight to really do what she needs to do to win the nomination.
MS. IFILL: Let me turn to Carol Lee here at the table in Washington. Welcome to Washington Week, by the way.
CAROL LEE: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: So the long shadow that Dan just alluded to – one of the long shadows – but the one this week is Joe Biden. Where does that stand tonight?
MS. LEE: That’s right. Well, he’s seriously considering it. There’s a lot of deliberations going on, a lot of phone calls from people around Biden, even the vice president himself to Democratic donors and potential supporters. But he’s not expected to make a decision for several more weeks. And there’s a number of factors that he’s considering as he does that. It’s not just, you know, can he raise the money – that’s a huge question. Does he have the staff? Will he be able to pull the talent? Hillary Clinton has brought most of the big Democratic talent onto her team.
And there’s the family issue. The vice president and his family are going through a really difficult time right now. And I think it would be a mistake to overestimate how significant that is for him. He spoke on a conference call with DNC members this week. He was doing an Iran call – a call about the Iran deal. And he spoke at length about this difficult decision and was very emotional.
MS. IFILL: He was asked about it.
MS. LEE: That was the first question on that call. And he was emotional about it.
MS. IFILL: But here at the two – here are the two things that make me think. At first I thought, this isn’t going to happen. Here’s the one – the two things that made me think “maybe.” And that’s the fact that we knew of the existence of this meeting with Elizabeth Warren, something which someone in that room was interested in getting out. And that we knew about the contents of this phone call, which someone on that call was interested in getting out. And that we knew about his private lunch with the president, where they left the impression that the president didn’t object. OK, that’s three things, but that makes me think that maybe there’s something to this.
MS. LEE: Well, there is something to the fact that the people around Biden – they’re doing nothing, let’s be honest, about trying to quell the – all the discussion about him as a potential candidate. And so, you know, they’re feeling it. And at the very least, they’re not trying to put an end to it, which they could very easily do with one single phone call to a reporter saying that this is not a genuine thing.
MICHAEL SCHERER: If Vice President Biden does run, how does he distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton? What would be his message to say, choose me over her?
MS. LEE: Well, one of the things – I was talking with some folks who’ve been talking to him. And part of their message would be, you know, your problems – the American people’s problems and their hopes and dreams and their anxieties are mine, that I’ve lived this and I’m still living this. I mean, the difference between Joe Biden and Secretary Clinton is that he has really, by Washington standards – Washington standards – but has maintained – he’s relatively – he does not have a lot of money, he has not gone out to make a lot of money. And that’s part of his big case, that he is one of – one of those voters.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Dan, can I ask you, there in Minneapolis, what was the reception to the man who wasn’t there, Joe Biden? How did that audience react or in any way indicate their interest in Joe Biden in absentia?
MR. BALZ: We’ve talked to a lot of people over the past few days about this. There is talk about the vice president possibly running, but I did not get a sense that there is a groundswell of enthusiasm saying: Run, Joe, run. People very much like him, as we all know. He’s well-respected in the party. People love him in a personal way. They’re very sympathetic to him right now because of what he’s going through after the death of his son, Beau Biden. But I did not come away with the feeling that this audience in particular was hungering to have him in the race.
I think everybody realizes that if he were to get into the race it would shake it up. I mean, he is the sitting vice president. He is a substantial figure. And, as Carol said, he has a message that I think he feels he could deliver. But in terms of people being ready to peel away from Secretary Clinton, you didn’t get that feeling in the – in the conversations with people here. Nor did I get a sense – these are party leaders – get a sense that he’s done a lot yet, personally, to make calls to people in key states to really sound them out. Obviously some of his people are doing that, but it’s not clear how much of that he’s done.
MS. IFILL: Dan, let me ask you about two other candidates who were there in Minneapolis today – Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, who both came basically to poke a stick in the eye of the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders going to the establishment to rage against the establishment and Martin O’Malley saying there should be more debates and it’s your fault that there aren’t. Let us debate. How did that go over?
MR. BALZ: Well, you know, it turned out to be a much more interesting dynamic here today than we had thought. Normally this is an event in which the candidates come, they give their speeches, they all pretty much get a good reception and everybody does a kind of a little applause meter assessment of who did the best. But what happened was Secretary Clinton and former Governor Chafee spoke in the morning, and then came O’Malley and then came Sanders.
And both really, I think, surprised people, particularly O’Malley, with the chair of the Democratic National Committee sitting a few feet away, really taking on the decision they made to limit the number of debates – six sanctioned debates, and four of them – only four of them before the early states start to vote. And he really went as hard as I would – I mean, I think we were all surprised at how hard he went after that decision. Now, obviously, he has a reason. He’s trailing behind everybody. He’s languishing in the polls. He needs more visibility. But it was a real shot at the party establishment.
And then came Senator Sanders, who has an anti-establishment message. And in both cases, it was clear what they and who they were talking about. I mean, Martin O’Malley basically said – did say: The system has been rigged – the debate system – in favor of Clinton. And Sanders basically said he thinks he can generate the kind of enthusiasm that the party will need to bring out a bigger turnout in November of 2016. And he clearly has doubts that Secretary Clinton can do that. So it was – without direct attacks, there were direct attacks going on here today.
MS. IFILL: Carol?
MS. LEE: Well, I wanted to ask Dan if – the Hillary Clinton’s flexing of her well-oiled campaign – you know, noting the superdelegates and all of the memos that were out this week – does that have any chance of potentially backfiring in the sense that the – one of the knocks against her is what you were just talking about, in terms of her being accused of rigging the debates or that they’re all centered around her, but also the inevitability factor. I mean, you could understand why she might be doing that this week with the vice president considering jumping in, but can that backfire with some voters?
MR. BALZ: Well, it certainly is possible. I think that from their vantage point, what it is is an effort to reassure the party that they’re doing this campaign in a smarter way than they did the last time. As we know, in the last campaign that she ran against President Obama, she did a very bad job of figuring out a delegate strategy. And as a result, Barack Obama is now president. And I think she wants people to realize, and her campaign team definitely wants people to realize, that they are not trying to take it for granted, that they are doing the spade work in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada, that they are working the superdelegates, that they’re being diligent about all those things that they hadn’t done before.
MS. IFILL: And a final question for you, Carol, about Joe Biden. Do we have any idea of timing on when we’re going to hear?
MS. LEE: Well, he said by the end of summer.
MS. IFILL: That would be now. (Laughter.)
MS. LEE: So now everyone knows that the end of summer of September 23rd, which I’m sure no other political reporter knew that before Joe Biden set that deadline. (Laughter.) So we’re expecting by the end of September. There’s some talk that it could slip, but that doesn’t seem entirely likely.
MS. IFILL: Here we thought it was Labor Day, but no. (Laughter.) OK. Well, listen, Dan Balz, out there, stay warm or hot or cold or whatever it is in Minnesota and we’ll see you when you get back to Washington.
MR. BALZ: Thanks, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: And then there was, is, perhaps will ever be, Donald Trump. He picked new fights, called into more talk shows, insulted other candidates and continued to lead every late-summer poll. Here is part of his exchange with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who was first ejected then invited back into a Trump press conference. The topic was immigration policy.
JORGE RAMOS: (From video.) How are you going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants? By train, by bus?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Here’s what we’re going to do. Ready?
MR. RAMOS: (From video.) Are you going to bring – are you going to bring – are you going to bring the Army?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) No, no. Let me tell you – let me tell you, we’re going to do it in a very humane fashion, believe me. I have a bigger heart than you do.
I want them to come back. And I want them to get documentation and get the – so they become legal.
MS. IFILL: (That was ?), of course, Jorge Ramos challenging him on his deportation policy. Michael Scherer sat down with Trump for this TIME cover and has spent considerable time pondering the secret of his success. And the answer, Michael, is?
MR. SCHERER: He’s just better right now at being a candidate that Republicans want to be hearing from than anybody else on the stage. He’s come across as more authentic to more voters, he’s more angry than the other candidates. He’s bolder, he’s sticking it to the elites who many in the Republican Party are really upset about. What we found out this summer is that that old tea party energy that we’ve been watching for the last couple years can really be non-ideological. Trump is not an ideologue in any way. He’s not really a conservative in most ways.
MS. IFILL: As other candidates keep pointing out.
MR. SCHERER: Keep pointing out. And yet, he’s attracting these same people. There was a poll this week that said: Donald Trump and Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, both with no political experience, have 40 percent of the vote in the Republican Party, which is more than Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
MS. IFILL: So if you were a Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or 10 others, how do you begin to break through this?
MR. SCHERER: You know, you talk to those campaigns, they will honestly – if you get them to be honest off the record – they will say something along the lines of, we just have to ride it out, because they’re powerless right now. They can’t take him on directly, because Donald Trump has more free airtime than they do. He’s sort of monopolizing cable news every day. And he’s better at insulting people than they are. I mean, they’re just not going to get away with the kind of stuff he can get away with.
MS. IFILL: Did he insult you, by the way?
MR. SCHERER: He did not insult me.
MS. IFILL: He was nice to you?
MR. SCHERER: He was nice to me. I think there’s always – whenever a reporter talks to Trump, there’s always the threat – he makes clear the threat, right, like if you don’t write a good article about me, you know, the tweet is coming. But, no, I think he was happy enough just to be on the cover of TIME Magazine, that I got a pass.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Michael, you were talking about the tea party. And Donald Trump this week is partnering up – announced that he’s going to partner up with another insurgent presidential candidate, Senator Cruz, to host or, I guess, participate in an anti-Iran deal rally in Washington, D.C. What’s in his mind about partnering up with another presidential candidate?
MS. IFILL: And what’s in Cruz’s mind?
MS. SIMENDINGER: And what’s in Cruz’s mind to invite him?
MS. IFILL: My mother used to call it – my mother used to call it holding your enemies closer.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes.
MR. SCHERER: Well, so, for Ted Cruz – Ted Cruz, his whole campaign plan, before Donald Trump even came on the scene, was to, in a very different style, capture the same sort of anti-establishment anger that Trump is capturing. So from the very beginning, Cruz has not said anything negative about Trump. Even his most outrageous statements, when he’s asked about them, Cruz will say, I think it’s great, you know, Donald Trump’s in this race and he’s saying the right things.
So Cruz wants to get close to Trump on the bet that as we get closer to an election voters will actually start thinking about who they want in the Oval Office and not just who they want to tell pollsters they’re happy about right now and that some of that support will go to Cruz. For Trump, what he gets out of it is that he’s trying really hard to show something he’s never shown before, which is he can actually handle the statesman job. He’s not a statesman. He’s a celebrity. He’s a real estate magnate. He’s a great performer on TV. He’s sort of a reality television character. But he’s been putting out white papers, even though they’re sort of threadbare and don’t actually detail what his plans would do, and he’s been trying to moderate some of his corners. And I think he’s very happy to be standing next to a senator in the U.S. Capitol. It’ll be great, great footage for him.
MS. LEE: Well, you’re talking about the other candidates thinking they have to wait this out. How long do they anticipate that they’re going to have to do that?
MR. SCHERER: I don’t think anybody knows at this point. I mean, the betting money was that this was the summer of Trump – and actually he made this joke when I was with him; he said I hope it’s not the fall of Trump, I hope it’s the autumn of Trump – that when we got to September 23rd or wherever this would start to peter out. I think there are a lot of candidates who would love for that to happen. I think the reality is right now we’re in a free media stage in this campaign. Trump dominates the free media.
MS. IFILL: And it’s the reality, also, that people don’t – people who support him, so far, don’t much care if what he’s actually proposing is doable or meets conservative tests. Building a wall? That might raise your taxes. Raising taxes on hedge fund managers, as he suggested today. That’s not exactly Republican orthodoxy, but he’s – but they’re OK with that?
MR. SCHERER: I think – no one’s really analyzing his – the details of his plan much. I don’t think his supporters – when you talk to them, they say he tells it like it is. They don’t really get into what IT is. I mean, in that clip you played with Jorge Ramos he says I’m more humane than you. He’s talking in that clip about taking 11 million people living here and forcing them out of the country. That would be a movement of people that the world has never seen before, and he’s calling it humane. I mean, it – and he has yet to actually detail how he does that, whether it’s buses or planes or trains or, you know, everybody gets in their own car to drive across the border. But you know, at this point really Trump is really on the surface. I mean, he’s a pose, and he’s winning the pose, and his pose is matching the fury of a lot of Republican voters.
MS. IFILL: It’s a pose many other candidates wish they could kind of figure out. But they haven’t yet, and we’ll see whether they all do.
While the candidates compete to succeed him, President Obama is back from vacation – presumably tanned, rested and ready to complete the rest of his agenda. Top of the list, rounding up the remaining votes he needs to beat back a challenge to the Iran nuclear agreement. Today he made the pitch again in a webcast sent to American Jewish leaders.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) I would suggest that, in terms of the tone of this debate, everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel. We’re all pro-U.S.-Israel. And we have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives. And at no point have I ever suggested, for example, that somebody is a warmonger, meaning they want war.
MS. IFILL: Now, what’s different from what he has said before is that he suggested that maybe people wanted war. (Laughter.) But now he’s saying, you know what, we’re all family here.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It was really an interesting indication of how much more confident the White House and the president, together they are going into this post-Labor Day expectation of Congress coming back. They know that we now have 30 senators who have stepped forward and said that they are supporting the Iran deal. That means that they’re four away from being able to support the president’s veto, if it comes to that. We have the Senate Republican leader talking about, you know – and other Republicans talking about maybe this is not going to go – Senator Corker from Tennessee, who’s been leading the charge to try to stop this deal – that maybe they don’t have enough votes to do this. And there’s even talk about maybe there’s enough tricks up Senator Reid’s sleeve that the Republicans might not even be able to get cloture to take it the next step.
So the president came across in that webcast as a very confident person who had shifted his talk from this apoplexy about how can you not see this deal and you must be for war to we’re a family and we’re going to mend our rifts and we’re going to move on. And he said – he predicted it would happen very quickly, meaning rifts with the friends in Israel.
MR. SCHERER: Does that confidence extend into other policy areas? I get the sense this is – as his term is coming up, he’s becoming a little more confident and bold and more comfortable with the role he’s playing.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that I think has been noticeable to those who are working at the White House and those of us who cover the White House is that the president has put some lessons to use. He did that with the trade deal, where he had to make alliances with Republicans. He has done that kind of inside-outside game more artfully. He certainly has applied that to the Iran deal in trying to promote it. The White House was joking about how the webcast was the last possible option to communicate that they had not employed yet and they were going to do it – in other words, they have been everywhere and tried to sell this deal or educate in every possible way. So I think to observers it’s been pulling things together and understanding a little bit more about the dynamics of Congress.
The president, though, is about to shift gears to focus on climate change, another legacy item, for the remainder of the fall and into the end of the year. That is much more of an executive authority initiative, and legacy he’s using through regulatory means and executive power – less turning to Congress because he knows that Congress would block that and the courts will, too.
MS. LEE: Do you get the sense in covering the White House that they’re – the president is trying to pack in all of his final legacy things in these last few months before he knows that the spotlight is just completely going away from the White House? You have climate change. You have the Iran deal. He’s going to have some budget fights. They’re going to put forward a Guantanamo – new proposal to close Guantanamo Bay. Do you feel that this is, like, the last kind of –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, and the president has made no bones about it. He calls it his bucket list, in some ways. The idea of going to Alaska, which is where he will be going this coming week, that is – they’re celebrating that as the first sitting president to go to visit the Arctic. The president is doing a lot of things, as you point out. This is his list, and he is saying I want to fulfill the promises I made to the electorate in 2008.
MS. IFILL: Is there any state he hasn’t hit yet? I think this may be the last one, no?
MR. SCHERER: South Dakota?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yeah, I think – no, I think he’s hit them all, yeah.
MS. IFILL: He’s hit them all. I think he – I think he made South Dakota, maybe at a tarmac stop.
MS. SIMENDINGER: No, he did.
MS. LEE: No, he did that.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, everybody.
We have to go for now, but as always the conversation will continue online on our Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we will discuss the politics of hair, the Hillary-Trump edition. No, really.
For the more serious stuff, check out our website for my blog about New Orleans 10 years after the storm. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff every night on the PBS NewsHour. We’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.