ROBERT COSTA: As the nation marks Juneteenth, President Trump faces a barrage of challenges.
FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER JOHN BOLTON: (From video.) I don’t think he’s fit for office. I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job.
PETER NAVARRO: (From video.) He’s doing it for the money. That’s pretty clear. My view is it’s the Washington swamp’s equivalent of revenge porn.
MR. COSTA: The president and his allies dismiss the former national security adviser’s explosive claims, and the president remains defiant amid a pandemic with a return to the campaign trail despite an outcry over the choice of Tulsa. And as protests persist, Congress is at a crossroads on race and police reform.
REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): (From video.) I think we see a transition taking place in the country, and what we’ll do with this legislation is keep that transition going.
SENATOR TIM SCOTT (R-SC): (From video.) This is a guy who’s been stopped coming into the Senate with my pin on. Sure, I get it.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin tonight by recognizing Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of enslaved black Americans. June 19th, 1865 was the day that thousands of black Americans held in bondage in Texas were freed, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Our recognition of this important day comes during a reckoning on race following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer. Nationwide rallies and protests continued on Friday, and history and race remain dominant forces in our politics. President Trump will return to the campaign trail on Saturday with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was planned for tonight but rescheduled after a fierce outcry about holding it on Juneteenth, yet the choice of Tulsa still alarms the president’s critics. Nearly a century ago, in 1921, white mobs launched a bloody attack against black Americans in that city and destroyed what was known as Black Wall Street. As thousands of Trump supporters and protesters pour into Tulsa, authorities have expressed concern about potential violence and a spike in COVID-19 cases. And when the president takes the stage tomorrow, it will be the end of a long week that saw him face an onslaught of challenges as the campaign season enters this new chapter. They range from the explosive memoir by John Bolton, his former national security adviser, to the latest decisions by the Supreme Court, to an intense debate still going on Capitol Hill about race and police reform.
And joining me tonight to discuss all of this, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; and Josh Dawsey, White House reporter for The Washington Post.
Yamiche, the president today on Twitter took on the protesters – the agitators, he called them, the lowlifes – that he warned could be coming to Tulsa. What’s the significance of President Trump making that statement on Juneteenth?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, we’re living through a protest moment where the entire nation is rethinking police brutality, thinking about the flaws in America, the idea that America just never really quite got right that promise of every woman and every man treated equally. So I think when President Trump is tweeting out, kind of really threatening protesters, what you see is the president positioning himself as against that protest movement that he knows is going to come to Tulsa, Oklahoma – that’s already been there, but that will be intensified by his rally. So at the White House, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that the president didn’t mean all protesters, but the president’s words were pretty clear. He said any protester will not be treated the same way that they were treated in other states, so the president in some ways is seen as saying I will treat these protesters harshly. We have to remember that the president at one – at one point joked about not treating people in police custody too nicely, saying that you need to not maybe protect their heads in the right – in the right way. So I think this is a president who, as he tries to say he’s an ally of peaceful protesters, continues to really use rhetoric that most people think is putting him on the opposite side of protesters, and that of course is a political calculation on his part because he has positioned himself as a law-and-order president.
MR. COSTA: Susan, could this be another Lafayette Square moment?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, it certainly could be. You know, the thing about the Tulsa, it’s the intersection of the two big crises that America is facing now, the coronavirus crisis and the debate over racial justice, and it’s – in both of these cases it seems to me the president is on the wrong side of where most Americans are at the moment. So, yes, I think this looms as a very important moment, especially if there are crackdowns on protesters, as the president has threatened.
MR. COSTA: Susan, just to follow up on that, USA Today has done a lot of polling about where the country is on race, on these protests. What have you learned from the data?
MS. PAGE: I’ll tell you, one of the striking things we found in our latest USA Today-Ipsos poll was that Black Lives Matter has more credibility with Americans to tell the truth than President Trump when it comes to matters of racial justice, and that is something – if we had polled six months ago, that would not have been the case. There has been a real shift, it seems to me, in American public opinion.
MR. COSTA: Geoff, you look at the president’s decision to go, you had reporting today at NBC News that his own health advisors were telling him not to go. What have you learned?
GEOFF BENNETT: That’s right, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the two leaders of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, advised him against holding a rally in Tulsa which will bring together some 19,000 people in a confined space for roughly two hours. That tends to be about how long Trump rallies tend to go. But the president is intent on having this rally and giving the American public and his supporters the appearance that he is in control, the coronavirus is in retreat, and that everything in this country is back to normal – even though we know that in Oklahoma and in other states, coronavirus is hitting record highs and there are, of course, millions of people out of work. But you have public-health officials at the state, local, and federal level who are seriously concerned that this rally could be a super spreader. And this is not just a one-off; this is the beginning of many Trump rallies to come, many huge Trump rallies to come, Bob.
MR. COSTA: And, Josh, you bounce off of Geoff’s point right there talking about the political strategy of the rallies, but I’ve been following your reporting all week and you’ve reflected the personal motivation here in some respects for President Trump, the desire to get back out in front of his core supporters. Tell me about that.
JOSH DAWSEY: Well, as you know, Bob, the president’s done maybe 600 of these rallies, and if you talk to the advisors and the people who are closest to him they say that he gets a lot of energy and enthusiasm from them. He feels like it’s how he connects with his supporters. It feels like how he boosts his poll numbers. You have a president who’s been largely cooped up in the White House for more than a hundred days, who’s been frustrated by all the protests in the streets – many of them he sees as a repudiation of him, sees his critics out there gathering in large crowds – and he’s ready to hit the road. He’s also met with a team of his political advisors pretty constantly, looking at his numbers and finding that in a lot of these swing states his numbers are far below Joe Biden or at least somewhat below Joe Biden, and he’s really ready to hit the campaign trail. We have 136, 137 days until the election, and if you talk to the people around the president they say, you know, it’s time to reopen, he’s got to get out, he’s got to do these rallies, he’s got to go out and find his supporters. This time, I mean, as you know, Oklahoma’s not really a swing state; it’s really just him to have a national event where he feels like he can bask in the adulation of the crowd and get his message out, because so much of the last four months have been messages that the president does not see as good for him, does not see as helpful for him politically, and he’s really trying to be back on the offensive here.
MR. COSTA: Well, one person who won’t be in that crowd in Tulsa applauding President Trump is former Ambassador John Bolton. Let’s get into the political context, Yamiche, and what matters in this new book by him. As Josh notes in his story in the Post, Bolton alleges in the room where it happens that Trump once sought help from Chinese President Xi Jinping in winning reelection and approved of China imprisoning Muslim minorities in camps. Here is what Bolton said in an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz.
FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER JOHN BOLTON: (From video.) I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job. There really isn’t any guiding principle that I was able to discern other than what’s good for Donald Trump’s reelection.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, the Democrats in the House have already impeached President Trump. What’s their next move?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, it’s a tough position that John Bolton has put Democrats in, because he’s now offering up more information and really talking about behavior that Democrats might see as impeachable, but they’ve already impeached President Trump so they can’t really do it a second time. What we do know is that this is a 500-page bombshell. What John Bolton is saying is that President Trump not only is naïve and doesn’t understand global affairs, but he’s also saying that he’s intentionally using the office of the presidency to offer favors and to try to curry favors from international leaders, including authoritarian leaders and, in some regards, dictators.
So John Bolton is essentially saying that the Democrats didn’t go far enough in the impeachment inquiry. But he did not want to testify. And he says that he – if subpoenaed he might have shown up for the impeachment inquiries. But we saw government officials time and time again go up to the Hill to testify. They didn’t have to be subpoenaed. So I think John Bolton has put himself in a position where Republicans are looking at him and saying he’s either a liar or he’s spreading classified information. And then on the Democratic side they’re saying, well, really he just wanted to make a lot of money with the book and didn’t want to actually help prosecute this president.
MR. COSTA: Geoff, can the White House stop the publication of this book on Tuesday?
MR. BENNETT: Apparently they can try, but a judge who was looking at the case said – he used the phrase, the horse is already out of the barn. I mean, the book has been distributed, some 200,000 copies domestically, another 1,000 abroad. And to Yamiche’s point, you know, when elements of the book hit the press earlier this week, it was viewed through a partisan lens, almost like everything else is these days. So you had Republicans accuse him of being an opportunist, and a sensationalist. And Democrats said he was unpatriotic for, you know, withholding all of these allegations for the publication of a book when he chose not to testify during the impeachment hearing.
What strikes me as particular damning about the John Bolton allegations is that if you look at them in the total of what these retired four-star military generals have said just a couple of weeks ago, to include the former defense secretary Jim Mattis, they’re all essentially saying the same thing: In their view, President Trump is ethnically unfit and intellectually unprepared for the job. And that is damning. And there’s really nothing the White House can say to undo that.
MR. COSTA: That’s such a great point, Geoff, about this is one of many tell-all books that’s come out about President Trump. And, Susan, I’m going to be interviewing John Bolton for Washington Post Live on Tuesday at 1:00. But like usual, Susan, you got ahead of me. I know you’ve interviewed Bolton already for USA Today. That’s embargoed. I know it’s a little sensitive. We can’t get into all the details of your big interview. But tell me about the significance of this book coming out. I know we’ve seen all these books before from former officials. But why does Bolton matter, if at all?
MS. PAGE: You know, there’s a cottage industry of books for and against Donald Trump. I think this one is different. It’s the highest ranking official to be writing a book about the president. It’s someone who was in the room, not relying on sources to tell him what was happening. He’s the guy who takes notes. I mean, this has been a characteristic of John Bolton at the U.N. and other jobs he’s had. Takes a yellow legal pad into every meeting, writes copious notes, writes down what other people say. That provided the basis for his – for his book. One more thing, he has impeccable Republican credentials. And I think that makes it harder for the president and his allies to simply dismiss the book as sour grapes.
MR. COSTA: And, Josh, I was so intrigued by your story, one of the first up about the book. You, of course, were hustling, making sure you got a copy before anybody else. And you focused, Josh, in your story on the China part of the book. And what’s the power of what Bolton’s saying on China, that the president’s trying to ingratiate himself with Xi Jinping, that he’s perhaps soft on China, Bolton alleges. Could that be a campaign issue now for Vice President Biden to jump on?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, you already see Vice President Biden’s campaign jumping on that. I mean, what Bolton alleges in the book is that in meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping that the president says: I want you to buy more agricultural products, in Bolton’s words, in a plea to help him win reelection. That account has been disputed, obviously, by some other Trump officials.
But Bolton was, you know, around for those meetings, as others have pointed out. And what the Biden campaign is likely to say, Bob, is this president’s been attacking Joe Biden on being too weak on China, but when he had the chance to confront Xi Jinping he says: I’m OK with the concentration camps, according to Bolton’s book. He says: You know, I just want you to help me win reelection, according to Bolton’s book. The book also says that he tells the Chinese president: There’s a clamoring back home for me to change the Constitution so I can serve more than two terms. I mean, some of the more illuminating and disturbing scenes, if you believe John Bolton and the book, relate to the president’s relationships with the Chinese.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of Biden, Yamiche, what do you make of Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota pulling herself out of consideration to be Biden’s running mate?
MS. ALCINDOR: Based on the sources that I’ve talked to, Amy Klobuchar saying that she doesn’t want to be Joe Biden’s VP is much like any other person on Capitol Hill saying, no, that’s OK, I don’t want to be president. The idea is that Amy Klobuchar wasn’t really at the running at this point anymore, and that she was really wanting to make a statement that made her in some ways look gracious, that made her look like she was very much interested in the idea of diversity – which I’m not saying that she isn’t. But just according to my sources, it makes it seem as though Amy Klobuchar was trying to find a way to say, look, I know I’m out of the running, and here’s what my answer is to who should possibly fill this role.
I think Joe Biden, frankly, is going to have to answer questions if he picks a woman who isn’t of color, especially in this moment of protests, especially in this moment of reckoning on race, and especially because the Democratic Party time and time again goes to African Americans, especially African American women who are at this point the most loyal part of the Democratic base, and says: Give me your vote. And then they don’t actually look like the people they’re asking their votes for. So I think in some ways whoever Joe Biden picks, if it’s not a woman of color he’s going to have to answer: Why didn’t you pick somebody of color?
MR. COSTA: Let’s all stick with this idea, this theme, because the choice for running mate will certainly say a lot about where Vice President Biden’s head’s at politically. But on Capitol Hill Congress is debating police reform. And the big question in my notebook is: Can Republicans and Democrats cut through the gridlock and make a deal? There are some differences between the proposals we’ve seen.
Here's what you need to know, real quick. The House Democrats’ bill bans no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, and the use of chokeholds by police. It also creates a federal database of police misconduct. The Senate GOP plan would use federal funds to incentivize police departments to expand the use of body cameras and discourage the use of chokeholds. It would also require departments to report the use of deadly force. So you see some overlapping ideas there, but a different discussion in implementation.
Geoff, is President Trump going to lean in during election season, campaign season, to support Senator Scott’s bill and try to get legislation forward?
MR. BENNETT: Well, it’s interesting. Will President Trump do it? Likely not. Will the White House? Perhaps. And when I say “the White House” I mean Jared Kushner and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. What’s interesting about the two bills is that civil rights advocates who have consulted with Democrats and Republicans as they’ve both sort of tried to distill their different approaches, they’ve told me that the Democratic approach focuses on accountability and the Republican approach focuses on de-escalation. Now, the question is, when Senate Republicans bring up this bill will Democrats stop it?
I mean, that’s a huge political question they have to grapple with because Democrats don’t want to be seen obstructing, which – something that which right now looks like a good faith effort on the part of Republicans to do something, at least something, about this issue of excessive and in some cases lethal use of force by police. So we could have an answer to that question as early as next week, when the Senate takes up this issue, Bob.
MR. COSTA: Josh, what does your reporting tell you about how President Trump’s going to move forward? He’s done the executive order. What now?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, the president has vacillated through different times saying that he would support some sort of police reform, and at other times he’s done his kind of cri de coeur of law and order. You notice when he had the executive order signing last week he was surrounded by police officers. And there’s a powerful constituency that wants, you know, tougher law and order, who does not necessarily even want some of these things, among his base and among his supporters.
So whether or not, as Geoff said of Jared Kushner and Mark Meadows and others, can convince the president to put together a fulsome effort on this, it’s kind of hard to know. But I think we’ll see a lot more tomorrow night with what tone he strikes at the rally in Tulsa, Bob. How the president comes out, how he presents himself, and whether he seems to be trying to do something different or if he goes back to kind of his usual rhetorical tactics.
MR. COSTA: Susan, what’s your read on all of this? Is this just positioning politically, or do you see something actually in the works here?
MS. PAGE: You know, here’s the question in my mind: Is this like gun control? You know, after Sandy Hook and Parkland, those terrible tragedies, there was real impetus to have some gun legislation, which did not work out. Gridlock is always a safe bet in Washington. But maybe there’s something else going on here. You don’t have to look at the polls to know that there is a lot of impetus in districts and states across the country on police reform, you just have to look at what politicians in Washington are doing. The decision by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to schedule the consideration of Tim Scott’s bill next week is a real shift on his part. It’s a sign that Republicans are feeling the heat on this. So I think it is possible – not likely, maybe, but possible – there’s actually bipartisan action in an election year. That would be a remarkable thing.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, you spoke with some of the family members of those who have been affected directly by police brutality. Do they feel involved enough in these discussions?
MS. ALCINDOR: The families that I talked to who sat with President Trump for about an hour say that the president, while he seemed sympathetic to their stories – which, of course, include people being killed by the police on camera, people dying mysteriously in prisons – the president listened to those stories intently, but they feel like the president’s executive order didn’t go far enough. They feel like in that meeting the president used a lot of platitudes. That was a quote that was attributed to the brother of Everett Palmer, who died in a Pennsylvania jail. He told me that the president was saying things like that’s really – this is – that person must have been a great person and this is really terrible, he was promising federal reviews of each case, but that person and those families came away thinking the president has kind words but, quote, “we’re past kind words; we need action.” So they feel like the president, while he’s listening to these families, isn’t really taking into consideration their ideas, and – especially when it comes to qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine that shields a lot of officers and officials from being sued because of their conduct or alleged misconduct. The president and the White House say that’s a nonstarter. These families spent a long time talking to the president, pushing him to say, look, you really need to look into this issue. The president didn’t budge. So a lot of these families also, I should say, added that they didn’t want to be put in a position to be photographed with President Trump. They said they didn’t want to be used as “props,” quote, because they think that the president would have claimed victory with a sea of black and brown faces behind him. So the families here are really sensitive to the fact that the president seems like he might be interested in doing something, but they don’t feel like he’s going far enough.
MR. COSTA: Josh, jump in here. I see you want to jump in.
MR. DAWSEY: Well, that’s a whole – that’s a whole conundrum here, is, you know, as he’s said with gun control, with so many other issues, health care, the White House has said, you know, we’re inclined to do something, and at the end of the day some of these things just haven’t come through. And I think Yamiche’s point is correct that no one quite knows how much seriousness the White House is going to put behind this, and you know, if the political climate and the protests and the current environment continues this way for weeks and months on end there may be a force to, you know, actually do something more substantive that, you know, some of the advocates and some of the families want. But I think as the other panelists have said, you know, it really remains some – time will tell whether anything substantive happens here and whether the president’s actually, you know, serious about doing, you know, something that bridges Democrats and Republicans. As you know, Bob, and we’ve reported many, many times, Republicans in a lot of ways take the president’s lead. You know, they don’t want to be crosswise with him, particularly in an election year. A lot of these senators, a lot of these House members really look to his tweets, they look to his statements, they look to his public proclamations on what they will do, and it will be curious to see, you know, if he gives folks enough cover to do something meaningful.
MR. COSTA: Geoff, just to finish where we began, this is Juneteenth. You’ve reported on the significance of Tulsa in American history, what happened in 1921. You’ve reported on Black Wall Street. Just tell me more about that as we finish this program tonight.
MR. BENNETT: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I think we’re living right now through a racial awakening, really a racial reckoning, an era of transformational change. This country has seen a number of eras of transformational change. The question is, will this be the era that some of the pressure and the passion can be turned into policy? And to your question about what happened in Tulsa, I mean, 99 years ago this month you had what was known as Black Wall Street – it was this beacon of black life, an enclave in Tulsa known as the Greenwood District; had a black bank, black schools, black hospitals, a black savings and loan, a flourishing center of economic activity – and angry white mobs attacked this city over two days, killed 300 African Americans, left tens of thousands of African Americans homeless. But the story of Black Wall Street doesn’t end there because the folks in the Greenwood District, Bob, they rebuilt it. They rebuilt that town. And so that, to me, is instructive. That gives me hope, and hopefully the country can learn something from what happened almost a hundred years ago as we move forward.
MR. COSTA: Hope, I like that, Geoff. Hope. It’s a good place to leave it for this evening. That is our program, our conversation for tonight. And thank you very much to our reporters: Yamiche Alcindor, Geoff Bennett, Susan Page, and Josh Dawsey. And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. We will discuss this week’s Supreme Court rulings in depth. Find it on our social media and on our website. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.