GWEN IFILL: One debate down, three to go. What did this week tell us about who took the bait and who didn’t? Tonight on Washington Week.
They debated taxes.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) The only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years where he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license. And they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax. So if he’s paid –
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) That makes me smart.
MS. IFILL: They debated trade.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) You called it the gold standard of trade deals.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) And you know what?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) You said it’s the finest deal you’ve ever seen.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) No.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts.
MS. IFILL: They even debated temperament.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Whoa, OK.
MS. IFILL: But by the end of the week, five days after their first big debate, Trump was still playing on Clinton’s home turf, debating his treatment of women – unleashing a tweet storm today about Alicia Machado, the Clinton supporter and beauty queen who says he derided her for her weight.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Almost every single poll had us winning the debate against “Crooked” Hillary Clinton.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Isn’t this one of the strangest elections you’ve ever seen?
MS. IFILL: In Washington, Congress voted to override an Obama veto for the first time.
REP. : (From video.) The bill is passed – (sounds gavel) – the objections of the president to the contrary notwithstanding.
MS. IFILL: Why did Democrats join Republicans in abandoning the president?
Covering the week, Ailsa Chang, congressional correspondent for NPR; Lisa Lerer, national politics reporter for the Associated Press; Ashley Parker, political reporter for The New York Times; and Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for The Washington Post.
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: Good evening. With one debate under our belts, we thought that by tonight we might have a little additional clarity about this 2016 race, and we do: preparation works, taking the bait does not. You may have heard Donald Trump say that the polls show he won the debate. Well, they don’t. A Fox poll released Friday night found that Clinton bested Trump, 61 percent to 21 percent. Polls in battleground states show Clinton taking the lead in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.
Also, you can sometimes tell who’s won by watching who’s complaining. Bright and early this morning, Donald Trump picked up where he’d left off in a fight with Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe he’d attacked for gaining what he called a massive amount of weight. Here are just two of his tweets.
At 5:19 a.m.: “Using Alicia M in the debate as a paragon of virtue just shows that Crooked Hillary suffers from BAD JUDGEMENT! Hillary was set up by a con.”
Then, at 5:30 a.m.: “Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could” – “so she could use her in the debate?”
He actually got started shortly after 3:00 a.m. Here’s how Hillary Clinton responded this afternoon.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) I mean, really, who gets up at 3:00 in the morning – (laughter) – to engage in a Twitter attack against a former Miss Universe? I mean, he hurled as many insults as he could. Really, why does he do things like that? I mean, his latest Twitter meltdown is unhinged, even for him.
MS. IFILL: So what did this tit-for-tat, Lisa, tells us about both of them?
LISA LERER: Sex, lies and Twitter, Gwen. (Laughter.) I think for Trump it underscores three – what are three of his biggest weaknesses here. First of all, his controversial sexist statements about women, which are a problem, given that women are a huge part of the voting population. Second of all, the temperament questions, that he fires off from the hip, at times even shooting himself in the foot. And third of all, his sort of lack of comfort with the truth – you know, the criminal allegations he raised, the sex tape, that’s not exactly the full story. So you really are seeing his weaknesses on full display just in those tweets.
As for Hillary Clinton, what I think was most striking there was that she didn’t mention this for the whole week. Since the debate until today, she did not bring up this issue at all.
MS. IFILL: She didn’t have to.
MS. LERER: She didn’t have to, because he kept it alive for her. And it was only today that she figured, all right, why not drum it home? But in the meantime, she could talk about his taxes, she could talk about a host of other negative things about him, so he gave her a lot of room.
MS. IFILL: Karen, you know, one of the things that felt – I think Donald Trump called it a “con,” but at the very least it was a setup. She very carefully at the end of that debate planted this question about Alicia Machado, then stepped back.
KAREN TUMULTY: Oh, not exactly, though.
MS. IFILL: Not exactly step back.
MS. TUMULTY: Because the super PAC had an ad ready to go. Her campaign had a video ready to go. There had been an article done and a photo shoot with Cosmopolitan Magazine. They had really prepared for this story to sort of take off and take on its own legs. And again, you know, they I think made the calculation that Donald Trump was not going to be able to sort of walk past this. And beyond this underscoring his weaknesses, what really alarms a lot of Republicans is that he is not returning to what were his strengths. I mean, he actually had a halfway decent 15, 20 minutes at the top of that debate where he was talking about himself as an agent of change and Hillary Clinton as the status quo. He seemed to have her on the defensive on trade. And he lost it after that. And again, a lot of Republicans want him to get back to sort of not only prosecuting the case against her, but getting to his larger campaign themes, the themes that have gotten him this far.
MS. IFILL: So, Ashley, why did he take the bait?
ASHLEY PARKER: (Laughs.) Because he simply cannot help himself, right? And the irony is, as Karen said, he actually had a decent debate. He had a good first 30 minutes, and even the rest of the debate he didn’t necessarily win –
MS. TUMULTY: I gave him 15, Ashley, but OK, we’ll – (laughter) –
MS. PARKER: I’d say 20. But he had like a good first 20 minutes. And afterwards, even if you talk to his advisers, the complaint was mainly that he had sort of left some opportunities on the table; there were chances he could have really hammered her, and he didn’t. And that was initially the narrative, but Donald Trump can just not pass up any bait, any tweet, any slight, no matter how small, no matter if it’s from a civilian or –
MS. IFILL: Even if it’s – even if it’s been telegraphed, because she’s been talking about this idea of throwing bait out there. Every pundit in America has talked about throwing bait out there.
MS. PARKER: Well, what’s stunning is normally you don’t telegraph your debate strategy because the other side will pick up on it. But I think the Clinton people correctly realized they could telegraph it and Donald Trump still wouldn’t be able to resist. (Laughs.)
MS. LERER: And she’s still doing it. She was dropping some things about Mark Cuban, knowing that he loves fighting with Mark Cuban. I mean, there’s – she’s just dangling that stuff up there – out there and he is like a little fishy swimming right up to the, you know.
AILSA CHANG: But isn’t this what his supporters love about him, that when someone takes a swing at him he slugs back even harder? Like, could this have the potential of actually exciting his base even more and drawing more support?
MS. PARKER: I think in this case it’s tricky because this woman, this former Miss Universe, as the Hillary people sort of correctly intuited goes at one of his core vulnerabilities, which are, you know, female suburban voters and also Hispanic voters. So while they may like the he tells it like it is, he’s not politically correct, he is very much going after a demographic in a negative way that he needs to win.
MS. LERER: Also, the Clinton campaign believes he has a floor, so there’s a certain level of support they think he won’t fall below. But they’re looking at about 10 percent of the electorate, some of whom are, you know, loose Republicans, moderate Republicans turned off by his rhetoric – some are Gary Johnson supporters, a few are undecided – that they’re trying to win. And for that group that they’re targeting, this doesn’t help him.
MS. IFILL: Well, so, Karen, was part of the deal also that maybe the Trump folks thought that their greater vulnerability was on things like the tax returns – when he said, oh, it’s smart not to pay taxes?
MS. TUMULTY: And they certainly had a lot of vulnerabilities on that, and they didn’t even have lines prepared for that. I mean, for him to say – Hillary Clinton took after the tax returns. She said, now, the reason he’s not – he’s not turning them over are he may not be as rich as he says he is, he may not be as generous to charities as he says he is. She’s going after all the things that he prides himself on. And instead of having an answer to this, he says, well, that’s just – you know, that’s smart of me not to pay taxes.
MS. IFILL: Now, is that the distinction to be – yeah – is that the distinction to be drawn between Donald Trump and the Trump campaign, which is the Trump campaign gets all that but Donald Trump may not?
MS. TUMULTY: And my colleague Mary Jordan was sitting in a room with undecided voters, and she wrote that people literally gasped when he said it’s smart of him not to pay taxes, because, guess what? Everybody else is out there paying their taxes.
MS. IFILL: So what happens next? Is it possible within this campaign that people have gotten to him this week and said, OK, we’ve got a town hall meeting coming up; we can do this better?
MS. PARKER: It’s certainly possible. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: They can say it.
MS. PARKER: When you talked to his aides afterwards there was sort of a discussion of – they kind of recognized some of the weaknesses in the debate. They said, you know, he didn't have a ton of specifics and facts. So even if we can't make him sort of like a Hillary Clinton-style policy wonk, we would at least like to arm him with some statistics to give the illusion of sort of, you know, policy specifics. And they also talked about – you know, the town hall format is very different. It involves dealing with an audience, moving your body around stage. And they want to sort of practice that with him, but then they have to say at the same time they had also wanted to practice this debate with him standing behind a lectern and that didn't happen. So I think it’s still an open question.
MS. IFILL: If sexism is a tripwire for him, it seems to me that there is – remember the town hall debates where one candidate seemed to move to the other and even with two men on stage it looked threatening? That could be even a bigger – this is the woman who survived the Rick Lazio debate, where he came out from behind his podium, remember?
MS. LERER: And Hillary Clinton is great at capitalizing on those moments. Like any sort of – and her campaign is great into turning those moments into sort of rallying cries for her base. I think she was a little underestimated in this debate. I mean, these are – she’s not a great campaigner, as everyone knows, but in situations like debates, like congressional testimony, where she can prepare, where the rules are defined, where the format is defined, she tends to do quite well. And I just wonder whether the Trump campaign, which feels a little bit like an echo chamber sometimes in terms of who they're talking to and who they're getting input from, and underestimates how well she does in those kinds of formats.
MS. IFILL: But is there room to turn the tables on her? Just as it’s clear what his weaknesses are, it's fairly clear what hers are.
MS. TUMULTY: It is very treacherous to try to do that in a town hall forum, because half the questions are going to be coming from undecided voters in the audience. And the secret here is you have to be engaging with those people, sharing their concerns, and conveying to them that you actually have a solution to their problem. And it’s really hard to pivot, and let's talk about Monica Lewinsky here. So, by the way, there are pitfalls for Hillary Clinton in a town hall forum, too. We saw in the much-talked-about Matt Lauer Commander in Chief forum a few weeks ago, when she got hostile questions from audience members she sort of reverted into Hillary Clinton lawyer and litigator mode. And that is also something that may not go over so well in a town hall.
MS. IFILL: OK, well, that town hall meeting, that next presidential debate is nine days away. But on Tuesday we get to see the vice presidential nominees, Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine. Can either of these two, who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency, make a difference this year? I’m curious about that because I've moderated two vice presidential debates. People go oh, vice presidential debate. But we remember them, don't we, Karen? I mean, you wrote a whole piece on it today.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, and of course. And I doubt, though, unlike one of your vice presidential debates, that either of them is going to turn to the camera and wink. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: We can’t get Tina Fey back, but. (Laughter.)
MS. TUMULTY: But, you know, these are serious business because in our country's history I think there have been nine vice presidents who have ascended to the presidency because of the death or resignation of a president. But mostly what these candidates traditionally do are they play the attack dog for the top of the ticket as well. In this case, the two people at the top of the ticket are such larger-than-life figures and the two people at the second spots are so comparatively bland, I honestly don't know what kind of dynamic to expect.
MS. IFILL: Part of the dynamic might be how do you get to be Mike Pence, and you get – you’re going to get the same questions directed at you, I imagine, as your candidate might. So if you're Mike Pence, how do you do that, especially when you've already released your taxes, when you’ve already said you agreed with the trade agreement?
MS. LERER: And you want to remain a player if this doesn't work out for this time around.
MS. IFILL: That too.
MS. LERER: So it puts him a tough spot.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, Mike Pence sort of more than Tim Kaine has this incredibly fine line to walk, right? Which is, since the day he was nominated he's basically been a human Swiffer for Donald Trump’s messes – (laughter) – you know, sort of cleaning them up, walking them back, explaining them. And so in the debate he wants to be seen as a loyal attack dog and a good soldier who’s defending Trump. But as Lisa said, he also has his own political future in mind. And he doesn't necessarily want to go down every rabbit hole and tie himself to, say, birtherism or this recent string of tweets we have seen. So it'll be very fascinating to see what he does. And I know, you know, on the Hill – you cover Congress, and he’s very popular, Mike Pence in Congress. And I'm sort of curious if he sort of doesn't – if he does walk this fine line well, you know, what you think his role could be either in a Trump administration or if Trump loses rebuilding the party.
MS. IFILL: My goodness. And Tim Kaine is also very popular within his own party.
MS. CHANG: They’re both extremely well-liked, absolutely. I’m curious, though, like, in the debate, what you guys think that Kaine could bring that we could glean from the Clinton campaign that Clinton couldn’t bring in a debate. What does Kaine bring in that kind of conversation?
MS. LERER: Well, he certainly seems much more relatable, much more likeable, much more everyman. So I think he could sort of soften her up a little bit, testify to her character, and of course, go after Pence and try to tie Pence as closely as possible – Pence is going to try to, as you point out, not get tied to Trump – some of Trump's stuff. And Kaine is going to be right there trying to tie him right back, so.
MS. IFILL: And Tim Kaine has been a pretty facile attack dog so far this year. For instance, there was complaint during this presidential debate that Benghazi didn't come up, that other issues didn't come up. But Donald Trump also didn't bring them up. I think, given the same situation, Tim Kaine would bring them up.
MS. TUMULTY: But he does seem to have the capacity to attack with a smile. And, by the way, that was something that I noticed about Hillary Clinton. I mean, she seemed to have taken the albeit sexist criticism – (laughter)
MS. IFILL: You keep saying that!
MS. TUMULTY: – that she didn't smile enough. But, I mean, during this debate it just seemed like the whole time that she was lacerating Donald Trump, that smile almost never came off her face.
MS. IFILL: I used to work in a newsroom where people would tell me to smile when I walked across the room, and I'd respond by gritting my teeth. (Laughter.) But then I realized – I realized it’s sometimes it's easier to smile, doesn’t cost you anything, and then you can keep going. But, so if we have to look – we have a very hot and cold presidential race, right? At the vice presidential level, who’s hot and who's cold? Ah, hadn't thought of that, had you? Or are they both kind of lukewarm?
MS. LERER: I mean, they're definitely not larger than life personalities, that’s for sure. (Laughter.) Tim Kaine has a certain appeal. You know, I've seen more of him than Mike Pence, I must admit. But he’s sort of likeable, kind of everyman. He’s kind of like your dad driving the carpool.
MS. PARKER: The harmonica.
MS. LERER: The harmonica.
MS. CHANG: He wears khakis with leather jackets.
MS. LERER: A little corny.
MS. IFILL: He wears khakis with leather jackets?
MS. PARKER: Or, denim jackets. I saw –
MS. CHANG: Playing a harmonica with a denim jacket.
MS. TUMULTY: Yeah, I think they’re both comfort food.
MS. LERER: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, but we’re also – but also we'll also see these guys try to engage each other in a way I don't think we've ever seen any of them engage each other before in the vice presidential level. And that’s going to be worth watching for because, once again, as you pointed out, sometimes it happens. And you hate to ask the question, so what happens if your guy doesn't make it, but it is important. It’s important. Let's talk about that some more, because I am very curious as we go through this campaign and we see the way it’s worked out. For instance, we see the president and Joe Biden, we see the way that – how important his vice president became to him. And now we watch what's happening as the president enters the final – the final turn in his presidency.
Down the hall – down the street at the ranch we call Capitol Hill, it turns out history was committed. Both chambers of Congress, 97-1 in the Senate and 348-77 in the House voted to override an Obama presidential veto for the first time. What they agreed on? That families of 9/11 victims be allowed to sue the government of Saudi Arabia over alleged links to the attackers.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) It's very simple. If the Saudis were culpable, they should be held accountable. If they had nothing to do with 9/11, they have nothing to fear.
MS. IFILL: It was a remarkable moment of agreement on the Hill, one the president called – the decision, that is – a mistake. So, Ailsa, how did it come to be?
MS. CHANG: Well, this was a bill with a tremendous amount of support right at the very start. I mean, it was framed from the beginning as a bill that simply was meant to give families of 9/11 victims their day in court. No member of Congress wants to vote against a bill to help 9/11 families. It sailed through both chambers without any opposition, in part because there wasn't a vote tally required. It passed by voice vote in the House, unanimous consent in the Senate. And no member had to go on record as a yes or no vote until this veto override vote.
MS. IFILL: Really?
MS. CHANG: And you could tell. I mean, I was asking members just a week before the veto ride vote – veto override vote, have you thought about this bill? And there were so many members of both the House and Senate who you could tell hadn't yet studied the bill very closely. And it really wasn't until the last maybe two, three days that you started hearing members publicly voicing very serious concerns about this bill and this concept of sovereign immunity got tossed around.
MS. IFILL: Well, tell me about – explain to me what that means. And when you apply it to someone, who is affected? Who is actually affected by what this bill – which is now law?
MS. CHANG: Yeah, so sovereign immunity is the long-standing principle in international law that stands for the idea that a country should remain immune from lawsuits in the courts of another country. And the White House was afraid that this idea of sovereign immunity would erode as a result of this law because it would encourage other countries to enact similar laws and basically allow U.S. government officials or members of the military to be hauled into lawsuits in foreign courts. And the White House says: We, the United States – we're the country with the most to lose, because we have assets all around the world. Our presence is all around the world. It could be extremely legally risky for us to have a law like this. Many members of both chambers agreed. You had 28 senators sign a letter the day of the actual veto override saying they want to see changes to this law in the lame duck. But it's hard to say whether there is any will to –
MS. PARKER: And how typical is that, that members will do something and then after the law is passed experience what sounds like acute buyer's remorse?
MS. CHANG: Right. (Laughter.) It is very not typical. It’s just it was such – people went into the chamber, literally walking in chamber saying this is just a really tough vote. We're not going to vote against a bill that helps 9/11 families, but they were also very transparent saying there are unintended consequences that we frankly didn't think about in time. Senate Majority Mitch McConnell – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was saying just yesterday at a press conference that he kind of blamed it on the White House. He says, I don't want to blame the president for everything. People think I blame the president for everything.
MS. PARKER: What?
MS. IFILL: He blamed the White House for the way that his own chamber voted overwhelmingly?
MS. CHANG: Yes. He basically said –
MS. IFILL: Got it.
MS. CHANG: – the White House did not engage enough and did not engage soon enough. And suddenly, in just days before this veto override vote, there was this robust discussion about all these unintended consequences about national security being disrupted, about, you know, our diplomatic relationships being disrupted, about private litigants and courts making decisions about which countries are involved in terrorism. Those are questions that we should have talked about many, many, many weeks ago. But it didn't seem like the White House was doing a very fervent effort in calling members and kind of lobbying this bill or lobbying them against the bill.
MS. TUMULTY: And what are the chances that anything could be done in the lame duck? So much is being put on this lame duck. I mean, we may even have a Supreme Court fight.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. CHANG: Well, there is no chance of that. McConnell reiterated just yesterday that –
MS. IFILL: That’s not happening.
MS. CHANG: – there will be no confirmation during the lame duck. He has two priorities during the lame duck, is to get appropriations bills – appropriations bills passed, and also to pass the 21st Century Cures Act. It’s a bill for biomedical research. There’s not that much time after that. There’s only a few weeks between, like, the one week in November that they're back, and then December. And that's it.
MS. IFILL: So they have to deal with their unintended consequences whether they intended them or not.
MS. CHANG: Exactly. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: That is a little confusing, but I think I know what I just said.
MS. CHANG: I think that’s exactly right. I think they are done.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, Ailsa, welcome to Washington Week.
MS. CHANG: Thank you for having me.
MS. IFILL: And thank you all as well.
MS. PARKER: Thank you.
MS. LERER: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: All girls, yay. (Laughter.) We have to go for now but, as always, the conversation continues online, on the Washington Week Extra where, among other things, we'll continue to explore congressional priorities for the rest of this election year. You can find the Extra all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And on Tuesday night, turn to the PBS NewsHour for coverage of the one and only faceoff between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine. Judy Woodruff and I will be your guides. And we'll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.