JOHN HARWOOD: A Trump victory in Indiana, and then the dominoes began to fall. Consensus on the Republican candidate. Getting close for the Democrats. I'm John Harwood, in for Gwen Ifill this week. The landscape, six months out from Election Day, tonight on Washington Week.
And then there was one.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I actually wish the primaries were not over. It's no fun this way. But everybody's out. I'm the only one left. That's OK, right? (Cheers.)
MR. HARWOOD: As his primary rivals fall away, Donald Trump looks to the general election as the presumptive Republican nominee. But is the party establishment ready to jump in and support him?
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I'm not there right now. And I hope to, though.
MR. HARWOOD: While on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton inches closer with an eye on November.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) I invite a lot of the Republicans and independents who I’ve been seeing on the campaign trail, who’ve been reaching out to me, I invite them to join with Democrats.
MR. HARWOOD: But her challenger isn't giving up.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) I think that while the path is narrow, and I do not deny that for a moment, I think we can pull off one of the great political upsets in the history of the United States.
MR. HARWOOD: The most pivotal week in the presidential race so far.
Covering every step, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Robert Costa, national political reporter for The Washington Post; Michael Scherer, Washington bureau chief for TIME Magazine; and Margaret Talev, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg Politics.
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, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, John Harwood of CNBC.
MR. HARWOOD: Good evening. This was the week it all became real. Not on the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in Indiana. She's still the favorite to clinch the Democratic nomination. But Donald Trump, by crushing Ted Cruz and John Kasich in the Hoosier State, and forcing both men out of the race, has now become the presumptive Republican nominee, unapologetically.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) You know, I am who I am. I don't like to change. I don’t like to really change. Sort of interesting, there was a little talk about, will he be presidential? We had 17 people, all smart. One by one, week after week, boom, boom, boom, gone, gone, gone. I don't maybe want to change so much. And I do want to use that same strategy for trade deals. And I want to use that same – but I feel I'm a presidential person.
MR. HARWOOD: Now the Republican establishment has to decide whether to join their voters and rally around him. Some of them, even if they've said for weeks they planned to, weren't sure once Trump actually emerged as the winner.
SPEAKER RYAN: (From video.) I think what is required is that we unify this party. And I think the bulk of the burden on unifying the party will have to come from our presumptive nominee. This is the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of Jack Kemp. And we don't always nominate a Lincoln and a Reagan every four years. But we hope our nominee aspires to be Lincoln- and Reaganesque, that that person advances the principles of our party and appeals to a wide, vast majority of Americans.
MR. HARWOOD: Now, Trump responded by saying he's not ready to endorse Ryan's agenda. So, let me start with you, Bob. After all the doubts, all the never Trump efforts, how did Donald Trump finish off the job of the last of the 16 opponents?
ROBERT COSTA: Trump is trying to redefine the Republican Party. And he's moving it in a more populist direction, trying to engage working-class voters who haven't traditionally been in the GOP fold. And as he kind of lurches the party in this new and unprecedented direction, you see this divide. And I think the divide is between traditional Republicans, rank and file Republicans, who are somewhat embracing Trump, or at least endorsing or moving toward him, and the more conservative movement activists, the ideologues who grew up loving Reagan because of his philosophy, not just politics and his style.
MR. HARWOOD: Now, what happened to the idea that once Ted Cruz got into a one-on-one with Donald Trump, he was going to make the conservative argument that Donald Trump wasn't a conservative. He said he was going to go all the way to California. But he woke up – or saw the results the night of Indiana, and decided to drop out. Why?
MR. COSTA: It's a terrifying moment, not only for establishment Republicans, but for many conservative movement leaders – the kind of people who thought Ted Cruz, in a one-on-one fight, would really have a shot against Trump. But when you look at the Republican electorate, there’s such an appetite for an outsider, and it’s not so much tethered to an issue or conservatism itself. It's the brashness of Trump, someone who’ totally detached from the political culture, that's what's connected. And it's also the issues. You see the Republican Party has focused on trade deals in the past. They’ve focused on free trade and economic growth. The base, the party, doesn't seem to be as interested as those in Washington.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, now, that’s what the base of the party wants. But the establishment of the party immediately fragmented. It wasn't just Paul Ryan. Mitt Romney said he wasn't going to the convention. John McCain isn’t going to the convention. President George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush both said that they would not endorse a candidate in the race. Jeb Bush said he couldn’t vote for Donald Trump. And today Lindsey Graham came out with a statement about how we was going to approach the 2016 race. Let’s roll that clip.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) To Donald Trump, congratulations. You did a hell of a thing. You beat me and everybody else. And I just really believe that the Republican Party has been conned here, and this guy is not a reliable conservative Republican. Good luck with Paul Ryan, trying to find a conservative agenda with this guy. And I don't think he has the temperament or the judgment to be commander in chief.
MR. HARWOOD: Now, Molly, is this what you were talking about in the piece you wrote this week, saying the Republican Party died?
MOLLY BALL: Yeah, well, you know, this is the sentiment of a lot of Republicans that I talk to, a lot of Republicans who feel a deep angst about Trump's nomination. There is a sense – and you saw Republicans all over – important Republicans, big-name Republicans – whether on Twitter or in statements like that, changing their voter registration, feeling like their life's work toiling in the sort of mines of building a party of ideas, that that all went out the window. You know, as Bob was saying, the things that Trump stands for are antithetical to the things that someone like Paul Ryan stands for. The agenda that he is pushing, to the extent that his agenda is consistent and well defined, is absolutely antagonistic to that.
I just want to make one more point about what Bob was saying about sort of how Trump got here. I think the strategic genius of Trump was to go after the strongest candidates first. He went after the $100 million man, Jeb Bush. He went after – well, he didn't have to go after him so much, but Scott Walker, who was a lot of people's favorite for the way he could unite different strands of the party. By the time it came down to the final three candidates, Trump was pitted against two men who both had a very narrow, factional appeal within the party – Kasich to liberal Republicans and Cruz to the very, very conservative sort of activist base.
And so even in a one-on-one, neither of them could beat Trump. And Trump ends up getting a majority, I think, in part because there was a sort of crisis fatigue on the part of Republican voters, who have had crisis after crisis, you know, Super Tuesday after Super Tuesday. Now they're hearing there’s going to be a contested convention. If this thing’s going to be a mess, I think they felt like they should just rip off the Band-Aid.
MR. HARWOOD: Michael, given the fact that Donald Trump won handily, and he won by appealing to a lot of economically squeezed voters who are dissatisfied with the Obama years, looking for something different from the Republican Party, why don't more Republican politicians look at him as modernizing the party, giving it a different look, changing the ideology a little bit? Why isn't that embraced somewhat?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, because I think for much of the last two decades, definitely since Reagan, a lot of Republicans have retrenched into ideology. And that's just how they're coded. But I think there's a second issue. I mean, there’s the issue set, but you heard there with Lindsey Graham. He says, I don't think he's right on the issues, but also I don't think he has the temperament. And I think there is a lot of fear among the political class, the elected class, that the way Trump behaves is actually kind of scary.
And what's interesting about watching Trump now, and again in that clip we showed before when he's talking about being presidential, is it's very clear that Trump has taken from the primaries the lesson that the outrageousness, the transgression, the danger, the excitement of his rallies, you know, sometimes encouraging people to hit other people at his rallies, the, you know, controversial statements he's made about immigrants and Muslims and all that – for him, the lesson he has taken is that it made him a winner.
And what's interesting now, and I think this is another reason that a lot of Republicans are concerned, is he believes that that same formula – being who Trump is – will work in a general election. And this is a guy who said over and over again that he won Hispanics in Nevada, right? But he's talking about he won Republican Hispanics in Nevada. There are very few Republican –
MR. HARWOOD: Just a tiny number of people.
MR. SCHERER: Very tiny number of people. He is not popular with Hispanics. He to this day will deny that. You say to him, you know, Hispanics don't actually like you. He says, oh, that's not true. I’m winning Hispanics everywhere. No, he’s winning Republican Hispanics. And I think there are a lot of Republicans who are looking at the general election map, at the general – at the general election polls slightly terrified, because he doesn't seem to register that now we're moving from a primary where, to his credit, he did very well, to a different population. And he's going to have to win over different people. And the same methods may not work.
MR. HARWOOD: When you talk about style and how he comes across as significant as the ideology. President Obama actually spoke to this today at a news conference when he was asked about Trump emerging as the presumptive Republican nominee.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) I just want to emphasize the degree to which we are in serious times and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States.
MR. HARWOOD: Now, Margaret, would you say that the important thing is being serious enough to handle, say, the national security responsibilities of the White House? Or is it the way that women, Hispanics, other particular groups have been – college educated voters – have been turned off by how he talks and how he comes across?
MARGARET TALEV: Right. Well, let's unpack President Obama's statement today, which was supposed to be about the economy, but he was ready and willing and, you know, more than eager to take the Donald Trump question. Number one, scold to the press corps for creating the beast. That's what he was doing right there. Number two, yeah, sure. President Obama –
MR. HARWOOD: Do you plead guilty to that, by the way?
MS. TALEV: I’ve been covering the Democratic contest, so I plead irrelevant to that. (Laughter.) So, but number two, sure, President Obama is concerned about the social issues, both Trump's positions on them, or at least his statements on them, whatever the positions may actually be. But number three, I think as President Obama is concerned about some of the international implications, some of the stock market implications, the business – sort of the general world order implications of Donald Trump, if he is as much of a wildcard in the general election or potentially in office as he has been in the Republican primary. And President Obama says it's not about entertainment, but of course it has been about entertainment so far. Part of the reason that people are so captivated by everything that Donald Trump does and says is because he's very compelling to listen to. You can't look away. You never know what he's going to say.
MR. COSTA: That’s not going to change. I mean, I spoke to Trump this week. And he's brought in new advisers, Paul Manafort and others, veteran Republican strategists. And he has his old campaign manager still on, Corey Lewandowski, a confidant of the candidate. But when I spoke to Trump for about 45 minutes, I said, where are you going to pivot or transition in terms of your temperament and style? He said, just like what he said on the video, I’ve been winning. I'm going to continue to do what I want to do. And he thinks by having this aggressive barrage against Secretary Clinton he can actually rouse conservatives who maybe been skeptical of his ideology and just be disruptive to a point where he could succeed in the general.
MS. BALL: Well, the other thing that's interesting, I think, about what Trump has been saying too, is when he gets the party unity question, he says that he’s going to unify the party because he expects people to fall in line. And probably most of them will. It doesn’t take a lot of Republicans defecting to be a serious political problem for him. But the other thing he says is: If they don't want to get behind me, that's fine, because I have all these new people. And he really believes – he really believes that he can bring so many new voters, so many independents and Democrats, into the tent that it doesn't matter how many Republicans he loses.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, the stakes in whether he's right or wrong about that apply not just to him, but also members of the House and Senate. Republicans are trying to control their – or keep their majorities in both the House and Senate. Reince Priebus spoke to that today when he was asked in a conversation about Paul Ryan holding back.
REINCE PRIEBUS (RNC Chairman): (From video.) We're prepared to keep the Senate, keep the House and win the White House. And if you look at Hillary Clinton, look, I would rather take a few elbows being thrown than, you know, the director of the FBI, you know, interviewing your top aides and potentially the Democrat nominee.
MR. HARWOOD: Michael, how much danger for the Republican majority in the Senate and in the House, which we've come to think of as secure for the Republicans over the last couple of years?
MR. SCHERER: The danger is far greater in the Senate right now than the House. In the House, Democrats would have to basically turn about 30 seats. And there are just not 30 competitive seats right now. It could happen that we get to a point where there are 30 competitive seats, but the guess is now that it would be more in the neighborhood of 15. In the Senate, Democrats have to get four or five seats, depending on who's the president. And there are plenty of competitive seats. And to the point of whether he can bring in new voices, the Senate candidates running in difficult states right now – New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, for instance – don't believe he's going to bring in people.
Kelly Ayotte was asked in New Hampshire, you know, what she thinks about Trump. And her spokeswoman put out a statement that said she’s going to support the nominee, but she doesn't endorse Trump. Which is sort of like –
MR. HARWOOD: It’s a common distinction in politics, isn’t it? (Laughter.)
MR. SCHERER: No. It’s like trying to kiss your date without touching her. You know, it's a difficult thing to do. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania was asked, you know, are you going to support Trump? And his answer was also incredibly awkward. It was: He’s not my first, my second, my third, or my fourth choice. I have a lot of problems with Donald Trump, but I'm never Hillary. I mean, it's about as far away from support as you can get. And these are people who are spending a lot of money on polling right now in their states. They know exactly where their states are. And they don't believe Trump's model, this idea that he’s going to be able to bring in new people. Now, maybe Trump proves them wrong, but at least –
MS. BALL: But the problem is that they also can't afford to repudiate him, because they are scared to death of their constituents. They are scared to death of the Trump voters and they’re scared to death of the Republican base. And they know if they do start running full-on against Trump, they are going to get a whole raft of stuff from those people. And they've seen their colleagues – incumbents over the years, knocked off in primaries. And so even in a general election, they can't afford to lose those people.
MS. TALEV: And Hillary Clinton –
MR. HARWOOD: Margaret – go ahead.
MS. TALEV: Yeah. I mean, well, Hillary Clinton can't afford to, you know, sort of rest on her laurels right now either. If the election were held tomorrow, Hillary Clinton would probably be the president of the United States. But the election is not tomorrow. The election is in November. And, like Donald Trump proved by what he just did, even if it's not completely transferable, he's, like, a very good strategist, good on his feet. People change their minds about things. And, you know, Joe – leave it to the vice president, Joe Biden saying today it would be a mistake to underestimate Donald Trump and how close this race could be.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, Bob, speaking of changing your mind, Rick Perry last year gave a speech in which he said that Donald Trump was a cancer on conservatism. And now he's come out and endorsed him and said he was open to being vice president. What's the thinking for someone like Perry?
MR. COSTA: Well, Molly brought up a really sharp point, that a lot of these party officials and former governors and senators are watching the Republican base. And they’re saying to themselves: There is something happening here. We may not understand it, but we don't want to get so far away from it that we actually lose the potency that could change the Republican Party in parts for the worse, but maybe for the better in some respects.
MR. SCHERER: I kind of think that one of the most interesting parts of the dance that Paul Ryan and Trump are doing right now is Ryan to clearly trying to preserve the Republican Party if Trump loses, from beyond. But if Trump loses, and Ryan does this dance, what percentage of his members, assuming he keeps the House next year, will be Trump tea partiers, or Trump Republicans, versus the traditional ideological tea party we've had? I mean, Trump, win or lose, could dramatically change this party going forward because these are Republicans who have been elected in the past on very ideological grounds, but they will have been re-elected in districts where Trump will win enormous shares.
MR. HARWOOD: Of course, on the other hand, if Donald Trump is blown out in the election, you’re going to find a lot of people wanting to distance themselves.
But we’re going to pivot over to the Democratic race right now. On the Democratic side, despite his win in Indiana, Bernie Sanders remains more than 300 pledged delegates behind Hillary Clinton. And add superdelegates to that, and the gap grows to more than 800. She’s still less than 200 delegates short of clinching the nomination. Now, Sanders continues to campaign in the final month of the primary season. And party leaders aren't calling on for him to get out. Clinton, meanwhile, is shifting her focus to November and counting on eventually getting help from Sanders and his supporters.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) I know what he said last week, which I really welcomed. He said that he will do everything he can to prevent Donald Trump from being president of the United States. He will work seven days a week. I’m going to really count on that, because I want to unify the party. I am certainly going to be reaching out to his supporters, who have far more in common with me and my supporters than they do with Donald Trump and his campaign.
MR. HARWOOD: So, Margaret, does it matter to Hillary Clinton that Bernie Sanders has decided to keep going?
MS. TALEV: Sure. It would be great, from her perspective, if he did not. But, look, at this point, you know, eight years ago, she was certainly going to keep going. I think her concern, which she underplays in her public remarks, is, when it’s actually over, is he going to come around and is he going to bring those people with him, or is he going to keep talking the way that he’s been talking? She’s said in public and her advisers have said that she believes, when it’s all said and done, you know, he’ll do what he is supposed to do and what she did. But she’s a – she’s an establishment Democrat, and the whole point is that he’s not. I mean, he wasn’t even a Democrat until this race. So I think that’s sort of a shoe that is left hanging.
And if Donald Trump remains as polarizing as he is now, it will not be a problem. If Donald Trump closes in, if she faces more problems because of the FBI investigation, if Sanders supporters really do gravitate around some third party, Green Party candidate, say we’re not voting as a matter of protest, it could be a problem for her. Turnout – you know, you’re looking at two terms of a Democratic president and then a Democrat trying to replace that president. Historically, that is very difficult. If she does not get big turnout, not just from minority voters but from Bernie Sanders supporters – millions of them – it could be a problem.
MR. HARWOOD: Does anybody at this table seriously doubt that with Donald Trump on the other side that Sanders is going to unite behind Clinton? I don’t. You?
MR. COSTA: We’re just watching an interesting dynamic unfold. And when I spoke to Trump, the first thing he said was, boy oh boy, who would have thought I’d be done before Clinton? And there is a sense in the Trump campaign that because of Trump’s non-interventionist instincts on foreign policy, his populism on trade, his position on immigration, that he could actually win over some Sanders voters. And we’re watching – if Trump wasn’t this national moment movement on the right, we’d be astounded at the Sanders movement, and I think in a bigger way.
MR. HARWOOD: But do you think Sanders will not do what he needs to do and can do to pull his people behind Hillary Clinton?
MR. COSTA: He’s not a partisan figure. This is a man who is an independent socialist senator and House member for years. And I don’t – I think he would like to beat Donald Trump, and for that reason that’s the uniting factor. But he’s making a statement about progressive politics in this decade, and that’s what he wants to keep doing, is not so much the rush to get the party in line.
MR. HARWOOD: Molly, do you think that Bernie Sanders is actively hurting Hillary Clinton right now or just distracting her from the fall?
MS. BALL: I think it matters a lot what Sanders says at this point in the race because I think Hillary is happy to let him continue on to the bitter end as a cause, right? But if he is actively turning his supporters against her, if he is embittering them, if he is keeping up this harsh rhetoric about Goldman Sachs and campaign finance and her not being qualified, that’s when people start to decide I can never vote for her, no matter what he says. And then, when and if he does come around – and you know, Trump is trying to goad him into this idea of a third party run for very obvious reasons – and he’s been asked that repeatedly, and Bernie Sanders has always said he would never run as an independent candidate. But it depends how full-throated his endorsement of her ends up being.
MR. HARWOOD: Michael, how is Clinton performing right now? How is she handling this juggling act between Trump and Sanders?
MR. SCHERER: I think, for Clinton, she’s doing well. I think you grade on a curve with Hillary Clinton because she’s just not a great candidate. She’s never been a great candidate. But I think she is very comfortable, and you can see it in the way she speaks about it, that she sort of thinks she’s won the Republican roulette game here and ends up –
MR. HARWOOD: She’s looked relaxed to me this week in the interviews that she’s done.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah. And she’s very – I think she’ll be very happy going against Trump. I know her team will be very happy going against Trump. That doesn’t mean they think it’s going to be easy. They don’t think – you know, it’s going to be a close election, it’s going to be hard, they’re going to have to fight for it. But you know, if you were to ask them a year ago who’s your dream candidate at this point, I think they would have – would have said Trump.
MR. HARWOOD: Margaret, how do you evaluate Hillary Clinton the candidate right now?
MS. TALEV: Hillary Clinton the candidate is feeling pretty good. But I think there is a fear of the unknown with Trump that there wouldn’t have been with Ted Cruz. With Ted Cruz, you knew kind of the boundaries of what you were working with, right?
MR. HARWOOD: Rudy Giuliani said it was a fastball right down the middle for Democrats, that Cruz would be.
MS. TALEV: With Ted Cruz, you don’t have the same concerns, I think, about losing all the way down – all the way down the ticket. It’s a different set of concerns. With Donald Trump, it’s sort of go big or go home, right? I mean, he either wins and it’s a disaster for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, or he loses and he loses big. It’s hard – and everyone in his wake loses behind him. And it’s hard to imagine any kind of middle scenario. If Hillary Clinton is primarily concerned with the Democratic Party, she wants the risk. If Hillary Clinton is primarily concerned with herself, she wants the safer run. And I’m not sure she got it.
MR. HARWOOD: Thanks, Margaret. Well, that’s going to wrap it up for tonight.
The conversation continues on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we’ll discuss who might be in the running for vice president. That’s later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/Washington Week.
Be sure to keep up with the news developments each night on the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you around the table next week on Washington Week. I’m John Harwood. And to my mom, all you moms out there, the moms around this table, Happy Mother’s Day. Good night.