GWEN IFILL: What a difference a week makes for Hillary Clinton, for Paul Ryan, for Joe Biden, and for Donald Trump and Ben Carson. And they’re all connected. We explain how tonight on Washington Week.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) I had a pretty long day yesterday. (Cheers, applause.) It’s been quite week, hasn’t it?
MS. IFILL: And she’s had a pretty long summer, but the fall is looking brighter. Just this week Joe Biden decided not to challenge her.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I believe we’re out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination.
MS. IFILL: Two lesser-known challengers dropped out, and Clinton emerged undamaged from an 11-hour congressional hearing on the Benghazi tragedy as Republicans pounced.
REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY (R-SC): (From video.) Madam Secretary, not a single member of this committee signed up to investigate you or your email.
REPRESENTATIVE SUSAN BROOKS (R-IN): (From video.) There are 67 emails in this pile in 2012, and I’m troubled by what I see here.
MS. IFILL: And Democrats defended.
REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): (From video.) Do we want to badger you over and over again until you get tired, until we do get the “gotcha” moment that he’s talking about? We’re better than that.
MS. IFILL: Clinton’s face told the story.
Who else had a good week? Paul Ryan, who forced Republican hardliners to back down and make him speaker of the House on his terms.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) I came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment not just for Congress, not just for the Republican Party, but for our country.
MS. IFILL: While Ben Carson and Donald Trump are redefining the Republican presidential race.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The Wall Street Journal/NBC just came out with a new poll, and the headline is “Trump on top, highest points he’s gotten so far.”
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Josh Gerstein, senior White House correspondent for POLITICO; Carol Lee, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal; Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for CNN; and Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic.
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. Hillary Clinton’s 11 hours on the hot seat has widely been interpreted as a win for the Democratic frontrunner. This moment may explain why.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) I would imagine I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been wracking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done.
MS. IFILL: The goal had been to prove that Clinton was negligent and political in her handling of the Benghazi tragedy that took the lives of four Americans. Late in the day, Republican Martha Roby pressed Clinton on how she spent the night of the attack.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) I was alone, yes.
REPRESENTATIVE MARTHA ROBY (R-AL): (From video.) The whole night?
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Well, yes, the whole night. (Laughter.)
REP. ROBY: (From video.) Well, I don’t know why that’s funny.
MS. IFILL: That happened after 7:00 p.m. and people were getting punchy but not landing any punches.
REP. GOWDY: (From video.) In terms of her testimony? I don’t know that she testified that much differently today than she has the previous times she’s testified, so I’d have to go back and look at the transcript.
MS. IFILL: He had to look. We don’t know what he found in the transcript, Josh. Was Trey Gowdy right?
JOSH GERSTEIN: He was basically right. I mean, her testimony was very similar to the testimony she gave almost two years ago on this topic. I do think, regardless of whether she said anything new, there were a few new things that came out at the hearing. There were a bunch of emails that this committee managed to get that other committees have not gotten, her famous emails that we saw stacked up there and some from Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack in Benghazi.
And that added a little bit of context that we didn’t know before and fueled some theories about whether this was, in fact, a terrorist attack or due to the video that we’d heard at the time. But there wasn’t a whole lot added to the equation during these 11 hours.
MS. IFILL: You wrote a piece just before the hearings this week about the five rules that Hillary Clinton should adhere to during this hearing. I just want to run through them now and see if she actually stuck to your advice – not your advice but your suggestions. One of them, don’t lie.
MR. GERSTEIN: She did pretty well on this, considering –
MS. IFILL: It seems like an obvious idea.
MR. GERSTEIN: It seems easy, but if someone asks you questions for 11 hours, the chances that you might, even inadvertently, stray from the facts are actually pretty high. And it did happen a couple times. Some of her statements about the email situation in particular, she said that the State Department had 90 (percent) to 95 percent of her emails before she turned them over to the State Department. That doesn’t seem to be correct. And there’s some other things she said on the email front that don’t totally check out with what we know about the situation. But across the board on her statements on Libya and Benghazi, there wasn’t much change from what she said before, and I don’t think much of it can be really disproven.
MANU RAJU: You know, I was in the room there yesterday, Josh, and it seemed like Republicans clearly had a strategy. They wanted to paint her as owning that Libya policy, in addition to not responding quick enough to the warnings from Ambassador Stevens at the time. But they seemed to keep going down these rabbit holes and getting stuck on these very specific “gotcha” moments and was trying to get her in a “gotcha” moment. Why do you think that Trey Gowdy and the committee Republicans kind of ended up in that – unfortunate for them, looking like they were launching a partisan attack?
MR. GERSTEIN: Well, obviously the setup to this hearing wasn’t very helpful to them to have Kevin McCarthy come out a few weeks before this hearing and say that this was intended – or suggested was intended to undermine her poll numbers. It’s something that’s just very hard to rebut no matter how many times you say it’s not true. But I agree with you; it did seem like they were trying, in this 11-hour endurance test, to provoke some kind of an outburst from her.
MS. IFILL: But she left it to the Democrats – that’s one of the other rules. She left it to the Democrats to fight that fight, that political fight.
MR. GERSTEIN: Right. I mean, it seemed inevitable that there would be a food fight, that there would be some kind of shouting match between the two sides, and that did erupt. I think it was over the question of whether Sidney Blumenthal’s testimony should be released, but that was sort of unsurprising to me. And she did pretty much lean back at that point and let the two sides duke it out. There were times when she seemed to be smiling as the two sides exchanged, and that’s probably a better strategy than getting super angry in the face of the Republican onslaught.
CAROL LEE: Is this story done now? Does she have any other hurdles that she needs to clear?
MR. GERSTEIN: Well, I think it’s been set back substantially, or the air has been taken out of it a lot, but it’s not done. I mean, there are still all these litigation cases that are in court trying to get her emails to come out. There are monthly releases of her emails scheduled through the end of January. And then of course lingering out there is this FBI investigation into classified information on her email, and that barely came up at all yesterday during these 11 hours.
MS. LEE: There was a while there, a pretty long stretch, where this seemed like the House Sid Blumenthal hearing. Why was he such a central figure? Why was there so much fixation on Sid Blumenthal?
MR. GERSTEIN: Well, there seems to be this notion that Sid Blumenthal was effectively her Libya adviser. That’s what the Republicans were suggesting, that she was essentially ignoring suggestions and advice from, in particular, Chris Stevens, the ambassador, while Sid Blumenthal had her ear. But it’s something that’s hotly disputed by Clinton and her team who say, look, you don’t see all the classified briefings she was getting, all the cables she was receiving, all the other advice that she was getting. Just because you see Sid Blumenthal’s emails doesn’t mean that he was her key adviser on Libya.
MS. IFILL: Before we go through – on to the next segment, I wanted to just check off the other things you wrote about. You said, don’t lie. Check. Don’t speculate. Pretty much check. Don’t joke. She didn’t joke except for that one little laugh at Martha Roby. She didn’t – it says don’t interfere with the FBI, and stay out of the congressional food fight. So maybe she was reading what you wrote, Josh. (Laughter.)
MR. GERSTEIN: She may have been using that as her script. I don’t know.
MS. IFILL: I don’t think so. (Laughter.) But that’s OK. It was a good script.
Clinton solidified her frontrunner status in other ways too. Today she won the endorsement of AFSCME, the Democratic-leaning mega union. And two other Democrats, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, dropped out of the race, surprising no one, but Joe Biden did surprise. After sending clear signals of presidential ambition for months, he decided against challenging Clinton. And with the president at his side in the Rose Garden, he offered his party a little advice.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From video.) This party, our nation, will be making a tragic mistake if we walk away or attempt to undo the Obama legacy. Democrats should not only defend this record and protect this record, they should run on the record.
MS. IFILL: By the way, this was Clinton’s response today as she was taking her victory lap.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) I’m not running for President Obama’s third term. I’m not running for Bill Clinton’s third term. I’m running for my first term. (Cheers.)
MS. IFILL: The truth is, the vice president was deliberating until the very last moment, wasn’t he, Carol?
MS. LEE: He was. This was a three-month-long parlor game, probably the most intense that we’ve seen in some time, but it really went down to the wire. You know, people around him said that there was one day he would be really in it and they felt like he was going to run, and the next, you know, hour or next day he would feel differently.
And, you know, in the weeks that ran up to this he was back and forth like that, but the whole time he was making all of the steps that anyone who is seriously thinking about running would take, which is he was – I mean, up until he decided Tuesday night he was making phone calls to key supporters and, you know, trying to figure out if people were really going to be behind him.
MS. IFILL: As a matter of fact, you said in your story that every time they talked about it he would ask the same question: Who are my supporters again?
MS. LEE: Who are my supporters again? Yeah, and so he kept saying that in these meetings. So they got to a point a few weeks ago where he felt like the family had come around and that they had reached a point in their grief – which has been substantial and ongoing – they had reached a point where they felt like they could all do this. And so he really started to drill down on the nitty-gritty of the campaign – what the operation would be, who he would hire, where he would get his money.
And so he started asking those questions more and more, but in that whole time he was still not making a decision. And so they had a meeting – he went home to Delaware last weekend, and all of his staff thought that he was going to come back and say that he was running. And they activated this campaign-in-waiting under that presumption, and Monday morning he came in and said he wanted more time. And there was a very contentious staff meeting in which his aides finally said, you have to make a decision; you don’t have the luxury of another delay. And he agreed to make a decision within the next two days.
MOLLY BALL: At the risk of another maddening round of speculation, is there any chance he reconsiders? I mean, if something – if Hillary, you know, has another really bad stretch or if there’s – it looks like a void in the race for whatever reason –
MS. IFILL: At the risk of another round of speculation, Molly – (laughter) –
MS. LEE: Well, there are folks who think – who read into some – there is some people talking about his comments that, you know, he didn’t formally say no; he said, there’s no time now. You know, they’ve run out of time. And so, you know, conceivably could he, if she was – you know, completely stumbled? You know, perhaps, but he’s certainly not actively pursuing the nomination.
MR. RAJU: Carol, how much do you think that it’s a matter of timing? And we all know that Joe Biden really wants to be president. I mean, this would have been his third possible run. If the timing were a little bit different, if it were August, do you think he could do the run, or is it just because we’re getting so close to the Iowa caucuses?
MS. LEE: He didn’t have – I mean, he just didn’t have any of the infrastructure that you would need for a campaign, and to be able to rev that up in that short of amount of time – and, look, his polls – we had a poll that came out on Tuesday after the debate and his numbers were down. He was not going up.
MS. IFILL: Well, Hillary Clinton had a $77 million head start too.
MS. LEE: Right, and he –
MS. IFILL: That’s not a small –
MS. LEE: He doesn’t – he didn’t even have a super PAC. I mean, he had nothing. He had the Office of the Vice Presidency, and that’s a big platform, but it’s very expensive to run a campaign when you’re a sitting vice president.
MR. GERSTEIN: Why was there so much tweaking of Hillary in the lead-up to this announcement? Is there really a substantive disagreement there or was this just a way to stir the pot while he was making this decision?
MS. IFILL: When you say tweaking of Hillary, you mean the part where he talked about you shouldn’t be running against – Republicans are not your enemy, taking aim at something she said in the debate?
MS. LEE: I think there’s a genuine disagreement there. It’s not unintentional. And, you know, if he were to – if he did run, he was going to be the standard bearer of the Obama legacy and he was really going – I mean, that was the only path for him. And I think that there is some frustration among him and others in the White House that she is splitting from them in ways that just appear to be for political gain and not necessarily for actual policy changes or position changes.
And, you know, one of the things that’s lingering out there is will he endorse her? And if so, when, and what would that mean? And we’ll see if that happens in the coming weeks.
MS. IFILL: Joe Biden has a way of quoting his relatives a lot. One of his father’s quotes was, “Reality has a way of intruding,” and it sounds like that’s what happened to him this week.
Well, depending on your point of view, another standard bearer had a pretty good week. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, said he would run for speaker but only as a unity candidate.
REP. RYAN: (From video.) I’ve shown my colleagues what I think success looks like, what I think it takes to unify and lead, and how my family commitments come first. I have left this decision in their hands. And should they agree with these requests, then I am happy and I am willing to get to work.
MS. IFILL: This seemed to be a tall order for a fractured caucus that chased first Speaker John Boehner and then Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy away and out of the top job. But by week’s end, Ryan had the votes. How did he pull it off, Manu?
MR. RAJU: Well, I mean, the House Republican Caucus has just been in turmoil since that Boehner announcement last month. Boehner is going to resign of course by the end of October. And when McCarthy, you know, who was expected to succeed him, announced that he would not run, Paul Ryan did not want to take this job. He actually turned in that conference meeting – surprisingly he turned to John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, and said you do this job because I don’t want to do it.
But it was clear that there was nobody within the Republican Conference who could appeal to the various factions – the moderates, the conservatives, the hard right conservatives – get them all on board, at least some of them, to assemble a coalition in order to get the necessary votes on the House floor, the 218 votes you need to become House speaker.
Now, a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s a national name. Of course he was the vice presidential nominee in 2012. He has that profile and he’s got a lot of support on the right. Maybe some folks on the far right do not support him because of his views on immigration and other issues that kind of stray from that conservative orthodoxy, but he does have the core conservative bone fides that makes him popular among that segment of the base.
MS. IFILL: Was he really as reluctant to take this job as he signaled?
MR. RAJU: I think he really was. I mean, he had a decent job as the House Ways and Means chairman, which is the tax-writing committee. He was really invested in tax reform. He’s 45 years old. He could potentially maybe one day run for the White House again, and we know the speakership is a very, very bruising job. But he came under very, very heavy pressure over the one-week congressional recess.
And when he came back to Washington on Monday he went to his conference and he said, I’m going to do this but under my conditions, and one of which was he needed to have unity among the various Republican factions and make sure that he did not live sort of week by week the way John Boehner did and the way Kevin McCarthy eventually did. And when he went to these factions and he appealed to them, they all sort of realized, we’ve got nobody else. He was the guy and he ended – you know, Thursday night he said, I’m going to run.
MS. BALL: Well, once he gets in there, once he wins that vote to become speaker, does he have a strategy for dealing with this incredibly divided conference that so frequently defeated John Boehner?
MR. RAJU: I think this was the easy part. As hard as it was to find unity in this very divided conference, he still has to – he’s going to have the same problems that Boehner had and then McCarthy had. I mean, what McCarthy has been telling these – sorry, what Paul Ryan has been telling these guys is that he’s willing to work with them and include them in the process, do sort of a bottom-up approach to legislating. But that does not deal with all the policy conflicts that they’re going to have to deal with – fiscal issues coming up this fall, the debt ceiling and compromising with the White House – and appealing to that far-right segment is going to be very, very difficult. So he’s going to soon figure out why John Boehner had such a hard time.
MS. LEE: So when John Boehner stepped down – and if you talk to folks in the White House, a lot of them are saying Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan, and they felt like he would be their best bet. Would anything change in terms of the relationship between the White House and the House speaker?
MR. RAJU: Potentially, because you know, Paul Ryan did cut a big budget deal a few years ago with Senate Democrats and that got the White House onboard that avoided the threat of a shutdown, at least up until this past threat of a shutdown. (Laugher.) And you know, he has been known to be a guy who could reach across the aisle, cut a deal. He did that earlier this year, too, on a Medicare deal dealing with physician reimbursement payments with House Democrats and that got the White House’s signature as well. He is known to be able to do some of that, but he has – those are – you know, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to be much more difficult when he’s the guy who’s in charge of managing the House, managing all these different personalities, and facing that segment on the right – that House Freedom Caucus, that controls about 40 votes. If they decide to vote no on things, then he has – he needs to rely on Democrats. And this is a very unwieldy process when you start going down that road.
MR. GERSTEIN: How long is his honeymoon? Does he get through this debt limit issue in the next few weeks? Where do you see him possibly being tripped up by these same issues?
MR. RAJU: Yeah, I think it’s very short. You know, John Boehner wants to – what he said – clean up the barn before he leaves. So next week is going to be a very important week on Capitol Hill because it’s Boehner’s last week. The leadership elections are Wednesday and Thursday. So assuming Boehner cannot clean up the barn, it’ll be up to Paul Ryan to do that. And then we’ll see how he manages to raise the debt limit – there’s no consensus on how to do that – and also fund the government past December 11, not to mention highway funding is about to expire. Congress just has a lot of problems to deal with, and Paul Ryan needs to figure out how to do it now.
MS. IFILL: Cleaning up the barn. What an evocative term. (Laughter.) Makes you wonder what’s – never mind. (Laughter.)
As the Democratic primary jockeying narrows, uncertainty reigns on the Republican side – or does it? Polls now consistently show Donald Trump – who loves polls when he’s leading them – and Ben Carson, who actually took time off from the campaign trail for a book tour, they’re both way out front.
BEN CARSON: (From video.) It’s going to be the most clear-cut election in the history of America. People will be able to decide, do they want a nation that is dominated by a government that tells you what to do, or do we want a nation that is of, for, and by the people with a government there to facilitate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
MS. IFILL: A clear-cut election, but where does this leave Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and half a dozen more? Molly Ball wrote this week that it’s finally time to believe that Trump is running a serious campaign. What’s your reasoning, Molly?
MS. BALL: Well, I – what I actually wrote was I think Trump has been running a serious campaign almost from the beginning. It’s just taken the media a while to sort of have this sink in.
You know, very shortly after he announced, he hired some well-credentialed operatives in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Since then he’s been staffing up, not just in those early states but in the Super Tuesday states, in the so-called SEC primary states that vote after that, all the way into some of the late March primaries. So he’s doing the things that a real candidate would do, and yet we continue to have this suspicion that this is all a lark, that it’s not real, that he’s just sort of flying by the seat of his pants.
MS. IFILL: We keep waiting for the numbers to collapse, and they don’t.
MS. BALL: And they don’t. And in fact, what happened after the last debate, where he seemed to have sort of a weak performance, he did dip a little bit, and then he climbed back up again. And what seems to be happening is some of those Trump voters look around for someone else they could support and they come back to him because they don’t see anybody better.
MR. RAJU: Molly, you know, Trump’s part of – so much of Trump’s campaign has been this bravado, him always saying I’m winning in the polls, I’m doing great, you know, look at everyone else, they’re terrible. But we’ve seen recent polls that Ben Carson is rising and winning in Iowa. What do you think this will do to Trump’s campaign when he can no longer say I’m the guy who’s winning in all the polls?
MS. BALL: Well, what you forget is that Donald Trump can say whatever Donald Trump wants to say. (Laughter.)
MR. RAJU: At that particular time. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: He doesn’t have to say what the objective reality is. You know, and what we’ve seen from him a lot in the past is that he’ll cherry pick the poll that makes him look good. There was one very suspect, very small sample, like online poll once that showed him winning Hispanics somewhere and he continues to cite that as proof that he will win Hispanics everywhere, even though no other poll shows that. So I think what you’ll see from him, it will be interesting. As you say, Ben Carson now ahead in Iowa according to a couple of well-respected polls. Trump still leading everywhere else, still leading nationally. So far he hasn’t wanted to go on the attack against Ben Carson because he says Carson hasn’t attacked him, but I wonder if that’ll change if Carson starts gaining on him some more.
MR. GERSTEIN: Molly, is there a change among Republican strategists in their thinking about not whether Trump’s running a serious campaign, but whether he can actually win? Because many of them thought, oh, it’s impossible, and that therefore he will have to collapse because somebody who’s not electable can’t win. Is that true?
MS. IFILL: And we saw in an interview this week with Mike Murphy, who works for Jeb Bush and has worked for other mainstream candidates, saying, oh, he’s still not to be taken seriously.
MS. BALL: Well, there’s always been this feeling that he – that he would inevitably collapse, but nobody ever knew how it would happen. It was just going to be sort of like magic. And there’s now, I think, a dawning realization or a turning over of the conventional wisdom, if you will – a lot of Republican establishment types, sinking in that, whoa, this could actually happen, he could actually win the nomination because we don’t have a way to stop him. You had Joe Scarborough saying that this week, a lot of other Republicans that I speak to – top Republicans – saying I don’t know how this is going to end, I don’t know how he’s going to be derailed. So this is – this is frightening to those people. But again, I think part of the problem is that there isn’t another candidate who’s compelling enough to a broad enough swath of the party. And the candidate who thought he was going to be the Trump alternative, Jeb Bush, has really plummeted and has not been very strong.
MS. IFILL: And today is actually cutting back his – or start cutting pay for his campaign staff.
MS. BALL: Cut salaries across the board, yeah.
MS. LEE: So how does Donald Trump’s, like, organization compare to the other candidates, his competitors? I mean, is it still the same rudimentary campaign operation? Is there some bling to it? Like, is he – is he everywhere? Is he actually, you know, on the ground in these states?
MS. BALL: He really is. He’s got these operations in all of these states. He also is building a voter file. So he’s – when you go to a Trump event it’s very professionally done, and he’s taking everybody’s information. He’s gathering a list of these people.
You know with 16 Republican candidates it’s hard to – they’re all over the map in terms of what they’re building. We’ve seen Marco Rubio building a very lean campaign and taking some criticism for that, that he doesn’t have enough of an operation on the ground. On the other hand, you saw Scott Walker get overextended building out his staff, building out these offices, and then not be able to sustain that and sort of being felled by his own overhead. So there’s a – there’s a sort of broad spectrum, but I would say that Trump is building at least among the most robust and extensive national organizations.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be watching to see who decides to take the first shot and whether it lands. Thank you, everybody.
We have to go now, but as always the conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where among other things we’ll talk about the brief, unspectacular Lincoln Chafee campaign. You can find it all later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with developments with Judy Woodruff and me on the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you right here next week on Washington Week. Good night.