YAMICHE ALCINDOR: COVID crisis and the Cuomo controversy.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way.
FLORIDA GOVERNOR RON DESANTIS (R): (From video.) If you are trying to lock people down, I am standing in your way and I’m standing for the people of Florida.
MS. ALCINDOR: As the pandemic deepens, President Biden spars with GOP governors over vaccine and mask requirements.
REPRESENTATIVE CORI BUSH (D-MO): (From video.) People’s lives depend on it.
MS. ALCINDOR: And after the CDC’s moratorium on evictions expires, the Biden administration faces pressure to step in. Plus –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I think he should resign.
MS. ALCINDOR: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo faces growing calls to leave office after an investigation finds he sexually harassed multiple women, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. President Biden celebrated a return to some parts of normal life amid the pandemic just 33 days ago, but tonight our lead story is the resurgence of COVID-19. This week for the first time since February daily COVID cases in the U.S. surpassed 100,000. The Delta variant has been a game changer. Cases are spiking and worried officials are struggling to get more Americans vaccinated. At an event this week, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy addressed anti-vaccine protesters.
NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR PHIL MURPHY (D): (From video.) Please get vaccinated, period. These folks back there have lost their – you’ve lost your minds. You are the ultimate knuckleheads, and because of what you are saying and standing for people are losing their life.
MS. ALCINDOR: But many Republican governors are defiant. Some are banning local officials from enacting their own mask mandates. On Tuesday President Biden took aim at the governors of Texas and Florida. Those two states account for one-third of all new COVID-19 cases in the country. Here’s the war of words between the president and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic.
FLORIDA GOVERNOR RON DESANTIS (R): (From video.) Why don’t you do your job? Why don’t you get this border secure? And until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you.
MS. ALCINDOR: Joining us tonight for more insight and analysis are four top reporters: Lisa Lerer, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Katherine Wu, staff writer for The Atlantic covering science; and joining me in studio, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News; and Josh Dawsey, political investigations and enterprise reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you all for being here.
Katherine, I want to start with you. The White House is continuing to urge people to get vaccinated and also pointing out that vaccination rates are going up in critical areas. What’s the latest on what is actually working in terms of getting more people vaccinated, and what more do we know about how the – how the virus has been evolving?
KATHERINE WU: Yeah, thank you for that question. I think it’s been really encouraging to see an uptick in vaccinations in the past couple weeks, but it is not nearly enough. I think it really did take a little bit of fear to get people moving and rolling up their sleeves in the past couple weeks. We’ve seen this new variant surge immensely, especially in places where vaccination rates are low, and I really hope that, you know, unfortunately through difficult means, that is encouraging people to protect themselves in advance. I just wish it hadn’t taken more deaths, more hospitalizations to do so.
What’s really critical at this point is making sure that we’re closing that gap. We have, you know, roughly 90 million people who are eligible in this country who are not yet lining up in droves, and we also know that there are 50 million children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible, and that makes up a huge portion of people that can still catch and spread the virus and still experience serious outcomes from it, especially as kids head back into school.
In terms of where the virus is coming, you know, the virus is not going to wait for us to line up in an orderly fashion. Viruses evolve much faster than humans can react to it in this pace, but the best tool that we have on our side that the virus doesn’t is the intelligence to make a vaccine and deploy it as quickly as we can, and we know that that is working, and we know that the best path out of this is to vaccinate as many people as we can.
MS. ALCINDOR: And the virus, as you said, is not going to wait for us. I want to ask you also, with that striking bit of reporting, what are experts saying about booster shots and breakthrough infections?
MS. WU: Yeah, so this is an incredibly important topic this week especially with the news that booster shots may soon become available to especially people who are immunocompromised and maybe less well-equipped to respond to those first one or two doses of vaccine. This has been a concern since the very beginning. You know, we know that not everyone’s immune system is built in the same way. Some can be suppressed with drugs that may be necessary to keep people healthy. At this point I think it is an option that federal officials are debating, but we also do have to keep in mind that boosters are not necessarily going to be a necessary option for everyone at this point. For people who are immunocompetent, for people who have gotten their full doses, most people don’t need boosters at this point. The vaccines really are holding their own, including against this new variant, and we do have to keep in mind that vaccines are still in limited quantity when we consider the entire global picture. There are places abroad that still don’t have enough vaccines in arms, and it would be unfair to give third helpings before some people have had their first.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to do one more question to you because you’re our health reporter and your reporting is so important. This week New York City became the first major city to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining and gyms. What’s your reporting reveal about the impact of schools and public places trying to stay safe through actual requirements?
MS. WU: Yeah, I know that this has been a little bit controversial, but I do think it may be time for this to happen. I’ve seen more and more experts come out in support of mandates and requirements like these. You know, it’s sort of a combination of carrot and stick. If you want to keep having these privileges going out into society and being able to lead a normal life, it is probably a really good idea to do that vaccinated to ensure not only your health but the people that you’re interacting with. We know so much at this point about how well the vaccine stops severe disease and, you know, to a lesser extent but still a very important extent infection and transmission.
This gets to your question, again, about breakthroughs. We know that they’re happening, they’re happening rarely, but in general they are a lot milder. And you know, for – to have the confidence that the people you’re interacting with are also vaccinated, that makes a huge impact on our return to normal life.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Lisa, many have found the messaging from the CDC and the White House, frankly, confusing on this issue of masks, of what to do. What’s your reporting say about the White House’s handling of all of this, and what’s it mean that we’re back up to 100,000 cases a day on President Biden’s watch as he, of course, continues to say he’s following the science?
LISA LERER: Well, there definitely have been complaints about how the White House has messaged this, both from Democrats and Republicans. I’ve heard some – from some Democrats who feel that the White House sort of moved towards declaring victory a bit too early. We all remember that July 4th barbecue they had over there. But the reality is the White House is in a really difficult spot on this. We know from polling, from data analyzing, you know, voters in Trump – counties that went for Trump versus counties that went for Biden that Republicans are more vaccine hesitant, that the areas of the country where people are the most skeptical of vaccine, many of them tend to be Republican, and those are the exact areas where the president’s words are likely to have the least amount of sway and, in fact, may prompt the kind of political pushback that we saw from Governor DeSantis. There is a political motivation here for some of these Republicans like DeSantis, who’s often tossed around as a potential presidential candidate himself in a couple years, to push back on the – on the White House’s message on this, particularly when it comes to masking, when it comes to mandates, and so that’s a big reason why we’ve seen the White House sort of shy away from that big M-word of mandates and really push local jurisdictions and, you know, private corporations to impose those things of their own volition. As Katherine pointed out, there’s a real question about whether that’s going to be enough. And the reality is, politically it doesn’t really matter which – voters of which party are getting sick; Biden is the president and he will own this thing.
MS. ALCINDOR: Biden is having to own this, and I want to come to you, Josh. We’re seeing these COVID culture wars intensifying. I was struck this week – I should say I’m a native of Florida – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, he has mitigated and really tried to essentially ban a lot of the mitigation efforts. There’s also this idea that he literally said this week – and I have to read it – this is our COVID season. It took my breath away and I think it took a lot of people’s breaths away. I wonder for you, what’s this all mean that COVID season is now becoming the thing that Republicans are talking about, and is there a winning political strategy to sort of normalize this pandemic?
JOSH DAWSEY: Well, I think in the minds of Republican voters there is. I mean, I think you have a lot of folks on the right who have vilified Dr. Fauci and, you know, he is kind of anathema to folks on the right, and the public health experts, and President Biden and his administration. And people like Ron DeSantis, like Abbott in Texas, you know, even McMaster to some degree in South Carolina, a lot of different states have really resisted these, you know, measures to try and restrict the virus – having a mask mandate, having a vaccine mandate, saying that, you know, we want our people to make free choice, we want our people to have the right to do what they want, and in some of these places you really see cases quite surging. But in a lot of these states, I think Florida, in South Carolina where I’m originally from, in Texas, these are popular positions from these governors. They’re saying the people in the state, even with these cases surging across the state, do not want more lockdowns, do not want some of these measures in place, and you have places where I think that they would be so resistant to that happening, and these governors are really emphasizing that.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Leigh Ann, I’m struck by Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina. He was one of three Republican members of Congress who filed a lawsuit against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the House mask mandate. There was also an official in Texas who was – who was on Facebook posting about anti-vaccine messages. He died of COVID. Now Ralph Norman has COVID right now. I’m not at all implying that this would at all be fatal for him, and I hope that the congressman recovers and goes on. But that being said, what’s the – what’s going on Capitol Hill here? What’s going on with the Republicans when you see this, and what’s the big pushback on this mask issue at the Capitol?
LEIGH ANN CALDWELL: Yeah, well, Ralph Norman was one of the House members who walked across the Capitol to the Senate to protest the mask mandate in the House because the Senate side doesn’t have an actual mandate. It’s just required that you wear masks, and Speaker Pelosi called out Ralph Norman today in her press conference, saying that there’s a member who’s suing her who now has come down with COVID. As far as Republicans on Capitol Hill, it’s much more dramatic in the House of Representatives.
But they are now tying two culture wars into one by their talking about anti-masks and also tying it to what’s happening at the border and how there’s a surge of immigrants with COVID at the border. So now they’re saying the president of the United States can’t say anything about us wearing masks until they get a handle of what’s happening on the border, and as far as the – as COVID is concerned. So they think that this is a good political issue for them, regardless of the health and human impact that it’s having.
MS. ALCINDOR: And the – I want to also turn to this really important topic, which is the CDC’s nationwide moratorium on evictions expired six days ago. Tuesday the CDC put in place a ban that is new, but more limited. That came after the White House faced pressure from progressives. Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri – once homeless herself – camped out for days on the steps of the Capitol. She demanded President Biden and lawmakers take action. Here’s what she said.
REPRESENTATIVE CORI BUSH (D-MO): (From video.) We are working to make sure that the people know that the House – that the Democratic House is standing up for them. We cannot have the majority and then put 7 to 11 million people on the street.
MS. ALCINDOR: Leigh Ann, you’ve been digging into the story of evictions all week. What does your reporting say about what took – why it took so long for the White House and the CDC to act? And what does it mean that Cori Bush – one Democrat, a progressive Democrat – can put pressure on officials in this way?
MS. CALDWELL: Well, the White House and Democratic leadership really dropped the ball on this issue, really did not bring it up until one to two, maybe three days before the eviction moratorium was set to expire. Now the House of Representatives Democratic leadership, they tried to get the votes to pass something in the House on that Friday before they adjourned for seven weeks. It didn’t happen.
So Cori Bush started this impromptu protest on the Capitol steps, and that really rose national – raised national awareness to the issue, put a lot of pressure on Speaker Pelosi, who in turn put her pressure on President Biden to do something. So it was a really rare but very effective moment of activism and protest at the Capitol that really moved policy. And while it took three days since the eviction moratorium ended, it’s actually moving very quickly for Washington-speak that they did act so immediately.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Lisa, I want to come to you. The jobs report came out this – today. There is, in some ways, some strong numbers there. But there also are Americans who are still struggling. Could you connect sort of what we’re seeing and the real challenge that Democrats have, especially as this midterm comes up, to try to convince Americans that things are getting better?
MS. LERER: Well, Republicans really see economy as one of their potentially strongest arguments for the midterms. And what they’re really focused on is inflation, because while that was a very strong jobs reports I think in terms of people’s lives they do feel that the price of milk is going up, the price of daily goods is going up, certainly the price of gasoline. And so Republicans see that as a really strong argument that they’re going to be able to make as they get into the midterms that the economy isn’t rebounding like the administration promised, with that early COVID relief package, and that they’ll be able to argue that, you know, there’s too much spending and Democrats have taken the wrong approach here.
Obviously, the midterms are an awful long way away still, and things feel pretty unpredictable, especially with the resurgence of the virus. So we’re all going to have to see how this plays out. But you can already see Republicans in their responses to this report laying the groundwork to make that kind of an argument.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Leigh Ann, I quickly want to come to you before we turn to Cuomo and all of the things going on in New York. Infrastructure, it’s – where is it? What’s going on? I know the Senate’s going to be there on Saturday. I am struck by this reporting by a House Democratic campaign chief that said if the midterms were held today Democrats might lose their majority. But also Democrats are able to pull – are even possibly able to pull together this infrastructure deal. Tell us the latest.
MS. CALDWELL: Yeah, so a couple things here. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is going to pass, it’s just a matter of when. Is it going to be Saturday? Is it going to be Monday? It could be as long as Wednesday. It depends on how the process goes. And it’s going to pass because I am told that polling in individual states, including Republican states with Republican constituents, really like this infrastructure bill. So we could see up to 20, maybe more, Republicans actually vote for this bill.
And getting back to the campaign head in the House of Representatives talking about how they could lose, well, that’s because the Republicans have been – well, let’s just say Democrats are in control. And it’s very hard for Democrats to win in a midterm after the president of the same party won. But I will say that Speaker Pelosi today, she said she likes running from behind. And so that was admitting that she – they are behind, and they have a lot of work to do, and they’re hoping that this bipartisan infrastructure bill, combined with this $3.5 trillion human infrastructure bill, will help them at the polls.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, striking. Thank you so much, Katherine, so much for talking with us about your COVID reporting. It was really important.
I want to now turn to the sexual harassment investigation into New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Tonight, Governor Cuomo stands defiant as Democratic Party leaders, including President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, call on him to resign. In the meantime, state lawmakers have also sped up their wide-ranging impeachment inquiry. State investigators say they have evidence Governor Cuomo harassed at least 11 women. Here’s New York Attorney General Letitia James.
NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL LETITIA JAMES (D): (From video.) Governor Cuomo sexually harassed current and former state employees in violation of both federal and state laws. None of this would have been illuminated if not for the heroic women who came forward, and I am inspired by all the brave women who came forward. But more importantly, I believe them.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, Governor Cuomo fired back in his own taped statement. Here’s what he had to say.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances. That is just not who I am. And that’s not who I have ever been. I accept responsibility, and we are making changes.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, today news broke that a Cuomo aide has filed a criminal complaint with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. Josh, I want to come to you. Talk a bit about what the New York attorney general says she found in her investigation. And also, I’m wondering, what’s the latest on whether or not the governor could face charges?
MR. DAWSEY: So the New York attorney general found 11 women who she deemed, and her investigators – two outside investigators – to all be credible, who accused the governor of sexual misconduct that ranged from forcibly groping a woman under her shirt, to touching women inappropriately, to sexual comments – you know, a whole range of conduct is what she found. And she did 179 interviews. She interviewed everyone in the governor’s inner circle. She interviewed a lot of these women. She found contemporaneous notes from a lot of these women, where they told others about it at the time. And it was – it was a pretty damning portrait.
And what we found out is yesterday the executive assistant – one of the women, anonymous women in the complaint – has gone to the Albany County DA and filed a criminal complaint about the governor, you know, allegedly groping her, and the district attorney has said that they found that allegation to be credible. And you have multiple other district attorneys in various parts of the state – in Manhattan, in Westchester – looking at this evidence that’s been compiled by Tish James’ team to figure out if there are other criminal investigations that will go forward.
MS. ALCINDOR: And the governor, he emerged as a sort of Democratic star during the pandemic but now his legacy is in tatters. Talk a bit about how his handling of this reveals his character and what it – what it means, and talk a little bit about who the governor is.
MR. DAWSEY: He’s been incredibly pugilistic in refusing to resign. You have Biden, Pelosi, all of the Democratic Party chairs – chair of the Democratic state party that he appointed, even his lieutenant governor criticizing him. I mean, there’s no one left in New York politics or national Democratic politics who have defended him this week, and he has stayed ensconced in his mansion refusing to resign, thinking he can fight back, thinking he can somehow fend off impeachment. The governor has always engendered a brutal workforce, a toxic place, a really tough place to work, and he’s always believed in his own – his own willingness to – his own ability to maneuver out of tough situations and his own ability to convince people that he’s right. And here you have really an unparalleled situation for Governor Cuomo, you know, who, as you said, you know, at the height of last spring was kind of a national elixir to many Democrats of COVID and was kind of the contrast to Trump, and now it’s totally different.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Lisa, build on that. Governor Cuomo has a – has a number of things – number of problems that are involved in this – in this impeachment investigation. Talk a bit about that. And can he actually beat this, can his legal team? Is he viable still?
MS. LERER: Well, I think it’s first important to really reflect on who the governor is. It’s not just that he was a hero, of course, during the pandemic for a lot of Democrats, which he was – they saw him as this white knight who was going to come in and save the country from COVID – he is someone who is from one of the most storied political legacies in American politics. His father, of course, was a major player in the Democratic Party, also a New York governor. Andrew Cuomo was in the – Bill Clinton’s Cabinet. He’s an – he was – he was an advisor of sorts to President Biden. So this is not just sort of some random Democrat, right, this is someone who is one of the most prominent Democratic family names in the country, and that’s why it was so striking to see the speed at which Democrats moved to really dump him and say he has to resign, and as Josh pointed out, it was everyone from the president on down. He has, though, shown no indication to be willing to do so.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I should just – if I could interrupt you a bit, this is a political dynasty ending, right? Could this – could he actually survive this?
MS. LERER: I mean, it’s really hard to see, but it’s also not impossible. I think the strategy right now is to buy time. The State Assembly has indicated that they want to move quickly on moving forward with impeachment. There really isn’t much precedent for doing an impeachment there in the modern era and there is some disagreement within the Assembly over the scope of that. Initially their impeachment was going to have a much broader scope than just this sexual harassment, and now there’s some disagreement on whether they should narrow that to move quickly. We’ve seen that his lawyers came out today and really have mounted this ferocious defense, and I think most Democrats want to sort of limit the political damage to the Democratic Party by getting him out as quickly as possible, and clearly that is not the strategy that he has in mind. It is really hard to see how he could be politically viable to run for that fourth term that’s been his goal for so long because, of course, that’s something his father was unable to achieve. And early polling – we don’t have much yet – has shown that Democratic voters really don’t want to see him do that; something like 75 percent of Democrats in the state of New York would prefer somebody else runs for governor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, and Leigh Ann, I want to come to you. There is this is idea that he is, of course, being defiant – Lisa just talked about the political damage this could mean for Democrats. What does it mean for Democrats that he refuses to resign? And I should also say, what are Republicans doing? How are they squaring going after Cuomo when, obviously, there are a lot of them who were supporting former President Trump, who faced allegations of rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse?
MS. CALDWELL: Absolutely, there’s one thing about Democrats in this case that you can’t say all the time, is that Democrats are at least being consistent on the issue. They, on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault, started with Al Franken during the #MeToo movement and they have been consistent regardless of party, and you cannot say the same for the Republican Party, who was silent amidst these allegations of the former president. And so the Democratic Party wants to get rid of the governor and they are washing their hands of him.
MS. ALCINDOR: They’re washing their hands of him, I mean, that’s absolutely true. They are – the Democratic Party, as well as Republicans also, are in some ways seeking to really see this as a political benefit for them, but it’s, I think, a really, really challenging thing to walk – (laughs) – is one way to put it when you have Republicans who are still sticking by the former president.
I want to – just have to leave it there. Thank you so much to Lisa, to Leigh Ann, to Josh for joining us and sharing your reporting. And before we go, a reminder of the sacrifices made during the January 6th Capitol attack: Thursday, President Biden signed a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to a group of officers who defended the Capitol Building and the people inside. It was a stark reminder of the deep trauma of that tragedy that still lingers.
And don’t forget to tune in to the PBS NewsHour for “Climate Crisis: A Landmark U.N. Report and Its Dire Warnings.” That’s Monday on the PBS NewsHour.
We’ll continue the conversation on the Washington Week Extra coming up at 8:30 Eastern time streaming live on our website, YouTube, and Facebook, and we will be answering your questions about the pandemic.
Thank you so much for joining us for this important conversation. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.