ROBERT COSTA: Hacks, pardons, and vaccines transfix Washington.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.
MR. COSTA: The Electoral College affirms Joe Biden’s victory.
REPRESENTATIVE MO BROOKS (R-AL): (From video.) The House of Representatives, in combination with the United States Senate, has the lawful authority to accept or reject Electoral College vote submissions.
MR. COSTA: But some Republicans and the president refuse to accept it.
SANDRA LINDSAY: (From video.) I feel great.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, a weary nation gets a jolt of hope as the vaccine rollout begins and lawmakers square off over spending, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. Joe Biden ends the week as he began it, as president-elect of the United States, but that status was given critical new recognition this week by some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) The Electoral College has spoken. The president-elect is no stranger to the Senate. He’s devoted himself to public service for many years. I also want to congratulate the vice president-elect, our colleague from California, Senator Harris.
MR. COSTA: After the Electoral College affirmed his victory, Biden used the moment to call for unity and denounce the president’s conduct.
PRESIDENT-ELECT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) It is my sincere hope we never again see anyone subjected to the kind of threats and abuse we saw in this election. It’s simply unconscionable. You know, in this battle for the soul of America, democracy prevailed. We the people voted. Faith in our institutions held. The integrity of our elections remains intact, and now it’s time to turn the page as we’ve done throughout our history, to unite.
MR. COSTA: “Turn the page.” And this all comes as the country continues to reel from that pandemic, as Congress negotiates over spending, and as federal officials express alarm about Russian hacking.
Joining us to discuss these issues are three of the nation’s top political reporters: Rachel Scott, White House correspondent for ABC News; Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios; and Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for National Public Radio and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jonathan, take us inside the White House tonight. How is the president handling this moment?
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, it depends which part of the moment you want to talk about. I mean, he is completely fixated still on grievance and wanting to – you know, being upset with people like Mitch McConnell who he thinks are weak, who he thinks aren’t sufficiently fighting for him. He’s, you know, spending most of his time thinking about the election and thinking about how to spin that he’s still in with a chance and how to show his base that he’s still fighting with them. He spends virtually no time at all thinking about COVID or many of the other things that are roiling the nation right now.
MR. COSTA: Sue, when you heard Majority Leader McConnell acknowledge the political reality, was that partly about the upcoming Georgia Senate runoff elections and getting Republican voters to get out and vote in January?
SUSAN DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, I think every calculation Republicans are making right now, and Democrats too, is about these Georgia special elections. You know, most people I talk to give Republicans a narrow edge as sort of the home team in both of those races, but you know, if the Senate were to change hands that completely scrambles every calculation we’ve been making about the Biden administration. And I think McConnell’s fear as we go forward into January, where Congress still has to certify the Electoral College, is he’s trying to get in front of any situation in which the Republican Party could be divided. You know, they’re probably going to have some drama on the House floor, certainly among the president’s House allies, but Mitch McConnell’s been talking to Senate Republicans and saying don’t agree to these objections, don’t be part of this circus, and the fear is that it’s going to look like there’s Republicans who are for Trump and against Trump, and that could have some ripple effects throughout the party. I’m not as certain as Mitch McConnell hopes to be that there aren’t going to be some Senate Republicans who are willing to sort of engage and cause some disruptions around certifying the Electoral College vote. I think there’s still a lot to be said about being a Republican who looks like you’re fighting really hard for Donald Trump, especially if the president’s doesn’t relent – and there’s no suggestion he will – and that’s a pretty enticing political prize for a lot of senators who may be looking at themselves and thinking they might want to run in 2024 and say nobody fought harder than me for Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, what are you hearing on that front? You could see some political theater on January 6th if a House member and a senator unite and try to object to the Electoral College, but we also saw this week the attorney general, Bill Barr, decided to exit his post, leave at the end of this month. Are we hearing from your White House sources about a possible special counsel to look into Joe Biden? What’s going on beyond the Electoral College?
RACHEL SCOTT: Yeah, well, we know that that’s what the president wants. He wants the focus to be on Joe Biden, on Hunter Biden of course, and I just want to sort of underscore what we were getting at earlier when it comes to McConnell. I mean, this came 42 days after the election, more than 30 days after the race was called, so while we could see some Republicans try to cause a little bit of a disruption on the House floor the bottom line here is that the Electoral College cemented Joe Biden’s victory and Joe Biden will be the next president-elect of the United – will be the next president of the United States, excuse me. And what we saw from him this week was just a line by line takedown in his speech of the president’s failed effort to try and overturn the results of the election. But sources that are – sources that are close to the president, sources at the White House tell us that we could be expecting to see more pardons. We know that the president is considering that. He has issued about – more than 100 appointments in his final days, and that is a sign that the president sees the writing on the wall, that he sees that he – his time in office is limited.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, can you add your reporting on the pardon front? What is going to happen?
MR. SWAN: Yeah, well, the plan this morning in the White House at a vey senior level was to issue – was to announce more than two dozen pardons today, but given the hour I don’t know whether that’s going to happen, so you know, I actually can’t tell you. I’ve been trying to find out what the deal is. Obviously, they’ve been delayed to some extent. I was told that they’d be out by now, so we’ll find out.
MR. COSTA: Well, who’s on the radar, Jonathan?
MR. SWAN: Maybe they’ll be announced – so for this – for the ones that were supposed to be today, I was told that – to expect – I was like, are they – are these going to be more of the Jared Kushner criminal justice reform genre or some of the more controversial friends and allies of the president, and this person sort of laughed somewhat nervously and said you might find some things controversial, but I was told that – not to expect Paul Manafort or Julian Assange in today’s batch. But again, this is moving – it’s just such a fluid situation I’m hesitant to even say that because you’ve got President Trump – this is one of his powers that he can exercise on a whim and he can change – you know, you saw what happened with Michael Flynn, which we reported, you know, the day before or two days before he was going to do that. So one thing I have been told is that there is a push on the right for him to pardon Edward Snowden. I’m told that’s unlikely. There are people around Trump urging him not to do that.
MR. COSTA: Well, Sue, on Capitol Hill are some Republicans urging the president not to do that, not to issue this flurry of pardons in the final days?
MS. DAVIS: You know, I think Republicans on Capitol Hill gave up a long time ago thinking that they could have much influence over the president. I think that it depends on who it is. And to Jonathan’s point, if he were to go so far as to pardon someone like an Edward Snowden, that would be incredibly controversial. I mean, I think any pardon at this point in an administration would be seen as controversial, but not only broadly controversial but that is someone that most people in the Republican Party would tell you that they have absolutely zero support for a pardon and would once again be jamming members of his own party to decide between talking about what they really think and believe and siding with President Trump.
MR. COSTA: Now, we also learned this week that there is a cost to this election standoff and the president’s baseless claims of fraud. Here is testimony from Christopher Krebs, the former top federal cybersecurity official.
CHRISTOPHER KREBS: (From video.) I think that continued assaults on democracy and the outcome of this election that only serves to undermine confidence in the process is ultimately – as you both have said – you know, ultimately corrosive to the institutions that support elections. And going forward it will be that much harder.
MR. COSTA: The dismissal of Krebs in the wake of the election comes as the United States is facing another threat. As The New York Times put it, quote, “hackers who American intelligence agencies believed were working for the Kremlin penetrated government systems,” and said that the cyber offensive was a, quote, “grave risk” to the federal government. Those revelations sparked outrage on Capitol Hill, including from Republican Senator Mitt Romney.
SENATOR MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): (From video.) National security is extraordinary vulnerable. And in this – in this setting, not to have the White House aggressively speaking out, and protesting, and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, has the president spoken out at this at all, publicly or privately?
MS. SCOTT: No word from the president on this front. And so many questions remain on the things that the president is silent on when it comes to cybersecurity, when it comes to the pandemic, of course. The president seems to be laser-focused on trying to overturn an election that he lost. Look, the White House says the president, of course, is monitoring this. But you hear even Republicans coming out and saying that we need to be focused on this, that this is an emergency situation, especially when we talk about that this went possibly undetected for months on end. Even Republicans here are sounding the alarm. And President-elect Joe Biden even cautioning and urging that we need to get to the bottom of this.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, quickly follow up here, are you hearing anything from the Biden camp about how they want to handle Russia once Biden takes office?
MS. SCOTT: Well, Joe Biden has said it repeatedly on the campaign trail that someone like Putin does not want him in office because he says that he knows that he is tough. But, you know, listen, they have accused President Trump of trying to cozy up to someone like Putin. We know that President-elect Joe Biden wants to take a little bit of a tougher stance there. But they came out today and said that this would be of utmost concern from them. They want to get a handle on this situation. They’re sounding the alarm as well.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, what’s the significance of this Russia hacking story? You’ve done some reporting about the Trump administration shaking up personnel at the Pentagon. What’s the status of how the Trump administration is handling this?
MR. SWAN: Well, they were caught off guard. And it’s one of the biggest intelligence failures in modern history. And it’s a huge widescale attack that the agencies are still trying to figure out how far this goes. And it comes – the timing could not really be worse because what we reported this morning is that last night – this is quite an extraordinary moment – the acting secretary of defense sent out a missive across the Pentagon, an order, to stop meetings with the Biden transition team. They cancelled all meetings today.
And this was a – you know, the Pentagon tried to spin this in, frankly, quite a laughable way today, trying to say that it was business as usual, this was a mutually agreed upon decision for the holidays with the Biden people. Completely false. The Biden people did not want to pause briefings and transition during a cyberattack at a time when the nation’s security is so vulnerable. They want to continue apace. This was not a mutual decision. And in fact, it was a decision that was discussed last night with the West Wing.
So far from a routine decision this was motivated, to a large extent, I’m told, by sources in the administration, by anger at the Biden team, blaming them for a week that – a story that your newspaper printed, Bob, The Washington Post, your colleagues Josh Dawsey and Nick Miroff scooped on Wednesday night a story about how much money they would save on the border wall. And the Trump team, without any evidence, blamed that on the Biden transition. They went into a complete fury about it. And that’s part of the animus that they have towards them, which was already there.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ll keep an eye on that story. And all of this is playing out as health care workers and many political leaders receive the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, a hopeful development during a grim week. And it’s all as we watch crunch time happen on Capitol Hill tonight, as Congress just passed a few hours ago a continuing resolution keeping the government funded on Friday, while lawmakers continue to negotiate over the stimulus bill in the coming days.
Sue, you’re the congressional correspondent for NPR. Why the so-called CR, the continuing resolution, on Friday night? And where does the stimulus negotiation stand?
MS. DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, they really just needed to buy themselves some more time. It flew through Congress. I think they feel like they’re really close on a final deal. You know, there’s a time – there’s something about this that’s both normal and abnormal. It’s not unusual at all for Congress to be in this sort of December crunch, right before the holidays, high-stakes negotiations. We see this year, after year, after year. What’s different about it is I think there is a really broad frustration on Capitol Hill right now among Democrats and Republicans at their own leadership teams.
You know, we are here because Nancy Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had been utterly incapable for months and months and months and months to come to a deal on their own. And there has been this sort of uprising of sort of centrists and moderates in the House and Senate that kind of forced leadership back to the table. And you hear members across the spectrum saying: There is no way we can go home for Christmas when you’re looking at things like unemployment programs that expire at the end of the year that could literally leave millions of Americans completely out of any type of assistance in this middle of this pandemic.
So I think the feeling is, it’ll get done because it has to get done, because politically there’s no other alternative. But nobody’s happy tonight on Capitol Hill. And I think there is some lingering tensions that will go into the next year over this.
MR. COSTA: Sue, just a quick follow up. What is the sticking point, though, for Leader McConnell? What’s holding him up?
MS. DAVIS: You know, they’re really close at a lot of things. A lot of times it’s the details that kind of need to come together in the end. One thing that they’ve really got – sticking point in the end is a bunch of Republicans, led by Pat Toomey, who’s a Republican from Pennsylvania, are trying to get language into the bill that would essentially tie the hands of the Federal Reserve. It would end a couple of emergency lending programs that Congress approved earlier this year to help boost the economy. Toomey says that they should not be reauthorized, that it’s not a proper use of the Fed, and that if they want to extend them they need separate legislation.
The Biden administration sees this, and many Democrats on Capitol Hill see this as trying to tie the hands of the incoming president. And it’s a small point. It sounds like a small point. But it’s the kind of thing that could really drag this on, especially because I don’t think Nancy Pelosi can really blink on this one now that the Biden team is saying no, it can’t be in there.
MR. COSTA: A small point, but a revealing point. Rachel, 10 years later the tea party conservatives seem to be rearing their head after being pretty quiet during the Trump era. How does this affect the Biden camp as they look ahead to a possible ’nother round of stimulus in 2021?
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, and you know, I was talking to Congressman Jim Clyburn earlier today in an interview. And he said that relief – another relief package is going to be needed at the end of this, regardless of whether or not they pass one now. They see the smaller package is just a stepping-stone to getting to a much larger one. The question is then is how does Biden kind of step into these negotiations? We’ve seen President Trump sort of take a little bit of a backseat, right, letting Secretary Mnuchin lead these conversations and these talks on Capitol Hill. There’s a big question of if Biden, who has decades of experience on Capitol Hill, tries to step in and play a little bit of a larger role to work this out with Republicans, but we cannot underscore enough that Joe Biden will be taking office at a time when the nation is sharply divided. And lawmakers in Congress are reflecting that divide as well.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, what was another interesting point you heard from Representative Clyburn? He’s such a player in the Biden orbit.
MS. SCOTT: He is, and I asked him directly, especially when we think about Biden’s Cabinet coming together, the question of whether or not he believes that Biden needs to select a person of color to be his attorney general. And that is one pick that we are still waiting to hear from. And he said that you don’t necessarily, even after a year that has been enamored in racial tension and summer of racial unrest, that he doesn’t necessarily believe that Biden has to pick someone that is a person of color. And you don’t have to be Black, necessarily, to care about Black issues. He put it that bluntly.
He also talked a little bit about how the inauguration is going to look a lot different this year. I mean, this has been a year that has been overshadowed, of course, by the pandemic. And he told me that for the most part they’re really following the example of the Democratic National Convention. That was mostly virtual. So expect a very small amount of people to be gathered there. I’m sure we won’t have those ongoing debates about crowd size this time around. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: I know. It reminds me in 2013 when I was reporting on the second Obama inauguration I got to sit behind Katy Perry, a pop star, and John Mayer. (Laughter.) I don’t think that’s going to be happening this time around.
Jonathan, you mentioned the vaccine just a few minutes ago. Vice President Pence got vaccinated today at the White House. We didn’t see President Trump. Why was that?
MR. SWAN: Well, I don’t – I don’t have reporting to exactly answer your question. But one suggestion would be that he’s had the virus already and so, you know, he’s said privately I think I’m immune, they say I’m immune. He might have even said that publicly. Pence really – the vice president wanted to send a message to increase vaccine confidence by having his immunization televised, inviting the networks in, doing it in the morning, at a time where there would be a large national audience. And another thing they’re thinking about in a – in a pretty methodical fashion – I mean the administration – is how to increase vaccine confidence among communities of color, where we’ve seen some problems in terms of people not feeling confident about a vaccine. So in that – in that respect, the surgeon general, who is the highest – one of the highest-ranking African American officials in the U.S. government, is a really important figure, and he has been leading the outreach to communities of color, trying to put out the message that this is safe, you can trust it, and you know, you can feel confident that the government has done their proper vetting of it.
MR. COSTA: And Sue, on the vaccine front, just a few minutes ago Moderna had emergency use approved. What are you hearing on Capitol Hill about the vaccine implementation process?
MS. DAVIS: Well, it’s underway. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi both had their first doses today. They both tweeted out pictures of them doing it publicly. You know, I think there was a little bit of hesitancy because I think leadership and members are aware of this idea that they don’t want to look like they’re getting something before everybody else, but I also think because there’s so much skepticism about the vaccine and so many Americans are saying, at least according to polling, that they’re not going to take it, that there is a public value here in just seeing people – people in power, people across the political spectrum and ideology, getting it and getting it in public, and I think that they weigh that sort of political calculation and say it’s more important in public health. And quite frankly, you know, members of Congress, whether you like them or don’t like them, they need to be vaccinated. The government needs to function. And it has been a really rough year in terms of proxy voting and when they can gather and how they can vote. It has not been a smooth way to run the government. And they are essential workers, even if a lot of people don’t look at them that way. So I think that there is going to be an effort to get members of Congress vaccinated. Also, Nancy Pelosi has a really, you know, certain interest in getting everybody vaccinated and back into the Capitol in January because she’s going to need every single Democrat healthy and ready to vote for her for speaker in the first day of the new Congress.
MR. COSTA: That reminds me of what Mark Shields, our retiring friend at NewsHour, said a couple hours ago: politicians are still people, even if you don’t like them. Rachel, what are you hearing on this important point raised about communities of color and whether they have confidence in the vaccine?
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, and this is such an important point because we know from discrimination in the medical system when it comes to Black Americans in this country especially that had been disproportionately affected by the virus that their trust of this vaccine is lower than White – than White Americans, quite frankly, and so you’re seeing people like the surgeon general getting that vaccine, making it clear that it is safe and that it is effective. Here at ABC we were also talking to many Black Americans out who are on the fence about this, of course, even some that were part of some of those experiments, those medical mistrust experiments from decades ago, families trying to rally behind this and say that they need to get the vaccine because it’s the first step to getting over this pandemic, of course. But this administration is trying to take those steps to assure Americans, and of course Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as well. Joe Biden will be receiving the vaccine on Monday.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, in a minute, do you expect President Trump to get involved at the eleventh hour in the stimulus negotiations or not?
MR. SWAN: He’s been a non-factor in them, really. I mean, he’s made a few comments behind the scenes that he wants larger stimulus checks, but really to the – to the extent that he was intensely interested in the stimulus package it was he wanted a huge package to go out before the election to help him get reelected, and in fact the resistance he ran into was from the Republican Senate. Trump wanted a bigger deal than Pelosi before the election. He had no concerns about adding to the debt and deficit, he just wanted to send a firehose of cash out into the electorate in the hope that it could get him some votes. So he hasn’t been engaged. I don’t expect he will be. But you know, I’m sort of done making predications about Donald Trump. He’ll probably prove me wrong in 24 hours.
MR. COSTA: Well, Jonathan, your reporting’s usually always dead on, so we’ll keep following you. We’re going to have to leave it there for tonight. Many thank to our reporters for joining us: Rachel Scott, Jonathan Swan, and Susan Davis. Really appreciate it.
And thank you all for joining us this evening. Make sure to check our Extra. We will dig into the emerging Biden Cabinet, who’s in and what matters. You can find it on our social media and on our website.
But before we go I wanted to share a personal note. I will be leaving Washington Week at the end of the year. I’m going to coauthor a book with Bob Woodward. I’ll share more details about that soon. But I look forward to seeing you next week and on January 1st.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.