ROBERT COSTA: The contenders make their case.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re learning to live with it. We have no choice.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Learning to live with it? Come on, we’re dying with it.
MR. COSTA: A final showdown as case numbers spike nationwide.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) Donald Trump isn’t suddenly going to protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself.
MR. COSTA: And President Obama rallies in Philadelphia with turnout in Pennsylvania and new battlegrounds critical.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) We’ll be voting to confirm Justice Barrett next Monday.
MR. COSTA: And Senate Republicans move ahead with their majority on the line, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome. Where does this race stand? Well, in recent hours I pressed my sources to be candid. Veteran Democrats told me they remain confident. They believe the early voting surge is a sign of enthusiasm on their side. They believe Vice President Biden is steady enough, and amid a deadly pandemic with case numbers now spiking to record levels nationwide they argue that steady and centrist will be what wins in the suburbs and in the states they’re trying to turn blue. But top Republicans told me not to count out President Trump, who is reviving his playbook from 2016 with rallies, grievances, and brutal attacks. They also see an uptick in GOP registration in some states, and they insist that in the final days Trump can paint Biden as a progressive and connect with Americans who are restless and frustrated by this pandemic.
Joining me tonight are three first-rate political reporters: Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post, who is joining us from Nashville; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; and Asma Khalid, political correspondent for National Public Radio and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Let’s begin with that debate and this exchange on the pandemic.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It will go away, and as I say we’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans dead. Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, you wrote in the paper today that the president’s aides privately urged him to try to make up ground in this debate by avoiding constant interruptions, but inside the campaign and the White House tonight do they believe it was enough to alter the fundamental dynamics?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: No one who watched last night really saw it as a game-changing debate. They saw it as sort of the status quo. The president did better than he did in the first debate in terms of his mood and not seeming – not coming across as angry, not coming across as sort of a bully. He did not interrupt as much. A lot of his aides said allow Joe Biden to speak, allow there to be a contrast of the different ideas on the – on the stage, and that happened. We heard from Joe Biden, we heard from President Trump, and they did have very different views and visions for where they want to take the country.
Now, a lot of the things the president said when it came to the coronavirus pandemic left him on the defensive. He was saying we’re rounding the turn, everything is going to be OK, everything’s going to be fine, and 24 hours later we hit a new record, more than 80,000 cases in the United States, just over 24 hours. So it’s clear that the president is really on his heels when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. He wants it to be in the rearview mirror, but as we’re getting closer to election day it is the number-one issue on the minds of lots of Americans and it’s not getting better; in many cases, in many parts of the country, it’s getting worse.
MR. COSTA: Asma, on health care, it’s not just about the handling of the pandemic, it’s also the future of the Affordable Care Act, which now faces a reckoning in the courts. Inside the Biden campaign, do they believe his attack on the president’s health-care position, the administration’s position on the Affordable Care Act, is breaking through with key voters?
ASMA KHALID: I mean, Democrats feel extraordinarily confident on issues of health care. You know, I’ve been hearing that, actually, for weeks, and this has been a central argument for them as they’ve been trying to push back against the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. You know, I think, to sort of echo Toluse there, though, really what I have been hearing from voters I would argue for months, especially as we’ve seen COVID cases continue to rise in some key battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin, is this frustration by the president’s mishandling of the pandemic. You know, I really cannot overstate that. I hung around outside of a ballot dropbox in Detroit and these are people who have personal stories – you know, someone who lost a cousin in the pandemic. These are not abstract problems. And this is where Democrats feel that they have an advantage, and to underscore that, you know, a day after the debate Joe Biden was back home in Delaware delivering a speech yet again on how he would handle the coronavirus pandemic, and this is a point that he has been trying to emphasize for months. It’s a point where he, his campaign, and broadly Democrats feel they have an advantage.
MR. COSTA: Susan, what about immigration? The president’s a hardliner on this issue, but he attacked Vice President Biden’s record with President Obama. How is this issue going to play out in states like Arizona and across the Sun Belt?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, immigration, of course, the issue that animated Donald Trump’s campaign from its earliest days five years ago, but the takeaway I think from the debate last night was not about concerns about the border; it was about 540 children who were taken from their children at the – taken from their parents at the border for whom their parents cannot now be found. They’re now in the care of the United States or in the care of other relatives. That is a pretty heartbreaking situation and one that the president didn’t really show empathy on. You know, it’s – really, it’s a lot like the coronavirus, where the president has strong views, he goes on the attack, but it’s Joe Biden who’s expressing empathy about the situation that is actually affecting people in this country.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, what is the strategy here from President Trump? Does he actually believe he can cast Vice President Biden as a liberal in the closing days? You saw him seize on Vice President Biden’s answer on transitioning out of an oil-industry economy at the end of the debate. Is that what we’re going to hear more of in the next few days?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, I spoke to a few campaign officials today and they said that the president’s closing argument against Joe Biden is twofold. One, they want to paint him as a creature of Washington, someone who’s spent, you know, almost half a century in Washington without much accomplishments sort of getting into the mode of Washington, following the ways of Washington; and President Trump is an outsider, he is a businessman, he’s someone who – even though he’s an incumbent president, he’s running as the insurgent. They said he was able to do that by his constant repetition last night of why didn’t you get it done, Joe Biden; why didn’t you do it during your eight years as vice president; why didn’t you do it during your six terms in the Senate. That was something he pressed repeatedly, and the campaign expects that to continue.
They also felt that Joe Biden gave them a gift by what is now sort of being seen as sort of a Biden-style gaffe where he said he wanted to transition away from oil and – oil and gas within just a few years and move to net-zero emissions. That is something that President Trump pounced on. He said that is a major thing that you’re saying, you’re essentially saying you’re going to get rid of an entire industry, maybe even get rid of millions of jobs in places like Texas and also, you know, tying it to fracking and natural gas in places like Pennsylvania. So the campaign wants to really highlight those comments by Joe Biden on energy while also painting him as a creature of Washington, someone who’s spent 47 years in the city, and they’re going to challenge his record as to whether or not he was able to get enough done during that time.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with Pennsylvania because former President Barack Obama campaigned in Philly this week, part of the Biden campaign’s push to turn out his core voters. His message concentrated on character.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) I never thought Donald Trump would embrace my vision or continue my policies, but I did hope for the sake of the country that he might show some interest in taking the job seriously. But it hasn’t happened. The thing is, this is not a reality show; this is reality.
MR. COSTA: Asma, it’s about Philadelphia, and turning out urban voters, turning out suburban voters. It’s also about that in Detroit. You were in Michigan this week talking to voters. What does it mean to have former President Obama back on the trail?
MS. KHALID: You know, I was struck. I was actually out with him on that trip to Pennsylvania earlier this week. And, you know, to me, he had sort of multiple different audiences of Democratic core base voters he was trying to reach. Certainly the activists within the party, but a very key constituency of the Democratic Party that it seems like he was specifically speaking to is what I would call disillusioned Democrats of 2016. These are people, largely young Black and brown voters, who perhaps did not vote in 2016. Or maybe voted and left the top of the ticket blank.
You know, he held a drive-in car rally, President Obama, where a lot of activists were there. But prior to that he actually held a pretty small roundtable with a, you know, select group of African American men – maybe a dozen or so people there. And one of the consistent themes of questions that came up from people was: How do you get folks who are just, you know, disaffected, disillusioned with this process, don’t really feel like voting makes a difference. How do you get them to actually participate this year?
And President Obama’s message there was that, you know, in his view progress can be slow. Progress can not necessarily happen as quickly as folks may want. And he acknowledged that under his own administration they were not able to really combat systemic racism or police reform if ways that maybe, you know, he even would have hoped, but that it’s better than sitting out the process entirely. And I will say, you know, Bob, this is a theme that I heard a lot when I was out in Detroit, is, well, Detroit’s a place where you could make the argument the election was so close in 2016 that had you had, you know, a lot more sort of African American turnout in Wayne Country or even Arab American turnout from Dearborn, you might have seen a different election result.
And those are the folks that I was really interested in speaking with. You know, I think there is a recognition among many of them that the stakes are different this time around, regardless of how they feel personally about Joe Biden.
MR. COSTA: Susan, can you build on that a little bit? Because what we’re seeing from President Trump – and I was talking to some Trump campaign officials earlier today – is, of course, they’re trying to stoke the base in western Pennsylvania, in western Michigan, central Pennsylvania. But they’re also trying to depress the Democratic vote, going after Vice President Biden on the ’94 crime bill, going after Vice President Biden on immigration and the Obama record. How does that calculus play out in all of these states?
MS. PAGE: Yes. And of course, we’ve moved now in the last 11 days of the campaign from trying to persuade undecided voters – if there are any of them left – into trying to turn out the voters who are already for you. And that’s why we see President Obama out there speaking to Democratic audiences saying: Please go to the polls. It is possible to depress Democratic turnout, as it was depressed in some places in 2016. And I actually think that’s the biggest problem with president – with Vice President Biden’s comment on transitioning away from fossil fuels and on fracking in the debate last night.
Because it can be used in a state like Pennsylvania to be – raise some questions about maybe the personal economic consequences of electing Biden. Not that those voters will then go out and vote for Trump, but maybe they won’t go out and bother to vote. This is a problem that Vice President Biden’s going to have if he wins, the pressure between progressives who were very happy to hear what he had to say about fracking and transitioning away from fossil fuels, but at odds with some of these more centrist, more moderate voters from energy states, like Pennsylvania, who are concerned about that policy.
MR. COSTA: And all of this is playing out as Senate Republicans are worried about a blue wave sweeping through swing states, and now even red states such as Texas and Georgia. Here’s how some Senate Republicans are handling that rising tide.
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): (From video.) I was the first Republican to speak out against repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
SENATOR KELLY LOEFFLER (R-GA): (From video.) I am proud to be the only U.S. Senator with a 100 percent voting record with President Trump.
JEFF ZELENY: (From video.) Is President Trump complicating your race?
SENATOR JONI ERNST (R-IA): (From video.) No. I would say I’m running my own race.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, inside the GOP there’s a lot of unease, but very different approaches to the challenges facing all of them. How is the White House going to play it in the final few days, in terms of where they go and what the president says?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, it seems the White House is really focused squarely on President Trump’s reelection now. They would love it if the side benefit to that is that all these Senate Republicans also get elected, but they are really focusing on the electoral map, trying to make sure President Trump gets to 270. They aren’t listening to any Senate Republicans that want to keep them away or keep them at arm’s length. They’re going where President Trump needs to go to try to win. Now, some of these Senate Republicans do want to keep the president at arm’s length. People like Susan Collins are not embracing the president. They are, you know, trying to show their distance from him as they fight for their political survival.
But a lot of these Senate Republicans need President Trump’s voters. People like Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. He needs President Trump’s voters to see him as an ally of the president, as someone who is on the president’s team as he faces a surprising competitive race in South Carolina against Jamie Harrison. He realizes that if President Trump’s supporters vote for President Trump and leave his race blank, or vote for a third-party candidate, or even cross parties to vote for his opponent – because maybe they don’t think he’s a strong enough supporter of President Trump – he could lose as a result.
So even as some of these Republicans are trying to put some distance between themselves and the President, because they realize that his approval ratings are pretty low, he’s not doing very well with the suburban and moderate voters that they need to win in their specific states, they realize that they do need the president’s base to come out, and to come out in high numbers. So you’re not going to see as much separation as you might with a president who is struggling so much in the polls.
MR. COSTA: Senator Collins is fascinating. Our friend JMart, Jonathan Martin, at The New York Times posted a story today saying Senator Collins once considered even running as an independent in 2020 to try to make sure she could win up there in Maine. But, Asma, as we look at this map we’re seeing the Biden campaign, which is flush with cash, starting to look at Georgia; Texas, Senator Cornyn’s on edge there too. He’s skittish about his reelection. How realistic is it to have this blue wave become a blue tsunami that goes across places like Georgia, maybe even Mississippi, Alabama? Democrats were talking about that today as well.
MS. KHALID: Sure. I mean, you know, Bob, to me I think that’s perhaps one of the most interesting questions this cycle, but it’s also the question that I think when you pose it to Democratic strategists, quite candidly, they’re very anxious about even discussing that question, given the results of what happened in 2016, right? You know, there was a point during the 2016 cycle where Hillary Clinton’s campaign was ambitiously talking about Arizona, that was, I believe, actually the same day that the Comey letter came out. And we all know that the race dramatically shifted shortly after that.
So I do think that there is this anxiety, you can argue maybe it’s rooted in reality or not, amongst some Democrats about being overly optimistic about the map. That being said, you know, you look at ad spending, and I believe the Biden campaign – according to ad analytics is currently, you know, advertising locally in about 19 states. I mean, that’s a really ambitious map. And certainly they have the money to do that. Kamala Harris herself was campaigning today in Georgia. And we all know that where, you know, both the candidate and his running mate go, that expresses a certain level of, you know, intensity of what they feel the state means. And to me, I was struck by the fact that they chose to send her today to Georgia.
You know, one thing, though, I will say is I’m still myself a little skeptical about this idea that, you know, unless – you know, say, take a state like Georgia. Unless that state actually goes at the top of the ticket – or Joe Biden or Donald Trump – I just don’t see the Senate flipping. I mean, we’re in a situation where research has shown, people don’t split their tickets as much as they used to, right? There’s not a lot of nuance there. And so I’m really skeptical of this sense that we’re going to see the president win a state, say, like Texas, but we’re going to see someone like John Cornyn lose the seat.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you’re writing a biography of Speaker Pelosi. She was attacked by President Trump at the debate, who said maybe Republicans could even gain the House majority back. And he was referencing this ongoing stalled stimulus negotiation. Could the lack of a stimulus hurt President Trump and House Democrats? How do you see that?
MS. PAGE: Well, some House democrats, especially from moderate districts, have been very concerned about the failure to get together on even a kind of a half-a-loaf deal to get some more relief out there for the costs across the country of the – of the pandemic. But you know, the politics of that is complicated. And I think there was also a calculation by some Democrats that giving half a loaf, making a deal for aid was likely to help President Trump, to give him talking points and bragging rights about delivering more aid to people who need it. So I think you have seen those talks get slow walked by Nancy Pelosi. I don’t think it’s – I think she wants to have a bill passed. Maybe she doesn’t want to have a bill passed just for – you know, just quite yet. Maybe we’ll see that happen in the lame duck session. That now seems more likely.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, Judge Amy Coney Barrett is headed to a likely confirmation on the Senate floor next week. Is this going to be a galvanizing event for Republicans or has it actually faded into the background a bit?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Surprisingly, the historic addition of a new Supreme Court justice in the final days before an election is now sort of a footnote; it’s not even something that is being really talked about by Democrats or Republicans, even though it’s a historic move and, you know, a move that breaks with a lot of precedent, and it does galvanize a lot of Democrats who are saying, you know, for this reason I’m going to turn out and show my dissatisfaction with the Republicans moving forward to fill this seat in the final days of the election even though they held open a seat when President Obama made his nomination more than nine months before the 2016 election. So there is a lot of question about whether or not this will impact the race when it comes to turnout on the Republican side. It does remind a large number of Republicans why they voted for President Trump even though they don’t like his personality, they don’t like the way he handles his self in office. They do like a lot of his policies. They do like the fact that he appoints conservative justices. They do like the fact that he was willing to push through this justice and make sure that he leaned on Republicans to make sure that this choice was added before the election and not allow this to be held over until after.
MR. COSTA: So we have a few minutes left here. I’ll call this kind of a lightning round. Asma, when you talk to the Biden campaign – and they know all these attacks on Hunter Biden are coming; they were coming at the debate as well – is he going to continue to hold back, to be restrained in response?
MS. KHALID: You know, my sense is they don’t take that as a serious allegation. They have been discussing and telling us that, you know, this is part of a disinformation/misinformation campaign, and given what we saw happen during the 2016 election I would say they’re very hesitant to engage on that topic.
MR. COSTA: Susan Page, the early voting numbers are huge. How do you interpret all of that information? Is it actually a boon for the Democrats, or is it hard to say?
MS. PAGE: Well, they’re votes in the bank so that’s a boon for Democrats, right? What we don’t know yet is whether it’s cannibalizing voters who would ordinarily just go on election day or whether you’re getting new voters in. There are some signs that these extraordinary numbers do reflect new voters. It certainly reflects Democratic enthusiasm about this election.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, where is Vice President Pence going to be headed in the final few days of this campaign? What’s his role?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: He’s going to be doing something similar to what President Trump is doing, which is traveling, multiple rallies a day, going to a number of these swing states, trying to convince Republican voters that even if you don’t like the president’s personality look at what we’ve done. He’s been much more on message than President Trump. He does not get distracted. He does not go down all of these rabbit holes of scandal. So I do expect him to be delivering a very clear and direct message about the conservative point of view that he and President Trump have been putting forward over the past four years and trying to convince moderate voters, trying to convince Republican voters who may be on the fence to stick with the Trump-Pence ticket and not go for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. So I do expect him to be a much more disciplined campaigner than President Trump and also to be quite as eager and active as President Trump on the campaign trail.
MR. COSTA: Asma, you’re in Michigan. So many Senate Republicans are nervous, but are Democrats nervous about Senator Peters up there?
MS. KHALID: You know, I will say Democrats to me in Michigan – I came back, actually, and told my editor this – I feel like Michigan, when you speak to Democrats, is one of the most optimistic states for them, and I say that for a multitude of reasons. I mean, one is if you look in 2018 Democrats did phenomenally well up and down the – you know, when you look at the gubernatorial race, Senate seat. They are very optimistic, and you know, we hear the president routinely calling out to different demographic groups like suburban women. Suburban women were key in Michigan. They remain a key demographic group. And by and large, from the conversations I’ve been having, they seem to be rather disillusioned with President Trump’s handling of a variety of issues.
MR. COSTA: Final question real quick, Susan. Does Speaker Pelosi and President Trump cut a deal or not before the election?
MS. PAGE: I think it’s hard to do that before the election but I think it is more – it’s much more likely to have one after the election in the lame duck.
MR. COSTA: Lame-duck deal, we’ll keep an eye out on all of that. That’s it, though, for tonight. Another big week in Washington comes to a close. Many thanks to our reporters: Toluse Olorunnipa, Susan Page, and Asma Khalid. Thank you very much for joining us.
And thank you all for joining us. We’ll keep taking you as close to the news as we can. Next week we’ll present a special report taking you inside a key battleground state.
To understand this election you must understand Pennsylvania.
VOTER: (From video.) No one did anything until President Trump.
MR. COSTA: With revealing conversations with voters –
VOTER: (From video.) I’ve seen a lot of nastiness.
MR. COSTA: – will the Keystone State predict again where this election is headed?
VOTER: (From video.) The working man is getting nothing.
MR. COSTA: I’m Robert Costa. Join us for a Washington Week special report.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.