ROBERT COSTA: Virus fears grip the nation and Democrats make their choice.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I am very much alive.
MR. COSTA: Joe Biden has a super Tuesday, sweeping the South and winning 10 states.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) There has never been a campaign in recent history that has taken on the entire corporate establishment.
MR. COSTA: Bernie Sanders, who won California and three other states, carries on and rages against the party machine. But will Elizabeth Warren exit stage left and back him?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Have to be calm. I’ll go away. We have very low numbers compared to major countries throughout the world.
MR. COSTA: Plus, politics in the age of anxiety from the White House to the campaign trail, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. What a difference a week makes. Following a dramatic win last Saturday in South Carolina and victories in Super Tuesday states, Joe Biden’s campaign has new life. He has jumped ahead of Bernie Sanders in the delegate count, and that leaves Democrats with a showdown between Biden and the Vermont senator. Which wing of the Democratic Party will capture the nomination, the consolidating moderates or Sanders and his resolute movement?
Joining us tonight are two of the best campaign reporters in the country: Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN; and Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times.
Jonathan, why has the establishment since South Carolina and Super Tuesday rallied behind Biden? What’s going on behind the scenes to prompt all that activity?
JONATHAN MARTIN: I think a lot of it’s organic. They want to beat Trump. That’s been the overriding impulse of the Democratic Party establishment, and to be honest most Democratic voters, since the beginning of this campaign. You talk to voters like we do, Abby, all the time out there, you hear the same refrain again and again: We just want to beat Trump, my top issue is finding someone that can beat this guy. We’ve heard it a thousand times over the last year and a half, and that I think is the animating impulse. And there was great uncertainty in January and most of February about who would emerge as kind of the mainstream Democratic candidate to take on that task, and it wasn’t clear for a while because of what happened in the first states. I think, Bob, what happened is there were a lot of primary voters who just wanted clarity, and they saw Bloomberg take that hit in the debate in Nevada courtesy of Senator Warren and they saw Biden then pick up steam in South Carolina, and win South Carolina not by a little but by almost 30 points. And I think the size of that margin, and then immediately Klobuchar and Mayor Pete seeing the handwriting on the wall, getting out and endorsing Biden, I think just the cascade of those events is what really sort of pushed voters to get behind Biden on Super Tuesday. There was some behind-the-scenes activity. I spoke with Senator Harry Reid, now retired, from Nevada, but still very active in politics, and he actually, you know, said he had made some calls, and so there was some activity. But I think it was mostly an organic thing, Bob.
ABBY PHILLIP: Yeah, and I think – I’ve always said in this campaign that voters this cycle have been more like pundits than I have ever experienced –
MR. MARTIN: Yes, yes.
MS. PHILLIP: – where they’re looking down the – down the field and trying to see, OK, who’s going to be able to get black voters, who’s going to be able to get white voters in the – in the Midwest, and is Biden actually strong enough to withstand this primary. And when Biden started to show that kind of strength after South Carolina, it really solidified something that was already kind of there waiting for him, voters who already kind of believed that he had a lot of the ingredients to be – to inevitably be the nominee, and they were looking for a reason to actually cast that vote. And the unprecedented sort of moderate consolidation that we saw with Buttigieg and Klobuchar made a huge, huge difference because they also want to know whether the eventual nominee will be able to unite the party, will be able to get all the other parts of this party after a very protracted and sometimes tough primary together. So he was able to do that, and I think the Buttigieg campaign in particular led this off. And had he not done that, I’m not sure it would have happened the way that he did – it did. I think that they were concerned that Klobuchar would not get out unless he did. That’s why he went first, and he did not want to be blamed for Biden being weakened going into Super Tuesday.
MR. MARTIN: And President Obama, Bob, did have a phone call late Sunday with Mayor Pete after he got out of the race, and my understanding is that the president did not tell Pete, hey, Pete, you should, you know, endorse Biden; it’ll be good for your career. He was more subtle than that.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah.
MR. MARTIN: But my understanding is that he said something to the effect of you’ve got maximum leverage right now, be smart about that, use it right now, spend your capital when it’s sort of full in the bank right now, and Pete obviously took that advice the next day.
MR. COSTA: Speaking about President Obama, Senator Sanders, after winning the Nevada caucuses, has tried now in the wake of all of the Biden victories to link himself to President Obama in a new ad. Inside the Sanders campaign and that world on the left of the Democratic Party, are they adjusting to the Biden moment?
MS. PHILLIP: Well, they know that they need to do better with black voters in particular. He has actually quite significant strength with Latino voters, which we should not dismiss, but with black voters it’s been a persistent weakness. One of the problems for Sanders was that in South Carolina they thought that they had a little bit more momentum than they did, but the Clyburn endorsement really cut Sanders’ feet right out from under him and then they realized they had a lot more work to do. In fact, in – just before the South Carolina primary Sanders actually debuted a kind of cut-down version of this new Obama ad that featured a clip of him walking on the colonnade at the White House with President Obama and a former Obama voter, a black woman, saying, I want a candidate who has the same kind of fire as President Obama. Well, that ad did not work in South Carolina, and so there are some questions about whether this new strategy is going to work. But it’s – but the fact that they’re even going there is a reflection that they know they have got to start to do – even a little bit better will help them keep up with Biden as we head into states that are in the South, very, very favorable territory for Biden.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, you’ve been killing it on the New York Times beat on Biden. Is he scaling up his campaign? Is he adjusting to his new status as the frontrunner in this race?
MR. MARTIN: He’s building the plane as he takes off, actually. (Laughter.) There’s, like, one wing on and he’s sort of putting the other one on. No, look, you have to give credit to Biden and his staff for doing an extraordinary job with not a lot of money, little organization, you know, in South Carolina, and certainly on Super Tuesday. My goodness, he didn’t even visit Minnesota or Massachusetts and he won both states, so I think you have to credit him for that. He is now, though, talking to Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who is a top Obama aide, to basically come in and help run the campaign. And that is a signal, Bob, that he knows he’s got to scale up and he has to do it soon.
MR. COSTA: And the other real factor we’re looking at at the end of this week is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who exited the race, and what her exit says about everything in the party. Here’s what she had to say after she left.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, whiner. And if you say, no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, what planet do you live on? We were never going to elect a black man until we elected a black man, and we’re never going to elect a woman until we elect a woman, so we’re just going to stay in this.
MR. COSTA: Abby, a reckoning on gender for the Democratic Party.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, and I think it’s been a long time in coming. We had a similar conversation after Kamala Harris got out of the race about what is the impact of sexism on this race, but with Warren now out, no women in the race, no people of color, no one under the age of 70, a lot of diversity issues. But for women, I think this cycle has been actually a lot more about the hardest problems with gender and politics. For a long time, you know, we focused a lot about how, you know, people critiqued what women wore and, you know, how they spoke, and all of those things are important too. I think what this election has revealed is that there are deeper biases against women that are at play here. Voters who say they don’t want to vote for a woman because they don’t perceive women to be leaders, they don’t perceive them to be – or, they do perceive them to be shrill. They kind of have a lot of negative connotations associated with women. And it’s not just men. It’s also women voters as well. So this is the hardest part. And I think that this campaign has revealed – you know, there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about what people were wearing this cycle, but the gender bias was still underneath the surface. And I think that’s where we are now.
MR. COSTA: Next stop is Michigan, a key battleground state. Senator Sanders cancelled his rally in Mississippi to go to Detroit Friday night, where polls show VP Biden ahead. Joining us now from Lansing is Beth LeBlanc, political reporter for The Detroit News. Thanks, Beth, for being with us on this Friday night.
BETH LEBLANC: Thanks for having me.
MR. COSTA: What are you – what are you seeing and hearing among your top Democratic sources on the ground in your state?
MS. LEBLANC: So earlier this week Biden was ahead about seven points ahead of Sanders. But that was before Super Tuesday, when Biden arguably gained a lot of momentum. It was before the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, endorsed Biden and became his – one of his national campaign chairs. So arguably he’s ahead even more now going into Tuesday. But Sanders has a pretty aggressive campaign schedule this weekend. He’s going to make four stops in Michigan, probably more on Monday. So he’s not out of the race. And, you know, Sanders did take Michigan in 2016 over Clinton. So he has some history here. He has some supporters among progressive Democrats. So it should be interesting to see how it shakes out on Tuesday.
MR. COSTA: When you look at the Sanders map from 2016 and his coalition this time around, where are the areas in the state that matter to him in the coming days?
MS. LEBLANC: I think he’s really going to be looking at college campuses in the coming days. One of his stops on Sunday is at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He’s also got a lot of work to do in the Detroit area. You know, Biden has a pretty long history with Detroit that Sanders needs to compete with, in that sense. And it’s not clear whether he is yet.
MR. COSTA: Is Vice President Biden putting a major emphasis on the auto bailouts from the Obama administration?
MS. LEBLANC: Yeah. I mean, you know, honestly we’ve heard from a lot of his surrogates about that bailout. We’ve also heard about a lot of the time he spent in Detroit as Detroit was going through its bankruptcy, and some of the help he provided for federal grants for, you know, housing demolition or transit. They’ve really been emphasizing that here in Detroit. Chiefly, Major Mike Duggan, who has been with him kind of since he announced his campaign last year.
MR. COSTA: Beth, stay with us. Jonathan, how significant is Michigan? If Sanders loses Michigan, what does that mean for his campaign?
MR. MARTIN: It’s an enormous blow to his campaign, in part because he won there, Bob, in ’16. But, more to the point, because it would be an ominous portent about his prospects in the rest of the Midwest. Look, President – I’m sorry – Biden has done well in the South, Bernie has done well in the West. It’s clear that this primary’s going to be decided in the Midwest. And that’s the battleground. And if Sanders cannot do well in Michigan, what’s he going to do in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin – all of which are coming up in the next few weeks.
MR. COSTA: March 17th.
MR. MARTIN: And a fast point, Bob, too, I was looking at that poll, digging into it earlier today. Here’s a real reveal in that poll: The second-choice preference for Bloomberg voters? I’ll give you one guess what it says. It’s Biden by a mile. So Bloomberg off the ballot helps Biden.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Warren? Will she endorse in the coming days?
MS. PHILLIP: I don’t know that she will. And I don’t know that she has to, frankly. Part of her problem is that she has a voter base that is not clearly in one camp or another.
MR. MARTIN: Yes, right. (Laughs.) Exactly.
MS. PHILLIP: And so if she were to endorse, there’s no guarantee that her people will go either to Bernie Sanders or to Joe Biden. And so it might be better for her to just hold onto her endorsement, and potentially play a kind of unifying role as we get closer to a convention, no matter who the nominee is. I think she could potentially play that role. She’s got these well-educated voters, many of them women, who are looking to see what she does. And I think that both Biden and Bernie Sanders would benefit from someone who can bring those people along.
MR. COSTA: Beth, what’s the outlook in the labor community, so important in Michigan?
MS. LEBLANC: Yeah. I know a lot of people have been looking toward that community especially since Trump in 2016 took a lot of the blue-collar vote, especially in Macomb and Oakland counties. And you know, a lot of people have been looking too at how they’re receptive to Sanders’ Medicare for All plan because they just spent a lot of time negotiating for their private health care here in Michigan. But Sanders was here last year when they were picketing. And when the UAW was on strike, he was here walking beside them. And Biden, I think, also participated in some of those strikes, but not in Michigan. So there might not be as much of – as great a memory of that as it was for Sanders.
MR. COSTA: Thank you, Beth, for your reporting. Let’s now turn to the mounting fear over coronavirus and how that is challenging leaders in Washington, sparking economic turbulence, and changing the face of the 2020 campaign. Tensions are evident inside the Trump administration as cases of infection continue to rise. President Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci met with drug company executives this week. And Dr. Fauci did not echo the president on the timing of an available vaccine.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re working very hard to expedite the longer process of developing a vaccine. But if you’re talking about three to four months in a couple of cases, and a year in other cases, wouldn’t you say, doctor? Would that be about right?
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) A vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that’s deployable. So he’s asking the question, when is it going to be deployable? And that is going to be at the earliest a year to a year and a half.
MR. COSTA: President Trump signed an $8 billion emergency funding bill before Friday, before heading to Atlanta to visit the Centers for Disease Control. Joining us now is my colleague Yasmeen Abutaleb, health policy reporter for The Washington Post.
Yasmeen, where are the cracks inside the top ranks of this administration as they deal with the crisis?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: I think you’ve seen the president has still sought to downplay the risk of the virus, even as we’ve seen the number of cases in the U.S. climb over the last week and pop up in more than a dozen states. I think Vice President Pence and the health officials who are briefing the public have been pretty clear that they expect to see more cases, but they still believe the risk to the American public is low. And then you have President Trump, who has sought to say that a vaccine will be available sooner than Tony Fauci has said it will be. And that, you know, he’s even questioned the mortality rate that the WHO has put out about the virus, based on what we know so far and the cases that we know of.
MR. COSTA: What do you make of Vice President Pence’s handling of everything so far? What are the reviews like with your top sources?
MS. ABUTALEB: You know, so far I think even from some Democrats Vice President Pence has gotten pretty good reviews. They feel that the government is trying to give them the best information. I think there are still some people who wish that a medical and scientific professional, like Deborah Birx, who does report to Vice President Pence, was sort of running the whole response and was able to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and make the decisions necessary among departments. But so far, I think we’ve seen the government ramp up its response in the last week, week and a half, you know, try to scale up the level of testing, and really start to prepare and plan for the outbreaks that we’re starting to see around the country.
MR. COSTA: Talking about the government’s response, who drove that $8 billion deal on Capitol Hill? What made it come together so quickly?
MS. ABUTALEB: I think there was pretty quick bipartisan agreement that more money was needed to fight this. And, you know, lawmakers and the public have been watching the virus sort of pop up all over the world over the last several weeks. You know, it’s not a secret that it’s a very contagious disease, that it presents mildly and that makes it harder to contain.
And you saw pretty quickly when the administration rolled out its initial request for $2 ½ billion that lawmakers said that that was not sufficient. Even traditional allies of this administration said: You know, I think you’re lowballing this. This isn’t the time to cut corners. Let’s just really put the resources we need forward. And you saw both sides come together pretty quickly as soon as that supplemental was rolled out to say: We need more money, and let’s just make sure we’re putting all the resources we need forward.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, stay with us. We’re taping this live at 8:00 in Washington on Friday night. And talking about the Washington response, Jonathan, as we’re taping this program live, President Trump has announced that Mark Meadows, the North Carolina congressman, will be his new chief of staff. So you see the president, as he deals with this crisis, is bringing in a trusted political loyalist in Mark Meadows, someone on Capitol Hill, as he navigates this all.
MR. MARTIN: A shakeup during a public health crisis, one that I think a lot of us saw coming a while ago. There’s been speculation for months now that Meadows was going to leave Congress to become the president’s chief of staff. But it does show, I think, the difficulty of this president in retaining personnel. He’s gone through a number –
MS. PHILLIP: This is his fourth chief of staff.
MR. MARTIN: Fourth chief of staff, more comms directors that I’ve got probably fingers on both hands, and a number of other staffers have sort of gone through the merry-go-round. And I think it’s not clear how Meadows will appreciably differ from Mulvaney – similar profiles, conservative hardliners from Capitol Hill who offer the president basically reassurance. He’s not somebody, Bob, that I think you could say would challenge this president.
MR. COSTA: Abby?
MS. PHILLIP: No, not – I think the one way in which they differ is that Mulvaney –
MR. MARTIN: It’s comfort food.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, I mean, Mulvaney has lost the president’s, you know, confidence for some time now. They don’t have the best relationship. And so to the extent that Mark Meadows has a better relationship with President Trump right at this very moment, I think that that will probably improve the dynamic within the White House. But I mean, on the one hand this is an incredible amount of turnover at a time when there is a lot of need for stability, but on the other hand an impotent chief of staff is a huge problem for this White House. The president needs to be able to effectively communicate and manage his staff at this moment, so if Meadows can do that, you know, that might be actually the best thing for the moment.
MR. MARTIN: The two key words, Abby: right now.
MS. PHILLIP: Right now.
MR. MARTIN: He has the trust of the president right now.
MR. COSTA: And Yasmeen, having Mark Meadows come in as chief of staff has a political hand at the president’s side, and the president has been lashing out at Washington Governor Jay Inslee and other Democrats as he deals with coronavirus. What does Meadows’ entry into this White House mean to you when you look at how the White House and the administration are moving forward?
MS. ABUTALEB: Well, we’ve known from our reporting that there are some of the president’s advisors who are really worried about what this outbreak means not just as a public health crisis, but as a political crisis, and does it pose an existential threat to the president’s reelection. We reported earlier in the week that, you know, with Vice President Pence’s office taking over, they’re insisting on message discipline not just among administration officials but public health and medical professionals as well to make sure the administration is speaking with one voice and not veering from sort of agreed talking points while trying to be as transparent with the public as possible. And I think that shows that, you know, they are really concerned about the political risk this could pose to the president and they want to make sure that, you know, they’ve got an eye on reelection while trying to manage this crisis at the same time.
MR. COSTA: And what does it mean for the Democratic race, Abby, when they look at what Yasmeen just mentioned, the president putting all of his chips on the stock market at times politically? Does it mean more Democrats will move to Vice President Biden, a seasoned hand, at this time of unrest?
MS. PHILLIP: It could potentially mean just that, that Democrats will be more nervous to put someone up as their nominee who they’re not confident has the experience to deal with a crisis like this. You know, the reason this is going to become potentially an existential political crisis for the president is because the economic consequences globally and in the United States are going to be severe. I mean, we’re seeing already an enormous amount of disruption, and it’s not just the stock market; it is, you know, hotel workers and airline industry. And that’s a real concrete problem, it’s not just a political one. It’s one that the president will face, but the Democratic nominee is going to have to be able to answer questions – can they steady the ship? Some people have likened this to the sort of post-9/11 world or even the sort of 2008 financial crisis in the sense that there’s going to be a need for someone to be able to say, yes, I can come in here and right the ship at a really precarious time for the country.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, Abby just mentioned air travel. Are you expecting to see more restrictions on domestic and international travel for American citizens?
MS. ABUTALEB: You know, Vice President Pence actually came out this week and said, you know, domestic travel is safe, and I think there is concern about hurting the economy too much, but there’s a lot of fear. We’re seeing a lot of events around the country get canceled. We haven’t heard of further restrictions planned at this time, but this is fast moving and decisions are made quickly based on information that’s available, so it doesn’t mean that can change. But there are pretty, you know, restrictive travel restrictions in place right now, and I’m not sure we’re going to see more imminently but that doesn’t mean that could quickly change as this all evolves and officials learn more information about the way this virus is spreading and where potential hotspots are.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, in 30 seconds, back to the Meadows pick, the big news Friday night as this show goes on. Does it mean political war? This is a fighter inside of the House of Representatives coming inside.
MR. MARTIN: Well, he’s not somebody that’s going to cut a lot of deals with Chuck Schumer, Bob, let’s put it that way, on Capitol Hill, I think it’s safe to say. But you know, even beyond Democrats, you know, Meadows is not somebody that has a great relationship with Mitch McConnell, who is the sort of consummate establishment figure that Meadows is not. So look, I think it’s – he is a sort of wartime-type general. He is somebody that you want to fight with, not that you want to cut deals with, and fighting is what Trump is going to do for the rest of this year during his reelection. But just real fast before we go, President Trump is not going to take the blame for this virus getting worse, and the people around him who he’s appointed to oversee this are the ones who are going to take the blame, and that’s something to keep an eye on here in the months ahead.
MS. PHILLIP: Yes, that’s why you’ve seen them –
MR. MARTIN: If this does get worse.
MR. COSTA: Final quick thought, Abby?
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, that’s why you’ve seen them going out of their way to praise him effusively at all these events. Everyone’s really nervous that he’s not going to cope well with the inevitable ballooning of the – of the crisis as we go along.
MR. COSTA: Thank you, Yasmeen. And thank you, Jonathan and Abby, for joining us. Really appreciate you taking the time on a Friday night. We will continue this conversation on the Washington Week Extra, coming up live right after this on our social media. The topic: veepstakes. Stay tuned for that.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.