ROBERT COSTA: Democrats unite and sound a warning. A virtual convention concludes with urgency.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) All elections are important, but we know in our bones this one is more consequential.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) Donald Trump’s failure of leadership has cost lives and livelihoods.
FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) Good evening, everybody.
MR. COSTA: And a plea from a former president.
FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) Do not let them take away your democracy.
MR. COSTA: As the party comes together.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Trump golfs.
MR. COSTA: The president refuses to cede the spotlight.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Secure your ballot because the only way they’re going to win is by a rigged election.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome. This week’s Democratic National Convention revealed a party united against President Trump. The bitter primary fights from months ago, they seemed like ancient history, and it’s easy to see why. Amid a pandemic and a showdown over the Postal Service, Democrats view this president as a threat to American democracy itself, and at this crossroads they just want their new presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, to win. For Biden, it was a chance to reintroduce himself to Americans who have followed him for decades and to set the stakes. Let’s take a listen.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The current president has cloaked American darkness for much too long. Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst; I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.
MR. COSTA: Senator Harris, a former prosecutor, spoke about her story and the nation’s racial reckoning.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) Let’s be clear: There is no vaccine for racism. We have got to do the work for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for the lives of too many others to name. We’ve got to do the work to fulfill that promise of equal justice under law.
MR. COSTA: Beyond those speeches, former President Barack Obama made history. The former leader of the free world warned that American democracy is at risk.
FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) They are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies, so they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote and to convince you that your vote does not matter. That is how they win. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.
MR. COSTA: A lot there, so let’s get right to it. Joining me are four terrific reporters: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Molly Ball, national political correspondent for Time magazine; Hallie Jackson, chief White House correspondent for NBC News and anchor of MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson; and Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Molly, you wrote a big story for Time about this moment for Vice President Biden. Did he meet this moment after decades in politics?
MOLLY BALL: You know, it almost seems more like the moment met him, right? His strengths as a politician, they’ve always been about empathy, about compassion, storytelling, poetry, comforting people in times of need. And that might not have been the right vibe, say, four years ago, but right now I think it did seem very fitting to this moment, and you know, his speech was clear, it was powerful, it was empathetic, and he drew that contrast very effectively.
MR. COSTA: And Molly, a quick follow up. You’ve written this terrific biography about Speaker Pelosi. When you talk to sources in her world and other veteran Democrats, how do they see this speech? Does this help the party carry it across the line this fall?
MS. BALL: Yeah, I think the feeling among Democrats broadly, including on Capitol Hill, is that this was an effective convention. I think there was a collective sigh of relief, frankly, when it was over because this was such a daunting task. Nobody knew how it was going to go. Nobody knew if this virtual convention thing would work, much less if all the speeches would be hitting the right notes, and there’s a feeling that it was very well-choreographed and that, you know, it held people’s attention actually probably in a way that live conventions have not in recent years.
MR. COSTA: Phil Rucker, what about the speech from President Obama, the way he framed this in such a dramatic fashion?
PHILIP RUCKER: Yeah, that was extraordinary, Bob. We’ve all seen a lot of speeches that Obama has given. I covered the Obama White House for a while and have never seen him deliver an address like that one. There was fear in his voice. He was delivering an urgent warning to all Americans, basically saying this is not a normal election, this is not a choice between two ideological visions for the country, not a choice about whose health-care plan is better or who’s going to do what to your taxes; it’s a choice about whether you want American democracy to continue, whether you want this country to remain the country that it has been for so many years, and effectively saying four more years of Donald Trump would seriously jeopardize all of that.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, four years ago in Philadelphia we saw Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters cause a big of a ruckus. They were frustrated with the DNC and Secretary Clinton’s campaign. This time around, a message of unity from Senator Sanders. Why was that?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think it’s for the same reasons that Phil just laid out. Democrats feel this real sense of urgency to explain to the American people in their view that President Trump is dangerous to America and the future of America. President Trump is someone that Democrats see as evil in some ways. They didn’t use that word, but when you listen to what they were saying – the ideas of light versus darkness, good versus bad, decent versus not, Joe Biden being a good man – they were essentially making the case that Donald Trump is not someone who’s fit for the job, he’s unqualified, but also that he doesn’t have the decency to really work with America in this moment in this pandemic. I think I was most struck by the fact that Michelle Obama was talking about this idea that you should still be going high, but when you saw Democrats and you saw what they were talking about – especially in her famous line, of course, when they go low, we go high – she was also saying at the same time he can’t grow into this job, he’s not someone who’s fit to be in office, and we have to get rid of him. I think that’s what was the underlying thing there. That’s why you saw President Trump crisscrossing around the country, making this – kind of the same argument from the Republican side, saying that Joe Biden is someone who failed the country, he’s someone who would turn America into Venezuela. He was kind of talking in the same dire consequences and in the same dire rhetoric as Democrats were doing.
MR. COSTA: Hallie, welcome back not only to Washington Week, but to the White House beat. So glad to have you back from maternity leave, back working for NBC News and MSNBC. Hallie, when you’re back now at the White House talking to your sources there, how do they see this Democratic convention and how does this shape how they prepare for their own convention next week?
HALLIE JACKSON: Yeah, it’s a great question, Bob, and it’s great to be back with you. Thank you for having me.
I think that it can best be summed up, the attitude among the aides and advisors and sources close to the president that I’ve been talking to, in one of two rhymes, take your pick: doom and gloom, or dour and sour, as we heard from Kellyanne Conway earlier today. The Republicans and people close to the president are trying to paint this picture of the Democratic convention as one that was, in their view, negative for the most part – not entirely, but fairly negative as it portrayed the vision for the future, essentially, because there were so many attacks against the president, so many attacks on his character and his judgment and his policies and what has happened over the last four years. It’s why, when I talk to folks, they’re trying to say that next week the president is going to be more hopeful and uplifting. That said, this is still the “American carnage” president. His speech, I’m told, is likely to focus on things like safety and security, making the case for the next four years in those issues; the slate of speakers, intended to kind of fan the flames of culture wars that we’ve seen around the country. I think that there is an acknowledgement among people around the president that Joe Biden did what he had to do in his speech, but at this point they are trying to draw that contrast. You heard Yamiche mention the attack lines that we’ve heard on the White House beat from President Trump himself that, you know, four years of a Biden-Harris presidency – ticket, essentially, if they win – would be socialism, right, to highlight that and bring that home next week. Expect to see speakers who are from some of those places – Venezuela, Cuba, for example – talking about the perils and the dangers of socialism to really make that message hit home.
MR. COSTA: And, Phil, what about Senator Harris? How does the White House see her candidacy for VP? I’m being told by some Democrats that she’s going to be very helpful to them in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, in terms of getting the whole Democratic coalition energized. And she’s ready to take on VP Pence at that debate.
MR. RUCKER: Well, first of all, that was a historic moment earlier this week when Senator Harris formally accepted the vice presidential nomination – the first Black woman to do so, also the first Asian American to be on a national ticket. So that’s a big deal. And there’s hope within the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party writ large that she can make a difference in those three states you just mentioned because of the large number of Black voters in Detroit, the biggest city in Michigan, in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And that if she can make – just make a difference there and turn out the vote in greater numbers than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, those three states could be off the board for Donald Trump and very much help Biden and Harris win this election.
She is also a formidable debater and a formidable prosecutor. That is, of course, her training, as a lawyer. And there’s a lot of anticipation on the Democratic side for the debate that she’s going to have with Vice President Pence. And I know that Pence and his team, and the various Trump advisors, are going to be preparing for whatever’s going to come the vice president’s way from Senator Harris when they get on that stage together.
MR. COSTA: Molly, you’ve written a cover story for Time about Senator Harris. You’ve covered her and Vice President Biden. When they make their case in the coming weeks, will it be on policy as well, or is this mostly about character and conduct?
MS. BALL: Well, if it’s a continuity with the convention, it is going to be mostly about character. There was not a lot of emphasis on the policy agenda over the course of this convention, in part because the Democrats are trying to send the message that this is a really big tent, right? A tent full of people brought together by Trump, that nothing else is really going to bring together a John Kasich and a Bernie Sanders, for example. So that’s a part of it, trying to sort of convince people that they are sort of broadly palatable.
It does, though, have echoes of that Hilary Clinton slogan from 2016, stronger together, that came in for a lot of criticism for being sort of vague and aspirational, and not communicating to people a policy agenda, particularly an economic agenda. But the decision that the Biden campaign seems to have made is that you can still sell that message with a different messenger, and with Trump now in the White House with three years having elapsed, with Americans feeling so pessimistic about the direction of the country because of the pandemic and because of so many other things. So they’re going to go out there and sell that aspirational, that character message, I think, much more than they are going to talk about specific policies.
MR. COSTA: Hallie, while this convention wrapped here in Washington earlier Friday, embattled Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified. And he was pressed about his handling of voting my mail and recent delays.
SENATOR GARY PETERS (D-MI): (From video.) You will give us your word today, under oath, that you have not taken any action whatsoever in your capacity as postmaster general for any political reason or at the suggestion of any – any – administration officials?
POSTMASTER GENERAL LOUIS DEJOY: (From video.) The board’s committed, the postal workers are committed, the union leadership is committed to having a successful election. And the insinuation is, quite frankly, outrageous.
MR. COSTA: The Democratic-controlled House will return this weekend to vote on a bill to provide the agency with 25 billion (dollars) in funding. Hallie, what’s the White House’s view of how the postmaster general did? And what does it all mean for this election?
MS. JACKSON: Yeah, it is something that a lot of people are watching, Bob. And keep in mind that, yes, this happened today on the Senate side. And on Monday the House is going to get its turn to talk with the postmaster general. One of the most interesting this about today’s testimony, Bob, I think, was one thing we’re watching. The conversations that the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said he did or did not have with people like President Trump and with people like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
So DeJoy said that he spoke with President Trump in a solely congratulatory way, never talked about Postal Service issues or things with him. Did talk about it sort of generally with Secretary Mnuchin, but not in the specifics. That is something that Democrats in particular are concerned about. They want to know: Did the president direct DeJoy, right, to take some of these steps that has created problems and issues with mail here in this country? The whole thing, remember, is politically critical, because people like the Post Office.
People like getting their mail. They like, of course, getting their paychecks, and their prescriptions, and everything else that comes in the mail. Which is why it is critical not just from the election standpoint and the balloting standpoint, but from people’s sort of lives and livelihoods as well. DeJoy did commit to sort of expediting election ballots, just like what would happen in 2018. Ninety-five percent of them will be processed within one to three days. That was a commitment that he made that Democrats have been looking for.
MR. COSTA: Hallie – you made a great point, Yamiche, about how he committed to expediting the mail-in balloting. But here’s a little line, Yamiche, from The New York Times today: Under intense pressure from Democrats, DeJoy refused to unwind other steps – like removing hundreds of blue mailboxes and mail sorting machines. So still a lot of unanswered questions.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, one of the biggest questions after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that he was going to be postponing more changes until after the election was, well, what damage has already been done? If you speak to some Postal Service workers, there’s some good stories in the L.A. Times this week, they were talking about the fact that there are postal workers who said: Those mail sorting machines, they were critical to having mail processed in a timely way. And that now there are some processing facilities that are in chaos, where you’re seeing flowers and baby chicks dying in the mail, and all sorts of things. Chaos, workers that are overworked but not getting paid for overtime.
There’s all these kind of images that are out there. And the postmaster general today was saying, well, no, that – nothing that I did has hurt the Post Office, and that this system has really been something that’s been struggling for a long time. But he is now saying, look, I’m not going to put those mailboxes back. I’m not going to put those mail sorting machines back. And that’s the biggest issue, which is why we saw this week, and actually saw today, a group of at least six attorney generals – Democratic attorney generals – filing a lawsuit saying that what DeJoy is doing is actually against federal law, and that he is particularly trying to slow down the mail.
Now, he said – and when he was testifying in the Senate today he said that this was outrageous, and that this wasn’t the way that he was doing – he wasn’t acting politically. But you see states are gearing up for a legal fight here.
MR. COSTA: And, Phil, provide us a little bit of a fact check here about the bigger picture because the postmaster general said what he said. But you’ve written a long story for the Washington Post with some colleagues about how the president’s battles with the Post Office go back to early 2017.
MR. RUCKER: That’s right. Pretty soon after the president came into office he was convinced by some of his friends who told him: Look, the reason you lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton was in part because of widespread fraud with mail-in balloting. That, of course, is not true. There’s no evidence to support that theory. The reason he lost the popular vote is because 3 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, it has stuck with the president. And he has been railing about the Postal Service in private to his advisors for the past three and a half years – calling it a loser – a loser, because of its chronic financial problems.
Also seizing on it, by the way, as a way to retaliate against Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, who also – full disclosure – owns The Washington Post. Who has become something of a presidential foe, in part because of the president’s displeasure with the news coverage in The Washington Post, calling Amazon’s arrangement with the Postal Service to ship its packages a scam, even though White House officials have tried to explain to the president there is no such scam, and the Postal Service actually competes for and wants Amazon’s business. Nonetheless, the Postal Service is something the president has tried to get control of, and politicize, assert his personal power over these last three and a half years.
MR. COSTA: That word, “scam,” we hear it a lot from President Trump. Grievances. It makes you wonder, when we look ahead to next week’s Republican convention, when President Trump will accept the nomination from the White House, let’s first listen to what he said Thursday in that key battleground state – my home state, Pennsylvania – as a preview of what’s to come.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) If you want a vision of your life under a Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago, and imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.
MR. COSTA: Hallie, I asked you about the convention and the GOP side earlier in our discussion. But as you look ahead and talk to your sources, to Phil’s point, is it going to be a litany of grievances and fights in terms of the message next week?
MS. JACKSON: Listen, again, you have advisors who are saying it is going to be a sort of an uplifting look, an optimistic look at what the president’s vision is for the next four years. But frankly, Bob, and candidly, that is belied when you look at the people that will be involved in the convention, people who were at the center of some of the most controversial cultural moments over the past couple years, including, for example, the McCloskeys, the couple in St. Louis who went viral in that moment when they, as you remember, pulled a weapon on a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis. It is that kind of theme that we’re going to see several nights over the next week. At the same time, you also have the president, who is extremely focused on the optics of this. So it’s about as much what he says as how he says it, and you know as well as anybody, Bob, this is a president who is focused on that – on the lighting and the angles and the TV production element of it. He is a reality TV president and this is almost unlike any other convention, right, because of the setting and because it is virtual, a TV convention in a very different way than we’ve ever seen it before. Because of the president’s reluctance to scrap that in-person convention – he sort of waited right up until the last minute to do that – the RNC has had less time to plan for some of these virtual elements than the DNC, Bob. It’s partly why you’re going to see more live speeches, and that is also because the president wants that element of surprise. He wants to keep people captivated. He wants to keep the audience sort of engaged. Advisors are hinting at plenty of surprise speakers along the way, as well.
MR. COSTA: Molly, when Republicans hear all that from Hallie’s reporting, what do they say to you? Are they embracing this approach?
MS. BALL: Well, they don’t really have a choice, right? This is Donald Trump’s party. And it’s a pretty perfect metaphor for where the two parties stand that the Democrats have had this elaborately orchestrated impeccably choreographed, planned for months to be virtual from the very start once events started getting canceled around the country, whereas the Republican Party, their plan has been from day one, well, we’re going to do what the president feels like, and that has changed according to not only the president’s whims but of course the need to accept reality when it comes to COVID. So they have, as Hallie said, a much bigger logistical challenge because they have had less time to plan, and I think Republicans have already been feeling a bit fatalistic about their chances in this election, at least the ones who live in the reality-based community, and they’re pretty apprehensive about this convention as well because you never know exactly what Trump is going to say and because he has never been comfortable in that register of optimism. He’s always been more focused on fear and on, you know, this theme of anarchists and rioters in the streets and convincing people that a vote for his opponent would be unsafe. So I think a lot of my Republican friends, at least, are not exactly looking forward to what’s going to come in the week ahead.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, what’s in your notebook?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I’m watching for exactly what Hallie said and what Hallie’s reporting, which is this idea that if you talk to advisors from the president, they will tell you that he is going to look hopeful, that he’s going to talk about the economy, that he’s going to talk about turning a corner after the pandemic. But President Trump, as Molly said, lives in this ecosystem where he likes to talk about fear, where he likes to talk about cultural division. It’s where he’s thrived. It’s where – it’s how he’s kept his base close to him. This week I was so struck by when he was in Scranton, Pennsylvania; he said they will cancel you, they want to cancel your way of life, they want to punish you for speaking your mind and your family. The president’s really trying to make people scared. I mean, he’s saying that everywhere in America is going to turn into the bloodstained streets of Chicago. So he’s really hoping and counting on the fact that people will be scared enough to either mail in their ballots or show up in person for him, so I’m really going to be interested in seeing if he can ever turn that corner to try to have a little bit of hope and a little bit of optimism. But I should say that Democrats had – while maybe sounding more hopeful, they did have the same thing, saying that it was a life and death election, that this was not like anything else that we’ve seen in our lifetime.
MR. COSTA: And Phil, what’s the strategy here inside the White House, inside the Trump campaign?
MR. RUCKER: Well, the strategy, Bob, is to build some momentum for the president. He has been behind Joe Biden for months now in virtually all of the polls. If the election were held today, he almost certainly would lose according to the – to the data that we’ve all been consuming. And so the convention next week is his best opportunity right now to try to reframe this race, to try to remind voters of why they might be inclined to support him for a second term. Talking to Republican strategists today, they say the best thing the president can do is focus on the economic record before the pandemic and try to make the case to voters that he is better equipped than Biden to rebuild the economy, to keep regulations loose, to try to help job growth, and to look for ways to add to his coalition – instead of focusing on grievances, instead of riling up his base, look for ways to bring people back into the fold. We saw that strategy play out on the Democratic side, where there was a real effort this week to expand the tent, so to speak, and we’ll see if Trump tries to do that next week.
MR. COSTA: Hallie, we have about 20 seconds. Just to clear up all the reporting rumors out there, is Vice President Pence safe on the ticket?
MS. JACKSON: Yeah, plans are in the works, he’s going to give that speech, and he is – he’s the guy who’s going to be giving the remarks on Wednesday evening up at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Bob.
MR. COSTA: I just wanted to check with one of the top reporters in the country because I have heard it from some Republicans, but we’ll take Hallie Jackson’s word for it based on her reporting. That’s it for tonight. We’ll leave it there. What a week, convention week in America. Really appreciate everybody coming by: Yamiche Alcindor, Molly Ball, Hallie Jackson, and Phil Rucker. Thanks again.
And thank you all for stopping by our table, too. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. And make sure to check out our Extra. It’s online and also on our social media. We’ll talk more about the convention and the president’s plans for next week, lots to discuss.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.