ROBERT COSTA: The election is over, but the faceoff continues.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This is the time to heal in America.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.
MR. COSTA: Biden and Harris win the White House, but days later the president refuses to accept the result, with support from Republicans.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.
MR. COSTA: But there are some cracks.
OHIO GOVERNOR MIKE DEWINE (R): (From video.) We need to consider Joe Biden as the president-elect.
MR. COSTA: Beyond the election, a record-breaking spike threatens the nation.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) A mask is not a political statement, but it is a good way to start pulling the country together.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris continue to face mounting challenges tonight, with President Trump refusing to concede and blocking them from both transition funds and high-level intelligence briefings. Now, while some Republicans are expressing unease, most of them are standing by as the president makes baseless claims of election fraud. And on Friday afternoon President Trump touted vaccine developments, but he did not concede and vaguely referenced, quote, “whatever administration comes next.”
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This administration will not be going to a lockdown. Hopefully, the – whatever happens in the future, who knows which administration it will be – I guess time will tell – but I can tell you this administration will not go to a lockdown.
MR. COSTA: As Americans wait for the FDA to make a final decision the pandemic keeps spreading at an alarming rate, with more than 160,000 new cases on Thursday alone. Hospitals are at a breaking point with Thanksgiving just weeks away.
Joining me tonight to discuss these stories are three trusted reporters: Evan Osnos, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now; Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Rachel Scott, White House correspondent for ABC News, who joins us from Delaware.
Let’s first turn to Biden and Harris. They are taking calls from world leaders and this week named Ron Klain as the incoming White House chief of staff. Rachel, what’s next up there in Delaware? What’s the plan for dealing with this defiant president?
RACHEL SCOTT: Yeah, well, we know the Biden – Biden’s team is having those critical conversations about who will fill his Cabinet, who will be part of his administration, but the reality is – here is that as they are preparing these teams – their own coronavirus taskforce team, as they’re putting together these agency review teams – they can only get so far. At some point they are going to need some cooperation from the current administration. They do not have access to their counterparts at these federal agencies and departments, they do not have access to these briefs, and that is something that we’re even hearing a growing number of Republicans now come out and say, that Vice President Joe Biden – now the president-elect – deserves to have national security briefings and get that intelligence at this point. And even President Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, saying tonight that this is about the country, this is not partisan – this is not a partisan game. President Trump doesn’t have to necessarily concede for Joe Biden to get that information.
MR. COSTA: Evan, your Biden book’s subtitle includes the phrase “what matters now” – so what matters now?
EVAN OSNOS: Well, as Rachel was saying, we are at a crucial moment for this country not just on the domestic side, but also on national security and foreign affairs. If you go back and you look at the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, one of the recommendations in there was to actually accelerate the process of getting national security aides approved with their background checks, getting them access to crucial intelligence, because it’s in this period when the United States is acutely vulnerable. And instead what we’re seeing is a White House – an outgoing White House that is taking steps to delay the process, to extend this fragile handover, and I think what matters now from the Biden – from the president-elect’s perspective is to convey – and this is important – a sense of inevitability. I mean, let’s be clear about what’s going on. There is not an actual dispute over the votes. There is not an actual dispute over the law. There is a state of political – call it what it is – confusion in the mind of the outgoing president, and the president-elect is going to maintain the clear sense that he’s not deterred by it.
MR. COSTA: Ashley, Rachel mentioned that former White House chief of staff John Kelly did tell Politico on Friday that, quote, “you lose a lot” in the transition if things are delayed and it threatens national security, as Evan just mentioned. Do President Trump’s close advisors recognize the risk, and are they communicating that message to him?
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, that is sort of the rub. When you talk to not just the president’s advisors but even Republicans on Capitol Hill who should know better and in fact in many cases privately do know better, their attitude is sort of, as one put it to me, what is the harm in humoring the president to help him get to sort of that emotional space where even if he doesn’t officially concede and even if he’s not gracious as we have come to historically expect, he gets to a place where he can leave office? And what is unsaid there and the harm is exactly that, it is the transition of power both in terms of the president is – the current president is eroding trust in this election, in democratic norms generally, and of course the national security implications. As Evan mentioned, this sort of more robust transition came out of the wake of 9/11, and we can’t predict a sort of worst-case scenario – what terrorist attack we can’t conceive yet – but one thing we can conceive of right now is the coronavirus. That is a tremendous national security threat, and one of the things we know is going to be a challenge at the very least is this handoff from Donald Trump – who has not really been managing this virus at all; he hasn’t attended a taskforce meeting in months, we have been told – to Joe Biden and managing that vaccine distribution, and that is one thing – a national security issue, a public health issue – that is very much falling by the wayside. And in my reporting, this is not one of the key things that Trump world allies are raising to the president.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, bouncing off of that point by Ashley, what is the Biden-Harris plan on the virus? Are they talking about the need for another lockdown, as the president suggested earlier today?
MS. SCOTT: No, actually, they’re not, and it was interesting hearing the president put so much emphasis on there not being another – not being a national lockdown. And we had Vivek Murthy on our programming on Good Morning America who said he does not feel like there is a need for a national lockdown at this point, but what he did emphasize was testing. He says that that is one area where he feels like the United States and this current administration have lacked and that they would like to make up the gaps there in getting rapid and quick testing to communities that really need it, communities that are disproportionately affected. It was also interesting hearing the president talk about the rollout of a vaccine. He said that would come likely by April. At that point Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States, but right now they don’t have access to a vaccine distribution plan because of this holdup with the transition, President Trump blocking this transition process and blocking that critical information from the next president of the United States.
MR. COSTA: Evan, you’ve written extensively on China, won a National Book Award, and China has congratulated President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. What’s the import of that and other world leaders moving on even when the president does not?
MR. OSNOS: You know, we saw this really interesting process play out over the course of the week where in foreign capitals around the world you could practically hear the analysts sort of trying – looking at one another and saying what do we do now, we’ve never had a situation in which an American president has not dignified the result of a legitimate election. It took them a while, but you gradually began to see first American allies announcing their congratulations, and then finally – a lot of us were waiting for this – we heard the Chinese government come forward and say that they acknowledge and congratulate Joe Biden on his win. Interestingly though, Bob, you know, you did not hear Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, personally congratulate Biden yet. That’s one other shoe to drop that hasn’t yet happened.
But I think this also gives you a sense of how discombobulating this is for global affairs, to have an American presidency in its final weeks here behaving in a way that’s so unrecognizable. From the Chinese perspective, to be perfectly blunt, you know, they have actually benefitted in a lot of ways from the disorder at the top of the Trump presidency. If you look at global polls you find that for the first time in a Pew survey recently that Donald Trump, the American president, had lower favorability than President Xi Jinping of China or Vladimir Putin of Russia. So in a way, China is a little sorry to see Trump leave the stage. It’s been for them, as they put it in Chinese, a period of strategic opportunity. And that window is now closing.
MR. COSTA: Ashley, I want to come back to your point about President Trump’s advisors playing along and dig a little deeper into this White House beat. You wrote this week that the president, quote, “has no clear end game to actually win the election,” even as his campaign continues to contest the results in several states. Ashley, behind closed doors is this just about showing voters that he fought to the end, maybe setting himself up for a comeback run in 2024? Or is there something else afoot? Could we actually see a battle in the Electoral College all the way to the House of Representatives?
MS. PARKER: It’s twofold. At its core, this is a man who sort of loathes nothing more than to lose. And so what you’re seeing is someone fighting and running against the tides of the inevitable and being enabled by his team and sort of establishment Republicans in Washington. But it’s also a president who believes at his core – probably not incorrectly – that America loves a fighter, that that’s what his people and his base really like – someone who goes down swinging, someone who fights for himself and for them. And so as long as he doesn’t cross that fine line – and it is a fine line – into sore loser, this is a president who believes that sort of that fighting spirit may help him hold his vice-like grip on the Republican Party, on the Republican base if he wants to run again in 2024, or if he simply just wants to hold onto the media spotlight and tease that he’s going to run again in 2024, and kind of freeze the whole Republican field.
But it is important to stress one final time, as we wrote, that there is no end game. I was pressing, when I was reporting that piece, senior administration officials on that very question. And one of them sort of chuckled and said: You’re giving us way too much credit. So again, like much in this chaotic administration, there is no end game. There is no master strategy. And this is not three-dimensional chess.
MR. COSTA: But, Rachel, you could still see the president and his allies in different state legislatures perhaps try to move forward on some front. The Biden campaign, it won Georgia today. Georgia was called. They’re winning legal battles in states like Michigan. Is the Biden campaign up there in Delaware shrugging this all off, or are they trying to at least be on their toes about what could happen next?
MS. SCOTT: They are not showing any signs that the reality or the results of this election are going to change. You know, what’s interesting, according to our ABC News count we have Joe Biden at 306 electoral votes. And that’s how many electoral votes that President Trump had when he won the election, and he called it a landslide. And so they’re not really giving too much weight into what the president is doing here. As he was pushing this, just days before the election, they were calling it all a distraction – a distraction away from the reality that at that time Joe Biden was leading in the polls.
What they do say, though, is this emphasis on the president not facing reality here, not coming to terms with the fact that he has lost the election. This puts the American people in a position where they are the real losers because they’re not getting that critical access to the information that they need. And they say real-time access to that information is what they are going to need to assess the next crises in the United States. And right now they just don’t know what they don’t know, to put it simply.
MR. COSTA: And I heard from Senator Pat Toomey this week, a Republican, that he doesn’t believe in Pennsylvania, his state, that they’re going to change the Electoral College, they’re going to change the electors in any way. That’s one Republican speaking out. But what about the rest of the party? It seems like they don’t want to publicly fight with the president, based on my reporting. But some say this week that Biden should be getting intel briefings.
SENATOR JAMES LANKFORD (R-OK): (From video.) We still don’t know who the president’s going to be at this point, and so we should be in the same posture that we were in throughout the whole campaign, with both of them receiving briefings.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) For the sake of protecting the country you want whoever is going to assume that office to be aware of the significant threats, because the first responsibility of any president is to keep the American people safe.
MR. COSTA: And former President Obama, whose memoir is coming out next week, has also weighed in, speaking to CBS’s 60 Minutes. Here is part of that interview.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) I’m more troubled by the fact that other Republican officials who clearly know better are going along with this, are humoring him in this fashion. It is one more step in delegitimizing not just the incoming Biden administration, but democracy generally. And that’s a dangerous path.
MR. COSTA: So there are cracks, but not a break. All those thousands of Trump supporters to prepare to rally this weekend in Washington. And it’s all weeks before January’s Georgia Senate runoffs. What will Republicans do now? Evan, what’s your assessment of that, and also President Obama’s view of democracy?
MR. OSNOS: You know, what you’ve heard over the course of the last few days is this evolution in the message coming out of the Republican Party. It began with essentially a resistance of the idea of the reality of the numbers. Then gradually it became let’s just humor this president, give him time to process his feelings. And now we’re into a third stage, which is sort of like the kind of nudging language you might hear when you’ve got a – you know, a hostage taker who you’re trying to get to come out of the bank without hurting himself or anybody else. It’s an odd moment.
And what you hear in President Obama’s language is really important. This is not just about hobbling an incoming administration with the – sort the aroma of illegitimacy, which after all is what happened with him around the birtherism fiction. And that, I think, is in his mind, that we’re hearing something similar. There’s something bigger going on, which is really it’s about degrading the public confidence in the very office of the presidency. And that’s not something you rebuild overnight, even if you are a president who seeks to unify in the spirit of Joe Biden. That is the real risk here. It has to do as much with our political culture as it does with our politics.
MR. COSTA: Ashley, what does your reporting tell you about the Republican Party? On one level you saw Leader McConnell this week say the president can do whatever he wants. But there are some senators calling for briefings. Why are Republicans responding in this way?
MS. PARKER: I mean, first of all, calling for briefings is – when Joe Biden has won the election – is hardly a profile in courage. As you put it, it’s small cracks, but it’s not great strides or great leaps. You know, it comes to down to it, at its core, a lot of practical political calculations. There are the immediate ones, like the Georgia Senate runoff. Leader McConnell, he wants to remain the majority leader, so he doesn’t want to do anything that will provoke President Trump’s ire, prompting him to, you know, intervene in the Georgia race that could be problematic for the Republican candidates.
Then you have Republican senators who are up for reelection in 2022. Their fear is that President Trump – he’s made clear he’s not going away – goes on, for instance, a rally tour. You know, coming to their city on a hot Friday night, rallying up his base for a primary from the right. They don’t want to provoke Trump’s ire for that reason. And all of these people – and, again, a lot can change in four years. But my reporting, just about everyone I’ve talked to said even though Donald Trump lost the election to Joe Biden, he – if the election were held tomorrow for a Republican primary he would be the candidate, no question. He would be the winner.
So you have all of these people, including people in his own administration, his own orbit, people who otherwise would be rising stars for 2024, like a Vice President Pence, like a Secretary Pompeo, who you’re also seeing going out and making comments that are not exactly in line with the facts of this election because they want to stay not just on President Trump’s good side, but on the good side of his millions of supporters, who will be crucial to lifting any of them to any sort of future victory.
MR. COSTA: Makes me wonder if someone like Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan, more of a centrist who has moved on a big from President Trump, has a path, or maybe the path, as you say, it’s all under President Trump’s shadow.
Rachel, we’ve been talking about Georgia, and it does loom just a few weeks ahead of us, January 5th runoff – two Senate runoffs, two GOP incumbents. We have Senator David Perdue versus Democrat Jon Ossoff, and then Senator Kelly Loeffler versus Reverend Raphael Warnock. Rachel, do Democrats expect the Biden coalition in Georgia that’s pulled them ahead, that’s won them the state – White liberals with Black Democrats and a rising Latino population – do they expect it to revive itself come January?
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, they do, and I think the push here is twofold. First, you have the Democratic Party that’s looking at this from a bigger, larger point of view. They’re saying this is a chance to expand the electorate. They are aware that Democrats were able to mobilize new voters that have not turned out before in Georgia, and those voters helped put Joe Biden over the edge. But they’re also aware of the fact that a lot of what Joe Biden wants to do during his administration will really rely on the makeup of the Senate and whether or not Republicans hold a majority. He has a long list of action items that he wants to do on day one, some that he might be able to do through executive orders, but when you’re talking about things like COVID relief you’re going to need Congress for that. And so if Republicans do hold a majority in the Senate, that is going to face some pretty significant challenges for Joe Biden as he takes the oath of office. And you know, it’s interesting talking to his campaign because they signaled that he hasn’t really had these conversations yet with Mitch McConnell. We know he is the most powerful Senate Republican there on the Hill, and it leaves the question and the challenge for Joe Biden and his team at this point, what does he do to try and make these inroads with Republicans – Republicans who aren’t even acknowledging him as the president-elect?
MR. COSTA: Evan, one of the things that comes through in your book is how much of a centrist President-elect Biden is, and I wonder how you see his vision of 2021 – a deeply divided Washington – as well as his relationship with McConnell. I was speaking to a couple Senate Republicans this week and they said the best thing that happens here is gridlock and they welcome gridlock, and maybe getting some budget deals done but beyond that not much, maybe just executive orders. Based on your reporting, your interviews with President-elect Biden, how do you see it?
MR. OSNOS: You know, there is no president in the world that would want to inherit a state of polarization of the kind that we’re dealing with right now, but when I talked to President-elect Biden – then candidate Biden – about exactly this question, about how do you actually begin to unwind this state of paralysis that we’re dealing with, I said, do you honestly believe, as you’ve said before, that there will be a kind of epiphany among Republicans if, in fact, President Trump is gone, and he doubled down on it. He said, look, the honest answer is I do believe there will be an epiphany, but I don’t mean it in the way that people sometimes lampoon. I don’t think they’re all going to wake up and suddenly become Democrats. What I mean is that they will, each of them, once you remove the kind of malevolent influence of this president who scares so many of them, as he puts it – that’s his way of framing it – that really that makes them recalculate their individual interests. And if you take the most important member of that – of that conference – after all, of course, it’s Mitch McConnell – those two men really do have a meaningful relationship. Let’s not pretend it’s going to wipe away all the troubles, but Mitch McConnell, let’s remind ourselves, was the only Republican senator to attend the 2015 funeral for Joe Biden’s son Beau. I mean, there was that fateful moment in 2012 when Mitch McConnell picked up the phone and called Joe Biden in the West Wing and said, is there anybody over there who knows how to make a deal? So these two at least have some basis for a vocabulary of beginning a negotiation. That’s more than you might have with other Democrats moving into this job, but it’s hardly a guarantee of anything beyond that.
MR. COSTA: Ashley, you’ve covered Congress. You’ve also covered the Trump-led Republican Party. How do you see those dynamics in 2021?
MS. PARKER: It’s a great question. I’ve noticed what Joe Biden said and I’m a little skeptical that that is what’s going to happen, that there will be this sort of epiphany that Evan pressed him on, just because, again – and this is framed with the Congress I covered; I covered the 113th, you know, under Mitch McConnell that basically made the decision on day one when Obama was inaugurated to block every single thing that he wanted to do, the same Congress that prevented him from seating Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. And so Joe Biden is an institutionalist, he is a relationships man, a sort of, you know, political handshaker, a look you in the eye, feel your pain type of politician. He has served in that body for a very long time. That may be meaningful in some way. Evan points out he and Leader McConnell sort of share at least a similar vocabulary and shared experience set. But in a world in which the decision whether or not to wear a mask is so deeply polarized and partisan, it is hard to imagine the deals flowing on day one.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, we only have about 30 seconds left, but what are you paying attention to in Delaware tonight, this weekend, and next week? We heard from the president today, but what should we be all watching with President-elect Biden?
MS. SCOTT: I think all eyes are who makes up his Cabinet, who makes up his administration. We know that he’s going to have a very big emphasis on diversity. He said that he plans to have the most diverse Cabinet in American history. And remember, it was Black voters that propelled him to victory to get the Democratic nomination, Black voters once again that helped him get the White House, and he’s looking to give them some key roles in the administration.
MR. COSTA: We’ll be watching that, but that’s it for tonight. Many thanks to our reporters – really appreciate your time – Evan Osnos, Ashley Parker, and Rachel Scott.
And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to this news cycle as we can. And check out our next chapter of the Washington Week Bookshelf series on our website and social media. I’ll chat more with Evan about his new book on Joe Biden.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.