ROBERT COSTA: President Trump and governors confront economic turmoil and the former VP faces tough questions.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think we did a spectacular job.
MR. COSTA: The White House on the defensive amid economic, health, and political challenges, and with fresh attacks on longtime targets.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) China is a very sophisticated country and they could have contained it. They were either unable to or they chose not to, and the world has suffered greatly.
MR. COSTA: In some states, protesters pressure governors.
MICHIGAN GOVERNOR GRETCHEN WHITMER (D): (From video.) Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I am not going to make decisions about our public health based on political games.
MR. COSTA: And the 2020 campaign takes a turn as former Vice President Joe Biden denies a former aide’s allegation of sexual assault.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I assure you it did not happen, period.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. As President Trump settles in tonight for a weekend at Camp David, he’s facing not only a pandemic but a pressure cooker out in the country, a nation on edge: 64,000 dead, economic desperation, political tensions, and fiscal uncertainty as Congress considers its next step. All those issues are now front and center, with governors in both parties grappling with how and when to reopen businesses. And the president, he hovers over everything, lashing out at his critics and receiving new updates this week from advisors about the political cost of the crisis.
Joining me are four reporters covering these stories: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent for CBS News; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; and Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Let’s begin tonight with the president and the states. One revealing snapshot is Michigan, where Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has faced intense protests for extending her emergency declaration to May 28th. Some protesters this week even carried weapons. President Trump tweeted on Friday that Whitmer should, quote, “give a little” and put out the fire, and added these are, quote, “good people, but they are angry.” But it’s not just the president versus Democrats. In Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan told me in a Washington Post Live interview on Thursday that he fears the federal government could try to seize the 500,000 coronavirus tests his state secured last week from South Korea, and he treated them like treasure when they landed at BWI Airport.
MARYLAND GOVERNOR LAWRENCE HOGAN (R): (From video.) It was like Fort Knox to us because it’s going to save the lives of thousands of our citizens.
MR. COSTA: (From video.) The National Guard protecting tests; is the National Guard in Maryland still protecting those tests?
MARYLAND GOVERNOR LAWRENCE HOGAN (R): (From video.) They are. The National Guard and the state police are both guarding these tests at a(n) undisclosed location.
MR. COSTA: So amid the scattered reopening plans and the protests and the alarm about testing, federal health officials have warned governors to not go too far, too fast.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) They know their states. The mayors know their cities. So you want to give them a little wiggle room, but my recommendation is, you know, don’t wiggle too much.
MR. COSTA: Weijia, welcome to Washington Week. And Dr. Fauci just said “don’t wiggle too much” talking to governors. When you’re covering the governors out there in the states, what kind of challenges are they facing when it comes to testing as all of these states try to reopen?
WEIJIA JIANG: You know, governors for so long have essentially been begging the administration to help them get supplies so they can complete these tests. You know, President Trump likes to talk a lot about the testing capacity across the nation, and that’s one thing – that is, the potential to test Americans – but governors say they need the goods to do it. And despite the president and the administration insisting that they are helping, we’re just not seeing that play out on the ground. In fact, just this week President Trump rolled out a national testing blueprint in an effort under mounting pressure to show that he is taking leadership, but when you really look at this blueprint, Bob, it just shows a list of suggestions for the states. So the big question still remains why he is not using his full power to procure these pieces of equipment that are so critical for testing. And I think it’s not just the states, but you know, just today we’re talking about the Capitol physician saying he doesn’t have enough tests for lawmakers returning on Monday, and I think that’s a really telling story of where we are with testing and how sorely we are still lacking.
MR. COSTA: And, Phil, you hear it from every governor. Governor Hogan, Governor Pritzker, they say they may have tests, but they don’t have the swabs. So help me understand the president’s confrontation with Governor Whitmer, with other governors. What behind the scenes is driving that strategy and those attacks?
PHILIP RUCKER: Well, a big part of it, Bob, is simple: politics. We’re in a campaign year, of course. The president’s going to be standing for reelection in November, a short time away, and he’s trying to shirk responsibility, shirk blame for any of the failings in the United States response to the coronavirus pandemic. Central, as Weijia just pointed out, is the testing failures, the struggle to get mass testing around this country. The governors don’t have the swabs that they need, they don’t have the trained technicians that they need to run those fancy new Abbott machines, and they’re not able to perform tests at the capacity in order to feel safe reopening their states. They want help from Washington and they’re not getting it because the White House, the president have determined that this should be a states issue. They don’t want to have responsibility for a national testing strategy; they want to have the states execute it on their own.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, are we seeing a red state/blue state divide? You look at some of these states like Texas and Georgia with Republican governors moving swiftly to reopen, Democratic governors like Governor Whitmer facing protests.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: We are. We’re seeing what is really the consequences of a more polarized America as a whole, and now we’re seeing these different policies play out state by state. I should note that what Weijia and Phil are talking about tonight are really the beginnings of how this crisis began, which is that the – from the – from the very beginning we saw state and local leaders, governors begging for some sort of real federal policy on testing, real federal policy on how to handle this coronavirus outbreak, and they have continued to say that. They continue to say that they want more guidance from the White House, that they want more help from the White House. So the idea that you can reopen the government without having a large testing strategy, governors say, is just something that can’t happen, and that includes some Republican governors like Larry Hogan, who se saw literally smuggle in tests from South Korea because he said that he needed to get that equipment for his state. So what you’re seeing is really the fruits of not only, as I said, a polarized America, but also an America where states are having to fend for themselves because the White House has said that they don’t want to be part of this national testing strategy because they say it’s a local issue. Of course, we have to, I think, continue to talk about the fact that the president said more than a month ago now that anyone who wants a test could get a test, and that wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.
MR. COSTA: Susan, Phil Rucker brought up the idea of politics driving the president behind the scenes at the White House. USA Today’s out with a new poll this week. What does it show about what could be driving and shaping the president’s thinking?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, we see the president not doing well with his response to the coronavirus. We see approval for him going down. In our poll he now trails Joe Biden by 10 percentage points nationwide in a head to head and we find a big appetite for a more activist federal government. A majority of Americans – and that includes both Republicans and independents and Democrats – think the federal government ought to be doing more. I mean, I think when Americans look at what Larry Hogan said in Maryland, he’s protecting those tests using the National Guard – he’s protecting them from federal seizure. He’s trying to protect his state interest because he feels the federal government might work against those interests, part of the result, I think, of the president not taking more forceful national action when it comes to taking care of the supply chain on these things or taking more control over when states close and open back up. That’s something he has definitely left to the states.
MR. COSTA: Phil, what are we hearing about this new target of China on the president’s radar? Because he keeps attacking them publicly, but is he actually going to take action against China?
MR. RUCKER: Well, Bob, he has threatened to take action. The president has said he is considering it, and sort of vaguely said that he would, that he thinks China should be punished. He has found ways – and really over many weeks now – to point the finger at China, to blame the Chinese for allowing this virus to escape its borders, for allowing it to spread first, of course, to Europe, but then here to the United States.
But it’s unclear what action that will be exactly. The one thing driving the president is he wants to appear tough on China. He sees this as a central campaign issue. He is trying to draw a contrast with Vice President Biden, who of course was part of the Obama administration and the so-called “pivot to Asia” several years ago, and so Trump is trying to use this coronavirus pandemic as a way to posture his administration vis-à-vis China in a way that would help him in the fall campaign. But it’s unclear what specific actions he would take. He has not spelled that out in detail.
MR. COSTA: And Weijia, what are your impressions as a White House reporter? You saw Kayleigh McEnany, the new press secretary, at the lectern today. You see President Trump doing less of these two-hour daily briefings.
What’s going on with the new chief of staff, Mark Meadows – the new press secretary? Is there a shift in their whole approach to their management of this?
MS. JIANG: Well, I think they had to make a change after they saw how the president was performing when he was sort of, you know, at the podium and spit-balling in many ways, free-falling in other ways with these really long, extended briefings that he was using also as a platform to replace those campaign rallies that he was no longer having. And I think the team saw – overall – it was not helping him, and they had to change something.
Over the weekend the president said it was not worth it for him to have the briefings. Of course that’s not true because, at his core, he is the communicator- and messenger-in-chief. And he is not going to relinquish that power.
So what we saw this week was him doing the same thing: taking questions from the press but doing it in a different setting, so it was in a much more formal setting, and he was less combatative (sic), which was apparent.
As far as his press secretary, I think it’s a big shift from her predecessor because she was at the podium today and, you know, I don’t think we should give her too much credit for doing her job, but certainly it is a stark difference from the previous press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who didn’t have a single press briefing. So I think Kayleigh McEnany – you know, she was out there, we knew that this was going to be the strategy to get in front of any bad messaging and try to transition that to something positive for the president which we certainly saw her at least attempt to do today.
MR. COSTA: And Yamiche, you’re in that briefing room, but I was struck by one of your reports this week on NewsHour about reporting on the country, which is really where it really matters and where people are feeling this economic pain. And you see the economic numbers in state after state so troubling.
What have you learned this week about how the summer looks for many Americans with the rising unemployment rate, with jobs not coming back in many sectors?
MS. ALCINDOR: People frankly are scared, Bob. They’re scared for their futures. They’re scared for their families. They’re scared whether or not they’re going to be able to survive and thrive in a financial and an emotional way when it comes to this outbreak. What you are seeing is jobless numbers that we just have never seen before, and the president is saying that he is hopeful that in the third or fourth quarter this year that things will get back to being positive.
But what we know is that Americans are going to keep some of the behaviors that they have kept and learned throughout this outbreak. When will we see big, long lines at restaurants again? That might not come back and bounce back in the same way even if mayors and governors continue to open up their economies. So I think what we’re going to see is there are going to be a lot of essential workers – and when I say essential workers I’m thinking of people that are also grocery store people, that are people that are serving food – that those people who are essential to our society and the functioning of our society, that those people might be the most out of luck. So I think that there are just a lot of people who are really afraid.
I want to also add what Weijia was just talking about when it comes to the press secretary because there was just such a big difference today. The big, overall difference that I saw was that, while the messaging is the same when you look at Kayleigh McEnany, what you get from her is, I think, a less harsh – she was pushing back on reporters, but in a way that seemed a little bit slicker, and I think – as soon as she walked out I thought, this is someone who President Trump will likely like because she is someone who has already cut her teeth on network TV – auditioning for the job almost – in defending the president even before she met him.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you are writing a book on Speaker Pelosi – I can’t wait to read it – and she said this week she wants a trillion dollars in this next round of legislation to help states, to address many of the concerns that Yamiche just brought up that she’s hearing from people out in the country.
How realistic is it that Congress is going to come together? Because we know Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – he wants liability protection for businesses as part of this package if he’s going to give any money to states.
MS. PAGE: Well, the Congress has approved an extraordinary amount of spending already, and in a pretty quick fashion, and in a reasonably bipartisan way. But I think that’s going to be tougher with this next bill that they are working on because Democrats are going to insist on funding for state and local governments; Republicans have been less enthusiastic about that. Mitch McConnell, who is a conservative Republican with some history of worrying about debts and deficits – some of those concerns may have come a little bit more to the fore. Republicans want to look at liability protection for employers and others. So it seems to me it’s going to be perhaps a longer process than we’ve seen.
But we do see a big appetite for government spending by people who feel they are just under water, under fire, under siege, and are really looking to the government to help them out. And that has been a philosophy – that’s been a sense of the country that has propelled the Congress to make some of these extraordinary expenditures so far.
MR. COSTA: Phil, to wrap up this discussion about the White House, I want to start – go back to where we started: the raw politics driving so much of this. And the Post and others have reported this week the president had a private exchange with Brad Parscale, his campaign manager – pretty tense based on the reporting. What have you heard?
MR. RUCKER: That’s right, Bob. The president, on Wednesday, was confronted by Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, as well as Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who brought him a fresh batch of internal polling. And it actually showed Trump losing to Joe Biden. It not only showed him losing to Biden, but showed that these press briefings that he has been doing every day were really taking a toll on his political standing and were damaging.
And the president erupted at his aides. He said that he didn’t believe the numbers. He said that he can’t possibly be losing to Biden, that he thinks people like his briefings. And it was a tense exchange, and an acrimonious back and forth with Parscale that extended for two days to the point where the president threatened to sue his campaign manager, although it’s not clear if he was being serious about that.
They’ve since patched it up, and this is reporting, by the way, from our colleague and friend Josh Dawsey. But it’s a sign of how much the political standing, credibility, fortunes of this president hang in the balance because of the pandemic.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with the political talk for a few minutes and flip to the Democratic side of the 2020 race.
On Friday, former Vice President Joe Biden addressed an allegation of sexual assault by Tara Reade, a former aide in his Senate office. Here is part of the interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe with the presumptive Democratic nominee.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: (From video.) Would you please go on the record with the American people? Did you sexually assault Tara Reade?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) No, it is not true. I’m saying unequivocally it never, never happened, and it didn’t. It never happened.
MR. COSTA: Mr. Biden then called on the National Archives to release any documents related to Reade’s allegation. When pressed about his papers at the University of Delaware, Biden asserted that his personnel files are, quote, “not there.” He also declined to discuss Reade’s decision to speak out.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: (From video.) You have said in the past that if a woman goes under the lights and talks about something like this, we have to consider that the essence of this is real. Is the essence of what she is saying is real? Why do you think she is doing this?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m not going to question her motive. I’m not going to get into that at all. I don’t know why she is saying this. I don’t know why, after 27 years, all of a sudden this gets raised. I don’t understand it. But I’m not going to go in and question her motive. I’m not going to attack her. She has a right to say whatever she wants to say, but I have a right to say, look at the facts.
MR. COSTA: Susan, as a political reporter who has covered VP Biden, what did you learn from this interview, and this whole week?
MS. PAGE: Yeah, you know, I think that the Biden camp decided they had to do something. He hadn’t had to respond to this question himself in a television interview yet. I think they thought this was necessary but not sufficient, that he had to do this. But this story is not over. He is going to have more questions about it.
You know, it’s a hard – we found him being totally unequivocal in his denial that anything happened, but he was – but he seemed flummoxed when he was asked about the University of Delaware archives. That sort of surprised me he didn’t have an answer readier for that. And he also struggled, I think, to reconcile what he said during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings with his attitude today. That is something he is going to have to talk about again.
MR. COSTA: Just before the broadcast, the vice president issued a statement calling on the Secretary of the Senate to ask for a search to be done on any Senate records, but he’s still holding tight on his University of Delaware records. Weijia, is that going to become a campaign issue, the Delaware papers?
MS. JIANG: Well, I think it’s already become an issue because the Trump campaign and surrogates are demanding, you know, as much transparency as possible when it comes to Tara Reade and the vice president – to the former vice president. But I think, you know, President Trump himself has a very complicated relationship with allegations of sexual misconduct. We already know that because of his personal experience of being accused by more than a dozen women. But what shocked me, frankly, was when he talked about it last night because he said that these accusations against Mr. Biden could possibly be false. And so, you know, he talked about how he was falsely accused. He himself brought up Brett Kavanaugh and how he was mistreated. And just today President Trump said if, you know, I were talking to Joe Biden, I would say go out and fight these claims. It’s almost as if they’re in the same club of – you know, as being accused, and that’s going to come back and haunt the president because every time his campaign tries to make it an issue, you know, they can – the Democrats can point to the president’s words to defend Vice President Biden.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, I see you want to jump in here?
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, I think the interesting position that President Trump finds himself in is that he can’t really go that hard at Joe Biden for this because we know that more than two dozen women have accused President Trump of some form of sexual assault. Now, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, today said that this is all four years old and that people – that that was already decided when people decided to elect President Trump, but that’s – she was wrong on the facts there. This is not four years old. Just last year we had E. Jean Carroll come out, and just this year she was trying to seek the president’s DNA in January 2020 for a lawsuit related to the sexual assault allegations that she’s making against the president. So I think this is going to be a tough spot. The president, obviously, has surrogates that want to attack Joe Biden using this Tara Reade allegations, and Joe Biden, as Susan said, is going to have to continue to answer these questions because there is going to continue to be more and new reporting about who was in the office, what kind of atmosphere that was, these pictures of Joe Biden hugging women and touching women in ways that some said made them feel uncomfortable, others who said that they thought it was just him being friendly. Those pictures are going to continue to circulate. So I think Joe Biden has a long road ahead of him when it comes to this, but again, President Trump, it’s not going to be – I think hit him as hard as he might want to or as hard as the campaign wants to.
MR. COSTA: Phil, speaking of that long road ahead Yamiche just mentioned, you and I, we’ve been on the campaign trail many years together talking to top Democrats. They’re an important constituency for the former vice president – Speaker Pelosi, top strategists, party officials. How are they responding, perhaps even privately to you today, as they watch all of this unfold?
MR. RUCKER: Well, Bob, it’s clearly not a story that any top Democrat would want to be in the news right now or want to be talking about. That said, they have arrayed behind Vice President Biden. He has had the support of Speaker Pelosi and of other prominent women and men in the – in the Democratic Party in the past couple of days. There did seem to be a private sort of groundswell of urging that Biden get out there and rip this Band-Aid off and talk about it. He, for days and days, was avoiding media interviews and wasn’t putting himself out there where he could be questioned about these allegations in detail the way he was this morning by Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe. And so I suspect we’re going to see, you know, a lot of top Democrats rally around the vice president and take him at his word, and also point to his record. He was in the Senate for many, many years, and in addition to that eight years as the vice president, and he has a governing record on things that he has done to support women, the Violence Against Women Act, and we hear his supporters mention that again and again, and I imagine that’s going to be part of the strategy going forward.
MR. COSTA: Susan, just in the final minute here, as much as the vice president’s supporters believe he can carry on and that he’s going to be able to move on his campaign from this difficult issue, an allegation of sexual assault, this is a #MeToo moment in America, not just in American politics. How does that change the campaign in the coming weeks and months?
MS. PAGE: You know, I think it’s – here’s one irony. Donald Trump helped create this landscape that is creating all these problems for Joe Biden – the #MeToo movement, the opposition to his Access Hollywood tape, and some of his behavior in the past. And fairly or not, these accusations hurt Joe Biden more than they hurt Donald Trump because Joe Biden’s brand is that he’s empathetic and he’s ethical and he’s a nice guy in a way that –
MR. COSTA: We have to wrap up soon, Susan.
MS. PAGE: – that is not really Donald Trump’s political brand.
MR. COSTA: We could talk all night, but that’s all the time we have for the moment. Thank you to our reporters: Yamiche Alcindor, Weijia Jiang, Susan Page, and Phil Rucker. Thank you very much.
And thank you for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. Our discussion about this presidential race, I promise it will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our website or our social media. But for now, I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.