YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Gaslighting, gas lines, and governing.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask.
MS. ALCINDOR: In the fight against COVID, President Biden announces a big step forward.
REPRESENTATIVE LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): (From video.) I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Congresswoman Liz Cheney is purged and replaced for pushing back on election lies.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Don’t panic, number one. I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation.
MS. ALCINDOR: Plus, President Biden faces new challenges at home and abroad, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. The COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency in the U.S. 427 days ago and the virus has killed more than 580,000 Americans, but amid that trauma and hurting, some good news.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) CDC announced that they are no longer recommending that fully vaccinated people need wear masks. This recommendation holds true whether you are inside or outside. I think it’s a great milestone, a great day.
MS. ALCINDOR: Meanwhile, the Capitol insurrection was 128 days ago and this week House Republicans removed and replaced Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership post for repeatedly speaking out against former President Trump’s election lies. We’ll dig into that in a moment, but first, what do these new COVID rules mean for American life and what challenges still lie ahead for the Biden administration?
Joining us tonight are four top reporters: Kasie Hunt, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and the host of MSNBC’s Way Too Early; Manu Raju, chief congressional correspondent for CNN; and joining me in studio – we’re so happy to be in studio – Eugene Daniels, White House correspondent for Politico and co-author of Playbook; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today and the author of the new book Madam Speaker. Thank you so much for being here.
Eugene, I want to start with you. White House officials tell me this decision about facial coverings was made because they’re following the science, following the CDC. What are you hearing about what made – what went into this decision, and how close are we at all to turning a corner and maybe getting back to normal life?
EUGENE DANIELS: It was kind of head spinning, right? It was like six weeks ago when the head of the CDC was emotional on camera talking about how scared she was about where we are, and it was just two weeks ago when the outside masks went away, and so I think everyone’s kind – was a little bit surprised. And folks I talked with at the White House, they said they were mostly surprised because they allowed the CDC to make that determination and weren’t involved. And so, you know, you were at the White House yesterday and they had to move around and change – they added a press conference for the president. And so I think what we’re hearing on whether or not we’re turning a corner soon is that they’re hoping that the numbers stay down, and they are really cognizant that the fact that people don’t have to wear masks in person – or, excuse me, outside or inside now – mainly to people getting vaccinated. There was no incentive, a lot of people say, for people to get vaccinated if they had to do the exact same thing they were doing, so they’re hoping that that’s going to happen. But I’ve talked to some health experts; they’re not completely sure because of that – there’s that 30 percent of White Evangelicals and Republicans who say they’re never going to get vaccinated, so the White House has a lot and the administration have a lot of work to do to get those people to sign on and actually get vaccinated even as we start seeing, like, life returning, like us being here in the studio today. (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, well, you know, Eugene – Kasie, Eugene is hitting on a key point, which is that there are people that are still hesitant to have the vaccine. Talk to me a little bit about what we know about vaccination rates on Capitol Hill among lawmakers and how might this announcement change their calculation, and of course the calculation of people living in their districts?
KASIE HUNT: Well, that is – it’s a very good question because, of course, COVID has really changed the way business is done on Capitol Hill, especially in the House of Representatives, which is of course much larger than the U.S. Senate. But we already saw the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell – the minority leader – going without a mask as soon as these guidelines were released. There still are mask requirements on the floor of the House, and that’s probably set to become a pretty intense political debate because Nancy Pelosi’s keeping those rules that way until, she says, all House members are vaccinated along with the staffers that have access to the floor, and while they say that essentially a hundred percent of Democrats have been vaccinated there are a lot of questions about how many Republicans have. There are a lot of offices that won’t confirm one way or the other, and of course this is contributing to the tension overall that’s already caused so much strife here.
And Yamiche, I will say the one – the one thing I keep hearing both from those who I talk to in my own everyday life but also lawmakers who are trying to figure out the right approach, what advice to give their constituents, and from some of the doctors that I’ve interviewed over the course of the past few days are questions about what to do about people who can’t get the vaccine yet. So there are a lot of parents out there who are concerned, have a lot of questions because while perhaps they want to get their kids vaccinated as soon as it’s safe, they can’t yet, and kids of course need an example from their parents in order to wear masks, so I do think we’re entering something of a period of uncertainty here where some people in the country are still going to have a lot of questions about what to do.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, Susan, Kasie’s talking about the uncertainty that everyone feels, and there are these people – people that I know that are very worried about taking off their facial coverings. Talk to me a little bit about what you’re hearing about how this will all work – enforcement, verification – because, of course, this is about fully vaccinated Americans.
SUSAN PAGE: Well, it’s something we’ve never experienced before, right? We’ve never had anything in our lifetime like the pandemic we’ve just come through. But certainly, I think most Americans are really eager to get on with things, to not have to wear a mask, and if anything, you know, I don’t think there was a sense the CDC was acting too rapidly. I think there’s been a sense that the CDC was being too cautious; that they were, in fact, not following the science, which says there’s very little risk if you’re outdoors, no need to wear a mask there, and the vaccinated people are protected so they can take off their mask even if they’re inside, they can hug their grandchildren, they can resume having some kind of July 4th picnics. This is, of course, the issue on which President Biden is going to be judged, and we see that he has once again beaten the timetable he had set for himself. If he can beat the timetable he had set for the percentage of Americans with vaccination, that would be a very good and helpful step for him.
MS. ALCINDOR: The other, of course, big thing that happened this week is that the consequences of the siege at the Capitol still loom large. This week the House held a hearing investigating the attacks. Several Republicans, including Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia, downplayed what happened.
REPRESENTATIVE ANDREW CLYDE (R-GA): (From video.) There was no insurrection, and to call it an insurrection in my opinion is a bold-faced lie. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.
MS. ALCINDOR: Clyde’s comments are, of course, clearly false; there was a violent insurrection on January 6th. But in the GOP, accepting reality has consequences: House Republicans booted Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership post for calling out false claims about the election. Ahead of her removal, Cheney took a defiant last stand against the former president.
REPRESENTATIVE LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): (From video.) Millions of Americans have been misled by the former president. They have heard only his words, but not the truth as he continues to undermine our democratic process, sowing seeds of doubt about whether democracy really works at all. This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not participate in that.
MS. ALCINDOR: After being voted out, Cheney doubled down on her stance. I want to go to you, Manu. You didn’t get a chance to jump in on the COVID, but I want to talk to you a little bit about Liz Cheney. How is she going to go forward? What’s her plan, and does she see herself possibly being in the Oval Office?
MANU RAJU: You know, that’s an open question. I have a hard time seeing how she could – may have any traction in a Republican primary in 2024. This is a party that is dominated still by the former president, that has such a strong attachment, a connection to the Republican base. Now, four years, of course, is a long time; we’ll see how much the party changes between now and then. But Cheney is decidedly in the minority, not just overall in the party among the base but also in her own conference. You know, there are really only a handful of Republicans who are in the same position of her about calling out the president and calling out his lies, which is why she got ultimately put out – pushed out.
And one of the big reasons is not just because of this fight. It’s because the fight has caused a distraction for Republicans, because this moment she starts questioning the election and starts saying – questioning Donald Trump’s saying that the election was stolen or rigged in other ways, then her colleagues are forced to answer questions about what they believe. And what they don’t want to say is that the election was legitimate – a lot of them don’t – because if they do that, then they get hammered by Donald Trump. So then they suggest that there’s some sort of irregularities, or anomalies, or variances, or something amiss in the election without really any evidence to back that up. And that puts them on the opposite side of the facts, and that ultimately is a position that Republican leaders just do not want to be on.
So that’s one reason why you saw Kevin McCarthy maneuver behind the scenes and engineer her ouster, is that they simply did not want to be confronted with these questions time and again. And one reason why they elevated Elise Stefanik, who won today overwhelmingly not because of her conservative voting record – she has one of the most moderate voting records among any House Republican – but because she has allied herself Donald Trump, as she did when she defended him in the 2019 impeachment trial all the way through his efforts to overturn the elections, and so we’re seeing where the House Republican conference lies. It is not with Liz Cheney; it is squarely with Donald Trump.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, Kasie, I want to bring you in here. You were asking all the right questions to Liz Cheney right – just minutes after she was ousted. Talk to me a little bit about that experience and what you’re hearing. But also, there is this sort of deal to form this January 6th commission, but Kevin McCarthy’s saying he’s concerned about the scope. What do we know about what’s going on with the commission?
MS. HUNT: That’s right, Yamiche, and in fact in some ways there was a lot of surprise this afternoon when there was a bipartisan agreement announced on this commission to investigate what happened on January 6th, and this is something that Liz Cheney has been extraordinarily focused on. And I – to touch on what you and Manu were just discussing, the question that I had for Cheney was not necessarily what she was going to do to put herself in the Oval Office, but rather how far she was going to be willing to go to keep former President Trump out of office.
They are not actually necessarily the same thing. That doesn’t mean that her running for president isn’t necessarily part of whatever solution she finds, but I do think it’s an important distinction. And one of the things that I think has been kind of behind the scenes in this conversation about Cheney and her leadership role is what’s going to happen with this January 6th commission. We know that Cheney did an interview with ABC News that’s set to air in full on Sunday where she said that she expects the Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy potentially to get subpoenaed to testify during – in the course of that commission investigation.
She said certainly they’d want to talk to him. Perhaps he would do it voluntarily. And there are some questions about what transpired when he called the former president – who, of course, was then in the Oval Office on January 6th – and said to him, please call off your people, they’ve invaded the Capitol. And of course, McCarthy has really changed how he has approached the narrative of January 6th in the intervening months – weeks and months. It didn’t actually take very long. But that’s something that Cheney is very focused on, and I think it’s something that clearly many Republicans are nervous about this commission. Even though they actually – they got some concessions. It’s going to be evenly split. And while they’ll have subpoena power, Republicans will effectively be able to veto subpoenas if they want to.
MS. ALCINDOR: Related to that, Kevin McCarthy was at the White House, Eugene, and he said no one’s questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election. (Laughter.) Of course, we know that that’s not true. The president – former President Trump is doing that every single day. Talk to me a little bit about how the White House contends – deals with Kevin McCarthy and the Republicans as they say things like that.
MR. DANIELS: Yeah, something about this White House that I found really surprising is their ability to squarely focus on the end result, right? Like, they are – they put the blinders on, and they want to go straight to exactly what they want to do. We saw that with COVID-19. Anytime we tried to ask them about anything else they weren’t willing to get off message. And they’re doing that exact same thing now. You saw an interview with President Biden talking about this exact same thing. He was asked by Lawrence O’Donnell, how do you engage with people don’t think that you’re a legitimate president, and he said I believe everyone is – no one’s above redemption, and most importantly that he has to do this job. And so I think that is actually how they are seeing this.
You talk to people behind the scenes at the White House and they don’t engage in kind of – you know, they know that when someone gets in the Oval Office it’s a completely different conversation. There’s no cameras. There’s no reason to, you know, to peacock – (laughs) – and talk about the things that you would talk about if you’re on cable news. But at the same time, you have McCarthy sending out an email right after saying that – you know, calling the president names. And so it is going to make it a little bit difficult. And it’s hard for this White House, I think, to understand how – when Republicans are coming in a good-faith effort. And so they really want to get this bipartisan deal done on infrastructure. How they do that when people don’t think that he’s the president – he doesn’t need that many people to believe that he is to get the job done, but it is does make things a lot more difficult.
MS. ALCINDOR: Susan, I want to bring you in here. One thing that also happened this week was that Marjorie Taylor Greene was literally accused of harassing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What does that tell you about how tensions are right now? And talk to me a little bit, of course, about Nancy Pelosi and how she’s handling all this – her priorities?
MS. PAGE: You know, I think Pelosi was – I interviewed her a couple weeks ago. She was pessimistic that this commission – this 9/11-style commission was ever going to get approved. She had a backup plan to name a select committee which she could do, like the Benghazi committee, but clearly preferred the kind of gravitas and authority that this bigger bipartisan 9/11-style commission would have. I think it’s a surprise that they got there. And it’s not totally done yet, right? McCarthy hasn’t signed off on it. We know it’ll get through the House regardless.
We don’t know what will happen necessarily in the Senate. But it looks like it’s well on its way. And it’s one of several things where I think the White House’s ability to focus on the priorities that they have and not the priorities everybody else has are paying off. You see that – you know, the gas – the gas lines. They had to deal with it, but as little as possible. The situation in the Middle East, they had to deal with it, but as little as possible. They are focused on the pandemic, on the economy, maybe on China, and that is it.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, well, you mentioned the gas lines, and I want to turn to that because it is another important story. The Colonial Pipeline, which supplies gas from Texas to New Jersey, was paralyzed by a ransomware attack. This week that led to panic buying and empty gas pumps. Gas is now flowing through the pipeline again, but only after the company paid nearly $5 million to hackers, according to reports. This raises serious questions about American infrastructure and cyberattacks. Here’s President Biden on Thursday.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This event is providing an urgent reminder of why we need to harden our infrastructure and make it more resilient against all threats – natural and manmade. It’s clearer than ever that doing nothing is not an option.
MS. ALCINDOR: Biden met with a number of Republicans to try to get a deal. Kasie, I want to come to you. I want to start and ask, is this a wakeup call? Could this be a wakeup call, this hack, to President Biden and lawmakers on infrastructure? Could it make reaching a deal more likely?
MS. HUNT: Well, Yamiche, I think that it perhaps makes it more likely that any deal would contain things that are focused on this particular problem. I also think this is something that is going to be addressed likely in a bipartisan fashion, potentially in committees that reach into the national security realm and not just those that you would typically think of in terms of a bipartisan infrastructure package that’s focused on domestic needs. I think Susan’s right to point out that the administration, I think, has been very focused on this behind-the-scenes, very concerned about it, but in public has been working to present a vision of calm, of steadfastness, of trying to take on the problem, of trying not to alarm people. Clearly the panic buying shows that some people were alarmed anyway, but that was their approach.
But on the Hill when I talk to people who are decision makers, especially members of the intelligence committees on both sides of the Hill, they’re very worried about this. And while it seems like this was a private-sector attack, there are obviously opportunities for state-based actors to take advantage of some of those opportunities. So I would expect that this is going to be something that’s going to be addressed in a multitude of ways and that actually will probably escape a lot of the partisan fighting that we see typically on these more political issues, simply because I do think there’s a sense of urgency across the board in Congress.
MS. ALCINDOR: Manu, I want to come to you. Kasie’s saying there’s a sense of urgency. What are you hearing about whether or not a sort of deal on infrastructure is possible, and are there ways that maybe Democrats go it alone on other bills?
MR. RAJU: Yeah, I think that there’s a possibility that they could get a bipartisan deal, and I’m one who’s usually incredibly pessimistic about getting any bipartisan deal. Having covered the Hill as long as I have you often see those bipartisan efforts fail, and this one very well could fail as well, but at the moment both sides are signaling that there’s serious interest in getting a deal. The White House, the Democrats – the Democrats essentially realize that in the Senate they do not have all their ducks in a row, they cannot get a big, massive package that liberals want through the Senate because simply they do not have the unity to do that. And it’s not just Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, who has concerns, but other Democrats do as well, to go as broad and as sweeping, so they need to find a bipartisan consensus. So there is serious discussion about something in the range of $800 billion. There are still so many questions they do have to sort through, including exactly how to pay for it, Republicans drawing a red line about raising taxes through the 2017 tax law such as the corporate tax or capital gains tax, and Democrats have to agree to whether or not they could go for the types of user fees that the Republicans have proposed. They are not anywhere near yet. That has – that has sunk infrastructure packages in the past. But what they are talking about doing, Democrats are moving, say, $800 billion or so along bipartisan lines and then try to move the rest of the package along partisan lines through the budget process that allows them to escape a filibuster in the Senate. But so many details to sort through and they got to get their ducks in a row, and they’re just not there yet.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s one way to put it, their ducks in a row. There is, of course, a lot to sort through. Eugene, talk to me a little bit about how President Biden is approaching this. There was an interesting story about how he has a folksy outer kind of demeanor but also has a short temper, is really focused.
MR. DANIELS: No, that’s exactly right. (Laughs.) I mean, he’s been doing this for a very long time – 36 years in the Senate, eight years kind of doing the congressional outreach as vice president – so he knows how to do this. He knows how to twist arms. And I think he needs to say that I got a bipartisan deal done. They know that, and so I think they’re willing to concede on some of the things that other Democrats may not want them to, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to see because if you look at the things that he’s talked about that are hard infrastructure that’s kind of along the lines of the billions of dollars that Republicans are willing to spend and so they’re not as far away, I think, as it may seem at this point.
MS. ALCINDOR: Susan, what – how is President Biden’s decades of experience in government really impacting how he’s approaching this?
MS. PAGE: Well, he has personal relationships with a whole lot of people; that’s generally helpful. He also has kind of a mature attitude about it, too, so he’s willing to ignore people who say you weren’t legitimately elected if he can still strike a deal with them. I agree with Manu, the safe bet is always that a compromise will not happen, but it’s been interesting to see people using muscles that no one’s used for a couple years. You see it on criminal justice reform and you see it on attacking – dealing with military sexual assaults and you see it on this infrastructure bill. It’s interesting that they are still talking. It is still conceivable that they would reach an $800 billion bill. Who would have bet on that six months ago?
MS. ALCINDOR: And before we go, the United Nations warned of a possible full-scale war. This week violence between Israel and the Palestinian militia group Hamas hit a new high. Susan, I want to come to you. When it comes to this conflict, what do you think is motivating the Biden administration’s strategy here, and has it shifted from the way that past presidents have handled this issue?
MS. PAGE: Yes, I mean, I think very different from President Trump, who was invested in the Middle East, thought he could bring peace to the Middle East. Biden does not suffer from that illusion. He would describe it, I think, if he was being candid in a solution, not something that’s realistic. On the other hand, the U.S. has a role in the – in the Middle East that is undeniable. The United States is being sucked into this terrible conflict that we see between the Israelis and the Palestinians, not the fight that Biden would like to be having.
MS. ALCINDOR: Kasie, in the last 30 seconds here, what’s – how is this – these conflicts being seen on Capitol Hill?
MS. HUNT: Well, I think that there is a lot of nervousness, Yamiche, particularly because this conflict seems to have come inside Israeli borders and involved Arab Israeli citizens, and that’s some of the violence that you’re seeing in the streets of Israel, and that is something that I think has a lot of people on edge, especially those who’ve always in Congress been staunch supporters of Israel, just because that is something that has the potential to be particularly incendiary, Yamiche.
MS. ALCINDOR: Eugene, again, only have 10 seconds here, but I just want to bring you in on this Middle East issue and how Biden’s handling it.
MR. DANIELS: Yeah, I think the way that he’s looking at it is exactly what Susan was saying. He really would rather focus on China, rather focus on Russia, and he’s also in a position that no other president in a very long time has been in that members of his party are willing to speak out in favor of Palestinians in a way that I don’t think they’ve seen. So that puts him in a more sticky position than other presidents when dealing with this issue.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, that’s a lot to discuss. We’re going to have to leave it there. Many thanks to Kasie, Manu, Eugene, and Susan for their insights. This was a busy, busy news week, and I’m so excited to have all of you here. And thank you, of course, for joining us. Make sure you join us for our Washington Week Extra; we’ll talk more about the Middle East then. Catch it live at 8:30 p.m. on YouTube, Facebook, and on our website.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.