GWEN IFILL: Violence, hatred, terrorism, guns: a return to the same conversation we had this time last year. But this time it’s Orlando instead of Charleston. Tonight, on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) I held and hugged grieving family members and parents, and they asked why does this keep happening?
MS. IFILL: It took no time at all for another unspeakable tragedy to morph into a familiar, protracted political debate.
SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): (From video.) The failure of this body to do anything – anything at all – in the face of that continued slaughter isn’t just painful. It’s unconscionable.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) This is not a gun control issue. This is a terrorism issue.
MS. IFILL: And, of course, Trump versus Clinton.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Aside from abolishing the Second Amendment, Hillary Clinton is going to raise your taxes big league.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Trump, as usual, is obsessed with name calling. From my perspective, it matters what we do, not just what we say.
MS. IFILL: We examine the options, as well as more Republican worry about the durability of their candidate.
Joining me to sort through another complex week, Robert Costa, national political reporter for The Washington Post; Christi Parsons, White House correspondent for Tribune Newspapers; Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC News; and Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Schools, dance clubs, church Bible studies, office buildings, military bases. We have come to you on many Friday nights to talk about mass shootings and the political debate that always follows. Here’s a taste of this week’s, from Congress, where Democrats claimed the Senate Floor to talk gun control, which Republicans mostly rejected.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): (From video.) We can’t just wait. We have to make something happen. Change does not come from Washington, it comes to Washington by people demanding it happens.
SENATOR MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) It’s hard to think of a clearer contrast between serious work for solutions on the one hand and endless partisan campaigning on the other.
MS. IFILL: The president weighed in as well.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) And if we don’t act, we will keep seeing more massacres like this, because we’ll be choosing to allow them to happen. We will have said we don’t care enough to do something about it.
MS. IFILL: We’ll talk in a moment about the differing definitions of “doing something about it.” But first, Pete, let’s start with what we know tonight about the investigation.
PETE WILLIAMS: We know a lot more about Omar Mateen, the man who authorities say did this shooting, but we still don’t know the big question of why. We know that his parents were from Afghanistan. He was born in New York, moved to Florida when he was five. And from the beginning of his time in school, he was trouble. His teachers said he was trouble in the classroom. He picked fights with other students. Actually was charged with a crime at one point, that was eventually expunged. He had trouble holding jobs. His co-workers said he was a hothead, that he insulted women and Jews. At one point, he got in trouble with the FBI because he told co-workers where he was working as a security guard that he was in Hezbollah, had relatives who were in al-Qaida, and had people who knew the Boston Marathon bombers. The FBI opened a 10-month investigation and concluded at the end that he was just making it up, and he eventually told the FBI that he did it because he thought he was being discriminated against because he was a Muslim.
MS. IFILL: Does the FBI feel at all that he slipped through their hands?
MR. WILLIAMS: At this point they don’t, and here’s why. They said that – and really, it gets down to the question of what the FBI can do is look at what you did; what they can’t do is try to figure out what you’re going to do, even though that’s obviously what they’re trying to do with any investigation. But during that 10-month period, from basically the middle of 2013 through early 2014, they monitored his calls, they talked to his co-workers and family members, they put in undercover people to have conversations with him, they looked in all the databases, they looked at all the records, and eventually concluded that he did make it up, and that’s what he told them. Now, just two months later there were questions about whether, in his mosque, he had been having contact with a man from that area, from Fort Pierce, who eventually went to Syria, came back again, tried to recruit people to join him, and then finally went back to Syria again and became a suicide bomber. But they determined that their contact was very casual. So that was the total contact of the FBI. And the FBI director said this week that he’s looked back at that; he doesn’t think they could have done anything different.
MS. IFILL: Christi, one of the things the president said when he first came out about this was that this was an act of terror and an act of hate. The response to that is, but there’s nothing that this man did that would have been able to be stopped.
CHRISTI PARSONS: Right, and I think that that’s – the president over time has gotten good at noticing that those phrases are important, and he wants to use them early on, and he did manage to do that. But he also has learned that it’s a good idea to wait and not leap to conclusions about what happened. And I think that was – that was on display on that first day. It turned out to be a very emotional week for him. But he and his speechwriting staff have learned to hit those marks.
MS. IFILL: Except they go right to guns all the time, and that doesn’t change.
MS. PARSONS: That’s true, and that’s very much the president driving that. I really think we saw him turn an important corner this week. He often goes back to guns. He doesn’t go so quickly to politics, as he did this week. But I think we’re looking at a president who’s now done this so many times he doesn’t see any point in pulling that punch. And he’s also reached the conclusion that other people are going to make political statements, Donald Trump in particular, and he wants to answer them quickly.
MS. IFILL: Before we get to talk about the politics, I want to hear from the voices of two people, one the son of – I believe it’s the son of a San Bernardino victim, a daughter of the San Bernardino victim, and the other the daughter of a Charleston victim.
TINA MEINS (daughter of San Bernardino victim): (From video.) I wish I could say I’m surprised that we’re here again, but sadly I’m not.
REV. SHARON RISHER (daughter of Charleston victim): (From video.) The hate becomes deadly when we make it far too easy for those intent on causing harm to get their hands on a gun.
MS. IFILL: Now, this turn to guns, we saw what happened on the House Floor – the Senate Floor this week, and we’ve seen it happen before, this discussion. But it feels like it’s only – and even Donald Trump talking about he’s going to go talk to the NRA, everything still felt very marginal by the end of the week, the movement.
JEFF ZELENY: It did, and I think because it’s become so familiar. I mean, every victim, every victim’s family member has their story, like we just heard. But, boy, how similar is that to the family of the Newtown victims in 2013? I remember being on Capitol Hill watching these parents and siblings walk from office to office to office, lobbying senators, and people really thought something would happen. Democrats controlled the Senate then, and nothing happened. So it’s – you know, it’s – perhaps that’s why the skepticism is out there about what’s going to happen now. Now, there are four bills the Senate will be voting on on Monday. They’re basically all recycled proposals, and none of them are going to pass. There’s a 60-vote margin, of course, threshold to get through any of this. It’s, you know, expanding background checks, of course; making sure that people on watch lists would not be able to buy guns. But the reality is there is nothing that is going to happen legislatively here for this. I think that it felt to me on the Hill this week such a familiar exercise, where we sort of know the end of this.
Now, the politics, though, are different on guns than they used to be in the Democratic Party, at least. It is no longer the third rail that it was, you know, certainly eight years ago, and certainly when Bill Clinton was running for president. So I do think when we hear Hillary Clinton – I was out there this week in Cleveland – boy, she goes directly to that as well. And the politics of that are – she’s secure with that because people are – and we’re seeing people like Stanley McChrystal, for example, the retired general, writing an op-ed in The New York Times saying these weapons of war do not belong on the streets like this. So I think it is incrementally changing.
One thing that’s not mentioned, the manufacturers of these things. It’s always the NRA, but never the manufacturers. So I think – I sort of look for that in the future, you know, in terms of where the money is, the donations, et cetera.
MS. IFILL: But it’s not just a – it’s not a party-line issue anymore, it doesn’t seem to me. Am I right about that?
ROBERT COSTA: It’s not. I think there has been a little bit of movement on gun control. I think Jeff’s right. On Monday there are going to be four measures that come up as amendments, and they’re all doomed to fail. They’re not going to get 60 votes. But I was on Capitol Hill, and talking to allies of Republican leadership, you get the sense that Susan Collins of Maine and others are going to continue to work on this one specific front, this no-fly list, this terror watch list. And that seems to be an area where Republicans have some more wiggle room than they may have had in 2013. You have someone like Donald Trump tweeting he wants to talk to the NRA about looking at that no-fly list. And it seems like even after Monday, Collins and others are trying to pursue this. And because you look at a lot of these Republicans – Mark Kirk of Illinois, Toomey in Pennsylvania, Ayotte in New Hampshire – they’re all facing difficult reelection races. And especially you look at Toomey in 2013, one of the reasons he’s still competitive in Pennsylvania is because he led that background check list. Background checks – universal background checks, Democrats want to see that, and we’ve seen some legislation come up, that’s unlikely. But I just wonder if this no-fly list, that could be an area of compromise.
MS. IFILL: That’s something they can agree on.
I want to ask you one other thing about the investigation Pete, just some definitional issues for us. Lone wolf – how do you stop a lone wolf? Hate crime, what is – what defines a hate crime? Terrorism, when do you use that word in a legal sense?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, terrorism, there is a definition, actually, in the law. It’s when you commit an act of violence in order to try to change some policy of the government. But I think the view is, whenever somebody commits mass murder, it’s by definition an act of terrorism. As a legal matter, it puts the FBI in charge of the investigation. It does seem to be a lone-wolf attack from everything the FBI’s told us so far. Doesn’t seem to be anyone acting in concert with him. He was not, certainly, as far as they can tell, directed by outside forces. This is not an al-Qaida operation or an ISIS operation in which he was told what to do. But this is – again, I mean, this is complicated because there is this sort of witch’s brew of terror groups that he has talked about in the past, some of which are mutually contradictory in terms of their ideologies – they hate each other. But he has at one time or another seemed to embrace them all. And then there’s this –
MS. IFILL: But would this – yeah, would it have been a hate crime if it had not been a gay club?
MR. WILLIAMS: Possibly not. Possibly not. But it does seem to have been – he does seem to have targeted that. But here’s an odd thing: there’s nothing that they found so far in exploiting his electronic communications, his cellphones, that tells them why – why did he target that? Now, as you know, there have been these suggestions that he was struggling with his own sexual identity. Young people have said – from his past have said that, you know, there were times he asked men out on dates. Many people in Orlando say they remember seeing him in that club months before.
MS. IFILL: OK, I just – I just want to go on because we have so much to cover tonight, because it’s impossible, of course, to separate the weekend tragedy from the choice that American voters have to make in November. Republican Donald Trump managed to square off against both Democrats and members of his own party.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) One after another, we have tragedy after tragedy, and it’s a tough – it’s a tough situation. But he’s largely – to a large extent, he’s blaming guns, and – (boos) – and I’m going to save your Second Amendment. Our leaders have to get a lot tougher. And be quiet, just please be quiet. Don’t talk, please be quiet. We have to have Republicans either stick together or let me just do it by myself. I’ll do very well.
MS. IFILL: House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has endorsed Trump, was forced to respond.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) You can’t make this up sometimes. I’ll just say we represent a separate but equal branch of government.
MS. IFILL: Hillary Clinton remained focused on Trump, including his renewed call for a ban on Muslims entering the country.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) The terrorist in Orlando was not born in Afghanistan, as Trump claims. He was born in Queens, New York, only miles away from where Donald Trump himself was born. A ban on Muslims would not have stopped this attack. Neither would a wall. I don’t know how one builds a wall to keep the internet out.
MS. IFILL: So is doubling down on pushing at each other like this the new strategy for both of them, Robert?
MR. COSTA: Trump certainly shows no sign of changing. And he is getting advice from party officials and party leaders to calm his tone and to be a little more appealing and –
MS. IFILL: I can see that’s working. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: It’s not working at all. In fact, I’ve spoken to some senators and congressmen who have reached out to Trump, and they say he’ll often nod and he’ll say he’s listening, but when it comes to going on stage or making statements he goes his own way. I think this is what – the problem Republicans are facing. This is a nominee who is really not listening to the speaker of the House or the leader of the Senate, and he really believes in his core, based on conversations with his advisers, that he’s going to run on this new kind of populism, and that can overwhelm whatever kind of attack comes his way.
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s what puzzles me about that, and it’s – we see it in every interview that any Trump spokesman gives, which is they think that what happened in the primary is what can happen in the general election. You know, things keep happening we didn’t see happen before, but it does make me wonder if that’s realistic.
MR. ZELENY: Well, A, the electorate is totally different in a general election. To me, it still seems like he is still playing to that Republican primary electorate. And, yes, it’s true, he won 14 million votes in the primary, more than all 16 other candidates he was running against, but this a new day and the electorate is made up of more than Republicans here. But what I was struck by so much this week, we saw, I think for the first time really, a crystalizing of the job interview that a presidential campaign is, the commander in chief test really in real time of how you, A, respond to a crisis like this. And yes, we have social media now, campaigns are different, but a lot of Republicans were so turned off by what Donald Trump, their nominee, did initially – I think Monday morning in a tweet basically thanking me for the – or thanking people for the congratulations of saying I was right about ISIS – and they thought it was just the wrong tone here. But I really thought – I was in Cleveland with Hillary Clinton on Monday. She was intending to sort of launch her general election campaign with music and signs and banners, and it was a very somber speech. But I think we are seeing a commander in chief test here. That’s why Republican leaders are so worried, that they don’t think he is passing it or up to that task.
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s what’s curious to me – and I – and I want you to get in on this, Christi – which is, how is it that the Democrats, who Will Rogers once said were the famously disorganized party, seem to have their words intact, they’re marching lockstep? You hear the president use the same phrases that Hillary Clinton uses, except she uses Donald Trump’s name and he doesn’t.
MS. PARSONS: Oh, yes, that’s absolutely right. They were planning to do – to launch Hillary’s campaign, or the president’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton this week, with an appearance in Wisconsin. They canceled that, of course, after Orlando. But it still turned out to be a very campaign-focused week in my mind. I think this incident went straight to the question that you raised. It’s the one the president most wants to address in real time, which is, is your nominee up to serving as president? And this week he saw an opportunity to point out no, he’s not.
MR. COSTA: Trump presents a complicated figure because his hardline rhetoric on the Muslim ban, it’s a turnoff to a lot of mainstream voters, independents, and many Republicans. But also you heard in his Orlando speech overtures to the LGBT community, and he spoke about gay rights and gay people in a way that some Republicans and conservative Republicans don’t speak in that same language. And so Trump presents this figure who has a Manhattan sensibility on some social issues, but he has this Queens tough guy demeanor that rallies the base.
MR. ZELENY: But on the Muslim issue, though, you can’t help but wonder why some Republicans are anxious about this. It is so different than on September 11th – just six days after the attacks, when President Bush went to the Islamic Center here in Washington and said the face of terror is not the face of – the faith of Islam. I mean, this just does not even seem like the same party here in terms of how he was talking about Muslims and others.
MS. IFILL: And aren’t we hearing a George W. Bush comeback now on the campaign trail?
MR. ZELENY: Not for Donald Trump, though. To try and rescue or salvage the Senate majority, he will be out campaigning with Republican senators – John McCain, of all things, his onetime rival and foe. But he has said he’s not going to support Donald Trump. That’s extraordinary enough in and of itself, but –
MS. IFILL: So commander in chief test. Robert, I know that you work for The Washington Post, and therefore you’ve been banned from covering Donald Trump. (Laughter.) And it’s impossible for you to find out what’s going on inside that campaign because, of course, why would you know how to do that? But here’s the thing: Are they concerned in any real way about a commander in chief test, or are they just going to barrel on through? I mean, it seems – I don’t get a lot of concern or backing down, at least from him.
MR. COSTA: On the Muslim ban, there’s not really a concern within his inner circle. But what was the most telling episode recently was with Judge Curiel, and there were people inside of Trump’s orbit who were saying pull back, stop using this aggressive stance on these kind of issues. The people around Trump don’t often say no to Trump, and they’re encouraging of him, and they’re not the kind of people who are telling him to pull back.
MR. WILLIAMS: You know, the FBI director was actually asked this week about the Muslim ban issue, and he said how damaging it is because one of the most important things, the FBI has found, in discovering potential terrorists is when people in the Muslim community speak up. And if they fear the government or if they are afraid of that kind of rhetoric, that makes it much harder for them to do their jobs.
MS. IFILL: But does someone like the FBI director believe that this is anything more than political rhetoric?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, it’s not anything that he would ever say. And you know, you don’t hear a lot in the law enforcement community about whether to call it “radical Islam” or not.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about that. So the president came out this week and he – punching on this idea of why would I have to use this phrase; do you mean terrorism doesn’t exist if I don’t use this phrase.
MS. PARSONS: Right, and he’s been listening to that for a long time. That’s not a new critique, but it is –
MS. IFILL: This is, by the way, the argument that Republicans have been making, including the Ted Cruzes of the world, that if he doesn’t say “radical Islam” he’s not taking the threat seriously.
MS. PARSONS: Right, exactly. And he did something a little bit different this week. He came out and said –
MS. IFILL: Hillary Clinton too, I should say.
MS. PARSONS: Right, well, and she took care to say I’ll say that phrase if you want me to say it, here it is. But the president did something he hasn’t done so clearly in the past, which is to say I don’t use that phrase, and here is why: I’m thinking about I don’t want to play into the hands of terrorist groups that want people to feel that there’s a war between –
MS. IFILL: And alienate allies.
MS. PARSONS: Alienate potential allies, and –
MR. WILLIAMS: What they’re really saying is that this has nothing to do with Islam, this is just some crazy offshoot of it.
MS. PARSONS: Right, but the thing that really fired the president up this week, I think it was – I think that was one thing, and the other thing was when Donald Trump came out and said, you know, why hasn’t the president been able to stop these attacks? Is he really trying his hardest? And the phrase “something’s going on here” was –
MR. ZELENY: And he doubled down on that. I mean, he said it initially in an interview with Fox and Friends, I believe, and then he did a radio interview later on that day – on Monday I believe this was –
MS. IFILL: Said it again, at least three times.
MR. ZELENY: You know, really was suggesting that the president is almost complicit in this. Of course, this is the same guy who’s been questioning his heritage and his citizenship for years. But when you saw the president in the Treasury Department on Tuesday saying that, boy – I mean, that was – this is personal to him. Not just because it’s his legacy, but this is the guy who’s been questioning him. I’ve never – I’m not sure I’ve seen Barack Obama look exactly like that in that moment. I thought it was a fascinating speech.
MR. COSTA: Because Trump is so raw in what he’s saying. There’s no nuance. There’s not even a lot of nodding. I’ve spoken to him about this, other reporters have. When he talks about Islam, it’s not just the radical version in his mind. He speaks broadly about the religion in fearful terms, in suspicious terms. And the people he is associated with publicly – Edward Klein, Roger Stone, radio broadcaster Alex Jones – these are people who traffic in conspiracy theory, and he has surrounded himself at times with these people. And so the idea that we’re surprised by Trump’s and his questioning of the president, where he openly says I’m not sure what’s going on, no one really knows what means.
MS. IFILL: Actually, that phrase “I am not sure,” “some people say” is what he says, and that’s his cover for saying “I didn’t say it.” And it happens in his tweets, it happens in his speeches. It’s kind of remarkable.
MS. PARSONS: And that’s – I think that that might not have been planned out in a meeting, but it was definitely a strategic thing, a strategic move on Trump’s part this week because –
MS. IFILL: To get under the president’s skin?
MS. PARSONS: To get under the president’s skin. And for the next few months, you’re going to hear him asking people, reminding people over and over again who will keep you safe, this brash tough-talking guy or her.
MS. IFILL: And it’s also who he is, that’s true. But the who will keep you safe issue always is a big one in a campaign.
So thank you all very much. This has been a very interesting, very stressful week for all of us and all of you – (faces camera) – and all of you, so we really appreciate your coming out tonight. That’s it for right here, right now, but stick around for the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we’ll talk some more about politics and about Bernie Sanders, the candidate who won’t drop out. While you’re there, see how smart you are: take the Washington Week News Quiz. I came in – I won’t tell you where I came in. (Laughter.) Wasn’t as good as it should have been. You can find all that later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the NewsHour, and I will see you right here around the table next week on Washington Week. And to everyone out there lucky enough to have the title “dad,” we wish you a happy Father’s Day. Good night.