LISA DESJARDINS: Congress on edge as it braces for another impeachment trial. The nation pays its respects to a fallen officer at the Capitol, a place that is days away from an impeachment trial and on edge.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Staff, senators, and House members and House staff alike still live through this every single day – every single day.
MS. DESJARDINS: What’s the Democrats’ case? What’s Trump’s defense? Will the Republican Party survive its own civil war?
REPRESENTATIVE MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-GA): (From video.) The party is his. It doesn’t belong to anybody else.
MS. DESJARDINS: Plus, what’s next in the COVID fight?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We can’t do too much here. We can do too little.
MS. DESJARDINS: And has Biden’s going big ended hopes for unity?
SENATOR MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): (From video.) I would predict that not a single Republican will support the $1.9 trillion plan.
MS. DESJARDINS: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. DESJARDINS: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Lisa Desjardins.
Thirty days ago insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. This week the building was a place of mourning and honor for Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who was killed in the raid. Members of Congress I’ve spoken with are still raw about the riot, and that state of personal crisis is steering big political decisions right now. Republican leaders are desperate to unify their party. House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to keep Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump, in her job as their number-three leader; and Republicans backed Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, under fire for false and incendiary remarks she said in the past. Greene said this week that she’s a different woman now but 11 Republicans and hundreds of Democrats didn’t buy it, voting to strip her of committee assignments Thursday – a Republican divide with some trying to make room for Greene.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) The voters – the voters – no, the voters decided she could come and serve.
MS. DESJARDINS: And others now pushing to reject President Trump.
SENATOR BEN SASSE (R-NE): (From video.) What Americans saw three weeks ago was ugly, shameful mob violence to disrupt a constitutionally mandated meeting of the Congress to affirm that peaceful transfer of power. It happened because the president lied to you.
MS. DESJARDINS: Joining us tonight for this 2021 roller-coaster ride are four reporters covering all things Washington: Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Alexi McCammond, political reporter for Axios; Jake Sherman, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter; and Sabrina Siddiqui, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you all so much for joining us.
Jake, let’s get right to it. Let’s start with you. I see you in the halls of the Capitol talking to the Republican lawmakers all the time. Take us into their mindset right now. How are the events of January 6th affecting them personally, and how did that affect their actions this week?
JAKE SHERMAN: Thank you, Lisa. Great to be with you. A few things: everything changed after January 6th. There’s no question about that, no doubts about that in the Capitol. I think both parties are trying to find a new normal, and I think Republicans have gone through a tumultuous civil war in the last couple days in which they were trying to, as you mentioned, knock off the number-three leader in the House Republican Conference, they had – Liz Cheney. They were trying to grapple with Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has made a – had a history of very, very offensive, racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and conspiracy-laced charges. And on the Democratic side, they’re living with a Republican Party that they see as being guilty – and rightfully so, in some sense – that they see as being guilty and responsible for the violence January 6th, if not directly. No one’s saying that they directly were responsible for the violence, but these were supporters of theirs and Donald Trump who came and sacked the Capitol, and I had one Democratic lawmaker saying to me every time we see some of these lawmakers, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, we think of that day. And Lisa, you know this and we all are up in the Capitol all the time; I think everyone is going through some sort of PTSD from that day, which was deeply troubling for all of us – for staff, for reporters, for members, and for aides – and I think that’s very, very acute with members of Congress.
MS. DESJARDINS: Sabrina, I want to ask you the view from the White House, which is now really a place of relative calm in Washington as President Biden gets started. How do they look at this sort of GOP turmoil? Is that something that Democrats think they can take advantage of, or counterintuitively is it too much turmoil – is it a problem for the Biden White House?
SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Well, I think that the approach so far that we’ve seen from the White House is to really stay out of the civil war that continues to unfold within the Republican Party. They don’t really see a political upside in really getting into whether or not there should be people who are held accountable for the events of January 6th. Instead, they’ve invested their political capital on negotiations over a coronavirus relief package and pointed out that President Biden has taken office against the backdrop of a pandemic as well as an economic recession, and so that’s where his focus is. There have been multiple occasions in the White House briefing room where Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been asked, for example, about Marjorie Taylor Greene, and her response has been we’re not going to comment on any one lawmaker and they don’t want to elevate conspiracy theories from the White House podium or really give her much of a platform, so that has really been the approach and I think it really is borne out of what President Biden said he would do, which is focus more on extending, you know, in a – bipartisanship and trying to work with Republicans to pass some kind of coronavirus relief package, not really get involved in the politics of what the future of the Republican Party looks like since President – former President Trump left office.
MS. DESJARDINS: Alexi, I want to talk to you about progressive Democrats, who have waited for this moment, right, to be in power in the White House and in Congress, but there is so much emotion there for progressives. Do you – can you talk to me about how progressives are weighing this emotion and fundraising off of things like Marjorie Taylor Greene, along with trying to pragmatically get some agenda through? What is the mindset right now for the – for the left part of the Democratic Party?
ALEXI MCCAMMOND: Well, of course, the most obvious example this week was Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had a really emotional, raw, and harrowing account on her Instagram live earlier this week about her personal experience during the insurrection on January 6th. You saw something similar from her colleague and member of the so-called squad, a progressive, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who, you know, got really emotional when she was speaking about this on the House floor. You saw Congressman Steny Hoyer bring up that photo from Facebook of Marjorie Taylor Greene holding a gun that was photoshopped next to other members of the so-called squad to really show that these progressive members of the party have been targeted by these folks, these insurrectionists, and are really feeling uncomfortable in this moment. Freshman member Congresswoman Cori Bush, she moved her office, which was close to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s, earlier this week because she felt uncomfortable after an altercation that they had in the hallways earlier this week, so we see how they’re really speaking out and sharing these raw accounts of what’s been happening. And at the same time, as you mentioned, Lisa, they’ve been working really hard trying to be collective, especially the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as a voting bloc to push Pelosi, Schumer, and President Biden on certain things that they consider non-negotiables for the COVID package. They don’t want to see the number lower than $1.9 trillion. They’ve been lobbying inside and outside for a $15 minimum wage to be included. Yesterday Congressman Pramila Jayapal said that when she got wind that that might not be included in the package she called the White House and said, hey, could you have President Biden tweet from the POTUS account in support of including a $15 minimum wage. But as we might learn very soon, Lisa, a tweet might not necessarily mean it’s going to be policy. A $15 minimum wage, although progressives are lobbying, might not end up in the eventual package.
MS. DESJARDINS: That alone is a big change from the Trump administration. We’re going to come back to the COVID relief package. That’s a very important topic. Jonathan Martin, I know you were on Capitol Hill today. I missed you – we were on different sides of the Capitol – but I think you can get the theme I’m getting at here, the emotion at the U.S. Capitol after January 6th. Can you help us understand? Let’s kind of get away from the Washington – all the Washington stuff. What does this mean for regular Americans and what does this mean for our government, do you think, for the next few years? Is this going to be – is this where we’re going to be for a long time?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, I can’t recall a moment in our country’s recent history when politics was this poisonous, and by that I mean when there was a kind of level of contempt and disdain between the two parties, that they don’t just view the other as the opposition. In a lot of cases they view the other as something even worse than an adversary – short of an enemy, but not far from it. And I think we see that increasingly in communities and states. Politics has gotten so darn polarized. And obviously, that’s reflected with people, lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals. You just don’t have the kind of friendly relationships – across the aisle relationships anymore.
And especially with a sort of newer generation of members coming in, who were sort of much more attuned to the base of their party. And, frankly, Lisa, the incentive structure is now different for them. You know, you talk about Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, who was stripped of her committees. That didn’t stop her from having a press conference today with lots of cameras. And I think she was plenty happy to have the cameras there, probably more so about that than she was disappointed to lose her committees.
MS. DESJARDINS: I was at that press conference and she definitely seemed to be in full energy, full gusto, enjoying that spotlight right there. I want to talk a little bit more, beyond the lawmakers, about what’s driving all of this and what’s happening to Americans also. Jake, you know, I don’t know if you remember the last time I saw you was January 6th. You and I were among maybe two or three, four people who were standing there watching together the rioters break through that front door of the U.S. Capitol in that extraordinary moment. And I want to ask you about this other layer, which is: What did you make of who the rioters were, and what was driving them?
MR. SHERMAN: It’s a good question. I think in the moment none of us – I mean, we all knew that they were coming from the White House – from the rally at the White House. And what’s driving them? They – you know, Jonathan and I were talking about this today. I mean, this is politics as almost a cult, right? I mean, this – if not a cult, certainly a cult of personality around the president. And the president led his supporters to believe that there was some sort of nefarious plot to steal an election from him – an election that he clearly lost, that there’s no evidence was rigged or was any – you know, was tampered in any way – tampered with in any way.
So I think – I think that’s the main core of it, right? I mean, I think we have – there’s this group of people who listen to what the president says and, you know, were not involved in politics before him, might not be involved in politics – (laughs) – after him. And they hang on every word. And every word he said for weeks was: The vice president could overturn this. He could reverse this. And I think that’s what’s driving them. I think – and that’s why a lot of them were not wearing masks, because the president, you know, said you don’t have to wear masks for many, many months before then saying you have to wear masks.
So I think – that’s what I think was driving this. But in the moment, Lisa, I don’t think any of us – we were just making sure we weren’t going to get, you know, bowled over. But I mean, that’s what I think is the general – their general theory of the case.
MS. DESJARDINS: You know, I’ll say being up there, I did – in that moment, absolutely, it was all about let’s make sure we get to a safe place, because there weren’t any police officers right around us at that point. But later, you know, as I was out there with the rioters, it struck me there was such a strange group of some people who clearly didn’t know what they were doing, were surprised they ended up in the Capitol, others who were very focused. It was wild.
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, it was. And I think I just – sorry – I think that some of them were – I think some of them were along for the ride. But the vast majority of them walked into a building they knew they weren’t supposed to walk into in a manner they knew that they were not supposed to, you know, walk into the building. So I think they do deserve some blame for that.
MS. DESJARDINS: Oh, 100 percent, and I think that brings us to the question coming up before us next week is: How much is President Trump to blame for this? Jonathan Martin, I’m going to ask you to do something tricky. Briefly tell us about this massive, massive, and really excellent piece that you did for The New York Times, with others, on the 77 days leading up in the White House. What did you learn about the last days of President Trump and what he was doing that may have had a role leading up to this riot?
MR. MARTIN: People who knew the president well, who worked with him, in some cases in Congress in other cases literally his own staffers, Lisa, they thought that he was just doing just kind of Trumpian bluffing, that he knew he had lost the election and that he just wanted to kind of salvage his legacy the best he could and so he was doing this schtick. And I think as the days went on it became clear to them that somebody who, you know, had done kind of Trumpian bluffing before, you know, would eventually come to his senses on policy issue X.
But this case was different, and that he actually was starting to believe some of the B.S. that was being fed to him by the more, shall we say, colorful advisors who were in his ear, and that, you know, obviously by early January he clearly believed that he had won the election, that it was not just him trying to sort of look for an escape hatch to salvage his legacy, but he was actually trying to legitimately hang onto power, and that he was putting real pressure on Mike Pence to kind of do his bidding. And I think at that point people were really alarmed, both in the White House and in Congress.
MS. DESJARDINS: So we now have an impeachment trial, again. I joked to someone earlier, it’s not my first impeachment trial – which is a bizarre thing to say. Alexi, I want to ask you, just can you lay out what are the basic arguments here from both sides? From the Democrats, saying he must be convicted, and from the Republicans, from President Trump and his team, saying no?
MS. MCCAMMOND: Well, the Republican argument is pretty easy. They’re kind of nearing what President Trump – or, former President Trump and his lawyers are saying, which is that it’s unconstitutional for a former president to be tried by the Senate. Now, to be sure, many legal scholars agree that that is not the case, that a former president can be tried by the Senate. But that is what Republicans are going to argue, on top of the fact that they will say that this is a partisan exercise by Democrats, a political show as some have described it.
Democrats, of course, submitted one article of impeachment. They are trying to make the argument that former President Trump’s words directly incited the insurrection at the Capitol. They’re also going to argue that former President Trump didn’t do anything to stop the mayhem that day. And they’re going to remind folks of the violence and terror that members on both sides of the aisle experienced that day, to really kind of hold Republicans’ feet to the fire.
And that, Lisa, to me, is the big picture. Both sides, to be sure, are making an argument about the other side. But it’s really about the court of public opinion. It’s about branding the party to the American people, especially ahead of the 2022 midterms, but especially as both parties are sort of undergoing a little bit of an identity crisis and a rebranding moment under a new administration and post President Trump.
MS. DESJARDINS: From that anxiety on Capitol Hill, let’s turn to the issue causing anxiety for millions of Americans – the coronavirus. President Biden has got a dilemma. He wants to go big with the next COVID relief package, but he also wants to go bipartisan and get Republican support. This, as Democrats overnight passed what’s called budget reconciliation, which gives them the chance to push through a new COVID bill without any Republican votes. So there’s a clear contrast between the parties.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Democrats in Congress are plowing ahead. They’re using this phony budget to set the table to ram through their $1.9 trillion rough draft. So let’s hope President Biden remembers the governing approach he promised and changes course.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m going to act and I’m going to act fast. I’ve told both Republicans and Democrats that’s my preference to work together. But if I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis, that’s an easy choice. I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now.
MS. DESJARDINS: Sabrina, also late tonight in an interview with CBS News, President Biden indicated something that we heard Alexi talk about earlier, that he thinks the $15 minimum wage may not make it in this deal. Take us through what’s going on in the White House with this really first massive test of President Biden and Congress. What is the most important for him to get? And how is he going to get every Democrat to support it?
MS. SIDDIQUI: Well, I think the White House has been consistent that they believe they need to go big when it comes to this package. Now, they have, of course, proposed $1.9 trillion. And there’s been some sense that they might be flexible on the overall number. But you saw the White House reject a Republican counteroffer that was really just a fraction of what President Biden has proposed. It was roughly $618 billion. So what we don’t yet know is how much lower are they willing to go.
But the Biden administration has been very clear that they want more funding for state and local officials. That is something they say is non-negotiable. They want significant funding to help reopen schools, which is emerging as a hot-button issue across the country. They, of course, want to have significant funding for vaccine distribution, which is, of course, really at the center of how they will be able to lift the nation out of this pandemic. So it was interesting to see that President Biden signaled that perhaps there is some room for negotiation, for example, on the issue of the $15 minimum wage.
I don’t think we will see them negotiate on the question of stimulus checks, of course. That is something that they have been very clear that they believe needs to be delivered to the American people, so it’s telling that they have been willing to keep the reconciliation process on the table really from the very outset. So on the one hand they’re willing to entertain negotiations with Republicans, but at some point if there’s not going to be a deal and certainly not a number that they think is significant enough in terms of relief then they’re willing to go at it alone and pass something with a simple majority vote.
MS. DESJARDINS: Jonathan, all right, tell us how this is going to work exactly. Do we – do you think the winds now are blowing in favor of this? Because last week my Democratic sources, some who might surprise people, were skeptical about the $1.9 trillion number; they didn’t think it was justified. It feels like that’s changed. Where are we?
MR. MARTIN: I think it has. I talked to one senior House Democrat today, Lisa, who said that he believed that the price tag would actually be – ultimately, the final price tag – in the neighborhood of that $1.9 trillion figure. This lawmaker also offered me a sort of interesting nugget from today’s meeting. Of course, the president had a number of senior House Democrats in the Oval Office today, and apparently the president in that meeting cited, yes, the polling data to point out that this proposal is very popular among a broad swath of Americans, including independents and even, yes, some folks on the GOP side. So while it may not be bipartisan, necessarily, in Congress, it has support of people in both parties out in the country, and the president is very conscious of that politics.
MS. DESJARDINS: Jake, does it matter if this is entirely partisan? We talk a lot about that in Washington, but getting to Jonathan’s point here, will Biden take any hits if it ends up being totally partisan?
MR. SHERMAN: I’ve thought a lot about that, and I think the argument from Democrats that we keep hearing is that we’ve just won the House, Senate, and White House, so why do we need to wait for Republicans to come to their senses – that’s what they say, not me. So I think that is what’s driving them. And then you had Republicans come in at a third of the price tag, and so that shows in Democrats’ mind that they don’t believe Republicans are either serious or in the same universe that they’re thinking about. So if I were Democrats – and this is what Democrats keep telling me – why should we wait? Why should we wait? But I think Republicans, especially Senate Republicans, say there is a narrow window for bipartisanship, this is going to set the tone for the next two years, so let’s do this together. And remember, Lisa – you know this – the last five COVID relief bills were all bipartisan, so this has been a bipartisan issue. But there was just some hurdles that you can’t clear. Republicans are not going to go for the state and local funding that Democrats want. They’re not going to go for 1.9 trillion (dollars). Biden can’t go below 1 trillion (dollars). So I just think there’s not – the Venn diagram doesn’t really work out here.
MS. DESJARDINS: Congress is terrible at math and Venn diagrams, as you have just pointed out. (Laughter.) Alexi, can you wrap this up? We started talking about the Republican divide. Democrats, obviously, much easier to be united when you’re in power, however they last night, in the vote-a-rama, the series of votes that went till five a.m. – I only made it till four a.m. – we did see some divisions, Democrats breaking on things like fracking, even the minimum wage, undocumented immigrants. Can you talk about progressives? Are they worried that ultimately they just don’t have the unity in the party to get things they want passed, like Joe Manchin?
MS. MCCAMMOND: Look, I can’t talk to progressive Democrats without hearing Joe Manchin’s name, also Krysten Sinema’s name, sometimes even Mark Kelly’s name. They have a list of senators, Democratic senators who they know will kind of be a thorn in their sides and have the potential to pull President Biden away from them and toward this more moderate direction. But you know, when I talk to progressives, especially the Congressional Progressive Caucus, they’re very acutely aware of how to become a more mature and sophisticated movement and caucus within the party. They feel strongly about trying to vote more strictly as a voting bloc and having everyone in line so that they can try to have more power, and they’re also heartened by the fact that they’ve seen Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, working in lockstep and closely with President Biden even before he was elected president through those unity taskforces, and they’ve had conversations at the staff level since President Biden has been elected, according to folks in Sanders’ orbit, and you know, a number of the executive orders that President Biden signed out of the gate progressives were happy about. So they feel like things are moving in their direction, but they’re also not afraid to speak up and speak out against the Manchins, the Sinemas of the Senate to really try to pull them in their direction or even say this is where the rest of the party is, you are the outlier, we are no longer the outlier is what they will say.
MS. DESJARDINS: I want to sneak in one question if I can see all four of you at once, really quick. You can nod, shake your head, go I don’t know. Chances are this COVID deal actually gets passed before March, what do we think? Yes, no? No. That’s what I – that’s what – I am not surprised. I think very unlikely, March 15th probably being the main deadline, OK.
That is all the time we have tonight. On behalf of myself and my fellow Capitol Hill journalists, I want to extend my condolences, respect, and gratitude to Officer Sicknick’s loved ones.
Thank you to Jonathan, Alexi, Jake, and Sabrina for your reporting and for joining us; great discussion. And thank you for your time during an anxious time. Keep taking care of yourselves and of each other.
The conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra, which streams live on our website and social media. Join us for an in-depth discussion of the legacy of zero tolerance, the family separation policy.
I’m Lisa Desjardins. Good night from Washington.