YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Investigations, vaccines, and variants.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The whole nation is mourning with these families.
MS. ALCINDOR: President Biden meets with families in the aftermath of the deadly Florida condo collapse.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) If a person is a Republican, to accept committee assignments from Speaker Pelosi, that’s unprecedented.
MS. ALCINDOR: In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appoints Republican Liz Cheney to a committee investigating the January 6th attack; and in New York, the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer are indicted for tax fraud. Plus, President Biden won’t meet his July 4th vaccine goal.
SURGEON GENERAL VIVEK MURTHY: (From video.) If you are not vaccinated, then you are in trouble.
MS. ALCINDOR: And with Delta variant cases rising, will the nation ever be free from this pandemic and its restrictions? Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. From Capitol Hill to New York to Florida, it was a week of investigations. In Surfside, Florida, officials are searching for people and answers in what is shaping up to be one of the worst building disasters in American history. Thursday President Biden traveled to the town, where over 100 people are still missing after the deadly condo collapse. Here’s what Maggie Ramsey has to say, whose mother died in the – in the collapse.
MAGALY RAMSEY: (From video.) Some very poor decisions were made and it robbed me of saying goodbye to my mother.
MS. ALCINDOR: President Biden spent some three hours meeting with grieving families.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The whole nation is mourning with these families. They see it every day on television. They’re going through hell, and those that survived the collapse as well as those who are missing loved ones.
MS. ALCINDOR: Back in Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi convened a committee to look into the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. In New York the Trump Organization was charged with running a 15-year tax fraud scheme. And Sunday is the 4th of July; that’s the day President Biden had hoped to have 70 percent of all adults vaccinated, but he will fall short of that goal as the Delta variant is quickly spreading.
There’s a lot of news to get to tonight and we have some of the best reporters covering it all: Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press, joins us from New York City; and joining me at the table Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR; and Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios. Thanks so much for being here.
This was, of course, a very busy news week, but we want to start with what happened in Florida. President Biden traveled down to Florida. He sat next to Ron DeSantis, the governor there, the Republican governor. The governor said that he is very supportive, that the president was reliable during all of this, but these two men, they could face each other in a presidential election in 2024. Where do you think, Ayesha, things go from here, and what did you make of that bipartisanship, that rare glimpse of it?
AYESHA RASCOE: Well, it shows the difference between when you’re running for office or running for election and you’re a governor or you’re president. Generally, what happens is, when you’re a governor and you’re dealing with a crisis or a catastrophe in your state, you need that federal help, so you’re not trying to, you know, pick fights in that moment; you desperately want help, and then you’re grateful when you get it. We saw the same thing that – with Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy. He was actually criticized because he had very nice things to say about then-President Obama because of the help that his state got when they were hit by this terrible disaster. I don’t think it lasts beyond now, but I do think that if DeSantis – Ron DeSantis ends up having some, you know, competition, which I’m sure he – (laughs) – will if he ends up trying to run, they could point to this and say, oh, he said nice things about – you know, about Biden. And that, at this point, the way this country is set up, the way partisanship works, is something that even in moments like this can be seen as unacceptable, and we saw that during the Trump administration where even during wildfires, all sorts of catastrophes Trump would still make it very personal.
MS. ALCINDOR: I want to ask you a follow-up question about this. We don’t know, of course, what happened exactly with this building collapse, but there is this conversation going on about infrastructure and climate change. Progressive Democrats in particular are pressuring President Biden to do more and get more money. How do you think that this building collapse at all impacts that conversation around infrastructure and climate?
MS. RASCOE: You know, even if it’s not directly associated with it, it makes people feel like this is the sort of thing that can happen, these are the sorts of things – whether it’s the rising temperatures out west, you have this heatwave – it’s this feeling that, you know, climate change is not something that’s on the horizon anymore; it’s here, we are feeling the effects of it, and something must be done. Like, the planet is at risk, and so they want action. The problem, of course, is that there are always a million different things pulling at a president, and you know, whether it’s infrastructure, roads and bridges, whether it’s voting rights, police action, all of these things, and you know, right now Biden is trying to thread that needle to make – to please everyone. But I think that’s why you saw White House officials this week saying we’re not backing away from climate, they don’t want to feel that pressure, saying we still support a clean-energy standard, that we’re going to make sure that these long-term tax breaks for clean energy are in, you know, whatever passes Congress, we’re going to make sure it gets done.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Jonathan Lemire, I want to come to you. And I have to say, Jonathan, your full name, Jonathan Lemire, because we have two Jonathans on tonight, and we love you both of course. Jonathan Lemire, talk about President Biden being in his element. This, of course, was him being the empathizer in chief. Where does he go from here as he does that threading of needle, as Ayesha just talked about?
JONATHAN LEMIRE: Well, Yamiche, I’ll recognize myself as the lesser Jonathan this evening. (Laughter.) No doubt there.
In terms of President Biden, there’s probably never been an American elected official who speaks so powerfully and eloquently about grief and who’s able to have a connection with someone who has just gone through a tremendous loss, and that, of course, is shaped by Biden’s own personal tragedy. As we all know, his first wife and his daughter were killed in a terrible car accident that badly injured his two sons. One of those sons later, Beau Biden, died of cancer, forcing Joe Biden to – now has buried two of his children, and he is – he talks often about how those tragedies and that grief has really shaped him as a person, and it also allows him to really connect with people who have gone through something similar.
So my colleagues and I, as we reported his visit on Thursday down to Surfside, Florida, I mean, it was on full display. In certainly his public remarks to reporters, when he talked about how the whole nation was rallied behind them and how he was – the nation was united in mourning with those who are – have lost someone or their relatives or loved one are still missing, and now of course a week – more than a week since the tragedy, you know, they fear the worst. But we also obtained a video taken – an Instagram video taken behind closed doors in the private meetings that Biden had with those families, and he addressed the group at first all at once and then he went person to person, he went family to family, sharing his story but more than that listening – listening to their stories about their loved ones – and certainly a degree of empathy that he’s able to show that we don’t often see from American public figures.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, let’s now turn to the case against the Trump Organization. On Thursday the former president’s company and its CFO, Alan Weisselberg, were both charged with fraud and tax crimes. A lawyer for the Manhattan district attorney called the alleged actions a, quote, “sweeping and audacious illegal payments scheme.” Former President Trump released a statement saying the charges were part of a, quote, “political witch hunt by the radical left Democrats” – not surprising the language that he’s using there. Jonathan Swan, I want to come to you. What does this mean for President Trump, his brand, and his political future?
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, that’s – it’s a complicated question because – so I need to pick it apart a little bit. On one hand, if the allegations are true, this is obviously illegal, obviously should be prosecuted. On the other hand, when you compare it to the expectations that had been set for this investigation, Trump’s political opponents, many of them view this as quite underwhelming. Cy Vance has been working on this investigation for more than two years. He’s had eight years of Trump’s tax returns. And we should note it’s still an ongoing investigation; they’ve made that very clear. We don’t know – this is not necessarily the final word. But if this really is the final word and it’s really an indictment based on fringe benefits tax fraud for his CFO and Donald Trump himself doesn’t get indicted, none of his children get indicted, when you compare that to the expectations, it’s quite underwhelming. All that being said, these criminal indictments really affect businesses. It affects your ability to get loans, it affects your ability to partner with people. Donald Trump has a lot of debt, so it could have real impacts on his business. But as for his political fortunes, I don’t know that it has a huge impact.
If anything, when I talk to his aides I get the sense that these investigations make it slightly more likely that he runs for president in 2024, for a couple of reasons. I think some of them see it as a bit of a heat shield, the idea that he is not just a former president but potentially an active candidate gives them a sort of ability to say this is all political. And I think the other part of it is just – you go and sort of revenge. And there’s a sort of, you know, goading element to it as well. So I think that’s kind of how to view the situation.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Jonathan Lemire, I want to come to you. Allen Weisselberg, there’s a lot of talk or whether or not he may flip on the president. Do you have any insight into that? And any insight whether or not president – former President Trump faces any sort of consequences? Jonathan is hearing – Jonathan Swan, that is – is hearing a lot of what I’m hearing, which is that unless President Trump is charged he’s going to feel like he won. He’s going to feel like this doesn’t really politically hurt him.
MR. LEMIRE: Well, certainly, Yamiche, we know that Donald Trump’s not shy about claiming victory – whether or not he actually is – emerges as a winner in a particular moment. A couple of things here. Yes, that Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, who for a long time now was seen as really a key figure in this investigation into the Trump Organization. He is the one who handled the books and sort of knew where the bodies were buried, if you will. And we have seen that many people in the Trump orbit have, indeed, flipped. They’ve chosen to become cooperators, like Michael Cohen, most famously, but certainly not alone.
To this point, Weisselberg hasn’t. And as people I talk to today say, well, maybe that changes now. He felt handcuffs on his skin today. He was in court. You know, and he is someone who now, at a – you know, not a young man – could face prison time if, indeed, convicted. And maybe that changes the calculation. To this point, though, there’s no signs that he will. And I think that, as Jonathan said, that if that does not happen I think there’s a sense that Trump himself and his adult sons – remember, Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump are those who were running the Trump Organization while their father was in office – that they would potentially escape liability themselves. Yes, damaging to the business, no doubt. But if they emerge from the – by themselves unscathed, then I do think will be spun as a win.
People I’ve talked to indeed concur with what you guys are hearing. This might even make the former president more likely to run again and be able to say: Look, this was yet another, quote, “witch hunt,” and they came after me, and they failed. And gin up those grievances that he and his supporters are so often fueled, that may lead him to want to get back in the race in a couple years.
MS. ALCINDOR: Ayesha, I see you nodding your head. President Trump, former President Trump, he’s a survivor. He is someone who – there have been all sorts of people around him who have been charged, but he has not had to face these legal consequences. Talk about that, and is it significant at all that some of these alleged activities were happening while he was president of the United States?
MS. RASCOE: Well, as everyone has said before, I don’t think it’s significant to President Trump, because whatever comes out he will say that this is all made up, this is not true. Unless and until something happens to him or to his close family, it is not something that he is going to be overly concerned about. I do think that when it comes to the idea of him running again, some of this is kind of neither here nor there, because Trump clearly wants to be the leader of the Republican Party. He’s not giving that away. If he does not run, he will not be the leader of the Republican Party. It will be whoever is running for president. And so I think in that way, when you talked about ego, I think that has to be driving much of this.
MS. ALCINDOR: And what Jonathan Swan, you mentioned, when you mentioned the word “ego” it stuck in my mind too. I almost feel like I want you to maybe talk to our audience a bit more about what you’re hearing from your sources – your good, good sources – in the Trump world.
MR. SWAN: So, look, a big part of what possesses Donald Trump at the moment is he wants to be relevant. So his staff are constantly printing out – you know, they’ll show him all the news clips he’s getting, say you’re still in the game, you know, here’s, you know, all the headlines you’re getting. And they show him. And they sit down. He does his political meetings with his team on the phone, et cetera. But from what I understand from talking to people around him, the thing he misses most – and it has a real psychological effect on him – is just he’s not on television all the time. When he switches on TV it’s not just wall-to-wall Trump coverage. It’s not wall-to-wall newspapers.
I remember going in and seeing Donald Trump when he was president going into the dining room and seeing, you know, he would watch himself on television. He would experience being covered in a sort of – the amount of pleasure he got from that was almost visceral when you were in his company. And that’s got to be – the withdrawal from that drug has to be quite intense. And that’s what I hear over and over again when I talk to people who are still in his orbit.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s a – and it’s such a smart window into the person that all of us covered together, the former president. I remember him looking up in the sky and saying: I’m the chosen one. You could tell that he was reveling in this idea that he was on TV and that people were talking about him, and he felt like he was the man of the moment.
I want to now turn to something that happened on Wednesday. The House voted to approve a select committee to investigate the January 6th insurrection. Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming would serve on the committee. Here’s what Cheney had to say.
REPRESENTATIVE LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): (From video.) Our oath to the Constitution, our duty, our dedication to the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power has to come above any concern about partisanship or about politics.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy criticized Cheney for accepting the committee assignment from a Democrat.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) I was shocked that she would accept something from Speaker Pelosi. It would seem to me, since I didn’t hear from her, maybe she’s closer to her than us. I don’t know.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, the high term for that, what McCarthy was doing there, is called shade. (Laughter.) Jonathan Lemire, I want to come to you. What is the politics of all of this? How does each party, including the White House, see this?
MR. LEMIRE: Well, Yamiche, shade’s a good term for it. I mean, so, look, we know that, of course – let’s take a step back here – that in the Senate – Republicans in the Senate killed the – killed the bipartisan commission modeled after the September 11th Commission, that was to investigate the January 6th Capitol riot. Which, mind you, is just in a few days from now, we’ll have hit the six-month anniversary. So it’s sort of – it is remarkable and sort of sad, frankly, that we’re – that much time has elapsed without any meaningful congressional probe into what happened.
So because of that, House Speaker Pelosi has forged forward with this select committee. Certainly raised eyebrows with the selection of Liz Cheney, a Republican, to be on it. And GOP Leader McCarthy had previously threatened to take away the committee assignment of any Republican who accepted the Democrats’ invitation to be on that committee. It seems like he’s backed away a little bit from that now, but the question now remains who does he appoint? You know, would – is there a chance that he would pick some sort of middle-of-the-road Republicans who would give this a fair shake? It’s possible, but certainly people I talk to say that the most likely scenario is that he picks more dyed in the wool, sort of real conservative Trumpist Republicans, who may not, frankly, take this matter all that seriously, who have – are the people if not outright denying and belittling what happened on January 6th, at the very least are eager to turn the page, who want to be talking about anything else rather than get to the heart of what happened that day. So that’s something we’ll hear. The GOP leaders just late today said there was still no news on that. That’s something we will hear, we assume, in the days ahead. And those choices will go a long way to shaping the dynamic of that select committee and what they find.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Jonathan Swan, you’ve interviewed Liz Cheney. Talk to us a little bit about where you see things going based on your reporting. A deep sigh.
MR. SWAN: I think she’s – I don’t want to use the word delusional because I think it’s too freighted and pejorative, but this idea that she’s going to create a new Republican Party or move – like, it’s absurd. It’s absurd for anyone who spends any time talking to Republican elected officials. It’s not where the party is. The party is extremely united. She gets a lot of press attention. So does Adam Kinzinger. But you go up to the Hill, you talk to Republican House members, they are united. They don’t want to talk about January 6th. They want to move on. They want this to be in the rearview mirror.
She is so unrepresentative of the Republican Party that you may as well just put a D next to her name at this point. Even though she is deeply conservative, even though she has a completely conservative voting record, that doesn’t matter. It’s not about ideology. The party is not where she is. So I just think the project that she’s embarking on of trying to almost restore the Republican Party to the Bush-Cheney party, I just think it’s – I think it’s a fantasy. I think it’s a complete fantasy.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah. And all this is going on while the Supreme Court this week ruled and upheld this Arizona GOP voting restriction. Tell us a little bit about what that means for Democrats and what it means for these GOP-backed laws on voting laws.
MS. RASCOE: Well, what it means is that it is another blow against the landmark Voting Rights Act. You know, some would say that at this point the Voting Rights Act really has no teeth, and it puts great pressure on the White House to try to do something. The White House is in a very difficult position. President Biden is expected to give some remarks on this or talk about this in the coming days, but he is facing a lot of pressure to get something done. But the problem is there is no – there’s not enough support in Congress to get anything done on voting rights at this moment – like, the support’s not there.
MS. ALCINDOR: And this weekend millions of Americans are expected to travel and gather to celebrate July 4th. That’s a lot different, of course, from last year. At the White House, President Biden is hosting more than 1,000 people for a party. But the Delta variant, it’s spreading. Experts worry it could cause a new spike in cases among unvaccinated people. Joining us to talk about this particular issue and COVID is Yasmeen Abutaleb. She’s national health policy reporter for The Washington Post and author of Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History. Yasmeen, thank you so much for joining us.
President Biden missed his COVID vaccine or will miss it – his COVID vaccine goal. He isn’t far off, though. That being said, vaccination rates in the South and among Republicans is a big part of this issue. What can President Biden do to convince more people to get vaccinated, and is it at all possible to separate the politics from this?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: The White House is pretty focused right now on smaller-scale efforts – on finding local doctors, community leaders to convince people to get vaccinated. I think they recognize that the people who want to listen to the president and what he has to say about vaccinations have gone and got them, and now they need to take a very different, localized approach. And to be clear, it’s not only people who are resistant to getting vaccinated that haven’t gotten vaccinated; it’s also communities of color and other vulnerable communities and hard-to-reach ones, where maybe there isn’t as easy of access to a doctor’s office, so that’s also a big part of the effort here.
I think in terms of the politics, it’s impossible to separate them because a lot of people who are resistant to getting vaccines, there are sort of two camps. There are the people who are anti-vaxxers and are resistant to all types of vaccines and then the people who kind of mistrust this process for a number of reasons – the COVID vaccines were developed in record time, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories about the vaccines, and then of course a big part of it is the politicization of scientists and science and particularly Dr. Fauci. I mean, he’s gotten so tied into some of the anti-vax stuff and the people resistant to the coronavirus vaccine specifically.
MS. ALCINDOR: And talk a little bit about the Delta variant and the challenges ahead specifically with that.
MS. ABUTALEB: Well, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky just held a briefing yesterday where she said that the Delta variant was hyper-transmissible. It’s clear that the White House and the health officials in the administration are extremely worried about this. The good news is that – is that the vaccines do seem to protect against the variant, but the bigger concern here is I think we’ve seen over the last several months the more the virus is able to spread the more dangerous the variants become. The good thing is they’re not necessarily more deadly, but they do become more transmissible and easier to spread. And even if vaccinated people are protected against the Delta variant, the concern is that if it’s allowed to spread what variant is going to emerge from that. The more this virus can spread – it’s a highly efficient virus – the more it can become more efficient and more transmissible, and we just don’t know what form that’s going to take. So right now the vaccines are effective, but there is a lot of concern about outbreaks among unvaccinated populations, especially in the fall when people start moving indoors a bit more and especially because we’ve started relaxing so many restrictions.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Ayesha, I want to come to you on really the COVID economy. The U.S. added 850,000 jobs in June. That beat economists’ expectations. What does that tell you about kind of where this is going and the – and the recovery effort that the White House is dealing with?
MS. RASCOE: Well, the White House basically took a victory lap today. They said, you know, overall they’ve created 3 million jobs and that is, you know, a record level. Of course, they don’t mention that the U.S. had lost a record level of jobs and so that’s why they’ve created 3 million, and even now millions are out of work. So I think that they are making that argument. The issue for them is that as they’re trying to get all this funding for infrastructure and all these other things, with the economy not in a freefall that makes it a bit harder to justify or to make the case for trillions of dollars in spending, so they’re going to run up against more opposition for that. So that’s part of what – you know, it’s kind of like a catch-22 with this economy.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s a tough thing that they’re dealing with, trying to balance the economy while also trying to balance COVID, and there are even talk of people having to start wearing masks again. I asked the White House COVID Task Force about putting on a mask and they say for now we don’t have to go back to that if you’re vaccinated, but it is a very, very big worry so we’ll have to keep our eye on that.
And that’s all the time that we have tonight. Thank you to Yasmeen Abutaleb, Jonathan Lemire, Ayesha Rascoe, and Jonathan Swan for your insights, and thank you all for joining us. Next week Monday, please tune in to the PBS NewsHour when anchor Judy Woodruff will interview former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, as they prepare to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary. I hope I get there too. And don’t miss our Washington Week Extra. We’ll be talking with Yasmeen and her co-author, Damian Paletta, about their new book Nightmare Scenario about the pandemic. It streams live at 8:30 Eastern on our website, Facebook, and YouTube.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Have a great July 4th weekend. Good night from Washington.