YAMICHE ALCINDOR: President Trump impeached again and the nation on edge.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) He must go. He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love.
MS. ALCINDOR: The charge against President Trump? Incitement of insurrection. And the Republican Party splits wide open.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) A vote to impeach would further divide this nation. A vote to impeach will further fan the flames of partisan division.
REPRESNTATIVE JAMIE HERRERA-BEUTLER (R-WA): (From video.) My vote to impeach our sitting president is not a fear-based decision. I am not choosing a side; I’m choosing truth. It’s the only way to defeat fear.
MS. ALCINDOR: Ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the National Guard and law enforcement are bracing for more violence. And new details emerge about the siege on the Capitol.
REPRESENTATIVE MIKIE SHERRILL (D-NJ): (From video.) Those members of Congress who had groups coming through the Capitol that I saw on January 5th. And reconnaissance. I’m going to see that they’re held accountable.
MS. ALCINDOR: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Welcome to Washington Week.
President Trump is now the first U.S. president to be impeached twice, and this was the most bipartisan impeachment ever, but still only 10 House Republicans voted in favor. They included Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House. She said, quote, “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and of his oath to the Constitution.” The vote happened at the U.S. Capitol, which is now remarkably a crime scene. The building is filled with emotional and political wreckage. On the House floor, lawmakers were shaken.
REPRESENTATIVE JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX): (From video.) Let me ask you a question, what do you think they would have done if they had gotten in? What do you think they would have done to you, and who do you think sent them here?
MS. ALCINDOR: Now the nation fears even more chaos and death, and it’s bracing for both an inauguration and an impeachment trial.
Joining me tonight are some of the nation’s top reporters: Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News; Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News.
Geoff, I want to start with you. The article of impeachment quotes President Trump’s own words saying this.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.
MS. ALCINDOR: What do you make of this moment and President Trump being called a clear and present danger?
GEOFF BENNETT: Well, I’ll tell you, Yamiche, we are in a moment where the outgoing president is increasingly isolated. He has, with very few exceptions, been seen in public. He made a trip this past week to the border, but beyond that, based on our reporting, he has really encircled himself in the residence, in the Oval Office with a group of dwindling aides and advisors who I’m told are really telling him what he wants to hear, really fueling his own conspiracy theories and this notion that he somehow lost the election, that the election was stolen from him, which we should make clear is a – is a flat-out lie. And so here we are in this moment where the – President-elect Joe Biden is set to be inaugurated in five days. The U.S. Capitol is a fortress. You’ve got both the White House and the Capitol encircled in razor wire in some cases, protecting themselves from the people that they are supposed to serve. And you know, Joe Biden is set to inherit yet another challenge and problem from the outgoing president. You’ve got a pandemic spiraling out of control, an economy that has cratered, and now a crisis in our democracy fueled by disinformation and misinformation. And President Trump the other day recorded a statement where he read from prepared remarks where he promised an orderly transition, but this president has not said the thing that many critics say is important for him to say so that his followers will ratchet down the rhetoric and pose less of a violent threat. He has not said that everything he had said about a stolen election and that massive election fraud was a lie. He has not said that Joe Biden was elected in a free and fair election, Yamiche.
MS. ALCINDOR: Pierre, Geoff is really painting the picture of a Washington, D.C. that is almost unrecognizable because of all the security. He also talked about President Trump stoking division, especially in this age. President Trump spoke – he really stoked racial division. Tell me a little bit about what federal authorities now looking at all of this are most concerned about. And I know you talked to two officers who were there in the midst; tell me a little bit about that.
PIERRE THOMAS: Well, this really is fortress Washington, and I have to tell you, the FBI is as concerned as they have been since 9/11. It’s stunning, the level of security, and they’re concerned not just about Washington; they’re also concerned about statehouses around the country. They believe that last week the attack on the Capitol has inspired more right-wing radicals to want to commit acts of violence. And to understand why they’re so concerned, we spoke to two of the officers that were in the midst of the melee. One of the officers is from that iconic video, infamous video being crushed against the door. Another of the officers you can see in video that was being beaten with the American flag, we think. And they portray a Capitol out of control, mind-boggling. They were beaten. They were screamed at. One officer described the situation as a man attacking him frothing at the mouth, that they tried to convince them to turn against the democracy to help them get inside to, quote, “arrest members of Congress.” So that level of anger is what has law enforcement as concerned as I’ve seen them, and quite frankly, they are telling state officials you better be ready.
MS. ALCINDOR: And now joining us is Peter Baker. He’s the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. Thanks so much, Peter, for being here. There is really – President Trump is weighing the liability that he has here and he’s releasing these videos. I want to – if you can, talk to us a little bit about what’s going on inside the White House, the calculations being made, and who is in the White House. Sources tell me offices are empty, people are sort of done with this, but President Trump is still standing.
PETER BAKER: Well, he’s almost a man alone, exactly right, Yamiche. The people have begun to leave. Some left, obviously, under protest of what happened right after the Capitol mob attack; others have been cycling out just because it’s the end of the administration. I mean, you have a president who basically is focused on one thing alone, which is, you know, vindicating himself an election that he lost and trying to in some way figure out what to do now that, you know, the House has impeached him and he’s being blamed for something he argues he had nothing to do with. It’s a remarkable situation. The country is in this great crisis, the pandemic is killing 3-4,000 people a day, and there’s no leadership from the White House on it because, in fact, the president is not listening to many advisors, doesn’t have that many people there working with him at this point, and is so consumed by trying to justify his actions and figure out what to do next.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Seung Min, Peter’s talking about a crisis and this remarkable moment. You are poised and really in place to explain this moment better than almost any reporter I know because you cover the White House and you’re on Capitol Hill. I heard something today that stopped me in my tracks, and that was a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee saying that he’s scared that other lawmakers might bring weapons onto the House floor to hurt him, to shoot him. It’s just chilling. Tell me a little bit about the level of distrust and fear that you’re sensing in the Capitol.
SEUNG MIN KIM: I mean, everyone is – especially for those who were there that day, the lawmakers, staff, reporters, everyone is on such high alert here because you’ve heard warnings or comments from House Democrats particularly, you know, concerned about which one of their colleagues may or may not have been sort of indirectly coordinating with protesters. And obviously, at the outset one of the comments from, you know, people like Congressman Mo Brooks, a big Trump ally who led this charge to try to decertify the election – the election results. So there is a lot of fear and distrust among House – particularly in the House right now. And remember, especially for House freshmen, this is their first week of work. They were sworn in on January 3rd, this is January 6th, and already they are – House leaders are implementing unprecedented layers – new procedures, new security, the fact that lawmakers themselves now have to walk through metal detectors to get into the House chamber is unprecedented; usually, any member of Congress can glide by – glide by these metal detectors because they’re assumed that they’re not a danger to others, but that is an assumption that has now been shattered because of this level of distrust, because of, you know, so many – you know, because of the – because Democrats have noted that there were so many House Republicans who weren’t willing to say the truth, who weren’t willing to say Joe Biden won this free and fair election. And certainly the security measures, even on places that we thought were safe such as the House chamber, are just so high right now you can’t understate the tension and the – and the nervousness and the fear among, you know, all denizens of Capitol Hill right now.
MS. ALCINDOR: Peter, I want to come back to you. Seung Min is talking about all of these new procedures and how really just difficult all of this is. This was also, you wrote this week, in some ways a preordained coda of a presidency that repeatedly pushed the limits. Tell me a little bit about how this impeachment compares to other impeachments. And it’s somewhat remarkable that I have to even say that, but here we are with a second impeachment. How does it compare when you think of the danger that President Trump is accused of posing to this country?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, obviously, it’s not like any other impeachment. There’s no way to make a comparison. First of all, as you just said, it’s the second one. That by itself is unique. Second of all, it is a situation where the Congress feels itself to be threatened by the head of the executive branch. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, used the phrase “clear and present danger.” That’s a little bit different than what we’ve seen before. In other words, Bill Clinton was impeached because he lied under oath, but he wasn’t going to send a mob to Congress to actually storm the building, right? Andrew Johnson was, obviously, impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act; again, you know, not a direct threat to Congress in that sense, although he was – one of the articles of impeachment against him was for maligning Congress in speeches that they didn’t like. This is a different situation and it brings – what Seung Min is talking about is like this fear and suspicion and paranoia. It reminds you historically – the only thing I can think of is the period before the Civil War, where you literally had a member of Congress go over to the Senate side and cane a senator because of the fight over abolition and slavery. The tensions had gotten so high at that point that members of Congress did carry guns onto the floor and did pull them on each other at times of great stress. We’re now seeing something like that, and what you hope, of course, it doesn’t mean that we’re heading down the same road that they headed down in that era. But the level of discord and the level of anger and – you know, and tension is so high that that’s the only comparison we can think of.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s incredible, and when you think about it there are so many sources telling me that they want President Trump to somehow try to bring all of this level down a bit, try to really cool things off. After being impeached, though, President Trump released a video condemning violence, but he also sought to defend himself in the name of free speech.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The efforts to censor, cancel, and blacklist our fellow citizens are wrong and they are dangerous.
MS. ALCINDOR: Sources I’ve talked to say in the coming days that will be President Trump and his few defenders’ central argument. I’m also told President Trump is isolated and angry, and a New York Times report even said Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is pleased about the impeachment. Still, the vote was passed largely along partisan lines. It’s clear President Trump still has a lot of support. Seung Min, I want to come to you. The GOP is deeply divided. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy voted against impeachment. McConnell is decided about convicting President Trump. Polls show, though, that millions and millions of Americans still support President Trump. What more do we know about who could win in this power struggle?
MS. KIM: I mean, that is the major question that you’re going to – we’re going to have to answer and have to watch for in the coming months and years because we know that the president, even while out of office, is going to very much likely retain a lot of support and sway over the party, and I think it was remarkable that Senator Lindsey Graham pointed to actually that precise point earlier this week when he released a statement saying he would oppose impeachment efforts and that he would, obviously, vote against convicting the president. He said – he said – in a statement that almost seemed written for his Republican colleagues, he said think of the 74 million people who voted for this president and, you know, choosing to throw him out of office – an office that he was poised to leave anyway – is not going to do anything to help bring the country together and bring the – and bring about healing and unity. But I can’t underscore, I mean, this is a – I’ve covered a lot of frustrating moments among Senate Republicans, but it was done mostly quietly, very often on background or off the record. I cannot overstate the level of furious and anger in the Senate Republican conference right now among even some of the president’s most stalwart allies. I mean, the most obvious point is Senator Mitch McConnell here, because if you just kind of rewind to a year ago when we were starting the last impeachment trial of President Trump, McConnell almost proudly told the press, told us that – and told the public that I am not an impartial juror here. He worked in concert with House – White House officials to come up with his defense and make sure that the president can get acquitted of the first charges. So the fact that he is now on the record confirming that he is openly considering convicting the president of inciting an insurrection here – and obviously, in private he has refused to take Trump’s calls; the two men have not talked; that relationship is certainly severed according to the press reporting and many others as well – that is pretty remarkable. And obviously, Mitch McConnell, whatever he does, can provide cover and provide some guidance for many members of the Senate Republican conference in the days ahead.
MS. ALCINDOR: And like you said, Mitch McConnell is undecided about how and whether or not he would convict President Trump, which is in some ways of course really, really telling about where things are. We just talked – or and I’ve just talked to so many people in Trump world who are concerned about this. Pierre, I want to come to you. In that clip that we played, President Trump was talking about censorship as the real danger here. Tell me a little bit about your reporting when it comes to what the real danger is here, and what do you make of what federal authorities are telling you about what role White supremacists and so many others can be playing and posing a threat here?
MR. THOMAS: Well, words do matter, and the feeling is – and law enforcement officials were talking behind the scenes, very concerned for weeks after the election when the president said the election was stolen, that the Democrats had basically pulled a highway robbery against him, that there was broad election, you know, malfeasance if you will, and they knew it was all a lie, and they were saying behind the scenes what happens when all these people – all these millions of people who hang on the president’s every word and tweet, what if they believe it? And mixed into that mix are White supremacists, there’s a group called the Boogaloo, the QAnon conspiracy people, and also neo-Nazis who have glommed on in connection to supporting the president, and what they want – what they want is a race war. What they want is civil war. So law enforcement was looking with trepidation at January 6th. They felt like that with the votes coming to certify the election and with the president openly in defiance – in defiance of what was about to take place, which is that President-elect Biden was going to become the president, they felt that this was just going to create this level of animus. They were hoping that it would not turn violent immediately, but I have to tell you, when the crowd started moving toward the Capitol there was a great level of nervousness, and when those bombs were first reported planted – two bombs, active bombs, were found – law enforcement officials said, look, we have this crisis and now we have a crisis in the coming days, and again it all goes back to how people view what the president has to say. And what Twitter and Facebook basically have said is that, number one, the president has not been telling the truth; and number two, that they believe that his words is, in fact, inciting violence.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s been more than a week since the attack on the Capitol and there is still a lot we don’t know, what Pierre was getting at there. Federal officials are warning about threats to Washington and the nation from domestic terrorists. The National Mall, as Geoff said, it’s now a fortress; security hasn’t been this tight since 9/11. In D.C. there are tens of thousands of National Guard troops. There is now an investigation into accusations by Democrats in Congress that Republicans may have helped the mob scout the building out in advance of the attack. Many lawmakers continue to fear for their lives. Here’s Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) I had a very close encounter where I thought I was going to die. It is not an exaggeration to say that many, many members of the House were nearly assassinated.
MS. ALCINDOR: The FBI’s assistant director said they plan to track down the rioters. Listen to what he had to say.
FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR STEVEN D’ANTUONO: (From video.) In six days we have opened over 160 case files, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So even if you’ve left D.C., agents from our local field offices will be knocking on your door if we find out that you were a part of the criminal activity at the Capitol.
MS. ALCINDOR: Pierre, we’re learning that the mob was just seconds away from where Vice President Pence was hiding. Legal experts tell me there’s going to have to be a significant investigation and possibly by both Congress and the Department of Justice. Tell me a little bit more about how this might unfold. And I know you talked about that meeting with – that interview with officers; tell us a little bit more about how that might play into this.
MR. THOMAS: Well, one of the things they have to know is why was there so little perimeter defense on that day. They have to find that out. We have numerous reports now that there was concern passed along to Capitol Police and other officials that things could turn violent. And so now you must dissect why there was not more security. I was struck by the fact that Mitch McConnell said that security protocols were not followed and that basically he had to get answers. He and Chuck Schumer were in agreement about that. So you have that on the one hand, how did this take place, and now you also have to figure out was there a conspiracy involving terror cells, if you will, who came with weapons, who came with metal pipes, who came with baseball bats, who came with equipment to scale walls. In fact, sources say that what took place inside the Capitol was that you had a small group of people who were willing to commit violence and who somehow knew that the masses outside would follow them in. And just picture, if you will, Yamiche, thousands of people running through the Capitol, and not only was there a threat of physical violence, they stole things. The allegedly stole documents. They allegedly stole computers. There’s concern that they may have even stolen national security secrets. So they have to get to the bottom of this, and not to mention of course there’s the ongoing threat of all these conspirators out there who may be plotting more violence.
MS. ALCINDOR: There could be more violence. And Geoff, you’ve been with the Biden team. Tell me a little bit about how he’s going to be able to juggle all of this. He wants his COVID plan passed, but also there are some reports that his inauguration rehearsal had to be postponed because of the security threats. What’s the mood inside the Biden campaign, the Biden transition team?
MR. BENNETT: Well, I’ll tell you this, I mean, this is an inauguration that had already been scaled back because of the pandemic, and then you add to that the environment created in the aftermath of the insurrection. Joe Biden was set to take the Amtrak train from Wilmington to Union Station in Washington, D.C.; that plan was nixed because of the security concerns. And you’re right, our team is told that there was a rehearsal plan for Sunday that has since been moved because Sunday marks a particular date in the calendar where national security experts say that there are a number of threats, not just in Washington but across the country – in state capitals across the country. But I’ll tell you this, Yamiche, both the president-elect and the vice president-elect say they are more resolved, perhaps now more than ever, to have the – have the inaugural, to take the oath outside on the West Front of the Capitol at noon on Wednesday as was previously planned, as have many presidents and vice presidents before them, not just to signal to the world the transfer of power but to signal to those insurrectionists and seditionists that they did not and will not prevail. And Joe Biden was asked today after he delivered remarks about his coronavirus vaccination plan if, based on what he knows, having been briefed by the FBI and other intelligence agencies, if he feels safe, and he said yes, that he does feel safe.
MS. ALCINDOR: Only have about 10 seconds left here, but Peter, I was told that President Trump could show up to his Senate trial, upend the first few days and weeks of the Biden administration. How could all of that play out? What could that mean?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s extraordinary, right? The inauguration’s supposed to be the turning of a page, the beginning of a new era, and a new president’s supposed to have a fresh start on the country, and this one is going to have his predecessor sort of hanging over him in his opening days because of the trial. As much as he would like to set the agenda, the agenda will be a split screen between his efforts to build a new administration and the efforts of the Senate to hold accountable the last one, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that. Both metaphysically/politically that’s a problem for the president because it distracts in terms of getting things done like passing legislation and confirming Senate appointees; that’s also an issue.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, thank you so much, Peter. We’re going to have to leave it there. That’s it for tonight. Thank you to our incredible reporters: Peter Baker, Geoff Bennett, Seung Min Kim, and Pierre Thomas. These are scary times. So many people feel overwhelmed. Know that we will keep pushing for answers as we all brace for what could be next. Thank you for joining us. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and on our website. And stay tuned for a PBS NewsHour special report, “American Reckoning.” It’s a look at the forces that led to this moment. Please check your local listings. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Stay safe. Good night from Washington.