ROBERT COSTA: American democracy under pressure.
FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI (R): (From video.) It’s my job to defend the president.
MR. COSTA: President Trump and his allies try to delegitimize President-elect Biden’s victory. Most Republicans stay quiet, but Democrats are alarmed.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Republicans, get over it. Stop spending all your time spreading lies about the election.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, the pandemic remains relentless, Biden’s transition is stalled, and so is Congress.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) More people may die if we don’t coordinate.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Tonight President Trump remains intent on using his executive power to overturn the results of this year’s election. While the efforts led by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have failed to gain traction in court, they are nonetheless testing American democracy. The latest gambit being pushed by Giuliani and Steve Bannon is an attempt to disrupt the Electoral College, which convenes next month. In short, there is a pressure campaign on state Republicans to refuse to certify President-elect Biden’s victories. This all comes more than – as this pandemic continues to ravage the nation – 250,000 Americans have now died from it, with outbreaks nationwide and hospitals strained.
Joining us tonight are three top reporters to discuss it all: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times; Asma Khalid, political correspondent for NPR and co-host of National Public Radio’s Politics Podcast; and Paula Reid, White House correspondent for CBS News.
Let’s start with the news. The Trump team hit another wall Friday when Georgia’s Republican secretary of state certified Biden’s win and Michigan Republicans tonight showed no signs of budging after meeting with President Trump. Paula, you join us from the White House. What is the president going to do now?
PAULA REID: What we’ve seen over the past week is a shift from this legal campaign that has been almost entirely unsuccessful to a campaign to political pressure, and nothing was a clearer example of that then today when two Michigan lawmakers came here to the White House to meet with President Trump and he was expected to try to pressure them to try to flip that state, which of course President-elect Joe Biden won. But following their meeting with the president, those two lawmakers released a statement. They said, look, we’ve seen no information, no evidence that would change the outcome in our state, and they also notably said that they believe that this process should be free from threats and intimidation. You know, the president, we are told, is also possibly going to try to get some Pennsylvania lawmakers to come here too, but it’s clear even if this pressure campaign was successful in a state or two it would not change the electoral map for the president. There is no way to litigate or pressure his way to 270 electoral votes.
MR. COSTA: Peter, the president stymied in Georgia, Michigan, perhaps Pennsylvania. What is the big picture here? You recently wrote that Mr. Trump is doing something that no sitting president has done in American history.
PETER BAKER: Well, that’s right, and I think this week was actually a turn even further toward the unprecedented when he moved beyond even just these sort of specious claims he’s been making in court about nonexistent fraud or fraud that isn’t backed up by any evidence. Now he’s turned toward trying to pressure the – you know, the system itself to overturn the will of the voters, you know, first by calling these Wayne County election officials and now today, as we just talked about, the Michigan lawmakers. Now, in the end I don’t think it makes a difference in the end. On January 20th, 2021, you know, Joe Biden will become the president of the United States. Nothing we’ve seen so far indicates that there’s going to be any change in that whatsoever. But in the meantime he is ratcheting up the pressure and he is putting great, enormous strain on the system, a system that relies on faith of the voters. And what’s really remarkable about this is he has convinced a majority of his own voters, a majority of Republicans that something untoward happened in this campaign, and that will be the lasting impact. He’ll leave – he’ll leave office, he’ll go home wherever he decides to go, but in the end a lot of Americans who support Donald Trump will believe that something crooked happened in an election that his own Department of Homeland Security official said was the most secure election in American history.
MR. COSTA: That lasting impact is an important point. President Biden next year would have to deal with that sentiment in parts of this country. Let’s listen to President-elect Biden speaking to this moment on Thursday.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) He will go down in history as being one of the most irresponsible presidents in American history. It’s hard to fathom how this man thinks and it’s hard to fathom – I’m confident he knows he hasn’t won and is not going to be able to win and we’re going to be sworn in on January 20th.
MR. COSTA: Asma, what is the Biden strategy?
ASMA KHALID: Well, the Biden strategy is a bit of a glimpse of what you saw there. You know, I was with Joe Biden a couple of times this week when he did take reporter questions, and there was this notion of, you know, are you at all concerned that through this attempt to undermine the democratic process that President Trump might try to be delegitimizing your own victory. And you know, Joe Biden was remarkably, at least publicly, optimistic, insisting that he did not think that that would be the end result. The Biden legal team has, you know, been holding some briefings, and what we’ve been told is they have concerns that the rhetoric from the Trump team is no doubt very harmful to democracy, no doubt harmful to democratic institutions, but again, they don’t believe that there is any path in which President Trump actually will be able to overturn the results. You know, the Associated Press has it that Joe Biden won 306 electoral votes. Even if President Trump is, you know, successful in one state or so, he is not going to be able to change the results. I mean, to Peter’s point, though, I do think there are bigger questions about the lasting implications regardless of when President Trump leaves office about what this means for the health of our country and the health of democratic institutions. I don’t know –
MR. COSTA: Asma, what do you think it does mean? What does your reporting tell you about the answer to those questions?
MS. KHALID: I mean, those to me are such unclear questions in this moment. I mean, there is a remarkably upbeat attitude, at least publicly, from the Biden campaign. You know, they have expressed a frustration about the delayed transition process and the uncoordinated transition process, but you know, in terms of what that might mean for voters or sort of civil discourse in this country, you know, I would argue that over the last four years, if I look at my own reporting from 2016 to 2020, you know, it has become remarkably more difficult as a reporter to do grassroots reporting in a number of communities, and I do worry that it will become even more difficult to have civil discourse if we can’t agree upon basic information, and this certainly doesn’t help.
MR. COSTA: Paula, you laid out the state of play tonight at the White House, but I wonder based on my own reporting why the president is sticking with Rudy Giuliani. We saw the news conference this week. The president’s not gaining politically. He not gaining legally right now. I’m told the president sticks with Giuliani because of shared grievances. They have a generational rapport. And the president insists that he has been treated poorly by the Democrats, and he essentially wants to give it right back to them, that it’s revenge in part for how he feels he’s been treated over the past four years.
MS. REID: Absolutely, and the president will be the first one to tell you that he believes that Rudy Giuliani is a very respected man in America. While that was certainly true at one point in time, his involvement in many of the president’s legal controversies has really undermined a lot of his integrity. That press conference that we saw yesterday, that was a bizarre press conference that very few attorneys in this country could say was really serving his client well. In speaking with other members of the president’s legal team – he has many different attorneys in different parts of his public and private life – look, nobody else wants to be involved in this case. They know this is a losing battle. They were waiting to see what happened in Pennsylvania, if the math was maybe on their side, if they could take it to the Supreme Court. When it became clear there was no way to litigate his way to 270 electoral votes his stronger attorneys begged off, really leaving Rudy Giuliani and Jen Ellis, someone who has publicly insulted the president in the past, they were really the only ones willing to take on this assignment, and the president is willing to have them.
MR. COSTA: Peter, in Pennsylvania the president may have those ambitions, as Paula just explained, but Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, tells me on the record: Nothing’s going to change in Pennsylvania. And Republican leaders on Capitol Hill this week have been pretty quiet, not fighting the president but not endorsing him in any big way. And in the states, there are calls for integrity. Here, for example, is Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger earlier today.
GEORGIA SECRETARY OF STATE BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: (From video.) I live by the motto that numbers don’t lie. As secretary of state, I believe that the numbers that we have presented today are correct. The numbers reflect the verdict of the people, not a decision by the secretary of state’s office, or of courts, or of either campaign’s.
MR. COSTA: Peter, from Raffensperger to Toomey to Leader McConnell, what is going on inside the Republican Party?
MR. BAKER: Well, look, in some ways that’s the biggest story about what’s going on here, right? Is any of us surprised that Donald Trump is not accepting defeat? No. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. He told us that for months. He told us for months that any election result other than a victory for him he would characterize as somehow rigged. So he let us know what he was going to do. It’s not surprising that sense. It is a little bit interesting to watch these Republicans, though, trying to navigate this. I think that they originally thought that they could kind of give the president some room to sort of lash out for a little while, and eventually reality would hit, and he would come around.
But so far it hasn’t happened. I think you’re seeing some impatience now among Republicans on Capitol Hill, the feeling that they’re beginning to – this is beginning to go on so long that it’s doing damage to not just the president and the system, but to themselves and to the Republican Party in the long run. And you’re seeing, you know, bit by bit, slowly by slowly, that impatience coming out. Whether that will lead to something in the next few days or the next week of a more, you know, direct kind of intervention, I’m not sure. That’s what they’re talking about. Is there a way to intervene with this president? But there hasn’t been a Barry Goldwater and a John Rhodes, you know, kind of moment that we’ve seen in the last few weeks, that’s for sure.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you just referenced Goldwater going to Nixon in 1974. I’m reading your book about Jim Baker. Who would intervene with President Trump? Is there a James Baker in this Republican Party who could pull President Trump aside? Senator Romney’s spoken out. Is there anyone else who could play that Baker role?
MR. BAKER: Well, the problem is there is no James Baker today in the Republican Party. It’s a different kind of party. It’s a different kind of president. It’s a president who’s not really all that interested in listening to people who have any point of view other than his own. Remember, when his own DHS official in charge of election security said the election was secure, the president this week just fired him. He doesn’t want to hear anybody tell him anything other than what he believes. And so you, you know, the only person I think with the kind of weight to really go to him and have any possible impact would probably be Mitch McConnell.
And it would have to be, of course, with the backing of the Senate Republican Caucus, which of course Mitch McConnell would never do unless he did have that backing. You know, Mitt Romney is not going to be able to be persuasive with the president. You know, certainly Susan Collins and these others who have talked about the president moving on don’t have that kind of influence with him. But Mitch McConnell is probably the one person with that kind of weight, assuming he were to go in with the support of his caucus.
MR. COSTA: Well, Asma, McConnell’s still waiting for these Georgia Senate runoffs to take place in January. What does this all mean for those two races in Georgia? Do your Democratic sources, perhaps, see an opening for the party to run against the president’s conduct?
MS. KHALID: I mean, that is certainly what Democrats are hoping for in the state of Georgia. I think, you know, the challenge is though that while this is all going on in the background, you know, we say that the Vice President Mike Pence was campaigning for those Senate runoffs in the state of Georgia today. So you know, in many ways I would argue the sort of longevity of this drawn-out process that the president has, you know, put in the face of Republican base voters is, in their view, advantageous to what’s going on in the state of Georgia.
You know, I will say, most Democrats, you know, candidly, are not particularly optimistic about the odds. You talk to them about the Senate and they will say it is a – it will be a challenge. And I think there is a widespread recognition in the Democratic Party that Joe Biden will likely have to deal with divided government. I mean, that is sort of the conventional wisdom amongst most Democrats.
MR. COSTA: And I wrote this week for the Post about how Georgia Senator David Perdue on a private phone call with donors said maybe he and Senator Loeffler down there are going to have to be, quote, “alone,” that they can’t count on President Trump, like Vice President Pence today, to come down to Georgia, to get involved, to boost Republicans down there.
Paula, I saw you nodding. You want to jump in for a moment?
MS. REID: Absolutely. The president has shown no interest in doing anything other than remaining here at the White House and tweeting. Even his Thanksgiving plans were cancelled. Something as significant as control of the Senate – today the vice president said: Look, this may be all we have to protect our legacy and to protect what we’ve done. It’s so important. But at this point, there’s no indication that the president’s really going to throw his weight behind this effort.
MR. COSTA: Well, meanwhile the pandemic stops for no one. We’re just days, as Paula said, from Thanksgiving. And while there is promising news on vaccines, the Biden transition is stalled, so is Congress when it comes to stimulus negotiations. And it isn’t easy to get clarity on the administration’s plans.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) We will get through this, and we will get through this together. Thank you all.
REPORTER: (From video.) Why is the federal government not taking questions?
REPORTER: (From video.) Why won’t you recognize the democratic election? All of you need to answer that. What is going on? You’re not working with the – you’re all part of not recognizing democracy. You’re all undermining the democratic election, every one of you, and you won’t work with the transition.
MR. COSTA: What a scene. Peter, what is the story inside the taskforce? Is it fully functioning or adrift?
MR. BAKER: No, it’s not fully functioning. It’s barely functioning. You know, the meeting – the public briefing was the first time we’ve seen them, obviously, in months. This is a president who hasn’t met with them, according to Dr. Fauci, for months. Obviously, they want to put out that image this week of them at the podium, but they weren’t willing to take any questions – either the vice president or any of the others. And the president himself, of course, has not taken any questions on anything since the election.
And this is an extraordinary period right now. We’ve lost, since the election, probably 18,000 – I haven’t checked the latest number – 18,000 Americans, or something like that, have died of the COVID just since the election alone. That’s an extraordinary death toll. That’s six 9/11s. And you have not seen the president take a leadership role on anything other than claiming credit for the vaccine.
Now, look, the White House told us before the election that they’d basically given up trying to control the virus. And they put all of their eggs, in effect, in the virus – sorry – the vaccine and therapeutics baskets. But the thing is, even as promising as those vaccines now look, it’s going to be months before most average Americans are able to get it. And there’s a lot of hardship, and pain, and death between now and next April, let’s say, when most Americans will be able to get that kind of vaccine. And we haven’t seen the president take a leadership role on that at this very delicate moment.
MR. COSTA: Asma, what about the stimulus? President-elect Biden met earlier Friday with Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer. Is he trying to bring them together to cut a deal during the lame duck? Are they waiting until 2021?
MS. KHALID: You know, he has said, and Democrats, you know, have been insisting, that a lame duck deal is the preference. Earlier this week Biden did emphasize the fact that he wants some sort of COVID relief bill. And he emphasized the fact that that needs to happen now. So really his urgency is on the lame duck session. I mean, I think the question that I have and the question that I have posed to folks but not had a clear answer from the Biden team, is, well, does that mean that some sort of package, a quick package, takes precedence over the size of that package?
And we don’t have a clear answer of that. What I will say is that one of Biden’s long-time economic advisors, Jared Bernstein, in a Q&A with some business reporters this week did emphasize that speed, in addition to size and content, are all key factors for any stimulus bill. But he said, that in his view at least – this was, you know, one of Biden’s economic advisors – in his view that speed is perhaps the most important factor right now, just given the fact that people are going to be entering the holidays with unemployment, you know, expiration and possibly being evicted from their homes. And he just felt speed was the most important factor.
MR. COSTA: Paula, what are you hearing on the stimulus? I’m told that Secretary Mnuchin and Speaker Pelosi, those are usually the dealmakers but they’re not driving this at this point.
MS. REID: Exactly. It doesn’t appear to be a priority here. We saw the Treasury has also started to roll back some of the relief programs that they put in place earlier this year. And when it comes to the coronavirus and its economic impact, according to our sources on the taskforce, these doctors have made it clear to the vice president that this is a dire situation. Earlier this week they told the vice president: We could see up to 2,000 deaths a day by Christmas. It’s easy to see not only the human toll but also the economic toll. The situation is going to get worse. But at this point, it does not appear that any sort of economic relief is a priority here at the Trump White House.
MR. COSTA: Paula, a quick follow up, is the president still listening to Dr. Scott Atlas of Stanford University, who’s been critical of governors and their responses to the pandemic?
MS. REID: Scott Atlas is still – Dr. Scott Atlas – is still here at the White House. He does media appearances. He does not answer questions from reporters. And according to my sources on the task force, he will often attend meetings, but he will not speak. Some people suggest that perhaps he’s there just to report back to the president. Now, these other doctors, though, they made it clear to the vice president that he and the president must get out. They must get out and get the message to Americans. They have to start taking measures to mitigate this spread. And I can say, one thing after covering this for nearly a year now, is the federal government has failed in its messaging to convince people that this truly is a threat and that they need to take it seriously, and now they have the challenge of trying to convince people to take a vaccine for something they haven’t even convinced them is a threat, and there’s a lot of concerns about the vaccine and how quickly it moved. The challenges are enormous, and it’s just not clear how they’re going to meet this moment.
MR. COSTA: And the Biden team has its own challenges. They’re frustrated. Here is President-elect Biden this week.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If we have to wait until January 20th to start that planning, it puts us behind over a month, month and a half, and so it’s important that it be done, that there be coordination now.
MR. COSTA: Peter, Emily Murphy at the General Services Administration won’t allow the transition to happen – high-level intelligence briefings, federal funds. What does that mean for President-elect Biden?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think you saw the president-elect put his finger on it. I mean, in many instances in many areas of the government it may not make that big a difference because the team coming in just left four years ago. His team is full of people who have a lot of government experience. They know where the bodies are buried and how the system works. But the one area where it clearly has a great deal of urgency is on this issue of the COVID pandemic and particularly the distribution of this vaccine. As he described it, of course, they need to be able to hit the ground running on day one to keep the distribution of this going and make sure it’s heading in the right direction because you can’t afford even a day or a week of delay. That means – every week of delay is – are people who are going to die as a result of this, so that’s why there’s a sense of urgency there. Here’s the one sliver of good news, though, Bob, I would say. You saw the president take credit for the vaccine, and whether he deserves it or not the point is he is invested in it. And that means, assuming President-elect Biden is also invested in this vaccine, we may have a situation where politically, at least, it’s not drawn on partisan lines, because they have to convince the public that the vaccine is safe and something that they want to take. And if you have both President Trump and incoming President Biden endorsing the vaccine, that will go a long way toward taking the politics out of that equation for many Americans.
MR. COSTA: Inside the Biden transition team, Asma, do you see any kind of back-channeling to try to get ready despite the GSA not approving a transition?
MS. KHALID: From what we’ve been told, at least, as regards to COVID, you know, they don’t have the information they say they need. You know, one thing to Peter’s point again is that he does and he continues to work with a number of public health officials who were a part of the Obama administration, so there is expertise and knowhow. But the challenge for them, they say, is that they don’t have access to current real-time information, so they’re relying on, say, the public dashboards that we all laypeople rely on too for what’s going on around the COVID crisis. So they don’t have access, they’re saying, to both vaccine deployment, but also, you know, clear information on, say, personal protective equipment stockpiles, and so they’re trying to compensate for that in other ways. Earlier this week Biden and Harris both met with a group of bipartisan governors and they were able to get some information from those governors about what are some of the resource problems that they had with the federal government and what are some of the stockpile concerns, as well as vaccine deployment concerns. And so by speaking with governors, both Republicans and Democrats, they were able to get some of that information, of course.
MR. COSTA: And Asma, quickly, are we going to see any Cabinet nominations next week?
MS. KHALID: Joe Biden hinted that we might see a treasury secretary announcement somewhere around Thanksgiving.
MR. COSTA: Paula, what are you looking for next week when you open your notebook?
MS. REID: Well, I’m looking to see what the president is going to do with his pardon power over the next two months. I’m looking at this every single day. This is incredibly significant because long before we knew the outcome of the election someone suggested to me that if the president did not win, given his significant debts and his enormous – really blanket – power to pardon people or commute their sentences, that there was a danger there, that there could be a lot of grift happening here. So we’re looking very closely if the president is trying to pardon any of his friends, preemptively pardoning his associates or family members, or if there is any sort of exchange or grift for people looking for a pardon, looking for a commutation.
MR. COSTA: I thought you were going to talk about maybe pardoning the turkey next week for Thanksgiving.
MS. REID: That too. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: That too, we’ll have to keep an eye out for that. As for me, I’ll keep watching Leader McConnell – what’s he going to do, when’s he going to speak out, what is he going to say. Peter, we’re going to have to leave it there but we’ll get to you in the Extra, and keep talking politics throughout all of this. Thank you so much for being here. That’s all the time we have for tonight. Peter Baker, Asma Khalid, and Paula Reid, thank you so much for being here at Washington Week. And we’ll keep taking you all as close to the news as we can. Our conversation continues, as I said, on our Extra on our social media and website.
And before we go, I’d like to bid farewell to Washington Week’s longtime associate director, Mary Frances Sirianne. After a great run at WETA, she’ll now be able to actually relax on Friday nights during her retirement. Wish her all the best.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.