AMNA NAWAZ: Turning back Trump policies and tackling multiple crises, President Biden marks one week in office.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This is a wartime undertaking.
MS. NAWAZ: The White House works to ramp up vaccinations.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) This is a wakeup call to all of us.
MS. NAWAZ: As the pandemic’s deadliest month ends. President Biden continues to call for unity, but Republicans remain divided on former President Trump.
SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From video.) This impeachment is nothing more than a partisan exercise designed to further divide the country.
MS. NAWAZ: And concerns rise over continued violence on Capitol Hill.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The enemy is within the House of Representatives.
MS. NAWAZ: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. NAWAZ: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Amna Nawaz.
It’s been just over one week since President Biden took office and he’s already signed dozens of executive orders on everything from climate change to health care to racial equity, in many cases battling the legacy of his predecessor. The nation, meanwhile, continues its battle against COVID-19. Nationally infections have trended downward lately, but new more-transmissible strains have now been found in the U.S. Over 3,800 people died on Thursday alone, bringing the total death toll in the United States to over 430,000 people, and concerns over the speed of vaccinations continue.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) But the brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated – months.
MS. NAWAZ: A public health crisis, an economic crisis, and an opposition party at war with itself – the Biden administration is facing conflict on several fronts. How will they respond?
Joining us tonight, four reporters covering it all: Garrett Haake is correspondent for NBC News; Weijia Jiang is senior White House correspondent for CBS News; Sarah Kliff is an investigative reporter for The New York Times covering the American health-care system; and Anita Kumar is White House correspondent and associate editor for Politico.
Welcome to you all, and let’s begin with the pandemic. Sarah, I want to ask you about the news out of Washington that affects the entire country, and that is the vaccine rollout. Every state has had some kind of issue. Most states have issues with supply and distribution. What do we know about the Biden plan moving forward? When will people out there watching be able to get their vaccines?
SARAH KLIFF: You know, it’s an excellent question that I and millions of Americans are wondering about, and you do see the Biden administration, you know, setting up a plan that is a little more thorough than the Trump administration. They are taking advantage of options to purchase extra vaccines from drug makers. They are talking about the possibility of setting up these mass vaccination sites. But the fact remains that it’s going to take a while – as we just heard President Biden saying at the top of the show, this is going to be a months-long effort. The Biden administration does believe they’ve been able to purchase enough doses to vaccinate 300 million Americans by this summer, but again, that’s a months-long timeline when we’ve all been in quarantine, obviously, for quite a while. So they are, you know, ramping up, they are trying to get this right, but we are seeing it’s still a hard thing to vaccinate the entire country at once and it’s going to be an effort that stretches into much of this year.
MS. NAWAZ: It’s an unprecedented effort for sure. And Weijia, we know that President Biden has much of his team now in place, even though his nominee to run HHS, Xavier Becerra, has yet to be confirmed – that’s, of course, a key post when it comes to the COVID response. But based on your reporting, what is that team working on? What deals are they working towards? Where is their focus when it comes to curbing the pandemic?
WEIJIA JIANG: Well, as we were just talking about, it really is trying to get as many shots in the arm as possible, and that means having the supplies to do it – everything from the syringes that are required to the vials to the vaccine itself. And we saw this week the president talking about ordering more of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and so they’re really focused on making sure that there aren’t any points along the supply chain that are going to be held up. Of course, that is really difficult because even though the president has invoked the Defense Production Act, it’s different from actually compelling companies with contracts, and they are in the process of working out those details and making sure they will have what they need to get the shots in the arms. And then when it comes to the vaccine itself, it’s a little tricky because there is a global demand for the same thing, and so they really have to think about what – other countries have contracts too. But you know, the big picture is very clear: the president is making the pandemic his number-one priority because when he talks about every other crisis that this country is faced with he views it as it being tangled up in COVID-19, and so that’s where he’s beginning from the top.
MS. NAWAZ: Anita, what about making sure those vaccines they want to ramp up are getting to the people who need them most? We’ve all seen the disparities. We’ve reported on them time and time again. We know that Black and Latino and Native communities have been hardest hit. The limited data we have so far shows that that’s not where the vast majority of vaccinations have gone so far. Does the Biden team have a plan to close those gaps?
ANITA KUMAR: Yeah, they’ve talked about it a lot. The vice president’s talked it about a lot. This is one of her issues that she hopes to help with. But so much of what the president wants to do with the vaccine is tied up with Congress, with this massive bill. So you’re talking about vaccines; they want to open vaccine centers at community centers and stadiums and all sorts of places around the country. Well, that all takes money. That’s why you’re seeing the president talking so much about this bill, this $2 trillion bill that he hopes Congress passes that’s really not getting anywhere so far. So so much of what he wants to do is really tied up in the money and Congress giving him that authority and that money to do what he needs to do. We did see a lot of executive orders, but when you look at what those are a lot of that is, you know, things that he already could do or things that – you know, studying things or appointing people or having a commission. What he really needs now is for Congress to pass a bill.
MS. NAWAZ: Well, Garrett, let me ask you about Congress. Before we get into some of the politics of the potential relief deal ahead, one of the clearest sort of visual differences we’ve seen with the Biden administration that a lot of people have noticed between that and his predecessor is just the masking. Every time you see someone from the Biden administration, they are masked – at photo ops, at signings, at briefings. What about on Capitol Hill? There has been some division there before. When you’re walking around there, while people around the country are being asked to take precautions, are lawmakers doing the same?
GARRETT HAAKE: Well, the vast majority of them are, although I have to tell you in Congress it’s moving the opposite direction, in part because so many members have now gotten vaccinated. Now we’re actually at the point where members’ staff are getting vaccinated. They are at the front of the priority line. And while it was controversial, particularly for younger members of Congress to be some of the first people in the country to get their shots, we’re now seeing more and more of them getting even their second doses and starting to move a little bit away from universal masking, although it’s still, you know, the law of the land on Capitol Hill and likely will be for a long time as more and more people who have been largely working remotely start to come back to the complex.
MS. NAWAZ: And Sarah, we mentioned, of course, that new strain, the more transmissible strains that have now made their way to the United States. How has the emergence of that new strain complicated or changed the U.S. pandemic response?
MS. KLIFF: I think it just heightens the importance of vaccination and getting those shots into arms as quick as possible. You’re essentially setting up a race between these variants and the vaccines. I think that was really heightened by news we got today showing that some of the newer vaccines rolling out – Novavax, Johnson and Johnson – are less effective against some of these variants. So really, it just amps up everything that is currently happening. It makes it so much more important to have widespread vaccination quickly because you want to kind of cut these vaccines off, you know, at the knees; you don’t want to let them get – to get too far into the country. I really think it makes the next month or so a really critical period and just heightens the importance of everything the Biden administration is trying to do. Getting shots into people is just so much more important when you have these variants that are more contagious starting to circulate in the country.
MS. NAWAZ: And meanwhile, of course, we should point out the effects of the pandemic and the recession ripple across the country. Millions of Americans are struggling to stay safe and fed and in their homes, and the country’s GDP is shrinking more than in any year since just after World War II. Just yesterday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this about the path forward for a COVID relief bill.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We would hope that we would have bipartisan cooperation to meet the needs of the American people in terms of their health, in terms of distribution in an equitable way of the vaccine, continue with testing, tracing, treatment, et cetera, but also to meet their economic needs. So we would hope that, but we’re not taking any tools off the table should they not.
MS. NAWAZ: Garrett, what is the latest on that bill? How soon will Americans get the help that they need from Congress?
MR. HAAKE: It’s going to be a little while. And it’s interesting, while the administration and even Speaker Pelosi are talking about the importance of bipartisanship, everything we’re seeing lawmakers actually do on Capitol Hill suggests that Democrats are preparing to go it alone, to try to pass this bill through the budget reconciliation process. That will take more time. They’ve got to pass a budget resolution. It’s a much more technical thing to get something across the finish line.
But when you look at what’s in this $1.9 trillion bill – things like hundreds of millions of dollars – excuse me – hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments, those expanded direct relief checks at $1,400 a pop, expanded unemployment benefits – those were things that were probably never going to get the 10 Republican senators that Democrats would need had a President Trump proposed it. It’s unlikely to be the case under a President Biden.
So Democrats are still talking about bipartisanship here, but it’s largely, I think, a warning to Republicans: You can be on this train when we pass this bill or you can not be on this train. But Democrats seem committed to pushing ahead, even – and especially increasingly likely – doing so by themselves.
MS. NAWAZ: Weijia, what do we know about the White House stance on this? I mean, they’ve been asked about their willingness to breakup that stimulus package potentially into multiple bills to try to force things through. Do we know what they’re willing to give on, or cut, or compromise on to get people the help they need?
MS. JIANG: Well, the White House has made very clear – and they’ve said on the record many times, in many different ways, and from the president himself – that they are not interested in cutting this deal up and having a more narrow deal to address some of the more immediate needs, because they really feel that this entire package is needed for the long term to salvage this crippled economy. In fact, just today President Biden was with his treasury secretary saying that the time to act is now, because there could be a real scar left on the economy if we don’t invest this money and if we wait.
And so they’ve made clear, as Garrett was just saying, that they want to pass this bill. And they don’t really see that there’s another option to wait any longer, to wait for some sort of, you know, compromise to happen. But you know, this is challenging for President Trump – or, excuse me. (Laughter.) Four years of covering one administration. For President Biden, of course, because, you know, he has preached from day one the importance of unity, not only for the country but for these two parties that could not be more divided.
And, you know, going at it alone for his very first piece of major legislation sets a tone about, you know, what he is willing to do without Republicans. So of course their number-one goal is to find the support they need. But it just doesn’t look like it’s going to get there.
MS. NAWAZ: Sarah Kliff, briefly before we let you go, we’ve seen President Biden moving ahead unilaterally with things he can do alone, signing some new executive orders related to health care, specifically expanding access to the Affordable Care Act, particularly during a pandemic. What’s the potential impact of that?
MS. KLIFF: Yeah, so this will be a new open enrollment period on the Healthcare.gov marketplaces. It will run from February 15th to May 15th. It’s essentially a do-over on the open enrollment period which just closed in December. The Biden administration didn’t like how the Trump administration ran it. There was no advertising. They feel people didn’t know about it. So this’ll be a new chance for the Biden administration to tell Americans: The marketplaces are open. You can shop for coverage. We know there’s about 4 million people out there who could be eligible for no-premium plans. They’re trying to reach that population.
You know, we think the impact is going to be small, not giant. A modest number of signups from reopening the marketplaces. I think this goes back to our earlier conversation. You’d see a lot bigger impact if you could increase the subsidies to draw some more people in, make premiums even more affordable. That requires congressional action. It is part of the $2 trillion stimulus package we’ve been talking about. So that part is caught up in congressional negotiations.
So really this is what the Biden administration can do on their own to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. And it suggests, you know, a posture from the Biden administration that they obviously care about this law. We know Joe Biden, how he’s characterized Obamacare in the past. He thinks it’s quite important. And he’s essentially announcing it’s still open for business and we are going to keep supporting it now that we’re in the White House.
MS. NAWAZ: That is Sarah Kliff of The New York Times, joining us with some important health care reporting there. Sarah, thanks so much. Always good to see you.
MS. KLIFF: Thank you.
MS. NAWAZ: Let’s turn back now to Capitol Hill and some of the forces at play. There is a split among Republicans whether to denounce or to embrace the lie President Trump told about the election being stolen – a lie that led to violence at the Capitol earlier this month. One week after the attack House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said this.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.
MS. NAWAZ: One week after that, McCarthy changed his tune.
QUESTIONER: (From video.) Do you believe that President – former President Trump provoked?
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) I don’t believe he provoked, if you listen to what he said at the rally.
MS. NAWAZ: And this week McCarthy, on a fundraising trip to Florida, met with former President Trump, sending out this photo. Garrett, what do we know about what the two talked about and, particularly for McCarthy, why was this meeting important?
MR. HAAKE: Well, they seem to have agreed that President Trump is going to be – former President Trump is going to be front and center of the House Republicans, at least, their attempt to recapture the majority in 2022. We saw this conversation in Mar-a-Lago. Both sides put out statements talking about the former president’s centrality to the Republican mission. And, look, this is the challenge for Republicans on Capitol Hill from a political perspective. What kind of party do they want to be? There are competing elements here.
Do you want to be kind of an old school, small-C conservative, like Liz Cheney, kind of a deficit hawk, a military hawk? Do you want to try to recast the party as a working-class populist party, like a Josh Hawley or Marco Rubio wants to do? Or do you go full MAGA, like Matt Gaetz or, perhaps what we’re seeing here, like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy? I mean, putting Trump at the center of the House Republican plan, you know, we saw that essentially in 2018 when Donald Trump was still president. How it looks in 2022 is anybody’s guess. And whether it’s a smart bet on the future of the party, I mean, I guess we’ll see. But that does seem to be the direction they’re going.
MS. NAWAZ: Anita, you covered the Trump White House as well. When you look at this meeting, what stands out to you? What’s important to understand about the relationship between McCarthy and Trump, and the party moving forward?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, I mean, I think you just need to look at the number of votes that President Trump got. Obviously, he lost, but he got 74 million people to vote for him. And, yes, a lot of those were Republicans who were going to vote for whoever the Republican candidate was or is, but a lot of them voted for President Trump. They weren’t in the party before. They support him. They want him. It’s about those votes out there. The Republican Party does not want to lose those votes. They want, you know, them for the midterm elections, like we were just talking about.
They see that they could possibly get the House back and they need President Trump. He has been pretty quiet since he has left Washington, but you’ve already seen him starting to make some statements, put out some statements from his new office, hire some people. He is going to be vocal. It may not be on Twitter, but it is going to be possibly in interviews and statements, and even political events. And so they know he’s going to be out there. You’re already seeing the people – the Republicans that were opposing him, that voted against him on impeachment, those 10 Republicans – facing this enormous backlash back home.
And so what they’re looking at, what people are looking at is they’re looking at the totality of Donald Trump’s influence on the party. And they’re seeing right now anyway it’s better to stick with him.
MS. NAWAZ: And there is a little bit of a reckoning, we should say, within the entire Republican Party, how to handle members who have embraced dangerous conspiracy theories, even shown support for some violent content targeting Democrats. During Marjorie Taylor Greene’s congressional campaign last year she posted this photo of herself with a gun alongside Democratic members of Congress. Facebook then removed that photo for violating their standards. And this is Greene in video reported on this week from 2019 following and confronting teenager David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting.
REPRESENTATIVE MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-GA): (From video.) Why are you supporting red flag gun laws that attack our Second Amendment rights? And why are you using kids to get – as a barrier? He’s a coward. He can’t say one word because he can’t defend his stance because there is no defense for taking away guns.
MS. NAWAZ: Weijia, we learned this week that Greene had shown support online for posts that were calling for violence against Democrats. How are both Republicans and Democrats responding to all this?
MS. JIANG: Well, it is tricky, right, because this is such a polarizing figure who you would expect that people would be able to immediately reprimand, but you know, so far we have seen mixed reactions, and you know, that is something that, you know, both parties, I think, are going to have to reckon with. But I think Garrett, having talked to many of these lawmakers much more often than I do, can speak more to sort of how they’re trying to deal with this because, again, from the outside it seems, you know, the evidence is there. There’s no question about what we are seeing and what we are hearing. I will say that the White House and President Biden so far have not weighed in; in fact, they’ve been pressed about this and have said, you know, we aren’t going to say anything because we don’t want to fuel anything that has to do with conspiracy theories that are so dangerous to our democracy.
MS. NAWAZ: Garrett, what has been the broader response to this, especially among concerns about continued violence? We know that Homeland Security issued a warning about potentially more violence in the weeks ahead in Washington.
MR. HAAKE: Well, look, some Democrats think she’s downright dangerous. New member of Congress Cori Bush said she was going to move her office in the Capitol so she wasn’t as close to Ms. Greene. Democrats are calling for her to be censured, calling for her to be expelled, but this goes to my larger point earlier about the Republican Party. Republicans have been mostly silent about some of her more controversial statements and behaviors. They’re not quite sure what to make of her. There’s been no public effort to rebuke her or to change her tune, although NBC, we reported tonight that Kevin McCarthy is going to have some kind of conversation with her about this next week, but even late tonight Ms. Greene put out a statement really doubling down on her combative style. And this isn’t really a surprise; she was like this in Georgia. She was sort of a professional internet troll before she ran for Congress. She won unopposed, ultimately, after her Democratic opponent dropped out in that race, but she comes from one of the most Republican-leaning districts in the country. She could hold that seat for a very long time, and Speaker Pelosi said this week it’s going to be up to Republicans to decide whether or not to rein her in. Democrats will hang every comment she makes around the neck of every Republican in a competitive district come 2022, that I can promise you.
MS. NAWAZ: Anita, what does all this mean for President Biden moving forward? There are clear fissures in the Republican Party. There is rising tensions on Capitol Hill. What does that mean for Biden and his agenda?
MS. KUMAR: Well, it just makes it all the more difficult. I mean, even though, obviously, the Democrats have the House and the Senate by really, really narrow margins, he’s got to get some Republicans onboard if he wants to pass significant legislation, not even the coronavirus bill but just down the road. I mean, he already unveiled a comprehensive immigration bill in his first 24 hours. So he does need to get some of that support, but they are fractured. His own party is somewhat fractured as well. I mean, we’re used to both of those things, and it makes it much more difficult for him. It does seem to be that the reality is setting in a little bit as you see that President Biden is talking about unity, he wants everyone to get onboard, you starting to see that, you know, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talking about we’re going to go it alone, we don’t need Republicans. They’re not really on the same page here. All the things that President Biden talked about in the campaign, the reality is setting in that he’s got to get some things done, particularly on coronavirus, and that might mean they just have to go it alone as much as they can.
MS. NAWAZ: Weijia, very briefly – I apologize for a big question in less than a minute – but of course, there is an impeachment trial looming and people have tried to get President Biden to react or weigh in on it. Has he done so?
MS. JIANG: Well, the furthest that he’s willing to go so far is saying that he does think it has to happen, that the trial has to happen because the effect of it not happening would be even worse because, you know, you cannot allow anybody to do what President Trump has done without any consequences. However, you know, he, as we have been talking about all night, has so many things that he needs to get done up on Capitol Hill, so you know, it is a time suck, which he has acknowledged himself, saying that he hopes somehow that the lawmakers will be able to split up their workdays to do it all. But this does come right in the middle of really tense negotiations for his number-one priority, which is passing that huge stimulus bill, so he hasn’t weighed in too much because the White House is very quick to say, look, he is the president of the United States, even though he is the lead of the Democratic Party; again, he is so focused on trying to bring these two sides together and, you know, President Trump has a lot of supporters who are upset that he is going through yet another impeachment trial.
MS. NAWAZ: Another impeachment trial on top of multiple crises in the country. There is a lot to cover, but that is where we’re going to have to leave it tonight. My thanks to you, Garrett, Weijia, and Anita, for joining me and for your insights. And thanks to all of you out there for joining us as well. If January is a guide, there is more uncertainty, more challenges, and more questions for our country ahead. We’re going to try to bring you answers each week from right here in Washington.
Make sure to watch the Washington Week Extra with a deeper look at President Biden’s first week in office. You can stream it on our website and on our social media accounts.
I’m Amna Nawaz. For now, good night from Washington.