ROBERT COSTA: President Trump’s declaration of grievance.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I thought it looked OK. It looked like the Lone Ranger.
MR. COSTA: As coronavirus cases hit record highs, the president stands alone and fights a culture war. His approach has Republicans on edge and there is alarm in both parties about reports of Russian bounties on American troops.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Lead. Get out of the way so others can, Mr. President.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump will speak tonight at Mount Rushmore ahead of Independence Day. The visit captures the president at this moment, turning to symbols from the past and rallying his base as his campaign faces mounting challenges. Native American leaders are outraged. They are worried that the event, where face coverings are not required, could spread the coronavirus and that it violates their claim to the land. Meanwhile, jobs numbers have improved, but the economic crisis continues – so do protests over racial injustice – and many states are now pulling back on reopening as case numbers soar.
Joining us tonight are four aces who cover the White House: Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent for CBS News; Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for National Public Radio; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios.
Ayesha, I just got off the phone a minute ago with a Trump campaign adviser who told me this speech tonight at Mount Rushmore, he’s going to go after the, quote, “left-wing mob;” he’s going to go after, quote, “cancel culture.” Is this part of a pattern we’ve seen all week with the president stoking racial and cultural tension?
AYESHA RASCOE: Yes, I mean, this is clearly where the president feels most comfortable, basically talking about White grievances, talking about, you know, the culture war, monuments, things of that nature, the radical left. That’s where he wants to be and that’s what he wants to be talking about because he doesn’t want to be talking about all that other stuff you mentioned, like the Russian bounties, and he definitely doesn’t want to be talking about the cases that are surging and the reopening that is not going the way that he said that it would be going. So he’s leaning back on those things that worked for him in 2016 and hoping that they’ll work for him now.
MR. COSTA: Are they working for him? Weijia, when you talk to White House officials and Trump advisers, what are they telling you? He’s been attacking Black Lives Matter all week.
WEIJIA JIANG: Well, you know, Bob, if you just look at what’s happened this week, it’s been a really challenging one for President Trump because of this very matter. He started the week retweeting supporters who were shouting “White power” and then the White House had to clean that up and say that he didn’t hear the audio in that video. And then he was tweeting about Black Lives Matter and, you know, criticizing the mayor of New York for his plan to paint it along Fifth Avenue, saying it would denigrate the luxury avenue and calling it a symbol of hate, which required even more cleanup, having to say that the president was referring to the organization Black Lives Matter and not the words; of course, he did not make that distinction in his tweet. And I think what you’re seeing is just the president again being out of touch with what’s happening throughout the country as Americans grapple with how to expel racism and having these really tough conversations that he is only making worse. And so I think when you talk to White House officials, they acknowledge that he’s not doing himself any favors. When you talk to campaign sources, they tell us that, look, yes, the president is, as Ayesha said, you know, talking to his base, but if they’re focused on those battleground states where he’s trying to get moderates it doesn’t seem like this is a good plan.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, are they shaking up this campaign at all as they look at these poll numbers?
JONATHAN SWAN: There’s been a minor shakeup this week. Jared Kushner appointed a friend of his to be the chief operating officer and sidelined Michael Glassner, who was running the rallies. This is in the wake of the debacle at Tulsa, where the crowd was not what was anticipated. The other dynamic at play is Jared Kushner has been belittling Brad Parscale, the campaign manager, in meetings in front of other people, and there’s been a lot of finger-pointing and blame-shifting to go around both inside the White House and the campaign. That’s often what happens when numbers are what we are right now. He’s fallen out of his usual polling range. He’s suffering – he’s softened a little bit even among Republicans. But certainly, the bottom has fallen out with independents. They’ve got this horrific gender gap, which has been pretty consistent. And the other problem they’ve got, which you talk to people on the campaign they don’t really know the answer to, is there just isn’t the visceral hatred for Joe Biden among the public that there was for Hillary Clinton. There’s about a 20-percentage-point gap in the very unfavorable rating that Joe Biden has versus what Hillary Clinton had this time last cycle, so they’re trying to figure out ways to demonize Joe Biden and they don’t have much time.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, just a quick follow up here. You said the president is hearing from Jared Kushner, who’s now souring on Brad Parscale, the campaign manager. Is the president souring on his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has pushed criminal justice reform and other issues with him?
MR. SWAN: President Trump has in several conversations over the last week told people that he regretted following Jared Kushner’s advice in going for criminal justice reform, and he’s made very clear that he’s not going to do any more of this outreach to – like police reform, for example. Trump flirted with that recently. You’re not going to see any more of that flirtation. He is going hardline, unequivocally siding with law enforcement. You’re not going to see any more actions that could be seen as being sympathetic to the protest movement, full stop. He is going full Trump, full base, entirely gut instincts from here to November.
MR. COSTA: Peter, as Republicans watch this – you’re writing a book about James Baker, one of the leaders of the Republican establishment, with your wife, Susan Glasser. As they watch this president go to Mount Rushmore, play to his base, are they – what do they see, and are they ready to break with him in any way?
PETER BAKER: Well, I think they see a president who’s self-destructive. They see a president who doesn’t seem to be doing the things that they think he needs to do in order to get back on track and begin to win again. Right now he’s behind double digits in multiple polls. He can – he can write all he wants about how they’re fake, but in fact, most Republicans believe the polls are pretty accurate at this point. And you haven’t seen an incumbent president since 1948 who was this far behind in July come back and win. This is not a very strong position for an incumbent to be in, and it’s not a very strong incumbent who is busy playing to his base this late in the cycle rather than trying to reach out. This is a president who’s not reaching out. He’s not trying to expand the support he had when he came to office. He’s trying simply to consolidate those people who were with him four years ago to be with him again. That worked four years ago – he pulled an inside straight, won the Electoral College but without winning the popular vote – but the question about – the chances of doing that again this year, especially if the popular vote is as distant as it looks at the moment, are pretty grim. Having said that, this is a president who has defied the odds before. Four years ago at this time, Republicans wrote him off as well. They thought he was a loser. They thought he was going to bring them all down. They worried about what would happen to the House. They worried about what would happen to the Senate. So you’re seeing some of the same kind of similarities right now, where Republicans are kind of looking at an every person for himself kind of attitude. But he has a way of surprising people, and 120 days in Trump world is an eternity.
MR. COSTA: That’s true – an hour is an eternity in Trump world, as we all know three and a half years into covering this presidency. Weijia, we just saw some images from South Dakota from that event at Mount Rushmore. It did not look like there was social distancing going on as a band played. What’s the White House’s view as these coronavirus cases spike nationwide and states pull back on the reopening?
MS. JIANG: Well, I think we are seeing a departure from many top officials, especially doctors, from President Trump an the messaging that he wants to send out – which, by the way, is on full display tonight in South Dakota because the Republican governor there says social distancing will not be required, masks will be optional, and here he is addressing a crowd of about 7,500 people I think wanting to show people that, you know, here we are on 4th of July, let’s have a great celebration and a good time, never mind the fact that this week we are seeing records set again in this country for the number of cases. And so I think is important to note, though, for example, Dr. Fauci, Admiral Brett Giroir – who is in charge of testing – this week have publicly said things that I imagine make the president very angry, Dr. Fauci saying that he expects the numbers to go up even more, to possibly 100,000 a day, while the president is saying that he thinks the virus is just going to disappear. The president insists that the only reason why cases are going up is because there’s more testing; Admiral Giroir said under oath that that’s only partly true because the number of positive cases are going up too. And finally, you have Vice President Mike Pence, who is embracing wearing masks in public and finally urging the public to do so as well. And so even though for all this time the president has tried very hard to be the messenger in chief, we are finally seeing those around him saying something differently because you just cannot deny the fact that we do not have control of this.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, to build off that point from Weijia, you listen to Vice President Biden’s speech this week and you hear a candidate, a contender who’s talking about the coronavirus, putting it front and center and raising questions about leadership with President Trump. When you open your notebook and you look back at this week for Biden, what do – what do you think this week revealed?
MS. RASCOE: Well, this week revealed a candidate who is able to lean in and is trying to hammer away on President Trump’s weaknesses, all those things that we talked – that we’ve been talking about. What the Biden campaign sees is an opportunity for Biden to present himself as the responsible leader willing to tell you the truth, even though it’s not fun – yes, you still need to wear your mask, you need to go – you need to socially distance, we’re not through with this yet – and really taking it seriously. And when you look at polls, that seems to be more where the public is than where President Trump is. The public supports wearing masks. The public supports, you know, putting health and safety first over reopening the economy. So it seems like that’s where the people are, but for some reason President Trump is refusing to do that. And especially when you look at older voters, who President Trump absolutely needs but he’s now having troubles with, they don’t want to necessarily take these risks, especially with their own health, but President Trump is, you know, asking them to come out without masks and celebrate him. And so I think that what you see over and over again is Biden drawing that differentiation from him and President Trump, and Trump still struggling to define Biden.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, you got me thinking, maybe we need to get some Washington Week face coverings at some point. We’ll have to think about that with our team here. But Jonathan, I want you to jump in.
MS. RASCOE: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: Yeah, we’ll consult with you, Ayesha, on that. Jonathan, I was looking at the jobs numbers this week – we’re all looking at the jobs numbers – there’s some recovery but the economy’s still in crisis. Do the numbers mean the White House could be more open at this point to a second stimulus?
MR. SWAN: That’s a really good question. I don’t think it’s – I actually don’t think it’s the right question, though. I think the real question is, will Mitch McConnell be open to revising. I don’t have any sense that Donald Trump would have any fiscal restraint. If given his own way, he, I think, would – the sky’s the limit as to what stimulus he would inject into the economy to give himself a nice fiscal run through to November. The real challenge is Mitch McConnell. And when McConnell met with Trump and discussed this in the Oval, he set a pretty hard cap of 1 trillion (dollars). He wanted this next package to be under 1 trillion (dollars). The last time I checked in with someone close to McConnell was a few days ago, and they said that that still stands. I don’t know if that’s sustainable. I think they’re probably going to have to go more than that because it does look like it’s going to be a bumpy road to November. We have had some of the biggest states, the most powerful economic states, like Texas and California, have to retreat a little from their reopening, so that surely has to change the calculations.
MR. COSTA: Never forget about Mitch McConnell; that’s good advice for all us reporters because he is a factor. Congress is a factor. And that reminds me that the president this week is also facing incoming on national security from Congress and elsewhere. According to the Times, Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American and coalition troops in Afghanistan. The Times reported that the intelligence was part of the president’s daily briefing document back in February. The president has lashed out in response, calling the suggestion that he played down or ignored Russian threats a hoax, and he has claimed some officials did not find the information credible. Here is former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The presidential daily brief is something I read every single day as vice president. The president read it every day. So the idea that somehow he didn’t know or isn’t being briefed, it is a dereliction of duty if that’s the case. And if he was briefed and nothing was done about this, that’s a dereliction of duty.
MR. COSTA: Peter, what is the latest on this story?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, look, I think that you had two things going on here. One is, of course, you’ve got the question of how this president deals with information he doesn’t want to hear, right? He has made very clear to his intelligence briefers over the years, his advisers over the years, that negative information about Russia isn’t really welcome, and this information was put into his daily brief – the written brief, which apparently he doesn’t read very often according to John Bolton and some of his other former aides – in late February, just days before he was about to seal a deal – a peace deal with the Taliban. That’s unwelcome from his point of view because it might have scotched up that last-minute negotiation. And the second question is, what about his policy toward Russia? And what you’ve heard this last week is much more anger about the media than you have anger about whether the Russians might be targeting American soldiers. You hear from the Hill Republicans like Liz Cheney and others, who are, you know, known conservatives, longtime staunch skeptics of Russia, they said things like, look, if this is true this is something we can’t stand, that this is – America has to make clear to Russia and anybody else that they cannot threaten our soldiers. Those are words you didn’t hear the president say this week. He didn’t give any indication that there was any concern whatsoever about whether this was true or not. Now, it’s possible that the intelligence isn’t complete, right? This is – no question, intelligence is often a sketchy thing. It’s a – it’s a balance between different pieces of – shards of information. You’re trying to make a best judgment. But presidents have acted on incomplete intelligence before because you have to make that judgment. When President Obama launched the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he was told by his intelligence officials it was only a 50/50 shot that it was really bin Laden there and he decided to take the chance. So the idea that the president wouldn’t be told simply because it wasn’t 100 percent confirmed or because some intelligence official disagreed with it raises a lot of questions.
MR. COSTA: We saw Vice President Biden there, Weijia, talking about the president and – this is a campaign issue as well as a national security issue. The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump conservative group, Republican group, is going after the president on this matter. Inside the White House, do they see some traditional Republicans peeling away because of this issue, or not?
MS. JIANG: Well, I think Republicans have made really clear that they want answers and that they want to know, too, what the president knew and when he knew it. I think that’s one outstanding answer that we do not have, because even though the White House says the president does read and he is the most informed person on planet Earth, what we don’t know is why he didn’t read this particular information because we have sources, too, that confirmed it was in his daily brief. And it sort of – he’s damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, because if he did read it, why didn’t he do something with that information? If he didn’t read it, why not? As we heard from Biden, he read the brief every single day. And so I think there’s concerns there about how the president is handling this information, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, and it goes again to the heart of what has really troubled President Trump from the beginning, which is his reluctance to be tough on Russia despite his claim that nobody’s ever been tougher. I also think it’s important, Bob, to point out, you know, we don’t know what he means when he says the Russia bounty story is a hoax because his own national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said they were so worried about this information that they did share it with U.S. forces and allies, and so I think he still has a lot of questions to answer – and to your point, to Republicans who want to know.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, how are we going to get answers to those questions? We’ve seen the images this week – the Gang of Eight on Capitol Hill hearing from Gina Haspel, from the CIA. We’ve seen Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, make some statements. Is the White House thinking about declassifying some of this information to help the public/reporters get a better sense of what the information is and what was part of that briefing?
MR. SWAN: So I’ve heard different conversations in there about declassifying parts of this to try and give a fuller picture, but what I – what I’m not clear on is the way in which – I do think they are going to have to reveal more information, more than anything to appease some of these Republicans on the Hill that you were talking about earlier. But I don’t know in what form they’re going to do that, because if it’s done in the sort of cloak and dagger, selective leaks to favored reporters or favored outlets, it’s not going to be credible and it’s not going to be believable, and if – particularly if the selective information is advantageous to the president’s side of the story. I think the only way to clear this up is through open testimony, really putting it out there in a public fashion, on the record. I think that’s the only way that you’re going to appease someone like a Liz Cheney.
MR. COSTA: Peter, what’s the context of all of this in terms of geopolitics? You have Putin this week working to extend his power in Russia. You also have President Trump still talking about possibly bringing Russia back into the G-7, expanding it into the G-8. Is that still on the table?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s one of the things that makes this so curious, right? In between the time that the White House had this information and the time that it was disclosed in the press, the president called and talked to Vladimir Putin five, six times. He talked about bringing him to Washington to join the G-7 and sort of rejoin, in effect, the community of nations after its incursion into Ukraine when it was thrown out in 2014. And the idea that the president would either, A, not be told about this relevant information prior to having these conversations with Vladimir Putin and making this kind of an outreach to him; or, B, that he would be told about it and yet still make this kind of outreach; raises a lot of questions about his relationship with Putin. Now, when they say that this administration’s been tough on Russia, they can certainly point to a number of things. There have certainly been sanctions that have put on. There have certainly been – you know, weapons were provided to Ukraine, other policy decisions that were made that have been, you know, standing up to Russian aggression, if you will. But what you haven’t heard is the president of the United States articulate that. When he says I’m tough on Russia, he doesn’t ever say one thing that’s challenging to Vladimir Putin personally. He doesn’t, in fact, say anything that would seem to upset the Russian leadership. So for Russia, as you point out, which is in the middle of its own political consolidation of power, Vladimir Putin now authorized by a referendum to stay in power now into the 2030s, they’re looking at a situation where they are – you know, they’re able to get away with an awful lot of things without the kind of challenge from the leader of the United States that they have been used to in the course of the last number of decades.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, just in the final few minutes here, I want to come back to the campaign because it’s really on everybody’s mind inside the White House on this beat. Is what’s next for this Trump campaign, as they faced a troubled rally in Tulsa, now this event in Mount Rushmore for President Trump, the slide in the polls – what are you hearing as summer heats up?
MS. RASCOE: Well, it seems like what stands out to me is what I’m not hearing, and that’s not – and that’s not really any type of being nimble on their feet and kind of changing and adjusting to what seems to be a shifting landscape in America when it comes to race and when it comes to all these issues; instead – or into the surging, you know, coronavirus cases. What you’re hearing is kind of the same rhetoric that we’ve been hearing all along. When you listen to some of these campaign calls, they’re still talking about, you know, unemployment numbers back from, you know, before the coronavirus that are no longer relevant. And so it doesn’t seem like they’re really adjusting, and they were really banking on this idea that they were going to have this V-shaped recovery. President Trump is still saying that today, but that hasn’t happened. And they’re still talking about this idea that, well, they still have time to define Biden – people know of Biden but they don’t know who he is the way the campaign wants them to. My question is, if you haven’t defined him now, when are you going to define him? What are you waiting on? And so that’s the thing.
MR. COSTA: Weijia, you want to jump in here as well?
MS. JIANG: Well, I think also physically it’s hard for the campaign right now because they did see what happened after Tulsa and they saw all the criticism that followed when he went to Phoenix a couple days later. I mean, there were several members of his own advance team who tested positive for COVID and now you have Herman Cain, who is one of his supporters, testing positive, and there are no campaign rallies on the schedule right now. I think it’s really interesting to see when they’ll have another one.
MR. COSTA: We have to wrap up our conversation right here so you can all start enjoying the holiday weekend. Thank you very much to our reporters: Weijia Jiang, Ayesha Rascoe, Peter Baker, and Jonathan Swan.
On the Extra, author Kate Andersen Brower will take us insider her new book, Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump. Catch it on our social media or on our website.
But for now, we wish you only the best as our nation marks Independence Day. Stay safe in the pursuit of happiness.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.