ROBERT COSTA: A nation divided and a campaign on the brink.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY KAYLEIGH MCENANY: (From video.) The science should not stand in the way of this.
MR. COSTA: The White House pushes to reopen schools as experts are sidelined and rebuked. Can the president’s campaign overhaul stop his slide, or will the virus upend the 2020 campaign?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Open everything now isn’t a strategy for success. It’s barely a slogan.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Could the virus realign the political map? That is the question on the minds of my sources inside the Trump and Biden campaigns tonight following a week where swing states and red states like Texas continue to see a troubling spike in cases, and in battlegrounds like Georgia governors and mayors are clashing over whether to mandate face coverings and to reopen schools this fall. And inside the White House, top officials tell me they know the Trump presidency is on the line, but they say the president remains defiant, keeping Dr. Anthony Fauci out of his inner circle and overhauling his reelection bid this week with a new campaign manager. His pitch to suburban voters comes down to this: stick with me, or else.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Your home will go down in value and crime rates will rapidly rise. Joe Biden and his bosses from the radical left want to significantly multiply what they’re doing now, and what will be the end result is you will totally destroy the beautiful suburbs.
MR. COSTA: He is also attacking the presumptive Democratic nominee for working with Senator Bernie Sanders and other liberal Democrats. But Biden, he’s shrugging it off, giving a speech this week on climate change and urging the president to listen to health experts.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Mr. President, please listen to your public health experts instead of denigrating them. Quit pushing the false choice between protecting our health and protecting our economy. All it does is endanger our recovery on both fronts.
MR. COSTA: Now let’s welcome four of the best reporters and analysts for our conversation: Jonathan Karl, ABC News chief White House correspondent and author of Front Row at the Trump Show; Asma Khalid, political correspondent for NPR; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report.
Amy, welcome back to Washington Week. How has the virus and this debate over schools changed the 2020 race?
AMY WALTER: There’s no doubt, Bob, that it has changed it dramatically. I mean, if you look at where the president was and where the discussion about the campaign was back in January and February, it was a question about whether a good economy was going to be enough of a tailwind behind a president who had middling job approval ratings, somewhere in the mid-40s or so. We’re now almost a hundred days away from the election. The president’s job approval rating now is down to close to 40 percent, in some cases even getting below 40 percent. He's trailing Joe Biden in the national polls, of course, by anywhere from nine points to double digits, and he’s losing in all of the battleground states. And when you look at where this inflection point began, I think you do have to look to the coronavirus pandemic but also the protests around the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Those are two big crises that got put on President Trump’s plate, and as of now majorities of Americans say that they think the president has not done a good job on both of those. So when you’re in the middle of a crisis as a sitting incumbent and the majority of Americans think that you are not handling that crisis well, it makes it really, really hard for you to make the case to voters that you deserve another four years. And what we’re seeing, as you pointed out in your opening, we’re seeing in states across the country, not just in those battleground states, but softening numbers in what should be safe red states, including places like Montana, Ohio, and Iowa.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, what explains, then, the decision inside the White House by the president to push to reopen the schools?
JONATHAN KARL: Well, look, they believe that this is an issue that the president has the support of suburban voters. They know that, look, most Americans want the schools to be open. Most families want their children to go back to school. Heck, even most children want to go back to school. But the issue is they’ve gone through it with this dictate, not with any kind of a plan for doing it safely, so I don’t think it has worked the way that they intended it to work. But they thought this was an issue – this was an issue that they would get support, including support among the suburban voters who have fled and fled quickly from Donald Trump. But from the beginning of this crisis, you know, these are – these two crises that Amy mentioned are the first really two external crises to hit the Trump presidency, and usually when you have something big like this happening there’s a rally around the flag effort – it’s a national crisis, it’s affecting everybody, people rally around the president. And if you look back at the polling in late March, early April, there was a moment where he blipped up, where it was just over 50 percent, but in some polls over 50 percent, you know, supported his handling of the crisis. That’s far gone. I mean, in our last poll – our last ABC News poll – it was – you had about two-thirds of the country – two-thirds of the country disapproving of his handling of both race relations and the pandemic.
MR. COSTA: Asma, when you look at the Biden campaign in your coverage this week, he came out with a plan earlier Friday about the schools and about his own position. What did you learn from his rollout of his view on education?
ASMA KHALID: Well, look, I mean, I think, as everyone does know, a lot of folks – I think Jonathan was just putting this out – a lot of families do want to send their children back to school, and he acknowledged that but he also said that ultimately this decision needs to come down to specific state and local communities in conjunction with science, which was a notable choice of words given the press secretary yesterday saying that science should not stand in the way of opening schools. You know, and he also called for the fact that if he were the president he said he would immediately call on Congress to pass this emergency relief package of 30 billion extra dollars, and the reason he says this is necessary is because schools are just cash strapped in order to actually bring kids back to school with, you know, smaller class sizes, all the sanitation equipment they would need, that they just don’t have the resources to do it and he feels like there’s no national federal guideline or response nor money to back this up.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, can you follow up on that point from Asma? If Vice President Biden is coming out and talking about more money for states, more money for Americans, is that putting pressure on the White House and fellow Republicans to do another round of stimulus this summer?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yes, there is immense pressure on all of Washington, and particularly on the White House and on the Republicans who control the Senate, to move forward with some kind of relief package in the next few days and weeks, in part because there are a number of things that are going to be expiring in the upcoming days, including the added money for unemployment benefits that have been tiding over a lot of Americans, the extra $600 a week that has allowed Americans to continue paying their rent, paying their mortgages, paying for their, you know, everyday monthly bills. That’s going to expire in a matter of days if Congress doesn’t act. And there are a number of other issues; even though the president wants to say we’re on a great American comeback, transition to greatness, jobs are coming back, there are still millions of Americans who need some kind of relief in order to get back to some sense of normalcy, in order for schools to be able to open, in order for local governments to be able to function, in order for families to be able to keep putting food on the table and paying their bills. They’re looking for some kind of relief, some kind of added benefit from the government.
And right now, the two sides, the two parties, are so far apart – Democrats have an idea of what they want, the president has an idea of what he wants, and Republicans have an idea of what they want. And they’re not on the same page yet, and it’s not clear that they’re going to be able to get on the same page, but there is high pressure on them all to be able to get in a room and put together a package that the American people can benefit from.
MR. COSTA: We’ll keep an eye on that, but let’s come back to the political map, Amy. When I was talking to some White House sources earlier today, they were looking at the Journal story on whether there could be a realignment in the South. And I know the Cook Report has been studying states like North Carolina. When you see the spike, not just in blue states and blue cities, but in red states and swing states, are we looking, as Cook reported, at a possible blue tsunami and a realignment in the South in the Sunbelt?
MS. WALTER: You know, the real question is, and Jon brought it up earlier, about the suburban vote. Look, suburban voters, as we saw in 2018, they moved en masse against Donald Trump. What we don’t know is, as one Democratic strategist said to me the other day, whether Democrats are just renting these voters during the Trump era, or whether these voters have truly realigned to the Democratic side. We’re going to find out in a post Trump era, but for this moment it seems as if the suburban vote is actually getting worse for Trump, not better.
And part of that reason is when he makes those comments, as you put in that clip there, about your house values are going to go down, and there’s violence in the cities, and Biden is going to do all these terrible things, he’s speaking of a suburban America that, quite frankly, just doesn’t really exist in the same way it did 20, 30, 40 years ago. Part of the reason the suburban vote has become much more Democratic is it’s also become less White. It has become much more diverse. And that has helped to move it. But as well as this feeling of frustration of these voters about these last four years under Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, let’s – that’s a great point by Amy. When the White House and the president talk about the suburban vote, and they use that phrase, are they really talking about the White vote? And if you look at the president’s comments this week, he spoke about violence against Whites in an interview with CBS News. You see him continuing to defend the use of the Confederate flag as free speech, even as Secretary Esper and the Pentagon move away, earlier Friday, from having that flag be on military bases. What’s going on inside the West Wing?
MR. KARL: Well, it sure seems to me that that’s what they’re looking at, and looking at White voters, White women voters. But I don’t know who they think, or who the president thinks in suburbs across the country are rallying around the Confederate flag. It’s an odd strategy. But that’s what he’s – that’s what he’s pursuing. It’s been striking. But I think it’s – I think it’s something that doesn’t – this is not a strategic plan that’s emerging from the White House political operation, or from the Trump campaign. This is Trump going with his gut. He thinks he’s going to be the law and order candidate. He thinks he’s going to go out there and rally these voters, these suburban voters, these White suburban voters.
But you know, he’s gone around for the past several weeks doing events, some of them increasingly elaborate events, aimed at just about every issue except for the issue that is first and foremost on so many people’s minds, and that’s fear of the pandemic. This event that he had yesterday at the White House was really something else. You saw all – you had a big red pickup truck, a big blue pickup truck, packed with weights – massive weights that looked like they were out of a Roadrunner cartoon. And the red truck had the weights being pulled up by a crane that said Trump administration.
I mean, it’s this elaborate staging, and this effort to try to, I think you put it – you put it well, basically say: Vote for me, or else. Or else total disaster comes. And I’m not sure how many voters in these key swing suburban areas think that Trump is going to be the person that’s going to prevent them from total annihilation, which is literally what he is saying.
MR. COSTA: Asma, when the Biden campaign hears the president in the Rose Garden go after the former VP on China, ties him to Senator Sanders and the left wing of the Democratic Party, are they concerned that their support among swing voters and suburban voters could erode, or do they think it’s a weak attack from the president?
MS. KHALID: I think that they would say it’s a distraction. You know, the Biden campaign this week told me that one of their most effective weapons against Donald Trump is Trump himself, what he says, how he behaves, how he acts. And you know, I think that part of the difficulty for the Trump campaign has been that to some degree Joe Biden has been this sort of shadow, invisible opponent, right? He doesn’t have an elaborate travel schedule. He, you know, hosts maybe one in-person public event a week, or so. And so there’s not really an opponent for Donald Trump to barter with, and go back and forth with, and jab with. And that’s what he thrives off of.
You know, Biden, I will say, has stuck pretty remarkably well to a focused message around the pandemic. Here and there he will, you know, jab at President Trump, but he’s not really getting outraged by particular twitter messages or anything that the president has said. And I think that that has made it challenging for the president to engage with him, because really he has stayed focused on the pandemic.
And I will say, you know, I spent some time recently in both Michigan and Wisconsin, you talk about the suburban voters – (laughs) – I think that by and large what they’re looking for in this moment in time is someone who is a steady, experienced hand. And the pandemic is soaring in parts of this country. And people are, you know, not looking for somebody who’s going to pick a fight, say, with Bubba Wallace. They’re looking for somebody who is going to provide some sort of, like, leadership in this particular moment.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, just one more here on the campaign. I was watching Vice President Pence today in Wisconsin. And he kept hammering this theme about Vice President Biden being too far to the left, tying him to socialism. But when you think about that speech by the VP, and when you think about Bill Stepien coming in as the new campaign manager replacing Brad Parscale, what is actually next for the Trump campaign?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, Bob, you had a good story about this this morning in the Post. Essentially you have the vice president, you have people around the president putting forward a somewhat cohesive narrative about why President Trump should be reelected, why Joe Biden is the wrong man for this moment. But it doesn’t matter, in part because President Trump is on a completely different page.
He is talking about, as Asma said, things like Bubba Wallace. He just tweeted about all of the various books that have been written – tell-all books that have been written about him, and how he’s the victim of campaigns to take him out, and talking about Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, you know, spying on his campaign – and these various conspiracy theories and things that the American people are not focused on or don’t even really want to hear about at this moment.
So even if they bring in new people, even if, you know, Brad Parscale gets demoted from campaign manager and they bring in Bill Stepien, as long as President Trump has access to his Twitter account, as long as the president can continue to use the White House grounds as a pseudo campaign operation, and give campaign-style stream of consciousness speeches from the Rose Garden, not much is going to change because the president is the one leading his campaign – not Bill Stepien, not Brad Parscale.
And even if Vice President Mike Pence is out there, you know, sticking to the script, sticking to the narrative, and putting together an argument for why they should be reelected, President Trump is doing something completely different. And that’s going to make it very difficult for his campaign to rally around a single cohesive message over the next hundred days.
MR. COSTA: Let’s – Jonathan, real quick I want to just pause here, because I don’t want to forget, Jonathan, about what’s going on this whole week with Dr. Fauci. I mean, this week you had the president and his allies day after day asserting more control over information. And the administration ordered hospitals to bypass the CDC and send patient information to another database. And Vice President Pence urged schools to reopen and take their cues from the White House.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) To be very clear, we don’t want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don’t reopen their schools.
MR. COSTA: And Dr. Anthony Fauci was attacked in a USA Today op-ed by Peter Navarro, one of the president’s trade advisors. Fauci responded in an interview with The Atlantic.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) It is a bit bizarre. I don’t really fully understand it. If you talk to reasonable people in the White House they realize that was a major mistake on their part, because it doesn’t do anything but reflect poorly on them. I can’t explain Peter Navarro. He’s in a world by himself. So I don’t even want to go there.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, I know you want to jump in. This was a week where politics and the political map seem to be scrambled, just weeks ahead of the convention, but also an important week inside the White House of the president and his allies saying to Dr. Fauci and others: We’re in control.
MR. KARL: Yeah, and you know, the White House press secretary came out and tried to totally deny the idea that there was any tension between the president and Dr. Fauci. In fact, what she said is this whole idea of Fauci versus the president couldn’t be further from the truth, and she went out and said that as, you know, Navarro was writing that op-ed; it would appear the next day. But even before she came out and said that, Dan Scavino, who outranks the press secretary – deputy chief of staff for communications, one of the top two or three closest advisers to the president in that White House – posted a cartoon mocking Fauci on his Facebook page, a rather crude, you know – a cartoon. And the president himself has repeatedly said the areas where Fauci was wrong. The White House was distributing bullet points, saying – you know, listing things that Fauci had said over the course of the last several months that they said turned out to be wrong. The chief of staff, Mark Meadows, went on Fox yesterday and took another shot at Fauci, even as he was saying that Navarro wasn’t authorized to write that op-ed. It’s rather – it’s rather strange because, as Fauci himself points out, Fauci is part of the team. (Laughs.) I mean, he’s somebody that the president has put on that taskforce to advise him on the single greatest challenge facing his administration, so how do you – how do you kick the guy that you’re counting on to help you get out of this?
MR. COSTA: Asma, I was struck by something you said on NPR this week, that this is more than a personality contest; this is – or a clash – this is mixed messages on a pandemic from the government.
MS. KHALID: Yeah, and I will say that, I mean, I think that that’s what’s been sort of astounding about this whole message, is that, you know, when I talk to voters – and again, these are independent voters that I spend a lot of time with, talking to folks who, say, traditionally had been Republican for many previous cycles – there is a sense that they want sort of a clear, steady, scientific-driven response to the pandemic, and you’re not hearing that because this is, you know, mixed messages in the point of a crisis. And I think, look, you know, the president has had personality clashes with many people within his own orbit and people from opposing parties, and so I don’t think that’s anything to be particularly surprised about. But in the midst of a pandemic, when already a majority of the public disapproves of the way he’s handling the crisis, I think it just really doesn’t even help, frankly, his political reelection chances at this point.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, why does Dr. Fauci stay? Why does he not resign, even when he’s challenged to his face publicly by Peter Navarro and the president lets Navarro stay?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, we have to remember that Dr. Fauci was here long before President Trump and his administration got here, and he likely – even though he’s 79 years old, he likely will stay for quite a while because he said in interviews this week that he feels like he’s effective, he feels like he’s good at his job, he feels like the country needs his expertise at this moment, and he does not get flustered by some of the attacks – some of the political attacks. He’s kind of known as a straight shooter. He lets some of these things roll off of his back, and he’s willing to kind of look the public in the face and say this is the truth, this is the science, this is what you need to do, and there aren’t that many voices around President Trump who are willing to say things like that if they contradict the president. And I think Fauci believes that his expertise and his willingness to be a straight shooter is needed all the more in the age of Trump, where you have so many people around the president who are, you know, excusing some of his language or trying to, you know, shade some of his language so that it sounds better than it actually is, and Fauci is trying to help the public get through this pandemic by telling them the truth and the facts. And I think he feels that his expertise and his willingness to do that is in high need at this moment, where we’re seeing record numbers of cases on a daily basis.
MR. COSTA: Amy, can you follow up on that – real quick from Amy – about how Republicans process all of this? Because you study the polls. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s governor, a Republican, came out with a tough op-ed about the president this week. But do you believe other Republicans will start to crack in the coming weeks and months as the polling slides, perhaps, and the president continues to assert independence from his own officials?
MS. WALTER: Yeah, I have yet to find one Republican, even those who defend the president on so many other things, who think that picking a fight with Anthony Fauci – who, by the way, has approval ratings somewhere in the 60s – was a good idea. That said, you know, if you are a candidate for Congress, you’re down ballot, you are really in a jam with this president because making a break with him, obviously, comes with some cost. This is a president who doesn’t like to see members of his own party contradict him publicly and will come out and chastise those people, and will really hurt those candidates with the kind of voters they need in the – in the Republican base. So what I think you’re going to see instead are – and we’re starting to see this already – Republicans in these blue or purple states really driving home messages about how they’re bringing things back to the state, which is why it’s so important – Toluse brought this up – to get a package – a really serious package that those members of Congress can talk about when they’re on the campaign trail so they don’t have to talk about Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, you’re a TV guy. You have about 20 seconds.
MR. KARL: Well, you know, the thing with Fauci, Amy mentions his high approval ratings; you would think that would be a good thing for the Trump White House, but that actually irritates the president. He tracks those poll ratings and he does not like the idea that Dr. Anthony Fauci has higher poll ratings – (laughs) – higher approval ratings than he does.
MR. COSTA: Well, we have to leave it there. Really appreciate everybody’s insights tonight and your time: Jonathan Karl, Asma Khalid, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Amy Walter. And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. Our conversation will continue on our Extra. Find it on our social media and on our website. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.