ROBERT COSTA: Under pressure on the virus and the campaign.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) If you look at the chart of deaths, deaths are way down.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) It’s a false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death.
MR. COSTA: Case numbers rise, but the president pushes schools to reopen even as health experts express caution.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) That’s the tragedy of Donald Trump being president today: He’s exactly the wrong person to lead at this moment.
MR. COSTA: And the battle for the White House heats up as Joe Biden speaks out and the president turns to race and culture, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The divide between President Trump and health experts over schools remains a central tension in Washington, with the president pressuring governors. This week he warned that he might cut off federal funds if classrooms remain shuttered and he urged the CDC to soften its recommendations. This all comes as cases soar and states are implementing orders on face coverings, with some health officials even urging new stay-at-home orders. And it comes as an ABC News-Ipsos poll out Friday shows two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the pandemic. Listen to the different messages this week from the president and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s time to be open, it’s time to stay open, and we will put out the fires as they come up, but we have to open our schools. We’re not closing. We’ll never close. You’ll have certain areas that will have difficulty, and they’ll do what they have to do, and that’ll be up largely to the governors.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) Then there are some times when, despite the guidelines and the recommendations to open up carefully and prudently, some states skipped over those and just opened up too quickly. Certainly, Florida I know, you know, I think jumped over a couple of checkpoints.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Paula Reid, White House correspondent for CBS News; Cleve R. Wootson Jr., national political reporter for The Washington Post; and Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC.
A lot of news tonight, but let’s start with the schools. Earlier today I spoke with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat. He told me that he’s still planning to have in-person learning this fall but knows many challenges are ahead. He also told me his state needs 20 billion (dollars) in direct federal aid to shore up its budget. Paula, open up your notebook: What is the inside scoop on the president’s pressure campaign?
PAULA REID: Well, up until now the administration has really deferred to local leaders to determine when they want to reopen their communities based on the situation on the ground. But then you saw this week, when it comes to schools, the president issuing this broad mandate that all schools must open in the fall or else potentially he will cut funding, when in fact we know most schools are locally funded, and he’s also made other threats. He’s made it clear that he is putting pressure on governors, and the question is, why is he taking this approach to schools specifically when he’s deferred to states on so many other aspects of this pandemic? And just speaking with White House advisers, I’m told the president knows that in order to get parents back to work you need to get kids back to class, and for the president a lot of this is about hoping that that would give an economic boost to the U.S. ahead of his reelection in November. But one of the most significant things out of the administration this week is the fact that Dr. Birx, she said that we really don’t have that much data on COVID in children because the under-10 set is really the least tested.
MR. COSTA: That’s exactly right. You’ve been pressing the administration on that question all week. Yamiche, you’ve been talking to education leaders across the country, head of the National Education Association. What are you learning about what they need to see in these schools to make coming back feasible?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: What they need to see is really a sustained evidence that there is virus that is going down and that cases are going down. So a lot of these educators, they want to make sure that they’re not putting teachers in dangerous positions or students in dangerous positions. So the president has said, well, this is a virus that seems pretty safe for children, but there’s a catch to that, and that is that they could infect their teachers. The other thing to note is that every situation, every city is kind of experiencing this pandemic in different ways, and one of the key things that the CDC guidelines says right now is that they should have social distancing at schools. Well, when you look at a lot of schools, there are – there are classrooms that have 30, 40 students often crammed in a classroom trying to – with one teacher trying to kind of get through the day. There’s really no situation, including in New York where you heard from the mayor, Bill DeBlasio, there that they could have all of those students in these buildings and still social distance. So that’s why you saw the president this week criticizing the CDC, saying he thinks that their guidelines are too tough, too expensive, impractical. There was, of course, that statement from Vice President Pence that the CDC was going to be changing their guidelines because directly of the president’s criticisms, but then the CDC said today actually that’s not true, we’re not going to be issuing any new guidelines, we’re just going to be giving out more documents on the existing guidelines. So there’s a real pressure campaign by President Trump to get these schools back open, but educators and local leaders are saying unless we can do this safely we’re not going to do it.
MR. COSTA: Cleve, I’m so glad you’re on the program because you’ve been reporting for weeks/months for The Washington Post in Florida, and Florida is seeing a spike in cases. How is that surge in cases affecting the politics in that key state?
CLEVE WOOTSON JR.: Yeah, we’re looking at a situation where one out of every 100 Floridians has coronavirus, right, and people are petrified. They’re worried, they’re afraid, but I think they’re also beginning to look at, you know, what is the reason for this, what is the cause of it, why are one in every four coronavirus cases, you know, in Florida, and whether there’s a political reason, whether it’s the governor who should do something differently.
MR. COSTA: And is the governor – what’s the governor’s – Governor Ron DeSantis, what’s his political outlook at this moment? He’s so close to President Trump.
MR. WOOTSON: Yeah, you know, back in April Ron DeSantis had a news conference in the Oval Office with President Trump where Trump said that DeSantis is doing exactly what we – you know, what he wanted governors to do, he’s an example of good management. And then he sort of left that news conference and, you know, for the next couple of months things have just gotten worse and worse and worse, you know. And so it’s hard to see – you know, the question will be whether or not that has political ramifications and whether that has an impact not just on DeSantis, but also on Trump.
MR. COSTA: And Eamon, it’s also going to be a question of whether it’s Ron DeSantis in Florida, the governor there, or Governor Murphy in New Jersey, whether they can get Congress to give them the direct aid they need. What’s your latest reporting on the stimulus negotiations in Washington? What should those governors and many Americans expect, if anything?
EAMON JAVERS: Well, look, it seems clear that Washington is prepared to rush out some more stimulus to the states, up to – you know, you’ve got Nancy Pelosi talking about $2 trillion, a trillion dollars in aid to the states because all of this is going to be super expensive, right? You’re talking about these new guidelines for the schools, that they have to have social distancing, they have to have cleaning, they have to have disinfectant, they have to have plastic barriers; somebody’s got to pay for all of that, Bob. And the problem is that we’re sort of in a vicious cycle economically, which is that as the states have closed down, the economies have shut down, they’ve stopped producing revenue for the state governments in the form of taxes. The state governments need those taxes in order to pay for all the enhancements to open up the schools, and you can’t – if you – if you don’t open up the schools, you don’t have an economy and you don’t generate taxes. So the problem is the states might not have the money they need to reopen the schools and reopen their economies. That’s where the federal government can help, because the federal government unlike the states can simply borrow all that money and do it on deficit spending – and a lot of deficit hawks in Washington very quiet these days because there’s a lot of borrowing going on here in D.C., Bob.
MR. COSTA: Paula, you are one of the reporters who talks to Dr. Fauci. You have a reporting relationship. You have depth on this beat, on the health-care beat. He’s not doing much TV; is the White House holding him back? And is he – are there tensions there inside the West Wing with someone who hasn’t even briefed the president since June, according to his interview with the Financial Times?
MS. REID: There is tension and there has been tension because Dr. Fauci is one of the few officials who is willing to come out and publicly contradict the president. And that has happened throughout this pandemic response. And there were concerns about whether the president, who can’t technically directly fire him from the federal government, would potentially push him off the taskforce or diminish his role. And that is what we’re seeing right now. In fact, he has noted you don’t see him that much on TV.
And we knew earlier this week there was a press briefing at the Department of Education with the taskforce. And he was instructed not to go to the Department of Education but to come here to the White House. And he told me he was sitting in the Situation Room, or about to sit in the Situation Room, because that’s where he was told to go, to sort of join remotely. And that’s significant, because that made it impossible for him to be there to answer questions from reporters at that briefing. He could only join the meeting.
Now, today there was another taskforce meeting here at the White House. I’m told he did participate in that. But it does appear that there is an effort to diminish his role. And I asked the White House earlier this week if they were retaliating against him for contradicting the president. They said, no. They said, in fact he’d been on TV about six times in as many weeks. Now that does not appear to be a very common occurrence. It does appear that his role has been diminished at the same time he’s contradicting the president.
MR. COSTA: I know if you’re watching this live there’s a lot of breaking news, and I want to turn to it. Because as a reporter, there’s nothing better than breaking news. And tonight we have some to share. President Trump, just a few minutes ago, as we went to air here on PBS, commuted the sentence for Roger Stone, his long-time confidant and political advisor. I’ve covered him for a decade. That’s according to The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a statement just out from the White House. We wanted to make sure that was all nailed down before we shared it with you.
Mr. Stone was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering amid a federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He was scheduled to report to prison next week to serve a sentence of more than three years. Yamiche, why tonight and what are the political implications?
MS. ALCINDOR: The question of the political implications is I think one that we’re not going to know for a long time. The president has been able to do things that are legally controversial and still not pay, I think, a big price in terms of his base not supporting him. But why now is really the question that a lot of people are thinking about. And it’s because he didn’t want Roger Stone – at least according to the statement out by the White House press secretary – he didn’t want Roger Stone to serve any jail time. And he also has been saying over and over again all week that he thinks Roger Stone was treated unfairly, that he was the victim of a witch hunt, that this is really about getting back at him.
He also talked about the fact today on the White House lawn – President Trump that is – he talked about the fact that he feels like Roger Stone was being penalized while other people who were dubious, like he said Vice President Joe Biden and even former President Barack Obama – and even, of course, FBI director James Comey – that they are more guilty of things – of perceived wrongs than Roger Stone. Of course, there is no evidence that any of those men broke the law in any way. There is evidence that Roger Stone broke the law.
But what the president’s doing here is really underlying the fact that he’s willing to use his presidential powers to help his friends, to help people who are close to him. In this case, Roger Stone is someone who was very close to the president. He’s someone who has all sorts of lessons for the president that you see enacted and played out every day from the president, including the fact that all press – you know, whether it’s bad or good – it’s still good press because it keeps your name up there and people talking about you. So I think this is a really, I think, an interesting commutation on the president’s part, but it’s not surprising because the president had been hinting at this all week.
MR. COSTA: Eamon, I know you were just checking in with your sources. It’s breaking news. Are you detecting any divide inside the West Wing about this decision by the – President Trump during the middle of election season, campaign season?
MR. JAVERS: Not yet. The news has just been out a couple of minutes. But I’m struggling to get my arms around this one, right? I mean, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a president use the pardon power so directly to benefit a political ally of himself. And remember, what Roger Stone was doing in his lying to Congress and obstruction of justice that he was set to be sent to prison for was protecting Roger Stone, but also protecting the president. So there’s an enormous percentage of the American public that’s going to look at this and say: This is political payback for a guy taking the bullet here to protect a president of the United States.
What’s interesting is this president is doing it before the election. We’ve seen pardons in the past that have seemed sleazy to a lot of people in the country. The Bill Clinton pardon of Marc Rich comes to mind. That was done after the election, just hours before the president was set to leave office and he wouldn’t pay any political price for it. This president is doing it in a hot political summer ahead of a narrow reelection fight. And we have no way of gaming out at this point just how that’s going to play. As Yamiche said, the president has done a lot of things over the years that his base has forgiven, or tolerated, or embraced even. We’ll see whether this one causes them to swallow hard, or whether this is just another example of President Trump being able to do things that ordinary politicians could not get away with.
MR. COSTA: Cleve, you’re down there in Florida and you cover the Biden campaign for the Post. What does this mean for the Biden campaign? Do they change and pivot a little bit to run against the president as someone who pardons too much? They gave a big – he gave a big speech this week on his economic plan, trying to counter the president’s populist economic pitch, bring it back to the Democrats. Does this Roger Stone decision change their calculus, based on your conversations in recent days when the possibility was hovering out there?
MR. WOOTSON: Sure. I think they’re probably asking the same question that you’re asking: What to do and how does that change? You know, one of the things that Biden has been doing over the last couple of days with the economic plan is pivoting from not just talking ill or speaking ill of Trump. He’s been really doing that for more than a year. Part of it is him saying: America, here’s what I want to do. Here’s what I want to bring to the table. And you know, obviously they felt very strongly to do that at this moment, before, you know, whatever convention as coronavirus is heating up.
You wonder if there is going to be a switch, if there is going to be a pivot. You know, Biden did put out a statement earlier today talking about coronavirus but also, you know, the Venezuelan president, as Trump prepared to come to Florida. But, you know, one of the biggest questions they’re going to face is do you stay the course? Do you – do you put Biden out there and explain who he is, or do you just attack, attack, attack Trump?
MR. COSTA: Paula, I wanted to give you time to send some text messages. Jump in here.
MS. REID: Absolutely, one of the most significant things here to me is just two days ago the president’s attorney general, William Barr, one of his most loyal advisors, said that he believed Roger Stone’s sentence was fair. And I asked the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, is it appropriate for the president to grant clemency to his long-time friend when even his own loyal attorney general says the sentence was fair? Now, Meadows defended the president, noting that his clemency power is absolute. That is effectively true. But again, it’ll be interesting to see if there are any political consequences to this decision because, once again, it draws attention to how many of the president’s close associates have either been convicted or pleaded guilty during his time in office.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, that’s such an interesting point from Paula, because this book by Mary Trump, the president’s niece, has been a big story this week, about the president’s psyche. My own reporting on Mr. Stone and President Trump over the years, they were very close politically for decades. He is someone who has been at the president’s side through ups and downs. And that there probably wasn’t so much of a political calculation here, but this was a personal decision for President Trump, to protect a friend, to help a friend perhaps.
MS. ALCINDOR: You can see it in two ways. They obviously have a personal relationship. President Trump has known Roger Stone for years, and years, and years. But there’s also a political calculation there. As Eamon noted, there’s this idea that Roger Stone might be seen as taking a bullet for the president, so that the president is also benefitting from this commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence.
So in some ways people could see it as the president making sure that Roger Stone continues to be loyal to him. But I think there is, of course, the personal aspect of this. The president has talked about the fact that he is friends with Roger Stone, that he feels like Roger Stone was not treated fairly and he was targeted because of his relationship with the president. So there could be both of those things going on.
But I think the real question here is what is Joe Biden going to do? I think that was a smart question for you to ask. And I think we’re going to have to sit and wait and see if Joe Biden latches onto this, or if he continues to talk about the thing that most Americans are thinking about in their everyday lives, which is, of course, the coronavirus, and it is the ability of the country to get past this virus, and the handling that President Trump has done thus far and in the months to come.
MR. COSTA: So, Cleve, this is a campaign shaping up to be about power. It’s also shaping up to be a campaign on race and culture. The president began the week with his tweets on Bubba Wallace, defending the use of the Confederate flag. You’ve been to the Villages in Florida where that racist chant was uttered that President Trump retweeted, then deleted. How is race and culture playing on the ground in Florida?
MR. WOOTSON: Sure, one of the things that I saw at the Villages was not necessarily people changing, but there’s an intensification, right? I talked with the leader of the Democratic club at the Villages. And one of the things she said was she doesn’t believe that anybody on either side was swayed by what happened, right? The Republican members aren’t swayed by what the Democrats said. But people are feeling more of a need to speak their mind, to do whatever they can. I talked to a guy who is spending his retirement in a golf cart at the Villages with anti-Trump signs up, you know, all day every day because now he feels this just strong need to try to persuade someone, anyone. And yes, that means that he’s gotten into a few verbal and occasional physical fights, but at the same time this is how he sort of fills that need within himself. And I think that’s one of the things that we’re seeing at the Villages, which is supposed to be this sort of sleepy retirement village, right, but instead you’re seeing people getting into really heated arguments and exchanges, sometimes with racist overtones, just about this election.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, any thoughts on that?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think, as someone who’s a native of Florida, I’m very familiar with the Villages. In my last reporting trip down to the Villages and down to Florida, I was talking to a group of senior citizens who were Trump supporters and they were talking about the fact that really they liked his economy and they liked what he was doing with all the different policies that he was passing, but then when we started talking about immigration they said, well, those people, they’re probably diseased, they don’t need to be here – and by the way, Puerto Rico, it probably shouldn’t be a state. And what you saw there was really a veiled part of racism; it’s the idea that these are – can be friendly people and that we were having a pretty friendly conversation, but they felt the need to say that they thought immigrants and Hispanic people were somehow a detriment to this country. And I think that we can have political differences, but if you’re targeting one group of people and saying those people are bad, that is completely racism. And I think the president can’t help himself in some ways. He continues to dig in on culture wars. He continues to dig in on the racial divisions in this country. America had racial problems long before President Trump came along, but now that he’s here he’s not at all shying away from the fact that he thinks that running and using racist terms and using racist language and sending racist tweets, he thinks that that helps him politically. We’ll have to see in November if that actually is the case.
MR. COSTA: Eamon, what about on the economy, the big Biden speech? Does the White House see Mr. Biden cutting into their territory?
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, well, you saw the president suggesting that Biden had plagiarized from him. And look, I mean, if you look at this from the Biden camp’s perspective, you know, the president’s poll numbers really did not move for the first three years of his presidency; he had sort of rock-solid base support all through all of the scandal and impeachment of the president, a lot of Russia talk and investigation. Where the president’s numbers started to move were on the coronavirus and the economic wipeout that we saw earlier this year, and now you see Biden ahead of the president in a lot of the polling and including in our CNBC polling in battleground states. If you’re the Biden campaign, you’re going to take some notice of that and stick with the messaging around the virus and the economy, those things that really matter to Americans – their health and their economic well-being – and leave the scandal stuff aside. You can – you can kind of hit it on the cable talk shows from time to time, but the meat and potatoes of the Biden campaign is likely, I think, still to be about the virus and the economy and what it means for the average American voter who’s out there trying to figure out how to live their lives. I mean, this is a national convulsion over the past couple of months like we’ve never seen before in American history and it’s difficult to say how it’s going to play out, but the consequences of it are going to be extreme and long lasting, and people are concerned about that. And I think that’s what this election is going to be all about front and center, is the economy and people’s health.
MR. COSTA: And the courts are always going to be a big part of it, Paula. The president has been lashing out about the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Cyrus Vance of Manhattan, the prosecutor there, to use the president’s tax returns and survey them as part of his investigation. What’s the latest on that front inside the White House?
MS. REID: Well, this was clearly a statement on the limits of presidential power. You saw the president lashing out, suggesting that this was unfair, but in speaking to his attorneys they take a more measured approach and they think that in the short term they can – they can win and that they can play this out until past the election. They tell me that they are going to continue to litigate some of these issues. The Supreme Court left the door open for them to do that. They will continue to do this through the election, and that’s significant because even though they’re unlikely to prevail since most of their arguments failed at the Supreme Court, if they do eventually have to pass off these documents to the grand jury in New York it will likely happen after the election. And when materials go to a grand jury, they’re not necessarily released to the public; they only become public if someone is charged and there’s a trial and those documents are presented as evidence in a trial. So even though the president is extremely upset, his lawyers, they’ll take it.
MR. COSTA: Thank you very much to our group tonight. That’s all the time we have. What a big week in Washington coming to a close. Roger Stone, the only thing I was waiting for tonight is a Supreme Court vacancy. What more could we have on a Friday night for all of you Washington Week viewers and friends out there? Anyway, Yamiche Alcindor, Paula Reid, Cleve Wootson, and Eamon Javers, thank you very much.
And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can, and join us online for more talk on the Court, a conversation about its latest decisions with CNN’s Joan Biskupic. You can find that on our website or on our social media. But for now, I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.