ROBERT COSTA: American cities and the Trump presidency under siege.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) What cities are doing is absolute insanity.
MR. COSTA: The president opens a new front – the streets – but his call for law and order sparks outrage.
HOUSE MAJORITY WHIP JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): (From video.) That kind of activity is the activity of a police state.
MR. COSTA: And the pandemic remains relentless as top doctors sound the alarm and lawmakers bicker over aid for struggling Americans.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Republicans need to pull their head out of the sand, get their act together.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Four million; that is the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in our nation, and more than 145,000 Americans have died, grim milestones, and they loom as heavy clouds over our politics. Inside the White House, the bleak reality has prompted President Trump to cancel his plans for a big arena speech in Jacksonville, Florida when he accepts the Republican nomination next month. And as the president slides behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls, Republicans are tense and scrambling to address the breakdowns on public health and the economy. On the Hill, stark divisions remain and talks have stalled, but the clock keeps ticking. The $600-a-week federal benefit, it expires in days. And earlier today I spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, about the revival this week of presidential briefings on the pandemic. His takeaway: stay focused.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) The president has gone out there and is saying things now that I think important, have to do with wearing masks, crowded – staying away from crowded places. So I think that they have been helpful now, and also they’ve been short and crisp, which I think is good when you’re trying to get a message across.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight are some of the best reporters covering Washington: Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent for CBS News; Rachel Scott, White House correspondent for ABC News, is not yet with us – we’re going to get that audio fixed, so stand by for Rachel; we’re also joined by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Jake Sherman, senior writer at POLITICO and co-author of Playbook.
For all of us watching Washington Week, I appreciate your patience tonight as we deal with some technical difficulties and some audio delays. We’re all dealing with this pandemic in the best way we can.
But let’s get to the reporting. Weijia Jiang, the Jacksonville convention, that speech was canceled but the president continues to push to reopen schools. What’s the story inside the White House?
WEIJIA JIANG: You know, I think the president had to acknowledge that the optics of that alone would not be acceptable if he were to go down to Florida, one of the hottest spots in the country right now, to have this massive event for his sake and for the sake of his reelection. At the same time, he wants things, you know, to get back to normal, and that’s why he continues to push for schools, and the White House is arguing that these are two very different things because with regard to students and schools you’re not talking about cramming thousands of people together at one place at one time. But certainly the question still remains, why is it safe for students to go back whenever there’s still, you know, admittedly from the White House itself and Dr. Deborah Birx not enough data about how these kids transmit the virus. And you know, they’ve said from the very beginning, Bob, that this isn’t just about the kids; it’s about grandma and grandpa at home and what it could mean for them if they take it to them.
MR. COSTA: Peter, build on that. Why the shift now from the president on the convention, on face coverings?
PETER BAKER: Look, this is a moment when, you know, reality has come home to bite the president. He wanted for weeks to tell us that the coronavirus pandemic was behind us in large part, that there were only embers left. This week he admitted for the first time in a while that there are big fires – that’s the phrase he used about Florida and some of the other states in the South and the West. It’s been a desire of the president, of course, to move beyond this in order to try to get the economy going and try to get the country in a semblance of normalcy by the fall, when he’s going to face Joe Biden in this election, but the virus isn’t cooperating and the numbers are undeniable by this point – 60,000 new cases a week – I’m sorry, 60,000 new cases a day, which is twice the rate we were having back in March and April when we thought we were at the peak, a thousand new deaths a day – that’s still lower, thank goodness, than it was in that spring peak, but it’s on the rise and these hospitals are overwhelmed in some of these places. So I think that the reality of that has come back and forced the president to acknowledge what he would just assume not if he didn’t have to.
MR. COSTA: Peter, a quick follow up: Who has pushed the president along on these issues inside the White House? Is there anyone playing that kind of key role?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s a great question. You know, in hindsight, you know, I think a lot of them would tell you that they have given him advice about this that he needs to take this more seriously. I don’t have, you know, the specific breakdowns. I know in terms of the briefings there was some skepticism early on, for instance, by, you know, Jared Kushner and Hope Hicks about whether to start them again. They thought briefings might be fine, but they shouldn’t be at the White House because the president would want to come by; maybe they should be done at the Health and Human Services Department. But then there were others who were telling the president, look, you know, you’ve got to get back out in front of this, that the country is concerned about this. The poll numbers are terrible right now for the president on the virus. Look at Gallup again today; twice as many people think today that the virus is getting worse as felt that just a month and a half ago, 75 percent of Americans, you know, are convinced that the – that the virus will keep on – will keep America shut down or partially shut down or disrupted at least until the end of the year and possibly into next year. So there’s a great deal of fear and anxiety among the public, and the president had to get out in front and address it.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, I’m so glad we figured out this connection. And you join us tonight from Troy, Alabama the birthplace of civil rights icon John Lewis. The Georgia congressman died on July 17th, and a memorial service will be held there on Saturday. And we will discuss his life in our Extra. But back to Peter’s point, Alabama officials reported this week more than 2,200 new cases on Thursday, a new daily record. And Peter talked about the reality of the facts here, of the virus. How is the spike in red states like Alabama affecting the administration’s approach?
RACHEL SCOTT: Right. Well, I think the reality is certainly setting in. And we heard that from the president, that it’s going to possibly get worse before it gets better. But there is still a large swath of this country, and some of the president’s supporters, who think that the pandemic is a hoax, who do not believe that it’s real, believe that it’s manufactured for a political purpose, and that is for Democrats to try and defeat the president this fall.
And I also think, as I’m talking to Republican sources, when it comes to the president kind of backing down on his convention plans, they were breathing a sigh of relief. The optics of the president, as we just said, going down to Florida and possibly having another headline like he did in Tulsa, where his own staff had tested positive, where Secret Service had tested positive, and then also not having a full arena, not having a packed house, right? The optics of that look bad for the president, just months away – ahead of the November election.
MR. COSTA: And, Rachel, down there in Alabama, are people wearing face coverings, in a red state?
MS. SCOTT: I am seeing a lot of people wear face coverings down here in Alabama. That’s something that was not always the case in other places that I travel, notably Oklahoma, where wearing a face mask seems to be a political issue in certain parts of Oklahoma, as I traveled there for the president’s rally in Tulsa not too long ago. But down here, people seem to be taking this very seriously. They’re trying to keep their distance and wear the appropriate facial coverings.
MS. JIANG: Bob?
MR. COSTA: Jake – Weijia, you want to jump in?
MS. JIANG: I do, because I just think it’s important to point out that I’ve talked to sources, including some members of the taskforce, who say: You know, that’s great, that in certain areas people are now wearing masks. But they are concerned that it’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube, because the messaging was so jumbled on this before, and the president sent, you know, a lot of signals that perhaps people should not take things like face coverings so seriously. And so we are now five months into this pandemic, and people have already adopted their views and their behaviors. And even if the president comes out and changes his messaging and leans into the science, there is concern that it is too little, too late.
MR. COSTA: That’s a good point, Weijia. When I was speaking to Dr. Fauci earlier today I asked him, should there be a national mandate for face coverings? And he said – he didn’t lean into the idea at this point. He left it up to local officials. But, Jake, take us onto Capitol Hill. This is a real issue. You’re covering these players every day, writing Playbook at 4:00 a.m. in the morning. But this is about whether people are going to get $600 continued in unemployment benefits. This matters for them, whether this deal happens or not. Why did it break down, and will they come together?
JAKE SHERMAN: Well, why did it break down? It’s really interesting, Bob, because Senate Republicans right now are not even negotiating with Democrats. To put this in context, Senate Republicans can’t agree with themselves on what should happen next, on what they should propose. They want to put out a marker for their negotiations. They have failed to do so. Mark Meadows and Steven Mnuchin have been on Capitol Hill all week meeting with senators, meeting with Senate Republicans. They met with the speaker of the House and Chuck Schumer. They can’t get it together.
First of all, there’s no way the currently enhanced unemployment benefits will continue as constructed. People are not going to get $600. There’s other discussions about maybe 70 percent of lost wages. There’s other formulas that are under consideration. But the current formula, which expires one week from today, is done. Now, the larger question will be whether Senate Republicans can get a deal once they coalesce around something with Nancy Pelosi.
And there was an anecdote from a meeting with Mark Meadows and Steven Mnuchin, where Mark Meadows and Mnuchin said: We’re going to give you $105 billion for schools, not the 100 (billion dollars) you asked for. We’re going to give you even more. And Nancy Pelosi turned to him and said: We need $400 billion, not 100 (billion dollars). So that kind of illustrates the gap between the two sides at this point as they try to cobble this deal together in the next two, three weeks before the August recess, which is going to be delayed this year, just like everything else. And, yes, this has real-world impacts. And at this point, I would be pretty bearish on quick resolution to a coronavirus stimulus package.
MR. COSTA: But, Jake, just quickly, what’s holding the Republicans back? What do they want here? Is it liability insurance for businesses? Why are they holding back on aid for schools and states?
MR. SHERMAN: Well, like everything else, there’s some Republicans who want to spend more money. Many Republicans want to spend, you know, a trillion dollars. There’s some Republicans that believe they only need $2-300 billion. They believe the economy has healed enough that they don’t need a big package. There are skeptics about state and local money. Some just want to give flexibility for money that they already have.
So there’s just a huge, huge gap between the Republicans within the Senate Republican conference, liability reform and – liability overhaul, I should say, is Mitch McConnell’s top priority. He is – has said no bill will pass without it. So that is something that is going to be very critical, to see how Congress rewrites these laws that would prevent people from suing if they get coronavirus when they go back to work.
MR. COSTA: So all that’s happening on Capitol Hill, but as the president strains to contain the pandemic and the Congress debates, the president is also taking aggressive steps to contain American cities. A use of executive power that has underscored his law and order campaign message, but his moves have alarmed Democrats and some Republicans.
TOM RIDGE: (From video.) There is no conceivable scenario that I think that this massive invasion, basically, should be done – or can be done effectively without local support.
OREGON GOVERNOR KATE BROWN (D): (From video.) This is a democracy, not a dictatorship. We cannot have secret police abducting people into – and putting them in unmarked vehicles.
CHICAGO MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT: (From video.) That’s what we call tyranny and dictatorship, and we are not having it in Chicago.
MR. COSTA: Weijia, we’ve seen federal agents in the past work with local officials on drug taskforces. We’ve seen coordination. But this is a situation where federal agents are coming into cities without coordination, often, with the mayors, with the governors. Will the White House, will the president listen and back off?
MS. JIANG: No. I don’t think so, Bob, because he has made very clear that despite all the pushback that he’s received from sending those federal agents to Portland specifically, that he’s ready to send up to 75,000 more to cities across the country – even when the city and state and local leaders are saying: We don’t need the help and we don’t want the help. And the irony here is that the president often cited federalism when he was urging the states to take control, and the governors to do their own things with regard to COVID-19. But now he is interfering in places that, again, are saying: Please, do not get involved with, you know, our policing of our streets.
And so I think what’s important here – and you mentioned it – is that this is part of his campaign. He’s really trying to portray himself as the law and order president who can, you know, reduce crime in this country. And so I don’t think he’s going to back away from that, despite all the criticism that the White House is getting.
MR. COSTA: Peter, let’s pause on that word “law.” Are these federal agents working legally, constitutionally in these cities? And the other question I have for you, Peter, is who are these agents? They’re not wearing any kind of insignia on their uniform. Who are they?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. It’s a great question. Most of these, I think, are Homeland Security Department investigation officials, or other agents from other agencies. I think – remember, the Department of Homeland Security includes the Secret Service, includes the CBP and ICE, the Border Patrol and Immigration Services. They’re helping out with the Federal Protective Service, which is the police force of the federal government. And we’ve got two different things here. You got to remember there are two different interventions, in effect.
There’s the intervention in Portland, where they are sending in federal law enforcement officers and agents on the ostensible purpose of protecting federal property, right, against these protesters, or rioters, or whatever. You’re seeing them justifying that under the – there’s a law that specifically allows the federal government to protect its property using agents like these. Then there’s Chicago and these other cities where they’re talking about basic crime. They’re talking about, you know, getting in control of the streets.
That’s a different legal situation altogether. You’re supposed to be working with the local authorities in that kind of circumstance. The mayor of Chicago I think was very reluctant, but has sort of accepted at least on some level a degree of help. But you hear, like, the prosecutor, the chief district attorney of Philadelphia threatening to sue the federal government if they send troops in there without permission from the local authorities. So it’s a real legal murky ground on some level because you’re talking about a couple different purposes and a couple different missions, in effect.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, what does this mean for Black and brown communities? These are urban areas that are already reeling from the pandemic. Now they have federal agents coming in. What’s the reality on the ground, based on your reporting?
MS. SCOTT: Well, activists that I’ve been talking to point out that there is a difference between fighting crime and fighting violence and fighting protests, and that is the message that they want to get across as there are talks about an escalated and more presence from the federal government on the ground in some of these cities. Listen, protesters want to be heard. They want the president, they want the federal government to come and listen to their stories, to understand what is happening in their communities. They do not want to see more policing. And I think just a few weeks ago, when the protests were happening just outside of the White House and we saw – every single day we saw the people get further away from the people’s house, the gates, the military presence that was on the ground, people were really upset about that. They thought the president was missing the message. And so they want to see a community investment, and it’s important to know here that as we talk about all of this happening and the backdrop of the president’s campaign, as he’s painting himself as the law-and-order candidate and painting Joe Biden as the defund-the-police candidate – which is not true; Joe Biden does not believe in defunding the police – there are also Republican cities that are seeing an increase in violence. Jacksonville is one of them. They’re seeing one of their deadliest years in the past – in the past decade.
MR. COSTA: Jake, that point Rachel just made about the campaign, when you’re talking to Republicans on Capitol Hill about the president’s moves with DHS and other agencies, is it all quiet on the GOP front? Do they see this as an effort to win over suburban – White voters in the suburbs?
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, I mean, listen, there’s definitely a dynamic that I think a lot of Republicans in the House of Representatives, which is obviously more conservative and more gerrymandered and just represents a smaller or different slice of the American people than the Senate does, I think in the House there’s widespread comfort with this, and people believe that – Republicans in the House believe that these cities have gotten out of control and the voters that they represent want to see the federal government get ahold of this. In the Senate, where Republicans represent large, diverse states with Republicans, Democrats, moderates, independents, urban and suburban and rural voters, it’s not as welcome. And I was talking to a White House adviser this week and they were making the point that within the president’s base this is widely popular. I don’t know that to be the case. This is reminiscent, Bob, of something we all remember, when the president sent troops to the border before the 2018 midterm election because he said there was a dangerous wave of immigrants coming into the country. We’ll see if this continues apace just like this, but it does have that reminiscent feeling. Meanwhile, Democrats are +10 on the generic ballot, which means 10 percent – 10 percentage points is the lead voters want Democrats over the generic Republican. So I mean, Democrats are really on the – on the congressional level pulling away with this election in a very serious and profound way.
MR. COSTA: Weijia, we saw in the White House briefing room on Friday Kayleigh McEnany, the press secretary, was following up on the president’s message, showing images of protests and these different scenes in American cities.
MS. JIANG: Yeah, and I think it’s important to note that her own argument kind of fell apart because she was focused on what was happening in Portland, where she had already said that the reason why, you know, these troops could go in was to specifically protect federal property, as Peter so importantly pointed out, but then these images just showed clashes with police and, you know – you know, some burning, things that were on fire, but then when she came out she said those weren’t peaceful protests at all. But you know, with regard to the federal troops in Portland, the administration is not saying they’re there to make sure the protests are peaceful; they are saying that it’s there to protect the federal property, which again sort of did not jive with her message. But overall, you know, they continue to say that the president is just focused on safety, and that’s why, you know, he launched this new initiative called Operation Legend, as Peter mentioned, to just go into other cities and try to reduce crime more in general terms. But you know, I think Jake brings up really important points that whenever you’re talking about cities that just simply do not want the help, it’s a hard case to make.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you covered President George W. Bush, who started the Department of Homeland Security. Now we’re seeing DHS evolve into something new.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, look, you know, what is really important here is to remember to listen to what the president himself is saying. He is using this – he is framing this in very overtly partisan terms, right? He is using the phrase Democratic cities, liberal Democrats running them, and he makes the direct connection to his campaign against Biden by saying if Biden wins then all of America will be unsafe like these cities. This is – you know, you don’t normally hear – President Bush would not – if he was trying to, you know, establish control of cities that were having trouble with crime or trouble with out-of-control protesters, he would not be sitting there talking about the political affiliation of the mayor or the governor of the place he was trying to work with, and he also wouldn’t probably be making a confrontation. This is a president who wants the confrontation. He wants to say these Democrats are ruining our cities and we have to vote them out or vote out, at least, Joe Biden as a result. It’s a very openly political argument. I heard Kayleigh McEnany at the briefing today refer to Democrat streets. I wasn’t – I wasn’t aware that streets in America were Democrat or Republican; I thought they were just American streets. But that’s the way they’re framing this issue. It’s very overtly partisan in a way I don’t think we’ve heard in other White Houses.
MR. COSTA: Rachel, does this whole moment inform the Biden campaign as he looks at his VP choice? You think about the issues of race and politics in law enforcement: Val Demings, a Florida congresswoman who comes from a law enforcement background; Karen Bass from California, from the L.A. area. How does this all play out in the Biden world?
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, well, they’re certainly keeping the time in which we are in right now in mind as he narrows down his selection for his vice presidential pick. And it’s important to note, too, on the Republican side the Trump campaign sources that I’ve talked to, you know, they’re hoping and betting on Biden picking someone that’s to the left of him, right, a progressive, and part of what they’re trying to do now is paint Biden. The president’s campaign manager said people know Biden, but they don’t know Biden. So they’re trying to paint this picture of what they believe Biden can be and depict what they believe Biden is to the rest of America. But there is no doubt about it, voters are on the edge of their seats also waiting to hear – I was just speaking to one voter in Minneapolis who said for him the decision between Trump and Biden is going to come down to two things: one, who Biden picks for his VP; and then – and then the debates.
MR. COSTA: Jake, just to wrap us up here tonight, when you talk to top advisers to President Trump – and I know you’ve talked to them this week – what is their view of the president’s efforts on the cities in this country?
MR. SHERMAN: They think it’s strong. They think it shows his strength, it shows his resolve, it shows his ability to get control of the situation. I would be inaccurate to say they all agree, but they believe that these scenes around the country are abhorrent and they want these federal officials to take control of it. And they believe, as everyone has said, it plays into this reelection effort.
MR. COSTA: That’s all the time we have. Many thanks to our reporters for a night that had a little bit of technical difficulty, but everyone held steady. I appreciate it. Weijia Jiang, Rachel Scott, Peter Baker, and Jake Sherman, four of the best. And thank you for joining us. On our Extra, which you can find on our social media and website, we will pay tribute to Congressman John Lewis. What a life, what an American. Whenever his country called, he stood up – on a bridge in Selma, in the streets, and in Congress.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.