GWEN IFILL: Donald Trump stumbles. Hillary Clinton’s bounce. But it’s just August, right? Tonight on Washington Week.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Donald Trump is not qualified to be president and he is temperamentally unfit to be commander in chief.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re running against a rigged system and we’re running against a very dishonest media.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) I think the Republican nominee is unfit to serve as president.
INDIANA GOVERNOR MIKE PENCE (R): (From video.) Barack Obama knows something about being woefully unprepared to be president of the United States.
MS. IFILL: Donald Trump under fire, feuding with gold star parents, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, and generally panicking many Republicans who have already endorsed him.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From video.) Improper it is to ever disparage the families and those who are serving in the military and those who have sacrificed.
MS. IFILL: Another week unlike anything we have ever seen. We take a look inside the latest twists and turns with Doyle McManus, columnist for The Los Angeles Times; Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for CNN; Philip Rucker, national political correspondent for The Washington Post; and Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Live by the sword, get poked by the sword. That’s what happens when candidates rely too heavily on polls. Donald Trump more than any candidate this year has cited polls to explain his success. But now the worm has turned. A number of post-convention polls out this week tell the story. NBC News/Wall Street Journal has Clinton up by nine points. Fox News has her up by 10 points. And the Los Angeles Times/USC poll has them tied. In the RealClearPolitics average of polls, she is leading by 6.7 points. Trump’s response?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) I would say right now it’s the best in terms of being united that it’s been since we began. We’re doing incredibly well. We’re leading in the state of Florida. You saw the poll. (Cheers, applause.) We’re leading in Ohio. (Cheers, applause.) We’re about tied in Pennsylvania, but I think we’re going to be leading the next time. So I think we – I think we’ve never been this united.
MS. IFILL: Well, perhaps that’s true in the polls he sees. RealClearPolitics has Clinton leading in all three of those states. Add to this the growing, palpable nervousness among Republicans. Some have defected, even going so far as to say they will vote for Clinton. So I hate to ask this again, because it seems I ask it every week, Doyle, is this another turning point?
DOYLE MCMANUS: I’m going to go way out on a limb, Gwen, and say maybe – (laughter) – because all those numbers you cited were from last weekend. Those poll numbers didn’t even absorb the weight of all of the mistakes Donald Trump made this week, which is one reason so many Republicans are afraid that he may be in some kind of free fall. We don’t know yet.
MS. IFILL: Actually, some of the polls ended on the 4th, which was yesterday, so there are actually – some of it was taking in that.
MR. MCMANUS: OK, some of it got close. But we don’t know what the wait – it takes a while for this to work its way through. And if you – simply looking at this in a historical perspective, I think you have to go back 44 years to the George McGovern campaign to find a week in which a nominee has ever suffered so much self-inflicted damage all at once. So could this be a turning point? Absolutely. But there’s still about 90 days left. And it’s still theoretically possible for Mr. Trump to get his act together and get back to the fundamentals, where in which this could be a very close race.
MS. IFILL: Alexis, how off message is Mr. Trump?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that you look at in terms of where he is now is you have to admit that he is still getting big rallies and has gotten a lot of financial support. So one of the caveats, I think, that we’ve all been talking about inside our own media organizations is be careful to – as Doyle says – be careful to lean too far into the future here, because he still has this reservoir of support. He is still getting these rallies, he is still getting – and the money that he reported in July was quite impressive, right?
MS. IFILL: Eighty million (dollars), yeah.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And the cash on hand is not that far behind the Clinton campaign, even though we would say he’s not on the air, right, and we would say he’s behind in organization on the ground. It is still possible, as Doyle is suggesting, I think, for the campaign to shift ahead.
Now, one of the things we’re going to look for next week is Mr. Trump has decided to give an economic address next week in Detroit. That’s the smarty-pants audience there listening to the nominee’s economic plans. We would expect to see him prepare for that and have real tangible proposals to make. So that’s another thing to watch, that he’s trying to take some of this advice.
MANU RAJU: And, Gwen, the real nerve-racking part is – for the Trump campaign – is not necessarily the national polls of – of course, that shows the mood of the country. But those polls in the battleground states. That’s what makes a lot of Republicans nervous. Michigan – he’s going to Detroit – but in Michigan he thought he could do well there given the economic anxiety that’s being felt in the state, rail against trade, but the recent poll there has him down double digits. Also in Pennsylvania, another state he could do – thought he could do well in a general election, struggling there. And in New Hampshire – losing in New Hampshire, and that possibly having a down ticket impact against Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire senator, who’s now down 10 in a most recent poll. And today, a poll from Georgia having Hillary Clinton up by four. Now, will those numbers stay there? We don’t know, because there’s still a lot of time. There still going could be debates. Possibly debate – we assume there’ll be debates. And that could tighten up. But clearly –
MS. IFILL: These are not the states in which she was supposed to be leading at this stage.
MR. RAJU: That’s right. Clearly a nerve wracking moment for the Trump campaign.
MS. IFILL: Phil Rucker sat down with Donald Trump for a wide-ranging interview this week, that covered everything from his feud with the Khans, the gold star couple, to sexual harassment, to his theory that if he loses it will be because the election is unfair. He said this to Phil: There’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election, meaning that the election is rigged. I would not be surprised, the voter ID, they’re fighting as hard as you can fight so you don’t have to show voter ID. So what’s the purpose of that? How many times is a person going to vote during the day? OK, Phil, I had trouble getting the inflection right, but – (laughter) –
PHILIP RUCKER: You were close.
MS. IFILL: Thank you. But what was true – what is true, first of all, about this voter fraud argument that Republicans have made for years, and he was obviously trying to make here?
MR. RUCKER: You know, he went on in that interview to say that people would be able to vote 10 times in states that don’t have IDs. That is just not true. I mean, the state boards of election that run these elections have a system. They have a way of making sure people only vote once. I think what he’s trying to do – and it’s pretty extraordinary – is lay the groundwork for, if he loses to Hillary Clinton, to contest the election and argue that it was rigged. And, you know, that’s dangerous prospect for the country. We have a tradition here of when presidential candidates lose, they concede graciously, try to bring their supporters behind the president-elect. And I don’t know that we’re going to have this if, in fact, you know, he loses to Hillary.
MS. IFILL: Certainly is hinting broadly. You know, when you – when I read the transcripts of the interviews that he does, especially with newspapers, and I also get to see how you are trying to guide him to certain points and – clarity, I guess, is the word I’m searching for. Does it feel that way at the time?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, you know, I went into this interview trying to have a conversation with him, and kind of lead him into a couple subject areas, but really let him speak and see what he thinks and have him elaborate on things. Sometimes he doesn’t make his point clear initially and you have to follow up with him. He was pretty distracted in this interview, kept looking at himself on the television behind us. But, you know, I thought if you look at the transcript, it really shows what’s on his mind and what he thinks, that he’s pretty unfiltered.
MS. IFILL: Let’s go back to the gold star couple, the Khans, who for some reason their comments at the Democratic National Convention and subsequent interviews and Donald Trump’s response to it have cut through, it seems, in a way that other insults to politicians, to Chris Christie, to John McCain, have not, Doyle. Why is that?
MR. MCMANUS: I think there are two reasons. One reason is that it was so easy – the correct and gracious answer from Donald Trump was so easy for any normal person to figure out. You know, that is: I honor their sacrifice and I’m not going to get into a fight with them. We just disagree. That’s what George W. Bush did with Cindy Sheehan back in 2004. That’s the sort of generic lay person – you don’t mess with gold star families. For politicians, for other Republicans, it’s actually compounded. Because this was such an easy one to figure out a way out of, why turn it into a controversy that went on not just for one day, but two days, and three days. He could have put it to bed in his first interview with George Stephanopoulos a whole week ago. And he didn’t. He kept picking at it.
MS. IFILL: It’s been a week and we’re still talking about this. And then he came out at a rally and brought a fellow on stage who was a Purple Heart recipient, who had given him his Purple Heart, and said something to the effect, Manu, that, well, this is an easier way to get it, which veterans and Medal of Honor recipients, and others, were not thrilled with.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, it just came – it also came in the wake of – of course, of this fight with the gold star family. So it just compounded this concern. And I think – and I think that Donald Trump, in fairness, was probably not trying to belittle the Purple Heart, but just it came across that way. It really just all underscored the concern within the party right now that Donald Trump is just not focusing on what could unite the party, which is Hillary Clinton. You know, these interparty squabbles, including in Phil’s interview, by not endorsing Paul Ryan, not endorsing John McCain, attacking Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire senator, does nothing to serve their cause ahead of November. So, interestingly, Donald Trump may be listening to some of this criticism, because in the last couple of days his rallies have been focusing on Hillary Clinton. He’s been going after her so clearly. I think he’s recognized this taken a toll on him in the last several days.
MS. IFILL: But we’ve seen a lot of people jumping ship. And that’s the part when you begin to worry, because people like Paul Ryan, who may yet get an endorsement, but Paul Ryan has said – has stuck by him, Reince Priebus has stuck by him, even when they’ve been in sticky spots before, but these seem like missed opportunities or self-inflicted wounds.
MR. RUCKER: That’s right. And I think the problem with the Khan confrontation for Trump is that, you know, his supporters like to see him attacking politicians, they like to see him attacking people in power. The Khans are not politicians. These are grieving parents of somebody who gave his life for the country. And for him to respond the way he did, I think exposes a sort of lack of decency, core humanity, in the minds of a lot of Republicans. And that’s why we saw people this week abandon ship, basically. Sally Bradshaw, the long-time top Bush family advisor, withdrew from the Republican party and is going to vote for Hillary Clinton.
MS. IFILL: And one of Chris Christie’s long-time advisors also. And he is still, last we heard, supporting Donald Trump.
The president this week, Alexis, did kind of remarkable thing, and kind of in lockstep, as he has been doing, with Hillary Clinton, which is leap at a chance at a – to a question in a news conference to declare Donald Trump unfit for office. I don’t think we’ve ever heard that word used between candidates. And of course, he’s calling her unfit as well.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It was unprecedented in modern politics, in a couple ways. One was that the sitting president taking on the nominee of the opposing party, and denouncing them as unfit and woefully unprepared. But also, the president’s eagerness to do that while standing next to a head of state from a visiting country at the White House, right?
MS. IFILL: The prime minister of Singapore.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It was the prime minister of Singapore paying a state visit. There was a state dinner that evening. So the president, though, I want to say, was totally prepared for this question, knew he was going to get the question, and while –
MS. IFILL: You could kind of tell, watching it. (Laughter.)
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. And while the prime minister was speaking and addressing the journalists from Singapore, the president was writing and making notes, as he sometimes does, to himself to remember some of things he wanted to say. And then just marched right into it. And as you say, was echoing in large measure what Hillary Clinton, as the Democratic nominee, has been saying. But it was stunning. And the president then continued to – has been continuing to talk about this. He just did a press conference – a short press conference, really, at the Pentagon this week before leaving for vacation. And he, you know, launched into it again, that he doesn’t trust Donald Trump to handle nuclear or international policy. That’s echoing the Clinton campaign again.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about Hillary Clinton because theoretically if your opponent is having a bad week, you’re having a good one. Not completely, Doyle.
MR. MCMANUS: No, not completely, although it would have been a monumentally bad week for Hillary Clinton if Donald Trump hadn’t been absorbing so much coverage. But, yeah, Hillary Clinton’s had a bad week on a couple of points. She had some bad – there was some bad economic numbers at the beginning of the week, good economic numbers at the end of the week. But the real problem she had, she did another interview about the FBI investigation of her emails. And she asserted that James Comey, the head of the FBI, had said she had been completely truthful in everything she said.
That’s not what James Comey said. James Comey said there was no evidence that she had been untruthful in her interview with the FBI. There’s a big gulf between those two, and she’s been called on this several times. She cannot seem to deal with this problem and, in a sense, it’s her equivalent of someone – of Donald Trump’s problem with anyone questioning his judgment or attacking him. She got called on it by reporters. She finally, by the end of the week, said she had short-circuited the answer. She had sorted of telescoped it a bit. I think she needs to do better.
MR. RAJU: And – I’m sorry – and afterwards, she still went back and said, well, everything that James Comey said confirms what I said to the public and then launched into this very legalistic answer about the emails, a very convoluted, tortured explanation.
MS. IFILL: I sometimes wonder if that’s not on purpose, though, that she knows it’s convoluted, she knows it’s twisted, or hard for the average lay person to understand, and therefore you can get away with it. I’ve seen that work before.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You could say that, except that she knows that the getting away from it – the price she’s been paying is in the trust numbers in the polling. And she has had to address that over and over again. She was addressing that again on Friday in a question. And she has continued to say, you know, I regret, this was a mistake, and then she keeps saying how she’ll earn, how she’s working to try to earn back the American electorate’s trust. So she knows she’s paid a price. And she said on Friday that it makes her feel bad.
MS. IFILL: That is a real Achilles heel.
MR. RUCKER: It is. And here we are, a week after the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, that was so committed to trying to recast this image of Hillary Clinton as someone trustworthy with good character. She’s doing well in the polls, but even that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a majority of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of her. I mean, she’s historically unpopular, just not as unpopular as Donald Trump. And that’s a problem for her.
MS. IFILL: But is the third Obama term argument working? Because his numbers continue to improve.
MR. RAJU: Potentially. I mean, the interesting thing about those numbers, though, is that while Obama’s standing is very good, best of his second term according to some polls, There’s still a majority of this country that believes this country is going in the wrong direction. The right track/wrong track numbers, so to speak. And 46 percent in the recent CNN poll believe the country is moving in the right direction, and 54 do not. So there is an inconsistency there. So while she can say I’m pushing for an Obama third term, and a lot of voters are OK with that, it may not work in some parts of the country.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, and, in fact, in her first week out of the convention jobs tour this week, the third term wasn’t the central argument she was making. Actually, her central economic argument was: We’re doing better than people give President Obama credit for, but we can do much better than that, and I understand the country is hurting.
MS. IFILL: Hasn’t he been making that argument?
MR. MCMANUS: And he’s been making that argument. But then, the other argument, and the one she actually made with, I think, more effect and more passion was, but, no matter what you think about me, look at Donald Trump. Look at what Donald Trump is like. She did a stop at a necktie factory in Denver, where she held up a Donald Trump tie that said made in China. Made a lot of hay with that. She did a stop that was about job training, a very wonky subject, in Las Vegas. Did she talk about job training? Yeah, but then she said, but look at Trump University. What do you call that? So in fact, at this point, I think the core theme of the Hillary Clinton campaign is: I’m not Donald Trump.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And you started by asking about some of these Republicans who are saying they’re not going to vote for Donald Trump. There are also some of them who are saying they’re going to be voting for her. And why are they saying that? They’re saying it because they cannot or won’t vote for Donald Trump. So this idea of making him a referendum – you don’t have to love me, she’s saying, you know, I’m going to represent you. You know, but think about it. Think about it.
MR. RAJU: Safe and steady, essentially. That you can trust her to do the job. You may not trust either person, but you can trust that I’ll be competent and I’m qualified to do the job.
MS. IFILL: Right. But here’s the thing, let’s just peel back the onion a little bit. Does it matter who runs your campaign? Does it matter what the discipline is in the campaign? How much is this campaign year mostly just people reacting to emotion, and how much does it matter that, as they say – as the joke goes, they hide the phone from Mr. Trump?
MR. RUCKER: It does matter a little bit. I think, you know, the Republican establishment, they’re pulling their hair out this week, because they see these vulnerabilities from Hillary Clinton, and Trump is just not seizing them. He’s distracted by the Khan family or distracted by Paul Ryan and John McCain, picking fights. And you know, he should be making this change argument. The feeling is this is a change election. Republicans say that if he can make the election a referendum on Hillary Clinton, he has a fighting chance of winning the White House. And today it’s a referendum on Donald Trump.
MR. RAJU: You know, interesting too about where Donald Trump also spent part of this week. He was in Maine – he did a couple of events in Maine where, you know, it’s not necessarily Republican territory.
MS. IFILL: That’s an understatement.
MR. RAJU: I mean, that’s split – exactly – it’s a split electoral state. Maybe he can peel off one electoral vote. But he’s got a bigger problem. He should be spending more time, you know, in Ohio where he has to win. He has to win in Florida. He has to win Virginia, you know, in Pennsylvania. You’re not – you know, so some of the decisions that he’s making about where he’s spending his time is prompting second-guessing as well.
MR. MCMANUS: Which is one of the reasons that one of the pieces of news, or the pieces of gossip that threw a real chill into Republicans this week, was the report that Paul Manafort is on the point of giving up and walking away. Now, that turned out not to be entirely true, but –
MS. IFILL: But he did say – but he did say the one person running this campaign is Mr. Trump, left the distinct impression that he can’t sway the campaign the direction he would wish.
MR. MCMANUS: That’s right. And there were any number of people who know Paul Manafort who were saying that, in fact, Paul Manafort has been tearing his hair out. The fundamental question here is: Is there a strategy and is there any sensible adult management? And there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that there is.
MR. RAJU: And you heard Paul Ryan actually today in a radio interview, he said: I wish Donald Trump had more discipline. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: That’s a nice way of putting it. Well, and Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin, and Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, all had enough discipline to stay away from the Trump event there tonight.
Finally, quickly, the debate debate begins, immediately. And Donald Trump purposely stirred the pot this week. Where do we think it stands tonight?
MR. RUCKER: Well, it looks like the debate negotiations are going to get going. Trump wants to have three debates. He told me he wants them all to be head-to-head matchups with Hillary Clinton, which might surprise you because you’d think he’d have a better shot if there were four people on stage. But no, he wants the head-to-head with Clinton. And he wants to help pick the moderators.
MS. IFILL: And to be clear, Ron Johnson (sic; Gary Johnson), the Libertarian candidate, and Jill Stein, Green Party candidate, have to reach a threshold of, like, 15 percent in order to do it. So right now, that looks like a long distance.
MR. MCMANUS: The fundamentals in this situation are that this race has reached a kind of an equilibrium with Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump by some number, we’re not sure what it is. What Donald Trump needs to do is to upset that equilibrium. Now, he’s done pretty well at upsetting equilibrium until now. But now in a positive direction. That’s why he has to do the debates. The whole notion that he was never going to do the debates, that would have been the definition of clinical insanity because the debates are his last best chance at really changing the dynamic of the election.
MR. RAJU: And remember, that’s really why he probably lost the Iowa caucuses – one big reason why. He was leading running up to the Iowa caucuses and he decided to bail on the Fox News debate because of his feud with Megyn Kelly. And that turned off a lot of voters. So clearly he can’t afford to do that in the general election.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One thing I just wanted to add, in Philadelphia at the convention, I was struck by how many people close and supportive to Hillary Clinton are rubbing their hands together, gleefully saying they couldn’t wait for the debates. They just feel that this is going to be just a knockout punch. Except when I talked to some people who said, you know what? Debates really favor the challenger, not necessarily the incumbent. And I want to say, Phil, I was so struck by Donald Trump saying he was looking for the ratings. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Well, and as we go off the air tonight, I am hearing Donald Trump has reversed himself and actually has endorsed Paul Ryan. So I’m sure that end’s that week’s debate. And we’ll get another one next week – yay. (Laughter.) Thank you, everyone.
We’re done with the show, but we’re not done talking. Come join us for the rest of the conversation on the Washington Week Webcast. You can find that shortly and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Among other things, we’ll take the measure of the two major vice presidential nominees.
Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff at the PBS NewsHour. And we will see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.