ROBERT COSTA: An explosive report about accusations of sexual misconduct by a conservative firebrand rocks the Alabama Senate race. I’m Robert Costa. The consequences of conduct, and the Democrats bounce back, tonight on Washington Week.
SENATOR LUTHER STRANGE (R-AL): (From video.) It’s very, very disturbing what I’ve read about.
SENATOR MIKE LEE (R-UT): (From video.) If they’re true, he should step aside.
MR. COSTA: The White House and a chorus of Republicans are calling on Roy Moore to step aside if reports of sexual misconduct with teenagers decades ago are true.
SENATOR RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL): (From video.) It’s a devastating, nasty story. I don’t believe there would be any place for him in the U.S. Senate.
MR. COSTA: But a defiant Moore has dismissed the charges as fake news and launched a fundraising appeal. We explain how this Alabama drama and a wave of Democratic victories this week upend the debates over tax policy, health care, and next year’s midterms. Plus, President Trump’s high-stakes Asia trip, where he talked up his message of “America first” and said hello to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
We discuss it all with Molly Ball of TIME Magazine, Peter Baker of The New York Times, and Chuck Todd of Meet the Press and NBC News.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore says he, quote, “will never give up the fight.” In an interview and tweets, the former judge is calling reports he pursued relationships with minors when he was a thirtysomething district attorney completely false. Four women told The Washington Post that Moore made inappropriate sexual advances on them when they were teenagers. The 70-year-old Moore, who is running for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, has been a controversial figure since his political career began decades ago. He is a staunch Christian conservative, an outspoken Second Amendment advocate, someone who has boldly displayed his gun at a political rally. He was removed twice from the Alabama State Supreme Court, first in 2003 after he refused a federal judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from outside the State Supreme Court, then in 2006 when he wrote an op-ed arguing that Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison should be prohibited from serving in Congress because of his Muslim faith. The White House and a majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill have been swift to call on Moore to step down if the accusations were true. Senator John McCain, however, went further in a written statement. He wrote, “The allegations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and disqualifying. He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.”
Chuck, it’s great to have you back on Washington Week. Senator after senator tonight are rescinding their endorsement of Judge Moore, but he’s defiant in an interview with Sean Hannity on the radio. He’s not going away.
CHUCK TODD: He’s not. I actually think, you know, one of those senators that just pulled their endorsement – Mike Lee, the Republican from Utah – I thought his statement was particularly damning on Roy Moore because he said after re-reading all of the accusations and hearing Judge Moore’s response, I’ve decided to pull my endorsement. So that is somebody, he’s basically saying I believe the accusers, just what you were saying with John McCain. Look, he’s not going anywhere, all right? It’s taken court orders for him to either do his job as a judge or he’s been kicked off the bench, so we know he’s not going anywhere. This is now a lose-lose situation for the Republican Party. I think Mitch McConnell, it’s clear this Republican Party was desperate to figure out how to – how to saw this limb off. Then they had – look, they didn’t want him around before there was an accusation that he did a misdeed with a 14-year-old. This is that much worse. So it’s a lose-lose situation. Mitch McConnell’s made the decision that it is worse for the Republican Party to have Roy Moore as a sitting U.S. Senator than it is to have one more Democrat in the Senate. That’s how toxic national leaders believe Roy Moore is nationwide.
MR. BAKER: Well, and he says that with only 52 Republican senators to begin with, you can’t afford to lose a whole lot of them. I mean, if he loses this Senate seat, they’re down to 51. That means that any single senator, basically, can force a tie. That’s – the vice president breaks it. But two senators, you’re gone, and you don’t control the Senate anymore. And while next year has always been considered to be sort of a long shot for Democrats in the Senate because the Republicans have very few seats that are up, suddenly it looks much more possible, if you’ve already started with one down.
MR. COSTA: Democrats did pretty well in Virginia, Molly. Could they come back in the South? Are they going to put money behind Doug Jones, the Democrat down there?
MS. BALL: What we’ve heard from Democrats is a real reluctance to wade into this race, in part because they fear that doing so would nationalize it, that if it looks like this is the national Democratic Party throwing a bunch of money at that, well, then you get, you know, the Pelosi ads, and it turns into a partisan contest. In a contest where you’re up against such partisan headwinds in such a red state, you want to de-partisanize it as much as possible. I think we may see a lot of national grassroots donations for Doug Jones. But I think you’re still going to see the national party trying to – trying to hold back.
And then meanwhile, you know, Roy Moore, who’s not a terrific fundraiser to begin with, he’s losing all his institutional support. You’ve got the national Republican Party pulling out of this race completely. The outside groups are going to do the same thing. And when you don’t have that outside support, it’s very difficult to run an effective campaign.
MR. COSTA: Chuck, based on what Molly just said, the NRSC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, they’re pulling their funding from Moore. So the Republicans are giving the Democrats an opening. You wrote this week: You can’t truly be a national party if you hide. Why aren’t they going to play?
MR. TODD: Oh, I think they are going to play now. I think that – but, look, this is not a normal campaign anymore, OK? This is sort of – we’re in a state of suspended animation here, if you will, between what the Republican Party’s going to do. You know, in a couple of – we got a whole month before election day in Alabama. You’ll see some flirtations with write-ins or this or that. I know a lot of Republicans think, geez, Roy Moore might win anyway.
A lot of people in Alabama think Roy Moore might win anyway. I think – you know, on the same day that this came out on Roy Moore we had the Louis C.K. accusation. We’re in a cultural moment in this country. And you’re going to tell me that somehow it’s passing Alabama by? I’m not as cynical that somehow this is – this isn’t going to impact the way – particularly the way women are voting, Republican women. We saw it in the Virginia elections. So I actually think the Democrats are now the slight favorite here. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you start seeing Republicans perhaps even endorsing Doug Jones. Watch the governor of Alabama. She never – she never endorsed Moore to begin with. Now, of course, I don’t think she ever will. What does she do?
MR. COSTA: She says she’s deeply disturbed. Peter, another name is coming up with Judge Moore. It’s not just a Moore story. McConnell’s allies, I spoke to Josh Holmes this week, his former chief of staff. They’re targeting Steve Bannon, the former White House chief of staff. They say: Bannon backed Moore. He has to have some responsibility for how this race is playing out.
MR. BAKER: That’s right, exactly. And Bannon was out comparing this to the Trump audio tape from last year – the video tape last year, Access Hollywood. The response, of course, is this is an orchestrated smear. It’s somehow a collusion between your newspaper and the Democrats.
MR. COSTA: It is not.
MR. BAKER: I agree, but I’m just saying that that’s a line that sells, because you have to be able to give your supporters an alternative theory of the case, right? It’s not that Judge Moore did something wrong; it’s that people are out to get him. And they’re out to get him because he’s speaking truth to power, because he is scaring the establishment, he’s going to drain the swamp. Now, I don’t know whether that succeeds in Alabama or not. I haven’t been down there and I don’t want to presume to say. But it’s a pretty – it’s a pretty desperate, last-minute strategy when you’re facing these kinds of allegations.
MR. COSTA: And suburban women, Molly, are watching not only Alabama, they’re watching what happened in Virginia. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam now the Democratic governor-elect; in New Jersey, Phil Murphy, a Democrat, wins. Suburban women in Pennsylvania, local offices, in New York, the suburbs, Northern Virginia, they’re turning away from the GOP and from President Trump. And what are they going to see this week, the results in those states, plus what’s happening in Alabama. Is there a consequence there?
MS. BALL: Potentially there is. I mean, that was really what we saw in the surprisingly robust win for Democrats, particularly in Virginia but, as you say, all over the country this week. It was just a surge in turnout, particularly from college-educated women. And that is the demographic that you don’t hear so much about, right? You hear all of these dissections of the Trump voter, who’s usually this sort of angry white man who used to have a factory job, right? But the real sort of silent majority that is changing politics at this moment is these college-educated suburban women. Many of whom may have disliked Hillary Clinton or who may have reluctantly voted for Trump, but who seem to really have changed in some way after last year’s election.
We see an unprecedented amount of activism, a lot of it from women who were already voting for Democrats, already on the left, but there’s a surge in enthusiasm that made a difference in Virginia. Virginia, you know, is pretty much a blue state at this point. What we don’t know is, does that make a difference in a red state? But I do think – you know, I was in Alabama a few months ago reporting on the primary in this race. And, again, we have a – there’s a stereotype of the Alabama voter as this enthusiastic Trump supporter, but there are a lot of people – you know, the business-oriented, country-club Republicans in the Birmingham suburbs, for example. They don’t really like Roy Moore. And he has lost a lot of Republican primaries in this state before he won this one. There are a lot of Alabamians who see him as an embarrassment.
MR. COSTA: Senator Shelby, the senior senator down there, doesn’t seem to like him either. But you wanted to jump in?
MR. TODD: No, there’s – Ralph Northam did better among women than Hillary Clinton did. And I think what you have is – just to build on that point that Molly made – I mean, this is – look, we may look back at 2016 and say, boy, everything we thought was going to benefit Hillary Clinton because of the accusations against Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood tape, and the women, and suburban women in particular, it just turns out we were right, it’s just when she’s not on the ballot. You know, that somehow she – whatever hard feelings and misgivings many of these women had about Donald Trump, the misgivings they had about her were enough to let them gamble or maybe stay home. The fact is, a year of Trump and there was no hesitation this time when it came to –
MR. COSTA: But one thing – on that point, Chuck – and, Peter, and I want to hear what you think about this too, Molly. Everyone says, who I’m talking to, these analysts, the pundits and the strategists, say suburban voters, especially women, don’t like the president’s conduct, they don’t like Roy Moore’s conduct. But what about the policies? You look at the Republicans going after the Medicaid expansion, very unpopular. Exit polls show that perhaps it’s the policies as much as the style and the temperament coming out of Washington.
MR. BAKER: Well, it is. But, I mean, these are policies that have been debated now for a number of years. It’s not unique to this year. I think the thing – the accelerant on it, right? The accelerant on the flame is the president and his leadership style and the sort of volatility that he’s introduced to the political environment, so that Republicans have a hard time making their case for policy because they’re busy explaining the latest tweet. And you had, in Virginia, I thought – you mentioned Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, two very unique candidates in some ways. You know, people say, well, she’s the only Democrat who couldn’t beat Donald Trump. He’s the only Republican – in Virginia you had a laboratory between two pretty generic candidates, Democrat, Republican.
MR. TODD: It was. It was like generic A, generic B.
MR. BAKER: Right? Neither one of them all that flashy. Neither one of them a movement. You know, both of them defeated the wings of their party to win the nomination. And you had a test case. Now, I think Molly’s right. This is also a story about Virginia. Virginia’s changing, has been changing long before Donald Trump. But it was a case where the margin of victory, at 9 points, and the victories down ballot suggested a real – a real important moment.
MR. COSTA: But Ed Gillespie was –
MS. BALL: But if Democrats want to take the House especially in 2018, they have to win in places that Hillary Clinton did not win. And so far, they are winning in places that she did win, and maybe winning bigger. But they have to win in places that she did not win. Trump won 230 congressional districts. So if all of the Republicans in districts that Trump won still win get the exact same share of the vote, the Republicans will hold the House.
And I would say, just to play devil’s advocate to the idea that Alabama voters are going to turn on Roy Moore, that Trump is the X factor. Voters’ calculations changed when they elected Donald Trump. We’ve seen white evangelical voters, 72 percent of them used to believe that a candidate’s moral character was extremely important in whether they would support him. Now it’s down to 30. Trump changed the way people think about how they vote. And there’s a slippery slope that may be in effect, that once voters decided they could swallow something like the Access Hollywood tape and pull that lever for Trump, maybe there are other things that they’re willing to look past, willing to rationalize, willing –
MR. COSTA: But the difference –
MR. TODD: Where I’m a skeptic on this is that I do think these are – we sort of have two opposite issues going on here. We do have this big cultural moment that’s happening, where it feels as if the – and is the trigger the Access Hollywood tape and the fact that he won despite it that suddenly has more women feeling, you know what? I’m not going to stay silent about what so-and-so did to me here. I’m not going to stay silent about – and I’m more willing to hold men more accountable on these issues, because look what happens if you don’t. Then somebody can get into the White House while bragging about it.
And so there is something there that I think – that I think is layering over the politics. I don’t disagree that there is this sort of rationalization that some on the right make, but let’s – there’s something else happening out there too.
MR. BAKER: It’s fascinating, the one Republican you have not heard from in the 24 hours or so since this story came out: Donald Trump. He happens to be in Asia. He happens to have a good excuse not to be focused on domestic politics at the time. It may be that his Twitter feed doesn’t work really well in China, where we have issues.
MS. BALL: He did manage to tweet about Ed Gillespie.
MR. BAKER: He did, he did. (Laughter.)
MR. TODD: Why do I – why do I have a feeling that the White House is really excited – oh, geez, that it’s harder to tweet in China.
MS. BALL: Unfortunate the president is –
MR. BAKER: Yeah, security and 13-hour time difference.
MR. TODD: Yeah, that’s right.
MR. BAKER: They get by on this. But he did not – he has not said one word about this, and it’s interesting because, obviously, you could easily imagine him going the direction where he gets – he gets worked up about it.
MR. COSTA: So Alabama, Virginia, New Jersey. What does this mean for taxes? The Senate has its own bill. They want to delay lowering the corporate rate to 20 percent. House Republicans are charging ahead, saying we have our own plan. This is a lot of drama in the GOP. And I just wonder, what does it mean for tax reform?
MR. TODD: I’m a skeptic that it’s somehow going to speed things up. The leadership will tell you – and I’m sure they’ve told you off the record – they think there is now a fierce urgency of now, that actually both the election results of Tuesday and Roy Moore has everybody in the Senate and the House focused. And I think if it were up to leadership, they’d be right. But we’re also in every Republican for themselves mode, right, the closer we’re inching to ’18. So I don’t know. There’s a lot of suburban Republican members of Congress, and right now this tax plan does not benefit their constituents. You know, it benefits their donors, but it does not benefit their constituents very well.
MR. COSTA: Gets rid of some deductions for state and local taxes.
MR. TODD: So there’s that issue, and then you have – they haven’t even really started the wooing process of Democrats. Look, I don’t buy this idea that they’re going to get any tax cut agreed upon this calendar year. I think this thing ends up sometime in the spring, where they do something much, much more narrow.
MS. BALL: Well, and another trend that accelerated this week is this record number of Republicans retiring from Congress. It’s now up to 30, which is the most in decades. And so you have on the one hand a lot of members who, because they don’t have to run for reelection, have no incentive to do something, you know, to put themselves on the line, they can do what – they are sort of liberated to vote for a policy based on the merits; on the other hand, you have a lot of people who are worried about their reelection. And so they’re in sort of a similar position that they were on health care, where they’re legitimately not sure whether it’s worse for them politically to pass something or not to, because there is a lot that is politically dicey in this bill. There’s a lot of analyses now coming out about people who are going to see a tax hike, voters in a lot of states that are not necessarily going to benefit from this bill or in certain tax brackets. And so, you know, I think leadership thought that because tax reform is hard and complicated they would do it in secret and then push it through and nobody would know.
MR. TODD: Do it fast, right. Lightning strike.
MS. BALL: And they’re finding out that people still read the bill even if you only give them a day, and if they are queasy about what’s in there they’re going to be queasy about what’s in there.
MR. BAKER: There are so many moving parts, and I think that the safe bet is always on skepticism for things like this, will they get it done this year. Having said that, I do sense in the recent days a more – more momentum among Republicans and more faith that they are actually able to bridge some of these divides. The compromises are not that hard to imagine. It’s a numbers game, it’s not a cultural or moral game. We’re talking about, you know, a little money here, a little money there. That’s what Congress does. You can see the potential where they could get it done. I’m not saying they will. If I had to put money on it, I’d take your bet. But you never know.
MR. COSTA: Let’s head overseas for a second, where President Donald Trump –
MR. TODD: Oh yeah.
MR. COSTA: He is on a foreign trip, took a hard line on trade this week. He spoke at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam on Friday. The president reiterated he will always put America first and vowed to strengthen America’s position in the global market.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I do not blame China or any other country, of which there are many, for taking advantage of the United States on trade. I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it. They did not, but I will.
MR. COSTA: Chuck, what’s he accomplished?
MR. TODD: Not a lot, but there’s also not been a lot of unforced errors. And frankly, considering what happened on his first trip to Europe, he didn’t step on any diplomatic landmines, so far they’ve dodged a(n) unscheduled rhetorical saber-rattle from North Korea, or actual saber-rattle. But you know, it’s interesting. He talked tough on trade after he left China. And, now, he’s not the first president to talk tough – I’m going to tell the Chinese something – and then suddenly become president and back off. I mean, I’ve always joked I swear every outgoing president tells the incoming president, uh-uh-uh, you know, all that rhetoric you said on China, back it off when you get there. Well, sure enough, Trump did it too. He backed off. And I have to say I think there’s a little political risk here. I think he gave an opening to some Senate Democrats who have to run for reelection in some red states where he’s letting people go harder against China than he did. Is he too personally cozy with the president of China? Is that going to actually backfire on him? You know, being cozy with China is not popular on the left or right, and I thought that was – if he did anything that I thought was risky, it was that.
MR. COSTA: Shaking hands with Putin, the Russian president; being pretty cozy with Xi Jinping, Chinese president. You’re a student of presidents. What does it tell us?
MR. BAKER: Well, shook hands with Vladimir Putin, but they didn’t have a formal meeting, which they had talked about doing. It would have been an awkward thing to do in the middle of this particular moment, with the investigation just having issued its first indictments. But you’re right, I mean, I think that – and I think Chuck’s right about Xi Jinping. The bromance between him and Xi Jinping this year has always been fascinating because you can’t really see, you know, a personality similarity there. They do not seem like these are buds.
MS. BALL: Well, but he – but he admires tough guys, right?
MR. BAKER: He does admire tough guys.
MS. BALL: And it was so interesting and revealing to me when he praised Xi for his great political victory, right?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, that’s right.
MS. BALL: Now, this is China, so it’s not a democracy. He didn’t win a popular election. But he obviously has total control over this one-party state, and Trump admires that. He likes a man who has that kind of control, and I think he wishes he had it himself.
MR. BAKER: And the other thing is about Trump, he’s a combative personality. He’s bellicose out there on the stump, in his Twitter feed. He’s not in person.
MR. TODD: Right, never has been. By the way –
MS. BALL: That’s right, he doesn’t –
MR. BAKER: He doesn’t do that in person, including with journalists, right? Including with journalists.
MR. TODD: I was just going to say, I’m sure – and people have asked me that about – I said – what’s he like in person? I said he’s like every other politician I know; he wants to win you over.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, right.
MR. TODD: I mean, he’s that way, and I – you know, he’s no different.
MR. COSTA: But they’re chummy over there, it seems, but they’re not – you don’t see a lot of deals being announced.
MR. TODD: Well, and that’s the thing. They didn’t – and Peter knows this very well, covering overseas/international stories a lot longer – there’s usually a lot more precooked deals. There was nothing.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, nothing.
MS. BALL: So that they –
MR. TODD: And a part of that is –
MR. BAKER: They had some business deals, but –
MR. TODD: They did. Look, I will say this: I’m not going to – I wouldn’t grade him. You say it’s an incomplete now because let’s see if maybe China does get a little tougher on North Korea. But I think if you were this White House, you wanted to have some announcement over there that China was going to do something that you wanted them to do in North Korea, and that didn’t happen.
MS. BALL: The one – I mean, the one big accomplishment that the administration points to on trade is the pulling out of the TPP, which is a promise that he kept on day one – among the few. But that, ironically, may have the effect of empowering China in the region. So, to your point about deals, he’s mostly been a deal-breaker. He’s pulled out of agreements. He’s pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. But his vaunted skill at knocking heads together and making things happen we still have yet to see.
MR. BAKER: Look, I think that it’s – not having deliverables is a surprising move on the part of any political White House because they do want to be able to show something. On the other hand, let’s face it, all these deliverables that other administrations have given us on these trips have been pretty –
MR. TODD: Lame?
MS. BALL: Cosmetic, yeah.
MR. BAKER: Fake or cosmetic or meaningless in the end. And so in that sense the real test, as you say Chuck, is that we won’t know for a while where does this go North Korea, does Xi Jinping convince President Trump to lower the temperature. The most important thing I thought you heard him say was he’s open for talks – just weeks after he said it was a waste of time, he wants talks with North Korea.
MR. COSTA: Chuck – we’re going to have to end the conversation there. But Chuck, from all of your friends here at Washington Week, congratulations on Meet the Press 70th anniversary. We thought we were old at 50 here at Washington Week. (Laughter.) It’s been quite a run for the show.
MR. TODD: Well, you’re very helpful to that. You’re always a great member of the Meet the Press roundtable. Your predecessor, the great Gwen Ifill, also was. So, hey, Washington Week, you guys are like first cousins to us. (Laughter.) So there you go. You guys are like family. So thank you for saying that.
MR. COSTA: Thank you. Thank you so much, Chuck. I mean, really, you are a class act through and through, on the show and off. And thanks, everybody, for being here – Peter, Molly, two of my favorites; Chuck, the best.
Our conversation, my friends, will continue online on the Washington Week Extra. You can find that later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
But before we go, I want to pause tonight to remember Gwen Ifill, who moderated conversations around this table, as Chuck said, for 17 years. She passed away one year ago, but her legacy as a trailblazer and journalist certainly lives on. Gwen, as you know, covered national politics with vigor and with joy, and with her straightforward style and her incredible stamina. She also knew that the best way to cut through the hyperbole was to concentrate on substance, to stay steady amid the noise. And perhaps the most indelible mark she made was her role as a mentor to so many reporters, especially women of color. We still get mail from so many of you every week who miss seeing Gwen’s smile. We miss it too, but her example and her class continue to guide us every Friday night.