ROBERT COSTA: Terror by mail and fear on the campaign trail. I’m Robert Costa. President Trump’s sharp words are under scrutiny as the midterms near, tonight on Washington Week.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) This is a different definition of terrorism. This is political terrorism.
MR. COSTA: Suspected mail bombs sent to high-profile political figures, CNN, and others.
BILL SWEENEY (FBI New York Field Office): (From video.) This is a nationwide investigation involving multiple jurisdictions coast to coast.
MR. COSTA: A suspect in custody.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I am pleased to inform you that law enforcement has apprehended the suspect and taken him into custody. These terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country.
MR. COSTA: But a president also critical of the press.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone, and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories.
MR. COSTA: A country on edge, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Just 10 days until the midterm elections and a new threat of violence in America as pipe bombs were sent this week to prominent Democrats and CNN. Many of the targets have been outspoken critics of President Trump. FBI Director Christopher Wray gave an update on Friday.
FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY: (From video.) Thirteen IEDs sent to various individuals across the country. Each device consisted of roughly six inches of PVC pipe, a small clock, a battery, some wiring.
Though we’re still analyzing the devices in our laboratory, these are not hoax devices.
MR. COSTA: Federal authorities on Friday arrested a suspect, Cesar Sayoc Jr., age 56, who lives near Miami and has a long criminal history. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Mr. Sayoc, a registered Republican, quote, “appears to be partisan.” The president’s 2016 rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was sent a package, expressed concern about the nation’s heated political culture.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) But it is a troubling time, isn’t it, and it’s a time of deep divisions, and we have to do everything we can to bring our country together.
MR. COSTA: Later Friday, President Trump headed back out on the campaign trail.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I think that we’re running a great campaign. People love what we’re doing. They love what we’re saying. The Republicans had tremendous momentum, and then of course this happened where all that you people talked about was that. And rightfully so; it was a big thing. Rightfully so. But now we have to start the momentum again.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight to discuss these issues and more, Lisa Lerer, national reporter for The New York Times; Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News; Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Joshua Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Geoff, you were at the White House all day Friday. How did the president, his top advisors handle this moment?
GEOFF BENNETT: Well, we saw President Trump do something that I think almost now is a political ritual. When the political or cultural moment requires President Trump to hew to the traditions, the conventions of the American presidency, like this past week has, he does it up to a point. And so today, from his scripted remarks, he said we must never allow political violence to take root in our political discourse. But then, you know, as his mind and his eyes strayed away from the teleprompter, he said things that I think reveal what he really believes. He painted himself as the victim of these political hostilities. He asked the crowd there a rhetorical question; he says, you know, who’s got it worse than me? He also suggested that the coverage of this weeklong saga has taken away from his own political message, and we saw him speak to that on the – on the South Lawn. So, again, I think we’ve seen this before, certainly after Charlottesville, but again I think the president certainly sees this through a political lens, and he’s focused more on the political impact and less on the human impact certainly.
MR. COSTA: What are you picking up in your reporting, Ashley, about all of that, about the president not abiding by the norms Geoff’s talking about?
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, this is a president who has never abided by the norms, and proudly so. I mean, if you watched him even when he was a candidate, he would stand before crowds and he would claim it’s so easy to be presidential, but that would be so boring. And in a way that’s what you’re seeing this week and today, it’s a president who sort of – again, he will pay the token lip service, he will read off of the teleprompter, but in these moments where you typically have – the role of the presidency is to sort of offer moral leadership and unify the country. He simply rejects that, and he would prefer to still attack the media, make it about himself, do sort of, again, the obligatory calls for unity that are not really matched by his actions or words.
MR. COSTA: Josh, you’ve been covering the right for years, some fringe elements of the right, and there has been a lot of talk about this being a false-flag operation, a conspiracy, and you had the FBI director come out and say that’s not the case, this isn’t a hoax. But explain what’s happening in the political culture that leads to these kind of conspiracy theories immediately.
JOSHUA GREEN: Sure. Well, just as Geoff said there’s a ritual for presidents in these situations, there’s also emerged now a ritual among the far right wing, which is to say that, you know, any event like the one today which seems to cast a negative light on Republicans, on President Trump, must automatically be a perfidious plot by liberal activists to set up the president. And so right from the get-go you have people up to and including fairly prominent media figures like Rush Limbaugh today suggesting that this couldn’t possibly be the work of a deranged Trump supporter and kind of coming up with some strange and creative reasons why that couldn’t be so. That’s just something that we’ve become accustomed to in this day and age, where immediately when these things happen on social media, on websites like 4chan and Facebook and of course through conservative talk radio, you see these things emerge almost immediately, and so the story becomes polarized from the very get-go.
MR. COSTA: Lisa, you’ve been on the ground in Florida, where the suspect is from and where he was apprehended. Such a charged year this year in Florida with the hot gubernatorial race, a Senate race. Did you pick up in your conversations with voters something beyond President Trump out there that’s fueling this national division?
LISA LERER: Well, I think it honestly is President Trump. I mean, I have yet to meet the voter – and I’ve traveled to a lot of places – who has no opinion on President Trump. (Laughter.) There’s no one who says – you ask them, what do you think about President Trump, there’s no one who says I don’t really know. And what you find is that their views on the president are kind of like a Rorschach test for how they’re feeling about the midterms. So he is the defining force of these midterms, and of course the president is always – midterms are always in a way a referendum on the president’s term. But President Trump, because he is such a large presence in our, like, country’s life, and because of his sort of divisiveness in how he upends the traditions for all these presidential moments that people are used to seeing, he is the thing that people are voting on.
MR. COSTA: So President Trump, Geoff, is the story this year for the midterms. But is political violence in this country also the story? You think about Steve Scalise, one of the House GOP leaders, assassination attempt in recent years; political violence against Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman. It’s out there all the time, almost numbing this country in a way.
MR. BENNETT: It is, an what I thought was interesting about that was well before this Florida man had been apprehended Sarah Sanders was on the North Lawn driveway talking to reporters, telegraphing what the strategy would be even before we knew who was responsible for this. And she said that Donald Trump is no more responsible for this kind of violence than is Bernie Sanders. And remember, it was a Bernie – an avowed Bernie Sanders supporter who took aim at that congressional baseball shooting which gravely injured Steve Scalise. So it was striking to me to see the White House think about that even before we knew who was responsible for this weeklong incident.
MR. COSTA: When you think about – it’s not just political violence that’s out there. We have a whole midterm season that’s about fear. There’s a dark cloud over this whole year. And one of those fraught debates that’s fueling this beyond what happened this week with the pipe bombs and all the packages is the issue of immigration. And Ashley wrote this week that the president’s approach in many ways seeks to recreate the 2016 playbook that lifted Mr. Trump to the presidency, in which cultural flashpoints and controversies like the specter of mass illegal immigration helped to energize Trump supporters. The president has voiced alarm in recent weeks about a group of about 7,000 migrants traveling from Central America toward the U.S. border.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) You’re going to find MS-13. You’re going to find Middle Eastern. You’re going to find everything. And guess what? We’re not allowing them in our country.
MR. COSTA: Mr. Trump has not produced evidence of these claims, yet the administration continues to back him up on these claims just a few days ahead of the midterms.
MS. PARKER: Well, not just has he not provided evidence on these claims, but after a number of people in the administration did put their own credibility on the line and back him up, he actually told reporters: You know, what? You’re right. I have no proof. But there – but there could be proof, and that’s because the president has realized that fearmongering and these scare tactics do work. One notable difference is that unlike in 2016 when his own party, the Republicans, were pretty conflicted over if this was a good strategy or not, you now have a lot more Republicans falling in line, in part because they saw that the president won in 2016. And that’s one key distinction.
The second thing is it’s not just the president’s language. Because he actually is the president, and he has the federal bureaucracy at his disposal, he can do things like we’re going to see him do likely next week, which is potentially announce that he is barring Central Americans from being able to enter the country and stopping those asylum claims. It has echoes of that travel ban. But can actually not just talk about this but he can make it true, to give himself an even bigger wedge issue to fan.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, to Ashley’s point, the president, I’m told, believes that this caravan issue – and we shorthand it to as a caravan, but it’s actually a slow-moving human tragedy. But he believes that his crystalizes among his supporters the pitch that he’s making around this particular cultural issue. And I asked someone who’s familiar with the whole plan, I said: Well, how are you so certain that this – by deploying a page of the 2016 playbook that’s going to work for you again in just 11 days or so? And the response from this official, who is close to – close to the president, but also has a hand in his thinking about all this – said, well, it worked for us once before, so we’re pretty certain it’s going to work again.
MS. LERER: But, you know, midterms are not presidential races, as you well know. And, you know, every time the president goes for a rally, or makes one of these statements, it infuriates Democrats. So you see this outpouring of energy on the Democratic side. And what that does, I think, is push some of the Democratic politicians to make these very bold statements. Like, you showed that clip of Hillary Clinton. I was at that event. It was in Florida, Aventura, actually, where the – close to where the suspect was caught.
And you know, it was notable, she said there, yes, we need to calm things down. Earlier this month she was talking about how Democrats can no longer be civil when someone’s trying to destroy everything they believe in. So Democrats’ response to Trump’s rhetoric is not to sort of tone things down, but really to ratchet things up. And that’s part of how I think we ended up where we are. When you have so many fake threats, it’s not that surprising that something would, in fact, become real.
MR. COSTA: So Democrats totally engaged by this. Republicans being rallied by President Trump. There’s also an undercurrent of some real global issues here. Josh, who authored Devil’s Bargain, a best-selling book about former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and President Trump, has been deeply reporting of the right’s embrace of nationalism and tough border policy for years. And this week, Mr. Trump publicly signaled his solidarity with those forces.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much. (Boos.) And you know what? We can’t have that. You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: Josh, the president and the administration, they’re talking about maybe taking an executive action, banning asylum seekers coming up from Central America. So there is the policy here. But also, a major thing for the president to state at a political rally “I’m a nationalist,” connecting him with these anti-immigrant movements around the world.
MR. GREEN: Yeah, I think what we’re seeing here is Trump trying to seize control of the midterm elections and reframe them around issues in which he is comfortable, and he thinks he can set the tone. But what he’s really doing are reviving what I think of as being the pillars of Trumpism, right? There’s the aggressive stance towards China. There’s the protectionist trade policies, the tariffs. But most importantly of all, there’s the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment that we’ve seen Trump espouse on Twitter, when he’s talking about the migrant caravan, and today when he deployed troops to the southern border to try and build this into a big issue.
It sounds like he’s going to give a big speech on immigration next week. He may roll out this executive order, something along the lines of the travel ban that he did in these early days, to try and center the election around this. But I think Trump looks at the race, looks at the problems that Republicans were having over the summer. It was clear that voters weren’t energized, Republican voters weren’t, by the tax cut. And many of them weren’t planning to come out to vote. I think this is Trump’s way of taking the election and making it about him and hoping that he’ll get the same response in 2018, Republicans will, that he got in 2016.
MR. COSTA: Ashley, is this also about the president’s focus on immigration? The president’s failure to complete the border wall he promised his base?
MS. PARKER: Potentially. The one thing about immigration is that it is an issue that animates him. It truly is. He’s not particularly ideological, but immigration is something even before he became this long-shot politician that he wrote about, that he talked about, that he feels deeply. It’s a natural issue for him. It’s one that served him well on the campaign trail. And as you point out, it’s one that he made deep promises about. And he is aware that he – they’re important to his base and he needs to keep them.
And it’s interesting, when I go to Trump rallies and I talk to his supporters, there’s almost nothing that he will do or say that will shake their faith and confidence in him. But one area where they come just the slightest bit close to criticizing him is saying they wish, or they really hope, that he builds that border wall. Of course, they will then blame Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan for not helping him get it done. But that is something where they would actually like to see tangible action, you’re right.
MS. LERER: This –
MR. BENNETT: And the other thing the president – I’m sorry – the other thing he does that’s, I think, fairly effective is he sets everything a s binary choice. I think it’s like the core tenet of Trumpian politics and, frankly, of tribalism. It’s this you’re either for us or against us. We saw that in 2016. We’re seeing it now with immigration. And with Kavanagh, I think he did that with great effect around the Kavanaugh confirmation issue.
MS. LERER: But I think, you know, the problem here is that Trump is not actually on the ballot, as much as perhaps he would like to be – because it seems like he really wants to be. And who is on the ballot is the Mitch McConnell congressional people. And the fact is, it’s kind of a strange – I understand the argument behind running on immigration, but it’s not actually an area where Congress – the Republican-led Congress has had any achievements. So it seems like a natural question that voters would ask – maybe not the hard-core Trump supporters, but independents or some other – like people who lean Republican. Like, OK, well, so what did you get done on this? And it’s hard to see what that answer is.
MR. COSTA: And just on this point, it reminds me of Josh’s story about an RNC poll which showed the tax cuts not working for the Republicans this year, so they got to do what Lisa said.
MR. GREEN: Yeah, we got leaked to us at Bloomberg a couple of weeks ago an internal RNC poll. And the big billboard headline – there were two messages. One was Republicans weren’t going to turn out to vote because they believed Donald Trump when he said there was probably going to be a red wave that Republicans – it sent Republican strategists into paroxysms of anxiety. And Trump has stopped saying that now, is trying to rally the base. But the other big message was that the Republican tax cut, which was supposed to be the central appealing achievement for Republicans, wasn’t really exciting anybody, even within the Republican base. And therefore, Trump and Republicans, I think, have decided that they need to focus on immigration.
MR. COSTA: The other big issue out there – and it’s not on the front page every day – but it’s health care. And it’s one of the biggest issues for most voters. And it’s at the center of many of the tight contests across the country. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll out this month, 82 percent of voters say that health care is one of the most important issues, and right up there with the economy. The poll shows that voters trust Democrats over Republicans on the issue. Vulnerable Republicans, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in his race against Democrat Tony Evers, are now running in support of safeguarding insurance coverage for those with preexisting conditions. What an about turn, Lisa, for the Republican Party. Years of running against President Obama’s health care law, but now they feel like the Democrats have some traction on the preexisting conditions front, and they’re instead trying to counter running on lowering prescription drug prices, running on an opioid policy.
MS. LERER: Right. It’s really striking, because it turns out the argument that President Obama and his aides were making all these years – which is that once you give people something it’s hard to take it away – is true. But I think this is an issue that has become a little difficult for Democrats. Democrats have really put everything on health care. It is the issue that they have been running on since the beginning of this thing. And they felt that they could kind of not even mention President Trump because it’s so in the ether, it’s so out there that they can really focus on health care.
And now that you have all these Republicans promising to protect preexisting conditions – even Republicans that are party to the lawsuit that would take those benefits away, essentially – makes it really complicated for voters. I think you have to be a fairly educated voter to understand the nuances of this. And, you know, you have these Republicans out there saying that they will protect health care. And you can see how if you were someone who was predisposed to vote Republican, that might sway you.
MR. COSTA: Is the White House a little nervous about the Democratic emphasis on this issue?
MS. PARKER: A little bit, but, again, the White House just thinks at a certain point this all comes back to President Trump. They think it is a referendum on him, as he himself has said: I’m not on the ballot, but pretend I am. Pretend you’re voting for me. And privately, the president’s political advisors have been telling these candidates: Whether you like it or not, you have to own this president. And so they realize health care, on some level, is an issue. They are generally worried, to answer your broader question, about the House, not the Senate, of course. But this is a White House that has not concerned itself particularly in policy prescriptions, and that’s not wholly where this battle is playing out right now.
MR. COSTA: And the Democratic Party, Josh, is divided on health care a little bit itself. Some people want Medicare for All, they want an expansion of the federal health care system. Others are just saying, let’s just focus on preexisting conditions.
MR. GREEN: That’s right. And one of – one of the wedges you’ve seen Republican candidates try and drive on health care is to say, you know, so-and-so Democratic candidate is so far to the left he wants Medicare for All, which in the Republican telling will ruin Medicare as it exists today. It’s not clear those attacks are being very effective, but what was interesting in that Republican poll we were talking about a minute ago was it was clear that Republicans’ greatest vulnerability, electoral vulnerability, was the impression that Republicans were going to cut health care, Medicare, and Social Security. And the pollster said in no uncertain terms that Republican candidates needed to protect against that. I think some of what’s going on saying, hey, we’re going to protect your preexisting conditions, is defensive rather than offensive, an effort to avoid being implicated in voters’ minds in some effort to take away a benefit that they feel is theirs and they want to keep.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, that’s a great point. We’ve seen the president say that he supports – (laughs) – protecting preexisting conditions when it was his own Justice Department back in June, as you point out, supported this lawsuit led by Texas and almost two dozen other states that argued that Obamacare was unconstitutional – not just Obamacare, but all the provisions contained within it, which includes preexisting conditions.
MR. COSTA: If you think about the midterms right now, though, a lot’s still in the air. As Ashley said, the White House is feeling better about the House – I mean, they think they may lose the House, keep the Senate. There are races out there – Bob Menendez, the senator of New Jersey, now a tossup according to the Cook Political Report; Scott Walker could go down; but Phil Bredesen, the Democrat, could win in Tennessee. When you’re talking to top strategists, what’s their view?
MS. LERER: Well, honestly, nobody knows. I mean, like they – strategists may tell you they know because they are, in fact, paid to do that – (laughter) – but the reality is we’ve never seen a midterm like this. There has been no midterm with this level of enthusiasm in recent history. And we live in this era where it’s very unclear what the rules are in politics. The traditional rules don’t seem to apply. So I am very wary of anyone who’s making very firm predictions. I think what we can say is it’s a bifurcated map; the Senate looks better for Republicans, the House better for Democrats.
MS. PARKER: And Josh made the point that the president has stopped talking about the red wave, and everyone on his side is glad about that because they were worried it was depressing voter enthusiasm and turnout. But it’s worth noting that privately he still says that and he still believes that, and he says that he thinks the polls are wrong. And why wouldn’t he believe that? This is someone who in 2016, when all the polls showed him losing, won. When all the wise men in Washington said he couldn’t say this, he couldn’t do that, this would end him, he won. And so he does still actually believe that he may hold the House as well, Republicans may hold the House, although that is not the strategy – or the view shared by his top advisors.
MR. COSTA: And Republicans appear to believe that. They’re hugging President Trump politically at every turn.
MR. GREEN: Well, most of them are but some of them aren’t. And if you look at districts – the suburban districts in the House that are probably going to decide control – places like Northern Virginia, the suburbs of Chicago, Minneapolis, places like that – you see Republican candidates there looking for some distance with President Trump. To me the most vivid example of this was the Senate race in Florida where Rick Scott, the governor who’s running for senator, made a point of not appearing at Trump rallies. And that got back to the White House, it got back to Trump, and lo and behold Rick Scott is about to appear at a Trump rally. So it’s tough to draw that distance, but a few Republicans are trying to.
MR. COSTA: What are you picking up at Trump rallies in the closing days, Geoff, still at these hockey arenas in red states?
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, yeah, still doing fairly well. I think, look, if you think a Democrat can win in Texas, Tennessee, or Nevada, then maybe Democrats have a chance of picking up the Senate because they’d have to flip one of those states. The other side of this, though, is that President Trump’s approval rating stands at something around 45 percent, which is kind of in the sweet spot. That’s where a lot of strategists want him to be going into the midterm. But that’s a good-news story for the president up to a point because if his supporters think that he’s on, like, you know, firm political standing, they might not be as inclined to turn out and go on a rescue mission for him and his agenda.
MS. LERER: It just depends who shows up, right? And, you know, we saw this with President Obama, where his popularity was not transferrable in the midterms. But again, I’m not sure we can take a lesson from that because those midterms were not this high-intensity midterm that we’re seeing now. But I do think that we can say that this is a test of whether Trumpism and Trump’s personal popularity is transferrable to a party that he spent much – years, really, denigrating. So it’s a really – going to be a really interesting outcome.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. We’re going to have to pause for – pause there, but continue next week I’m sure.
But before we go, our friends at the PBS NewsHour have been busy producing a special election report in the battleground state of Florida. Here’s a look.
VOICEOVER: (From video.) Campaigning is almost done. Can the Democrats take the House? Will Republicans hold the Senate? Issues on a collision course in one state. A special edition of the PBS NewsHour, “Battleground Florida” Monday, October 29th, only on PBS.
MR. COSTA: You can watch the PBS NewsHour special report Monday night. Check your local listings.
Our conversation here will continue on the Washington Week Podcast, which you can find Fridays after our broadcast on our website, PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.