GWEN IFILL: Goodness gracious, between Donald Trump, the Supreme Court vacancy and the Guantanamo dispute, it’s showdown city here and on the campaign trail. We’ll try to make sense of it tonight on Washington Week. Endorsement bombshell.
NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R): (From video.) The best person to beat Hillary Clinton in November on that stage last night is undoubtedly Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: One day after Trump emerged as the punching bag in the latest Republican debate –
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) Falsely accusing someone of lying is itself a lie, and it’s something Donald does daily.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Liar.
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) Liar.
MS. IFILL: He recruits a former rival to snatch back his momentum.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) This was an endorsement that really meant a lot.
MS. IFILL: Policy debates fade.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) So that’s the only part of the plan? Just the lines, the interstate competition?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Oh, no, no. The nice part about the – you’ll have many different plans. You’ll have competition. You’ll have so many different plans.
SEN. RUBIO: (From video.) Well, now he’s repeating himself. (Laughter.)
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) No, I’m not repeat – oh, no, no, no. (Cheers, applause.)
MS. IFILL: And candidates race to the bottom.
SEN. RUBIO: (From video.) He wanted a full-length mirror, maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet.
MS. IFILL: In Washington, another kind of standoff.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) Everything is on the line – Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) The election is well-underway. This vacancy should not be filled by this lame-duck president.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) The easier thing to do is to give in to the most extreme voices within their party and stand pat and do nothing.
MS. IFILL: Are politics and government as we know it frozen? Or is it all about to change forever?
Covering the raucous week, Susan Davis, congressional reporter for NPR; Michael Duffy, executive editor of TIME magazine; John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; 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. Anyone who tells you they saw this week coming is likely making it up. This was Chris Christie just last month.
GOV. CHRISTIE: (From video.) Showtime is over, everybody. We are not electing an entertainer in chief. Showmanship is fun, but it’s not the kind of leadership that’ll truly change America.
MS. IFILL: Well, apparently that was then. Today Christie and Donald Trump were in full embrace, as the New Jersey governor helped the GOP frontrunner rebound from a shaky debate performance by delivering a surprise endorsement in Texas.
GOV. CHRISTIE: (From video.) He’s rewriting the playbook of American politics because he’s providing strong leadership that’s not dependent upon the status quo.
MS. IFILL: Trump was, of course, his usual low-key self, taking aim mostly at the man who came after him during last night’s debate, Marco Rubio.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) He’s desperate. Look, look, I watched a part of his little act. And he’s a desperate guy. I’ve been watching him over the last number of – he is not presidential material. That I can tell you. He doesn’t have the demeanor. He is a nervous Nellie. I watch him – you know, backstage, he’s a mess. The guy’s a total mess.
MS. IFILL: Rubio, campaigning in Oklahoma City, lashed back.
SEN. RUBIO: (From video.) We are not going to lose the conservative movement to a con man.
MS. IFILL: Both Rubio and Ted Cruz were all-in last night, both with their entire campaigns at stake heading into Super Tuesday.
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) And what Donald has told us is he will go to Washington and cut a deal. So that means on Supreme Court, he’s going to look to cut a deal rather than fight for someone who won’t cut a deal on the Constitution, but will defend it faithfully.
MS. IFILL: But the question is, did Trump get the last laugh today, John?
JOHN HARWOOD: First of all, Gwen, I have to say, I did see all this coming – every bit of it. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Every bit of it? Now, last night you were on this show you admitted you were wrong, so I’m going to hold you to that.
MR. HARWOOD: Gwen, I’ve been so wrong. Wrong doesn’t – is not a strong enough word for it. (Laughter.) Look, I think Donald Trump had an extraordinary coup with the Christie endorsement. It changed the story away from the debate, where he got pummeled. It was mainstream figure who gave reassurance to other mainstream figures. You know, the people who have endorsed Donald Trump – the party still had been regarding him as a little bit off-kilter, not really a politician, maybe a little bit of a freak show.
And the people endorsing him, like Sarah Palin, were also held in that same regard. You don’t get more mainstream than the governor of New Jersey, who was the keynote speaker at the last Republican convention, who was once the frontrunner for this – or seen as a potential frontrunner for this nomination. That tells a lot of people in the party, this guy – whatever you think of him – is on track to be the nominee, and maybe I should get on board too.
MS. IFILL: So this was a lot of signal sending. But endorsements in general, Michael, don’t do that much, unless it’s timing or signal sending.
MICHAEL DUFFY: That’s right. Or, you just – something else in the air when the barometric pressure just changes. And I think when we look back on this week, perhaps later in the year, this might be the week where we even see Donald Trump turn the corner on his quest for the nomination and begin looking a little bit toward the general election. You can see that in that debate, when it did get substantive, on Trump’s behalf in particular, where he started talking about parts of Obamacare he’d keep, the good work that Planned Parenthood does.
MR. HARWOOD: You mean the part about people not dying in the streets.
MR. DUFFY: And the people not dying in the streets. Well, and also, pre-existing conditions. And then saying, you know, hitting, again, in a very general election sort of way, just how foolish and stupid he thought the Iraq War was. So this is a sign that I think that he is now thinking not just about the Republican Party messaging. This was – this was mainstream – and he talked about: I’m bringing different people into the party. He’s looking at a Tuesday next where many Republicans who I think are pretty good watchers of this say he could win 10 of 11 states. And that really means on Wednesday morning we may be waking up with a much different sense about Trump’s role in this whole year.
MS. IFILL: Here’s one of my questions. Do Christie and Donald Trump agree about anything? I mean, when you – when we do get past some of the name calling to the bits of policy we’ve actually been able to discern, they don’t actually come out on the same side.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, here’s the one thing that I thought was interesting today, and that is that Governor Christie was reiterating their shared animus towards Hillary Clinton.
MS. IFILL: And Marco Rubio.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. But to your point about looking ahead, the idea of what was propelling Governor Christie to do this, it’s not just that they supposedly were friends or know each other, you know, have had a high regard for each other in New Jersey and New York, but they have this shared idea that they have expressed: Hillary Clinton should not be the president. And Governor Christie was saying: This is the Republican figure I now am persuaded is the one who can take the contest and get the White House back for Republicans. So if you’re trying to say, what is the propulsion in which they both could find, you know, a way to bury the hatchet, I think that might be part of it.
MR. HARWOOD: Although, I would say their biggest shared idea is that they both really like the spotlight.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, we saw that today.
MR. HARWOOD: And Donald Trump is a ticket for Chris Christie back on to the national stage.
SUSAN DAVIS: And it hasn’t been a substantive primary conversation. It’s been a stylistic one. And stylistically Donald Trump and Chris Christie are probably the most compatible.
MS. IFILL: So, OK, we went into this debate last night, Sue, and the idea was that everybody was to gang up on Donald Trump. And we did see, thanks to that nice three-shot, the back and forth with Cruz on one side and Rubio on the other. But do did they punch past each other – past him, and hit each other? I came away thinking maybe they landed some blows, but I don’t know 24 hours later.
MS. DAVIS: The question was, was it too little too late? Can you stop him this close to March 1, when he’s already had these early state victories, when he has all this momentum? I talked to a lot of Republicans on the Hill this week – the establishment – (laughter) – and the one thing I heard over and over again was that this is what should have been – the anti-Trump forces. Trump does have – certainly have support among Republicans on Capitol Hill – but that this is what needed to be happening five, six, seven, eight months ago, to slow him down.
And that there is an increasingly realization and acceptance among establishment Republicans that Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the nomination. And people are starting to get onboard. He got his first two congressional endorsements this week from members of Congress. He did not have any to this point. If he does very well on Tuesday, I think we’re going to see more members of Congress stepping out for him.
MR. DUFFY: There was also sort of two realities going on in that debate. Cruz and Rubio came in with well-prepared attacks on Trump. You could see they’d been well-researched, they had their lines down, and they returned to them time and again. And in perhaps a different year, a different situation, those would have had some impact. But Trump just brushes them off. And he calls them losers or basket cases or whatever.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, liars.
MR. DUFFY: And a tactic they’ve begun to copy. And in his universe, sort of in the Trumpian universe, that stuff doesn’t matter. What matters is sort of some larger strong question of leadership. And his larger point, which he made over and over again which was that, look, elites – you know, the American public is sick of elites, you know, trying to get this right. They failed –
MS. IFILL: I only borrowed a million dollars from my dad, said the non-elite.
MR. DUFFY: Right, exactly. Well, and he said, but I’m not a career politician. And when he closes last night, he closes on the idea that, you know, you can’t trust anyone who’s in politics. I’m not. Therefore – and I think that’s really what’s animating a lot of the action behind his campaign.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The one thing I would add about this question, though, is, if Rubio’s strategy is how can I make this a two-person race, and not have this electorate so splintered, you can see why that strategy was – he had to be all in, or nothing. He had to be all in, right?
MS. IFILL: And today he was out saying: I’m going to win Florida. I don’t care what the polls say.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. And to Sue’s point, he’s trying to encourage the establishment, don’t go all wobbly. Don’t go all a-wobble yet. You know, there is this effort. And Donald Trump’s negatives in this body politic are so high that if Rubio is suggesting or the polls are suggesting that, you know, 70 – 65 percent of Republicans are not behind Donald Trump in this splintered race, how can – how can they take his image and pull it down. And you know, that was a strategy that might have been better earlier, but it might work.
MS. IFILL: Or in another year.
MR. HARWOOD: The good news for Rubio is that Ted Cruz has to face Donald Trump in Texas before Rubio has to face to him in Florida. If Ted Cruz loses Texas, he will be effectively crippled as a candidate.
MS. IFILL: What’s the chance of that?
MR. HARWOOD: I think there’s a 50-50 chance he could lose. He had a slight – Cruz had a slight lead in some of the late polling, but that’s very volatile and susceptible to movement. Rubio’s much further behind Donald Trump in Florida, but if he gets Cruz out of the race, look, Donald Trump could get a lot of Ted Cruz’s vote, so it may not make a difference, but at least creates the possibility for that narrowed field that Rubio wants.
MS. IFILL: What is the prospect – and I think we can say safely that this week people began to entertain safely the prospect of a Trump nomination. What does the prospect of a Trump nomination, Sue, do for people like Paul Ryan? He, who is crunchy granola policy guy, who I don’t think agrees with Trump on almost anything that we know about that Trump believes.
MS. DAVIS: On almost anything. They disagree on free trade. They disagree on taxes. They disagree on Medicare. I mean, every substantive every major policy issue, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump –
MR. HARWOOD: Entitlements.
MS. DAVIS: Everything they disagree. He was asked –
MS. IFILL: Well, actually, Chris Christie disagrees with him on entitlements also, so.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly.
MS. DAVIS: Paul Ryan was asked this this week. They said: As the chair of the convention, have you started to look at delegate math? And he said: I haven’t even had those conversations. We’re not even there yet. I will say, the only people that I hear it coming from is a little bit from Marco Rubio supporters, because if he – if he continues in this strong number two position, then perhaps the only path that you have at that point is to deprive Trump of the 1,200, roughly, delegates he needs to win and fight it out in Cleveland. That still seems incredibly unlikely at this point, but it is not out of –
MS. IFILL: It looks more likely than it did a month ago.
MS. DAVIS: Exactly, and this is, like, as we just – all the rules have been thrown out in some ways.
MR. DUFFY: And let’s not forget that the people matter here are the voters. Regardless of what the party or the party leaders, or the party establishment, if that even exists, and it doesn’t really exist anymore.
MS. IFILL: I don’t think it does.
MS. DAVIS: Exactly.
MR. DUFFY: It has no power, if it does exist. That’s clear. So what really matters are the voters. And if the voters continue to give him 30, 40, 50 percent, you know, pluralities, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else things, or even where their policy is, especially if, at the moment when Paul Ryan is trying to come up with a conservative agenda for his new House, we have a Republican nominee who’s reaching out to the middle, which is what we saw.
MS. DAVIS: And getting record voter turnout.
MR. DUFFY: And getting new people into the party. So – go ahead.
MR. HARWOOD: When you switch the calendar to winner-take-all states in the middle of March, all these second places for Rubio means he’s going to get wiped out in delegates. So there’s really not a path unless he starts winning some places to deny Trump a majority.
MS. IFILL: It’s a really narrow one, yeah. He was interviewed today somewhere he was asked about whether he could win a state and his answer was, you know, Donald Trump is a con man. And they were saying, but can you win a state? And he said, he’s a really good con man.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But there are still some experts who look at the math, arguing that the math does matter, and are still saying that there is this teeny-tiny, you know, a little path, and that he might not have to win everything to still pick up delegates, and all of these other magical things would have to happen, Kasich would have to get out earlier, you know, he’d have to win Ohio, he’d have to do much better in Florida. I mean –
MR. DUFFY: Teeny-teeny, that’s the key – that’s the key phrase, yes.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Teeny-teeny, teeny-teeny, teeny, right.
MR. HARWOOD: He doesn’t have to win everything, but he has to start winning some places. And all of the available evidence suggests that on March 1st, when we got 11 states, he’s not likely to win anywhere.
MR. DUFFY: I think Christie said today that he doesn’t expect Trump to lose any state next week.
MS. IFILL: Wow, that’s not raising the bar too high is it?
MR. DUFFY: No, no, no. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: No, but let me ask you something, you know, who’s watching this all very carefully are the Democrats, right? So if you are a Democrat opposition researcher, don’t you have a nice big, fat file that the Republicans hesitated to use, that they’re willing to? Or are we still in this weird upside-down world where it doesn’t even matter, because what normally would work for Democrats isn’t going to work this fall?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, when you get out of the Republican primary electorate, and the group of people that Donald Trump is appealing to, it’s a whole different ball game in terms of how information is processed, how people look at Donald Trump. You know, Donald Trump talked about winning the Hispanic vote in the Nevada caucuses. You know, 48 percent – it’s a tiny share – and we’re talking about Hispanic Republicans. The broader Hispanic population is nothing like Nevada Republican Hispanics.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And reviles him.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes.
MR. HARWOOD: And so all the calculations get flipped. And the imperviousness of Trump to attacks, I think, needs a second look once we get out of the primary season.
MS. DAVIS: It’s also really important to remember that Trump has barely been attacked in this race on the air, that of all of the – to give credit to The Washington Post, they crunched the numbers and only 4 percent of the money spent so far was spent attacking Trump. If he becomes the nominee, I mean Democrats are going to spend –
MS. IFILL: All that goes out the window.
MS. DAVIS: It’s going to be a billion dollars of attack ads. And think about that. So he has really not had to sustain an attack campaign that the Democrats are very capable of giving him.
MS. IFILL: And that some point – at that point, just yelling louder doesn’t necessarily overwhelm, even though, once again, with this caveat, we don’t know. (Laughter.) OK, and here are the consequences of our presidential politics, the actual governing. The White House and the Senate were in a stare-down this week over the future of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, the president wants to close it, and the Supreme Court vacancy the president wants to fill. For the first time in history, Senate leaders say they won’t hold hearings on a court nominee, or even meet with anyone the president nominates.
SEN. MCCONNELL: (From video.) So the question is, who should make the decision? And my view, and I can now confidently say the view shared by virtually everybody in my conference, is that the nomination should be made by the president the people elect in the election that’s underway right now.
MS. IFILL: So now it seems we have turned a political corner affecting all three branches of government, Sue.
MS. DAVIS: So the Supreme Court fight I think is very interesting because, yes, part of it is about lingering anger for Republicans towards the White House. That is absolutely part of it. But this is also very much a part of the battle for the Senate, and that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made the calculation that for the seven Republicans he has defending states that Barack Obama won in 2008 or 2012, it is better to completely eliminate the Supreme Court – the vote from this equation.
I think part of the equation is that if this is going to be a base turnout election, which is what it’s looking like, that ginning up your base voters is what’s going to get you there, that letting Barack Obama have a final Supreme Court nominee is not going to – is not going to make the conservative base happy. So it’s better to feed into the base politics, because that’s the kind of year it’s going to be –
MS. IFILL: But isn’t there a risk that you’re – a crapshoot here, that you might end up with a Democratic president?
MS. DAVIS: And that’s why what McConnell’s doing I think is a huge political bet. I mean, he’s gone all-in on this. And Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, will say he thinks McConnell will back down. Mitch McConnell is not known for backing down when he draws these lines. And there’s going to be months-long sustained campaign on this. We don’t know how it’ll shake out. But he is not showing any signs of backing down.
MR. DUFFY: It seems to me it’s not high risk in that he already has a Democratic president, who is about to nominate a Democratic court – he just doesn’t want to give him a third. It’s not clear to me that the Democrats’ counterargument that this is going to hurt the Republicans makes any sense at all. It doesn’t seem to.
MS. IFILL: What else are they going to – what other kind of counterargument do they have?
MR. DUFFY: What else? I think the clever piece in McConnell is that by saying, you know, we’re not going to consider, and you shouldn’t nominate, and even if you do we’re not going to consider, is – that’s the final little piece in your strategy, which is, we’re not even going to give this any airtime. We’re not going to have it even discussed. We’re not going to give it any ink, any press, any –
MS. IFILL: Even though they are going to the White House to meet with the president on Monday.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Tuesday.
MS. IFILL: Tuesday.
MR. DUFFY: Yes, well, things had gotten to a point where it had become just incendiary. But do we expect them to ever give it any kind of attention at all? No. And I think that’s also designed to keep their head down.
MR. HARWOOD: But I think there’s a risk in that. I think there’s a risk in appearing to want to shut down the process and of being unreasonable. And Republicans have been laboring over the last several years under the negative image of being less reasonable, less willing to work with the other side, less willing to make government work. All the polling shows that. Now, how significant will that be brought to bear in an election campaign? I don’t know, but it’s not good for the Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: But think about what we’ve seen just this calendar year. We have seen the members of the House Budget Committee – I think it was the House Budget Committee – say we’re not going to look at the president’s budget, we’re not going to have hearings. The president comes out this week and says I want to close down Guantanamo because there was a deadline that said he had to say something this week, not because – you know, he was forced to do it. And they said, oh, no, that’s a nonstarter, don’t even bring that to us. And we – and then this Supreme Court, which is unprecedented. It’s historic. So I wonder what the White House does. Do they just get in the – in the ring and start pulling a Trump, just throwing stuff at them and yelling at them because they’ve got nothing to lose?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the White House, I think, was initially taken aback by Mitch McConnell’s very rapid response on this.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, it was very quick.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It was so fast, right? But in this particular case, you’re talking about a piece of old business and a piece of very new business. Those are – they are two very different things, but they have come together in this storyline that we have an obstructionist Congress. We have a majority leader who said I want, you know, to be the leader who will get Congress working again. And so there are some fertile storylines that the White House is already starting to plow. This will open up into – the Supreme Court, I mean – will open up into a whole new narrative when the president puts forward a nominee. That could be as early as not next week, before this meeting, but at some time before maybe mid-March it’s possible to see this nominee. And the White House is already gearing up with a team to go full out –
MS. IFILL: Well, they put out the very clumsy Brian Sandoval trial balloon this week, which was kind of – so transparent even Brian Sandoval saw through it.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. (Laughs.) Yeah.
MR. DUFFY: Eventually.
MS. IFILL: Eventually. (Laughs.) It took him a day.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But what did the president say? The president said, look, this is the kind of person – nominee that I’m looking for. He said I want someone with a sterling record, someone who respects the judiciary system, and someone who has a flavor or a taste or a feel for real life. And depending on –
MR. DUFFY: And now add to that a willingness to be completely sacrificed. (Laughter.)
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, but here’s the question. In every nomination that we’ve seen in recent times, they’re all brutal. They’re all brutal, right? And whomever this is could potentially, if there’s a Democratic president, could come back – I mean, in other words, this person, I think, would have to be ready maybe to go through this brutal process, but their reputation I don’t think –
MS. IFILL: I asked a lawyer I know who would put themselves out for this, and they – she said, you’d be surprised.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, yeah, right.
MR. DUFFY: (Laughs.) That’s a good line.
MR. HARWOOD: But here’s the thing. The Guantanamo story, the Supreme Court story, the budget issue you mentioned also dovetails with the presidential campaign because the administration will say look at the picture of the two parties that we have. We have a president trying to do his job. We have a spirited debate on the Democratic side, but it’s nothing like the kind of schoolyard, juvenile stuff that we saw in the last 24 hours in the Republican race. It’s really an ugly picture, when you think about it, that the Republican Party – Mike Murphy, who had been Jeb Bush’s adviser, tweeted last night “this is what it looks like when Republicans give away the presidency.” And all of that can be put together of unreasonable, not mature, not grown up, as – to the advantage of Democrats in Washington.
MS. IFILL: Does that resonate at all, that we know of, in public opinion, among voters?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, yes, it does. I mean, look at the image of the two parties. The Republican Party’s image is deeply underwater. The Democrats are break-even, maybe slightly underwater. But the Republican image is significantly worse.
MR. DUFFY: But the beneficiary of that is really not the Republican Party’s preferred establishment – any of their preferred establishment choices for president, much less Hillary Clinton. It would seem to benefit – all of that angst and anxiety and unhappiness would seem to benefit a candidate exactly like Donald Trump, who’s saying – who’s saying more of that than anyone else on the trail. And so, to me, all of this comes down a fact that, at the end of this week, Trump seems to have won on all of these fronts. And although it might be hard to see it now, it all seems to be moving more in his direction than anyone else’s.
MS. IFILL: It’s actually not that hard to see it now. (Laughter.) It was maybe hard a while ago, but now we’re getting our heads around it. And I think we’re going to see more, again, than less this time next week. Thank you, everybody.
Stay with PBS tonight for something really cool that might take your mind off politics.
MS. IFILL: In Performance at the White House features an entertaining salute to the great Ray Charles. That’s later tonight, at nine p.m. Eastern.
And as this next big political week unfolds, be sure to join Judy Woodruff and me for special Super Tuesday election coverage, March 1st at 11 p.m. Eastern.
We’re going to keep on talking, online, on our Washington Week Webcast Extra. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we’ll see you again here next week on Washington Week. Good night.