ED O’KEEFE: Donald Trump shakes up his campaign and admits regrets about some of his harsh words. Hillary Clinton is climbing in the polls, but can’t seem to delete her email controversy. I’m Ed O’Keefe, filling in for Gwen Ifill, tonight on Washington Week.
Battling slumping poll numbers, Donald Trump hires a new team of advisors who say let Trump be Trump.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change.
MR. O’KEEFE: But Trump is shifting his message with a markedly different tone on the campaign trail.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And, believe it or not, I regret it.
MR. O’KEEFE: Hillary Clinton welcomed Trump’s campaign overhaul, insisting it won’t make any difference.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) He is still the same man who insults Gold Star families, demeans women, mocks people with disabilities, and thinks he knows more about ISIS than our generals.
MR. O’KEEFE: But the former secretary of state continues to be dogged by questions about her email. This week, the FBI sent Congress details of its investigation into her private server.
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE POMPEO (R-KS): (From video.) I’ve seen information there that should not have been put in a place that was in a private server in a basement of a former secretary of state’s home.
MR. O’KEEFE: Joining us with analysis of the latest controversies surrounding Clinton and Trump, Abby Phillip, political reporter for The Washington Post; Josh Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek; Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics; and Reid Wilson, political reporter for The Hill.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. From our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post.
MR. O’KEEFE: Good evening. The realities of running a presidential campaign really seemed to set in for Donald Trump this week. He had his first classified national security briefing. He reset his national security policy by calling for “extreme vetting” of anyone trying to enter the United States. He faced calls from within his own party to release his tax returns. And on Friday Trump toured flood-ravaged Louisiana, giving us our first look at how he might serve as a comforter in chief. And then there was this.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) I’ve never been politically correct. It takes far too much time. (Cheers.) And I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain. Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues. But one thing, I can promise you this: I will always tell you the truth. (Cheers.)
MR. O’KEEFE: Trump’s uncharacteristic apology and vow to tell it like it is followed yet another staff shakeup, his third in three months. Out is Paul Manafort, who ran the campaign for nearly nine weeks. In steps Kellyanne Conway, a pollster skilled at winning female support who becomes the first woman to lead a Republican presidential campaign. She’s joined by Stephen Bannon, a former investment banker and entertainment mogul who most recently ran a conservative news website.
As we welcome Josh Green to Washington Week for the first time, let’s start with today’s shakeup. What do we know?
JOSH GREEN: Well, we know that the old regime is out. Paul Manafort has submitted his resignation. And a new regime is in, which is the team of Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, which I think represents a real fundamental shift from the group of people that Trump had in place before them.
MR. O’KEEFE: We’re going to talk about Conway in a second in another realm, but you had the good fortune and hindsight last fall of writing a fantastic profile of Stephen Bannon for Bloomberg Businessweek. Give us sort of the executive summary. Remind us who this guy is and why his ascension really is so remarkable.
MR. GREEN: Well, he’s a very unusual figure. And until he was put in charge of Trump’s campaign, a lot of people had never heard of him, didn’t really know him. His biography is strangely similar to Donald Trump’s. He went to an Ivy League business school, was a big dealmaker on Wall Street. He was an investment banker for Goldman Sachs, wound up starting his own boutique firm in Hollywood which did a lot of media and movie business, and eventually decided he wanted to do that himself and started making documentary films. He made one about Sarah Palin, and that brought him into the tea party movement. And eventually he became head of Breitbart News, the right-wing website.
MR. O’KEEFE: Which, of course, is tied to the Drudge Report and has been tied to a lot of other stories that pop up over the course of this political cycle. One of the things I thought was fascinating, as you revealed in your profile, is that he is primarily concerned with getting the facts out there – not necessarily feeding conspiracies, but sort of trying to come up with some real evidence that would cause questions to be asked. And we expect some of that will rub off on this campaign, right?
MR. GREEN: Well, we do. The thing I wrote about with Bannon, at the time, you know, Breitbart News is a very populist right-wing website, attacks both Democrats and Republicans. But Bannon’s big project last year – and I think this’ll translate into the Trump campaign – was finding a more effective way to attack the Clintons than the Republicans had in the ’90s. And Bannon’s thesis is that Republicans back then chased too many kooky rumors and conspiracy theories, and ought to stick to the facts that could – that could really hurt her: the money she took in speeches from Goldman Sachs, foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. And so he helped fund and produce the book Clinton Cash, this New York Times bestseller that really, I think, hurt Clinton last year, helped to drive up her untrustworthy numbers. That’s what Bannon wants Trump to focus on going forward.
MR. O’KEEFE: His decision to express regret last night, is that a sign that they finally understand that perhaps there’s been a lot of bleeding and they need to fix this?
MR. GREEN: I think it is. I mean, Trump, if we know one thing about him, it’s that he can read his own poll numbers, and the poll numbers show that he’s losing. And he doesn’t have a clear path to winning unless he can get some of the voters he’s alienated to stop, to give him another chance. And I think the new, more contrite, warmer, softer Trump, if you want to call him that, who’s now down helping flood victims in Louisiana, is an effort to get people to give him a second chance.
MR. O’KEEFE: All of these changes, Reid, come as we learned this week that the campaign finally started spending some of its millions on television advertising in at least four or five states, right?
REID WILSON: We’ve seen advertising spending so far in four states over the next 10 days, beginning today, on Friday. The states that they’ll be advertising in include Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which is the clear – sort of the one place where he really needs to sort of break into the states that have traditionally voted Democrat in recent years. North Carolina the fourth state where he’s advertising. And while Trump is spending about $4 million – which is a decent size; it’s not an overwhelming amount of money to begin getting his message out in these four states – remember that Hillary Clinton has been spending multiples of that. Her supporters have been spending multiples of that in not just these four states where Trump is beginning his advertising, but in states far beyond that. They have spent so much money in states like Colorado and Virginia that they’re beginning to pare back some advertising in those states. And they’re looking at states outside of what we’d traditionally consider the swing set – states like North Carolina, states like perhaps Georgia, perhaps Arizona, states that have not voted Democratic since Bill Clinton won them in ’92 or ’96. And that tells you something about the state of the race. The Clinton campaign is not defending itself in purplish-blue states; they are going on offense in redder states.
MR. O’KEEFE: And you put it in the context of how much money she’s spending on advertising so far. In Florida, for example, it usually takes about eight figures to really hit an effective media campaign down there, so he’s got a long way to go.
MR. WILSON: Over the long run. You know, Florida’s a state with 17 media markets. It takes a lot to deliver a message, whether you’re delivering it to, you know, blue-collar voters in the Panhandle or those critical swing voters between Tampa and Orlando. It’s very complicated to – not only to advertise in such a big state, but in this day of – this era of fragmented media, you’re advertising not only on ABC and NBC and CBS. You also have to pick among the, you know, 17,000 cable channels that everybody has in their satellite package.
MR. O’KEEFE: Part of – part of the shock and awe of these new hires in the campaign is the fact that Bannon is tied to Breitbart. I know there were a lot of Republicans, especially on Capitol Hill this week, who are a little concerned about this because Breitbart has such a colored past with top Republican leaders. They’re not terribly pleased about this move, necessarily.
MR. WILSON: I mean, Breitbart is close to members of the House Freedom Caucus. They were the rump faction of Republicans who essentially engineered John Boehner’s ouster from the House of Representatives. And they’re not terribly thrilled with Paul Ryan as speaker, either. These are people who have antagonized the Republicans who are trying to essentially govern by negotiating with Democrats. These are the Republicans who don’t want to negotiate with Democrats. And the fact that they are now so integral with the Trump campaign highlights the fact that he is running this outside Washington, you know, nontraditional campaign. But it also gives Republicans on Capitol Hill pause. If this is – if these are the people who are going to come in as a Republican administration, Trump has promised to work with Capitol Hill, but these are not people who have in the past worked terribly closely with Capitol Hill.
MR. O’KEEFE: And, Josh, I know there was – Manafort’s departure really seems to be tied to a lot of the news reporting that went on this week regarding his ties to pro-Russian entities in Ukraine and whether he was trying to get money from the former government there. It does seem that that finally did catch up with him.
MR. GREEN: I think so. And it’s interesting, too, because, you know, Bannon’s main line of attack on Hillary is, hey, you know, you took a lot of money from shady foreign entities. Well, if your – if your own campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is accused of taking money from shady foreign entities, that’s a harder attack to lob. Now I think, with Manafort out of the picture, people in the Trump universe – especially Jared Kushner, his son in law, really concerned about that – now I think they’ll feel freer to chase that line of attack against Hillary Clinton if they can keep Trump focused on that.
ABBY PHILLIP: And I think even more so the Manafort ties were sort of inching into legal territory, which is just something you want to avoid going into November, any sort of imbroglio that could affect Trump. And the Clinton campaign was so eager to go down that road. I mean, their statement today once Manafort announced his resignation was practically gleeful. And they’ve been – they’ve been trying to make it clear that they don’t think it’s just Manafort. They want to establish a sort of pattern of ties between Trump and Putin in the same way that they – that the media has between Manafort and Ukraine and Putin. And I don’t think that’s going to go away for them. It’s going to be a persistent problem. And some of this stuff is eventually going to end up in television ads, and it will break through to the American public. I mean, if there’s anything Americans understand, it’s sort of an us versus them, like Axis of Evil versus – you know, versus us kind of situation. I think that’s what the Clinton campaign is trying to set up here.
MR. O’KEEFE: Alexis, do you – and I guess everyone else, based on your conversations with folks this week – OK, he’s given some substantive speeches, he’s rearranged the top ranks of his campaign again, he’s doing his first disaster tour – something we’ve not really seen him do, react very quickly to a news event and go – does this suggest a real reset? And are people going to be – are Republicans, especially, going to be OK with where things now stand?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that I think was striking in some of the conversations in the last few days is to try to digest, as Reid was suggesting, about the first advertising or the changes in the staff, is this signaling that Donald Trump is feeling that he has to firm up that base that he is losing – that he apparently is losing in the polls, whether it’s white males or is Kellyanne Conway, who we haven’t talked about yet, the pollster, is she there to bring in women? Is he trying to do damage control in a way that sets him back in time? And so there’s been some, I think, fundamental discussion about that.
And of course, at the White House and in the Clinton campaign there’s glee that, you know, the unraveling day after day after day is, you know, making their work so much easier. But it’s not as if they’re counting on it being that way for the next 80 days.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, let’s move on to that, because Trump wasn’t alone in his campaign troubles this week. Hillary Clinton faced another round of questions about her private email server, her husband Bill Clinton caused fresh headaches for the campaign, and we got word that their charitable foundation is planning to scale back under political pressure.
Abby, the announcement came late this week, and it came as the new regime was taking over at the Trump campaign. This seems to suggest they finally are getting it, that this is something that has to be controlled, if not put away entirely.
MS. PHILLIP: Absolutely. I think this was in some ways a very clear win for Judicial Watch, a conservative group that had been sort of launching these legal challenges and trying to release more of her emails. In some of those most recent emails they sort of illustrated how this connection between Clinton at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation worked over the years, where a Clinton Foundation aide would say, hey, this donor would like to have a meeting with someone. And then someone on Hillary Clinton’s staff would say, OK, I’ll try to arrange it.
Now, we don’t know if any of those meetings actually happened, but it sort of created – it gave a sort of pattern for how this undue influence could have happened. And that really caught on. We had The Boston Globe calling for the Clinton Foundation to be disbanded; Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and a Clinton ally, calling for it to be disbanded as well. I think they recognized that his would be a problem, and I don’t think this is the end. I mean, the beginning is just saying, hey, we’re going to not take any more of these donations. But I don’t think this issue is going to go away for them.
MR. WILSON: And the irony is the one person who said let’s give the Clinton Foundation the benefit of the doubt was Donald Trump.
MR. GREEN: And Abby, why is it – the Foundation came out and said if Hillary is elected president we’ll stop taking corporate and foreign donations. Why have they not decided to do that right away and sort of nip this at the bud?
MS. PHILLIP: That’s a great question. I mean, I think – and it’s a very valid question. I suspect that some of the concern is about ongoing projects. They don’t want the sort of – the pipe to run dry if they have any chance of keeping this thing going after the election. I’m not sure that they do. I don’t think that people are going to stop calling for it to be disbanded. But the Clinton Foundation, over the last several years has had money issues. They’ve been trying to kind of get on solid ground, trying to build a foundation for – or an endowment for the foundation itself. And so they’ve – Hillary and Bill Clinton have been in a sort of extended project of trying to get this thing on, you know, good financial solid ground. And I don’t think that project is done yet, even now.
MR. O’KEEFE: Kellyanne Conway, who joins the Trump campaign, is someone who specializes in getting women to vote for Republican candidates. I know you had suggested that there actually might be some concern up at headquarters in Brooklyn about her emergence as a top staffer on the Trump campaign. Why would that be?
MS. PHILLIP: Because she is – she is good at what she does. I mean, she understands the need, I mean, to address women voters as a demographic in a way that virtually no other Trump advisors have indicated that they are. And a big part of the Clinton strategy in a lot of these swing states is these suburban women. Many of them are Republican, they’re registered Republican. And many of them up until this point have been leaning toward Clinton because they just can’t stomach Donald Trump. And an apology, like the one that we saw last night, is maybe the first step toward getting Trump to a place where he can talk to those voters again. And once he does that, I mean, I think it really opens the door.
Clinton may need those Republican women, these moderate women, if she loses badly with white men. And that’s the tradeoff that the Clinton campaign is always trying to weigh. And that’s why Kellyanne is such an important player here.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The one thing I would add, too, is that everyone in the Clinton campaign is so eager to emphasize the temperament question about Donald Trump. And in focus groups, that comes up again and again with undecided women. So this idea of I regret and a softer tone, if that can prevail, I think Abby’s absolutely right, that that causes some concern. And you can hear that in Secretary Clinton’s remarks this week. You know, he is what he is. You know, he’s not going to change – trying to warn voters that she’s attracted to her cause.
MR. GREEN: Is there concern among the Clinton folks over the last couple days? You know, all of a sudden Trump no longer seems to be the most controversial American on the planet. I think that’s Ryan Lochte. You know, but he is – he is –
MR. O’KEEFE: The Olympic swimmer.
MR. GREEN: He has kept his behavior in check, he’s gone and done this kind of a performative style of campaigning down in Louisiana that we haven’t seen from him before. He seems to be trying to evolve into more of a palatable –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Compassionate, caring.
MR. GREEN: Compassionate might be a bridge too far, but widely acceptable candidate that he hasn’t been so far.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Disciplined, yeah. Well, one of the things that you can see, even in the remarks that President Obama has made at a fundraiser, for instance, in Martha’s Vineyard – it’s what he’s supposed to say but it is true also – which is we should run scared till the day after the election and not take anything for granted, because he’s looking at the polls knowing that this isn’t going to stay with this huge gap that she has.
MR. O’KEEFE: And there was a notable moment out on the campaign trail this week as Vice President Biden campaigned with Secretary Clinton up in Scranton. Let’s take a look at some of what he had to say about Donald Trump.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) No major party nominee in the history of the United States of America has – now, don’t cheer or – quiet, just listen – (laughter) – has known less or been less prepared to deal with our national security than Donald Trump. He doesn’t have a clue. No, I mean, he really – he really doesn’t. He doesn’t have a clue.
MR. O’KEEFE: Biden clearly relishes taking on Trump, but his relationship with Secretary Clinton is not as good as might seem, right?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s interesting, because they are former rivals themselves, in the team of rivals, right? They both competed for the nomination, and they have a little bit of friction. They’re different people, they have different perspectives. You can remember that Vice President Biden was deliberating about whether to run himself. He has said publicly after deciding that he wouldn’t run – because of the pain and the turmoil of losing his son – that he would have been the best president. We know he said lovely, nice things about Bernie Sanders.
So the enthusiasm with which, in Scranton, which he considers, you know, his hometown, his people, standing there with Secretary Clinton – he’s endorsing her, but the enthusiasm was really, as you say, rightly, going after Donald Trump.
MR. O’KEEFE: And, Abby, we’d be remiss to not acknowledge the fact that the FBI handed over documents this week to members of Congress regarding the investigation into her private email server. That remains a pox on her house, if you will. And I’m curious, Alexis, what Democrats and the White House, frankly, more broadly, think of all this, how concerned are they that this is still lingering out there?
MS. PHILLIP: Right. I mean, I think these documents have information that I think much of it will be new to the public because it’s the contents of those conversations with the FBI. And some of it is slowly going to leak. And the Clinton campaign is aware of that. They are approaching this the way they approached a lot of the things that relate to her email. They say, let’s give everybody everything to look at. And I think what will happen, if that happens, is that it creates so much sort of a little bit of this and a little bit of that that no one can come up with any clear conclusions about what’s going on.
What they are afraid of is selective leaks. They are not in a position where they can go themselves and ask Democrats to leak it, because much of it is classified. But Republicans may choose, on their own, to leak bits and pieces. And that’s problematic for them.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, I would also add selective leaks come from the Democratic side too. And one of the first ones that we’ve heard of is that the advice that she got about having a private server came from a Republican predecessor. So I think that it can work both ways.
MR. O’KEEFE: Colin Powell is who you’re talking about there.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Colin Powell is who I’m talking about, exactly.
But one of the things that I think we all have to remember too, and the White House is emphasizing, the campaign – Abby knows better than I – but constantly: We’ve got debates coming up, right? We have post-Labor Day, when Americans start to really pay attention, after our Olympic swimmers have come home from Rio. There’s more ahead here in which, whether it’s emails or debate friction or a new Donald Trump, there are more chapters in this story.
MR. GREEN: Well, and Trump also, even his contrition speech laid the pretext to go after Clinton. He called her one of the great liars of all time. So it’s not as if he’s forgotten that line of attack.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And his first ad – as Reid points out, the first ad is, you know, the two Americas.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, we’ll continue this in the webcast in a little bit, but thanks for watching, everybody.
Before we go tonight, we want to send our condolences to family and friends of a longtime member of the PBS family. John McLaughlin was a former Jesuit priest turned TV pioneer. For 34 years, we turned to The McLaughlin Group for lively political analysis. John McLaughlin died this week. He was 89.
We’ll continue our political discussion online on the Washington Week Webcast Extra. We’ll tell you about the unusual connection Donald Trump’s newest campaign advisor has to the TV sitcom Seinfeld. That’s later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Gwen Ifill will be back soon from her vacation. I’m Ed O’Keefe. Thanks so much for joining us. Have a good night and a great weekend.