GWEN IFILL: As even more primaries loom, so do the ramifications. What will a Clinton-Trump faceoff look like? Is Sanders helping or hurting the Democrats? Our reporters’ roundup tonight on Washington Week.
California, big state, big stakes. But it’s not about the primaries, not anymore.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different. They are dangerously incoherent.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) She does not look presidential, that I can tell you. She does not. (Cheers.) This is not a president.
MS. IFILL: And while Clinton and Trump attack each other, Bernie Sanders tries to stay in the game.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) I think we’re going to win here in California on June 7th. (Cheers.)
MS. IFILL: With so much at stake, and polls show next week’s Democratic primary is closer than a likely Clinton-Trump matchup in November. Even the president got involved.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) When somebody says that he’s going to bring all these jobs back, well, how exactly are you going to do that? What magic wand do you have?
MS. IFILL: This was the week the general election began in earnest.
Covering that week, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; and Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for The Washington Post.
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, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Liar, crooked, thin-skinned – and that’s not the worst the candidates for president had to say about each other this week. Even as the final primaries approach, this campaign has grown deadly serious. The common target, of course? Donald Trump.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) He is not just unprepared. He is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability, and immense responsibility.
SEN. SANDERS: (From video.) Donald Trump, this big, brave, macho guy, my goodness. He said he wanted to debate Bernie Sanders, and then he said he didn’t.
MS. IFILL: And Wednesday, in a town hall meeting with me in Elkhart, Indiana, the president the Republican nominee may be colorful, but there is essentially no there there, especially on the economy.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) Even though we’ve recovered, people feel like the ground under their feet isn’t quite as solid. And in those circumstances, a lot of times it’s easy for somebody to come up and say, you know what? If we deport all the immigrants and build a wall – that there’s some simple answer and suddenly everything’s going to feel secure. And –
MS. IFILL: (From video.) Why don’t – why don’t you mention Donald Trump by name?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) You know, he seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. (Laughter.) So I figure, you know, I’ll let him do his advertising for him.
MS. IFILL: But if the president is holding back, nobody else is, least of all Trump. This is what he had to say about Clinton last night in San Jose, California.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) I watched Hillary today. It was pathetic. It was pathetic. (Boos.) It was so sad to watch. And you know, she’s up there, and supposed to be a foreign policy speech. It was a political speech. Had nothing to do with foreign policy. She made a political speech tonight, folks. And it was a pretty pathetic deal.
MS. IFILL: Listening to all these guys I wonder this, Karen, are we still in primary season, really?
KAREN TUMULTY: Absolutely not. (Laughs.) With the exception of Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton, I think, this speech was – Donald Trump had a good point there. I mean, it was not about her proposals for foreign policy. It was not the sort of typical, dig down in the weeds, wonky speech that we have come to expect of Hillary Clinton.
MS. IFILL: She had done that in March.
MS. TUMULTY: Exactly. It was almost Trumpian in sort of the zingers and the one-liners. I mean, she sort of served notice that, you know, if this is the kind of campaign we’re going to run, bring it on.
MS. IFILL: Is there something – do we think this is something that she had planned all along, that at some point we were going to turn to the Trump attack, and that is just happening sooner than she expected?
PETER BAKER: She had to, of course. Obviously she couldn’t sit there and play the old rules, because the old rules weren’t working. I mean, Jeb Bush tried that. Marco Rubio tried that. And you know, she has to find a way to fight back against a very aggressive candidate without somehow seeming inauthentic. And this is what you saw last night. This is the first stage of what will probably be a multilevel, you know, evolution for her as she begins to figure out how to make a case against a person whose appeal so contradicts everything she thinks she understands about politics and has stood for for all these years.
JOHN HARWOOD: But it was very well-timed. So Donald Trump got the Republican nomination a couple of weeks ago. Quickly consolidated Republican support. This was a strong response from her to Republicans. She was making a very broadly appealing argument about his unfitness, using many of the same attacks that his Republican rivals had used against Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: Eventually they used it. That’s the problem they didn’t use it soon enough.
MR. HARWOOD: That’s right. That’s right. But one of the key dimensions of this campaign is going to be to what extent is he going to be held down with his support among Republicans. The other thing it did was it gave her something powerful to talk about before the California primary that wasn’t Bernie Sanders. She’s got this last primary. She’s going to be the nominee in any event. But she wants to win to have a head of steam coming out of those last contests. And the anti-Donald Trump message is the most unifying thing that she can offer in the Democratic primary right now.
MS. TUMULTY: But she went somewhere that none of the Republican opponents of Donald Trump ever did, at least not in any meaningful, sustained way, which is she took him on on his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” She said, this is a great country. We can make it greater. But that, you know, to dismiss this country, to dismiss the values, to dismiss what we stand for is, you know, unfitting of a commander in chief.
MR. HARWOOD: But, of course, the Republicans can’t do it because Barack Obama’s president, they can’t say Barack Obama –
MS. IFILL: Except, I have to say, that was the very first question I asked Barack Obama in our interview: What do you think that means? And he made kind of the same case that you’re saying Hillary made, is it is great and these guys are wrong. I mean, you see him getting ready to make the arguments that she’s making.
MS. TUMULTY: In this campaign, it is the Democrats who are making the American exceptionalism argument, which is a – you know, a real shift.
MS. IFILL: But here’s what’s interesting. We’re talking a lot about Hillary’s attack, but Donald Trump has had great success in doing what he then did with Hillary last night, which is just name calling. Just saying she’s pathetic. Saying she’s not ready, that she’s going to go to jail. How do we know that won’t work, based on what we’ve seen this primary so far?
MR. BAKER: We don’t know that. There’s every possibility it will work. Obviously this is an appeal that goes beyond a small portion of the Republican Party. Everybody was just saying, well, it appeals to a minority of a minority party. Well, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. The general election matchups all show a pretty tightly matched contest. You saw Paul Ryan and other Republicans start to get behind him. They may not like him that much. He may not be their cup of tea. But they are in fact going to embrace Trumpian politics for the rest of this year, because that’s what they’ve got to live with.
MS. IFILL: Trumpian politics? So does Bernie Sanders have a chance of winning California?
MS. TUMULTY: It’s close. He does. But I think it will also be—Tuesday, numerically, it looks very much like this will be the day where Hillary Clinton will be able to stand up and say: I am now the first woman in American history to be the nominee of a major political party.
MS. IFILL: And it’s not just California, I should mention. What are the other states that are up?
MR. HARWOOD: New Jersey.
MS. IFILL: Which is also a big one, where she’s got obviously a huge lead. That’s why all the focus in on California.
OK, well, let’s talk a little bit about – we talked earlier about the president’s involvement and champing at the bit, at least it seemed to me, to get involved in this, even if he won’t mention Donald Trump by name, which I suppose –
MS. TUMULTY: Voldemort. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: You know, somebody else made that reference. I had no idea what they were talking about. I’m not a Harry Potter fan – the man whose name will not be said. Right, exactly. OK, it was explained to me.
But let’s talk a little bit about the president’s involvement, and listen to some of what he had to say when I asked him about the politics of this year.
MS. IFILL: (From video.) Since we’re talking politics, Mr. President, I do want to ask you this: The primary season is almost over. We’ve talked a lot about what Republicans are and are not doing in this campaign. And I’m wondering when we can expect you to get involved in the Democratic race. Are we going to see an endorsement soon? Bernie Sanders, perhaps?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) Well, I think that there’s been a healthy debate in the Democratic Party. And it’s almost over. You know, we got – on Tuesday you’ll have some big states, California and New Jersey, where the votes will take place. What I’ve tried to do is to make sure that voters, rather than me big-footing the situation, are deciding the outcome. I think we’ll probably have a pretty good sense next week of who the nominee will end up being. I think both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are good people. I think that they broadly share the goals that I have. There are some tactical differences within the Democratic Party about how do you get stuff done.
MS. IFILL: And here’s what I wanted to say at that point, which is what about Joe Biden. We ran out of time, but Joe Biden has openly endorsed Hillary Clinton. But I guess he figures his footprint – the president figures his footprint’s a little bigger.
MR. HARWOOD: Yes, and the phase in which the president is going to stand back and let the voters make up his minds will end once the Democratic Primary ends. He’s going to try to have a big influence on the election this fall. And there’s no wonder why he would do that. His legacy and the maintenance of several of the initiatives that he’s implemented by executive action, by legislation, depend on the party of the successor. So somebody could try to reverse his clean power plan, try to reverse the Paris climate agreement, try to reverse things he’s doing on, say, the overtime rule. And he very much wants to be succeeded by a Democrat. And he believes that’s going to be Hillary Clinton.
He also has a unique moment. For the first time since his first year his ratings are consistently above 50 percent. He’s in a good place politically. Partly that’s because he’s been out of the –
MS. IFILL: Didn’t I see 61 percent somewhere this week? Maybe I’m making that up.
MR. HARWOOD: I haven’t seen 61 percent, but I’ve seen low 50s. I saw him at 53 the other day in Gallup. And he wants to go out and make an aggressive case about here’s what we’ve done and here’s what we have yet to do. And I think the fact that he shares the contempt that Hillary Clinton feels for Donald Trump is going to give him all the more added motivation.
MS. IFILL: So this gives him a chance to make the legacy argument he’s been resisting all this time.
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s right. And what a difference a few months make, right? Because a few months ago, six months ago, Hillary Clinton was talking about how she was distancing herself from President Obama. Now she’d very much like to have him out there. And that’s unusual. We haven’t seen a two-term president out there embraced by their party nominee for quite a while, right? John McCain didn’t embrace George W. Bush. And Al Gore famously kept Bill Clinton on the sidelines in a number of key states –
MS. IFILL: And it didn’t work for either of them.
MR. BAKER: It didn’t work for either one of them. I think you’re going to see –
MS. IFILL: Neither of them had worked for him in their administration, which is a big difference. She was his secretary – well, Gore. What am I talking about?
MR. BAKER: But I mean, I think the difference was both of them had baggage that the nominees didn’t want to have to be associated with. In this case, Hillary Clinton needs and wants President Obama to get out there, particularly to energize core constituencies in her party that she might not energize – the Bernie Sanders left, African Americans, Latinos, the people who are going to have to come out in large numbers to help make sure that she has an opportunity to beat Donald Trump.
MR. HARWOOD: It’s much more like the situation with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in 1998, which was the last time we had a third consecutive White House term for the same party.
MS. TUMULTY: What’s different, though, is the mood of the country. The legacy argument is very tricky to make at a moment when people on the left and the right are so angry at Washington, have such little respect for Washington. The other reason that it’s going to be a difficult argument to make is that we have two nominees who have, between them, the highest negatives of any two nominees that we have seen since polling started. So really, the playbook here tells you, you are to make the race about your opponent.
MR. HARWOOD: But that’s also why Obama is valuable. He is the one popular guy among the big players –
MS. IFILL: It’s all relative, but yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: Yes, but among the big players in the field. Neither one of them – both of them have 60 percent of the American people saying: I don’t like these people. So Karen is right, that’s why their dialogue is going to be negative. But the president’s got more juice than that right now.
MS. IFILL: The president has been to Elkhart, Indiana, including our visit, five times, including before he was president. He’s kind of adopted this sagging economy, which has now come back, in which the unemployment rate has dropped from, like, 20 – nearly 20 percent to closer to 5 percent. And yet, it’s a perfect example of – when you talk about the American people – who aren’t giving him credit for that.
They still are – they voted for Cruz, they are interested in Trump, there is – they voted for McCain. They even voted for Mitt Romney when – the year that – they voted for McCain the year that the president won Indiana, where – when he won Indiana. So I wonder whether there is a divide here, and that Trump represents that. And that’s there a lot of people who look at President Obama and say: I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what your numbers tell me. I just – I see the empty storefronts in downtown Elkhart and it’s not working for me.
MR. BAKER: Well, we’ve had a wrong track number. That is, when the pollsters ask Americans, do you think the country’s on the right track or the wrong track, we’ve had a wrong track number now for more than a dozen years, uninterrupted. That means for the entire Obama presidency and a substantial part of the George W. presidency most Americans thought the country was going to hell in a handbasket, in effect. And they’re not being convinced by alternative theories of the case.
And it was true under Bush too. When the economy was doing well, they were mad at him about Iraq. When Iraq actually started getting better, they got mad at him about the economy. People want to blame the politicians but they don’t want to give them credit for anything that they see that might be working, because they don’t think that they’re responsible.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, and think about how much change we’ve had over the course of that time Peter’s talking about. We had a change of party in the White House in 2008. We had a change of the House and Senate in 2006. We had a change back in House in 2010. Change back in the Senate in 2014. And that’s the headwind that Karen is talking about. The negative mood about the direction of the country, about the nominees, is going to make it very difficult. It’s just that at this moment in relative terms President Obama’s much stronger than he was, and more – has a greater capacity to help his party.
MS. IFILL: Even though the job participation rate we saw today, even though the unemployment numbers went down, the job participation rate continues to rise. I am curious whether the Democrats – the president, Hillary Clinton, you name it, even Bernie Sanders, have hit on the key here, which is if you go Donald Trump, you’ll get the headline and he’ll respond. And it’ll all – you can kind of steal his news cycle. Is that kind of what we’re seeing?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I think we certainly saw that at Hillary Clinton’s speech, where she – you know, she had the networks on her for the whole speech. I think that his ability to sort of dominate the news is not going to be as much as it was when he had a bunch of sort of – you know, seven, eight, nine, 14 other Republicans. But when it comes down to a head-to-head, one Democrat, one Republican, it could be a different kind of media dynamic for him.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the media dynamic, or the governmental dynamic abroad, because everywhere – everyone I know who lives abroad or who visits abroad comes back and says, wow, all anybody wants to know is what are you guys doing with this Donald Trump guy? What is – how much of this is real, and how much of this perception abroad?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s a mix. I mean, look, you know, we’ve – you know, we’ve always held ourselves out to be the gold standard in democracy. That’s probably our hubris, but there’s been something to that. Now a lot of these countries around the world that we’ve lectured over the years are saying, well, look at you guys now, we don’t look so bad. You know, but it also says that they don’t really understand what’s happening here, because they sort of thought they understood our two party system, they sort of thought they understood our dynamics. And this seems out of the blue to them. It is more reminiscent of some countries in Europe that have had kind of, you know, nationalist movements and so forth kind of throw the normal conventions –
MS. IFILL: Denmark.
MR. BAKER: Denmark. Austria. Just last week we had a far-right candidate come within three-tenths of a percent of becoming the first real nationalist far-right president in Europe since World War II.
MS. IFILL: But here’s the difference. People like Robert Kagan write that this is a sign of fascism coming to the United States. And that seems a bit like an overreach because I don’t know who Trump represents other than himself, largely, when it comes to a world of thinking.
MR. BAKER: He doesn’t seem to represent an ideology. He seems to represent – yeah. And I think that’s one of the things that people say when they critique that kind of an argument. What Kagan is saying – he’s a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a pretty – you know, he’s a hawkish kind of fellow. He’s not a Bernie Sanders liberal. But what he’s saying is that fascism in the modern age is not going to look like, you know, the Brownshirts of the 1930s. What it’s going to look like is showmanship and P.T. Barnum and hucksterism, and would lead to terrible consequences.
He’s not obviously doing anything now that would come anywhere close to some of the worst we’ve seen in Europe over the years, but there are – you know, day in, day out he says things that make people worried. You know, like, this reporter is removed from an event because he doesn’t have permission to be a reporter at this event. Or, you know, he’s going to go after a judge who’s judging a case that he doesn’t like, and so on.
MS. IFILL: And goes after his heritage, the fact that even though he’s an American citizen that his heritage is –
MR. BAKER: Talked about him being Mexican, exactly. And so I think people, rightly or wrongly, are looking at what his appeal is. And there is a nationalist quality to it. And some people obviously talk about the racial element there as well. And that’s where they’re making comparisons. It’s a bombshell to use the F-word. It’s a different F-word.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, fascism. (Laughter.) To be clear what he’s talking about.
MR. BAKER: And in American politics. And it’s not new. I mean, Obama was called a fascist, Bush was called a fascist. What’s different is it’s much more mainstream, much more in the larger conversation than it has been in recent years.
MS. IFILL: Let me ask you all just one final question. We don’t have a lot of time left. But to the degree that our conversation tonight has been driven by Donald Trump, I wonder how much the world, global, national, domestic conversation is Trumpian now. He has kind of made Hillary Clinton Trumpian. He has made everybody else react to him, which is of course exactly what he wants.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, that’s true. And to some extent that reflects changes in the entertainment culture, in the culture of communications throughout non-political realms as well. I will say one thing. Peter said a moment ago that people in Europe thought they understood U.S. politics and they’ve been surprised. In fairness to them, a lot of us thought we understood U.S. politics and have been surprised too. (Laughter.)
MS. TUMULTY: But I think that the degree to which – and, again, people will criticize us how much coverage we give to Donald Trump – but the degree to which Donald Trump has set the terms of engagement for this entire election I think was shown yesterday. As Hillary Clinton was speaking, suddenly there’s a tweet from Paul Ryan who says: I’m going to go ahead and vote for this guy. Three weeks ago Paul Ryan was saying, you know, Donald Trump’s got to come over to conservative principles. He’s got to become more inclusive before I can support him. Donald Trump has budged a bit. It’s Paul Ryan who’s changed.
MR. BAKER: That’s right. It’s hard to imagine a speaker of the House abandoning his own party. You’re seeing more formers like Mitt Romney and so forth, who don’t have a current dog in the fight, still staying out of it. But you’re right. And what’s bringing a lot of Republicans around is the idea that, OK, well there is another candidate. And it’s Hillary Clinton. And we don’t like her.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s the only argument that’s left to make when you have Donald Trump as your likely nominee. It’s going to be a long, fun ride this summer.
Thank you, everybody. We have a short show tonight so we can give you the opportunity to support the stations that support us. But stick around for the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we’ll talk a little bit more about the power of endorsements, from Jerry Brown to Paul Ryan. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek, later tonight and all weekend long. I’ll see you with Judy Woodruff on the NewsHour next week and right here again next week on Washington Week. Good night.