GWEN IFILL: Storms of the political kind as the two major presidential candidates prep for their second big debate. Tonight on Washington Week.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) I thought Tim did a great job. Every time he tried to push Mike Pence to defend what Donald Trump has said and done, Pence just bobbed and weaved, tried to get out of the way.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) A few other people said Donald Trump was at first happy, and then he was unhappy because Mike Pence did so well. I said, unhappy? We’re jumping up and down. He was so good.
MS. IFILL: The candidates as armchair analysts, leaving much of their week to their lieutenants.
SENATOR TIM KAINE (D-VA): (From video.) We trust Hillary Clinton as president and commander in chief, but the thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death.
INDIANA GOVERNOR MIKE PENCE (R): (From video.) The campaign of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine has been an avalanche of insults.
MS. IFILL: But on Sunday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump retake center stage for their second debate, this time a town hall featuring questions from uncommitted voters. But are there any minds left to change? Or are there equally consequential fights farther down the ballot?
We cover it tonight, top to bottom, with Jeanne Cummings, political editor for The Wall Street Journal; Jennifer Jacobs, national political reporter for Bloomberg News; Michael Scherer, Washington bureau chief for TIME Magazine; and Reid Wilson, political reporter for The Hill.
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. Well, believe it or not, a month from tonight will be election eve, and then it will be all over, including the shouting. But in the meantime, this campaign continues to amaze. Just today, another bombshell dropped as The Washington Post reported on the audio from an 11-year-old hot-mic conversation between Donald Trump and Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. It was lewd, it was rude, and it was about women. The Trump campaign called it, quote, “locker room banter.” But is it the kind of banter we expect of a president, then or now, Jennifer? I’m going to put it on you to describe it to us.
JENNIFER JACOBS: Well, he – in this videotape he’s talking about groping women, he’s talking about adultery, he’s talking about grabbing women by their “kitty cat,” which is a word he’s used on the campaign trail before. He has not been afraid to use that P-word before. But immediately it was condemned by Republicans from all the way up at the top. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the national GOP, immediately put out a statement – well, not immediately, but soon after put out a statement saying that no woman should be talked about this way. Other people who have condemned Trump in the past, including his ex-rival Jeb Bush, also tweeted that as the grandfather of two precious girls, that he would never want – there’s just no apologizing this away is what Jeb Bush said. Other Republicans have been coming out, calling for him to resign the nomination. So you’re hearing that at the grassroots level, and some higher-ups. A former strategist of Trump’s also is calling for him to resign. So it’s been pretty swift reaction.
MS. IFILL: If there is one person you don’t want to be tonight, it is Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, who’s supposed to be campaigning in Wisconsin tomorrow with Donald Trump. So what does he do, Jeanne?
JEANNE CUMMINGS: Well, this is – has been his dilemma for months now, ever since Donald Trump won enough folks to take the nomination. Ryan has tried to straddle this line where, yes, he’s supportive of his party’s nominee, but he’s different, and he doesn’t agree with him on every issue. It was interesting that we heard from Reince and many other party leaders tonight and we have not heard from Ryan.
MS. IFILL: Let’s just say we’re talking shortly after 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.
MS. CUMMINGS: Right. And my point being he wasn’t one of the first. He wasn’t swift out of the box. So we’ll see how he manages this one. What they’ve all done in the past is condemn but then just keep going forward like nothing happened.
MS. IFILL: You know, Michael, in TIME Magazine this week you wrote about the fact that we no longer have a common set of facts anymore. This is one of those cases where we seem to have a set of facts about what was said, but the question is whether voters or people who support Donald Trump wholeheartedly are affected by these facts, even if they find it offensive.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, the reason we have so many conspiracy theories in the campaign is that people are getting their information from narrow sets of outlets. You know, their social feeds, many of the stories that are coming across people’s phones, if you talk to them at Trump rallies, are just not true. They’re fanciful stories made up by hoax websites.
MS. IFILL: But this one is.
MR. SCHERER: This one’s true.
MS. IFILL: And he pretty much in his statement admitted it.
MR. SCHERER: Right, and it’s true. And so the question is, how much do conservative outlets who are speaking to the conservative base decide to focus on this? I mean, one of the things he said in this audio is that he was trying to sleep with a married woman and that he was putting Tic-Tacs in his mouth so he could get a kiss from a woman while he was recently married. He had married Melania at this point.
MS. IFILL: He was talking about assault, not just flirtation.
MR. SCHERER: That as well. But you know, in the traditional Republican Party this would be big news, and in the traditional conservative media this would be big news and this would be echoed through channels that would get this message out. And we just don’t know how it’ll be handled.
MS. IFILL: One of the interesting things in all of this – and we’re going to talk more about the down-ballot races, too – but this puts a lot of people in very complicated positions who are trying to run for office this year.
REID WILSON: And for the longest time we’ve been hearing these rumblings about just when is the Republican mainstream going to break with Donald Trump. When are they going to try to save the sinking ship? And the number of statements that have come out – you know, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the RNC, put out a statement, but all of – many other members of Congress, U.S. senators in tight reelection races, waited less than a minute to send out their statements, seemingly: Senator Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire; Senator Richard Burr in North Carolina, who faces a new race. This strikes me as the moment when those down-ballot candidates decide to break with the top of the ticket. They were already really nervous, given Donald Trump’s weak debate performance last Monday night – last week in the very first debate.
MS. IFILL: Feels like months ago.
MR. WILSON: Whenever that was. That made them really nervous, and it started to impact down-ballot Republican poll numbers. This is – could this be the straw that broke the camel’s back? The one caveat to that is I feel like I’ve said that about five times. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: I feel we have. Well, in fact, Jennifer, you’ve covered Donald Trump a lot this year, and the one thing that remains consistent about him is he never apologizes, he never admits, he never concedes. And in this case, acknowledging that this happened 11 years ago, he seems to have done all of those things, at least as much as he can.
MS. JACOBS: Right. It came the closest to being an apology from Donald Trump. I’ve never even heard him say the words “I’m sorry,” like, if he bumps into someone. He just doesn’t apologize. And he said I’m sorry – I apologize if I offended anyone, which people – some people are saying that’s not really saying I’m sorry, but it’s close.
MS. IFILL: Well, it’s not. (Laughs.)
MS. JACOBS: And I did have another GOP strategist who’s outside the campaign say the best thing that he could do right now is to say I messed up, I am completely sorry, this was unforgivable, you know, I will not behave this way in the future, I will behave presidentially, I will make you all proud of me, and I’m deeply, deeply sorry. But I talked to some of his strategists and I – and said, do you think that that could possibly happen, and it does not think – (laughter) –
MS. IFILL: It would be a break –
MS. CUMMINGS: This is going to – I mean, this is raising all the stakes for Sunday night’s meeting with Mrs. Clinton. Clearly, this will come up if he wants to be truly apologetic and shamed of what he said. What he said was vile. What he said was so beneath the office that he is running for that that’s – he should make it very clear. But we’ll see. You’re right, he never gives. He doesn’t give on this stuff. He doesn’t walk away from a fight. He never cedes a point. So we’ll see if he does it on Sunday.
MS. IFILL: Now, absent this bombshell – can’t use that word too much – Michael, we would have been paying attention a lot more tonight to some revelations from WikiLeaks about Hillary Clinton’s email – her latest email tranche from the State Department. And in this case, it’s answering the question that Bernie Sanders raised during the primaries, which is what did you say in those speeches when nobody was listening, the speeches you were paid for. He never could get an answer, but it looks like we have a partial answer tonight.
MR. SCHERER: So what it appears WikiLeaks got via Russian state actors, according to the U.S. government, who came out today and said –
MS. IFILL: Which is another problem.
MR. SCHERER: – said that it looks like Vladimir Putin and his government is doing these hacks, was stolen emails from John Podesta, the campaign chairman – the Clinton campaign chairman’s Gmail account. And one of those emails is an opposition research document on their own candidate in case some of these private speeches had come out, and there are a lot of things that I think Clinton would rather not come out. They’re not horrifyingly campaign-ending in any way.
MS. IFILL: But they’re political.
MR. SCHERER: They’re political. They have her talking about how, you know, Wall Street can do a lot to improve – to lead the way for future financial reform. It talks – she talks about how a lot of donors she meets at these things come to her and ask her questions and she has to answer them. I mean, it shows her – she talks very openly about supporting free trade agreements and aiming for sort of no trade barriers in the Western Hemisphere. These are not her campaign messages right now.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the campaign messages, because they’re all going to be on display at the debate, and we’re going to talk about them right now. The candidates will meet again on Sunday night at Washington University in St. Louis. But if you looked carefully at what Tim Kaine and Mike Pence did at their debate earlier this week – it feels like years ago – you may have seen a preview. For Kaine, who was criticized for being, shall we say, a little jumpy during the debate, it turns out he was going for the soundbite, like this.
SEN. KAINE: (From video.) Six times tonight I have said to Governor Pence, I can’t imagine how you can defend you running mate’s position on one issue after the next. And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate’s –
GOV. PENCE: (From video.) Well, let’s – no, no, don’t put words in my mouth. If he’s going to do that you got to give him time.
SEN. KAINE: (From video.) And yet – and yet, he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.
MS. IFILL: Pence, it became clear, was speaking to the members of his party who are searching for a mainstream defender of a decidedly non-mainstream nominee.
GOV. PENCE: (From video.) To get to your question about trustworthiness, Donald Trump has built a business through hard times and through good times. He’s brought an extraordinary business acumen. He’s employed tens of thousands of people in this country.
MS. IFILL: Meanwhile, Clinton went into secluded debate prep this week, and something that Donald Trump said, she was just going to rest. So I want to ask you all, how different will this debate tomorrow night – or, Sunday night look from what we saw the first time, starting with you Jeanne?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, very different, because of the format. It’s a town hall format. And they are taking questions from undecided voters. So the candidates don’t really –
MS. IFILL: Uncommitted voters.
MS. CUMMINGS: OK.
MS. IFILL: I noticed that was an interesting use of the word, because that doesn’t rule out that you’ve made up your mind.
MS. CUMMINGS: That they have? OK, fair enough. But they haven’t told the candidates what they’re going to ask them. And so campaigns can see who a moderator is or have a lot of interaction with Anderson Cooper on CNN all the time, and know areas he might be interested in asking about, and Martha Raddatz has great expertise that they’re aware of. But the voters –
MS. IFILL: She moderated a debate four years ago.
MS. CUMMINGS: Exactly. But the voters, they can awkward, they can ask hostile, who knows what they will do? So it will test them on their feet. For Donald Trump, the downside to this particular format is that his campaign and his base want him to attack Hillary Clinton. And attacking a candidate in a town hall when the voters are sitting right around you is a pretty dicey thing to do, even for the most experienced candidates. And clearly, Donald Trump isn’t and he hasn’t even practiced.
MR. SCHERER: The other thing that Republicans are hoping Donald Trump can do in this debate is show some more composure, the sort of composure that Mike Pence showed at the vice presidential debate, remaining calm, remaining authoritative, not losing his cool. And he simply failed to do that in the first presidential debate. And so I think the big suspense, other than what the interaction with the audience will be, is whether Donald Trump can show up in that form. And we haven’t –
MS. IFILL: And her goal is going to be to push him off of it.
MR. SCHERER: It almost certainly will be because she’s telegraphed that. I think the person she was in her first debate is exactly who she wants to be in this debate. And it’s not clear who Trump wants to be.
MR. WILSON: And the damage from this particular leak of Donald Trump’s conversations 11 years ago comes at a particularly damaging time for the campaign, because this type of format, when the voters ask questions, they tend to frame them in very personal ways. So what kind of person is going to tell a story that leads to a question about Donald Trump’s relationship with women? Is it going to be somebody who was harassed, somebody who was – who has been attacked, or something like that? It sets up a huge trap for Donald Trump. And he has never really faced this sort of hostile questioning in a town hall meeting. Consider, you know, eight years ago John McCain was doing seven or eight town hall meetings a day while he was on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney –
MS. IFILL: And true town hall meetings, not what he did last night.
MR. WILSON: True, exactly. Not what he did last night, where Donald Trump took a bunch of questions from pre-screened audience –
MS. IFILL: Friendlies.
MR. WILSON: Friendly audience members, asked by a friendly radio host. I mean, John McCain was taking insulting questions a lot of times. Mitt Romney took insulting questions a lot of times, challenging, you know, really in the moment that demand an answer. Can Donald Trump do that? He’s never had any experience with it.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s my question, Jennifer, because one of the things he resists is practicing or doing anything that might make him better at this game.
MS. JACOBS: He did practice for a couple hours on Thursday. He practiced some more today. So I know he is practicing. And I have seen him on the campaign trail in smaller settings. He is very good when he’s using his indoor voice, in private meetings, of being very conversational. He always remembers to say the person’s name. He’ll say, you know, well, Jim. And he always remembers the questioner’s name. So I know he can pull this off. It all depends on whether he wants to. I know his strategists have been saying you can’t settle every score. You can either settle every score, or you can be president.
MS. IFILL: And whether he can do it on a stage standing next to Hillary Clinton, who bugs him just by her very presence, and she’s going to make sure she bugs him.
Well, this is all very interesting, but there was another shoe – there are so many shoes that dropped this week – and let’s call this one a curveball. It came from Bill Clinton. He appeared to criticize President Obama’s signature health care plan. Here’s what he said Monday.
FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: (From video.) You’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have health care, and then the people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It’s the craziest thing in the world.
MS. IFILL: OK, so here’s what he said Tuesday.
FORMER PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From video.) You need your Miranda warnings every time you open your mouth because anything you say can be held against you and twisted.
MS. IFILL: And here’s how the nominee tried to explain it away.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) I’ve been saying, we’ve got to fix what’s broken and keep what works. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. I think he made it clear what he was saying.
MS. IFILL: It was clear enough for Donald Trump to pounce.
Michael, here’s what I’m confused about. I couldn’t tell whether he meant to undercut the Obamacare idea, as a way of reaching out to the voters Hillary Clinton’s weakest with, or – because she didn’t exactly say, oh, he was taken out of context; she kind of said he was clear – or whether this is what they secretly believe, or – I don’t know. What was I to take from that?
MR. SCHERER: Well, I think it’s clear that the campaign as a strategy wants to reach out to people who feel still, even with Obamacare, that their premiums are too high, they’re frustrated with the way the individual market is working, and they want a promise a fix. They don’t want to say we’re just sticking with what President Obama did six years ago. And so that’s the message. What Bill Clinton said was a little different. Saying it’s the craziest thing he’s ever heard of –
MS. IFILL: A little different, yeah. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHERER: – goes, you know, far beyond that. I don’t think that was – I think – I think that’s – if I were to put Bill Clinton on the couch, I would say there’s still some left over resentments, you know, from other times he’s spoken about President Obama in the past.
MS. IFILL: But he handed – Jennifer – he handed Donald Trump a cudgel which, absent other events of the week, he could have used very effectively against Hillary Clinton.
MS. JACOBS: Right. And he – and Trump brought this up at all of his rallies this week, when he was in Colorado, when he was in Nevada, and just was gleeful at this.
MS. IFILL: Did you say Nevada? For the record, it is Nevada.
MR. WILSON: Yes, she said it correctly. She said it correctly, yes.
MS. IFILL: I just want you to – to all the people of Nevada PBS who told me this. Yes, go ahead.
MS. JACOBS: No, that’s what I was saying. He just was taking this great glee in using this against Bill Clinton, and saying this proves my point. See, I’ve been saying all along that Obamacare needs to be repealed, and Bill Clinton agreed with me, was what his argument was this week.
MS. IFILL: Maybe everybody’s right. Maybe the whole thing is rigged, because it’s all very confusing.
OK, well, here’s the other part that we have to get to, because as pick the presidential race apart it’s easy to ignore some pretty important races going on in key states around the country. In almost every case, Republican candidates are having a tough time deciding how close to stand to their nominee – I’d say especially today. Let’s begin with New Hampshire, where incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte, who we mentioned earlier, was asked a seemingly simple question in a debate: Is Donald Trump a role model?
SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE (R-NH): (From video.) I think that certainly there are many role models that we have. And I believe he’s – can serve as president. And so absolutely I would do that.
MS. IFILL: OK, by the next day she was saying she misspoke. And of course, by today, she was rejecting – arm – what, stiff-arming him completely. OK, so why was this all so complicated for her, Reid? What does that tell us?
MR. WILSON: It has been complicated for every Republican running down the ballot, from – virtually from the beginning. Only one Republican Senate candidate, Senator Mark Kirk in Illinois, rejected Donald Trump out of hand. He faced a very difficult re-election bid in a very blue state anyway. More – we’ve seen more distance between down-ballot candidates and Donald Trump, whether it’s in, you know, vulnerable swing House districts around the country, or now increasingly in those Senate campaigns.
And the reason that – well, Kelly Ayotte’s flub during the debate, which she admitted was a flub, has immediately been turned into campaign commercials on both sides. Kelly Ayotte is doing what a lot of Republicans are doing. She’s saying in a new paid ad that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is a role model, and that she would act as a check on the next president. I think you can expect to hear that from a lot of Republicans going forward.
On the other hand, the Democrats, Governor Maggie Hassan, who’s running against Ayotte, already put Donald – those comments from Ayotte into a campaign ad with Donald Trump’s comments about women before tonight. One might wonder whether or not they’re going to resplice that ad and have a new version up by tomorrow.
MS. JACOBS: Well, Ayotte was the very first GOP major figure to come out and condemn, you know, the lewd remarks that Trump made.
MS. IFILL: She ran to the email. Well, if you’re in Pennsylvania and you’re Katie McGinty, the Democrat running for the Senate against Pat Toomey, the Republican, how do you do that? How’s Pat Toomey doing with that?
MR. WILSON: Well, I mean, it is Pat Toomey. It’s Rob Portman in Ohio. It’s – I mean, even though Rob Portman is relatively safe. Roy Blunt in Missouri. Richard Burr in North Carolina. Virtually every Republican candidate from now until Election Day is going to be asked, repeatedly, what do you think of Donald Trump? What do you think of his latest comment? They’ve been facing these questions for months. Unlike Kelly Ayotte, one would assume that they’re going to have a better answer going forward.
MR. SCHERER: But they’re trapped, right? On the one hand if they – if they distance themselves and say what they really think, they’ll maybe save those independents who they’re trying to draw from, but they could offend in their own states the core Republican Trump voters.
MS. CUMMINGS: But Portman has – he has pulled it off, because Ohio is filled with Donald Trump voters, those working-class whites without college educations that are very attracted to his campaign. They are in large numbers in Ohio. And right now Hillary in Ohio is ahead by two or three points. Rob Portman is ahead by 15 points. So there was a way that they could have done it.
MS. IFILL: How was it? How did he do it?
MR. WILSON: Well, and I should say, this is the question that Republicans have been asking for the last six months. How much of a Hillary Clinton victory in their states can they survive? Rob Portman can probably survive if Hillary Clinton wins Ohio by six or seven points. If she wins by 10, well, then his life gets a lot more difficult. I talked to a lot of senior Republican strategists about three weeks ago. And they were remarking – they were commenting on how lucky they had been that Trump had not become an albatross around their neck. Just in the last week, they’ve totally changed their tune.
MS. IFILL: After the debate.
MR. WILSON: They now see some Senate polling starting to go south on them. Essentially, independent voters watched that debate and decided that Donald Trump was the Republican Party. That’s the worst-case scenario that Republicans could find.
MS. IFILL: If you are Roy Blunt in Missouri, how is it that you’re running a tight race?
MR. WILSON: Well, Roy Blunt is an interesting question. He is – he has been in Washington for a very long time. He was a member of House leadership. He’s a member of Senate leadership. I think it’s four members of his immediate family are registered lobbyists, either in Washington, D.C., or in Missouri.
MS. IFILL: Which conveniently made its way into an ad.
MR. WILSON: And his Democratic opponent has been running some really great ads. In one ad, he assembles an assault rifle while blindfolded. He served in Afghanistan. That’s a pretty remarkable task. And in the second ad, they showed a family tree of Roy Blunt and his lobbyists. So when we’re talking about an insider/outsider contest – which the presidential race is at sort of a meta level – these Senate contests can become that insider/outsider contest as well.
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s – I said at the beginning of the show the person I wanted to see most was Paul Ryan how he was going to react. Really, it’s Mike Pence. I want to see how Mike Pence handles all this in the next 24 hours. It’s going to be very interesting.
Thank you all so much. I know it went fast, but we have to go for now. The conversation with continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about all the big newspaper and magazine endorsements, and whether they matter. You can find that all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And come along for the ride Sunday night as Judy Woodruff and I bring you PBS NewsHour coverage of the second presidential debate, on air and online. That begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time. And we’ll see you right here next week on Washington Week. Good night.