ROBERT COSTA: President Trump’s pressure campaign tests Republicans and the nation.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We won in those swing states.
MR. COSTA: Days before the Electoral College convenes, President Trump keeps making baseless statements about his defeat and about the virus.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You do have an immunity. I hear we’re close to 15 percent.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Masking, vaccinations, opening schools – these are the three key goals for my first 100 days.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, as the pandemic worsens, President-elect Biden continues to build his Cabinet, all as Congress bickers over government funding and COVID relief.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) The American people are hurting. They need the House and the Senate to stop chasing our tails and make a law.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We have to have a bill and we cannot go home without it.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. Tonight the Supreme Court rejected a bid by the attorney general of Texas to challenge the vote in four battleground states. Now, the order upends President Trump’s attempt to stay in power, but all eyes remain on the Oval Office as the president ends this week still raging about his defeat. On Monday the Electoral College is expected to cement President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, and this week Mr. Biden carried on with Cabinet picks and Congress continues to squabble over whether to pass a stimulus bill this month – all as the pandemic worsens and states gird for a bleak holiday season.
Joining me for insight and analysis are three top political reporters: Molly Ball, national political correspondent for Time magazine; Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th; and Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Let’s begin with President Trump. Here are his remarks at a holiday party this week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We have tremendous cases right now, a big, big case, 18 states as of this moment – 18 states. I understand a lot of congressmen and -women are joining, a lot of people are joining because they can’t allow this to happen.
MR. COSTA: Phil, you heard about the news tonight at the Supreme Court. You see that video. You’re talking to your sources. What’s actually going on inside the West Wing?
PHILIP RUCKER: Well, Bob, the president cannot possibly be anything but furious with the Supreme Court’s decision tonight, and for a few reasons. Over the last several days, including today, the president had called on those nine Supreme Court justices to act with what he called courage and wisdom to overturn the results of the election. He is claiming that the election was rigged and that there was widespread fraud. Of course, there is no evidence of that and his legal team has not been able to furnish any evidence of that in court. That’s why so many of their legal challenges have been dismissed in courtrooms across the country. But he had all of his eggs in that Supreme Court case that was brought by the Texas attorney general. It was backed by hundreds of Republican members of Congress, including the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, and it was dismissed by the Court despite the fact that Trump thought he had an advantage given that three of the nine justices are people that he had hand-selected for that court. But it’s over now. The Electoral College will be voting and certifying the final national result on Monday and that’ll make official what we’ve all known for some time, which is that Joe Biden is the president-elect.
MR. COSTA: Those are excellent points, Phil. And to build off those, Molly, you see the judiciary across the board not acting as pawns of President Trump but expressing their independence, taking independent steps whether they’re liberal justices or conservative justices. In light of that reality, what’s next for President Trump here?
MOLLY BALL: That is really the question because the president and his supporters in the Republican Party have been quite creative to date and willing to do the president’s bidding to find increasingly farfetched ways, farfetched rationales, extralegal ways to try to overturn, as Phil said, what we know to be the election result and which – and which we have no evidence there’s any way to change it under the ways that we have always conducted elections. There is that Electoral College vote on Monday. Could there be hijinks there? Could something go wrong there? Could the president try to pressure electors in some other way? And then there is the congressional certification. Republicans in several swing states have urged members of Congress to interfere with that process when the Congress meets on January 6th to elect – to collect the electoral votes and make it official for the – for the last time. So there are still pressure points in this process that no president has tried to interfere with in the past in order to overturn a democratic, free, and fair election, but they do still exist and we have seen that this president will stop at nothing to attempt to overturn his loss in the election.
MR. COSTA: Errin, we just heard from Molly about pressure points, hijinks that could be on the horizon when the Electoral College meets. But regardless of what happens in the coming days, does the Biden camp believe that the president-elect will have a little bit more room with Republicans once the Electoral College formally moves ahead and casts its ballots? Will that marker be enough to nudge people along in accepting the president-elect?
ERRIN HAINES: Well, you know, I think that that is an open question although, you know, the transfer of power is continuing, peaceful or not, you know, whether the president wants it to or not, and whether those who are kind of continuing to support this want it to or not. Listen, a week ago today we at The 19th spoke with Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s – one of his longest and most loyal advisors, and what she told us is that she acknowledges that it appears that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are headed to the White House, and that while the president has the right to his legal challenges it appears that the Electoral College is poised to certify the results of this election and that they will be, you know, the incoming administration, which she also said that she is willing to work with. Now, she is a person that is still in regular contact with this president, and so I don’t know if that is something that she is going to remind him of on the other side of Monday when the Electoral College, you know, is probably going to be doing just that. And so, you know, there are levers of our institutions that we are seeing are working despite the president’s best efforts to try to, you know, get them to give him an outcome contrary to the outcome that we’ve had for really more than a month now.
MR. COSTA: Phil, that’s an interesting point by Conway. She uses sort of soft language, it appears it’s maybe President-elect Biden. Let’s listen, though, to some tougher language, some harder language from Georgia’s lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, who called out House Republicans this week in an interview with the PBS NewsHour.
GEORGIA LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR GEOFF DUNCAN (R): (From video.) It’s not American. It’s not democracy. This is not our finest moment. And my hope is that we quickly move past this.
MR. COSTA: Phil, what are you picking up about Republicans? On one side you have Conway and others slowly moving there, and then you have the lieutenant governor of Georgia saying this is an abysmal development for the GOP. Where do they go in the coming days?
MR. RUCKER: Well, Bob, I think most Republican elected officials, officeholders, they agree with what the lieutenant governor just said, they’re just afraid to say it out loud. Look, they understand how elections work. They understand that there are winners and losers when the people’s votes are counted, and they understand that Joe Biden won 306 Electoral College votes and leads the popular vote by 7 million votes. This wasn’t that close of an election. They get it. They’re just not able to say so publicly for their own political calculations because they so fear what President Trump could do to them. He remains incredibly popular with the Republican base. We’ve seen him torment the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, for weeks now. The Republican secretary of state of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger.
And he can set off that fury against any Republican elected official in any state in this country when he chooses to. And that Republican suddenly could face a primary challenge back home in their next election. And so they’re cognizant of what they need to do to hold onto their own power within their Republican Party. And as long as Trump is the leader of that party, they’re going to go along with him. And it’s why you saw so many Republican members of Congress sign on to that brief this week to support that Texas case in the Supreme Court.
MR. COSTA: Molly, I’ve been picking up a similar vein in my reporting this week, that Republicans – they know the conventional wisdom in Washington is, oh, President Trump’s about to go away, why don’t you just break ranks? But they keep telling me, hey, he’s not going away. As Phil said, he’s going to be here in 2022. He may run again in 2024. And so they’re just trying to survive, trying to move forward. Kabuki theater maybe a little bit, political branding protection in another way. But, Molly, I was struck by a line you wrote this week. You said: This is not a slow-motion coup. Why is that important to understand?
MS. BALL: I wrote that a couple weeks ago based on, you know, what experts were telling me about the plausibility of the attempt to overturn the election. That it just didn’t see like there was any merit to it that could go anywhere within the normal process, the normal system, the legal avenues that are available. And we’ve seen that very clearly with the court results in all of these courts all over the country, and then in the Supreme Court just tonight, which in its very brief refusal to hear the case gently sort of said that Texas had not presented a legally cognizable justification to interfere in another state’s process, which is of course Supreme Court-speak for there’s no there there. There’s no legal basis for what you’re trying to do here, one state telling another state how to run its elections.
So at the same time, there is a real danger for democracy in normalizing these kind of baseless challenges and making it a thing that people do after they lose elections not to accept them. That, of course, is the bedrock of our democratic system, is that the winners and losers alike agree to the rules in advance and then abide by them. And so the question I think going forward is going to be what role does President Trump want to continue to play in the Republican Party? Because this is exact same vice grip he has had them in since 2015 when he threatened on a Republican debate stage to leave the party and run as an independent. And we’ve seen in polls that to this day the majority – the vast majority of Republicans, and Trump voters, and Trump supporters say that they would prefer to vote for a Trump party than a Republican Party, if they had to make that choice. So, you know, Republicans are going to have to deal with this for as long as Trump wants to make them.
MR. COSTA: Trump party reminds me of TR, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Bull Moose. Errin, you just heard from Molly. I mean, I’m struck by her point. Yes, it’s not a slow-motion coup, it is a very serious moment for democracy. Earlier Friday Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut gave a passionate speech saying we just can’t ignore, he said, speaking for Democrats, how serious this is for American democracy. What are you hearing from other Democrats about this reckoning for the country beyond just the exercise on branding and political protection for President Trump on the Republican side?
MS. HAINES: Well, you know, Bob, I am from Georgia. And you know, hearing from Georgia Republicans in this moment is really not surprising because the stakes are higher for them in this moment. They’re dealing with this Senate runoff in which they need Republicans to believe that turning out to vote is actually going to make a difference. And them participating in a rigged election is really not a message that necessarily energizes or galvanizes voters. Now, you know, the president, when he was down in Georgia last weekend, basically gave a message to Republicans saying, well, you know, they stole the election from me, but don’t let them steal it from David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
I don’t know how effective a message that is going to be. But I mean, this is a state where issues of voter suppression have been at play for years. And the Republican Party has been accused of largely doing that voter suppression. So the thought that that is now potentially impacting their voters, the idea that if the system is not working why participate in it, whether that can have an effect on depressing those voters is remarkable to consider, indeed. But listen, it's exactly what Molly was saying. You know, we know the outcome of this election. What is less clear is the – is what this entire, you know, fiasco, in the wake of the election, what effect is that going to have really on our democracy and in our electorate’s confidence in just the idea of one person one vote going forward.
MR. COSTA: Phil, can you just take a quick bite at this apple? I remember the subtitle of your book with Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius. It’s about the testing of America.
MR. RUCKER: Well, that’s exactly what this is, Bob. It’s a testing of our country’s foundational principles, of our country’s democracy. And, look, even as the Electoral College is going to meet Monday, and that outcome seems clear – Joe Biden will probably almost certainly be certified as the president-elect, will be sworn in at the inauguration on January 20th – the reverberations of Trump’s challenge to the election results could continue for years.
You could have a situation where Joe Biden is acting as the president, is the president through next year and, you know, 30 percent, 40 percent of the American people think he is there illegitimately, think he lost the election. And that could have devastating consequences not only for the Biden presidency but for Americans’ faith and trust in our government, in our system, in our democracy. And who knows what sorts of changes could be around the bend of that’s the kind of country we’re living in.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of devastation, let’s not forget, as the president fights on, more than 3,000 Americans died on Thursday from COVID-19, a higher death toll than Pearl Harbor or the September 11th attacks. And since the start of the pandemic over 290,000 Americans have died. Now, the FDA is moving swiftly on vaccine approval, even as the president pressures them to go faster. President-elect Biden told Americans on Friday to be confident in the vaccine.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I want to make it clear to the public you should have confidence in this. There is no political influence. These are first-rate scientists taking their time, looking at all of the elements that need to be looked at.
MR. COSTA: Molly, what’s the split screen here? President Trump fighting on the election on one front, President-elect Biden on the other speaking as he did this week?
MS. BALL: Well, all of the consequences that we have just been talking about and the potential undermining of the incoming president really have worrisome effects on President-elect Biden’s ability to respond to the pandemic from the day he gets into office because so much of what he wants to do depends on Americans believing that he’s the president and listening to what he is saying. And if a large swath of the American public is too suspicious of him, of him legitimacy, of anything, you know, he wants to encourage Americans to wear a mask for 100 days, but he doesn’t have the power – the federal government doesn’t have the power to compel that. So he needs Americans’ confidence in order to get that to work.
Same thing for a vaccine. Can’t compel people to take it. Needs the states to distribute it. And needs people to be willing to believe in this vaccine, to believe that it’s safe so that – so that the country can move on from this pandemic and so that this can unfurl in an orderly fashion. So if a large number of Americans don’t – are not listening, have already turned away from this new administration, it tremendously complicates their ability to do the coronavirus response that they have in mind.
MR. COSTA: Errin, what’s your big-picture takeaway of Biden’s announcement on the Cabinet this week? The 19th’s been doing in-depth coverage.
MS. HAINES: Yeah. I mean, there were a slew of nominations announced this week – even more women, even more people of color – as you had civil rights organizations meeting with, you know, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris to make their case that not only do they want to see African Americans in, you know, the administration, but they want to see them in high profile roles. They want to see them in decision making roles, not just a seat at the table but really to have proximity to power and to make real the – you know, what Joe Biden was saying about racial inequality being one of the four crises that he feels that he and Kamala Harris will inherit when they take office in January.
You know, I spoke with Marcia Fudge, the nominee for the secretary of housing and urban development, somebody who had been considered for agriculture secretary, a role that has gone to Tom Vilsack, which some people have raised objections to, you know, because of his role in the ouster of Shirley Sherrod a decade ago this year. What she said was that she feels that HUD is an agency that can confront racial inequality. And she also said that she spoke with Tom Vilsack and that he may be open to hearing some of the concerns that, you know, Black leaders have expressed and others over how he may approach this role if he is confirmed this time. And so, you know, I think lived experience has certainly been at issue in how this administration is taking shape, and I think that we’re seeing that, you know, the folks who were part of the coalition that got Joe Biden elected are absolutely committed to being a factor in how he intends to govern.
MR. COSTA: And all of those people, Phil, who are nominated are going to have to face Senate Republicans led by Leader McConnell, who continues to be at the center of these stalled negotiations over a stimulus. Is the president going to lean in, Phil, between now and late January in the stimulus negotiations to try to jumpstart them?
MR. RUCKER: You know, Bob, there’s been no indication so far that the president is planning to do that or that he’s, frankly, that engaged in these stimulus negotiations. He has had almost all of his time occupied since the election on the challenges that he and his team have been making in court and in the public arena to the election result. He’s not doing much by the way of governing, certainly not on the coronavirus pandemic. And look, this stalemate has been in place in Congress now for many months. It has been a long time since that first round of stimulus money has disappeared and tens of millions of Americans remain out of work. The lines at food banks are very long. A lot of people are hungry, are hurting, are out of work, struggling to keep their rent and pay their families, and what you have in Congress is leaders who are really not making a deal at this point. They’re not getting anything done for those people right now.
MR. COSTA: Molly, you’ve written the book on Speaker Pelosi, Pelosi; terrific read. What’s the problem with the stimulus if there’s such an impetus to get something done, millions of Americans struggling? Why doesn’t it happen, and where is the speaker in this mix?
MS. BALL: The speaker said yesterday that she would not be surprised if the Congress has to stay past Christmas. That is the kind of threat that in the past sometimes has worked to motivate people, but she has felt throughout this process that she simply doesn’t have a negotiating partner, and a lot of that, I think, does have to do with the president’s inconsistent engagement in this process. He has largely, as Phil said, been disengaged, except when he wades in to drop the occasional bomb and sort of scramble the talks rather than being helpful, and most Republicans agree that the thing that would really get their members unified and off the mat – since they do take their cues so assiduously from President Trump – would be if the president were to really sort of put his shoulder to the wheel on pretty much anything. They would do pretty much anything if he made it clear that he wanted them to, but instead he has been disengaged and there – and it’s been this sort of game of hot potato between different groups of Republicans, whether it’s the Senate Republicans, whether it’s this bipartisan group that decided to take matters into its own hands and made some progress, or whether it’s been the White House itself. So all that has meant, you know, today they bought themselves some more time, passing a week extension of the government spending deadline that they hope to use as a vehicle to pass further coronavirus relief, but as Phil alluded to it’s already too late for a lot of people and a lot of businesses.
MR. COSTA: Errin, what’s the real-world cost for not getting the stimulus done?
MS. HAINES: The real-world pain that so many Americans are going through, whether they ever get the coronavirus or not. Look, we’re certainly in a hopeful moment given the approval of the vaccine and, you know, Joe Biden is I guess doing everything that he can do from outside of the White House over the next 40 days, but there is no vaccine for housing evictions, there is no vaccine for food insecurity, there is no vaccine, you know, for losing your paycheck. And so that is where voters are really looking for Congress to do something, and that inaction is impacting their lives on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.
MR. COSTA: And the most interesting thing I heard this week was Senator Josh Hawley, a conservative from Missouri, was working with Senator Bernie Sanders, democratic socialist from Vermont, on try to – in trying to include direct payments to Americans in this stimulus package. It’s reflective of the rising populism on the right and on the left. President-elect Biden will have to be dealing with all of that.
But we’re going to have to put our notebooks down right there, leave it there tonight, another big week comes to a close. Many thanks to our reporters for being here: Molly Ball, Errin Haines, and Phil Rucker. Thank you so much.
And thank you all for joining us. It means a lot. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra, which you can find on our social media and our website. We’ll talk about Pelosi, the book from Molly Ball; Phil Rucker’s book, A Very Stable Genius. We’ll talk about what’s going on at The 19th and at The Washington Post. All of our reporting, coming up on the Extra.
But for now, I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.