YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Boosters, protests, and perilous times.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Everybody will be ready – more ready for them.
MS. ALCINDOR: Washington braces for a pro-Trump rally in support of people charged with attacking the Capitol on January 6th. A new book reveals that General Mark Milley took secret actions because he worried former President Trump might start a war to hold onto power.
CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR GAVIN NEWSOM (D): (From video.) Science was on the ballot. The pandemic was on the ballot.
MS. ALCINDOR: And political fights over COVID disinformation and mandates deepen as an FDA panel rejects Pfizer’s plan for widespread booster shots but recommends them for Americans 65 and older. Plus –
SENATOR JOSEPH MANCHIN (D-WV) : (From video.) He will not have my vote on 3.5 (trillion dollars), and Chuck knows that.
MS. ALCINDOR: Democrats try to navigate internal divisions over their agenda, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Welcome to Washington Week. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
Pro-Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol and chanted about killing lawmakers 254 days ago. Tonight in Washington, D.C., security is tight as supporters of those January 6th rioters prepare to gather for a rally tomorrow. Meanwhile, a new book contains explosive details about the fallout from the Capitol attack. It says General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thought former President Donald Trump was crazy and made secret calls to assure people that the U.S. was not going to war. Now some Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, are demanding that Milley be fired.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) It is the essence of a military coup, for lack of a better term. That’s what it would equate to. I don’t think there’s any doubt that at a minimum he should be fired if this is true.
MS. ALCINDOR: But President Biden is sticking by General Milley. Here’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday.
DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: (From video.) All of what’s in that book happened before I became secretary of defense, so I can’t comment on that as well, and certainly I won’t comment on what’s in the book. I have confidence in General Milley.
MS. ALCINDOR: And there is major news on COVID vaccine boosters that we’ll talk about later in the show.
Joining us tonight to talk about another busy news week: Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House correspondent for The New York Times; Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Sabrina Siddiqui, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; and Kelsey Snell, congressional correspondent for NPR. Thank you, all of you, for being here.
Zolan, I want to start with you. What are the security preparations underway because of this rally, and how many people are expected to attend?
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: So based off of the permit that was registered you can expect about 700 people, at least that was on the permit for these organizers. Again, this rally is in an effort to support the defendants that were – participated in the deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Some of these organizers have been very outspoken in their association and their support with the Trump campaign as well. In terms of security you can expect to see a National Guard presence, unarmed National Guard troops – about a hundred. And, look, I’ve been talking to intelligence officials, homeland security officials about this all week. They have been trying to relay this message that the Biden administration’s been putting out really for these first seven or so months, and that’s that, look, we are actually taking this seriously based off bare minimum acknowledging that domestic extremism is a lethal threat in the United States, not just that of Antifa or left-wing violence but also militia groups such as the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and far-right groups, and you could see some of those extremists here tomorrow. I also obtained a document this morning that show – in which the Homeland Security Department is now reporting that they are expecting potential violence. There’s no specific plot, however they have been tracking online chatter that shows people talking about kidnapping a member of Congress, storming the Capitol tonight, but based off the folks I’m talking to they aren’t expecting another January 6th. Then again, they weren’t on January 5th either.
JONATHAN MARTIN: The biggest difference between now and then, of course, the Congress is not in session. This is a Friday night. The House and Senate folks are back at home, so they are not going to be physically in D.C. But it is striking, though, like nine months later the degree to which the specter of physical violence still looms over American politics in a way that we haven’t seen in this country since the 1970s. It’s very difficult to explain it if you don’t work in politics or cover politics, but it is such a part of our daily lives now, so much so that there are now members of Congress – including one I spoke to this week, Anthony Gonzalez from Ohio – who just don’t think it’s worth it to stay in politics anymore because you’re dealing with these sort of, you know, at a bare minimum hassles at best. You’re having to – thinking of your spouse and your kids – are they safe, are they secure? I’m flying, what’s going to happen on the plane and in the airport? And he is not running for reelection; he’s only been the congressman two terms. He’s not quite 37 years old, he’s calling it quits in part because of these security threats, and I think that tells you a lot about politics today.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Kelsey, Congressman Gonzalez, he says that he was using – or there was reporting that he was using his personal money for security. Now, President Trump has put out – former President Trump has put out this statement saying one down, nine to go. He’s also saying that he is supporting the people who are being charged in this deadly Capitol siege while also saying that the rally is a sort of trap, a sort of conspiracy theory. Talk to us about what all of this means in the context of the power that President Trump still has in the GOP.
KELSEY SNELL: Well, certainly I think that one of the things that I’m watching is the way that Republicans don’t want to engage in the question. They don’t want to talk about what President Trump is saying. They don’t want to really even talk about that this rally is happening. We’ve seen Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, says he doesn’t expect any Republicans to be there, but that is more or less the extent to which that Republican leadership is even talking about how this is going to go down. I think one of the things that is really interesting to me is seeing the way the fencing around the Capitol is being received. It is, for the people who live in that neighborhood and the people who work in that building, a stark reminder of what happened, and is also a clear reminder that they are not in the clear, that this isn’t a safe place that used to be just an office. This was an office where people went to work and a place where tourists came to see the seat of government. It was an open space where we were able to see, you know, democracy in action. That was part of the job of covering Congress. It isn’t that way anymore, and it’s very difficult.
MS. ALCINDOR: And it’s a stark reminder of the idea that there is this danger that still looms, and I want to turn now to the new book Peril by Bob Woodward and former Washington Week moderator Robert Costa. According to their reporting and to sources who confirmed this with me, General Mark Milley and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke two days after the January 6 Capitol attack, and Pelosi, talking about former President Trump, told General Milley, quote, “He’s crazy, and what he did yesterday, it’s further evidence of his craziness.” General Milley responded by saying, quote, “I agree with you on everything.” Milley also assured Pelosi that there were protections to prevent former President Trump from ordering a nuclear strike. Sabrina, you were going to jump in here. I’m just wondering, what do you expect about how the Biden administration is handling this, but also what does it tell you that President Trump is still having all this power when so many people in his administration – an administration that we covered together – were worried – legitimately worried that he was mentally unstable?
SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Well, the Biden administration is standing by General Milley, and I think for the most part they want to put the Trump administration behind them and not relitigate, you know, the chaos and the turmoil within the Trump administration. They genuinely believe it distracts from their agenda and they’re pleased that the relevant law enforcement authorities are taking very seriously the threat of political extremism and domestic terrorism. But I think for Republicans – well, first and foremost, the book just reinforces the extent to which there was genuine concern about then-President Trump’s stability, his state of mind, that he might take some kind of abrupt or rash action. That’s why General Milley said he was actually acting within his responsibilities, trying to keep the normal channels of government working. We’re expecting to hear more from him when he testifies on Capitol Hill later this month in what was supposed to be about Afghanistan but is likely going to be also about the revelations in this book. But just going back to the broader conversation we’re having, I think all of this just reinforces how, you know, when former President Trump animated supporters around this idea that the election was stolen, it wasn’t just hyperbole, it wasn’t just political rhetoric; you know it really did feed into the minds of a faction of the population that the democratic process is broken, not believing that Joe Biden is a legitimate president, and now you have polls showing that a majority of Republicans genuinely believe the election was stolen despite all the evidence to the contrary. And there’s a very thin line between rhetoric that’s animating a group of people and calling those same people to political violence, and that is really why there is so much concern about the lingering effects of all of the events that led up to the January 6th insurrection and how we’re still living within that context.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Kelsey, talk a bit about what we expect to see on September 28th when General Milley comes to Congress. Just today the Pentagon says, yes, in fact, there was a tragic mistake in which we killed civilians in Afghanistan. There’s also, of course, all of the things that we learned about in this book. It seems like there are going to be fireworks here.
MS. SNELL: Oh, absolutely, and a lot of this happened when Congress was not in Washington, and when that happens there is this bottled-up energy where they want to come in and they want to take charge of the moment to talk to the people who have been in the news. And so it will very likely be, as you said, a lot of fireworks and a lot of people taking that chance to kind of put down a stake on not just one issue – it’s not going to be just about Afghanistan; it will be about the entirety – for Republicans, I would imagine, the entirety of the Biden administration’s foreign policy and the way that they’re approaching the world. So I would expect this to be far broader than any one individual conversation.
MR. MARTIN: And one of the rare hearings on the Hill where right and left both are going to coming at it pretty aggressively, right?
MS. SNELL: Yeah, and particularly I think we will hear conversations – even if it doesn’t come up naturally – about what’s happening with the Afghan interpreters and these people who are eligible for special immigrant visas, and the people who are still in Afghanistan.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Jonathan, today it seemed like there were just so many things going on, talking to sources, when you think about the fact that there was sort of this possible page turn on Afghanistan and then we’re right back here talking about drones. What are the political sort of benefits, if at all, that Republicans want to try to extract from this conversation?
MR. MARTIN: Well, look, I mean, every day that goes by that we’re talking about the Biden administration’s missteps in Afghanistan is a day that the GOP is driving their message going into the midterms. And if you look at the polling data, I mean, you can track Biden’s sort of turn south, if you will – (laughs) – to what happened in Afghanistan last month. So, look, obviously they want to keep the focus on what’s happening in Afghanistan. Typically foreign policy stories in this country don’t last that long.
MS. SNELL: Democrats have been saying that a lot, it’s not a durable issue.
MR. MARTIN: Yeah, exactly, so I think it remains to be seen when we’re in October if it’s still in the headlines. But look, I mean, I think Biden appears vulnerable politically for the first time since he was sworn in.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Zolan, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who was made famous by testifying before Congress about the issues that he had with the president’s call, with the president of Ukraine, where he was pushing him to get evidence or dig up dirt on President Biden, he is calling for the resignation of General Milley. I wonder what you’re hearing from your sources. And apart from the back and forth in politics, is there real issues here?
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: There is a real concern that, you know, your top general, that, yes, the White House is supporting verbally, but he’s right back in the political kind of storm that he sought to avoid going back to June when he had to walk in full uniform behind President Trump when he took his photo op in front of a church. At that moment, you saw in the weeks after that General Milley’s – to really try to make efforts to remove him and the military from politics. Well, guess what. Maybe he’s saying he had the right intentions, based off of calling China to keep the peace, to avoid any conflict, but through – you know, whether or not those were his intentions, he’s right back now in a political storm.
MS. ALCINDOR: But I also want to say, meanwhile this week, the other thing, I think – you know, as there’s so much that happened this week – meanwhile this week, the U.S. hit another tragic milestone: one in 500 Americans have now died from COVID. And breaking tonight, an FDA panel rejected Pfizer’s plan for booster shots for Americans 16 and older, but the panel endorsed boosters for Americans 65 and older and those at high risk of severe disease. Sabrina, I know you’re going to jump in again. Where does this leave things with the Biden administration? Because the president came out, along with his top officials, saying yes, we need to get booster shots for all Americans that are eligible. This is a much narrower decision, a much narrower recommendation.
MS. SIDDIQUI: It’s a blow to the Biden administration because just weeks ago they had announced plans to start giving out boosters to the American public in September, and they had said that most Americans would be eligible for a booster eight months after they got their second dose. We are now talking about a much smaller subset of the population, although there was some criticism from scientists within the government that the Biden administration was pushing boosters; they felt like the process has been somewhat rushed, that the data isn’t necessarily there to demonstrate the need for boosters for all Americans. They feel like it is more supportive of the idea that people who are immunocompromised, you know, in nursing homes, there’s more of a need – seniors – there’s more of a need for boosters there. And of course, there’s also been a lot of criticism that the U.S. is giving out boosters at a time when the developing world still does not have access to COVID vaccines. The U.S. is not alone in this. Israel, Italy, other countries in Europe are also looking at booster shot plans. But I think that, you know, this is certainly putting the brakes on what the Biden administration was hoping to achieve, and it remains to be seen, you know, whether there will be a new timeline for boosters. For now, it looks like only seniors will be the ones to get a third dose of the vaccine.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Jonathan, I didn’t know if I was going to bring this topic up ever in the history of Washington Week, but we are talking about Nicki Minaj –
MR. MARTIN: Yes! (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: – who is, for those at home, a famous rapper who this week tweeted about some disinformation, which is she claimed that her friend – her cousin’s friend became impotent because he got the COVID vaccine. Of course, scientists say that this is – that the vaccine has nothing to do with impotence; it does not cause that; does not have any issues with fertility as well. They’ve said that over and over again. But you also covered the California race where COVID disinformation was part of that. It’s California, it’s a very blue state, but what does that state tell us about the game plan for Democrats and Republicans?
MR. MARTIN: Well, I think in blue and purple states it tells us that Democrats are going to try to exhume the political ghost of Donald Trump, and he may be out of office, but they’re going to try and keep –
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: Put him back on the ballot.
MR. MARTIN: – keep him on the ballot the best they can. You saw Gavin Newsom do that.
Look, I think his challenge this summer was not that he was in real danger of being recalled because the sort of moderates in the state turned on him, it was the fact that the Democratic majority in the state was kind of still asleep. Well, guess what. He woke them up because he was able to put a face on the recall, Larry Elder, who was a kind of – even a pre-Trumpian talk show radio host who had like a, you know, like 10-mile-wide oppo file of, like, comments he had made over 25 years on talk radio, like, running in a deep blue state. Like, if you can’t beat him in California, like, turn in your card as a Democrat, man. But – you know?
MS. ALCINDOR: Including the fact that Larry Elder at one point said that reparations should go to slave owners. So we don’t have time for that because it’s too much –
MR. MARTIN: Yes, he did.
MS. SNELL: The minimum wage should be zero.
MS. ALCINDOR: You touched on it a bit, but Representative Gonzalez retiring says what about the road ahead? Are there really nine more to go because – and we’re talking about nine because they’re the nine Republicans who voted to impeach President Trump.
MR. MARTIN: Right, yes, so I think he is likely not going to be the last of those 10 to call it a career. It’s not clear to me who or when the others who will step forward. Keep in mind one other factor that’s driving this: reapportionment. A lot of these House members – not a lot; all of them, basically – don’t know what their seats are going to look like next year, and I think that’s the kind of thing that can solidify your decision to call it quits. But I think this is an important moment politically. I cannot recall a midterm in one party that was going to be more clarifying. This puts the sort of Tea Party versus Establishment stuff from 10 years ago to shame. I think next year the question of, can any of these anti-Trump folks in the GOP, can they survive? And if they can, it calls into question what kind of clout President Trump still has in the primary of his own party. If he’s able to run the table and beat all of them, where he’s endorsing: clearly still his party.
MS. SNELL: I think there’s still a question of if they’ll try. I think that’s the question that comes first: Will they try to stay in or will they leave voluntarily?
MR. MARTIN: Stay and fight, exactly.
MS. ALCINDOR: Zolan, you were jumping in. I’m wondering, and there are a lot of Democrats I’ve been talking to: Are Republicans going too far not only when it comes to COVID and sort of the misinformation – five conservative radio hosts have literally died after mocking the COVID vaccine – but there’s also the issue of abortion, there’s voting rights. Do you think that there’s worry inside the GOP at all that they’re going too far, and do Democrats think that they can capitalize on this?
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: There may be worry, but I don’t know about how widespread that concern is. I mean, I look at somebody like Governor Greg Abbott who is, you know, a guy who’s trying to rise in the Republican Party. That is somebody who you just talked about and – the abortion fight. You talk about him trying to replicate the Trump playbook by going to the border, by seizing on immigration, by stoking fears around border crossings as well, just like something that the former president did. I mean, it’s not just the House. Let’s be clear: It’s just not House Republicans that are trying to replicate this kind of Trump playbook here; it’s going on throughout the country.
MS. ALCINDOR: And in the meantime, President Biden is facing mounting challenges, including on immigration, as you just noted. The U.S. Border Patrol says that more than 10,000 migrants, most of them from Haiti, are being held near a bridge that connects Mexico to Texas. Zolan, tell us a little bit about what’s going on here, and what is the plan for these people?
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: Sure, sure, so what you have right now is yesterday it was about 9,000 people that were being kept under this bridge, which is on the U.S. side of the border. Just to tell you, it’s in Del Rio. That area of the border is right next to the Rio Grande. In order to cross over, you’re going to have to take a dangerous trek in an area where people – migrants, families – have died trying to cross. Just to give you a glimpse of how fast this is moving, when I talked to somebody today, they said that number had gone up to 11,000 people under the bridge, and a government official told me that.
Now, these are people that have crossed and now what CBP says, Customs and Border Protection, is that they are too overwhelmed, they don’t have – they have a lack of capacity, that they are struggling to process fast enough so that they are then going to put these people under the bridge so that they are not subjected to the heat and what have you. Now, if you look back to 2019, we saw these conditions under Trump during a similar surge and there were health incidents. I mean, this is, make no mistake, a humanitarian crisis right now for President Biden, and it will be interesting to see as well – this is a president that also has kept in two – kept in one of the more restrictive Trump border policies of Trump’s time, that being Title 42, public health authority to rapidly turn away migrants. So it will be interesting to see here whether or not and who gets to stay, who gets processed and released into the U.S., as well as the political ramifications of that.
MS. ALCINDOR: Kelsey, I want to bring you in because he’s talking about the crisis at the border but it seems that there mounting crises on the Democrat agenda. I wonder what – where you think that this is going in terms of the way that Democrats are going to prioritize what they have to do, especially when you have Senator Sinema and Senator Manchin. I was talking to senators who seem pretty angry at these two. The anger was palpable here.
MS. SNELL: Oh, certainly, and you know, actually, immigration plays into this quite a bit because they’re trying to do some measure of immigration as a part of this broader reconciliation package, and you know, the more that immigration is in the headlines, the less likely it is that Democrats are going to be able to rally votes for that. They may get a gift from the Senate parliamentarian in that it comes out of the bill without them having to do anything at all, but that’s – all of the controversial elements of this bill cannot be stripped out by the parliamentarian. They will have to deal with the political dynamics of their own party, and they have problems on taxes, they have problems on the drug pricing, they have problems on the overall cost of this bill. So it’s not just the big-picture issues of spending $3.5 trillion; it is the finer points and the pieces that make it possible to pay for $3.5 trillion of spending. So at this point they don’t seem to be anywhere near a place where they’re going to get an agreement, let alone move forward with reconciliation before this, you know, vote that’s supposed to happen on, I guess, just a few days from now on the narrower immigration – sorry, infrastructure bill. So we’re in this place where Democrats have a lot of cards on the table and no clear way to kind of pull them back together.
MS. ALCINDOR: Democrats have a lot of cards on the table and no clear way to pull them back is the most eloquent way to say Democrats have a lot of problems. (Laughter.) They have a lot of issues, but it was a very eloquent way to put it.
Sabrina, apart from all of those challenges, tonight France literally said we are pulling back, we are recalling our ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia because of this new AUKUS – it’s a mouthful, but it’s Australia, U.S., and the U.K. It’s a new defense agreement that was – that was announced this week. President Biden, of course, has said America’s back, I’m the guy who’s going to be very stable, I’m going to get all our allies that were mad at us, but then the French minister is now saying President Biden is acting like former President Trump. “Backstabbing” was a word used this week by the French, also saying that he’s unpredictable. How does this – how does this impact all that he – that the president’s trying to do?
MS. SIDDIQUI: Well, you know, I think one of the big challenges for President Biden is he came in and wanted to reset transatlantic relations, and now he is in the midst of a major spat with one America’s oldest allies. And look, this was – this deal that President Biden has negotiated with the U.K. and Australia is a major blow to, you know, a deal that the French and the Australians already had been negotiating and was a major piece of France’s own domestic ambitions, and it also – you know, it does affect France’s own regional influence in China. And the thing that this all comes back to is that so much of Biden’s own agenda comes back to trying to counter Beijing, and so they have been willing to place a priority perhaps even at the expense of U.S. allies on almost this Trumpian policy where domestic policy comes back to countering the threat from China, economic policy comes back to the threat of countering China, and so now you have this deal that’s been negotiated to try and counter Beijing’s influence in the region. But you know, we’ll have to see how the dynamics play out in the coming days. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was already trying to do some damage control, although he did indicate that France was given very little notice of this agreement and that seems to be where the challenge was, that they didn’t give France sufficient notice in the months that they were quietly negotiating this deal.
MS. ALCINDOR: We only have about 10 seconds left, but Zolan, we were sitting in that news conference where President Biden did not take questions. Talk a little bit about your reporting there.
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: Well, yeah, just real quick, I mean, I know we have a short time, but we did have an official tell us that the French were only told about this arrangement the morning, you know, just hours before the President Biden would go out with the two leaders announcement, so that definitely fueled some anger as well. And the other takeaway that should – that we should have here as well is there are going to be questions about a nonproliferation argument here. President Biden has also advocated throughout his career for nonproliferation, for denuclearizing. Now, I am still looking for an answer as to if you’re going to share materials to build submarines, that’s probably going to be highly-enriched uranium that could also go towards building actually nuclear weapons, so.
MS. ALCINDOR: And it’s a key –
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: If it’s not that, then what is it? I don’t know.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s a key question, and thank you all for this sort of crazy week, summing it all up for us. We will have to leave it there tonight. Thank you to Zolan, Jonathan, Sabrina, and Kelsey for sharing your reporting, and thank you for joining us. Don’t forget to tune in to the show next Friday. We’ll have Bob Woodward and Robert Costa joining us in studio to talk about their new book, Peril. And tune in Monday to the PBS NewsHour for our one-on-one interview with the president of Colombia as world leaders gather for the U.N. General Assembly.
Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra and on our social media and website. We’ll talk about France’s anger at the U.S. over new – over a new international agreement and the FBI’s mishandling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse case.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.