ROBERT COSTA: A defiant president, a dysfunctional Congress, a divided nation.
FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIRMAN JEROME POWELL: (From video.) This is the biggest shock we have seen in living memory, and the question looms in the air of is it enough.
TREASURY SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN: (From video.) There is the risk of permanent damage.
MR. COSTA: Top officials paint a bleak picture as tens of millions remain unemployed, and the president hits the road.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s an artificial closure, and now we’re going to be able to open it up.
MR. COSTA: But Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in the states are in a bitter standoff, with billions in aid on the line.
MICHIGAN GOVERNOR GRETCHEN WHITMER (D): (From video.) We’re all Americans, and we all got to get this right and remember that one another is not the enemy, the enemy is a virus.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We start with some sobering numbers. First, an update on the health of the nation. More than 95,000 Americans have died due to the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 1.6 million confirmed cases in the United States. Next, a spike in the joblessness rate – almost 2 1/2 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, pushing the total to more than 38 million people who have sought out support. States are working to reopen, and President Trump on Friday declared churches and other places of worship essential and threatened to override states that refused to allow them to open.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.
MR. COSTA: And as the president works to fire up his base and reignite the culture war, a divided Congress sits paralyzed by dysfunction over the scope of the next stimulus. Here is a heated exchange this week between Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
SENATOR SHERROD BROWN (D-OH): (From video.) How many workers should give their lives to increase the GDP or the Dow Jones by a thousand points?
TREASURY SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN: (From video.) No workers should give their lives to do that, Mr. Senator, and I think your characterization is unfair. We have provided enormous amounts of equipment. We’ve worked with the governors. We’ve done a terrific job.
MR. COSTA: And remember, the campaign is a big part of this story. President Trump has hit the road, making stops in swing states and at times refusing to wear a mask. Polls show his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, is pulling ahead even while camped out at home. And with just 164 days until the election and with devastation in towns and cities, the question remains: What will leaders in Washington do next to address the crisis?
We begin tonight on the economy with four well-sourced and insightful reporters: Stephanie Ruhle, senior business correspondent for NBC News and an anchor for MSNBC; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for National Public Radio; and Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios.
Jonathan, begin with you. I’ve been following your reporting all week on President Trump and Leader McConnell. Tell me what’s next on what Congress will do and what the White House will do to address this economic dilemma.
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, there’s some disagreement. I mean, they’re trying to present a united front, but the fact is within the Republican conference there are differing opinions about what needs to be done, how big it needs to be, and how quickly it needs to be done. Sources who spoke to me told me that the meeting yesterday with Mitch McConnell and President Trump, the main message that Mitch McConnell conveyed to President Trump is that this next package, phase four, needs to come in under $1 trillion. As you know, Nancy Pelosi’s just passed a $3 trillion package. McConnell has set 1 million (sic; trillion) as a red line. He’s also told President Trump that he’s hearing from business owners who are telling him that the unemployment boost is making it too hard to get their workers back. McConnell has been telling Trump that the unemployment payments are actually disincentivizing people from coming back to work. So that appears to be another red line that he’s drawing. And the third thing he’s trying to do is pour cold water over the idea of a huge infrastructure package. President Trump has always been seduced by the idea of a massive infrastructure bill, and there are some in the Senate – Republican Senate, like Lindsey Graham, who actually support that. McConnell has never been a fan of this, and he’s trying to head this off before it gains too much momentum.
MR. COSTA: So, Jonathan just laid out a lot right there, and so as Washington debates all that Americans keep struggling. Earlier this week Ayesha asked President Trump about minority communities.
AYESHA RASCOE: (From video.) Mr. President, you continue to talk about helping minority communities. What specifically are you looking at to help those communities, what actions?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) So one of the things I was most proud of was the minority community and all of the work we’ve done for the minority communities. Black unemployment, Hispanic unemployment, Asian unemployment was the best ever in the history of our country. Right now we’re opening up areas and a lot of people are getting jobs. I heard some numbers yesterday that were really incredible. And I think next year is going to be an incredible year economically. You can never make up for all of the loss of life. You can never do that.
MR. COSTA: And Stephanie spoke with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo about the challenges in states.
STEPHANIE RUHLE: (From video.) Governor, what kind of tightrope are you walking as it relates to your state’s budget?
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) Stephanie, I’m not on a tightrope; I fell. I’m falling. I’m just hoping there’s a net before I hit the ground and the people of the state of New York hit the net. The net would be federal funding for state and local governments because, you’re right, I would have to cut – if I don’t get funding, what happens? I cut schools, I cut hospitals, I cut aid to local government – local governments are police, fire, et cetera.
MR. COSTA: But the Trump White House, they’re taking a hard line on state aid and unemployment benefits. Here’s my Washington Post Live interview with the president’s top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow.
MR. COSTA: (From video.) What about extending the $600 unemployment benefit? Could you support that as part of a deal?
NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL DIRECTOR LARRY KUDLOW: (From video.) One of the things we learned – this is not a traditional macroeconomic recession because of the virus story, but I think we’ve learned in the last recession – the so-called Great Recession – that increasing and extending unemployment benefits are disincentives to work. I’d rather people went back to work.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, you asked the president about minority communities. You hear Larry Kudlow there drawing another red line on unemployment benefits. What does your reporting tell you about where the White House is willing to go to help minority communities that are struggling?
MS. RASCOE: Well, when I asked President Trump that question he talked for a long time but he never really gave an answer on what specifically he was planning to do. I did talk to a White House official, Jeron Smith, who’s been a point person on minority issues and on things like criminal justice reform and Opportunity Zones, and what he said is one – that the White House is looking at a host of options, but one option in particular they’re looking at is extending Opportunity Zones, which basically give tax credits to investors who invest in these low-income neighborhoods so that the White House is looking at that. And they say that this will help to kind of give a boost to those areas that are already struggling and will be struggling even more now that the economy has completely slowed down. What critics, though, say is that a lot of that tax credit, what it has done is that it’s helped very wealthy investors, and that it hasn’t helped local residents as much; and there’s a real question of whether most of the money is going into real estate and not into operating businesses, and so how much that will help an economy that’s really kind of on ice right now.
MR. COSTA: Stephanie, you have great sourcing in the business community. How much are they leaning on Congress to not give more on unemployment benefits?
MS. RUHLE: Listen, the unemployment benefits is a tricky one because you like to say, oh, the unemployment benefits are so good people don’t want to go back to work. That’s a huge overstatement. Remember, we have a health crisis that sparked an economic crisis; we turned the economy off. So just because businesses are reopening and they’re trying to rehire their employees, this isn’t like a snow day and we can all run back outside and go back to work. We don’t have schools open. We don’t have camps open. So for working families out there, it’s not just, oh, they’re getting so much money they want to hang together; they don’t have anyone to watch their children. And they are getting more financial security being on unemployment because even as businesses are reopening, they don’t need as much of a staff. If you’re – if you work in the restaurant industry and you need tips, most likely you’re only doing takeout. So there is more financial security, but it doesn’t mean that people simply don’t want to go back to work. It’s a complicated issue.
MR. COSTA: Stephanie, just to follow up about your interview with Governor Cuomo, is the picture in New York different than the picture in, say, Nebraska? I mean, you look across the country, not every state’s having the same experience.
MS. RUHLE: Absolutely, and that’s what’s caused this economic crisis that’s now inflamed this culture war. So if you are not in one of those hotspots, you are getting angrier and angrier because you don’t feel COVID your backyard but you feel the pain of having to stay at home. You feel the pain – if you ran a small business in Nebraska and you had to have that business shut down – let’s say you ran a gift shop, a retail store – you would be getting no business, you can’t pay your rent, yet down the block there’s a Walmart or a Target that are allowed to be open because they’re considered essential businesses, but they sell a whole lot more than toilet paper and Clorox wipes. You can buy bikes and books and jewelry in those stores. So if you ran, let’s say, a small business in Nebraska, you would be getting more and more furious with your state government because you don’t get to be open or to a limited capacity. So the fact that many states haven’t been hit as hard as places like New York, that’s made this cultural divide and this anger even worse.
MR. COSTA: That cultural point, Dan, is so important, the political point. Jonathan mentioned this trillion dollars – Leader McConnell doesn’t want to go beyond a trillion dollars on the next round, but you cover the campaign so deeply. Will Republicans be forced, eventually, to buckle? We’ve seen deals in prior weeks with Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Mnuchin.
DAN BALZ: I assume we will because the need is certainly there. I think one of the things to remember about the packages that have been put together so far is that they were done very, very quickly, and I think with a – with a sense that this was not going to be as elongated as it has turned out to be. And as Stephanie says correctly, it is a very complicated process about reopening. And so in trying to design the next phase of the support, I think everybody is, to some extent, backed in traditional corners and not thinking about what they need to do that is different in structure and in support than they did the first time around. But they will have to come together because if you listen to Fed Chairman Powell, he’s made clear, as have many economists, that the pain is going to be longstanding; that this is likely to be a slow recovery, and that if nothing is done it could be terribly, terribly damaging to businesses and to individuals.
MR. COSTA: And Dan, what about the debt issue and deficits? Is that even part of the equation in American politics anymore?
MR. BALZ: Well, as a voting issue, Bob, it is not. It has not been for some time. And I think one of the things that’s happening is that a lot of people who have talked about it as an issue of concern have had to revisit it, in part because we have – we have considerably grown the size of the national debt over the period of the Trump administration, and yet because of low interest rates service on that debt is not that high and the United States is still able to continue borrowing. So as an issue, I don’t think it is a dramatic issue. There are conservative Republicans who still talk about it and still talk about it as if it is something that is going to have to be dealt with, but in the middle of this crisis I think everybody has kind of put that to the side as something that, well, we’ll have to deal with that down the line; we have to deal with right now the problem of people being out of work and businesses being shuttered.
MR. COSTA: But back to this culture war question, Jonathan. What’s the real story here with the president’s decision today to make this announcement about churches and places of worship being an essential gathering place? Was this something he’s ready to enforce with the Department of Justice or not?
MR. SWAN: Well, it’s part of – you have to see it in a – in a larger picture. Obviously, there’s a political – a huge political dimension to it, and it’s not just about his base, about Evangelicals. It’s also a much bigger campaign strategy that they’re following. What they’re trying to do is create a contrast with Joe Biden. And this is not my opinion – this is from talking to people who are close to the president who are talking to him about this – they are trying to create a situation where President Trump is the candidate – the incumbent, but really the candidate of reopening, of action, of dynamism, getting out there, no mask, you know, striding boldly into this reopened future, and you know, they’re going to keep hammering. I expect they’re going to make this a point in some of their advertising, of Biden, you know, hiding away in his basement, et cetera, et cetera. And one thing they’re already talking about privately is the optical contrast of the conventions. So they’re sort of salivating over this idea of having a Republican convention that’s much more in person, with people packed in – not packed in, but you know, to the largest extent possible – and Democrats doing a more virtual convention; again, same theme. There are huge risks involved in this strategy, one of them being Trump is – if you look at the polling data, he is – he is slipping among seniors, among senior voters, and Dan would have more, you know, detail and insight on that than I do. But it’s very clear to anyone looking at those polls Trump is not doing well against Biden with seniors, and they’re the group most vulnerable. So it’s a huge – it’s a huge risk.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, you’ve piqued my interested because you’re so right; the campaign, it hovers over everything. So let’s dig a little deeper into the campaign right now. Former Vice President Joe Biden, he sparked controversy on Friday with comments he made to a radio talk show host about African American voters torn between him and President Trump.
CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: (From video.) It’s a long way until November. We got more questions.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) You got more questions. But I’d tell you, if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black.
CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: (From video.) It don’t have nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with the fact I want something for my community. I would love to see you –
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Take a look at my record, man. I extended the Voting Right(s) Act 25 years. I have a record that is second to none.
MR. COSTA: Former Vice President Biden later walked back those comments and said he, quote, “should not have been so cavalier.” Ayesha, what did this moment, this episode reveal about the Biden campaign?
MS. RASCOE: It revealed that they have a lot of work to do with the former vice president and how he’s able to talk about these issues. The African American part of the electorate is a huge part of the Democrats’ base, and you need to be able as the Democratic nominee for president to talk about these issues, to talk about race and to talk about your record, and especially when you have a record as long as Joe Biden’s to explain maybe your evolution and the changes that you might make or things that you might do differently now. For him to get caught up and to question people’s blackness in – you know, or to say that he was kind of joking, like, that is something that will need to be addressed, and this is something that he’ll have to talk about. It doesn’t mean that – I don’t think that this is going to maybe soften his support from African Americans, but it is something that he’s going to have to address – how do you talk about these issues.
MR. COSTA: Stephanie, get in here. I can see you’re wanting to jump in.
MS. RUHLE: OK, but you know what else he did today? He made news. And had former Vice President Biden given a thoughtful, mature explanation, which would have been the correct answer, do you think we would be talking about it right now? The answer is no, and President Trump, with his three-word slogans and the over-the-top things he says, good or bad, control the narrative. And Joe Biden has to figure out how to get into that narrative, and so while his word choices were not the best choices he is trying to inject himself and get people to pay attention, and we’re paying attention.
MR. COSTA: Dan, what’s your view? What does your reporting tell you? You’ve been covering campaigns for decades.
MR. BALZ: A couple of things, Bob. One was this was – this was not a smart statement, to put it mildly. It is not the right of any white person to tell black people whether they’re black or not, and I think the vice president – the former vice president and his team realized fairly quickly that this was a mistake, and that if they didn’t deal with it right away it could become a more serious mistake. I think it could have implications – I’m not predicting this, but it could have implications on his choice of a vice president. But you know, beyond this, in talking to people who are involved in the Biden campaign, I mean, one of the things they see is that in this period when people are saying he needs to get out of the basement and he needs to engage more, what they’ve seen is that President Trump – as Jonathan mentioned, President’s Trump’s approval rating on handling of the coronavirus has gone from slightly positive to notably negative. I mean, in one 538 summary I looked at today, it had gone from two points positive to 10 points negative. There’s other polling that underscores that. So if you’re the Biden campaign, you have to say the president is doing all of these things and, in fact, he’s going backwards while we are sitting here being criticized for not doing much but we’re holding our own, and in many of the battleground states he has a slight lead. So their view is they are not going to engage in the traditional way with President Trump. They hope that he will be able to – as one person suggested to me, to be model presidential behavior, which is to say when he goes out he’ll wear a mask and do things like that. But they feel at this point – they’re not taking anything for granted, certainly, but they feel at this point that Trump is hurting himself.
MR. COSTA: To that question of whether the president’s hurting himself, Jonathan, I don’t want to forget about your reporting this week on the dismissal of the inspector general at the State Department. Is there any concern inside the White House that they will pay a political price for these kinds of moves, and Secretary of State Pompeo, not only his situation with the IG, but having these big Madison fancy dinners in Foggy Bottom?
MR. SWAN: It’s not so much those episodes that concern them. The thing that I – if you’re talking about concerns in the White House and the political team around Trump, the thing they are most concerned about consistently is what I mentioned earlier, which is the polling among seniors. They are quite disturbed by the slippage in President Trump’s numbers among seniors and how – the extent to which Biden is outperforming Hillary Clinton, her performance among that age groups in November 2016. They’re not panicking because it’s May and we’re in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic and Great Depression unemployment numbers, so it’s not the best time in the world to take a snapshot of the electorate, but they are concerned about that because if these numbers hold, I mean, you’re in real trouble. You can forget about all the other little nuances, about digital campaigning and, you know, did he go too far with Rick Grenell, et cetera. There’s something much deeper than that going on, which is what they’re worried about.
MR. COSTA: Are they also worried, Ayesha, about losing the Senate majority? I mean, if they’re having a problem in the White House with senior voters, I’ve had my own reporting show concerns across the board in the GOP.
MS. RASCOE: I think right now with the president’s response to the pandemic and the way that right now it’s being panned in the polls, that has to be a concern, as you said, across the board. At this moment I think there is a sense for the White House that the way to get ahead of this is to get the economy going again, get everything running again, get things up and going, but it seems like when you look at the polls what people are concerned about is their health and being safe. And a lot of times when you look at the polls, the majority of people say they support social distancing, they want – you know, they’re not itching to get out and go to restaurants and do all of these things again because they want to make sure that they’re healthy and they’re safe. And the White House seems to be struggling with meeting that dynamic, and that could have real implications, you know, all around for the Senate.
MR. COSTA: Stephanie, follow up on that.
MS. RUHLE: And the White House thinks one of the reasons they can help those businesses open and get the economy going is potentially if they put together this liability shield so businesses won’t face any liability risk if customers or employees get sick, and we know small businesses and large are concerned about that. If you ran a small gym you might say, you know what, my margins are low; I could lose everything if I open and I risk getting sued. But on the other hand, if this administration is able to move forward and give that liability protection, then think of all those businesses – if you’re an employee, if you’re a customer, knowing that that business only has to think about their bottom line, not your safety, you might think again about going.
MR. COSTA: Final thoughts, Dan, in the closing minute about where this campaign stands?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, it stands where it has stood for some time, which is the – Biden is leading in the national vote but we learned in 2016, again, that the national vote doesn’t elect a president. The battleground states are pretty clear. There’s probably half a dozen true battleground states. It is very competitive in those places. Both sides say they want to expand the map, but I think in the end those handful of states will be the ones that determine it. There’s one other area, picking up on what Jonathan said, where the Trump campaign probably should have some concern, and that is voters who have an unfavorable opinion of both candidates. In 2016, Donald Trump won that constituency over Hillary Clinton. Right now the indications are that Joe Biden is winning that constituency over Donald Trump, so that’s another area of concern for them.
MR. COSTA: Dan, you got my attention with that. I have a story to tell in the Extra about that point, but that’s it. That’s all the time we have for tonight. Many thanks to Stephanie Ruhle, Dan Balz, Ayesha Rascoe, and Jonathan Swan. You took us as close to the news as we could get this week. And if you’d like a little more, check out our discussion on the Extra, which is on our website and social media. We’ll talk about the campaign and Biden’s search for a running mate. And ahead of Memorial Day Weekend, we want to express our deep gratitude for all the Americans who serve our country on the battlefield or in our hospitals.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.