AMNA NAWAZ: The president makes his case for four more years.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we will allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.
MS. NAWAZ: As Americans wrestle with another police shooting of a Black man.
JACOB BLAKE: (From video.) They shot my son seven times – seven times – like he didn’t matter.
MS. NAWAZ: The Republican National Convention rallies around the message of law and order, but as thousands arrive in Washington calling for racial justice and the number of Americans killed by the coronavirus tops 180,000, the Democratic ticket pushes back.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) Donald Trump has failed at the most basic and important job of a president of the United States: He failed to protect the American people, plain and simple.
MS. NAWAZ: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, substituting for Robert Costa, Amna Nawaz of the PBS NewsHour.
MS. NAWAZ: Good evening. I’m Amna Nawaz. Welcome to Washington Week. Robert Costa is off tonight.
Republicans wrapped their unconventional convention on Thursday with President Trump pummeling Democrats and presenting himself as the defender of American values.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens.
MS. NAWAZ: The convention shattered longstanding norms and violated ethics law. The president used the White House as a political stage, issuing a pardon and naturalizing citizens for the cameras. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, several speakers downplayed the virus threat – some promoted questionable public-health information; others fired new rounds in the culture war being waged across the country. Vice President Mike Pence took aim at Democratic nominee Joe Biden, blaming him for protests in American cities.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) Joe Biden would double down on the very policies that are leading to violence in America’s cities. The hard truth is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.
MS. NAWAZ: Meanwhile, First Lady Melania Trump shared a rare personal reflection on the president, claiming he is best for the country.
FIRST LADY MELANIA TRUMP: (From video.) We all know Donald Trump makes no secrets about how he feels about things. Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve from our president. Whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking.
MS. NAWAZ: Joining us tonight with more insight on the week are four top national reporters. Maggie Haberman is White House correspondent for The New York Times. Errin Haines is editor at large for The 19th. Weijia Jiang is White House correspondent for CBS News. And Dan Balz is chief correspondent for The Washington Post.
Welcome to you all. And Weijia, let’s start with you because you are out there traveling with the president in New Hampshire at his rally tonight and the story going into the week from the Democrats last week was this is a nation in trouble with the pandemic, the economy, and uncertainty ahead. You’re with the president and his team. Do they think that they changed that storyline?
WEIJIA JIANG: Amna, it is incredibly loud or just was because the crowd was cheering for the president, but I can tell you that what we heard tonight, what he’s talking about right now is really an extension of what he presented during his acceptance speech yesterday on the South Lawn. And you know, the campaign promised that he would deliver an optimistic message, an aspirational message, but because he focused so much on Joe Biden in order to draw that contrast it really has been a long string of dire warnings to Americans about what kind of the country they would live in if the Democrats were to win. And so instead of focusing on his priorities and focusing on Biden’s, it’s really not necessarily a hopeful tone but rather one that sends, you know, stark warnings about what could be, basically saying that Joe Biden will demolish everything that you know and love about American life.
MS. NAWAZ: Errin Haines, pick up where Weijia left off there. When you think back to the message delivered from the RNC stage each night, the topics they focused on, the voices they chose to elevate, who was the audience they were speaking to? Was it just the base, or was there an effort to open the door a little wider?
ERRIN HAINES: Well, Amna, I think that who the president was speaking to was his America. You know, the president talked about the Founding Fathers and this country’s history as mostly White and mostly male. You know, the two Americas were really on display, the dual pandemics of coronavirus and racism largely not happening in the president’s America. You had Joe Biden saying that he had talked with the family of Jacob Blake this week while the president didn’t even mention Jacob Blake, nor did he address the systemic racism around policing that has had protesters in the streets for weeks, instead choosing to focus on things like cancel culture and, you know, the threat of looters and violence that is the minority of the activity that is going on amid the social unrest across the country.
MS. NAWAZ: And Maggie, when you look at the location for that speech, where those remarks were delivered from, it caught a lot of attention. We’ve never seen the White House used in that way. The president even referenced it directly, saying we are here and they are not. The lines are so blurred between the campaign and the administration. Was there any consideration or conversation around that from the Trump team and the campaign before that speech?
MAGGIE HABERMAN: Look, there certainly was an awareness that they were doing something that no president has done and no president has done for a reason. No president has sought to use what is really the people’s house to suggest it’s their own home. The president literally did that last night. The president is not subject to the Hatch Act, but certainly the staff members who work for him who were involved in aspects of setting this up are subject to the Hatch Act. However, it’s unlikely to come to pass or to be enforced here in any way, and the president likes thumbing his nose at this. Look, if President Obama or President Clinton or President Bush had done something similar, they would have been destroyed for it – Obama and Clinton by the conservative media, and that media would have been correct. So the president did something that he knows is so shattering of – you know, for all of the norms he has busted, this took it much further than what we’ve seen before. He is playing to an image of, you know, the force of the presidency, and he wants people to see that. Whether that is going to be enough for people to come around to his side given where his poll numbers are I think is a – is a big question.
MS. NAWAZ: Dan, let me ask you about some of the messages the president delivered in that speech because it’s not uncommon at a convention, right, to do some storytelling, but there wasn’t a lot of policy. There were a lot of big ideas, a lot of the ideas that are feeding into these culture wars that we mentioned earlier. Even among Trump supporters, though, some of the top issues are things like the economy, so was it worth it for the campaign to spend that much time on those kinds of issues that aren’t top of mind for most?
DAN BALZ: Well, I think, frankly, that he believes clearly that it is worth the time to spend doing what he did rather than outlining policy, although I have to say this speech sounded in many ways more like a State of the Union address than an acceptance speech or a campaign speech. There was so much in it, it ran 70 minutes; it was only six minutes shorter than his 2016 speech. But he did have an opportunity to tout accomplishments that he thinks people don’t give him enough credit for. He did talk a little bit about a second term. But the bulk of the speech was to deliver a very harsh message about Joe Biden and a very harsh message about law and order in this country and what that would mean if Biden is elected. And it – you know, it is a gamble, but I think as somebody said to me today they did what they felt they had to do at this convention in order to start to move the campaign back in his direction.
MS. NAWAZ: And some of that messaging, of course, was that only President Trump can move the country forward. So even as Republicans predicted better days ahead, the nation is still grappling with multiple crises: Today, thousands marched in Washington calling for racial justice just days after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake in the back at least seven times; Hurricane Laura devastated parts of the Gulf Coast this week; and the pandemic has now claimed more than 180,000 American lives. Even as Republicans rallied around President Trump, Democrats continued to hammer him. Here is vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) Donald Trump has failed. You see, at its most basic level, Donald Trump doesn’t understand the presidency. He thinks it’s all about him. Well, it’s not. It’s about you. It’s about all of us, the people.
MS. NAWAZ: Democrats are now also planning to hit the campaign trail in the coming weeks. While Harris spoke from Washington, Joe Biden said this week he will campaign in person in battleground states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, after Labor Day.
Weijia Jiang, I want to bring you back in here now because one of the lines we hear most often from the president when he is attacking Joe Biden is that Biden is hiding in the basement. The announcement that Biden will now hit the road – does that take some of the power out of that punch?
MS. JIANG: Well, we heard sort of, you know, what the president is going to continue saying – until we actually see Biden emerge and hold events in person – and tonight President Trump said, “He’s still in the basement,” and you know, he’s not going to start doing anything for another ten days, which is a lifetime during this campaign season. And so that does buy him more time to continue to attack Joe Biden and to sharpen that attack.
But, you know, at some point he will have to face the reality that the vice president – the former vice president will be, in fact, meeting with people and really gearing up to meet him face to face for their first debate.
But I don’t think we should expect Mr. Trump to stop that line of attack any time soon because he really feels it works for him because it’s a way that he can also attack Biden’s mental fitness, which we have heard time and time again, as well.
And so I think part of this is also understanding who else the president is speaking to, and it really is those moderate voters in swing states who he wants to know, you know, that he’s the only one who has the capacity to make sure their lives are protected as they know it. And that’s why he is going all in with this law and order persona. That’s why he is not acknowledging the root of the unrest; instead, focusing on the protests and the riots that have emerged as a result.
MS. NAWAZ: Dan Balz, I want to ask you about this. As we mentioned those states – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona – the Democrats lost those – a wider margin in Arizona. In less than a minute, can you tell me what is the Biden-Harris plan? What’s the message that they are carrying into those states?
MR. BALZ: The message that they are going to carry is that the problem that we are seeing at this point is in Donald Trump’s America. I mean, one of the issues about the law and order argument that Donald Trump has made consistently is that he will be able to stop this. But this is happening under his watch. And I think that one of the arguments that we are hearing already from Vice President Biden is that Donald Trump has actually made things worse. Donald Trump has divided the country. Donald Trump has torn the country apart, and that if you want to get back to a more peaceful America, part of the answer to that is to elect Joe Biden and not to reelect Donald Trump. So that’s part of the argument that they are going to carry into these states.
But again, in talking to people today, there is a sense on the part of both some Democrats and Republicans that Vice President Biden will need to walk a careful line about this; that he may need to be more forceful in talking about the violence and denouncing the violence. So he’s got two audiences he’s got to worry about, but I think his main focus will continue to be that Donald Trump is the divider and cause of the main problems.
MS. NAWAZ: Dan, that message that you mentioned – law and order – it was a central theme at the Republican Convention. While that was happening, protests calling for racial justice unfolded in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the aftermath of the shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back at least seven times by police. Blake’s family says he is unlikely to ever walk again.
Two protesters were later shot and killed, allegedly by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse. He’d spoken to the conservative website, the Daily Caller, moments before the shooting, telling them that carrying a rifle to protect local property was, quote, “part of my job.”
And I want to ask Errin about something you mentioned earlier, which was the fact that Jacob Blake’s name – even though this shooting happened on Sunday – really didn’t even come up at the Republican National Convention until a few days in. Did that surprise you? Did you expect someone to mention it sooner?
MS. HAINES: Well, you know, given that there was attention paid to the protests, although that attention was focused, as others have mentioned, on looting and violence, you know, and given that the president is touting his record on criminal justice reform, you would think that there could have been some recognition of, you know, the national reckoning on race that is happening, again, on his watch this summer. But that isn’t something that happened, and I think that that actually is in keeping with the racial playbook that this president has been operating under, you know, that got him elected in 2016, that he used again in 2018, and that we’ve already seen him using in this campaign and headed into November.
Listen, you know, the president is – you know, the messaging that he is using is really aimed at energizing his base. It is not a message that is really aimed at expanding the electorate, even though you did see kind of a parade of Black people in the lineup for the RNC this week. That is not reflective of his administration. That is not reflective of the electorate that got him into office. We know that Black voters overwhelmingly rejected this president in 2016 and are not necessarily inclined to vote for him in any large numbers headed into 2020. Racism is on the ballot for a lot of the Black voters that I talk to and, you know, them not hearing anything from this president in the way of empathy or understanding around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, or others, is not surprising to them.
And so I think the difference for those voters in particular is going to be whether a Biden-Harris ticket – how responsive they are could make the difference between those voters being galvanized to really turn out for them in the numbers that are going to oust an incumbent president in general, and this president in particular, or whether those people stay home.
MS. NAWAZ: Maggie Haberman, the president comes back to the White House, and the words, “Black Lives Matter” are now painted in the nearby street. There were historic marches here in the nation’s capital today. They continue – protests continue in cities across the country, and yet, even during the convention, the president was talking about law and order. The president had athletes – Black athletes, as Errin just mentioned – other Black Republicans coming in, talking about the fact that he is the right leader for this moment.
There is a dissonance there that is clear. Is that sustainable in the weeks and months ahead?
MS. HABERMAN: Look, a big difference between 2016 and now is that there is an expectation that Black voters will turn out in bigger numbers than they did last time, and that they are more motivated to vote after seeing this president in action for four years, seeing his policies, and seeing what he says, and hearing what he says.
And the consistent thing between 2016 and now is that the president has talked about law and order. It was a defining theme of his convention in 2016; it’s a defining theme now. I think a problem for him, as Dan correctly said, is that the Biden folks are going to highlight that this is – he is the president right now, not Joe Biden. And Joe Biden said as much this week.
But I do think that, look, the president – a lot of what we saw in terms of them focusing on Black voices during this convention was less about, frankly, appealing to Black voters than it was about reassuring suburban White voters and women who have recoiled from the president’s language – and in some cases his policies – to try to convince them to come back and vote for him.
You know, I frankly don’t expect that to be a consistent theme that the president articulates; I do expect it to be a consistent theme his campaign tries to push. But as we have often seen, there is a split between how the president conducts himself on the trail and what his campaign would like him to be doing.
MS. NAWAZ: Dan, we’ve heard Joe Biden accuse President Trump of fueling the flames of the unrest, saying he’s leveraging these protests for political advantage.
When you look at a small, Midwestern city like Kenosha, when you look at a place like Wisconsin, does turmoil in the streets there actually help the president?
MR. BALZ: Well, we’ll have to see what transpires. You know, there has been some evidence that there has been at least some shift in public opinion away from broad support for the Black Lives Matter movement. What we saw after the George Floyd killing, obviously, was just an outpouring of support, and the poll numbers moved significantly and have been moving significantly. We’ll have to see whether that begins to move away from support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the same time, what I’ve been told a number of times is that that doesn’t necessarily change the attitudes of people toward President Trump, and so there is – there continues to be a perception on the part of lots of Americans – the majority of Americans – that there are serious racial problems that have been left unattended and need to be attended to. So we don’t know at this point what this country is going to look like in late September or mid-October when people are actually casting their votes. If there is continued violence in the streets, certainly the president will do everything he can to point to that and warn that it would get worse under Biden, but it is – it is a bit of a heavy lift.
MS. NAWAZ: Weijia, you are out there with the president and his team traveling. There’s a rally there in the background, so we hope you can still hear us. But we’ve heard again and again from both the president and Joe Biden last week at the DNC this election is historic, it matters, that right now there is a battle for the soul of the country. We’ve only got a minute and a half left, but when you talk to the voters out there, do they see it the same way?
MS. JIANG: The voters here do, and the voters at Trump rallies do. These, you know, are the people who are at the core of his base, and he feels the energy from them, he responds to them, and when we talk to voters they do hear the president’s very stark warning that everything that he stands for is at stake because I think the campaign and certainly President Trump himself have done an effective job at painting these contrasts and portraying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as these left radicals who will, again, tear apart everything that they believe in, and so – when you come to these rallies, certainly. But again, it’s not necessarily these voters who attend who – that they really want to focus on; it’s those people who have not decided. And there’s still a lot of time between now and November, and the campaign thinks as they continue this message that they’ll be able to court some of those people.
MS. NAWAZ: There is still a lot of time, indeed. And that is it for tonight for this conversation. Many thanks to the reporters for joining us tonight – that’s Maggie Haberman, Errin Haines, Weijia Jiang, Dan Balz. Thank you all very much for your time.
And thank you all for joining us as well. We’re sorry we have to leave you a little bit earlier this week. It’s so you can support this show and your local PBS station. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and on our website.
I’m Amna Nawaz. Good night from Washington.