YAMICHE ALCINDOR: A health crisis for the unvaccinated.
FLORIDA GOVERNOR RON DESANTIS (R): (From video.) These vaccines are saving lives.
SEAN HANNITY: (From video.) Please take COVID seriously. Enough people have died.
MS. ALCINDOR: As COVID spikes across the country, more Republicans find new enthusiasm for vaccines.
CDC DIRECTOR ROCHELLE WALENSKY: (From video.) We know that the majority of these deaths could be prevented with a simple, safe, available vaccine.
MS. ALCINDOR: And the White House ramps up its own efforts to fight the Delta variant, including debating possible new mask mandates. Plus –
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We will not let their antics stand in the way.
MS. ALCINDOR: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejects Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s choices for the January 6th select committee.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) There was a lot of love. I heard that from everybody.
MS. ALCINDOR: Meanwhile, new reporting reveals what former President Trump really thinks about the Capitol attack, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. The Delta variant is top of mind as COVID-19 cases continues to surge among unvaccinated Americans around the country. On Wednesday, in stark terms President Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalized, you’re not going to be in an ICU unit, and you’re not going to die, so it’s gigantically important that you act like – we all act like Americans that care about our fellow Americans.
MS. ALCINDOR: Still, high rates of vaccine skepticism, especially among Republicans, persist. As a result, this week a growing number of GOP voices pushed to get people vaccinated. Here’s House Republican Whip Steve Scalise.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SCALISE (R-LA): (From video.) I’ve been vaccinated, many of my colleagues have been vaccinated, and the vaccine is safe, effective, and it’s widely available all across the United States of America for anybody who wants to get it.
MS. ALCINDOR: But the GOP remains split on vaccine messaging. Many in the party continue to embrace conspiracy theories about the vaccine and the virus. In the meantime, this is fast becoming a crisis of the unvaccinated. Here’s what the Republican governor of Alabama had to say.
ALABAMA GOVERNOR KAY IVEY (R): (From video.) Folks are supposed to have common sense, but it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.
MS. ALCINDOR: So what can leaders in Washington do to get more Americans vaccinated, and will the Delta variant reverse the progress made against the pandemic?
Joining us tonight are four top reporters: Yasmeen Abutaleb, national health policy reporter for The Washington Post; and joining us here in studio, Eva McKend, congressional correspondent for Spectrum News; and Carol Leonnig, national investigative reporter for The Washington Post; and Philip Rucker, senior Washington correspondent also for The Washington Post – and Carol and Phil are the authors of the new bestselling book, number one on Amazon right now, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year.
Now, I’m so excited to dig into so much of all the things that happened this week. Yasmeen, I want to start with you. Some data suggests that the U.S. is seeing as many as 1,000 new COVID cases every hour, but today I talked to a White House source who underscored to me that people who are unvaccinated should be the most concerned about those numbers. Why are unvaccinated Americans in particular so much more at risk, and what are experts most concerned about as the Delta variant spreads?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: I think the evidence of why unvaccinated people are most at risk is in the numbers. The CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, said more than 97 percent of hospitalizations are in people who are unvaccinated, more than 99 percent of deaths are in people who are unvaccinated, so even though we’re hearing these reports of people who are fully vaccinated getting so-called breakthrough infections they tend to be much milder. They’re at very low risk of getting hospitalized or from dying. The vaccines are still highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death. So I think that when President Biden and his top advisors say this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it’s that people who are unvaccinated are still at risk of the worst effects of COVID, and they’re – you can see it in parts of the country with low vaccination rates where they’re filling up ICUs. And I think the fear with Delta is it’s by far the most transmissible variant of COVID that we’ve seen in the year and a half of this pandemic. It’s 1.5, 1.8 times more virulent than the strain that was spreading last fall when, of course, there weren’t people vaccinated and we had much less countermeasures at our fingertips. But it is highly, highly transmissible, and I think we can see that in just how much cases have climbed in just the last two or three weeks.
MS. ALCINDOR: A stark way to put it, cases climbing so much, and I want to stick with you, Yasmeen. Talk a bit about what the president is weighing as he decides how to move forward here, and might we see more mask mandates or I should say new mask mandates or new mandates when it comes to the vaccine? And I should say that we’re – I’m asking this question in the middle of the Olympics being kicked off and some athletes not even being able to go there because they got the coronavirus.
MS. ABUTALEB: This is a really difficult moment for the White House and for the administration because they’ve obviously been pushing vaccinations very, very hard since they got in office, but it’s kind of stalled out for the last couple of months because by late spring, early summer everyone who was really eager to get a vaccine had gotten it, so now they’re trying to convince people. You can see the rates of vaccination slowing down tremendously from their peak a couple of months ago. And also, this is a point where the outbreaks that we see are going to be quite regional depending on vaccination rates and social distancing measures and mask mandates, so you see a lot of large cities, states, localities reimposing indoor mask mandates. You saw L.A. County, which was the largest one, but you’re also seeing it in Washington state and New York cities that are reimposing mask mandates indoors for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. But the tricky thing for the White House when I talk to sources is that they wanted to say – they want to show that if you’re vaccinated there is some freedom from the virus, that there are perks to getting vaccinated, and if you reinstate mask mandates even for people who are vaccinated then you might dissuade people who are still on the fence. But public health experts think – a lot of them think indoor mask mandates just make sense right now, especially because Delta is so transmissible.
MS. ALCINDOR: You know, I want to come to you, Eva. Yasmeen’s talking about how transmissible this virus is, but we played the sound of the GOP finding this new enthusiasm for vaccines. Some say it’s a little bit too late, but what’s your reporting tell you about the reaction to all of this and what’s driving the GOP people like Sean Hannity and others, even though Sean Hannity might have taken a few steps back? What’s driving all of this?
EVA MCKEND: Well, it was certainly a noticeable shift; still trying to get a sense of what’s behind this and if it’s a coordinated effort. I spoke to the staff of the Senate Republican conference asking them was there some sort of memo that went out to all Republicans because –
MS. ALCINDOR: It felt like it, right?
MS. MCKEND: Yes, because they’re all singing from the same hymnal here. He said nothing from us. So still working to find out what is behind this strategy, but definitely a noticeable shift. Last week Senate Republicans beginning their news conference with this, the importance of vaccinations. And then again this week talking about vaccinations again. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talking about being a polio survivor and knowing how critical and vital it is to get vaccinated.
But they aren’t going as far – Republican leadership is not going as far as criticizing those Republicans who have not – who are casting doubt on the vaccines. I pushed Leader McConnell on this last week. He said it’s perplexing why more people aren’t getting vaccinated. And I said, respectfully, Leader McConnell, it isn’t all that perplexing. There are people in your own party who are saying that – who are casting doubt on this entire process. What are your conversations with them? Are you challenging them directly? He said he can only speak for himself.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, you know, Eva was talking about the unnamed Republicans who are casting doubt. Of course, Carol and Phil, you both wrote a book about former President Trump, who was someone who downplayed the virus. I want to start with you, Carol. Talk a bit about why former President Trump played along with these anti-vaxxers, knowing full well that he had gotten vaccinated fairly early, and that – as your reporting revealed – that he got really, really sick himself from this. What’s behind his relationship and the way that he talks about the vaccine and the virus?
MS. LEONNIG: You know, everything that happened with Donald Trump when he was president was about getting reelected and feeding his base. Not leading his base but making them appeased and pleased. And he believed that he looked weak if he suggested the virus was really serious and that you would need a vaccine. But he has waffled back and forth on this, Yamiche. He’s, like – on the one hand he wants to take credit for having given us the vaccine, you know, that he pushed for it so ardently. And he did. And on the other – just the other day he seesawed again and said, you know, I understand why people distrust the vaccine. Again, he’s playing to that base that he knows is his source of political power. But it’s a hangover, and it’s – from his presidency that imperils American lives, just as many of his decisions during the presidency did.
MS. ALCINDOR: And imperiling American lives is a great way to put it. Phil, I want to come to you. There was this analysis by The New York Times in April that found that the least vaccinated counties in the country had one thing in common: They voted for former President Trump. Talk a bit about what that tells you about the impact, and the lasting impact, of President Trump’s – former President Trump’s – his stance on the virus. And as you talked to him in your interview, he had no regrets. So talk to us a little bit about what’s going on now in the president’s mind – former president’s mind.
MR. RUCKER: That’s right. Well, Yamiche, what we saw last year, in the year 2020, was that President Trump from almost the beginning of the coronavirus tried to discredit the credibility of the government scientists and the medical experts here in Washington who were trying to lead the pandemic response. First and foremost Dr. Fauci, but also Dr. Deborah Birx, the CDC director, others in the government who were leading this response. Trump tried to tear them down, tried to sow doubt among his political supporters in the truth of what they were saying and the facts that they were presenting. And that has reverberations to today with the vaccine. So as Dr. Fauci’s out there telling everybody to get vaccinated, that they can trust the science behind the vaccine, Trump for months leading up to this moment has been creating sort of a pinata out of Fauci with his supporters. He’s made them not believe in what Fauci is saying.
And that has had this lingering effect. But when Carol and I went down to Mar-A-Lago at the very end of March to interview Trump for I Alone Can Fix It, we asked him if he had any regrets about his handling of the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died on his watch when he was president. He spread misinformation and lies about the science behind the pandemic for months. He said he had no regrets. He thought he handled the pandemic very well. He complained that he didn’t get credit from the media for all the good things that he had done. And the only regret he had from his presidency in the final year was not sending American troops into Portland, into Seattle, into Minneapolis, into Washington during the Black Lives Matter protests. He wanted a military response, and he wishes he had sent one.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s incredible. We’re going to talk more about I Alone Can Fix It – and I almost have catch my breath thinking about that that’s his only regret when you think about the fact that 600,000 Americans have died from COVID.
I want to come back to you, Yasmeen. Today when I was talking to White House officials about the week they said, look, there are some good signs. They said that when you compare this week to last week, one official told me, there are – vaccination rates are up 14 percent. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was also saying in states that had lower – the lowest vaccination rates that they saw, they were seeing good signs in those states. What are you hearing from White House sources? And are there any good signs when we see all of these different voices, including some Republicans, coming out more forcefully, telling people to get vaccinated?
MS. ABUTALEB: Well, it’s, of course, a good thing if there are more Republican voices telling people to get vaccinated. I think White House officials recognize that only so many people will listen to people like the president, and Dr. Fauci, and administration officials. Republicans need to hear from their leaders if they’re going to be convinced to get vaccinated, and that it’s safe and effective. But I think there is a lot of concern, because they think they will get to 70 percent, which was the July 4th goal, in a couple of weeks. So maybe about a month behind their initial goal, which is – which is not so bad. But I think the big concern is that Delta is well underway. They are continuing to make progress in the vaccination campaign.
But there’s only so much they can do. There is, of course, this debate about whether the CDC guidance should be updated to recommend that everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated, wear masks indoors. But outside of that, and outside of working to get more people vaccinated, there are kind of limited options at their disposal right now to deal with the Delta variant. They’re out there, of course, stressing how dangerous it is and how important it is for people to protect themselves. But I think there’s still a lot of confusion from people about what is safe, what isn’t safe depending on their vaccination status. And I think, you know, we’re seeing ICUs and emergency rooms fill back up, like we did in sort of the darkest days of the pandemic. And I think there is – there is some reason for hope, but some of it might be a little bit too late.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, a dire situation, but there is some reason for hope. That is – that’s the thesis of your reporting, and I really appreciate you coming on to share it. Thank you so much, Yasmeen, for joining us with your reporting.
MS. ABUTALEB: Thank you.
MS. ALCINDOR: Thanks. Now let’s turn to Capitol Hill and the bipartisan January 6th committee. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked the appointment of two Republican congressmen – Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana. Both lawmakers pushed to overturn the results of the 2020 election, an election that was free and fair and that did not have widespread fraud. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy fired back, pulling all five of his nominees from the committee. Here’s what McCarthy and Pelosi had to say.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) This panel has lost all legitimacy and credibility. And it shows exactly what I warned back at the beginning of January, that Pelosi would play politics with this.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) This is deadly serious. This is about our Constitution. It’s about our country. It’s about an assault on the Capitol.
MS. ALCINDOR: Eva, I want to come to you. This select committee is in complete chaos. You have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi taking an unprecedented step. You also have the GOP now calling it a sham. My question is, who won when you look at this tussle that we saw today? There are some, of course, who say Pelosi got what she wanted. But there are some who say, OK, now Kevin McCarthy can say that this is too political and that he won’t – that he shouldn’t be part of this committee.
MS. MCKEND: I don’t think either side won politically emerging from this week. Leader McCarthy now says that Republicans are going to pursue their own investigation. But, you know, we are where we are because Republicans rejected a bipartisan investigation. And so that is why – that is what necessitated this select committee. So it’s sort of a confusing argument for Leader McCarthy to make because if he wanted more input, if he wanted things to be more fair, if he wanted there to be outside voices represented, they could have agreed to something that would have had more bipartisan input. Nonetheless, we are where we are.
I will say, something that stuck out to me about this back and forth is how deeply personal it felt. He described her as a lame duck speaker of the House. You know, I know that he can almost taste the gavel it’s so close as he’s itching to be speaker of the House in 2022. But, you know, she just came back into the position in January. She’s still – there is still a well significant amount of time before the next election. So that felt, like, really insulting. But you could tell that he was also – felt disrespected by this action by her. So the entire back and forth, deeply personal.
The hearings will actually start next Tuesday. And we’ll have to see. It seems like at this point it could become more political theater. But Speaker Pelosi is doing all that she can, it seems like, for it not to be perceived that way.
MS. ALCINDOR: And one more quick follow up for you, Eva. Where does this – where does this leave Liz Cheney? She was on my mind as I – as I was watching all of this happen. What does this mean for her future? What does this mean for the future of the party, that she’s now the Republican that’s on this committee that’s become so political?
MS. MCKEND: You know, something that was really striking to me is she defended Speaker Pelosi and she subsequently described the panel as “we.” She kept saying “we,” and I was like, wow, she is in the “we” with Democrats. (Laughs.) She is no longer in the “we” with Republicans. And so we’ll have to see. Leader McCarthy did threaten any Republicans that joined that Speaker Pelosi selected for this committee that he would remove them from their committee. It seems like he is not actually moving towards that. Maybe he just sort of thinks that that will – that will make a bad situation worse for his party, and so we will have to see. But I think she’s going to be an important voice on this panel. The few Republicans across this country that do believe that this is legitimate and necessary, they’re going to be looking to her for guidance.
MS. ALCINDOR: Deeply personal and it’s – you said it’s so incredible, it is incredible to watch Liz Cheney say “we” and talk about Democrats. Phil and Carol, I’d like to play part of your interview with former President Trump for your book I Alone Can Fix It. You questioned him about January 6th and he denied that the crowd was violent.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) That was a loving crowd. They were ushered in by the police. I mean, in all fairness, the Capitol Police were ushering people in. The Capitol Police were very friendly. You know, they were hugging and kissing. You don’t see that.
MS. ALCINDOR: That, of course, is just not true. There was a lot of violence on January 6th. Five people, including a police officer, died in the attack; hundreds were injured. Since then, more than 500 people have been arrested. Phil, I have to come to you. Talk to me a bit – a bit about your interview with President Trump, more about – former President Trump – more about that. You told our producers every sentence was a lie. We covered him together. How does he continue to be in this alternate reality?
MR. RUCKER: And just to be clear, not every sentence was a lie – (laughter) – nearly every sentence, just felt that way. But Yamiche, we were there – Carol and I were there for two hours and 45 minutes talking to him about the election, about January 6th, about COVID, about all the important things that happened in the year 2020, his final year as president, and he just spun a completely alternative reality. He told us, you know, everybody knows I won the state of Arizona. Well, he lost the state of Arizona to – Joe Biden won the state of Arizona. You know, he said that there were loving people on January 6th; they were not loving. He said it was Pence’s constitutional obligation to send the electoral results back to the states. Well, it was actually his constitutional obligation to certify the results of the election, which is what he did on January 6th. You know, Trump is obviously not over his loss in the election, but when we sat down with him it was just so striking and chilling, really, that he had this sort of warped, dystopian view of reality that he kept telling himself, and that his flatterers – his aides, his allies, his friends – reinforced with him at Mar-a-Lago.
MS. ALCINDOR: Carol, I want to come to you. You told our producers you’d be happy to supply a witness list to the January 6th investigation. Who is on your list and why would you call them?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, I mean, first and foremost Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff who was there that day. Ivanka Trump, his daughter. You know, one thing Phil and I learned as part of the book was that the president was watching this almost giddy on television, enjoying this moment, and that’s pretty shocking because even before anybody broke through the glass of the Capitol they were committing felonies by breaching the perimeter, by pushing past police, by spraying them with bear spray, and he was sort of cheering that quietly in his, you know, dining room where he spends a lot of time watching television. Well, later Ivanka and Mark Meadows give themselves the assignment to try to get the president to call off the dogs. Now, they don’t do this very urgently, as Phil and I learned; it takes two hours for them to get him to say something. A president should be saying something about a violent act that’s happening at the Capitol; they knew that, they had to convince him. The two of them really have a really important insight. There are other people that day – Keith Kellogg, the vice president’s national security adviser, who was in contact with Pence at the time and knows what the president didn’t do, another shocker for me and for Phil in our reporting, which was that the president was MIA. He didn’t try to find out if Pence was safe, and as you all know because you reported this in real time with us, too, Pence was seconds away from being attacked. When he was evacuated, rioters were coming up the landing right to where he was, and thank goodness Officer Goodman steered them away. Pence was seconds from being harmed.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Phil, we talk about and you talk about this – in this book General Mark Milley, who was worried about former President Trump attempting a coup, was also talking about having to possibly fight Nazis on American soil – these would be, of course, American Nazi. What’s your reporting tell you about his fears and the military fears as President Trump was continuing to lie about the election?
MR. RUCKER: Yamiche, those fears were real and they were serious, and General Milley is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s the highest-ranking military officer in this country. He’s also a student of history and he is not a political actor, and as he heard Trump challenging the results of the election increasingly, as he heard Trump claiming that the election was rigged and stolen and telling his tens of millions of supporters out in the country that the election had been taken from them even though there was no evidence to support that, he saw parallels to what Adolf Hitler was doing in Germany in the 1930s as he consolidated power around a Nazi regime. And Milley thought that Trump, as commander in chief, could try to use the military to execute a coup to remain in power despite having lost the election, and he wasn’t alone in that thinking. The other joint chiefs – the heads of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the branches of the military – they had those same fears, and together they formed a plan of what they would do if Trump tried to issue some sort of military order that was unconstitutional or illegal or unethical, and they would have resigned one by one in a reverse Saturday night massacre, if it were. It didn’t come to that, that wasn’t required, but this just underscores how harrowing those weeks were at the Pentagon and for the highest people running our military. They thought that Trump could execute a coup.
MS. ALCINDOR: And in the 30 seconds we have left, Eva, I want to ask you, you know, the fears that Mark Milley has, General Milley has, they continue because this isn’t over, right? There are people that are continuing to have – to lie about the election and there are conspiracy theories floating through the GOP. Where does your reporting tell you – what does your reporting tell you about where this is heading?
MS. MCKEND: Well, I think that those concerns are legitimate because certainly the former president still has a grip on this Republican Party, still has a grip on Republicans in Congress, and so the test will be, as this panel meets next week and we hear this testimony and as we get further and further from the Trump presidency, if Republicans will ever sort of really challenge him in – out of concern for their own legacies and the legacy of the country.
MS. ALCINDOR: A stunning kind of situation that we have in our country. Carol and Phil, I’m so excited to be talking to you for the Extra. I want to thank all the reporters that were here tonight, including Yasmeen who’s not here right now, but there’s Eva, of course, from Spectrum, thank you so much for being here, Carol and Phil, for sharing your reporting with us. And don’t forget to tune in Monday for the PBS NewsHour as we explore the road ahead, a check in on where negotiations stand over infrastructure. Join us also for the Washington Week Extra, streaming live at 8:30 Eastern on our website, YouTube, and Facebook. We will dig into Carol and Phil’s new book I Alone Can Fix It. You will not want to miss it. And thank you for joining us.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.