GWEN IFILL: What’s happening to this election? Is Donald Trump knocking the GOP off track, or leading it in a new direction? Tonight on Washington Week.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States – (cheers, applause) – until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.
Don’t worry about profiling. I promise I will defend you from profiling.
BARBARA WALTERS: (From video.) Are you a bigot?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Not at all. Probably the least of anybody you’ve ever met.
MS. IFILL: He steals headlines from other candidates who long for the attention.
CARLY FIORINA: (From video.) Donald Trump always plays on everyone's worst instincts and fears. And saying we're not going to let a single Muslim into this country is a dangerous overreaction.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From video.) It’s not about the blowhards out there just saying stuff. That’s not a program. That’s not a plan.
MS. IFILL: He steals headlines from the president.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That too is what groups like ISIL want.
MS. IFILL: And he’s thrown his own party into a pre-primary tizzy.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for. And more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.
MS. IFILL: But is there more at work here? And should Republicans and Democrats and everyone else be worried?
We examine this strange crossroads with Janet Hook, political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal; Ed O’Keefe, political correspondent for The Washington Post; Michael Scherer, Washington bureau chief for TIME Magazine; and Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics.
ANNOUNCER: Award-wining reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve spent the week figuring out how to have this conversation tonight. Do we focus on the candidate himself? A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows 57 percent of Americans object to Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. But Trump will be the first one to point out that, so far, this has not hurt him in the polls, where he continues to hold the lead in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Worst thing that’s ever happened to ISIS, the people in my party fully understand that. They’re running against me. For the most part, they have no poll numbers. I’m leading by a lot. They get it. They’re trying to get publicity for themselves.
MS. IFILL: So, do we focus on the words he utters which stirred such a firestorm at home and abroad?
CHERYL COVEY (Trump supporter): (From video.) Until we can get a handle on who should be here and who shouldn’t, I think something’s got to be done.
ROKAI YUSUFZAI (founder of Masjid-e-Tawheed): (From video.) Why did I come this country? Why did I build my life? For what? I could have had all this animosity back home.
MS. IFILL: All of those concerns dominated the week in politics because there is no question that, for now, Donald Trump is driving the conversation, and that his rhetoric has caused the most political dismay among Republicans, which is where we will start. How much of this is Trump being Trump, and how much of this is part of a carefully calibrated strategy, Michael?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Donald Trump succeeds when he’s breaking established rules. He knows that if you go to talk to his crowds they’ll say he’s not politically correct, he’s saying what other people aren’t saying, he’ll say what no one else will say. And so he all through this campaign says things that are intentionally provocative, intentionally divisive, that play on people’s fears. And that helps him. The question, I think, over the long term is whether there’s going to be a ceiling he hits.
And a lot of his Republican – fellow Republican candidates think he’s hitting that ceiling now, that he’s doing – he’s winning the polls right now, but he’s winning with 35 percent, or 30 percent, or 32 percent. That’s not 51 percent in the Republican Party. And it’s definitely not 51 percent in a general election in this country. Like you said, the vast majority of the people in this country are offended and disconcerted by what he’s saying.
His theory, though, is that at a time of fear, he started with immigration – you know, I interviewed him a couple weeks ago. And one of the most interesting things he said was I just had a – I have a feel for people, he was saying, about how he understands the electorate and what they want to hear. And he said it started with immigration. He talked about that initial speech he gave in which he said –
MS. IFILL: Rapists and Mexican and all –
MR. SCHERER: Right, were criminals. He said – and then that’s just moved over into terrorism. He sees it in his own mind as something that’s very similar.
MS. IFILL: A continuum actually.
MR. SCHERER: Because in both cases, he’s playing on a real insecurity that a lot of Americans have. He’s directing them to a target. He’s saying: This is the problem. He’s saying: I am the strong one. Everyone else are failures. I’m the winner. And we can solve this problem. You just got to follow me and not listen to what they’re saying.
MS. IFILL: So if you are the other Republicans in the race, and you’re going up against what is kind of a rhetorical juggernaut – say you’re Ben Carson, who was doing well not long ago, and now has kind of shown some fragility.
JANET HOOK: Right. I think Ben Carson’s been declining in the polls, not because of the way he’s responded to Donald Trump, though. It’s been more – in his case, more the shift of focus to foreign policy and national security. And he’s kind of fumbled that. But all of the candidates – the other candidates seem to have taken, you know, slightly different tacks on how do you deal with Donald Trump. The basic principle, though, is the farther down in the polls you are, the more aggressively you attack him because you don’t have much to lose. So that on the one hand you have John Kasich, who’s in the single digits, very vociferously attacking him. He ran an ad that basically compares Donald Trump to Hitler.
MS. IFILL: Suggested he might not support him if he gets the nomination.
MS. HOOK: Suggested he might – right, right. And then at the other end of the spectrum, you have Ted Cruz, who’s been treating Donald Trump with kind of kid gloves.
MS. IFILL: Well, we got access to a little audio courtesy of The New York Times of Ted Cruz trying to thread that needle, walk that tightrope, whatever metaphor you’re looking for. Let’s listen to it.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) People are looking for who is prepared to be a commander in chief? Who understands the threats we face? Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button? Now, that’s a question of strength, but it’s also a question of judgement. And I think that that is a question that is a challenging question for both of them.
MS. IFILL: Now, here’s important details here, Ed. Both of them – he’s talking about Ben Carson and talking about Donald Trump. And this was secretly recorded at a private, closed event, a fundraising event. So he’s not saying this publicly.
ED O’KEEFE: No. And in fact, in the days since this broke, I guess it’s just a day or so –
MS. IFILL: Every day is very long.
MR. O’KEEFE: It feels really long. We’re only in December. But he’s denying it publicly. And I think it will be –
MS. IFILL: Denying that he meant –
MR. O’KEEFE: Denying that he essentially said this about them. And he says, look, I respect him. He’s my friend. And, you know –
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Bear hugs.
MR. O’KEEFE: Bear hugs, whatever. And –
MR. SCHERER: There was Twitter love today.
MR. O’KEEFE: And there was Twitter love as well. What’ll be interesting is he do any of this next week on the debate stage and really try to call them out and join the others who say: You’re unfit for this Donald Trump. You’re not the one that should be our nominee.
MS. IFILL: But is Ted Cruz the alternative? That’s the other dilemma Republicans find themselves in. If they find some way for Donald Trump to slip from first place, who’s in second place?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things I thought was interesting is that, as Michael was suggesting, how did we get into this discussion with Donald Trump? We got into this discussion because Donald Trump feared that Ted Cruz was leading, was starting to lead against him. And he figured out a way to change that, to change the narrative so that his poll numbers – which we hear him talk about constantly –
MS. HOOK: Except for when they’re bad.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Except when they’re bad. But he talks about them when they’re bad too, because he denounces them.
MS. IFILL: He’s says they’re terrible if they’re bad.
MS. SIMENDINGER: They’re a terrible poll.
MS. IFILL: Today he was denouncing in advance a poll that isn’t even out yet this week in Iowa.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Right. But among Republican Party smarty-pants people, they are all thinking that Ted Cruz was on the rise, that he had evangelical support, that he was doing very well in Iowa, that this could be – he has, you know, organized well. And so Donald Trump was very aware of that element.
MS. IFILL: Is Donald Trump helping the party be energizing interest in this Republican primary, or ultimately is he hurting the party? That’s part of the discussion that was being held in establishment Republican circles as they started thinking, well, maybe we should meet and talk about what might happen if we had to have a brokered convention, which makes my head spin to think we’re talking about that so soon.
MR. SCHERER: I think if you’re asking that question in the frame of a general election, with the electorate we expect to turn out, with the electorate that has turned out in recent cycles, he’s clearly hurting the Republican Party. I don’t think you can make the argument. Now, the Trump gamble here is that he has a lot of people who love “The Apprentice” who don’t vote.
And so if he gets to a general election, he thinks he can really broaden the electorate, bring out people who are just sick and tired of politics who don’t think the political system has anything to do with them. I mean, you remember, in presidential years 50 percent of the country who can vote doesn’t vote. So there is a group there that he could tap into. It’s also true, though, that every cycle presidential candidates talk about getting nonvoters to vote. And it’s very, very difficult to do.
MR. O’KEEFE: Especially in Iowa where, you know, you have to devote an entire weeknight on a cold, dark night. You have to sit there for a few hours. These are people who don’t understand –
MS. IFILL: But this year is not like any other year. We’ve established that, right?
MR. O’KEEFE: That’s true. That’s true.
MS. IFILL: So maybe they’ll show up. We don’t know. So assuming that it’s possible that these valid snapshot polls might be predictive, is there any organized GOP pushback that we have seen?
MR. O’KEEFE: No.
MS. HOOK: Not organized.
MS. IFILL: Disorganized? (Laughs.)
MS. HOOK: Yeah, no, but the main thing is that there’s a lot of fear that any concerted, organized effort would basically – there would be a backlash of the sort like Donald Trump would then leave the party and run as an independent. And there’s nothing that would be worse for the Republican Party than him running as an independent.
MS. IFILL: Because?
MS. HOOK: Because they would then – you know, he’d split their vote and Hillary Clinton would win.
MR. O’KEEFE: Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who’s a pretty pragmatic Republican, I think that’s – he sort of tells it like it is, especially from a procedural standpoint, did an interview with MSNBC this afternoon, and was asked the question that so many other Republicans have been asked: Will you support him if he’s the nominee? And he said: He’s not going to be the nominee. And Chuck Todd shot back at him and said, why do you all say that? Flake actually was honest about it. He said, because if we say he should leave the party or we say that we won’t vote for him, he’s going to leave and he’s going to run as a third-party candidate, and we’re going to lose. Ultimately this process, hopefully, he said, will prevail and he won’t be the nominee and Trump will realize that and maybe he’ll just drop out.
MS. IFILL: It sounds so much like wishful thinking.
MR. SCHERER: Although, the clock is ticking on his third-party bid. So as they wait him out – I mean, if they can get into late January and he hasn’t yet left, there are a lot of states he won’t be able to qualify for, as a third party.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But just to add to your question about whom does it help or hurt, one of the other things we hear a lot about in Washington is if Donald Trump really goes the distance, what happens to the down ballot – you know, other candidates down on the ballot? And you started to hear a lot of anxiety, more assertively honest –
MS. IFILL: If you’re a Republican running for Senate or –
MS. SIMENDINGER: If you’re a Republican running for the House or the Senate, and you’re down – further down on the ballot, what does Donald Trump’s candidacy, if he really does go the distance – what does that do to those other candidates?
MS. IFILL: Especially if you just have to spend your time going to mosques and convincing Muslims that you actually are not biased against them.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. And that’s why you heard one Republican who’s in a tough race in Florida this week called on Donald Trump to withdraw.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Well, let’s move on and talk about the Democrats. Remember them? They actually still exist in this race. This is what they’re saying.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) When we need to be doing everything we can with people across the world to fight radical jihadists, Donald Trump is supplying them with new propaganda.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) A few months ago we were supposed to hate Mexicans, and he thinks they’re all criminals or rapists. And now we’re supposed to hate Muslims. And that kind of crap is not going to work in the United States of America. (Applause.)
FORMER MARYLAND GOVERNOR MARTIN O’MALLEY (D): (From video.) When Donald Trump said the hateful things he did about wanting to seal off the borders and prevent our Muslim American neighbors from traveling, I had to ask myself, I wonder if he’s going to begin with all of those patriotic Muslim Americans serving in our armed forces all around the world keeping us safe.
MS. IFILL: And we even heard from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: (From video.) The question now is about the rest of the Republican Party, and whether or not they’re going to be dragged into the dustbin of history with him.
MS. IFILL: So, are they sad, but secretly happy, Janet?
MS. HOOK: Well, I mean, there is a clear sense that Donald Trump would be easier to beat than some of the more electable Republican candidates. But I think that the Democrats are in the same position that we and all the Republican candidates are in, of just being kind of flabbergasted that he’s holding on for this long. And you know, there’s been a temptation to treat him as a joke, as a kind of marginal candidate. But when he says stuff like this, you kind of have to start treating him like a serious candidate who’s saying seriously, you know, troublesome things.
MS. IFILL: So, if you’re Bernie Sanders, and you are actually leading in the polls in New Hampshire, but nobody can hear it, it’s like a tree falling in the forest, what do you do?
MR. O’KEEFE: You just keep denouncing him, and you hope that the Democrats agree with you. I think – I think they are flabbergasted. They are secretly pleased at least that this tumult continues on the other side. And I think where they see the most gains, potentially, especially are in those down-ballot races. There’s – you know, there’s a good number of House seats in the South and in sort of suburban districts that could very well flip. There’s three or four Republican senators especially who would be in big trouble if he’s the nominee, because they would have to spend every day of the campaign distancing themselves from what he had just said. And you know, in a matchup right now, you looking at the polling suggests that Trump could beat Clinton, or that she would just barely beat him. We’ll see if that pans out.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s why I wonder whether Hillary Clinton isn’t beginning to view this a little bit differently. She used to laugh when his name came up – last week. That was just last week. Now, she’s saying he’s dangerous. Does that change her strategy at all in making sure she continues to get heard?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that we saw this week with Secretary Clinton is not only did she move from he’s a buffoon to he’s a danger, that also happened at the White House. In the same briefing. He was both, right? But we also saw her try to fundraise. We saw her try to get people to sign up on her campaign. We also saw her put out a kind of video ad. And the point she was making is Donald Trump is not the only extreme candidate in this race. All these Republicans are like him. They are like Donald Trump lite. And then she tried to use soundbites. So she’s trying –
MS. IFILL: To link them all together.
MS. SIMENDINGER: She’s trying out this new – it’s not really new. She tried it – she’s been trying before. She came back to it.
MR. SCHERER: I think there’s two issues for Hillary. One is in a general election I think her advisors would to have Donald Trump just because he’s –
MS. SIMENDINGER: And she’s said that.
MR. SCHERER: He is such a great base motivator for her. The question for Hillary Clinton for a long time has been whether she can turn out the same constituency that brought Obama victory twice. And if you’re talking about motivating young people, motivating African-Americans, motivating Hispanic-Americans –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Women.
MR. SCHERER: Women. On all those –
MS. IFILL: But he’s – but he’s a base motivator in a different way.
MR. SCHERER: In a different way. But for her numbers, with the numbers that they would love to get, he brings them out for her.
The second issue, though, I think that Hillary’s struggling with is she also has to run as a strong leader. She has to demonstrate to the country that she can stand up to someone like Donald Trump, because that’s a separate question. She’s being tested on her own right now. And here is this person who kind of looks like a bully out there. And she’s got to be able to not just laugh at him, but say, look, you’re wrong, and try to put him in his place. I think that’s what you saw her doing this week.
MS. IFILL: Well, someone explain to me why the White House would get involved in this, why they just wouldn’t step back and say, all on you, I have nothing –
MR. O’KEEFE: Because the whole world is watching. And the president and the administration understands, as George W. Bush understood after 9/11, that the world sees what’s going on in this country and scratches its head and goes, wait, do they all think that?
MS. HOOK: And that’s exactly right, because the thing that got the White House to step out was this statement he made about banning Muslims from coming to the United States. And you saw international reaction to it.
MS. IFILL: Including Benjamin Netanyahu saying, eh, whatever he said, whatever the conversation was, he was supposed to be going there on the 28th of December, Trump was, and now he’s not.
MR. SCHERER: And there’s also a national security issue here. There’s no doubt that the American law enforcement needs close ties working with Muslims who feel like they can talk to the American government to help defeat terrorist threats in the United States. And if this narrative takes hold that somehow the government or Republicans or any part of what America is is against the Muslim community, it becomes a real danger.
MS. IFILL: Does anybody doubt, however, that, for better or for worse, Donald Trump completely stepped on the White House message that we – it was just Sunday that the president had an Oval Office primetime speech to talk about the threat of terrorism and ISIS. That was just Sunday, less than a week ago. He delayed Monday night football. I mean, and then the very next day, people weren’t talking about it anymore – maybe by Tuesday.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And in fact, within a few minutes of the president’s address on Sunday, Donald Trump had tweeted, that was it, right? He was offering his review of it. President Obama gave a 13-minute address that was supposed to rally the nation, was kind of a pep talk about, you know, where we are and what we’re doing against the terrorist attack, and what – you know, how safe the nation is supposed to be. And as you say, with less than 24 hours, it was totally eclipsed by this –
MS. IFILL: Did the – there was lots of commentary that that was not a successful speech. Did the White House ever concede that?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, no, but the White House felt that it was nudged almost reluctantly into an address.
MS. IFILL: It had to do something.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It had to do something. And it could have – you know, the White House could have done other things. But you know, Oval Office addresses are tough, and he had nothing new to say.
MS. IFILL: OK. So let’s step back, way back, for a moment, because the most concerning thing about the week is how America has been viewing all of this – how our citizens look at this kind of rollout of a – do they just look at it as politics, and are they amused by it? Do they look at this as speaking to their deepest fears and someone is finally speaking up? Or do we have an undercurrent of intolerance and anger and bigotry that a clever and talented candidate has found a way to tap into?
MR. O’KEEFE: I thought it was best embodied by a guy I met last night in New Hampshire named Scott Hamill (sp), who’s a – works for an engineering company, and he’s a registered Republican. And he said, I was in New Jersey this week on business and I heard it, and I thought, well, it’s just Trump being Trump, he’s going to dominate the headlines for another 48 hours. And I said, well, what do you think? I mean, you’re a Republican, and here you are at an event for Jeb Bush. But, you know, what do you think? He says, look, it would be impractical to do it. You know, how would we vet all these people? How would we keep them all out? And yet, he says, we’ve got to do something, because clearly what we’re doing right now didn’t work if these people were able to do what they did.
His neighbor that he brought with him to this event, a woman named Marcia Foster (sp), sat there and said, you know, I didn’t like the way he said it, but I agreed with everything he said, in essence. Because she said, again, this is – there are people in this religion who want to come over here and kill Americans. You know, we don’t have churches telling children to go out and kill non-Christians. If this is happening in another part of the world and they’re trying to come here, we need to stop them from coming here. I totally agree with him, but I don’t like the way he did it.
So you can see the conflict in these Republicans. They either don’t like the way he’s doing it but agree with what he said, or they don’t entirely agree with what he said but they realize that somebody has to say something because whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working.
MS. HOOK: Right, because I mean, we’re in a situation right now where, Trump or no Trump, the level of fear and anxiety about terrorism is on the rise. And we might think that, OK, well, after Paris everybody was saying, well, now people are going to look at the candidate field and go for the guys with experience. Well, it turns out there are a lot of voters who think that the response isn’t to turn to somebody experienced, but to turn to somebody tough. And so – and I think you’re right, though, that the fear and the sense of what’s the possible solution does cut across party lines, though in the Wall Street Journal poll, when we polled on the question of do you support Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims, it actually – there was a big difference in the parties. I mean, there were a lot more supporters among Republicans than among Democrats.
MS. IFILL: But the Republicans were still split.
MS. HOOK: They were still split, but it was a pretty strong majority overall.
MR. SCHERER: And a majority of the country was against this plan, I was just going to say.
MS. HOOK: Right.
MR. SCHERER: I think the X-factor here is what happens over the next several months. We know that he could not have made this proposal without those attacks in San Bernardino. If there are more attacks, God forbid, over the next couple months, it could really have an effect on how this Republican primary plays out because it’s clear that Trump is very intentionally playing this card. He’s very intentionally playing to people’s fears and saying, you need a tough guy. You need – in my interview with him, I said, are you a wartime consigliere? You know, it’s that kind of –
MS. IFILL: What did he say to that?
MR. SCHERER: He kind of nodded and said yes, and then went on to talk about something –
MS. IFILL: He liked that idea.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, to talk about something totally different. (Laughter.) He didn’t – he didn’t really address the – (laughs) –
MS. IFILL: The dilemma of the Trump interview, right?
MR. SCHERER: That’s right.
MR. O’KEEFE: And yet, there were a lot of Republicans this week that said if there is another attack, the blood’s on his hands. I had several New Hampshire Republicans tell me that. They said if it happens now it’s because he took them there.
MS. SIMENDINGER: One other thing. I have been fascinated this week that pollsters are actually being able to profile who are Trump’s supporters. Who are these people? What do they, you know, believe in? What are they – and we are learning a little bit more about who they are. They’re mostly male. They’re mostly white. They’re mostly less-educated, not college-educated, right? We know that, interestingly, they’re younger, that includes younger people. And if that’s the milieu that he’s attracted, that’s also economic angst. It’s not just the safety or the national security of the nation, it’s angst about institutions, about where they stand, what’s happening with the economy, what’s Barack Obama doing.
MS. IFILL: So they turn to a tough billionaire to solve problems of economic angst?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, what did the pollsters find? What do people like about Donald Trump? They say he’s decisive and competent. They don’t say he’s experienced or that he could do any of these things. Those are interesting personality features.
MS. IFILL: And final thought.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, I would just add to that that if you listen to his stump speeches, a good third of it is still devoted to taking on China, doing better trade deals. It’s talking to these economic issues. So it’s not just immigration and terrorism. He’s really –
MS. IFILL: Yeah, he’s ringing – you know, he is striking a lot of chords.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah. The American Dream is dead, he says.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. And people – and young people really vibe on that.
We’re going to talk about it some more, but we have to go now because, as always, the conversation’s going to have to continue elsewhere: online, on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where among other things we’ll tell you what to expect in next week’s Republican presidential debate. You can find it later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with developments with Judy Woodruff and me on the PBS NewsHour. And we'll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.