Full Episode: Health, Taxes and Birtherism: The debate over transparency on the campaign trail

Sep. 16, 2016 AT 9:26 p.m. EDT
After building his political brand questioning President Obama's birth certificate, Donald Trump declared Friday that Obama was "born in the United States." The new position came during a week when both presidential candidates faced questions of transparency. After Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia, she and Trump released new details about their health, but Trump faces ongoing questions about his tax returns. Plus, a new census report showed good news for the American economy.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: She calls him a loose cannon. He calls her disrespectful. In between, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump talk the economy, child care, and each other’s health. Another dizzying week in politics, tonight on Washington Week .

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) The next 53 days will shape the next 50 years.

DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s time to free ourselves from the baskets that politicians try to put us into, and always have put us into.

MS. IFILL: What a week! The birther debate was back. Both candidates – one 70, one 68 – were forced to prove they are healthy. And the president took to the trail.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) If you’re serious about our democracy, then you’ve got – you’ve got to be with her. She’s in the arena, and you can’t leave her in there by herself. You got to get in there with her.

MS. IFILL: If you thought this election could not get any more unusual, you were wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (From video.) It’s just kind of a weird time, a weird election. Sort of sad in a sense, I guess, tragic. But mostly it’s just weird.

MS. IFILL: But listen closely, past the talk of birtherism and who started what, and you might just hear policy being debated.

MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Under our plan, the economy will average 3.5 percent growth and create a total of 25 million new jobs.

MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Fighting for kids and families. That’s been the cause of my life. It will be the passion of my presidency.

MS. IFILL: Even as the head-to-head polls steadily tighten.

Covering the week, John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics; Jim Tankersley, economic policy correspondent for The Washington Post ; and Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning 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. If you were thinking that this campaign is playing out like a reality show, let me make a different suggestion – a game show: Truth or Consequences. You remember that one? By now it has become almost cliché to say that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are challenged when it comes to transparency. By this time last week, Clinton had already been diagnosed with pneumonia. But we didn’t hear of it for another 48 hours, and only after video captured her nearly collapsing in public. Today, she tried to make the best of it.

MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) As the world knows, I was a little under the weather recently. The good news is, my pneumonia finally got some Republicans interested in women’s health.

MS. IFILL: As for Donald Trump, we knew even less about his health, his finances, and his oft-stated belief that the president was not born in the U.S. Now his doctor says he is healthy, but he still refuses to release his taxes. Today, he said belatedly, and with none of the gusto he’s used for years to promote the opposite, that the president was, indeed, born in the U.S. This was then.

MR. TRUMP: (From video.) He gave a birth certificate. Now all we have to do is find out whether or not it was real.

Show his birth certificate. I think he probably –

WHOOPI GOLDBERG: (From video.) Why should he have to?

MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Because I have to and everybody else has to, Whoopi.

I want him to show his birth certificate. There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.

If he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility, then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.

MS. IFILL: This was today.

MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.

MS. IFILL: So, tonight we don’t necessarily want to focus only on which candidate is more transparent. We want to talk about those truths and the consequences. John, is that a reasonable measure?

JOHN HARWOOD: Yes. And the birther controversy was untrue from the get-go.

MS. IFILL: A perfect example.

MR. HARWOOD: It’s a perfect example. It was never in serious doubt by serious people who looked at the facts, that President Obama was born in Hawaii. Donald Trump spread that, nevertheless. He built a national political profile on it. He said something that wasn’t true today in ending – trying to put a punctuation mark on it today, because he said Hillary Clinton started the birther controversy. That is not true. There were some allusions to Barack Obama’s upbringing and whether or not he was – had American roots as deep as Hillary Clinton, and emails her staff sent to each other, or one that a volunteer forwarded –

MS. IFILL: But he –

MR. HARWOOD: Hillary Clinton herself never did any of this.

MS. IFILL: And he didn’t end it, either. He kept it going after 2011.

JEFF ZELENY: Well, if he would have ended it, I would have thought he would have taken credit for ending it at the time. But the reality is he only talked about it today because it’s 53 days before the election, and suddenly it is politically not wise for him as he tries to expand a little bit. But his line saying – if you fact check that one sentence today, he had a couple falsehoods. As John said, she didn’t start it. But he didn’t end it.

The president finally, reluctantly, before his reelection put out his long-form birth certificate – you know, and then has joked about it over the years here. But Donald Trump as recently as, you know, a few months ago has started talking about it again. And as recently as this week, to The Washington Post , would not answer the question, which is why it was being discussed today. So he was on the verge of – just when you think – just when Republicans think he’s on the verge of kind of normalizing, this happens.

MS. IFILL: Well, and that gives Hillary Clinton an opportunity to raise the bar higher than he will go, which is to say he should apologize to the president, which she had to know was not in his nature to apologize to the president.

Now, speaking of what’s in his nature, let’s talk a little bit about what he did just maybe an hour ago tonight here – Friday night – in Washington. He wasn’t in Washington, but he was making an observation he makes a lot about gun control, which is that, you know, you take away the guns, only the criminals will have the guns. Except, this is the way he put it.

MR. TRUMP: (From video.) I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons. They should disarm, right? (Cheers.) I think they should disarm immediately. What do you think, yes? Yeah. (Cheers.) Take their guns away, she doesn’t want guns. Take their – let’s see what happens to her.

MS. IFILL: OK, there’s a couple things there. Where do we begin? One is that she doesn’t say take their guns away, Alexis. And the other is, that last line – she what happens to her – sounds like an assassination threat.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that’s interesting about this is, is this an effort to watch Donald Trump kind of meander back to the old Donald Trump? That was a question that was being asked today. Is this his effort to move away from the fire he started earlier today with the comments about the birther? Is this an effort to put the onus back on Hillary Clinton in some form or fashion about Second Amendment, with the base of his supporters? You know, with Donald Trump, you can ask a million questions about this and, you know, he might have an explanation for this tomorrow in a different way. But it was clearly interpreted as almost inviting violence toward her.

MR. HARWOOD: I’ve got an idea for why he might have done it, though.

MS. IFILL: Go ahead.

MR. HARWOOD: Look, Donald Trump, when he’s interacting with a crowd, likes to do things and say things to engender a reaction that makes him feel good. I don’t think it particularly made him feel good to stand up and say: Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.

MS. IFILL: I think you could kind of see that in his delivery.

MR. HARWOOD: I think you could see it. I think it was something that after he said what he said to Robert Costa of The Washington Post the night before, the political pros on his team told him he had to do this. He’s got to add voters, and this is one way they thought to do it.

MS. IFILL: So he waited to the end of a long, very celebratory news conference at which he was praised by –

MR. HARWOOD: That’s right. So he did this, it didn’t feel good. And I think when he got in front of that crowd he was getting feedback that he liked, and he let it rip, just like he let it rip the time a few weeks ago when he said, oh, maybe the Second Amendment people can do something about Hillary.

MS. IFILL: OK. But the other thing it changes the subject on is other weaknesses, which is the consistent questions about his taxes, Jim, and whether he will ever, ever reveal what he earned, what he spent, what he gave to charity, and what he’s paid in taxes to the federal government.

JIM TANKERSLEY: I mean, Trump has had so many controversies in this campaign that we have, like, forgotten some of these. And this is one of them.

MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) This is one of them.

MR. TANKERSLEY: In any other campaign, a candidate would be hounded by the media –

MS. IFILL: Well, he hopes we’ve forgotten about that.

MR. TANKERSLEY: – constantly about this.

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MR. TANKERSLEY: But he has been giving shifting – he and his associates have been giving shifting reasons why he won’t release his taxes. He’s under audit, which he says. But then also, maybe that people couldn’t understand it. Maybe they couldn’t handle it. Maybe there’s something in there. But the question is, what is it? And if every other candidate in modern history has released at least some summaries of their taxes, it is worth asking this question. As my colleague David Fahrenthold has very meticulously reported, there are big questions about his charitable giving. And he could clear that up with some top-line things from his taxes. He doesn’t even need to show all the details. But again, he does not see it in his interest to release them, so it looks like he’s not going to.

MS. IFILL: Well, and what is the truth – getting to this idea of truth and consequences – and what are the consequences about health scares? For instance, we might not know that Hillary Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia last Friday unless we had seen the video – kind of the shaky video of her near collapse. And I wonder if the truth there was her illness, and the consequence is that people will always wonder whether she’s fully healthy.

MR. ZELENY: I think that’s exactly right. And we wouldn’t have known about the pneumonia had a normal onlooker with an iPhone, presumably – or some type of smartphone – not shot that video of her. It certainly was not offered up by the Clinton campaign. She has now acknowledged that that was a mistake. Her campaign aides have said that they should have acted, you know, swifter on that Sunday. But the reality is, by trying to walk the line of not feeding into the conspiracy theories that Rudy Giuliani and others have been raising about her health, they ended up feeding into the conspiracy theories about her health in a big way.

You know, I was with her as she flew – made her first debut, I guess, back on the road on Thursday, flying from White Plains to Greensboro, North Carolina. And her aides were sort on pins and needles, hoping she didn’t have a coughing spell which, you know, would have just been a normal coughing spell. But of course, that would have been magnified, you know, a lot. So the reality here is I think that she ended up releasing more health information. She wasn’t planning on doing that. We learned a few things, but not everything.

But Donald Trump, you know, he released a bit of his medical information, but on Doctor Oz. Who would have thought of that? And he still –

MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) Donald Trump would have thought of it.

MR. ZELENY: And he’s still – he still in the transparency war with her is far behind on medical and certainly on taxes.

MS. IFILL: But it does seem like this week was health week. This week was birther week. And then who knows what next week. But let’s talk about the consequences because there are polls out there which show that this race is really, really tightening. Take a look at the RealClearPolitics average of polls, taken by The Los Angeles Times and USC, Fox News, CBS News, and The New York Times and Quinnipiac. Hillary Clinton is still ahead, but by less than 2 percentage points. What’s driving these numbers, Alexis?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that we’re noticing is that Secretary Clinton, if you’re talking about why she’s dropped, and we can see Donald Trump has risen in the RealClearPolitics average by the same amount, about three points each – going each way, Secretary Clinton has a vulnerability about young people on trust, right? We know that she’s trying to shore up some of the vulnerables that she’s got in trying to rebuild the Obama coalition. You could see her trying to pivot at the end of this week, very much to appeal to African-American voters and women. We saw Michelle Obama out there really trying to gin up support among Millennials. And we know that Secretary Clinton next week is going to be really trying to hit that demographic hard, Millennials.

So, you know, she – this is one of the reasons why Jeff is describing the campaign’s misery of seeing her have to go off the trail for three days, because of their concern that after Labor Day instead of building on some bulwark that she had built, she was losing ground.

MS. IFILL: Jim, you’re a policy guy. I don’t mean that as an insult. I mean it as a compliment.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Yeah, no, pejorative, yes.

MS. IFILL: So, how – (laughter) – but how do we know that any of the things they say – which are based in policy, actual truths, what they would do as president – how do we know that any of that is sticking this year?

MR. TANKERSLEY: I don’t know that we do. I mean, I think that there are certain very broad-brush policy things that are sticking. People – Trump voters know that he wants to build a wall with Mexico. And they like that. And they seem to be responding at least –

MS. IFILL: And that Mexico will pay for it. They always say those two things together.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, but if you look at our most recent poll, even Trump voters are pretty skeptical that Mexico’s going to pay for it. But they like the idea, maybe, that they might. And then his trade policies – he hits them over and over and over again. He’s been very consistent on that. And he’s gotten – I hear that a lot when I talk to Trump voters. They like the idea of trying to make other countries play by the rules or, you know, beat them in trade.

With Hillary Clinton, she has a million policy ideas. She has not had an incredibly focused message on it. And I think one of the things she is going to look to do between now and November is make that sort of proactive policy case, especially to young people, to sort of say, OK, this is what is going to happen if I’m president. And this is why you should affirmatively choose me and not just negatively reject Trump.

MS. IFILL: She’s actually been saying that a little bit this week, trying to turn that corner.

MR. HARWOOD: That’s right. I think the other thing that’s been happening is that Donald Trump in the last few weeks – until the last couple of days – had been communicating in a more polished way, in a more under control way. That tamped down some of the controversies that followed him, plagued him, that he initiated himself after the two conventions, that drove down his numbers, especially among those college-educated white voters who were going to Hillary Clinton in numbers that they had not done to Democratic candidates for a long time.

Those numbers have evened out a little bit. And the high that Hillary Clinton had come down and Donald Trump’s bringing some Republicans home. That’s making this a closer race. And the question is, now we’re 10 days out from the first debate, you know, how is that big moment going to be processed by voters, including some who’ve oscillated a little bit in the middle of the spectrum?

MS. IFILL: Does it resonate at all with voters when Donald Trump comes out and gives a big policy speech – assuming he doesn’t step on it with three other things, does it resonate with them if it doesn’t add up – for instance, if he says: I’m going to cut your taxes and I’m going to rebuild every bridge in America?

MR. ZELENY: Not among his supporters, I think. His supporters – it seems whenever Donald Trump talks about policy – which hasn’t been a ton. I mean, this has not been a policy-free election, but they’ve not been – the other side has not been giving a lot of weighty policy speeches, although she has offered a ton more on her website. No, I think that when he does that it does make him look more presidential. I don’t think they care if it adds up. Like Jim just said about building the wall, they like the idea of the wall. They know he’s probably not going to do that, but it makes him look strong. Anything that makes Donald Trump look strong, I think, his supporters like.

The Clinton campaign has been worried in the last 10 days or so, I would say, when I talk to a lot of the advisors who sort of reluctantly admit that they’re worried that he’s becoming more acceptable to some voters. That’s always been their worry, that they – you know, they wanted to make him sort of unacceptable and unfit. They think he’s become – you know, becoming more acceptable with the Republican base and others. But when he does things like this today, and they’re able to, you know, revive the birther stuff, they’re hoping that it reverses that. We don’t know. We’ll have to see what the polling happens a week from now, which is –

MS. IFILL: Which is what happened with the deplorables, the debate that happened this week – it feels like weeks ago. But in fact, she doubled, tripled, quadrupled down on that, because she liked the idea of reminding people of who he was associated with.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, and I think that’s the reason that – to your question about how much does policy influence the vote – I think not very much in this election. I think this is a highly personal choice that has polarized the country with, as my colleagues have said, many, many people don’t care for Hillary Clinton on the Republican side. And Hillary Clinton’s trying – the broadest possible argument she can make is that this guy just does not belong in the White House. And that is a gut level decision about a person, not about his tax plan.

MS. SIMENDINGER: One other thing I want to add is how policy is being used by the two candidates, which was really interesting to watch. Donald Trump is using policy to say, look, I can look more presidential, even though his campaign is very personality-driven, as Jeff says. Secretary Clinton is using it to argue: I have an optimistic vision. I have experience and you should trust me. Those are three things that she feels vulnerable on, and she’s trying to use the policy display to shore up support for herself.

MS. IFILL: Well, here’s something that should have helped her this week but, once again, a lot of things got lost in the wash. And it’s the Census – the department of – Census came out with numbers which showed the poor are actually doing a little better and the rich are doing a little better. Everybody gains, which was highly unusual and very – and rare. So why – how could that in some way perhaps help?

MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, we had the best year in 2015, according to the Census, for middle class income growth since they started keeping track in the ’60s. Five percent income growth in the middle, and even better for people below that. So this bolsters Secretary Clinton’s case that, hey, things have been getting better under President Obama. Maybe not as fast as we want them to. A lot of work left to be done. But they think that in her campaign that this really helps their narrative.

Donald Trump has been painting a more dystopian, shall we say, view of the American economy. And the Clinton campaign I think was really hopeful that this would kind of undercut that. But he just moved onto a new talking point.

MS. IFILL: Well, here is what the president had to say about it this week, because this is – if it helps him, theoretically it helps her. And he was on the campaign trail for her this week.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) More Americans are working. More have health insurance. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: (From video.) And gas is $2 a gallon.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) And gas is $2 a gallon. (Cheers, applause.) I didn’t even – thank you for reminding me. (Laughter.) Thanks, Obama.

MS. IFILL: Thanks, Obama. So the president’s popularity has gone up. He’s at 58 percent last –

MR. HARWOOD: This is the point. The income gains reflected in that Census report, long before the Census report came out, were being reflected in President Obama’s approval rating. And the higher President Obama goes, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who approve of the job that he’s doing are voting for Hillary Clinton, the better it is for her.

MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the other things that we’ve noticed – and many of us have sat through focus groups with voters and some who say they’re undecided. And it is interesting to listen to what they’re talking about because the moderators ask them, how are you doing, in states like Ohio and Arizona and Wisconsin. And you know what they say, in these focus groups? Well, we’re doing OK, actually. We’re doing OK. I’m OK.

MS. IFILL: They say I’m doing OK, but they come across with – they still feel that the whole country isn’t doing OK.


MS. IFILL: And that’s what resonates for Donald Trump.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, for his core supporters there’s just this huge difference between how they see the country, and even their own financial situation, compared to Clinton supporters. We just had a poll come out this week on this. It’s double, Trump supporters who say they’re getting worse than their parents for a standard of living than what the Clinton people say. And it’s like totally reversed for those who think that America is not great anymore, versus the Clinton supporters who think that it is.

MS. IFILL: Your colleague, Karen Tumulty, our friend, called it a funhouse mirror today in a story, which I kind of liked.

MR. ZELENY: Yeah, so the Clinton campaign’s challenge – Hillary Clinton’s challenge is, and we’re seeing it now, she’s talking more about children and families and other things. She is trying to sort of get back to the very beginning. And she is doing more proactive, positive policy things. Again, when I was with her in Greensboro, North Carolina on Thursday, she didn’t mention Donald Trump’s name one time, which is a bit of an unusual thing. Of course, she has since then.

She knows that she has to get her positives up just a little bit by talking about more how she would lift families and other things. Donald Trump has cornered the market on sort of angst and anger and, you know, restlessness out there. And that’s something that she’s trying to get back. But, you know, the numbers indicate in the polls, all she has to do is rebuild that Obama coalition. And if she does that – and I think Donald Trump at the end of the week helped her do that more than anything she’s done herself.

MS. IFILL: Well, and, of course, we know what we’re all waiting for are the debates. And there will – we discovered today, we heard today – only wo people on that stage for sure, because neither Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, nor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, are going to be in these debates. So it’s going to be head-to-head. What is – is everything we’re seeing now just building up to that, just laying the groundwork?

MR. HARWOOD: It is. But I do think the fact that they’re not going to be on that stage is significant, because their numbers are relatively high right now. The history of third-party candidates is they go down closer to the election. The fact that they’re not on the stage, I think, contributes to that decline.

MS. IFILL: That was their argument for getting on the stage.

MR. HARWOOD: That’s right. And it is true that this is a year where there’s more dissatisfaction with both nominees, so maybe it doesn’t follow the historical pattern. But it’s also possible that those numbers shrink. And as we were discussing before, the – Gary Johnson especially is taking young voters disproportionately from Hillary Clinton. If they go down, and if he goes down, that will help her.

MR. ZELENY: Which is why that is mission one, job one, over the weekend to get those young voters. Elizabeth Warren’s out there. Bernie Sanders, Michelle Obama was doing it today. She needs young voters.

MS. IFILL: Popcorn, people. Popcorn from now on until then. Thank you, everyone.

We have to leave you for now, but the conversation will continue online on Washington Week Extra , where we’ll pick up where we left off here, perhaps talk a little bit about Vladimir Putin, maybe a little bit about Michelle Obama. Those two names have never been in one sentence. While you’re there, check out video of my chat with Colorado College students last week about the difference between objectivity and fairness. Yes, there is a difference. It’s all at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff over on the PBS NewsHour . And we’ll see you next week here on Washington Week . Good night.


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