Full Episode: What's really at stake in the upcoming midterm elections?

Aug. 10, 2018 AT 9:53 p.m. EDT

As November’s midterm elections approach, Republicans are on edge after this week’s primaries and special elections in five states.

Panelists analyze the challenges Republicans and Democrats will confront in the coming months as the Russia investigation looms over the president.

Plus, are President Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller headed for a subpoena showdown?

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

ROBERT COSTA: A nail-biter in Ohio has Republicans on edge. I’m Robert Costa. The midterm elections just three months away, challenges and the Russia investigation loom over the president, tonight on Washington Week .

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Thank you. Thank you, Ohio. I love Ohio.

MR. COSTA: A special election in a ruby-red part of Ohio ends in a dead heat.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We must elect more Republicans.

MR. COSTA: Democrats say the razor-thin margin is a bellwether for the midterm elections.

DNC CHAIRMAN TOM PEREZ: (From video.) The election in 2018 is about the need for guardrails because we have a House – a Republican House and a Republican Senate that are not at all putting any guardrails on this president. There’s no accountability.

MR. COSTA: But Democrats are facing opportunity and internal debate, and insurgent progressives came up short in some races. In Kansas, President Trump’s political capital in his own party was tested.

KANSAS SECRETARY OF STATE KRIS KOBACH (R): (From video.) At the end of the day he went with his gut, and President Trump’s gut is almost always exactly spot on. So, you know, I’m happy he did.

MR. COSTA: Mr. Trump remains optimistic and predicts a red wave is coming. Plus, are President Trump and the special counsel headed for a subpoena showdown? We discuss it all next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week . Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. A special congressional election this week in central Ohio remains too close to call. And as we await the final tally in that suburban district, held by Republicans for decades, both parties are reacting to the narrow margin and they’re looking for clues about the dynamics that they will confront in the coming months. Troy Balderson was endorsed by President Trump, and he leads Democrat Danny O’Connor by about 1,500 votes, and they’re still counting. The biggest question now facing Republican candidates: Do you run hard with President Trump and count on his core voters to lift you? For Democrats, do you position yourself simply as anti-Trump?

Joining us tonight to discuss all of this, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, congressional correspondent for The New York Times ; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post ; Kimberly Atkins, chief Washington correspondent for The Boston Herald ; and Jake Sherman, senior writer and co-author of the POLITICO Playbook .

Jake just returned from Columbus, Ohio, and you are so deeply sourced with House Republicans, getting text messages from them, hearing their phone calls. Are they alarmed?

JAKE SHERMAN: Yeah, they are, and the ones who say they’re not are lying. That’s the basic reality. This seat in Ohio should not have been on the map. This is an R+7, meaning an average Republican wins it by seven or more points. President Trump won it by 11. This is the heart of the Republican majority. If a seat like that is in play, if Democrats can make seats like that in play, they are not only going to win the majority, they’re in line to win 40, 50, 60 seats. I’m not saying that’s going to happen; each race is won and lost on the merits of the individual candidates. In this race specifically, Danny O’Connor, the Democrat, was a good candidate. He was young. He was energetic. He worked hard. And Troy Balderson was stiff. That’s what the Republicans were telling me. I went and I saw it firsthand. He was standing outside of a church in Genoa Township – the home of the former congressman from that district, Pat Tiberi – and was introducing himself to voters, but wasn’t even saying his name. He was just shaking their hand and saying thank you so much for voting, whereas – where he could have really been like, thank you for voting, I’m on the ballot, I hope you’ll give me a look. He didn’t do that. So he wasn’t answering reporters’ questions. He was looking at the ground. He did his first Fox News interview two days before election day. So individual races are won and lost on the merits, but if seats like this are up for grabs Republicans are going to have a tough November.

MR. COSTA: Well, I wonder, Sheryl, about that map. You were on the ground as well this week. You were in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. And are Democrats in that state, which has been trending red for over a decade, do they now think some of the suburbs, because of what happened in the suburbs of places like Columbus, Ohio, maybe the suburbs of Texas and elsewhere, those are in play?

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: They absolutely do. So I was in a district that encompasses some of the wealthier parts of Dallas, including George Bush’s neighborhood – George W. Bush’s neighborhood – and the suburbs north. This is a district that has been held by Representative Pete Sessions for more than a decade. He’s been in Congress for 22 years actually representing yet another district. Two years ago Pete Sessions did not have a Democratic opponent. The other night I was at an activity, an event hosted by a group of east Dallas Democrats that did not exist 18 months ago. They now have 2,000 members. There were about 300 sweaty fired-up Democrats in the backroom of this Mexican restaurant listening to a very interesting candidate, Colin Allred. He’s a former pro football player, he’s a civil rights lawyer, and he worked for Barack Obama, and he was really firing up the crowd with kind of a very Obama-like message, a surprisingly progressive message for a district that’s been held by Republicans. Democrats are very, very jazzed about this district and about others in places like Texas – I was also in New Mexico, in another Republican district – places like this, where they really didn’t even have a hope a few years ago.

MR. COSTA: So those are the scenes in Ohio and in Texas, but why is that happening? You think about the poll numbers. They show a lot of suburban women, they’re trending away from President Trump even if they supported President Trump in 2016. A new Pew poll shows Trump-supporting women are now moving away from the president. Why is that?

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yeah, that’s been a trend for some months now that’s been really worrying Republicans. I mean, on the one hand it is true that these are local races at heart and they depend on the candidates, but there are national issues at play here. And a lot of the things that Republicans thought that they could focus on – the tax bill that they thought would be a big issue heading in – people aren’t feeling that the same way that they thought they would. Immigration was thought to be a big issue that would galvanize Republicans, but since the separation of children from their parents at the border that really has left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of voters. Also, another thing, abortion; the Kavanaugh nomination, which doesn’t have anything to do with the House, but it’s bringing that issue of abortion and the future of Roe v. Wade to bear. That’s something else that’s pushing women away. On the issues Republicans are not winning right now heading into the midterms, so that’s a big problem.

MR. COSTA: You think about Balderson, Phil, endorsed by President Trump. He had a weekend rally with President Trump. And you think about Kansas, in that race, which is also too close to call, the primary – Republican primary for governor, Kris Kobach, the secretary of state, running against the incumbent governor, Jeff Colyer, they’re still counting the votes in Kansas. In Balderson’s case and in Kobach’s case, the White House has to be wondering: Is the political capital there for President Trump with the endorsement, even with Republican voters?

PHILIP RUCKER: It’s perhaps going to prove to be barely enough in Ohio and Kansas, and in Kansas it may prove to have been not quite enough. What you have in President Trump is a president who’s really galvanized by results he’s seen in some places. You look at Florida, for example; he endorsed DeSantis, a congressman who’s been a very loyal ally of the president’s, and he shot up in the polls very quickly. And the president took from that that he can wait until these Republican primaries and have a lasting impact, can really juice the members, and he’s emboldened now. In the case of Kansas he went against the advice of his advisors to make that endorsement of Kris Kobach, even though he’s considered the weaker Republican candidate in that primary that may not work in the end. And the danger for Republicans in the districts you guys were at is Trump is trying to make these midterms all about him. He wants to be the center force in the midterm debate, driving these issues, injecting cultural issues, campaigning several days a week, and that’s a real risk for the Republican Party.

MR. COSTA: That’s such a good point, Phil, that immigration is part of this kind of broader political war, culture war that’s happening out there, and we saw it on Friday. The president stepped up his attacks on NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem. On Twitter, he accused the athletes who protest of, quote, showing “outrage” and said they are unable to define what they are protesting – his words. Trump’s tweets came the day before the anniversary of last summer’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. Race, sports, politics, Jake, all of it thrust forward by the president. How are House Republicans adjusting, Senate Republicans on the trail as well?

MR. SHERMAN: God, they don’t really want to talk about some of these issues in most districts because the districts where a lot of these issues play well are not districts where there are competitive races. I mean, I think in a lot of these districts the NFL stuff is just not a salient issue, not something that they want to talk about, too divisive. The path for Republicans to keep the majority in the House is through districts that Hillary Clinton won, which is why Barack – Donald Trump is not an operative player in these midterms. I was talking to somebody this week who made the point, kind of what Phil said, which is Barack Obama and Donald Trump both – their popularity both didn’t carry down ballot. They were both incredibly – you know, Donald Trump is very popular with his base; Barack Obama was very popular with his base, but he lost the majority and was never able to get it back. And we’ll see what happens with Donald Trump, but that’s certainly a possibility. But again, the 23 districts that Hillary Clinton won that Republicans still sit in are the key to the majority for both parties.

MR. COSTA: You brought up Kavanaugh, Kim. Those hearings were announced today, are going to start in early September. You talked about how abortion now comes to the fore of our national debate, but Republicans also see Kavanaugh as something that’s going to motivate their voters. How does that play out?

MS. ATKINS: I think it’s going to do both. It’s going to have that – it’s going to have the issue of turning some women away if they’re afraid that Roe is going to be in play, if it’s in danger, and it’s definitely going to remind Republicans, look, this is why it’s important that we stay in power, in order to do things like change not just the U.S. Supreme Court, but the federal judiciary for some period of time. It’s a positive thing that most Republicans can get behind. A lot of Republicans who wince at the president’s Twitter account are very happy with what he’s doing with the judiciary. So I think it cuts both ways.

MR. COSTA: Phil, think about those tweets about the NFL. You spend every day studying Trump, talking to his advisors. What is behind this kind of language at this time?

MR. RUCKER: There are a couple of factors at play. And regarding the tweet you mentioned from Friday, I just think it’s important to point out that the president is accusing these NFL players of not being able to define what they’re protesting. In fact, they’ve been very articulate in saying that they’re protesting police brutality and other issues. They’ve been clear about that. What’s driving the president is he thinks this is a winning issue for himself. He thinks anytime he brings up the NFL protest debate he is inciting his base, he’s giving them a reason to rally behind him. He lives in perpetual fear, Donald Trump does, that his base is going to somehow abandon him at any moment, and so he looks for these sort of wedge issues that he can pounce on to give them a reason to stick with him. And I think what happened with the NFL this week is there were a few players in Thursday night’s games who – you know, who stood in protest. He seized it as an opportunity to make it a political football for himself.

MR. COSTA: To change the sports metaphor, a curveball, Sheryl. (Laughter.)

MS. STOLBERG: Curveball, OK. (Laughs.)

MR. COSTA: A curveball for Republicans, with Chris Collins, the New York congressman, this week charged with insider trading. Does that affect the Republicans as they move ahead toward November? You think about Scott Pruitt, the former EPA administrator, now Chris Collins getting charged with insider trading. Will Democrats run on those issues, or will they focus more just on having this as a referendum on Trump?

MS. STOLBERG: No, Democrats are already running on those issues. They are talking about a culture of corruption in Washington. This is very reminiscent of 2006. You remember when Rahm Emanuel led the Democrats’ campaign arm in 2006, they talked about a culture of corruption. They were given a few gifts that year. Mark Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, got embroiled in a scandal involving teenage pages. This Collins indictment is literally a present to Democrats, who are already talking about not only Scott Pruitt, but Paul Manafort. We’ve got the president’s top – you know, his campaign – former campaign chairman on trial in, you know, a trial that is bringing up all kinds of details about bank fraud and tax evasion and $12,000 lizard-skin suits – (laughter) – sort of exposing the ugly swamp that President Trump promised to drain. So you can bet that Democrats will be talking and are already talking about Chris Collins and other Republican scandals that they would like to bring to light.

MR. COSTA: Jake, when you’re talking to Democratic candidates for the House, do they actually think that’s going to work? I know they’re transitioning to that message, as Sheryl was saying, but is it more about health care for them at this point? Is it just talking about Trump’s conduct? Where is their messaging at this point?

MR. SHERMAN: Two thoughts – there are two schools of thought on this. Number one is that a lot of Democrats believe that you don’t have to talk about Donald Trump; he talks for himself.

MS. STOLBERG: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

MR. SHERMAN: And he opens the door to other issues, right? So Donald Trump is always doing what Donald Trump is doing, and Democratic candidates say, OK, well, fine, now we can talk about Medicare, now we can talk about taxes, now we can talk about issues that we want to talk about. The other school is that Washington polls in the gutter, the idea of Washington, which Donald Trump ran so successfully on – drain the swamp, all that stuff. So there’s an opening to talk about how the president’s EPA administrator was living a lux life and wanted planes, and so did his former HHS secretary. And by the way, this congressman who was overseeing the pharmaceutical industry was on the board of a pharmaceutical company and was passing off tips to his colleagues and to his kid. So you can make good arguments on both ends of that equation.

MR. COSTA: When you’re talking about the Democrats, though, Kim, you think about what are we actually talking about, because there’s so many different tensions within that party. There’s a Republican civil war, it seems, at times, but the Democrats are dealing with their own struggles. Do they support Leader Pelosi or not? What are you – what are you seeing on the Pelosi front? Is she still the leader of the party? Does the party have faith in her to carry them through the midterms?

MS. ATKINS: I think it depends on who you ask. I mean, the opposition to her seems to be growing. It is enough to force her out? I think that still remains to be seen. She clearly sees herself remaining as the leader of the party and as one of the people who’s crafting this message, the culture of corruption, moving that forward. But, yeah, Democrats do have a lot of division, but you have to see – I mean, it depends, again, district by district in these House races. But they have to come up with a message – and we’re seeing them starting to do that now – so that the president and other Republicans don’t define them, because up until then it’s – they want to – they want to abolish ICE, they want socialism. That’s the tag that’s being put on them, and they have to come up with their own message to galvanize voters and get them out.

MR. COSTA: Is this the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a House primary in the Democratic Party in New York a few weeks ago, or is this the party of Leader Pelosi?

MS. STOLBERG: You know, I think that’s a great question that Democrats are asking themselves and that we don’t know. Democrats like Leader Pelosi are really trying to tamp down this idea that democratic socialism is ascendant within the Democratic Party. And these races – this House majority will be won on districts that are much closer, that are swing districts, so Democrats have to learn how to talk to Trump voters. I think what Jake said was absolutely right: Democrats are kind of letting Donald Trump talk for himself. We’re not seeing, really, a unified message. We’re not seeing all Democrats talk about Medicare for all or all Democrats talk about immigration. It is very, very individualized, as Kim was saying.

MR. COSTA: Sheryl says, Phil, that Democrats need to find a way to talk to Trump voters, but the Trump White House seems to also want to try to talk to moderate voters. We’ve seen the president do rallies, but it was also interesting this week Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior advisor, went to Illinois, to a blue state. Are we going to see a strategy that’s calculated for different races, different states from this White House?

MR. RUCKER: I think that’s right. Ivanka Trump is a surrogate that can be deployed by the White House – she works in the White House as a senior advisor – to some of these suburban areas where the president, quite frankly, is not welcome. She can go and talk about workforce development, she can talk about women’s empowerment, some of the issues that she champions inside the White House, even though she sometimes doesn’t have a lot of policy influence with her father. But there are going to be other surrogates as well. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and namesake, will be on the trail a lot. He’s someone who connects in more rural areas in particular. He’s a hunter, a sportsman, a fisherman. And so they’re looking for ways to try to kind of target individual voters and get them motivated and a reason to turn out if they’re not necessarily the people who are waiting in line for hours at the Make America Great Again rallies.

MR. COSTA: But Trump dominates, Phil. I mean, he says he’s going to be on the trail five, six –

MR. RUCKER: It’s all about Trump.

MS. STOLBERG: Oh yeah. (Laughter.)

MR. RUCKER: Yeah, have no doubt that these midterm elections are going to be all about Trump, and the president wants it that way. He says he’s going to be on the trail all the time. He tweets every day about the midterm races. He tweeted the other day red wave is coming. He wants this midterm to be about himself.

MR. COSTA: What does Speaker Ryan think about President Trump’s plans, his busy schedule?

MR. SHERMAN: I don’t know about Speaker Ryan particularly. I know the Republican leadership – Kevin McCarthy is the one who is the liaison to Trump and is the Trump whisperer in the House of Representatives, and he believes that there are areas where Trump could be helpful for House Republicans. And where he could be most helpful is raising money and getting the money that Republicans desperately need. They’ve been out-fundraised by the Democrats time and time again. He’s raised money for individual candidates, but also for the big entities that are trying to keep House Republicans in the majority. That’s where he’s best served. He’s not best served in going to South Florida and to Carlos Curbelo’s district, where a Democrat can win. He’s not best served in these districts where Democrats have a chance.

MS. STOLBERG: But I think as we were saying before, the election – any midterm election, especially in the first year of – or the first term of a presidency, is a referendum on the president. So whether Democrats or Republicans like it or not, this is a referendum on Donald Trump. And I think that the voters feel the same way. When I talk to candidates – to voters, rather, it’s either you love him or you hate him. All they want to talk about is Trump. There’s not much discussion of health care plans or education plans or workforce development or whatever. What’s on the voters’ minds is Trump.

MR. COSTA: And hovering over all of this is the cloud, as President Trump calls it – the Russia probe. Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, has sent another letter to Special Counsel Robert Mueller this week and has not yet agreed to the terms of a possible presidential interview. The delay of a decision could lead Mueller to issue a subpoena. Do we see a subpoena showdown? And what does that mean legally for the president? What are his options?

MS. ATKINS: Yeah, I think it’s quite likely. I mean, this idea that Rudy Giuliani can negotiate his way out of the president testifying if Robert Mueller and his team want him to testify is really just a fallacy. We’re seeing a lot of Giuliani, I think, messaging to the president through the television set more than giving legal advice. All of this is an open legal question – the power to subpoena a president, the power to indict a president, or anything else – but at least on that initial point, trying to force him to cooperate, it seems that the law is on his side. We had presidents in the past cooperate while in office in ongoing investigations. Bill Clinton is the key example of that. So the president would likely be on the losing side as to trying to stop him, so it would be in his interest to go in voluntarily to avoid that fight. But, you know, the president doesn’t always do what’s in his legal interest.

MR. COSTA: What is the historical precedent here?

MS. STOLBERG: So there is a historical precedent for Bill Clinton testifying under – after lengthy negotiations with Ken Starr’s team. If I’m remembering correctly, Clinton insisted that the interview be held at the White House. He didn’t want the imagery of going, you know, somewhere else, on Starr’s turf. There was a limit to the time, four hours, and it was – also, the lawyers were present. The president’s – the president’s lawyers were present for the interview, which is unusual in the case of grand jury testimony. So there is historical precedent for a president cooperating. Now, of course, that interview laid the groundwork for the articles of impeachment that were drafted against Bill Clinton.

MR. COSTA: What’s the real story, Phil, here? The president’s lawyers keep saying they’re not going to answer obstruction questions. Does that mean the interview, it’s not happening, this is all a delay tactic to try to force the subpoena, prevent the report from Mueller coming out, trying to make sure it doesn’t come out before the midterms?

MR. RUCKER: A lot of what we’ve seen, Bob, quite frankly, in the last few months is a PR battle between the president’s legal team and the Mueller side, which is, frankly, invisible to the public in this negotiation back and forth. There could be some sort of an interview. It seems like there’s a little bit more of a willingness on the president’s side to do – to sit down for an interview on questions related to the campaign, as opposed to related to his actions in office. But we should remember that the reason his lawyers are so hesitant to have him do this interview about obstruction of justice is because they’re afraid he could perjure himself, that he could say something that’s not true to the special counsel. We know he tells many lies, many falsehoods, many misstatements. He tends to exaggerate things or sometimes recreate things in ways that aren’t entirely factual, and so there’s a real risk in putting him in front of the investigators.

MR. SHERMAN: I will say, though, he has been – he has been deposed before.

MR. RUCKER: That’s true, yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: And there is video that we – remember, he was deposed during the campaign, wasn’t he? He was – or in –

MR. RUCKER: In Trump University, yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: Right, so he’s been in this position before. And obviously, the stakes are much higher here – his presidency hangs in the balance; and if Democrats win the House, which many people think they will, everything is magnified. The chances of him being impeached are magnified, him being removed from office; who knows what will happen. That being said, it’s shocking to me how quiet Mueller is, how this entire circus is going around in Washington – going on in Washington and Mueller and his team are very quiet, methodical, not playing the PR game, which I think is fascinating to see especially in today’s climate, right? Like, everybody’s talking all the time and Mueller’s team is very quiet.

MR. COSTA: That’s true, they’re very quiet. But, Kim, we did get a little glimpse of how they work through the Manafort trial this week.

MS. ATKINS: Right, right. I mean, that was the best glimpse that we got so far about the way Mueller’s team is working.

MR. COSTA: What have we learned?

MS. ATKINS: And we have learned that they are, just as Jake said, very clear, careful, methodical, has every T crossed and I dotted, which has to be making the president –

MR. COSTA: But Judge Ellis is giving them a tough time, the prosecutors.

MS. ATKINS: They have, but I think in the end that’s actually going to work against President Trump and his team because they haven’t been allowing the prosecution to run the show. He’s been running – the judge has been running a pretty tight ship. So if a conviction comes out of this, both the fact that it would be a jury trial and the fact that you have this judge who can’t be tagged with being an anti-Trump, you know, activist, will make it really hard – much harder for them to discredit this investigation the way they’ve been trying to do so far.

MS. STOLBERG: No, I think that’s exactly right. The judge also actually backtracked just a little bit. He cracked the whip on the prosecutors and then was forced to admit that he made a mistake, and the jury was instructed that he made a mistake. But I think that’s exactly right. Because the judge has been so tough, there will be no suggestion if there are convictions about, you know, whose side the judge was on.

MR. COSTA: Final thought, Phil. Mayor Giuliani says September 1 st is the deadline: Empty threat or real threat?

MR. RUCKER: I mean, clearly – (laughter) – clearly, this thing’s going to go beyond September 1 st .

MR. COSTA: That’s our reaction on a lot of things.

MR. SHERMAN: Moving target. (Laughter.)

MR. RUCKER: There is really no indication that Mueller’s going to be wrapping up by September 1 st . I think this could go well into the end of the year, if not into next year.

MR. COSTA: Phil, that face you made, we make that all the time in the newsroom.

MR. RUCKER: We do. (Laughter.)

MR. COSTA: We’re just confronting a torrent of news all of the time, but it’s an honor to do it. Thanks, everybody, for joining us here tonight. Really appreciate it.

Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra . We will talk about how the 2020 presidential race is starting early, this weekend in Iowa, with a celebrity lawyer and Trump critic making waves. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.


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