Full Episode: Tragedy in Pittsburgh and the countdown to the midterm elections

Nov. 02, 2018 AT 9:26 p.m. EDT

A mass shooting inside a Pittsburgh synagogue leaves a community and country shaken. President Donald Trump makes his final midterm push, hammering a hard line on immigration, in an effort to rally Republican voters. Panelists discuss the key races and issues shaping the closing days of the midterm campaign.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Countdown to the midterms. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) These illegal caravans will not be allowed into the United States. They should turn back now because they’re wasting their time.

MR. COSTA: On the even of the midterm elections, President Trump hammers a hard line on immigration. Democrats, looking to take back power, are campaigning on kitchen-table issues.

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-MO): (From video.) Health care is on the ballot.

MR. COSTA: With the party’s biggest names on the trail.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) This Tuesday might be the most important election of our lifetimes. (Cheers, applause.) Politicians will always say that, but this time it’s actually true.

MR. COSTA: Plus, a mass shooting inside a Pittsburgh synagogue leaves a community and country shaken, with new questions about political rhetoric in these divided times, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. The final week of the midterm campaign season has been visceral and raw, from the grief over the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue to President Trump and many Republicans issuing dark warnings about migrants.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) These are not angels. These are not little angels. These are tough people. And we’re not letting them into our country. (Cheers, applause.) They’re not coming in illegally.

MR. COSTA: The president has said he wants to take executive action to end birthright citizenship and revamp the asylum process. He has also asked the Pentagon to send up to 15,000 troops to the southern border and offered this warning about the rules of engagement.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I say consider it a rifle.

MR. COSTA: Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke up and said the president lacks the constitutional authority to end birthright citizenship. The president swatted back at one of the key leaders of his own party, tweeting: “Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the Majority rather than giving his opinions on Birthright.” What a week, and the elections are on Tuesday.

Joining me tonight, Amy Walter, national editor for The Cook Political Report ; Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO ; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour ; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times .

Amy, when you think about the president’s message in the closing days of this midterm election, what does it mean for voter intensity on both sides?

AMY WALTER: Well, the voter intensity has already been ramped up to a place we’ve never seen before. We’re hearing talk now about turnout in the midterm elections that could reach levels we haven’t seen in a hundred years. So we already had a sort of boiling cauldron, and the question is, is it now going to overflow? I think that if you’re a Republican that is sitting in one of these competitive House districts, especially suburban House districts, you really wanted the president to be closing on the economy and how good things are looking, especially the new jobs report that was out today. But he wants to talk about the issue that has animated his campaign and his presidency, which is immigration. And if you’re in – theoretically, if you are a Republican in a deep-red state that might help you, but I don’t – I don’t think we quite know yet if this push on this issue is going to do more to alienate voters or whether it is going to be enough to keep maybe some of these very competitive red states in Republican hands.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, you were just on the ground in Florida reporting there. How is this issue playing? You look at the president putting out a racially charged ad on immigration tying Democrats to people who kill police officers. What is that like when voters are actually seeing it on their Twitter feed, talking to their neighbors?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, I think it’s important to first say that that ad that the president put out was about a man that was – actually entered the country during the Bush administration and was released by Joe Arpaio, who of course the president pardoned. So just as a fact check there, that’s what – that’s what the president was doing.

But I think that this election comes down to fear. My reporting in Florida makes me feel as though on the Democratic side there are people that are very worried about a president who’s calling himself a nationalist. They think that that’s emboldening white nationalists. People are scared for the president talking about birthright citizenship. You have Mark Sanford putting it out there that Haitian – or Haitian babies shouldn’t be American. Note I am of Haitian descent, so that’s something that hit my Twitter feed and made me think, wow, that’s a different level.

But then on the Republican side I sat down with older white voters in a gated retirement community who said the caravan is going to bring diseases, it’s going – these people are going to come and ruin our country. And there are people who are very worried that these people that are coming, a lot of times for – out of fear for things that are happening in their home country but sometimes in some cases illegally, that they’re going to come and in a large part invade the country, and that’s of course the message that they’re getting from the president. So I think it’s all about fear.

MR. COSTA: Some voters, Carl, Republican core voters, may have that fear and may come out on Tuesday. But what about suburban voters, who may be more moderate?

CARL HULSE: Yeah, I think this is the story of this election. And what’s been so unusual about this election, it’s bifurcated: what helps you in the Senate hurts you in the House. So you have – the president is drumming up his base and working really hard to do that, but at the same time the things he’s doing and the tactics he’s employing are alienating some of these suburban voters in certainly coastal states – Florida, California – where their House seats are at risk. And I do – I got a feeling today, just social media, that people were not reacting great to the troops at the border, that that seemed to them – you know, even some people in the military, this is going too far. So I think the question we’re going to be asking ourselves on Wednesday and Thursday as we analyze these results is did the president’s push go too far, did it drive away voters or energize voters in Nevada and Arizona, states with big Hispanic populations. But I think that, you know, it’s cutting both ways for the president.

MR. COSTA: Jake, you’re a longtime student/reporter on House Speaker Paul Ryan, and you also sat down with Vice President Pence this week for an interview. The House speaker came out against the president’s position on birthright citizenship, but most of the party is backing up the president. Why is that?

JAKE SHERMAN: Well, the speaker did what he thought was just stating a fact, that you can’t alter the Constitution with a pen. That’s not how our government works. And I think what you saw this week is the party tried to get in sync with a president who was stating something that was well outside the mainstream, and I think once Congress comes back into town you will find a lot of people after the election who will think it’s not wise to change the Constitution or to raise the prospect of changing the Constitution unilaterally. That has to be done, as many members of Congress have already said, through the legislature. And I think that one thing that I keep hearing from Republicans who are involved in elections and spending money in the election is chaos is something that they are – that voters are not interested in. It’s the number one animating issue right now in every poll. And a lot of the things you’ve seen – putting a massive troop presence that rivals our presence in Afghanistan at the border with Mexico; changing the Constitution, again, unilaterally – these are not necessarily things that voters are going to say, oh, this is the party I want to keep in power. So I think that’s a big dynamic – (laughs) – going into this last week.

MR. HULSE: Well, I think the president was right when he said all the bombs and the attack at the synagogue stopped his momentum. Now, he thinks it stopped his momentum because it stopped media coverage about issues he cared about. I think it stopped his momentum at least partially because people look at that and go: This is too much. We need to – we need to make a change. We have to do something here. We can’t go on like this. And that’s where I think the –

MS. WALTER: Yeah. I mean, that’s the real irony of how the president’s closing argument now versus 2016. I think part of the reason that – for the president’s success in 2016 was that he actually ratcheted down. He was very disciplined. He stayed off Twitter. It was – the focus was all about Hillary Clinton and the investigation and the emails. And so he looked, as he would say, I can be super presidential. And that was the message, was I know you might be worried about, I know, all this other chaos. But look how I can be disciplined. Now, he spent the last two weeks doing what so many voters dislike the most about him. So if you think about where things were two weeks ago, the spotlight was on the things that Trump can do well, which is: I got a Supreme Court justice appointed and confirmed. I told you I was going to do it. I followed through. Success. Now the spotlight is on the things that people dislike the most about him, which is the temperament and the chaos.

MR. COSTA: Well, why isn’t the attention, Yamiche, on the economy? There was, on Friday, a better than expected jobs report for October. Employers added 250,000 jobs last month and wages grew by just over 3 percent. But as Amy was saying – she didn’t mention the economy, because the administration isn’t really – the president talked about it today, but it’s been closing on raw politics, immigration.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, we call President Trump President Trump. But he’s also Chief of Staff Trump. He’s Press Secretary Trump. There are all these other roles that he’s filling. He is the chief messenger. And he doesn’t feel like talking about the economy. He knows that it’s doing well. But the thing that makes him happy or the thing that is really driving him and that – the thing that he thinks is going to get Republicans over the finish line is this idea that you have to have us versus them. And I’ll say it frankly, I think that he’s saying, look, that America is browning. Do you want America, the future of America, to be these people? Or do you want it to look like something different? Do you want it to be great again, whatever that means? So I think that while the president is happy about the economy, it’s not the core thing that he thinks is going to energize people.

MR. SHERMAN: You know, Brendan Buck, the top advisor to Paul Ryan, who we all know tweeted right after the jobs report came out: This is what we’re going to be talking about for the next three or four days, right?

MR. COSTA: He’s a pretty wry guy, for people who don’t know him.

MR. SHERMAN: He is wry guy. But that being said, I can’t tell you how many people are smacking their heads this week that the president is not just talking about the economy, which is a good story for him. I mean, the stock market’s up. People have more money in their pockets. The tax bill, while not popular, has given a boost to the economy, a lot of analysts say. So it’s just – it’s something that’s really gob smacked –

MR. HULSE: Well, I think this is why a lot of people who are in our business are still wondering, wow, is – are the returns going to be what we think? Because the environment really isn’t that bad. It is certainly not as bad as it’s been in some past midterms, you know, where the economy was tanking. The economy’s pretty good. So in some ways, if the Republicans take a big whack, it’s going to be out of proportion to what they should have gotten, given the usual economic message of a midterm.

MR. COSTA: And that’s why we don’t like to predict too much, because there are other issues that come up during the heart of an election. And certainly one last Saturday, a tough issue for the whole country. And the president traveled to Pittsburgh this week to pay respects to the victims of last weekend’s mass shooting inside the Tree of Life Synagogue. Eleven worshipers there were shot and killed. The Anti-Defamation League says it is probably the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Many in the community welcomed the presidential visit, but there were certainly also peaceful protests with people singing and praying in Hebrew.

David Shirbman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a friend of Washington Week, lives just blocks away from the Synagogue. He wrote this week, “For now, it has happened here; for millions across this wounded nation, we are the focus of anguish, and anger, and solace – the it can happen anywhere place of the moment. And we know, given the tempo of tragedy in these times, that the title won’t be ours for long.” How does this all factor into voters as they think through this election, they think through their choices?

MS. WALTER: I think Carl had it exactly right, it was the sense of where the – you know, the spotlight moved from where we’re talking about sort of the process, we’re talking about Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court, even a little bit about the economy, to talking about civility, about violence, about all the issues that, again, the weaknesses of Trump really were the big spotlight on that.

The other thing about this election, that I know there’s all this late-breaking stuff and there are a whole bunch of other issues there. But what’s remarkable to me is how little has actually changed in terms of voter perceptions of this president since 2016. I looked through the last poll that The Wall Street Journal /NBC poll put through. And the president’s approval rating among all those different groups we talk about, right? We talk about white voters, we talk about women, and white college-educated voters. They basically feel almost exactly the same about the president today as they did in 2016. So a lot of these events are happening. It’s creating this idea that there’s so much activity. And yet, I think the people have been pretty baked into how they are going to vote in this election for some time.

MR. COSTA: Why didn’t the congressional leaders and many members of Congress join the president in Pittsburgh?

MR. HULSE: I think that they thought he was toxic, and it was going to be – they didn’t know what was going to happen. I mean, that could have been a bad situation. They don’t want to be embracing the president because he makes these issues about himself. And he has made that about himself over the past few days, and the media coverage – making himself the victim. The media portrayed there being protests, but it really wasn’t that. I was greeted warmly. I think it was just they thought that was way too risky and didn’t need to be there.

MS. ALCINDOR: I also spent Tuesday in Pittsburgh when the president was there. And I was posing the question to people outside those funerals for those people that were massacred, for these people that were murdered. And the majority of people did not want the president there. Republicans, Democrats, they – the people that I talked to said: We just want to be able to grieve in peace. And he’s not a consoler in chief. He’s not someone who has shown empathy in the way that George Bush or President Obama has. And the day after this visit, he tweeted, well, they showed me a lot of respect. Except that he said that he was going there to pay his respects.

And I should tell you, there were hundreds of protesters. There were the people who quietly told me: I don’t want the president here. I’m trying to see it in the Jewish faith as a way to see a good thing in all the things that are happening now. But people were – the environment was that no one really wanted President Trump there, except for the police union chief who I talked to who said, yeah, he’s here to pay respects for officers. But it was a toxic environment.

MR. COSTA: Jake, when you think about the National Republican Congressional Committee, the NRCC, they’re not breaking with President Trump amid what’s happening in Pittsburgh, but they are raising some questions about members of their own party, like Congressman Steve King of Iowa, his association with nationalism and different far-right groups in Europe. And you saw the NRCC distance themselves from King this week. Does that show some GOP unease in this moment?

MR. SHERMAN: It shows that the party doesn’t want to be associated with somebody who has espoused white supremacist views and has – who has aligned with international figures who are not only identified by others as white supremacists but identified by themselves as being part of various white supremacist movements. And if a Democrat – a Democrat in every district in America before this week could say the NRCC, who supports Steve King, who supports white supremacists. And that’s not a narrative Republicans really want.

And I think – I will say, the NRCC, the Republican Congressional Committee, is usually pretty risk-averse when it comes to things like this. These are members of Congress paying dues into the organization. This was a relatively – in the realm of bold moves – a relatively bold move in the middle of the election season.

MR. COSTA: There has been much talk about the possible blue wave on Tuesday, and for the battle of control of the House and the Senate. But let’s remember, there are also 33 gubernatorial races this year. Republicans currently hold 36 governors mansions, compared to 16 Democrats, plus independent Alaska Governor Bill Walker. And one of the most hotly contested races this year is in Georgia. That’s where Democrat Stacey Abrams hopes to become the nation’s first female African-American governor. She’s running neck and neck with Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Carl, we were talking all week about how governors races matter. It’s the House and the Senate, but the governors races in Georgia and in the Midwest matter.

MR. HULSE: I actually think this is the most important aspect of this election. We’re in Washington and, you know, we tend to focus on Congress. These governors races are huge for two big reasons. One, it sets them up for reapportionment after the 2020 Census. They’ll be in charge of cutting the House districts. Two, you could have new Democratic governors in the heart of Trump’s base in the Midwest, in Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois – really wasn’t. But so they will be in place for the 2020 election. Now, we all know that governors have a lot to do with how elections are conducted and enthusiasm in the state. I think the governors races are the story of this election.

MR. COSTA: Why are they running on health care, for many of these Democrats, in gubernatorial races and elsewhere?

MS. WALTER: Well, in some of these states they’re running on expanding Medicaid. And in states especially that had had Republican governors for years, the issue of Medicaid was actually popular but – with voters – but the Republican governor or Republican legislature did not push forward on that.

I think Carl makes such a really good point, though, about we are spending a whole lot of attention on Florida and Georgia for good reason, because we could have in both of those states the first African-American governor. It is getting so much energy and intensity, and we’re going to have a lot of discussions after the election about what it means to have young progressive candidates of color on the top of the – either at the top of the ticket or in a governor’s mansion. But the Midwest has gotten very little attention, not just about how many governors Democrats could elect but, right, this was – this was the blue wall that was supposed to stop President Trump. That’s what Democrats had thought. And yet –

MR. HULSE: So that’s where the wall was. (Laughter.)

MS. WALTER: And that’s where the wall – (laughs) – the wall wasn’t –

MR. COSTA: Carl. (Laughter.)

MS. WALTER: Dah-dah-dah. But there are also Senate races in all those places, and the Democratic senators who are up in those states are running to an easy victory. And that was supposed to be where we were going to see if indeed this Trump was – you know, his strength in that part of the country had real deep roots, and what – Democrats may come out of this election saying we got governorships and Senate in those states.

MR. COSTA: What about in Florida? You have Andrew Gillum, his gubernatorial race against Republican Trump ally Ron DeSantis, and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. They’re really trying to stoke the Democratic electorate that may have not come out in 2016. Are they going to be successful, from what you’ve seen in your reporting?

MS. ALCINDOR: I’ve been talking to Democratic pollsters who are very cautiously optimistic. They say that – looking at early voting, which is one way to look at it, they say that Republicans are showing up more than Democrats right now. But just in my reporting, I was interviewing newly arrived Puerto Rican voters who came after Hurricane Maria, and who are very, very angry at the president, and who have not forgotten about the fact that he was throwing paper towels at survivors. And then young voters, there are – I was – I was in a get-out-the-vote rally that was a hip-hop rally where people were being physically driven to early polling stations. This wasn’t just to talk about voting; it was to physically get people there. So I think that the Democrats are trying very hard to turn out. But I was – in my conversations with Republicans, I’ve been surprised by the ability for Republican voters to look at President Trump and think of his rhetoric as strong, as someone who’s really taking it to the man, and then looking at the same sort of brash rhetoric as – and calling Democrats unhinged and crazy. And I think that that’s something that people have done to justify the kind of things that they feel like the president has done wrong in some ways because they say, well, you have to be strong; so even if he’s a little brash, even if he’s calling someone “horseface,” that’s what you have to do to get your message across.

MR. COSTA: Republicans, are they really on the defensive on health care? Are they now running to protect preexisting conditions? They used to run against President Obama’s health care law in 2010 and 2014.

MR. SHERMAN: They’re running – they’re running on the health care law, but not on the health care law. They’re running on what’s in the health care law without actually running on the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have voted to dismantle or straight up repeal somewhat – something close to 70 times. And this is going to be – this is probably the biggest failure, if you look at this House Republican majority – a House Republican majority that was, by the way, built in 2010 on the health care law, sustained on the prospect that if only we got back the White House we would repeal the health care law, and now is potentially – based on the information at hand and based on what Republicans tell us – going to be dismantled based on their inability to do anything on the health care law. And it’s really kind of stunning, that big arc.

And I want to just get back to one thing Amy said very quickly. If you’re looking at the Midwest and you’re looking at some of these House seats that are up in the Midwest, you’re very quickly seeing the majority that built in 2010 – really starting in 2010 – kind of recede a little bit. You’re seeing members of Congress, kind of the vanguards who helped prop up this House Republican majority – the Peter Roskams in Illinois, the Randy Hultgrens in Illinois – you’re starting to see them get in trouble. And I think it’s fascinating to kind of watch in the arc of the Republican Party.

MR. COSTA: When you think about some of the key races out there – Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat running against Senator Ted Cruz in Texas – how is the immigration issue playing in Texas with President Trump’s emphasis?

MS. WALTER: I don’t know that we know that. I think that what Beto O’Rourke is really counting on is what Yamiche raised earlier, which is you’re going to bring a whole bunch of new people into the process that have never been part of the – especially a midterm electorate. In some cases they might not have turned out in any election. And if you can increase the number and the – your base vote, that is what’s going to put you over the top.

Interestingly enough, where Beto O’Rourke is doing best, at least when you look at the state and the congressional districts, he’s doing best in those inner-ring, suburban, affluent districts, which are less diverse, and not as strong in some of the Rio Grande area which is more heavily Latino. But this is going to be a fascinating discussion after this election among Democrats about do we pick the candidate who can motivate and turn out those new voters, like Georgia/Florida/Texas if they succeed, or do we go with the model that we’re seeing in the Midwest which is more sort of centrist and kind of going to that older base?

MR. COSTA: Carl, any lessons about the money that was spent?

MR. HULSE: You know, this is a(n) interesting election for Democrats because they had two things they often get criticized for not having: an issue, health care; and money. They had – (laughter) – they had a ton of money, and it really came in for them in small donations. They have been able to fund serious campaigns. Now some Republicans are just starting to advertise. We’re seeing a couple of guys who were maybe caught off-guard. Steve King, I think, finally put up an ad; Rob Woodall in Georgia has just put up an ad. The Democrats had money this time, but they also really did have an issue. They’ve worked health care. People complain there’s not issues in these campaigns. And to what Jake was saying, I mean, think about this. They flipped the House in 2010 on health care, being against it, Obamacare; 2018, they may get it back by running on the other side.

MS. ALCINDOR: And I should say when I think about health care I think about this interview I had with an EMT who doesn’t have health care. He’s someone who is in an ambulance every day, and he said if I spent eight hours in a hospital it would wreck my family forever. And he’s a Republican voting for a Democrat.

MR. COSTA: One of the biggest spenders this year: Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor. He’s spent over $100 million on the campaign trail. It’s a reminder that – come Wednesday you may not want to even think about it – 2020 starts, the 2020 campaign. (Laughter.)

MS. WALTER: Too soon.

MR. COSTA: Everyone here, if they were showing – they’re cringing here at the table. (Laughter.) But thanks, everybody, for being here.

And next Tuesday watch the PBS NewsHour ’s coverage of the midterm elections starting at 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central. Yamiche and Amy will be there.

And before we leave you tonight, we want to pause to pay tribute to the 11 members of the Tree of Life Synagogue who lost their lives last week in Pittsburgh.

Good night.


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