Special: Virtual Campaigning and Veepstakes

Apr. 24, 2020 AT 10:46 p.m. EDT

The 2020 presidential race continues, largely in the background of the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump has used his daily briefings in lieu of rallies, while former Vice President Joe Biden has appeared on local and late night shows and held virtual town halls from home. Also: who is Biden considering as a possible running mate?

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

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

While the coronavirus continues to ravage the nation, the 2020 campaign quietly marches on. The president has used his briefings in lieu of rallies to get attention, often returning to issues important to his political base, and he’s continued to attack his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We have a sleepy guy in a basement of a house that the press is giving a free pass to who doesn’t want to do debates because of COVID.

MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, Mr. Biden has appeared on local and late-night television shows from his house and held virtual town halls as some polls show him leading the president in battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) What has he done? He has said it’s not his responsibility; it must be the governors’ responsibility. He has the authority under the Defense Production Act to go to a corporation and say make me a million swabs, this is what you do now. He has that authority now. He’s not – he’s slow going. Everything is slow walking.

MR. COSTA: With us tonight to discuss the campaign: Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Jeremy Peters, political correspondent for The New York Times; and Shannon Pettypiece, senior White House reporter for NBC News Digital.

Shannon, we talked about the briefings during the program. For your sources inside of the White House, do they see these briefings as an opportunity to be a political campaign under the veneer of a formal public event?

SHANNON PETTYPIECE: They don’t anymore. I think initially there was a sense that the president could come out and he could look like he was the commander in chief leading the nation through a crisis. That maybe lasted two or three briefings and then it’s just sort of continued to spiral into these freewheeling fights with the media and, you know, talking about the disinfectant and the heat and, you know, the sort of bizarre side topics that they do not want to be talking about. And you know, and I know one advisor told them, you know, listen, you know, this is a nation that’s lost tens of thousands of people. I mean, we’re in a week where we’ve lost 50,000 Americans now. And to have that be contrast with the president fighting with reporters, calling them fake news, and then talking about these weird scientific theories he has, it’s not helping, and the poll numbers certainly reflect that. His approval rating’s come down, and I believe it was about 28 percent of people said that they actually trusted the president to get accurate information about this.

MR. COSTA: Toluse, you’ve done some reporting this week about Vice President Biden versus President Trump. What have you found in your reporting?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, there’s a key demographic where the Biden camp thinks they are going to be able to make a lot of ground, and the polling has showed that. That’s with older voters, senior citizens. They’ve really soured on the president when it comes to his coronavirus response. We’ve seen over the past several weeks the president’s marks go down significantly among senior citizens. Obviously, seniors are the people that are most impacted when it comes to serious impacts from the coronavirus. A lot of senior citizens, a lot of nursing homes have been really ravaged by this disease, and they see President Trump going up there to the podium and, as Shannon said, fighting with reporters, talking about things that have no relation to reality. And we see Biden really doing well with these voters, even leading President Trump in states like Florida where there are a lot of older voters. Biden did very well during the primaries with older voters, he won by large margins over a crowded field, and he’s trying to bring that same appeal to the general election. Senior citizens typically vote for Republicans. They backed President Trump in 2016. They really made the margin for him. And if the polling holds up between now and November, Biden would be in a strong position to win a lot of these states that have older voters in large proportions and are key to the electoral map. Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, even Arizona are all in play if these numbers hold up, and that’s what we’re hearing from the Biden camp. The Trump camp says it’s going to take a while to try to define Biden in the view of some of these older voters and that by the time we get to November his numbers will be much worse than they are right now.

MR. COSTA: Jeremy, you were nodding as Toluse was talking. You want to jump in?

JEREMY PETERS: I think that there’s going to be a real crisis point for the Republican Party coming in the next few months: Do they break from Trump in a fashion that they’ve never done before, that they’ve been too afraid to? They wouldn’t dare break with him politically because it would cost them – it would cost them their seats, it would cost them their careers. But there’s a real question in the minds of some of the people I’ve spoken to this week, a consideration almost of that possibility, because he is so far down in the polls. He is self-sabotaging himself on a – on a scale unlike anything any president has ever done before in a moment of crisis, and these Republicans are asking themselves, all right, am I really going to go down with the ship. We’re not there yet, and as you know –

MR. COSTA: But Jeremy, what would be the breaking point for that?

MR. PETERS: Right.

MR. COSTA: It’s just hard to see three-and-a-half years in, what is the breaking point?

MR. PETERS: I think this would be – if it’s not this, then there is no breaking point, right? I mean, you and I have had conversations like this before on shows like this many times, and in my mind there’s never really been a time when I’ve said, oh my gosh, that’s it. But something feels a little different about this – not a little different, but a lot different. I mean, people are losing their lives, and never has it been clearer that Donald Trump is so ill-equipped to lead the country. This is why these briefings haven’t worked, is he is the wrong type of leader for a situation like this that requires empathy, requires a consoler in chief, and instead he’s a divider in chief. And that’s not what Americans want to see at these briefings every day.

MR. COSTA: Shannon, the Trump campaign is not taking it lightly. They’re going after Speaker Pelosi in a new campaign ad this week, targeting her over her handling of this latest legislation about small-business loans and replenishing that program. They essentially show her as a political leader eating ice cream as the – as small businesses struggle, so this is no holds barred from the Trump campaign, it seems at least this week.

MS. PETTYPIECE: Right, I mean, they’re not holding back at all, certainly. And you know, to Jeremy’s point, I mean, none of us know how this story’s going to end, but I just feel like we’ve seen this Trump is down and out and lost on his luck story so many times and there’s so much time left. And I mean, I know it seems like this is an issue that America could be dealing with for months if not years trying to recover from, but the strategy that I’m hearing is that they know maybe come November, you know, that there’s maybe still, you know, issues with the virus, maybe the economy still doesn’t look great, but that they can spin this as a comeback story; that as long as things are kind of on the up, as long as the job numbers no matter how bad they are are heading in the right direction, if the virus numbers seem to be heading in the right direction, that they can sell this as a great American comeback story and Trump having gotten everyone through this crisis, and even if the reality on the ground still looks bad that they can shift the perception to being one where people feel like things are improving. And I just feel like there’s so much time and so many things that could happen between now and then, I mean, it’s going to be fascinating to see. We certainly had no predictions we would be talking about this three months ago, so I just – I don’t want to have a failure of imagination on what else is to come here.

MR. COSTA: No, that’s so true. And Toluse, when I talk to my sources at the White House, they privately keep telling me their opponent in 2020 isn’t Vice President Biden; it’s the virus. And that the president, in their view, is going to be judged by how he handles the virus, not necessarily how he responds to Vice President Biden. But I would like to ask all of you, starting with Toluse, about Democrats and Vice President Biden, because he is the presumptive Democratic nominee. He has his convention ahead of him that may be shrunk down because of concerns about the virus and social distancing. Is his real moment to have a breakthrough the vice presidential pick? What else? Toluse, you talked about his appeal with older voters, but what else is in the toolbox for Democrats as he sits in that basement in Delaware spoiling and trying to get attention?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, in that basement he really is at the mercy of the political winds. He is not driving the conversation. He is really at the mercy of President Trump’s performance here. Right now this is race that is a referendum on President Trump. There’s not too much Biden and his camp can do about this. They’ve tried to talk about what Trump is doing wrong and talk about the fact that Trump is ill-suited for this moment. But even that is not really breaking through as much as the president’s own words. And sort of a lot of the ads that Biden’s allies have used have just used the president’s own words against him.

So Biden is really handicapped, in a way. He and his camp are happy at this point to allow President Trump to sort of shoot himself in the foot. But that is leaving his opponent with a lot of the cards. And admittedly he does not have a lot of the cards. He can’t drive the conversation. He can’t do regular campaigning. And so right now President Trump is driving the conversation. Biden is trying to capitalize on the fact that President Trump is driving the conversation in way that is bizarre and is sort of making people question his ability to lead the country.

But right now, the Biden camp is looking for ways to break through. And they really haven’t found them yet. We’ll have to see over the next several weeks as he thinks about a vice presidential pick how he can do that, how he can capitalize on some of the endorsements he got last week from President Obama and Bernie Sanders. But right now, none of that is really breaking through and they’re going to have to wait for an opportunity to do that.

MR. COSTA: Shannon, how does the Trump White House see the ads that are coming out from the Biden campaign which, as Toluse said, stitch together the president’s statements, often casting the president as removed from taking the virus seriously back in March and February? Do they see those ads as effective and as dangerous to them politically?

MS. PETTYPIECE: Well, I mean, it certainly caused a lot of worry and anxiety at one point. A lot of people close to the campaign were saying: Where is the super PAC? Where are our ads? Where’s our counterpunch? Because the campaign didn’t really want to be the ones out there going to the air. They were waiting for the super PAC to be the real attack dogs. And it took the PAC a little while. Eventually they did get on the ads – on the air with their own ads. But, yes, that was definitely creating some concern.

And, you know, to Toluse’s point, it’s interesting, I mean, I get a sense that the Trump campaign wishes Biden was out there more because that would give them some material to work with. It would give them some maybe gaffes that they could latch onto. Or it would give them an opportunity to try to paint a caricature of Biden that was not flattering. And that’s what they were anticipating. So I think they’re also in a difficult position too. And they don’t necessarily have a real opponent they can punch at. And Trump is, of course, this, like, famous counterpuncher, who is strongest when he has a strong opponent. So I think it might put them at a bit of a little disadvantage as well.

MR. COSTA: And, Jeremy, finally, I know it’s a pandemic, but I’m a political reporter. We’re all political reporters. I can’t resist the veepstakes. I sat – I didn’t sit down. I had an interview this week via Skype with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. I asked her, has the Biden campaign asked you for vetting papers or documents. She said no, not yet. What are you hearing on the VP front?

MR. PETERS: You know, I think that the Gretchen Whitmer talk is a bit overplayed. And because she’s in the news cycle right now people are focusing on her. That’s what people tell me. Although, I will say that I’ve heard more about a Midwestern woman as his running mate than I have anyone else in the last few weeks. And this kind of predates the pandemic. So, you know, I think somebody in that mold –

MR. COSTA: Who would that be, Jeremy?

MR. PETERS: I mean, I’ve heard Amy Klobuchar’s name thrown around. I think it’s got to be, I’m told, a pick that shores up a weakness of Biden’s, right? And I know there’s been a lot of clamoring in the party for an African American woman. Well, Biden’s strength with African Americans is pretty high. He doesn’t need a lot of help there. But what he does need is help in these Midwestern states. And you know, the numbers, as they stand now, look very good for Biden in these states.

But it’s April. We have a long way to go here. And like we often say that Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. Joe Biden is his own worst enemy as well. And being out of the spotlight for these few weeks is probably more helpful to him than it is harmful. And when he gets back out there and this turns into a more conventional political campaign where people are following it more closely – and we’re in September, October, November – it’s a totally different ballgame by then.

MR. COSTA: Toluse, there’s a big difference between Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota – politically more centrist – than Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader in Georgia, a vocal progressive Democrat.

MR. OLORUNNIPA: That’s exactly right. Biden does have a very pivotal choice to make, in part because he’s still trying to coalesce the party. He did win pretty resoundingly in terms of winning the primaries, winning Super Tuesday. But there are a lot of Bernie Sanders voters, to a lesser degree there are a lot of Elizabeth Warren voters, voters who are on the left, voters who are more progressive, voters that represent a more diverse electorate, who want Biden to show that he’s giving them an olive branch.

They’re going to be looking at his VP choice as one of the major points in that decision-making process as to whether Biden is going to be sort of this moderate, return to normal candidate, or whether he is going to be what he said he’s campaigning on, which is the most progressive platform in American history. And he has made some overtures to the left flank of the party, but I think the VP pick is something that a lot of skeptical Bernie Sanders voters and Elizabeth Warren voters are looking at very closely.

And in addition to sort of the demographic decision he’s going to have to make, he’s going to have to send a signal to some of those younger voters, to some of those more progressive voters – who may be thinking about staying home or sitting it out in 2020 – that he’s listening to them. That is something that he’s trying to do, while also not pushing away some of those older voters that we talked about earlier, and moderate voters, who do not want Bernie Sanders or anything like that in a Biden administration. And he’s going to have to figure out how to walk that fine line. And I think that’s why he’s going to take a lot of time to decide who his vice presidential pick is going to be.

MR. COSTA: Smart points. Just I’ll close with saying I was talking to a top Democrat this week on background, so no name. And they said if Biden can’t pick Governor Cuomo of New York because he’s decided to pick a woman, who should he pick? And the name they floated to me? Former First Lady Michelle Obama. But I’ve read her book and I’m not so sure she would be interested in coming into that kind of position in elected politics, even though she’s quite popular. We’ll see, though. Anything could happen in politics.

That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re there check out our weekly news quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.

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