Full Episode: The politics of reopening the United States

May. 16, 2020 AT 12:38 a.m. EDT

President Trump is optimistic about reopening the U.S. but health experts who testified on Capitol Hill this week warn it could be dangerous. The panel also discussed negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over the next round of coronavirus relief funding and President Trump’s tweets about the Michael Flynn case.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Optimism from the president and caution from experts.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) The reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) To me it’s not an acceptable answer.

MR. COSTA: A divide between health officials and President Trump as he rallies to reopen a strained nation, and a warning from a whistleblower.

RICK BRIGHT: (From video.) We need a national testing strategy. The virus is here. It’s everywhere.

MR. COSTA: As states teeter on the brink of economic collapse, Congress debates another relief bill.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We must think big for the people now because if we don’t it will cost more in lives and livelihood later.

MR. COSTA: And the campaign heats up as the president lashes out about the case of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It was the greatest political crime in the history of our country.

MR. COSTA: Next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. The week ends with nearly 90,000 Americans dead due to COVID-19, and states that have struggled for weeks with testing are now struggling to reopen. It’s a nation uncertain and divided. Governors are clashing with state lawmakers and in need of cash. Neighbors are helping one another, but also arguing over facemasks. Millions of households are dealing with personal tensions and financial pressure. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said this week that the country is the middle of the biggest shock our economy has felt in modern times and possibly facing an extended period of weakness. And here in Washington on Friday House Democrats are considering Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s $3 trillion relief package, but that, it’s only the opening bid, with negotiations with Senate Republicans and the White House just beginning. President Trump, he’s encouraging states to reopen and touting efforts to develop a vaccine.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) There’s never been a vaccine project anywhere in history like this. And I just want to make something clear – it’s very important – vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back, and we’re starting the process.

MR. COSTA: But health experts warned this week that the president and governors must move slowly. Here is Dr. Anthony Fauci and whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright, a former vaccine official.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery.

RICK BRIGHT: (From video.) If we fail to improve our response now based on science, I fear the pandemic will get worse and be prolonged. There will be likely a resurgence of COVID-19 this fall. It’ll be greatly compounded by the challenges of seasonal influenza. Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history.

MR. COSTA: Joining me are four reporters who have been on the beat all week: Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent for CBS News; Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press; Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN; and Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook.

Weijia, you’re at the White House tonight. You’re talking to sources inside the West Wing. Looking at that testimony from Dr. Bright and Dr. Fauci, is the president listening or is he sidelining experts?

WEIJIA JIANG: Bob, it’s great to be with you, and I can tell you that this really was a one-two punch for President Trump because you have these top health experts undermining his argument that the country is ready to reopen, an argument that he took a step further just today, saying that with or without a vaccine we are back. And because the president does not offer scientific data to support his side of this argument, he turns to attacking Dr. Fauci and Bright, and so we heard him say that Fauci is trying to play both sides here and that Bright is just a disgruntled employee who shouldn’t be working for the government at all. And so this really struck a chord for President Trump, who at the same time is having these events trying to prove to the country that we’re ready to move forward when these experts are saying if you do that too quickly it will cost you.

MR. COSTA: Abby, what’s your read, your reporting tell you about the discord that’s possibly going on inside the taskforce? I saw Dr. Fauci standing behind President Trump today in the Rose Garden. What’s the story behind the scenes?

ABBY PHILLIP: Yeah, well, Operation Warp Speed, what they announced today with vaccines, is something that absolutely has to happen, and I think everyone’s on the same page about that, but there is a real difference of opinion about how quickly the White House should be emphasizing reopening versus encouraging states to use data, as Weijia pointed out, to rationalize why they are reopening and how. Remember, just a few days ago the White House had rolled out these guidelines for states to use in order to decide whether or not they could be phased into different parts of the reopening. Based on the way that President Trump is talking at the moment, it seems that they have virtually abandoned that framework. Many of the states are clearly not following, and there is a general lack of guidelines coming from the White House and from the CDC and other federal agencies about what should guide states as they reopen. This is being led by the president and a lot of his economic advisors, who want to focus on reopening, while some of the medical experts say there needs to be a slow, steady, and data-driven approach to this issue.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, Abby just mentioned Operation Warp Speed, this vaccine effort inside the White House. It’s being helmed in part by a former pharmaceutical executive. What’s the reality here? What are the facts about how long a vaccine could take?

JONATHAN LEMIRE: Bob, first of all, it’s great to be here. Yes, Operation Warp Speed – was apparently an appropriate Star Trek reference on the same day they unveiled the Space Force flag in the Oval Office – is meant to be a crash course to develop a vaccine, and the president has taken to saying in recent weeks that he believes – and he said it again today – that he believes the vaccine could be developed and widely disseminated by the end of the year, which is an extraordinary accelerated timetable. Now, members of the taskforce, his new vaccine czar, echoed that, said it would be a challenge but he believed they could do it. But other health experts, including Dr. Fauci just the other day, really cast doubt on that, a real bucket of cold water. Vaccines often take years to develop, and Dr. Fauci has said he believes this one could be a year to 18 months, and even that would be an aggressive timetable, but the president doesn’t want to hear it. He, of course, is looking to get the economy going as quickly as he can. He wants these states to reopen, and he’s doing it with one eye, of course, towards November. He knows that in order to be reelected the odds are, his advisors believe, he needs to show that the economy is moving again. He and his team saw the dismal unemployment, historic unemployment numbers from a week or so ago. They’re rattled that it could take quite some time even with states beginning to slowly reopen for some of those jobs to come back, and he feels that pushing forward this sort of rosy take on the whole scenario, but particularly vaccines, is the best way for him to be – as he’s put it – be a cheerleader for the country.

MS. JIANG: And Bob, if I could just add that, you know –

MR. COSTA: Sure. Please do.

MS. JIANG: I think, you know, when I talk to administration officials who have crafted, you know, this new initiative, they’re really trying to buy time when it comes to manufacturing and distributing. They said, look, it’s like if we are betting on a horse in a race, we are going to bet on a few horses, a few promising vaccines, and start to manufacture those even before one emerges as a winner so we’ll be ready to, you know, push it out and get it to the people who need it. The problem is that you can’t rush the actual development part. There are about a hundred different groups around the world that are racing to try to get something that they know is effective and safe, and that’s the part that doctors say, you know, you just cannot control when it comes to a timeline.

MR. COSTA: Jake, as the White House and the doctors have this standoff over the course of how they should all move on the pandemic, your beat, House of Representatives, they’re still deliberating tonight on Speaker Pelosi’s $3 trillion relief package. And this is days after Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell prodded Congress to act. Let’s hear from him.

FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIRMAN JEROME POWELL: (From video.) The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent, significantly worse than any recession since World War II. Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery.

MR. COSTA: But the president and Senate Republicans have voiced opposition to the Democrats’ plan.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) It’s got so much unrelated to the coronavirus it’s dead on arrival here.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) As they say, DOA, right? DOA, dead on arrival. Of course, Nancy Pelosi knows that. You know, obviously.

MR. COSTA: Still, as I reported with my Post colleagues this week, the White House is now open to a deal with more money for states on the table. In exchange, the White House wants tax breaks for businesses. But, Jake, tonight, Friday night, inside the House of Representatives, there’s still not a final vote on Speaker Pelosi’s package. What’s going on on the floor?

JAKE SHERMAN: That’s exactly right, Bob. Right now we are at the tail end of a day during which Nancy Pelosi spent much of it, much of today, twisting arms and getting her Democratic colleagues in line, she hopes, to vote for this major piece of legislation. Three trillion dollars. I mean, they took Jay Powell’s works quite seriously and crafted a package that Nancy Pelosi herself described as one of the broadest pieces of legislation to come in front of Congress in a very long time.

Now, the risk is quite obvious politically, Bob. There’s two risks, right? There’s the risk that they don’t do enough at the end of the day, which we’ll have to see when the end of the day is. And then there’s the other risk, which is she’s putting her 30 Democratic lawmakers who were in elected in districts that Donald Trump won – she is forcing them – not forcing them – she’s asking them to vote for a $3 trillion bill. Bob, we all lived through the 2009 stimulus bill and all the actions that were taken after that recession. And House Republicans ran campaigns for years based on those stimulus votes – those pricey stimulus votes, which many people argued were necessary but were politically very tough.

So Republicans are betting that this bill, which as the president said – he’s right, it’s dead on arrival in the Senate – they are betting that they can make political hay in November out of this very tough $3 trillion vote. We don’t know how it’s going to end up, but we assume Nancy Pelosi’s going to be able to squeeze this through. She’s very good at that. And quite frankly, her members want to legislate – the vast majority of them want their prints on the bill. The last couple of bills have been written by the leadership. So this is an important bill for Democrats to vote on, they think.

MR. COSTA: Abby, you’re talking to voters. You’re talking to candidates. Are governors, are state officials satisfied with what they’re hearing from Washington? You said they’re not getting the guidance they need on testing. What about on the financial front? Is this enough?

MS. PHILLIP: There is so much anxiety right now in the states about how they are going to be solvent, given that the coronavirus has really wiped out their revenues on a number of different fronts, whether it’s sales tax, or income tax, and it’s added this extra burden of millions of people on unemployment rolls. So they’re really desperate for help from Washington to really resolve those issues so that they can, frankly, just pay their bills. And there’s a sense that time is of the essence here. It’s not just – it’s not just the state and local aid in order to balance their budgets.

There are also some really pressing needs when it comes to elections. As Jake mentioned, this is – we’re less than six months away from a general election. A lot of states have to make some really big changes in response to this virus, preparedness. There’s a need for that to be dealt with in some of these bills. It’s dealt with in the House bill from Pelosi, but a lot of those provisions are what some of the most liberal members of the House want. And as the president said, it is dead on arrival in the Senate. But I do think, Bob, that we can expect that there is going to be some movement on a lot of these issues because I think both sides of the aisle know that there needs to be some middle ground in order to stop the bleeding at the state and local level as a result of this crisis.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, Abby just said –

MR. SHERMAN: Bob, can I just jump in for one –

MR. COSTA: Sure. Please do, Jake.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah. I think the big question is timing. I mean, we’re about to hit Memorial Day. The question is what’s going to come first, the next round of legislating or layoffs in cities and states across the country? The White House sees a final bill, a final compromise on spending in the next six to eight weeks. But the real question is, do we see layoffs and furloughs in cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago? And will that press President Trump and the Congress to act? That is the political dynamic that, on top of what Abby said. She’s so right. But that is the political dynamic that we need to be keeping an eye on – what is next and when it comes.

MR. COSTA: A lot of pressure, Jonathan, on the White House. But we got a new conservative chief of staff in Mark Meadows. In a minute, Jonathan, will the White House really come to a deal here and get what they want – the tax breaks for state aid?

MR. LEMIRE: They’re going to try to push it, you’re right. It certainly goes against what the chief of staff has spent much of his career arguing, when he was on the Hill. But the president doesn’t care about deficits. The president needs the stimulus. He’s made that clear. He wants – he needs those jobs. He knows that – advisors around him have told him that state and local governments could be laying people off. Those will go onto the unemployment rolls.

That will be another blow to his reelection chances. I think we could expect that the White House – the president himself, we know he’s a haphazard lobbyist, and he certainly does more harm than good sometimes Republicans feel when he tries to put his weight behind legislation. But I think there’s a sense in the White House, they know they – he believes he needs to get something done. He needs to do it in time to see the good come out of it well in advance of November.

MR. COSTA: So with just six months until the election, as Jonathan said, President Trump, he’s eager to rally his core voters. And this week, he lashed out at longtime targets.

MS. JIANG: (From video.) You said many times that the U.S. is doing far better than any other country when it comes to testing.


MS. JIANG: (From video.) Why does that matter? Why is this a global competition to you if every day Americans are still losing their lives, and we’re still seeing more cases every day?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, they’re losing their lives everywhere in the world. And maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me. Ask China that question, OK? When you ask them that question you may get a very unusual answer.

Yes, behind you, please.

MS. JIANG: (From video.) Sir, why are you saying that to me specifically, that I should ask China?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’m telling you. I’m not saying it specifically to anybody. I’m saying it to anybody that would ask a nasty question like that.

MS. JIANG: (From video.) That’s not a nasty question.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Please go ahead.

MR. COSTA: But it is his outrage about the case of Michael Flynn that is now front and center on Friday, since the Justice Department dropped criminal charges against the former national security advisor he has accused President Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, of conspiring to oust Flynn from office in 2017. And a declassified list of former Obama officials, including Biden, who were read in on a probe of Flynn, has animated the president’s defenders, who are accusing Democrats of a conspiracy, with the president echoing them at every turn.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt. The whole thing was corrupt. And we caught them. We caught them.

MR. COSTA: Weijia, as always, holding firm as a reporter. When you look at the president’s comments this week, whether it’s on China or General Flynn’s case, do you see him trying to motivate his political base? What’s the strategy here?

MS. JIANG: Sure. Definitely. When it comes to that he’s been tough on China since he was a candidate in 2016. And, you know, we know that anything that remotely has to do with the Russia investigation is something that he is going to use, because that wound has not even healed for President Trump. And so anytime he has a chance in his eyes to discredit, you know, the probe, and certainly his impeachment, he will do that. And that’s what we saw in the case of what he is alleging with General Flynn.

But even the president himself was not able to offer clarity about what crime was committed. I mean, he’s talking about people should go to jail. He has coined yet another phrase, Obamagate, to talk about this. And he hasn’t talked about what he’s talking about. And that doesn’t matter sometimes, because we know when he – you know, when he delivers a message and he has this catch phrase, we see him hammering it over, and over, and over. And I think that’s what’s happening in this case with Flynn. He’s really trying to send that message that he was wronged by his predecessor.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, when you’re at the Associated Press writing stories for newspapers across the country –

MR. LEMIRE: Bob, can I jump in on –

MR. COSTA: Yes, please jump in. What are the real facts here that matter with General Flynn’s case, as you hear everything from the president, Jonathan?

MR. LEMIRE: Bob, I was just so eager to get in on this particular subject. I think, first of all, the unmasking – which the president has a knack for making pretty routine terms sound very sinister. And this is a pretty common occurrence in the intelligence world. There’s not surveillance on Michael Flynn. It was about the Russian ambassador, and then they realized there were contacts with Americans. Those Americans were identified. Michael Flynn was one of them. This is – there’s no real sense of a scandal here among most observers, but of course that’s not going to stop the president from hammering it home, and we’re seeing that. Obamagate, he’s coined. It’s a nickname for a scandal that doesn’t seem to have a there there. He hasn’t elaborated what it’s about. But I was talking to some senior Trump campaign officials just in the last 24 hours about this, and they acknowledge this is not going to probably persuade too many swing voters; it’s a base play, but they think it’s a useful one, like China. It’s going to be one where they attempt to drag down Joe Biden’s negatives, because they’re seeing this: Biden has not nearly the negatives that Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, did. In fact, in 2016 voters who did not like both Clinton and Trump largely broke for Trump. This time around, at least so far according to the polls, they’re breaking for Biden, and the president realizes – his team realizes they need to drag Biden’s numbers down, and that’s their focus right now far more than trying to bolster the president’s – trying to raise his up. And they see this as a way to do it, and they’re going to recycle the 2016 playbook. They’re going to allege personal corruption. We’re going to hear – start hearing Hunter Biden’s name again quite a bit in the days ahead. And they’re going to suggest some sort of nefarious doings here by the vice president as part of the Obama administration when it comes to Flynn, trying to thwart this president’s presidency before it even began.

MR. COSTA: Abby, you’re on the VP Biden beat. What’s his – what’s his play here, his response to this barrage of attacks?

MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, I mean, I think that the Biden campaign has really studied what happened with the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 when it came to this email scandal, and they have really been very aggressive in trying to undermine this strategy and this attempt by the Trump campaign to basically rebrand all of the controversies of the last three years – the impeachment investigation, the Russia investigation – as something that was actually a scandal on the part of the Obama and Biden administration. So they’re really trying to put pressure on media organizations to not cover this incredulously and to really – to take a skeptical look at all of this, and they’re also focusing on the issue of the coronavirus because I think they understand that ultimately this is a diversion from the central issue for the country, which is how is this administration dealing with this historic crisis that it is facing. And you know, President Trump, I think they also know, is not a perfect messenger when it comes to the issue of China. Yes, there are many Americans who are concerned about how China handled the coronavirus crisis, but the president has often been reluctant to criticize Chinese President Xi Jinping personally and hold him responsible personally for the Chinese government’s misdeeds. And so I do think that the Biden campaign is trying to stay focused and they’re trying to avoid getting dragged into these melees that the Trump campaign is trying to create with the so-called Obamagate.

MR. COSTA: And Jake, real quick – Jake, you know who also seems to want to avoid getting dragged into all this? Congressional Republicans. Senator Lindsey Graham, he’s as close as you can get to President Trump, but he said, whoa, not so fast when the president called for making President Obama a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Are Republicans in step with the president but not willing to go that far?

MR. SHERMAN: I think there’s an element of that. I think there’s an element of the fact that they don’t want to make this a circus. Now, listen, Mitch McConnell for the first time when I was in the Capitol this week – you know him as well as I do, Bob; he’s not one to answer questions he doesn’t want to answer. He was asked this week by Manu Raju, our friend from CNN, what he thought of the Senate landscape, the political landscape, and he said it’s tough. We have to remember, the Senate is in play too, and that’s very important, and if this looks like a circus for people in Colorado or Arizona or North Carolina where we have these very difficult Senate races on the map, that’s not good. And bringing President Barack Obama in front of the Senate some worry would not be something that, when 85,000, 90,000 people are dead, would not be something that people want to see and will not – would not be seen as a legislature that’s doing its job and attuned to the situation as it exists in this country right now.

MR. COSTA: Weijia, we have about 45 seconds left. I know you wanted to jump in.

MS. JIANG: Oh, I was just going to jump in to Abby’s point about the president trying to maintain this firm stance on China, and it’s sort of his default. But in the clip that you played I wanted to point out that the reason I followed up was because my original question had nothing to do with China, but even people that I’ve talked to after that happened told me that, you know, when the president hears anybody bring up that lives were lost, that American lives were lost and that the number of U.S. cases continues to go up, he becomes very defensive, and that’s why he might have brought up China. Of course, we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking in that moment.

MR. COSTA: Weijia, I want to say thank you not only for that sharp answer, but for all your reporting this week. And just – I know reporters never want to be the story, and you just made sure you’re asking the question and doing your job like everyone else here. Not easy, but I appreciate you all taking the time on a Friday night: Weijia Jiang, Jonathan Lemire, Abby Phillip, and Jake Sherman. Really appreciate it.

And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can, and on the Extra we’ll dig in more into 2020; we got into a little bit now. You can find it on our social media or our website.

I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


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