Full Episode: Coronavirus infections spike and President Trump’s polls sink

Jun. 26, 2020 AT 9:33 p.m. EDT

The coronavirus pandemic is spreading rapidly in many states, with more than 40,000 new cases on Thursday alone, and spikes in Florida, Texas, and California. This week the panel discussed how some Republicans may break with President Donald Trump on how to safely reopen the country. They also discussed how police reform efforts following the death of George Floyd have has stalled on Capitol Hill.

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

ROBERT COSTA: The virus spikes and the president’s poll numbers sink.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) We’ve been hit badly. We’ve had now over 120,000 deaths and we’ve had 2 ½ million infections.

MR. COSTA: Across the country states report record highs in coronavirus cases, but the president remains defiant, pushing to reopen the economy and rallying his base.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Lock ‘em up, yeah. Lock ‘em up.

MR. COSTA: And as the nation wrestles with its past, the road to police reform remains uncertain.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The Senate will have a choice to honor George Floyd’s life or to do nothing.

SENATOR TIM SCOTT (R-SC): (From video.) If you don’t allow amendments in the House bill and you won’t accept amendments on the Senate bill, how do we take you serious?

MR. COSTA: Next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. At week’s end President Trump is confronting a grim reality: the coronavirus pandemic is spreading like wildfire in many states, with more than 40,000 new cases on Thursday alone and spikes in Florida, Texas, and California. Here was what Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) What we’re dealing with right now is community spread in the context of a substantial proportion of the people who are getting infected do not know they’re infected; they’re not symptomatic. This is part of a process that we can be either part of the solution or part of the problem. If we don’t extinguish the outbreak, sooner or later even ones that are doing well are going to be vulnerable to the spread.

MR. COSTA: But as governors reel from these alarming new numbers, the Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to strike down President Obama’s health-care law and it considered ending direct federal funding for 13 testing sites in five states by the end of the month – then, on Friday, it said it would actually extend funding in Texas after an outcry. As all of this criticism mounts, the president has blamed the rise in cases on expanded testing, as he did Thursday with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We have more cases because we do the greatest testing. If we didn’t do testing, we’d have no cases. Other countries, they don’t test millions. So we’re up to almost 30 million tests.

MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight are four reporters ready to open their notebooks: Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN; Kasie Hunt, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and host of Kasie DC on MSNBC; Dan Balz, the chief correspondent for The Washington Post; and Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press.

Good Friday evening to all of you. I appreciate you being here. Abby, let’s start with you. You look at these governors, many of them Republican, facing a crisis in their states as these case numbers soar. What’s the significance of these Trump allies now having problems?

ABBY PHILLIP: Well, these are the very same people who just a few months ago were so eager to open their states back up that they were among the first to do it, and now they’re realizing that there are real consequences to doing it too quickly and to doing it not in conjunction with clear public-health messaging about what people should do. So when you see places like Texas and you see places like Florida starting to realize that they have a potentially uncontrollable outbreak on their hands, that is a real warning sign because these were the folks who were the most ardent backers of the administration pushing for reopening. They are suddenly, in Texas in particular, starting to close their states up again. This does not bode well for this administration, that seems to want to pretend like these outbreaks are not happening and that they’re not significant. They are real, and even the president’s allies are starting to realize it and having to respond to it.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, can you build on Abby’s reporting there? The task force met on Friday, Dr. Fauci sounding the alarm, but Vice President Pence touting the administration’s response. What’s the story inside the West Wing?

JONATHAN LEMIRE: Well, this was the first coronavirus briefing they’ve had in a number of weeks. Vice President Pence in front of the cameras asked Americans three times to pray. He didn’t even ask once for Americans to don masks, which of course health experts believe is so crucial to stopping the – slowing and stopping the spread of this virus. Behind the scenes, Bob, this is a president who wants to forge forward, who’s talking about the virus even in the past tense, touting success of the testing program, exaggerating the success of the testing program, and so eager to restart the nation’s economy, believing that’s his really only best chance to win reelection this November. He’s forging forward, even plunging into the hotspots. I was with him on Tuesday, when he went to Arizona. He touted the – visited the border wall as a – to sort of tout an accomplishment as a signal to his conservative base, but then also held a rally – a rally of sorts at a packed megachurch in Phoenix. That event: no social distancing, no temperature checks, very few masks. And it’s one that, while the president fed off that crowd, there are some around him that worry in Arizona, a state where the virus is surging, that could have even been a super spreader event in itself.

MR. COSTA: Kasie, when you’re up on Capitol Hill – you covered Dr. Fauci’s testimony this week. Are there Republican cracks? We saw Senator Cornyn and Senator Cruz of Texas push back against the administration’s position on testing. What else are you hearing?

KASIE HUNT: Well, Bob, I do think that this is a scenario where the politics of the Senate Republicans and the president aren’t necessarily the same as they have been on so many issues over the past several years because so many members of Congress are seeing their constituents suffering. They are seeing hospitals, health-care providers in their states, in their home districts, grappling with the intensity of this crisis, and that’s the first, foremost, and most important reality that they have to answer to. And while, as Jonathan Lemire pointed out, the White House has sent some serious mixed messaging on wearing masks, that’s not what you’re hearing from members of the Republican Senate. Marco Rubio was very direct in saying everyone should put on a mask already, and you’re seeing them do it themselves for the most part in the halls of Congress. So this is something that I think Republicans are really feeling the pressure on, and it is going to contribute to how they feel about their own reelection chances coming up in the fall as people are grapping with this pandemic. Every person engaged in the election or not is having to deal with this in their own personal lives, and if they’re not happy with how people in power – and right now Republicans hold the White House and the Republican Senate – are doing in grappling with this crisis, they’re going to be unhappy and potentially vote for change. And I think you’re really seeing an across-the-board reaction to that in a way you have not seen Republicans react to other issues over the past years of the Trump administration.

MR. COSTA: Yet, Dan, when you look at the Republicans, they’re still standing by him in the polls and they seem to applaud when he goes after the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health-care law. When you look at the Trump administration taking that move, making that move this week, do you see a White House and an administration trying to hold Republicans together? What’s the political explanation for that fight?

DAN BALZ: I think the only political explanation, Bob, is that it does play to the Republican base. Getting rid of the Affordable Care Act has been an article of faith among Republicans ever since it was passed by the Obama administration, and I think they would dearly like to do that. But the politics of it and the timing of it probably couldn’t be worse. We know that the Affordable Care Act was unpopular for a number of years; that’s not the case today. People have a much higher opinion of it than they once did, and at this moment – in the middle of a pandemic – the idea of completely upending the health-care system by getting rid of the Affordable Care Act is something that I think will make many, many Americans nervous. So I think both in terms of the pure politics of it and the timing of it, it seems terribly awkward on the administration’s part to do this.

MR. COSTA: But, Abby, you look at Vice President Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, he’s itching to have this fight on health care. So is Speaker Pelosi. Let’s dig a little bit deeper into this campaign issue and the latest polls, because they do hover over everything.

The president is looking at tough numbers. According to a New York Times/Siena College poll former Vice President Joe Biden is leading in six battleground states that President Trump won in 2016. Another Times/Siena poll showed Biden ahead of the president by 14 points nationally, and showed Trump losing ground with his base of White voters. The president’s response has pretty much been going back to his 2016 playbook, from touting the border wall alongside Jonathan Lemire in Arizona this week to baselessly accusing former President Obama of treason. Abby, back to Biden, how does his campaign see all this, these polling numbers about the race? Are they looking at a landslide?

MS. PHILLIP: Well, you know, I don’t think you can find a Democrat in the country that would sit here and look at polls in June and say: This is going to be – you know, it’s going to be easy for the nominee come November. Democrats are so beyond nervous. The Biden campaign is no exception. But they do understand that the polls are showing something very real, which is that the president is not increasing his support at all. In fact, his support is dropping like a rock in response to dual crises – the coronavirus pandemic and his handling of racial tensions. It’s why you’ve seen the president go back to his base message. It’s why you see him and his campaign putting out new ads aimed at trying to depress support for Joe Biden, especially among Black voters.

Look, I mean, the Biden campaign is keenly aware this is not going to be easy. This is an incumbent president. But they also understand that President Trump, they believe, is his own worst enemy. Many of these wounds the president is experiencing are of his own making. So that’s why you don’t see Joe Biden trying to go out of his way to create moments that don’t necessarily need to be there. They’re giving their speeches, but they are avoiding press conferences. They are being very, very careful here because they understand that what’s going on here is President Trump is, himself, creating a hole that might be very, very difficult for him to get out of come November.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, what is the White House’s plan to respond to these polling numbers? I was reading The Wall Street Journal editorial page. And they took him on today saying, quote, “As of now, Mr. Trump has no second term agenda or even a message beyond four more years of himself.” I know the president’s not going to New Jersey this weekend. He may meet with aides to talk about his campaign. What’s next for the Trump campaign?

MR. LEMIRE: I believe that editorial said that if President Trump was looking for a nickname for Joe Biden it shouldn’t be sleepy Joe but right now it might be president-elect if things were to continue this way. My colleagues and I at the Associated Press addressed this topic today with our new story, with the president’s campaign sort of theory of the case. They recognize right now there aren’t that many voters out there who are undecided about President Trump. There may not even be that many they can persuade and kind of win back. They believe – and we can take exceptions with it – but they believe about 40 percent of the country still likes the president. They think his approval number has been relatively stable throughout his three and a half years.

Their goal? To turn out that 40 percent as high as possible, even though – and believe that the 60 percent that supports Joe Biden may not turn out as high because they think that the proportion that supports the president, even though it’s a smaller number, is more enthusiastic about it. They’re diehards. They’ll come out for him. Hence, all the base plays this week about the border, about Confederate monuments, about Obamacare. Their support for Joe Biden, though it seems wider, seems a little more tepid. The enthusiasm numbers aren’t quite as high.

But what the campaign is now worried about, are they seeing some of those enthusiasm numbers for Joe Biden start to pick up amid the protests of the last weeks, amid further worries about the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which is why you’re seeing the president’s team try so desperately to drive Biden’s negatives down. Part of why they won in 2016, of course, is because Hillary Clinton had such high negatives too, just like Trump did. Biden’s aren’t nearly as high, which is why the president and his team right now are trying to drag Biden down. They don’t think they can bring up Trump’s numbers all that much.

MR. COSTA: Dan, you study these polls. Anytime the Post has a story about a poll you’re usually on the frontpage writing about it. What are you learning when you study these latest numbers, when you see him having soft support with Evangelicals, with White voters?

MR. BALZ: Bob, I think, you know, as we know, you can’t predict the outcome of this election at this moment. But if you look at these polls, the president is in a terrible position. I talked to two strategists over the last couple of days about these polls – one a Republican and one a Democrat. And both of them used the same expression, unprompted, which is Trump fatigue. One of them said to me, if you look at these poll numbers, his ballot number – the number of – the percentage of people who say they’re ready to vote for him is actually below his approval rating. And I said, well, you would assume in normal times the president will get at least his approval rating in terms of the vote in November. And this person said: I am not convinced of that. I think that there are a lot of voters who have just kind of had it with the Trump era. This was a Republican who said that to me. And a Democrat had a similar view.

Now, you know, there will come a time over the summer when Vice President Biden will be, as the expression goes, in the barrel. He will face some adversity. You don’t go through campaigns like this without having to do that. But right now I think the Biden campaign feels that the attacks that the president has leveled against him, and that the campaign is leveling against him, are not having that much effect. And they look at the defection among groups that have supported not just President Trump but other Republicans in the past. And they say that that puts Biden in a stronger position at this point than Hillary Clinton was four years ago. So I think that this is a long, slow road back for the president. This is not something that he can do by simply flipping a switch and that the electorate will begin to turn around. He’s going to have to do something that is difficult for him, which is to have a consistent and disciplined message and campaign operation.

MR. COSTA: Kasie, I know Republicans are uneasy when they look at these numbers. I was talking to a Republican senator the other day and I said: What’s your strategy? And he said: Avoid Kasie Hunt in the hallway so she doesn’t ask me a tough question about President Trump. (Laughter.) But, Kasie, what about the Democrats? I mean, coming back to what we were talking about with Abby, they had big primaries this week, Eliot Engel could be on track to lose in a New York Democratic House primary – a committee chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee in the House; a tight Senate race on the Democratic side in Kentucky. In your notebook, what are the lessons learned from this week’s primaries?

MS. HUNT: Bob, I think that the top line lesson here for any politician in power – and we saw the Republicans go through this a little more recently and Democrats have been grappling with a different version of it in recent years – is that complacency is absolutely a killer if you are in power. And right now, we are seeing, frankly, our government – and the blame for this is falling at President Trump’s feet for obvious reasons, but also any elected official who is seen as disconnected from either their voters directly, or from the times, or from the issues that people care about right now is at risk.

And for Democrats you have seen more progressive candidates take strides here in these primary elections. And you’ve particularly seen some candidates who perhaps had establishment backing, were part of the establishment, who many thought would easily cruise to victory. And that assumption by itself has proven to be damaging in these times. And I think in particular you’ve seen candidates of color in a couple of important instances really rise on the moment that we are experiencing as a nation. People are saying, yes, I want someone who is out in the streets, who is protesting with me, who understands the pain that I am feeling and is willing to demonstrate that. So I think that’s really an important force. And anybody who is running for reelection at this point underestimates it at their own peril.

MR. COSTA: And that included the president’s –


MR. COSTA: Yes, do you want to jump in, Abby?

Ms. PHILLIP: Yeah, just quickly. I mean, I think that that’s exactly right. And what we’ve also seen in this past week, fueled by these protests, actually, that have been out in the streets, is voter registration is up. People are voting in really high numbers, historic numbers for some of these primaries. That’s a trend that I expect to see coming November. And it’s one of the reasons that the president himself is extremely nervous. He thinks that all of these people voting by mail are a threat to him. Republicans I speak to say this is a battlefield that Republicans can be competitive in, but because the president is so opposed to vote by mail they are putting themselves at a disadvantage. I think it’s going to be a huge factor as we go forward. There is a lot of energy in the Democratic base that is being harnessed not just by registration but by people having more means to vote, and that’s something that could benefit top and bottom of the – of the ticket come November.

MR. COSTA: Jonathan, House Democrats passed sweeping policing legislation on Thursday, but the whole thing is stalled in the Senate. Is there any chance of a bipartisan breakthrough this summer?

MR. LEMIRE: There doesn’t seem to be this moment one. You know, I’ll defer to Kasie and those who cover the Hill, who have a better read on this, but there does seem to be some momentum from the Republicans, you know, to – we know that, of course, that something passed the Senate, but there seems to be a bit of a gap to bridge here. What’s interesting is whether the – how much the president wants to perhaps put his thumb on the scale. We know that he has signed an executive order, of course, on some police reform that was – you know, his campaign was very pleased with. They thought they sort of – they sort of managed to have it both ways. They sent a signal that he, of course, cared about the issue, but yet it didn’t go too far. He didn’t want to alienate law enforcement, police unions, and so on, whose support he’s banking on this fall. And of course, he’s continuing with the rhetoric of law and order. We’re hearing from that – that from him nearly every day in a – in a tweet, where he still wants to be aligned with the sort of – the toughness of keeping the streets safe, as he puts it, even after the blowback he received for when he used federal law enforcement to clear Lafayette Square nearly a month ago. And in fact, when he decided not to go to Bedminster, New Jersey, this weekend, that was the reason he cited, was to oversee – to make sure there weren’t more protests in Washington, D.C. At least for now, there seems to be reluctance for the president to go any further on this issue.

MR. COSTA: Dan, you’ve been studying the polls, and the Post did a poll of Black voters nationwide. There’s such momentum for action in Washington. What does the lack of action tell you about this political moment?

MR. BALZ: Well, Bob, we’re certainly in a moment in which there is – there is ferment and change in the racial politics of this country, and I think that the problem for the Republican Party right now – which is, as we know, a largely all-White political party – is that on public opinion the Republicans in this country are on the wrong side of the majority; they are in the minority on public opinion. So it – and at the same time, White Democrats have moved sharply on many of these racial issues, and now their attitudes are much more similar to Black Democrats than they were four or five years ago. So this puts pressure on Democrats not to compromise because they have to think about their own base and their own coalition, so they’re not going to look for half measures. The Republican – you know, the Republicans in the Senate clearly recognize that they need to respond to this, but the president keeps trampling on the message with the kinds of things that he has done and said, not just in this moment but over a long period of time, and so his credibility on these issues is very compromised.

MR. COSTA: Abby, I spoke to Speaker Pelosi this week, did an interview with her, and she said she’s not moving on her position; she’s sticking with the House position: a federal ban on chokeholds, a national database on police misconduct. Does that mean Democrats are waiting for Vice President Biden to win the election, and would he pursue the House bill first thing January 2021 if he won?

MS. PHILLIP: I think you probably could expect Joe Biden to pursue something very close to the House bill, if not the House bill, if he were to win, and it actually for that reason probably disincentivizes many House Democrats to try to move forward with some kind of compromise. But you know, I do wonder if there are individuals outside of sort of Nancy Pelosi in the rank and file of the Democratic Party in the House, in the rank and file of the Republican Party in the House, and in the Senate who might be able to come to some kind of compromise. But the question is, will leadership allow them to move it? You know, Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have any incentive to take half measures for all the reasons we’ve discussed, and Mitch McConnell has absolutely no incentive really to actually move forward with this bill. They have already made the point that they’re willing to act on something; I don’t think McConnell sees a lot of political advantage in actually passing something. So it could be that leadership actually is the – is the impediment here to progress, not necessarily the rank and file, which might if they were sort of left up to their own devices be able to come to some kind of agreement on some of these issues.

MR. COSTA: Kasie Hunt, 30 seconds left in the show. Where does this all go on Capitol Hill?

MS. HUNT: Bob, I actually do think that there is some impetus to try and get this done, as Abby was saying, but I think the challenge is at the end of the day they have to come up with a bill that President Trump would sign. And I don’t think Democrats have any faith that President Trump would ever sign anything on racial justice that they could actually stomach, and if they did pass something that he was willing to sign it would actually end up looking bad for them. It seems as though the bet is being made that the momentum on this will continue, they’ll be able to pass something in a more – in a friendlier political atmosphere next year, Bob.

MR. COSTA: That is it for this week. The time flies. Thank you very much to our reporters: Abby Phillip, Kasie Hunt, Dan Balz, and Jonathan Lemire. Really appreciate your time on a Friday night, a lot of fun. And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. Make sure to check out on the Extra, our social media and website. We’ll have a discussion about the attorney general, who’s under fire, and what it all means for DOJ. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


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