Full Episode: President Trump stokes fears about election security

Jul. 31, 2020 AT 9:43 p.m. EDT

Postponing election day, as suggested by President Trump Thursday, cannot be done without an act of Congress. But is this very suggestion a threat to democracy? The panel discussed the latest from the 2020 campaign and Capitol Hill, as the economy suffers a record drop and Congress fails to extend the $600 unemployment benefit.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Brinkmanship as the election looms.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This election will be the most rigged election in history.

MR. COSTA: President Trump relentlessly attacks the integrity of the vote.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) There are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting.

MR. COSTA: And keeps his own party on edge.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) But I guarantee you the election will be November 3rd of 2020.

MR. COSTA: Can Congress cut a deal?

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) It seems to me that Senator McConnell really doesn’t want to get an agreement.

MR. COSTA: As the economy shudders and the virus ravages our nation, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. This pandemic has changed everything for you, for me, and for President Trump. More than 155,000 Americans have now died. The economy has cratered. But as the nation deals with the horrific fallout, President Trump has brought another issue to the fore: the integrity of the election. And this week I escaped my home office for a day to cover him in action on the road, traveling on Air Force One to west Texas on Wednesday as part of the press pool. Up close, it’s clear the president is scrambling to jumpstart his campaign, which has fallen behind Vice President Biden in the polls. And speaking in front of fracking fields, he railed against the Democrats, against protesters in cities where he has sent federal agents, and he vowed to protect the suburbs. And on Thursday he turned to brinkmanship over the guardrail of democracy. He suggested the election be delayed after claiming, without evidence, that voting by mail would lead to fraud. The president does not have the authority to move the date of the election, which is set by Congress and has actually been fixed since the 19th century, but he can provoke, and his allies tell me behind the scenes he won’t stop doing so with just 94 days to go.

Joining us tonight are four terrific reporters: Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent for CNN; Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News; John Dickerson, 60 Minutes correspondent, political analyst for CBS News, and author of The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

Geoff, when you talk to your sources in the White House about this election standoff, what do you – what do you hear? What is the endgame?

GEOFF BENNETT: Well, you know, Republican sources I’ve talked to were quick to dismiss the president’s notion of delaying the election, something that you rightly point out he does not have the authority to do, dismissing that as more presidential Trumpian bluster and bravado. But look, Democrats say that it’s evidence of the fact that this president will stop at nothing to question the validity of an election that, at the current moment, he appears to be on track to losing, and they also say it’s no idle threat because Trump – a top Trump donor who he appointed as postmaster general has made a number of budget cuts and changes at the post office that right now have resulted in about a two-day delay in the delivery of mail, even with express mail. And there are postal workers who say that if that does not change come election day, there could be chaos because in some, what, 34 states, if completed ballots are not returned in time, they’re invalidated, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, what are you hearing?

KAITLAN COLLINS: I mean, Geoff is right, not a single major Republican has agreed with the president on this, and I think he realized it was a mistake that no one was going to support him on because today when he was asked about it he said, actually, he would like to move the election up – that he is so confident that he’s going to win he’d like to move it ahead a few days, which of course is not going to happen either. But his allies viewed this as a mistake, a political mistake, because not only is he not legally able to do this but they said it revealed his weak standing and how even he is admitting that to himself. Though he’s denied that internal polls have him down, campaign sources say they do, and they say that by saying he wants to delay the election it’s the president confirming that he’s fully aware that he is trailing Joe Biden in several of these major polls, and instead of portraying the same kind of confidence that you’ve heard from campaign officials that the election is still a good 100, 90 days away the president was admitting that he’s worried.

MR. COSTA: Susan, what’s the significance of the president’s comments coming on the same week Representative John Lewis has his funeral in Atlanta?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, I sort of felt that Thursday crystalized the situation of chaos that we have in this country. He started out with an economic report – the worst economic decline since we started keeping records. Sixteen minutes later the president tweets that perhaps we should delay the election. And then in that afternoon, a service that featured three American presidents from both parties speaking in honor of an American hero, and I thought it did two things. I thought it underscored what – in what perilous times we are compared with before; also, the resilience that I think Americans believe we have and hope we have in a turbulent time, because no one was more optimistic about the possibilities of America than John Lewis was.

MR. COSTA: John, help us step back here. You’ve written a book about the presidency. Does history offer us any guidance about this moment?

JOHN DICKERSON: Well, what history tells us is what we should expect from a president. You know, the hallmark of the American system is the free, fair election that creates a peaceful transfer of power, and elections are how you have that peaceful transfer of power. And a president is a steward of that system, and – which means he must protect it, he must work as hard as he can to keep it secure, and also to keep people’s faith in that system because that system will exist after he is out of office. And so that’s what the president’s duties are by the office he holds, and so for a sitting president to try to undermine all of that for his own personal political gain is wildly at odds with his office and it’s also an echo of what he did in 2016, which is when the polls looked bad he talked about a rigged election. And to go back to Susan’s point, he is doing this on a day where he was unavailable to give a eulogy for John Lewis because of his relationship with the Black community and just that that is not a part of his presidency. So when you measure what he is doing against the standards of the presidency and what we would expect, there is a vast distance.

MR. COSTA: John, it’s an important point because matters of race and power, they hover over all of this, and federal agents are now in American cities. And this week Attorney General William Barr was challenged about all of this by Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat.

REPRESENTATIVE PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-WA): (From video.) When White men with swastikas storm a government building with guns there is no need for the president to, quote, “activate” you because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done, but when Black people and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers, pepper bombs, because they are considered terrorists by the president. Did I get it right, Mr. Barr?

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) I have responsibly for the federal government and the White House.

MR. COSTA: Geoff, you were in Atlanta this week to cover Representative Lewis’ funeral. You also cover the president. What should cities, Americans expect as this election nears?

MR. BENNETT: Well, I think you can expect the president to try to exploit racial divisions in the way that he has done. He has sort of fashioned himself as what likes to call a law-and-order president, and the way that he has done that is to call out cities – mostly Black and brown major urban areas like Chicago, like Detroit – and try to suggest that those are Democrat-run cities that have, you know, explosions of crime and violence, and try to draw a link between what’s happening there and to suggest that if Joe Biden is elected that what is happening in cities like Chicago and Detroit will be happening all over the country. That’s sort of the implicit, in some cases explicit, argument that President Trump is trying to make, but it doesn’t appear to be working. The president – the president’s pitch is not reaching the suburban – the White voters in suburbia – who he, in a tweet earlier this week, referred to as suburban housewives – in the way that he wants. It’s not borne out in the polls.

MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, when I was in Texas this week listening to the president, I kept hearing him – hearing him railing against the left wing, the so-called mob, not a lot of talk of Vice President Biden. Inside the White House, when you’re talking to Trump sources, would they rather run against that idea – that characterization of the left, rather than Biden himself?

MS. COLLINS: I think that’s what they initially planned on doing when the Democratic field was large and the views on there were expansive. But now what they’re running into is that it’s hard to label Joe Biden as that, because he’s repeatedly pushed back on their efforts to do so, namely with the president recently saying that Joe Biden wanted to defund the police, though Joe Biden expressly said that he did not want to do that. And things that make that more difficult is when Joe Biden does make these appearances and he does take questions from reporters, which he did for the first time in quite some time recently, and he said he did not want to defund the police, but also he said he believed that those who violate the law should be held up to it, and should be prosecuted for doing so.

That comes as we’ve been seeing what’s happening in Portland and other places. And Biden was making clear where he stood on that. So that’s why it’s a struggle for the president to really label him as that. And he hasn’t been successful at it. And aides lament the fact that he’s sometimes picking fights with people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, on his own team, instead of people like the former vice president, who he’s going to be on the ballot next to in November.

MR. COSTA: Susan, what does this infusion of race and this talk of law and order mean for the Biden campaign as the vice president moves closer to his vice presidential pick? Many Black women are being considered for the – for that position, as well as Senator Warren and others. But there could be a Black woman soon on the Democratic ticket as the president moves in this direction.

MS. PAGE: Yes, and that would be groundbreaking. I think that is likely to happen. I think he’s promised to have a woman. I think given the moment that he’s in the idea that it would be a woman of color, I think that is a really strong possibility. But I think – and I think when he looks – I think when the Democrats in general, and the Biden campaign in particular, look at what the president is doing, they believe that this is not the same America that it was, say, in 1968 when appeals to law and order, and racially tinged appeals, had a lot of – had a lot of – got a lot of traction in that election.

In this election, you know, the suburbs are not all White. The suburbs are now more diverse than they used to be. The nation is more diverse than it was in 1968, or even in 1980, and more recently. And they’re counting on a different American electorate to see these appeals in a different way than America has sometimes in the past.

MR. COSTA: John, can you pick up on that point about 1968? What’s different now? What’s the same?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, what’s different now is we have a much more integrated society. Those kinds of appeals that Susan talked about are offensive to many people who are in the electorate that Donald Trump needs to get. I talked to Lynn Vavreck today, the co-author of Identity Crisis, political scientist. And what she noted in our conversation today was – she wrote about how Donald Trump successfully in 2016 shifted the area of debate in the campaign to an area that he was comfortable with. Well, that’s what he’s trying to do here with issues of violence, and the cities, and anything other than what he is actually facing, which is three very tough issues on race, on the economy, on COVID.

He was successful in 2016 in shifting the territory. That is much harder to do now. Why? Because reality is keeping everybody’s focus on those three big problems. You can try to talk about another issue, but implicit in the job of being president is you’re supposed to handle those big three problems. And polls have shown us again and again that Americans are disappointed with the president’s handling of the problems. He might want to talk about something else. America wants to talk about those three things.

MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, let’s jump from 1968 back to 2020. You mentioned Dr. Fauci. He testified before the House earlier Friday. But it’s unclear, as you said, how much the president is listening to him. Instead, he has retweeted items that have been discredited. And you pressed the president about this. Here is a snippet of that exchange.

MS. COLLINS: (From video.) The woman that you said is a great doctor in that video that you retweeted last night said that masks don’t work and there is a cure for COVID-19, both of which health experts say is not true.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her.

Yeah, go ahead, Paula. Go ahead.

MS. COLLINS: (From video.) She said masks don’t work. And last week you said masks – last week – real quick, last week you said masks – Mr. President –

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) OK, thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, what is the story here?

MS. COLLINS: So this is this woman the president retweeted. Her name is Stella Immanuel. She says she’s a doctor out of Texas. And what happened is the president elevated a post where she was saying things like there’s a cure for COVID-19, which obviously there is not. And the president elevated it to his 84 million followers on Twitter. His son subsequently tweeted it as well. And so the question was: Why is the president elevating things where he clearly wasn’t aware of her past comments? You saw what his reaction to that was.

But even the next day when I saw the president again and I asked him if he regretted retweeting someone who is discredited, who has made some bizarre claims in the past, and he said no. He stood by that. And it really does give you an indication that as aides here at the White House are insisting that the president is listening to his team of experts, you can see he’s also seeking out other people who will reinforce his beliefs, even if they are not backed up by scientific studies.

MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, a follow up. It also looks like the president is seeking reinforcement from his own voters. We all saw that image today of President Trump in Florida, a crowd greeted him at the airport. Based on his reporting, is the president isolated at this time, inside the White House?

MS. COLLINS: This week he seems isolated. Not only from, you know, at times where he differs with his message with people like Dr. Fauci, but what was so stunning this week was how Republicans really isolated the president and left him on his own after he suggested delaying the election. People who were typically his allies and will act like they did not see the tweet were coming out and saying what he had tweeted was wrong. But also, it was display at John Lewis’ funeral. As you saw, the other three living presidents – with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who isn’t traveling right now for health reasons – they all spoke and memorialized John Lewis, while the president stayed back in Washington and even still today won’t answer questions about John Lewis or about his legacy.

MR. COSTA: Geoff, on the virus story there is the health front and there is the economic front. And the $600 weekly supplement for unemployed Americans expires Friday, leaving millions of Americans anxious. And we’re seeing Congress right now trying to cut a deal. What’s the latest with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and the attempt to work with Speaker Pelosi?

MR. BENNETT: Well, as we sit here this Friday evening, there is no deal. And of course, the usual Trump-era caveat applies, that this changes hour by hour. And the folks who are doing the actual hard thinking and negotiating about this, which is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then on the White House side you have the Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. They are meeting Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. to sort of pick up and see what they can hash out. But the Democrats and the Republicans, the White House, cannot agree on a deal. Senate Republicans and the White House can’t really agree among themselves on issues like eviction moratorium or even provisions so that people can’t sue businesses – COVID-related lawsuits.

So to take this sort of out of abstract political terms and to humanize it, what it really means is that right now people who have been dependent on that additional $600 of federal unemployment insurance won’t get it. And most states actually cap unemployment that comes directly from the state. So in Florida, for instance, the most you can get from the state is $250. If you were getting $850, you know, up until this week, imagine what losing $600 a week would mean to your family because, you know, that money does not make anyone whole. But they do come to rely on it. And so it’s a huge issue. And hopefully with Congress, you know, leaving tomorrow, really, for a three-week break, hopefully both sides can come to some sort of deal.

MR. COSTA: Right. But, Susan, you’re writing the book on Speaker Pelosi. She’s holding her position. She doesn’t want to take that short-term offer from the White House. She wants a more wholesale deal, based on my own calls today with some Democrats. You know Speaker Pelosi better than anyone. What’s her position? What do you read into all this?

MS. PAGE: Well, Speaker Pelosi would point out, if she were on the program, that they passed their bill 10 weeks ago, and have been waiting for Republicans in the Senate to take it up, for the White House to respond. Republicans have been mostly debating between themselves. And I think that when these offers came of shorter term and smaller deals this week, I think Speaker Pelosi saw no reason to agree to them. The Democrats think they are in a powerful position here to negotiate some of the aid they want. The differences between these two sides are enormous. The differences amount to about $2 trillion now. And even in today’s spending climate, $2 trillion is a lot of money.

MR. COSTA: John, when you look at this standoff between Congress and this White House, what do you see? I mean, this is an economic crisis. We’ve seen the GDP numbers. Five years of growth erased. What does this standoff reveal to you?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, you have, first of all, a policy difference among Republicans. You’ve got Republicans running in more purple states who really want that $600 and want some action from Congress because it affects their political fortunes. You’ve got other Republicans who have kind of re-found their fiscal restraint and concern. It’s been missing for the last three years as Donald Trump has increased the deficit numbers, but there’s now this debate among Republicans. But when I talked to economists this week, they say this is all very important. But the big concern is that the only way you get the economy going again is if you get the virus under control, and the virus is not under control, and the reason the virus is so important is that people are not spending and behaving in the economy the way they need to because they’re afraid – they’re afraid of getting sick, they are afraid of their friends getting sick – and that’s what’s got a lid on the economy. And so all the various measures, disappointing as it is that Congress hasn’t acted, it’s really not the main thing, and the main thing is getting the virus under control so that the economy can get going. And the economists point out the clock is ticking. The longer this takes to get worked out, the more businesses fail permanently and the more people get left out of the American economy for a generation.

MR. COSTA: Kaitlan, can you speak to what John just talked about, the element of fear? This week Herman Cain, the former presidential candidate and ally of President Trump, he died at age 74. I covered him for years. He was at the Tulsa rally the president held a few weeks ago. Louie Gohmert, another ally, Texas congressman, contracted the virus. What does all that mean, the way it’s coming closer to this president as the White House moves ahead?

MS. COLLINS: I think it really hit home for them because also, don’t forget, the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, also tested positive for COVID-19 recently. So it really is in their circle very much in President Trump’s mind, and lately he’s been doing some interviews talking about people he knows that have died from COVID-19 – though we should note that when he talked about Herman Cain this week he didn’t acknowledge the fact that Cain had attended his indoor rally with thousands of people, and aides pointed to something that Cain’s family and friends had said, which is that he’d been doing a lot of travel around late June. But I do think it became more real for them. It was really a wakeup call for people who interacted with Louie Gohmert on the hall and – on the halls of the Hill and also for people who were around Herman Cain.

MR. COSTA: Geoff, who ends up cutting this deal? Is it Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Mnuchin, like we saw months ago, or does Mark Meadows really assert himself as chief of staff?

MR. BENNETT: You know, it’s interesting, there was this thought that when Mark Meadows came over from the Hill to serve as President Trump’s chief of staff that the negotiations and the relationship between Republicans and even Democrats on the Hill, and then that relationship between lawmakers and the White House, would be better, but that hasn’t really come into fruition. And so for the most part, yes, you’re right, it’s still definitely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the treasury secretary who are doing the heavy lifting here.

MR. COSTA: Susan, I wonder how much the president wants a deal. Senator McConnell, the majority leader, wanted this liability coverage for businesses; the White House is prepared to walk away from that. What does that tell you? Is the president eager for a deal because of the poll numbers, because of the GDP data?

MS. PAGE: Yes, and the president wants a deal. Senate Republicans want a deal, too, because the economy is so catastrophic at this point, and that’s going to have not only most importantly effects on Americans’ lives; that’s going to have a lot of political consequences in November as well. The Republicans do not seem to have a united front. You had the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, dismissing the idea of a payroll tax cut, which is what the president had been insisting he wanted. Now you have the White House walking away from what is Mitch McConnell’s red line, which is liability protection. And I think that’s one of the things that has undercut the ability of Republicans to negotiate.

One other thing, it’s incredible that the president is not more involved in the negotiation over this bill. This is the most important thing happening in Washington today, and the president himself is not engaged.

MR. COSTA: John, jump in here.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s – Susan put her finger right on an extraordinary point. I mean, the president is the most powerful voice in public and then also, presumably, because he has quite a lot of control over the Republican Party, he is a player who could have a real effect here. And if you go back and look at the president’s rhetoric during the campaign in 2016, what did he sell himself as? A dealmaker who could get people in a room and get the deal done. And he has been absent from this debate both publicly and privately, and that’s pretty much been the case going all the way back throughout his administration. And the persuasive power of the president, both internally in the dealmaking process and also in public, could really be deployed in this instance, and the president has chosen to talk about other things – to talk about mail-in ballots and other things like that, which are not the main concern of the country at the very moment.

MR. COSTA: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for this week. What a group, what a week: Kaitlan Collins, Geoff Bennett, John Dickerson, and Susan Page. We appreciate all of your reporting and time.

And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can, and on the Extra I’ll go one on one with John to discuss his new book. You can find that discussion on our website and on our social media.

But before we go, one last final goodbye to a civil rights icon.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) When we do form a more perfect union, whether it’s years from now or decades or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.

MR. COSTA: What a life. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


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