Full Episode: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life and Legacy

Sep. 18, 2020 AT 9:02 p.m. EDT

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 after battling pancreatic cancer. The panel discussed Justice Ginsburg’s legacy and the consequences her death may have for the 2020 presidential election, as well as previewing a potential battle over a future Supreme Court nominee. Bob Woodward, author of the new book “Rage,” also discussed previously unreleased audio of President Trump assessing his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

ROBERT COSTA: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. Our panel will discuss, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. Breaking news tonight: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died at the age of 87. She was an icon on the Court. Her death leaves a vacancy on that Court weeks before the presidential election. But just days before her death, Ginsburg dictated this statement to her granddaughter: quote, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” end quote.

And joining us tonight to discuss this matter, this death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are three of Washington’s top reporters: Bob Woodward, Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor for The Washington Post and author of Rage; Margaret Brennan, moderator of Face the Nation and senior foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News; and Alexi McCammond, political reporter for Axios. Welcome to all three of you tonight. I appreciate you being here. We’re all digesting the news as reporters.

Bob, we will begin with you. You’ve written a book on the Supreme Court long before Rage, in 1979, called The Brethren about the Supreme Court. What is the significance of her death tonight and what is her legacy?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, first, her death, tragic, and it’s seismic politically because if Trump is able to get a new nominee through the Senate, which is – there’s going to be a struggle like we have never seen, perhaps, for one of these nominations. And if that’s the case, it would give the conservatives a solid fifth vote because Roberts, the chief justice, as we know and everyone who’s studied this realizes, he swings one way and the other. He goes back and forth and really decides many, many of the crucial cases five to four. Well, if the liberal Ginsburg gets replaced by a conservative, then there would be six nominal conservatives on the Court and five solid ones, and we could change the whole fabric of our legal system, statutes, constitutional law in a way that will define the Trump era in another way. And of course, this is what Trump ran on. He has put out his list of potential nominees. He is going to ride this hard, and we are – we’re in for a multiple political hurricane with the virus going on, with the economy, with the racial struggle, and now this. I don’t know, actually, how we’re going to report it almost hour by hour as the struggle will intensify, I believe.

MR. COSTA: Margaret, what’s your latest reporting on how the White House will handle this, Senator McConnell, who has said in previous weeks that he would move forward with a nomination if there is a vacancy? What are you hearing tonight and what is your take on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, first, she was small but mighty. She was definitely a strong liberal voice, but that aside she was only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and she was an icon, and she was a barrier breaker, specifically really fought hard on issues of trying to level the playing field for women in this country. It’s hard to think of someone comparable to her. There was a feature film made about her life called On the Basis of Sex. They sell dolls and T-shirts for little girls with the Notorious RBG. I mean, she truly is an icon in her own right.

Putting that aside, everything Bob just laid out, it is going to get nasty. I mean, what I’m seeing here – I’ve been watching all the news reports come in within CBS – it doesn’t yet appear the president has been informed because he’s been speaking about the Supreme Court but has not yet referenced the passing of the justice, and instead he is on the campaign trail talking about his plan for who he would put on a future Court. He’s talking about Senator Ted Cruz. He’s talking about Republican allies of his. And this is – part of what Bob was just gesturing to is that this will become another political cudgel and it is a very useful tool for the president. For those people who are perhaps the very few who have not made up their minds or the few who were wavering, questioning whether they could support the new Republican Party under President Trump, the issue of the Court, the issues that are great motivators for many conservatives, are really encapsulated in this issue of who sits there. And so it is a motivator for voters; we know that. That is why the president’s talking about it tonight. And as you’ve said, we do expect the president to try to move ahead and try to replace in what would appear to be a really record period of – I mean, we’re only 40-something days from the election here, and we know that it may not be easy for Mitch McConnell even though he does hold the Republican majority seat and could bring something up in Congress. You have senators like Lisa Murkowski who have said on the record previously that she feels it’s inappropriate until the election is past us. This is going to bring up all the skeletons in the closet and the bad blood from what happened to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, who never got that public hearing and confirmation process even started because then Senator McConnell refused to bring it forward, saying it was just too close to the election. Well, McConnell holds the keys still now and he – with Republicans controlling the Senate and controlling the White House, he can move these wheels forward in a way that he wasn’t motivated to last time around.

MR. COSTA: Alexi, I’m so glad to have you here tonight. You have your finger on the pulse of Democratic politics. You cover the presidential campaign. You talk to liberals and Democratic voters all the time and strategists. I think about U Street in Washington, D.C., the mural toward Justice Ginsburg. She is such a popular figure among Democrats. How are they responding tonight, especially inside Joe Biden’s campaign?

ALEXI MCCAMMOND: Well, thank you so much for having me, Bob, and it’s so good to be with all of you tonight, you know, this pretty sad night. You know, as has been stated, Justice Ginsburg was an icon and a hero, especially among liberals – the T-shirts, the signs, the sayings. She represented this larger-than-life figure that I think a lot of people sort of viewed her, especially in the year 2020 ahead of this election, which is leading to a lot of political polarization, as this larger-than-life figure, this person they could put their hopes and dreams into and sort of look to a future that she represented. And now, without her, of course this is going to lead to a really ugly, hideous political battle, of course, in the Senate, but that’s going to have ramifications for the presidential election. You know, there are a lot of folks within the Democratic Party whose first choice wasn’t Joe Biden. I’m thinking about a lot of voters who supported Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary. And something I’ve been noticing among those folks, those voters, is they’re saying to each other online, in person, in different forums that a vote for Joe Biden is a vote for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement on the Supreme Court. That was a movement that they started online as a way to gin up excitement for Biden from these different wings of the progressive parts of the party even before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing this evening. And so I think that’s what we’re going to be looking out for, is, you know, these progressives sort of encouraging each other to support someone they’re not excited about as a bigger-picture look at what’s at stake for Democrats in this election.

Now, the Biden campaign, of course, uses any number of their in-person remarks, whether it’s about the economy or coronavirus vaccine or any number of things, to talk about the news of the day at the beginning. Biden often uses that event to talk about President Trump and his mishandling, he says, of the coronavirus, but now we’re going to see how the Biden campaign and other Democrats are really going to steam forward – move forward ahead about, you know, presenting a counterargument to Republicans on the issue of the courts, especially as this presents a political opportunity for President Trump to really fulfill the promises that he made to those base supporters – those conservative voters who really care a lot about the courts. Democrats and Joe Biden and his campaign are going to have to figure out how to present a counternarrative to that, on top of everything else they’re figuring out.

MR. COSTA: Bob Woodward, I want to come back to a word you used in your first answer, “hurricane,” and the title of your book, Rage. I was sitting there with you in March of 2016 when then-candidate Trump told us both: I bring the rage out. I always have. You’ve documented in your book the rage that’s inside this presidency, that’s out there in the country. You’ve studied American democracy and reported on it, Bob. What does it mean now for American democracy, on top of a pandemic, to now have this thread of a Supreme Court vacancy being pulled just 45 days before the election?

MR. WOODWARD: Well, first, you’re going to have to look at voting blocs. And there’s been much discussion – and I think legitimate discussion – that Evangelicals, particularly pro-life Republicans, Evangelicals, were kind of wavering on Trump. Abortion is such a key issue with lots of people on both sides, but particularly that voting bloc. And so now Trump is going to be able to come out and say: Look, I can change the court. I can change history. I can, you know, perhaps – as we know, Roe v. Wade could be overturned. So I think with that group and with people who’ve been wavering about Trump, and Evangelicals, particularly pro-life people, are going to say: Well, OK, Trump’s going to give us this on the big one.

And it is a magnet. And you know, it’s exactly right, what we’re talking about among liberals and Democrats, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an icon. She was also tough. I knew her. I sat next to her at dinners. And she would not – she believed in the dignity of women, the dignity of all citizens in this country. And so her loss – it’s not just a political loss. I think it kind of creates a little bit of a moral vacuum in the Supreme Court, and in Washington, and politics. So it's going to be something to watch. Everyone’s going to be playing it. What do the Senate Republicans do? Are there going to be doubters on this?

Just in – if you can ever get to 100,000 feet on something like this and look down, if you were designing a system – a political system like we have, you would almost build into it that you don’t fill Supreme Court vacancies in the last year of a presidency. I don’t know how you do that. But it would be better that this issue be decided November 3rd, when we vote on keeping Trump in or putting Biden in. And so that – my analysis, and I do not have a good track record on this. But I think it’s really a tossup election.

I think that there – as Trump told me in our many interviews in the last 10 months, he kept emphasizing: I have invisible support, people who will not come out and say they support me to pollsters, even to their neighbors and their friends, or maybe even their spouse and their partner. And so they’re – everyone gets to decide. It’s a secret ballot, whether you go to the polling place or mail it in. So we’re going to – we’re going to see something like we haven’t seen in this country for a long, long time.

MR. COSTA: Margaret, we just saw some images and reporting that they’ve already brought some of the flags down to half-staff at the Supreme Court. I’ve also been texting before the show with my sources at the White House, Margaret, who say: Pay attention to Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative judge, federal judge from Indiana, who opposes abortion rights. And they are saying the Senate GOP is already talking amongst themselves tonight, ready to move forward. But this is going to create complications for Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican up there in Maine, or Cory Gardner in the swing state of Colorado. A tough race there. How is this tension going to play out, based on your own sense of your sources in the GOP, between those who want to move forward quickly and those who may have some hesitation?

MS. BRENNAN: Well, McConnell’s intention is to go full speed ahead. But as you were just saying, you know, when you were referencing the race in Maine, and Susan Collins who could be really influential here, I wonder: Does it put them in an awkward spot, for those – you know, the down-ballot races, where Republicans, remember, are running to try to hold onto the Senate majority, and are concerned. National Review recently had a piece writing about this as a Chernobyl-like event, the fear of losing the Republican majority. Does this create a lifeline for some of those endangered Republicans, because it’s a motivator to come out and vote? Or does it, on the other side, motivate those to move the Senate into Democratic control – you know, split a ticket, potentially, even on a presidential election?

I think it’s going to be really interesting. It will be awkward. It will force this into those Senate races around the country. And you know, even tonight we’re just hearing – because I think people don’t want to on the record talk, in the wake of a death, about what their next move is. But make no mistake, they are certainly planning them. Joe Biden, when we knew RBG was ill – as she has been. And she has beaten I don’t know how many times resurgent cancer. He was being pressed just a few months ago to release his list of nominees. And we haven’t seen the specific names yet on who he envisions putting on that court. But we do know he’s at least said it would be a Black woman, that that is someone who would be on his list.

For President Trump, the list he’s released has about five women on it, at least two African American men, a number of Hispanics. He is trying here as well to show that he can embrace diversity of the person, if not diversity of thought, in pushing forward a conservative nominee, potentially. So this is definitely something we’re going to talking about in Washington, leading up to this election and beyond.

MR. COSTA: Alexi, Bob Woodward was talking about how Evangelical Christians, Republican voters, could be more enthusiastic than ever to come to the polls because of this vacancy now on the Supreme Court. But what about Democratic voters, the rank and file, who also may be energized because of this vacancy? And we’re already seeing tonight anger among top Democrats, such as Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, who are maintaining that Republicans should hold off until the election.

MS. MCCAMMOND: Look, as we’ve said, this is going to be a really nasty fight in Washington. But we know that Democrats are already really enthusiastic about showing up to vote in November for this election – not, you know, just because of getting rid of President Trump, but because of what they want the country to look like, and be like, and feel like after President Trump. It’s not just enough – I hear from Democratic voters all the time, and racial justice leaders especially within the Democratic Party all the time – that it’s not just enough to get rid of President Trump, but they want to sort of move forward into a new era.

And so I think that the prospect of a replacement for RBG is something that’s going to really drive Democratic voters out. But that’s especially true if they see Republicans in the Senate acting in bad faith, trying to rush through one of President Trump’s nominees to fill this vacancy before the election, which, you know, they’ll be really unhappy about. And they’ll use that as a rallying cry for their voters, and just another reason for them to get out and vote.

You know, and again, I think we’ve seen a lot of protests in the last three months alone. Of course, those have been against systemic racism and police brutality. But think about the Brett Kavanagh confirmation hearings, and how nasty those got, and how those kind of, you know, inspired a new sort of rallying cry and protest movement among women’s groups and Democratic voters alike. I think we’ll see something very similar to this, if this turns out as nasty as we’re all expecting it to.

MR. COSTA: And this is all playing out now alongside the pandemic. And let’s turn to Bob’s book, Rage, and the pandemic. Bob has shared new, previously unreleased, audio with Washington Week.

MR. WOODWARD: (From video.) Well, so what grade do you give yourself on the virus for the last six, seven months?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Other than the public relations, which is impossible because it’s a fake media, fake. They’re failing. I know you – well, I think you –

MR. WOODWARD: (From recording.) Yeah, I do. Yeah.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From recording.) Other than the fact that I have been unable to –

MR. WOODWARD: (From recording.) So what’s the grade, sir?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From recording.) – media aren’t treating us fairly, I’d give ourselves an A. But the grade is incomplete, and I’ll tell you why. If we come up with the vaccines and therapeutics, then I’d give myself an A-plus.

MR. COSTA: Bob, take us inside that exchange and how it connects to this week and this moment in America, a president confronting crisis yet giving himself an A-plus? What does that mean for the country and the election?

MR. WOODWARD: Well, this was a conversation I had with him July 19th, so this is two months ago, and this was a moment – I mean, look at the chart. There were almost 4 million virus cases in the country at that point, astonishingly; 142,000 people – our citizens in this country – had died of coronavirus; and he’s giving himself an A or an A-plus. Look at the record on this which I have put together in my book. Go back to January 28th. Let me set the scene there in the Oval Office, a top-secret meeting between the president and his national security advisers. And his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, after they received a briefing from the intelligence community, he says, Mr. President, this virus will be the biggest threat – the biggest national security threat to your presidency. His deputy, Matt Pottinger, steps in. Pottinger had been a Wall Street Journal reporter in China for seven years, compiled a very good record, knew Chinese doctors, covered the 2003 SARS epidemic, and knew that the Chinese lied. Pottinger had sources inside China – we know as journalists having a key informed source can be all the difference in the world – and laid it out to the president. When I learned about this in May, I realized that he was not telling the American people the truth about this. As he told me, he was playing it down, playing it down. It is a tragedy for the country, for Trump personally, for the Republican Party.

MR. COSTA: Bob, let’s pause there because you used a word that’s so critical, “truth.” Margaret, you interviewed National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in that same period in February on Face the Nation. He told the nation not to panic on your program. How is truth going to matter in the coming weeks as there’s a culture war on the Supreme Court and a pandemic that continues to ravage America?

MS. BRENNAN: Well, you have to believe that truth and facts still do matter. Robert O’Brien on February 2nd did come out and say really no reason for people to think there was a threat to them here in the United States, downplaying it, obviously, in stark contrast to what Bob just sketched out there as to what he was saying in private, because they saw the potential for where this was going and they knew what was happening in China could replicate here. I think one of the things that – to the degree we can ever get past the tension of this election and really analyze the number of intelligence mistakes, of health policy mistakes, of decisions that should have been carried out, it is going to be critical for that next time. That idea that the entire month of February was wasted, the president dismisses that, saying, no, we were ordering masks; no, we were asking pharmaceutical companies to start making vaccines. But one critical bit of information that they did not have was exactly where the virus was in America at that time when the public was being reassured that it wasn’t a threat to them. Yes, travel from China had been shut off. Did they actually know that the entire East Coast was getting seeded with infections coming in through Europe because China was still allowing that transit point, so it was spreading to the rest of the world? I mean, these are the kind of fact-finding missions that are so critical and will be key after this election, as well, if it’s a Trump or Biden administration, to sort through. That’s what worries me.

MR. COSTA: Well, that’s all the time we have tonight. Bob, I apologize, we had a long discussion; only have half an hour here on PBS. We’ll keep the discussion going, though. I really appreciate you coming on. Bob Woodward, Margaret Brennan, and Alexi McCammond, we really appreciate it with this fast-moving development, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Rest in peace to her. Best wishes to her family.

And thank you all for joining us tonight and going along with us as we adjust to this news story. We’ll keep taking you as close to the news as we can. Stick with us for the Extra. We’ll have Bob Woodward.

But for now, I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


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