Full Episode: President Donald Trump & Joe Biden Host Dueling Town Halls

Oct. 16, 2020 AT 9:35 p.m. EDT

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held dueling town hall events Thursday night in place of a scheduled presidential debate. And on Capitol Hill, senators questioned Amy Coney Barrett ahead of a potential confirmation vote on her nomination to the Supreme Court.

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ROBERT COSTA: Battlegrounds on the trail and on the Hill.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’ve denounced White supremacy for years, but you always do it. You always start off with the question.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If I’m elected president, you will not hear me race baiting, you’ll not hear me dividing.

MR. COSTA: A primetime standoff spotlights race, conspiracy theories, and public health.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Sometimes people wear masks. People with masks are catching it all the time.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) And when a president doesn’t wear a mask or makes fun of folks like me, then, you know, people say, well, it mustn’t be that important.

MR. COSTA: And a Supreme Court showdown on Capitol Hill.

SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): You are just trying to ram through this justice against your own words.

MR. COSTA: Next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. Eighteen days, and here’s what I know. My Democratic sources say Vice President Biden’s campaign is now working to expand the political map into the Deep South and the Sun Belt. Whispers of a blue wave, they grow louder by the day. Inside the GOP my sources are upbeat about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s likely confirmation, but Republicans are worried about the Democrats’ hits on health care and about getting pulled into President Trump’s riptide of grievances. Those grievances, however, were front and center at this week’s dueling townhalls.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I denounce White supremacy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) What’s your next question?

I just don’t know about QAnon. What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that.

I’m good with masks. I’m OK with masks. I tell people wear masks. But people with masks are catching it all the time.

MR. COSTA: And here is Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We’re in a situation where we have 210-plus-thousand people dead, and what’s he doing? Nothing. He’s still not wearing a mask and so on.

I have not been a fan of court-packing.

What the Biden Justice Department will do is let the Department of Justice be the Department of Justice.

MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight are three of Washington’s best reporters: Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press and NBC News’ political director, also host of Meet the Press Daily on MSNBC; Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker; and Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for National Public Radio.

Chuck, let’s start with you. You heard the grievance from President Trump. Is his grievance the closing message for his campaign?

CHUCK TODD: Well, it appears that it is going to be his closing message. I think there are a lot of people around him that wish it were not his closing message, and that’s really what struck me this week and at the – at the townhall at that point, was the fact that, look, the president using grievance as his delivery of message is not a new thing; it’s what grievances he’s channeling. At the townhall last night it was all about him. It was his complaints, the complaints about The New York Times and his tax returns or the complaints about the Russia hoax, as he might – (audio break) – or the complaints about not enough attention to Hunter Biden. Four years ago – (audio break) – grievance based, but he was – he was channeling the grievances of his base. He was talking about immigration. He was talking about issues. Now, he may have done it in a very crude way and it may have alienated some people, but they were issues and he was channeling somebody else’s grievance. Right now they’re all about him, and I think that’s one of the big differences from four years ago, Robert.

MR. COSTA: Jane, you cover not only grievances in American politics but the conspiracies that are rising on the right. How is that factoring into this campaign, the president’s refusal to disavow QAnon, a conspiracy theory that the FBI has warned could be domestic terrorism?

JANE MAYER: You know, I mean, his strategy has been from the start to double down on his base rather than trying to broaden his support, and there was a sense I think in the townhall this week that he is now being driven almost into the corner of his base, so you really see him embracing some of the fringiest of the fringe conspiracy theories like QAnon. I mean, he – it’s not just that he didn’t denounce QAnon; he actually kind of embraced it and sort of pretended that it had some – that it wasn’t total nonsense, which I think, as you said, his own FBI knows that it is. So he’s – it’s a little bit like a version of the birtherism that he embraced in earlier campaigns, but this one is really wacky and he’s not disavowing it.

MR. COSTA: Why is that, Ayesha? When you’re talking to your White House sources – Ashley Parker wrote today in the Post that the president embraces anyone who praises him. Does it come down to that?

AYESHA RASCOE: I believe so. I mean, anyone who he feels like is on his side, who is not critical of him, he feels like it’s us against them, and I think you see this also when President Trump has been called out over and over again over not calling out White supremacy. How hard it is to denounce White supremacy? And the most that you can get from President Trump, now he’ll be defensive and say he’s done it over and over again, but he – the most he will say is, oh, sure, I denounce it. He’ll get a stronger denunciation of Morning Joe out of President Trump. He just – he does not have – if he feels like people on the right, protesters or people who are agitators on the right, if he feels like they are somehow not upset with him, then he can find a way to just kind of, if it’s not a wink or a nod, it’s not a strong denunciation. That’s the way he’s – that’s the way he has behaved his entire presidency.

MR. COSTA: But what about Vice President Biden, Chuck? If this is how the president’s closing the campaign, is his strategy enough? Is his ground game enough to counter that blizzard of information and sometimes disinformation coming out of the White House?

MR. TODD: We’re going to find out. I mean, I will say this, I have my – I have some concern that you see the – sort of the lack of the physical field program, and we know that I think the Biden campaign suddenly – if you’ve noticed, Robert, there’s a lot more surrogates suddenly showing up in battleground states. There is a concern, I think, among some Democrats that, hey, this virtual campaign, it’s done wonders on the fundraising front, it’s certainly allowed for plenty of TV advertising, plenty of digital advertising; what is missing with the hand-to-hand campaigning? Is that going to be something they regret?

That said, this is a case where their operation, essentially, is fused with their message. And so the message is what? Focus on the virus, that’s number one, and so in that sense it does keep this campaign on message. And ultimately, I believe it’s still the best closing argument they can have, which is to stay focused on the virus.

MR. COSTA: Jane, we heard from the Biden campaign that they had a record fundraising haul this week, but what is the real story based on your reporting about where money is in this campaign, both the public funds, the public money that we know, that’s publicly disclosed, and also the dark money that you’ve reported on for years?

MS. MAYER: Well, I mean, there’s a gigantic amount of money in this race, but just most recently there was a new set of FEC filings that showed that among the largest campaign contributors are a handful of the richest people in the country, which has been par for the course for the last few years, and one of them was Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who are Las Vegas casino owners, and they’ve put in over $100 million into Donald Trump. So you’re seeing some very, very big bets from a handful of the biggest donors. You know, it’s – there are a few alarming other sort of signs that I think you can see. There was a piece in The New York Times that suggests that voter registration is way up for Republicans in some of the battleground states. So that ground – that business, that kind of apparatus, to some extent, is paid for by private donors and dark money groups that get out and do that sort of thing.

MR. COSTA: Jane, just to follow up, Adelson got in relatively late with some of this cash. Are Republican donors sticking with President Trump at this critical point in the campaign?

MS. MAYER: Well, I mean, it depends which Republican donors you’re talking about. Wall Street appears to be shifting from the Republican Party to backing Biden. And I think there’s a sense that Wall Street is tired of the chaos in the Trump period and is looking for something different, and also maybe worried about the economy because of the coronavirus and the lack of any kind of coordinated federal effort on it. So you’re seeing some shifts. And you know, and Biden certainly has a ton of money. And you can basically really truly, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, there was suddenly a tremendous flood of money into the Senate races on the Democratic side. That single event seems to have just triggered a gusher of small donations to all these Senate races.

MR. COSTA: Let’s dig into that Ayesha, because you’ve been reporting about how the map is expanding. I’m hearing it from Democrats. You see the president going to Georgia, a Republican stronghold. The Democrats looking at Texas, they’re looking at Georgia, South Carolina, the Senate race there with Jamie Harrison. Is some of this new money, the big money for Biden, going to go now into the Deep South and the Sun Belt?

MS. RASCOE: Well, it seems like they can try to make a pitch for those places. I think part of it may be just keeping the Trump campaign on its toes and making them spend in some of these places that they shouldn’t have to be. I mean, the president is in Macon, Georgia today. Why does a Republican president have to be in Macon, Georgia 18 days out from the election? That is not good. And so if they can use some of this – you know, this gusher of cash that has come in to kind of make them fight on all of these – you know, on all of this territory, that’s in the Democrats’ favor.

But, you know, I don’t know about these polls that are showing things tight, you know, in places like Georgia or Texas. It seems very – you know, it seems very hard to believe that Biden would be able to pull something out like that. Or even in South Carolina, you know, with the Senate race there, it’s difficult to believe but there is this belief that if you spend the money that possibly – because of the coronavirus, because of all these things, that the map could be a bit different this time around.

MR. COSTA: Chuck, do your sources believe it?

MR. TODD: Well, they do because it’s a green wave, Robert. I mean, the amount of money – Jane is right – I mean, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg just turned on a spigot for these Senate races. And it trickles all the way down. I mean, I – you know, look, the investments in Texas by the Biden campaign are as much about helping down the ballot flip that state House, you know? Democrats suddenly are looking at flipping the state legislature in Arizona, in Texas, an outside shot in Florida, outside shot in Iowa.

That’s where all this extra money is coming down, and that’s one of the motives. This is how Biden’s helping down the ballot. He’s not transferring money, but he’s playing in some states that you’d be, like, why is he playing there? It’s as much about helping the ticket all the way down because Democrats see some major opportunities here that aren’t just your handful of Senate races, extra House races, but some state legislatures. And remember, next year’s a redistricting year.

MR. COSTA: And let’s not forget, the campaign is also facing pressures from Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans say they have the votes to confirm Judge Barrett. But Democrats cast her nomination this week as a threat to President Obama’s health care law and abortion rights. Barrett defended her views.

JUDGE AMY CONEY BARRETT: (From video.) I’m not hostile to the ACA. I’m not hostile to any statute that you pass. Roe is not a super precedent because calls for its overruling have never ceased, but that doesn’t mean that Roe should be overruled.

MR. COSTA: Jane, you’ve been covering Supreme Court confirmation battles for decades. You’ve written a book about it. You’ve – what is your read on how this unfolded this week, the Democrats holding back a bit on her personal story, her biography, focusing on health care? What’s that all about?

MS. MAYER: Yeah, the Democrats showed unusual discipline for them. They’re usually not terribly well coordinated. But they really – they obviously had a campaign strategy, which was to make this about how the health care act, Obamacare, was hanging in the balance, because there is a big Supreme Court case that’s going to be heard right after the election. And if they confirm Amy Coney Barrett, she’ll be on the court in time for that. So that – they tried to really tee-up that one case.

I mean, I think, stepping back a little bit, that while you can see that the Republicans are likely to win this fight and get Barrett confirmed, they might lose the war a little bit on this politically, in some ways. They’ll get the court the way they want it to be, but there’s such a backlash that they have unleashed by just resorting to such raw power politics. And as the soundbite you played earlier had, the Democrats are talking about jamming this woman down their throats and having a separate set of rules for Democratic nominees and Republican nominees because of Merrick Garland having been stopped. And all of this is really radicalizing and motivating progressives who want to get payback if the Democrats get the Senate.

MR. COSTA: That’s such a key point, the idea of payback, Democratic energy. Because my sources tell me that the GOP solidarity on Barrett, it’s real. But it’s also a façade for growing anxiety. And we heard Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska this week. He kind of captured the mood among some Republicans.

SENATOR BEN SASSE (R-NE): (From video.) The way he kisses dictators’ butts. It isn’t just that he fails to lead our allies. It’s that we – the United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership. The way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor. He mocks Evangelicals behind closed doors.

MR. COSTA: Ayesha, is that revealing about where the GOP is in these final 18 days?

MS. RASCOE: Well, what we’ve been, you know, looking for to see is, is there going to be any type of distancing from Republicans to the White House? Now, generally – now, obviously, you’re not going to have a real distancing because Trump is the Republican Party. They’re not going to be able to distance from them, and I think there’s still a fear of the base. But you are seeing these things with Ben Sasse, who is now in a safe position. He’s saying these things that have come out now.

You saw Mitch McConnell saying that he hadn’t been to the White House in a while because he felt like they weren’t taking the coronavirus seriously. And, you know, you saw Senator Thom Tillis talk about needing a check against a Biden presidency. So you’re seeing these – you know, so you need the Senate to stay Republican. So you are seeing these little kind of teases of what could be a bit of distancing from the president as people are, you know, reading the tea leaves and are clearly concerned.

MR. COSTA: Chuck, I spoke to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan this week. He said he won’t vote for President Trump. He’s going to vote – do a write-in for the late Ronald Reagan. We’ve seen GOP cracks here or there. Is the Senator Sasse statement something that you’re hearing from others in the upper echelon of the Republican Party?

MR. TODD: Not yet. You know, I expected a few more breaks. And we’re not seeing it. And I say that because I thought, especially if Biden started to build the lead that we’re looking at now – and I know there’s a lot of – some skepticism out there. We’ve been here before. In fact, in some ways we’ve been here before even with Republicans going: Oh, I don’t know if I can support him. I mean, at this point in time in 2016 they were – they were dropping like flies because it was just after the Access Hollywood tape.

But you’re not – it is more of a trickle. It is more of a constituent teleconference call from Ben Sasse. It’s not like he wanted a sound and say, hey, everybody, look at me, what I’m doing here. You get the sense that they’re all testing this message. You know, it’s almost like they’re poking the electric fence and seeing if they’ll get a charge out of it. But ultimately – and I had a Republican strategist say this to me from one of the Senate races where you’d think maybe this is the place where you’d pull away from Trump. And this strategist said: Look, you can’t win with him and you can’t win without him. And that’s where some of these Republican senators are stuck in.

MR. COSTA: Jane, you’ve written about Majority Leader McConnell. He wants to overhaul the federal judiciary. He wants these justices on the Supreme Court. Where is he at this moment, as the majority is at risk but he looks like he’s going to have a new justice on the court that he helped shepherd and get there?

MS. MAYER: Well, people have told me when I was reporting on McConnell that his North Star, the thing that he’s always wanted the most, is to stay majority leader. And the interesting thing is he may not be able to do that, in part because he’s thrown his lot in so much and so closely with Trump. There’s no daylight between them. And as far back as March, really, you could see that as Trump began to sort of bungle a lot of the coronavirus response, it became more and more of a risk for McConnell, who, you know, was having to carry the weight of Trump’s not responding more effectively to this terrible pandemic. So it – you know, the fact that he enabled Trump and that they had this partnership in a way has come back to bite him, to some extent.

MR. COSTA: And stimulus talks here in Washington, they remain stalled. Speaker Pelosi this week defended her push for a big, $2 trillion bill.

WOLF BLITZER: (From video.) It’s about millions of Americans who can’t put food on the table, who can’t pay the rent, who are having trouble –

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) And we represent them. And we represent them. And we represent them.

MR. BLITZER: (From video.) – who have trouble getting by, these long food lines that we see. I know you are –

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We know them.

MR. BLITZER: (From video.) I’m just saying –

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We represent them and we know them. We know them. We represent them. Yes.

MR. BLITZER: (From video.) As we say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

MR. COSTA: That clip was from CNN. Ayesha, the speaker’s holding her line – 2 trillion, a little bit more than 2 trillion. Is this going to be an animating issue for Democrats in the final days?

MS. RASCOE: I believe – I believe that the issue of the coronavirus is going to be an animating issue. I certainly think that Democrats do think that they need – that they do want an aid package, but President Trump did give them really an out when he tweeted that, you know, he was walking away from negotiations, we’ll wait till after the election. Now, of course, he quickly backpedaled on that, but you know, the tweet is out there, and the idea that he was the one that walked away, that was really a gift for Democrats who I think are feeling pressure or have been feeling pressure to try to get something done. But the way things are going right now with President Trump and trying to get on the same page as Nancy Pelosi, that’s very difficult – and not only that, you have a Republican Senate that is very weary of this aid package. And so I think some of that is because of the writing on the wall because of the election, and they want to see what’s going to happen in the election – the election before they pass a massive aid package. So I think that it’s going to be very difficult to get done before the election, and that is something that, by President Trump kind of taking ownership of that, it did take some of the heat off of Democrats.

MR. COSTA: How do you see these dynamics, Chuck? Is the speaker just seeing if Secretary Mnuchin blinks?

MR. TODD: Well, at this point yes, and I think she does expect him to blink, and I think if it wasn’t for Mark Meadows I think that the White House would have blinked a long time ago. This is one of those – it’s a real head-scratcher, but it was Mark Meadows and Senate Republicans. But you got to remember something here, and I do think that we don’t focus enough on the roadblock that is the Senate Republicans. In Washington, D.C., there is an endangered specie. It is always endangered, but you’re never sure which party it is endangered in. It’s called the deficit hawk, and this endangered species which you thought was going extinct in the Republican Party for the last four years is suddenly resurrecting itself, and you have a whole bunch of Senate Republicans that want to be deficit hawks again, particularly if there’s going to be a Democratic president. It’s a more comfortable place for them to be. And I think that’s the real roadblock here, and it is something that the speaker’s been sort of trying to telegraph: Hey, I might get closer with Mnuchin; what about those guys? They’re not even in the neighborhood when it comes to money. So I don’t see where this is – where we’re going anywhere here.

MR. COSTA: Jane, can you jump in on that? You’ve written so much about the Koch brothers and about the rise of these powerful deficit hawks, conservatives inside the Republican Party. Are they going to make this an issue in 2021 in the – whether it’s the post-Trump era or the second Trump term?

MS. MAYER: I mean, absolutely. The big donors in the Republican Party, the Kochs and others, tend to be anti-government or at least small-government people. They want tiny government spending. They want a free rein for business. They certainly want their taxes kept very, very low. And they see a big spending bill like this as something that’s going to raise their taxes, cost money, and strengthen the hand of the government. I mean, these are people – a lot of these donors are people who want to undo everything from the progressive era on, let alone the New Deal and – you know. So they are – and these are the people who are behind Mitch McConnell, and he is standing firm that he doesn’t want this bailout.

MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there tonight. Many thanks to our reporters for stopping by on a Friday night here in the fall. Chuck Todd, Jane Mayer, and Ayesha Rascoe, really appreciate it. Thank you.

And we will keep taking you all as close to the news as we can. Make sure to check out our Washington Week Extra. I’ll talk to Jane more about all of this deep reporting on money and politics and what it means for the fabric of American democracy. You can find it on our website or social media.

I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.

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