Full Episode: President Trump tests positive for COVID-19

Oct. 02, 2020 AT 9:28 p.m. EDT

President Trump has been taken to Walter Reed Medical Center after testing positive for COVID-19. The panel discussed the implications of this development on national security and the election.

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ROBERT COSTA: The latest on the president’s health and a national crisis.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m sending my prayers for the health and safety of the first lady and president of the United States after they tested positive for COVID-19.

SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) We’re taking this, obviously, very seriously, and we’ll do everything we can to keep everyone safe.

MR. COSTA: The pandemic turns personal for the president and his inner circle. His positive test rattles the administration and rocks the campaign, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin with the crisis that has gripped the nation. President Trump is at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center tonight, one day after he and First Lady Melania Trump received positive coronavirus tests. Aides have told reporters that the president might remain there for several days and they have said he is not seriously ill, but due to factors facing the 74-year-old president he decided to step onto Marine One tonight and head to the hospital. Before going the president issued this statement from the White House.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) But I want to thank everybody for the tremendous support. I’m going to Walter Reed Hospital. I think I’m doing very well, but we’re going to make sure that things work out. The first lady is doing very well. So thank you very much. I appreciate it. I will never forget it. Thank you.

MR. COSTA: According to two people close to the president who spoke with The New York Times, the president has a low-grade fever, nasal congestion, and a cough. Now, this is a story that is still unfolding and it is challenging leaders in both parties to think hard about their next steps on everything from the campaign to the economy to the functioning of government.

And that is where we begin, with three of Washington’s best reporters: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and co-author with Susan Glasser of The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker; Stephanie Ruhle, NBC News senior business correspondent and MSNBC anchor; and Rachel Scott, White House correspondent for ABC News, who is outside Walter Reed tonight.

Peter, I’ve been talking to my sources over the last hour. They’re trying to trace. They’re looking back at events like Judge Coney Barrett’s announcement last Saturday for the Supreme Court, unease inside the West Wing. What are you hearing about how this president is responding and the situation?

PETER BAKER: Well, we’re told that the president’s condition worsened somewhat during the afternoon – his fever rose and he was feeling even worse, which I think is one of the reasons that precipitated the sudden flight to Walter Reed. Remember, just earlier in the day at midday Vice President Pence took over a call for the president to the governors and he told the governors that the president would be convalescing at the White House, so obviously something changed during the afternoon. We’re told that he was feeling worse as the hours went on.

But you know, he showed in that video he obviously wasn’t feeling well. You could tell from that video he looked wan, he looked kind of pale, but he was determined to, you know, present a strong face. He walked to the helicopter on his own. He flashed a little thumbs up to the reporters. You know, so we don’t have a full picture of his condition, and I think it’s – one of the questions going on right now in this White House not just among the reporters but even among White House staff is, why aren’t they being more forthcoming about what’s going on?

MR. COSTA: Peter, a quick follow up. Was that video also about the national security implications of this moment, to show the world that he’s OK?

MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a real desire to show people that he was OK, basically, that he was at least, you know, conscious, standing, able to talk, all those kinds of things, because we didn’t know. Mick Mulvaney, his former chief of staff, said on television earlier today that it was really important for the president to be seen at some point today, even just walking out onto the Truman Balcony if he had to, so that people could see that he was there and reassure the public and reassure, as you point out, our allies and adversaries around the world that there is a president in charge.

MR. COSTA: Rachel, you’re outside Walter Reed. What is the scene there? What have you learned over the past hour?

RACHEL SCOTT: Well, you can see a little bit of the police presence behind me. It was a remarkable scene here, standing right where I am and watching Marine One land just right here at Walter Reed and then watch the president get off of Marine One, get into a car, and be driven inside – just a remarkable moment that less than 24 hours after the president tested positive for COVID-19 and revealed that information to the world that he is now here. And we are told from the White House that he will be still working, that there will be presidential offices set up inside Walter Reed Medical Center, and he did spend much of his day today in self-isolation, obviously, working. We know that he was communicating with top advisors as well as Senate Republicans, talking to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, talking about Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and Mitch McConnell said that the president was in good spirits.

MR. COSTA: Stephanie, that’s the latest on the situation, but what about the latest on public trust? This isn’t an isolated American moment; it comes after months of a global pandemic, months of this administration being criticized for how it’s handled the challenges. What are you reporting and what are you focused on?

STEPHANIE RUHLE: Bob, for me it’s most often I’m focused on the economy, and tonight we really see that this health crisis is directly tied to the economic crisis, and we cannot have a full economic recovery until we the American people are healthy. And when the president of the United States – the most protected person in this country – ends up getting sick like this, well, then it’s a wakeup call for the country just how vulnerable we are. Obviously, people want to get back to work. They want to reopen businesses and go back to school. But unless more safety measures are put in place, it’s just not an option. You saw the markets tumble when this news came out last night, and that’s because of uncertainty. What markets like is stability. They want transparency, and – Peter noted it before – we just don’t have enough information. So it’s that vacuum without having information, you watch the markets tumble, and people feel more and more insecure while you have a president who has been saying things are fine, move on, this is something in the past, it’s not in the past. We are dealing with coronavirus right now, as is our commander in chief. It’s a stark moment for the nation that maybe is a wakeup call for all of us to take it seriously. We’re living with it now.

MR. COSTA: Stephanie, let’s see if this was a wakeup call for Congress and let’s dig a little deeper into that economic point you made. You spoke with Speaker Pelosi earlier today. Here is part of that exchange about the ongoing talks over another stimulus.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) This kind of changes the dynamic because here they see the reality of what we have been saying all along, this is a vicious virus and it spreads, as the president has known from the start. I’m optimistic. I’m always optimistic. We always have to find a path.

MR. COSTA: Is this jumpstarting negotiations, Stephanie?

MS. RUHLE: It could possibly if you think about red-state Republicans who are realizing what the president is dealing with, and that stimulus package isn’t just about sending checks to individuals; it’s an enormous amount of money to states and localities to provide more protections for the American people. We can’t get back to work unless it’s a safe environment.

MR. COSTA: Peter, I was picking up –

MS. RUHLE: Nancy Pelosi, I’ll say, though, she seemed pretty confident.

MR. COSTA: And she’s holding her line, as well, and I was talking to some Democrats today and she – they were telling me the same thing she told you in the interview, that she’s going to hold their line, but she wants a deal and she’s under pressure from House Democrats to get a deal done as much as the administration’s under pressure. Peter, I was reading your book earlier today about James Baker, the former secretary of state. He was chief of staff to President Reagan in 1981 when President Reagan was shot, went to GW Hospital in Washington. Step back here as a reporter, as someone who appreciates history, about the fragility of this episode, to have a president sidelined, a president hospitalized just weeks before an election.

MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that’s a good comparison. That’s been my flashback all day, to 1981 when Reagan was shot and suddenly everything was, you know, uncertain and volatile and scary, you know. I think for that White House it was a new White House. They had just been in office about 70 days. For Jim Baker, it was basically a baptism of fire. He had to basically, you know, take control in a very chaotic situation. Al Haig said he was in control, but it was really Jim Baker who was really in control. And he made the decision, standing in a closet at the hospital at Ed Meese and Lyn Nofziger, not to invoke the 25th Amendment, in order to make – to send a signal to the world that Reagan was still in charge, even though frankly he was in terrible shape.

Now, Baker made a point of not lying to reporters, but he didn’t always tell them everything either. And one of the things he did not tell them in that March of 1981 was just how bad things were with Ronald Reagan. Now, that’s – it’s been 39 years since then, but I think the lesson of that day is why we’re all so interested in more information today. Today is not obviously an assassination attempt, and we shouldn’t make a direct comparison, but it was a shock even though it was wholly predictable in some ways. And I think that it has rattled this White House and it has come at this point, unlike that incident, in the middle of a campaign, just 32 days before an election. Nobody knows how that will play out.

MR. COSTA: And, Rachel, in the interview earlier today with Stephanie, Speaker Pelosi said she wasn’t really in contact with the White House. You have a divided Washington facing all the challenges from President Trump and his illness at the time – at this time. Your outlet, ABC News, reported earlier today that President Trump has not transferred, to Peter’s point, any power to Vice President Pence, that President Trump is still in charge. What are you hearing about the vice president and how he’s handling this time?

MS. SCOTT: Yeah. Well, we know the vice president is obviously keeping the president in his thoughts and prayers here. But you are absolutely right. A senior administration official told us today that the president is still in charge. And we saw that with the White House press secretary’s statement, in which she said the president is still going to be working from here, even though he is expected to receive several tests, even though he has mild symptoms, they say, a fever, chills, congestion. The president is still expected to work throughout the several days that he is expected to be here at Walter Reed.

MR. COSTA: Rachel, you also cover the campaign. The Biden campaign has just pulled its negative ads. Is the Trump campaign going to do the same?

(Off-side conversation.)

MR. COSTA: Rachel, were you able to hear that?

MS. SCOTT: Yeah. The Biden campaign did pull their negative ads. The Trump campaign has not so far. They are still keeping those ads up. And we do know that Vice President Biden was on the campaign trail today. He did test negative, though he obviously was on the stage with the president from a distance on that debate night. But they are still moving forward here. It is going to be interesting to see what this does to the campaign. Republican sources that I was talking to today, you know, they said that they were worried about how this shifts the narrative, how this shifts the tone. They were fresh off of that Supreme Court pick, looking to cement a conservative majority on the bench for decades to come. And we saw how the president’s base really rallied behind that chance to fill that seat at the president’s rallies over the last couple of – couple of days and weeks here.

Now the tone has shifted to something that they have largely tried to avoid in the national conversation. And that is the pandemic, the focus on the pandemic. But when you do take a step back, you know, and realize and think about today that Americans woke up realizing that the president of the United States, his health was at risk, the severity of that definitely is prompting some fear and anxiety, not only at the White House but I think across the nation.

MR. COSTA: Peter, the campaign, as Racheal said – Stephanie. Jump in, Stephanie.

MS. RUHLE: I would say what’s adding to this anxiety – and Peter mentioned it before – what information you’re sharing with the American people and are you being honest with them? Cornell University did a survey, and it’s actually President Trump himself that is the main source of disinformation about the coronavirus. And then this morning at 9:00 a.m. Ronny Jackson, the former White House medical doctor said, well, the president shouldn’t have to quarantine for the full 14 days because he’s asymptomatic. Within minutes we learned from the White House that he wasn’t asymptomatic. He had minor symptoms.

So the enormous problem with that is in order for us to safely get to the other side of this, it’s about trust from government, businesses, schools, and Americans. And now here we are at this critical moment, when all eyes are on the White House and our president, and we’re still not getting clear or honest information. And that is so jarring to the American people.

MR. COSTA: So, Peter, what is next then for the Trump campaign, for its message? Will the president still go to debates? Will the vice presidential debate happen next week?

MR. BAKER: Yeah. All good questions. I think we don’t really know the answers. The Trump campaign did call off, you know, a series of rallies that were scheduled for the next few days, including one in Florida today. They said that the first family will also – the rest of the first family will also refrain from in-person events in the immediate future. But the vice president will be out there carrying the load, basically, for the president, making his case to the public.

We don’t know yet about the vice presidential debate. There’s already talk about whether changes will have to be made for that debate and for the next presidential debate to accommodate the situation. The presidential debate – the next one – is only 14 days away. That’s so soon that it’s kind of hard to see how a symptomatic president could be well enough by then that everybody would feel comfortable with an in-person confrontation between him and Vice President Biden. But nobody is talking yet about what would happen in concrete details.

MR. COSTA: And one of the issues for the election, Rachel, is the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. I was talking to Senate Republicans today who are nervous that this rushed process, trying to get it done before the election, could be thrown off course by this turn of events. What are you hearing about Senate Republicans? And is the White House trying to make sure this still happens?

MS. SCOTT: Well, it’s interesting. In the president’s conversations today with Senate Republicans, those Republicans that did speak to the president said that they did discuss Judge Barrett in those conversations. And we saw Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say they are moving forward full steam ahead. So far there have been no changes to that schedule. The first hearing is expected to take place on October 12th. They want to push this through. And, again, this is a critical issue. It’s a critical issue for the future of the bench, and the future of the Supreme Court. And then also critical issues like the Affordable Care Act.

Remember, just one week after the election the Supreme Court is scheduled to take up a case on the future of the Affordable Care Act. That is such a critical issue for voters in this country, as well as abortion and female production rights – female reproduction rights. That’s going to be on the ballot as well for many voters this election. But Senate Republicans do want to push this through. They do want to continue on this pace. Obviously, Democrats want to slow this down, but they have very limited options to do so.

MR. COSTA: And one thing I keep hearing from sources is that event with Judge Coney Barrett, they had private receptions at the White House, you had a lot going on inside the West Wing during that announcement last Saturday. Senator Lee and others who attended that event have contracted coronavirus. More scrutiny, to be sure, in the coming days on that event, as well as on the nomination.

But let’s turn to Tuesday’s chaotic debate and what matters right now. My GOP sources say the president’s remarks on White supremacy are a lingering problem. Here is the exchange about the extremist Proud Boys, a male-only far-right group.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead. Who would you like me to condemn?

CHRIS WALLACE: (From video.) White supremacists. White supremacists and right-wing militia.


PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Who?

MR. BIDEN: (From video.) Proud Boys.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what – I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.

MR. COSTA: President Trump later told Fox News that he, quote, “condemns White supremacists and condemns the Proud Boys.” But, Stephanie, you’re talking to voters. You’re paying attention to the polls, how people in these swing areas in the suburbs are listening to not only the ongoing talks about the economy and the stimulus, but these – the remarks on race from President Trump. How did the debate – even though it seems like almost a year ago this week – how will that affect the closing stretch of this campaign?

MS. RUHLE: Robert, especially that moment was a huge miss for the president. The president’s base, Evangelical voters, we know they are going to come out for him, especially because of the Supreme Court. Sort of the Proud Boys contingent, they are sort of ride or die standing behind the president. But it is White suburban women that the president likes to say he’s got on lock, but he doesn’t. They’re very concerned about the president’s conduct. So he had a very, very clear opportunity right there to denounce White supremacists and he didn’t do it.

So you’ve got White suburban women – my mom, Louise Ruhle – you lose her vote at a night like that. The next day she can’t go to mahjong and show her face because she’s going, yep, that’s my guy. He’s down with the Proud Boys. It makes absolutely no sense. He wouldn’t – he’s not going to lose those fringe voters. They feel so proud and thrilled that the president has brought them front and center. So the fact that he missed this opportunity, you have got scores of women that are saying: Enough is enough.

MR. COSTA: Inside the Biden campaign, Rachel, what’s the word about how this went? Are they satisfied that they got their points across, even as the president interrupted?

MS. SCOTT: Yeah. Well, I think the Biden campaign thinks that they edged out the president on that debate stage. I’ve heard from some Democrats though that did not feel like there was a real winner on that stage, that the American people that need to decide on who to vote in this election did not really get a clear argument from one or the other. And I followed up with so many voters that I have met on the campaign trail over the course of the last year, and they said a lot of it was so much noise. And especially right now, when we are facing multiple crises in this country – an economic crisis, a public health crisis, a crisis on racial relations in this country – they want to hear more about the issues, and they wanted to hear more about what the president and the former vice president would do about it. Sadly, there was little to no mention about the communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by all of those crises when the discussions were brought up very early on in that debate.

MR. COSTA: We don’t want to forget about those issues at all, so critical. Another critical issue, Peter, came from your newspaper earlier this week, The New York Times, on the president’s finances, his taxes. We don’t want that to get lost, an important story. Does that last in the eyes and on the minds of key voters in the battlegrounds?

MR. BAKER: Well, look, you know, I think a lot of voters have already come to the conclusion about the president. They either think that he hasn’t paid his full share of taxes, that he’s, you know, gamed the system in a way that they can’t do, and therefore they’re not on his side; or they take his argument, which is that, you know, avoiding taxes, if he can do it legally, is smart and they admire him for it. I don’t know how many people’s minds are changed, but what is important, I think, is it validates a lot of the reporting that we’ve been doing over these last few years. My colleagues have spent so much time trying to dig through his finances. I think these documents really show some really important stuff about the president’s biography and his – and his candor. And I think that, you know, every day he’s not talking about the issues he wants to talk about is probably a bad day for him politically.

MR. COSTA: Stephanie, you’re a financial reporter – yes?

MS. RUHLE: But Bob, these issues might not –

MR. COSTA: Please.

MS. RUHLE: These issues might not matter to voters, but there are some very clear reasons why they need to. National security is a key one. President Trump was a businessman. It is not strange for somebody who runs a big business to owe an enormous amount of money, huge debts. The president owes $400 million. Normally, when a businessperson takes office, they divest themselves from that business. Legally, the president – the president wasn’t forced to do that, but what he absolutely needs to do is disclose to the American people who he owes that money to. Over the course of the next four years, he owes $400 million. We know he does not owe it to a U.S. bank, so at the very least he needs to share that with the American people so we know he’s in a position where he can put country first.

And to Peter’s point, people who support the president’s argument – listen, I didn’t pay much taxes, I knew how to work the system – that argument worked in 2016 because he said hate the game not the player, but if I’m elected president I know where all those loopholes are and I will make it my job to close the loopholes and make things more fair for you. Well, when you actually walk through it, he didn’t do that. The loopholes got bigger. He created new ones, especially for those in the commercial real estate industry where he came from. And what’s really interesting is those are some really important points and Joe Biden didn’t really make them.

MR. COSTA: Peter, I saw you nodding there.

MR. BAKER: Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right, he has not do anything to fix the system that he says was broken himself. And it reminds me, actually, of an anecdote from our book, if you’ll allow me. In James Baker’s biography we tell the story of the first time he meets Donald Trump. Donald Trump comes to his office at the Treasury Department when Baker is Treasury secretary and rewriting the tax code because he’s unhappy that these loopholes for real estate were going to be closed. He was lobbying for the same special interest provisions that he then, of course, later took advantage of and complained about in the campaign simultaneously.

MR. COSTA: Rachel, in the final minute or two here, my phone’s been blowing up, your phone’s been blowing up at reporters tonight. What’s the story this weekend, as we look past this whole week from the debate to what’s happened in recent days with the coronavirus and the president? What’s going on this weekend with the president away? You’re on the beat for ABC News.

MS. SCOTT: Yeah, the focus is right here at Walter Reed as the president is going to be spending the weekend here and getting several tests after he tested positive for COVID-19. I also think a lot of this is still unknown, right, and I think that’s sensing and starting so much of the panic and the fears that we don’t really know who else will test positive for COVID-19 in the coming days among the administration, and here in Washington that is igniting some fear, certainly. And I’m struck by something that Donald Trump Jr. told ABC News tonight. He said never in his 40-some-odd years that he – has he ever seen his president – has he ever seen his father, the president, so sick. And so I think, you know, the focus is going to be on the president, on his recovery, and we are going to continue to only see the ripple effects of the president and other administrations testing positive for this virus.

MR. COSTA: Stephanie, final thoughts, 30 seconds.

MS. RUHLE: All eyes on the president. People are wishing him well and hoping that those who thought that coronavirus was behind us realize it’s not and people take every safety measure – every safety precaution possible.

MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there for tonight and we’ll all keep reporting. Peter Baker, Stephanie Ruhle, and Rachel Scott, really appreciate you joining us on this evening – a long week, a difficult week. And we will keep taking you all as close to the news as we can.

On our Extra I’ll speak with Peter and Susan Glasser about their book on James Baker. You can find it on our Bookshelf on social media and on our website.

I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.

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