Full Episode: President Trump’s Health & the Vice-Presidential Debate

Oct. 09, 2020 AT 8:59 p.m. EDT

President Trump is back in the White House after three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. As stimulus negotiations sputter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a commission to study the 25 th Amendment and presidential fitness. And in the vice-presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris sparred over COVID-19, the Supreme Court and racial justice issues.

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

ROBERT COSTA: High stakes and running mates.

SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.

VICE PRESDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) Senator, I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives.

MR. COSTA: Showdown over the health of the nation and over future debates.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) No, I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We don’t know what the president’s going to do. Changes his mind every second.

MR. COSTA: And the president’s health and conduct alarms Democrats.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI D-CA): (From video.) This is not about President Trump, but we are reminded of the necessity of action by the health of the current president.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) That’s absurd. Right here in this last three weeks before the election, I think those kinds of wild comments should be largely discounted.

MR. COSTA: Next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. With just 25 days until the election President Trump’s conduct and health continue to transfix Washington, with the Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, so alarmed that she has raised the constitutional stakes. Earlier Friday, the speaker announced she supports the creation of a commission on the 25th Amendment focused on evaluating whether the president is fit to serve. In response the president’s allies have lashed out at her, saying she might be orchestrating a coup, and the president has been pressuring his own Cabinet officials such as Attorney General William Barr to indict his opponents. In short, it is political war coupled with deep national anxiety over a pandemic that has killed over 210,000 Americans – and stimulus talks are sputtering, and the White House has coronavirus spreading among top officials.

Joining us to discuss this serious and turbulent American moment are three of Washington’s finest journalists: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today and the moderator of Wednesday’s vice presidential debate; and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal and author of We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump, A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution.

Yamiche, I’d like to begin with you and congratulate you on winning the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Gwen Ifill Award. You certainly embody Gwen’s spirit and her commitment to the truth. Congratulations.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Thank you so much, Bob.

MR. COSTA: And let’s turn – let’s turn, Yamiche, to the latest news. You’ve been following it for the past hour on Friday. Several outlets are now reporting that the president will speak from the White House balcony on Saturday and then hold a rally in Florida on Monday even as he recovers from the coronavirus. What do you know about his health tonight, and is there any dissent inside the West Wing about these events?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, first I just want to say congratulations to Susan for moderating that debate. It was an amazing thing to watch and I’m happy to be on TV with you tonight.

I think that the president is clearly very, very eager to get back on the campaign trail. He’s very much wanting to look in charge. He’s tired of being in the White House, tired of being confined to that building. We don’t know some critical things about the president’s health – in particular, when was the last time that he tested negative? The White House has refused over and over again to answer that question. We also don’t know if he’s had any lung damage, if anything that has happened to him as a result of his COVID-19 diagnosis has actually compromised any part of his health. His doctor has not answered questions since Monday. We’ve been getting written updates about his health, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about where the president stands. The White House insists – the White House doctor in particular insists that the president will be OK to start having events on Saturday. As a result, we’re seeing the president and the White House hosting – they’re not calling it a rally. They’re saying that it’s the president doing remarks on law and order.

But we can imagine that there are going to be if not dozens, if not hundreds of people at the White House tomorrow. There are people in the White House who are very scared. People have been freaking out all week long. Bob, I’m sure you’ve been hearing this. People lining up to get tested with so many different people. We have something like 35 people at least who tested positive at the White House recently. So people are really, really scared. But the president tomorrow is deciding that he wants to be out front, because he’s seeing Joe Biden hit the campaign trail.

MR. COSTA: Susan, I’d echo Yamiche’s comments, terrific job at the debate. Yamiche also mentioned, Susan, the president could be giving remarks on law and order. And we’re seeing him not only restless but raging. He’s been tweeting and making comments on Rush Limbaugh’s show and Fox News about how he’s frustrated with his own attorney general about the lack of a Durham probe at this point in the campaign and the lack of indictments. What does that all say about the president at this time?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think it shows the president in a state that I think even for President Trump, who has been a disruptor from the start, it’s part of his brand, has moved on to new territory, to be running for reelection, a month out from the election pretty far behind – behind by double digits in the last four high-quality polls that we’ve seen nationwide. Suggesting that he would use – suggesting that he should use the Justice Department to meet his political agenda, to cause damage to his political opponents – even to political opponents of the past, to the Obama administration, to President Obama. This I really quite extraordinary.

These are – these are – we talk about tumultuous times. It’s hard to imagine a more tumultuous time in American history, maybe since the Civil War, where we approach this election with such high degrees of anger and angst on the part of so many citizens.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, will the Attorney General Bill Barr – will he buckle at the president’s demands?

GERALD SEIB: You know, I don’t think so. I think Bill Barr has shown that he’s sympathetic to a lot of the demands that the president places on him, but he’s not his handmaiden in any way. You know, he said – this week, apparently, has told Republican lawmakers that the inquiry into the origins of the Russian interference in the election is not going to be – interference in the 2016 election is not going to be done in time for this election. That’s not making the president happy, but that’s a – that’s an action Bill Barr has taken.

I think sort of the broader thing that we have learned here in the midst of all this is that the coronavirus, I think, is now cemented as the dominant question, the dominant issue of this campaign. I mean, that’s what this is all about. This is the president’s frustration at being bottled up because of the coronavirus, the inability to avoid talking about the coronavirus, which I think the Trump campaign was eager to talk about anything else. For weeks now it can’t avoid the question. It was the dominant topic in the debate that Susan moderated. And again, I’d also add my congratulations to Susan for that. This is now the coronavirus election. And one of the reasons you’re seeing the president moving out in all these different directions is that that frustrates him.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, Jerry said it’s the coronavirus election. It’s also the coronavirus West Wing at this point. You said people are freaking out. How is that affecting the effectiveness and the function of American government?

MS. ALCINDOR: It’s really remarkable. You have all but one of the chief of staff – the joint chiefs of staff quarantining. You have at the White House a number of high-level officials testing positive – including, of course, the president, the first lady. You also have the White House press secretary. You also have the Trump campaign manager. There are a number of people who helped the president during the debate who also have tested positive, including Stephen Miller and Chris Christie.

Chris Christie, the governor of – former governor of New Jersey, he’s someone to really watch, because he’s still in the hospital. He’s also said that he didn’t hear specifically from the White House. And that gets to the issue of contact tracing. One of the things that this White House is supposed to be doing is looking at how this all got started. There, of course, was that Saturday event to announce the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. There were a couple of other sessions, including a debate session, that think – that people think there might have been a hot spot area in that as well.

But this is a White House that is not taking outside help to do contact tracing. So the CDC has said: We would be happy to help you. But the White House says they have an in-house epidemiologist. But just based off of what I’ve been talking to and who I’ve been talking to, people aren’t clear on exactly how much that contact tracing is going to go into all the different people who have already been touched by this virus. So really the White House is functioning in chaos. The press secretary is not able to give briefings because she’s literally at home quarantining.

And the president, he’s walking around the White House kind of restless, going into the Oval Office. But people are going to have to – or, people have had to put on almost full hazmat suits to be able to interact with him. So that’s also frustrating the president. So this is a White House that’s trying to function, trying to say that things are business as usual. But, Bob, they’re anything but business as usual.

MR. COSTA: And Dr. Fauci, Susan, said earlier today on CBS radio that that Amy Coney Barrett announcement last week was probably the super spreader event for all these White House officials. Susan, you’re not only a debate moderator, you’re a biographer. You’re writing the book about Speaker Pelosi. She has raised these constitutional stakes, talking about the 25th Amendment, about whether Congress should help advise the executive branch in some way about the fitness of a president to serve. What is she up to here, just 25 days before the campaign ends?

MS. PAGE: Well, of course, these are serious concerns. It’s not unreasonable to look at questions of succession. However, the timing of this makes it look pretty provocative. Speaker Pelosi at the announcement today of her support for this bill that Congressman Jamie Raskin has put forward, said it wasn’t directed at Trump. But she indicated that it was motivated by Trump, that she was – she has long expressed concerns about the president’s fitness for office, and most recently about whether the drugs that he’s taking to treat COVID-19 might be affecting his judgement. So I think there is no chance that this bill gets passed anytime in the foreseeable future. But it is certainly something that’s focused our attention on the president, and his fitness, and COVID-19. And those are all bad issues for him just three weeks before election day.

MR. COSTA: And, Jerry, even Republicans are expressing alarm. They’re not going to the 25th Amendment level, but the Republicans I’ve been talking to on Capitol Hill, they’re privately saying – and I wrote about this for the Post this week – that they’re concerned the president’s plummeting in the polls. He’s walking away from the negotiating table with the stimulus. And you see people like Senator John Cornyn, a conservative in Texas, saying he’s disappointed with the president on the pandemic. Is the GOP finally starting to crack when it comes to President Trump? Or is this just another round of muted grumbling?

MR. SEIB: Well, I think crack is a little too strong. I think there are certainly – there’s reservations. There’s doubt. There’s also a rock and a hard place for them. You know, they’re three-plus weeks out from an election. They will pay a price back home if they move away from the president. They know that. That’s been the lesson the last three-plus years. And so I think they have to sort of live with the consequences. But what worries them, Bob, is if you look inside – for example, our Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll after the presidential debate, you start to see erosion in the Trump base, which you haven’t seen before. You see senior citizens moving against the president. You see working-class white men now moving against the president. He still wins that group, but there’s been erosion in that support.

And so the one thing Republicans who had their doubts about the president could always tell themselves before now was: The base is solid. The Trump base will help me. I think there’s now some doubt about that. And on top of that, you have other groups, like suburban women, who continue to move south. So there’s a lot to be worried about if you’re a Republican senator in a swing state running for reelection this year.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, all the points Jerry laid out on polling, is that why the president came back to the negotiating table on Friday, Secretary Mnuchin engaging with Speaker Pelosi on a stimulus deal?

MS. ALCINDOR: That’s probably part of it. But I think the other part of it is that there was real backlash within the Republican Party when President Trump took that surprising step and said that he was going to be calling off negotiations to this COVID-19 relief package. And he wanted senators to instead focus on the confirmation of Judge Barrett. So this was a Democratic talking point long before the president made this move. The Democrats had been saying: The president wants to think about himself, he wants to think about his nominee, he doesn’t care about the American people.

So then when the president took that move, there were airline companies who said we’re going to have to keep on furloughing employees. There were people who were saying, well, millions of people are out of work. How are you going to just stop negotiating? How are you going to just essentially say, I’ll talk to you after the election? So I think the president heard from a lot of people, including Republicans on Capitol Hill, who said: This is not good for down-ballot Republicans. We’re going to have to then essentially defend the president, saying: Sorry, you can’t get more stimulus check.

The other thing I should note is that the president’s announcement came just a few hours after the Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said if there wasn’t another stimulus bill that that – that the recovery, that is going faster than he thought, that it could be – that it could falter, that it could be thrown into disarray. He even said that the consequences could be tragic. That was the word he used. So I think the president had to take in all of that backlash, and that’s why you see the White House now saying, actually, let’s play ball, let’s put up another proposal.

MR. COSTA: I was talking to Republican senators today privately and they said they think a deal is possible because House Democrats want it, the president needs it now politically. So if you’re on the edge of your seat tonight wondering, it seems like there are some shoots out there, some optimism, but you never know in Washington.

Let’s turn, though, to the vice presidential debate. Susan, we all saw you. You worked so hard to bring up important issues, including the pandemic. It was also a historic night, the first such debate to feature a Black woman, Senator Kamala Harris of California.

MS. PAGE: (From video.) Would you impose new lockdowns for businesses and schools in hotspots, a federal mandate to wear masks?

SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you. Can you imagine if you knew on January 28th as opposed to March 13th what they knew, what you might have done to prepare? They knew and they covered it up. They still don’t have a plan. They still don’t have a plan. Well, Joe Biden does, and our plan is about what we need to do around a national strategy for contact tracing, for testing, for administration of the vaccine, and making sure that it will be free for all.

MS. PAGE: (From video.) How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates. We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people.

MR. COSTA: Susan, beyond the headlines about that fly on the vice president’s head, what would you have as the headline? You were there in the room.

MS. PAGE: (Laughs.) I’m the worst person in the world to judge the headline because I was so focused on the moment. Speaking of the fly, so we have this 90-minute debate, the biggest issues facing the nation. I walk offstage afterwards all excited, what are people talking about; everybody was talking about the fly, the fly, and I was like, what fly? I never saw the fly.

MR. COSTA: (Laughs.) But what mattered at that debate? I mean, the vice presidential debates historically have often not had a huge impact, but you have two nominees now that are over 70 years old.

MS. PAGE: Yes, I think that this debate mattered more, got more attention, got higher ratings than most of the previous ones because of that fact. Either of these candidates for vice president, if their ticket wins, have every chance of becoming president. Joe Biden will be 78 on Inauguration Day. President Trump will be 74. So that raised, I think, the stakes for this debate, and I think also the fact that Kamala Harris, senator from California, not a well-known figure nationally until this point. People might wanted to tune in to see if she was someone they might feel comfortable putting a heartbeat away from the presidency, so maybe that gave this debate a little more resonance than vice presidential debates sometimes have.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, we wanted to show those clips about the pandemic because that is the issue, as Jerry said, in this election, as we all have been covering. What’s your read on how the head of the coronavirus task force, Vice President Pence, handled the debate, and what’s the review inside of the White House?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, the view – the review inside the White House is that they feel like Mike Pence did the best that he did – he could when it came to defending the president’s strategy. I think the thing that should be noted here is that the coverage that would have been not only the fly, but the policies, that was all stepped over because President Trump decided to go on Fox News and give a very long interview about all the different things that he thought of.

But going back to the debate, the thing that struck me the most about watching Mike Pence was that he’s the smoother – he’s less brash, less combative, definitely interrupted a lot, definitely gave Susan a run for her money when it came to adhering to the rules, but he was someone who was defending the Trump White House with a smoother delivery but with the exact same talking points that we’ve heard from the president. So he said at one point that Senator Harris was the one playing politics with people’s lives. He also said that we’ve always been honest with the American people. What we know is that the president has admitted that he downplayed the virus. He says to Bob Woodward that he didn’t want to panic the American public. The point is that he was not always transparent, did not always say what he meant.

Another thing is I was struck by how many questions didn’t get answered by both Senator Harris but especially, of course, by Vice President Pence. He didn’t talk about what the health-care plan for the Trump administration will be, if it will actually come out before Election Day. He didn’t answer the question of whether or not Americans have the right to know how President Trump is doing in terms of his COVID-19 diagnosis. And surprisingly, he would not commit to a peaceful transfer of power, which got a lot of headlines when President Trump did it but because Mike Pence did it in maybe a little less – in a – in a more smooth way it didn’t get the same headlines. But I think all of those things are things that made me step back and think this is someone who’s a good defender of the Trump administration with a different kind of style.

MR. COSTA: That brings up an issue that Vice President Biden has not addressed on the campaign trail, Senator Harris didn’t address it at the vice presidential debate, whether the Democratic ticket, the Democratic nominees, want to pack the Supreme Court. Let’s listen to Vice President Biden this week on that question.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) You’ll know my opinion on court packing when the election’s over. Now, look, I know it’s a great question, and you all – and I don’t blame you for asking, but you know the moment I answer that question the headline in every one of your papers will be about that, other than – other than focusing on what’s happening now.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, I’m told by my Biden sources that they don’t want to answer it because if they say yes, they want to pack the court, they’ll maybe alienate some more centrist voters; if they say they don’t want to pack the Supreme Court, they’ll alienate liberal voters, some of them who sat on the sidelines in 2016. What’s going on?

MR. SEIB: Well, that’s exactly what’s going on. That’s half of the reason the Biden-Harris ticket doesn’t want to talk about this, and that by the way is an uncomfortable situation for them to be in. They’re going to be there until the election happens because they’ve made this decision not to address the question. But part of the reason is, as you say, you will alarm and upset progressives if you say you’re not for this plan; you will alarm and upset moderate Democrats and independents if you say you’re for this program because some of them think it’s too radical. The other reason is, I think, the Biden team views this as a way by the Republican Party to change the subject, to move the subject away from the attempt by what the – what Democrats think is an attempt to jam through a Supreme Court nominee at the last minute before the election. That no longer is the issue, Supreme Court packing becomes the issue if they answer the question. So what they’re trying to do is keep the focus on what they want the focus on, which is the debate over Amy Coney Barrett, but I think this is an uncomfortable situation for the Democrats to be in. They’re going to get asked this question a lot more, and if there is another debate you can be sure it’s going to be raised prominently by President Trump.

MR. COSTA: Susan, when Judge Barrett comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, are they going to talk about health care or are they going to talk about her biography and the groups she’s been part of, like People of Praise?

MS. PAGE: They’re going to talk about health care. They’re going to talk about the fact that if she gets confirmed by November 10th she’ll be on the high court when it considers the law – case to strike down the Affordable Care Act, the Affordable Care Act which has provided protections for people with preexisting conditions for – to have access to affordable health care. And as Yamiche mentioned, the Trump administration has promised to continue those protections but they haven’t said how they’ll do it, and they – that was one of the questions that Vice President Pence dodged at the debate this week. So that is the primary focus, I think, of Democratic attacks, but I’ve got to say at the moment it looks like she is headed toward confirmation.

MR. COSTA: And Senator Cruz told me this week the votes are there for Judge Barrett. Yamiche, speaking of dodging debates, just before we came to air tonight the Commission on Presidential Debates canceled that second debate next week in Miami. Is the president committed to going to that debate, the debate in late October, moderated by our friend Kristen Welker?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, soon after the official announcement was made that the October 15th debate was canceled the Trump administration put out a statement, or I should say the Trump campaign put out a statement, saying that they really want two more debates – they want October 22nd and they want October 29th. Now, it seems as though the debate commission is not wanting to get onboard with that; they want to get onboard with just keeping the schedule the way it is and essentially bypassing the debate that they think can’t be done in person safely. The other thing to note is that the Biden campaign – at least from the last I heard, the Biden campaign, they wanted to keep the date. They wanted Biden to have this ABC townhall where he can take questions from voters on October 15th and then the last debate on October 22nd, so I think it’s the Biden campaign that doesn’t want this October 29th debate.

MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there for tonight. Really appreciate you all coming out, great reporters. Susan Page, congratulations again on moderating that debate. Not easy to be in that chair, in the room as they say in Hamilton. Yamiche Alcindor, Susan Page, and Jerry Seib, thanks again.

And thank you all for joining us. What a group, huh? We’ll keep taking you as close to the news as we can in the coming weeks. And check out our next chapter on the Washington Week Bookshelf series. It’s on our website and social media. I’ll chat with Jerry about his new book on the GOP.

I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


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