Full Episode: The COVID-19 Crisis & Investigating the Insurrection

Feb. 26, 2021 AT 8:52 p.m. EST

This week Washington dealt with President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill, a mounting virus death toll, and the fallout from the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol. The panel discussed new details from congressional hearings into the riot, President Biden’s latest foreign policy efforts, and where the country stands on vaccine distribution. The New York Times Chief White House Correspondent Peter Baker guest moderates.

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PETER BAKER: A week of truth and consequences.

STEVEN SUND: (From video.) These criminals came prepared for war.

MR. BAKER: The inquest into the breach of the Capitol begins.

SENATOR RON JOHNSON (R-WI): (From video.) People realized that the police whom they supported were firing on them.

ACTING D.C. POLICE CHIEF ROBERT CONTEE: (From video.) Chief Sund was pleading for the deployment of the National Guard. It was not an immediate yes.

MR. BAKER: But factual inconsistencies and the former president’s grip on the GOP make reconciling the truth complex. And after crossing a grim milestone, some optimism.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Fifty million shots in just 37 days.

MR. BAKER: And hope that more help is on the way.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Let’s get this done.

MR. BAKER: Plus, a new report implicates the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in the assassination of a journalist, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.

MR. BAKER: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Peter Baker.

This week Washington grappled with two ongoing crises, the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from the insurrection against the United States Congress and the peaceful transfer of power. Law enforcement officials testified with more details about what happened on January 6th, and in his confirmation hearing attorney general nominee Merrick Garland discussed the threats this country faces. Here’s some of what we saw this week.

JUDGE MERRICK GARLAND: (From video.) I will supervise the prosecution of White supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6th.

SENATOR GARY PETERS (D-MI): (From video.) How can you not get that vital intelligence on the eve of what’s going to be a major event?

STEVEN SUND: (From video.) Thank you, sir. I know that’s something that’s going to be looked at.

SENATOR RON JOHNSON (R-WI): (From video.) Do you believe that what happened – the breach of the Capitol – did you believe that’s foreseeable and predictable?

STEVEN SUND: (From video.) No, I don’t.

ACTING CAPITOL POLICE CHIEF YOGANANDA PITTMAN: (From video.) The department was not ignorant of intelligence indicating an attack of the size and scale we encountered on the 6th. There was no such intelligence.

MR. BAKER: As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Democrats push for a commission to look into the attack, some congressional Republicans are denying basic facts including the legitimacy of the 2020 election and questioning whether the rioters who stormed the building supported Trump at all. Can Washington come together on the facts of this attack when those facts are being challenged?

Joining us tonight are four reporters covering this story: Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast; Errin Haines, editor at large for The 19th; my colleague Mark Mazzetti, Washington investigative correspondent for The New York Times; and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.

Mark, you had a very smart piece this week looking at the missing two hours of the attack on January 6th. What did we learn this week about the security breakdown and what happened on that day?

MARK MAZZETTI: We learned some elements that filled in a little bit of that picture. So we know that the chief of the Capitol Police, Steven Sund, on that day at around 1:00 in the afternoon, right as the crowd is breaching the barricades, made a(n) urgent request for the National Guard, the D.C. National Guard. That request was not fulfilled for two hours, almost two hours, and the Guard didn’t show up for hours after that. We know that Chief Sund put a request in to the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who delayed actually fulfilling that request, and even after they fulfilled it the Pentagon took some time to actually decide whether to do it or not. What we kind of saw in that hearing that you showcased earlier was kind of an exercise in deflecting blame. The security officials were blaming the intelligence. Chief Sund was saying that his urgent request went unfulfilled. We have yet to hear from what the Pentagon said. But what is pretty clear, Peter, is that there was nobody – whether it’s intelligence, the FBI, the Capitol Police, the D.C. Police, Capitol officials – nobody was screaming, raising alarms in the days before the events, signaling that this could possibly happen. I think that’s pretty clear.

MR. BAKER: Errin, we learned a lot this week, but what do you think we didn’t learn? If you were put in charge of the investigation, what would be the most important question you would want to have answered at this point?

ERRIN HAINES: Well, Peter, I think that you have to note just the discrepancy between the way that these insurrectionists were perceived, the perceived threat of these insurrectionists – who we know were largely White, largely male – what their perceived threat was, that this was not something that was forwarded up to the highest levels of law enforcement, that they were not mobilized and galvanized against this threat that was widely known about, frankly, before January 6th, compared to some of the law enforcement response that we’ve seen or anticipated law enforcement response we’ve seen to the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests that we’ve seen in the past few years. What does that mean? Is there a racial dynamic to that? I think that that is something as a country that we are still grappling with. It’s certainly something that a lot of the folks in the activist community that I talk to speak about, especially when we know that our federal government has said that White supremacy – that extremism that is fueled by this White nationalism – is the greatest threat to our national security. If that is the case, why was that not treated as such headed into and on January the 6th?

MR. BAKER: Yeah, Susan, it’s interesting, a lot of Republicans might not agree with that at this point, right? Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin, voiced some pretty interesting ideas, that this was actually the work of left-wing agents, provocateur and fake Trump protesters. We also saw a poll this week that said that 58 percent of Trump voters actually believe that the protests, that the riots, were mostly an Antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters. Now, obviously, that’s not true, and we’ve heard from the FBI and others, and we all saw the video. So what’s up with that, Susan? What’s going on with that kind of conspiracy-mongering there at a Senate hearing?

SUSAN DAVIS: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things. One, Ron Johnson, I think, speaks only for Ron Johnson. I think in the broader context of that hearing, the Senate has gotten a fair amount of credit this week. It is, at least so far – and granted, it’s only been one hearing – but so far this has been a bipartisan effort by Republicans and Democrats that run the Homeland Security Committee and the Rules Committee. All accounts from all of the senators running this thing is that they’re doing it together, that they don’t want it to devolve into sort of a conspiracy theory or partisan fight. And I think it’s a sharp contrast to what’s happening in the House, which is very much that equation. The House has not scheduled, really, any similar oversight hearings to what we’ve seen happening in the Senate, there is no – almost no bipartisan effort to try to get to it, and we’re seeing a big partisan fight right now over this question of a 9/11-style commission, something that would be bipartisan, that would be taken – established by the Congress but essentially taken outside of the Congress, to have an outside independent body look into what transpired both leading up to the events of January 6th and on that day. And that’s going to be really tough to come by. There’s some disputes over whether it should be – how it should be split – should it be split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, should Democrats have an advantage on it – and the scope of that investigation. I think that there is a lot of Republicans who are resistant to it because, as we saw all through the impeachment process, there’s a real resistance to any kind of inquiry that could lead back to Donald Trump and his role in the events of January 6th. I’ve talked to Republicans today who think that Democrats have a resistance to a commission that could look at the security failures that happened on that day because Congress is run by Democrats right now and it would make them look like they weren’t prepared for this attack on their watch. So it’s quite different than the climate after 9/11, where the Congress and the country really came together, the 9/11 commission was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. This is a very different event. January 6th did not have the effect of unifying Congress and bringing Democrats and Republicans together; in fact, I think it had quite the opposite. We’ve seen complete fracturing between the two parties, most acutely in the House, and almost no goodwill to work together to get to the root causes of why that event happened.

MR. BAKER: Ashley, as Susan just mentioned, President Trump sort of haunts over, does former President Trump, and you know, he’s – his role is one that continues to be of great consequence to this inquiry, but the current president, Joe Biden, wants to move on, right? As you wrote this week, he wants to not talk so much about the former guy, as he called him, but Senator Ted Cruz told the Conservative Political Action Conference today that, quote, “Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere.” So when we hear from the president at this conference on Sunday, conference of conservative activists, what do you expect to hear, Ashley? Do you expect him to say anything about the January 6th attack? Do you expect him to announce he’s running for president again in 2024?

ASHLEY PARKER: Well, you never know which version of Donald Trump to expect, so my answer comes with sort of the usual Trump caveat. But the truth is, you know, whatever version you see, there is that version where he sticks to the teleprompter. We have seen that. He is capable of reading words off of a teleprompter and delivering an on-message message. That’s not – if I was predicting what I am expecting, Donald Trump is also someone who sort of loves the – CPAC, of course, is not a rally, but he loves these rallies. He loves these crowds. When he was on the campaign trial and in the White House his aides often thought of it almost as a boiling teapot, where he had to get out, get that energy, let off that steam. He has been largely cloistered away at Mar-a-Lago.

So you would expect this to be, if history is any guide, one of these moments where he does sort of really try to rally that far-right base crowd of his. And no matter what version we see, I think the other thing that is important is, whether he announces he potentially plans to run, he is going to position himself and in many ways correctly so as the leader of the Republican Party still. And you have to look no further than Senator Cruz, who you just mentioned, the sorts of panels we’re seeing at CPAC now, the sort of sense of grievance politics and victimization.

Or even look at someone like Leader McConnell, who has basically said publicly and privately he wants to move past Trumpism. He’s said to aides he doesn’t want to ever speak to Donald Trump again. His wife resigned from Donald Trump’s Cabinet in the wake of the January 6th attacks. And earlier this week, when asked on Fox News if he would support Donald Trump if he did happen to be the Republican nominee in 2024, Leader McConnell said: Absolutely. That’s where the Republican Party stands right now. And that’s the – Donald Trump will emerge leading that sort of party on Sunday.

MR. BAKER: Well, the U.S. also hit the rest button on facts and foreign policy this week. A CIA report declassified today directly implicates a close U.S. ally, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman, in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He was an outspoken critic of the kingdom and a writer for The Washington Post. Mark, this is such a stark contrast to the way the Trump administration handled this event. They refused to release the report or hold the crown prince accountable. What do you make of this? And why are we doing this now? What does it tell us about President Biden’s approach to this?

MR. MAZZETTI: Well, at the least, President Biden is showing at the beginning that rhetorically he is willing to hold the Saudis’ feet to the fire, not just on Khashoggi but on a number of things, including the war in Yemen. As you said, you know, there may have not been any other traditional American ally who did better under the Trump administration than the Saudis, and particularly Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. After Khashoggi’s killing, which the CIA implicated the crown prince in, you said Donald Trump issued a statement basically saying: You know, life goes on. Let’s – like, let’s not dwell on this. The Saudis buy a lot of weapons.

This was very different, right? It’s the first month of the Biden administration. You declassify this report. There was no real news in the report. It had been widely reported that the CIA had implicated the crown prince in the killing. But it’s a very significant message to do this. Now, of course, then what next? I don’t expect that there’s going to be any significant rupture in Saudi relations with the Biden administration. They are an important ally and they’ve already signaled, the Biden administration, by the fact that they’re not going to sanction Crown Prince Mohammad that they’re not willing – they’re only willing to go so far.

So this is I think important rhetorically. I think it’s important to message. It’s important to show a break between the Trump administration and this administration. But, you know, the next months will be important in terms of seeing what it actually means in terms of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and, you know, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

MR. BAKER: Ashley, this killing was so grisly, so horrible, and so profoundly felt by journalists here in Washington – most specifically at The Washington Post, where Jamal Khashoggi wrote. What’s the collective reaction today among your colleagues there at the Post about this? The truth – it may not be news in the sense that Mark just said, because we all felt we knew it, but to have it documented by the government, to be put out there in a stark black-and-white form, how does it leave people feeling at The Washington Post today?

MS. PARKER: Well, relief is not quite the right word, but as you laid out earlier in this broadcast, in a world where there is sort of such a discrepancy over basic facts, the power of having the president of the United States share in a declassified intelligence document not just with the nation but with the world and the global community just exactly what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is incredibly important. And it is worth remembering every single day that this is a man who was lured to the Saudi consulate to pick up papers to get married, as his fiance waited outside at the gates, and was brutally murdered and dismembered. And now at least there seems to be, as Mark said, not necessarily the punishment for the crown prince that some people would like to see, but at least some sort of international acknowledgement and reckoning yet again. That is very much a welcome development.

MR. BAKER: We’ll dig more into foreign policy in our online Extra, but we turn now to the pandemic. This week the nation passed an unthinkable milestone, more than a half-million Americans have died from the virus. But President Biden also announced yesterday that more than 50 million doses of the vaccine had been administered since he took office. And the FDA looks poised to approve the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which would only take on shot to be effective. Biden said up to 4 million doses will be released as early as next week.

Errin, it’s hard to fathom the idea that we’ve lost 500,000 people in just a year’s time. That’s more Americans dying in that time than we saw on the battlefields of World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined. How would you say the president handled that this week with his moment of silence? And how different is that than we saw in the previous president?

MS. HAINES: Oh, Peter, it was a huge departure. I mean, the president obviously is somebody who is known as someone who has experienced so much personal tragedy and is able to translate that into really helping people deal with grief collectively, making them feel as if he understands and empathizes with what they’re going through. And that is something that we didn’t see in – you know, as the pandemic raged across this country last year, taking, you know, first thousands, then tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of lives. And most of us were in our homes kind of dealing with this pandemic individually and in isolation.

And President Biden and Vice President Harris, and their – and their spouses standing out there, you know, with those candles acknowledging to the country that this happened. Like, having – leaving a record of this and letting people know that they were not alone I think was a very powerful balm that I think a lot of Americans were looking for. It was powerful not just for those families, but for the tens of thousands of health care workers across this country that have been responding to this crisis and are dealing with their own trauma from this.

And so, you know, I think the president trying to kind of restore the spirit that I think that we had at the beginning of this, almost a year ago now, that we’re all in this together is what the messaging has been around, you know, their first month or so in office. Not only in terms of all the people – all of our fellow citizens that we have lost, but also in terms of the rollout and getting through, you know, what maybe is the darkest period of this pandemic, and looking ahead towards what may be our new normal finally.

MR. BAKER: Susan, of course, empathy is one thing, but tangible aid is another. The House is poised to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID aid package in the next few hours or day. But what about the Senate? We’ve got a 50-50 Senate there. What does the White House and Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, think about the prospects of getting any Republican support? And if they’re not going to get any, do they have all their Democrats lined up for a very narrow victory?

MS. DAVIS: You know, the irony here is that a lot of Democrats were upset this week when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that a $15 minimum wage increase could not be part of this package because it wouldn’t fall in line with the budget rules that Democrats are using to pass this with just 50 votes. Now, obviously, that really angered progressives and the left, because this has been a huge priority for them. But the irony here is it might have made it easier to get this bill through the Senate.

There had been some opposition, or at least some reluctance, from more moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who weren’t on board for this minimum wage thing entirely. If the Senate has to take it out, and they do now, it makes it a lot easier. And otherwise, those specific Democrats in particular have been indicating that they’re likely going to vote for it. It does look like this is heading towards a 50-50 vote. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who’s been in this mix of maybe could they be a Republican senator, she essentially said this week that she doesn’t see any Republicans inclined to support it – it’s too big, it’s too expensive, and a lot of Republicans see that this isn’t really about COVID relief, it’s about advancing a lot of Democratic policies that they’ve been trying to do for a long, long time – so the idea that it’s going to be bipartisan in the Senate doesn’t seem likely. Kamala Harris, the vice president, is probably going to have to go up and break that tie vote. But I think Democrats look at this bipartisanship as, what does the country think? And if you look at polling for how people feel about what’s in this bill – the stimulus checks, more unemployment insurance, new child tax credits for parents that could get monthly payments – it’s really popular. So I think Democrats are looking at bipartisanship through a different spectrum. It doesn’t necessarily mean getting Republican votes in this case. I think they look at it as doing things that 60, 70 percent of the country think is a pretty good idea.

MR. BAKER: Ashley, what about that minimum wage increase? Is the White House going to give up on that, then, or what is this path towards finding a different way to pass that?

MS. PARKER: So they have a number of options. Some of the ones that the progressives would want, such as firing the parliamentarian or overruling the parliamentarian, the White House has signaled that they are not interested in doing that. They are going to respect the process, and it’s unclear they would even have the ability to do that because of some of the reticence from their more moderate members that Susan just mentioned. Now, there’s talk, we’re hearing already, of is there a different way to rewrite this a bit or tweak it so it does not violate the strict budget rules to pass this through reconciliation – so, for instance, something that would not actually raise the minimum wage to $15, but that would penalize companies that do not pay their employees a $15 minimum wage or incentivize companies to do so is something under discussion. And the big question is going to be the House is going to pass it with that $15 minimum wage; it is not going to make it through in the Senate because of the parliamentarian ruling. And so when it goes back to the House, what are those progressives going to do? Are they going to sort of hold their nose and vote for this, even though it doesn’t have one of their key priorities? That’s something that is going to be of interest for the progressives. And of course, the Biden administration has not given up on it entirely at all, it just may have to be passed in a different way or a standalone bill, which could be, of course, far more difficult to do.

MR. BAKER: Susan, we have just 30 seconds left, but what’s the Republican argument against the minimum wage increase?

MS. DAVIS: You know, it’s a really complicated question. I think it’s more traditional old-school Republicanism, right, that the free market should decide, that companies should be able to decide, but it gets complicated, I think, in this modern era. You look at a state like Florida that Donald Trump won handily and they passed the minimum wage as a referendum by a majority of voters there, so it’s one of those issues that really does blend party lines. And I’m not sure – again, you look – if you look at the public, the public likes this minimum wage increase and the Republican Party’s trying to become more of a party of working-class voters, so I think there might have to be some of these shifting alignments on issues like this.

MR. BAKER: OK, we have to leave a little early tonight so that you can support your PBS station. I want to thank Susan, Errin, Mark, and Ashley for opening up your notebooks tonight. The conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra, streaming live on our website and social media. I’m Peter Baker. Good night from Washington.

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