Full Episode: Democracy Under Threat & The Fight For Voting Rights

Mar. 05, 2021 AT 9:17 p.m. EST

FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that domestic terrorism threats continue after the January 6th insurrection. The panel also discussed voting rights legislation & President Biden’s hopeful COVID-19 vaccine news. Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report guest moderates.

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AMY WALTER: Defending Congress and the right to vote.

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM WALKER: (From video.) The Army senior leaders did not think that it looked good. It could incite the crowd.

MS. WALTER: After stunning revelations about the Pentagon’s inaction during the storming of the Capitol, a new domestic terrorism threat –

ACTING CAPITOL POLICE CHIEF YOGANANDA PITTMAN: (From video.) We have enhanced our security posture.

MS. WALTER: – shuts down Congress.

PRESIDING OFFICER: (From video.) The bill is passed. (Sounds gavel.)

MS. WALTER: But not until House Democrats pass voting rights legislation –

MICHAEL CARVIN: (From video.) It puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.

MS. WALTER: – that targets rollbacks in voting access advocated by many in the GOP.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This country will have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May.

MS. WALTER: After announcing positive news on vaccines –

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking.

MS. WALTER: – President Biden takes aim at Republican governors rolling back COVID restrictions, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.

MS. WALTER: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Amy Walter,

The future of American democracy has been at the heart of the political discussion this week. Top law enforcement testified about the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, with FBI Director Christopher Wray saying the January attack was domestic terrorism and warning there could be more threats.

FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY: (From video.) Domestic violent extremism, domestic terrorism, that number is now – has grown steadily on my watch, so I’ve – we’ve increased the number of domestic terrorism investigations from around a thousand or so when I got here to up to about 1,400 at the end of last year to about 2,000 now.

MS. WALTER: The House recessed early after intelligence reports warned of another potential attack on the Capitol, but before they left town House Democrats passed a bill expanding voting access. It’s unlikely to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Joining us tonight are three top reporters covering the story: Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News; Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; and Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.

Jonathan, I’m going to start with you. It’s been a month since the attacks on the Capitol, yet it feels like Congress has only begun to address the fallout from this. Did these hearings this week provide any clarity, any unity, any healing? How are things playing out on Capitol Hill?

JONATHAN MARTIN: I think it’s still a toxic, toxic moment up there. I think the symbolism of the National Guard still there patrolling around, razor wire and fencing around the entire expanse of the U.S. Capitol, drives that home, but even within the building itself, Amy, the relationships between the two parties are so much tenser now than they were before January 6th, especially in the House. There’s still deep suspicions between the two parties, and so I worry that we’re not past this moment. I worry that January 6th was not an isolated event, was not a one-off, but was only one of a – sadly, I think a series of possible events. And you heard Christopher Wray in that segment say that the threats have doubled in just a year, and I think that’s very troubling for democracy and it’s not clear to me that either party is sort of willing to totally move forward yet and try to find some kind of reconciliation. President Biden talked about unity quite a bit on January 20th when he was sworn in, has reached out repeatedly to folks in the GOP, having them down to the White House all the time, but you don’t sort of see that spirit of comity, necessarily, in the Capitol itself.

MS. WALTER: Yeah, and Sahil, I’ve been feeling that same thing, too, talking to staffers up on the Hill who say the same thing that Jonathan did, this level of toxicity like nothing they’ve ever seen before. You had the Capitol Hill police chief saying, look, these threats against members are now through the roof, she said. The House had to recess early because of the threats of a potential March 4th attack on the Capitol. So how are lawmakers actually able to do their job?

SAHIL KAPUR: No question, Amy, that relations here are worse than I’ve ever seen them in my 12 or so years covering Capitol Hill, and have been a pretty rough decade for relations between the two parties as is. The big catalyst for this, of course, was the January 6th siege of the Capitol by supporters of President Trump and the fact that more than half of the House Republicans decided to vote to overturn the election, essentially, after that. Now, I’ve heard Democrats say they want nothing to do with those more than a hundred House Republicans – they won’t talk to them, they won’t cosponsor bills with them; they simply want nothing to do with them. And most remarkably so I spoke to Stephanie Murphy, a congresswoman from Florida, recently who is a leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. This is a group known for working with Republicans and not kind of sniping between the parties, and she says the Republicans are now a national security threat to the country, that if they gain power it would be dangerous for American democracy and thus they need to be kept out. It’s a remarkable thing to hear a centrist Democrat to say, and to me that kind of symbolizes how poisonous relations here on Capitol Hill have gotten. And yes, some members are afraid of literally doing their jobs. The House finished their business earlier this week so they didn’t have to stay for yesterday, March 4th, because that was in the minds of some conspiracy theorists on the Web the true inauguration where certain lawmakers and staffers feared violence. Thankfully, none of that violence panned out.

MS. WALTER: Amna, I want to go to you and what we heard from the FBI director, where he says that domestic terrorism has grown steadily. It’s largely fueled by White supremacist groups. So how do you think the Biden administration is going to address this? And then sort of more broadly, what does this mean for us? What does this mean for the American public at this moment right now?

AMNA NAWAZ: It’s a huge challenge for the Biden administration. It’s been a huge challenge for years now, and Christopher Wray hit that home in his testimony. Just quickly to ping off of what Sahil and J-Mar were talking about, though, some of the freshman members of Congress I’ve talked to talk about this toxic environment, and some of them we should say, too, have said privately they’re really considering their own security differently now and taking different measures when they travel back to home districts. But one of the things I want to point out about what Chris Wray said on the Hill – two things, that it was really important, he made very clear. One was to label this growing threat as domestic terrorism, which is to say to call it what it is. And the other was to make clear, too, that the insurrection on January 6th had nothing to do – the siege had nothing to do with Antifa or far-left extremism, and that was something we’ve heard often repeated by Republicans. This kind of blunted that, cut it right off at the knees, and said that’s not who this was. Now, the domestic terror threat we know has been growing, and we know that some of that White supremacist/White nationalist-fueled threat really took off under President Obama directly in response to the election of America’s first Black president, under President Trump was kind of an incubator period largely because a lot of these groups saw something in President Trump that they liked. They felt that they were supported, even though President Trump occasionally was pushed to explicitly condemn groups after first kind of not doing that and really equivocating with his language. They felt that they were supported by that administration. And I have to tell you, homeland security officials I talked to during that time said they knew you just don’t say the words White supremacy in the White House; that was not something that was overtly directed. Still, law enforcement, homeland security officials worked very hard behind the scenes to try to address that growing threat, but they never had that kind of cover from the very top, from the Oval Office and from the administration. So the Biden administration is picking up where Trump left off. There’s a huge, huge hurdle ahead. This is now, they say, one of the biggest threats facing America right now, and with the same kind of urgency and priority as any kind of foreign threats facing America.

MS. WALTER: Well, and as you say, we have an administration now that is actually calling it out continually. Sahil, let’s go to really the crux of the matter here. The reason we had the siege of the Capitol on January 6th was the former president’s false claims of voter fraud, and this week you had the House pass a sweeping piece of legislation. Included in that were new federal standards on voter registration, vote by mail, basically voting reform, but it passed without any Republican votes. So what does this tell us about the prospects for getting federal voting reform done?

MR. KAPUR: Amy, the bill is called H.R. 1 in the House. It’s essentially Democrats’ crown jewel of voting rights and anticorruption measures, and it significantly bolsters voting protections all across the country. It guarantees a couple of weeks early voting everywhere. It guarantees universal access to vote by mail, which is a method that a lot of people used in the 2020 elections.

So what Democrats did is they passed it in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats. But now it heads to the Senate. And that piece of legislation, along with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which prevents jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination from changing their voting laws in a way that could disenfranchise or harm ethnic and racial minorities – that is headed to the Senate, and it’s going to face a massive, massive fight because it requires 60 votes to clear the Senate. Democrats have 50 votes, and not a hope of getting any Republicans on board with this because the two parties are so far apart in terms of where voting rules should go.

As far as Republicans are concerned, they say the biggest threat to voting right now is voter fraud. Experts and studies have repeatedly found that that there is extremely little evidence that voter fraud is there, but they argue that more protections are necessary to essentially raise the bar to cast your ballot in the name of ballot integrity, the Republicans say. So that’s going to be a major fight coming down the pike. I think it’s all connected to the 2020 election, President Trump’s reaction to it, and certain legislators and Republican officials around the country have been less than shy in pointing out that these voter restrictions would disproportionately harm Democrats.

MS. WALTER: Right, well, that’s what I want to talk about next. And I’m going to go to you about the battle over voting rights, because it’s being debated across the country, as well as in Washington. We have Republicans in many states, as Sahil pointed out, proposing laws where they say they are meant to improve election integrity but often they do make it harder for people of color to vote, and in Georgia this week a bill passed that would restrict early and absentee voting. At the Supreme Court, a case involving Arizona laws that Democrats say violate the Voting Rights Act. RNC lawyer Michael Carvin defended those laws to Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

JUSTICE AMY CONEY BARRETT: (From video.) What’s the interest of the Arizona RNC here in keeping, say, the out of precinct voter – ballot disqualification rules on the books?

MICHAEL CARVIN: (From video.) Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.

MS. WALTER: So competitive disadvantage. Amna, I want to go with you here. Republicans in Georgia – again, that was an Arizona case, this is Georgia. The house there – the statehouse there passed legislation. They said they want to protect voter integrity. But when you look at some of the key provisions in this bill, Amna, there are things like restricting the number of early vote days, specifically on Sundays, when you saw a lot of especially African American churches organize things called souls to the polls on Sundays to get folks out and voting early, restricting the ability for people to get food and water – or, giving food and water to people who have been waiting in a really long line. It seems like these are specifically designed to disproportionately impact people of color.

MS. NAWAZ: Yeah. And anyone reacting to what the Republican lawyer you heard there saying is basically saying he’s saying the quiet part loud. Like, the intention of a lot of these rules is to vastly restrict who is able to easily vote. And the Georgia laws that you just mentioned there are one example. Florida is also taking some action. We saw in the 2020 election, like, a record nearly 5 million Floridians vote by mail. And the legislators are now moving to restrict that access.

And this is the connective tissue between all of this, right? The big lie that the November 2020 election was stolen, that there was – that Joe Biden fraudulently won it has carried forward so that now there are, I think, over 200 different laws and proposals to restrict voting access being introduced in over 40 states across the country. And this is where sort of the battle for voting rights is right now. Those laws were introduced in direct response to those election results, and to the claim that there was widespread fraud. And that claim was batted down in court, after court, after court. As Sahil had mentioned as well, there just is no proof of that.

The real voting fraud that’s been historical and has been well-documented in America has been the restriction and the disenfranchisement of communities of color, of poor Americans, of people who cannot easily get access to an ID, for example, in places that try to impose a voter ID law, who find it difficult to find transportation, to get time off from work to be able to vote during specific hours on a Tuesday, in order to cast their ballots. And so these are the things that are winding their way through the courts right now.

But this is the fundamental question being asked, which is: If this is a democracy, and you really do have one person and one vote, there are vast, vast efforts right now to restrict that, to limit that. And that’s what we’ve seen happen in the past as well. So it’s really a question for the state legislatures now, and whether or not the federal government can act to protect every single eligible American’s right to vote.

MS. WALTER: And, Jonathan, it’s –

MR. MARTIN: Amy, on the politics of this, if I could, I think for –

MS. WALTER: Yeah, that’s what I was going to throw to you. (Laughs.)

MR. MARTIN: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think for over a decade there have been these concerns raised by Democrats that voter ID was going to drive down voter turnout. It hasn’t necessarily had that effect. In fact, Democrats have still done well in quite a few races with voter ID. And I would just make the point that there’s a chance that these efforts in statehouses to restrict voting could actually backfire on Republicans for two reasons. One, they’re going to limit some voting – perhaps at the margins – but they’re going to limit some voting by their own voters. (Laughs.) So there’s that.

And then secondly, just the pure politics of this. By taking these steps that are pretty obvious and even brazen, I think, in the case of some of these Georgia bills where, you know, limiting souls to the polls on Sundays, it’s not very subtle what you’re doing. The politics of that could actually invite a backlash in which you just motivate more Democrats to vote because they want to prove a point, and they want to, you know, show that this is not going to stop them from voting. So I think the politics of this are not totally clear. I get why they’re doing it in the aftermath of Trump pushing the lie that he actually won the election, but I’m not so sure that in the medium and certainly the long run that this is going to pay off.

MS. WALTER: Yeah, Jonathan, the danger in politics always is fighting the last war. I want to turn now, though, to COVID-19. The Senate one step closer to passing the COVID relief bill, while the Biden administration announced this week that with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine the nation will have enough doses for every American adult by late May. That’s two months earlier than previously expected. But several states are relaxing COVID restrictions, as Texas Governor Greg Abbott did this week. President Biden fired back.

TEXAS GOVERNOR GREG ABBOTT (R): (From video.) Effective next Wednesday all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100 percent. Also, I am ending the statewide mask mandate.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I hope everybody’s realized by now these masks make a difference. The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine. Take off your mask, forget it.

MS. WALTER: Sahil, I’m going to start with you. You’re sitting up there at the Capitol. You are following this debate on the COVID relief bill as we speak. It was supposed to be voted on by now, wasn’t it? So what’s the hold up? What’s happening right now in the Senate, and how different will this bill look by the time it’s all done?

MR. KAPUR: Amy, the bill was supposed to be voted on started this morning, a series of amendments. But it faced a nine-hour delay as Senate Democrats had some struggles getting all 50 of their members on board. They have a wafer-thin majority here. And they moved this bill on a vote of 51 to 50, with a tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. So they cannot lose a single member. They had some rebellion within their caucus over what unemployment benefits should look like.

A Democratic aide telling me just moments before this show began that they have resolved that difference and come up with a deal that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the centrist Democrat from that state, has agreed to. Essentially the jobless benefits would, at the federal level, there would be $300 a week. They would continue to September 6th. And one of the big concessions that Joe Manchin got is imposing an income cap on who is eligible for the tax-free portion of it, which is $10,200. So a major piece of news here for Senate Democrats. That enables them to go forward. They intend to do an all-nighter tonight, I’m told by one member of Democratic leadership, and they hope to pass this $1.9 trillion package by this weekend, which would send it back to the House. If the House passes the Senate version President Biden would be able to sign this bill.

MS. WALTER: So, Jonathan, once again Senator Joe Manchin is the center of attention in a 50/50 Senate. He’s got more power than anybody. How does he keep using this, and what do you think he does going forward and the reaction to him from some liberals?

MR. MARTIN: Well, anybody who’s been to the great state knows that there’s quite a few roads and buildings named after Robert C. Byrd who, of course, was the late long-serving senator out there, and one-time Democratic leader. I think if Manchin, who knows his politics back home pretty well, if he plays his cards right, I think there’s going to be a lot of things named after Joe Manchin here when all is said and done because he has a lot of leverage. He is right in the middle of the caucus. Amy, I was in the Capitol today and, you know, the left is fuming at him, and I asked a couple of GOP senators – I said, you know, do you think at some point that the left could drive him away from the party and you guys could take back the majority by, you know, making him Republican, and both of them – who are very plugged-in senators – said no, Joe’s a real Democrat, that we can’t get him over. And then one of them said, but you know what, why would he want to switch anyways? He's got so much power right now, we don’t have much of a lure because he’s having the time of his life.

MS. WALTER: Yeah, this is not Jim Jeffords back in the days when we were up there in the early 2000s. Amna, in the couple minutes we have left, you’ve done so much reporting on COVID and the public health issue, and I just want you to discuss what you’ve been reporting on about, you know, the fact it feels like we’re going so far, we have these vaccines, they’re getting to people, and yet at the same time you’re seeing these governors roll back things like masks and mask mandates. What are you – what does this do for public health and what are the experts telling you?

MS. NAWAZ: Yeah, I do think it’s important to point out that – you know, that for all the backlash to Governor Greg Abbott in Texas lifting the mask mandate, it was sort of lightly enforced to begin with, and so we’re not really sure how much of a difference those kinds of things make when they’re not really enforced in the first place. But also Governor Tate Reeves in Mississippi did the same thing. And for all the talk about, you know, this is Republicans acting one way, Democrats acting another, this is not a red or blue issue. There’s a lot of governors and local leaders following the science on this, which is to say that the masks make a difference. There are now firm studies from the CDC, really one released just in the last couple of days, that basically say we’ve studied the county by county breakdown; places that wear masks lower their infection and death rates, places that don’t raise them. And so you even have Kay Ivey in Alabama extending the mask mandate, Jim Justice in West Virginia extending the mask mandate – although he may start to lift some other restrictions soon. Look, where we are right now, there’s things to put in the good news bucket, right – infections and deaths are going down as the vaccine’s being rolled out; we now have three out there in circulation – but there’s reasons to be concerned. There’s still upwards of 2,000 Americans dying every day, right, and there’s still these new variants to contend with, and we don’t quite fully know the efficacy of these vaccines against those variants, and so the two have to go hand in hand according to the experts, right? If you lift the mask mandates and mitigation efforts too quickly, you’re basically counterbalancing the vaccine rollout. And that’s the challenge for the administration – how do you get people to stay firm in the mitigation and still roll out the vaccine fast enough to make a difference?

MS. WALTER: All right, well, thank you for that. We have to leave a little early tonight so that you can support your PBS station. I want to thank Sahil, Jonathan, Amna for sharing their reporting and their insights. Thank you for joining us. The conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra, streaming live on our website and social media. I’m Amy Walter. Good night from Washington.

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