Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, September 9, 2022

Sep. 09, 2022 AT 5:59 p.m. EDT

Reports claim documents seized from Mar-a-Lago contained another country’s nuclear secrets. Plus, President Biden takes his message to voters as the midterm campaign heats up. Join moderator Yamiche Alcindor, Nia-Malika Henderson of CNN, Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Dasha Burns of NBC News to discuss these stories and more.

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

Yamiche Alcindor, PBS Moderator, Washington Week : Nuclear secrets and midterm fights.

New revelations that documents seized from former President Trump’s home contained another country’s nuclear secrets.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) : What we get is these constant leaks and the only reason to leak to the media is to influence the narrative which tells you this is being politicized.

Alcindor : And Trump’s allies jumped to his defense.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department fights a judge’s decision to appoint a third party to review the files.

And --

Joe Biden, President of the United States : It’s clear which way the new MAGA Republicans are. They’re extreme. And democracy is really at stake.

Alcindor : President Biden takes his message to voters and blasts Trump and election deniers.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) : People are falling further and further behind. They feel pain every time they go to the gas station and the grocery store.

Alcindor : While Republicans focus on the economy.

Plus, remembering the queen and her royal visits with America’s presidents -- next.

Good evening and welcome to "Washington Week".

This week, alarming new reporting from "The Washington Post" revealed the FBI recovered top-secret information about a foreign nations nuclear capabilities during its search of former president Trumps home.

According to the paper, some documents retrieved were so secret, only the president and a small number of senior level officials have access to them. And on Wednesday, former President Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr weighed in on the legal jeopardy Trump faces.

Bill Barr, Former Attorney General : There is no scenario legally under which the president gets to keep the government documents, whether it is classified or unclassified. If it deals with government stuff, and goes back to the government.

Alcindor : Meanwhile this week, a federal judge appointed by Trump granted his request to have a third party known as a special master review the documents seized from his home. But the DOJ has filed an appeal to overturn that ruling. The DOJ is also requesting that the judge pause her related order temporarily blocking the government from accessing the documents as part of its ongoing investigation.

Joining me to discuss this and more, Nia-Malika Henderson, senior political analyst for CNN. And here in studio, Devlin Barrett, national security and law enforcement reporter for "The Washington Post", the man who gave us all that reporting. And Amy Walter, publisher and editor in chief of "The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter".

I love to say your name twice, so that’s great. So thank you all for being here.

Devlin, you, of course, have the striking reporting this week of this nuclear documents retrieved of foreign national capabilities. What more can you tell us about what was retrieved and the scope of all of this.

Devlin Barrett, National Security and Law Enforcement Reporter, The Washington Post : So, obviously, there was a lot of classified information and a lot of levels but part of our reporting showed some of this stuff was incredibly sensitive. And so, one of the documents -- one of the sets of materials recovered involved a foreign governments military defenses, up to -- not just their conventional defenses but their nuclear capabilities as well. And, obviously, that’s a big concern. That’s not the kind of thing anyone wants roaming around in the wild.

The other piece of the reporting this week is that some of this stuff was so tightly held that only a small number of cabinet level officials or near cabinet level officials were authorized to even tell anyone about it. Meaning this stuff was so closely held, dozens of people in the government, some of it, that, you know, it’s among the most closely guarded secrets in the American government. And that’s part of why there was so much concerned with the intelligence community.

Alcindor : And it’s a window into what Bill Barr said, which is it is not just forgetting your library card and taking it with you. This is really big, incredibly important documents. There’s also, of course, this fight over the special master. Tell us a little bit about how this might impact the DOJ’s investigation, how it might stall it given the fact the judge is saying they should not have access to the documents at the time.

Barrett : Right. So, the judge has basically told the government you cannot use the classified information you took from Mar-a-Lago. And what we’ve just seen is the Justice Department has filed a response saying you have to undo that restriction because we can’t do the work we need to do to protect national security without restriction in place.

Their argument is, one, there could be more stuff out there we have not found, and if we can’t look at the stuff we have found, we might not be able to trace it back to other things that might be out there. That’s important because they have not made that suggestion before.

The other part of it is, there is a damage assessment happening right now. The government said in this newest filing, we cannot properly do the damage assessment without the FBI being able to look at what they found in the search. So, that issue is back before the judge and we don’t know yet how the judge is going to take this and how Trumps lawyers are going to take this.

Alcindor : And sticking with you, Devlin, and thinking about the other unknowns of this because there are so many questions to ask DOJ reporters such as yourself, Bill Barr, former attorney general, Bill Barr, this week he said he believes former President Trump should not be charged, but also said in the same breath that the DOJ is getting closer and closer to have enough evidence to be able to indict him.

What do you know about this big decision facing Attorney General Merrick Garland and how it squares with what Bill Barr is saying here?

Barrett : So, a couple of things. One, it’s still pretty early is the investigation. I know public attention tends to move faster than the Justice Department investigators moved.

Alcindor : It’s unfair.

Barrett : Yeah. Look, we are still fairly early.

The other issue is, keep in mind, the original priority of this search was to go get the material. It is -- the intelligence community looks at something like this being out there in a hotel or a club or a private residence and thinks that is dangerous, we have to get that back. So, they have sort of met that first problem by just taking the material they can find back. Then, they have to work through, ok, are there crimes here? Was there willful violation of the law here?

And that legal jeopardy is definitely not over for anyone, but it could take months to sort out.

Alcindor : It could take months to sort out. As its being sorted out, Nia, you have, of course, former Attorney General Bill Barr who has been very critical in saying former President Trump shouldn’t, frankly, have taken these documents. Then, you also have Republicans like Lindsey Graham who are full-throatedly giving their defenses of former President Trump. What do you think of the politics of all of this?

Nia-Malika Henderson, Senior Political Analyst, CNN : It is complicated for Republicans. When this first happened, you had an array of Republicans essentially saying this was good for Donald Trump. Maybe it would speed up his announcement of another run for the presidency. And it has brought people back into the fold of Trump world who may have turned against Trump.

That whole idea, I think, is a little out the window now. You certainly have Republicans who are true Trumpists. Lindsey Graham, someone like Marco Rubio who was in the ballot, so he needs to hold Donald Trump close and not incur his wrath. So, that’s why you see him so very much out there, pointing the finger at the DOJ saying this was politicized.

But you don’t necessarily hear a lot of Republicans at this point offering a full throated defense of Donald Trump. At some point, someone in the house -- maybe he needed these documents because he’s writing his memoirs, right? I mean, which is a laughable excuse. It makes no sense based on what we know about Donald Trump and not supposed to have classified documents. That kind of line from run-of-the-mill Republicans who are in Congress, on the House and Senate side, that is not really happening as much anymore.

Mitch McConnell was asked about this a few days ago and he essentially said, he’s following along and learning about this as everyone else is, but he did note there is wall-to-wall coverage of this. Hint, hint, this is likely not so great for Republicans or the Republican brand to have Donald Trump back in the news.

But it is a real tight rope, I think particularly for Republicans who are on the ballot, who want to hold that Trump base close, but also want to be seen as law and order Republicans who aren’t going after the FBI.

Alcindor : Amy, talking about walking that tightrope, I want to come to you and get your thoughts on the fact the GOP does not seem to be on the same page here as Nia just laid out. They’re all trying to figure out what to say about this at this point.

Amy Walter, Publisher & Editor-In-Chief, The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter : Yeah, especially if you are a swing state candidate or swing congressional district candidate, you would like Donald Trump not to be in the news. That would be the best for you.

Many of these Republicans, their game plan had been set months ago and it was pretty simple. We’re going to talk about Joe Biden who was unpopular in our state or district. We’re going to talk about the rising cost of living. Were going to talk about how Democrats are responsible for that.

It was going to be a pretty easy 1-2-3. It was working like that until -- well, I think two things. It was not just the Mar-a-Lago situation, but the fact that the January 6 hearings were, I think they broke through more than many people had expected. It’s not that people changed their opinions about Donald Trump. You can still see this as a political situation. I still don’t think voters were necessarily tuning in and paying attention to every little detail.

But it was out there kind of floating out in the ether, right? It was a reminder to many independent voters, voters who might have shown up in 2018 or 2022, not to vote necessarily for Democrats but the vote against Donald Trump, to vote for, they want to return to normal, we want the end of the chaos, that this chaos is still there.

And it was in front of them day in and day out. It was out there constantly. That is not where Republicans want the last two months of this election to be focused on.

Alcindor : Well, thinking about where we are going next, Devlin, talk a bit about where this investigation is going. We have some deadlines coming up. We also have a DOJ filing. Some people are reading it, saying there might be more classified documents out there. What’s your reporting telling you?

Barrett : So, I think -- I think a couple things. One, we are still in this holding pattern waiting to see how much is the judges special masters mindset going to slow down the criminal investigation. We could know more about that in a matter of hours, days or weeks. It’s not really clear yet. So, that will be one big sticking point in this process potentially.

The other issue is, you know, as the government and the investigators go through this material, they are going to have to make decisions on whether they think there is criminal exposure here. And so, that could be obviously -- that could have political consequences, legal consequences.

It is still very high stakes for everyone involved, because there is still a lot we don’t know. Obviously, we are reporting every day but there’s still a lot we don’t know. There are serious potential consequences for a lot of the players in this as it goes forward.

Alcindor : To think about the consequences, there is a question that the team here at "Washington Week" is thinking about -- a month into this investigation, but especially as we learn more from your reporting about these popular -- possible nuclear documents, why did it take so long for the government to go in and reach this point given the fact we are learning more and more about these documents?

Barrett : So, I think you have to understand the timeline because this is sort of a slow-building crisis through -- that starts with the National Archives of all places. Like one of the amazing things about the Trump era is that the crisis is coming from these unexpected places like the National Archives asking for a weather map and other things that were part of the presidential record and they wanted essentially for history.

And Trump and his advisers kind of fighting them or at least slow-walking those requests. But what really happens is in January, Trumps team turns over some stuff. Those boxes turn out to be full of classified papers. And that raises the level of alarm considerably.

Then, what happens in the spring is you’ve got demands for -- okay, they get a subpoena. Give us all the classified information back. That is bad enough but in the face of that subpoena, the government believes that Trump and his lawyers and advisers did not in fact give it all back. They were withholding it and they seem to be intentionally withholding it if you believe some of the things in these court filings.

And so, it’s really in June this becomes a full-fledged, oh geez, what is this? And so, I understand the frustration of why does this take so long, but it is really a two-month difficulty. It becomes very serious very quickly in June.

Alcindor : thank you for breaking that down. Our team and people at home watching, that will definitely help them understand why we are now living through this investigation.

So, thank you so much, Devlin, for joining us and for sharing your reporting.

The other thing that, of course, Amy was already talking about and we have to talk about, this past weekend -- this past Labor Day weekend marked the traditional kickoff of the midterms general campaign season. President Biden and former President Trump are campaigning in battleground states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, states will be talking about a lot I’m sure.

On Thursday, at a Democratic National Committee meeting in Maryland, President Biden made his pitch for electing more Democrats.

Biden : Imagine if we just elected to more Democrats in the Senate and keep the House of Representatives. Imagine. We’ll codify Roe v. Wade. We’ll ban assault weapons.

We’ll protect Social Security and Medicare. We’ll protect voting rights. We’ll pass election reform.

Alcindor : Meanwhile, Republicans have been accusing President Biden of wasting money and hurting the economy.

Here is Senate Minority Whip John Thune taking aim at the president’s student loan forgiveness program.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) : The Democrats demonstrated once again, they don’t care about fiscal responsibility. They don’t care about debt or deficit reduction. Right now, they care about one thing and that is buying votes going into a November election.

Alcindor : Joining the conversation now is NBC News correspondent Dasha Burns. She’s been running all across the country.

So, let’s discuss the races to watch ahead of November’s elections.

So, Dasha, like I said, you have been crisscrossing the country, going to battleground states including Pennsylvania. Talk about what your reporting has shown about what is at stake in this midterm election, what voters are talking about, and how Pennsylvania in particular is sort of a microcosm of what’s going on out there.

Dasha Burns, News Correspondent, NBC : Yeah, Yamiche. You know, I have been spending a whole lot of time in Pennsylvania, so have you. And we are about to spend a lot more time. All of our lives are regarding more absorbed with this state and the races that we see there. Not just because it is probably the Democrats’ best shot of picking up a Senate seat, something President Biden was pointing to in his some bite you played there, but also it really is pretty representative of politics in the age of Trump.

Look, you’ve got Dr. Oz, a celebrity candidate who nobody really thought would be running in a race like this. People still, voters that I talk to are a little bit confused to see a celebrity doctor, reality TV star running for Senate. But he is and has received Trump’s endorsement.

On the other side, you have his opponent, Democratic candidate John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor who himself is a bit of a larger-than-life character. This 6’8" guy with lots of tattoos who has painted himself very much as an outsider, and I’ll tell you, Yamiche, the language that I hear voters use when they talk about Fetterman is pretty similar to the language I’ve heard voters use talking heard voters use talking about Trump in 2016 and in 2020, this guy is not a typical politician. He tells it like it is.

So, you’ve got these two battling it out. Oz has recently been focusing on Fetterman, attacking him as soft on crime, not willing to debate. Meanwhile, Fetterman, and we will talk more about this, I’m sure, has started to put abortion as an issue that is front and center. On Sunday, he’s going to hold an abortion-rights rally in Pennsylvania.

So, you’ve got --

Alcindor : Yeah, a lot to talk about there. A lot of sort of --

Burns : Absolutely.

Alcindor : -- fighting it out.

And, Amy, when you think about this -- I want to put up this poll from NBC -- I’m sorry, from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist. And it shows that in a generic ballot, 40 percent of registered voters are saying they prefer a Democratic candidate, and 44 percent are saying they prefer a Republican.

Of course, we have you. We are excited to get you on the program because you could break down what is at stake here, what are the big trends that we are seeing when you think about that poll?

Walter : So, we have seen some movement in the so-called generic ballot where voters that question, who would you vote for in November? Democrats or Republicans? Now, Republicans have been up a couple of points earlier in the year. So it has been a 3, 4, 5 shift in Democrats favor.

The most fascinating thing, though, Yamiche, which is even people who have been doing politics years and years, folks I talk to say this is the strangest election I’ve ever been through because the president is still really unpopular. Even though his approval rating is not as bad as it was, say, at the end of July when it was at 38 percent. At 42 percent, that is not a great place to be when you are the party in power.

But underneath it, we’re seeing -- like you just put that number up, Democrats at 48 percent even of the president is at 41 percent. Democrats somehow outperforming the president, that is not something you typically see.

The real question, again, the other had scratcher is, what role is abortion going to play in this?

Alcindor : I want to ask you a quick follow-up which is New Hampshire, why is that interesting to you? What stands up there?

Walter : So, this is sort of the last chance for Republicans. Earlier this year, they thought they were going to be able to put four, five Senate seats in play because the environment looked good and the incumbent senator there, her first reelection campaign, not -- doesn’t have as strong numbers in that state.

But they have a primary on Tuesday between, surprise, surprise, a Trumpian kind of candidate and a more establishment candidate. Right now, the more Trumpian candidate is ahead. It’s going to be very hard for that candidate to survive.

This is another place where had Trump not been engaged -- he has not endorsed here, but he was really responsible for making it really hard for the popular Republican in that state, the governor, to say yes to a Senate run. And --

Alcindor : Yeah.

Walter : Yeah. So, we’ll look back. If Democrats to hold onto the Senate, we’ll look at the place what could have been.

Alcindor : Nia, I want to come to you. We have seen Biden and Trump fighting it out and going to states like Ohio, what are you hearing when you think about how these two presidents are dueling it out when there are so many issues like abortion, like inflation on voters’ minds?

Henderson : Well, listen, I mean, you obviously hear Biden trying to make this a choice election rather than a referendum election. He gave that big speech, really pointing the finger at Trump and his more ardent followers as a danger to the country, as a danger to democracy.

And you have Trump doing what Trump does, going to different states, Pennsylvania. I am sure he will be in Georgia. Ohio, for instance, where he’s got a big following, attacking his message about 2020 being a fraudulent election. They are taxing his message about him being a target of a witch hunt from the FBI, from the DOJ, and from everyone and their mother. So, that very much resonates with his voters.

I think the problem that Republicans are seeing, and you can see a firing squad already circulating among these Republicans who I talked to is that some of these Trumpist candidates might be great for primary voters, but not so great for independent voters. Not so great for suburban white women voters who are reacting to a lot of the news we are seeing, particularly around the Dobbs decision.

You see something really happening in the data. Inflation is certainly a huge issue. I think it is the number one issue among voters. The second most important issue is health care.

Alcindor : You bring up abortion -- I want to talk about the importance it has. Dasha, you have been talking to candidates, especially Republicans who had to sort of shift their messaging I think in Washington state. Tell us what you are hearing on the campaign trail?

Burns : Well, look, I have had the privilege of being on the ground in several states, so we’re sort of bellwethers, that gave us the signal that abortion would be a big driving issue for voters. I was on the ground in Kansas in the month leading up to that big decision where voters voted down the antiabortion amendment. What’s really important, when I have been talking to voters in 2020 and over the last couple of years, there was a lot of focus on politics of personality, right?

Is this a candidate that I like? Is this somebody I want to get a beer with? Is this somebody I trust? Is this somebody’s authentic? That is how Donald Trump won over a lot of voters. Recently, especially since Dobbs, it has been much more a politics of policy. For the first time in a while, I am hearing voters bring up these issues like abortion and inflation that are actually impacting them, that they feel that direct connection that whoever I like, who I vote for will impact my life.

And it’s true. Running as a Republican in the post-Dobbs era is a bit of a challenge. I heard that in Washington state I was there last week. I interviewed Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley who has made it very clear, she’s tried to make it clear that she is pro-life, but she would not vote for a federal abortion ban.

You saw Blake Masters, right, NBC News reporting that he’s saying he scrubbed his website of antiabortion language. When I was reporting on New York’s 19th district race, generic Republican versus generic Democrat, no offense to them, but it was really a contest of issues, Republicans running on inflation, Democrats running on abortion. The Republican in that race walked back the message, saying, look, I think the Supreme Court upended what I thought was lost.

You are seeing this shift in messaging and seeing voters very much coming out to the polls based on this issue. So many folks I have been talking to, I asked them what to do vote on, what did you think about when you cast your ballot and they said Roe.

Alcindor : And, Amy, last 30 seconds, when we think about sort of race in conversation, what do you say -- actually I’m being told 10 seconds. How much are these other cultural issues playing a factor?

Walter : It’s definitely a factor. And, look, you’re going to -- you are already starting to see Republicans, they want to change the conversation. Talk about crime, inflation, the border. Democrats, you can see, ad after ad, really focusing in on roe and abortion and that issue. So, it’s going to be a fight.

Alcindor : Well, definitely more to talk about. Thank you so much to our panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting.

And don’t forget to tune into the "PBS News Weekend" on Saturday for anchor Geoff Bennett’s interview with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge on the rising cost of housing.

And before we go, I want to recognize the death of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 96. She was the United Kingdom’s longest-serving monarch. She met 13 U.S. presidents, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Obama, Trump and Biden. The late queen ascended to the throne in 1952 and reigned for 70 years.

Also on Thursday, journalists and lovers of no nonsense news lost a groundbreaking giant. Bernard Shaw, best known as CNN’s lead anchor for two decades, died at 82. He was one of the first black journalists to anchor a primetime network news program.

Condolences to his family and his friends.

And thank you for joining us. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.

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