Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, October 7, 2022

Oct. 06, 2022 AT 5:51 p.m. EDT

After nuclear Putin's threats, President Biden issues a stark warning. Herschel Walker responds to allegations he paid for an abortion. Plus, the Supreme Court hears landmark cases in its new term. Join moderator Yamiche Alcindor, Claudia Grisales of NPR, Jonathan Lemire of POLITICO, Seung Min Kim of The Associated Press and Ariane de Vogue of CNN to discuss these stories and more.

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Yamiche Alcindor : Armageddon, allegations and arguments. After Russian threat, President Biden issued a stark warning, "For the first time in decades, the world risks nuclear Armageddon". Meanwhile:

Herschel Walker, Georgia Senate Republican nominee : I never asked anyone to get an abortion. I never pay for an abortion, and it's a lie. And, I'm going to continue to fight.

Yamiche Alcindor : Herschel Walker, Georgia's Republican Senate candidate, responds to allegations that he paid for an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion.

Christian Walker, Son of Herschel Walker : Don't lie about your life at the expense of me, my mom. You don’t get to pretend you’re some moral family guy.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, accusations of domestic violence.

Moderator : Mandela Barnes, dangerously liberal on crime.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, Republicans step up their claims that Democrats are to blame for spikes in crime.

Plus, the Supreme Court returns, hearing landmark cases, next.

Good evening, and welcome to Washington Week.

This was a busy, busy week, and we have a lot to get you, and here is where we start. Last night, President Biden issued a stark warning. He said, because of Russia's recent military setbacks in Ukraine and threats by President Putin, global nuclear risk is higher at this point than in decades. The president reportedly told a small group of donors, "We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis."

Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Jonathan Lemire, White House Bureau Chief for Politico, and host of MSNBC's "Way Too Early", and joining me here in studio, Claudia Grisales, Congressional Correspondent for NPR; Seung Min Kim, White House Reporter for the Associated Press, and Ariana De Vogue, Supreme Court Reporter for CNN. Thank you all for being here.

Jonathan, I'm going to go to you. Take us inside President Biden's thinking here. What he is saying privately about the nuclear threats coming out of Russia?

Jonathan Lemire, White House Bureau Chief, POLITICO : Well, certainly, he surprised a lot of people last night with those very stark comments delivered at a fundraiser in New York City. And, he is not wrong, I suppose. This is the closest we've been to such an unthinkable outcome. But, U.S. officials were quick today to perhaps clarify what the president said. He was trying to suggest this was the arc of the conflict here.

Yes, at this moment, Vladimir Putin is cornered, the war effort by the Russians not going well. U.S. officials are concerned how he may lash out if the defeats continue to mount. But, there has been no sign, U.S. intelligence officials stressed this, no sign of any change to Moscow's nuclear posture, no sign that their Putin is more likely to launch a weapon like that, even a smaller tactical version now than he was at the beginning of the conflict. And, NATO intelligence tends to agree.

So, this is a moment, though, where the president is trying to continue to keep the allies rallied behind Ukraine, and underscore the threat that Russia continues to pose, as Europe is about to head into what is likely a long, dark, cold winter, deprived of a lot of Russian energy sources. It could -- puts a strain on the alliance.

Yamiche Alcindor : Yeah.

Jonathan Lemire : And, right now, the Ukrainians' counteroffensive going well. It's been a shocking success. And, the president is simply saying that this is something that the U.S. was worried about. But, there is no sign right now of Putin, at least not yet, willing to escalate things and take such a drastic step.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, you make the important point that U.S. officials say, Jonathan, that there is no fresh intelligence. How does that square with what President Biden is saying? Could his comments possibly be seen as making things even more tense with Russia or having any sort of negative impact?

Jonathan Lemire : Well, there have been a few times now where the president has said something and White House officials have had to quickly clarify it or sort of walk it back a little. But, I do think this one is one where the president is trying to suggest, trying to keep focus on just how important the stakes are here, that yes, that Ukraine is doing well, but the Americans and therefore our Western alliance allies shouldn't be complacent that this is still a threat, and that Biden was simply trying to just sort of trace the arc of this conflict and sort of put it in historical context. And, he is in a way right. Outside of the few maybe flashpoints in the 1980s, this probably is the closest the world has been to some sort of nuclear explosion.

But, U.S. officials have also made very clear to Putin directly, that if he were to do this, there will be catastrophic consequences for Moscow. It doesn't mean that the U.S. would unleash a nuke in return. But, there were ways to deliver, whether it's a cyberattack or more conventional warfare. We've seen the weakness of the Russian Military. The U.S. Military would probably roll through that. No one wants that, of course. But, I think there is a bit of a warning to what the president said as well.

Yamiche Alcindor : Certainly. And, Seung Min, the president -- President Biden told donors, "I'm trying to figure out what is Putin's off ramp? Where does he find a way out? What are you hearing about President Biden's thinking here and whether the U.S. thinks Russia does have an off ramp here?

Seung Min Kim, White House Reporter, The Associated Press : Well, the White House officials were actually asked about that today in her gaggle with reporters on the president's trip to Hagerstown, Maryland. What does he mean by an off ramp? Or, is the administration looking to do some sort of an agreement with Putin here? But, I think -- but, we didn't really get any clear answers on that. I do think it is just remarkable what he said because this is the starkest warning, sort of the most unvarnished warnings that we had gotten from some time from President Biden on this.

Yamiche Alcindor : It is a very, very stark warning, and really sort of unusual for him. Of course, like I said, there is a lot going on. So, I'm going to also now pivot to the other thing that's been top of mind and that is that Election Day. Midterm Election Day is just 32 days away and several key Senate races are heating up.

In Georgia, there was an October surprise. Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate, is now fighting accusations of hypocrisy, after campaigning on family values and against abortion, without exceptions for rape or incest. This week in interviews with the Daily Beast and the New York Times, a woman who says she is the mother of one of Herschel Walker's children's said he paid for her to have an abortion when she was pregnant with his child in 2009. Walker's son Christian, a conservative social media influencer, also accused his father of domestic violence, including threatening to kill him and his mother. Herschel Walker is calling all of these allegations a "lie". Take a listen to what he told me when I was reporting in Georgia.

Yamiche Alcindor : What's your reaction to people so close to you saying don't trust you?

Herschel Walker : Well, just like what I just said, the Democrats are desperate for this seat. This seat is important. They’re very desperate for this seat. I love my family, I always love my family. I'm going to win this race.

Yamiche Alcindor : I'm going to win this race. That's what Herschel Walker is sticking to.

Meanwhile, in battleground states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Republicans are on the offense, filling airwaves with ads attacking Democrats as soft on crime.

Claudia, first of all, thanks for being here to your Washington Week debut. I'm very happy to have you here. There is a lot going on in Georgia. I mean, there is just so much going on in Georgia. I was talking to voters and, Wow, this is sort of making waves. People are in their camps. I had a Republican woman tell me, even if these are true, even if all of this is believable, she still voted for Herschel Walker, because he is an opponent of abortion rights now. What do you make of how this is playing out, and what it says about sort of where we are right now?

Claudia Grisales, Congressional Correspondent, NPR : Right. We are in a very different place. Previously, a report like this could sink a candidate's campaign. But, we're not seeing that right now, as you heard when you were in Georgia, that they're very loyal in terms of what party they're following, even if you have a bombshell of a story come out like this October surprise for Walker, it's not going to deter some of these voters who are very loyal to their party.

At the same time, there could be some voters on the fence in Georgia who are thinking maybe I'm not so motivated to go out and vote for Walker at this point or a Democrat that's more energized now to vote against him. So, it's tricky times. But, in terms of making predictions, as we did in the old days of saying "this would sink a campaign", that may not be the case.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, Jonathan, 'tricky times' is the way that Claudia is describing the political moment that we're all living through. Now, it's interesting because while national Republicans are sticking with Herschel Walker, at least there is some daylight there with state Republicans, the Georgia Lieutenant Governor saying even the staunchest Republicans are rattled by what they saw. They say that the baggage might be unbearable. What do you make of what this -- how this is playing out and what it means for sort of midterm politics overall?

Jonathan Lemire : Yeah. The Georgia Lieutenant Governor, a Republican, has been sort of a lone voice, though, in suggesting that that moment was too big for Walker, and that, yes, he was not perhaps a qualified candidate. He was only on the ballot because he scored a bunch of touchdowns for the University of Georgia. Well, Walker, as you know, was asked to respond. He didn't know who the lieutenant governor was, which goes to show, perhaps, his political acumen.

But, largely, Republicans are rallying around Walker, Republican voters too, those you spoke to but also Walker has seen a huge surge in donations this week since these stories came out and he has gone on the offensive. He is put out an attack ad, claiming that his opponent, Democrat Senator Reverend Warnock, is misrepresenting Walker's record. That's not the case either.

But, I think what we're seeing, though, is a natural narrowing of these races here. Polls have tightened. They've tightened in Georgia. They've tightened in Pennsylvania. We have close races in Wisconsin, Ohio. Arizona is only a few points. It's a 50:50 Senate right now. And, Democrats felt really good most of the summer with the winds at their backs, a lot of legislation passed. It does feel like though Republicans sense that they've got a bit of momentum at the moment, as the national conversation turns to, they think, issues that are good for them, mostly inflation, the economy, also crime. I think the only safe prediction here in this tricky moment is that all these rates are going to be close, and we're going to have a late election night.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, Seung Min, we covered the former President Trump together. He weathered so many scandals. He sort of, in some ways, has a legacy of you can stick around, don't quit, wait around, maybe your party will come back around for you. What do you make of sort of what's going on here? It might not maybe these scandals don't matter as much as they used to.

Seung Min Kim : Well, I think if there is a political lesson, the strategic lesson that the Republican Party learned after 2016 and the Access Hollywood tape, is that at this point in the race, when most of the parties, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, are kind of wearing their partisan jerseys and in their partisan corners, you stick by your candidate. If there are claims, you deny them, despite all the evidence that we're seeing otherwise of the corroboration that we're seeing from other news organizations, because, a, it's obviously too late in the season to replace them on the ballot. And, b, you don't want to risk punish -- your base voters punishing you for kind of ditching your candidate at this stage in the game.

But, I think it's fair to say that Republicans are rattled in the sense that they don't know what's coming next. Obviously, we had another news organization put more light to these allegations from this woman earlier tonight. And, we don't know what's going to drive with the Walker campaign over the next days and weeks.

Yamiche Alcindor : It has been a drip, drip, drip, and you're talking about the New York Times reporting that this woman who said she was -- said he paid for an abortion, tried to get her to abort the child that she ultimately ended up having in 2011.

Ariane, I want to bring you in because part of the reason why abortion is such a big topic is because the Supreme Court last term --

Ariana De Vogue, Supreme Court Reporter, CNN : Yeah.

Yamiche Alcindor : -- overturned Roe v. Wade. What do you make of the significance of -- and the role that the Supreme Court is playing in its decisions?

Ariana De Vogue : Right. From my perspective, so much of the -- what happened at the Supreme Court last term is playing out now start -- you talked earlier about crime. The Second Amendment the court issued that big opinion last year. Just yesterday, a New York Court struck down a concealed carry law, and that was cited -- and they cited over and over again that Supreme Court decision. And then, when you look at the issue of abortion, and you see how quickly that landscape changed, how quickly the midterm outlet was definitely changed by that. And, you see really how the court, that doesn't like to be in the political arena, is there.

And, I think Samuel Alito was interesting last term, because he wrote that opinion. And, one of the things he said is, look, we're taking abortion out of the legal realm into the political realm. If women want to do something about it, we'll go to vote. Well, Biden just a few weeks ago, at a campaign, sites Alito and says see what Alito said women come out and vote, which is so interesting to see. Alito, the last place he'd want to be, right, is in the middle of a get out the vote speech, and there he was.

Yamiche Alcindor : It's certainly sort of head spinning --

Ariana De Vogue : Yeah.

Yamiche Alcindor : -- in some ways. Jonathan, of course, while Democrats want to talk about abortion, Republicans really want to focus on inflation. This week, we saw some news out of OPEC. What's the White House saying about gas prices possibly going up, and sort of the impact that they have on the midterms?

Jonathan Lemire : Oh, they are deeply --

Yamiche Alcindor : Go ahead.

Jonathan Lemire : Yeah. They are deeply worried about it, Yamiche. She does have -- Ron Klain told me months ago, the first thing he does every morning, even before he checks to see if he has heard from the president, is check the price of gas. They know that gasoline is the one consumer item that every Americans care how much it costs, in part because we all know what it costs. It's advertised on the side of highways. It's on billboards on every road in America, seemingly. And, as though, inflation has certainly impacted a lot of consumer goods.

Gasoline is front of mind. We know the price went down considerably over the summer. It has started to creep back up. And, this news from OPEC Plus met with great frustration from the White House. First of all, it is seen as a helping hand to Russia. We've just discussed. There were effort, we know, that the president traveled to Saudi Arabia in July, that infamous fist bump with a controversial Crown Prince MBS. They feel like, well, what do we get for that? They're angry. In fact, there is members of Congress who are calling about taking stiff action here against Saudi Arabia for doing so.

But, in terms of electoral terms, gas prices are going to go up. They're going to go up again in these next few weeks, and without fair or not, the party in power tends to pay the price. And, that's Democrats. White House is not happy.

Yamiche Alcindor : Definitely not happy about that, the White House. Claudia, I want to bring you in, because there is also, of course, these ads that are going out. Republicans are running ads on crime, but they're also targeting the first Latina elected to the Senate, and that, of course, being Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. You've been doing some reporting about ads, and, of course, the significance of the Latino vote here. Talk about what's going on.

Claudia Grisales : Right. She is vulnerable in Nevada. And, part of the problem that we're seeing here is that Democrats have long seen Latinos as allies in terms of voters. But, a lot of Latino voters are saying, no, you cannot assume we're a monolith that we're going to be voting for Democrats. Some are frustrated and feel left behind. I did some reporting in Texas earlier this year, where I heard from Latino voters who were worried about border issues and immigration.

And, there was a big warning, beginning with Biden's presidency, that this president needed to address immigration or they were going to lose Latinos along the way. And, immigration has not been addressed, and that's the price they could pay come November, they could lose some of these voters in Nevada and in Texas, for example, that they previously may have enjoyed their support before. So, it's a reminder that this is a tough issue for Democrats right now.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, Claudia is talking about the role that President Biden might play, Seung Min. President Biden, in some ways, wants to be inserting himself into the midterm races. He wants to be helping out. But, there are some candidates who are actually trying to avoid him. Talk a little bit about that.

Seung Min Kim : There are many candidates who aren't really eager to see President Biden out on the campaign trail, or whatnot. I thought it was really interesting how the Democratic Senator from Arizona, Mark Kelly, in his debate last night with Republican Blake Masters, he pushed back several times, particularly on immigration, the immigration policies of this administration. So, the White House, President Biden, has to find other unique ways to help out Democratic candidates. Obviously, one way is doing a lot of fundraising. He has really picked up the pace of those events over the last several -- over the last several days and weeks. And, other is just, kind of, doing official events, doing official actions that are -- they aren't political, but also they are kind of helpful to these candidates at home.

We had President Biden travel to New York yesterday, part of the -- part of his travel was the fundraisers that made so much news last night, but also was to tout the benefits of his semiconductor, allow the CHIPS law and touting jobs and investment in New York. Some, House candidates, some targeted by Republicans, showed up for that as well. So, you see how the White House has to be very careful and deliberate in a political environment where while President Biden's approval ratings had been ticking up a little bit, but here he is still significantly underwater, especially in these key states.

Yamiche Alcindor : Well, when talking about sort of underwater and perception, that brings us in some ways to the Supreme Court, which is also having its own sort of perception issues. This week, the Supreme Court began its new term featuring several high profile cases. On Tuesday, the justices heard oral arguments for Merrill V. Milligan. The plaintiffs are arguing the Alabama's new congressional map dilutes the voting power of black residents. Here is Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman on the court, who made her debut this week, talking about the case.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court : It became clear to me that the Framers themselves adopted the equal protection clause -- in a race-conscious way. That we were, in fact, trying to ensure that -- the Freedman, during the Reconstruction period, were actually brought equal to everyone else in society.

Yamiche Alcindor : Conservative Justice Samuel Alito also weighed in.

Samuel Alito, Conservative Justice of U.S. Supreme Court : They're not going to win on whether the majority votes as a block, which may be due to ideology and not have anything to do with race. It may be that black voters and white voters prefer different candidates now because they have different ideas about what the government should do.

Yamiche Alcindor : Quite an experience to be able to hear those oral arguments. I might just call this part of the show "The Ariane De Vogue Show", because clearly, you're the expert at the table. So, I'll just ask you. What are the most important cases coming out of the Supreme Court, especially as we think about everyday Americans lives?

Ariana De Vogue : Well, it was so interesting to hear her there because, usually when a justice starts on the court, they want to show that they know what they're doing. But, -- and, they asked a few questions. She actually dominated those arguments there. That was what was interesting. She went on and on and on. And, she knows she has these Conservative colleagues. And, you saw that clip there. What was interesting is she saw her Conservative colleagues who believe in originalism, right, and she is making an originalism argument there. She is saying, "Don't talk to me about how these maps have to be race neutral", when, in fact, look at the 14th Amendment. They took race into consideration there. It was so fascinating to see you're trying to take that away.

So, we do have these big cases coming. We've got this -- we've already had that one, the Section Two case. And then, there is another case that's infused with race again this term, and that has to do with affirmative action. In fact, there is two disputes. Court precedent says remember that you can take race in consideration as a factor in admissions. But now, a Conservative group is coming to the court and saying, we don't want you to take race in -- you can't look at race at all, otherwise, you're violating the Constitution.

So, once again, this court is being asked to look at an overturned precedent, as we saw last term. There is another interesting voting rights case, and it comes from supporters of Trump who want the court to adopt this obscure legal theory that basically says that state courts cannot play a role when they're looking at laws passed by state legislatures when it comes to federal elections. And, what that would mean, critics feel, is that state legislatures could go rogue. They could pass whatever they wanted to, and the state courts couldn't stop them. And, right now, most of the state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. So, there is a real fear among supporters of voting rights about where this case could go.

There is also a really important LGBTQ case coming up, again, pitting those rights, gay rights against claims of religious liberty. That's going to be a hot button topic. But, it was so fascinating to see that Justice Jackson is going to take over this term that is so infused with race, handling these cases, and she started out there, she was at ease, she was confident and she was super aggressive.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, I was texting to some I call them her group chats and all her friends that have now sourced up. And, they were they were saying, Yeah, this is who we know. This is our friend. She is going to speak up. Ariane, I want to ask you because, again, this is your part of the show. The Supreme Court term, it started with its lowest approval rating in modern history. How aware are the justices of the perception of the court? How does that factor in at all to just their thinking about their jobs?

Ariana De Vogue : Well, it's so interesting, because over the summer, usually when a Supreme Court justice gives a speech over the summer, there is not a lot of meat there. This summer, we saw a squabble. We saw the liberals, Justice Elena Kagan saying, Whoa, a court can no longer be considered legitimate, right? If you're doing things like overturning precedent, and not fully explaining why, or if you're straying from your commitment to a certain judicial philosophy, that's a problem. And, she kept saying, I'm not talking about any cases or controversies directly. But, of course she was, because that's what she said all along.

And then, you had Chief Justice John Roberts come forward and say, Whoa, you can't talk about the legitimacy of the court just because you don't like the opinions that are coming out. And, Justice Alito, who you saw there, he also jumped in. They know that the legitimacy of the court is so important, they never want to be looked at as another political branch for the simple reason is that they want, when they issue opinions, they want the public to follow them and not think, Oh, this is just politics. We'll wait for another politician to get on the bench. They're very concerned about it. They know about this approval rating, but I'm not sure they know how to haunker (ph) it, right?

Yamiche Alcindor : And, one last question here. It's -- we have about a minute left. President Trump, he has gone to the Supreme Court to ask them to basically revoke the DoJ from having access to these classified documents that were seized from his home. What's the latest there, and what kind of politics are going on there?

Ariana De Vogue : Well, that's so interesting, right? So, there had Trump draws the Supreme Court. It's starting a new term. It's starting -- trying to be a fresh. It's drawn into this white hot fight. Actually, it's a narrow dispute, because the -- Trump isn't looking for relief that would deal with the criminal justice probe that's going on. He was clear, He is not asking for relief there. What he is asking for is that that special master cannot get the chance to see about 100 of those documents that were seized, that were marked classified. That's the issue before the court. It's kind of technical, did the lower court do things right?

But, again, we've seen another document -- case around documents last term, and Trump lost badly there, except for Justice Clarence Thomas, who ruled in his favor. So, now, it doesn't feel like that they're going to get -- they're going to give him relief. They'll probably deny it. But, at the same time, they're being dragged in, the political spotlights on them, the terms beginning, and this will probably be resolved sometime next week. It's just where they don't want to be.

Yamiche Alcindor : It's not where they want to be, but it's exactly where they found themselves. So, we're going to have to continue to watch that. Thank you for coming on and breaking all that down, and thanks to our panelists for joining us and for sharing your reporting. And, before we go, tune in Saturday to PBS News Weekend, after changes this week in the global oil market. They'll look at what's ahead for Americans at the gas pump. Now, Jonathan did tell us the gas prices are already going up. But, check it out on Saturday.

And, thank you for joining us. Good night from Washington.

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