Full Episode: Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 12/22/23

Dec. 22, 2023 AT 8:28 p.m. EST

It’s shaping up to be an unpredictable and destabilizing election year with wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, a revolution in A.I., a wildly dysfunctional Congress and an ex-president under indictment. Join moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, Lisa Desjardins of PBS NewsHour, Adam Harris of The Atlantic, Zolan Kanno-Youngs of The New York Times and Susan Page of USA Today to discuss this and more.

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

Jeffrey Goldberg: Colorado throws a wrench into Donald Trump's best laid election plans.

Unidentified Female: As of now, he is not a qualified candidate in the state of Colorado. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not take the case or intervene, then Donald Trump will not be on the presidential primary ballot.

Unidentified Male: It's a purely partisan ploy, and the Supreme Court ought to take this up as soon as possible.

Jeffrey Goldberg: 2024 was already shaping up to be unpredictable and destabilizing, and that was before Colorado. We'll talk about what next year could bring us tonight on WASHINGTON WEEK.

Good evening, and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK.

Well, it's been a hell of a year, wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, a revolution in A.I., a wildly dysfunctional Congress, that's an understatement, an ex-president under indictment and a potentially cataclysmic election on the horizon. In other words, Merry Christmas.

We're not going to talk about all of this tonight because we don't have five hours to get to everything, but we're going to get to a lot of it.

And joining me to plow through tonight are Lisa Desjardins, the congressional correspondent for PBS NewsHour, Adam Harris, my colleague and a staff writer at The Atlantic, Zolan Kanno-Youngs is a White House correspondent for the New York Times, and Susan Page is the Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

Okay, we have like 23 minutes, not 5 hours. Sorry, but we're going to do this. But before we do what's coming down the road, let's talk about the road we're on right now. I'm going to extend this metaphor. We're on a highway in Colorado. Imagine we're on a highway in Colorado. Susan, tell us what this decision means in the moment. And then I want to talk about what the spillover effect could be.

Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: Yes. Well, it was definitely a shocker and with incredible repercussions. And, of course, we expect it to go to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could decide either way. There is a debate among legal scholars about what the 14th Amendment calls for in this case. On the other hand, I think, looking ahead, it's hard to imagine that the Supreme Court will intervene in this way, in this unprecedented way for a presidential election on the general theory that voters should choose presidents, not justices.

Jeffrey Goldberg:Any dissent, any dissenting views?

Adam Harris, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Not necessarily. I think that --

Jeffrey Goldberg: I'm only taking dissenting views. Go ahead.

Adam Harris: This is a court that in 2018, the same court had a case thrown out by a federal court after it kicked a candidate off a ballot. In 2020, we saw the same thing where the same court had kicked a candidate off the ballot and the federal court overturned it. So, it seems that this is a court that is willing to be more aggressive on candidates in ballots. And the Supreme Court, again, I don't see it as something that's likely to happen.

Lisa Desjardins, Congressional Correspondent, PBS NewsHour: I think the question is not necessarily did former President Trump engage in insurrection, which the opinion goes into detail about from Colorado, but there are many process questions about the way the 14th Amendment works that I think gives this Supreme Court an out without judging whether he engaged in insurrection also. Yes, I think that it will be easy for them to overturn this.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House Correspondent, The New York Times: It seems like the big thought here, again, is whether or not the courts should be the one to decide who is on a ballot rather than the American people. That's something that's going to be discussed in these deliberations.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, let's stay on that for one minute. Based on what we know about this Supreme Court Adam is alluding to the fact that they do do these kind of things, Susan, is there any chance that these justices would intervene in history in this way? I mean, just let's stay focused on that.

Susan Page: Sure, just a chance. Yes, of course. You just need to get five of them to agree that that's what the Constitution calls for.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Are the three liberals on the court a sure thing?

Susan Page: You mean to vote to --

Jeffrey Goldberg: to vote to uphold?

Susan Page: No, I think no vote is a sure thing. And when you look at the legal debate, it doesn't follow strictly conservative, liberal, Democratic, Republican lines. It's different kind of debate among legal scholars. But the court is not unaware of the politics of this case.

Jeffrey Goldberg:Explain this to us a little more deeply. If the Supreme Court upholds Colorado's decision, that allows other states to take the same move?

Lisa Desjardins: Correct. Essentially, this does center around Colorado's specific election law. And it depends on each state's law, but, yes, it opens up that possibility in other states that they could remove the former president from the ballot. But there is incredible political, potentially cataclysmic effects either way, but especially if they say that the former president can't be on the ballot.

Jeffrey Goldberg:Well, when you say cataclysmic effects, you mean for Trump or for the country as a whole?

Lisa Desjardins: I think for both. I mean, I think for the country as a whole. This idea Susan is talking about, that the voters should decide who should be president, is a sacred one in this country.

Now, of course, there are reasons that people may not qualify to be president, but I think this one would really ignite a Republican fire. Many of my sources who do not support President Trump, who are Republicans, are enraged about this decision, and I think it could bring them on board somehow, I guess, accepting Trump.

Jeffrey Goldberg:So, is this one of those situations in which Trump is inadvertently benefiting from a move against him?

Lisa Desjardins: Yes, right.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I mean, we've seen this movie, but --

Adam Harris: Yes. No, I think that he does benefit. Anytime that he can say that this is a witch hunt or this is the deep state trying to unseat me, your rightful leader, he's going to take the opportunity to do that. But I also do think that we should be interested in the dissents in this case, right, because the legal foundations of the dissents were not very strong.

We actually had an argument in The Atlantic that said that they were convinced by the legal arguments, not in support of the case, but in the dissents, because you do need to have these strong dissenting opinions. And the justices weren't necessarily able to say definitively that, no, he did not take part in this insurrection. No, he did not sort of sit by while this was happening.

Jeffrey Goldberg:Right. And it's a small question, but an important one. If it's upheld and if Colorado is the only state that actually throws him off the ballot, Donald Trump could still win the election if he's the Republican nominee. Colorado was not going to go --

SUSAN PAGE: It's a blue state. So, the loss of Colorado would be no surprise, not one of the swings we'd look at, right.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. It would hurt the popular count, but --

Susan Page: It would be a political issue everywhere that he got kicked off that ballot. But if you're just talking about counting Electoral College votes, hard to imagine it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: The immediate impact, though, right now, I mean, this example in the last 24 hours does show just how much Trump has mastered victimhood. Anytime one of these things happens, anytime there's an indictment, anytime there's an impeachment, now, with this court case, you're already seeing Republicans jump to defend him. I'm sure you're going to see fundraising emails as well, calling this a witch hunt as well. The immediate political impact, while this is deliberated, it looks like it will be one where Republicans once again go and galvanize and defend former president.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is there any proof out there yet that even Trump supporters or soft Trump supporters who are conservative Republicans, the chaos, the threat of chaos next year, does that move any of them toward Nikki Haley who, you know, is the second leading candidate, obviously is outpacing Ron DeSantis at this point and is a pretty doctrinal conservative? Is there any evidence of that at all?

Lisa Desjardins: We don't see that in polls yet. But, anecdotally, I am feeling that there are Republican voters that I've been keeping track of for a few years and some that I've met at CPAC, big Trump supporters that now I'm calling and checking in with, and they're getting a little less comfortable. They still back him, but this idea that Nikki Haley is really pushing, that we don't need more chaos from him, it's seeping in.

Now, is that enough to derail them from Trump? I don't know. But it could be enough for those independents, especially in a state like New Hampshire, to move full force to Nikki Haley, to move somewhere else. I think Trump's support, I know everyone has said this for ages, I think it is softer than people realize at this moment, and there's a fear about the court cases among Republicans.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I feel, based on no actual science -- this is a show about my emotions, I feel, based on no particular science, that if Nikki Haley crosses some threshold of credibility, and it might be a New Hampshire-type experience, it might cause a break. It might say, oh, she could actually get this. I mean, is that just --

Susan Page: Cause at least a second look. That's what a victory --

Jeffrey Goldberg: I mean, Nikki Haley herself shares this emotion with me, obviously.

Susan Page:  So, you get a second look, you get a second chance.

You know, the other thing that might make a difference, I think, is a conviction. Former President Trump has been accused of crimes. He hasn't been convicted of crimes. If he is convicted of crimes, does that have an effect on his supporters that we haven't seen so far?

Jeffrey Goldberg: I'm sorry, but we've watched eight years of saying if he just -- if this happens, if that happens, impeachment, impeachment again, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I don't know. I mean, I'm a little doubtful, I think. Very smart, by the way, but on that one, I think that might be -- I think we've been taught by experience that the thing that we think is going to hurt winds up helping. I don't know.

Lisa Desjardins: I think looking at the general, I think there is a real issue. And I think as much as we hear Democrats fear about Joe Biden, his numbers that they don't even want to look at right now, they're completely concerned, Republicans are also concerned.

And you listen to some conservative podcasts, like the Ruthless podcast, for example, those guys are openly talking about this idea that the acknowledging that Trump in the general election really could be a weak candidate. Some Republicans increasingly are worried because of the court cases.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I mean, look, by the rules of normal political physics, you're right, obviously. I mean, it's never come to pass that somebody has gotten all the way to conviction for a felony before being hurt in their presidential campaign. Usually just one errant comment will get you knocked out.

But since none of these rules have applied to him for eight years, it just seems like this is the next hill, and it's a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Democrats or Republican dissidents that he's going to get hurt.

Susan Page: So, we'll see. Voters are smarter than we think. Voters engage --

Jeffrey Goldberg:I think they're smart.

Susan Page: I think they're smart and I think they engage pretty late. Like as fascinated as we are by this, I'm not sure every voter in America is paying attention to the race like we are.

And I do think that it is possible that there is kind of an accumulated tipping point where people say, I've liked Trump, I like what he did, I like what my family, household income was like when he was president, I agree with him on immigration, but maybe I'll support Nikki Haley.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Let's -- I want to talk about an issue that's very important to Trump and obviously has helped him, immigration. Zolan, you've been writing a lot on immigration in the last months. We're in a very different place as a country, as a political system than we were even a few months ago. Biden is clearly feeling the heat from his right to toughen up. Obviously, he also wants to make a deal that will help him get funding for Ukraine and even Israel. But the pressure that he's under, he's too hot for some, too cold for others in his own party. Give us the state of play right now, both politically and then on the Hill.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Yes. This has been the thorn in the White House and President Biden's side since he came into office. I've talked to senior officials who say it's one of his least favorite issues to discuss. And I do think it's reached a boiling point here. You have him being squeezed right now. You have Republicans, and this has been consistent throughout his presidency that are seizing on this issue, which is a crisis at this point, soaring crossings at the southwest border to attack the White House.

But you also have a Democratic flank and particularly progressives and immigration advocates that have said that they feel betrayed by the president here. And that's because of not just these negotiations on the Hill, but they do capture sort of the dynamic at play. Right now, you have Democrats with the support of the White House that are backing proposals that actually behind closed doors, many Democrats as well would tell you, are necessary now that being changing, a credible fear interview, the expulsion of --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Explain what changed their credible fear --

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: That would basically be -- so a credible fear screening is essentially your first screening when you're a migrant crossing the border and asking for asylum, refugee staff protection in the country. And the debate has always been that that first screening has a very low bar. It's very easy to start the process.

But then that second screening, your decision from a judge, you may not get an answer for three to four years. So, what you have is a system where basically somebody crosses the border, is able to clear a bar and then has to wait for years for an adjudication. And the debate that Democrats have said is, look -- many progressives have said is, look, I mean, to change that would be denying the opportunity for protection to many vulnerable families around the world. However, increasingly moderates and Republicans are saying this just isn't sustainable.

And is it fair to allow someone into the country when they have an actual smaller or lower percentage chance of actually getting that answer, that they can stay in? Those are the conversations being debate right now.

But I will say, credible fear, yes, there's increasing support for that. The expulsion authority, some of these other proposals on the table, these are proposals I heard often from the Trump administration. And it does show just how the politics of immigration have shifted to the right, which has further kind of put the president in a box here.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Susan, does the president have any choice politically?

Susan Page: A tough call politically, but the politics has changed, the situation on the border has changed. It's a more pressing problem than it was previously. So, no, I think the president -- it would be a gift to the president to be able to say he accepts tougher immigration measures in order to get Ukraine aid, in order to have kind of a reason why in a package, it made sense. But I think the White House is in a bad place on immigration politically, even though taking steps like these is going to create problems for him with the most progressive.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. And the White House is in a bad place politically on a whole range of issues. And the president is more and more worried and anxiety-ridden and even angry at his staff. The economy is good, but most metrics, nobody is giving me credit for it. That's what he's saying. And this is the fun part. I want to move to the prediction phase.

But let's talk about first, do you think that Biden's numbers are going to improve? Do you think that the White House and the campaign are going to figure out a way to communicate the data that they want to communicate? Or are grocery prices and immigration going to be the thing that just undoes this?

Lisa Desjardins: The Congressional Budget Office came out with a new forecast for next year, predicting that GDP, the economy actually slows down, grows by less next year. It was not a great forecast for this. It still grows, but not by much. So, I think I could see Biden's approval numbers. I could see them all staying the same. I do think perhaps --

Jeffrey Goldberg: And right now, they're in the 30s.

Lisa Desjardins: Yes, they're low, 30s, low 40s.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You're a mathematician, obviously.

Lisa Desjardins: The question is, the Trump gravitational force could change his disapproval numbers might not be quite so bad. I don't know if his approval numbers will go. You know, I think there'd be people that sort of like I don't know what to think.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you buy this argument that once people start paying attention and seeing that Trump is under 91 felony indictments and all the rest of they'll say, well, yes, eggs cost a lot, but he's a criminal?

Adam Harris: Yes. I think that there is a sort of better of two evils type of thing that people will do and typically put into their political calculations. But I also think on the economy, right, of course, all of the GDP growth and all of these different things, they matter. But it's those consumer price things that people are looking at.

And we have seen in recent months, recent weeks, the price of gas under $3 in a lot of places, the prices of milk and eggs and things like that, those consumer goods are actually going down. And so I think the more that people actually see those things and if the projections are correct and that those things will continue to go down, then I do see Biden having a potential bump.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: They face a big challenge here, though, when it comes to this, too, because he did pass -- the White House did pass all of these bills, the Inflation Reduction act, the infrastructure package last year, last summer, and the CHIPS package. But we also know that the White House is increasingly frustrated because it's hard for voters to see the result of those legislative achievements.

It's not like you're going to go past a construction site that's not now a fully made bridge and immediately give the president credit. So, this White House has also essentially asked voters to be patient to see the results of their congressional achievements. And I don't know how that translates to a quick boost in approval numbers.

Susan Page: I disagree. I think that his numbers will get better because, for one thing, they can't get much worse, and for another, there is an effect of having seen continued strong jobs situation and seeing that the inflation seems to be somewhat tempered. I think that they do get higher. Do they get high enough? That's the question.

Lisa Desjardins: I think a question, really quick, is his base. Because the one area that there could be increase in inflation for, according to CBO, is in urban areas, and that kind of also overlaps with other base problems he's having.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Lightning round, exciting. Get your buzzers ready. I want to ask you what you think the most significant political event of the last year was from your perspective on your beats.

Susan Page: I think the indictment of Donald Trump on charges of trying to overturn a legitimate election, something we've never seen before, something that tests our democracy.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: I was going to say indictments. But now I think you go with what we're seeing in Israel and Gaza. There are political ramifications and real, I mean, ripple effects that impact human lives around the world, given that conflict. And also this president, in his goal of projecting normalcy and bringing America back on the global stage, often has looked at these foreign policy crises to do that, to show that normalcy. So, we'll have to watch that moving forward.

Lisa Desjardins: Something else unprecedented, the ousting of the speaker of the House, and I will say also --

Jeffrey Goldberg: The election of the speaker of the House and the ousting.

Lisa Desjardins: Exactly.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It was all in one year.

Lisa Desjardins: Another critical moment, now, not just the ousting of Kevin McCarthy, but when Jim Jordan was not able to win, the speakership was also a sign. That base of the Republican Party has done so well, and he couldn't get it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Sorry, Adam, you're last. You're going to have to --

Adam Harris: I'm actually going to save the indictment as well, but not for the same reason. I'm going to say, because we saw -- it was sort of a test of how his base would respond. And to see that the base was fundamentally unmoved, in fact, supported him more after he was indicted four times on 91 charges, right, it says something fundamental about the state of our democracy.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I agree with Adam, actually. And not just for institutional loyalty. No, there's something there. I mean, it builds on what you're saying. But the fact that he's indicted and is the presumptive Republican nominee for president says something very unusual about our politics.

Okay, this is one for you. Will Mike Johnson be speaker a year from now?

Lisa Desjardins: I hate these questions. I think. Ask me in February because the month is going to be intense. Darn, this doesn't play in February. Let me do this. I thought about this question. I think my answer is it will either be Mike Johnson, Steve Scalise or Kevin Hearn in November. And I think it is a 50-50 on Mike Johnson. He's only been speaker two months. It's a tough gig.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Any other views on Mike Johnson?

Susan Page: I can see him being ousted. It's hard to see somebody replacing him. So --

Jeffrey Goldberg: If he's ousted, it's hard to imagine. Okay, so who do you want here?

Let's talk about -- well, I mean, here's the obvious one, and it seems easy at the moment, but will Donald Trump be the nominee of the Republican Party? Is there any pathway for Nikki Haley?

Susan Page: I think that there is a non-zero chance that Trump will not be the nominee, but it's like 1, 2, 3 percent.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Yes. I mean, look, there's always possibility. But to the point we were just talking about when you're indicted over and over again and actually improve support among your base, when you look at what's happening in Congress and when you look at just the different factions there, but one thing being consistent for the most part, and that's loyalty to the former president, it's hard to believe that he wouldn't be able to secure the nomination.

Lisa Desjardins: Right now, the Trump campaign sources I have tell me they think they will clinch the nomination in March with the way things look. However, I do think the latest polls for Nikki Haley in New Hampshire, there could just be that kind of skittishness that she's able to inject the question of, oh, maybe the emperor doesn't have clothes on. It's something to watch. That's the non-zero.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Adam, I will literally give you an end of the year bonus if you say that Chris Christie is going to be the nominee, just to be different.

Adam Harris: I can't. I can't necessarily say that. But what I can say is I don't think that it's impossible that Nikki Haley is the candidate, but especially looking at Colorado, the immediate response was, well, if he's off the ballot, then we're going to write him in, right? You already have Republicans getting behind the former president, even if he's not allowed on some of these primaries.

Jeffrey Goldberg: In two minutes. I need you to predict the future of American democracy, and this is very serious. We're going to head to an election in which Joe Biden is going to be up against Donald Trump. We know that Donald Trump didn't accept the results last time. Give us very, very quickly scenarios of how November could go, assuming that it's those two running against each other.

Susan Page: We're a closely divided nation. It's hard to imagine we don't have a closely divided election that is narrow, that comes down to just a handful of key states and just thousands of votes in those states, and that if Biden wins, that Trump will refuse to accept the results.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Adam, does that mean -- assuming you accept that premise, does that mean that we could have Joe Biden sitting in the White House on January 20th, 2025, as the elected president of the United States and Donald Trump and his supporters outside the gates of the White House trying to remove him?

Adam Harris: Well, I think we've already seen, his supporters have already seen what happens when you try to forcefully remove --

Jeffrey Goldberg: You mean they get to jail?

Adam Harris: Yes, they go to jail. And so I think that the sort of that passion for, well, we need to get out and do something, actually, the thought would be that that would potentially decline.

Lisa Desjardins: I think it matters what the difference is. I think, to me, the question is, does Trump gain support over 2020 or lose it? And I think if he loses support, then even his supporters, the argument is not there, whether legitimate or not, whatever the argument is that his time has passed. And I think that will affect, there will be supporters in state houses, probably at the Capitol who are angry, how many will there be, I think if he can't do as well. And right now, it doesn't look like he can.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Zolan, last word to you. Do you see any scenario in which Trump accepts the outcome of the 2024 election?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: I mean, this isn't really a prediction, but just looking at reporting from the past couple of years now, he still hasn't accepted the results of the last election. So, I don't know. It's hard to believe, and I would imagine it's hard for the American public to believe that he would accept the results of this one. I've seen constant warnings from FBI, DHS, talking about how false statements about the election will impact the sentiment of the country. So, probably --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, we're going to leave it there, unfortunately, but it's obviously a continuing conversation. I want to thank our panelists for joining us and for sharing their reporting.

And for more on the Colorado decision, be sure to check out theatlantic.com.

I'm Jeffrey Goldberg. Goodnight and Merry Christmas from Washington.

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