ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Let’s continue that conversation from the broadcast. With us tonight: Jonathan Karl, ABC News chief White House correspondent and author of Front Row at the Trump Show; Asma Khalid, political correspondent for NPR; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report. Great to have you all here with us.
Jonathan, I’d like to begin with you. You wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this week. The title of it is, “It’s the Duty of the White House Press Secretary to Hold Briefings, But Not Like This.” Tell us about why you wrote it and your experience as head of the White House Correspondents Association and your view of where things stand between the president and the press.
JONATHAN KARL: Well, I had – in my role as the president of the White House Correspondents Association, I had fought bitterly to try to get White House briefings back. If you remember, we went more than a year without a briefing – Sarah Sanders at the end of her tenure as press secretary, no briefings; Stephanie Grisham throughout her entire tenure not a single briefing. So I found myself in a situation where, look, we got briefings; briefings came back. But these briefings did not resemble anything that I had imagined as a White House briefing. They were essentially political events – the press secretary coming out with an opening monologue, usually slamming the reporters in the room or their news organizations, making some political points, quickly answering rapid-fire questions without much information transpiring, and then ending with some kind of another, you know, monologue admonishing the reporters. I just – it just seemed to me that it was important to put on the record that this is not the way it’s supposed to be, that a White House press secretary is a public servant paid for by the taxpayer, and this job is not the same as a campaign spokesperson or a party spokesperson, and I – you know, I hope that it would maybe encourage the current press secretary to rethinking things a little bit, but more importantly what happens with the next press secretary with the next administration.
MR. COSTA: Let’s see a clip of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, from this week.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY KAYLEIGH MCENANY: (From video.) We need to use science, lean into science some, but not use it and cherry pick it to fit whatever particular political persuasion. And when he says open, he means open in full – kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.
MR. COSTA: Amy, as a political analyst, when you see these kind of statements from the White House – from the White House press secretary, you have to wonder, does this administration – does this president pay a political cost, or is it just an inside story here in Washington?
AMY WALTER: Well, especially as we’re in the middle of this pandemic and people are really mostly concerned with the true nuts and bolts of their lives – are they going to get their jobs back, will their kids be able to go back to school – I think this drama doesn’t resonate as much. But when I talk to folks who are on the campaigns and are doing the strategic work on the ground, what they tell us as they’re talking to voters is that there’s this sort of – over these last few months just this collective weight that has really pushed down voters’ opinions of this president, and that, you know, all of the drama, all of the chaos – which was part of the reason, quite frankly, why even when times were good, when the economy was good, the president’s job approval rating never got up past 48 percent – but you take all of that, all of the chaos of the last four years, and then put on top of it this crisis that we’re in, a crisis that as we talked about a majority of voters don’t think the president’s doing particularly well on, and it becomes really hard to see how you get those voters back. And you’re not going to get them back by poking fun at reporters or by basically dismissing real concerns that real people have about how safe it is to go back to school.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, based on your reporting, how much longer is Kayleigh McEnany going to be out there driving the message for the White House every day? I saw Kellyanne Conway, the senior counselor to the president, saying this week she would like to see the president come back to these one-hour to two-hour or even longer briefings where he is running the show.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Well, the president has not been doing rallies. He canceled his rally last week in New Hampshire citing weather, even though the weather ended up being, you know, just fine on the day of that rally, and I think the president has also said that he does plan to do more press conferences. We saw him at a pretty bizarre press conference in the Rose Garden earlier this week where he sort of rambled for the better part of an hour before taking a few questions and used the opportunity to relentlessly attack his political opponent. So I wouldn’t be – I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more of Trump, but at the same time President Trump likes the way Kayleigh McEnany interacts with the press. He likes the fact that she’s combative. He likes the fact that she calls out reporters and tries to take reporters to task and she spends a good amount of time attacking reporters and sometimes prioritizing that over getting information to the American people. He likes that and I wouldn’t be surprised if she continues to enjoy the spotlight because President Trump likes her going out there and bashing reporters and having, you know, a pretty hard hitting, you know, closing before walking out of the room. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw both – both Kayleigh continuing to do that, to the delight of the president, and the president continuing to go out there in front of the cameras and use the bully pulpit for pretty rank and open political campaigning in a way that we haven’t seen previous presidents do in previous administrations.
MR. COSTA: Asma, what about Vice President Biden? What’s his relationship like with his own press corps? Is he taking questions at all from campaign reporters?
ASMA KHALID: So he was criticized by the Trump campaign and I would say and some members of the press corps as well for just not taking any questions, not doing a press conference for a couple of months actually. Just the other week in Delaware he did do a press conference. I was there. You know, the thing about Joe Biden in general – and his campaign, I will say, and Democratic analysts, they all seem to believe that dominating the news cycle is usually a good thing to do, but under the current situation with President Trump they feel like he’s dominating it, in their words, with incompetence, and therefore it’s better to just lay low, not sort of even try to dominate the news cycle. And so, you know, in this past month I got a tally from the Biden campaign and he did a total of six TV interviews, seven in-person events, and I believe three virtual public events. I mean, it’s a pretty light schedule compared to how often we see President Trump.
MR. COSTA: Asma, I would love to ask Vice President Biden this question: Who are you going to pick as your running mate? What does your reporting tell you about that decision?
MS. KHALID: I mean, I can tell you that there are a number of folks that we know are on the shortlist. He has said that they’re narrowing this down now to the point where they’re being able to wind down the background check process and he anticipates having somebody in August. But look, I mean, I think that the folks that I have sort of looked into and done some profiles on are some of the key names that have been out there, folks like Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Val Demings, Susan Rice. You know, there has been – and we reported on some – lots of folks have looked into this – an extensive amount of pressure on Joe Biden to choose a Black woman given the racial dynamics in the country right now, and I will say that pressure to me is really fascinating because he has been unwilling to commit to that in public. When he’s asked about that, he’ll kind of pivot back to his desire to make sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court. But there are people I have spoken to who have endorsed other candidates during the primary cycle but told me that they feel like representation really is key to them, and they feel like given just the extensive amount of protests we’ve seen around racial justice they feel like having a Black woman in this job would allow somebody to have quite a – you know, the vice president’s ear and have a lived experience of understanding what it’s like to be Black in this country, and so no matter how good their policies are they feel like having that issue of representation is key. To me this is a fascinating conversation because I just have not seen both the vice president nor anyone around him willing to commit to this despite the amount of public pressure and frankly private pressure he’s gotten to choose a Black woman.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, what is the plan for the White House, for the Trump campaign if Vice President Biden does choose a Black woman as his running mate in this age of racial justice protests, a whole racial reckoning in this country? Will that change their approach to the campaign at all?
MR. KARL: I don’t – I don’t really think so. I mean, if you look at the approach that the president has taken so far, he’s gone right in at racial divisions. His comments this week when asked, you know, a really pretty basic question – the question that had driven protests in all 50 states, protests all around the country – about why so many African Americans have been killed at the hands of police officers, he got angry at the question. Snapped back at the reporter: White people get killed – more White people get killed. I mean, it doesn’t seem like a president too concerned about overcoming those racial divisions. That said, one of the – one of the great pieces of speculation is if it gets really bad for Donald Trump, would there be any way that he would jettison his own running mate, Mike Pence, and shift ground, and pick maybe, you know, a Tim Scott or a Nikki Haley. I think that’s remote, to say the least, and I don’t think that a decision of Biden’s would drive that either.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, Vice President Pence is pretty out there, as a surrogate, as a supporter of the president. What’s your read on his role? Is he at risk at all? Or is he a key player?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: He continues to have the support of President Trump. We know President Trump is someone who values loyalty. And there are few people in the administration, sort of outside of the Trump family, who have been as loyal and who have been as willing to stand up for President Trump as Vice President Pence. He has defended almost everything that the president has done. He has been willing to, you know, praise the president publicly, sometimes effusively, sometimes obsequiously defending and praising the president. And it would sort of seem disloyal for President Trump to jettison him at this moment. And President Trump has said as much publicly.
But you never know with this president. This has been a chaotic administration. There’s been a ton of turnover. There have been people who have been fired unexpectedly, people who have been walked out of the White House without knowing that they were being fired. So you can sort of not count anything out with this president, but so far Vice President Pence is continuing to play a role, reaching out to Evangelical voters, reaching out to conservatives who maybe don’t like the antics of President Trump, but who see Pence as a somewhat moderating influence when it comes to the style of the White House. And I think for that reason President Trump continues to see him as a valuable partner and a useful asset going into November.
MR. COSTA: Finally, let’s look beyond the White House. Amy has written recently about a blue wave, or even a blue tsunami this fall. The Cook Political Report rates Republican Senate seats in five states – Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina – as toss-ups. While Republicans are favored to win back a seat in Alabama, Senator Doug Jones’ seat, in South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has been outpaced in fundraising by his Democratic challenger, Jamie Harrison, two quarters in a row. Amy, what can you tell us about the trends you’re seeing?
MS. WALTER: Yeah, well, what we’re seeing is as the president’s numbers have ticked down, he is dragging down Republicans down the ballot, House races, and Senate races as well, which is pretty par for the course, especially in this era where, you know, very few voters are splitting tickets. Their opinions of the top of the ticket really driving their opinions of the party overall. And the other challenge for so many of these Republicans, especially those ones you mentioned who we put in the toss-up category, almost all of them, with the exception of Susan Collins, are freshmen.
They don’t have relationships with voters in the same way, again, as Susan Collins does, because – and as such, it makes it harder for them to separate themselves from the president. It makes it harder for them to say, oh, come on, you know me. I’ve been here for three, four terms. You can’t just lock me in with President Trump and what he’s doing. Let’s focus on all the other good things that I’ve done. So that’s going to be very difficult for them to be able to do at this point.
But we’re seeing as well in the House races seats that were considered pretty if not safe, at least leaning Republicans’ way, have now become much more competitive too. And we talked about the suburbs tonight, but I just want to make this point that the other key to watch for are the exurbs. Democrats did really well in 2018 in very high concentrated suburban areas around big major media markets, and big major centers, like Chicago, and Detroit, and Dallas. They didn’t do as well in smaller markets. But now we’re seeing seats in play in places like Cincinnati, Indianapolis, maybe even St. Louis. That would be a firewall, if broken, could be disastrous for Republicans.
MR. COSTA: Asma, you want to jump in here?
MS. KHALID: Yeah. I mean, I was actually looking at that information, I was going to say, that, Amy, you put out. And I was fascinating by the Indianapolis situation. I mean, that’s Susan Brooks’ district. It’s a district that I believe Donald Trump won by double digits in 2016. And so to me this sort of rapid role reversal that we’ve begun to see, and the cracking of suburban districts all over the country, is just – it is really mind boggling. I mean, I was recently myself in Kent County, Michigan. It’s a county that has historically been Republican for about 50 years. And it’s a place where Democrats won in 2018, and Democrats are feeling really positive about heading into 2020. And that just, I think, would have been unthinkable a couple years ago.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan?
MR. KARL: Well, look, I think, you know, Amy and the Cook Political Report know this stuff better than anybody. I was looking at their Senate ratings and saw those five toss-up you mentioned, but just also competitive – two seats. Not one, but two seats in Georgia. So I think that Republicans have a right to be terrified that President Trump, if things continue to go on the way they’ve gone, could be driving them off a cliff where, you know, Senate races that nobody thought or dreamed about being competitive suddenly being at risk for Republicans.
And those fundraising numbers that came out last week – I mean, you mentioned South Carolina. When the Democrat running against Lindsey Graham is raising nearly $14 million, that is a cause for alarm. And in state after state in these races, to have the Democratic challengers raising more money than the Republican incumbents, you know, they’ve got a reason to be worried about the possibility of a wave or a tsunami coming ahead – coming in November.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, just one last thing. We were talking about it on the show. I’m hearing from some of the McConnell allies that because of these new ratings from Cook, because of the Senate map, McConnell wants to give his Republican senators a little bit more to talk about in terms of another package.
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, Mitch McConnell does not want to become the minority leader. And he also has a potentially tough race of his own with a well-funded opponent. So he wants to do what is necessary. He is a seasoned political operative. He knows the moment and he knows that his members do not want to spend their next hundred days talking about President Trump. So he wants to give them something to talk about, whether it’s, you know, a big package that they can take to voters saying: Look, we acted in the middle of a pandemic to help you, to help the American people, to make sure that people had what they needed to stay afloat.
So I wouldn’t be surprised if he is extra motivated to negotiate with the Democrats in the House to try to come up with some kind of package. But I wouldn’t underestimate the challenge they face here. The two sides are very far apart, and President Trump is always a wildcard because he has even different views and opinions than the Senate Republicans. So getting all of them on the same page could be a heavy lift. But there is motivation, if you look at the political map, for some of the Senate Republicans to try to do something to help their races.
MR. COSTA: And I’ll just end by saying I just keep hearing McConnell wants liability protection for businesses. Democrats don’t want to necessarily do that. Democrats want an extension of unemployment insurance. Republican senators don’t want to do that. Where everyone seems to agree is some money to states for schools and some money in terms of direct payments, another round of stimulus checks, for many Americans.
And in terms of the Senate races, I’m keeping an eye on Alabama. Jeff Sessions went down this week, the former AG and senator, against Tommy Tuberville, the former coach of Austin – excuse me. Austin! Auburn football. It’s Friday night. We all need a little rest after this week.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. And apologies to all Auburn fans. Thank you to Jonathan Karl, Asma Khalid, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Amy Walter. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter, the Washington Week newsletter. You’ll get an advanced look at our show each week, and a little note from me. But for now thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next time.