ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Let’s pick up our conversation where we left off on our broadcast. Joining me are three top political reporters: Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post, who joins us from Nashville; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; and Asma Khalid, political correspondent for National Public Radio and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. Welcome, all.
We talked a little bit about the debate at the beginning of the show, but Asma, it was a fascinating Thursday night in Nashville. You had Vice President Biden focused on health care, the pandemic, even when baited by President Trump to talk about his son in Hunter and all of the business dealings. What’s the read inside of the Democratic Party one day later?
ASMA KHALID: You know, I will say it was a fascinating debate in large part because we actually heard these policy conversations that we didn’t – we weren’t able to hear that first debate. But look, I think by and large this was a status-quo debate. Democrats feel like Joe Biden accomplished what he needed to do, which was really question the president’s effectiveness on the COVID-19 pandemic and how he’s handled that situation, and that was, you know, a good first half-hour of the debate, and it’s a particular area of strength Democrats feel both, you know, how the president’s handled the pandemic and then also tie that to the fact that they are suggesting that, you know, Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. These are both big issues of concern for Democrats and I would say Biden was able to effectively get his message across. Whether or not it really changes much, though, around the trajectory of this race I am doubtful just because I think this has been such a consistently steady race in the polls for so, so long, so I don’t know that it will dramatically change anything. Plus, we’re in a situation where millions of people have already voted early.
MR. COSTA: That’s true. And let’s think about the moderator for a moment, NBC News White House correspondent and Washington Week regular Kristen Welker. She was the moderator for Thursday’s debate. Here is Kristen questioning the candidates on a possible coronavirus vaccine.
KRISTEN WELKER: (From video.) Your own officials say it could take well into 2021 at the earliest for enough Americans to get vaccinated, and even then they say the country will be wearing masks and distancing into 2022. Is your timeline realistic?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) No, I think my timeline’s going to be more accurate.
MS. WELKER: (From video.) What steps would you take to give Americans confidence in a vaccine if it were approved?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Make sure it’s totally transparent. Have the scientists of the world see it, know it, look at it, go through all the processes.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you know better than anyone here how difficult it is to moderate a presidential debate, a vice presidential debate. You did such a terrific job at the vice presidential debate. What do you make of Kristen Welker and how she handled the evening?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I think Kristen did a great job. She had control of the debate. That was important. That’s one reason that the debate commission added muting the mics, which I thought worked pretty well. She also focused on issues that actually matter to voters. You know, she wasn’t asking about what’s the future of the Senate filibuster. She was talking about the cost and practices and how long people are going to have to be dealing with COVID-19. So I think kudos to Kristen Welker; she really did a fine job, and it’s a tough one. She did really well.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, President Trump praised Kristen Welker earlier Friday on the campaign trail. He called her professional.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, and he also praised her in the middle of the debate. He said I really appreciate the job that you’re doing. Now, this is very different than the tone that he had set going into the debate. He, you know, tried to smear her. He tried to say that, you know, she was nasty and she was biased and that her parents had donated to Democrats, and the right-wing smear campaign really revved up against Kristen Welker, and I think it’s important to call them out because she did a terrific job. She was fair, she was balanced, she challenged both Joe Biden and President Trump directly on their policies, on their history, and she showed that she was going to be fair and she was going to be tough on both candidates, which is what you want from a moderator. So I do think that President Trump’s about-face and his willingness to acknowledge that she did a good job and that she was professional and fair is a good sign, and I hope that the people who were participating in the smear campaign against her will listen to that and maybe think about their decision to smear someone ahead of a debate, especially when doing that only makes their job harder – and it’s already, as Susan said, a very tough job to do. And I think both Susan and Kristen did a really good job during the vice presidential and presidential debates.
MR. COSTA: I would tip my cap to Kristen as well, such a difficult situation after a debate’s been canceled to come in, it’s the final debate. To stay cool in that environment, to stay cool, to have class, to be smart, not easy; she did it all.
Let’s dig, though, a little deeper into that standoff we saw on immigration. Newly released court documents show that 545 children separated from their parents at the border have not been reunited with their parents because the administration has been unable to track them down. Here is part of what we heard at the debate.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They built cages.
MS. WELKER: (From video.) Do you a plan to reunite the kids with their families?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Yes, we’re working on it very – we’re trying very hard, but a lot of these kids come out without the parents. They come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Parents were ripped – their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 of – sets of those parents and those kids are alone, nowhere to go – nowhere to go. It’s criminal.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They are so well taken care of, they’re in facilities that were so clean and have gotten such good –
MS. WELKER: (From video.) But some of them haven’t been reunited with their families.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) But just ask –
MR. COSTA: Asma, how is immigration going to play out in the final days of this campaign?
MS. KHALID: You know, I was struck that this was really the sort of first substantive conversation that we had seen between these two candidates around immigration. It was an issue that the president really enjoyed playing up during the early days of his own 2016 – you know, first presidential run but has largely kind of faded to the background, I would say, in terms of, like, broad public-policy conversations as of date. You know, what I was struck by, though, in the conversation last night was really the degree to which this was a kind of morality referendum, and this is where Joe Biden feels most comfortable, is emphasizing issues of civility and decency. This has been, I would argue, kind of the major theme of his candidacy, going back to when he first announced he was going to run during the primary cycle. And you know, a Democratic strategist I was talking to the other day said he felt like Joe Biden doesn’t really get enough credit for the fact that he’s had a pretty consistent arc of a message from start to finish, which has largely been around civility and decency. And to me, this conversation of children who are still separated from their parents largely falls into that.
I mean, I think the other issue around the immigration conversation last night was how kind of crazy it felt that you heard President Trump at times trying to suggest that Joe Biden was actually tough and hard on immigration. That he accused the Obama administration of building cages. And, you know, regardless of the veracity of the statement I thought that politics of that to me was strange because here you have a – you know, a president who has long accused Democrats of being soft on immigration, wanting open borders, at the same time out of the other side of his mouth now saying that actually you, Democratic presidential nominee, you’ve been tough on immigrants and tough on immigration.
MR. COSTA: Susan, what we were talking about in the show is that the president’s trying to stoke his base, trying to get all of his core voter out again. But, to Asma’s point, he’s framing Biden as too tough on crime, too tough on Black Americans, too tough on Latino Americans. And so you see from the Trump side this attempt – we’ll see if it’s effective or not – an attempt to crack that Obama-Biden coalition apart, and make sure it doesn’t reassemble again.
MS. PAGE: Well, actually, President Trump has had some success with some Hispanic voters. Those numbers are not bad for him, as good as they were in 2016, especially among Hispanic men. But I do think he puts other parts of the electorate that he needs at risk. You know, you think about that heartbreaking story about 545 kids, some of them extremely young, whose parents cannot be found. You want to – you’re curious about why President Trump has a problem with suburban women voters? That’s why – a story like that, for which he seems to have – for which he expresses no concern at all for the human – for the human cost of that policy.
MR. COSTA: Let’s finish tonight, and we’ll begin with Toluse, by asking all of you: What’s one story this week, or coming up next week, that deserves more attention?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Oh, gosh, put me on the spot there. I think the fact that – I’ll give a shoutout to The New York Times that did get the president’s tax returns, and they’ve been releasing reports almost on a weekly basis, looking at the president’s tax returns, looking at his financial history. There was just a recent report about how he has not given as much as he has said to charity. I would say, look at those reports, really dig into them, and really keep an eye out.
I have no internal information on this, but just based on the pace of their releases, you know, the final 10 days of the campaign I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more information that comes out about the president’s personal finances. That’s something that dogged him, to an extent, in 2016, and it has dogged him throughout his 2020 election. It dogged him on the debate stage last night, where he was sort of trying to defend the reason why he did not release his tax returns over four years. So I would say pay attention to that because there could be more to come in the next 10 days.
MR. COSTA: Asma, how about you?
MS. KHALID: So one storyline I’ve been fascinated with – and I’ll concede it’s not really exactly on my beat, so I haven’t been covering it as much – has just been issues around voting. I mean, those early vote numbers are astounding when you talk about a situation where you’ve got, you know, roughly 50 million people who have already voted early. And a lot of folks that I talked to early on suggested that they thought they would see a lot of excitement as states first opened up, say, early in-person voting, and maybe that would dip off. We’re not exactly seeing that in some states.
And so I think the degree to which, you know, folks can pay attention to what early voting looks like, getting more information from folks who are voting early in some of these key states, to me, is interesting. And look, regardless of who they vote for – Republican or Democrat – to me I am just astounded by the suggestion that this could really speak to historic levels of voter turnout because, you know, every election cycle we have millions of people who just do not participate and don’t vote at all.
MR. COSTA: Susan Page.
MS. PAGE: Hey, I’d keep my eye on Texas. You know, we had in the past 24 hours a big public plea by Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro for the Biden campaign to invest more money and resources in Texas, where they say it’s possible Biden could carry the state. That would be a surprise. They note there are four or five competitive House races where a little bit more money might make a difference, in having Democrats pick them up. And even in that Senate race – you know, we don’t think of Senator Cornyn as being seriously challenged, it looks like he – I don’t know that he’s not going to win, but he’s certainly more challenged than we expected.
MR. COSTA: That Cornyn race, it really has my interest too, Susan, because he reminds me of so many of my Senate Republican sources who – Cornyn’s a former member of the leadership – who are seen by the Republican base as a little too establishment, but moderates and independents think they’re too close to President Trump. So they’re in this impossible position politically.
But we’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Toluse, Susan, and Asma for stopping by on a Friday and staying for the Extra. And make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter. It’s on our website. We’ll give you an insight into all things political going on in the week. You’ll get a weekly note from me. It’s a lot of fun out there. It’s going to be quite a final 11 days. Stay steady. Enjoy it, if you can. Stay safe. And for now, I’m Robert Costa, good night.