ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
As the American economy struggles, President Trump, he’s facing tough new polling just six months before the election. A new CNN poll this week showed former Vice President and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading the president by five points nationally, but it also showed Mr. Trump doing pretty well in some battleground states. This week Biden also continued to address sexual assault allegations by a former staff member, Tara Reade. Here are his latest remarks from an MSNBC interview on Thursday.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: (From video.) What do you say to women who were ready to vote for Joe Biden, eager to vote for Joe Biden, but this gives them serious pause because they do believe Tara Reade?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Well, I think they should vote their heart. And if they believe Tara Reade, they probably shouldn’t vote for me. I wouldn’t vote for me if I believed Tara Reade. The fact is that look at Tara Reade’s story. It changes considerably.
MR. COSTA: Former Vice President Biden’s biggest backer, former President Barack Obama, is also having a pretty high profile these days beyond the attacks from President Trump. He will speak Saturday night during a major televised event for the graduating class of 2020.
And with us to discuss all this and the 2020 race: Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent for CBS News; Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press; and Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN.
Abby, Vice President Biden, he’s often in the background of the political news of the week because of President Trump and the pandemic. We talked a little bit about this on the show, but what’s going on with the Biden campaign? Is it all about the VP search? Is it still dealing with Tara Reade? What’s the topline?
ABBY PHILLIP: You know, the Biden campaign has really been dismissive of this idea that somehow he needs to be more front and center, that he needs to get out of the basement. His campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, really dismissed that and said that she believes that it’s about the substance of the message, and in this case they have spent a lot of time highlighting their view of how President Trump has handled the coronavirus situation. That’s been – from a forward-looking message perspective, that’s been the most important part of this whole thing for them. At the same time, I do think that they are thinking about restructuring on digital, trying to understand how they’re going to campaign for the next several months, whether they’re going to be able to do things in person or have to really build up a digital campaign that can in some way rival the behemoth that the Trump campaign has already put together. And then, as you pointed out, the – Joe Biden has actually spent an inordinate amount of time publicly auditioning his VP hopefuls. We’ve seen that play out in public, and there’s a lot of attention being paid to the vetting of those individuals and really looking at what the polling is showing them about what voters might want in a ticket on the Democratic side.
MR. COSTA: Abby, just a quick follow up: Who’s got the inside track on the number-two slot?
MS. PHILLIP: You know, it’s hard to say, but I mean, I think it’s clear there are a couple of people who are near the top of the list: Kamala Harris, who – the senator from California who ran against Joe Biden but is personally actually quite close to Biden – they speak very frequently, I’ve been told; and then there is Amy Klobuchar, who is a favorite of people who believe that if we are looking at – if Democrats are looking at retaking that middle part of the country, she could be a ticket to that; and then there is some talk about whether Elizabeth Warren could be back in the mix. But you know, there’s a lot of pressure for Biden to pick a woman of color. It’s not clear how that’s going to play out, and I’m being told that the campaign is really trying to take a sort of fact-driven approach to this, looking at the data but also thinking about who Joe Biden on a personal level will have some compatibility with.
MR. COSTA: On Wednesday former military pilot Mike Garcia, a Republican, won a special election in California’s 25th Congressional District. He’ll take the seat vacated by former Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill, who resigned last year. It’s the first time since ’98 a Republican has flipped a Democratic seat in California, but the seat had been held by Republicans since ’93 until Ms. Hill won it in 2018. Garcia defeated Democratic challenger Christy Smith, who plans to run against him in the fall for the full term. Jonathan, when you’re talking to the White House, they see this Republican win in a special election but they also see the battleground polls and the national polls where Biden’s doing well. What’s their take on the political currents?
JONATHAN LEMIRE: Well, certainly they’re heartened by the victory in California, but that’s not really their focus right now. Obviously, it is the election with Joe Biden, which we’re now under six months away, and it’s a few things. I mean, national polls don’t mean – don’t mean much; campaigns don’t pay much attention to those. Biden is consistently winning them. It’s a little bit more of a split decision in the battleground states. There was a – individual state by state polls we’ve seen roll out over the last couple of days and weeks have Biden up fairly consistently, but by small margins, often within the margin of error, although a recent poll this week done by CNN and others had that in the cumulative battleground states that the president was still up, and that’s their focus right now. But there are areas of concern, and particularly, Bob, about seniors. In 2016 Donald Trump captured seniors by about eight or nine points, which is an impressive margin considering, of course, let’s remember, he did lose the popular vote, and they provided his margin of victory in those key states that he’s really banking on again in 2020. But seniors, he’s lost their support, at least to some degree, because of the pandemic, for two reasons. First of all, of course, seniors are more vulnerable to the virus itself; they’re concerned about their health. Also, a lot of them living off of 401(k)s and stock markets have seen that really take a beating with the economy really slumping in the last month or two. So the president’s team is keenly aware they need to stem that momentum, and they’re particularly looking at a few states with aging populations – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan – and also those, of course, home to so many retirees – Arizona, which is definitely a battleground state this time around, and of course Florida. And my colleague and I have reported this week about the president’s team really trying to strengthen their support among seniors there in Florida. They’re really concerned that if they can’t recover that margin of the elderly Americans in Florida, they lose that state, and without Florida it’s hard to see a path for Donald Trump to win again.
MR. COSTA: Weijia, you’ve been on the road with President Trump this week in Pennsylvania, and I was following all of your tweets and your coverage, and you noticed that there were some tunes – some rock and roll songs – that were played at an official event that we have often heard at the president’s campaign rallies. Take me inside that dynamic inside the White House. They can’t really have rallies anymore, so have official events become almost a blend of a rally and a typical government setup?
MS. JIANG: As someone who’s been to dozens, and I know all three of you have also attended these rallies, it certainly seemed that when he was at a PPE distribution facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania yesterday. To Jonathan’s point, this is, of course, a state that he is focused on, unlike California. And so when I walked in I immediately heard from the distance the very distinct playlist which includes “Tiny Dancer,” Elton John, “Macho Man,” et cetera. And these were the songs that were playing. And as we got closer to the portion of the space that was roped off for the president to make remarks, there was a massive American sign.
And then – you know, that’s all fine. That’s normal, because this is an official event. But when he started talking, that’s really when it felt like a rally. The president talked about sleepy Joe Biden. He pointed to the press at the back, as he does at every event, and attacked us, and expressed his, you know, unhappiness with the coverage. And so it just felt that way. And in lieu of official campaign events, certainly if he has an opportunity to campaign, you know he’s going to because, again, we are so close to November.
MR. COSTA: And if you were watching some of those clips, we were playing the songs, those weren’t from this week to be clear, but just some images from the past. Who wanted to jump in, Abby?
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah. I was going to just say that as we go toward the fall, the absence of Trump’s signature campaign rallies is going to be a really important phenomenon. Those rallies are so important for bringing Trump supporters together, for amping up their enthusiasm, for giving the president a place to vent. And I think what we’ve seen also happening in the last couple of weeks is his supporters taking to the streets in some of these states protesting coronavirus shutdowns. And the president amplifying their message from the White House, even if it runs against what the official policy is coming out of his own coronavirus taskforce.
That’s a real tension that I think is going to continue for some time. And the campaign – the Trump campaign I know is cognizant of trying to figure out how do they keep their supporters engaged going into November, so that they don’t lose that important place where they get a lot of voter data, where they keep people really focused on the Trump message, and keep that all together going into November.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, just to wrap this up here – I’d love to hear from all three of you, but start with Jonathan – what are you looking at next week? It’s Friday night. As you close your notebook and think about next week as a reporter, what’s on your mind?
MR. LEMIRE: Well, I think it’s that tension that was just described there between the president’s desire to push forward here, desire to see states begin to reopen, to see restrictions lift. We’re hearing some states next weekend – of course, Memorial Day Weekend – we’re hearing some states are going to at least partially reopen beaches, which could be a boon to some economies there in those shore towns. So I think that that is something he’s going to want to see even as, in the wake of the testimony we’ve seen from the – from a couple of health experts this past week really urging America to tap the brakes here, to reopen slowly and carefully, to risk seeing further spread of this virus, because let’s remember outside of the sort of New York metro area, throughout most of the country, infections still going up, and that’s something that has public-health experts very, very worried.
MR. COSTA: Weijia, what are you looking at for next week?
MS. JIANG: So I’m really curious about the president’s schedule and how much more he’s going to start traveling and where he’s going, because when he does this it’s not only an opportunity to connect with potential voters but it sends a message to Americans that, look, here I am going out to these communities, I’m traveling again, and things are back to normal. I’ll also be look at testing because the president claimed this week that we have prevailed when it comes to testing. He announced $11 billion for states and said the federal government would be directly supplying equipment to those states. But it is still TBD because I spoke with a member of the taskforce today who said they’re still in the process of delivering all those things that states have asked for. So we don’t really know if it’s going to be a success, and if it’s going to be enough, until states get the supplies and start conducting more testing.
MR. COSTA: And Abby, what’s on your mind?
MS. PHILLIP: We’ve talked about the president’s desire to change the subject from coronavirus to this issue of the so-called Obamagate. And he’s been putting a lot of public pressure on his allies in the Senate to call witnesses, to start really bringing this up in an official capacity. And I’ll be looking to see how that pressure really bears on some of these individuals, like Senator Lindsey Graham, who has kind of been reluctant to go forward with this idea of calling President Obama to the Senate. That pressure is only going to increase. And it’s going to prompt some kind of response. What will the Senate do to push forward this agenda of turning the tables on the Russia investigation? And I think a lot of that could start coming to a head next week.
MR. COSTA: And I’ll be keeping an eye on who blinks next on this negotiation over the relief package, the House Democrats making their move. What will the White House do? That’s what I’m watching. And that’s it for this week of the Washington Week Extra. Thank you very much to our reporters for this part of the discussion – Weijia Jiang, Jonathan Lemire, Abby Phillip.
And you can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, check out our Week-ly News Quiz. But for now, I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And we’ll see you next time.