YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
Tonight we’re going to continue the conversation from the broadcast. We briefly discussed the bipartisan agreement on infrastructure. Seventeen Republican senators joined Democrats in voting to open debate on the roughly $1 trillion bill. Now, former President Donald Trump has slammed those GOP senators for allowing the legislation to move forward. It's the latest battle in a contentious week where House leadership in both parties traded insults. What does it mean for the political debates that have gotten so political and so personal, really, and what are the consequences of all of this?
Joining us tonight to discuss all of this, Dan Diamond, national health reporter for The Washington Post; and with me in studio, Kelly O’Donnell, White House correspondent for NBC News; and Ryan Reilly, senior justice reporter for HuffPost; and Rachel Scott, congressional correspondent for ABC News. Thanks so much.
Kelly, I want to start with you. You’ve covered both presidents and – both President Biden and former President Trump. I want to know what you think of the significance that former President Trump was so against this infrastructure deal but still Republicans were able to strike a deal. What does it mean for his influence? Of course he still has a lot of power, but I wonder what you think – what you take away from that.
KELLY O’DONNELL: He has a lot of influence, although some of the key players were those not subjected to his influence – Mitt Romney; Rob Portman, not running again. That’s part of it.
The other thing is let’s remember we were sitting in events with Donald Trump talking about infrastructure, wanting infrastructure, telling us it takes too long to build a highway. So this is really not about the substance of what lawmakers are trying to do on infrastructure, this is about trying to deny a victory for Joe Biden and in the process the former president trying to, I think, test the limits of some of his power now that he is out of office. And we see examples of that as he steps into some of the races that are happening around the country as well as trying to put his imprint on some of the policy discussions. So we also have seen thus far – and there will be considerable pressure, especially in the House on House Republicans from the former president – but they were able to weather that to get to at least this phase of the deal, and certainly with Mitch McConnell being supportive of this deal as well, which is another important tell. We didn’t know that all the way through. He can bring some Republicans along. And those that are thinking about their next election if they’re staying in office, delivering something for your constituents at home matters, and we’ve all talked about the imperative to improve roads and bridges and so forth. Now, there will be debate on what’s in it, what it costs, and what it means, but the idea of infrastructure is very popular.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, the idea is very popular. Rachel, the other thing, though, that I’m – that I’m thinking of as – and I was thinking of as Kelly was talking – is that this also has gotten so personal, though, right? In the middle of this infrastructure conversation you had House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling Kevin – House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy a “moron.” You have these tweets going back and forth from Kevin McCarthy. Take us into how personal and really how toxic, frankly, the Capitol is right now.
RACHEL SCOTT: Yeah, I mean, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene at one point today put up a divider between the House and the Senate because on one end there are rules about wearing a mask and on other – or the other end there weren’t rules about wearing a mask earlier this week. There is just pure confusion. Even on the Senate side you had these posters recommending people and staff to wear a facemask. I saw people crossing it out, crossing it out, X-ing it out. I got asked why I was wearing a facemask by a few Republican senators that I was talking to on infrastructure this week. It is just extremely heated, extremely personal. And when we go back not only just to the pandemic but also talking about January 6th, I talked to some Democrats on the House side that are just flat out refusing to work with Republicans who voted to overturn the election. This has really deep effects. And so when you look at what this does to bipartisanship in this country, what this does to reaching across to your friend and calling across the aisle, there’s a question of whether or not that really exists anymore.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Dan, I want to – I want to come to you. Talk a bit about how this toxicity that Rachel’s describing, it’s flowing out into the country. You’ve been talking to health officials, of course, kind of really trying to understand the psyche of people that are unvaccinated versus vaccinated. Talk a bit about where the country is right now.
DAN DIAMOND: Well, first, Yamiche, I want to say thanks to Rachel for modeling good masking behavior. (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: I love having a health reporter on, I have to tell you. (Laughter.)
MR. DIAMOND: But we did a story about a week ago at the Post about how vaccine hesitancy was morphing into this more toxic vaccine hostility, just anger over measures to try and get people to take the shot or now get people to put masks back on. I saw a disturbing story out of Missouri, a health director there who was trying to share the new masking guidance and was accosted and I think assaulted in his efforts to disseminate that, and unfortunately he’s not the only one. There are health workers all across the country who are dealing with being the brunt of anger over what has happened with COVID. And on my own beat, I look at the White House and kind of think about this on an inside and outside level. Inside the administration there are CDC officials, there are scientists who have been grinding away working at the FDA, at the health department for a year and a half on this pandemic. They have not had a break. They are burning out. And then outside the White House is trying to message what does it mean if we’re hitting a rough patch with the pandemic. There’s polling from Kaiser Family Foundation; about one in two American adults has had negative mental health impact from COVID. Personally, I feel like it might even be higher just based on my own circle. There are a lot of people who are just exhausted and tired and want to open back up. So to have a blow of Delta variant spreading again at this moment, the White House doesn’t want that to hammer home as the country’s reopening and people are starting to see their hopes rise.
MS. ALCINDOR: And all of this is unfolding as America looks at mental health through a new lens. During the pandemic millions of Americans have developed new or worsening anxiety and depression. Just this week Simone Biles pulled out of some Olympic events citing mental health struggles and Congress approved a Capitol Police funding bill that will – that improves mental health resources for officers. On Tuesday Officer Harry Dunn took a moment in his select committee testimony to urge his colleagues to use those resources.
OFFICER HARRY DUNN: (From video.) I want to take this moment to speak to my fellow officers about the emotions they are continuing to experience from the events of January 6th. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking professional counseling. What we went through that day was traumatic, and if you are hurting please take advantage of the counseling services that are available to us.
MS. ALCINDOR: Ryan, how does your reporting – and you talk to so many law enforcement officials – connect to what we’re hearing from Officer Dunn?
RYAN REILLY: Yeah, I mean, this is a major issue in law enforcement. Depression is a major thing. You know, police officers go through a lot, you know, on their day-to-day basis, and just what they go through causes a lot of strain, and there is this hesitancy, I think, by a lot of members of law enforcement to – you know, they would think that they look weak or something by seeking help, and that’s really what I think that, you know, Officer Dunn here was really trying to encourage his colleague(s) to do. Remember, there wasn’t only Officer Sicknick who died on January 6th; there was also two officers who took their own lives in the – in the aftermath of it, and you know, that’s something that I think is – there’s a stigma still around. You know, whether – there’s questions about whether or not we’re going to treat those as line-of-duty deaths, and I think that that’s something that Officer Dunn here was trying to encourage his colleagues, you know, step up to the plate; if you need help, get it.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Dan, how is the pandemic, the racial reckoning, I mean, all of the things that we – that we all live through, how does that, do you think, impact this national conversation on mental health and the stigma that Ryan’s talking about?
MR. DIAMOND: Well, this has been a big focus of the Biden administration, Yamiche, because they inherited a mental health apparatus at the federal level that was somewhat gutted under the Trump administration. There’s an agency devoted to substance use, mental health administration, not super well-known but they coordinate the mental health response around the country. And President Biden and some of his deputies have alluded to this, the need to really build back that structure because we know people are distressed about the pandemic, about the economic effects, about racial inequality. There are so many things that are kind of coming together at the same moment, and we see them spilling over into other fields. So I would expect this to be, especially if we can get past the Delta variant, an area that we will hear the president and his deputies talk a lot more about in the second half of the year.
MR. REILLY: You know, Yamiche, as we saw in Ferguson, I think, you know, a lot of – as we know, the Ferguson activists I think really took a frontline role in saying, OK, this is a very distressing situation and I need to get help. And you know, I think that that’s something we should keep in mind. The kids are all right, right? Like they are more vocal about getting mental health and the importance of mental health going forward, and I think Ferguson activists saw that. We saw that, you know, more recently today with Simone Biles, being more vocal about – speaking out. You know, mental health is health, and the need to get help when you need it.
MS. ALCINDOR: The kids are all right, Rachel. When you think about Simone Biles, she’s a lot of things, right? She’s, of course, a world-class gymnast, but she’s also a sexual assault survivor, she’s also an African American woman. We’ve also seen Naomi Osaka, who is also a Black woman – a mixed race woman in tennis, saying she needed a break. I wonder what you just take away from this conversation that we’re having and the reporting, of course, that you’re doing?
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, and I think, you know, for the American public, and especially for little girls that are looking up at the screen, and they’re – they see them as role models. And to see these two young women come forward and say: You know what? I’m great, but I need a break. I need to take a break. And I think it was so striking to hear from Simone Biles this week talk about for the first time she realized that she was more than her accomplishments, right? And I think that’s something that the Black community – you know, we’re told to be really great.
We’re told to be really better than good, right? And this idea that you can take a step back, you can hit the pause button, you can reset, and that mental health is important. I think it’s something that is not talked about in our communities enough. And I just keeping thinking that even if just one person was inspired by something that either of these two ladies did, or even one officer heard those words of Officer Dunn this week and decided, I’m going to look into this, right, it was well worth it.
MS. O’DONNELL: And Simone Biles was not protected by USA Gymnastics and others when she became a victim of Larry Nassar. She had to protect herself in this instance. And this wasn’t about I want a break, it was – from what I understand about it. She is saying: I’m having some issues in knowing where my body is to do these events, these critically difficult events –
MS. SCOTT: Dangerous, yeah.
MS. O’DONNELL: That are also dangerous. So if you weren’t feeling well, would you jump out of an airplane, a lifelong ambition you might have had? Would you drive a race car if you weren’t feeling in control of yourself? You wouldn’t do that. And she understands her body, she understood the team. She didn’t feel like she had the mental piece of being prepared as an athlete. And she was the one who had to protect herself in that moment, after not being protected when others should have.
MS. SCOTT: Yeah.
MS. ALCINDOR: And one last question, Kelly. I’m struck by the idea that President Biden is in some ways – he over and over again becomes the empathizer in chief. Whenever he’s giving a speech, especially this week where people are confused and exasperated – me being one of them – when you think about do I put a mask on or off, I wonder what you think of how the White House – and what your reporting, I should say – shows of how the White House and the president himself is looking at how to talk to the nation and how to deal with these challenges?
MS. O’DONNELL: Well, he speaks of the COVID, and especially this new variant and the ferocity with which it’s spreading across the country, as an American tragedy, that puts it in somewhat different terms. I think one of the real risks that he is aware of, that what he says may not reach some Americans who have decided they don’t want to hear what the government or this president say. And he knows that that will ultimately cost lives. And I think he’s trying to find the footing there. And it’s a real challenge right now for this White House, because it is a new dynamic in the pandemic that they have to address.
And all of their messaging has not been on point yet, and they have not been able to really clarify. They’re concerned about somehow discouraging vaccination by talking about breakthrough cases. They’ve got to find that balance. And his empathy and emotion is trying to say: Do this for the people around you, trying to appeal to people’s sense of a greater good, a common good. That has been limited thus far in how far they can go. And so now he really is turning to more of the stick, with mandates, or requirements, or other kinds of – he would say incentives and requirements to try to encourage people.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, it’s the carrot and the stick, even though I felt the stick kind of coming down several times this week.
MS. O’DONNELL: The stick might have been tougher, yeah.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, we’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you so much to Dan, to Ryan, to Kelly and to Rachel for joining us and sharing your reporting, and make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind the scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.