YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
Today Vice President Kamala Harris made her first trip to the southern border since becoming vice president. This comes after President Biden tasked her with addressing the root causes of migration. Here’s some of what Harris had to say.
VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) This issue cannot be reduced to a political issue. We’re talking about children. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about suffering. And our approach has to be thoughtful and effective.
MS. ALCINDOR: Republicans have criticized Harris for not taking the trip sooner, and now her ability to lead this challenging effort is, of course, under scrutiny.
Joining me tonight are four top reporters covering all these stories: Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House correspondent for The New York Times; Eva McKend, congressional correspondent for Spectrum News; Mike Memoli, White House correspondent for NBC News; and Jake Sherman, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter. Welcome to all of you.
Zolan, I want to start with you. We talked about it a little bit on the – on the show, but take us more into what’s going on and why this trip happened. And I’m also wondering, why did she – why did the vice president, you think, resist this until now? We know that she wanted to be – she wants to be known and she is in some ways tasked with the root causes, but tell us more.
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: Well, absolutely. So root causes and that explanation of when you have a surge at the border, when you have an increase in crossings, a reminder that these crossings are usually Central American families fleeing persecution, poverty, violence in the Northern Triangle, right? It is not new to have an administration say the way to combat this is by addressing the root causes. Former Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan under President Trump said the way to approach this is by going at the root causes. Of course, he also had a strategy of deterrence at the border as well. But so just to put that clear, even though the vice president’s currently facing criticism here, that is nothing new, so – but when you have now this visit that has happened, really she now was forced to take it – not forced, but pressured to take it because of the ongoing criticism as well as her own stumbling over questions about whether or not she should go.
MS. ALCINDOR: The other border news that caught my eye was that the Biden administration, it’s reported, forced out the head of the U.S. Border Patrol, Rodney Scott. Tell me a little bit about that decision, what that means, what that tells you about the way that the Biden administration is looking at this.
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: Sure, Rodney Scott was a longtime sector chief in San Diego. He rose to become Border Patrol chief the last year of President Trump, definitely late in his term, and he exemplified, I think, some of the kind of cultural shift that you’re seeing between administrations. Remember, this is an agency that, if you talk to agents, for the first time in quite a while under President Trump they had somebody who was focused on their job, right, and not only focused on their job but bringing them to the Oval Office, you know, putting them under a spotlight. Rodney Scott under President Biden, the headlines that he will be remembered for is resisting efforts to no longer refer to migrants at the border as, quote/unquote, “illegal aliens.” He also – the Border Patrol, while he was – definitely held a leadership role, also released YouTube videos that, you know, pretty much had imagery that criminalized and generalized most of the people at the border as well. So you had a shift there when it came to this new administration that at least says they have a new priority of restoring asylum, even though they’ve maintained some of President Trump’s policies.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Jake, there were – Republicans have been to the border. They keep going to the border. They keep talking about the border. Now we have former President Trump going there. What’s that going to mean, and what does it tell you that this politics of Trump that Zolan was just talking about, that it’s still reigning when it comes to this issue of immigration? And also, can they win elections with this? Is this their strategy, along with so many other things?
JAKE SHERMAN: On the last point, I don’t know the answer to that. I think – and you guys would –
EVA MCKEND: Jake doesn’t know the answer? (Laughter.)
MR. SHERMAN: You guys would know better than I would, but I do think Republicans still retain an advantage in most every poll on handling the border and on handling illegal immigration and crossings over the border.
A few thoughts here. I mean, this was the debate that animated the party for the entirety of the – of the – of Donald Trump’s time in the White House. He’s still the most powerful person in the party. He’s not going to talk about how he controlled COVID. He’s not going to talk about cutting federal spending or the tax bill that’s now four or five years old. I mean, this is what – this is his calling card. This is Republicans’ calling card. Because there were troubles early in the administration, early in Biden’s administration, then – you know, it’s just – it is a comfortable space for them. It’s a comfortable political space for them. The wall came – I mean, was basically a creation of Trump’s even though it wasn’t a creation of Trump’s, it was a creation of a Congress that had been voting for it for many, many years under Democratic and Republican presidents. It’s just a political issue that Republicans really enjoy.
MS. ALCINDOR: Eva, you’re nodding your head on that.
MS. MCKEND: Yeah, absolutely right, they keep hitting Democrats on this and President Biden on this because they think it’s a successful political argument for them.
MIKE MEMOLI: It’s one of the few unifying forces in the Republican Party right now, and this is –
MR. SHERMAN: That and cutting taxes, that’s about it.
MR. MEMOLI: – what’s so interesting about the assignment to Vice President Harris that President Biden gave her. He’s as sensitive as anyone to the role of a vice president, and he felt, yes, he had the respect of President Obama, but not necessarily always of the Obama team. And he – so when they were looking for ways to find pieces of a legislative portfolio for her, this was a natural for him to give to her because he did it as vice president. But I think there’s also a mindset of she needs to be ready in 2024, 2028 to tackle tough political issues, and so this was a challenge for her that was given by the president, and I think the early evaluation so far is there’s still some work to be done.
MS. MCKEND: But it’s a battle she cannot win. Like, there’s nothing that she can ever do that will satisfy Republicans in Congress on this issue.
MR. SHERMAN: Agreed, and can I make one point to what Zolan said? Which is you – of course the root cause is important. It’s the most important thing. You also can’t solve that in the short term, so you’re picking a losing card at –
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: No, root cause is not –
MR. SHERMAN: You’re choosing the losing card and saying that’s what I want to focus on. It’s not a short – there’s no political win.
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: Current President Biden also had the same job and has often touted the job that he did. Right now people are still crossing the border. They’re still fleeing the region. Technically, that job was a failure if you go by that measure of success. It just shows how you don’t solve the border in four years – maybe you manage it, but you don’t solve it.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, and looking ahead the White House has announced that the U.S. will miss President Biden’s COVID vaccination goal. The president hoped to have 70 percent of all U.S. adults vaccinated with at least one COVID-19 shot – vaccine shot by July 4th. Still, there has been much progress – currently, according to the White House, 66 percent of U.S. adults have had at least one shot. Mike, I want to come to you. Talk to me a little bit about what this goal and how close they came to this goal means, and how they’re planning to deal with this. There are a lot of people possibly our age, a little bit younger I’ll say – (laughs) – I think we’re still young Americans – but 18 and 26 for sure are the problem here. How are they going to deal with it?
MR. MEMOLI: So what the White – I mean, the president especially in the transition, late in the campaign, read a lot about FDR, and one of the reasons he set so many goals was because that was a tactic he found that FDR used to show success, to build momentum for further and further progress. Also, it helped focus the administration’s efforts on a very difficult issue.
The White House would say, OK, we didn’t hit 70 percent, but the fact that we’re all sitting around this table together and getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July in a fairly normal way shows they may not have met the letter of the goal, but the spirit of the goal, getting America back to normal.
This month of action in June, one of the tricks that they’ve been using is all the incentives, right, to try to get people to get vaccinated. Now we’re seeing them focus to a real motivating factor on the other side, not an incentive but a warning about the Delta variant. And so that – the transmissibility among younger individuals especially is increasingly a part of their messaging around this. And they’re going to continue this vaccine push well beyond July 4th. And so the first of several missed goals, but certainly something that they feel the broader story is one of a success for them.
MS. ALCINDOR: Eva, I’m thinking about the story I did about the most vaccine hesitant group in this country, at least according to data that I’ve seen, and that is Republicans, especially White Republican men. Talk to me a little bit about how lawmakers and just – how lawmakers are going to deal with this. It seems like we’re feeling, like, the vaccinations is coming down the same party line as Republican and Democrat, as the filibuster, as so many other things. Talk about COVID and how this works.
MS. MCKEND: Yeah, absolutely, and I think the Biden administration underestimated the hesitancy that was going to emerge from the South. I will say that the most critical members of Congress, of the science and medical community, that has been – at the federal level – that has been managing this are House Republicans. You know, there’s the Fire Fauci Act. That’s not going anywhere, but several congressional Republicans lining up behind this bill to draw criticism.
Congressman Massie, a firebrand in Congress, has issues with the message of everyone should be vaccinated. He says that there should be more emphasis put on the antibodies that people had if they already had the virus. And so I can’t help but think that, you know, the communities where these people represent, that they’re hearing this message coming from their members of Congress and it’s having some kind of impact on their willingness to get the vaccine.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Jake, when you think about kind of the way that this is splitting, I almost feel like, at least talking to sources – one source in particular said: We’re becoming a country of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. What do you make of that?
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, I mean, listen, this is the way our country is built, unfortunately, forever. You know, we have freedoms and then people take advantage of the freedoms – (laughs) – where in some countries we – they are pushing more. I mean, we’ve seen authoritarian countries say they’re going to arrest people if they don’t get the vaccine. But, yeah, that’s the – I mean, we see it on Capitol Hill every day. There’s 80 percent of lawmakers are vaccinated, but still, I mean, our leaders are still not taking this as seriously as they probably should.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Zolan, I want to end with you. Talk about what your reporting is telling you about where this is going, these vaccination rates, and there’s, of course, the Delta variant. What’s it all mean?
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: I think you’re going to see a shift in strategy from the White House. You’re already seeing these FEMA mass vaccination sites start to shut down. Mass vaccination sites that really were made to also go after some of the groups that we heard early on might be hesitant as well. President Biden yesterday during his speech in North Carolina touted the fact that I believe 58 percent of the shots in arms at that point went to minority groups, people of color. But you’re seeing a shift in strategy here as now the White House looks at young people. And it’s not just reluctant young people, I’ll add. I talked to a White House official yesterday that said the problem is also access. A lot of these – a lot of people that age, maybe my age, you know, might have busy schedules, might, you know, not prioritize this.
MS. ALCINDOR: (Inaudible.)
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: I might be; I don’t know. (Laughter.) I’m also vaccinated. (Laughter.) But the White House is focusing on that. And now that’s why you see them, you know, having longer hours for pharmacies, and moving away from the mass vaccination sites towards a more campaign-like strategy. Knocking on doors, grassroots action. You’re going to see the president travel. You’re going to see the vice president travel, Jill Biden as well. The first lady was in Florida yesterday. You’re really going to see them – I mean, the way they – officials told me – described their strategy to me was it’s going to be a like a campaign.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, I’ve been hearing that they’re basically going to barnstorm the country to try to make sure people understand just how important getting vaccinated is.
So we’ll have to leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Zolan, Eva, Mike, and Jake for your insights, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you the behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.