YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
Let’s continue the conversation where we left off. By this time next week Joe Biden will be the president of the United States. He will be facing a raging pandemic, a struggling economy, and a deeply divided nation.
Joining me are four of the reporters covering this moment: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Geoff Bennett, NBC News White House correspondent; Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News.
Pierre, I want to start with you. There’s so much talk right now about the security threats that are out there, threats about White supremacy – White supremacists, and so many others. My question is, what security issues could be at play even after President Trump leaves office, given all that we’ve seen and what officials are telling you?
PIERRE THOMAS: Well, given the fact that he said that the election was stolen from him, millions and millions of people who believe him are going to be angry. And there’s a subset of that group that law enforcement officials believe are quite, quite potentially violent, and they saw what happened on January 6th, and they say it foretells what could happen going into the future.
If you think of it this way, the president, again, has a base of supporters who are with him for political reasons. And then you’ve heard people say that he has given comfort, if you will, not spoken out strongly enough against White supremacists and some of these other people. Everyone remembers the good people on both sides comment in relation to the Charlottesville incident where a woman was killed by a neo-Nazi member. So because of that people feel like – that he’s given license to these people to feel part of the conversation, if you will. And now they’re out there. And they’re a real problem.
MS. ALCINDOR: I want to stick with you for a moment. You talked about the people that are getting license to get do all of these scary and violent things. There are reports now that some of the people that took part in this mob that stormed the Capitol were police officers, military officers. What’s the most chilling thing that you’ve been learning as it relates to who made up this mob?
MR. THOMAS: Now, separate and apart from the people who showed up wearing anti-Semitic t-shirts, separate and apart from the people who brought a noose to the Capitol, separate and apart from the man who was walking through the Capitol with a Confederate flag which is a symbol, as you know, of slavery, racism, and everything that’s wrong with the country in terms of the original sin. Separate from them are law enforcement officials. Two police officers from Virginia have been charged with, you know, again, coming into that Capitol illegally. There also have been a number of former military officials who have been charged in connection with this. So what this tells you is that there’s a wide swath of people who are angry and who believe what the president has been saying.
MS. ALCINDOR: Hmm, there’s a wide swath of people who are angry. Seung Min, I want to come to you. Part of the schism in the GOP right now is whether or not there are people who feel like they have to stick with the voters, or whether or not there are people who feel like they might be able to, in some ways, buck their own base. Tell me a little bit about how important it is that Mitch McConnell is on – is undecided about whether or not he’s going to convict President Trump? And Kevin McCarthy saying that, yes, President Trump had some responsibility to bear, but that he wasn’t voting to impeach? I wonder, when you look at those two men, are their stances going to be echoed throughout the Republican Party, and what that might mean.
SEUNG MIN KIM: It is a really interesting dynamic, because the House Republican conference has generally been much more allied with the president, even throughout his controversies and even throughout his – even with his baseless lies about the election – so much more than Senate Republicans have. You know, just as Senators you tend to have a little bit more of a political autonomy. You represent an entire – even if it’s a conservative state, you do represent an entire state and not a very narrowly, you know, very conservative or very liberal district. So they do have a more complicated political calculus to consider.
But Mitch McConnell, our reporting has indicated that he hasn’t – he hadn’t really reached out to his colleagues to give his thinking too much before this week. And obviously, every Republican senator will take his or her own kind of not only moral – you know, moral conscience into this vote but also, you know, frankly, to be candid, their political calculations. We have 20 Republican House seats that are up for election in 2022. Many of those Republican members will have to navigate primaries. Many of those Republican members will have to navigate primaries and a general election. And you can’t, you know, deny the fact that that comes into play here.
But the strong rhetoric that you’ve seen, even from his most ardent allies in the Senate, have been a really remarkable turn in the last couple of days. You know, Senator Tom Cotton, who is, you know, as big of a Trump ally as you can get in the Senate, was very critical of the president’s rhetoric and his behavior, even though is not going to – you know, he has said he is not going to vote to convict him. And kind of the snowball that forms in whichever direction the other ways – whether it’s the momentum goes in favor of convicting him or not will be something to watch.
I mean, you can – you can pretty easily get to maybe five to seven votes among Senate Republicans in favor to convict. Seventeen is still a very high hurdle. But it is not out of the realm of possibility. And that’s not something that I think we would have said, you know, just a matter of days ago.
MS. ALCINDOR: When you’re talking about 17 being such a high hurdle I’m thinking about a source that I talked to who said he was heckled at the airport because someone overheard him speaking to someone saying that Vice President Pence did the right thing by not stopping the electoral count. And that person, while they were being harassed, said: I worked for President Trump’s campaign. And still that voter, that person, was yelling at him, very, very angry. So it tells you the level of angst and anger out there.
And this is, of course, the last week of the Trump presidency. These were four chaotic years, to put it lightly. Peter, you wrote this week, “The country has fractured deeply and lost a sense of itself. Faith in the system has eroded. Anger is the one common ground.” Where does the nation go from here, and how has President Trump’s time in Washington changed American politics?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, that’s a great question, Yamiche. It really is one of the central questions for the new president coming in. Now, you know, division in Washington and in the country did not start with Donald Trump and will not end with Donald Trump, but he exacerbated it. And not only did he exacerbate it, he played to it. It was an intentional strategy. That’s the way he approached politics. That’s how he succeeded, in his view. Other presidents who came to office in moments of division at least gave lip service to the idea that their job was to heal or bring people together, even if at times they themselves were divisive.
But this is not a president who did that. He did not say that he was a uniter not a divider, like George W. Bush did. He didn’t say he was a repairer of the breach, the way Bill Clinton did. He played to division. And so we have after four years seen the culmination of that in that mob attack on the Capitol. This is the foreseeable result of four years of pulling the fabric of our society apart. Again, not to say that that hasn’t already been happening before him, but it hadn’t happened from the Oval Office. And that’s what made such a big difference.
Now, President-elect Biden will take office on Wednesday. He is by nature, inclination a conciliator, a compromise artist and somebody who prefers to work across the aisle. Does that mean he can do it? It’s such a toxic environment right now that it will be a huge challenge for anyone, even for somebody with the inclination that he has to bridge that divide. But we’ll see. I mean, it’s going to be, you know, a powerful moment to watch him take that oath in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of this rolling controversy over what happened at the Capitol, and the middle of what promises to be apparently yet another Senate trial of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Geoff, Peter is talking about President-elect Biden taking the oath. He said that President Trump didn’t run as a unifier. Of course, Biden did run just that way. He said that he was going to heal the soul of the nation. I wonder now what you think about Biden’s unity message, how that’s going to be received, an all of the work that’s in front of him. I mean, he’s been laying out this $1.9 trillion COVID package, this plan that he wants Congress to pass. There are so many other things on the plate that he wants to do. What do you make of all this? What are your sources telling you?
GEOFF BENNETT: Yeah, I mean, and look, they’re Herculean tasks, one and all. I think the biggest issue, aside from the legislative work, is that Joe Biden has to help restore a vision of a shared reality in this country. Those people who stormed the Capitol, they weren’t just angry. I think they were radicalized. They had been engulfed in a sea of misinformation and disinformation fueled by the president and then parroted by a media echo chamber that supports him. So, you know, Joe Biden has to confront that as he’s also trying to steer this country out of a 100-year pandemic.
And so for the last two days he’s rolled out his plan to pay for it, right? He wants Congress to pass this nearly $2 trillion COVID relief package. And he’s also today articulated a plan to really pick up the pace of vaccinations, doing everything from encouraging states to allow more people to get vaccinated more quickly, and using the Defense Production Act to produce more vaccine. And then beyond that, you know, he’s got to fix this cratered economy. So, again, got a crisis in the democracy, a spiraling pandemic, and a tough economy.
The thing that Joe Biden has going for him is that he is someone who has been in public life and has been in public service for about a half a century, really. Almost about 50 years, most of that time as a senator, of course eight years as a vice president. So he has a deep well of good working relationships upon which to draw. And he’s also a creature of the Senate. I mean, when he – he said that he wants to get bipartisan support for this COVID relief deal. He doesn’t necessarily have to. They could use a process used as reconciliation to pass this bill.
Of course, to do that they couldn’t necessarily include all the things that are in this proposal as it currently stands, and that process could take longer. But Joe Biden is saying he wants bipartisan support for this to send a signal and a symbol for the kind of president that he will be, Yamiche.
MS. ALCINDOR: And as I’m listening to Geoff talk about all the Herculean tasks before him, as Jeff put it, Pierre, I want to come back to you because these forces that you cover, as the chief justice correspondent, they’re going to be here when President-elect Biden comes into office. The NRA filed for bankruptcy today. You’re seeing some changes and some things happening in the GOP. Tell me a little bit, from a security point of view, what could be around the corner and what might be happening here when you see groups like the NRA having to do that, having to file for bankruptcy?
MR. THOMAS: Well, that tells you that the playing field has changed. The NRA faces challenges from new organizations in the wake of all the shootings that the country has dealt with. So the playing field is changing. But I can tell you this, Yamiche, the national security threat environment is as complicated as it has ever been. We haven’t even talked about in recent weeks what many are describing as the largest-scale cyberattack on the U.S. government in history, where the Russians allegedly have gotten access to computers in the Treasury Department, the Commerce Department, elements of the Energy Department – across government.
Think about that. Also, ISIS hasn’t gone anywhere, and remnants of al-Qaida haven’t gone anywhere. Now you add in the domestic terrorism threat where, since 9/11, radicalized right-wing terrorists have killed more people in this country than so-called Islamic terrorists. So right now Biden will come into a situation that’s unprecedented. In addition to the economic forces that he must deal with, in addition to Mother Nature in terms of this vile virus, he’s got to deal with all the national security threats that loom as well.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Peter, you were nodding there. Weigh in here to what Pierre is talking about, and to what’s at stake. The idea that this hack was – is now something that weren’t not even talking about because there’s so much other overwhelming news – tell me a little bit about that.
MR. BAKER: No, I think that’s exactly right, Pierre made exactly the right point. We are under attack from abroad as well as from at home. That is a perilous moment in our time. And it’s such an extraordinary thing that we’re not, as Pierre said, even talking about that cyberattack anymore, and the consequences of it, what should be done about it, what we know about it, we don’t know about it, you know, the ramifications of it. And they’re enormous. And we’re all – and we’re distracted from that. And we’re distracted too much even from the pandemic because of our own inability to get along with each other, inability to, you know, come together in common purpose against common enemies – whether they be nature or whether they be foreign adversaries.
And I think that that’s – that’s such a remarkable moment for a new president to come to office. I tried to think of what parallel there is, again, looking back at history. You obviously have President Obama come in at a pretty dicey moment with the economy on the edge 12 years ago and still two wars overseas. You think of Franklin Roosevelt coming into office at the height of Great Depression when the country was just on the edge of the abyss. You think of Lincoln coming into office with the country literally pulling apart. And the fact that we’re coming up with those parallels tells you just how profound this challenge really is.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Seung Min, from the White House, from Capitol Hill, you’re going to be seeing all of this play out, as Peter’s talking about, all of these different challenges. I wonder what you think about what we’re talking about here, and also what it means that now Democrats have all this power come 2021, come this year, with the Senate, the House, and the presidency in control of Democrats – in control of Democrats’ hands?
MS. KIM: I mean, there’s a lot of pent-up desire among lawmakers – among Democratic lawmakers to get stuff done that they’ve felt had been stymied for the past four years. And certainly the Democratic victory in the Georgia runoffs was huge. It gives – you know, it gives – we’re back to an all-Democratic Washington for the first time since 2009, as Senate Democrats have been out of the majority since 2014 and have had to deal with Mitch McConnell for the last six years. And now Chuck Schumer is in power.
But, you know, President-elect Joe Biden is still certainly going to face a lot of challenges. And we discussed earlier that coronavirus relief package, the nearly $2 trillion bill that the transition unveiled earlier today. That is not getting a lot of Republican support already on its face. You know, this is something – COVID relief just in – you know, just in principle. It theoretically should be something that is bipartisan, but the way that the transition had crafted it with some of the provisions that are in there, they’re complete nonstarters for Republicans.
So on his biggest legislative priority does President-elect Joe Biden, who campaigned on his – you know, on being a uniter, campaigned on his kind of Senate savvy and his relationship with Republicans – do they have – does he have to kind of go in a partisan manner right away on something that, you know, on previous iterations passed almost unanimously in the Congress, you know, when we were in the first throes of the pandemic? How, you know, an all-Democratic Washington navigates the fact that you still do need Republican buy-in on certain things will be a really fascinating dynamic to watch in the months to come.
MS. ALCINDOR: Definitely fascinating dynamics to watch. Many thanks to Peter, Geoff, Seung Min, and Pierre for their insight and analysis on this historic week. Make sure you sign up on for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.