ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to our Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Let’s keep that conversation from the show going, dig a little deeper into the Democratic convention, the week that was, and talk about what we should expect from the Republicans next week. Joining me are three of the best in the business: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Hallie Jackson, chief White House correspondent for NBC News and anchor of MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson; and Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Appreciate you all sticking around. Molly had to go, not because she didn’t want to stay, but we had to say goodbye to her truck, and that’s what we’re doing with the pandemic, the best we can. So before we jump in, however, here are some of the standout moments highlighting voters and activists during the Democrats’ big week. Let’s take a listen and catch up.
KRISTIN URQUIZA: (From video.) My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.
JACQUELYN BRITTANY: (From video.) But in the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me – that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him.
FORMER REPRESENTATIVE GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (D-AZ): (From video.) Words once came easily; today, I struggle to speak. But I have not lost my voice: America needs all of us to speak out even when you have to fight to find the words.
BRAYDEN HARRINGTON: (From video.) In the short amount of time, Joe Biden made me feel more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared.
MR. COSTA: Let’s start there. Beyond the big-name speeches, what did we learn about who the Democrats showcased and why that all mattered? Yamiche, when you watch and listen to those voices, they were not maybe the keynotes or the famous names, but they defined a Democratic convention in some ways that was trying to bring in everyday Americans.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think when the idea of a virtual convention was underway there were some people who were really nervous about what that would look like, and now I think, having talked to Democratic sources, we might not ever see a traditional convention in the way that we know them to be. I think that we’re going to now want to see and Democrats are going to want to show people real Americans who believe in their message. So there were so many moving moments there. There was a young man who was a 13-year-old, he’s from New Hampshire, who said Joe Biden helped him with his stuttering. There was Gabby Giffords delivering a speech – her longest speech, I’m told, former Representative Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head and still suffers a severe brain injury. There was the young girl who said her mother was deported to Mexico but that her father had voted for President Trump. There were so many people who were really telling their story and why they believe in Joe Biden. That was a shift from your regular normal convention speech, and I think that it worked in a lot of ways because they had time to tell the stories, there was motion, it was visual, and I think that that’s what – that the emotion that Democrats were going for they achieved.
I think that’s what we’re also going to see in some ways when it comes on the Republican side. We might not see the pre-produced videos, but we’re going to see people who are intended to pull at our heartstrings. I’m thinking about the fact that Joe – that President Trump often has family members who were killed by undocumented immigrants or family members who were killed in Chicago. He likes to also kind of pull at the heartstrings of people maybe in a different way, maybe in a more brash way, but I think that that’s what these conventions are going to be trying to do.
MR. COSTA: Hallie, you talked a little bit about that on the broadcast, bringing up the fact that President Trump’s a former TV producer. How is the White House thinking about responding to this Democratic convention in terms of the voices that have been showcased?
HALLIE JACKSON: Well, I think that’s an interesting sort of thing that they’re going to have to work on here because, Bob, you’re right, it is a TV production and the Democrats did it in a way that felt in some ways and at some points rather intimate, right, not just with those sort of everyday people that you just showed but also with, for example, Michelle Obama sitting in what looked like a living room – same thing with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, not delivering a speech in a big convention hall but just very one on one, right to camera. I think you’re going to try to see some of that connection in the Republican convention next week, although many of the elements will be live. You’re also going to see, Bob, from what I’ve been told by people that I’m talking to, more what has been described as audience engagement, and what that means is actual people in the audience. This is a president who feeds off the energy of others, and that is going to extend likely through at least a couple of nights at the convention for those keynote addresses from, for example, the first lady, who will deliver her speech from the Rose Garden, and the president on the South Lawn of the White House. I’m told he will have an audience. There will be COVID precautions taken and it will happen in what officials and advisors and aides have described as a safe way. The numbers are still sort of in flux – I’ve heard a big – a big variety of them – but there will be people there for the president to react to because that is where he gets his energy from, and that’s going to be I think a contrast point from the Democrats this time around.
MR. COSTA: Phil, when you step back and think about that point, the energy issue, a convention that’s virtual, it has a certain intimacy to it – you can seem like you’re in someone’s living room and speak to them directly – but you also perhaps lack the electricity that would come from a normal convention. Some of the aspects of the Democratic convention have been criticized by Democrats and Republicans for being very packaged. Is there a risk there politically in not having that live setting?
PHILIP RUCKER: You know, there certainly is a risk, but I think the Democratic organizers made a calculation here that it actually would help underscore and underpin the message that they were trying to communicate by having no crowd. You know, the absence of any applause during Senator Harris or Vice President Biden’s speeches, for example, just reinforced the reality that we’re living in a pandemic, and it was a – it was a constant reminder through those hours of primetime coverage at the Democratic convention that America is not normal right now, and of course their argument was that it didn’t have to be this way, that we should have handled this pandemic better, and that President Trump and his administration are to blame for it. And so the lack of that electricity and the lack of that crowd just made that reality so much more visceral for people, and I think it also, you know, was a way for the viewers to pay more attention to the substance of what was coming out of what the speakers were saying. There were no distractions onscreen. It’s not like you could look at the funny hat somebody was wearing in the crowd or no applause line that you would stop and pay attention to the applause on; you were really having to listen.
MR. COSTA: Let’s listen to a speech that we didn’t get to in the broadcast, from former First Lady Michelle Obama on Monday.
FORMER FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: (From video.) Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. So if you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, there is power in having Mrs. Obama give that address. She’s not going to likely be able to be on the campaign trail too much this year, so that was a signature moment for her. What does your reporting tell you about how the Biden campaign worked with the Obamas on this convention and Mrs. Obama’s – her ability to reach different voters in the party?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, Michelle Obama is someone who has constantly said she hates politics, but she’s also someone who constantly also shows that she’s really good at politics and good at connecting with everyday Americans. So Joe Biden’s campaign understands that they have – they have a real asset in Michelle Obama, so they’re leaning on their personal relationships with Michelle Obama and with the Obamas in general to try to make the case that they should be out kind of really making the case that Joe Biden is a decent man, that they know Joe Biden, and that he can be entrusted with the future of the democracy in America. I think her speech was interesting because it came on the first night of the convention, and what she was doing there was not only talking about the fact that she thought – that she thought President Trump was not qualified; she was also making the case that Americans need to get ready for a fight when it comes to voting. She said pack your lunch, have comfortable shoes, if you can go in person go in person because this might be a hard time to vote. So she was really preparing people mentally for the idea that you might have to push to actually get to vote, which is something that I think Democrats have been gearing up for. It’s this idea that if the mail systems and the Postal Service might be too late, if the mail’s going to be slow, if President Trump as he said this week is going to be sending law enforcement to polling stations as he threatened to do this week, that people are going to have to be ready to stand in line for hours, and it’s going to be a real problem, and they need to think about who they’re voting for, and as a result you have people thinking about in the Democrats putting out Michelle Obama as kind of the face of reminding people continue to be – to stay in line, continue to be encouraged, and be prepared for a fight.
MR. COSTA: And, Hallie, I want to come back also to President Obama. We talked about it in the show, but for a former president to step out like he did and call out the incumbent president of the United States and say he’s essentially a threat to the future of the country, how is that taken inside of this West Wing, where President Obama is already seen in such a negative light?
MS. JACKSON: Well, first – so, first of all, let me take that in two parts, Bob, because it is important to note just how extraordinary that was, as you point out. I spoke with Robert Gibbs this week, who Phil, I’m sure, and Yamiche remember from the Obama administration. And he said that he watched that speech the night it was given, replayed it multiple times after 1:00 a.m., and was actually kind of surprised by it, because we so rarely hear not just President Obama speak in those kinds of terms, right, somebody who made his name at his first convention speech, and in fact in his run for presidency, on the themes of hope and unity, delivering such a stark and severe warning – a ferocious warning about the perils of a Trump administration. But because of the historical nature of it, right? A former president attacking, in essence, and warning about his immediate successor in such a way.
The second piece of this, how is this being received, President Trump – you have to remember, the night that President Obama gave that speech, President Trump pre-butted it, in essence, right, because we had had some excepts and reporters had known sort of a little bit of what Barack Obama was going to say. And President Trump’s line was: Barack Obama’s failures are the reason why I’m in the White House. And I’m paraphrasing that, but I think that’s what you can expect to see and hear. And that is how it’s being received by President Trump. The idea that if Barack Obama had been, in his view, a better president, then Hillary Clinton would have won, and not Donald Trump. And so that is sort of where the president’s head is at on this. You have to know, though, it gets under his skin.
He is somebody who was, I’m told, and our team – my reporting with my colleague Monica Alba was told that the president was extremely engaged in the DNC. He was talking with aides and advisors about the different speeches, the different moments. He was live-tweeting pieces and responses to Barack Obama’s speech as well, Bob. Just to give you a sense of sort of how tuned in and dialed in he was on that.
MR. COSTA: Phil, what are you hearing about all that?
MR. RUCKER: Well, that’s exactly right. And there’s one thing to keep in mind about Obama. You know, he has been – Trump has been, in a way, haunted by Obama throughout his presidency, in part because Obama this entire time has been a more popular figure with the American people. Yes, he’s a Democrat. Yes, he is seen by many Americans through a partisan lens. But he is – you know, a majority of Americans approve of Obama, they like Obama. He is respected – Michelle Obama even more so. And those are approval ratings that Trump has never had in public office or as a politician in 2016. And so, you know, he always wants to win, right, to one-up his rivals. And Obama is this one Democrat that Trump has never really been able to surpass in that popularity metric.
MR. COSTA: Before we go, I would love to ask each one of you one more question. How did you cover all of this in the past week? Were you in your living room on your laptop? I mean, these are usually the ultimate reporting events for all of us. These are the gatherings where you see your sources face-to-face. Yamiche?
MS. ALCINDOR: I watched it on my couch with a phone and iPad, a laptop, and a camera because I was doing live hits for PBS NewsHour. So I was juggling multiple devices while also demanding food from my husband.
MR. COSTA: And what was it like, Yamiche? Did you miss being at an actual arena, sitting in the bowels of an arena mingling with sources? Or could you be a little bit more focused this time around?
MS. ALCINDOR: No, I miss – I miss the convention. I miss the idea that you see colleagues, that you get to see everyday Americans walking around talking about why they wanted to be delegates. I miss the idea of being in a room where you can read the room and understand kind of what’s going on and how excited certain people are. I miss the idea of going around and interviewing protesters and talking to people about why they’re against it. I remember very fondly my time in Cleveland covering the RNC. Being really – I was really interested and got really, really interested in covering Ohio in particular at the time my fiance was living in Ohio. So I spent literally a month there reporting.
And it was interesting to be able to kind of dive in and be a local reporter for a month. And we just didn’t get that this time around. Instead what we got was obviously a new experience, a virtual experience. But it was a little sad. It also underscored this moment that we’re living in, that we aren’t able to see our friends. That I’m not able to see you. That I’m not able to congratulate Hallie on her beautiful baby, and be able to hug her and say, I’m excited for you. Like, those are the things that missed when I was covering it.
MR. COSTA: Hallie, I’m thinking back to 2016. Yamiche brought up Cleveland. I remember seeing you tracking Paul Manafort and Rick Gates with your crew. That was a different time. And how was it this week for you, Hallie, to come back from maternity leave in the middle of a virtual convention?
MS. JACKSON: (Laughs.) Well, I’ll tell you, boy was it different, Bob, in a lot of ways. You know, I think back to what I thought this week was going to be, right, initially when we were going off on leave was – before the pandemic was the pandemic – I was thinking, OK, well we’ll go to Charlotte. And we’ll spend a week in Charlotte with my partner and the baby. And we’ll all road trip down together. And then it was, OK, well we’ll spend a week in Jacksonville. We’ll all road trip this week and go down together. And we’ll be in the hotel room, and we’ll do some sort of, you know, balcony setup thing. And then it turned into, I’ll be in my basement and, you know, Frank and the baby will be upstairs, and I’ll be hanging out down here. So it is certainly not what you expect.
I think that part of the energy from conventions is not just seeing sources. It’s also, as Yamiche talked about, seeing delegates too. I have some of my best memories of just having conversations with folks who made the trip, right? People from all around the country who were there to support their candidate, who are involved and engaged in politics. And that is always, like, a very interesting scene and a very interesting conversation. In addition to the coffees and the, you know, after-hours events that you go and sort of talk with people at. Next week is going to be a little bit different. There at least are events that are sort of out there. So I’ll be on the road for that a little bit. But it is a weird moment to be a political journalist. But then again, it’s kind of a weird moment to be an American.
MR. COSTA: Well said. Phil Rucker?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, you know, I agree with everything that Yamiche and Hallie said, although I didn’t have the baby upstairs. No baby here. (Laughs.) But, you know, the one thing I miss too about these conventions – and people should understand this – for journalists covering them they are not at all glamorous. They’re hard work. They’re really long hours. We stay in hotels that are far outside the city, because the nicest hotels downtown go to the delegates of the convention and the donors and the campaign officials and the candidates’ families. And we’re out in, like, a Hampton Inn in the, you know, exurbs 45 minutes away. (Laughter.)
But there’s so much comradery with our colleagues. I mean, Bob, we would have been there with probably 50 other Washington Post reporters and editors, and we would have been working in a makeshift workspace, huddling in the morning to come up with story ideas and sharing tips all throughout the day to figure out what we’re going to be reporting for the website and for the next day’s paper. And you know, this time it was totally in isolation, just sitting at home watching the television with the laptop and an iPad open.
MR. COSTA: Phil, I remember in Philadelphia four years ago we were all sitting there, The Washington Post team, at our hotel – tiny room hotel, which was a fine hotel, nothing against it – and we were watching President Trump – then candidate Trump – talk directly to Russia during a news conference.
MR. RUCKER: We were. We did, he had – (inaudible) – ask a question, yeah.
MR. COSTA: And all the editors are looking around saying: Did he just ask Russia to get involved in the election? Indeed, he did. Well, Phil, any thoughts on that just to wrap us up?
MR. RUCKER: (Laughs.) He did. And little did we know that day in Philadelphia that that was going to be the quote that would probably get the most airtime for the next four years on MSNBC and everywhere else. So we were witnessing history, even if we didn’t realize it in the moment.
MR. COSTA: OK. We will leave it there for tonight. Many thanks, again, to Yamiche, Hallie, and Phil for your time and insights on this busy week. We’ll be following your reporting all next week at PBS NewsHour, NBC News. Hallie will be part of that coverage, and Phil, on everything with The Washington Post. Thank you, again.
And we will have more next week on that GOP convention with Washington Week. So make sure to sign up for our newsletter on our website. We’ll give you all you need to know from the Washington Week world as we settle in for this peak political season. You’ll get a weekly note, a little letter from me too every Friday. Lot to cover, a lot of fun ahead. Stay tuned. I’m Robert Costa. Good night.