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#WashWeekPBS full episode: President Trump defends his administration’s COVID-19 response

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ROBERT COSTA: The virus surges, Congress stalls, and the election heats up. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They are dying, that’s true, and you – it is what it is. COSTA: President Trump pushes ahead, clashing with experts as the White House is locked in a standoff over virus relief. HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The Republicans and the president do not understand the gravity of the situation, and every time we meet with them it is reinforced. COSTA: And the campaign turns vicious. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He’s against God. He’s against guns. COSTA: As the former vice president readies his own VP pick, next. ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa. COSTA: Good evening. As this brutal health and economic crisis carries on, millions of Americans are looking at tight budgets for rent and for groceries, and they’re closely watching Congress. They want to know if the $600 federal unemployment supplement which expired last week will be extended, but the answer remains TBD.

Talking to my sources tonight, it’s clear House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is committed to fully restoring the weekly benefit at $600 and she’s waiting for the president to blink. But his emissary in the negotiations, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, is holding firm too, and the president told reporters just minutes ago that he will take executive action instead. That go-it-alone approach up on Pennsylvania Avenue, it extends to the virus. The president spoke with Axios’ Jonathan Swan and the interview revealed his mindset. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think it’s under control. I’ll tell you what – JONATHAN SWAN: (From video.) How? A thousand Americans are dying a day. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They are dying, that’s true, and you – it is what it is, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can.

It’s under control as much as you can control it. COSTA: And here is their exchange on the death rate. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, right here the United States is lowest in numerous categories. We’re lower than the world. SWAN: (From video.) Lower than the world? PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re lower than Europe.

SWAN: (From video.) In what? In what? PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Take a look. Right here. Here’s case deaths. SWAN: (From video.) Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well – SWAN: (From video.) Much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You can’t – you can’t do that. You have to go – SWAN: (From video.) Why can’t I do that? COSTA: Joining us is Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios; Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN; Lisa Desjardins, congressional correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Robert Draper, writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and author of To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq. Jonathan, what did you learn from the interview about how the president is handling the virus? SWAN: Well, the president, much before he went into political life, was an adherent to a philosophy called positive thinking.

This was this idea popularized by Christian minister Norman Vincent Peale that if you believe something – if you visualize something, you know, it can come true even if it bears no resemblance to current reality. It’s a perfectly harmless self-help philosophy when applied to commercial real estate and reality TV, and maybe it’s even helpful, but it’s the first time in history it’s ever been applied to a deadly pandemic. And I think what you see in that clip is the president trying to use the techniques of salesmanship and publicity that he’s used successfully his whole life, and for the first time in his political life running up against an exogenous force that he can’t use his usual rhetorical skills to – you know, to deflect. He’s just stubbornly running into this virus again and again and again, and you even see him try to spin the death toll, which is – which is unspinnable, frankly. COSTA: Jonathan, just a quick follow up: Is he going to keep his hard line amid these congressional talks? He just spoke minutes ago in Bedminster, New Jersey about taking executive action. SWAN: Look, when I talked to people in the White House, they were foreshadowing this executive action as something that was going to be used to try and force Democrats to either oppose it or come to the table and negotiate.

They’re very, very frustrated that Democrats aren’t really moving off of their huge demands for state and local funding. I actually don’t know where this ends. We’re not talking about small differences here; we’re talking about a $3 trillion gap between the Republican position and the Democrat position. And look, I think if Donald Trump was left to his own devices without the Republican pressure he’d be happy to do a pretty big deal with the Democrats, but the fact is there is significant Republican pressure on the Hill which is being represented in the room by the chief of staff, Mark Meadows.

COSTA: Lisa, you’re on Capitol Hill. Is there also pressure on Speaker Pelosi? LISA DESJARDINS: I think Speaker Pelosi actually feels like she has a strong hand. And I’ll tell you, Bob, talking to Republican sources, when they speak honestly, they also believe she has a strong hand because, as you just heard from Jonathan, Republicans are divided. They’ve got former Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows pushing from the conservative side, worried about Mnuchin giving up too much to Pelosi. You know, I’ve heard Republicans from high-ranking offices here call Mnuchin the Pelosi whisperer; now they’re worried that it goes the other way. So you know, I think that, you know, Pelosi, if Republicans are calculating that she’s going to be under pressure soon because of the expired unemployment benefits, I think they’ve got a long time to wait.

COSTA: Abby, the congressional talks, they have real-world consequences. Here is part of your report on Pamela Frink, a single mom in Georgia who was laid off from her job. PAMELA FRINK: (From video.) So now that I have the fear – (laughs) – or the knowing that it will end soon it’s kind of like, OK, so now what do I do to be able to maintain my livelihood? ABBY PHILLIP: (From video.) Her message to lawmakers? PAMELA FRINK: (From video.) Please don’t make us go back to being able to possibly call a shelter because we can’t afford to pay our rent for this month or the next two months. COSTA: Abby, are lawmakers listening? PHILLIP: You know, I think that it’s hard to see how on the Republican side some of this is breaking through because they’re really focused on this idea that the unemployment benefits are discouraging people from working.

But Pamela is a great example of what is facing a lot of Americans. She had multiple jobs before the coronavirus in order to make ends meet. She has lost one of them, and that job, with a major sports arena, is likely not coming back for quite some time. She also has a 6-year-old daughter that she is a single mom of, and without the $600 check she is not able to make her rent. So there’s a reality out there that while, yes, you want to push people to go back into the workforce, move toward reopening, much of the country is not there yet. People like Pamela are still waiting for help, and I think they don’t understand this idea of being stuck on some of these ideological battles, like, for example, the issue of state and local funding that is holding up the negotiations on Capitol Hill. That’s why Nancy Pelosi, I think, feels so confident. It’s because some of these debates are not going to resonate with Americans who are simply trying to pay their rent, they’re tying to pay for groceries, they’re trying to take care of their kids, and they’re feeling totally overwhelmed by all of that.

COSTA: And that all looms over this campaign, Robert. You’ve written a book before To Start a War – I love the title – Do Not Ask What Good We Do. It’s all about House conservatives, and Mark Meadows was one of those House conservatives that you covered. What does your – what does your read – your reporting tell you about Meadows and his position right now in this negotiation? ROBERT DRAPER: Well, Bob, you were on the Hill back then, too, in 2011, when I was reporting out that book on the House, and you’re probably experiencing flashbacks like I am – the same old thing, that Pelosi is able to hold her caucus together while the Republicans remain fractured. There’s an important distinction, though, between then and now, and that distinction is the participation of the president himself. During the debt ceiling deals and all the – President Obama was very much involved, and when at times it didn’t work for him to be involved he would deputize Biden to do so, and one could count on Biden not only being – you know, acting in good faith on behalf of the president, but more importantly that the president himself would do nothing to upset the process.

That, I think, is the X factor here. The question mark is – that looms over really any negotiation where the president has some tangential involvement, as he does now from Bedminster, New Jersey, from his golf club, is, will he blow the whole thing up with some obnoxious tweet that will – that will either pull Republicans away or completely alienate the Democrats? I mean, he remains, as he always is, despite his reputation that I think he sort of confected himself of being this amazing transactionalist, the X factor.

COSTA: Jonathan, jump in here. At the end of the day, is the president going to let Meadows continue to lead these talks, or is he going to let Secretary Mnuchin cut a deal with the speaker like we saw months ago? SWAN: You know, it’s hard to make predictions. But if one was to base it on previous behavior, one would expect that he moves more in the Mnuchin direction because, frankly, Donald Trump wants there to be another round of stimulus checks going out to Americans with his name written on them. He wants there to be a big, fat bunch of liquidity injected into the economy to give him a nice run through to the election. He’s not particularly concerned about the debt and deficit, as we’ve seen for three and a half years in which, you know, even before COVID the debt was mounting, mounting, mounting. Yes, he’s frustrated he doesn’t want to give a bunch of money, a trillion dollars, to Democrat states that he believes were poorly run. Yes, there are things that he disagrees with. But if you’re asking whether he’s philosophically closer to Meadows or Mnuchin on this, it’s not a close call: It’s Mnuchin.

The question I have is, what will McConnell tolerate? What will Republicans on the Hill tolerate? And that, to me, is the real question mark. COSTA: Lisa, what’s your answer to that question? DESJARDINS: You know, I think that at this point the issue is again with those Republicans and what can they tolerate, exactly what Jonathan said. I reported earlier this week and was happy when Leader McConnell publicly certified that he has 20 senators that are rebels, that he doesn’t have on board any one plan. So when you talk about this huge divide that Jonathan’s mentioned – you know, 1 trillion (dollars) for the White House on this package, 3.4 trillion (dollars) initially for Democrats, you know, that $2 trillion – Bob, that’s usually how much money they have to spend for all of government in a year. So it’s a massive gap.

Democrats have now made an offer that they’re getting closer to 2 trillion (dollars). Republicans say it’s kind of fuzzy math. But at this point in the standoff – let’s just talk about timeline and be honest here – you know, it looks like we need at least another week, if they decide to come back to discuss things. And that puts us right up against some other big politics, like the Democratic kind of virtual non-convention that’s just now almost a week away. COSTA: No, that’s very true. And, Abby, you track not only the presidential campaign but Senate races.

Could you see some Republican senators, or Democratic senators, making some noise in the coming days to get a deal done because of the pressure that looms with the campaign? PHILLIP: Yeah, absolutely, but especially some Republican senators. I mean, they’re really under pressure in some of these states to be responsive to the pandemic, and the economic pain that people are feeling. And they’re being dragged down by the president and his poor approval ratings overall on his handling of this. So I definitely think, first of all, Senate Democrats are already there. I mean, they are already eager to get something done because with their constituents there’s no debate about this. But I think increasingly outside of some of the most conservative Republicans, who are not going to fall in line with McConnell, there are going to be others, especially more moderate ones and those who are up for reelection, who are going to start to make some noise, because this is a bad look politically.

It’s a bad look going in so close to the election. We’re three months away at this point. Nobody wants to be in a position where they’re holding money for the American public hostage to basically political maneuvering. COSTA: Robert, just to finish up this part of the discussion, any final thoughts? DRAPER: Only this, I don’t think that it’s helpful for the president to do as he has, to threaten an executive order basically, as you were mentioning at the top, to go it alone. It’s not feasible. It’s probably not legal. And in any event, it’s only just going to create more political ill will. COSTA: I know we started with Congress, Lisa’s favorite beat, but this was an important week on Abby’s and the others, the campaign trail. We are just days away from former VP Biden announcing his running mate.

Several top Democrats tell me former Ambassador Susan Rice, Senator Kamala Harris, and Representative Karen Bass are still in the hunt. But they say VP Biden is saying little, even to friends, about the decision. The eventual pick, however, won’t get that big arena crowd to welcome them. The Democratic convention is, as we discussed, going virtual. And Mr. Biden will now accept the nomination from Delaware. And President Trump, he’s considering accepting the nomination from the White House.

The president’s message, meanwhile, is getting pointed and personal as he tries to catch up to Biden in the polls and shore up his base. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He’s going to do things that nobody ever would ever think even possible, because he’s following the radical left agenda. Take away your guns. Destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God. He’s against God. He’s against guns. COSTA: Mr. Biden responded by calling Trump’s attacks, quote, “shameful” and said his own Catholic faith is “a bedrock foundation of my life.” Jonathan, I watched that and I wondered, why is he attacking Joe Biden on faith? Is it because the Republicans are worried about that Evangelical support? SWAN: It’s more that they’re very frustrated that Biden is simply not as despised as Hillary Clinton was at this point in 2016. When the Trump campaign advisors look at the polling one of the metrics they pay very close attention to is the very unfavorable number, the number that shows intensity of dislike towards the candidate.

Hillary Clinton’s was in the 40s. Biden’s usually in the 20s. They’re trying to drive up that number. They know that in many of these states, these battleground states, Donald Trump may not get to 50 percent. So in order to win, they need to make Biden unacceptable. They need to – for these voters who aren’t choosing between Trump and Biden, they’re choosing between Biden and maybe a third party, they need to make Biden unacceptable to those voters.

So you’re seeing them go all-in on these attacks to basically – they don’t think it’s believable to make Joe Biden this evil, maniacal figure. They don’t think that voters will buy that. What they do think voters will buy, and they’re seeing some evidence in their private polling, is that Biden can be portrayed as this mentally incapacitated vessel to be filled with the greatest excesses of the far left. So that’s what they’re trying to do with Biden strategically. COSTA: Abby, what’s your latest reporting on the VP search because, to Jonathan’s points, that pick will say a lot about how this campaign unfolds for the rest of the summer and fall.

PHILLIP: Well, I do think that the pick is going to play a role in some of this, especially because some of the arguments that the Trump campaign is trying to use against Biden is designed to target Biden’s support among African American voters. They want to chip away as much as they can at that support, even if we’re talking just a percentage point here or there, because they think that it could make the difference, and it did in 2016 in states like Michigan and elsewhere in the – in the Midwest. So that’s the objective. And Biden is now choosing between several women, many of whom are Black women. And that list that you mentioned at the top, Bob, is also what I’m hearing. Three of them – three Black women among the choices being considered. And one of my colleagues, Jeff Zeleny, this week reporting that Megan – Gretchen Whitmer – I apologize – Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan is also still in the running. So you’re looking at three Black women who could potentially help Biden shore up Black supporters, to some extent, although I do think that particularly when we talk about Susan Rice, the choice there is less about issues of race and more about issues of ability to govern.

And that is actually where Biden wants to be. He wants to make this a referendum on how President Trump is managing the federal government and its response to the pandemic. COSTA: Robert. Can you jump in on that? You’ve done extensive reporting on Ambassador Rice and Vice President Biden’s foreign policy. What would a Rice pick reveal about a Biden presidency? DRAPER: Well, I think just as Abby said, that it would reveal a comfort level and a leaning into the notion of this is what governance would look like. But I actually want to argue the counter of this. The vice president has every right and should be factoring into who his running mate is how personally comfortable he is with them, how well they will govern, and for that matter who will excite the base. But you know, as we were referencing before with this portrayal that the Trump campaign is doing, I mean making no bones about it is basically brain-dead Manchurian candidate, that Biden is, is a reminder that this is likely to be the most brutal presidential campaign in modern memory, if not in all of American history.

And I say this not as a statement of opinion, but as a statement of fact, that there’s very little, if anything, that President Trump won’t say or do to win. I bring up – yeah, go ahead, Bob. COSTA: Well, is Ambassador Rice ready for that political firestorm? DRAPER: That’s my point. She, of course, has never been in a national campaign, a campaign of any sort. But for that matter, neither has Congresswoman Bass, who for all of her other virtues when she first ran for Congress in 2010 won with something like 80 or 81 percent of the vote. She’s never really had a contested race. So there is a big question, even in the sort of virtual campaign season, of who’s going to be able to take a punch in this very, very bruising campaign battle. COSTA: Lisa, you cover House Democrats.

Where does Representative Bass stand with her friends and allies on Capitol Hill? DESJARDINS: Well, I’ll tell you, one of her biggest allies is a woman we have talked about before, Nancy Pelosi. You and I both know that Nancy Pelosi likes to ring in on major policy affecting Democrats. She sees herself as a national mind for them. And I don’t have reporting that she is – that she is doing this, but it seems easy to believe that she is lobbying for Karen Bass. She is a strong ally. I’ll also say over here on the Senate side everybody reading the tea leaves. I mean, these senators really have had nothing to do all week because – (laughter) – they’ve been waiting for these talks, so everyone’s talking about the VP pick. And something I think worth bringing up with Kamala Harris is, of course, that she is someone who was friends with Beau Biden when they were both state attorneys general.

NewsHour, Judy Woodruff asked Jill Biden this week what they’re looking for in a VP pick. Everyone knows Jill and Joe Biden consult with each other. Jill Biden said the number-one thing they’re looking for is trust. After that, she said, I guess experience and wisdom. But that idea of a former relationship of trust could be very important, whether it’s Susan Rice, Kamala Harris, or not. But I think as you’ve heard, he’s thinking about these deeper issues; he’s not thinking about which state he is going to win, it doesn’t seem. COSTA: We’re spending a lot of time doing this VP reporting and there’s only so much you can do sometimes because it’s so fluid. Jonathan, there’s other big news today with foreign interference conclusions by national counterintelligence officials – Russia trying to interfere once again, China perhaps they say interfering or thinking about interfering, leaning against President Trump. What’s the White House’s response? SWAN: Great question, which I’m trying to find that out.

The Trump campaign put out a response saying we don’t need, you know, help, you know, from anyone, et cetera, et cetera. The administration has been leaning in on China. They’ve made it very much a China focus and they’ve tried to elevate China as the great threat, you know, in multiple dimensions, but certainly in terms of election interference. They’ve tried to make sure that China is the first, you know, country that we think of when we think of election inference. But this – look, this is a finding that is inconvenient for Donald Trump. When I was with him I guess it was two weeks ago now and I asked him about – asked him about Russia, he still – as soon as you use the word Russia, it doesn’t even matter what the context is.

The context I was asking him about was the intelligence that Russia is paying bounties to the Taliban; he calls it a hoax. He just – it’s like a – it’s like a codeword. As soon as he hears Russia, it’s hoax, hoax, hoax, and he puts it all together in the same basket with Mueller and Adam Schiff and collusion. So I can’t imagine that he’s particularly receptive to that intelligence, though I don’t have reporting on how he’s reacted specifically to it. COSTA: Robert, quickly, you have long reported on the national security apparatus. This isn’t a hoax; it’s serious stuff. DRAPER: It is a serious stuff, but notice that – the statement put out by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. I mean, they list first China, then Russia, then Iran, as if conflating them, saying that Russia favors Trump but China and – China and Iran favor Biden, so it’s kind of a wash electorally, maybe even advantage Biden, and this is really not the proper way to be looking at it.

It is well understood among intelligence officials that Russia enjoys primacy in terms of election meddling. China and Iran can’t even come close, and for that matter China is really doing an influence campaign – meaning they’re paying state and local officials, they’re throwing up propaganda, but they are not actually tampering with our infrastructure. They are really not able to affect the integrity of our electoral system the way Russia can, so they don’t belong in the same breath. COSTA: Lisa, in 30 seconds, what’s the reaction on Capitol Hill? DESJARDINS: Right, Democrats do feel like that’s a false equivalence that’s a problem. But one thing that’s important here, Bob, is that there’s real concern on Capitol Hill that this topic, a very serious topic of election security, is getting too political, so it was important that we saw the Republican and Democrat ranking members for the Senate Intelligence Committee to try and come out with a unified statement when things are very rocky on this issue behind closed doors. COSTA: And Abby, finally, how are Democrats, the Biden campaign responding to this? PHILLIP: Well, of course, I think the Biden campaign has been asking for this kind of information for some time now.

They’ve been very public about their concern that there is foreign election interference and Joe Biden personally has said that this is the issue that keeps him up at night. So you can imagine that they’re concerned about the parts of this that affect them, but I do think that you’re also going to hear more from Democrats about what Lisa and Robert talked about, which is why this statement seemed to create an equivalence between what China is doing or not doing and what Russia is doing, particularly because the statement made it clear China has a preference for President Trump but it didn’t give any indication that they are acting on that in the same way that Russia is. COSTA: Well, we have to leave it there my friends. Many thanks, though, to Jonathan Swan, Abby Phillip, Lisa Desjardins, and Robert Draper for coming by and sharing your reporting. It’s appreciated.

And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. On our Extra we’ll have Robert stick around to talk about his new book. It’s a deep dive on the Bush years and Iraq. Lots to discuss. Find it on our social media or on our website. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington..

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