'Face the Nation' Panel: Trump's Tweets on Baltimore and Elijah Cummings, Democratic Debates

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CBS NEWS: Michael Crowley, Eliana Johnson, Joel Payne and Ed O’Keefe discuss President Trump's tweets attacking Rep. Elijah Cummings and his district in Baltimore.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We now turn to our political panel for some analysis. Michael Crowley is a White House correspondent for The New York Times, Eliana Johnson covers the White House for Politico, Joel Payne is a Democratic strategist and he appears frequently on our digital network CBSN and Ed O'Keefe also appears frequently on all CBS networks. We keep him very busy. He is our political correspondent here at CBS News. Joel, I want to start with you. The President sent thirteen tweets in twenty-four hours about Congressman Elijah Cummings. It changes the news cycle. It forces the question to be asked of all Democratic candidates how they respond. What does this mean politically on the campaign trail when the conversation comes back to these divisive issues that are often perceived as being about race?



JOEL PAYNE (Democratic Strategist/@paynedc): Well, certainly distractive, and I think it forces all of the candidates to, you know, kind of have this come-to-Jesus moment about whether or not the President is racist. That's the question that everybody likes to ask, which I actually think it's rather obvious. You can, kind of, look into the President's soul when you look at his-- at his Twitter platform or his Twitter-- Twitter stream. But the bigger point here is the President is talking about things that normally are reserved for, you know, things that the far-flung reaches of the party. People who are political advisors who are nameless like Lee Atwater or regional politicians like Jesse Helms. We, really, in the modern era have not had a President who's spoken like this. And the challenge it creates for Democrats, particularly, when you're looking at things like impeachment and when you are looking at all of the other things that the Democratic Party is contending with is whether or not they are going to challenge this President in the way that's going to be satiating to their base.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ed, does it replicate in some way this conversation from 2016 about labeling people? The deplorables moment is what I am thinking about with Hillary Clinton when the conversation turns to the President's language being racist. Do people internalize that and say, well, I'm with him because I think I am being called a racist?

ED O'KEEFE (CBS News Political Correspondent/@edokeefe): Oh, yeah. Totally. And that's-- and that's the risk they run in spending too much time talking about the President's words and intent, and it's why so many of these Democratic presidential candidates just like Democratic lawmakers and Republican lawmakers for that matter are frustrated by this because they don't want to necessarily have to answer for everything he says. And that is going to be-- continued to be the real challenge for Democrats out there. Do you talk about him and what he is doing and saying, what he is trying to do and say or do you try to focus on what you would be for if you are the Democratic nominee. It worked for Democrats last year running for Congress. Let's see if Democrats running for President can-- can remain just as focused on everything else with whatever he is doing, sort of, being the constant that's always there, the elephant in the room that everybody knows about. And-- and it's real-- it's real tricky. We've seen some frustration from some of these candidates. I still remember what Amy Klobuchar said a few weeks ago, "He does this to distract you," and she pointed at reporters from talking about the issues we are trying to raise on the trail--health care, educational funding, you know, all these other issues. And she has a point.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-Hm. Eliana, how is the Trump campaign feeling about all of this? I mean we had some economic numbers this week. You saw GDP actually come down, it's about 2.1 percent less than many had predicted. Is there some softening or is there a reason for worry that would cause the need for a distraction or is this just the President popping off?

ELIANA JOHNSON (Politico/@elianayjohnson): Look, the-- the one single thing that could really cause alarm in the Trump campaign is a downturn in the economy. A one-off statistic, economic downturn over one month is not enough cause for alarm but a persistent trend in that direction certainly is. So we're not there, yet. I don't think you can link it to the President's comments. However, I do think the President's comments are something of a strategy. They serve dual purposes. The comments directed at Cummings are (a) a pushback on oversight. They originated from an African-American Republican operative appearing on Fox News in a discussion about Elijah Cummings' role in Oversight of what's happening at the border. So the President is saying this, Oversight is illegitimate and it's also a way to animate both his base and part of a sort of long shot attempt to gin up African-American voters by saying this person who served in Congress for over three decades is more focused on investigating the President than he is on serving his own district. That's, at the very least, the argument that the President is making.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And what is happening inside the White House around this? Michael, I mean you heard the chief of staff saying none of this is racist. He understands why it's being--

MICHAEL CROWLEY (The New York Times/@michaelcrowley): Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --interpreted that way but it's the President rejecting, basically, he says illegitimate attempts at Oversight?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Yeah. Well, I think it's very reactive as has been the case throughout the Trump presidency. We know, specifically, on the tweets about AOC and Ilhan Omar, and The Squad a week or two ago that white-- White House aides did not see those tweets coming. I don't know, specifically, about the Cummings' tweets; and there was a plan to try to get the President to dial them back and to say that they had been misinterpreted. Then ,instead, the President doubled down. And to the extent that the White House was trying to put some kind of a strategy around these tweets, the President didn't want to follow it. So I think as we've seen throughout this presidency, Trump is there, basically in the residence, frequently Eliana with a useful reminder watching Fox News, responding to Fox News that you almost can't exact-- overstate how much his public commentary is driven by what he is seeing on Fox & Friends, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity Show. It's just an astounding phenomenon. And his aides are just trying to kind of reverse engineer from the tweets that they see, what did he mean, what's the strategy here, and then when they try to put some kind of strategy together for the second day the President ignores it.

JOEL PAYNE: Can-- can I add, too. You know, I think that there is this popular thought that this is a part of some supercharge strategy, the strategy to supercharge the base, to get the President's base excited. I don't know if the proof is there for that. You know I looked at a recent Fox poll that said he had an eighty-seven-percent approval rating with Republicans. I looked at Mitt Romney's approval rating from 2012 when he was-- he was the Republican standard-bearer. He was also at eighty-seven percent. So I don't know if there is any proof that this Republican Party is more loyal to Donald Trump than other Republicans have been. I think there is standard loyalty to the Republican standard-bearer. But I don't know if this strategy is working and it's actually pushing away moderates, it's pushing away swing voters, and you've seen three House Republican retirements this week. I wonder how much that's linked to the President's language of late.

ELIANA JOHNSON: I think there's some truth to that. You know I-- I don't think there's strategy but I think there's instinct with Trump. And I think his-- his instincts are often politically savvy. And I think your point on Romney misses something in that Romney was a conventional Republican who Republicans, the party followed to do conventional things. And I think the thing that's caught people's attention about Trump is that the Republican Party has followed him and stuck behind him to far more unconventional outrages, places that I think the country never really thought that the party and politicians would follow somebody who had never been in politics before.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ed, tell me where the Democratic Party is headed this week with this round of debates?

ED O'KEEFE: It's-- it's a big moment. I think anyone who doesn't think these things matter should look at surveys taken in the last month since the first debates. Were we talking as much about Julian Castro or Kamala Harris a month ago before those debates? No. They had very good performances. Were the doubts about Elizabeth Warren's viability still there? Yes. And there-- they've been somewhat diminished because of the powerful performance she gave. So you have two interesting setups this week. You have to focus on the two people at the middle of the stage probably most of all. Tuesday night Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, essentially, you know, brothers and sisters in arms when it comes to sort of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the ideas they're trying to push. Do they go after each other? And how much incoming do they take from the lesser known moderates on stage with them that are trying to break into that top tier and hoping that they get a moment that buys them time in the September. And then, of course, Wednesday night, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, round two, those of us who watched politics will pop extra popcorn for that one probably because you wonder where that goes. The other X factor in that, of course, is Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator who still can't find any traction but continues to be the guy that starts fights with the vice president and-- and sort of forces conversation about some issues from the veep's past. So, definitely a critical moment. And, remember, the stakes are raised now going from July to September.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-Hm.

ED O'KEEFE: You got to hit higher, the polling threshold's higher, fundraising thresholds. So those that are struggling have to use Tuesday or Wednesday night to make that happen.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Joel, did having special counsel Robert Mueller testify this week backfire for Democrats?

JOEL PAYNE: I think that's going to be a popular thought. And, you know, listen-- that old thing if you listen to a debate on the radio you-- you might think that Democrats won on the points, but if you watched it in this era of Trump politics, this political theater the special counsel did not necessarily perform quite as well. I think the real takeaway for me is that the second happiest person in Washington after the President might be Speaker Pelosi. And it's because her thought, her way of approaching impeachment probably wins out the week because now her caucus is a little bit more chastened in terms of their thought about moving forward with impeachment. We even saw Adam Schiff earlier this week said that it's very likely the only way to remove the President from office is at the ballot box not through impeachment and I think that that's significant for the speaker.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Eliana, there were some reporting in the Washington Post writing about Robert Mueller who is seventy-four-- seventy-five years old. He is a-- a peer of the President. But it was suggesting that there were real doubts and conversations behind the scenes about whether he was up for it for the kind of questioning that he endured. Is this a below-the-belt hit on a public servant or is this a legitimate question?

ELIANA JOHNSON: I don't think it's below the belt. And I-- I think it's the job of reporters to bring out to the public the stuff that we reporters are privy to behind the scenes here in Washington. And those are the things that Mueller allies had been saying in greenrooms and in the hallways of Congress and I think it was important for the public to know that these are things, and-- and it would have been fair had Mueller been sixty-four or fifty-four or forty-four. He happens to be seventy-four, but these are the things that had been a real concern, yes, they had been whispered by his critics with some glee. But also the people close to Mueller had expressed real concerns that he was not up to this testimony. And I think-- I think the American public saw that bear out, that-- on all day on Wednesday, it-- it was pretty painful.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Michael, the President said he had a few wins this week on the immigration front. But one of the things he also counted as a win was what happened overseas.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Boris Johnson ascending to become the prime minister of the U.K. He's described him as resembling himself.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: That's right. That's right. Well, this is going to be an amazing relationship to watch. In some ways, these men are very different. I mean, Boris Johnson is a classical scholar, erudites, wrote a biography of Winston Churchill, loves to quote, you know, great literature. Pretty different approach than the President. At the same time, these men are both entertainers who have put their fingers on something in the pulse of our political moment in the world right now which is a kind of populism, a kind of anything-goes style. Boris Johnson sort of gleefully used the word "dude" in his-- in his first public speech. Kind of breaking the old rules and projecting a sort of authenticity that people seem to be craving. I think it's hard to know exactly substantively how this relationship works out. Although I will say--

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be watching it.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: --the special relationship is probably going to improve.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We will be watching it.

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