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Week In Politics: Vice Presidential Debate, Outbreak In White House, Trump's Remarks


Y'all, we made it to Friday. And you will be forgiven if, like me, you are once again thinking, what a week.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: After three days of treatment at Walter Reed, the president returned to Pennsylvania Avenue. President Trump...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I learned so much about coronavirus. And one thing that's for certain - don't let it dominate you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff have now had to quarantine after...

KAMALA HARRIS: Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking.


HARRIS: I'm speaking.

TRUMP: No, I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That's not what debating's all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate - it's ridiculous.

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Just last week, the president of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups.

TRUMP: And, you know, I see Whitmer today. She's complaining, but it was our Justice Department that arrested the people that she was complaining about. It was my Justice Department that arrested them.

KELLY: Well, as we take stock of yet another week of jaw-dropping news and upended norms - not to mention questions about what the coming weeks may bring with the November election looming - we wanted to bring back our longtime politics duo, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks. They have both made careers of chronicling the institutions of our democracy, and this seemed like a good moment to take a deep breath and take the long view.

So E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, welcome back, you two.

E J DIONNE: Great to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

KELLY: All right, let's start positive, if we can. Can each of you point to a development, any development, this week that gives you faith that we're going to make it through this, that democracy will hold? E.J., you first.

DIONNE: Well, I live in hope. And I am not one of those who believes our institutions all by themselves will save us. You need people willing to use their positions to defend democracy. And so I have a number of things to be hopeful about. One is FBI Director Christopher Wray - the arrests that you just referenced of those right-wing extremists - Christopher Wray has been willing, again and again, to stand up to the president and say, we're going to enforce the law. And that is a good sign. I see judges all over the country who have been willing to stand up against voter suppression efforts. Although, unfortunately, I'm not sure we're seeing - we're not seeing that as much as the Supreme Court.

And I have to say that I don't want this to sound partisan. I think that - to see Kamala Harris, a Black woman of South Asian descent, stand up very calmly and make it really hard for her opponents to cast her as anything but a thoroughly mainstream, highly qualified political figure - that's a sign of real change in our country. And I like to think some Republicans felt that way, too.

KELLY: David, how about you? What gave you hope this week?

BROOKS: Aside from the fly?

KELLY: (Laughter) Yep.

BROOKS: You know, I would say - we discovered Americans do have the capacity to be shocked. A lot of people have looked at Donald Trump's debate performance and looked at his performance in the last week during his illness and - including a lot of Trump voters. They said, this is not acceptable behavior. And so I think, you know, we've wondered where our norms - if the norms are being torn and shredded, do we still have some basic shared sense of what decent behavior was? I think if you look at the polls and even the polls from Trump supporters who disapprove of his debate performance, we do still have some shared values.

I was reminded of a comment William Seward, who was Lincoln's secretary of state, said - he said, America has just enough virtue to get through a crisis, but often with none to spare. And so I have faith - more faith in America than I did last week.

DIONNE: Seward was a wise man.


KELLY: Let me jump in and ask - I almost hate to ask this - but low point of the week for you, moment that got you worried, had your head in your hands?

DIONNE: Well, for me, Vice President Pence and President Trump - you know, echoing President Trump in not being clear on accepting the legitimacy of the election. And, also, the flip side of what I said earlier, the existence of all these efforts to make it harder for people to vote. You know, 45 years ago, we passed the Voting Rights Act. A lot of Republicans joined a lot of Democrats to pass that. If there's ever a time when we should be standing up for voting rights, it's right now. And people should not be making it hard to vote in an election that is already challenged by the pandemic.

KELLY: David Brooks?

BROOKS: Yeah, there was a poll that came out today that - this week that a third of all Americans think violence is sometimes justified to achieve their political ends. And as we bump into a - run into a bumpy time, that is truly scary. And it grows out of a sense of distrust. People don't trust the institutions. They don't think they're legitimate. They don't trust each other.

And beneath our political problems, there's just this epic catastrophe of distrust running through society, and that's just a very hard thing to turn around. It's the work of a generation to turn around that much distrust. And it comes down to each of us behaving in trustworthy ways, extending kindness to each other and extending it on a massive scale. And we have not done a good job of that.

KELLY: Particularly relevant point in a week when, among other things, we heard the FBI has foiled a apparent plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. David, let me stay with you for a second 'cause I want to get your reaction to one particular moment that E.J. just nodded to - the ongoing refusal by President Trump, by this White House, to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. Let me play you a moment. This is from that vice presidential debate Wednesday night. Here's moderator Susan Page trying to pin down Mike Pence.


SUSAN PAGE: If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as vice president? What would you personally do? You have two minutes.

KELLY: And, David, we should note that the vice president did not directly answer that question. He said, hey, we're going to win. What are your thoughts?

BROOKS: It's scary. I've talked to a lot of people running through the scenarios. And it's not so much that someone will be a clear winner. It supposed the results are genuinely ambiguous or at least so ambiguous - ambiguous enough so political partisans can persuade themselves that they win. And in that case, you have states like Pennsylvania, where the Republican Legislature sends a team of electors to Washington, and the governor may send another team. And once you look into this, our Constitution really leaves a lot of open room for people to do a lot of bad things.

And I really have the feeling - in the end, it'd be up to us. It's like the citizens of Belarus, the citizens of Hong Kong - you've got to say, hey, maybe I didn't like this result, but this is the actual result. I will be an honest American, and I will take peacefully to the streets. If the election is close, it's very easy to see it really coming down to mass mobilization and really a standing up for America.

KELLY: E.J., we just have a few seconds left, but I know you have been casting your thoughts way back to before the Civil War. Give me a brief sense of why - why that moment?

DIONNE: I've been thinking a lot about the whole period, the 1850s Reconstruction and the end of Reconstruction. The 1850s, we were deeply torn about values, about slavery, along some of the same lines as now, and we had a civil war. Then we had the Reconstruction era...

KELLY: Right.

DIONNE: ...The first Reconstruction era, where we stood up for African American rights, and that was ended by violence and voter intimidation.

KELLY: Right.

DIONNE: I'm hoping, as Adam Serwer of The Atlantic has said, that maybe we're on the verge of a third reconstruction. So I worry about the 1850s, but I hope he's right.

KELLY: Hoping very much not on the verge of another civil war (laughter). We will leave it there. That's E.J. Dionne...

DIONNE: Better that.

KELLY: Yeah, indeed - of The Washington Post and Georgetown. David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Bless you. Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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