KETR

Special Coverage: Preview Of Trump Address To Press About Midterm Results

Nov 7, 2018
Originally published on November 7, 2018 12:02 pm
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NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump will speak to the press soon from the White House. He'll be talking about the results of last night's midterm elections. Republicans lost the House, held onto the Senate. We'll cut to the president as soon as he starts talking, but in the meantime in studio with us is NPR's congressional reporter Scott Detrow. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: And NPR's Tamara Keith is at the White House. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: So Tam, the president has been talking a little bit this morning. What's he been saying about the midterm results?

KEITH: Well, the president is never one to declare defeat when he could declare victory. And that is exactly what he's doing in a series of tweets. He also says he wants to maybe work with Nancy Pelosi. But I would say take that with a giant grain of salt because he has said those kinds of things before only to make a 180 very quickly. So, you know, he very much is interpreting this as a win. He's also saying that, you know, Democrats shouldn't spend time investigating his administration, or he'll have the Senate investigate the House.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK.

KING: (Laughter).

KEITH: Yeah. So some early threats.

INSKEEP: Well, that's the president's style, isn't it? You don't defend. You just attack, attack, attack. But the reality is - is it not, Tamara Keith? - that the White House - and not just the White House, the entire administration - has to be prepared for examination and oversight by a House that will now have subpoena power over them whatever they may say about it.

INSKEEP: The administration has to be prepared for examination and oversight by a House that will now have subpoena power over them, whatever they may say about it.

KEITH: Oh, absolutely. And it's a target-rich environment. There have been numerous scandals at various agencies that have largely gone uninvestigated by a Republican Congress. Democrats don't intend to let those things rest. And in my reporting, thus far, the White House counsel's office has not staffed up in a way that you would expect or need to be able to be responsive to what will likely be a number of requests. But they are working on it or they will be soon (laughter).

KING: So maybe not prepared for the moment - but, Tam, I wonder, when you talk to Democrats and when you look at what they've been telegraphing, what are some of the areas that you would expect them to begin investigating immediately?

KEITH: Well, you'd expect them to try to get President Trump's tax returns.

KING: Yeah.

KEITH: You would expect them to look at the Department of the Interior and the EPA. You'd expect them to look at the way the Trump administration has dealt with the Affordable Care Act and sort of stealing - not stealing, but not putting full funding into promoting health care plans. You'd expect them to...

INSKEEP: Openly doing whatever they can to undermine it - they've been pretty frank about that.

KEITH: That's true (laughter). And you'd also expect them to investigate whether what the administration has been saying about how it's handling family separation along the border is true. You might well expect them to look into the president's decision to send troops to the border on the eve of the election to deal with the migrant caravan that's hundreds of miles away.

INSKEEP: I want to note one additional point, then take it over to Scott Detrow as we wait for President Trump, who will be making a statement at the White House shortly. Reporters are already in their seats. Ron Klain, a longtime Obama administration aide, is writing in The Washington Post to Democrats, take your time with those investigations. It's going to take a while anyway. Try to actually pass substantive things that matter to people. And he raises a few suggestions such as raising the minimum wage, shoring up the Affordable Care Act or dealing with voting rights and that sort of thing. Scott Detrow.

DETROW: Yeah. I think we're going to hear President Trump declare victory and say that this was a big win for him. Yes, the Republicans did add to their majority in the Senate. And that's a big deal on a couple different fronts, among other things. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says his top priority for the next two years is going to be the same priority as these two years, and that's confirming as many federal judges that President Trump nominates as he can. It'll be easier for McConnell to do that. And he said, frankly, they'll have more Senate floor time to do that since he doesn't anticipate a lot of agreement with a Democrat-controlled House in terms of trying to pass bills.

But this was a really big night for Democrats. And the fact that they flipped control of the House of Representatives is a really big deal. First of all, this is a national referendum in the way that the Senate election wasn't because as we talked a lot about, the Senate map was a historically tough map for Democrats - a ton of states deep red, where President Trump is very popular. And the fact that Democrats were able to keep seats in the three states that made Trump president - Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DETROW: ...I think tempers the idea that this is a big victory for Trump, even though, again, good on the Senate side to pick up seats. But the fact that Democrats were able to regain control of the House of Representatives, even with so many of these seats drawn in a way by Republican legislatures to make it hard for Democrats to do that, I think, says a lot.

INSKEEP: That is an important point, Scott Detrow. Democrats, in order to win the House, had to not just win the popular vote but win it big. And it appears, by all accounts, that they did - seven or eight points, something like that, which is a pretty substantial win in a divided country.

KING: Scott, talk a little bit about the Democratic - sorry, the demographics of how this all played out. We heard a lot about suburban voters, the importance of them, the importance of women voters. What were some of the trends that we saw across the country?

DETROW: The trend was that Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives by and large through the suburbs. Seat after seat that had been in Republican hands for sometimes generations - I'm thinking of one suburban Houston district that was once held by George H.W. Bush, hadn't sent a Democrat to Congress in decades.

KING: Wow.

DETROW: A Democrat won there. Philadelphia suburbs, Miami suburbs - basically every big city, you could probably find one or two Republican control districts that flipped to Democratic control. That was the main way that Democrats retook control of Congress. And they did it by winning a lot of independent voters, by winning a big chunk of women voters and by picking off several Republican voters who seemed to clearly be uncomfortable with the type of hard-line, anti-immigration fearmongering that President Trump really leaned into in the final weeks of the campaign that he credits for helping keep Republican Senate seats.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, the way the president is going to read this is that candidates who did not hug him closely lost. Now, those candidates also happened to be in districts that demographically are not Trump country. But the White House interpretation of this is this is President Trump's party, and people who lost didn't hug closely enough to him.

DETROW: The one good counterpoint to that is a surprise Democratic win in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District where the Republican candidate Katie Arrington lost. And that's after, in the primary, she defeated Mark Sanford by basically saying, you're not pro-Trump enough; you do not back the president as much as you should; I will be the Trump candidate. That's how she won the primary. It lost her the general election. Same goes for Dean Heller who made a very dramatic pivot from Trump skeptic to standing onstage next to President Trump in the final week saying, Mr. President, everything you touch turns to gold. That did not keep him a Senate seat.

INSKEEP: Let's note another factor in these results and something that broke in the president's favor or the Republicans' favor. There is the issue of race. The president and his party in many specific places injected race into this campaign in various ways. The president's own aides put out an ad that was deemed so racist that various networks, including Fox, declined to air the ad or stopped airing the ad. And the president went to campaign on behalf of Republicans in Georgia and Florida who were running for governor against African-Americans. And in one case in Florida, he said the African-American running for governor, Andrew Gillum, was not equipped to be governor. A remarkable amount of racial language. We don't know that the president is going to be asked about that at the news conference that we expect shortly at the White House. But it is absolutely in the air that this was part of the campaign. We don't know that it particularly hurt the president anywhere. Where there's an argument to be made, it might've helped the president in a few places whatever that says about the electorate.

DETROW: And the smaller Republican conference in the House by and large lost a lot of the Trump critics, the moderate Republicans who did not like that approach. And you have a Republican Party in both chambers that's now much more in President Trump's image and style of kind of populism and culture wars as opposed to limited government. And at the same time, you have a Democratic Party that is increasingly diverse. A ton of first-time candidates coming in. You have the first Muslim woman elected. You have Indian-Americans coming. You have two women under the age of 30 elected to Congress. So that divide is just increasingly clear of a younger, more diverse demographic Democratic Party and an older and whiter Republican Party.

KING: And yet, we had Republicans on the show this morning saying that they could not figure out why the president throughout these midterms was not hammering harder on how well the economy is doing. And I know that you guys were both out on the trail talking to voters and - as were Steve and I. And it was one of the first things you heard from people who support President Trump. The economy's doing great, so I'm sticking by the guy. And I wonder as we go forward, do you think President Trump will come around to the idea that he should play to his strengths, a low unemployment rate and economy that for the moment is booming in most sectors, many sectors?

KEITH: Well, he starts talking about those things in his rallies. And then he says, oh, that's kind of boring; let's move on. And then goes to the culture war things. You know, happy people are not driven by fear to the polls.

KING: Yeah.

KEITH: And so, you know, this strategy of taking a very hard line, in particular, on immigration is something that has worked for President Trump in 2016. The lesson he's absolutely going to take from these results is that at least in the Senate, it worked in 2018. I have done an analysis of the president's tweet endorsements, though, before he comes out to this press conference and fully declares a great night. Of the 84 candidates that he endorsed - this is House, Senate and governor - 84 that he endorsed, 40 won, 31 lost and 13 races have not yet been called.

INSKEEP: OK.

KING: Wow.

KEITH: So this is not...

INSKEEP: So that's a...

KEITH: ...This is not an overwhelming anything.

INSKEEP: ...Winning NBA season but not exactly overwhelming. Scott Detrow.

DETROW: Even as we approach noon on Wednesday on the East Coast, we have an important election update. Jon Tester in Montana has now gone ahead of his Republican opponent, Matt Rosendale. Rosendale had led all last night, but some of those outstanding districts came in. They were in the Democratic favor. Now, Tester is on pace to maybe retain his seat, so not another Democratic pickup for Republicans.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to note that we're hearing from a number of top officials today. We're awaiting this news conference from President Trump and Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to be the next speaker of the House. The past speaker of the House and the next speaker of the House will be talking sometime after the president, we would anticipate. Mitch McConnell, who remains the Senate leader with a bit larger majority, has spoken to reporters today. And let's listen to a little bit of what Mitch McConnell had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MITCH MCCONNELL: The one issue that Leader Pelosi and I discussed this morning is where there could be a possible bipartisan agreement would be something on infrastructure. Look, there'll be a lot of other things. I think it...

INSKEEP: OK. Cut off in the middle there but - so he's talking about a list of possible areas of bipartisan cooperation. And maybe it's actually appropriate, Tamara Keith, that he was cut off.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Well, so here's the thing about infrastructure. Since President Trump won in 2016, Democrats or Republicans have at times said, you know, infrastructure, that could be something where we come together. And it just hasn't happened. You know, President Trump has had something like four different infrastructure theme weeks, which have all turned into very weird weeks completely unrelated to infrastructure. And the real problem with infrastructure - everybody talks about it - is that they agree more or less on maybe building roads. They don't agree on how to fund it. They don't agree on the mix of transit versus, you know, roads...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KEITH: ...And bridges. And it - you know, there's - although the sort of headline seems like something where there could be room for agreement, you know, transportation bills - big transportation bills that used to be bipartisan haven't been for the last five, six, seven years.

INSKEEP: Let's explain what the partisan divide is here. In the broadest terms, if you're a Republican, you like private funding for highways. And if you're Democratic, you like public funding for trains. That's an oversimplification, but that's kind of where it goes. Is that right?

KEITH: Yeah. Yeah. And maybe gas taxes, too, somewhere in there.

INSKEEP: OK. OK. Mitch McConnell used another phrase I want to ask about, Scott Detrow, presidential harassment.

DETROW: Yes.

INSKEEP: He seems to have said it several times. What does that mean, presidential harassment?

DETROW: Democrats will call that oversight.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: McConnell did point something out, though, that - a lot of - I know a lot of Democratic leaders are thinking about, though. He said if you go back to 1998, Republicans, when they had control of the House and Bill Clinton was president, leaned very into presidential harassment, as he put it. Impeachment was the term that they used at the time.

INSKEEP: Well, that's true. Yes.

DETROW: They went full-bore, investigating every nook and cranny of President Clinton's life. And in the end, President Clinton had a 65 percent or so approval rating. And Republicans lost seats in the last midterm. Mitch McConnell brought that up and said that's worth Democrats thinking about. I don't think many - well, in terms of impeachment, I know Democratic leaders are very wary of going down that road. They can look at the result of winning back control of the House of Representatives and say, you know, a lot of the candidates that put us back in control of the House were moderates who focused on local issues, focused on things like health care and kept the idea of trying to impeach President Trump at arm's length. The line from Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats were, well, we'll just have to see what Robert Mueller's investigation leads to, and we'll go from there. But especially now that Republicans have control of the Senate by larger margins, the idea of going down the road to impeachment would kind of be a bridge to nowhere to use another term from the political past.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KING: Well, it's interesting, and the results seem to bear that out. I mean, it was centrist Democrats that did really well.

DETROW: Exactly.

KING: The progressive Democrats, the ones who even in - you know, who were willing to invoke the word impeachment, they did not fare as well last night, which really seems to be saying something about - I don't know - maybe some cohesion in the party, some agreement about, you know, things that can be discussed and things that can't.

DETROW: Here's a weird split track, though, on the progressive front. Progressive issues did great. In three Republican states, Medicaid expansion passed as referendum. Several other progressive referendums passed as well. And at the same time, the progressive candidates - the ones who got the most attention at least - did not fare well. So I think a lot of Democrats are trying to sort out what exactly this means for messaging and approach to presidential races among other things.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention - we've all been out and talking with a lot of voters this fall. And you folks can share your experiences, but I'm thinking of people that I spoke with in about four states over the last several weeks. And there were one or two people who raised the Mueller investigation and protecting the Mueller investigation and concern about Russia. But people were much more likely to talk about health care and raise their concerns about Medicare or Medicaid or to talk about how Obamacare benefited them. And that was evident in what the individual candidates were saying, not just the Democrats but the Republicans - because as we've covered on the air, there were a lot of Republicans who, despite their past votes against Obamacare, despite their lawsuits to overturn Obamacare, during the campaign, proclaimed their support for a key provision of Obamacare, the protection of people with pre-existing conditions, which suggests, I think, there are a lot of people - for all the millions of people who are upset about President Trump or profoundly supportive of President Trump, there are a lot of people in this country who are not as engaged or engaged in a different way or would just like something practical out of this situation for their lives or for their country and are thinking in a different way than those who are the most intense partisans.

KING: Well, one of the things I thought was so interesting, Steve, when I was reporting in northern Minnesota in the 8th District there, which flipped to the Republican...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KING: ...You know, people had a lot of concerns about health care, but they were all over the place. It was really hard to get people to pin down exactly what they were worried about. We heard, you know, I have elderly parents and I'm worried about them, I have kids, I'm worried about losing my insurance. But it really did illustrate how complex health insurance is, how difficult it is to make an issue because everybody's got different worries.

And I suppose that's maybe one of the reasons why, you know, the Democrats focus on it. To them, it seemed very productive, but to a lot of Americans, it's just still really confusing, isn't it?

INSKEEP: You've just touched on the reason that it was such a landmine for Democrats to step on when they passed Obamacare in the first place, that it's very difficult to explain what you're doing, it's very difficult to persuade people that it's a good thing for them, and for their neighbors, and for their family members and anybody else.

KEITH: Well, and the interactions that a lot of people have with insurance, at least, are not always very positive. You know, they find out that their insurance is more expensive than they thought or covered less than they thought. And for years, any negative interaction that anyone had with the Affordable Care Act was blamed - or had with their health care system as a whole was blamed on the Affordable Care Act. This cycle, Democrats began trying to turn that around. And in some ways, they succeeded by talking about the positives in a way that they were afraid to do in years' past.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the way that this election has changed the Republican Party. We've already touched on it. Scott Detrow, you were pointing out that some of the more moderate Republicans - or let's just say some of the Republicans who wanted to embrace the demographic changes in the country - lost their seats. Carlos Curbelo in Florida comes to mind. And there are some others we could talk about. Nevertheless, there were some Republicans, obviously, who won big races. And that moves the party in a different direction.

One classic example comes to mind as we await President Trump's remarks today is in Tennessee, where Bob Corker, who had sometimes been a critic of the president - sometimes a quite sharp critic of the president - retired and is replaced by Marsha Blackburn, who is a lawmaker who has been much more supportive - openly and vocally supportive of the president. So she goes to the United States Senate, which is not only a little more Republican, it appears, but also a little more Trumpy, if that's the proper adjective.

DETROW: Absolutely. Look through all, so far, of the Republicans who have picked off Democratic incumbents in the Senate. Mike Braun in Indiana won his primary by saying, essentially, I am the Donald Trump in this Republican primary field. I'm a businessman. I'm anti-establishment. So on and so forth. Josh Hawley, who defeated Claire McCaskill in Missouri, repeatedly embraced President Trump, repeatedly appeared next to him at rallies, ran a very Trump-focused campaign. You mentioned Marsha Blackburn. It goes on.

So sub out the Bob Corkers and the Jeff Flakes, who were very quick to criticize President Trump, even though Democrats, especially Democrats living on Twitter, always pointed out that they never really backed up their words with actions. But you're losing several of them. You're gaining people who are going to reflexively back the president on almost everything.

One area where you may see a pretty early example of what that shifted dynamic means is, if President Trump decides in the coming months that he's had enough of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and decides to fire him or ask for his resignation, I think it's now going to be a lot easier for the Senate to confirm a new attorney general. For most of the past two years, you had Republicans in the Senate signaling to the White House, don't fire Jeff Sessions, we're not going to confirm another attorney general. That dynamic, I think, is gone.

INSKEEP: Some of those Republicans are still there, but some of those Republicans are gone. And there are a few votes to spare. I want to mention that we've been told that we are a minute or so away from President Trump stepping out before this group of reporters and a bank of television cameras in the White House. That is the East Room of the White House. Am I describing that correctly, Tamara Keith?

KEITH: That's correct. That's the East Room. It's a much bigger venue for holding a press conference than the White House Press Briefing Room and tends to be where these - you know, President Trump doesn't like to follow precedent set by his predecessors, but in this case, he is doing exactly what past presidents have done on the day after midterms.

INSKEEP: OK. And as we await the president stepping out, let's just review what has happened, what we have learned in the last 24 hours as the election results have become clear. It is clear that Democrats have won the House. It appears they'll be up around 230 votes for the Democrats in the House. They needed 218 to be a majority. There's still a couple of races we're not entirely sure about. There are a couple of races we're not entirely sure about on the Senate side, but Republicans have clearly gained there.

We should mention - I think we haven't mentioned much - Democrats won a Senate seat in Nevada. Dean Heller, Republican, is down. We did mention it once or twice here, but it's worth underlining. However, Republicans won in more conservative and rural places - North Dakota and Missouri and Indiana. Scott Detrow?

DETROW: And the Republican candidate in Florida is ahead by the slimmest of margins, and that could be headed to a recount. Recount in Florida - nice flashback for everyone.

KEITH: Oh, my gosh. I'm having flashbacks.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: It's the way to do it. It's the way - but it's the law in Florida. I mean, Bill Nelson, the Democrat who seems to be on the losing side, has already said, we're heading to a recount. But it appears to be the law if when the counting is done it is less than half a percentage point. Although, it is pretty close to half a percentage point, which is a lot of votes in a state as big as Florida.

DETROW: About 30,000 votes separating them right now.

KING: It does make you wonder. We've talked throughout this midterm campaign season about Republicans who feel like they no longer have a home in the party. You know, we spoke to someone this morning, Max Boot, a former conservative, a former lifelong Republican conservative commentator, who has abandoned the Republican Party and is urging others to do so, as well, because he just cannot abide by President Trump's rhetoric and his behavior. Why don't we play a clip of that? In fact, we don't have that clip from Max Boot. But, Scott, Tam, I'm curious. What happens to Republicans without a party?

KEITH: Wilderness?

KING: Where do they go? Yeah. What does the wilderness look like?

DETROW: Well, I think that's a good question. I think we're going to look to see if any of those Republicans tries to challenge President Trump in the 2020 Republican primaries.

INSKEEP: Someone like Jeff Flake, for example.

DETROW: Or John Kasich, the now outgoing governor of Ohio. They would have a very hard road, but I think a small, vocal handful of Republicans have been so critical of the president but haven't taken that drastic step of actually confronting him in that sort of way.

INSKEEP: We should note presidents like Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, who were incumbents who ran for re-election and had a primary challenge, they weathered the primary challenge. But it signaled their weakness. It was difficult. It cost them a lot of energy, a lot of money. And those two presidents lost in the end.

DETROW: The difference, though, would be that they were challenged from their base side. And this would probably be from the moderate side, the more bipartisan approach.

INSKEEP: And you would have to ask, are those votes even there in a Republican primary, or have they gravitated to the Democratic side?

DETROW: Exactly.

KING: President Trump expected to start speaking in just a couple of minutes. Tam Keith, I wonder. Do you think that the president, when he speaks this morning, will admit to any kind of vulnerability whatsoever? Or is this sheerly going to be, you know, a sort of self-congratulatory talk?

KEITH: I don't think that he would be having a press conference if he felt like he didn't have something positive to say.

KING: Yeah.

KEITH: He is not someone who admits defeat. He is someone who had multiple business bankruptcies and said they were a good thing, that he came out ahead. He, when the health care bill went down, said, oh, no, this is great, this is actually a positive. His approach to life - I was speaking to one of his biographers today - is just not to accept defeat. It's to brand, re-brand and market and say, I'm the winner.

INSKEEP: Re-brand defeat. (Laughter).

DETROW: And that's going to be the key difference here because Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all walked down that hallway in the White House to the East Room the day after a midterm where they lost control of the House and were contrite and said that I'm willing to work with the other party. I don't think, based on the tweets we've seen this morning, that President Trump is going to strike that tone at all.

KEITH: No. You know, we had George W. Bush say that there was a thumpin'. President Obama said that he got shellacked. And you're simply not going - you know, President Trump is going to say that he defied history.

INSKEEP: And he has always also laid the groundwork, has he not, by pointing out that there were just too many House districts for him to personally campaign for them and what he actually focused on was Senate races? And he didn't win every Senate race that he campaigned in, but he campaigned in some. And we should also take note that for a while there, the president was also campaigning in House races. He campaigned in the 6th district in Kentucky, just to give one example. But later on, when it became very, very clear that Democrats were likely to win the House, he noted his lack of involvement in that particular race.

KEITH: Yeah. In the last week, he really shifted course. Earlier in the month of October, he had been campaigning for House candidates, and then he decided that he wanted to campaign for winners. Or what the White House would say is that he wanted to campaign for candidates that were statewide where he felt like he had a better chance of helping them because these were Trump states.

And just to go back to my numbers on this, based on the candidates that he endorsed on Twitter, there are still some undecided races, but his record is 24 and 18 in the House. So 24 wins to 18 losses. In the Senate, he's nine wins to six losses. And with governors, it's 7-7. So there very much is - it's not some overwhelming victory that - I mean, he simply, he did lose a lot of seats, including people that he endorsed.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We should be clear about what's going on here because we mentioned the president's arrival was imminent. That is, in fact, what we were told quite some time ago. A news conference was originally scheduled for about 11:30 eastern time, which is 27 minutes ago. And as soon as that begins, we'll take you to it.

But meantime, we do have an opportunity to review an awful lot of significant results and races around the country. We've talked about the national level. Perhaps we should talk, while we wait on the president a little bit, about the state level. For starters, Democrats have gained, so far, how many governorships, Scott Detrow? About seven?

DETROW: I'm blanking on the exact number, but there were several seats the Democrats flipped.

INSKEEP: OK. And here's the president of the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.