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Texas Gov. rolls back reopening TRANSCRIPT: 6/26/20, MTP Daily

Guests: Asa Hutchinson, Robinson Meyer, Barbara Ferrer, Stuart Stevens, Howard Bryant

CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST: Welcome to Friday. It is MEET THE PRESS DAILY. I`m Chuck Todd on a day when the coronavirus headlines had gone from bad to worse. Cases are spiking dramatically across the Sun Belt. In Texas the governor today has started rolling back the state`s reopening plans. Bars were ordered to close today. Restaurant capacity is now being scaled back. And you can see why. The state is seeing exponential growth in cases and hospitalizations and the rise continues.

In Florida the state said today, it`s going to shut down bars as well. The number of cases there are exploding. The state reported an astonishing 8,000 plus cases. Closer to 9,000 in one day. Basically, doubling in one 24-hour period. That`s one 24-hour period but it makes you wonder, what is the next 24 hours going to look like in Florida?

These moves in two southern red states could be a sign that other states may start to scale back their reopening plans as well, because as you can see in your screen cases are spiking all across the Sun Belt. In some cases at exponential levels. And while some parts of the country continue to see their cases decline, their case number guide the sheer scale of the new outbreaks has spent this country`s case curve in the wrong direction. We are now almost back to square one.

While we`re seeing an increase in hospitalizations which means sadly we expect the number of deaths will start to go up at some point as well. We just don`t know by how much. This afternoon the White House coronavirus task force held its first public briefing in 60 days. Since the last time they briefed the number of cases and deaths in this country have more than doubled.

This afternoon the vice president claimed the situation was largely stable. Or he used an interesting phrase, measure of stability in 34 states. While it`s difficult to determine how exactly the White House is arriving at those figures. It was obvious that he and the other health officials appointed by the president were determined to downplay the severity of this outbreak.

Find any statistic to make it seem like a small hot spot. Like using the idea of 3 percent of counties, not telling that you two of the four largest counties are among those 3 percent. But mixed in amid the rosy language was an acknowledgement that we have a serious problem in this country right now. And the current strategy to continue this outbreaks is simply not working.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: The substantial proportion of the people who are getting infected do not know they`re infected. They`re not symptomatic. They`re asymptomatic individuals. The classic paradigm of identification isolation and contact tracing to actually contain that is very difficult to make that work under those circumstances.


TODD: Dr. Fauci basically said that we need to rethink our entire paradigm of how we find and isolate these particular outbreaks. We don`t have a successful contact tracing program. And as usual in contrast from the warnings from public health experts, like doctors Birx and Fauci, Pence once again had to awkwardly defend the president`s behavior and attitude. Pence would not outright say wear a mask, believe it or not, when asked about it. And then he defended the campaign`s decision to buck local safety guidelines and hold indoor campaign rallies in various hot spots.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On your campaign, it really does sounds though like you`re saying, do as we say. Not as we do. You are telling people to listen to local officials but in Tulsa, you defied local health officials. So, how is that that even though you say it didn`t result in a spike, dozens of civic service agents, dozens of campaign staffers are now quarantined after positive tests? And then in Arizona, one of the hardest hit states, you packed a church with young people who were not wearing masks. So, how can you say that the campaign is not part of the problem that Dr. Fauci laid out?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I want to remind you again that the freedom of speech and the right to peace ensembles enshrined in the constitution of the United States. And even in a health crisis, the American people don`t forfeit our constitutional rights.


TODD: Obviously he struggled to come up with a better answer than that. Anyway, let`s turn to my NBC News colleagues, Monica Alba is at the White House. Priscilla Thompson is in Houston, where just moments ago, Texas reported another record day of hospitalizations, more than 5,100. It is the first time Texas has been over 5,000 on that metric.

Monica, let me begin with you. It was amazing today to see all the different ways the vice president could talk about following guidelines without uttering the word mask.

MONICA ALBA, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Yeah, an artful tap dance I think you could say there Chuck, with the vice president, certain that the president who was not at the briefing, was watching. So, he wanted to be sure to sort of copy what own president of the United States has modeled, which is he won`t be wearing a mask personally, even if his own wife, the first lady, his top health officials believe that`s one of the most important things that can be done to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

What was also so notable is that, the vice president went painstakingly into an effort to describe all the other CDC guidelines that should be enforced but didn`t want to go that far. And I thought it was interesting. He actually was wearing a face mask as he walked out to take the podium but he removed it before speaking and he never put it back on. You had the other doctors who are certainly wearing them. But it comes at a time when he`s also defending the president and his own 2020 re-elect effort which does say they are going to continue to pack indoor venues and continue these rallies, despite the warnings.

And you have the vice president going to Texas on Sunday where he`s going to be speaking to a mega church there. With several thousand people. Again, indoors, limited social distancing, likely not required face masks. But what is notable in addition to this is that Dr. Deborah Birx is going to join him on that trip. That`s the first time we really have seen her go travel to these hot spots. She says she`s going to be visiting some others as well.

But the big question, we haven`t heard the president really react to what was said in that briefing. And of course the location, having the HHS versus the White House is significant because for so long, those officials were coming to us from the briefing room. They have decided they don`t want to do that anymore. There`s no plan to resume the coronavirus task force briefings from here at the White House. Chuck?

TODD: And very quickly, the president was supposed to go to New Jersey this weekends. New Jersey has a 14-day quarantine for outsiders right now. Particularly if you come from coronavirus hot spots and the president being in Arizona earlier this week would qualify as that. I know the White House says he`s not going because of that. Have you gotten any other indication though as to why the president abruptly essentially canceled his golf weekend in Bedminster?

ALBA: No, we don`t know, Chuck. And when we asked the White House a couple days ago when that travel advisory went into effect if he was reconsidering it, they said absolutely not. The president is going to continue to go in their words because he`s not a civilian and these rules don`t apply to him. They haven`t told us now why he`s not going except to say they claim that 14-day quarantine they want from people coming into the tristate area doesn`t apply and had nothing to do with his decision.

It`s notable though because rarely does the White House advance give us a sort of sense that he`s going to be going to New Jersey, to his golf resort, so many days out. They did in this case. Now they have to cancel the trip and it was just hours before he was set to depart, adding another wrinkle to that, Chuck.

TODD: Yes, it was. Monica Alba at the White House for us. Monica, thanks.

Now let`s go down to the hot spot within the hot spot. It`s Houston, Texas, within Texas Priscilla Thompson. So, Priscilla, the big news this afternoon, this hospitalization number. Explain what the governor has done today. And I guess the other question is, is he going to get Harris County the power to do things beyond suggestions when it comes to this health crisis?

PRISCILLA THOMPSON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chuck, those latest hospitalization numbers are certainly concerning. Especially as the Texas Medical Center reports, that they`re already at 100 percent ICU capacity. And so we saw the governor issue an executive order this morning. And especially again with the positivity rate, too. That nearly 12 percent, which is incredibly high. And so he said that is part of what prompted him to issue this new executive order, where he`s going to be shutting down the bars at noon today. Those bars were not allowed to reopen.

We`re here on Washington Avenue, an area full of bars that would normally be pretty packed on a Friday or Saturday night. But now those bars are only going to be allowed to do takeout and pick up options, and also restaurants. They were originally able to open their indoor space at 75 percent capacity. But now that is being rolled back to 50 percent.

And those outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people are being halted entirely unless folks are given special permission from their local governments which does not seem to be the case. We heard from the local Harris County judge and also the mayor here today. Both of them in full support of the governor`s actions to close down those bars and roll back some of this.

And you know, you talked about the power to issue a stay-at-home order. Judge Lina Hidalgo today saying that she would like the governor to give her the authority to do that. She issued a very severe warning that she does want folks to be staying inside. But the governor has said, that will be an absolute last resort and it does not appear that he`s there yet, Chuck.

TODD: And Priscilla, you know Houston well. Can you feel the slowdown today? This went into effect. Have you seen over the last 48 hours, just your observations? The city and county start to sort of change culturally on this? Whether it`s masks and otherwise?

THOMPSON: Chuck, I think there`s definitely a sense of change in the air. People I`ve spoken with saying that they`re certainly going to be more cautious and really opting for that to go option instead of even sitting on a patio at a restaurant. And you know, one of the interesting things here is that while we see the local and state officials, you know, in acting this orders, and saying this things.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was on Fox News last night saying that there would be no going backwards in terms of these reopenings. And some people and business owners I`ve spoken to have expressed some level of confusion with this sort of back and forth about you know orders being issued and folks saying another thing.

And so part of it too is, you know, people are really feeling the onus is on them to sort of make a decision here because they`re getting some mixed messages from the federal government, the state government, and their local governments, Chuck.

TODD: Priscilla Thompson, I`m glad you brought up the lieutenant governor there. I think whether it`s been political pressure on the governor or whatever it is, he`s had an outsized role I think in this response. Priscilla Thompson on the ground for us in Houston. Stay safe yourself, Priscilla. Thanks for your reporting there.

I`m joined now by the Atlantic`s Robinson Meyer, who is part of the team that found that the covid tracking project, one of the most widely cited sources for virus trends. And then Dr. Barbara Ferrer, we`ve gotten to know as the Director of public health in L.A. County. I appreciate you both coming on. I want to play something the vice president said about the current spike and sort of why are we here? Take a listen to his answer.


PENCE: I think there will be a temptation for people to look at these Sun Belt states that have been reopening and putting people back to work. And suggest that the reopening has to do with what we`re seeing in the last week or so. But frankly in the case of each of these states, they reopened in some cases, almost two months ago. And their test cases, their new cases, from testing, was low and steady. Their positivity rate was low.


TODD: Robinson, break that down. What do you make of the vice president`s explanation?

ROBINSON MEYER, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: First, thanks for having me. I think, a strange explanation. Saying certainly saying that any of these states opened two months ago, means that they opened early, they opened before the White House guidelines often would have suggested that it was time for them to. But as a united, many of these states that are now seeing issues Arizona, Texas, parts of Florida, it is that they kind of reopened all at once. And so instead of doing these staged reopenings where they opened you know businesses, restaurants just for outdoor eating, they just went straight to kind of allowing most businesses to open.

And I think that, he doesn`t mention that. Also, you know, as we discussed before, it takes time for new infections to show up. It also takes time for exponential growth of the virus to build. And so, you know, two months actually makes sense. And that two months ago, not many people were sick. They started interacting, they left their homes. Now, six weeks later. So, the virus has had time to kind of grow among the population and now it`s really surging because we`ve reached the kind of vertical upward line of the exponential growth rate.

TODD: Barbara Ferrer, I`m curious. I thought it was interesting. That if you sort of muted the vice president, and you listened to Birx and Fauci, only, you would come away with a bit of an explanation of why we`re here which was a failure on the contact tracing front. Would you concur with that?

DR. BARBARA FERRER, DIRECTOR OF THE L.A. COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT: I`m not sure I would say it`s a failure on the contact tracing side. I mean, I think there are lots of areas where with a new virus we`ve been hampered in the work. I think contact tracing is one tool. So, the mistake I think some of us may make is to think that if you do contact tracing, you`ll be able to fully contain the virus.

I mean, there is no one tool that will fully contain the virus at this point. At the point we get the good therapeutics, a good vaccine, we are going to be in much better shape. But right now it`s a combination of tools. You can do a lot with contact tracing. It relies heavily on good testing and capacity to test lots of people. And then to have good information sent very quickly from labs to a public health department so that they can start that process of interviewing the case and finding their contacts.

But you are going to lose some people in that process so you can`t rely just on your contact tracing. You are going to have to also make sure that as was noted earlier, you know, we`re all taking universal precautions at this point. We should assume that we can be infected at any point in time and infect someone else and we just as much have to assume that everybody else can be infected and infect us.

And if we go about our business with that ought in mind, I think it gets easier to understand why wearing that face covering is so important. Why keeping six feet of distance is so important. Why making sure you`re not in a crowded situation.

TODD: Robinson, how would you answer the question of why the E.U. collectively has essentially put themselves in a place where they`re controlling this virus a bit? Or at least mitigating it so well and we are not?

MEYER: Yes. I want to differentiate. There are some countries in the E.U. that have let the virus really ride out. But in most of the E.U., the virus is just -- mostly E.U. -- you know, this is not as much of an issue anymore and the virus is much more suppressed. What made those countries` performance different is first of all, they often had higher quality tests and better tests before we did. They didn`t have this period in the spring where the virus was just kind of allowed to spread without being (inaudible) without being able to be tracked.

Where you couldn`t deliver someone a solid diagnosis. But also, I mean, these countries are different as they had a more stringent lockdown on travel, on how many people could be in a store that were more widely enforced and it lasted for longer. And so even just tacking on two or three weeks to the length of lockdown that was for instance, in much of this country, it would have allowed those last kind of cases to burn themselves out and less the latent virus in the population that was then able surge as we`re seeing now.

TODD: And Barbara Ferrer, you`ve spoken out on this issue. But public health officials in general have been sort of getting battered by our politics a little bit. How much of that do you think has just impacted the elected officials to not listen to their public health experts or to scapegoat their public health expert, and that has hampered our ability to get, I mean, you just heard one of my reporters about, look at Texas. The two top elected officials are giving mixed messages. The federal government is giving a mixed message. This has been a real challenge for people in your field.

FERRER: Yeah. I really appreciate that question, Chuck. You know, I want to start by saying, you know, I`m in a unique situation. That`s not the story here in L.A. County. A lot of support from elected officials and you know, that includes the mayors in all of the different 85 plus cities. People are trying very, very hard to do what you just noted that is so important is to speak with one voice.

It does creates so much confusion. It is hard enough to understand this virus. But if you had lots of leadership, people sort of contradicting each other, it makes it almost impossible for the public to know what`s expected and what is the best advice? In that gray area, people will go off and make their own decisions based on information that may not be science-based.

So, I appreciate so much this question, because at the heart of us being able to actually contain the pandemic here in the United States is our ability to use the science in a way that allows to us speak with one voice so we don`t create so much confusion. It is really, really asking a lot of people to try to navigate this uncertainty when there`s confusion coming from different elected officials.

TODD: And Robinson, big picture here. So, the south is the outbreak now. I mean, If we`re going to continue to sort of handle this virus like we are without sort of a national strategy, is this just what the next six months are going to look like until we get a vaccine where -- it`s a little stump it out here and we`ll continue to have this rolling spikes around the country?

MEYER: I think in some ways we are going to learn a lot watching the next week. There was this first surge in the northeast. It was followed by what seems like a general plateau across the country where we were seeing 20,000 cases a day with the vice president bragging about. And now we are seeing the surge in the thousands. (Inaudible). They seem like they`re not interested in the lockdown. I think we`re going to learn basically, until we see for the first time the virus really pull through a population, like a region of the country without major -- (inaudible)


-- that`s going to determine what the outlook is two or three months from now. The question is, if the south really gets going, or the Sun Belt as a whole really gets going, (inaudible) became the outbreak to the northeast to the northeast in the spring. I don`t know and what we already seeing is that parts of infect that are kind of landing in the Midwest and starting outbreaks there.

TODD: Right.

MEYER: So, I think in some ways, the path for this virus over the next six months is determined by the actions over the next week or so where we see if the Sun Belt moves forcefully to get ahead of the virus and contain it or whether it starts to let the virus roll through, you know, thousands or 10s of thousands of people a day.

We should have a nightmare that will really set the calendar back on school reopenings and what also basically, put us in a place where the U.S. is dealing with a runaway outbreak that we`ve not seen until we take a national strategy and there`s a vaccine and really, really effective therapeutics.

TODD: Robinson Meyer, from the Atlantic. Dr. Barbara Ferrer from L.A. County, I appreciate you both providing your expertise and analysis with this situation. It seems grim. Let`s hope that will a mask and some social distancing will start to turn to corner. Thank you both.

Up ahead amid more warnings signs, should every governor in the Sun Belt be rolling back their reopening? You just heard the case there from Robinson Meyer asking that question. Well, I`m going to ask the governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson. He said right now he`s not planning any new restrictions. We will talk to him next. Plus, all the president`s problems a surging virus, tumbling poll numbers, racial tensions flaring and a turbulent economy. A group of anti-Trump Republicans is trying to use all of it to remove him from office.


TODD: Welcome back. Both Texas and Arkansas paused their reopening plans yesterday after seeing an increase in new coronavirus cases but they took some different paths today. Texas Governor Greg Abbott dropped restaurant capacity from 75 to 50 percent and mandated that all bars closed. Abbott said that the rise in cases is being driven by among other things Texans congregating in bars.

In neighboring Arkansas, the Governor Asa Hutchinson is not making those changes to current coronavirus restrictions. He said the rise in new cases in his state is not due to businesses being reopened. So Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson joins me now. So, governor, I take it, how confident are you in your contact tracers that you feel as if you`ve got this contained in what`s happening in Texas isn`t going to spread across the border?

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R-AL): We took a little bit different approach, Chuck. Whenever we started reopening, we didn`t do it all at once. We phased it in and that allowed us to have a better chance of measuring impact of new cases. And so that`s helped us. And so today, you know, we analyzed you know, whether it is our restaurants, our bars, our barber shops, or any of these that we have lifted some restrictions on, contributed to the increase in cases and we didn`t see a correlation.

And so we`re not going to be punishing those business that`s are trying to do the right thing. They`re taking all the right precautions. We want to go where we are seeing the rise in cases, and deal in those environments. If we have to crunch down, put more restrictions on, we will. But it is very important to follow that data.

You ask how confident we are in it. Our contact tracing is working. But as you know, when you have a rise in cases that strains resources. So this week, I`m asking to double the number of our contact tracers so that we can continue to get ahead and to know exactly where this virus is originating and what we need to do to stop it.

TODD: Have you thought about a mask ordinance coming from you?

HUTCHINSON: Yes, we think about that and we see what we want to do, what works. We put out a statewide guidance on wearing a mask. We`ve emphasized it in a hundred different ways. The participation is increasing. There is always the debate as to whether it ought to be mandated and whether there ought to be penalties that go with it.

Right now we`re trusting people, we are educating them, asking them to make the right decision, and by the large, they`re doing that. We do enforce that in restaurants, and some other venues. But when you`re out, social distancing, if it can work, terrific. If not, you ought to wear a mask. And I`m setting the example. Being consistent in that. And that`s catching on among our leaders at the municipal level and otherwise that are reinforcing that.

TODD: Where are you on opening schools? And I say this so Fairfax County is close to here and the D.C. area. It`s one of the largest schools system in the country. And they`re offering two paths. They`re basically finding out if which parents want their kids to go four days a week, which want to do mostly remote so they`re going to try to attempt to offer both. But the fact is, they`re not quite sure how to, you know, I think every school district is trying to figure this out. What is your guidance for schools in Arkansas?

HUTCHINSON: Chuck, let me back up just a second. And first of all, whenever we had our first peak, if you want to call it that in April. We knew that we would be faced with an increase in cases. Whether it is the fall or whether it`s sooner like we are seeing now. And so this is not necessarily a surprise. And so we`ve been looking at school reopening as to how we can accomplish that in an environment in which cases are rising or you`re having a resurgence.

And so we`re first committed to having school. Secondly, we`ll have to be a blended environment of combination of in-classroom instruction and from time to time you might have to go virtual or other parents might choose that environment. So it`s a blended environment with a maximum amount of flexibility. But our commitment is to have school. Education can`t stop and secondly to train ourselves for those two different options. We`re surveying parents, making sure they`re loop in on this and have an influenced the local school district as to how that combination works.

TODD: Do you think you have an easier time getting folks to voluntarily wear a mask and social distance if the president said something and sent a message, a simple tweet about wearing a mask? I saw Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney, put out right after the vice president would say mask, and there`s a picture of the former Vice President wearing a mask. Would it help you to be able to convince more of your constituents to participate in this if the president were doing it?

HUTCHINSON: A consistent national message supporting the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing is very important to making sure everybody understands the importance of it. Nothing beats leadership. Certainly it is important to convey the importance of that because the president is right. We want to open our economy. And that`s a great message. I`m for that. You also have to have the message of taking the right health care precautions.

CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST: Look, I want college football this season. If the price of college football is wearing a mask and social distancing, let`s send that message, you know? There are ways that sort of -- we`ve got to do hard work if you want -- if you want good things. Let me ask you about your budget situation. Are you going to have to lay people off for furlough in the state government level in the next six months?

HUTCHINSON: Not at all. We`re -- we`ve really been pleased with our economic report. Our budget revenues are coming in. While we scaled them back, we`ve actually exceeded the revenue projections as they come in. So we`re not going to lay off anyone. We`re going to balance the budget. We have tightened it a little bit in some areas.

But our economy is coming back. We`re about four percentage points below the national average in terms of unemployment. People are going back to work. We just got to make sure it is a safe environment. But we are in a pretty strong shape right now here in Arkansas from a state budget standpoint.

TODD: So that mean you`re not going to be asking some aid from Congress?

HUTCHINSON: Well, that`s true. You know, we will not be asking for -- to fill the holes in the budget. I do recognize that you got other states like New York and others that have been hit harder. And so, you know, that is something that Congress should consider.

But no, Arkansas is not going to be asking for budget-filling money from them because that is going to be coming from our children and grandchildren. We`re managing it carefully. That is one of the things we didn`t shut down. We phased in, phased up in terms of lifting restrictions and our economy is moving right now.

TODD: Governor Asa Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas, appreciate you coming on and sharing your perspective with us. You`re always open with us. I appreciate that. Thank you, sir.

HUTCHINSON: Good to be with you, Chuck. Thank you.

TODD: Up ahead, history is made on Capitol Hill as the House votes to make Washington, D.C. the 51st state. And history may be about to be made in Mississippi this weekend. Lawmakers want to remove the confederate emblem from the state`s flag. They may now have the votes to do it.


TODD: Welcome back. Washington, D.C. is one historic, but largely symbolic step closer to becoming America`s 51st state. The House voted today to give statehood to District of Columbia. It is the first time the legislation has been brought up since 1993, 27 years ago. Today`s vote appears to be as far as this bill is going to go, at least for now.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he will not bring it up on the Senate floor. But even if he did and it passed, President Trump doesn`t support statehood for D.C. He would almost certainly veto it, telling the New York Post last month, "You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic senators and five more congressmen? No, thank you. That will never happen."

Supporters of D.C. statehood argue the district has more people than both Vermont and Wyoming and they pay more federal taxes than 22 states. But it has no senators and only one nonvoting delegate in the House. Keep in mind, Democrats win the Senate and they scrap the filibuster, and Joe Biden is president, D.C. is the 51st state sometime next year. Just keep that in mind, if that is direction things are heading.

Up ahead, from one historic vote to another. Is Mississippi really about to change its state flag? Why this moment may very well be the best chance supporters have.


TODD: Welcome back. Right now, as President Trump is in the midst of possibly the worst week of polling in his presidency, we`re also in the midst of what appears to be a major cultural shift in this country. Just look at Mississippi. The Democratic leader of the state House of Representatives tells NBC News that they have the votes to remove the confederate emblem from the state flag. Lawmakers could begin the process any time now.

Mississippi is the last state in the country whose flag includes the emblem and nearly two-thirds of residents there voted not to remove it through republic referendum in 2001. But public opinion has shifted some in Mississippi. I say some and we`ll get to that in a minute. That state is facing mounting pressure, though, economically. Celebrities, businesses, and sports organizations are pushing hard for them to make a change and it is that pressure that might be paying off.

Writer and Republican political consultant Stuart Stevens who was born and raised in Mississippi writes today, "I ask myself now why did it take so long for me to realize what it might be like for nearly 40 percent of my state to go to school and work under a flag that represented a cause dedicated to the right to own their ancestors? It wasn`t that I was actively for the flag but that indifference was just as toxic as active support."

Stuart Stevens joins me now. Stuart, it looks like things are on the cusp of seeing this flag change. In some ways, we`re seeing it as sort of the last gasp but the confederacy symbolism is starting to go away, if NASCAR making the change that they made though it will take time to actually root it out with fans, and now Mississippi. What do you think this will mean for the state of Mississippi?

STUART STEVENS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: Well, I think you have to ask what it will mean if it doesn`t pass. It would be very negative if it doesn`t pass. It would be very positive obviously for the state. I mean, I think business has come together with cultural institutions. And this is fascinating to me.

I personally, you and I have talked about this, fascinated by the interaction of college football changing civil rights and civil rights changing college football. And yesterday, you saw --

TODD: Right.

STEVENS: -- all the coaches of all the big universities in Mississippi arguing for this. So when it starts getting personal like that, like this is going to hurt recruiting in college football, I think the odds that it is going to change are looking a lot better.

TODD: So I had one consultant friend whom you and I both know. I don`t want to name drop him now because he didn`t know he was on the record. But he said there is one fear he has if this change happens via the legislature.

That is supporters of the confederate flag symbol might put a referendum on the ballot and that would be an uncomfortable thing if suddenly the voters went the other way. How much concern would you have on that because the polling shows the state is divided on this pretty much down the middle?

STEVENS: Yeah. Listen, I think it is one of these things, change happens gradually, then it happens suddenly, and it is hard to imagine going back. I think it is going to be like segregation. I think it is going to be like gay marriage, just one of these changes.

Once it is gone and you see the positive benefits of it and there`s not going to be a paying point of changing the flag, taking the confederate battle flag out of our flag, I think people are just going to move on beyond it. The idea of trying to bring it back would be, you know, trying to refight Gettysburg. Just move on. I think this is where people will be.

TODD: Let me shift to this other project you`re on with -- there are quite a few groups now that are popping up when it comes to sort of Republicans against Trump in different ways. The never-Trumpers, the Lincoln Project, however we call them, but obviously you`ve been very involved in it. It has been very personal and frankly it seems like it is effective because the president seems to -- can`t help but respond to everything you guys have done. Has this been easier than you expected?

STEVENS: Well, you know, Donald Trump is the dog that will chase every car. And as a consultant, you always hate to have a client like that because he has no discipline.


STEVENS: He takes everything very personally. And that is how we see him as a president that it is about him and not about the country. That is a huge negative. Look, a lot of us in the Republican Party feel betrayed by Donald Trump and feel that everything that we believed in, it`s not that he`s forgotten that, that he is against.

I mean, the character counts. Now, the character doesn`t count party, strong on Russia, we`re now best friends of Putin party. All of this we have to reclaim. And look, I helped elect a lot of these people. Other people involved in Lincoln Project, I helped a lot of these people. We`re going to fight. There are a few things in life that we`re good at. We`re going to try to use those skills to affect the outcome.

TODD: Where are you -- I notice that there are some talk of trying to create, I guess, a republican committee that would be devoted to saying, vote Biden and then vote Republican in the Senate level. Is that something you`re going to get involved with, as well, or do you think some of these Republican senators are to blame for Trump?

STEVENS: I think definitely some of the Republican senators are to blame for Trump. I think it is really an abdication of responsibility. Once you get elected, why hold office if you`re not going to fight for that which you said you believe? And there`s a whole host series of things that we said that we believed.

Disagree on some issues but personal responsibility, character counts, pro- legal immigration -- Ronald Reagan announced it from the Statue of Liberty, signed a bill to make everyone in the country born after 1983 legal -- free trade. These are things that are passionately -- just the decency of it. There are things you have to fight for. If you`re not going to fight the sort of a basic fundamental decency in government, I really don`t know why you want to be involved in politics.

TODD: Yeah, I know. When a political party is simply a vehicle for elections, you sort of -- it looks like a party has lost its way. Anyway, Stuart Stevens, appreciate you for being here. It will be interesting to watch this weekend vote but I got to think, if they`re voting, then they must have the votes.

I want to plug. You got a new book coming out, "It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump," and it is due out on August 4th. We will be looking for that.

Up ahead, we already talked a little about sports and the impact on the flag debate in Mississippi. But are sports teams ready to get back on the field in the midst of two national crises?


TODD: Welcome back. In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, major sport leagues have spent months planning how they`ll return to play. But probably it will be the players who get the final say and if they do. This morning, on the same day, the NBA finalized their plan to return 16 NBA players tested positive for COVID-19 with deadlines to off-dinner (ph), off out of playing approaching (ph). Athletes have to weigh if those cases are a deal breaker.

Some have already made that choice. Four NBA players already opted out before those test results were even released. And they are not alone. When the National Women`s Soccer League`s Challenge Cup kicks off tomorrow, it will be without some of the star players from last year`s World Cup team including Megan Rapinoe.

But it is not only health concerns that have players examining their priorities. Some athletes are arguing this moment is bigger than sports. WNBA players, including 2019 champion Natasha Cloud, have announced they will before going to 2020 season to do social justice work in this election year.

Joining me now is Howard Bryant. He is a senior writer at ESPN. Howard, it`s been interesting here. I`m curious how you think the leagues in general have -- let`s focus on the four major sports in this country -- how they`ve handles this and whether they`ve been a little too focused on their bottom line and not focused on their players.

HOWARD BRYANT, SENIOR WRITER, ESPN: That`s always been the question. That`s been the question since March. Are you calloused (ph) by trying to get out to play or are you really paying attention to the larger implications? I remember when this first started in the first week of March. I was stunned by the number of people in the game who thought that this was a massive overreaction. Then, obviously, we found out that it wasn`t.

The problem, Chuck, is that sports doesn`t know what to do. Sports has always taken the lane, that in times of national crises, sports is the healer. What do you do with a crisis like this when actual -- when sports becomes the problem? Nobody is going to sit around 50,000 of their best friends. That is not going to happen here.

So now, you begin to push back and now you have to sort of reconsider where your role is in a crisis like this. And sports has not quite figured it out yet. I understand the pressure to get on with it, the feeling that helps the country to get on with it. But you still have these players who have to go play and leave their family.

TODD: You know, Howard, there is -- I`m going to paraphrase this NBA GM. The athletic did a survey of NBA GMs this last week. And one of them said, look, maybe this will work, and the bubble will work, and yes, there will be some positive cases, but they`ll be mild and they`ll be OK.

But what if there is the worst case scenario and a player is so stricken that something tragic happens? Then the question is going to be, is that worth it? Was it worth it? How much of that conversation is being had now at the league level?

BRYANT: I don`t think it being had nearly enough for two reasons. One, I don`t think they`re thinking worst case scenario. I think they`re thinking worst case scenario for us is look at the amount of money we`re losing, look at what`s happening with major league baseball. These two sides, owners and players have been battling back and forth over margin. They`re not really arguing over safety. They`re arguing over margins.

And then the other thing is that the public continues to look at it a couple of ways. One of the issues that the public has had is that they look at it as treating athletes as if they`re essential workers or soldiers or paid by the federal government.

TODD: Right.

BRYANT: The other thing, of course, as you know and I know, Chuck, is the money. People look at the athletes as, well, you`ve got less to lose. You`ve got hundreds of millions of dollars. They`re looking at it as people always look at athletes. Well, because you`re rich, therefore, you don`t have the right to say anything.

And I think you bring up a really great point. What happens, worst case scenario, if a player really gets ill or player`s family gets sick or something like this happens? And now we`re having a very, very different conversation because the players don`t really matter. That`s the bottom line.

TODD: But in some ways, the players have never been more empowered. And I think -- all the way, I think on the college level, while they don`t have actual power, they have rhetorical power and they have the public, I think, largely on their side when it comes to prioritizing their health or prioritizing social justice right now.

And for instance, on the college level, do you think -- I don`t feel like I see this but it doesn`t seem as if the head coaches and the athletic directors realize that these college students are very likely to walk out on them if they push them too far on forcing them to play.

BRYANT: The college level is different, Chuck, because you can`t throw money at the college. You can`t look at the freshmen and sophomores and say, oh, you guys are billionaires or multibillionaires. You can`t use that argument.

The other reason why college is having a problem is because you`ve got this huge disparity between the players who are uncompensated and the coaches who are making $50, $60, and $70 million. And then I think the other part of it that makes it really interesting, as we saw four years ago with the University of Missouri, the players do have power. If the players want to walk, they can shut down the entire college system.

The question of amateurism is really being brought up. How can you have campuses that are shut down across the country in September and then expect the players to go out and play? Aren`t they students, too? How can you have a shutdown campus if the athletes are out there playing? That may have to be employees (INAUDIBLE).

TODD: Bottom line, Howard, do you actually expect professional leagues to fully be able to have any seasons?

BRYANT: I don`t. I don`t. I think they`re going to start -- you got to shut it down. Look at the NFL. Already shut down the hall of fame game.

TODD: Yeah.

BRYANT: Everyone is expecting it. I don`t see it. I really don`t. Start, yes, finish, no.

TODD: Yeah, that`s what it seems to me, as well. Howard Bryant from ESPN, it is always a pleasure to get permission to have you on, a competing media conglomerate. We always appreciate your perspective, sir. Thanks very much. We`ll be right back.


TODD: Well, that`s all we have for tonight. What a week, huh? We will be back on Monday with more "MEET THE PRESS DAILY." And if it`s Sunday, it`s "Meet the Press" on NBC.