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Transcript: The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, September 21, 2020

Guests: Chuck Rosenberg, Nahid Bhadelia, Lahnee Chen


Despite botched COVID-19 response, President Donald Trump claims "early actions" prevented millions of deaths. Supreme Court vacancy raises stakes of 2020 race. Trump says he'll pick a woman to fill SCOTUS seat, claims Biden would pack court with "radicals." CDC abruptly removes guidance about airborne coronavirus. Republicans have the votes to confirm a nominee to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Supreme Court seat before the election. Donald Trump cuts Joe Biden's lead in key battleground states. Humans are as much to blame for increased wildfire risk as climate change.


LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Well, good evening once again, day 1,341 of this Trump administration 43 days to go until our presidential election. Eight days remain until that first presidential debate.

We begin this Monday night this new week with a presidency with even more on the line than before if possible. The fight over a Supreme Court vacancy has injected a new measure of uncertainty into a campaign already drugged by a global pandemic that has now taken over 200,000 American lives. It's a sorry and massive milestone that just arrived. It's almost too large to comprehend.

Tonight in Ohio remaining true to form, Trump didn't mention the 200,000 lives loss but framed his handling of the coronavirus crisis as a success.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: We have three vaccines right now that are right there. They're right at the starting gate, and they're going to be fantastic. So it's great.

And with Biden, if you had that with the regime, you would be -- you'd be three years away because they would have never gotten out of the FDA, what we've done in a very safe manner is amazing, our bold and early action saved millions of lives. We're developing these great vaccines and that's going to be literally these will be done in record time like nobody's ever done it before.


WILLIAMS: This, of course, if you've been following along is not the first time that Trump has praised his own performance when it comes to dealing with this virus.


TRUMP: Think of the number two points to potentially 2.2 million people if we did nothing. And so if we could hold that down, as we're saying to 100,000, between 100,000 and 200,000 we all together have done a very good job.

If we do a really good job we'll be at about 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.

We're rounding the corner of the pandemic and we've done a phenomenal job not just a good job, a phenomenal job. On the job itself we take it a plus.


WILLIAMS: In Wisconsin Biden hammered Trump for his response as he tried to keep the focus squarely on the impact of this virus.


JOE BIDEN, (D) U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What worries me now is we've been living with this pandemic for so long, we're risking becoming numb to the toll it has taken on us and our country. The President knew of these dangers back in February, and he hid it from the American people. He said he didn't want to see the American people panic. He didn't want to panic them. Trump panicked. The virus was too big for him. With this crisis, a real crisis, the crisis that required serious presidential leadership, he just wasn't up to it. He froze.


WILLIAMS: This pandemic is now the fourth largest mass casualty event in American history. The other three are the Civil War, World War II and the pandemic of 1918. As this 2020 pandemic rages across our country, there's now good reason to question what we are hearing and not hearing from the CDC.

Just days ago, the agency posted official guidance on its website that indeed the virus was mainly spread through the air. But this morning that guidance disappeared into thin air. The CDC now says the posting was a draft that was placed there prematurely. But this comes as the agency is under fire for another reversal on the matter of testing, more on that ahead.

As we mentioned the Supreme Court vacancy following the death Friday of Justice Ginsburg has added new urgency to the campaign. Trump has made it clear he plans to name a replacement and expects Republicans in the Senate to vote to confirm as soon as possible, meaning before the November 3 election. Tonight at his rally where his campaign handed out signs to the crowd that read, fill the seats. He boasted about his plans and warns supporters about a potential Biden court.


TRUMP: I will soon announce a nominee for the United States Supreme Court.

Probably announced a person, I don't want to make them into angry. It will be a woman, is that OK.

Biden has refuse to list the names of his potential justices because he knows they're too extreme to withstand any form of public review. If Joe Biden, the Democrats take power, they will pack the Supreme Court with far left radicals who will unilaterally transform American society, far beyond recognition. They will mutilate the law, disfigure the constitution and oppose a socialist vision from the bench.


WILLIAMS: Two names that have emerged as front runners, our federal judges, Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa, both have the seal of approval from conservative legal groups. Trump met with Judge Barrett today at the White House and before leaving for Ohio, he indicated would announce his choice by the end of this week.


TRUMP: I would say on Friday or Saturday, I'll be announcing the pick. We'll make a decision probably Saturday but Friday or Saturday. I'd much rather have a vote before the election. Because there's a lot of work to be done and I'd much rather have it. We have plenty of time to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would be your concern if the vote happened after Election Day?

TRUMP: No concern. I just think it would be better. That's what I rather have it. I'd rather have it before the election. I think it would be better for our country.


WILLIAMS: Republicans say there's no reason for them not to name and vote on a replacement because the Senate and the White House are held by the same party by their figuring. This afternoon Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer faced off on the Senate floor.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) KENTUCKY MAJORITY LEADER: President Trump's nominee for this vacancy will receive a vote on the floor of the Senate. The Senate has more than sufficient time to process a nomination.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) NEW YORK MINORITY LEADER: The Senate has never confirmed a nominee to the Supreme Court this close to a presidential election. Four brave Senate Republicans may be the Senate's only last hope.


WILLIAMS: Republican senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine have said they oppose voting before the presidential election.

We have yet to hear from Mitt Romney. And this is important, this is a test of Mitt Romney make no mistake about it. But it is looking unlikely that Chuck Schumer will be able to get the four Republicans he needs to stop this process. Shortly before she died, Justice Ginsburg had expressed her dying wish that her seat not be filled until a new president was elected. She in fact dictated it to her granddaughter who typed it into her laptop at bedside and read it back to the Justice who approved. Here is how Trump reacted to that news during an interview with Fox News.


TRUMP: I don't know that she said that or was that written out by Adam Schiff and Schumer and Pelosi. I would be more inclined to the second, OK, you know, that come out of the wind. It's so beautiful. But that sounds like a Schumer deal or maybe Pelosi or for shifty Schiff. So that came out of the wind, let's say I mean, maybe she did. Maybe she didn't.


WILLIAMS: Meanwhile, the nation will formally honor the late Justice Ginsburg later this week. She will lie in repose at the Supreme Court Wednesday and Thursday. She will then lie in state at the U.S. Capitol on Friday. The first woman afforded that honor in the history of our country.

It's a lot to talk about. Tonight as we start a new week, let's bring in our leadoff discussion on a Monday night. Ashley Parker, Pulitzer Prize-winning White House Reporter for The Washington Post, Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney and former senior FBI official and Mara Gay, member of the New York Times Editorial Board, a former New York City Hall Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, also happens to be a COVID-19 survivor. Good evening, and welcome to you all.

Ashley, I want to play for you a little bit more of the Trump-Bob Woodward recordings we got to hear over the past 72 hours. This is about the appointment of judges.


TRUMP: I just signed my 187th federal judge. It's a record 187 judges in less than three years, Bob. And two Supreme Court judges, never been done before. The only one that has a better percentage is George Washington, because he appointed 100%. But my percentage is, you know, like, ridiculous.


WILLIAMS: Ashley, there's no other way to put this as the White House somewhat perversely hoping that even a fight over the Supreme Court will distract attention away from 200,000 debt.

ASHLEY PARKER, THE WASHINGTON POST, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That was one of the first things we heard when we found out the President had this third vacancy, was from allies and people on his team that this is a great respect for him from talking about coronavirus. And also, frankly not just about talking about or in his case trying to avoid, talking about the 200,000 dead, but just going off message in general and talking about things that they don't want him to talk about 43 days before the election, this is a clear message. It's one he understands. He understands the importance of these picks going back to 2016, when he released that first list of men and women from him, he would choose a Supreme Court Judge, and he understands how politically important this is for him.

So there was this hope that this is a good issue. This is potentially a very good fight for them to have in some ways it brings them back to cultural issues where the President himself is quite comfortable. And as you said, it's not coronavirus, and it's not 200,000 in counting dead Americans.

WILLIAMS: Mara, I guess except for the 200,000 souls who were alive at the beginning of this year, and are now gone. I guess that's how the President is grading his response and a plus. I'm curious how a survivor of this wicked illness reacts to comments like that?

MARA GAY, THE NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: You know, I woke up this morning, and I saw this very sad story about a young woman named Adeline Fagan, just a few years younger than I. She's 28 years old, an ob-gyn resident doctor, down in Houston, originally from New York, had been on a ventilator for some time and died early Saturday morning of COVID, 28 years old.

And I bring her name up, because I think when we hear 200,000 deaths, very easy to put it aside, it's almost so large, it's hard to comprehend. But each death is a person with hopes and dreams and a future. And that was denied and a family behind these folks. And then on top of it, we have the cost of hundreds of thousands of others, like myself who've been suffering for months with lingering symptoms, and then you have people who have lost their jobs and it goes on and on and on.

I think it's a scandal of massive proportions. And I really don't -- I don't think that Donald Trump is going to be able to successfully distract from that. I would say, though, that my frustration with the court battle right now is also that, you know, the Republicans -- And I would hope it would be the same if the Democrats were doing this, but the Republicans are -- this is not about Democratic process. This is about raw power. And my concern is that you have a political party that is trying to cement minority rule. And that's just an unhealthy situation. It doesn't matter if the Democrats or Republicans, in this case, it happens to be Republicans doing this. So I think that focus on this process being a legitimate is the Democrats best hope. But I also think that we should not forget the toll that's being levied every day on American families. We're losing people that we don't have to lose.

My problem is this is tragic. This is not an act of God. This is not a hurricane. It has come and it's unavoidable that people are dying. Trump failed to contain the virus. He failed to implement the testing and tracing program nationally. And he's failed to take it seriously. And so his supporters have failed to do so as well and people are dying.

WILLIAMS: Chuck Rosenberg, amid all the other news we're covering and talking about tonight, we invited you on to talk about in part, the story in Mara's newspaper that the New York DA may investigate Donald Trump for tax fraud. What does this mean to us lay folks?

CHUCK ROSENBERG, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, for first thing, Brian, I don't think it's terribly surprising. We knew quite a bit about Mr. Trump's finances, and the books and records of the Trump Organization. We knew about shady payments to porn stars, and power wars that had been concealed. We knew that there had been subpoenas issued for financial records to banks into an accounting firm. And so it makes perfect sense to me as a former federal prosecutor, that if financial records or false, business records are false, there's a pretty good chance that tax records are false too.

And so, logically, the district attorney in Manhattan sigh this and his team are looking at tax records. Makes perfect sense, it's exactly where a financial fraud investigation ought to go. You look at tax returns, you look at bank records, you look at insurance forms. You look at anything that reports numbers to see if they're consistent and to see if they're accurate. My guess in the end is you're going to find a lot of discrepancies and perhaps a lot of problems and crimes too.

WILLIAMS: Ashley, I note that Larry Kudlow is now saying the U.S. has regained control of the virus. I'm tempted to say, I wouldn't want to see this virus out of control if we've already lost 200,000 souls. Clearly the effort is to ignore the elephant in the room, the giant fatal elephant in the room 28 states are showing levels on the upswing. What is the campaign's travel strategy that you know of in trying to change the subject? And is there any visual manifestation? Do you covering this campaign, this White House that they're short on money?

PARKER: Well, the travel schedule is basically to start with that, that the President has quietly returned to doing rallies, the sorts of events you would absolutely not hold in this pandemic, the sorts of events that his own public health advisors and scientists have generally banned and that are banned in a number of states. It was sort of a quiet return, has largely been outdoor events. Although he did of course do that indoor event in Nevada. And night we saw what was basically a rally doubleheader. He had an event Friday. He had an event Saturday. He had two rallies basically tonight and Ohio. He goes to Pittsburgh. Tomorrow, he's in Jacksonville on Thursday. We're hearing he may have events over the weekend. So this is a president and you see how he is so animated being the backup there. The Post, we like to use this analogy a lot. I think I probably mentioned on your show, but he sort of this teapot, boils and boils and has to let off some steam. And you do see that in the comments he's making and it allows him to pretend that the coronavirus basically does not exist. But for the people who are in the shot directly behind him who all do end up wearing MAGA masks, much of the crowd is unmasked. There is basically no social distance going on.

And just today I was struck by, again, the President sort of pretending this virus away and a throwaway line that I dealt was on the teleprompter. He just said, everybody open the schools now. Well, there's a reason the schools are closed. It's because we're in the middle of a pandemic in these states. And these school systems have made a decision that is not safe for the students or their families to return. But the campaign in these rallies gets trumped the chance to create this illusion that the current reality is not what it is.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I saw that very same moment, you're talking about.

Hey, Mara, because the business of governing goes on the DOJ has proclaimed New York, Portland and Seattle, anarchist cities on top of the president a week ago talking about blue states. They're of course, American cities, and they're, of course, American states. And what does this do to a democracy in your view?

GAY: You know, I saw some folks, even friends of mine, joking about this on Twitter, because if you live in New York, you walk out of your house, and most of the time, what you see is beautiful trees, birds, children playing. So certainly it doesn't look like anarchy people were joking about it. But I actually didn't think it was funny at all.

The reality is that this is the federal government and Donald Trump using the federal government that is supposed to serve all Americans to actually vilify and other eyes, large swaths of the American public and American citizens.

And the question that I have is, I don't know what the end game is. Is this about defunding city's police departments or otherwise? Is this a precursor to some kind of federal takeover? All of which has been threatened before. I think it's very disturbing. And I think it also makes it much easier for other Americans who don't live in cities, especially are part of Donald Trump's base, to think of us who live in cities and who lives in cities, immigrants, Jews, gays, blacks, other minorities, liberals, right, to other eyes, us think of us as something other than American, something else less than human. And it makes it easy to forget about the suffering that we've endured in this pandemic.

WILLIAMS: Chuck, this is your beloved department of justice that that made this finding, anarchist cities in the United States. Is there any limit to what Barr won't do at the request and behest of his boss?

ROSENBERG: Not that I've seen so far. You know Mara has stated it, Brian, so eloquently. I just wish for once this president would understand what we have in common and stop trying to divide us. As she said, there are voters in blue states who voted for Trump and voters in red states who did not. But we're all Americans. In the end, we all care about the same things. Black, white, rich, poor, urban or rural, it really doesn't matter. This is the same damn country, Brian, and we need somebody who cares enough about all of us to try and united.

And it gets old, frankly, to hear Mr. Trump divide us and to hear Mr. Barr play along to your earlier question, to your question to me I've been deeply disappointed in the Attorney General of the United States. He seems to believe that you can divide and conquer. You can only divide and divide further. And this is harming all of us, regardless of where you live, what God you pray to what you believe in, red or blue. We have something in common as Americans, and we need a president and frankly, an attorney general who will recognize that and embrace that. And we clearly don't have either of that in these two people right now.

WILLIAMS: Well put. With thanks to our big three on a Monday night as we start yet another new week, Ashley Parker, Chuck Rosenberg, Mara Gay, greatly appreciate you starting us off tonight gang.

Coming up, the CDC started sounding like the CDC of all over the weekend. The CDC, we grew up with, competent, solid, believable, but they've taken it back. So, is there an institution still out there that we can believe in a pandemic? We will ask our own public health expert, the doctor indeed is standing by.

And later the highest court in the land braces for the lowest form of politics. And only eight days until the candidates square off in the first presidential debate of the season. As they say, what could go wrong? All of it as THE 11TH HOUR is just getting underway on a Monday night.


WILLIAMS: On Sunday, the National Cathedral in D.C. told it's morning bell once for every 1000 coronavirus deaths in our country officially marking the grim milestone of 200,000 souls lost.

Tonight the President spoke as we said in front of two large crowds in Ohio where attendees were closely packed in together pre pandemic seating. Again, he touted his administration's rush for a vaccine. Signs of Trump's October vaccines surprise at least the possibility of it are alarming scientists.

Kaiser Health News reports, "A growing number of prominent health leaders say they fear that Trump will take matters into his own hands, running roughshod over the usual regulatory process."

We are so happy to have us have with us again Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease physician, Medical Director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston University School of Medicine. She worked with the WHO back when we were a member nation during the West African Ebola pandemic and is among our medical contributors.

So Doctor, perhaps in the September air today, you detected the whiff of autocracy. When the CDC statement came out over the weekend, those of us who read it and a good number of people reacted on social media as if to say, OK, this makes sense, it's aerosolized, they've learned more. So they're tweaking the guidance, the guidance has gone away. Who are we left to believe in a pandemic, if we've now diminished the believability of the CDC?

DR. NAHID BHADELIA, INFECTIOUS DISEASES PHYSICIAN: Brian, I just want to start by saying Mara Gay's words in that last segment and just reflecting on this 200,000 people dead, you know, I'm heartbroken. I'm heartbroken as a healthcare worker, as an American. As someone who's worked in outbreaks know, you and I talked about this West Africa epidemic when we left that in 2015, nobody said 11,000 deaths, this will never happen again, we will build resilience and it is heartbreaking to watch our country with this resilience with its resources suffer so badly in this pandemic, or for something that could have been prevented, you know, and the thing I think that breaks my heart as a public health expert is watching this credibility of our public health organizations just daily diminish. It's been the steady but consistent narrowing of the sources of information from this administration from the beginning.

You know, we stopped hearing independently from the CDC scientists. We stopped -- we started having those COVID taskforce meetings. We stopped having those COVID Staff Task Force meetings. We started hearing this CDC's morbidity and mortality, weekly reports are being manipulated. We saw the FDA tout the evidence around a treatment that wasn't as effective as they said it was. And now you see these changes in the CDC guidelines.

I've worked in other countries where you've seen fledgling democracies are governances that are not that strong, where they do this, where they try to power grab or control information. I guess I just never expected to see this and in this vibrant democracy of ours.

And your concern is right, I hate to say this, but as we get to this release of vaccine, it's great to see the transparency from the manufacturers releasing their protocols. I worry that we might need more eyes on this. And one thing that we could do, I think is there's an organization, for example, the National Medical Association, which is an organization for black physicians, by black physicians that was putting together an independent taskforce looking at vaccine data. We may want to ask for that, having an independent task force with other professional organizations that look at the data. And I think the White House and the HHS should accept that, should promote that because it might actually help with vaccine hesitancy. It might help set people's minds at rest.

WILLIAMS: And to the point you just made, can you understand that people might have reason to doubt a vaccine that the President is all but telegraphing to us may have been rushed to market to facilitate a reelection campaign?

BHADELIA: I think we just have to see it happen night, the night before the RNC. When you saw the FDA sort of come out with convalescent plasma, you know, touting this as this miracle treatment which, you know, it is not. We've had access to it. We haven't seen it sort of change the field is have been incrementally helpful.

So yes, it does make you wonder, it makes me wonder, it makes me wonder. There is a likelihood potentially that might we have a vaccine, but politicizing it in this way or rushing the timeline is only eroding the trust in the process even more, using it as part of a political campaign rally, as a talking point is only eroding the trust in it even more.

I will just end with this, you know, 200,000 dead, I don't remember seeing a statement marking or reflecting this from the White House or the president, or any member of the COVID-19 Task Force. Maybe I missed it. But, you know, we're grieving as a country and I haven't seen that from the very people who are responsible for this response.

WILLIAMS: Yes, you haven't seen that because it doesn't exist and by the end of this broadcast, we'll likely be at 201,000 for our death toll. Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, thank you as always and to our audience. These are the public health experts we've come to rely on.

Coming up one of our next guest has this advice for the Democrats, don't panic dot, dot, dot yet. We'll ask him to explain what he wrote over the weekend when we come right back.



SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC) SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: We've got the bose (ph) to confirm Justice Ginsburg replacement before the. We're going to move forward in the committee. We're going to report the nomination out of the committee to the floor of the United States Senate so we can vote before the election. That's the constitutional process. After Kavanaugh everything changed with me. They're not going to intimidate me, Mitch McConnell or anybody else.


WILLIAMS: That's the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, earlier tonight on Fox News. You heard the man he's got the votes. We just don't have any idea who the nominee will be.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not rule out impeachment as a way to delay Trump's nominee. If Biden wins, it's a mess. And for more, I'm joined by Jason Johnson, veteran journalist contributor over at the Grieux and a professor at Morgan State University. Lahnee Chen is back with us as well research fellow at the Hoover Institution, former policy director for the Romney-Ryan 2012. Effort more on that in a bit and notably a former senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services, who is old enough to remember when it was a credible arm of government. Gentlemen, good evening to you both.

Jason, you over the weekend, wrote Democrats shouldn't freak out yet. Explain.

JASON JOHNSON, PROFESSOR, MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, the basic issue is this. As of right now, it is unlikely unlikely things may change, that the Republicans are going to put in a brand new nominee before the election, it's very likely that they'll wait until sometime during the lame duck, which means the Democrats still have a chance, I'll be at slight to change the dynamics of what could happen in replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if they managed to take over the Senate.

I think a lot of people got upset in the moment of her passing because of her great judicial history because of her accomplishments. But they forgot the reality that we're at, which is Mitch McConnell made it very clear, as long as he said it, Majority Leader, no Democrat will ever put another nominee on the Supreme Court.

So Democrats shouldn't be freaking out. This is a reminder of the reality. And as strange as it may be, for people to think about this, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passing as tragic as it may be, personally, a tragic and maybe politically is actually a net positive for Democrats, when it comes to the election, losing a liberal justice will incentivize more democratic voters to turn out than Republicans. And we saw that in 2018, that's probably going to happen in 2020.

WILLIAMS: Lahnee about your former boss, Mitt Romney, what's the chance he gathers up all of his courage and patriotism, and joins Collins and Murkowski?

LAHNEE CHEN, FMR. SR. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Brian, I haven't spoken to him. So this is not, you know, coming from him. This is just sort of my instinct, I think, regardless of -- I don't think he's made a decision in particular yet. I think regardless of the way he goes, I think he is going to give this a lot of thought and consideration.

What I come back to is at the end of the day, Brian, he is a constitutional conservative, and he is a Republican. People forget that sometimes, but it is true. And so I would expect if I had to guess that he ends up voting with Senator McConnell on this, I could be wrong, could be proven wrong, certainly. But my guess based on what I know of him, what I know of his record, what I know of his past, and what I know of what he cares about, is that this is something that, you know, is consistent with his view of the world in terms of putting a conservative justice on the Supreme Court.

So I think that's how it's going to end up but, you know, I'm certainly it wouldn't be the first time that I'd be surprised by him. That's for sure.

WILLIAMS: All right. Jason, I hate to do this to you here is the senior senator from South Carolina in 2018, notably after the Kavanaugh hearing,


GRAHAM: If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump's term, and the primary process is started. We'll wait to the next election. And I've got a pretty good chance being the judiciary --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're on the record.



GRAHAM: Hold the tape.


WILLIAMS: Jason, how shocked are you that he's not keeping his word?

JOHNSON: Brian, it was it was hard to hear that audio over the sounds that Jamie Harrison catching up with him in the polls. Look, I'm not surprised that Lindsey Graham is a hypocrite. He is a survivalist by all levels. And the aggression with which he's talking about putting Trump's nominee and having a vote before 2020 is because for the first time in 20 years in his political life, he is in danger. He's actually facing real competition and Jamie Harrison, but I think right now it's a lot of bluster.

I don't think Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell can guarantee that this vote will co occur before the election and depending on what happens in the election, you may have more Republicans who were concerned apprehensive about the decision of choosing someone if Donald Trump has moved out of office but Lindsey Graham being a hypocrite, he's been that guy for most of his career.

WILLIAMS: Both of these gentlemen have agreed to stay with us I have to fit a commercial break in just ahead when we continue talking votings underway in some places. The first debate let's not forget, as a week away, it's beginning to look a lot like a general election during a pandemic, a status report when we come back.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My plan is to crush the virus. Biden plan and Biden's really plan is -- and it's not -- it's not that he wants to crush America. But he will just out of gross incompetence. Biden will surrender to the virus.

JOE BIDEN (D), DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I'm running as a proud Democrat but I'm not going to govern as a democratic president. I'm going to dump governance president.


WILLIAMS: President had a near miss there with a teleprompter failure. Their first debate happens next week. They spent today working in states that they both badly need in the general election. Trump as we said head to stops in Ohio. Biden spent part of his day in Wisconsin.

Jason Johnson, Lahnee Chen remain here with us. Lahnee, the question I try to ask every night folks from both sides of the political aisle. And Jason don't get cocky because I'm coming to you after this with the same question, is Joe Biden in your view, and I realize this takes some mental exercise is Joe Biden doing the most with what he gets handed from this incumbent every day?

CHEN: I don't know that he is. I think if his campaign, you know, like part of this is the pandemic understanding that this campaign is going to be different than any previous campaign. That having been said we are at a phase of the campaign now where he does need to be out there I think a little bit more. I think he needs to be staying on message which he is certainly thus far appeared more capable of doing. And the President is I mean, it's sort of part of the President's MO to say whatever it is that's on the top of his head, whether it's on message or not.

But for the Biden team, I think two things are crucially important. One is really focusing in on message and making sure whether it's coronavirus, whether it's the economy, whatever they want to focus on, that they are focused on that and they're focused on it pretty intently.

But the second thing is, I think they need to demonstrate a level of activity if the knock on Joe Biden is that he's older, he's lost a step, et cetera, I do think that having him out a little bit more at this stage of the campaign is an important thing to do, particularly leading into that first debate next week.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Johnson, same question.

Hey, Jason, you're muted.

Jason can't hear you. Hang on.

No, I can tell you're making sense. I can tell you're making a brilliant point. But we just can't hear.

This is going to -- it's going to earn you a return appearance so we can hear some of this. Brilliance. All right. Lahnee, your prediction on the first debate, what do you think could be the dynamic? And how, how do these change as fluid events because we get to have more than one?

CHEN: Yes, well, each debate sets the tone for the next debate. And there it certainly isn't, is a series, right. So what happens in one will affect what happens in the next one. I think the biggest challenge and this I remember this from preparing Marco Rubio when he had to debate Donald Trump in the primaries in 2016. You know, it's hard to prepare in terms of debating Donald Trump because you just don't know what's going to come out of his mouth, you don't know where the attack lines are going to be. You have a sense of maybe where he wants to go. And so I think that lack of predictability makes it tough.

But again, if Biden's able to stay on message, if he's able particularly to drive the coronavirus point home or if he's able to figure out a way to get underneath the President's skin, that may carry over from that first debate to the second debate.

I think the stakes are higher for Biden. They generally are higher for the non-incumbent. And so in this situation, we're going to see kind of how well Biden's been prepared if he's ready. But definitely it's a tough thing to get ready for debating Donald Trump.

WILLIAMS: Yes, and as we've been saying, with various guests over the last couple of weeks, Trump has been speaking without time limits for the better part of four years. So made that may come to a shock. As a shock to him, wait till he finds out how quickly 90 seconds goes by.

Speak of the same issue. Jason Johnson, we owe you a return visit when we can hear you. Lahnee Chen, we're glad we could hear you tonight. Thank you. Good to see you both again.

Coming up for us. A new term has been introduced into the lexicon, climate refugees, and we urge you to see this next story because these families may look a lot like your own.


WILLIAMS: Welcome back. And let's please not forget the ongoing rolling tragedy of the Western wildfires. While some of them have been brought under control, others have started up and the scarring of the landscape, this fire season has been the worst in history.

The definition of what's considered the burn region has changed families who have been through it, but would like to stay and rebuild face any enormous decision. We get our report tonight from NBC News correspondent Steve Patterson.


STEVE PATTERSON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a disastrous new normal, catastrophic fires once contained to one season. Now a harrowing year round battle.

A major factor climate change.

JENNIFER BALCH, UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER FIRE SCIENTIST: There are tens of millions of people that are choking on climate change right now as a function of the smoke that these fires are producing.

PATTERSON: In the last 40 years fall temperatures in California have increased about two degrees, while precipitation has dropped about 30 percent. And with acres of overgrown forest, there's more fuel to burn. It's not just in the countryside.

BALCH: We've essentially built a nightmare into flammable landscapes made even worse by climate change.

PATTERSON: Over 100 million homes now on what's called the wildland-urban interface, where neighborhoods and forests meet.

BALCH: Instead, Smokey Bear in the middle of the woods, we need a smooth Smokey Bear in the middle of suburbia.

JENNIFER ROSAE (ph), RESIDENT: We left two hours before the house burned down.

PATTERSON: In 2017, the Tubbs fire tore through the city of Santa Rosa.

(on camera): Today, nearly 80 percent of the homes that were destroyed here have been or are being rebuilt. And while the community is coming back, the pain still lingers.

ROSAE (ph): I have this just in my nightstand with what we need to take if we have to go,

PATTERSON: Jennifer and Paul Rosae are rebuilt for a new climate.

ROSAE (ph): So there's about I think five or six feet between the house and the and the wooden fence.

PATTERSON: New features are now required for fireproofing, including more defensible space, non-combustible materials and covered chimney outlets to prevent escaping embers. But the Rosae's say they're still living in fear of losing it all again, and are seriously considering moving away altogether becoming climate refugees.

ROSAE (ph): It makes us feel very trapped. It makes you feel like there's nowhere to go. Having to live like that is emotionally unsustainable.

PATTERSON: If the fires are this bad now, what does it look like in five to 10 years,

BALCH: Climate change is moving fast and we need to move faster.

PATTERSON: A harrowing forecast for our planet and a grave new world for families. Steve Patterson, NBC News, Santa Rosa, California.


WILLIAMS: And coming up for us tonight what it looks like, what it sounds like when grown adults reverse their own deeply held views out loud and in public because they have sworn their loyalty to one man above all that when we come back.


WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight, it's incredible to see what has happened to Republicans in the U.S. Senate. It's a big deal to serve in the U.S. Senate there are only 100 seats to per state. They are all big deals back in their home states unless or until they're not.

What's extraordinary is the degree to which these men and women have signed over their offices, their votes for the most part, and their good names to this president. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, these men and women are scared of getting tweeted at and really scared the president who has taken over their political party will endorse a primary challenger.

And over at the Lincoln Project while putting together the ad we're about to show you. The problem in the Edit Room this weekend was not finding enough examples of hypocrisy on the part of Republicans, but keeping it to just 60 seconds.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The next president, whoever that may be, is going to be the person who chooses the next Supreme Court justice.

SEN. THOM TILLIS (R-NC): It is essential to the institution of the Senate and to the very health of our republic not to launch our nation into a partisan, divisive conformation battle during the very same time the American people are casting ballots to elect our next president.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): It's up to the American people in this next election to make the nomination for this important seat on the Supreme Court.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): For the last eight years the Senate has not confirmed any nominee nominated during an election year, and we should not do so this time, either.

TILLIS: We're not going to nominate a Supreme Court justice until the people have spoken.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): There's going to be an election. And then the new president will have an opportunity to nominate someone in the Senate to confirm them.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R-IA): The people deserve to be heard. And they should be allowed to decide through their vote for the next president, the type of person that should be on the Supreme Court.

CRUZ: That's the right thing to do. And it's the respect that the American people are owed.

GRAHAM: If there's a Republican president in 2016. And a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let's let the next president whoever it might be made that nomination and you could use my words against me and you'd be absolutely right.

TRUMP: I think the next president should make the pick. I would be not in favor of going forward.


WILLIAMS: They are nothing if not principle the rock solid Republicans in the U.S. Senate to play us off the air through the lens of the mostly four Republicans at the Lincoln Project.

And that is our broadcast for this Monday night as we start a new week. On behalf of all my colleagues at the networks of NBC News, good night.


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