YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Domestic politics and foreign objects.
JOE BIDEN, U.S. President: I will not allow this nation to fall.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: President Biden focuses on the economy and pushes back on Republican demands over negotiations over raising the debt limit.
NIKKI HALEY, Republican Presidential Candidate: America is not past our prime, it's just that our politicians are past theirs.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And former Governor of South Carolina and U.N.
Ambassador Nikki Haley challenges former President Trump in the race to be the GOP's presidential nominee.
Plus -- SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): They don't know what they are, they haven't told anybody, they haven't told us what it is.
JOE BIDEN: I make no apologies for taking down that balloon.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: After days of criticism, President Biden defends handling of the Chinese spy balloon and downing of three other unidentified aerial objects, next.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK.
It has been another busy week in news.
And while we are a long, long way from 2024, we have got a preview this week of the messaging and challenges of the likely contenders.
For his part, President Biden kept up his criticism of congressional Republicans trying to tie raising the raising debt ceiling to federal spending cuts.
Here is on Wednesday.
JOE BIDEN: Some of our Republican friends in the House were talking about taking the economy hostage over the full faith and credit of the United States.
I will not negotiate whether or not we pay our debt.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Biden, who has yet to formally announce he is running for re-election, has published the results of his latest physical from earlier this week.
In the report, Dr. Kevin O'Connor said Biden, who has faced questions about his age, remains, quote, healthy and is, quote, fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency.
Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump's list of challenges got longer as he again runs for president.
On Tuesday, he got his first official challenger for the GOP's presidential nomination when Nikki Haley formally announced she is entering the race.
NIKKI HALEY: It is time for a new generation of leadership.
You should know this about me, I don't put up with bullies.
And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you are wearing heels.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Quite the announcement.
And Trump did criticize that announcement in a way.
On Wednesday, he told Fox News Digital, quote, I want her to follow her heart, even though she made a commitment that she would never run against who she called the greatest president of her lifetime.
Meanwhile on Thursday, a Georgia grand jury investigating Trump and his allies' efforts to overturn the 2020 election said one or more witnesses may have lied under oath while testifying.
Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House Correspondent for The New York Times, Scott MacFarlane, Congressional Correspondent for CBS News, Eva McKend, National Politics Reporter for CNN, and Ashley Parker, Senior National Political Correspondent for The Washington Post.
So, thank you all for being here.
Zolan, I want to start with you.
What is the White House's thinking this week as President Biden leaning into this economic message, leaning into -- going after Republicans on entitlements while they are juggling a whole lot?
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, White House Correspondent, The New York Times: Definitely juggling a whole lot.
It almost seems like a sort of unofficial start to some campaign messaging possibly for a likely re-election announcement, right?
I mean, talking to people around the White House and allies of the Biden administration, this is really going to be the messaging going forward.
For a while, particularly in the absence of former President Trump, who was an easy foe for them to contrast to their agenda with, they've been looking for a foe.
And in a way, they got it just before the midterms, by pointing to some of these certain proposals coming from a limited number of members of the Republican Party.
And by that, I mean sunsetting Medicare as well as social security.
For those in the White House, just pointing that out and putting a spotlight on those plans basically allows you to contrast, yes, what some say is big spending also programs they say will invest in making your quality of life better with those proposals that have been put forward.
So, while Republicans accuse the Biden White House of being irresponsible fiscally, the White House is saying, look, our policies, investing in infrastructure, capping insulin prices will improve your day-to-day lives, and look at these limited proposals.
Now, of course, members of the Republican Party would say the leaders of our party have already said that is off the table, but that still doesn't mean the messaging politically will be going away, especially for the White House going forward.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Scott, it's interesting, because what Zolan is talking about, it has really put Republicans on the defense in the middle of when they are supposed to be leaning into the fact that they have control of the House.
But now you have Senator Rick Scott on the Senate side saying, I have got to redo my policy, I'm not going to talk about cutting social security and Medicare.
Talk to me a little bit about what you make of all of this reporting on this.
SCOTT MACFARLANE, Congressional Correspondent, CBS News: Well, here we are now about two or three weeks past the actual deadline to raise the debt ceiling.
We have actually reached the max, they are buying some time but we've hit that deadline, and in the time since we've spent these weeks talking about social security and Medicare.
Who is winning the messaging battle so far if that is the case?
That's exactly the playing field on which Democrats want to have this argument.
So, that has already knocked the Republicans off message at a sensitive time because they now are controlling the U.S. House, they have this capacity and this platform with which to control the message and resonate their priorities, and instead they are talking internally about social security and Medicare.
So, in the early stages of what is going to be a very dangerous war over the debt ceiling, it appears the administration and Democrats have the upper hand.
EVA MCKEND, National Politics Reporter, CNN: And this is a real dumpster fire for Senator Scott, right?
He came up with this plan a year ago, and now a year later, he is having to edit this in public, it is quite embarrassing.
But I think it's not only a problem for him, it will be a problem for a lot of Republicans because they have, in different iterations, I think maybe not explicitly but voiced some support of reforming entitlements.
Well, that, in essence, would be cutting social security and Medicare.
And now they have to explain this.
I think this conversation only becomes even more pronounced and problematic for them as we get more focused on coming up to the debt ceiling.
ASHLEY PARKER, Senior National Correspondent, The Washington Post: And you have to keep in mind that, pre-Trump, reforming entitlements was sort of one of the key planks of being a Republican, right?
So, you have statements that Nikki Haley made, that Ron DeSantis made, when Speaker Paul Ryan was advocating for some of these cuts, being in quite favor of them, that former President Trump is now leveraging his opposition against some of his Republican rivals or would be rivals.
But the party has shifted so quickly from entitlement reform to we are not touch any of this, which, again, as Zolan said, makes sense politically.
Because if there's one thing we have learned, it's that voters hate things being taken away from them, even voters who did not vote for President Obama, who hated Obamacare, when you actually tried to take away some of the health benefits that they were enjoying, they did not like that either.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I mean, it is such a critical point when you think about what voters are thinking about and what is going to impact their lives.
Zolan, I also want to come back to you.
As we talk about health, of course, there was the physical exam that President Biden put out.
He's healthy and vigorous.
I hope my doctor would say that about me.
Talk to me a bit about Democrats, though.
Are they worried that this is the possible Achilles heel for President Biden?
I mean, his numbers obviously have been struggling sometimes, but he is popular among his own party.
Talk me about the decision to put this out, what this report might mean for him.
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: I mean, when you ask about any issue, when you ask the White House or allies of the president about any single topic, this is, I would say, the one they are the most defensive about.
Yes, it is a sensitive issue.
Now, they would say, look, something that helped was the state of the union, they would say.
I think that many folks who plan on working on any potential campaign or allied with this White House saw him going back-and-forth with Republicans and a word that I continued to hear was agile and it actually showed that that energy was there.
They are planning a traveling blitz in the weeks ahead as well.
But, look, I mean, you cannot deny that just when you look at polling data, this is also a concern among voters as well and Americans.
It does help, though, that that physical did come out.
I will say, I did some reporting this week going through previous presidents' physicals and just the history of presidential physicals.
I think one thing that's important to say is it really doesn't tell you about anything six years down the line.
It tells you maybe about something one year down the line, and also just like any other patient, the person that has discretion to about what information is made public in that physical is the president at that point.
So, I don't know if just one single physical will eliminate all concerns around that issue.
EVA MCKEND: Something that strikes me, is Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary, she often says that they have a hard time keeping up with him but he's going to have to be out here, especially if he announces he is running in 2024.
He is going to have to do a lot of what we saw him doing this week, right, speaking to union workers in places where he is very visible and touting the successes of the administration.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And it's interesting as we think about this.
I'm now, of course, in some ways, wanting to transition to the challenges that we started talking about for former President Trump.
And, Scott, I mean, this -- I was looking at the Georgia grand jury report, trying to figure out, okay, what is the news here.
What do you think is the biggest part or the biggest takeaway of this report given the fact that we didn't learn that much other than the fact that we really learned that at least one person was accused of lying before this grand jury and essentially committing perjury?
SCOTT MACFARLANE: They released part of this report.
And, ultimately, this is like a college student's stream, just three pages.
You don't need to do anything more, just give us a couple pages, you can double space it if you'd like to.
That's what came out of the Georgia grand jury after the redactions that were ordered by the court.
Two key kernels to this thing, they say that the grand jury believes at least one, if not multiple witnesses, lied and should be prosecuted for it, quite a statement to the district attorney in Fulton County.
But also that it was clear to all grand jurors there was no widespread fraud that would have impacted the election.
We already knew that but at least the grand jury gives that more foundation and more credibility.
This investigation seems to be moving quickly.
I mean, this has been measured in months, not in the years it may take this grand jury in Washington, investigating January 6th, or the many years that have gone into the New York investigation.
So, in Fulton County, there should be and there is intense focus on what comes next.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And in some ways, what comes next, we think about the fact that the primary is just around the corner.
You made a smart point to our producers that this isn't normal times.
And, of course thinking about Nikki Haley but also thinking about the fact that, as you said, there are people who are still protesting nightly in support of the January 6 defendants.
So, mesh these two things together.
You have the Georgia grand jury that's looking at efforts to overturn the 2020 election and then you have a Republican base that is still leaning into those same lies.
SCOTT MACFARLANE: There is still a vitriolic election denialism throughout America.
We see it manifest itself in Washington, D.C. just about a mile from the Capitol outside the D.C. jail, where there are number of January 6th defendants being held awaiting trial.
There are rallies there every night.
There are supporters.
And there are some defendants who are speaking with members of Congress trying to get hearings and investigations into here what they characterize is Department of Justice overreach or mistreatment of the defendants in jail.
But they now have a platform.
They have a Republican majority with members who want to have hearings.
And you have a candidate in the race who continues to deny the 2020 election results, has made that the forefront of his messaging and now you'll have other contenders who will have to answer the question, was the election legitimate and is President Biden the duly elected U.S. president, and I'm not sure what they are going to answer.
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: You've touched on this, but I also thought that was, and we've heard this before, but an interesting finding of the limited report that we got from the grand jury in Georgia.
Just the fact that the grand jury did not think that the election was fraudulent, they did not believe those claims, that was one of the findings there, too.
And there were, just when you look at the stats of Fulton County, I mean, we obviously don't know but there is a chance that some of them would be Trump supporters, too.
So, that isn't good news for the president and his allies that you could have Trump supporters on that grand jury that still don't believe these fraudulent claims of the election.
ASHLEY PARKER: And picking up on that, I mean, this is a fascinating moment for the former president the Republican primary.
Because Trump is as weak as he has ever been in certain ways.
And I just spent a couple of weeks, I spent a couple of days in two Pennsylvania counties talking more than 36 Trump voters who voted for him in 2016, many of them voted for him again in 2020, although not all of them.
And what's interesting is when you ask them who do you want to be the Republican nominee in 2024, a lot of them say, I personally like Trump, I thought he did a great job, but I would rather see someone else because I just think -- they don't blame Trump, right?
They say the media has just been unfair to him, the Democrats are so unfair, some other voters think he is a little too divisive.
So, I would prefer someone who has a better chance of winning.
So, on the one hand, there is a really strong lane for a challenger.
The flipside is they also, with a few exceptions, say, but if he runs again, he's my guy, I will absolutely 100 percent support him.
So, he has this floor he is not going to fall behind, which makes him pretty potent, but he also -- there are people who are looking for something new.
And the question is, as we're talking about right just before this just started, do Republicans re-create 2016 where there are 16 challengers, Trump gets his early 30, 35 percent and everyone else gets 7 percent, 15 percent, splits the vote and he wins again, or does the field clear and we get to see a Trump-DeSantis, a Trump-Haley, a Trump-whoever matchup, which would make him probably the most vulnerable he's been?
SCOTT MACFARLANE: In a winner-take-all primaries where 35 percent is as good as having 100 percent because you get all of the delegates even with a smaller plurality.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, of course, I want to ask you, of course, as you jump in, talk to me about Nikki Haley and what she mean, especially as she's doing this balancing act, where she's talking about the fact that she wants to be recognized as the daughter of Indian immigrants, she wants to talk about the fact that she is a woman, she could kick harder in heels, but she is against identity politics, she's going after the 1619 Project and the consequences of slavery.
She's doing this balancing act.
She's also not going after Trump directly, but saying at one point we should go past the, quote, stale names of the past.
So, Eva, break this down.
EVA MCKEND: Yes, she wants all of the things.
Listen, ultimately, she was trying to make this generational argument when she's asked about Trump.
She said she doesn't kick sideways, she kicks forward and she will focus her energy in her attacks against President Biden.
She says she is not going to invoke in identity politics but she did elevate a lot in her remarks that she is a proud daughter of immigrants, as well as a woman.
The most fascinating, I think, part of her rollout to me is just this real emphasis on America, her argument that America is not a racist country.
I have covered many conservative, Republican rallies, most recently a lot of Herschel Walker rallies in Georgia last year, and unprompted, conservatives will say to me, I won't even be asking them about race, and they will say, well, Republicans are not racist, conservatives are not racist, they just want me to know that.
And so Nikki Haley really was speaking, I think, to those sensibilities and that anxiety there.
And I think that she's probably smart to make it a central focus of her campaign because it really does appeal to, I think, a significant amount of white conservatives.
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: And she also used it to attack President Biden and the current White House, saying at one point implying that President Biden has said the country is racist.
Just a fact-check, he was asked that I believe in 2021, and he actually refused to say that.
He said that he did not believe the country is racist.
And then he quickly went into the history of Jim Crow and what have you.
But I remember she has mentioned that as well and just a fact-check there, that was false.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Scott, what's interesting also is that some of the bigger names that we've been talking about, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, maybe even Mike Pompeo, actually the list can go on and on, they haven't jumped into this race.
What do you think that means for the way that things are shaping up?
SCOTT MACFARLANE: It just feels like, as Ashley described, that the more lanes that get filled, the more advantageous this is to former President Trump no matter what other names are in there.
Because, finally, you divide this layer, the more slices you put in that pie, the more impressive and intimidating that 35 percent is.
So, it's not even a matter of who, it is a matter of how many.
And I can't imagine Donald Trump trying to scare people off at this point because it could be the best thing to happen to his calculus politically.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Yes.
I want to turn to another subject that we can't get away from, and that is that on Thursday, President Biden gave a speech on the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon and three other unidentified objects.
While defending his decisions, the president said the three objects were probably not used for spying.
Take a listen.
JOE BIDEN: I've directed my team to come back to me with sharper rules to distinguish between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks.
But make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Zolan, we just can't get away from this topic.
And President Biden, he spoke out because there's a lot of criticism from Democrats and Republicans that he wasn't saying enough about this.
So, why did he decide to speak out now and how is the White House feeling this?
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: Well, there was criticism building, not just the first week of this, it was almost.
The White House wasn't being aggressive enough, you allowed this Chinese spy balloon to go across the country, waited too long.
Then the criticism started to shift and more people came in.
And now today, I heard questions in the briefing room of was there possible overreaction in shooting down these two second objects that we don't seem to know what they are?
There was a report I saw, and there's a club, a hobby club that says maybe it was one of my handmade balloons in Illinois, we don't know if that's confirmed.
John Kirby said that he had read that report but could not confirm it as well.
The U.S. still doesn't know exactly what these materials are.
So, you saw people start to -- members of Congress start to join in and really questioning just the ambiguity around the strategy here.
And I think what hangs over this in a way is, one, you do have Republicans that are trying to show that they are more hawkish on China and trying to show that the White House is not being aggressive enough when it comes to competition with China, but, two, you also have this new dynamic when it comes to this competition between these two superpowers of this thing called near space, right, which is above us, where there really are no borders, there really are no lines depicting different sovereign countries, where it is almost a free-for-all of military devices at this point.
And I think that is going to be a question going forward of how members of Congress come together after this incident in governments in trying to establish rules governing that area.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Ashley, just like the politics of this, especially as when we think about the president's relationship with China and President Xi not wanting to really get into a situation where they're too adversarial, even as he says that, of course, the competition that we should be looking at globally is China.
ASHLEY PARKER: Right.
We saw the vice president in Munich for the security conference saying that this balloon was not helpful, that's quite obvious.
But you also on the flipside had President Biden saying, look, I don't think that President Xi of China wants to blow up this relationship, right?
So, they have an incentive to try to be competitors, to be geopolitical foes but to try to work together.
EVA MCKEND: What we also saw, though, is this president and I think this administration not wanting to be bullied and come forward before they were ready, before they really knew what they were talking about.
Imagine if the last week of January he was out here making declarative statements, and he turned out to be wrong.
So, I think that is what we saw, sort of this balancing act in real-time.
SCOTT MACFARLANE: I think it's the weekend that we saw a separation between the spy balloon and the other balloons, the UFOs.
I got to tell you, my kids think daddy's work is boring until I mentioned I'm covering UFOs today.
Suddenly, I got their attention with some credibility with the kids.
Congress has reverted to its more comfortable position, where, by the end of the week, when they recognized these other three flying objects were not necessarily a danger to society, they got to complain about process, which is what Congress loves to do.
They did not get the information to which they felt they were entitled as quickly as they felt they were entitled to it and that always rankles Congress in a uniquely powerful way.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And I want to -- I mean, this -- obviously, the topic is one that we could talk about for a while, but before the show ends, Scott, I want to just recognize that Senator John Fetterman, he is someone who is now disclosing that he is going to be treated for clinical depression.
I'm thinking about this family.
He is in my heart because he's had to deal with so much.
Politics aside, as someone who has survived a stroke, who's dealing with issue, what you make of the fact that he is disclosing this and the real challenges that he's facing?
SCOTT MACFARLANE: I think there is a bipartisan appreciation that he made a public announcement to reduce the stigma which prevents some people from getting the care they need.
Two numbers jumped out at me.
The National Institutes of Health says 20 million Americans had an episode of depression in 2020 and one in three patients who are recovering from a stroke have suffered depression.
So, those numbers make clear that John Fetterman is joining publicly a very large club of Americans.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And it is, in some ways, striking when you think, Ashley, about the fact that he is saying, I am having problems in a city where a lot of people don't say that.
We have a lot of elected officials who have some sorts of problems who don't talk about it.
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, it is very Gen-Z of him in a certain way, right, to publicly, actively seek the mental help that he needs, and you don't see a lot of politicians doing that.
But I think that is why, in a bipartisan way, I was struck by what everyone responded to this, or almost everyone.
It was with empathy, it was with words like this is brave, they appreciate him coming forward and getting the help they need.
Because to those stats that Scott cited, this is something that a lot of people grapple with daily in a private way.
And I think like many of those things, they appreciate it when they feel a bit less alone.
And when you have a U.S. senator doing that, he's helping himself and he's also helping inadvertently a lot of other people by making him feel less alone.
SCOTT MACFARLANE: We should underscore, he has access to care.
How many Americans can't get -- hard is it to get on the waitlist for a therapist?
How hard is it to get access for your insurance to pay for mental health care coverage?
It underscores that John Fetterman is fortunately getting the access he needs.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And you have about ten seconds.
EVA MCKEND: And having covered him a little bit in Erie and in Pittsburgh during the election, he was accessible.
That's constantly what I heard from voters.
Like they felt like they could connect with him regardless of party.
They saw themselves in him.
So, I think this him disclosing that, that he has depression, is just an extension of that accessibility, of voters feeling as though he is within reach.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And him really leaning into the idea that he wants to tell people and be transparent about what he's dealing with.
I mean, I say it again, I will think about his family and definitely am hoping hope that he gets all of the help he needs.
We will have to leave it there for now.
Thank you to my panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting on a number of topics.
And forget to watch PBS News Weekend on Saturday for the latest from Ukraine, as the war-torn country prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion.
I am Yamiche Alcindor.
Good night from Washington.