'This Week' Transcript 12-20-20: Adm. Brett Giroir, Sen. Mark Warner and Jennifer Granholm
This is a rush transcript for "This Week" airing Sunday, December 20.
A rush transcript of "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" airing on Sunday, December 20, 2020 on ABC News is below. This copy may not be in its final form, may be updated and may contain minor transcription errors. For previous show transcripts, visit the "This Week" transcript archive.
ANNOUNCER: "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" starts right now.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR (voice-over): Second shot of hope.
GEN. GUSTAVE PERNA, U.S. ARMY MATERIEL COMMAND: Today is another landmark day for our nation.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The Moderna vaccine shipping out right now.
ALEX AZAR, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Trucks will roll, planes will fly this weekend.
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIAID DIRECTOR: All of this is sort of bittersweet, because, at the same time as we're moving ahead, we're living through very, very difficult times.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As America endures the pandemic's worst week yet.
DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: We can have a party next year at this time. We are so close.
STEPHANOPOULOS: More than 315,000 dead, more than 20 million out of work.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): A framework for a major rescue package is very close at hand.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): We need to deliver an outcome and deliver it quickly.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Plus: massive cyber attack.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was a very significant effort. We can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Top government agencies targeted, including the Energy Department, responsible for our nuclear weapons stockpile.
SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R-OH): This breach has to be a wakeup call for all of us.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY (D-NY): The president should be all over it. It should be his first, second, third concern.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We cover all this morning with Admiral Brett Giroir from the White House Task Force, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, and Biden's nominee to lead the Energy Department, Jennifer Granholm, plus insight and analysis from our powerhouse roundtable.
ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, it's "This Week."
Here now, chief anchor George Stephanopoulos.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning, and welcome to "This Week."
As we come into Christmas week, the COVID pandemic has tightened its deadly grip on our country. The worst week yet has just passed, crossing 300,000 deaths, a new 9/11 nearly every day, 13 straight days of record high hospitalizations, more than 1.5 million new cases.
One out of every 200 Americans is contracting the virus every day. The good news this week, two vaccines have now been authorized by the FDA. The first shots were administered this week. And the first shipment of the Moderna vaccine is rolling out of the McKesson distribution center in Olive Branch, Mississippi this morning.
Gio Benitez is there, and he starts us off.
Good morning, Gio.
GIO BENITEZ, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, George, good morning to you.
Yes, just take a look behind me, because you can see those FedEx trucks there pulled up to those loading docks here at the distribution center. They are getting ready to ship those Moderna vaccines.
Take a look at this video from inside the facility, though, because we're getting a look inside that pharmaceutical distributor McKesson. They are handling this monumental effort for Moderna.
We are seeing teams suited up in cold weather gear going into those freezers where the vaccines are kept at negative-four degrees. They are packed and then loaded onto those trucks.
Now, Moderna is shipping nearly six million doses of the vaccine this week. Pfizer is shipping another two million. So, this week alone, in total, we're looking at nearly eight million doses of vaccine getting across the country.
Moderna has a slight shipping advantage here, because this facility is so close to the FedEx world hub, of course, this massive operation happening just after the FDA authorized the Moderna vaccine for people 18 and up. Pfizer is authorized for people as young as 16.
Initial doses will be given to health care workers and long-term facilities, first responders, and those at risk for severe illness.
Now, General Perna of Operation Warp Speed says that they are looking to ship some 20 million doses of vaccine across this country by the end of this month, with much more expected by next year, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Right, but, Gio, General Perna has also apologized for misleading the states about how many doses they were going to be getting and when they would be getting them.
BENITEZ: Yes, that's right, George. He is calling this a miscommunication. He is taking full responsibility for it, he says.
And he says this. He says that those initial numbers were forecasts that were ultimately too high. He says he is working hard to correct this, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Gio Benitez, thanks very much.
Let's bring in now Admiral Brett Giroir from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Admiral Brett Giroir, thanks for joining us again this morning.
Are the states now squared away on the number of doses they're going to be getting and when they will arrive?
ADM. BRETT GIROIR, U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: Yes, thanks for having me on.
The states really are squared away. The difference that was talked about by General Perna is, there were some initial projections in November. That was even before we had any vaccine authorized, much less two authorized.
The specific projections for this week were given on Tuesday of last week, and those are on track. And you had them right, two million Pfizer this week, 5.9 million Moderna. They're already on trucks rolling.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I know you hope to have 200 million Moderna doses out by June.
Where do things stand with negotiating more doses on the Pfizer vaccine? And when can we expect other vaccine candidates to be authorized?
GIROIR: So, we are very confident that, by June, anyone in America who wants to have a vaccine will have that opportunity to have a vaccine.
As you know, right now, we have Moderna and Pfizer. The next vaccine that is coming up, which would be J & J or Janssen. We would expect that authorization to be submitted in January.
Again, we don't know the results of that. That has to be unblinded, go through all the processes. It will be very transparent, just like the first two. But we expect that to hit in January.
And again, that is a one-dose vaccine. We don't know the results. But we're very hopeful, by January, we'll have at least three vaccines, with -- with more to come.
And your numbers are right, 20 million vaccine doses distributed at least by the first week in January, approximately another 30 million in January and another 50 million in February, not counting the J&J vaccine.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That June goal is encouraging and ambitious. But as you know, there's still a lot of skepticism out there about the vaccine across the country, especially in the wake of these scattered allergic reactions we've seen, that are being reported.
What should people know about that possibility?
GIROIR: So the system is working exactly as planned. Any time there's any adverse effect, that's immediately reported to the FDA. The CDC investigates.
And right now there are scattered reports. But remember, many of these are tingling in an elevated heart rate. This could be hyperventilation around the vaccine. That does not necessarily mean it's a vaccine problem.
We do believe there was one allergic reaction. We know that is an issue with any vaccine, generally at rates of about one in 500,000 to one in a million.
But we're going to watch these absolutely carefully. They're immediately reported. And if there's any change in the -- in the recommendations, they will come out. The CDC updated their recommendations last night, just to be sure that, if you have an allergic reaction to any vaccine, you probably shouldn't take this one.
But still, it's widely recommended for everyone because we know it's 95 percent effective, as much as 100 percent effective at preventing severe disease. And this is the way we end the pandemic, by getting 70 percent or 80 percent of the American people vaccinated.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We -- we saw Vice President Pence and the surgeon general get the vaccine on Friday, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris this week as well.
Would it help if President Trump took the vaccine in public?
GIROIR: Well, I think any leader who is influential over groups of individuals should have the vaccine. First of all, I believe everyone at risk or who is very important coming up, obviously the President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris, the president.
But, yes, I think leadership like the vice president, the surgeon general, you know, should get vaccines because they will inspire confidence in -- with the people who believe in them and trust them.
And again, we have every reason to believe that this vaccine, these two vaccines, are very effective and they are safe. So, you know, I would encourage the president to get a vaccine for his own health and safety and also to generate more confidence among the people who follow him so closely.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, a new version of the virus is -- new strain of the virus is out of control in Great Britain right now. They're tightening their lockdown very severely. And several countries have now suspended flights from the United Kingdom.
Is that something the United States is going to have to do?
GIROIR: I really don't believe we need to do that yet. Viruses mutate. We've seen almost 4,000 different mutations among this virus. There is no indication that the mutation right now that they're talking about is overcoming England. I read the British medical journals this morning. It's up to 20 percent of cases in one county. Aside from that, it is very low.
And we don't know that it's more dangerous. And very importantly, we have not seen a single mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine. Can't say that won't happen in the future. But right now, it looks like the vaccine should cover everything that we see.
So I don't think there should be any reason for alarm right now. We continue to watch. That's what we do. But again, viruses mutate, over 4,000 mutations that we've seen so far in this virus, and it's still acting essentially like COVID-19. And the vaccines should continue to work very robustly against all of these strains.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, the dire warnings of a surge upon a surge of COVID cases after Thanksgiving have unfortunately come to pass. With Christmas coming up, what's the most important thing Americans need to know about the virus right now?
GIROIR: The most important thing that Americans need to know is, although we see the end of the pandemic in sight -- and it will end with vaccination widespread in this country -- we have a lot of work to do.
Really, the lives of tens of thousands of Americans depend on what we do. And you know what to do, George. It's wearing a mask when you're in public, physically distancing, washing your hands. If you're having holiday gatherings, please do them safely. Try to limit them to your immediate household. And if you don't, wear masks inside. Improve the ventilation. There are so many ways to do this better.
If you look at the Midwest right now and the Northern plains, they have reversed their very significant outbreak despite the Thanksgiving holidays. Their cases are down. Their hospitalizations are down. Their deaths are down.
That is being counter-balance now by extreme cases in California, some on the GulfCoast, including Tennessee, in the Deep South, and on the East Coast.
But we know what to do. And if Americans do these things, we can flatten the curve and save literally tens of thousands of lives if we do these things before we get the vaccine out. When we get the vaccine out, the pandemic is going to end. This is not forever, but we’ve got a lot of work to do, or it’s going to be even a darker winter.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Admiral Giroir, thanks for your message this morning.
GIROIR: Thank you.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Now to that massive cyberattack targeting the government's top agencies. Dozens of U.S. networks breached including Treasury, State, Homeland Security, and the Department of Energy.
While President Trump downplays the threat, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out the Russians, and top Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are calling the attack an act of war that demands retaliation.
Our chief justice correspondent Pierre Thomas has the latest.
Good morning, Pierre.
PIERRE THOMAS, ABC NEWS CHIEF JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: George, the president suggested China might be involved, putting him at odds with his own Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who confirmed the Russian intelligence is the prime suspect. And then you have a statement from Senate Intelligence Committee Acting Chairman Marco Rubio, a Republican, saying it's, quote: Increasingly clear that Russian intelligence created the greatest cyber intrusion in our history.
George, I’ve been covering cyberattacks in the U.S. government for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen anything quite like this. We’re talking not just one agency, but departments across the entire federal government. The Russians are expected of spying on the emails and communications of U.S. government officials and those in private companies.
George, there's deep concern that this is ongoing and the Russians may have the capacity to manipulate and damage computer networks. It's all made worse by the fact that this breach was launched in March and went undetected for months, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah. We don’t even know what we don’t know right now.
How could something so sweeping like this happen?
THOMAS: George, there's a company called Solar Winds that makes software products which monitor traffic on computer networks looking for anomalies. It turns that this product is ubiquitous, used by multiple government agencies and many Fortune 500 companies, George. It’s a series situation.
And there's a bunch of questions. How did so many government agencies allow themselves to be dependent on one company's product and why were there so many security requirements for this company that were not apparently followed, George?
STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, Pierre, thanks very much.
Let's get more on this from the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner.
Senator Warner, thanks for joining us this morning.
You know, we saw President Trump downplay the attack yesterday in a tweet, saying it's all under control, that China, not Russia, may be behind it.
Any doubt it was the Russians?
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA): I would echo what Secretary Pompeo has said and Marco Rubio has said. All indications point to Russia.
Matter of fact, FireEye, one of the nation's top cybersecurity companies who got hacked, they also indicted Russia. Thank goodness FireEye came forward, because if they had not come forward, we might not have still been able to even discover the attack.
This attack also shows when a nation state brings their best tools to the table, it's very tough for any government agency or company for that matter to keep them out. So, I think this raises a whole host of questions of how did they get in, stay so long, how do we make sure our government agency, for example, CISA, that's supposed to oversee cybersecurity, there's not even a requirement that private companies or for that matter, even public agencies, have to affirmatively report that kind of attack or intrusion to CISA.
We’re going to need to look at a whole new set of rules and, frankly, find ways to align with our allies to prevent this kind of activity from going forward.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And is it under control right now or is it still ongoing?
WARNER: This attack, you mentioned Solar Winds, 18,000 customers, ubiquitous across industry and government, we have narrowed this to companies and agencies that we know the bad guys got in, but they got in and were in for a long time. So, they're very deep.
It may be ongoing. We have not discovered how we will ferret them fully out. And one of the things I think we need to realize is when you get into a supply chain of a -- any product, you can go from one company into another into another and ultimately get down to some of our most important innovation tools being discovered by our adversaries.
This is extraordinarily serious, and when the president of the United States tries to deflect or is not willing to call out the adversary as we make that attribution, he is not making our country safer.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We know this has been going on since at least March. Are we confident our systems weren't breached before that? And what is the goal of this operation? Is it theft and destruction of data, or is it actual intelligence collection?
WARNER: So far the good news is it appears that only the non-classified networks have been breached. There's no indication yet at least that classified networks have been breached, number one.
Number two, the amount of information and the targeting of both -- of companies shows a very, very sophisticated actor. This is classic, you know, obtaining information, critical information, potentially intellectual product. I mentioned FireEye. They stole from FireEye. They've revealed their red team tactics of how they would counter a cyber intrusion. So the adversary very probably, as the secretary of state said, Russia, came away with a big, big haul. And we're still determining how extensive this attack will be. It will take us literally weeks to continue to ferret this out and then potentially months to remediate.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Mitt Romney called it the modern equivalent of Russian bombers flying undetected over our entire country.
Is it an act of war? And, if so, how should we retaliate?
WARNER: Well, this is -- I'm not sure I agree with Senator Romney's analogy. This is a very, very sophisticated espionage attempt to take information, key information, potentially of leak (ph) to, frankly, intimidate actual individuals in government, as well as intellectual property. But it begs the fact that we really don't have a set of cyber norms. I sometimes think we disproportionately spend on tanks, ships and guns when we should be better protecting on cyber. And I think not only America but, frankly, our FiveEye partners, NATO, other, because there are international implications of this attack as well. We need to be very, very clear with an affirmative cyber doctrine that says you do this kind of broad-based, indiscriminate attack, you will -- you will bear the consequences.
We don't have those kind of -- those norms out there. We knew back in the 20th century when there were -- you crossed a line militarily, we'll strike back. There was mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons. This is not the level of an attack that, for example, that Russia took on Ukraine where they were literally trying to shut down systems. But this is in that gray area between espionage and an attack. And I think the only way we're going to be able to counter it is not only better cyber hygiene, better protocols on how information must be shared if you are attacked, and then making very clear to our adversaries that if you take this kind of action, we and others will strike back.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you respond to those who say this is exactly the kind of thing America does all the time? We attack and we -- we -- we conduct espionage on foreign governments and foreign systems. We do hacks.
WARNER: The level of indiscriminate attack launch, as Secretary of State Pompeo said, by potentially a Russian spy agency, this is as broad and as deep as anything we've ever seen. And the idea that that should go unanswered would be very bad American policy and, frankly, simply invite Russians or others to continue these kind of malicious activities.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Before I let you go, is this COVID relief deal going to come together today and is it something you can live with?
WARNER: Well, let's -- let's put it like this. I was with Senator Schumer last night in his office until about 11:00. I was glad to see that Senator Toomey accepted Senator Schumer's offer on a compromise. We will preclude three of these facilities from being set up again without congressional approval, what was already the law. We did not think tying the hands of a future Fed or Treasury made any sense. And the great news is, Congress is not going to be the Grinch. We're going to get this package done. And I'm very proud that in many ways this package only came about, George, because a bipartisan group of senators spent a month working hard, showing the American people that we can actually do things when we have such an amazing need.
So folks who are going to run out of unemployment the day after Christmas, or potentially get kicked out of their apartment, or those long lines at the food banks, help is on the way.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Warner, thanks for your time this morning.
WARNER: Thank you, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: President-elect Joe Biden's pick for energy secretary is up next, plus our powerhouse roundtable.
Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT-ELECT JOSEPH R. BIDEN: I nominate Governor Jennifer Granholm. Throughout her career, she's worked with states, cities, business and labor to promote a clean energy future and new jobs, new industry, cleaner and more affordable energy. Now I am asking her to bring that vision and faith in America to the Department of Energy.
STEPHANOPOULOS: President-elect Biden yesterday announcing his pick for energy secretary, the former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm. Governor Granholm joins us now.
Governor, thanks for joining us this morning.
I want to get to a lot about your mission at Energy, but begin with this Solar hack breach, the Solar Winds breach. The Energy Department has been compromised. We know that.
Have you been briefed yet on the scope of the breach? And what will it mean for you and your team as you take control of the department?
JENNIFER GRANHOLM, BIDEN ENERGY SECRETARY NOMINEE AND FORMER MICHIGAN GOV.: Yeah, I mean, I was nominated 16 hours ago, so I have not been briefed on the scope yet.
But I do know that we -- the administration, incoming administration, is taking this extremely seriously. Joe Biden has said that a day one priority is making sure that the country is safe from malicious cyberattacks.
And this goes beyond espionage. It is something that certainly the incoming administration is taking extremely seriously.
However, I would say, George, that we don't -- as Mark Warner just suggested, we don't know fully what happened, the extent of it. And, frankly, we don't know fully for sure who did it. So, the folks who are working around the clock, the civil servants, the investigators, the scientists who are doing the investigation, they have got to be able to come up with the specific answers, so we know what the response will be.
But Joe Biden, I know, will have a robust response, once we find out the perpetrator and the extent of it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the biggest concerns has to be the security and safety of our nuclear weapons stockpile. That is actually -- securing that is the primary job, in many ways, of the Energy Department.
GRANHOLM: That's correct.
The NNSA, the National Nuclear Security Administration, has a responsibility over that. That is a significant piece of what the Department of Energy does. Fortunately, there are serious experts inside of the department who are looking at this right now.
And, as in all things, we are certainly concerned about any secrets being compromised. We haven't gotten that information yet. But, believe me, Joe Biden will have a very significant response. And it may be a multinational response, depending on who is compromised.
If the United States is compromised, there may be other countries compromised as well. We cannot, as a globe, allow this kind of action to happen, certainly as it relates to the most sensitive materials that we have, including our nuclear stockpile.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you discussed this job with president-elect Biden, how did he describe the mission, what he wants you to do and why he chose you to do it?
GRANHOLM: I am so excited about this, George, because this -- combating climate change is such an economic opportunity for this country.
There's going to be trillions of dollars spent globally on combating climate change by countries around the world. And so, for us as a nation, we have to decide, are we going to get in the game economically? Every country is going to be buying solar panels, and they're going to be buying wind turbines, and they're going to be buying electric vehicles and the batteries, and they're going to upgrade their electric grids.
We could be producing that material, those products here in the United States, and stamping them made in America and exporting them around the country. We need to be the leader, rather than passive bystanders. Or, otherwise, we're going to allow other countries, like China and others who are fighting to be able to corner this market.
So, Joe Biden's focus has been, obviously, on climate change and taking advantage of the economic opportunity for our people to be able to build the products that help the America to lead.
And I will say one other thing. He's very focused as well on making sure that the benefits of fighting climate change, the jobs, are focused on the communities that have been hardest hit by environmental pollution, for example, or that are the poorest communities.
So, both environmental equity, the equity associated with energy opportunity, and creating jobs for Americans, that is going to be the mission of the Department of Energy, in addition to the great work that they already do.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The president-elect says he's going to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on day one, establish a -- quote -- "enforcement mechanism" to get to net zero emissions by 2050.
Is that a realistic goal? And what would the enforcement mechanism look like? What it would mean in our daily lives?
GRANHOLM: Well, what it means is, first of all, it is realistic. It is ambitious.
So, for example, yesterday, as part of our team, one of the people who was nominated was Deb Haaland, who is going to be the first Native American who is in the Cabinet, which is awesome.
The Department of Interior oversees a massive amount of public land. That public land could be used to make sure that we generate clean electricity by putting wind -- wind turbines, including offshore, as well as onshore, solar panels, et cetera, that those jobs and that electricity, there is going to have to be a significant sort of hair-on-fire effort inside the administration to get it in the ground to meet that goal.
And we want to make sure that we are acting in a way that allows us to be a leader across the planet. And so we're going to hold ourselves accountable.
And I will say this, too. As a governor, this was something I focused on as governor of Michigan and a lot of governors and mayors are focusing on how they can contribute to make sure that they meet the Paris Climate Accord.
So, we’re going to be working at the Department of Energy with the local and sub-national, as they call it units, the states and the cities, to help give them incentives -- little carrots, little sticks.
The EPA often is the place that people turn to for sticks. But the Department of Energy is going to be working with all of this -- the whole of government effort to make sure we combat climate change in a fair and equitable way, and create jobs in the process.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, many progressives like AOC say it doesn't go far enough. They want to reduce emissions faster and spend trillions more.
What's your message to them?
GRANHOLM: Well, clearly, the Green New Deal was an important framework for what Joe Biden has put on tap.
I mean, really, this is the most robust climate change plan ever. And so -- and the fact that he put together this team of people and that it's going to be an effort that runs through government -- for example, Pete Buttigieg was nominated this past week.
Transportation is going to be a huge component of this and the input from folks across the political spectrum has made this plan the robust plan that it is. If we're going to put charging stations across the country so that people can drive electric vehicles from San Francisco to New York and be able to stop everywhere in between, we want to make sure that our administration is creating that opportunity and those jobs.
So, there's been wonderful input on the part of AOC and Bernie Sanders, but also the business community. I mean, we have an all-in strategy and we're really excited to implement.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Governor Granholm, thanks for your time this morning.
GRANHOLM: You bet.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Nate Silver and the roundtable coming up. We'll be right back.
ON SCREEN TEXT: Since 1895, the Senate has voted just once on Christmas Eve. Which bill did they pass in 2009?
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (DECEMBER 24, 2009): The yeas are 60, the nays are 39. HR-3590, as amended, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is passed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS CHIEF ANCHOR: The roundtable is ready to go.
We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT-ELECT FOR THE UNITED STATES: I think Georgia is going to shock the nation with the number of people who vote on January the 5th.
I need two senators from this state who want to get something done, not two senators are who just going to get in the way.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need two senators that will get in the way of the radical agenda of the Democratic Party and fight for Georgia every single day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: The battle for Georgia and control of the Senate heading into the home stretch. President Trump announced last night that he's going to headline a rally on election eve, but are his false attacks and conspiracy theories about his own loss hurting the GOP Senate candidates.
Here's Nate Silver's take.
NATE SILVER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: Georgia is one state where the polls were fairly accurate on Election Day.
So as polls again show a close race in these two Georgia Senate runoffs, it's worth looking at them seriously as the campaign intensifies.
FiveThirtyEight polling averages have Republican David Perdue pretty much tied with Democrat Jon Ossoff for the regular Georgia seat. And the same is true between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Kelly Loeffler for the special Georgia seat.
There is something more subtle going on here, though. Perdue and Loeffler have actually gained a bit of ground in polls, closing in on earlier Democratic leads. That may be due to a shift away from President Trump's rhetoric as he's been questioning the validity of the election and refusing to concede
Polling shows two-thirds of Republicans agree with Trump's bogus claims that the election wasn't fair. And officials are concerned that, if their voters think elections are rigged, they may figure, "Hey, why bother to turn up at all?"
Recent Republican rhetoric has tried to pivot, though, by implicitly or even explicitly acknowledging Joe Biden's victory. Mike Pence, for example, in a rally this week, spoke of Georgia as being "the last line of defense for the GOP," which concedes there will be a Democratic House and a Democratic president.
And historically, when a new party takes over the White House, voters want balanced government. We usually see what we call a midterm penalty that punishes the president's party by around five percentage points.
So I buy that Trump's refusal to concede has not made life any easier on the GOP. But with the electoral college declaring Biden the winner this week and with GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell acknowledging Biden's win, this may now be a bit less of an issue.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Thanks to Nate. Our roundtable's up next. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) KENTUCKY, AND MAJORITY LEADER: Many millions of us had hoped the presidential election would yield a different result. The electoral college has spoken. So today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT-ELECT JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR: I had a good conversation with Mitch McConnell today. (inaudible) so I called him to thank him for the congratulations. I told him, although we disagree on a lot of things, there's things we can work together on.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: It was a long time coming, but after the electoral college voted this week, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell did have their first conversation since the election.
Let's talk about what that all means now on our roundtable, joined by Chris Christie, Rahm Emanuel, the CEO for Democracy for America Yvette Simpson and Republican strategist Sara Fagen.
And, Rahm, let me begin with you. Some good words there from both the president-elect and Leader McConnell. But what realistically can be achieved?
RAHM EMANUEL, (D) FORMER CHICAGO MAYOR AND ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, that's -- also deals with what's -- George, I think a lot can be achieved. And I think one of the things that you saw this week is that the moderate Republicans and Democrats who came together created the space for what looks like a -- they're going to have a $900 billion pandemic relief bill in that place.
And I think that, in that area, whether it's on minimum wage, whether it's on, obviously, rural broadband, whether it's on -- like they're about to pass, it looks like, in this bill -- or in the omnibus bill -- also an end to surprise medical billing.
There's a lot of things that can get done. And I think that's the focus of where the -- President Biden's going to be.
And I do think it's interesting that both President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell know each other by first name. They know how to work with each other.
And I think, given that the country -- not only is both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue divided -- and one end is definitely divided -- the other piece is it's divided down the middle, which means that the agenda has to focus in that way because you're not going to be able to break on either extreme, which will snap the entire process.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And Sara Fagen, obviously what happens in the Georgia race is going to make a difference. It's either the majority one vote -- one way or the other. But even with that -- and that can make a big difference on things like judicial appointments -- but even with that, it still does mean the center of gravity in the Senate, no matter what, is going to be, as Rahm was saying, with the most conservative Democrats, the most moderate Republicans.
SARA FAGEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST AND ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think the fact that these senators came together to get what we think will be a pandemic relief bill done here in a few hours is a positive sign in moving the country past some of the most partisan gridlock.
But these challenges are going to remain. The country is very deeply divided. We see it playing out in Georgia, where it's an incredibly close election, and where many, many Trump voters, 70 million, a big percentage of them still are upset about this election and think that something, some wrongdoing was done and the president may, in fact, have won.
So, that remains a huge challenge and hurdle for the Senate as we get into this next administration.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Chris Christie, talk about that.
We saw the president put out that tweet last night saying he's going to go to Georgia in the final days before the election. Yet he continues to attack the state's -- the state's leaders.
Is there a way he can thread the needle here, or does he want to?
CHRIS CHRISTIE, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the question, George, is, of course, there's always a way to thread the needle. The real question is, does he want to?
And I don't think he's shown any indication that he does. I would suspect that you're going to see a very similar performance at the rally that he will hold the night before the election as he gave the last time that he was in Georgia.
and how that will play out, I don't think anybody knows. There's certainly no question that there's going to be a large number of voters in Georgia who the president's appearance will motivate. And that will be good for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
I don't know what impact the president's language on the election and the validity of the election is having down there. We probably won't know until after election day on January 5 in Georgia.
But it's not a question of whether the needle can be thread. It could be, if he wanted it to, but I don't know that he wants to. I certainly haven't seen any indication publicly that he's -- that he's pivoting off of that message.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yvette Simpson, the question for Democrats is, how do they keep their enthusiasm high now that Donald Trump is leaving office?
YVETTE SIMPSON, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think part of what we're seeing in Georgia is an indication of that.
I think you have got a lot of energy. Organizers are leading the way down there in Georgia. We have a lot of establishment folks outside and in the Beltway following the lead of these organizers.
You have seen record turnout in the first couple days of early vote, record registrations. And I think part of that, hopefully, will lead to the Democrats understanding that we're better and stronger when we all work together.
I, unfortunately, am not pleased with the bill that was negotiated, for a lot of reasons. And I think you're going to hear progressives talk about the fact that that $600 payment is just not enough as we go into January. It is lower than the median rent in most states, if not all across the country.
And so I think the real question going forward, George, is, who will the Biden White House serve? Will they serve people first or will they serve special interests? And I think there's still a lot to be seen as we continue to fill out these positions, as we continue to see what the balance of power is going to look like going forward in the Senate.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Rahm Emanuel, what's the answer to that?
EMANUEL: Well, two -- one -- two things I want to pick up on, one thing on what Governor Christie said.
I actually think there's a division here between Mitch McConnell's interests and Donald Trump's interests. Mitch McConnell obviously needs, as does Joe Biden for different reasons, Georgia to fall one way, towards the Republicans. Joe Biden obviously needs it to fall to the Democrats, so the Senate is not a killing field for his agenda.
But I think there's a deep part of Donald Trump that wants to see these two Republican senators go down as a way to show that, without me on the ticket, you guys can't win, you're not worth diddly.
And I'm not sure that Donald Trump is interested in seeing the two states -- two senators in Georgia win. There may be a part of his motivation to prove a point here on his way out.
To Yvette's point, and I think -- look, I think there's a strategy that the Biden administration is -- or the incoming administration is focusing. They know that there's a constraint -- and Joe Biden's been in -- and Kamala Harris, between them, have about 45 years of work in the U.S. senate, not counting even the staff there.
They know there's limitations and boundaries on what you can get done when it's so divided. So, therefore, the Cabinet is making some overtures, very clearly, to the progressive wing of the party, knowing that very well, on the policy front, it's going to be constrained by what you can do because of the Senate and divided.
And one of the things that they're going to have to focus on -- and I think this is interesting -- is, in this election, you saw Republican states vote for progressive things, like Florida did for the minimum wage, Missouri did for expanding Medicaid.
Those are indications that, if you do a rifle shot approach, don't overshoot what you can get, rifle shot approach, you can get a progressive agenda, and Republican states and Republican voters can support it, if it's not overly ambitious, but targeted and specific.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Sara Fagen, Rahm pointed out that Mitch McConnell and President Trump may not have the same interests.
They clearly have different interests when it comes to the last election, the -- Senator McConnell doing everything he can to prevent Republicans from objecting to the seating -- to the -- accepting the vote in the Electoral College. It's clear whether or not he’s going to succeed.
And it’s pretty clear that the president is continuing to keep on his campaign, with reports of screaming matches in the Oval Office over the weekend.
FAGEN: Yeah. I mean, look, I think this is very --
FAGEN: -- I think -- I think it's troubling. The reality is, you know, the Electoral College has met. The top Republican now in government has spoken. The Republican Party needs to accept that Joe Biden has won this election and needs to move forward.
That's not to say the president doesn't have a voice in the party. He's obviously going to continue and may, in fact, run again in 2024.
But in some respects, you know, Mitch McConnell is in a stronger position today because -- because of what you pointed out earlier, which is even if Republicans take the Senate, it's closely divided, and he's going to become really, an even bigger powerbroker than he was before. Nothing will get done without Mitch McConnell's stamp on it.
And so, for the ultimate deal maker who has a good relationship with the president-elect, I think that we can see some progress in this country which we had not really going back over a decade, even before Trump. There was the division produced post the Affordable Care Act, not a lot.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Any progress is defined by what Sara Fagen was just saying, Yvette, it is destined to disappoint progressives.
SIMPSON: Absolutely. I mean, I think one thing we can do is like take a lesson both from progressive growth in the House and the Trump kind of followers, right?
When you serve people, which is what we did I think early on, that was the expectation at least in the Barack Obama administration. That would -- that's what he was talking about is serving people, whether in rural America, urban America, you serve people first, particular at this time, I think that's going to be unifying. I think you're going to be able to bring the country together.
I think the question is, are you not going to serve people? And I think that would be a failed strategy, particularly because we know that 2022 is around the corner.
Democrats continue, once we get into power, we say, we got to pace it out. We got to slow it down. And then Republicans get the chamber back in the Senate if we get it this time and we can't do anything.
And that means --
STEPHANOPOULOS: Isn't that just reality?
SIMPSON: -- enthusiasm, which means now we can't win.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But isn't that just reality if you're dealing with a 50/50 Senate or a 51/49 Senate?
SIMPSON: Well, I mean, it depends on how you characterize it.
I don't understand why Republicans have characterized their mission to not take care of people, when the reason why so many Americans will say on the fringes, rallied around Donald Trump, it was because he made this promise to serve them. Ultimately, he did not.
But the reality is that it’s not Democrats’ job only to serve people. And it’s not Republicans’ job only to serve special interest. It's supposed to be both of them. How they get there, let's fight about that.
But the idea that the 99 percent of Americans who are suffering under the weight of policies that has benefited the 1 percent, a pandemic that has not adequately served people has suffered on the Republican side and has suffered on Democrats I think.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Chris Christie --
SIMPSON: And I think, hopefully, we can rally around that going forward.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Chris Christie, how do Republicans define themselves in the post-Trump era? It’s pretty clear that the president -- we don't know exactly what he’s going to do, whether he’s actually going to announce that he's running in 2024 or not. We do know he's taken about $60 million in campaign money since the election that he can take -- take with him.
How do Republicans deal with that, with the overhang of President Trump?
CHRISTIE: Well, George, listen, I think what we need to deal with are the issues and facts on the ground that people really care about. And I will tell you, what I heard most people in my neighborhood talking about this week is the vaccinations beginning.
Now, that's an extraordinary accomplishment first and foremost by our scientific community, to have done what they did, and it's an extraordinary accomplishment for the president and his administration. We should be talking about Republican competence, Republican ability to get things done when dealing with COVID going forward.
I will tell you, George, one of the biggest fails you're going to hear about in the next week happened right here in my home state. It's extraordinary. The Department of Health in my home state missed the federal deadline by a day in submitting their paperwork to get our elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities vaccinated.
So, instead of starting tomorrow with our elderly and 7,100 of them have died in my state, as they have all across the country, we're going to have to wait another week in New Jersey until the 28th of December for our elderly to get vaccinated.
What the Republicans should be focusing on is saying, we now have this ability to fight the COVID virus. Let's now get after it and make sure we do it exactly right and get life back to normal with our economy and our health of our citizens as quickly as possible.
We focus on that kind of message, the American people are going to be drawn to us.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Rahm, it's a reminder that no matter whatever else Joe Biden wants to achieve as president, COVID is going to dominate the agenda, at least until the summer.
EMANUEL: Oh, there's -- COVID and its impact both on health, the economy. But I would actually go back to also with -- Senator Warner was talking about in your earlier part of the show.
George, this attack, or this espionage, whichever -- and the words are important which you mean -- is a new threat that we are just going to begin to unravel. I will say, you know, usually you use the metaphor, you know, you're the dog that caught the car. This may be a situation where the dog aught the truck. Everything you turn around on 360 degrees, Donald Trump has left America worse off than the day he walked in. There is not a single place on the economy, unity, health care, our standing in the world, our vulnerability. Across the board, Joe Biden has to hit the ground -- and that's why I think the team that is assembled has to be put under the banner ready on day one. That is what's his message to the --
FAGEN: But I don't think that's fair.
EMANUEL: I know you -- I didn't think you would --
FAGEN: I don't think --
EMANUEL: Sara, I didn't think you -- I didn't say it because I thought you thought it was fair.
FAGEN: But -- yes, but --
EMANUEL: I just happen to be really down to ground. You tell me where America is better than where it was when he walked in on the 17th of January -- January 2017.
FAGEN: Rahm-- Rahm, you know, a disease -- a disease hit our shows -- no, no, I -- let's --
EMANUEL: We're -- as I --
CHRISTIE: Go get him, Sara.
EMANUEL: Our standing in the world. (INAUDIBLE) --
FAGEN: So, a disease hit our shores and within a year there is a vaccine. The first half of this program was about vaccine production and being shipped.
EMANUEL: That -- that has nothing to do with Donald Trump.
FAGEN: And it does absolutely have every -- a lot to do with Donald Trump. It's not just Donald Trump. It is his government who deserves credit.
EMANUEL: The medical community.
FAGEN: And I think -- I -- of course the medical community, of course the scientists. Nobody's disputing that.
But I will say this about Donald Trump and -- and he deserves much criticism for the way he's handled himself after this election. However, there's something about what he doesn't know that has been a benefit to this country. And he is a bull in a China shop when it comes to getting things done. And he sometimes makes big mistakes. But on this, his pressure on the FDA, his demand of his government to move faster and to break down barriers was a benefit to the country.
EMANUEL: Sara --
FAGEN: And we should give him credit for that. It's fair to criticism him for having cookie meetings in the Oval Office with Sydney Powell, but he should deserve this credit as well.
EMANUEL: Every president, Sara, gets -- every president gets a -- OK, one thing. Every president gets evaluated from what was the status of the country they in -- walked in on and when they leave. And if you think it's better off, great. I -- welcome to that reality. I do not believe that you need history to judge that this president was a loser and a failure and he left America worst off.
FAGEN: I --
STEPHANOPOULOS: That's going to have to be the last --
FAGEN: I think these are always complex problems and --
EMANUEL: Of course they are. But you can make judgements.
FAGEN: And he's -- and the balance sheet, he has -- he has -- he has positives and negatives.
EMANUEL: Well, the negatives out weight the positives.
CHRISTIE: His passionate evaluation from Rahm. Merry Christmas.
EMANUEL: No, Happy Hanukkah, Chris
STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to wish all of you -- I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas.
That is all for us today. Thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with us. Stay safe this holiday week and we're wishing you a blessed Christmas.
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