'This Week' Transcript 12-24-23: Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco & Sen. Lindsey Graham

This is a rush transcript of "This Week" airing Sunday, December 24.

ByABC News
December 24, 2023, 9:16 AM

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco & Sen. Lindsey Graham were on "This Week" Sunday, December 24. This is a rush transcript and may be updated.




LISA MONACO, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think we are in a very, very challenging threat environment.

THOMAS: U.S. law enforcement facing increasing terror reports in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

Since October 7th it’s spiked. You feel the spike?

MONACO: Well, certainly.

THOMAS: And with near record crossings at the southern border, immigration talks on pause in Washington.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): We agree the border must be fixed.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The country needs it, and the country needs it soon.

THOMAS: This morning, our exclusive interviews with Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Plus, analysis from our powerhouse roundtable.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT AND 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you.

THOMAS: Colorado's highest court bars Donald Trump from their primary ballot.

NIKKI HALEY (R), 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will beat him fair and square.

CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want voters to make this decision, not courts.

THOMAS: Could more states do the same?

Will the U.S. Supreme Court kick off 2024 with a key ruling? Former Justice Department Spokesperson Sarah Isgur and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara weigh in.

Plus --

DEVIN DWYER, SENIOR WASHINGTON REPORTER: Do you feel like they owe you an apology?

ANNIE REYES, NAVY VETERAN: I don't need an apology. I need them to fix the things that they broke.

THOMAS: Twelve years since Congress repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Devin Dwyer reports on a new effort to get LGBTQ veterans the benefits they're owed.


ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, it's THIS WEEK. Here now, chief justice correspondent Pierre Thomas.

THOMAS: Good morning and welcome to THIS WEEK.

As many of us were focused on getting that last-minute shopping done as we prepare for some holiday time off, in the background it was truly a week of consequential headlines involving some of our most challenging issues. The crisis at the southern border was back at center stage with record numbers of migrants flooding into the U.S., raising serious questions about the Biden administration's policies.

Overseas, the war between Israel and Hamas still raging, sparking new fears of mass starvation and worries that the conflict could lead to terror right here at home.

And former President Donald Trump was hit with another legal setback as he continues to overshadow his rivals as the election heats up.

But special counsel Jack Smith suffered his own setback as well.

On top of it all, the country as divided as ever, with a disturbing spike involving threats to political violence.

So, we begin this morning with one of the most powerful people in U.S. government, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. She's someone who you may not know very well, but every single day she’s making decisions about all those issues and more.

We sat down for an exclusive interview in what is truly one of the most volatile and unprecedented moments in the history of the Justice Department.


THOMAS: Some are calling this perhaps the most challenging threat environment since 9/11. The FBI director endorsed that at a recent hearing. Do you share that concern, and if so, why?

LISA MONACO, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think we are in a very, very challenging threat environment. During 9/11 it was -- our focus – our focus was on sophisticated plots driven by foreign terrorist organizations with catastrophic effect. Today I think we're in a unique moment where what we're most worried about are individuals or small groups who are often radicalized online and who are motivated by and influenced by a range of ideologies from foreign terrorism and foreign terrorist organizations to domestic grievances. And oftentimes what we're seeing in the most lethal form is from racially or ethnically motivated ideologies.

THOMAS: So, the FBI director was saying he's never seen a time when all those categories are elevated at the same time. Is that – is that what you're talking about here?

MONACO: That's exactly right. I mean we have this range of ideologies that can motivate and inspire individuals to violence. And the current conflict is causing – I think contributing to a heightened threat environment. What we are seeing is foreign terrorist organizations taking advantage and calling upon their adherence to act, to do something. And then we’re seeing individuals and – and small groups that we worry will basically take twisted inspiration from conflict overseas and from the very searing images that we’re seeing that came out of the brutal, brutal terrorist attacks that occurred on October 7th.

THOMAS: Can you give a sense of the cases, the caseload?

MONACO: We have seen a significant uptick in threats of violence and violence, particularly directed at the Jewish community and also at the Muslim and Arab American communities here in the United States. Since October 7th, the FBI has received more than 1,800 reports of threats or other types of tips or leads that are somehow related to or have a nexus to the current conflict in Israel and Gaza.

Now, many of these reports and these threats, or tips, are resolved without incident. But many also develop into investigations. And today as we sit here, the FBI has opened more than 100 investigations coming out of those reports.

THOMAS: And they're still ongoing?

MONACO: Indeed.

THOMAS: And the Jewish community has been impacted, but the Muslim and people of Arab origin as well. That case of a six-year-old boy –


THOMAS: Stabbed 26 times, allegedly by his landlord, do you recall where you were, and what was your reaction to it when you heard about it?

MONACO: Look, it's heartbreaking, Pierre. I remember actually asking my staff, six years old? Six years old? The hub of this conflict is, you know, thousands of miles away, but its spokes extend here to the United States in events like this brutal, fatal stabbing of a six-year-old Muslim boy.

THOMAS (voice over): The domestic repercussions of the Israel-Hamas war are not the only contributor to the current threat environment. Monaco said the Justice Department’s also working to address potential threats at the southern border.

THOMAS: This week Customs and Border Protections, sources are telling us, that on one day they stopped 12,000 people from trying to enter the country from the southern border. I was looking at research and last fiscal year more than 7,000 Russians were trying to come into the country through the southern border. Twenty-four thousand people of Chinese origin, Chinese nationals. Isn't that a national security issue, and what can the Justice Department do about that?

MONACO: Well, sure these are national security issues. And the Justice Department and the FBI are working with the Department of Homeland Security that has primary responsibility for securing the border, working with the intelligence community to address national security challenges and threats from wherever they emanate. And you can be assured that the FBI and the Justice Department are hard at work on that.

THOMAS: And resource issues. Three million roughly case backlog in terms of immigration cases, many of these asylum cases. It creates a feel that because many of these people are going to stay while these cases are being resolved because of the backlog that it is unfair to people who are going through the system the proper way. How do you address that and can you get that backlog down?

MONACO: Yes, look, this is a real challenge. The Justice Department operates the immigration courts with immigration judges. And the -- they are essential to a fair and efficient immigration system. And we have been resolving a record number of cases in the last couple of years, but we still have far too few immigration judges, which is why we’ve asked Congress in our latest budget request for a lot more money and authority to hire more immigration judges.

THOMAS: I want to talk about the toxic environment here in Washington. You have Republicans who will say that the Justice Department is full of political operatives who are working to help President Biden, hurt President Trump, and they'll even say that the FBI should be defunded. What's your reaction to that kind of language, and what do you say on behalf of DOJ?

MONACO: Those claims bear no resemblance to the Justice Department that I know. The Justice Department that I know is filled with dedicated men and women, investigators, lawyers, prosecutors, analysts, professional staff who get up every day, Pierre -- they get up every day without regard to who's in the White House or who's in Congress. It really bothers me when I hear those claims because it does a disservice to the men and women of the Justice Department. It contributes to the toxicity that you're speaking about and --

THOMAS: Political threats?

MONACO: Well, what we've seen is an unprecedented rise in threats to public officials across the board -- law enforcement agents, prosecutors, judges, election officials. And we are seeing that and responding to it.

THOMAS: And, you know, I know you don't want to talk about any particular candidate. But when people using words like poison the blood and calling DOJ officials thugs, is that helpful?

MONACO: Well, of course, it's not helpful.

I get something called urgent reports. These are reports that come in the field from U.S. attorneys all across the country. And on a weekly basis, sometimes more often, I am getting reports about threats to public officials, threats to our prosecutors, threats to law enforcement agents who work in the Justice Department, threats to judges. In fact, just this week, just this week, Pierre, we've had cases involving threats to kill FBI agents, a Supreme Court justice and three presidential candidates.

THOMAS: Three?

MONACO: That's just this week.

THOMAS: I’m going to ask a couple questions that I hope get to transparency, understanding the limits that you have to operate within. Can you assure the American public that Special Counsels Jack Smith and David Weiss, Robert Hur are operating without regard to anything but the facts and the law?

MONACO: Yes. And the reason I say that, Pierre, is, look, these are matters of the utmost importance and significance. Cases of that level of significance are -- it's exceptionally important that they are handled independently, confidentially and free of any outside or inappropriate influence. And that's exactly why the attorney general appointed special counsels in the first place.

THOMAS: Just for the record, so the public can hear it from a top official at DOJ, has President Biden ever raised the classified documents investigation, the probe of Hunter Biden with you or the A.G., tried to influence you? Has he ever done that in regard to President Trump?

MONACO: No. And the attorney general's been exceptionally clear on this point.


THOMAS: Joining us now, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Senator, thank you so much for joining us, and happy holidays.

Let’s get right to it. This question of terror, are you as concerned as Lisa Monaco and the FBI director right now?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER & (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: Yes, I've never been more concerned about a terrorist attack on our homeland. And I appreciate what Lisa said.

The director of the FBI, when I questioned him a couple weeks ago, said he sees blinking lights everywhere. And particularly after October the 7th, we’re helping Israel deal with the destruction of Hamas, defending themselves. After October the 7th Jihadist groups all over the world are calling on their members to attack America as payback for us helping Israel.

So, the threat levels are at all-time high. October the 7th put gasoline on a fire. And we need to get our border secure and up our game.

THOMAS: In terms of the FBI, do they have enough resources? Are you seeing that they are doing what they need to do? Are you confident?

GRAHAM: Well, the budget negotiations has a cut for the FBI. I objected to the debt ceiling deal because it put the military budget under inflation. It’s insane for America not to rebuild its defenses in light of the threats we face. And the FBI’s budget is under inflation.

So, one of the things I hope to have accomplish is when we do a bill to fund the government to give the FBI more resources.

We’re under siege at home and abroad. Domestic terrorism does worry me. But Jihadist inspired terrorist attacks are at an all-time high. They want to punish us for helping Israel. So, now is not the time to go cheap on the FBI or the Department of Defense.

THOMAS: A question about the war involving Hamas and Israel.


THOMAS: We’re seeing all these horrible, horrible images.


THOMAS: Twenty thousand Palestinians killed.

A lot of people are worrying that those images might stoke the terror that you’re concerned about.


THOMAS: Are you concerned that Israel is doing enough to mitigate those kinds of casualties?

GRAHAM: Well, you’ve got to remember -- Hamas wants to up the casualties of their own people. They’re using the Palestinian people as human shields. They have command bunkers under schools and hospitals. They use apartment complexes to launch military operations. So, I blame the death of all these Palestinians on Hamas.

But Israel is trying to mitigate casualties. We need more humanitarian aid as long as it doesn’t go into the hands of Hamas.

But here’s what I want the world to know. If Abbas is still standing when this is over, we have failed as a world community. I would not invest 15 cents in a future Palestine where Hamas is still standing. They have 24 military brigades that need to be destroyed. Their leaders need to be killed and captured. And I wouldn’t invest 15 cents into the Palestinian Authority regarding a new Palestine.

Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is dead to me. So, when we get to the day after, when Israel has ceased military operations because Hamas has been destroyed, the new Palestine cannot have Hamas, and it cannot be governed by the PA. The PA is corrupt in the eyes of its own people. They’ve had pay to slay programs.

So, I'm looking for a fresh start the day after. But the destruction of Hamas is non-negotiable. You would be insane to invest in the Palestinian people if Hamas is still standing. I will not do that. I will not send one dime of American aid if Hamas is still standing. And if you put the PA in charge of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, no money coming from me.

THOMAS: Senator, let’s turn to the border. Where do the negotiations stand? Are you confident that you’ll get this done this time?

GRAHAM: We have to get it done. The asylum fixes are – are going pretty well. The hangup is parole. This administration does not want to let go of a tool they’re abusing. Under our parole law, you can admit people into the country who are outside the country or withinside the country – inside the country on an individual basis. They’ve been taking the parole statute and granting mass parole, blanket parole, and we need to stop. They do not want to give that tool up. They’re trying to hang on to devices to allow the flow to continue. Republicans are trying to restrict the flow and regain control of our border.

But having said that, Senator Lankford’s doing a good job. But to the Biden administration, we have to address the magnets that are drawing so many people here. The terrorist threat is beyond imagination. All the lights are blinking. And we’re on track to have 3.6 million encounters at the border in F.Y. ’24. This December, encounters at the border are up 440 percent over December 2020. The policies of the Biden administration are attracting people from all over the world. We have to change those policies to secure our border. So, policy changes are the key to getting a deal to help Ukraine. Border security is the key to Ukraine.

THOMAS: Senator, we’re running out of time here. I wanted to ask you about this 14th Amendment ruling by the state supreme court in Colorado. Where do you stand on that particular ruling, and what can be done?

GRAHAM: It’s not a rule -- a law-based ruling. It is a political decision. The hatred of Trump is so widespread. You know, the Democrats want to pack the Supreme Court, abolish the Electoral College, make D.C. and Puerto Rico a state and national elections through HR-1. This Colorado Supreme Court made a political decision. In my view, there is no constitutional basis for the decision they rendered. I think it will be a – a slam dunk in the Supreme Court. Donald Trump will eventually be on the ballot in Colorado. I think he will win the primary. You’ve got a lot of good choices in the Republican Party.

But this ruling in Colorado is chilling to me and it would set up a politicization of the presidential races. It would be bad for the country.

THOMAS: But, Senator, I have to ask you, the president – former President Trump continues to say he won the election. He’s in – he claims to be an election denier prior (ph).

GRAHAMS: Right. Right. Yes.

THOMAS: Now, we teach our children, when they lose something, to shake the opponents hand and move on.

GRAHAM: Right.

THOMAS: Are you concerned that the president is –


THOMAS: Former president is not setting the proper standard going forward here, sir?

GRAHAM: Well, you know, Hillary Clinton didn’t – had the same view that she was cheated. He’s not the first politician to claim to have been denied a fair election. But here’s what I would say, I accept the election results of 2020. I'm worried about 2024. If President Trump puts the vision out, improving security and prosperity for Americans, he will win. If he looks back, I think he will lose.

So, at the end of the day, the 2020 election’s over for me. We need to secure the ballot in the 2024 cycle. But Donald Trump’s not the first person to complain about an election.

THOMAS: Well, we have to end it there. We thank you. And, again, Happy Holidays.

Up next, former President Trump’s legal troubles will soon collide with the campaign calendar. How will it all impact the 2024 race? Our expert legal panel weighs in when we come back in just two minutes.



JENA GRISWOLD, (D) COLORADO SECRETARY OF STATE: The fact of the matter is, the Colorado Supreme Court has determined that Donald Trump did engage in insurrection and that his actions have disqualified him from being president.

GOV. KRISTI NOEM, (R) SOUTH DAKOTA: The left is so concerned about losing this election to President Trump. He will win, make no mistake, regardless of what Colorado does and what their supreme court decides, that President Trump will win the primary election.


THOMAS: Well, the reactions were flying after that Colorado State Supreme Court ruling this week that says President Trump can't be on the Republican primary ballot there. It's the latest development in a presidential campaign set to be litigated just as much in the courtroom as it is on the campaign trail.

Senior national correspondent Terry Moran has more.


FORMER PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: Twenty-twenty-four is our final battle.

TERRY MORAN, ABC NEWS SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Former President Donald Trump made history this week, but not the kind presidential candidates hope for. In a stunning decision, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Trump is ineligible to appear on the state's Republican primary ballot because of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, culminating in the attack on the Capitol.

Trump, the court declared in a split decision, "engaged in insurrection" and so is barred from becoming president again under the 14th Amendment.

The court pointed to Trump's "direct and express efforts, over several months, exhorting his supporters to march to the Capitol to prevent what he falsely characterized as an alleged fraud."

The Trump campaign vowing to appeal to the Supreme Court.

ALINA HABBA, TRUMP ATTORNEY: This was a very, very -- I mean, such a ridiculous decision that I'm not even concerned that the Supreme Court will make the right decision here.

MORAN: Even Trump's 2024 GOP rivals leaped to his defense and blasted the Colorado court.

FORMER GOV. NIKKI HALEY, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA & REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We don't need to have judges making these decisions. We need voters to have -- make these decisions.

GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) FLORIDA & REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So that's a very dangerous precedent, to say that a partisan court can just take somebody off the ballot.

MORAN: President Biden sidestepped the legal issue, but not the facts as the court determined them.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR.: Now, whether the 14th amendment applies, I'll let the court make that decision, but he certainly supported an insurrection.

MORAN: The Colorado case is one of several brought by voters and activist groups in various states seeking to disqualify Trump. But it's the first win for the plaintiffs at this level.

Trump's many legal woes, far from slowing him down, have become the cornerstone of his presidential campaign.

TRUMP: I consider it actually a great badge of honor.


TRUMP:I got indicted over election interference so they could try and damage me.

MORAN: He faces 91 charges across four criminal cases and a civil lawsuit in New York that claims Trump grossly exaggerated his net worth.

Also in New York, Trump is criminally charged in a hush money campaign, allegedly falsifying records to hide an extramarital affair.

In Georgia, Trump and many of his one-time surrogates are charged with trying to overturn the 2020 election results in that state.

And new reporting by "The Detroit News" citing audio from a phone call ABC News has not obtained or verified alleges that President Trump also pressured local Michigan election officials not to certify Biden's win there.

In a statement to ABC, Trump's campaign isn't denying the story.

Special counsel Jack Smith has also charged Trump federally with attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the lead-up to January 6th.

JACK SMITH, SPECIAL COUNSEL: As described in the indictment, it was fueled by lies -- lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government.

MORAN: And in Florida, Smith has also charged Trump with illegally retaining classified documents after leaving the White House. Trump has denied wrongdoing in all of the criminal and civil cases which are set to directly collide with the campaign calendar.

And yet, Trump's hard-wired connection with the Republican base has made him seem invulnerable. He's leading in the polls with a sense of disbelief and dread grip some Democrats.

For "This Week," Terry Moran, ABC News, Washington.


THOMAS: Our thanks to Terry Moran.

Joining us now are former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, and former Trump Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur.

Preet, let me start with you. On Friday, the Supreme Court said no to the Special Counsel Jack Smith's request to expedite a ruling on whether Trump has total immunity in the election interference case.


THOMAS: How big of a setback was that for the special counsel?

BHARARA: So, it remains to be seen. Obviously, the special counsel argued stridently for fast-tracking the case and getting it done quickly because there's an election coming up, although he doesn’t say that outright in the petition. It’s still possible the that D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals deals with the matter quickly in the next few weeks, and it's also possible that the Supreme Court then has an understanding that it will immediately take jurisdiction and decide the case, but it may not.

If it does not, Donald Trump has an opportunity to go to the full D.C. circuit. That will take some weeks. If he fails there, he can go back to the Supreme Court, which has recently denied the petition.

So, that could take some months. And so, the March 4th trial date apparently set looks like it not -- it won't happen.

THOMAS: Well, very much in jeopardy, because we're talking about weeks, not months.

BHARARA: Yeah, but weeks can turn to months pretty quickly.


Sarah, let me ask you this, what is the likelihood that we will see either the federal case involving election interference or the classified documents case actually happen before the November election?

SARAH ISGUR, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Low and getting lower. You know, I’m one of the few people who doesn't think there will be any trials held before the election. So, I’m in the minority in that sense.

But, like Preet explained, there's this one shot they've really got to have this January 6th federal case go before the election and it may be the most likely path. But there's about 10 ways that it gets delayed before the election and each of those added up gets you over 50 percent in my view.

Now, it doesn't mean that these other cases don't pose a real threat to Donald Trump. The Florida case, the documents case as you mentioned, I think certainly is the legally strongest case.

THOMAS: Why is that?

ISGUR: Well, because they've got that one sort of dead to rights. It's a purely fact-based case. You had the documents where you weren't supposed to have them. They asked for ‘em back. You didn't give ‘em back. And then you lied about where they were.

The problem with that one is because it involves classified documents, it's taking a really long time to go through that process of clearing which documents that Donald Trump and his team can actually review, which documents the jury is going to get to review. There’s almost no way that one is going before the election.

And then, Georgia, for instance, that is so massive in scope with so many people. You know, it's interesting with either one of those cases, they could have brought tighter, smaller cases that might have gone before the election. But this is the problem with the strategy.

THOMAS: Well, and I want to get to some breaking news overnight. President Trump's legal team filed a brief with the appellate court here in Washington saying the election interference case should be thrown out, again, because of immunity.

Was that expected? And is that part of what you were talking about a few moments ago?

BHARARA: Look, they're searching for every opportunity to delay, to make broad sweeping claims, to prevent these trials as Sarah was saying. And she has a good point on all four trials, prevent them from happening before the election.

And I think any sweeping argument made to any court, interim, appellate, Supreme Court on the part of Donald Trump has to be expected. The sweeping claims of absolute immunity I think will ultimately, even with this Supreme Court, not hold, but it’s going to take a while to get there. That’s the problem.

THOMAS: Sarah, do you agree with that assessment?

ISGUR: I do. I think it's a relatively close call in terms of how we think about what presidents can do while they're president. What's an official act versus what’s a campaign act versus what’s a personal act? I think those are relatively tough questions, which is why it also may take a while when it gets to the Supreme Court.

I think in the end, that Preet is probably right. I think, you know, another case that's obviously heading to the Supreme Court is this 14th Amendment challenge to keep Donald Trump off the ballot.


ISGUR: I think that's very likely to fail. So, Donald Trump on the one hand, they’ll probably hold that he's not immune from criminal prosecution. On the other hand, they’ll hold that he can’t be kept off the ballot either.

THOMAS: Preet, what's your assessment of the Colorado case?

Look, people who argue that it's outrageous and undemocratic I think are incorrect. It’s -- I’m not saying it's a slam dunk at all, but it's a carefully reasoned, text-based constitutional argument. It’s not undemocratic.

What I find interesting is people who support Donald Trump and Donald Trump himself keep arguing that in any fashion to hold someone accountable per the Constitution for election interference is itself election interference. It's an untenable position.

I agree with Sarah that the Supreme Court may very well not uphold the Colorado decision. There have been other states who have addressed the same 14th Amendment issue and haven’t ruled in the same way. But it's not some unsound decision by any means.

ISGUR: This was a 4-3 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court. Three other states, like you said, have looked at it and came out the other way.

You know, I think what the Supreme Court is likely to say maybe just an unsigned opinion with no noted dissents is, look, Congress actually did make a statute to enforce the 14th Amendment Section Three. Donald Trump hasn't been charged with that. He certainly hasn't been convicted of it. And sorry, you can't do a court weigh and run.

THOMAS: This whole question of accountability, we have the "Detroit Free Press" story about the audio where Trump is pressuring local officials to not certify the election. This question of accountability -- if not, then when? Preet?

BHARARA: Look, it has to happen in the coming months. And that's why you're seeing all this jockeying on timing because we haven't gotten to it yet. But the reason why to say it again, it's important for the trials to happen before the election is, if Donald Trump wins, all the cases have a really good shot of going away. The federal cases certainly go away because he'll order his Justice Department to dismiss them and not pursue them.

There's a possibility of a self-pardon. And we also know from the Office of Legal Counsel opinion from the last few years that a sitting president is not supposed to be prosecutable while he's in office.

So, everything hinges upon that election. And if there's not accountability in the coming months, there may never be.

THOMAS: I misspoke, it's "The Detroit News," not the “Free Press”. And I want to give proper credit there.

But I have to ask you this question, Sarah, at what point does this become not about Trump playing the victim? He's done that very effectively. He's still riding high in the polls pretty much. But this whole question of what happens when the country starts to focus not so much on the criminal trials, the civil trials, but him, the person and his policies?

ISGUR: That’s very -- I mean, so far all this legal stuff has helped Donald Trump politically. He's been able to overshadow his competitors in the Republican primary. I mean, this 14th Amendment case from the Colorado Supreme Court may halt Nikki Haley's momentum that she was seeing in New Hampshire.

What I think is relevant to Republican primary voters is that they're not learning new facts in any of this. They're having sort of elites, you know, democratically appointed judges or, you know, et cetera, putting words on those facts, their terminology. But they feel like this is Democrats saying they don't want to -- they don’t think they're able to defeat Donald Trump at the ballot box and so, they're going to try to remove him from the ballot.

THOMAS: So, we’ll have to see how this plays in the general election if Trump is, in fact, the nominee.

Well, up next, could good news on the economy boost President Biden in 2024?

The roundtable on that debate when we come back.


THOMAS: The powerhouse roundtable is here talking all the week's politics.

We're back in a moment.



JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I vowed that we’d invest in all of Americans, and that’s what we’re doing. We're leaving no one behind. All this ground-breaking work is producing ground-breaking results. Record job creation, historic economic growth. We have among the lowest inflation rates of any major economy in the -- on this earth and we're fighting a lower cost to give folks just a little bit more breathing room as my dad used to say.


THOMAS: President Biden there weighing in on some strong economic numbers going into 2024.

The powerhouse roundtable joins me now.

NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid, political head of news Alex Burns, "Washington Post" associate editor and columnist Ruth Marcus, and "National Review" editor Ramesh Ponnuru.

Ruth, I want to start with you. The economy does seem to be doing better, but for the life of him, Joe Biden can't seem -- the president can't seem to get any credit?

RUTH MARCUS, WASHINGTON POST ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST: Not yet. There's always, Pierre, a lag between economic reality and voters' perceptions of economic reality.

So the reality is, in the last year, voters' -- Americans' real incomes are up more than 3 percent. But it's also -- the perception, which is also true and is what is going to affect President Biden's chances of re-election, is that voters are not feeling that yet.

Fifty-three percent of them say that President Biden's policies have hurt them personally. Forty-four percent -- that's double the number of 2019 -- say that they're struggling to keep up financially.

So until they really stop feeling that sticker shock at the gas pumps, stop feeling that sticker shock at the grocery store, it's going to be hard for President Trump -- President Trump -- President Biden, no matter how strong those numbers seem to be, to convince voters of that reality.

THOMAS: Well, Ramesh, the Republicans clearly have been taking advantage of the -- the economic numbers. But if things do improve and stay that way, inflation continues to go down, unemployment stays low, what will the Republicans do then?

MARCUS: Well, presumably they will continue to say that it's a bad economy and hope that perceptions have been baked in. The thing that we need to keep in mind, I think, is that leaders, incumbents throughout the developed world have poor ratings. Biden's are actually better than a lot of other countries' leaders. And it's partly because our economy is better.

So he is actually, hard as it is to see it, getting some credit for the economy, which I think suggests that, if we see continued improvement, and particularly if paychecks keep up with bills, which people haven't been feeling, then his numbers might improve.

THOMAS: Asma, what are they trying to do at the White House right now to change this perception?

KHALID: Yeah, you know, I was on a -- a call recently, a small group of us reporters, with Biden's top economic adviser, Lael Brainard. And I will say one thing that really struck me was there is a clear recognition, they said, that in this year ahead, the president's top economic priority will be around curbing costs.

She specifically cited healthcare and housing as being two pain points for voters. I think the challenge, I will say, is when you talk about housing, there are limited levers that any president has to really curb the cost of housing.

But I do think the messaging, to me, as somebody who listens carefully to the White House, sounds different. I remember, a year and a half ago, President Biden got out there and said that there was, quote, "zero inflation." And that's just a message that voters weren't hearing. They -- they felt this economic anxiety. And now you're hearing the White House, I think, talk to a greater degree recognizing the sort of economic pain and anxiety voters have continued to feel.

THOMAS: Alex, does Team Trump and the Republicans have a plan B if the economy continues to do well?

BURNS: No, not particularly, but plan A is working pretty well for them at the moment, both because of voters' perceptions of the economy and because Joe Biden just personally is not a popular president. Voters have the perception that he is an old guy who's lost a step or two, and they don't have a lot of confidence in him just as an individual.

The wager that the Biden administration and the Biden campaign have been making all along is that, whatever voters' reservations are about Joe Biden the man, they will reward him for his record and they will choose him as an alternative to a challenger who they believe most Americans see as, sort of, a maniac, right?

And so, look, that is a -- a plausible bet for Democrats to make. It's not the bet that Democrats would love to be making in 2024, that maybe voters will look past the candidate that we're putting forward.

THOMAS: Ramesh, I have to tell you, I watched Ron DeSantis this week, complaining about somebody being indicted and the fact that that had taken the air out of the room. Have you ever heard of such?

RAMESH PONNURU, NATIONAL REVIEW EDITOR: Well, Donald Trump continues to set precedents, and...


PONNURU: ... he is certainly the first ex-president to face 91 indictments and the first to politically benefit from it, at least in the primaries. Whether it's really going to help him in the general election, that's a totally different question.

THOMAS: And, Ruth, I have to ask you this question, what happens at the point when it turns from his -- Trump's legal woes to the person, the candidate and his policies?

MARCUS: Well, is it going to turn from Trump's legal woes?

I mean, one of -- "unprecedented" is the word, going to be the word of 2024, I think, because we've never had a situation of an indicted ex-president; we've never had a situation of an indicted likely general election candidate. That legal calendar is going to collide with the electoral calendar in ways that I don't think we can really imagine.

If there is a trial and if there is a conviction, the -- the first part is the biggest "if," though I think, maybe more likely than not. I slightly disagree with the previous panel. That could reality change on the ground. I think it's clear and this Colorado ruling reinforces that, that indictments have been bizarrely a help for Trump within his own party. I think that's a little bit different in the general election campaign.

THOMAS: Alex, we'll be going to the Iowa caucuses pretty soon. Any chance Nikki Haley or DeSantis or anybody else can upend Trump there?

BURNS: In Iowa, I think the odds are virtually zero. I think if there's an upset, it's much, much likelier to be in New Hampshire where we've seen Nikki Haley gain significant ground. Iowa is really a game to not get completely annihilated by Trump, and for -- if Nikki Haley can finish ahead of Ron DeSantis there, that will be some kind of symbolic or spiritual advantage for her.

I do think your previous question was really, really spot on in terms of what happens to Trump if and when the conversation turns to policy. We've seen it happen a couple of times so far, like when he stepped out and said, I am going to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Again, he's not good at talking about the actual basics of governance and maybe some voters don't care about that, but other voters do. And when they hear Trump sort of crawl to the carpet on healthcare or on abortion rights, or on other issues other than his personal character and legal problems, we do see that he tends to struggle.

THOMAS: Asma, New Hampshire, Nikki Haley making some gains there. Can she pull it off?

KHALID: I mean, I don't know. New Hampshire I think has always had this very independent-minded streak and you've often seen that the winner of Iowa is not the winner of New Hampshire. There is a differentiation there. I think really though, what we saw with the Colorado case is that it's hard for any other Republican candidate in the field to make a breakthrough because, ultimately, what we've seen this entire election season is that everything is a referendum on Trump.

And so, you've seen it. It's really challenging for the other Republican candidates to criticize Trump in the way they need to criticize him, to be able to differentiate themselves. So every time we've seen this, we've seen this with Mar-a-Lago, the raid, we've seen this with impeachments, everything becomes a litmus test for other Republicans to validate how closely aligned they are with the former president.

THOMAS: Ramesh, I want to talk about words and how they matter. We saw Former President Trump do something this week, he doesn't intend to do. He was explaining himself on the use of the word "poisoning the blood" -- the phrase "poisoning the blood." Why do you think he felt the need to do that?

PONNURU: Well, I guess that the volume and frequency of criticisms of him for sounding, well, positively Hitlerian finally made him feel like he had to respond. I have to say, his response was to claim ignorance of Hitler which, when Trump pleads ignorance, I take that plea seriously.


PONNURU: But, the idea that he has spontaneously replicated Nazi rhetoric on his own is not particularly reassuring.

THOMAS: Ruth, Nazis, that's not what political candidates want to go anywhere near typically. What do you think that's about? Why do you think Trump has been using those phrases like "vermin" to talk about his critics?

MARCUS: I do take a little bit of solace, as Ramesh said, in the notion that he felt a slight need -- slight need to pull back because the response was so appropriately harsh to his horrible, horrible rhetoric. But I think there are a few things with him. First of all, it resonates. There's a piece of the base with whom it resonates. They say, the polls suggest that they say they like it, and he is just also oppositional.

When he says something that, you know, would be unthinkable for any other candidate, he -- and people say you can't get away with that -- he has this oppositional desire to double down and I think that's what we are seeing, and he's egged on. Because he (ph) doesn't come up with that language on his own, right? It's Stephen Miller and his merry band that suggests this language and he picks it up and runs with it.

THOMAS: Alex, is this a step beyond what you saw in the 2016 campaign, and even the 2020 campaign, with Trump using language like that?

BURNS: So, I think the particularly vivid and ugly language that we're talking about, the literal words, yes. But we're eight years past the former president saying that all Muslims should be banned from entering the United States. I don't think there's anything particularly shocking about the sort of general values orientation of this guy. And I do think that there's a risk in overemphasizing the specific words as being offensive as opposed to the policies which have been basically entirely consistent.

KHALID: But even the words, Alex, I mean you probably recall this. I remember ahead of the 2016 campaign, Trump often would recite this poem "The Snake" which was likening Syrian refugees to a snake that a woman lets into her home, nurses back to health, and then the snake bites the woman, and it was this metaphor, and we get these huge applause lines at rallies.

So, I’m with you, I do think that the rhetoric has been there. To a degree, it's different.

I also think the one thing that sounds to me a little different now is the language being used towards domestic political opponents. It was often used not exclusively, but often towards being foreign deemed threats.

Now, he's talking about his own political opponents as vermin, and that sounds to my ear somewhat different.

MARCUS: I don't know. We've been enemy of the people for a long time.

THOMAS: Well, I wish we had more time, but we’ve run out of time. I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

Up next, a question of fairness. Our Devin Dwyer talks to veterans still waiting for benefits after they were discharged from the military because of “don't ask, don't tell”. We'll be right back.


THOMAS: As we head into the holidays, our service members make the largest sacrifices, choosing country above else. But thousands of Americans who were kicked out of the military because of who they are and who they love are still waiting to be made whole. It's been more than a decade since Congress ended the ban on LGBTQ service members.

Devin Dwyer reports on a new effort underway to correct what top officials are calling a historic injustice.


ANNIE REYES, NAVY VETERAN: And you show it to them and it says, reason for discharge, homosexual conduct.

DEVIN DWYER, ABC NEWS SENIOR WASHINGTON REPORTER (voice-over): For former Navy sailor Annie Reyes, the words on paper still sting.

REYES: We were out in Bahrain, in the middle of the ocean, and they’re like, this is the perfect time to kick someone out for being gay. So, here, here I go, traveling all the way back here.

DWYER: You don't have a job.

REYES: I’m in Virginia.

DWYER: You don’t have a car. You don’t have a home. You don’t have an ID.

REYES: I was just like sinking lower and lower and lower. And I tried to kill myself. So, when that didn't work, I figured I got to keep trying. I’ve got to do something.

DWYER: Fourteen years after a rumor led to an investigation and her humiliating removal from the USS Bataan as an electrician’s mate.

REYES: This one is the actual interrogation that they used to get me kicked out.

DWYER (voice-over): Reyes is fighting for her dignity and for full access to military benefits like healthcare, home loans and college tuition.

REYES: The first benefit that I was denied was unemployment. Even right now, I don't qualify to get my full benefits because I didn't serve the four years.

DWYER (voice-over): An estimated 100,000 service members since World War II were kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation, including more than 13,000 under the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy between 1994 and 2011.

DANA MONTALTO, VETERANS LEGAL CLINIC ATTORNEY: There's definitely a long road ahead to really get full justice for veterans who served under "don't ask, don't tell."

DWYER (voice-over): Since Congress ended the military's gay ban in 2012, service members who were kicked out have been able to apply to upgrade their records to remove stigma and qualify for more benefits, but only one in four have done so.


DWYER (voice-over): The Biden Administration earlier this year announced it would begin proactively reviewing discharge records to identify and help those who were kicked out, and have not come forward.

HICKS: This is yet another step we're taking to make sure we do right by those who served honorably.

DWYER (voice-over): But the Pentagon could not say when it plans to complete the review.

GOV. MAURA HEALEY, (D) MASSACHUSETTS: As governor, I want these things happening as quickly as possible.

DWYER (voice-over): Governor Maura Healey of Massachusetts says her state and several others can no longer wait for the federal government to help gay vets, and are now taking steps on their own.

HEALEY: We're going to make sure that any veteran who served, who was discharged because they were gay, is going to be in line and receive state benefits.

DWYER: Would you have had to take this step if the military had proactively upgraded all of these veterans years ago?

HEALEY: Maybe not. Maybe not. But, I think what it speaks to though is sort of the devastating effect of this discriminatory law.

DWYER (voice-over): The state estimates between 10,000 and 15,000 gay veterans could benefit. But even in Massachusetts, the burden is still on the veteran to file a claim.

REYES: Why do we have to keep coming back and coming back for you to give justice to us? You have our name. You know where we are.

DWYER (voice-over): In 2009, with help from the Harvard Veterans Clinic, Annie was able to upgrade her discharge records to honorable status and remove a reference to her sexual orientation. Thousands of others are still waiting.

REYES: I'm willing to risk my life -- I'm sitting here, still standing, willing to risk my life for you and you're wondering who I'm sleeping with? It's the stupidest thing.

DWYER: You feel like they owe you an apology?

REYES: I don't need an apology. I need them to fix the things that they broke.


THOMAS: Thanks to Devin for that report. We'll be right back.


THOMAS: And from all of us at ABC News, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.