Why the Trump allegations are consuming campaign coverage

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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump looks out at the audience at a campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2016.   REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSS5BL

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to politics and the fallout from the latest allegations of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump.

We get three views, from Carolyn Ryan, senior editor for politics at The New York Times. David Maraniss, he’s associate editor at The Washington Post and a biographer of Bill Clinton. And presidential historian Jon Meacham, he’s the author of “The Destiny of Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”

And we welcome all of you to the program.

Carolyn Ryan, let me start with you, since The New York Times has been reporting on this. Donald Trump today is saying this is all lies. He said he’s going to prove that they’re lies. He said that The New York Times is in collusion with the Clinton campaign. Is The Times completely confident that these women are telling the truth?

CAROLYN RYAN, The New York Times: Well, a couple of things on that.

I mean, as you probably know, the Trump campaign sent a — or a lawyer from Mr. Trump sent a letter to us this morning asking both for an apology and for us to retract the story. And our lawyer responded by saying that we wouldn’t, but also saying that we believe that this is an issue of great national concern and that we believe the voices of these women should be heard, both by our readers and by voters.

So, to your broader question of whether we believe these women, we do believe these women. We reported very extensively on their stories, not just interviewing them, but, as you saw from their story, interviewing multiple people in both cases with whom they had shared the story over the years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn to David and to Jon.

Jon, I will start with you.

I mean, you have spent a number of years looking at American politics, campaigns, presidents. How does this compare, the seriousness of this compare to anything you have seen in an American election?

JON MEACHAM, Presidential Historian: It’s right up there, without question.

This is almost as though Richard Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” but in a Jerry Springer context. To some extent, we have reached a point where really the Republican campaign is simply not commensurate with the challenges and the stakes of the hour.

We have had negative campaigning, we have ferocious campaigning since 1796, which was the first contested election between Adams and Jefferson. But Adams and Jefferson were both plausible presidents. We have reached a point now, I think, where the Republican has largely disqualified himself from being seen in the same frame as Secretary Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Maraniss, as somebody who has reported on Washington for a long time — as we said, you’re the journalist who knows more about Bill Clinton than anybody else — how does this compare to anything you have seen?

DAVID MARANISS, The Washington Post: Well, you have to understand, first of all, that there is a vast, vast difference between allegations of marital infidelity and allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse.

It’s apples and oranges, or even more stark than that. So, starting with the Gary Hart incident in 1987 when he was seen on a boat with a woman who was not his wife, everything has changed in American politics in terms of what’s public and what’s private. Certainly, the Clintons were going through that for many years.

Bill Clinton had a special prosecutor looking at him for something else, for the ‘Whitewater scandal” — quote, unquote — and it ended up being a sort of look into his sex life. But, there, all they found was one — was an incident of consensual sex. It had nothing to do with anything in terms of sexual abuse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, something very different.

Carolyn Ryan…

CAROLYN RYAN: I would just jump in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

CAROLYN RYAN: If I could jump in for a second, I think David is making an interesting point.

And one thing that we’re seeing — and I don’t know if you’re seeing in your news organizations — but people are really making this distinction between kind of unwanted sexual advances and putting it in a different category from, say, infidelity and affairs.

And one thing that seems quite powerful in this moment is that we’re having a lot of women come forward on our comment section, our on Facebook pages just to talk about things that have happened to them either as young girls or as young women or more recently.

And it feels like there’s a broader conversation about this kind of behavior.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, we had a conversation very similar to that about that just last night here on the “NewsHour.”

CAROLYN RYAN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jon Meacham, what — should there be a standard?

What should the standard be for what is important, what’s relevant in a presidential campaign at this point? I mean, clearly, if there are serious allegations of assault, you would say yes, but what rises to that level?

JON MEACHAM: Well, I think the Greeks had this right a long time ago. And that is that character is destiny. And we can debate policies. You opened your broadcast with two incredibly important stories, about which the campaign is not about, in an ungrammatical way, Syria, Yemen.

We are facing enormous challenges, and we have one of the major party nominees who has brought this kind of tabloid reality TV sensibility into the mainstream of our politics. And so all of this is important. Anything is important as we decide whether or not to hire someone to be in charge of the fates of our children.

And so, in that sense, I think all of it is worth discussing. The fact that Trump is talking about a conspiracy, talking about a vast media conspiracy plays into some of the oldest instincts in American life, which is that there is a conspiracy out there, you are not part of it, but I will make this right. As Trump said at the convention, “I alone can fix this.”

That’s his only defense at this point, is to try to play to this populist anger, which is quite real. To me, what’s already concerning is the day after. That is, if Secretary Clinton becomes President Clinton, what are we going to do with 38, 39 percent of Americans who believe somehow or another that the media, in collusion, managed to take this election away?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just pick up on that, David Maraniss, because we are — I mean, I’m hearing and seeing everywhere voters. I was traveling this week reporting in North Carolina, last week in Georgia. Voters are saying, I don’t want to hear — this is making me not want to vote. I don’t want to know about what’s going on.

How are we to think about that?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, people are saying it’s making them not want to vote, and yet the early returns from the early voting are that people are voting in record numbers.

So it’s having that countereffect. But I think that things change the day after an election in ways that we can’t predict, not that Donald Trump will go away or his people will go away. But there is a tendency to look toward the future at some point. And so I think that, if Mrs. Clinton is the president-elect, things that next day will change in some dramatic ways that we can’t quite see yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Carolyn Ryan, Jon Meacham was saying a moment ago there are other things going on in the world right now.

How — as somebody who is at such a prominent news organization, The New York Times, how do you decide what to devote time and resources to? You don’t have infinite resources. How much time do you decide at a point like this to spend on this or to spend on where they disagree on the issues?

CAROLYN RYAN: Well, we’re sort of in a position right now, especially because it’s the final stretch of the campaign, where we have to do it all.

One of the things that, even in the midst of this craziness and sort of insane part of the election, the thing that remains most popular for us is fact-checking. And people still are interested in issues and where people — where the candidates are right and wrong, where they want to take the country.

I do worry a little bit, this week in particular, that everything is being consumed by one story. But I do think, especially with another debate coming up, that there is going to be an opportunity to press these candidates about their vision and about where they would take the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jon Meacham, in the little bit of time that we have left, in looking at the sweep of history, how much — how do historians look on developments like this as they involve our presidents and our country?

JON MEACHAM: Well, the great question for historians looking back on this is going, to be to what extent did the Trump campaign effect reflect deep cultural divisions?

Only 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government. Household income has been largely stagnant. There’s a significant gap between what it takes to live a middle-class life and what people are making. And so to what extent did this populist moment tell us about deep underlying divisions in the country that aren’t going away the day after the election?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Maraniss, finally, as somebody who’s reported, as we said, on so many presidents and politicians, what are the questions you have at this point about Donald Trump, about this election that you would like to see answered?

DAVID MARANISS: You know, if I could say something self-serving, I think that the mainstream media’s taken a lot of hits over the last 10 years.

And I think that Carolyn’s newspaper and The Washington Post and many of the other of those serious journalists have done a pretty terrific job this year of trying to explain the two candidates in this election. So, the questions have pretty much been answered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re allowed to use your time in any way you want.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Maraniss, we thank you. Carolyn Ryan with The New York Times, Jon Meacham, thank you, all three of you.

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