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Week In Politics: Russian Hacking, Trump's Lewd Comments On Women

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now we're going to turn to politics, and there's a lot to talk about. There's the U.S. government formally accusing Russia of trying to meddle in the election. And we'll look ahead to the second presidential debate in St. Louis. That's happening on Sunday night. Here to do it is Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review. Hi there, Eliana.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Hi.

CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution.

Welcome back, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: It's good to be here. And everybody in Florida and Georgia should know that we're with them with what they're going through.

CORNISH: Yeah, thank you for saying that. I want to turn to Russia. The U.S. government has issued a statement accusing Russia - formally accusing Russia of compromising the emails of political groups in order to interfere with our election process. E.J., what do you make of this?

DIONNE: I think it's - we knew that the Russians were doing this. There have been a lot of reports on it. This just confirms something important, and it's very important that our government made this accusation. And they noted that what the Russians are doing is similar to what they've done in Europe and elsewhere. The Russians seem to be intervening on Donald Trump's side in this campaign, if one thinks, as many do, that the WikiLeaks against the Democrats come through the Russians. And so this raises the stakes of the Russia issue in the campaign.

CORNISH: Eliana, for you, what does it mean to have this kind of formal statement?

JOHNSON: Certainly, it's tacit shot across the bow from the Obama administration at Russia, something that conservatives, Republicans and many Democrats have been eager to see from the Obama administration. I think the question is, will action follow and what now? You know, we have seen Russia meddle in Syria and in the broader Middle East. And I think which side the Russians are meddling on behalf of is important, but not as important as the fact that the Russians are meddling in the American election process period and what the administration plans to do about it and whether they plan to take action is quite important.

CORNISH: Russia has obviously become a very important issue in this election. And I want to turn to the election because we have a little bit of news today. The latest for Donald Trump - a video that surfaced, tape obtained by The Washington Post that includes some audio of the then host of "Access Hollywood" Billy Bush having a conversation with Donald Trump basically about picking up women. And it gets pretty vulgar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

BILLY BUSH: Whatever you want.

TRUMP: Grab 'em by the [expletive].

CORNISH: And that voice there Donald Trump used a crude word for female genitalia. Now, Eliana Johnson, I want to turn to you first because we do have a debate on the way. And when you - you've seen - you've heard most of this audio. What does this mean in the next few days?

JOHNSON: You know, I really think - in the past, we've seen elections upended by comments like Mitt Romney's 47 percent, Hillary Clinton's comment about the deplorables supporting Donald Trump. This video makes those comments look like nothing.

On the one hand, it's not - I don't think it's surprising to anybody to hear Donald Trump speak in disparaging terms about women. At the same time, if you hear this video and watch it, it's shocking. And I think going 48 hours before a debate that puts Trump in a town hall format, it is absolutely catastrophic for his campaign, which has already issued a statement. And people talk about non-denial denials in the midst of a scandal. This was a non-apology apology issued by his campaign, which dismisses the talk which is the epitome of vulgarity as merely locker room banter and accuses his opponent's husband, Bill Clinton, of saying much worse.

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne, we know that Hillary Clinton's campaign has made a lot about the way Donald Trump talks about women. This is an instance where you hear him using vulgar language, talking about trying to kiss or grope a woman who may not want those advances. What are you thinking this is going to mean in the next few days?

DIONNE: This is disgusting. It's shocking, and it's not in the least surprising. It's consistent with the image we have of Donald Trump. But it's something much worse on the record that people can see. And so I think I agree with pretty much everything Eliana said. I think it does create an enormous problem for the debate. And the notion that Donald Trump turns around and says, well, I've heard the same from Bill Clinton - well, we have to believe Donald Trump that that's true. And there's no evidence that we should believe Donald Trump.

But there's also an implication there that most men talk like this. And I'm sorry, most men don't talk like what you saw on that video, at least I don't think so.

CORNISH: I want to ask about this debate going forward also for Hillary Clinton. This is a town hall-style format. What does she need to accomplish on Sunday?

DIONNE: Well, I think this is a great opportunity for her because she has done - God knows - hundreds of town halls. It's a format she's extremely good at. She did a lot of town halls before the New Hampshire primary in 2008, when everyone said she was going to lose, and it resurrected her. And I think it's her chance to show people that she can relate to other people, to really fight those negative ratings in the polls. It's going to be very hard for Donald Trump because he hasn't done a lot of these things. And his own campaign has talked to - Maggie Haberman of The New York Times about there are worries about his ability to convey empathy. And that is a deep problem for Donald Trump.

CORNISH: Eliana, for you, when you look at these two candidates, this particular format, what do they need to accomplish?

JOHNSON: Yeah, you know, town halls, where candidates are surrounded by voters, responding by voter questions - the moment that jumps out to me in presidential history is George H.W. Bush looking at his watch infamously while Bill Clinton was essentially getting down on his knees and empathizing with a female voter talking about having lost a job. And both of these candidates, I think, have difficulty conveying empathy to voters whether or not they do empathize. And the conventional wisdom, I think, is that Hillary Clinton - she'll have difficulty attacking Donald Trump in this format, and the conventional wisdom has been she needs to make a positive case for her candidacy. She can't just attack Trump. I actually think that's wrong. I think showing that Donald Trump doesn't have what it takes to be president and isn't presidential timber may be adequate to get her across the finish line. And the tape that was unveiled today in The Washington Post I think is proof of that, that simply not being Trump may be enough to get her across the finish line. And in that sense, a merely mediocre, adequate performance in Sunday's town hall may be good enough for Hillary Clinton to prevail on November 8.

CORNISH: We know a lot of people will be tuning in if it's anything like the last debate. Eliana Johnson, Washington editor at the National Review, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And one more thing - our co-host Robert Siegel will anchor live coverage of Sunday's debate starting at 9 Eastern on many NPR stations. And we'll have live fact-checking at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.