GWEN IFILL: Who says things get slow in August? We journey to Ferguson, Missouri, Mount Sinjar, Iraq, and into the heart of American politics, tonight on "Washington Week."
Last week, you would have guessed this was Gaza. This week it was the streets of a midwestern town.
MISSOURI GOVERNOR JAY NIXON (D): (From videotape.) This is a place where people work, go to school, raise their families and go to church - a diverse community, a Missouri community. But lately this looked a little bit more like a war zone.
MS. IFILL: The spark: The police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.
MICHAEL BROWN SR. (Father of Ferguson, Missouri shooting victim Michael Brown Jr.): (From videotape.) I need justice for my son.
MS. IFILL: The accelerant: The police response, with local, state and federal officials on the spot.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority.
MS. IFILL: In Iraq, the news was relatively good - refugees rescued from Mount Sinjar, and a divisive leader finally agrees to step down.
Back at home, a little recreational Hillary watching.
(Begin videotaped segment.)
Q: You going to hug it out with the president?
HILLARY CLINTON: Absolutely.
(End videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: Is she really trying to distance herself from the president she once served?
Covering the week, Carrie Johnson, justice correspondent for NPR; Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine; and Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation's capital, this is "Washington Week" with Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening.
It has been hard to look away from the images in Ferguson, Missouri, from the still shots of Michael Brown lying dead in the street, to the violent protests that followed, to the cautious, angry truce that emerged afterward. But what was the government's role supposed to be? The Justice Department has launched its own investigation, and the president weighed in as well.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There's also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.
MS. IFILL: The state highway patrol captain now in charge outlined the dilemma on the ground today.
CAPTAIN RON JOHNSON (Missouri Highway Patrol): (From videotape.) I agree that this is not a black-and-white issue, because we all have sons and daughters. And we do need to communicate better. But the governor talked about old wounds. This is an old wound. It's time to stop saying it's an old wound and close it for good.
MS. IFILL: But what can the federal government really do to get to the bottom of a painful and confusing episode that has resonated across the country, Carrie?
CARRIE JOHNSON: The federal government's role here, Gwen, is limited. As you may know, murder is a local crime, usually prosecuted locally. And so the Justice Department can intervene in certain cases; for instance, if a federal worker is killed on the job or if a murder occurs on federal land.
Here there's a special hook, because the law gives the Justice Department special power to go in if a police officer acting in the line of duty may have violated the civil rights of an individual. And that's what Eric Holder at the Justice Department is looking at here.
MS. IFILL: When did the Justice Department decide in this whole process, as this was unfolding, that they had to get involved, or at least say they were going to get involved?
MS. JOHNSON: They let people know as early as Monday, a couple of days after the killing of the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, that they were looking at this. But, Gwen, calls from the street in Ferguson have grown throughout the week, because people there have so little confidence in the state and local authorities, or at least they did for four or five days.
So what the attorney general wound up having to do later in the week is spell out in very explicit terms what exactly he was doing, not just sending investigators to interview eyewitnesses to the killing of Michael Brown, but also sending mediators into the community, mediators from a special program DOJ had set up in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, to help go into the South to defuse tensions there. They're on the ground now.
And finally, the Justice Department has made available advisors to the local police to help them with crowd control, because obviously the protests got very violent in some instances and out of hand as the local armed forces were overly militaristic in the streets of Ferguson.
JEFF ZELENY: This also has created so many strange bedfellows here. I mean, we saw President Obama speaking out on this. And I was struck by the first time he spoke out in a racial story. He was criticized so much back with Henry Gates in his first term, and then he did it again the Trayvon Martin. But in this case, he seemed to actually be having an effect here. But then we also see Rand Paul on the other side, a Republican senator of Kentucky. What did you make of all the different -
MS. IFILL: Frankly, speaking far more toughly about the racial component than the president did.
MR. ZELENY: Without question.
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, we're in the middle of a conversation, Jeff, not just here in Washington, but all over the country, about the criminal justice system and disparities in the criminal justice system. Rand Paul, in an essay in Time Magazine this week, went all the way there. He said he would be treated differently if he were on the street and told by a police officer to move along and get out of the street. He would not expect at all to be the subject of violence, as this young man Michael Brown was.
They also have come together, politicians from left and right, around this issue of big government and federal funding for some of these technologies and techniques, the notion that there are armored vehicles that have been provided to the Ferguson police and the St. Louis County police force, the SWAT team gear, some of the tear gas and rubber bullets that we saw exploding in the streets of Ferguson this week.
MR. ZELENY: And some members of Congress have said that they're going to look into that, actually, all these militarizations of these local police forces.
MS. JOHNSON: Absolutely; not just Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, also a tea party favorite, but also Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan, who runs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, has already said he's going to introduce legislation on these issues when Congress comes back to town.
YOCHI DREAZEN: I spent some time living in Iraq, and it was common there to see sniper rifles, to see armored vehicles. It was shocking, I think, not just in America. You had the grand ayatollah of Iran tweeting out about Ferguson, which was kind of shocking. Is it too late, though, to get these weapons out of the hands of the police?
MS. JOHNSON: Well, obviously there are lots and lots of weapons already in the hands of state and local forces all over the country. I think the issue is controlling the circumstances under which they are trained to use those weapons. And people, for instance, at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are calling on the Justice Department to institute new requirements for training local forces in how to do this.
And, look, you know, even more important is how to get out in the community itself and forge relationships so that when something bad happens, you have trust in the community. What we saw Ron Johnson, the highway patrol captain, doing was going out into the streets of Ferguson this week and hugging people and letting him know - letting them know that he was from there and having a rapport with the community.
MS. IFILL: There seem to be several different layers of investigation going on now. The actual investigation of the shooting is still in the hands of the St. Louis County cops. The - as you mentioned, Ron Johnson, the highway patrol guy who's put in charge of kind of community policing piece of this, and then the FBI said there's going to be a parallel investigation.
How usual is it for there to be a parallel federal investigation for local crime or alleged crime?
MS. JOHNSON: It is unusual, but it happens in cases where there's been a case of abuse and civil rights allegations. In essence, what the FBI and civil rights investigators at the Justice Department are doing is looking over the shoulder at the conduct of the local force. And that's a special role for the federal government to play, one that goes all the way back to the Rodney King incident in California.
MS. IFILL: And James Byrd, I remember. But let me ask you this. Is there - we saw John Lewis, congressman from Georgia, civil rights icon, say martial law, call for martial law, which surprised me a little bit. Is that even possible?
MS. JOHNSON: Well, John Lewis, Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights struggles in the `60s, wanted President Obama to call out the National Guard to relieve the Ferguson police and the St. Louis County police, because they had been doing such a mishandled job of dealing with crowd control and there was so much mistrust.
It is unusual. I'm told by Justice Department officials they never for one moment considered that happening or considered that as an option, because what they wanted to do here, Gwen, is demilitarize the situation, defuse the situation, and try to focus on the fact that in Ferguson the police force of 50-odd people has two or three African-American officers. And that's something that Eric Holder at the Justice Department says needs to be a subject of conversation moving forward.
MS. IFILL: It's funny you used the term demilitarization. We sat at this table last week talking about demilitarizing Gaza, so all of a sudden now we're talking about demilitarizing an American city.
So now let's move to Iraq. Two significant developments this week: The humanitarian crisis atop Mount Sinjar has eased, aided perhaps by U.S. airstrikes, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally saw the political handwriting on the wall and agreed to hand over the reins of government to a successor. Does that mean the crisis we have seen building there is really ending somewhere, or is there another crisis right behind it?
MR. DREAZEN: Unfortunately, we're talking about two crises happening simultaneously. There's the security one of the Islamic state conquering more and more of Iraq, pushing to Kurdistan, and sort of continuing to push when people thought they couldn't push further, and there's the political crisis of a prime minister who was seen as so hardline, so pro-Shiite, that the allies he needs to fight the Islamic State, the Kurds and the Sunnis, simply wouldn't fight with him.
MS. IFILL: Let's talk about the first one. We were told there were 40,000 refugees on that mountain. And a couple of U.S. airstrikes and it turns out maybe there were 4,000. What's the deal?
MR. DREAZEN: So that's the question. And it hasn't been answered yet. Were the initial numbers wrong, in which case something that was a key part of the case for U.S. intervention that the White House used simply wasn't there? Or by some miracle could you get 40,000 people or 80,000 people off a mountain in a matter of days?
It didn't get much attention, but on Thursday the United Nations released a report just as the White House was saying things are pretty much OK, saying things are terrible, describing mass starvation, describing lack of medicine. And it was harrowing reading, totally overshadowed by the news of the U.S. saying it's not that bad.
MR. ZELENY: I mean, so is this - we know the situation perhaps is not as bad as it looked a week ago tomorrow when President Obama stood on the South Lawn of the White House to sort of announce this. But does this give him an out, do you think, to sort of say, OK, we're done here; it's not as bad as we thought; move on? Or is that not the case?
MR. DREAZEN: It doesn't - it gets him out if he chooses to take it. He's getting a bit of pressure to ramp up the airstrikes against the Islamic State, because absent the airstrikes continuing, there's no possibility that the Iraqi army will retake the land that's been lost. So should he choose to want to withdraw - and it's clear he didn't want to do this in the first place - he does have a bit of an out.
It's sort of a historic moment for him. It really is, in some ways, the question of his whole second term. Does he double up and continue in Iraq, go back in a way he didn't want to do? Or does he allow the formation of an independent state, controlled, at least in part, by a militant, violent group?
We had an intelligence briefing yesterday in which it was talked about how the Islamic State is the best-funded, best-armed, best-trained terror group in history. There's never been anything like it. We always talk al-Qaida, for obvious reasons. This group is seen as a bigger threat.
MS. JOHNSON: The American people have not wanted U.S. troops on the ground most anywhere. What is the (pulling ?) thing about going back into Iraq in full force? And where is Congress at this point on that?
MR. DREAZEN: It's interesting. You begin to have - and it goes back to the strange-bedfellows question from before - you have both the left and the right saying come to us. They're saying to the president you can't simply do this without congressional approval, without debate.
The polling is interesting, because the polling simultaneously is people think the president's too weak, on one hand; people want to do more to help refugees on the other, but they don't want to get into Iraq in any significant way. So it's kind of all over the place. And you could see, to a degree, why the White House isn't really sure politically how to frame this, how to act with it.
MS. IFILL: Well, let's listen to a little bit of the president's attempt to frame it when he came out in Martha's Vineyard earlier this week and claimed victory, but he also framed that there remained a dilemma this way.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) We are urging Iraqis to come together to turn the tide against ISIL, above all by seizing the enormous opportunity of forming a new inclusive government under the leadership of Prime Minister-designate Abadi. I had a chance to speak to Prime Minister-designate Abadi a few days ago, and he spoke about the need for the kind of inclusive government, a government that speaks to all the people of Iraq, that is needed right now.
MS. IFILL: So, OK, let's talk about Prime Minister-designate Abadi. Is the president putting all of his eggs in that basket? And is that even realistic?
MR. DREAZEN: Well, there's one thing that's very interesting about those remarks. He said a lot of words. The one word he did not say was Maliki; didn't mention his name at all. That was a clear sign of the White House wanting him in the rear-view mirror, wanting Abadi now in the driver's seat.
MS. IFILL: They've made that clear for a little while now. (Laughs.)
MR. DREAZEN: Yeah, they have. Haider Abadi is an interesting man. He is from the same party as Maliki, the Dawa Party. But Maliki's branch of it went into exile in Iran, and Abadi's party, his branch of it, went into exile in London. He speaks fluent English, works as an engineer; built part of the London Bridge, spanning the river there. So his background is very, very different. He is popular with the Kurds. He's popular with the Sunnis. You could see sort of why there's some optimism.
But think about the task he has to confront. He has to rebuild the government, find a government that's capable of rebuilding the army, get that army to fight on behalf of their government, and then fight against, again, what is the best-funded, best-armed group in the history of terrorism.
So I think they're right to think that he is a different man. But to think that somehow miraculously he will fix every problem is not a hope that's going to be fulfilled.
MS. IFILL: Does this mean that the U.S. can use the Kurds almost as proxy fighters in this and arming them in a way that can hopefully undercut this well-financed terror organization and, at the same time, support this new political movement?
MR. DREAZEN: Yeah. I mean, they're doing two things now with the Kurds that are interesting. One, they are arming them directly. The other is they're having the Kurds function as spotters, which means Kurdish troops go forward and say strike this target in cooperation with the American Air Force. So they're trying to use the Kurds, basically, as a ground army. So it's Kurdish boots on the ground and not American ones.
MS. IFILL: How much - one last question about this. How much of the political dilemma in Iraq mirrors the political dilemma we have seen in Afghanistan, in which we have had to basically knit that democracy or effort at democracy back together?
MR. DREAZEN: You know, it's interesting, because you would say about Afghanistan in the recent past it was just Karzai and Kabul, and the rest of the country was lawless. Iraq has a tradition of cohesiveness empowered by force. So Maliki basically took a country that had a bit of a history of staying together and fractured it even further. And that's a change. That isn't the way Iraq had operated for most of its history.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we'll be watching to see if that happens then, or if there's even hope of it happening.
Finally, we're going to leaven things at the end of the week with a little bit of American politics.
The always watchable relationship between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama took another turn this week. We can't stop watching. That's when it was widely reported that, in an interview with our Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton basically stiff-armed the president on foreign policy just before he ordered airstrikes at Iraq, just before they were scheduled to see each other at a party on Martha's Vineyard.
Smoke? Fire? Both? Neither, Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: With the Clintons and the Obamas, I think it's all of the above.
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.)
MR. ZELENY: Definitely smoke, definitely fire. But for a minute I thought I was, like, transported back to 2007. We covered that campaign that went forever into 2008. And the differences between President Obama and now former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are still sort of similar and reminiscent of what they were then. But look -
MS. IFILL: The "likable enough" debate.
MR. ZELENY: "You're likable enough, Hillary." And he went on to lose that night in New Hampshire but win the overall thing.
But, look, there's no question that Hillary Clinton is definitely trying to distance herself from the president, particularly on foreign policy. I mean, it is for all the reasons we've talked about. It's the lowest approval ratings he's had on this. So that's not surprising.
But the question, I guess, is timing. Was she really meaning to sort of poke her fingers in the eye? And specifically the thing that really irritated the people inside the White House, and I'm guessing the president, because they're usually reflective of this, she said, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."
Well, the "Don't do stupid stuff" is his kind of catch-all message for our foreign policy has to be sort of well thought out. We can't do things, you know, like invade a country, et cetera. But it prompted David Axelrod, the president's former advisor, to weigh in on Twitter. And he's worked for Hillary Clinton before, though, too, so he doesn't usually jump into these things. He said, look, "Don't do stupid stuff" means not invade Iraq. So he was basically calling her out. A couple of hours later she announced that she was going to apologize.
So at the end of the day here, of course she's more hawkish than he is. That's always been the case, going back to `07. Her advisors say she was not trying to sort of create trouble here, but she was definitely trying to distinguish her own views from this - in this very long and fascinating article in The Atlantic.
MS. IFILL: Well, clearly the headline was damning. But was the story, really? Was she really distancing herself as much from the president in the context of talking about - talking about not doing stupid stuff? Because she went on to say we understand that stupid stuff is a political idea. It sounds like she almost (brought that in ?), but the headline still said what it said.
MR. ZELENY: Of course the headline said what it said. And, of course, they agree on, you know, much, much, much more than they disagree on.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. ZELENY: They're Democrats. They're from the same essential wing of the party. They're close friends, have become advisors and things where she's definitely sort of an advisor to him. But, look, I mean, I think that in a respect we're looking for things that separate them. But she didn't have to say that. I mean, it was very intentional, a lot of Obama people believe. And she is going to - this is just the first chapter of this. I mean, if she decides to move ahead with this, we're going to see her sort of drawing distinctions. She'll have to.
MS. JOHNSON: Jeff, does this all really matter in the long run? She hasn't even announced yet, for instance. Are we going to be talking -
MR. ZELENY: She hasn't?
MS. IFILL: Really? Oh.
MS. JOHNSON: (Laughs.) Are we going to be talking about this in three or four months?
MR. ZELENY: It's a great point, Carrie. I mean, I think, you know, it's a slow political season, so I think people are looking for whatever daylight there is between the two of them. Most people assume that she's running for president. It would be much more surprising now if she's not. But you're right. We don't know yet. We don't know that at all.
But I think it matters only in that is she going to have to apologize after every time she tries to distance herself or distinguish herself from him? I mean, it's always the challenge of running after the party that you're in inherits the White House. It's not as easy to be a change election because you're saying I want change, but I still need to be sort of with that guy. So that's her challenge.
MR. DREAZEN: Jeff, the quasi-apology is always - in the interview, if you listen to the whole thing, the headline is not as bad as -
MS. IFILL: Context.
MR. DREAZEN: Context.
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MR. DREAZEN: She just wrote a 600-page bit of context. Why did she not put this kind of critique, if it's (going to be important ?) to her, into the book, as opposed to a mid-August interview?
MR. ZELENY: Great question, because she had - you know, and the book wasn't exactly chock full with other news. There certainly was room for this bit of a nugget or her exploring this. So it's a good question.
I think - I guess the most cynical view is maybe she's trying to sell books, so she's doing this interview in the summer to try and draw attention to it. But the book was not that reflective. It was more of just kind of a travelogue, if you will. I mean, this was obviously an answer to a very skilled journalist asking tough questions, important questions.
So I think - you know, but her advisors sort of flagged the White House. Oh, this may be a problem. She gave this interview to The Atlantic. It's coming out soon. So they sort of knew what they did. But I think it's just everything that she has done in this blitz of interviews, including when she said to ABC's Diane Sawyer we were dead broke when we were - I was leaving the White House. It's not - I mean, some of the more revealing things are coming out in these series of interviews, more than her book.
MS. IFILL: I'm going to tell Goldberg you called him a skilled journalist, by the way.
MR. ZELENY: Indeed.
MS. IFILL: He'll hold that against you. But let me ask you this other question. I mean, let me go back to Al Gore running for president, was vice president under Bill Clinton. He had to, over time, make a little distance between him and the president, and it caused bad feelings. There were - as you recall.
So is this even doable, this idea of separating yourself out from the guy you worked for?
MR. ZELENY: It caused bad feelings, and maybe even cost him the election. I mean, he lost Tennessee that year -
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. ZELENY: - and he lost Arkansas. And if he - I mean, at least in Bill Clinton's way of thinking, some of his advisors, if he had campaigned with him, it would have been sort of more helpful. But, no, it's very, very difficult to distinguish himself. And just think if Vice President Biden runs. I mean, we can't rule out that entirely. How would he distinguish himself?
MS. IFILL: Well, that will be fun - all of this will be fun to watch. But the soap opera never ends, so we'll be there for you.
Thank you, everybody. We have to leave you a few minutes early again this week to give you the chance to support your local station. But if you're hungry for more - and we hope you are - our conversation will continue online. The "Washington Week" webcast extra streams live at 8:30 p.m. eastern. Watch it now, or you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Among other things, we'll talk about tonight's indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we'll see you here next week on "Washington Week." Good night.