GWEN IFILL: The president stands his own ground on the George Zimmerman verdict, tonight on “Washington Week.”
MS. : (From tape.) We, the jury, find George Zimmerman not guilty.
MS. IFILL: Another controversial racial case, another national debate as the president weighs in with a lengthy personal rumination.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?
MS. IFILL: A remarkable moment at the end of a remarkable week. On Capitol Hill, another showdown that forces senators into face-to-face compromise.
SENATOR JOHN BARASSO [R-WY]: (From tape.) I’m pleased that the Democrats decided to not break the rules to change the rules.
SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [Senate Majority Leader]: (From tape.) This must be a new normal. Qualified executive nominees must not be blocked on procedural supermajority votes.
MS. IFILL: And on the political playing field, another incumbent Republican faces a challenge from the right, this time from a Cheney.
LIZ CHENEY [Wyoming Senate Candidate]: (From tape.) As a mother and a patriot, we can no longer afford simply to go along to get along.
MS. IFILL: Hot debates for a hot week. Covering that week: Pierre Thomas of ABC News; Dan Balz of the Washington Post; Charles Babington of the Associated Press; and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Americans from coast to coast are still engaged in a rolling conversation about race, justice and the definition of self-defense in the wake of last week’s “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. We discovered this afternoon that the president is as well.
He surprised reporters in the briefing room today, sharing his own experiences as a black man in America.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that – that doesn’t go away. You know, there are a very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
MS. IFILL: The president’s remarks continued for 18 minutes. They followed two speeches this week from Attorney General Eric Holder, who talked about similar experiences and of speaking to his son about what to expect.
ERIC HOLDER [Attorney General]: (From tape.) I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn’t the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events.
MS. IFILL: Left unsaid, where can and should such conversations lead? What do the president and attorney general have in mind, Pierre?
PIERRE THOMAS: Well, right now, there’s an active, open Justice Department investigation involving the FBI. Now, the threshold is very high in terms of whether they can actually charge George Zimmerman. They would have to prove that Zimmerman had racial bias as the primary motive for his attack or his engagement with Trayvon Martin. That’s a really high threshold. It’s beyond negligence. You have to prove that race was the primary motivating factor. So many people see it as a long shot for the Justice Department.
But, having said that, when the FBI is boring into a case, it’s an entirely different matter than even when a local department does an investigation.
MS. IFILL: Well, the president acknowledged today, Dan, that – when he came out in the briefing room – that there’s not necessarily something that the federal government can do here. But he seemed to be setting us up to do something else.
DAN BALZ: Well, Gwen, this was a remarkable moment in the briefing room.
MS. IFILL: It really was.
MR. BALZ: I mean, one, it was a surprise. He showed up in the briefing room and no one had anticipated. There was no advanced warning that he was going to do this.
I thought that what was most interesting about this was the degree to which this was a personal commentary in his reaction and the way that he set it in the context of the black experience in America and how African-Americans see this verdict. I mean, the comment he made when he said, when this first happened, I said, Trayvon Martin could have been my son. Today, he said, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And, as the clip showed, he talked about the feeling of African-American men in a department store being followed or walking along a street and hearing car locks snap shut when they’re around.
I mean, everything he talked about – he said the African-American community is not naïve about the realities of crime, that African-American men are both disproportionately victims and perpetrators. And he was – I think what he was trying to do was to say, for those of you who think this verdict was legitimate, there is another perspective and here’s why it is the way it is.
MS. IFILL: He felt like the explainer-in-chief, but after – a week after this verdict having come down and all the conversations that have been held about it since, why today? Why come out now? Why not just leave Eric Holder to carry the water, as it were?
MR. THOMAS: Well, the president and the attorney general are under extreme pressure from the civil rights community. The NAACP produced a petition this week that had more than one million signatures. Also, everywhere you go, particularly in the African-American community, people are discussing this issue. And I think, again, the president probably knew he couldn’t remain in the shadows too long – that he had to come out and talk about this issue in a forthright manner.
One of the things that struck me in talking to people – we’ve interviewed a number of people about this story – is that Trayvon Martin has become the son of many. And what I mean by that, for African-Americans in particular, they’re focusing on the moment that George Zimmerman first notices Trayvon Martin.
It’s between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. It’s not 2:00 a.m. in the morning. It’s not 4:00 a.m. At that time, there was no report of a robbery. There was no report of any kind of crime whatsoever. So for many African-Americans, it becomes, well, why did this escalate in the first place? Why was he targeted?
MS. IFILL: What made him threatening?
MR. THOMAS: Why was he a person to be suspect?
MS. IFILL: And that was true for the president as well.
MR. BALZ: Yes. And I think this is obviously a topic that he has thought long about. I mean, he wrote a whole book about his own search for identity and his embrace of the black community. He’s biracial, obviously. It’s clear from some of the things he said today that he and the first lady have talked a lot about this and particularly the role of African-American men and what can be done to make life better for them. And –
MS. IFILL: Boys, African-American boys.
MR. BALZ: And African-American boys, yes, young men. And, you know, in talking to – or e-mailing with some White House officials today, what they said was that he told them yesterday in an Oval Office meeting that he wanted to do this. He did not want to give a formal speech. He did not want to do a sort of sit-down interview. He simply wanted to do what he did today – talk extemporaneously but clearly from deep inside him.
AMY WALTER: So, Dan, what makes this different from other race discussions he’s had, both in his book, and then, of course, the famous one he had while he was a candidate?
MR. BALZ: Right. I think the biggest difference, Amy, is that this one was very much or almost singularly from the perspective of an African-American, an African-American who happens to be president or a president who happens to be African-American.
The Reverend Wright speech was at a moment of political crisis for him. And if you think back to that speech, it was one in which he basically tried to explain to the black community why there is resentment in the white community and vice versa. He tried to –
MS. IFILL: I was there and he was really trying to weave – to thread the needle very politically actually.
MR. BALZ: Yes. Totally. We all remember he got into – he stepped inelegantly into the Henry Louis Gates arrest and was forced then to conduct this beer summit, so called, which was a stagy and very ineffective thing. This was different. I mean, the way he spoke was so much different that he had adopted – it was, I’m going to try to explain to people who don’t understand this why there is the unrest and the dissatisfaction and the grieving in the black community. He never mentioned George Zimmerman by name.
MS. IFILL: No, he didn’t.
MR. BALZ: Never mentioned George Zimmerman by name.
MS. IFILL: He said, Mr. Zimmerman once.
CHARLES BABINGTON: He said, Mr. Zimmerman, right. One time I think.
MS. IFILL: One time about – go ahead.
MR. BABINGTON: Pierre, you talked about the high threshold that the federal government, the FBI would have to meet to bring a charge against Zimmerman after he’s been acquitted in the state trial. I thought the president today sort of tried to drop some hints that that would be a very high threshold. And yet talk a little bit about the pressure, political and otherwise, that they’re under. And how do they get out of this jam?
MS. IFILL: There are going to be hundreds of marches around the country tomorrow.
MR. THOMAS: Right. I mean –
MR. BABINGTON: Right. Expectations.
MR. THOMAS: At the end of the day, the FBI is going to have to look at what the facts are. And they have to look at in terms of George Zimmerman’s history, was there anything about African-Americans that they can draw upon that would show that race was the motivating factor in him singling out Trayvon Martin. And then, did his reactions to whatever Trayvon Martin did thereafter – were those colored by race as well? And so, again, it’s a very interesting investigation.
But I should say the history of the civil rights division is that they were asked in the past to take on cases that states wouldn’t take on. And you have some very thoughtful and creative prosecutors there who will look at this, know that the threshold is high, but it’s going to get some intellectual debate within the department going again. You know, whether the notion or profiling someone perhaps because of race, could that lead to – for example, did he react more negatively to what Trayvon Martin would do in terms of if he approached him or if he was negative; if Trayvon Martin hit him, did he feel more prone to act more aggressively because of that? So it’s a really fascinating set of questions that they have to resolve.
MS. IFILL: You know, it’s interesting to me also that – you know, we talk about the 2008 speech that the president gave, but I remember the Clinton administration when he convened this national conversation – I don’t even remember why anymore – about race and it didn’t seem to go anywhere. And the president today seemed pretty much to pooh-pooh that notion that we have to create some sort of structure or some federally mandated structure to have this conversation.
MR. BALZ: Yeah. I thought he was very interesting on that point because, I mean, when Bill Clinton did it in 1997, he set up a commission. He made John Hope Franklin the chairman of it. They issued some reports. He gave a big speech about –
MS. IFILL: They probably all still have that report somewhere covered in dust.
MR. BALZ: Right. And I think that President Obama is realistic that he saw what happened. He’s seen other efforts at this. And, basically, he said he thinks these are stilted conversations because people come to it with preconceived positions and want to defend those positions rather than have a real conversation.
MR. THOMAS: You know, it’s interesting. A lot of people say in this country we still tiptoe around the issue of race. And what I heard the president saying is that it’s time to just have frank conversations with whomever, people of different hues having these conversations about what does it mean when – if Pierre Thomas takes off his suit and walks in a pair of jeans into a Wal-Mart that perhaps people might be wondering what I’m up to.
MS. IFILL: What does it mean if Pierre Thomas has to talk to his young son about what to expect, as the attorney general had to?
MR. THOMAS: I did a radio show this morning. And a call still lingers in my head. It’s sort of haunting me. African-American male called in, and he said, I’ve taught my children that if they’re stalked or followed by a stranger to run, but if they cannot run, to fight for their lives. He said, what am I to teach them now?
MS. IFILL: Oh, goodness. Well, the other thing it seems to me that the president did strive to end on an upbeat note and about his own children now look at this differently. I think we can all say this about our children that they don’t see it the way we did. They don’t approach it the way we did, but there’s this balance that every family I know is trying to strike between making sure you remember your history and then knowing how do deal with the reality of the present.
MR. BALZ: I think one of the interesting things is, obviously, this country has made great progress on racial issues. I mean, we talked about it recently with the context of the Voting Rights Act. It’s not 1965 in terms of African-Americans voting. Every generation makes strides, and yet this is still the most difficult conversation we have in America.
MS. IFILL: All right. Well, thank you all for bringing that conversation here.
Now, (we go ?) to Capitol Hill where you could forgive for being confused that lawmakers would liken an obscure Senate procedure to nuclear war. But this week’s fight was not really about procedure. This was about power and who gets to wield it: the executive or the legislative branch? In this case, what in the end was the answer? Chuck.
MR. BABINGTON: Well, Gwen, looking at it through that context, you’d probably have to say the executive branch won because President Obama got these seven nominees for various positions that had been held up. He got them – it looks like they’re all going to go through now and be confirmed by the Senate. And he had to give up virtually nothing, a kind of a fig leaf; he had to swap a couple of people for the NLRB, which is rather painless for him.
But really, Gwen, I think this was more of an intra-legislative branch battle. And it was between the minority party, which has been Republicans for some years, and the majority party, which has been Democrats for some years. And this whole question of how much power shall the minority party have, and exercise it, and at what point do they go too far and exercise it as minority powers.
MS. IFILL: The conversation – this confrontation has been brewing for years.
MR. BABINGTON: Yes.
MS. IFILL: And it’s fair to assume that if Republicans were in the majority, they would not feel the same way.
MR. BABINGTON: Well, actually, they promised over and over that if you, the Democrats, do make this rule change, you will regret it because we absolutely will.
MS. IFILL: Explain what the rule change is.
MR. BABINGTON: I’m sorry. So the rule change is – so a filibuster is unlimited debate. You can just keep anything from happening basically. You can require a 60-vote supermajority in the 100-member Senate. And, in the old days, it wasn’t used very often. It was used selectively, but more and more has been used for almost everything now. This issue dealt only with executive nominations from the president. It did not deal with legislation.
MS. IFILL: Or judicial nominations.
MR. BABINGTON: Or judicial nominations, only with like Cabinet members and that sort of thing. And the Democrats were fed up with these long delays and holds on these positions.
So, finally, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader said, then we’re going to change the rule. We’re just going to have a simple vote, which would have been controversial itself, but he probably could have done it. And we’re going to say that you can’t filibuster these executive nominations. They’ll have a simple majority, up-or-down vote. That was the rule – that was the threat that he made.
MS. WALTER: So how did they come up with this compromise? And does this mean now – this is a whole new era, Chuck, that they’re going to be holding hands and singing songs and passing legislation together?
MR. BABINGTON: I would not count on it. (Laughter.) They reached this resolution, which is a very imperfect resolution, largely because a lot of Republicans felt that Harry Reid was not bluffing, that he was going to make this change, that it would be detrimental to the Senate and to the Republican Party.
And so, at that point, they kind of broke ranks with the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and kind of cut a deal with the Democrats, that was this deal. But, again, keep in mind, it didn’t even pretend to deal with legislation or judicial nominees. And also, it really doesn’t resolve for the long run – one demand that Mitch McConnell had made on Harry Reid is, I want you to promise that for the rest of this Congress, you will not even talk about making this rule change. And Reid said, no, I’m not going to do that.
MR. BALZ: What is the relationship at this point between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell? They had some very harsh words for one another before the compromise was reached. Where does this leave that?
MR. BABINGTON: It’s not good, Dan. The two men I think generally have gotten along fairly well and with a mutual respect. This has clearly damaged that relationship. It’s not the end of the world. They don’t have to get along. But in the way the Senate worked, it certainly would help somewhat.
You know, the bigger problem might be for the Republicans is that now that you’ve got this unrest within their own ranks, and, you know, there was a rather testy meeting on Wednesday night, a private meeting, in which Mitch McConnell was trying to distance himself from this deal that was cut, and said, I didn’t know very much about it. And something – you know, one of the members said, in words that we can’t use here, said, that ain’t so.
MR. THOMAS: But although small, some progress in terms of bipartisanship. Does it portend anything for the House?
MR. BABINGTON: You know, Pierre, it’s funny because the way we usually look at things, the House has rules that just let the majority party get things done, boom, boom, boom. And it’s really almost nothing the minority party can do.
So we think of the House, you know, rams things through and then the Senate is the cooling saucer and it takes time and things really bog down. Well, the House has all kinds of problems of its own, largely dealing within the Republican majority, and, as we’ve seen over and over, the farm bill and the debt ceiling, all kinds of things where Speaker Boehner has trouble just getting a consensus within his own body. So, oddly enough, as little as the Senate did this week, it almost makes them look like they can get more done than the House.
MS. IFILL: But they have to go inside the alternative chamber, which the last time they did it was to impeach Bill Clinton. I mean, it’s a rare thing. And they have to – no cameras rolling, no microphones, face to face, 98 Senators, just go get to this deal.
MR. BABINGTON: Right, Gwen. This was Monday night. And things had not gone well through the weekend. And very rare, it was a senators’ only meeting. Ninety-eight of the 100 showed up. And I was struck by – several members in both parties said, you know what? I really learned a lot from that. It’s remarkable to me how much they live in these silos. They live in a Democratic silo, a Republican –
MS. IFILL: They don’t talk to each other.
MR. BABINGTON: They don’t talk to each other.
MS. IFILL: It’s an amazing moment. Now we’re going to move on to a little bit more politics, but this time I’ve only got two words for you: Liz Cheney.
MS. CHENEY: (From tape.) I am running because I know Wyoming needs a strong voice in Washington, someone who knows how to get things done and isn’t afraid to fight for what’s right. I will never compromise when our freedom is at stake.
MS. IFILL: The former vice president’s daughter hopes to be the latest giant-killer in the Republican Party, who can take on a previously well-liked Republican – this time Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi – tag him as a Washington accomodationist and win his seat. Is there more to it than that?
MS. WALTER: Of course. There’s always something more to it. But in this case, I think much of it is about Liz Cheney. It’s much more about her than anything else.
MS. IFILL: Tell us about her.
MS. WALTER: Right. Well, this is – for many of you, you’ve seen her before. She is very close to her father. Many see her as his sort of political appendage in some ways. She’s been on a lot of the national talk shows. She’s served in the Bush administration. She is as much of a hawk as her father. You heard her in that clip there talking about patriotism and freedom.
She believes that, unlike what Chuck just noted about how it’s important for folks to work together in the Senate, that that’s actually not what Washington needs more of. It needs a little more aggressiveness. And that Mike Enzi, who’s a very nice, affable, former shoe store owner, senator is not providing that sort of leadership.
I will say she’s probably also inspired by other young Republicans – she’s only 46 – who have challenged the establishment and won: Marco Rubio in Florida, Mike Lee in Utah, Ted Cruz in Texas.
MS. IFILL: Why is Wyoming, though, significant?
MS. WALTER: Right. Well, she’s from – so like her father is from Wyoming. She is trying to make the case that she’s not a carpetbagger. That’s obviously the number one question she’s getting asked while she’s in Wyoming. She moved her family out near Jackson Hole about a year ago. She has been doing all of the town halls and sorts of things that you do as a candidate. So she’s been showing up everywhere.
But the first question she gets asked is why not Virginia, where you’ve been living for quite some time? You went to college in Colorado, you’ve lived in Wisconsin. You were here as a kid, but does that give the right to say that you’re one of us?
MS. IFILL: I have three words for that: Senator Hillary Clinton.
MR. BALZ: Amy, is this a classic tea party versus establishment contest, the way we’ve seen others? And the fact that a lot of the establishment has quickly rallied around Senator Enzi, is that good or bad for him?
MS. WALTER: That’s right. Well, that’s a great question because, you know, in some ways this is really, as I said, much more about Liz Cheney and the fact that she wants to be in the United States Senate. There just happens to be somebody in her way. This feels a lot more like trying – she’s trying to move him out of the way rather than trying to challenge this.
At the same time, she really does bring that same sort of focus that those tea party members I mentioned earlier brought, which is, you know, while we talk about we don’t like the partisanship in Washington anymore and it’s gotten out of hand, primary voters love partisanship. And she is going to make a stock – and that’s been her stock and trade – she’s going to make Obama the issue in this. It’s not that Mike Enzi is particularly moderate. He’s incredibly conservative, but not in the way that the Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, in-your-face kind of style.
MS. IFILL: He’s been known to work with a Democrat or two.
MR. THOMAS: Amy, how much does the Cheney name help or hurt her in Wyoming?
MS. WALTER: Well, there’s a poll out this week that showed that Dick Cheney still has a very high approval rating. He’s somewhere in the 70s. But so does Mike Enzi also has an approval rating in the 70s. People don’t know that much about her. So it still does carry some weight. He hasn’t been back there in a long time, obviously, as an elected official.
And, you know, the real question – I think this goes back to Dan’s point as well – is what does the establishment believe both in Washington and Wyoming, even the conservative establishment? I’m not hearing anything from Republicans that I’m speaking with nationally that there’s a tremendous amount of interest in knocking off Enzi to make an example of him in the way that did with Charlie Crist and Bennett in Utah.
MS. IFILL: Except that the mainstream have often been on the wrong side of these kinds of battles.
MS. WALTER: Mainstream has been on the wrong side, but in this case it looks like – I’m even talking about what we now consider the mainstream tea party doesn’t seem to be rallying around her. There’s no obvious constituency for her right now.
MS. IFILL: And it’s fair to say that even if the Republicans fight this one to the death, Democrats don’t have a chance of getting the seat. This is not an opportunity.
MS. WALTER: This is still – this is still Wyoming. Now, they have had a Democratic governor in Wyoming not that long ago. But I think Obama got 26 percent of the vote, worst state next to Utah.
MS. IFILL: OK. It’s that kind of fight but not that kind of fight.
MS. WALTER: Not that kind of fight.
MS. IFILL: OK. Thank you everybody. We have to go for now, but before we do, a word from our friend, Charlie Rose, about his new Friday night broadcast.
CHARLIE ROSE [“The Week”]: Thanks, Gwen. The program is called Charlie Rose, “The Week.” We examine in words and pictures the events and people who have shaped the week. We look ahead to news that will be part of the weekend conversation on Sunday. And we hope to offer context for the events, planned and unplanned, that are expected in the following week. Our scope is broad, from politics to culture. We hope to find out what makes people tick. We hope you’ll join us.
MS. IFILL: Charlie Rose, “The Week,” premiers later tonight. Check your local listings.
Our conversation will continue online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where, among other things, we’ll talk about other races to watch. That streams like at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep up with daily developments with me over on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.