U.S. Senator Cory Booker

The U.S. Senator discusses the Trump Presidency.

Cory Booker is a democratic U.S. Senator serving New Jersey since 2013. He sits on the Senate's committees on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; Environment and Public Works; and Homeland Security and Government Affairs. Senator Booker was Mayor of Newark starting in 2006 and served on the Newark City Council before that. He received his undergraduate and masters degrees from Stanford University. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and, subsequently graduated from Yale Law School.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight. a conversation with Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey about how his party plans to push back and fight Donald Trump’s agenda. Booker recently became the first sitting U.S. senator to speak out against another senator at a confirmation hearing with his virulent opposition last week to Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mr. Trump’s nominee for Attorney General.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Cory Booker coming up right now.

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Tavis: “Law and order without justice is unattainable”, said Senator Cory Booker just last week expressing his opposition to the nomination of another sitting senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who Donald Trump, of course, has selected as his nominee to be Attorney General.

Booker described his opposition to Sessions this way, and I quote: “In a choice between standing with Senate norms and standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country.” Earlier today, he was at the inauguration of Donald Trump as our new president. Tonight he joins us from Washington. Senator, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Cory Booker: It’s great to be back on the program. Thank you very much for having me. And, Tavis, I really just appreciate your constant voice especially during times like this.

Tavis: You are kind. I appreciate yours. Last week was interesting, to say the least. So much commentary all around the country last week about your opposition to Jeff Sessions. As I mentioned a moment ago, no sitting senator has ever gone against another sitting senator in a hearing the way you did. Tell me more about why you chose that tact.

Booker: Well, I mean, the criminal justice in our country, as so many communities around our nation know, is savagely broken and its jagged edges are destroying the lives of many, many people. 5% of the globe’s population, one out of every four imprisoned people on the planet earth are here in America.

Overwhelmingly, we’re incarcerating the most vulnerable of our citizens, the mentally ill, the drug-addicted, poor folks. As Bryan Stevenson said, in America, you’re treated better if you’re rich and guilty than poor and innocent and then, of course, disproportionately people of color.

It’s been this drug war in my lifetime that has so exploded our prison population 800% on the federal level and has disproportionately impacted African Americans, Latino, people of color because we know there’s no difference between Blacks and whites in dealing drugs or using drugs. But African Americans will be arrested for that almost four times more likely.

So here you have this system that is chewing up so many people, disproportionately affecting communities, and, frankly, people come out of this system for doing things the last two presidents said they had done. Now can’t find jobs, can’t get a PEL grant for college, can’t get food stamps and the like.

So this is something I’ve been working on with Senate Republicans. Even the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee has partnered with us on this. But someone who has been the outlier fighting against us has been Jeff Sessions.

So on this issue and so many more, LGBT rights, the rights of inequality of women, police accountability, he has from his position and in the years before fought against the efforts that we’ve been making, for and against what the Justice Department has been doing.

And now to see him going to ascend to the highest law enforcement office in the land in charge of the Justice Department, he has told us that he won’t fight and defend and uplift the rights and values of all Americans.

So I could not sit idly by without doing everything I could to speak out against what I believe is going to roll back the clock for many Americans and leave many Americans who right now are being defended by this Justice Department with not the federal government working to defend them.

Tavis: What I do know, Senator Booker, is the way you have been treated or maltreated, depending on one’s perspective on what you did last week in social media or, more broadly, in the mainstream media space, what I don’t know and I’m curious to know is how you’ve been treated inside the Senate.

Relatively speaking, you are a newbie to this body, relatively speaking, and I don’t know how senators who’ve been there longer than you take to a young guy like yourself coming in and just abridging all the rules of decorum, as it were, in the U.S. Senate. So how have you been treated or not treated, as it were, by your colleagues since you spoke out in those hearings days ago?

Booker: Well, I appreciate you asking the question. I developed really good friendships in the three years I’ve been here on both sides of the aisle. I know I definitely stepped on senate norms and stepped on the toes of many people who believe that they are really important.

But, you know, when you’re sitting next to John Lewis and giving those remarks, I don’t think he asked when he did a lot of things that resulted in him getting beaten and severely injured. I don’t think he thought and asked is this breaking norms or is this politic or is this safe? He did it anyway.

Anything that I’ve done pales in comparison. It’s not even a shadow of the greatness of which I sat next to and which you and I both as children born in the post-civil rights era have inherited. So, you know, be what may, this is where I stand, this is what I did. I’ll accept the consequences and, if it chills relationships in the Senate, I understand that. I respect my colleagues.

But this is one of those moments in American history with all that’s going on in police community relations, with all that’s going on with the continued violence against LGBT, Americans Against Women, which Senator Sessions has spoken out against the Violence Against Women’s Act, spoken out against the Matthew Shepard Act, spoken out against the Justice Department’s effort to hold police departments accountable, with all that’s on the line with the most powerful law enforcement person in line, I had to speak out, no matter what the consequences.

Tavis: I’d be remiss not to ask you what you have made over the last few days of the attack that Mr. Lewis came under from the president.

Booker: Well, it’s stunning to me that not only his attack on him, if it was maybe narrowly tailored to John Lewis’s remarks and in a respectful manner, I still wouldn’t have agreed with it or thought it was justified.

But he made a bold statement about John Lewis being a man of all talk and not action, and that is outrageous to hear that from someone and to question John Lewis for challenging Donald Trump’s legitimacy.

In many ways, that is painful to hear him strike back like that, especially after he himself did just that, question the legitimacy of Barack Obama time and time again in a way that was just candidly crass to me and craven.

So I just think this is yet another data point for people as they look at the presidency, forget who’s in it, as a position where you show dignity, where you show restraint, where you are magnanimous, that Donald Trump does not have that in him.

In many ways, I think, looking at the way he’s been tweeting and attacking so many people, unfortunately, I fear that after the dignity of the White House being elevated yet again by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama that I think that it’s going to be a different kind of White House in the days ahead. And it’s very disappointing to me, whether you’re Republican or Democrat.

I think most Americans want their president to evidence the best of our values, not kind of a Twitter, troll-like, teenage petulance. Actually, I’m being disrespectful to teenagers because you’ve seen much better behavior from young and old than you’re often seeing evidenced by him.

Tavis: I was laughing at your comment and I was just about to say, “Don’t laugh at my question”, so I’ll see if you return the favor now. The question I wanted to ask now which, again, might seem funny, given what you’ve just said. You used the term in this conversation earlier, Senator Booker, outlier.

Clearly, Donald Trump has been the quintessential ultimate outsider — outlier, I should say — to get to where he is now as the President of these United States. I wonder, though, in all seriousness, whether or not you think that Donald Trump will moderate, can moderate, can become a decent president.

I don’t need to tell you. You’re a student of history. That Abraham Lincoln — who was no Donald Trump. Let me be clear about that — but Abraham Lincoln started out on the wrong side of the slavery question and, eventually, he made the right turn.

Bobby Kennedy had to grow. He wasn’t in the White House as president, but history shows us full well that Bobby Kennedy had to grow. And there are other great Americans and great leaders around the world who had to grow. Is it possible, you think, that over the next four years,  Donald Trump will not be as laughable as he is to some tonight?

Booker: Well, look, I’m not one of those people that says that I want Donald Trump to fail in terms of if he’s trying to do right by our country, create economic opportunity for all, reduce levels of violence. If he takes on strategies, I want him to do the right thing.

But I don’t have expectation of that whatsoever. I may be a prisoner of hope as you and I both are on so many issues, but I have no expectation. If someone tells you, as Maya Angelou says, who they are, believe them the first time.

He didn’t moderate in his campaign. He didn’t moderate when he won the Republican nomination. He did not moderate when he became President-elect. I do not expect him to evolve when he’s president, nor do I advise people to. Because to stop him from doing what looks like he intends to do is going to take us organizing. It’s going to take engagement and activity.

People should be right now today, as he is ascending into the presidency, people should be preparing to fight to defend, to resist, to seize ground where we can and hold it where we’ve gained it and earned it in the past. So I really do see my role as someone who is going to continue to look across the aisle in the Senate. I’ve partnered with a lot of senators on legislation that I’m really proud of.

But as I look towards the presidency and know what it seems like he intends to do with the Environmental Protection Agency, with the Justice Department, with foreign policy and his relationship with the Russians, all of these things make me ready to roll up my sleeves and go to work in fighting and defending and advancing the causes that I think he’s threatening.

Tavis: Since you mentioned some legislation that you’re working on, let me go to a couple pieces of that and get you to expound on what you’re attempting to do. I want to raise first the issue of this Muslim ban.

We heard, to your point, all throughout the campaign this bluster and bravado coming out of Mr. Trump about what he was going to do when elected and when he got into office about Muslims in this country. You, of course, have your name on some legislation to push back on that. Tell me about the legislation.

Booker: Well, there’s a program that was initiated during the Bush administration that Obama, to his credit, stopped using, but the mechanism remained. It’s called NSEERS, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System.

So he’s actually got, as a leftover from the immediate post-9/11 period, this ability to force people to register based upon their country of origin. Now interestingly, when Bush did it, there were 25 countries. 24 of them were Muslim nations, a majority of Muslim nations. One of them was North Korea.

So I put in legislation just disbanding the ability from the United States to create registries based on race, national origin, religion and a few other factors. This belies who we are as a nation and our history, and I think the fundamental values are enshrined in the Constitution. So we put forth legislation to deny him the apparatus with which to create a Muslim registry.

Obviously, we’re going to have a difficult time getting such legislation passed, but I hope to force people to have to vote on it and be on the record for what kind of values do they support within our government. Now if he tries to do any kind of Muslim registry or tries to re-engage the NSEERS program, we have to, again, rally together as a nation and resoundingly reject that.

Because I don’t care if you are a Christian American, if you’re an atheist American, any time you see a president or some leader calling for people to have to register based on a category like religion, please understand that that is a serious threat to everything we say we are, we believe we are, and we tell the globe who we are and what we stand for.

Tavis: The other piece of legislation that I want to get to briefly here is criminal justice reform. It had been thought and it’s been written about, as you know, in a myriad number of places. There is one issue that Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate might get some traction on and it is the issue of criminal justice reform.

You know, my sense is that Democrats are behind that for one reason. Republicans behind it for another reason, namely saving money. But I’ll let you expound upon that. But where are we, now that Mr. Trump is in fact the new president, on this issue of criminal justice reform? Is something meaningful going to come out of Congress on that issue?

Booker: Well, so we’ve had the Obama administration be extraordinary leaders in this issue. Everything from the Justice Department under President Obama giving instructions to U.S. Attorneys around this country to pull back for nonviolent offenders these large mandatory minimums which has resulted in a lowering of sentencing around this country on a federal level.

We’ve seen him not only visit prisons, but come out and start to commute sentences at a level and rate that we’ve never seen in American history. There’s a lot things that President Obama’s been doing that really have been about overall criminal justice reform from police accountability all the way to sentencing.

Now you have Donald Trump who not only has spoken out about this, emphasizing terms that have such painful historic accords like those “law and order, law and order” drum that he was beating, and to so many who understand our history understand that law and order cries were used by Nixon and others as a way of going after, frankly, elements, activists on the left, people of color and others.

So I worry that a man that’s been beating that drum of law and order, not talking about the higher principle and the higher calling of this country, which is justice, is not going to look kindly on criminal justice reform.

And if one of his first nominees is Jeff Session, a person who has spoken out against criminal justice reform, spoken out against sentencing reductions, spoken out against police accountability, spoken out against even voting rights and other things, it does not give me hope that Donald Trump is going to be someone who becomes a champion of these issues.

So all of us who know that we live in this distraught present where we have a criminal justice system that is a major violation of American values, wasting trillions of dollars on building prisons with more people in the south living in prisons than on college campuses, I don’t have much faith that Donald Trump is going to become a champion for moving us as a country away from this distraught present.

And, too, what some states are starting to see — even red states are starting to see that when they bring in humane policies to the criminal justice system and lower their prison populations, they actually lower crime as well.

But I’m not giving up. I’ve spent three years working on everything from Ban the Box legislation, helping people coming out of prison have a fair shot at jobs, all the way to working with Republican Chairman Grassley with the Judiciary Committee, real legislation.

I’m not giving up the fight and I’m going to continue to work to raise the consciousness of our country. Because as you said, you find people on both sides of the aisle from the Heritage Foundation, Koch Brothers, Newt Gingrich, whatever their motivations are, the reality is if you’re speaking directly to this issue as something that we need to do something about.

So you have Christian Evangelical leaders coming from the Christian context on the right saying we need to change this or even Libertarians who think this is a massive overreach of federal government, to even just fiscal hawks, as you said, who say why are we spending these hundreds of billions of dollars on a failed system? It’s so failed that, when we release people because we don’t empower them to succeed, the majority of people in many cases are coming back into the prison system.

So I’m going to continue this fight. I know a lot of people are with me. This is one of America’s great shames and I actually have faith in America that we’re going to change this and you’re starting to see that in red states and blue states around America. But the federal system must change as well.

Tavis: So that even if Democrats can come up with a unified strategy to fight back against the agenda that Mr. Trump wants to put forth — and I’ve yet to see that. We’ll talk about the Democratic Party in just a second here. But even if they can come up, Senator Booker, with a unified strategy, how do you fight back against so many rollbacks in so many areas simultaneously?

Booker: I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, we’ve now lost a whole collection of leadership. I mean, you have Loretta Lynch. You have Barack Obama. I mean, you have people that were fighting these battles on all fronts often against states like Oklahoma where you had the EPA nominee, Mr. Pruitt, fighting against the EPA for trying to do things to protect clean water and clean air.

We lose all of that and really the front lines of this fight now are Democrats in the Senate, but also us, we the people. And people often underestimate their power. You know the saying by Alice Walker who said, “The most common way people give up their power is not realizing they have it in the first place.”

If we stop expressing our outrage, if we allow these kind of assaults on human dignity, human opportunity to normalize, then we give up, we surrender, our power and we surrender even the moral high ground becoming complicit in what’s happening.

We saw in one of the very first actions of the new Republican Congress in the House was to try to take away the teeth of independent ethics oversight. And there was such an outcry that moved through the right as well that they eventually had to reverse their position.

So this is something where we have to realize even if the odds seem impossible as they did in the civil rights movement and they did in the workers rights movement, as they did in the women’s rights movement, we have to still stand up and fight and resist because silence is the enemy. Apathy is the enemy.

It’s not, just as King said, the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people. So on the front lines in Washington, I’m going to work on every front that I can, and 48 Senate Democrats, House members like John Lewis, you’re seeing them find ways to resist. But the public at large — this cannot be a Washington fight.

It has to be the public at large saying, you know what? As an American citizen, I’m going to do more in 2017 to be aware of the issues, to engage in the issues, to follow leaders on social media so that they can tell me what’s happening. And when they put out a cry for organizing or for responding, we’re there to do something, to do some small act in the cause of my country.

Tavis: Speaking of Americans and the role they play, there are a lot of Americans who are aligned with your party, the Democratic Party. As we sit for this conversation tonight only because the election hasn’t happened as yet, the Democratic Party does not have its new leader yet. I’m not asking you if you’re behind anybody and, if you are, you can tell me that.

I guess the question is what does the Democratic Party do now? I saw the Chicago Cubs in the White House the other day and I saw the president make what I thought was a pretty funny joke. He turned to Theo Epstein who, as you know, used to run the Boston Red Sox and then went to the Chicago Cubs, and made a joke about Epstein being the head of the DNC because he was good at bringing teams back from the dead [laugh].

So I expect that Theo Epstein is not going to leave the Chicago Cubs to run the DNC, but what does this party have to do to get itself back on track?

Booker: Well, I want some new energy, some dynamic new energy, a strong progressive, somebody that can rally folks together and bring in — like we’ve seen now the realities with social media, you know, and I’m one of those people that’s trying to say, hey, we need to pay attention because on my Facebook feed and my Twitter feed on this device, I can reach more people than an MSNBC show often can in an early morning appearance.

So we’ve got to start letting people in that know the new tools of communication that are strong in their progressive stripes and not wavering, and folks that can bring some new dynamism and energy. I think it should be a full-time job and I’m happy to see even the elected leaders that are running for this or talking about that they would give up their position.

So I see a lot of strong candidates and I’m just hopeful that this leader understands that, in a time where you don’t have a Democratic president, the leader of the DNC has got to be out there working hard every single day, rallying the troops at the base grassroots level, that this is going to be a grassroots effort if we’re going to see America succeed in the long term. We’ve got to rebuild the Democratic Party, rebuild, re-energize, refortify from the grassroots up.

Tavis: And beyond just those who are affiliated with the Democratic Party, how do citizens who are troubled by this presidency organize themselves?

Booker: Well, I mean, I think that that’s the key. You know, I’m talking Democrat, Democrat, Democrat. The reality is, it’s American, American, American! As I was out there campaigning in this presidential election, I would show up into urban communities and I’d have folk pull me aside and say, “Look, I’m sick and tired of this. I feel like I’m voting, but people aren’t paying attention to my issues.”

And I’d always try to push back and say, “Wait, a minute. By us pulling out of the system, we’re going to create the conclusions we’ve already drawn through our apathy and lack of engagement.”

We’ve got to find a way to get people to understand that they have power, that the power of the people is greater than the people in power. And if they’re not getting the results they want out of the politics of this country, they have to shape and mold those politics then in a different way.

But I want to let the message be known that we’ve got to become more inclusive. We’ve got to give people a reason to be excited, a reason to be engaged, a reason to believe again that this country is not controlled by elites, by corporations, but that it’s controlled by the people, again, of people exercising their power, engaging, standing up and fighting. They always win.

History shows that under worse circumstances than now, leaders that were heralding worse demagoguery than we see now, people have overcome that before through that grassroots engagement, through standing up for our collective values and through making sure it’s sacrifice. That’s what patriotism is. It’s love of country.

Love is not a being verb. It’s an action verb. And we who have inherited it from the actions and struggles of those in the past have to give our good measure of that same kind of commitment. If not, I fear what’s going to happen to our country in the future if the people who have most at stake are not getting engaged more than they were in 2016 or before.

Tavis: So there are all kinds of stories written last week when you were so brilliant in your testimony at the hearing for Jeff Sessions. All kinds of commentary written about the fact that Cory Booker has already sounded off for the 2020 contest.

So your name is already being bandied about for those on the short list to fight back against Mr. Trump, assuming he runs for reelection in 2020. How are you going to stay focused when that chorus starts to rise about “Booker, Booker, Booker!” in 2020?

Booker: Well, I think I do a disservice to myself and anybody if they’re starting to focus on 2020 now. I think life is about purpose and not position. Live your purpose now, be authentic in this moment, fight the good fight. That’s what we should expect from each other.

Whoever’s going to be in 2020, I want them to earn the loyalty and the love of the people, and there’s a lot of good folks out there from governors who I know to Congress people, to Senators, that have this tremendous leadership opportunity.

And I hope that — my prayer is that we have a lot of great choices for the highest office in the land. For me, I want to be a great senator and show the New Jersey that I deserve to be reelected in 2020 and that I’ve stayed true to the fight and, even if we lose some battles down here, that I fought with honor, with the tenaciousness and with an integrity that we really need in this country now more than ever.

Tavis: Sounds like he’s running, y’all [laugh]. No, just teasing.

Booker: I love you, brother. Lots of conversations between now and four years from now.

Tavis: Just teasing. Cory Booker, I love you. Good to have you on. We’ll do it again soon.

Booker: I hope so. Thank you, Tavis. Again, thank you for your voice, man. Thank you for your voice.

Tavis: You’re kind. Thank you, Senator. That is our show for tonight. Goodnight from L.A. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: January 26, 2017 at 6:08 pm