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Former head of Homeland Security on the dangers of Trump’s rhetoric

Questions continued Thursday over President Trump's actions -- about how he stoked the mob at the Capitol and whether he's a danger as he continues to hold power. Kevin McAleenan was acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration until November 2019. He joins Amna Nawaz to discuss how he sees this moment and the road ahead.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting, there are a number of questions today about President Trump, how he stoked the mob at the Capitol, and whether he's a danger while he continues to hold power.

    Amna Nawaz now talks to a man who held a key role in the Trump administration on how he sees this moment and the road ahead — Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    For seven months, Kevin McAleenan served in President Trump's Cabinet as acting secretary of homeland security. He resigned from that post in October of 2019, is now the CEO of Pangiam, a travel technology company.

    And he joins me now.

    Secretary McAleenan, welcome back to the "NewsHour." And thank you for making the time.

    Let's start with the events that we have been reporting on and the world was watching yesterday. As you were watching that unfold, rioters storm the capital, what was your reaction?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Well, I think I found, like most Americans, the situation just incredibly appalling, shocking, disgusting, to see an organized mob assault on one of our most central and core democratic processes, and temporarily successful assault.

    Just very difficult, very hard to watch.

    At the same time, we — I think we also should note that we saw our institutions hold. We saw our congressional leaders return to the Capitol to complete the process, to do their jobs throughout the night, and to count the votes and to certify the election victory of president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris.

    So, I think it's very important to see the whole scope of the day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you look at what happened and how quickly it happened and how easily, we saw from outside, those protesters breach the barriers, make their way up the Capitol, a lot of people are wondering, where's the law enforcement? Where are the federal forces? Where is DHS?

    We knew that people would be descending on the Capitol. We heard the words that the president had been delivering to them. Shouldn't there have been a more robust force there to meet that threat?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Yes, I think there are really important questions raised in the last segment.

    I think Leader McConnell's point about a painstaking investigation on the institutional and planning — I want to focus on that word, the planning failure.

    This is a really complicated jurisdictional environment for law enforcement in D.C., but it's also one where we see incredible crowds, protests, marches, inauguration, State of the Union, happen with security and very smoothly every year.

    And that's due to great planning, due to leadership, one agency put in charge, and then coordination, so you have the support and the backup forces, a civil disturbance unit on call, a rapid-reaction force.

    What I saw yesterday was, those elements were not in place. There had to be a failure of intelligence in terms of predicting that that group was going to be that size, and it was going to head toward the Capitol. But it was a very determined group that attacked the Capitol from all sides, an incredibly challenging law enforcement situation.

    I mean, we should not lose sight of…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, Mr. Secretary, let me ask. Pardon the interruption.

    Let me just ask you. When you talk about intelligence, what more intelligence do you think is necessary? These are groups who were talking about a revolution on social media for weeks. You have seen previous protesters who followed the president's words and attacked statehouses during the lockdown in the pandemic.

    Why shouldn't federal officials have expected that it would go the way it did?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Yes, so my understanding from talking to former colleagues is, they were prepared for violence, violence between either the protesters who became rioters and counter protesters, perhaps, throughout the city, as we have seen in prior weekends recently in Washington, D.C., but not that organized approach on the Capitol.

    Should they have predicted that? Probably. And I agree with you that you have to look at the sources of organization online, what the groups are talking about. And some of that rhetoric was very dangerous approaching this political rally that became a riot.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the rhetoric.

    Do you think that President Trump is responsible for what happened yesterday?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    I think that his rhetoric created a dangerous situation, inviting that group to D.C., talking about going down to the Capitol.

    We have seen that in the past, where presidential words matter. We have heard leaders, president-elect Biden, commentators of both parties, talk about the importance of communication from that White House on what's acceptable and what's not.

    And, yes, after the fact, we have heard calls that violence is never acceptable by any protest movement exercising First Amendment rights. But when it becomes a riot, when it becomes an assault on a democratic process, it's obviously unacceptable.

    And I'm afraid rhetoric helped inspire it and create the circumstances that it arose from.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, if his words matter, if they inspired a riot, if it's an attack on our democratic process, is the president fit to serve? Do you think that his Cabinet should be taking steps to remove him?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Well, I think the Constitution has processes defined for that in the 25th Amendment. There's significant reporting, including on your show this evening, that Cabinet members are actively considering that, in conversations with the Hill.

    But I think the ultimate verdict was issued…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And do you think they should move forward with that?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Well, the ultimate verdict was issued by the American people in November. And it's less than 13 days away from being realized, and the transition now certain, with the votes counted, to president-elect Biden.

    But I think the people in the chairs are best suited to make that decision based on the facts presented to them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I have to ask you. You have been very quiet since you have left. You haven't spoken out very often.

    And during your tenure, the president often said things or tweeted things or took actions that a lot of people said, why aren't people close to him speaking out?

    Why are you speaking out right now?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    I'm talking about these incidents because I think an assault on our democracy is simply beyond the pale.

    As a career official coming up through the ranks, surprised to be offered a political appointment to lead an agency that I treasured at CBP and then at Department of Homeland Security, to solve a crisis at the time, I was — I was a civil servant. I considered that you have to support and defend the Constitution. If you're asked to serve and you have the ability to do so, you should try.

    And I wrestled with speaking out before and after I departed. I did resign due to concerns about the politicization of law enforcement and the dangers that presented to our institutions. I made that decision 15 months ago.

    But it's difficult now, seeing the potential long-term impact of a situation like yesterday, to not come out and state how unacceptable it is and that there must be accountability across the board.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is former acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Thank you.

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