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With protests taking place in cities across the country, how should the federal government respond? Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota joins Judy Woodruff to discuss President Trump’s rhetoric about the use of force, whether a peaceful protest near the White House Monday should have been interrupted as it was, the role of Congress in addressing racial unrest and federal pandemic aid.
With protests taking places in cities across the country, we turn now to Capitol Hill and how the federal government can respond.
Republican John Thune is the Senate majority whip. In his home state of South Dakota, the National Guard has been called to help disperse protests in recent days.
Senator Thune, thank you so much for joining us.
I want to start with the president's actions yesterday, in having peaceful protesters forcefully cleared out around the White House from that entire area, so that he could walk over to St. John's Church for a photograph.
As I'm sure you know, some of your Republican colleagues have been critical, including Tim Scott, who said he should not have used tear gas for a photo-op, and Senator Ben Sasse, who said he was using the Bible as a political prop.
Are they right?
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:
Well, I think that situation, Judy, a lot of it is in the eye of the beholder.
And Trump supporters are going to say that was a — he was showing strength and evidencing his commitment to faith and principle. And, obviously, his detractors will say it's a photo-op.
I think my colleagues are coming down to kind of different conclusions about that. I think there is some dispute about whether or not tear gas was being used there. But, nevertheless, you know, that was a decision made by the White House and their team to do an event there.
And, again, it's — everybody is going the draw their own conclusions, as they usually do with this president, whose tactics and ways of communicating are certainly unconventional and in many ways unorthodox.
But are you comfortable with the idea of law enforcement using force, as we saw on video, to clear out protesters and journalists out of the area, so the president could walk a block over to the church?
Sen. John Thune:
Well, I would prefer that, if people were protesting peacefully, that they be allowed to continue to do that. That's what we want to encourage.
Now, my understanding is that there was a curfew being imposed at 7:00 and people were starting to disperse anyway. But, for sure, if people are following the law, using — exercising their First Amendment right to assemble and to make their voices heard in a peaceful way, they should be allowed to do that.
So — and there are questions about the circumstances down there last night, but I think, as a general rule, yes, people who are protesting peacefully ought to be allowed to do that. That's certainly the kind of thing that we want to encourage.
Should President Trump make remarks to the American people right now, Senator, beyond what he said about, I'm the law and order president?
I'm asking because The Washington Post is reporting that this is — they're saying this about the president and some of his advisers — and I'm quoting — they calculated she shouldn't speak because — quote — "He has nothing to say and had no tangible policy or actions to announce."
This is what the reporter learned from the White House.
Should the president have something to say, have something to announce right now?
I think that the country, Judy, is looking for healing. They're looking for a calm voice, a reassuring voice.
And I think that's the tone right now that the president needs to project. And, sometimes, too often, when he resorts to his Twitter account, he doesn't always reflect that tone.
But I think that, right now, the thing that we ought to see, I hope we can see more of out of the president is an appreciation for the frustration, the anger, the anxiety that people are feeling, observing these events around the country, and just being willing to listen.
I think, more than anything else right now, people want to have their voices heard, and I think the president, in a compassionate way, in a way that reflects humility and respect, should listen to people at a time like this.
And so I hope we see more of that out of him and out of his team in the days ahead.
And you do believe the president is capable of projecting calm and unifying the country?
Well, he does at times.
Like I said, he's — there clearly are instances and examples where the president, through the way that he says things, perhaps doesn't send — reflect or send the right message or the right tone.
But I would hope, at least, as we move forward and continue to deal with the aftermath of these riots and these protests, that, in addition to suggesting that we need to, you know, protect lawful protests and ensure that there isn't lawlessness out there, he obviously needs to, I think, make sure there's order in the country as well, but also project a tone to the country that — that suggests that he understands what they're going through.
In connection with that, Senator Thune, the majority — Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, just in the last couple of hours told reporters that he believes that Congress has a role to play, he said, in dealing with racist — racial discrimination and police accountability.
What exactly do Republicans in the Senate have in mind with regard to either of these big issues?
Well, I think that's to be determined.
I think what the leader was suggesting is that we want to be a constructive force. We understand. We get it. People feel very strongly right now. And, clearly, many of these things have been going on for way too long.
And I think our country is ready for a period of healing. There have been some steps that have been taken in the past. You know, in 2017, we passed economic policies that I think have really enhanced the economic vitality in a lot of our minority communities in this country.
Criminal justice reform is something that was passed here just in the last year or so, and that was a long-sought-after reform to our criminal justice system in this country. So, I think there are things that we can do. And that was very bipartisan.
It was something that was advocated by people on both the right and the left. And I think there are solutions like that that we ought to be looking at that I think send a message that we recognize the frustration and the sense of sort of helplessness that a lot of people in this country feel, and the fact that not everybody experiences our democracy and our history and our heritage the way that many of us.
Those of us who have grown up in neighborhoods that didn't deal with a lot of the social unrest and economic challenge that we have in other neighborhoods in this country certainly have a lot to learn from those who have been through those experiences.
And I think this is a period of time when we need to listen. And if there are solutions that are meaningful, we ought to be looking at what we can do to find some common ground.
But, just quickly, no timetable on that?
No, I don't think there's a timetable.
But I think we're — I think what the leader was suggesting is that we are open to solutions, and we want to be a constructive force for change.
Finally, Senator, I want to turn to the pandemic, which, of course, is still very much under way, people sticking getting sick, still dying, a lot of people still — millions of Americans out of work.
The Paycheck Protection Program, money that was — has now been disbursed to businesses, many of them have not been able to spend it yet. It has to do with a timetable for that. Time is running out before you get to the point where they will be required to spend the money.
Legislation out there to extend the timetable, is that going to be passed? Where does that stand right now?
Well, there is a bill that originated in the House of Representatives that passed 417-1 which is awaiting action in Senate. I hope we can take action on this.
These are changes that need to be made. We are running up against the clock. And we have got to work through some objections that senators — certain senators have. But I hope we can get there. This is a program that's been very — by all accounts, very successful.
And it's kept a lot of people employed. And lord knows, with all the people who are unemployed right now, we want to do as much as we can to keep those jobs there and so, when the economy starts to recover, and it starts — it is starting to show signs that it is, that those jobs will be available.
So, it's an important piece of legislation. And these changes that have been proposed are changes that enjoy broad bipartisan support. There ought to be a path forward to get it done. And I hope we can find that path.
And in the coming few days, this week?
Yes, it would be nice if we could do it this week.
I think that there are reasons why that — it needs to get done as soon as possible. But, as I said, it's going to — it may take a little longer than we had hoped. We can do things in the Senate. If you have unanimous consent, you can do them very quickly.
Unfortunately we don't have unanimous consent at the moment.
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, we appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Thanks, Judy. Nice to be with you.
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