ROBERT COSTA: Protests and fierce debate over presidential power and American values.
TERRENCE FLOYD: (From video.) Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter and vote because it’s a lot of us. It’s a lot of us. It’s a lot of us.
MR. COSTA: Across the country, protests over the police killing of George Floyd bring civil rights to the fore of the American conversation.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I am your president of law and order.
MR. COSTA: But President Trump responds with force and calls for domination. Former military leaders and some Republicans are alarmed.
SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK): (From video.) I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.
MR. COSTA: And top Democrats speak out.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. A week that will be remembered by history began on Monday with a walk across Lafayette Square that tested the bounds of presidential power. President Trump’s decision to visit St. John’s Church and the use of force to move out peaceful demonstrators, it sparked outrage from Americans across the nation who have protested the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. According to some reports, Attorney General William Barr personally ordered law enforcement officials to clear the area, and his role in the militarization of the federal response is now under increasing scrutiny. The president has been dismissive of critics, from leading members of the clergy to Republican senators to his former defense secretary, General James Mattis, but he remains defiant and buoyed by economic numbers on Friday that showed the unemployment rate dropping to 13.3 percent in May from 14.7 percent in April. The president also invoked Mr. Floyd’s name at the White House on Friday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality.
MR. COSTA: Former Vice President Joe Biden later responded.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) George Floyd’s last words – “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” – have echoed all across this nation and, quite frankly, around the world. For the president to try to put any other words in the mouths of George Floyd I frankly think is despicable.
MR. COSTA: And in Minneapolis this week, there were calls for sweeping change at Mr. Floyd’s memorial service. Here is the Reverend Al Sharpton.
AL SHARPTON: (From video.) The reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck. (Cheers, applause.) What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country in education, in health services, and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight are four reporters who have been covering this American moment: Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Paula Reid, White House correspondent for CBS News; and Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News.
Paula, you join us tonight from the White House. You were at the White House when the president made that decision to walk across Lafayette Square. What drove that move inside the West Wing? Was it a response to reports that he was in the White House bunker on Friday night, or was it a deliberate flexing of executive power?
PAULA REID: A little bit of both. There was a feeling inside the White House that the president was being perceived as weak – that he was, as you noted, hiding in a bunker – and he wanted a demonstration of strength, and he also wanted to show support for this historically significant church that had been – a part of it that had been set on fire the night before. But it was so remarkable because just a few yards from where I am here, you had the president in the Rose Garden saying that he supported peaceful protest, talking about law and order, while a few yards this way they were using flashbangs and pretty aggressive tactics to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park so the president could walk across and have what is effectively a photo op in front of this church. So the president really stepped on his own message of showing strength and support for law and order and preventing any sort of vandalism because of the way they cleared that park. Now there were all these arguments that they were too aggressive, that they should not have used this kind of force. Some have even called it unconstitutional.
MR. COSTA: Pierre, build on that with your own reporting. You spoke to the attorney general, Bill Barr, this week. Everyone’s wondering in Washington across reporting beats what exactly was his role in that incident.
PIERRE THOMAS: Well, he made the case or tried to make the case that there were people throwing projectiles, objects at the police, that it was a dangerous situation. The media has pushed back on this, saying that there was little of that, and many people say they didn’t see any of it. And so his case to be made was that it was a security issue that needed to be resolved, that he had wanted that park cleared a day earlier, they hadn’t gotten around to it. But again, it was a touchtone moment because the crowd was largely peaceful. I think we can all agree with that. And to see those horses and to see the aggressive tactics used by police, it was jolting to a lot of people who believe in the First Amendment and freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble.
MR. COSTA: Pierre, I just want to follow up on that point. Why is the attorney general of the United States involved in these sorts of security decisions on Lafayette Square? Why is the attorney general involved with assembling a security force in the nation’s capital with correctional officers from around the country?
MR. THOMAS: Well, I think there are two reasons. Number one, the president wants him to, and he is a law-and-order attorney general. He has recently spoken about the fact that during the Rodney King tragedy that he believes that perhaps he should have been more involved in terms of dealing with the onslaught of reaction – violent reaction in that city. But at the same time, Barr is a complicated figure. He also is the same attorney general who sought to prosecute and did prosecute the officers who beat up Rodney King in that vicious way, and at the time that was extremely rare for that to happen, Bob.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, I’ve been following your reporting all week, and on the politics angle of this. You come out of such a great tradition at The New York Times, Johnny Apple and so many others. When you think about the political side here, what was gained? Was this a president thinking about the campaign and law and order and suburban voters, or something else?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Oh, yeah, he had his eye on his reelection, certainly in his comments, and I think he sees an opportunity to try to come across as somebody who is, you know, pushing images off people’s televisions that are to some voters frightening, seeing looting, seeing stores being broken into. I think Trump has taken it upon himself to think if I’m the one, the strongman that can sort of come down on that conduct, I’m going to be, you know, rewarded for it politically. That’s a gamble, though, because if people want order, they want stability, they’re not looking for a sort of chaotic moment, well, he’s probably not the best candidate, given his conduct. And this has always been the challenge with Trump, Bob, is that, you know, even if he’s sort of given a political opportunity, he can often be his own worst enemy given his own rhetoric. And even when he has an opening, he will often forfeit it by making some off-color, incendiary, or offensive comments, and you just look at this past week and time and time again that’s what he did.
MR. COSTA: Amna, when we watch these protests we pay attention, as we should, to the activism, but also the police forces – and it’s not just in Lafayette Square. And I was wondering this week about how do police leaders see this moment, and you spoke to the police chief in Houston. You’ve spoken to other police and military officials. How are they handling this widespread militarization of police forces not only in Washington, but across the country?
AMNA NAWAZ: I think it’s two different conversations, right? If you get back to that moment, which was a tipping point in so many ways of the president’s walk across Lafayette Square, obviously, military officials were troubled enough by that that General Milley, who was with him on that walk, felt he needed to issue a statement to all of the armed service members to say: I want to remind you of your constitutional obligation, which is to the Constitution and not to the president. And I think there’s been a growing fear within a number of senior military officials that I’ve talked to, that over the last three and a half years they have become increasingly used a political tools for the president.
Now, on the law enforcement side, you’re absolutely right. I talked to the Houston Police chief, who himself is a Cuban immigrant. He oversees one of the most diverse communities in America and has been hailed this week because he has been walking with the protesters, leading with empathy, as he told me. At the same time, he is not immune, and his department is not immune, from many of the same problems we’ve seen at police departments across the country.
It’s worth pointing out that on the same day that George Floyd was killed the Houston Police Department had its sixth fatal shooting in as many weeks. And that Art Acevedo, the police chief there, even as he’s walking with the protesters is facing tough questions from them about why he won’t release some body camera footage. So there are serious questions about previous use of force, about all the uses of force that we don’t see caught on camera, but also the use of force in response to these very protests that are against police brutality.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of tough questions, President Trump’s call for, quote, “domination,” it has faced pushback. Some governors have spoken out. I had a story earlier this week about them having some concerns on a conference call. And Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act, a law giving the president the power to send the military to states.
DEFENSE SECRETARY MARK ESPER: (From video.) The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.
MR. COSTA: Esper’s predecessor, General James Mattis, said in a statement that the president’s actions were, quote, “abuse of executive authority,” and wrote that, quote, “we must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.” Some Republicans, such as Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the general’s comments, quote, “true, honest, and necessary.” The president, he has since pledged to defeat her. Paula, when you’re talking to White House officials and they see General Mattis stepping out, who’s often been quiet, what’s the significance of that and of Secretary Esper making his own views clear?
MS. REID: Well, on Defense Secretary Esper, we know that publicly contradicting President Trump is not a good way to keep your job in this administration. But I will note, he is still in his position as of tonight. And it’s also important to note, even though publicly he broke with the president on this issue, sort of had to walk back a couple of things that he said, as of tonight he has told most of the active duty military troops who came here to Washington to return to their home bases, though a few will remain on high alert. So even though the president and he had this public disagreement about this issue, it looks like in the longer term he really prevailed. The defense secretary prevailed. And behind the scenes I’m told that there are not imminent plans to fire the defense secretary. But as we know, here at the White House things can change on a dime.
In terms of former administration officials, it is significant to hear from the former Defense Secretary James Mattis. It was just about ten months ago that he told my colleague David Martin that he did not intend to publicly criticize President Trump. He called the president “unusual,” but said he wouldn’t criticize him publicly. So to see the president being criticized by current and former defense officials it is significant, and it doesn’t do a lot to really bolster his arguments about law and order, or the need to use active duty military.
MR. COSTA: Jonathan, when you see General Mattis speak out, and you see Senator Murkowski do the same, do you actually see GOP cracks? Do you see a party that’s considering breaking away at this moment, or not?
MR. MARTIN: I see two things. I see it affirming the decision of kind of former Republicans to stay former Republicans and support Joe Biden, or at least not vote for President Trump. But I also do see it sort of sowing some doubts among a smaller pool, Bob, of voters who are perhaps still deciding. Who generally are Republicans who are uneasy about voting for a Democrat, watching a Democratic presidency for four years, but really don’t like President Trump that much. Just aren’t sure if they can support a Democrat. I think when you have people like Mattis put this in the context of the country’s security, I think it sort of does give that sort of voter pause.
And I would just add, Bob, on Senator Murkowski, I mean, this to me is a vivid illustration of what a fallacy it is to suggest that President Trump operates with some sort of grand strategy. The cliche is the sort of five-dimensional chess. And this just completely disproves that. No political advisor in their right mind, let alone any GOP senator, would advise the sitting president to not only attack Senator Murkowski but threaten to run her out of the Senate. And by the way, she didn’t say that she was against Trump. She just said that she was struggling with how she was going to vote. She is an undecided voter, if you will, the most sort of cherished person for most politicians, and typically not the kind of voter that they threaten. And that’s what President Trump did. It was confounding politically, but not terribly surprising.
MR. COSTA: Amna, when I was talking to some Republicans today on Capitol Hill they said part of the reason, to build on Jonathan’s reporting, that they’re sticking with President Trump, is because of the economy. They see this jobs report that’s improving. But, Amna, you’ve studied the numbers. There are still millions of Americans unemployed. And what’s the reality for people of color in this country?
MS. NAWAZ: I mean, the reality is that it’s still not a good picture. I mean, look, we’ve heard the president again and again talk about the fact that African American unemployment numbers, Latino unemployment numbers under his presidency had been as good as they were, and they were. The pandemic changed everything.
And as we are slowly starting to see, especially in today’s surprising numbers where we saw some of those jobs numbers go back up, that is, again, in the way that most recessions have ended, in the way that most down periods have ended in the United States, really helping one segment of the population more than the other. And that is white Americans. For all the unemployment numbers we’ve looked at for black Americans that number actually went up, even though it went down for other communities. And so you look at Latino numbers, and all the concern about unemployment hitting 20 percent, it nearly hit 20 percent for Latino Americans.
And even among the Trump voters that I’ve spoken to, and I spoke to a lot in the lead up to the 2016 election and the ones I’ve kept in touch with, for many who, as Jonathan is saying, maybe held their nose, they weren’t happy with the way that the president conducted himself, or the candidate back then. They don’t like his tweets. They don’t want him weighing in on some of the issues he does. They were voting on the economy. They were voting on their jobs. They were voting on the fact that they thought it would help them. And they right now are asking themselves questions about whether that is enough.
MR. COSTA: Pierre, let’s turn to what’s happening in Minnesota. We saw the images from the Floyd memorial. You see new charges now from the state attorney general in that state, Keith Ellison. What’s the next step for the Department of Justice, the attorney general, as they consider a civil rights investigation?
MR. THOMAS: Well, the state charges have been filed. There’s a parallel federal investigation ongoing being conducted by the FBI. And they’re doing what they call a color of law investigation, looking at whether those officers intentionally violated the civil rights of Mr. Floyd. And those are difficult cases to prove because you must get into the mind of the officers. Part of the investigation will look at, you know, their backgrounds, what kind of complaints were filed against them. But I must tell you, Bob, that funeral was very poignant to see, because it reminded us of the origins of all this unrest.
A man was held down for nearly nine minutes, white police officer, knee on his neck, hand in his pocket. And as I said on the air the other day, looking as casual as if he was reading the newspaper while he did it. And that has struck a chord with people in a way that I have not seen. It is an example. It symbolizes all these cases where African Americans in particular have encountered police in routine situations and ended up seriously injured or dead.
MR. COSTA: Pierre, such an important point, because so many people are asking for meaningful change. And the question is, what does that change mean? And we’re seeing, Paula, some new ideas being proposed by Vice President Biden, Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat on Capitol Hill, a ban – a federal ban on chokeholds by police officers, calling for a national police oversight commission. Is the White House focused on any criminal justice issue at this moment to address racial problems on the police force across the country?
MS. REID: The White House has not given specifics about any policy that they intend to push forward to address this issue. And both the attorney general and the president have acknowledged this problem, said something needs to be done, but they won’t say what. And if you look at the statistics from this administration, especially when it comes to using federal authority to investigate patterns or practices of racially biased policing, one significant statistic is the fact that the previous three administrations – Obama, Clinton, Bush – they opened nearly 70 investigations into various law enforcement agencies; this administration has opened one, and it was into a discreet issue in Springfield, Massachusetts. So it appears that the Trump Justice Department really has not prioritized constitutional policing, although as Pierre noted they have opened an investigation into this specific incident. When it comes to looking at systemic issues, it has really not been a priority for this administration. Now, this administration will argue that they have done a lot for that community. They will point to criminal justice reform. They will point to funding for historically black colleges and universities. But at this moment, this administration is not putting forth any specific policy ideas to address these larger issues about disparities in the criminal justice system.
MR. COSTA: Amna, quickly – we only have a minute left here, unfortunately – what’s next for the Black Lives Matter movement? What do they want?
MS. NAWAZ: I think none of us are in the job of speculating what comes next, right? But I think in writing this chapter of history as it unfolds before us, I think what we’re seeing is a movement unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years. And this is not just about one man’s death or one city’s pain; this is about 400 years of systems being built around racist ideas and all of that unfolding in an uprising across the country. We’ve seen the protests get bigger in cities that you never expected to see protests about racial gaps in America. But health care, education, the economy, every single part of our country is touched by this, and you’re seeing all of that frustration pour out into the street. So, yes, it’s about policing. It’s about policing reform right now, and that may be one of the easiest places where you can start to see some standards change. But what this movement is about, and as diverse and as big as it is, is something much bigger than that, and we’ll have to see and wait – wait and see what happens.
MR. COSTA: And Jonathan, real quick, is Biden now running as healer in chief?
MR. MARTIN: Clearly that is, I think, the hope, and I think as long as President Trump keeps saying things that hand over fodder to Biden I think Biden’s going to be able to do that. The question is –
MR. COSTA: Right, Jonathan, we got to go.
MR. MARTIN: Once we have a head-to-head campaign at some point this summer or fall, does the sort of narrative shift at all? Is this more of a –
MR. COSTA: Jonathan – Jonathan, we’ll talk about that on the Extra. This is a shorter show than usual due to the pledge week at most stations, so make sure to support them. And thank you, Jonathan Martin, Amna Nawaz, Paula Reid, and Pierre Thomas, and thank you all for joining us. We’ll keep taking you as close to the news as we can. On the Extra we’ll continue our conversation, and it airs on our Facebook and is later posted on our website.
For now, I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.