ROBERT COSTA: The nation’s racial wounds reopen as it marks grim milestones.
PHILONISE FLOYD: (From video.) We need justice. We need justice. They executed my brother in broad daylight.
MINNEAPOLIS MAYOR JACOB FREY (D): (From video.) Last night is the result of so much built-up anger and sadness – not just because of five minutes of horror, but 400 years.
MR. COSTA: Violence and deep pain after an African American man is killed in police custody.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I feel very, very badly. That’s a very shocking sight, and I didn’t like it.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) George Floyd’s life matters. It mattered as much as mine and it mattered as much as anyone’s in this country.
MR. COSTA: President Trump and other leaders face another reckoning, and the pandemic ravages Americans’ lives and livelihoods, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. It was a week when one death in Minnesota rivaled in public intensity 100,000 now dead in the United States from the pandemic, and we begin tonight with that anger and pain on the streets of Minneapolis. Millions of Americans are alarmed about the treatment of unarmed black men by police. They also wonder what the nation’s leaders will do or can do to address injustice. George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was killed on Monday. A video showed a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck. Before he died, Mr. Floyd cried out that he could not breathe. Since then, protests have erupted there and across the nation. The Department of Justice has announced a federal civil rights investigation. President Trump said on Friday that he spoke to Mr. Floyd’s family.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I want to express our nation’s deepest condolences and most heartfelt sympathies to the family of George Floyd. We are determined that justice be served. I understand the hurt. I understand the pain.
MR. COSTA: Joining me are four reporters who are covering this important story: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Margaret Brennan, moderator of Face the Nation and CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent; and Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post.
But President Trump’s initial response sparked criticism for inflaming racial tensions. He tweeted in part that the protesters are, quote, “thugs,” and said he told Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, a Democrat, that if there is any difficulty we will assume control and, quote, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter flagged the president’s comments for glorifying violence. Meanwhile, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, said this today.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The original sin of this country still stains our nation today. We are a country with an open wound, and none of us can turn away. None of us can be silent. None of us can – any longer can we hear the words “I can’t breathe” and do nothing.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, you saw the split screen. What is the political dimension to those responses?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I mean, it was quite a split screen. You have President Trump really, people think, pouring salt on the wound of an already reeling nation between the pandemic and these protests, and African American people really I think being at their wit’s end when it comes to the injustices that they’re facing. The president was really saying, look, I understand, I want to sympathize with you, but also I need order. Then you have Joe Biden, who really was putting forward what he thought was a personal story and idea that he was really trying to connect with people, saying, look, I understand what’s going on; this is why I’m running for president. I think the president – President Trump has a really – he has a real complication in when he tries to say that there’s sympathy for the people that are protesting, there’s sympathy for this family, because of course he himself has blasted Black Lives Matter. He’s joked or said that officers should not be nice and not protect people’s heads when they’re dealing with them. Some people saw that as him endorsing police brutality. So you have in the president someone who has really, I think, fanned the flames of the racial strife in this country, and then you have Joe Biden, who’s presenting himself as an alternative. President Trump, of course, is saying that he’s trying to get the case expedited – the case, of course, against George Floyd, who of course – and the officer, of course, was arrested today. But there are a lot of people who think that it didn’t – it shouldn’t have taken four days to arrest this officer. And the president, while he was saying that there – this looks like it’s inexcusable, there are a lot of people who think President Trump is adding to the problem of racial issues in this country.
MR. COSTA: Peter, as a student of the presidency, a reporter, how do you compare how the president today and this week has handled this crisis compared to presidents in the past?
PETER BAKER: Well, look, presidents – many presidents, anyway – have seen their role as being national healers, national unifiers, people to try to urge calm in moments of tinderbox tension and fury like we’ve seen this week. That’s not President Trump’s first instinct. His first instinct is to head to Twitter and to begin to send out pretty incendiary tweets attacking the mayor of Minneapolis, threatening to send troops in, what seemed to be anyway threatening violence with that phrase you mentioned about when the shooting starts the – you know, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. He later tried to walk it back, and when he finally met with reporters today and in a later tweet he said he didn’t actually mean that he or the authorities would begin shooting looters or protesters but that the inevitable consequence of looting was that shots would be fired and people would be hurt, and that therefore looting was bad and that they should stop it. It was a – you know, a revision of what his original instinct was, and it’s – it puts the president in an interesting position because he has made a concerted effort to try to reach out to African American voters in this election year who – African American voters have not been particularly supportive of him. At the same time, he has positioned himself as a strong law-and-order president who has been more supportive of law enforcement than his predecessors have been. And those two things now seem to be somewhat in conflict, and how he tries to manage those – he’s not a – you now, nuance is not really his specialty. Trying to sort of reconcile these two positions at this point I think is a challenge for him in the days to come.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, when you think about that phrase Peter used, “tinderbox,” to describe this nation and where it’s at, and you think about President Trump’s response to this tragedy, the question is, why? Based on your reporting, why is he handling this moment in this way?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Well, this is the president’s motive. This is what he does. This is how he operates. This is how he has been going back five years, even into the period before he decided to run for president, when he was pushing the birther conspiracy. Whenever the country needs healing, needs people to come together, the president has poured gasoline on the flames. This has been his way of operating for quite a while and he doesn’t seem to have another speed. He doesn’t seem to be comfortable with that role of healer in chief. He doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the idea of taking responsibility as the leader of the country when the country is in the middle of not only a massive pandemic that has led to the loss of lives of – loss of more than 100,000 lives, but also this racial conflagration where people are so, as Yamiche said, at their wit’s end over not only just this one case in Minneapolis, but the systemic issues that have been going on for quite a while and that have been splashed onto screens with social media. People are so concerned, and President Trump doesn’t really seem to have it in him to be able to dig deep and essentially heal the wound of the nation or at least speak to the broader systemic issues that the nation is facing. So the president wants to sort of be the triumphant person in this process and have enemies and have a punching bag, and that seems to be where he’s most comfortable, and that doesn’t seem to be where – what the country is looking for at a time where we need national healing.
MR. COSTA: Margaret, what about former Vice President Biden? What did his response just a few days after he had a controversy over comments he made last week we discussed on this program, what did his handling, his response reveal about his campaign?
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, you heard I thought it was a particularly specific phrase in that speech that Joe Biden used, which was to talk about how this election and this moment is, again, about the struggle for the soul of this country. It reminded me of when he launched this campaign and casting it at the time as motivated by Charlottesville, another moment of hate and divisiveness, and of Biden saying he wants to run to restore something of America.
That is how he has framed this. In terms of how his campaign handled it in the moment, you had fairly predictable response from the campaign, which is they put him forward on cable news. They put him forward to answer those questions with a nod towards what you referenced was his verbal misstep, as he characterized it, just a week ago.
But I think the broader political moment we’re in raises so many more questions about does this moment equal a political movement; is what we’re seeing that in this very specific case of police brutality and racial division in Minneapolis represent something more to the country at this moment of such heightened tension.
You see other protests in the country and it just – as an observer of political movements here you have to wonder if this tension is bubbling over in a way that goes beyond just a week, if this becomes something more. And not just in terms of the election six months ago but what is being shaped in this moment when you look at the tremendous amount of inequality that has been just deepened by the past three months or so of this pandemic. It is black and Hispanic America that has been hit the hardest by the job cuts, by the virus, and it is just widening the divisions we knew were existing.
MR. COSTA: Let’s get into that, because Margaret’s point is so important. What will this moment trigger beyond this week, tragedy after tragedy? Will this Floyd case, this tragedy, trigger something?
And Yamiche, you spoke with the Floyd family – Rodney Floyd, Mr. Floyd’s brother, as well as his cousin, Shareeduh Tate. Let’s listen a little bit.
SHAREEDUH TATE: (From video.) The firing of the officers is a start, but ultimately we would like to see them charged – arrested, charged, and convicted of murder. They had no compassion, any sort of remorse, no level of humanity. They executed him in front of us, and we watched his life leave his body.
MR. COSTA: On Friday, as Yamiche said, the now former officer who used his knee to pin down Mr. Floyd was arrested and charged with third-degree murder. Yamiche, does this family, to Margaret’s point, expect justice?
MS. ALCINDOR: This family that is reeling, of course, from the loss of George Floyd, a 46-year-old father, they are hoping for justice. But they also have seen so many cases in this country where justice, they think, was not served.
You think of Eric Garner, who many people saw be strangled, who said, I can’t breathe, some 11 times. No conviction in that case. Then you see George Floyd. The criminal complaint for the officer says that the officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and that for two minutes and 53 seconds of that he was unresponsive.
I was talking to the lawyer of the family today and they said even with those facts they also look at the fact that the complaint says that not only was his death partially dealing with the asphyxiation, there was also possibly underlying health conditions. So his family and the lawyers are already feeling like his existence as a black man is already being used against him in the criminal complaint where the officer is being charged with his murder.
They also say that the officer is being charged with third-degree murder when they think that this video, the 10-minute video that’s posted on Facebook, shows pretty much first-degree murder. They say they don’t understand also why any other officers weren’t charged. There were four officers that were fired but so far only one officer charged.
So this family is looking at the criminal justice system, which has incarcerated African Americans and Latinos and people of color at higher rates, and saying, is this the justice system that’s going to work for us? We’re not sure. The lawyer tells me that they think there’s two justice systems. There’s one for a black America and one for white America. That’s how the family is feeling tonight.
They are very, very hopeful that this officer might be convicted. But they are not at all thinking that this is a slam dunk because video, they say, has not changed anything. You think of Rodney King and the fact that so many years ago he was seen getting beaten by those officers, and those officers, of course, then acquitted.
So black America, especially this family, they are not convinced that video evidence is going to make a difference.
MR. COSTA: Peter, what’s your response to that point about what’s next on the federal level? You see the attorney general, Bill Barr, moving forward with an investigation. But what have we learned from the past from this administration, from previous administrations, about how civil rights cases are handled at the federal level and what kind of action is really taken?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s a great question, and it kind of depends on where things end up with the local prosecution, of course. The federal government stepped in, historically, in cases where the local authorities have been either unable or unwilling to prosecute cases that seem to be, you know, so in need of prosecution.
In this case, you’ve got the county prosecutor, perhaps belatedly, according to his critics, four days later, but now pressing charges against one of the officers. He was asked why not the other three officers, he said they’re still looking at that and that that may yet come later. So it may be that the federal role is to keep that pressure on the local authorities until they act.
It may be that they decide to take it on themselves beyond that. There is not – there is plenty of precedent for the federal government to come in with civil rights charges on top of local charges of murder. Murder is, generally, in this kind of circumstance, a local crime or state crime, but they can charge under federal civil rights statutes deprivation of your civil rights.
And the question then becomes, you know, broader than these individual officers. Is there a larger question about this police department? Is, you know, is the training there adequate? Is there, you know, a larger pattern of behavior?
That’s when you saw the federal government come in in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, under President Obama where they took a look at the broader pattern of behavior by the police department there.
And that’s what I think a lot of people would expect to see out of a Justice Department that wants to take a serious look at it. We’ll see whether this administration proceeds in that direction.
MR. COSTA: Margaret, I know you’re sitting down on Face the Nation this Sunday with the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department and the Floyd family’s lawyer. I saw you also wanted to jump in, so jump in.
MS. BRENNAN: No, we will be digging into this, and I think it’s actually a big decision because up till now there has been virtually no story that has broken through the pandemic. This has really ignited something within the American public. It has broken through. The violence got a lot of attention.
This was well before the president himself weighed in, and I think that’s why we are going to be trying to ask that broader question of what does this mean in this moment. Does this represent something more? Is this about the Floyd family? Is this, broadly, about race in America or is this also sort of a catalyst for a lot of pent-up anger on a lot different issues? Does this have – is this the beginning of something more?
We want to talk to, as Yamiche detailed there, the family attorney about where we are by Sunday, because this has actually been fairly fast moving in terms of the public statements. And for all the president’s missteps in his phrasing of that tweet and then what he tried to do with explaining that it wasn’t actually what he meant by using those phrases that he wasn’t trying to glorify violence, the administration around him and the Trump campaign were very quick to distance themselves from anything happening in Minneapolis.
The Trump campaign actually, interestingly, even said that how a CNN reporter was treated was wrong and they condemned it. CNN, a network that has been in the Trump administration characterization, unfair and an enemy, well, today the Trump campaign was defending them. It’s a very, very strange – sorry, go ahead.
MR. COSTA: No, please. No, and that CNN reporter was eventually released. Good to hear that news.
MS. BRENNAN: He was, and credit to the photographer for keeping the camera rolling throughout that, and to the reporter himself for keeping his cool. You know, this could have gone very differently in the course of a few hours.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, tonight we also mark these grim milestones: more than a hundred thousand Americans dead due to the coronavirus, over 40 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. As we’re taping this live tonight in Washington, there are protests on Pennsylvania Avenue across Washington, D.C., explosive fires in downtown Atlanta, and you’re inside the White House as a reporter. What is this president going to do on the economic front, on the health front?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, if you look at the challenges facing the country, and then if you look at the president’s Twitter feed, you couldn’t see a more stark contrast between the big grand challenges we’re facing and the small issues that the president is focusing on.
He’s picking fights over the past administration. He’s picking fights with Twitter itself, saying he would like to shut down Twitter if he had the chance. He’s picking fights with cable news hosts and making conspiratorial claims and then charging them with murder when there’s no evidence to back up those types of claims.
So the president has sort of met the moment with sort of the small types of petty fights that he has engaged in over the past three-and-a-half years while the country is going through these massive traumatic issues ranging from a pandemic that has killed so many people, including disproportionately killing and harming people of color, and an economic crisis which is really Depression-level unemployment – 40 million people filing for unemployment benefits, and disproportionately poorer people and people of color have also been negatively impacted by the recession and the Depression-era unemployment that we’ve seen. So it’s not clear what the president’s going to do. It’s not clear if he’s able to meet the moment. It’s not clear if he has a plan to bring the country out of these twin economic and health-care crises. Right now he seems to be focused on much smaller issues.
MR. COSTA: Peter, quickly, based on your reporting, Congress, the president, does this spark anything on racial justice, on a stimulus?
MR. BAKER: You know, look, there will be talk. I don’t know that that necessarily changes the dynamics on that. The stimulus issue is one that’s, obviously, laying pretty low right now. There’s a fourth package that’s been passed by the House, the Democrats on their side. The Republicans have said, no, not interested, it’s filled with all kinds of liberal wish/dream – you know, wish list kind of dreams, we’re not going to embrace that, and there doesn’t seem to be any serious movement toward near-term new legislation. So I think it’s – we’re still several weeks away from anything like that.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, in the final minute here, I followed your work when you were on the ground in Ferguson. To see this again, what does it mean to you?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think for a lot of people, I think black and white Americans and people of color, you know, what it feels like is that you were in a car accident, and you’re looking around and you’ve survived, but there are airbags that have gone off all around you, and you keep on getting into that same accident, and you keep on seeing those same airbags, and you keep on walking on eggshells. I think that’s what this feels like. It feels like everyone’s exhausted. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and now we also have to really reconcile again with the idea that even when someone is killed on camera there are a lot of people who just see that police officers can kind of do what they want to do with black life. I think Margaret said it was – it was poise on Omar’s part to not go off and to be calm.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, we have to go.
MS. ALCINDOR: But in reality – oh, sorry.
MR. COSTA: No, don’t apologize, Yamiche.
MS. ALCINDOR: But in reality (that’s what ?) people think.
MR. COSTA: You’re so right, Yamiche, and I apologize. This is a short show due to pledge week at some stations across the country, so we have to leave it there. Many thanks to Yamiche Alcindor –
MS. ALCINDOR: I understand pledge week. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: You do. Peter Baker, Margaret Brennan –
MS. BRENNAN: Do I need to call them?
MR. COSTA: – and Toluse Olorunnipa. We’re going to continue this in the Extra. There’s so much more to say about this critical topic, so thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can, and we’ll continue that rich conversation on the Extra. It airs live on our Facebook page and is later posted on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.