LISA DESJARDINS: Tragedy and trials test America.
JERRY BLACKWELL: (From video.) Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge.
MS. DESJARDINS: All eyes on Minneapolis as former Officer Derek Chauvin stands trial in the death of George Floyd.
GEORGE FLOYD: (From video.) Oh, please don’t shoot me, please!
ERIC NELSON: (From video.) Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do.
MS. DESJARDINS: Emotional testimony.
CHARLES MCMILLIAN: (From video.) I feel helpless.
DONALD WILLIAMS: (From video.) I believe I witnessed a murder.
MS. DESJARDINS: Questions about who polices the police.
AL SHARPTON: (From video.) The law is for everybody. Policemen are not above the law.
MS. DESJARDINS: And President Biden proposes a $2 trillion jobs plan that is going big and goes beyond traditional infrastructure.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges. It’s a once-in-a-generation investment in America.
MS. DESJARDINS: But can he bridge partisan divides?
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) I’m going to fight him every step of the way.
MS. DESJARDINS: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. DESJARDINS: Welcome to Washington Week. I’m Lisa Desjardins.
We start tonight with tragic news: another attack on the U.S. Capitol, this one by a single suspect in a car; yet again, an officer protecting the Capitol is dead. Billy Evans served on the U.S. Capitol Police force for 18 years. National Guard troops at the Capitol went into immediate response – this, as the barriers put up after January 6th had been coming down.
Joining us tonight are four reporters tracking everything unfolding this week: Wesley Lowery, correspondent for 60 Minutes+; Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Anna Palmer, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter, and cohost of the Daily Punch Podcast; and Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR.
Anna, let’s start with today. This is fresh news. We don’t know much yet about what happened, but what do we know?
ANNA PALMER: What we know is, as you said, an officer, Billy Evans, 18 years on the force, is dead, a man coming into contact with a barricade at the Capitol, and really just devastation right now. I think what you and I are hearing as reporters who are often on Capitol Hill is just another attack on the U.S. Capitol Police, which is devastated right now having very, very low morale. They’ve already lost multiple members of the U.S. Capitol Police force this year alone, and it just felt like the building itself was getting back to normal a little bit after the January 6th insurrection. You know, there had been massive fences and different layers that had really built this fortress around the Capitol that had just started in the last week or so being taken down, you know, the reporters, everybody kind of back in the building, feeling like it was maybe a little bit more business as usual. But clearly, the U.S. Capitol is a target and that’s something that we’re going to have to face, and certainly members of Congress and the defenses of this Capitol are going to be – going to have to be fortified at this point.
MS. DESJARDINS: Jonathan Martin, you and I know that building so well; all of us do. You know, we were able to start parking up there again. I want to ask you, what does your reporting tell you and what does your gut tell you about whether this incident will change anything, either security or maybe even mindset, for all those politicians at the Capitol?
JONATHAN MARTIN: I think you touched on both elements, Lisa. There is a sense that our government is under siege, our democracy is under siege, both physically in terms of the security of the Capitol building itself – the seat of American democracy – but also something deeper and more profound, that there’s almost a fraying of American democracy. Polarization ever since last year’s election and then, obviously, in the aftermath has really frayed and almost put American democracy on the brink, and you see a sort of widening gap between the two parties, and Lisa, there’s almost a mistrust that borders on suspicion and almost contempt now between members of Congress of different parties. So this is a difficult moment not only in Washington; I think this is a difficult moment in American life on a lot of levels.
MS. DESJARDINS: Wes, to you, on the police – I know you’ve covered policing for many years. First of all, what do you think tonight means for police in America and Capitol Police, and what about this fraying of America?
WESLEY LOWERY: Well, my fellow panelists made great points. As Anna said, this is, again, devastating for the Capitol Police, who have been through a ton as a police force so far this year. You have to remember not just the officers who lost their life during the insurrection, but the many who were injured, some still recovering, and then the mental and emotional health, psychological health trauma that comes from the Capitol building coming under siege this way, and here now we have another incidence of the Capitol coming under attack. I will note that the police response today was much more standard and was what it often would look like. It’s not that the Capitol at times has not had other people break barriers, has not had other potential attacks, but they’re typically on a much smaller scale like this and the response typically looks much more like this than it did necessarily on January 6th, where you saw the building overrun, police outnumbered, and less kind of obvious protocol of what to do. And so certainly the Capitol Police today are frustrated, are concerned, are mourning the loss of one of their officers and the injury of others, but this, you know, again, speaks to, as J-Mart was noting, the precarity of our nation, of our politics. And that this isn’t a big game. When people actually see each other as enemies, when the infighting and intensity becomes so serious, when the stakes are pushed so high where you have political actors of all types of different ideological stripes arguing that democracy itself, that legitimacy of the country itself is at stake with every single vote, or every single culture war, you end up with people who take those things seriously and then begin taking things into their own hands.
MS. DESJARDINS: Ayesha, this idea of America attacking itself has landed in President Biden’s lap. Also, he’s a Capitol Hill guy, right? Like that’s really sort of, like, his heart for Washington. How is the president responding to this?
AYESHA RASCOE: Well, you know, he obviously sent out his condolences to the families that lost – of the police officer who died. But this is, once again – it almost had already become a culture war, this idea of whether to keep up the fence at the – you know, around Congress. It had already become very political. You had people on the right saying, oh now everything is a fortress. Why do we have all these gates up? Why do we have a fence up? We should have a fence at the border, that’s where it should be, not around the – you’re already hearing that sort of talk.
I would think that maybe this will bring a seriousness back to these discussions about security because, you know, January 6th, yes, that’s over. But the threats still remain. And that there does need to be a real serious conversation about how do you fortify the people’s house? How do you make sure that people are able to get in and see Congress at work, but also remain safe? And I think that’s real question going forward.
MS. DESJARDINS: You know, I don’t know if you all can believe this number I’m about to give you, but this is actually week 11 for President Joe Biden, despite everything that we’ve already been through. He turned this week to what he says will be a generation-changing plan, part one of an infrastructure and jobs proposal on Wednesday. The president unveiled a massive $2 trillion plan that he says would jumpstart a transition away from fossil fuels and reshape the economy. Here’s what Biden said about it.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) It’s big, yes; it’s bold, yes; and we can get it done. In 50 years, people are going to look back and say this was the moment that America won the future.
MS. DESJARDINS: To pay for this enormous undertaking the administration wants to raise the corporate tax rate. Republicans say this is not about infrastructure but about big government. Jonathan Martin, this is not a traditional infrastructure bill. In this bill are things like caregiving, individual housing. Is this really infrastructure at all? I mean, what is this? What is this?
MR. MARTIN: I think this is Joe Biden seeing he’s potentially going to have two bites at the apple legislatively this year, and this is number two. It could be the second and last bite, Lisa, so he wants to get a lot in there beyond just fixing some roads and bridges. Look, I think Biden realized pretty quickly that if he was going to negotiate extensively with Republicans and try to craft bipartisan bills, it was going to slow down and sort of lessen the scope of what he wanted to do. And he made a choice that he was going to largely go it alone on the stimulus and now this infrastructure-plus bill, we can call it.
And by doing that he obviously could spend a lot more money and he can sort of I think create potentially a bigger legacy. The politics, I think, of it are to be determined, obviously. But in doing so, you know, he’s not going to get much support across the aisle. He’s going to have to use that special procedural motion called reconciliation so that he can pass these measures with a bare Senate majority. But look, I think Biden wants to go big. He’s playing for history. He sees an opportunity in his first year when he has the most capital to do some sort of legacy-defining things and really change the country at a structural level. And I think he’s choosing that over bipartisanship and a slower, more modest agenda.
MS. DESJARDINS: Ayesha, what about this idea that Jonathan Martin raises, that the president essentially is saying, take it or leave it, to Republicans? This is guy who campaigned on unifying, I can negotiate. But Republicans say, we’re just getting barely token briefings, this is partisanship. Has the president just decided essentially: I’m going to go for what I want and I’m not going to worry about bipartisanship?
MS. RASCOE: Well, what they’re doing is they’re trying to redefine bipartisanship. So they’re saying that – the White House is arguing that this is bipartisan, that this is popular in the country, that even this – you know, that these sorts of bills will be popular with Republicans in the country. So their argument is that they are being bipartisan by going and unifying with popular policies out in the country, even if people in Congress don’t agree with that.
You know, and I think that part of this – a lot of this seems to be taken from the idea of, you know, they’re not going to be the Obama administration 2.0. That they have – that they are learning the lessons of the Obama administration, which they seem to have taken that there was too much outreach to Republicans that went nowhere, and that they got nothing for it. So if you’re going to go big, go big because they’re going to criticize you either way. And that seems to be what they’ve taken from that. Now, they’re going to have to deal with, you know, the more moderates in the Senate to see if they can get this sort of thing done.
MS. DESJARDINS: Right. Anna, and then to you, Wesley. I want to ask you both the same question here: How much are the politics of 2022 involved here, the idea that Democrats may not keep the majority that they have in just two years? Anna then Wes.
MS. PALMER: I think that that’s supremely at play, particularly when you look at the House. If past is precedent Democrats will lose the House. So that means that Joe Biden has a very short window with an all-Democratic Washington. You have a speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who’s probably in her swan song of her congressional career, one of the most successful legislators of our entire generation, and I think Joe Biden is putting this on Nancy Pelosi to say, if you can get it – if anybody can get it done, she can get it done. And when there’s more grab-bag things, the more different things for each of these different Democratic factions to like, there’s more ways for them to get votes, which is what they’re going to need.
MS. DESJARDINS: Wes.
MR. LOWERY: Of course, no, I would co-sign that completely and I would add, you know, we talk a lot about Biden and legacy, and that legacy’s not just long term. It’s also short term, right, that you do have midterms coming up. And what’s going to be one of the strongest arguments to elect Democrats again? Well, that money we put back in your pocket for stimulus, the fact that the bridge near your house has been rebuilt. And so when you look at the things that Joe Biden has prioritized, these are things that do poll very well with moderates and with conservatives, even if those – even if their representatives in the House and the Senate do not support them.
And the types of things that they may be able to reach back out to voters again, both in the midterm elections and then – don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but in a presidential election again in 2024 – to be able to say: Hey, look, even despite the opposition we had we still did things for you. And I think that that’s going to be important because politics, electoral politics, very often is about not just what you do but if you can sell it and if voters actually give you credit for it. So when we look time and time again Biden’s hoping that he can finish out his first six months being able to say: We passed a massive stimulus and a COVID relief bill, and we passed what most people agree is a long-overdue transportation package.
This is something that the last administration talked about for all four years. This was something that the Obama administration attempted to do to some extent. And so, again, I think Joe Biden’s really doubling and tripling down on things that are popular with Americans, with the hope that his administration then gets credit for it, and that might help him stem the tide of history, which tell us Republicans should be picking up seats in the coming elections.
MS. DESJARDINS: You know, it strikes me we used to have infrastructure week. Now it seems like we’re going to have infrastructure year, or maybe infrastructure two years. Also, this week there was a courtroom full of COVID-safe plexiglass which became the latest lens for us in America to view ourselves. Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin is charged with second degree murder in the death of George Floyd. A jury heard testimony, and America heard the pain of those who watched Floyd go unconscious under a police knee.
JERRY BLACKWELL: (From video.) Did you make a 9-1-1 call?
DONALD WILLIAMS: (From video.) That is correct. I did call the police on the police.
ERIC NELSON: (From video.) Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline throwing – flowing through his body.
ERIN ELDRIDGE: (From video.) Why did you feel the need to talk to Mr. Chauvin?
CHARLES MCMILLAN: (From video.) Because what I watched was wrong.
MS. DESJARDINS: Floyd’s death raises questions about police, about systemic racism, and about what leaders in Washington should or will do to address it.
Wes, I want to start with you. You’ve spent years covering police, as I said, but also race, and the Floyd family itself. I know you’re part of a podcast, “Run Tell This.” We’ve talked a lot about what watching this is like. What has watching this been like for you, as a Black man, as a journalist? And what do you think that this has told us about where the country is right now?
MR. LOWERY: Sure. You know, I think we have to start by remembering how relatively rare the events that we are seeing currently are. That it is extremely rare for an on-duty police officer to face criminal charges after a death committed at their hands. It’s even more rare for that case to then go to trial and not be pled out, and so this is kind of a remarkable moment. We also know that this video was a real galvanizing moment for the country last summer, and this has been a remarkably emotional and difficult trial. We’ve seen person after person take the stand, and currently hearing the prosecutor’s case. The defense will have their opportunity as well. But it’s been this remarkable emotional series of testimony from people who believe they watched someone be murdered and who had no power to stop it. We hear from almost every person who’s testified so far, from the – from the paramedics to the people who are on the street showing up, who – everyone around who was watching what was happening was saying this is wrong, this needs to stop. Now, what actually happens in this case is going to be fascinating. It’s going to be at test of our legal system. What we know is that historically juries are very hesitant to convict police officers even in cases when you – when there’s video evidence such as this. I mean, I don’t know how many folks have recently re-watched the Rodney King beating, but that video’s pretty rough and each of those officers walked.
And so it’s going to be very interesting to see what a jury is willing to do in this case, and it also raises when we get to Washington interesting questions as well. You know, there’s been a lot of discussion – the House passed the George Floyd Act, for example. Nothing in that legislation would have actually stopped what happened to George Floyd. Policing remains a very difficult and complicated issue. It’s something that’s a local government issue. There are 18,000 police departments. And so I think there still is a big push and a pull between how much power the federal government wants to take to weigh in on this and also still a big wedge issue as it relates to our politics, that not everyone thinks that there should be such scrutiny of police officers, and this remains a very sensitive issue for a lot of elected officials back home in their districts.
MS. DESJARDINS: Anna, what do we know about the state of affairs at the Capitol? I know that most members of Congress actually do want to do something on this; however, big difference over, for example, should police be held liable in civil court over this. Where do negotiations between, say, Tim Scott on the Republican side and the Congressional Black Caucus stand? What are the chances for action in Congress?
MS. PALMER: Yeah, it’s tough, like most things in Congress right now when you look at the Democratic majority being 50-50 with plus one with the vice president’s vote. So the House passed a bill on policing that would do a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about here tonight that a lot of people feel are necessary, that it’s long past time to actually get done, but in the Senate that has stalled. They need to find 10 Republicans who are going to support that bill. I think that’s a very steep hurdle. You do have Senator Tim Scott, who has his own legislation, has been behind the scenes talking with members of the CBC, so we’ll have to see exactly if there can be any negotiation where there’s maybe some kind of a compromise. At this point it is postponed. There hasn’t been any true movement and a sign that, yes, this is going to move forward.
MS. DESJARDINS: Ayesha, President Biden pledged to have the backs of Black Americans and he has credited them with his election. What exactly has he done so far, especially on policing reform and justice?
MS. RASCOE: Well, he hasn’t done much on policing. He had promised during the campaign to set up a commission on policing. There was a similar commission during the Obama administration, so already some on the left, some activists, are concerned that a commission will be kicking it down the road. He has come out in favor of the George Floyd bill that passed the House and says, you know, he wants Congress to pass that. But a lot of the things, you know, as far as militarization of the police, there was supposed to be an executive order on that; that hasn’t come through yet. He has done some things on the backend when it comes to private prisons, but that’s also something that’s not immediate because contracts are ongoing and it doesn’t affect that, it affects future contracts. And so that’s what he’s done so far, which is not a lot. A lot of his focus right now has been on infrastructure and these other issues, kind of bread-and-butter issues, not necessarily criminal justice reform. What he has done is he has appointed a lot of people at the Justice Department who are known to be very active in these areas, and there’s a thought that they would be able to maybe make some movement on the Justice Department’s role. But was Wes said, this is really a local issue, so it’s hard for the federal government when it comes to policing.
MS. DESJARDINS: Jonathan Martin, we also at the same time have an uproar in this country, divide over election law, and even today we saw Major League Baseball pull the all-star game out of Georgia because – out of protest for the voting rights law that, you know, activists say that’s voter suppression against people of color, but Republicans are furious. They say it’s an overreaction. They’re railing against corporate America. My question to you: Is this a temporary moment, or is this the new culture war?
MR. MARTIN: No, I think this is here to stay, and I think that President Trump may have left all of us but I think Trumpism remains alive and well in American politics. These deep cultural divides, questions of which side are you on have not abated, and I think that that is going to be the way of the future.
I would just say, Lisa, you alluded to this on Biden, as did Ayesha: He is determined to stay on task. He wanted to focus on COVID relief and the big stimulus package out of the gates, and now by gosh he wants to turn to this big push on infrastructure, and whether it’s voting rights or immigration or gun control or policing, you know, other issues that obviously the sort of, you know, activist wing of the Democratic Party is really eager to make progress on, you know, he does not have the same level of urgency because of his own approach.
And I would just say, finally, on the policing issue, keep an eye on the crime rates because, you know, murder in this country, violent crime surging at this point could reshape this conversation going forward.
MS. DESJARDINS: Anna, briefly, what do you make of Biden’s relationship with people who are not White or Black? We’ve seen his numbers going down with Hispanics, and obviously Asian Americans have protested what they see as a real lack of representation on his Cabinet. Does Biden have a political problem there with other people of color?
MS. PALMER: I mean, I think when you look at Hispanic and Latinos, certainly there is concern among Democrats going into the midterms and even to the next presidential cycle because he did so poorly with them as voters. And when you look at some of their key issues, clearly immigration reform going to be one of the biggest issues that they are looking for some resolution, and not only just in terms of DREAMers but what’s happening at the border right now, and Republicans are really using that as a culture war, and I don’t think they’re going to stop that. And right now the Biden administration does not have a good answer for how to stem this flow of mass immigration into this country and the children separated from their families. This is going to be something that the administration’s going to have to deal with.
MS. DESJARDINS: Wes, I’m sorry we have just a minute left, but I want to end this where we began, with this trial in Minneapolis. What’s at stake with this verdict here, in about a minute?
MR. LOWERY: Well, you know, again, the verdict could go either way. We’ve seen a very strong prosecution case, a very compelling, emotionally – prosecution case, but the defense is still going to have it say, and there are big hurdles. And this is going to be another moment, another question – I think a lot of people out there were upset by the video that they saw, and I think there is a risk of investing a lot in which way this verdict goes, one way or the other, and it really could go either way, and I think we’re going to be back at this moment again.
MS. DESJARDINS: I think that’s true. I think we’ll probably have all of you back on to talk about it. That’s it for tonight. It’s a solemn Good Friday where flags in Washington are at half-staff. Many of us are heartbroken and counting our blessings. Many thanks to all of you – Wesley, Jonathan, Anna, and Ayesha – for your insights, and thank you, all of our viewers, for joining us. We’ll continue the conversation on our Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on our website, on Facebook, and on YouTube.
I’m Lisa Desjardins from Washington. Take care of yourselves. Good night.