ROBERT COSTA: Can Washington heal the nation’s racial wounds?
REPRESENTATIVE AL GREEN (D-TX): (From video.) We have got to have reconciliation. This country has not reconciled its differences with us.
MR. COSTA: The uproar over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody sparks new debate in Washington over the nation’s Confederate past and the future of policing.
SENATOR TIM SCOTT (R-SC): (From video.) There’s common ground between the House bill, our bill, and the White House bill.
MR. COSTA: Just months before the election, President Trump says it’s all about law and order.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We have to go the opposite way. We have to take care of our police. They’re protecting us, and if they’re allowed to do their job they’ll do a great job.
MR. COSTA: But there are new tensions between the president and military leaders, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Tonight, demonstrations against police brutality, they continue outside the White House’s gates and across the nation, but it’s down the street at the Capitol where the debate is heating up. Will this powerful movement translate into political motion and new federal policy? For now, House Democrats are focused on their latest bill, which includes a federal ban on chokeholds, a national registry for police misconduct, and pulls back some of the protections that shield officers from prosecution. Republicans, led by South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, are talking through their own ideas about a new national database and training programs. President Trump, however, is not signing off on any proposal, and his decision to hold a campaign rally next Friday – June 19th – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has riled his critics, who have called it alarming and a racially incendiary move. That day, known as Juneteenth, marks the end of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Tulsa is where one of the worst racist massacres in American history took place. The president is also rejecting the push to rename military bases that honor Confederate men who fought to preserve slavery and uphold white supremacy. Yet, on Friday Mr. Trump insisted his presidency has been beneficial for black Americans.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think I’ve done more for the black community than any other president, and let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln because he did good, although it’s always questionable. You know, in other words, the end result –
REPORTER: (From video.) Well, we are free, Mr. President. He did pretty well. (Laughs.)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) But we are free, you understand what I mean.
REPORTER: (From video.) Yeah, I know. I get it.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) So I’m going to take a pass on Abe.
MR. COSTA: Joining me to discuss these issues are four first-rate reporters: Wesley Lowery, correspondent for 60 in 6, a new venture by the 60 Minutes team on the mobile app Quibi; Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News; Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook.
Wes, you join us tonight from Minnesota, and you have won a Pulitzer Prize for your reporting on race and police violence. Let’s begin with your story this week in The Atlantic. You wrote, quote, “What if the activists are right and the solution is to dismantle American criminal justice and build something better? What might that look like?” Wes, take me inside your reporting. What are the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement seeking?
WESLEY LOWERY: Sure. Thanks for having me, Bob. I really appreciate it.
You know, it’s really interesting, right, because here we are again. We’ve seen this every few months for the last few years – another viral video, another case that shocks the country in one way or the other. Unlike some of the past cases, there seems to be much less gray area in terms of the public perception of what happened in the George Floyd video in Minneapolis. And I think one of the reasons we have seen such big and broad response not just in Minneapolis but across the country is because a lot of people are just kind of tired of this. They’re tired of seeing the next video. They’re tired of dealing with this again. The activists in the streets, the demonstrators, the leaders, and the organizers, have always argued that there are big structural/systemic problems, right; that this isn’t an issue of needing body cameras or this isn’t an issue of new training, but what they have always argued is that the whole system is broken and we have to hit a reset on it, right? One of the reasons we are seeing such response in this moment is that the American public is starting to believe that as well – that with each of these videos the polling shows an additional chunk of the electorate begins to say perhaps this is not just individual bad actors or bad officers or bad incidents, but rather maybe there is something that’s more structural. And so we are seeing, again, at least the polling suggest a significant shift in where the American people are on these issues, and it’s coming much more in line with where the activists have always been.
MR. COSTA: To talk about that systemic change, Wes, when we hear the phrase “defund the police,” what is the context of what that phrase is actually calling for?
MR. LOWERY: Of course, one thing that’s true – and this is true of any activist movement or any kind of grassroots folks – is there are certain terms that are used in the space that then sound kind of crazy to everyone else, right, and they forget how to explain them sometimes because they’re so used to using them. My understanding from my reporting about defunding the police broadly means looking at your local police budget, right? In most cities, in most municipalities, the vast majority of taxpayer money is going to policing, and the police are asked – and the police will tell you this – they’re asked to solve most of our problems, right? We know that we have a mental health system in many places that is underfunded or a health-care system that is underfunded or homelessness systems that are underfunded. So instead of, say, having an extra homeless shelter, we call the police on the homeless person who’s outside. Instead of having mental health services, we call the police on the person who’s acting erratic. And so defund the police suggests can you take money that’s being earmarked for law enforcement and instead earmark it for the types of services that might prevent these interactions; so instead of increasing the police budget by $4 million next year, perhaps increasing the mental health budget for $4 million and – with the hope that that avoids these interactions that then go sideways. That’s the core of the argument around defunding the police.
MR. COSTA: And Andrea, you’ve been diving into these issues that Wes is bringing up in his reporting this week. You spoke with the former police chief of Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded its city police force and went to a county system. You also spoke with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Let’s hear that.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): (From video.) We are a nation that has criminalized poverty. There’s a lot of things that we have to as a society make a commitment that people who are vulnerable – that we are going to do things to invest in community dignity, community strength, as opposed to trying to treat this with policing and jails, which is so much more expensive and actually worsens the problems that we claim we’re trying to solve.
MR. COSTA: Andrea, when you talk to these police leaders, when you talk to these lawmakers, are you seeing an actual reckoning, a moment of possible change, or is this like the gun control debate where there’s a lot of talk but ultimately not a lot of bipartisan action?
ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, I think right now there’s not a lot of bipartisan action. You’re seeing Tim Scott, Senator Tim Scott, the only African American Republican senator, leading the charge with Senator Lankford and a few others on the Senate side, but they’re talking basically about establishing a database, doing a study. They’re not talking about banning chokeholds and doing the kinds of things that the activists and that the House Democrats have proposed, and that legislation is going to pass. We heard today just now from a number of the House Democrats that they actually – they have the votes; that is going to pass. You even heard something rather ambiguous from the president just late tonight that he might be in favor of banning chokeholds, but then he said, well, maybe not, so it’s unclear what he would actually support. But certainly, he’s not going to support the other aspects of what the Republicans are at least looking at. I think something will happen because I think, as Wes has pointed out, this is different. And he’s on the ground there, but we’ve watched the protests around the country and indeed around the world; there is a different note and a different tone to all of this. It is much more diverse in the protests, much more widespread. Still, for something to get through that will actually be signed, not vetoed by the president, is a very tall order on something which the president sees as a very successful hot-button culture-war issue, law and order, for his campaign. And that’s what he’s focusing on, and that’s why both he and Joe Biden – the Democrats agree that defunding police is a very bad bumper sticker. It’s a bad slogan or them. They want to explain, as Wesley has, that this is reallocating priorities, as Senator Booker said, and spending more on trying to avoid the violence and the conflict that is often engaged in when the police take on a social issue, and go to a home, and try to arrest someone on the street who is having a drug problem or a mental health issue.
MR. COSTA: Jake, let’s continue this thread a little bit. You’ve been on Capitol Hill. I saw you this week talking to chief of staff from the White House Mark Meadows and Jared Kushner. They were talking to lawmakers. How does this actually play out? Is there a consensus, as Andrea said, on banning chokeholds? Is that as far as they’re willing to go? What do you hear behind the scenes?
JAKE SHERMAN: So I agree with everything that everybody’s said here. I agree with Wes and Andrea that the issue has moved so much faster than we’ve ever seen any issue – political issue on Capitol Hill turn. A couple notable things that I noticed this week. Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, who’s very close with the president of the United States, and with Mark Meadows, the current chief of staff, he said he’s open to banning chokeholds and he’s in favor of it. That is new. That’s something we haven’t seen before. That’s an element we didn’t expect. Rand Paul, who’s oftentimes kind of his own island, but this is an interesting thing to note also, he’s in favor of getting rid of no-knock warrants. That’s important. That’s a central tenet of the Democrats’ bill.
Put those two things together and combine them with the fact that Republicans at this point are not dumping all over the Democrats’ bill. Kevin McCarthy, I asked him on Thursday several times, what are you opposed to in the Democrats’ bill? And he said he’s not going to talk about that. He wants to talk to them. He doesn’t have anything that jumps out at him as being a particularly bad policy. That’s all notable. I think obviously they’re trying to give a president who shifts a lot some leeway to make up his own mind. Jared Kushner is involved. And again, he doesn’t have law enforcement background, that I know of. I might have been missing part of that biography. But he doesn’t have any law enforcement background.
There’s a lot of moving pieces. But I just do think that in the next four to six weeks we will see some action. Now, one interesting question I have is: Will Democrats settle for something a bit more modest than they have right now? There are reasons to and reasons not to. I just don’t know because the House has not been in town. They’re going to come back next week, I believe, and they’re going to – there’s going to be a lot of discussion about that.
MR. COSTA: Ashley, this brings up the question of President Trump and how he’s going to use his political capital. Why is he going to Tulsa, Oklahoma on Juneteenth? And is the White House aware of the controversy that has caused, and the real alarm that it’s caused among some Republicans even about what it’s saying to the country about that sensitive day?
MS. PARKER: Well, the White House is certainly aware of the controversy and the history now. My reporting is that when the campaign chose this date it was unintentional. They were not aware of the history of either Juneteenth or the racist massacre in Tulsa. And then once they found out, they decided to move ahead.
I was told the president in particular was not concerned about any of the safety implications – be it those of coronavirus, where it’s worth noting that there’s a waiver that people who attend the rally basically have to click and sign that says if they do get coronavirus they will not hold the campaign or the president responsible, or about the safety implications of going into this city on this date, in this moment, in the nation with such racial unrest and protests, and what that might mean for the city, and protesters clashing with Trump supporters, clashing with the police. He just decided to forge ahead.
MR. COSTA: Wes, can you jump in here a little bit about the significance of Juneteenth and the president’s visit? The White House says, based on Ashley’s reporting, they’re kind of unaware of the significance. So what is the significance, Wes?
MR. LOWERY: Sure. And, frankly, that’s a pretty remarkable true thing, right? You know, clearly really good reporting from Ashley and others there. It is pretty remarkable that the White House and the president of the United States might not be aware of the significance of Juneteenth – you know, when you have the emancipation order that frees the slaves. This is something that’s large regarded as, you know, an unofficial official black holiday. It’s something that’s very important. It’s the type of thing that perhaps, you know, a former President Obama might have put a statement out on to acknowledge. And so it is very interesting.
You know, going back in time for one second to one thing you were talking about, I was thinking this as Jake was talking about his excellent reporting from the Hill. And your note earlier about how is this like the gun control debate? One thing that’s really interesting – purely from a policy standpoint not from a politics standpoint – one thing that’s really interesting here is that even the Democrats’ bill, even if they get everything, it is very similar to some of the things that get proposed after gun control where in fact passing this legislation into law tomorrow is in fact still unlikely to prevent us from seeing another one of these videos next week.
It's the type of thing that – and that’s not to say – I’m not weighing in one way or the other on whether or not they should do the things in the bill or should not. But it’s the type of thing where, you know, having background checks objectively would not stop some of these mass shootings, right? A federal ban on chokeholds would not have, in fact, kept George Floyd alive, right? And so it’s one of those cases where there’s some – you know, everyone wants to do something, and also – you know?
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with that. That’s an important point from Wes.
Andrea, if – what else is needed to address systemic racism? If having body cameras on police officers captures racism in action, how do you actually prevent racism from being a trait that you see in police forces across the country? Does anyone in Washington have an answer to that question?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, I think the answers that are proposed include recruitment and training, and also penalties and enforcement, where the police chiefs, the leadership have to be willing to punish people. Also, to not indemnify them and to – one proposal is to have insurance companies – to use the economic incentives, to have insurance companies insure these locations when they are found to violate people’s rights. So that it’s not being paid – if there are payments being made to families of victims they’re not coming out of tax dollars, they’re coming out of insurance companies. Premiums will be raised on the cities. And people, elected officials, will begin to pay attention. That’s one of the innovative approaches.
You’re not going to eliminate systemic racism, but you can change training and you can change recruitment, and bring into the police departments the kind of people who care about not reaching for a weapon or a knee or some other way of, you know, murdering a victim in eight minutes and forty-six seconds. That’s the horror of what happened here.
MR. COSTA: And as all this is happening on Capitol Hill, and it’s fascinating to watch an actual negotiation, debate start to begin, as incremental as it is, there are also other dynamics. So let’s dig a little deeper into those inside this administration, because there are growing tensions between the president and military leaders. NBC News reported this week that General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, considered resigning for being part of President Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square earlier this month. And this week, days ahead of the president’s commencement address on Saturday at West Point, General Milley apologized for his role in the episode.
GENERAL MARK MILLEY: (From video.) As many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week. That sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned, uniformed officer it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.
MR. COSTA: But those tensions with President Trump extend to the Republican Party. There is growing unease, which I documented this week in The Washington Post with Phil Rucker, conversations at the highest ranks of the party have reached what one veteran operative called the acceptance phase of grieving. And after weathering more than three-and-a-half years of political storms, they see no advantage in breaking with the president now. Ashley, what does your reporting tell you about how the president is responding to General Milley?
MS. PARKER: Well, I think you have to sort of – to look at it a bit more broadly. First, there is a lot of consternation in the White House about the military so publicly breaking with the president. Not just General Milley but Defense Secretary Esper, who also said something similar. He first tried to claim that he didn’t know where he was walking that day. He thought he was just checking out a port-a-potty – some damage to a port-a-potty in Lafayette Square and reviewing the troops. And then he did say he did know he was going to the church, but he didn’t realize he would be making a cameo in the president’s photo op. And they were both furious. And there is a lot of consternation there.
But I think the broader thing is you have to go back to that Monday night in Lafayette Square, where the president – he felt like he was being called weak and portrayed as hunkering down in his bunker. He wanted to show that he could regain control of the streets in the nation’s capital, and he wanted to create an iconic moment, and he ended up doing – he created a moment, but it wasn’t quite as he intended. And people so rarely break with this administration publicly. We all get people who are willing to criticize the president even from right in that West Wing sanctum privately and, you know, on background, but to have the military so publicly breaking for him was one ramification he was unprepared for. There was also the backlash – not purely, but some backlash from the religious community, who said that it was blasphemous for the president to go and hold up a Bible in what seemed to be a photo op. And the president, those images which he thought would make him seem so tough and so strong and so domineering, that split screen of the largely peaceful protests getting teargassed or facing a chemical irritant shortly before his photo op, that just served to, again, harden public opposition to what he was doing and sort of move support away from his law-and-order push and to the protesters, so in many ways he’s still reeling from the aftermath of that one night that went down in basically under an hour.
MR. COSTA: Jake, where do Republicans go from here? You’ve been talking to them all week.
MR. SHERMAN: Well, I mean, as we’ve seen I think in various days and by various networks, Republicans have just basically decided, as we put it in Playbook, almost to just pat him on the head – President Trump, that is – and move on with their day. They’re no longer really twisting themselves in pretzels to defend him; they’re kind of just saying we didn’t see that, we don’t have the information, we don’t know what the tweet was, we don’t know what he did here. And it’s been remarkable to see because it’s just we’re getting to a point where every single day is a new one of these kinds of blowups, whether it’s Milley or some other related incident or some tweet about Antifa – a(n) alleged Antifa foot soldier who’s really a 75-year-old man from Buffalo. It’s just been remarkable to kind of watch the Senate Republicans, fighting for their majority, fighting for their – control of their slice of Washington, to just say thank you but no thank you, we’re going to keep moving on and go into this lunch that we really don’t have to be at right now, but we’re going to do it to just avoid this question. So that’s really the driving dynamic among Republicans.
MR. COSTA: Andrea, can you offer some thoughts on General Milley’s statement? What a remarkable moment to see the top military official in the nation apologize for appearing with the president at a photo op.
MS. MITCHELL: Apparently, according to our reporting, he stayed up late that night on Monday night, he watched the criticism on social media. He was really mortified by it. It did violate the principles of the military staying out of politics – less so for Esper, who’s a political appointee, although he was also a West Point graduate. Milley is a highly respected Joint Chiefs chair, but fairly new; he came in last fall to replace General Dunford, who was really a real soldier’s soldier. But Milley has great reputation, and in talking to Barry McCaffrey and interviewing him about this today, he thought that this was a really remarkable statement for him to make and it did show an independence from this president that is remarkable, as Ashley knows very well, that people do not stand up to him. So there was considerable anger against him from the president for taking that statement, and the president made it very clear today that he did not – in an interview – that he did not think that that photo opportunity in front of the church was bad, as Milley had said, so he did not agree with him, but he did not strike out on Twitter against him. I think the indication was that he could not fire a defense secretary, which he had suggested doing – Secretary Esper – after he stepped back from the president on this, and certainly could not do something against such a highly respected military officer. But this was – this was a real moment because it’s not just Milley and others; there was a long list of others, including Jim Mattis who had not spoken out against this president even though resigning and everyone knew about the differences. But there were so many others who spoke out, Admiral Mullen and others – including.
MR. COSTA: Wes, just some final thoughts here in the final minute. I know you wanted to jump in.
MR. LOWERY: Sure, of course. You know, one thing I just wanted to add from the politics, right, as someone who’s listening to the great reporting from this panel – they’re all more talented political reporters than I’ll ever be – one thing I’m really fascinated in is Tim Scott in this moment, the role he has to play and the role he does play in the Republican Party, being placed in this position, the way he’s tried to handle these issues previously. One of the first stories I ever did for The Washington Post was right after he arrived and he was doing a series of speeches at Howard. He’s talked about how entering the Capitol Building he’s been questioned before about whether he belongs there. We remember after Charlottesville he confronted President Trump. It’s unquestionably probably a lonely position for him; he is the only black senator in the GOP. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens and the role he plays moving forward.
MR. COSTA: Thank you very much to our reporters tonight – I really appreciate it – Wesley Lowery, Andrea Mitchell, Ashley Parker, and Jake Sherman. And thank you all for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can, and our conversation will continue on the Extra. We will discuss the voting fiasco in Georgia this week and the latest on the 2020 campaign. Find it on our social media and website.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.