PETER BAKER: A moment of American accountability.
PHILONISE FLOYD: (From video.) Today we are able to breathe again.
MR. BAKER: The nation reacts to the conviction of Derek Chauvin –
JUDGE PETER CAHILL: (From video.) Find the defendant guilty.
MR. BAKER: – for the murder of George Floyd, but now that the trial is over –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Systemic racism is a stain on our nation’s soul.
MR. BAKER: – what can Washington do to reform policing? And President Biden follows through on his campaign promise to battle climate change.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) No nation can solve this crisis on our own.
MR. BAKER: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MR. BAKER: Good evening. Welcome to Washington Week. I’m Peter Baker.
Guilty on all counts: that was the verdict handed down to former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. There was a sense of relief across the country. In Minneapolis George Floyd’s brother, Philonise, said this.
PHILONISE FLOYD: (From video.) The world’s seeing his life being extinguished, and I could do nothing but watch – especially in that courtroom, over and over and over again as my brother was murdered. Today we are able to breathe again.
MR. BAKER: In Washington, President Biden weighed in.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” – those are George Floyd’s last words. We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.
MR. BAKER: Later in the show, will other countries trust America to take the lead on climate change? But first, is this historic verdict a watershed moment for race, police reform, and bipartisanship on the Hill? Joining me tonight are Josh Lederman, correspondent for NBC News; Toluse Olorunnipa, political investigations reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today and author of Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power; and Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News.
Toluse, you’re reporting from Houston tonight. Thank you for joining us. You’ve been talking to George Floyd’s family and researching his community where he grew up. I was struck that his brother told you I don’t want him to be another person on a T-shirt. What do you think he meant by that and what was this week like for them?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Well, George Floyd was a single human being, he was a single person, but his story, his experience, his death resonated with millions of Americans, and I think members of his family, members of his community realized that this is a person whose death impacted millions of Americans having to watch as his life was sort of slipping away from him in that graphic and viral video last year, and his family wants this to be not just a single moment. They, of course, appreciated the verdict and the fact that a jury of Officer Chauvin’s peers decided to convict him of murder, but they don’t want this to stop here. They realize that there have been other cases just over the course of the trial of other individuals who were killed by police, who were shot by police, and they want that to not be a trend that continues. They want that to end. Especially when it comes to minorities and people of color, they realize that George Floyd was just one of many who have suffered that fate at the hands of police and they’re pushing for changes to the way that we have policing in the country – changes that would restrict qualified immunity and other protections that police have, changes that would make it illegal to engage in chokeholds and other kinds of maneuvers that might suffocate human beings the way George Floyd was suffocated. And you know, the Biden administration and others who have watched this are looking at broader changes so that George Floyd is not on that corner in that same way, all of the things that happened in his life leading up to that from poverty to health issues to addiction. All of those issues are issues that the Biden administration says they want to focus on and that the people that are fighting for justice beyond George Floyd – they do not want him to just be one name, one face on a T-shirt; they want him to be the catalyst for broader and more significant change in race relations in this country.
MR. BAKER: Pierre, it’s notoriously difficult to convict police officers. What was different about this case?
PIERRE THOMAS: At the end of the day, Peter, it was the tape. We all got to see in real time a man basically have the life drained out of him by an officer who was utterly indifferent. I think many people cannot forget the way that Officer Chauvin was so casual as he had his knee on that man’s neck, and I spoke to a number of law enforcement officials throughout this ongoing investigation and the trial and not a single one said it was appropriate in terms of the way that Officer Chauvin dealt with George Floyd. Now, the question was going to be was it a criminal act. We now know it was murder; that’s what the jury found. And law enforcement officials said in many ways they were on trial, too; that law enforcement is a difficult job, police officers often have to make split-second decisions, but in this case Officer Chauvin had ample time – nine minutes and 29 seconds – to do the right thing. He did not.
MR. BAKER: Josh, just as we had this verdict out of Minneapolis, we saw another tragic incident in Columbus and you were there reporting on it. Is this incident with 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant analogous or is it more complicated?
JOSH LEDERMAN: Well, it was a reminder that each one of these incidents is very different, Peter. It was really interesting to see the way this played out because even though Ma’Khia Bryant was killed shortly before the Chauvin verdict, it wasn’t until a few minutes after that verdict was announced that word started to emerge on social media, and you immediately in Columbus saw Twitter light up with comments like here we go again; one step forward, two steps backwards. But then, just a few hours later when the police put out that bodycam video that appeared to show Ma’Khia Bryant with a knife lunging at someone at the moment that she was fatally shot by police officers, things started to look more complicated, and it was a reminder of the fact that these situations are not one size fits all; they are very specific. And that, similar to the gun control discussion, is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to come up with a single policy solution that’s responsive to all of these other incidents. The other remarkable thing about what happened in Columbus was the unprecedented speed with which police rushed to put out this bodycam footage, literally within hours of the shooting, and I think although some of that might have been because police were hoping that would be exculpatory for the officer, it was also a signal that police are very aware right now that when these kinds of incidents happen they’re not going to necessarily have the benefit of the doubt from the public. They’re not going to necessarily have their word taken when they say this police officer was acting in self-defense or in this case acting to save the life of another, and that’s why we’re seeing police departments in some parts of the country try to be more transparent as one effort that they can take to try to rebuild some of the trust that’s been lost.
MR. BAKER: So, Susan, we saw some Democrats come under criticism this week for some of the comments they made related to this. Maxine Waters, the congresswoman from California, said that protesters needed to be more confrontational over racial justice. We saw Nancy Pelosi, the subject of your new book, talk about how we should be thankful to George Floyd for sacrificing his life for justice. What did these episodes tell us about the national conversation about race right now?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, that it’s complicated. It tells us that Nancy Pelosi has never been great at the talking out loud part of politics; she’s a master of the inside game of politics. It also, I think, shows the risk that this becomes yet another cultural wedge issue, and we see some sense of that. We do see some bipartisan talks going on in the Senate about the police reform act that has already passed the House, although it passed the House without a single Republican vote. On the other hand, you see in state legislatures across the country Republicans pursuing laws that are designed to make it – to increase the penalties on those who protest and are found to be participating in an unlawful protest. We’ve had two states, Oklahoma and Iowa, pass laws that are designed to protect motorists who might hit protesters with their cars. So this is an issue that I think – I think the analogy to the gun issue might be one that is important to keep in mind: you have these terrible incidents, they hurt everyone’s consciences, they shock the nation, they bring calls for reforms, and yet it is very difficult to actually get legislation passed.
MR. BAKER: Tonight we also need to talk about Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old armed only with her phone who recorded George Floyd’s death. Those horrific nine minutes and 29 seconds played a critical role in this trial. Toluse, do you think that this prosecution would have played out the same way, or would there have even been a prosecution, had there not been this videotape to look at?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: This trial really revealed to us the importance of video evidence. There was no denying what happened to George Floyd. And if you look at the initial statement that was put out by the Minneapolis Police Department after George Floyd’s death, it was contradicted significantly by the video. They essentially said that he died of a medical incident, no, you know, force was used. They highlighted that no weapons were used but they didn’t, you know, mention that a knee was place on the neck for several minutes. And it was the video evidence that caused there to be this outcry. It was the video released to the public that caused a swift action by the prosecutors to take this case on, to charge this case, to charge Derek Chauvin, not only with manslaughter but with murder.
It’s very rare to see a police officer charged with murder, and I don’t think that if we did not have this videotape by a bystander, by a member of the public, that we would have had that high level of a charge and a conviction, which is even more rare than a charge, on all of those counts. So it’s pretty clear that the role of the public, the role of citizen journalists in some way, citizen activists who see what they see as wrongdoing and can take out their phone and record, has led to a heightened level of accountability for police officers. And that is the future. Any time that there is an arrest that may seem off or seem like it’s not taking place in the right way, you can expect there to be cameras following this as it happens. So I think it’s pretty clear that we have seen a sea change with this conviction, and we can expect police officers to have the expectation that no matter what they’re doing that they are being watched.
MR. BAKER: Let’s turn now to the federal side of this story. Pierre sat down with Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday, his first interview since his Senate confirmation. This is what Garland had to say on race and policing.
MR. THOMAS: (From video.) Do you believe there is still pockets of racism and bias within law enforcement? And how widespread do you think it is?
ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND: (From video.) Well, look, racism is an American problem. We do not yet have equal justice under law. And as I said, I think this is an important part of the role of the Justice Department.
MR. BAKER: What message, Pierre, is the attorney general sending to law enforcement agencies across the country?
MR. THOMAS: He seems to understand that this is a broad issue, that African Americans in particular are very concerned about being treated as a suspect first and a citizen second. We did an investigation last year and found in 800 jurisdictions that African Americans were five times more likely to be arrested than their White counterparts. In 250 of those jurisdictions we found that they were 10 times more likely to be pulled over or arrested. And basically, Peter, at the end of the day what the AG is saying – he’s basically putting law enforcement on notice that he understands that racism is an issue. He understands that police departments have some issues in terms of how they enforce the law. And he’s saying that he’s going to do more pattern and practice investigations – pattern or practice investigations, where they look at whole departments and determine whether there’s bias in the execution of enforcement.
MR. BAKER: Susan, Toluse referred to this a little earlier, but what does – what do we expect from Congress? President Biden has taken some pretty strong words but seems to be leaving it to lawmakers to see if they can negotiate some sort of a bipartisan bill. Senator Tim Scott, the Republican from South Carolina, is taking the lead for the Republican side. Is there some real chance of progress here?
MS. PAGE: I think there is some chance of progress here, some chance of action. Tim Scott has been active on this issue, as you said. He’s got some standing. The Republicans just announced he’s going to be giving the Republican response to President Biden’s big speech, his first speech to a joint session of Congress next week. So it’s possible. But it’s hard. You know, you just have to look at the record on this issue, the big partisan divide.
But is it possible that the Senate could get those 10 additional Republican votes you need to get past a filibuster to get a law enacted that would do things like ban chokeholds, ban no-knock warrants, increase the accountability of police for their actions? It’s possible. On the other hand, you know, the safe bet in Washington for years has been to bet on partisanship and gridlock. And I guess I’m not quite ready to put my money on the idea of bipartisan action on this.
MR. BAKER: Josh, as Susan just referenced a few minutes ago, some of the states are going the other direction. Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would actually crack down on some of these protests, make it easier for the police to arrest and charge protesters that they think got out of line. You were in Columbus. I mean, what would that mean for the protest that you started to see in Ohio?
MR. LEDERMAN: Well, it was interesting, we really saw police back off and try to take a low profile after this shooting in Columbus, and essentially let people air the grievances they might be feeling. The interesting thing about these efforts to pass laws locally around the country is you actually don’t hear police unions or law enforcement agencies calling for that. There are plenty of laws on the books already that if someone is rioting, looting, causing violence police can use those laws to arrest and prosecute them.
And instead, what we seem to be seeing from a lot of these Republican legislatures is the fact that this law and order message has been one that has been very politically potent for them. We saw how Republicans nationally were able to use this message about law and order, as well as trying to play up the defund the police language from Democrats, to win back a number of House seats in the House in this past election. This seems to be a message that speaks very directly to their base. It’s a message that President Trump had made kind of centralized dogma for the Republican Party right now.
And so you see Republican state and local lawmakers wanting to signal to their voters that they are going to act tough on the perception of people acting out, even though we’re not seeing police say that’s something that they need to do their jobs.
MR. BAKER: Let’s turn now to the climate crisis, a crucial foreign policy test for President Biden. The United States hosted a virtual global summit this week, coinciding with Earth Day. Biden laid out an ambitious goal for the United States and urged quick action.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half – in half – by the end of this decade. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of inaction is – keeps mounting. The United States isn’t waiting. We are resolving to take action.
MR. BAKER: But the United States can’t go it alone, and will need to convince other countries, including adversaries like China and Russia, to also tackle climate change.
Josh, you’ve covered the Biden administration and climate policy. Does the United States have enough credibility with the rest of the world after getting into Paris, and out of Paris, and back into Paris to address this global crisis?
MR. LEDERMAN: Well, there’s no doubt that there is a global sigh of relief that the U.S. at least rhetorically is back in the game. Everyone would rather have the U.S. back in the Paris climate agreement with a president who acknowledges that climate change is real, and that serious action needs to be taken. That said, there is a real credibility gap that you’ve put your finger on, Peter. And part of it is the way that countries have seen this policy ping-pong back and forth as the administration has changed hands.
They get our political system as well as we do. They understand that if something is not codified in law that it’s fairly easily done when the White House – undone when the White House changes hands. And so that’s why they’re really looking to see whether the Biden administration is going to be able to back up these pledges that they have made with concrete action, including stuff that can actually pass Congress. That’s still a very steep climb for the Biden administration. And one reason that we’re seeing a lot of foreign diplomats, including adversaries like China, raise a lot of skepticism about how seriously the U.S. is actually taking this.
MR. BAKER: Toluse, you covered the White House when President Trump was in office. What does this summit this week tell us about how Biden is going to interact with the international community? And what difference will it make? And, as Josh says, what’s the reaction from other leaders around the world to his leadership?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, President Biden has a lot of work to do after four years of turbulence under President Trump on this issue and on a number of global issues. There are a number of leaders around the world that are wondering whether or not they can count on the U.S. They have seen our politics and our political leadership change drastically from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. And we saw President Trump pull out of all kinds of deals and agreements that had been signed by previous administrations.
So Biden is trying to convince the world that America is back, that Trump was an aberration, and that, you know, the United States can be counted on. But there’s a lot of skepticism in the global community about whether or not that is the case, and whether or not world leaders in the global community can count on the United States to retain its leadership role and to retain some level of consistency across administrations.
Even as Biden is pressing for very drastic reductions in carbon emissions there’s a lot of skepticism in the global community that the next president may not stand by those commitments and they may not stand the test of time. So Biden has a lot of work to do and he’s facing a skeptical crowd on the global stage. But it is his very important task and very important responsibility to carry out the role that he says he’s going to play, which is being the global leader that brings America back to the world stage. It just remains to be seen whether or not he can be successful in doing that.
MR. BAKER: Susan, it was pretty striking to see China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin there joining President Biden for this summit at the same time we’re having great tensions with them – China pressuring Taiwan, Russia pressuring Ukraine. Now, Putin pulled back some of the troops from the border with Ukraine this week, but how does Biden go ahead and try to strike cooperation on things like climate change at the same time he’s confronting them on other issues?
MS. PAGE: Really, quite the Zoom call. (Laughter.) It was really quite remarkable. We shouldn’t maybe lose sight of that. It was a – the Zoom call was a very visual demonstration of the reality that no nation, not even the United States, can deal with climate change by itself; it’s really got to be global, you can’t leave people out, and that’s why you saw this effort to engage with adversaries like Russia and China. And I think your question – can we cooperate with them on the issue of climate while confronting them on territorial ambitions and on human rights and on interference in our elections, can we do that at the same time – I don’t – I don’t think we know. I think that President Biden would say we don’t have a choice, that it is our only option. And maybe the first test for Biden will come not with the foreign leaders but in passing this big infrastructure bill, which is the first big building block in showing that the United States is prepared to make the kind of investments and commitments that would convince the world that we are in this for the long haul.
MR. BAKER: Pierre, you know, President Trump, of course, thought that climate change was mainly an effort to restrict business and he rolled back a lot of regulations in order to pump the economy. Does the Department of Justice anticipate lawsuits or legal challenges if the Biden administration begins to undo some of these regulatory rollbacks that President Trump put in place?
MR. THOMAS: Peter, another example that elections have consequences. I’m getting the sense from this DOJ that it will be listening to the White House, looking at the issue of climate change, also regulations. I expect the Justice Department will be much more engaged with the EPA looking at how the changes in weather and all these different things impact communities. And one of the things that you’ve heard the Biden administration talk about openly is how climate change and these environmental issues affect different kinds of communities – that people of color, particularly in urban areas, often have some of the worst environmental issues that they face. Everyone remembers the situation in Flint. There’s information about how the pollution affects some of the communities in urban centers as well. So I do expect you will see a much more engaged Justice Department taking action when necessary.
MR. BAKER: Josh, we’ve got about a minute left, so real quickly, this kind of commitment requires policies that ultimately will upend American society in some ways. Who are going to be the biggest winners and who are going to be the biggest losers if we go forward with that?
MR. LEDERMAN: Well, the biggest winners are likely to be people who are deeply involved in the industries that are going to be creating these solutions. So you see the auto industry moving very quickly towards electric vehicles. Utilities are going to be relied on more to produce more power as we electrify parts of these sectors. The losers, you know, obviously, there are going to be jobs that are lost in fossil fuels as we transition away from that, and that’s why you see the Biden administration so focused on what they call a just transition, trying to make sure that we are creating not just opportunities in green jobs but that we are aligning those with the parts of the country where we’re going to lose jobs and with the skillsets and the individuals who need to make sure that they have good-paying, reliable jobs in the future even as we stop using these dirtier fuels that we have to phase out.
MR. BAKER: That sounds rather disconcerting, I think, to many Americans, even as others are cheering on this kind of ambition. Thank you very much, Josh, for helping us out with that, and thank you, everybody else.
Before we go, America lost a political legend this week. Former Vice President Walter Mondale died on Monday. A vocal progressive, he served as a close partner to President Jimmy Carter before running as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984, losing to Ronald Reagan. He really reinvented the job of vice president and made it a partner for the president in a way that every vice president has since then.
Susan, you knew president – you knew Vice President Mondale. His passing is a landmark moment. Give us, real quickly, 15 seconds of what his departure tells us about how Washington has changed.
MS. PAGE: He was a happy warrior, and we could all be well-served, I think, for more happy warriors on Capitol Hill. He was a big liberal, but he was a friend with conservatives as well in working on things, issues he thought were important.
MR. BAKER: We’re going to have to leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Josh, Toluse, Susan, and Pierre for their insights, and thank you for joining us. We’ll be talking with Susan about her new book on our Washington Week Bookshelf. Catch it live at 8:30 on our website, Facebook, and YouTube.
I’m Peter Baker. Good night from Washington.