GWEN IFILL: As protesters take to the streets, Washington wrestles with race and justice, the Pentagon gets a new chief, and Congress plots a way forward, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PROTESTERS: (From videotape.) No justice, no peace. Hands up. Don’t shoot.
PROTESTERS: (From videotape.) I can’t breathe.
MS. IFILL: Protests that exploded from coast to coast reach Washington.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Too many Americans feel deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: (From videotape.) The United States Department of Justice is currently conducting an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious federal civil rights investigation into each of these instances.
MS. IFILL: What do the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others tell us about criminal justice in America? At the Pentagon, the president picks a new top gun to deal with global threats.
ASHTON CARTER (defense secretary nominee): (From videotape.) If confirmed in this job, I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice.
MS. IFILL: Looks like the White House may need it, because on Capitol Hill, Republicans are spoiling for a fight.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): (From videotape.) The president’s unilateral actions to bypass Congress undermine the Constitution and threaten our democracy.
MS. IFILL: We examine the role all three branches of government are playing at a critical time with Pete Williams of NBC News, Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers and Ashley Parker of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
MS. IFILL: Good evening. It’s been kind of hard to take it all in – the videos that show a 12-year-old being shot and a 43-year-old father being choked, the highways and streets blocked by the bodies of angry but mostly peaceful protesters, and Washington looking for a way to respond.
REPRESENTATIVE HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): (From videotape.) The decision by a grand jury not to indict in the death of Eric Garner is a miscarriage of justice. It’s an outrage. It’s a disgrace. It’s a blow to our democracy. And it should shock the conscience of every single American who cares about justice and fair play.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) There was a decision that came out today by a grand jury and speaks to the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.
MS. IFILL: But outrage and sadness are one thing. Government intervention is another. The Department of Justice has said they will act. But what tools do they have, Pete?
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, they have the federal civil rights law. And they will do a federal civil rights investigation here. And it does seem more likely that this is more likely, the Eric Garner case, to go to a federal grand jury than the case of Michael Brown in Missouri.
And I say that for three reasons. First of all, there is the video – very powerful evidence. It’s a clear record, unlike in the Michael Brown case, where you had these widely different views of the witness statements about what actually happened. And remember that video evidence can be very powerful. It was pivotal in the case of the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991.
Secondly, there is the fact that there was an apparent chokehold here, which had been banned by the New York City police department for 21 years.
And third, you look at the video. It doesn’t look like he’s going for the officer’s gun, which may be another difference from Missouri. So you have those three things.
And secondly, you have the Justice Department applying an entirely different legal standard. In New York, the question for that grand jury was, was there a violation of New York state criminal law? And we don’t know for sure, but our sense is that the prosecutor gave the grand jury two possible charges, manslaughter or negligent homicide. In the Justice Department, it’s an entirely different standard. It’s did the officer use, on purpose, unnecessary force?
MS. IFILL: But we didn’t have access to all the information from the grand jury that we got in Missouri, for lots of reasons involving differing state laws.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. IFILL: Does that also affect what the Justice Department and what the feds are able to do?
MR. WILLIAMS: No, because they’ll have access to all that evidence. And, in fact, the federal prosecutors, former prosecutors that I’ve talked to, said they’re glad that this all didn’t come out in New York like it did, because they don’t want their potential witnesses in the federal grand jury reading what all the other witnesses said.
NANCY YOUSSEF: Pete, I’m curious. How will this affect Loretta Lynch’s nomination as attorney general, given that she is conducting an investigation?
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. And we have to explain that she’s the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. Staten Island is in her jurisdiction. So she’s in charge. This – the Eric Garner case is her investigation. It certainly complicates matters. Undoubtedly she’ll be asked about it at her confirmation hearing, if it’s still going on. But guess what. She’ll say, I’m sorry, there’s a pending investigation. I can’t answer. And that’ll be it.
The White House has given her a sort of Miranda warning and told her to remain silent during this whole thing.
MS. IFILL: Which is typical –
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: - for a nominee.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. So there’s not much really she can say.
ASHLEY PARKER: And speaking of investigations, I mean, I’m sort of curious. Also what about the Department of Justice’s findings in what happened in Cleveland that came out?
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. So this is the other thing that the Justice Department can do. And, by the way, they’re doing this right now in Ferguson, Missouri. So while they may not pursue a criminal case against Officer Wilson, we may see a lot more in Ferguson.
What they said in Cleveland, after a 19-month investigation, is that there’s a clear record of Cleveland police officers using unnecessary force – hitting people with their guns, firing guns out of anger, using tasers and chemical irritants on people who were already subdued and handcuffed. And what they said is what’s really very disturbing is the officers had virtually no guidance from the police officials. They were sort of on their own to decide what to do.
And because there was this pattern here, practice, that’s why the Justice Department and the city agreed to make changes, appoint an independent monitor to try to cure some of these problems. It won’t happen overnight. Partly it’s a matter of training. Partly it’s a matter of money for police officers. You know, as we’ve seen these tight budgets over the last couple of years with cities, the first place the police department cuts back is training.
MS. IFILL: And, in fact, that’s what Mayor de Blasio in New York – the first thing he said was he’s going to retrain the entire force.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. IFILL: I’m not quite certain how you retrain the force to obey laws that, according to this grand – what we know were broken, this banned chokehold.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right – not a law, but a rule –
MS. IFILL: A rule.
MR. WILLIAMS: - of the New York City police department. Well, it’s how to control people. When is force appropriate? And remember that training counts. Just think of this incident, the Secret Service with this intruder that got into the White House. And there’s a report that said one of the problems was so many of the White House people –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. WILLIAMS: - didn’t have the right training, the uniformed Secret Service officers.
MS. IFILL: Go ahead.
MS. YOUSSEF: I was going to say, what happens to those police officers who were involved during the Justice Department’s investigation?
MR. WILLIAMS: In Cleveland?
MS. YOUSSEF: I’m sorry – in New York.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, right now the Justice Department is doing its investigation. It’s up to New York City to decide what to do with the police officer. Now, they may choose to keep him around while the investigation is still pending. They may choose to try to start procedures to get him out of the force. It goes through a merit protection board and all of that. They can’t just do it like that. There’s union procedures as well.
MS. PARKER: And also in New York, I mean, it was all videotaped, right? That’s what sort of –
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. PARKER: - helped prompt the outrage.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yes.
MS. PARKER: So I’m curious. It was videotaped and it still happened. And now the president is talking about how police officers should be equipped –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. PARKER: - with body cameras. Is that an argument for them, against them, or –
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, that’s an interesting question. The officer has said I knew people were standing around videotaping. And, of course, there’s a lot of –
MS. IFILL: There’s a couple of versions of the videotape where he looks at the camera and waves at it too.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yes. Right, right. It’s different, though, when the body camera is on the officer. It may not – you know, maybe the officer knew in this case and just didn’t – wouldn’t have done anything differently. But there have been several cases where police departments have put body cameras on their officers and they find two things – the number of citizen complaints go down and the number of verified uses of unnecessary force go down. So there is some reason to think that body cams can be – can make a difference.
MS. IFILL: Can I circle back to the Loretta Lynch nomination for a moment? Where does that stand right now? Has she started doing her due diligence –
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. IFILL: - and shaking hands on Capitol Hill?
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.) Right.
MS. IFILL: Have there been overt criticisms of her so far? Because she’s been involved in these cases before.
MR. WILLIAMS: No, there haven’t. And, as a matter of fact, that’s a good point. She was the prosecutor in one of the most notorious cases of police abuse or torture, a man named Abner Louima, who was brutalized by New York City police officers. She took that investigation over. It started out as a state investigation, and she took it over.
MS. IFILL: OK. So we’ll be watching that as another shoe that could drop –
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. IFILL: - when confirmations begin.
Well, the president confirmed one of the city’s worst-kept secrets today – his decision to nominate Ashton Carter to be the fourth secretary of defense of his presidency. Carter worked for the previous three as a high-ranking deputy, and eight others as well – 11 secretaries of defense in all. So he’s made friends along the way. And his confirmation does not seem to be in peril.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) Ash is also known by our allies and our friends around the world, having served both Republican and Democratic secretaries. He’s respected and trusted on both sides of the aisle. He’s been a close partner with our military leaders, and he’s admired by civilian leaders across the department because he’s a mentor to so many of them.
MS. IFILL: It’s what happens next that’s the real challenge. Tell us a little bit about Ash Carter.
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, he was trained as a scientist; as a physicist, actually. He studied at Oxford, got his doctorate in that. He was a Rhodes scholar and started on the path writing articles about particles and what-not and evolved into a defense expert and has been in the Pentagon for decades.
He’s known as an acquisitions guy. His focus has really been on the budget. And one of the biggest accomplishments he’s had is really streamlining contracting at a time when it got out of control during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
MS. IFILL: But he does not have any military experience, unlike – that was what was heavily touted for Chuck Hagel, his predecessor, because he was a Vietnam War veteran.
MS. YOUSSEF: Right. But we saw with Chuck Hagel that that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you have a successful or long career as defense secretary. What he does have is a long, long career. He’s considered a real thinker and an intellectual and an expert on budget matters. And when you look at some of his writings, he has a real keen interest and has been quite prescient on key policy issues, like terrorism.
MR. WILLIAMS: So what does Ash Carter have that Chuck Hagel didn’t have?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, he –
MS. IFILL: That’s such an impolite question, Pete.
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.) Well –
MS. IFILL: But a real one.
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, let’s start with what Chuck Hagel did have. He was a close friend of Obama’s. He’d known him in the Senate. They’d worked together for years. He had served as a sergeant in the army. He was seen as someone who could perhaps help with the relationship between the United – the administration and Congress. It just – he couldn’t deliver on that key part and building that bridge and helping deal with sequestration.
So Ash Carter brings to the table a real intellectual approach. He’s, as I said, a scientist, and therefore has an eye for detail, asks tough questions, demands tough answers from those under him. And I think we’ll hear a more outspoken Cabinet secretary on these key foreign policy issues confronting the country, much more so than perhaps Chuck Hagel spoke during his tenure.
MS. PARKER: I was curious. On the Hill you sort of – no one ever agrees about anything. But even before Ash Carter was officially announced, I heard Democrats and Republican senators all singing his praises. Is that –
MS. IFILL: In fact, confirming the leak, I think, before –
MS. PARKER: Yeah, exactly –
MS. IFILL: - it was announced.
MS. PARKER: - desperate to confirm the leak. (Laughs.) So is that because he’s so great or because they’re just so happy to be rid of Chuck Hagel?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, I think he’s been before the Hill three times previously for previous jobs that he’s had, so he’s familiar. And what’s interesting is, in his writings, he has a very academic approach. There’s nothing controversial. He’s been vetted three times over. I think there’s an enthusiasm for what he could bring. And frankly, it’s not a job that many people wanted, so that someone with such great intellect and such a rich background in the Pentagon was eager to take the job –
MS. PARKER: Why –
MS. YOUSSEF: - (inaudible).
MS. PARKER: - volunteer for this for the final two years of an administration? It seemed like people took themselves out of the running. Why do this?
MS. YOUSSEF: It’s a question a lot of people in the Senate are asking.
MS. IFILL: It’s a question.
MS. YOUSSEF: And not only that; when he comes in, the budget will already be decided. He faces seemingly intractable problems, like Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against ISIS, Ukraine, Russia.
MR. WILLIAMS: This doesn’t sound like why he took it, though.
MS. YOUSSEF: No. (Laughter.) He – you know, he was up for the position when Hagel was named, and he has been enthusiastic about the job for some time. He’s a real technocrat in the best sense of the word in that he has a real enthusiasm for these issues, and again, understands both policy and the budget. He can literally tell you how some of these systems are built from his background as a physicist.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let me ask you a quick question. Is there any sense that it’s a mistake to have a secretary of defense of the opposite political party of the administration, that you’re kind of frozen out? With Hagel, I mean.
MS. YOUSSEF: No, that wasn’t the criticism. Remember, Bob Gates was a Republican and seemed quite successful; that it was really about personality and approach and his ability to work within the White House’s national security apparatus.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that. I mean, you said that they were close friends. You know, I don’t know if Senator Hagel – they were close friends in a senatorial way.
MS. YOUSSEF: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: OK. So do we know about the relationship that this new nominee has with this White House, since so much of the discussion around Hagel’s exit had to do with whether he was frozen out?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, it’s interesting, because he was deputy secretary of defense up until just a few years ago, and so there’s no indication that he ever had any great insight or was in the loop, if you will, during that time. For example, when the United States decided not to strike Syria after there was evidence of chemical weapons used last year, Ash Carter was just as surprised as everybody else.
So there’s nothing to indicate that he’s in the loop. But as he was walking out today, he hugged Susan Rice, the national security adviser, I think trying to signal that there’s camaraderie between the National Security Council and –
MS. IFILL: Nothing like a hug.
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.)
MS. YOUSSEF: Now, whether it manifests itself into a clear policy and a good relationship, we’ll see.
MS. IFILL: OK. So we know that troops are going to stay on the ground in Afghanistan longer than we thought. We’ve just learned this. We know that ISIL, ISIS, is one of the big looming kind of ungovernable threats. We know what’s happening with Iran. And I wonder, of all these things – and sequestration and budgets – of all these things that are on his plate, that I’m sure he’s happily embracing, what happens first? What takes priority?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, the problem is that there’s not that option. There’s not that luxury of having a priority. There’s sequestration at a time when the United States is arguably ramping up its efforts to confront ISIS; so a shrinking budget and a bigger military presence.
MS. IFILL: I broke my own rule. I used the word sequestration – (laughter) – (instead of ?) budget cuts. Maybe it’s preparing myself to talk about Capitol Hill, because Congress came back to town with a few scores to settle this week; among them, letting the president know who’s boss when it comes to use of his executive authority.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From videotape.) We don’t believe that the president has the authority to do what he did. This is a serious breach of our Constitution. It’s a serious threat to our system of government. And frankly, we have limited options and limited abilities to deal with it directly. But that’s why we’re continuing to talk to our members.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From videotape.) There’s still plenty of time to do it as the executive action takes effect. We’re not giving up hope for comprehensive immigration reform. As effective as the president’s actions will be, legislation would be better.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From videotape.) There is, however, a deep philosophical difference, I mean, if you look at the way the president has reacted to what could only be described as a butt-kicking election. You know, by any objective standard, the president got crushed in this election. So I’ve been perplexed by the reaction since the election, the sort of in-your-face dramatic move to the left.
MS. IFILL: You know, you don’t get to hear Mitch McConnell say –
MR. WILLIAMS: And you were worried about sequestration. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: - (laughs) – a butt-kicking that often. And that was just the debate about immigration. This goes deeper than that, doesn’t it, Ashley?
MS. PARKER: Yeah, it sure does. I mean, Republicans on Capitol Hill are worried about his executive overreach sort of in every aspect of government. They felt like he overstepped his mandate on “Obamacare.” House Republicans just recently sued him over that. They’re worried about immigration, his recent executive order. And they’re worried about his authority to wage war in the Middle East. And they believe that he needs to come to Congress to get that authority.
MS. IFILL: But Democrats are also kind of worried about it too.
MS. PARKER: Well, that’s what’s interesting. On immigration especially, you saw all the Democrats voted for this immigration bill, and most of the Democrats even believe in what the president did. They think it’s good policy to defer these deportations. But they disagree with the process and the way he did it. So you even had some Democrats saying, look, we know it’s frustrating. We think this needs to be handled, but it needs to be handled through legislation, not through your unilateral action.
MS. YOUSSEF: So will there be another government shutdown?
MS. PARKER: That is the question on everyone’s –
MS. IFILL: Not to put too fine a point on it.
MS. PARKER: I mean, that is the question. I think you never know. You never know with the House, right? But I think we are –
MS. IFILL: Well, bring us up to date on where things stand in that debate. Why would there be, I guess, a government shutdown?
MS. PARKER: So there would be a government shutdown because Congress has to pass a must-pass spending bill by next Thursday or the government shuts down. And Republicans, because they are so frustrated with all of this executive overreach, but most specifically on immigration, are threatening – you know, they want to send a strong message to the president by maybe not funding some portions of his government that oversees immigration, like the Department of Homeland Security. And so it’s a question of if Boehner will be able to – the House speaker will be able to sort of corral his kind of raucous caucus – (laughs) – into stepping in line and voting for this bill.
MS. IFILL: So when say Republicans want to – it’s not – it’s obviously not all Republicans who want to shut down the government. House Speaker Boehner doesn’t. Senate Majority Leader-to-be Mitch McConnell doesn’t.
MS. PARKER: And this time actually no Republican – when you asked Republicans during the last shutdown, you would hear them say stuff like, you know, I don’t want to shut down the government, but this is such an important issue; never take any option off the table. Now you’re even hearing some of these hard-line conservative members saying we are not going to shut down the government. That is going to be the kiss of death. So the tone has really changed.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you have all these members of the Congress saying we don’t like what the president’s done here. What are some ways we can retaliate? Well, one thing they could do is change the immigration law and just deal with the problem head-on. But do they feel trapped by that, because if they try to make the immigration law stricter, they’ll lose the Hispanic vote?
MS. PARKER: Well that was actually one of the points they were trying – desperately trying to make to the president before he did his executive action. They were saying give us time, because they felt kind of hamstrung. With Democrats controlling the Senate, the House was very reluctant to send anything over to the Senate because they were worried that the Senate would jam something back down their throats that they didn’t agree with.
And so the House actually feels, once they have control of both chambers in the next Congress, that they can pass legislation of their own. And it won’t be what the president necessarily wants and it won’t be what Democrats necessarily want. They would start with border security, do little bills, piecemeal. But I have to say this is a group of people who couldn’t even agree on a set of principles last Congress, let alone a broad bill. So people are not necessarily optimistic.
MR. WILLIAMS: So they don’t like what he did, but they’re a little envious that he did something.
MS. PARKER: (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: Exactly. Well, especially if it were their president, maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem. But I want to talk about the Democrats. You wrote an interesting piece this week about the Democrats being unhappy about executive overreach on war powers, for instance, which is something which kind of usually takes a back seat. But you could – there are some reliable liberals who think this is a bad idea.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, absolutely. You saw this weird sort of alliance where you had Democrats who were saying the president has to come to Congress to get the authority to sort of wage the campaign he’s already started waging against the Islamic State in the Middle East. And then you had them lining up with people like Senator Rand Paul on the Republican side. So it’s a weird thing where you had Senator Rand Paul and Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, kind of all arguing for the same thing.
MS. IFILL: We were just talking earlier in the program with Pete and with Nancy about two pending nominations, Cabinet nominations, which are coming to the Senate for approval. And that would, of course, be Loretta Lynch for attorney general and –
MR. WILLIAMS: Ash Carter.
MS. IFILL: - Ashton Carter for Department of Defense. So it seems if there’s leverage to be had, it’s with the president’s nominees. Is there any murmuring about that?
MS. PARKER: Oh, there’s more than murmuring. You had Ted Cruz coming out and saying that Loretta Lynch’s nomination should be basically – she should be grilled over immigration policy. So you were saying that one issue is going to be her handling this investigation into Eric Garner in New York. The bigger issue, I think, still, while that’s going to be an issue, is going to be how she views what the president did on immigration.
And then Ted Cruz the other day, at a rally, also said one of our points of leverage is we should hold up every single one of the president’s nominees, every single one – ambassadors, everything that is not directly tied to national security. So they absolutely think that’s a point of leverage.
MS. IFILL: And there was even discussion this week about not issuing the formal invitation to the president to come deliver the State of the Union speech –
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: - which I’m sure he would have been heartbroken not to have to do.
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: But that’s – OK, thank you, everybody. And welcome to “Washington Week,” Ashley.
MS. PARKER: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: We have to leave you a few minutes early this week so you can take advantage of the opportunity to support your local station, which in turn supports us. And there may even be a tote bag in it for you.
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: But, as always, the conversation continues online. The “Washington Week” Webcast Extra streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. And you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek, where, among other things, we’ll talk about how the Supreme Court weighed on job protection for pregnant workers and on online threats.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.