AMY WALTER: Deadly clashes on the streets in Egypt. The Justice Department takes a new approach to drug crimes. And reading the tea leaves for 2016. I’m Amy Walter in for Gwen Ifill, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces.
MS. WALTER: The president responds to the increasing violence in Egypt. But how much influence does the U.S. have in the region?
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From tape.) We violated our own rule of law by not calling it for what it is, because our law clearly states that if it’s a military coup then aid is cut off. They had the coup, and then of course we didn’t do that. That’s a blow to credibility.
MS. WALTER: The attorney general takes aim at those convicted of minor drug offenses.
ERIC HOLDER [Attorney General]: (From tape.) Certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders, who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels, will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
MS. WALTER: And Hillary Clinton laying the groundwork for 2016?
HILLARY CLINTON [Former Secretary of State]: (From tape.) Many Americans are asking, how do we ensure that the law continues to serve and belong to the people in a time when ideology and gridlock have paralyzed our politics?
MS. WALTER: But is this man conceding anything?
Covering the week: Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News; Pete Williams of NBC News; and Jeff Zeleny of ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.
MS. WALTER: Good evening. Clashes continued today on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities between the military and supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, many of whom have been camped out for weeks in parks and squares throughout the country. Hundreds have died in the fighting this past week. The interim government has declared a state of emergency.
Thursday, President Obama condemned the crackdown by the government.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop. We call on the Egyptian authorities to respect the universal rights of the people. We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully and condemn the attacks that we’ve seen by protesters including on churches. We believe that the state of emergency should be lifted, that a process of national reconciliation should begin, that all parties need to have a voice in Egypt’s future.
MS. WALTER: The U.S. has been walking a tightrope ever since Morsi was removed from office. And just two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was hopeful that what happened this week would not come to pass.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From tape.) The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendant into chaos, into violence. And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment so far – so far – to run the country. There’s a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy.
MS. WALTER: So, Indira, where are we now in Egypt?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, sadly, Secretary Kerry’s hopeful words that we would be on a path towards democracy have not come to pass. Obviously, we have more than 600 people massacred this week, protesters who were supporting Mohammed Morsi. We have 19 generals who were appointed as provincial governors. We have what’s looking more and more like a coup, if we weren’t already willing to use that word, and, so far we haven’t been willing to.
It’s interesting that the U.N. Security Council met last night. We have many of the members calling it a massacre, the E.U. threatening to cut off aid. And yet, what we have with President Obama so far is deploring it, condemning it, cancelling some joint military exercises, but stopping short of calling it a coup that would cut off the $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
MS. WALTER: So let’s talk about that. Why doesn’t the U.S. government put that on the table? As you pointed out, the president and the administration has come up with a lot of other options, but we have not heard anything about just simply cutting off the aid.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Right. Well, at this point, the administration has determined that it is still in the U.S. national security interest to keep that aid going. And there are several realpolitik reasons for that.
On the one hand, they feel that they still have some leverage over the Egyptian military, that they think they would lose if they cut off that aid. There’s also the feeling that this aid that we give them underpins the Camp David Accords and Egypt’s willingness to stay with that peace in Israel.
And let’s not forget that there are also a lot of vested interests. As Pete knows well, there are military contractors all over Washington who are gaining from this $1.3 billion in aid, which really goes into the pockets of American military contractors. It’s just that the weapons that are paid for end up in the hands of the Egyptian military.
PETE WILLIAMS: So this money gives us leverage over the military to do what?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, that’s the, you know, $1.3 billion question. The idea has been that the leverage is – that they’re going to do what we say, but what we know now is that six weeks ago, we were pressuring the Egyptian military not to oust Morsi, even though he was unpopular and the U.S. wasn’t a big fan. They didn’t listen. In the last couple of weeks, the U.S. has been pressuring the military to not crack down on the protesters, and they obviously ignored us.
So a lot of people are throwing up their hands – longtime analysts – and saying, what – you know, what leverage do we have? What influence do we still have in the region? And that’s become problematic because it’s making Obama – in a way, it’s the worst of all possible worlds. He doesn’t come right out and call it a coup. It looks like we’re not standing up to American ideals. And, at the same time, it looks like we’re impotent in the face of what’s happening, all the violence in the region. And it makes us in a way look feckless. It’s difficult.
JEFF ZELENY: So impotent, feckless. How about hypocritical? I mean, is there an air of hypocrisy here a little bit in how this administration is dealing with this situation there? Do they have a choice?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Look, it is a difficult tightrope they’re walking. And I think behind the scenes what I’m hearing from my sources is that it’s not that U.S. lawyers are stupid. It’s not that they don’t realize that this is a coup. Of course American lawyers looked at this afterwards and said, whoops, this is a coup, but they made the decision that they didn’t need to publicly make that determination because that would force their hand in other ways. I think it’s interesting that from the –
MR. WILLIAMS: In what other ways?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: In other ways because of forcing them to cut off the aid, which they didn’t want to do. Now, remember, the aid helps us in several ways because it provides security for the Suez Canal, through which 4.5 million barrels of oil are going every day; it provides security for the U.S. embassy and consulates; and it provides a lot of counterterrorism security, not to mention stopping weapons from going into the tunnels through Rafah into Gaza. So there are benefits that the U.S. gets from that as well.
But hypocritical – I grant you, it does put us in a bad light because we’re not standing up for the ideals, and, at the same time, we’re not getting the leverage that we want over their policy.
MS. WALTER: So is the Arab spring now the Arab winter? I mean, between Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, all of the promises of the uprisings now seem to be collapsing.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: It’s certainly not what, you know, the optimists had hoped for two and a half years ago. And I think the worst case scenario is people thinking, the revolution that hit Tahrir Square in January 2011, when everyone hoped they were pushing out Mubarak, this old dictator, may have led to something that’s even worse, because while his regime certainly repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, ultimately they were allowed to contest elections. Now this new military leadership looks like it’s determined to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood entirely. And we might end up with something even more entrenched and worse than what we had two and a half years ago when they rose up in Tahrir.
MR. ZELENY: Speaking of the military, one thing we did hear from the president this week – and he was speaking from Martha’s Vineyard – he did not mention the aid, but he did say the U.S. government is cancelling its military exercises. Is that a big deal or not? I mean, it seems like the military is sort of occupied at the moment there. They don’t exactly have time for practice. (Laughter.)
MS. LAKSHMANAN: You’re right. Good point.
MR. ZELENY: But, I mean, is that significant?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, this is a biannual exercise, so every two years. The last time, it was actually held, Bright Star, was in 2009 because in 2011 they also had their hands full with the revolution and couldn’t do it.
In some ways, you could say it’s symbolic. In other ways, it allows us to understand how the other side works. Many countries participate in it. It’s just a slap on the wrist.
What’s real is if they’re considering – for example, they’ve stopped giving the F-16s. They’ve put that on hold. If they decide to stop giving other hardware, if they’re not really letting aid flow since July 3rd, since this ouster, that’s the bigger question, and we’ll have to see where it goes. If things get worse, they’re not going to be able to continue with the policy they have now. That’s my prediction.
MS. WALTER: All right. Thank you very much for that. Well, here at home a decision by Attorney General Eric Holder this week is sure to stir up a debate about the fairness in the criminal justice system. At issue: mandatory minimum sentences for what many acknowledge are minor drug infractions.
MR. HOLDER: (From tape.) Although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. We also must confront the reality that once they’re in that system, people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. Black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable, it is shameful.
MS. WALTER: So, Pete, is this about inequity or is this about economics?
MR. WILLIAMS: It’s both. And it’s something that’s been on the attorney general’s mind for several years now. What he said this week at the American Bar Association is, look at the number of people in federal prisons: 219,000. It’s eight times what it was 30 years ago. It’s 40 percent over capacity. You’ve got – if you add in the states – 1.5 million in prison. And at a time of declining budgets, that’s expensive.
So he says, is it really worth – does the punishment fit the crime when you send these low-level drug offenders – and that’s really what he was talking about, mandatory minimums for them. So he sent a memo to all the U.S. attorneys saying, don’t put in your indictment how much drugs were involved if it would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence under the federal law for people who are low-level, non-violent offenders, no ties to drug cartels or organized crime or gangs, and don’t sell to children. If they fit all those criteria, don’t trigger the mandatory minimums.
Now, I think what he’s really trying to do is to start a nationwide debate on this. There’s a sign that some Republicans are beginning to think it’s a good idea. He specifically mentioned Rand Paul and Mike Lee, the senator from Utah. And I think he wants to ultimately get the drug mandatory minimums off the books.
MS. WALTER: But given those restrictions on who is eligible for this, is this going to have a real impact on the number of people in our prisons?
MR. WILLIAMS: Very good questions. Very hard to tell. We tried to figure out exactly how many people would fit this profile. First of all, we’re talking only about federal prison here. Nothing the attorney general said or sent his memo to the U.S. attorneys will change what the states do. And that’s where the majority of the mandatory minimums are filling up the prisons.
So, you know, it could be as many as a fourth of people who go to prison for drug offenses would meet this criterion. And, of course, the number of drug offenders in a prison is about half the inmate population. So you could do the math.
MR. ZELENY: What’s the reaction of law enforcement to this? Is this viewed skeptically?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think to some extent they wonder what effect it will have. But the other thing is what law enforcement people say is – they want the bargaining chip. When they arrest a low-level offender, they want to be able to say, look, you could get five or 10 years automatic mandatory sentence unless you give us the goods. Where did you get the drugs from? You know, we want to know who are the higher-ups in your organization. And they’re worried about losing that leverage.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I’d love to know about whether there’s been a change overall in the thinking about mandatory minimums, because I remember in the 1990s being a police reporter and how popular they were politically not just with the law enforcement but also with politicians. It seems Republicans now – not all Republicans think it’s a great idea.
MR. WILLIAMS: There’s definitely a change here. You know, they started in the ’80s. They were sort of cemented into place and were added to during the cocaine fueled crime rise in the 1990s. And I remember when Charles Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York was in the House on the Judiciary Committee, they looked at changing mandatory minimums. They all loved mandatory minimums.
But I think a couple of things have changed: number one, the crime rate is down; number two, Americans just are not as worried about illegal drugs anymore. And you put all that stuff together, plus the cost of sending a lot of people to prison. And many people are taking another look at mandatory minimums.
MS. WALTER: Well, we’re going to stick with you, Pete, because we’re going – there was another story that caught the eye of the attorney general and the Justice Department. North Carolina’s governor signed into law what’s regarded as one of the toughest voter ID measures in the country.
GOVERNOR PAT MCCRORY (R-NC): (From tape.) Protecting the integrity of every vote cast is among the most important duties I have as governor. And it’s why I signed these commonsense, commonplace protections into law.
MS. WALTER: Reaction was fierce and swift.
MS. CLINTON: (From tape.) Legislators in North Carolina have pushed through a bill that reads like the greatest hits of voter suppression: restricted early voting; no more same-day registration or extending voting hours to accommodate long lines; stricter photo ID requirements that disqualify those issued by colleges or public assistance agencies; and it goes on and on.
MS. WALTER: All right. So, Pete, Republicans say, we’re just trying to protect the integrity of the process. Democrats, you just saw, they say this is voter suppression. So how do we tell which is which?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, frankly, there’s not a lot of evidence on either side for this. But the supporters of these changes were sort of liberated to act. And they passed this a month after the U.S. Supreme Court cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act so that North Carolina was no longer what they call a covered jurisdiction. They didn’t have to get federal permission before they changed their laws. So, boom, right out of the box they made these changes.
And so it’s – one of the nation’s strict photo ID laws. Hillary Clinton mentioned. It’s no more same-day registration. It cuts early voting from 17 days down to 10. It ends a program where you can register the day you vote. It also ends a program where young people can sort of sign up in advance to register. So it’s many changes including the one that says, if you cast your ballot by mistake in the wrong precinct, it won’t count.
Now, civil rights groups have already filed a couple of lawsuits. And here’s their argument. They say this hits minorities especially hard because they tend to be the people who use all these things. They have some figures here: 70 percent of African-Americans in North Carolina voted early last November, compared to 52 percent of whites. They also say minority voters tend to use same-day registration more because they move more and they have to record their new addresses. And they say early voting – reducing early voting is going to be hard on everybody because it’s going to make the lines a lot longer on Election Day and it becomes more of an ordeal for everybody.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I would love to know what the Justice Department is going to do about this, because I think Eric Holder has already shown that he is willing to go after what he sees as voting rights, you know, violations with what he’s done with Texas, isn’t it?
MR. WILLIAMS: Eight. So the easy thing for the Justice Department to do is just to sue over these measures and say, court, you’ve got to stop these. But I think they’re going to go for the bigger game in North Carolina just as they have in Texas.
And what they’re going to try to do is say, OK, we know the part of the Voting Rights Act that was in effect since 1965 is gone. But what they’re trying to do in Texas, what they’re going to do in North Carolina is say to a judge, look, we still need to force – under a different section of the Voting Rights Act that still survived the Supreme Court decision, we need to require these states to still get approval because there is still discrimination going on. So I think in a couple of weeks, they’ll follow the same line in North Carolina.
MR. ZELENY: We saw a lot of outrage from groups and, you know, some groups are threatening to sue and other things. But actually, on the photo ID, the public opinion for that is fairly high across the country, that if people ask, you know, is it reasonable to show a piece of – you know, a driver’s license or a photo ID, is that acceptable? Most people say – the majority say yes. So what is the big deal about photo IDs? Is there an argument to be made that these are needed?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the governor – as a matter of fact, you showed a little excerpt from it. He said, look, you have to show a photo ID to board a plane or buy Sudafed. Why shouldn’t you have to show it to vote? And what the opponents says is, well, number one, boarding a plane and Sudafed are not constitutionally guaranteed rights. You shouldn’t have to show a photo ID. It’s harder for minorities, the poor to get them. In North Carolina, for example, college students can’t use their student ID. This is one of those things that states fight over is whether you can use student IDs. So, yes, they are popular.
But the other thing is the polls show that the other provisions of this law are not nearly as popular. So we all sort of fasten on photo IDs. But these other provisions could have maybe a bigger effect than photo IDs do.
MS. WALTER: That’s right. And that’s why the governor notably talked a lot about voter ID. We didn’t hear a lot about those other things.
Well, we’re going to stick with politics for a little longer. We’re going to get to Hillary Clinton. She’s been keeping a rather low profile since she left the State Department. But her speech to the American Bar Association this week, coupled with the announcement that she was starting a foundation of her own, has many observers thinking these are the first indications of a 2016 White House run.
And then, just this morning, the Republican National Committee voted to ban CNN and NBC from hosting Republican primary debates next time around. The rationale: the two networks have projects about Hillary Clinton in the works.
REINCE PRIEBUS [RNC Chairman]: (From tape.) It’s time that we do what’s right for our party and our candidates. And, by the way, it’s the right thing to do for our voters. They’re not going to get a real debate of substance if it’s run by a network who wants to help out Hillary Clinton. We’re done putting up with this nonsense.
MS. WALTER: OK. So, Jeff, no nonsense. Is this a good thing for Hillary Clinton to be so far out front and center this far before 2016?
MR. ZELENY: It’s probably a mixed bag. It is definitely a mixed bag. But I think one thing that was slightly out – I was talking to some people, some Republican state chairmen and members of the RNC who were in Boston for that meeting we just saw, and they were like, well, look, maybe these movies would be fine because they’re sure to sort of show all of the not so glamorous sides of the Clinton story. And some of the Clinton people are not thrilled by these movies at all because they have completely entertainment license to dramatize, you know, and certainly rehash all these stories.
But that said, she definitely is front and center. And the Clinton campaign – the soon to be Clinton campaign, I believe, is – there’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes.
We have been led to believe that she was going to sort of take a break in 2013. She was going to so sort of put her feet up and get her health back in order and sort of take a rest. Well, for Hillary Clinton, this is resting, giving a speech and then being in California one day, and other things.
But, look, behind the scenes, there are a lot of things going on here. If she wasn’t out there sort of driving this conversation, other people would be out there talking about her. So they’re sort of going with the flow here. It’s impossible for her to sort of stay completely under the radar. They’re just trying to have some control of the discussion here.
MS. WALTER: I just want to say for the record, if Diane Lane wants to play me in the movie, I’ll be totally OK with that. (Laughter.) All right.
But we’ve talked all about Hillary. But there’s this other person, who happens to be the sitting vice president, Joe Biden, that we’re going to hear a little bit more about. He seems to be putting himself more out front and center. He’s going to Iowa next month. What do we think?
MR. ZELENY: He has a bigger airplane, at least for the moment. He has Air Force Two. He can fly around. And he still gets a lot of news attention. And if you’re Joe Biden, why not? You’re a successful sitting vice president, helped to win the second term, you know, served three decades – more than three decades in the Senate, ran for president a couple of times. Why not one more time? Third time is a charm perhaps.
So no one knows if the vice president is going to run for president. But all of his advisers, who I speak with, say, you know what? He’d be crazy to sort of act like he’s not running. So stay in the mix. You never know what’s going to happen. And he is enjoying this, having the time of his life. He did add his name to the speaking agenda of the Harkin Steak Fry, something we all look at as political reporters. It’s – in 2006, that fall, a young Illinois senator named Barack Obama, whatever happened to him? He showed up at the Steak Fry. So the vice president is certainly in the mix.
But it’s not just them. I mean, there’s a whole raft of other potential people. No one necessarily knows what Secretary Clinton is going to do, so people are sort of planning for a lot of scenarios.
MS. WALTER: (Inaudible) – I also want to eat the chicken, by the way.
MR. ZELENY: True. True.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I want to ask about Hillary Clinton because I got to cover the last year of her campaign and then four years of her as secretary of state, in which it was like two different personalities, with the campaign Hillary versus the secretary of state Hillary. And it was clear to me by the end that her camp was divided. Some people thought she should run and some of the Hillary land people thought she shouldn’t. And, as you say, she was ready to put up her feet and put on some fuzzy slippers when she was leaving office. That doesn’t seem to be happening.
How sure are you that this is actually happening? You know, particularly there’s some distracting liabilities, Huma Abedin’s husband and –
MR. ZELENY: Well, look, we’ll find out when we find out. I mean, I think that we’re probably wasting a lot of time predicting. But she certainly is giving every indication that she’s going to run. You can find very sort of – as each month goes by, I find it harder to find a Democrat, someone in her world or out, who thinks she probably won’t run.
Now, the question of if it’s a good idea, that is not necessarily as clear. I’m surprised by one strain of thought I’ve been picking up from some Democrats, actually in the conversation of these movies, do we want to relive all this again? Do we – you know, yes, she should have the right to run for president, but do we want to go through all this again?
So there are still big questions about what type of operation she can sort of oversee and run. Her campaign was sort of a disaster. It was run very poorly. So she knows that if she’s going to run again, she’ll have to sort of throw out some of those people, bring in some new folks, but all of that is happening behind the scenes right now. If I had to put money on it at the moment, I would say, yes, she runs. But if she doesn’t, you know, we’ll find someone else to run.
MR. WILLIAMS: If I had to put money on it, I’d say neither of those movies are going to get made. But what about the – what about the Republicans? Is it still Chris Christie and Rand Paul at this point?
MR. ZELENY: Well, Chris Christie certainly, as all this has been going on, he’s cruising to what looks to be a strong reelection in New Jersey. So he will, you know, have some of that behind him.
It’s a pretty wide Republican field, I mean. And we are seeing this divided ideology here – all these fights between a Chris Christie, Rand Paul, you know, on immigration, Marco Rubio and others. So there is a very, very, very big Republican bench, a deep Republican bench. A lot of governors out there, if they win reelection next year – Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich even in Ohio, there are a lot of people who want that.
So I would not put any money on who the Republican nominee is going to be. The party has to work out a lot of its sort of ideological disagreements between now and then.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Is it even relevant for us to be talking about this in 2016 when we’re in 2013?
MS. WALTER: We’ll keep doing that. All right. Before we go tonight, we remember the passing of a legendary journalist. Jack Germond was a reporter and columnist in Washington for half a century. His stock and trade was reporting on and chronicling presidential campaigns dating back to the Johnson-Goldwater race of 1964, many of them with his writing partner, Jules Witcover. He was also a staple on the McLaughlin Group for 15 years. Jack Germond was 85. Our thoughts go out to his family and former colleagues.
That’s it for tonight. This reminder: our “Webcast Extra” is streamed live, 8:30 p.m. Eastern, where we’ll hear more from Indira on her interview with Iraq’s foreign minister, who’s asking the U.S. for drone support in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq. You can find us on our website, pbs.org/washingtonweek. I’m Amy Walter. Gwen Ifill will be back at this table right here, next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.