Full Episode: Crime and Punishment in Washington and Kenosha

Nov. 19, 2021 AT 10:43 p.m. EST

The nation's eyes are on Kenosha, WI after Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all charges. Meanwhile, the trial of the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery continues. And in Washington, Democrats censure Rep. Paul Gosar and push forward with Biden’s agenda.

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- The verdict is in.

- [Forewoman] We, the jury, find the defendant, Kyle H. Rittenhouse not guilty.

- [Yamiche] Kyle Rittenhouse found not guilty of all charges.

- It's a good thing for individual rights. It's a good thing for the Constitution of the United States.

- We deserve to march and rally peacefully without having our supporters murdered in the streets.

- The nation reacts to the homicide trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

- I shot him.

- [Yamiche] Meanwhile, the trial of three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery unfolds. Plus, President Biden celebrate signing the bipartisan infrastructure plan into law.

- The Build Back Better bill is passed.

- [Yamiche] The House votes to pass his larger social policy plan. Now, that bill heads to the Senate for another round of negotiation. And Republican Congressman Paul Gosar is censured in the House over a violent video. Next.

- [Announcer] This is "Washington Week". Corporate funding is provided by Consumer Cellular. Additional funding is provided by the Estate of Arnold Adams, Koo and Patricia Yuen through the Yuen Foundation. Committed to bridging cultural differences in our communities. Sandra and Carl DeLay-Magnuson, Rose Herschel and Andy Shreeves, Robert and Susan Rosenbaum, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you. Once again, from Washington moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

- Good evening and welcome to "Washington Week". Tonight, the nation's eyes are fixed on Kenosha, Wisconsin after Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all charges in his homicide trial. Last August, Rittenhouse, using an AR-15 style rifle, killed two people and shot another during protests sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man. The case became intensely polarizing, and set off arguments about the Second Amendment, vigilante killings, and race. Rittenhouse argued that he acted in self-defense. On Friday, he was acquitted a first degree intentional homicide and four other felony charges. Here's that moment, and a lawyer from Rittenhouse speaking after the verdict.

- [Forewoman] Kyle H. Rittenhouse not guilty. As to the fifth count of the information Gaige Grosskreutz, we, the jury find the defendant, Kyle H. Rittenhouse, not guilty.

- We're thankful in more ways than one that the jury finally got to hear the true story.

- Meanwhile, the family of one of the men killed, Anthony Huber, said in a statement that the verdict quote, "Sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street," end quote. And an uncle for Jacob Blake also criticized the verdict.

- This is like Martin Luther King said back in the day, African Americans got an uncashed check out there. We deserve the respect of this country. We deserve to walk the streets of this country. We deserve to march and rally peacefully without having our supporters murdered in the streets.

- The jury of five men and seven women deliberated for more than 23 hours over the past four days. Joining me to discuss the verdict, and the news of this week, it was a busy news week, is Nancy Chen correspondent for "CBS News" from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Thanks so much for joining us from there, and joining me here at the table, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House correspondent for "The New York Times", Ryan J. Reilly, senior justice reporter for "HuffPost", and Phillip Rucker, senior Washington correspondent for "The Washington Post". Thank you all for being here. Nancy, you are there in Kenosha. I want to start with you. Talk a bit about what led to this verdict, and really why wasn't the prosecution able to prove its case?

- Yamiche, good to be with you. Absolutely, we have had this trial going on now for about three weeks. It's been a contentious three weeks with jurors hearing from over 30 witnesses, and hearing about these different arguments that both sides have made. The prosecution arguing that Kyle Rittenhouse was an instigator who was looking for trouble, they said, cross state lines with that AR-15 style weapon and provoked the confrontations that led to the deaths of two men, and another man being seriously injured. But there were a lot of issues because the defense at the same time argued that Rittenhouse came to Kenosha that night, essentially looking to provide medical help and also protect personal property, but ended up in a fast-moving and chaotic chain of events that led to him, ultimately, having to defend his life.

- And Nancy, there've been a lot of calls for peace. We know that the Wisconsin governor, at one point, mobilized some 500 national guardsmen in really to get ready for this verdict to come down. You're there on the ground. What's it like there? What's the atmosphere? How are people reacting?

- It has been relatively calm essentially when that verdict was first announced, there was a crowd of protestors and demonstrators who were on the steps of the courthouse. They cheered and many honked their horns. There were also those who were upset about the verdict, but now, as night falls here in Kenosha, it's relatively calm. The crowd that was behind me on those courts steps has now dissipated, and while security and law enforcement are keeping a close eye on what happens tonight, so far, it's pretty quiet.

- And Nancy, one other quick follow-up. I wonder can you talk a bit about how people are reacting specifically to the judge's role in this, and sort of what message it sends to other people across the country, the sense of some folks, especially critics of this verdict, saying that it sends a message that some other people, vigilantes possibly, can come out and start a fight, and shoot people, and get away with it? Of course, again, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of doing just that.

- Well, this is certainly a trial and a verdict that has been very divisive, a lot of opinions, and a lot of thoughts about how this might send the wrong message. The attorney general of Wisconsin saying that he does not believe in vigilantism, at the same time, you have President Biden also coming forward and talking about the verdict today, saying that he is angry and concerned like many Americans, but he believes in this verdict, a verdict that was arrived at over four days of deliberations. And you also have President Trump weighing in on this saying that he congratulates Kyle Rittenhouse. And that's just a small taste of essentially what you're hearing from many different sides, because there were so many different issues that were at play here in this one trial.

- As you said, Nancy, President Biden and Vice President Harris, both reacted to this verdict. Here's what they had to say.

- I stand by what the jury has concluded. The jury system works and we have to abide by it.

- The verdict really speaks for itself. As many of you know, I've spent a majority of my career working to make the criminal justice system more equitable, and clearly, there's a lot more work to do.

- Zolan, I want to come to you. The president initially said, I stand by this verdict. Our jury system works. There was later sort of a written statement released by the White House saying I sort of share in people's concerns. I wonder, what do you make of the president's reaction? What's the thinking inside the White House? And the vice president saying that this in some way shows that our criminal justice system needs some work.

- Yeah, it's clearly from the White House, an effort to both anticipate the rising tension and anger from this decision, but also to try and calm that tension. You know, for this president and for the administration in the days ahead, if they were to have protests break out, it's something they want to avoid, And also trying to avoid also being put in a position where you're asked as president, what do you do? Do you support these protesters? Do you support protests that may also turn into looting or turn into a certain, you know... Are you put in a position where you need to answer the question of do you support the message that these protesters are actually putting out there? Or do you condemn any potential violence from those crowds? It's a position the president was also in just last year when protests were erupting in Portland. And there was also a moment during the campaign where, for some, he was criticized for his answer. But what the statement also doesn't really address, both the written White House statement and the comments from the vice president as well as the president, are some of the takeaways from this case that are also sparking anger, besides just the decision from today, besides just the acquittal. Also, the fault lines that it exposes when it comes to a self-defense argument, and how much that is ingrained in the United States. And also who has the privilege of having the right to defend themselves. And what a self-defense argument in court means when it comes to assessing a threat in a country where we very much shape who is threatening based off of race, right?

- You're talking about fault lines and sort of who has the right to self-defense. I want to point out that former President Trump also weighed in. He said in a statement that he was congratulating Rittenhouse, and he said, quote, "If that's not self-defense nothing is." Ryan, I want to bring you in here. This was a polarizing case. There are a lot of people who are questioning if Kyle Rittenhouse, frankly, was an African-American teenager, would he have had the sort of same ability to claim self-defense? What do you think this verdict says about our society, but also about that argument when it comes to the race of sort of who gets to claim self-defense?

- Yeah, I mean, no, he wouldn't have that same argument because he, you know... Say this was an individual who lived in a city, there's going to be different laws just on the books. And frankly, you can't just go walking around on the streets of a city, if you're a young black man with a gun, and an open weapon. There'd be different laws in many places where you might go to, but it's hard to imagine a scenario in which there might be someone who actually lives in a tough neighborhood, who has been threatened before, who might be carrying a gun for those reasons, but that person's going to be charged. That person's going to be charged with a crime, if they're found on the street, even if it was for the self-defense claim. I mean, what's interesting here is you sort of have this situation where there's an individual who unlawfully got a weapon, it was a straw purchase by a friend of his, and now actually, the person who might be held the most accountable could be that person who purchased that weapon for him illegally.

- [Yamiche] That's sort of incredible.

- It is, yeah. I mean, I think he's facing up to three years, there's two charges. And that case was sort of on hold up until this process sort of went forward. But straw purchasing is a major problem. It's an often a case that federal prosecutors aren't as ambitious about, because there's just so many cases that you could bring in that category, but it's something that if you really want to talk about gun cases, straw purchases is an issue that federal prosecutors would really need to focus on.

- Yeah, and Phil I want to bring you in. In some ways, Kyle Rittenhouse has really become a cause celebre for the right. We've had President Biden, even before this verdict, praising him, defending him. You also will sort of have this sort of conservative idea about, somebody would say conservative sort of endorsement of vigilantism. When you think about Texas abortion laws. I'm reading here because there's also the January 6th insurrection, there's sort of CRT, and that being the critical race theory, and people taking matters into their own hands. Talk just a little bit about the politics of all of this and what it means that now Kyle Rittenhouse might be someone that is called up at a conservative rallies?

- He very well could be. And there's sort of a rallying cry on the right. We've seen members of Congress, Republican members of Congress, say they would invite Kyle Rittenhouse to be an intern in their office, that they want to mentor him, and give him career opportunities. After this trial, he certainly is going to be a cause celebre on the right. And then, you also have to think about the politics on the left, because remember how angry and frustrated so many Americans were 18 months ago when George Floyd was killed? The system is still broken. Nothing has really changed. People elected Democrats to take the majority in the House, and the Senate, and the White House. And yet, even a year into that unified power here in Washington, the system has not changed. And that's got be a point of frustration for a lot of Americans.

- [Yamiche] Yeah.

- It makes you kind of go right back to the president's comment a couple of weeks ago at a "CNN Town Hall" where he was asked by somebody as well, you know, what about police reform? What about voting rights? What about these issues? And he said, very candidly, look, I'm concerned about that, but I've been focusing on infrastructure, and my social spending package.

- [Yamiche] Yeah.

- And the other issues have been sidelined, right? And that is going to be brought up.

- [Phil] And nothing has happened on those issues.

- Yeah, and the other case that we're watching really closely is that in Brunswick, Georgia, the trial of three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery continued this week with important testimony. Travis McMichael, one of the men standing trial, testified that he shot Arbery, a black man, in self-defense.

- He had my gun. He struck me. It was obvious that he was... It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would have got the shotgun from me, then it was a... It's was a life or death situation. And I'm going to have to stop him from doing this. So, I shot.

- But the prosecution pushed back on his argument.

- Never threatened you at all?

- No, ma'am.

- Didn't brandish any weapons?

- No, ma'am.

- Never reached for anything, did he?

- No.

- [Linda] He just ran?

- Yes, he was just running.

- Nancy, I want to come back to you. I know you're covering the case in Wisconsin, but I wonder how much are these two cases tied, just in the timing of all this, are you hearing people sort of talk about the Arbery case? A lot of the players, when you think about the civil rights activists that got involved there, they're talking about both cases.

- You know, at this point, I think that the timing of both of these cases coming to bear at the same time, obviously coincidental, but certainly noteworthy when you talk about many themes that overlap, I think it's important though, for this trial, to stand on its own in many ways though, because at least that's what we've heard from, really all the lawyers involved in this case, that they've urged people to consider exactly what happened on the events that all of this took place, August 25th, 2020, outside of all these other layers that could be considered.

- Yeah, and as you said, it's sort of the timing is coincidental, but it's also a sort of, in some ways striking. Zolan, I want to come to you because part of what's going on in the Arbery case, they're not talking that much about race in the courtroom, but there is this attorney from one of the men who's on trial, who said at one point I do not want to see more black pastors in this courtroom. And he was really talking about the idea that Reverend Al Sharpton, as well as Reverend Jesse Jackson, they were there in the courtroom supporting the family of Arbery. The judge shut that down essentially, and said, we're not talking about that. I'm not limiting who's coming into this court. But now you see black pastors showing up to the courthouse to essentially say, we can be here if we want to be here. Just talk about the politics of this, and how much race is playing into all of this.

- Well, one of the jarring and pretty surprising things thus far, is that that has been one of the few times that race really has been brought up. I mean, the prosecutors in that case, in the start of the trial had indications where they were going to bring up the witness accounts saying that one of the defendants did say a racial slur after the killing. Tried to bring up the fact that many would say, actually yes, race did factor into this incident as well. But as the trial has gone on, you really haven't seen the prosecutors dive into that theme at all. Yes, you saw some hard questioning there, but you haven't seen them talk about race as much. Instead, one of the few times we did hear about it was again, a complaint about those who aren't presenting evidence, but are, you know, in the pews. It probably is worth noting as well that while the defense is very, obviously called that out, you know, it's worth noting as well you have 11 out of 12 jurors there that are also white. Even if you want to deny it, race is present and a factor in this case. And it is curious how the prosecutors are also avoiding it.

- Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you, Nancy, so much for your reporting. I really appreciate you coming on on what I know is a busy night in Wisconsin. So, thank you. Meanwhile, I also want to dive into the divided state of our politics. On one side, Democrats are celebrating after the House passed President Biden's nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better act. The bill, which now has to the Senate, would expand social benefits, fight climate change, and change tax laws. But the GOP is blasting the plan, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy broke a record for the longest speech in the House. I was up last night watching this at four o'clock in the morning, which I probably should not have been doing, but he spent eight hours and 32 minutes criticizing the package.

- This bill is monumental. It's historic. It's transformative. It's bigger than anything we've ever done.

- You know, when I look at this bill, it angers me. We are so better than this. You are spending so much money, never before.

- Still on Monday at the White House, President Biden assembled Democrats and Republicans to celebrate the $1.75 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan becoming law.

- The bill I'm about to sign into law is proof that despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver results.

- This bipartisan support for this bill comes because it makes sense for our constituents. But the approach from the center out should be the norm not the exception.

- Meanwhile, the number of threats against lawmakers is escalating on track to double this year, according to "The New York Times". That comes with the 13 Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill have been inundated with angry messages and death threats. And on Wednesday, the House voted to censure Representative Paul Gosar, and removed him from two committees. The move was in response to Gosar posting an animated video showing him killing representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and attacking President Biden. Here, is some of the emotional debate before the vote.

- This is not about me. This is not about Representative Gosar, but this is about what we are willing to accept. As leaders, in this country when we incite violence with depictions against our colleagues that trickles down into violence in this country. And that is where we must draw the line independent of party, identity, or belief.

- I do not espouse violence towards anyone. I never have. I voluntarily took the cartoon down not because it was itself a threat, but because some thought it was. Out of compassion for those who generally felt offense, I self-censored.

- As I said, it was a busy Friday. It was a busy Friday. It was a busy week. Ryan, I want to come to you. I was going to start with infrastructure, but really, you know, we're talking about sort of violence and all of this. And I wonder Gosar's Republican... His lawmakers, his fellow Republicans in the Congress, they fiercely defended him. I wonder what you make of that. Especially, as you talk to national security sources, and sort of what message it says that the GOP, and at least some in the conservative party, are okay with a lawmaker posting a video of him depicting, an edited video, of him depicting another lawmaker.

- Yeah, you know, I think there was a case today, a January 6th case that I was covering today. It involved this defendant who was sentenced to jail for two weeks. And what essentially they went through in this case was how there was all this rhetoric around the election and all of this threatening of violence, but the judge was saying that unfortunately, it's the people who are on the front lines, the pawns, as he called them, who are going to be suffering the consequences. It's not going to be the people who actually were putting forward this rhetoric, and telling people, in the case of January 6th, that the election was stolen and inspiring this attack on the Capitol. It's the people who actually went about committing that violence. The people who actually went about bringing about those threats, and in this case, you know, that's a threat that he sort of puts out there is obviously going to inspire a lot more threats against AOC. It's gonna inspire a lot more threats against lawmakers, and it could potentially threaten violence as we saw on January 6th. I think that you have to realize that the internet is the real world now. This is a situation where if you have people believing, honestly, that the election is stolen, they're going to do something about it. And you can't put out these sort of crazy conspiracy theories because people are going to do something about it. There are consequences for a lot of these actions, and a lot of these words that lawmakers are putting into the arena.

- Yeah, and I think that the point the internet is the real world. We are seeing real world implications of that. Zolan, Democrats, in some ways, they are issuing this dire warning that the GOP is trying to destroy the country. But also you see polls showing that Republicans still have an edge when you look at the midterms, and President Biden is having issues with his poll numbers. They're sinking. All this, of course, while they were able to pass infrastructure, and while it's heading to the Senate, I wonder what the White House is thinking of, sort of, what to focus on? Should they be talking about infrastructure? Should they be focusing on Gosar? Or should they be ignoring all of this, and just trying to get things done? What are you hearing from your sources?

- Well, it's a couple of different lanes, right? I mean, look for one, the poll numbers and the dwindling approval numbers, the challenge for the White House now and what their strategy is now, is you have to take one, potentially two, packages that really have been associated with congressional gridlock and Washington moving slow, and now turn it into something that is relatable, something that you can sell to voters. Voters who may be concerned about the rise in groceries at their local market and the rising gas prices as well. How do you take something that is sprawling and really hard to understand for many Americans and say, this is something that will actually benefit your life immediately? Talking to officials in the White House, it seems like they're going to try and take something like infrastructure which does include climate provisions, does include investments that would go towards racial equity, and talk about it in terms of jobs. This is how we will get people back to work. Also, for say the second package, those larger social spending package, When it comes to their strategy for actually selling this, they're going to try and focus on what they see as bipartisan provisions. Empowering Medicare to negotiate down prescription drug prices. They see that as a way to try and galvanize the base that they were missing last election day as well. So, and also, they're going to rely on the president as well to do this. And the question is, look, he's going to be selling are people are going to be buying?

- Yeah, and Phil, in the minute we have left, as the senior Washington correspondent, breakdown sort of all of the different things that President Biden has to balance. There's the VP's office and all the sort of leaking out there that's going on. She lost the communications director, but there's also inflation, there's COVID. How is this White House sort of juggling all of this? And what are the sort of political implications as Republicans want to jump all over them and try to use some of this against them?

- Yamiche, so many converging challenges and crises on this presidency. And we're at a year out now from the midterm elections which will be the first major test of Biden's political strength. And it's not all the things you mentioned, it's also foreign affairs, the war in Afghanistan and the pull out there. He just returned from a trip to Europe where he was meeting with our allies. It's not clear exactly where America is vis-a-vis our adversaries in the world right now. Clearly, the internal staff turmoil in the vice president's office and elsewhere in the White House, that's kind of a minor concern. But the key thing that Zolan was getting at these two infrastructure bills, the challenge for Biden is those individual measures, those policies are popular out in the country, and yet Biden has been unable to articulate a message to make him popular as the president who got it signed into law. And so that's a big hurdle for him to overcome. He's got to try to inspire the American people and make them feel like he's got their backs amid rising inflation, amid all of the economic struggle going into these holidays.

- Yeah, it's going to be a thing that he's going to really have to balance. And when I talk White House sources, I hear the idea that they really want to try to sell infrastructure. They're going to be running around the country, trying to do that, but it is a challenge to try to be right.

- [Phil] Easier said than done though.

- Right, very easier said than done. Finally this week, because it was, as I said, a busy week. This week, two men were exonerated in the killing of civil rights icon, Malcolm X. It was a powerful moment that illustrated the flaws of the criminal justice system. Tonight, in the "Washington Week Extra", we will talk to the producers of a Netflix documentary that was key to finding evidence that showed the men were innocent, and we will speak to a co-author of a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Malcolm X. Find the extra on our website, Facebook, and YouTube. That's it for tonight. Thank you to Zolan, Ryan, and Phil for your reporting. And thank you for joining us and be sure to watch the "PBS News Hour" on Monday from lockdowns to vaccine mandates, the show will examine how some European countries are trying to manage their latest COVID surge. I'm Yamiche Alcindor. Goodnight from Washington.

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