RACHEL SCOTT: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Rachel Scott.
President Biden just hit 100 days in office. One of the main challenges he is facing is police reform. George Floyd’s brother and other family members, people who died at the hands of police met with Senator Tim Scott and other lawmakers just yesterday. Scott is part of a bipartisan group which is negotiating the issue of police reform. There is some optimism in Washington that the calls for action could be accomplished in the next 100 days.
Joining us tonight for an in-depth conversation on this pressing issue are four top reporters covering it all: Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News; and joining me here in the studio is Lisa Desjardins, correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Geoff, let me start with you because they were meeting with these bipartisan group of lawmakers, going door to door on Capitol Hill, then showing up there at the White House. What does meaningful reform and legislation look like for those families, and do you think their message got across?
GEOFF BENNETT: Well, the families feel as if they were listened to intently by both lawmakers and the officials that they met with at the White House. I think what they’re looking for is accountability, and it would take the form of this George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. There are a couple of sticking points, one having to do with qualified immunity which right now basically shields law enforcement officers from civil suits. There’s been pushback from Republicans on that. But even Lindsey Graham, who’s been working alongside Tim Scott, the Republican who’s sort of championing this effort, leading this effort for Senate Republicans, has said that, you know, behavior has to change when it comes to some of these excessive uses and in some cases fatal uses of force by police against Black and brown people, Rachel.
MS. SCOTT: Do you think, Geoff, that we could see President Joe Biden reach out to Senator Tim Scott, invite him to the White House?
MR. BENNETT: Potentially. I mean, one of the things that we’ve seen President Biden do is pick and choose his battles and enter into these sort of fraught issues only if he thinks it can be helpful. That is the benefit of him having served in public life and having served in the Senate for almost half a century. And so, you know, he is not using his political capital in a way that is directly connected to legislation; what he’s done is been very public about the conversations he’s had with George Floyd’s family. When the Chauvin trial was ongoing and the jury was sequestered and deliberating, the president said on the record that he hoped the jury came to the right conclusion. The president has name-checked people like Ahmaud Aubrey, who was killed by White racists in Georgia. And so, you know, he has spoken up and sort of used presidential rhetoric in ways that previous presidents haven’t, but when it comes to this legislation he’s letting lawmakers really drive this car and hopefully get it across the finish line.
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, and Jonathan, we saw him back out of that campaign promise to create this sort of police oversight commission, but we know that he also has these sort of longstanding relationships with police unions. Do you think he could be fostering those more to get actually something done and have some change?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Yeah, so my understanding on this is that the White House is intentionally taking something of a secondary role because they actually want to have a bill to sign, and they don’t want to impede the negotiations that I think right now are going pretty well, and I think the concern, Rachel, is that if this comes off as sort of, like, Biden intervening that that could sort of drive away some of the Republicans. So they want to give Tim Scott some space with Karen Bass to, you know, try to cut a deal that could pass in both chambers and that Biden can sign. So I think this is an example of where he’s, I think, purposefully not using his capital to get something done, if that makes sense.
MS. SCOTT: And, Ashley, you know, it’s – what has been fascinating for me is that the Republican Party sort of ran on this message of law and order. So does these bipartisan negotiations – if this is something that actually both sides come together on – mark a turn for the Republican Party, for GOP leaders?
MS. PARKER: Yes and no. They ran on law and order, absolutely; that was a key theme of former President Trump. And they believe sort of slogans like defund the police, when the Democrats say that, are very politically advantageous to them, and that’s something you should still expect them to press going into the upcoming midterm elections. But if you look at what Trump, for instance, did with criminal justice reform – which was really one of his few big legislative achievements beyond cutting taxes – there is space where Republicans and Democrats, but most specifically Republicans, can reach bipartisan agreements, can pick up legislation and policies that might not be typically expected for them and make some headway and, they believe, be rewarded for that.
MS. SCOTT: I do want to discuss the case of Mario Gonzalez, a young Latino man who died after he was pinned to the ground by police in Alameda, California. This case has some striking similarities to the death of George Floyd. Lisa, I know you’ve been on Capitol Hill. You were talking to Senator Lindsey Graham. I also thought it was interesting this week that we heard from Congresswoman Cori Bush who said if qualified immunity is not altered, she’s not – she’s not going to vote for it.
MS. DESJARDINS: Right, and just as importantly, we know the families who were meeting with lawmakers, meeting with Lindsey Graham, said that. Bakari Sellers, who represents Mr. Andrew Brown from North Carolina, a man killed – his family, was asked, will you insist on changing qualified immunity? Will you insist on changing the standard for prosecuting police? He said yes. So that is – those are the people in the room, and they are going to demand that there will be changes. And that’s why even though there’s so much optimism, Rachel, a lot of us on the Hill are wondering, how do they bridge that divide?
And Geoff talked about this idea that’s coming not just from Republicans but from also Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, which is you make it easier to sue police departments while still protecting police officers. But you know, I just don’t hear the left really embracing that idea very strongly, and I certainly don’t hear that from the families who have lost loved ones to police violence.
MS. SCOTT: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for tonight. I want to thank all of our amazing reporters for joining us – Geoff, Lisa, Jonathan, and Ashley – for being here tonight and for your analysis, and thank you for joining us. Make sure you sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website, where you’ll get an early preview of each edition of Washington Week. I’m Rachel Scott. Good night.