March 13, 2020

Jeh Johnson

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson discusses the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus. Johnson, who was DHS Secretary during the 2014 Ebola crisis, talks about communicating with the public during times of anxiety. He also discusses ongoing election interference and immigration policy.

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He faced and fought the outbreak of a deadly disease, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

We’re putting in place enhanced screening at arrival airports around the country.

As Homeland Security Secretary for President Obama, Jeh Johnson helped lead the country through a public-health emergency — the Ebola virus.

The outbreak in Africa is even worse than we feared.

Later, he was on the front lines for another emerging threat, Russian election interference.

Mr. Secretary, was our democracy attacked this past election?

Yes.

Now, with the novel coronavirus spreading and the Russians trying to interfere again in 2020, what does Secretary Jeh Johnson say now?

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Welcome to the ‘Firing Line,’ Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Margaret, thanks for having me.

You have had a distinguished career in public service, which began when you were a U.S.
attorney and Rudy Giuliani’s SDNY.

Yes.

And you were the Secretary of Homeland Security in President Obama’s final term as president.
And recently, in civilian life, were awarded the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award.
I’d like to begin by the topic that is most in the news that I think draws most directly from your experience when you were the Secretary of Homeland Security and dealt with the Ebola virus…
Yes.

…the coronavirus.

You’re right.
My frame of reference for this discussion is the Ebola virus that we wrestled with in the fall of 2014, which is a little over five years ago.
Comparisons are not perfect.
It’s a different virus emanating from a different part of the world.
But my takeaways from the experience with the Ebola virus, first, a lethal virus can create a lot of anxiety because the public doesn’t know where it’s going to end.
The public doesn’t know how far it’s going to spread, how many people will be affected before we turn the corner.
And very often in this type of environment, first reactions are not the best reactions.
The important part of planning and responding to a lethal virus, something that could reach pandemic proportions, is it has to be a whole of government response coordinated by somebody in the White House.

Explain why that’s so important, that the coordination must come from the White House.

Well, somebody’s got to have their fingers in all the different pies out there, and somebody’s got to be in a position to direct cabinet-level agencies to coordinate a response.
And that inevitably falls to an official with some clout in the White House.

Are you confident that that is the design of operations now that Vice President Pence has been put in place?

I believe that this administration got a late start.
The Vice President is a very logical czar, if you will, for coordinating this type of response.
He’s got the stature.
He’s got the prestige.
Obviously, cabinet-level agencies will respect his directives and his coordination.

As a communicator at the head of a department, what is the best balance between full transparency with the American people and then navigating sometimes the need for real discretion in order to prevent fears, runs on supplies, an ill effect?

That’s an excellent question.
One of the components of being the Secretary of Homeland Security is the public messaging in times of anxiety.
My attitude was this — first, I did not believe, and I don’t believe, in scaring people for the sake of scaring people.
My successor, John Kelly, who’s a friend of mine, once said, when he was in the job, ‘If you knew what I knew, you’d hide under the mattress.’
Now, I don’t believe in alarming the public in that way, nor do I believe that an intellectual response like ‘The flu is more prevalent than the coronavirus,’ is particularly helpful.
People don’t want to hear that from the security officials of their government.
The more appropriate response, in my view, has three components to it — A, here are the facts — ‘X number of cases in the United States, X number of cases worldwide.
And here is what your government, your Department of Homeland Security, is doing about it.
Here are the 10 things we are doing.’
I believe the American public generally understands that living in our society is not a risk-free proposition.
And you communicate in a way that doesn’t unduly scare them but also promotes confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the problem.

All right, so then let me get your reaction to the current acting secretary of Homeland Security discussing the coronavirus with Republican Senator John Kennedy from Louisiana.
Let’s take a look.

Do we have enough respirators?

To my knowledge, we do.
I’m focused on making sure that our operators at DHS, make sure that they have the protective equipment.
I know HHS, as part of the supplemental —
We just heard testimony that we don’t.

Testimony from…?
In a briefing.
How far away are we from getting a vaccine?

In several months.

Well, that’s not what we just heard testimony about.

Okay.

You’re supposed to keep us safe.
And the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus, and I’m not getting them from you.

I disagree.

That’s all I have, Madam Chair.

I mean, is this a fair line of questioning?

So, clearly, that Q&A did not promote confidence.
I testified before Congress 26 times in three years.
Witnesses — we would live in fear of being asked a very specific question that we don’t know the answer to, like how many respirators are available, how many people have died in Afghanistan?
And if you don’t know the precise answer, you can say, you know, ‘Senator, can I get back to you on that?’
Or certainly, be prepared for what the senator was told in a prior briefing — be aware of that.
And you have to — if you don’t know the answer, you have to answer in a way that does promote confidence.

We’ve talked about communication and how to communicate accurately with the public.

Yes.

What do you think about the level of competence you’ve seen from the Trump administration and the actors in our government right now?

Well, this is where having so many officials serving in acting roles can make a discernable difference.
Within the Department of Homeland Security now, I, frankly, lost track.
You have people in acting roles who then are acting acting’s, effectively.

There is no Homeland Security secretary right now.
There’s only an acting secretary of Homeland Security.

It is hard to find somebody in DHS now who is in the Senate-confirmed role that they were confirmed by the Senate to do.
And that means there’s no job security.
And President Trump has virtually said —
Does it mean there’s no accountability?

It means that the advisers, the cabinet-level officials, are not giving the president the advice and the warnings he needs to hear.
Because when you’re appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, clearly you serve at the pleasure of the president, but there’s a certain degree of job security once the Senate has invested in you for that job.
The presumption is you serve the balance of that president’s term.

You think the President’s doing that so that he can fire people or move people, remove people more quickly or more easily?

Well, the President has virtually said — and I think this is almost a quote — ‘I like actings,’ because it’s like — it’s like, you know, a trial for the job.
And in that circumstance, when there is such job insecurity, officials don’t tell the president the things that he too often needs to hear but doesn’t want to hear.

Does that make us more or less safe or secure?

I think it makes us less prepared.
I think it makes us — I think it makes it harder for the federal government to anticipate problems.
Nobody likes to tell the President problems.
I once heard somebody in the Obama White House say that good news is on the express train.
Bad news is on the local, making every stop.
And President Obama was suspicious of too much good news because he had lived through enough experiences where there were unpleasant surprises.
And so if you gave him too much good news, he would become a skeptic.

Sounds like things have changed a little bit.

Well, it certainly appears to be the case.

On top of that, you have this added dynamic of an incredibly hyper-partisan climate in Washington, D.C.

Mm-hmm.

Let’s just take a look at a smattering of examples of what political leadership has said about the coronavirus and finger-pointing.

The Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and well-being of all Americans.
Now you see it with the coronavirus.
You see it.

Anything that they can use to try to hurt Trump, they will.
But for them to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning is a new level of sickness.

The administration has no plan to deal with the coronavirus.
No plan.

Okay. Viruses, as we know, don’t distinguish between Republicans and Democrats.

What we just heard is what turns people off to Washington.
To many people, including myself, politics has become the ends and not the means.
95% of public safety, homeland security, national security, is without politics.
It’s bipartisan, like dealing with an Ebola virus or a coronavirus.
And this kind of finger-pointing back and forth is not helpful.

Let’s change the topic.
I’d like to ask you about election security.

Yes.

Because as the Secretary of Homeland Security, you were very keyed in to the interference in our elections in 2016.
And in fact, it was you and James Clapper who notified the public on October 7, 2016, of Russian interference into American elections.
What was the decision process to notify the public and especially at the at the secretary level?

So, Margaret, I have learned that in any difficult national security decision, any difficult government policy decision, somebody’s gonna say, ‘Why did you do it?’
somebody’s gonna say, ‘Why didn’t you do it sooner?’

Sure.

You have to put the threat to our democracy, which is ongoing, as we speak, in three buckets.
One is the cyber threat to our election infrastructure — voting machines, reporting, which is what I was most concerned about in 2016.
And that was what, I felt, we needed to warn the public about principally.
Second was the theft of information from campaigns and candidates, which was then weaponized to favor one candidate over the other or cause dissension, generally.

Like the hacking of the DNC server.

Hacking the DNC, correct.

Or the hacking of John Podesta’s e-mails.

Right.
Third was the publication, re-publication of fake news and extremist views, which in an open, free society is the hardest problem to get your arms around.
I believe we have yet to fully understand the extent to which the Russian campaign in 2016 influenced public opinion in 2016.
And we know they’re doing it now in 2020.
So, in the summer of 2016 — go back four years — we had an emerging intelligence picture of what the Russians were doing, how they were doing it, and who directed it.
And we felt strongly that we had to tell the public something, that there was a foreign actor with his thumb on the scale, trying to influence the outcome of the election, trying to influence our democracy.
And GEMINI issued the statement on October 7th.
And it didn’t get the attention that we thought.
It was an unprecedented statement — ‘A foreign government is trying to influence the outcome of domestic policy.’

And it was completely overtaken by the news cycle, by the Access Hollywood tape, and then by the WikiLeaks response…
All of the above, all the above.
And so it was literally ‘below the fold’ news.
And it wasn’t until December, after the election, frankly, that the mainstream media came back to it to say, ‘Hey, the Russians interfered in our election.’
Yes, that’s true.
We told you.

There was an internal deliberations in the administration about some form of retaliatory action that could be taken against the Russians before the election.
You ultimately decided not to pursue that course.
Was that because you were afraid of the politics?

Well, we did take action.
We took action in January 2017.
But you have to remember, this was…
But not before the election?

This was in the last six months of an outgoing administration.
And since then, over the last 3, 3 1/2 years, it has really been up to the current administration to own this problem and take responsibility for the integrity of our democracy.
And when you’re dealing with another nation-state actor, really, the only effective defense against this kind of behavior is to create sufficient deterrents to make the behavior cost-prohibitive.
And clearly, the U.S. government has not responded in a way to deter the Russian government from engaging in this bad behavior.

I want to get to that.
But I want to just go back to this question about politics and trying to figure out the right thing to do in the face of what could be real political consequences if you had taken retaliatory action against the Russians before the election.

Right.

There was a fear that there could be a political fallout that might somehow hurt Hillary Clinton, and especially given the backdrop that President Trump had created this narrative that the election was rigged and was already instilling a lack of confidence…
Correct.

…in the electoral process.
How do you know when you’re considering the right thing to do and you’re weighing it against politics that the politics are going to shake out the way you think?

Margaret, you don’t know.
We were dealing with an unprecedented situation.
And the best thing you have in this kind of new territory was to rely upon your own best instincts for how best to preserve our democracy, how best to preserve the integrity of our national security, homeland security institutions.
And that’s what we did.

The Russians and other foreign adversaries are at it again.

Mm-hmm.

Congress is aware of it.
And everybody seems to be pointing fingers at each other about it.

It would be really nice to hear — and we should hear — from our president, not the candidates for president, not a member of Congress.
Our president — a firm statement to the Russian government, ‘This behavior needs to stop.’
A simple, unequivocal, firm statement.
It’s not that hard.
And without that, the Russians are getting a very mixed message.
This administration has done certain things to sanction them.
But the person at the top, the President of the United States, has yet to say the very simple thing — ‘Cut it out.’
And as long as that ambiguity persists, I fear the Russians are going to continue in this behavior.

Do you have any personal opinion about why the President has never done that?

It seems to me that President Trump believes that to concede that the Russians interfered in our election — to his benefit — would somehow de-legitimize his election.
That’s what appears, to me, to be the case.
And there are things when you are president of the United States more important than the legitimacy of your own election.
How about the integrity of our democracy as a whole?
The president has a responsibility to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
That includes the integrity of our very democracy.
And I believe that, as my successor said, our democracy is in the cross hairs right now.

You talked about the three different areas where our election security is at risk.
One of them was election infrastructure.
You believe that in 2016 the Russians were not successful in actually changing any votes or changing any voter registration data.

So far as I know.

And as far as the intelligence community knows, as far as the Senate intelligence report on this issue knows, they were not successful in changing any votes.
But do you fear or do you suspect that they might have gotten better at it and have more sophisticated techniques for 2020?
How how do you think 2020 looks in this realm?

Well, the good news on this front is, I think we’re better prepared.
A lot of good work has been done between the states and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to bolster the cybersecurity of our election infrastructure.
And I think the principal threat lies in the bucket I talked about earlier.

The social-media disinformation campaigns propagated by the Russian government or other foreign adversary.

And it appears to be that’s exactly what the Russians are principally focused on.

So our first line of defense, it seems to me, are actually the social-media platforms — Facebook, Twitter.
The Russians are also moving to new media platforms like Reddit.

Margaret, our — our virtue as a free, open society…
Is also our vulnerability.

…is also our vulnerability.
And I do not believe that the government itself should be in the business of regulating political debate and speech on the Internet.
Think of what certain government officials could do if they could ban something because they deem it to be fake news.
It’s up to social-media providers, Internet service providers, in the first instance, to regulate even the terms of their own usage by Internet users.
And, frankly, you know, the public — you know, we’re always reluctant to ask the public to do something.
The public has a role here.
You know, apply greater levels of skepticism to the stuff you see on the Internet.

What is your biggest fear or concern as the former secretary of homeland security, as you look at election security in 2020?

My biggest concern is that the Russian government is continuing in their bad behavior and that our government is not putting in place sufficient warnings and deterrents to make that behavior cost-prohibitive.
The Russians have not been deterred.
They have no reason to fear a response from our government right now.

Let me ask you about immigration, because as secretary of Homeland Security, this was a major piece of your portfolio.
Decriminalizing illegal border crossings, abolishing ICE — these are two ideas that were prevalent in the Democratic primary process this year.

Which I think I wrote an op-ed about.

Which you have opined against, in both cases.
You have a much more pragmatic approach.

The public at large, in my experience, wants us to treat people, once they are here, in a fair, humane way.
For example, let’s take care of the DACA kids who are de facto Americans, who grew up here as Americans.
But Americans also want secure borders.
You go to Laredo, Texas, which is something like 85%, 90% Mexican-American, 85%, 90% Democratic.
Laredo, Texas, is a border city.
They want secure borders.
They don’t want their border out of control.
And so the reality is that, as long as we are a sovereign nation with secure borders, we have to enforce our immigration laws.

I’d like you to take a look at how Republicans were talking about the immigration issue in 1998 when William F. Buckley Jr.
hosted Tony Garza on the program, who was the Secretary of State for George W. Bush when he was the governor of Texas.
Let’s take a look.

What Bush did throughout his term, he said, ‘Listen, we’re going to enforce these laws.
We’re going to enforce them in a respectful way.
But a country has a right to enforce its borders.’

But what were the Democrats saying at the same time?

Well, the national Democrat, I think, was trying to use it as an issue that separated Hispanics from the positions Republicans were taking.
What is is somewhat offensive is that it suggests that there are no distinctions between Hispanic Americans, Mexican-Americans, and people who don’t share the rights that accrue to citizens.

So, Governor Bush’s position has been, ‘We got laws, and we got to observe them, and we expect Mexicans to understand that.’

You bet.

And then, that does not loosen native support.

No, it really doesn’t.

Again, that was his secretary of state when he was governor of Texas.
And again, he’s outlining a very pragmatic approach to immigration, which you reflected, as well.
This issue has become so politicized and so polarized between the hyper-partisans on both sides of this, and the pragmatists, who really want to get something done, almost can’t.
It feels like the one issue that has just stuck.
Whichever administration tries to touch it.
Why?

Margaret, there are answers to our broken immigration system.
There are actually answers that are obtainable.
Unfortunately, they are politically unobtainable right now and have been for the last several years because no one wants to exercise the political courage to reach across the aisle and achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
And everyone is speaking to their respective bases.
And there are smart ways to strengthen our border security through more technology, and I suppose reinforcing a wall in the places where it makes sense while also giving people who’ve been here for a decade or more a path to citizenship.

So you’re not even opposed to a wall in some places.

No, of course not.
You know, we actually do have a wall.
We have a wall in the places where it makes sense.
Are there places where it could be re-fortified?
Are there some additional places along the 1,900-mile border that could have an additional barrier? Probably.
But it’s not just building a wall for the sake of building a wall and a bumper sticker and a rallying cry.

One final question.
You have two uncles who were Tuskegee Airmen.
One fought for integration of the military, was arrested for entering a white officers club, served 10 days in prison.
Three years later, Harry Truman integrated the military.
You were the chief lawyer at the Pentagon at a time that ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed.
Did you think about that legacy of civil rights in the military as you contemplated the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal?

Well, first, when we wrote that report, it was General Carter Ham and myself, and we were struck by the similarity between the arguments against allowing servicemembers who were gay to serve openly and desegregating the military.
The arguments were exact.
All you had to do was just substitute out the word ‘Negro’ for ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT.’
The arguments were the same — effect on unit cohesion, effect on morale, unit effectiveness.
And, unfortunately, we heard that argument in the ’40s and ’50s from some real icons in the military at the time.
In general, people are afraid of change.
People don’t like change.
They don’t like to be knocked out of their comfort zone.
General Ham and I wrote in that report that, yes, the military could do this without it affecting unit cohesion, and that’s all important in the military.
And the implementation of it, once Congress responded to that report and repealed the law, it was far smoother than we had predicted.
Actually, if we had predicted this would go off with almost no hitch, no one would’ve believed us at the time.
But that’s what happened, frankly, because I think it was an idea whose time had come.

With that, Jeh Johnson, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you.

Appreciate it.

Thank you.

And thank you for your service.

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