I wanted to speak with you about the current administration’s record. You got some flack for saying they’ve done a “great” job on criminal justice reform.
I’ll say it again now if you want me to!
I’m curious why you said that, because while the First Step Act is a big step, when we talk about this administration’s track record on criminal justice reform it’s hard to divorce that from what’s going on at the border, when you talk about imprisoning families—including young children.
That’s immigration—that’s not criminal justice.
It’s still a criminal justice issue though—these are immigrants being thrown into mainly private prisons.
No, it’s not—it’s immigration, from a legal point of view.
If you’re not willing to be as loud when they’re right as you are when they’re wrong, then I think you have zero credibility.
But it’s a criminal justice issue, you see what I’m getting at? It’s hard to divorce that from the Trump administration’s record on criminal justice.
I’ve done nothing but attack the Trump administration on their deplorable, despicable human-rights catastrophe on immigration—repeatedly, loudly, over and over again.
Right but these immigrants are being thrown in private prisons, and the Trump administration’s been the biggest boon for the private prison industry since ever. Obviously Obama cut off private prisons at the knees before he left office but that order was rescinded, and one year after Trump was elected president private prison stocks were up 100%. So when you factor in everything…
Right. Even the day he was elected they started going up.
And the First Step Act was a big first step, but the Trump administration only sought to dedicate $14 million for it in the 2020 budget, which really isn’t much.
Well now, you know just enough to be dangerous but not enough to know what you’re talking about on this. Look at what I actually said—not the liberal freak-out reaction to what I said—which is, if you point out one positive thing that the Trump administration did, people will say, well what about the 97 bad things they did? By the way, I’m on record on those 97,000 bad things that they’ve done! Every night on CNN, over and over and over again! But they were right on the legislative side of criminal justice. And if you’re not willing to be as loud when they’re right as you are when they’re wrong, then I think you have zero credibility. And what I’m seeing now is people are saying, if you’re the referee, because they had 14 fouls even when they make the shot you have to call it a foul.
But they’re fouled out of the game at that point.
I’m just saying, the bench players that are still on the court. So I refuse to back down on this. Every time they do something right, I’m going to scream, holler and cheer; and every time they do something wrong, I’m going to scream, holler and boo. And if you look at my record, 99% of the time I’m booing. But I am not going to be a part of this Trump-derangement syndrome that says you have to boo them even when they’re right because they’ve been wrong.
You think there’s “Trump-derangement syndrome?” That’s a pretty loaded term.
I live with it. There is a section, not everybody. Look, those of us who are opponents of Trump and Trumpism are right to be upset about all the stuff that we see. And listen, if we tried to do an interview on everything that’s wrong we’d be here until the sun came up—including transgender people being thrown out of the military when Trump wouldn’t even serve—I mean, it’s just outrageous. But you cannot have credibility if a kid turns in their homework and you say, “Well, you missed nine out of ten so I’m going to actually give you a demerit for the one you got right.”
I think for some people it’s an issue of motive: Where is this coming from? Why did he pass it, given his history? For instance, there’s this Central Park Five movie coming out…
…I’m not going to sit here and defend Trump. Why are we doing this? This has nothing to do with it.
I’m just saying that I think that’s why some people are skeptical when Trump does something like the First Step Act. They ask, “Why is he doing this?” And it may be to court the black vote, because right after that Kim Kardashian meeting in the Oval Office, where she worked to free Alice Marie Johnson, Trump reportedly told her that she was boosting his popularity with black voters. So when people are reluctant to compliment Trump over things like the First Step Act, I think they’re skeptical of his motive. But I understand that sometimes the end can justify the means.
It turns out that sometimes some politicians do things for political reasons. If we’re gonna freak out about that, then we can’t engage with any politician. So part of why I won’t back down is: we can’t lower our own standards on the left. We are fact-based. We are fairness first. And if we start going in a different direction just because our opponents have, then where is the hope? So being fact-based and fairness first means, even the team you hate, even the team that’s been cheating, if they score a proper goal, you give them the credit and you give them the applause for doing it the right way—and that doesn’t mean that the next 15 things they do aren’t wrong. What I observed was, my insistence on encouraging the good wherever I can find it then gets reinterpreted as an apology for the things that I’ve denounced louder than the people who are criticizing me. That doesn’t make any sense!
I’ve watched you a lot on CNN, and I think you do a fine job on there. One thing I really took issue with, however, was the “he became president in that moment” line following Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress.
I’m proud of that one too.
You really are? You don’t want to take that one back?
No. I’m proud of it.
So during that speech, you don’t think that whole spiel he gave on “illegal immigrants,” and having the parents of people killed by “illegal immigrants” there, was dog-whistling?
That wasn’t what that was.
You thought it was genuine empathy he was showing for those people?
No, no. You should go back and play it—and also play the other eleven minutes where, I literally attack him for ten minutes and I say one positive thing and we’re still talking about it two years later. This is what I’m saying. Like, you’re talking about somebody who literally in the past 18 months has helped to pass 18 criminal justice bills in 10 states; helped to pass the First Step Act—25,000 people this year alone will have shorter sentences than they would have, 4,000 will come home; and we’re talking about tweets and comments on CNN.
I thought that was a big thing, though, where a lot of your fans—myself included—were like, what’s that about?
It was two years ago.
I understand. I’m curious though about my earlier question—why you still stand by it.
I’m proud of it. First of all, it wasn’t about an undocumented person killing someone. That wasn’t what that was. Eleven minutes—ten minutes attacking him for what he did wrong in the speech, one minute praising him for what he did right in the speech. And we’re having the same conversation we just had. So I’m gonna be done with this and talk about something else. This line of questioning is why I’m doing The Redemption Project, because two years later, you’re talking to the only person in this building who’s passed not one, not two, but 18 bills—bipartisan, to help lots of people—but we’re not talking about that. I’m the only person in this building who founded not one, but two social justice organizations. But we’re not talking about that. We’re not talking about deeds, or achievements.
I only asked you a couple questions about the CNN comments—and they were comments that made headlines and attracted a lot of criticism, so I wanted to hear your side of it.
Well, what I’ll say about that is it’s very simple: when Trump walked in that night, he was a president of the United States walking into Congress for the first time. He turns in one direction and is only shaking hands in one direction. Why? Because the Democrats won’t even go and shake his hand, because they knew—and were not wrong—that if they were caught in a picture shaking hands with Donald Trump at that point…
Political death. Who do I blame for that? Donald Trump, and how he’s conducted himself. But as an American watching that, that was as shocking as anything I’ve seen in the formal ceremonies of American life. I thought, “We’re so broken that they won’t even shake his hand”—and they probably shouldn’t. And then he goes up there and starts giving his speech. And at no point during the speech do Democrats even feel comfortable clapping. So I said to David Axelrod, “This guy has lost the country. As far as I’m concerned, you can eulogize the presidency right now. When you can’t even get the opposing party to shake your hand, there’s something really, really wrong.” And then he found a spot in the speech where he was actually able to do something that presidents are supposed to be able to do, which is to bring some kind of unity—some kind of unity—to the country, and get everyone in accord about something. And I said, “That was the moment.”
And then twelve hours later—tweet, tweet, tweet.
Fine. So what? You’re doing live television and you’re trying to be honest about what you’re seeing, and call it fair. I’m happy, and proud of it, and would do it again. I can’t lower my standards to deal with everybody’s freak-out. I’m a progressive—facts first, fairness first. I don’t care if you’re my worst enemy—if you say something that is true, I’m going to say it’s true. Once we start saying, “Well, you said it was true but because you’re a Republican you probably didn’t mean it so I’m going to give you a demerit anyway,” now I’m just like them.
I think your ability to compliment the Trump administration is, in a sense, a testament to your objectivity because you’re someone who should have a serious ax to grind against some of these people—especially Mike Pence, who helped run a smear campaign against you to get you booted out of the Obama administration.
Don’t stop with them! Jared Kushner, the first thing he does when his father-in-law gets elected, is he calls two doors down to Jeff Zucker and says, “Fire Van Jones and fire Ana Navarro.” And who did I work with to get the First Step Act passed? Jared Kushner. Who am I standing next to when Trump signs the bill? Mike Pence. Who wrote the check to Americans for Prosperity to build a dossier to get me out? Mark Holden and Koch Industries. Who’s standing on the other side of me when Trump signs the bill? Mark Holden. I’m literally standing there with Mark Holden, Mike Pence, and Jared Kushner while Donald Trump signs the bill and hands me the pen. Why? Because I don’t care about all this bullshit. I’m just trying to get people out of prison.
Kushner stepping in and trying to get you and Ana Navarro fired from CNN is a pretty crazy thing to do.
He gave me job security for life! [Laughs]
But I wanted to talk about the 2016 audit. Last month, I was down at SXSW where Jeff Zucker spoke about what happened during the 2016 election on CNN, and he had some regrets. You were in that tornado every night—along with Ana Navarro and David Axelrod—sometimes going up against three or four Trump surrogates like Kayleigh McEnany, Jeffrey Lord, and all these people who’ve since been jettisoned from the network. But I’m curious how you feel CNN handled the 2016 election? Because it felt at times like it devolved into a cafeteria-food-fight situation.
I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s talk about my show! Let’s talk about what CNN’s going to do in 2019.
Well, because we’ve got an election coming up in 2020, so I’m curious if you have any insight into how that went, and what can be done differently the next time around.
I think in 2019 we can watch my show, The Redemption Project, Sundays at 9 o’clock. It’s Anthony Bourdain’s slot and that’s sacred ground here, so for CNN to give these kinds of stories that kind of position is really powerful—and it’s historic. There’s something happening. I’m going to stop doing these interviews because everybody wants to talk about this other stuff, and I’m telling you man, people are missing it. They’re so caught up in, “Somebody said something nice about Trump!” “But Trump’s a bad person!” Like, really? We can have that conversation for another four or five years if you want to, but here’s what we’re missing.
Date Posted: Monday, April 29th, 2019 , Total Page Views: 1067
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