Into the Presidential Debate: Race, Protests and Police
Chris Wallace: Good evening. I'm Chris Wallace of Fox News, and I welcome you to the first of the 2020 presidential debates.
Trymaine Lee: That right there was probably the only normal moment of what we saw last night, (MUSIC) as President Trump and Former Vice President Biden went head to head in Cleveland for 90 dizzying minutes of debate. But for real, I'm not even sure if debate is the right word for it.
Former Vp Joe Biden: I'm not gonna answer the question, because--
President Donald Trump: Why wouldn't you answer that question? You--
Biden: --because the question is--
Trump: --(UNINTEL) a lotta-- the new--
Biden: --that question is--
Trump: --Supreme Court justice, radical--
Biden: The question--
Biden: Will you shut up--
Trump: Who is your--
Trump: Listen, who is on your list, Joe?
Biden: This is so--
Trump: Who's on your list?
Biden: --so (UNINTEL)--
Biden: This is--
Wallace: I think--
Biden: This is so--
Lee: --we've (UNINTEL) thus far--
Trump: He's gonna pack the court with--
Wallace: We have end-- oh, no, no.
Trump: --you're not gonna give a list.
Wallace: We have ended this segment. We're gonna move onto the second segment.
Biden: That was really a productive segment, wasn't it? (MUSIC)
Lee: And even before things got started, there was controversy.
Wallace: Let's please continue on. The issue of race. Vice President Biden, you say that President Trump's--
Lee: One of the topics of the night was titled, and I wanna quote this, "Race and Violence in Our Cities." Just that language alone seemed, well, kinda Trumpian, the way it conflated race and violence, instead of framing it as a push for racial justice that's been sweeping the country. And it was this segment of the debate where the president of the United States, the sitting president, did the most astonishing thing of the night. Not only did he refuse to denounce white supremacy--
Trump: When you--
Wallace: What are you saying?
Trump: I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
Wallace: Well, then do it, sir.
Biden: Say it.
Biden: Do it. Say it.
Lee: He actually gave a shout out to one of America's most notorious white supremacist groups. While Trump doubled down last night on so-called law and order, for Joe Biden the challenge was threading the needle. Satisfying those who wanna reshape policing in America to be more just, and those who say the problem is just a few bad apples. (MUSIC)
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. With 34 days until the election, how Donald Trump and Joe Biden staked out their ground last night on law and order, protests and policing and race. Tiffany Cross is a political analyst. She's a frequent contributor to MSNBC and the author of the book Say It Louder: Black Voters, White Narratives and Saving Our Democracy.
She joined me to break down that so-called "Race and Violence" segment of the debate, and also to call out some of the ways she got frustrated last night with Joe Biden for missed opportunities. Tiffany Cross, thank you for joining me. And I'm not even sure, honestly, where to begin with what we saw last night. One of our friends over at another network called it a "hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck," and I'm feelin' kinda wrecked myself. How were you just feelin' after witnessing what we saw last night?
Tiffany Cross: You know, honestly, I am shocked that people are so consistently surprised by this president. What I saw last night was what I anticipated to see. He has always shown this country who he is. He engaged in this type of behavior in 2016, and he was rewarded for it.
So just like a petulant child, I anticipated that he would double down, dig in his heels and go even lower to appeal to his base of people who applaud this type of behavior. So while I think that description is accurate, I would also just add to that many people in this country saw that behavior and felt affirmed and are willing to sign up for it again.
Lee: Let's dive in, 'cause I want us to, like, really listen to what he said and respond to it. And so I wanna go to this first clip, where Chris Wallace asked the president if he would denounce white supremacists. Let's listen.
Wallace: Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups--
Wallace: --and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha, and as we've seen in Portland?
Trump: Sure, I'm--
Wallace: Are you prepared--
Trump: --willing to do that--
Wallace: --to specifically--
Biden: Well, do it.
Trump: I would say--
Wallace: Well, go ahead, sir.
Trump: --I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.
Wallace: So what are you--
Trump: If you look--
Wallace: --what do you--
Wallace: What are you saying--
Trump: I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace--
Wallace: Well, then do it, sir.
Biden: Say it.
Biden: Do it. Say it.
Trump: Do you wanna call 'em, what do you wanna call 'em? Give me a name. Give me a name.
Wallace: White supremacists.
Trump: Go ahead. Well, who would you like--
Biden: White supremacists.
Trump: --me to condemn.
Biden: The Proud Boys.
Wallace: --supremacists and right-wing--
Biden: The Proud Boys.
Trump: The Proud Boys--
Trump: --stand back and stand by.
Lee: My goodness. Stand back and stand by. That doesn't sound like he's denouncing white supremacists. But there's a group called the Proud Boys who are a violent far right-wing group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group, and the Anti-Defamation League has referred to as, quote, "Hard core white supremacists." Stand back and stand by. Tiffany-- (LAUGHTER) Tiffany--
Cross: Yeah. I know.
Lee: I mean.
Cross: There isn't even a question to ask, Trymaine. I mean look, for people, again, who are surprised that he did not condemn white supremacy, I would just ask where have you been for four years? He started his campaign based in white supremacy. He's run a presidency that celebrates white supremacy, that is celebrated by white supremacists. His first job in government was president of the United States, because people liked what he had to say about race.
The one thing that I think shook me was that the moderator, Chris Wallace, saw that he did not denounce white supremacy and moved on. And I was somewhat prepared for that, but I was disappointed that he did not punctuate that point for the American people more.
And I, quite honestly, thought that Joe Biden missed an opportunity there to point that out to the American people. And last night I saw a lotta people saying, "This is not who we are." You know? "This is not America." And I dare say this is exactly who America is, and look in the mirror and face the ugly truth and do something about it.
And what that means is when you're sitting at your Thanksgiving table with your racist grandparent or your MAGA hat-wearing uncle, confront them. Talk to them about the choices they make. Inform them of the history of this country, and educate them on systems of white supremacy that keep people depressed and oppressed.
Lee: You know, I think I expected maybe some dog whistles. I didn't expect, like, human whistles. Like whistle whistles. Like, not even pretending (LAUGH) to not be--
Lee: --speaking to that racist section of his base. But a Trump spokesperson did say that he was trying to stay stand down. Not stand back and stand by. Which has already, by the way, become a motto for the Proud Boys. They're printin' up t-shirts and logos. They're cheering this. They love this.
Cross: Why is it always that, "Oh, what he meant was," or, 'What he was trying to say," or, "If you read between the lines." Don't spit in my face and tell me it's raining. The American people heard very clearly what this man said. And as long as we keep trying to paint over that and, you know, describe this with these euphemisms, I think we'll continue in this vicious cycle. Let's call a thing a thing, and point out truly why this man was able to ascend to the highest office of the land.
And look, as you know, Trymaine, none of this began with Donald Trump. Homeland Security, the Department of Homeland Security in 2009 had a report that said the election of the first Black president and financial dislocation for a lot of people will spark an uprising in hate groups. And we're seeing what would have happened, possibly, had we acknowledged what was going on in 2009. And they just found a champion. But the sentiment has always been there.
Lee: And-- and the president, and many people on the right, have found what they believe are the true culprits of violence and terrorism in America. And it's Antifa. Let's take a listen to what he says about Antifa.
Trump: Somebody's gotta do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right wing--
Biden: His own--
Biden: His own--
Trump: This is a left--
Biden: --FBI director said--
Trump: This is a left-wing--
Biden: --that the threat--
Biden: --white supremacists--
Wallace: Go ahead, sir.
Biden: Antifa's an idea, not an organization.
Trump: Oh, you gotta be kidding me--
Biden: Not milita. That's what his--
Male Voice: Oh really.
Trump: It's an idea.
Biden: --FBI director--
Trump: Well, then, you know--
Biden: That they're not--
Trump: --what? He's wrong--
Wallace: No, no. We're done, sir.
Biden: --in your administration--
Trump: --is bad.
Biden: --tells you the truth, it's a bad idea.
Trump: Can you tell you what?
Biden: You have no ideas that are (UNINTEL)--
Trump: Antifa is a dangerous--
Wallace: All right.
Trump: --radical group--
Wallace: Gentlemen, we're now moving on.
Lee: What do you think about this continued attack on Antifa, this kind of pointing at Antifa, not the homegrown white supremacist terrorists?
Cross: So I would say first that Antifa is short for anti-fascist. I thought, again, this was missed opportunity, because Joe Biden let him lead him down this Antifa road where he could have said, "Wait a second. (LAUGH) We're skippin' over what you just said. Let's go back to white supremacy."
Lee: You know, despite the kinda wild framing of race and violence in our cities, I think there was some hope that there would be some substantive engagement on race. And first of all, as I heard that title, "Race and Violence in Our Cities," I think about Ahmaud Arbery, who was not gunned down in the middle of northeast Philly. (LAUGH) Right?
Cross: Right. Right.
Lee: Or south Philly somewhere in a major city. He was gunned down in a little country town by some white vigilantes. But when Chris Wallace asked President Trump and Former Vice President Biden why should you be trusted on race, there was a moment that I know a lotta folks on the left were waiting for, where President Trump harkens back to Joe Biden's old days as the architect of the crime bill.
Wallace: Why should Americans--
Lee: --trust you over your opponent to deal with racism--
Trump: He did a crime bill. 1994. Where you called them super predators, African Americans. The super predators. And they've never--
Trump: --forgotten it. They've never forgotten it, Joe--
Biden: I never said--
Wallace: No, no, sir. It's his two minutes.
Trump: So you did that, and they call you super predator. And I'm letting people outta jail now that you have treated the African American population community, you have treated the Black community about as bad as anybody in this country. You did the nineteen-nine, and that's why if you look at the polls--
Lee: But what do you think about that moment?
Cross: Joe Biden should have been better prepared for that response. I thought he could have said, "Look, you know, there was a lot happening in the '90s. Let's revisit what was happening there. I have since learned and grown." Look, I think Joe Biden has a tendency to go MAGA light. You know?
It's, like, I don't want to alienate some of these, quote unquote, swing voters who might be willing to vote for me, and I just wonder what would happen if instead of appealing to these folks in the middle of the road, risking becoming political roadkill, what would happen if you talked to the base?
What would happen if you tried to inspire people and inform people and engage people who've been riding with you a long time? What if you talked to the millions of Black men out there who are looking to hear you say something to acknowledge the value in their life?
It seems acceptable that we can go appeal to NASCAR dads, and we can go into the bowels of some of the baser sex of white society, but when it comes to just appealing to everyday Black folks, it has to be something that's done on the low low. Like, "I'll come where there are no cameras and talk to you all, but on this national stage I can't risk scarin' away these white folks." I mean it is a new day. Dance with the one who brung you.
Lee: And so just a bit of a fact check here. Even though Trump tried to pin the super predator term on Joe Biden, it was Hillary Clinton. But some could say that Joe Biden in his policy treated us like super predators. Donald Trump at once tried to, like, hang the '94 crime bill and super predators around Biden's neck, but then he's also soft on crime.
Trump: The top ten cities in just about the top 40 cities are run by Democrats, and in many cases radical left. And they've got you wrapped around their finger, Joe, to a point where you don't wanna say anything about law and order. And I'll tell you what, the people of this country want and demand law and order, and you're afraid to even say it.
Lee: Like, can you have it both ways? Once saying that, "Oh, this guy is bad for Black folks. He's, you know, super predators." On the other hand, he's not hard enough.
Cross: Again, this is missed opportunity that Joe Biden could have pointed that out. He shoulda turned to him and said, "You wanna talk about law enforcement. You're the only criminal on stage. Let's talk about The New York Times report. Let's talk about Russians in the Oval. Let's talk about paying off sex workers--"
Lee: And we actually heard none of that. We heard none of that.
Cross: None. None of that. And, you know, honestly, Trymaine, I think, look, it's easy for people on the sidelines and in the stands to scream that, you know, "This is what I would have done," but honestly, why not go after this? And I do wonder if people saw that as he was trying to maintain decency or if people saw that as he was not prepared for the fight.
Lee: Let's push a little further into Joe Biden's comments on racial justice and inequality.
Wallace: Do you believe that there is a separate but unequal system of justice for Blacks in this country?
Biden: Yes, there is. There's systemic injustice in this country. In education. In work. In law enforcement, and the way in which it's enforced. The vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable men and women. They risk their lives every day to take care of us.
But there are some bad apples. And when they occur, when they find them, they have to be sorted out. They have to be held accountable. These cops aren't happy to see what happened to George Floyd. These cops aren't happy to see what happened to Breonna Taylor. But we have to have a system where people are held accountable. And, by the way, violence in response is never appropriate. Peaceful protest is. Violence is never appropriate.
Wallace: All right.
Lee: So have you heard of the Flying Wallendas?
Lee: The family who was, like, high in the air--
Cross: Yes. (LAUGH)
Lee: --on a tightrope, walkin' this very thin line. When I hear Joe Biden at once say, "You know, what, obviously there is systemic racism and inequality in the way we're policed," and all that stuff. But then I start hearin' words like, "It's some bad apples." Right? And you say, "No, these are good cops out there." And certainly there certainly are good cops and good people in law enforcement. But that fine line of bad apples and all that stuff, it sounds like he's on a tightrope.
Lee: So I will take it back a step further, and say I found the question itself insulting. I think posing the question, "Is there systemic racism in our justice system," is insulting to me as a Black woman, because I would no sooner ask you, Trymaine, "Are lemons yellow?" This is ridiculous question. We know that exists. A better question to acknowledge our lived experience as Black people in this country is how do we address the systemic racism that clearly exists in our justice system.
Now, to his response, this is I think a point where he could have acknowledged, like you said, to all the Black people who elevated him to this position, that, "Yes, I hear you, and I understand you." Instead of winking at people who left you a long time ago, bra. They're not comin' back. (MUSIC)
Lee: After the break, Tiffany and I talk more about Trump and Biden on crime, policing, cities, suburbs and race.
Lee: We're back with Tiffany Cross. There was a moment where the conversation shifted towards crime, the suburbs and the violence rates in this country. Which some say, you know, is code for ace. Let's take a listen.
Wallace: Mr. President, you're gonna be very happy, 'cause were--
Trump: And the (UNINTEL)--
Wallace: --now gonna talk about--
Trump: Excuse me.
Wallace: --law and order.
Trump: Places we had trouble were Democratic-run cities--
Wallace: That's exactly--
Wallace: --my question.
Wallace: There has been a dramatic increase in homicides in America this summer particularly, and you often blame that on Democratic mayors and Democratic governors. But in fact, there have been equivalent spikes in Republican-led cities like Tulsa and Fort Worth. So the question is is this really a party issue?
Trump: I think it's a party issue. You could bring in a couple of examples, but if you look at Chicago, what's going on in Chicago, where 53 people were shot and eight died. Shot. If you look at New York, where it's going up like nobody's ever seen anything. The numbers are goin' up 100%, 150%, 200%.
And he doesn't wanna say law and order, because he can't, because he'll lose his radical left supporters. And once he does that, it's over with. But if he ever got to run this country and they ran it the way he would wanna run it, we would have--
Biden: We would run it--
Trump: --our suburbs--
Biden: --the way--
Trump: --would be gone. By the way--
Trump: --our suburbs would be gone. And you would see problems like you've never--
Biden: He wouldn't--
Trump: --seen before.
Biden: --know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn.
Trump: Oh, I know suburbs--
Biden: He would not.
Trump: --so much better than you.
Biden: I was raised.
Wallace: Go ahead.
Biden: I would--
Wallace: Wait a minute.
Biden: I was raised in the suburbs. This is not 1950. All these dog whistles on racism don't work anymore. Suburbs are by and large integrated. What really is a threat to the suburbs and their safety is his failure to deal with Covid. They're dyin' in the suburbs. His failure to deal with the environment. They're bein' flooded. They're bein' burned out.
Lee: So let's just, you know, put a flag in this. There has been a spike in murders this year in a number of cities, but crime overall is down. It's been plummeting since the early '90s. Folks just never seem to actually be able to feel that continued decline. I think there's a lotta fear-mongering obviously goin' on. And I wonder when Trump says, "I know the suburbs," is he sayin', "I know white people. (LAUGH) I know the fears." What's your response to this clip?
Cross: Yeah, I think you hit it on the head. That's what he's saying. And I was really actually happy that Biden made that point. That (LAUGH) you are a political anachronism if you think the suburbs are lily white. There are some people who share those beliefs, and if they see that their neighborhood is becoming more diverse, 'cause that's really what this is about. These Black and brown people are going to take away your happiness. They're gonna take away your livelihood.
And I think that people can see that for what it is. But it only matters to one side of this country. The other half, they hear it and see it for what it is, but they like it. It's validating their thoughts. He's saying, "Yes, I hear you. I see you."
There are so many millions of people who hear everything this man is saying, who might be uncomfortable with some of the ways he says it, and they will go into a ballot box this November and vote for this man. That is the sad truth that we have to acknowledge.
And I know the polls are saying that Biden is ahead, but we are facing an unholy trinity of things that might make that move. We have this global pandemic, we have GOP-led voter supression, and we have foreign election interference that specifically targets folks who look like you and me. So forgive me if I don't feel like the wind is at my back. And I feel terrified about potential violence happening around this election season, to be quite honest.
Lee: So finally, let's listen to how Joe Biden, again, tries to thread the needle when he's asked about reimagining policing.
Biden: What I support is the police having the opportunity to deal with the problems their face. And I totally opposed to defunding the police officers. They need more assistance. They need, when they show up for a 911 call, to have someone with 'em who's a psychologist or a psychiatrist to keep them from having to use force and be able to talk people down. We have to have community policing like we had before, where the officers get to know the people in the communities. That's when crime went down. And so we have to be engaged-- ovt4
Trump: That's not what they're talkin' about, Chris.
Trump: That's not what they're talk--
Biden: That's exactly--
Trump: He's talkin' about defunding the police.
Biden: That is not true.
Trump: He doesn't have any (UNINTEL)--
Lee: He has his thread, his needle. (LAUGHTER) He's gettin' it in there. You know, don't worry. You know, there will still be police. But you can tell some of the messaging of, you know, reallocating resources. Right? From police to mental health services is there. A more holistic approach. What do you think about that?
Cross: So I do think that some of the policy is being seeded in his messaging. We can make the assumption that obviously people know that the Democratic party isn't saying, "Let's get rid of all the police." However, there are a significant number of people in this country who hear "defund the police," even on the left, and they think that's what that means.
I think this could have been an opportunity for Joe Biden to talk through, "Look, we are reallocating funds to better service you, because if a government is of the people, by the people, for the people, why shouldn't for the people include everybody?"
"Why shouldn't for the people include you? Whether you're a drug addict who needs social support, the say way everybody's weeping tears for the opioid crisis. Whether you're somebody with mental health challenges. People deserve to be treated with humanity."
"And there's room in society for that to happen with law enforcement. And unfortunately, because of systems of white supremacy there are far too many people who don't see the humanity in Black people. And that is something as your leader that I plan to address."
But I think because the Defund the Police is such a polarizing notion to so many people, regardless of the political divide, that it makes him nervous to fully address it. To be honest with you, I definitely hear the policy being not celebrated, but definitely being accepted by the campaign. And I can say there are plenty of people inside that campaign who are pushing for these types of messages to be front and center.
Lee: Tiffany, I wanna ask you a pretty serious question, and I've known you for a long time, and I really do trust you.
Lee: I trust you, Tiffany.
Cross: I'm bracing myself.
Lee: Can I, I mean we, the American people, take another one of these debates? My stomach hurts. I'm a little mad. I'm a little confused.
Lee: Can we handle this?
Cross: Well, you have to take it, Trymaine, because people need to hear these kinda perspectives into America. And when you go on MSNBC and talk about it, I have to take it, because we have to talk about it. But I would say moderators, do a better job. You know?
Lee: Well, I'm gonna say this. Adjusting for Chris Wallace's Fox News-iness, I thought he actually did a pretty good job, considering.
Lee: I really--
Cross: Are you kidding me?
Cross: No way--
Lee: I really--
Lee: I really do.
Cross: I thought his questions were steeped in whiteness, to be honest with you.
Lee: We knew that, though. But we knew that.
Cross: But just because--
Lee: We knew that.
Cross: --we knew it doesn't make it okay. Like, we knew it, (LAUGH) and it's, like, do better.
Lee: Tiffany Cross for moderator. Tiffany Cross for moderator. (LAUGH) Let me--
Cross: I accept. I volunteer as tribute. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Let me ask you this last question. And, you know, we've listened to Joe Biden trying to thread the needle and being another member of the Flying Wallendas. Walking that fine line. But trying to give something for everyone, did he appease no one? Or did he actually deliver enough for enough people to either, and I don't know if to excite them is the right word, but buoy their concerns or make them feel more confident? Or, you know, pull some folks over who were undecided?
Cross: Yes, I have friends who are not political at all who were texting me saying, "Hey, I think Joe Biden is doin' a great job." (LAUGH) But they just, you know, from the sidelines, they saw it and said, "Yeah, he really held his own." So despite all my criticisms, I do think that he won the debate. But I think it's easy to win when you're sharing the stage with someone who's so just not on any kind of intellectual level that adults can appreciate.
Lee: (MUSIC) That was straight no chaser with Tiffany Cross. Thank you very much, Tiffany. We appreciate and are privileged to have had some time with you. Thank you very much.
Cross: Thank you so much, Trymaine. This was awesome.
Lee: Next Wednesday, vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris will debate in Salt Lake City. The second presidential debate will be held on October 15th. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll catch you tomorrow.
Lester Holt: If hearing that this debate is over was music to your ears, you may not be alone. What could have been a low point in American political discourse, certainly in any modern debate we've seen, just took place over an hour and a half--