BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Well, good evening on this day 1,204 of the Trump administration. 180 days until our Presidential Election.
And as all presidents know, the White House ushers and the U.S. Navy stewards who serve the President often perform the most private functions behind the scenes at the White House. They are often the first person a president sees in the morning and the last person at night. They serve diet coke and coffee and water in the Oval Office and upstairs the men who serve as valets may lay out clothing for the president for the day while handling laundry and meals and packing for trips.
Richard Nixon`s valet, Manolo Sanchez, was famously loyal and grew close to the boss both in office and later on in his retirement years. So today when we heard that the President`s U.S. Navy valet had the coronavirus, we knew it had come very close to the President.
Just today this country lost over 2,100 people. That`s our one-day death toll as this illness continues to grow, bringing our national death toll tonight to 76,441 lives lost.
Indeed it was news of a positive case inside the White House residence that led the news coverage today. The President was asked about that and precautions.
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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I`ve had very little contact, personal contact with this gentleman, know who he is, good person, but I`ve had very little contact. Mike has had very little contact with him. But Mike was tested, and I was tested. We were both tested.
Yes, it`s a little bit strange, but it`s one of those things.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: NBC reports Trump became, "lava level mad" at his staff after learning about the valet and said he doesn`t feel they are doing all they can to protect him from the virus.
Trump said he and Pence tested negative both Wednesday and Thursday, says they`ll now be tested daily. He added the valets and other White House staff members all wear masks these days. Yet as we`ve seen, the President pointedly does not.
Tonight the Associated Press reports, "Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing one would send the wrong message and make it seem like he is preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening the nation`s economy."
Trump has also told confidants he fears he would look ridiculous in a mask, and the image would appear in negative ads. White House aides say the President hasn`t told them not to wear masks, but few do.
The President`s been relentlessly messaging the need to reopen our country, get the economy restarted. At least 43 states, to that end, will be partially opened in some form or fashion this coming weekend even with the concerns about moving too quickly and with testing still way below what experts say is needed.
This morning the A.P. reported the White House shelved CDC guidelines that lay out a step-by-step process for states to reopen safely.
Again, NBC News has confirmed this story. Administration officials telling NBC News the White House views the CDC guidelines as too strict and has asked for revisions. Trump repeatedly says the decision-making should be left to the states, and he said it again today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: The governors have great power as to that given by us. We rely on them. We trust them. And hopefully they`re making the right decisions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: This pandemic continues to take an unprecedented toll, of course, on our nation`s economy. Over 3 million people filed for unemployment just in the space of last week. That means over 33 million have lost jobs over the past seven weeks or roughly 20% of Americans who are all gainfully employed back in February. And this is no easy time for those trying to get benefits so they can keep food on the table.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TINA NICHOLS, UNEMPLOYMENT DUE TO ECONOMIC DOWNTURN: Just like when you would call a radio station to try to win concert tickets, that`s how you have to call unemployment.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Tomorrow morning the Labor Department releases the April monthly employment numbers. As this New York Times headline puts it, expect a portrait of devastation. Then there`s the other major development today. A stunning reversal in a signature case that was part of the Russia investigation. The Justice Department is asking to drop its case against President Trump`s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Remember he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in January of 2017 about his conversations with then Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Kislyak.
Flynn was one of the first and highest ranking Trump aides to cooperate and be convicted in the Mueller investigation. In February of 2017, Trump fired Flynn for lying to the Vice President about those very conversations. He was subsequently charged with lying to bureau agents.
Earlier this year, Flynn retracted his plea even though he`d admitted to his own guilty on two different occasions. The DOJ is now asking the judge in the case to dismiss this case. Attorney General Barr spoke to CBS News about the decision.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Our duty, we think, is to dismiss the case. A crime cannot be established here. They did not have a basis for a counterintelligence investigation against Flynn at that stage. I want to make sure that we restore confidence in the system. There`s only one standard of justice.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Today Trump referred to the Flynn situation as treason, which is interesting because among other things, Judge Sullivan, the federal judge in this case, said in open court that arguably Mike Flynn sold his country out and was an unregistered agent of a foreign country while serving as the National Security Adviser to the President of the United States. Today that President of the United States called his former national security adviser, who admitted to lying to the feds, a hero.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I`m very happy for General Flynn. He was a great warrior, and he still is a great warrior. Now in my book he`s an even greater warrior.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to reach out to General Flynn?
TRUMP: I will. Yes, I think it`s -- you know, at the appropriate time. I think he`s a hero. It`s a scam. It was a scam and a hoax.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: On that note, here for our leadoff discussion on a Thursday night, two of the very best from The New York Times, Annie Karni, White House Correspondent, Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent. Also with us tonight, Stephanie Ruhle, Senior Business Correspondent at NBC News, a veteran of the investment banking and business world and the host of the 9:00 a.m. hour each day on this network.
Annie Karni, let`s go back up to the top of the broadcast, back up to the start of this day when we woke up to news of a positive case in the inner most circle around the President, however much he says he wasn`t around him very much at all. Serious question. Other than the boss, talk about protocols. How seriously inside the White House does the White House take these precautions?
ANNIE KARNI, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": It is changing now because of this. Now they`re going to go to a daily system. But I spoke to people inside the White House who were frustrated with the testing and the precautions that were being taken. Inside the West Wing, people who would interact directly with the President were being tested regularly. But people who work in the Old Executive Office Building, which is on the White House campus, told me they were tested maybe once every seven days, interacting with people who interacted directly with the President and interacting with people who weren`t getting tested at all.
So there was a feeling there were big gaps in the testing going on, on that campus, not to mention the fact that the messaging on masks that had been sent from the top down. Vice President Mike Pence, President Trump have both made very clear that they do not plan to themselves follow the CDC guidelines on wearing masks. So aside from a few National Security Council aides, most people are not wearing masks when they`re around the President.
So I heard not only as you read from your NBC`s reporting that the President was leave that this got so close to him, I heard frustration today from people who work on the White House grounds saying that there are huge gaps in the testing that was going on up until this point.
WILLIAMS: Peter Baker, let`s take our cue from your piece, which went up about 27, 28 hours ago. The danger of phrases like "The cure can`t be worse than the disease." The danger of phrases like "It is what it is." About things like our national death toll.
PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes. I think that this episode sort of reinforces just how problematic and challenging it will be to reopen the country if we cannot be sure about a protocol to keep the President of the United States safe, what`s it going to be like in meat factories in the Midwest? What`s it going to be like in office buildings in Manhattan? What`s going to be like in those barber shops in Georgia we`re seeing. It raises all towards the question.
Now, you can understand why the President would be eager to reopen the economy as quickly as possible. Those numbers you flashed earlier represent a lot of pain, 33 million people, one out of every five workers in this country without a job right now. A lot of those people are getting federal aid, but some of them aren`t. That interview you played showed. Those people may be having a hard time feeding their children, paying for other health issues they might have.
So there`s a lot of pain and a lot of motivation on the part of a President to reopen the economy. But balanced against the health risk is the challenge, right? If you open up so soon that the virus not only doesn`t go away, it comes back again in even stronger form in the fall, which is what some of the public health experts worry about, then there won`t be an economy there to reopen because a lot of people won`t be coming out to their job, it won`t be going out to restaurants, won`t be doing things the President would like them to do. So these things are intertwined, not in opposition to each other. They`re intertwine. Finding that balance is a challenge, I think, for even the best of our leaders.
WILLIAMS: And, Steph Ruhle, Peter invoked the economy. That means we pivot to you. For those families not already suffering, a lot of us are having a hard time prognosticating, perhaps you can. How bad is this going to get?
STEPHANIE RUHLE, MSNBC HOST, "MSNBC LIVE": Brian, look at the numbers. Put it in perspective, 33.2 million people in the last seven weeks filing for unemployment. When we faced the financial crisis, the worst month during the financial crisis, we saw 800,000 drop in jobs. Since we started the stay-at-home orders, we`re seeing 3 million to 6 million per week.
Now, of course we know this is temporary because we`ve shut our economy off, and so many businesses have been forced to shut down. And, yes, those businesses are desperate to open back up. I am sure all four of us are desperate to go out to eat and to resume our lives. So things are going to get back somewhat to normal. But when the numbers have gotten this bad, there is absolutely no way that we can bounce back. And one other thing that`s important to note. We have a consumer-based economy. When you`ve got 33 million people out of a job, when one in five people who do have a job have faced a pay cut, you`re certainly not going to see a consumer spending jamboree. And without that spending, how is this country going to do well economically? Consumer spending is the key to our economy.
WILLIAMS: Annie Karni, is there a concerted effort to change or alter the strategy of how the President is perceived absence an empathy injection, how he talks about this balance between the economy and this growing death toll?
KARNI: There sure is. And another thing, you know, the President has made clear from the beginning of this that he`s eager to reopen. Remember, his first bit at this was that we`d reopen by Easter. And part of that is because coloring everything right now is his understanding that in six months he`s up for re-election, and the economy -- he has a much better shot at winning re-election if the economy bounces back.
But weighing that is another critical voting bloc, which is seniors, the most vulnerable population to this pandemic, who have been scared at what they`re hearing from the President in these coronavirus briefings and are scared that reopening the economy too soon could literally cost them their lives. So that`s another -- and polls are showing that a lot of people are scared of reopening too early. So the White House has been trying to -- you know, they branded May to be old -- I think it`s old people`s month. They are trying to highlight initiatives and policy proposals that the President has backed that help seniors, restrictions on visitors at nursing homes, his vow to not cut entitlement programs. These are things they`re trying to highlight to show if he doesn`t have the "I feel your pain" oratorical skills, that he is there for senior who`s are scared for their lives. There is an effort to show that in other ways going on right now.
WILLIAMS: And Peter Baker, journalists are fond of calling the attorney general in this country, we always have the chief law enforcement officer in the federal government. What does this attempt to drop the Flynn case say about an attorney general apparently entirely serving in service to the President?
BAKER: Well, once again we`re in a position where everything is through the lens that you start from, right? If you`re a supporter of Trump, if you`re an ally of Trump, what you see is an attorney general righting the wrongs of the past, you know, checking the corruption of the previous administrators of law enforcement in this country. If you`re the part of the country that doesn`t trust President Trump, what you`ve seen is a President publicly and repeatedly berating and badgering and demanding that his justice department exonerate his former aide. And now they`ve gone and done that.
So, you know, what you`re left with is a situation where the idea of a neutral, independent, and trustworthy law enforcement, you know, establishment in this country is basically, you know, out the window. Both sides see the Justice Department now and the FBI as political weapons, whether it be against Trump or for Trump. And it loses credibility on any decision they make, no matter how justified or unjustified it may be.
We`ll see what this judge does. Judge Sullivan has expressed skepticism of Mike Flynn, as you pointed out, and his defense previously. He`s not obligated to accept the Justice Department`s motion to dismiss. But the Justice Department made the point in its motion today that they thought the judge didn`t have a lot of latitude and they had to accept their view on it. We`ll see if he agrees.
WILLIAMS: Yes, we shall see indeed. Steph Ruhle, the question no one really wants to hear the answer to but you may help us with. Of all these jobs being lost, how many of them by percentage are really coming back?
RUHLE: Brian, it`s too soon to tell. Something that`s really important to think about with regard to reopening. Yes, it`s business. Yes, it`s in government. But it`s also consumers. It`s everyday Americans. Earlier today I sat down with the President of Walmart USA. So think about it. This is the biggest retailer that has been open this entire time. But we`re all trying to figure out how to do it. And I asked him, what`s the number one thing all of those associates are saying? What is their top concern?
And here`s what`s disturbing. Their top concern is that customers start adhering to the social distancing rules and the new guidelines. So that`s their fear, that people in certain regions in the country aren`t wearing masks, aren`t respecting these guidelines, and in turn could make all of those workers get sick.
So it`s very concerning when the President, when the Vice President aren`t following these rules themselves and aren`t wearing the masks. So, yes, everyone wants to go back to these jobs. We want things to get back to where they were. But unless we start all practicing these new guidelines, it`s going to hurt businesses. It`s going to hurt individuals. It`s going to hurt all of us. So it`s not a matter of how many jobs are coming back. It`s how are we going to conduct ourselves collectively. And if we do it together, we`ve got the best shot. And right now think about it. You`re seeing hyper partisanship in every element of this, and you shouldn`t see that in the middle of a pandemic. It`s only going to worsen things economically.
WILLIAMS: And all we really know is it`s going to look worse at this time tomorrow night than it does during this conversation. Sobering stuff, all of it. Annie Karni, Peter Baker, Stephanie Ruhle, our thanks for joining us on this Thursday night.
And coming up for us, a President described, as we described him earlier, as "lava level mad" over his potential personal exposure to COVID-19. He`s now going to be tested every day. We`ll hear from the pandemic expert who is pleading for more testing for all the rest of us.
And later, the Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson on tonight`s major developments in the shooting death of a young man in the State of Georgia as the 11th Hour is just getting under way on this Thursday night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. LEANA WEN, FORMER BALTIMORE HEALTH COMMISSIONER: We have basically as a country said we`ve given up on containment. We`ve given up trying to contain this virus, and now we`re just going to live with it and see what happens when it spreads throughout our country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Dr. Wen is right. It may seem like we`ve given up on containment, especially after the White House Press Secretary called the idea of mass testing nonsensical. But now that the President`s valet has tested positive, that puts coronavirus inside the White House residence, inside the President`s circle. The administration is taking testing there quite seriously now.
Now, back with us again tonight, Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrics physician, clinical professor with the School of Public Health up at Columbia University in New York. Also the Director of Columbia`s National Center for Disaster Preparedness with an expertise in this kind of thing.
Doctor, I ask this as a taxpayer. Where is the CDC? And if they have decided to be only in service to this President and his wishes, why can`t they have an internal pact, the kind of thing we all learn in high school team sports, the kind of thing everyone in the military learns, next man or woman up? Someone step up in management and be honest with the American people because they`re worried about this disease. If you get fired, you probably get hired by big pharma the next day. Next man or woman up behind you to speak the truth because we lost 2,100 people in this country today.
DR. IRWIN REDLENER, EXPERT ON PANDEMIC INFLUENZA: Yes, Brian. It`s really quite extraordinary. And I think for those of us who know a lot of these officials like Dr. Fauci, it`s very difficult at this point to imagine how he stays there and doesn`t, you know, call a press conference tomorrow morning and say, this is enough is enough. This is craziness. We`re endangering too many of our fellow citizens. We cannot have that.
For some reason, the President seems to cast a spell over the people that work on him or they`re terrified. I just don`t understand it. But, Brian, I think the point you`re making is very well taken. Now we see really the height of hypocrisy for the President to be furious about somebody testing positive near him, and now he`s getting his own tests every day, which is exactly what main street America needs. They need that -- what he`s asking for, for himself. It`s pretty extraordinary stuff.
And I had a great conversation with two Georgia mayors just the other day, and they just were livid.
WILLIAMS: I understand you and Dr. Joseph Fair have written a letter for businesses with reopening guidelines. And learning of this reinforces to me how much responsibility is on these governors really. Also learning about your letter, it strikes me it`s the kind of letter in past generations we would have seen go out with government letterhead.
REDLENER: Yes. Yes, of course we would have. But it hasn`t. And, you know, Brian Kemp, the Governor of Georgia, was the first to institute this sort of relaxation of restrictions and sort of let`s get back to work.
And the Governor of Atlanta, Governor -- sorry, the Mayor of Atlanta, Mayor Bottoms, said to me she was stunned. She`s looking down the streets in Atlanta and seeing people without face coverings. They`re too close to one another, walking in and out of shops and restaurants. It`s just incredible.
And the Mayor of Augusta, Mayor Davis told me it was basically a train wreck. The problem with this too, Brian, is it`s not just a matter of policy differences. This is as literal as you can get about putting lives at risk.
You know, you look at the data, and we`re not really leveling off significantly even. And we`re still talking about going back to work in 30 other states are talking about it as well. And I think somebody needs to step up. Let me just say this directly to my colleagues in public health in the federal government. Do what Brian Williams just said. It`s got to be one person after another standing up to this President and speaking the truth to American people. There`s just too much at stake here in terms of our lives. It`s not just our livelihoods, which we care about too. It`s our actual lives that matter right now, Brian.
WILLIAMS: We lost over 2,100 of our fellow citizens just today. Dr. Irwin Redlener, thank you so much as always for your time. Thanks for coming on.
Coming up for us, the Justice Department asked to drop the case against Michael Flynn despite two guilty pleas. We`ll ask two former high ranking DOJ officials how this is going over in the actual justice community.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Crime cannot be established here. They did not have a basis for a counterintelligence investigation against Flynn at that stage.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does the fact remain that he lied?
BARR: Well, you know, people sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: More from Attorney General Bill Barr today on this DOJ seeking to drop its criminal case against Michael Flynn. Flynn, again, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the former Russian ambassador. The president had plenty to say when the news came out at the White House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was an innocent man. He is a great gentleman. He was targeted by the Obama administration, and he was targeted in order to try and take down a president. And what they`ve done is a disgrace, and I hope a big price is going to be paid. A big price should be paid.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Back with us again tonight, Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence and among our national security analysts. And Neal Katyal, former veteran of the Justice Department, former acting solicitor general during the Obama administration. He has argued 39 cases and counting before the U.S. Supreme court.
And, gentlemen, before we go another inch, I wanted to play for you some of the postgame coverage tonight on Fox News.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This was a deliberate, malevolent, concerted effort to destroy an honest man and thereby get to the president of the United States to destroy him.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The whole purpose was to frame him so that they could squeeze him to set up the president of the United States in order to change the course of American history.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because of his support for President Trump, he, like the president and many other people around the president, they were subjected to years of total hell by a corrupt group of dirty cops, to quote Joe diGenova.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Frank Figliuzzi, Federal Judge Sullivan said to Flynn in court that he arguably sold out his country. Who`s right here?
FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FORMER ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: I guess that depends unfortunately on who you`re talking to, but I`ll go with the federal judge. I`ll go with the lifetime appointment any day, someone who stands for justice. The Justice Department and the attorney general used to do that, but they don`t do it anymore.
And, Brian, I`ve spoken with some current and former colleagues at the FBI today, and I think if there was a word that both denoted sadness and anger together at the same time, that`s the word I`d be using. And that`s what people are feeling today. I read through that DOJ filing twice today. I had to read it twice because I was in disbelief at the deliberate manipulation of the truth. It`s filled with falsehoods and distortions that appear to -- designed to just mislead the court and mislead the reader.
We could spend the rest of your show almost going line by line on what`s wrong with that filing. But I`m here to tell you that it`s grossly distorted. And in particular, most pertinent perhaps is the assertion by the attorney general in this filing that the lie that Flynn told was not material to any FBI case. Therefore, they shouldn`t have even been interviewing him. I`m here to tell you from a counterintelligence investigative standpoint, the department I used to head within the FBI, that`s exactly material to deciding whether or not the person sitting across from you is or is not a threat to the nation. Is he lying to you right now about what you already know? So, the filing today is deeply, deeply distorted and deeply disturbing.
WILLIAMS: Neal Katyal, I imagine big crowds around televisions in prison pods across this country as people doing 20 to 30 years on a guilty plea are now going to want to flood into court arguing something like the Flynn exception. Is this going to become a thing?
NEAL KATYAL, FORMER ACTING U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL: It`s not going to become a thing, and I think, Brian, that`s the whole point in why this decision is so devastating. It guts what the rule of law is all about. It shows that there`s a special rule if you`re Trump`s friend, you get out of jail. And you get the book thrown at you if you`re not. And justice is supposed to be blind.
I mean, here, we`ve got a circumstance in which the guy, Flynn, admitted twice in open court, he pled guilty twice to it, and you had the attorney general, you just played him a moment ago, saying, well, sometimes people plead guilty to crimes they don`t commit, sounding like a defense lawyer, not like the attorney general of the United States. And, look, I -- the first person to believe that, that those types of people who plead guilty tend to be those who don`t have resources, who don`t have access to dream teams of lawyers as Flynn had, and who don`t have, you know, experience with the criminal justice system or with law enforcement more generally.
Here, we`ve got a general who was a national security adviser, and it beggars belief to think that here you -- when he is accused of serious federal felonies and lying to the FBI, he just rolls over and pleads guilty. Give me a break. I mean, what you do in that circumstance is you fight for your honor, and you fight like heck. You don`t sit and plead guilty. And of course, this prosecution was signed off by multiple people. This wasn`t an Obama administration thing as the president said. It was signed off by career line attorneys. It was signed off by Trump`s own guy, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. And of course, it was signed off on by a federal judge.
And so this is incredibly corrosive language by the attorney general and the president, and I can`t think of something more devastating really to the rule of law. I mean, today is rock bottom when it comes to Trump in our constitution.
WILLIAMS: Frank, does it surprise you that our A.G. is behind this, or are you no longer surprised by this kind of supplication, and is this the kind of thing, say, an FBI director would resign over?
FIGLIUZZI: Yes, I -- so, no, I am not surprised any longer. This has been signaled for a long time. Many of us thought it was either going to come in the form of a pardon or even worse, request for dismissal. The fact that it came from -- as a dismissal means the A.G. is totally wrapped up in this thing. And more is coming. More is coming because it`s been signaled through the Durham investigation, even through the president`s responses today.
Well, I hope that people are held accountable. What does that mean? Held accountable for what? Trying to get their job done and determine whether the national security adviser to the president was or was not a continuing threat to our country. That`s where we are. It`s going to continue, and it`s going to run right up into the election.
WILLIAMS: Neal Katyal, I have seconds left. What does a federal judge like this do? No one needs to tell you this judge is no shrinking violet.
KATYAL: Yes, the federal judge has three options available to him, all of them very powerful. One, he can inquire into how these career prosecutors all resigned moments before the Flynn decision. That`s what happened last year when the Trump administration was caught lying to them about the census by the Supreme Court and the attorneys tried to withdraw. The federal judge ordered an investigation. That can happen here.
Second, the federal rules don`t allow Attorney General Barr to just drop the prosecution. The court has to agree. And so the court can inquire into all the things that Frank was talking about, all the Justice Department rationales and inquire about them in open court.
And lastly, the Justice Department is seeking not just to bar Flynn`s prosecution now but for all time, to dismiss without -- with prejudice. And the judge has the option available of saying, look, I`ll listen to you. I`ll dismiss these charges. But in a new administration with a new real Justice Department, one that actually cares about the rule of law instead of protecting Trump`s friends, you can expect this prosecution to continue.
WILLIAMS: Interesting times. Our thanks to two friends of this broadcast, Frank Figliuzzi, Neal Katyal, appreciate it greatly.
Coming up for us, arrests tonight in a case that has sparked growing national outrage. A white father and son have been charged with murder for killing a young black man who would have turned 26 years of age less than an hour from now. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative is with us live after this.
WILLIAMS: There`s breaking news tonight out of the American south. Calls for arrests in the shooting death of an unarmed 25-year-old black man have been heeded. Two men are now charged with murder after a video surfaced this week showing how Ahmaud Arbery`s death transpired back in February. Arbery`s family says he was out for a jog when he was confronted by two white men in a pickup truck. According to the police report, Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, he and his son were chasing a man they believed to have been breaking into houses.
A prosecutor who has since recused himself from the case said the men were trying to execute a citizen`s arrest and that they acted in self-defense when Arbery grabbed their gun. The video recorded by a civilian nearby is disturbing.
That`s where it ended right there in the street. Arbery was not armed. He was killed. He would have turned 26 years of age at midnight tonight. We should point out we do not know what happened before the video was taken. Gregory and Travis McMichael were booked into the Glynn County jail.
With us to talk about all of it, we welcome to the broadcast Bryan Stevenson, executive editor of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. His book, which is his story, called "Just Mercy" was made into a feature film. It is his nonprofit behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument dedicated to victims of lynching and white supremacy. And I can say having visited, it is among the most powerful, solemn, and deeply moving monuments and museums in all of our country. He`s also professor of criminal justice at NYU Law.
It`s an honor to have you on, Bryan. Let`s start with a very basic definition. What is a lynching as your organization has come to define it?
BRYAN STEVENSON, EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Well, a lynching is a racially motivated act of violence committed by two or more people where there is no accountability, an act of violence where there`s impunity. And in many ways, I`m not sure labeling contemporary acts as lynchings is very helpful because we had lynchings in this country throughout the 20th century and no one did anything about them. That label didn`t actually motivate us to be responsive.
I think what`s tragic about this incident is that we now have an understanding of what`s appropriate and what`s inappropriate, and it was clear that this violence perpetrated against this young man, who was hunted by these men and ends up dead on the street, was a criminal act that should have been prosecuted as a criminal act. And it`s encouraging tonight that they`ve been arrested, but it`s so deeply disturbing that we are still living in a nation with these kinds of acts of violence can go unpunished and there`s such a desperate effort to look for ways to not hold people accountable when young black men are shot and killed.
WILLIAMS: Here`s the question I hate to ask. What happens in this case if there`s no video camera there to record it?
STEVENSON: Well, tragically I think that it becomes much harder. There`s a presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned to black and brown people. And it`s almost as if the burden is on the person of color to prove that their victimization is legitimate, that they haven`t done something wrong. And one of the great challenges we have in this nation, Brian, is we have a narrative that still haunts us. I mean, we forget that black people were enslaved for two and a half centuries and to justify the brutal abuse and mistreatment of black Americans, we created this myth that black people are dangerous, that they`re presumptively guilty.
We ended chattel slavery, but we didn`t end that narrative, and we went from calling black people slaves to calling black people criminals. And, at the end of the 19th century, we used convict leasing and these strategies to criminalize black people. And throughout the 20th century, that turned into lynchings and terror and violence, and it`s so traumatizing. I mean, this story is every black parent`s nightmare, that you have to worry about your children when they`re out jogging, when they`re trying to improve their health, you have to worry that they might be shot and killed and no one will do anything.
And I think one of the great tragedies we have yet to encounter is how we recover from all of the damage that has been done by these narratives. I mean, black people fled the American south throughout the first half of the 20th century. Six million people fled traumatized by violence and terror. We codified segregation. You know, I`m not 100 years old, but when I was born, a black person couldn`t marry a white person because a black person was deemed inadequate. I couldn`t go to school with white kids. I started my education in a racially segregated school. We didn`t trust black five- year-olds to be with white five-year-olds.
And that narrative, that myth continues to haunt us. We`ve made a lot of progress, but it doesn`t matter whether you`re educated. It doesn`t matter whether you`re an athlete. It doesn`t matter whether you`re a news commentator. It doesn`t matter whether you`re a teacher. If you`re black or brown, you will go places in this country where you`re going to have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness and guilt, and this is an example of why that it`s so terrifying and why it`s so critical that we do better to confront our history.
WILLIAMS: Bryan Stevenson has agreed to stay with us just over this break. And coming up, when we come back, we`ll talk about the intersection of race, and class and socioeconomics generally when it comes to fighting a pandemic in this country.
WILLIAMS: It should surprise no one who`s been paying attention that communities of color have been hit hardest by the coronavirus. "The Washington Post" reporting just this week, "Disproportionately black counties account for over half the coronavirus cases in our country and nearly 60 percent of deaths".
Bryan Stevenson is our guest. He remains with us. Bryan, tell me that I`m wrong, that unless you have the good fortune of living in a place, L.A. County comes to mind, Jersey City comes to mind, where the mayor has said, no, we`re going to test everybody. We`re not going to be done until we test everybody, that getting a test in this country is entirely up to your ZIP code and how much money you have.
STEVENSON: I wish I could say you`re wrong, but you`re absolutely right. I`m here in the state of Alabama. You know, the county with the second highest rate of infections per capita is the county near me, Lowndes County. It`s a majority black county.
And when you look at the number of tests that have been conducted in that county, the more affluent counties where the rates of infection are much lower, it tells a really painful story. We are not providing services to poor rural communities and black communities like we need to, and that is contributing to these disparities that we`re seeing in the death rate. And it just is so painful because we have a habit in our country to ignore the victimization of black and brown people, and it plays out even when we`re all trying to deal with this pandemic.
And I just think there`s so much that has to be done to get us to start thinking in a more appropriate way about how we intervene. At the beginning of the century, the Bureau of Justice reported that one in three black male babies in this country is expected to go to jail or prison. You would expect that would generate a lot of political discourse, a lot of organizing that academic communities and health officials would be thinking about how do we disrupt this kind of crisis. And no one said anything.
And when you have that kind of pattern and a pandemic hits, you see what we`re seeing, which is this incredibly burdensome impact on communities of color.
WILLIAMS: And do you see anything about our country that tells you that when this is done, when we`ve got 8 billion doses of a vaccine and this is over, we`re going to go back and apply best practices and lessons learned and look at what we need to fix about our system?
STEVENSON: Not without a radical rethinking about what we owe to people who are the most vulnerable. I mean, if we created a healthcare intervention that was based on vulnerability and need, then, yes, we might see that kind of response, Brian. But I still worry that our habit and our tendency is to prioritize those who are affluent, those who are privileged, and that`s going to mean that we`re going to see the next wave of this pandemic again disproportionately impacting the poor and communities of color.
I work in a criminal justice system that treats you better if you`re rich and guilty than if you`re poor and innocent. And now in the midst of this healthcare crisis, we`re seeing the same phenomenon where the poor and sick get less care than the affluent and healthy. And that has to change if we`re going to do better at controlling these kinds of crises. It`s heartbreaking to see what I`m seeing right now in America.
WILLIAMS: Bryan Stevenson, as I said at the start of our interview, it`s an honor to have you on. Thank you very much for sharing part of your time tonight with us on this night of all nights and this story.
Coming up for us, we hope our teachers know how much they`re appreciated. Today, just to make sure, they heard it from the top.
WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight is a celebration of teachers during this n National Teacher Appreciation Week. And what a tough time for our teachers, say nothing of the students they love and care for and form into better humans. Forcing a teacher to stay out of the classroom, it`s like putting a race car in the garage, like a fish out of water. Quite simply it goes against their life`s work. So a thank you for their work during this COVID and Zoom era.
Teachers in Chicago got a surprise from a famous Chicagoan whose very appearance on the screen reminded us in an instant of, let`s just call it a different time in our country.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Hi, Jalayne.
JALAYNE BREWTON, 6TH, 7TH, 8TH GRADE TEACHER, PARKSIDE ACADEMY: Hi.
OBAMA: How are you?
BREWTON: I`m good.
OBAMA: It is National Teacher Appreciation Week.
DANIEL MICHMERHUIZEN, CIVIC AND U.S. HISTORY TEACHER, BENITO JUAREZ HIGH SCHOOL: I am overjoyed, overwhelmed. I am almost speechless.
KATIE OWENS, SECOND-GRADE TEACHER, JOSEPH KELLMAN ELEMENTARY: Oh, my god. I`m beyond excited. I`m -- I think I`m trembling now.
OBAMA: Great teachers, in a lot of ways, you know, put as big of an imprint on their kids as anybody.
MICHMERHUIZEN: My kids are incredibly resilient. I am moved to tears on a regular basis.
OWENS: We just dearly miss having our kids in front of us.
BREWTON: So when it first happened, I was so concerned about devices. I even went to my school and volunteered the first two weeks. And I was passing out, you know, the Chromebooks.
MICHMERHUIZEN: What I`ve tried to do is just transmit my class as much as possible into the remote environment because our class is so powerful in the interaction.
OBAMA: You know, if I ever get too down and out, I`m going to have to tune in to you so that I can get geared back up.
MICHMERHUIZEN: You would be an honored guest in my class at any point.
OBAMA: The passion shows, the time and effort.
OWENS: What a beautiful message you`re sending to me, and it`s so well received. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: And of course, a question came up about the Michael Jordan documentary "The Last Dance," in which former Chicago resident Barack Obama is featured.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OWENS: Are you watching "Last Dance"?
OBAMA: I am.
OWENS: Oh, my god, yes.
OBAMA: I am reliving because, you know, you and I must be, you know, close to the same age and --
OBAMA: -- so I`m on a nostalgia trip back there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The 44th president of the United States to play us off the air tonight. That is our broadcast for this Thursday evening.
On behalf of all of my colleagues at the networks of NBC News, good night from our temporary field headquarters.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END