Can America overcome?
A conversation with Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security, about the erosion of democracy, the threat of violent white extremism, and why he still has hope
It was a strange July 4. A moment to celebrate the country in which the country feels like it’s unraveling, unmoored, lost its mind.
It seems to me even more important in this moment than in most to hold two rival truths in tension: that the country is broken, in real trouble, in fact may not make it another decade as a liberal democracy; and that the country is worth fighting for.
Lately I have found myself seeking out people who are able to hold those truths together. One such person is Jeh Johnson, who served as former President Barack Obama’s secretary of homeland security. The other day, we had a conversation that stuck with me because it was at once clear-headed about the existential threat to the country, the menace that resurgent white supremacist militancy poses to the republic, and more — and, at the same time, hopeful. I hope you find something of use in it.
A disclosure: Jeh Johnson’s daughter, Natalie, is the managing editor of The Ink.
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“I still believe we're on an upward trajectory in our country if you're willing to look at the larger picture”: a conversation with Jeh Johnson
I want to start with the January 6th hearings. You were one of the country's top law enforcement officials. I wonder what it has been like for you to watch vivid testimony detailing how a president of the United States cooperated with people waging war on the democratic process, incited them toward violence, and at a minimum failed to stop them.
It's surreal. I would never have envisioned a president of the United States being accused of participating in a plot to overthrow the U.S. government.
But this is what happens when we elect somebody to the most powerful position in the country who has no understanding of the Constitution, no understanding of constitutional norms, no understanding of history, and no moral compass. A president who is simply in it for the sake of obtaining and retaining power.
So, in that sense, this is not a surprise. We got what we bargained for in 2016. The ultimate irony I see in all of this is in Trump’s inaugural address on January 20, 2017. Donald Trump stood on the steps of the western front of the Capitol and talked about American carnage.
A lot of people, including myself, had no idea what he was talking about. But then, four years later, in exactly the same spot, we've got American carnage as a result of Donald Trump's overheated rhetoric.
One of the many things I hope comes out of this is a better understanding of how to secure the U.S. Capitol for events like this and what the command and control relationships should be. And we do know how to do this. It's called a National Security Special Event, an NSSE. Typically, an NSSE is an inauguration, State of the Union, major party political convention every four years, and the U.N. General Assembly.
Once something is designated an NSSE, the Secret Service takes control. It is a well-coordinated law enforcement effort among the Secret Service, numerous federal law enforcement agencies, and local police. Once you put an NSSE in motion, you set up all the security that goes around it so even a squirrel couldn't get into the perimeter of the Capitol without going through a magnetometer. That didn't happen. No one thought to designate January 6 as an NSSE.
Are you saying that because of the norms and customs we've had in the past, the certification process that happens every four years was not considered vulnerable to a threat until recently?
Correct. There might have been a designation in time for that with a bit of foresight by cabinet-level officials. But I suspect this is one of the results of having so many acting cabinet officials toward the end of the Trump administration. On January 6, you had an acting secretary of defense, an acting secretary of homeland security, and an acting attorney general. Those are all the key people you would count on for our nation's domestic security, and they were all placeholders at Trump's behest.
I've been very impressed by the House select committee in that they seem resolute and determined to complete their work, get to the bottom line, and not allow delay in responding to subpoenas to sidetrack them. They compiled a massive record in a very short period of time.
I give a lot of credit to Representatives Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney for their fortitude and dedication to this mission. It seems obvious to me that they are building the case against Donald Trump: that he participated in a seditious conspiracy, and that he gave aid and comfort to an insurrection.
You're a lawyer, and it sounds like you don't have any doubt that he did commit those crimes. Do you have any confidence that he will be charged for them?
I don't know all the evidence the committee has compiled. But from what I do know, it seems that Donald Trump is within the realm of what an aggressive prosecutor would take on. Merrick Garland is a very careful and deliberate attorney general, so I'm sure he will take his time in making that decision. I can't tell you what the ultimate outcome will be. I do know that once this committee completes its work and all the evidence of the complicity of senior-level people has come to light, there will be a lot of pressure on the Department of Justice to do something about it.
Before the hearings started, we heard reasonable people say, Yes, he may have committed crimes, but it's dangerous to cross a rubicon where every administration is trying to jail its predecessor. There are countries where that is the norm, and we don't want to go there. Do you think that argument has lost steam now that the nature of the offenses has been revealed?
I think the more vivid the evidence, the harder it becomes to take the position you just articulated. If I were the attorney general, I might be thinking, Let justice be done, though the heavens fall. In this country, we go where the evidence and the law take us, irrespective of political considerations.
What you articulated is essentially a political consideration. Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon was a political consideration and, I think, a worthy one. He didn't want to put the country through a trial of Nixon after the trauma we had been through for two years with Watergate; he wanted to move on. But the crimes committed here are so appalling that they go to the very nature of the strength of our democracy.
Part of the drama of these January 6 hearings is watching these mid-to high-level officials in the Trump apparatus -- many of whom were loyal to the end…
Many of whom, by the way, had no business occupying the senior positions that they did, which is very apparent when you watch their testimony.
Yes. But I do think they all deserve positions in Martin Scorsese films. But what’s amazing is that many of them who went along with Trump up until the end are now testifying against him.
Throughout his presidency, there was this whole debate about how well our institutions would hold up. Would officials, civil servants, and others in government stand up to an authoritarian pretender, or would they not?
You look at someone like Bill Barr, the attorney general under Trump, who went along with so much and never said anything to the public about what was going on, once he had some faint level of resistance at the end. How do you think about the question of our institutions holding up in the face of this autocratic threat?
First of all, who the president is matters. Presidents start off with the cabinet they think they want and then ultimately get the cabinet they really want. Trump started off with a cabinet that consisted of big names like Jim Mattis, John Kelly, and Rex Tillerson. Then, over time, he grew impatient with those people because they had the fortitude and the strength of character to tell him things he didn't want to hear.
So he moved to the cabinet he really wanted: a bunch of actings who had absolutely no job security and were afraid to tell him the truth. By the end of his term, everyone in a key position was an acting and not Senate confirmed.
An individual who never should have been in the White House in the first place coupled with a bunch of actings who were there simply to do his bidding — that’s a really, really bad combination.
Second, there is vagueness in our Constitution. There is gray in the Electoral Count Act. We have survived this long because the people at the top of our government, for the most part, have been honorable people who respect constitutional norms, even if it's not the literal words of the Constitution.
In 1960, Richard Nixon knew it was time to concede the election even though he felt like it was stolen from him. After the Supreme Court ruling in 2000, Al Gore conceded to George Bush because he knew it was the constitutional norm and he had to do it for our democracy.
When you put in place somebody who has no respect for that, the system gets stress tested. Suppose Vice President Pence had succumbed to all the pressure and said, "I reject the result, and I'm tossing it back to the states."
We would've been in a constitutional no man's land. But Pence, to his credit, had enough respect for the constitutional system. He had people like Michael Luttig telling him, "Look, you have to do this," so he followed the norms. But we discovered that our democracy really is fragile. I don't know if we could have survived eight years of this, versus four.
It's interesting that when you go back to the origin of these institutions, they were forged in the breaking away from a monarchy. The essence of a monarchy is whim, that you are dependent on what the leader feels like on any given day. I think many of us realize that our system is not as different from that, in many lived moments, as we thought it was.
It is, as long as we elect people who are there for the higher calling of supporting and defending our Constitution, and not just accumulating power for the sake of accumulating power. If you put somebody in place who will exploit every ambiguity and vagueness in the Constitution, then we run into trouble.
Every era has its great security threat that looms above the others, including the period in which you served at Homeland Security. Obviously, after 9/11, the Islamist extremist terrorist security threat was the focus, and everything was reorganized around it. I think people could argue there was too much reorganized around it.
There have been many statements by the FBI and Homeland Security in recent years that today's greatest reigning threat is something else: domestic white supremacist terrorism. Do you think there has been an analogous reorganization commensurate with that new determination the way there was after 9/11?
No, there has not. I've seen an evolution in the terrorist threat to the homeland in three distinct phases. In phase one, foreign terrorists directed attacks on the United States, like 9/11, the so-called Underwear Bomber over the Detroit Airport in 2009, or the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid. These were attempts or actual acts of terrorism directed by a foreign terrorist organization, namely Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I was general counsel of the Department of Defense then, so I signed off on many of these counter-terrorism operations legally.
Phase two, just around the time I became secretary of homeland security, was what we referred to as foreign terrorist-inspired attacks. This is where ISIS, principally, would inspire lone wolves in this country through the internet to commit acts of terrorism. For example, San Bernardino in 2015. They were on a smaller scale and inspired by a foreign terrorist organization even though the actor may not have ever been in Syria or Iraq or ever met a single member of ISIS.
Phase three, which is what we're in now, is domestic-based, violent white extremism. As the Anti-Defamation League often points out, that type of attack outpaces anything directed or inspired by a foreign terrorist organization.
Now, DHS was constructed and created at a time when we viewed terrorism as an extraterritorial threat. In that paradigm, the way to effectively deal with terrorism is to better regulate all the different ways somebody can get into this country: land, sea, and air. So Congress consolidated Border Patrol, Customs, TSA, and the Coast Guard into one cabinet-level department. Figuring terrorism was seen as an extraterritorial threat, so the answer was to better regulate our borders.
That's a model that is now outdated because the principal terrorist threat in the United States is domestic-based terrorism. And there are not a whole lot of DHS cops running around the interior of the country. That responsibility has principally fallen to the FBI.
I want to ask about your recent piece arguing that the country needs to have an "Emmett Till moment" around mass shootings. Can you talk about why you believe it's important for people to confront the reality of this head-on?
We all know that images say a million words and that some words cannot adequately convey the horror of a moment where pictures will. I'd been thinking since Sandy Hook that if the public had been exposed graphically to the horror of that shooting of school children, we would have felt very differently about this. It would have been too difficult to just simply over time look away and move on to something else, because the images would have been burned into our conscience.
I realize I do not have the moral standing to say to a parent, "You should let the entire world see your child's mutilated body." But the other way to look at it is, why should 10-year-old school children who were eyewitnesses to this and have to go to grief counseling for the rest of their life suffer while lawmakers and the constituents who elected them are spared from these images?
I don't advocate for any particular image, like an autopsy photo or an open casket, but I do believe that the public needs to be brought closer to these tragedies and the damage and the horror that an assault weapon can cause.
There are certain images and vivid memories that are unshakeable. Suppose there had not been an iPhone camera present when George Floyd died and all we had was a police report that said, "He died as a result of a medical condition." That one video changed our nation.
These days there's this strong sense of anxiety about threats to democracy, such as the January 6 attack. But the other day I was thinking that maybe the end of democracy is just 90 percent of us wanting gun reforms and not being able to get them. Maybe the end is us getting used to the idea that the vast majority of us can want things, like better health care or abortion rights, and know that we are not getting them. Is the erosion of democracy the flash-bang moment that we're all so worried about? Or is it a more protracted thing that we're already living through?
I do worry about what you just said. What depresses me most is the thought that 10-year-old school children go to school one day and don't come home because they were killed by an assault weapon. I'm also depressed by our democracy's inability, or unwillingness, to do anything about it. Majority will is thwarted by entrenched special interests.
As I'm talking to you, I'm watching MSNBC and looking at a discussion about DACA. Three-quarters of Americans believe we ought to codify into law the protection of DACA recipients, which is the most sympathetic thing you can do to fix our broken immigration system. But we can't even get that done.
I believe that ultimately, notwithstanding how minority will can thwart majority will, pressure from the voters will move these people. They are, in the end, motivated by getting re-elected. We can make change happen if there's a groundswell of demand for something. But to achieve that groundswell, we need something graphic. We are a very visual country and a very visual population. We're drawn to images and movies, more so than the written or spoken word. You and I can talk forever about the need for stricter gun safety laws, but images will mobilize public opinion.
I want to ask you about crime. Whether there is a statistically significant issue of crime right now is itself a debate. But the perception of public safety is an issue and one that Democrats have to respond to at the local and national level. Do you think Democrats have a messaging and policy problem around responding to public fears of safety and crime?
I believe that Democrats should find a way to embrace public safety as one of our core issues, because public safety matters most in Democratic, blue communities. I think there is a lesson in what’s happening in Los Angeles and the recall vote recently in San Francisco. I believe there was also a massive lesson for Democrats in the election of Eric Adams in New York City.
You know this as well as I do, that in primary round one, Eric Adams ran third in Manhattan among the so-called liberal elites. But he ran first among working-class communities of color in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, because rank-and-file Democrats wanted public safety. That's not a political position. You can be progressive on every issue that Democrats believe in but still be afraid of riding the New York City subways and want something done about it.
Public safety is a very personal issue. When I was secretary of homeland security, the questions I got most frequently from family and friends were not on any political issue. They were, "Is it safe for me to go to this particular public event?" or "Is it safe for me to let my kid go to this country on spring break?" That's what matters most to people.
If Democrats are perceived as weak or absent on public safety, Republicans like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, or Rudy Giuliani will fill that vacuum with a lot of fear-mongering, paranoia, hate, and racism.
I hear that. But there's a challenge for many of these communities and for the progressives and liberals who represent them. Many living politicians have a lot of regret about going along with mass incarceration and having two million-plus people in prison, many of whom shouldn't be in prison.
There is a fear that addressing public safety in the way you're talking about -- which I think is politically good advice -- is going to take you back to a carceral place. We don't have other tools. Maybe we should have them, but we haven't developed other methods in mainstream American practice.
So I think there's this visceral fear that meeting voters where they are and addressing those fears means talking yourself into locking up a bunch of Black and brown people. Many fear that as political leaders. Is there a different approach that they need to consider?
Yes. When you talk about public safety, progressives immediately think of mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, stop and frisk, racial profiling, and Derek Chauvin. We immediately think those things, but public safety is far more nuanced. It's not about extremes.
It's similar to the immigration issue I managed for three years. We can treat migrants fairly and humanely. We should protect DACA recipients. We should give people who've been in this country more than ten years a chance to be accountable and get on the books. We can do more to expedite refugee resettlement and asylum claims.
But, on the other hand, most Americans want a secure border, too. Those desires are not inconsistent with one another.
If you talk to people in the Trump administration, they would say they are -- but they are not. In my opinion, the public safety debate is far more nuanced than going to one polar extreme or another, which is what the loudest voices in the debate most often talk about.
Mayor Adams is part of this generation of Black leaders that includes others like London Breed and Karen Bass, who are tough on crime and may be able to thread that needle in a way that other leaders from different backgrounds may not be able to. What do you see in that?
That's why I think many people are fascinated with the politics of Eric Adams. He's occupying a place on the left of the spectrum at the moment that Democrats are fascinated with. You've got a Black man elected mayor in one of the country's bluest cities on a pro-public-safety persona and message. We hadn't seen that before.
There are a lot of lessons to learn from that, which is why I believe that public safety in urban and suburban blue communities should be something that Democrats are not afraid to talk about and should promote. It's a much bigger issue than it is in rural red communities. So we have to grapple with this issue, and we can't be seen as weak on it.
I want to talk about outreach to the other side in a time when that feels impossible. You go on Fox News from time to time. What calculation are you making to do that?
Do you think it works? Would you recommend that others try their own versions of such outreach in today's political climate, in their family spaces or wherever else?
I'm most often on CNN and MSNBC. I'm very often speaking to people who already agree with me. If you have a public voice, I think part of your role should be to get people a little bit out of their comfort zone and think a bit harder about whether or not they should continue to think what they think. I am proud of the fact that I work on both sides of the street -- literally, of Sixth Avenue.
A couple of weeks ago, I was on Morning Joe, Fox & Friends, and Face the Nation within one 72-hour period. I said the exact same thing in all three places.
I don't want to go on Fox just to placate their audience. I don't want to go on Fox just so that I am then quoted saying something that is part of the conservative narrative. I go on Fox to challenge, to prod.
I went on Fox two days after the 2020 election. Everyone was waiting for Arizona to be called because Biden was inches away from 270 electoral votes. When I channel-surfed to Fox, it was entirely dark. They had the garbled voice of some postal worker who claims that he saw ballots being backdated. It was just dark. So I contacted Neil Cavuto's show and said, "I want to go on today."
I went on his show and said, "In this democracy, there have been plenty of times where I've been bitterly disappointed in the election result. But the price of our democracy is you have to accept the result, even though you may not like it. And in four years, you get a chance to change it."
Before I could hit "Leave Meeting" on Zoom, my phone lit up with messages from angry Fox viewers saying things like, "How dare you say this, you Democrat. Crawl back under your rock."
But what's interesting about Fox appearances is that every once in a while, I'll get an incredibly nice note from somebody who saw me and will say, "Gee, I really appreciated what you said. I hadn't heard that before." So all the abuse and the shit I take if I go on Fox is worth it if I get a few positive emails from people who heard something they aren't normally exposed to.
We need you to do whatever it takes to get about 50 million of those conversions between now and November, so I wish you luck.
I can't tell you how radically different it is to go on MSNBC and then Fox. The best analogy I can give is baseball. That pitcher throws the ball from 60 feet away, but there's a different spin on the ball. So when you hit it, it will go in a totally different direction.
I wonder where you feel this country is on that broader arc of history that we've talked about and that you've lived. There are many ways in which you could tell a story of progress over the last generation. There weren't folks who looked like you 50 years ago holding some of the jobs you've had. There weren't women doing a whole bunch of things that women are now doing. I think it's sometimes a mistake that we don't tell the story enough about how much progress we have delivered.
Yet we're in this moment where you and I are casually talking about the fact that maybe this won't be a liberal democracy in a short period of time from now. How do you think about all that genuine progress that we're sitting on top of and the very real threat we're facing right now?
I think the modern-day answer to your question was set in stone in FDR's last inaugural address, where he said the arc of our country is forever upward. In that regard, the finest moment in my lifetime toward a more perfect union was election night 2008, because we elected a Black man with an African first name. I'm a Black man with an African first name, by the way. It was something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. It brought tears to my eyes. It brought tears to Natalie's eyes, though she was only 13 years old at the time.
I thought, "Wow, our country has taken a huge step forward," and many other people I know felt the same. I got countless emails from people saying, "I am now ready to apply for US citizenship." We felt really good about ourselves.
Somewhere along the way, the lid got peeled off in this country, revealing a lot of hate, intolerance, and racism. You could argue that it began with Sarah Palin's candidacy, the mantle of which was later inherited by Donald Trump. It became OK to put your hate and intolerance out in the open rather than stuff it under a rock. The wake-up moment for that was Charlottesville in 2017, obviously, where white nationalists just brandished their hate out in broad daylight. If 2008 was two steps forward, it feels like we've taken an enormous step backward.
And yet I still believe we're on an upward trajectory in our country if you're willing to look at the larger picture. That's how I see it.
I think you'll appreciate something that my grandfather wrote. Charles S. Johnson was born in 1893 and died in 1956, 11 months before I was born, just as the Civil Rights Movement took off. He lived his entire life in the Jim Crow South. One month before he died, in September 1956, he wrote an article in The New York Times titled "A Southern Negro's View of the South."
He wrote: "It is variously expected that Negro Southerners as a result of their limited status in the racial system would be bitter or hostile or impatient or indifferent. Bitterness grows out of hopelessness. And there is no sense of hopelessness in this situation, however uncomfortable and menacing and humiliating it may be at the time. Faith in the ultimate strength of the democratic philosophy and code of the nation as a whole has always been stronger than the impulse to despair."
That is in my DNA, and I tend to believe it, too.
Jeh Johnson served as secretary of homeland security during the Obama administration. He is currently a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.