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Interview with Newark Mayor Cory Booker

Aired July 19, 2013 - 16:30   ET



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?

And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me we might want to examine those kinds of laws.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And for more reaction to the president's remarks, we're joined now by Newark mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker, who joins me now by the phone.

Mayor Booker, thanks so much for calling in.

A personal speech here by the president. What's your reaction?

MAYOR CORY BOOKER, D-NEWARK, NJ (via telephone): Well, I'm really happy he said it. Sometimes you break through the noise and the sound bites by getting personal, helping people to understand your own experiences and sharing that heart and that spirit with the country.

So, I was grateful that he came forward, not with some practice speech, not reading from a teleprompter, but speaking from the heart in a way that could touch other hearts.

TAPPER: He definitely was talking not just as a leader, but as an African-American, as someone who has experienced some discrimination in this country.

Talk a little bit if you would about the line that politicians have to walk when it comes to talking about things related to their own personal experience with the risk of alienating or at least not communicating with some of the people listening?

BOOKER: Well, I actually think it's a good thing. I think the more we hear the experiences of others, the more we're able to relate them to our own experiences. Look, you listen to women talk about often the treatment they get, the second class treatment they get, you see that it's real and you see how it evidences itself in the military that does not deal with issues of rape in the right way.

If you listen to Muslim-Americans talk about now how it feels to be in a state of constant suspicion, you can relate it back to yourself. So to have the president start with a very human experience but to reach out to help people understand that we are all in this together, that we all share a common destiny, that the challenges of an inner city African-American boy does relate to our lives and we are invested in that outcome no matter what our opinion.

TAPPER: The president notably said that Trayvon Martin could have been me in the past. What's your experience? You have grown up in a world of some privilege, your parents having worked hard to achieve in this country, you went to a nice school, you had a nice job, before you became a city councilman and a mayor, not that those are not nice jobs, but you know what I mean. Are you familiar with the kind of experiences that President Obama talked about today, clutching purses when you walk into an elevator, locking car doors when you walk down the street?

BOOKER: Yes, I wrote a very emotional article after the Rodney King verdict and really expressing the pain it was having that kind of suspicion directed towards you, having interactions with the police, being accused of stealing a car that I was driving that was my own and that build up and it's very frustrated, it's very challenging.

But for me, you're right, in many ways, I grew up with a lot of privilege, and the challenge for me now is I see that a lot of these racial disparities that are experienced manifest itself in some pretty awful realities for other Americans, especially those that are struggling in poor communities.

And so when you have situations like New Jersey, where the black population is somewhere around 13 percent, 14 percent, but the prison population is over 60 percent black, we all have to understand that whether we want to point fingers of blame, the reality is we also have to accept responsibility especially if we understand that every child born in America is born equal and born with no higher proclivity toward crime.

And this is where I think it's lost in this situation, that life I see, we only really have three options, we can accept things as they are, choose to blame others and do nothing, or accept responsibility as a community for changing things. And in order to create that climate, it has to start with two understandings, one is it a knowledge that we need to know more about each other and number two to understand that we're all in this together.

And I think the president was just talking to America in that way, let's understand each other, let's find deeper knowledge and love for one another and let's also understand if we do nothing as a country, we're going to continue to have challenges that affect us all. Prison population soaring in America affects all.

TAPPER: All right, Mayor Cory Booker, good luck out there on the campaign trail. We'll talk to you soon.

BOOKER: Thank you very much.

TAPPER: Coming up, what legal options if any do Trayvon Martin's parents have left? We'll talk to Chris Darden, a former prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. Also we'll get his reaction to the Zimmerman verdict and today's remarks by the president coming up.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: When Trayvon Martin was first shot. I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Coming back to our "National Lead," President Obama surprised White House reporters by walking into the briefing room earlier today and speaking for 17 minutes about the Trayvon Martin case. He talked about his own personal reflections, the race conversation in America and as you just heard the "Stand Your Ground" law.

I want to bring in Christopher Darden, criminal defense attorney and former O.J. Simpson prosecutor, to talk to us now about some of the legal issues here. Christopher, thanks for joining us. Before I ask you about some of these legal questions, I am interested in hearing your personal reaction to the speech.

CHRISTOPHER DARDEN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, first of all, I'm thrilled to have walked in to CNN today and to have seen the president on television talking about this issue. You know, this issue of race is an issue that has always divided this nation and it continues to divide us and I think that today, given the demonstrations and reactions that we have seen to the Zimmerman trial, I think that it was very important for him to speak to the issue.

I thought his comments were very thoughtful. I appreciate the fact that he personalized his statements. I could tell that as he spoke that he was speaking from the heart, from his own common experience and I think it's important, whether you are conservative or liberal, black or white, that you listen to the president, and consider what he had to say today. I think it was important.

TAPPER: You were a prosecutor for another a very racially charged case, the O.J. Simpson case, we heard Cory Booker talk about the Rodney King verdict, which of course resulted around that same time. Tell us about the experience you had, I know you have talked about this in the past, but bring us back in time a little to a different period, to a different racially divisive issue. What was it like being an African-American prosecutor prosecuting an African- American during a very controversial decision?

DARDEN: Well, it wasn't very comfortable, I can tell you that, because here in Los Angeles, people splits along racial lines whether they thought that O.J. Simpson was getting a raw deal, whether he should be charged or whether he was guilty or not. Of course, after O.J. was acquitted, we saw the reactions around the court house, at black colleges around the country and in the black community.

Jubilation at the fact that this man who many of us believe murdered two innocent people was acquitted, I think that when you think about O.J. Simpson and 1995 and that verdicts, one of the things I always remember and talk to people about is the snowball effect of race and racism. We dealt with the issue of the Rodney King verdict, the Rodney King beatings, the riots, Chief Darrell Gates and the way it conducted its business in the late 80s and early 90s, which many African-Americans were offended by and victimized by.

Back then the LAPD had a way of stopping an African-American, profiling African-Americans, and detaining African-Americans without probable cause in my view. So these tensions build up. Each time there is a racial incident, there is a snowball effect and ultimately, these things explode into something very bad. It exploded into riots in 1992 and they are the partial reason why I think O.J. Simpson was acquitted ultimately.

TAPPER: Interesting. I want to get your legal reaction, of course, let's play something the Martin Family Attorney Benjamin Crump said about the Justice Department investigation and get your reaction to it.


BENJAMIN CRUMP, MARTIN FAMILY'S ATTORNEY: In the civil rights violation case we do get to look directly at race, which was not addressed in the state case. So if somewhere, whether meant it for bad guy, mean it for good, nobody can say we address race in the trial and this should be something that the Department of Justice going to look at with fresh eyes.


TAPPER: What's your take on that argument that the idea that because the state's case did not address race, that makes it easier for the Justice Department's investigation to find something race related?

DARDEN: Well, you know, I think first of all, race was addressed in the Zimmerman case, but it was addressed by the defense not necessarily the prosecution. But I think the Justice Department is going to have a difficult time trying to make out a civil rights case. They have to show that race was the motivation, the primary reason that Zimmerman shot this boy and I don't think they're going to be able do it. I don't think the evidence is there.

Perhaps there's somebody out there who can attest to Zimmerman's true racial attitudes and how he truly feels about African-Americans. Perhaps there's someone out there who's had a conversation with Zimmerman since the shooting who might offer an account from Zimmerman's own mouth that is different from what we have seen in the civil case. But I don't think the justice department can bring a civil case against Zimmerman, not at this point, not with this evidence. TAPPER: Christopher Darden, thank you so much. Please stick around we want to get more of your reaction ahead as we continue to cover this important story, the remarks by President Obama about the Zimmerman verdict.



PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think it's understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. A rare speech on race from President Obama is sparking both applause and outrage in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. Let's bring our back panel. With us we have Kevin Madden, former adviser to Mitt Romney, Anita Dunn, former White House communications director for President Obama, Clinton Yates, "Washington Post" columnist and Christopher Darden, criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial.

Clinton, I want to ask you about something that I just read on Twitter from somebody saying I want to like this speech from President Obama, but it sounds like he's saying we need to have a conversation about your racism.

CLINTON YATES, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": That's the reality of the scenario. I mean, what I liked about too was that he approached it from a non-angry standpoint which some people automatically assume that when you're address -- I think the fact that he was off script as Booker spoke to earlier, this spoke to the fact that this is something that he thinks about, it's something that a lot of people think about, it's a reality for others.

TAPPER: Kevin, I mean, I think there are a lot of Americans out there, some of the blow back that we have seen, we think if this is going to be a dialogue, this can't be a lecture.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Right, but I have to agree with Clinton there, I think he was personal and measured, but to use his own words, Jake, the president said when politicians try to organize conversations they end up being stilted and politicized and folks are locked into the positions they already have. That is the president's greatest challenge right now. Are we past the point that the president, with a speech or whatever actions he can take from his office, is he -- are we past where he's able to have a really discernible impact anymore?

ANITA DUNN, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: and I think that part of personalizing the speech was having this conversation with the American people, both as president, but also has an African-American man who has experienced this and who can speak from his own personal experience. But also, and as I think both panelist members have referred to, you know, put it in the reality of how everybody sees these issues.

TAPPER: But not everybody sees them in the same way. That's what I'm wondering about.

DUNN: That he sees validity in a lot of different viewpoints on this, which has always been the way he approaches these issues of race is to say this is how I see them and this is a lot of the reality that people like me live through, but I also understand and listen to you when you talk about the reality as you see these issues as well. And that's a critical part to making this not -- not having some sort of political. Let's pull everybody together for a racial summit, but instead try to encourage the real conversations that have to take place as the president said in the churches and their schools and their workplace.

TAPPER: Christopher Darden, you have already talked about this on this program and elsewhere that you don't think there's a civil rights charge that can successfully be brought against George Zimmerman. Are you concerned about disappointment that individuals like Reverend Al Sharpton who are talking about the need to repeal stand your rights laws and that we need to file civil charges, do you think that since there's not going to be immediate successful action that there are a lot of people that are going to be unhappy.

DARDEN: I think people are going to be unhappy either way it goes, if charges are filed, if federal charges are filed, I'm sure millions of Americans will be upset about that as well. I think the issue of filing the civil rights case and the issues of stand your ground law are two separate issues, like the president said. He said we really need to examine a law that allows a man to bring a gun to a fistfight, kill a kid and get away with it.

TAPPER: But that law was obviously not invoked in the trial itself, but it was mentioned around the edges certainly.

DARDEN: It was mentioned around the edges and I'm sure it was certainly thought of and considered in the minds of the jurors. You know, we're talking about self-defense, common law self-defense, stand your ground law, regardless. But these are laws that need to be re- examined, certainly in this context, in the Zimmerman case.

TAPPER: All right, Christopher Darden, Clinton Yates, Kevin Madden, Anita Dunn, great conversation, I hope to continue it in the days and weeks to come. A difficult conversation as the Trayvon Martin family said we need to have in this country. Thank you so much.

Coming up, it was certainly rare and minutes into the president's speech, some pundits were already in a rush to label it an historic speech. We'll hear from noted presidential historian Douglas Brinkley coming up after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Being the first African- American commander in chief has put President Obama in a unique position as it relates to confronting race relations in this country. We saw him back in 2008, when then candidate Obama distanced himself from controversial marks made by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we have never really worked through, a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.


TAPPER: The president's race speech in Philadelphia from five years ago, joining me now live is presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley. He's also a biographer of Rosa Parks, I should note. Douglas, let's talk about the nature of this speech. Some pundits were quick to push back against labeling it historic, particularly since we have heard the president address race matters before. Do you think this is a historic speech comparing it to other speeches in past presidencies?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No, this was not John F. Kennedy locking horns with George Wallace or LBJ saying we shall overcome. It's not a big policy speech, but it's interesting as I think it was personal remarks than an address to the nation and the president was just having this burden on his back and felt that he needed to confront all this.

TAPPER: What did you find most notable about the president's remarks?

BRINKLEY: I think that periodically he comes forward and starts trying to have a dialogue about race in the country. I think the fact that he can invoke his daughters, this notion of, "the invisible man" that white people either don't look at them at all or they lock doors. His daughter's relationship with white America is stronger than the previous generation so it's a mixture of frustration at the verdict in Florida and a hope that things are getting better.

TAPPER: I spoke just a few minutes ago about his 2008 race speech and his clips about that speech. I want you to compare to what we heard today from President Obama.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that the disparities that exist between the -- can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation, a lack of economic opportunity among black men and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families, a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co- workers or white friends, but it does find voice in the barbershop or the beauty shop, around the kitchen table, at times that anger is exploited by politicians to gin up votes along racial lines or to make up for a politician's own failings and occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning in the pulpit and in the pews.


TAPPER: Douglas, what are the differences and similarities that you hear between that speech and the president's remarks today?

BRINKLEY: That was a brilliantly crafted speech. That's one for the ages and they have come from Barack Obama that many Americans fell in love with, that somebody could talk that openly about Jim Crow and slavery, our first African-American president. Today he was simply expressing more of a frustration of what happened in Florida and it might become a rally cry for the Democrats in the midterm election on this concept of throw away this stand your ground law, many Americans are very upset about it. The president thought he couldn't stay on the sidelines.

I think the news cycle is going to only run this for a few days. In the biography of president Obama, this will be a significant couple of pages that he was willing to step out. And there's a reason he keeps his public opinion ratings in the African-American community at 85 percent, 90 percent. He knows how to talk to that community and he felt he needed to be sort of a pastor to them right now. Many African-Americans or minorities are feeling deeply frustrated at the Zimmerman acquittal.

TAPPER: Can you give us an idea of where you think today's remarks, what place they have in the president's legacy, if any?

BRINKLEY: Because since he was the first African-American president historians are always going to look on how he felt with race, and this was a significant event today, it's one that the weekend news shows will keep talking about. Often a president likes to throw himself into a court case and Barack Obama just did it. Trayvon Martin is like Emmett Till. It's going to be a dark moment in American history.

TAPPER: Thanks so much, I appreciate it. That's it for THE LEAD. Now it's Wolf Blitzer's turn. "THE SITUATION ROOM" is on right now.