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Axe Files: One-On-One Interview With Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Aired 7-7:30p ET

Aired July 21, 2018 - 19:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on THE AXE FILES: former New Orelans mayor Mich Landrieu takes on President Trump's performance on the world stage.

MITCH LANDRIEU, FMR MAYOR, NEW ORLEANS: He weakened us in a way we that we've never been weakened before, and he should be ashamed of himself.

ANNOUNCER: His fight to remove Confederate monuments.

LANDRIEU: It became really, really clear that this was wrong and that it needed to be corrected.

ANNOUNCER: Race in America.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN: Do you think the president is a racist?

LANDRIEU: In the South, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, I mean, it's usually a duck.

ANNOUNCER: And whether he will run for president in 2020.

[19:00:00] AXELROD: So Mitch, I want to ask you this, how seriously are you thinking about it?


DAVID AXELROD, CNN HOST: Mitch Landrieu, good to see you. We are here in your hometown of New Orleans, in the cafe reconcile. Tell me why this is such a special place to you.

MITCH LANDRIEU, FORMER NEW ORLEANS MAYOR: Well, when I grew up, there was a Jesuit priest, father Harry Thompson. He was the president of Jesuit High school who after finishing that one actually became the pastor of a downtown inner city church and started talking about ways to help kids and to connect people with money with people who needed money. And he wanted to start a place where kids could have a better future. And he said, look, we have got to go to, you know, the toughest of the tough places and find the people who need help most. And the children and young people that are working here are kids who have lived the toughest of the toughest lives in America. That you know, some of them have been shot. Some of them are parents of children that have been shot. Some of them are young men and women that have served time in jail and have come out and now they are actually running this facility. So now --.

AXELROD: They certainly go on from here.

LANDRIEU: And they go on from here generally right now, every restaurant, hotel, every business that is looking for really great employees comes here because these kids, that is just one of them who has been shot three times, actually now is working really, got a stable job, raising a family and he is doing great stuff. And so, this is a really special place.

AXELROD: You know, I read your wonderful memoir that you put out this year, "in the shadow of statues: a white southerner confronts history." And you write about your family. And it seems as if reconciliation, racial reconciliation has been kind of a mission of the Landrieu family for 60 years. I mean, your dad went to the legislature. Your dad, Moon Landrieu, went to the legislature at the height of the battle over civil rights and voted time and again against Jim Crow laws. He came to see a counsel led the fight to get the confederate flag out of the city council. He became mayor and desegregated the workforce. You grew up around this issue all your life.

LANDRIEU: Yes, I can't remember a moment in my life where race was not a part of it. It wasn't all reconciliation. It was a lot of battles. My dad really was a very interesting because he was 29 years old. He was married. He had four babies. My mother who has had nine children in 11 years. They are both still alive. They both happy. They have 38 grandchildren now.

But back in 1960, when things were, I mean, really intense, how he found the courage to vote against the segregation package. This is only one of two legislative. So I asked him. I said, you know, what are you thinking about? He said, well, I was really fighting for my friends. He had befriended a young man on the first day of law school who is name is Norman Francis. Norman was better looking, faster, and smart than everybody else. And I asked my father, he said, well, he informed me, he taught me about what it was like to walk in somebody else's shoes. And he said, I wasn't just fighting for Norman. I was fighting for my right to be with my friends. And we just kind of grew up in that ethos. And I can't remember as I written in the book, there have been a number of different examples throughout our life where, you know, white people have been really angry at us because they think --.

AXELROD: Wow. You experienced that as a kid.

LANDRIEU: No. I did, when I was 13 years old. Back then it was white people in the council chamber really trying to get after the city of New Orleans because the city was becoming majority African- American. It was on its way to it. And there were, you know, rabid people, you know, in the streets yelling and screaming about integration.

The story is it that one afternoon, father Harry Thompson, the same priest that helped, you know, started this facility with the community came to my classroom, and he said, you know, I need to walk you across the street to the gym because there's been a death threat. So when I got over there, I was in the locker room. And you know, of course, all my friends ran in and say, there's some woman outside that says she wants to kill you. And of course, this is was the same angry white woman who was just as angry as she could be. And she went to reach in her purse and one of my friends said, she has a gun. And of course they did what great friends would do, they scattered to the winds and left me standing there by myself. And she took out a card and threw it at me. I remember it. She threw it at me. And it had written on it, your father is an "n" lover. He ruined the city. You know, you should be ashamed of yourself.

I wasn't an adult but I was old enough and mature enough to kind of get what that was. So I mean, even back then, it was part of all of our lives. But I wasn't unique. I mean, it happened to lots of people in the city in the south --.

AXELROD: But what was striking is you say back then. But when you made the decision to remove confederate statues from places of honor in New Orleans, you met with some of those very same reactions. Your children met with some of those same reactions. And that was 40 years later.

[19:05:08] LANDRIEU: Yes. That makes you understand that we are not really through the issue of race. You know, when president Obama got elected, the country went, wow. We elected our first black president. Thank God, we got -- finished with that now. We are past it. And of course, that's not true. Every day in America as we are witness to African-Americans continue to suffer discrimination. We continue to tear ourselves apart on the issue of race. And on the issue of race in America which is of course the greatest fault line of American politics. I have just come to learn that you can't go over this. You can't go around it. You have to kind of go through it. You have to talk through it and work through it. And I made a political miscalculation. I had assumed that we were further along. Then after the shootings in Charleston, when Governor Haley and the entire folks in South Carolina, in South Carolina, finally took down the flag, I said, you know, --

AXELROD: The confederate flag.

LANDRIEU: The confederate flag. Number one, it's time to take the monuments down. But secondly, everybody is going to get it. And everybody didn't get it. And it's much too hard a fight to have in that year than we should have.

AXELROD: In fact, you got elected with overwhelming support and reelected with overwhelming support of both white and black residents of the city. Your support among whites in New Orleans dropped by half.

LANDRIEU: The city was racially united when I came. When I got reelected, it was for the most part, you know, the same. When I took those monuments down, though, it really, really, really touched people in a much deeper way. And I didn't lose all of my white support. But I lost half of it. In a way that will never come back to me.

And what was curious to me as a politician is, I have been involved, as you know, for 30 years. I was a legislator for 16 years.

AXELROD: Yes. When I met we both had hair.

LANDRIEU: That was a long time ago. And I have voted on some tough issues. And I have had people come up to me and say, you know, I didn't like the way you voted on the abortion issue or capital punishment or whatever, but I generally like you and think you are a good guy and I will vote for you again.

On this thing, it was much deeper than any other action that I have taken, where people said to me, I will never, ever support you again which I thought was really curious.

AXELROD: You actually wrote that today's public square is teeming with hatred we haven't seen since the 1960s. Why do you think that is?

LANDRIEU: I don't really know.

AXELROD: I mean, it's too glib to say it's all because of Donald Trump.


AXELROD: Because he sees done something and exploited it.

LANDRIEU: It is not. Listen, I'm a fan of the President. But it is not his cause. He didn't cause he. He is a symptom of it. He is a perfect fit for exacerbating it. And he knows that strategically, division is working for him, even though it's working against the country. But there is a much deeper thing going on. And so, the reason -- I don't want to concentrate for the moment on this, just not on President Trump, other than to acknowledge that he has been complicit and he has put the accelerator on it. It is because it's a bigger issue for all of us and it is not just him. But it is worth noting that the germ, the seed of all this is racial hatred and a sense of white supremacy, which is why in the book I talk a lot about David Duke.


LANDRIEU: And when David Duke was in the legislature with me --

AXELROD: White supremacist.

LANDRIEU: He was a neo-Nazi. He was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He actually got elected to the legislature in Louisiana 1990 and then subsequent to that ran for governor and ran for the United States Senate. And one or both those election got two out of every three white votes. So I have said in the book that we are not seeing anything now on the national level that we haven't seen in Louisiana relating to that racial issue. But it's critically important. It is critical to talk about the cause of white supremacy, because we have seen examples in our history that when one group of people think they are superior to another, atrocities occur. And one of them is slavery. One of them is the holocaust. One of them is apartheid. You can see examples of where we has human beings have allowed ourselves because we didn't check our worst impulses and got to a place that crave very dark moments in history.

AXELROD: Well, you actually said the parallels between David Duke and President Trump as demagogues are breathtaking, his make America great slogan is the dog whistle of all time.

LANDRIEU: Yes. So if you spend any time in the south and you go speak to most people, and particularly African-Americans, and you say, I want to make America great, they will go. I mean, I want make America great that we need to. But if you put the comma and "again" next to it, that is a dog whistle of epic proportions to people in the south, who are saying, when were we great? Like exactly what years were we great. What were we doing? And by the way, do you know what I might have been doing at that time?

So you know, taking people back to a time when they didn't have a right to vote, taking them back to a time when people couldn't work, you know, to slavery, and the Jim Crow laws, nobody wants to go back there. We all, I think, accept the fact that America is an exceptional country primarily because the idea of America, one that's based on freedom, not race, not creed, not color, not sexual orientation, not nation of origin, but just the need to be free, to feel liberty and to have justice, that is what makes America the greatest country in the world. And so, when people in the south hear that, they go, that's a dog whistle. And the reason why I compared him to David Duke --.

[19:10:48] AXELROD: Do you think he is a racist? Do you think the President is a racist?

LANDRIEU: Well, let me answer that question this way. If I said yes, the headline would be, mayor calls president something, president rejects it and we never ever get to the issue.

I would recommend that people judge other people based on their behavior. And when you see an individual who is speaking in a way or creating a policy based on race, creed, color, sexual orientation, check off the boxes, that is by definition racist behavior. And so, I don't think there is any question that the president says the moment he began running for office, when he said all Mexicans are rapists, or we are talking about Muslims as being evil and terrorists or the fact the this false equivalence in Charlottesville between white supremacists and the protesters. Anybody that reads a book on racism would say, that kind of, you know, looks pretty good. And in the south, if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, I mean, it's usually a duck.

AXELROD: Well, I will take that as a yes. You wound your way around.

LANDRIEU: I think I explained myself. Well, that we ought to judge him -- it's not about calling people names. It's about accurately and without judgment describing behavior.

AXELROD: You watched what's going on at the border. Do you think that's part of dog whistling? LANDRIEU: The answer to the question is yes. These are all different

ways of exhibiting the same heart or the same mind, is that somehow these people are evil. This zero tolerance policy is premised on the simple notion that if you come into our country, whether you are trying to evidently flee persecution or not, by definition, remember, they used the word "criminal." It's a misdemeanor offense. That would be aching to calling your mother a criminal for running a red light and getting pulled over.

So when you continue to judge people based on those characteristics, it makes Americans afraid of them. Because if you can make them afraid, then you can get rid of due process. You can get rid of constitutional requirements. You can get all of those things and begin to oppress. That's not a good place for us to be as a country.

AXELROD: You twice were -- you elected lieutenant governor of this state, a state that gave Donald Trump a 20-point victory and where he is still very popular.

LANDRIEU: Yes. He is doing well here.

AXELROD: And you wouldn't call all those folks who voted for you and voted for him racist?

LANDRIEU: No, I would not.

AXELROD: But what is it that is provoking his support?

LANDRIEU: That's an excellent question. Not every person that voted for Donald Trump is a racist. There are some people -- not everybody that was against taking the monuments down was a racist. They in essence are frustrated with the fact that Washington is broken. And you know what, they are right. Congress is completely incapable of solving any problem. This last election to me was really not about Donald Trump. It really wasn't about Hillary Clinton, although those were the two, you know, personages in whom people could vent their anger and their frustration. But when you look at operation Wall Street, you look at the tea party, and that whole thing, it is fair to say that people in America are feeling alienated and forgotten and left out. And all of that frustration found itself and manifested itself in the election of President Trump.


LANDRIEU: Collusion in motion is what we witnessed this week. You can't have a coach playing for the other team.




[19:18:35] AXELROD: I worked for a guy who made a speech that catapulted him into the national conversation. BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is not a

liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.

AXELROD: You made a speech when you took these statues down that went viral.

LANDRIEU: These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.

AXELROD: Why were people so hungry for the message of that speech?

LANDRIEU: Well first of all, when I gave this speech, I gave this speech in New Orleans to a local audience. I was actually delivering a speech not only to the people of New Orleans, but to white working class people as an invitation to see things in a different way, to explain the facts that had never been explained to them, to talk about what the real story as an inviting them to think about things differently in an effort to reconcile. And I was really shocked that anything that I said went viral, because as you know, 30 years of public service, you give a lot of speeches. And some of them you think are pretty good.

AXELROD: So Mitch, I want to ask you this, and I don't want you to be -- I don't want you to go into politician evasive tactics here. People talk about you as a presidential candidate. And partly because of this message, and because there is this sense that we are deeply divided, and it's not healthy for the country. How seriously are you thinking about it?

[19:20:14] LANDRIEU: Well, couple of things. First of all, it would be disingenuous for me to tell you that I don't hear that. I mean, a lot of people call and ask and talk. But I have been doing this for 30 years now so I listen to that with skeptical ears. I know, first of all, how hard it is to get elected, and secondly, how hard the job is, and how many people there are out there who would like to do the same thing.

So when you are thinking about something like that, you really have to think about it hard. You have to be 100 percent in. And so, I hear that. And I am thinking about it. When you say seriously, I am not doing what other people are doing, which is to say I'm not running and then preparing to or setting up all these apparatuses. Because there are a lot of really good people that are thinking about it.

But the most important thing, thought, David, and I'm not trying to skirt the issue, especially given this week, the way the president handled himself on the world stage where he humiliated the United States of America, and as I said before, took a knee to Putin, collusion in motion is what we witnessed this week. That has got to be clear even to some of President Trump's most ardent supporters, those who supported him because of trade or the economy, that this week was a bridge too far. That you can't have a coach playing for the other team. We just witnessed something that no other president of the United States has ever done. AXELROD: Why do you think that was?

LANDRIEU: You know what? I'm not interested in figuring it out anymore. President Trump has us spinning around in circles trying to figure out why he does what he does. What we need to is focus on what his behavior is and what his decisions are and ask themselves whether he makes America stronger or make America weaker. And I think that he weakened us in a way that we never have been before and he should be ashamed of himself for the way he handled it. More importantly, putting that issue aside, we need to start figure out how to work around him as a country and how to contain --.

AXELROD: Hard to work around a President.

LANDRIEU: Well, it's -- but actually it is not impossible. And it is possible for the speaker of the House to grow some courage and to start checking the President's power. And there are lots of different ways that we can do that.

Some Republicans are going to have to hold their noses and vote for Democrats in the congressional race because Congress, if it will not do its job, and it has not done its job, they are going to have to change them. And you know what? If those folks don't do their jobs, they are going to have to change them as well.

Because this isn't about party anymore. This is about country. And the Republican Party has always prided itself as being the party of faith, family, and country, although I think the Democratic Party is as well. But how do you really maintain that sense of I'm a true patriot when you are allowing your leader to actually, you know, give to Russia whatever it is they think they need? Ronald Reagan is turning over in his grave, I can assure you of that.

AXELROD: So you think this is a watershed moment in your lives?

LANDRIEU: Well, I have no idea. I mean, how many watershed moments can you have before people --


AXELROD: This one feels different.

LANDRIEU: A lot of them have felt different to me. Everything we thought we knew about politics has not come to be. There is a silver ling and is that the country is tougher and more resilient than we thought it is. And the American people are more circumspect.

At some point in time, though, it becomes clear and obvious whether the President is working on behalf of the American people or against them, whether he's making us stronger or weaker, whether or not we are heading in the right direction or wrong direction.

The more important question is, why his base will stay with him no matter what. And you know what, even if they will, it is incumbent upon those people that are not in his base but like him for certain things to finally say, listen, this doesn't work anymore. It doesn't matter how high the stock market is or what the return to the shareholders is or what the unemployment rate is. You cannot basically undermine the very essence of what the United States of America is, because that can't last for a long time.

AXELROD: Leave yourself out of it for now. What kind of candidate do you think needs to run in 20, to be an effective counterpoint to Trump?

LANDRIEU: That's an excellent question, because the Democratic Party can always be counted on to shoot itself in the foot. If it was a constructive primary, then, as you know, the Democratic Party, much like the Republican Party, in a family food fight, you have an Oman of iterations. The progressive side of the party is tilting to the left. Then you have basically the moderates. Then you have the people who fall in both categories, who are inside and outside players.

Just for me, this notion of having a new, young, Macron come along, that may happen. I'm more of a traditionalist. And you know, I would like somebody with great experience. I would like somebody that could restore America's stature in the world from day one. I would like to know somebody who knows exactly what they are doing because they have done that before that can stabilize and just rebalance the country for four years.

AXELROD: It sounds like you are kind of describing Joe Biden.

[19:25:05] AXELROD: I think I am, honestly. I think that if I had to pick today, I would -- and he could take over tomorrow, and you know, life would be a lot better for everybody. Plus he understands working class folks in a way that most people don't. But for my liking, I think stability, I think certainty, I think a good world view, I think experience, all that stuff should matter more to the world at the moment than anything else.

AXELROD: You know, a number of mayors are considering --

LANDRIEU: Yes. Some really good ones.

AXELROD: But what you are describing doesn't seem to speak to the mayors. No one's ever been elected president as a mayor.

LANDRIEU: That's true.

AXELROD: And do you think mayors have the experience necessary to run the country?

LANDRIEU: Yes, actually. Yes. But I want to state clearly about this. If we were in a normal time, and we are not in a normal time. We are in an abnormal time. Then my view might be different about who should ascend to the nomination of the Democratic Party.

As it relates to mayors, though, I don't think there's another job in America that actually prepares you to be president better than mayor of a major American city because mayors are executing every day. And that is what they do. They are in fact CEOs.

AXELROD: You are also more exposed. You get feedback from your constituents.

LANDRIEU: Well, let me tell you it works because I have gotten laced, you know, more times than I would like to. But in the morning if my wife said, we don't have any bread and you run to the store and grab some milk. You know, by the time I get out of my car and get that milk and get back to my car, I have been spoken to in ways that would make you blush. If the day before, you get something that people didn't like.

When I go to the cleaners, when I'm at the market. When I'm at a restaurant, what happened to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that has happened to me.


AXELROD: I didn't like that, that made me completely uncomfortable. Obviously I don't agree with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But she is doing a job. And there has to be some private space for individuals that are working on behalf of the public to live. I fully believe that people ought to have a right to protest in a reasonable time, place, and manner. You can be as vociferous as you want, as passionate as you want. But at some point there has to be a line. Plus I thought it was just plain rude. We're not going to beat them by being like them.

What's your reaction to the movement among some Democrats to abolish ICE.?

LANDRIEU: That's a bad idea. I had, as you know, when I was mayor, a consent decree on our police department. We have to completely reform the way our police intact and engage in community policing. But we never said we were going to get rid of the police department. We said that we were going to fix it. The border agents, all of the, are operating at the direction of the president of the United States. Everything they do is at his direction. That's where the problem is. So I would not abolish ICE. I would refocus their attention on making sure that they take care of people and not hurting people.

I really can't think of a crueler thing that I have seen a politician do than separating mothers from their children. I think that really speaks poorly of the President. It doesn't reflect well on our country and it was really wrong.


LANDRIEU: One of the issues that I still don't have a handle on, don't understand, and won't accept, is the number of deaths of young African-American men on the streets of America.