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Bennie Thompson: ‘I chose Liz Cheney over party’

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Bennie Thompson: ‘I chose Liz Cheney over party’

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Rep. Bennie Thompson spoke out in an exclusive interview about the allegations that the many investigations Donald Trump is involved in are politically motivated. | Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Representative Bennie Thompson, who was for almost 18 months the House’s investigator into the events leading to the attack on the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, 2021, said he sees parallels in the attacks on his committee and the skeptical remarks made at the Manhattan district lawyer.

Alvin Bragg, a former president, was a first-term district attorney. He announced 34 felony charges against him earlier in the week. This is the first time that a former president has been charged criminally in American history. Trump pleaded guilty to all charges at his New York arraignment on Tuesday.

Critics, including those who would normally support Bragg’s case, blasted the legal theories Bragg is using to pursue a conviction shortly after the charging documents were made public. POLITICO reported earlier this week that Bragg’s case stems from hush-money payments to silence a pornstar from speaking publicly about an affair. This appears to have encouraged Trump’s most passionate defenders.

House Judiciary chair Jim Jordan (R.Ohio), subpoenaed a former prosecution officer who worked in Manhattan DA’s Office — a move Bragg described as an “attempt at undermine an active investigation” as well “an unprecedented campaign to harass and intimidate.”

Thompson, the highest ranking member of Homeland Security Committee, is not surprised by any of this.

Thompson stated that he expects nothing less from his colleagues on the opposite side during an exclusive interview with POLITICO regarding The Recast Power List 2023.

“I’ve been in Congress for almost 30 years and I have never seen a congressional committee attack an official from a state who’s doing his work.” Bennie Thompson considers this to be “crossing the line” – inciting an official to not do his job.

Thompson’s committee concluded in a report of 845 pages that there was enough evidence to convict him on charges of obstruction of an official proceeding, aiding and comforting an insurrection and aid and encouragement to an insurrection.

Thompson spoke out about the allegations that the numerous investigations Trump is involved in — two of which are headed by Jack Smith, the DOJ’s special counsel, and one by Fulton County, Georgia District attorney — are politically motivated. He also discussed why he opened Jan. 6 hearings and how that attack was connected to America’s long history with racism and slavery. He also explains the criticism he received for choosing former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. as vice-chair of the committee.

This transcript has been edited to ensure clarity and length.

Booker: I’d like to jump in to our conversation, starting with the events in Manhattan (this week). The former president was taken into Manhattan’s courthouse and charged with 34 felonies in connection with a hush-money payment to silence a pornstar. I would like to hear your thoughts on what this means for America’s quest to uphold democracy.

Rep. Thompson: I think the best expression that we hear in some circles is: It proves no one is above law. You can be president of the United States. However, you are responsible for the rule of the law in America. If you don’t, you will face the penalties and other consequences.

So I let that process work for me [out]. Evidently, a grand jury of citizens heard the evidence and decided to bring forth indictments. We’ll now examine the country’s justice system to determine if Donald Trump is actually guilty or innocent.

Booker: I want to point out that the former president pleaded guilty to all charges. The Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg must convince a jury that Trump committed these alleged criminal acts. As someone who was on the January 6th Committee, is this legal proceeding of a former president, someone on the GOP side, good news for American politics? Although you’ve said that no one is above the law, there are certain allegations that these legal probes are politically motivated.

Rep. Thompson: I expect nothing less of my colleagues on the opposite side.

Donald Trump is the titular head [Republican] Party. They have a fundamental rights to defend that person, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. My concern is that they are attacking the rule and law in defense of it. Our Constitution provides separation of powers.

I’ve been in Congress for almost 30 years, and I have never witnessed a congressional committee attack an official from a state that is doing his job. Intimidating an official is basically crossing the line, according to Bennie Thompson. Not to do his job.

That’s a shame.

Another thing that is associated with the comment: my January 6th work.

Some of the vitriol and conversation we are hearing were heard before January 6. It’s dangerous language. People would have said, “Oh, this wouldn’t happen in the greatest democracy of Earth” before January 6.

It did.

It happened because certain forces were at work. These forces were orchestrated based on the work done by our committee. They were then supervised by the President of the United States of America and other individuals.

I believe that the case was made by our committee. We used mainly people who worked in the administration. They identified with the party of administration but chose patriotism over party. I am grateful for their kindness.

Nevertheless, some people who are speaking now are harshly critical of their party members for speaking out. This is our great democracy. We have the right to voice our opinions, but we also have to be careful because others are listening, watching and may interpret them differently.

Booker: Let me just add one more point. A CNN poll released this week showed that 60% of respondents approved of the Trump indictment.

However, when broken down by race, 75% of people who identify themselves as persons of color approved of the charges, compared to just 51% of white respondents who approved of the indictment.

Why do you think there is such a wide gap between how white Americans view the indictment of the former President and how people of colour view it?

Rep. Thompson: I have observed over my political career that the majority of African Americans believe in our system. They believe in the rule and law. They do whatever it takes to show it on a daily basis.

The majority of Black voters who lose elections aren’t Donald Trump or his people. They will basically go to court. If they lose, they’ll regroup and return next election.

Donald Trump has taken losing an electoral election to the lowest level, and that is deny, negy, deny and then, finally,… enter a system of violence.

For example, I take care of myself. I have been in elective office for quite some time. We had difficulties registering voters; we had difficulty getting people to go to polling places to help us, even though it was the law. We never thought about changing the law. We made the law work on the basis of what it said. That CNN poll shows that attitude.

People of color want this system to work for all people. They will defend it in large part. However, I see many white Americans who feel intimidated by this growing minority and the language Donald Trump and his supporters use to say that we must “make America great again.”

Gun laws in this country are making it difficult for white people to use certain code words. Race is the underlying element of these gun laws. It’s not the Second Amendment. It’s about how we must defend our communities and why we must defend our schools, even if those arguments are hollow.

So I feel comfortable saying that racial bloc voting is more common among Blacks than it is among whites in the south. Historisch speaking, Black South residents voted more for white candidates than they did for Black candidates. We have made some adjustments, and I believe that the poll reflects the maturing attitudes of the Black community towards defending the system.

Booker: The Recast focuses on the intersection between race and identity and how it is shaping American politics. A committee of my colleagues selected you to be on this year’s Power List because of how you placed race at the center the January 6th investigation.

In your opening remarks at the first committee hearing,… I’m going read your quote back and see what you think. It was so powerful that it stuck out to my mind.

You stated that you were from a country where people justifiably use slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching. As I listen to voices today trying to justify the actions taken by insurrectionists on January 6, 2021, I am reminded of this dark history.”

Please explain why you want to have a conversation about the investigation into the attack on Capitol with race.

Rep. Thompson: Well, I think we as a nation must continue to reflect upon our history.

Even though we are the most powerful country in the world there are still some issues that have impacted our growth and maturity. It is important to remind people about this history.

It was symbolic, I believe, that an African American chaired January 6th Committee. [whose] Ancestors were brought to this country by ships. They worked for many years building public courtshouses and city halls throughout the country, including our Capitol in the United States.

The events of January 6th were a stark reminder that even though we are the most powerful country in the world, it is important to keep our eyes open for potential dangers.

So I decided to frame it [in that context and] Liz Cheney was my vice-chair. I didn’t have the choice. I could have chosen anyone, but it was for the country. I chose Liz Cheney instead of party. My friends were not happy with this choice.

Booker: Really?

Rep. Thompson: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

It was more or less “Why did it?” You were in control. You could have done many things,” I replied. This was country.”

My country has not always treated Bennie or my ancestors rightly, but I believe there are times when you have to look beyond race and party to reach the next level. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

But I can still be truthful. It doesn’t matter how I gloss over it. Just be honest and straightforward. Some people might not [have understood] It is not the right place, but you must set the tone for your hearing. I found that this was a great way to establish the tone.

Booker: Since you are currently in Jackson, I wanted to ask you a few questions. One, Congress passed an Omnibus before the year ended, allocating approximately $600 million to address Jackson’s water crisis.

I would like to hear from you about the progress. Last week, President Biden visited your state to see the destruction caused by natural disasters. Please give me a quick update on how recovery efforts are going.

Rep. Thompson: Most of you are aware that the Jackson water crisis was the culmination of a flooding incident on our water system.

As we began to examine it, we discovered that the state had a history of denying support for the largest publicly-owned water network in the state. Part of this was due to Jackson’s status as a predominantly African American city. This neglect eventually led to a system that was no longer sustainable.

However, the flood that struck that system allowed us to call upon the federal government for assistance. We had a disaster declaration made, and we eventually looked at the Omnibus Disaster Package. This money was used to fund wildfires and floods in the West, and also gave us the opportunity to do the same for Jackson, Mississippi. That’s exactly what we did.

600 million is the initial installment. It’s not enough. It will take many years to spend the money. But the system, pardon my pun, was on life support so we are working through it. We created a third-party manager to manage the system. We are currently working through that process and I am grateful for everyone’s support.

Unfortunately, a tornado struck my district 10 days ago. We lost 13 people in Rolling Fork (Mississippi). We’re struggling. These cities and counties were, even under the best of circumstances. There is no public transportation. There are no hospitals in two counties. We are challenged in this regard, but our friends from all over the country have responded. There are still inequalities.

One is that the white children attend an all-white, segregated academy. Some of the community resources were sent to the all-white segregated academy, where Black folks don’t go. We had to reverse that.

Biden’s administration has spoken out about equity and making sure that education, housing, and agriculture are all viewed through a colorblind perspective. That was fixed.

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