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Week In Politics: Hagel's Resignation, Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

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Week In Politics: Hagel's Resignation, Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

Politics

Week In Politics: Hagel's Resignation, Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

Week In Politics: Hagel's Resignation, Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

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NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times about the grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson and the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A shakeup in national security and deep anger over justice and policing - those are two rich topics to dig into with our regular political commentators. So we start this hour with columnists David Brooks, of The New York Times, and E J Dionne, of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Big story out of Washington to start the week - the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel - here's President Obama on Monday making that announcement.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Over nearly two years, Chuck has been an exemplary defense secretary, providing a steady hand as we modernized our strategy and budget to meet long-term threats, while still responding to immediate challenges, like ISOL and Ebola.

SHAPIRO: Despite those complimentary words from the president, it is pretty clear Hagel was forced out. David, what was the fundamental problem with his leadership?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he was hired to be a doormat, but told not what kind of doormat to be. He was clearly not hired to be a strong secretary of defense - the foreign policy and defense policy was being made in the White House - and he wasn't. He really didn't have much of a hand in policy. He had some differences with Susan Rice over Syria policy and other things. But he more or less stuck to the administration guns.

He didn't do what John Kerry has done over at state, which was to sometimes go off freelancing. He was recently differential to the White House. And, nonetheless, the White House decided he was, in some ways, too ineffective, too quiet at meetings and not the kind of defense secretary they wanted and so they got rid of him. But to my mind, he was doing more or less what they wanted, which was not get in the way of their policy.

SHAPIRO: E J, I wonder if you think this signals a shift in strategy. Hagel was brought on to downsize the military, disengage from overseas conflicts. Is that about to shift?

E J DIONNE: Right, I think that's exactly right. I think he was hired for a job that disappeared on him and that he was the perfect guy to come in to try to downsize, or rightsize, the Pentagon. He had military experience. He had extensive congressional experience. He wanted to maintain a strong military, but knew we had to do it less expensively. And then all these other things happened.

There were clearly tensions between Hagel and the White House staff, and I think, over time, the administration's going to have to figure out - if only for public consumption - how to right this perception that all power is in the White House. Ultimately, of course, the president - he is superior to the military. They're supposed to take orders from him, but there have been these tensions at other points in the administration with other people. But I think this is one of those cases where when a relationship gets complicated each side has a complaint against the other and each side often has a point.

SHAPIRO: Let's move on from Washington to Ferguson, Missouri, where the grand jury, of course, decided not to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown. And on Tuesday, Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Brown's family, essentially said he believes that the prosecutor threw the case.

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BENJAMIN CRUMP: A first year law student would have did a better job of cross-examining a killer of a unarmed person than the prosecutor's office did.

SHAPIRO: So what do you think? Was justice served here, E J?

DIONNE: I don't think so for a number of reasons. I think it's pretty clear that going in, the prosecutor did not believe that the police officer should be indicted. And the way he set up this grand jury was not as grand juries are usually set up, which is a prosecutor coming in, saying here's my best evidence. He poured all this evidence to the grand jury and asked them almost to act like a regular jury, except there was no rebuttal.

And I think when he gave his news conference, you know, late at night, which I also think was very odd and also dangerous, he clearly put more faith in the testimony of those who exonerated the officer than of those who didn't. So I think the anger here is quite understandable. The problem is it is a legal process and people - at some level you have to respect the legal process, but a certain skepticism about how this whole episode was carried out I think is quite justified.

SHAPIRO: And yet, David Brooks, grand juries rarely indict police officers in these kinds of scenarios. What do you make of this?

BROOKS: Well, that's a general proposition. I can't peer into the prosecutor's soul. I found it outlandish that he would intentionally throw a case. What we do know is there seems to be undisputed evidence that he - that Brown - reached into the car and tried to grab Darren Wilson's gun. That's reasonably damning. The thing we do not know is whether Brown was charging at Wilson when the fatal shots were fired. That seems to be up in the air in the subject of contradictory evidence. Nonetheless, for those of us who were not in the room, I think the idea that Brown was aggressively going for the gun in the car is damning. It's hard to indict a police officer under those circumstances, so I don't know what was in the prosecutor's soul, but from the evidence that I've read it seems at least a very plausible conclusion the grand jury reached.

SHAPIRO: And let's talk a little bit about President Obama's role in this. This week on Monday night around 10 p.m. Eastern time, shortly after the prosecutor spoke, President Obama asked for calm in response to the grand jury's decision. Here's a bit of tape from that.

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OBAMA: To those in Ferguson, there are ways of channeling your concerns constructively and there are ways of channeling your concerns destructively. Michael Brown's parents understand what it means to be constructive.

SHAPIRO: And even as the president was urging peaceful protest, violence was already breaking out in Ferguson. E J, does this show a lack of presidential clout?

DIONNE: No, I think it showed how hard it was for any president and, perhaps, especially this president - the first African-American president - to deal with a very complicated situation. Just to go to something David said, the issue is not what's in the prosecutor's soul, it's how the whole process was handled. And President Obama was trying to be very careful here where he didn't want to just sort of undercut a judicial process.

He didn't want to second guess the prosecutor, but he also wanted to be very clear that it was important that the country understand why African-Americans get frustrated by the system, why young African-American men are afraid. I think the best line on this came from the writer Jonathan Chait - New York Magazine - who said it's hard to be a liberal. And President Obama was trying to do a couple of things at the same time that he had to do.

SHAPIRO: Well, David Brooks, how do you assess the role of the president in events in Ferguson this week?

BROOKS: I think overall he did actually quite a good job, a reasonable job. This is his best subject and I think one of the things the president has done traditionally on racial matters is show the ways we're still living with legacy of the civil rights movement - in that era - and the ways times have changed. The civil rights movement was as clear as you get to a right versus wrong issue as you get in domestic politics.

Now when we talk about racial matters, we're dealing with a variety of subjects - the legacy of racism, the problems we have with our sentencing, disappearance of working-class jobs, family structure - and to me what's happened is that racial issues have become embroiled in a whole series of very tricky domestic issues. And so what was once a pretty clear right versus wrong moral cause has become a moral cause, but much more ambiguous and I think the president has done a good job over the years in acknowledging that fact.

SHAPIRO: That's David Brooks, of The New York Times, and E J Dionne, of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you and a belated happy Thanksgiving.

SHAPIRO: And to you.

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