Should President Donald Trump ever roll back voting rights protections, LGBTQ rights or expand the criminal justice system in harmful ways, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will be ready to fight. But the onetime top Obama administration official won't enter that battle alone.
That’s part of the reason he was in Atlanta last week for the Miller Center’s national summit on race and civil rights. The center, a nonpartisan institute based at the University of Virginia, aims at building consensus around urgent issues. Scholars, activists and government leaders — among them, Black Lives Matter movement activist Deray Mckesson, Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson and DeKalb County police executive Cedric Alexander — gathered with Holder to hammer out a shared agenda on race-related issues in the Trump years.
"I'm very concerned. ... You can't govern a nation by dividing it." —Eric Holder
Those issues, debated on Feb. 15 during a public panel at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, ranged from how communities of color find a seat at the negotiating table on key policies, to how they battle the anti-black and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that are increasingly coming from the White House.
There’s no lack of controversy surrounding President Donald Trump, his Cabinet and a slew of executive orders signed in the month since inauguration. Holder has spoken out about the potential for a scandal that he said could ultimately imperil the Trump administration.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview, Holder discussed his views on the Trump administration so far, his own legacy at the Department of Justice and what concerns him about the direction the nation is headed in. The interview has been edited for length.
Mic: You are here in Atlanta for the Miller Center's summit on race. Why is it important for you to participate in these discussions, in the first few weeks of the Trump administration?
Eric Holder: I think it's important, both in terms of the work that we did in the Obama administration to make sure that that work is continued to be focused on, and also as the Trump administration gets going, to ensure that the issues that we worked, I think, so long and hard, and I think, successfully in the Obama administration are preserved during the Trump administration.
Following Hillary Clinton's defeat in the last general election, there was lots of talk that Democrats lost the election because they focused too much on identity politics. Do you agree with that? Your participation in this summit, perhaps, suggests otherwise.
EH: I think that we, as a nation, we've become expert at not discussing things that are an integral part of our past, and that are painful to look back at, but still have an impact on our present. Conversations about race, about gender, about ethnicity, about sexual orientation, yeah, those are difficult conversations to have, but they're necessary. … I don't think of it as identity politics. I think of it as really how we make the whole of the nation feel comfortable, how we make sure that the whole of the nation is treated fairly. If we do that, we will be a stronger nation, a better nation, a more fair nation, a nation that will be consistent with our founding documents.
As you left the Department of Justice in 2015, you had this to say: "Beware of those who would take us back to a past that has really never existed or that was imbued with a forgotten inequity." As a former U.S. attorney general, how concerned are you about the direction that the country is going, just based on what you've seen in the last few weeks?
EH: I'm very concerned. I think that something has been loosed in our country that gives me great concern in the sense that there is a spirit of disunity, a questioning of some of our fundamental values. We are an immigrant nation, for instance, and the notion that we might close our doors, or make it more difficult for people who have always renewed our country, made our nation really vibrant, close those doors to people. That gives me concern. I'm worried about the spread of hate, and about the rise of racism and the negativity that we see here. ... You can't govern a nation by dividing it. The best way in which you govern a nation is by bringing it together, by uniting it. I'm not sure that I see that just yet.
Jeff Sessions is now serving as attorney general, a position you used to protect voting rights, punish hate crimes and seek policing and criminal justice reform. Given what we know about the former Alabama senator's civil rights record, are you concerned? And should people be alarmed that those things will not continue?
EH: I've drawn some red lines. I will give the new administration an opportunity to see what it is going to do, but I have some red lines. If you do anything that is not consistent with what we did in trying to protect the people's right to vote, if you try to roll back LGBT rights, if you don't use the Article 3 courts for terrorism cases, if you try to roll back the progress that we made in criminal justice reform, at that point, I will be extremely critical, and will be a voice of dissent and opposition to what the administration is doing. … I think I'm willing to see what it is the new attorney general's going to do, what the new administration is going to do, but as I said, in my own mind, I have those red lines, and if they're crossed, then they'll find an opponent in me.
What should the American people expect out of an attorney general?
EH: An attorney general has to be, first and foremost, independent of the White House, and has to make determinations based only on the awesome responsibilities an attorney general has. That is to enforce the criminal law, but an attorney general has to understand that the Department of Justice is the only place that's named after a concept. It's named after the notion of justice. You have to promote justice, fairness, equality; you have to look out for those who are too frequently without voice, and not try to simply defend powerful interests or the moneyed interests.
What are your thoughts on what happened to former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, whom the president fired for refusing to defend in court his executive order on immigration from a group of Muslim-majority nations? Given what we've seen in the last couple of weeks, with the courts seemingly vindicating Yates' position, did the administration send the wrong message by canning her?
EH: I think [Sally Yates] certainly has been vindicated. ... She looked at the facts. She looked at the law, and she made a determination that the executive orders could not be found to be constitutional, and therefore should not be defended, consistent with what I did when we were considering the Defense of Marriage Act, and I made the determination that it was unconstitutional, and should not be defended, so I think she made the right decision.
Let's talk about your time as attorney general. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged, really, right smack-dab in the middle of your time at the DOJ. Being that you were the first African-American attorney general and serving under the first African-American president when the movement emerged, was there an added pressure?
EH: No. I don't think there's any pressure. In fact, I've said that I looked at some of the younger people who are in the Black Lives Matter movement, they reminded me of myself a few years before when I was out protesting a variety of things. I think we took very seriously the responsibility that we had in the civil rights sphere. ... I think it was a good thing to have that movement out there and raise the consciousness of the nation so that the kinds of issues that they were talking about, and in particular police-community relations. That became a part of the conscious of the nation, and maybe a basis for a conversation, and a way to narrow that trust gap that exists between communities of color and people in law enforcement.
Do you remember the day that President Obama said that if he had a son, he would like Trayvon?
EH: Trayvon Martin? Yeah.
How did you feel about that statement being made by the first African-American president, and did it shape your approach to issues of equal justice in this country?
EH: I remember the president, when he made those remarks, it came a couple of days after I'd given a speech in Florida at the NAACP, and was talking about the Trayvon Martin incident. I talked about my own son and about...a conversation that black fathers have had with black sons for years about how you interact with the police ... I understand why the president said what he said, and how deeply he felt, because I felt the same thing thinking about my own son and how he might have been treated in those circumstances, or in other interactions with people who actually were in law enforcement.
Communities of color — black communities, in particular — have become accustomed to looking to the federal government to pursue equal justice and policing reforms when local authorities will not, or have not. How interventionist do you think the DOJ should be, particularly in cases when we're talking about police abuse?
EH: When we brought pattern of practice investigations where we saw entire police departments that were not acting appropriately in their interaction with the citizens who they were supposed to serve, we didn't hesitate. ... We brought record numbers of those cases. I think that's a good thing. ... It makes for better law enforcement. ... Being a cop, that's a difficult thing. I think people have to never ever forget that, but also understanding that there's a historical slate that we draw on here. ... Law enforcement has been used to oppress people over the years.
What, ultimately, do you think can be done to fix the issues that the DOJ identified in places like Cleveland, Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago?
EH: I think there are some specific things. I think with the Justice department order in the Obama administration that all people in law enforcement had to go through implicit bias training, I think that's really important. I think all people who have a gun in law enforcement should go through really extensive use of force training, so that they understand that there are ways to deescalate situations without immediately pulling your gun and shooting it. I think there has to be a dialog between people in various communities, and people in law enforcement. I think if you did those three things that you could really narrow the number of incidents that we have seen, and have much better ... a much healthier relationship that really is critical to the wellbeing of the nation.
Let's talk about what you're up to right now. A month or so back, the state of California hired you to be its guard against the Trump administration. What are you hoping to accomplish in that role?
EH: I've been hired, and my firm has been hired by the legislature in California by the state assembly and by the state senate, to protect the gains that California has made, and specifically with regard to the issues of immigration, climate and health care. Now, there are things that we've heard talked about in this administration that might threaten some of that progress in California, and California's bound and determined to make sure that the clock doesn't get rolled back, that the progress that has been made there is solidified, is protected, and so they've asked for counsel.
You're also working on this national campaign about redistricting, and I understand you might be working on that with former President Barack Obama.
What's your elevator pitch on that as an important issue right now?
EH: Yeah. It's the National Democratic Redistricting Committee that I'm the chair of. President Obama has said this is going to be the primary political thing that he is going to be involved in, and it's really just a way to make sure that when a census is done in 2020, and then when legislative districts are drawn in 2021, that they're done in a fair way. ... What we're bound and determined to do is to make sure that we have fair districts drawn, and to make this a battle of ideas. It's not a question of structure. Let's just see who's got the better ideas, the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party. If we do that, I think the Democratic Party will do just fine.