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Rep. Anthony Brown on how Trump could heal America, and why he won’t

“I don’t think he has it in his heart,” the lawmaker told Vox.

Rep. Anthony Brown at a press conference about President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 18, 2018.
Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call

Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown is the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, a former lieutenant governor of his state, and a retired Army colonel in the US Army Reserves. He’s also an African American man, and a father of three, including two sons.

If anyone precisely understands the moment America is in — the racial inequality, the anger and fear and pain, the thirst for leadership, the precarious reliance on military force — it’s him.

As a black man in America, Brown understands the need to protest against police brutality and for justice. As a former military officer, he knows the complexities and risks of sending National Guard members into US cities. And as a Congress member, he has a platform to enact change and hold leaders, and especially President Donald Trump, accountable for their actions — or their inaction, as the case may be.

In an extended interview, the lawmaker got personal, telling me about the fear he feels when his sons go outside and the anger he’s experienced after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota police: “I’m sad, I’m troubled, and I’m distressed,” Brown said. “I’ve got two 20-year-old sons — young black men — and I’ve always had concerns when they leave the home.”

He told me that while he doesn’t condone violent protests, he does understand them. “You have to understand where the anger comes from: There’s a community — the African American community — that rightfully believes we have been the victims of assault and attacks.”

I also asked him why he thinks President Trump hasn’t made serious efforts to unite and heal the nation.

“I don’t think he has it in his heart,” Brown told me. “He doesn’t understand, nor is he interested in, my 20-year-old son, Jon. And he certainly isn’t interested sincerely and genuinely in George Floyd and his daughter that he left behind and the mother of his daughter.”

“He lacks a basic understanding of who we are and he acts with indifference,” he added.

Brown wouldn’t label Trump a racist, but he came about as close as he ever has. “Look at his response to the rally in Charlottesville, calling them fine people, when they were clearly advocating white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and racism,” he said. “What does it say about a person who, when characterizing other people who are clearly racist, called them fine people?”

Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

You’re a top House Armed Services Committee member, a former lieutenant governor, a retired Army Reserve colonel, and a black man. You have a unique perspective on this moment. How do you personally see the moment we’re in?

Rep. Anthony Brown

I’m sad, I’m troubled, and I’m distressed. You know, I’ve got two 20-year-old sons — young black men — and I’ve always had concerns when they leave the home. When I see George Floyd laying face down, with a police officer’s knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, I have serious fears about what a police encounter would result in [for my sons].

I talk to them regularly about stuff like this. But look: This is not new in this country. It’s just revealing and exposing what we know and understand to be the inequalities in our country, brought about by racial bias and just blatant racial discrimination in people’s conduct, their practice, and in policies. You see these disparities playing out in our schools, our prisons, our health system, our economy, and during this pandemic.

It’s now been revealed to the larger public that there are those of us who have lived this reality and existed in it for quite some time. The protests have endured because people in the street are angry, and they have a right to be angry.

Alex Ward

Are you angry?

Rep. Anthony Brown

I’m really angry, and I’ve been angry for quite some time. I’ve tried to channel my anger into the work that I do in Congress, as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and what I do on the Armed Services Committee.

You have to understand where the anger comes from: There’s a community — the African American community — that rightfully believes we have been the victims of assault and attacks. I don’t condone the violence; it’s a peaceful protest, and you can be disruptive without being violent.

But for some, they see a violent assault on a member of the community and they respond with violence. I’m not justifying it, but I’m trying to explain why I think it’s happening.

A women addresses a crowd gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 4, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Alex Ward

The president’s theory is that a strong, militarized response will help quash the riots and calm the protests. Do you think that’s a good plan of action?

Rep. Anthony Brown

No, I don’t think the right course of action is to militarize these events. Peaceful protests should not be met with military force. Certainly the looting and the arson needs to be addressed by local police who work in the community. Where the capacity of the police is exceeded, it should be supplemented by the National Guard at the direction of a governor.

This is not the time for the president to talk about using the Insurrection Act, federalizing the National Guard, or deploying active-duty military. That will only escalate, compound, and make worse what we’ve seen in some cities across the nation.

Alex Ward

You served in uniform. What must be going through the minds of National Guard members as they perform law enforcement functions right now?

Rep. Anthony Brown

When you order a member of the National Guard on duty to bring relief to the United States — like in New Orleans or Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — those men and women in uniform take great pride in doing that kind of work. They’re using their skills, their talents, and available resources to deliver aid and relief. They can provide confidence to a community that’s in distress.

But when you issue an order to that same set of soldiers and airmen, and you tell them that their mission is to essentially counter and prevent the expression of a people’s anger and concern, it’s not well received.

We’re human beings, even when we put on the uniform. We accept the orders, and as long as it’s lawful, we execute. But that’s a hard mission to execute, knowing that people are doing the right thing in response to a very tragic event.

That said, the National Guard is well trained in quelling disturbances, in managing riots, in being a deterrent to would-be arsonists and looters who want to destroy property or do harm to people. They’ll always take on that mission when necessary.

Alex Ward

We did see instances this week when some National Guard members didn’t seem to execute those orders very well. I’m specifically thinking of the medical helicopter flown low over protesters in Washington, DC, to disperse them.

A military helicopter flies low, pushing a strong vertical down wash of air onto the crowd during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2020.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Rep. Anthony Brown

I don’t know who directed a military helicopter to do that. There were reports that some people were injured by that move. Look, I flew helicopters on active duty, and the idea that I’d hover 50 feet above any living creature — let alone a human being — is just beyond the pale. [Editor’s note: The DC National Guard is now investigating this event.]

Alex Ward

If you were out there protesting now, would you feel safe?

Rep. Anthony Brown

I would certainly be on a heightened sense of alert. There are many cities in which they’ve had peaceful protests with almost no acts of violence. It just seems to be as it gets later into the evening, many peaceful protesters go home, which is not to say that peaceful protesters don’t remain. But nighttime is certainly when those who want to agitate and act unlawfully do their thing.

So, yeah, I would feel safe to go out to a peaceful protest, and I would be having a high sense of awareness and be vigilant about my surroundings for the first sign of violence or heightened tensions.

Alex Ward

There are many who say the president has inflamed current tensions. Has he mishandled this moment, and race relations more broadly?

Rep. Anthony Brown

This is who he is: a person who would use local law enforcement and the National Guard to clear out peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park and use tear gas and force. And then beyond that, creating a photo opportunity in front of a church with a Bible.

That is what foments the disturbances around the country. That’s why it heightens tensions, because people become angrier. When Americans see a president unwilling and incapable of healing, I do believe it leads to heightened tensions every day that passes.

Most every other president would have given a major speech during primetime to calm our communities, to reassure people that it’s going to be okay, to call for justice and the accountability of these officers, and any other officer or person who would engage in similar conduct. We haven’t seen that from this president, and that contributes to the anger that you’re seeing every night.

Protesters march against the death of George Floyd on June 4, 2020, in Harlem, New York.
Joana Toro/VIEWpress via Getty Images

Alex Ward

Why do you think the president hasn’t made serious efforts to unite and heal the nation?

Rep. Anthony Brown

I don’t think he has it in his heart to do that. I don’t think he has genuine empathy for people. He doesn’t understand, nor is he interested in, my 20-year-old son, Jon. And he certainly isn’t interested sincerely and genuinely in George Floyd and his daughter that he left behind and the mother of his daughter.

I don’t think he can conjure up the words himself, and he probably would feel exceedingly awkward reading someone else’s words in such a national moment where all eyes would be on him.

I think he’s very uncomfortable being compassionate, being empathetic.

Alex Ward

Some people are going to read those comments and infer that you’re implying President Trump is a racist.

Rep. Anthony Brown

I think that the president — um, let me see how to put this.

Look at his words and his conduct, the way that he talks about and to black people. Whether he’s referencing African nations as “shithole countries,” when he said “look at my African American” on the campaign trail, when he asked us during the campaign “what do you have to lose?” — he doesn’t understand the challenges, the hurdles, the history of suffering and sacrifices that African Americans have gone through.

He lacks a basic understanding of who we are, and he acts with indifference.

Alex Ward

So Trump isn’t racist, just indifferent to the plight of African Americans.

Rep. Anthony Brown

He’s indifferent to what I described earlier as those disparities, inequities, and inequalities that exist, and he lacks an understanding for why they exist. He doesn’t understand that you have a disproportionate number of African American men incarcerated today and that you can trace that back to Jim Crow laws in the immediate aftermath of slavery, when there was an effort to keep African Americans in bondage.

He doesn’t understand, nor does he care to.

Alex Ward

Is it his indifference that led him to respond to the George Floyd protests with force but to praise anti-coronavirus lockdown activists at state capitols who were openly carrying weapons?

Rep. Anthony Brown

Yeah, there you have it. Or look at his response to the rally in Charlottesville, calling them “fine people,” when they were clearly advocating white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and racism. What does it say about a person who, when characterizing other people who are clearly racist, called them “fine people”?

Alex Ward

I’m sorry to belabor this, and I’m not trying to lead you. But it’s interesting to hear you say Trump is unwilling to understand the plight of minorities, has called racists “very fine people,” and sees no issues with using active-duty force against African Americans — and yet you’re unwilling to call him a racist.

What’s stopping you from going that far?

Rep. Anthony Brown

Labeling someone a racist — that’s a really profound label that takes on an even larger meaning when you’re talking about the president of the United States. I don’t know if labeling him a racist necessarily advances the conversation.

As an elected official, I’ve assumed a lot of labels — never “racist” — but a lot of labels. Sometimes they’re appropriate, sometimes they’re not accurate. But if you look at my actions and statements, it’s clear I take issue with the president with matters involving race. I hold him accountable for, and critique, what he says and what he does.

Alex Ward

If the president were to call you right now and ask for advice on what to do, what would you tell him?

Rep. Anthony Brown

First, he should deliver a national speech calling for unity, calling for justice and accountability, being very specific about a calling for justice in the case of George Floyd, and calling for a commitment to reforming police accountability.

I would recommend a recommitment to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that came out with a list of recommendations. It’d show a commitment to advancing policing reform efforts in this country.

Second, I would recommend making clear that he doesn’t see a set of conditions requiring an invocation of the Insurrection Act of 1807, or even federalizing the National Guard. Make clear this will be handled by the states and their communities, in a peaceful way, and in a way that emphasizes deescalation, not escalation.

Third, I would recommend — though I’m not sure it’d be well received — that he explore participation in some sort of public service, even remotely. He needs to be connected to the mourning, and call for reconciliation associated with the murder of George Floyd.