Ep. 506 — Doug Jones – The Axe Files with David Axelrod – Podcast on CNN Audio

And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.

You may have become familiar with Doug Jones in 2017 when the Democrats stunned the nation by winning a special election for Jeff Sessions’ seat in the U.S. Senate from the ruby red state of Alabama. But Jones made his mark long before that as the U.S. attorney, who at long last brought two ex-Klansman to justice for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls. That story and his whole life’s journey from white steelworker son in the segregated South to the man who avenged those savage murders is something to behold. I sat down last week with Senator Jones at the Institute of Politics, where he’s a fall Pritzker fellow. Here’s our conversation. Doug Jones, great to be with you. Great to have you as a fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

Well, thank you. Look David, this is great. I appreciate the opportunity to be here. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for me and also to do this podcast. So thanks very much.

You have such- led, such an interesting life and probably not the one that you imagined when you were a kid growing up just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. Tell me about your your family. Working class family.

Yeah, all of my family. I lived in Fairfield, which was a huge U.S. steel town. U.S. Steel Fairfield works just about everybody in my family, just about all of our neighbors had some connection to U.S. Steel. So it was a really pretty blue collar town at the time, although Dad moved into some management at the time. You know, my grandparents, grandfather still work there. My other paternal grandfather was a coal miner, an organizer for the coal miners.

And your Dad was a union rep, right?

He was he was a union rep for a time. And then at some point, back in probably the late sixties when I was in my teens, they saw in him some electrical things that got him into some management. But, you know, it was a it was a union town. I mean, at the time. And now it’s very few people that work out at U.S. Steel there. But, you know, family was just- we lived in a little suburb, one of those kind of Ozzie and Harriet type suburbs. And you’re old enough to know what I’m talking about. I’m not sure of the others will, but, and we were the first to move in there. It was just an idyllic setting. But, you know, I grew up in a in a Jim Crow South that was very protected. I mean, we were totally protected from what was going on in most of the civil rights movement until I got to integrated schools.

Yeah. I want to talk to you about that element of it in a second. I just want to stick with the sort of steel town point. All Democrats, your family were all-

That’s what it was. Although when you look back, David, it’s really hard to say. You know, they were, so many were Democrats in kind of a name only because you had such a divergent. The Republican Party really didn’t exist in the state at the time. Not very much. And so you had everybody who was, you know, Democrats were on the one hand promoting civil rights and and standing up for civil rights and on the other hand, standing in the schoolhouse door. So it’s hard to say it was the kind of party that we think about in terms of political parties. It’s just that what everybody grew up with from Franklin D. Roosevelt on through Truman and and even Kennedy, it was during the civil rights era that that started to change.

I saw somewhere that you describing yourself as coming from a family of George Wallace Democrats in the same place. I think I saw that your your grandfather had a figurine of Bull Connor.

Yeah, tell me about that.

You know, I was young, so I really didn’t have a clue. I knew George Wallace and I knew how fiery he was. And it was a states rights kind of thing, as far as I could tell. You know, my parents, my grandparents, never- I never saw hate in my household at all. But they lived and we grew up in a segregated world. And that’s what they liked, that’s what they thought was appropriate. And they tended to follow that. And, you know, the thing with my granddad, he never, ever really said or did anything to me that was offensive on race issues. And I just happened to remember it’s just one of those little quirks that you remember from your childhood, seeing a little, it was, it was really- it was before bobbleheads, but it was just a little thing that was that he had in the back of the car. And I asked him one time and he said, “Oh, it’s just a politician.” And that’s all. But it struck me years later.

We should just- for those who who don’t know, remind that Bull Connor was-

Yeah Bull Connor, bull Connor was that, you know, arch racist police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early sixties that sicked fire hoses and dogs on peaceful demonstrators trying to advance civil rights.

Talk to me about George Wallace. I know you were young, but you grew up around him as a politician. And I remember him, obviously, from that period as well. And when he ran for president several times. Do you see a connection between Wallace and Trump? Is there a-

Oh, sure. Oh, there’s no question about it. I mean, a ugly populist streak is the best way for me to describe it. It wasn’t just all race, it was all grievance and, you know, vitriol coming, but mainly grievance. It is some you were always- George Wallace was always running against someone, always criticizing whether it was the media. Whether it was, in his words, those pointy headed liberals, you know, he was it was always nothing but grievance and resentment that he tapped into with a very rural Alabama, still a relatively poor Alabama. And I see Trump doing that consistently. I mean, I think he rose to the presidency on the, in large measure on own resentment and grievance.

And class. It’s this, yeah. All those go together to me. They’re just, they’re part of the same, same bucket that you run all like that when you’re playing to that grievance and hate and that sort of thing. All has to do with class. You know, George Wallace was able to tap into so many of Alabama’s insecurities, you know, always considered to be second class citizens, always, you know, poor, always trying to do different things. The only thing we really had going for us at the time was our steel mills and our football, college football. And we’ve had that going on for a long time. And Wallace was able to capture those resentments and play on those resentments, and it gave people an idea that he is speaking to us. And that’s exactly what Trump’s done, exactly what he, from the moment he came down that escalator.

Let me ask you a question. And I saw you, you were on Bill Maher’s show recently and you talked about your concerns about the Democratic Party losing touch. I share the concern that you have, you know, that the Democratic Party there is a kind of sense that it is now sort of a cosmopolitan, professional, elite party. Yeah. I think that has helped facilitate the success of Trump.

And others along just the lines you were saying- that there is a sense that, you know, someone once, there was this old expression about liberals are people who love humanity but hate people and sometimes it-

Comes across that way. Yeah, for sure. I think that that really captures a lot of the problems that we have seen where where people in Alabama have felt that the party was looking down on them for a while. That and also taking care of others. I mean, make no mistake, you know, that the Democrats have been for civil rights and equal rights and they feel threatened by that to some extent. And Trump was able to exploit that. And I don’t think Democrats have really been able to capture that message to bring those folks- all those folks used to vote Democratic because the Democrats provided them jobs, they provided them security. They provided all that they needed. Democrats built that middle class, and they did in Alabama, the Democrats put electricity in homes. Democrat put water out there, brought rural hospitals to rural Alabama. But they’ve lost that. And one of the things I keep hearing from Democratic friends a lot around the country, you know, why do people vote against their interest in Alabama? And I have to look at them and say, well, who are you to say what’s in their interest? Because their financial interest is one thing, but they may make sacrifices based on their community and their religion that’s not in their financial well-being. And we do that, quite frankly, as human beings, we do that all the time. So don’t look down on them. Let’s just try to talk. Let’s try to go where they are. Figure this out, talk to them and explain that Democrats are not the kind of political party that is going to rip away their community. And we, in fact, want to build on that community.

And I think there’s just an element of conveying respect.

Yes, no question about it. I think that is a very big component of this. And that Democrats in the past have often not done that enough, and the state parties have been neglected by the national parties to some extent. And and it’s it’s just it’s been really hard to build. And it was hard for me to go into those areas because the first thing that folks want to know is, are you a Republican or Democrat? And you immediately get defined. And if they had just been able to talk and listen a little bit, you really, I think, can find that common ground.

Just getting back to your story, when you were nine, four Black girls who were only a few years older than you were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham just miles from where you lived. Were you aware of that?

I really, I may have been at that time, but I don’t have that recollection now because David, it was miles, in a sense of of distance, but it was light years in terms of my world versus their world. And so, you know, again, you’re not talking about an age of insta, instant news on your phones and televisions. We had three TV stations that we got. And so it was very limited and it was very sheltered from me. My my parents were sheltering me. They didn’t want me and my sister to have to deal with that. The world was changing. And so I don’t have a recollection of the bombing itself. I do have some recollections-

It’s so interesting because it ended up, and we’ll get into this later, but it shaped your life in many ways.

That event is part of the history of our country. I mean, it was one of the seminal events in the history of the civil rights movement. There’s all this debate and discussion now about how we should teach about these things and whether we should teach about these things. And should they be part of a considered part of a continuum of history? You’ve lived a sort of ground zero all your life. For all of that history, how do you react when you hear that? When you hear people saying, well, don’t run down America. Don’t tell that history.

Yeah. I’m really stunned the way that they think that telling that history is running down America because we have progressed so much. We have accomplished so much in this world. As Americans, as the United States. But we are, we don’t, we have a lot of flaws in our history. Every human being, every individual has their own flaws in their history that they don’t really like to talk about. But sometimes they do and they learn from it. And I’m stunned. Even when I prosecuted the cases years later, even the African-American community didn’t know all of the history and all of the struggles that folks when.

You’re giving away the joke, which- but yeah, years later, you would end up prosecuting two of the bombers, the white supremacist bombers, the Klansman who bombed that church. And we will talk about that. But, yeah, it’s it worries me. It worries me. I think one of the strengths of a of a strong country and a strong democracy is the ability to look clear eyed at your history, learn from it, correct the errors of the past, and understand what the ramifications of that history are. You know, there’s a real backlash to that. And it’s become a political, as you know, it’s become politically potent.

It has become very politically potent. And they’re putting some really weird names on it, like wokeness and woke and this, that and the other. But, you know, you’re doomed to repeat those mistakes if you don’t learn from them. If you don’t talk about them and you don’t teach those mistakes and and how you can go better. I’ve given talks about the civil rights era and that bombing all the time. And I, and it’s interesting where I hear all the woke comments now because for years I would tell folks that that bombing woke the conscious of America. It woke the conscience of a president and a Congress because the Civil Rights Act was passed less than a year later. The Voting Rights Act was passed less than two years later. So there are things that happen in our history that I think galvanize people to say we’re doing this wrong. And the Jim Crow South was wrong. It was, it was as close to apartheid as you could get. And it resulted in the deaths of people. It resulted in people being kept at lower income levels and not given opportunities. And so I think that trying to teach that history is incredibly important. The same time that was going on, David, in the South and really across the country, there was this myth about the lost cause of the Confederacy, as if that was a noble cause, because I mean, in fact, the Confederacy took up arms against the United States of America. We never celebrate people who took up arms against the United States of America.

In defense of the institution of slavery.

In defense of the institution of slavery, America’s original sin. And that whole narrative has somehow, I think, contributing to what we’re seeing now and this backlash about history. I think it’s it’s been there below the surface. And again, tapping into the resentment, tapping into this this underlying fear that people have about others replacing them or whatever you want to say it to me, history is should be based on facts. And you can argue and you can interpret those how that stood at, what place it stood in history. But we cannot just gloss over our flaws. We’ve got to learn from them.

Well, we know that there are examples in history of countries that don’t do that. And countries, you know, the old Soviet Union is a great example of countries that try and obliterate history. You know, the burning of books in Nazi Germany and so on. We know what that, we know what that leads to. You went to college at the University of Alabama. You went to law school. When did you start becoming attracted to politics and what attracted you to it?

You know, that’s hard to say. I think that, you know, in high school. So I got kind of involved a little bit. I was always fascinated. I mean, you know, when I’m growing up, some of my heroes were Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.

Well, that’s really interesting because, you know, I mean, my recollection was Bobby Kennedy sending his aides down to confront George Wallace in the school, in the schoolhouse doors.

Sent Nicholas Katzenbach.

Who was later Attorney General down there. Yeah. And so those were my heroes.

But why, why? Why would they your heroes?

I think because, you know, I think instinctively for me, I could see potentials for Alabama beyond the George Wallaces of the world. I literally believed that I could see being held back by the George Wallaces of the world and people around the country looking down on Alabama because of who was leading Alabama over and over again by the way, he got elected like four times, maybe five. And I could see beyond that, I could see a progression for people of all all races, religions that I thought would be very good for the state of Alabama. And there was about that time in high school and college. You had this whole, what they then called New South governors. You know, you had the Dale Bumpers of the World and the Reubin Askews of the world, and they were- and and in the Senate, you had folks like Sam Nunn and others. And it was a whole new generation of leaders in the South that were moving beyond civil rights, into more equal rights as well as prosperity. And that’s that really attracted me. And I got to know Senator Heflin, who, when he was chief justice.

I think, by the way, Bill Clinton got elected governor of Arkansas while you were in law school.

That’s right. He got elected his first time when I was in law school. He came to law, the law school, was our Law Day speaker, traveled around with him, picked him up. And, you know, it was just me and one other buddy with the governor and, you know, and it was that that that young group of New South governors and leaders that I thought were really going to lead. And Alabama had a couple of those. Bill Baxley, who was Alabama’s attorney general.

You slipped out of class to go watch him prosecute two others who were charged in.

One other, one other Robert Chambliss. Bill prosecuted dynamite Bob Chambliss for the prosecution, for the murder of Denise McNair and the in the church bombing. And I did. I cut classes in law school because I had this interesting interaction with William O. Douglas, Justice Douglas, when I was in college. And I asked him, is advice on-

You’re like Zelig, all these famous people.

It was just incredible the way they passed. And he I asked him his advice about being a trial lawyer and he said, watch, watch lawyers, watch good lawyers ply their trade and don’t imitate them, but just watch them and and understand. And so I did, I learned more watching that those three or four days of that that jury and and Bill, but Bill was one of those leaders. He was one of those what I call the New South leaders at the time that I thought could bring Alabama forward. And unfortunately, he got he got beat in 1978 for governor by Bob James and then he got beat again later on in 1986.

Another politician that you met at the time was a young senator from Delaware. Who you got to introduce an event there. Tell me about that.

I first met Joe Biden. He was in his first term when I was in law school. He came and spoke. We had a really good speaker series at my law school. Yeah, no, he really had a good one and he liked- he had been there a couple of times before, before I got there, and I was just really taken. He was young. He and Jill had just got married. She came with him. And I just thought that his charisma and his politics and the thing that I always remember was that he he- to me, he was the kind of politician who looked you in the eye and tells you what he believes and tries to engage in discussion about what you each believe. And at the end of the day, if if somebody can’t support him, he says, fine, the vote anyway, we maybe we can do something on on a different- and I was just really impressed from day one and we just maintained contact ever since. He came- I was, in 1988, which is ten years after I first met him. I was going to be as one of his co-chairs for the state of Alabama, and he came and we did a whole swing through Alabama. And it was just it was just great before he had to drop out. Thank God he did. Because he had that aneurysm right after.

We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. I want to talk a little later about that instict of- well, we can talk about right now, that instinct of his that you talk about that I think is very deeply ingrained and one that was reinforced during 36 years in the United States Senate, which is, okay, we don’t agree on this. How about on that? How about let’s work on that? Which is, to my mind, a great impulse in a democracy. Very necessary. But it’s a harder thing to sustain in a very polarized country. There are a lot of Republicans who don’t think Republicans should work with Democrats and Democrats who don’t think Democrats should work with Republicans.

Yeah, it’s getting harder and harder to do that these days. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But it’s it truly is. What attracted me to Biden, very straightforward in his beliefs. But I’ve always I always saw him and I watched him work over the years that he could absolutely do that. He would give people the leeway to to talk about these issues. And it, and it’s, you’re talking about you know, I think Biden’s always said, look, we really have objectives that are the same. We may disagree on how to get there. We have objectives about good health care, about a strong foreign policy, whatever it is. Now, let’s figure out the common ground that we’ve got to reach our mutual objectives. And I think he’s been incredibly successful. That’s why I think he was in the Senate as long as he was, that he rose through those ranks, that he did amazing jobs when he was chairman of of various committees. And quite frankly, I think it’s why he was elected at a at a moment in history. I told him not long after he got elected that I had waited for almost, I guess it was right at 40 years plus for me to be able to call him Mr. President. But I felt like there was a reason. I just, as it turns out, I think that it was his time in his place and a moment in history that only he could achieve in 2020. It took a long time. And but I really do believe there’s a reason for so many things that happened in life and that his delay in becoming president was for the right moment, at the right time with his experience and his- and the way he perceives government in the Senate and the legislature.

And he’s produced a, you know, some very impressive bipartisan-

He’s had a hell of a run.

In a very, very difficult environment. But let me ask you a harder question. This November will mark the 50th anniversary of his election to the Senate. There’s nobody alive today who was in the Senate at the time that he was elected to the Senate. Accepting everything you say about the importance of his election in 2020 at the time that it happened and everything that he’s accomplished, what would you advise him now about looking forward to 2024, knowing that he’d be 82 years old when he got elected?

Yeah. You know, David, I got to be honest with you. If he if he asked, if he would like to get my advice, I’m happy to sit down and talk to him. But I think that that would be just between two old friends that have known each other for a long time.

That’s a very appropriate answer. And the good news is that I know every week he looks forward to listening to The Axe Files and he’ll hear that and he’ll probably give you a call and ask you for your, and ask you for your-

He’s got a lot of great advisors, so we’ll see. I do think he understands, though, and knows where things are and I think it’s going to be a a difficult call for him. It’s not like a normal run for reelection.

Listen, if if Joe Biden were 60-

Oh, it would be a no brainer.

There wouldn’t be any discussion about whether he should run for reelection. You know, I worked for a president who, a year before he ran for reelection, the headline on The New York Times magazine was, “Is Obama Toast?” Nate Silver wrote the piece. And so, you know, politics can change very rapidly. This isn’t really a question about politics. This is, I keep saying it’s an actuarial question, not a political.

It’s a person, it’s a very personal question. And so much of of everything that Joe Biden has done in his, in his career has been a very personal connection to and decision.

So you were talking about how Heflin, who is one of the great characters in the United States Senate, the judge, the nobody really called him senator. They all said the judge, because he had been, I guess, a state Supreme Court judge.

Before he went to the Senate. Talk to me about him and what you learned from him in your four years as you left law school, you became his counsel.

Yeah, he was I just think, one of Alabama’s great leaders and was also one of those transition leaders. You look at Heflin. He was a huge man. We called him “The Buffalo” and he he talked like an old Southern scowl politician.

He did. Yes, he’s like from Central Casting.

Exactly. And he gave- he was funny. He would give these stories. But yet beneath that, though, was a man of great intelligence and compassion. And he was that bridge to the minority communities and others in Alabama that I’m not sure he gets all enough credit for. And what I saw with him were two things. First of all, he came, he was elected chief justice in 1970 to modernize Alabama’s court system, and he did it. That’s where we first met. I would campaign to try to get a judicial article passed by the state of Alabama, and it really did. He won just acclaim across the country for what he did in Alabama’s court system. And then working with him in the campaign and then in the Senate, I saw the ability to try to work with people from all sides. He had union support. He had business support. He had Black support. He had white support. He, you know, there was a the director of the ACLU one time said about Howell Heflin, this is in the 1970s. He said, you know, he’s somebody that I, that me, my mother and my grandmother can all agree. And that was saying a lot in Alabama and those days. And and so he was just a great teacher. I learned an awful, awful lot from him.

You did a stint as a assistant U.S. attorney after you left Heflin’s office and then you went into private practice for years. And then in 1997, Bill Clinton appointed you U.S. attorney for northern Alabama. Let me just ask you, when, did you not, in that period of time consider doing something political, running yourself for office?

Yeah, it just didn’t work out, you know, I tried- I thought about it. I thought about several times, as a matter of fact. But where I happened to be living at the time, where things were, it just didn’t work out at the time. We had a lot of good Democrats in the legislature and in Congress at the time, and I was trying to get my law practice up and running after I left the U.S. attorney as an assistant U.S. attorney. And so it just didn’t present itself. I worked on the Clinton campaign. I worked on a bunch of campaigns, but it just didn’t present itself. But I’d also had it in mind that being the U.S. attorney in Birmingham would be a pretty good gig. It was it was just really remarkable in that to be able to do that was something special.

Well, let’s talk about that, because one thing that you did was you did prosecute those two Klan members, Bobby Cherry and Edwin Blanton. And I know that you befriended one of the fathers of one of the young girls who got killed in that blast who ended up becoming a state legislator there. Tell me sort of what that all meant to you being involved in that.

Well, it was it was just a remarkable circle of life to me, to some extent, to have been a kid, young lawyer, wannabe, cutting classes, to watch the first prosecution of that case, but then getting to know Chris McNair, was who you’re referring to.

Yes, yes. Yes. His daughter Denise was killed in that bombing.

Exactly. And he was actually my legislator in Fairfield at the time. And when he decided to run for Congress, I went and talked to him about maybe running for that seat. Going back to your earlier question, and it was, he was really funny, he says, well, he listened to me. He said, Doug, I really appreciate it, but he said, you know, this is kind of been, this is kind of been set as, this is really kind of a Black seat now. I said, oh, okay, I get that. And so I didn’t. But he and I stayed friends too, and did some things over the years when he got elected to the county commission. And the whole thing with the church bombing just kind of fell just right. There had been some cases in Mississippi that were reopened, the Medgar Evers murder. Yes, the Vernon Dahmer murder, and successfully prosecuted decades after the fact. And things just happened and the case got reopened right before I became U.S. attorney. My staff really didn’t know my history with the families, much less sitting in as a kid watching the earlier trial. And we just, you know, we set about to do something not knowing whether we could be successful. And I told the staff at the time when they kept saying, don’t get your hopes up because it’s a old case, the evidence may not be there. And I said, Well, you’re right, but if we don’t do it now, it’ll never get done and I think this families and this community deserves our best effort because there was a thought that the FBI had not given their best effort in the sixties. They, in fact, had and just couldn’t prosecute the cases. And so it just it worked out in an amazing fashion.

Yeah. You get some helpful evidence. Cherry’s ex-wife, I guess. Blanton’s girlfriend or somebody of Blanton’s?

Yeah. Blanton’s former girlfriend came forward. The real key in Blanton’s case, though, was a tape recording because J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were putting tapes and bugs everywhere and getting that into evidence. And there was it was a challenge for us. But there was one tape where Blanton admitted to his then-wife and one other person who he never identified of being part of a group the weekend of the bombing that was at this river right south of Birmingham, being a part of the group that was planting the bomb and making the bomb. And that was the real, that was the real kicker for him when we found that tape. Cherry was a lot different. Cherry had made admissions over the years. He just got lazy, got comfortable that he had gotten away with all this.

Bragged about it, bragged about it into a number of people over, with an ex-wife, with coworkers and some things. We had five or six people that came forward mainly from the media that saw the media and called us and said, let me tell you what this guy told me one time 20 years ago.

What did it mean to you when you heard those verdicts?

Oh, it was- it, I can’t describe it. I mean, I just I knew what it meant to Birmingham and my state and to the country. I think I underestimated a little bit. But you get in a case like that, you really do get invested. And I tried my best to stay objective. I didn’t talk to Chris McNair very much at all. I didn’t talk to the families very much. I didn’t talk to Bill Baxley, who had prosecuted the first case because I I felt like I needed to try to be as objective as possible.

You wanted you wanted to make an objective judgment as to whether you had a case.

Exactly. I knew that there might be a time that I had to go before cameras and say, we can’t do it. And but once you get over that, you know you’re going to do it. You really get invested. You get to know those girls that died. You get to know their families. You get to see how the community is reacting. And when you hear the testimony of a parent who lost a child some 37 years earlier, you know what it means for victims. And that, as I said to the jury, that a mother’s, a mother’s heart never stops crying for the loss of a child.

Yeah. And you’re a parent that, I’m sure you thought about your own.

Oh, I did, for sure. In fact, my daughter, I let her cut classes in junior high to come watch the trials.

Could be, you never know. If not her, her little girl may be the the the most obvious one right now.

You went back into private practice, and one of the notable things you did was you sued Monsanto on behalf of a community that Monsanto released PCBs in their waterways.

Actually, I didn’t sue. What happened on that was that-

Oh, you were appointed. You appointed like a special master.

Yeah, I was appointed a special master, which is all in the news these days. So I have a special place in my heart for special masters.

Yeah. This one seems more appropriate, but that’s just my opinion.

No, no. There is no question. The court had and Monsanto and Solutia had settled with the government of to go through years of cleanup for the PCB releases that were in the Anniston, Alabama area. And I was the eyes and ears of the court. I helped monitor that. It’s still ongoing right now. I left when I announced my candidacy. There’s another special master that’s working on it as well. But that was really interesting. And then you could see what happened in that area. It was just horrible the, what was released into that, into Calhoun County, Alabama.

And with with deleterious health effects to-

Oh, there’s no question about it. And it was all, I can see it was made worse because they would put all of this this fill at the at the plant and people used to go get this fill and they would they would put it on their in their yards. That’s how they would grow their yard. So these communities, it wasn’t just airborne or waterborne PCBs. It was literally fill from the plant that people used to see their lawns and get their lawns going. And so you had cleanup all over. They had literally had to test lawns everywhere.

Let me just interject here. And since you raised a special master point, how much trouble is Donald Trump in?

You know, it’s hard to say because there is so much we really don’t know that’s going on behind the scenes. That’s one of the things I keep reminding people. This, the criminal investigations are not January six committees that is done with open subpoenas and testimony and being able to video so much of that evidence they may turn over, but you cannot use that evidence per se in a criminal case because there’s no cross-examination under the Constitution. I think some of the evidence is getting to be pretty compelling, particularly down at Mar-a-Lago.

Yeah. Yeah. I was going to say there’s one thing we do know. We do know that President Trump, when he left office, took at least 100 classified documents with him to Mar-A-Lago. You were on the Senate Armed Services Committee, so you probably had we were privy to a lot of sensitive- went to a skiff, which are these protected environments in which you can look at this so that-

We couldn’t even take our phones into the skiff. I couldn’t even take my little earpods, you know, that you wear to liste, you know, the Bluetooth music, you couldn’t even take those in there and you couldn’t take anything out. They kept a file with my name on it if I wanted to make notes. They kept those notes in those files. I think that there is some great risk to him down there in part, David, because everybody knows what confidential material is. Everybody knows what top secret material is. Everybody understands the nature of all that. When you get into the things of January 6th and sedition and you get into things about inciting riots, I think it can get a little blurry sometimes and a little fuzzy. But it seems to me that there are they’re building a pretty strong case that is to some extent consistent with what I saw with Donald Trump as president, just a complete lack of respect for institutions of government, for protocol, for rules and sometimes even laws. It’s why I voted the way I did, as guilty in his first impeachment. And it’s interesting, because what you’re seeing sometimes, you know, you see so many things repeated with Donald Trump.

We talked about this yesterday.

Yeah, you see so many things repeated. And and what concerns me about Mar-a-Lago is not whether or not Trump’s going to get indicted, that courts are going to take care. The DOJ is going to do what they’re going to do on that. But it does concern me from a national security standpoint and what was in those blank folders that were that were classified information and where is that, where’s that documentation now? That troubles me a lot.

Yeah. Let me ask you, though, beyond national security, from a standpoint of just the republic, you know. If you were the attorney general and you almost were the attorney general, we know you were that you were heavily considered for that position, probably got penalized for being too close to the president. You have to weigh a couple of things, don’t you?

You have to, I mean, because it- the the weightiness of indicting a former president, you know, it’s never happened before. You know, Nixon was pardoned by President Ford and Trump already has said, oh, this will tear the country apart if they do this. And he would probably make damn sure that it would. But on the other hand, we have this principle that nobody’s above the law. And every norm you break, every principle you abrogate. Very hard to put that back together again. So what do you do?

I think it’s going to be a very difficult decision for the Department of Justice and ultimately the attorney general. The, ultimately the attorney general will make the final call on that. And I say make the final call. The ultimate call is whether or not a grand jury will indict. And I know people say that, you know, you prosecutors indict a ham sandwich. Well, that’s not always the case. But I think the AG is going to really weigh this very heavily because there are pros and cons from a very historical and policy perspective. But at the same time, I don’t think that comments like Trump made concerning riots or that Lindsey Graham made about riots or that will tear the country apart. I don’t think they’re going to use that as the determining factor. I think they’ve got to look at the law, the evidence, whether or not they can prove it in that jurisdiction beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s a, you know, that’s a- there’s a lot of things that they’ll have to look at, like this. It’s not going to be an easy to call, though, despite what the evidence might show.

We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. As someone who prosecuted white supremacy and white extremism in the past, how concerned are you now about a resurgence of extremism and violence?

Oh, David, I’ve been concerned about that for a long time. I mean, even beyond even before Trump, you know, even before he really brought it out from under the shadows, some I think I have been concerned. I think it’s it’s a combination of when the courts and others started rolling back voting rights, it empowered people, I think, to try to do some some things. We saw it with the advent of the Internet back when I was actually U.S. attorney and we saw hate groups on the Internet that were really recruiting these lone wolves to go out and do their damage. We saw it happen time and time again. Rikki Birdsong, you know, I think was a coach up this way.

Yes, yes. Of Northwestern.

That happened, you know, at a time when I was U.S. attorney.

He was murdered. And it was a it was a hate crime murder. And there’s always been a-

You actually you took office not more than a couple of years after the Oklahoma City bombing, so.

Correct. Yeah. Yeah. All of that comes into play.

And one, we should point out, and I didn’t mention one of the other people you prosecuted was Eric Rudolph, who was the abortion bomber, who who bombed the the Olympics in 1996.

Yeah, it was 96 Olympics in Atlanta that he bombed in Centennial Park. One lady died. And then a couple of years later, in 98, I’d only been U.S. attorney five months when he set a bomb off at a women’s clinic that performed abortions, killed an Alabama Birmingham police officer badly, badly, badly, wounded a nurse. And so you see this kind of kind of proliferation of these kind of hate crimes. And it goes beyond race now. It goes into total religion, like against Muslims. It goes beyond just pure race. And I have been concerned about backsliding and civil rights for some time, but we’ve certainly seen a rise of the white nationalist fervor, hate crimes across the country, anti-Semitic crimes across the country. And I know there’s a lot of focus on that now to try to figure out what to do on that. But it’s a it’s a growing problem. The radical right- there is violence on both left and right. But clearly, the radical right is responsible for more of the extremist violence in this country. And that’s something that I think, unfortunately, Donald Trump stoked by talking and telling the proud boys to stand by. By telling that- saying that there were good people on both sides in the Charlottesville incident. I mean, it’s it’s just stunning. And people feel empowered.

A lot of enablers, as well.

A lot of enablers. But, you know, and I go back to where we were David talking early in this podcast about where I grew up. I saw the same rhetoric coming from Bull Connor. I saw the same rhetoric coming from George Wallace. And it was dog whistles. It was telling these folks that it’s okay to go commit crimes against black folks because we’re not going to do anything. And and they didn’t. And that was a real problem. And today’s dog whistles are often done in ways that I’m not sure people even mean to cause that violence. But there are people out there that are listening and they’re hearing it one way that may not be intended. That’s why, for instance, comments that that my friend Senator Graham said about, there will be riots, I thought was a really poor choice of words because he was essentially saying it’s okay to riot when all he had to say was, say, I’m concerned, I don’t want to tear this country apart. This could tear the country apart. We could see this. I hope not. But instead he says there will be X. And I think that’s a real problem. And I don’t think people always understand if they didn’t grow up listening to the kind of rhetoric I did, they don’t always fully appreciate the words that they have because words matter and they have consequences.

You ran for the Senate in 97- I’m sorry, in 2017. Now I’m getting all messed up in my days. In 2017, after Jeff Sessions was appointed attorney general. Did you when you announced, did you have high expectations that you could win that race?

We, I won’t say we had high expectations but we did see a path. We felt like that there was going to be-

Hadn’t been a Democrat in 25 years.

No. But it was a special election, that was number one. And the two candidates that we saw as the leading nominees for the Republican Party, we think had flaws that could be exploited in different ways. But we saw a path. But importantly, it was going to be the only race on the ballot. It was not going to get bogged down by a governor’s race or presidential races. And we could we could give a voice to people that hadn’t had of felt like they hadn’t had a voice in a long time in Alabama, despite the fact that Republicans have been winning for so many years. They’re still 40% of the people that vote Democratic and they just don’t have a voice. And so we thought, you know, there is a there’s a path here, but more importantly, there’s an opportunity to try to build to try to let people know that it’s okay to be a Democrat, it’s okay to be a more progressive voice and to stand up for the things that you believe in. And so I wouldn’t say we had high expectations. We did have high hopes and we had high dreams.

And you won. You got Roy Moore was your opponent who was an extraordinarily flawed candidate, and you won by a point and a half. You had three years and you had to run again in 2020, which would be a presidential year. Right. I mean, was there kind of a dead man walking feel to this when you got there? Did everybody. Did you and others have expectations that probably this is a three year gig?

We had expectations that it was likely to going to be a three year gig, but we didn’t approach it that way. I never felt like I was a dead man walking, what I felt like- I was truly liberated. I did what I said I was going to do. I ran and operated, I think, as a senator, exactly what I said I was going to do. I didn’t waver from that. I worked with people. I never told anybody I was going to vote for every Trump judge and ended up voting for a majority of them. I didn’t tell everybody that I was going to absolutely vote for a Trump Supreme Court nominee or if he got impeached. I would vote one way or another. What I did was to do things for all segments of the people of the state and did it in a way that I said I was going to do it and try to represent all people, civil rights advocates, you name it. And so it was it was a little bit liberating in that sense.

I mean, it strikes me that way. I mean, you worked very much across party lines and you worked very hard to pigeonhole. You you you had the probably the most bipartisan record in the in the Senate. But and then then on other things, your first speech was on gun, guns after Parkland. Not a speech that was necessarily going to be helpful to you in Alabama.

No, it wasn’t because I knew that those there were a lot of people that wouldn’t listen to it. Okay. For instance, I can remember a comment from the head of the NRA in Alabama who said it was just another gun grabbing speech. There was nothing in my speech about gun grabbing, nothing that could even be construed that way. So, but it was one of those things after Parkland, I felt very strong about that because I’m a I’m a gun guy in the sense and I’ve got a bunch.

You said that in the speech.

And I’m a hunter and I like to shoot. But the fact is we had to do some things. We needed to do some things with some common sense measures to try to stop deaths. And that included not just the mass shootings, but also suicides and other domestic violence that we could do. So it was I had this unique opportunity. People would always say, well, he’s you know, he’s just he’s just free to do X, Y, Z. But I never did anything that was just was not me.

Well, listen, people say that because it’s appealing to see members of Congress doing what they think is right instead of worrying about the next election. I mean, it’s all too uncommon. I mean, not to say that there aren’t acts of courage in Congress or but the norm is looking over your shoulder and looking at the next election. And the next election didn’t go particularly well. You were on the ballot in a presidential election. You were well well-regarded in the Senate, I suspect well-liked in your state, and lost by 21 points to Coach Tuberville from Auburn, who wouldn’t debate, wouldn’t do interviews. How deflating was that? Or were you prepared for it.

Oh, I was prepared for it. I don’t think my family was as prepared as I was, but I was prepared for it. I’ve been and you know, look, I’ve been in politics a long time as a worker bee and a staffer and everything else. And so I knew where things were and how things were going to end up going. And I knew that if I could ever get Tuberville or Moore, he didn’t debate either on a debate stage and people could see some of the things. We were also campaigning in Covid and that made it really difficult to get out. So, you know, by the time the election rolled around, I knew exactly where this was going to go and I was prepared for that. You know, I left office as U.S. attorney. I mean, I’m a big boy when it comes to politics. And but I’m often asked, would you do anything different in the answer? I’ve got a couple of votes I would probably do different, but they’re not votes that cost me the election by any stretch.

The couple of votes you cast were against Supreme Court nominees. One of them was Justice Kavanaugh. Looking back, do you think that he willfully, intentionally misled the Senate on Roe vs. Wade?

I’m not going to go there. I know that so many Democrats say that they ought to be impeached for perjury-

I’m not asking if he should be impeached.

No. Look, what I heard from all of those justices was a standard line that Roe vs. Wade is the settled law of the land. And it was. There was nothing untrue about that. He never said one way or another. Neither did Justice Gorsuch or Barrett, Coney Barrett, that they would vote to overturn it or they would uphold it. They never said that. They passed their words very, very carefully in a manner that’s been done over the last 20 years. And people you know, David, there is there is a line from the judge in “To Kill a Mockingbird” who says, you know, people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. And that’s what happened, I think a lot with those. And if you just look at the words you and take away who said them, you’d never really know who made that comment because it was very plain and generic. And I hate that some people, some friends of mine that voted in favor of Justice Kavanaugh feel betrayed. But I think they were kind of wanting him to say and they heard what they wanted to hear.

You also voted against Justice Barrett, and you did it because Mitch McConnell had slow walked Merrick Garland’s nomination on the theory that, let the people vote right and then sped this one up right before the election of 2020. How much damage did all these machinations do to the court as an institution?

I think the court has been significantly damaged with the politics surrounding the nominations of some of the justices, including, you know, what Senator McConnell did by holding off and not even not even giving Merrick Garland a hearing, not trying to move on that at all, just controlling and not giving him a hearing and then-

Because if he had given him a hearing, he very- if he had gotten a vote, he very likely would have won.

I think he very well could have done, although he would have had at that time, he would have had to get 60 votes in the Senate. I don’t think I don’t think McConnell would have knocked the filibuster for Merrick Garland. So it remains to be seen. But, you know, when it came time for Justice Coney Barrett, I just I just could not do that. I knew she had the votes to pass. And so it was one of the rare- I think I took two protest votes. One was on another judge in a spot that had been held open for seven years by Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. And then this one, I just said, no, I cannot do this. It doesn’t- and I made that announcement before the president announced his nominee. And Susan Collins, my friend, who I worked with on the other side of the aisle a bunch had the same, did the same thing.

I meant to ask you this about your campaign. One thing that happened in your campaign, you know, people don’t take into account the impact of campaigns on family. And your son, Carson, wrote an open letter to the state Senate of Alabama because they suspended the issuance of marriage licenses rather than issue them to gay couples. And he, he’s gay.

How did you react when when he wrote that letter?

I was very proud of him. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that I think more people need to stand up, whether you’re gay or not, when the legislature reacts in a way like that to to take away I mean, it’s just silly. It was just a silly reaction to something that was now the law of the land. And so I was very proud of him and standing up and speaking out. That’s what John Lewis taught us to do, cause a little good trouble, you know? And and so, you know, it and all of that helped form me in the Senate, being an advocate for LGBTQ rights, a sponsor of the Equality Act, so engaged in civil rights and civil liberties and giving. You know, David, I was the I think the, in fact I know I was the only voice from the South on the Senate floor, the Deep South, that talked about Black Lives Matter on the floor of the United States Senate. And it was after we did a reading of Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail. So you get informed by a lot of things, including sometimes your children.

You were drafted by the president to be a Sherpa for now, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Talk about that experience. I mean, I’m thinking about the arc of your life and to be the, sort of shepherd this nomination of the first African-American woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Tell me about what that that experience meant to you and tell me about her.

Yeah. No, it was an it really was an amazing experience. And two nights before the president nominated her, I was on I was at the church. We did an event in honor of a, of a late lawyer named Chuck Morgan, who gave an unprecedented speech after the bombing. And I’m sitting up there where the the you know, the pulpit is. They had moved it out for this panel that we were having. And there was a big crowd there. And and including, one of my panelists was the sister of one of the girls that died, Lisa McNair whose sister Denise died. And it just really struck me about where I had been. And you had this, what I would call the son of the South. It not only kind of brought justice to those families and, and really to bring justice a little bit for Birmingham and let people look at Birmingham and Alabama in a little bit different way. And then they they did that again when I got elected in 2017. And here I was about whoever the nominee was going to be. To be the Sherpa for the first African-American female was just overwhelming. I mean, it was.

You know, I told your wife, Louise, last night when we were at dinner that one of the most memorable things I recall from the 2008 campaign was being at the convention in Denver. And I was standing next to another son of Alabama, Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who was very close to Senator Obama, traveled with him and so on. And Robert’s a very hard case, right. But I look over when Senator Obama is giving his acceptance speech and I see tears rolling down Robert’s face. And I knew what those tears meant. I knew that they were tears that were born of his memory and the history of where he came from and he knew what this meant.

And David, I want to tell you a quick story about election night, because I had a number of candidates that I was following on election night in Birmingham, but I ended up going over to Boutwell Auditorium. That’s where they were having the victory party for Obama. Boutwell Auditorium was the site of the Dixiecrat convention in 1948. It was the site of where Nat King Cole got beat up just for, to come to Birmingham. But they were having it there. And I stayed through a little bit of the acceptance speech, and I’m walking out and I go across the street to go to another event. And I passed an older white gentleman coming across toward the party. And I stop and we talk for a minute and we talk about what a great night it was and how excited everybody was. And I walk a few blocks away, a few steps away, and I look back and it dawned on me that the man I was talking to was Billy Joe Camp, who was George Wallace’s press secretary, and he was going over to the Obama victory party. And just think about that and the image of that. And so those kind of things mean so much. It meant so much to, I was in Denver with my son at the time at that acceptance speech, which was on the anniversary of the Martin Luther King speech.

At the Lincoln Memorial. And then to be there and to to really get to know Justice Jackson, then Judge Jackson, and understand her and have told folks she became such a inspirational figure around the country. It wasn’t just the nomination. The way she handled herself, the grace, the dignity, the way she presented herself, almost always with a smile on her face, she really, truly became an inspiration. Some of the letters and cards that she shared with us from around the country were just remarkable. And it just was a, it was a, it was a great thing for me to have been involved. And I’m so appreciative of the president and White House counsel Dana Ramos, who I’m hoping to have here with me to talk about that.

Oh great, that’d be great, yeah.

Yeah, well, I just hope there aren’t days in the months and years to come where Justice Jackson says, what did Jones get me into? So, Doug Jones, thank you for your service. Thank you for being a fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. And thanks for spending time with me.

Thank you, David. It’s an honor for me to be here. Thanks.

Thank you for listening to The Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Allyson Siegal. The show is also produced by Miriam Fender Annenberg, Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN, including Rafeena Ahmad and Megan Marcus. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics.uchicago.edu.

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