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Transcript: Jeh Johnson and Michael Chertoff on

The following is a transcript of an interview with former Homeland Security Secretaries Jeh Johnson and Michael Chertoff that aired Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”


MARGARET BRENNAN: And we want to continue that conversation about some of the national security risks, including gun violence. We’re going to do that now with two former homeland security chiefs. I’ve got Jeh Johnson, who served under former President Obama. He’s in Montclair, New Jersey, this morning. And Michael Chertoff held the job under former President George W. Bush. He’s at home in Washington, D.C. Good morning to you both, gentlemen. You just heard the conversation. Representative Clyburn says you got to work together, but also said they can’t get anything done in the Senate. So where does that leave us in the wake of three shootings? Is further legislation just not something we should even be talking about at this point?

FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, I think we could always get some legislation on assault weapons and, you know, that would be helpful. But recognize no law is going to deal with the problem entirely. As you pointed out, you have people who legally bought guns and then committed these horrible acts. So although legislation is part of the solution. Another part of the solution is dealing with what is emerging to be a- almost a mental health crisis leading to violent acts.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Jeh Johnson there, sorry, I want you to jump in. I mean, it was a handgun in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a handgun in Chesapeake, Virginia. It was an AR 15 style in Colorado Springs. So is it a gun crisis? Is it a mental health crisis? Which is it?

FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JEH JOHNSON: Well, first and foremost, Margaret, I believe that the problem, the central problem, the common thread through all of these incidents is the prevalence of guns in America. The individual circumstances of each episode tend to be a little different. The motive tends to be different. The location is different. The weapon is different. But the problem we have in this country nationwide is the prevalence of guns in America. I do not for a second give up on the possibility of further gun safety legislation. We have to get off this point of view of the NRA that if they give an inch, we’re going to take a mile. We can regulate guns in America consistent with the Second Amendment, consistent with the constitutional right of a responsible gun owner to own a gun for hunting, for- for their own personal safety of their family. And Mike is also right. There’s more to do on the – on the mental health front. There’s more to do to raise awareness among co-workers, families, people in school about the warning signs of someone heading toward violence so that the signs are undeniable at some point.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But how do you solve for a mental health crisis? Secretary Chertoff, I mean, where do you begin?

CHERTOFF: Well, we begin with what we call “red flag laws” in which someone’s guns can be taken away if there’s a report that they have a propensity to violence or they’ve been talking about doing something that would involve killing people. So certainly enforcing those “red flag laws” is a positive step. More generally, I think we need off-ramps for people who are troubled and prone to be violent that do not involve the criminal justice process. So we encourage family members to step forward and get help for someone who might, given the passage of time, pick up a gun and do an act of violence. And finally, I do think the social media have a responsibility to monitor for violent, inciting rhetoric on public platforms. Unfortunately, we see a lot of the people who’ve carried out these attacks literally announce them in advance. And the tragedy is nobody intervenes to stop it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But Secretary Jeh Johnson, I mean, you just heard me talk about Jim Clyburn, the fact that there were “red flag laws” in place in, for example, Colorado. Each state has sort of different attributes to their laws and who can call in a worry to remove guns from the household of someone. Is this just going to continue to be a patchwork of different problems because of the federal system?

JOHNSON: I think Mike and I both know that in these cases it is almost always certain that the warning signs are apparent. People often don’t want to see them. However, the parent doesn’t want to see them. The good friend in school doesn’t want to see them. The co-worker doesn’t want to see them, doesn’t want to report. And so, as I said before, I think it’s important that we raise awareness about what these warning signs are in fact. Could we better enforce our red flag laws? Could we encourage people to invoke them to utilize them more often? Absolutely. I agree with Mike on that. But the warning signs are almost always there. They’re undeniable.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to talk more about this with both of you in a moment, but I have to take a quick break. So please stay with us and all of you, please stay with us as well. Face the Nation. We’ll be back in a minute. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you for joining Face the Nation with former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Michael Chertoff. Gentlemen, I like being able to have you both here because you both dealt with a very hard problem set. And so a lot of people have opinions, but you actually know what it’s like to be in the job. So let me give you a really hard one, which is what to do about the southern border. In the last year, two and a half million migrants, roughly, have been encountered. That is a record high. The governor of Texas is boasting that he’s sent more than 13,000 immigrants to New York, to Chicago, to Washington, and now to Philadelphia, where busloads arrived this week. Secretary Chertoff, these migrants have legal status because they’re going through asylum. Are the asylum laws too generous in this country?

CHERTOFF: Well, we can certainly take a look at the asylum laws, but generally we obey international law, which talks about the obligation to receive refugees. And in fact, now we have the issue of Ukrainians who are fleeing what is going on with the war in Ukraine. So certainly you can understand why people seek asylum. One of the things the administration has done, which I think is helpful, is they’ve moved the evaluation process down to those agents who were actually in the field to speed it up to make sure you can determine whether there’s a colorable claim and if not, send people back. And they’re also working to resource and streamline the process of making final adjudications. So that’s all to the good, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Also, I know the administration is working with nonprofits to create safe locations that people can stay while their claims are being adjudicated. I think stunts like what Governor Abbott has done really don’t address the problem. There should be a way of getting attention over the backs of people who are fleeing genuine crises in other parts of the world.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because to get asylum you need to show fear of persecution, torture because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, other reasons. That’s what these people did and were allowed in. Just to be clear. Former Secretary Johnson, you know, one of the things the Biden administration just lost, though, is one of the tools they were using to turn people away. And over one million of those encounters I talked about were people- were expelled under Title 42, according to Customs and Border Protection. This was a pandemic era policy that said, because of COVID, people didn’t necessarily need to get into the country. That goes away at the end of the at the end of December. What then happens?

JOHNSON: Well, first, Margaret, I have to be honest about the asylum laws and the processing. It takes six years right now to process an asylum claim once someone has entered this country. And one of the problems is that the bar to qualify initially and establish a case of credible fear is relatively low. Something like 70% of migrants qualify who seek it. And the ultimate qualification for asylum, the percentage there is only about 20%, and it’s six years in between. Migrants know this. And so we’ve got to develop a system where we can more expeditiously deal with these claims, but also take a look at the credible fear standard itself. I know my friends on the left won’t be too happy to hear that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: No politician is going to take that vote.

JOHNSON: Well, it can be done possibly through regulation. And I think it’s something that ought to be looked at. Now in terms of Title 42, when CDC first announced in May that it was going to lift this, I and others were opposed to it. We thought there needed to be a more orderly transition. It is an extraordinary authority and it’s probably time now for it to go away in December. But the ability to send people back expeditiously, like the administration has been doing, needs to now be replaced with something else. And I think there the discussion is going to have to take place with Mexico to more expeditiously accept people back. We sent back something like 1.4 million last year, using in part Title 42. We need something to replace that. And I think working with the government of Mexico and frankly, getting them to do more to step up on this is part of that answer.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I’d like for you both very quickly to weigh in on what happens if the Republican led Congress goes ahead with this vow to impeach or try to impeach the current secretary of homeland security. Does that mean all the things you suggested don’t happen and Congress is just tied in knots? Secretary Chertoff?

CHERTOFF: Well, it would be a very sad day if in search of what is again a political stunt, you know, threatening to impeach Secretary Mayorkas. Congress didn’t do things, for example, as Secretary Johnson just suggested, maybe adjust the standard with respect to asylum, create more resources that are available to adjudicate and work out additional ways to fund the effort to undermine the cartels and the smugglers, which are a big part of this. So it would be basically putting form over substance to go through a big performance on impeachment that’s never going anywhere, rather than actually working with the administration to solve the problem.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And Secretary Johnson, I imagine you agree?

JOHNSON: Margaret, what people need to know and Michael and I know this, the secretary of homeland security is focused on border security, maritime security, aviation security, cybersecurity, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and a host of other things. We can’t have a secretary who’s distracted by a stunt in Congress in an attempt at impeachment.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right. Thanks very much to both of you secretaries for weighing in. We’ll be right back.

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