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“Deplorable”: Former Sen. Doug Jones Slams Tuberville for Defending White Nationalists in Military

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Image Credit: Julia Nikhinson/CNP/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

As President Biden warned Saturday that white supremacy is the “most dangerous terrorist threat” facing the United States, and members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front marched Sunday on the National Mall, we look at how Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama is under fire for expressing support for white nationalists in the U.S. military. Tuberville is a major backer of Donald Trump. In 2020, he defeated Democrat Doug Jones, who served in the Senate from 2018 to 2021 and was a U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan involved in the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that killed four girls. We get response to Tuberville from Jones and look at white supremacists in the military and more with Southern Poverty Law Center senior investigative reporter Michael Edison Hayden.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville is coming under fire after expressing support for white nationalists in the U.S. military. Tuberville made the comments last week while talking to WBHM, an NPR affiliate in Alabama.

SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE: We are losing in the military so fast our readiness in terms of recruitment. And why? I’ll tell you why: because the Democrats are attacking our military, saying, “We need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists, people that don’t — don’t believe in our agenda, as the Joe Biden agenda.” They’re destroying it.

RICHARD BANKS: You mentioned the Biden administration trying to prevent white nationalists from being in the military. Do you believe they should allow white nationalists in the military?

SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE: Well, they call them that. I call them Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: “I call them Americans.” In an attempt to walk back his comments, Senator Tuberville told a reporter at NBC, quote, “I look at a white nationalist as a Trump Republican.” Listen carefully.

SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE: I look at a white nationalist as a — as a Trump Republican. That’s what we’re called all the time, a MAGA person. That’s what I’m just — that” —

JULIE TSIRKIN: Do you agree with that assumption?

SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE: Well, I agree that we should not be characterizing Trump supporters as white nationalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chuck Schumer blasted Tuberville’s remarks, describing them as “utterly revolting.” The controversy comes as President Biden told graduates at Howard University Saturday white supremacy is a poison and the, quote, “most dangerous terrorist threat in the country.”

Meanwhile, on Sunday, members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front marched along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., carrying shields and battle drums.

Senator Tommy Tuberville was already facing criticism for blocking nearly 200 military promotions to protest a Pentagon policy which covers paid leave for workers who have to travel out of state to get an abortion. Tuberville remains a major backer of Donald Trump. Last week, he decried the New York jury that unanimously found Trump had sexually assaulted and defamed E. Jean Carroll. Tuberville said the jury’s decision, quote, “makes me want to vote for him twice.”

We’re joined now by former Alabama Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat who served in the Senate from 2018 to 2021. He lost to Tuberville in the 2020 election. Jones is also a former U.S. attorney, who successfully prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members involved in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls between the ages of 11 and 14.

Senator Doug Jones, welcome to Democracy Now! If you could first respond to your former opponent — Tuberville beat you for the Senate seat that you held — talking about, responding to the issue of the Pentagon Secretary Lloyd Austin trying to rout out white supremacists in the military?

DOUG JONES: Well, I think it’s absolutely outrageous, what he’s saying. It’s deplorable. You know, he talks about the fact that Democrats are attacking the military. No, Democrats are not attacking the military. We’re actually supporting the military. It is Senator Tuberville who is attacking the military and all of their policies, whether it is holding up nominations for promotions, which affects readiness and morale, or attacking the policies that the administration is trying to do to kind of weed out these white nationalists, these white supremacists. You know, you only have to look at what happened in Boston recently, where a young National Guardsman leaked classified information, and now we’re learning he is the very kind of person that the administration is trying to weed out of there. It makes no sense whatsoever, what Senator Tuberville says, and is purely a political ploy attacking the administration at every turn.

AMY GOODMAN: When asked about white nationalists, he said he calls them Americans. You have a long, illustrious civil rights history. You put two members of the Ku Klux Klan behind bars for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, the bombing happened. Can you talk about what white nationalism means and what he’s saying?

DOUG JONES: Sure. You know, look, they may be American citizens, but they’re dang sure not patriots. These are not people that support the government of the United States. They support themselves. They support only the white nationalists that they are. They don’t support a diverse society. They don’t support a diverse America. And if you look at what’s happening, just look at the Patriot Front guys who marched around the Capitol just recently, they are hell-bent on trying to make this a purely white country, and totally not recognizing what’s going on in this country and how supportive this country is of the diversity that we see. And that’s the real problem. They will resort to violence. They will resort to subversion of the United States, if possible, in order to get the kind of country they, in their mind, think is appropriate. And that is a real problem in the United States military. It’s a problem in law enforcement across this country. And we have to make sure that we do everything necessary to get those people out of the chain of command, out of the military, so that we can protect all Americans and protect our national security.

AMY GOODMAN: During a March 28th hearing with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Senator Tuberville was quoted saying, quote, “War is hell. You know that better than anybody. Every recruit should know that. But in the last few years we’ve put them through a different kind of hell. In one of your first acts, Mr. Secretary, you put our military — every single member, active and reserve — through a mandatory training to root out 'extremists.'” Tuberville was clearly disparaging this. Your response, Senator Jones?

DOUG JONES: It’s just hard to respond to just stupid statements like that. I mean, that’s the only way that you can describe that kind of reaction to the United States military, to think that we should not be rooting out extremism — on either side, by the way. It doesn’t matter whether if it’s extremism on the right or extremism on the left. That is dangerous to the United States military, to morale, to the chain of command, to our national security. And, yes, war is hell. Everything is difficult in the military. That is exactly why you have to have a disciplined military, not people that are going to go off like this guy did and provide classified information to his buddies online. You’ve got to have that discipline. And you cannot have that discipline if you have extremes on either side.

You know, this is not an old John Wayne movie, where you’ve got that kind of war is hell. This is a very diverse military. It has people of all races, all religions. It has — you know, I think roughly 20, 25% are now women. And the military brass, the leaders of our military, have to protect all of our servicemen and women, and they have to do it in a way that recognizes the differences we have, but at the same time being able to watch the chain of command and keep that in line. That is what is most important. And the extremism, that Senator Tuberville is complaining that there is being rooted out, needs to be rooted out.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to continue on this issue of white supremacists. In addition to Senator Jones, we’re joined by Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is based in Alabama, where he focuses on far-right extremism. He’s joining us from New York City.

Michael, thanks you for joining us again. A report you helped author last year said, quote, “Roughly one in five applicants to the white supremacist group Patriot Front claimed to hold current or former military status, according to leaked documents reviewed by Hatewatch.” Explain, and also put this in the context of Senator Tuberville’s comments.

MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN: Well, yeah, I mean, Senator Tuberville is correct in saying that these folks are Americans, you know, and America has a very serious problem with radical-right extremism, as evidenced by all the violence that we’ve seen in recent years, all the different times I’ve come on your show to talk about it. So, I mean, people with military backgrounds are heavily sought after by extremist groups like Patriot Front, partly because they have a knowledge of how to operate in these kind of urgent situations. Think about January 6th, although Patriot Front was not involved there, and the degree to which military training could be advantageous to folks in the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. All right, so there’s like a technical understanding of things that they understand. And there’s also the fact that we don’t treat our veterans particularly well in this country, which, you know, allows extremist groups to feed off of potential resentment or feelings of frustration, and makes those folks good recruits.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Doug Jones and talk about Tuberville’s role right now in saying that over 200 Department of Defense promotions are being blocked. They’re being blocked by one senator, by Senator Tuberville, who’s demanding the Pentagon change its abortion policy for servicemembers and dependents which the Biden administration has supported since last October. Explain how it’s possible that one senator, Senator Tuberville, can block the actions of the entire Senate. What’s the procedure used? And talk about what he’s doing it for.

DOUG JONES: Well, first of all, I think he’s doing it for — because he’s fighting culture wars. He accuses Democrats and others of politicizing the military, but yet he is the one politicizing the military. He is the one that is blocking promotions of military across the services because of the culture war issue over the abortion policy that the Department of Defense has to protect women in the military.

So, what he’s doing is that he cannot completely block a nomination. And a lot of people don’t realize that military promotions at certain ranks have to be confirmed by the United States Senate. And what he’s doing is he’s preventing those from being considered, and blocked, literally, you know, maybe a hundred or 200 at a time, where promotions can be moved through the Senate very quickly and very efficiently. That is always a nonpartisan issue. That is something that is done routinely to give deference to the military, to give deference to the administration. He has decided not to do that and to require the Senate to take up every nomination, every promotion, one at a time, which requires — the Senate rules have a number of hours. It will delay work in the Senate. It will delay the military.

And it has a ripple effect through the chain of command, because these servicemen and women that are in line for the promotions, their entire careers are on hold. And those behind them, that are set to fill the positions that they’re being left vacant, are also on hold. This is really devastating to morale, again, to the chain of command and, ultimately, national security and our readiness. And it shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the military, the nature of service to this country, and what people are looking for when they decide to go into the military as a career. It is really outrageous, what he’s doing in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time, Michael Edison Hayden, we have the massacre in Allen, Texas, where the gunman, who killed eight people and injured 10, was influenced by neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. You have the march by the Patriot Front on the National Mall this weekend. And you have jury selection in the trial of Robert Bowers, the 50-year-old man who killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Can you put this all together at this point? And then I have a final question for the senator.

MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN: Sure. You know, Senator Tuberville’s comments speak to the deep, deep denial in this country of what is happening, as far as radical white extremism is concerned. You know, I mean, like, we have people being murdered on a semi-regular basis now. Go back to the Tree of Life terror attack in October of 2018. Then you have, like, El Paso, for example, in the summer of 2019. You have the attack in Colorado Springs focused on the LGBTQ community. And then you have, of course, what happened in Allen, Texas. And there are some in between.

This type of thing keeps happening, just as we have this problem with — you know, we have this problem with radicalization in the military, which we’ve been warning about going back to the mid-’80s, without enough of a response. We had — for example, in the ’90s, we had Timothy McVeigh. These things keep being brought up, these issues of violence and racism. These are core problems in American life that go to the real struggles to be American and to keep people safe. Now, think about the fact that we have 700 — over 700 Confederate symbols on military bases, and we have Black people serving throughout the military. So these are core problems, and the denial in this country is really deep, and it has to change.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have Fort Benning just changing its name to Fort Moore.


AMY GOODMAN: But I want to end with Doug Jones on a note of history. You have repeatedly said that perhaps the most important thing you’ve ever done as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama was to prosecute the Klansmen who killed the four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, when they blew up the church. We’re approaching the 60th anniversary of that tragedy in September. Talk about the case and fighting white supremacist violence then, your role in convicting Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, and where you think we stand today, 60 years later.

DOUG JONES: Well, I appreciate you asking that question, because it is something that has been very important to me, to Alabama, to this country, that we recognize one of the most horrific civil rights crimes in the history of this country, a civil rights crime that really, I do believe, changed the course of civil rights history. And we use the term “woke” these days, but, in fact, that bombing really awakened America to the tragedies and the horrifics of Jim Crow and the fact that you had so much racial violence in the '50s and ’60s. And what concerns me now is that we are forgetting that. We haven't looked back and learned the lessons of history and the tragedies of history that I think we should have.

And, in fact, the similarities that I see today is the rhetoric of politicians. In those days, it was Bull Connor, the racist police commissioner. It was governors like George Wallace and Ross Barnett, who stoked anger and stoked hatred and stoked violence with their dog whistle-type politics. And I think what we’re seeing now is something very, very similar. You see that across the board, where it’s particularly a kind of — the MAGA right Republicans that seem to want to instill violence and hatred, support for people who violate the law and attack others. That’s a real danger.

And it goes beyond just black and white now. It gets into religion. It goes to the Hispanic community. It goes to the Muslim community. We are a much more diverse society than we were in the 1960s, in 1963, when this bomb exploded, killing those four young girls. And I think we have to celebrate this diversity. But instead, what we’re seeing is the hate and the violence spreading its wings to all races, all ethnic groups, all religions. And that is that white nationalist philosophy that Tuberville thinks, apparently, is OK in the military, OK in our law enforcement, and apparently OK in this country. Well, it’s not. It’s not. And we have to work very, very hard, remember the lessons of the past and work very hard to root that out.

AMY GOODMAN: Doug Jones, I want to thank you very much for being with us, former Democratic senator for Alabama, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. And Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter with the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.

Next up, we turn from extremism in the military and in the Senate to a Neo-Nazi in the offices of Congress? Stay with us.

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