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Transcript: Jeh Johnson on "Face the Nation," September 27, 2020

Jeh Johnson: "Look past the noise" ahead of election
Jeh Johnson: "Look past the noise" ahead of e... 06:12

The following is a transcript of an interview with former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, that aired Sunday, September 27, 2020, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Part of his job in that role was combating election interference. He's in Montclair, New Jersey. Good morning to you.


MARGARET BRENNAN: It is ultimately up to the states to administer elections. What are your concerns about the integrity and the security of this race?

FMR. SEC. JOHNSON: Well, first, MARGARET, it's- it's disconcerting to see the president and his chief of staff cast doubt on the integrity of our- our democracy. In fact, mail-in voting is almost as old as- as the nation. There are states now where the predominant way to vote is by mail. And we- we managed to have a peaceful election in 1944 during World War II. We managed to have a relatively calm, peaceful election in 1864 when the nation was literally at war with it- with itself. And so my concern is that the president himself seems to be the one casting doubt on mail-in votes in particular. The documented cases of fraud around mail-in voting is a small fraction of something like 1%. Now, having said that, I think all Americans should plan how they are going to vote. What is unusual about this election is that we're going to have to move something like 100 million mail-in ballots. And so I would encourage Americans to plan their vote. Vote early, whether it's in person or by mail. I got mine yesterday in the mail, and I plan to return it as soon as possible.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You are in New Jersey, which is allowing mail-in this year on a large scale. You know, the president said that he thinks this will end up in the Supreme Court. I understand what you're saying about undermining the overall integrity, but many people would say we've never done this before. It is going to be messy. So is that not a fair question to ask is- is how can we actually do this?

FMR. SEC. JOHNSON: Well, the reality is, MARGARET, that our- one of the special things about our democracy is that whatever power President Trump has evaporates on January 20 at noon. And whoever has 270 electoral votes at that moment. And we can talk about the wisdom of the Electoral College becomes the president and at that moment becomes commander in chief, becomes the director of the executive branch, and the- the other candidate walks off as a private citizen. That's how we've been doing things for almost 250 years. And I'm confident that we will continue to do it in that way.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're saying at noon- 12:01, on January 20th, the Secret Service would escort out President Trump if he loses, that a peaceful transition of power you are confident will happen?

FMR. SEC. JOHNSON: It's the way our democracy works, MARGARET. The president doesn't get to stay in power simply by surrounding himself with the tools and the vestiges of power. Whatever power this president has evaporates at noon on Jan. 20, 2021. And whoever has the requisite number of Electoral College votes is the next president.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, it may be messy getting to that point. The- the Senate was briefed on election security this week. Senator Mark Warner said, "The period immediately before and after the election could be uniquely volatile." What does that suggest to you?

FMR. SEC. JOHNSON:  Well, the- in terms of the- the external threat, the threat from the Russians and others, I- I agree with what the FBI director said this past week, that we have to be on guard, in particular for disinformation, pushing out extremist views, fake news, which is why I think all Americans should take the trouble to inform themselves about how they're going to exercise their vote and- and look past the noise. Without a doubt, this election will be unusual because of the number of mail-in ballots, but we've done this before. We've done this since almost the beginning of our democracy. The other unusual thing about this is you have a president who, frankly, is trying to ratchet up the anxiety and the concern about our democracy.

I think all Americans have to have history in mind and know that we have a strong constitutional system.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But, as you know, conservatives have seized on a comment by former Secretary Hillary Clinton when she said, Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances because I think this is going to drag out. Since that time, her aides have said that was just specific to election night. But other Democrats have said she shouldn't have said that at all. You think that's damaging?

FMR. SEC. JOHNSON: The way I would put it is this, MARGARET, whoever does not win the election should have more respect for the Constitution and our democracy rather than his own political fortunes. And we've seen that time and again. For example, the very eloquent concession speech by John McCain in 2008. The- the candidate has to care more about the democracy than whether or not he or she wins. That's the way I'd put it. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Very quickly, you're a former prosecutor. The Breonna Taylor decision in Louisville is continuing to lead to protests. What do you make of that case?

FMR. SEC. JOHNSON: Well, I hesitate to sit in judgment if I'm not privy to all the evidence. The charge that has been brought up against this particular officer, I think it's wanton endangerment. It's- it's as if you're acting in a mode of self-defense, but you're firing into a crowded theater indiscriminately. It's hard for me to distinguish that and that charge against that officer and those who fired directly at Breonna Taylor. But we'll know more soon is my hope.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, Secretary Johnson, thank you for your insight. And we will be back in a moment.

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