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Barbershop: CPAC Controversies, Trump Transgender Policy, The Oscars

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now it's time for our trip to the Barbershop. That's where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us for a shape-up today are Jeff Giesea. He's a business consultant, a political organizer and a Trump supporter in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

JEFF GIESEA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Bridget Johnson is the Washington editor for the conservative online news site PJ Media. She's also a senior fellow at the Hyams Solomon Center in Chicago. That's a security and Middle East policy center. Bridget, welcome back.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Good to see you, Michel.

MARTIN: And Farajii Muhammad is the host of Listen Up. That's a radio show on member station WEAA in Baltimore. He's also director of a youth organization Peace by Piece Faraji, welcome back to you. Thanks for coming.

FARAJII MUHAMMAD: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So this has been one of those drinking-from-a-firehose weeks in the news again. You know, we had the Conservative Political Action Committee, C-PAC, meeting in D.C., the election for the Democratic National Committee chair in Atlanta. We just heard about that, not to mention all the international news - the incredible story of the assassination of the North Korean dictator's brother in Malaysia, more news about the Trump campaign's efforts to manage stories about Russia.

So I'm not going to pick. I'm just going to open it up and ask each of you what do you think the most impactful and important story of the week was? So Farajii, why don't you start?

MUHAMMAD: I think one of them was the fact that President Trump visited the African-American Museum, and I thought that that was pretty, pretty significant just simply because, you know, he used that opportunity to talk about the travel ban and talk about, quote, unquote, "the love" that people must have in order to enter the country.

I don't know how you measure that, you know, but at the end of the day, it just seems like once again very ill-timed and that wasn't the right place to have that conversation. I think that he should have made - took a little bit more strides in talking about the interests of our community of black people instead of just using that as another opportunity to promote policy that is already controversial.

MARTIN: So why was it the most important story for you?

MUHAMMAD: To me, it was just showing that once again we have a president in office that doesn't see the full picture of all Americans. He doesn't - he's not thinking about the concerns of the 40 to 50 million black people that live in this country.

MARTIN: OK. All right, Bridget, what do you think? What was the most important story of the week for you?

JOHNSON: I'm going with little Kim's brother because when we found out that it was a VX, you know, toxin that was used in the middle of a public airport on this guy...

MARTIN: You're talking about the North Korean leader and the fact that his older half-brother was murdered while traveling through the Malaysian airport by people who came up - what seemed to be a very well-planned operation where these two women wiped his face with a - what turned out to be nerve gas and then disappeared into the - yeah, yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah. And so, you know, we've been kind of warning that North Korea is one of the biggest problems that the new administration is going to have to tackle, but it's been kind of focusing more on their nukes. You know, so doing an assassination like this on foreign soil with a chemical weapon, you know - it takes it to a new level.

So, you know, at this point we're kind of like who's home at the State Department? You know, as far as press briefings over there, there hasn't been a single one. You know, we're kind of asking the press corps to like send proof of life, you know, photo with like a date on a newspaper or something. But - so we're waiting for things to get going there. We're not really sure what Rex Tillerson's the role is in all of this yet.

MARTIN: The new secretary of state...

JOHNSON: Correct.

MARTIN: ...Former Exxon executive. Yeah.

JOHNSON: And so it's something that, you know, you guys got to jump on this now.

MARTIN: What was your most important story this week, Jeff?

GIESEA: I would have to say C-PAC and Trump being at C-PAC. You know, two years ago, he was booed there. Last year he skipped it, and this year he went and received a standing ovation. So I think there's a sense that the barbarians are at the gate, and we're ready to modernize the party. And there's a little bit of disruption and transition happening within the GOP. We're not sure where that's taking us, but I think that's the most important significant story of the week.

MARTIN: Now, I'm going to ask Bridget about this, too, because you went. C-PAC ended today. You attended this year. And, as Jeff said, you know, a lot of people - he was booed then didn't go and then now a lot of people saying it's his party now. What's your take away from C-PAC and what happened there?

JOHNSON: Well, yeah. A lot of people were referring to it as T-PAC this year, and I think that that was actually really correct because, you know, it was a lawmaker drought, and, of course, part of that because it's Presidents Day week and Congress is out of session.

But, you know, Paul Ryan didn't come back. Mitch McConnell didn't come back. Cruz came back because there was a microphone, but other than that, you know, it was - I had some people telling me that they thought they'd been into it for 17 years, and they thought it was the worst one because they were just kind of hearing heavy on platitudes, light on policy. And no one really knew, you know, what was supposed to be the unifying point behind this except for Trump. So...

MARTIN: Well, Jeff, I'm going to ask you about this because, you know, there are also some controversies around the event. For people who didn't follow this, the white nationalist Richard Spencer - we talked about him earlier in the program - showed up and was escorted out, the controversial Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was supposed to give a big speech then was disinvited after this video of him surfaced where he joked about children having sex with adults in his own experience which is - it was actually of - you know, it's one of those stories that you could look at so many different ways.

And I know - I'm just - Jeff, I want to just ask you what do you think about all of that and did that in any way detract from the message of C-PAC? I mean, some people were saying that it's become like another celebrity kind of showcase as opposed to a forum for ideas. What's your thought about it?

GIESEA: I feel like it's a party in transition, and it's still working out its identity and what it stands for. And I think this year really represents that transitional mode that it's in and still figuring out what is the future of this party look like? What does the Trumpist Republican movement that's constructive and wants to serve all citizens in a good way - what does that actually look like and how can we embrace that and reconcile it with other parts of the Republican Party? So all that's pretty messy, frankly, and still feels like it's being worked out.

MARTIN: You know, you also organized - you previously organized the Inauguration Day celebration, the DeploraBall, which I think a lot of people heard about. You organized another party - I think - what is it the Bull Moose Party? - kind of recognizing the fact that parties do change. But I'm wondering now - I remember the speech you gave at the DeploraBall where you said that part of why you supported Trump - you'd been a libertarian. That's how you identified. You weren't really sure electoral politics was your thing. But you supported Trump because you felt that he would look out for the middle class, and that was one of your big issues. I'm just wondering how you square that with his Cabinet which is the 1 percent. It's the richest Cabinet in history filled with millionaires and billionaires. How do you square that?

GIESEA: Well, I think he said something revolutionary in his speech which was that the purpose of the government is to serve its citizens. I respect Farajii's point which means that he could do a better job fulfilling that and communicating to all Americans. So I think that's pretty significant about Trump. I forget the rest of the question.

MARTIN: All right. OK. I'm just wondering how you square the fact that he's got this uber rich Cabinet...

GIESEA: Oh, I don't think...

MARTIN: ...With that - your economic populist interests.

GIESEA: I don't think you can judge how he's going to execute by who's in the Cabinet necessarily just because he has people from the top...

MUHAMMAD: I don't know. Come on, Jeff.

GIESEA: Let me finish.

MARTIN: Go ahead. Yeah.

GIESEA: Just because he has people from the top 1 percent doesn't mean they won't serve the median American, and I think that's what's really important is looking at holding him accountable, frankly, to delivering on his promises. And let's be honest both parties have only served the top 1 percent, and the people - the median American at the 50th percentile - they haven't - their life hasn't improved that much in the last 30 years, so I think that's how we should measure his success, frankly, by the results.

MARTIN: OK. Farajii, you wanted to say something about that?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I mean, I think - I mean, look, if they're only from the top 1 percent, then where's the interest of the poor in this whole, you know, this whole calculation? If you're talking about how most Americans are only bringing about the median average of 50 to 60,000 or 100,000 like the administration should reflect where the people are.

MARTIN: But are you saying that you have to have been poor in order to serve the poor? I mean, Franklin Roosevelt...

MUHAMMAD: No...

MARTIN: Was rich...

MUHAMMAD: No, I'm not saying that at all...

MARTIN: His whole life and instituted...

MUHAMMAD: ...But it's...

MARTIN: Some, you know, policies...

MUHAMMAD: ...I was just looking at...

MARTIN: That were directed toward the poor.

MUHAMMAD: No, Michel, but these are CEOs. These are CEOs of multinational corporations. These are folks that have reaped rich. And I'm saying that at the end of the day, looking at their history have they shown that they are qualified to really consider and thinking about the interests of the poor?

GIESEA: Well, they're CEOs and generals...

MARTIN: Jeff?

GIESEA: ...As well. They're military folks, and I think that's maybe where we disagree is there's this assumption that the Cabinet should just look like America. That should be the most important thing or reflect that.

MUHAMMAD: But that's what democracy is supposed to be.

GIESEA: No, it's supposed to be achieving results and letting the president pick the people who he feels are going to best serve his agenda.

MARTIN: OK.

GIESEA: And that's what he's done.

MARTIN: OK. Farajii, just very briefly, the Democrats picked a new leader to head the Democratic National Committee today, Tom Perez, former labor secretary bested Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, who also happens to have been the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Congress. Thoughts? Is Tom Perez the right guy?

MUHAMMAD: You know, we have to see. I mean, I think his work in the labor secretary, you know - I think people have to know what that is - role and his responsibilities were. But, you know, it's going to have to see because like the Republican Party, the DNC - the Democratic Party is in shambles right now, and they're looking to find their identity. So it's going to be very important that they figure it out, and I hope they don't rehash some of the same old politicians coming up in the next presidential election. We need to see fresh faces and get new ideas on the table at this point.

MARTIN: Bridget, I'm going to ask you for your take on this.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think that was one of the things that stood out from the Democratic debate that was on CNN the other night is that there were some new faces that people weren't hearing from. And you kind of left that thinking, OK, well, so Perez and Ellison are the frontrunners, but the bench kind of look more impressive.

MUHAMMAD: Right, right.

JOHNSON: You know? And it looked like it was connecting more with what, you know, voters in that party were talking about. So, I mean, I got an email from Bernie Sanders camp - said that, you know, he was backing Keith Ellison. He's going to try and do a unity sort of ticket, you know, unity government going forward. But I think that they really need to do - reach into that bench...

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's take the last couple of minutes to talk about the other big event this weekend, the Oscars, the Academy Awards broadcasting tomorrow...

MUHAMMAD: It's your favorite topic, Michel.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I mean, yes. And I want to take a minute to say tomorrow we'll be taking a look at the groundbreaking nominees for Best Documentary, so we hope you'll tune in tomorrow for that. But casting aside who will win? Did all of you - are you - are you all reasonably conversant with the Best Picture nominees to tell us who you think should win? So, Bridget, I'll start with you because I know you love pop culture as much as I do.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Whether you want to admit it - and I know you're a serious foreign policy person, but we can blow your cover.

JOHNSON: Going to Beyonce next (laughter).

MARTIN: Exactly. Talking about Beyonce - that too. All right. Who should win?

JOHNSON: I should say "La La Land" because I'm from La La Land, but I have to say I love "Hidden Figures." I love, you know, a film that doesn't put actresses in the same stereotypical roles that one that conveys, you know, strong and fearless women don't wait for anyone to say that they should or - and they just do it.

MARTIN: OK.

JOHNSON: So I love that movie.

MARTIN: "Hidden Figures." OK, Jeff? Who should...

GIESEA: I have to say "Manchester By The Sea." It was a soulful movie. It really moved me, moved me in the way that a play would move me, and I thought Casey Affleck was fantastic.

MARTIN: OK. Farajii?

MUHAMMAD: I'm kind of at a crossroads between "Fences" and "Hidden Figures." But I think "Fences" because it generated more conversations. There were a lot more folks talking about black masculinity, family, fatherhood, and I think that that really should be one of the determining factors for the Oscars that it generates some type of social - some social changes or some social conversations. I mean...

MARTIN: What about "Moonlight?"

MUHAMMAD: "Moonlight" another one...

MARTIN: "Moonlight" was also if you want to talk about...

MUHAMMAD: You know, we had "Birth Of A Nation," we had "Moonlight," you had "Hidden Figures," you had in "Fences." But I think those are the films that generate - they transcend just, you know, having films. I don't see "La La Land" doing that, sorry, you know.

MARTIN: But you know it's going to win, though, right?

(LAUGHTER)

MUHAMMAD: And see that's why I'm going to create a new hashtag called over the Oscars. I'm over it.

GIESEA: I'm with you on that one. We'll support you.

MARTIN: You're over it, too? Really? Why are you over it, Jeff?

GIESEA: Well, I mean, Oscars just seems like this sort of self-congratulatory elitist event where Hollywood celebrities come together and virtue signal how great they are.

MARTIN: Duh.

(LAUGHTER)

GIESEA: And I'm just cringing at...

MARTIN: Isn't that what all award ceremonies are?

GIESEA: Well kind of, but I'm just...

MARTIN: Don't have a birthday party then.

GIESEA: I know it's going to be politicized this year, so I'm just sort of like - it feels inevitable to me, and I like letting the movies speak for themselves...

MUHAMMAD: Exactly.

GIESEA: ...And not letting the awards ceremonies get too politicized.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of celebrities, we just learned that the president - Trump - has said he will not be attending the White House Correspondents Association this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Anybody surprised? Why are you laughing?

MUHAMMAD: Because like why is the president going to war with media? I mean, this whole thing - alternative facts, fake media and all of those things. I think this is a very, very slippery slope for the president of the United States to be standing on especially when the media serves as, quote, unquote, "should be a balance" to what we are hearing from coming from very, very, I will say, left-leaning white or certain direction White House administration.

MARTIN: OK. OK.

MUHAMMAD: So it's a slippery slope.

MARTIN: All right, Bridget, what do you think? I'm going to give you the final bite of that apple.

JOHNSON: Anonymous sourcing is not fake news (laughter).

MARTIN: OK.

JOHNSON: And as long as Trump believes that, then he can go to another party.

MARTIN: All right. All right. Well, Jeff Giesea was here, Bridget Johnson was here and Farajii Muhammad was here. Thanks, all, everybody for being in our Barbershop today.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

GIESEA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.