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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Appears Live on WNYC

March 16, 2017

Brian Lehrer: It’s the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. Good morning, everyone. And we have some breaking news. Just coming in to the Brian Lehrer Show, in the last few minutes, it looks like Mayor de Blasio has been cleared by both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Manhattan D.A. of any criminal wrongdoing as have his aides in connection with any of his fundraising.

We are just getting the paperwork, in literally the last few minutes, from the acting U.S Attorney Joon Kim who took over for Preet Bharara; and earlier this hour from the Manhattan D.A. CY Vance’s office. So, I’m going to read to you the one paragraph statement that we just got from the U.S. Attorney – and I mean just – and then Mayor de Blasio is going to react.

The Mayor is going to join us here in just a minute.

Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim’s statement on the investigation into City Hall fundraising – “in response to the allegations of misconduct this office along with the FBI has been investigating fundraising by and on behalf of Mayor Bill de Blasio for his 2013 election campaign; The Campaign for One New York – that’s the Mayor’s political group – and the 2014 State Senate effort. We have conducted a thorough investigation into several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the City, after which the Mayor made or directed inquires to relevant city agencies on behalf of those donors. In considering whether to charge individuals with serious public corruption crimes we take into account, among other things, the high burden of proof, the clarity of existing law, any recent changes in the law, and the particular difficulty in proving criminal intent in corruption schemes where there is no evidence of personal profit. After careful deliberation, given the totality of the circumstances here and absent additional evidence we do not intend to bring federal criminal charges against the Mayor or those acting on his behalf relating to the fundraising efforts in question. Although it is rare that we issue a public statement about the status of an investigation we believe it appropriate in this case at this time in order not to unduly influence the upcoming campaign and mayoral election.” Wow – that is the full statement in a release to us from acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim. We’ll get separately into the Manhattan D.A. conclusion, which also is not resulting in any indictments. as we welcome Mayor Bill de Blasio back to WNYC. Mr. Mayor, good morning.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning, Brian.

Lehrer: And I will just tell the listeners, first of all, that we usually do ask the Mayor on Fridays – and this was already scheduled for this morning – to accommodate my schedule I will be off tomorrow for some soul cleansing dental work. But Mr. Mayor, is congratulations the right word?

Mayor: You know, Brian, I will just say simply from the beginning – it’s been basically a year – I’ve said consistently that we acted appropriately, we acted ethically, and we acted lawfully. I think this confirms what I have been saying and all of my colleagues have been saying. We held ourselves to a very high standard and we will continue to. I appreciate that both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office did a very thorough effort. We cooperated from the very beginning. We said we wanted to help in any way we can – we could and we did; offered a lot of assistance and information. And I appreciate that they completed their process and made their findings public, especially with an election coming in the matter of months. So, that’s what I have to say about it and I’m going to focus today on this new budget proposal from the President, which has a lot of very dangerous proposals for New York City in it and many other things we have to attend to.

Lehrer:  And that, until about 10 minutes ago, is how I was going to start this show, with a detail reading of some aspects of the president’s budget proposals which are also just out this morning. So, I will back up and go back to those in a few minutes. And listeners ask the Mayor anything you want at 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692.

Let me give the listeners some details of what the Manhattan D.A. said in its conclusion with no indictment now that I have reads the statement on behalf of the U.S. Attorney’s office. The Manhattan D.A. investigated whether the Mayor or his aides broke the law by soliciting political donations for upstate Democratic County committees intending for the money to be used illegally to evade campaign finance limits for a specific state senate candidate in those counties when the money is supposed to be used by the committees not the candidates. Manhattan D.A. CY Vance now concludes that the mayor asked the advice of his lawyer every step of the way and was told he was on the legal side of the line by his lawyer. So, his advice of counsel defense is valid. The D.A. report, however, does criticize the Mayor’s campaign for violating the spirit of the law and calls for changes by the State legislature to clarify and tighten the law. So, Mr. Mayor am I stating your understanding of the D.A. conclusions as you understand them? And what would you say in response to that one in particular?

Mayor: Yeah, Brian I have not had a chance to analyze that statement, but I can say this much – again we did everything within the law, everything within clear ethical standards. We sought guidance and clarity from the City’s Conflicts of Interest Board along the way. We sought advice from counsel constantly. I have said this many times. I would only say that I think everything we did not only conformed to the law, but went – in many cases – beyond; for example disclosure of donors when the law did not require it. And I think there is a huge problem in our country since Citizens United that there are many instances where donors give and there is no law requiring disclosure. We went above and beyond and disclosed. So, I feel like we have really honored the spirit of the law because the work we were doing was fully upfront and on top of that was about things like achieving pre-k for our kids, affordable housing for New Yorkers who needed it. Obviously, another piece of the work was about changing the State Senate, so it would reflect better the needs of New York State and New York City. I still feel very strongly about all of that, but in the final analysis I appreciate that both the District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office made very clear, unequivocally, that there was no violation of law. And now, again, we got to get back to work.

Lehrer: Do you think that it’s a coincidence that this clearance by the U.S. Attorney’s Office came less than a week after Preet Bharara was forced to resign by President Donald Trump. Is it possible that Mr. Bharara was being a hawk on this stuff for his own political gain? And his assistant Joon Kim saw that there was not much there and now that Preet Bharara was out of the way he decided to clear you? I’m making this up out of [inaudible] cloth, but do you have any suspicion of anything like that?

Mayor: I’m not going to conjecture and I’m not going to comment on any of that. I don’t have a vantage point on it. I think it has been basically a year of an investigation, which is a long time. A lot of cooperation from me and my team all along and I’m not going to conjecture about how they came to their conclusion, but I know that the core conclusion is accurate; that the law was followed, ethical standards were followed, advice of counsel was sought consistently. You know, the legal conclusion I agree with. Obviously, on the question of spirit I believe fundamentally, on the DA’s point that we did live within the spirit of the law. And we believe fundamentally – I believe fundamentally there should be public financing of elections. I’d like to see the laws change intensely to get money out of politics. I think Citizens United should be repealed. So, I feel very strongly on those matters, but I am not going to conjecture as to why anyone did things. I think the results speak for themselves and are very clear.

Lehrer: We got the release from the Manhattan DA’s Office at about twenty-to-ten. And we were digesting that, trying to fold that into what was going to be a differently focused segment with you this morning. And then suddenly at about five- or ten-to-ten, in came the U.S. Attorney’s statement. Is it your understanding that they were coordinating with each other to reach conclusions on their investigations into you on the same day?

Mayor: Again, Brian, I don’t – I don’t blame you for asking but this is, you know, outside my purview. I do not have an advantage point on how the different prosecutor offices worked together. You know, look, again, I’ve told you what I know which is my response to the investigation.

My focus now is getting back to business. We have to take on this Trump budget and address it and fight in Washington, working with cities and states all over the country and we’ve got a lot of other important work to do.

And let’s face it, for a year some of the other important issues facing the people of New York City haven’t gotten as much attention. It’s time to get back to what the people care about.

Lehrer: And on the Manhattan DA’s report, it really is quite critical of you and your campaign, though, saying that there’s nothing criminal that they find that can indict anybody on but that you, you know, followed – did not follow the spirit of the law and kind of, if I can summarize, I don’t know if this is there words, sunk to pretty much as low as you could go to get money into the State committees that would then be used for State Senate candidates who are not allowed to raise that much money.

Were you looking to get money to the hands of those candidates through the State committees and understanding the spirit of the law but trying to just stay within the letter of the law – not caring about the spirit of the law?

Mayor: Brian, respectively, I think that’s an outrageous question. Of course we stayed both within the spirit and the letter of the law. I have not, again, analyzed the DA’s statement in detail. I have said, I think hundreds of times, that what we did was appropriate in every way. The law is quite clear and we respected that law throughout.

So, you know, you can ask the question anyway you want but we did things legally, appropriately, ethically, and for causes that really matter to the people of New York City. That’s all there is to say.

Lehrer: Would you say anything about why it got this far? If there –

Mayor: Brian, respectively, I just saw these statements as you did. I’m just not going to speak further to them.

Lehrer: My last question about it isn’t even a challenge of you, it’s if there was nothing here, did it get this far for political reasons?

Mayor: Not going to conjecture.

Lehrer: Alright. Now, I’m going to back up, and listeners if you’re just joining us, what we were just discussing with Mayor de Blasio was the fact that both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Manhattan DA’s Office have concluded their investigations into the Mayor’s fundraising and that of people related to his campaigns, and concluded that there was no violation of the law. There will be no indictment of Mayor de Blasio or anybody associated with his campaigns from the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Manhattan DA’s Office. As a legal matter that case now appears to be closed though the DA’s report does criticize the campaign with respect to the spirit of the law and calls on the legislature to tighten and clarify the law.

Now, I’m going to back – Mr. Mayor be patient for a minute because I’m going to do what I was originally going to do at the beginning of the program and then give you a chance to respond to some of President Trump’s budget, also just out this morning.

Maybe the quote of the day comes from his Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, on this, really, revolutionary budget blueprint released early this morning that cuts all kinds of things to pay for a military build-up – another nationalist stroke from President Donald Trump.

The President’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was very direct.

Mick Mulvaney: There’s no question, this is a hard-power budget. It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget. And that was done intentionally. The President very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.

Lehrer:  A hard-power budget – at least he says what he means. The Pentagon would get $54 billion extra dollars in the next fiscal year which begins in October. That’s about a nine percent increase. Also the southern border wall would get a three billion dollar down payment – approximately $2.8 billion.

[Inaudible] cut at the agency level to pay for the military and border enforcement build-up would be EPA and the State Department – about 30 percent each; the Labor Department – more than 20 percent.

The Washington Post headline this morning says, “Massive Cuts to Science, the Arts, and the Poor.”

The federal workforce would be slashed in many agencies including the State Department. The Washington Post says more than 3,000 jobs would be eliminated in the EPA alone.

Budget Director Mulvaney told reporters, “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people.” So, now we know what “drain the swamp” means – federal workers and science and diplomacy. And you people thought it meant corporate lobbyists – silly you.

But there would be new hiring in Trump priority areas. The New York Times reports 1,500 immigration enforcement workers would be added to the federal workforce. Now, the budget does have a title, it’s called, “America First” – what else – “A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” – what else.

The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting would all be eliminated completely.

Full disclosure – we, here, at New York Public Radio are getting about three million dollars this year from the CPB.

The Washington Post says parts of the budget proposal appear to contradict Trump’s agenda. Trump has said he wants to eliminate all disease but the budget chops funding for the National Institutes of Health by $5.8 billion or close to 20 percent.

He has said he wants to create a one trillion dollar infrastructure program but the proposal would eliminate a Transportation Department program that funds nearly half-a-billion dollars in road projects. It does not include new funding amounts or a tax mechanism for Trump’s infrastructure program, postponing those decisions.

The Social Security and Medicare programs are untouched but the Trump-Ryan health care bill, I’ll note, cuts funding for the Medicare system with a big Medicare tax cut for the highest income Americans.

Now, as we get ready to bring the Mayor back in here – of particular interest to New York City – according to the New York Times story on this, the budget would completely eliminate the three billion dollar Community Development Block Grant program which funds popular programs like Meals on Wheels and housing assistance.

The Daily News story this morning cites a City estimate that $20 million would vanish from rental assistance programs affecting 39,000 New Yorkers. Now, that’s on top of a $75 million dollar cut the New York City Housing Authority was expecting before the President’s budget was released. So, Mr. Mayor, where would you like to start?

Mayor: Brian, look, the budget has a title but I would say the theme of this Trump budget is the American people last. You know, this is what’s happening here. They are going to take away the things that help everyday Americans including people who voted for Donald Trump and were expecting some kind of release because of all the economic challenges they’ve gone through. This is going to set them back.

So what does this budget do? By taking away the funding for the Community Development Block Grant for example – that’s going to hurt senior citizens, as you said, take away Meals on Wheels, take away affordable housing, take away code enforcement in buildings to make sure that people get heat and hot water and repairs to their buildings. This is very basic stuff.

This is not just about New York City. This is about cities big and small all over this country and so everyday people who were hoping they could get a leg up are in fact being pushed down even further.

There’s $3.6 billion in cuts to education. And remember in most of America including the many red states that voted for Donald Trump, education is almost exclusively public education. So, in all those states, they’re going to see their public schools cut back.

There are cuts to Homeland Security. This is the greatest irony of all. Obviously the President is focused on military spending versus domestic spending so he talked about putting America first but all of the money is going into military and border wall and taking money away from the things that affect people’s lives here in this country, and all the while giving tax cuts to the highest income people in this country.

So, I think – I think this is going to create a huge backlash. I think we’re going to have plenty of allies in cities and states around the country to join together with the fight because I think a lot of Senators and Congress members from red states and purple states are going to have a hell of a time supporting a lot of these things.

And it just is absolutely further contradiction – you know, you made the ‘drain the swamp’ point. Well, he – Trump created a cabinet of millionaires and billionaires and has proceeded to give tax cuts to the wealthy and now will give tax cuts to the corporations and is cutting domestic programs that help working people. It’s all going to collapse unto itself, I believe.

Lehrer: The Daily News article says your 200,000 unit, ten-year housing plan is mostly funded by the City’s budget but housing advocates say federal cuts could indirectly slow that down creating other housing problems. How much do you agree with that assessment?

Mayor: I agree that we are going to have additional challenges if federal support for the Section-8 Affordable Housing voucher and the Community Development Block Grant – these types of things – if these cuts go through it will make it harder for us to achieve our goals.  It won’t stop us because, you’re right, most of the funding is from the City, but it will make it harder.

But I want to emphasize, you know, I’ve been to a lot of press conferences, where bluntly, members of the media ask, sort of, throw-in-the-towel questions. I’m not saying they’re doing anything wrong, I’m saying they’re making a big assumption that these things can’t be fought.

This is the beginning of a budget process. There’s first the continuing resolution in April but the bigger budget process goes through September. There’s going to be a firestorm over a lot of these cuts.

You know to take away Community Development Block Grants, you’re literally – I can’t tell you how extensively that will hurt people in this country, and it’s going to touch every Senator’s state and the vast majority of members of Congress.

So, what he’s done here is he’s put a cut in place that will generate maximum opposition for Democrats and Republicans alike that most – two-thirds of a billion dollars in Homeland Security cuts. I don’t think that’s going to go over real well.

Education cuts – again, we got to get this message across. In most America there’s only one kind of education – public schools – and $3.6 billion being taken away from rural and suburban schools along with urban public schools, that’s going to be met with a very negative reaction.

So, our job is to fight these cuts and not throw in the towel ever.

Lehrer: Do you have any indication whether our one Republican member of Congress in the New York City delegation, Dan Donovan from Staten Island and a little bit of nearby Brooklyn, will fight these cuts?

Mayor: Although I have not talked to him this morning, I can say from recent conversations with Congressman Donovan, I think he’s very aware of the problems that a number of Trump administration proposals will create for his own district in Staten Island and southern Brooklyn. He certainly understands what a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would do.

I suspect he will look at some of these cuts and feel that they are bad for his constituents.

Lehrer: Tony in Park Slope, you’re on WNYC with Mayor de Blasio. Hello, Tony.

Question: Hello, Brian. Hello, Mr. Mayor.

Mayor: Good morning.

Question: My question relates to President Trump’s budget year. I’d like to understand the mechanisms of taxation by which our taxes as residents of New York City are transferred to the federal government. What pile of money does New York City and the State have control over that we might withhold either legally or extra judiciously  if we are not feeling we are getting properly represented. And is there a way to withhold some of those funds because we pay a lot more into the pot than we take.

Mayor: I at first blush – and I’m not an expert in this field – on first blush I do not know of such a way. But I think what has been clear going back to the time of Senator Moynihan is that there is an imbalance of payments. New York City pays a lot more in taxes to the federal government than we get back in federal support. And right there that is an important fact that I think registers with a lot of people that I think some of whom can have an influence on the Trump administration. But more importantly, this is not about, in my opinion, trying to find a clever legal mechanism. This is about building a national coalition to fight these cuts. And I’m telling you, some of these things will create such a broad constituency and coalition that we have a great opportunity to fight him back. This is going to be a battle for America’s soul in the next year. You’re going to see it on three Affordable Care Act; you’re going to see it on this budget proposal. I mean, amazingly the American people at this point – you can see it consistently in public opinion research – they don’t agree with President Trump. They just don’t. They didn’t agree with him in the election. He lost it by three million votes if we are counting popular vote, but they disagree with him more and more all the time. And a lot – again, all of his voters are going to be very angry about these cuts. When his voters find out that senior citizens are having their meals taken away; when his voters realize that people are having affordable housing taken from them you’re going to see a backlash. So, I think we need to look at this from an empowered position. Let us build the political coalition to defeat this budget and particularly the worst parts of it; to defeat the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That to me is how we not only stop the immediate problems of the Trump administration; that’s how we get rid of the Trump administration.

Lehrer: Nicole in Brooklyn, you’re on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Nicole.

Question: Hi. So, my question is can the City do anything to protect the [inaudible] teacher fund that we are already receiving because besides the concern from the Trump administration it also seems like Governor Cuomo is looking to uncap the charter funding for schools and the whole [inaudible]. He doesn’t seem to be really behind fulfilling all the monetary funds that are still back owed to the schools.

Mayor: Yeah, look I am disappointed that the Governor’s budget not only ignored the State’s obligation to the City of New York and to cities and rural areas around the State. And that all comes from the decision of the campaign for fiscal equity case by the State court of appeals – the highest court in New York State – ten years ago said that education funding is not being given fairly and that by law – by dictate of the highest court in the State – the State of New York had to provide more education funding to New York City, to key upstate cities, to rural areas of New York State. That has not happened during Governor Cuomo’s administration. But on top of that they are attempting, in some of the budget language, to essentially airbrush out that court decision and act like it has not barring on the future, which is absolutely inappropriate. So, we’re going to fight that fight in Albany. The State Assembly has been very, very supportive and Speaker Heastie has been very supportive on recognizing that obligation still exists. The State of New York still owes us that support. If we got that support we would be able to provide every school in New York City with the kind of funding that would create equity among all of our schools. And we would break the pattern of the past where some schools got a lot of money while others didn’t. So, we’re going to fight that fight in Albany for sure.

But I would say on the federal front, again, there is going to be a huge backlash against the proposed $3.6 billion in cuts to education that are in the Trump budget. That backlash will happen in every kind of state. It also increasingly takes money away from traditional public schools and gives it to private schools and charter schools.

Again, the trap that President Trump is going to fall into quickly is that for most of America there is only one kind of school. It’s called the public school and people are very fiercely proud of their local public schools. They want those schools to get federal support. When they find out that the guy they voted for is taking away money from their child’s school it is going to be a whole new day.

Lehrer: I have one school’s question for you too; about high school admissions with the letters to families having come out last week. There is not much percentage change in the racial imbalance at the so-called specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. Were the changes you made to the SHSAT exam – that your education department made to little and will you now recommend more?

Mayor: I absolutely will recommend more. Yeah, there was a good faith effort Brian, but I’m fundamentally dissatisfied with the result. The fact that our specialized schools amongst our very best high schools do not reflect the population of New York City is literally unacceptable to me. It is – and something we should all be bluntly ashamed of in this City.

We are a city now that is well over 50 percent African-American, Latino. Our young people of color will be our future leaders in government and in every other part of our society. They deserve the very best training and education. They are not getting it in too many cases because the schools don’t reflect the makeup of New York City. So, we’re going to do a lot more within our power, but for reasons – again – I could only call semi colonial, Albany determines, literally the State Legislature and the Governor determine the kinds of test we can give for admissions to these specialized high schools. I think that is a travesty to begin with. I think the fact that people are getting to a life changing educational opportunity based on a single standardized test is outrageous and ridiculous. I do not believe in high stakes testing. I do not believe in using a single test as a measure. I believe in multiple measures. And the way this is structured is fundamentally unfair and literally based in all of the segregation that permeated this country for hundreds of years. So, I’m going to go and fight that in Albany this year. I have no illusions with a Republican majority in the State Senate; I doubt we will get the changes we need. But someday there will no longer be a Republican majority in the state senate and on that day I look forward to changing the law, changing the admissions to our specialized high schools and actually opening up the children of New York City across the board.

Lehrer: We’re coming to the end of our time with Mayor de Blasio for today and this week’s Ask the Mayor. Again, we appreciate Mr. Mayor you being willing to come on on Thursday instead of Friday this week to accommodate my dental work tomorrow.

Mayor: Good luck, Brian.

Lehrer: And coincidence or not – who knows – the breaking news this morning and for people who are just tuning in; just before we went on the air – in the half-an-hour before went on the air with the Mayor we got statements from both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Manhattan D.A Office. Both of which were investigating Mayor de Blasio and some of his aides with respect to fundraising around the 2013 mayoral campaign and there ongoing political work. Both offices have cleared Mayor Bill de Blasio and anyone associated with him of any illegal activity. There will be no charges. There will be no indictments against the Mayor in connection with any of this just six days after Preet Bharara left the U.S. Attorney’s Office, coincidence or not. The Manhattan D.A. report did, however, say the spirit of the law was violated and recommended that the Legislature clarify and tighten what kind of money can be given to State committees to be used for State Senate candidates. The actual candidates are not allowed to raise all that much money.

Mr. Mayor just to conclude on this, are there any changes to that law that you would recommend as a proponent of campaign finance reform, anything specific?

Mayor: I could only say this, Brian, I believe we should go to full public financing of elections on the City level, on the State level, on the federal level. I believe Citizens United should be repealed. I believe there should be an absolute requirement of disclosure of all donations to any and all political activity including independent expenditure type of activity. I think the system is fundamentally broken. And you know, if there are little tweaks around the edges that’s nice, but we’re not being serious about money in politics if we don’t get it out of politics entirely. We should just go to public financing of elections with very stringent spending limits. I mean, it’s become an arms race in political spending because of Citizens United – even before it. Presidential campaigns are costing, you know, now over a billion dollars. It is ludicrous. It is ludicrous. We should just go back in time and get big money out of politics; put serious limits on everything, total transparency, and public funding.

Lehrer: And because the Manhattan D.A. essentially accepted your defense your advice of counsel defense that you were cluing in your counsel, or he was cluing you in every step of the way on where the line was between legal and illegal fundraising for the State committees. Do you want to give your counsel a friendly wrap on the knuckles for bringing you too close to the fire?

Mayor: I have said consistently we did everything legally and appropriately. And I am very comfortable that is the whole truth and this conclusion makes that very clear.

Lehrer: Mr. Mayor, thank you so much.

Mayor: Thank you, Brian.

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