CNN’s Van Jones Is Not Going to Apologize for Complimenting Trump: ‘I’m Proud of It’
The political commentator and host of ‘The Van Jones Show’ talks to Marlow Stern about his new series ‘The Redemption Project,’ taking heat from liberals, and much more.
“This is not true crime,” says Van Jones. “This is about the truth after the crime.”
The ex-Obama official turned CNN personality is discussing The Redemption Project, an original series that “seeks to heal the harm caused by crime” by uniting victims and/or surviving family members with criminal offenders. Hosted by Jones, the 8-part show debuted Sunday night at 9 p.m. on CNN—the slot formerly occupied by the late, great Anthony Bourdain.
“That’s sacred ground here, so for CNN to give these kinds of stories that kind of position is really powerful—and it’s historic,” offers Jones.
I’m seated across from Jones inside CNN’s not-so-bustling newsroom. The reason for the relative quiet is they’re currently in the process of moving from Columbus Circle’s Time Warner Center, where we are, to the new Hudson Yards complex about thirty blocks south. Most of the desks are barren, with orange moving crates by their sides.
In addition to his myriad CNN duties, Jones is an ardent activist presiding over several non-profit organizations—#YesWeCode, which teaches at-risk children to code; Green for All, that pushes for a greener economy; REFORM Alliance, aiming to fix the U.S. criminal justice system; and #cut50, a bipartisan initiative for criminal justice reform. Jones’ work with #cut50—and, along with Kim Kardashian, personal lobbying of Trump—played a substantial role in the recent passage of the First Step Act, which seeks to reduce sentencing and recidivism by, in part, providing time credits for educational and job-training programs completed behind bars.
Jones is a star at CNN—and, dare I say it, even more handsome in person. He also has plenty he’d like to get off his chest.
How did you arrive on the premise for The Redemption Project? Because it is very unique—and certainly a difficult one to navigate.
I think a lot of people don’t know I’ve spent 25 years of my life working on criminal-justice issues, in and out of prisons, and I’ve discovered that there are some real diamonds behind those walls—people who may have gone to prison with a bad attitude but often, in spite of the prison conditions and not because of them, can transform. I’ve met people behind bars who are wiser, stronger, smarter and with more character than 99 percent of people I’ve met not behind bars. I’ve always wanted to figure out how to let some of those diamonds shine publicly, because you’ve never seen that. Then I started noticing how the culture itself has become so toxic and negative, and it’s no longer “trendy” or “cool” to have empathy, compassion, grace, forgiveness, none of that. It’s trendy to be part of the “call-out” culture, the “cancel” culture, the “I’m gonna block you” culture, and to me that’s poison—and you can’t live that way. So I was trying to figure out a way to put some medicine into what I think is a very sick system.
And how did you land on the format?
I knew this guy Jason Cohen—an Oscar-nominated director for a film [Facing Fear] about a former U.S. neo-Nazi who reconciled with one of the victims of his voice—and I said, “Why don’t we take that concept even broader.” And so we found eight people who’ve done really bad things years ago and who want to make amends, who want to atone. We talked to them, got their backstory, then we talked to the people they hurt and got their backstory. Then we simply film them talking to each other face-to-face for the first time—with a facilitator, to keep it kosher.
That has the potential to be explosive.
I would say, “Don’t try this at home,” because the facilitator worked with them both for sometimes weeks, sometimes months ahead of time to make sure that when they got there, it was constructive. What we captured on film was really powerful. Since it’s never been done before, nobody’s play-acting; every word that’s uttered in all eight episodes is the authentic voice of someone who’s trying to find a voice out of hell—because the people that are in prison are in a kind of hell, and the people who are survivors of crime live in their own emotional hell for years and decades with unanswered questions.
Somebody said to me, “Why would anyone want to sit down and talk to someone who murdered their family member?” and I say, “Because, even after the verdict comes down and that person’s led away in handcuffs, you still don’t know what actually happened. All you know is the court proceedings.” So you have so many unanswered questions, and to get the opportunity to hear it from the horse’s mouth can be a step toward healing. Now, of the eight, two of them do not end in a warm-and-fuzzy place. But three of the eight, the survivors actually go and help get the person out of prison. So you have the full range of human response. I just think we have to start giving people a path back culturally.
So you think there’s a growing empathy gap nowadays. What do you think is causing that gap to widen?
And it’s getting worse and worse. [Taps on phone] Devices.
The cloak of anonymity that social media gives people?
All of that. First of all, people say stuff about me on Twitter that they’d never say to my face. When I DM them they’re all apologetic. Also, we think we’re programming these phones? These phones are programming us. The minute you like a couple things, swipe a couple things, share a couple things, the algorithm knows what you like, and they just start feeding you only things that you like. And you’re in the bubble. So something happens that you don’t like and you say, “Well, I’m just gonna cancel you.” I think we’ve gotten a lot of data and very little wisdom in the culture, and that’s very dangerous. This show tries to seek some wisdom.
It’s interesting timing because there’s this debate raging right now between some of the Dem candidates about letting criminals vote. Where do you fall in that debate? The Dems have fallen into different camps, with Bernie saying all criminals—even those still in prison—should be allowed to vote, while Buttigieg opposed felons voting from prison. And then some brought up how they wouldn’t want people like the Boston bomber to vote.
I think the right to vote is a fundamental human right so everyone should be allowed to vote. That doesn’t mean everyone should be allowed to wander on the streets, but everyone should be allowed to vote. Ninety-five percent of people in prison come out, and I would rather see them have a reason to keep up with current events and consider themselves to be a part of society. And by the way, something that nobody’s pointed out—not even Bernie: the census count to determine who goes to Congress includes prisoners. So you take poor black and brown people out of blue cities, put them in prisons in red counties, and those human beings count toward representation in those red counties but you’re not allowing them to vote. You’re inflating the value of the vote for white folks in red districts where there’s a prison. They get an extra congressperson but those people don’t get a vote! If you don’t want those people to vote then quit counting them in the census!
I wanted to speak with you too about the current administration’s record. You got some flack for saying they’ve done a “great” job on criminal justice reform.
I’ll say it again now if you want me to!
I’m curious why you said that, because while the First Step Act is a big step, when we talk about this administration’s track record on criminal justice reform it’s hard to divorce that from what’s going on at the border, when you talk about imprisoning families—including young children.
That’s immigration—that’s not criminal justice.
It’s still a criminal justice issue though—these are immigrants being thrown into mainly private prisons.
No, it’s not—it’s immigration, from a legal point of view.
But it’s a criminal justice issue, you see what I’m getting at? It’s hard to divorce that from the Trump administration’s record on criminal justice.
I’ve done nothing but attack the Trump administration on their deplorable, despicable human-rights catastrophe on immigration—repeatedly, loudly, over and over again.
Right but these immigrants are being thrown in private prisons, and the Trump administration’s been the biggest boon for the private prison industry since ever. Obviously Obama cut off private prisons at the knees before he left office but that order was rescinded, and one year after Trump was elected president private prison stocks were up 100 percent. So when you factor in everything…
Right. Even the day he was elected they started going up.
And the First Step Act was a big first step, but the Trump administration only sought to dedicate $14 million for it in the 2020 budget, which really isn’t much.
Well now, you know just enough to be dangerous but not enough to know what you’re talking about on this. Look at what I actually said—not the liberal freak-out reaction to what I said—which is, if you point out one positive thing that the Trump administration did, people will say, well what about the 97 bad things they did? By the way, I’m on record on those 97,000 bad things that they’ve done! Every night on CNN, over and over and over again! But they were right on the legislative side of criminal justice. And if you’re not willing to be as loud when they’re right as you are when they’re wrong, then I think you have zero credibility. And what I’m seeing now is people are saying, if you’re the referee, because they had 14 fouls even when they make the shot you have to call it a foul.
But they’re fouled out of the game at that point.
I’m just saying, the bench players that are still on the court. So I refuse to back down on this. Every time they do something right, I’m going to scream, holler and cheer; and every time they do something wrong, I’m going to scream, holler and boo. And if you look at my record, 99 percent of the time I’m booing. But I am not going to be a part of this Trump-derangement syndrome that says you have to boo them even when they’re right because they’ve been wrong.
You think there’s “Trump-derangement syndrome?” That’s a pretty loaded term.
I live with it. There is a section, not everybody. Look, those of us who are opponents of Trump and Trumpism are right to be upset about all the stuff that we see. And listen, if we tried to do an interview on everything that’s wrong we’d be here until the sun came up—including transgender people being thrown out of the military when Trump wouldn’t even serve—I mean, it’s just outrageous. But you cannot have credibility if a kid turns in their homework and you say, “Well, you missed nine out of ten so I’m going to actually give you a demerit for the one you got right.”
I think for some people it’s an issue of motive: Where is this coming from? Why did he pass it, given his history? For instance, there’s this Central Park Five movie coming out…
…I’m not going to sit here and defend Trump. Why are we doing this? This has nothing to do with it.
I’m just saying that I think that’s why some people are skeptical when Trump does something like the First Step Act. They ask, “Why is he doing this?” And it may be to court the black vote, because right after that Kim Kardashian meeting in the Oval Office, where she worked to free Alice Marie Johnson, Trump reportedly told her that she was boosting his popularity with black voters. So when people are reluctant to compliment Trump over things like the First Step Act, I think they’re skeptical of his motive. But I understand that sometimes the end can justify the means.
It turns out that sometimes some politicians do things for political reasons. If we’re gonna freak out about that, then we can’t engage with any politician. So part of why I won’t back down is, we can’t lower our own standards on the left. We are fact-based. We are fairness first. And if we start going in a different direction just because our opponents have, then where is the hope? So being fact-based and fairness first means, even the team you hate, even the team that’s been cheating, if they score a proper goal, you give them the credit and you give them the applause for doing it the right way—and that doesn’t mean that the next 15 things they do aren’t wrong. What I observed was, my insistence on encouraging the good wherever I can find it then gets reinterpreted as an apology for the things that I’ve denounced louder than the people who are criticizing me. That doesn’t make any sense!
I’ve watched you a lot on CNN, and I think you do a fine job on there. One thing I really took issue with, however, was the “he became president in that moment” line following Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress.
I’m proud of that one too.
You really are? You don’t want to take that one back?
No. I’m proud of it.
So during that speech, you don’t think that whole spiel he gave on “illegal immigrants,” and having the parents of people killed by “illegal immigrants” there, was dog-whistling?
That wasn’t what that was.
You thought it was genuine empathy he was showing for those people?
No, no. You should go back and play it—and also play the other eleven minutes where, I literally attack him for ten minutes and I say one positive thing and we’re still talking about it two years later. This is what I’m saying. Like, you’re talking about somebody who literally in the past 18 months has helped to pass 18 criminal justice bills in 10 states; helped to pass the First Step Act—25,000 people this year alone will have shorter sentences than they would have, 4,000 will come home; and we’re talking about tweets and comments on CNN.
I thought that was a big thing, though, where a lot of your fans—myself included—were like, what’s that about?
It was two years ago.
I understand. I’m curious though about my earlier question—why you still stand by it.
I’m proud of it. First of all, it wasn’t about an undocumented person killing someone. That wasn’t what that was. Eleven minutes—ten minutes attacking him for what he did wrong in the speech, one minute praising him for what he did right in the speech. And we’re having the same conversation we just had. So I’m gonna be done with this and talk about something else. This line of questioning is why I’m doing The Redemption Project, because two years later, you’re talking to the only person in this building who’s passed not one, not two, but 18 bills—bipartisan, to help lots of people—but we’re not talking about that. I’m the only person in this building who founded not one, but two social justice organizations. But we’re not talking about that. We’re not talking about deeds, or achievements.
I only asked you a couple questions about the CNN comments—and they were comments that made headlines and attracted a lot of criticism, so I wanted to hear your side of it.
Well, what I’ll say about that is, it’s very simple: when Trump walked in that night, he was a president of the United States walking into Congress for the first time. He turns in one direction and is only shaking hands in one direction. Why? Because the Democrats won’t even go and shake his hand, because they knew—and were not wrong—that if they were caught in a picture shaking hands with Donald Trump at that point…
Political death. Who do I blame for that? Donald Trump, and how he’s conducted himself. But as an American watching that, that was as shocking as anything I’ve seen in the formal ceremonies of American life. I thought, “We’re so broken that they won’t even shake his hand”—and they probably shouldn’t. And then he goes up there and starts giving his speech. And at no point during the speech do Democrats even feel comfortable clapping. So I said to David Axelrod, “This guy has lost the country. As far as I’m concerned, you can eulogize the presidency right now. When you can’t even get the opposing party to shake your hand, there’s something really, really wrong.” And then he found a spot in the speech where he was actually able to do something that presidents are supposed to be able to do, which is to bring some kind of unity—some kind of unity—to the country, and get everyone in accord about something. And I said, “That was the moment.”
And then twelve hours later—tweet, tweet, tweet.
Fine. So what? You’re doing live television and you’re trying to be honest about what you’re seeing, and call it fair. I’m happy, and proud of it, and would do it again. I can’t lower my standards to deal with everybody’s freak-out. I’m a progressive—facts first, fairness first. I don’t care if you’re my worst enemy—if you say something that is true, I’m going to say it’s true. Once we start saying, “Well, you said it was true but because you’re a Republican you probably didn’t mean it so I’m going to give you a demerit anyway,” now I’m just like them.
I think your ability to compliment the Trump administration is, in a sense, a testament to your objectivity because you’re someone who should have a serious ax to grind against some of these people—especially Mike Pence, who helped run a smear campaign against you to get you booted out of the Obama administration.
Don’t stop with them! Jared Kushner, the first thing he does when his father-in-law gets elected, is he calls two doors down to Jeff Zucker and says, “Fire Van Jones and fire Ana Navarro.” And who did I work with to get the First Step Act passed? Jared Kushner. Who am I standing next to when Trump signs the bill? Mike Pence. Who wrote the check to Americans for Prosperity to build a dossier to get me out? Mark Holden and Koch Industries. Who’s standing on the other side of me when Trump signs the bill? Mark Holden. I’m literally standing there with Mark Holden, Mike Pence, and Jared Kushner while Donald Trump signs the bill and hands me the pen. Why? Because I don’t care about all this bullshit. I’m just trying to get people out of prison.
Kushner stepping in and trying to get you and Ana Navarro fired from CNN is a pretty crazy thing to do.
He gave me job security for life! [Laughs]
But I wanted to talk about the 2016 audit. Last month, I was down at SXSW where Jeff Zucker spoke about what happened during the 2016 election on CNN, and he had some regrets. You were in that tornado every night—along with Ana Navarro and David Axelrod—sometimes going up against three or four Trump surrogates like Kayleigh McEnany, Jeffrey Lord, and all these people who’ve since been jettisoned from the network. But I’m curious how you feel CNN handled the 2016 election? Because it felt at times like it devolved into a cafeteria-food-fight situation.
I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s talk about my show! Let’s talk about what CNN’s going to do in 2019.
Well, because we’ve got an election coming up in 2020, so I’m curious if you have any insight into how that went, and what can be done differently the next time around.
I think in 2019 we can watch my show, The Redemption Project, Sundays at 9 o’clock. It’s Anthony Bourdain’s slot and that’s sacred ground here, so for CNN to give these kinds of stories that kind of position is really powerful—and it’s historic. There’s something happening. I’m going to stop doing these interviews because everybody wants to talk about this other stuff, and I’m telling you man, people are missing it. They’re so caught up in, “Somebody said something nice about Trump!” “But Trump’s a bad person!” Like, really? We can have that conversation for another four or five years if you want to, but here’s what we’re missing.