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During a virtual meeting with civil rights leaders this week, President-elect Joe Biden blamed the “Defund the Police” movement for contributing to surprising Democratic downballot losses in the November election.

Biden also warned the leaders this week that they should proceed carefully on criminal justice issues.

“I don’t think we should get too far ahead ourselves on dealing with police reform in that, because they’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police’ anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing — which I promise you, will occur. Promise you,” Biden said in a recording of the virtual meeting, obtained by The Intercept. “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable.”

Biden pledged that he would follow through on his promises in the campaign to address systemic racism, but warned about getting “too far ahead of ourselves” with critical Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.

“We can go very far. It matters how we do it. I think it matters how we do it,” Biden said.

Even as Democrats have said criminal justice reform legislation should be a priority once Biden takes office, the audio reveals how some of the civil rights leaders want Biden to use his own executive authority to take significant steps, like creating a national database of police misconduct.

Biden said there are some things he would be able to do by executive order, but — as he did often publicly throughout the campaign — said he would not go beyond what he believed his constitutional authority was.

“I am not going to violate the Constitution,” Biden said. “Where I have executive authority, I will use it to undo every single damn thing this guy’s done by executive authority. But I’m not going to exercise executive authority where it’s a question where, I can come along and say, I can do away with assault weapons. There’s no executive authority to do that. And no one has fought harder to get rid of assault weapons than me, me. You can’t do it by executive order.”

Biden was also pressed about nominations to his Cabinet, with the NAACP’s Derek Johnson warning his specifically against choosing Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary.

“Former secretary Vilsack could have disastrous impact on voters in Georgia,” he warned, raising Vilsack’s handling of controversy involving Shirley Sherrod, a former USDA official who was forced to resign over comments about working with a white farmer in leaked video that were later revealed to be taken out of context. “Shirley Sherrod is a civil rights legend, a hero,” Johnson said.

Biden simply told Johnson that he “can learn more about Vilsack’s record” before pivoting to the election in Georgia more broadly. Biden will formally introduce Vilsack as his Agriculture nominee on Friday.

The Biden transition did not dispute the authenticity of the leaked audio.

In a statement, a transition official said:

“President-elect Biden is the same person behind closed doors that he is public; honest, direct and realistic about the challenges facing our nation the day he is sworn in. As he made clear throughout the campaign, he believes in supporting bold and urgent reform to our criminal justice system while continuing to support law enforcement’s mission to keep our communities safe.”


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