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August 21, 2019

CAFE Insider Newsletter #37: Learning and growing from the art of discussion

Dear Reader,

Last week I caught something fairly unusual for cable television news. You probably saw it too, or at least parts of it, because it went viral as they say. I’m talking about CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s interview of Stephen Colbert. It was an extraordinary conversation about God and grief and many other things.

Colbert, you may not have known, lost his father and brothers in a plane crash when he was just a young boy. At one point, holding back tears, Cooper quotes Colbert quoting Tolkien: “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Then he asks the late-night talk show host, voice cracking, “Do you really believe that?”

Colbert pauses, smiles, and answers, “Yes. It’s a gift to exist. It’s a gift to exist. And with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.” He goes on: “If you’re grateful for your life. . . not everyone is and I’m not always, but it’s the most positive thing to do, then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”

In the age of glibness and gotcha, when every television interview seems polluted with chyrons and cutaways, here was a simple conversation between two intelligent adults, exploring questions and feelings that we all have but seldom see discussed this way. It was honest and wise and moving. It was also unhurried. I could have listened to Cooper and Colbert talk for hours.

It felt extraordinary, perhaps, because it seems so rare for television. Maybe that’s why long-form podcasts have been such a revelation for so many. In the main, they too can be intimate and unhurried.

My path to podcasting was unusual, to say the least. If you had told me five years ago that Donald Trump would become president; that he would ask to meet with me; that he would ask me to stay on as U.S. Attorney; that he would call me to chit chat every so often; that he would then fire me; and that I would then have not one but two podcasts, I’d have called you crazy.

My career has been about the science of litigation, of logic, of argument; it has not been about the art of discussion. But I have learned much about the power of simple and unrushed conversation these last two years. It is more dialogue than debate; it is more about curiosity than combat.

Tomorrow we drop the 100th episode of Stay Tuned. It seems a significant milestone and a good one for reflecting and giving thanks to the people who have talked with me and also to the people who have taken the time to listen.

I love these weekly conversations, both with Anne Milgram and also with the multitude of guests. I have been alternately moved, educated, and inspired over the scores of interviews I’ve had the privilege to conduct. Often in these discussions, I am learning along with you, discovering new information at the same time you are. I am simultaneously learning about the guest, the topic, and sometimes also about myself.

Many of my favorite moments have come when the chats wander from my preparation. I was singularly focused on quizzing one of my earliest guests, NYPD intelligence chief John Miller, about the time he interviewed Osama bin Laden as a journalist, but he first wanted to tell me about the time he ambushed Gambino crime boss John Gotti for an interview. That was unexpected and no less interesting. Another time, I was primed to ask MSNBC anchor Katy Tur about her 2016 election book, but because of our pre-taping conversation, we spent the first ten minutes discussing not political storms, but her knowledge of actual tornadoes. It is still one of my favorite pieces of new knowledge that science has yet to determine whether tornadoes originate in the sky or on the ground. I did not expect former acting CIA Director Michael Morell to answer with such glee that we would all be amazed to learn about the kinds of gadgets the CIA secretly employs, and I wasn’t anticipating organizational psychologist Adam Grant to diagnose me as a Defensive Pessimist.

I have very often been inspired, more than I expected to be. By the modesty of Robert Caro, the intelligence of Garry Kasparov, the wit of Nina Totenberg, the passion of Shannon Watts, the fiery eloquence of Steve Schmidt. I will never forget Bill Browder’s telling of the death of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Or Bryan Stevenson’s stories of redemption. Or Ken Feinberg explaining how he tried to justly compensate 9/11 victims. Or Senator Doug Jones describing how he got belated justice for four little black girls murdered in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham. Or how Steve Martin, having witnessed executions in Texas as a corrections officer, abandoned forever his support of the death penalty.

Cyrus Habib, the blind Iranian-American lieutenant governor of Washington, talked about his mother’s support during childhood. After his mom signed a waiver for the school that would allow her blind son to play with the other kids on the playground, she said, “I can fix an arm, but I can never fix a broken spirit.” I think about that.

The author Michael Lewis once explained that the character attribute he has found to be the best antidote to corruption is self-possession. I think about that often too.

I could go on and on. There are too many to mention here.

I feel wiser for having talked to such people. It has been a blessing. Thanks for listening.

My best,



*Programming note: CAFE Insider podcast is going on hiatus next week. Instead, we’re bringing you the recording of our Town Call, the conference call we held last week, where Preet answered questions from randomly selected batches of Insiders. We’re eager to roll out to this feature for everyone to participate. Let us know your thoughts by emailing us at [email protected]

The Insider podcast will observe Labor Day and be back on Tuesday, September 3rd.

If you haven’t already, listen to this week’s episode: “Prosecutor v. Prosecutor.” 

*Please note, you may now manually add your unique Insider Podcast feed to your favorite podcast app. Here are the instructions.


NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 19: New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill speaks during a press conference to announce the termination of officer Daniel Pantaleo on August 19, 2019 in New York City. Officer Pantaleo has been fired from the NYPD after his involvement in a chokehold related death of Eric Garner in 2014. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Police use of force is back in the headlines this week. On Monday, New York City Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill announced his decision to fire Officer Daniel Pantaleo for applying a chokehold in his attempt to arrest Eric Garner in 2014. An NYPD court found that the prohibited maneuver was “a significant factor in triggering an asthma attack” that killed Mr. Garner and “constituted a gross deviation from the standard of conduct established for a New York City police officer.” Commissioner O’Neill said that he agreed with the court’s findings and recommendation, saying, “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve.” But he also said this:

I served for nearly 34 years as a uniformed New York City cop before becoming Police Commissioner. I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes. And had I made those mistakes, I would have wished I had used the arrival of back-up officers to give the situation more time to make the arrest. And I would have wished that I had released my grip before it became a chokehold…
[A] man with a family lost his life – and that is an irreversible tragedy. And a hardworking police officer with a family, a man who took this job to do good – to make a difference in his home community – has now lost his chosen career. And that is a different kind of tragedy.

O’Neill’s long-awaited announcement comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s decision last month not to bring federal civil rights charges against Pantaleo. A federal investigation into Garner’s death was launched in 2014 after a local Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges, igniting protests across the country.

On July 16, 2019, just one day before the 5-year statute of limitations expired, the Justice Department announced it would not move forward with the case, ending a protracted internal disagreement. It was reported that Attorney General Bill Barr overruled attorneys within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who recommended that Pantaleo be charged and instead sided with prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. Richard Donoghue, who leads that office, said that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pantaleo “acted in willful violation of the law.”

Under a federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242, a person who is acting “under color of any law”—or under governmental authority or the pretense of authority, as police officers do—can face criminal charges for “willfully” depriving people of their civil rights, including the right to be free from being subject to excessive force. Police brutality or other misconduct can involve several constitutional rights, including the 14th Amendment right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; and the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

A 70-year-old Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Screws, vaguely interpreted the “willfulness” requirement in 18 U.S.C. § 242 to mean that a defendant, like a police officer, must have a “specific intent” to deprive the victim of a particular constitutional right. Donoghue cited this high burden of proof prosecutors must meet in explaining the Justice Department’s decision not to charge Pantaleo:

“While willfulness may be inferred from blatantly wrongful conduct, such as a gratuitous kick to the head, an officer’s mistake, fear, misperception, or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law. What all of this means is that, even if we could prove that Officer Pantaleo’s hold of Mr. Garner constituted unreasonable force, we would still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Pantaleo acted willfully.”
In response to public outrage and frustration at the rarity of police excessive use of force prosecutions, some states have pushed forward with their own plans to address the issue. On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that permits officers to use deadly force only if it’s “necessary” to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.

Until now, California police officers, like officers in most states, could use deadly force and avoid prosecution if they felt “reasonable fear” for their safety. The new law narrows the parameters for when officers are allowed to use deadly force on the job, but critics note that it fails to define when lethal force is “necessary,” leaving it to courts and juries to interpret.

As NYPD Commissioner O’Neill said during his press conference, “Cops have to make choices, sometimes very quickly, every single day. Some are split-second life-and-death choices.” Each situation presents its own difficulties and needs to be assessed on its own set of facts, making universal definitions of standards difficult.

The national attention around police killings of unarmed people has created a public perception that rather than reacting to the dangers of their job, police officers are often too quick to turn to deadly force. The New York Times reports that there’s been “a seismic shift in how the American public views criminal justice issues” and “Democratic presidential candidates have moved leftward in the proposals they are advocating in the primary race.”

Is the debate over policing in America headed in the right direction? Let us know what you think by replying to this email or writing to us at[email protected].


This week is our 100th episode of Stay Tuned! To commemorate this milestone, Michael Sandel, world-renowned political philosopher and professor at Harvard University, joins Preet for a conversation about the bedrock themes of the show: democracy, ethics, and justice. In this sneak peek at the interview, Professor Sandel explains why we shouldn’t avoid debates on morality:

We do have a tendency to try to avoid controversial moral questions or ethical disagreements in politics…It’s as if we think that we would find our way to a more tolerant society if we could just steer clear of questions of moral principle, big conceptions of justice or the common good–but I think this is a mistake. I think by trying to avoid engaging with our deepest disagreements about justice and ethics and morality and the common good, we impoverish public life. We drive ourselves further apart because we don’t cultivate the art of listening. Even where we disagree, the art of listening is an important civic art and we’re not very good at it these days.

Don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode. It drops this Thursday, August 22nd.

And join us for a live taping of Stay Tuned: Get tickets here.


Greta Thunberg is not your average teenager. This young Swede made global headlines at the tender age of 15 when she began protesting the lack of meaningful action on climate change outside the Swedish parliament. Greta is now one of the most vocal climate change activists in the world. Earlier this year, she became one of the youngest people ever to have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and TIME magazine named her as one of the world’s most influential people. Follow @GretaThunberg and be inspired!

That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

— The CAFE Team

Tamara Sepper, Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, Vinay Basti, and Aaron Dalton