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WILMINGTON, Del. — President-elect Joe Biden appeared to blame the "defund the police" movement for contributing to surprising Democratic down-ballot losses last month, telling civil rights leaders this week that they should proceed carefully on criminal justice issues.
"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 said Tuesday in a virtual meeting with civil rights leaders, according to audio excerpts posted Thursday in a podcast from The Intercept.
Biden pledged that he would follow through on his promises to address systemic racism, but he 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 civil rights leaders want Biden to use his executive authority to take significant steps, like creating a national database of police misconduct.
Biden said he would be able to do some things by executive order, but — as he often did publicly throughout the campaign — he said, "I am not going to violate the Constitution."
"Where I have executive authority, I will use it to undo every single damn thing this guy's done by executive authority," Biden said, according to the audio. "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 for his Cabinet. Derek Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, warned specifically against choosing Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary.
"Former Secretary Vilsack could have disastrous impact on voters in Georgia," he said, raising Vilsack's handling of controversy involving Shirley Sherrod, a former Agriculture Department official who was forced to resign over comments about working with a white farmer in leaked video in 2010, when Vilsack was agriculture secretary during the Obama administration. The comments were later revealed to have been taken out of context.
"Shirley Sherrod is a civil rights legend, a hero," Johnson said.
Biden told Johnson simply 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 Department nominee Friday.
The Biden transition team 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."