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Transcript: NPR's Full Interview With Joe Biden

Former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to Iowans at Johnson's Reception Hall in Elkader, Iowa.
KC McGinnis for NPR
Former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to Iowans at Johnson's Reception Hall in Elkader, Iowa.

Morning Edition host Rachel Martin interviews former Vice President Joe Biden aboard his campaign bus en route to Decorah, Iowa, about his bid for the Democratic nomination and the impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

This is the transcript of a conversation held on Dec. 6, 2019.

Rachel Martin: Mr. Vice President, thank you very much for having us.

Former Vice President Joe Biden: Well thanks for being on the bus. I appreciate it.

On the bus, very exciting. So we're in Iowa.


You have been here before.

Been here a lot.

You've been here a lot. This is the third time you have campaigned in this state for president.

Well for president, yeah. But I started off way back campaigning for Senator John Culver, when he was running in 1974. I've campaigned for a lot of Iowans.

You've been here. You've put in a lot of miles. You've got the most name recognition in Iowa right now in this race, or in the race writ large. You have the résumé. You've got the relevant experience, more so than any other candidate. Why aren't you running away with this thing? You're fourth in the polls in Iowa.

Well, you know, you sound like you know a lot about Iowa. You know, they don't make up their minds until after Thanksgiving. They really don't even do it till after Christmas. And you still have in the Iowa polling or favorable rating is still very high — it's in the 70s.

People think the most important issue, based on the polling data I've seen, I think from The Des Moines Register, don't hold me to it, but I think it was they said the most important thing, they want someone who can beat Trump.

And now we're starting to happen is because I had the most name recognition of my move right to the top in all the polling data. I got all the incoming, and they say [unintelligible] from y'all. And, and now other people are as they move, beginning to look at them as well. And so things are beginning to, you know, move differently.

But nationally, it's not changed. Nationally we've been had double digits, and we're way ahead in South Carolina as well as in Nevada, and so it's, you know, it's early.

Well, let me ask you: You recently got an endorsement from your friend, Senator John Kerry, former Secretary of State John Kerry. There are some within your party, in particular younger voters, who look to the former secretary of state and it's a warning for them for 2020 because they think about 2004. Because while John Kerry came from behind, while John Kerry came from behind to win Iowa, he still lost the presidential race.

And he was, he was the stabilizing force. He was the guy with the name recognition. He was going to right the ship after George W. Bush, who was at the time fairly unpopular. That's the liberal rap on you right now — that a moderate can't beat Donald J. Trump.

Look at all the polling data. Show me where the Democratic Party doesn't want somebody like me.

But I know you don't even like polls —

No, I say —

You can't trust the polls.

No, you can't. But you just. Just travel with me. Travel with me. Look what's happening. You know, you interview a lot of people on NPR. It's a great facility. No, I really mean it. It's one of the only ones where there's really genuine news, you constantly promote.

But look, it's like, you know, a moderate. What's moderate about my wanting to make sure everybody has health care? I just have a different view than other people do. And if you notice, the vast majority of people agree with my position on health care. They agree with my position on education. They agree with, and so the idea that there's something that, "I am moderate."

One of the things that I wish I had that label when I was running all the times for the Senate, I was a moderate because I was always rated as one of the most liberal senators in the United States Senate for all the years I was there.

But you're not nearly as progressive on health care as other candidates in the race —

Because I'm realistic. Guess what? You're going to find $33 trillion in 10 years. And not raise tax? Look, you all are beginning to be little more honest than you have been. You're looking at now and saying, OK, those of you for "Medicare for All," you're going to have to raise taxes on the middle class. You let everybody not answer that question for the longest time.

I'll ask you rhetorical question, you can't answer. Do you think it's remotely possible to raise $3.5 trillion a year, more than every single penny we spend on every single thing in the federal government on a yearly basis, without raising taxes on the middle class? If you answer that question, then I'm ending the interview because you know it's not true. You gotta raise taxes.

Now you're starting to ask these people the same questions you've asked me from the beginning. Tell me how you do it. Tell me how you pay off $1.7 trillion in student debt. Tell me how you provide community college for everyone, no matter what their income, for free.

But how do you get people excited to show up on Election Day —


For a return to the status quo before Donald Trump?

It's not the status quo before Donald Trump. It's a totally different world. Look, I promise you. Let's put it this way. Take me out of the equation.

If, in fact, someone is able to get past, in the United States Congress, a, a Obamacare with a public option that provides for a limitation of $1,000 deductible on, on, on any bills someone gets, makes everybody available to everybody who's on Medicaid, to be able to get involved free, reduces drug prices significantly, turns around and provides for early education, which I'm the only one that's laid it out clearly for everyone, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, which will fundamentally change their prospects of succeeding, gets climate change moving. What do you think they'll be talked about in five years?

What does get climate change moving? Because there are a lot of people who want revolution on that front. It's not good enough to say it's a priority. There was a recent U.N. report that came out. I'm sure you saw it. It was devastating.

Sure it's devastating. But what are they saying? I have the most progressive plan out there. Anybody who tells you they can eliminate carbon in the air by the year 2030 has no notion of the science.

Find me one scientist in the world. You guys, you guys know better than this.

So what do you do besides rejoin Paris and restore emissions standards?

Fundamentally change the way in which we approach things. For example, we're gonna make sure that we have doubling immediately the wind and solar power. We're gonna make sure, by the way; I'm the only guy who's done anything. I would, in the Recovery Act we fund $100 million, reducing the cost of making sun and, excuse me, wind and solar competitive with the price of coal. No one's going to build another coal plant in America because of the work we did in our administration. Number one.

Number two, we're gonna make sure that we continue to subsidize. When I was out here talking about wind 10 years ago, all of you were looking at me like, "What? Are you kidding? What do you mean you're going to have wind out here creating hundreds of thousands" — I mean — "millions and billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs that are good-paying jobs?"

So those are things that young people would want. Why do you think there's an enthusiasm gap?

There isn't an enthusiasm gap! What the hell are you talking about?

I'm talking about a lot of young people who say, "Joe Biden's got a lot of experience. He's been around a long time. And that's not what we want right now."

Come with me on college campuses. You don't see that. You guys keep saying that.

Well, because I talked to people who say, "I want someone from the outside." I met someone tonight at the town hall we were at —

I'm sure you have.

She said, "I want someone who can bring some outside energy because I don't think an insider can beat Donald Trump, because he is so outside the norm that the moment demands someone who is not of the establishment." What do you say to someone like that?

I say the fact of the matter is that's not the case. The case is, look, the next person we elect to be president has to be able to pass something. Name me one thing all the rest of the candidates combined have passed that's got major things done. The Violence Against Women Act. The chemical weapons ban.

It was such a different time. Do you think —

No, it's not a different time!

It's not a different time? You don't think Donald Trump has fundamentally changed how the parties talk to each other and whether or not you can cooperate?

No, no, I got that. But you still can't cooperate. Look, after he was elected, I was able to get $8, almost $9, billion passed two weeks before he got sworn in in January. You all told me it's impossible. Come on, give me a break here.

Donald Trump is the reason why you need someone who knows what they're doing. Donald Trump. Name me somebody who's going to be able to stand on the world stage and immediately command the respect of everyone in the world. Our enemies as well as our adversaries, as well as our allies. I know all these people. This is the only reason why I'm running this time is because of my experience.

Well, Barack Obama was able to do it, and he didn't have very much experience at all.

No, that's not true. Think about it. That's not true. What happened was one of the reasons Barack Obama picked me as vice president is because he lacked the background in foreign policy — he's a brilliant guy.

He knew what he wanted to do. He knew how to get it done. But notice, every time we had a problem on Capitol Hill, who went up and got it fixed? Answer the question. Who went up and got it fixed? See you're not, you know the truth.

It's not my job to answer the question

I know it's not your job to answer —

I appreciate the sentiment. You brought up the ticket.

The sentiment [laughter].

So I want to ask you about the ticket and a running mate.


And so I want to ask you about that.

Yeah. Are you available?

Because Senator Kamala Harris is no longer in the race. And that leaves the debate stage for the next debate in the Democratic primary looking very white, all the, all the people onstage will be white candidates. And that is just not, as you know, that's not representative of the party. If you are the nominee, can you commit to selecting a person of color to be on the ticket?

I have not a little tiny bit of a problem picking a person of color or a woman.

Can you commit to that?

No, I can't commit to that.

How come?

Because here's what I know about vice presidents — you have to have someone who works with you, who believes exactly like you do on the strategic notions that you support.

The reason why the historians are writing about Barack Obama and I having the closest relations of everybody is we trusted each other completely. He was able to give me entire chunks of responsibility where I didn't have to report back because he knew I knew what he was thinking.

And you can't know right now that person would be a person of color?

You can't know that. But there's plenty of people of color. There's plenty of women who are not, who haven't run. You got senators. I can think of four women senators off the bat that would be great vice presidents. I can think of some, I can think of several women who are, in fact, lost races recently who are completely capable of being vice president of the United States.

Stacey Abrams?

And look, I'm in a situation where, look at my staff. I have the most diverse staff of anybody running. I've always done that. This is who I, the country has to look like, the administration should look like the American public.

I want to switch gears and ask you —

Sure you do. [Laughter]

About what happened the other day at your town hall. Because you've got a lot of, you got a lot of attention for it. A man stood up and started throwing false allegations your way about your son, Hunter Biden, and his work in Ukraine and your work as vice president then in Ukraine. And you responded by calling him a "damn liar."

Because he lied.

And then you challenged him to pushups.

I was joking with him because he —

And then you asked him for an IQ test.

He came along. What was he saying? He said he's entitled to do this. He said, "You're too old." He said, "You're too old. I can't vote for somebody as old as you." I said OK. And he was challenging me what kind of shape, and so I kidded. I said, "Want to do a pushup contest?" I was joking. Look, I'm in pretty good shape.

Which is what Donald Trump says a lot: "Hey, you can't take a joke. I was joking."

No, no, no, no, no —

But the point —

Don't compare me to Donald Trump.

But people did. At the town hall I was just at.

No, they didn't.

Yes, they did. They said to me, the woman you met at the end, 94-year-old Mary, said to me, I was "so disappointed" in him. This is a direct quote: "That is not the Joe I know. He sounded like Donald Trump in that clip."

Well, look. What Donald Trump says, he makes fun of people. He belittles people. He lies. I don't do any of those things. Period. The fact of the matter is this guy stood up, and he was in fact lying. And I just pointed out, "You're a liar." It's a fact: He lied. Period. And so, you know, maybe I shouldn't have kidded with him about that — "No, let's do pushups." It's like I was out here in a parade, a Fourth of July parade.

But I think people's point was, in this time when you talk about needing to restore civility, it's so important to so many people.

That's not civil? To call someone who lied a liar?

To call someone a "damn liar"? A voter? This isn't Trump, President Trump.

But he's lying! He's lying. You acknowledge what he said wasn't even true. None of the mainstream media believes any of that was true.

I think it was the tone. I think it was the tone that was off-putting to people.

My mother would say, "God love you, dear."

I have to ask you about what's happening right now. President Trump is in the process of being impeached. The Senate trial is pending. Republicans have suggested that they might call you or your son, Hunter Biden. If you are subpoenaed, would you comply?

No. I'm not going to let you take the eye off the ball here. Everybody knows what this is about. This is a Trump gambit he plays. Whenever he's in trouble, he tries to find someone else to divert attention to.

But this is a real thing that's happening. Republicans are suggesting that they would subpoena you and President Trump — these issues will be parsed out in the Senate trial.

That's right.

But the question is, would you comply with the subpoena?

No, I will not yield to what everybody is looking for here. And that is to take the eye off the ball. Everybody knows the issue here is not what I did, because no one has a proved one scintilla of evidence that I did anything other than do my job for America as well as anybody could have done it. Making sure that we, in fact, got rid of a corrupt prosecutor who everybody, including our allies and including our allies as well as, as, as the IMF and everyone else said has to go. I did my job incredibly well.

And even the people in his administration have testified to my character, testified to my honesty. So why would I —

You know it didn't look good for Hunter Biden to be on that board, even if he did nothing wrong. The optics weren't good. And you talk a lot about what it means to be a Biden and the integrity that is imbued in that family name. But there were former White House aides of yours who tried to warn you about the potential conflicts of interest.

Nobody warned me about a potential conflict of interest. Nobody warned me about that. And at the same time —

George Kent, the State Department official, testified that he raised it to you, and your staff.

No, he didn't say me. He did not say me.

To your staff. To your staff, I stand corrected.

I never, never heard that once at all.

To your staff. And your staff told him he has no bandwidth for family matters.

Well, my son was dying, so I guess that's why he said it, because my son was on his deathbed. But that, that's not the reason why — they should have told me.

And the fact of the matter is, my son testified and did an interview saying if he, looking back on it, made a mistake, he made a mistake although he did nothing wrong. The appearance looked bad and it gave folks like Rudy Giuliani an excuse to come up with a Trumpian kind of defense, why they were violating the Constitution. His, his words speak for themselves.

I know that you sat down with your family before you decided to run for president this time, because I talked with your wife about it and you had a big conversation about the emotional toll that this takes every single time, but especially this time. This is your third time running for president. Why do you want this so bad?

Look, number one, I'm not sure I'd be running if Trump wasn't the president. I think the country is in such danger. I think our democracy is in danger. And it wasn't about how tough it's going to be — it was about how dirty it would be. My, we have a tradition in our family. You can call for a family meeting, not a joke. Anyone can and is taken seriously.

And I got a call from my oldest granddaughter, named after my deceased daughter. She's in law school in New York. And she said, "Pop, we want a family meeting." And I said, "Who?"

"The kids. And with you and Nana." And they came and we had a family meeting and they said, "Pop, you know, daddy would want you to run, and dad wants you to run," the two, two fathers.

And my little one, Hunter Biden, named after his uncle, but my Beau, my deceased son's child, took out his cell phone and showed me a picture of me walking out of the church, my hand on a flag-draped coffin with my son, reaching down and pulling my little grandson under his chin and whispering to him, and the caption said, "Biden molests another child." He said, "I know this is going to be ugly, Pop. I know it. But you gotta run, pop. You've got to run."

Each of my, each of my grandchildren gave examples of what they knew was going to happen. But they said, "Pop, you gotta run. You gotta run. Daddy would want you to run."

And the reason I'm running is because this man, the future of my grandchildren, if he's reelected, are gonna be marginalized in ways that I don't think anybody fully understands.

He's different than any other president. We are, we're in a battle for the soul of this country, for real, for real. And everything he's done, has done to demean people, to make fun of people, making fun of a reporter who has a physical ailment, making fun of people, talking about people in terms of, the day he announced, coming down an elevator saying, "I'm doing this because we're going to get rid of those rapist Mexicans, and we're being invaded by." Have you heard him speak out once against white supremacy?

This is absolutely a guy who is damaging us around the world. And the issues that need to be dealt with now are issues that have been in my wheelhouse my whole life. How can I walk away? I'm not joking. I'm not saying I'm a savior. But they're the issues that were in my wheelhouse my whole life.

Look. Every morning I get up, I ask myself, "Is Beau proud of me? Am I doing?" I wrote a whole book about my son, because he was so remarkable, and the title of the book is Promise Me, Dad. And it comes from an exchange we had when he knew he was dying, he knew he had months left to go. We sat at his kitchen table. We'd go home every weekend to be with him. And he said, "Dad." He asked his wife to put the kids to bed, the little kids, my two grandchildren.

He said, "Dad, I know no one loves me in the whole world more than you do. But, Dad, I'm going to be OK no matter what happens. But promise me, Dad, promise me, Dad, you're gonna be OK."

I said, "I'm gonna be fine, honey."

He said, "No, Dad. Promise me. Give me your word as a Biden. You're gonna be OK."

I knew what he meant.

He meant he was worried that I would do what my inclination was, to walk away. Not about running for president, just walk away from things I've devoted my whole life to since I've been 24 years old. Walk away. And, and I said anyway. And so this is about, this is about, you know my dad used to have an expression. He'd say it's a lucky a person gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they're about to do and thinks it still matters. It really matters. It really matters.

I get up in the morning and I know what I'm doing matters, and it gives me purpose. It gives me purpose. And I tell ya, there's such enormous opportunity that exists for the country. But you have to have some authenticity. Those same young people looking for authenticity.

You're going to stand up and say, "I'm gonna spend $34 billion, and no one's taxes are going to go up?" You're going to stand up and say, "You have to be honest with people. You have to be authentic." I may be wrong about a lot of things. That's worthy debate, to have a debate about. But I really think it's important.

And look, I've gotten more. I know all of these world leaders, even the ones that we don't like very much, like Putin. I know him. He knows I know who he is, and he knows who I am. There's no misunderstanding about who we are. And it's really important.

Think about this. If we don't figure out how to bring the world together again, reassure our allies, making sure that our, that those who are opponents know we understand what they're about and we're gonna do something about it. Where do we go? What happens in five years if this, if the president's reelected? You think there'll be a NATO? Do you think there will be national security arrangements we have with European countries? What do you think? I don't think it's possible. I think they'll be gone.

You saw, have you ever seen a time when you have a president of the United States and a group of world leaders who are our allies, making fun of the president? It's not just a national shame — it goes to, right to our security.

And so I, look, I could die a happy man never having lived in the White House and never having heard "Hail to the Chief." But as Barack would say to me, basically on which you're gonna make up your mind, I got to know when I walked away, looking in the mirror, that I walked away not because it was going to be hard, not because I didn't think I could do it, but I walked away because I didn't think it was necessary — someone else would be able to do it. We have great candidates running. They really are.

But you don't think they can do it.

I don't know what the experience is to let you know, to let people know that we can get this done.

There's going to be no time for on-the-job training. I mean really and truly, no time from the day we take office, because this president's put us in such a deep, deep, deep hole.

So, I mean, they're, they're bright. They're honorable people. But again, all the things we're talking about, none of it matters, even if you defeat Trump, unless you can pass it. You hear them, you hear anyone else talking about, until recently, unifying the country? Every time I'd be onstage talk about unifying the country, they'd make fun of me. "That was the old days. That's the way it was then. I'm going to by executive order." Executive orders are abuse of power when you don't have the constitutional authority to exercise it.

The fact of the matter is we better figure out how to get this done. And I'm confident. Look, one of the things I learned a long time ago, if you don't question a woman or a man's motive, but just question their judgment, you can still find room to reach compromise. You could still find room. And one of the things that, that I've always been taught is that you have to let people know you understand what their limitations are, what you can't ask them to do that are beyond their capacity to do and work out things from that vantage point.

That's why, you know, I think I was able to get the republic for the first time in God knows how long to raise taxes by $600 billion when we're going to shut down the government in a deal we made.

The generic point I'm trying to make is that I think that I don't, have you found many Republican senators or Republican congressmen who say that I've not been honest and level with them and that they can't work with me? And yet, look at my record. I've gotten a lot of really progressive things done. Now that doesn't mean no one else can do it.

But the reason I'm running is I think so much is at stake that these are the things that have been in my wheelhouse. What I've done my whole life. Every election requires a different set of, I think, assets for a president.

What people were looking for when Barack came along and he's brilliant, brilliant, looking about reestablishing a sense of hope and optimism. And he inherited a God awful circumstance where everything had collapsed.

But so what is it now?

What it is now, is they're looking for somebody who can actually bring the world back together and get us off this precipice. They're looking for someone who can actually get things passed.

What good does it do if we cannot reach a consensus on issues relating to health care, education, climate change, dealing with guns and assault weapons? I've done those things. Why do you think the president of the United States is spending $12 million running negative ads against somebody 60 days before, 90 days before, the start of before the first caucus and the Democratic Party? He knows. And he knows I'm coming.

Mr. Vice President, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you. Appreciate it.

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