June 28, 2019

Jim Clyburn

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) joins Firing Line to discuss Joe Biden’s ties to segregationist senators, and whether he plans to use his platform as an influential South Carolina Democrat to endorse ahead of his state’s key primary. Clyburn also assesses the impeachment debate within the Democratic Party, and what he says needs to happen before impeachment proceedings would begin.

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Representative Jim Clyburn, welcome back to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you so much for having me back.

You’re the Majority House Whip, the number 3 in the House of Representatives.
More than 25 years representing South Carolina’s 6th District.

Right.

There is a rift, it seems to me, in the Democratic party between the old guard and the progressive activists in the base of the Democratic party.
It is the old guard that’s in leadership…
Yeah.

…that is taking a more tempered approach to impeachment.
And even though impeachment is the galvanizing, energizing sort of policy choice of the thrust of your caucus… So, how are you gonna deliver for the Democratic electorate that swept you back into power in last November?

The vast majority of Democratic electorate right now is not in favor of impeachment.
So, Nancy Pelosi is exactly where the majority of the Democratic vote is.
Now, there are a significant number of people in our caucus who are pro-impeachment.
I understand that.
You don’t have to be unanimous, but you need to be unified.
And we’ll never be unanimous on this question, right?
We have not gotten to the point yet where we are unified on the question of impeachment, and that’s what Nancy Pelosi’s working on, and I’m pleased to help her try to get there.

Earlier this month, you actually made a bit of news saying that you believed that President Trump will eventually be impeached.

What Nancy Pelosi is trying to do and the rest of us in the House of Representatives is to develop a process by which we can efficiently move on this issue so that when we get to a vote, it would be something that she calls ‘iron-clad,’ I call ‘effective.’
And that is why we’re trying to take our times and do this right.

But it sounds like you think that the President will be impeached or at least proceedings will begin in the House at some point but just not right now.

Yes, exactly what I feel.
Oh, I remember it very well.
And he asked me ‘or,’ and it may be my fault that I did not call him on that.
He didn’t say ‘And.’
He said, ‘Looks as if you think he will be impeached or significant investigation will take place to get there,’ and I said, ‘Exactly what I think.’

You believe that an impeachment inquiry is likely to happen.

Absolutely.

Nancy Pelosi had also said, ‘Look, I don’t –‘ I’m gonna paraphrase, that she’s not necessarily in favor of impeachment, but she wants to see him in prison.

[ Laughs ]
Now, do you agree with that?

Yeah, I think Nancy was sort of getting the caucus off her back a little bit.
You know, I’m not too sure that that’s something I would say.
I won’t express what my real feelings are.

You don’t want to express what your feelings are?

I don’t want to express what my real feelings are.

So, is that a no, you don’t think he should be in prison?

No, that’s not what that is.
That’s just, uh… It’s something I don’t want to talk about.

You did say that you thought that he should be indicted for obstruction of justice.

Well, he would’ve been.
I think that is very clear from Mueller’s report.
He seems to have laid out 10, 11, maybe even 12 instances where obstruction of justice could be considered.
He made it very clear in his press conference that they could not get to a point of saying that President Trump was not guilty of committing the crime.
And he says, ‘If he could have absolved him, we would have.’
And the mere fact that he couldn’t have means that they could not get to where they wanted to be.

If you believe that, then why not pursue impeachment?

When the time comes, maybe that’s what we’ll do.
But all I’m saying is, maybe we’ll get there.
We’re not there yet.
And I’ve been saying ‘not there yet’ for a long, long time.

Does this move the needle on the impeachment debate?
Let’s take a look.

If somebody called from a country — Norway — ‘We have information on your opponent.’
‘Oh.’
I think I’d want to hear it.

Do you want that kind of interference in our elections?

It’s not an interference.
They have information.
I think I’d take it.

What’s new about that?
There’s nothing new about that.
We know he would.
Because he has.
You always tell what a person will do by what he has done.

Do you think that impeachment is the best process to hold the President accountable?

I don’t know about the best, but I think it is process if it’s determined that the president will not respond to results of investigations, seem to stonewall everything, then that might be where you need to go, but we’re not there yet.

But what about accountability at the ballot box?

Well, that’s always the best way — for the people to do it.
But that’s not the only way for Congress to do it.

Do you worry that the political circus that could be created by impeachment hearings, not dissimilarly from the 1998 spectacle that the House Republicans created, which ultimately helped President Bill Clinton and didn’t result in his conviction in the Senate — is that on your mind as you think through how impeachment could play out politically, in terms of President Trump’s re-election?

Believe it or not, that’s not what is on my mind.
The Nixon process is on my mind.
We never got to impeachment with Nixon.
Nixon denied everything right up to the day.
The public was not for impeachment.
It was not until Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the tapes did the country come around and the Congress came around, so much so, too, the President came around, and we didn’t have to go to impeachment.
That’s what we’re doing.
We’re doing investigations, you’re gonna have hearings.
Nobody knows what will come out of these hearings.
And if we can have a process that will save the country the divisiveness of impeachment, we ought to pursue it, and that’s what we are trying to do.

Getting to some of the issues that you deal with in your caucus, especially in the context of the 2017 Charlottesville marches, one of the things the country witnessed is the intersection of a resurgent white nationalism and racism and Neo-Nazism and its confluence of anti-Semitism.
And I wonder if you have any reflections on the rise of both of those forces in American politics.

Yes, I do.
I’ve studied history.
I keep two books at my bedside.
One is a Bible, which I read for historical references, and the other is McCullough’s book on Truman.
I studied those two books a lot.
And I could see that this country was reaching a point where we could find ourselves where we are today.
I said before the elections, the last elections, I could see divisions developing in this country, the so-called turning the clock back, people reacting to the Obama presidency, the same way they reacted to the Emancipation Proclamation, the same way people reacted to Brown v. Board of Education.
So, I just felt strongly that this country was gonna react to Barack Obama’s presidency the way it has.

And then, another one of the forces that was imbued in Charlottesville was anti-Semitism.

Absolutely.

It was married with this Neo-Nazism and this racism towards African-Americans.
What are your reflections, and what do you think about the rise of anti-Semitism, especially as it’s come up in the normal course of business in the Congress?

I feel about it the same way I feel about the white supremacists on every level.

Why is it resurgent?

Well, because this country is moving back into a position that it was back in the late 1920s.
Remember, this whole stuff, the Ku Klux Klan and all of that, this is late in the ’20s with that resurgence.
Woodrow Wilson’s presidency laid a foundation for that.
And so while that was going on in this country, the same thing was going on over in Europe.
And you had the things going on that’s going on in Europe now.
These things don’t happen in isolation.
And so, I’ve told people Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, these things — I can see them coming.
And so it was no surprise to me that we are where we are.
If we fail to learn the lessons of our history, we’re bound to repeat them.
And it looks like we have not learned those lessons.
And so we are now repeating it.
That’s what is strange to me.
We’re too intelligent for that.

How do you advocate that members of the caucus talk about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship?

I think we ought to talk about it in the way that we talk about any other aspect of our religion.
We are the products of a Judeo-Christian society, and then we ought to live by it.
And we have to reconcile some of those things if we are going to function, going forward.
And so, I know that even within my caucus, most of us are for a two-state resolution.
And there are people in the caucus…
Who are not.

…are not necessarily for…
They’re not.

…a two-state —
But that’s new.

That’s new.

That is new. Why?

Well, we all are the product of our experiences.
That’s why my book, ‘Blessed Experiences,’ I named it that because I say that all of my experiences have not been pleasant, but I’ve considered all them to be blessers.

I remember that’s also what you said about Ilhan Omar’s experience.

Yes.

You said that she is the product of her experiences.

All of us are.
You can’t be any more than what your experiences allow you to be.

Right.
But you still also can’t support anti-Semitic tropes and sort of racist statements or —
No, you can’t, and I don’t.

Along with being 25 years now serving in the House of Representatives, you have become a — almost a kingmaker every four years when Democratic politicians come to South Carolina for your state’s primary.
What happened when Bill Clinton called you a bastard?

Nothing happened.

What was that about?

Well, uh, it was because he thought I had put my thumb on the scales a little bit when his wife lost the South Carolina primary to Barack Obama.
But I told everybody back then, and I’ll repeat it — Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary the night that he won the Iowa caucus.
That is something that foretold what was gonna happen in South Carolina.

Is it because he became viable in that moment?

Yes, absolutely.
Absolutely.
He was running a great campaign.
There was something about him that was very attractive to people.
And this is long before Iowa.
So I could tell the way people interacted with him that if he were to do well in Iowa, he was gonna do well in South Carolina.
But he won Iowa.

So, what did you say back to Bill Clinton?

Well, I told him I thought — I hated that he felt that way.
But we yelled at each other to such an extent — it was 2:30 in the morning — it woke my wife up.

It was a truly heated exchange.

Yes, yeah.
Absolutely, it was.
Yeah.
He called me back two weeks later and apologized.
And I accepted.

Meanwhile, Jim Clyburn’s famous — world-famous fish fry is a moment where all the Democratic candidates in the 2020 race make their case to South Carolina primary voters.
There is word on the street that you’re not going to endorse a 2020 candidate but that your sympathies are with Joe Biden.
Is that true?

Well, Joe and I are friends.
Tim Ryan and I are friends.
I’m also friends with Cory Booker.
I’m co-sponsoring legislation with Bernie Sanders.
I’m working on legislation with Elizabeth Warren.
So, I have relationships —
Elizabeth Warren, legislation on forgiving student debt.

Absolutely.
And so, I have these relationships with a lot of people.
But Joe Biden — I’ve known Joe a long, long time.
I don’t walk away from that relationship because I bring somebody else into my space.

Why do you think that Joe Biden is so far and ahead above everybody else in the polls, even in South Carolina?

I think people forget that Joe Biden had a long relationship with James Strom Thurmond, the long-serving United States Senator from South Carolina and a Republican.
He had the same kind of relationship with Fritz Hollings.
Fritz Hollings is the guy that went up to Delaware, talked to him, and got him to stay in the United States Senate when his wife — his first wife and daughter were killed in the automobile accident.
Now, both of those people had Joe Biden delivering the eulogy at their funerals.
At their requests.
That’s the kind of relationship he’s had with South Carolinians for a long, long time.
And so that explains it.

But does Joe Biden’s support from Strom Thurmond help him with Democratic African-American voters in South Carolina?

No, but it’s so with Fritz Hollings and maybe Jim Clyburn.

Of course, when you’ve been in politics as long as Joe Biden has, certainly there are going to be, as we’ve discussed, issues that come and go and that seemed maybe progressive at the time or acceptable at the time and are less acceptable as time goes by.
Another one of these is his support in the mid ’70s… He was against sending white children to majority-black schools in Delaware.
And he called the desegregation plan racist.
Does his position on busing stand the test of time?

Well, this may surprise you, but busing was a very contentious issue.
My wife and I had the first serious disagreement over the question of busing.
I thought that busing, that plan, put too much burden on the students.
And I spoke out against that.
My wife, that evening, took me to the wood shed, and she reminded me of the fact that when she was a student in Berkeley County, South Carolina, she walked 2 1/2 miles to school in the mornings and 2 1/2 miles back home every afternoon when the white kids had buses and they didn’t.
And she told me on that occasion, ‘They were not against busing then, and you best not be against busing now.’
Well, I realized that my experiences were different from hers.
Those experiences dictated how I felt.
Now, Joe Biden, you’ll have to ask him what his experiences were and why he felt the way he did.
I don’t know what Joe’s experiences were or what was going on in Delaware, but I know what was going on in South Carolina.
And what was going on in South Carolina I thought was unfair, but my wife set me straight.

From that moment in American history, how do you think about reparations?

I say to people that the big mistake all of us make with reparations is monetizing it.
The moment you say ‘reparations,’ people start thinking money.
Reparations, the root word of which is ‘repair’ — it means to repair what may be a fault.
You can repair it by funding — targeting resources into these communities.
You can repair it by funding historical black colleges and universities that bring these young people off the sea islands and set them straight for success.
We could make a very comprehensive reparations approach and not spend all our time arguing about the money, ’cause you would never be able to monetize this in any fair way.
So, my thing is, let’s make the repairs that are necessary, and let’s put forth programs that are going to repair the fault that had developed out of slavery.

Do you think that’s gonna have to be the starting pitch of every 2020 candidate on the Democratic side when it comes to reparations, at least demonstrating and standing for an exploration of how to commit a repair to the African-American community?

I think they should.
I think they should.
I don’t know if they are doing it.
I remember two candidates, the moment it came up, they started talking about money.
And that is where you — you just reach of point of no return.
You devolve into a discussion that you can’t dig out of.

In 1992, you were first on this program with William F. Buckley Jr. and debated him about whether African-Americans should be aligned with the Republican party or the Democratic party.
Let’s take a look.

You know, what strikes me about the argument is that it’s not that different from the argument Donald Trump is making to African-Americans, as well.
He’s saying, ‘This economy is growing, people’s wages are growing.
This is an argument for African-Americans to support Republicans.’
Why are they wrong?

Well, he’s dead wrong.
Why is the gap getting wider?
Why is the wealth gap getting wider every day?
Why is the education gap getting wider every day?
While he is talking about the economy that works for Wall Street, they are devastated for Main Street.
He just passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut that 85% of the benefit, which goes to the upper 1%. And I just found myself paying four times as much taxes as I paid last year under this new tax bill.
And I’ve run across schoolteachers who are telling me, for the first time, they had to pay taxes.
Come on.
The President is way off base on these policies.
He doesn’t tell the truth about anything else, so I wouldn’t expect him to tell the truth about these policies.

How about his argument that the First Step Act, which was a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill which he signed, Donald Trump argues that that is gonna help African-American communities and Hispanic communities, as well.
Do you think the First Step Act is a good piece of policy?

A good first step.
But if you stop with the first step and don’t take the second step, third step, you ain’t walking.

So, are you giving the President credit?

I’ll give him credit for First Step.
Absolutely.
I would love to give him credit for a second step and third step.

Yeah.

Absolutely.

Do you see the value in infusing competition into education in order to allow families the ability to choose where to send their children to school if their children are stuck in a failing school?

You fix the failing school.
You don’t gut the school, take resources out of the district and say you’re fixing the school.
Now, you’re talking to a former public-school teacher who taught in a lower-income school.
And I know of the dreams and aspirations of these young people who come out of homes where they don’t get breakfast in the morning, who come to school two hours after mom and dad have gone off to work.

But why haven’t we been able to fix the failing schools sufficiently?

You can fix that if you would be honest about what the problem is.

Which is what?

The problem is, we do not undergird this system, the communities that give rise to the schools.

You have been a community leader.
You participate in a bowling league.
You participate in a lot of organizations that are not governmental organizations, they’re community organizations.

Sure.

And I wonder, you know, how much of the solution for fixing communities is direct government assistance to communities versus the building up of these mediating institutions in our communities, like the bowling leagues, like the Boys and Girls Clubs, like the Girl Scouts?

A whole lot of it.
You do a much more effective job teaching the children if you teach from their experiences.
And so that is where get this thing all wrong.
If we spend more time dealing with these communities, we will get a much better product out of these schools.

You’ve talked about striving for equity rather than equality.

Yes.

What do you mean by that?

I have three daughters.
They think differently.
I deal with them differently.

So, how does that apply to public policy?

Because public policy means to be able to treat communities according to their needs.
Treat people according to their needs, not equally.
If I give you the same thing I gave this underachieving child who is pour and don’t have the background, giving y’all the same thing.
That’s equal.
But your needs are not the same.

I wonder if, at what point, you will choose to endorse a candidate into the 2020 race?
Will it be better the DNC convention?

Oh, by that time, you’ll have a nominee.
I won’t have to.

Will it be before the South Carolina race?

If I do, it’ll be before the primary.

All right, Representative Clyburn, thank you very much for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you very much.
Very good.