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Bernie Sanders on Iran, health care and Democratic electability

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on Tuesday that he doubts the Trump administration’s rationale for why the U.S. killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a targeted strike.

The White House and top officials claim that evidence of an imminent national security threat motivated the president’s controversial decision to target Soleimani in a drone strike Friday.

“We haven’t seen that evidence. Frankly, I doubt that evidence is there,” Sanders said in an interview with PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff. He compared President Donald Trump’s messaging on Iran to the George W. Bush administration’s justification leading up to the Iraq War in 2003, which Sanders strongly opposed.

“A war with Iran would likely be even worse,” he said, adding that he will push for the U.S. to solve international disputes diplomatically “in this instance and in other instances.”

The strike on Soleimani has drawn criticism from some lawmakers and national security experts who argue the move has pushed the U.S. to the brink of war with Iran. Some Republican members of Congress have applauded the killing as a necessary move.

On Tuesday night, the Pentagon confirmed that Iranian forces had fired missiles at two Iraqi air bases where U.S. troops were housed.

When asked whether he thought Trump had committed a war crime by killing Soleimani, Sanders responded that killing top officials of a foreign government sends a message to countries throughout the world that the U.S. could do something similar again.

“I think the world and this country is sick and tired of endless wars that have cost us trillions of dollars while our infrastructure is collapsing, our health care system is dysfunctional,” he said, adding that instead, “We have to deal with climate change and invest heavily in transforming our energy system.”

More highlights from the interview:

  • On withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq: Sanders reiterated his belief that the U.S. should withdraw troops from Iraq, but said the U.S. should “bring them out in a measured, intelligent way, working with the Iraqi government and our international allies.” But in response to a vote by the Iraqi parliament this week to oust U.S. troops, Sanders told the NewsHour that “it’s a sad state of affairs to see — after all of the sacrifice — to see our troops booted out of the country.”
  • On potential job losses that could result from his ‘Medicare for All’ plan: Sanders has acknowledged that a significant job market shift would take place if the U.S. transitioned to his Medicare for All proposal. He said, however, that the program would create more jobs than it plans to cut, as well as provide job training for other necessary medical services. “We have enormous administrative waste. We have all kinds of people in the bureaucracy administering thousands of separate health insurance plans,” Sanders said. “We need more doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors.”
  • On former Vice President Joe Biden’s electability in 2020: Sanders has previously commented that Biden brings political “baggage” into the presidential race that could hinder his ability to beat Trump. Among other reasons, Sanders cites Biden’s vote to go to war with Iraq and what the senator sees as lacking voters’ enthusiasm. “To beat Trump, you’re going to need a massive voter turnout,” Sanders said. “The only way you do that is through a campaign of energy, of excitement. You have to bring working people, you have to bring young people into the political process. … I just don’t think the Biden campaign can create the energy and excitement we need.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Democratic presidential candidates have been speaking about Iran as they seek to contrast their foreign policy visions against that of the current commander in chief.

    In New York City, former Vice President Joe Biden said President Trump's decision to strike out at Qasem Soleimani was dangerously incompetent.

  • Joseph Biden:

    So the question is, was the reward of removing a bad actor worth the risk of what comes next? We don't have evidence to suggest that Trump or anyone around him thought serious about — seriously about that calculus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, in an interview with ABC today, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren expressed again her own doubt that the president made the right move.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    He is part of a group that our federal government has designated as a terrorist. The question, though, is, what's the right response? And the response that Donald Trump has picked is the most incendiary and has moved us right to the edge of war.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And joining us now from Burlington to discuss the Soleimani attack and more, Democratic presidential candidate and independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders.

    Senator Sanders, thank you very much for being with us again.

    Let me ask you first about Iran. You have criticized President Trump for targeting, the killing of General Soleimani. You called it an assassination.

    But if the administration is able to produce hard evidence that he was going to attack Americans, would you then say this was justified?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Well, that's a hypothesis. We haven't seen that evidence. Frankly, I doubt that evidence is there.

    Judy, I — what is going on right now feels to me exactly what I saw in 2002 and 2003. And that was the lead-up and the justification for the war in Iraq.

    I opposed that war vigorously, and it turned out to be one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the history of the United States. A war with Iran would likely be even worse.

    So, I will do all that I can to make sure that, in this instance and in other instances, we solve international conflict diplomatically, and that we try to put an end to endless wars.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, you have said that this was in violation of international law. So, does that mean you believe President Trump has violated — has committed a war crime?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    Look, when you go around assassinating leadership in governments, you are setting a precedent which says to any country on Earth, hey, all we got to do is name these people terrorists, call them what you want, and we can assassinate them.

    I think the world and this country is sick and tired of endless wars that have cost us trillions of dollars, while our infrastructure is collapsing, our health care system is dysfunctional. We have to deal with climate change and invest heavily in transforming our energy system.

    Judy, in my view, we do not need to spend trillions of dollars more in a war.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, on Iraq, you have called previously for removing U.S. troops from Iraq.

    As you know, the Iraqi Parliament has said U.S. troops should leave. Would you, as president, have U.S. troops pulled out?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    Look, I want U.S. troops out of Iraq. I have wanted that for a long time. But you bring them out in a measured, intelligent way, working with the Iraqi government and with our international allies.

    What's happened here, after the loss of 4,500 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, trillions of dollars, essentially, we are being booted out of Iraq.

    So, do I want to end the war there in Iraq and bring American troops home? Absolutely. That is what I will do as president.

    But I don't — it's a sad state of affairs to see, after all of this sacrifice, to see our troops booted out of the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, a couple of questions on domestic policy.

    There are polls now that show most voters would prepare to build on Obamacare, rather than go to a single-payer system, which is what you advocate.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    Well, depending on the poll that you look out.

    The vast majority of people in the Democratic primaries absolutely support a Medicare for all, single-payer system, because they understand that, when we are spending twice as much per capita as the people of any other country, and yet 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured, 500,000 people go bankrupt because of medically related bills, all at the same time as the health care industry and the drug companies made $100 billion in profit last year, people understand this system has got to change.

    And my own view is that, after 100 years of talk in this country about the need to guarantee health care for all, now is the time to take on the greed and corruption of the drug companies and the insurance companies, expand Medicare, and provide a Medicare for all, single-payer system for all.

    It will cost the average American substantially less than what he or she is paying today. That is the direction we have got to go in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, in connection with that, Senator, you recently acknowledged that a lot of people would lose jobs in a transition to Medicare for all.

    You talked just recently about a program to provide jobs, to provide job training to people who lose their jobs under the program. Are you guaranteeing that people who lose their jobs under this new system would have a job?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    We have built in a very generous transition period.

    One of the reasons we're spending twice as much per person as any other country on health care is, we have enormous administrative waste. We have all kinds of people in the bureaucracy administering thousands of separate health insurance plans.

    We need more doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors. We need people to deal with the crisis of opioid addiction. We don't need more people just arguing for — representing the insurance companies, telling us that we're not covered, when we thought we were.

    So we have a very generous transition period. But, at the end of the day, Medicare for all will create more jobs in health care than we will lose, because, when you open the doors to health care for all Americans, we're going to need more practitioners, more people providing health care, not just filling out forms and having a massive bureaucracy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Something else, Senator.

    In recent days, you have been saying you don't believe Joe Biden can win this election, because you said he would bring a lot of baggage. You said you don't think he would create the kind of excitement and energy that's needed to defeat President Trump.

    Are you saying absolutely he would lose to President Trump?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    No. No, no, no, no. I'm not saying that at all.

    I think that any of — I happen to believe, it will not shock you, I am sure, that I am the strongest candidate to beat Trump. But I think other Democrats, including Joe Biden, can do it as well.

    But here's my point. To beat Trump, you're going to need a massive voter turnout. And the only way you do that is through a campaign of energy, of excitement. You have got to bring working people. You have got to bring young people into the political process.

    The truth is, as I think most people know, Joe Biden voted for the war in Iraq. Joe voted disastrous trade agreements like NAFTA and PNTR, which cost us millions of jobs. Joe voted for a bankruptcy bill which really has hurt working-class families.

    Joe was on the floor of the Senate talking about, in his view, the need to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

    I don't think — I think Trump will have a field day with that. And I just don't think that the Biden campaign can create the energy and the excitement we need to defeat the worst president in the modern history of this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I know you believe you would win the nomination, but, as you said, if you didn't, are you prepared to support Mr. Biden?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about — I want to ask you about one of the other candidates, though, because you have talked a lot about the billionaire class.

    Would you be prepared to support Mike Bloomberg, if he were the nominee?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    I will support — look, as I have said many time, I think that, in Trump, we have a pathological liar, the leader of a corrupt administration, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe.

    I am — I will support any Democrat who wins the nomination. Hopefully, I will be supporting myself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Bernie Sanders, joining us from Burlington, Vermont, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    Thank you.

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