Harris on the state of democracy a year after Jan. 6

On the anniversary of an attack by pro-Trump rioters on the U.S. Capitol, Vice President Kamala Harris said we should look at the event as part of a steady series of moments that “attempt to unravel” American democracy.

The “chaos and violence” of Jan. 6 was an example of what can happen “if there is a destruction of democracy,” Harris said during an interview with PBS Newshour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff on the anniversary of the attack. But Congress’ return to complete its routine counting of electoral votes after the violence had subsided was also a symbol “of a democracy that is both fragile and strong.”

Harris was at the U.S. Capitol as the attack unfolded last year in her capacity as the junior senator from California and the vice president-elect.

She said even before that day, the nation’s democracy was threatened by falsehoods about the 2020 election, including fraudulent claims of widespread voter fraud. 

“It is incumbent, then, on those who are informed, who are knowledgeable, to be vigilant in speaking truth, no matter how difficult sometimes it is to hear, much less speak,” Harris said. “Because the truth is that the democracy of the United States of America is only standing as it is because of the faith and the purpose of the American people to fight for it.”

Other highlights from the interview:

Harris said she wouldn’t speak to whether the Jan. 6 committee was considering criminal prosecution as she was not “privy to the internal facts” made available to the committee.

  • On voting rights: The U.S. needs federal laws “that guarantee the freedom and right of every American to have access to the ballot,” Harris said. She called on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, saying they’re important to upholding the right to vote in free and fair elections. The legislation has passed the House, but has stalled in the Senate as Democrats do not have enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
  • On COVID-19: Harris stood by the administration’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic response, saying progress has been made over the last year — vaccines, boosters and masks have helped schools and businesses reopen. But there’s still work to do, she added. Nearly two years into the pandemic, Harris said she recognized many people have reached “a level of malaise.” “We want to get back to normal,” but we must do the work of “pushing through with solutions … let’s meet the challenges where they are,” she said. The administration has drawn criticism in recent weeks for testing capacity and access, and in a pair of letters published Thursday in the journal JAMA, six public health advisers who served on the Biden-Harris transition team urged the White House to shift its vaccine-focused response to focus more on testing, surveillance and public health as a way toward a “new normal.”

 

Laura Santhanam contributed reporting.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we have been discussing, President Biden and Vice President Harris both spoke at the Capitol this morning to mark this anniversary of the insurrection.

    And that was the focus as I began my conversation with the vice president earlier this afternoon.

    Madam Vice President, thank you very much for joining us.

    On this day, one year after the assault on the Capitol, you, President Biden speaking out very forcefully on the need to correct the lies out there about what happened and to hold former President Trump accountable.

    But we know, one year later, those lies have only settled in. Why do you think it is, after all this time, that attitudes have not changed?

    Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States: Well, Judy, first of all, it's great to be with you.

    I will say, as I said in my speech this morning, that I do believe that there has been a slow attempt to unravel our democracy that preceded one year ago. And we — it is important that we look at what happened one year ago on January 6 as a moment in a series of events that have been taking place, some would argue, over the last 15 years slowly, but steadily, in terms of an attempt to erode our democracy.

    And when I think then about where we are as of today, this is a moment where we reflect on this violent assault on our Capitol, an assault that I think in many ways symbolized what can happen if there is a destruction of democracy, meaning chaos and violence and a lack of order or adherence to rule of law.

    But let's also see this is a moment where the duality of the existence of a democracy that is both fragile and strong was highlighted, in that, at the end of January 6, that night one year ago, where I was there still as a senator and vice president-elect…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Kamala Harris:

    … members of all parties, Democrats, Republicans and independents, went back to — over — to show their loyalty to the Constitution above party or person and uphold the tenets of our Constitution and our democracy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just as many people today, if not more, believe the lie — lies, about what happened.

    What's to stop this from just staying this way, this deep polarization, for years to come?

  • Kamala Harris:

    Our democracy will not stand and it will not survive if we, each of us, is not vigilant in understanding we can take nothing about it for granted.

    So, to your point, there have been moments in history such as this where there has been rampant misinformation, lies. And it is incumbent then on those who are informed, who are knowledgeable to be vigilant in speaking truth, no matter how difficult sometimes it is to hear, much less speak, because the truth is that the democracy of the United States of America is only standing as it is because of the faith and the purpose of the American people to fight for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Given attitudes out there, do you believe the January 6 House committee will get to the bottom of what happened?

  • Kamala Harris:

    I do.

    And I — from what I'm witnessing from the outside, it seems that they are exercising great diligence, and they are being guided by the facts and law, and doing their job, and upholding their oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States.

    I do have faith in the process that they have embarked upon. And I think we will see — I hope and I believe we will see justice come out of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about what the vice chair of that committee, Representative Liz Cheney, one of the only Republicans seeking to hold the former president accountable, said.

    She said former President Trump — quote — "summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack."

    Is she right?

  • Kamala Harris:

    Yes.

    And, again, these are moments where we must speak truth. And I applaud her courage, in the midst of a number of her colleagues who have failed to show such courage or those who have shown courage and, sadly, are not seeking reelection or have not sought reelection.

    I applaud her courage to speak truth, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If that's the case, then does that not mean there will have to be serious consideration of a criminal prosecution?

  • Kamala Harris:

    I am not privy to the internal facts that are before that committee, so I can't speak to that.

    And perhaps I'm burdened by also my career as an attorney and as a prosecutor, where I'm not going to judge or speak to the facts and the law in the case, which I don't know.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you about the aftermath of all this.

    You and President Biden are going to be speaking out more publicly in the days to come about the need for voting rights reform. But we know, right now, there aren't enough votes for that in the Senate. Some Republicans are countering right now with a proposal to reform the way the Electoral College vote takes place.

    Why is that not an acceptable compromise?

  • Kamala Harris:

    Because it's not a solution to the problem at hand, which is that, right now, in the United States of America, we need federal laws that guarantee the freedom and right of every American to have access to the ballot, to be able to vote.

    The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the Freedom to Vote Act address that issue. And those are the issues that are present and that are imminent and that are really dispositive, frankly, of this moment in time in terms of whether we are going to fight for some of the most important pillars of a democracy, such as the freedom to vote and free and fair elections.

    So, let us pass those two pieces of legislation and ensure through federal law that all Americans have meaningful access to the polls.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Three other things I want to ask you about, Madam Vice President.

  • Kamala Harris:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID is the first.

    Six of the prominent public health advisers who were part of the Biden-Harris transition team have today gone public with a plea to the president to adopt an entirely new pandemic strategy geared to what they call the new normal of living with this virus indefinitely, trying to minimize the risk.

  • Kamala Harris:

    First of all, what we know without any debate, and I think all of us agree, is that we have tools available to us to address this pandemic in a way that we can, at the very least, mitigate the harm to the greatest number of people.

    And so we are going to continue as an administration to urge all people who are eligible to get vaccinated, to get the booster, to wear masks when they are in public, and to do what is necessary for us to get beyond this.

    We welcome, of course, anyone who has information, especially those who are experts, about how we can accomplish these goals. But there are certain things that are without debate, and really not even necessary for discussion at this point among people who are knowledgeable about what needs to happen, in terms of vaccines and boosters and masks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is it time for a new approach, is the question?

    I mean, this administration came in promising to get things on track. Here we are a year later. We're in the fourth wave. There aren't enough tests, nearly enough.

  • Kamala Harris:

    We know that the approach, in terms of vaccines, boosters and masks, work, so I don't think that that's what we're discussing right now.

    But let's also talk about, to your point, where we are today vs. a year ago. Today, the vast majority of schools are open. Today, we have a vaccine that the majority of Americans have actually received. Boosters, we are seeing great progress with that. People are wearing their masks. So, we have seen progress. We are seeing businesses reopen.

    And I think it's important for us to see in this moment we're still — it is extremely frustrating, there's no question, for all of us. But we also must acknowledge that there has been progress and that that is the trajectory.

    But there are still steps to go. We have still work to do. And, in particular, around the vaccines and masks, we want to make sure that everyone is taking advantage of all the tools that we do have available to us right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other things.

    One is your administration. The Biden-Harris agenda, in the beginning, a year ago, got off to a strong start, but it's obviously stalled. Right now, the president's approval ratings have taken a dramatic hit.

    Did you try to do too much?

  • Kamala Harris:

    Well, I think that there are many metrics by which we can measure where we are today.

    One of them, again, is where we are on COVID, which we just discussed. Let's also look at where we are on the economy. Last year, we created six million new jobs. Last year, we brought unemployment down to, I believe it was 4.2 percent, which the economists, most didn't believe would happen until at least 2023, 2024.

    So we have seen great progress. We passed an infrastructure law. People have been — both parties, as administrations, have been talking about doing for generations. There has been great progress

    No doubt, COVID, for example, I mean, we're all — well, everybody is frustrated with that. And I understand and I fully appreciate there is a level of malaise. We're two years into this thing. People are — we want to get back to normal. We all do.

    But we have to then do the tough and hard work of pushing through with solutions, understanding that there are going to be challenges, but let's meet the challenges where they are. And let's also take a moment to see the progress we have achieved.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question.

    This year, Madam Vice President, has not been an easy one for you. There have been a rash of stories about dissension inside your office, inside the White House, about — questions about your role.

    What would you say you have learned over this year?

  • Kamala Harris:

    Well, one of the things I have learned is to get out of D.C.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Kamala Harris:

    I think it's important to definitely be out and be — I can't tell you when I have been able to get out of D.C. and be with the folks who are actually informing our policies and will be impacted by our policies.

    I do hope that, this year, I will be able to get out there more. I know the president feels the same way, so that we can make sure that we are — we are with the folks, and not just, frankly, hanging out in D.C. with the pundits.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Madam Vice President, Kamala Harris, thank you very much for joining us today.

    We appreciate it.

  • Kamala Harris:

    Thank you. Good to be with you. Thank you.

    Happy new year.

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