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How Tom Steyer would fight climate change, gun violence and corporate corruption

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer blamed the United States’ gun violence epidemic on the political power of corporations in an interview Wednesday. Steyer told PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff that “decades of unchecked violence — gun violence — in this country” are due to “the gun manufacturers, through the NRA, [controlling] the Republican Party.”

Money in politics is one of Steyer’s central campaign issues, and he says the U.S. government is broken because corporate cash has “bought” the system.

The billionaire activist and philanthropist thinks two things led to the recent shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. “There is the failure to check gun violence in the United States, and there is the racist rhetoric that the president has employed to create an atmosphere that empowers people to take on these acts,” Steyer said.

The attack in El Paso in particular has renewed criticism about and debate over President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about race and immigration. Law enforcement believes the shooter posted an anti-immigrant screed online minutes before his attack, in which he used language Trump has also used. The White House has stressed that the president is not responsible for another person’s actions.

“Over 90 percent of Americans want mandatory background checks on every gun purchase,” Steyer said. “There is no question here that the will of the American people is being frustrated and it’s being frustrated by gun manufacturers through the NRA.”

Other highlights from the interview

  • On impeachment: After spending the past two years pouring millions of dollars into ads advocating for Trump’s impeachment, Steyer says he thinks Congress could act this year. “The only way to get this done is to bring in the American people and that means televised hearings like the ones in Watergate that convinced the American people that Richard Nixon was a crook who had to go,” Steyer said.
  • On how he made his billions: Steyer made his sizeable fortune managing a hedge fund, which included investments in companies that ran coal mines and coal-fired power plants. Steyer has since divested of fossil fuel investments and says the American people need to do the same. “We all grew up in a fossil-fuel based economy, including you,” Steyer said. “We’ve all filled up at the pump. That is where we came from we need to go to a different place.”
  • On climate change: Steyer has also put hundreds of millions of dollars toward environmental advocacy through his organization, NextGen America. He said on his first day as president, he would declare a national emergency to address climate change. “It is an emergency,” Steyer said. “The president should deal with it that way because we’re talking about the health and safety of every American.” Steyer has released a proposal on climate justice and says an important part is reaching out to the “most affected communities and getting their ideas of leadership to make sure the program works for them.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we continue our series of conversations with 2020 presidential candidates.

    Joining me, billionaire activist and philanthropist Tom Steyer.

    Tom Steyer, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Tom Steyer:

    Judy, thank you so much for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's talk about your decision to get in.

    In January, you said: I'm not running for president.

    But then, last month, you said: I'm going to run.

    But, by this point, there were, what, two dozen other Democrats running.

  • Tom Steyer:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why should people vote for you?

  • Tom Steyer:

    Well, my basic thesis on what's going on in the United States is that we have a broken government in Washington, D.C., that corporate cash has bought the democracy, and that the only solution is to push power back to the people, to retake the democracy on behalf of, of, by and for the people.

    And for the last 10 years, I have been organizing coalitions of ordinary American citizens to take on that unchecked corporate power, and we have been winning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about one of the issues that is motivating many Americans today. And that is in the aftermath of these terrible shootings in Ohio and Texas.

    You have a number of other Democratic candidates for presidents this week condemning President Trump's rhetoric, condemning white supremacist ideology. They're also talking about gun control.

    What would your priority be to stop these kinds of incidents as president, if you're elected president?

  • Tom Steyer:

    Well, as you point out, Judy, there are two things coming together here.

    There is the failure to check gun violence in the United States, and there is the racist rhetoric that the president has employed to create an atmosphere that empowers people to take on these acts.

    So, let's start with the first one, the failure to check gun violence in the United States.

    These are — the El Paso and Dayton are 250th and 251st mass shootings this year in the United States we have had. Don't forget Parkland. Don't forget Sandy Hook. This has been decades of unchecked violence, gun violence, in the country.

    And why is that? It's because the gun manufacturers, through the NRA, control the Republican control the Republican Party, and commonsense gun legislation that over 90 percent of American citizens support can't get into law because of that corporate control of the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're saying you would go after those corporations.

    But let me point out that it was under Democratic President Obama legislation even on background checks could not get passed.

    So now you have other Democrats running for president who are talking about tougher measures, gun licensing, gun buyback programs.

    Do you have a worry that Democrats, in advocating these kinds of things, could go so far to the left that there could be some kind of blowback?

  • Tom Steyer:

    No.

    Over 90 percent of Americans want mandatory background checks on every gun purchase. There is no question here that the will of the American people is being frustrated, and is being frustrated by gun manufacturers through the NRA. And this is just one example.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're saying…

  • Tom Steyer:

    I think it does in this case.

    To be fair, look, I have been going after this idea of corporate control of our government. That is the motivating idea behind my campaign.

    But let me say, I am the person who almost two years ago said, impeach this president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Tom Steyer:

    He is deeply corrupt. And he has more than met the criteria. And he needs to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that, in fact, is what many people will recognize you for. You are running — have been running millions of dollars in ads on television and elsewhere arguing for the impeachment of President Trump.

    A few months ago, you said this is something that had to happen this year, it couldn't happen in 2020. But here we are. It's almost the fall. Even the Democratic congressional leadership is not in favor of an impeachment process.

    Where is this going?

  • Tom Steyer:

    Look, Judy, the funny thing is, more than half the congressional Democrats have come out publicly for impeachment.

    I have pushed to get as many televised hearings in front of the American people, because what we were really trying to do with impeachment is let the American people decide. Have televised hearings. Let — all our research said, if the American people get the facts, they say, I didn't know that, he's a liar and a crook, and, if I did that, I would go to jail.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But yes or no, you think it can happen this year?

  • Tom Steyer:

    I think time is extremely short, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    2019.

  • Tom Steyer:

    We're still pushing for it. We will never walk away from the fact that the right thing is to impeach and remove this president.

    But time is extremely short, because the only way to get this done is to bring in the American people. And that means televised hearings, like the one in Watergate, that convinced the American people that Richard Nixon was a crook who had to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Climate change, this has been a passion of yours. You have worked on this issue for years. You have spent hundreds of millions of dollars advocating there.

    There are some environmental activists out there who are saying, Tom Steyer would be much better off continuing to focus on climate change, rather than turning his focus to running for president.

    What do you say to them and to those who point to your report managing a hedge fund, where you invested in things like coal mines around the world that were carbon emitters, ultimately, and companies that, frankly, invested in these private prisons, where — detention facilities for migrants on the border?

  • Tom Steyer:

    So, let me answer — let me first answer the investment question, and then I will talk about what I'm doing now in terms of climate change.

    Look, we invested in everything, every part of the American economy, including fossil fuels. And I decided over 10 years ago, oh my gosh, I realized there is this impact on the climate that's going to be dreadful and we need — I need to divest myself from it. I quit my business. I took the giving pledge to give my money to good causes, and I started organizing coalitions to fight to prevent climate change right then.

    That's exactly what I have been asking other Americans to do. We all grew up in a fossil fuel-based economy, including you. We have all filled up at the pump. That is where we came from. We need to go to a different place. And that's what I have been pushing for, for more than 10 years ago, successfully beating oil companies.

    In terms of the private prisons, we made an investment. I thought about it. I decided, that is not the right thing to do. It was a mistake. And I sold it 15 years before any of this political stuff came, because I said, that's not a place where somebody should be making money, including us. It was a mistake to ever buy it. And we sold it.

    And we — that was 15 or 17 years ago.

    But let me answer this last question, Judy, which was, what am I — why is this a way to attack climate change?

    If you have seen the climate proposal that I put out about two weeks ago, it is the most aggressive climate proposal by far in this campaign. It talks about declaring a state of emergency the first day of my presidency. It talks about basically being animated by environmental justice, going to most affected communities, and getting their ideas of leadership to make sure the program works for them.

    And it talks about trying to lead an international coalition on day one, not the idea of signing back up for Paris. Of course we'd sign up — back up for Paris. That is far from enough.

    If you look at the numbers in climate — and I would challenge these climate activists to talk about how they're going to make an impact — if you look at the numbers on climate, it is an emergency. The president should deal with it that way, because we're talking about the health and safety of every American.

    And we can't do it unless the global community comes along with us, unless we lead it, and unless we have made the commitment to get our house in order.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tom Steyer, running for the Democratic nomination, thank you very much.

  • Tom Steyer:

    Judy, thank you so much for having me.

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