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Joe Biden condemns Trump’s handling of North Korea, hasn’t ruled out 2020

In a wide-ranging interview with PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff, former Vice President Joe Biden said he believes the U.S. is closer than ever to nuclear war, adding President Trump "undermines" the office of the president. He also talks about his latest book, "Promise me, Dad," which chronicles his son Beau's brain cancer diagnosis and death, and his own decision not to run for president in 2016.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Vice President Joe Biden has written a book about the death of his son Beau two-and-a-half years ago from brain cancer.

    In it, he writes about his son's illness, about his work in the Obama administration and his decision not to run for president in 2016.

    I sat down with Biden today to talk about the book, about President Trump, and his own future.

    Former Vice President Joe Biden, thank you very much for joining us.

    The book, "Promise Me, Dad- A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose," it came out a short time ago. It had to be hard to write, opening up about the loss of your son.

    Has it been cathartic?

  • Joseph Biden:

    It wasn't initially. It was very hard to write.

    I wrote it for two reasons, selfish reasons. The first one was I wanted my — this is going to sound strange — my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, all the progeny to know what an incredible guy and document what an incredible guy Beau was.

    I also selfishly wanted people to know what a remarkable man he was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You write throughout the book about how he bucked you up and kept you strong.

  • Joseph Biden:

    He did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Has losing him changed you?

  • Joseph Biden:

    No, because I had my son Hunter, and we were a team.

    And it sounds strange, Judy, but I think most people who have known me all these years know that my sons helped raise me. When they lost — in the accident, they almost died, when their mother and sister died. It took them three hours of the jaws of life to get taken out of the car.

    But they were, always, "Dad. You OK, dad, you OK?"

    If Hunter walked in here today — he's a 46-year-old man — he would walk over, give me a kiss and say, "Dad, you got enough coffee?"

    But Beau was always the guy who — as Barack said, the president said in his eulogy, Beau was Joe 2.0.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Joseph Biden:

    He had — whatever few qualities I had, he didn't make them liabilities.

    And so — but Beau was always the guy, he would say, like my mother and I would say to him when they were growing up- "Look at me, dad. Look at me. Dad, remember home base. Remember — remember what you value. This job isn't worth much. You can say what you think, dad. Remember."

    So, he was always — in that sense, always bucking me up as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is so much in this book. And I want to come back to it.

    But I also want to ask you what the country is going through right now, because there's a connection. You have opposed a number of Republican presidents, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush.

    Is it the same now with President Trump, or is it different?

  • Joseph Biden:

    It's a lot different.

    David Brooks writes about this invisible moral fabric that holds up society and requires decent citizens to make it work and function, notwithstanding what the Constitution says. It's needed for buoyancy.

    The dysfunction of this government, the crassness of the way in which public discourse takes place, the diminishing and relentless attacks on the only two groups wearing striped shirts, the referees, you, the press, and the courts, is demoralizing.

    And the best example of that is Charlottesville. You know, I was a good boy. I was keeping my — Barack and I were letting like what happened to us, give us a year to get settled and move.

    But I couldn't remain silent, because the idea of a president of the United States equating guys coming out of fields with torches, carrying swastikas, using the same anti-Semitic bile, the same bile that was used in the streets of Nazi Germany, and then comparing them, saying they're equal responsibility with those who are protesting, you know, it just — it does more than dumb down the system.

    It erodes those invisible elements of citizenship that sort of are the buoyancy for what makes this nation so special. So, it's really different. It's less his policies than his — the way he conducts — how unpresidential he is.

    And, by the way, it's not — it's dangerous internationally, because it's not being presidential formal. It's being presidential under certain minimum requirements the rest of the world looks to, a consistency.

    Look, we went from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, ideologically gigantic change, but there was a continuity in the way the rest of the world looked at us.

    They are not at all certain of who we are right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But there are — I ask because there are sometimes comparisons to Richard Nixon, the problems his administration had, the investigations. How do you compare the two?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Well, I think the only parallel is the secretiveness of the Nixon administration and the — how Nixon personalized, in my experience.

    I got here when he was reelected in '72. I was a senator. And in that sense, it's the same. But it wasn't — there still was a continuity in terms of American policy. There wasn't this phony populism and this dangerous nationalism of us against them.

    There was an intellectual gravamen to what he was doing. Some, I agreed with. Some, I disagreed with. But the personality in terms of constantly being put upon, personalizing things, feeling that he could go color outside the lines, that's similar.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You told me — I interviewed you about a year ago as you were just about to leave office, and you said — and we were — I was asking you about one of the president's tweets at that point. And you said, he should grow up.

    It's been a year. Is he fit to be president?

  • Joseph Biden:

    The American people decided he should be president, so, therefore, he's president.

    But I think he so undermines the office, the credibility of the office and our place in the world, that — for example, comparing I have got a bigger button than you do, talking to the North Korean president — I mean, leader, Kim?

    I mean, my God, what a — you know, the only war that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended.

    When we were president — when we were in office, we had a dangerous situation. The Iranian navy picked up and arrested and took on board American sailors, OK?

    I was with John Kerry. John Kerry immediately got on his cell phone and called Zarif. Four calls later, and…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Iranian foreign minister.

  • Joseph Biden:

    I'm sorry. The Iranian foreign minister.

    He had a relationship with him. And it was settled diplomatically. They were freed, and there was no war.

    Imagine today just a hypothetical question. If God forbid, while we're on this program, the — there's a report that Iranian ships have taken on board a dozen American hostages, who would call?

    He's totally discredited the secretary of state. He's totally discredited the people around him. He has given comfort to autocrats. Who picks up the phone? Or do you pick up the phone? Or does he pick up the phone and say, go?

    I mean, it is — it has profound consequences.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there are those who are ready to take other steps.

    The billionaire businessman Tom Steyer is running nonstop television ads. There are 58 members of the House, representatives, Democrats, who are saying it's time to start impeachment proceedings.

    Would that be the right thing now?

  • Joseph Biden:

    I don't think so.

    First of all, I don't think — let's let Mueller — I have great confidence in Mueller. Let's — he's a Republican. He was a Republican in another administration.

    Let him finish his investigation. Let us determine what he has to present, whether there's impeachable offenses or not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When it comes to policy, Democrats criticize this president. They say it's terrible economic policy.

    But look at the financial markets right now, booming, going through the roof, setting records almost every day. You now have CEOs saying, we're going to grow, we're going to raise wages. And they are saying, we're so glad not to have new regulations added on, the way they were during the Obama-Biden administration.

    Did your administration go too far?

  • Joseph Biden:

    No, not at all. We tried to clean the air. We tried — we said, coal is bad. The sulfur coming out of the smokestacks ruins people's lungs. We said — anyway.

    But here's the deal. It seems to me that those same CEOs, in a much larger and deeper poll that was done, also have grave doubt about his judgment, also have grave doubt about his personal behavior, also have grave doubt about stability.

    And so I'm not even talking about policy. One of the things the Democrats have to do more of, in my view — and I know I have been sort of a lone wolf on this for a long time — and I did 83 campaign events for Hillary, major events — we have to start talking to our base again, the middle class, the working-class people.

    They have reason to be concerned. You know, the world's changing. And, for example, I ran into a guy in Delaware, a truck driver. And I said, "How you doing?"

    He said, "I'm not driving any more, Joey." He said, "As a public official, you can still keep going, but I had to stop driving. My son's driving now, but I'm worried."

    And these guys make between $80,000 and $100,000 a year busting their neck.

    And he said, "But, Joey," he said, "I don't think he's going to have a job. All these automated trucks, what's going to happen? What's going to happen?"

    People out there are uneasy about their future even if they have a job. We have got to listen to them. We don't listen. We don't listen enough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you about that, because there is a debate among Democrats right now about who they ought to be focusing on. Should they go after that traditional base, people of color, women, others?

    Or should they focus on the white working-class Americans who feel like who — who many of them are saying the Democratic Party looked down on them in this last election?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Yes.

    In many ways, inadvertently, we did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, which is it?

  • Joseph Biden:

    But you don't have to choose between your heart and your soul.

    I don't have to choose between my progressive values and working-class people. They're not inconsistent. We don't have to choose. And working-class people will support it. They just want to hear, do we understand what they're going through, not about — we don't have to change our policy on immigration, on — I have been leading this effort on violence against women.

    We don't have to talk about — stop talking about the concerns. We have to talk about, in addition, guess what? I know the job you have, you haven't had a raise in five years. I know the job you have may be obsolete. I know you're really worried about the fact that you, in fact, are not able to pay for your kids' education. I know that. I know that. I'm listening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You clearly are somebody who thinks a lot still every day about public service.

    And there's a lot of speculation about whether you're going to run. You were ready to run in 2015 for the 2016 race.

    Do you have to decide this year whether you're going to make the race in 2020?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Even if I have to, I can't.

    Look, I have not decided to run or not run. My focus is, for real, electing a Democratic Congress. And if the lord almighty came down and said, Joe, the nomination is yours right now, you have got to accept it right now, I would say no.

    But that doesn't mean I won't run. I'm a great respecter of fate. And as my family's being put back together again emotionally, as we are gathering about what we're going to do, I'm running two institutes. I am — you know, I'm not saying I won't run, but I don't have any concrete plan to run.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is age a factor?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You would be 78 if you were to run and win.

  • Joseph Biden:

    Sure. It's a totally legitimate — it's a totally legitimate factor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Howard Dean said this morning, former Democratic Party chair, he said, the old people in the party need to — quote — "get the hell out of the way and let somebody"…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Joseph Biden:

    Well, tell Howard Dean I can take him physically, OK?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Joseph Biden:

    Look, come on, this is about — you are going to be running against a man who's going to be 75 years old, or 76 years old, at the time, whatever his age is.

    It's about — I suggest people go see the new Churchill movie. You know, look, it would be a totally legitimate thing for people to say, let's look at Biden. He would be the oldest guy to ever be president. See what kind of shape he's in mentally, physically and the rest.

    And it may be that I develop some problem and I'm not capable of doing that. But that is not — I think it's probably the least consequential of any election because of who you're running against, in all probability.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump's foreign policy, you have alluded to this during the conversation, the tweets, the rhetoric on North Korea.

    You said yesterday — you have said it again now — it's dangerous. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said over the weekend that the United States has never been this close, as close as it is now, to nuclear war.

    Do you agree with him?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Yes, I do.

    And that's why I think that — what I worry about, and I have worried from the beginning, is about fundamental miscalculations. This is not a business deal. This is not who builds the next skyscraper. This is not about my — telling my subs I'm not going to pay them.

    This is a totally different dynamic. We know that he inherited, as we did, an incredibly difficult problem in North Korea, one of the two things we spent most time briefing the new incoming administration about.

    There are no easy answers. But we also know that there is no answer in a nuclear exchange, and which, God forbid, could happen if they attack the United States or our allies. But we also know that the answer lies somewhere in cabining the capacity and inclination of the North, working with China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan.

    When we engage in activities like, let's compare the button, they all, for different reasons and different motivations, lose confidence in us. They wonder, do we know what the hell we're doing?

    And I'm worried they then decide they're going to try separate ways to figure out how to do this. This can't be done in a way that doesn't have all the players in the game on the same page.

    And I just think that — and the other thing is, you know, you draw these lines, and you don't respond, you diminish your credibility. And it's just dangerous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Speaking from experience.

  • Joseph Biden:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Iran, the president very critical of the regime there, saying they're corrupt, this week, when we're seeing these nationwide demonstrations in Iran.

    The president is saying the money that President Obama turned over to the Iran government at the time of the nuclear deal, 2015, is money that's gone to terrorism, the terrorist activities on the part of Iran, not to the Iranian people.

    Today, Vice President Pence is writing that the Obama-Biden administration didn't step up and support the protesters during the Green Revolution.

  • Joseph Biden:

    We did support…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Was that a mistake?

  • Joseph Biden:

    No, we did support the protesters during the Green Revolution.

    And let's look at this policy. First of all, we need a little humility about how this revolution is the same or different than the last one, a lot of rural people involved in this. There seems to be some of it is generated by the fact that Rouhani leaked word that a lot of it was going to go to the IRGC, the military arm of the government, and not to the needs of the people.

    There's also some pieces about electoral fraud that are in there. That's part of it, et cetera.

    But think of it this way. We know the regime is corrupt. We know the regime is dangerous. Imagine what it would be if it had nuclear weapons right now, which it would be able to have by now if there wasn't a deal cut. And we also know that the people protesting, what did Trump do? He put an absolute ban on any of them being able to come to the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, if President Trump abrogates the nuclear deal with Iran, which there is a lot of speculation he will, what would that mean, especially in terms of these current protests?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Well, I think it would — number one, the rest of the other four nations aren't going to stop the deal, their part of the deal, the nuclear deal. Britain, Russia, China said they're not going to walk away, number one.

    So, the substantive relationship as it relates to dollars and trade and all is not going to change in a substantive way, number one.

    Number two, we're going to become the pariah. We're going to be viewed — we're going to be the nation on the outside, while they continue to work with them.

    And, number three, it means that, depending on what the Iranians think is the best path for them, they will be in a position to move to acquisition of a nuclear weapon very rapidly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other areas I want to touch on before we end.

    One is sexual harassment. We have watched this incredible MeToo movement. In connection with that, you have said that you owe Anita Hill an apology about what happened back in 1991, the Clarence Thomas episode.

    Have you contacted her, number one? And, number two, do you think, this time, it's different, that we are seeing with the MeToo movement something that is truly going to lead for change, to change for women?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Look, at its root, this is all about the abuse of power. It's all about the abuse of power, whether it's Harvey Weinstein or the guy who — the plumber who has a secretary he harasses. It's all about the abuse of power, number one.

    Number two, women should be believed. I believed Anita Hill. I said I believed Anita Hill. I voted against Clarence Thomas when she decided she was willing to come forward.

    What I feel badly about is the inability to be able to silence the Republican critics on the committee. What people wanted me to do was to gavel down other senators who were harassing her, who were harassing her.

    And I wish I had had the power or a way to communicate. But you may remember I got in shouting matches with witnesses who were attacking her. I got criticized for shouting at witnesses who were making these statements.

    So, I — but she deserves credit, because it took enormous courage for her to come forward.

    The good thing about what's happening now, and why I'm keeping up this college Promise Tour I'm doing, I go out, and it's on us. I go to campus after campus. We're changing the culture. We have to get men involved. The biggest thing that will come from this is from men to stop thinking they can engage in loose talk about women, and it not be damaging, and be willing to step up and step in when they see it happening, and not be silent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Have you contacted Anita Hill?

  • Joseph Biden:

    No, I haven't contacted Anita Hill.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you plan to?

  • Joseph Biden:

    I hadn't planned on — I'm always happy to see her.

    But the — you know, the — there's — the — I wish I could have protected her from the attacks that came at her, but I didn't know any way to do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, back to the book.

    The Cancer Moonshot, President Obama put you in charge of this all-out effort. You ended up raising a couple of billion of dollars over a number of years to find a cure for cancer. It's been a couple of years. Has there been progress?

  • Joseph Biden:

    Yes.

    Look, there's been real movement. One of the things that happened was that we realized, when we learned from dealing with Beau that we were at an inflection point, where science had begun to catch up with the disease, but we were operating the same old way.

    There was never a means by which you could share data, so you didn't have major hospitals sharing their data or researchers sharing their data.

    But now that is beginning to happen. The culture is beginning to change. We have nine countries now sharing all their data with us that I was able to get signed. We have much more data available. We have the capacity now to — we can now do a million-billion calculations per second.

    If you were able to aggregate all of the cancer genomes that have been sequenced and put them in one place, you could do more in 10 seconds than 12 Nobel laureates could about patterns of cancer.

    So, there's real movement and real breakthroughs occurring, and there's reason for hope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Vice President Joe Biden, the book, again, "Promise Me, Dad."

    Thank you very much.

  • Joseph Biden:

    Well, thank you, Judy, for having me. Appreciate it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow, we will have more of my conversation with Vice President Biden on — and that's when we discuss his views on what lies ahead for Democrats.

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