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Kamala Harris defends her health care plan from rival critics

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Tuesday said she would not second-guess House lawmakers’ focus on President Donald Trump’s dealings in Ukraine as part of their impeachment inquiry.

“There’s still not been any real consequence or accountability as it relates to the findings in the Mueller report,” Harris said in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff. “But I think that it is right, also, for the inquiry to focus on the matter at hand: The president of the United States committed a crime, it appears, committed a crime even by his own confession when it comes to soliciting assistance from a foreign government.”

William Taylor, the U.S. chargé d’affaires to Ukraine, testified before House lawmakers Tuesday that he believes the Trump administration had withheld military aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into political rivals. His 15-page statement details weeks of conversations with other diplomats, during which military aid was apparently used to pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a company tied to former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.

Harris also rejected the idea that the impeachment inquiry will distract voters from the 2020 presidential campaign.

“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” she said. “I’m here in Iowa City. … People are concerned about whether their democracy is being undone by Donald Trump. They are worried about whether their system of justice still has any integrity. Does the rule of law matter? And they are concerned about the fact that almost half of American families can’t afford a $400 unexpected expense, or that a $500 medical bill will bankrupt them.”

More highlights from the interview:

  • On Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria: Harris criticized the president’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria, saying he has “played into the hands of the Russians.” She said that “there is no question in my mind, and I think most would agree, that Donald Trump taking this unilateral action based on apparently a phone call has now delivered four wins — meaning, Russia, Iran, Syria and ISIS — and has put our national security at risk.”
  • On her “Medicare for All” plan: Harris defended her version of Medicare for All, which would allow patients to choose between public and private insurance options. The plan has been criticized by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign as not the real “Medicare for All.” Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign says it will increase taxes for the middle class. Harris said that she has “always supported ‘Medicare for All’” and was very happy to sign onto Sanders bill. “I give Bernie, frankly, a lot of credit for moving the conversation to where it is now. But I thought we could do better,” she said. “In my plan, as distinguished from Bernie and [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren’s plan, yes, people do have a choice of getting a private or a public plan. But it is going to cover everyone and it is going to bring down costs.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With just over 100 days from the first votes being cast in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, 18 candidates are competing for their party's nomination.

    One of them, California Senator Kamala Harris, she joins us now from Iowa City, Iowa.

    Senator Harris, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    And I am going to start with a question we have…

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Thank you. Good to be with you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Good to be with you.

    I'm going the start with a question I have posed to every other Democratic hopeful we have interviewed, and that is, why you? What do you say to voters who want to know why you are the most qualified to be the next president?

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Well, I think there is no question that justice is on the ballot in 2020.

    And justice is on ballot when we talk about health care justice, reproductive freedoms justice, economic justice, criminal justice, you know, justice in terms of equal pay for women. All of these things are on the ballot, including the fact that we have probably the most corrupt and unpatriotic person that has ever occupied the White House.

    And I have a career and a background and a history of working on each of these issues and fighting in the name of the people. And when I stand in a courtroom, when I stand before the United States Senate, and when I stand before the people of Iowa City, where I am right now, it has always been for the people, and understanding that a harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us, and also fighting for the people, with the spirit and the understanding that it's all the people, regardless of race, or gender, or the party with which they're registered to vote, or the language their grandmother speaks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to ask you, Senator, but let's start with something you mentioned. And that's health care.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were an original supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders' Medicare for all.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Yes. Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    During the course of the campaign so far, there have been some exchanges with you about whether you thought that that should or shouldn't include private insurance.

    But, in the end, in the summer, you came out with plan you're calling Medicare for all.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it would keep private health insurance.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just want to say that Senator Sanders' campaign is saying this is not really Medicare for all. They say you have folded to the interests of the health insurance industry.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Well, they're wrong.

    I have always supported Medicare for all. I was very happy to sign on to Bernie's bill. And I give Bernie, frankly, a lot of credit for moving the conversation to where it is now.

    But I thought we could do better. And, in particular, I have traveled the country, and there are lots of folks out there who want Medicare for all. They want to know everyone is covered, that we bring costs down, that preexisting conditions will not be a ban to access to health care.

    But also people don't want us to take away their choice. And similar to Medicare right now, the current form of Medicare, people have the choice to get private plans, in addition to the public plans that are available.

    So what I am proposing is Medicare for all. And in my plan, as distinguished from Bernie and Warren's plan, yes, people do have a choice of getting a private or a public plan. But it is going to cover everyone. It's going to bring down costs.

    And, Judy, I should also mention I'm not going to increase taxes on middle-class families.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you about that, because Joe Biden's campaign has taken a look at your proposal…

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … over the last couple of months.

    And what they are saying about it is that it pushes this Medicare for all 10 years into the future, and they say it is going to create a large, a huge tax increase on the middle class.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    They're just — they're wrong. They're wrong.

    First of all, even Kathleen Sebelius, the architect of the Affordable Care Act, has said my plan is the most effective in getting coverage for everyone. I give a 10-year window, yes, because, in particular, our friends in organized labor said, hey, Kamala, we negotiated down our wages, or we didn't take an increase in wages, so we could have a better health care plan.

    And those are usually negotiated over a four- or five-year basis. The Medicare for all plan offered by some others on the stage would do a four-year transition, which wouldn't be enough for folks in labor to be able to renegotiate.

    So I said, OK, well, let's do ours a 10-year, but the fact remains that, in our plan, over half the population will be in the plan within the first five years. But we do give a longer span of time for those who need to renegotiate, such as folks in organized labor.

    But the reality is, right now, Judy, 30 million people don't have access to affordable health care. And doing nothing is absolutely not an option.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you about a story that is one of our headlines tonight, and that's what's going on in Syria.

    You know, with President Trump deciding to pull U.S. troops out of Northern Syria, the Turks have come across the border. I know you have been critical of the president's decision, but my question to you is, what would you do differently?

    Once the leader of Turkey says, we're coming across the border, what do you do?

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    OK.

    Well, first of all, I'm the only person on the debate stage who serves in the Senate Intelligence Committee, and I am also on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

    And I will tell you that there is no question in my mind, and I think most would agree, that Donald Trump taking this unilateral action, based on, apparently, a phone call, has now delivered four wins for — meaning Russia, Iran, Syria, and ISIS, and has put our national security at risk, based on his unilateral action.

    What would we do going forward? Listen, each day, it changes, because he has basically played into the hands of the Russians, who are now dictating what Turkey will do in terms of the Kurds at the border.

    And I, frankly, believe that there is…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was just going to say, what would you have done differently?

    I mean, once you had that conversation with the president of Turkey, President Erdogan, and he said…

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    I wouldn't have…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … we're going across the border, what do you — do you get into a war with the Turks?

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    But — well, I think that we have to understand there are many interpretations of that conversation.

    But there is nothing that was a changed circumstance. If the United States of America and the commander in chief of the United States of America says, we are not going to abandon the Kurds, who stood with us, fought with us — because, let's remember, that was a counterterrorism mission. That wasn't a humanitarian mission.

    We have been in Syria because of ISIS and the threat that ISIS poses to our national security. And the Kurds stood with us, and by the tens of thousands, by some estimates, died in battle, in a battle with us fighting ISIS.

    So, in that conversation, to your point, Judy, there had to have been, there should have been from the commander in chief of the United States some backbone to say, we're not going to abandon our friends. We're not going to stand back and let this border be opened up, so you can massacre the people who stood with us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I don't want to be too…

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    So, yes, I absolutely would have handled that conversation differently.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I don't want to be too speculative, but your point is that you would never have taken U.S. troops out; you would leave them — you would have left them there?

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    No, no, no, that's not what I'm saying.

    We need to end these endless wars. We need to bring our troops back, but we have to do it in a responsible way, and certainly not because Erdogan has said, I want to get in there and claim that territory, certainly not because Putin knows that it is in his best interests and it's always been part of his long-term plan to increase his reach into the Middle East.

    And this is the problem with the way that Donald Trump conducts foreign policy…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to…

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    which, it is transactional, based on a phone call, instead of understanding that there are long-term, not to mention short-term, consequences for every act and not to mention every word he speaks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just want to cover a couple of other things while we have you, Senator.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that is the impeachment process.

    Do you agree with the approach by the House of Representatives to focus narrowly now on the president's dealings with Ukraine, the leader of Ukraine, or should this be a broader inquiry?

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    I'm not going to second-guess what they're doing.

    But I do believe that, again, as I said, justice is very much on the ballot. And there has still not been any real consequence or accountability as it relates to the findings in the Mueller report.

    We all know that Bob Mueller and that report were very clear that, but for a memo in the Department of Justice saying that a sitting president can't be indicted, that Donald Trump would have probably been indicted.

    But I think that it is right also for the inquiry to focus on the matter at hand, which is that there was clearly — and we know that from the testimony that we're hearing about today — there was clearly quid pro quo, and that the president of the United States committed a crime, it appears, committed a crime, even by his own confession, when it comes to soliciting assistance from a foreign government in a way that would benefit his campaign and benefit him personally and politically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, just — and just in matter of a few seconds, concern about whether this impeachment inquiry interferes with the 2020 contest among Democrats, that it takes attention away from what your message is?

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

    I'm here in Iowa City. The concerns that people have when I'm doing the town halls and the meetings in living rooms that I'm doing are varied. People are concerned about whether their democracy is being undone by Donald Trump.

    They are worried about whether their system of justice still has any integrity. Does the rule of law matter? And they are concerned about the fact that almost half of American families can't afford a $400 unexpected expense or that a $500 medical bill will bankrupt them.

    These are — these coexist as priorities. And I think we need to be able to never underestimate the intelligence of the American people to be concerned about the integrity of their government. And that concern is born out of a love of country.

    And, also, they want to know their government works for them in giving them medical care, giving them — their children an adequate, if not a superior public education certainly than what they're getting, and a number of other issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Kamala Harris, joining us tonight from Iowa City, Iowa, thank you, Senator.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    Thank you, Judy. I appreciate it. Thank you.

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