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Kirsten Gillibrand on the political risks of standing up for women

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Thursday she would back other political candidates who support abortion rights, following up on her presidential campaign pledge this month to nominate federal judges who commit to upholding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

“I will support candidates that are pro-choice,” Gillibrand told the PBS NewsHour’s managing editor and anchor Judy Woodruff.

“I don’t have a lot of tolerance for Democratic candidates that don’t share those basic values,” Gillibrand added.“I think, as a party, we need to value women. We need to stand up for women. And I don’t think we should be supporting candidates that don’t.”

Gillibrand, who is one of 23 major candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020, has used some of her most recent campaign appearances to rally against restrictive abortion bills passed by state lawmakers in Alabama, Georgia and other states.

Gillibrand also defended her leading role in calling for the resignation of then-Sen. Al Franken in 2017. Some high-profile Democratic donors have reportedly criticized Gillibrand for calling swiftly for Franken to resign after several women accused him groping or forcibly kissing them. But in the NewsHour interview Gillibrand said those criticisms are misplaced. “If our party is going to punish women who stand up for other women,” Gillibrand said, “then we’re absolutely going in the wrong direction.”

Here are some other highlights from the interview:

  • Gillibrand sharply criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of trade policy involving China. “He is not interested in having fair trade in this country,” Gillibrand said. “He’s just interested in fighting. And that fighting is undermining our ability to sell our goods and services worldwide.”
  • The New York Democrat did not rule out using tariffs as part of her own trade policy. As president, “I would make sure that we do have appropriate tariffs, where necessary, to rebalance the balance of trade,” she said.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Among the 23 Democratic candidates running for president in 2020, one is New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

    Over the course of a decade, she has become a key voice in the chamber on issues like gender equality and changing how the U.S. military handles sexual assault cases within its ranks. In recent campaign appearances, she has put a heavy emphasis on abortion rights.

    And Senator Gillibrand is here with me now to talk about her 2020 bid.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as we said, almost two dozen Democrats going after the nomination.

    Why Kirsten Gillibrand?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Well, I think Americans are brave every day, fighting for their families just to make ends meet.

    And I think what — President Trump has really made their lives harder, with more barriers. And I'm running for president because I'm going to fight for them. I'm going to make sure that they have a voice. And I'm going to take on the corruption and greed and the root of all the problems in Washington, in order to make sure they can have health care as a right and not a privilege.

    Take on the insurance companies, take on the drug companies, making sure we have better public schools and debt-free college through national public service, and making sure they have better job training, so they can earn their way into the middle class and actually take on underemployment.

    So, my vision for the country is a little different. And I have the experience, and I have the ability to actually get things done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of that experience, you have been in the Senate for 12 years — or in the House and Senate. You represent, what is it, the fourth most populous state in the country, New York.

    You announced in January, but you are still — to be political, you're still lagging in the polls behind people like Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg. You're having a hard time raising money with those so-called small-dollar donors.

    What do you think is holding things up?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Well, we're actually doing well in the polls.

    And I'm very excited to be taking my message to places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. And I'm really excited about what's been happening over the last several weeks. We're galvanizing support. And we are very excited to be part of this campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I talked about — I mentioned that you have made abortion rights something that you're focused on.

    I want to ask you about that, because you have talked about making it a litmus test for appointing judges. But should abortion rights also be a litmus test for the Democratic Party? Should the party, for example, give money to candidates at any level if they are not pro-abortion rights, if they're pro-life?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    So, from my perspective, I will support candidates that are pro-choice, that actually look at me and you and say that we deserve equality, that we deserve basic civil rights, reproductive rights, human rights.

    And I don't have a lot of tolerance for Democratic candidates that don't share those basic values, because they are literally saying that I don't have the right to make the most intimate life-and-death decisions about when I'm having children, how many children I'm having, under what circumstances I'm having.

    So, voters can have any perspective they want, of course. And everyone also has their own personal views on issues of reproductive care. But I think, as a party, we need to value women. We need to stand up for women. And I don't think we should be supporting candidates that don't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The current trade war with China, as you and I sit here today, the financial markets are showing nervousness about what's going on. They were — the markets were down several hundred points.

    You have said that China needs to be held accountable for what you called its greedy practices. But you said Americans deserve a strategy, not a tantrum.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what exactly would you do to hold China accountable?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    So, obviously, China does a lot of really aggressive, anti-fair, competitive trade practices. They dump steel on the market. They manipulate their currency. They steal I.P. They require any joint venture, that the person they're doing it with or the company they're doing with gives them I.P., and then they steal it and appropriate it.

    So they have a lot of unfair trade practices. And we have to hold them accountable, because the truth is, their practices harm American workers. We have a massive trade imbalance.

    And under President Trump, that trade imbalance has actually gotten worse. So, he is not interested in having fair trade in this country. He's just interested in fighting. And that fighting is undermining our ability to sell our goods and services worldwide.

    In fact, we have heard from producers all across the country that they would normally have markets abroad in China, and because of President Trump's trade war, they can't sell their soybeans or their ethanol or their corn or their pork.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, specifically, what would you do differently as president?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    So, first, I would engage our allies and make sure that we have conversations with how we enforce bad trade practices and how we hold China accountable.

    We can use the WTO, we can use multilateralism to effect a different outcome on how they deal with competitors and how they deal with the world economy. And I would hold them accountable. I would prosecute these cases of dumping of steel.

    And I would make sure that we do have appropriate tariffs, where necessary, to rebalance the balance of trade.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to come back to your advocacy for women. You are making direct appeal to women voters on child care. We mentioned reproductive rights, fair pay.

    You have also been outspoken on MeToo.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I think there's a consensus that the MeToo movement has been beneficial.

    But there is — the fact that you were the first senator to call for Senator Al Franken to resign after he was accused of groping has left some Democrats saying you went too far, considering he wasn't guilty of something like what Harvey Weinstein did.

    Do you believe, looking back on this, that it would have been better to have it go to the Ethics Committee, to let the voters of Minnesota decide his fate?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Well, that was Senator Franken's decision. If he wanted to go to the Ethics Committee, that is his right. If he wanted to wait for the next election, that's his right as well.

    But my decision to not stay silent is also my responsibility as a U.S. senator, given that he had eight credible allegations that were corroborated in real time for groping and forcible kissing, two since he was a senator, and the eighth one that came to light was a congressional staffer.

    And I have led on these issues of ending sexual assault, sexual harassment, changing employment agreements to give women more rights. And so I just couldn't remain silent anymore.

    Now, I'm also a mother of boys. And I have a 15-year-old at home named Theo. And the conversations I was having with Theo were: "Mom, why are you being so tough on Senator Franken?"

    And I said: "Theo, it's not OK to grope a woman anywhere on her body without her consent. It's not OK to forcibly kiss a woman ever without her consent, and that it's not OK for you and not OK for Senator Franken."

    But if a few high-profile Democratic donors are unwilling to support my campaign for president, that's on them. But I have a responsibility. I stood with eight women who feel they were groped and forcibly kissed by Senator Franken inappropriately, and spoke out. I stood with them.

    And, again, if our party is going to punish women who stand up for other women, then we are absolutely going in the wrong direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds like you, though, acknowledge that this has hurt you politically?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    I stand up for what I believe in.

    And one of the reasons why I'm running, Judy, is, I take on the fights that other people won't. I have taken on the Pentagon twice, first over sexual assault in the military and don't ask, don't tell repeal to actually begin, to have gay rights in this country, the first major piece of federal legislation to make sure our LGBTQ Americans can serve and not be discriminated against.

    I have taken on Congress. I was the first member of Congress to post my earmarks, my schedule, my financial disclosure and my taxes, first presidential candidate to put all years of taxes online for public service, and also passing bills to stop the culture of corruption in Washington, making insider trading by members of Congress illegal.

    And I think we need a president who's brave. I think we need someone who will stand up to do the right things, because the truth is, if you're not willing to take on the corruption at its root, the corruption and greed that defines everything in Washington, you will not pass health care as a right and not a privilege, you will never pass the Green New Deal, you will not attack global climate change.

    You will not do any of the things that I want to do and so many people in this country need done. And so it just shows, Judy, sometimes, it's hard. And if you're unwilling to lead and do the brave thing when it's hard, then you're not going to be a strong president.

    And not only have I done that, but I bring people together, and I do it electorally and I do it legislatively. And you need both.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you saying Senator Franken is part of that corruption?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    No, but speaking out against a colleague that you respect and admire — and we are friends — is really hard. And you do it because it's not easy. It's not expedient. It's not politically helpful. It's difficult.

    But, Judy, I value women. We, as Democrats, are the party of women. We just flipped the House of Representatives because 120 Democratic women ran for Congress, were bold, were brave and won.

    I stand up for women. And I challenge any Democrat that's running for president, if they're unwilling to stand up to — stand up for women, unwilling to value women. Who are we as a party?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, running for the Democratic nomination, thank you.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Thank you, Judy.

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