In five back-to-back town halls hosted by CNN in New Hampshire on Monday, Democratic presidential contenders broke with each other on whether President Donald Trump should be impeached.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren forcefully argued that Trump’s actions uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller merit impeachment. California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg both also said they support impeachment proceedings.
But Sen. Amy Klobuchar took a much more cautious approach, saying she would wait to see what happens in the House, where impeachment proceedings originate. And Sen. Bernie Sanders said he worries an effort to impeach Trump would distract voters from Democratic policy priorities headed into the 2020 election.
They also split on whether people currently in prison should be allowed to vote. Sanders argued that they should – even as he acknowledged CNN’s Chris Cuomo’s point that critics would accuse him of supporting the Boston Marathon bomber’s rights. Harris didn’t oppose Sanders’ argument, saying that “we can have that conversation.”
Buttigieg, though, said, “While incarcerated? No, I don’t think so.”
Here are the top takeaways from each candidate’s hour-long appearance:
Riding the caution lane
Perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate, Klobuchar has staked out the moderate lane in this crowded race for the party’s nomination in 2020. That was immediately evident in her CNN town hall Monday night when she essentially declined to answer questions about whether the Mueller report offered grounds to impeach President Donald Trump.
In her dodge, she said Trump should be held accountable and called some of his behavior detailed in the report “appalling,” but wasn’t exactly clear about what the consequences should be – beyond congressional hearings and bringing Mueller before the Senate to testify.
Klobuchar noted that impeachment originates in the House, and that the Senate’s role is that of a jury. In measured tones, she noted that she is waiting to see all the evidence as a former prosecutor, and said Americans could see justice through the varied investigations that continue into Trump’s conduct. Closing the loop, she said the third way to hold Trump accountable “is by defeating him in the 2020 election – and I believe I can do that.”
She won’t win the hearts of the most ardent (and enraged) Democratic activists with that answer, but she’s staking out a position that would put her on safer ground with independents and moderates who will be key in the general election.
’I have to be straight with you’
Klobuchar continued to tack to the center when she cast college tuition and student loan debt forgiveness proposals from other candidates as unrealistic.
Instead, she offered a narrower set of proposals, including expanding Pell Grants, allowing students to refinance their loans and pushing for free community college.
“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do. Don’t look. It’s not there,” she told the audience in New Hampshire. “I wish I could do that, but I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.”
Purple state cred
Klobuchar highlighted her history of winning big in a purple state – including last year, when she said she won 40 of the counties that Trump had won in 2016 when he came within two percentage points of victory in Minnesota. She said she earned voters’ trust by “going not just where it’s comfortable, but where it’s uncomfortable” – including farms and small-town cafes.
The approach makes sense: Polls have consistently shown Democratic primary voters are much more focused on their candidates’ electability than they have been in previous presidential races.
But does it inspire?
“Every single time I have run, I have won every single congressional district in my state, including Michele Bachmann’s, OK?” Klobuchar said.
When the comment was met by silence, she coaxed out applause by adding: “That’s when you guys are supposed to cheer, OK?”
Tackling that student loan price tag
With her sweeping student loan forgiveness proposal, Warren is making a strong play for young voters who Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won over during the 2016 election.
If the response the Massachusetts senator got at CNN’s town hall with young voters was a good barometer, it’s going over very well so far with students. “This is about opportunity for everyone,” she said to applause Monday night.
But the bigger question for Warren going forward is whether she can defend the stunning $1.25 trillion price tag of the proposal. She offered a pretty clean, understandable explanation of how she would do that Monday night by detailing one of the first policies she rolled out: the “wealth tax” or the “ultra-millionaire’s tax.” She explained that it’s “two cents on every dollar of the great fortunes above $50 million dollars. So your 50 millionth and first dollar, you have to pay two cents on all the dollars after that.”
“Here’s the stunning part,” she said. “If we put that two cent wealth tax in place on the 75,000 largest fortunes in this country – two cents – we can do universal child care for every baby, zero to five, universal pre-K, universal college, and knock back the student loan burden for 95% of our students and still have nearly a trillion dollars left over.”
‘That’s what girls do’
Asked how she’d overcome the barrage of sexism that faced Hillary Clinton in 2016 and could await a female nominee against Trump in 2020, Warren recounted her decision to run against Republican then-Sen. Scott Brown in 2012 – a race many Democrats who urged Warren to run thought she was likely to lose.
“All I can say is, Democrats, get a better message,” she said.
Warren said that every time she saw a little girl while on the campaign trail, she kneeled to talk to them. “I would say ‘hi, my name is Elizabeth, and I’m running for Senate because that’s what girls do,’” she said. Then she asked the girls to pinky-promise they’d remember it. She’s used the same line as a presidential candidate.
Warren said women face similar headwinds as presidential candidates.
“One might say you persist,” she said. “Organize, build a grassroots movement, fight for working people. And that’s how I’m going to be the first woman elected president of the United States.”
Warren defends call to impeach Trump
Warren made waves last week as the first Democratic presidential candidate to call for impeachment proceedings after the release of Mueller’s report on the Russia probe. On Monday, she pushed back against Democrats who have argued now – 18 months from another presidential election – isn’t the time for Trump’s impeachment.
“There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” she said.
The Massachusetts senator argued that “if any other human being in this country had done what’s documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail.” She said how lawmakers react to the Mueller report will affect the health of American democracy during future presidencies, too.
And, she said, there isn’t much left to investigate.
“If you’ve actually read the Mueller report, it’s all laid out there. It’s not like it’s going to take a long time to figure that out. It’s there,” Warren said. “It’s got the footnotes, it’s got the points, it connects directly to the law. But this really is fundamentally: I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and so did everybody else in the Senate and in the House.”
Warren also said she thinks the Department of Justice position that indictments cannot be brought against sitting presidents is “wrong.”
Giving the Boston Bomber the vote
As criminal justice has moved to the forefront of the increasingly progressive Democratic agenda, there are some proposals that middle America may find hard to swallow – and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tackled one of them Monday night.
A student asked whether he really believed that incarcerated Americans should be allowed to vote, including the Boston Marathon bomber. Showing Democrats the kind of direct, straightforward rhetoric that helped him win over so many voters in 2016, he answered with an unequivocal yes.
The Vermont senator said he wants to see America have the highest voter turnout on earth, and part of that is preserving the right to vote even for the most “terrible people.”
“If somebody commits a serious crime – sexual assault, murder – they’re going to be punished. They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives. That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime,” Sanders said. “But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, ‘Well, that guy committed a terrible crime; not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that; not going to let that person vote. You’re running down a slippery slope.”
CNN’s Chris Cuomo noted that Sanders was essentially writing a 30-second opposition ad against himself “by saying you think the Boston Marathon bomber should vote.”
“Well, Chris,” Sanders answered, “I think I have written many 30-second opposition ads throughout my life. This will be just another one.”
’Rightfully criticized’ on foreign policy
Sanders conceded that his decades of consistency on economic issues does not extend to his approach on foreign policy.
“I was rightfully criticized the last time around because I didn’t pay as much attention as I might,” Sanders said. “The economy issues, whether people have health care and whether they have decent paying jobs and deal with climate change is enormously important but we have to look at the United States’ role in the world as well.”
He specifically pointed to Yemen and the recent passage of the War Powers Act, a bipartisan effort led by Sanders in partnership with GOP Utah Sen. Mike Lee that was ultimately vetoed by Trump.
“Probably a few years ago I would not have been as involved as I have recently been in demanding and helping in the Senate to pass a resolution to get the United States out of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen,” Sanders said.
Caution on impeaching Trump
Sanders rang notes of caution on Democrats pursuing Trump’s impeachment, just an hour after Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren argued forcefully for it.
“Here is my concern: At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not reelected President and I intend to do everything I can to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” Sanders said.
“But if for the next year all the Congress is talking about is ‘Trump, Trump, Trump,’ and ‘Mueller, Mueller, Mueller’ and we’re not talking about health care and raising the minimum wage to a living wage and we’re not talking about climate change and sexism and racism and homophobia and the issues that concern ordinary Americans – I worry that works to Trump’s advantage,” he said.
Sanders said there should be a “thorough investigation” of Trump’s actions in the House and the Senate, but that he won’t hold his breath for Senate Republicans to probe the president.
Harris backs impeachment
Harris delivered her clearest answer yet on how Democrats should proceed after Mueller’s report on the Russia probe was revealed.
“I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment,” she said.
Harris said Mueller’s investigation had produced evidence that Trump and his administration have “engaged in obstruction of justice.”
The California Democrat added that she is a “realist” who has watched Senate Republicans defend Trump, and said Democrats must be “realistic about what might be the end result. But that doesn’t mean the process shouldn’t take place.”
It was the clearest answer yet on impeachment from Harris, who has previously said her focus was on getting Mueller to testify before Congress. She joins Warren in calling for impeachment proceedings to go forward.
’We should have that conversation’
Voters listening to Harris’ CNN town hall in New Hampshire might have noticed a go-to phrase for everything that falls into her “maybe” basket: “Let’s have that conversation” or “I believe we should have that conversation.”
Harris gave that answer Monday night to questions about whether she’d give the vote to the most heinous criminals, like the Boston Marathon bomber, who are incarcerated. And whether she’d like to see 16-year-olds get the right to vote. Oh, and also reparations.
Harris said she supports Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill to study reparations. But then she was pressed by CNN anchor Don Lemon: “Senator, yes or no, do you support financial reparations?”
“I support that we study that,” she replied. “We should study it and see.” In other words, let’s have that conversation.
Short on policy?
Buttigieg’s campaign website is missing a policy section – an omission that CNN’s Anderson Cooper pointed out is glaring after Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in particular, had delved deep into policy specifics earlier Monday night.
Buttigieg responded that while policy is important, Democrats need to communicate their values without drowning voters in “minutiae.”
“I’ve been pretty clear where I stand on major issues,” he said, citing “Medicare for All” as an example.
“We’ll continue to roll out specific policy proposals, too,” he said. “But I also think it’s important we don’t drown people in minutiae before we’ve vindicated the values that animate our policies. We go right to the policy proposals and we expect people to be able to figure out what our values must be from that.”
“I expect it will be very easy to tell where I stand on every policy issue of our time. But I’m going to take time to lay that out, rather than competing strictly on the theoretical elements of the proposals themselves,” he said.
Buttigieg also said he planned to soon unveil a tool that would make it possible for people to pull up videos of him discussing specific policies and issues by entering a search word or phrase on his website. Minutes later, that feature was live.
“We’re in the second week of my campaign being official and we’ll continue building our website accordingly, too,” he said.
A break from Sanders on prisoners voting
Buttigieg said prisoners should not be allowed to vote. “While incarcerated? No, I don’t think so,” the South Bend mayor said.
His position was a break from Sanders, who had advocated voting rights for incarcerated Americans, and Harris.
“I do believe that when you are out – when you have served your sentence – part of being restored to society is that you are part of the political life of this nation,” Buttigieg said. “And one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote.”
But, Buttigieg said, those convicted of felonies and imprisoned have to forfeit their rights. “It does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote,” he said.
Buttigieg backs Trump’s impeachment
Buttigieg backed impeaching Trump in the wake of Mueller’s report, saying the President has “made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment.”
But Buttigieg also signaled that he won’t be pushing Trump’s impeachment on the campaign trail.
“I’m also going to leave it to the House and the Senate to figure that out,” he said. “My role in the process is trying to relegate Trumpism to the dustbin of history, and I think there’s no more decisive way to do that – especially to get Republicans to abandon this kind of deal with the devil they made – than to have just an absolute thumping at the ballot box for what it represents.”