CNN town hall with President Biden

By Melissa Macaya and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 12:09 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021
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10:42 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden says he's spoken with all of his predecessors "with one exception"

President Biden said he has spoken to all former presidents, except for one.

Biden said he has also called former presidents, but wouldn't say who.

"They're private conversations," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper during tonight's town hall. "But, by the way, all of them, with one exception, picked up the phone and called me as well."

Biden went on to add that he's honored to be president, saying, "And I literally pray that I have the capacity to do for the country what you all deserve need be done."

He reflected on the power of presidency by mentioning his experience working as vice president under former President Barack Obama.

"But one thing I learn after eight years with Barack is no matter how consequential the decision, I got to be the last person in the room with him literally on every decision. I can make a recommendation, but I walked out of the room and it was all him, man. Nobody else. Buck stops there. And that's where you pray for making sure you're looking at the impact on the country and a little bit of good luck at the judgment you're making," he said.

Watch the moment:

10:41 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden defends call for minimum wage hike: "It's about doing it gradually"

From CNN's DJ Judd and Tami Luhby

Taylor Glascock for CNN
Taylor Glascock for CNN

President Biden defended his administration’s call to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour during tonight's town hall.

“The vast majority of the economists and there are studies that show by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it could have an impact on a number of businesses, but it would be de minimis, et cetera. Here's the deal. It's about doing it gradually," Biden said.

Raising the federal hourly minimum wage to $15 would reduce poverty  — but would also cut employment by 1.4 million workers and increase the federal deficit by $54 billion over a decade, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released Monday.

Last week’s CBO report resurfaced longstanding arguments between Democrats and worker advocates on one side, who say that paying people a higher wage will have a positive impact on their lives, the federal budget and the economy, and Republicans and business owners on the other side, who warn that such a move will cost jobs. 

One recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that 80% of economic research over the last 30 years found there are job losses associated with a higher minimum wage. The evidence of a negative impact is stronger for teens and young adults, as well as the less-educated.

But proponents argue that better-quality studies tend to show that increases in the minimum wage do not hurt employment. Supporters for raising the minimum wage also highlighted the CBO's findings that raising the minimum wage would help many lower-income Americans, many of whom are essential workers, people of color and women.

Biden pushed back against the CBO report, telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper Tuesday, “there are an equal number of studies that say it wouldn't have that effect. And particularly in terms of how gradually you do it,” adding, “I think there is equally as much, if not more evidence to dictate that it would grow the economy and, long run and medium run, benefit small businesses as well as large businesses, and it would not have such a dilatory effect, but that's a debatable issue.”

Still, Biden told Randy Lange, the co-owner of a Wisconsin Woodworking Company, “it's not illegitimate as a small business person to worry about whether or not increasing it at one fell swoop would have that impact.”

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11:10 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden jokes about White House life: "I wake up in the morning and ask Jill 'Where the hell are we'"

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

Taylor Glascock for CNN
Taylor Glascock for CNN

President Joe Biden described his life in the White House this evening, saying so far it still feels surprising every day. 

"I wake up in the morning and ask Jill, 'Where the hell are we," he said, earning laughs from the socially distanced audience. 

"It's a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things," he said, drawing a contrast to living in to the vice president's residence, which is 80 acres and includes secluded lawns, and an outdoor swimming pool. 

Biden went on to say that in seeking the presidency, it was never his ambition to live in the White House itself, but to have the power to make decisions to guide the country.

"I said when I was running, I wanted to be President not to live in the White House, but to be able to make the decisions about the future of the country," he said. 

Watch the moment:

10:36 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden: "There will be repercussions for China" over human rights

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury

Taylor Glascock for CNN
Taylor Glascock for CNN

Asked about his call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Biden said that the US "must speak up on human rights" and that there will "be repercussions for China" over human rights abuses.

"There will be repercussions for China and [Xi Jinping] knows that," Biden said

"What I'm doing is, making clear that, we, in fact, are going to continue to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the UN and other agencies that have an impact on their attitude," Biden told CNN's Anderson Cooper during tonight's town hall.

Biden went on to describe what he told the Chinese leader with regards to human rights and the United States' stance.

"I point out to him no American president can be sustained as a president, if he doesn't reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea is, that I am not going to speak out against what he's doing in Hong Kong, what he's doing with the Uyghurs in the western mountains of China and Taiwan trying to end the one China policy by making it forceful...he gets, it culturally there are different norms that each country and that leaders are expected to follow," Biden said.

"China is trying very hard to become the world leader. And to get that moniker and be able to do that they have to gain the confidence of other countries. And as long as they are engaged in activity that is contrary to basic human rights, it's going to be hard for them to do that," Biden explained

Biden ended his answer by noting that the issue and China policy in general is "much more complicated than that, I shouldn't try to talk China policy in 10 minutes on television."

10:31 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden offers to help a mother get a coronavirus vaccine for her immunocompromised son

From CNN's Andrea Diaz

Source: CNN
Source: CNN

President Biden offered to personally help a mother worried about getting a coronavirus vaccine for her 19-year-old immunocompromised son with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

"If you're willing, I'll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help," Biden said during the CNN Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday.

Kerri Engebrecht, the teen's mom, told Biden that her son was diagnosed with COPD at the age of 14 and he has the lung functioning of a 60-year-old.

"He does all he can to protect himself. Last month, he even removed himself from the campus of UW Madison, as he feels it's safer, and he has less exposure here at home. We've tried all we can to get him a vaccine. I hear of others who are less vulnerable, getting it based on far less," Engebrecht said before asking if Biden had a plan to vaccinate those who are most vulnerable sooner. 

Biden explained that he can't tell the states to prioritize certain group of people, that he can however make certain recommendations, but he would like to help her. 

 Watch the moment:

10:31 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden: "No one should go to jail for the use of a drug"

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

Taylor Glascock for CNN
Taylor Glascock for CNN

President Biden addressed racial disparities in enforcement of drug use this evening, saying he believed no one should be imprisoned for using an illegal drug.

He suggested funds used for enforcement should instead be repurposed for rehabilitation.

Biden was responding to a question from an audience member who wanted to know how police departments could be reformed while providing increased protection, particularly in minority communities. 

"How can we be sure that we don't over legislate police officers so that they can do their job to protect the law-abiding citizens who live in these high crime neighborhoods and yet train officers to police with compassion?" asked Dannie Evans, a pastor and member of the Wisconsin Racial Disparity Task Force.

"By number one, not defunding the police," replied Biden. 

"We have to put more money in police work so we have legitimate community policing and we're in a situation where we change the legislation," he continued. "No one should go to jail for a drug offense. No one should go to jail for the use of a drug. They should go to drug rehabilitation."

"We should be in a position where we change the system of sentencing system," he added.

Watch the moment:

12:09 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Biden was just asked about his immigration policies. Here's what he has done so far on the topic.

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez

Taylor Glascock for CNN
Taylor Glascock for CNN

One of President Biden's first acts was signing a series of executive actions that undo several Trump administration immigration policies.

The actions Biden signed early on in his presidency included preserving the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, halting border wall construction and reversing the travel ban from predominantly Muslim countries.

In the weeks after his swearing-in, the Biden administration proposed revising the number of refugees who can be admitted to the US this year to 62,500, a significant increase from the 15,000 cap put in place under Trump, and is preparing to admit migrants forced to remain in Mexico awaiting their US hearings under a controversial Trump-era policy.

The Biden administration, in concert with Hill Democrats, is also preparing to unveil legislation this week that seeks to provide a pathway to citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But the administration, Biden has said, has a long way to go on immigration.

The President will need the approval of Congress to pass his administration's immigration bill, which, among other investments in border security and foreign aid to Latin America, provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the US.

10:06 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden: "The nation is not divided"

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury

President Biden said he takes issue with "everybody" stating that the US is a divided country.

"The nation is not divided. You go out there and take a look and talk to people, you have fringes on both ends. But it's not nearly as divided as we make it out to be and we have to bring it together," Biden said in response to a question about his immediate and tangible plans to address division in the country.

Biden explained that he believes most people in the country agree on issues like coronavirus aid.

"You cannot function in our system without consensus other than abusing power at the executive level. So, I really think there's so many things that we agree on that we don't focus enough on... We have to be more decent and treat people with respect and just decency," Biden said.

Biden went on to revisit and mention some of the reasons he decided to run for President, including restoring the "soul of the country" and rebuilding the "backbone of the country."

9:56 p.m. ET, February 16, 2021

Biden says prosecuting Trump will be up to the Department of Justice

From CNN's Jason Hoffman 

President Biden said any decision to prosecute former President Trump for anything he did while in office will be left up to the Department of Justice, and he will not interfere in a possible investigation.

Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if he would allow the Justice Department to proceed in an investigation into Trump, Biden said that decision lies with the Department of Justice. “One of the most serious pieces of damage done by the last administration was the politicizing of the Justice Department,” Biden said at a CNN Town Hall on Tuesday.

“I made a commitment, I will not ever tell my Justice Department, and it's not mine, it's the people's Justice Department, who they should and should not prosecute. Their prosecutorial decisions will be left to the Justice Department, not me,” he continued.