CBS News June 24, 2019, 11:01 AM Full transcript: Ed O'Keefe interviews Sen. Kamala Harris

The following is a transcript of CBS News Political Correspondent Ed O'Keefe's interview with Sen. Kamala Harris in Columbia, South Carolina.

ED O'KEEFE: Let's start with Iran. The president apparently decided at the 11th hour to not attack because he thought it would be a disproportionate response. Should you Democrats be giving him credit for not having done that, because it would have been disproportionate?

SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS: I don't believe that anyone should receive credit for a crisis of their own making. And, there is no question in my mind that the current occupant of the White House, President Trump, put in place a series of events that led to that event. And- and we should take seriously what people who have been doing this work for a long time have told us, which is that the president's actions have been erratic and irresponsible.

ED O'KEEFE: How would a president Harris fix the problem?

SEN. HARRIS: Well frankly, I- I believe that we need to get back into the Iran nuclear deal. I- I- I would- I would strengthen it. I would include ballistic- ballistic missile testing. I think that we can strengthen what we do in terms of monitoring and verification, of- of progress. But there's no question that a- a- a lot of negotiation with a great deal of depth took place over a long period of time to reach that agreement, and it was- it was an agreement that was being complied with by all parties. And so under a Harris administration, we would attempt to get back into the agreement, and again, strengthening it, but understanding that we are in the best situation when we are working with our allies and are able to monitor Iran's activities, and- and do it in a way that requires full compliance with our standards.

ED O'KEEFE: You're on the Senate Intelligence Committee.


ED O'KEEFE: Where do you rank Iran in terms of threats to the United States?

SEN. HARRIS: I am on the Senate Intelligence Committee. On a very consistent basis, I receive classified briefings about the threats to our nation's security. And I can tell you that we live in a dangerous world and that we have to take seriously any possible and potential threats to our nation. And on the list of- of potential threats, especially in terms of nuclear threat, North Korea is of course on that list, and Iran is on that list and there are others. But we have to conduct ourselves in a way that we are smart about what we do to have one and one goal only, which is ensuring that our nation is secure. And it cannot be the goal to- to express one's ego and to engage in gamesmanship without much serious regard to the consequence, and I think that's what we've seen in this president.

ED O'KEEFE: So who's our greatest global foe?

SEN. HARRIS: I would- I would present the question differently which is, what is our greatest political our- our- our national security threat?


SEN. HARRIS: I would say that cybersecurity is one of the highest in terms of what should be a concern. Cybersecurity on a number of levels. We've seen what happens in terms of how we can face cybersecurity threats as it relates to Russia's interference in the election of the president of the United States remembering, of course, that our elections infrastructure has been designated as critical infrastructure for our nation. When we talk about it in terms of the energy grid, when we talk about it in terms of the vulnerability of our financial systems, all of which are vulnerable to attack. In fact, I have a bill, that is a bipartisan bill, with a Republican Senator, James Lankford from Oklahoma to- to- to- to secure and- and better secure our elections infrastructure. But the Republican leadership will not put it on the floor for a vote. And there are some indications it's because the president won't sign that bill. So, you know, I think that when we talk about the greatest threats to our national security there are ways that we can address them but instead, this president wants to focus on creating conflict where none exists. He wants to incite fear in the American public which is what he has done and when he continuously has talked about this multibillion dollar wall which, by the way, will not get built. And- and- and we need to do better and we can do better, which is why I'm running for president.

ED O'KEEFE: President- I'm going to do this once here and see if this helps.

SEN. HARRIS: Poor guy.

ED O'KEEFE: I know it's fine, you're worth it. See, so, just remember this one day.


ED O'KEEFE: The president is set to meet with Vladimir Putin at the G-20. Would you meet with him if you're president?

SEN. HARRIS: It depends. I mean listen, I believe that we do have to have open lines of communication, and I will never foreclose that as- as- as a viable option. But let's be clear about this president's relationship with Russia, the press- the current president of the United States has taken the word of the Russian president over the word of the American intelligence community. The current president of the United States has taken then- on the issue of- of the election in 2016. The current president of the United States takes the word of a North Korean dictator over the word of the American intelligence community when it comes to an American student who was tortured and later died. The current president of the United States takes the word of a Saudi prince over the word of the American intelligence community when it comes to a journalist who was assassinated, a journalist who has an American credentials. So, I would not do that. I trust the intelligence community–

ED O'KEEFE: But you might have to meet with Putin.

SEN. HARRIS: –of the United States. But it would not be without an appropriate amount of one, reading the briefing book. Let's start there. Sadly that we even have to talk about that as being a requirement. It would not be without meeting with leaders in our Department of State. Me- meeting with our military leaders to determine what is the smartest and best course of action for the United States. These are not just about relationships that are based on some- some trust that are re- maybe previous relationship that that president has with the president of Russia it has to be based on what is in America's best interests not self-interest.

ED O'KEEFE: Trump administration's on the verge of rounding up immigrant families across the country. If one of those families is watching or listening, what's your message to them right now?

SEN. HARRIS: My message to them is that you are not alone and we stand with you. And there are those of us who will fight for you and your rights every day. My message to them is do not live in fear. You are not alone and America's values are such that we do not condone, as an American value, putting children in cages. America's values are not that we separate families and take children from their parents. And I would tell them that a new day is coming. We got to get beyond this election, but that we as a nation are better than this. Because I'm going to tell you, the re- reason I say all that is that I know how this is going to play out. And I know what's been happening since the beginning when this president was elected, which is these immigrant families have been further pushed into living underground to living in the shadows. That's not reflective of the civil society.

ED O'KEEFE: If ICE comes looking for them, should they hide? Should they stay in the shadows?

SEN. HARRIS: Listen, I'll tell you what they're going to do. I'll tell you what they're going to do because it's already happened. Children will not want to go to school out of fear that if they go to school, they will come home and their parents won't be there because they will have been picked up and deported. There will be children and parents will not send those children to the pediatrician for fear that if they walk into a hospital, they will be deported. What will happen is is a victim of rape, or child molestation, or fraud will not wave down a police officer in the middle of the street for fear that if they have that contact, they will be deported. These are the things that will happen. These are the things that will happen.

ED O'KEEFE: Those thousands in detention facilities along the border. If they're still there. You take office. What happens to them?

SEN: HARRIS: Well first of all it's about understanding why they're there. And the majority of them are there because they have fled murder capitals of the world. And I think it's very important that when we think about this issue, we understand it in the context of real people and what they are experiencing.

ED O'KEEFE: So how–


ED O'KEEFE: –how do you treat them once they're here?

SEN. HARRIS: What you do is you give them the benefit of a process that we put in place a very long time ago anticipating that there will be people around the globe who will flee harm who will flee danger and arrive at our shores. And we put in place a process because we said as Americans we have strong arms. That will embrace those who are being hurt. So we put in place a process to hear their stories to determine the legitimacy of their stories and if their story is legitimate to give them a place of refuge and safety. And as president of the United States I will make sure that is a real process so that we can hear their claims and if they are deserving of protection, we will give it to 'em.

ED O'KEEFE: But they wouldn't be released from those detention facilities the moment you take office.

SEN. HARRIS: Well, no, listen, I- there has to be a process in place. But let's be clear, I mean we can get into the details of this part of what we had under the previous administration, which worked actually better than what's happening now, is we had a process where people would- would be released from custody with an order to return but they would go to these these family centers and actually it had a 90 something percent rate of return. So, let's again figure out what the goal is. Is the goal to try to put people in cages? Or is the goal to make sure that we have a process by which we make sure that those who deserve safety and refuge that they receive it and those who don't? If there are any who are trying to game the system then, they don't receive it.

ED O'KEEFE: Let's talk about Joe Biden.


ED O'KEEFE: You've criticized him for praising his ability to work with people who had very different views.

SEN. HARRIS: No, that wasn't my criticism.

ED O'KEEFE: What was your criticism?

SEN. HARRIS: Because- I- I- I applaud any effort to work across party lines around common goals and common interests. And, in fact, I'm proud that two of my most significant legislative efforts and successes in the United States Senate are both bipartisan. So, I- I believe it is very important, it is critical for the health and for the well-being of our nation that we find common ground

ED O'KEEFE: What bothered you?

SEN. HARRIS: Praising and coddling individuals who made it their life's work and built their reputation off of segregation of the races in the United States. That's a problem. I would not be a member of the United States Senate if those men that he praised had their way. I wouldn't.

ED O'KEEFE: And one of the things they did is, and he inferred this, is they might have called someone like him who was younger, son, they might've called a black man, boy. And that's been part of the issue for a lot of African-Americans–

SEN. HARRIS: –Of course it is, of course it is–.

ED O'KEEFE: –we've talked to here and across the country, is that offensive to you?

SEN. HARRIS: We cannot be ignorant of the history of race in this country. And certainly anyone who is a leader should not be. That is a very loaded term, loaded with a history that includes extreme racism, violence. Discrimination prejudice you name it. All of that it's a very loaded term. And I think it is very important that we all who. Who are leaders, or profess to be leaders that we choose our words carefully understanding the significance and the power of our word.

ED O'KEEFE: Can you recall a time in your past in the workplace where someone might have used that kind of patronizing or derogatory language with you?

SEN. HARRIS: To call me boy?

ED O'KEEFE: Well not boy- not boy, maybe something else.

SEN. HARRIS: Not in- not in- not in the not directly in the workplace. No not directly.

ED O'KEEFE: You said a few weeks ago, you were being asked this chatter about you being Biden's running mate and you said well he's perfectly qualified to be a running mate.

SEN. HARRIS: Yes he is.

ED O'KEEFE: In light of these comments though, if you were looking at someone's record, would it disqualify him?

SEN. HARRIS: I- I've got to win first, and then we can have this conversation.

ED O'KEEFE: You- You have said that the House should start impeaching- impeachment proceedings–


ED O'KEEFE: — on the president. He says now his campaign manager told us that they think that will help him get reelected. Is that a risk democrats can afford?

SEN. HARRIS: It is certainly a risk. I wouldn't doubt that. I don't doubt that. I think that there is, however, no question that if you've read the Muller report, which I have, it clearly outlines at least ten, one would argue eleven, counts of obstruction of justice and further, that Bob Mueller has told us, in many ways, I believe, that the only reason he did not return an indictment of Special Counsel is because of a Department of Justice memo that says the sitting president cannot be indicted. But if you also go on to read what's in these documents and including that memo, you will know that it leaves open explicitly the right of Congress and perhaps the duty, even, of Congress to act. And the way Congress then must act, is to take a look at this and open an inquiry into what exactly was the conduct and whether there should be accountability for that conduct. And so this, I believe, is a matter that is about fighting for the integrity of the system of our democracy which was designed, specifically with checks and balances, to ensure that there would not be an abuse of power.

ED O'KEEFE: But if it cost your party power?

SEN. HARRIS: Well this is- this is the existential question. You're exactly right. You're right. This is the tension. This is the tension which is, do you stand to fight for these principles that were part of the- the spirit behind the design of our democracy, checks and balances, accountability? Or do you stand with strategy which is what is the ultimate goal and if it's saying that this guy should not be in office and if this could hurt the chances of winning an election, should you hold off? This is a tension and I think each person is going to have to make a decision about where they stand. I have chosen to stand with the position that I believe the- the proceedings should begin.

ED O'KEEFE: You're gearing up for your first debate. We talked a little bit about this earlier.

SEN. HARRIS: Yes. Yeah.

ED O'KEEFE: How are you preparing?

SEN. HARRIS: Well I'm here in South Carolina. I'm talking with folks and listening to them more than I'm talking I hope, and I'm getting a sense of what is on people's mind. You know my whole- the way that I think about issues frankly you know another a lot of people who talk about it in terms of what is your ideological perspective what is- is you know this intellectual kind of debate about what kind of Democrat are you. Well let me just tell you the way I think about the things that are my priorities are you know what I call, you know, my three o'clock in the morning agenda. What are the things that wake people up in the middle of the night? Because these are things that have been weighing on him and they just can't get to sleep. And those are the priorities I have and so it's through that lens that I think about issues like health care issues like what people need to get through the end of the month and be able to pay their bills which is why I'm proposing what has been considered one of the most significant middle class tax cuts in generations. It's the things that keep us up at night in terms of making sure that their kids are gonna be safe at school and not have to worry about a mass shooter. These are the issues that I think about based on, again, what I call my three o'clock in the morning agenda. And, so.

ED O'KEEFE: But do you line up nine of your aides and say let's practice ten people on stage.

SEN. HARRIS: Well I think we will do that. We haven't yet. So- but, you know I will be I'll be working on it. That's for sure.

ED O'KEEFE: What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about you?

SEN. HARRIS: Huh. I'll tell you who I believe myself to be and who I am.

ED O'KEEFE: But there's got to be something you're hearing.

SEN. HARRIS: Well, you know, I mean I think that people are curious about my background as a prosecutor. And I think also though that we're clearing the record on that. You know, I'm a daughter of parents who were active in the civil rights movement. I experienced bias in terms of the criminal justice system growing up. It's not something I learned in school, it's not an intellectual point for me. And so when I made a decision to become a prosecutor was a very conscious decision and it was a decision that I made believing that what needs to be reformed can also be done from the system and be done inside where the decisions are being made. And I also decided to become a prosecutor because, frankly, I feel it I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to protect people and in particular protect the most vulnerable and voiceless. And so I'm proud of my record I'm proud of starting one of the first reentry initiatives in the country focused on low level drug offenders and getting them jobs and counselling and dismissing the charges against them so they could go on to live a productive life. I'm also proud of my record of having successfully prosecuted predators including rapists including murderers including the biggest banks of the United States around the foreclosure crisis including taking on pharmaceutical companies. So I think that if there's any question of the reason that I do what I do probably one of my strongest instincts and and reasons for doing a lot of what I've done in my life has been to protect people.

ED O'KEEFE: You- you take your prosecutorial record against the push in your party for criminal justice reform. There's a lot of concern among, especially more liberal and younger parts of the party, you may not be the best person to do that given that you were implementing those tough on crime initiatives. As a prosecutor can they trust you to do that?

SEN. HARRIS: Well, here's the thing. When I became a prosecutor and when I was elected district attorney and also Attorney of General California I implemented some of the most significant reforms to date during those years that had been implemented. Like I said I- I created one of the first reentry initiatives. It became a model. It was designated as a model in the United States for what law enforcement should do to be as I call it, "smart on crime." I was the first in the nation leading the State Department of Justice in California, which by the way is the second largest department of justice in the United States, to require my agents to wear body cameras. I created as attorney general the first in the nation implicit bias and procedural justice training for law enforcement knowing that that had to be addressed which is the implicit bias that exists in law enforcement and the potentially lethal outcomes that occur from that.

ED O'KEEFE: So the concerns are overblown?

SEN. HARRIS: The concerns are overblown, yes, no question.

ED O'KEEFE: As we wrap up–


ED O'KEEFE: You talked about 3 a.m., but let's talk about you for a second. Lying in bed at night, going to bed–


ED O'KEEFE: What keeps you up?

SEN. HARRIS: What keeps me up is- I'll tell you what keeps me up. Issues like these kids in cages. What keeps me up is knowing that we could be on the potential of going to war because of the ego of the current President of the United States. What keeps me up is knowing that I've met with farmers in Iowa who've got soybeans rotting in bins because of a trade policy that has not been a- protecting- about protecting working people in America, but again has been about trade policy by tweet. These are the things that keep me up at night. What keeps me up at night is that the women of our nation, as it relates to their access to reproductive health care, that that is under attack and that poor women in America may be precluded from having access to the health care they need because they don't have money to travel to another state that recognizes the dignity of women and the- the right that they have to make decisions about their own bodies. These are the things that keep me up at night.

ED O'KEEFE: You want to keep going?

SEN. HARRIS: I could keep going.

ED O'KEEFE: You sure?

SEN. HARRIS: What else you got? What else is over there on that list, Ed? Your voice is getting better.

ED O'KEEFE: It is, see, that's the thing. I could redo the whole thing. How long have you wanted to be president.

SEN. HARRIS: A year and something?

ED O'KEEFE: When was the moment that you said I gotta- I gotta do this?

SEN. HARRIS: I think- I- I'll tell you, I seriously- it was actually presented to me as something I should seriously consider and it was after the election in 2016.

ED O'KEEFE: By who?

SEN. HARRIS: I'm not telling you. (laughs)

ED O'KEEFE: Somebody important?

SEN. HARRIS: Many people.


SEN. HARRIS: Many people, yeah. Yeah. But many people.

ED O'KEEFE: So the moment you get to Washington you're already thinking about it?

SEN. HARRIS: No, I wasn't because I actually dismissed it as- It wasn't- I mean it's not been- it has not been my life's aim. I- I'm not one of the however many candidates who- who were born thinking they'd be president of the United States.

ED O'KEEFE: Is it- is it weird hanging out with nineteen, twenty other people who- who want to be president?

SEN. HARRIS: I- you know, I work with many of them–

ED O'KEEFE: I know.

SEN. HARRIS: –and I like and respect them. So it's, you know, last night was the first night we've all really been together and hanging out together as a- as a group and it's great. I mean we're having you know a- a very unique experience to run for president of the United States. And- and many of us are having the same experiences which is you know probably not sleeping enough, not eating as well as we should, not spending enough time with our families as much as we would like to. So there is a shared I think bond in terms of the experience we're having.

ED O'KEEFE: Did it get awkward in there, backstage?

SEN. HARRIS: It didn't feel awkward. It didn't feel awkward. No.