Joe Biden is dismissing calls from President Trump and his allies that Biden testify during an impeachment trial in the Senate, saying any effort to compel his testimony should be viewed as part of a strategy to distract from the president's conduct.
"No, I'm not going to let you take the eye off the ball here. Everybody knows what this is about," the former vice president told NPR when asked whether he would cooperate with a subpoena. "This is a Trump gambit he plays. Whenever he's in trouble he tries to find someone else to divert attention to."
Asked a second time whether he would comply with a subpoena, Biden said: "No, I will not yield to what everybody is looking for here. And that is to take the eye off the ball." He added, "No one has ... one scintilla of evidence that I did anything other than do my job for America as well as anybody could have done it."
Biden was referring to attacks from Trump directed at Biden's son Hunter, who took a lucrative job as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company when the elder Biden was vice president and oversaw Ukraine policy for the Obama White House.
The Bidens' dealings in Ukraine became a top focus of Trump and his Republican allies, and House Democrats are now preparing to impeach the president over allegations that he abused his office by pressuring Ukrainian authorities to open an investigation into the Bidens and other Democrats while crucial military aid was on hold.
Hunter Biden has said that joining the board of gas company Burisma Holdings was the result of "poor judgment," since it fueled his father's critics.
Last Thursday, President Trump tweeted that the former vice president and his son would both be among those who would testify in a Senate impeachment trial. "We will have Schiff, the Bidens, Pelosi and many more testify, and will reveal, for the first time, how corrupt our system really is," the president wrote.
State Department official George Kent testified in the impeachment probe that while he didn't see any improper behavior by Biden, he did warn his staff in early 2015 about possible perceptions of a conflict of interest, and that he was told the then-vice president could not deal with the issue at the time since his other son Beau was in the final months of his life suffering from brain cancer.
"Nobody warned me about a potential conflict of interest. Nobody warned me about that," Biden said. He added, "They should have told me."
Despite the optics, the former vice president underscored that his son did nothing improper.
"The appearance looked bad and it gave folks like Rudy Giuliani an excuse to come up with a Trumpian kind of defense, while they were violating the Constitution," Biden said.
In a wide-ranging interview with NPR, while Biden was campaigning in Iowa, the Democratic front-runner said his long career in politics makes him best positioned to restore America's standing on the world stage. Biden said his health care plan is more "realistic" than policies proposed by some other Democratic contenders.
And he defended calling an Iowa voter a "damn liar" after the voter, who identified himself as a retired farmer, questioned whether the former vice president was too old to run for president and challenged his family's dealings in Ukraine.
Biden name-calling a voter drew comparisons to Trump's blunt and sometimes coarse style, a parallel that Biden strenuously rejected.
Trump, he said, "makes fun of people. He belittles people. He lies. I don't do any of those things. Period. The fact of the matter is this guy stood up, and he was, in fact, lying. And I just pointed out, 'You're a liar.' It's a fact. He lied. Period," Biden said.
When asked about the health care proposals of some of his opponents — such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, each of whom supports "Medicare for All" plans — Biden sounded skeptical.
"Do you think it's remotely possible to raise $3.5 trillion a year, more than every single penny we spend on every single thing in the federal government on a yearly basis, without raising taxes on the middle class? If you answer that question, then I'm ending the interview because you know it's not true," Biden said. "You gotta raise taxes."
He did not name any other Democratic candidates by name, but he said his opponents are "bright" and "honorable people," though he argued that some of the bold proposals sparking policy debates do not have a real shot of ever becoming law in America.
"All the things we're talking about, none of it matters, even if you defeat Trump, unless you can pass it," Biden said.
What's driving the Biden campaign
Biden's decades in Democratic politics have allowed him to meet leaders around the world, experience that he said should give him an edge on foreign policy matters.
"I know all of these world leaders, even the ones that we don't like very much like Putin. I know him. He knows I know who he is, and he knows who I am. There's no misunderstanding about who we are. And it's really important," Biden said.
Biden continued: "Think about this. If we don't figure out how to bring the world together again, reassure our allies, making sure that our, that those who are opponents know we understand what they're about and we're going to do something about it. Where do we go? What happens in five years? If this, if the president's reelected, you think there'll be a NATO? Do you think there will be national security arrangements we have with European countries? What do you think? I don't think it's possible. I think they'll be gone."
While Biden has for months maintained a commanding lead in national polls, he has struggled to capture large numbers of younger and more liberal members of the Democratic Party.
When asked what might explain the apparent enthusiasm gap, Biden shot back: "There isn't an enthusiasm gap! What the hell are you talking about?"
He added: "Come with me on college campuses. You don't see that." However, while Biden holds a lead in national polling among Democratic voters, he consistently trails Sanders among voters under 30.
Biden's decision to run for president for the third time in his political career is a direct response to President Trump, who he said has placed the U.S. in "a deep, deep, deep hole."
"This is absolutely a guy who is damaging us around the world. And the issues that need to be dealt with now are issues that have been in my wheelhouse my whole life," Biden said. "How can I walk away? I'm not joking. I'm not saying I'm a savior. But they're the issues that were in my wheelhouse my whole life."
This interview was edited and produced by NPR's Eric Marrapodi, Victoria Whitley-Berry, and Bridget De Chagas.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This morning, I want to tell you about some time I spent with Joe Biden recently. We met up with him in Elkader, Iowa, on Friday. This is a little town about an hour and a half outside of Cedar Rapids, and a couple hundred people had gathered into this community center to see the former vice president. His tour bus is an hour late, but no one inside seems to mind much.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Well, what kind of people show up for Joe Biden at this point in the campaign?
MARTIN: So mostly big fans. I do have to say, when I was just doing a rough count of this particular group - probably a couple hundred folks, as I mentioned - less than 15 or so were under the age of 50. I got a whole lot of, oh, we love Joe. There was this real sense of familiarity about him.
I heard more than once, he's been around a long time. And in this crowd, Steve, that is not a negative thing. People appreciate that experience. A lot of them were wearing these No Malarkey stickers, which is what Biden has named his bus tour, which we have to say is not exactly a name that makes you think of the future. But it is very Joe Biden.
JOE BIDEN: How are you doing?
MARTIN: I'm good. How are you? Nice to see you.
BIDEN: It's great to see you. Great to see you.
MARTIN: All right. So this is the bus, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.
BIDEN: This is the bus.
MARTIN: This is the bus. No Malarkey.
So we were with him on that bus. This is the third time the vice president has campaigned for president in Iowa. He's currently polling fourth in that state behind Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Biden is hoping that a recent endorsement from a former presidential candidate who did well in Iowa might help him, and we are not talking about Barack Obama.
Well, let me ask you - you recently got an endorsement from your friend, Senator John Kerry - former Secretary of State John Kerry. There are some within your party, in particular younger voters, who look to the former secretary of state and it's a warning for them for 2020 because they think about 2004. Because while John Kerry came from behind to win Iowa, he still lost the presidential race. And he was the stabilizing force. He was the guy with the name recognition. He was going to right the ship after George W. Bush, who was at the time fairly unpopular. That's the liberal rap on you right now - that a moderate can't beat Donald J. Trump.
BIDEN: Look at all the polling data. Show me where the Democratic Party doesn't want somebody like me.
MARTIN: But I know you don't even like polls.
BIDEN: No, I don't. But...
MARTIN: You say you can't trust the polls.
BIDEN: No, you can't. But just travel with me. Travel with me. Look what's happening. Look. What's moderate about my wanting to make sure everybody has health care? I just have a different view than other people do. And if you notice, the vast majority of people agree with my position on health care. They agree with my position on education.
They agree with - and so the idea that there's something - that, quote, "I am moderate" - one of the things that - you know, I wish I had that label when I was running all the times for the Senate, I was a moderate. Because I was always rated as one of the most liberal senators in the United States Senate for all the years I was there.
MARTIN: But you're not nearly as progressive on health care as other candidates in the race, or on...
BIDEN: Yeah because I'm realistic. Guess what? You're going to find $33 trillion in 10 years and not raise tax? Look. You all are beginning to be a little more honest than you have been. You're going to look at it now and say, OK, those of you for "Medicare for All," you're going to have to raise taxes on the middle class. You let everybody not answer that question for the longest time.
MARTIN: So, Steve, I should take a moment and just describe the scene here. We're both situated on this black leather bench on the bus as it is driving on the highway. It's a really small space. We're probably only a few inches apart from one another.
And when I bring up any criticism of the campaign, Biden bristles and leans in to make his point. He is especially displeased with a question about his challenge with younger voters. A recent Harvard poll shows him with only 18% of the vote between people between the ages of 18 and 29.
Why do you think there's an enthusiasm gap?
BIDEN: There isn't an enthusiasm gap. What the hell are you talking about?
MARTIN: I'm talking about a lot of young people who say, Joe Biden's got a lot of experience. He's been around a long time, and that's not what we want right now.
BIDEN: Come with me on college campuses. You don't see that. You guys keep saying that.
MARTIN: Well, because I talk to people...
BIDEN: You talk to people.
MARTIN: ...Who say, I want someone from the outside. I met someone tonight...
MARTIN: ...At the town hall we were at.
BIDEN: I'm sure you have.
MARTIN: She said, I want someone who can bring some outside energy because I don't think an insider can beat Donald Trump - because he is so outside the norm that the moment demands someone who is not of the establishment. What do you say to someone like that?
BIDEN: I say the fact of the matter is that's not the case. The case is, look. The next person we elect to be president has to be able to pass something. Name me one thing all the rest of the candidates combined have passed. Donald Trump is the reason why you need someone who knows what they're doing. Donald Trump - name me somebody who's going to be able to stand on the world stage and immediately command the respect of everyone in the world.
MARTIN: Well, Barack Obama was able to do it, and he didn't have very much experience at all.
BIDEN: No, that's not true. Think about it. That's not true. What happened was one of the reasons Barack Obama picked me as vice president is because he lacked the background in foreign policy. He's a brilliant guy. He knew what he wanted to do. He knew how to get it done.
MARTIN: You brought up the ticket...
BIDEN: The sentiment (laughter).
MARTIN: ...So I want to ask you - of a ticket and a running mate.
MARTIN: And so I want to ask you about that because...
BIDEN: Are you available?
MARTIN: ...Senator Kamala Harris...
MARTIN: ...Is no longer in the race. And that leaves the debate stage for the next debate in the Democratic primary looking very white. All the people on the stage will be white candidates. And that is just not - as you know, that's not representative of the party. If you are the nominee, can you commit to selecting a person of color to be on the ticket?
BIDEN: I have not a little tiny bit of a problem picking a person of color or a woman.
MARTIN: Can you commit to that?
BIDEN: No, I can't commit to that because...
MARTIN: How come?
BIDEN: ...Here's what I know about vice presidents. You have to have someone who works with you who believes exactly like you do on the strategic notions that you support. The reason why the historians are writing about Barack Obama and I having the closest relations with everybody is we trusted each other completely. He was able to give me entire chunks of responsibility where I didn't have to report back because he knew I knew what he was thinking and we agreed.
MARTIN: And you can't right now that that person would be a person of color
BIDEN: And you can't know that. You can't know that. But there's plenty of people of color, there's plenty of women who are not - who haven't run. You've got senators - you've got - I can think of four women senators off the bat that would be great vice presidents. I can think of some - I can think of several women who are - in fact, lost races recently who are completely capable of being vice president of the United States.
And look. I am in a situation where - look at my staff. I have the most diverse staff of anybody running. I've always done that. This is who I - the country has to look like - the administration should look like the American public.
MARTIN: I have to ask you about what's happening right now. President Trump is in the process of being impeached. The Senate trial is pending. Republicans have suggested that they might call you or your son, Hunter Biden. If you are subpoenaed, would you comply?
BIDEN: No. I'm not going to let you take the eye off the ball here. Everybody knows what this is about. This is a Trump gambit he plays. Whenever he's in trouble, he tries to find someone else to divert attention to. And the fact...
MARTIN: But this is a real thing that's happening. Republicans are...
MARTIN: ...Suggesting that they would subpoena you.
MARTIN: And President Trump - these issues will be parsed out in the Senate trial.
BIDEN: That's right.
MARTIN: But the question is, would you comply...
MARTIN: ...With the subpoena?
BIDEN: I will not yield to what everybody is looking for here, and that is to take the eye off the ball. Everybody knows the issue here is not what I did because no one has proved one scintilla of evidence that I did anything other than do my job for America as well as anybody could have done it, making sure that we, in fact, got rid of a corrupt prosecutor who everybody, including our allies as well as the IMF and everyone else, said has to go.
I did my job incredibly well. And even the people in his administration have testified to my character, testified to my honesty. So why would I...
MARTIN: You know it didn't look good for Hunter Biden to be on that board. Even if he did nothing wrong, the optics weren't good. There were former White House aides of yours who tried to warn you about the potential conflicts of interest.
BIDEN: Nobody warned me about a potential conflict of interest. Nobody warned me about that. And at the same time...
MARTIN: George Kent, the State Department official, testified that he raised it to you and your staff...
BIDEN: No. He didn't say to me.
MARTIN: ...To your staff.
BIDEN: He did not say...
MARTIN: To your staff. I stand corrected.
BIDEN: I never, never heard that once atall.
MARTIN: To your staff. And your staff told him he has no bandwidth for family matters.
BIDEN: Well, my son was dying. I guess that's why he said it because my son was on his deathbed. But that's not the reason why - they should have told me. And the fact of the matter is, my son testified and did an interview saying if - he, looking back on it, made a mistake. He made a mistake.
Although he did nothing wrong, the appearance looked bad. And it gave folks like Rudy Giuliani an excuse to come up with a Trumpian kind of defense why they were violating the Constitution. His words speak for themselves.
MARTIN: I know that you sat down with your family before you decided to run for president this time because I talked with your wife about it. And you had a big conversation about the emotional toll that this takes every single time, but especially this time. This is your third time running for president. Why do you want this so bad?
BIDEN: Look. No. 1, I'm not sure I'd be running if Trump wasn't the president. I think the country is...
MARTIN: At this point, the vice president goes into this very long answer, recounting how his grandchildren insisted that he run this time. Then he goes back in time and lays into President Trump for calling Mexicans rapists and defending white supremacists after Charlottesville. And then Joe Biden repeats a line he says a whole lot on the campaign trail, that we are in a battle for the soul of this country.
BIDEN: They're looking for somebody who can actually bring the world back together and get us off this precipice. They're looking for someone who can actually get things passed. What good does it do if we cannot reach a consensus on issues relating to health care, education, climate change, dealing with guns and assault weapons? I've done those things.
INSKEEP: You mentioned earlier that his experience can be seen as a liability, Rachel, but you hear him there playing on it as an asset.
MARTIN: Right. And, you know, I talked to several people at that town hall I went to who said, listen, we just want to beat Donald Trump, right? But that's not the entire Democratic voting bloc. I mean, to win this very crowded primary, Biden has to build a coalition of voters - not just those who want to go back to life before Donald Trump, but also those who want a vision for the future and they haven't decided if Joe Biden is the guy who has that.
INSKEEP: OK. Thanks, Rachel - really fascinating. And it's a great video as well, which you can watch - this interview with Joe Biden at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.