TRANSCRIPT: ABC News' George Stephanopoulos interviews President Joe Biden

The exclusive interview with President Biden took place on March 16, 2021.

ByABC News
March 17, 2021, 12:36 PM

On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos interviewed President Joe Biden. The following is a transcript of the interview (this transcript has been edited for clarity):

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you've set out your goals for the country. 100 million vaccine doses by next week, $100 million out the door. Every American eligible for the vaccine by -- adult American by May 1st. Something close to normal on July 4th. But tell everyone, when is everything going to be normal for Americans?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, first of all, I won't even be able to meet the July 4th deadline unless people listen, wear masks, wash their hands and socially distance because not everyone by July 4th will have been vaccinated. There's enough vaccine -- I -- we-- we've been able to purchase enough vaccine, George, with a lotta -- a lotta heavy liftin' for over six hundred -- well over 600 million doses to take care of more than 300 million Americans, some of 'em single dose.

But I hope that what I'm reading about 30% of Republican men say they won't get the vaccine and people are talkin' about whether they ne-- I mean, you have to-- one, when-- when it's available to, get the vaccine, number one. Number two, stay socially distanced. Number three, wear a mask when you're out in public. And we'll get by this and we'll get by it much quicker than we otherwise --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Would it help --

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: -- would.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -- if President Trump told the Republican men to get a vaccine?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I have no idea what kind of influence he has anymore. I'm not bein' facetious. I just don't know, George. He got the vaccine. He got the vaccine before he -- he left Washington. And so I hope people understand. Now, one of the hardest things we're doin', George, is in communities not far from here, there's a lot of poor communities that don't have access to a lot of opportunities. They've been hit very hard by the COVID experience.

They've been dying at -- at more rapid rate when they contract it. They contract at a more rapid rate than the white community. And that's why we opened up to tens of thousands of drug stores across the country because there's many in almost every neighborhood, and federal health clinics that are in the areas, that are in the most hard-hit areas. So we gotta reach out and make sure people who either don't have computers, don't know how to get online -- that they're able to get the vaccine.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you get the politics out of this vaccine talk?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I honest to God thought we had it out. I honest to God thought that, once we -- we guaranteed we had enough vaccine for everybody, things would start to calm down. Well, they have calmed down a great deal. But I don't quite understand, you know, the sorta -- I don't wanna -- I just don't understand this sort of macho thing about, "I'm not gonna get the vaccine. I have a right as an American, my freedom to not do it." Well, why don't you be a patriot? Protect other people.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How about emphasizing the positive. How has life changed for you since you got the vaccine?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, it's changed because I can hug my grandkids now. They come over to the house. I can see them. I'm able to be with them. I've had the vaccine. I've had it. And, secondly -- it has changed my life in the sense that I've been able to demonstrate to other people that, you know, I mean, I doubt whether people would expect me to take it if I didn't think it was safe -- to make the case that it is safe to take the vaccine. It's important to take the vaccine.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden talks to ABC News' Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on March 16, 2021.
President Joe Biden talks to ABC News' Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on March 16, 2021.
ABC News

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about the crisis at the border. Some heartbreaking scenes down there right now. And a lot of the migrants coming in saying they're coming in because you promised to make things better. It seems to be getting worse by the day. Was it a mistake not to anticipate this surge?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, first of all, there was a surge the last two years. In '19 and '20 there was a surge as well.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: This one might be worse.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No, well, it could be. But here's the deal. We're sending back people to -- first of all, the idea that Joe Biden said, "Come" because-- I-- I heard the other day that they're coming because, you know, I'm a nice guy and I won't do what --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They're saying this --

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: -- Trump did. Yeah. Well, here's the deal. They're not. The adults are being sent back, number one. That's number one. Number two, what do you do with an unaccompanied child that comes to the border? Do you repeat what Trump did?

Take them from their mothers, move them away, hold them in cells, etcetera? We're not doin' that. So what we're doin' is we have brought in -- brought in HHS and also brought in FEMA to provide for enough safe facilities for them to not -- to get out of control of the Border Patrol, which was not designed to hold people for long periods of time, particularly children.

Get them out of those facilities. And most of them come with a phone number too -- so what we're doing is we're putting together an entire organizational structure so that, within seven days, they're gonna be able to get on the phone, contact that number, find out whether there is a mother or a father, whether it is safe, whether it is a secure circumstance to get the child to that adult.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you cut through the red tape and make sure those kids get to a contact as quickly as possible? Our reporters on the scene are saying they're seeing total mayhem there right now.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, what you get -- what you have to do is you have to try to get control of the mess that was inherited. And the way to get control of the mess that was inherited -- I mean, look, here's what the plan is. You may remember when we had this unaccompanied children at the border when Barack was president, he called me back, I was in Turkey and said, "You gotta take care of this."

And I was able to get a bipartisan bill passed for almost $800 billion to go to the root cause of why -- why people are leaving. Why are they leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras? Because they're in terrible circumstance, either because of natural disasters and hurricanes, gangs or violence.

They're tryin' to escape. And that's why they're coming. So what I did, I spent close to 100 hours with the leaders of those three countries and the U.N. making sure that we're -- for example, in one of the major cities down there, they said the crime rate's terrible. That's why people are leaving this particular city.

"But we have no street lighting." And the government said, "Give us the money to put in --" I said, "I'm not gonna give you the money. But I'll tell you what. Show me what you need. I'll get contractors down there. We'll put in the street lights for you," because there's a lotta corruption down there. And guess what? Violence came down in that city.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It's going to take some time though to get those policies in place again. Do you have to say quite clearly, "Don't come"?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes. I can say quite clearly don't come over. And the process of getting set up, and it's not gonna take a whole long time, is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don't leave your town or city or community. We're gonna make sure we have facilities in those cities and towns run by department of -- by DHS and also access with HHS, the Health and Human Services, to say you can apply for asylum from where you are right now.

Make your case. We'll have people there to determine whether or not you are able to meet the requirement you qualify for asylum. That's the best way to do this. In addition to that, while we also change the circumstances on the ground in those communities, you're gonna diminish the reason why people want to leave in the first place.

It's not like someone's sitting in Guadalajara right now in Mexico, which is not the biggest problem right now, and saying, "I got a great idea. Let's sell everything we have, give it to a coyote, give him our kids, take 'em across the border. Leave 'em in a desert where they don't speak the language. Won't that be fun?"

That's not why people come. They come because their circumstance is so bad. Now, some come because they want a better opportunity, for economic reasons. They don't qualify. And so in the meantime, what we should be doing is making sure we provide beds for these children.

By the way, over 50 percent children coming are ages 16 and 17. 16 and 17. They're not -- most of 'em are not little babies. 1% are young -- young kids. And so what we're doing now is we're providing for -- in the past, what you do is HHS would take them to licensed providers, so there's beds, security, where there's health care, they're fed, they're cared for, while they determine whether or not there is someone in the United States they're entitled to go to.

And that's what we're in the process of doing now. We will have, I believe, by next month enough of those beds to take care of these children who have no place to go. But they need to be taken care of while they're -- but the vast majority -- let's get somethin' straight though. The vast majority of people crossin' the border are being sent back. Are being sent back, immediately sent back.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You're out here selling your COVID relief package, you're executing the COVID relief package now as well. What's next on your legislative agenda?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, look, one of the things that, if you notice the criticism of the COVID relief package from my Republican friends, is they say it spends too much money and it gives too many tax breaks. Well, 60% of all these tax breaks go -- all these tax breaks go to the bottom 60% of the population.

And guess what? They need it. The $1,400 check. Child care tax credit, the ability to provide for -- we cut child poverty in half, literally in half in the United States of America. They don't like it because in fact their -- their idea of a tax cut is give the Trump tax cut, where 83% went to the top 1% of the people in America.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You're going to be raising those taxes?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes. Anybody making more than $400,000 will see a small to a significant tax increase. If you make more than -- less than $400,000, you won't see a fed -- one single penny in additional federal tax. I brought this with me 'cause I often get asked and I don't wanna misquote it.

If you take a look at the corporate tax rate under Trump, if you raise the tax rate back up to what we thought it should be, it was at 35%, they brought it down to 21%. Bring it to 28%. That raises $800 billion. You have now 90 of the Fortune 500 companies don't pay a single penny in federal tax. Not a penny. Making billions of dollars.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But let's talk raw politics here. You didn't get a single Republican vote for tax cuts. How are you going to get a Republican vote for a tax increase?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Oh, I may not get -- but I'll get the Democratic votes for a tax increase. And -- there're some Republicans who do have consc -- look -- also, we know, if we just took the tax rate back to what it was when Bush was president, top rate paid 39.8 per se -- 39.6% in federal taxes. That would raise $230 billion.

Yet, we're -- they're complaining because I'm providing -- a tax credit for child care? For the poor, for the middle class? Keeping people -- and by the way, my proposal in the relief plan I put forward, it creates seven million jobs according to a whole range of people, including -- Moody's and Wall Street, number one. Increases the GDP by over $1 trillion, actually raises -- raises income in America, and diminishes debt in America. I mean, what are these --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But by your --

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: -- guys talking about --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: By your own admission, you just said you're not likely to get Republican votes for the tax increase. You're not likely to get Republican votes for HR-1, expanding voting rights, or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. So aren't you going to have to choose? I know you've been reluctant to do away with the filibuster. Aren't you going to have to choose between preserving the filibuster and advancing your agenda?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes. But here's the choice. I don't think you have to eliminate the filibuster. You have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days when you used to be around there. And that is that a filibuster -- you had to stand up and command the floor.

And you had to keep talkin' along. You couldn't call for, you know -- no one could say, you know, quorum call. Once you stopped talkin', you lost that and someone could move in and say, "I move the question of." So you gotta work for the filibuster.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're for that reform? You're for bringing back the talking filibuster?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I am. That's what it was supposed to be. Look, I think -- don't hold me to the numbers, George, but I think between 1960 and 2000, there were l -- I'm makin' this number up. I don't know. There were, like -- you know, 50 filibusters. Now there're, like, 200 since then, since that rule tanked --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Just put a hold on it, that's it?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yeah. I mean, you know, so the idea -- it almost is gettin' to the point where there's -- you know, democracy's having a hard time functioning. A hard time functioning. And so, look, I'm not sayin' this is gonna be easy, George. But I do believe there's enough Republicans over time who are gonna have -- look, you -- you --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They haven't had that epiphany you said you were going to see in the campaign--

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No, no. Well, I've only been here six weeks, pal, okay? Gimme a break. (LAUGH) Been here six weeks. I think the epiphany's gonna come in twenty -- between now and 2022. There's 78% of the people say they support this program. 52% of Republicans.

Let's assume it's off by 15%. You're gonna go home and cap a -- Republican voters want that $1,500 because they're in trouble. Republican voters want to be able to choose between being able to send their -- go to work and send their kid to a daycare that they can afford.

Republican voters wanna be able to take care of a child care tax credit. I mean, these are -- it's not like -- every Republican is you know, a billionaire. You know, they're -- by the way -- I'm not saying it will cha-- I'll do it again, but I want those Republican voters in suburbia.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Director of National Intelligence came out with a report today saying that Vladimir Putin authorized operations during the election to under -- denigrate you, support President Trump, undermine our elections, divide our society. What price must he pay?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He will pay a price. I, we had a long talk, he and I, when we -- I know him relatively well. And I-- the conversation started off, I said, "I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared."

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You said you know he doesn't have a soul.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I did say that to him, yes. And -- and his response was, "We understand one another." It was-- I wasn't being a wise guy. I was alone with him in his office. And that -- that's how it came about. It was when President Bush had said, "I looked in his eyes and saw his soul."

I said, "Looked in your eyes and I don't think you have a soul." And looked back and he said, "We understand each other." Look, most important thing dealing with foreign leaders in my experience, and I've dealt with an awful lot of 'em over my career, is just know the other guy. Don't expect somethin' that you're-- that -- don't expect him to-- or her to-- voluntarily appear in the second editions of Profiles in Courage.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you know Vladimir Putin. You think he's a killer?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Uh-huh. I do.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So what price must he pay?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The price he's gonna pay we'll-- you'll see shortly. I'm not gonna-- there's-- by the way, we oughta be able that ol' -- that trite expression "walk and chew gum at the same time," there're places where it's in our mutual interest to work together.

That's why I renewed the start agreement with him. That occurred while he's doin' this. But that's overwhelmingly in the interest of humanity, that we diminish the prospect of a nuclear exchange. But that and SolarWinds as well. He's been -- they've done some mischievous things, to say the least. And so we're gonna have -- I'm not gonna announce what I'm doing, but he's gonna understand that --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How about Mohammad --

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: -- it's not free.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -- bin Salman? You said during the campaign that you would personally punish the Saudi leaders if they were found to be responsible for this death of Khashoggi. They were found to be responsible. Mohammad bin Salman -- Salman was found to be responsible. He was found to have acknol -- authorized it. Yet, you didn't personally sanction him.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Three things. One, I'm the guy that released the report. That report had been done for a while. It wasn't released. I insisted it be released, number one. Number two, when I spoke to the king, I made it clear to the king -- the king, his father, that things were gonna change. And I insisted on several things. Number one, we held accountable all the people in that organization --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But not the crown prince?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Not the crown prince because we have never, that I'm aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person. And -- and -- ostracized him. But here's the deal. We said, number one, end the war in Yemen. End the starvation there.

Number two -- and I went down the list of the things we expected the Saudis to do. And they're in the process of doing those things. And if they don't, we're gonna -- it's a changed relationship. It's a changed relationship we have with Saudi Arabia. There's no blank check.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden talks to ABC News' Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on March 16, 2021.
President Joe Biden talks to ABC News' Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on March 16, 2021.
ABC News

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President Trump reached a deal with the Taliban to have all American troops leave by May 1st. Are they going to leave?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm in the process of making that decision now as to when they'll leave. The fact is that -- that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president -- worked out. And so we're in consultation with our allies as well as the government. And -- that decision's gonna be -- it's in process now.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Likely to take longer?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don't think a lot longer.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But May 1st is tough?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Could happen, but it -- it is tough beca-- look, one of the drawbacks, George, and it's gonna be, like, Sanskrit to people listening here, but it is the failure to have an orderly transition from the Trump presidency to my presidency, which usually takes place from Election Day to the time you're sworn in, has cost me time and consequences.

For example, we didn't realize how bad things were in terms of lack of vaccines. We didn't realize how -- because we were not -- we were not able to get access to this information. That's part of -- that's one of the issues we're talking about now in terms of Afghanistan.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about Governor Cuomo of New York. I know you've said you want the investigation to continue. If the investigation confirms the claims of the women, should he resign?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes. I think he'd probably end up being prosecuted too.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But -- how about right now? You've said you want the investigation to continue. You saw -- Chuck Schumer -- Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, majority of the congressional delegation don't think he can be an effective governor right now. Can he serve effectively?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, that's a judgment for them to make -- whether he can be effective. Here's my position and it's been my position since I wrote the Violence Against Women Act. A woman should be presumed telling the truth and should not be scapegoated and become victimized by her coming forward. Number one. But there should be an investigation to determine whether what she says is true. That's what's going on now.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you've --

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -- been very clear, if the investigation--

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And I say --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -- confirms the claims, he's gone?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That's what I think happens. And, by the way, it may very well be there could be a criminal prosecution that is attached to it. I just don't know. But let the investiga -- and I'm not-- I don't know what it is. But I start with the presumption it takes a lotta courage for a woman to come forward. Some are not -- anyway, takes a lotta courage to come forward. So the presumption is it should be taken seriously. And it should be investigated. And that's what's under way now.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You probably walked into the Oval Office as president with -- about as much experience, if not more experience, than any other president who's ever served. Three -- more than three decades in the Senate, eight years as vice president. So what is it about the job that surprised you, that even you didn't know?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, there wasn't -- all the -- George, I was thinkin' about this. I was tryin' to explain to somebody the other day. Initially, was a kid when I ran, when I was 43 years old to try to get the nomination. What I thought of was, you know, how do you compare yourself to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt?

And it's intimidating. But I thought about it. I've personally known seven presidents well. And I've played in the same teams they played on. And -- there're some with great strengths, more strengths than I have, weaknesses. But what hasn't surprised me is the subject matter.

I think I know as much about the subject matter and have as firmly held positions and capacity to understand how the system works as anybody who's been president, at least in, you know, the last 50 years. But what has surprised me is that I'm not as surprised as I thought I might be.

I don't know if that makes any sense. But, you know, it's like sitting -- you know, when I was vice president, the big, big difference is that famous expression of Harry Truman, "The buck stops here." For eight years, I had a great relationship, and still do, with Barack. And he'd ask me -- and I'd always be the last person in the room. And I'd say, you know, "Throw the pass or run the ball." And I'd give my opinion. I was the last guy. And I -- I'd get to leave.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is Vice President --

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He's all by himself to have to make that decision. That's the big difference.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is Vice President Harris the last person in the room?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Most of the time, yes. As a practical matter, yeah, she is. But -- she has -- we -- we have a lot -- there's a lot more ground to cover right now. So she's doin' an incredible job. But she is -- she's on the West Coast right now. She's all over the place.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One final question. Is Major out of the doghouse?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yeah -- the answer's yes. Look, Major was a rescue pup. Major did not bite someone and penetrate the skin. What happens is for-- I guess what surprised me is the White House itself, living there. Every door you turn to, there's a guy there in a black jacket.

And so you're walkin' and we got -- and -- the dog's being trained now -- our trainer at home in Delaware -- and he was going home. I didn't banish him to home. Jill was gonna be away for four days. I was gonna be away for two, so we took him home.

And, you know, we have a dogsitter there -- a friend who takes him. And -- but you turn a corner and there's -- there's two people I don't know at all. And, you know, and they move -- and he moves to protect. But he is -- he's a sweet dog.

85 percent of the people there love him. He just -- all he does is lick them and wag his tail. But he does -- you know, it -- I realize some people, understandably, are afraid of dogs to begin with. And -- I just think that-- anyway, we're -- in the process of having a training session.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you'll see him tonight?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm gonna see him tonight, yeah.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thanks for your time.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Thank you, George. I appreciate it.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

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