Sen. Michael Bennet: If The Evidence Heard In House Impeachment Hearings Isn’t Refuted, ‘I’m Likely To Vote To Convict’

December 18, 2019
Michael BennetMichael BennetJohn Locher/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., speaks during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Las Vegas.

It's a big week in Sen. Michael Bennet's line of work. Both of them.

The House votes Wednesday on whether to impeach President Donald Trump, a day before seven Democratic presidential candidates meet on the debate stage Thursday night.

Bennet will not be on the debate stage, but if House votes to impeach as it is expected to do, he would be present when the process moves to a trial in the Senate. Bennet is one of five candidates — the others are Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar — who are also currently serving in the Senate.

However, he says balancing the roles of senator and presidential candidate are not a conflict of interest.

"I think each of us has a constitutional duty to fulfill. It's an important one, a solemn one, and I am sure that every single member of the Senate who's running for president will take it seriously. I certainly will," Bennet said.

The president faces two articles of impeachment brought by Democrats. Approval of the articles would set up a 2020 trial in the Senate.

Bennet said the evidence he has heard from testimonies in the House have been damning.

"If there is no evidence that's contrary to the evidence we've already heard in the House and the president continues to obstruct and continues to stonewall the legitimate questions that Congress has had, that I'm likely to vote to convict," he said. "If the facts change from where they are today, I could change my mind about that. But that's where I am today."

Bennet also talked to Colorado Matters about partisanship in the impeachment process, his absences from Senate votes while on the campaign trail and more.

Interview Highlights

On whether there have been substantive conversations with Republican lawmakers, include other Colorado representatives:

"I'm sorry to say that we really are not. They've sort of put it all into Mitch McConnell's hands and Mitch McConnell has said that he's going to act at the direction of the White House. And my guess is there are very few Republicans that want to get in between Mitch McConnell and the White House. ... I have not had a recent discussion with Senator Gardner about this."

On how Donald Trump is a symptom of other issues in the U.S.:

"I would say that Donald Trump is definitely a symptom of big issues that we have as a country. And not the least of which is 50 years of no economic mobility for the bottom 90 percent of Americans. Another way of saying that is nine out of 10 Americans who haven't seen a pay raise over the last 50 years.

That's created a lot of instability in our democracy. We've got massive income inequality and a lack of economic mobility. And it's not unknown that in moments like that, you can have somebody arise like Donald Trump because people say we can't possibly do any worse. Let's blow the whole place up. The problem is it's our exercise in self government that's getting blown up, which is something I think we have to fix rather than just blow up. And so we've got to overcome them. And then we got to find a way to govern the country again, which I believe we can do."

On his voting record in Congress during his campaign, which at missing 30 percent of votes is the lowest of the candidates, but still a dramatic increase of absences from before running for president:

"I'm certainly never more connected to any place than I am to Colorado and we've continued to do my work there. My staff has held listening sessions in every single County of Colorado just as they do every single year, making sure that we stay in touch with the concerns that people have there. I travel back to see my family and to meet with constituents.

And, as you mentioned, my record shows that I've had the least number of votes missed of any candidate in this presidential election. And there's not a single vote that I have missed where my vote would have changed the outcome of the votes. So I'm proud of the voting record that I had before I started running for president and I'm pleased that I've missed fewer votes than anybody else who is running for president."

On the state of his campaign after not qualifying for recent debates and working with a smaller budget than other candidates:

"I built the campaign so that it would last until people began to vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. People in Iowa and New Hampshire are less decided today than they were six weeks ago, than they were six months ago, than they were a year ago. They are trying to figure out who the right person is to take on Donald Trump, and they have their serious doubts about whether the leading candidates are ones that can beat Donald Trump. And so we've hung in there. The field has dwindled. There are fewer candidates now than they've been throughout. And obviously I was one of the least well-known candidates at the beginning. Not being on the debate stage hasn't helped with that. But on the other hand, the debate stage hasn't changed the state of the race at all either."

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: I'd like to start with the duality you're living, senator and presidential candidate. You obviously have company, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar. As impeachment moves to the Senate, you'll all help decide the fate of the man you'd love to run against for the White House. Meanwhile, you've got Republicans like Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who will be in charge of the impeachment trial, and he had this to say.

Mitch McConnell: The case is so darn weak coming over from the House, we all know how it's going to end. There's no chance the president's going to be removed from office.

RW: We know McConnell is working closely with the White House. It can all seem like a massive conflict of interest on both sides. No?

Michael Bennet: Oh, I don't think it's a massive conflict of interest. I think each of us has a constitutional duty to fulfill. It's an important one, a solemn one, and I am sure that every single member of the Senate who's running for president will take it seriously. I certainly will.

RW: What do you make of words from McConnell saying I'm not going to approach this as an impartial juror?

MB: I think it's very unfortunate. Not only is he not approaching it as an impartial juror, he's said he's going to basically take his guidance or his direction from the president's personal lawyers and from the White House counsel's office. That is a real abdication of his responsibility of the majority leader and it is a testament to the degree to which the national Republican Party has become Donald Trump's Republican Party. And I think that is deeply regrettable. I, as you know, Ryan, Colorado is a state that's exactly a third Republican, a third independent, and a third Democratic. And I don't think a lot of the Republicans in Colorado are happy with what the president has done, but Mitch McConnell is willing to take his direction, which just means the rest of us need to do our jobs.

RW: Does this mean you have not made up your mind?

MB: What I've said is that if there is no evidence that's contrary to the evidence we've already heard in the House and the president continues to obstruct and continues to stonewall the legitimate questions that Congress has had, that I'm likely to vote to convict. If the facts change from where they are today, I could change my mind about that. But that's where I am today.

RW: I'm very curious if you're having any substantive conversations with Republicans, elected Republicans I suppose I'm especially interested in, about impeachment.

MB: I'm sorry to say that we really are not. They've sort of put it all into Mitch McConnell's hands and Mitch McConnell has said that he's going to act at the direction of the White House. And my guess is there are very few Republicans that want to get in between Mitch McConnell and the White House. There may be the opportunity to have some votes on the floor of the Senate to call witnesses where there will be Republicans who might think it's reasonable to have some witnesses and therefore will vote with the Democrats to do that. We'll just have to see. This is so volatile. The polls go up and down every day. The president, just before we got on the radio today, put out a six page creed, his is his latest letter kind of departing from the reality of the seriousness of the matter that we're contending with. And I expect this to take a lot of twists and turns between now and when we're actually sitting in the Senate chamber having the impeachment proceeding there.

RW: So just to be clear, you're not having conversations, for instance, with your Republican colleague from Colorado, Cory Gardner, about this?

MB: I have not had a recent discussion with Sen. Gardner about this.

RW: You talk about the polls going up and down, but really what we've seen is that the nation is pretty dug in on this question. What do you make of that?

MB: Well, I think we'll see what happens during the course of the proceedings. And the House is voting tomorrow, then it'll come over to the Senate. I was young when Watergate happened, but I remember it very well. And I remember it as a very dark time in American history. We were at the height or the depths, however you want to think about it, of the Vietnam War. And Richard Nixon had been reelected, but had committed the sins of Watergate. And it created an opportunity for the democracy to reassert itself and for us to remember why the rule of law is so important, at least for one moment, to think about the standard that we would like from elected officials, including the President of the United States.

I mean, I know he can't be impeached for spending all of his time watching cable television and engaging with the world on Twitter. But if he had any job other than being President of the United States, he would have lost it by now, I think for that alone. And these are serious charges that have come out of the House. I know the president doesn't want to treat them that way, but they are serious charges. There's a reason he's going to be the third president in American history to be impeached. And I don't think history is going to judge him very well.

RW: Is it too late for censure, do you think?

MB: I think that the view is that the right way to handle this is with the impeachment in the House. And I think so far what we're going to have is a vote to convict in the Senate or maybe a vote to acquit. We'll just have to see, Ryan. As I said, this is very, very volatile. It changes day to day and I think it's important for everybody who's involved in it to reflect on the fact that history is going to judge us here. I've been thinking about that a lot.

I went to John McCain's funeral not that long ago. I went to George Bush's funeral not that long ago and it gave me an opportunity to sit there and think, we're all going to be dead someday and don't we want to have somebody at our memorial service saying that we actually figured out how to overcome these differences and begin to work again for the next generation of Americans and to restore America's place in the world? I'm 10 years older than I was when I got here, and I certainly hope that before I leave, we're going to be able to drag this place back into a functioning democracy again. And that's going to be very hard to do as long as Donald Trump is president.

RW: You have spoken and written a lot about inaction in Congress. Your frustration, for instance, with Mitch McConnell's leadership. I wonder though if he and perhaps the president are merely symptoms of deeper partisanship that compromise has become a dirty word for the base of both parties.

MB: I think they're definitely, I mean, I would say that Donald Trump is definitely a symptom of big issues that we have as a country. And not the least of which is 50 years of no economic mobility for the bottom 90 percent of Americans. Another way of saying that is nine out of 10 Americans who haven't seen a pay raise over the last 50 years. And if I could summarize my town halls in Colorado the last 10 years, it's simple. It's easy to do it. It's people coming and saying, "No matter how hard we work, we can't afford some combination of housing, healthcare, higher education or early childhood education. We can't afford a middle class life." I think about the families that I used to work for in the Denver public schools and they would say a version of the same thing, which is we're killing ourselves. We're working two or three jobs. No matter what we do, we can't get our kids out of poverty.

That's created a lot of instability in our democracy. We've got massive income inequality and a lack of economic mobility. And it's not unknown that in moments like that, you can have somebody arise like Donald Trump because people say we can't possibly do any worse. Let's blow the whole place up. The problem is it's our exercise in self government that's getting blown up, which is something I think we have to fix rather than just blow up. And so we've got to overcome them. And then we got to find a way to govern the country again, which I believe we can do.

I've been asked a lot of really interesting questions in this campaign and the most existential one was a woman in Des Moines who asked me, can Western democracy solve climate change? And I said that is a really open question right now.

RW: One apparently you don't have an answer to or even much confidence in saying yes about.

MB: Well, I'd say ... I guess what I'd say is, it depends. If you accept the rubble of our current institutions as McConnell and Trump can do, the reason they can accept that rubble is that they're not actually trying to solve anything like climate or even past an infrastructure bill. If all you want to do is put right-wing judges on the courts and cut taxes occasionally for rich people, you can do it in the midst of this rubble. If you really want to address climate, we have to move past a politics where I put my ideas in for two years, the other side rips them out. I put him in for two years, the other side rips them out. That's been the story of the healthcare debate for the last 10 years.

We're going to need to have a climate policy that will be sustained for a generation more or less for us to be successful. That's going to require a new rebirth of democracy in America. I at least think that's worth fighting for.

RW: I'd like to go back to your particular duality. Earlier this month you said you're following events in Colorado when you're away campaigning, but Politico reports you've missed about 30 percent of Senate votes this year. That was actually tied with Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar for the fewest number of votes missed among the senators running for president. But just for comparison, the website Govtrack says in 2017, you missed less than 1 percent of all votes. And so running for president has grown that 30 fold. How would you respond to a Coloradan, like one who reached out on Twitter, for instance, who wonders if you're more connected to Concord than Colorado Springs?

MB: Well, I'm certainly never than connected to any place than I am to Colorado and we've continued to do my work there. My staff has held listening sessions in every single County of Colorado just as they do every single year, making sure that we stay in touch with the concerns that people have there. I travel back to see my family and to meet with constituents. And, as you mentioned, my record shows that I've had the least number of votes missed of any candidate in this presidential election. And there's not a single vote that I have missed where my vote would have changed the outcome of the votes. So I'm proud of the voting record that I had before I started running for president and I'm pleased that I've missed fewer votes than anybody else who is running for president.

RW: You participated in the first two presidential debates, but have not qualified for the last ones. That seems to be the biggest bang for the buck as far as national exposure is concerned. And speaking of bucks, you sent a fundraising letter that Bennett for America needs to raise serious cash to compete in the early state of New Hampshire. Is your campaign, is it hanging by a thread at this point?

MB: I wouldn't say that at all. In fact, I built the campaign so that it would last until people began to vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. People in Iowa and New Hampshire are less decided today than they were six weeks ago, than they were six months ago, than they were a year ago. They are trying to figure out who the right person is to take on Donald Trump and they have their serious doubts about whether the leading candidates are ones that can beat Donald Trump. And so we've hung in there. The field has dwindled. There are fewer candidates now than they've been throughout. And obviously I was one of the least well known candidates at the beginning. Not being on the debate stage hasn't helped with that. But on the other hand, the debate stage hasn't changed the state of the race at all either.

So when you look at where the polls are right now and remind yourself that in times like 1994, John Kerry was at about three percent in the polls. Today I'm at two. And he went on to win the New Hampshire primary. And so I think it's just as likely, I think it actually may be more likely that somebody who's trading somewhere between zero and three today in Iowa and New Hampshire can finish well in both states.

RW: We know how the John Kerry's story ends. But the starkest difference between you and some of the front runners in the Democratic primary, I think is healthcare. You've said that a Medicare for All plan is a nonstarter and could lose Democrats the election. Could you give me another issue that distinguishes Michael Bennett from most everyone in the Democratic race?

MB: Well, I think that I've got by far the strongest antipoverty plan of anybody who's in the race. The combination of the American Family Act that Sherrod Brown and I introduced several years ago, that alone would cut childhood poverty in America by almost 40 percent in the first year. And the situation where kids are living on two dollars a day in America. The next bill is actually called ... That one's called Bennett Brown. The next one's Brown Bennett, which is a big increase in the earned income tax credit that would be a real help to working people in this country, make it easier for them to support a family on their salaries, paid family leave and raising the minimum wage. And the work that I'm doing on evictions.

There isn't any other candidate in this race that's got that coherent approach to ending childhood poverty and to ending poverty in America in a generation. And I think there's a reason why I'm focused on that. It's what I saw when I was superintendent in the Denver public schools. And I think that part of living in a country where we have no economic mobility and where our education systems are actually reinforcing the income inequality we have, to me that's what the Democratic Party and frankly both parties should be working on.

I was very pleased just this weekend to come to an agreement with Mitt Romney, the Republican from Utah. It is the first bipartisan proposal to make the child tax credit in this country entirely refundable. Which would mean that there are millions of children today, the poorest kids in America that are not getting the benefit of that tax credit because the credit is not refundable. And I'm just so proud that Mitt Romney is the first Republican to say that you know what? We got to do better than that and to do it based on a deal that he struck with me. So I think that focus on economic mobility and also restoring integrity to the White House is more rigorous than what is being offered by any of the other candidates that are running for president.

RW: I'd like to ask you about the CORE Act. This is to protect and expand wilderness and boost outdoor recreation. Your Republican counterpart from Colorado, Sen. Gardner, hasn't thrown his support behind the bill. So no Colorado voice on the Natural Resources Committee is pushing for it. I wonder if you're speaking with the chair, Sen. Murkowski, to move this forward.

MB: Yes. I've talked both to Sen. Murkowski who's the chair and to Joe Manchin, the ranking member and what I've said to them is that every single county that's affected by this bill supports the bill. The commissioners in these counties, many of whom are Republican, support this bill. I've been working on this for the last 10 years. It's 400,000 acres of public land, 70,000 acres of wilderness in the San Juan as well as Thompson divide. It includes designated ... Camp Hale as the first national historic landscape in American history. So this bill is-

RW: Camp Hale is where many of the skiing soldiers of World War II trained.

MB: That's right. And it's actually the origins of our outdoor recreation industry because those guys came back and started a lot of our ski areas and related companies. So this is a wonderful bill for Colorado. It's the most important lands bill that anybody's put together in the last quarter of a century. It has broad bipartisan support from all over the Western slope of Colorado and among many other industries, our outdoor recreation industry who sees the massive economic value. Frankly, I can't understand why anybody who is elected from the state of Colorado wouldn't want to put their name on this bill. And I hope in the coming weeks that we'll be able to get the rest of the delegation.

RW: I'd like you to address Republicans who actually see the threat to the democracy as what Democrats are pursuing, that the Democrats want to undo a duly elected president, that this is about undoing that election. And that these are not impeachable offenses. The aid was released, for instance.

MB: Well I guess what I would say first is that what the president has actually admitted to and what all of the witnesses, virtually all of the witnesses that have testified in the trial and the or in the proceeding in the House have corroborated is that President Trump shook down a foreign power to get that power to intervene in our election. And he threatened to withhold $400 million of aid to Ukraine that they desperately needed to defend themselves against the Russian threat that had been appropriated by Congress. And then on top of that, the president, instead of cooperating with the congressional oversight and investigation, refused to allow any of the people to testify that worked for him. The people that did testify, those brave Americans, did it over the objection of President Trump. And we need to set standards in this country for who our commander in chief should be. And I think that's what this really is all about.

That's what I would say. And I'd ask people to consider whether if the name of the president were Barack Obama and he were accused of doing the same thing that Donald Trump is being accused of, whether they would not have impeached him three months ago or whether they wouldn't have impeached him when he fired Comey and then told the Russians in an office outside the White House that he had gotten the investigation off his back. Or that when he went to Helsinki and stood next to President Putin and said about the election interference in 2016 that he had no reason to doubt Putin's word when every single intelligence agency in America and around the world had said clearly that Russia was attacking our democracy.

I would say if President Barack Obama had done any one of those things, much less three of those things, they would have impeached him long ago. Now, they might say they disagree or the fact that they didn't impeach President Obama is somehow evidence, but the reality is that President Obama never did anything remotely like President Trump has done.

But Ryan, what I'd say even more than that, however people feel about impeachment is that the question that I have is why we have such a low standard for the president of the United States compared to the standard that we have for everybody else in America. If anybody else on 17th street in Denver, anybody in any one of those law firms or banks or dry cleaners someplace spent the weekend tweeting the stuff out that Donald Trump has tweeted out, spent the weekend tweeting stuff out after they'd spent 48 hours watching cable television, on Monday morning, they'd be meeting with the human resources department of their firm. If somebody at Colorado Public Radio did that, they'd be meeting with somebody at the human resources department at the station. And what the human resources department would say is, "You got to stop doing this or you're going to get fired." And if the answer from the employee was, "Don't worry about it, I'm a stable genius," or "Don't worry about it. I have unmatched wisdom," you would be fired.

But the problem is the guy is the president. So on that one weekend of many, many, many weekends where he spent the time tweeting to the rest of the world, China was signing a trade deal with enough economies that represents about 40 percent of the global economy. We were nowhere to be seen. Russia was doubling the number of centrifuges to enrich uranium to threaten other countries in the Middle East and the United States with their weapon. And climate talks were falling apart internationally because the United States is not leading. This is the opportunity cost of having this guy as our president.

So I'm not saying he should be impeached for spending 48 hours a weekend tweeting, but I do think that he should be unelected for doing that. And I think that we should reestablish a standard where we say, "You know what? When we think about the president, we think about somebody that we'd like our kids to look up to when we're trying to teach our kids about honesty and integrity and walking softly and carrying a big stick, not bragging, caring about other people. Having some sense of community and a responsibility to our society. That you could point to the president and say that's what you ought to be like." And as long as this president is president, it's going to be really hard for any of us to do that.

RW: Senator, thank you for being with us.

MB: Thank you, Ryan. I really appreciate it. Let me come back.

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