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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Frm. Rep. Beto O'Rourke in a Town Hall with Dana Bash. Aired 10-11:12p ET
Aired May 21, 2019 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BASH: Good evening from Iowa, the first stop on the road to the White House. And welcome to CNN's Democratic presidential town hall with former Congressman Beto O'Rourke. I'm Dana Bash, and we are at Drake University for Congressman O'Rourke's first nationally televised town hall as a presidential candidate.
He captured the country's attention last fall by giving Texas Senator Ted Cruz a run for his money. Now he's competing for a chance to take on President Trump. With the Iowa caucuses a little more than eight months away, voters in our audience who say they plan to participate in the Democratic caucuses are ready to ask their questions.
Now please welcome Congressman Beto O'Rourke.
O'ROURKE: How are you?
BASH: How are you? Nice to see you.
O'ROURKE: Hey, everybody.
O'ROURKE: Is there a dog barking?
BASH: I think there is.
BASH: Maybe that's the dog at Drake University.
O'ROURKE: I think that's the bulldog. Yeah.
BASH: So, nice haircut.
O'ROURKE: Thank you. Appreciate that. Yeah.
BASH: I say that because we all saw the livestream on Facebook of you getting your hair cut.
BASH: So if you make it to the White House, what else will you be livestreaming?
O'ROURKE: Yeah. You know, my intent is to show off my hometown of El Paso, Texas. And this extraordinary barber who produced this haircut that you are seeing right now...
... who moved over from Ciudad Juarez nine years ago at the height of some horrific violence there to start a business in my hometown, to create jobs, to contribute to our quality of life, to help tell the American story. This is a country of immigrants and asylum-seekers and refugees from the world over. Nothing to be afraid of. Everything to celebrate. So that's what we were trying to do. Yeah.
BASH: There's a lot of people here from Iowa. We have a lot of great questions, and we want to begin with Sarah Duncan, a research associate for Vote Smart, a nonpartisan group that provides information on candidates running for president.
QUESTION: Good evening.
O'ROURKE: Hey, Sarah.
QUESTION: From the undoing of the Iran deal, labelling certain countries as "shitholes," violating human rights within our own borders, promoting anti-Muslim sentiment, cheering on dictatorial leaders, et cetera, the U.S. has not only weakened its global status, but it has demonstrated that its own domestic partisanship is an interference to stable foreign relations. How do you plan to restore global trust in American leadership and American foreign policy?
O'ROURKE: Sarah, thank you for the question and giving us the opportunity to take stock of where we are in the world right now. This president, this administration, his policies here at home and abroad have been an absolute disaster.
Describing those immigrants who come to this country as rapists and criminals, though they commit crimes at a far lower rate than those who are born in this country, describing asylum-seekers as animals or an infestation -- an infestation is how you might describe a termite or a cockroach, something that you want to stamp out, something less than human -- you don't get kids in cages at the border until you have dehumanized them in the eyes of your fellow Americans.
To try to ban all Muslims, all people of one religion from the shores of a country that is comprised of people from the world over, every tradition of faith, every walk of life.
The day that the president signed his executive order attempting to ban Muslim travel to the United States is the day that the mosque in Victoria, Texas, was literally torched to the ground. And then his embrace of strongmen and dictators, not just Vladimir
Putin, who he called after the Mueller report was released, described it as a hoax to the man who invaded our democracy in 2016, giving him the greenlight to come in again, but it is Duterte in the Philippines, el-Sisi in Egypt. It's Erdogan in Turkey. It's MBS in Saudi Arabia, as they bomb Yemen into the last century with our help under this administration.
And as he does all of this, he turns his back on our allies in the Western democracies, and our trading partners, and those markets for which we grow the soybeans and corn in this state, now closed off to us under this administration.
We need to get back to promoting democracy here at home, making sure that every single vote counts and everyone is able to vote. And then abroad, making sure that we send the signal that the future of this world is a democratic one, not an autocratic one.
And then let's focus more of our attention on our own hemisphere. Those people to whom we are connected by land, by culture, and increasingly by families, if we invest in solutions in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, then fewer people have to flee those countries and come to our border at the United States-Mexico border, where we're proposing to build a 2,000-mile wall right now.
We have to do better here at home and do better abroad. And under my administration, we will. Thank you for asking the question, Sarah. Appreciate it.
BASH: Congressman, our next question comes from Cris Wildermuth. She's an associate professor of education right here at Drake University. Cris?
QUESTION: Good evening.
O'ROURKE: Good evening.
QUESTION: Two arguments for starting impeachment proceedings against President Trump are, first, that impeachment would bring into the open information withheld by the administration and, second, that it is the duty of Congress to protect the Constitution. There seems to be a concern, however, that the move could backfire politically. What is your stance on starting impeachment proceedings against President Trump and why?
O'ROURKE: Chris, thank you for the question. We should begin impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. Not something...
Not something that I take lightly. It's an incredibly serious, sober decision that we should make as a country, really the last resort when every other option has failed us. And at this point, where the president has refused to respond to any
subpoena, where his attorney general will not testify, where he will not furnish other witnesses so that we can find out what happened to this great democracy in 2016, and how we prevent future attacks in 2020 and beyond, a president who invited the involvement of a foreign power in this democracy in 2016 and then did everything in his power to obstruct the investigation into what has happened, if we do nothing because we are afraid of the polls or the politics or the repercussions in the next election, then we will have set a precedent for this country that, in fact, some people because of the position of power and public trust that they hold are above the law.
And if this great democracy, 243 years into this idea and this experiment, is to survive for another 243 or even another year or two, we cannot allow that precedent to stand. There must be consequences, accountability, and justice. The only way to ensure that is to begin impeachment proceedings.
Cris, thank you for asking the question.
BASH: So just to follow up on that, you said that impeachment proceedings should start now. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, says that the president -- impeaching the president would be very divisive in the country and would only help the president solidify his base. Do you think there's something to that?
O'ROURKE: I do. You know, I understand the political implications of this. But I think this moment calls for us to look beyond the politics and the polling, and even the next election.
It's the very sanctity of the ballot box and the very future of the world's greatest democracy. And if this is important to us -- and I think it is -- then we need to look past those short-term consequences to the consequences to the future of this country.
And the only way that we're going to get the documents and the facts and the truth to be able to pursue them as far as they go, as high up as they reach, is to compel the testimony, the furnishing of those documents through impeachment proceedings. It's the only way that we're going to get to the facts necessary to have that accountability and justice.
BASH: Because short-term pain could be for you, if you were the Democratic nominee. That's OK?
O'ROURKE: That's possible. But, listen, the consequence of the alternative is to turn a blind eye to this and, in doing so, turn our back on the future of this country. And I cannot be part of that. We're going to have to make the tough decisions now.
BASH: OK. Let's get to the audience again. Doug Thompson is a corn and soybean farmer who previously worked at the Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration. Doug?
QUESTION: Congressman, welcome to Iowa.
O'ROURKE: Thank you.
QUESTION: China and the Trump administration are in the midst of a protracted trade war. Theft of intellectual property and forced transfer of technology are at the core. I am a farmer. I have been asked to be a patriot and cheer for the home team, all while 40 years of market development in China is destroyed. The trade war has handed my soybean market to Brazil and to Argentina. My question: Where are our allies, the E.U., Japan, Australia, Canada, Mexico? Do we need to do this unilaterally?
O'ROURKE: Thank you, Doug. May I ask you a question?
O'ROURKE: How long have you been farming?
QUESTION: Since 1976.
O'ROURKE: And is -- are there children to whom you would want to pass this farm onto, a next generation?
QUESTION: My son, Adam, is sitting right over there.
O'ROURKE: Adam, good to see you. Yeah.
QUESTION: He knew that he didn't want me to ad lib tonight.
O'ROURKE: Well, I'm glad -- yeah, I'm glad that you are both here, and I'm grateful for the question. You said it better than I could. You are bearing the brunt of this president's disastrous trade war and the tariffs that he's imposed that are destroying the markets that you have worked a lifetime to establish, you and other farmers and growers here and in my home state of Texas and, frankly, across this country.
I was talking to your former governor and the former secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack. And I was asking him, what do we do in this situation? And he responded with a rhetorical question. He said, when in the history of this country have we ever gone to war, a military fight or a trade war, without allies? Because that's exactly what we are doing now with China.
Yes, they have manipulated their currency. Yes, they have dumped onto this market at below cost. And, yes, there should be a consequence and accountability for that. But going this alone unilaterally has obviously not produced that.
And your ability to pass that farm on to the next generation when what you're growing cannot find markets around the world, when some of these fields, especially on the western part of the state up against the Missouri, are literally lakes right now, we've seen the bins that have blown open from the soybeans that were stored because they could not find a market, that had soaked up all of that water, and now spoiled and not covered by insurance. We need to have a response to this. We need to ensure that you can pass this farm on to the next generation.
A couple of ideas. Let's bring our allies with us to the table, our traditional trading partners, like Mexico, Canada, the European Union, into this fight to make sure that we get the results that we're looking for. Let's help farmers out today. Let's make sure that crop insurance covers stored grain.
And then let's put you in the driver's seat for policy going forward. What are the best practices to grow corn and soybeans here? How can we keep more land under conservation? How do we pay farmers? And I've heard this expressed as pennies per meal for doing environmental services, by leaving land in conservation or planting cover crops to pull more carbon out of the air, inject more of it in the soil, disturb less of it while it is there.
I want you to take the lead in our administration on agricultural policy. And I want to win this fight with China, but I want to do it with allies, not alone.
Thank you for asking the question. Appreciate it, Doug.
BASH: So on that note, do you support the president's USMCA agreement to replace NAFTA?
O'ROURKE: He might be headed in the right direction on this, but there's a lot more that we need to do. We need to make sure that the U.S. worker is on a level playing field with everyone else against whom we compete.
Let me give you an example. Many of the jobs that used to call my hometown of El Paso home crossed the river when the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. They're now in Ciudad Juarez, where people are making $40 or $50 a week doing what American workers had done before. Part of the reason is there are no real labor unions or ability to organize or use the leverage of the value that they provide in those maquilas to demand better wages and working conditions and benefits that are good for those Mexican workers and then also make the worker here in the United States be able to compete on a more level playing field.
So I want to make sure that in a revised MCA, that I would love to be able to negotiate, that we ensure that that U.S. worker is on a more level playing field with any country with whom we have a trade agreement. I would also add stronger environmental protections and stronger human rights protections. If we do that, we will have fair trade for the United States.
BASH: Thank you. Let's get back to the audience. Olivia Welter is a pharmacy student right here at Drake University and a supporter of Elizabeth Warren. Olivia? O'ROURKE: Hey, Olivia.
QUESTION: Yes, good evening. Welcome to Drake.
O'ROURKE: Thank you for having me.
QUESTION: My question for you is that recently several states have introduced and passed bills that legally prohibit those with uteruses from exercising their reproductive rights. What specific actions will you take to allow us to gain back our right to our own bodies?
O'ROURKE: Thank you. For so long, women have been leading this fight, shouldering the burden of making sure that their reproductive rights protected. It's time that all of us join them in this fight. As president, I will make sure that every nominee...
... to every federal bench, including the Supreme Court, understands and believes that the 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, is the settled law of the land.
As president, I'll make sure that we do away with the gag rule which prevents providers from referring women to get the best reproductive healthcare that they can. We'll do away with the Hyde amendment, so that ensures that regardless of your income or your ZIP Code you are able to access a safe, legal abortion, and also the other services that are provided in family planning clinics, a cervical cancer screening, family planning help, in a state like mine, in Texas, where we have not expanded Medicaid or one like yours where you've privatized Medicaid to disastrous results, being able to get the health care that will keep women alive in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis that is three times as deadly for women of color.
And then I will work with our partners in Congress to make sure that by statute we prevent states from taking away the right that every woman should enjoy -- making her own decisions about her own body and having access to the healthcare that makes that possible. Thank you for asking.
BASH: You probably know there are efforts underway right now to boycott these states, to try to stop people from spending any money in states like Alabama that have passed restrictive measures on abortion. Do you support those boycotts? And how far should they go?
O'ROURKE: Here's an alternative solution that I'd like to pursue. There's an extraordinary organization in Texas called Annie's List, and it helps women run for political office, city council, state rep, state senator, U.S. Congress, senator, and president. More women in positions of power and public trust means better
results, not just on these policies, but just about any other policy that I can think of right now. So let's change the composition of these state legislatures so that we have people who better reflect the genius of those states and of this country and of our great democracy. That's the path that I want to take.
BASH: OK. Our next question comes from Lydia Holm, a doctor and a supporter of yours.
O'ROURKE: Wonderful. Thank you. Hi.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for taking my question, Congressman. As a pediatric ER doctor and a mom, one of my greatest fears is a mass shooting happening in my community. My kids have never known a time without mass shooter drills in the schools. This year, my four boys are in four different schools, and my first thought was that if a shooting happens they won't all be in the same place. And every time I go to work at the ER, I wonder if that will be the day. What will you do to help stop this?
O'ROURKE: Thank you for asking this and then asking it in such personal terms. Sometimes when we talk about the fact that we lose more than 30,000 of our fellow Americans to gun violence, that can seem an abstraction or a number.
When we think about our kids and others' kids who have been lost when gunmen enter a school and begin firing on those students and teachers and public school educators, it brings it home to us what is happening in our country right now.
This is the last week of school for my kids in El Paso. And I had a chance to talk to my 8-year-old, Henry, who just ran the relay at Mesita Elementary today. They came in first. And I said if he keeps it up, he can come to the Drake relays down the road here. So...
But not too long ago, perhaps like your children, he came home from first grade, and when Amy and I asked him what he had done at school that day, he talked about his teacher huddling Henry and his classmates into a closet and then resisting the temptation to open the door when someone impersonating an active shooter to get them ready begins to knock on it.
I met an extraordinary middle school student who may be here. She goes to Berg Middle School in Newton. Her name is Milan. And when I had a chance to talk to her class, her one question is, I don't want to come to school and wonder whether I'm going to come home at the end of the day.
What's the answer to that? We know that in this country, those states that have adopted universal background checks and close every loophole -- the Charleston loophole, the boyfriend loophole, the gun show loophole -- and make sure that everyone who purchases a firearm goes through a background check, those states have seen a reduction in gun violence of up to 50 percent.
When we complement that by ensuring that weapons of war designed for use on the battlefield are no longer sold into our communities so they don't end up in our schools or our synagogues and our churches, we can save even more lives.
Two more steps that I want to take. Red flag laws, and not just do it town by town or state by state, but do it nationally so that anyone who exhibits a tendency to harm themselves or to harm somebody else can be stopped before they do that.
And then the last part, let's make sure that we invest in the counseling and the mental health and the therapy necessary for people to get the care that they need.
So I want to make sure that we're up to this challenge. Thank you.
BASH: One other question. Do you support mandatory federal licensing for guns? Gun-owners, rather, in the United States, similar to what you hear from Cory Booker?
O'ROURKE: I think that's something that we need to look at. And I'm grateful to Senator Booker for taking a bold approach to a very urgent problem that we have right now.
But I would start with those four steps that I just outlined. There's consensus there. There's agreement. We're going to be able to make progress. But, yes, I think this is something that should be debated. We should have a full hearing on that. And if it makes sense to the American public, then let's move forward. But I want to start with this area of agreement that we have right now.
BASH: OK. Let's get back to the audience. Beverly Davis is a communications consultant. She has our next question.
QUESTION: Thank you for being in Iowa, Congressman. My mother is an immigrant from Central America and a naturalized citizen. And she, like so many Americans, is horrified and angry at the Trump administration's treatment of legitimate immigrants on our southern border. What is your concrete plan to fix our broken immigration system and stop the inhumane treatment of immigrants?
O'ROURKE: Thank you. Thanks for the question.
If you don't mind me asking you, what country did your mother come from? O'ROURKE: Panama. She's right there.
O'ROURKE: Right. Thank you for being here. We saw 400,000 apprehensions at our southern border last year. To put that in perspective, in the second year of the George W. Bush administration, there were 1.6 million apprehensions. And those that we were apprehending last year very often came from the northern triangle countries of Central America.
And they were fleeing the deadliest places on the planet and making a 2,000-mile journey, much of that by foot, some of it atop a train known as the Beast, or La Bestia, to come here in an attempt to follow our asylum laws, perhaps as the O'Rourkes did in the 19th century, fleeing famine that claimed the lives of more than a million Irish on that island, coming to the one place that would take them in so they could do better for themselves and do better for all of us.
We met those asylum-seekers under this administration with cages for their kids, and we've deported those mothers who risked their very lives to bring their children here back to the very countries from which they fled. You ask what I would do differently? I would never again separate another family when they come here at their most vulnerable and desperate moment.
And I will make every effort and we will spare no expense to reunite those families who have already been separated. And then let's do this together and let's not do it as Democrats or independents or Republicans. But let's do this as Americans. Let's rewrite our immigration laws in our own image.
Let's reflect our values, our reality, the best interests and traditions of this country that is comprised of immigrants and asylum- seekers and refugees, free every one of the more than 1 million Dreamers from any fear of deportation by making them U.S. citizens here in their home country.
And then give others who are laboring in the shadows right now, working some of the toughest jobs that we can imagine, let's bring them out of the shadows, allow them to contribute to their full potential, put them on a path to citizenship, and then ensure that our visa quotas match the labor demands that we have here, our desire to have families be able to reunite, and have everyone contribute to the shared greatness and success of this country.
I know that we can do it. We just have to set our minds to it and have a president who reflects that desire and that demand. And I tell you, coming from a city of immigrants that also happens to be one of the safest cities in the United States of America, I've lived this experience, I have a powerful story to tell about the positive impact of immigrants, and that will be reflected in the White House under our administration.
Thank you for asking the question. Appreciate it.
BASH: Let's do a follow-up question about that. So far this year, just this year, Customs and Border Protection has apprehended nearly 50,000 unaccompanied children along the Southwest border. So would a President O'Rourke grant those children asylum?
O'ROURKE: If they meet the test for credible fear -- that they cannot return to their home country for fear of being attacked, being raped, being killed -- the answer is yes. Now, that's -- that's who we are as a country.
And the beneficiary of that ultimately is not just the child. It is all of us. Everything that that kid is going to do over the course of their life, the genius that will be revealed, will be revealed for all of us. It will benefit the United States of America, as it always has.
But, Dana, that can't be the solution in and of itself. We need to invest in solutions in the northern triangle. This president wants to cut $500 million -- that's all that we give to those three countries -- and if you put it into perspective, he wants to spend $30 billion on a 2,000-mile wall. He wants to cut that. I would double it.
And I would focus it on violence prevention so that no mother has to make the god-awful decision of sending her child on that 2,000-mile trek because it is the only choice that she has now. Let's invest in those solutions there so that families can stay there, they can be prosperous there, they can help those countries come together, and make sure that we have partners in the Western Hemisphere going forward.
That's the wisest, best use of our diplomacy and our resources in this hemisphere.
BASH: Thank you for that.
O'ROURKE: Thank you.
BASH: Let's take a quick break. Don't go anywhere. We'll be back with more from CNN's Democratic presidential town hall with Beto O'Rourke. Stay right there.
BASH: Welcome back to Drake University in Iowa. We're live for a Democratic presidential town hall with Beto O'Rourke.
We want to get back to the audience in a minute, but before we do, I just want to ask something personal, and that is about your dad. He was a politician in El Paso, and you didn't always see eye to eye. He wanted you to be in the family business of politics. You were not that interested. It's probably an understatement back then. In 2001, he was hit by a car, he was killed, and I just wonder what you think he would say watching you now running for president of the United States.
O'ROURKE: Well, since we're on live TV, and there may be kids watching, I'm going to -- I'm going to keep this clean.
I think he would -- you know, I would like to think that he would be proud the way that we're doing this, being with people, having fun, all about connecting with folks where they are and where they live.
My dad, Pat O'Rourke, never met a stranger, loved every second of being alive, found total joy in serving others. And to whatever degree I can emulate that and find that joy -- and it's been that way as we've traveled Iowa and the other states and in my time of service on city council and in Congress, I hope that I'm living up to the expectation that he set for me. I miss him terribly every day, but I know that if he were with us, he would be having the time of his life. So I keep him in my thoughts, and I know that he is somewhere looking on us with a big smile on his face.
BASH: And is he surprised saying, wow, you really did it?
O'ROURKE: Yeah. Yeah.
Because this was absolutely not my path in life. I remember, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Columbia, took out student loans every year that I was there, a work-study job every year that I was there. My dad took out loans to be able to send me there.
And I came home my sophomore or junior year and I said, "Dad, I'm an English major." And I just remember the look of disappointment on his face.
We're taking all these loans out and struggling for you, and you're going to read books all day? So I don't think he knew what course or path I was going to take, but I'm grateful that I get to do this. I'm the luckiest guy in the world.
BASH: Well, he did know that -- and this is a little-known fact about you -- after you graduated, you were a live-in nanny for a family briefly, right, in New York City?
O'ROURKE: Does anyone else have any questions?
BASH: A lot of questions.
O'ROURKE: Yeah. So I, after college, was trying to live in the city, trying to live in New York, and I was working full time but I still didn't have enough money to pay the rent. And so this incredibly kind family said that if you will make our kids breakfast in the morning, walk them to school, take care of them at the end of the day, and then watch them on the weekends, you can have the little apartment above ours in our apartment building. Great deal. And so I took them up on that, and a great experience early on. Yeah.
BASH: OK. Well, we're going to make a turn to other important topics.
BASH: To our audience, I want to get straight to Joey Lyons who is a registered nurse. Joey?
QUESTION: Hey, Congressman Beto.
O'ROURKE: Hi, Joey.
QUESTION: I work at a hospital on a floor that specializes in helping people detox from drugs and alcohol. First, as a society, how do we stop viewing drug users as criminals and start viewing them as people struggling with mental health problems?
Second, would you support decriminalization of drug use beyond just marijuana?
Third, would you commute sentences for people serving time for simple drug possession? Thank you.
O'ROURKE: Thank you. And thank you for the work that you're doing. So incredibly important.
We look at the fact that we lost 70,000 of our fellow Americans last year to drug overdose deaths, most of them to opioids, and most of those who were addicted to opioids began that addiction with a legally prescribed opiate, the vast majority. And so often we treat them as a criminal justice problem instead of, as you've just suggested, a public health opportunity.
So, yes, let's not criminalize them. Let's get them the long-term recovery help, the treatment that they need, the care that will get them back on their feet so that they're as productive as they should be over the course of their lives.
And let's also acknowledge this, that without consequences or justice for how this happened, for corporations like Purdue Pharma that marketed these opioids and not...
Though we have 2.3 million of our fellow Americans behind bars tonight, we are the most incarcerated country on the face of the planet, disproportionately compromised of people of color. I was talking to somebody in Iowa, Tavis Hall (ph), who is an expert on this. He said African-Americans comprise 3 percent of Iowa's population, 40 percent of the incarcerated population in this state.
We are busting people for possession of marijuana, putting them in jail, forcing them to check a box on every employment application form after they're released, making it less likely that they get the job, making it almost impossible to attend Drake because they no longer qualify for federally backed student loans. And yet no one from Purdue Pharma has done a night in jail or paid any significant consequence.
We've got to do better. So let's end a war on drugs. It has become a war on people, a war on some people more than others. Yes, let's end the prohibition on marijuana and expunge the arrest records for everyone arrested for possession of a substance that is legal in most of this country.
And then a few other quick steps. Let's end for-profit prisons in the United States of America.
No one should get rich locking other people up. Let's end the cash bail system so that you are not too poor to be able to have your freedom in this country.
And then, lastly, let's make sure that we really look at the consequence of slavery and segregation and suppression and Jim Crow in this country that has produced a criminal justice system, that has produced the results that we just described before. If we do that, we begin the process of repair and we stop visiting this injustice on future generations going forward.
So thank you for the question. Appreciate it.
BASH: Let me just ask you, to follow up on something you just said, do you want to put the drug manufacturers in jail?
O'ROURKE: It is pretty clear that Purdue Pharma was marketing opioids to prescribers and to doctors as a miracle cure without side effects and playing down any consequences of addiction, though they knew something to the contrary.
And you see the rates of addiction that you have across this country. If there is not justice served in this case, then it will continue to happen. So I back those attorneys general -- and I think of Josh Shapiro in
Pennsylvania, for example, but there are others across this country -- who are going to make sure that justice is served. It's the only way to ensure that going forward you do not have that same problem marketed to future generations of Americans.
So, yes, there has to be legal consequences, including jail time, if that's what the judge finds at the end of the day. Yep.
BASH: OK. Let's get back to the audience. I want to bring in Diane Kolmer, a retired telecommunications lobbyist. Diane?
O'ROURKE: Hey, Diane.
QUESTION: Thank you, Dana. And welcome to Drake, Congressman O'Rourke.
O'ROURKE: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have multiple sclerosis, and this disease is treated with very expensive pharmaceutical drugs. In addition to the ever- increasing costs of my generic drugs, the cost of the primary drug I take for the multiple sclerosis now retails, one dose, at $21,800.
I get this every six weeks, $21,800 for a little bag of white -- of clear liquid that is infused in my chest. It has depleted our savings. And I worry about how we can afford the ever-increasing costs of these drugs that reduce the progression of my MS.
O'ROURKE: Diane, thank you for being here.
And, again, for having the courage of sharing your story so we all understand the consequences of the policies that we have adopted in this country.
You should be able to get the care that you need to live your life to the fullest, and cost should not be an object or a concern or an anxiety of yours. I want you to focus on being well and doing well for others.
To add insult to injury, you and I as taxpayers have funded so much of the research and development for the cures and the medications and the pharmaceuticals that are sold back to us at the highest prices on the planet. We prevent you from buying from Canada or from Europe or somewhere else, where you can purchase it cheaper. And we refuse to use the purchasing power of Medicare, the leverage in all of the prescription medications that we buy for those beneficiaries, to drive the price down.
We have a plan to address this. We're going to make sure that every single American has access to high-quality universal healthcare, without exception. It is a plan called Medicare for America...
(APPLAUSE) ... that will ensure that everyone who does not have care today is enrolled in Medicare. Those who have insufficient care, they can't make the co-pay after insurance kicks in, or afford the premium or bridge the deductible, they can choose Medicare, as well.
But those who have employer-sponsored insurance and like it because it works for them and their families are able to keep it, and we use the leverage of this government not just for Medicare, but Medicaid beneficiaries, V.A. beneficiaries, Tricare beneficiaries, to bring the prices of these medications down so that you and other Americans can afford them.
That's what we should be able to do. Thank you, Diane, for asking the question. Appreciate it.
BASH: So you mentioned your plan or the plan that you signed onto, Medicare for America. Why not Medicare for all?
O'ROURKE: I think about Diane. I think about Joey, a young man, 27 years old, that I met in Laredo, Texas. He's been to a doctor once in his life because he does not have insurance, and that doctor told him that he had diabetes, that he had glaucoma, and that he would be dead before the age of 40 because he's not getting any care right now in this country.
Joey, Diane, others, they don't have time for us to get to the perfect solution. If we were to start from scratch, maybe we would start with a single-payer, but we've got to work with the system that we have here today.
The surest, quickest way to get there is Medicare for America. It guarantees every single person in this country gets the care that they need to live to their full potential and do those things that they were placed on this planet to perform in the first place. So that's why I support that plan.
BASH: Thank you for that, Congressman. Don't go anywhere.
O'ROURKE: You got it.
BASH: We're going to be right back with a lot more from CNN's Democratic presidential town hall with Beto O'Rourke.
BASH: Welcome back. We're live in Iowa for a Democratic presidential town hall with Beto O'Rourke. I want to get straight to the audience. We have a lot more questions, starting with Terrance Pendleton, who is a math professor right here at Drake.
O'ROURKE: Great. Hey, Terrance.
QUESTION: Good evening. So this past January, at Drake University, I taught a course entitled "Mathematical Modeling of Weather and Climate Change." It was there that we studied the famous Keeling Curve. And I was quite alarmed to read that this year carbon emissions have reached record levels. At this pivotal time for our species and our planet, what steps would you take to curb the potentially devastating consequences of climate change?
O'ROURKE: Great question, Terrance. Terrance, thank you for the question and for directing our focus on the most urgent priority facing all of us.
Yesterday, I spent part of the day in downtown Davenport. That community saw a record level of flooding, broke the record set in 1993 from the Mississippi River. Across the state, up against the Missouri, we saw towns that were underwater that had never flooded in any meaningful way before, the greatest run-off into the Missouri River Basin for as long as we've been keeping records of the Missouri River Basin.
In my home state of Texas, Houston had 58 inches of rain, the landfall record for as long as we've been keeping them, and it was the third 500-year flood in just five years in that one community. These floods, the fires that we see in California, the droughts in west Texas, in the panhandle, are happening at record levels of intensity and devastation. They are claiming lives and property, and in some cases entire communities.
And it's not happening through an act of God or because of Mother Nature. It is us. Our emissions, our excesses, our own inaction in the face of the facts and the science and the truth has produced these results. And the trajectory that we are on right now will make the devastation that we just described pale in comparison unless we take action at this moment.
Scientists, those who are studying the same things that you are studying, tell us that we have 10 years within which to act, to free this country from a dependence on fossil fuels and fully embrace renewable energy, to make sure...
... to make sure that this planet is habitable for the generations that follow us. We were able to release a plan. It is the most ambitious plan to confront climate change that this country has ever seen. It gets us to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, halfway there by 2030. It mobilizes $5 trillion over the next 10 years, not just to make sure that we adopt and innovate the next technologies for us and for the world, but to help those in Davenport and Pacific Junction, and on the front lines of climate change, weather these storms and floods as they come with greater frequency and greater devastation.
And then we elevate those communities, very often lower income communities and communities of color, that have borne the brunt of pollution and climate change over the decades that has been happening here in this country. If we do all of that, all of us doing our part, including farmers, when we free technologies like precision-till and no-till agriculture, pay them for the public service and the environmental service of capturing carbon.
When everyone in this country does their part, then this country can take its rightful role as the indispensable nation and convene the other powers of the planet together to make sure that we solve this otherwise intractable problem and that the United States leads the way. That is what we will do in an O'Rourke administration, with your help.
Thank you, appreciate it. Thanks.
BASH: Our next question comes from Patrick Bourgeaoq. He is the assistant director of international admissions here at Drake University and currently supports Bernie Sanders.
QUESTION: Good evening.
O'ROURKE: Good evening.
QUESTION: Recently you signed the no fossil fuel money pledge and have also returned donations in this campaign that do not conform to this pledge. Considering you've received over the years more fossil fuel money than every politician except Ted Cruz, many might consider that to be too little, too late. In light of your voting record, sometimes sympathetic to the fossil fuel industry, how do you as a Democrat defend your history of accepting fossil fuel money at such a high rate? And why should we believe you won't continue voting their interests?
O'ROURKE: Thank you for the question. Appreciate it. Look, we've just talked about some of the historic challenges that we face in this country -- healthcare, an economy that's not working for everyone, climate change that's affecting us right now at this moment. And it happens in a country that's never been more divided with a president who seeks to make us more divided than we are, in a democracy that is badly damage with a president who will stop at nothing to further undermine our democracy.
My entire life has been about bringing people together and ensuring that our democracy works. Having town hall meetings like these, I had them every single week when I was on city council, every month when I was in Congress. It's how we came up to the solutions to our challenges.
Five years ago, I swore off all political action committee money, all grassroots campaigns for Congress. And then last year in Texas, we led the largest grassroots effort in that state's history without a dime of PAC money, including from energy companies. We were able to take a state that was 50th in voter turnout to one that is a contender in our national politics, and we did it by bringing everybody in, writing nobody off, taking no one for granted, Democrats, Republicans, independents alike. It's that kind of ability to bring people together and fix our democracy that we need right now.
So you ask about the contributions that we received from those workers in the oil and gas industry in Texas. I'm proud of those donations and I'm grateful for the very tough work that they do day in and day out.
But it turns out that we raised more money in the grassroots fashion that I just described than any Senate candidate in the history of the United States of America. So we received contributions from that industry and every other single industry, but never from corporations, always from human beings, from real people, whose support allowed us to help transform our democracy and our politics in the state of Texas. So thanks for asking me the question. Appreciate it.
BASH: And Patrick asked about your votes. I want to ask you about one in particular when you were in Congress. You voted to lift a ban on crude oil exports, calling it an outdated policy. Now, the League of Conservation Voters called that vote "anti-environment." Was it a mistake, that vote?
O'ROURKE: I begin by telling you that I'm grateful to have -- to have had the support of the League of Conservation Voters in our race for Senate in Texas. I think I have a near perfect score with that organization.
Yes, I'm happy with that vote. Because, look, I drove here tonight in a Dodge Grand Caravan that is burning gasoline. I want to make sure that this country for as long as we use fossil fuels -- and I just made the pledge to transition this country as quickly as we humanly can from them -- but for as long as we're using them, I want to make sure that we're independent of the need to obtain those fossil fuels from the Middle East or Venezuela, from these endless wars that we've been in, 28 years and counting in Iraq alone, and this president threatening to invade Venezuela, the country with the largest proven oil reserves.
I'd rather those jobs and that exploration take place here in this country to satisfy our energy needs and the energy needs of others around the world. I'd love to toughen the EPA standards to make sure that we're doing this in the most environmentally sound way and then long term, as quickly as possible, transition totally off of fossil fuels to renewable energy.
BASH: OK, thank you so much.
O'ROURKE: Thank you.
BASH: We're going to take another quick break. Don't go anywhere. We're going to be right back more from Beto O'Rourke.
BASH: Welcome back to Iowa. We are live for a CNN Democratic presidential town hall with Beto O'Rourke. I want to get straight to the audience for a question from Nick Johnston, who is the student body president right here at Drake University. Nick?
O'ROURKE: Hey, Nick.
QUESTION: While in Congress, you voted against several measures aimed at punishing Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. If you're elected president, will you work to counter Russian aggression in the world? And if so, how are we to believe you when your record suggests otherwise?
O'ROURKE: Yeah, Nick, thank you for the question.
You may be referring to a vote that I took against arming Ukraine in their war against Russia. If you think we need to enter more wars right now, now that we're in Afghanistan and Syria and Yemen and Somalia and Iraq, and a half-dozen other countries, where we are taking the lives of others and putting the lives of U.S. servicemembers on the line, then let's go for it.
But if we think that we can resolve these challenges peacefully without using military force or putting our foreign policy on the backs of 19- and 20-year-old women and men in the greatest armed forces the world has ever known, then let's pursue that.
And I think we have a lesson from our former president, Barack Obama, greatest president of my lifetime, as far as I'm concerned...
... who, when faced with the threat of a nuclearized Iran, without firing a shot, invading yet another country in the Middle East, sat at the table with Iran, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany, to halt that country's progress towards a nuclear weapon, an imperfect agreement, but a hell of a lot better than starting yet another war for this country.
So, now, I want to make sure that we give diplomacy a chance. But, look, if you're going to compare me or any other contender for the Democratic nomination against Donald Trump, who invited Vladimir Putin to invade our democracy, who defended him on that stage in Helsinki, Finland, instead of this country and our intelligence community, the first call that he made after the Mueller report was released to a foreign head of state was to Vladimir Putin, with whom he spent an hour on the phone and described the whole report as a hoax, we can do a lot better than this guy in holding Russia in check. And I certainly plan to do that. Yeah. Thanks for asking. (APPLAUSE)
BASH: Just a quick follow on that. You've just said it again, and you've called many times for an end to wars in the Middle East. As commander-in-chief, when would you think it would be appropriate to authorize military force?
O'ROURKE: Only when it is absolutely the last recourse for our country. We should never put a U.S. servicemember's line on the life -- life on the line unless it is the only thing that we can do to protect the lives of our fellow Americans.
And I don't want to be naive about the threats that are arrayed against us right now. We still have a challenge with ISIS, against which we must remain vigilant. We have other powers, like Russia, like China, like Iran, like North Korea that we have to make sure that we address. Again, I want to make sure that we do that nonviolently, working with other partners in the region to do that.
But if war is the last recourse, and it's the thing that we must do to protect this country and our fellow Americans, then as commander-in- chief I will lead our servicemembers into war. But I want to make sure that that's the absolute last option.
BASH: OK, thank you. Let's go back to the audience and bring in James Stevens, who works in financial services.
O'ROURKE: Hey, James.
QUESTION: Good evening, Congressman.
O'ROURKE: Good evening.
QUESTION: The current administration has demonstrated to me an uncomfortable tolerance towards hate and bigotry in the country. There have been situations where the president could have categorically denounced hateful acts but did nothing. As president, how would you stand up to hate? And what are your thoughts on how we can better overcome hate in this nation?
O'ROURKE: Thank you, James. Appreciate that. Thank you for the question.
Not too long after President Trump was sworn in, we were picking up these Valentine's Day cards that a third-grade class at LBJ Elementary had done for veterans at the V.A. We did this ever year that I was in Congress, connecting the youngest generation with the generations that had served before them.
And this third grade girl, as she's giving us the Valentine's Day cards, asks, why does the president not like me? Now, she happened to be Mexican American. She'd internalized his hatred and racism, the fact that he called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I told that story in Houston, Texas. And a family took me aside and
they said, that really resonated with us, because our third-grade daughter came home, and because we're Muslim, she asked if we were in the right country or we should go somewhere else, despite the fact that she was born in this country, as were her parents. What does that do to that child's conception of herself or what she's capable of in this country, of whether she's even in the right place to begin with?
When a president calls Klansmen and Nazis and white supremacists "very fine people," when he conflates the words of Representative Ilan Omar, who happens to be a Muslim member of Congress, with the attacks on 9/11, stoking Islamophobia and hatred -- and, yes, violence -- you begin to be able to explain the rise in hate crimes every single one of the last three years.
I'm making the case that the president of the United States of America right now does not just offend our ears or our sensibilities. He makes possible the acts of violence and hatred that we're seeing play out in this country today.
I want to make sure that we don't just tolerate and respect one another and our differences, but that we embrace them. That is how we become a stronger country, and that's what I will reflect as your president. Thank you. Appreciate it.
BASH: Our next audience question comes from Tony Crnic, who is an attorney here in Des Moines.
QUESTION: Good evening, Congressman. I'm an attorney with a good- paying job and 10 years of experience. I am still over $300,000 in debt because my parents could not afford my tuition. Two-thirds of the debt is federal student loans, that the income base repayment plans make repaying much easier. The other third is private student loans. My question to you is, as president, what would you do to urge the private student loan companies to offer repayment plans similar to the government's income-based repayment plans?
O'ROURKE: Yeah. Thank you. This is a real crisis in our country and demands that it be met with the urgency required to solve it. There's $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt right now, a default rate of close to 10 percent, which shows us that far too many are unable to shoulder this burden for very long. They're literally sinking under the weight of it. It's a drag on them, and it's a drag on our economy.
If we want to open up this economy to everyone and deal with the crisis that you just described, there are two big things that we can do. The first is to stop digging the hole. Let's make sure that you do not accumulate debt if you are attending a community college or a four-year university. Let's make community free for everyone in this country. And let's ensure that four-year college... (APPLAUSE)
... all costs, not just tuition, but room and board and books, can be finished debt free for those of modest and middle-income means, and others who are able to pay their way should do so.
And then the other big thing that we can do is refinance, to your question, existing student loan debt at the lowest possible rates for everyone who has it right now, whether the issuer was the government or a private issuer. And it's going to necessitate an investment on our part to do that, but it's an investment in your future and your ability to contribute even more to our shared success.
And then the other thing that we can do -- and I like this idea a lot -- is to vastly expand the public service loan forgiveness program. There are 45,000 unfilled positions at the V.A. right now. That means that veterans are waiting not minutes or hours but weeks and months to get in to see a provider. If you're willing to go work at the V.A. and fill one of those 45,000 clinical positions, let's wipe clean and clear your debt so you can focus on taking care of those servicemembers.
So I think that's how we can meet this challenge. Thanks.
BASH: So you mentioned that -- it's a total of $1.5 trillion in student debt out there. Would you support any plan to forgive all of it?
O'ROURKE: No, but I think I would start with those steps that we just described. If you're willing to move back to your hometown, a small community, in an underserved job that's in demand, I want to make sure that you're rewarded for doing that, that you can focus on your family, your career, getting ahead, contributing to your community, by wiping clear that debt.
There are others who have the means to pay that back. And I don't know that we want to be in the business of rewarding the very wealthiest in this country.
And there's another thing that we should keep in mind. Not everyone wants to go to college. So if you are going to be career-ready at the age of 18 or 19, I want to make sure that we empower and lift up unions in this country, connect you with that apprenticeship that will allow you to command the skill or a trade and a living wage for the rest of your life.
So I want to make sure that we're including everyone in this economy, not just those who go to college, but all who want to make sure that they can contribute to their full potential.
BASH: So how much are you thinking about, if you don't want to do all of it? Let's just give this a real-world example. You heard Tony say that he is $300,000 in debt. Do you think that your plan, that includes public service, could wipe out his debt?
O'ROURKE: It depends on the career that he chooses. If it's a career of public service -- for example, we need more public defenders in this country. We need them to be able to afford that incredibly important role in our judiciary and in our democracy. And so I think there's public value and interest in that.
If that's not something that he chooses to do, refinancing that existing student loan debt at the lowest possible rate, the rate that banks lend to one another, makes a hell of a lot of sense to me.
So, look, we can do a lot better than we're doing right now. We can relieve the burden that is crushing people. And we can do it in an affordable way for this economy and this country.
BASH: OK. One more question. We want to get to the audience, to Neena Hayreh. Neena is a high school English teacher. Neena?
O'ROURKE: Hey, Neena.
QUESTION: Hello, Congressman.
O'ROURKE: English teachers unite and take over, yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah, that's right.
Both Republican and Democrats each have 70-year-old men as their frontrunners. Do you think this country is ready and will vote for a Generation X president?
O'ROURKE: Neena, I'll just tell you that I have found my inspiration, my guidance, my leadership from the very youngest among us in our democracy.
This is our 34th college visit in the last eight weeks of this campaign. Why do we keep coming to where the youngest people in this country are right now? Because on issues of gun violence, they're the ones walking out of their classrooms and leading the Marches for Our Lives.
On the issues of climate, they're the ones demanding answers and not taking any prevaricating or any waiting or any excuses. They're going to have action at this moment. On making sure that everyone has healthcare, again, it is the young people, their urgency is something that compels me, inspires me and is a lead that I'm following.
So I don't know that I need to comment on the ages of other presidential candidates. I've just got to tell you that I am so optimistic about the future of this country because of those who are taking the leadership right now. And very often they're in places like the one that we're in at Drake University. So thank you for asking the question. And I just want to add this one
other thing. Though we've held more than 150 town halls, many of them at college campuses, answered hundreds of questions, and are here tonight with Dana and with all of you, I know that not everyone has been able to attend one of these.
So we're opening up an opportunity through our campaign right now called Town Hall for America. You can go to betoorourke.com and ask me any question that you want to, and I will do my best to answer each and every single one of those and get you an answer. That level of accountability will make me a better candidate and I hope a better president for you and others. So, thank you.
BASH: Thank you so much. Thank you for doing this. Thank you. Thank you to our audience here at Drake University.
And I will be back next Thursday at 10:00 p.m. for another live town hall, this time with Senator Michael Bennet, and then on Sunday, June 2nd, mark your calendar for back to back to back Democratic town halls with Congressman Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell, all starting at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.
"CNN Tonight" starts right now.