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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Town Hall with Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Aired 9-10p ET

Aired February 24, 2020 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[21:00:00]

(APPLAUSE)

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Live from Charleston, South Carolina. This is a CNN town hall event. Good evening from the Memminger Auditorium. I am Chris Cuomo.

So, we are just five days away from the South Carolina Primary. This is the last major test for the Democratic presidential candidates before Super Tuesday. The leading contenders are on stage this week making their final case to South Carolina voters. Tonight the audience is going to question Mayor Peter Buttigieg, businessman Tom Steyer.

But first, please welcome to the stage the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont Sanders -- Vermont Sanders, I'm so nervous. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

(APPLAUSE)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hey, Chris.

CUOMO: Good, how are you?

SANDERS: I'm good.

CUOMO: Take a seat.

SANDERS: Shall we dance?

CUOMO: Yes.

SANDERS: All right.

CUOMO: So you are the front-runner. You've had the results. You clearly have energy. And now, along with it, you will have the target. A representative of the Bloomberg campaign said there's one person who matters on the debate stage tomorrow night and that is Bernie Sanders. Are you ready for that pressure?

SANDERS: Absolutely. You know, given the fact that I have been in opposition my entire career, that I've taken on every special interest, it is a little bit funny to find myself as the so-called front-runner. But, look, we are going to enter this debate with the full knowledge that tens of millions of Americans want fundamental change in terms of what is going on in this country. They are tired of a president who is a pathological liar.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Who is running a corrupt administration, who is a racist and a sexist, and a homophobe, and a xenophobe. And, look, Chris, I think that the Democratic nominee, and I certainly hope it's me, not only has a good chance to defeat Trump, I think we have a chance to defeat him very badly. Because I think...

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: You know, because I think there is a growing revulsion in this country to this guy's behavior. People want to turn on the television and not be embarrassed when their kids are in the room about who is president. We want a president who believes in democracy, believes in our Constitution, not one who is trying to undermine American democracy here and around the world.

So I'm feeling good. And I think we have got a good shot to win this thing.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: All right. So now is your chance to make the case to the voters of this state. Let's bring in A.J. Harley. He's from Goose Creek. He was friends with Tywanza Sanders, she's (sic) the youngest victim in the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. She was 26 years old, a recent graduate with a business -- I'm sorry, A.J. is a recent graduate with a business administration degree. A.J. helped create something called the Tywanza Sanders Scholarship. It helps local minorities with higher education. He is currently undecided about who is going to support in the primary, but he has a question for you tonight.

A.J., thank you.

QUESTION: Thanks for having me.

So my question for you this morning is -- well, excuse me, this evening, let me start again. About five years ago we lost nine people in the Charleston Emanuel nine massacre. They were attending Bible study in our beautiful city. The youngest, Tywanza Sanders, was a phenomenal friend and an inspiration for me today.

Since then nationwide there has been massacre after massacre. I want to know what your plan about gun laws, background checks, and how they're being addressed or resolved. How can we minimize the chances of something like this happening again?

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Good, thank you, A.J. And thank you for the work you're doing. A.J. is raising an issue that I hear from coast to coast. No matter

what your politics may be, people are horrified and disgusted every time we turn on the TV and we hear another mass shooting. I was in El Paso just the other day. And you had 22 people massacred there where the very sick person was actually targeting Latinos.

You talk about Charleston and the murder of African-Americans. Last year it was in a synagogue in Pittsburgh where Jewish people were targeted.

So to answer your question, first point, my administration will do what the American people want, not what the NRA wants, all right?

(APPLAUSE)

[21:05:00]

SANDERS: What is very clear to me is there is growing consensus in the country. I'm not going to tell you everybody agrees on every nuance. But there is a growing consensus between gun owners, non-gun owners, rural states like mine, and urban states about several things.

Number one we need universal background checks.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: People who have a violent past, including domestic violence, should not be owning guns. Number two, we have got to end the so- called gun show loophole which allows people to legally purchase guns while avoiding a background check. Number three, we have got to end the so-called strawman provision which allows you to legally walk in, buy as many guns as you want, and then sell them to gangs and criminal elements.

Number four, what we have got to do, and something that I have supported for like 30 years, is ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons in this country.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: I am proud that I have a D-minus voting record from the NRA. And I suspect as president it will get even worse.

CUOMO: Quick follow. As you probably know, former Vice President Biden has come after you on this issue. He has called your position immoral when it comes to providing legal protection for gun manufacturers. He has also criticized for your previous no votes on the Brady Bill.

SANDERS: Well, first of all, that Brady Bill was, I believe, in 1993. And in terms of the manufacturers' liability, I am now on the bill that takes away that exemption. Bottom line is I think what we all know, as A.J. was saying, what we have seen too many times, too many times, these horrible, horrible shootings.

And I'll tell you something else, Chris. CUOMO: Please.

SANDERS: It's not only the loss of life, we have 40,000 people who die a year from gun violence. It is not only the horrible massacres. Do you know what it is? It is kids who go to school terrified. I was in New Hampshire before Christmas. Never forget this. And a woman says, Bernie, what should I tell my daughter when she wants me to buy her a bulletproof backpack for Christmas? How horrible is that?

So we have got to do an enormous amount of work on this issue. I think the American people are coming together. As president, unlike Trump, unlike the Republican leadership, I will not allow the NRA to call the tune on this issue.

CUOMO: All right.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: Let's bring in Cheryl Stockford. She's a social worker and health...

SANDERS: Cheryl.

CUOMO: Cheryl Stockford. She a social worker, health care management from North Charleston. She is leaning toward supporting you. Cheryl?

SANDERS: Come on!

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Hi there. Let me be the first to welcome you to Charleston.

SANDERS: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: We're so glad you're here. Bernie, could you please share how you will allay the fears of those who see your political ideology as too extreme? How do you respond to Americans who believe we need to beat Trump more than we need extreme political policies?

SANDERS: Thank you very much for that question. And you're quite right. I think not only virtually all Democrats, a whole lot of independents, and some Republicans understand that it is absolutely imperative that we defeat this extremely dangerous president. So I'm happy to tell you, for a start, that if you look at the polling out there, polls go up and polls go down, but almost all of the polls nationally have me defeating Trump.

If you look at just polls that came out a few days ago, on Sunday, I think it was CBS, I'm beating Trump in Michigan, I'm beating Trump in Pennsylvania, beating Trump in Wisconsin, I think we're tied in Florida.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: And I think, Cheryl, that we are the -- you know, the strongest campaign because we have the energy and the excitement that we need to create the largest voter turnout in the history of this country, which is exactly what we need in order to defeat Trump.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: So what our campaign is doing, and I think doing quite well, I think you saw that in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, is we are reaching out to working people, many of whom have become very disillusioned with the political process. They're hurting. And they're saying, you know what, the political establishment is not feeling my pain. They don't know what's going on in my life.

We are reaching out to those people. We are reaching out big time to young people. And if we can bring young people, black and white and Latino, Native American, Asian American, young people into the political process in the numbers that I think we can, it will be extraordinary.

[21:10:00]

We will defeat Trump big time.

The last point that I want to make. You know, I know if you look at the media, they say, Bernie's ideas are radical and they're extreme, they're out of the mainstream. Let me just tell you, I don't think that that's true. Is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour a radical idea?

CROWD: No.

SANDERS: Is making sure that all of our kids have the opportunity to get a higher education regardless of their income because we're going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, is that a radical idea?

CROWD: No.

SANDERS: This is a scientific poll. You hearing this?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Is doing what every other major country on Earth does? I live -- Jane and I live 50 miles away from the Canadian border. Somehow they manage to guarantee health care for every man, woman, and child in that country at half the cost that we spend per capita. Is guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right a radical idea?

CROWD: No.

SANDERS: Is addressing the existential threat of climate change a radical idea?

CROWD: No.

SANDERS: I rest my case. (APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: The criticism, as you know, about your ideas is about also about the campaigns you're competing against. Former Mayor Buttigieg will be on the stage after you tonight. He says not only are the ideas radical, but that you are inflexible and therefore can be polarizing, even analogizing that quality to Trump.

SANDERS: Well, I mean, the difference between Pete and I, and I have a lot of respect for Mayor Buttigieg, his ideology, maybe, is just shaped by the fact that he has raised a whole lot of money from, I think, 40, 45 billionaires. And, you know, when you raise money from billionaires, you develop a certain point of view.

We don't raise money from billionaires. We have raised more, received more individual campaign contributions from more Americans than any candidate in the history of this country. That's where we come from.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: But about the polarizing nation, the inflexibility, that you won't work with anybody.

SANDERS: Well, that is total nonsense. I mean, when I was in the U.S. House of Representatives, where I was for 16 years, there was a period of a number of years where I passed more roll call amendments in a bipartisan way than anybody else in the House of Representatives. And that's 434 other people.

I wrote a veterans bill which was one of the most sweeping veterans bills written in recent history, working with John McCain. We just, last year, for the first time managed to utilize the War Powers Act to get the United States -- get our troops out of the horrific war in Yemen, we got that passed, I worked with a very conservative Republican, Mike Lee of Utah. You know Mike.

So the idea -- when I was mayor I worked with -- mayor of Burlington, Vermont, I worked with Republicans. The idea that I can't work with people, I mean, is one of those myths that keeps popping up as the election day comes closer.

CUOMO: All right. Let's get another question from the audience here. Meredith Weatherby. an attorney from Mount Pleasant, currently undecided. Meredith, your question.

QUESTION: Hi, good evening. As you can probably tell, I am seven months pregnant, so the topic of health care is especially relevant to me right now. When you think of government-run divisions like the DMV or the Social Security office, they're not exactly models for efficiency, innovation, and quality of services.

I think when some people picture their health care being run like the DMV, it is probably a little scary thought. What would you do to ensure that the wait times do not go up, and the quality of services do not go down?

SANDERS: Thank you, Meredith. And good luck on that beautiful baby I know is going to come.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SANDERS: For a start, we're not talking about government-run health care. There are countries around the world where they do have that. That's not what we're talking about. Right now the most popular health insurance program in the United States is Medicare. That's what it is.

I want to expand Medicare to include dental care, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and home health care. Under Medicare...

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Because those are basic health care needs that Medicare now does not cover. But, as you know, under Medicare, you go to any doctor you want, it's not government-run. You go to any hospital you want. And we continue what you have right now.

What is changing is that instead of having thousands of private health insurance programs in which we spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars to administer, we expand Medicare over a four-year period to provide health care to every man, woman, and child in this country.

And this is what I want to say on this issue, which I have studied a whole lot. Right now we are spending twice as much per person on health care as the people of any other country. Twice as much. Now you might think that when you spend twice as much we have, wow, what an incredible health care system we have. We don't. Despite spending $11,000 for every man,

[21:15:00]

woman and child, we have 87 million Americans who are uninsured and under-insured, with high deductibles and high co-payment. At a minimum -- and this is conservative -- 30,000 people in our country die each year because they don't have insurance; they don't get to a doctor when they should. By the time they get to the doctor, the situation is too late.

In America, as everybody knows, we pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. Because we have a corrupt, uncontrolled pharmaceutical industry, which charges us any price they can get away with, in some cases 10 times more than the Canadians or Europeans or Mexicans pay for the same exact drug.

And I want you all to hear this one, because this is an indication of how cruel this system is. In America today, half a million people go bankrupt because of medically related bills.

What kind of system do we have when you're struggling with cancer, which should be enough to keep you occupied -- when you're struggling with cancer or heart disease, Alzheimer's, your family faces financial ruin.

That is a disgrace. That should not be happening in America. So all we are doing...

(APPLAUSE)

All we are doing -- all we are doing here -- this is not a radical proposal. We're doing what every other major country does around the world. And by the way, when you get rid of the profiteering of the health care industry; when you get rid of the incredibly complicated byzantine administrative system -- everybody here has had to argue with the insurance companies about whether you get the coverage you thought you paid for.

We're going to save substantial sums of money -- recent study from Yale says $450 billion a year. We guarantee health care to all people. We save the average person substantial sums of money on the cost of health care.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: Next question comes from Emmanuel Ferguson. He's an attorney, former federal prosecutor. Emmanuel is the second vice chair of the Charleston County Democrats. He's likely supporting former V.P. Joe Biden.

Emanuel?

QUESTION: Good evening, sir. I am really excited about getting a Democrat into office. And when I hear you speak, I get really excited. But I remember that Trump excited his base with a promise to build a wall with no real plan to pay for it. Your plan for free college tuition and Medicare For All seems like a way to excite the Democratic base but with no real plan to pay for it.

Now, how is your position and your campaign different than what Donald Trump did?

SANDERS: Oh, I think...

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

You know, given the fact that I've spent my entire adult life fighting against everything that Trump stands for, trust me, we're a little bit different.

(APPLAUSE)

QUESTION: But when I -- when I hear...

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Here's what I want to do. First, I'm going to give this to you. I thought that question might come up. All right. Here it is.

(APPLAUSE)

This is a list which will be on our website tonight, of how we pay for every program that we have developed.

(APPLAUSE)

But let me give you -- let me give you some examples. OK? You asked a good question. Here's the answer.

You're right. I believe that we should make public colleges and universities tuition-free because, in the year 2020, when we live in a competitive global economy, I want all of our kids, regardless of income, to be able to get that higher education, college or trade schools.

By the way, I also believe we should cancel all student debt in America.

(APPLAUSE)

OK. Now you're smiling and you're saying, "Well, that's a great idea. How does he pay for it?" Right?

Did I read your mind on that one?

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Yes, you did.

SANDERS: OK. And the answer is I'll tell you exactly how we pay for it. We pay for it through a rather modest tax on Wall Street speculation. That is how we pay for that. All right?

(APPLAUSE)

You will remember, 12 years ago, the Congress, against my vote, bailed out the crooks on Wall Street who nearly destroyed this economy. I think a modest tax on Wall Street speculation right now, to make sure all of our kids who have the ability and the desire get the education they need, is something that we should do.

(APPLAUSE)

[21:20:00]

CUOMO: You're slick, giving me this piece of paper here...

SANDERS: I know.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: I know.

CUOMO: The criticism is there -- there's a lot of detail in here. You could look for it for yourselves on the website. It is not matching the price tag that some put it, about $30 trillion for the Medicare For All transition.

You do have lots of different ideas in here. I'm not saying you don't. But you get about halfway there...

SANDERS: No.

CUOMO: ... the question becomes, how do you get the rest of the way?

SANDERS: No, we get there.

You know, there was a study, Chris, I don't know if happened to see it...

(APPLAUSE)

I don't know if anyone...

CUOMO: Thirty trillion over 10 years.

SANDERS: One minute...

(LAUGHTER)

A study came out from Yale University. A number of epidemiologists -- a really quite good study -- published in Lancet, which is, as you know, a major medical journal. What they said is, when you get rid of all of the administrative waste that we have now, having to administer -- can you believe that thousands and thousands of separate plans? You have a $5,000 deductible; you have a $10,000; you're in this network; you're in that one; you're covered with this prescription; you're not. It is a disaster.

When you get rid of all of that administrative waste, which other countries do; when you get rid of the profiteering of the drug companies, we can in fact pay for Medicare For All and substantially lower the cost for the average American worker.

Now, you want to know how we're going to pay for it?

Well, I could go on for several hours. Very briefly, number one, for the average person, how do we pay for it today, Chris? You know how we pay for it? The average family in America makes about $60,000 a year. That family is paying premiums, deductibles, out-of-pocket expenses and co-payments. That $60,000 a year family is now paying $12,000 a year for health care. That's an outrageous sum of money, about 20% of the family's income.

What we do, among other proposals in there, is to say, all right, you are that average $60,000 a year family; you're going to pay a 4 percent tax exempting the first $29,000, leaving $31,000 of taxable dollars, which is about $1,200 a year, a heck of a lot better than what you're paying today.

(APPLAUSE)

We also have a payroll tax...

(APPLAUSE) We have a payroll tax on employers, which will save them substantial sums of money. Because, remember, under Medicare For All, no more premiums for the worker or the employer; no more out-of-pocket expenses, no more deductibles, no more out-of-pocket -- no more out- of-pocket expenses.

And, because we're taking on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, nobody in America under Medicare For All pays more than $200 a year for prescription drugs.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: The point was just the math, on how much number you added up in the proposal. But this is for -- something for you guys to decide.

And here's another question from the audience.

I want to bring in Matthew Grypp, a recently retired U.S. Navy lieutenant commander. he is undecided.

Thank you for your service. Matthew, your question?

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

Senator Sanders, how will you approach the Democratic convention if you do not have the necessary delegates to win on the first ballot but you do have an overwhelming plurality among the candidates?

SANDERS: Thanks for the question, Matthew. That's an issue that has been discussed. Who knows what's going to happen -- you know, we can't predict the future. But if I, or anybody else, goes into the Democratic convention with a substantial plurality, I believe that individual, me or anybody else, should be the candidate of the Democratic Party. And I will...

(APPLAUSE)

I'll tell you why, Matthew. I will tell you why. It will be incredibly divisive for the Democratic Party if a candidate who has won the support of people all over the country -- this is a hard- fought process here. You know, we're competing in every state in this country. All of the candidates are working really hard.

And if one candidate comes out on top, to say to the country "You voted for that candidate, oh, but by the way, we don't think that candidate should be the nominee," I think that will be a serious, serious problem for the Democratic Party. And I think it will wreak havoc on that person's campaign.

CUOMO: All right. Let's take a break. We'll come back. We have a lot more questions for Senator Sanders, right after this.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

[21:28:24]

CUOMO: All right. Welcome back. We're live with Senator Bernie Sanders, here in Charleston, South Carolina.

Senator, thank you for joining us.

SANDERS: Thank you.

CUOMO: Let's get right back to the audience. We have a question here from a young man named Peter Beck, high school student, undecided.

Peter?

QUESTION: Good evening, Senator Sanders.

In the past month, news has come out that both elements of the Republican Party and Russian interests are supporting your bid for the Democratic nomination. How do you respond to those that say that a successful nomination from you would be a victory for Republicans and Russia, while a defeat for the Democratic Party?

SANDERS: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

... I don't quite see it that way. I think, if there is a candidate who loves Mr. Putin, who sees him as his best friend, that is the president of the United States, not me.

(APPLAUSE)

I happen to believe that Putin is a dangerous autocrat. Unlike President Trump, I think he meddled very heavily in the 2016 election. And if by any chance Mr. Putin is watching this show, Mr. Putin, you ain't going to meddle in American elections when I'm president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

And second of all -- second of all, there are differences of opinion within the intelligence community of the role that Russia is playing. But there is no question that in 2016 they meddled in our election.

And you know what they do? The ugliest thing that they do is try to divide us up. And they're very smart at it.

(APPLAUSE)

They are really smart at it. They know -- they know those points that can bring people apart.

[21:30:00]

And, obviously, in this country, my job, if elected president, is to bring us together, not continue this divisiveness.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: Quick follow on that, in terms of decency. You suggested that some of the harassment from the so-called "Bernie bros" on Twitter might be Russian interference.

SANDERS: Yes, yes.

CUOMO: Is that what the U.S. intel folks told you?

SANDERS: No, that was classified, I don't want to get into it, but it wasn't that. But here's what it was, Chris. Look, we have millions of followers, and I'm not going to tell you that we don't have some jerks out there.

But I do want to say to those folks: We do not want your support if you think that what our campaign is about is making ugly attacks on other candidates. We don't want you. You're not part of us.

(APPLAUSE)

And I want to say, also, because I see one of our main surrogates, Nina Turner, here -- and you can talk to her later on, Senator Turner -- about the ugly and racist attacks that have come into our campaign. My wife is here. All right? So if anyone thinks it's just our campaign, you're deadly mistaken.

Now, in terms of why I believe it is possible the Russians are playing a role, we had a disagreement with the culinary workers union in Nevada. They're a great union. We disagreed on health care issues. There were some really ugly attacks against the leadership.

I have perhaps the strongest lifetime pro-union voting record of any member of the Congress. Does anybody really think -- anyone really think who's a supporter of mine, that they would make ugly attacks against really excellent trade union leaders? It just seemed to me kind of fishy. That was my suspicion.

CUOMO: So it's fishy, so you were assuming it might be Russian?

SANDERS: Might be. I didn't say it was definitively.

CUOMO: And if it isn't, it's just people who are saying things you don't like, you tell them you don't want your support?

SANDERS: You got it. You got it. There's too much ugliness, too much divisiveness. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our supporters are fantastic people. Go to the rallies that we have. These are people who are standing up for justice. They're standing up for racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice. They are great people.

I'll tell you, I get inspired. You know, we just came from a rally the other day in Austin. We had 13,000 people. Just beautiful people. But if we have people who are ugly and attack in a vicious way, we don't want your support. That's it.

CUOMO: All right, let's get another question. Sean McCambridge, web designer and developer from North Charleston. He's supported you in the past. This time, undecided. Sean?

QUESTION: Hey, Bernie. So it seems like Democrats get kind of out- foxed by the Republicans year after year in terms of marketing and message and campaign. Do you regret wrapping your ideas around the banner of socialism? And would you regret -- I'm sorry, would your campaign be more palatable to the average American if you changed nothing except for dropping the word "socialism"?

SANDERS: Well, it's democratic socialism. And the policies that we are advocating are policies that exist all over the world, OK? And what that means is I happen to believe as a democratic socialist that health care is a human right, that all of our people deserve coverage.

(APPLAUSE)

I happen to believe that in the richest country in the history of the world, education is a human right. It is a disgrace. We have today a childcare system that is absolutely dysfunctional. It is absolutely unaffordable for so many working families, all right? So, yeah, I believe in universal high-quality childcare. I believe in tripling funding for low-income Title I schools so that we have the best public education in the world, OK? I believe in those things.

(APPLAUSE)

I believe that -- I believe that in a nation which has more income and wealth inequality today than any time in 100 years, when the very, very rich are getting phenomenally richer, we should not have a half of million people sleeping out on the streets tonight.

(APPLAUSE)

So -- but I wanted to say, if I could, Chris, in response to that very good question, is in many respects, we are living in a socialist society today. What is the difference? When Donald Trump was a private real estate developer in New York City, he received $800 million -- a billionaire received $800 million in subsidies and tax breaks. That's called corporate socialism.

(APPLAUSE)

Amazon -- Amazon is a corporation that made $18 billion last year in profit, owned by the wealthiest guy in the United States. Anyone here know how much they paid in federal income taxes?

[21:35:00]

They paid zero.

The Walton family owns Walmart. The Walton family is the wealthiest family in America. They pay their workers starvation wages. Many of those workers are forced to go on Medicaid, food stamps, and public housing. Who pays for that? You do. The middle class does. So you are subsidizing the wealthiest family in America. That's called corporate socialism.

What I want is a democratic socialism that works for working families, not just billionaires.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: Let's take one more step down the road of the stigma that's coming from some of your fellow Democrats. You said on "60 Minutes" this weekend it is unfair to simply say everything is bad with the way Fidel Castro ruled in Cuba. Now Democratic members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans in Florida -- obviously you've got to win there -- they're attacking your comment as "absolutely unacceptable," singing the praises of a murderous tyrant. Response?

SANDERS: The response was, when Castro first came to power, which was, when, '59? Does that sound right?

CUOMO: '59, '60.

SANDERS: OK. You know what did? He initiated a major literacy program. There was a lot of folks in Cuba at that point who were illiterate. And he formed a literacy brigade -- you may read that -- he went out and they helped people learn to read and write. You know what? I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing.

I have been extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world, including Cuba, including Nicaragua, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia. I happen to believe in democracy, not authoritarianism.

(APPLAUSE)

But, you know, you can't say -- China is another example, all right? China is an authoritarian country, becoming more and more authoritarian. But can anyone deny -- I mean, the facts are clear -- that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history? Do I get criticized because I say that? That's the truth. So that is the fact. End of discussion.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: So to the Democrats who say you don't say good things about Fidel Castro, he destroyed freedoms in that country, he played -- picked winners and losers and killed them and put them in prison forever. You don't give him a pat on the back for anything.

SANDERS: You don't -- it's not a -- truth is truth, all right?

(APPLAUSE)

Now, if you want to disagree with me, if somebody wants to say that -- and by the way, all of those congresspeople that you mentioned just so happen to be supporting other candidates, just accidentally, no doubt, coincidentally. But, you know, the truth is the truth. And that's what happened in the first years of the Castro regime.

CUOMO: All right. Another question. Adam Domby, history professor at the College of Charleston. Recently published a book about white supremacy and the Confederacy. He previously supported Julian Castro, now undecided. Professor?

QUESTION: Thank you. Obviously, Confederate symbols are controversial right now. And here in Charleston, it remains an important issue, especially in light of the terrorist attack in 2015. How should we deal with the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments? What is your take on them? And how do we improve race relations?

SANDERS: Good. Thank you. Thank you very much for that question.

You know, a lot about Donald Trump sickens me, but maybe at the top of the list is his very intentional effort to try to divide us up based on the color of our skin or where we were born or our religion or our sexual orientation, even our gender.

As you know, before Trump became president, he was a leader of the so- called Birther movement. Remember that? This was a disgusting effort to try to delegitimize the first African-American president in the history of our country, Barack Obama. That was the effort. It wasn't to criticize Obama. It wasn't to attack Obama. It was to say this guys was -- Obama wasn't even born in America, shouldn't be the president of the United States.

So let me say this. I see especially coming after Trump the most important thing that we can do as a nation is everything possible to end all forms of discrimination in this country.

(APPLAUSE)

Right now, we are dealing -- as everybody knows, everybody knows, we're dealing with systemic racism. We have a wealth gap in this country -- I don't know if everybody knows that -- where white families are now worth 10 times more than black families, where black women are three times more likely to die than white women in childbirth, where the infant mortality rate in the black community is much higher, where there's discrimination in housing, where there's discrimination in education, all right?

And clearly one of the main goals and one of the main

[21:40:00]

priorities of a Sanders administration is to do everything humanly possible to end racism in America, to end sexism in America, to end homophobia in America. And we're seeing a rise in religious bigotry.

We are one people. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, in a very profound way, that we judge human beings not by the color of their skin, or other superficialities. We look at people, we judge people based on their character. And that is the goal of my administration.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: Quick follow to something that was relevant in the aftermath of the shooting here, the role of statues and icons of Confederates. Then-Governor Nikki Haley later would say that people had hijacked the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, when other people just thought it meant sacrifice and heritage. What do they mean to you?

SANDERS: Well, that's what it -- that's what it does mean now. So I support -- look, I think these relics might be placed in museums, but I don't want kids coming out and saying -- looking at a statue of somebody who believed in slavery.

(APPLAUSE)

Those are not -- you know, I understand history, and you can't wipe out history, and I don't want to wipe out history. You know, in those places -- they should be placed in historical locations. But on town greens, we want kids to look up and say, wow, this was somebody who was a great leader for liberation. This was somebody who believed in racial justice, somebody who fought for working people, somebody who believed in women's rights. Those are the people we want our kids to learn from and to respect, not people who believed and defended slavery.

CUOMO: Let's bring in Vicki Howard, operations manager for a non- profit lender here in Charleston, a supporter of yours. Vicki?

QUESTION: Good evening, Senator Sanders. Given your recent health scare, do you plan on announcing your choice of running mate soon, as this may alleviate some of your fears about your ability to hold office? And also to announce any of the duties that those may fall to?

SANDERS: All right. As you know, I had a heart attack. And the bottom line is, I'm feeling fine.

(APPLAUSE)

QUESTION: Good.

SANDERS: Follow me around the campaign trail, I think we did three rallies yesterday. You know, and -- so I'm feeling very, very good. But your question is about a vice presidential part of the ticket. And, yes, the answer is we will do that, but it's a little bit presumptuous right now.

I will tell you one thing, though, you know, is that person will not be an old white guy. That I can say definitively.

(APPLAUSE)

And I do want to say this, and in all seriousness, that our cabinet and our administration will very intentionally look like America.

(APPLAUSE) So when you turn on -- I think it's important that of our people see themselves reflected in the administration of the president of the United States, and we will absolutely do that.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: All right, let's take a quick break. We have more with Senator Bernie Sanders right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:45:00]

CUOMO: Welcome back to a CNN presidential town hall with Senator Bernie Sanders. We're live in Charleston, South Carolina. Senator, thank you for joining us.

SANDERS: Good to be here.

CUOMO: All right, a front-runner question for you. Joe Biden's campaign released an ad criticizing you for reportedly considering a primary challenge against President Barack Obama in 2012. Their quote, "When it comes to building on Obama's legacy, Bernie Sanders cannot be trusted." Did you consider that?

SANDERS: No. And I like Joe. Joe is a friend of mine. I've known him for many years. But you know what happens in campaigns? At the end of the season, it's called silly season, and people say things they should not say.

In 2012, I was very busy running for re-election to the United States Senate from the state of Vermont. That's what I was focusing on. In fact, I ended up campaigning for Obama, and I'm a strong supporter of all that Barack Obama has accomplished.

CUOMO: Give you full benefit of response. "The Atlantic" had the reporting. They published an initial report that said then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to talk you into it.

SANDERS: No, not true at all. And call up Harry, and he will deny that. There's another one that involved Senator Leahy. He will deny it, as well. Just wasn't true.

I did not give any consideration -- you know, I'm the senator from a small state. And I did not give any consideration to running for president of the United States until 2015. And that was -- I was looking around and I thought that the working families of this country needed a progressive voice.

And the truth is, as you will recall, Chris, there was a lot of discussion about Elizabeth Warren running for president. And I waited. And Senator Warren said, no, she's not going to run. I did run. But the idea of running in 2012, absolutely untrue.

CUOMO: I think one of the first times you ever yelled at me was when I asked you in an interview on "New Day," if you believe in this so strongly, why don't you run for president? That's when you yelled at me.

SANDERS: There you go. All right.

(LAUGHTER)

CUOMO: Another question, Dylan Harris, a student at the College of Charleston, who was supporting Andrew Yang, now undecided. Dylan?

QUESTION: Senator Sanders, why does your current climate change proposal involve phasing out nuclear energy, when it currently accounts for 20 percent of all U.S. energy and 50 percent of our carbon-free energy?

[21:50:30]

SANDERS: OK, all right. And the answer is that right now we do not know how to get rid of the nuclear waste that is out there, waste that is going to be around for a very, very, very long time.

As you know, the Congress thought about Yucca Mountain in Nevada. I don't believe that that is going to happen. So right now, all over the country, including my own state of Vermont, we have nuclear waste alongside a plant that has since been shut down, right by the Connecticut River. Not a good place for it.

And all over this country, you have nuclear waste, which is stored in ways -- in places that are not particularly safe. So I don't know how we can build more nuclear plants when we don't know how to get rid of the waste that we have.

Second of all, in terms of the construction of new nuclear plants, you may or may not know that they are far, far, far more expensive than investing in wind, solar, and other sustainable energies.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: All right. Our next question is from Izzy Smith (ph). Is that right? Is that who we have up? No? We're going to go to...

SANDERS: I think you may have...

CUOMO: Let's look around. Who do we want? Somebody's got to want a question. We've got all kinds of people lined up. Who do you want, Senator? You want to go right? You want to go left? Done. Beverly Bolyard, it's good to have you. A former middle-school teacher turned law student at Charleston School of Law. A supporter of yours. Beverly, thank you for being patient. What's your question?

QUESTION: Thank you. Senator Sanders, this May, I will be graduating from law school with over $250,000 in student loan debt, the majority from my undergraduate education. What is your plan to help students like me with student loan debt? And how do you plan to pay for it?

SANDERS: Thank you, Beverly. Our campaign is asking the American people to think outside of the box. What Beverly just described is insane. It's what it is. What crime did she commit? She wanted to get an education.

This is the wealthiest country on Earth. People should not have to go a quarter of a million dollars in debt to get an education. All right?

(APPLAUSE)

And that is why I have proposed -- and will fight for -- a proposal that imposes a modest tax on Wall Street speculation. We bailed those guys out 12 years ago, and a modest tax on Wall Street speculation will pay for making public colleges and universities tuition free and cancelling all student debt.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: Quick question for you.

SANDERS: Yeah.

CUOMO: So cost of college, real issue. Cost of financing and what kind of rules they can have, that's one issue. What do you say to the families out there who say, we worked really hard, we stretched so that our kids didn't have to take the same amount of loans or they didn't take loans, and now you're asking me to help pay to pay back other people's loans when I didn't take them. How do you address that population?

SANDERS: Well, I'm not asking -- this is going to be a tax on Wall Street speculation, and it exempts all those middle-income people who might be impacted. Look, Chris, here is -- you know, maybe the bottom line of this whole discussion. I wish we had an hour to get into it.

Today in America, we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality. All right? You got the top 1 percent owning more wealth than the bottom 92 percent. We don't talk about this on TV too much. It's true. You got three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of America. You got the top 1 percent earning 49 percent of all new income.

And I happen to believe -- and I say this unapologetically, and I know that's why Wall Street gets a little bit nervous and the 1 percent get a little bit nervous -- that at a time when wages for the American people for the last 45 years have been flat, average American worker in real inflation accounted for dollars not making a nickel more than he or she did 45 years ago.

Meanwhile, over the last 30 years, top 1 percent have seen a $21 trillion increase in their wealth. You know what? I do believe it is time to tax the very, very rich and to tax large corporations who are making big profits. That is what I believe.

(APPLAUSE)

CUOMO: I want to get to another question, because it's an important one, OK? And we only got a couple of minutes.

SANDERS: OK.

CUOMO: Benjamin Sackler is a student at the College of Charleston. He's a supporter of yours. Important question.

QUESTION: Hey, Bernie. How's it going?

SANDERS: Hey, Benjamin.

QUESTION: As a young Jewish person, the rise of such a historic political figure like yourself is awe-inspiring. What does your Jewish identity mean to you? And why would it be significant for you to be the first Jewish president in the history of our nation?

SANDERS: Well, thank you. I'll tell you, as I think Chris knows, the media knows, I don't like to get into personal stuff too much.

[21:55:07]

I can remember very vividly as a kid looking at picture books about happened in the Holocaust. As it happens, my father's family was wiped out by Hitler. My brother and I and our wives went to Poland to the town that he was born in. He fled terrible poverty and antisemitism.

And there they took us -- very nice people in the town -- they took us to a place where the Nazis had had the people dig a grave and they shot them all, 300 people in there.

I think the lesson that I learned from -- and in the neighborhood that I grew up, there were people who had tattoos on their arms for having been in concentration camps. I learned at a very early age what, if you like, white nationalism, which is what Nazism is in the extreme, is about.

And I think at a very early age, I learned that it is absolutely imperative -- not just me -- that all of us do everything we can to end all forms of racism and white nationalism.

(APPLAUSE)

That's -- that was -- that is, I think, what my experience has -- how it has impacted me.

CUOMO: Senator Sanders, thank you very much. A thanks for Senator Sanders from Vermont.

(APPLAUSE)

Coming up next, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg will join Don Lemon. I'll be back with businessman Tom Steyer. Please stay with CNN.