Campaign 2020

National Security Highlights from the Tenth Democratic Debate

By Vishnu Kannan
Wednesday, February 26, 2020, 5:01 PM

On Tuesday, CBS News and the South Carolina-based Congressional Black Caucus Institute co-hosted the tenth debate of the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, moderated by Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King. Margaret Brennan, Major Garrett, and Bill Whitaker also asked the candidates questions.

We’ve combed through the transcript from the debate to present the national security-related exchanges. These excerpts are organized both thematically and chronologically.

A complete transcript is available from NBC News here.

Russian Interference (Part 1)

O'DONNELL: Mayor Bloomberg, Do you think Senator Sanders' economy would be better for America than President Trump's?

BLOOMBERG: I—I think that Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he's president. I do not think so.

Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States.

And that's why Russia is helping [Sanders] get elected, so [Sanders] will lose to him.

SANDERS: Oh, Mr. Bloomberg.

Let me tell Mr. Putin, OK, I'm not a good friend of President Xi of China. I think President Xi is an authoritarian leader.

And let me tell Mr. Putin, who interfered in the 2016 election, try to bring Americans against Americans, hey, Mr. Putin, if I'm president of the United States, trust me, you're not going to interfere in any more American elections.

KING: Why would the Russians want to be working on behalf of Bernie Sanders?

BUTTIGIEG: I will tell you what the Russians want. They don't have a political party. They want chaos.

And chaos is what is coming our way. I mean, look, if you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump.

U.S. Armed Forces

O'DONNELL: Each of you is campaigning for the role as commander-in-chief, where you will command 1.3 million U.S. troops and be responsible for protecting America's national security. There are also 53,000 here in South Carolina.

You said, Senator Warren, you said you wanted to bring home all troops from the Middle East and then you walked that back to say you want to bring home combat troops.


O'DONNELL: How does that protect America's national security?

WARREN: Look, a president's job, first job, is to keep America safe, and an important part of that is to have a strong military. All three of my brothers served in the military, and I understand how much the military sacrifices, how much their families sacrifice, and how much they are willing to put on the line.

That means that we have a sacred responsibility to them, and that is not to use our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily. We are not winning in Afghanistan. We are not winning in the Middle East.

What we need to do is we need to use all of the tools in our toolbox. We need a strong military. We also need a strong State Department. Those are our eyes and ears on the ground. They are our frontlines in diplomacy.

We need a strong economy and to work worldwide on that economy, and we need strong alliances. We need to know the difference between our friends and between dictators who would do us harm. And we need to be nicer to our friends than to dictators. We need not to cut and run on our allies.

And we need to be nicer to our friends than to dictators.

We need not to cut and run on our allies. We need an approach that keeps us safe by using all of the tools in a measured way.

O'DONNELL: Mayor Bloomberg, voters have not heard much about your foreign policy views. Would you pull all combat troops out of the Middle East?

BLOOMBERG: No. You want to cut it back as much as you can, but I think, if we learned something from 9/11, people plan things overseas and execute them here. We have to be able to stop terrorism. And there's no guarantees that you're going to be able to do it, but we have to have some troops in places where terrorists congregate, and to not do so is just irresponsible.

We shouldn't be fighting wars that we can't win. We should go to war only as a last resort. Nobody argues with that.

But this is a dangerous world. And if we haven't learnt that after 9/11, I don't know what's going to teach us what to. This—we have to do something, and I think the budget that we—the things that I've seen recently convinced me that the military today is better prepared than they have been in an awful long time, and that the monies they are spending on the war of weapons we need for the next war and not for the last, a common mistake that they're not making now.

KING: Mayor Buttigieg, I'd like to go to you as the only veteran on stage. Can you weigh in on this?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the first time I ever set foot in South Carolina, it was stepping off the bus that brought me to combat training near Fort Jackson. And that was to get ready to go to Afghanistan, where I saw that one of the things that kept me safe, just as sure as my body armor, was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country that was known to keep its word. Our allies and our adversaries knew it.

The president has torn that to shreds. And so the first thing we've got to do is restore the credibility of the United States.

The second thing we've got to do is make sure that we not only have the intelligence capabilities—and I guess I disagree with the mayor; I don't think we need to have ground troops anywhere terrorists can gather, because terrorists can gather anywhere in the world. But we do need intelligence capabilities and specialists on the ground.

But what good is that if you have a president who won't listen to them?

Right now, some of the biggest threats that we face are not only things like counter-terrorism but issues like global health security and the Coronavirus, that rely on the ability to listen to scientists … listen to your own intelligence and coordinate with an international community that this president has alienated because his idea of a security strategy is a big wall.

Coronavirus and Global Health Security

KING: There was breaking news from the CDC about the Coronavirus. And so far there have been 2,700 deaths globally, and so far in this country, there have been no deaths. But the CDC says this. "It's not a matter of if the virus will spread here but when."

The question to you is this, would you close the borders to Americans who have been exposed to the Coronavirus in order to prevent an outbreak here in this country?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, what we have to do is make sure that we have treatment for those Americans and that they are in a quarantine situation. We don't want to expose people, but we want to give them help.

And I would agree, when Mayor Bloomberg said that this president has not invested like he should have in his budget—he tried to cut back on the CDC; he tried to cut back on the international organization that would coordinate with the rest of the world; he hasn't yet really addressed the nation on this topic, I would do all of that.

But I want to take this out of politics right now and talk to the American people because this is so serious. I'm not going to give my website right now. I'm going to give the CDC's website, which is, so that people keep checking in and they follow the rules and they realize what they have to do if they feel sick and they call their health care provider. Because many doctors are saying it's just a matter of time before we're going to start seeing this here.

And I think the answers, as president, what would I do, I would better coordinate throughout my presidency to be ready for the next pandemic and to prepare for this one.

O'DONNELL: Mr. Vice President, we reached a turning point today with the CDC, warning schools that they must prepare that they might have to close, members of the Trump administration saying we don't have enough medical masks if necessary.

What would you do?

BIDEN: What we did with Ebola—I was part of making sure that pandemic did not get to the United States, saved millions of lives. And what we did, we set up, I helped set up that office in the presidency, in the president's office, on—on diseases that are pandemic diseases.

We increased the budget of the CDC. We increased the NIH budget. We should—and our president today—and he's wiped all that out. We did it. We stopped it.

And the second thing I'd point out to you is that what I would do immediately is restore the funding. He cut the funding for CDC. He tried to cut the funding for NIH. He cut the funding for the entire effort.

And here's the deal. I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, we are going to need to be in your country; you have to be open; you have to be clear; we have to know what's going on; we have to be there with you, and insist on it and insist, insist, insist.

O’DONNELL: Senator Sanders?

SANDERS: What do we have to do? Whether or not the issue is climate change, which is clearly a global crisis requiring international cooperation, or infectious diseases like Coronavirus, requiring international cooperation, we have to work and expand the World Health Organization. Obviously, we have to make sure the CDC, the NIH, our infectious departments, are fully funded.

This is a global problem. We've got to work with countries all over the world to solve it.


BRENNAN: Mayor Bloomberg, you've said that President Xi Jinping of China is not a dictator and that he is responsive to his constituents, and that the U.S. must cooperate with Beijing.

How far does that go? Would you allow Chinese firms to build critical U.S. infrastructure?

BLOOMBERG: No, I would not. And I think the Chinese government has not been open. Their press—the freedom of press does not exist there. They—their human rights record is abominable, and we should make a fuss, which we have been doing, I suppose.

But we—make no mistake about it, we have to deal with China, if we're ever going to solve the climate crisis. We have to deal with them because our economies are inextricably linked. We would be—not be able to sell or buy the products that we need.

And, in terms of whether he's a dictator, he does serve at the behest of the Politboro, of their group of people, but there's no question he has an enormous amount of power. And he—but he does play to his constituency. You can negotiate with him. That's exactly what we have to do, make it seem that it's in his interest and in his people's interest to do what we want to do, follow the rules, particularly no stealing of intellectual property; follow the rules in terms of the trade agreements that we have are reciprocal and go equally in both directions.

BRENNAN: Vice President Biden, same question to you. Would you allow Chinese firms to build critical U.S. infrastructure?

BIDEN: No, I would not. And I spent more time with Xi Jinping than any world leader had by the time we left office. This is a guy who is—doesn't have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body.

This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uighurs in "reconstruction camps," meaning concentration camps. This is a guy who you see what's happening right now in—in Hong Kong, and this is a guy who I was able to convince should join the international agreement at the Paris agreement because, guess what, they need to be involved.

You can cooperate and you can also dictate exactly what they are, when in fact they said "We're going to set up a no-fly zone, that you can't fly through our zone.

He said, "What do you expect me to do," when I was over there.

I said, "We're going to fly right through it. We flew B-1 bombers through it. We've got to make it clear. They must play by the rules…

BRENNAN: Senator Warren, same question. Would you allow Chinese firms to build infrastructure?

WARREN: No, I would not.


STEYER: I want to say something about foreign policy, which is this, we keep acting as if we're in the 20th Century or the 19th Century. If you look at the biggest threats to the United States, we're talking right now about coronavirus that cannot be solved within the borders of the United States. We're talking about climate change which is a global problem where we need U.S. leadership for countries around the world.

In fact, Mr. Trump's policy of us going it alone, of "America first," of having no values, no allies, and no strategy is disastrous for us. The biggest threat to America right now in terms of our safety of our citizens is climate. And it's time for us to deal with it that way. Every single foreign policy issue is about American leadership and coalition.


BRENNAN: Senator Sanders … You've praised the Chinese Communist Party for lifting more people out of extreme poverty than any other country. You also have a track record of expressing sympathy for socialist governments in Cuba and in Nicaragua. Can Americans trust that a democratic socialist president will not give authoritarians a free pass?

SANDERS: I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world and I was really amazed at what Mayor Bloomberg just said a moment ago. He said that the Chinese government is responsive to the politburo, but who the hell is the politburo responsive to? Who elects the politburo? You have got a real dictatorship there. Of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba.

What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress on education. Yes, I think…

Excuse me, occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran. And when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans do something good, you acknowledge that. But you don't have to trade love letters with them.

BRENNAN: Mr. Vice President.

BIDEN: Barack Obama was abroad, he was in a town meeting, he did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government. He acknowledged that they did increase life expectancy. But he went on and condemned the dictatorship. He went on and condemned the people who, in fact, had run that committee.

He also made sure to make it clear—and by the way, I called to make sure that I was prepared to—I never say (INAUDIBLE) my private conversations with him, but the fact of the matter is he, in fact, does not, did not, has never embraced an authoritarian regime and does not now … [Sanders] did not condemn what they did.

SANDERS: That is untrue, categorically untrue…I have condemned authoritarianism, whether it is the people in Saudi Arabia that the United States government…

BIDEN: How about Cuba or Nicaragua?

SANDERS: ... has loved for years. Cuba, Nicaragua, authoritarianism of any stripe is bad.


KLOBUCHAR: I was going to comment on Cuba policy because I actually lead the bill to lift the embargo. I went with Barack Obama when he went to Cuba. And I've seen firsthand how the Cuban are way in front of our—their leaders.

They like America. They want to be entrepreneurs. And the way that we embrace them, and not the socialist regime, is by opening up Cuba and starting to do business with them.

Russian Interference (Part 2) Cyber Operations

WHITAKER: The bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report concluded Russia interfered in our last presidential election, and the Obama administration failed to respond forcefully. U.S. intelligence says Russia is at it again. If it is proven that Russia has interfered in the 2020 elections, would you, as president, launch a retaliatory cyber attack?

BIDEN: I would make them pay for it, and I would make them pay for it economically. They are engaged now, as I speak, in interfering in our elections. They were engaged, and when we—when, in fact, we were—the last election in 2016 against Hillary, they were. There's no question.

This man stood before the whole world, turned to the Russian leader and said, why in God's name would this man ever interfere in our elections? Give me a break. Seventeen intelligence agencies said he did. When we got the information, we went to the committee in the Senate that's responsible for knowing these issues and dealing with them.

We went to Mitch McConnell and said join us and point out what is happening here. He said, no, we want no part of it. And if we had moved—we didn't have all the information at that time until after the election was over. And, so, the idea the bipartisan committee said we could have done more, theoretically that's true, but the fact of the matter is we didn't have the information until the end. And so, look, we, in fact, should be imposing sanctions on Russia now for their interference.

WHITAKER: Mr. Steyer.

STEYER: Look, 21st Century warfare is cyber warfare. What we're having is an attack by a hostile foreign power on our democracy right now. The question you have to ask is, where is the commander-in-chief? And let me say this ... this isn't news, what Vice President Biden said is true, he did stand next to Vladimir Putin. There was a hostile, foreign attack on our election last time and the president sided with the hostile foreign power. That's why I started Need to Impeach.

That's what we have to do. We have to oppose a president who sides with a hostile foreign power that commits cyber warfare against the United States of America. That's where we are. Where are all these patriotic Republicans who wave the flag, but when we're actually under attack, they side with our enemies? It's outrageous.

BUTTIGIEG: Look, the way to deter a cyber attack…


GARRETT: Senator Sanders, I have a question for you, sir. You're the frontrunner in this race. You're on the ballot in South Carolina.

If elected, Senator Sanders, you would be America's first Jewish president. You recently called a very prominent, well-known American Israel lobby a platform for, quote, "bigotry." What would you say to American Jews who might be concerned you're not, from their perspective, supportive enough of Israel? And specifically, sir, would you move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv?

SANDERS: Let me just—the answer is, it's something that we would take into consideration.

I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel, but you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.

We have got to have a policy that reaches out to the Palestinians and the Americans. And in answer to your question, that will come within the context of bringing nations together in the Mideast.

GARRETT: Mayor Bloomberg, would you like to weigh in on that, please?

BLOOMBERG: Well, the battle has been going on for a long time in the Middle East, whether it's the Arabs versus the Persians, the Shias versus the Sunnis, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, it's only gone on for 40 or 50 years.

Number one, you can't move the embassy back. We should not have done it without getting something from the Israeli government. But it was done, and you're going to have to leave it there.

Number two, only solution here is a two-state solution. The Palestinians have to be accommodated. The real problem here is you have two groups of people, both who think God gave them the same piece of land. And the answer is to obviously split it up, leave the Israeli borders where they are, try to push them to pull back some of those extra over the—on the other side of the wall, where they've built these new communities, which they should not have done that, pull it back.

GARRETT: Senator Warren?

WARREN: Look, the way we have to think about this is I think we have to start with the values and what has to be protected here. Israelis have a right to security and the Palestinians have a right to be treated with dignity and to have self-determination. That is a two-state solution.

But it's not up to us to determine what the terms of a two-state solution are. We want to be a good ally to everyone in the region. The best way to do that is to encourage the parties to get to the negotiating table themselves.

Donald Trump's big mistake is he keeps putting a thumb on the scale on just one side, and that moves the parties further away from working out their own solution here. We need to be an ally by supporting them to come to negotiate to find a lasting peace.

GARRETT: But, Senator Warren, just on the question of the embassy, what was your position on that?

WARREN: It is not ours to do.

GARRETT: Would you move it back?

WARREN: It is not ours to do. We should let the parties determine the capital.

GARRETT: Would you move it back or not, yes or no?

KLOBUCHAR: It's our embassy.

WARREN: We should let the parties determine the capitals themselves.

North Korea

O'DONNELL: I want to turn now to the issue of North Korea, because President Trump has engaged in direct diplomacy, meeting directly with Kim Jong-un. Senator Klobuchar, if you were commander-in-chief, would you meet with the North Korean leader?

KLOBUCHAR: I would, but not in the way this president has done it. He literally thinks he can go over and bring a hot dish to the dictator next door and he thinks everything's going to be fine. He has not done it with our allies. He has literally just hastily called summits and run off. That is no way to do it.

And, as you can see, North Korea is emboldened. They're still launching missiles. They've promised a Christmas surprise that thankfully never happened. And he has not been able to advance the ball at all.

So what would I do? I would work with our allies. And as has been pointed out, this is what this president fails at all the time. We should be negotiating ourselves back into the Iran nuclear agreement. We should be working with Russia not only to stand up for the protection of our elections and call Vladimir Putin out for what he is, the ruthless dictator that takes down planes, that poisons dissidents, but that, also, at the same time, we have to acknowledge that we should be renegotiating the New START treaty and the other arms negotiations that must happen.

This president just likes to do tweets at 4:00 a.m. in his bathrobe, gets out there and doesn't achieve the results we need. I would meet with him, but I would do it with our allies. I would have clear deliverables and I would achieve those deliverables.

O’DONNELL: Mr. Vice President, how would you deal with North Korea?

BIDEN: You don't negotiate with a dictator, give him legitimacy without any notion whether he is going to do anything at all. You don't do that. Look what happened. He gave this dictator—he's a thug—legitimacy. We've weakened the sanctions around the world against holding us—committing people not to trade, if anything from oil to parts—that can deal with providing missile technology. And what's happened? It's been weakened.

I would be in Beijing, I would be calling to—I would be speaking with Xi Jinping. I would be reassigning the relationship between the Japan and South Korea, and I would make it clear, I would make it clear to China, we are going to continue to move closer to make sure that we can, in fact, prevent China—prevent North Korea from launching missiles to take them down.


BRENNAN: This is a question for Mayor Buttigieg. As you know, viewers and voters are participating in this through Twitter. The city of Idlib in Syria is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The Syrian regime and Russia are targeting schools, bakeries, and hospitals. What would you do as president to push back regime and Russian forces and stop the killing of innocent civilians?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, first of all, I stand with the people of Idlib, who are being targeted, as you said, in a brutal fashion by a dictatorship that has already been so brutal for so many years.

And this is one of the reasons we have got to change the balance of power in the region, because the president has basically vanished from the stage when it comes to even playing a role in the future there. Turkey, Russia, Iran all have so much more of a say than we do. We don't have to be invading countries to be making a difference, working with our international partners, in order to deliver peace and support those who are standing up for self-determination.

BRENNAN: Senator Warren, would you like to respond? What would you do to stop the mass murder in Idlib, Syria?

WARREN: Look, I think that what we've got to do is we have to provide humanitarian relief. We need to work with our allies on this. But this is not a moment for military intervention. We have got to use our military only when we see a military problem that can be solved militarily. We cannot send our military in unless we have a plan to get them out.

So, for me, this is about working with our allies. It is about standing with the people who are under enormous pressure right now. This is recognizing what Donald Trump has put us in, in a terrible box around the world.

But the solution is not to use our military. The solution is to use the other tools here.