Rep. Ro Khanna on Medicare for All, how Bernie can win — and the coming impeachment

Progressive California Democrat visits Salon Talks to discuss the impeachment process and President Bernie Sanders

Published August 13, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

There are only two opinions that matter when it comes to launching an impeachment inquiry into President Trump: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. At least that was the view of Rep. Ro Khanna, the progressive Democrat from Northern California who appeared recently on “Salon Talks,” before heading out for the congressional August recess. It's now clear that Khanna was correct in his “candid assessment” that Nadler was about to call for an impeachment inquiry — although the Judiciary chair has been careful to state that may or may not mean that actual articles of impeachment will be voted out of his committee.

Since our interview, Nadler has said he considers his committee’s investigation to be the beginning of “formal impeachment proceedings.” It would clearly be more definitive if the Judiciary Committee held a formal vote to commence an impeachment inquiry, as the GOP-controlled House did against Bill Clinton in October 1998.

Khanna also shared his views on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal to allow bills to reach the Senate floor that are designed to protect our election infrastructure in advance of the 2020 election. Khanna says this is an issue that should instantly unite Democrats and Republicans, but said that for reasons he can’t fully grasp, McConnell is blocking those efforts.

Finally, we talked the version of Medicare for All being championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, since Khanna is one of Sanders' most prominent congressional supporters and serves as co-chair of the Vermont senator's 2020 presidential campaign. Khanna shared a pragmatic view of Sanders’ approach that I think most people — whether pro- or anti-Bernie — haven’t heard. While Khanna makes clear that Sanders’ “north star” proposal remains a Medicare for All system that would replace most forms of private insurance, he explained that President Sanders would likely accept a bill to add a public option to Obamacare, or to extend Medicare eligibility to people 55 and up. Despite Sanders' reputation as a fire-breathing socialist, Khanna says he “won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Rep. Ro Khanna here, or read a transcript of our conversation below,  lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about some of the top big issues facing Congress. When Robert Mueller testified, what was your overall takeaway?

I thought he was effective. I think this piling on of Robert Mueller is totally unfair. What do you expect? He's a prosecutor, he's restrained, he actually cares about the law, he doesn't want to make political fights. I thought he handled himself with great dignity. He was effective in laying out the case of systematic Russian interference. He was effective in laying out the case of the president's misconduct, and the biggest news coming out of it was actually made by Chairman Jerry Nadler, who said, "You don't need a House vote to have hearings." He has the authority to start [impeachment] hearings himself, and I expect he will.

Let's break it down a little bit because there were two sets of hearings. In the Judiciary Committee, the subject was obstruction. Do you think the case has been made — and you're an attorney — that Donald Trump has fulfilled the elements of obstruction of justice on at least one count at this point?

Yeah, certainly enough to have hearings. I mean, I'm not a prosecutor, but in terms of the role of Congress, I think, Nadler would be perfectly justified in having hearings, and I expect he will.

On Russian interference, Rep. Adam Schiff [the Intelligence Committee chair] talked about how Russia violated federal laws to help Donald Trump, the Trump campaign strategically used the data that was stolen and then lied about it. How stunning is it to hear Robert Mueller saying under oath for the whole nation to watch that Donald Trump accepted the help of Russia and that people in his orbit lied about that?

I thought that Adam Schiff had some of the most effective questioning of the day. Mueller basically acknowledged that the Russians wanted Donald Trump to win, that the Trump campaign was perfectly fine accepting their help, and that that help may have led to Trump winning. I don't know how much clearer he could have been.

The House is on break through Labor Day. When Chairman Nadler says they're going to have some hearings, I assume you’re not going to come back from recess and do it. It's going to be in the fall when everyone returns?

Yes, yes, in the fall. As long as he starts them before the end of the year, which I expect he will, then I think that will be effective. The big challenge was if you need to have a vote in the House, because I don't think we'd have 218 votes now. But basically now there are only two people who matter, in terms of impeachment. Your opinion is as good as my opinion is as good as anyone’s opinion, but what really matters is Nadler and Pelosi. That's what's going to make the determination. My candid assessment, having heard them speak in caucus, is that Nadler is prepared to move forward.

What do you make of the Republican reaction to all of this? If you look at the trajectory of the Republican Party, it went from Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an evil empire, to John McCain saying he looked at Putin and saw KGB in his eyes and Mitt Romney in 2012, running against Obama, saying that Russia was the No.  1 geopolitical foe of the United States.

Then you have Donald Trump saying, "Russia are you listening? Help me." Then, last year, at this time, in Helsinki standing next to Putin and defending him over our intelligence agencies. Trump can do what he wants, but how can the Republican Party allow this slide into allowing Trump to accept help from Russia and lying about it?

Well, it's totally opportunistic, as you point out. And there is a middle ground between what Mitt Romney was doing, which is trying to call for ushering in a new Cold War, and having a responsible policy with Russia that doesn't have us embracing Russian interference.

I think that the next president will be very clear and will say that the United States has zero tolerance for any election interference, you will knock it off. We are going to put full faith in our intelligence agencies and you do not want to test the United States' resolve. Do not even try to hack our voting machines, do not try to go on our social media platforms.

But, I think they will say, look, when it comes to issues in the Middle East and other regional issues, we need to work towards diplomacy to reduce the nuclear weapons threat and that we need to engage Russia in responsible diplomacy.

So, this is why I wasn't for Mitt Romney for president and I didn't expect we'd get to Donald Trump. I mean, I guess I would have taken Romney over that, but I remember Barack Obama appropriately mocking Mitt Romney, reminding him that we were no longer in the 1980s.

During the testimony of Robert Mueller, Rep. Will Hurd, who is a Republican, stood up and showed clearly that he's about shoring up America's security and not about shoring up Donald Trump. There was an exchange there with Mueller when he said, "They are doing it as we sit here." Yet, there were two bills before the Senate that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans would not allow a vote on to shore up the election infrastructure. We even had a Senate report come out saying there were attacks on seemingly all 50 states. Is there any sense in this? I don't get why Mitch McConnell and the Republicans would not want to do everything they can, unify with the Democrats on this issue.

When books are written about Mitch McConnell, he will be seen as one of the most reactionary forces in politics in the last 30 years. I mean, it doesn't surprise me. The Republican view, the partisan view of Donald Trump, is that anything that talks about elections in any way is undermining his victory of 2016 and they can't look beyond that.

I mean, you can talk about, let's make sure that no one cheats in elections and they'll say, "Oh, are you trying to imply that Donald Trump didn't win?" It's sort of like the buzzwords — election security, interference — go off and they think, "Donald Trump." It reminds me not to be too pedantic, of the Faulkner novel “Absalom, Absalom!” where he says, "Thou protest a bit too much” or something. I mean, if the election were that clean, they wouldn't be that paranoid about saying, "Let's go move forward." I think they realize that there were a lot of shenanigans in the 2016 elections, so they don't like the topic.

America is hyper-partisan right now, I get it, and we're not going to agree on most things these days. But an attack on our nation — there should not even be a debate about it. We should just be, hey, let's shore up our elections. Make sure China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, whoever, can't do this. In the House, do you get a sense that this is a bipartisan national security issue and not a partisan talking point issue?

Nah, they haven't factored in any of the Norwegian interference that's going to make Bernie Sanders president, right? The Republicans aren't counting on that. [Laughter.]

So I think they're going to realize that interference isn't partisan. You can have countries interfering regardless, and just like I wouldn't want Norway interfering on behalf of Bernie Sanders, I don't want another country interfering on behalf of Donald Trump. I don't think that's a very partisan statement.

Let’s turn to 2020. One of the big issues, besides Donald Trump's horrific character and racism, is health care. Donald Trump lying on certain issues, I get it, it's politics. But him lying specifically to his base, that he's trying to protect coverage for pre-existing conditions — when his DOJ is literally arguing in federal court to strike down the Affordable Care Act. On a human level, what would it be like for us to go back to the days where pre-existing conditions are not covered any longer?

It would be devastating. I mean, it would mean that if you get a diagnosis of cancer, or you get a diagnosis of diabetes, or you get a diagnosis of some disease that requires treatment, you could be denied health care coverage. I mean, it's inhumane. And it would lead, literally, to more deaths. It would lead to more sickness and further abuse of the system.

But, look, we know the solution to health care. LBJ, when he passed Medicare, envisioned Medicare being extended. And Daniel Moynihan, one of the smartest senators in the history of this country, had 25 hearings after Bill Clinton introduced his health care plan. Twenty-five hearings they had and at the end of it he turned to his Senate staffer and said, "I guess the only thing that would work is extending Medicare."

You know, this is not rocket science. And yet 25 years later we still aren't embracing the most obvious solution, which is Medicare for All.

You’re a co-chair of Bernie Sanders' campaign and I know that's something that he champions. If Sen. Sanders were to win, is Medicare for All the only prescription? There is the idea that a Medicare for All proposal gets rid of all private health insurance companies.

It actually doesn't. It doesn't, and here's what the media is missing.  Medicare law says that you can't have duplicative insurance. That's the current law. Under Medicare, you can have supplemental insurance, but you can't have insurance that covers the same things as Medicare. And why would you want that?

That's all Sanders’ [plan] is built on. It says, we're going to extend that to everyone, and you can't have duplicative private health insurance. But if you want to go and buy health insurance that's beyond that, you can.

In Britain, 4 percent of the population has supplemental private insurance. So what Sanders is saying to people is, look, we're going to give you great health care. We're going to give you dental. We're going to give you vision. But, if you're one of those multi-millionaires who always likes to have the luxury goods and you want something that everyone else doesn't have? Be my guest! Go buy your private insurance.

I'm glad you clarified that. That wasn't my point. My point is, will that be the only option? What if there's a middle way to get there that can get through Congress?

What matters is what your North Star is. For Bernie Sanders, it's going to be Medicare for All and making sure that we move to single-payer health insurance. Does that mean that if Congress sends him a bill that says we're going to have a public option or we're going to extend Medicare to 55, that he's going to veto it? Of course not. But he's going to fight for the ideal. And it's important where your ideal, is in terms of where you want to move the country, but it doesn't mean that he's going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We're told we live in the greatest country in the world, yet we're not treating our people like that. And I'm glad Sen. Sanders and other Democrats are now saying we should treat our people the same way every industrialized nation does.

I agree, and this is the issue when you look at polling in Iowa and New Hampshire and early states. People care about Medicare for All, they care about the economics, their economic insecurity, their economic aspiration. They care about the fact that people's pay has not increased, even though the stock market is going up. These are the bread-and-butter issues that I think are going to win us the election and why I think Bernie Sanders is such a strong candidate because he has won rural voters, independent voters, in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Iowa, places we need to win back.

Let’s touch on something else that affects people’s daily lives. The Justice Department recently approved the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, which puts together the third and fourth biggest wireless carriers in the nation. Meaning that we're basically down to three. You were raising flags before the DOJ said yes to it. What were your concerns about this merger?

Here’s what I don't understand. When you go into a grocery store or a pharmacy, and you want to buy toothpaste, there are 15 toothpastes, and you're like, why do I have 15 choices? Just give me one of these toothpastes. Or you go in and you want to buy a type of soda, you see 15 sodas. Well, for something so important, how are we going to get wireless service and cellphones? We now only have three choices in this country. Something is dramatically wrong when you have 15 choices of toothpaste and 20 choices of cereal, and when it comes to getting a cellphone and wireless service, you have three choices.

AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint are now going to control the entire cell service, the entire wireless service of the United States, which means higher prices, higher phone bills, less access. This isn't rocket science.

Is there a way the government can help encourage more wireless carriers to get in the field?

Don’t keep approving these mergers. The consolidation, in these industries, in the internet service providers, for broadband and wireless, is outrageous. And it's costing jobs. I mean, when you have these mergers a lot of the time people get laid off. It's hurting consumers and it's going to end up raising prices. And it's hurting the ability to cover areas, because these companies don't have much incentive to cover areas that have small populations.

Elizabeth Warren has proposed an idea of breaking up some of the big tech companies. You represent Silicon Valley. Her plan would get regulators involved in making some of the big companies smaller. What's your reaction to that?

I'm for strong antitrust enforcement. I think we need to be skeptical of future mergers. I mean, I don't think the Facebook merger with WhatsApp and Instagram should have been approved. But I'm not for reflexively breaking up tech companies. And I don't want to say, OK, let's break up Apple, let's break up Google. These companies are some of the most successful in the United States that are competing with Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent.

Do I think that if Google wanted to go acquire a competitor, another big company, we should say no? Of course. We shouldn't be approving them acquiring AT&T or Sprint or some big company. Let's have skepticism on future big mergers. Let's make sure they aren't privileging their platform. But just saying, "Let's go break these companies up" — A) that's unlikely to happen, and B) that's not, in my view, what's going to be the right policy.

You and I have talked about this before: You've been one of the loudest voices on the U.S. involvement in Yemen, where we have supported Saudi Arabia's war which has led to the killing of countless civilians. Now Democrats and Republicans got together to support a bill, to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Donald Trump vetoed three of those bills recently. Foreign policy gets almost no coverage. What's going on in Yemen that concerns you so much that you wanted to ban those arms sales?

Yemen is one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises. There are almost 14 million people who face a potential famine. I mean, it's shocking to the conscience and it's happening for a couple of reasons. One, the Saudis are bombing there. Two, the Saudis have a blockade where they aren't allowing food and medicine in. And then the Houthis [Yemeni rebels seeking to overthrow the government] aren't blameless. The Houthis aren't allowing some of the aid to get to the people.

For the longest time, we were refueling the planes that were bombing Yemen. Sen. Sanders and I introduced a war powers resolution. Trump vetoed it, but at the very least, that war powers resolution put pressure on the United States so we're no longer refueling. But the bombing has continued, the war has continued. My view is that we shouldn't be supplying the Saudis with arms while they're bombing civilians in Yemen and, by the way, while they're arming al-Qaida and it's fighting our own counterterrorist operations in Yemen. And while they've taken no action on [murdered journalist] Jamal Khashoggi.

People often don't realize that Khashoggi was killed precisely because he was speaking out on Yemen. I mean, that's the irony. No one knew about Yemen. Khashoggi was almost a martyr. He was writing column after column about Yemen, and no one was paying attention until he got killed.

Your resolution got vetoed. All three bills got vetoed. Any chance for an override of this veto?

We're going to try, but it's tough. I mean, a vote override takes two-thirds of the House and the Senate, and, unfortunately, there are people who view the Saudis as an ally and a counter to Iran. But, what they don't realize is that actually they're hurting our credibility in the Middle East. I mean, on humanitarian grounds there's no reason to support them. But more importantly, by supporting them we're antagonizing so many other people in the Middle East that it's not worth the cost to United States national interests. [Khanna's attempts to override the vetoes failed,]

I can just tell you, as a Muslim-American who's been forced to answer for Saudi Arabia for my entire life, they're horrible. I was hoping you would succeed at stopping the weapons. It's been horrific. To me, it's a crime against humanity.

Last thing: You're on vacation, Congress is out for the month. What do you guys do? Is there a big "Real World" house where members of Congress all hang together? You're entitled to a vacation, of course, but it's not just that. I mean, some members have town halls, some go on fact-finding missions.

I've got town halls, I've got meeting with constituents, meetings with different technology leaders, and I’m going to Rep. Veronica Escobar's district on the border [in Texas] to see some of the detention facilities. Then I'm at a seminar with some foreign policy leaders to discuss a strategy to stop war in Iran.

Then I head to New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders. Then I'm in Pennsylvania to talk about the SEIU [service workers' union]. Then I'm down in Ferguson [Missouri] on a police violence bill that we're doing. Then I'm back in California.

So we're still working. It's not what people think, which is vacation. In fact, it's probably more busy than being in Washington. That said, I think the idea of a six-week recess is probably a bit too much. I mean, make it three weeks. We've got a lot of work still to be done for people.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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