Rep. Joe Kennedy III on Trump's "devastating" failure — and why he's running against a Democrat

RFK's grandson on fighting for "essential workers" and his controversial primary campaign against Sen. Ed Markey

Published May 11, 2020 12:55PM (EDT)

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Amid the coronavirus epidemic, with unemployment reaching the highest rates since the Great Depression, the Republican mantra that less government is best is not just tone deaf, it's cruel — and arguably deadly. I recently spoke with Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., on "Salon Talks" about how the Trump administration's failure to "get ahead of the virus" and to perform robust testing has led us here we are today, in terms of both the heartbreaking loss of life and the widespread economic devastation. Speaking of the president, this third-generation scion of the fabled Kennedy clan told me, "I wish I could tell you I expected more or better out of him, but I don't."

Massachusetts has been hit by the coronavirus with roughly 78,000 cases of COVID-19 illness and a death toll close to 5,000, third-highest in the nation after New York and New Jersey. Beyond the loss of life, Kennedy shared how he's witnessing economic turmoil in his state, pointing to a food line in in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with "hundreds and hundreds of people," he had seen a few days earlier. Kennedy made it clear that despite Trump's predictions of a quick economic recovery, these economic struggles will be with us for a long time to come.

Along with other progressives in Congress, Kennedy is pushing to provide health care for all unemployed workers who have lost insurance coverage by expanding Medicare. He has also proposed legislation that would provide additional direct relief to Americans of $4,000 per adult (depending on income), explaining that the one-time $1,200 stimulus payment provided so far falls woefully short.

Kennedy also discussed a controversial political topic — his current Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Ed Markey, viewed as a reliable vote and an ally of the Bay State's other senator, Elizabeth Warren. Kennedy also shared his views on the sexual assault allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden, calling for a "consistent position" where we support those who come forward, as well as fully investigating the claims.

Watch my interview with Rep. Joe Kennedy here, or read a transcript of our conversation below — as usual, edited for length and clarity.

Massachusetts has been hit very hard by COVID-19. You have had over 70,000 cases, and almost 4,000 of your fellow residents of your state have perished from this. [As mentioned above, those numbers are now significantly higher.] How much help do you still need from the federal government to get this under control?

A lot. And let's be clear, Dean, the reason why the impact of this virus has been so bad here has been in many respects, the failure of the federal government to provide the very basics upon which we should expect them to provide and that we would need to rely on. From the beginning, I've been engaged with Gov. [Charlie] Baker, and asked him nearly two months ago, what is it that you need and how can we help? And it was testing and it was PPE, right? The basics that you need to protect a community from the spread of this virus. We didn't have enough PPE despite having some of the best hospitals and health care institutions you'll find anywhere in the world. You didn't have enough for our first responders, our EMTs, our firefighters, our police officers. About half of the fatalities that we've had here in Massachusetts have been through nursing homes and senior centers, where it's been absolutely devastating.

That failure to be able to get in front of the spread of the virus, this failure to have robust tests available, despite the proclamations from this administration, has been devastating. We've got a long way to go from this. I was in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is a community east of Boston, on Tuesday. I have lived in developing countries all over the world. I have never seen a line so long for food as I saw on Tuesday in Chelsea. Hundreds and hundreds of people, in the United States of America in 2020, standing outside waiting for food. The impact that this virus is going to have on lower-income communities, on fragile communities, is going to be one we're going to be confronting for a long, long time to come.

The disparity in terms of black and Latino citizens, something we've covered on my radio show a lot. In many cases, those are the people on the front lines working hard jobs and risking their lives. Now you've got a situation where states need help from the federal government to balance their budget — 46 of the 50 states can't have a deficit, under the law. Now you have Donald Trump mimicking Mitch McConnell: No blue-state bailout. If they really don't provide help, what is the real-world impact on a state like Massachusetts and other states?

This is, again, another complete farce and falsity from this administration. One, you look at the states that actually are donors back to the federal government, which is to say that they send more money in federal taxes to the government than the money that we receive. New York is like No. 1 on the list. Massachusetts, we send more money than we get back. So the idea that somehow you're talking about a blue-state bailout — look at the states that actually receive more than they send back, but that is like the heart of President Trump's base.

None of my constituents that have tried to say, when we're talking about trying to provide programs and assistance to folks in the South or in the Midwest after a tornado, "Hey, we don't think we should be spending our dollars on a red-state bailout because you got hit with a storm." That's not what we say. There's nobody here that tried to say, "Hey, we shouldn't send tax dollars to Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria, right?" Or send it down to Florida after those hurricanes. Nobody said that. The idea that somehow the appropriate response in this moment is to pit one segment of Americans against another is horrifying. The idea that that's going to be the reaction of the president of the United States. It is sad, but it is not surprising.

Also sad and not surprising is that Trump just vowed to end the Affordable Care Act in federal court. The DOJ had a chance to reverse their position and not argue to end all the benefits of the ACA. In the very same breath Donald Trump says, "But don't worry, we've got a great plan to cover pre-existing health conditions." Of course we don't have it. How dangerously misleading is that to Americans who might not be following closely, to say, "Hey, don't worry, I got you on pre-existing conditions," when they don't.

I think if there's one potential silver lining of the course over the past three years or so of this administration, it's that most folks don't believe Donald Trump when he talks about health care, because he's been talking about that great plan that he has to insure everybody, yet we still haven't seen it. We've talked about how they were going to repeal and replace and they didn't do that because the American public, and in fact a number of Republicans, actually stood up and said, "We know you don't have a plan and you can't take health care away from millions of Americans and not have a plan."

And the idea that you'd think that this would be the appropriate response in the middle of a pandemic is just stunning, but again, not surprising. So is it dangerous? Absolutely. Is it playing to a political base off talking points that aren't true and are going to be so unbelievably devastating if they came to pass? Yeah. Have we seen this president put politics above the well-being of the American people before? Yeah, almost every day. Do we see him misleading the American public about it? Yes. Every day. And I wish I could tell you I expected more or better out of him, but I don't.

You and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington have proposed expanding Medicare during this difficult time for people who lose their jobs, who can't afford COVID benefits or can't afford any kind of coverage to the ACA. Tell people a little bit about it because I think this is fundamentally important, with 33 million people out of work, a number that is definitely going to get higher. 

In the midst of a pandemic across this country, your health, Dean, and my health are linked. Tthat's something that we know to be true. The reason why we are socially distanced, is to make sure that if you catch this virus that you don't spread it to me, and if I catch it, I don't spread it to you. If we know that your health and mine are linked and we know that we want to make sure that we cure this — we get in front of this disease and we stop its spread so I can get better and you can get better — then we need to make sure that you can get access to health care and I can get access to health care. Those are the basics.

And so yes, I'm a huge supporter for Medicare for All and we need to get to that place where every single person gets access to the health care they need when they need it. When we have so many people, 60-plus million people, that are based off of employer-sponsored health care, if you lose your job, you might not have health care anymore. So this says, if you've lost your job, we're going to cover you with Medicare. And we're also going to have a dramatic expansion to Medicaid and we're going to make sure that any health care related to COVID-19, so not just testing but also treatment, that there's no cost sharing. We're going to make sure that you get healthy. If you happen to get sick and not just sick but really sick so that you're one of those folks that's on a ventilator for a couple of weeks and spends a week inside a hospital and we are able, thank God, to save your life, you don't come back out and say, "Hey, I'm experiencing financial devastation for the rest of my life and will be paying off those medical bills for as long as I live." Because that's not the appropriate thing to do in the richest, most powerful nation in the world.

It's not the right thing to do when we're spending trillions of dollars to try to float an economy, to then turn around and tell somebody that just because you got sick, it's up to you to figure out your pathway out of it or face financial devastation. I don't believe that that's the country we have to be, and the bill that I filed with Congresswoman Jayapal proves it.

I don't know if people are aware how expensive COBRA can be. It could be $1,200 to $1,400 a month for a couple. It could be $2,000 a month for a family. If you're on unemployment already, it burns through everything. How do you pay your bills and take care of something else? There's a poll out today that 77 percent of Americans think they're going to get back to their job really quickly. Economists say that's probably not true. What are you going to do to help those people who are out of work for a long period of time?

We can kind of do a number of things. But the first piece on this was — look, this is why I called for a $4,000 direct cash payment months ago. If we're confronting is a health care crisis because of a novel virus and a country that was not prepared for its onslaught, which is the reality of it — although we should have been more prepared than we were — in order to mitigate the spread of this virus, we had to shut down our economy. Then the federal government's got to step in and say, "Hey, let's make sure that people can focus on their health, not get sick, and if you are sick to get well without worrying about financial devastation, and that means we've got to pay your bills." And what Congress did was say, "Hey, we'll give you 1,200 bucks."

Dean, I've done town halls all over the state. I have asked in almost every single one of those town halls, "How many of you could live on 1,200 bucks a month in Massachusetts?" Not a single hand has ever gone up. So if our objective here is to try to say, "Look, stay home, get healthy, don't spread this disease," we didn't give people the tools to do that. What we did was to give them something to provide some semblance of security, but not enough where they could actually do what we needed them to do.

So what happens? People go to work because they have to, because they're essential workers and we need them to. And yet we don't supply them with PPE and we don't secure the public transit routes and we don't make sure that they have the tools that they need in order to stay healthy. And so what happens? They get sick and they spread it. And so what do we need to do? We need to do an awful lot more to actually treat essential workers as essential human beings.

To recognize that, as the Rev. William Barber II and I wrote in a Washington Post editorial recently, if we're going to start to call them "essential workers," we need to treat them as though they are essential. Which means a living wage, which means they're going to have health care, which means they're not going to be taken advantage of and exploited. It's treating them with the basic dignity that every American deserves and every worker should demand, and that's not too much to ask, particularly in this moment when we are so dependent on them to keep our society moving.

During the Great Depression, FDR rolled out the New Deal. Your new proposal, along with Rep. Jayapal and Rep. Mark Pocan [of Wisconsin], is called "Civil Gideon." Tell people about this.

It is desperately needed and it's a long time coming. This has been an issue that I've been focused on for years. Going back to my time as actually as a law student working in Boston housing courts in the midst of the last financial collapse, trying to keep low-income families in their homes when it's a foreclosure crisis, when they didn't do anything wrong. The laws were set up to provide them protections, but if you didn't know about them or you didn't know how to leverage them, you didn't know how to access them, then you were actually run right out of a home that you could've stayed in. I took that experience with me to Congress. I founded a legal aid caucus here. We've increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which is responsible for the majority of legal aid funding across this country. We've been able to increase the funding for legal aid, but we know we need to go farther and we know coming out of this crisis it's going to be all that more important.

So the resolution that we drafted, which I'm very proud of, has some proud progressive voices, but it is also bipartisan, recognizing that there is bipartisan support for saying that in today's society, even in civil courts — not just criminal cases where the Miranda rights apply and right to an attorney — but in civil cases about basic needs, everything from sustenance to housing to safety and child custody, in these areas of basic need, you need to have a lawyer by your side. This resolution and the legislation that will follow it, is about codifying that right into law as one of the great expansions of civil rights in this country.

Is there anything that stands out for you as an example you can give to people?

All the times that I was in court trying to defend somebody from an eviction who didn't do anything wrong. These are the cases that I had with tenants normally, in a home where the owner of that home had defaulted on the mortgage. The conditions of the house, they were in pretty dire shape. Because if you're not paying your mortgage, you're also probably not paying the upkeep. A bank would come in and take over the home, take over the mortgage and look around and see how terrible the conditions were. Rather than fix them, which would cost money, they just evicted everybody. And we're saying, "Hey, these tenants, they had legal possession of the apartment. They have rights, let's avail them of those rights so that they have at least some time and civility and money to be able to find out what that next chapter holds for them."

But I think one of the reasons why you have such a broad swath of organizations that are supporting this legislation, Dean, is because of the wide variety of ways in which this impacts people. I remember a couple of years ago, going down to the House Floor trying to raise support for Legal Services Funding and I brought with me a New York Times piece that talked about the impact that legal services have across the country. And it highlighted the story of a family in a state in the Midwest, whose farm was under foreclosure. Their home and farm were under foreclosure, because a clerk in the town had inputted a tax payment with a typo and it went in as an unpaid tax lien and the system then started a foreclosure process and the family couldn't understand what happened. They didn't know how to stop it.

They are about to lose their home, they had a legal aid attorney who found the error and was able to save that family and their house. So I went to my pretty conservative colleague and said, "Hey, we need your help to fund legal services because it is your last line of defense against an overbearing government." If we codify these rights so that they should apply to me and they apply to you, but if you needed them, you could find access to an attorney so that your rights could be defended.

What we have in this country are the rights that our legislature has fought for and put in place, but we just don't allow people to actually avail themselves of those rights. This bill will make sure that our law actually does what we say it does, which is treat everybody equally and make sure that everybody has access to it. That's what this is about and I'm really proud of the amount of support that we've gotten, the broad base and the diversity of opinions to recognize that our civil justice system and our justice system still falls far short of what we should just hope that it accomplishes.

Let's talk about a few political issues. We just learned that Bill Barr, is now dropping the charges against Michael Flynn. Donald Trump has led a charge to get rid of these charges ever since meeting with James Comey in the White House in 2017, through just tweeting days ago. Is it hard to have confidence that the DOJ did an independent evaluation, and didn't just do what Trump told them to do?

I've got grave concerns as to the objectivity of Bill Barr and we've seen on a number of different occasions where the president has sought to influence the attorney general. I think that leaves his judgment very much in question. I haven't had a chance to look into the details of it, but certainly given the severity of the charges against Mr. Flynn, I think Congress has a right to take a look at that and understand exactly why this attorney general thinks that those charges are not sufficient.

We're in the middle of the 2020 race. In the media last week, there's been big talk about Vice President Biden and the allegations made by Tara Reade. We're both lawyers, I think we're both waiting on this, because you need more evidence. But how do Democrat, keep a standard for where we are in terms of standing with women or men who speak out about sexual abuse, but at the same time balance that with responsible vetting of anyone's charges, so we don't look like hypocrites?

I think you do exactly what you said we would do. You stick to the consistent position, which is to say these allegations are serious allegations. They deserve to be investigated. The difference between what's happened in this case and what's happened in many other ones is that the vice president has said the same thing. He has said, "They're serious. She deserves to be heard." He says they haven't happened, but he's also calling for that investigation and the disclosure of whatever documentation there is. And that's the difference.

So look, I obviously have no insight as to what happened, there's no way I could. But what we can say is that that evidence needs to come forward, exactly as the vice president said. She deserves to be heard and that that should take place and it needs to. Any victim that comes forward deserves to be heard. Any person that faces those accusations, obviously he or she deserves to be heard and have that evidence come out, so that either law enforcement and or the public can make up their mind as to what happened. The difference again is that the vice president is calling for that process in this case, and obviously President Trump has never called for that in the myriad instances where he has been accused. He has just tried to discredit the accusers, when as we know there's been independent corroborating evidence that he's lying.

You're in the middle of a Senate race right now against Ed Markey, a Democratic incumbent who is known as a very progressive guy. You have said that you'd be more effective than him. Can you share with us where you believe he has not been effective and where could you be more effective if you were in the Senate?

Dean, it's a great question, I appreciate you asking. Look, the reality is that we are in the middle of a crisis that is going to shape this country for an awful long time. When you're talking about a crisis, you need to have leaders that are going to be on the streets in Massachusetts using the experiences and the challenges of the people in Massachusetts to help craft that policy response and our pathway forward. You cannot afford absent leadership.

And so, one, I don't think Sen. Markey has been here enough. I don't think he's here enough now and I don't think he's shown the leadership that is necessary in order to channel the concerns and the dreams of the people of Massachusetts. Two, I do think it's worth examining that record and if we look at that record after 9/11, Sen. Markey voted for the Iraq war and he voted for the PATRIOT Act. In the midst of a cocaine and crack epidemic in the 1990s, Sen. Markey voted for the crime bill and sent an entire generation of African American men to jail. As we come out of this crisis, you can't afford that type of judgment that is going to make a massive mistake and then spend years essentially trying to make up for it.

You compare that judgment with the way I've handled my campaign over the course of the past six or eight weeks. I was one of the first people in the country to suspend my campaign. I suspended our fundraising operations. We suspended all of our field operations. I had our field team making well-being checks on tens of thousands of seniors across Massachusetts, asking if they were OK and connecting them to resources if they needed help. We started using our fundraising list to raise nearly $100,000 for local organizations like the Chelsea Collaborative, like the United Way. We're going to provide basic needs and organizations try to chase down PPE for our first responders. We were handing out meals last week with Wahlburgers restaurants to EMTs and firefighters and paramedics and doctors and nurses and people working in our hospitals to say thank you, and at a UPS facility to say thank you to the folks that deliver our packages.

That's, I think, the type of leadership that this moment calls for, along with the vision to say, "Hey, we've got to take on these big structural challenges like ending the filibuster, like ending the Electoral College, like campaign finance reform, so that we can deliver on the change that we need to make, to make sure that this never happens again." And I think if you put my record up against the senator's, you'll find a very different story than the one that the senator has been telling.

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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