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Transcript: Iowa vs Impeachment

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Iowa vs Impeachment.
Image: Local residents attend a campaign event for Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden in Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S.
Local residents attend a campaign event for Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Jan. 29, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters


Article II: Inside Impeachment

Iowa vs Impeachment

Archival Recording: Monday, February 3rd is a very special day.

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, February 3rd, and here's what's happening. (MUSIC)

Archival Recording: Members of the Senate, it has been an incredible honor and privilege to speak to you in this chamber. I hope that what I've shown has been helpful to your understanding of the facts, and I respectfully ask you to vote to acquit the president of the wrongful charges against him.

Kornacki: The House managers and the president's legal team made closing arguments today in the Senate impeachment trial. Both sides invoked the upcoming election to make their final case.

Adam Schiff: Can we be confident that Americans and not foreign powers will get to decide and that the president will shun any further foreign interference in our Democratic affairs? And the short, plain, sad, incontestable answer is no, you can't.

Archival Recording: At the end of the day, this is an effort to overturn the results of one election and to try to interfere in the coming election that begins today in Iowa. (CHANTING)

Kornacki: That election is closer than you think.

Crowd: Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete.

Pete Buttigieg: Happy caucus day. (CHEERING)

Archival Recording: The future of the 2020 presidential race and the future of the Democratic Party could begin tonight.

Kornacki: That's right. On one of the last days of the Senate trial, the first votes are being cast in the Iowa caucuses. Today on Article II we're asking: How is the impeachment of President Donald Trump affecting the race for 2020? Jon Allen is a senior political analyst for NBC News. He's joining us from Des Moines, Iowa, where he's covering the Iowa caucuses after spending the last few months in Washington covering the president's impeachment. Jon, welcome to you. The weather's probably a little colder there.

Jon Allen: It's very cold here. Especially windy on the plains.

Kornacki: One of the tests they say, the Iowa caucuses. Can you get your supporters to go out in the freezing cold winter weather? These two worlds though you've been covering are colliding here. The world of impeachment, the world of the Iowa caucuses, the first test in the Democratic presidential race. Joe Biden, the national frontrunner, tryin' to have a strong showing here in Iowa. He and his son Hunter, certainly they featured prominently in the impeachment trial over the last week. Is that affecting his campaign out there in Iowa?

Allen: I think it is affecting his campaign here some. Certainly there's an attempt very visibly by Republicans to make it affect his campaign. We've seen that in Washington. Obviously the bringing up of Hunter Biden and of Joe Biden and some of the Republican allegations against specifically Hunter Biden, that he was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company for no apparent reason other than his last name, the sort of garden-variety Washington nepotism-type job.

And then the unsubstantiated insinuations that Joe Biden tried to help him out. And then the sort of softer, and on background, and in private conversation efforts by rival Democratic campaigns to suggest that if Joe Biden is the nominee of the Democratic Party, that that will come back to haunt him, that Donald Trump will use that against Biden, and that that might be an effective tool in the campaign.

Kornacki: That's interesting. I guess that's just a permanent feature in these campaigns. What the candidates maybe won't say in public but their campaigns will say in private, often a bit of a gap there. But in terms of Biden and what he's been trying to tell Iowa voters to get them to focus on, he's got a new final 60-second television ad that he's running out there.

Archival Recording: It's said in here your character is revealed. We saw it with President Obama. We're seeing it with President Trump. But it's in life where your character is formed, where you're from.

Kornacki: The topic, the issue of character there looming large in the ad. What's behind that strategy from Biden's standpoint to stress that?

Allen: I think if you look at the way Joe Biden's run this campaign, Steve, it really is an effort to capture all of the Democrats and a slice of Republicans. And I think the way that he tries to do that with this ad is to punch at Donald Trump in a way that he thinks unites that set, that sees character as a flaw in Donald Trump.

Not that he's gonna go to Republicans and get all of them to agree with him that Donald Trump's wrong on policies but that perhaps he can get them to agree that Donald Trump's behavior and that some of the things that he says, some of the ways that he characterizes Americans are signs of character flaws in Donald Trump and that Joe Biden has shown himself to have better character. And I think, you know, that's a way for him to hammer at Trump and at the same time not alienate any Democratic voters, and not alienate the Republicans, and in fact perhaps attract some of those Republicans to his campaign.

Kornacki: So we're talking about Biden here, but this impeachment trial has affected some of his opponents as well, the members of the United States Senate. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, they have been in that trial instead of on the campaign trail in Iowa for these critical final weeks. It's interesting in the polling certainly in the final days. Sanders seemed to be doing well. Would be doing better if he'd been out there campaigning? Has it not mattered for them that they haven't been campaigning? Or has that made a difference?

Allen: It's very hard to tell exactly what the difference is. Certainly they would tell you they'd rather be here on the ground in Iowa. None of them would tell you that they'd prefer to be in Washington in an impeachment trial. Nobody in Iowa wants to hear that the senators would rather be in Washington than meeting voters.

And, you know, I think it's true that very few of them would like to be locked on the Senate floor, not speaking. But, you know, I think each of them has handled it a little bit differently. You know, the similarities are they've sent surrogates out to Iowa.

And to the extent that they've been able to be here, they've come out here on the weekends. They've grabbed flights as quickly as possible outta Washington. And they've made the most of their ability to come and meet with voters. They've been on television in ads.

And, you know, I think all of them have been campaigning for the better part of a year or in some cases like Elizabeth Warren more than a year. Any Iowa voter who wanted an opportunity to see one of these senators campaigning has had an opportunity to do that.

Kornacki: You mentioned the surrogates, the prominent political or cultural figures who support some of these candidates who have been much more prominent as sort of playing the role of candidate almost while these senators have been in the trial. There have been a few controversies even that have kind of sprouted up from some of the things these surrogates have said. Has that affected this campaign at all, the surrogates being this prominent?

Allen: It has a little bit, Steve. Rashida Tlaib, one of the surrogates for Bernie Sanders, was encouraging a crowd to boo Hillary Clinton the other day.

Dionna Langford: I don't know if you guys remember last week when someone by the name of Hillary Clinton said that nobody, we're not gonna boo. We're not gonna boo. We're classy here.

Rashida Tlaib: No, no--

Langford: We're classy.

Tlaib: I'll boo. Boo. (CHEERING) You all know I can't be quiet. No, we're gonna boo.

Allen: You know, that's not the message that the Sanders campaign leadership has been advocating of late. They're not trying to be especially divisive at the moment. And so, you know, there's been a little bit of that. For the most part, surrogates are supposed to come out, and kinda rally your troops to your side, and not necessarily start fights that you weren't looking to start.

But the Sanders crowd has always been a little bit different and probably a little more likely to be excited by the bomb throwing of surrogates, you know, the sort of rabble-rousing if you will. And Michael Moore did some of that bomb throwing as well.

Michael Moore: But the fact that I had to wake up this morning and realize that we have to fight the corporate Democrats, the 1% of the Democratic Party who are thoroughly pissed that Bernie Sanders is now number one, that Bernie Sanders might win this primary season, that Bernie Sanders might be the next president of the United States.

Allen: That's a little bit more consistent with what you would see from a Bernie Sanders surrogate. You almost never see that from Sanders himself. And he usually distances himself. And that's sort of part of the shtick of that campaign anyway. Certainly when you see an Ayanna Pressley on the campaign trail for Elizabeth Warren--

Ayanna Pressley: Elizabeth Warren sees all of us. And she sees a brighter world. And she knows the power of the pen. And my love language, y'all, is policy. (CHEERING)

Allen: You know, these are sort of some of the stars or the rising stars of the Democratic Party that some of the voters and caucus-goers don't really, you know, regularly get to see in their state. And for some of them, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a visit to Iowa may be a prelude to a future presidential campaign visit.

Alexandria Ocasio-cortez: I'm proud to be a part of this movement because we need a true, true Green New Deal in this country. (CHEERING) And Senator Sanders has the largest plan in the field to address the climate crisis. The largest. (CHEERING)

Allen: You know, it's an opportunity for the caucus-goers to get a little bit of a different feel. But I don't think the surrogates have a huge effect on the campaigns other than when you bring in a hot band like Vampire Weekend, as Bernie Sanders did, you might get a bigger crowd.

Ezra Koenig: We're so honored to be playing for you here. Bernie Sanders, come on. (CHEERING) What an amazing group of people anyway. Very happy to be here. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: I'll take your word on that. I have absolutely no pop culture sensibility. But--

Allen: You only do vampires on the weekdays? Is that the--

Kornacki: Yeah, that'll be my excuse. Absolutely. The other candidate we didn't mention here, Pete Buttigieg, it seemed to me that as this trial was playing out and some of his opponents were there in Washington and Republicans were bringing up Joe Biden, Buttigieg was placing more emphasis on the idea that, you know, he's not from Washington. He's from the heartland, he says. Is that intentional on his part? Does he see an opportunity to create some distance between sort of the D.C. establishment here?

Buttigieg: Just this idea that a mayor going to Washington might be a better idea to bring solutions to Washington instead of from Washington and that we could put together an American majority to make that happen. (APPLAUSE)

Allen: It's absolutely intentional. And, you know, when I talked to Iowa caucus-goers, impeachment is not something that they're spending a lot of time on. You know, a lot of them see Washington as having some real broken processes. And I think Pete Buttigieg has tried to take advantage of that.

At the same time, there is a sort of double-edged sword for him, which is the impeachment that's going on in Washington and the fact that the senators have go back to do their day jobs and undertake the sort of serious constitutional process is a reminder to them that Buttigieg has never really served at the national level.

And so, you know, for those who are looking for something completely different, that's a positive with Buttigieg. And for those who are a little bit worried that he's, you know, a little green or a little wet behind the ears, there's a reminder of it that's very stark right now.

Kornacki: We gotta take a quick break. But stick, around, Jon. We'll be right back.

Kornacki: So, Jon, we have been talking all about the Democratic candidates, the run-up to Iowa, the backdrop of the impeachment trial. The other candidate for 2020 we haven't mentioned here, the president himself, Donald Trump. I noticed our new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll came out over the weekend measuring the political health of Donald Trump. After several months of the impeachment in the House, now the trial in the Senate, when you looked at that poll, how would you assess the impact that the impeachment saga has had on Trump's political standing?

Allen: If anything, I think that isn't a huge impact on his political standing. Perhaps he's in slightly better stead than he was before. I mean, given the fact that he's been through this impeachment and it has not derailed him completely, I think there's a certain strength in that.

Yet I think the story's still yet to be told on that in that he is a candidate who has politically made such a big deal about the idea of being a victim of rigged systems and representing people who are victims of rigged systems.

And what you see in the United States Senate is that when he did something that even members of his own party say was wrong, or inappropriate, or in the case or Marco Rubio suggesting that perhaps he should have been impeached for it but not removed from office, he is basically getting off because the system is run by members of his own party who have decided not to even hear all of the evidence against him. He is the beneficiary of a system that the Democrats would say is rigged and is certainly aligned in his favor right now. And I think it makes it a lot harder for him to make his sort of number one political argument heading into the next election.

Kornacki: Yeah. By the way, you're out there in Iowa. Democrats are casting I guess they're not technically ballots, but the first registering of preference in the 2020 primary season taking place in these caucuses in Iowa. What are voters talking about out there? When you talk to them, does impeachment come up? Or is it somethin' else?

Allen: It only comes up to the degree that reporters ask about it. And occasionally a voter will ask a reporter what's going on in Washington. (LAUGHTER) It's not really the thing voters here are thinking about. You know, really, truly, I think that voters here are split.

I think they want to hear about solutions that candidates have for particular problems, you know, whether it's health care or particular economic issues. And for the most part, they're interested in who's gonna beat Donald Trump. But I think there are a number of caucus-goers here who are pretty much in the mode of, "The caucus winner doesn't matter nearly as much as the November election." If it's Joe Biden, or Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, or Pete Buttigieg, or, you know, whoever, they know they're gonna show up to vote against Donald Trump in November one way or the other.

Kornacki: Yeah. It doesn't seem like a lot of these caucus-goers or maybe Democratic primary voters are itching for a major bloodbath in their own party primary. But we will see. (MUSIC) As you say, it begins tonight, and we'll see how it plays out. Jon Allen, senior political analyst for NBC News. Thanks a ton for joining us.

Allen: Take care, Steve.

Kornacki: One more thing to note. Today, the Senate officially moved into legislative session. This allows senators to get up from their seats, including those senators that needed to get to Iowa. And it means that Chief Justice John Roberts also does not need to remain in the chamber for the entirety of the day. After the conclusion of those closing arguments, the senators were given time to give what are known as deliberation speeches on the Senate floor. That's where they announce their stance for or against the removal of the president.

Archival Recording: Senator from the great state of Alaska.

Lisa Murkowski: The president's behavior was shameful and wrong. The response to the president's behavior is not to disenfranchise nearly 63 million Americans and remove him from the ballot. I cannot vote to convict.

Kornacki: The speeches will continue tomorrow before the trial officially reconvenes on Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. for the final vote. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio.

And a special thanks to Gary Grumbach and Ben Pu for recording help today. They are two of the 2020 campaign embeds for NBC News. No doubt they're having a very busy day today, so thanks for the extra hand. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.