The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Conversation with Sen. Tammy Duckworth

MR. COSTA: Good afternoon. Welcome back to Washington Post Live. I’m Bob Costa, national political reporter here at The Washington Post. For today’s program our guest is Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. Senator Duckworth is a Democrat, and in recent weeks you may have heard she has been mentioned by many top Democrats as a vice presidential contender. And while she is busy these days on a Senate Armed Services Committee, she is well-known for her career before politics, where she served this country in uniform. Senator Duckworth was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army. She was severely wounded in Iraq. She was later elected to the House and now the Senate, after serving in state and federal posts.

Senator Duckworth, thanks for being here.

SEN. DUCKWORTH: It's good to be on. Thank you.

MR. COSTA: Senator, the president today has suggested, without evidence, that the presidential election could be fraudulent and might need to be delayed. What will you do, as a U.S. senator, if he tries to delay the election?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, I will oppose any attempts to delay the election. The president is simply wrong, and he does not have any powers to delay the election. And, in fact, our nation has held elections continuously through wars, through famine, through the Great Depression, through both World Wars without any problems. We are going to have the election again this year, in November, on November 3rd, and he can't stop it.

MR. COSTA: Are you talking to Senate Democratic colleagues about how to handle this?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, I mean, there is really nothing to handle other than the fact that the election will continue to move forward. Now Democrats have proposed several things that the Republicans have so far blocked, which is to put more money into mail-in voting systems. And if anything, the Republicans are trying to hamper voting by, for example, undermining the United States Postal Service and continuing to try, on the president's part, to try to throw some doubt on the security of our nation's elections.

You know, I voted by mail. I voted absentee from Iraq, and my vote was counted. Every American's vote deserves to be counted, whether they are in a war zone or stuck in a nursing home, unable to go outside because of the pandemic, or because they have a full-time job and they don't get time off from work to go to the polls.

MR. COSTA: Leader McConnell, the majority leader, came out and said the election date is set in stone. He said that to a Kentucky reporter. But Senator Duckworth, is that enough from Leader McConnell?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: It's not enough. I would like to see money in the COVID rescue package, this next package that we are negotiating right now, to help get us ready for the vote, by putting more money into the Postal Service to make sure--and also more money to the states so that they can make sure that our voting locations are safe and secure, so people can go vote safely during this pandemic, and there's enough PPE, for example, there's enough protective screens, all of those things. But that will require additional dollars, and I would hope that that money would be kept in the next package.

MR. COSTA: Do you have any concerns about a peaceful transition of power in January 2021?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, of course, you know, President Trump has never acted according to normal norms of behavior, so I would expect that he will put up a fight. But really, let me just tell you that I have every confidence in American democracy and that we will be able to move on. And if we need to help President Trump out of office then we can, once he loses the election.

MR. COSTA: When you say "put up a fight," what do you mean?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: You know, he spreads lies and rumors. I mean, this president, at the last count, how many lies has he told while he's been in office? Upwards of 30,000, 40,000? He continues to spread rumors and puts out tweets that say things like--you know, that puts doubt on our election system, all of those things. So, it doesn't really matter what President Trump tries to do. We will have our election and we will have a peaceful transfer of power. We are the greatest democracy on the Earth, and I fought and protected our democracy, and I will make sure that that peaceful transition does happen.

MR. COSTA: You sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Are you overseeing the military at all in terms of how they will handle the election, how they will respond to President Trump?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, we've not had any hearings on that particular matter in the Armed Services Committee. I've had conversations with military leaders and I ask every single one of them, when they come up for confirmation, for example, whether they are willing to stand up to the president if he were to issue an order that was not lawful. And every single one of them have reassured us that they would stand up to the president and would not carry out any unlawful orders that he might give, to include, you know, trying to remain in power after he loses the election.

MR. COSTA: The reason I ask some of these questions is this is a moment in America where the police across the country has been militarized in many cities. There is urban unrest. Federal agents are being sent into different cities like Portland, Oregon, and you are on the Armed Services Committee. You are a leader in the U.S. Senate. What should the next step be for the military in terms of responding to these issues in American cities?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, you're seeing the military be politicized by this president. At least he is attempting to politicize them, as we saw with his use of the National Guard to suppress peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square. Now, when we called them out on it, General Milley personally called me to apologize for being seen in that very political photo op with the president while wearing his camouflage uniform, and has reassured me that he will stand up to oppose the politicization of the military. The incoming commander of the National Guard has also made the same reassurances. We must, as a nation, stand up to this president's attempts to turn the military into a political apparatus for his own personal ambitions.

You know, I didn't serve 23 years in the Army, oftentimes serving against what I thought was the right thing to do, because I truly believe in our Constitution. I truly believe that the military must remain independent and impartial. That is why it's the greatest military in the world. It's also why we are a true democracy.

And so, you know, I have every trust that our military will stand up to any unlawful orders that this president does issue, and then it's also why we Democrats are pushing very hard to find out what is happening with the other federal forces that this president is sending into places like Portland, again to suppress people who are peacefully expressing their First Amendment rights.

MR. COSTA: That's an important point. It's hard sometimes for us reporters to figure out who are these agents, where are they coming from. Do you feel like Congress has sufficient or insufficient visibility into how the federal government and the Trump administration are using all of these different officials to coordinate different responses in cities?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: I don't think we have as good a visual as to what is happening, and, in fact, one section within the Department of Homeland Security, that particular group of armed federal--I don't know what you want to call them--agents, troops--I mean they dress like troops. They were in, you know, pseudo camouflage gear and were pulling peaceful protesters off the streets in unmarked vans. That particular section within the DHS I understand is kind of a black box. We don't know how they're spending their money, what exactly they're doing.

But, you know, we can hold those investigations, and if the Republican majority in the Senate won't hold those investigations, then we certainly will do it once Democrats are able to take over.

MR. COSTA: Well let's go back to that point, though, because it's an important distinction in words. When you say they could be troops, they are also called agents, agents would not be militarized troops. Do you see them as actually being military personnel, federal troops, in essence? What do you mean by saying they're almost troops?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, I don't know who they are. I mean, if they're agents they're not marked with anything that says agents. But when you look at them, I think most Americans take a look at the way they were dressed and the equipment that they were carrying, and they look very much like military troops. But, you know, we're being told they're federal agents but they never showed any insignia on their uniforms or any identification to the folks they were pulling off the streets as to who they were.

So, I have some real concerns about this president continuing to politicize federal forces, whether they're law enforcement or other agents within the various federal agencies. I mean, at Lafayette Square, for example, I heard there were TSA agents there. Well, what is the TSA doing, you know, on the streets in Washington, D.C., against peaceful demonstrators? This is all stuff that we need to be taking a much closer look at. I have called for hearings on this, and again, if the Republican majority won't do it then we're going to do it once, you know, hopefully we can get control of the gavel, and then we will have hearings, and we're going to find out what exactly is happening.

MR. COSTA: How will Democrats like yourself handle it if urban areas have National Guard troops or federal agents in them, in or around Election Day, and there are concerns about voter suppression?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, we can cut off the funding, and I will tell you that the National Guard cannot be used for suppressing people who are exercising their constitutional rights. And I will tell you that the National Guard, of course, does have to answer to their governors as well. And so, the biggest power that the Congress has is the power of the purse strings.

But again, we have had these conversations. I've had these conversations with incoming director of the National Guard, with the various military leaders, saying if you are issued an unlawful order, will you carry them out? And they have all said no, they will not. And I have every trust in the professionalism of our military men and women, and our National Guard men and women within the military to do what is right, to act according to their oath of office.

MR. COSTA: Senator, there's been a widely covered back-and-forth between you and Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, about your comment regarding whether George Washington's statue should have a reconsideration. Do you stand by that thought of having a national dialogue about George Washington?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: I spent 23 years in the Army defending people's rights to express their opinion, so I will always stand up for people's rights to express their opinions and to discuss, you know, issues within our country. It's what makes our democracy so strong.

So, you know, listen. I don't want to pull down George Washington's statue. I wear the Purple Heart that he established on my chest. I don't want that ripped from my chest either. But I will always stand up for people's rights to have dialogue, to discuss. And, you know, what we are missing here is this is a real cynical attempt by President Trump and his allies to divert the Americans' attention from the real problems that we have in this country, which is 150,000 dead Americans from a global pandemic that they failed to respond to, are continuing to mishandle.

They are trying to divert Americans' attention from the fact that black Americans are being killed by police officers without any consequences. They are trying to distract Americans away from the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of children who can't get back to school, who are hungry because they don't have access to sufficient nutrition. There are so many ways that this president has failed this country, and he is trying to distract us from the real issues at hand, and we just can't fall for that.

MR. COSTA: When he talks about the suburbs, do you hear him talking about a housing development outside of a city or do you hear him talking about white voters and black voters?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, of course he's talking about black voters and white voters, and he's continuing to try to politicize and divide this country, and we can't let him do it. I mean, he's gone beyond dog whistles. You know, he's targeted Asian Americans, in particular, when it comes to speaking about the global pandemic, COVID-19. He continues to spout very racist sentiments. At the very least, he is repeating racist talking points, white supremacist talking points. And it's simply not acceptable in a president of the United States.

MR. COSTA: Does it pain you personally when he says offensive words about Asian Americans or uses phrases referencing nations in Asia, with regard to the coronavirus?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, let me first say that the majority of the cases of coronavirus that came to this country came from Italy, but the tendency to treat Asian Americans as an "other," as a minority that isn't truly American is something that predates President Trump, but he's just exploited it for his own personal political gain, just as he has all of the other racial divides in this country. You know, the president of the United States should be someone who tries to unite us, not one who tries to stoke division and cut wounds into our national psyche.

And so, you know, he can act any way he wants, and I will stand up to him, because basically, at the end of the day, Donald Trump is a bully. He's a bully and he needs people to stand up to him, and I would be willing to stand up to him for it. And if he wants to question my American-ness and my love of this country, I'm happy to show him what true love for this country means.

But look, we can't let him distract us. We can't let him distract us from the fact that we still have people who are going to work, who don't have enough protective equipment to do their jobs, whose families are falling ill from COVID-19. We still have families who want their kids to go back to school come fall but they can't because the schools don't have enough equipment to keep their kids safe. We have people who are now going to lose their unemployment insurance, who are now going to be kicked out of their rental apartments and their houses because they can't pay the mortgage.

This country is in crisis on so many fronts, and this president is not doing his job, and he's spending his time trying to divide us, and that's really shameful.

MR. COSTA: To that point about the pandemic, Senator, if a school principal in Chicago called you up and said, "Senator, I really need your personal opinion here. What's your guidance? Should schools open or not?" what would you say?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: I would say that schools need the equipment and the guidelines for how to open safely before we bring kids back into the schools. The Trump administration has failed at that. Betsy DeVos basically told our school districts, "You are on your own. I am not going to provide you with any guidelines on how you can do this in a safe manner, so that you can bring kids back to school."

Hey, listen. No one wants kids to go back to school more than me. You know, I've been trying to home-school my daughter myself, and frankly, I'm not equipped or trained to do it. Our teachers do an amazing job every single day teaching our kids, and I want my daughter to benefit from that. But I also don't want her to go to school and catch this pandemic and herself fall sick or to bring this pandemic home to her baby sister or my mom, who is 79 years old.

We have a responsibility. If we're going to open public schools then we need to do it in a way that we can keep the children safe, the teachers safe, all the staff safe, and all of our communities safe. And right now, we can't do that. Why can't we do that? Because this president has failed to do everything from stop the pandemic at the very beginning. He used magical thinking to say that, you know, it was just going to disappear "magically," in his own words, by April. Then he said that, you know, there was going to be enough PPE, but there's isn't enough PPE. And he told states they are on their own to go out and try to find it. And now we have Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, who is not doing anything to help our schools. So as much as I want my daughter to go back to school, come fall I don't know how she can do it safely.

MR. COSTA: Speaking of Chicago, we've gone over your concerns about these federal agents in cities. Chicago has had thousands of shootings in recent months. It's a great city. Do you want to see federal agents in Chicago? If so, why? And if not, what's the solution to the violence?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: If President Trump wants to deal with gun violence in any of our cities, then he can call Mitch McConnell right now and let's have a vote to close the loophole on background checks. Let's have the vote for universal background checks. That would go a long way towards stopping gun violence in our nation. And it would pass. It would pass with a wide margin. Americans support closing the background check loophole at the tune of 95 percent of Americans support it. And this president has not done that. If he really cares about gun violence, he would then increase the penalties for straw purchasers, to make sure that people are not buying guns for other folks who don't qualify to purchase guns. And he's not done any of that.

If we want to send in federal help to our cities then do it in conjunction with local mayors and municipalities and with local law enforcement. Of course, the help is welcome, if it is done in conjunction with local authorities. But the president, that's not what he's doing here. You know that. I mean, the cities that he's mentioned are all Democratic cities, right, and he's doing it for political gain. Again, this president continues to twist and misuse and abuse the powers of his office and the resources of the federal government for his own personal political gain, and that is not acceptable.

MR. COSTA: Let's turn to national security. You focus on many of these issues. There's a controversial Pentagon nominee you've been tracking on your committee, Anthony Tata, for a top position at the Pentagon, controversial for saying, about former President Obama, that he's, quote "a terrorist leader." That's been put on hold now. Are you going to oppose the Tata nomination?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, we've not had his confirmation hearing. It was supposed to happen this morning. I had some key questions for him that speaks to the very racist views that he's expressed publicly and as well on television as well as in his tweets and on his online presence. I had questions as to why he would spread misinformation and spread conspiracy theories. On paper he does not look qualified to take this position. It does affect the well-being of our troops and our own national security. They, I think, postponed the hearing this morning so I was not able to ask him these questions. But I don't see how I--I'm a yes at this point, because of what he has said in the past, whether it's about President Obama or about anything else. He's actually spread a lot of misinformation and really shown some very, very racist opinions online.

MR. COSTA: On my whip count I'll say you lean no on that, Senator, TBD.


MR. COSTA: On this similar front, you've been really hammering the issue of Russian bounties on U.S. troops. As a veteran, why do you keep coming back to that? Obviously an important issue, but why do you come to it day in, day out?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Because this president has failed to act as the commander in chief that he is supposed to be. I have dedicated my life to taking care of troops, whether it was during my 23 years in service, where it was my job to look out, to train and keep safe the men and women who served under my command, who served to my left and to my right when we went into battle. Your job is to carry out the mission, and in order to do that you must safeguard the well-being of your troops and make sure that they are well trained and well equipped and are able to carry out that mission.

This president is the commander in chief of the United States military and he's not done that. I don't know whether the Russian bounty story is true or not, but I can tell you that it made it into the president's daily briefing. So, within our own intelligence agency there was enough concern about it to inform the president about it as early as 2019 and as early as February of this year, and yet he's done nothing about it. He's not raised this issue with Vladimir Putin, even though he's had at least seven or eight conversations with him since he was given the information about this potential Russian bounty program.

Our troops who are in harm's way need to know that their commander in chief cares about them and has their back. At the very least, have the Department of the Army conduct an investigation to see whether or not the deaths and woundings of our service men and women in Afghanistan for the past 18 months have been connected to any type of a bounty paid out by Russian operatives. The Department of the Army hasn't even done that.

So, to me, it's a real shameful dereliction of duty on the part of the commander in chief of this country that he hasn't even tried to find out whether or not this is true. And if I were in harm's way right now and I'm supposed to go out there and face the enemy, I would have second thoughts. I'd have second thoughts of whether or not this president is truly watching out for me, whether I'm going out there and, you know, if somebody out there has got a bounty on my head, that's going to be paid for by a guy that my own president admires and kowtows to every chance he gets.

MR. COSTA: In the final few minutes here, Senator--we only have a few left--let's turn to the campaign. I saw that you recently released your own, quote, "Marshall Plan for Coal Country." I wondered, does Senator Duckworth worry that Democrats are moving too far to the left on energy or climate issues? Are you worried about reaching those voters in coal country?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, I am representing the voters in my state, that are in my coal country. I've been working on my Marshall Plan for Coal Country for the past four years, and I've had various drafts of this that I've talked about throughout my time. When I first got to the Senate, I was on the Energy Committee, and I will tell you that Illinois is a major energy producing state. We have everything in Illinois, from more nuclear reactors than any other state to fracking to coal to oil wells. You go down into Southern Illinois and you have cornfields with oil wells, you know, the oil pumps going in them. We produce corn that is used for ethanol production. We have created 100,000 new jobs from wind power alone in the last 10 years. So, Illinois is a major energy state.

The thing about coal country is that when I talk to my coal miners in Southern Illinois, and I go there and I speak with them, they feel that we have not honored them for their sacrifices that they made to bring that coal, to provide the power to this country when we were growing and industrializing. We grew our nation on the backs of these coal miners and on the energy provided by coal, and yet we've left these parts of our country behind.

And so my Marshall Plan for Coal Country recognizes that the issue of coal is not just taking care of our coal miners by making sure that we take care of them with health care to address black lung disease, that we don't just provide for their pensions that they rightfully earned, but that we also take advantage of the technological know-how and expertise that they have working in the energy sector by promoting the development of new technologies but locating those within coal country.

We have really highly skilled technical people in coal country who could actually work on the next type of energy. And so, my Marshall Plan really comes out of my work with my own constituents in Illinois, that a carbon-neutral future for this country must be energy neutral. As long as we get to carbon neutral, how we get there should not be prejudiced by any one type of energy over the other. As long as we can keep the environment safe and we can get to carbon neutral.

MR. COSTA: Senator, we have about two minutes so quick questions, quick answers here. Have you spoken in recent days with Vice President Biden in any capacity?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: You know, I speak to him--I'm on events with him, probably a couple--once or twice a week. But I--you know, I couldn't tell you right now, off the top of my head, when I last spoke with him.

MR. COSTA: You speak to him about once or twice a week?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, we've done events. We've done events together, so, you know, I probably did talk to him last week.

MR. COSTA: Privately. Have you spoken to him privately at all in recent days?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Well, I'm not going to tell you whether I've had private conversations with the vice president. I'm not at liberty to say.

MR. COSTA: And you're not at liberty to say whether you've been interviewed or not formally?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: [Laughs.] Listen, here's all you need to know about the vice president process. I am on --

MR. COSTA: Have you been interviewed or not?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: --I'm on Team Biden. I have been interviewed, yes. I'm on Team Biden, and it really doesn't matter what position I play as long as we get Joe Biden elected, because he's going to bring the grit, the tenacity, and the empathy that we need in the White House that's missing right now.

MR. COSTA: I know you can't reveal much, but was the experience of the interview positive or negative?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: Oh, it's always--it's positive, you know. I've always loved interacting with Vice President Biden. He's a military family member and he's--he and Dr. Biden have been wonderful for our military men and women throughout their careers.

MR. COSTA: And just final question. Does anything about being vice president give you pause, or are you fully open to the idea at this point?

SEN. DUCKWORTH: I'm fully open to however I can best serve my country. Some girls fall for the drummer in the band. I fall for the "your country needs you to do this" line. [Laughs.]

MR. COSTA: I'm a rock music fan so I like that line. That's a good one.

Senator Duckworth, it's 3:29 so we have to let you go. I appreciate you taking half an hour on a Thursday afternoon. Thank you very much.

SEN. DUCKWORTH: My pleasure. Be well.

MR. COSTA: You, too.

That's all the time we have for today's program. Thank you again to Senator Duckworth and to all of you who are watching us online.

Tomorrow morning at 11 Eastern my guest for Post Live will be former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and on Monday David Ignatius, his guest will be the CEO of Delta Airlines, Ed Bastian. You can head to for more information, to register for livestreams and find out more about our upcoming programs.

But that's it for this Thursday. I'm Bob Costa and we'll see you soon.

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