President-elect Joe Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday that he will ask Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days after he takes office, in a sign of how Biden’s approach to the virus will be dramatically different from President Donald Trump’s response.
“Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days. And I think we’ll see a significant reduction,” Biden said for the first time in the interview with Tapper.
The wide-ranging conversation with Biden, his first joint interview with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris since winning the election, comes at a key time, as they build their administration and outline the policy priorities that will define their first year in office. And it comes as coronavirus cases and deaths have reached their highest levels to date, all while Trump is largely ignoring the dire moment and focusing almost exclusively on baselessly attacking the results of the election.
The coronavirus pandemic has dominated Biden’s transition, and the former vice president acknowledged that it will do the same during his first year in office, telling CNN that he has asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, to be a chief medical adviser and part of his Covid-19 response team when his administration begins next month.
Biden said the conversation happened on Thursday afternoon. CNN reported earlier in the day that Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had a planned meeting with Biden’s transition team.
“I asked him to stay on the exact same role he’s had for the past several presidents, and I asked him to be a chief medical adviser for me as well, and be part of the Covid team,” Biden told Tapper.
In the interview, Biden said he supported Congress passing a compromise coronavirus relief package before he takes office, and noted that a handful of Republican senators have reached out to congratulate him, despite many not publicly acknowledging his victory. Both Biden and Harris also reemphasized their transition’s commitment to a diverse Cabinet as a range of advocacy groups and lawmakers have begun pushing them to honor their pledge.
But, much like the campaign that vaulted them to the White House, it was the coronavirus that commanded the conversation.
Biden said that where he has authority, like in federal buildings or in interstate transportation on airplanes and buses, he will issue a standing order that masks must be worn. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks can help protect both the people wearing them and those around them from transmitting the virus.
Biden and Trump have long taken diametrically different approaches to the virus, an issue that came to define the presidential election. Trump has fought many of the coronavirus recommendations laid out by his own administration, including mask wearing, while Biden strenuously followed coronavirus guidelines during the campaign.
Trump’s fight against coronavirus recommendations often put him at odds with Fauci, one of the most outspoken members of the President’s task force. Those clashes have made Fauci the focus of public attention, often seen as a hero on the left for his commitment to science in the face of Trump’s comments and a villain on the right, especially among Trump loyalists.
Biden described his coronavirus plans as a balance between ensuring that Americans believe the vaccine is safe and instituting a number of plans that will curb the spread of the virus without shutting down the economy.
Biden also said during the interview that he will be “happy to” get a coronavirus vaccine once Fauci says it is safe and that he will get the injection publicly to demonstrate his confidence in it. Harris also said she would get the vaccine.
“That’s the moment in which I will stand before the public” and get the vaccine, Biden said. “People have lost faith in the ability of the vaccine to work. Already the numbers are really staggeringly low, and it matters what the president and vice president do.”
Biden’s comments come a day after three of his presidential predecessors – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – said they would publicly get the coronavirus vaccine as a way to demonstrate its safety and efficacy.
“I think that my three predecessors have set the model as to what should be done, saying, once it’s declared to be safe … then obviously we take it and it’s important to communicate to the American people,” Biden said.
Backs compromise stimulus package
The former vice president also backed the compromise coronavirus relief package that is being considered on Capitol Hill, calling it a “good start” but also saying it is “not enough.” The $908 billion bipartisan plan is a compromise between what Democrats and Republicans wanted.
“I think it should be passed, and I think that, in fact, we’re going to need more,” Biden said. “I’m going to have to ask for more help.”
The transition from Trump to Biden has been a complicated affair, largely defined by the President’s denial of the election results, something that most Republicans on Capitol Hill have indulged despite Trump’s team failing to provide any credible evidence to back up the claim.
Biden, a Democrat who has long enjoyed strong relationships with Republicans in the Senate after serving for decades in the legislative body, said that despite their public silence, “several sitting Republican senators” have privately called to congratulate him.
He gave those senators some leeway for their silence.
“I understand the situation they find themselves in. And until the election is clearly decided in the minds when the Electoral College votes, they get put in a very tough position,” Biden said, adding that he thinks once the Electoral College officially decides the election, a “significant portion of the (Republican) leadership” will acknowledge the obvious.
Biden laughed at a question about whether it is important for Trump to attend his presidential inauguration in January. Biden said whether to attend was Trump’s decision and had “no personal consequence to me,” but added that it did matter symbolically.
It’s “important in the sense that we are able to demonstrate the end of this chaos that he’s created, that there is peaceful transfer of power with the competing parties standing there, shaking hands and moving on,” Biden said. “What I worry about, Jake, more than the impact on the domestic politics, I really worry about the image we’re presenting to the rest of the world.”
On foreign policy, Biden said it was “hard to tell how much” the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh would complicate his dealings with Tehran. A senior US administration official said this week that Israel was behind the assassination of the scientist, someone who had been an Israeli target for considerable time.
“The bottom line is that we can’t allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” Biden said before slamming Trump’s dealings with Iran, including his 2018 decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. “He has pulled out to get something tougher, and what have they done? They’ve increased the ability for them to have nuclear material. They’re moving closer to the ability to be able to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. And there’s the missile issues.”
Biden added: “All those things, I think, are going to be very difficult. But I know one thing: We cannot do this alone. And that’s why we have to be part of a larger group, dealing not only with Iran, but with Russia, with China and a whole range of other issues.”
Concern over potential pardons
On his way out of office, Trump is expected to issue a number of pardons, with CNN reporting that he is considering preemptive pardons for his adult children and lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in addition to a possible preemptive pardon for himself.
Biden said the possible pardons concern him because of the “kind of precedent it sets and how the rest of the world looks (at) us as a nation of laws and justice,” adding that his Justice Department will “operate independently on those issues” and how to respond to any Trump pardons.
“I’m not going to be telling them what they have to do and don’t have to do,” Biden said. “I’m not going to be saying, ‘Go prosecute A, B or C.’ I’m not going to be telling them. That’s not the role. It’s not my Justice Department, it’s the people’s Justice Department. So the persons or person I pick to run that department are going to be people who are going to have the independent capacity to decide who gets prosecuted, who doesn’t.”
Biden concluded that his administration would not approach pardons in the same way as Trump, adding, “It’s going to be a totally different way in which we approach the justice system.”
Biden has yet to select an attorney general and is considering a range of names, including former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates; Doug Jones, the soon-to-be former senator from Alabama who was defeated in November; and Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary under Obama.
Harris echoed the sentiment of Biden’s remarks on the Department of Justice.
“We will not tell the Justice Department how to do its job,” Harris said. “And we are going to assume, and I say this as a former attorney general elected in California … that any decision coming out of the Justice Department … should be based on facts, it should be based on the law, it should not be influenced by politics, period.”
Biden interjected: “And I guarantee you, that’s how it will be run.”
Biden says he will keep diverse Cabinet commitment
A diverse range of advocacy groups and Democratic organizations have been pushing the Biden transition team for weeks to keep its commitment to nominate a diverse slate of Cabinet secretaries, especially for the remaining top jobs of secretary of defense and attorney general. The effort has been led by the NAACP, a group Biden and Harris said they would meet with next week, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Biden said Thursday that he would honor the commitment.
“I’m going to keep my commitment that the administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country,” Biden said.
When pressed on both the racial and ideological diversity, Harris said, “We’re not done yet. … We’re not even halfway there.”
Biden said he understands that groups like the NAACP and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus want to “push me” on the diversity commitment, adding that his job is “to keep my commitment.”
There were a host of lighter moments in the interview, too.
Biden laughed off the hairline fracture in his foot that has landed him in a walking boot, recalling how it happened when he was playing with his dog Major.
“The little pup dropped the ball in front of me for me to grab the ball … and I grabbed the ball like this, and he ran, and I was joking running after him to grab his tail. And what happened was that he slid on a throw rug, and I tripped on the rug he slid on. That’s what happened,” Biden said with a smile. “Not a very exciting story.”
Harris, for her part, joked about how some of her husband’s friends have taken to calling him “the second dude,” even as Doug Emhoff is expected to be referred to as the “second gentleman.”
“You’ll call him the second gentleman,” Tapper asked.
“No,” Harris responded: “I’ll call him honey.”
CNN’s Sanjay Gupta contributed to this report.