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Biden Says Verbal Slip-Ups Don't Undermine His Judgment


Former Vice President Joe Biden is defending two parts of his record as he runs for president. One is a historic vote for the war in Iraq. The other is a much more recent, mangled story of heroism in war. Biden took questions about both from a public media team as he campaigned in Iowa. Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio was part of this interview, and so was Asma Khalid, who co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast. And Asma is on the line from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the mangled story that you asked Joe Biden about when you sat down?

KHALID: (Laughter) Yeah. So, Steve, this is a story that's gotten a lot of attention in recent days. The Washington Post reported that there is this dramatic war story that the former vice president has told on the campaign trail. It involves a number of things, including a soldier who was begging him not to give him a medal for bravery. But it turns out, as The Washington Post has reported, the story that he's told is actually a bunch of different stories. It's a bunch of facts from different places blended together into this composite story.

When Biden was asked about this, when we asked him about it, he pointed to the fact that these details don't really undermine his ability to serve as president. They really have nothing to do with his ability to be president.


JOE BIDEN: That has nothing to do with the judgment of whether or not you send troops to war or the judgment of whether you bring someone home, the judgment of whether or not you decide on a health care policy. You understand that.

KHALID: No, no - not judgment but details.

BIDEN: Detail?

KHALID: That's something I've heard from some voters, maybe not at your events, but details.

BIDEN: The details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making if, in fact, I forget that it was Rodriguez, of all the times. I've been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq and Bosnia and Kosovo as much as anybody, except maybe my deceased friend, John McCain, and maybe Lindsey Graham.

INSKEEP: The details are irrelevant is a tricky thing to be saying when you're challenging a president who's known for getting his facts wrong.

KHALID: That is true, Steve. But Biden's basic point is that, you know, of course, maybe he's not always been a man of nuance. He will make fun, even poke fun of himself, about this sometimes on the stump. But he emphasized that he has experience and judgment. And so perhaps if he mixes up the name of who pinned what medal on whom, does that matter? - because in reality, he feels that mixing up the details don't take away from the broader message that he's trying to get out there.

INSKEEP: What did you ask him about his judgment on his long foreign policy record? And it is a very long one. He was a very senior senator, very important on foreign policy, for a very long time.

KHALID: Well, Steve, we asked him about this very question because he touts his experience very frequently. He pointed out to us that he has more foreign policy experience than all of his opponents combined. But there has been, I would say, relatively widespread criticism in some circles of the foreign policy community that his experience has not necessarily translated into judgment, and that there are key decisions he made, specifically around invading Iraq and then also withdrawing from Iraq, where, you know, maybe his judgment was incorrect, he didn't have the right decisions at that point in time.

He explained his vote for the Iraq War was not necessarily a mistake of judgment of his own expertise, but he said it was a mistake in judgment by trusting George W. Bush. He said the then-president had given him a commitment that this vote was not about going to war.


BIDEN: He looked me in the eye in the Oval Office. He said he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors in, into Iraq, to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program. He got them in, and before we know, we had shock and awe. Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment. Now, the judgment of my trusting the president to keep his word on something like that, that was a mistake, and I apologize for that.

KHALID: And so, Steve, this caught my ear because Biden has said different things at different points about his support for the Iraq War. We asked the Biden campaign to sort this out for us, and his team points out that he was critical early on of the strategy and the intelligence failures that led to the war, but that once troops were deployed, he was going to be supportive of the military.

INSKEEP: Dramatic moment in history. But, of course, Biden also served since then as President Obama's vice president for eight years. How does he talk about that time?

KHALID: Yeah. Steve, you know, he resists the characterization that this would be some sort of third term of the Obama administration. Because he told us, you know, a lot has changed in the country under a Trump administration, whether it's around climate change or race or NATO and alliances. But he is trying to draw, also, I would say, some distinctions on some policy issues between himself and former President Barack Obama. And one place that this became apparent is around trade.


BIDEN: The idea that we would have another trade agreement without environmentalist and labor sitting at the negotiating table with us will not happen in a Biden administration.

KHALID: Steve, he has said that he would renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When he was vice president, Biden had been a supporter of the original TPP agreement. You know, in general, when you talk to Biden, though, you get the sense that, more than any one single policy plan, he is running on experience and values. And when it comes to values, that is a place where he feels like he and the former president, President Barack Obama, were on the same page.

INSKEEP: Asma, thanks for the good work. Really appreciate it.

KHALID: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Asma Khalid in Iowa. And you can hear the full interview with Joe Biden on the NPR Politics Podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.