WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden endorsed the bipartisan Covid stimulus bill currently being negotiated on Capitol Hill, calling the $908 billion proposal "a good start."
"I think it should be passed," Biden said during an interview Thursday on CNN. He added that after he is inaugurated in January, "I'm going to have to ask for more help when we get there to get things done."
Biden also expressed cautious optimism about his ability to work with Senate Republicans, despite the fact that most of them have yet to even publicly acknowledge Biden as the rightful winner of the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The president-elect said his former Senate colleagues have been more supportive of him behind closed doors than they've been in public. "More than several sitting Republican senators privately called to congratulate" him on his victory, Biden said, although he declined to name them.
As long as President Donald Trump refuses to concede and continues to falsely claim the election was "rigged," Republicans in the Senate are in a "very tough position," Biden said. "I understand the situation they find themselves in."
Biden's comments were part of a wide-ranging interview that he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gave to CNN in their first joint interview since winning the White House a month ago.
Over the course of an hour, Biden addressed the Covid crisis in-depth, describing how his approach to China policy would be the opposite of Trump's, and he pledged to respect the independence of the Department of Justice.
As the nation again set records on Thursday for coronavirus cases and deaths, Biden said that as soon as he was sworn in he would mandate masks on all federal property and on interstate transportation. Biden added that on his first day in office, he would ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days.
"Just 100 days to mask," Biden said. "Not forever. 100 days. And I think we'll see a significant reduction" in Covid transmission.
By refusing to wear a mask himself and questioning their efficacy, Trump has turned a lifesaving public health measure into a political litmus test. He has also set a dangerous example that millions of his supporters across the country have followed, fueling the surge in new cases of Covid.
As the Trump administration failed to execute a national strategy to control the spread of the virus this year, the president nonetheless insisted that schools and businesses should reopen quickly. Ignoring public health experts, Trump argued that the economic and psychological harm of virus mitigation efforts was worse than the hundreds of thousands of deaths the virus was causing.
By contrast, Biden said his administration's approach to reopening would not be an either-or, where schools would either prioritize the need for children to return to the classroom or the need for teachers to avoid getting infected and to feel safe returning to work.
The key to this balancing act is government funding, said Biden.
"We can safely open those elementary schools or [places at the] highest risk of people transmitting the disease," he said, and "we can make it safe for teachers if we invest in what needs to be done" like new sanitizing procedures, upgraded ventilation and smaller classes. "But you've got to pay for this stuff," he added.
"The states are running out of money ... so that's a federal government responsibility short term, which will have a long-term positive impact on growth and on the mental health and the educational capacity of our children," Biden said.
Another topic Biden addressed was how his administration would approach China, a crucial trading partner for the U.S. but a strategic adversary on nearly every other front.
Trump has insisted for nearly a year that Beijing must be punished and penalized for its government's lack of transparency during the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China's Wuhan province.
Biden intends to do the opposite. "The president's approach to China has been backwards," he said.
"It's not about punishing them for the Covid virus, it's about insisting that there be international norms that are established that they play by," said Biden, noting that he frequently engaged with Chinese leaders while he was vice president.
"My concern from the beginning is to make it really clear to China there are international rules, that if you want to play by, then we'll play with you," Biden said. "If you don't, we're not going to play."
Actually enforcing these international rules, however, requires more than just a unilateral edict from the U.S. To be effective, Biden said, America must act in concert "with the rest of our allies to make sure that in Europe and in Asia we insist that, for example, [China halt] the secret stealing of artificial intelligence capacity."
It is difficult to overstate how deeply Biden's approach to global alliances will differ from that of his predecessor.
As president, Trump's general disdain for multilateralism was one of the few truly animating principles of his foreign policy. At its heart was Trump's belief that treaties and accords took unfair advantage of America's wealth and military might, and that somehow they cheated the U.S. out of what it was owed.
Biden was also asked about reports that Trump is considering whether to issue preemptive pardons for as many as 20 of his associates and family members before leaving office.
"It concerns me, in terms of what kind of precedent it sets and how the rest of the world looks at us as a nation of laws and justice," said Biden.
"You're not going to see in our administration that kind of approach to pardons, nor are you going to see in our administration the approach to making policy by tweets," he said a few minutes later. "It's just going to be a totally different way in which we approach the justice system."
Trump has reportedly mused that preemptive pardons could be the best way to protect him, his children and his allies from being targeted for politically motivated prosecution by a Biden Justice Department.
Trump recently granted a full pardon to Michael Flynn, his former national security advisor who had previously pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
For Biden, however, the idea that any president would direct federal prosecutors to target his political rivals, or anyone for that matter, seemed almost incomprehensible.
"Our Justice Department is going to operate independently on those issues [relating to Trump and] how to respond to any of that," he said. "I'm not going to be telling them what they have to do and don't have to do. I'm not going to be saying, 'go prosecute A, B, or C.'"
"It's not my Justice Department. It's the people's Justice Department," Biden added. "So, the person or persons I pick to run that department are going to be people who are going to have the independent capacity to decide who gets prosecuted and who doesn't."
As for his own family's business endeavors, Biden went a step further than he has before, when he pledged that no one in his family would be involved in any business, foreign or domestic, that might create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"My son, my family will not be involved in any business, any enterprise that is in conflict with or appears to be in conflict, with inappropriate distance from the presidency and government," Biden told CNN.
Earlier this year, Biden had said no one in his family or associated with him would be involved "in any foreign operation whatsoever."
Biden and his son Hunter Biden both came under scrutiny from Republicans in Congress earlier this year over unfounded allegations that Biden had intervened as vice president to help his son close business deals.
After a lengthy investigation, however, Senate Republicans concluded that Biden had done nothing wrong, nor had he used his official position to benefit his son.