Joe Biden defends his son Hunter's Ukraine dealings, answers for his gaffes in 60 Minutes interview

The former vice president also calls on President Trump to release his tax returns, and explains why his children won't have White House offices

Joe Biden: The 2019 "60 Minutes" interview

Joe Biden spent eight years as vice president under Barack Obama and 36 years in the U.S. Senate. He has been leading the Democratic field for the 2020 presidential nomination, but the race is tightening. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have energized the young, progressive wing of the party and argue that Biden's policy proposals don't go far enough.

But his most powerful and vocal opponent is the president of the United States, who is facing an impeachment inquiry over whether he pressured the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on Biden and his son, Hunter. We talked with Joe Biden at his home in Delaware earlier this week where we covered a wide variety of topics, including why Democrats should be excited about voting for a candidate who is about to turn 77 years old.

Norah O'Donnell: The Democratic party has had Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. This is your third run for president. Why Joe Biden?

Joe Biden: Well, because I think, as I said we need somebody who, on day one, knows exactly what to do. Can command the world stage. No one wonders whether I know a great deal about these issues and foreign policy and domestic policy. They're things I've done.

Why hasn't former President Obama endorsed Joe Biden?

Norah O'Donnell: And that might be one of the criticisms too, that you're offering essentially four more years of a Obama-like administration.

Joe Biden: Well, let me tell you something, I-- I love the fact that, all of a sudden, the Democratic party doesn't think Obama was that great a president. I-- I find that fascinating.

Norah O'Donnell: Some have asked, why hasn't President Obama endorsed you? You guys served together for eight years.

Joe Biden: Because I have to own-- I wanna earn this on my own.

Norah O'Donnell: Did he offer to endorse you?

Joe Biden: No, we didn't even get there. I asked him not to. He said, "Okay." I think it's better-- I think he thinks it's better for me. I have no doubt when I'm the nominee he'll be out on the campaign trail for me.

Today marks 99 days until the Iowa caucuses, the first Democratic contest. Despite his strength in the polls, Joe Biden tends not to draw a lot of young people to his campaign events, a problem some of his competitors don't have. 

Norah O'Donnell: Your opponents, because they're promising so much change, they seem to be igniting the Democratic base that turns out in the primary, younger voters. 

Joe Biden: The fact of the matter is that if you take a look at who votes in these primaries, overwhelmingly, people over the age of 50 who vote in these primaries. I want more young people engaged. I want them voting. But the idea that this is the way in which it's gonna change is-- by just making the most far-reaching assertions you can make. I mean, let's talk about Medicare For All. Do you think there's been any truth in advertising on that It's gonna raise taxes on middle class people, not just wealthy people.

Norah O'Donnell: You're talking--

Joe Biden: So--

Norah O'Donnell: --about Elizabeth Warren?

Joe Biden: Well, I'm not only talking about-- even Bernie acknowledges you gotta raise taxes.

Joe Biden on "Medicare for All" and taxes

Norah O'Donnell: Elizabeth Warren says she's gonna propose a wealth tax. $0.02 on the dollar for every dollar over $50 million. She says that money can be used to improve teacher salaries, provide tuition free public college and wipe out student debt.

Joe Biden: I don't oppose a wealth tax. I propose changing the whole tax system. The tax I would put on the wealthy will in fact cost more than 2% because they're not gonna be able to take a capital gain. They're gonna pay at 40% like everybody else, 39.8%.

Norah O'Donnell: You've said you would repeal all of Trump's tax cuts. But do you mean just for the wealthy or for the middle class too because Trump did give the middle class a tax cut?

Joe Biden: Well, Trump gave the middle class a tax cut that was negligible. The fact is that what we should be doing is making sure that the wealthy pay their fair share.

Norah O'Donnell: So over-- making over how much per year? What's wealthy?

Joe Biden: Making over $400,000 a year. And those tax cuts'll be repealed. And people making between $250,000 and $400,000 would in-- their tax rate would increase. But here's the deal. What the middle class people really care about is can they afford education. Can they afford their health care. I would take the money and I'd pay for the health care proposal I put forward, I'd pay for education. So there's a whole range of things that go directly to affect middle class people.

The skirmishes within the Democratic Party have been overshadowed recently by questions of foreign interference in the upcoming election. This past Monday, Facebook announced it removed fake Russian accounts on social media that attacked Joe Biden. The news broke the day before we spoke with Biden and his wife Jill, who joined us for part of our interview.

"He's an idiot." Joe Biden on Trump's response to foreign election interference

Norah O'Donnell: The Russians are targeting you.

Joe Biden: The Russians don't want me to be president and Trump doesn't want me-- me--

Jill Biden: Yeah.

Joe Biden: --to be the nominee. There's certain things that come across very, very clearly.

Norah O'Donnell: I mean, how concerned are you about foreign interference in this election?

Joe Biden: I'm very concerned about foreign interference, beyond me. Everybody knows what's going on. Trump not only doesn't wanna do anything about it he's going out and asking for help. Come help me. Come help me defeat-- keep Biden from bein' the nominee--

Jill Biden: He's perpetuating.

Norah O'Donnell: How is he perpetuating it?

Jill Biden: Well, by encouraging them to-- you know, to get involved in our elections.

Norah O'Donnell: But President Trump says Russian interference is a hoax.

Joe Biden: He's an idiot-- in terms of sayin' that. Everybody knows this. Everybody knows it. Nobody doubts it.

While Facebook removed the fake Russian accounts, it refused a request by Biden's campaign to take down political ads paid for by the Trump campaign making claims that Biden says are not true.

Joe Biden: Facebook is running, right now, paid advertising by Trump that everybody knows is a flat lie. You know, I'm glad they brought the Russians down. Why don't you bring down the lies that Trump is telling and everybody knows are lies?

Norah O'Donnell: Are you concerned that the president saying this over and over again, his campaign ads saying over and over again, that people will start to believe it? He's attacking your integrity.

Joe Biden: Sure he is. And-- but it's comin' from a man with no integrity so it helps. (LAUGH) No, I-- I sincerely mean it. I-- I never thought I'd talk about a president this way.

In a statement to 60 Minutes, a White House spokesperson said President Trump "takes election security seriously," and has "delivered both offensive sanctions and defensive hardening of our election security."

"He did not do a single thing wrong." Joe Biden on his son's business ties in Ukraine

And the president continues to argue there should be an investigation into Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma during the time his father was vice president and overseeing U.S. policy in Ukraine. Hunter Biden was reportedly paid $50,000 to $80,000 a month for several years while serving on Burisma's board.

Norah O'Donnell: Hunter said the only thing you said to him was, quote, "I hope you know what you're doing."

Joe Biden: That's exactly right. He's a grown--

Norah O'Donnell: What do you--

Joe Biden: --man. What I meant by that is I hope you've thought this through. I hope you know exactly what you're doin' here. 

Norah O'Donnell: Meaning what?

Joe Biden: That's all I meant. Nothing more than that because I've never discussed my business or their business, my sons' or daughter's. And I've never discussed them because they know where I have to do my job and that's it and they have to make their own judgments.

Norah O'Donnell: But you understand people say, "Joe Biden, he's an experienced politician, statesman, knows the issues of Ukraine. Why didn't he just say to his son, 'this is one to take a pass on. It may not look good'"?

 Joe Biden: He was already on the board. And he's a grown man. And it turns out he did not do a single thing wrong, as everybody's investigated.

Norah O'Donnell: President Trump has said publicly, "Joe Biden and his son are stone cold corrupt." And chances are, he's watching this interview. Anything--

Joe Biden: I-- Mr. pre--

Norah O'Donnell: --you wanna say to him?

Joe Biden: Yeah. Mr. President, release your tax returns. Let's see how straight you are, okay old buddy? I put out 21 years of mine. So show us your tax returns, bud-- wh-- what are you hiding? You wanna deal with corruption? Start to act like it. Release your tax returns or shut up.

The general election is more than a year away, but on the campaign trail you wouldn't know it, listening to President Trump and his son Eric attack Hunter Biden at rallies, where crowds chant, "lock him up."

Norah O'Donnell: Are you sorry you dragged your family into this?

Joe Biden: Oh, I d-- I-- I'm not sorry-- look, w-- we-

Jill Biden: We didn't drag them into it. I mean, they-

Joe Biden: And by the way-

Jill Biden: --they came to us. You know, you have to run. They knew it was gonna be rough.

Norah O'Donnell: Do you believe President Trump's children have acted properly and avoided conflicts of interest?

Joe Biden: I wasn't raised to go after the children. Their actions speak for themselves. I can just tell you this, that if I'm president get elected president my children are not gonna have offices in the White House. My children are not gonna sit in on Cabinet meetings.

Norah O'Donnell: What's improper about that?

Joe Biden: It's just simply improper because you should make it clear to the American public that everything you're doing is for them. For them. And the idea that you're gonna have his children his-- son-in-law, et cetera, engaged in the day-to-day operation of things they know nothing about.

Norah O'Donnell: You don't think that Jared Kushner should be negotiating a Middle East peace solution?

Joe Biden: No, I don't. (LAUGH) I don't. What-- what credentials does he bring to that?

Jill Biden says she doesn't worry about her husband's campaign gaffes

Norah O'Donnell: Let's talk about the state of the race because it has tightened. Do you still consider yourself the frontrunner?

Joe Biden: I know I'm the frontrunner. Find me a national poll with a notable-- a couple exceptions. But look, this is a marathon.

Jill Biden: Yeah.

Joe Biden: This is a marathon.

Norah O'Donnell: You can look at the last campaign finance-- filing. We looked at that. You have less than $9 million in the bank. Bernie Sanders has 30-- nearly $34 million in the bank. Senator Warren has $26 million. How do you compete against that?

Joe Biden: I just flat beat them. (LAUGH) We're on a course to do extremely well. I'm not--I'm not worried about being able to fund this campaign. I really am not, truly.

Since our interview, Biden has dropped his opposition to the formation of a superpac, an independent political action committee that can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions, and big donors. Something his two main rivals, Warren and Sanders, have pledged not to do.

Norah O'Donnell: How would you rate your performance in the debates?

Joe Biden: A learning curve. And by that, I mean, they're not debates. (LAUGH) They're one-minute assertions. When someone says, you know you've done something awful, that's not true, respond in 30 seconds, you know, it's-- it's-- it's awful hard to-- it's awful hard to do.

Norah O'Donnell: But you've made a number of gaffes in the debates. In an October debate, you confused Syria with Iraq. In the September debate, you conflated Iraq and Afghanistan.

Norah O'Donnell: When you're watching these debates, do you worry about the gaffes?

Jill Biden: No. I don't worry about the gaffes. And, you know what, the American people know who Joe Biden is. I mean, if he misspeaks one word, they don't-- that doesn't affect the way they're gonna vote, one way or the other.

Norah O'Donnell: Some Democrats worry and wonder whether you'll be fast enough on your feet, quick enough, to defend yourself against President Trump.

Joe Biden: What they're r-- really tryin' to make the case is about age. And with age comes experience, with experience comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes judgment.

Norah O'Donnell: You know he calls you sleepy Joe?

Joe Biden: I know that. (LAUGH)

Norah O'Donnell: You will be 77 in November. Is that too old to be president?

Joe Biden: No. I just say watch me. Just-- just watch.

Joe Biden on what it would take for Senate Republicans to remove Trump

Norah O'Donnell: Have you seen any change in his ability to communicate in recent years?

Jill Biden: No. (LAUGH) Not at all.

The unemployment rate in September was 3.5%, The lowest it's been in half a century. And if the economy remains strong next year, President Trump will not miss an opportunity to remind voters of that fact, nor a chance to bash those seeking to impeach him.  

Joe Biden: I think he thinks that if you say the big lie enough, you keep repeating it, repeating it,  people will believe it. But this time, it's different.

Norah O'Donnell: You were in the Senate for 36 years. You know a lot of these Republican senators well. What would it take for 20 or more Republican senators to vote to remove the president from office?

Joe Biden: For the people in their district to say, in their state, to say, "Enough. We're holding you responsible."

Norah O'Donnell: About this election. If it doesn't work out, would you be okay with that? Could you walk away and say, "I didn't win, but my legacy is intact"?

Joe Biden: I'm not worried about my legacy. What I am worried about is the country. Four years of Donald Trump will be very hard to overcome, but we can. Eight years of Donald Trump will fundamentally change the nature of who we are as a country. And it'll take a generation-- a generation or more for us to get back on track.

Produced by Keith Sharman and Andy Court. Associate producers Evie Salomon and Alex J. Diamond

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    Norah O'Donnell is the anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News." She also contributes to "60 Minutes."