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Vice President Kamala Harris on Israel, Ukraine, gun violence and the 2024 election

Kamala Harris: The 2023 60 Minutes Interview
Vice President Kamala Harris: The 2023 60 Minutes Interview 13:08

Israel has begun what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls the second stage of the war, by expanding its military ground operations in Gaza. We spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris this past week, as the Biden administration was trying to balance Israel's need to retaliate against Hamas with the urgent need to get relief to the Palestinian people. 

Vice President Harris told us she is also involved in the administration's efforts on the war in Ukraine, as well as countless intractable problems -- including gun violence -- at home. but with the Middle East on a razor's edge, we started our conversation there. 

Bill Whitaker: How close is this to becoming a regional conflict that could draw in U.S. troops?

Kamala Harris: We have absolutely no intention nor do we have any plans to send combat troops into Israel or Gaza, period.

Vice President Harris told us the U.S. is not telling Israel what to do but is providing advice, equipment and diplomatic support.

Kamala Harris: A terrorist organization, Hamas, slaughtered hundreds of young people at a concert. By most estimates at least fourteen hundred Israelis are dead. Israel, without any question, has a right to defend itself. That being said, it is very important that there be no conflation between Hamas and the Palestinians. The Palestinians deserve equal measures of safety and security, self-determination and dignity, and we have been very clear that the rules of war must be adhered to and that there be humanitarian aid that flows.

She told us the U.S. wants to keep the conflict from escalating but that's proving difficult. In the last two weeks, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, both proxies of Iran, have launched missiles, rockets and drones against Israel, and Iranian-backed militias have fired on U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Syria. In response, the U.S. launched airstrikes against Iranian weapons facilities in syria. If that weren't enough of a signal to Iran and other adversaries, the Pentagon has also deployed two imposing aircraft carrier strike groups to the region.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Bill Whitaker
Vice President Kamala Harris and Bill Whitaker 60 Minutes

Bill Whitaker: And what's the message to Iran?

Kamala Harris: "Don't."

Bill Whitaker: As President Biden said, just, "Don't"?

Kamala Harris: Exactly. One word. Pretty straightforward. 

Since the Hamas attack on Israel, the vice president says she has spoken with President Isaac Herzog of Israel and joined President Biden on calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. 

President Joe Biden told us in a statement, this is as high-stakes and complex a situation as it gets and Kamala is my partner in all of it. He told us Harris' advice and counsel are invaluable. 

Bill Whitaker: When he was vice president, Mr. Biden famously said that he wanted to be the last person in the room with President Obama. Do you have that relationship with President Biden?

Kamala Harris: I do.

Bill Whitaker: You do--

Kamala Harris: I do. And-- and I take that responsibility quite seriously.

Bill Whitaker: How often do you meet with him?

Kamala Harris: Multiple times a day, quite often, unless he or I are traveling. 

They're in total agreement the U.S. must stand with Israel and Ukraine, two democracies under attack.

Kamala Harris: We are as committed to Ukraine as we've always been to authorize additional aid to defend itself against Russia's unprovoked aggression. That is not gonna waver. 

Bill Whitaker: Does this war in the Middle East put Ukraine on a back burner?

Kamala Harris: Not for us, no. It does not put us-, put them on a back burner at all. 

Vice President Harris has visited 19 countries and met with more than 100 world leaders. But lately, she has been the administration's point person on domestic priorities - traveling the country talking up the Democrats' key issues before the 2024 election … issues she hopes will fire up the base but are bound to inflame the GOP. 

She went to North Carolina to mark the anniversary of the Supreme court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Kamala Harris: How dare they attack our fundamental rights. How dare they attack our freedom. 

In Virginia it was guns …

Kamala Harris: Our nation is being torn apart by gun violence.

We joined the vice president and second gentleman Doug Emhoff on Air Force Two for a trip to Las Vegas. It was five days after the terror attack on Israel. 

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff  60 Minutes

Kamala Harris: Welcome onboard.

Bill Whitaker: Thank you very, very much. 

Kamala Harris: Welcome onboard.

While in the air the vice president joined a secure video call with the president and their national security teams to discuss measures to keep the homeland safe. Once on the ground in Las Vegas, Vice President Harris went to the College of Southern Nevada, the eighth stop on her "Fight for our Freedoms" college tour. 

Kamala Harris: Because you voted, Joe Biden is president of the United States and I am vice president of the United States. Because you voted.

But nationally the Biden- Harris administration is not generating the kind of enthusiasm she's seeing on her tour. 

Bill Whitaker: A recent CBS poll found that at the beginning of President Biden's term, 70% of young people, people under 30, said he was doin' a good job. Now it's less than 50%. Why is that? What's going on?

Kamala Harris: If you poll how young people feel about the climate, and the warming of our planet it polls as one of their top concerns. When we talk about what we are doing with student loan debt, polls very high. The challenge that we have as an administration is we gotta let people know who brung it to 'em. (laugh) That's our challenge. But it is not that the work we are doing is not very, very popular with a lot of people.

She blames the disconnect in part on lack of media coverage. Still, the vice president herself is not very popular now. Just 41% of adults told CBS News they approve of the job she's doing, about the same for President Biden. We talked to her the day before the carnage in Maine, but she had told us issues like mass shootings are more important than poll numbers.

Bill Whitaker: You have a portfolio that includes gun violence, the root cause of migration. These are some of the most intractable issues facing the country. 

Kamala Harris: We've done some of the most significant gun safety laws in 30 years. But we still need an assault weapons ban. It doesn't have to be this way. There was an assault weapons ban at one time. It expired. Let's renew it.

Bill Whitaker: Most Americans say that they don't think you're doing a good job on the border, you and the administration. The number of people trying to cross the U.S. southern border is-- at an all-time high.

Kamala Harris: It's no secret that we have a broken immigration system. Short term, we need a safe, orderly, and humane border policy. And long term, we need to invest in the root causes of migration. But the bottom line? Congress needs to act. Come on. Participate in the solution instead of political gamesmanship.

Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris 60 Minutes

If politics is a game, Kamala Harris has proven herself to be a savvy player, forging a career that has gone from one first to another. The child of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, she was the first woman district attorney for San Francisco; the first woman to serve as California's attorney general; the first woman of color elected senator from California…

Kamala Harris: So help me God.

And the first woman and woman of color to be elected vice president of the United States.

Bill Whitaker: Being in that unique position, being that "first"-- 

Kamala Harris: Yeah.

Bill Whitaker: Does that bring added pressure?

Kamala Harris: No doubt. No doubt. You know, my mother, she would say, "Kamala, you may be the first to do many things. Make sure you're not the last." And among the responsibilities that I carry and maybe impose on myself, that is one of them.

Kamala Harris: So, this was….

She showed us around the vice president's ceremonial office…

Kamala Harris: I brought in this bust of Thurgood Marshall. And I always have him over my right shoulder.

Kamala Harris: In the drawer here…

The desk where previous vice presidents left their signatures. 

Bill Whitaker: How about that?

Kamala Harris: Al Gore, Quayle–

Bill Whitaker: How about that.

Kamala Harris: Cheney, Harry Truman. 

Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris 60 Minutes

Some of these men went on to become president. But Kamala Harris told us she is focused on getting the Biden-Harris ticket reelected next year. The GOP is using her low poll numbers and President Biden's age as a battering ram and some Democrats are growing worried.

Bill Whitaker: We were talking to some Democratic donors, and they have told us that should something befall President Biden, and he is not able to run, that there would be a free for all for who would run as president. You are in the spot that that would be a natural for you to step up, but we're hearing from donors that they would not naturally fall into line. Why is that?

Kamala Harris: Well, first of all, I'm not gonna engage in that hypothetical 'cause Joe Biden is very much alive and running for reelection. So there we are--

Bill Whitaker: But you do know. I mean, that is a concern. And-- and a legitimate concern, I would say.

Kamala Harris: I hear from a lot of different people a lot of different things. But let me just tell you, I'm focused on the job. I truly am. Our democracy is on the line, Bill. And I frankly, in my head, do not have time for parlor games, when we have a president who is running for reelection. That's it.

Kamala Harris: Joe Biden

Conventional wisdom is that most presidential elections are won or lost on the economy, and while inflation has been coming down, prices for basics, like food and shelter, remain staggeringly high. 

Kamala Harris: We came into office during the height of a pandemic, record unemployment, and because of our economic policies we now are reducing inflation. We have created over 14 million new jobs. We've created over 800,000 new manufacturing jobs. Wages are up. And so, we've seen great progress. 

Bill Whitaker: Considering what you are laying out as your achievements, you have the current frontrunner-- for the GOP, Donald Trump, facing, what, 91 criminal charges.

Kamala Harris: I've lost count.

Bill Whitaker: Yet, the Biden-Harris ticket is running neck and neck with Donald Trump. Why are you not 30 points ahead?

Kamala Harris: Well, I'm not-- I'm not a political pundit, so I-- I-- I'm not gonna speak to that. But what I will say is this: When the American people are able to take a close look at election time on their options, I think the choice is gonna be clear. Bill, we're gonna win. Let me just tell you that. We're gonna win. And I'm not saying it's gonna be easy. But we will win. 

Bill Whitaker: You say that with such conviction. 

Kamala Harris: I have no doubt. But I also have no doubt it's gonna be a lot of work. And everyone's gonna have to participate. This is a democracy. 

Democracy - she said that word often during our interview. Despite the criticism and low poll numbers, former prosecutor Kamala Harris told us she's prepared to trust the verdict of the American people. 

Bill Whitaker: Do you have to ask yourself, "Why are people seeming not to hear our message?"

Kamala Harris: I look at it more as let's keep gettin' out there. And, as with any election, we gotta make our case to the American people. That's part of our responsibility. And that's this process. And that's what it is. And that's a fair process.

Produced by Marc Lieberman. Associate Producer, Cassidy McDonald. Broadcast associates, Mariah B. Campbell and Eliza Costas. Edited by Warren Lustig.

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