A dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls, debating for the first time since House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, stood by the nascent probe on Tuesday, with most describing it as the only means to check a president who they deemed had abused his oath of office.
On a crowded Westerville, Ohio, debate stage — the fourth so far — the 2020 hopefuls looking to unseat Trump made the case for his impeachment, while also denouncing his recent order to withdraw nearly 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria.
In a debate that also focused on health care, the economy and gun control legislation, several of the candidates pushed back against the notion the probe into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine — and his effort to pressure the president of Ukraine into opening an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden — would overshadow meaningful discussions on other issues of consequence to voters.
The debate marked the first major appearance by Bernie Sanders since he suffered a heart attack two weeks ago — the U.S. senator from Vermont promised to wage a vigorous campaign amid a steady climb in support by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a fellow left-of-center candidate.
Warren, who has edged out Sanders for second place in some recent national polls, found herself on the defensive most of the night, as several of the lower-polling candidates took aim at the cost of her "Medicare for All" proposal.
Warren, fielding the first question of the night, regarding her long-standing push for impeachment hearings to be held, said, referring to Trump: “Impeachment is the way that we establish that this man will not be permitted to break the law over and over without consequences.”
She had called for impeachment proceedings in April, shortly after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and alleged attempts by Trump to obstruct the investigation.
Democrats opened a fast-moving impeachment inquiry into Trump after a U.S. intelligence whistleblower filed a complaint in August that detailed Trump’s phone request for Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. The president’s request had come days after he ordered the suspension of nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine, a move Democrats have described as a push to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation into Biden.
Trump has defended the phone call as “perfect” and has sought to raise questions about Hunter Biden’s role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, a position he held while his father served as vice president.
Ukraine’s current and former top prosecutors have said there was no wrongdoing committed by the Bidens.
Biden, the front-runner of the pack, standing at the center of the stage, defended his son, stating: “My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”
“I carried out the policy of the United States government, which was to root out corruption in Ukraine and that’s what we should be focusing on,” Biden said.
The other candidates on stage — Sen. Kamala Harris of California; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; entrepreneur Andrew Yang; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; and billionaire activist Tom Steyer — also spoke in support of the impeachment inquiry.
“We have to conduct this process in a way that is honorable that brings our country together,” Booker said.
Harris, a former prosecutor, said, “I don’t really think this impeachment process will take very long.”
“I know a confession when I see it,” Harris said, referring to a summarized transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that was released by the White House last month.
The candidates largely condemned Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, a move that created an opening for Turkish forces to invade land held by Kurdish fighters who previously aided the United States in reducing the ranks of Islamic State militants in Syria.
The Syrian Kurds have since formed an alliance with the Syrian government, which is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, leading military analysts to raise concerns about Putin’s growing influence in the region. More than 600 Islamic State sympathizers previously detained and guarded by Kurdish forces have since escaped amid the heavy fighting.
“I would not have withdrawn the troops,” Biden said, calling Trump’s order “shameful.”
Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Navy reservist, said he heard of U.S. troops reporting that they felt “ashamed” about abandoning their Kurdish allies.
“I would have a hard time today looking an Afghan civilian or soldier in the eye after what just happened over there,” said Buttigieg. “It is undermining the honor of our soldiers. You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next.”
Sanders echoed the sentiment expressed by the others on the stage: “What he has done is break our ability to do foreign policy.”
Warren said she did not believe the U.S. should have troops in the Middle East, but she said there was a “smart way” to withdraw the troops in a manner that was not so abrupt to U.S. allies.
Warren, who also has been narrowing the gap with Biden, found herself on the defensive over her Medicare for All plan, with some of the candidates arguing that she was not being upfront about how she planned to pay for the proposal.
“I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families,” Warren said, when asked if her plan would include a tax increase on the middle class.
Buttigieg said she was evading “a yes-or-no question.” Klobuchar, a centrist and pragmatist of the group, called Warren’s plan a “pipe dream.” And Biden accused Warren of being “vague” about her plans.
Sanders, who also has endorsed a Medicare for All plan and drafted legislation for such a system, said: “I do think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” but he noted that under the plan, "premiums are gone, co-payments are gone, deductions are gone, all out-of-pocket expenses are gone.”
In the three-hour debate, Sanders went head to head with the other candidates after suffering a heart attack on Oct. 1 during a campaign event in Las Vegas, prompting the placement of two stents to clear a blocked artery.
Sanders, asked about his health, said: “We are going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country. That is how I think I can reassure the American people.”
Throughout the night, Biden sought to make the case that he was best positioned to take on Trump in 2020 because of his experience, but unlike in the past three primary debates, the former vice president was not the primary focus of attack. Instead, in a sign of Warren’s prominence, she often was confronted with questions about her policies, giving her the chance to lay out her policy positions.
Warren was the candidate who spoke the most, about 23 minutes, compared with Biden, who clocked in just over 16 minutes, according to a New York Times tally. Steyer spoke the least — with seven minutes of airtime.
Next month’s debate is expected to narrow the field of candidates who qualify for the debate stage by raising the fundraising and polling thresholds.
To date, eight of the dozen candidates who debated on Tuesday — Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, Buttigieg, Yang and Steyer — are on track to qualify for the next debate under new criteria recently rolled out by the Democratic National Committee, according to Politico’s Democratic primary poll tracker.
To qualify for the Nov. 20 debate in Georgia, candidates will need to have collected funds from 165,000 individual donors and to show either 3% support in four DNC-approved national polls or 5% support in three polls from early-voting states.