US Senator Bernie Sanders answered questions from American voters at a CNN town hall forum on Monday night, discussing how he would negotiate policy with President-elect Donald Trump, set to take office on January 20.
Trump and Sanders sounded similar notes on the campaign trail in opposing free trade deals and the influence of money in politics, but the two candidates split sharply on issues such as civil rights and multiculturalism. Both candidates represented two wings of an anti-establishment surge that shook American politics in 2016. Sanders lost his bid for the Democratic party's nomination to Hillary Clinton, who went on to lose the general election to Trump in November.
On Monday, Sanders doubled down on his campaign promise to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, but stopped short of outlining specific policy proposals. The question of cooperation is in the spotlight this week, as congress starts the process of nominating Trump's appointees to cabinet positions.
“I will work with Trump on any issue that is sensible, but I will not work with Trump when he espouses bigotry and dividing us up,” Sanders said.
Speaking at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC, the Vermont Senator said he was willing to cooperate with Trump on renegotiating trade deals to keep jobs in the US, but would refuse to go along with Trump policies that would erode the “fabric of this country.”
Over the course of the election, one of Trump’s most provocative policy positions concerned Muslims, urging increased tracking and prohibitions on their entry into the US. Trump insists these policies are necessary in the wake of terrorist attacks in the US and Europe linked to Daesh.
One Muslim American voter, Osama Alsaleh, a GWU student from Kansas, expressed alarm at a rising tide of anti-Muslim hate crimes that had shaken his community over the last two years. Many Muslim civil rights groups point to Trump’s rhetoric as the reason for the rapid rise in citizens attacking other citizens for their faith.
“I would like to know what are you and fellow Democrats doing to work with the Republicans to ensure Muslims in America have fairness and equality?” Alsaleh asked.
Sanders, who is Jewish, told Alsaleh that the US said Americans need to judge people “on who they are, not on where your grandfather came from, or your religion.”
“We have to make a very fundamental decision which I had hoped that this country had made,” Sanders added. “And this is that we understand there is a common humanity whether you are Muslim or I am Jewish or if somebody is Catholic or if somebody is Protestant, or if somebody comes from Mexico or in my case my father from Poland or somebody from Ireland, or his family from Italy. So what? That is America.”
“Young Muslim students shouldn’t be afraid to walk the streets,” Sanders said.
But civil rights groups have been alarmed by Trump's appointee for Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who has a history of opposing civil rights laws and has faced accusations of using racial slurs to describe a colleague, accusations which scuttled a previous bid for federal judgeship in 1986. Sessions denies using the slur to describe an African American state government official.
Sanders said that he would “listen very very closely to what Senator Sessions has to say,” but admitted it was unlikely that he would vote for cabinet picks with whom he disagreed on issues such as rights, race, climate change and social welfare.
“Before I vote against them, I want to hear what they have to say,” Sanders said.