Transcript: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Talks To ABC News’ David Muir

The Democratic senator reflects on her fight to help the middle class.

ByArlette Saenz
April 21, 2014, 6:28 PM
PHOTO: ABC News' David Muir interviews Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at her Massachusetts home, April 17th, 2014.
ABC News' David Muir interviews Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at her Massachusetts home, April 17th, 2014.
Christine Romo/ABC News

— -- This transcript has been edited for clarity.

DAVID MUIR: We sit here today a few years later. You're now a senator. A lot has changed since the last time we sat down with you. But you're still tryin' to save the middle class.

ELIZABETH WARREN: That's right. For me, that's what it's always been about. I wrote this book out of gratitude. I am the daughter of-- someone who ended up as a maintenance man, a woman who worked a minimum wage job at Sears. And I ended up in the United States Senate because I grew up in an America that was investing in kids, that was building a strong middle class.

We're not doin' that anymore. And Washington isn't working for families. It's working for big corporations. It's working for billionaires, not for families. And so this is just the continuation of my work. I wrote A Fighting Chance because that's what I want every kid to have.

DAVID MUIR: One of the working titles for the book was Rigged. So I'm curious the change.

ELIZABETH WARREN: This book is about how Washington is rigged to work for those who can hire-- armies of lobbyists and lawyers and make sure that everything that they want gets done in Washington. But the things we need for families-- we need to help our kids get a college education. We need to raise the minimum wage.

Nobody should work full time and live in poverty. We need to fix Social Security so it's gonna be out there forever and raise payments for those who depend most on it. We know the things we need to do as a country. But there's no army of lobbyists and no army of lawyers to push for that in Washington.

The game is rigged to work for those who already have money and power. I wrote this book because the way I see it, working families, they're not lookin' for a handout. They're not lookin' for some special deal. They just want a level playing field. They just want a fighting chance.

DAVID MUIR: And there are no lobbyists saying, "We're here for the middle class."

ELIZABETH WARREN: Not enough. You know, there-- look, there are always some good people out there who are fighting on the side of working families. But it's kinda like a football team. You know, one side has 11 players to put on the field and, you know, armies to back them up, to make it all work.

And it's like the other side sends two people out onto the field. It's not a fair fight out there. It's not a government anymore that's working for families. It's a government that's working for those who can hire the lobbyists. And that's just-- that's not a fair game.

DAVID MUIR: The lobbyists who can find the loopholes.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Yep. And that's what lobbyists do. They get out there and they find all the loopholes. So let me just give you an example around this. Right now, our kids whose moms and dads can't afford to pay for college, they borrow money from the federal government. And I'm glad the federal government lends them money.

But the federal government lends at a rate that produces tens of billions of dollars in profits for the government off the backs of college kids who are just tryin' to get an education. That is obscene. That is not what we should be doing. But there's no lobbyist out there saying for all those college kids, you know, knocking on every senator's door, making contributions, push, push, pushing to say, "We gotta bring down the interest rate on student loans."

Nobody's out there fighting for them. But believe me, you talk about closing one of those tax loopholes, to pay to bring down the cost of those college loans. And the lobbyists are like locusts. You know, they're swarming everywhere 'cause there's someone there to fight to protect every loophole. It's just not right.

DAVID MUIR: A lotta your fellow Democrats were surprised when you said no to that compromise bill about interest and student loans. Why'd you say no?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I said no because the federal government was still gonna be making way too much in profits off the backs of our kids, especially going forward in the future. And I just couldn't sign onto that. So we're gonna have another bill coming up next month that's gonna talk about refinancing the student loans that are out there.

You know, right now, there is 1.2 trillion dollars in student loan debt. And it's crushing our kids. They're not buying homes. The Federal Reserve put out a report last spring saying it's actually threatening our economic recovery. But let me tell you, David, why this is so personal for me.

I went to a commuter college that cost $50 a semester. And I went to a public law school. That opened incredible doors for me. And I ended up in the Senate. Those things were possible because when I was growing up, America was investing. It was investing in kids who were willin' to work hard and play by the rules. Today, the federal government is making a profit off the backs of kids like that.

DAVID MUIR: And you have made the point that these aren't kids who have gone off to the mall and run up debt on their credit cards. They're tryin' to study.

ELIZABETH WARREN: That's exactly right. And that's really the central point of the book, is that we have a choice to make as a country. We can either say, "This country's gonna be run for those who have already made it big." Or we're gonna get together and use our voices to say no. We gotta create a fighting chance for every kid.

DAVID MUIR: You mentioned to me before we were rolling that this was sort of a journey back through your childhood. And I wanted to-- I wanted to read-- a moment from the book that you describe. You write that, "My mother usually picked me up from school in our bronze-toned station wagon." And one day, she showed up drivin' the old off-white Studebaker that your father had driven back and forth to work. And you asked where the station wagon was. And she said?

ELIZABETH WARREN: And she said, "It's gone." And I just didn't understand. I said, "Gone where?" And she said, "It's gone." And I remember her hands on the steering wheel getting tighter and tighter. And like any 12-year-old, I pushed one more time. "Gone where?" It was gone because they'd lost it. They couldn't keep makin' the payments.

My daddy had had a heart attack. He'd been outa work for a long time. The medical bills had piled up. They lost the station wagon. And now, we were on the edge of losing our home. My parents worked hard. They were good people. And we had our ups and downs like most families around this country.

But I learned when I was 12 and my daddy had that heart attack that good people can get smacked in the head economically, and their whole lives can be turned upside down. After my daddy had a heart attack, that's when I grew up. That's when I knew that my mother's job was to help take care of us, and my job was to help take care of us. I fought all my life for my family. And now for other families.

DAVID MUIR: You write about the fear, that you and your father shared the same fear of losing everything. But he didn't talk about it.

ELIZABETH WARREN: My daddy and I were afraid of goin' broke, both of us. But Daddy never talked about it. Me, I poked at it, and poked at it, and poked at it. And I studied it, and learned about it, and wanted to know more, and understand what had gone wrong, and what could we do about it-- how do we make ourselves safe.

DAVID MUIR: And do you think that's what still drives you today, that same fear as a child watching sorta the foundation in your home become so shaky?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I do. There's a part of that 12-year-old girl who's still there every single day.

DAVID MUIR: You're a senator now though. And you can raise tens of millions of dollars. Do you still have fears about money?

ELIZABETH WARREN: Sure I do. But now, it's stretched way out. You know, I-- I've worked hard to take care of my family. And we've been very blessed. But I look at families around us, at people we know and people we love. And people I meet, people who work hard. And one hard blow, get sick, lose a job, a divorce, a death in the family, and what had looked like a pretty stable situation is suddenly just flipped over.

That's the really scary part. And here's how it's changed. When I was growing up, it happened to us. But we had a chance to get back on our feet. I still had a chance to go to a college, a commuter college that cost $50 a semester. There were still lots of opportunities, lots of second chances and third chances.

Today, families are tangled, and they get tangled in debt. The kids have to pay incredible prices to go to college and take on student loan debts that crush them. We're not building those same opportunities, those same second chances for families, for our kids that we built a generation ago. And if we don't make some changes, it's gonna fundamentally change this country.

DAVID MUIR: Do you think your mother's grip on the steering wheel that day-- is sort of being relived, you know, in cars and in homes across this country right now?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I talk to families over and over who have that same sense of hanging on as hard as they can, trying as hard as they can, but still seeing pieces of it just break away. I think what families really want, it's just-- they wanna build some security. They wanna know their kids are gonna do better than they did, their kids are gonna have chances.

And the role of government in that is to make sure the right policies are in place, that we're-- that we're making the right choices that help our kids build a future. And that's where I think things have gone wrong. It's why I wrote this book.

DAVID MUIR: You write about the toaster. Amelia was what? Three or four?

ELIZABETH WARREN: Three or four.

DAVID MUIR: You're in the kitchen. And we've all had this happen. The burning toast.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Oh, not just burning toast. Flaming toast. I opened that little toaster oven door, and there are four pieces of bread that are shooting with flame. And quick thinking, I grab the thing, I scream, and hurl it toward the kitchen sink. Three pieces of toast fall into the sink. The fourth one goes high and hits the little yellow curtains.

Yellow curtains are now in flames. I turn around and grab Amelia's cereal bowl, fling it at the-- at the curtains. And-- eventually get the fire doused and down. 30 years later, you think about that toaster oven. You go out today to buy a toaster oven, you know what? Any toaster oven you try to buy in America has a safety switch on it, that it cuts off before things burst into flames and the wiring melts down the way that old toaster did. Why?

Because there's a consumer product safety commission that says effectively, "You can't sell a toaster in America that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames." But here is the deal. A few years ago, you can still sell a mortgage in America that had a one-in-five chance of costing a family their home through refinancing and putting 'em right out on the street.

And here was the deal. Not only could the mortgage company do that. They didn't even have to warn the family that that was the risk associated with that mortgage. I thought, "That's just not right." How is it that we can have a basic set of safety rules for toasters and not for mortgages?

And the basic idea behind this Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that I was out there fighting for was to say, "You can't put the kinds of tricks and traps into mortgages, and credit cards, and payday loans that fool a family like this, that become the financial equivalent of setting something on fire," unh-uh.

DAVID MUIR: Senator, what do you say though to the critics who have said, "There's responsibility in this, that homeowners got in over their heads, that they should've read the fine print?"

ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, did you ever read a wiring diagram on a toaster? I mean, think about how it's supposed to work. If you really want markets to work, then you don't say, "Any company that can hire a slick lawyer and bury something down in the fine print in legalese where nobody really has a chance to understand it gets to take away people's houses or make extra profits from doing that."

That doesn't make markets work. We want markets to work. You say, "Look, here is the basic safety. No tricks, no traps," and then just get out there and sell your product. Compete on price. Compete on service. Compete on, you know, whatever it is you wanna offer. But don't compete on how you get to trick people better than anyone else. That's not how it should work.

DAVID MUIR: Don't compete on the fine print.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah, don't compete on the tricks and traps. And by the way, let me tell you somethin' about what we now know. That little baby agency that's up and running now, 'cause we got it through into law, it has already put nearly $3 billion back into the pockets of American families who got tricked, who got trapped, who got cheated. So that's money that instead of being in the pockets of the great big corporations stayed with families. Why? Just 'cause there is a cop on the beat to say, "Wait a minute. You don't get to fool people like that."

DAVID MUIR: You write in the book about your journey-- from being that young Oklahoma girl through Texas, New Jersey, to Harvard, and now to Washington. And you have faced a lotta the politics in Washington even before you became a senator. And I wanted to read to you something you wrote about the bureau that you helped to set up.

You talk about-- obviously the leadership of the bureau is coming. And they have-- they have told you that you're not going to lead the agency, but you're gonna help set it up. And you describe a meeting at the White House. It was hot out. The president wanted to meet with you outside. You said it felt like a green version of hell.

ELIZABETH WARREN: It did. It was-- these tall, tall hedges. So there was no air. And-- you know, the president said, "Isn't this great?" And I thought, "God, you gotta be kidding me." So that's when we sat down to have it out over the leadership of the agency.

DAVID MUIR: But it was a tense meeting.


DAVID MUIR: And most people when they describe a White House setting as a version of hell, you would-- you would assume would be-- members of the other party. But you were allies at this point. And it was--


DAVID MUIR: --still-- it was-- still was a tense moment.


DAVID MUIR: Because you wanted to lead this agency.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I never made any secret outa the fact that I would have loved to have stayed and set up the agency. But let's also be really clear. The big banks had said from the very beginning they would kill this agency. And when it was passed into law, they didn't just give up and say, "Oh, well, now it's okay. Set up a strong agency." They didn't want me to lead it. And their Republican friends in the United States Senate had made it clear that they were not gonna confirm me to lead--


ELIZABETH WARREN: --that agency.

DAVID MUIR: And the president said to you, "It's because you make them nervous."

ELIZABETH WARREN: That's right. That was his line. "You make 'em nervous.

DAVID MUIR: And did you buy it?

ELIZABETH WARREN: Oh, I think he's right. I think I did make 'em nervous. Probably still do.

DAVID MUIR: You also write about-- Larry Summers, who is a former colleague of yours. At the time though, he was-- one of the president's top economic advisors. You speak of that conversation where he says to you, "You have a choice. You can be an insider, or you can be an outsider." And what did you make of that conversation?

ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, it was how Larry explained the difference. Insiders have a chance to influence those who are making policies. Outsiders can make a lotta noise. But they're not gonna get--

DAVID MUIR: We're talkin' about Larry Summers now, a former colleague. He's a top economic advisor for the-- for the president. So he says to you that you have a choice, that you can be-- he says to you, "You can be an insider, or you can be an outsider." And are you thinking at that point, "I've gotta make a choice?"

ELIZABETH WARREN: It was what he said about the difference between insiders and outsiders. He said, "Outsiders can make a lotta noise, but insiders are not gonna listen. Insiders have a chance to influence what's happening, but there is a cardinal rule. Insiders never criticize other insiders." And that was my choice.

DAVID MUIR: And at that point, you were not a senator yet.

ELIZABETH WARREN: No, I was-- I was on the outside very much.

DAVID MUIR: Are you an insider now though?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I came to this too late to be an insider. It-- for me, this is always about the same thing. It's the work I've been doing for 25 years, out there fighting to make sure that our kids get a fighting chance, a level playing field for all of our kids.

DAVID MUIR: It was your first appearance before the banking committee as a senator.


DAVID MUIR: When you're sitting in front of the banking regulators.


DAVID MUIR: And you ask them, "How many of you have taken one of these big banks to trial?"

ELIZABETH WARREN: Right. "Just tell me about that. When's the last time you took a big bank to trial?"

DAVID MUIR: And there was silence.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Oh, there was a lotta silence and no eye contact. Everybody wanted to look somewhere else. Because that's the real point, is that-- look, they go after, you know, the little folks. They go after-- law enforcement goes after somebody who, you know, gets caught with-- a couple of ounces of marijuana. Boy, you better believe there's someone there to go after them.

But these huge financial institutions, financial institutions that launder drug money, financial institutions that have broken our sanctions with Iran, financial institutions that have tried to fix interest rates, suddenly, there's no enthusiasm, no appetite to take those guys to trial, to say, "You're responsible, you're the one who did this, and you have to be accountable to the American people." Boy, you wanna talk about a tilted playing field? There it is.

DAVID MUIR: Didn't look like an insider, sittin' there.


DAVID MUIR: Let me ask you a little bit about-- the headlines that are out there right now. I have read a number of articles just within the last week. And one of them is titled-- "Hillary's nightmare." And they're talking about you. What do you make of that?

ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, I-- I don't get who writes these headlines or what they're about. I think there's just kind of a pundit world out there. It's not my world.

DAVID MUIR: Are you gonna run for president?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm not running for president.

DAVID MUIR: There's nothing that could change your mind?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm not running for president. We have issues we need to deal with right now in 2014. We’ve gotta deal with our kids who can't pay for college, with minimum wage, with Social Security-- with holding big financial institutions accountable. We've got Senate races in 2014. We need to make the focus right now, right now, right now.

DAVID MUIR: You have a lotta people who believe in you-- which is a good thing. And I wanna read you this line. This pundit, I'm sure, one of the many, writes, "There's only one person in the Democratic party who has a credible path to beating Hillary Clinton. And her name is Elizabeth Warren." When you hear that, do you think there's an opportunity there to continue this fight that you started long ago?

ELIZABETH WARREN: David-- like I said, I'm not running for president. I wanna make it clear it's about the issues we need to work on. And we need to work on them now. Look, Washington works for those who have lots of money and lots of power. It concentrates it. All we've got on the other side are our voices. And we need to make our voices heard. And we need to make them heard now. We're runnin' outa time. That's where I'm gonna stay focused.

DAVID MUIR: And do you think Hillary Clinton would make a good president?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I think Hillary Clinton is terrific. We gotta stay focused on these issues right now.

DAVID MUIR: You don't see a race comin' around the corner? Let me ask you one more thing about the middle class that you write about, which is one of-- the profound quotes of the book. You were out on the campaign trail. And you famously said, "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you." But you also made the point that you wanna be clear about something.


DAVID MUIR: And what is that?

ELIZABETH WARREN: You moved your goods to market on roads that the rest of us help pay for. You hired workers that the rest of us help pay to educate. You had police services and fire fighters to protect you that all of us help pay for. And you get rich, good for you. God bless. That's great. We'll celebrate.

But you've gotta take some of that and be willing to pay it forward so that the next kid has a chance to make it big, and the kid after that, and the kid after that. For me, that's what this is all about. It's about the importance of all of us, those who've made it big already helping build the opportunities for the future so the next kid gets to make it big.

DAVID MUIR: But, you know, there are a lotta people out there who don't buy that argument. They say, "I did build this on my own."

ELIZABETH WARREN: We all contributed to creating the right conditions here in this country so that everybody would get a chance. Sure, people work hard, and they make something of themselves. And God bless, that's how it should be. But we've got to remember all of us benefited from the investments other people made in us.

How did I go to a commuter college that cost $50 a semester? Because a lot of other people put a little something in that kept the costs low at a public school so I had a chance and a lotta kids like me had a chance to get an education, and go out, and do something with it.

DAVID MUIR: When we heard from the president on Jay Leno talkin' about the toaster, was that your toaster? (LAUGH)

ELIZABETH WARREN: It was my toaster. I loved (CLAPS) that story. You know, you can't believe what that's like, is that-- you got this idea for this agency. And I'm so sure it'll be good for families. It's gonna make markets work better. It's gonna be better for community banks and credit unions, the small banks that are really in partnership with their customers. But it's just a little idea. And you're tryin' to roll it forward. And then the president of the United States talks about it on Jay Leno. And I thought, "Wow, this could really happen."

DAVID MUIR: Did you tell Amelia? "You were four when that toaster was on fire."

ELIZABETH WARREN: That's right, baby. This is it.

DAVID MUIR: "It's happenin'." And lastly here, just a quote from the book. Because I think it helps to sum up a number of points that you make in the book. But you write--

ELIZABETH WARREN: He talked about that toaster on Jay Leno. And then he went out and fought for that consumer agency. We wouldn't have a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today if Barack Obama had not been in the White House and been willing to stand up to the banks, been willing to stand up to the Republicans, heck, been willing to stand up to some people in his own party in order to get an agency that would be there to make sure that families didn't get cheated on credit cards and mortgages. He's how we got that.

DAVID MUIR: But do you think there are still things the president doesn't get about saving the middle class?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I have never made any secret outa the fact that I disagree with the administration on their treatment of the big financial institutions. But I also wanna make it clear. We got the consumer agency because the president fought for it. And in my book, he's always gonna get credit for that.

DAVID MUIR: You write in your book, "America's middle class is under attack. Worse, it's not under attack by some unstoppable force of nature. It's in trouble because the game is deliberately rigged." As we sit here right now, you think it's rigged against the middle class.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Absolutely. It is rigged against the middle class. Billionaires, big corporations, they've got an army of lobbyists to swarm through Washington, to make sure that their point of view is always heard, always represented, always listened to, and basically, too often followed. What about-- what about just hardworkin' families? They don't have that army of lobbyists on their side. And that means Washington keeps tilting against them further, and further, and further.

DAVID MUIR: A lotta people write about Hillary Clinton and you. And they say there's a big difference. You-- the point they make is that you have been writing about saving the middle class for decades now. So what do you have to lose if you were to run for president, that this is the issue of your lifetime?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm not running for president. I am fighting for the issue I care about. I'm out here fighting for workin' families. This is what I've been doin'.

DAVID MUIR: Do you still have that voicemail from Senator Kennedy?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I think so. I think--

DAVID MUIR: On a phone--

ELIZABETH WARREN: --it's still on my phone, yeah.

DAVID MUIR: And you listened to it durin' the campaign?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I did. I did. You know, I never deleted that voicemail. And the-- the funny thing about it is: I just need to hear him start and to hear his voice. It's the reminder. Ted Kennedy fought for working families all of his life. And he showed what it means to be a senator who isn't there for all the lobbyists, not there for all the contributors, but there because that's what it means to go to Washington and to serve, truly to serve from the heart.

DAVID MUIR: And on election night when you were going over both speeches in your head, the concession or the victory speech, you thought of your mother.

ELIZABETH WARREN: I did. I wondered how my mother would feel. My mother was always afraid for me. She didn't think I'd go to college. She wanted me to get married and stay home. And yet my mother, when it was really tough for us, she got out there, and she did what needed to be done to protect our family.

DAVID MUIR: She got the job at Sears.

ELIZABETH WARREN: That's right. She took-- she was 50 years old and took her first job outside the home-- a minimum wage job at Sears. But it was enough back then for us to be able to hang onto our house. My mother did what needed to be done. And I'd like to think that my mother would be happy now watching me that I learned from her, that I'll do my best. I'll do what needs to be done.

DAVID MUIR: And just as you describe her going to Sears at 50, you say you went to Washington late in the game.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah. I hadn't thought about that. That's a good point. You know, I that was the amazing thing about running for the United States Senate. I was 62 years old. And here I was, sorta turning my life over. But it was another chance to fight for what I believed in. And now here I am. I have-- I have a place to fight, a place to fight for what I believe in.

DAVID MUIR: And like your mom, to get the job done.

ELIZABETH WARREN: To get the job done.

DAVID MUIR: Senator, thank you.

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