By the time Howard Schultz walked into Arizona State University's student pavilion, over half an hour late for his own event Wednesday evening, the former Starbucks chief executive had already endured a beating.
When Schultz teased a few days ago that he was thinking of running for president in 2020 as an independent, liberals and Democrats had assailed him. A billionaire running as a self-funded third-party candidate could siphon votes from President Trump's Democratic challenger, effectively handing the president a second term, they warned.
Schultz denies it.
"I think it's a false narrative," he told reporters after the on-stage dialogue with ASU president Michael Crow. "What I believe is, what better expression of our democracy than the opportunity for someone to run outside of the two-party system? Why should America only have two choices?"
Schultz claimed he has heard from "many people around the country, people I don't know, many of whom are Republicans," that they are looking for a political home. The idea that he will siphon votes from the Democratic nominee in 2020 is wrong, Schultz said.
"If I proceed and I run for president as a centrist independent, Republicans who are not gonna vote for a far-left progressive Democrat probably would vote again for Donald Trump," Schultz argued.
Does he support raising taxes on billionaires?
"What I would favor is to take a step back from the entire process," Schultz said, pivoting to mention that he criticized Trump for reducing taxes for corporations. "What we need is comprehensive tax reform, infrastructure development –" Schultz said.
A reporter cut him off: What about income tax, specifically? "Everything has to be on the table," Schultz said, adding that the U.S. needs to "reinvent our tax system."
Then he backpedaled.
"Now, listen, I'm only four, five days into this. I haven't decided whether I'm gonna run for president or not. There'll be plenty of time for the American people to hear specifics about my policies," Schultz said.
Whether Schultz decides to run, he looked and sounded a lot like a presidential aspirant during his talk with Crow. Projector screens in the hall displayed a hashtag, #ReimagineUS. An American flag was draped over the back wall of the pavilion hall behind Schultz and Crow, in clear view of the television cameras.
The event at ASU was part of Schultz's initial run of a book tour promoting his memoir, From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America. The tour will take him to Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle in the coming days.
It's probably no coincidence that Tempe was Schultz's Arizona destination while on the book tour. Since 2014, Starbucks and ASU have partnered to offer full-time and part-time Starbucks employees the opportunity to earn an online bachelor's degree from ASU for free.
As CEO, Schultz became known for taking on controversial topics and issues such as race, not always successfully. He resigned as Starbucks executive chairman and as a member of the company's board in summer 2018, kicking off speculation that he might run for office.
In another Arizona connection, Steve Schmidt, who served as chief strategist to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, has signed on with Schultz as an adviser.
But Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire who has toyed with a presidential run, flatly said in response to a possible Schultz run that an independent victory in a presidential race is impossible.
"Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win," Bloomberg said in a statement posted to Twitter on Monday. "That is truer today than ever before."
Crow eschewed the presidential-run conversation on Wednesday rather than address the speculation head-on. Instead, for the most part, he tossed Schultz softballs about his new book and business philosophy, occasionally mixing in questions on policy issues like the wage gap.
The tough questions arrived during the audience Q&A portion of the event.
An older woman with white hair at first complimented Schultz on his coffee company's Frappuccino and the partnership with ASU. Then she hit him with the accusation.
"You are not going to win as an independent. That does not happen," she said. "But what you’re going to do, is you’re going to have us have another four years of President Trump. Please explain to me why you feel you can't run as a Democrat."
Schultz thanked her, and assured her he is not going to be a spoiler. "I think President Trump is unqualified to be the president, and no one in America – trust me – wants to see him removed from office and not re-elected more than me," Schultz said.
Schultz said he had a conversation on Tuesday with retired Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who told him that if a person extricates himself from the "ideology of the party faction," even just a little, the person is suddenly on the receiving end of vitriol and hate. The politician will get taken out in a primary election, Schultz recalled Flake telling him.
The system means that someone who wants to vote their conscience can't do it, Schultz said.
The billionaire said that he would have to be "disingenuous" to try to win the Democratic nomination because the party has embraced promises of free college tuition and "Medicare for all."
"I would not be true to myself because the system needs to be challenged. The system needs to be disrupted," Schultz said.
He went on to commit an awkward verbal flub in response to another question. An attendee asked Schultz if he agrees with President Trump on the existence of a "fake media."
"When I hear the president say that the media is the enemy of the state, I could not agree with that more," Schultz said.
A little while later, Crow gently pointed out his slip of the tongue, giving Schultz an opportunity to correct himself.
"No, no no! I didn't mean to say that," Schultz exclaimed. "Did I say that?"
After the event ended, Schultz again clarified his remark to a group of reporters. "Of course, the press is not the enemy of the state. So, I hope you all get that," Schultz said.
"Well, you know, what I'm trying to do is unscripted," he continued. "I'm trying to speak from my heart and convey to the American people and to this audience what I believe to be true. We've got serious problems in the country that need to be solved."
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