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Takeaways from CNN’s town hall with Vivek Ramaswamy

By Eric Bradner, Arit John and Aaron Pellish, CNN

(CNN) — Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy told a crowd of Iowa voters in a CNN town hall Wednesday night that the federal government has “lied systematically” to Americans.

The Ohio entrepreneur’s parroting of a series of far-right conspiracy theories — and his pushback against CNN moderator Abby Phillip — showcased his efforts to appeal to a Donald Trump-aligned, conspiracy-minded element of the GOP electorate just weeks before the January 15 Iowa caucuses kick off the party’s 2024 presidential nominating process.

In the town hall at Grand View University in Des Moines, Ramaswamy turned a question about medication abortion into a critique of the federal bureaucracy. He also staked out conservative positions on immigration enforcement and railed against affirmative action efforts.

Here are takeaways from the town hall:

Ramaswamy embraces conspiracy theories

Picking up on a theme he emphasized at the fourth Republican presidential primary debate last week, Ramaswamy embraced a series of conspiracy theories.

He cherry-picked pieces of information to suggest federal law enforcement agents fueled the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol, portraying the attack as “entrapment.” FBI Director Christopher Wray earlier this year said such suggestions were “ludicrous.”

He made similar claims about the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, pointing to the acquittal of several of the 14 people charged in that plot — and ignoring the fact that that nine were convicted.

His claims led to an animated exchange with Phillip that stood in stark contrast to Ramaswamy’s comparatively staid demeanor over the rest of the hourlong town hall.

Ramaswamy said he would have dismissed such conspiracy theories as “fringe” and “nonsense” three years ago. However, he said he now believes the federal government has “lied to us systematically” about the coronavirus pandemic, Hunter Biden’s laptop and more.

Ramaswamy takes on the ‘administrative state’

Asked about the Supreme Court’s decision to take up a case on the abortion pill mifepristone, Ramaswamy used the opportunity to argue that federal agencies regularly exceed their authority.

Ramaswamy said that the US Food and Drug Administration overreached when it approved usage of mifepristone – part of a two-pill protocol – which he said was “symptomatic of what’s going on in the administrative state.”

“The people who we elect to run the government, they’re not even the ones who actually run the government right now,” he said. “It’s the bureaucrats in those three-letter agencies that are pulling the strings today.”

Ramaswamy went on to say that as president he would rescind “unconstitutional”  federal regulations and lay off 75% of the federal workforce.

Abortion opponents argue that the FDA’s approval process of mifepristone, which occurred more than two decades ago, was flawed. If the Supreme Court rules against the government, it could severely limit access to the abortion pill, even in states where the procedure is legal.

Asked if he believes the Supreme Court should ban mifepristone, Ramaswamy said he believes the court should put the FDA “in its place.”

“I believe it will result in mifepristone being taken off the market until it goes through the process that’s ordained for every drug that doesn’t go through emergency approval,” he said.

Ramaswamy defends his at-times combative approach

Asked how he’d strike a balance between authenticity and a presidential demeanor, Ramaswamy invoked lessons he said he and his wife will teach their two children.

“I’m going to tell them, ‘If somebody bullies you or hits you, you’re going to hit them back 10 times harder,’” he said.

The question from an Iowa voter delved into how Ramaswamy — who has frequently been a provocative figure in the GOP debates, where he has often initiated fierce arguments with rivals — views the role of a president.

He said his basic test of a president’s demeanor is that he wants “us to be able to look our kids in the eye and tell them that, ‘I want you to grow up and be like him.’”

However, he also defended his at-times combative approach, casting it as a window into how a President Ramaswamy would deal with foreign adversaries.

“If they’re going to come after me, I’m not going to be a president — whether it’s Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin or anybody else — who’s going to roll over,” the candidate said.

Ramaswamy uses parenthood to talk income inequality – and his own wealth

During a discussion on income inequality and taxes, Ramaswamy was asked if he wants to pass his billions in wealth down to his two young sons. He previously supported a 59% inheritance tax but now backs a 12% flat tax.

Ramaswamy used the question to delve into his family’s backstory, from his parents’ arrival in the United States 40 years ago to his founding of multibillion-dollar companies. That generational shift – which he framed as the American dream – is what he hopes to pass down to his children.

“I’m not one of these guys who fantasizes [about] lavishing children with a bunch of wealth,” he said. “I want to give them a country that allows them to live the American dream through meritocracy.”

He went on to describe attending college with the children of billionaires at Harvard, some of whom he said were “encumbered” by their inheritances.

Asked what he would do to address the growing chasm between the 1% and the middle class, Ramaswamy said he would focus his attention on the Federal Reserve by preventing it from holding down wage growth.

Ramaswamy discusses his Hindu faith

Asked whether his religious beliefs are at odds with the Founding Fathers, Ramaswamy detailed core principles of his Hindu faith that he views as aligning with “Judeo-Christian values” shared by many Iowa voters, but he acknowledged he would not be “the best president to spread Christianity.”

He laid out why he believes his Hindu upbringing aligns with the core tenants of Christianity, while also highlighting his connection to Christianity through his Catholic education at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati.

“I’ll tell you about my faith. My faith teaches me that God puts each of us here for a purpose. That we have a moral duty to realize that purpose. That God works through us in different ways, but we’re still equal, because God resides in each of us,” he said. “I think those are the same Judeo-Christian values that I learned at St. X.”

Ramaswamy has sought to ease potential concerns of voters who have doubts about his religious background, sharing details of his faith at recent campaign events in Iowa, where evangelical Christians make up a significant Republican constituency. He often evokes stories from the Bible, including one from the Book of Isaiah, as he did at Wednesday’s town hall.

“I believe God put us here for a purpose. My faith is what leads me on this journey to run for president,” he said.

Ramaswamy pushes strict immigration stance

Ramaswamy called for a strict and far-reaching crackdown on immigration, saying he would send the military to secure both the southern and northern US borders and use local law enforcement to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

“All it takes is a president with a spine,” he said.

He again said that as president he would end birthright citizenship — that is, the automatic US citizenship bestowed on those born in the country, whether or not their parents are in the country legally.

That controversial position mirrors one taken by Trump, and it would be certain to face legal challenges.

Ramaswamy also said that in addition to deploying the US military to the border, he would halt aid to Central American countries until they enact stricter policies to limit the flow of immigrants to the United States, and would complete the US-Mexico border wall.

He said his position on immigration comes despite understanding why many undocumented immigrants came to the United States. “If we were in a tough spot, maybe we would have done the same thing,” he said.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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