Interviews with Darrell Issa, Bob McDonnell and Robert Gates

Interviews with Darrell Issa, Bob McDonnell and Robert Gates

By John King, USA - February 2, 2012

KING: We're live tonight on the College of William and Mary, a historic campus in Williamsburg, Virginia.

You see the students behind us here.

This school has a new chancellor, Robert Gates. He was the defense secretary, remember, under George W. Bush. He carried over into the Obama administration. He's starting his new job. It's a ceremonial role as the chancellor of this great university.

We had an exclusive conversation today.

I began by asking him -- and remember he was a key player in the Afghan war strategy -- what he thinks now of this word that is coming out of Washington and the Obama administration that combat, the combat in mission Afghanistan could end as early as the middle of 2013.


KING: Just yesterday, Secretary Panetta, your successor, started talking about when we would get out of Afghanistan. And some say that he accelerated the timetable by saying combat operations would end in 2013. They're trying to say today, no, if the goal is to be finished in 2014, you have to start at one point.

Are they backtracking here? Are politics getting in the way of Afghanistan? GATES: The key I think for us is not here in the endgame to get too impatient.

We have invested too much in terms of lives and sacrifice and dollars to get too impatient just because we're tired. But, overall, the notion of a change of mission beginning in 2013 and gradual drawdowns to the end of 2014 does not represent a significant change.

KING: Do you worry about that impatience? Did you see any signs of it before you left government? You have Governor Romney on the campaign trail today saying they're naive. You have Republicans in Congress saying this is premature, that even if this is your plan you shouldn't be talking about it, it helps the Taliban.

GATES: No, I think we have been talking about it; we have been talking about it ever since the 2014 date was established, ever since the president announced some time ago his decisions in terms of beginning to bring out the surge.

I mean, the reality is the surge will have lasted longer in Afghanistan than it did in Iraq. And it was intended to be a surge, not a permanent increase. So I think this notion of a gradual drawdown is consistent with the decisions that I participated in.

I just hope people don't get in too big a hurry as part of that drawdown and that the pacing is determined by the conditions on the ground.

KING: Another interesting conversation in recent days has been the president talking publicly during an Internet forum about drone attacks in Pakistan. And there are a lot of people saying, whoa. Of course, we know they're happening. They have been happening for some time, but that, A., for the status of the relationship, which is fragile, and, B., just for protecting covert operations, the commander in chief shouldn't be talking about those things.

Should he?

GATES: Well, the reality is, since the beginning, the commander in chief can talk about whatever he wants to. The rules that apply to other people...


KING: Do you think he should be?

GATES: Well, I'm not going to second-guess him.

But I will say this. Beginning with the raid that took out bin Laden, I mean, that Sunday afternoon, we sort of gave each other a blood oath that we would not reveal the details of the operation. And it all began to spill out the very next day. So that was very disappointing to me.

I think we need to be very careful about how we talk about these things publicly, because they are instruments that we use in a lot of different circumstances.

KING: The president in his State of the Union address spent most of it on domestic policy. But he's very mindful of some of the things being said about him by the Republicans who want his job.

And the president said this. I want you to listen.


OBAMA: America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about.



KING: Governor Romney, Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum, all of the remaining Republicans except Ron Paul say America is in decline, America's influence around the world is waning. Who's right, the president of the United States or those Republicans?

GATES: So, what are we talking about? Are we talking about relative role economically in the world? Because that's been going down for 60 years. It was an unnatural situation to begin with.

If we're talking about military power, I think that's ridiculous. Our military power has nothing comparable to it anywhere in the world or any combination of nations that come anywhere close to our military power.

Our influence, I think that wanes and waxes, depending on the international environment. The one constant is that they see us, as Madeleine Albright once put it, as the indispensable nation. Nothing gets done internationally without American leadership. I don't think that's changed.

KING: This is Governor Romney, who says essentially, when it comes to foreign policy, President Obama, a president you served, is soft.


ROMNEY: I'm talking about people like Ahmadinejad and Castro and Chavez and Kim Jong-un and all the other people who threaten the world. And so he opens a hand to them. He wrote a little note to Ahmadinejad the other week. Did you see that? He said, can we get together for a little meeting?

The foreign policy of pretty please is not working terribly well.


KING: You were in the Oval Office, in the Situation Room in tense situations. Does President Obama have a foreign policy of pretty please? GATES: Well, this is the president that sent 60,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. This is the president that ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden, a number of other al Qaeda operatives over the years.

Sometimes, things get pretty heated in campaigns. But I think the reality is that there is an acknowledgement on people's part around the world that this president is willing to use military force when our needs require it.

But the idea of reaching out to our adversaries to try and get them to do what we want them to do, I don't think is inherently dangerous in and of itself. And after all, President Bush did that on a number of occasions. Nixon started this with the outreach to the Soviet Union and China.

Frankly, I wish we had a channel of communication to the Iranians, because if something goes wrong in the Gulf, we don't know who to call. We don't know how to control the escalation. And we worry that they don't know how to control it, either, because there's nobody to talk to.

So it depends on the content of the outreach. If you are saying pretty please, then that would be wrong. But I don't think this president is. I don't think any president that I worked with has ever said pretty please.

KING: You mentioned the risk of the Iranian situation and the uncertainty and the unpredictability of it. I want you to listen to Speaker Gingrich here. Here's his approach that -- how he talks about moving as quickly as possible to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon without a war beats replacing the regime with a war, which beats allowing this many to have a nuclear weapon. Those are your three choices.


KING: Are those the three choices? Or is...

GATES: Well, I think that you either get them to change their policy through a combination of economic, political and military pressures, non-kinetic, non-fighting, or they get a weapon and spark a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world, or you attack them and you start a war, the outcome of which you have no idea.

If Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything in recent history, it is the unpredictability of war and that these things are easier to get into than to get out of, and, frankly, the facile way in which too many people talk about, well, let's just go attack them. I think that the newest round of sanctions potentially do have the opportunity to get the Iranians to change their minds. But this is a very, very difficult and dangerous set of choices, frankly, before us, because those who say we shouldn't attack I think underestimate the consequences of Iran having a nuclear weapon.

And those who say we should underestimate the consequences of going to war. This is, I think, one of the toughest foreign policy problems I have ever seen since entering the government 45 years ago. And I think to talk about it loosely or as though these are easy choices in some way or sort of self-proclaimed, obvious alternatives, I just think is irresponsible.

KING: As you watch the Republican campaign play out, do you have a favorite?

GATES: Not going to go there.

KING: Not going to go there.

What about November? Are you going to vote for the Republican nominee, or is there a chance Bob Gates would vote for President Obama?

GATES: I think that who I vote for will remain my private business.

KING: Been a Republican all your life. Have you ever voted Democrat for president?

GATES: Absolutely.

KING: Open to doing it again?

GATES: I have always voted for who I believed was the best person.

KING: Mr. Secretary, Mr. Chancellor, thank you for your time.

GATES: Thanks a lot, John.

KING: Thank you.


KING: As maybe you can see, it's a relatively balmy February night here in Virginia. But, next, if you're looking for winter, we found it.

Plus, what New England quarterback Tom Brady said that will probably cost him some fans in Buffalo.


(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) KING: You see the crowd of students here at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Welcome back. We're live in Williamsburg tonight.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And it's a safe bet that football fans in at least two cities now will be rooting against the New England Patriots in this Sunday's Super Bowl.

What are we talking about? Well, of course, we're talking about the fans of the Patriots' opponents, the New York Giants. But in addition now we're talking about Buffalo hotel owners. They're in a huff because Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called this city's hotels -- quote -- "not the nicest places in the world."

He did apologize afterward, but it probably won't help. This all came about, John, apparently because Brady was just trying to praise his own father for being dedicated and following him around the country to watch games. And then there was, as we like to call, a bit of a gaffe.

KING: Oh, well. I'm going to have Wolf Blitzer talk to Tom Brady about repairing relations between my New England and his Buffalo. We'll work all this out, Kate. We'll work all this out. We'll see you in a few minutes, Kate.

BOLDUAN: All right.

KING: Coming up today's fireworks between Attorney General Eric Holder and congressional investigators. We'll be joined by the Republican chairman of the committee, Darrell Issa. He's chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. They grilled the attorney general today. Stay with us.


KING: In this half hour, the powerful House committee chairman who says the Obama administration is not answering his questions about a fatally flawed investigation of gun smuggling.

Also tonight's "Truth" about how much Donald Trump's endorsement of Mitt Romney might mean to the voters.

And tonight's "Moment You Missed." Pushups, anyone?

House Republicans want heads to roll over a government program that sent U.S. guns to Mexico's drug gangs in what was an effort to trace gun smuggling. Some of those guns ended up killing innocent people, including a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Today the attorney general, Eric Holder, was on Capitol Hill to testify about that program, dubbed Fast and Furious. Operation Fast and Furious. And an earlier operation called Operation Wide Receiver.


REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: Have you, to your knowledge, disciplined anyone from Wide Receiver?


ISSA: Have you disciplined anyone from Fast and Furious?

HOLDER: No, I have not as yet.


KING: The man you just saw there, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, Darrell Issa, joins us live from Capitol Hill.

Mr. Chairman, thanks for joining us on a busy day. This is not the first time you've had the attorney general up, not the second time you've had the attorney general up. Has he fully answered your questions now? And if the answer is no, what's missing?

ISSA: Well, certainly the attorney general was a cooperating witness today. And I'm very -- very happy he came and he said the hearing was fair.

This was the third time or the third different committee that he had participated in questions related to Fast and Furious and under his leadership what has or hasn't been done. The challenge we have is that there are a number of key assistants, deputy assistant secretaries or so on, or attorney generals, including Lanny Breuer, who clearly had culpability.

Lanny Breuer knew that the guns were walking in 2010. He advocated for them continuing walking even February 4th of 2011. And quite frankly, he's still there. He still has his job. And we -- we are concerned that there hasn't been the kind of house cleaning necessary to make sure people with this flawed judgment aren't still there.

And I for one have made it clear, my problem with Eric Holder is you can't wait a year, wait for the I.G. before you do things if, in fact, you have people whose decision process was wrong or who failed to do their jobs. We still think there's a lot of culpability in Washington in Justice.

KING: Well, Mr. Chairman, we're talking on a Thursday evening. On Tuesday you sent the Justice Department a letter in which you said if the attorney general failed to provide you with certain documents requested you would, quote, "have no alternative but to move forward with proceedings to hold you in contempt of Congress."

Is contempt still a possibility or are you satisfied now?

ISSA: Well, you know, it's always one of the tools. And the attorney general today still said that he felt his policy, although not supported by the Constitution, of not supplying internal deliberation, things that they said except in the rare case of this false letter, was appropriate. We disagree with him. We offered to have some additional discussions on it. We have been told there will be some additional documents coming. Our committee has been patient. We've gone through the process of asking plus subpoenaing. We intend to continue working with Justice. But we wanted him to know that we really did believe we had an obligation to get to the bottom of all aspects of Fast and Furious, and if you will, I'm not going to use the word cover-up but the misstatements that came through after the fact that now have been recanted. We believe we will have some success working with the attorney general.

But ultimately, we need to make sure that there are steps taken to make sure this can never happen again. And a letter alone saying we don't walk guns isn't sufficient for the American people. It's certainly not sufficient for the family of Brian Terry who lost their son, their brother, their cousin, in this Border Patrol agent you mentioned in the lead up. So we have to also get answers there to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

KING: Are you troubled at all about the confrontational tone between some of the Republican members with the attorney general? He was leaning on his elbow at one point. He clearly looked a bit scornful. Dan Burton called his testimony baloney, and he had that confrontation with Raul Labrador of Idaho. I want you to listen to the attorney general's response in that particular case.


HOLDER: Do I treat the members of this committee with respect? I always hope that I do. And what you have just done is, if nothing else, disrespectful. And if you don't like me, that's one thing. But you should respect the fact that I hold an office that is deserving of respect.


KING: Do you think some of your members crossed the line, Mr. Chairman? Did they?

ISSA: Well, clearly the attorney general was very sensitive to comments or statements -- literal statements that will go back related to the Marc Rich pardon under Bill Clinton. It was not within the -- if you will, the primary set of questioning. Mr. Labrador (ph) tried to use those to say, "Don't you have a problem of not reading things," which is what the statements were in the past. There was some merit to it. It was pretty tough questioning. The attorney general didn't like it.

But overall, the attorney general said that the hearing was fair. I believe he believes he was treated overall with respect by all the members. But it was tough. It was a tough hearing. This is a tough subject in which 2,000 weapons have gone walking, gone missing. They're now in the hands of drug cartels. And Americans and Mexicans are less safe. So I think for a tough hearing it was done generally well. One of the things I need to make you aware of is every member of Congress, left and right of me on the dais, has an absolute right to use their five minutes in any way they see fit. So that's something that members who come before the Congress understand. And sometimes it's tough from the other side of the aisle, too.

KING: Chairman Issa, as always, appreciate your time tonight, sir.

ISSA: Thank you, John.

KING: Take care, sir.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he's staying in the race for the Republican nomination all the way up to the party's convention in August. The former speaker is banking on a string of southern primaries. But they don't start until March.

One of those primaries in Virginia right here where I am tonight, but he did not qualify. Didn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot. Well, tonight we speak with the state's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell.


KING: You're a Mitt Romney guy.


KING: Speaker Gingrich could have a rough February, but he says he's staying in no matter what, even if Romney runs the board in February. Because when you get to March you have a lot of southern states. Super Tuesday.


KING: As a southern governor, again, if you look at the polling date and dig deep into it, Speaker Gingrich says, well, governor Romney can't win in the south. He's weak in the south.

MCDONNELL: Speaker Gingrich isn't even on a ballot in Virginia, so -- and Missouri and some other states that are south. I don't buy that at all.

He just won a big southern state, Florida. He lost in South Carolina. I believe he's going to win in Virginia. I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen. I see him doing well. He's just been endorsed by Governor Haslam of Tennessee, Governor Haley in South Carolina. I think other southern governors will probably endorse him.

So I -- I see Mitt Romney being able to be very, very competitive. I think he does speak from his heart now more on the values issues. He's clearly a strong fiscal conservative.

KING: Are you of the view that a long process is healthy, makes you a stronger candidate? You could make the 2008 comparison. Obama was a stronger candidate after the long process. Or some Republicans worry because of the fissures that maybe the Tea Party, maybe evangelicals, the Republicans need more healing, that the longer it goes, potentially the weaker your candidate. What school are you?

MCDONNELL: I'd much rather get it over sooner. The sooner we have one candidate that's going to go toe to toe with President Obama. And I think, gosh, there's been what, 19 debates now? There has been plenty of airing out of the candidates' views on a number of positions. I think everybody knows where everybody stands. The debates now just reinforce some of those positions that they've already stated.

So I'd like to see it done as soon as possible. The more strength that Mitt Romney continues to show in each state, the sooner we get to that.

But that's not to say, if it is a protracted nomination process or even going to the convention, I still think we'll be in good a shape. It just shortens the playing field, because then it only leaves 2 1/2 months to go to the general elections.

KING: Well, part of that magic was Virginia. Part of that magic was North Carolina. It's hard to look at a Republican map and see a Republican winning unless they take those states back. Which is why some people say the guy sitting across from me would be a pretty good No. 2 on the ticket. Interested?

MCDONNELL: That's completely up to somebody else. I've just said if I got a call, I think any governor would say you get a call from the nominee that said you can help our party, you can help our country, of course you'd consider doing that.

But you know, I got the job held by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. And it doesn't get much better than that, John. We've got a lot of positive things we're doing. I'm chairman of the Republican Governors Association. I want to win lots of Republican governors' races this year. But if somebody called me...

KING: If somebody called you and said, "I think you can help. Convince me, Governor, that you can help me in your state and beyond." What would you say back?

MCDONNELL: Well, I'm not interviewing for the job. I'm not waiting by the phone. But obviously people looking at it from the outside say, look, it's a swing state. You've got decent approval ratings. You balanced the budget without raising taxes. You've done a lot of things to bring people together. You've got a Democrat senate, Republican house. You got a unanimous budget. Obama can't even get a budget with the Democrats in control. You're doing something a little bit different.

So I'm pretty pleased with the way we've been able to play team ball here. We turned down the rhetoric. We focused on getting results. That's why I like Mitt Romney. He's a results-oriented conservative. He's a -- he's a guy that can bring people together. And so, you know, I'll leave that up to somebody else. I'll let you experts decide whether or not you want to talk about that. Right now I got -- I got my legislature in town. I got my hands full.

KING: Governor, appreciate your time.

MCDONNELL: OK, John. Thank you. Appreciate it. 

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