Ambassador Robert Kimmitt joined me this morning to discuss the new national security team around President Trump:
HH: I’m so pleased to welcome for the first time on the show Ambassador Robert Kimmitt. Mr. Ambassador, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.
BK: Hugh, thank you very much for having me on.
HH: You know, I’ve been reading about you for years, and I know about your service as DefSec, at Treasury, and ambassador to Germany and P at the State Department. But I did not know you were a major general in the Army, a West Point grad or a combat veteran of Vietnam. I spent most of yesterday at the Marine Corps museum in Quantico, and it’s an amazing place. I went down with my brother-in-law, who was there at the same time you were. But the whole major general stuff, how come nobody knows that?
BK: Well, I think you’ll find that most people who have served our country take the greatest pleasure from that service, not advertising that service.
HH: Well, I just, I’m impressed, and I’m so glad you joined me this morning. I want to talk to you about the new national security team around President Trump, and that begins, of course, with Secretary of State Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mattis, National Security Advisor Bolton, and we’ve got, of course, Gina Haspel about to be confirmed, Dan Coats, and then a whole bunch of under and deps, and all that. And yet, North Korea yesterday decided to throw a lightning bolt at John Bolton. And I mean, they came after him saying we shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past. We do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards him. Let me ask you, Mr. Ambassador, in this administration, have we got a good cop in Mike Pompeo, a bad cop in Bolton, the quiet scary cop in Mattis, and a top cop in Trump?
BK: I think what we have is a strong team of national security professionals. Each brings different skills, and maybe even different perspectives to the table. I think that’s healthy for the President to hear a variety of views. Ultimately, it’s the President who is the decision maker. And I think he has a strong team, a team getting to know each other, but a very experienced group.
HH: And in terms of this experienced group, the National Security Advisor, Ambassador Bolton, has been my favorite for a long time among people who would be in that job, because he is very well known for his views. There’s no surprises for you coming from John Bolton, though, are there?
BK: John Bolton worked with me in the Jim Baker State Department under George H.W. Bush. He headed the international organizations bureau, and was an absolutely key player in the UN strategy that we put together during the first Gulf War. And that led, of course, to the multi-nation coalition that we had to kick Saddam out of Kuwait. So I’ve been both a colleague and a fan of John Bolton for quite some time.
HH: Now a lot of people, though, know less about Secretary of State Pompeo. He’s been a guest on this show maybe a hundred times, and so my audience knows him. How do you view his early days at State? What do you view is the potential for him? So you know him going in. I think he could be another Schultz if he sticks around for six years and become, you know, another great military man like Marshall and Schultz who led the State Department through tough waters to good times.
BK: I think he comes into the position very well prepared from his 15 months as director of the CIA. He certainly knew the facts, he has been presenting those to the President and the national security community. And now, he’s going to make the pivot over to the policy side. I think the fact that you have someone who himself served in uniform in Germany during the Cold War, went on then to a successful business career, a successful tenure in the House of Representatives where he was both hard working, well-traveled, and then his superb service as the director of Central Intelligence puts him in a very strong position to be on the upward trajectory that you describe, Hugh. And I would also say if you take a look just at his first few weeks, literally being sworn in at the Supreme Court by Justice Alito, immediately getting on a plane going to NATO, going from there to the Middle East, coming back, saying hello to the Department, getting the process begun to fill key positions there, and then going off to North Korea for his second meeting with Kim Jong Un. This is someone who recognizes that he’s made a pivot from the CIA to a policy position at State. I have very high expectations for his performance.
HH: He also reinstated the admission of new members to the career foreign service. This had been suspended by Secretary Tillerson for a variety of reasons which we don’t need to debate. I just am glad that he’s welcoming a new class in and saying come one, come all, give us your best for the foreign service. What did you make of that, Mr. Ambassador?
BK: I thought it was a very important signal for him to send. I mean, this is someone who started his life as a career military officer, and at the CIA, they only had basically three political appointees. So he’s someone quite comfortable working with the career men and women of the foreign service. He’s going to put a team together of career and non-career people. But I would stress again the word team. And lifting the restrictions that he did makes sure that there’s going to be intake into the foreign service of well-qualified women and men for decades to come.
HH: Now I’m talking with Ambassador Kimmitt, long time wise man within the Beltway, and respected as such from both sides of the aisle. I have this shorthand – good cop, Mike Pompeo, bad cop, John Bolton, scary cop, Jim Mattis, and top cop, Donald Trump. And the Vice President is in that team as well. What do you make of my shorthand? Is that how it’s going to work with our friends and our foes?
BK: Well, again, I think what you have is a team of people who bring different experiences. They bring different perspectives. They might even bring different views on subjects. I think they are prepared to argue things out among themselves, maybe coming from those various directions that you mentioned, Hugh. But at the end of the day, there is one national security decision maker. That is the President of the United States. And what each of those people, indeed what each person serving in the national security community owes to the President and to the country is his or her absolutely best views, strongest-held views on a subject so that the President has the facts and perspectives he needs to make these tough decisions. I used to think, I spent a hundred months on the National Security Council staff. I spent the years that you mentioned in the State Department. I always thought the best decisions were made when strong-willed people had markedly different points of view on what should be done. They argued those positions cleanly and crisply to the President, whether it be Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and now Donald Trump. And then the President makes the decision, and then each of those people goes back, whether his recommendation was accepted or not, and carries out those orders to make sure that we not only formulate, but execute national security policy superbly.
HH: So Mr. Ambassador, I want to talk to you about five things, and you know, three minutes to cover five subjects – North Korea, Iran, Russia, the People’s Republic of China and ISIS. But let’s take them in that order. I believe in verify, verify, verify, verify and never trust North Korea. What do you think of the perils and maybe the scant promise of this trip that may or may not be on?
BK: Well, Hugh, if I could, I want to read to you from a document. It says North Korea “shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete verifiable and irreversible manner.” That is not a recent Trump administration policy document. That is UN Security Council Resolution 1718 from October of 2006, interestingly when John Bolton was our UN ambassador. And this was passed 15-0. So China and Russia were fully on board with that. So the bottom line is the world’s position, not just the U.S. position, on a complete verifiable and irreversible abandonment of nuclear weapons by North Korea has been on the record for over a decade. And I think what’s going on right now is the U.S. is putting out its position, but as I just read, that has been the international community’s position for over a decade. And I think the North Koreans are coming back and putting their position on the table. And by the way, that’s something we’ve seen in international negotiations for quite some time. And therefore, I think the important thing is to make sure that we have a process being put in place that starts with those two positions, and then allows each party to pursue their interests, their goals. And I think the President has made quite clear what our goals are, goals consistent with those of the international community as expressed in UN Security Council resolutions going back for quite some time.
HH: So that is the goal. Do you think it is achievable, and particularly when we say complete and verifiable denuclearization, how do you do that with tunnels throughout North Korea? They began cheating on the 1994 agreement before the ink was dry.
BK: Right. I think when we talk about verifiable abandonment of weapons, it has to be inspections more intrusive than we’ve seen, perhaps, anyplace before. Indeed, I think it would be an inspection regime more intense than was contemplated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA in Iran. And of course, that’s one of the problems that the President has had with the JCPOA, and that is that the inspection regime seemed to be set up to make it most difficult for inspectors to get to the places most likely to have nuclear facilities or nuclear development operations. And I think in North Korea, you put your finger on it. That will be one of the most important details to work out, and that is not simply light touch verification, but very intensive, intrusive verification.
HH: Now Mr. Ambassador, turn if you can with me to Iran where things have gone from bad to worse for the Islamic Republic. And now, some European companies are adding to the sanctions imposed by the President last week advanced by your successors, Ambassador to Germany Rick Grenell in his first tweet. And now, the Wall Street Journal reporting yesterday, some are beginning to pull out. Are you hopeful that the Europeans will generally follow the American lead here?
BK: I think the companies, Hugh, have really not much choice but to follow the American lead, because they have extraordinarily small books of business in Iran. Really, they’re betting more on future opportunities in Iran where they have large books of business, major operations, major financial turnover and employment, in the United States. And I think the U.S. is going back to what we did in the George W. Bush administration…
BK: …in saying to companies you have a choice to make. And the companies, not surprisingly, are making the choice where their biggest market it.
HH: Last question, Mr. Ambassador. There are a lot of vacant jobs over at Foggy Bottom. How quickly do you expect Secretary of State Pompeo to move? And how quickly should the Senate move to give him his appointees in these senior positions?
BK: Well, your question makes the key point, Hugh. I think Mike Pompeo will move very quickly working with the White House to get a slate of nominees, career and non-career, up to the Senate. I hope that those same senators who express concern about the vacancies at the State Department will make the effort to move these nominees though as quickly as possible. Of course, they have to be vetted. Of course, they have to go through hearings. But should we have to go through 30 hours of floor debate on every nominee at the State Department? If so, we’ll never get that department filled as quickly as is needed. So again, I would say that the Secretary has the primary responsibility to put his recommendations forward. The White House has to make the nominations. But then very importantly, the Senate, starting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, needs to move these nominees more expeditiously than we’ve seen in the past.
HH: Well said, Mr. Ambassador, General Kimmitt, good to talk to you, great to make your acquaintance. Come back early and often on the Hugh Hewitt Show. I appreciate it, Ambassador Kimmitt.
End of interview.