Delaware Senator Chris Coons joined me this morning:
HH: One of my very favorite Democrats is Chris Coons, Senator from Delaware. I forgive him his Yale Law School roots, because he once campaigned for Ronald Reagan. But there are very few other things that I can forgive. But once you, you know, Yale Law School is one of them if you campaign for Reagan. Senator, welcome, it’s good to have you back.
CC: Thanks, Hugh, good to be on with you.
HH: You know, I’ve got to start with the dismaying dissent of our politics, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake throwing hammers at the President, and the President throwing hammers back. You must be enjoying this sitting on the other side of the aisle. But it does lead…
CC: Absolutely not. That’s, you know, that’s just a simple basic point I think is important for folks to hear, is I take no joy in this at all.
HH: Well, this is very dismaying to me. I had Jeff Flake on my MSNBC show this summer, and let me play for you a little, and he’s a friend of mine. I’ve campaigned for him. Here’s Jeff Flake with me this summer, cut number 6:
HH: You are underwater. Your poll numbers say 20%. Are you in this for the whole duration? Are you sure you’re going to run in this, into this headwind?
JF: Oh, of course, I am. Polls in the off years don’t mean that much. I think two years ago, John McCain had very similar numbers. But it’s going to be a tough race, no doubt, both in the primary and the general. We expected that, and we’ll be prepared for it.
HH: Senator Coons, it’s been the worst kept secret in D.C. for a long time that Senator Flake was in trouble against a very marginal candidate, Kelli Ward. She’s not going to be our nominee. She’s of the map, you know, marginal. But why can’t people ever just answer questions honestly in D.C?
CC: Well, I think a part of what you were hearing there is what, is part of what has driven Senator Flake to make a strong public announcement yesterday, which is the restrictions of campaigning, of trying to continue to raise money constantly, of trying to rally your supporters by telling them that the current bad poll isn’t the whole answer. You’ve still got hope thing will turn around. You’re still confident you’re going to win. Campaigning is an enormous distraction from governing. And what I’m eager to see now is what will Senator Flake and Senator Corker, I serve with both of them on the Foreign Relations Committee, what will they be willing and able to do in the next 12 months, next 14 months, to try and secure our country’s future, and to try and work together to face some of the very real national security threats that are looming in front of us.
HH: I want to talk to you about Iran, but while I’ve got you, since you’re on Foreign Relations, Senator Corker has been throwing hammers at President Trump. You have a business meeting tomorrow. I think you have 16 nominees for ambassadors, which he’s had a hold on. If you really are worried about World War III, do you not staff the ambassadorial posts across the United States? And I’ve been really hitting on the chairman, because that’s not the way you act if you’re really worried about World War III. You get people into their posts.
CC: That’s right. We don’t have, now I haven’t reviewed the business meeting agenda. We might have one on there. But I was not aware of our having a nominee for assistant secretary for East Asia or for ambassador to South Korea. And you know, as recently as last week, I didn’t believe we had a nominee for any of those. For the committee to be holding nominees who are ready, who have gone through a confirmation hearing and ready to a vote, to go for a vote, that is historically a way that senators as a sort of desperate last measure get the attention of an administration. I remember in my first year noticing that Senator Chuck Grassley was getting a lot of attention from the then-Obama administration by holding up nominees for the Department of Justice. It is even less common for it to be from a senator of your own party. And I know that Chairman Corker, who early on was a very strong supporter of Rex Tillerson and his nomination for Secretary of State, has tried very hard to work with Secretary Tillerson, and to support President Trump’s initiatives in foreign policy. He is just deeply frustrated. It is my hope that at this business meeting, and in the weeks ahead, we will move forward on filling vacant ambassador posts. As I’ve visited other countries where we didn’t have an ambassador, it really hurts our ability to work with our allies, to confront our adversaries, and to engage with the country where we don’t have a permanent ambassador. Many of these folks who are being held are career foreign service officers, not you know, political appointees. These aren’t big donors to the Trump campaign, and I think it’s important that we get back to the business of filling vacant positions.
HH: Yeah, there are 15 nominees tomorrow on the business meeting for Haiti, Netherlands, India, Djibouti, Germany, Vietnam. Indeed, the nominee for Niger has been on a hold because of Senator Corker’s spat with President Trump. And I think a lot of Americans are just disgusted with your institution, Senator. I think they think the Senate is the source of all paralysis, and I’m not a Bannonite, right? I’m kind of a center-right guy. But I do think the Senate’s broken.
CC: And I’m concerned, Hugh, that it’s going to get more broken, because frankly, I’m anxious about the 2018 elections as I look at it now. What I think is most likely to happen is that centrist Democrats, Democrats who are willing to work across the aisle, whose economic views and whose policy views are more in the middle of our caucus, are facing very tough reelects. And Republicans who are willing to work across the aisle, who are willing to craft solutions on things like immigration reform like Senator Flake, or Senator McCain, or those who are more internationalists like Senator Corker, are going to be replaced by folks handpicked and supported by Steve Bannon, who have a more narrow nationalist or an even nativist view. I’m concerned about what may happen with Senator Roy Moore if he should be elected, you know, what kind of contributions he’ll make to the chamber. I think Mitch McConnell, the chairman, excuse me, the Majority Leader here in the Senate, is going to have a greater and greater challenge corralling the votes needed for the Republican legislative agenda to move forward. The positive thing that might come from that is that we are then forced to work together in trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and now in trying to make good on a long-standing promise to do broad tax reform. The Republican majority may well have to abandon a Republican-only path towards that. Historically, I think we’ve seen that when only one party legislates, when legislation isn’t subjected to the rigors of trying to win over at least a half dozen of the other side, it’s not as strong. The filibuster rule is not in the Constitution, but I do think it has strengthened the institution of the Senate.
HH: I don’t want the legislative filibuster to go away, but I do believe this personal hold, Al Franken putting a hold on David Stras, and I don’t expect you to comment on this, Senator, but the man is a brilliant jurist, he’s on the Minnesota Supreme Court, he is the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, and Al Franken won’t let him have a vote. Something’s wrong with the Senate. Let’s talk about two big deals – Iran and China. Yesterday, China made Xi Jiangping basically Mao.
HH: He is now an autocrat.
HH: That is not good for us.
HH: That is a backwards step for China. What do you make of what happened yesterday in Beijing?
CC: I think all roads towards addressing our security challenge with North Korea, towards finding the next deal to constrain Iran and Iran’s nuclear ambitions and aggressions, are now going to run through Beijing. Xi Jiangping has masterfully consolidated power in a way that makes it clearer than ever that we have two major adversaries in the world – China and Russia, who have competing models. These are not open societies. These are not democratic societies. They do not tolerate free press, human rights, and dissent internally. And Xi Jiangping is now going to leave his mark on an ascendant country that is boldly saying in his remarks that they intend to be a superpower. Gone are the days of a sort of quiet, oh, we’re just trying to develop, this is just a regional concern. They are clearly intending to step forward and challenge us on the global stage. Hopefully, in the years ahead, we can find a way that it is more in their interest than not to join the rules-based world order that we’ve dedicated seven decades to building, and that has made the United States more secure and more prosperous. But this is going to be difficult.
HH: Well, that rules-based order will require that the 7th Fleet be there, and that we build the Navy to 350 ships.
HH: And unfortunately, the sequester is stopping that. Are you one of the Democrats willing to step up and say we’ve got to get rid of the sequester on the DOD?
CC: We need a deal that addresses sequester. It has constrained our ability to invest domestically in education and health care and infrastructure, and to spend to meet our national security needs. It’s going to end up being part of a great big messy package at the end of the year. It’ll have a lot of details to it. I have supported increased Defense spending, but I want us to increase our investment here domestically as well.
HH: But that, again, our number one challenge is Xi Jiangping and Russia. And we cannot wait for the domestic spending to catch up, and we’re in deep deficits, and we’ve got the tax bill. The sequester, I just think, stands alone. How do you look at sailors on the McCain and the Fitzgerald, look them in the eye, and say our readiness budget is adequate given what sequester has done to them?
CC: It’s not. Our readiness budget is not adequate. And just to put a sharper point on that, in June, Senator McCain and I, along with Senator Barrasso, traveled to Vietnam. It was, for me, a great honor to have the opportunity to visit the so-called Hanoi Hilton with him and to see the very high regard that Senator McCain is held in by all of our allies at a regional security conference in Singapore. But we visited the USS John McCain. We spent several hours on the McCain, named for his father and grandfather, where he presided over a reenlistment ceremony, a promotion ceremony, and we got to meet the sailors and the officers on board the McCain. And so when that tragic incident happened, it was even sharper, I think, for those of us who had recently been with them. We have an overextended Navy, absolutely. And that is one of the key causes of these four different collision incidents that are both an embarrassment to the United States Navy, and a reminder that we are operationally overtaxed.
HH: Well, I would really love for a Democrat to step up and say let’s put the sequester on a different, the Defense Department sequester on a different path and get rid of it, because it’s killing our military. It really is. Let me talk to you about Iran. I know that the Iran deal is controversial, but they won’t let us onto their military bases, Senator. How can they be in compliance when they will not let us inspect their military bases?
CC: Well, I have a meeting with the head of the IAEA coming in the next, I believe, next week to press this exact question. What I’m being told is that although we have the ability to compel Iran under the JCPOA to let us onto their military bases, we have not yet presented the compelling evidence and gone through the 28 day process at the other end of which, with the support of our European allies, we will get on any facility in Iran. We have gotten searching continuous access to the enrichment sites, the known sites, and to mining and milling sites. This is one of the core unresolved questions is are the Iranians successfully stalling our efforts at getting access to military sites that we have reasonable suspicion they’re doing activity, whether it’s weaponization or other non-nuclear work that we have reason to be concerned about. That is something I want to work with Republicans to press, because if we don’t enforce every aspect, every corner of the JCPOA, shame on us, because we know full well Iran is a dangerous, aggressive power that is going to litigate every inch and every corner of that agreement.
HH: General Soleimani showed up in Kirkuk over the weekend a week ago, and he is not supposed to be traveling internationally. But the Rommel of Iran is there, and now we have a civil war on our hands. Why would, why are we pretending that Iran is other than a revolutionary state intent on exporting their radicalism?
CC: I don’t pretend that. I’ve said all along that Iran is a dangerous regime spent on spreading their ideology regionally, and they are one of the major threats to our security to our vital ally, Israel, and to regional stability. I know there were many who hoped that the JCPOA, the so-called Iran nuclear deal, would cause them to change their trajectory and to join the community of nations and to moderate their behavior. You know, while some might have hoped that, I don’t think that was a reasonable expectation. The JCPOA on its face was to constrain their nuclear program that was on the verge of developing deliverable nuclear weapons. Their very bad behavior in terms of supporting terrorism, their internal human rights abuses, their constant ballistic missile launches have only gotten worse, and the relaxation of sanctions has delivered some of the financial relief that they’ve needed to fuel that. That is an alarming, but not surprising development, and one that we should have all hands on deck. 98 senators, Hugh, passed tougher sanctions against Iran on these three vectors, on the human rights and ballistic missiles and support for terrorism. So far, the administration has taken some steps in that direction, applying new sanctions against elements and functions of the IRGC. We need to be doing more. We need to be engaging our European allies. And back to your earlier point about Xi Jiangping, we have to engage with China more effectively. I don’t understand why the President undercuts Secretary Tillerson’s efforts at diplomacy as he’s trying to get China much more engaged with us in constraining North Korea. I’m concerned that if we blow up and walk away from the JCPOA, it makes the likelihood that we can get an effective deal with North Korea an off-ramp that avoids this coming confrontation, makes it much harder that that’s going to be achievable.
HH: Last quick question, Senator. You running for president?
CC: No, I’m not.
HH: Are you sure?
CC: I was very flattered by your tweet saying I would be a formidable candidate. No, I’m sure that I have three teenagers at home, and I love my wife and kids.
HH: 100%? 100% you’re not going?
CC: I have no plans currently. I will not absolutely.
HH: All right. Senator Chris Coons, keep coming back. I always enjoy talking to you. Thank you, Senator.
CC: Thank you, Hugh.
End of interview.