Maine’s Senator Angus King (I) joined me this morning to talk the showdown and possibly the shutdown over border security spending:
HH: Very pleased to welcome back to the program United States Senator Angus King, independent from the great state of Maine. Senator King, welcome back, always a pleasure to have you.
AK: Hey, Hugh, how are you, man?
HH: I’m great. Happy Thanksgiving to you. I hope you had a great one.
AK: I sure did. I had, we had 28 family members for dinner on Thanksgiving. How about that?
HH: Oh, that’s the whole fam damily. We only had 17. So I hope you had two birds. Senator King, let’s start with the obvious thing. You’re on Intel and Armed Services. Another Russian provocation in the Black Sea, the UN Security Council is meeting today. What do you hope to see the administration do in response to this?
AK: Well, it’s a very dangerous situation. I think this is sort of phase 2 of the Crimea investigation, or certainly is looking that way. The, if you look at the map, this little portion of the northern part of the Black Sea is between Crimea and Russia and Ukraine. And it’s just, it looks like a Russian provocation. They’re trying to seal the deal, I think, and the response is very delicate. This is one of those things where you wake up in the morning and saying gee, being president is a pretty tough job. There are some hard decisions to be made here.
HH: Now in the last NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act, I believe there was included a quasi-authorization to use military force against Russia for cyber activity. Is that authority, in your view, comprehensive enough to authorize the president to react to Russian aggression via cyber means?
AK: I would be very careful about that. The, we’ve got a history, as you know, over the last 20 years of interpreting AUMF’s or authorization of military force pretty broadly, and providing the president, whoever the president is, with very broad powers in this area. And I think it’s, I don’t think that AUMF in the Defense Act would be sufficient for anything in response to this. But you know, this is coming up in the last 24 hours. I don’t want to sound dogmatic about it. I haven’t gone back and looked at the language.
HH: All right, so we’ll put that aside. Generally speaking, EU’s Donald Tusk has warned the Russians. I expect the national security, the Security Council will do something today. What do you want to hear from our side, because of course, this gets mixed up in the Russia investigation and the ongoing question which I don’t believe is correct, that the president is compromised by a relationship with Russia? What do you want the administration to say?
AK: Well, I think it should, it should take a firm position. I mean, there are principles here that go beyond the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, or even Crimea about free passage, and international waters, and those kinds of questions. And I think it’s very important to make a clear statement on those principles, because if we blink, then suddenly we’re talking about a similar incident in the South China Sea, or the Bering Strait, or you know, somewhere else. This is, there’s some international, long-standing international law principles involved here that I think we’ve got to be pretty straight up about this that this is not acceptable.
HH: All right, Senator King, let’s turn for a moment. You’re on the Intelligence Committee, so let me ask the obligatory question. Senator Burr has said, and Bob Woodward has told me he looked for collusion and he couldn’t find any. He looked hard. Senator Burr said he couldn’t find, have you seen any evidence of collusion in the 2016 election between President Trump and Russia?
AK: I’m not going to answer the question, because that’s still where, that’s still what we’re doing on the committee. That’s the last phase of our investigation. We’re involved in it now. We’re still talking to witnesses. I mean, you know, I don’t think you can, you could say there’s evidence of a suggestion of this kind of thing. But the Trump Tower meeting, of course, was at least on the surface a possibility of that. I don’t think you can say no evidence, but I don’t think, I’m not prepared to say what the conclusion of the committee is going to be. I’ve said all along that we’re going to follow the facts where they lead. And if it ends up that there’s no evidence, then that will be the conclusion based upon the facts as we are able to determine them.
HH: Fair answer. Let me stay on the Intel Committee and move to a different subject matter. You have sponsored a resolution condemning China’s treatment of the Uighurs, which is hooray, that is absolutely, they’re running concentration camps to try and…
AK: It’s, Hugh, it’s awful. It’s, we had a hearing, Marco Rubio and I were on a thing called the, can’t remember, the Congressional China Commission, and we had a hearing on this subject about two months ago. And it was, it’s, it’s 1984. I mean, they’re, you know, they’ve got cameras all over the place. They’ve got people in what amount to concentration camps. They’re putting agents in people’s houses. It’s extraordinary, and I don’t know, I don’t understand why a country with the strength and vitality of China has to do such a thing.
HH: I don’t, either, and I am, though, curious. The next step is we have American companies selling PRC the means of totalitarian control, specifically Google, and I’m not sure about Facebook, but definitely Google. And I think that the sale of totalitarian-enhancing technology to China is sort of like selling weapons design to the Krupp Factories in the 30s. What in the world are they doing?
AK: Well, I think we do have to think hard about that, and that, in fact, we’ve got another hearing of our commission this week, I believe. It’s either this week or next week. And yeah, we’re, we don’t want to be complicit in what they’re doing. And I think it’s something that has to be taken very seriously. And it’s not only, I mean, they’re getting this technology from around the world, but it is, it’s very disturbing. I mean, I don’t think the world has seen anything like this in decades.
HH: And so when you talk to your friends in Silicon Valley, are they aware of, say, the Uighurs and their technology and how the two of them intersect?
AK: I suspect some of them are, but I think a lot of them aren’t. I mean, if there’s anything we learned from the 2016 business with Facebook and some of the other tech companies, they’re, you know, they’re very focused on what they’re doing. They’re good people. They don’t have bad motives, and I think they’re somewhat naïve about the uses of their technology. And they’re late to accept it and understand it and act upon it. I mean, if there’s any, that’s one of the big learnings from 2016 is the failure of the tech companies to understand the potential for the misuse of their technology. And I think this is another case of that.
HH: Now I’ve, I made the argument that Senator Graham should be holding hearings on sort of treating them as a public utility and regulating them. For a conservative, this is pretty heterodox. I do not want them to go unregulated into the future. I think we need something there. Do you think we need a new agency specifically tasked with the oversight of information technology?
AK: I’m more conservative than you on this one, Hugh. I fear the heavy hand of government. I think, I think there should be certainly hearings, discussions, light shined upon them, and I do think there are areas, for example, on Facebook. I don’t see, I think the ads that are on Facebook should be, the sponsorship of the ads should be revealed just as they are on television. That’s not an imposition on the 1st Amendment. But I want to be very careful. I’m very reluctant to talk about regulation, and I can’t imagine anybody worse than the U.S. Congress in deciding what Google’s formula should be for how the search engine works. I just, it just, I think in the long run, that’s not a role for government.
HH: You know, abusive pricing led to the railroads getting regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission in the 19th Century. I think abusive sales of their technology is going to lead to it here.
AK: Well, it might. And I think the railroads are a good example. But the railroads were monopolies. Now the question is are Facebook and Google monopolies? Are they natural monopolies because they’ve provided a product that the public wants? I mean, I remember, you probably do, too, using Altavista and other search engines.
AK: And Google had a better product, and they won in the marketplace. But again, some kind of thoroughgoing federal regulation, I have real qualms about.
HH: All right, let me switch to your role on Armed Services. The president is talking about a 5% cut. I think we need like a 10% hike for Armed Services. We’re getting lapped on hypersonics. We don’t have anything close to a 300 ship Navy. What do you think ought to be the budget going into the next year?
AK: Well, I don’t have a specific number, but I think one of the problems with the president’s proposal is it, regardless of whether he’s talking about a 5% cut or a 2% cut or a 3% cut, it creates a situation of uncertainty for the military in terms of their ability to plan and particularly plan for long range acquisition of new technologies which you mentioned. This herky-jerky, up down, up down is very difficult for them to deal with on an ongoing basis. The other piece is, Hugh, it’s important to realize that defense spending as a percentage of GDP or as a percentage of federal spending itself is pretty close to a 70 year low. When I tell people that in Maine, they look at me with shock. But you go back, you know, even in the 50s, 60s, 70s, we were spending 15% of GDP on, I’m sorry, about 8% of GDP on defense. And it’s now about 3 or 3.2 or something like that.
AK: So, and the other problem is during that period in the last 90s and into the 2000s, there was a kind of, you know, we’re at peace, we’re not going to have these confrontations. So we’ve allowed a lot of our expensive systems to age. And the bill is coming due all at the same time. Upgrading, for example, the Ohio Class submarines, new strategic bomber, that’s expensive. These are big capital expenditures that are necessary. And my liberal friends say how can you support increases in the defense budget. And my response is because that’s the, being prepared is the best way to not have a war. The last time we decided we didn’t have to do anything with the defense budget was in the 30s, and basically it invited an aggressor to try to take over the world, and the result was 55 million people killed in World War II. So…
HH: And there in a nutshell is why I want Angus King to run for president. He’s younger than most of the other Democrats. What do you think, Senator? Any chance at all?
AK: Oh, man, the Good Book says sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. That means, that means I’ve got enough trouble as it is.
HH: You could win the New Hampshire primary, though, right?
AK: Oh, yeah, yeah, right. They know me in New Hampshire. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I don’t know how that would cut.
HH: I’m telling you, I think you ought to get in. Let me ask you to close by talking about the Senate and repairing the damage from the Kavanaugh hearings, which was immense.
HH: Mitch McConnell wants to move through a slate of judges. We’ve got to avoid a shutdown. Can we do both? And can this be step one towards repairing what is basically a burned down institution?
AK: I think so, and it’s, Hugh, in some ways, it’s not as bad as it looks. I, the very week of the Kavanaugh confrontation, which was terrible, partisan, and I think damaging as you said, that very week, we passed a bipartisan, heavily-negotiated bill on opioids, 99-1, the same week. And so I think we are able to do more than one thing at a time. And there, ironically, moving into the Kavanaugh confrontation, there was more bipartisan work than I’d seen in my five previous years in the Senate. So yes, I think the answer is, and I think everybody wants to move beyond that. There was a lot of talk on the floor afterwards of saying you know, how do we, how do we now get to work on things that we can do together like the Farm Bill and like the budget? Hugh, I don’t think there’s going to be a problem on the budget except for the wall.
HH: But that’s a big except, isn’t it?
AK: Well, it is a big except, except you know, I don’t see any real sentiment for it in Congress. Now somebody is going to call me and say well, I’m for it, but by and large, the members that I talk to on both sides, you know, this is not a high priority. And for me, I’m totally in for border security. I voted for the largest border security package that’s ever been before the Congress in 2013. That was part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The real question is the wall, a wall, a sensible, economic, effective thing to do? And the answer for everybody except one guy that we both know, actually, you probably know him better than I do, but he’s the only one I know that thinks it’s, you know, this is what we’ve got to do.
HH: Well, I actually wrote a book about why we need a 700 mile double-sided fence with a road in between it ten years ago, so I’m a big fan of fencing along the border. But let’s leave that aside. I want to finish by asking you about the Attorney General. I do not believe it is tenable to maintain an acting Attorney General. I also don’t think it’s Constitutional.
AK: I don’t, either.
HH: I’d like the president, yeah, it isn’t. There’s no advice and consent. I’d like him to nominate former federal judge Michael Luttig. If he nominates someone like Luttig, will the Senate move expeditiously to confirm him or her?
AK: I don’t know that individual that you mentioned, but assuming that you know, they’ve, that’s somebody that’s already gone through confirmation as a federal judge, but you’re absolutely right. And to allow acting cabinet members to totally bypass the advice and consent clause of the Constitution, which is one of the important checks and balances…and you know, I can see if somebody dies in office, you’d have to have somebody acting for a short period while you name somebody. But in this case, the president created the vacancy by his own volition and then apparently, we don’t know, is trying to maintain a person in an acting capacity that I think it is unconstitutional. And the president can do the country a favor by nominating someone who has impeccable credentials. Now the problem is that the title of this job, Hugh, is attorney general of the United States. The president thinks the job is attorney for the president of the United States. It’s not a, it’s a cabinet position, but traditionally and in every other way, I think it’s got to have some level of independence, not the lawyer for the president. And I think that’s one of the problems that we’re encountering now. That was the, Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself under the rules of the Justice Department. They were written, there was a specific rule that said if you work on a campaign, you can’t participate in an investigation of the campaign on which you worked. I mean, it couldn’t be more clear. And for the president to be all exercised about that was just a lack of appreciation of the separation.
HH: I agree. I would like him to move, I would love for him to move quickly, and I think I hear you saying if he nominates someone, you’d welcome a rapid consideration of him as well.
HH: Senator Angus King, Happy New Year to you, and Merry Christmas if I don’t talk to you before then. As always, a great pleasure.
AK: Always a pleasure, Hugh. Come to Maine sometime, man.
HH: I will. I will. Absolutely. See you up there.
AK: All right. See ya. Thank you.
End of interview.