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Senator John Thune On Obama’s Unclear Foreign Policy, Immigration, And The Way Forward For Republicans

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

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HH: Today, Senator John Thune, great Senator from the United State Senate from South Dakota. You’re the junior senator still, but Tim Johnson is retiring, so soon you will be the senior senator from South Dakota, which is hard to say, Senator. Welcome back.

JT: Who saw that coming? Well, it’s nice to be back. Thank you, Hugh.

HH: www.johnthune.com, and now you’re on Twitter @SenJohnThune. So you’re out there working the Twitter thing as well. Senator, I want to go right to the press conference today by the President. You’re number three in the Republican leadership, you were on Armed Services, you care a lot about these guys. This is the President talking about Syria, cut number one:

BO: What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened. And when I making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.

HH: John Thune, what do you make of that statement?

JT: Boy, I think he just coined a new phrase, chain of custody, with regard to Syria, Hugh. Boy, I’ll tell you, the administration has missed the bull so many times on Syria. And now, it’s such a mess. And the Iranians are all in there, the opposition is splintered and fragmented, and al Qaeda elements there, it is very, very hard to make sense out of it now. But it’s mainly because, again, we waited too long to take any action there.

HH: Now it’s very difficult to imagine committing American forces in Syria, because it’s a nightmare. But what sort of options does he have to choose from, because he set up this red line. He put the goalposts up, and now he’s moving them, and I think your colleague, Senator Rubio, said in the first interview I did today, that the Iranians are watching our non-response even more closely than they would watch our response.

JT: That’s right, and I think the bigger risk here in the region is what this means for the relationship with Iran, and even for that matter, North Korea. I mean, the President, when he came into office, of course, was one of these guys who comes from the sort of nuclear zero school. And with the START Treaty, we dramatically reduced our nuclear arsenal. And he may preside over the largest proliferation of nuclear weapons, simply because everybody in the world is going to challenge if they don’t think the United States means what it says. And I think this is another indication of a president who isn’t clear about their policy, and other countries are gaming us. And it is very concerning with regard not just to the immediate picture there in Syria, but clearly what this means for Iran in their attempts to acquire nuclear capability.

HH: Here’s another response to the President in which he’s not very clear. He’s talking about witnesses to the Benghazi debacle and what they are saying or not saying. Cut number two:

EH: There are people in your own State Department saying they’ve been blocked from coming forward, that they survived the terror attack, and they want to tell their story. Will you help them come forward and just say it once and for all?

BO: Ed, I’m not familiar with this notion that anybody’s been blocked from testifying, so what I’ll do is I will find out what exactly you’re referring to.

HH: That’s like me saying I’m not familiar with the notion you drove to the studio today. I mean, I actually don’t know that you drove to the studio, but I’m guessing that you did.

JT: Right.

HH: And do you think the President genuinely doesn’t know that there are people making this allegation?

JT: It’s hard to feature that he wouldn’t know what’s going on by now. This thing’s been out there for so long, and there have been so many misrepresentations, and so much ambiguity by the administration with regard to what happened in Benghazi. I mean, I do believe, Hugh, someday we’re going to find out. You know how these things are. Eventually, this is going to come out. It’s going to come to the surface. These people are going to talk, and we’ll know. But unfortunately, it may be so far after the fact that nobody is going to be in a position at that time to be held accountable for it.

HH: You’re a decade more younger than I am, so you don’t remember Nixon’s convoluted construction. But that really is, let’s just play that one more time, cut number two:

EH: There are people in your own State Department saying they’ve been blocked from coming forward, that they survived the terror attack, and they want to tell their story. Will you help them come forward and just say it once and for all?

BO: Ed, I’m not familiar with this notion that anybody’s been blocked from testifying, so what I’ll do is I will find out what exactly you’re referring to.

HH: Do you want people who have some story to tell about Benghazi to get in touch with legislators?

JT: Absolutely. I mean, I think that there is, the only way this is going to come out is if that happens.

HH: Can they be protected if they do that?

JT: Well, I think they, obviously, they can, but as you know, and of course, we have had members of our, in the Senate, Lindsey Graham and others, who have been trying for a long, long time to try and get this story out there, and have been blocked. And I think this is, you know, an example directly coming from the President that he doesn’t, he’s not aware of this notion that anybody’s been blocked from sharing the real facts on this. But the sooner we get to the bottom of this, the more I think the clarity we’re going to have, the American people. And you know, obviously lives were lost, people paid a dear, dear price. And we still don’t know what the facts were around that entire situation.

HH: You mentioned Senator Graham. So did the press and the President today. Here’s that cut:

Reporter: Now Lindsey Graham, who’s a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, has said that Benghazi and Boston are both examples of the U.S. going backwards on national security. Is he right? And did our intelligence miss something?

BO: No, Mr. Graham is not right on this issue, although I’m sure it generated some headlines.

HH: Now that is classic President Obama. Not only do you disagree, you drive off the highway, you’d make a right turn, you go down the road, and you run over your former colleague in the Senate to just make sure he knows that you’re the president.

JT: Right.

HH: And he’s not.

JT: Right, and you know, this, they’ve kind of been sparring back and forth, but Lindsey is not going to let this one, he’s very dug in on this, and I think he’s right to continue to persist in trying to get to the bottom of this. But the administration has at every level, I think, resisted having these facts come out. And obviously, there’s a reason for that.

HH: After the break, because we only have a minute and a half here, I’ll talk to you about immigration reform and your service on the Finance Committee, and what’s coming ahead on taxes. But in terms of just generally, are we in a dead space where nothing’s going to happen in the United States Congress for a year and a half until after the 2014’s?

JT: Well, I think a lot of it’s going to depend on whether or not the President wants to lead in a way that allows for something to happen with regard to the big issue that faces this country. And on an economic and fiscal basis, that’s the massive amount of debt. But for him, that’s not a problem. I mean, he continues to say that we don’t have a current debt crisis. And I think that’s the way he operates. He doesn’t want to do anything on the spending side, particularly with regard to entitlement programs, which are what’s driving the debt. And the only solution he has is we need more taxes. And that’s just something that Republicans in Congress are not going to go for. So it’s going to make it very hard, I think, for us to get anything done in the next couple of years if the President adheres to that position.

HH: Now Senator Thune, he raised the specter of taxing retirement assets, capping the ability. That sent a shudder down markets as one would expect it would. Does that have any prayer at all? You’re on the Finance Committee.

JT: No, I don’t think it does, but I think what you’re seeing is the President at every turn believes that to solve our fiscal imbalance, we simply raise taxes, and you know, with no thought given to how does that impact the economy. At the end of the day, what we’re going to need to get out of this mess is to get the economy expanding again at a more historic, normal rate. And we’ve been growing, the four years he’s been in office, at less than 1%. We can’t sustain that.

HH: You know, Apple had to borrow $17 billion on the bond market today, because they cannot repatriate their $144 billion that’s offshore. Something is wrong there, right?

JT: Something is dreadfully wrong, and that’s why this is the argument, one of the big arguments for reforming the tax code. We’re not competitive in the world. We have the highest tax rate in the world. And the President doesn’t seem to be very concerned about that. He wants to raise them even higher.

HH: I’ll be right back with Senator John Thune.

— – –

HH: We were talking about high policy during the break, mostly about the aging Lakers and how they’re all qualified for pensions now. I think under Obamacare, aren’t they now eligible? Aren’t they all like 62 and Medicaid?

JT: These guys are probably all going to retire before the exchanges kick in, because they don’t want to be covered by Obamacare. They’re like the rest of America.

HH: They’re going to buy their own health care system. All right, Senator Thune, here’s a serious question. I have been beating up on Dave Camp from Michigan, because he’s pursuing comprehensive tax reform. That’s fine. But the medical device tax, you guys voted 79-20 to repeal it. And the House needs to send you a clean bill, and Mitch McConnell said that, and other people said that. And they’re afraid that it’ll get hijacked. Is that a legitimate fear?

JT: Well, I understand where the House is coming from on that, because anything you send to the Senate, to the Democrat-controlled Senate, there’s a danger there associated with that. But this is such a clear, clear win, I think. And when you have 79 senators, Republican and Democrat who voted to repeal this tax, I think you send it over there and put the pressure on the Senate to repeal it. and I do believe there will be a very big bipartisan vote to repeal it. And I think it would be very hard for the Senate Democrats to try and muck it up with other of their policy agenda and send it back to the House. So I hope the House will find their way to do that.

HH: Now on the same subject, I’ve got nothing against comprehensive tax reform. I’d love to see it happen. I just don’t see it happening under this President and Harry Reid. What’s your assessment? You’re on Finance Committee, you’re number three in the Republican leadership. I don’t want to pursue unicorns for a year and a half.

JT: Well, I think it’s a long shot in the Senate only because of the Democrat leadership. They don’t want it. The President wants a trillion dollars in new taxes. The Senate budget that passed wants a trillion dollars in new taxes. That’s the kind of bill you’d probably get out of the Senate.

HH: Okay, now switching to politics, the concern is that the President was trying to jam gun control through the Senate so it would lose in the House. And the same worries about immigration control, so he can run against the House. How do you see 2014 lining up? And are most people correct in their cynicism about the President’s motivation concerning this agenda?

JT: I think it’s, I think the President’s number one goal right now is a political goal, and that’s to flip the House in ’14. And so I think he’s going to do anything he can to make the House look bad and try and take those guys down. On immigration, if the House would move some of these pieces incrementally, you know, kind of piecemeal as opposed to doing a big comprehensive fix, you know, I think that they could show leadership on that issue. But if we do something in the Senate that is a big comprehensive thing that goes over there and fails, then the President will probably have the political outcome that he wants.

HH: Now I talked with Senator Rubio to begin the show, and I kind of like the bill. I’m 75% of the way there. Title 1 sucks, though. It’s about national security, it’s border security. It’s not real. And I began with a mandate that you’ve got to mandate the fence get built, or it’s not going to get built. They never do anything. But Senator Rubio indicated he would support, you know, a mandate of a thousand miles constructed first, double fencing, access roads. What are the possibilities of really getting a mandate for border security of that sort, Senator Thune?

JT: I, you know, you would think it would be kind of a no-brainer, but I think that this was almost a 900 page bill. It was 844 pages or something like that. There’s a lot of stuff in there that people are still sorting through. But the important components of immigration reform have got to be, it’s got to be border security, fence, e-verify, skill-based, merit-based immigration. Those issues have got to be dealt with, or the American people aren’t going to trust us to deal with the 11 million who are here illegally. And so you know, I think there would be strong support on our side, and some Democrats for that. But the Democrats have very different objectives in the whole immigration debate. You’ve got to remember what they’re in this for. And they’re going to be, you look at who’s negotiated this in the Gang of 8 on their side, and you know that this is going to have a bill that’s got a lot of stuff in it that conservatives probably aren’t going to like.

HH: Are there 41 votes to get it out of the Senate right now, or to stop it in the Senate right now?

JT: Well, I would say probably not, depending again on how much, when we get down, drill down into the details and figure out how this issue of the path to citizenship is dealt with, the legalization component of it, and are there really these things, are there assurances that these things are going to get done. Is the border going to be secure? Is the fence going to get built? Are we going to have an employer verification system in place that is effective and works? Those are the things, I think, that are going to determine whether or not it gets the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate.

HH: So when you say probably not, right now, you don’t think it has 60?

JT: No, I think it does.

HH: Oh, you do?

JT: I think, but I think as there are more eyes on this, and more people are kind of drilling down into the details, it gets harder. But I would say today, you’ve got most Democrats, if not all, and you’ve probably got enough Republicans that are going to be for this that you could move it through the Senate. But that’s before any of this has been debated or amended or anything else.

HH: But of course, if it moves through the Senate and dies in the House, that is a political nightmare, right?

JT: Right.

HH: And a policy fiasco as well.

JT: Yeah, and you know, I’ve talked, a lot of us have had conversations about this. I think Marco understands, too, that some of these pieces maybe need to move separately through the Senate.

— – – –

HH: Senator John Thune in studio with me, but with his companionable friend, Ryan, who is just like every other Vikings fan I’ve ever met, talking about the people they didn’t draft. That is such a Vikings…it’s like the Steelers are always talking about just wait until the 1970s come around again.

DP: Is Brett Favre coming back?

HH: Well, Bud Grant’s just around the corner. So Senator Thune, let’s get serious. You’re one of the guys who have actually been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and seen this. We still have 60,000 troops in Afghanistan. It’s like the forgotten war.

JT: Right.

HH: And I don’t, what do you think the administration is planning there?

JT: Well, I mean, the President, you know, he’s got, he wants everybody out. That was one of his goals. But you know, we do have to be very careful how we go about this, because if we don’t do it right, we run the risk of, any gains that were made there, of really undermining any progress. And I think this is where again, the administration’s foreign policy, national security policy, domestic policy, economic policy, there is so much ambiguity associated with it. This is not a president who understands where he wants to go or what he wants to do. And I think he’s very susceptible to whatever is happening in the political world, and what the New York Times and other news organizations are saying about him. And it really, we don’t have clarity when it comes to any of these issues.

HH: Now the Senate and the House acted quickly when the FAA sequester was gerrymandered in a way to impact the average traveler. So they repealed that. But actually, the average American is more impacted, they may not know it, but by the sequester at the Pentagon. It’s cutting back training time for F-18 pilots, it’s cutting back deployment of our carriers, it’s making the Marines lose 20,000 Marines. Is anyone paying attention to what the Pentagon is doing under this?

JT: You know, that’s the thing that’s really worrisome about this, because you know, the other areas of the budget, we can, people will be able to budget. But a 50% whack out of Defense after they had a half a trillion dollar cut last year when the Budget Control Act was passed, I mean, we’ve got the B-1’s, the bombers, grounded in South Dakota right now, which I think puts it at great risk of our national security priorities.

HH: Did they do that because it’s South Dakota?

JT: We certainly hope not. No, I mean, I think it was part of, there were a whole bunch in the Air Force, a whole bunch of squadrons, fighter squadrons, bomber squadrons that were grounded in terms of their ability to get trained and ready to go again. So it really is a concern. And I think, this is the big issue in sequester, is going to be the impact that it has on America’s ability to defend ourselves and our interests around the world.

HH: Now you’re on Finance Committee, and obviously, Max Baucus has announced his retirement. And so that means sort of a lame duck chair, and a drifting committee. What’s it going to do for the next year and a half with a lame duck chair?

JT: You know, I mean, there are some things that can be done that are sort of low-hanging fruit, some Customs reauthorizations, maybe some trade stuff. But tax reform, which is what everybody thinks we need to do, and I’m a big proponent and advocate of tax reform, because I think it would really unleash economic growth in this country if we could lower the rates and broaden the base, and get competitive in the global marketplace. But the idea that somehow with him retiring now, and with the Democrat leadership where it is, that we would be able to produce something in the Senate that actually gets that job done, and to me, the goal of tax reform ought to be growing the economy. Not generating another trillion dollars of revenue like the President wants to, statically-scored revenue, but generating new revenue by an expanding economy. And that’s not, I’m afraid, where the Democrats are going to want to go. And whether or not Max Baucus is in that camp or not remains to be seen. I hope that he’ll, now that he’s sort of decided he’s not running again, maybe be untethered from his leadership and have some freedom to actually do something that would be good in the form of tax reform, and that would get us on that path to economic growth.

HH: So John Thune, you were a big supporter of Mitt Romney, and you were out there every single day working all the time on the radio with me a lot. But now that we can look back, large question, small question. What went wrong with the campaign, that’s the large question, and B) did he talk about sweeping tax reform enough?

JT: I think that what went wrong with the campaign is I believe in the end, we shouldn’t have, but we did somehow lose the economic argument, because, and I think the other thing that the campaign, they allowed the Obama campaign to define them. I think Governor Romney wanted to make the campaign about the President and his economic record, which is what it should have been about. But by not creating an alternative to them, they allowed the Obama administration to define him. And they made him into this guy who wanted to ship jobs overseas and kept money in Cayman bank accounts and that sort of thing. So I think that was at least a fundamental error early on in the campaign, something that really hurt him down the stretch. But it’s unfortunate, because he would have been a terrific president, great leader for the country on so many levels. And unfortunately, we are where we are.

HH: Now you went to bed one night thinking you’d one a Senate race, and you woke up and you’d lost it. So you know what it’s like to get up off the canvas and go back to work. Republicans still seem, if you ask me, to be bedraggled and dispirited. And how long can they indulge that?

JT: Well, not for much longer. I mean, there is despondence out there, and it’s like any time you have a losing season. You don’t want to talk about it, and you kind of want to go do something else for a while. But Republicans need to get back on the horse, because the stakes are really high. And in ’14, holding the House and winning the Senate has got to be a huge priority if you’re somebody who believes in economic freedom, because what’s happening right now with this President, and with the leadership in the Congress, is they’re moving us down a path that is increasingly similar to what we’ve seen in Europe. And if we don’t, the best way in the near term to stop that is to take the Senate back, hold the House, and then set the stage for 2016.

HH: And do you see, Reince Priebus has up with the RNC at Fox studios across town when they were out here a couple of weeks ago, and he’s doing a great job as an inside guy. Do you see the national voice emerging yet? Obviously, you’ve got Marco Rubio on immigration, but other than that, I don’t see many…John Boehner is not a go out there and take charge of the media…we need a select committee on Boston and Benghazi. We haven’t got one in the House. Where are these voices?

JT: Yeah, it’s going to be hard, because the President has a bully pulpit, and the media, he has media at command whenever he says anything. It gets played or written about. And we’ve got a lot of just, you know, different voices right now. And that’ll probably be the case until we have a nominee again. But there are people who are taking leadership roles, as you mentioned, Marco on immigration. We’ll have other folks who will step forward. But Republicans have got to get, we’ve got to get back on our feet, realize that yes, we lost an election, but the American people are still very much in our corner when it comes to the issues that count for our future. And I think that most Americans still believe fundamentally in economic freedom. I think they believe in a national security that values investment in the types of weapon systems that will keep Americans safe around the world. And so I think on the issues that the American people care the most about, yeah, we didn’t do the best job probably of communicating that. But we’re still in the game. We just need to get the energy level back up and get back in the arena and get ready to fight.

HH: Senator John Thune, always a pleasure to have you in studio. Thanks for joining us on your West Coast swing.

JT: Great to be with you. Thanks, Hugh.

End of interview.

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